Chiltern Wonderland 50: 2020 Race Review
Updated: Jan 24, 2021
Chiltern Wonderland 50 is an ultramarathon organised by Centurion Running. It takes place in September each year, starting and finishing in Goring on Thames. Not only are there 50 miles of trails to cover, there's also 5600ft elevation and a cut-off time of 13 hours.
Click here to find out more about the event.
With many running events cancelled this year I was unbelievably excited to have an upcoming race. Originally I had three 50-mile ultras booked for the summer with the plan to gain more confidence within the discipline and look to book onto some longer events next year. As it turned out, Chiltern Wonderland became by first and only ultra of the summer and it was also my first event with Centurion Running!
The day before the race I travelled to a nearby Air BnB. I was post night shifts and feeling pretty terrible so it was pasta and an early bed for me. The morning of the race I was up at 5.30am to quickly get down some porridge and coffee before my dad took me to the start line. It was a rolling start (more on this below!) which meant I was dropped off at 6.30am and started the race straight away.
It was strange to start the race alone and I definitely had to work harder to keep an eye on the markers and stay on the correct route. It was a beautiful time of day to start - the sun was coming up and it was perfectly quiet and peaceful running across endless fields and trails. The first ten miles to checkpoint 1 were really enjoyable and summed up everything I love about trail running. It also helped that I could see two runners just ahead of me which kept me motivated and made me feel more like part of an event.
At checkpoint 1 I refilled my bottle with Tailwind so that I could get some extra energy on board and I grabbed a gel. The next section was definitely more challenging for me. I lost sight of the two runners that were just ahead of me and I didn't see a single other runner for the next 9 miles. I had to pay lots of attention to the markers. Centurion are great in that they put up lots of markers but the course has unexpected turns and if you miss just one marker then it can be easy to run the wrong way. I did this on two occasions during this section!! Thankfully I realised quite quickly, probably only wasting a few minutes each time, but it can feel so disheartening to run backwards. I decided to open up the app Komoot which I'd downloaded the route onto (I don't love having the route on my watch) and I actually played it aloud so that the app told me when to make turns. This would trigger me to actually pay attention to the markers and stay on course. After that I had no issues with navigation. Thankfully at the next checkpoint I caught up with a few more runners and from then on I intermittently saw runners on the route which mentally helped me a lot.
As the miles crept up my legs felt surprisingly good. I certainly hadn't put in the training required over the summer - partly because of work and partly because I thought the event might be cancelled. I had done a lot more trail running and hill work compared to previous years though and I think that really helped. I managed to run quite consistently through the race. I didn't stop at any point but I did take walking breaks to eat when I felt like my legs needed a rest. This was particularly true for hilly sections. I didn't want to waste my energy blasting up hills so I tended to take inclines as a walk-and-eat opportunity.
I had some major stomach issues around mile 30. I couldn't get down proper food. I'd packed some large pretzels which in hindsight might have been too dry. On my last ultra I'd had a cheese sandwich which had actually been great. I thought a pretzel might be simpler to digest but actually I think when my body was feeling tired it was just too dry and difficult to get down. I also hadn't eaten properly all week because I'd been on nights so my meal-times were very much out of sync. I ended up relying heavily on gels and Tailwind which was okay - I had energy but my stomach felt empty. The one thing that I could eat and really loved was dried mango. I will definitely be using that again!
In the last ten miles I had that feeling of 'everything but nothing hurts'. I'm not sure if other people feel this way! At the end of a long run I feel like my whole body is ruined but I can never specifically say why. There was no particular part of my body that hurt I just knew I was ready to finish. In those last ten miles I actually took a tumble as well. As I turned onto a footpath I tripped and fell straight forward into nettles. I was dirty but uninjured so I picked myself up and actually had a bit of an energy spurt after that. I think I was angry that I had fallen and I turned that into motivation to push myself for the last few miles. Luckily by that point the big climbs were done so I really did speed up, especially in the final mile or so.
