The Green Man Challenge is a 45-mile loop following the Community Forest Path around the city of Bristol. Ultra Running Limited turned this challenge into The Green Man Ultra, a self-navigated ultramarathon with a cut-off time of 12 hours. Local runners have long completed the Green Man Challenge well before the official race was created and continue to do so – but I opted for the medal and t-shirt experience. There is also a 30-mile version of the event.
Those who complete the full circuit are a called a ‘Woodwose’. Why, you might ask? Well, it may sound like some kind of cabin pest, but it’s the term for anyone who completes the Green Man Challenge within 24 hours. Here is the official origin story from the Green Man Ultra site:
“Woodwose, from the Old English wuduwāsa or wood-being, regardless of gender. Woodwose is the proper name for the wild men and wild women that haunted the imaginary forests of medieval Europe and is entirely appropriate for anyone mad enough to conquer the Community Forest Path.”
All eligible Woodwoses have their names entered in the Forestal Book of the Honourable Order of Woodwoses.
The race is run twice a year, once in the winter and again in the summer. The weather isn’t the only difference in the two events; both are also run in opposite directions from each other. If you run both the summer and winter ultras, you get a snazzy belt buckle that reflects your overall time. This was extra motivation for me to attempt ‘The Double’ as it’s referred to.
To the start line
The race starts and finishes in the Ashton Park School, which provides easy parking and a dry place to register. After collecting my race number and timing bracelet, I found the holy grail of racing: a clean flushing toilet with no queue. The humourous race briefing helped temporarily ease my nerves, but the fear returned as we approached the start line. One of the official photos accurately captured this terror (below) so I guess I don’t hide my feelings well! There’s another one to add to my vast collection of awkward race photos.
My ‘I regret this’ face must have disappeared by the time we left Ashton Court and reached the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge. The council asked us to walk over this Bristol landmark since being trampled by ultra runners probably isn’t great for tourism. It was a nice break and I was feeling fresh. The morning was still cool despite the forecast calling for extreme heat.
Here comes the sun
The reasonable weather was sadly just a tease. The sun came out and slapped us all in the face around 10am (two hours in). Up to this point, I was idealistically running with the 9-hour ‘timelord’ (the name given to the course pacers), but lost them at a steep incline. The toughest parts of the course ended up being the long stretches of exposed fields and farmlands, despite those being the easier sections of the winter race. Fortunately the varied course terrain meant there were shady patches to save us from the relentless heat rays.
The rest of the race became just about surviving. There were times when even walking felt like swimming upstream in a dry river of sunshine. I made a mental note never to enter a desert race. Even the 9-hour pacer couldn’t keep up with a 9-hour pace – he ran it in 7.5 hours previously. It was not the day to push yourself and many who did became unwell. The aid stations started to resemble a battlefield hospital as the race went on.
Pop-up aid stations
What makes this event exceptional is the support from the local community. Helpful spectators are scattered along the course offering encouragement and refreshments. Since the Summer Green Man Ultra is relatively new and less populated than the original Winter event, I worried the support would equally diminish. Luckily I was wrong. I’m forever indebted to the incredible people who gave up their sunny, Bank Holiday Saturday to be there for us crazy ultra runners.
So many kind citizens spent their own money on water and treats, which was a godsend in the heat. A few memorable ones were:
- A man named Victor, who couldn’t run the race due to injury so he set up his own unofficial checkpoint with two friends about halfway. It had snacks, water, coke and shots of whiskey!
- A lovely woman named Vicky had a care station on the railway path with water, snacks and sunscreen. She even rubbed that sunscreen on my back for me!
- A nice man in a field in the middle of nowhere had ample bottles of cold water for us to drink and pour over our heads. This completely saved me.
- The race director of Ashton Court parkrun used the hose outside his house to shower us and had separate bowls for vegan and non-vegan sweets.
- The members of GoodGym running club (one of the clubs I run for) went above and beyond friend duty to help us out all over the course.
The final push
The last stretch after checkpoint 4 would have appeared to onlookers less like an ultramarathon and more like a zombie invasion. With glazed eyes and a weighted shuffle, most moved in a way that can only be described as ‘trudging’. You could tell people were really suffering. I latched on to a pair of runners, Andy and David, who I ran with on and off for most of the race. This really helped me get through the final 9 miles without succumbing to the army of the undead.
This was one of the more scenic sections of the course, with views overlooking the city. One of the guys pointed out the suspension bridge, which was now a tiny blip on the horizon. To think 9 or so hours ago we were crossing it put how far we ran in perspective.
As we approached the school grounds and made our descent to the finish, I had a spell of nausea. I told the guys to go on without me since I needed to walk for a bit, but they refused. They said we were now in this together and walked a few metres with me. I was touched since these were people who I never met before that day. Their kindness gave me the boost I needed to start running again and push through to the end.
A glorious ending
Finally, after 10 hours and 15 minutes, the arches of the finish line appeared. Andy’s young daughter came to join him for the last few metres and we all crossed together. They immediately gave us our top 50 finisher’s medal.
I thought top 100 would be tough to achieve so this was a pleasant surprise. You can then imagine my astonishment when they handed me a trophy for 5th female finisher. It turns out Green Man award trophies to the top 6 male and female finishers. I don’t think you will find someone who was more thrilled to come 5th in anything ever. It was genuinely one of the proudest moments of my life.
In addition to our medals, we all got official certificates stating our induction into the Honourable Order of Woodwoses and a technical t-shirt. The founder of the Green Man Challenge, Chris Bloor, was at the finish line writing our times on our certificates. They also had the winter race times of the 47 of us who were attempting the double, so I got my ‘sub 21’ belt buckle at the finish as well.
After a few pictures and a well-deserved sit, I took all my race bling into the school and headed to the cafeteria for my free post-race meal. This is another touch that makes the Green Man Ultra a great race, since food is so important for recovery. Runners are able to have a substantial hot meal without leaving the finish area. This is especially handy if you are waiting for others to finish. I enjoyed my vegetarian chilli (they also had a meat option), rice and bread while chatting and congratulating other runners around me. It was a perfect end to the day.
I loved the Green Man Ultra and would definitely run it again. This well-organised event makes a fantastic first ultramarathon and/or first self-navigated race.
In theory the Summer Green Man Ultra should be the easier of the two since the muddy sections have dried up, but I found it much tougher. This was largely due to the unexpected heatwave, but I also found the elevation of the clockwise route harder during the second half. However, I enjoyed training for the summer race significantly more than the winter one.
I recommend running with a timelord even if you are great at navigating, because they have valuable insight on the course and how best to pace it. It’s also nice to have the camaraderie of the other runners in the pacing group.
The Green Man Ultra isn’t the most scenic race out there (you run past a landfill at one point), but what it lacks in beauty it makes up for in community support. I don’t mean to say it’s an unattractive course, but there are lots of residential road bits connecting the forest path. If it’s as dry as it was this summer you could get away with road shoes.
I am proud to be a double Woodwose and incredibly grateful for all the volunteers who put so much effort into making it a great experience.