OK, this is the last wild camping on the Pennine Way I promise. This was Byrness to Kirk Yetholm (and back) camping in Hut 1 out & back. Fabulous time.
Alston to Byrness, taking in a memorable section of Hadrian’s Wall.
This was just a lovely excuse to get out on the trails for a few days, and try out my new sleep system of a tarp & bivvy bag rather than a tent which is slightly heavier to carry. Conclusion, yes tarp & bivvy is lighter, but bleedin’ cold and windy if you camp in the wrong spot (which I did). Still beautiful though.
In the covid-ravaged 2020, with every race cancelled or postponed, it was an easy decision to combine taking my son to a northern university with snatching a few days recceing a section of the Spine race, which I hope to do in January 2021 (if it’s also not cancelled!)
It was an even easier decision when deciding which section to recce, as the website describes the Middleton to Alston chunk as the hardest! It covers 40 miles, with a healthy amount of ascent, and best of all… it goes over Cross Fell, 1084 metres high and usually foul weather, before going past Greg’s Hut, one of the icons of the whole race.
I would wild camp depending on where I got to each day, and planned to camp at Middleton on Monday night, start Tuesday, finish Wednesday, and get public transport back to the car late Wednesday or early Thursday, and drive home Thirsty In total, 3 nights camping, 2 days on the trail…. sounded perfect!
…. and it was. Memorable views of High Force, Caldron Snout, High Cup Nick, Dufton (for lunch), of course Cross Fell & Greg’s Hut, then Garogill and home. A really good few days.
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….
Ok, you asked for it! These are not the worst you can find on the internet, but they are MY feet and the pain was bloody horrendous by the end. The full race report is here.
These are in chronological order….so you can see the deterioration:
Before I start this, I suggest you read my race report from Monarchs Way 2019 first, as it will give you a bit of background and insight into how I found it and what I went through. Obviously, any tactic I suggest is tailored to my slow, back-of-the-pack style of running – if you’re quick then a lot of this probably won’t be for you.
I’ve split my advice into 3 areas…physical, mental, and kit.
Good news! This race isn’t about being able to run a sub-3 hour marathon, a sub-20 hour 100 miler, or a 15 minute park run. In fact, while I think a good pace for the first 50 miles is critical to create a buffer against the cut-offs, after that you can probably get by with a strong fast-hike (and not much sleep).
As always, the starting point of the pace requirements starts with the numbers. I created a spreadsheet for the 2018 runners to show their paces across the various leg, versus the cut-offs. This showed fairly clearly that the three finishers were not the fastest, but the most consistent. Everyone lost time on the two long legs (8 & 9) because they were out there for so long, but the buffer that had been built up was adequate to allow a finish. This is the link to my spreadsheet: HERE and although it may take a little time to understand the various tabs along the bottom, it should hopefully be fairly self-explanatory. You will also see my planned timings for the 2019 race, and the actual timings for all the finishers. (Its a pretty sizeable file, so may take a while to load).
So, physically, you don’t have to be a beast to finish the Monarchs Way (unless you want to win), however, that does not mean it is easy. In fact, I would say that more important than huge levels of running fitness is experience. If you have completed one or two 100 milers, and think you are ready for a crack at Monarchs Way…you’re not. That is not to say you definitely won’t finish, but the odds are against you. I would politely suggest that the next step up from a 100 mile run is to a 200-250 mile race (such as Thames Ring 250), which will give you 3-4 days on your feet on a safe (easier) route, and will give you a taste of the sleep-deprivation you can expect. Foot problems will likely rear their head on a 250 mile race, as well as some dodgy weather, which will all be good practice. A few races in January will give you confidence in poor conditions, as well as spending a lot of time in the dark! Obviously, moving at night is an integral part of the Monarchs Way, so familiarity and confidence no matter how lost you feel is really critical (as well as being able to bivvy out (sleep out) if required).
On the surface, travelling 45ish miles each day and sleeping at the checkpoint every night sounds easy…you need to trust me that its not that simple. The ability to fast-hike (i.e. walk) at 3 or 4 mph for 18 hours is an acquired one, a bit like running I suppose, so takes time and training. The training will toughen your legs and feet to resist the stiffness and damage that will inevitably settle into them. Being able to run well does not automatically mean you can fast-hike (and vice-versa).
Foot care, as you will have seen form my race report, is an acquired knowledge…buy a book and read it! I’m not convinced you can always avoid foot deterioration, but you can definitely treat it.
I’m quite dismissive about the physical side of the race to be honest, I think that if you have bashed out a few long races in tough conditions, then you have a rough idea of what to expect. But you need to trust me when I say that one Centurian 100 miler does not (physically) qualify you to finish this race.
How much do you want to finish? What is your motivation for being there? What is your ‘why’?
I can guarantee that at some point in the Monarchs Way, over the 12 to 14 days it will take you, something will go wrong that will give you real motivation for wanting to stop. You will experience a low that is unlike anything you have experienced before. What will take you past that?
I can tell you about the time I learned that I can put up with serious discomfort, during a race I did in January 2017, called the Arc of Attrition. It is a fairly simple 100 miler, but follows the South West Coastal Path, and has enormous amounts of descending down into coves and bays, and then climbing back up on the other side. I had covered 70 miles, reached the last checkpoint in 20 hours, with about 30 minutes to spare. I was absolutely shattered, stomach issues preventing me from eating anything for fuel, and I was totally understanding how much the next 30 miles were going to drain me. I had a brilliant crew and was running with my running wife John (who had waited an hour for me to arrive at the checkpoint) which made the whole experience easier, but as I left the checkpoint, I had to tell myself that I could put up with any amount of discomfort for the next 10 hours / 30 miles. And I did.
So it was a simple extension of this to reach the point in the Monarchs Way where I told myself I could put up with any amount of discomfort for the next 5 days. But I do not know whether I would have reached that conclusion without putting myself through some rough experiences in the past.
The reason most ultra runners enjoy putting themselves up against a challenge is because modern life is (relatively) easy much of the time. There are complications and ‘boring’ stuff like morgages to deal with, but provided that everyone around you is healthy, a lot of modern-day living does not put you in a place where you have to decide between going forward and retreating. An ultra, done well, allows this to happen.
If you have mastered the above mental challenge, the rest is easy!
Can you be self-sufficient for long stretches on your own? The checkpoints are 45 miles apart, so you will be on your own for over 12 hours (at the start), up to 24 hours by the end. The are some shops and villages along each leg, but not as many as you will need. Personally, I love the solitude, both in the day and at night, which is something of a help. The more you carry, the slower you will go, so a light pack is essential…but running out of water and food is not really an option, so you need to know yourself well enough to judge what you require.
A flexible approach to your race sounds like an obvious statement, but I frequently come across people that tell me exactly when they will be eating/sleeping and they struggle to change their plans when things go south (and things always go wrong). Mending something on the move sounds obvious, but making sure you have the necessary parts is much harder. For example, I always used to put a few strips of duct tape onto walking poles, to distinguish them from other peoples…until I broke one and used the tape to fix it. Every since, I’ve always had some strips of duct tape on my poles for this or any other purpose. Being able to problem-solve is a really useful attribute.
The mental approach to the distance is also (I found) critical. It is easy to say “don’t think of the whole distance, just a leg at a time” but rather harder to do it in practice. However, you will be out on the trail for days, so some kind of ‘distance’ strategy is required.
Planning ahead, knowing where your next village or shop is, will be hugely useful. I spent a few hours going over the route on google maps looking for signs of civilisation, and being able to look forward to a meal in a few hours time is hugely motivating. Similarly, churches usually have an outside tap for water when shops are closed.
Recce any sections that you can, as it will give you an advantage on the day. I would say the two long sections would be most useful to know beforehand, but others will probably disagree with that. I did not get the chance to recce at all, so it is not critical.
Have a good list of what you need to do when you get to the checkpoint, as it will serve you well when your brain has turned to mush. It does not need to be huge, but if it lists all the important stuff it will give you confidence that you have not forgotten anything. Mine included:
MW Checkpoint checklist
Shoes & socks off. Wipe down feet. Dry.
Newspaper into shoes.
New batteries? Replen spare batteries?
Lie out bivvy to dry?
Get rid of rubbish.
New charging block.
Put stuff onto charge. Headtorch, watch, phone, blocks.
Wipe down all over.
Fill water. Fill flask.
Scrape feet. Vaseline. Socks & shoes. Gaiters.
News shorts? Long trousers? New top?
Clean buff. Hat. Gloves. Warm hat & gloves?
I could go on about the mental preparations for the Monarchs Way, as I think it is the most important factor (as for most ultras) but I won’t.
Shoes – at least 4 pairs, as it will take days for them to dry out from the dew on the long grass in the mornings. I used innov-8 roclite 325’s (boots), but learnt that they are not padded enough underneath after 6 or 7 days hence some of my foot pain. Most other runners had hoka’s or similar. I put newspaper into my shoes while they were drying, which was simple but seemed to work well.
Socks- whatever is your preference. I used Injinji liner toe socks, and then a normal pair on top (usually More Miles crew socks). For the waterproof socks I always use Sealskinz, but there is a variety of different makes that others swear by too.
Gaiters – my hardcore set are Berghaus goretex gaiters, and are made for winter races. However, they stopped anything whatsoever getting into my shoes and were also semi-waterproof.
Long hiking trousers – Montane terra trousers did me really well. Quick drying but great protection for the legs in long shrubbery.
Waterproofs – Berghaus deluge trousers, and Mountain Equipment Rupal jacket. The trousers are great because due to a long zip up the side you can put them on over your shoes. The jacket is simply bomb-proof and has got me through some serious weather. I started off carrying a thin lightweight Gravitas jacket by Alpkit, which would keep me warm and reasonably dry, but as time went on and I got slower, I changed to the hardshell as warmth would become critical.
Something on your head for hot & wet weather.
Poles – I have a nice pair of mountain king poles, but for Monarchs Way I wanted something with really comfortable handles…hence I used a pair of cheap (but heavy) poles by Trekrite from Amazon…a bargain at only twenty pounds.
Charging blocks – I managed to keep my gps watch, phone, and head torch all charged throughout the event, using charging blocks that would themselves be recharged periodically by Lindley. I used ones at 20,000mAh, which would contain about 5 full charges for my phone before dying. I would carry one with me, and have one being charged by Lindley throughout. I believe Anker ones are the best, but I just used cheap ones from Amazon.
Food – it really doesn’t matter, as long as you know you will enjoy it after days and days of eating it. As I learned, there’s only so many days you can eat the same thing. Take more than you think you will need, as the checkpoint food is great but limited.
GPS – everyone seemed to have Garmin Etrex 30 or 64. Get used to using it beforehand (they can be quite tricky), especially zooming in and out to make sense of the GRX track you are following. Do not try to use your phone or a watch (or a map, unless far more talented than me) as it won’t work!
Headtorch – I used a Petzl nao+, but anything with a decent amount of lumens will work. And carry a spare!
Bivvy – as part of the mandatory kit, a bivvy bag was one of the heavier bits of kit. I had an Alpkit Hunka bag with me, but did not actually use it, as it was not cold enough or wet enough to need it. It was reassuring to have it with me though.
Is that Brighton in the distance? I can see lights, and that definitely looks like the sea…I’m much too far away to see the pier, but it’s a big enough town to look like I may be getting near Brighton. And that would mean I may be getting near the end of the longest race I’ve ever done. At 615 miles, it is the longest race I’ll ever do.
I’ve been on the move since Saturday 18th May. Today is Thursday 30th May, about 6pm. I’ve slept (briefly) in a tent or on the trail along the way. I’ve eaten (quickly) everything I could find along the way, pubs, cafes, burger vans. I’ve showered twice. I’ve gone to the toilet everywhere.
Mentally, I’m very tired. Physically, everything above the ankle is uncomfortable but manageable…below the ankle, my feet are trashed – blisters, raw wet patches, pain that seems to have no source…everything below my right ankle is a massive, show-stopping problem, and my left foot is not much better.
I’m coming to the end of the longest ultra of my life, but I’ve still got 18 miles to go, so I stop admiring the view, and get moving.
The Monarchs way ultra, a 615 mile non-stop race, is a fairly unusual thing. It follows the route of Charles 2nd escaping the armies of Cromwell, and twists and circles around West England, before hitting the coast briefly at Charmouth, and then following the South Downs past Southampton and Portsmouth towards Brighton, finally finishing in Shoreham.
It takes in some astonishingly beautiful areas of the country, puts you on trails that you feel have not seen another human for years, and takes in the occasional town or village. It shows you the countryside at its best, and allows you to view the horizon in the morning, knowing full well that by the afternoon you will be standing somewhere on that horizon, looking back at where you started. It is amazing.
It also takes you through some jungle…some of the most overgrown trails you will find, that you are not even entirely sure are trails except that the signpost and GPS track takes you this way. A huge dense hedge on either side (subtly hiding the barbed wire fence running through the middle), forming a canopy overhead, and a trail heading through the middle, framed with tall nettles and brambles that leave just enough space to squeeze through (or not). A fallen tree across the trail halfway that requires some climbing, as there is no going around it, and an exit that takes you out into the sunshine of an open field. Amazing.
It’s not an ultra, in the traditional sense, but more of an expedition. One that tests your mental and physical resilience in a way that a standard 100 mile run does not come even close. It asks you to repeat your experiences of yesterday, and the day before, while slowly deteriorating a little each day, until the logical conclusion of reaching the end, hopefully before reaching the point of needing to stop, rest and recover.
Who could resist that?
A commitment to this race would require some sacrifice. A fortnight off work takes a healthy chunk out of my holiday allowance (meaning less time with my family). The entrance fee is not cheap, although I consider it fairly reasonable for the experience it gives. The kit required is extensive and varied, and bloody expensive. The time to train would be significant, if taken seriously (so….not too much in my case then.)
However, an opportunity to challenge myself on an ultra that until 2018 had had no finishers was too much of a temptation.
The race was first run in 2016, with 3 very very experienced entrants…no finishers.
Then 2017, 3 more experienced runners….no finishers. I followed the runners with their trackers online obsessively.
Suddenly, 2018…10 entrants…lots of foot problems….3 finishers. I couldn’t believe how long the runners were out there, on the trail. Every time I logged on to see where they were, I would try to imagine what it must be like to keep that sort of effort going for days and days. 2 weeks is an eternity when lying on a sunny beach. Imagine how long it must feel when being on your feet for 20 hours a day.
So, having watched the race for the last few years, I tantalised myself with the thought of entering…how ridiculous that would be, as I clearly had no genuine chance of finishing. In April 2018 I booked the time off work ‘just in case’ I fancied the 2019 race, and politely suggested to my long-suffering wife that I may have a race I’d attempt in 2019. We had a week’s holiday in March 2019 for our 20th wedding anniversary, and I promised myself that I wouldn’t make my mind up until that was over. End of March, I entered…oh dear.
I suppose I should give a quick run-down of my experience & calibre so you know who you’re dealing with. With no previous experience, I started running in 2008 and did the London Marathon, and graduated to ultras in 2014 with the Grand Union Canal Race. I’ve been lucky enough to do a few fairly iconic (i.e. difficult) ultras since then including Thames Ring 250, Arc of Attrition, Spine Challenger, and various 100 milers. I have absolutely minimal running ability, being neither fast, quick nor agile. For example, I completed the alpine-style Ultra-Trail Snowdonia (UTS50) in 2018 and took an appalling 26 hours to complete the 50 mile course (without question, my most “Kill me now” experience). Click on the race names to read the race reports for each of these, but they’re not pretty or exciting.
I’ve also DNF’s (did-not-finish) a reasonable number of races too including Lakeland 100 (too hilly, but I loved the LL50), and Winter Viking Way (too slow). But I’m happy to say I learned as much from my bad races as my good ones, and saw them as part of the game.
However, what I do have to my credit is a certain stubbornness to keep going, to finish what I’ve started. I’m physically a bit of a wimp (I’ve got the arms of a Somalian pirate), but I enjoy running which means I’m happy to spend a lot of time just gently ambling through hours of trail or road. I don’t run quickly, do speed work or hill work, or really anything that requires effort, but I’ll happily get up at 4am on a Sunday to fit in 5 or 6 hours of running along the pancake flat promenade in Kent where I live. It’s a great hobby.
And I think it’s healthy to challenge yourself to something bigger and better than last year, something to push the experience and mind a little further than you’ve done before…which brought me to a 615 mile ultra (naturally!).
We would have a checkpoint every 45 miles or so, to eat and sleep (if we wanted) and have access to our drop-bags. That meant carrying everything we needed for at least 12 hours (at the start) to 24 hours (near the end). We could visit shops and pubs, thank goodness, but no crew was allowed to meet and feed us. It was very much a solo effort.
Having entered the race, and having given myself a healthy 6 weeks to get to the start line, I took a holistic approach to the training plan. I started taking vitamins, reduced my alcohol consumption to just 1 day per week (not that I drunk less, just binged a much as possible on that single day) and slept less and ran more.
The sleep factor was important, as I would spend most of the fortnight event being short on sleep and it seemed logical to get my body used to the effect. Hence I reduced a typical night’s sleep to about 6 or 7 hours, and got used to getting up at dawn to run for a couple of hours before work. It doesn’t sound like much, but I found I adjusted surprisingly well and it served me well during the race.
Although I did run a lot in April (322 miles to be exact), they were all slow easy miles that focused me on the ‘slow and steady’ target. I spent huge amounts of time on these runs considering literally everything that could (and would) go wrong and what I could do to overcome it. It sounds slightly obsessive, but I’d get home after a run, and write down (for example) that I needed to take a tiny sewing kit with me in case something on my rucksack came loose (which it did!) and needed mending. Over the course of 6 weeks, I was prepared for most things, and had also invited 7 very experienced ultra-running buddies to a group on social media that would be able to give me advice on any running problems I experienced that I wanted advice on (I imaginatively called the group “Bob’s running problems”…but more of them later). I spent these 6 weeks making sure I had backups to every important piece of kit (spare GPS device, two spare head-torches, 4 pairs of shoes, numerous pairs of socks, spare headphones, warm weather kit, cold weather kit, very cold weather kit, wet weather kit, sleeping kit, cooking kit, food….more food than I could ever eat, and on and on. ) I suppose my logic was that I could DNF through my own physical failings, but not through some daft mechanical “I’ve got cold” problem.
With about 2 weeks to go, I stopped running and started fast hiking through some rough local trails, with my dog and a fully laden pack, to get my head round what most of the race would feel like. I have to say that I had been quite calm until that point, but for some reason that activity brought everything home to me (specifically, on the evening of Friday 11th May) and I spent the next 7 days in a state of absolute fear at what I was putting myself in for. Hiking is slow when compared to running, and your brain starts to play tricks when you begin to consider how far 600 miles really is.
I was able to hand over one of my two drop-bags to Lindley, race director, the week before the race as I was getting the train to the start line, and he spent a happy hour unintentionally terrifying me on the challenges I faced. I had not realised that two of the three finishers from last year were ‘sponsored athletes’ (i.e. got free merchandise from outdoors companies to wear at events = good runners!) and that the third finisher had bent the rules slightly by staying in hotels for two good sleeps (a loophole closed for 2019!). Lindley emphasised that the race was more of a multi-day challenge than a single-stage ultra, meaning that sleeping/eating and personal administration were just as important as the time on your feet covering ground. God help me, with my total of zero experience in multi-day events.
