In praise of small independent races

Mass participation challenge events might have the highest profile but don’t overlook the smaller ones.

When you’re thinking about taking on a race or challenge event, chances are you’ll be drawn to one of the large organised branded or charity events like the ‘Ultra Challenge’ series or ‘Race to the Stones/King/Tower’.

These events, by their nature, offer a great environment in which to test yourself. Everything is catered for within the entry fee, so you can just get on with your walk and enjoy the experience. Yes, you still need to carry essentials and also think about what you’ll need along the way that is particular to you but it’s entirely possible to rely on the feed stations for food and drink and be completely un-supported by friends and family.

But, while there’s no questioning the value these events offer, there are a huge number of other smaller independent events all over the country, that can be just as enjoyable and sometimes leave you even more fulfilled, not because they offer more but simply because the terrain or route might be a little more interesting, more challenging or simply more beautiful.

It’s not hard to see why really. Large events cater for many thousands of people at a time and so the route needs to be able to cope with these numbers and the logistics required to support them.  That’s not to say that they deliberately choose more bland locations and trails to make the logistics easier but it does mean they need to pick trails that are more established and which can cope with the large numbers involved.

‘National Trails’ are also a major draw for people wanting to take on a big challenge. Trails like The South Downs Way, The Ridgeway, The Pennine Way – these are all routes that are hugely popular but which are also well suited to handling larger fields of competitors because they are already major attractions for walkers and runners alike.

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The South Downs Way – the perfect mass participation trail

What smaller independent races often bring to the party though is local knowledge and, perhaps, an ability to set a route with support from local stakeholders because it will be a focal point and publicise the area. This can mean smaller trails being used because the projected footfall will be less, perhaps making for a more interesting and memorable experience.

A really good example of a small race that punches way above its weight, is a race that Sport Walk’s founder Roger Burlinson took on a month after completing Race to the Stones. He wanted to knock out another Ultra as soon as possible after Race to the Stones, to build on the gains from that event but he didn’t want to take on another 100k. So when he spotted the ‘Salisbury 54321’ on ‘Run Ultra’ it seemed like the perfect fit. And so it proved to be, as Roger explains:

“Living on the edge of the New Forest, Salisbury is well within my ‘patch’ but although I drive through it quite a bit, I’ve never explored the trails around it, so this was a great opportunity to take on a relatively local race but also to use it to go hard for 50k and add to what was already in my legs from Race to the Stones.

The race was based at Salisbury Fire Station and was organised in support of the Fire Service charity but it wasn’t what you’d call a charity event, where there’s pressure to fund raise just to take part. It was extremely well organised and there were so many different distance options on offer that there really was a race to cater for every ability.  I went for the longest at 50k and was pleased that there was actually a distinction between runners and walkers, which isn’t always the case in Ultras.

Looking at the route map beforehand, it seemed like a really nice course with lots of variety, some good climbs and a couple of sections on private land not open to the public. What I hadn’t expected though was just how good it would actually turn out to be.

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I think the most striking part was just how much variety there was and how every part of the route offered great views, great trails and lots of points of interest. First up, those of us going for 50k had our own little extra loop snaking up along the River Avon to Old Sarum. Then, along with the other distances, we traversed around the city to Laverstock Down, before linking up briefly with the Clarendon Way. From there, it was over to Longford Castle (one of the private sections) and a stunning segment through the grounds of this impressive stately home/castle, with a bridge over the Avon and then a key checkpoint and feed station just afterwards.

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Looking down to Old Sarum from the top of the route

Leaving Longstock Park, through Bodenham, we headed up onto Clearbury Down, past the Clearbury Ring – an ancient hill fort – and then down the steep descent to start the trek up to possibly the most evocative part of the whole race – Great Yews.  There was another feed station here and then a sign instructing you to ‘follow the string through the woods’.  This was like something out of the Hobbit but it wasn’t just some Tolkienian gimmick. The route snaked through an ancient Yew tree wood and without the string to follow it would have been easy for the more ‘directionally challenged’ racers to end up back at the feed station! This was one of the most memorable sections for me, I just loved it. 

From Great Yews it was over to Coombe Bissett Down Nature Reserve and a fabulous easy descent along a grassy ridge overlooking the valley below before we popped out at Coombe Bissett and began the long climb up to Salisbury Race Course.  From there is was a scoot down to Wilton, back towards town through Quidhampton and then the final stretch through the grounds of Salisbury Cathedral itself. After that, we reconnected with the Avon for the short blast back to the finish.

I have to say, looking back, the course that was set was about as perfect a course for a short Ultra that you could get. The terrain was challenging enough that if you pushed hard you really felt like you’d had a good work out by the end and there was something of real value in every segment. High points were definitely Longford Castle and Great Yews but every part of the course was really very enjoyable. Contrast this with a couple of stages on Race to the Stones, where I really kind of zoned out up on the Ridgeway because the rolling trail and unchanging views offered little in terms of distraction.

Taking nothing at all away from Race to the Stones – it was a brilliant experience, superbly organised and very well delivered – I have to say I found the ‘Salisbury 54321’ actually to be more satisfying overall. OK, so it was only 50k but I just walked faster and harder and felt about the same physically at the end.  It was the ever changing terrain and views that just kept me smiling the whole way. OK, if I were to pick holes then perhaps a slightly simpler name would be good but if the name is all you can quibble about then they must be doing something right!”

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Roger, still smiling after just over seven hours

At Sport Walk, we’re starting to get data together on events and races that either fully cater for Sport Walkers or at least allow them to enter (often the mandatory cut offs at checkpoints mean walking isn’t possible) and we’ll be adding a list to the blog in due course. Meanwhile though, the Run Ultra race calendar is a superb resource, so if you need inspiration to plan a challenge, make that your first port of call. And make sure you check out or, better still, enter ‘Salisbury 54321’ or an independent race local to you, you won’t regret it!

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