I first ran this event in 2020 and was keen to give it another go despite last years event falling victim to the pandemic.
The Imber Ultra is a 33 mile mixed-terrain race taking in the Salisbury Plain and the Imber Range Perimeter Path. Jointly organised by Avon Valley Runners and the Rotary Club of Westbury, it’s a fairly low-key, well organised event with all proceeds going to charity – which gives it real charm.
Training had been going well. I’d recently completed the Country to Capital Ultra and the Icing on the Cake trail marathon and was using Imber as part of a long-term training plan. With my key race this year – the Robin Hood 100 – booked in the calendar for early September, I had no real expectations other than to simply enjoy the day and remain injury free – the same strategy I’ll be using for all my races this year in the build up RH100.
There was one major route change this time around – with the course being run in a clockwise direction rater than anti-clockwise as in previous years. Looking at the course profile, this meant that the first 19 miles or so were to say ‘undulating’ at best, whilst the last 14 miles took in all the major climbs – not ideal on already tired legs. With over 33 miles and 3,300ft of elevation, it was all set to be a fun but challenging day.
Two days prior to race day, we were notified of increased military activity on the plain and to use ‘common sense’ when navigating the course – something I generally lack but given the current climate, was duly noted.
I’d managed to convince Jasper to join me again but unlike last year, we’d decided to travel down in the morning rather than stay over the night before. Alas, alarm set for 5am, I met up with Jasper and we made our way on the 2 hour drive to Imber.
Registration was a well organised and stress free affair. Parking (free) is a 5 minute drive away from race HQ so they lay on a minibus to shuttle you to the start. You’re then issued with your race number and given access to the drop bag area before converging outside for a prompt 9am start.
The first couple of miles are uphill as you climb up on top of the Salisbury Plain. The weather leading up to race day must have been favorable as the conditions underfoot – although muddy – weren’t as horrendous as previous years where we’d been greeted with ankle-deep, thick claggy mud – so this made for much easier progress.
Once at the top, the trail opens up and you’re greeted with hard-packed, chalk tracks which were mostly runnable and we soon settled into a steady, conversational pace.
The first 10 miles went by without incident. Pacing was comfortable, we’d settled into a steady rhythm and the conversation was flowing. We’d both noted that the terrain – although undulating – felt mainly uphill but on fresh legs this wasn’t really a concern. We were running within ourselves so wasn’t exerting too much energy. Conditions underfoot were mostly on hard-packed trails, dirt roads and gravel tracks – and despite wearing a hybrid trail shoe (Inov-8 Parkclaw) I was looking forward to a change in terrain for the remainder of the race with the added cushioning of softer ground ahead.
By mile 10 we turned off the hard-packed trails and headed across grasslands which was a welcome change – both visually and underfoot. We were making good progress – the pace felt comfortable and we were both in good spirits.
For the next 10 miles the terrain levelled out and we ran the majority of this section – stopping only for aid stations and the occasional big climb.
The route passes through some of the most remote parts of southern England and runs past Imber – an uninhabited village within the British Army’s training area on Salisbury Plain. In fact, the British military training area takes up nearly half of Salisbury Plain – covering over 150 square miles and I lost count of the ‘Military Firing Range – KEEP OUT’ signs which we passed.
By mile 19 we reached the second main climb of the day. At 190 metres, Cotley Hill was a fair old climb but I was still feeling relatively fresh so dug in and got it done. It was a relief to use different muscle groups and I welcomed the change in terrain.
I do love a hill!
Once at the summit, there was the obligatory downhill section to stretch the legs out before we were at the foot of the next big climb – Scrathbury Hill at 198 metres. Again, head down, settle into a steady rhythm and before long you’ll reach the summit with the reward of it’s beautiful views across the plain.
Aid stations were situated every 4-5 miles are were stocked with the usual refreshments – everything from tea & coffee, to sweets, home-made cakes and flapjack. Marshals throughout the day were all friendly and supportive and for a small, local event were a credit to the organisers.
Upon reaching the last aid station, we stopped for a quick cup of tea and some flapjack before climbing up towards Battlesbury – the site of an Iron Age bivallate hill fort. Once at the top, the single track weaved it’s way around the perimeter and made for some great running – and a welcome distraction from tired legs.
The last climb of the day – Upton Cow Down – at 198 metres was a bit of a slog and not normally what you’d want to see at mile 31!
As it happens, I felt more comfortable on the hills than on the flats at this stage of the race and make good progress on the last climb, regrouping with Jasper at the summit to run the last mile or so to the finish line together.
Or that was the idea anyway….
Now, I’m not a genuinely a competitive guy…however…on this occasion I had distinct memories of Imber 2020, whereby despite claiming we’d cross the finish line together, Jasper suddenly found a second wind and out sprinted me to the finish line…
Revenge is sweet and all that – so with half a mile to go, I put the burners on (hmmm) and crossed the finish line in a time of 06:10 – followed by Jasper shortly after – much to my amusement.
I’m counting that as a win!
Joking aside, we had another fantastic day on the trails and despite taking it relatively steady as a training run, came in just shy of an hour faster than our last efforts in 2020. That maybe down to conditions underfoot, or the fact they the route was in reverse (although I’m convinced it was harder doing it clockwise) or maybe its better training and conditioning. Either way, I was delighted with the days efforts.
We were greeted with a goody bag containing a mug, chocolate bar, water and a banana.
No complaints here! Thank you IMBER! See you next year.