Race report

Ultra-Trail Snowdonia UTS50– May 2018

I have a confession to make: I had no business being at this race.
I have always been quite realistic about my capabilities as an ultra runner, which are average at best…but I am lucky to have taken part in and finish some fairly iconic (long) races, such as Grand Union Canal, Thames Ring 250, even the Arc of Attrition and the Spine Challenger. But I was hugely out of my depth at the UTS 50, and so I apologise if what you are about to read becomes a bit of a moan about climbing mountains, climbing sheer rock faces, looking up at mountains I’m about to climb, struggling to descend mountains I’ve just climbed, and then bloody climbing yet more mountains.
So, this report will probably be most useful for people that are thinking of entering this race, based on the rhapsodoxical language everyone is using about how beautiful the course is. I can’t disagree with that, it had some of the most stunning views I’ve seen, but unfortunately to enjoy the view, I had to restart my heart with a portable defibrillator (at the top of a mountain) and put on my oxygen mask just to reach enough consciousness to be aware of my surroundings. Let’s face it I was a ‘Casualty’ opening sequence just waiting to happen.
Anyway, where was I? My training had been pretty consistent in the few months running up to UTS. A consistent 40-50 miles per week, done on the pancake flat part of Kent where I live. I did make a few trips to the cliffs in Folkestone that saw most of my training for Spine Challenger in January, but probably only enough to ease my conscience, rather than turn me into Killian Jornet. I was fit,  healthy and well rested, but apart from that I suspect Mr Blobby would have had a similar experience.
Before I go any further, I will answer the question you’re all asking….where was John? My running buddy for the last few ultras was supposed to be doing the 100 miles version (whereas I was just doing the easy 50), but he had had to drop out due to being a big old ‘fraidy-cat. His exact words were “I’m just too scared to run this big bad race; I’d like you to stay at home with me so we can wash our hair and paint our toenails together.” Ummmm, well it was something like that anyway.
Unfortunately, that meant that with John having to pull out, I had to decide whether to carry on by myself. It was rather like when one person pulls out of a suicide pact, the other person carries on for sheer bloody-mindedness (rather than they especially want to kill themselves, but they would feel silly pulling out just because the other person did.)
So Friday found me driving to Wales, in beautiful sunshine, under blue skies, with enough cheese rolls to feed me until Sunday night.

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mmmmmm, cheese rolls

My itinerary was simple…drive to Wales on Friday and register. Sleep in a local B&B, and start the 50 mile race at 5am Saturday. Finish sometime during the evening/night, and get some sleep a the B&B, before a hearty breakfast at 8am and driving back to leafy Kent in time for tea and kippers and a bottle of cheap red wine. Obviously I didn’t know how long the race was going to take, but I’ve done flattish 50 milers before in about 9 hours, and lumpy ones in the Lake District in about 12, so I thought the absolute worst case scenario was taking about 17-19 hours, getting me to bed for my beauty sleep by midnight at the latest.
I probably should provide a quick bit of detail about the course that made the race so enticing. It had never been held before, so there was quite a lot of ‘unknowns’. Michael Jones, the race director, did an amazing organising job, and quite frankly the whole experience ran smoother than a few city marathons I’ve done. There was a regular FaceBook presence that kept the race on the agenda, and every question (and there were lots!) was answered in good humour very quickly. Overall, it was a master-class in how an ultra should be organised.
The 50 mile course had about 18500 feet of elevation (that’s about 6000m). To put that into perspective, Snowdon is about 1085m high, so that meant going up & down Snowden 6 times. Or to put it another way, a standard flight of stairs is 12 feet (according to Google), so the race is about 1541 flights of stairs.
There is a lovely route description that makes it all sound like a walk in the park:

…..after a brief stop at the Bron-y-Fedw Uchaf Farm, runner’s ascend and descend Snowdon via the classic Ranger and Rhyd-Ddu paths.  Leaving Rhyd-Ddu Outdoor Centre, the trail largely follows the Paddy Buckley Round to Moel Hebog, traversing technical ridges and epic climbs. A technical descent to Beddgelert leads runners to the next aid station, before a pleasant jog alongside Glaslyn River. Following a short road section, it’s back to business with a long slog up to the characterful Cnicht, before a possibly slippery descent back to Nant Gwynant Cafe……
Strangely it doesn’t mention the mountains much. I should explain the term ‘technical’.
This is another word for ‘dangerous’.
I don’t care what anyone tells me, when someone says “there’s a bit of a technical section here” what they mean is that you are going up vertically (and might die) or down something so steep that the mountain goats rope themselves together.
So, after a relaxing 6 hour drive, I got to Llanberis and was easily able to park just outside The Heights, race HQ. A slick registration desk, manned by lots of orange T-shirted smilers, saw me through kit check and out the other side in record time. The free technical T-shirt was red, my favourite colour for running in (much easier for the rescue helicopter to see you) so that was alright. I had a quick drink in the bar, and saw all the 100 mile racers getting ready to set off. They looked hard-core….stringy and muscular, with the battle-hardened faces of Spartans (was what I thought, as I sipped my coke and tried not to stare at them).
I didn’t stay around to watch them head off, but then quickly headed off to the B&B to get myself sorted and something to eat.
A quick life tip here…when you book on Booking.com, and it tells you that your B&B is only 1.3 miles away from race HQ, make sure that the 1.3 mile is not ‘as the crow flies’ and there isn’t a massive lake between the B&B and race HQ that you have to drive round. 20 minutes later, I’m at the B&B and settled. A quick drive to Bethesda to get some dinner and I walked into the most Welsh pub in Wales, as I stepped through the front door the music stopped, the pool players brandished their cues, the dog woke up and growled and the guy ordering his pint (in Welsh, obviously) turned round and looked me up and down before grabbing a huge leek and whacking me over the head with it.
The next pub was completely empty, and as I chatted to the barman while waiting for my food, picking bits of broken leek out of my hair, it turned out this pub had only just opened for business and so was yet to be invaded by mad Welsh people. I ate alone. Phew!
I slept well back at the B&B, and woke raring to go at 3.30am. Cheese rolls and coffee for breakfast, and we congregated at race HQ in the dim light of 4.30am, bleary eyed but awake. Unusually, there was a quiet nervousness around the runners that I didn’t really understand until afterwards…I think everyone else had a much better idea of what to expect.
After a quick safety briefing (and entirely inaudible to the wimps like me at the back) we set off.

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UTS50 start…with me at the back as usual.

I was happily trotting along towards the rear, and as the trail headed in to the hills and the sun came up, you could tell it was going to be a great day. There was rain forecast for noon, but in Wales that is to be expected, as well as some wet underfoot.
I was carrying my poles (cheat-sticks) as I ran, but by perhaps mile 3 I saw that a lot of people were unpacking theirs before what looked like our first serious climb. I, always happy to follow the crowd, did the same and I was thankful I did as the grassy hill needed some serious grip to get up it. I took a few pictures of these first few climbs, and they were lovely, and went back and forth with a few of the other runners.

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This was looking back over the one of the first proper climbs, you can tell the sun was only just coming up from the long shadows.

There still wasn’t much conversation between runners, probably because it’s difficult to talk while fighting for oxygen, but I took the opportunity to strike up a conversation with a runner that overtook me while on a flat section who had an Ironman tattoo like me. My opening gambit, perhaps unwisely, was to loudly exclaim how happy I was to see someone else with the tattoo, as then everyone else would have another person to take the piss out of. (My tattoo, although earned with two Ironman races, was more about my mid-life “I want a tattoo” crisis than anything else). It turns out that Liz though her tattoo was a badge of honour and she was about as far from a mid-life crisis as she could be. She’d done some superb races and after a bit of chat she left me far behind, finishing way ahead of me.

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After 9.5 miles, and a mere 2460 feet of climbing, we reached the first aid station after a long gently sloping road descent that had everyone trotting along like it was a road race. Lovely! The aid station (always a good indicator of the guts of a race) was superb, serving a variety of sandwiches and bits, as well as Doritos! For people that know me, Doritos are the food of champions, and my go-to recovery nutrient. I had to physically restrain myself from spending the rest of the day there.
A quick turn around and onto the next leg, only 6 miles and 1850 feet of elevation. Hardly worth bothering with really, and in fact I remember very little about this leg, due to the paralysing awfulness of later sections.

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mmmmm, Doritos

The next aid station was a cheery set of tables laden with food (again) that I got to about 9am, just as it was starting to get warm. I took off my thin waterproof jacket, as I heard a tall American ask about the progress of the 100 mile runners who had set off 12 hours before us. Usually they would be expected to be catching up to us about now, for the best runners, but so far there was no sign of them.
After a 5 minute pit-stop, for some coke and a cheese & pickle sandwich, I set off on the next leg, which was only 7.1 miles but had a whopping 2890 feet of climb, including our first Snowden ascent, up the ranger path. I was about halfway up Snowden, trying desperately to tell myself I was having fun, when the reality began to sink in of what I had let myself in for. Snowden is a lovely walk, with excited kids and a panting wife (as I had done once in half term), but it’s rather different when I was feeling the need to push hard up a slope that was simply exhausting. The mind gremlins started to work their magic, and I was swiftly convincing myself that the sensible thing to do would be to seriously think about not only this race, but the summer race I have planned (Lakeland 100 if you’re interested) and in fact my entire running ‘career’.

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Ooooh, but it was lovely there, when you weren’t going up or down a hill.

Rather luckily, at this stage I met Adrian, the tall American from the last checkpoint. We chatted our way up Snowden, both admitting to a few ‘doubts’ at this early stage. Adrian was a great conversationalist, and has an amazing running CV, twice finishing UTMB and going back for more this year, as well as having completed Marathon des Sables just 3 weeks ago. He was an amazing climber, and while I had to work out where to put each foot on rocky climbs so that I didn’t break an ankle, he would glide upwards as if he was on an escalator. Adrian had been to the top of Snowden by various routes a number of times, and I happily chatted away to him all the way to the top, and past all the tourists flapping up the last part. Adrian asked if I wanted to go into the café at the top, but I was so happy to get to the top of the damn thing I was keen to push on. There was no particular excitement at having reached the top, as we knew we would be back to the top before the end of the race.

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Not at the top….but getting there!

We descended a long technical descent, which was the first time I could really keep up with Adrian as I had gravity and about 10 kgs on my side. We clambered over a few rocky parts, with me learning more about Adrian…owns his own business, likes shopping in Tesco (especially Finest cookies), his family, his love of Salterns, his mountain climbing hobby before he took up running….he was great company. I only hope I entertained him as much to take his mind off the pain.
And there was pain. The constant clambering was preventing any kind of rhythm on the descent, and meant I was stretching my legs in ways they had not been used to. I suspect that runners used to such terrain would wonder what the fuss was about, but I was struggling. Adrian started to take a few painkillers for his legs that were cramping up, which didn’t bode well for him. There were no other runners in sight as we descended to the third checkpoint, although a few had overtaken us on the climb.20180512_064246
The third checkpoint was at 22.5 miles in, so was about halfway. We reached it at noon, so 7 hours to cover the distance – very slow but another 10 hours would have us finished about midnight which was a pleasant thought.
The last 7.1 miles had taken 2 hours 40 minutes, which wasn’t so good, and said more about the size of ascent (vertical 2890ft) than the distance travelled. We had completed 7200 ft of climb, with 11000ft left….which meant the remaining 27.5 miles would be appalling. It was a good job I was far too knackered to look at the remaining distance / climbing, or I would have had serious doubts.
This checkpoint was a chance for hot soup and access to drop bags. We had all been given an excellent Silva 24 litre dry-bag at registration (which is actually a really practical freebie) and somehow I was reunited with mine in seconds (imagine 150 identical black drop-bags, marked with small race numbers and you can see the organisation involved here!). I changed my socks, and wondered about taking some of the warmer clothes I had packed into my drop bag with me (including my hard-shell windproof coat). In the end I didn’t as it was a beautiful warm day, but with hindsight this was incredibly stupid, as the remainder of the race stretched ahead and a change in weather conditions would have put an end to the race for me.
Adrian and I left the checkpoint after 20 minutes, full of energy, soup and good feelings. As we left, I pulled out the details of the next leg, which told us we had 8.3 miles to go and 3828 ft of climb.
Hang on………the previous leg (up Snowden) had destroyed my legs, and taken over 2.5 hours to travel 7.1 miles. This leg was a just mile further…and another 1000 feet of climb. Oh shit.
NEXT CHAPTER: THE SECTION OF DOOM
It’s important at this stage that I emphasise everything seemed to be going quite well that day, albeit a bit slowly. We were still on for a midnight finish, and although I’d experienced a few dark moments climbing Snowden I was quite cheerful. My legs were feeling it, but I had no trouble and was moving quite smoothly.
By the next checkpoint I was a shell-shocked mess, repairing a broken pole, and spending 20 minutes just sitting to gather myself and rest my legs. I would be surrounded by runners in exactly the same mind-set, of “WTF was that last section all about?!”

The first climb was tough, but manageable and finished on a rocky peak that really made you feel like you’d got to the top.

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Looking back, down the first climb, as high as the clouds

Ahead were ridges, with steep drops on either side, which you could see peaked further on. If I had looked more closely at the course profile, I’d have seen this section had 6 distinct peaks, with the last being the highest by far.
Course profile
So every time you reached a peak, instead of being able to look forward (?) to a long descent, you descended just enough to start to hurt, and then you were going up again. I would lose Adrian on each climb, and then catch him up as he struggled with cramping legs on the descent. The second or third peak on this leg was a proper ‘technical’ scramble (as fell runners call them) or a f*cking mountain rock face climb, without ropes or crash helmet.

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This peak didn’t look great from a distance….

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…but as you got closer you could see some of the detail…..

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…and then you started to see the reality of what the climb was…..

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…and the peak looked like this close up.

This last part, which was the final photo I took of the whole course, was so far out of my comfort zone as to be akin to landing a 747 on an aircraft carrier in outer space. It was quite simple: going back was too far, going forward was (just marginally) more attractive, but probably a lot more damaging to myself. Anyway, enough of the dramatics…I did it, and got to the other side of the climb to find Adrian sitting waiting for me (bless him) as he waited for his latest painkillers to kick in.
I remember a long rocky descent as we both tried to look ahead and understand which of the horrific ridges up ahead we would be climbing next. I think this interlude involved the discussion about the British school system, immigration system, and Slatterns. At some point on the descent one of my poles (cheap but very strong) decided to break the locking mechanism, meaning the damn thing wouldn’t stay at its normal extended length, but telescopically condensed to being about thigh height. My poles were a life saver on the climbs, giving more purchase and push uphill, and kept me on my unsteady feet going downhill, so this was quite a problem. At the next aid station I was able to peel some duct tape off it (which had marked it as mine) and secure the joint which held until the end, luckily.  My second pole did exactly the same towards the end, which was just great!
The next peak naturally turned out to be the biggest one yet, and there wee some runners having a few minutes rest at the bottom. The route led up alongside a long drystone wall that stretched into the mist at the top, and just seemed to head for heaven. It was on this climb I started having to stop every 10 or 15 minutes, just to get my heart rate down and oxygen debt back to something normal. It isn’t really possible to put into words how long that climb went on for, or what was going through my mind. It started drizzling and I put on my waterproof, in the hope that the drizzle would not turn into anything stronger.
Lots of technical scrambling / rock climbing later, another huge boggy descent, and the fourth aid station came into view. I was a broken man (like my pole, coincidentally).
The last aid station had been a brisk affair, with all runners business-like and everyone keen to keep faffing to a minimum.  5.5 hours later, 8.3 miles and 3828 feet later, I think there was now a strong sense of “I-just-want-to-survive” in the room. It was after 5pm, and it would be dusk in 3 hours. We had all lost the whole afternoon on one section, and had another 3 legs to go. All thoughts of a midnight finish had gone out of my head, and to be fair, I was not thinking of quitting, but I wasn’t really thinking of anything rationally at that point.
Immediately on entering, I was accosted by a young girl who asked if I’d like some soup or a drink, which was absolutely wonderful. It was like coming home.
Adrian took his shoes and socks off to try and dry his feet out, which were beginning to suffer from the ill effects of the MdS 3 weeks previously. My feet were in decent shape, but my legs- especially the front and rear of my thighs- were simply throbbing as the blood tried in vain to repair the damage.
There was a whole pile of broken poles in the corner. And the rest of the room was full of broken runners (boom tish!).
I had a couple of bowls of soup, as did Adrian, and told myself (at 5.51pm) that I needed to be leaving by 6pm or I would start to stiffen up (and never want to leave). Adrian had a bit of knowledge of the next couple of legs, and was trying (unsuccessfully) to describe the technical (dangerous) bits as being over quite quickly. Although that was what I needed to hear, I didn’t believe him for a second.
I left by myself, knowing Adrian would catch up easily on the first long ascent, and enjoyed a long flattish trail alongside a river, which was lovely. But all too soon it came to an end and the climbing started. As if the path wasn’t hard enough, some farmer had locked all the gates shut, so you had to climb them – easy on a normal day, but absolute torture to wrench yourself up to waist height and over the top.
As I was carrying on, toward the top of the first high peak, a runner appeared coming towards me. He was running quite smoothly, and had a race number on his front, so was clearly in some kind of trouble. As he went past me, he said he didn’t fancy the climb up ahead, so had decided to turn round and retire at the previous checkpoint.
So, let’s be clear…he was clearly still in good shape (running well downhill etc.) but he would prefer to run at least an hour back to the previous aid station than face the climbing ahead. He had already gone through some really challenging sections, but what was ahead was so unbelievably difficult he wouldn’t even risk it. Of all the things designed to freak my head out, this was it. Steve (the runner) gave me and everyone else I spoke to that he had passed a complete mind-enema as every negative thought I had been suppressing suddenly came to the front and poured out of me.
I had been travelling for about 2 hours when I saw Steve, and it was only perhaps 20 minutes later that I came to the peak that had turned him round. The markers simply went up the side of three semi-vertical slabs of granite, to perhaps 30 feet up in the air. Beyond that point you couldn’t really see what happened, but while you could maybe pull yourself up the slabs, there was no easy obvious way to get down…it was a one-way decision.
This particular section (I was to find out later) was called Cnight, and is known as “The Welsh Matterhorn”.  Bloody hell.
Naturally, at that point I did the obvious thing and had a sit down to check I was really expected to climb this. The markers were all in place, so there really wasn’t any doubt, but it seemed prudent to check. Also, I would wait for someone to catch up to me that knew how on earth to climb this without injuring themselves. Sure enough, two runners soon turned up who had also seen Steve (the retiring runner) and were as worried as me.
However, one of them was made of strong stuff, as he stowed his poles away and made ready to climb. Rather more reluctantly his companion did the same, and really really reluctantly, I made mine as easy to carry as possible and readied myself for rock climbing.
The first guy went up quite easily, and then his friend rather less easily. I just about made it, but much more slowly, as I would plan my next few hand and feet holds before progressing. By the time I reached the top of the three slabs, the two guys had gone quite a distance ahead, and I would soon be on my own again.

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Full credit to Atsushi Ayabe (via FB) for having the presence of mind to take this photo of the climb. It looks easier than I remember!

