This is a race I have done a few times before and I always remember it fondly. However, I clearly had forgotten how hard it was in the three or four years since I last did it!
The idea of doing the Dunstable Downs Challenge was to have an event to enter in the run up to the Bedford Harriers club championship ultrarun in October – the Stort 30. At Dunstable, they do a half marathon, 20-mile and full marathon route, and the 20-miler was perfect for those of us in training for Stort in eight weeks’ time.
Getting ourselves sorted
We’ve had a small weekend training group going now since July, and three of us (me, Juliet, George) had signed up to the 20 mile, with Noel doing the full 26.2 (but then he knocks off a marathon in his sleep!) Juliet and I car shared and because of that got there much earlier than I would on my own. But it was nice to have the time to get ready without hurrying, and use the toilets about six times!
Over the years the HQ for the race has improved as the facilities at Dunstable Town FC have been significantly invested in. The volunteers as ever at this event were fantastic, they don’t need good facilities to still be welcoming, friendly and extremely helpful. Slowly, runners doing the different distances from Bedford Harriers started to arrive and we got ourselves sorted out, heading off to the start.
The event is technically “self-navigated”, with a set of detailed instructions telling you how to get round, and a few marshals at some key checkpoints (making sure no-one got lost on the course…more on that later). So, George, Juliet and I decided to run together and get each other round. We are training buddies for the Stort 30 and this was not a race for us, we figured that we could work as a team. George and Juliet had the instructions printed off, and I had mine easily accessible, however as I had done the race before I decided I wouldn’t need to rely on it too heavily. Hmmm.
Stretching the legs
The first few miles were the usual, uneventful settling-in period. The fast ones went off, the slow ones peeled back, and there were a few of us in the middle! Miles 1-3 were right across the Downs; beautiful, breath-taking views across the Buckinghamshire countryside, before we turned away to navigate ourselves around Whipsnade zoo.
We carried on for another couple of miles, skirting the zoo, but no sign of wildlife today – sensible things probably still in bed. We settled into a routine, swapping out at the front, and feeling pretty good, despite the undulating terrain. We’ve done a lot of off-road training for the Stort 30 so the hills were in our legs.
A group forms
About five miles in we decided to pull over in the woods to take on some gels and I was most amused to see that a group of about eight people had been following us and pulled across thinking we were leading the way on the route! I had to tell them to crack on, as we were stopping for a few moments, but one of them said he wanted to stick with us, so three became four and we gained a second Mark.
After a couple more miles and a fly down a lovely hill we came across the first checkpoint. Our running numbers confirmed to the marshals, flapjacks / malt loaf consumed and a bit of water downed, we ploughed on. Straight up the other side of the valley and hitting an incline as cruel as the downhill had been kind! Having used my considerable weight advantage to fly away from Juliet downhill, she was soon well ahead of George and I, gambolling up there like a gazelle!
The next mile or so didn’t bring much in the way of notable activity, save to say it was still a beautiful mix of farmland and forest as we explored the countryside – up, down, up, down… We also picked up another lady dressed in bright patterns, who seemed to be sat in behind us, so we sort of became a group of five.
Digging in and digging out
Then came miles 8-9. We’d been warned on social media that this would be tough as the fields had been ploughed recently, but actually they were not too wet, so they were nowhere near as bad as they could have been. They were however fairly relentless, but on the face of it George, Juliet and I managed them quite well. We could see a large group that we were gaining on ahead and I focused on them. I also noticed that the elastic had broken a bit on Mark 2 / Other Lady behind us. I may have said something a little cocky at this point about people not having the off-road training in their legs that we did, but let’s just say I was paid back for that one.
Anyway we made it across the fields and hit the next checkpoint just before mile 10. We stopped here briefly to remove stones from shoes, which was long enough for Other Mark and Patterned Lady behind us to catch up. Then we climbed up what in cycling I think is called a “false flat” – a good mile of slow, winding uphill trail that started to suck the strength out of the legs. I was leading at this point, as the one who knew the course it was just easier.
The wheels wobble
However by the time we reached the next checkpoint (just after 11 miles as the terrain between 10-11 had been boggy so I presume they were making sure people made it through safely) I was flagging. I noticed I was a bit weary and needed a caffeine gel. Handily the checkpoint had water, etc. so we stopped there. At this point Marky Mark and the patterned bunch carried on saying they’d see us at the top. “The top” was a bloody awful hill going up across more ploughed ground; I was struggling here. But, I knew that stamina comes and goes on long runs so I dug in and walked up the hill, meeting Juliet and George at the top.
By this point the course had barely stopped rising and falling for miles, and I just hoped it would even enough for me to recover and for the gel to kick in. Luckily for once my wish was granted and the next mile or so was fairly flat. We settled into a bit of a routine at this point as Juliet was clearly stronger than George and I. She would slowly pull away from us, with George falling off the back of me so we were strung out as a three for quite a while, regrouping when we came to style / gate.
