The Sarsen Trail is an annual fund-raising event for Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. It’s a walk/cycle/run over a 26 mile route that winds across the Wiltshire countryside from one important Neolithic site, Avebury, to another, Stonehenge. On May 6th 2012 I attempted to run it – my first marathon would be a Neolithic one!
Accompanying me on the journey was my support team: my wife Caroline and five year-old daughter, Lily. Once the run was under way, they would drive south and attempt to find me en-route and cheer me on. A secret banner had been manufactured and Caroline had stocked all the extra stuff I could possibly need …. such as potatoes.
On arrival at Avebury, we wrapped up warm against a chilly north-easterly wind and headed in to the village to get me registered. At this point I was feeling nothing but excitement. I was confident that I had trained well and the weather, which in the weeks leading up to the event had been extremely wet, was looking encouraging. Yes, it was unseasonably cold but clouds were shifting and blue skies emerging.
Standing in the middle of Avebury’s one and only street with the rest of the runners it became clear that the field was not a large one – around 260 runners. The atmosphere was friendly and, as we waited for the hooter to signal the start, the first rays of warm sunshine hit our faces and the mood lifted even further.
3, 2, 1, HOOT! We were on our way, and amidst the crowd I spotted my cheering wife and my daughter, holding up the secret banner. It said: Run Like The Wind Dad – we love you loads. It was the perfect send-off and helped me settle into a relaxed pace. No time target for this run. My sole aim was to complete the distance and enjoy doing so.
Avebury to Cannings Cross
The most picaresque section of the route was this first five mile stretch climbing steadily through farmland up and over the North Wessex Downs and into the Vale of Pewsey. Skylarks sang and there were snippets of conversation between those running in twos. A couple of very steep inclines gave way to spectacular 360° vistas and very enjoyable downhill gallops. I noticed how dry the ground was at this early stage. I’d elected to wear my Vivobarefoot Neo Trails because, with relentless heavy rain over the last few weeks, I was sure I’d be needing the aggressive tread and water resistant qualities of those shoes. I was starting to think I may been better off with something less specific …
Cannings Cross to Redhorn Hill
… and that feeling continued as the next six miles were over a hell of a lot of road. But first, as I came off the Downs, there was my support team! Buoyed by their cheers, my pace became a little brisker. The temperature was starting to creep up and the terrain had levelled out. I was feeling good and had some sole-relief when the route finally left the roads and returned to some soggy lowland fields for a mile or so. Hah! Trail shoe-selection justified. And I proved it by boldly running through some muddy puddles that other runners were circumnavigating in a cautious fashion.
Soon after that – the ten mile mark just passed – I saw my girls again. Time for a pit stop. I was starting to get a bit warm so it was off with the long-sleeve under-shirt and I emptied my pack of gloves and hat. Then, taking delivery of a bag of small pre-boiled new potatoes to supplement my gel intake, it was kisses all round and I was off again.
Across Salisbury Plain
The climb up Redhorn Hill would be the last big ascent of the route and would take us onto Salisbury Plain. There, 12 miles of exposed, undulating chalk and flint track awaited. We approached a green wall of woodland – softening the steep climb hidden within – down a single track lane, flanked on both sides by endless fields of vivid yellow rapeseed. It was a memorable scene. Greetings and encouragement were exchanged between runners and walkers … and the sound of artillery fire reverberated across the landscape.
Salisbury Plain is used for military purposes and there are some parts that one mustn’t stray into. In fact, the route of the Sarsen Trail changes each year according to where these activities are occurring. I feared a ballistic soundtrack for the duration of the route across the plain but, curiously, once I had reached the plain itself, the sounds of gunfire had ceased to reach my ear. Instead, a runner came up alongside me. I recognised him as someone I’d passed on the way up Redhorn. We chatted and found we had enough in common to keep one another company for a good few miles. This encounter was perfectly timed as the landscape had become a little monotonous and niggles in the legs had begun to surface. I was also starting to feel that a lack of sun screen may have been a bit of an error.
Larkhill to Stonehenge
Eventually, the seemingly endless stony ups and downs of Salisbury Plain gave way to some different terrain: gravel, broken chip-seal and even some earth trail. It didn’t matter, at this stage – the final 3 miles – I had slowed right down and was experiencing a fair bit of pain in my upper legs. I had encountered this in training and so it wasn’t unexpected. I could also see that the route wasn’t going to bisect another road before the finish and so I’d accepted that I was on my own for this last push.
For the final mile, I found a reserve of will, and picked up the pace. As I entered the last stretch – on blissful soft green grass – my eyes were peeled for my girls. Someone was breathing down my neck too which encouraged me to keep pushing. A shout and a wave from Caroline caught my attention and, then, Lily was running alongside me. We were both grinning and the smile didn’t leave my face for a while after I crossed the finishing line.
As the adrenalin drained away, my body, after 4 hours 6 minutes and 18 seconds of running, started doing some odd things: shivers, hip cramps … But all of this was short-lived once I had warmed up and eaten.
On the drive home the achievement began to sink in. I had completed a marathon! I had not thought about this too much during the run, trying to take each moment as it came to me. But the medal in my hand told no lie. I am hugely grateful to Caroline and Lily for their support on the day and over the preceding months. A marathon is a long journey in more ways than one. Caroline asked the obvious question, “Same again next year?” Well, let’s wait and see.