So what does any sensible non-rock-climber do? At the next tricky part, I sat and waited for the next passing runner who hopefully would have mean I didn’t die alone. Sure enough, along came Adrian to save the day (and me) with his experience and wisdom. I’ll not repeat his first words to me, but they rhymed with “ducking dangerous”, so that was all right.
Although we got over this particular peak just as dusk was falling, everyone behind would be doing it in the dark, a far harder proposition. The markers on the whole route were superb, bright reflective orange sticks with ribbons at the top to catch the attention, but even so they were spaced out every 50 metres or so on the climbs and the route between them wasn’t obvious. In the dark it would rely on someone’s experience or luck to choose the right way.
The only memorable thing about the descent in the dark, apart from how bloody dark it was, was that we were joined by Keith, a softly spoken Welsh guy, who clearly had the climbing abilities of a monkey (unlike mine of a hippo). We joined up as the darkness fell, as it was simply common sense to have a third set of eyes looking out for markers. We paused for a few minutes in one place while Keith changed his head-torch over, and then promptly lost the route, path and markers, ending up coming down the side of the slope in roughly the right direction. The sense of relief as we joined up with the markers and path again was palpable.
The last section, a mere 2665 feet of climbing across 10.5 miles (but probably 3 of those miles were along the river at the start) had taken another massive 5 hours or so. The aid station we finally arrived at was outside, which was a bit of a shame, but manned by some absolute superstar volunteers who took a lot of complaining about the course from the survivors of the last section.
I got some more soup and a fabulous sit down, whereupon my legs just gently shut down……throbbing, aching, little cramps, you name it, my legs did it. Adrian took his shoes and socks off again, and the soles of his feet looked poached. Keith sat across from us, and assumed the flopped position of exhaustion. I wish I’d taken some pictures.
A couple of guys from Jersey came in, who had flown over previously and recce’d the final 20 miles (we were currently at about mile 41). They announced they were dropping out, despite only having another 10ish miles to go. Oh dear, that must mean they know what is up ahead (and knowing what I know now, I can understand why they dropped out).
After a restorative 20 or 30 minutes, we refilled water bottles and set off again. Adrian knew the route up ahead, and was trying to ‘manage my expectations’ of how hard it would be by saying it was the last hard section (only 2820 feet of climb in 4.9 miles) and once this was over the last section was much easier. In fact, once this next leg was done, the remaining final section was easy….I think I remember he said. Famous last words.
The next section was like something out of a nightmare. Once we got to the scramble parts (i.e. rock climbing) Adrian would be forging upwards, with Keith following behind (but even Keith was slowing a bit) and I would be bringing up the far rear. It is to their credit that they went slow enough I could keep them in sight as we climbed. Near the peaks, if you looked upwards you could see the reflective markers high above, suggesting huge climbs ahead. It was grim.
There were a couple of places Keith and I just waited for Adrian to work out a route across and up the rocks, before trying to copy his path, literally trusting him to get us up there safely. Despite it being midnight it was not particularly cold or windy, which I am thankful for…if the weather had been against us I would not have rated our chances on the slippery rocks.
In the early hours Adrian started to complain of feeling dizzy, probably a combination of the hard concentration and lack of food, so finally I could do something useful, offering him some of my boiled sweets – I knew I had come along for something!
Another 2 runners caught us up, the lead one being very skilful and showing the second runner the best way to go (much as Adrian was doing for me). We teamed up for a while, making a slow route to the next checkpoint. 4.9 miles had taken most of the night.
As the ground levelled out and we approached the checkpoint in the far distance ahead we could see some faint lights impossibly high in the distance. They were, according to Adrian, runners on the final ascent of Snowden, or even on the final descent. They looked so far away, and so high up, they could have been on the International Space Station.
The checkpoint was a simple affair of a jeep and three chairs and a gazebo. We gratefully sank into the three chairs, while the other 2 runners carried straight on. Sitting in that chair, I began to have a sense it was all a dream, as that was the only way to describe what I had just done. Adrian and Keith were in pretty good spirits (considering) but I was just out of it.
I had a cup of lemonade, but was promptly sick 6 times on the ground beside my chair. It says something to my state of exhaustion, I didn’t even feel the need to get up, but just leant over the left arm of my chair to vomit all over the floor. It was a good job we were outside; as it was mostly liquid and had soaked in by the time we left.
Regular readers of my race reports will be well accustomed to my amusing stomach antics on ultras, and I am so used to being sick it doesn’t really disrupt me anymore. I just get it over with, and carry on. Which is what I did this time too, after apologising to the two aid station volunteers that had to spend the next few hours in the company of my stomach contents on the floor.
As we set off, with a little bit of chivvying from Adrian to get me moving, I consoled myself with the thought that this was it – the last leg, the final climb, and then home. It was a mere 7 miles to get to the finish, the car, a shower, bed then breakfast. It was a lovely thought.  Perhaps I underestimated the 2400 feet of climbing we still had to do.
I think we were all in good spirits as we left, shattered but cheerful. We had one more climb up Snowden here, up the miners track (which I knew nothing about) and then down the long shallow descent to Llanberis.
But this climb was a killer. I had to keep requesting a quick stop so I could lie on the ground and sort out my breathing to try to relax my legs a bit, which Adrian and Keith did (with infinite patience).
I would like to say, after a few hours of hard climbing, we got to the top of the path and I was rejuvenated, but hours upon hours had taken their toll, and the top of Snowden was a bit of a blur to me. It was dawn, the sun was just coming over the far mountains, and early morning walkers were at the peak to capture the best views…..but all I could think of was getting to the end and sitting down.

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OK OK, this is what I remember it looked like, although it may not even be from the top of Snowdon. Thanks to whoever took the photo, amongst the loads put onto Facebook…great pic.

The descent was an exercise in pain management, with the gentle slope lending itself to allowing gravity to pull you forward and using your feet to brake with each step, however this slammed your ruined toes to the front of the shoe, and battered the soles of your feet, so it was an awkward shuffle all the way down. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it was 5am and the sleep monsters started to play havoc with my brain, sending me to sleep even as I walked down the hill over the rough terrain. I wasn’t the only one, and Adrian and Keith both confirmed they were feeling the same.
It turned out that Keith, who had done some pretty tough ultras in South Wales, was only doing the race as he had been given the entry by his wife for his birthday. Although I met her after the race and she seemed extremely nice, I’d be a bit worried if she gives him a shark-diving trip next or suggests he tries base jumping next.
And then we were near the end. A painful very steep bit of road at the bottom of Snowden, and through the town. The finish was a suitably understated affair, with a couple of volunteers and a dog.
The three of us had finished in about 26 hours, at 7am, which is a spectacularly long time to go 50 miles. I can hold my head up though, as I consider myself bloody lucky to finish (and be alive) and I have Adrian and Keith to thank for that.
Inside race HQ there were a few runners sitting and staring into space, contemplating being alive and nursing a cup of tea. There was food on offer, which sounded great, but at that stage I just wanted to get to the B&B and have a shower and sleep. Keith’s wife turned up with coffee for him (hope she hadn’t poisoned it) and Adrian went in search of food.
As sometimes happens with me, I went from physically and mentally shattered to being full of beans, and quickly got my stuff together to return to my car. I was lucky to cadge a lift from a volunteer to get to the car park in double-quick time, and got to the B&B in time for a shower,  breakfast and a sleep. Magic.
The drive back was long but uneventful, due mainly to the fact I had to keep pulling into every service station for a sleep, but 10 hours later I was home unscathed and opening my first celebratory beer & Doritos. Phew!
So, in summary, what would I say about this race? It’s absolutely stunning, with views that I suspect you simply can’t get on many other UK races. Unfortunately that also means you have to destroy yourself in the process. If that’s your thing then go ahead. Once was enough for me. I finished 124th out of 166 starters. Of the 47 that started the 100 mile version, only 13 finished. I have no doubt this race will go from strength to strength as the nations appetite for challenging runs seems to grow.
I cannot praise Michael Jones (RD) and the rest of the volunteers enough; it was a master-class in race organising from beginning to end. From my own personal perspective, there’s very little you could do to improve my race experience without a steam roller to flatten the course a little.  I probably should mention that this race didn’t have a medal, which I have absolutely no problem with, getting a very useful dry-bag & technical T-shirt instead.  Hopefully a few more races will follow suit.
I’d like to thank Adrian and Keith for getting me round, and being so patient when I was suffering. Everyone has low points on these races, but seldom have I been so physically exhausted for so long…without the need to keep up with them I probably would still be out there.
Thanks to my family, for their never ending patience and forgiveness for the time I spend doing these things. Especially my wife Claire, who doesn’t try to stop me even when she knows I’m mad. Love you Claire.
And finally, I’d like to apologise to my legs, which are still twitchy and sore a full 9 days since I finished, surely a record for me. I promise never to return to Wales (for any reason) without a set of poles made from unobtainium that will definitely not break.
God, this race hurt.
Thanks for reading, now go outside and enjoy some sunshine.

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Spine Challenger – Jan 2018

It’s the middle of the night, about 1am. Totally pitch black. It’s blowing a gale strong enough that I have to make sure an occasional gust doesn’t blow me over: the weather forecast said the wind would reach 50mph tonight, which would bring a wind chill of -15°. It feels that cold. It’s raining/sleeting/snowing, horizontally, but thankfully coming from behind me. Visibility is very low: I can see the ground for about 1 metre in whatever direction I point my head torch, but if I look up, there’s a wall of sleet/snow/mist and it all looks identical.

I can’t find the path I should be on, and I’m telling myself not to worry.
I’ve been awake since the previous night, when I had a restless single hours sleep in a dorm room with 5 other blokes. That has been my only sleep since 5am Saturday – today is 1am Monday, 40 hours ago. I’m probably not really lost, just confused, but I simply cannot work out which way to go.
I have been going along a long track called Cam Road, which is at about 600m altitude, high enough for the rain I was in an hour ago to have turned to snow and sleet. I’ve been steadily getting slower since my last stop at 9pm, and am at my most tired and sleepy. My GPS device is telling me that I need to take a simple left-hand fork off my current route, but it isn’t here. The footsteps in the snow I’ve been following since getting high enough for snow are equally confused, showing how they walked in circles looking for the same route.
I decide to walk in a square, 5 paces in each direction, which should bring me across any new route. After walking 4 squares, I realise that the circling footprints I’ve been following are probably my own. Shit.
I’ve slowed down in my confusion. Slow means cold, as I’m not generating the heat needed to fend off the wintery conditions. Every time I turn into the wind I am reminded how lucky I’ve been for the last few hours, keeping the conditions blowing behind me. Walking into that wind and sleet is mentally and physically shattering. Going back the way I had come is not an option.
I thought: Can’t go forwards. Can’t go backwards. Mustn’t get cold.


What you’ve just read isn’t made up, or exaggerated for effect.
There’s a good reason the Spine Race and its smaller ‘fun run’ partner Spine Challenger are marketed as Britain’s Most Brutal Race. The full Spine Race covers 278 miles up the Pennine Way, and sets off 24 hours after the Spine Challenger which is just a mere 108 miles up the Pennine Way. They are not true ‘ultra races’ in the traditional sense, but more ‘expedition races’ that happen to cover an ultra distance.
The typical sort of people that start the longer Spine race are hardcore mountain experts, used to winter conditions and looking after themselves against some serious adversity. They are the people that Bear Grylls admires and wants to be when he grows up.
The sort of people that start the Spine Challenger (my event) are those that want to attempt the full Spine at some point in the future, but are far too intimidated (terrified) to go straight for the hardest race in Britain. The Spine Challenger is known as the hardest 100 mile race in the country. Having also completed its closest competitor, the Arc of Attrition (race report HERE) I would happily say that it wins that particular accolade easily.
Why? Why is it so hard? OK, the route is rough trail, very hilly (5600m of ascent…that’s about 5½ times up Snowden) and very open on high ground for changeable weather conditions. The Pennine Way is deserted and desolate, perhaps crossing a road every 6 or more miles; there isn’t a welcoming pub or village every few miles to stop and rest. It’s wet and boggy for long sections, to the extent that some stretches have had a long path of stone slabs put on as the ground is too treacherous.
A typical 100 mile event has 4 or 5 checkpoints, with hot food and drinks, access to a drop bag full of spare kit, and a friendly face. The Spine Challenger has one checkpoint, at Hebden Bridge, after 45 miles. (You can stop at the few pubs or cafes you find on the route however, which is very necessary).
A typical 100 mile race asks you to carry water and a waterproof jacket as mandatory kit. The Spine Challenger has a mandatory kit list that includes a sleeping bag effective to -6°, a bivvy bag (basically a big bin-liner made from tent-material to get into in your sleeping bag and stay dry), goggles to protect eyes from strong winds, 3000 kcal of food, a full set of maps covering the route, and lots more emergency equipment. All of this weighs a lot, and that means that every gram counts…I became slightly obsessed with keeping the weight down, and I even snapped my spork in half to save perhaps 3 grams. I will write a lot more about the kit I used HERE, for future entrants of this race.
The Spine Challenger has a cut-off of 60 hours, which means you are likely to be outside in the elements for a minumum of 48 hours unless  you plan to win. If it rains, you get wet, very wet, with no way of getting dry.
Because it’s January, the sun comes up about 8am and it’s getting dark by about 4-5pm. That means you have 8 or 9 hours of daylight, and then 15 or 16 hours of inky darkness. It’s very hard to push through the night on any race, but the depression you feel when you know that you will see the sun for the last time at 4pm is very real and it makes the dark night last forever.
And finally, a typical 100 mile event will allow your friendly support crew to meet you every few miles with a supportive hug and hot food. The Spine Challenger, for the first time this year, allowed no support outside the race-provided checkpoint or local pubs & shops. This meant that you felt truly on your own in the wilderness.
Perhaps I can explain in a more simple way. Come with me on a journey…
I can run 100 miles, and I have quite a few times. It’s always hard, but it gets easier as you know what to expect. I suspect you can drive, and if I asked you to drive from Manchester to London, you’d say “OK, no problem”. It’s about 4 hours driving, 200 miles, so it would take you a few hours and you might be quite stiff at the end, but you would cope with it, wouldn’t you? Ah, I have a few conditions for you. I want you to drive in January, and the windows of your car are stuck down & the heating is broken, so it will be cold and windy in the car, but I’ll let you wear whatever thick coats you want.
I will not allow you to take smooth easy motorways, but twisty lanes that are covered in potholes, and take much much longer. You cannot have your satnav, and there are no signposts on these back roads, but the good news is that you have a compass, a 1988 AA road atlas, and a small GPS unit that sometimes points the way to go.
Oh yes, last couple of things: you can stop only once for hot food, and I require you to tow a caravan (the equivalent of carrying my massive rucksack) just in case the worst happens and you need to stop and shelter. And these back roads are very hilly, which means that your poor car will really struggle to get up them with the damn caravan you’re pulling.
It all sounds a bit rubbish now!
I should add at this point, I’m not a super-fit athlete, smashing out miles of running in between hard sessions at the gym. I run a bit, work a lot, eat rubbish food, and listen to some awful music. I’ve done a few longish ultras, but generally can only manage one or two per year because I take a while to recover (both mentally and physically). On the positive side, I’m stubborn and I like to finish what I start, which puts me in a good place for putting up with some discomfort.
And what brought me to the Challenger? As usual, a bit of escalating banter with a running buddy John Hunt, coupled with an “I wonder if I could do it???” attitude, saw me applying for a place shortly after entries opened in February 2017. Common sense then made me made me let my place lapse, as there was clearly no way I could attempt this monster. Then, a few months later in May, something else made me email the organisers to say that I had bottled it, and could I get back in the race. And they said yes!
I then spent August to November reading up about the types of kit required for the likely weather conditions, buying lots, and cramming it into a rucksack. November saw me manage to squeeze 3 days off work (Sun-Tue) to recce some of the route, and understand the likely terrain. I was struck by the isolation and bleakness of the route…there really was no sign of life (human or animal) on majority of the route. Because there was no grass there’s no wildlife, only endless bog and heather. The recce also involved sleeping out in my bivvy bag, which was a good test, and carrying full race kit, which weighed a whopping 9kg and ruined my back by the end of the first day. Back to the drawing board for what to pack.
November also saw me spend every Sunday morning driving to the nearest good training hills, the cliffs at nearby Folkestone, and going up and down them for 7 hours. I think I did this 4 or 5 times in November before I ran out of time and put all my training on the back burner while Xmas monopolised my time in December (I work in retail). Although I started running again on Boxing Day, my mileage in the 6 weeks before the race was a measly 110 miles in total. Not great preparation!
The last few weeks were spent packing and repacking to try to minimise the weight of whatever I could. Also sorting out transport arrangements, due to a train strike on Friday 12th January scuppering my journey that had been booked for 6 months. And the other big task of the weeks before the race was trying to get my head around the fear I was feeling. It is normal to feel a little apprehensive before a big ultra, but I was deep in the fear zone, being all too aware my lack of experience in winter conditions and the terrain. Perhaps more significantly, I simply didn’t know what to expect: the weather forecast was changing daily, detailing winds and heavy rain that no one would choose to go outside in. And most importantly, I’ve spent the last 30 years living in the South: this means we avoid rain/mud/hills, and I’ve not seen more than a few centimetres of snow in the last 15 years. The threat of snow triggers Southerners to panic buy bottled water at my supermarket, whereas the north simply gets on with daily life. I was well aware how unprepared I was for this.

The rucksack is quite large, but dwarfed by the dropbag!

On that cheerful note, I set off on Friday morning, with my rucksack and a gigantic drop bag of spare kit. I’d packed some cheese rolls, and had quite a nice journey snoozing the miles away from Kent to London to Sheffield, where my train journey stopped due to the train strike. I’d managed to arrange to share a taxi to race registration with another couple of runners, Stuart Mugridge and Lizzie Rosewell, which meant a slightly less stressful arrival even despite a taxi driver chattering away happily to me with such a strong accent that I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. The three of us made an interesting group: Stuart had done much of the Dragons Back race last year, a hugely tough mountain race in Wales, and he was clearly a very good runner, but perhaps he wouldn’t be able to run much in boggy terrain with a heavy rucksack. Lizzie had recce’d a lot of the course and was a strong orienteer and long-distance runner. I was just out of my depth, but clearly I had the biggest drop bag, so I had something going for me.
Arriving at the village hall for registration at about 3pm, the first Montane flags in the car park brought home the realisation that I was actually about to do this thing. Cue faster heart beat and more deep breathing. Calm down!
Registration was surprisingly quick, and I got lucky in the mandatory kit check, only needing to show 3 items rather than the full kit check I saw some others have. There were a number of well known faces there (hello Lindley), who would be forming different Spine Safety Teams that would be on the course for the Challenger and full Spine (as well as the standard Mountain Rescue Teams) in case of difficulties.
A swift race briefing followed in another local hall, which was fairly routine until the head medic stood up, introduced herself, and then proceeded to explain how dangerous this race was. Excellent news.
I cadged a lift up to the Youth Hostel I was staying at from a fellow runner, and checked into my room. I spent about an hour of faffing with kit, and double checking I knew where everything was before going down to dinner. I had originally intended to go back into Edale for a meal, but it was a few miles that I was happy not to cover again, so I ate 2 main meals (lasagne and sausages & mash, if you’re interested) and chatted to a northern farmer called Dan who looked very relaxed. The previous summer he had completed a Bob Graham Round (a circuit in the Lake District that takes in 77 peaks) in just under 24 hours, which is an amazing achievement. After we’d chatted about nothing in particular for a while, he proceeded to check the mountain weather forecast, which would probably be accurate by now: no rain, but 45 mph winds moving the temperature of 0° to a wind chill of -12°. Not really what I wanted to hear!
After stretching out the evening as it clearly felt too early to go to bed, I went upstairs at about 8pm, and finished packing all my bags, ready for an early start in the morning. A quick chat with the wife, and it was off to bed. Obviously not to sleep, that would be too easy, but it felt like I lay there for 8 hours with my mind racing about what was to come.
I was up before the alarm at 5.30am to get ready for the race start of 8am. I’d stupidly not planned anything for breakfast, and the YHA breakfast didn’t start until 7am, so I resorted to some of my race food…there may be worse things to eat in the morning than coffee, a tin of mackerel and a rehydrated chicken curry but I’m not sure I know what they are…..however, they were calories, which is what I needed.
I checked in my massive drop bag, which weighed in at an impressive 18kg (the limit was 20kg, so I just squeaked it in!), and got the minibus back to the village hall which was the starting point. My tracker was quickly fitted and confirmed working, which was good, as it also contained my SOS button if required (especially in places where the mobile signal is non-existent).
Interestingly, there was no queue for the toilets, which is unusual, but clearly goes to show how everyone else was taking it in their stride and I was sh*tting myself (in a very real and physical way).
As I sat in the hall, waiting for the start, it was a chance to watch everyone else around me, and inspect the varieties of backpack everyone had, from unbelievably small to extremely heavy. I even saw one bloke who had his spare batteries still in their cardboard packaging, which must have added at least 5 grams to his pack – outrageous.
A quick note on my pack…while weight wasn’t the only consideration when deciding what to take, I was very aware that my appalling lack of strength would cause me problems the longer I went on if my pack was too heavy. While an extra 200 g may not sound much, if I packed 4 or 5 extra things (like a bag of boiled sweets or a few warm tops) I would soon be adding serious amounts of weight, and that would slow me down and tire me out.
And then the shout went up to make our way to the start…it was just about light outside and the familiar metal gantry (securely strapped down in case of the inevitable winds) was standing proudly in the gloom. I had time to snap a quick picture (naturally) and then get to my customary position at the rear of the pack.

Me! At the start!!


Note from Bob:
Congratulations reader!! You’ve made it to the start of the race, about 3000 words in. Feel free to get up, have a walk around, and make a cup of tea. It all gets (even more) tedious & painful from here.


The view from the back…..

 

From where I started at the back, it was quite slow going. I was happy to settle in gently, and take it easy. The first serious climb was a few miles in, and on the way there I started chatting to Mal Smith, who I knew vaguely from a few ultras in my native Kent, organised by a great RD Mike Inkster. Mal (who is not a spring chicken any more) used to drag a tyre around the 6 mile looped course that I would run round, and has done some of the Yukon Ultra series, so it was great to hear some stories of his adventures (but not the ones where he kept seeing wolf tracks around him).
At the bottom of Jacobs’s ladder, the first big ascent, I went ahead and felt good all the way up. About halfway up, ultra-legend Damian Green was wishing everyone luck, which was great. The difficult thing (for me) on these long ascents is trying not to sweat too much, as I found while training that once sweaty, my merino wool base layers would transport the water away from my skin, but over time they would become damp unless I vented them (i.e. unzipped everything) to release the moisture.

Nice and steady at the start

The moisture would simply sit under my jacket until I stopped climbing, and would then make me cold. So I spent a lot of my time zipping and unzipping my various layers, putting on and taking off my hat and gloves, ultimately doing everything I could to keep my temperature cool or cold, rather than warm.
A long stretch past Kinder Downfall and through to Snake Pass (the first road crossing, at about mile 10) was my first proper taste of the wind. I was high up (over 500m) on very flat terrain and the wind just whistled through your clothes, really biting into any exposed skin. There was a couple of mountain rescue vehicles at the Snake Pass road crossing, with fresh water, and at that point I remember thinking that everything was going pretty much according to plan. I was trying to keep my water intake to a minimum, having learnt on previous ultras how easily I can drink too much and overload my stomach. I’d rather suffer with a bit of thirst, than be vomiting all over the floor by mile 50.

Still smiling somewhere near Kinder downfall.

Thick cloud & hills

Thick cloud & hills

 

 

 

 

 

 

After Snake Pass was a long boggy stretch over Bleak Low, where I got chatting to a lady called Jo Barrett, who agreed with me about how bleak and desolate the surroundings were. She was clearly very prepared for the Challenger, having recce’d pretty much the whole course and was moving through the boggy sections very quickly. We chatted about lots of things, including her dog, my new puppy (Golden Retriever if you’re interested, being collected next week), and families.

