Sometimes you need a break, to refresh and rediscover your mojo, which seems to have been lost along the way somewhere. A sort-of-holiday that will remind you why its fun to run ultras, to push yourself harder than is sensible, and come out the other end feeling more energised rather than less. It doesn’t make much sense to suggest that by flogging yourself out on a trail for a weekend, you will end up feeling better than before you started, yet that is what happened.
Back in May I was lucky enough to complete the Monarchs Way, a 615 mile, 12 day, suffer-fest, and came out of it ‘a shadow of my former self’ (as described by a running friend). I did finish, but was physically and (more importantly) mentally trashed. Predictably, I couldn’t see it (despite my long suffering wife telling me) and tried to get back to running after 4 weeks, but simply couldn’t manage it with any consistency. After another few weeks off I was able to run, but didn’t enjoy it like I felt I should be, and certainly would rather stay on the sofa than get out the door.
Fast forward a few more months, the summer is ending, and I’m starting to get proper lardy (yup, still eating, but not working off the calories at all). Running is possible, but unbelievably slow (think 10m/m at full speed!) and simply too much like hard work. Things were not getting better, and I was genuinely thinking that my ultra-running adventures were coming to a slightly sad end.
I somehow got myself round the Richmond Marathon in mid-September, in what was for me a very respectable 4 hours 29, although the last hour consisted of me digging myself into a deep dark hole and simply refusing to stop running and walk. I came out of that feeling pretty invicible to be honest, and promptly went and injured myself trying to get some pace back into my running.
I’m quite used to running with a small degree of dull pain in various places, but this sharp pain in my left hamstring was something new and unpleasant, and followed me around for weeks. I tried a couple of runs with my club, the most excellent Thanet Roadrunners, but dragging a leg behind you while running is a dispiriting way to carry on amongst lots of healthy bouncing gazelle-like runners.
Meanwhile, I had to start thinking about a ludicrous ultra I’d entered almost 9 months previously, which would mean 36 hours chained to a good running mate:
Escape from Meriden (from Beyond Marathon Events) is a really novel type of ultra, where everyone starts from the supposed centre of Britain, a place called Meriden, near Coventry. Everyone follows their own route, with the aim of getting a far away ‘as the crow flies’ within a certain time limit. Hence route choice is vital – it’s surprisingly easy to cover large distances of linear miles without necessarily moving as many ‘crow’ miles. Most people do it a singles, but the sadistic Mark Cockbain, of Cockbain Events, adds in a ‘Chained’ category, where we had 36 hours but had to remain chained at the wrist for the duration.
Because all runners have a tracker, the final effect is loads of GPS traces heading out across the land…
As a single runner, the challenge is to make it 30 or 60 or 90 miles as the crow flies, within 24 hours. As a chained pair, we had 36 hours to pass the 60 mile perimeter, and then try to make it 130 linear miles to achieve one of the legendary ‘chained’ medals. We had little or no chance of that sort of distance, but wanted to make it to 60 ‘crow’ miles and then see how far we could get. One of the novelties of the race is that there is the option (if you wish) to run in convict-style orange boiler suits, which make the whole experience far more ridiculous and open to abuse by members of the public.
I had done the same event last year, but been cut loose after 75 miles when my partner had encountered some horrible blisters and I carried on by myself to reach Liverpool and 100 linear miles. This year I was back to see if I could do the same but remain chained this time!
I would be running with Mark, a really experienced ultra runner that I knew quite well. He was in really good shape, and I was frankly a bit of a wreck, and genuinely not sure whether I had the capability to keep moving for such a length of time. Mark was (as he kept reminding me) a few years older than me, but had completed huge numbers of marathons and ultras. To be fair, he hadn’t done so many of the long 100 mile plus races that I was more used to, but there was nothing about long distance running that he didn’t know. He and his wife Sharon had crewed me on Arc of Attrition and Thames Path (with another ultra runner, the youthful John, who currently is taking a few months rest) and so they knew my usual form of destruction. Mark had been on the end of the phone through some of the tougher patches of Monarchs Way, and had been hugely supportive toward the end when I was hurting.