So, with a slightly wobbly mindset, I left work promptly on Friday afternoon and rushed to catch a train to get me to Worcester in time for a “last meal” for all the runners at a Premier Inn.
It’s probably about time I introduced the other runners, as they all have a part to play in my story:
Lindley Chambers – Race director. Yes, ok, not a runner in the race, but a larger than life character who had brought this race (and a number others) to life. I’d done the Thames Ring 250 race in 2015 (DNF) and 2017 (finished!) so knew Lindley reasonably well. Lindley has a habit of speaking his mind on Facebook which means he comes across quite different when you meet him in person. He has a gigantic beard and wears sandals and shorts in sub-zero arctic conditions.
Maxine – Lindley’s better half. What can I say, she spent most of my race feeding me and trying to hold my feet together with sticky tape.
Lindleys truck – yes, this was the truck.
The runners, in alphabetical order…
Ellen Cottom – well known, “hard-as-nails” ultra runner. She’s done more ultras than I’ve had hot dinners, and is apparently indestructible. She was one of the runners that did not finish this race in 2018, so was back for revenge. Fun fact: at the start line, she pulled out a small (but very sharp and pointy) knife that she would be using if she got any grief on the more populated parts of the route. She was able to quote the UK law regarding carrying personal knives if used for camping etc. Excellent.
John Stocker – very fast runner. In 2017, he won the Thames Ring 250 in 58 hours (I took a sloth-like 80 hours). He’s very driven, very competitive, has a race calendar for the rest of the year that includes another two or three more-than-200 miles races. He’s an extremely tough runner, who was returning after DNF’ing this race last year (due to bad feet, which must have been really bad).
Jon Rowles – I’d met Jon a couple of times before at races. He was a good middle-of-the-pack runner (whereas as I am nearer the back, in that respect) but struggled when confronted with lack of sleep. He was also returning after not finishing last year.
Peter Bengtsson – the Swedish joker! Peter was a lovely guy, a very experienced runner that had come over from Sweden for the race and seemed to take the whole experience in his easy-going manner. Nothing seemed to phase him. He was also returning from DNF’ing last year.
The three ‘virgins’ that were new to the race:
Tony Hewett – a lovely guy. I only got to speak to Tony briefly, even though I sat next to him at the meal, but his eyes were sparkling with adventure and he was clearly looking forward to getting stuck in (on the other hand, I was struggling to string two words together). He was a school teacher (I think).
Victoria Ownes – I thought it was great that she brought her whole family to the meal (I hadn’t even invited my wife, which everyone else had done (their wives, not mine, obviously)) and she was quite lively company at the meal. I had Facebook stalked her a little, so I knew she had done quite a few decent ultras.
Me – oh dear. Oh dear.
So Lindley did a quick race briefing that I remember very little of apart from the animated discussion about whether one particular loop on the route should be attempted “anti-clockwise” (-Lindley) or “counter-clockwise” (-Ellen, did I mention she is American? Very American? No? I should have then. ) I don’t remember who won the anti/counter conversation. It’s probably not important.
Race briefing swiftly dealt with, it was onto the meal. Perhaps I’m being unkind, but there were about 15 of us there, and the time it took us to get our meals seemed to be all out of proportion to the length of time it would take to chuck a few things in a microwave and pour a sauce over the top. Lindley and John Stocker kept us amused with race stories and photos though, so the time passed quickly.
At the end of the meal, I retrieved my drop bag from Lindley and took it up to my room, for a final sort and re-pack. One of the lessons I’ve learnt is being able to locate things during races quickly, as there is nothing more frustrating than trying to find a pack of wet wipes that you know is there, but you cannot find anywhere. All my kit was in plastic bags, separated by type, and in some kind of logical order (to me).
I slept reasonably well, and was down first to abuse the all-you-can-eat breakfast. I even got away with 6 sausages in a napkin to put in one of my drop-bags for a later stage. Magic!
My race pack was deliberately light for the first leg of 47 miles, as this would be where I would be working hard, moving quickly and banking as much time versus the cut-offs. Did I mention the cut-offs? No? I will put the detail into an additional section at the end, but simply put, each 45 miles checkpoint had its own timed cut-off, to prevent people slowing to a crawl. The time allowed for each leg were quite consistent, and quite generous at first, but once sleep deprivation kicks in and the pace slows then the cut-offs would become a real problem. In 2017, two of the front runners were 20 hours ahead of the cut-offs by half way, and still got timed out before the end.
So, my strategy was quite simple. I would move as fast as possible, with as little sleep as possible for the first 4 legs (approx 190 miles). This time saved would be my buffer against the cut-offs and if I managed the pace I wanted, with just 6 hours sleep, I would be 35 hours ahead of the cut-off (34 hours 58 minutes to be exact!). Then, if I could maintain a good pace (but slower, and with more sleep) for the next 4 legs, I would hit the 8th checkpoint in good shape, with only a small erosion to this buffer. Then, legs 9 to 14 I could (and would) lose all this time as I slowed to a virtual stumble, with my body gently falling to pieces. This plan was the best I could come up with, and based on my experience I was pretty confident on my abilities to keep the pace up once the buffer was in place, but the challenge would be to get to that 4th checkpoint quickly enough.
At the starting line, it was clear there was a different approach to the first leg. A few of the returning runners were in long trousers, clearly protecting their legs against rough trail. Ellen and Peter had gaiters, Ellen’s being up to her knees. She meant business!
I was in running shorts, clearly not understanding how much my legs were going to get scratched and beaten on the first leg, but I did have some short gaiters to keep sticks and stones out of my shoes.
There was much discussion (and laughter) at the various weights of everyone’s pack at the start, with mine being much ridiculed for being the lightest (it was, but I more than made up for it later) and, I think, John Stockers being the heaviest, or perhaps Vic’s.
To be fair, all I had for the first leg was the various bits of mandatory kit I needed (waterproofs etc) and a few cheese rolls & tins of mackerel. I carried a little water, perhaps 500 ml, but I generally tend not to drink too much when running. In comparison John Stocker was carrying 2 litres of water and plenty of other stuff too. I felt properly under-dressed
Lindley fixed trackers to everyone’s pack, which would allow the internet stalkers to track our dots over the next two weeks and the next 615 miles.
We had the obligatory line-up holding the various Monarchs way signs, and then without much fanfare, we were off.
Leg 1…..47 miles….started 10:00 Sat, arrived at CP1 approx 19:30 Sat……(Mileage 0-47)
John Stocker immediately zoomed off into the distance, in a cloud of dust, and I opted to fall in behind Ellen and Peter, thinking rightly that they would know the route for the first few miles so I would not need to worry about navigation while I got settled into a rhythm. The whole route was marked with signs, but these were relatively few & far between, and more useful as confirmation of the correct route rather than actual navigation.
We all had GPS devices, usually a Garmin Etrex 30 (mine) or Garmin 64. These would show a route to follow on top of a rudimentary map, on a screen about an inch wide. To be clear, these were not huge smart phones that would guide you, turn-by-turn every step of the way, but a small, dim screen, a pink line (the route) a blue arrow (you) and a need to look at it every minute or so to ensure you had not missed a turn.
It was thick grass around the edge of fields at the start, and as we came to the first clumps of nettles I felt bad for Vic who was probably going to suffer a bit as I had been told she started running barefoot. Apparently she changed to sandals quite soon, but must still have had to work hard to persevere through the rough trail.
I was moving well, enjoying the fact of being moving at last, and passed Ellen as she stopped to fiddle with her pack. I caught Peter, and had a pleasant chat with him while we navigated a town. He was working a 50 minute running / 10 minutes walking system, so the next time he started walking I left him behind, and pushed on by myself…in second place!
It was not long before the town was left behind and I came to my first rapeseed field. This was (if you don’t know) a large field, filled with shoulder-high blossoming rapeseed, absolutely saturated with water from rainfall the previous night. The GPS track clearly showed the route going straight through the middle, and there was no obvious clear route I could see…so I took a quick look around the edge hoping for a cleared track, and when it was obvious it did not exist, I simply pushed my way through. It was suddenly clear why the returning runners from last year were wearing long trousers, as my legs were being scratched to pieces, meanwhile everything I had on was being soaked. The field probably only took 10 minutes or so to push through (and was one of 4 or 5 that day) but it was quite an experience! As I came to more of the fields, it became clear the trick was to follow a slightly clearer route that one of the tractor tyres had taken, so the rapeseed was slightly less thick, but it was still very challenging.
Slightly easier to negotiate were the field of wheat, only knee high, but still soaking wet.
Quite often the farmer had cleared a route through so it was much more pleasant to traverse.
Despite the challenges, I was enjoying myself enormously and running really comfortably, and in fact I passed John Stocker at some point of the morning. To be fair, I think he was running conservatively (and I wasn’t) and he encouraged me as I went past him…top bloke! It was never going to last long, but it was fun while it lasted.
We started hitting patches of forest between fields, where there were yet more patches of nettles. In all the days of running, I never discovered what the point of nettles was…they just seem to exist to be a bloody pain to everyone. They are the wasps of the plant kingdom, and serve no purpose. When I’m commander of the entire earth, I shall command everyone to wipe nettles from existence and then go barefoot through the countryside enjoying themselves (without worrying about nettles).
After about 20 miles, I hit a village and stopped into the first pub I saw to get a can of something fizzy. I found that a quick stop and ‘pick-me-up’ did wonders for my morale as well as the sugar giving me a boost. John Stocker caught me up as I came out of the pub, and Lindley and Maxine had also met us here, so we had a good moan about the rapeseed fields.
At about 30 miles I was beginning to slow a little, and getting a bit of nausea. For those unaccustomed to my usual running problems, I start to feel nauseas at about mile 35-40 of an ultra, I’m then copiously sick at about mile 50, eat nothing for hours / days, and then suddenly (24 hours later) my stomach wakes up and wants to eat the whole world. I’ve given up trying to fight it, and just accept that the exhaustion I feel when I cannot eat is part of the fun, and I should just get on with it.
I slowed a bit more, and found myself a long staff / stick to walk with and keep me company. Moving with a stick is something I’ve done on a few ultras, and I find it helps me keep up a good pace while allowing me to hold my back straight. I stopped to get a can of coke to hopefully settle my stomach a bit (no chance) and sat to drink it and consider my poorly stomach. When I set off, I realised I’d forgotten my stick so tracked back to retrieve it (only 20 metres or so) but at that moment John Stocker zoomed past me again to regain the lead. And that is the story of the epic few hours I was in the lead in an ultra.
The rest of this leg was pretty uneventful, I really loved the trail we were on, the isolation I felt and although I couldn’t eat I was still moving smoothly. The only hiccup I found was that I had somehow cocked up by downloading the 2018 GPS tracks rather than 2019, and so I had created problems for myself because checkpoint 1 had moved further up the trail. Luckily I managed to sort myself out and Lindley expertly re-loaded my GPS with the correct tracks at the checkpoint. Phew!
Checkpoint 1 was one of the few checkpoints that would be indoors, and I probably should have appreciated it more. On my plan, I had given myself an hour to sort myself out, so I had to move quickly to get everything done. A quick wipe of the feet, change of shoes and socks, and load my pack up with everything I would need for the first night leg. I knew my nauseous stomach would cope with cup-a-soup, so had brought along a stash – I had 4, and filled my vacuum flask with another 2 for the trail. At 120 calories each packet of soup, they allow me to get liquid calories on board without being sick everywhere. Maxine prepared me a lovely microwave lasagne, but I only managed a few mouthfuls.
I considered my options of putting on a long pair of hiking trousers to protect my legs, and a pair of heavy knee-high gaiters (used last for Spine Challenger, lots of Pennine way, January weather, plenty of bog), and in the end I wore everything I could to protect my legs. I ended up wearing those long trousers every remaining leg of the race. By the end they were indescribably mucky.
John Stocker had arrived (apparently) 8 minutes before me, and left at least 20 minutes before me. As I was getting ready to leave, after about 50 minutes Ellen and Peter arrived, both looking in great shape. I was feeling re-energised and looking forward to the first night leg, not tired at all.
Leg 2…..45 miles….started 20:20 Sat, arrived at CP2 approx 10:20 Sun…..(Mileage 47-92)
As I said, I was feeling good for this leg. I usually enjoy travelling at night, and although I hit a low patch about 2am (like everyone) I enjoy the darkness and the single pool of light given out by my head-torch that is the only thing to look at all around. I tend to move quite slowly, as I have a bit of a tendency to fall or trip over things.
I stopped at midnight to drink some soup and try to eat food, conscious of the energy I was using and not yet replacing.
At about 2.30am I was starting to feel sleepy, so stopped for a quick nap on the side of the trail. This isn’t as odd as it sounds; I was quite warm and aimed to sleep for no more than 10-15 minutes to give my brain a bit of a rest. I find that my mind will then stay clear for another couple of hours through the night.
Ellen came past me after I’d been asleep for about 10 minutes, and checked I was alright (it must be a bit disconcerting to come across a body laid out on the trail, in the middle of nowhere!) We carried on together, with Ellen fretting about her tracker not working: it had apparently stopped sending a signal a few hours ago. She stopped on a road and phoned Lindley to see what could be done to revive it, and I succeeded in removing it from its protective packet and pressing buttons until it sprang back into life.
Ellen and I stayed together for the rest of the leg, which was in fact a big loop called the Bosecombe loop. We actually met up with John Stocker at the start of the small circle on the very left of the loop, as he was finishing it and we were starting it. It took us a whopping 1 hour 22 minutes to get all the way round this ‘small’ circle…very depressing to get back to where you started after an hour.
We seemed to pass through lots of cow-filled fields, which thankfully left us alone. I became well-acquainted with electric fences that farmers use to keep livestock contained, never having really needed to climb over them before. Unfortunately, my first experience was to get one leg over and allow my nether regions to gently come into contact with the wire, giving me a gentle yet very real electric shock that certainly woke me up. You can be sure I gave the wires a lot more respect in future!
Ellen showed me the proper way to treat a barbed wire fence that we had somehow got onto the wrong side of….which was to simply climb over the bloody thing. Sounds obvious now, but I’ve always had a bit of an aversion to tearing my leg open on a bit of rusty wire, so I’ve usually hesitated up until now…no longer! If Ellen can throw herself over, so can I. It was a useful lesson to learn, and one I would put into practise daily!
At about 6am I had a sit and used my cooking kit (that I’d thoughtfully packed at CP1) to boil water for a bit of coffee. In my planning, I’d thought that a night leg would be much more bearable if I knew I had some hot coffee waiting for me at about 6am. Although I did enjoy my sit down and the coffee, I decided it was too heavy to carry for a whole leg just for a coffee, so this would be the only time I did it. I also used the time to put a video on Facebook, which is something I’d thought about doing during the night. I thought, for mainly personal reasons, it would be useful to watch the deterioration over the coming days as I got more tired. It also served me really well as a motivational tool every time I read the comments from friends and strangers on the videos.
I got the first of many calls from Derek, a very experienced, older coach from my running club, who keeps me going during my more taxing ultras by calling me a couple of times per day to check up on me…forcing me to engage with my condition and actually understand how I’m feeling. He has an uncanny ability to calm me down when I’m struggling, and motivate me when I’m down. He’s great and, as always, would phone me just at the times I’m suffering a bit.
The coffee did not give me the required perk unfortunately, and I was tired when I got into CP2 at about 10.30am Sunday morning.
Ellen arrived about an hour later. Peter shortly after that.
The checkpoint was in the grounds of Boscombe House (I think) and we had a night grassy corner, with a rough wooden fenced. There were a couple of tents for sleeping that looked very appealing. My plan allowed me 2 hours here, which included an hour for sleeping, so i was in a hurry to get myself sorted out and to have some sleep.
Shoes and socks were quickly off, to allow my feet the longest chance to dry out, and I did my best to eat, forcing down a cup of tea, cup of milk, and a bacon sandwich, which tasted great. Unfortunately, they didn’t taste so good when I promptly vomited them back up again into a usefully located bush. Dammit.
An hours sleep felt wonderful though, and after that I tried again and succeeded in keeping down about half of a bacon sandwich and some more cup-a-soups. Clean socks, clean shoes, and I was on my way.
Leg 3…..42 miles….started 12:30 Sun, arrived at CP3 approx 03.51 Mon…..(Mileage 92-134)
I spent most of today hungry but unable to eat, which was really frustrating. The route followed lots canal and aqueducts, which is usually my favourite route as they are so picturesque, but it was difficult to enjoy while knowing that my energy levels were dropping by the hour. I put on an audio book that helped distract me quite successfully but I was pretty low for most of the day.
At about 4pm I was getting increasingly cross and frustrated that I hadn’t come across any shops that I could even get a sugary drink at. I was physically getting very tired, but had no fuel to replace the spent energy, and of course I needed every but of fuel I could get!
I took a call from a running friend John and I whinged about needing a café or shop, anything to give me some energy. Sure enough, 10 minutes later I came across a café that had just closed (at 4pm) and I was so pissed I took a picture of the closed door.
Shortly afterwards Derek called, and patiently listened to me whinge about needing a shop. As always, he calmed me down and focused me on keeping moving, well aware that the faster I moved the sooner I’d find a shop.
Within an hour, I made the decision to leave the route at what looked like a busy bridge over the canal I was on, and was overjoyed to see a small parade of shops nearby. I sat outside Pizza Supreme delicately eating about 20 chips, but more importantly drinking can after can of fizzy sugary drink. Magic. Each can had about 10 grammes of sugar, so 3 cans certainly gave me a boost.
After messaging Ellen who was behind me that at this particular bridge there were some shops, I went on my merry way in a far better frame of mind. It sounds ridiculous, but I found through the whole event that my mood (and hence my pace) lifted enormously with a full stomach and some calories to digest. I would learn that my stomach really does drive the whole body!
As dusk started to fall, I came across the Netherton tunnel. I’d been told about a 2.7km tunnel that has a towpath alongside a canal that goes straight through some hills…much quicker than going round them! I headed into it without any hesitation, but was really surprised how claustrophobic I felt after the first 15 minutes. I was genuinely pleased to get out at the end, it was a proper creepy experience. The towpath was about 2 or 3 feet wide, with the arched ceiling coming down to the ground on my left, and a metal railing on the right to stop me falling into the dark water. No lights, naturally.
The whole atmosphere was very damp, and water constantly dripped from the ceiling like those caves you go into on holiday. The water from the ceiling created massive puddles on the towpath that I started trying to avoid but in the end gave up as they encompassed the whole path and were long and surprisingly deep. I consoled myself that I would change my socks for my spare dry ones once I got out, which I did. Interestingly, when I got to the next checkpoint, I asked how the other runners had coped with the waterlogged path. Apparently John Stocker had taken his shoes off (to keep them dry), and gone through the tunnel in his socks…putting his dry shoes back on at the end. Ellen had cleverly brought some plastic bags with her, putting them over her feet and hence keeping her feet dry. Clearly I was taking the easy option of just getting wet feet and then changing my socks!