Then at mile 13 things went a bit askew. Having kept up with Mark/Lady and the larger group ahead of them for about 5 miles we couldn’t see them and we had to stop for a few mins to work out where the course went. I didn’t recognise this bit and suspected that the course may have changed a little since I last ran it. But we found the marker we were looking for and carried on into a wooded lane. After about another half a mile we turned into another field, where I had seen the people in front of us running up to our left from the lane; they seemed to double back up the hilly field.
But as we came into the field we couldn’t see anyone and the direction I thought we needed to go in just didn’t feel right. When we hit another field with no markers at the entrance (very unusual), we realised we must have made a mistake. By carefully retracing our steps and the written instructions we found where we had gone wrong, but by this point had easily added a mile on and had lost sight of anyone in front. Obviously that didn’t matter as this was a training run, but my inner competitor didn’t like that!
Back on track we settled into our extended line: Juliet-me-George. At one point Juliet got a stone in her shoe and I carried on knowing full well she would catch us up. Funnily enough though the first person past us was the person in the lead of the marathon! We had joined back onto their course and he was way ahead of the field. In fact I later found out he finished 35 mins ahead of the second runner!
Anyway, I was looking back and no Juliet. So I stopped and after a minute or so George arrived. He said she had her sock off when he went past, so we stopped and waited. After about five mins and she joined us – she said it wasn’t a stone but her toenail had gone through her sock and was rubbing – not good. But she’d managed to wrap her sock in a way that it had stopped the rubbing. We carried on.
More strung-out line running ensued as we all dug into our energy reserves – this was tough, tough, tough. At one point, about mile 16 we were running across a big field, very exposed to the wind. I had bad memories of this field from two previous events – one where I fell over a root and gashed my face / smashed my sunglasses, and another where it was freshly ploughed and wet. Today it was dry, but the wind was unforgiving; and I blew up. As I reached the end I stopped, walked and let George catch me, saying I needed to walk and he could go on. He thanked me though as he was close to stopping himself and wanted someone to walk with! We couldn’t get Juliet’s attention as she went off into a wooded area, but we knew she’d notice soon.
After a while we caught her; she was sorting out her shoe again, which was still hurting. We all walked to the last checkpoint and took on water / food.
Miles 16-18 passed in relative silence as we all just were running on fumes. We agreed that our traditional “tough” annual event – The Grizzly – was harder than this, but in some respects the extreme hilliness of that course at least allowed / made you walk a lot more. This was just unrelenting undulation that you could just about run for most of it. Pain.
After another wrong turn (my fault, I knew this part of the course and missed the marker) we hit the downs again. Not far to go! A couple of miles! In fact I got my second wind here and started to feel good, just at the time poor George was suffering with cramp. We carried on together as planned, but got strung out a bit in the last mile. At this point we knew we’d all finish so we just dug deep and got ourselves through it. About a mile from the end Juliet stopped again with her toe, and I shouted that I would see her when she caught me up, as we were going downhill at this point and I couldn’t stop!
I carried on and looked back a couple of times. I could see some people had caught us up and small group was behind me, with yellow t-shirts of the Harriers in there. I didn’t have my glasses on and the figures were blurry, but I could see they were there so I carried on, assuming I’d see them at the finish.
The last half a mile was a bit twisty though Dunstable, back to the football ground, and there were not enough markers, but I remembered the way out so followed my nose!
Finally I came into the field next to the football ground, full of kids playing a footie tournament. I went round the edge and crossed the line. 38 out of 58, 3:52 for a very hilly course and 21.7 miles on my Garmin!
Search and rescue
I got my medal and waited for George and Juliet. And waited, and waited. Hmmm…
George then came into the field and across the line – er where is Juliet? George said he’d passed her at the same place I had, still sorting her toe out and assumed she was just behind him. So we waited and waited and more people came through. Uh-oh. George and I started to hobble (the legs had gone) back out onto the course to find her. But there was just no sign of her and we were in no fit state to go running around looking for her. So finally we went back to the HQ and reported her as missing. I was feeling terrible at this point. So much guilt as we said we would start and finish together and I felt like I really should have stopped and waited for her, rather than assume she would catch me up. Not only that, Juliet had been so much stronger and at the front of our group for the last eight miles and she had never once ran off and left us. Bad men.
Finally, Juliet appeared with some of the marshals who had found her. She hadn’t been far behind, but took a wrong turn at the end of the course and had got very confused. In fact one of the other Harriers (Mark Tinkler) had done the same thing earlier on and had done an extra four miles! Maybe something for the organisers to tighten up on next year as the last few hundred yards are quite technical and your brain is a bit too fried by then to be doing the navigation work!
But, all in all, a great day. Juliet still had a big smile on her face and we know that we are going to fly round the pretty flat Stort 30 after this one!
If you are a fan of off-road running, with stunning views and want a real challenge – this is the one for you. A great event, well organised (in the main – a few missing markers aside), and one of the friendliest local groups you can find. They even went and got my bag for me at the end and brought it to me instead of me having to go searching in the baggage area!
So, injuries aside, and hoping I don’t do anything silly like try and race the Great Eastern half marathon like a loon when I do it in a couple of weeks, it’s looking good for the Stort 30 in October.