We had a few meetings to discuss the route options, and agreed (thank goodness) that the overall distance was less important than actually having a bit of fun, so we would follow the Grand Union Canal from near the start towards London. This would be much less direct than a road route, due to the winding nature of a river/canal, but would be flat, picturesque, and I had a bit of knowledge of the path due to running it a number of times over the previous few years on the Grand Union Canal Race in 2014 and the Thames Ring 250. We planned on a 100 mile target in linear miles, about 75 miles ‘as the crow flies’, which would have us finishing about Kings Langley. Our race started at midnight Friday, and so would finish at noon on the Sunday…hence no sleep from early Friday morning to Sunday afternoon – probably 55 hours or so.
Sharon (Marks wife) kindly offered to crew for us, which is no mean feat for someone to navigate/feed/look after two tired runners, whilst keeping herself in one piece. Sharon is a no-nonsense supporter (frighteningly, rightfully nicknamed ‘Taser’, but obviously not to her face) – she will absolutely make a call for you to stop if there is a good medical reason for it, but otherwise will happily push you out into sub-zero temperatures with an extra pair of gloves and a Cornish pasty. However, her experience means she knows when to force you to eat and not to fret if you’re copiously sick all over the floor (as usually happens with me). As you can maybe tell, she’s a bit of a star.
Anyway, route decisions were made, and I was hearing noises that Mark was training hard, covering some good mileage before meeting up with club runs to carry on his training. I was still struggling to walk without pain, and was resorting to stretching (a sign of my desperation!) in the hope of some miracle fixing my leg. I was mentally looking forward to the challenge, but desperately didn’t want to let Mark down halfway. With 4 weeks to go we met for a chained night ‘run’ that I think I ran for about 3 or 4 half-mile sections before having to walk. Mark was very understanding, but we covered 23 miles in about 6 hours, most of it walking due to my leg not accepting that I was supposed to be a runner. Not good, although we found the chained aspect was surprisingly easy to get used to.
The race drew nearer, and I suspect that I would have bailed out if I hadn’t committed to taking part with Mark. My leg was finally starting to mend, and I managed a 4 mile run without stopping due to the pain in the preceding week. Unfortunately, it was going to be a long slog rather than a cheeky bouncing run, and I was thankful that Mark was understanding in this aspect. I didn’t appreciate until afterwards that he was actually quite worried about the whole ‘staying awake for 36 hours’ but he needn’t have worried as that was the least of our problems.
On the Friday in question, we set off for Meriden, checking the many flood warnings that the previous weeks torrential rains had set off.
It was all over the news that there were numerous road closures due to floods, and the race Facebook page was full of warnings to avoid any routes that went near rivers or canals as they would be impassable. As we had planned 80 miles of canal route this didn’t look promising. Mark and I had both packed 5 pairs of shoes and even more dry, clean socks so we could keep our feet in the best possible condition, but that wouldn’t help if our route was impossible to follow.
We had planned the first 20 miles of our route to be on road before joining the canal at Stockton Locks, to allow for as much quick running at the start as possible. As we got to Meriden quite early, we took the opportunity to drive the first 10, and understand the likelihood of flooding (very little, thankfully) and the possibility of having created a route that took us down fast ‘A’-roads with no pavements (also very little, thankfully).
After a hearty last meal in a nearby pub, we got to the race HQ in a bright Methodist church hall, and quickly found a corner to get changed, and faff with a bit of kit. Registration was quick and easy, and getting fitted with the chain was over in minutes. Mark Cockbain was being helped by Dave Fawkner, who I knew from the Thames Ring 250 in 2015, and they smilingly chained us together knowing the difficulties it would cause. There were quite a few chained pairs, and one triple (god help them) doing the race this year, and the whole church hall was full of orange boiler suited runners, excitedly waiting for a few minutes before midnight, and a slow walk to the starting point.
Mark Cockbain helpfully told us to be really careful when we said we were following a canal for most of our route, which didn’t instil confidence in our route choice. Everyone we chatted to, when we said we were following the Grand Union canal, repeated the Facebook message of ”don’t follow a river or canal due to floods”. It seemed we were making a mistake.
I had a couple of coffees and cheese rolls while the race briefing was going on, and as we left the hall just before midnight I felt my previous worries easing away, as there was nothing to do now but keep moving for as long as possible.
Mark seemed in good spirits too, it seemed he was itching to get started. It was gently raining and quite cold, but we knew that some decent movement would warm us up soon enough. One of the biggest issues of being chained at the wrist is that there was no option to put a jacket on or off, so waterproof ponchos were our only hope of staying dry if the rain increased. We both had fleecy blankets (with holes cut in the centre for our heads) to wear as ponchos if it got cold, but they were there as a last resort only.