The race finished at Goring Town Hall and I received the chunkiest medal I've ever seen! I finished the 50 mile route in 8hrs 34 minutes. There were 224 starters and I placed fifth female. I'll be running again with Centurion Running in November where I'll be doing the Wendover Woods 50 miler. It's got a lot more elevation so it's time for me to get some more hill training in....
Socially Distanced Running
Centurion Running were excellent in providing an event that was socially distanced and safe for both the participants and organisers. Some of the changes included:
- Rolling start line: Instead of a large group culminating and setting off all at once, runners turned up and ran through the start line any time between 6.30am and 8.30am.
- Virtual race briefing: Information about the day was provided via a video that was circulated a couple of days before the event.
- No spectators: Spectators and support crew were not allowed anywhere on the course.
The list above is in no way exhaustive. All the changes were necessary and sensible, but of course they have an impact as a runner!
The strangest thing for me was not having supporters. Previously I have always broken down my races into smaller sections based on where I knew my family or friends were located. Having a rolling start also meant that I started the race without any other runners in sight and this largely continued.
For me one of the best things about an ultra is the running community. With long distances comes slower paces - and therefore opportunities to chat! With this event I had a lot more time in my own head and the mental aspect of the race was more important than ever.
If you can't have supporters think about other ways to feel supported.
- Can your family/friends send voice notes or text messages of support?
- Can your family/friends track your location on an app?
- Can you send a photo to your family/friends every ten miles so you feel in touch?
- Can you use the aid stations to have a quick chat with a race volunteer?
- Can your friends/family make a playlist for your run?
Think about other ways you can break down the run.
- Take a walking break every set distance/time, i.e. walk for 5 minutes every hour.
- Use the aid stations to break up the distance - instead of rushing through take the chance to have a breather, eat something nice, give yourself a pep talk etc.
- Use nutrition to break down the run. If you're particularly looking forward to something you've packed can you save this for the halfway point as a way of marking the achievement?
Centurion Running provide a specific kit list for their events which makes packing for the event easier. I also have a guide on what to pack here. My key tips are:
- Make sure you have everything on the mandatory kit list, it may be checked (mine was!).
- Put anything you are unlikely to use (emergency kit) in the same place to make kit checks quick and easy.
- Put things you will need a lot at the front of your hydration pack for easy access.
- Practice wearing all of your kit on long training runs to identify what works and what rubs or causes you discomfort.
- Be familiar with the nutrition provided by the race so that you don't pack more than you need.
- If you do have spectators consider wearing something that will make you easy to spot from a distance.
Practice, practice, practice. I've learned from my own errors. I definitely didn't practice nutrition on my long runs enough and I suffered the consequences on this event. Try to recreate race day when doing long training runs and learn what you can and can't stomach.
Some things that I like to eat:
- Mini pretzels
- Dried mango
- Sporty jelly beans
- Hot cross buns
- Gu gels
Everyone is different so take the time to experiment and pack foods that you know you can tolerate. Also check what the event is providing. It's great to use their nutrition as it saves you carrying extra weight but if you're going to do that practice with the brands/foods they are providing. For example, Centurion offers Tailwind Endurance Fuel to fill your bottles with. If you think you are going to use this on race day then order some in advance and use it on a training run beforehand.
The route is well marked with Centurion signs. They are frequently placed and I particularly liked the yellow strips that were hanging from trees as they are so easy to see. That being said, when you are tired and there is nobody around it can be easy to miss an arrow and go a little off track. So, here's some top tips:
- Signs and markings are very regular. If you can't see a marker ahead then think early about whether you've missed a turn. It's harder to retrace your steps the further you go.
- Consider downloading the GPX file to your watch so that you can follow the route easily as you run.
- If you can't add routes to your watch consider using apps on your phone, i.e. putting the route on Strava or Komoot. Make sure your phone would have enough battery to make an emergency call if using these apps.
- Save the emergency contact details for the event into your phone so that if you do get lost you know who to call.