Written by Sonny Peart - http://son966.wixsite.com
I prefer test cricket to the shorter forms of the game. It has a narrative heft that one day cricket or T20 simply cannot match. Six needed off the last ball with one wicket standing means so much more after five days of changing fortunes. I can remember the story of test matches I have seen. With one day games, I’m lucky if I can remember who won.
Maybe this is analogous to my preference for ultramarathons over shorter running events. Maybe my desire to run stupid distances is driven by narrative context rather than an acknowledgement that at my age I’m unlikely to get faster, but I can go longer. Maybe.
Earlier this year, I ran the North London Half Marathon, which started and finished at Wembley Stadium. In many respects, this was the epitome of an epic finish to a running race, and I cherish the photo of me running around the pitch to the finish line. But what the photo does not show is the thirteen miles of suburban roads that preceded that stadium finish. Like the powerplay of a bish-bash limited overs match; necessary but of no intrinsic interest in itself. I’ve run more half marathons than I care to remember in the five years of my running career. A mile along one suburban street is much like a mile down another suburban street. Thirteen miles ditto.
But what if an epic finish was preceded by an equally epic journey? What if one arrived at the finish line physically and aesthetically exhausted by the preceding miles? Would that make for a truly wonderful experience? Something unforgettable? It just might.
I have had an interest in King Arthur for as long as I can remember. As a teenager I devoured dubious histories of Arthurian Britain. As an undergraduate I elected to take a module on Arthurian literature, from Malory and Chretien to Twain and Zimmer Bradley. When I learned to drive, I set off the discover for myself the west country sites of Cadbury, Tintagel and, of course, Glastonbury, more famous then for its Tor than for its festival.
No surprise then that the new-for-2017 ultramarathon, the Conquest of Avalon, with a Glastonbury Tor and Abbey finish, should attract my interest. There was no question I would enter it. The only question was whether I would run the 30, 50 of 70 mile course.
At the time I booked it, 53 miles was the furthest I had run, so I opted for the 50 mile version. As I have written elsewhere, I’ve since run 100 miles, but in a 2017 of five ultras, 50 miles was far enough.
So it was that early on a June Saturday morning - of what turned out to be the hottest day of the year so far – I found myself at Ham Hill Country Park, with around 50 other runners, waiting to run the first Conquest of Avalon Ultramarathon.
There had been some pre-event chit chat on social media, speculating about appropriate footwear and the like. People who had been out course marking suggested road shoes were OK. I’m glad I ignored that advice. This was the most traily trail run I have done. In the first couple of miles, shaded woodland paths were muddy underfoot. Later on, the Leland Way was overgrown with nettles, thistles and thorns. Not quite the Barkley Marathons, but enough to make one have to adjust one’s view of what constitutes a trail run. (Note to self and others: walking through chest high undergrowth is a legitimate part of an ultramarathon experience.) The race director had warned runners that nettles would feature, and be unavoidable. Those who did not take him at his word had a rude, stinging awakening. I was grateful my formative years were spent in relatively rural Yorkshire. I know a dock leaf when I see one. I had more than one occasion to apply its balm liberally to my legs.
The race took place the week before the Glastonbury Festival. I’ve never been. Never felt inclined to go. But during this race I ran around the site and had views over the stages, empty and silent; the race course had to be diverted around newly-closed rights of way. It played havoc with my GPX file, but such is the ultra-runner’s life.
Six weeks after my first 100 mile race, and two weeks after what was, for me, a successful 50k Weald Challenge Challenge Ultra, I came into this race with lots of confidence. I respected the distance, and was wary of the terrain, but knew I had earned the right to stand on the start line.
When the race director began the countdown, I was surprised by the general diffidence of the runners. Few were pushing forward to get a clear run at the head of the field. No more than 10 runners were stood in front of me. On the stroke of 9am, I jogged off, and no-one came surging past me. I thought I was in nosebleed territory. Apparently I was wrong. By the time I reached Glastonbury, some twelve and a half hours later, I was pretty much in the same position.
Before then, there was much to enjoy. Startling a deer in an orchard. Running through a vineyard – I didn’t know they had them in Somerset. Running towards Alfred’s Tower, and mistaking an ‘interim’ tower for it. Swallows on telegraph wires. Running with a trainee doctor on her first ultra. Straddling over, and limboing under electric fences. Being shown, by a fellow runner, how to shoo a herd of 20 or so cows off your path. A couple offering bottles of ice cold water to passing runners, not even knowing they were in a race, but just because that’s what you do when hot, thirsty people run past your front gate. Almost getting dehydrated, but not quite. An aid station volunteer at 32 miles running after me to hand me the bottle of water I’d left behind. The woman at the final aid station who knew I needed a hug, a cold wet sponge, and a peanut butter wrap. Running the final ten miles without seeing a single other competitor ahead or behind. Being overtaken by the same runner three times, without ever knowingly overtaking him! An ice cream stop in a picture postcard town. The obligatory unmanned railway crossing. Single sleeper bridges – a clapper bridge? – over streams. Tunnels. Sun. Blue skies and more sun.
This race’s USP was the Glastonbury finish. Up the Tor for a 360 degree view over the Somerset levels, then down into the town and Glastonbury Abbey, legendary resting place of the mythical King Arthur. It did not disappoint.
The final aid station was around four miles from the finish. I’d had glimpses of the Tor, and St. Michael’s Tower atop it, during the previous miles. In the final stretch, it was a tantalising presence, a goal to be welcomed and feared, toying with perspective with each step, breath and metre.
My ten hour goal had long since disappeared in the humid heat of the year’s hottest day. I was focussed on finishing. But at the final aid station, I’d been told I was 12th of the 50 mile runners to pass through. This was unprecedented territory for me. I was energised to maintain my position.
I didn’t quite run up the steep side of the Tor, but I was moving faster than all the sunset tourists around me. And unlike them, I was wearing an ultra pack and a race number. They mostly wore sandals and carried wine coolers.
I paused to take a few sunset photos at the summit. The last time I had been there was probably as a romantic 21 year old. The romance now was less specific but no less powerful. Concerned I might get overtaken, it was then a virtual sprint into town, the heat of the day having finally given way to a balmy summer evening. One can see the ruined Abbey from the top of the Tor. I imagined I knew how to get there. I was wrong. For a few minutes, I thought I was going to lose my position as I wandered the streets of Glastonbury. A quick route check on my phone pointed me in the right direction, and suddenly I was turning a corner, through a gate and into the Abbey grounds and across the finish line, in 13th position.
Cresting the Tor and running down to the Abbey would have been fun as part of a 5k race. As the climax of a 50 mile race, it was truly memorable. An epic finish to a test of endurance.
Assuming the small but perfectly formed Albion Running stage this event again next year, put it in your calendar. You won’t regret it.