Without too much fuss, someone shouted ‘go’ and simultaneously 200 orange-boiler-suited people shot off in different directions. Quite a bizarre start to a race.
Mark and I started gently (no surprise there!) and chatted to a few runners for the first 30 minutes, but soon were all on our own. One chained couple were heading for Winchester (near Southampton) which was a huge target I think, but unfortunately I’ve no idea if they made it.
We had planned for Sharon to meet us about every 10 miles or so, allowing us to access our kit frequently enough that we wouldn’t have to carry too much. I must point out the advantage that Sharon gave us over the unsupported runners, and they not only carried more than us, but also had to plan for places to eat and get water. We were able to simply plough on until the next point at which Sharon would meet us.
The first 10 miles passed quickly, although the rain that had been a small matter of drizzle at the start had become quite strong after about an hour. We passed a train station and discussed stopping to put on something more waterproof than our boiler-suites. At that stage the advantages of the boiler-suits were showing themselves – as well as keeping us warm they were repelling the water just as well as a soft-shell jacket. Obviously, they would not continue forever like this, but in the short term they were a huge advantage. I suspect we have all fallen for the marketing of the running apparel companies, whereas a paper jacket will offer some huge benefits (for a few hours) at a fraction of the cost. Luckily the rain stopped after an hour, and did not return for the rest of the run.
We passed through the quietest university I’ve ever seen at 1.30am on a Saturday morning, without even being heckled by drunk youths (I’ll admit to being slightly disappointed), and hit our first rendezvous with Sharon at Stoneleigh. It was 2am, and happily Sharon had not expected us until 2.30am so we caught her having a brief doze. It was a testament to her organisation that she had a hot drink in our hands within minutes, as we sat in the back seat of the car.
We were moving well, my leg decided to behave itself (for now at least) and the decision to start on easy road surface made our progress swift and painless. We left Sharon for the next 10 mile road section with a spring in our step and headed out into the dark night. Neither of us was feeling the usual low of the middle of the night, which was great, and we both knew that making good time on the road was our best chance of hitting our 36 hour target.
At the next rendezvous we knew we would be changing from road shoes to trail, as that was the point we would be starting on the Grand Union Canal. We had no idea what the trail would be like, as my recollection was a mixture of both narrow and wide trail, a bit of tarmac and lots of grassy surface. Basically a mixture of everything, but that could all change if the routes were flooded.
Sharon was in a pub car park at Stockton Locks when we arrived, again we had taken a little over 2 hours to cover the 10 miles, although I had been forced to walking for a fair proportion on the last few miles while my damn leg shouted at me. Mark was very patient though, and did not complain.
Sharon fed us tea (for Mark) and soup (for me) while we changed shoes and had some rolls. We both put on Sealskins waterproof socks in case of flooded paths and some heavy duty trail shoes. Without wanting to sound dramatic, running directly adjacent to the canal posed a very real risk of falling in, and trail shoes will give a small amount of traction on a muddy surface. As a single runner, the likelihood of falling in was relatively small, but chained together was far more difficult, especially if the path was narrow. And even more if one of the runners (me) had the worst balance due to a slight inner-ear issue. Put simply, I can’t stand on one foot without wobbling over. Make me run on some nice slippery mud near to a watery pit and I won’t last long without lurching in one direction or another.
Anyway, suitably kitted out and well fed again, we left Sharon and proceeded onto the canal-side for the first time. Both of us were nervous about what sort of trail we would find. Almost immediately we were overtaken by two single runners, and then by a chained pair who were easily recognised in their orange boiler suites. They had covered their chain in an orange wrap, that meant it did not flap about and clink quite so much. Both sets of runners were moving really quickly on the muddy trail, and were quickly out of sight. They must have joined the canal further up behind us and were quite used to the muddy trail, whereas Mark and I were gingerly choosing our steps with care. We would soon learn!
As they went past, the two chained runners (who we were to learn were called Chas and Dave) asked us where we were heading, as they planned to follow the canal as close to London as possible. We said we were hoping to follow it as far as Kings Langley (which was probably 20 miles short of London) but that we were just out for a bit of fun, rather than destroying ourselves in the process. I am quite a fan of canal running (hence the choice of route) but they said they were already finding it a bit depressing in the dark. Oh dear! However, they looked in great shape as they sped off into the distance.
