||A friendly and well-managed event from the organisers of The Ridgeway Relay.
Based at the Marlborough leisure centre, this yearâ€™s Marlborough Downs Challenge attracted a record number of entrants and, for the first time, the event was officially full. The three different events; 20 mile trail walk, 20 mile trail run and the 33 mile trail run each had a different start time to ensure that all competitors finished back at the leisure centre within a few hours of each other.
The start was from the grounds of Marlborough College, on the south-western edge of the town and the finish was a short walk, across the A4, away at the town leisure centre on the north-western edge of the town. The race route followed a huge anti-clockwise loop from the town out into the rolling Wiltshire countryside, with the longer 33 mile course route creating a more extended loop. It was a treat for the olfactory senses and also included a great deal of ancient history, including the Knap Hill Neolithic fort, the ancient Wansdyke and the Avebury Stone Circle.
Weather conditions were very changeable, starting dry, but with the ominous dark clouds above leading to heavy rain, which, luckily was short-lived. The very strong head/side southerly wind proved really rather challenging when up on the high ridge on the outbound part of the loop. Luckily, the payback for this came with the strong tailwind on the northbound part of the loop.
From the college grounds, alongside the River Kennet, the first two miles of the race route led out into the countryside on footpaths through fields up to higher ground. The overnight rain had created a very slippery surface to run on, which was particularly awkward for the following mile and a half through the West Woods. These beech woods were far from flat with many twists and turns in the slippery paths. There were acres of bluebells carpeting the wood floor as far as the eye could see. In another part of the wood, we passed through a glade of wild garlic with scent so strong as to assault the senses.
From the woods, the trail led out to open ground and climbed up to the top of the mile and a quarter long ridge of high ground, some 100 metres above the much flatter Vale of Pewsey, giving, not only terrific views, but also terrific winds from the plain below. Passing the Neolithic Knap Hill fort, the trail then dropped down to run on and alongside the ancient Wansdyke for two miles until the split in the two routes, before turning due north for two miles with the benefit of the wonderful tail wind (for the shorter 20 mile route runners at least).
Reaching the village of Beckhampton, the trail crossed the busy A4 and then followed a footpath behind some houses, where the aroma of at least one full English breakfast being cooked was evident. After a few short footpaths, the shorter 20 mile trail was rejoined by the 33 mile runners (who had started one and a half hours earlier in the day) before reaching the tiny, but very touristy, village of Avebury. Passing the busy Red Lion pub and then running right through the ancient neolithic stone circle (apparently older than the nearby Stonehenge), the trail headed west into open countryside and onto wide undulating gravel tracks.
The trail proceeded across the rolling and windswept landscape through boulder-strewn pastures with flocks of grazing sheep and lambs, together with their associated smells. Another olfactory pleasure was the strong coconut scent of a huge outcrop of flowering gorse, through which the trail passed.
After crossing the Ridgeway and running across and alongside some gallops, it was only a few more miles before the final destination of Marlborough came into sight. The finish at the leisure centre was reached, not by a straightforward flat run-in, but via an awkward uneven track with a final short, but heartbreaking, climb to contend with.
Overall a lovely event, with good friendly marshals at the checkpoints with ample supplies of drinks and chocolate biscuits. Hot showers, free pasta and tea at the leisure centre rounded off a terrific day out. Recommended.
An excellent performance by Frances to be second lady home in the 20 mile event.