I remember very little about the rest of the night leg, apart from doing my usual ropey job in the dark and slowing down badly. Ellen overtook me again, and I got to the checkpoint about 3.50am about 30 minutes after her. I set my alarm for 2 hours and was asleep quickly, but on waking felt good and I was able to eat some bacon & beans which felt wonderful, had about 4 coffees and even a little bit of watermelon. It was great to be able to eat and keep it down! Even though I was tired, I was raring to go (but that may have been the coffee talking!) My body was in good shape, the only concern was the big toe on my right foot, which I must have stubbed hard as it was slowly swelling all around the nail and turning black. I was still feeling very positive and starting to believe I could perhaps keep going for a few days yet. I was not thinking past the next checkpoint, and being very careful to not to have thoughts of finishing…but still felt good and was having a blast. At the checkpoint I was given the news that Tony had dropped on Sunday, which was a real shame.
Leg 4…..48 miles….started 06:30 Mon, arrived at CP4 approx 23.20 Mon…..(Mileage 134-182)
I started this leg wearing waterproof socks, as the dew was very heavy and my shoes were quickly soaked. I took them off after a few hours, but I found they did a good job of protecting me from the worst of the “soaking feet syndrome” whenever I did this in the morning. Unfortunately, after about a week on the move my feet became too swollen to allow the extra socks inside my shoes, so I was not able to do this, but it really worked for the first week.
The good news however, was that the breakfast had woken up my stomach, and I was suddenly finding I had some energy to move at a good pace, but even better my stomach was shouting for more food!
I had purposely lightened my pack before leaving the checkpoint, so I was not only feeling strong, but carrying a lot less than the previous two legs (i.e. all the cooking kit was jettisoned, which probably saved me 0.5 kg at least). It was early daylight, which is when I tend to feel best, and sure enough I absolutely motored the first 4 hours.
I reached a park at about 10.30, with a big pond and green spaces, and asked someone if there was a café nearby by. It was a wonderful feeling to order some proper food (a healthy pasta and tuna thing) and sit at a table outside, with my shoes off (much to the amazement of everyone else!) and actually enjoy the feeling of eating.
After a couple of days of minimal solid food, it felt wonderful to actually put a load of fuel into my engine room. I was only in that chair for 20 minutes, but the next few hours flew by as the terrain was good along roads and canals. Even the fields I went over were beautiful.
I have much more confidence with horses (for no particular reason, except they seem more intelligent) that cows…I seem to read about a walker being trampled by a herd of psychotic cows every year or so, but less so with horses.
By 3pm I was making good progress, but it had been a few hours since last eating, and I was keen to maintain the calories going in, so when I hit the next town (perhaps at Alcester) I looked for a pub to get my next meal. I ended up at a little sandwich shop because it appears all the pubs do food at lunchtime and dinnertime, but not in between…however, I loved the expression on the face of the guy that served me when I ordered a massive meatball & cheese Panini, steak pie, multiple cans of Lilt, and then proceeded to sit on the pavement outside his shop and tuck in. It was another absolutely wonderful eating experience again, and I loved being able to message people to show how much I was eating. Even the school kids that congregated at the little parade of shops thought I was a bit of a strange sight.
With another really good feed and a brief rest, I was shortly motoring again and was eating the miles up (as well as everything else). Although I was physically tired, I was cheerful and enjoying myself, and not really feeling ill effects from lack of sleep (at that stage). I had slept for perhaps 3 solid hours from Saturday morning to Monday afternoon, and had travelled about 160 miles, but was still in good shape now that I was eating well. Life was good!
With these thoughts, at about 6pm I had just come to out of a long stretch of trail and hit a road which seemed to be leading me towards civilisation, when I did a bit of a double take at the guy walking along the pavement towards me. He looked familiar, but not immediately recognisable (if that makes sense). As he got a bit closer, he was clearly looking at me as if he knew me, but I still didn’t place him until he was really close, whereupon I realised it was a guy called Mike, that I had shared a house with at university (about 30 years previously) but had not seen or had any contact with since, apart from minimal contact on Facebook. His wife, Janie, who I also knew from university, was there too, and it was a fabulous surprise to see them both, especially as they had brought pizza with them (individually wrapped pieces!).
Even as I sit typing this, I have a massive grin all over my face, it was such a treat to see some friendly faces, especially ones that I’ve not seen for 30 years. They were all grown up, unlike me, who was still behaving like a child (you know, 600 mile runs…that sort of thing) and we had a great 10 minutes of conversation walking along the pavement, before they left me to follow the next canal. I’d hoovered up about 10 pieces of pizza, and was in such a great mood after seeing them I put a post on Facebook after leaving them:
The ensuing hilarity after I said I’d shared a horse with Mikey kept me chuckling for a while when I got to my sleeping bag. I got a few phone calls through the evening that helped my mood and kept me motoring on.
The sunset was beautiful that night, especially as I was travelling through some decent trail and lovely countryside. My navigation so far had been pretty good, but I found the darkness was confusing me a bit tonight. In one memorable ‘diversion’ my GPS was showing a right turn up ahead, off the country road I was following. There did not seem to be any trail heading right, so I guessed the bridge overhead was an aqueduct of some sort, and I needed to climb up the steep sides to the top, and then follow the aqueduct. Usually, there’s stairs to get up, but I couldn’t find these either, so in my slightly addled state, I decided to climb over a fence and through the bushes and trees to the top, whereupon instead of a calm aqueduct and a path, I came across a railway line and lots of no trespassing signs. Naturally, I decided not to go back down the way I’d come (and I wasn’t sure I could anyway) so I rather dangerously and very gingerly crossed the tracks and went down the other side of the embankment, through yet more dense bushes to the bottom and over a prickly barbed wire fence. On to the path that I needed to follow all the time, clearly evident when I stopped and looked properly. Looking back, this was really good evidence of some dodgy decision making, that frankly probably should have ended in tears. It was a 30 minute wake-up call for me though, as I had not stopped to consider my actions, but just thrown myself into what could have been some serious problems (not to mention, lost 30 minutes needlessly).
The next checkpoint was at campsite adjacent to Stratford upon Avon racecourse, and it was lovely to see the white racecourse rails appear in my head torch beam at about 11pm. This 4th checkpoint was a bit of a landmark for me, as it would be my first (of two) chances to have a shower. I had set my brain to see this point as the first ‘milestone’ to get to, and it felt great to be there.
At first I thought Lindley was a security guard about to throw me off site, as all I could see was his head torch in the distance heading for me. It was great to see him though, and I headed to the tents for some much needed rest. I decided to allow myself four hours sleep rather than the planned three, due to my rather dodgy decision-making suggesting I was rather more tired than I had realised.
At this stage I had arrived at the checkpoint about 5 hours behind John Stocker (he had already arrived and left the checkpoint), but 3 hours ahead of both Ellen and Jon Rowles, so I was not feeling any particular need to increase my pace or hurry up. I was slightly ahead of my plan, which meant I could afford the extra hour without jeopardising the buffer I was building over the cut-offs. More importantly, I knew that lack of sleep could result in a navigation error costing significant time so it was not a difficult decision to make. Also, the extra sleep would have me leaving the checkpoint at about 5 (I would sleep 11.30pm to 3.30am) and this would be just as the sun was coming up. I was finding that finishing a leg late, sleeping at night and then getting moving at first light was working really well for me, and was allowing me to settle into a rhythm that preserved some vaguely normal patterns.
My feet were still in decent shape, but the left big toe was continuing to swell and go a bit blacker each time I took my shoes off.
I had a lovely shower when I woke up, and washed my used socks on the floor of the shower, which I calculated would give me enough clean socks to allow me a clean pair for every leg. I should explain the socks I wear (Injinji) are pretty expensive, so I couldn’t just buy 14 pairs, one for each leg, hence the washing some halfway.
Actually when I asked Maxine to hang them from the same tree that everyone’s wet shoes were hanging from, she offered to wash them for me in the campsites washing machine (and dry them too!) which was a much better solution.
Note to the reader….everything so far I consider to be the ‘start’ of the run. The next part is the middle (naturally!)
Leg 5…..44 miles….started 05:00 Tue, arrived at CP5 approx 20:30 Tue…..(Mileage182-226)
After another really good breakfast of beans, sausage and potato, and tons of coffee, Maxine showed me the way from the campsite back to the route. I stopped to take some pictures of the racecourse in the early morning mist: it was beautiful.
Although I had started with my waterproof socks on, the start of the route today was a long straight gravel path, so after an hour I stopped to remove them as they were making my shoes too tight. I did a short video on Facebook, telling people how I was doing, and this became a bit of my usual routine as I started each leg.
I messaged a few people, and then made a fundamental error, probably one of the biggest of my whole race. It was simple really. As I messaged, I did a little mental maths, working out that I had covered about 180 miles, I would do about 45 today, so by tonight I would have covered 225 miles. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks – that even by tonight, I would still be a massive 80 miles short of halfway. I had been pushing very hard for what felt like a lifetime (actually, 4 days) and had survived on minimal sleep, and was still today’s leg & two more legs short of being even halfway.
It was 7am, and I suddenly found myself in the hardest mental battle I’d ever experienced in an ultra. Half of my brain was shouting that I couldn’t possibly carry on like this for days on end, and the other half was shouting (at equal volume) that I must not stop, no matter what happened. There is a difficult balance between “can’t” and “must” when they get stuck in your head, and it is fairly normal to have a bit of a wobble in an ultra (especially about halfway). But this was different, and put me in a very dark place for hours.
Unfortunately, at the same time, the route went from pleasant gravel to thick, crap, overgrown, soaking wet foliage.
I was in the well of despair, moving through some really rough terrain, and feeling like I wanted to murder someone. I was getting some great messages from the group of experienced ultra runners I had assembled on messenger and called ‘Bob’s running problems’.
I also got a call from Pam, an ultra-runner from my running club. She took a bit of a drubbing as I wobbled all over the phone call with her, but handled it really well, saying all the right things. She rather cleverly took the conversation away from running entirely, telling me all about that weekend Eurovision Song Contest, which certainly took my mind of my current worries!
I stopped at Chipping Camden for a mid-morning bacon sandwich and tea, but was still mentally off-the-rails. I couldn’t even take any satisfaction from being the smelliest person in the quite posh café.
I was travelling through Cotswold country, so the trails were quite well established and fairly busy with walkers, most of whom were tourists, either Americans or Chinese. It was quite humbling to see them taking time out to enjoy what most of us Brits just take for granted.
Still in the mental shit-zone, at about 11am I caught up with two American ladies, walking quite slowly compared to me, but I followed them for a few minutes before they realised I was there, listening to them talk. We all came to a gate beyond which was a herd of big cows, all gathered at the gate. The ladies didn’t know what to do and to be fair neither did I, but I felt it was my duty to pretend that I knew what I was doing, and proceeded to tell them to wait while I opened the gate and gently eased the cows away from the gate. Hopefully sounding a lot more confident than I felt, I got the ladies to follow me as I went through the herd, and surprisingly the cows didn’t attack but gave us a decent bit of room to manoeuvre. Once through the herd the ladies thanked me and I went on ahead, only realising 5 minutes later that my mood had completed changed, and my previous desperately wobbly mind-set had been replaced with a more familiar ‘everything is lovely’ and ‘I am OK’ attitude. It was a revelation, and I’m happy to say that I never revisited that terrible dark place I had spent the last few hours in.
In other news, having spent the previous leg mainly eating, my digestive system went into overdrive and I won’t tell you how many times I had to go to the toilet…but it was a lot. On the positive side, being in the countryside it was easy to find a quiet secluded space to dig a hole and do my business.
I stopped at about lunchtime to have a rest on a bench and air my feet. I had decided that sweaty, soggy feet would lead to trouble, so I would stop and air my feet whenever reasonable. I’m sure the surrounding houses did not mind me making myself at home on their bench and letting my socks dry out. I had a bit of a chat with my wife, and a short nap, and then got on my way.
I came to a market town, and was surprised at how I felt suddenly being surrounded by crowds of people, having been pretty much on my own for days. It didn’t stop me from going into the local Co-op to buy food and drinks though.
I was finding that the 15g on sugar in a can of fizzy drink (usually Fanta) would give me a huge boost for a few hours, and did not result too much of a ‘low’ when the sugar was gone. Plus, the weather was really quite warm and it was a simple way to stay hydrated.
In late afternoon I came to Boughton-on-the-Water, a quite-famous Cotswold town that I had visited once before when my kids were young. It was full of tourists, and very picturesque, so I took the opportunity to sit at an outside table eating fish and chips, and enjoying the surroundings.
In my dirty hiking clothes, and haggard state, I must have looked a mess!
The rest of the day was spent travelling through some really lovely countryside, and I was in a positive mood to appreciate it, I took loads of pictures.
Although I’d been on the go for days, I still look back on this as being the ‘easy first stages’ where all I needed to do was keep moving and eating – nothing else was causing a problem.
The next checkpoint was at Chedworth, a roman villa (so I was told). All I cared about was that I could stop and rest there and I found the last few miles seemed to take ages to pass. I arrived after travelling along what felt like the longest road ever, but it was a great feeling to see Lindley big truck appear in the distance. As I got there, John Stocker was having his feet seen to by Maxine, which was a pleasant surprise as I had missed him completely at the last checkpoint – I had caught him up slightly!
In fact, I arrived at 20:30 (Tue) and he had arrived at 16:30, so I was still four hours behind him, but it was nice to actually see him, rather than be told he had just left the checkpoint. I quickly got my shoes and socks off, to give my feet maximum chance to dry out, and had a bit of a chat with him, Maxine and Lindley. We had a bit of banter than maybe I should forego sleep at this checkpoint and carry straight on with John, to make a bit of a race of it.
There was also a bit of banter about how often I was stopping to eat (pretty much every 4 hours) and how John was surviving on mainly just the food at checkpoints. These made me feel great…
John soon left though, and I got to the serious business of sorting myself out and getting some sleep. I had achieved the buffer I wanted over the last few checkpoints, and could now choose to get some extra sleep to recover my lack of sleep. I had had a total of 7 hours sleep since Saturday morning (it was now Tuesday evening) and had covered about 220 miles. I was going to reward myself with a massive 6 hours sleep (9pm to 3am) and then get moving with first light at about 5am.
Again, when I was in my sleeping bag I took stock of my body. I was generally in good shape. My body was fine, although I was developing some raw patches on my shoulders where my pack was making its presence felt. My back was also beginning to suffer a bit, with the lack of rest and the weight of my pack I carried everywhere. These were quite minor however to my feet, which were just starting to suffer. I had a couple of minor blisters on my toes, and my left big toe continued to swell and blacken. The nail was visibly raised with the pus developing underneath.
It wasn’t hurting much, unless I accidentally kicked a tree root or something, in which case it hurt massively. The soles of my feet were starting to feel a bit bruised and sore underneath…..nothing to stop me walking on them, but definitely some discomfort there. Overall, I was OK but I look back and can see the beginning signs of the eventual deterioration starting here.
I also made a big learning here, in that I didn’t sort my kit ready for the next morning before going to sleep. Do you remember when your mum used to tell you to get your school bag ready the night before? And you never did? Which meant the following morning was a stress-filled rush? Well, I learnt the following morning that the worst way to start the day was to have to search through bags looking for clean socks and new charging block or batteries. That was the last time I went to sleep without getting everything sorted the night before…my mother would be very proud!
Leg 6…..46 miles….started 04:45 Wed, arrived at CP6 approx 19:20 Wed….(Mileage 226-272)
I begun the day with bowls of pasta (Lindley’s own concoction, but very tasty if you’re a bit of a pasta fiend, like I am), with lots of coffee. Again, I felt really strong when I started, and made really good progress until I hit a field full of the cutest calves I have ever seen. I have said that I was previously quite wary of cows previously, due to their habit of trampling people, but I think these calves were the start of my developing love affair with beautiful cows. I stopped for far too long taking pictures.
Despite the stops for pictures, I made good time to Colchester where I stopped for more coffee and a bacon sandwich in Subway.
It was nice and cool in the morning, and I was enjoying the surroundings. The weather was looking like being hot in the afternoon so I was trying to get as far as possible before the heat sapped my energy. I stopped for a rest and to air my feet, finding that I was getting slightly obsessed with checking the swelling on the left big toe (and taking a picture of it!) It started to get hot from about 11am, and I felt myself slow as the temperature went up, but I had made good time through the cool morning so I was not too worried.
Lunch was two massive tuna and cheese panini’s, that I ate sitting outside a café with my shoes off. When they arrived, I could tell the lady didn’t think I had a chance of eating both, so I made myself feel slightly sick forcing them down. They were massive and very very cheesy though.
Most of my meals I was washing down with as much tea as I could drink, and this seemed to be giving me the calories and liquid that I needed.
I stopped again about 3pm, removing my shoes and socks to check on the state of my feet. I was starting to get a bit more pain from the soles of my feet, which was slightly concerning, and I started taking the occasional painkiller just to take the edge off.
I entered a field with a huge herd of cows in the far distance, which were all jam-packed around the gate in the corner that my route took me through. There must have been well over 100 cows, and I could not work out why they were all so fixated on this particular corner, until I saw a farmer (in his Toyota truck) herding them all in that direction. As I was watching him work, once he was happy the cows were in the right place he forced his way through to open the gate, and the cows happily set off along the track towards some distant farm buildings.
He followed them in his truck, and I walked alongside him. It was quite bizarre, seeing this track filled with cows, presumably going to be milked as their udders were all looking very full, and me walking along behind them. A very odd experience.
As the afternoon wore on, it seemed to get hotter and hotter. I resolved to put sun cream on for the next day if it looked like being hot again. The only exposed bit of skin that was getting burnt was the tops of my thumbs (where my hands wee angled upwards holding my poles) and the back of my neck. I was wearing a long sleeved top which protected my arms (but made it a bit sweaty!) and long trousers (even sweatier!) and a peaked cap shading my face, so I was not in too much danger of getting burnt.
The next checkpoint would be at a pub, which meant that arriving during opening hours would guarantee a pub-meal – quite an incentive! Similar to the last checkpoint, the last few miles seemed to drag terribly, and my feet raised their discomfort level from a mild grumble to a noisy chorus of ‘we want to rest!’ This would become the “last few miles” routine unfortunately.
My natural stubbornness raised its head however, and I pushed on to the checkpoint, taking the opportunity occasionally to look a the tracker on my phone that showed more accurately how far I still had to go. I would begin to do this more and more as the race developed, even though I knew how little it helped me as the distance never seemed to move as much as I wanted it to.
Getting to the checkpoint at last was great, especially as it was only about 19:20 (Wed) so I would have loads of time for a meal at the pub. Like the last checkpoint, John Stocker was still there, but had only just come out of his tent after 3 hours sleep, so again, I had caught up with him slightly. He was feeling quite groggy still, as he was clearly pushing himself hard, and was noticeably less chirpy than when I’d seen him at the last checkpoint.
I got my shoes and socks off, and showed my left big toenail to Lindley, who declared it fit for draining (having filled with pus enough to be ready to pop!).
Surprisingly gently, Lindley sorted it out, and sat back declaring that it looked pretty much back to normal – which it did! He did discuss with me the option of removing the toenail altogether, but decided that it was too firmly fixed in place to do that easily – phew! Lindley also said that Vic, right at the back of the field, was still moving but slowly, and in fact she dropped out that night, after a really strong effort (and some massive 220 miles!)