The trail for the next ten miles was poor, being mainly very narrow muddy path. This meant single file movement, with the person in front having to trail their chained wrist behind them to give some slack to the poor bugger behind, who was having to extend their chained wrist and watch the floor in front for obstacles. It was slow and back-aching work. I generally went behind and got used to putting my chained wrist onto Marks shoulder so there was less danger of walking into him (and also steadied me from falling in the canal).
We were both thinking that if the next 80 miles of canal was like this we would be in trouble, as it was hard work to concentrate on just the few feet in front of you…nothing else mattered, as you simply couldn’t afford to trip. Luckily, we both later agreed this was the worst section of trail we encountered in the whole run, so we got it out of the way early.
Our next rendezvous with Sharon was at Braunston Marina, and we got there at about 7.30am thankful of the daylight.
Sharon had parked in a small carpark, just off the canal, and had a fabulous pan of sizzling bacon waiting for us. We had covered about 30 miles, relatively slowly, but had survived the first night and were happy with the new daylight. We were in good spirits, and had a bit of fun with a ‘slightly vague’ resident that ignored the whole car park, choosing to park in their usual spot directly adjacent to us. After she enquired what we were doing, she turned down our offer to chain up with us for a few miles, but wished us luck for the rest of the run.
We had more tea & soup, bacon rolls and generally felt like we could take on the world. The new daylight had given us a surge of energy (as it would the following day too) and we were quickly finished our admin and on our way. By this point we had also become accustomed to the chain, and were automatically only using our free hand for doing things, unless we forgot and gave the other person a good hard tug (oo-er missus!).
At this point, about 8am with a good long stretch of daylight ahead, we were in great spirits and making good time. As the day warmed up , I remembered why I loved canal running so much, with the tranquillity and beauty and simple stillness. Luckily Mark was in a similar place, and we ate up the miles chatting away about nothing in particular. It was easy.
Most of the trail after Braunston Marina had opened into wide grassy trail or path, so we were side by side for most of the time. When ever the trail narrowed, Mark would automatically move in front and I would move my hand to his shoulder so I could follow closely without the danger of careering into him. I imagine we looked like a bizarre couple. As is tradition with my long ultras, I found a handy ‘Gandalf’ stick to bring with me, and take some of the pressure off my back. It would also be useful to beat off drunks as we got closer to Milton Keynes.
Our next rendezvous was in a rather pleasant pub garden, at the Heart of England pub in Weedon. Although the pub wasn’t opened yet, we could see people inside watching as Sharon treated us to Danish pastries and a cafetiere of ground coffee.
Hopefully you’re getting the idea of how vital Sharon was to this run…definitely ‘most valuable player’.
Mark fetched his pole from the car and we set off without too much faffing. It was about noon, we had covered 40 miles and the day was warming up nicely. The canal started to get quite busy with dog walkers, and most people asked us what we were doing (and why!) which broke up the monotony quite a bit. Again, the trail was wide and easy, and we were making good time. We had spent about 12 hours covering only 40 miles, but the midnight start and chain made everything much slower than usual, and we were being careful to pace ourselves to cope with the full 36 hours.
Having said that, both of us were starting to suffer a little and I was very conscious that at noon we were only one third of the way through the event but I was careful not to say that out loud. Mark spent much of this leg feeling some real pain in his left foot, and debated whether to take his shoes off to look at the damage or wait until the next rendezvous when he would have clean socks to put on. I was beginning to feel the sleep-deprivation (about 30 hours so far), and started to fall asleep on my feet in the middle of the afternoon. I’ve had this a few times, and it’s the oddest feeling of entirely losing consciousness while still walking along. While still having my hand on Marks shoulder, as my head would drop I would automatically lurch away from the canal, pulling Mark with me, waking myself up and apologising to him for pulling us both into the adjacent hedge. After a few near misses, I asked Mark if I could have a few minutes sleep on the ground (while he sat patiently next to me) and sure enough, 7 minutes later I was fully awake and ready to go. Bizarre.
The next rendezvous was at the entrance to Blissworth Tunnel, and gave Mark a chance to get his shoes and socks off and see what damage he had done to his feet, which he had convinced himself were blistered to pieces. In fact, they were pink and healthy, and after he gave them a clean and a dry they looked in great shape, certainly not the feet that had carried him for 50 miles. He chose to change his socks for a clean dry set of waterproof socks and liners, but remaining in his trail shoes that, although wet through, were serving him well. I chose to stick with my existing combination as my feet felt battered but no real pain.
