Written by Mick Farrar - https://runningoffthemadness.blogspot.fr

 
This one wasn't planned.  I had planned to run Albion Running's inaugural Race to the Farm 50-mile ultra, but it was pulled late in August due to low numbers.  So rather than putting my feet up for a month I scanned the local area and found the Butcombe Trail Ultramatathon on 2nd September.  48 miles around the Mendip hills, what could be better? 
 
The race probably has the smallest field of competitors I had competed in, with only 100 spaces available and with a few days to go there were only 63 starters including, my good friend from FAC OFF, Richard Corp.  In 2016 only 33 runners competed and they suffered torrential rain on a biblical scale.  The 15.5 hour cut off seems generous until you get out on the course and start to appreciate the climbs.
Keeping warm before the start with Richard Corp.


Richard's partner, Emma Flexon, was crewing him for the day and I was able to put my drop bag in the car to save carrying extra kit.  Just seeing a friendly face around the course can make a massive difference and Emma was able to map read her way to junctions for some of the longer sections between check points.  Always smiling, watching for tell-tale signs of fatigue and ready to supply whatever was needed.  Thank you, Emma.

The race starts at 7.30am from the Cider Barn in Drayton and the first mile is climb, just climb. We eyed the accent during the briefing, which was short and to the point, and then we crossed the busy road en masse moments before being released.  The breath-taking scenery started to open up behind us immediately as we begun to climb, 600 ft north east to the summit of the hill.
Climbing up away from Draycott with Nyland Hill in the middle distance.
At the summit, the route headed towards the west and straight into the awakening town of Cheddar, looping the reservoir and trying to locate the Strawberry Line cycle path, and then into sleepy Axbridge before hitting checkpoint 1, then joining the A38 Bridgewater road heading north at the 6-mile point.  We crossed the road and cut back into the woods, heading west for yet another big climb up to Wavering Down.  We stopped at the trig point and took in the scenery.  Further out to the west we could see the Bristol Channel and the white buildings of Minehead across the bay from Brean.
Looking back on the route and Cheddar reservoir.
We continued west to skirt the top of Cooke Peak before dropping rapidly down to Webbington and then crossing the M5 at 10 miles.  The contrast was stark, having been running for 2 hours already in blissful silence the sound of the motorway woke back to reality, it was a busy Saturday morning for many of these people.   We headed north west into Loxton and then on until we turned left into the loop.  Along the initial path leading into the western loop, the race leaders passed us on their way back, putting them about 4.5 miles in front.  Thankfully we saw no others!    We continued towards Bleadon, passing through checkpoint 2 and then started back east towards the M5 through the local golf course.

The temperature really started to rise as we eventually closed the loop and crossed back over the M5 at 18.5 miles, a running time of 3 hours 40 mins.  The pace was slower than we had wanted but we also knew that there were a few BIG hills climbs to come.  The field had already spread, Richard and I checked in with some marshals at Whitley Head and there was no-one in front or behind us at this point.  At this point we weren't lost.

 

Butcombe Trail marker (centre)
The route was mainly self-navigation, following the Butcombe Trail markers (pictured) around the Mendips, with alterations occasionally marked with red and white tape.  Sometimes the GPX route on my watch, the trail markers and the tape did not marry up, making the navigation interesting at times.  The trail markers are often on poles with overgrown weeds and bushes surrounding them ensuring a few are missed.  If you have time to recce this route I would suggest it is worth the investment, however, the route changes each year.

We worked our way east, trying to follow the course diversions until we passed through Sandford Batch, and then climb 256ft at 21 miles to Sandford Hill, pushing on to Star.  We had been running 5 hours now, still had the two biggest climbs in front of us and it was getting warmer but our spirits were high and neither of us had any niggles or injuries to worry about.

From Star we went west to Rowberrow and stopped briefly at checkpoint 3 at the Swan pub where Emma had procured us some ice-pops!!! Then, heading north and up to Dolebury Hill Fort and onwards, 369 ft upwards we climbed to Beacon Batch at 28 miles.  The highest point on the route.  Along the way we had picked up another runner, Dave, who had ran the Thames Path earlier in the year so I spent a lot of time extracting race information from him.

The usual spread of food for the runners at the checkpoints.
We descended east through Charterhouse, on to checkpoint 4 at Compton Martin's Ring O Bells pub and then on to West Harptree before finally reaching the eastern most edge, and checkpoint 5, of the route at Hinton Blewett at 37 miles.  From there we turned south west heading eventually towards Priddy, but not before climbing the second biggest hill of the day, a 2-mile climb to the top of Eaker Hill.

The route contains every type of running environment.  We encountered muddy tracks, technical downhill trails with roots and rocks, baked footpaths, knee high gorse and heather, and enough road to warrant a pair of shoes with some cushioning.

View near Hinton Blewett overlooking the Chew Valley Lake.
We worked our way through Buckley Wood, juggling the GPX, map and the Force to guide us through some changes to the route.  The route through the woods was soft underfoot, a massive relief after long periods of running on roads in trail shoes.

Emma was turning up on road sides between checkpoints, some of which were 8 and 9 miles apart and normally would not be an issue but in the heat, the extra chilled water and food were a complete Godsend.

 
Woodland route markers.

Buckley Wood
Leaving the woods we followed a well-trodden track, my GPX informed me that we would shortly need to turn but to the right, the direction we should be turning, there was only a climb covered in gorse, heather and coarse grass.  I scouted the area and eventually found the track sign pointing into this knee length undergrowth.  There was no path or any real signs of a track so we headed up the hill seeking the points of least restriction until we cleared it.  Although upon inspecting the map later it was only 1/4 mile, at the time it seemed a lot longer.

Just before entering the village of Priddy we managed to miss the trail marker. The path was waterlogged, muddy and very narrow, and with the fading light and tiredness, we missed the sign and with the help of the GPX we had to loop over half a mile to get back to the road.  By now we had been running for close to 12 hours and the stopping and starting began to affect my core temperature.  Richard told me to run ahead to the next checkpoint in the village of Priddy, my legs were not tired but I knew I had to keep moving.

I reached the checkpoint 6, quickly ate and topped up my bottles in time to see Richard and Dave come down the lane as I left with a local runner, Ivan Batchelor.  He led us out onto the fields again as the daylight slipped away and it wasn't long before we spotted some more head torches in front.  With a mile to go, we caught up.

There was a last climb before the steep descent back into Draycott and the group of 4 runners in front, and Ivan started to walk up the rocky incline.  I decided just to go and ran up and away from the others, using my GPX as a guide.  In daylight, the final descent would be fun, but hurtling down in the dark with only 200 lumens to light your way can be a little more sobering.  Down and down until at last there was a gate and then a track, that became a road.  I could hear the shouts now as people and torches came into sight and finally I crossed the finish line.  Officially I was 28th of 37 finishers (there had been 9 DNF's) and it had taken me 13:24, longer than I had hoped but I was still alive so that was nice.  With all the diversions and getting lost I had run 50 miles.

After being presented with my medal I quickly changed into warmer clothing, waiting for a while for Richard to finish.  But the cold and hunger were getting to me and I thanked Emma once more before heading back to Wiltshire.

Would I do it again?  Big maybe, loved the scenery.

 

 
A trip around the Butcombe Trail

 

Course elevation and temperature (blue)
My Strava for the race is here.

Kit & Fuel:  Altra Lone Peak 3 shoes, injinji toe socks and Dirty Girl gaiters.  I put my new Salomon Adv Skin3 12 set to a real test and it turned out to be the best purchase I have made to date.  I mainly fuelled on Tailwind, Torq gels and a few Cliff bars.

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