Wendover Woods 100: The one that didn’t go to plan

I shout about the good ones so it’s only right that I also shout about the ones that *don’t* quite go to plan.

At the end of 2019, I ran the Wendover Woods 50. The hilly woodland trails were everything I love about running & it instantly became one of my favourite races. When Centurion Running announced they were holding Wendover Woods 100 for only the second time, I knew I had to be on that start line.

Wendover Woods is an area of woodland on the northern edge of the Chiltern Hills. Named after the nearby town of Wendover, the woods are part of the Public Forest Estate & are managed by Forestry England. Covering 800 acres or 1.25 square miles, it is a mixture of coniferous & broad-leaved trees.

Several years ago, Centurion Running created a now-iconic ten-mile loop with 2,000ft of elevation gain within the woods. I’ll repeat that. A ten-mile loop with 2,000ft of climbing in the space of 1.25 square miles. 

As an aside, Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK is 4,400ft high.

The 50-mile race that I loved in November 2019 was five laps & 10,000ft of climbs. Or twice up Ben Nevis.

The 100-mile race is ten laps & 20,000ft. Four times up Ben Nevis in 32 hours.

The route is a constant rollercoaster of a ride & almost impossible to describe in words. Up, down, up, down. Dancing around tree roots & jumping over logs. Scrambling up inclines that practically require hands to ascend. Letting loose on steep downhills, your stride is only broken as you jump over a fallen tree blocking the path before turning a sharp corner.

Winding & weaving around the woods, crossing paths with runners coming in the opposite direction & running on adjacent paths, separated only by a line of trees. It’s no mean feat to get a ten-mile loop out of space this size!

I described it at the end of WW50 as cross-country on steroids. It’s more than that. Cross-country on steroids & every single drug you can possibly imagine.

And I love it!

So there I was one Friday morning with 48 other intrepid souls. Considered to be one of the toughest 100-mile races in the UK the starting field was small. Only seven women stood on that start line. And I was one of them.

It was Centurion’s first mass race start post-Covid. After a year of individual starting waves, there was something special about standing together as one for the race briefing. As we waited for the hands of the clock to tick over 8am there was a shared buzz of nervous anticipation.

8am. Lap One. 

With a race like this, it is very difficult to run to either pace or heart rate. One of the other ladies asked me on the start line what pace I was aiming for & I said I honestly had no idea. I was under no illusion, this was going to be hard. My aim going into this race was to simply run my best & finish. No more, no less.

With just four short weeks since my dream race at the South Downs Way 100, I had questioned whether a month was enough time to fully recover & tackle another race of this level. But not knowing when, or indeed if, there would be another opportunity to run Wendover Woods 100 I was determined to do it.

Training in the interim had been minimal. Mainly focusing on maintenance rather than improvement. My longest run had been 14 miles on the Vanguard Way & North Downs Way that felt a lot harder than it should have done. I’d also thrown in several short, easy runs & a couple tempo sessions to keep the legs moving. I was as ready as I could be.

I eased into my first lap feeling comfortable. Running to effort, I ran the flats & downs. Walked the steepest of hills & jogged a few of the smaller ones.

I usually run to heart rate but with the varied terrain, it was impossible to keep it steady. It would spike worryingly high on a steep climb, & drop worryingly low on a descent. Constant variation & impossible to monitor. It wasn’t helped by the insane heat which always wreaks havoc with my HR. Looking at the weather forecast ahead of race day, it looked pretty good. Overcast, a few sunny spells, possible light showers & 21 degrees. 

What I hadn’t noticed was the 94% humidity…

This added several degrees to the temperature. Within a matter of minutes sweat was pouring off of me & my vest was soaked through. It stayed like this well into the night & even a brief rain shower late afternoon did little to reduce the oppressiveness in the air.

During lap one I was regularly crossing paths with other runners. Chat was sporadic unless we were on an easier path. All energy & concentration was needed to move. Loose concentration for even a fleeting moment & you could easily stumble on an exposed root. This is not a route for idle chat.