Sharon fed us well again, with tea and soup hitting the spot. Both Mark and I were eating snacks during each leg, but having a roll (or something) at the meeting point with Sharon. I was carrying soup in a flask with me, which I find keeps my stomach settled, while Mark was drinking gallons of electrolyte mixed with water. Both of us were feeling energetic and cheerful (so far) but definitely starting to get sore & achey.
While we sat with Sharon, Chas and Dave turned up, the runners that passed us shortly after we joined the canal at mile 20.
They had been making good time, but so far had been unsupported and had made a few diversions for food and water. One of them took the opportunity to remove a shoe and have a look at a blister, and generally sort themselves out a bit. They were suitably impressed with the support that #mvp Sharon was giving us and we all agreed that Sharon was a better wife than most, and clearly we had some work to do with our own wives to bring them up to scratch.
On that positive, but slightly libellous note, they set off ahead of us, onto a road section. It was about 2.30pm, and I was very aware that the next time we saw Sharon it would be getting dark, and that darkness would last for at least 13 or 14 hours, while our bodies would be crying out for sleep. This night would be the hardest part of the whole race, and the need for sleep by 2am on Sunday morning, having not slept since getting up Friday morning, would addle our brains and jeopardise our decision making skills. One of the best reasons for simple following a canal for as long as possible is that it is almost impossible to take a wrong turn, no matter how tired you are. However, the danger of falling in is magnified ten times, making life much more exciting.
After leaving Sharon, Mark and I faffed to make sure his Garmin was charging properly before it got dark, and Sharon zoomed ahead in the car, arriving at a turn off in time to point Chas and Dave the correct way. (She’s too good! I’d have sent them absolutely the wrong way).
We quickly passed through Stoke Bruerne, where they were holding a ‘floating market’, basically lots of canal boats selling tat (if you ask me). The multitude of public on the path seemed to be enjoying it though, and Mark and I wound our way through them causing much amusement. The other side of Stock Bruerne consisted of miles more canal, and darkness soon fell. I started feeling quite nauseus (quite usual for me) and started eating boiled sweets continuously to keep my blood sugar up.
As it got dark our conversation dried up, and we begun a night of a lot of long silences. We both knew that the next rendezvous was critical for getting some good hot food on board, so had asked Sharon to heat up some spaghetti Bolognese as well as hot water ready for our arrival. A small diversion brought us off the canal but we had planned to meet in an Asda car park that was just off the canal, thinking it would be a good place to top up supplies and possibly use a toilet, but disappointingly it didn’t have toilets so we just camped in a nearby car park for 10 minutes, in the dark. I changed my shoes and socks and ate pasta, while Mark kept his eyes out for doggers and drunks (there were a surprising amount of cars that drove in, saw us, and then drove straight out).
I was pleased to be able to eat a decent quantity of spag bol, as my nausea was pretty much a constant companion at that stage. In fact, I was feeling good, and ready to take on the long night section. Mark, unbeknownst to me, was not feeling quite so cheerful, and quietly asked Sharon to look at when we would likely be past the 60 mile perimeter ‘as the crow flies’ in case he needed to drop. He was beginning to feel the onset of the night ‘depressions’ that always hits as the body gently start to shut down ready for sleep. Not good.
I put on some music as we left, as it was a treat I had been looking forward to for the last 20 hours. It was quiet enough that I could still talk to Mark, but it gave me a bit of a boost.
We were back on the canal and moving quite well by about 7.30pm. A bit of mental maths said that we had covered about 60 miles so far, and we had slowed to a consistent 10 miles every 3 hours. 12 hours from now should put us at mile 90 at about 8am, without any stops…and we would need plenty of stops! That left us less than 4 hours to complete the last 10 miles if we wanted to cover 100 linear miles in the given 36 hours. It was slightly concerning at how little time we really had to finish what should have been a fairly easy distance in the long timescale.
The next 3 hour leg was rough. We got to the rendezvous at about 10.30pm, and we were in bad shape. The first hour had been fine, with coffee and hot food having the predictable positive effect. It was very dark and the path went from easy and wide at one moment, to being narrow and slippery the next. The freezing cold pitch black canal water beckoned to me to come in for a swim. I had graduated from resting a hand on Marks shoulder to hanging onto the handle at the top of his pack (between his shoulder blades). This was both easier to hang onto, and also slightly more central , hence less de-stabilising for Mark when I lurched left or right. It also gave me the added ability to pretend to hold him up when he slipped on the mud. Obviously, I had no chance of actually supporting him (by holding my left arm up at shoulder height) but it made me happy to feel like I was contributing to the partnership.
The second hour was a downward spiral into silence and depression. It was dark and we had a long night ahead of us. I couldn’t help think that it was not even midnight…we were still less than two thirds of the way through this monstrosity, and the hardest parts were to come. Oh god, this was going to last forever.
I do not remember anything about the last hour. Mark was in better shape than me, and did well to keep urging me on while I just wanted to lie down and sleep. I was back to my trick of falling asleep on my feet, and lurching away from the canal, destabilising both of us and putting us both at real risk of an early bath. The rendezvous seemed to be taking too long to arrive, and we were both checking our gps watches every few minutes to see the distance ticking away.
Just as I was admitting defeat and saying I needed to sleep on a convenient bench, we saw a torch waving in the distance from a bridge, and thank goodness Sharon had been found. There was no mucking about, both Mark and I slumped down and went to sleep. Although it was not even halfway through the night, the previous day had taken its toll and I think we had pushed hard to get as far as we had without any rest.
20 minutes later, I woke up feeling much better and refreshed, and Sharon woke Mark up shortly afterwards. We were in a residential street, where everything was well lit by a rather convenient streetlamp. It was chilly, but not too cold (that was to come later) and once we had some coffee inside us we both started to come back to life. I had some more hot spag bol, and Mark had cold rice pudding. Yes, that’s right, it was near midnight, he’d been awake for the last 41 hours (apart from the last 20 minutes) and all he wanted to eat was cold rice pudding. Yuk!
Sharon ran around us getting bits and pieces of kit from the back of the car, whilst keeping us entertained with stories of the sights she seen so far that night. I don’t think we were actually at the rendezvous point for very long, probably only 45 minutes or so including the sleep, but it helped me reset my brain for the rest of the night.
And onto the next 10 mile leg.
I’d like to say this one was better than the last, but in fact this leg signified the absolute lowest part of the whole run. As before, the first hour passed quite rapidly, we covered 3.4 miles which kept us on target for a 3 hour / 10 mile leg. We both tried to keep nibbling snacks during the night, if only to pass the time. The soup in my flask had gone lukewarm and was pretty gross. We went pass midnight, and the canal was deathly quiet and pitch black. We both had good head-torches on but they created a pool of light around us, rather than penetrating the dark to any depth. The canal was, predictably, identical for every mile apart from some of the trees and bushes lining the path changing. Every so often a hanging bramble would catch one of us, waking us up as the damn thing tugged hard at the boiler suit. It was getting cold, but our constant motion was generating enough heat to keep us warm – there was no chance of stopping though.
By the third hour the silence between us had descended again, and it was the lowest part of the night – about 1.30am. Our bodies were settling themselves ready for sleep and could not understand why, after 43 hours awake, we were not getting into bed. Mark was struggling more than me this time, and whereas I had battled with falling asleep, Mark was just ready to sit down and quit. Bizarrely, this rather brought me to life and I went a little hyper trying to keep Mark:
a. moving (“We’re nearly there”),
b. positive (“This is the absolute lowest point of the whole run, it can’t get any worse than this”) and
c. focussed on the end point (“The rendezvous after the next one will be in daylight, yay!”)
It must be said that Mark did amazing well through this, in the depths of depression as he was. The classic quote, which I shall spend the rest of his life reminding him, was when I’d said about nearly being at the next rendezvous, he said “I can’t really see the end”, in a small weak voice that perfectly summed up how desperate he was feeling. It was, indeed, the lowest point of the whole run.
Thankfully, somehow we made it to the next rendezvous, a dodgy lay-by in a place called Slapton, and Mark threw himself down to sleep. It was too cold (we found) to be outside the car, so we all got in and shut the doors to keep out the cold. The temperature display in the car said 2 degrees and at 2.15am it was bitter. We all fell asleep, Sharon included, and I woke almost an hour later to see Sharon in the driver’s seat, asleep, with her forehead on the steering wheel. Undoubtedly the most uncomfortable way to sleep I’ve ever seen. Sharon woke up when I started trying to move my stiff legs, and we bravely tried to wake Mark up. Both Mark and I were shivering and groggy, and Sharon made the ultimate sacrifice of getting out of a cold car into a freezing outside to make coffee. Predictably, with coffee warming us Mark and I slowly came back to life, but we were both stiff and cold.