All of the surgery took place really quite quickly, probably only 20 minutes, and I quickly then got into the pub for 3 pints of cold milk (wow- they tasted great) and fish and chips. Having the chance to sit and reflect on the day was great, and it was a shame that I did not get the opportunity to do do this very often. I posted my progress on Facebook, and also messaged “Bob’s running problems” my messenger group of experienced ultra-runners as my legs weren’t feeling right. They were sore (which was to be expected) but also twitching and feeling odd in way I wasn’t used to. They came back with a number useful ideas (which may seem obvious now, but certainly didn’t then in my addled mind) including sleeping in compression tights to ease the swelling, and elevating my legs to drain them. I was also harangued into taking some s-caps (electrolyte-replacement tablets) to sort me out after a day of sweating. Lots of quick useful ideas, just what I needed.
I had a really bad night’s sleep however, experiencing horrible night sweats and generally tossing and turning for the whole 6 hours I allowed myself. On the positive side, my legs felt great when I woke up, so something had clearly worked.
I had arrived at the checkpoint at about 19:20 (Wed), about 3 hours being John Stocker who’d arrived at 15:11, and ahead of Jon Rowles (21:10) and Ellen (01:18 Thu). I slept 21:30 to 03:30, and was pleasantly surprised to be up at the same time as Jon Rowles. It was great to see a friendly face at breakfast! We had a bit of a joke with Maxine while she sorted out and taped our feet, simultaneously feeding us pasta and coffee somehow. We chatted about the next two legs (8 & 9) which were both over 50 miles – these were likely to ‘make or break’ our race due to the distance and the terrain – and what our hopes were for them. I was quite clear that I just wanted to maintain my current reasonable pace, but most importantly, maintain my travelling in the light and sleeping at night regime, as it was working so well for me. It seemed so easy then…
We left together at about 04:30, in good spirits.
Leg 7…..43 miles….started 04:30 Thu, arrived at CP7 approx 18:32 Thu (Mileage 272-315)
Although it would have been nice to stick together, we were clearly going at different paces, and I’ve learned that travelling as a pair generally means travelling at the pace of the slowest person, so it didn’t take long for me to move on ahead, although I looked forward to him catching me up.
It was just about light, and as today was a relatively short leg, I was keen to get it done and sleep so that I could make a really early start the following morning. I found myself hurrying for the first time, feeling under pressure to push hard. My waterproof socks worked well keeping my feet fairly dry against the dew, and I stopped after a few hours to pin them to the back of my pack to allow them to dry out. I was heading towards Bristol, but could not find anywhere to eat after a few hours…one of the problems of leaving so early was that nowhere was open at 8am along the river I was following. I was feeling pretty cheerful, but even asking other people on the river where I could get something to eat did not make an open pub magically appear. I recorded my usual Facebook video (this time, with added barking Chihuahuas in the background) but I think I allowed my hunger to show through a bit!
Thankfully, an hour later, I was presented with the magical sight of “Joey’s Magic Rolls” and had two massive burgers and teas.
They certainly did the trick! Although it was early in the day, I was starting to feel a bit of pain under my feet already, and that would mean for an uncomfortably long day.
With a fuller stomach, Bristol arrived quickly, and again I felt very out of place in the bustling streets. I rather liked the route I walked though, it seemed pleasantly clean and friendly (and lots of burger vans!). Although I looked like a homeless tramp (and probably smelt like it too) I did not get as many funny looks as I expected, but perhaps I was not looking around much.
Going across a bridge, I became aware of a bloke on a bike stopped next to me, talking. My headphones generally allow me to hear what’s going on round me, but I was not really paying attention so it too k me a minute to realise he was talking to me. Angus had stalked me using the tracker, and had gone to the trouble of tracking me down in the centre of Bristol – no mean feat in the busy streets (although, now I think of it, perhaps I did stand out a bit?).
We had a very brief chat, and he said he had also caught up with Jon Rowles behind me, who had also stopped at Joeys Magic Burger van. Sensible man!
Angus also warned me that there probably was not too many more placed to get food further ahead in Bristol, and I knew that the leg ahead was going to be a challenge as there were no towns or shops for miles. I stopped at the last café and bought two massive BLT baguettes to take with me for an afternoon snack – I didn’t realise how heavy they would be! I slowly left Bristol behind, pausing to take a picture of a bridge I passed underneath…possibly some bridge I should have heard of?
The afternoon was spent in deep countryside, absolutely beautiful.
I stopped for a picnic in the centre of a massive field, which was under the flight path of (I assume) Bristol airport, as planes went overhead every few minutes. I could not eat all of the two massive baguettes, but I was happy to ge the damn things out of my pack just to save the weight. I was really conscious that although I had eaten quite a lot, both the burgers from the morning and the baguettes were mainly stodgy white bread, and hence not great calories for the future efforts…I could have really done with a hot pub meal to give me some energy.
I got to the next checkpoint at about 18:30 (Thu), having endured some massive hills for the last 2 or 3 hours. Although it’s great to get to the top and take a picture, and I was still feeling quite energetic going up the hills, I was struggling with the downhill’s, as the soles of my feet were taking the brunt of the force as I used them to break my momentum going downhill. My heels, which are what I would usually use to slow myself down, were so bruised it hurt too much to use them, and so my only option was to use the friction of the soles of my feet on the inside of my shoes. What had been discomfort as few days ago was turning into something a little more significant, and the hills were definitely not helping.
I had a slightly hairy experience getting through a small herd of cows that were happily feeding until I had to sneak through them and climb over their gate. I stopped (on the other side of the gate) to take a picture and looking back I can see the expression on the face of the brown one with horns…he wasn’t pleased!
However, despite all this, the next checkpoint was at the top of a huge hill, and the views were spectacular. Even better, this checkpoint had a shower available too, although, interestingly, I was significantly less fussed about having a shower as I had been at the first shower. In fact, I was getting quite used to being a bit dirty and smelly, which was just as well as this (checkpoint 8) would be the last shower before the finish line at checkpoint 14.
Getting into the checkpoint, I was surprised to see John Stocker still in his tent, although he poked his head out when he heard me arrive. Maxine had insisted he have at least 5 hours sleep, as he was still pushing himself really hard, and that seemed to have done him some good as he was eager to get going.
We had a bit of a chat about progress, with Lindley chipping in, and John made the inspiring comment “I don’t want to be rude Bob, but could you speed up a bit?” suggesting that he would find it more challenging if I were chasing him down a bit. I took the opportunity to say I had absolutely no chance of going any quicker, but it was frankly quite flattering to share a bit of a joke with someone of his calibre.
Unfortunately, if I chose to go any quicker (which I’m pretty sure I did not have within me) I suspect John would have simply pushed himself harder and leave me behind…it was a pointless exercise.
I had a shower in what looked like a hut from the outside, but was in fact unexpectedly posh on the inside (all mirrors, glass and shiny chrome), and got myself to sleep as quickly as I could. The next two legs were the long over-50 mile sections, which I would need to absolutely nail if I was to maintain my current ‘travel-by-day and sleep-at-night’ regime.
I treated myself 6 hours of lovely sleep again, 20:30 (Thu) to 02:30, and felt refreshed again when I woke. That was three good 6 hour sleeps in a row and I was pretty much caught up from my lack of sleep in the first four legs. My buffer was still in place and although I was feeling some pain, especially in my feet, I was still in good place mentally (which was where it mattered).
That was the middle stage, it passed quite quickly and I have pleasant memories of it. I’ve got very few pleasant memories after here…
Leg 8…..53 miles….started 03:30am Fri, arrived at CP8 approx 00:50 Sat….(Mileage 315-368)
Yes, that’s right…nearly 22 hours to do this stage. This is where the wheels start to come off.
Breakfast consisted of loads of pasta again, coffee and feet being taped up by Maxine again. She had started putting something called ‘fleecy web’ on the balls of my feet which gave me some additional padding and eased some of the discomfort. Lindley reckoned I was experiencing something called ‘shearing’ where simply the layers on the sole of the foot were not sticking together but sliding against each other (as you might expect after being on my feet for days) and that would explain the extra pain I was feeling when using my soles to brake when descending a hill. Ouchy!
Jon Rowles had arrived at the checkpoint just an hour after me, and in fact left the checkpoint about 15 minutes before me. Ellen arrived just after midnight. All three of us were quite consistent in our times and were roughly moving at the same pace. Peter, the Swedish joker was moving slowly right at the back of the field, but was still moving within the cut-offs.
The day started well, with the early 3.30am start allowing me to get some miles in before the sun came up, a good boost to morale. No matter what time I finished, at least I was making the most of the daylight. If I kept up a decent 3mph (including stops for food) which I had been managing easily on the previous legs, I would finish in about 17.5 hours (i.e. about 10pm) which would give me time to sleep and get ready for the next day. It was all planned!
I was happy to disturb some more cows to get a nice picture of the sunrise, and then some more that were particularly inquisitive / predatory.
I came to a gate at the top of a hill, blocked (again) by herd that seems a bit excitable and interested in me. I wasn’t particularly eager to launch myself into their midst, but I didn’t really have much choice, so I got within them…and of course they all scattered, only to slowly come back and investigate.
That is probably the point that I started to understand them a bit more, it is in their nature to be inquisitive, and perhaps the whole trampling thing only happens when (I believe) there are mothers with calves.
I have to say the view from the top of the hill, cows or no cows, was extraordinary.
One of the things I was looking forward to was to go through Wookey Hole, again a place I’d visited before. Unfortunately, the only interesting thing was a crazy golf course (pirate theme, if you’re interested) that I was not expecting at all, and did not remember. I had hoped for some shops but unfortunately as it was 6am when I got there I had no chance of any food.
Not a problem I thought, the next decent town was Wells, which I would be at in an hour, so I’d be able to get something there. Interesting fact, Wells is the smallest city in the UK, due to it having a cathedral but bugger all else. After I took the wrong way round the cathedral (imagine doing three sides of a square, instead of the single one closest to you), I then had to backtrack into the centre to find somewhere to eat. Luckily, I found a Greggs that opened at 7am, exactly when I arrived…so I cleaned them out of their hot pasties and a big cup of tea. A good way to start the day again!
I passed through a herd of sheep that happily followed me from the start of their field to the end, baa’ing all the way (I felt like the pied-piper of sheep). I passed a small airfield that had a plane, all ready for me to use to break all the records for finishing the Monarchs way in a week!
I pushed on, still very conscious of the need for speed on this leg! I came to a railway station at Castle Cray at lunchtime, as I was starting to feel hungry and tired, and was absolutely gutted to find quite a few people, but absolutely no where to eat. There was a burger van, but it was closed, and I had to ask a taxi driver how far to the nearest café. He was happy to tell me that if I carried on the direction I was going I would hit the town of Castle Cray, which had shops and café galore! Fantastic!!!!
I trotted off, checking my maps, phone and GPS furiously to make sure I would not bypass the town, something the route tended to do (as the route was based on Charles II avoiding various armies, he obviously was wary of getting too close to towns and villages). It looked like this would be the exception though, as the route went straight through the middle.
The market square at Castle Cray is a lovely place, and has a number of cafés to choose from, all with tables outside. My criteria for choosing which to stop at was quite simple – I stopped at the first one I came to – went in and was confronted by racks of organic wine and home-made things. At that stage I wasn’t fussed, and went down the menu to the first thing that didn’t had salad in the title…and ended up with a ploughman’s, and added a few home-made sausage rolls, and lots of tea. I’m not sure the lady that served me really knew what to make of me, but said she’d bring it out. I promptly sat outside and took my shoes off – ah bliss.
The lady came out with my tea, and then my ploughman’s…not what I expected at all….it was a posh cheese / bread extravaganza, and absolutely marvellous. Once again, I was feeling full and energetic by the time I finished. The tracker was showing Jon Rowles catching me up rapidly (as I was sitting in a café) so I slowly got my shoes back on and my kit together as he came round the corner.
Once again, it was great to see him, and I suggested he sit and partake in the surely the poshest café in Castle Cray. He was more interested in going into the little Co-op that was round the corner, so I bid him farewell and carried on my merry way.
I was moving well through the afternoon, using a few painkillers to take the edge off my feet hurting, but I had a lovely long conversation with my wife and kids that gave me a real lift. I was moving at the right pace I wanted to, and at 6pm decided to stop at another pub for the fastest scampi and chips (and 2 pints of milk) of the whole race. I reckon I was in and out in 20 minutes.
A little later, at about 7.30pm, I was caught up with by another internet stalker, Barry, who walked and chatted with me for a good 15 minutes. He worked at a local airbase, and did a bit of running himself….obviously I told him he must enter this race next year, but perhaps that would be a bit of a step up – I think his next race was a Jurassic Coast 100k though, so that would be pretty challenging (but perhaps not 600 miles!)
He was good company, but we reached a large field filled with a massive herd of (in my opinion) fairly twitchy cows, a lot of who had calves with them. With us in the field they all gathered around the gate in the far corner, and I suggested he go back to his car as it didn’t look particularly inviting. I spent a full 20 minutes walking the longest route round the field to reach the gate without having to go through the middle of the herd. As it was, I still had to pass far closer to them than I wanted, and they absolutely did not move out of my way like all the other cows had done…they were making sure I didn’t get to close to the calves. I was properly unnerved. However, I reached the gate, and basically threw myself over it, telling myself I was OK. It was bad enough that i didn’t even take a picture of them afterwards, to prove I survived!
For some reason, following that field was a field with two massive bulls in, which I’m thankful to say stayed way over on their side of the field, while I gently trotted along my side of the field. Over that gate, and into another field, filled with undoubtedly the most inquisitive cows I’d met yet. They basically chased / followed me at a distance of a metre all the way to the other side of their field. I moved reasonably quickly (obviously not running), but found that I had to stop and turn round every 5 metres to make them back off before they would close in again. Looking back, it was not that bad, but at the time I was feeling particularly hunted.
The sun started to go down, and I was startled to find I was nearing 48 miles distance, but the tracker on the internet showed me having miles to go yet…as much as 5 or 6 miles which would add two or three hours to my finish time. This was quite serious, as instead of finishing at a sensible 10pm, and sleeping before setting off at first light again, I was looking to finish nearer to midnight. It looked like I wasn’t going to get much sleep tonight!
I stopped about 10pm, having covered 52 miles, for a sit-down and a think. The tracker still showed me having miles to go, and I was tired and needed to eat. I messaged Jon and Ellen, both of whom were behind me, to say the mileage on this leg was clearly going to be nearer 56, and to get something to eat if they were passing a pub as they would be out for a few hours yet!
At the same time I messaged a few people, whinging that the mileage was clearly going to be much further…they quite rightly told me to get on with it! I ate the last of my food and did that!
I won’t go into too much detail about the rest of the night, but my final mileage for that leg was slightly over 60 miles and while my pace was as good as I could have hoped (2.9 mph for the whole 60 miles, including stops) I was absolutely buggered by the end, at 00:50 Saturday morning. My feet were proper hurting for those last 3 hours, and I was very very conscious that in order to make the most of daylight for the next leg I was going to have minimal sleep. Dammit. I sorted my kit ready for the morning, thanking my lucky stars that I had eaten that speedy scampi as I hadn’t needed to eat when I got into checkpoint, but could get straight to sleep.
Leg 9…..52 miles….started 05:00 Sat, arrived at CP9 approx 02:10 Sun….(Mileage 368-420)
I slept 1:30am to 04:00, a measly 2.5 hours, when I could have happily used 6. Jon Stocker had arrived at the checkpoint at 23:00, compared to my 01:00, and was sleeping when I came in. Jon Rowles was about 90 minutes after me, and Ellen (with her experience showing) took the leg much more slowly, sleeping on the trail, arriving at 10:00am Saturday. Although she spent a long time on this leg, she made up the time lag massively over the following legs. Sometimes, it’s not about ‘haste’, but about ‘pace’.
I had my usual big breakfast of pasta and coffee, but I could feel I was tired today. I put extra warm clothes into my pack, as I expected to be moving more slowly, and I fully expected to be out for another 60 miles (if the route was longer, like the previous leg.)
I left the checkpoint 2 hours behind John Stocker. Jon Rowles would be leaving about an hour behind me. This leg would be a real test to see whether we could all keep moving and manage our tiredness.
Maxine taped up my feet again, and I was almost looking forward to getting them into my shoes which would force them to numb, easing the pain. Not a good sign.
I was getting lots of positive messages from my running mates and the ‘Bobs running problems’ group. Much of it being “just get it done” but it helped that they knew what I was going through.
There was going to be minimal places to eat on this leg, so it was important to make use of every shop or village I came across. Despite leaving with a good breakfast, into some lovely misty fields, I was getting very hungry by the time I got to a place called Hawkchurch at about 10am. I knew it was a small village, but reasoned that it would have a shop (or something). Sitting on a church wall, opposite the closed pub, it didn’t look hopeful, but with the magic of Google, I found there was a community shop just round the corner. In fact, it was a porta-cabin, staffed by volunteers, who were fabulously helpful when they realised the state I was in, getting me a chair outside to sit in to eat my weight in pasties, with my shoes off as usual.
After eating as much as I could, I shopped again and filled my flask with coffee and my pack with the last of the shops pasties (one of which I carried for days, relying on it to be my emergency pasty if I ran out of food again.)
Although I should have done better with a full stomach, I was moving too slowly after the shop. I was heading for the coast and was looking forward to seeing the sea but I was tired, both physically and mentally, and the miles were slow going. I started to have little rests every few hours, which were gratefully received, but all added to the time.
From the tracker, I could see John Stocker had reached the coast, and seemed to be speeding along it, and Jon Rowles was behind me, putting pressure on me to keep moving, but I was tired and really only going through the motions……I had very little to offer than a slow shuffle. Interestingly, talking to them both afterwards, they felt exactly the same, that I was moving really well while they were slow. I think the reality was that we were all suffering quite badly that day.
I got to the coast somehow, and was charmed by Charmouth. It was a little seaside town, although I only saw a few shops and car parks full of families at the beach, with it being the first Saturday of half term and a bank holiday weekend. It felt really strange seeing all these people going about their daily lives, while I felt like I’d been on the moon (or at least, in the deepest countryside) for a little over a week. I treated myself to an ice cream, and a can of something fizzy, and also packed a can for later.
I had not realised that the coastal stretch, about 4 -5 miles, was some of the hilliest we would encounter, going up and down to some fabulous views. There were quite a few walkers, and the cool sea breeze helped me keep pace with them in the sunshine. At the top of the biggest cliff I sat down and had the can of fizzy for the sugar which helped me push on through the last few climbs. To be fair, I’ve trained on similar cliffs at Folkestone for hilly races, so it was quite a pleasant diversion to simply go up and down for a few miles.
At the end of the coastal stretch is a town of West Bay, which was also packed with holiday-makers. I got some tea from a café, but didn’t feel like stopping to eat (big mistake) and carried on the trail. The route from the coast predictably was quite hilly, and my feet were complaining as I descended the hills again.
As darkness fell I started to see arrows for a local running race that was perhaps being held the next day. It followed some of the same route that I was doing, and it made a nice change to have some massive arrows pointing my way.
Every so often I would look behind me, expecting to see the head torch of Jon Rowles catching me up, but apart from a couple of flashes I could not make him out. I was stopped by a police car in a village, asking what on earth I was doing here at midnight. We had a good chat actually, and I warned them that they would probably see another runner about 15 minutes behind me. They were happy that I wasn’t some random burglar, and that I was well lit up for cars on the road, and let me go on my way.