As the race progressed & we all settled into our own individual rhythms, the field spread out & the gaps between runners grew larger. I’d occasionally catch a glimpse of a brightly coloured t-shirt ahead of me or behind me as our paths nearly converged. I could never quite work out where in the loop they were. Were they in front of me or behind me or was I in front of or behind them?

I saw more dog walkers than fellow runners. A few of them stopped me to ask what I was doing. I’m not sure any of them quite believed me when I told them.

I wondered if it would get lonely in the woods but I relished the silence & the solitude of my own company. A bit like at SDW100, I wanted to be alone. Life is somewhat chaotic & hectic at the moment, running is often the only time I get to myself. After a particularly busy working week, I simply needed to be by myself in the stillness & tranquillity of the quiet woods. I was content in my own company.

For a couple of hours bridging laps two & three, I listened to Friday morning’s Kisstory, but for most of the time, deep in my own thoughts, the only sound I listened to was the sound of the forest.

During lap five, I didn’t see another runner for the whole ten miles. The only indication that the race was happening was the race markings & the aid station at Hale Lane.

There were two aid stations on each lap. Hale Lane at 5.5 miles (although we also ran past, but not through, it at 3 miles) & then the main race HQ in the trig field at the end/start of each lap.

I didn’t use the aid stations at SDW100 & only popped into a couple at SDW50. During Covid, they have been much changed with less ‘shared’ foods & more single-serve packaged foods. Wendover Woods was a happy mix of old & new & I was delighted to see the return of sandwiches & a selection of fruit, including my favoured watermelon. Hale Lane individually wrapped foods, the Trig Point had covered plates, serving tongs & paper bags so that we could help ourselves. It worked well & was a definite improvement on the restrictions that Centurion had to work under at NDW100 last summer.

I really must give a HUGE shout out to the volunteers at the aid stations. It was a small team who worked shifts but most were there for the whole weekend with just a few hours break.

Because there were so few runners it almost felt like having a personal crew. They did EVERYTHING for us from filling bottles to making our food. All the time supporting, encouraging & helping us battle our individual demons. Races like this couldn’t happen without the volunteers who freely give up their time to stand in a field through the night so that we can run.

We also had access to a drop bag every ten miles at race HQ. As usual, I packed the kitchen sink… Because my stomach had misbehaved at the SDW100 & because I wasn’t sure in a post-Covid world what would be at the aid stations, I packed baby food, bananas & a few other stomach-friendly treats that I had managed to eat four weeks earlier & hoped I would be able to stomach again.

I also packed three warm tops expecting it to be cold in the woods at night. It wasn’t.

A bonus to having such frequent aid stations & access to drop bags was that the mandatory kit list was a lot smaller than usual. Just a foil blanket, waterproof & a whistle – and head torches between 6pm & 5am.

It was a JOY to run with a bag that weighed half of what it usually did!

Back to lap one. It passed without event as I familiarised myself with the course again. Although only eight weeks since my last loop of Wendover there were some paths I swear I had never run along before. How some runners can do the loop without race signage or a gpx I’ll never know!

I didn’t stop at the first aid station & was in & out of the trig point HQ at the end of lap one within a couple of minutes. Although not mandatory for this race, I was carrying drinks with me which meant I was able to quickly refill them & fuel on the run.

Lap one done in 1 hour 51 minutes 13 seconds.

Nine more to go.

A mile into lap two I pause for a photo with the Gruffalo, the iconic guardian of Wendover Woods, Having taken a selfie with him on the first lap, it became a personal challenge to photograph myself with him on every lap. It’s the small things that keep me amused on these long jogs!

After saying hi to the Gruff there are five big climbs on each lap & numerous smaller climbs. When I say big, I actually mean mini-mountain. The largest climbs are named, I think to try & distract the runners from their evilness.

So, in the order they come…

No Name

A tenth of a mile & 151ft with a 25% gradient. I always forgot about No Name until I turned the corner into it. Bastard hill. (The Strava segment is actually called B*****d with No Name). I got a PR on lap one 🤷🏼‍♀️

Go Ape 

So named as kids on zip lines whizz over your head as you huff & puff up a climb. Another 10th of a mile with 123ft & a 22% gradient. The strata segment doesn’t include the incline leading up to Go Ape which I’m sure adds another 100ft… I also got a Strava PR here.