I’m not going to lie here, I think Mark would have happily stopped at that point if I’d let him. He’d had a terrible last hour and I think was mentally counting the 10 hours he had left to continue and realising he simply didn’t want to carry on. I didn’t want to continue, but knew that just a few minutes of movement would warm us while dawn and daylight beckoned. Daylight, I knew, would change everything by bringing our tired brains back to life.
So I was pretty ‘no-nonsense’ with Mark, not really giving him the option to consider how much nicer his day would be if he dropped, but getting him to work out what kit he needed to be as warm as possible and getting him moving. Sharon had, rather cleverly, not put the car engine or heating on so it was not tropical temperatures in the car. I suspect if she had we’d still be sitting there now desperately trying to muster up the courage to get out of the car!
It was about 3.45am when we left the car, and the difference that the coffee and food had made to us in the last 30 minutes was amazing. It was freezing cold (the temperature display in the car dropped to 1.5 degrees in the end) but with some brisk movement (even some running by Mark) we were warmed and much happier. We were both very aware of how close we had been to dropping at the last rendezvous point, and once the coffee wore off we potentially would be back there again. Sharon had filled my flask with coffee rather than soup this time, and we agreed to share it after 90 minutes, which would hopefully be halfway through the 10 mile section.
It didn’t take long to get the first indications of dawn arriving, and I must have said ten times how it was going to change our thinking and bring about the final push to the end. I think I’ve done too many night events.
At a bridge up ahead, at about 6am, we saw someone in a orange boiler suit waving at us. It was Chas and Dave, shouting that they were done in and were getting a taxi to their hotel. B*stards. We still had 6 hours of hard graft to go, and the thought of getting into bed was a lovely one (although, not with Chas and Dave, I should point out).
At about 6.15am we stopped for coffee from the flask, but it was lukewarm and positively nasty. I managed 2 mouthfuls before passing it to Mark, who helpfully retched after drinking some nearly sending us both into the vomit zone.
We checked the tracker, and realise that Chas and Dave had dropped as we had just passed the 60 mile perimeter circle. Although we have travelled over 80 linear miles, we had only just passed 60 ‘crow’ miles, and that shows how our route choice was so vital. Although the canal was easy to navigate, very flat, safe from cars etc, it was undoubtedly not a direct route due to its winding nature, and we were paying the price for it’s lack of straightness.
However, the ‘chained’ challenge is about the furthest linear distance, once you have passed the 60 mile perimeter, so our target now was just to keep going. Dawn was making the surroundings look almost pleasant and we both started chatting again and behaving almost normally. I had resumed my normal position of moving along slightly behind Mark and holding onto his handle, and we kept up a good pace.
The path was generally good, apart from one memorable section that was completely washed out from one side to the next, and was too deep to just run through. In the end, despite gingerly walking around the mud at the edge of the small lake we both fell over a got a bit wet, although not as bad as it could have been.
This leg was turning out to be closer to 11.5 miles than our usual 10, but that didn’t matter as we were awake and cheerful, and Sharon had promised bacon (if possible) at the next 90 mile rendezvous.
At that point our whole world had shrunk down into 10 mile sections, lasting about 3 hours, and the thought of bacon was pretty damn exciting.
As we got to the pub car park, Sharon was waiting on a bridge up ahead, and it was great to see her in daylight. She said that someone from the pub had been cleaning and had come out to see what she was up to, and had switched on the patio heaters for us. So we not only had bacon, coffee, but sat under this tiny heater that did little except look nice. It didn’t matter, we were all in good spirits and fooling about, perhaps a little punch-drunk from coming out of the other side of a rough night.
Mark and I had gently talked about what we would do if we had time to spare once we got to the 100 mile mark, as he was adamant that we would stop as soon as the watch indicated we had covered the distance, whereas I was more keen to maximise our distance to the full 36 hours. Although we were both stiff and tired, I think it shows how cheerful we still were by being able to joke about that. At least, mostly joking, as I was dead serious about wanting to carry on until noon, and I know damn sure that Mark was serious about stopping at 100 miles. We were edging towards disagreeing about it (whilst eating lovely bacon rolls), when we both realised that actually we did not have too much time to waste, being at about 91 miles with 3.5 hours left. A simple navigation error or twisted ankle would cost us time we did not have, so in a bit of a panic we swiftly sorted kit and left the rendezvous point…then returned a minute later to collect the pole & stick we had left and a charging block for Marks garmin gps watch, which had been nominated as the official distance record.