Snow!

It was an enjoyable way to pass the time, and again I found myself moving on ahead when the terrain flattened out…I may be rubbish at ascending or descending, but by god I can move quickly on nice flat stone slabs (some might say, like pavement).
Lizzie (from the taxi) caught me up before the long slow descent to Torside reservoir, and was moving really smoothly. I think I complimented her on how good she was at skipping down the rocks, while I picked my way down like a geriatric goat terrified for his life. At the reservoir there was another Mountain Rescue team, this time with a gazebo, and hot drinks. I had a quick coffee, and one of the cheese rolls I’d been carrying. I had made my mind up to eat a small amount about every 2 hours, to keep my stomach & digestive system working while I moved. It would be important not to stop eating or I have found that my stomach simply stops wanting anything, and the ensuing exhaustion is not pretty.

Leaving Lizzie at the mountain rescue gazebo, I moved quickly through Crowden, remembering that it had taken me 6 hours to get there in November, and today it had only taken 5 hours (albeit with a lighter pack and dryer conditions underfoot). The long climb up Oaken Clough was just as hard as in November, and again, I was getting hot on

the way up and having to make sure I didn’t sweat too much.
The next section included a stream crossing that in previous years had been a knee deep wade-through job…not good news to get your feet that wet at such an early stage. I was wearing quality waterproof socks (as well as 2 pairs of liner socks under them) and gore-tex gaiters, but nothing was going to keep the water out if it was that deep. Luckily, this year was a small splashy crossing, and I skipped through it easily. Phew!
Another fill up with water at Wessenden reservoir, and onwards towards where my recce had ended in November. Beyond this I was going to be hoping my navigation and GPS would keep me on track. It was just starting to get dark, and I took this picture

Last of daylight at the reservoir

in the last of the sunlight for 15 hours, at Black Moss reservoir. It was about 4pm at this point, and I managed to restrain myself from switching on my head torch until 4.55pm, when it was properly dark. The weather was still being kind, with constant strong wind, but no rain. The temperature dropped quickly as it got dark and I became slightly used to existing in my little bubble of light. It was rather like being on a treadmill, as there was no sign of any distance travelled, the terrain stayed very similar and I could see nothing in the distance. Time seemed to stand still and I had no idea of how far I’d gone.

Which was when I got to the M62-crossing burger van.

Let me explain. It was suggested on Facebook a few weeks beforehand, that it was quite likely there would be a burger van at the point we crossed the M62, perhaps about 30 miles in. The thought of hot food, at a perfect time (about 6pm I think) was just too good, and I think I had purposely not depended on it in case it wasn’t there. So imagine my surprise to descend a hill and come across this picture:

BURGERRRRRRRR!

There was a group of about 10 runners there, some already eating, and a surprisingly reasonable service being run by a very stressed burger-van-technician. He could probably have charged £20 per burger and we would all have thrown money at him, but as it was he was only asking for £2 or £3 for a single or double burger. He did ask, as I got to the front of the queue, whether we had the correct money, as he was running out of change, clearly not realising that we all would have given crisp £20 notes for a burger at that point.
I had a double burger and a can of coke, and it felt fantastic. (OK, to be fair, I was expecting it to be the best food I had ever tasted, and it wasn’t as I was missing onions, mustard and all those things, but on that dark evening it was an excellent start to the long night.)
With that inside me, I didn’t hang around, and set off into the dark.

Footbridge over the M62

The M62 at night

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The footbridge over the M62 was bizarre, with loads of bright cars whizzing underneath, but once it was behind me everything became the same kind of dark treadmill, and I had no perception of distance being travelled. I followed a long diversion at Warland reservoir and then set off cross country towards the monument at Stoodley Pike.
I caught up with a husband and wife team, who were quite chatty as we made our way through the night. He had almost finished the full Spine twice and was full of good stories about catastrophic things that had happened in previous races. It was quite an eye opener and made the time pass quickly. I was lucky to have met them as the navigation over that part felt quite complicated, but as we dropped off the heights, and back to better paths, I moved off by myself again.
As we were very near to Hedben Bridge, the site of the first (and only) checkpoint I was feeling tired but not exhausted, having been on the go for about 13 hours (it was about 9pm.) The weather had behaved itself and I was counting myself lucky to have got through the first day relatively unscathed. I dropped down to the level of the canal and railway that run through the centre of Hebden Bridge, and then started an hour of constant steep climbing and descending. It turns out there is two massive hills to go over between Hebden Bridge and the checkpoint, and although it was not far in mileage, it was the last thing I wanted.

After the two massive climbs, the checkpoint was signposted off the Pennine Way and down a long road, and then one more steep descent, covered in thick thick mud. It wasn’t as if I was worried about my shoes getting muddier, but the thought of coming out of the checkpoint in nice clean clothes and boots and having to go straight up this climb was very depressing. In fact, the climb wasn’t bad at all when the time came to do it.
And then I was there! It was about 10pm, so not late exactly, but the next few hours would decide totally how the next 65 miles of the race went. I had expected to arrive much later, nearer 3am, so I was keen not to waste any time at the checkpoint, but also I knew I had a decent bit of time in hand.
The whole operation at the checkpoint was very slick, with muddy boots coming off before you left the entrance hall, and then drop bags being worked through in a different room. There was hot food available, hot showers (which a surprising number of people were using) and even a bunkroom for getting some sleep. I had a checklist to follow to ensure I didn’t forget anything, and numerous bin liners for dirty stuff, to be replaced by clean everything! After plugging everything electronic in, and changing clothes, I had a meal of chicken and rice (with loads of salt) and lots to drink. I gave myself an hour to sleep, although I wasn’t sure I would be able to, and in the bunkroom I tossed and turned, listening to the snoring of a number of tired blokes. Probably not the easiest place to sleep! I didn’t bother to set an alarm (and I thought it would wake everyone in the room too) but I returned to consciousness after exactly an hour, and made my way back downstairs. It was amazing the difference in my legs between stiffly going up the staircase to sleep and then bouncing down them an hour later.
I finished off with my kit while drinking a coffee, remembering this would be the last access I had to my drop bag for the rest of the race. I swapped my thin gloves for thicker mittens (as I expected it to get colder) and still carried my waterproof rubber gloves (£4.99 from Screwfix if you’re interested) in case the rain started early. I had a full new set of clothes on, except my hard-shell jacket, and felt like a new man!
At 1.15am, as I was leaving the CP, I met up with Stuart, who had been in the checkpoint a full hour longer than me, and we teamed up for the next leg. He had had a similar rest to me and felt well refreshed, although we both were very aware that we weren’t even half way yet.
Stuart was an expert map reader, having done a lot of walking in Scotland, and his map skills coupled with my GPS “skill” made for some interesting confusions, as we discussed exactly where we were. It would probably have been easier to follow one or other, map or GPS, but we muddled through somehow.
We passed Top Withins bothy, a shelter at the top of one of the fells that I’d marked on my maps as a shelter if the weather was poor. It was just a stone hut, but in quite an exposed place and was nice to know that it was there. Apparently, Stuart told me, it had been some of the inspiration for the location of a house in Wuthering Heights. Very impressive in daylight I suspect, in the darkness it was just a ruined farmhouse.
Oh dear….in the excitement of leaving Hebden Bridge checkpoint I had stupidly forgotten to fill my water bottle, and only had about half a litre of water with me. I knew there was water available to the next village, Ponden, but even more stupidly didn’t ask Stuart to remind me when we got there, so only realised we’d gone past it about a half mile past. Stupid stupid. I wasn’t dying of dehydration, but I was thirsty, and too proud to ask my companion to borrow some of his water just because I was a bloody idiot. I unzipped everything to cool me down and reduce any sweating possible, and got my head down to the task in hand.
And somewhere shortly after Ponden, we met Mr X. This is going to take a bit of explaining, so I’ll go slowly. Stuart and I met up with 2 other blokes, one of whom was Mr X, and as we went over Ickornshaw Moor Stuart and friend moved ahead, leaving me with Mr X. He then proceeded to stop every 5 minutes or so, shouting his friends name as loudly as possible (and remember, it was totally quiet, being the middle of the night) in the vain hope that his friend would come back for him. Mr X wasn’t very good on the rough terrain, and every time he made a small slip on the mud or rocks, he would let out a yell at the top of his voice, sounding like he was falling to his death. After the first few times of this, it became really annoying. Mr X wasn’t navigating at all, obviously having been following his friend, so now was following me and making no attempt to get a map out or look at his GPS, except asking every few minutes if we were on the right track.
I am a generally quite chatty person, but Mr X really got me cross, to the extent that I wanted to have a proper go at him, that if he couldn’t navigate he shouldn’t be trying to do this event, and would he please stop relying on me to keep us on track. In the end, I held my temper, but put my headphones in and tried to zone him out. This was coupled with being bloody thirsty by this point, and stupidly not eating anything since leaving the checkpoint which had been a few hours, and my stomach was starting to turn over when I thought of eating. I was generally in a bit of a low, and was getting quite cross (can you tell?) at everything.
At the next village, Cowling, I luckily managed to find an outside tap on a house, and snuck through their back gate to drink about a litre of freezing cold water and fill up my bottle. I did trigger the security light though in the back garden, which gave me a hell of a shock, but I hope I didn’t wake the household.
Naturally, shortly after finding this water source, we came across a pub in Lotherdale, who had put water outside for runners, and later on would be bbq’ing for runners going past. I was gutted to miss that!

I was too early for the bbq…butI’m told it was great.

Daylight arrived about 8am, and it was great to feel that the night was behind me. I got a bit of energy going and picked up the pace a little. I still couldn’t eat anything, but felt like I was making good progress. A couple of small navigation errors had us climbing over fences to get to the right side of a field, but nothing serious.
I took a full frontal tumble into some bog, which was quite memorable by virtue of the bog getting into every nook and cranny on my front. I caught my foot in some grass, slipped and fell forwards, and was basically lying flat on my front with my forearms being submerged and everything on my front under water. I was lucky to keep my face out of the bog, and got up bloody quickly before the water soaked into my clothes. I was angry rather than feeling sorry for myself, but as I tried to brush the mud off it just spread the watery mud more all over me. I philosophically thought I’d just let it dry and then would be able to brush it off, but that damn bog got everywhere. Even as I write this report in my living room a few days later, I have bog on my maps which were sealed in a Velcro-fastened map holder. The damn bog!
It was approaching mid-morning, and I was starting to consider that I needed to eat or I would not get too much further. I still hadn’t eaten since 1am, and was feeling tired and sore. I only take painkillers with food, and so not eating prevented me from lessening the discomfort I was starting to suffer.
Up ahead was a reasonably sized village called Gargrave, where there would be places to shop and eat. Mr X was starting to suggest we stop for something to eat, but I was so cross with him by this point I really didn’t want to have him shadow me through a cup of tea and then all the way to the finish line. Reading this back, I think I maybe sound really unreasonable, but unfortunately at the time I was so pissed off at this guy and his ‘mannerisms’ and lack of nav.
Anyway, I ducked into a tearoom at Gargrave to ask if they could do me a cup of soup or something to take with me (as I couldn’t sit down in there, being covered in bog) and who should be in there but Stuart!

Covered in bog at the café!

And he was just finishing off a clean plate of food. After he said hello (actually he took one look at me, and asked what on earth had happened to me, being covered in bog), I asked what he’d just eaten, as it looked great, and he said that he had a full English breakfast. Wow! That was all it took for me to sit down and order a pot of tea and the same breakfast. I really think that accidentally going into the same tearoom as him, and being prompted to have a sit down and eat changed the course of the day for me.
(Mr X hung around for a couple of minutes, before carrying on with another runner that came along. I refuse to feel bad about my shitty treatment of him. If he finished, I’ll allow that he may have covered the distance but didn’t complete the event by following the person ahead of him for 108 miles. Absolutely not.)
Stuart didn’t stick around, so I made myself comfortable, went to the toilet, called my wife and basically sorted myself out. It looked like about another three hours to the last bit of civilisation at Malham Tarn before a big climb a Pen-y-Ghent, the tallest and most challenging climb of the whole route.

Here comes breakfast, with a slightly embarrased waitress

I didn’t finish the breakfast, but ate most of it, and more importantly took some paracetamol, which just took the edge off the soreness for the next few hours. My stomach woke up and I started to feel a bit human again. It was 11am, and the bad weather “heavy rain” was predicted to hit at 9pm. It was now all about getting as far as possible, as quickly as possible, before the weather hit.
Leaving the café, apologising for the mess it’d left on the floor, I felt like a new man.
I don’t remember much about the next few hours. I bought an ice cream in a little shop in Airton or Malham, which tasted like nectar, even if I was getting strange looks from everyone else walking up the street on Sunday afternoon.
I got to a park called Malham Cove where there were lots of families out for a pleasant Sunday afternoon walk. I was moving well at that point, and could feel the miles passing.

Malham Cove….a big old set of steps to go up.

Unfortunately I found that there was what felt like a huge set of steps up to the top of the cliff, before some rather dicey skipping over some bare limestone rocks. Apparently, most people take a slightly longer route to avoid going over these limestone rocks, as one slip would be race over, but in my naïve way I assumed it was all part of the fun. It was quite a bizarre place, and I wish I’d done a bit more homework to know what to expect in this latter section.
It was starting to get noticeably cold, and a bit gloomy, so I stopped to get kitted up in my warm gloves, neck buff, and warm hat for the final trek into Malham Tarn Field Centre, the last place to get anything warm before nightfall. The facilities were actually a bit better than I expected, as it had been described as a “half-checkpoint”….which meant medics to look at feet, hot drinks, but no access to drop bags and a maximum stay of only 30 minutes.
Unfortunately, there were only 5 seats, all taken, which actually made me even determined to get in and out quickly. I squatted on the floor (yes, I could still squat with my legs stiffening up) and spent a quick 20 minutes sorting my kit for this last push. I had a couple of cup-a-soups that I’d brought with me, and put on my waterproof trousers for the oncoming rain. I managed to eat a cheese roll (yes, I was still carrying cheese rolls, but for emergency use only) and take a couple of ibuprofen, to keep the general tightness I was feeling at bay.
The next, final, section was going to go over Pen-y-Ghent, which, at 694 metres, would be the highest point of the whole route. I’d read only enough about this climb to be worried about it as it is quite challenging in summer daylight, but in January winter darkness it would be very tough. Little did I know just how tough!

Have a very quick look at this video and skip forward to 1 minute 43 seconds, to give you a little idea on what I had in store.

I had hoped to leave Malham Tarn with someone that knew the route well, but in the end I left with a guy called Michael who was having trouble with his feet. We kept each other company for the first few miles, before he said he was going to stop and rest his feet for a few minutes to prevent the pain getting out of hand. It was quite a brave strategy, and showed some real commitment to getting to the end in one piece (which he did). To stop and rest meant getting cold, and that’s quite a sacrifice at night when the weather is closing in.
So on I went, not being too phased by the cold and wind, but really feeling that I was getting the job done and that once I had got Pen-y-Ghent out of the way I would be on the home straight.
The route became steeper, and turned into steeply climbing large steps of rocks. The wind was picking up quite a lot, and I could see nothing in front (above) or behind (below) that gave me any indication or how far I’d travelled. It was tiring work, but was just a matter of getting one step done at a time. I could see little tracks of ice starting to appear on the rocks, and made sure I stayed well clear of them. But it was hard hard work, and I was starting to get a bit frazzled by the constant difficult (dangerous) climbing.
At about halfway up this climb I was lucky enough to get a call from Derek, one of the coaches at my running club. Derek is a superstar, and ever since I’ve been doing ultras he has been willing to call me at various times for a quick pep talk and to find out how I’m doing. Often he’ll call in the middle of the night just to check I’m OK, which is massively beyond the call of duty, and on one memorable run when I was suffering a bit he called me every 40 minutes to keep me going. He’s quite a guy.
And this time Derek had called at just the right time, as I was beginning to feel I may be on the wrong route as the climbing was getting harder and steeper. I had a sit and a chat for 5 minutes, as the wind was whistling past me, and it helped enormously to settle me down and re-focus me. Just talking about how I was doing and where I was stopped the (slight) rising panic at how difficult this was getting.
After talking to Derek, I stood back up, and took a proper look upwards at my route, but it was just steps of rock disappearing into the distance and absolutely no use to understand which way to go. It was going to be much more difficult to go down if I went wrong, as it would have been shuffling downwards on my bottom like a toddler, so upwards was the only way.
As I got to nearer the top, although I didn’t realise it was the top, I was faced with the complete loss of route, and basically climbed near-vertically moving one hand, one foot, another hand, another foot, to keep as anchored as possible all the way up. Apparently they call it “scrambling”. The wind was pulling at my rucksack, which was the only part of me sticking out as the rest of me was plastered to the rock. I knew there was nothing soft beneath me if I fell, and I remember thinking as I climbed that my wife would kill me if she saw what I was doing.
I’m hoping this isn’t sounding too exaggerated, as it’s not meant to be. It may be the case that in daylight I would have known I was safe, and the drop just felt exaggerated in the dark, but I genuinely felt like I was risking life and limb.
I got to the grassy top and basically rolled myself onto it, feeling very grateful to still be in one piece. The wind at the top was very strong indeed, and very cold. The grass was iced up and there was a stone wall at the top that was completely covered in front (I wish I had taken a picture, as I’d like to know if it was the same as I remember, but I was suffering from far too much trauma from the climb to even think of it.)

It was cold up there!

There was no obvious sign of a path at the top, and my way of getting moving was to simply move in the direction that my GPS suggested and hope for the best. As ridiculous as it sounds, I didn’t have the facilities at that point to get my map out and try to work out the required direction, so I just pointed and walked in the (hopefully) right direction and not off a cliff. Sure enough, I soon came upon a line of stone slabs that marked the route, and I was off on my merry way.

Really really cold!

The slabs turned into lovely shallow steps that took me down the side of the hill, and as I walked it slowly dawned on me that I’d just completed the toughest part of the route. I got to a signpost that stated Horton in 1.5 miles, which meant I could expect a café, or something similar (I didn’t know what exactly) and some warmth and light.
(I didn’t know until I finished, but there was a diversion put in place around Pen-y-Ghent due to the conditions shortly after I came down, and I was one of the last people to go over it. I’m not sure whether to be gutted that I had to go through it, or chuffed that I got the full experience!)

Sure enough, 20 minutes later, I entered this glorious friendly café, with three volunteers sitting around a table, and hot food and drink available. I asked, as you do, whether I had definitely just gone over Pen-y-Ghent, and it was now definitely behind me…and it was! I was just slightly excited at this news and even happier when some of the other volunteers there said it was easy going from now on (which didn’t turn out to be the case at all, unfortunately).

Beef goulash soup….yum!

I had a cup of beef goulash soup, which was wonderful, and refilled my water. I texted a few friends to tell them I had just done the most dangerous thing I could imagine, but I don’t think they believed me. I called my wife, and then I realised that Stuart was sitting on the other side of the dividing wall, and we had a bit of a chat about what a nightmare the last section had been. He was eating, again, and looked pooped (like I probably did).

Stuart eating again. Please note that he is drinking a pina colada in a pint glass (they ran out of umbrellas).

Without too much faffing, I got going again, leaving before Stuart to get this last section done and finish this damn thing. The checkpoint team had said the last section was an easy 15 miles, and because it was on a diversion called Cam Road, I thought it would actually be a proper road – but no such luck.
Leaving Horton was also easy as I was expecting a strong 15 miles, which would take me 5 slow hours, but it was 9pm at that point and the weather was spitting rain but nothing more than that. I’d be finished by about 2am and in a hot shower 15 minutes later. Magic. I was feeling great, and called a friend to chat as I walked up the next hill. He said I sounded ‘excited’.
Famous last words. The next 6.5 hours were the roughest, most challenging I’ve ever had outdoors, and while they didn’t contain the (perceived) danger of Pen-y-Ghent, I will remember them as being the very spirit of the Spine race, with proper spine weather!
The heavy rain began properly after 30 minutes, as I climbed out of Horton, and I stopped to put a plastic poncho on over my waterproof jacket, with my rucksack on top to hold the flapping plastic down. I knew the poncho would keep the water out to some degree, but I didn’t realise how much would be blown up the sleeves and down the neck. Luckily, my jacket then took over and kept me pretty much dry (on the inside). As I went higher, the wind got stronger, temperatures got colder and the rain turned to sleet and then to snow on the ground. It was all coming from behind me luckily and that made the weather more bearable, except that every so often there would be a gust that would come from the side and sting the side of my face.
As the route got wetter underfoot there started to be puddles of slush, that became indistinguishable fro m the ground until you stepped in one and your foot was covered with icy water. My waterproof socks were struggling, understandably, and my feet were getting wetter and colder.

Footprints to follow….

