On August 15th we ran our first official event since lockdown – and what a joy it was.
The Stour Valley Path Ultras (50K and 100k) took place against all the odds and much to our surprise. We entered as soon as we heard that a permit had been obtained, thinking this might be our only long distance “race” of the year. We were so pleased we did.
The SVP ultra was an organisational triumph for race director Matthew Hearne and his team, and a much needed fillip for us Covid-jaded runners. A tough race in tough conditions, especially for those of us who don’t run so many ultras and who had not expected to be running this distance this year – but oh so welcome!
Not our finest hour in terms of time, but one to be remembered, so we’ve put together a collection of the highlights of the event.
“I should paint my own places best” – John Constable
The SVP100 started in 2013 and one gets the impression that it is a labour of love for Matthew Hearne, designed to showcase the area that he grew up in. The beautiful and very English Stour Valley, including Dedham Vale, an AONB (area of outstanding natural beauty), was also the area where John Constable, one of Britain’s most famous artists, grew up and painted his landscapes.
The combination of knowledge of the region and, as an accomplished runner himself, knowing what other runners want, has resulted in a first class event.
Originally a 100k race (which Jacquie had previously completed in 2014), the addition of a 50K alternative in 2018 has opened the event up to many more runners. Accepting that this year we were definitely not in 100k shape – this included us.
Left: Jacquie waiting for the start of SVP100 at Newmarket, 2014
Right: Waiting for the start SVP50, 2020 style
The Route – like running through a painting
There are actually five river Stours in England – the one that we are interested in here is in East Anglia and forms the boundary between Suffolk and Essex. It starts in Cambridge and runs 47 miles out to the coast, becoming tidal at Manningtree, Essex.
The Stour Valley Path itself starts in Newmarket and follows close to the river for 96k to Cattawade; a few extra kilometres are needed to take runners through 100k to the event finish in Brantham, near Manningtree. The course is 95% trail and often uneven under foot. And athough it generally follows the river valley, the route is far from flat. It undulates through fields, woods and pretty villages with occasional glimpses of the river. The total ascent for the 100k route is 912m and around 500m for the 50k distance.
In truth the route was much hillier than I (Jacquie ) had remembered but also more beautiful. Especially the views of the river itself.
Top left : Cam and Mark in Sudbury
Top right : Jacquie and Jain in Bures
Bottom left : Jacquie by the Stour – almost Constable-esque
Bottom right : Jain in a cornfield – more Little House on the Prairie
The SVP event has a loyal following which is active on social media. Previous participants are very generous with pre-race tips, advice about local conditions, and providing GPS maps of the route with up-to-date diversions. We found this particularly helpful. A nice touch is that the race t-shirt featuring Shuck, the black dog from local folklore, comes in different colours to signify the number of completed races.
An event in Covid-times
One of the most amazing things about this race was that it actually happened.
We know that at the best of times a lot of hard work goes on behind the scenes to put on a race, but at the moment this must be greatly increased. The race director put together a protocol that was accepted by the Trail Runners’ Association as being safe for runners, volunteers, spectators and local communities.
Detailed instructions were sent out to all runners outlining the changes that needed to be made. These included a staggered start in socially distanced groups of six; masks and hand sanitation for entering aid stations, and sanitiser for opening gates and climbing styles. There was also a self-service approach at aid stations, with individually wrapped foods, and own medal pick up at the finish. Runners could have felt restricted but far from it. It was all carried out in a very good-natured way, leaving the camaraderie between runners and volunteers firmly intact.
The atmosphere at the start, in the aid stations and at the finish was friendly and supportive.
Aid station chic!
You were allowed to remove masks to eat and drink!
Race Day Details
Registration was a brief ticking-off of names leaving us responsible for own kit check. The atmosphere was friendly as we moved through the village hall in Sudbury.
The seeded staggered start meant that Jacquie and Jain were amongst the early runners with Cam and Mark following over an hour later. With a generous 9hr30 cut-off we were in no rush – we wanted to enjoy the day and the stunning countryside – although the course was very runnable if you wanted a fast time.
It was a tribute to the course markings and the odd shout-out from other runners that we only heard the Viewranger (GPS app) alarm go off once to tell us we were off course.
There were three aid stations on the 50k route, at Lamarsh (10.5m), Nayland (18m) and Stratford St Mary (26m). As we said above even with social distancing they had a great atmosphere .
The weather was suitably dramatic – hot, humid (90% at times), stormy and wet. Constable would have done a great job with the clouds! To be fair, the heavy rainfall later on in the race, which lasted for 2k, was quite refreshing. We wore trail shoes and were grateful to them on the often uneven and very occasionally muddy surface.
Storm clouds brewing
Support on route
We hadn’t realised just how much we had missed this particular aspect of taking part in an event. There was support from other runners, marshals, aid station volunteers, friends and family and best of all the local residents, especially those sitting out in the village pubs. Getting, once again, that special feeling when your efforts are acknowledged by others – everybody needs this in their lives.
At the third and last aid station Cam and Mark caught up with us so we decided to run the last 8k together. It seemed fitting to be finishing alongside each other again.
And the finish was another triumph – not just for us runners. We crossed the line to much cheering, picked up our medals, and had a photo taken – then hot food and a drink awaited us.
The event was such a success we were left feeling hope for the future.
A huge thank-you to Matthew and his team for making this possible.