Second time lucky, we set off again, with Mark wondering aloud what we would do if we did not make it to 100 miles before the 36 hour cutoff. We were properly panicked!
Although Mark was getting tired he was still moving well, and we made good time. I was being helped by the coffee and bacon at the last rendezvous and feeling pretty positive (although I did have to keep slowing to sort out its of kit, which was starting to annoy Mark).
Mark remained adamant that he would be stopping at 100 miles no matter how much time we had left, and I didn’t want to push it. Besides, I knew my Suunto gps watch was tracking about a mile ahead of him somehow, so if his watch stated 100 miles I knew mine would be slightly more. Mark asked quite a few times to see what distance my watch was showing (he also knew it was ahead of his) but I wouldn’t show him, stating that I thought the battery might have died.
The only thing I remember about this last section was a long stretch of canal that was holding a fishing competition and we tapped our way past numerous anglers with huge long poles blocking our way, and we just had filthy looks from them all. We were pretty bedraggled at that stage, and although most of the passers by said good morning, literally no-one asked us what we were up to, unlike the previous day.
And then, before we knew it, we had reached the final rendezvous point and walked up an adjacent slope to find Sharon parked at the top. Predictably, Marks’ watch only showed 99 miles, so we had a nice stroll through a local park, back through the park, again, round the park to try to make up the magic mileage. We had the bright idea of drawing a massive phallus for the benefit of the gps trace, but sadly the end result didn’t really look like what we wanted.
Mark’s watch finally (finally!) showed 100.1 miles, and we took some obligatory pictures in front of landmarks to show where we had got to.
I unveiled my watch, happily showing 101.6 miles (which is the Suunto distance, versus the measly Garmin 100.1 miles) and we had our final sit down by the car. Phew!
After that, it was a quick change out of muddy shoes and boiler suits, and a zoom to the hotel, with a quick stop at a garage for Cornish pasties and pork pies. What a relief!
And that’s it! 101.6 miles chained, wearing orange boiler suits, and a total of about 55 hours without proper sleep (I’m not including the two short dozes in the back of the car). After a shower and a couple of hours sleep in a comfy bed we hit the bar, and relived the whole event over dinner. Excellent.
It feels, with hindsight, like the whole weekend was an exercise in good planning really, from the route details to the meeting points with Sharon. Running while being chained together is actually not difficult if you both go at the same pace, but the usual admin required to travel a significant distance is made much harder while chained. It helped enormously that both Mark and I were fairly experienced so knew what to expect, and what to do. We decided, during the run, that the chain slowed everything, from travel to admin, by about 20% and we were lucky that we both felt the same lack of pressure to reach a huge mileage total. I think our relaxed approach also meant we enjoyed (?) the experience rather than stress over it. It was an unusual way to spend a weekend, but not unpleasant…although that could have been different if the weather had been unkind and the floods had been a problem, as they were for some.
And so, a few thanks:
First, and of course most importantly, the award for most valuable player goes to Sharon. As I’m sure you’ve worked out by now, she was the driving force behind what we achieved, and we would not have made it anywhere near as far without her supporting us. To everyone that went significant distances unsupported, congratulations, as that is tough. Sharon somehow coupled the difficult tasks of drviving, navigating and meeting us at the right places, with cooking, feeding, helping and most of all looking after us…all at the same time. And staying awake for days too. I don’t know how she did it.
Secondly, Mark, thanks for letting me borrow Sharon for the weekend…….and for being such decent company and patient while I slowly plodded along the canal. I’m chuffed to bits that we made it, which was not certain at all when we started (and was definitely unlikely at about 2am that morning). You were a huge source of knowledge when I first started ultra running a few years ago, and it’s been a pleasure to run with you this weekend. I hope your ankle feels better soon.
I should probably say thanks to Beyond Marathon events & Cockbain events for putting on a great ultra, but as all they did was strap a tracker onto us and push us out the door, I’m not sure they warrant it. It was great fun though and I heartily recommend their events.
I’d like to thank my wife Claire, who doesn’t read these reports apart from the last few paragraphs to see if she’s mentioned. Thanks for putting up with me being a bit wafty since Monarchs Way in May and thanks for letting us borrow your car, again. And happy 50th for next week.
And lastly, at this stage I normally thank my legs for putting up with another weekend of being trashed, but as the left one in particular has been such a bugger for months I’m going to skip past that, and say thanks to my feet, who didn’t destroy themselves like they did on Monarchs Way. Good work fellas. Until next time….