I seemed to be nearing the checkpoint at about 01:00, having been on the move since 04:00 the previous day, and was tired and pretty pissed off. I could see the route basically followed the road I was on all the way to the checkpoint, and so I stopped checking my GPS too much and just slogged on for the last few miles. However, near the checkpoint there was a right hand turn, back into the forest, for what looked like a 20 minute diversion through a gully and then back to the road. In my sleep-deprived state, pissed off and shattered, I took the rather dubious decision to miss this out and just carry on the road. I was fully aware of what I was doing, but clearly should not have done it as it was basically taking a short cut.
Maxine met me on the road a few minutes later, and remarked that I hadn’t done the last bit into the forest. In my defence, I didn’t try and hide it, but said that I was buggered, and I would take whatever penalty Lindley felt was appropriate for my short-cut. I was not in a happy place at all.
I got into checkpoint at 02:10 Sunday, having been out for almost 24 hours to do a measly 52 mile leg. I was so tired, I hardly had the energy to eat, but I tried my best, and posted this to Facebook. I was really not sure I would be carrying on after my sleep.
I had some serious blisters on the sides of my heels (no idea why) that did not look great, but all I wanted to do was sleep.
I allowed myself 5 hours, probably not enough to get me back to normal, but it was a good start. However, I struggled to sleep deeply as every time I turned over my feet would wake me up. When I surfaced at 08:30, Lindley came over to talk about what I’d done the previous night, and said he would be giving me a time penalty of 1 hour. To be fair to him, I thought that was quite a reasonable choice of penalty, and happily agreed. Someone asked me later what I would have done if he had disqualified me for it (which he would have been quite entitled to do), which I didn’t really have an answer for!
Lindley also gave me a bit of a morale-lifting talking to, as I was fairly down-beat about the shape my feet were in, my tiredness and in fact the deterioration I was experiencing being worse than in any ultra I’ve ever done (and I still had days to go!) He did a good job of explaining that everyone was in the same kind of shape, all deteriorating quickly, and that I only had to keep moving to get to the finish line…it sounded easy. He also gave me the confidence that I had built up my buffer against the cut-offs enough, so I could afford to lose time each leg and still make the finish line with time to spare…all I had to do was keep going. Jon Rowles also got a similar talking to, and was equally surprised that everyone else was feeling like he was. It was quite bizarre.
Bruce, one of the helpers, taped up my feet this morning, rather than Maxine, but rather disconcertingly kept showing Lindley particularly choice raw patches, whereas Maxine had always done it without commenting on what she was finding. Having Bruce and Lindley commenting on my feet was probably not what my brain needed at that point, especially mentioning antibiotics to prevent infection.
Also, I had to stop wearing my decent Injinji toe socks, which I wore with another pair over the top to prevent blisters, as I had so much tape on my feet my shoes were becoming too tight. I was left wearing some standard running socks, which although good, did not give my feet the protection I am used to.
Leg 10…..38 miles….started 10:40 Sun, arrived at CP10 approx 01:20 Mon….(Mileage 420-458)
Did I mention my stubbornness? I thought so.
My train of thought was simple: I was about to start leg 10, which meant I had 5 more legs (including this one) to get to the finish line.
The longest that would take was 5 days.
And I could put up with any amount of discomfort for 5 days, couldn’t I? I could keep moving and eating and getting a bit of sleep, and basically hold out against the trouble my feet were putting me through for just 5 days. It was as simple as that.
I’m not sure, looking back, that I really understood what those days would be like, but I was happy to gloss over the details and just fix on the 5 legs that remained. In fact, as I write this, with the benefit of hindsight, I absolutely would not repeat that decision…they were dreadful.
So off I went.
Jon Rowles, who had arrived a the checkpoint an hour after me, at 03:00am (Sun) left the checkpoint an hour ahead of me (about 09:40) which may give an indication to my state of mind. Ellen arrived in to the checkpoint at 18:50, again taking a measured approach to this very long leg.
This leg was the start of my blatant abuse of painkillers too, to try to quieten my feet down. I worked out as I started that I would only take them every 5 hours, which would spread them across the day as far as possible. As the leg was only 38 miles I hoped that I should be able to maintain my 3 mph pace and get it done within about 12 hours, getting me to checkpoint for 11pm and a good sleep before starting at first light – helping maintain that vital sleeping at night regime. The problem was that I just couldn’t maintain that pace at all, whether the pain from my feet, physical tiredness or just mentally finished. I was only travelling at 2mph across some areas, and that was much too slow to finish when I wanted.
I passed through Yeovil Country Park, which was beautiful, and at 3pm then hit the town centre which placed a Beefeater restaurant in front of me rather conveniently.
I was looking more tramp-like every day, so they didn’t argue with me when I asked to go in a corner away from all the families eating. This also gave me the chance to get my shoes off for a bit. Two pints of milk and fish and chips (yet again) got me back to feeling relatively normal.
Unfortunately the terrain got worse through the later stages, becoming that jungle of shrubbery I mentioned at the start. I was well protected against it, so there was no real problem, but it was dispiriting having to push through bushes rather than having a pleasant view and a clear path.
I was still getting calls from a couple of running friends, Mark & John, each day, and I was happy to whinge to them about pretty much everything. They both cautioned me against taking too many painkillers, absolutely rightly, but the alternative was just too grim to imagine so I carried on popping.
As it got dark it was clear I was not achieving my hoped-for 3 mph, and hence would not be finishing before midnight. This would mean that I was going to have to choose between a longer sleep, which I dearly wanted, but then travelling later in the day and into the following night (dark, slow, depressing) or I could have a shorter sleep, leave at first-light and resume my travel at daytime, sleep at night routine. It was a real problem for me.
I stopped to take a picture of the oldest most-broken wooden bridge I have ever seen, which I then had to go over. So I suppose I must have still had a sense of humour at that point…
At the last big town before the checkpoint, Wincanton, I met up with Jon Rowles at about 10pm who had just stopped for something to eat and we agreed to walk into the checkpoint together. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have eaten here too, as I last ate at the Beefeater at 3pm, but it seemed sensible to make top speed (!) for the checkpoint to get some much needed sleep. There was some light rain for the last couple of hours which was no a problem, but meant that shoes and socks were soaked when we finally reached the checkpoint.
On the positive side, the checkpoint was one of two indoor checkpoints (the other was cp1) so it was a bit of a treat to have toilets, lights, warmth and a kitchen to play with! It was a scout hut (I think) so just one large room, with the kitchen on a little corridor on one side. Jon Stocker was already asleep in the large room, and unfortunately I’m sure we must have woken him up as we clattered in and sorted our kit. Maxine cooked a pizza for me, but I had really lost my appetite and it didn’t really go down very well. I just wanted to sleep.
Leg 11…..46miles….started 07:30 Mon, arrived at C11 approx 06:20 Tue….(Mileage 458-504)
I would love to say I slept really well for hours, but unfortunately I found the hard floor (even with a little mattress) really uncomfortable compared to the soft ground I’d spent my last 10 sleeps on. I also missed enclosure of the tent I was used to, and having 4 of us in the large room meant there was always someone snoring or farting. Coupled with that, I literally could not move my feet without them flaring in pain and waking me up, which was a horrible way to spend the night.
I allowed myself 4 hours sleep (02:00 to 06:00) but did not feel rested at all when I woke up. My usual multiple coffees did not wake me up either, and the breakfast of beans with grated cheese was not going to give me the required energy for a long 46 mile leg. Maxine taped my feet as usual, and could not see anything different on the soles of my feet, despite it feeling like I was walking on broken glass (I told her).
I had arrived at the checkpoint with Jon Rowles at 01:20 Monday, John Stocker had arrived at 21:40 the previous night. Ellen was still quite a way behind at this stage, arriving at 17:45 Monday afternoon, but again she had paced the leg really well, allowing herself to sleep and eat throughout. Peter was still bringing up the rear, moving slowly and spending most of his sleeping time on the trail, but was still just within the cut-offs (he was having various adventures, being invited in for breakfast by a family when he stopped to sort his kit outside their house!)
I had a fairly long leg ahead of me, and knew that I needed some fuel (and more coffee) to have any chance to maintain a good pace (that magic 3 mph was still the pace I needed) so I stopped in the first village I came to, a rather odd village called Mere, and I waited for 15 minutes for a café to open at 9am. It was bank holiday Monday, and I counted myself lucky to find somewhere open at that time of the morning. The rather grump bloke told me I could sit where I wanted as he probably would not be very busy today, so I made myself comfortable while ordering tea and a massive full English breakfast. It was designed to lift my spirits and get me moving!
Maxine had told Jon Rowles and I about the forthcoming leg, and how it had sections of roman road that were lovely. Unfortunately, by the time I got to it, it was just a bloody long overgrown straight path, and I spent a very grumpy few hours trudging along it, feeling like I was getting nowhere. I had resolved not to take as many painkillers today, so I suffered without any relief for most of the day, to allow myself time to clear the multitude from yesterday from my system. It was the right thing to do, but made the day totally miserable.
I was still tired however, and allowed myself a few quick naps on the trail to recharge my batteries. I became a bit of an expert at spotting flat stone-less stretches on the trail, or patches of grass that did not have any nettles or bumps where I could lie down for 10 minutes and close my eyes. It was bliss until I had to get up and moving again.
After a long rubbish day, consciously moving much too slowly, I got a call from a couple of friends Jon & Jo who wanted to meet up with me and say hello as they had spent the day visiting their daughter in Southampton. It sounded like a wonderful idea to see some friendly faces, and this cheered me up enormously, giving me something to look forward to. At my current snail-like pace, I would not be finished this leg until well in to the night, so there was not much happiness in my life at that stage.
Sure enough, about 8pm, I was presented with Jon and Jo on the road in front of me, and bless them, they got me sorted! It was brilliant to have someone talk to for a change, and I actually had something hot to eat (which I had been needing, without realising) and got ready for the night stretch. I treated myself to some painkillers, having gone without for 12 hours, and had a little sleep for 30 minutes too. They both really recharged my efforts, and with the painkillers quieting my feet for a while I made good progress back on the trail. They had turned a miserable day into a much better experience!
It had drizzled gently all day, without any particular force, but at 10pm it started raining properly so I stopped and put on my heavy waterproof coat and trousers. I’m quite comfortable moving in poor weather, having done a few races in January, so a bit of rain in May was nothing to me! At midnight I came across a usefully located shed, that I ducked into for something to eat and drink from my pack (and more painkillers). It was quite cozy in there, and after eating I switched off my head torch and slept for 30 minutes.
My tiredness was resulting in my not moving quickly or particularly safely, tripping on every tree root or stone in the path. Hence at 2am, when I came across a kiddies play area (swings, slides etc) which rather surprised me as I thought I was in the middle of deserted countryside, I took the opportunity to have a nap on a convenient bench. At 4am I did the same on a comfy patch of trail.
All this sleep meant it was a slow end to a slow day though, and I reached the next checkpoint at 06:30 (Tue) having spent a full 24 hours travelling 46 miles. In comparison Jon Rowles had arrived at 23:30 (Mon) even though we had left at similar times. Jon Stocker was still absolutely motoring along, arriving at 21:00.
This checkpoint will remain forever etched in my memory, as we were basically in a field of cut down nettles. I remember thinking that it looked like a version of hell, and there would be no walking barefoot at this checkpoint! Jon Rowles had slept and was preparing to leave as I arrived, which was really dispiriting and showed me how much time I had lost on that leg.
I was going to sleep for 5 hours (more than I could afford, but probably not enough) but that would mean I would not be leaving until the afternoon and hence another night out on the trail, rather than tucked up in a nice sleeping bag. While moving at night was not a problem, it was considerably slower than daytime, the route being less obvious especially when going across huge wheat fields with no obvious path. I had a bivvy bag in my pack if I chose to have a proper sleep on the trail, but waking up cold and stiff, without even a coffee to look forward to was not a great thought.
So I resigned myself that the next 4 legs would probably mean sleeping during the day and travelling at night, and I would just make the best of it. I was still 36 hours ahead of the cut-offs, so not really in any danger unless something went seriously wrong (which was always a possibility). I could afford to move slowly and still finish.
Before I went to sleep I made sure I had a good meal inside me and used a few of the ‘emergency’ foods I had in my drop bag.
I wolfed down a tin of chicken curry and two packets of super noodles that Maxine kindly heated up for me, and it was great to go to sleep on a full stomach. Predictably I woke feeling much happier.
Leg 12…..41miles….started 15:00 Tue, arrived at CP12 approx 07:00 Wed……..(Mileage 504-545)
I woke in a better mood, and had the long-suffering Maxine tape my feet up again. I had my usual breakfast (or was it lunch?) before heading out. This would be my last leg over 40 miles, which was a great thought, and although I was going to be on the trail for a long time I remember thinking that the end was perhaps coming into sight.
I had asked for suggestions from the ‘Bob’s running problems’ group to try to lessen the pain on the soles of my feet, and they had suggested taking the inner soles from one of my other pairs of shoes (I had 4 in total) and putting them into the pair I was wearing…basically improving the padding under my feet. This worked immediately, and made a huge difference to how the bottom of my feet helped, unfortunately it also (understandably) made my shoes really tight and so my feet would gradually lose all sensation until I took them out of my shoes whereupon I’d get fantastic pins and needles as the circulation returned.
After a speedy start, at 19:30 I stopped at a pub in Hersley for a swift dinner of lasagne and tea (and to stroke the pub cat).
I was sitting in a beer garden (with my shoes off naturally) as the weather was quite warm, surrounded by groups having evening drinks and generally enjoying themselves. I was a little out of place. Suddenly there was a bloke in running kit in front of me, and one of the guys from my ‘running problems’ group, Paul Pickford, had turned up to see me. It was, as always, great to see a friendly face, and gave me a massive lift. After a brief chat, he ran off (very quickly!) and I plodded on, grinning. I had spent the majority of the previous 9 days on my own, apart from brief stops at the checkpoints. The strangers I encountered were all really pleasant (unlike some of Ellens nutters, but that’s another story) but they were still strangers, who didn’t know me or what I was doing (or why I looked like I did). That’s why just seeing a friendly face for 20 minutes made a huge difference to the day and my mood.
I had a sit under a tree at midnight, to eat a Cornish pasty and take some more painkillers, and the night gently eased away after I napped at 2am and 4am. I remember coming off the South Downs at about 5am, with the dew on the grass being really heavy after a warm day, and my shoes and socks being absolutely soaked. Wet cold feet, descending hills that made my feet hurt more than usual, meant that as I suffered through the last few miles to the checkpoint, I found myself swearing every time I put my right foot down. I don’t mean subtly whispering something under my breath, but shouting the worst sort of swear words at the top of my voice with every step. Hopefully there was no-one around to hear.
Checkpoint 12 was in a pub car park, and I was so tired I did not care at all that the tent was placed on the gravel surface…I just wanted to sleep.
I arrived at 07:00 (Wed) so the pub was closed, but it would be open when I woke up. I had another tin of curry and two packets of super-noodles, and had a chat with Maxine and Sandra, a helper who was assisting at that checkpoint, while I was eating. She had done GUCR a few weeks earlier, so had a rough idea of what I was going through. I sorted my kit for the next leg and fell into a deep sleep.
I had arrived at 07:00 (Wed), while way ahead of me Jon Stocker had arrived at 18:30 (Tue) and Jon Rowles at 22:00 (Tue). Ellen was still behind me, but arrived at the checkpoint at 18:00 (Wed) just as I was leaving…she was soaking wet, exhausted and massively pissed off (which I don’t blame her for!) Peter was still bringing up the rear, but staying ahead of the cut-offs and making consistent progress.
My plan had been to sleep 08:00 to 13:00 and aim to leave the checkpoint at 14:00. When I woke, though, I was told that Maxine had had to go to build the next checkpoint for Jon Stocker, who was pushing hard and was streaking away from me (relatively speaking). She would be back later, so I could try to tape my feet up myself, or wait for her to return at 5ish.
Although I had a little wobble about the lost time, there was absolutely no chance I would risk trying to tape my own feet (and I wasn’t even sure I could bend my legs that far anyway) so I made the best of the lost time, and went to the pub! I’d like to say I had 14 pints and staggered through the next leg, but I stuck to pie and mash, and pints of milk again.
With a full stomach and inside a nice warm pub, I soon fell asleep and had a useful 2 more hours; bringing my total that day to 7 hours – luxury! The guys behind the bar really didn’t know what to make of the various runners they had seen stagger through the restaurant, but I’m happy to report I was the only one that had a sleep in there. They kindly made me a sign to excuse the tramp-like figure slumped in a corner.
While I slept the heavens opened and rained constantly, only stopping about 5pm when I was making my preparations to leave. It was Lindley that turned up to do my feet in the end, and very gentle he was too! I was on the move by about 6pm, well rested and fed.
Leg 13…..35miles….started 18:00 Wed, arrived at C13 approx 06:30 Thu….(Mileage 545-581)
This leg was only 35 miles, so really shouldn’t have taken me over 12 hours. However, the ground and foliage was soaking wet, and every bit of grass and leaf was just waiting to drench me. I started in my full waterproof kit, but it was too hot keeping my heavy jacket on, so I just had waterproof trousers keeping off most of the water from my waist downwards and got everything else wet.
I stopped at a Beefeater pub at Horndean to eat at about 21:00, as this would be the last chance before they all shut overnight, and was able to gulp down a meal and lots of tea in the time most people were still choosing what to eat.
I got a call from a friend, Mark, who asked the extremely sensible question of what my plans were when I finished? I honestly (and perhaps stupidly) had made absolutely no arrangements for finishing, where to stay, how to get home or anything, simply because I was so sure that I would not finish it seemed like tempting fate to even think in that direction. (Yes, I know how stupid this sounds, now, but it made complete sense at the time!) Bless Mark, he leapt into action when I told him my lack of plans, and started sorting me out a B&B for the night and to come and get me! What a star!
I do not remember much about the night section, other than I spent a memorable part going through a very dark forest, where the mist and condensation reduced the visibility to about 2 metres, and the vague path I was following kept meandering off in the wrong direction. There was some forestry work being carried out, so it looked like there were new paths made for the workers to access new parts of the forest. I suspect in the daytime, navigation was easy, but that night was definitely the most difficult and confusing leg I had done yet. And I was dead tired, that probably didn’t help.
I was managing my feet with far too many painkillers, but they were soaking wet for the whole 12 hour leg, so rubbing themselves to pieces. I had my normal stops at midnight, 2am and 4am for something to eat and a 10 minute nap to keep my head together.
The next morning was a lovely sunrise but I was not interested…I just wanted to get to the checkpoint (my last checkpoint before the finish!) and have a rest in my sleeping bag.
I arrived at 06:30 (Thu) and did my usual job of eating a tin of curry with super-noodles. For some reason I didn’t have much of an appetite, perhaps the excitement of being near the end. After just 2 hours of sleep, I woke and again was much too pumped up to go back to sleep. I spent a little time on my phone trying to sort out arrangements for finishing, as Mark couldn’t come down to collect me until the Saturday, and I was intent on finishing on Friday. In the end I called my sister Sue, who was able to sort her life out to get me Friday morning. This was genuinely the first time I had made the commitment that I was actually going to finish this thing.
