This is a new race, organised by Stuart Mills, that starts and finishes in Groombridge. As this is only 5 miles from Tunbridge Wells, it was an obvious choice to enter it. I know many of the trails the race route follows, but also get to discover a few more local trails. With the event only three weeks before the Autumn 100, I was not planning on racing hard, but aimed to use it as a good long training run to assess my fitness.
I arrived at Groombridge Place with Richard shortly after 7am, and we quickly registered, picked up our race numbers and a copy of the route map. It had been a clear night, and although the sun was shining and promising to warm up later, it was still very cold so we quickly retreated to the warmth of the car. I had decided to wear shorts, my club vest and arm warmers, and carry minimal kit (phone, map and water) in a UD waist belt. As a result I stayed in the car until the last possible minute, keeping warm, before joining the race briefing. After some instructions from Stuart we made our way across the field and then crossed Station Road to the start line.
The route starts on Corseley Lane and follows the road until just after the Forest Way trail. Here the route turns right onto the Sussex Border path. As there is a stile where you pick up the trail, I wanted to be near the front to avoid the bottleneck, so I started right at the front, and quickly settled into 7th or 8th place, letting the leaders pull away a little. I know this section of the route reasonably well, and had the GPX file for the route loaded to my garmin Fenix, so the map was tucked away in my pocket. A couple of miles later I saw most of the lead group scrambling under the fence and back into the field I was in. They had clearly taken the open gate as an invitation to the adjacent field, rather than climb the rather hidden stile onto the correct path. Ten minutes later and the lead group had once again pulled clear of me, and I saw them climbing a stile at the top of the field. I was fairly certain this was wrong, and when I got to the stile I checked the way markings. Sure enough they had gone the wrong way, so I called them back before setting off on the correct trail. As they caught and passed me for a second time in Buckhurst Park, I joked they might just be quicker if they slowed down and ran with me.
Arriving at the first checkpoint (Withyham Church) I saw Andy, a friend from the Tunbridge Wells Harriers, who told me the race leader had come through about five minutes before. A quick drink and I started up the Weald Way path. I’ve done some training on this section, and it’s a long uphill drag from the church all the way up to the top of Ashdown Forest and King’s Standing Clump. We had been warned that the route would only be marked in a few places and we would need to follow way markings and navigate from the roadbook and map. However Stuart and team had done a great job marking the route over the forest, and all the little junctions were well signed. As I reached the summit and turned right onto the Vanguard Way, I was caught and passed by another runner. I followed him for a bit, over the road and into Gills Lap car park and then along passed ‘The Enchanted Place’ from Pooh’s stories, but had to stop for a call of nature, and when I stepped back on the path he was out of sight. This was after about 12 miles, and I didn’t see another runner until I caught up with him again at mile 30. Trail ultras can be a lonely sport, but I really enjoy being out on good trails and with the beautiful weather I was really having fun.
After crossing Pooh Bridge, and then climbing up to CP2, I was directed down a path I had not run before. It eventually took me to the Royal Ashdown Forect golf course. I don’t like running on golf course much. Too many hungover hackers firing wayward golf balls all over the place. So I kept up a good pace here, trying to put it behind me and was soon into Forest Row and CP3. The volunteers were excellent and topped up my water bottle, and once again Andy was here encouraging me on.
After Forest Row there was a gentle climb, and then through a camp site, where a friendly group directed me in the right direction “This way! The other runners went down there then all came back again…” Kind of them to let me know, but their car was rather blocking everyone’s view of the path.
With 20 miles run I was still feeling good, which was good, as at this point the route crossed the Forest Way again. If i’d been feeling bad, i’d have been tempted to take a short cut and follow the flat easy route back to Groombridge. Before long I was in Hartfield, and heading back to Withyham Church. Although I knew it was still over 8 miles from Withyham to the finish, I was now back on familiar paths, so psychologically this felt like the home straight.
As I ran across the field from Withyham towards Forest Way and the river, two Roe deer ran across the field in front of me. I’d not seen much wildlife around, but seeing these convinced me the runners in front must be some way ahead by now. There is only really one big climb in this section, and that starts as you cross under the railway line and then run up to Stone Cross. I had to slow and walk the steep section here, but knew that from then on the route was easy, except from the short section in the woods on the Tunbridge Wells Circular path.
I had thought Withyham Church was the final checkpoint, so it was a pleasant surprise to find another one just after Fordcombe. I paused for a coke and some fruit, then set off for the final few miles.
The section round the back of Langton Green is always a little frustrating. There is a sequence of double gates and stiles that break up your rhythm, and interrupt your flow. However eventually I reached the Ashurst road, and knew there was only a mile and a half to go. At this point I saw another runner ahead, and knowing the trail is single track down through the woods, I picked up the pace to pass him quickly before the steep drop down into Groombridge.
Once on the road, it was a short run down to the church and then across the final field, before a finish in front of Groombridge Place. 5th place in 4hrs 23 mins. The time is a new best for a 50k, and more importantly it didn’t feel like I had destroyed myself in the process. Hopefully I’ll be in good shape for the Autumn 100.
In addition to a medal, every finisher gets a great pottery mug. So after the race I filled my mug with the free coffee and sat down for a while to chat to the other finishers. I think everyone agreed it had been a really well organised race on a beautiful route.
Finished in 5th