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Butcombe does… Ultramarathons?

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January 14, 2019

In our series of New Year’s Resolution blogs we’ve covered Tryanuary, Veganuary, and Dry January, and now… Ultramarathons. Yes you read that right, we’re talking running!

Now you might be wondering, ‘what does Butcombe have to do with ultramarathons’? The answer might well surprise you because, for the last three years, we’ve lent our support to the Butcombe Trail Ultra.

What began life as the Butcombe Trail, a 47-mile route around six Butcombe pubs in the Mendip Hills, has grown into two ultramarathon courses in 2019, one at 50-miles (with 2000m total ascent) and a new distance of 56-miles (2500m ascent), with 150 runners competing.

Seasoned runners will be delighted to hear that this year, both the 50-mile and 56-mile are UTMB qualifying, meaning a finish gets you a little closer to the dubious prospect of running 65+ miles around Mont Blanc! Of course, we couldn’t mention the Butcombe Trail Ultra without tipping our hat towards volunteer members of the Town & Country Harriers (TACH), the Bristol off-road running club who organise the races.

Costing less than £1 per mile and with regular social/training runs  from Mendip Butcombe pubs throughout the first three months of the year, the Butcombe Trail Ultra is the ideal way to get fit, meet new people and really challenge yourself to achieve something which might, at first, seem impossible.

Best of all, any surplus funds generated from the races are handed to the Mendip Hills Fund, designed to help conserve and enhance the environment, communities and economy of the Mendip Hills.

Local ultramarathon enthusiasts need little prompting to get excited over the prospect of another year of the Butcombe Trail Ultra , but for those of us who’ve never dared to challenge ourselves out on the hills, what can we expect? We’ve reached out to TACH member and event organiser Matt Claydon to get the low-down on ultramarathon running:


  • What makes an ultramarathon?

Technically an ultramarathon is any race longer than a marathon (26.2 miles). Generally though, the shortest are around 50 km (31 miles), with 50 miles being into the more ‘serious’ distances. Almost all ultras are off-road or on mixed terrain, and although landmark distances such as 100 km and 100 miles are popular, most races base themselves around natural features (such as a mountain range) or pre-existing routes (such as the Cotswold Way), rather than aiming for nice round numbers.


  • Why would anyone want to run one?

Some runners like to push themselves by going faster and faster over the same distance; I found that this just resulted in not having much fun! But the sense of achievement of going further and further was immense, and once you’ve broken the psychological barrier of the ‘marathon’ being the longest distance most people consider running, there’s really no obvious limit!


Also, most ultramarathons are run off-road on footpaths, bridleways, and open land, and so the environment is so much more beautiful and engaging than pounding the pavements. Time limits are very generous and the emphasis for most is simply finishing, rather than having a particular speed goal in mind.


  • What’s your favourite thing about running ultramarathons?

Many things! The amazing landscapes you run though, the fantastic trail-running community and the bond you develop over many hours with fellow runners, the quite phenomenal amount of food and drink you can justify consuming at the end, and the certainty that no matter how many times you said ‘never again’ during the race, two days later you’ll be back on the internet looking for the next challenge!


  • What is the Butcombe Trail?

It was devised by local walker and writer Sue Gearing in collaboration with Butcombe Brewery back in 2007, with waymarking installed and a guidebook published. The idea was to link up all six Butcombe pubs that are within the Mendip hills, along the most interesting routes possible and staying off-road unless unavoidable. It was never intended to be done in one day, but there was a special T-shirt available to those who completed the whole route over a series of legs.


Two runners from TACH decided it would make a perfect route for an ultramarathon, especially since TACH’s second love after running is pubs. In 2016 and 2017 is was run as a 48 mile race, then in 2018 was increased with some extra bits to make it up to 50 miles. We’ve now incorporated a seventh pub, The Rodney Stoke Inn, and the 56 mile version was added this year for those who really don’t know when to stop!


  • How do you run for that long?

Slowly! For the vast majority of mid-pack runners (like me) it’s really a run-walk, averaging around 4-5 mph; there are so many hills, and walking the uphill bits provides a welcome change of pace. The winners really will be flying the whole way round though, and will maintain a pace for 8 hours or so that most people would be pleased to run 5 km at.


Apart from a steady pace, the main skill is simply being able to continue eating as many calories as possible for the entire race. A typical runner would burn around 6000-8000 in the 50 miler!


  • What do you eat?

Real food. People are used to athletes using sports drinks or energy gels, but you need a special kind of digestive system to consume only those for up to 16 hours! Crisps, sandwiches, nuts, cake, biscuits, malt loaf etc are all good, plus Tangfastics for a sugary energy boost every now and again. You’ll see our aid stations outside each pub on race day will look more like a fully-stocked buffet :).


  • Don’t you get bored?

Sometimes muscles and joints start to ache so much it’s hard to concentrate on anything else and time can start to pass very slowly, but the nature of these races is that your brain is engaged in something all the time. The route isn’t overtly marked, so you are constantly thinking about navigation, and the environments, landscape, and people are so interesting and varied that it keeps the brain very active.


Few trail runners choose to listen to music as the experience is enough stimulation on its own.


  • Which is your favourite Butcombe pub?

Sorry, I like them all! All seven pubs are very generous in letting us use their space and facilities, and when out training or setting the route we’ve had great food and drink in every one (and I’m not just saying that!). I’d have to give a special nod to The Swan though, as they are letting us use the pub as race HQ and the start/finish this year, with the manager even opening up at 6am so we can get all the runners registered. Well above-and-beyond the call of duty!

Even if marathons or ultras are not your thing, I’d highly recommend checking out our club, or one local to you. We run 4-7 miles from a different pub within 30 minutes of Bristol every Thursday evening, and also organise shorter races in the summer and autumn, including a 10k in June also based at The Swan in Rowberrow.


To learn more about the Butcombe Trail Ultra, head over to their website or their Facebook page. If you are just fascinated to see what kind of people do this, or what they look like after 16 hours running, head to one of the pubs on race day, grab a pint, and cheer the runners by. The friendly marshals will be happy to explain what’s going on. Details of when to expect runners at each pub will be on the website soon.


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