The Imber Ultra is a trail run covering approximately 33 miles of the Salisbury Plain and the Imber Range Perimeter Path. Conditions underfoot are a mixture of mud, grass, gravel and hard trail.
The race wasn't on my radar until Paul, a friend from club planted the seed. I didn't take much persuading and booked it straight away. With an entry fee of as little as £34, the event is jointly organised by Avon Valley Runners and the Rotary Club of Westbury with all proceeds going to charity. It was a no brainer, a small event supporting both the local running club and it's chosen charity - count me in!
I travelled down to Westbury on Saturday afternoon. I'd booked myself into a local B&B within stones throw of Race HQ and had a decent nights sleep.
The alarm was set for 7am. I'd packed my race vest the night before so all I had to do in the morning was shower, grab some breakfast and head for event parking at 8am. Unfortunately Paul had to pull out of the race at the last minute due to a back injury but I was joined by Jasper who was also running this event for the first time. I'd run with Jasper before, completing the 'Sunset to Sunrise Challenge' together in November and being of similar pace, we'd decided to run together. Both of us have key events we're training for so treated this as a steady training run.
We parked up before jumping on a minibus which took us to Race HQ. Registration was straight forward and well organised. Race numbers collected, we had about 30 minutes before the start of the race so waited around nervously, chatting to a few of other runners and trying to gauge what to expect..
At 9am there was a short race brief before we were sent on our way by the local Mayor which was a nice touch. It was a fairly small field of approximately 110 runners and we soon settled into a rhythm towards the middle of the pack.
The first couple of miles are uphill on a muddy track with takes you to the to the top of the Salisbury Plain. And I mean muddy! The kind of thick, clayey mud which you find yourself either sliding across, sinking up to your knees into or muttering Runner's Tourettes to anyone who'll listen!
It was here that I realised I'd made the wrong shoe choice. I'd bought two pairs of trail shoes with me, my Inov-8 Mudclaws and my Inov-8 Roclites. Given that the course was advertised as a mixed terrain race, I'd opted for the Roclites. Although useless on mud, they're lighter, comfier and given the distance, I went for comfort over practicality. Massive mistake. The conditions underfoot were pretty awful and it was a challenge staying on my feet, as were others around me. Chin up, smile and crack on, it made it an adventure after all.
Once on the top of the Salisbury Plain, you then follow the Imber Range Perimeter Path in an anti clockwise direction. The terrain on top is undulating with a a mixture of mud, grass and hard packed trails but the views are amazing. The only distraction being the red flags and warning signs about being on a firing range. Running past a mock German Village and churned up tank tracks added extra interest to the route and although set in a vast amount of open space the route keeps you engaged.
Within the first 5 miles I'd lost my footing and fallen over twice; no harm done other than a dent in my pride. I'd been carrying poles with me but hadn't taken them out of my pack up until this point but decided to use them for the remainder of the race. I'd never used poles before but with the intention of using them for the West Country Hilly 50 in May, I thought this would be a good opportunity to practice with them. They were a godsend - not just for keeping me on my feet but also with the elevation.
One thing that was noticeable about this race was the headwind and changeable climate. Given that it's a circular route once on top of the plain, it felt like we were always running into a headwind. At no point was the wind behind us and given that we were exposed to the elements, it was blustery to say the least. The conditions also changed from clear blues skies with warm sunshine, to overcast and torrential downpours with hailstones. It was gnarly at times.
By mile 20 I felt strong. The poles were useful in keeping me upright and we'd adopted a simple strategy of walking the hills whilst gently running the flats and downhill sections. The pace was easy-going and we were enjoying a social, chatty run - somewhat forgetting we were in a race, only to be reminded when someone overtook us!
The remaining 10 miles were predominantly on hard packed trails; trails mainly suited for 4x4's and tanks! Jasper was feeling the pace slightly but we plodded on, identifying objects in the distance to run to before taking a walking break. I was fine with this strategy, time-on-feet was more important than the race result. The only time I insisted on running more was when the heavens opened and we were being plummeted with hailstones.
The last 2 miles was back down the muddy-hell-of-a-track that we had climbed up on the way out. Although by now, 109 other runners had churning the mud up even worse and with an extra layer of rain on top, made it even more treacherous. Poles in hand, I slid, sunk and cautiously made my way down the trail. Jasper, with much more traction went on ahead and made good progress.
Finally at the bottom, there was a short run on tarmac back to the finish line where I was presented with a goodie bag which consisted of a mug, a bottle of water and a couple of kit-kats. All in all it was a brilliant, well organised day on a great route.
On a personal note, I felt I had a lot left in the tank by the finish and was pleased with my general fitness levels at this point. With harder races on the horizon, I still need to built upon this but it's comforting knowing that 30+ mile runs are in the locker.
We finished in just over 7 hours with over 3,200 feet of elevation.
The finish time wasn't important. I'd experienced another great day out on the trails with Jasper, who's a pleasure to run with - and would recommend this race to anyone who wants a challenging but enjoyable ultra.
Hopefully next year Paul can join us!