Jon Stocker had arrived at that checkpoint at 14:40 (Wed) and Jon Rowles just behind him at 18:10 (Wed). Ellen would arrive at 13:30 (Wed). Peter, bringing up the rear would be there at 10:00 (Sat) and was still within the cut-offs. You can imagine the logistical nightmare for Lindley and Maxine with a spread of 65 hours between the first and last runners.
With a quick breakfast and coffee, Maxine taped my feet for the last time (I did share my slight anxiety about what I would do without her to sort my poorly feet each morning, after the race), and I got on the move. I hate to think the shambolic figure I must have looked like, but I was just looking to get to the end now. While I was at the checkpoint Maxine heard that Jon Stocker had finished at about 09:30, in an amazing time of 287 hours, a new course record.
Leg 14…..34miles….started 12:00 Thu, arrived at C14 (the bloody finish!) approx 05:30 Friday …..(Mileage 581-615)
The first section of this leg seemed to be full of hills, some of them really steep and rather challenging in my hobbling style. I got to a decent big town, Arundel, and happily stopped in a pub for more pie and mash. The girl behind the bar happily loaded my two pints of milk and two teas onto one tray, and looked at my pityingly when I asked her to carry them out to the beer garden as I was worried I would drop them. Once she took a good look at me, though, she said yes.
So there I was, eating (again) in a beer garden with my shoes off, and looking at the route I had ahead. I had a big section of countryside, before descending into Brighton to the pier, and then tracking along the seafront for a while to Shoreham. It didn’t look far (famous last words).
I kept moving, but again much more slowly that I wanted due to my feet and general exhaustion. The route followed the South Downs way (I think) and was bloody uphill or downhill most of the way.
The very memorable vision of seeing the sea for the first time, and when I saw Brighton was really emotional, even though I still had miles to go. The thought of being near enough to the finish line to be able to see it (in the distance) after 12 days was truly humbling. I stopped at the same time as a bunch of mountain bikers, and checked with them that it was definitely Brighton in the distance. Naturally, they asked where I was coming from as I looked like death, and I was chuffed with their faces when I said “600 miles away”.
I’d like to say the rest of the afternoon and evening was great, but I’d be lying. I just wanted it all to be over, but I was moving so slowly that the 15 miles I still had to cover after seeing Brighton for the first time was going to take hours and hours. As darkness fell I was still out on the downs, and the route seemed to consist of lots of little diversions out to a point and then returning back along the same path, it was maddening (but I made very sure I completed every single one of them!).
At long last I reached the outskirts of Brighton, and moved through the outskirts heading for the centre. It was about 01:00am Friday morning, and I hadn’t eaten since the pub in Arundel at 3pm-ish. I was tired, and hungrier than I should allowed myself to get. As I neared the centre I started to see group of ‘youths’ (as I like to call them, being firmly middle aged), but apart from a bit of banter with them they didn’t come near me. To be fair, I suspect they were more afraid of being attacked by the smelly homeless man, than the other way round.
I had to stop at a burger place, at about 2.30am, as it looked like I still had some miles to go and I was not going to make it without some fuel. I had a bit of a chat with the owner, and he made me the biggest double burger I’ve seen in a while…one of those that the fillings all slip out the far side when you pick it up to eat it. I had 2 cans of fizzy with it, and left with a bag of chips (just in case I got peckish in the next 10 minutes).
And I’d like to say the next three hours were a triumph of mental awesomeness as I pulled my poor broken body into a fast sprint and hoofed it to the end. Unfortunately, that was not the case, and I spent the next three hours slogging from the pier on Brighton’s seafront to Shoreham. It was a straight, flat, boring trek, and I was taking some real pain from my feet as I always seemed to do at the end of each leg. I had had too many painkillers in the last 24 hours to take any more, and I suspect some of the pain was in my head anyway.
My will to keep moving was definitely wavering, and I allowed myself a 10 minute rest on every 20th bench…and there were benches quite frequently along the seafront as you may expect. Too frequently, I was checking the tracker on my phone that showed my dot getting closer to the finish line, but ohhhh so slowly. Just wasting time to get to the end.
As dawn came up at about 4.30am, I was still much too far from the finish, but all I could do was keep dragging myself towards the end. I hope I’m giving the right impression here, I was truly finished. I was limping badly, and not really lifting my feet but shuffling them along the ground. Each and every step was a struggle, and a groan or a swear with each step made it slightly more bearable. Obviously, I should have just given myself a shake and got on with it, but I was so shattered I just did not have anything left to give. I have never been so broken in my life.
I had left Brighton and Hove behind me now, and the residential areas had turned into an industrial park full of lorries. Very picturesque.
I could see a figure ahead, in the far distance but could not make or whether it was Lindley at the finish. With his beard he is usually quite noticeable, but not today (or maybe my eyes were just not working). Anyway, it turned out to be him, and he kindly videoed me shuffling to the finish, looking entirely broken, which I was.
It was a perfect, entirely low-key finish, which suited me down to the ground. I had a sit on the Monarchs Way bench, signifying the end of the route, and then climbed (slowly) into the back of Lindley’s truck, for a sleep while we waited for Ellen to come running (yes, she ran the last bit along the seafront, god help me) to the end. I finished at 05:30 (Fri) with Ellen just behind me at 08:30 (Fri).
I’m not going to lie; I felt absolutely nothing other than relief at finishing…no elation, no emotion, nothing. I’d had a horribly rough night and morning, and was not really with it. I just wanted to sit, rest, get my shoes off, and eventually sleep. Lindley drove me back to the previous checkpoint where my sister (bless her) was waiting, and we got my drop-bags and headed for home.
And that’s it! Peter went on to finish in the early hours of Saturday morning, within the cut-offs, and that brought Monarchs Way 2019 to a close.
John Stocker – 287:32:48
Jon Rowles – 290:04:28
Bob Wild – 308:30:05
Ellen Cottom – 310:25:38
Peter Bengtsson -325:20:47
DNF – Victoria Owens & Tony Hewett.
I would say my recovery was….slow.
I attended the minor injuries unit the morning after I got home to get my feet sorted. The doctor displayed a professional interest in the mess my feet were as he discussed with the nurse the best way to treat them. I went to have various parts of them re-dressed (mainly my right foot toes) another 5 times. I lost two toenails, and another one that is looking wobbly. My feet still hurt when I walk on a hard floor, in my socks, as if all the ‘meat’ on the soles that normally provides padding has gone, and I’m just walking on the nubs of bones. I will not make you suffer through horrible foot pics here…but if you are interested, you can see a few HERE.
I was tired after finishing, but was only able to sleep in short spaces of 5 or 6 hours (with epic night sweats), rather than a lovely long 12 hour sleep. I was back at work on Monday morning, where my colleagues were very understanding at my lack of energy and concentration – it provided much hilarity. I was able to shuffle around, but just walking up stairs would have me out of breath and needing a sit down. A full week after finishing, I was still feeling absolutely tired all the time. Two weeks later, I’m happy to say it’s mostly passed.
I didn’t want to know how much weight I lost, but you could see my ribs quite clearly when I took my shirt off. My wife said I looked grey. I undertook the serious task of absorbing as much beer and Doritos as possible for the next week, and then the same the week after. To be fair, my eating regime for the last 5 days was rubbish, and I paid the price for that.
My bad memories of the event are gradually fading, as they usually do after an ultra, otherwise you would never do another! This report, as usual, has helped me recall the good parts and relive the bad. But nothing will ever allow me to forget that final struggle along the seafront to the finish line…that has scarred me. Would I ever do this race again…no…but that is more due to my nature of not wanting to do the same race twice (if I finish it first time round). There are too many fabulous races out there to waste precious time doing the same one twice (especially if it takes a fortnight to complete!)
And would I do another long race, or even a longer one beyond 600 miles? Probably, yes, but only if I can learn a lot more about how to keep my feet in one piece.
So, just a few thanks…
Firstly, thanks to you for reading this. It has taken a fair few hours to write (as you can imagine) and I do it entirely for my own amusement and to be able to read at a later date. Otherwise I simply forget all the details and it disappears in to the ether. Hopefully you got something from it, please leave a comment if you did.
Then, thanks to Lindley and Maxine (and Bruce and Sandra) for setting up this great race and looking after me so well. Maxine especially must have had a horrible time dealing with my manky feet every day, and did it without once complaining, no matter how tired she was.
To the other runners, whether finishers or not, thanks for making this such a brilliant experience. Every interaction I had with you all was cheerful and positive, even when we were all hurting.
Thanks to my “Bob’s running problems” group of experienced ultra runners, who helped me far more than I would ever have believed. To go to sleep, having posed a problem, and then wake up to loads of ideas and suggestions was great, and it really felt like you were out there with me. So, in no particular order….Jo Barrett, Ben Davies, Dave Falkner, Paul Pickford, John Hunt, Mark Foster….you’re all super-stars.
Thanks to the guys that phoned me and somehow kept my spirits up…Pam and Derek especially, and John and Mark. I found the fact of knowing people out there were watching the tracker and thinking of me enough to call was really uplifting, especially at the low points.
To the guys that came out to meet me on the trail….Janie & Mikey Brownstone, Jon & Jo Holl, Paul Pickford, internet strangers Angus and Barry. What an unexpected treat to see you all, and what a massive lift you gave me.
To all the pubs, cafes and shops I went into, looking like a tramp. Thanks for being nice to me.
Thanks to my kids, Michael and Abigail, who put up my strange ways, and don’t complain too much. I owe you an ice cream.
To my long-suffering wife, Claire (who accidentally told me she never reads my whole race-report, but just skims to the end to see if she’s mentioned) thanks, I love you, and I will be testing you on the contents of this report later tonight.
And finally, thanks and apologies to my body, mind and most importantly my feet for what I put you through with this run. Whilst I did not know what to expect, I never thought I would beat myself up quite this badly…and I promise never to do it again (until next time).
And that’s it. The end. Unless you want to read all about my recommendations and suggestions if you plan to run this race…which is HERE.
There’s a small population of runners that run ultras for fun.
There’s a really very small proportion of those ultra-runners that know what a ‘Cockbain Event’ is.
There’s a really really small proportion of those people that would consider entering a Cockbain event. I’m now one of them.
Let me explain…
Imagine a standard 100mile or 150 mile ultra.
Then think of ways to make it as hard as possible. Perhaps the checkpoints should be few and far between, with minimal facilities. Maybe the navigation should be made more difficult by banning GPS devices, so only a map & compass are allowed. Let’s put the race in January, so it gets dark at 5pm and stays dark for 13 or 14 hours. How about following a national trail, but a relatively low-key one so the signposts are minimal and the trails are muddy and unruly. Obviously, you cannot have a crew or anyone to support you along the way. And finally, just in case there is a chance of more than 20% of starters finishing, let’s put some really tight cut-offs in place, to weed out most of the ‘average’ runners (and some of the great ones, if they make a navigation error).
….and there you have a Cockbain ultra.
They are, by design, some of the most challenging races available in the UK, and hence have few starters, and even fewer finishers. Even as I placed my entry for the Winter Viking Way in mid 2018, I knew the chances of finishing were absolutely tiny but I had been watching these events for a while and it seemed the right time to tackle one.
The Viking way is a 147 mile path, from Hull, winding south, to finish at Oakham. Not too hilly, but poor terrain and lots of countryside to travel through. In the Lake District you get some massive lumpy bits to go over, but some spectacular scenery to reward along the way. The Viking way is relatively flat, with flat rubbish scenery to go with it, as if to make it even crapper to look at & run along.
Have I set the scene? Does it sound appealing enough? Didn’t think so.
Let me explain the time constraints for you. You have 40 hours to complete the 147 miles, which is just on the difficult side of quite doable and there are cut-offs at 50 miles (12.5 hours) and 100 miles (26.5 hours). For a good runner, on good terrain, these are not outrageously tight, but put a lot of the route on poor muddy track, and add in a lot of navigation that naturally slows the pace (and loses time with every wrong turn) and you start to get a little short of time.
In my younger days (well, 2014) I had run the very flat Grand Union Canal race (145 miles) in a respectable 32 hours, but I’ve become fat and lazy (and old) since then so I was quite realistic about not hitting the cut-offs going into the race. This was more a chance to experience a winter race (like the Spine Challenger I did last year) and also dip my toe into the exclusive club of Cockbain. I’d be lying if I didn’t have a vague hope that I would suddenly become a running god and finish the race.
So, training in the months before was pretty poor (see the note above about becoming fat and lazy). I did get the chance to recce the first hundred miles in early November, which gave me a good feel for the terrain to expect (30% grassy edge-of-field tracks, 50% muddy trail, 20% road or path). I spent about three days on the trail, carrying full camping gear, and took it quite slowly, especially with the map reading. But by the end I felt I had a good handle on what to expect. Mistakenly, I only did a few hours in the dark, which did not prepare me at all for the night-navigation that I would later find so difficult.
The weather was forecasting snow & rain in the weeks before, but finally settled on rain, which rather suited the starting point, Hull. I got there on the Friday evening, and had an amusing chat with Oscar, the receptionist at the Premier Inn where most of us were staying. He was amazed at the stream of runners coming to check in, and was talking to everyone as they came through. He’s definitely a future ultra runner.
Surprisingly, the race registration wasn’t a long line of tables, manned by cheerful volunteers checking kit and handing out race numbers, answering questions and organising pre-race logistics. Nope. It was Mark Cockbain, in the bar, with a plastic box containing an envelope for each runner. In the envelope was a race number, safety pins, and a tracker. Job done – that was quick!
With the rest of the evening stretching ahead, I had a meal and listened to the chat of the other runners and crew that were there. It was good to put faces to Karen and Peter (the main crew) who I suspected I’d be relying on at the later stages of the race.
On saturday morning, myself and a few of the runners I’d met the previous night got a taxi to the start on the far side of the Humber Bridge. The taxi driver was entirely bemused at what he was seeing. It was darker than I expected, even though it was only 6.30am, and the group of 29 starters was lit up with head torches and reflective bits in the darkenss.
Mark gave a suitably harsh race briefing, including such gems as:
• “If you get lost, don’t call me…I’ve got the same maps you’ve got and I won’t know where you are”,
• and a treat of “I was hoping the weather would be a lot worse for the race, it only looks like a bit of rain overnight. I’m disappointed”
It was a great way to start, absolutely what was needed to tell everyone that they were in for a tough time. Looking around, I felt I was the only Southerner there (everyone else had a good strong northern accent…I must practise mine for next time).
And then it was time to start, a long blow on an airhorn and we trotted off along a nice path leading under the Humber Bridge.
As expected, a small group of about 5 went off really quickly and soon disappeared into the distance. The rest of us kept a more gentle pace and settled into the first few hours. I chatted to quite a few people, including Dave Fawkner & Ben Davies who I’d met on the Thames Ring 250 with in 2017, and Alan Cormack that I’d chatted briefly to before Escape from Meriden (Chained) in November. As always, those first few hours were very pleasant and relaxed…before the tough bits started.
I remembered the route pretty well from my recce, but as there were so many runners strung out over the course of a mile it was easy to stick to the route. The first checkpoint at mile 16 came quickly, and sure enough, it was a culinary delight consisting of bags of mini-cheddars, a tub of Haribo, water and coke. Like most others, I was carrying food I knew I liked, so I whipped out a tin of mackerel (yes, I know it sounds disgusting, but I like it) and carried on. Definitely no pampering at the checkpoints!
Along this next section I got talking to Bev, one of the three lady starters, who was running really well. Talk turned to the recent Spine race that had finished the previous weekend, and the miles flew by. We went through a lot of fields that, in previous years, had contained some cows & bulls (the race is usually held in April) but at this time the fields were all empty, apart from some deer and rare sheep that Bev pointed out to me.
We caught up to a group of three blokes, all running strongly, one of whom was a guy called Riccardo that I’d never met before but seen his name at previous races. He (and the two other blokes who were Carl & Karl I think) were previous finishers on the Viking Way and were clearly out there having fun. Carl or Karl had the fullest Raidlight rucksack I’ve ever seen, I’ve no idea what he had in it, but it looked heavy.
Going up one particular hill, someone brought up the matter of writing race reports (because hardly anyone writes race reports for Cockbain races, they are too busy getting out running and being hardcore), and Riccardo suggested that he didn’t think anyone should write a report unless they finished the race. Oh dear. I had to confess that I’d probably be writing one, even with a DNF highly likely, so I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise personally to anyone that is wasting their time reading this rubbish. Sorry.
The terrain was still relatively decent (compared to later in the race) with the ground not being too wet (yet). The second aid station at Tealby (mile 31) came around quickly and had hot water! I took the opportunity to have some hot soup (I never run without cup-a-soup nowadays) and a Cornish pasty. My usual stomach problems were not going to happen today! I spent a few minutes sorting out a couple of paracetamol and refilling bottles, before leaving with another tin of mackerel to eat on the first mile.
I linked up with Ben after this, who rather cleverly kept me running whenever possible, rather than walking. We chatted the miles away talking about everything from running to families to jobs. Ben seemed happy to stick with someone else despite me going slower than I should have, and it made a massive difference to me to have someone to keep me moving quickly. We travelled through long sections of countryside, following the edges of fields , until we came to the next town. It was still light and fairly warm, and all very pleasant. Ben’s family were meeting him every hour or so, for a bit of moral support, so it was nice to have a couple of exciting kids (even if they weren’t mine) to look forward to.
My maps consisted of 34 A4 pages, and every 10km or so I’d take great pleasure in getting rid of a page and moving to the next one…very therapeutic! Shortly before we got to the third checkpoint (mile 50, and access to our dropbags) Ben dropped back as his family had met him for the last time, and I carried on. It was dusk by now, and starting to get a bit colder and the rain started. 20 minutes later, it was blowing a gale and throwing some good horizontal rain at me. (Ben never did catch me up, dropping out with an injury shortly afterwards, which was a shame as he was going really well.)
I got a bit lost in Fulletby, the last village before CP3, and was rescued by another runner Colin, who was having a rough time and really not enjoying himself. As we walked the last mile he told me about having finished the Spine 4 times, but his heart wasn’t in it today, so he’d probably drop out at the upcoming checkpoint. I really felt for him, mainly because I simply didn’t know what to say.
At about 6pm, the checkpoint finally arrived, and I’d like to say it was somewhere warm and dry, out of the wind and rain, with a full selection of sumptuous foods to sample. But of course, the reality was trying to shelter in the rear of a freezing transit van (with the rear doors open, naturally) with a load of drop bags and other runners. The weather was properly filthy and the crew there did a storming job looking after people as the wind was making it difficult enough just to boil a kettle on a camping stove.
I changed my soggy gear into dry stuff, and prepared for a night of rain in my hard-shell waterproof jacket and trousers. They wouldn’t be much good for running, but would keep me fairly dry. I was realistic enough to know that I probably would be pushed for time if I did make the 100 mile cut-off, so I carried a sensible amount of kit with me in case of trouble.
There were more runners appearing every few minutes, so I tried to get out of the transit as quickly as I could so that someone else could get the shelter. It didn’t help that I was positioned by the side door of the transit, which was thrown open every time someone wanted sugar with their tea (because there was nowhere else dry to keep the sugar, of course) but it unleashed a hell of a gale through the van. Phew!
Back onto the road by the transit, and the wind really showed what it could do. It must have been pretty exposed there as the crew were doing an amazing job in the conditions. Once I got away from the road and back onto the trail the trees gave me a bit of shelter and I stopped to put some music on to see the night out.
