In a year of turmoil ARWNWN provided a constant; now in its third year, Crooked Tracks’s event provides a delightful, circular, rural, 50km route starting and finishing at Tisbury.
The postponement of a long-planned-for event in the Lake District meant Sue and I were able to take advantage of a couple of last minute places in ARWNWN. It offered a slightly shorter and less hilly alternative but having completed it before we both knew it would provide a fab’ autumnal day out in the rolling hills of South Wiltshire.
An 8:30am start time from Tisbury meant a crack of dawn departure from Corsham. The compensation was the delight of an incredible sunrise over Salisbury Plain. Also on the plus side it indicated that the forecast decent weather was fact rather than fiction, with running conditions nigh on perfect. (Disappointing though for Race Director par excellence, Neil Turnbull, who much prefers to provide his punters with attritional rain-lashed muddy affairs.)
Covid-19 required some tinkering with the format of the race in terms of admin and phased start times. The only change in the business part of the day was reversing the ARWNWN route of the previous two years. There were a few familiar AVR faces in our start wave and the race crew; it was great to catch-up with folk we had not seen for many months in the absence of racing.
As is the way with Crooked Tracks our wave of runners were away without faff or fanfare. The gentle incline from the start quickly spread out the runners and I fell in step with Andrew Jeffries from AVR. We enjoyed a bit of banter and followed the faster runners in front, which was a mistake. Within ten minutes of the start it transpired we had missed a turn and were off track. The correct marked trail was thankfully recovered without too much extra distance or loss of time; a good early reminder to pay attention to navigation.
The reversing of the route provided some entertainment outside of the opportunity for navigational blunders. Uphills that were long and emotional at the end of the route in the previous two years’ became brief downhill canters this year. Of course it also meant the reverse would be true later in the day…
Andrew J was keen to make progress so I let him go and stuck to my own pacing strategy, which was intended to get me round in under six hours. The phased starts meant a fair bit of solo running although with ace holloways (A holloway is a sunken path characteristic of the rounded hills of southern England; a route that centuries of footfall, hoof-hit, wheel-roll and rain-rush have harrowed down into the bedrock) and beautiful autumnal colours to enjoy the miles romped by. In what felt like no time at all the first picnic station arrived along with some morale boosting CRC support from Andrew Wood. As with previous years Crooked Tracks did not disappoint on the food front and there were a fine array of tasty treats available. Unusually nothing really appealed so I took a couple of jam and peanut butter wraps to force down on the hoof and bid farewell to Andrew W.
The route onto the next picnic spot at Old Wardour Castle provided undulatling running alternating between woods and fields. The terrain was very much runnable, particularly at this relatively early juncture. I was therefore able to maintain target pace. The effort to do it though felt worryingly hard with well over half the distance to go. So following the ultra adage of “if in doubt eat something” I guzzled a gel, told myself to buck-up and pressed on.
Scenery and paying attention to the route marking to stay on track provided distraction. Morale was also improved by a lucky find. In the best tradition of the Wombles I bent down to pick up a bit of litter, which on closer inspection turned out to be a twenty pound note. The temptation to divert off route at the next village and spend it at the pub was resisted; cola, jam/peanut butter wraps and Jaffa cakes were just around the corner beneath the towering ruins of Old Wardour Castle. The brief swoop down to, and the view of, the castle was one of the highlights of the day; I do like a bit of downhill.
Andrew Wood’s appearance also provided an additional boost at the picnic stop. Again I had no appetite for the fine fare on offer so I just grabbed some bits’n’pieces and pressed on for the second half. Distracted by my picnic on the go, I immediately took a wrong turn and had to back track a little. By this stage the start waves were beginning to overlap with slower runners in first wave being overtaken and the faster runners from the wave behind in turn overtaking me. Both provided opportunity for brief banter and mutual encouragement as is the way with ultras where the slower pace allows for conversation.
Having struggled to put fuel in the tank, energy levels juddered a bit over the next few miles. My pace dropped accordingly as the undulations became a bit more pronounced and longer. A stiff, head-on breeze also helped to check momentum. The six hour target drifted out of reach despite my best effort to prevent it. Andrew Wood thankfully caught me up and provided much needed encouragement at a point where I could have easily stalled. With some nudges from him to eat and drink I ground on albeit more slowly than I had been aiming for. Also on the credit side, it was still a cracking day out in the countryside; the lake and parkland splendour of New Wardour Castle provided feast for the eyes and the route finding was relatively straight-forward and well marked.
Andrew’s company helped overcome a couple of long, gradual climbs and we enjoyed trading places and chat with a few runners as we all headed toward the third picnic stop of the day. Andrew departed having seen me over the third quarter slump/hump. I briefly called in to the third and final checkpoint of the day to re-fill on water. The food unfortunately continued to hold no appeal. An ace gentle downhill in a joyous tunnel of autumnal hued and goldfinch crowned hedges did however. The busy hum of the A303 at its end added to the ebb and flow of the day; marking / marring the turn back south towards Tisbury and the finish.
Another recurring theme of the day was faster runners unfamiliar with route reovertaking having lost their way. It provided a regular reminder to keep focused on route finding and meant I shared the concluding miles with a runner who had already passed me three times. They had run a couple of extra miles in what was their first ultra and off-road event; they were keen to not add to that total and having established that I had experience of the route adjusted to my more sedate pacing to try and achieve that. Of course I immediately dented that misplaced confidence in my navigation skills by going the wrong way. Thankfully I quickly realised the error of ways and we were soon cantering down the finishing slope to rest weary legs, receive our super-duper “dog tag” finishing mementoes, enjoy a brew, and feast on ARWNWN’s traditional beanie stew with cheese topping and lush fresh buttered bread.
The day’s entertainment was not quite over though. With a table booked at the Quarrymans Inn for post-event feasting and rehydration, Sue and I were keen to be on our way home. Unfortunately I had left the lights on in the car when parking up in the morning. The ensuing flat battery provided one final hurdle to overcome. Thankfully that was eventually achieved; with the help of motorhome hero and their jump leads we just made our booking at the QMs; where the pie (not a lie) and beer provided a champion end to a day that ebbed and flowed as the best ones do.
With great thanks to: Andrew Wood for support on route; the jump lead hero; and, most of all, Neil Turnbull and all the Crooked Tracks team for a tremendous trio of ARWNWN outings.