Snake

This one is long. And ironically where I saw a snake* on one of my training runs. (*actually a slow worm but it looked like a snake so I’m calling it). 

It goes on forever. 

And ever.

Actually only a quarter of a mile but with 238ft & 18%, it feels like forever. PR’d here too.

Gnarking Around

This climb magically doubled in size every lap. Midway through the day, RD James took a hacksaw to a fallen down tree to make it marginally easier for us. Did I mention the fallen down trees that we had to climb over whilst scrambling up practically on our hands & knees? 

Gnarling is less than a tenth of a mile but has a 29% gradient. Bastard hill. But yes. PR.

Railing Against the Years

There are handrails on this climb. They do not help. AT ALL. Another 200ft & 21% gradient. No PR on this one though.

Lap two was understandably tougher than lap one. Lap one was a novelty & full of shiny newness & sporadic chat with my fellow runners. By lap two I’d realised what I was in for. The sounds of Kisstory helped a little but I found my mind wandering down a dark road of fear & doubt wondering how I was going to manage ten of these.

Time on the clock 3:57:52.

Two laps done.

Almost as soon as I’d finished lap two I was in a much more positive frame of mind. I’d got into a rhythm. I was beginning to know when to run when to walk when to push on & when to pull back. I’d been eating & drinking well, using the walking climb following Hale Lane aid station & the exit of the Trig Field to refuel. By lap three I felt as if I knew what I was doing & I returned to the comfortable feeling of lap one. I marked the awkwardness of lap two down as a minor blip.

The problem with multiple laps however is that I now cannot remember what happened when. As far as my memory allows, lap three was uneventful. The sole focus was on moving. Up, down, up, down. One foot in front of the other.

Time on the clock 6:20:57.

Lap four was also uneventful. Time on the clock 8:42:34.

As was most of lap five.

Most of. It rained as I was partway through the lap. I barely even noticed it if I’m honest. It did absolutely nothing to cool me down & there was no point in putting on my waterproof as with the humidity I had been soaked since the start of lap one. All the rain did was make underfoot conditions slippy.

Halfway round I began to feel the familiar ultra nausea. My stomach was churning, unsettled & I felt nauseous. Great. This has happened on all my 100 milers. After suffering quite badly at SDW100, I was hoping that the slower pace & lower intensity of WW would prevent the same issues. Sadly not.

I ran into Race HQ at the end of lap five with mixed feelings. I was halfway, my legs felt strong, I was moving well, climbing well, but my stomach was beginning to affect me.

Time on the clock 11:19:39. This was some 50 minutes quicker than I ran the WW50 18 months ago when the end of lap five was the end of the race. You may ask had I started too fast & gone out too hard? No. This simply shows how much fitter, stronger & confident I am now.

I’d earmarked the end of lap five to be a slightly longer rest at race HQ. I knew I would need to take my head torch out on lap six & I wanted to change out of my sweat-soaked vest & into a clean t-shirt ahead of the nighttime miles.

For the first time, I dove into my drop bag. Clean t-shirt. Battery pack to charge my watch & phone. Headtorch. Half-way snacks. I forced down a veggie sausage roll, a sachet of baby food & some coke. No where near enough calories for the energy I was exerting but all my body could handle.

Whilst changing my t-shirt I was kit checked (passed!) & told I was leading the women’s race… I knew I was doing well but hadn’t realised I was doing that well. Those who know me, have run with me, paced me or crewed for me, know that I don’t like to be told how I am performing during a race.

I’m very much of the mindset that the only thing I can control is what I am doing & that over ultra distances it’s not helpful to think about what other people are doing. Although I must admit, being told this by James the RD did give me a bit of a boost & perhaps pushed me out the door with a bit more of a bounce to my step.

Lap six was tough. My legs were good, my stomach wasn’t. The nauseousness slowed me, messed with my head & made me question every step. If you’ve not suffered from nausea whilst running, it’s hard to describe quite how bad it makes you feel. Your stomach churning with every step, the constant feeling that you may be sick (or worse). The knowing that you need to get some calories inside you but the inability to get food down.

Just past Hale Lane CP & coming down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams the woods ahead of me are glowing deep orange. Either they are on fire or the sun is setting. The chance of seeing sunset pushed me on. I know there are some gaps in the trees coming up & that I may be able to see it disappear over the Chilterns. Somehow I run up a gentle hill in my eagerness! Not long after I need to find a bush… The first of many.

Six laps done.

Time on the clock is 14:24:08.

At the end of lap six, I force myself back out of Race HQ for lap seven. I fail to eat or take on any significant fuel, my stomach just won’t allow it.

It’s gone 10:30pm. My head torch is now on, the woods are dark, mysterious & shadowy. I love nighttime running & the quietness & solitude of the woods is incentive enough to keep going. My nighttime lap at WW50 was my favourite lap & I’m looking forward to this one. I wonder if I am a bit blasé as I have no fear about running around the dark woods alone.

Tom Sawyer laps me going up Go Ape. He goes on to finish second but was also suffering from stomach issues. I take comfort in that he is only the second person, after the eventual race winner, to overtake me.

No matter how much I love nighttime running though, it can’t take away how rough I feel. I lose track of how many times I dive behind bushes on lap six. I seriously cannot have anything left in my stomach but yet it still churns, still, I feel constantly nauseous.

The last couple of miles of lap seven are a struggle. My mind has gone as well as my stomach. I resolve to stop when I reach Race HQ. To hand in my number & not finish.

17:44:50 is on the clock as I enter the trig point field.

I declare I’m stopping.

Am I sure?

Yes.

No.

I sit.

The volunteers gather around me.

I’m stopping.

No, I’m not.

Yes, I am.

Maybe.

I’m not sure.

I know I can’t carry on without taking in some fuel.

Zoe Norman tempts me with all of the food on offer at the CP. I look at all of my snacks in my drop bag. Nothing appeals. She offers me a cup of soup.

I sat there drinking a tomato cup-a-soup. It actually tasted pretty good. Once the cup was empty I began putting things back into my bag. I ate a gel & grabbed a handful of jelly worms. No one was near me when I stood up & declared I was off. 20 minutes ago I had been about to take my number off. But I wasn’t sure, I wasn’t certain. There was a fleeting doubt in my mind. Was I really done?

I picked up my poles, put my headphones in & with Rasputsin playing in my ears left the trig field for the start of Lap eight.

I’d been sitting for 20, 30 minutes. I was just beginning to get cold & my legs took some warming up again. The movement was initially stiff & stilted but within a few minutes, they remembered what to do.

I walked the first hill. Poles pushing me forward. Tip, tap, tip, tap on the hard surface. Past the silent & closed cafe & the obligatory selfie with the Gruff. I was moving well again & ran down the firebrick road to the first climb. Up, through the woods. Run, walk, run, walk. Music in my ears although I remember no sound I heard. Turn at the crossroads & down. Onto the path that we share with tomorrow’s XNRG Chiltern Challenge. We go down then up one way, they will be going down then up the other way.

Top of Powerline. I don’t feel so good again. I’m drowning in waves of nausea. My stomach churns with every step. Diving into the bushes, I empty my stomach again. That tomato soup didn’t last long.

In the dark of night, I gingerly make my way down the Powerline descent. Tricky on lap one, 48 runners + numerous laps + the afternoon rain & the path is now slippy. I’m glad of my poles to steady my step. Do I run across the field at the bottom? I can’t remember. On my first lap, I decided that this was a section to be run on all ten loops. Did I at the start of this 8th? I honestly can’t remember.

Over the styles, the fairly gentle incline through the tunnel of trees. A sharp right. Fuck. No Name. I pause, look & know I have no other option other than to climb. Poles in hand, up I go. I do not feel good. It’s slow going. I’m drowning once again under waves of nausea. I reach the top, stop, lean on my poles. I look to my left & see the steep descent to come. After which comes Go Ape. I can’t go on.

I dive behind another bush. I didn’t think there was anything left in my stomach.

I sit on a bench looking over No Name & contemplate my options. I am running on empty. I’m 75 miles in. I haven’t had any significant food for 35 miles. I dread to think how many hours that is. What I have had, I’ve not been able to keep in. I feel woozy, light-headed & dizzy after the climb. I try to visualise the rest of the lap. Another 25 miles. I see the climbs, all 14 of them, the terrain. I feel my dizziness. I can’t do it. I have nothing left to give. The only sensible option is to stop.

I know where I am at the top of No Name & I know it is a, relatively speaking, easy walk back to the trig field. I sit for a few moments longer just to be certain. I stand & start moving in the wrong direction. I feel a calmness & at peace. I know I have made the right decision. It’s a mile or so back to race HQ & I’m moving okay. But, I am on the fire track road, it’s smooth, flat & compared to the rest of Wendover, easy terrain. I pass the Gruff in the opposite direction. I take one last photo of him standing forlorn in his field but I can’t bring myself to pose with him for a selfie.

20, 30 minutes later I arrive back, through the wrong door, at race HQ & hand Nici my number. My first DNF (Did Not Finish).

Official DNF time, end of lap seven 17:44:50 (my lap eight miles don’t count as I didn’t reach Hale Lane CP for my timing chip to be registered).

I sit.

I’m still smiling on the outside but on the inside, I feel rough. I’m not alone in my DNF. Over half the starting field have already stopped, some only managing one or two laps. There are only two women still running. It’s a tough race & today it has beaten me.

Reflection

More than a month post-race (yes, it’s taken me this long to write about it) how do I feel about my DNF? 

I am disappointed. However, I will balance that with however disappointed I am, I know that I made the right decision.

I’m mostly disappointed because I was running well & I was enjoying the race. Even at the start of that 8th lap, whilst I had a little bit of food inside me, I was running well. As a runner, I felt strong. My legs were doing their job, it wasn’t them that stopped me but my stomach.

The DNF hurts that little bit more because I was in the lead, I had a whiff of a win. To lead a 100-mile race for 70 miles & to not just fail to win, but to fail to finish, hurts. I will put my hand up to that & admit that my ego has been bruised. 

I wonder did I give in too easily? 

Could I have forced food in? I could have done, but it would have come right back out again… (and believe me, this was not a pleasant experience). I’ve now had stomach issues in three out of my four 100 mile races & nausea at all four. Before my next attempt at this distance, I need to try & solve this problem as I can’t continue running on empty.

Could I have kept on going on empty? In an easier race, maybe. But when the effort required to climb the first of 15 remaining hills leaves you dizzy & lighted headed, it’s probably not a sensible option. As I sat at the top of No Name trying to decide what to do, I had visions of fainting down Gnarking.

No, I did not give in too easily. I gave this race 100% & left everything I had out on the trail. 

Quite literally.

Too many people only see the finish line of the race they are in rather than the ongoing running journey & risk their health to get there. I am in this for the long run. I want to spend the summer bimbling around the trails of SE England (and maybe further afield). I want to start training for my next race in September feeling strong & powerful. Not struggling because I pushed myself too far in one race & made myself ill.

Running means far more to me than one race. Without running, I am not me.

I am at peace with my DNF.

I am at peace because I know I did my best. I have nothing to prove to anyone other than myself.

In Wendover Woods, I proved to myself that I am capable. I may not have finished but I can compete in tough races. I can hold my own. I am strong, powerful & determined. I can make tough decisions & even with a DNF, I can finish with a smile.

I also know that if I can resolve the stomach issues that I can finish Wendover Woods 100. And if I can finish one of the UK’s toughest 100 miles, then I can do anything.

If anything, my DNF has given me the confidence to try. Because, in the words of Elizabeth Day, “To learn how to succeed, we need to learn how to fail”. Wendover Woods 100 was not in any way a failure, but by not finishing, it’s certainly taught me what I need to do to succeed. And for that, I am thankful to the lumps & bumps of the woods.

Wendover, I’m not finished with you. 

I’ll be back. (Just need to persuade James Elson to hold WW100 one more time… 😉)

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