I saw a couple of runners making the very sensible decision of ducking into a chip shop at the next town, Horncastle, and went in to see what looked good. It was Alan Cormack and a friend, both looking very strong and ordering lots of chips. I settled on a bottle of Coke and moved on, thinking they would catch me soon.
In the dark, the navigation got rather more difficult, until a long straight disused railway (with some bizarre sculptures) that must have lasted 3 or 4 miles before a golf course and then Woodhall Spa. It was quite sheltered in the trees and much more pleasant. Quite a few runners overtook me as I was slowing to my usual plodding speed, and I got to Woodhall Spa about 10pm. The wind and rain had stopped thank goodness, so I took the opportunity to have a bit more food (yup, more magical mackerel) before my stomach shut down for the night.
It was probably from here that I really started to make some navigation errors in the dark. It was taking me far too long to work out which way to turn at each junction, and somehow I managed to enter checkpoint 4 (mile 63, Stixwold) from entirely the wrong direction. The two guys there were kind enough to say that I was about the third person to have arrived from that direction, but I suspect they were just saying that. They had rigged a decent tarpaulin over their truck and had a couple of chairs that looked very inviting, but I knew I couldn’t stay long without getting cold, so I had a very pleasant bowl of soup and went on my way. At that point I was in pretty good spirits and I head into the night feeling pretty chirpy and positive.
Unfortunately, the night stretched out ahead, and by midnight I was starting to flag a little. Some little things were bugging me that I should have just ignored, and to cap it all my headtorch died and I had to change to my spare battery. Very frustrating. From my recce I knew that I had a couple of tricky parts to navigate, as well as a couple of very muddy fields to go across (rather than round the edge). There was a couple of other runners (one of which had a really hacking cough) leapfrogging me every so often, so at least I knew I was on the right route, but my judgement was starting to slip. I tried to stop and eat at about 2am, but my stomach was not having anything and decided to be sick a few times for fun.
The wind and rain started up again, but it was quite manageable, until I got to a long embankment (yes, another disused railway) on the stretch into Lincoln. On the maps it only looks like about 3 miles, but the wind & rain were vicious, coming really strongly from the side, to the extent that I was using my hand up against the side of my face to protect the only area of skin exposed to the wind. It was bitterly cold and I knew there was a turn off the embankment coming up soonish, but it seemed to take forever.
I remember really struggling to stay on the narrow track, with the tiredness and wind pushing me all over the place. Not to mention the mole hills. Dear god, the sodding mole hills. The absolute last thing you want, when keeping your head bent downwards to protect from the wind, and your half-asleep brain only just keeping your body moving forwards, is mounds of loose earth, like little land mines, that are just the right height to smash your foot into and to try to trip you up, without actually stopping you, but giving you that tripping sensation every few seconds. Bloody moles had clearly sabotaged the track along this bloody embankment, and had laid their sodding hills with military precision to catch out sleepy runners every couple of steps. Little bastards.
But the embankment came to an end after about 3 weeks, and I made the right turn that I’d been waiting for. I knew the checkpoint was close, but not exactly where, and was really surprised to see a car parked on the road up ahead, with its lights on. I convinced myself that it wasn’t the checkpoint as there was no table or anything nearby, just a lone parked car, which I thought must belong to a supporter or something. Then Karen appeared out of the darkness, like an angel, and said “quick, get in the car where it’s warm”. Oh bliss, I threw myself in, still wearing my pack, just to get out of that awful wind. It was warm and lovely in there, with the other runner (that had the cough) already in there. Karen sorted me with a cup of soup, and I started to warm up and come back to life. It was 5am, and the thought of another couple of hours in that weather and darkness was not appealing at all.
The other runner, Nick, started to make noises about dropping out there. With a cough like that I think he made absolutely the right decision. A car pulled up behind, which turned out to be Ronnie Stanton, supporting one of the runners behind me that he coached. It was just as well he was there as another runner, Jon Steele, turned up who would have made it a very tight fit in our car! Karen somehow looked after all of us at the same time, and I started to think about having to get out of the car to carry on….not a great thought. Even just opening the car door to get my pack off blasted the whole car with cold wind (sorry Nick) and I shut it again pretty quickly.
But I couldn’t stay there for much longer. With hindsight I should have eaten more to get my body woken up, but I couldn’t really stomach much. That warm car was a loveliest place in the whole of England just then and I was going to have to leave it. I consoled myself with the thought that I reckoned it was only 12 miles to the checkpoint after Lincoln and I could rest or stop there if I wanted. This was, unfortunately, entirely incorrect, as it was nearer 17-20 miles to go, but it was probably just as well I didn’t know that.
Out of the checkpoint, the wind grabbed me straight away and got rid of any warmth I’d built up in the lovely warm car, but I got straight on and moved quite well for the next hour or so to warm up. I had been warned that the navigation through Lincoln was difficult: “head up hill to the cathedral, then to head downhill to the football ground and turn left.” The map was sketchy to say the least and I’d been told about a runner in previous years that had been lost in Lincoln for some time.
Rather luckily, just as I approached a locked gate that the route went through, Jon Steele caught me up and proceeded to take me directly up to the cathedral and then jog back down the hill, chatting all the way (well, not so much on the way down). He had finished the Viking Way in 2014 (in a vey respectable time) and was a really friendly bloke. He went ahead of me on the descent, but I saw a sign for the football ground and followed my nose until I found it.
The streets were pretty empty apart from people going to work (it was about 7am on Sunday, so there weren’t many!) I asked a convenient local if I was going in the right direction on the map, and he luckily pointed me in the right direction through the maze of streets to the far side of Lincoln. After a particular bugger of a hill (the road sign said 12% but I reckon it was near vertical) and then I was back on trail, a long path that seemed to overlook the whole city.
It soon got light, which perked me up as usual, and the Jon caught me up from behind, having got lost near the football ground somewhere. We stuck together for the next few miles semi-following the map & signposts, apart from one memorable part when we had somehow got turned round and were about to head the wrong direction until Ronnie Stanton turned up in his car (excellent timing) to point us in the right direction.
Shortly after that (funny that!) Jon decided to run ahead to see if he could make the cut-off at the next checkpoint, which I hoped meant it wasn’t far to go. Unfortunately it lasted ages, and the last page of the map before I got to the checkpoint seemed to take forever. The track was muddy and unpleasant…nicely sloping down towards a rusty barbed wire fence in case you slipped. Three mountain bikers went past, and then hilariously had to keep stopping to unclog their chains from all the mud that was clogging them up.
I’d like to say the last hour or so was a triumphant lap of honour into the final checkpoint, but it was a slow long drag. I’d missed the cut-off, so wouldn’t be going any further, but it was a shame to finish like that. I was pretty sure that there would be no-one left at the checkpoint, as they would have been waiting around for ages, and I’d already made my plans to backtrack to the previous town, Wellingore, and get a taxi if required. But I was massively surprised to see a few cars still there, and the van (meat wagon) that had been transporting runners that had dropped back to the checkpoint was waiting for me. That was a very pleasant surprise, and an easy way to get back to the hotel.
Because the race entry was relatively small, most of us were in the same hotel in Oakham, and so after a quick sort out and sleep, there was a small crowd in the bar watching the tracker and waiting for runners to finish. My wife had driven up to meet me (because it was our 20th wedding anniversary, obviously) and we had a nice meal in the hotel before a good nights sleep.
In the end, 6 runners finished, which was a superb achievement given the conditions. Alan Cormack, who was the last person through the 100 mile checkpoint before it closed made a valiant effort to beat the cut-off, but didn’t make it in the end.
And what do I think a few days later? I had a blast, only managing 100 miles (which isn’t great) but the atmosphere and team spirit in this small race more than made up for it. With only 29 starters (and 6 finishers) it was a friendly feel, and meant most of us were at the same hotel at the start and finish. The non-pampering aid stations were fine and adequate, provided you didn’t expect a banquet (or brought your own food), and was a great leveller.
The route was pretty uninspiring to be honest, with little scenery and too much mud. But it was mainly off-road and had towns every few miles so easy for re-supply. In January, the fields were deserted, but I imagine in April they are a lot busier with walkers and rampant cows & bulls.
The crews at the various checkpoints were brilliant, with just the right amount of care (but not too much). Karen and Peter were in the background all the time, and the organisation all seemed very slick.
So is a Cockbain event suitable for everyone? Absolutely not, but don’t let that put you off. I’m not quick enough to achieve cut-offs on most Cockbain races, but I loved the atmosphere and enjoyed every minute.
Last but not least, as always, a very quick thanks to my long-suffering wife, who is getting used to travelling to odd places for our wedding anniversary, maybe Kirk Yetholm next year! Who knows?
There comes a time in every man’s life that he has the urge to see how far he can run whilst chained to another runner. It may not be the most logical urge, but it should not be ignored.
And that is the short version of how I came to be linked at the wrist to a bloke I’d met just once before, at midnight, at the centre of England (a place called Meriden, near Coventry) with 36 hours of running ahead of us…and the inevitable awkwardness to come that occurs when you need the toilet and can’t hold it any more.
But I’m getting ahead of myself…let me explain.
The ‘Escape from Meriden’ race is a great idea: a few hundred runners all set off from the same place and can take any route they want to get as far away from the central point as they can, as the crow flies. This means that route choice is hugely important, and puts a new slant on the usual ultra races that simply ask you to follow a pre-determined route. There are no cut-offs here, or even a finish line….you run as far and as fast as you want, stopping for food whenever you want, until your time is up. You have a tracker that shows where you’ve gone, and tells the computer what your final distance was.
You have 24 hours as a single runner, which is quite a respectable time to get a decent distance away if you choose a direct route. If you choose to be chained to a friend, as part of the Cockbain Events twist on the idea, you get 36 hours to travel as far as possible. Naturally, given the sadistic nature of Cockbain (who simply makes already difficult ultra runs as hard as possible, verging on the impossible), the 36 hours allows more time to fall out with the idiot you have chained yourself to, more time to need the toilet, more time for the cable ties at your wrist to cut deeper, and more time to not be able to put on or take off any upper clothing as it gets cold at night or warm in the daytime.
And the race started at midnight, so that people would get the least possible sleep beforehand and feel really terrible at the end.
And did I mention that they like you to wear an orange boiler suit so that you both look like escaped convicts? No? I didn’t think so…it’s kind of unlike most other ultras in most respects, but that’s a good thing. Perhaps.
I’d entered in November 2017, after seeing the aftermath of that years run, and had planned on running with my usual running mate John, but he has taken some time out and so a few months ago I asked a guy I’d met doing Ultra-Trail Snowdonia in May whether he’d be interested. Adrian basically prevented me from dying on the jagged peaks of Wales (race report HERE, but be warned – it wasn’t pleasant) and after spending most of the 26 hours together for that event we were quite well acquainted. He is a true mountain goat, and considers ‘scrambling’ (what I call “dangerous mountain climbing”) a key part of a good hilly ultra. He has completed loads of tough races abroad, like UTMB 3 times, MdS, and others that need abbreviations as I can’t spell them.
I don’t have quite the same qualifications, but I’ve done a few longish ultras like TR250 and GUCR, and a few fairly tough races like Arc of Attrition and Spine Challenger. I’m happiest running on the flattest part of flat Kent, especially if I’m allowed to walk a lot and eat cheese rolls.
But the most important quality I needed for my partner at this event was the fact that Adrian is happy to chat away for hours and hours (hopefully 36 hours in fact) which he had shown me in May. It’s not easy spending that long with someone (attached to them!), but I was confident that we would while away the hours in a very enjoyable way.
My original route, when John had been my partner, had been to link up to the Grand Union Canal, which would lead us toward London for 100 miles. Adrian had other ideas however and rather cleverly worked out a detailed route that took us towards Liverpool (literally in the opposite direction to the one I’d been planning). His route was more direct, and was also mainly on canals, so was flat and simple.
One of the principles of the race, as it has no finish line, is to get a certain distance away from the starting point as the crow flies to earn a medal. For the single runners, in 24 hours, 30 miles away meant a silver medal, 60 miles away gave a gold medal and 90 miles away meant a much coveted black medal. To travel 90 miles in 24 hours as the crow flies would mean a total distance of probably closer to 105 miles, which is good going considering there are no aid stations or rest points.
As a chained runner the targets were a little simpler…get over 90 miles as the crow flies & 130 miles total distance to earn a chained medal. That’s much easier to understand, although much harder to achieve, even if you do have 36 hours to do it in.
Adrian’s route would get us 90 miles in about 105 miles of running, and then if we were in good enough shape we could make up the distance to 130 miles by running back and
forth along the flattest piece of land we could find.
We communicated by messenger throughout October and November, making arrangements and sorting out most of the logistical things. It was pretty clear that our best chance of getting a long way was going to be to find someone to crew us as the route did not have much in the way of places to eat. Adrian managed to find a willing guy, Dom, who was looking to turn our run into an assignment for his journalism course, and thought we would make for an interesting subject. I think it is a great idea, but I imagine you won’t be seeing me on Netflix any time soon.
My thoughts beforehand were quite mixed: I was looking forward to the run (as always) and with my wife driving up to Liverpool at the end, it was looking likely to be a really decent weekend away. However, I was understandably nervous about the chain aspect – the picture that Mark Cockbain put onto Facebook a few weeks before made the chains look bloody heavy and that would be really unpleasant after a while.
I was also really quite uncomfortable about the fact that I wouldn’t be able to put a coat or top layer on or off for the duration of the run. I really don’t like to be too hot or cold, and the idea of having to wear the same layers at 2 a.m. (beside a freezing canal) and at 2pm, when the sun would be shining, was preying on my mind. In the end I decided on two good thick layers, both with zips to vent heat as required, but nothing waterproof or too heavy, with the hope that the activity would keep me warm enough. Both Adrian and I had plastic ponchos that we would use if it rained hard, but luckily the worst we had was some heavy drizzle.
The race started at midnight Friday night, so I got the train to Meriden in the afternoon (from deepest Kent) and spent the next few hours in a pub eating burgers and dozing. As it got busier in there I found a quieter corner and sorted my kit out. Whilst everyone was starting to get pissed, it appeared I was the only one in there changing my socks and changing batteries in GPS units, strangely.
At about 8pm I made my way to the local Methodist Church, to find it all locked up and 3 other runners slumped outside waiting for someone to turn up. The midnight start was particularly disconcerting as we all felt ready to get going, and still had hours to wait.
I wondered off to the town centre to get some more food (fish and chips this time, if you’re interested) and some orange juice. And some more food for the run (you really can never have enough!)
We got in about 9.30ish, and lounged around on chairs while the organisers sorted themselves out. There was a very relaxed atmosphere, with no mandatory kit check, no race numbers (although they were available if you wanted), and even the coffee that was provided by the church helpers was done for a donation rather than £2 per cup.
As Adrian hadn’t yet arrived, I registered and got our tracker, and collected our orange boiler suits. I should point out that boiler-suit-wearing wasn’t strictly enforced, but I thought it made for much more fun. In fact, it may well become a ‘thing’ in future as by the end mine had kept in really good condition, despite various bushes and trees tugging at it along the way and despite the hours of drizzle on the first night (it was made of papery material, so didn’t absorb the moisture). It kept me warm when I needed it but unzipped down to the crotch to release heat if required. It definitely should be part of every ultra from now on, but perhaps not in bright orange.
Mark Cockbain set his table up in a corner, with chains, and stood there looking suitably hardcore. Most people avoided him. I definitely did.
While I waited, I got chatting to a Scottish guy that I thought I recognised from Facebook, and sure enough it was Alan McCormack who I’ve followed through some amazing runs that he’s done over the last few years. He was doing chained too (naturally!) and I was suitably in awe to be in the same room as him.
Adrian got there about 10.30pm, and we went outside to Dom’s car to faff with kit and stuff. We sorted our kit and I talked Dom through the mechanics of the little camping stove I’d brought along for hot food. We got into our orange boiler suits and wandered back into the hall for the race briefing (“Don’t travel on motorways, don’t die, good luck”) and saw quite a few chained runners had already got their chains fitted. We got to the table and were in fact the last people to be linked together. I had a thick sweat band on my left wrist, which I hoped would deal with the inevitable chaffing, and the two chunkiest cable-ties were quickly tightened on. The chain wasn’t as heavy as I’d worried about, but it was still very noticeable, and as it was only a metre long neither Adrian nor I had much space to manoeuvre. It was going to be interesting running like this!
We were the last to leave the hall and make our way to the stone cross that signifies the centre of Meriden (and England). There seemed to be a lot of people waiting to run, and before we knew it there was a countdown and we were off. Probably the most bizarre thing of the whole race was a start where the whole group of 200 runners all went in different directions.
Congratulations reader! You’d made it to the start of the run! It (surely) can only get more interesting from here….or perhaps not!
So Adrian and I set off running, attached at his right wrist (& my left) by a 1 metre chain. In fact, despite not having practised or even met each other since the race we did in May, we settled into an easy jog and began to work out what our game plan was going to be for the next 36 hours. Adrian had planned a good flat, easy, route and I had it on my little GPS unit that would keep us on track. I would be the navigator. Adrian was probably going to set the pace for the first part as he was less used to running on flat canals, so he would go in front if we couldn’t run side-by-side. He would keep his phone switched off to conserve battery, and in fact was barely carrying anything other than his phone and a bit of food. I would keep my phone on as I was carrying a charging block & leads and tons of other essential bits & bobs. This meant I was in charge of communications with Dom in the car. It was a good start as we chatted about what the next few hours and miles would hold.
It was amazing how quickly everyone else disappeared into surrounding roads leaving us to our own devices. Luckily, we both took the chance to have a wee (together) before we were entirely alone – sorry about that everyone. The roads we started on were quite quiet, and as it was midnight we were able to run side-by-side most of the time.
When we joined the canal our path was quite wide and decent, but every time we came to a narrow part Adrian took the lead and trailed his right arm back slightly and I went behind and extended my chained wrist, meaning that we still kept up the pace without too many difficulties.
The route took us south of Birmingham and onto Wolverhampton. It was all fairly built up and industrial for the first 20-30 miles, which wasn’t the most picturesque part of the run, but the surface was excellent which more than made up for it.
Although it was the early hours of the morning, and neither of us had slept, we chatted the miles away and caught up with what each other had been up to in the last 6 months. The drizzle was quite heavy, but the boiler suits kept the worst of it off and it wasn’t a problem. I remember thinking that I must have got my clothing about right, as I wasn’t too hot or cold.
Dom met us at about mile 17, having missed us earlier due to our tracker not updating particularly quickly. It is particularly challenging to drive in an area that you don’t know, to a point on a GPS route that you hope to meet some runners, find somewhere safe to park and the get to the route to intercept the runners, especially when it is pitch-black! Dom managed this admirably well considering it was his first time doing anything like this.
Adrian spent a little time sorting out his feet, while I had a quick bite to eat. We were all fairly chirpy (given the time of the morning) and I was looking forward to dawn and feeling a bit more energetic in the daylight.
As we left the more industrial areas behind the path changed to grass, which was much softer on feet. The grass was very wet though, so shoes quickly became soaking wet. I was wearing (as usual) my trusty waterproof socks, which meant my feet were sweaty but mainly dry. Adrian was having a rather harder time of it, and would change his socks numerous times over the next 12 hours to try to stop his feet rubbing.
