Fairlands Valley Challenge – 50k Ultra – Sunday 15th July.
The day started early for Angela Bell & I as we made our way to run our first Ultra, the Fairlands Valley Challenge 50k in Stevenage – on what turned out to be the hottest day of the year, with temperatures reaching (and feeling!) between 30c-35c at points during our run.
We lined up on the start line with 65 other participants ready for the off at the Marriotts School, eagerly anticipating the lengthy challenge that lay ahead of us. At exactly 8am a horn sounded and we were away. Turning out of the school gates we made our way along a short road and off between two trees on to a grassy track with only our route instructions and a printed map to guide us to the finish.
Much of the route is on public footpaths, byways and across fields which make describing the route fully a bit of a challenge, but before long we around 4 miles in, were wondering if we had taken wrong turning as we could neither see the runners ahead of us or behind. Continuing up a hill along the edge of a field we found a road and checked the map.. still unsure we were on the right track, we were pleased to see a friendly Irish lady & fellow ultra course runner appear out of a bush on the same track we had run. She cheerily informed us that we were indeed heading the right way and we ran with her to our first checkpoint – where we were met with all manner of water, squash, cake, biscuits and crisps (which were also supplied at every checkpoint).
We again set off on our way. Some of the instructions were a little hard to follow and before long we were again wondering if we had been running the correct route. Seeking the advice of a couple of locals we soon found ourselves heading to the Village of Stapleford – but not before we encountered a chap running in the opposite direction, who had also found the instructions a little hard to follow. After stopping for a brief chat and wishing each other luck we continued onward.
With the miles and checkpoints ticking by as we followed the extremely pretty route through the countryside, before long we found ourselves around 22 miles in and came across a small group of three runners who we ran with for most of the last 9-10 miles, sharing the navigating duties and even a headscarf to keep the heat at bay.
As we neared the final few miles we started to wind our way into Stevenage past the football ground and across a large area of parkland. Knowing that we were not so close to the finish we pushed ourselves on, keen to complete the whole 31.1 miles having never run that distance before. We soon found ourselves climbing a small hill which lead back to the school grounds and our finish line awaited – we had made it – and were rewarded with a medal for our efforts.
Whilst the route is hard to describe (roughly 85-90% is off road) we found passing through many miles of footpaths, fields, byways and woodland was such a refreshing change from the usual road based marathons & races, just pounding the tarmac. The open space made running 50k so much more enjoyable.
Another great thing about running an Ultra is that runners are simply taking part for the challenge of completing the route. Fellow runners were always willing to chat, offer advice, help and encouragement. Even if you were overtaking another participant, you would hear a cheery ‘well done, keep going’ – no matter how tired others were. We were only too pleased to offer the same encouragement to those who passed us.
Above all, the challenge was a very memorable run due to the beautiful countryside that the route passed through – and for the friendliness and camaraderie that such a distance brings out in fellow participants – making it a pleasure to run with others we met along the way.