This last weekend I did my first White Star event. I had heard about Giant’s Head, Bad Cow and Larmer Tree but never got in on time or they clashed with races already booked, but this year I hung on the phone one night in October while in a pub in SoHo to get my name down for Giant’s Head and flushed with success booked some more WSR races: The Ox, Dorchester and Dorset Invader.
The Ox races came around in May after doing a marathon or ultra a month since January, so distance should normally be OK, but I had been carrying a hamstring and glute niggle for about 6 weeks and that had been affecting how I could run above about 15 miles – I couldn’t really pick my right leg up. So, arriving at race HQ at Rushmore Park west of Salisbury I was wondering whether it was such a great idea to have signed up for both the Dark Ox 10k on Friday night before the Ox 50 which would start at 7:30am the next morning.
The race was set up a bit like Endure 24 with camping near the start finish area, which had Race HQ, a couple of food and cider stalls, and a big tent with sheltered seating and a TV which seemed to be set up for people to watch Eurovision on Saturday night. I had arrived at 4pm and drove through to the far end of the camp looking for my running buddy for the weekend Cove Jogger, Kelvin Gower. Once the tent was up we headed to race HQ to pick up race numbers and get dinner, a tasty lamb burger.
The first race of the weekend started at 9:30pm and head torches and waterproof tops were the fashion. After a brief briefing which mainly warned people to take it easy and don’t fall over and noting where the beer stop would be. Off we went down a gentle cobbly slope and in only 400m saw one of the quicker runners being escorted back to the start area with a cut to his head.
The terrain was hilly with a few tricky stony descents, but time was definitely not a factor on this run, just getting around in one piece was important. I think a lot of people running were thinking the same and were running the next day or Sunday, so it was a steady chatty run on the whole, with just one Bambi-on-ice moment for me, coming down a muddy hill.
After just a mile we came across the beer stop where I had about a ¼ pint of Piddle IPA and a mile later we were at the excellent aid station known as the Love Station. There were lots of nice things to eat and drink – more beer, vodka shots or even water.
After six hilly, wet miles in a gentle 1 hour 14 I grabbed my medal, beer and biscuits and headed straight for the showers. These were OK, but unlit and the shower was more of a strong dribble than a proper shower, but at least it was hot. Then it was straight to bed by 11pm, remembering to set my alarm for just before 6 as the 50 mile runners were starting at 7:30 the next morning.
After a fitful night’s almost sleeping and resorting to earplugs to block out the late night chat going on round the campsite I woke to a cool, overcast morning, found a loo with bogroll still in it and sat in my tent eating muesli for breakfast. Kelvin got up and fired up the kettle and I had a cup of his weird chocolate orange flavoured coffee.
On the start line there were about 80 runners, about half of which were doing some form of multi-race challenge, with another 10k (Light Ox) and Ox Half the next day. There was even a 12 hour race on the same course starting half an hour after our 50 mile run, which meant there was something for everyone over the weekend. After a briefing to tell us how many laps we needed to do (8) we were off.
The route was similar to the night before, but just over half a mile longer. Down we went for the first mile, then a short steep ascent before getting into a tunnel of trees descending again to come out by a pristine golf course. I had passed by this last night but didn’t see it at all in the rain and tunnel vision from my head torch. Passing the golf course the route went into a large stand of beech trees at 2 miles before the long straight steady climb on a grassy wide open chalk path up to the Love Station at 3 miles. I fuelled up on jaffa cakes, chocolate flapjack, crisps and little sausages washed down with a little squash and beer (at 8:30 in the morning!)
From here the course turned down hill on a long sweeping descent before turning uphill on a long trail through pine woodland. After a muddy downhill section there were another couple of long uphill sections through old oaks with bluebells and wild garlic through route came out into a grassy field for a gentle run back to the start/finish area. Here there was just water at the aid station, which was OK for the first lap, but I knew I would need more later and I would have to use up the recovery food I had in my bag, bananas and a pint of milk.
Three laps in to the race and I was feeling OK but starting to get swollen fingers, a sure sign I was getting low on salt. I tried going to the loo to check urine colour and it was a bit dark, not too bad but it was time to start upping my water intake. At the aid stations I started having two cups of water and added a small beer at the Love Station. To avoid getting hyponatremia I also started taking a salt tablet each lap and this helped with the swollen fingers so that after a few more laps my hands were feeling OK again.
Going back to lap 4, half way, I noted that my Garmin was reading 27 miles. WSR events are notorious for their generosity with the mileage, so I was now prepared to be doing 54 miles, not just 50! At this point I decided I would pick up my walking poles. I had been walking up the hills anyway, but this was still starting to overstress my niggling hamstring and glute on my right leg. Using the poles took the load off my legs a bit, especially going up steep hills. They were pretty useless going downhill, though, so I just held them midway along on the descents to keep them out of the way while I ran. I checked the pace I could manage with and without the poles, walking up the steady hills and I was about 15 second a mile quicker with them and, even though I wasn’t used to using them, my arms weren’t tired at all.
Over lap 5 and 6 I was thinking about how close the cut off would be. We had until 7:30 or maybe 8:00pm to get out on our last lap. I wasn’t clear on this as the written instructions said 7:30 and the race briefing 8pm so went for the 7:30 cut off. I figured on having a good hour in hand, so I kept the time at the aid stations to a minimum, no sitting down just a bit of boogying to the music at the LoveStation. Fortunately my shoes stayed comfortable, without the need to even re-lace them and the little gaiters I had on kept out dust and stones. Lap 7 came along and finished with about 75 minutes till the cut-off.
The last lap was a fairly lonely affair as faster runners had finished their 50 miles and the 12 hours runners had mostly quit after 4 or 5 laps having done a marathon or ultra. But the course is well away from any road and the woodland was gloriously peaceful with just the sound of birdsong, woodpeckers and a cuckoo that seemed to have been following me round the course. Reaching the crest of the last hill I caught up with a couple of women, one of whom was still to finish, then a crowd of her friends who were waiting for her. Then, after having walked the last 2 miles to this point and having nothing to gain but finishing a 13 hour race 30 seconds quicker, I got into a little race to the finish.
As I approached the finish line the marshals started ringing bells to warn people there was a runner coming in and this raised loud cheers and applause from the folks outside the beer tent which was great to experience. I finished 54 very hilly miles in 13:09:35, and shuffled off to race HQ to collect my medals, t-shirt and buff, and then find a burger and the odd experience of having my recovery meal in amongst what looked like a Mexican Day of the Dead themed Eurovision party.