Dom met us again at about mile 28, which was about 6.30am I think, just as it was getting light. We’d worked out a plan before we got to Dom, so Adrian took the chance to have a quick nap (in the driver’s seat) while I sat on the floor outside the driver’s side of the car boiling some water and making cup-a-soup.
4 soups later (in 15 minutes) I was feeling lovely and warm inside and celebrated with a tin of mackerel and some painkillers. It appears that John isn’t the only person I’ve run with that has a problem with my eating tinned mackerel in a race, as Adrian strangely turned down my offer of his own tin of fish (in a tomato sauce, naturally) which might have made him immune to my whiffy breath for the next 20 miles. Doing all this while only really being able to use one arm was slightly challenging, but it’s amazing what you can get used to if required!
A small group of workmen had gathered to watch us near some gates, as their dog sniffed around my mackerel, but none of them asked us what we were up to. In fact, we passed numerous dog –walkers and people out and about during the run and hardly any of them asked what we were doing….dressed in orange boiler suits and clearly chained together at the wrist. Perhaps they were scared of us? Sadly, we weren’t accosted by any policemen as has happened to other runners…maybe next time.
As we set off again, we were both in good spirits and feeling more alert with the rising daylight. At this stage we’d slowed to a fairly brisk walk for most of the time. The rough grassy ground didn’t help, and although there was a narrow path made by previous walkers we made better progress going on the left and right of the path so we a little more slack on the chain than one-in-front and one-behind.
As expected, every so often one of us would go through a bad patch where the chain would start to tug a bit more than usual as someone was going slower than the other. To be fair, this was taken (by both of us) as pretty much to be expected, so the faster one simply adjusted his pace downwards a little to allow the other time to come out of the patch. Usually, when running by yourself, it is easy to slow a little and give yourself 10 minutes to forget how tired you are and how rubbish you feel (and how much longer you’ve got still to go), but when attached to another person by a bloody chain it’s really not that simple. I hope I was as understanding to Adrian as he was to me.
The canal at first light was beautiful. Autumn was at its best and the fallen leaves made the ground (and the surface of the canal) look like a brown carpet. There were enough leaves still on the trees to give a nice canopy and I happily spent most of the daylight hours taking pictures in my mind of the scenery. I like canals, however mind-numbingly boring others find them…including Adrian unfortunately.
At mile 40 Dom met us at the Hartley Arms, a pub on the canal. Obviously we didn’t go into the pub, but what we walked up to was almost as good:
It was only 9.30am-ish, but we were in heaven in those comfy chairs, with hot water and food, and another change of socks for Adrian. His feet were being well looked after, but he was clearly suffering. I suspect we probably spent too long sitting there (only about 20 minutes) but it was the first comfy sit-down we’d had and we were going to make the most of it!
And then we carried on! Common sense would have keep us all snuggled up in those chairs for hours, but no! At some point I remember Dom leaving the car to run with us for a few miles, just to actually see what we got up to in between his meeting us. I suspect he couldn’t understand why we were going so slowly, as we shuffled through the leaves and his young legs bounced him along. I’m sure he was suitably unimpressed with ‘old-man’ running…
Although I was eating well and the weather and terrain was good, we naturally slowed as time went by. By this stage we were both using a pole on our unchained arm, to give us a little support. My back was starting to hurt (once again, carrying too much) and the pole just took the edge off the ache with the help of more painkillers.
At lunchtime Dom found us again (he was getting very good by this stage) and we had a quick sit and something to eat.
I was in increasingly good spirits, but I think Adrian was properly suffering at this point despite hiding it well. I was actively enjoying the canal experience – flat, monotonous, mind-numbingly boring – whereas Adrian is used to majestic peaks and climbs, meaning his legs get a thorough workout rather than just using the same muscles constantly.
As we carried on, and the afternoon ebbed away, we started to work out where we were likely to get to. The tracker showed us as only covering about 30 miles as the crow flies, despite our actual mileage being more than 40, which was depressing considering we hoped to travel 90 miles as the crow flies. Looking back, our route was less than direct at the start, where we go south of Birmingham, but after that we made some very straight progress. Unfortunately, at that stage of the afternoon we weren’t really able to work that out, so it felt like we were making really slow progress.
A few single runners appeared from behind us as overtook us. It was pretty unmistakable to spot the orange boiler suited runners, and although I’ve no idea what route they took it was nice to not feel quite so alone.
Having spent most of the previous 12 hours chatting away, we started to proceed silently for periods of time, which with hindsight I should have noticed more than I did at the time. Adrian raised the prospect of him stopping after we reached the 60 mile perimeter (as the crow flies), which would probably be about 10pm (that night), given our current pace. His feet weren’t improving and he was experienced enough to know when things weren’t going right. I suggested the idea of carrying on to 6am (Sunday), until dawn, to see how far that got us. We’d both been awake for about 35 hours at this stage (since 6am Friday morning) so the prospect of a second night awake wasn’t a pretty one, but once that night was over the daylight would be wonderful and we only had to carry on to midday Sunday (having starting at midnight Friday night).
One of the benefits of having a crew with us was that it gave us options if we did split up, as now appeared likely. Adrian could get a lift back to his house and get some sleep, whereas I could keep going (even though unchained now, so officially out of the race) to see how far I could get. I don’t do many races, but I like to make the most of them when I do, so it made sense to me to keep going until the 36 hour time limit was up.
We carried on, up what felt like the longest canal in the world. What made it worse were the milestones for Nantwich, which started at mile 36 and finished at about 3 miles short of our 60 mile target. Rather like watching a clock move, those miles counted down so slooooowly it was positively painful. Even I started to lose my love of canals by the end.
We had another stop at about 5pm, perhaps mile 50. We both changed our shoes and socks, and I had some hot ravioli (and made Adrian eat a couple of pieces too). I sometimes really struggle to eat on an ultra, but today was not that day! I was eating well, and could feel my energy levels bubbling along (within reason). Adrian was suffering, quickly getting very cold as soon as we stopped and needing a jacket over him to hold some warmth. This was probably one of our quicker stops due to the cold, and we knew we had to keep moving to.
As we left, we both put some headphones on to have some music to help us through the falling darkness and impending sleep-monsters. Of course, this meant that we now shouted every conversation with each other, which must have been great for anyone within a mile of us on that totally silent night.
Adrian had a very strong hour when we left, helped by dry shoes & socks, music and some hot food inside him. He was galloping along in front, making the most of his energy, while I was doing my best to squeeze up behind him as close as possible, trying not to trip or hold him back too much. The miles ticked away and Nantwich got closer (slowly, oh so slowly). Unfortunately, the grassy trails soon wetted through Adrian’s shoes and socks, making his feet sore again, and he understandably slowed a little.
I think it was at this stage that I got my first taste of proper frustration with the chain. I was feeling sleepy and knew that I had a horrible 10-12 hours ahead of me. I wanted to fast forward through as much as possible but the chain (in my imagination) was bringing me back to reality all the time. If I lost my balance and lurched left, the chain would tighten and both Adrian and I would have to adjust our stride. It was impossible to get a nice meditative stride going, that I could sleepwalk though, as there was a bloody chain (with someone attached) tugging at me every so often.
I’d like to put a positive spin on the next few hours, but they were pretty rubbish. Poor Adrian wasn’t getting much sympathy from me, and was giving every effort to ignore the pain. I was striding along in front at one minute, with the chain quite tight between us, to falling asleep on my feet the next. It wasn’t great.
Dom managed to meet us once more with about 6 miles to go, at about 10pm. He’d got the chairs out and both Adrian and I gratefully sank into them and took some weight off our soaking feet. Adrian almost immediately started to get cold, but we took a few minutes to eat and sort ourselves out.
There was a brief discussion about going the last few miles by road rather than canal, to get away from the wet grass, but as it was a mile further that was quickly put to bed. I had another 2 cup-a-soups bringing my total for the day to about 12 I think…lots of good calories there!
It was evident when we set off just how tired we both were, as we needed Dom’s help to find the canal and get back on the route. Those last few miles seemed to take ages, especially as there was some kind of diversion away from the canal due to repair works to a bridge. The diversion was slightly debatable, and in our sleep-addled state both Adrian and I were long past debating, and were firmly into “polite argument” territory. We were both too sensible to get riled up, but I’m sure I was just as keen to go the way I thought it was as Adrian was. Happily, we got back to the canal in the end.
Finally, finally finally, we got to Barbridge which was our end point, about three miles beyond bloody never-arriving-Nantwich at almost exactly midnight. This was our agreed splitting point, as we were firmly through the 60 mile as-the-crow-flies point, and we had travelled 75 miles in total. Dom had rather cleverly got to a pub that we found quite easily, and we had a picture taken to show we got that far still chained together.
With that formality out of the way, it didn’t take much time to cut the damn thing off Adrian and go back to being a single runner again. I was genuinely surprised at how much I’d grown to dislike that damn chain, just as I’d been surprised how much it hadn’t bothered me at the start.
Sitting as a ‘free man’ I quickly gulped down some hot beans and chucked a couple of wagon wheels in my pack for the next few hours. Even half asleep, I was awake enough to put in my spare head torch battery and a waterproof, but I was still trying to travel as light as possible. Dom would drive Adrian home, get a few hours sleep at his house, then come back to keep me going at 5.30am-ish for the last few hours until the race was officially finished at noon. The chain would come with me, still attached to my wrist…even if the race was officially over for us, I would morally stay ‘chained’ until the end.
I set off with a bit of a spring in my step…I was free to go at my own pace (slow or fast) and although I was sleepy my energy levels were good. I was walking with 2 poles now, which meant my back ache that had become a constant nag soon dissipated. I shortly came off the canal completely and was faced with the prospect of hours of road to get to Liverpool.
A few things went wrong here. Quite shortly, Dom phoned up to say that he felt he’d need more time to get Adrian home & get some sleep himself – he wouldn’t be back for 5.30am-ish, probably closer to 9am. Oh dear, not great but to be fair he was as knackered as anyone so I couldn’t really complain, and obviously he was driving so absolutely needed to get some rest.
Then I went wrong, twice, and stupidly got myself confused to get back on the right track. Only probably 15 minutes wasted, but the mental telling off I usually give myself for going the wrong way is quite draining.
And then my head-torch died. This is an expensive 17-hour-battery-life piece of kit, and for some reason the fully-charged battery decided to die on me…at about 1am on some pitch-black road in the middle of nowhere. Can you tell I was slightly emotional about it? By some huge stroke of luck I’d packed my spare battery when I left Dom and Adrian, so I swapped them over and it sprang back into life. Phew!
The roads I was travelling on were fairly undulating country roads, without a pavement, but due to the time of night there were very few cars. I was pretty careful to keep my eyes peeled though, as those cars were going at some serious speeds on the windy roads and there was little room for manoeuvring if I didn’t put myself in a hedge every so often.
And then I got another call from Dom. He’d dropped Adrian off, but hadn’t been able to sleep so was heading back to Manchester to get some proper sleep. This meant he would not be able to come back to crew me for the remaining time, but he’d left my kit at Adrian’s house in Liverpool.
It was about 1.30am, and I am confidently going to say I didn’t take this news particularly well. I had a couple of wagon wheels and about 500 ml of water to last me the next 10.5 hours, until noon. I had money, if I saw any shops (and they were open), but at this point I was in deep countryside. I’d been awake for about 43 hours and on the move for just over 24 hours. I wasn’t a happy rabbit.
After a fairly short conversation, I sat on a grass verge and pulled everything out of my pack to work out what I’d got. I had a waterproof jacket in case of rain which was the most important thing. I had some pro-plus in my little medical kit (that I don’t think I’ve ever used) so took one of them to spice my life up a bit, and also found a rather battered rogue tin of mackerel that I’d been carrying around for months right at the bottom of my pack. I had 2 wagon wheels too. Provided I was careful with my water consumption, by taking a couple of big gulps every hour I probably wouldn’t run out until 6am. The mackerel and wagon wheels would get me that far too. After that I’d get a bit hungry, but in daylight I would be able to knock on a door if necessary…hiding the chain, obviously, and possibly having to provide a reasonable explanation for my orange boiler-suit too.
The pro-plus perked me up a little, and I spent the next 5 hours moving reasonably well, with my brain filled with all manner of odd thoughts. The roads were boring and but my GPS was all I had to follow as I didn’t have a map or anything. Adrian’s route was spot-on so I simply followed it home. In fact the night passed quickly, with the help of a considerable number of my pro-plus tablets. I stopped at about 3am for a ‘picnic’ of mackerel, wagon wheels and another pro-plus.
I was starting to imaging things in the shadowy light – every scrunched up leaf was a £10 note, the tree up ahead looked like a bunch of kids waiting to mug me, that car cruising past me and then turning round up ahead looks just like a police car. In fact, the last one was actually a police car, coming back for a closer look at the orange-coloured demented walker at 4am in the middle of nowhere. Strangely they didn’t stop to chat.
As the surroundings became more built up, I became aware I was getting nearer Liverpool and my finish point. My wife, the long-suffering Claire, was driving up from Kent in the morning, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her I hadn’t made it after she’d driven all that way….so I needed to get there!
As dawn broke, and the birds started signing, I reached the bridge over the Mersey that meant I was pretty much at Liverpool. Still a long way to go, but I vividly remember taking ages to cross the bridge and seeing the red dawn in the distance. I was too tired to appreciate it at that point but looking back it was very poignant.
On the far side of the bridge, and with daylight fast approaching, I realised I had completed my second night out, and that I’d be able to sleep in about 7 or 8 hours. That was a good thought. I didn’t feel particularly sleepy, but I was aching quite badly and was looking forward to finishing and getting the weighty pack off my back.
As I stopped to take this pictureI was passed by a female runner, out for a pleasant Sunday morning run in the dawn. She gave me a second look (not surprisingly) and I commented that I hadn’t expected Liverpool to look so lovely. She replied, in the thickest scouse accent possible, that it was a very beautiful place. Hmmm, not sure about that.
About 30 minutes later she passed me again, going the other way, and this time stopped to ask what on earth I was doing. I explained, and checked my location with her, and on the spur of the moment asked to have a picture taken with her and my chain, to show it was still attached.
Maybe (I thought) I could persuade people I’d run all the way chained if I asked random people to pose for photos with me & chain. As you can tell, my thought processes weren’t too great at that point.
As I carried on round the water’s edge, I started to work out where I wanted to finish at noon. The ideal place would be to stop at the hotel where I was staying with my wife, so I could meet her there when she arrived. Google maps told me it was a little over 8 miles away, but it was only 8am, so I could get there slowly and take my time. It was that point that I stopped following Adrian’s awesome route and headed for more central Liverpool, but at that time of the morning I’d covered about 28 miles since midnight and I thought I could probably manage another 8. I knew I hadn’t made the 90 miles distance as the crow flies, but I would cover over 100 miles total distance which was a good thought.
Just after 8am I had a call from my wife saying she was about 180 miles away, and it seemed the race was on! She had 3 hours to drive 180 miles and I had 3 hours to walk 8 miles. I know who my money was on to get to the hotel first.
I took quite a few rest breaks here, and I’m sure that the other people at the bus stop I rested at were grateful I didn’t get on their bus. I put something up on Facebook to explain I wasn’t chained anymore but was still going, and took the opportunity to text the race director that I was by myself but would carry on until noon.
I started to see shops along my route, and began the salivating thought of my usual finishing food of pints of milk and Ginsters slices. I think my body seems to know that at the end of a run, the drinking of milk is a sign to relax and rest. Although I hadn’t eaten for hours I was not feeling particularly hungry, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to eat, drink, rest. Ohhh the thought of sitting down and taking the weight off my feet was lovely.
I managed to keep moving until about 10, when I weakened and decided I could get something to eat in the next shop I came to. 10 minutes later I was buying 4 pints of milk and three pasties, and to try to delay eating them as long as possible I wasn’t allowed to eat them until I came to a green area (not a grass verge) that I could properly lay down on.
So there I was, walking along residential streets carrying 4 pints of milk, dressed in an orange boiler-suit, chain wrapped round one wrist. I must have looked a very odd sight. At this stage my brain wasn’t really functioning properly. A stranger pulled up in front of me, across the pavement, and I remember looking at him as I couldn’t understand why he was stopping on the pavement (I guessed he must be parking or something) but he had a UTMB t-shirt on so maybe he was into running as knew what I was up to. This is what I thought as I walked round the rear of the car to carry on my journey. When he said my name, I assumed I must know him, but I really couldn’t work it out until I got closer to the car and realised it was Adrian, come out to see if I was ok. I was (I think) pretty short with him as I was struggling to string too many words together and all I wanted to do was get to this green are and drink my milk. He was taking his family out for breakfast (got his priorities right!) and although he asked if I wanted to join them I couldn’t think past the pints of milk I was carrying. Sorry Adrian!
So at about 11am I finally got to lie down in the grass, and eat and drink.
It was as good as I expected. I lay in the sun and tried to ignore the cars slowing down as they passed me to get a better look at the tramp on their green spilling milk down his front.
And then I was up and off for the last few miles. Eventually Claire did beat me to the hotel, and I stopped at noon and sat on a park bench, asking her to come and get me for the last half mile. At that point I’d been awake for 54 hours, and wasn’t really making too much sense in my head. I stopped my Garmin at noon and worked out I’d travelled 106 miles, 75 chained to Adrian. Not very far in 36 hours, but good fun nevertheless.
I’d like to say the hotel didn’t think I was mental when we arrived, but I’d be lying. No amount of explaining was going to alter the perception of what I looked like. I lasted another 2 hours, consisting of a shower, Doritos and beer, before finally falling into a deep sleep for the afternoon. Magic.
Adrian reunited me with my kit, and Claire and I had a pleasant meal before zooming back to Kent the following morning. I wasn’t particularly stiff or sore, probably because I didn’t really push myself too hard on the run, and my feet were in really good shape. The only casualty was that my mind was a bit addled for about 2 days afterwards, as I tried to get my head back to normal…nothing unusual there then.
And that was it. I’ve got great memories of this run…especially the second night and the arrival in Liverpool. The whole concept of no finish line and no route means you are absolutely on your own and can go as hard or gently as you want. The race format has loads of scope, and in fact next year they are doing an “Escape from GB” where you have 48 hours to get as far away as possible….a great idea.
The final results were that only the chained couple got the 130 miles distance in (which is very impressive) but Adrian and I came about 6th (out of 14 starters) and passed the 60 mile distance comfortably. By myself I travelled 84 miles as the crow flies, in 106 miles total.
So, my thanks as always to the race directors Richard Weremiuk (Beyond Marathon Events) and Mark Cockbain ( of Cockbain Events) for a great idea and well executed race.
Thanks to Adrian and Dom for an enjoyable time, and I apologise for all the canals. Thanks Adrian for putting so much work into an awesome route that worked out really well.
Thanks to Claire for driving to Liverpool and back. The things she does for me!
And finally, thanks and apologies to my brain for generally getting muddled over the course of a couple of days. I think it’s mostly sorted out now. Possibly.
n.b. If you made it through this without wanting to top yourself, follow my blog so you’ll never miss the chance to hear me complain about running again!
From the Humber Bridge to Lincoln…wild camping in November is quite hard (but not impossible). Not interesting enough to write about, but a few nice pictures: