A dry day in the Malverns
In my youth, on May Day mornings, I was given to joining the throng on Oxford’s Magdalen Bridge at 6:00 am to listen to the choir singing from the top of the College tower and at 6:30 adjourn to one of the many splendid pubs open for business. This year, however, my May Day morning itinerary was somewhat different!
Perhaps as a result of the passage of time and the onset of terminal stupidity, I found myself driving to Holt Castle in Worcestershire to compete in the Malvern Hills Ultra – 52 miles with over 4,000ft of ascent, organised by Steve Worrallo’s Ultra Running Ltd.
Clutching my route description and beset by a worryingly high level of enthusiasm and optimism, we set off at 9:00 from the Top Barn Activity Centre under cloudless blue skies.
On completion of the circuit of the lake, before heading off to the river, I was at the rear of the bunch – neck and neck with three young ladies whose conversation was far too interesting to leave behind. The next 6 miles took us along a most pleasant stretch of the Severn Way to the first checkpoint outside the Diglis House Hotel in Worcester. At this, and every subsequent checkpoint (all located at pubs or Hotels), the marshals and helpers were great – very efficient, helpful and supportive, albeit I did find it slightly unnerving to be applauded in to the checkpoint after only 6 miles. After some zig-zagging along diversions necessitated by repairs and maintenance work along the river bank, the route re-joined the Severn Way for a further 8 tranquil miles along the river before heading away on the short detour to Severn Stoke and Checkpoint 2. Suitably refreshed and still feeling as fit as a “butcher’s dog”, (sadly, a condition that would not endure the 52 miles!), I set off on the longest stretch between checkpoints (11+ miles). The first 2.5 miles continued along the river to Upton-on-Severn.
On crossing the bridge into the town, I was quickly wrenched from the daydreaming state into which I had lapsed while running along the riverside. The on-going jazz festival had created a real buzz in the town and necessitated playing dodgem with the traffic and revellers on the short run through Upton.
For me, the next 7 miles of tarmac were relatively tedious, despite the wonderful scenery.
With the line of the Malvern’s ridge ahead, seemingly getting no closer, and with no sign of the forecast build-up of cloud and rain showers, the very warm early afternoon proved quite taxing.
Imagine my delight, therefore, to be greeted at Swinyard Car Park by an “angel of mercy” bearing a monster bottle of cool water. After my valiant attempt to drink the lot, I set off up the track to the Malvern’s ridge and shortly descended to Checkpoint 3 at the Malvern Hills Hotel with nearly 28 miles completed. Any temptation to imagine it was psychologically downhill all the way from here was dispelled by reference to the map – topographically, there was still most of the route’s ascent to come. But, running along the undulating ridge was a delight – wonderful terrain; stunning views, and a very welcome cool breeze. Rounding North Hill was eerily quiet and deserted but after contouring round and then heading north on the Worcestershire Way, I soon encountered other fellow competitors on the run-in to checkpoint 4 at the New Inn at Storridge. This area, and the remaining route back to Holt were all new to me, and I was intrigued by the nervous and reverent chatter at the checkpoint about the coming “delights” of Ankerdine Hill. Ankerdine Hill? I mused – never heard of it before – can’t be any big deal! “Methinks their delirium has moved them to wild exaggeration.”, and without voicing my thoughts, I set off with David Mitchell who was having a real stormer for this, his first ultra! Hmmm… so, I was mistaken. What a “delight” Ankerdine was.
Notwithtanding its demanding nature though, the sight and scent of its carpets of wild garlic, bluebells and wood anemones provided a magical spectacle. Now allowing myself to finally lapse into the “downhill from here” syndrome, we soon arrived at Martley and checkpoint 5 at the Crown Inn. With less than 8 miles to the finish from here, we opted for only a short stop, and then headed off.
Approaching Ockeridge Wood the weather was beginning to turn, but the resulting drizzle was nicely refreshing and helped compensate for my steadily tiring legs.
A short road section after exiting Monk Wood, through Northingtown Farm and then the uplifting sight of Holt Castle through the trees ahead. The net effect was for us to pick up the pace for the final quarter of a mile to finish in precisely 11hours – just before the heavens opened and dark descended.
Musing on the journey home as to which activity I preferred for May Day.
Any (or all) of a huge number of Oxford’s pubs sampled from 6:30 in the morning?
Or – a 52-mile run past innumerable pubs – venturing inside none of them?
My vote was for the run – please note the earlier reference to “terminal stupidity” Will I return next year for the 52? Maybe I will. Or maybe I won’t – after all there’s an 82-mile option!
Plainly, my condition is beyond redemption.