I was able to follow footprints of others that had gone ahead of me, and that made the isolation I was feeling slightly better, as I knew there were some humans around. Visibility was very poor, only really allowing me to see a metre of ground in any direction, but nothing beyond that. I was only feeling the cold on my hands and feet, but the wind behind me would have made that a different story if I turned around.
And that was when I lost the route, which I explained at the very start of this huge monstrosity (both this story and race).
I was walking in a square, 5 paces in each direction, looking for my missing left-hand turn. Of course I found it in the end, after a bit of fretting.
In fact the thing that made the difference was starting to understand that the wind had been coming from behind me, which meant that if I stood with the wind at my back I was facing the direction I had been previously moving. Therefore, I could orient myself and start again looking for a left hand turn that had been there all the time. I felt a palpable sense of relief that I was back on my way, and not staying still any more. It had been a scary 10 minutes.
It didn’t get any easier. I started to descend, and the snow turned back into rain, but that rain had nowhere to go and was completely flooding the muddy track I was on. The wind seemed to be picking up, and was threatening to blow me over with every gust. Falling into that mud and water would have been a terrible experience, and would have destroyed any chance I had at keeping my temperature up, which I was doing OK with so far.
The descent (the final descent!!) on the Cam Road seemed to take forever, although it was probably only an hour, on the roughest rocky trail I’ve ever seen…I was hopping from rock to rock keeping my balance with my poles, and doing my best not to twist or break an ankle. It was about 2am at this point, and I was feeling very sleepy, despite the awful weather and terrain. I considered taking a caffeine tablet to wake myself up, but didn’t know what effect it would have on my stomach.
And then I started to see lights in the distance, which looked like a town that could only be Hawes, close to the finish in Hardraw.

I’d like to say I stormed the last couple of miles, but I got lost in Hawes and simply couldn’t find the way through. I even got a phone call from my wife, who was waiting at the finish, to say I was really close and she was waiting for me. At that point, I was in a public toilet, taking some shelter from the rain, and trying to sort out where I needed to go next and giving myself a proper talking to. Answering the phone reminded me that I could use Google maps to go this last couple of miles, and so that’s exactly what I did. Of course, as soon as I was moving again, everything made sense, and I met up with Jo Barrett about a mile from the end. We chatted to the finish about how appalling the last few hours had been, and how we would never come back to the Pennine Way (or maybe it was just me saying that!).
And then we finished! A couple of volunteers put our medals on, and persuaded us to get our muddy boots off before coming inside. My lovely wife appeared from the dark and we had a lovely hug. In the rain. And I had my picture taken…there is literally nothing dry in this pictures at all.

Nothing dry!  Thanks to Drew Wilson for the photo.

An efficient finish station sorted me out some soup as I tried to get out of my wet stuff as quickly as possible, throwing it all into yet more black bin-liners. I didn’t stick around as a hot shower back in the B&B was beckoning, and my traditional beer and Doritos. There were a few other finishers slumped in the room, but everyone was either knackered or sleeping.
Claire zoomed me back to the B&B, where we discovered that the shower wasn’t running hot water…not great news. But such is life. Hence 4am found me sweaty and smelly, wrapped in a thick jumper and two duvets, eating Doritos like it was going out of fashion, and reading messages from friends and filtering through Facebook. Job done!

And there it is! I finished in about 43 ½ hours, 24th male (68 men finished, out of a field of 95), which is far quicker than I ever expected: truthfully I was not at all sure I was going to finish, so I never really considered my target finish time. I was pretty stiff for about a day, but that passed quickly.

Magic pristine feet!

 

My feet and ankles swelled for a few days, but that passed to. I had no blisters, no sore patches, just a lot of general ache. My mind, which previously I have struggled to get back on track after an event of this magnitude, was not too bad this time, and after a couple of days dozing on the sofa I think I’m pretty back to normal. I’m still eating like a horse, but that is probably just me being really greedy.
I feel that the last 6½ hours of my race gave me the full Spine experience, with wind, rain and snow making it as memorable as anything I’ve ever done. I finished strong, quite positively and energetically, but I’m not sure how I would have felt if I’d had to go back out there again after a couple of hours.
For the few days following my race, I’ve been following the full Spine race, and the pictures of snowfall further up the course look wonderful. It was the only thing I never got to experience, breaking trail through a foot of snow, but maybe another time.
So in summary, was it as #brutal as suggested? Yes, definitely. The terrain, ascent and weather all contributed to make it harder than any 100 mile race I’ve done. My kit all worked extremely well, but I’ll go into full detail of what I used and how it worked HERE.
I’d like to thank Scott Gilmour and everyone else involved with the race for superb and smooth organisation. Every volunteer was relentlessly cheerful and helpful, which made life much easier at the various stages where you wanted help.
I think all the competitors were there for their own reasons, but it was great to meet some like-minded people on the course. Stuart finished about an hour after me, and Lizzie a few hours after that. From meeting randomly on Facebook to just share a taxi, it’s great that we all managed a finish.
And what’s next? I’ve got a couple of decent races later this year, like the Ultra-trail Snowden (but only 50 mile course!) and Lakeland 100, which will keep me busy for a while. I’ve pretty much lived and slept for the Challenger over the last 6 months, and it’s a bizarre feeling for it finally to be over, especially after it went so well. But no more races in winter (this year).
And finally, I’d like to say massive thanks to my long-suffering wife, Claire, for putting up with the anxiety of watching me do something like this. She puts up with my daft ideas with a minimum of complaining, and is really supportive of all I do. Thanks Claire, love you.
My kids, bless them, only notice I’ve done a run after I walk downstairs a bit stiffly. But thanks anyway.
And that’s it! You made it to the end (like I did!) Congratulations. Now go out for a run or something useful.

And the pics that didn’t make it, but should have…

 

The slabs on the approach to Snake Pass

This must have been later on the second day, as the ground isn’t grey and brown and scorched, but rather green = Yorkshire Dales

There weren’t many signposts, but by god they told the public that the event was BRUTAL

This is the approach to Kinder Downfall

Wild country!

 

It’s a bit grim isn’t it!

 

I think this is near Kinder Downfall, possibly

 

Looking back at the limestone rocks at the top of Malham Cove….notice the people out for a pleasant sunday afternoon walk, unlike me!

Thames Ring 250 – June 2017

A quick warning before you start reading this:
This is going to be unpleasantly long, fairly rambling and very boring. It is not the latest blockbuster read from WHSmith, but it may keep you occupied for an hour or so. Don’t say you haven’t been warned. If you are ever thinking about running the Thames Ring 250, then this may have some useful bits of information. If you like to read about another person’s pain and misery then this will definitely appeal to you.
Second warning: I dnf’d this race (did not finish) in 2015, it’s only run every 2 years so if you want to get the full story, you need to read this post here so that you know what I went through that year. If you can’t be bothered to read it, the short version is that I started violently vomiting at about mile 50 (for the first time ever in an ultra, but identical to what has happened in every long race I’ve run since). I managed to struggle on from mile 50 to the checkpoint at mile 156, with various parts of my body slowly deteriorating – legs first, then my back went meaning I was hunched over as I travelled on, and then finally my mind went on the second night…and I knew I couldn’t cope with a third night awake. I made it into and out of the 156 mile checkpoint, but dropped about 14 miles later as the third night awake started to loom in front of me. I was on crutches for a week, as a doctor diagnosed a ‘spectacular’ strain on my right leg, and I didn’t run for about 3 months. I was properly battered.
Third warning: There is a danger when doing these race reports (I find) that it is quite easy to make things sound a bit tougher, a bit grittier, a bit more challenging than they really were. It is easy to make yourself into a hero, battling the insurmountable odds and coming out the other side a changed and improved person. I’d like to state here that I’m sure the 250 miles wasn’t as difficult as I’m going to make out below, but it really felt like it.
And finally: let me be honest and say that I’m a very average runner. I’m not fast, nor particularly agile. I’m rubbish at climbing hills, and scared of descending them quickly. In fact the only thing I’ve got going for me is that I’m really stubborn, I like to finish what I start, and can put up with quite a lot of punishment in the process.
Anyway, enough of the ‘acknowledgments’….on with the show!!!!!!
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“Helloooooooo! Anyone here???” I shouted. No answer. “Helloooooooo! I’m here at the aid station, where is everyone?” I shouted louder. Nothing. No answer, no people…hence no aid station.
It was about 7pm Friday evening, and I’d been on the move since Wednesday morning with minimal sleep or food. I’d dragged myself about 183 miles, to arrive at the aid station I desperately needed – but there was no aid station here.
I knew I couldn’t risk wandering around looking for the checkpoint as I was so exhausted I was adamant I didn’t want to go even 100 metres in the wrong direction. I would just sit down under this bridge and wait for the aid station to find me. In my sleep deprived state I was not thinking particularly clearly, and had spent the last 2 or 3 hours convinced there was a cloud of flies around me as I worked my way along the canal path. Black shapes flickering in front of my eyes and twitching at imaginary flies landing on my face probably didn’t help this. The overgrown bushes grabbed at me with their prickly arms and the rough ground threatened to trip me into the water. I was in a thoroughly pissed off state of mind, exhausted mentally as well as physically and I knew that I needed to sit and see a friendly face very soon, before I chucked the whole thing in.
And what made it worse was that I had started vomiting at mile 55, so had not eaten anything solid since a banana about 2 hours after starting on Wednesday. That meant 55 hours without any solid food, and just 8 or 9 cup-a-soups to keep me going. This has happened to me before, and unfortunately there is no way to re-educate a stomach once it has started rejecting everything. However, after this amount of time I was getting some serious stomach cramps (I assume because my empty stomach was starting to object to the whole idea of running 250 miles) and these were beginning to make me question what on earth I was doing.
And then of course, as I sat there under the bridge, waiting to be rescued by the check point volunteers that I knew was out there somewhere, I had another look at the map I was following, and realised I was at least 3 miles away from where I thought I was, and I had what felt like a huge distance to go before I could stop. To say I could have cried was an understatement. I was distraught.
But I stood up and plodded on. Life was shit.

———————————————————————————————————————————–

I don’t think I’m a particularly obsessive person, but the idea of running non-stop for 4 days and 250 miles got stuck into my head in 2014, and never really seemed to go away. As a challenge, it encompasses so much more than just running for a long time (which is bloody hard anyway) but it brings up thorny issues of sleep-deprivation, how to eat enough while keeping moving, and most of all how to keep your brain in one piece while telling your exhausted self that you’ve only got 100 miles left to go. Mentally, I suspect it is the biggest challenge I’ve ever attempted.

I was once told, by a very wise person, that it’s important to do something every year that you genuinely don’t know whether you are capable of.  In 2008 I spent a couple of years teaching myself enough to take an A-level in Economics (which went quite well) and then in 2010 I started to get more into my running.

I was lucky enough to complete the Grand Union Canal Race in 2014 (145 miles), with a great crew and a lot of luck, in a time that was well beyond my expectations. I had a great time, and came away from the event feeling pretty invincible. On that basis, I entered the Thames Ring 250 in 2015, only to come unstuck pretty drastically. As well as being hugely overloaded with kit, I started being sick by mile 50 (just before my traditional pizza) and everything went downhill from there. I barely escaped intact, and look back on the event as being the most pain I’ve ever felt. Rough.
I eased back in 2016 to lick my wounds, and entered an easy 50 miles in the summer, called the Lakeland 50. In the course of a couple of recces I fell in love with the Lake District, and got into wild camping and hiking which was (and still is) a passion. That summer reignited my love of ultra-running, and I started looking for something to challenge me.
Fast forward a few months, and I entered a winter race with a friend (John, more about him later) called the Arc of Attrition. This 100 mile race had a dnf rate of 75% in 2016 (i.e. ¾ of those starting did not finish) so it seemed a logical choice for us to ‘stretch’ us a little. Well, it did that. While we both finished, John basically skipped comfortably to the finish and I dug as deep as I could just to keep going. The race report is here, but it is not a pretty read. It made me realise that the challenge (for me) in these events is the endurance aspect, the act of keeping going when you don’t want to (or can’t)….and the reward at the end is proportional to the amount of adversity it took to get to the end. Quick note of advice to anyone contemplating the Arc – don’t. It’s hard.
And then John and I started talking about the Thames Ring. First, let me explain about John. He has appeared in quite a few of my race reports, but has now firmly surpassed me in his abilities. He started a few years ago as the equivalent of a Labrador puppy to ultra-running, having massive enthusiasm for everything to do with running long distances – the eating, the dedication to training, the shoes, the opportunity for new rucksacks….everything. He is a good marathon runner (think about 3 hour 18 minute PB, which is good in my book!), and turned this into some great ultra-running skills. We did Thames Trot together in 2016, and then his first 100 miler was Thames Path 100, during which he got to 30 miles doubled up with nausea, but overcame that and finished the 100 miles in a very respectable 21 hours 21 minutes.
When we did the Arc of Attrition together he very kindly stayed with me for the first 60 miles or so, going at a much slower pace than he was capable of, and then he spent an hour at the final checkpoint waiting for me to get there so we could leave together (which I massively needed, I was in bits, and I possibly wouldn’t have got out of the checkpoint without his nagging).
So we had a bit of history together, and had got into the habit of meeting at the earliest time possible on a Sunday (usually 4am) so that we could get a good 30 miles in before getting home by 10am to our families. It became a habit, and the core of our training week. John would then still run 4 or 5 times, often doing a longish run on Saturday so that the Sunday run was a ‘back-to-back’.  I was rather more realistic, simply not having the time or the legs to complete this type of volume, but still managed to average 50-60 miles per week over the few months before Thames Ring. We did a couple of night runs, the first being a very memorable experience on the night of Easter Saturday. We both started feeling horrible and really not wanting to be there at all…and sure enough we binned the run at 4am. Fast forward about 4 weeks and we had a brilliant night run, covering 50 miles in about 10 hours and generally enjoying the whole thing. Running is very odd.
Both of us knew that the Thames Ring was most likely beyond our capabilities. John has a much stronger running ability than me, but his longest ultra so far was 100 miles which means he had a massive jump in terms of distance and time on his feet. I had run further, but was a much slower, 10 years older and had already failed once at this distance. I was not hopeful, and as we walked down to the race start from breakfast, I summed up our chances for John finishing at about 50%, and for me finishing at about 30%. I would stand by those figures now actually, as they sum up the difficulty of the event and the likelihood of something going wrong perfectly.
The Thames Ring 250 is a simply race. Start at Goring, follow the Thames Path into London, then switch to the Grand Union Canal to head north to Northampton, then change to the Oxford Canal and come south until at Abingdon, then follow the Thames Path back to Goring. A lovely circle. Very flat & featureless, no mountains or beautiful panoramas to look at, but if you like following a river or canal then it is perfect for you.

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Calm, tranquil and flat!

Those tranquil scenes of water, grassy path, overhanging trees with maybe the odd narrow boat or two will stay with me for a long time.

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The route. We started in the 7 o’clock position (near Wallingford) and went anti-clockwise.

There would be an aid station every 25 miles or so, with two drop bags waiting for you which would then be transported on to the next checkpoint. In between you could visit as many shops and cafes as you want, but there could be no outside help from crews between checkpoints. Actually, apart from occasional newsagents there were very few shops to visit without leaving the route and I had no intention of clocking up too much extra mileage, so pretty much all of my nutrition came at the checkpoints. We all carried a litre of water, which was possibly going to be an issue as travelling 25 miles would take 7-8 hours in later stages, but that just made it more fun!  In addition there was a small amount of mandatory kit: waterproofs & phones etc.
John and I had a friend, Pam, who was coming out to crew for us from Friday morning, which would hopefully see us getting to somewhere about 150 miles. Having done the 2015 race without a crew, I knew how much I would rely on that friendly face at the later checkpoints, and I was certain that I would know what my chances of finishing were by 150 miles in. If I saw Pam while feeling relatively positive, without too much pain, and (most importantly) still eating well, then my chances looked good. Pam is no stranger to running, having done a few longer races (including 100 miles) and culminating in the Marathon des Sables in April this year. She is a diminutive 5 foot lady, with these amazing reserves that only show themselves when she is doing something amazing. An awesome lady and willing to wait around for John and I to travel between checkpoints slowly, and then leap into action to get what we need in the hour or so we are at the checkpoints.
I had not spent as long this year (compared to 2015) agonising over how much to bring in my drop bags. In 2015 I had everything (including the kitchen sink) packed into separate bags for every checkpoint, and gigantic amounts of food.  This year I had discovered the wonderful thing called tinned mackeral, which I was counting on getting me through…  FB_IMG_1497470579680Also, this year I was being much more strategic, and although probably still packing too much I had not pre-planned every checkpoint to much. Two changes of shoes, lots of socks and running tops, and a bit of cold weather kit just in case. I was lucky in that Pam was bringing some ‘emergency’ kit with her in case the weather got really bad (or I got really hungry) so I was fairly well prepared.
John and I were kindly given a lift up to Goring on the Tuesday before the race by a friend of his, Glen, which I’d like to say was great, but as we had to listen to the Beastie Boys for most of the way it was fairly painful (for me). The youth hostel we were staying in was great, clean and bright, and you can’t complain for £39 per night (for your own room). A lot of us met at the pub in the evening, and it was great putting some faces to the Facebook names I’d seen over the previous few weeks. Also, catching up with a few people I’d met on the previous Thames Ring and hadn’t spoken to since (outside of Facebook) was a pleasure, and the food wasn’t bad too.
There was a bit of banter with Dave Falkner (and Chris Edmonds), who was trying to work out whether, if he timed it right, he could hit Abingdon (which is about 230 miles in) at 9am Saturday morning in time for the park run. Javed Bhatti blew my mind by talking about how he starts to meditate in his mind before he gets to an aid station, preparing him to fall asleep as soon as he lies down. Rich Cranswick was telling some awesome stories of bear encounters (amongst other things) while on the Appellation Trail.  Lindley Chambers (the larger-than-life race director and facial-hair-aficionado) scared all the newbies with tales of how many runners had fallen in the canal on previous years. Dick Kearn was around, effortlessly winning the battle of the beards (sorry Lindley). Louise (who I’d seen on social media) turned up, one of surprisingly few women running, and reeled off an amazing number of races she’d done this year (including the Mozart 100k that she had done about 10 days previously – wow). Ernie was there with his wife. I even saw Paul Ali in the background somewhere.
In addition to these ‘stars’, there was lots of ‘normal’ runners like me & John, who just worried the night away. Peter, Rupert, Andy, Ian (a cracking Geordie, who let slip that his longest race to date was 60 miles) and lots of others. It was a great night and a highlight for me.
But soon it was time for bed, which for me meant some rather comfy bunk beds in the YHA. Despite thinking I may not sleep a wink, true to my nature I got in a solid 8 hours, waking at 6am before my alarm went off.  John and I walked to registration, which was

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The  condemmed men ate a heaty breakfast…

quick and efficient, before returning to the hostel for a slightly weedy cooked breakfast with plenty of coffee. The general consensus of the hikers at breakfast is that we were  mad, but perhaps I detected a hint of envy in their banter. Or maybe not.

As John and I walked back to the start for the race briefing, I made my predictions about our relatively slim chances of finishing. There were to be 52 starters, which would mean about 25 finishers going by previous years…and there were some very experienced runners starting, which made the odds for John and I even tighter.
A swift race briefing from Lindley, and then we just had the nervous 10 minutes to wait before the start. Always the most nerve racking time, but also the time you can feel the previous few months of stresses and strains dropping away. There’s nothing more to do, nothing else to arrange, no more chance to train, in fact all you’ve got to do now is run for a bit…and that’s usually what I do for fun.
And then we were off.

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Just before the start….look how youthful and happy we look!

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OK, congratulations. You’ve made it to the running part of the race report. If you want to know how it all ends you can skip down about 10 pages, or if you need to stop for a quick break and a cup of tea then go ahead…it’s pretty boring for the first few miles. Come back when it starts to get dark though, that’s when it gets interesting.
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Start to CP1 Hurley (27.25 miles, 4hrs 40 minutes)

John and I ran together for this leg, and as usual went too quickly. However, the pace felt good and it was great to be on the move. We chatted throughout, and it felt rather like our usual training runs. It felt very humid, rather than hot, and it did not take long for my T-shirt to be very sweaty. The Thames Path we were following felt like an old friend, as it had been the scene of numerous ultras before, so there was no need to refer to the map we had been given. I had a banana at about mile 12, and was purposely trying not to drink too much while on the move as this caused me so many problems in 2015. I was running quite comfortably, and was not really thinking about the next few days of running but just as far as the next CP.

I was getting a bit of a blister on my right foot, which was really strange, and resolved to change shoes at the first checkpoint, rather than waiting until the second as had been my plan. And my usual stomach problems seemed to be rearing its ugly head as usual, as I wasn’t feeling like eating anything after that first banana. Having done numerous training run, up to 50 miles, and eaten my way happily through all of them, finally my event arrived and I couldn’t eat a thing! I had some Tailwind (a sort of food replacement that you mix with water) in one of my flasks, which tasted grim, but I sipped slowly to try to get some calories into my system.
John and I teamed up with Rich Cranswick and Javed just in time to run through Henley regatta. Imagine a few thousand very well dressed people drinking champagne and enjoying the sunshine, while 4 sweaty runners threaded their way through the masses and tried not to knock anyone into the river. There was even a hat stall!

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Every good ultra should have a hat stall….

And as if that wasn’t bad enough we survived a small cow stampede, when approaching an open gate I realised the herd of cows in the field that the path ran through were also wanting to go through the gate at the same time. I was naturally behind John (and I could see Ellen Cotton in the near distance) as I heard a rumbling behind me and realised that 20 cows were heading in my direction at surprising speed given their size. We were all converging on the same 6 foot gate, and it is surprising how much energy you can find from nowhere when threatened with being eaten by hungry herbivores. I’m happy to say that we all lived to fulfil happy lives.

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This may look boring to you, but it was lovely really!

That first checkpoint seemed to appear out of nowhere, or perhaps I was just not paying attention, but it was a pleasant surprise to have a sit down. I changed my top (which I realised was completely soaked with sweat) and shoes, and tried to have a bite of a ham roll, but struggled to swallow a single bite. John was ready quite quickly, and headed out of the checkpoint saying he’d go slowly until I caught him up. I think we both knew that I wouldn’t be catching him up at all, and it was odd thinking I probably wouldn’t see him again until this was all over.  After about 15 minutes at the aid station, I headed on out.

CP1 Hurley to CP2 Chertsey (27.8 miles, 6 hours 10 minutes)

It was time to take everything a little more slowly, especially as I was on my own, and I had always looked at the distance up to the second checkpoint as just a warm up and a ‘scene-setter’ for what was to come. In my ideal world, I had been hoping to get to 55 miles, CP2, and eat a massive pizza giving my digestive system something to work on overnight. In 2015, I’d been copiously sick at the second checkpoint which had pretty much decided the outcome of my run. I was hoping desperately that I could avoid the same thing happening this time, even though I was already struggling to eat properly, so things weren’t looking good.
I chatted to Paul Mason for a while, who was having a tough time. He’d recently finished GUCR (145 miles along the Grand Union Canal in May) and was feeling quite low after only 30 miles and the vision of what was ahead. I gave the only advice I could – “Just get your head down and knock off the mileage…things will look better soon”, and plodded on.
While I was with Paul, we came across Allan Rumbles and his narrow boat moored alongside the Thames. Allan is one of those names you read on social media, and it was cool to finally meet the man behind it. I grabbed a jelly baby or two, snapped a picture for posterity and carried on!

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The back of Paul Mason, and the front of Allan Rumbles & his boat.

As I got to about 40 miles I was happy that I’d built up a decent buffer on the cut-off times at the checkpoints, and I slowed to a run/walk to protect my legs. Checkpoint 2 closed at 1.30am, and I was going to get there at about 9.30pm, which meant even if I spent an hour having something to eat and generally sorting myself out I would have 3 hours in hand to use for future sleep. The cut-off times were quite realistic, but did require constant paced movement at 16 or 17 minutes per mile, for the first half of the race. The second half of the race the cut-offs extended quite generously as everyone would slow down and require more rest. I knew that if I could get to the checkpoint at Nether Hayford, mile 156, I would be able to keep ahead of the cut-offs, but I would need to watch my timings up to this point.
My run/walk strategy was quite simply…run a bit, until tired, and then walk until not feeling tired any more. The only requirement was to walk at a quick pace, and run at a slow pace. Simples! In my 2015 version of the race I had picked up a stick after 100 miles or so to ease some back pain, and I found myself looking for a stick again, although this time it was more for nostalgia.
I was caught up by a group of 4 runners, and stuck with them for a bit. I was recognised as the bloke that wrote a race report for the 2015 Thames Ring “with a stick”, and here I was again, with a bloody stick. I suppose it’s OK to be famous for something.
As I picked up the pace a little and ran with them, I remember one had absolutely massive calf muscles , and short white socks that were narrow at his ankles but ballooned to huge proportions at his calves (isn’t it funny the things you notice when running behind someone), and another was wearing a Centurion Grand Slam running top.
Steve, Mr Grand Slam, was telling me about some of the amazing races he’d done, and how he was doing a monstrosity called King Offa’s Dyke later in the year. I expressed the opinion that he was insane – the TR250, finish or not, would be the end of my running for the year, and wished him luck.  That was before he told me about his entry for Dead Sheep 100 next year (if you don’t know what it is, just believe me when I say it is shortly to become legendary). Awesome. Although the group soon left me far behind, I’m chuffed to say that Chris (Mr Massive Calves) & Steve, both went on to finish.
On my own again, I popped into a garage to get a can of coke and a Mars Bar ice cream. I had been reading up prior to the race about how ice cream was a great source of calories in hot weather and obviously very digestible too. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise that the chocolate and caramel in a mars ice cream would be unbearably sweet, and in future I stuck to plain ice cream. I also, rather optimistically, bought two small pork pies, and then proceeded to carry them with me uneaten for the next 100 miles. Dammit.
With about 5 miles to go before the second checkpoint I had a decision to make. I was organised to order a Domino’s pizza to be delivered to the CP at about the same time I arrived, but at that point I was not sure I’d be able to eat it. I went ahead and ordered anyway (large pepperoni, if you’re interested) but more in the hope that my appetite would return than any real confidence.  I enjoyed a bit of chat with the lady from Domino’s, who was able to tell me that I last ordered from them about 2 years previously, and was I wanting the same drop-off point? Clever things these computers!
Having sorted that, I slogged on in the fading light, looking forward to the checkpoint and a sit-down. I knew I was making decent time, and was feeling reasonably good, apart from not eating. I was hoping that an hour at the checkpoint, and a good rest, would set me up for a bit of eating and a good start for the night.
As I walked up a longish road, I thought I could see lights on the grass verge up ahead, and sure enough, with a number of head torches visible, the Kingfisher pub on the left of the road, I was about 100 yards from the checkpoint.
Which was when something went wrong.
I’ve absolutely no idea what caused it, but I was hit by the strongest nausea I can ever remember, and basically absolutely voided my stomach all over the grass verge. 100 yards before I’d got to the aid station, before I’d eaten anything, or even sat down. I wasn’t just sick once…I was on my hands and knees doing a fair impression of a cat bring up fur-balls, and retching over and over. Obviously, it was mainly coke I was bringing up, which in the gloom looked like I was vomiting blood (but I digress).
There was an ambulance parked up at the checkpoint, and I remember thinking ‘oh dear’ someone is in trouble.
If there is anything I have learned from being sick during my last few ultras, it is that after the sickness is over, I’ve got to get up and carry on as if nothing has happened. Which is exactly what I did. Leaving my mess behind me, I trotted into to the checkpoint, to be faced with a lovely volunteer called Jenny, who would become my saviour at this and successive aid stations by hitting just the right mark of ‘helping but not over-powering’.

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Pizza delivery on ultra races is the future! Pic by Dan Connors

I saw my pizza sitting in the corner, but knew that it wouldn’t be me eating it tonight.  I was able to offer it to the other runners though, so it didn’t go to waste.
I had a wriggle on the grass (I find it allows me to stretch all those hunched up muscles), and then sat in a chair drinking sweet tea and trying to get myself sorted for the night leg.  I was looking forward to listening to some music overnight, and I put on a long sleeved top over my T-shirt as it was getting a bit chilly.  I didn’t change my shoes and socks, as planned, as they still felt comfortable and loose.
Out of the corner of my eve I could see someone being looked after by the ambulance crew, but I didn’t realise until later that it was Paul Mason who I’d been speaking to 20 miles previously. He spent the night in hospital, but recovered quickly and popped up at various checkpoints for the rest of the weekend.

CP2 Chertsey to CP3 Yiewsley (27.2 miles, 8 hours 40 minutes)

I headed out of the checkpoint at about 10.20 pm, feeling good considering I hadn’t eaten anything since a banana at midday. I felt pleased that the first 50 miles were done, and the first 12 hours had passed with minimal problems. Even though I’d been sick, I counselled myself with the comforting thought that I sort-of expected it, and although I would feel exhausted in 24 hours, right now I was still moving well. My music was on loud and I had pre-programmed a playlist of hours of good upbeat familiar music. My phone had rung a few times during the evening, and it continued to do so as the night drew in, but I chose to ignore it as I was keen to focus on the task in hand (i.e. getting some mileage done) before talking to family and friends. With hindsight, I’m not quite sure where this focus came from, but it made the first 150 miles of the race pass quickly and (relatively) easily.
I have done a considerable number of night runs, both in races and in training, and whilst they are never very pleasant, they allow a certain mindset to develop in the small pool of light that your head torch throws out. There is very little to look at, so understandably you turn inwards and push most of your consciousness towards your life, your memories, and family. Your mind seems to flatten out to a very quiet way of thinking and hence the time passes slowly, without you being much aware of the distance passing under your shoes. In this way, by about 2am, you are at a fairly low ebb, waiting for the birds to start singing and telling you that daylight is on the way.
For some reason, I started to feel terribly tired after about an hour or so. Hang on, it was still (relatively) early in the night, I’d gone only about 8 miles or so, but I was feeling like I could lie down and sleep. It was rather cold, and I’m not sure whether the cold after a warm day was taking its toll, but I can’t remember feeling quite so tired whilst on my feet. Against my better judgement, I decided to try to take a nap on the next park bench I saw, with the aim of shifting this head-drooping tiredness quickly and carrying on through the night.
Sitting on the next bench I came across, I had the bright idea of getting a couple of Rennie inside me to try to settle my stomach before my sleep….only to start retching again as I crunched them up in my mouth – oh dear. That brought up all the tea I’d drunk from the last checkpoint. Great.
So I set my timer for 20 minutes, and slept. I think I work up a number of times as every runner that passed me asked if I was alright, but I may have dreamt that. In the end I slept for 40 minutes, and woke up feeling freezing cold and stiff. But awake. And raring to go. I had not planned on sleeping on a park bench during the first night, and had never done it before, but it seemed to serve me well. Once I loosened up, I was back to moving quite smoothly again and making good time.
I actually did the same again an hour later, although only sleeping for about 20 minutes this time. I still don’t know what made me so tired during what should have been a fairly standard night run, but these little micro-sleeps seemed to give me enough rest to carry on with a clear head.
I caught up to Dave Falkner, who was having a tough night, and we stuck together for a while discussing life in general. Eventually, I suggested finding a bench for him to have a quick sleep on as I had to try to give him the same rest I had had. What then followed was at least a couple of miles of absolutely no benches at all, or a bench that he didn’t like the look of. Finally we found one that met his standards, and he disappeared for a sleep. A few hours later he caught me up, by which time it was daylight, and he said how much better he was feeling, but it had been a rough night hadn’t it? I don’t know why but throughout the next morning, everyone I spoke to said they had had a particularly tough night – no idea why.
With daylight, came a fiddly bit on the map as we joined the Grand Union Canal. I had been quite lucky throughout the night as I had not needed the map too much but I had also had my GPS to refer to if I had got lost. I find that I like the certainty of a GPS device to refer to if necessary, to reassure me that my map reading is not as rubbish as think it is. I find that the mental tiredness that comes from not knowing whether you are on the right route or not can be a lot more exhausting than the extra mileage it causes. Anyway, switching on my GPS whenever I was in doubt was a godsend.
As the morning came, I was feeling tired but happy, and I knew that I would be able to have a short nap at the next aid station for 30 minutes. I had allowed myself an hour stop at all the future checkpoints, and if I was quick that would mean 30 minutes sleep with 30 minutes faffing to get sorted out.
The checkpoint arrived on schedule, with the lovely Jenny waiting for me. I took off my running tops and slip into the TR250 bright orange hoodie, which felt warm, soft & lovely and quickly became a routine of wearing it at every checkpoint…a real treat.  As I still couldn’t eat anything Jenny had the bright idea of a couple of cup-a-soups, which I’m pleased to say went down really well.  I’ve never had soup at a checkpoint before, but they will be part of my race kit in future, and at 100 calories per cup, they gave me some much needed energy.  I lay down and was immediately asleep for 30 minutes, and awoke feeling refreshed and ready to go after less than an hour…amazing!

CP3 Yiewsley to CP4 Berkemstead. (23.6 miles, 7 hours)

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Yes! I was in front of Javed for a short time!! Proof!!

As ran out of the checkpoint accompanied by Javed, and after he took off ahead I had a quick look at Facebook to make sure John was still ok. He had had a great run over night, and had teamed up with another runner, Gary, who he was working well with. Apparently he was in 9th place, which was brilliant (although I did worry about him going too quickly, naturally!). There was a bit of concern that I had not answered any phone calls overnight, so I put a quick message out to say I was fine but was not taking any calls in these early stages.

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Ah, the lovely facebook.

I hit a strong pace for the first 8 miles or so, and then my mood and pace dropped, and in fact I found that the first 2 hours after every checkpoint I seemed to be particularly strong and then slowed…perhaps it was the power of cup-a-soup only lasting for 2 hours! I was still listening to music, and as this was a short leg I didn’t really notice anything until I got to the next checkpoint!
I always knew this leg, like in 2015, would go quickly. I was through the mental hurdle of the first night, and more importantly the psychological hurdle of the first 75 miles. Getting from 75 miles to 100 miles was always going to feel like running downhill. In addition, I had the best checkpoint experience at CP4 in 2015, lying on the grass in the sunshine, outside a pub with people walking past “ooohhhing” & “aaahhhing” at the feat of running 250 miles. I remember it as being the best time of my 2015 race and I was already looking forward to it.
Although I spent most of this leg on my own, I don’t recall getting bored or lonely. I generally find the canal quite peaceful, in comparison to my busy life, and quite enjoy the solitude. I was definitely planning on teaming up with someone from about mile 150 to have someone to talk to and get through the tough stages with, but right now I was content and enjoying myself. My pace was slow but consistent, averaging just 17m/m for this leg, but that included a couple of stops for an ice cream (Solero exotic was absolutely magical to my taste buds). Although I wasn’t eating anything solid, I wasn’t yet feeling that massive lack of energy that I’ve experienced previously, when every step feels like a mountain, and I have to stop and sit down for a rest regularly.

The aid station duly appeared, and I took the opportunity to lie on the grass and air my feet for the hour. My feet were in a surprisingly good state, with just a sore patch caused by the first set of shoes I wore. The second pair had covered 75 miles with no trouble at all. My socks were doing their job well: I always wear Injinji toe socks as a base layer, and then a thin ‘normal’ pair of socks on top to provide a twin-layer effect and it seems to work. Having said that, an hour in the fresh air did my feet the world of good and dried them out nicely. Over the course of the race I saw lots of gunk being put on feet (from talcum powder to Vaseline and other slimy liquids) and although I’m sure they work for everyone else I’ve never needed anything.
I was starting to hear of people dropping out, the ever-present Rich Cranswick was having problems and even Javed was hurting. It seems that the 100 miles point had taken its toll on a lot of people. It looked like John had gone through the checkpoint about 4 hours before me, and was keeping a good pace up.
Jenny, my aid-station-angel, duly supplied me with 4 cup-a-soups in quick succession, which all went down amazingly well. After 30 minutes dreamless sleep on the grass, I was up out at about 3pm, ready to head off in such a hurry that I had to return for the map of the next leg. D’oh!

CP4 Berkemstead to CP5 Milton Keynes (24.23 miles, 7 ½ hours)

OK. Quick situation check here. I’d covered 105 miles in about 28 hours, so quite slowly, but well within the timescales I’d set myself (in fact I was just about 45 minutes ahead of my schedule, which was a fantastic position to be at that stage).  I hadn’t eaten anything solid for 24 hours which was a concern, but plenty of cup-a-soups seemed to be keeping my calories topped up, however I wouldn’t carry on like this forever.  The most positive thing is that I wasn’t letting my lack of nutrition worry me, as I had in 2015, but was accepting it as a fact and just trying to maintain my pace and positive mindset.  My feet, legs and body were in good shape.  I was tired and sore but not to the point of stopping (yet), and I was still enjoying the scenery. I was still working the race as a challenge to get to the next checkpoint, rather than the weight of another 150 miles weighing on my mind.  Overall, things felt under control.
Although the next CP was only 24 miles away, I knew my real target was the checkpoint at mile 156, Nether Hayford.  Firstly, that CP was where I would see Pam, and I really wanted to see a friendly face.  Secondly, that CP would tell me I was over halfway – psychologically, everything was downhill after that (sort of).  Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, my state and mood at that checkpoint would dictate how the rest of the run was going to go. In 2015, I got there in pieces, having had the toughest night of my life and basically knowing my race was over – I wanted (needed) 2017 to feel different.  And finally, if I needed to, I could have a proper sleep at Nether Hayford for a few hours if required, as the cut-off times after that became quite generous. Basically, Nether Hayford was really quite a big deal to me!
Still, I had 50 miles to travel before that, and they stretched away into the dead of night.  I could feel my generally positive mood after the first 2 hours out of the last checkpoint begin to slip away, and as the evening wore on I began to see the oncoming night as a fearsome beast.  In 2015, the second night had been a dreadful experience, with my body deteriorating quickly and energy reserves very low.  I had been moving far too slowly as well, which made the whole experience last far longer than I wanted it to.  I’d been tired enough to lie down on the grass verge a couple of times and sleep, but I’d only allowed myself about 10 minutes, which meant I’d not felt refreshed when I awoke.  In 2017 I’d already learned that 20 minutes was much more effective the during previous night.
At 7pm, I changed from listening to music to an audio book. I had a 15 hour Dick Francis ready, that I planned should bring me into Nether Hayford just as it finished (in fact I was about 5 minutes to early!), and the change of sound in my ears felt good.

The checkpoint at Milton Keynes is…an experience.  I remembered it well from 2015, as a concrete wasteland set under a motorway bridge, and a dark vision of hell in comparison to the bright grassy aid station I’d been at earlier in the day.  I arrived there at 11.30pm, and was well looked after by the volunteers there, who I did not envy at all. I was given my multiple cup-a-soups, rather cleverly, in a massive plastic jug, which saved on the washing up! I was given a spoon, but chose instead to drink it straight from the jug, and once again they went down easily and really gave me a boost.  Snuggled up in my bright orange fleece, I did manage to sleep for 15 minutes in a chair, but I was keen to get on and get to the magic Nether Hayford.

CP5 Milton Keynes to CP6 Nether Hayford (26 miles, 8 and a bit hours)

I had taken a couple of calls from friends and my wife during the evening which were great, but after midnight I took a call from Tanya, a friend with a particularly weird sense of humour, who proceeded to regale me with some facts from her list of 101 Interesting Facts about Milton Keynes. I have absolutely no recollection what the facts were, but it was a brilliant way of having my mind taken off my pain.
John phoned at about 1am, to see how I was doing. He sounded in decent shape although he worried me when he said he hadn’t managed to sleep yet. Comparatively, I was like Rip Van Winkle, sleeping at every aid station and often in between too! His feet were causing him some issues too, which wasn’t good news this early on in the race.
I took a few naps on benches throughout the night, when I judged my weaving due to tiredness was taking me too close to the water’s edge. Although it would have instantly woke me up, I had no wish to become another of Lindley’s ‘swimming’ statistics. I think I took three sleeps, all about an hour apart, for perhaps 15 minutes each. For some reason I knew I didn’t need to set an alarm, but that I would wake up naturally, either from cold (and it was very cold when you weren’t moving) or from having had enough sleep. It was quite a bizarre and spaced-out experience.
At 3.30am, I found myself waking up on a bench (again) and the voice of a friend, Sharon, coming through my headphones. A very odd way to wake up! My phone was rigged to auto-answer so I didn’t have to get it out of my pocket, and she was talking into my ears before I was properly awake. As she explained that she’d got up for a wee, and thought she would phone to see how I was at the same time, I was up and moving and trying to relieve the cold and soreness before I knew what was happening. But these little sleeps were keeping my head together, and rather than fighting the need to rest it was great to give in to it, even for a few minutes.
A coach from my running club, Derek, phoned a few times through the night too, and it was wonderful to hear his voice. Derek basically got me through the second dreadful night in 2015, and it was great to hear him this year without such concern in his voice.
And then daylight came. I’d like to say the night passed quickly, but it was a long hard slog, nevertheless it did pass. As always, the gremlins of the night slink away to hide until darkness returns, and my mood lifted (slightly) in the knowledge that soon I would be at the checkpoint. In fact, it was still hours away, but it was enough to know I’d made it through the night.
I vividly remember the last few miles of this leg in 2015, when I was battered and bruised and basically done in. Perhaps it’s enough to say that this year I don’t remember those last few miles at all, but heading down a road to the checkpoint, I was mentally saying thanks to higher powers that saw me into Nether Hayford in one piece, 156 miles done.

Pam was a wonderful sight, and I got a great hug off her. As we walked into the checkpoint I asked her what the time was, as I’d been intent on getting to the CP at 9.30ish. It was 9.50am. Fantastic. Although I’d planned enough time for a 3 hour sleep here, I felt good enough to say I wanted to be out and on the road in an hour, which must show that I was in a good place mentally.
Catching up with Pam as quickly as possible, I got my shoes and socks off to let my feet enjoy the fresh air, and decided to quickly deal with a blister I had forming. Apart from that my feet were in great shape still, which was good news. I gulped down multiple cup-a-soups (again), and managed 30 minutes sleep behind a massive curtain. The room was quite noisy, and as I lay down on the hard wooden floor, with nothing but my hard bones for padding, I remember thinking I wasn’t sure I was going to sleep.  30 minutes later Pam is shaking me awake and I am raring to go!
Leaving the aid station, Pam walked me back to the canal, and took my picture in the same spot as a picture in 2015. The difference in how I felt was remarkable, and I had absolutely no wish to spend any longer in the CP than necessary, but just get rested and then get back on the road. It was a lovely feeling.  Below is 2017 on the left, and 2015 on the right…

CP6 Nether Hayford to CP7 Fenny Compton Mile 183 – (26.99 miles, 8 hours 50 minutes)

I had, as usual, a strong 2 hours after the aid station feeling great. The sleep had mended my brain temporarily, as I was finding my mind wandering more and more, and the soup had boosted my system. It was 11.15am when I left and I was absolutely adamant that I was going to get in and out of Fenny Compton in daylight, which gave me 10 hours maximum to leave the next aid station.
As I set off, I listened to the last few minutes of the Dick Francis audio book I had left, and then just put on every bit of music I had in one long (very long!) playlist – I think it was over 24 hours long.
I was purposely still drinking very little water, probably less than 500 ml per 25 miles, which did not seem to be doing me any harm other than a very dry mouth. I was still weeing regularly, and my urine was a lovely colour, so I assume the soup was hydrating me adequately. In previous ultras I’d drunk coke or other carbonated sugary drinks, but I did not feel the need this time so just stuck to water.
This was probably the hardest leg for me, despite being able to have a couple of ice creams on the way, as it seemed to last an interminably long time. The route took me off the Grand Union Canal and onto the Oxford Canal, which meant that I could officially think I was past the top of the circle on the route and beginning the long southerly slog back to the start.


Unfortunately the Oxford canal was nowhere near as well kept as the Grand Union, so the path was little more than a rutted track, with bushes overgrowing on both sides. Especially annoying when the prickly bush was poking into the space your head was about to pass through, so you had to keep quite alert about what was in front of you. The terrain was bashing the soles of my feet to pieces too, and I was getting a bit cross about the whole exercise. I was seeing a cloud of flies constantly around my face too, which may or may not have been imaginary, but kept making me have to wave my hand in front of my face to get rid of them. This is probably the part I remember where my brain started to play tricks on me, and although I was still making progress and moving forward I was not happy.
I was starting to get some serious stomach cramps, which I didn’t recognise at the time, but it was my stomach starting to object to having had only a banana and numerous cup-a-soups in the last 55 hours.  Surprisingly, with everything hurting as much as it was I didn’t crave pain killers or even really feel the pain was too much, it was just there.  A few stomach cramps on top of the rest of the pain was apparently quite insignificant.
Having slogged my way to bridge 132, where I expected the checkpoint to be, I checked my Garmin and yes, indeed I had travelled the correct mileage. I had arrived. No matter that there was no-one there, I would simply sit and shout until they heard me and came and got me.
And this is where I started this long long long report. Remember that? Feels like a lifetime ago eh? Just think what you could have done with the last hour (or more) if you hadn’t sat reading this…you could have gone for a (long) run. Maybe you should get some fresh air and take the kids out for an ice cream? If you haven’t got kids, then pretend you do, and then take them out for an ice cream, frequently. That’s important.
Right where was I? Ah yes, in the well of despair, realising that the checkpoint I had arrived at (at bridge 132) was in fact a number of bridges further on, and I’d read the map wrong. Despite my Garmin telling me I’d travelled the right number of miles, I had probably got another hour to go. Shit.
Shit shit shit.
In fact, this 26.99 miles leg took 29.44 miles according to my Garmin. That’s a full 2.45 miles of feeling like I wanted to kill myself and everyone else. I took a call from my wife, who had the common sense not to argue when I told her to go away and call me later, and to put a message out to stop anyone else phoning me too.
I did get a call from Derek, which briefly lifted me, but then my phone cut out and the world was shit again.
I walked into that checkpoint at Fenny Compton with the blackest cloud imaginable over my head. It was about 9pm, I was tired, pissed off, hugely grumpy, sore, and about to head into my third night awake. So far I think I’d had about 5 hours sleep in total since Wednesday morning, and it was Friday evening. I was not a happy rabbit.
And then something magical happened. Pam bounded over, bless her, and leapt into action getting me my customary cup-a-soups, which all went down lovely. I was lying on the grass, wriggling to try to ease my locked up muscles, and she said “Do you want to try some solid food?” And I stopped what I was doing with this entirely alien thought of solid food going round my head…it would never have occurred to me if she hadn’t been there. And do you know what? I had a big bowl of beans & sausages, two rashers of bacon, 2 paracetamol (oh god, the thought of some of the pain going away for a while, wonderful paracetamol), and two cups of coffee. All wolfed down in about 3 minutes.

Do you remember the Popeye cartoon, where he has his spinach and immediately all his muscles come out and he’s like a new man? Well, it wasn’t quite as quick as that, but the feeling of having something in my stomach was fantastic. I haven’t drunk coffee during an ultra since 2015, but this time it stayed down perfectly. My mindset went from the pit of despair to feeling slightly better than average in the space of just a few minutes.
Chris, the runner (with massive calves, from earlier on) who was lying on the grass getting his legs massaged by his girlfriend, was quite complimentary at what a decent pace I was keeping up (with my stick) and I have to say I was surprised to see Ellen Cotton at the checkpoint too…I expected her to be miles ahead. I think there were a few other runners at the checkpoint, and I’m sure I remember a couple of kids running around, but to be truthful I was so spaced out I really don’t remember much.
As soon as I finished eating the heavens opened, and what felt at first like a nice gentle shower to cool off in quickly turned into a raging torrent that saw Pam and I trying to get all my stuff under one of the gazebo’s to prevent all my kit getting wet. After a couple of minutes of watching this torrential rain, and being told the forecast was rain overnight, I made the decision to get my heavy waterproof coat on and risk being too hot but reasonable dry.  Ellen Cotton, who was under the gazebo with me (trying not to look disapprovingly at me as I encroached on her space, I think) started to put on her waterproof trousers, which influenced me to put mine on too. I was kitted up and ready for nuclear war! I even put on some long tights (under my waterproof trousers) to keep warm….in the middle of summer!


Now, logic says that I should have taken 30 minutes for sleep here, rested my legs and generally sorted my head out before getting back on the road…but that would be far too sensible. So I set off after probably only 30 minutes (albeit with some great food inside me) and with the rain still going. I had to be chased after by one of the volunteers as I went the wrong way on the canal – going back the way I had arrived! Idiot!

CP 7 Fenny Compton to CP8 Lower Hayford 206 miles (22.8 miles, 7 ½ hours)

Ellen and Chris were running quite smoothly, and soon overtook me despite having set off behind me. They were having quite frequent walk breaks which meant I then overtook them, only for them to reappear soon afterwards.
I began to heat up in the waterproofs, as I expected, but in fact the extra layers were really useful as I could just push through all the overgrown bushes on the path. I didn’t have to keep my eyes peeled for nettles to avoid – my waterproof trousers just brushed straight through them, and my thick jacket simply took no notice of any brambles poking into the path. By the time it was dark I was hot enough to broil a lobster, so I took my jacket off and started to whack the overhead branches with my stick to knock the raindrops onto me. I must have looked like a maniac!
I got a succession of phone calls from friends and family, and it was great to be able to them all that I’d eaten, that I was feeling great, and actually to be confident and positive for a change.
I sat down after 2 hours to try to eat again, and to prevent the loss of energy and pace I always seemed to feel after the first couple of hours after a checkpoint. I was still feeling great, and having brought about 10 tins of mackerel with me in my drop bags (but having not eaten a single one yet) I took great pleasure in eating one, illuminated by my head torch, surrounded my snails in the grass, and feeling it go down and stay down.

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yummmmmm………mackeralllllllllll

It was about midnight and I felt good. I even sent a photo to my wife while I did it…what a thoughtful husband!

With that inside me, I was off.  I was moving quickly, somewhere between a fast walk and a slow run, and I was absolutely boiling hot.  It was as if my body, with finally something in my stomach to digest, was in overdrive.  It started raining again, thank goodness, and I actually took of my heavy jacket to allow the rain to keep me cool.  I could see my breath steaming in front of me, and had the bright idea of panting (like a dog) with my tongue out to cool down (well, I was tired, slightly insane and very hot…it made sense at the time!).  The cool rain on me was keeping me just about cool enough to maintain a strong pace but I don’t know what I’d have done if it had not rained to keep me cool.  I vividly remember eyeing up the canal as a possible alternative if the rain stopped, but thankfully it didn’t.
I got sleepy at one stage, and decided to lie down under a bridge, in the dirt path, to sleep for 15 minutes. The rain was blowing in from one end as the wind had picked up, and I was still getting wet but I felt I could watch the steam rising off me as I lay there. I’m not sure whether I slept, or just rested, but the time passed very quickly and I was soon up and moving again.
John called to find out how I was doing. He was not sounding too great, saying that he still wasn’t sleeping and that his feet were in bits. Oh dear. He was still quite a way ahead of me, but warned me of a bridge that we were supposed to cross was in the ‘up’ position and that you needed to cross at the next bridge further on. Bless him.
I want you to imagine, as I tell you about the next few hours and through the night, that there is a soundtrack of triumphant music in the background.  The sort of music where you know, despite whatever have may happened previously, the film is going to have a happy ending because there is no way anything bad can happen while this music is playing. It is the music playing when the death star blows up, or when the shark finally dies in Jaws, or even when Bruce Willis / Vin Diesel / the Rock do pretty much anything in the final 20 minutes of the film. I knew at that stage that I would finish, unless something truly unexpected happened…I was feeling good enough and I had enough time to take it slowly if required. It was a lovely feeling.
As the night wore on I came to the uncrossable bridge that John had warned me about, and got over the next bridge easily.  That possibly meant I was a bit closer to John than I’d realised, and might even get the chance to see him the following day, which would be great. I’d been on my own for pretty much the whole race, and although that wasn’t a problem, it would be good to have someone to talk to.
For some reason I began to hear noises behind me, and kept turning round to see who or what it was. This carried on all the way to the end, but it was particularly bad at night, when my imagination seemed to be running out of control. I was seeing dogs everywhere, in leaves, trees, and every shape that my brain couldn’t immediately identify was turned into a dog. I vividly remember seeing some trees in the distance, and every tree canopy was the shape of a different dog. I actually reached for my phone to take a picture, as then no one could say I was hallucinating when I could show a picture of the dog-shaped trees….but I didn’t.
At about 2am, whilst going through what felt like a little village, a bloke in a high-viz jacket showed up, apparently out of nowhere, to say hello and how were things going.  I was a little shell-shocked to see him to be honest, and couldn’t really string a sentence together.  As I left him he said there were a couple of runners ahead, and that I’d properly catch them soon. I wasn’t entirely sure if he was being serious (or if I was imagining him) but it was nice to hear and I set off with a purpose to my plodding.
Sure enough, after half an hour, I started to see some glimpses of head torches up ahead, and I was catching them up quickly. We were going through thick grass on the canal path, and because of the rain it was absolutely soaking our feet. I remember feeling the water bubble up between my toes for what felt like hours, but luckily I don’t think my feet seemed to suffer with it.
As I got to the two runners I could see that one was John. He was wearing a plastic poncho and had bare legs underneath it, compared to my nuclear warfare kit of heavy rain coat and waterproof trousers. He looked really rough, with bags under his eyes that made him look more than tired, and his cheeks seemed to be gaunt under his ultra-beard.  Having run with him for more hours than I care to think about, I was quite shocked at how he looked, especially as I was feeling better (at that stage) than I had any right to.  Gary, the guy that John had spent much of the race with was also looking tired and rough.  They were both going slowly over the rough terrain, and didn’t look like they were having much fun (who was?).  We walked slowly and chatted for a while, but with just 4 miles to the next checkpoint I needed to push on while I felt so good.  I also had the quite selfish thought that if we arrived at the next checkpoint together Pam would have to sort out John’s feet (which I really didn’t want to see), so it would be better if I got in and out of the checkpoint before John arrived.
And on I went! The heroic music was still playing in the background and I was still motoring at a pace I had no right to expect. To put it into perspective, I did this night leg almost a full minute per mile faster than the first night leg, and three minutes per mile faster than the second night. Obviously this was because I didn’t stop to sleep as much, but I was moving really steadily and consistently too.
I got to the next checkpoint (mile 206) with only a slight mishap (phoning Pam at bridge 205 saying I couldn’t find the checkpoint, when it was really at bridge 206), and I could see the sun just coming up as I arrived. Pam did her usual star turn of sorting me out with cup-a-soup until they ran out (oh dear!) and then tried me on pasta which I struggled with. I also tried a mouthful of Ginsters slice but the grease was coating the top of my mouth and tasting awful.
I changed my shoes and socks for what I hoped would be the last time, and I considered briefly about putting on waterproof socks for the final 50 miles as the ground and grass was so wet.  However, my feet had spent all night soaking wet and were like wrinkled prunes, so the thought of putting them through another soggy 12 hours in waterproof socks (which keep the rain out, but also keep the sweat in) didn’t feel like the right choice.  As the weather was looking better for the day, I removed my waterproof trousers and jacket, and felt my whole body take a deep breath of fresh air!
I saw John briefly as I was just about to leave (without my usual sleep again, very odd!), as he hobbled into the checkpoint.  Gary and he were both going to have a rest, and I was strongly encouraging John to try hard to get some sleep.  He kept insisting he wouldn’t be able to, but at that stage I’m not sure he was right…he looked shattered.

CP 8 Lower Hayford to CP9 Abingdon Mile 229.5 (23.55 miles, 7 ½ hours)

As I set off, I could feel I’d lost the momentum of the previous night. It was about 5am and I would normally be feeling quite pleased the night was over, but as I felt my body return to ‘normal’ I was slightly sad to lose my super-powers. The heroic background music faded away and I was just normal Bob again. Shame.
I passed a couple of runners in the first couple of hours, both walking quite painfully.  I chatted to Rodrigo, a Brazilian who was chafing badly (he told me) but was going to finish. There was another guy (Jon I think), in a red top, that had hurt his ankle and was taking it slowly, but again was determined to finish.  I began to realise how lucky I was to still be in (relatively) one piece and moving well, and just how deep these other runners were having to dig.
I took a few phone calls from friends and family, who were excited to wake up and see me motoring so well on the tracker. It was great to be able to say that I was within 45 miles of the finish and that I was aiming to finish in daylight. That would mean covering these last miles in something like 14 hours, but I really wanted to finish while it was still light.
This leg seemed to last for ages, and as the sun rose it seemed to get hotter and hotter.  I was still not drinking very much at all and resorted to tipping water over myself every 2 miles to cool myself down.  The tiredness began to really kick in, and I found myself almost sleep-walking along the path.  For some reason it didn’t occur to me to stop for a sleep, but I was so focused on getting to the next aid station and hence get closer to the finish line I was not really thinking straight. My last proper sleep had been at CP 6, Nether Hayford, when I’d first met Pam and that was about 24 hours ago.  I was surviving on 5 hours sleep in the last 3 days (from Wednesday morning to Saturday morning) so I was pretty shattered.
I was just about holding it together, until one memorable point when I suddenly woke up (on my feet) and realised I had absolutely no idea where I was. My Garmin said I had travelled about a mile beyond the checkpoint, and I could not see the river that the map said I should be directly adjacent to.  This was a disaster, and I was seriously wondering how I’d cope if I had to backtrack by a mile to return to the checkpoint.  Maybe they’d let me carry on, and miss out the checkpoint? But if I did that I’d not have the map for the next leg. It had all gone to shit so quickly.
I tried to find out where I was using Google maps, but it was all just squiggles on the screen to my tired brain.  So I then gave up and phoned Pam for help, saying that I was completely lost; I thought I was still on the right route but I’d somehow missed the checkpoint. Pam passed me to Lindley (which snapped me awake pretty damn quickly) and he confirmed my tracker was still on the route, and I was about half a mile before the checkpoint. He asked if I could see the river on my left? No, no, no, I said, hang on, yes, I can, it was hidden behind a particularly tall range of bushes, what an idiot.  I trotted the last half mile, thinking that I might as well try to make up for sounding like an idiot when I got to the checkpoint, by having a decent pace when I got there.  I passed Paul Ali walking with a couple of other volunteers as I entered the CP, and it felt very odd being the only runner there.  Pam was awesome as usual, helping me with everything and getting me (you guessed it) multiple cup-a-soups and two coffees. I knew I needed to sleep for a bit, just to try to sort my brain out, but I warned Pam that I was convinced there were some other runners close behind me and to wake me before 30 minutes if any other runner came into the checkpoint.  As I climbed into one of the provided tents, I remember thinking how big my feet were in my shoes (a tired brain thinks the oddest things), but I had no trouble in drifting off to sleep and came awake pretty much instantly when Pam woke me.
I climbed out of the tent, feeling much more together, and was pleased to see I was still the only runner at the checkpoint. It was great to see Jason Sherwood and a few others at the checkpoint, but I’d started to become a bit paranoid about other runners catching me up.  What I didn’t realise is the other runners were a fair distance behind, and going slower than me too, but in my state I wasn’t really too sure what was going on around me.

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After my sleep at Abingdon….there’s no way my legs should be able to bend like that after 230 miles!

Pam sorted me out for setting off, and thrust a bottle of coke into my pack as a leaving present! I left the checkpoint at about 12.30pm, so I still had a lot of time to finish the last leg and get in before daylight (which had become a bit of an obsession by this stage.)

CP9 Abingdon to CP10 Goring Mile 248 (18 miles, 6 hours)

This last leg took absolutely ages, and I found my brain wandering all over the place at the start.  I had decided as I set off that I was actually in a treasure hunt, and hence the race was to get to the end (the treasure) first. This seemed quite logical to me, and I remember spending quite some time pondering the treasure hunt I was on.  Then I started to get rather emotional about my family and how when I wrote this race report I was going to put a big piece in about remembering to take your kids out for ice cream. I had eaten more ice creams in the last three days than in the last year, despite living by the seaside, and I made a resolution to myself to make sure my kids got lots of trips out as a family. It’s not that they are neglected (much) but both my wife and I work quite hard, so I resolved to make sure I prioritise family time as much as I can.

That’s when I realised I’d lost my wedding ring.
This may take a little explaining, so I’ll try to be brief. I’d removed my wedding ring on the first evening (a lifetime ago!) as my fingers had started swelling as they sometimes do when I’m running an ultra. I’d cleverly attached it to a little clip, normally used for car keys, on my rucksack tucked away in a pocket, and I had checked it was still in place a few times each day.  Imagine Gollum fiddling with his ‘precious’ several times each day…that was me.  Only now, when I reached for it, it had gone – the clip, ring and everything.  Shit. I stopped and took everything out of the little pocket, but no, I’d clearly ripped it free during the previous night and it was gone.  Shit.  It was easily replaceable but after 17 years of marriage, irreplaceable.  Shit.
I spend the next hour of so planning the meal I was going to take my wife out for, when I would tell her how I had accidentally lost my wedding ring, and how we could go (after the meal) and choose one together. It made perfect sense to me.
Then I tried to do some simple maths (in my head) to work out what my likely finish time was (in hours).  I knew that the final cut off time was 2pm Sunday, which was 100 hours. That must mean 2am Sunday morning was 12 hours less than 100 hours…which was…..ummmm 90 hours?  Then 7 hours less than 2 a.m. Sunday was about 6pm Saturday, which must be about 85 hours finish time, was it? I must have done that maths a dozen times in my head and still couldn’t get an answer.  I gave up in the end.
Paul Ali turned up at one point taking pictures of me (who, me?) which was pretty cool. I’d like to say I was smashing out the miles at that stage, but I think you can see from the pictures that I was pretty whacked.

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Pic by Paul Ali

It seemed to take days, but by the evening I was alongside the Thames, on the very familiar stretch of three long fields (perhaps half a mile each?) before Goring.  I knew I was close, but I was absolutely shattered and these damn fields just carried on forever.  I think, in my fuzzy brain, that I just wanted it to be over at that stage.  If someone had offered me a ride on a bicycle I would have grabbed it with both hands.
But eventually I got to the end of the Thames Path, and reached Goring.  Without any real thought, I phoned Pam as I didn’t have a clue which way to go on the Goring main road, and I really just wanted her to materialise and carry me into the finish.  She (again!) passed me over to Lindley, who told me which was to go.  And then, when I was about halfway over the bridge, I saw Pam running towards me…that’s when I knew I had reached the finish line.  She looked fabulous, beaming all over her face.  We jogged in together (with me still carrying my damn stick), and I remember being slightly surprised at the small crowd of people that had come out of HQ to clap.  Lindley put a huge, heavy medal around my neck, and I knew I had finally put the demons of 2015 to rest.

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Lindley looking like he’s about to give me a big kiss.

I had finished the Thames Ring 250.
In 7th position, 80 hours and 35 minutes. In daylight.

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Done it!  With medal and hoodie…but actually I was just happy to sit down.

To put that in perspective, I had absolutely no right to be 7th in a race like this, when so many better runners didn’t even finish.  A time of 80 hours is in the top 25 finish times of the race in the 5 times it has been run (I think).  It was unthinkable that I could produce a time like that, as I was not even confident of a finish at the start.  To say that I sat in the finish HQ and was slightly shell-shocked to finish was an understatement, but it was lovely to get off my feet!  I drank litres of milk (as I always seem to do after a long run) and ate sausage rolls, Cornish pasties, anything I could get my hands on.  I changed into my TR250 orange fleece (that I was officially allowed to wear, having completed it this year!) and a pair of jeans and flip-flops and allowed the sensation to settle in.  John was a couple of hours behind, and so I had a bit of time to enjoy the sensation before he arrived.

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Me & my name, on the laser-display finishers board.

I think I sat at a table and had a conversation with a few people.  I confessed to Pam and everyone about losing my wedding ring, which was promptly found exactly where it should have been.  Thank you Louise! Phew! I ate a bowl of lovely chilli, but I was starting to get a bit woozy from the lack of sleep, so I took the little bit of time before John finished for a sleep on the floor, as did Pam!

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It’s tough work, looking after runners!

I woke up to John finishing with Chris, who he’d spent the last 30 miles with.  John was absolutely out of it when he finished, almost as if he didn’t realise what was going on around him.

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Chris and John at the finish.

He said to me half an hour later that he didn’t realise finishing was such a big deal, with Lindley giving him a medal and everything.  I didn’t pay much attention at the time, but talking to John later he said how disorientated he’d been at the finish, not realising properly what he’d been doing, and what the medal was for.

It was great to see John finally get a sit down, and Chris and his girlfriend were bringing the room to life with their excitement at Chris finishing.  John just needed to eat and lay down somewhere, but there was the unlovely task of getting his shoes off and getting him warm. Both Johns and Chris’s feet were pretty bashed up, leading me to take this lovely picture:

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John’s feet at the top, Chris’s at the bottom, and my princess-like feet in the middle, a rose between two thorns!

A few more finishers came in, Gary (that had run most of the race with John), the two walking guys I’d passed just as I’d left Lower Hayford, and quite a few others. There were some amazing performances at the race this year, including a new course record by John Stocker in 58 hours 53 minutes (how could you run 250 miles that quickly?) Gary, that John had spent much of the race with came in about an hour after him, and Ian, the Geordie that hadn’t run a race further than 60 miles finished too….awesome. Ellen Cotton came in as first lady in about 84 hours.
Both John and I were fading quite fast by this point, so Pam tactfully got our bags out to the car and we said our goodbyes.
I have very little recollection of the journey back, apart from waking up in the back seat a couple of times and trying to make conversation with Pam, asking about her kids and that sort of thing, before sliding back to sleep while she was in mid answer.
And then I was home. Claire, my lovely wife had stayed up, and I was awake enough to help get my stuff out of the car, get Pam a strong coffee for the last half hour car journey, and open my first (of many) cans of lager.  After a shower, I fell into bed and slept for about 5 hours, before waking up at 7am and getting beer and Doritos for breakfast.

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Breakfast of champions!!

Looking through all the Facebook comments over the last few days was great, and then spending Sunday on the sofa watching the last few finishers come in was equally amazing. Massive well done to all the finishers, but especially to those that spent another night out on the route…that must have been really tough.
So it has taken a while to sink in, but after a week or so I’ve got my head around finishing, and finishing in only 80 hours.  I think I got the pacing (for me) spot on, and in fact it helped that I was on my own for all but the first of the ten legs.  This meant I took everything at my own pace, stopped, started and slept when I wanted.  My paces were all quite consistently about 17-18 minutes per mile, apart from the first and second night when I slowed dramatically due to sleep breaks.  These sleep breaks, however, were what kept me going through the nights (and at the checkpoints) and without them I’m convinced I would have slowed down much more.  My nutrition plan went down the toilet, as usual, and it was cup-a-soups (and the ever-helpful Jenny) that got me through.  Pam was a complete star, and I suspect I would not have eaten that crucial bowl of beans and sausages without her prompting…and that changed everything.  The final night was bizarre, a combination of my metabolism going into overdrive and a positive mindset (and 2 paracetamol) overcoming some aches and pains.  The last day was just rubbish.
And so a few thanks are called for:
Firstly, to Lindley and his excellent crew for putting on a great race, with smooth organisation and flawless execution. I’ve no idea how to arrange for 50 people to travel round a 250 mile route, with various people dropping out at different stages, but Lindley clearly does and he does it very well indeed. No complaints on the organisation at all. First class.
Secondly, to my friends from the very excellent Thanet Roadrunners (in Kent) for their supportive phone calls, especially, Mark & Sharon, Tanya & Derek…thanks guys, it meant a lot.
Thirdly, to Pam, for simply getting me round. I couldn’t and wouldn’t have done it without you. I’m looking forward to crewing you through the Autumn 100 in October, and will get you to the finish no matter what!20170701_215149(0) Then, to John, for making the training and race so much fun. I’m hugely proud of how much adversity you got through to finish, and even more proud that we both finished, which was definitely against the odds. As we have now both ticked this off the list, I can only suggest the Yukon 6633 as our next challenge (as you refuse to do the Spine with me).  If you want to read John’s report (in which he spends 250 miles complaining about his feet, it is here)
And lastly, to my long suffering wife, Claire, and kids Michael and Abigail. I think we all deserve the next few months off running of any sort, and I look forward to as many ice creams as we can all eat. Thanks guys.

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And finally finally, a quick thank you to my body, brain and legs. You all took a bit of a beating this time, especially you, brain, but I’m happy to say you’ve bounced back quite quickly, and I promise nothing else for this year at least.
And that’s it! You’ve made it to the end of possible the longest race report ever written. It had its ups and downs, but you made it!  Congratulations, and if I had a medal I’d happily give it to you. Now, go bugger off and do something useful with yourself.

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John looking completely buggered somewhere….pic by Pam Philpott

 

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Me, looking very fuzzy at 156 miles.  Pic by Pam.

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I’ve no idea what I was smiling about here.

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Looking serious and ready to leave Abingdon.  Pic by Pam.

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No idea what this was about….except I seem to be looking a bit gaunt.  Maybe i wanted to eat my phone.

 

Arc of Attrition 2017

As I sit here, about a week after finishing the Arc of Attrition, a 100 mile race around the coast of Cornwall, I am still shell-shocked about how much it took out of me and how deep I had to dig to get to the finish.  I am used to beating my body up quite badly, having completed some longish ultras before, but nothing in my life compares to the absolute pasting I had to give my brain over the 34 hours it took me to travel 100 miles.

So here’s fair warning:  this is going to be a long and pretty unexciting race report.  It will involve massive uninteresting detail, tales of running / walking / eating, stories of vomit / bogs / rocks ( & more rocks), slippery dangerous descents and endless climbing ascents, and by the end you will have a small idea of what I went through.  By the very act of writing about it, I’m hoping for a bit of a better understanding about how I made it through, as common logic says that I should have been out at one of the times I was massively sick everywhere, or when I twisted my ankle, or even when it started to get dark on the second night and I began to hallucinate.

So, why was I at the start line of a race in Cornwall?  The Arc of Attrition is billed a “The South West’s Toughest Race” and I would say that doesn’t do it justice.  It takes place in February, so if you are unlucky the weather will be appalling, and there is over 12 hours of darkness which makes navigation difficult.  It follows the South-West-Coast Path, which in some places is a nice flat grassy path, but is mainly a small rough track, riddled with boulders or stones, with some steep descents & ascents taking you into and out of coves.  There is 4000 metres of climbing over the 100 miles, which isn’t an astonishing amount, but is certainly testing and exhausting.  In the 2016 version of the race, the weather was terrible, and 75% of the starters did not finish.  aoa-17-event-button-1200x597

Overall, it is a step up from a basic ‘run a long way ultra’ to a ‘run a long way, in the dark, in below zero temperatures, in gale force winds, in the rain, over in-runnable terrain, up and down sides of cliffs that will break your leg if you fall, in some areas so remote that they will need to helicopter you out ’.  Perhaps I just need to add that one of the items on the mandatory kit that you had to carry with you was an emergency “bivvy bag”, which is basically a large plastic sleeping bag that will protect you from the elements if you need to lie down and await rescue (and not die of exposure in the process).

I have done a few ultras over the last few years, and I can manage a 100 mile race in about 22 hours (and a bit) without too many problems.  Perhaps that was some of the problem, in that I did the Thames Path 100 in April 2016, and didn’t find it challenging enough.  I was lucky enough to get a place in the Lakeland 50 in July, and absolutely fell in love with the Lake District while on a few recce’s up there, and finished that race in about 12 hours, feeling fine.  It was all becoming a bit too easy, running these ultras.

So it seemed quite logical that over the course of a number of conversations with a running friend, John, we goaded and cajoled each other to enter the Arc, until on a drunken evening in September, I put together my entry.  There was no guarantee of getting a place, as due to the nature of the race the organisers would decide based on your running CV whether you were ‘worthy’ of a place.  Imagine my surprise when the following morning this appeared on Facebook:

 

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Holy shit!  Didn’t expect that!

 

John naturally had to enter then, and got this:

 

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John loves putting pictures of himself on Facebook, but has sadly stopped with the double-thumbs-up pose whilst wearing a wooly hat.

 

 A little about John may be useful here, as you’re going to hear a lot about him.  John started running just a few years ago, and became very quick, very quickly, on legs that don’t get tired.  He completed a couple of quick marathons (in about 3 hour 18 minutes I think, which is quick!) and then accidentally started talking to me about the lure of ultras….running much slower, for longer, and eating at the same time.  I’ve previously described John as the Labrador puppy of ultra running, as his massive enthusiasm during his first few ultras was just like that of a puppy (and he never got tired).  He did his first 100 miler last April with me, at the Thames Path 100, and then completed his second (almost 100) at the Ridgeway challenge in August.  He has graduated from being a puppy to be a fully grown dog, with an amazing set of legs that can carry him for days.  I should point out that he is 10 years younger than me, and as a result leaves me in his dust generally, but luckily we find enough to talk about to keep us both occupied. 

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John is the one in the black top with orange stripes.

John has a nasty habit of training like a beast, doing massive back-to-back runs of 20 or 30 miles each weekend, and then running another 3 or 4 times per week.  I take a rather more relaxed view of training, running when I have time and generally taking it easy.  We both live in Kent, and run with the very excellent Thanet Roadrunners, so would generally meet up at 3 or 4am on a Sunday morning for a few miles before meeting up with the club at 8am for the usual Sunday club run.  John would have already done 20 miles the previous Saturday, and would be running on tired legs.I would be bouncing along like Tigger after a restful couple of day, and hence would be able to keep up with him.   So 6 or more hours running on a Sunday morning for us together, and usually I would manage another long run in the week sometime.  We were both averaging 40-70 miles per week quite consistently, which is quite a good base to start with.

Anyway, we were lucky enough to get the help of an amazing husband & wife team as our support crew – Mark and Sharon.  Mark is also a superb runner (I think he is on marathon number 88) and has so much experience it is difficult to find a running problem he doesn’t know the answer to.  Sharon is the typical mother-hen, looking after both body & spirit of her runners, and baking copious quantities of lemon drizzle cake.  Together they have the experience to keep their runners healthy while pushing them to finish an ultra.  A couple of special people.

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This is the team at the race HQ!  Sharon and I are the ones without beards.

We drove down to Cornwall together on Thursday, using my wife’s car (thank you Claire!) as it was a massive 7 seater, that just about fitted all our kit in.  John and I had had endless discussions about how important the kit was – if the weather was poor we would need everything possible in our favour to get the job done. This meant endless scouring of eBay & Amazon for quality kit on a budget, and just goes to show that you can get some bargains out there if you shop around. 

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You  can see the amazing balloon from a mile away!

Mark and Sharon had the bright idea of having a helium balloon that would help us find the car in car parks easily…and it worked!

 

 

 

After checking into the oddest B&B ever (imagine 1960’s décor, cork tiles & mouldy deer heads, but perfectly clean and welcoming), we quickly made sure we know where the race HQ was and then headed for the pub.

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It was clean and welcoming, as it has been for 4000 years.

As always, good food & a pint found us chatting to another competitor (a young guy called Ade, who was back for his third year trying to finish – I’m pleased to say he finished this time!)

I had a really good night’s sleep, which I wasn’t too surprised at as I’d had a really busy few weeks previously and was not very well rested.  I had slept most of the car journey down to Cornwall, and I reasoned that any sleep was going to help me, whether it was 15 minutes snoozes or a fabulous 8 hours sleep.

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This was the tracker that showed us moving round the coast…

After a hearty breakfast, we drove to the race HQ which was right on the beach and had a pleasant warm atmosphere, compared to the grey cold morning outside.  We did the slick and efficient journey round the various tables to collect race numbers, race maps, and be fitted with a tracker.  The tracker would allow the adoring public to watch our dots follow the coastline, and also had a panic button if the need should arise to summon help.  Everyone was, as expected, in a fairly excitable state and there was a lovely tension in the room, as well as a lot of impressive beards (not including Johns).

There was a quick and to-the-point race briefing, the main reason being that the weather briefing was simple – cold but clear.  Temperatures overnight were expected to drop to below zero, but no rain which made everything simpler.  One particularly amusing question about why the time limit for reaching a particular checkpoint was so tough (about 2 hours shorter than really required) was met with the classic quote…….“To make it harder”……..’nuff said.

With that said we all hopped onto a bus and travelled for about an hour to the start at Coverack.  We would spend the next few uncomfortable hours/days travelling back along the coast to the race HQ and a finish (hopefully).  I managed another 40 winks on the bus, and woke just before we pulled into a car park.  The wind that hit us as we got off the nice warm bus brought back what we were about to attempt, and everyone adjusted their kit to wrap up a little bit warmer.

There were a surprising number of people running in shorts, which was leaving their legs very exposed to brambles and sticks as they ran.  I was also amazed to see people without gaiters to prevent stuff getting into their shoes, which I consider basic kit on any trail race.  I’ve not idea if they survived, but they must have iron-clad feet if they did (or massive blisters).  About half of the runners had poles with them.  John and I both had brought them, but hadn’t really needed them at all on the flat concrete promenades of Kent.

A bag piper ‘piped’ us down to the start line – I’ve no idea why but it made a nice touch – and then without too much waiting we were off.  Through Coverack and then onto the trails along the coast.  There were 109 starters, and it was anyone’s guess how many would finish.

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It was a grey windy morning at Coverack, with vultures circling!

The first few miles of an ultra is a pretty standard affair, everyone going quite slowly and chatting nervously as they know what is ahead.  Usually, by mile 10 or 15 the chatter has stopped, but by then you’ve settled into a rhythm.  Today however was different, because straight after the town, we got stuck into a very number of very steep ups & downs, which were a cruel introduction to what lay ahead.  Everyone was dead silent, head down, just trying to stay on their feet and working hard.  It was a very real and very hard beginning.  I remember looking at my Garmin after 5.45 miles, thinking that there is no way it should be feeling this tough so soon.  It was very slow and steep, and relentless.

 

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Not really a path is it?  More like a route where the boulders have killed the grass.

 

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It was beautiful though….

There is no easy way to sum up those first 25 miles to the first checkpoint.  John was generally in front, we would climb or descend as fast as was safe, and then try to run or power-walk the flat bits.  We didn’t talk or interact much at all, other than being within 20 feet of each other.  John did spend the first couple of hours occasionally asking me if I could hear that sound that the wind was making, to which I would say that I didn’t know what he was talking about.  It took hours until he realised that the wind was whistling past the holes in his poles making a really eerie whistling sound….that he was going to have to put up with for the entire race.

Mark & Sharon met us at mile 7 and 10 with hot pasties, which were great.  We’d all spent quite a bit of time on a race plan that had them meeting us as often as possible with the car full of food and kit.  It was going to be difficult enough for them to stay alert for 36 hours without crashing the car, not to mention navigating along tiny Cornish roads leading to isolated coves and waiting for an hour for John and I. 

We ran past Lizard Point, the most southerly point, and were feeling good enough at that stage to take a picture – we were clearly still smiling at this point….

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Notice the Rambo-like headband I am wearing….it makes me look very like Sly Stallone don’t you think?  John thinks he resembles Kanye with his turned-round cap.

As there were some occasional longer stretches of decent terrain, I started to chat to a few of the runners around us.  A chap was doing his first 100 miler, and another couple of runners were back after failing to finish the previous year.  Everyone was moving at different paces on the changing path, so we might overtake someone on a climb, only for them to steam past us on the following descent.

The path was quite easy to follow, but every few miles would split into two with absolutely no indication which way to go.  An occasional fingerpost showed the route of the Coastal Path, but for the rest I relied on my GPS unit.  I find the peace of mind of knowing I’m on the right route is essential to keep me from turning round and heading the wrong way.

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Grey, but beautiful…..and flat for about 300 yards thank goodness!

The first race checkpoint was at Porthleven, 24.5 miles in.  A relatively short distance, but hard work over this terrain.  It was great to have Mark and Sharon there with the first hot food of the race, as up to then it had been cold food.  Hot beans hit the spot (although only a few mouthfuls) and John, who normally struggles to eat in the first 30 miles also managed to put something away.  I think we were both in good spirits, although both very conscious of how tough that 25 miles had been and how tired we were already.

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Running!

 

The next race checkpoint would be at Penzance (mile 38.4) and about 6 miles before that we would change into road shoes for a 8 miles road section along the seafront.  This would be a great chance to pick up the pace a little.

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The sun was going down, and it was getting cold and dark.

 

 

 

 

At Marazion, changing into the road shoes felt like putting on a pair of fluffy slippers.  The trail shoes I’d been wearing were designed to protect the soles of my feet from lumpy paths and rocks, and hence were tough and unyielding.  The road shoes, however, are only going to be used on nice flat pavements, so are very cushioned and soft.  It was bliss just to be able to run for a while without watching the ground 2 feet in front for a tripping hazard.  We left our hiking poles with the car (no need for them now!), and sped off into the darkness.

The seafront was bright and flat, and very like our training runs along the Kent promenade.  We made good time, and John kept us amused by keeping us updated on how our average pace was quickly dropping from about 16 minutes per mile down to 15 m/m.  To put that into context for non-runners reading this, our normal running pace would be somewhere from 8 m/m (John) to 9m/m (me).  We had been going very very slowly over this terrible terrain.

We were still meeting up with Mark and Sharon every 3 or 4 miles, and taking on a little food each time.  John started to feel a bit nauseous around mile 37, which was not entirely unexpected as he’d been through a phase like this before in a previous race.  It would pass in time, helped by copious quantities of fizzy ginger ale.

We got to the race checkpoint at Penzance, to find a bright warm building filled with helpful people.  I haven’t really mentioned the ‘Arc Angels’ yet, the volunteers who man the checkpoints and help the runners with anything they may need.  Both John and I got a cup of sweet tea before going back outside to see Mark and Sharon who were ready with a little more hot food.  They’d also found time to buy a massive Domino’s pizza, which had been my request for a later checkpoint.  Pizza can revitalise the most tired runner with a huge hit of calories, and it had been my saviour on a few races.  But we weren’t even halfway, so it didn’t feel right to tuck into dinner just yet.

Another few miles on pavement (blissful pavement!!) before we had to stop and put on trail shoes again in Mousehole.  A few people out walking came over to find out what we were doing changing shoes in the boot of a car in the dark.  Much amusement when we told them.  I took the opportunity to change my socks, take a couple of ibuprofen and have a couple of pieces of hot ravioli while stationary, generally sorting myself out for the next tough stage.  John did the same, although he was still feeling sick.  We even had the sense to return to the car after going a few hundred yards when we realised we had forgotten something – well done boys!

A quick mention here of the cut-offs at the various checkpoints.  We were heading for the next checkpoint at Lands End (mile 54), and then would be turning north to get to St Ives at mile 78.  The cut-off at St Ives was very tight, meaning that we estimated you had to get to Lands End by about 4am, to leave 10 hours to travel the 24 miles to St Ives before the cut off there.  In 2016, a number of racers had not finished as they had missed the St Ives cut off and we were determined that was not going to happen to us.  Hence, we had a self imposed target time of 4am to get to Lands End, which meant moving as fast as possible whenever possible…you simply could not slow or rest for any length of time without risking putting yourself under too  much pressure later.

At Lamorna, about mile 45, we saw Mark & Sharon again, and John’s nausea had almost completely passed.  The trail was as bad as ever, and we were going slowly over the rocks in the dark.  There was a very bright moon, and we both had exceptionally powerful head torches, but it was still painfully slow going.

We started to see the next checkpoint, the Lands End hotel in the far-off distance, visible for miles as it was literally the only lights on the horizon.  Maddeningly, it did not appear to be getting closer, as over the course of 8 miles it kept disappearing as we dipped into a cove and then had to climb out again.  The miles seemed to tick away too slowly, as we were both just hanging on waiting for Lands End to arrive.  I started to feel a little more than just tired over this stretch, the first sign that something wasn’t right, but refused to spend much time thinking about how I felt.  I just knew that every time we met up with Mark and Sharon I immediately sat in the boot of the car to take the weight off my legs and tried to forget what I was doing here.  Mark and Sharon would try to get me to eat (as a good crew should do) and I would tell them to bugger off.  I could tell, from the silences, that they were getting a little concerned.

The last few miles as we came into Lands End took forever, and John sped ahead to get into the checkpoint first so that Mark and Sharon could look after him before I got there.  I told him to get some chips for me with lots of vinegar, and 2 cups of tea…which I hoped to be able to eat!  We had arrived at 3.40am, which was perfect timing, and gave us 20 minutes to recover before needing to be on our way at 4am.

The checkpoint at Land End was a bright café, with lots of runners, Arc Angels and people generally milling about (or that’s what it felt like having spent that last 6 hours on our own in the dark!).  John was tucking into chicken soup, having already woken Mark & Sharon who were having some much needed sleep in the car.  The station was brilliant, with about 5 options of hot food and lots of support available.  I was given a bowl of soup, and managed 2 mouthfuls before stepping politely outside and finding a quiet dark corner to loudly vomit everywhere.  I remember it quite well, as I felt like I was trying to eject most of my lower intestine through my throat.  The only thing that came out was the chicken soup, but the effort involved was exhausting.  Having got that off my chest (gettit?) I staggered off to the toilet, with a chorus of people shouting after me whether I was ok?  To be fair at that stage, it was a bloody stupid question as I clearly wasn’t, but it was nice of them to ask.

5 minutes later, I was back into the aid station, and I was sipping some tea and wondering how I could get some fuel inside me for the next stage.  The simple answer is that I wouldn’t, but we decided to fill my drinks bottles up with some of John’s sports drink which would give me a few calories and electrolytes.  Without stopping to think too much, we set off out of Lands End, knowing that the next 24 miles were the hardest and most unforgiving, knowing that we had 10 hours (only 10 hours!!) which was enough time but we needed to keep moving, and knowing that (most concerningly) there were only  two places in the next 24 miles to meet up with Mark and Sharon.  Psycologically, this was quite serious as up to this point we had had only a few miles (perhaps 90 minutes) until we saw them again, and that broke the distances up in my head.  The next 24 miles were going to be rough, but it never really occurred to me to stop.  John was full of beans, and I knew I had to get to St Ives (at mile 78) before I could seriously consider what would happen after.

A few interesting thing happened over the next 10 miles, but I’ve no idea in what order….

I managed to twist my ankle coming down a steep descent and stepping onto a metal spike that was poking up between two rocks.  It wasn’t bad, although I took a hard fall, and it just made me be more careful.

It was still pitch black at 7am, to the extent that both John and I were wondering aloud about the lack of any birds singing (usually the first sign of dawn) and when it was actually going to get light.  Then, suddenly, in the space of 15 minutes it got very light…bizarre.  It was as if God flicked on the light switch.  Unfortunately the usual reaction to dawn, which is to start to wake up and feel better didn’t materialise for me.  Bugger.

John somehow managed to lose a shoe in a bog.  Some of the ground was saturated, and very muddy indeed, and unfortunately John managed to step into one particularly deep section and bring his foot out without a shoe attached.  Luckily he fished it out with a pole, and it was only half full of stinking mud.  Obviously, my immediate reaction (once I’d got to safe ground myself) was to take a picture and then see if he needed any help.  I’m gutted to report that my phone had somehow run out of battery, and so I don’t have a picture for you.  John took a few of my wipes to try to clean himself up a bit, and like the true friend I am, I carried on.  It may give some measure of how spaced out I was that I fully intended to leave John little signs so he would know which trails I had taken…like my water bottle on the ground pointing a certain way, like my poles pointing the way I had gone…that he could pick up and bring with him.  I’ve no idea what I was thinking of, but luckily didn’t do any of the above and he caught me up quite quickly.

The weather had picked up a bit with wind, some patches of rain and even an occasional hail storm.  John was convinced it snowed a few times but I couldn’t tell.  The strong wind was probably the worst, but we were well wrapped up for it, and to be fair, it was still better than they had experienced in 2016, so we weren’t complaining.

And finally, most frustratingly, I was copiously sick again, about 3 hours after leaving Lands End.  Interestingly, as there were no trees or fences to lean on I was able to make good use of my poles to create the perfect vomiting stance….imagine if you will a giraffe moving its 4 legs out into a kind of a pyramid to allow it to bend down to take a drink.  My legs were the back two legs of the giraffe, and the poles were the front legs and my head hung down into the space in the middle, allowing full range of movement as I once again tried to pass my whole stomach through my throat.  Unfortunately, the only thing in my stomach was about 100ml of gross, bright orange sports drink, which tasted only marginally worse going in than coming out.  I don’t think I have ever been sick quite so noisily in my life.  It was spectacular (in a bad way).

And that brought us to mile 64.

John was flying along.  Well, he would have been if he hadn’t been doing the decent thing and staying with me.  He was still eating well and bouncing along quite comfortably.  Every time he came to a decent flat bit he would encourage us to up the pace to keep clipping along as well as we could.  I was still moving, but battling tiredness that was rapidly turning into exhaustion.  Every climb we came to I would have to sit down halfway to rest my legs for a minute, and then carry on to the top.  It was a simple case of getting the job done.  I vividly remember, during one of these sit-downs, thinking that there was no point in even considering giving up now, halfway up this ascent, as no one would be able to get to me where I was, so  my only option was to keep going.  It was a sort of mental “there is no other way” method that kept me moving forward.

At 8am, mile 64, we saw Mark and Sharon for the last time before St Ives at mile 78.  We had spent 4 hours covering the last 10 miles, and the next 14 long lonely miles would need to be done in 6 hours to avoid being disqualified.  6 hours to cover 14 miles!!  That’s easy, isn’t it?  Well, it should be, but it was all dependent on how good the terrain was whether we made good time or not.  I began to talk to John about going on ahead, as there was no point in both of us missing the St Ives cut-off.  Like a trooper, he refused, saying we’d get there together.

I was having some ‘low’ moments, having to really tell myself to keep going, and keep going quickly.  I’d switched to drinking water with a bit of sugar dissolved in it (just for the calories) but it tasted disgusting.  I’d not eaten anything that had stayed down since the previous evening (mile 38) when I’d changed out of my road shoes and had a couple of bits of ravioli…it felt like a lifetime ago.  I was just sooooooooo tired.

And then John did some maths.  It was 10.42am, and John calculated that we had 2 hours 20 minutes to cover the last 6 miles before St Ives.  This was serious, as that was going to be tight, too tight to make it.  I finally managed to get John to go on ahead and he sped off in a bundle of energy and good running legs.  It was clear how much he’d been holding himself back when you saw how fast he could go at mile 72 of the hardest terrain imaginable.  Amazing stuff.

I plodded on, doing the maths again and realising that actually I had 3 hours 20 minutes left, which was much much more achievable for 6 miles (even going slowly as I was).  Phew!  It wasn’t better without John, in fact it was slightly disconcerting being on my own, with a dead phone, but at least he was off running at his pace, like a freed chimpanzee swinging through the African trees instead of being in a cage somewhere.  I knew the tracker I had would get me help if I needed it quickly, so it was just a matter of keeping going.

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John in front, me behind. (Picture by Sharon)

 

I began to imagine what I would do at St Ives, as there was simply no way I could consider carrying on without something in my stomach to get me through the last 22 miles.  I looked forward to a sit down, a cup of tea, and something to eat.  I decided that I would sit there until the last possible minute to give the food the best possible chance of staying down, and take a couple of pain killers with it….mmmm…pain killers.  I wasn’t going to worry about shoes and socks, or any kit stuff….I was just going to sit and digest food.

As I got nearer, the terrain improved.  The aid station was just off the beach at St Ives and I was going to get there almost a full hour before the 2pm cut-off.  It was amazing.  I was almost cheerful for a few minutes.  I passed a female runner in a salmon pink top that was hobbling painfully, “Almost there!” I called out, as I powered passed her.  She said she was hurting badly because of cramp, and was clearly in a lot of pain.  I hope she finished.

So with an hour to spare, I was at St Ives seafront looking for the last checkpoint.  Except I couldn’t find it.  I’d been told there would be a volunteer at the seafront to direct me into the checkpoint, and there wasn’t.  I was asking passers-by if they’d seen any runners or people in high-viz jackets but no-one had seen anything.  All the other check-points had been really well signed, unmissable, and this one was nowhere.  I went all the way to the end of the beach front, and then turned round and went all the way back to the start.  I had been at the start of the beachfront at 1pm, and it was now 1.35pm.  It would be an understatement to say I was a little emotional and pissed off…

I finally had a stroke of luck, finding a passer-by who was a runner that had dropped out at Lands End.  He realised I was a bit lost, going backwards and forwards, and asked what I was doing.  Understanding that I was in a bit of trouble, he offered to guide me into the aid station, which was on the next beach along rather than the one I was on.  He set off at a trot, and I just about managed to keep up, in a couple of minutes we met Mark, who had come to find out why the tracker was showing me travelling back and forth along the beach about a  mile away from the checkpoint.  He got me to the checkpoint in about 15 minutes, and I swore and cursed the whole way there.  My plan of a rest and eating had gone up in smoke, with 45 minute diversion along the seafront.  It was 1.45pm, and the aid-station would close in about 20 minutes.

So, without much more ado, I managed a visit to the toilet, a couple of cups of tea, and a sit down.  Two or three mouthfuls of pasta and beans just about stayed down, but a paracetamol didn’t.  John, the lovely man, had waited for me (for an hour!) and was ready to leave.  Mark and Sharon were there to get me anything I needed, but I needed more time and a new pair of legs.  There was a marshal shouting that we needed to be out of the aid-station by 2.20 pm or we would be disqualified.  We left at 2.05pm.

I don’t think I can sum up my feelings as I walked out of that hall, back onto the road, to travel for another 22 miles, nearly exhausted.  It would have been so easy to stop, sit, finish, and give up. 

I’m not sure why I didn’t….except that I couldn’t repay John like that.  Even as I type this, a week later, I feel emotional remembering it. 

It probably the hardest 45 seconds I’ve had in an ultra…knowing what I was about to be putting myself through if I stood up and walked out of the room.  But perhaps that was better than giving up.   Looking back, I’ve never dug so deep or pushed myself as hard to get myself out of the hall.  It was both wonderful (looking back) and terrible at the same time.  And quite scary. 

Pause.  Deep breath.

And the last 22 miles?  Well, I’d like to say they passed easily, like a hairless fox sliding down a glassy chute covered in pureed banana.  But they actually dragged me kicking and screaming every single step of the way to the end.

The route out of St Ives was very runnable for the first 3 or 4 miles, with easy pavement making the going good  around the bottom of an estuary.  John started off behind me cajoling me onwards , but it didn’t take long for me to tell him to bugger off talking to me, so he then chose to remain just 15 or 20 metres in front of me…never getting any closer or further away….but just remaining out of reach.  It was probably the right way to keep me going but by-god it was annoying at the time (in a good way).

Sometime on this stretch, John somehow managed to reset his GPS.  Don’t ask me how, as I’ve absolutely no idea how he did it, but he did a factory reset on his GPS, and I was far too frazzled to get the maps and route back on the screen.  (In our running relationship, he does the leggy running stuff, I do the techie bit….just not in this case).  This wasn’t a major problem, except now every time John reached a junction, he had to shout back to me to ask which way to go…it kept me awake anyway.

After the estuary, we came to the ‘dunes of doom’, a long 3 or 4 miles section through some dunes.  A wonderful volunteer had marked every twist and turn throughout it, as it would have been impossible without, and walking on the soft sand was a lovely change to the mud and rocks from the previous 24 hours.  Normally, soft sand would get very tiresome very quickly, but this was like walking on a carpet (sort of) and I remember being sad when we got to the end.

John had started to get cold at this stage, and quite rightly pushed on ahead to keep warm.  These stages were so runnable it was no good for him going at my snail’s pace, so in fact he blasted on and went through to the finish.  That is no mean feat without a working GPS!  He took a couple of wrong turns, as you’d expect, including one where he found himself on a beach in the dark, being hissed at by a baby seal.  Clearly he hallucinated the whole thing, but is adamant that he didn’t.  If you see him, tell him that the baby seal was all a dream.

Anyway, travelling at 20 minutes per mile, I was going to finish by about 10pm.  Mark and Sharon were doing sterling work meeting me about every 3 or 4 miles and keeping my spirits up.  I’d pretty much given up eating now, but was having a cup of fizzy ginger ale every hour or so to help my blood sugar.  As darkness fell at about 6pm, I put my head torch back on and some more clothes as I was worrying about getting cold and slowing down.  I was wearing some really good warm kit, but I knew that if I started to get cold I would slow down, and then would start the slippery slope into something like hyperthermia.

I began seeing coloured lights around me in the distance, like other peoples head torches but they were blues, yellows and pinks.  Whenever I turned round to look at them properly they would disappear, but I was convinced they were there.

The last point I saw Mark and Sharon was at Porthreath, at mile 96.  I did my last bit of adjusting, changed head torch as mine was getting a bit dim, and spent just a minute realising I was almost finished.  At the top of the town, where I left the road to go back to the last 3 miles of trail, I had a brief chat with one of the organisers, Ferg.

He shook my hand, pointed out the way to follow, and said I only had 3 miles to go.  He said there were a couple of ups & downs, that the terrain was a ‘bit gnarly’ (which is Cornish for ‘bloody awful’), and that it was a bit of a sting in the tail.  And he said well done.  It was great, in a very understated way.

I’ll remember that for a long time I think….it was probably better than the finish (although I didn’t realise it at the time.)  Thanks for standing out in the cold for me Ferg, I appreciate it.

Those 3 miles took ages.  There were two massive descents and climbs.  The descents were roughly hewn stone steps, the sort of depth like stepping off a dining room chair every time.  The thud through my body as I stepped down each time was excruciating.  But that was nothing compared to the climb.  I would put my right foot up on the step (chair), and then having to push really hard on my poles to get enough force upwards to  get my left leg level, then I’d wobble for a couple of seconds before stabilising and doing the same again.  Each step up was a massive effort in itself.  And all in the dark….and if I’d wobbled and gone backwards it would have really hurt.  The first descent and climb was 70 steps.  I know because I counted them.  I counted them because then I knew when to stop and rest halfway up and the counting out loud helped pass the time and impacts through my body of the stepping down or hoisting up.

The second set of steps, the last set of steps I was going to have to cope with, had 115 steps.  On the way up I stopped at 50 steps, and then again at 100 steps, and still couldn’t see the top.  That was hard.

And then I was at the top.  I still couldn’t see any sign of the finish town, but it was at the bottom of a cove with a lovely long road sweeping down to it, so I wasn’t too surprised.  The long flat stretch took ages to finish, but it did finish.  Then I was walking down the road, hearing cheering from down below.

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Finishing!

 

And then I was there. 10pm. Back at the Blue Bar, race HQ.  Lots of people cheering and clapping, giving me an obscenely big buckle, John was there of course, and Mark and Sharon.   I’ll post a link to a video lower down that has footage of me getting my buckle and I’m completely shell shocked…just not with it at all.

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Luckily I’d chosen my coat to match the buckle…

 

I sat for a few minutes while I was fetched a cup of tea, but I fantasised about finishing for the last 24 hours, and I just wanted to get back to the B&B and to bed.  I’d taken 34 hours 8 minutes to finish.  John had taken 32 hours 40 minutes, but really should have been at least 4 hours quicker if he hadn’t kept waiting for me.  The first finishers did it in 21 hours 25mins…I’ve genuinely no idea how you could travel over that terrain in that time, it just doesn’t see possible even if you sprinted the runnable parts….amazing.  The last person finished just on the 36 hour cut-off.  Phew!

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Looking a little tired….John & his buckle.

 

109 people started.  61 people finished. 56% finish rate.  Ouch.

 I was 52nd, John was 45th. (But he is 10 years younger than me, and a much better runner – that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!)

I had the wobbliest shower ever back at the B&B, and slid into clean sheets….bliss.  John and I were in a twin room, so I had the rather amusing sight of watching him wobbling around as he sorted himself out for bed.  The Domino’s pizza (from Penzance?  Remember that?) finally got eaten.  We agreed that there was to be no tiptoeing around in the middle of the night if someone needed the toilet, but to make as much noise as required to get there in one piece. 

And then we both passed out.

I woke up for my customary beer & Doritos after about 2 hours, and listened to John mumble and talk in his sleep until I went back to sleep.  Then we were both up and awake at 6.30am, for the biggest breakfast ever.  Job done!

And what have I learned from this?  Hmmmm.  I’ve been in a bit of a state since finishing – not physically (although I have a few serious aches and pains, but that’s nothing new) – I’ve been in a very strange place mentally.  It was so, so tough, it feels like a touch of shock or PTSD, I’ve found it difficult to concentrate, have a conversation, almost as if I’m constantly distracted.  Instead of being pleased to finish, I’m pleased to be in one piece and alive.  There are only the few finishers of the Arc of Attrition that know how tough the race is, everyone else can only imagine it.  And I have to warn people reading this that may be thinking of doing it….it’s tough. Very tough.  And not a pleasant tough.  More of a ‘fuck that shit’ tough (as a friend put it).

So, thanks obviously to Mudcrew, for organising a brilliantly slick and friendly event.  The enjoyment by all the volunteers was obvious to see, and you are all a credit to the ultra scene.  I can’t think of anything I would alter in the way you handled the whole weekend.  I won’t be back though, sorry.

Thanks to Mark and Sharon, for somehow getting me round in (mostly) one piece.  I’ve said it all before, but you’re both great.

Thanks to John.  For going far,far beyond the call of duty to run with me and keep me sane & safe, even at the risk of your own race.  P.S. There was absolutely no baby seal hissing at you, it is all in your mind.

And thanks to Claire and the kids, for putting up with yet another ‘adventure’ of mine.  Perhaps this one a little more serious than the others.  My wife worries about me more than I do myself sometimes, which I love her for, even if it drives her mad.

And lastly, I’d like to thank my poor long-suffering body for somehow getting me round another event.  Sorry and all that, I’ll be more careful next time.  I don’t usually thank my brain, but it took a bit of a beating over the weekend, and I don’t want it to feel left out, so thanks brain for coping with the toughest thing I’ve ever done.

‘Nuff said.

Bob.   17-2-17

This is a link to a Youtube video, shot by baldyboy007.  Really captures the feel of the terrain.      You can catch me in a bright red jacket at 5.12 min, 6.15 min & getting my buckle at 8.08min.

And another video, by ‘film my run’ that shows the terrain really well…   (Nothing of me in this sadly).

And the pictures that didn’t make the cut…..

 

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John thinks he looks menacing…..

 

 

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Action shot from the start….I’m the idiot with the thumbs up, John is in front of me (as usual).  Notice everyone else taking it seriously.

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Odd picture of two men looking cheerful at the start.  Notice my claw hand.

Healthy breakfast!

Healthy breakfast!

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I’m never going back to Cornwall…it goes on forever.

 

Lakeland 50 – July 2016

The Lakeland 50 (and its big brother, the Lakeland 100) is really quite well-known.  A lot of people who run ultras have it on their bucket list, as it is fairly accessible (i.e. in the UK), as well as being suitably tough.  The 100 mile option also acts as the ‘Ultra Tour Lake District’ or U.T.L.B, which is brought to you by the same people who do the U.T.M.B (Ultra Tour Mont Blanc).  When entries opened for this years race, it sold out in 6 mintures…that’s how popular it is.

Which makes it all the stranger that I only entered it because I was sitting at my computer on a fateful Friday morning in 2015, when an email popped up saying that entries opened in 30 minutes….and because I wasn’t allowed to enter the 100 mile option (you have to do the 50 first) I checked my calendar and entered the LL50.  I’d obviously heard of the race, but never having run in the Lake District (or been to the Lake District) I had no idea what I was letting myself in for.

The website states:

The Lakeland 50 is one the greatest ultra running and walking challenges in Europe, perhaps the world. It is run over the second half of the Lakeland 100 Ultra Tour of the Lake District, completing the final 50 miles of the 100 course. As it’s only half of the Lakeland 100 course it’s the easy option right? That’s the first and worst error you could possibly make.

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There is a 40 hour cut-off for the 100 mile race, which sounds quite generous until you take into account the amount of ascent & terrain – it is tough enough to just finish, even if you consider that most competitors would be out there for 2 nights without stopping.  The 50 mile race had a cut-off of 24 hours, which made it accessible for first-timers as well as walkers – a nice touch.

My first taste of the lakes area was going up for an organised recce run of about 15  miles of the course.  My long-suffering wife was really excited about going away for an anniversary weekend, and even more excited when she heard we were driving 300 miles northwards in January (rather than flying south 500 miles), but I suspect her excitement peaked when she heard that our long weekend away accidentally coincided with a run, so I’d be disappearing for a day running.

Anyway, the recce run was my first taste of the course, from Ambleside to Conniston, which gave me a healthy respect of the climbing involved, the general terrain (frequently un-runnable), the weather conditions (although it only rained a bit, we actually had snow on the ground at the top of Tilberthwaite climb) and generally that this wasn’t a normal 50 mile run.  For most people who are used to fell-running the terrain was fairly typical, but to me, used to running a long way but generally on the flat, it was a bit of an education.

In fact, those 15 miles took about 3.5 hours,  and although they were thoroughly enjoyable, it definitely got my attention!  I was lucky to be able to snatch a few days away in April, and returned to the Lakes to cover some more of the course and also try out my new passion for wild camping – basically where you carry tent and everything with you, and stop at any point to camp in a nice spot.  It was a more of a hike than run due to the weight of my pack, but was a great time getting away from civilisation for a while.  I managed 30 miles on the first day, over some unbelievable ascents and saw some amazing views (look under ‘Other A outdventures’ for the pics).

So, it was fair to say I knew what I had ahead of me by the end of April.  It seemed a shame to travel all the way up to the Lakes for just a weekend running, so I went up a week early with Michael (16 year-old son, who’d just finished his GCSE’s and needed to be wrenched away from a wi-fi signal for a bit), and hiked and wild camped for 3 days at the start of the week, before a couple of nights in a b&b and the race weekend.

We got to the school field in Coniston, where there was free camping for participants, early on the Friday morning.  I’d been worried about how they would fit everyone in, and wanted to be in a quiet part of the field

but I needn’t have worried as the car parking marshals were expertly lining everyone up, and this was the first taste I had of the flawlessly slick organisation that was to become my most vivid memory of the weekend.  Everyone setting up their tents was clearly excited to be there, and we had a lovely day for it!  After a rainy day on Thursday, Friday was blue sky all the way!

Once we had the tent organised, I trotted up to the school buildings for a surprisingly swift registration before it got too busy.  Probably the only kit check where they have checked every single piece of mandatory kit (including the plastic cup, which was a new addition for this year, prompting much angst on Facebook amongst some about the extra weight (!)).  After registering, and being given my dibber which was a little piece of electronics that would register me into every checkpoint, I was weighed (to aid medics if I got into trouble on the course – a nice touch!) and sent on my way.

The school canteen was doing a brisk trade in very reasonable food, which was another notable plus point for the organisation.  Usually, eating out ramps up the price of a weekend race, but not here!  It was great watching the field fill up with cars and tents, and as the hot afternoon wore on there were clearly two types of competitor.  Those like myself, doing the 50 mile option who didn’t start until the Saturday morning, and hence were quite relaxed – generally lazing about in the sun.  Or those doing the 100 mile option, who set off at 6pm that evening – they weren’t quite so relaxed.

At the start of the 100, 6 pm on the Friday night, quite a crowd had assembled to cheer everyone off, and an opera singer to serenade them with ‘Nessun Dorma’ too!  All in all, it felt like a proper ‘event’ to be part of.  The guys at the front looked suitably excited and focused…I wondered how they’d be in 24 hours.  It was still very hot and muggy, and would not make for pleasant running for the first few hours.

After a reasonable nights sleep, I was woken by the sounds of all the tents unzipping at about 6.30am around the field.  I’d already got most of my kit together, changed batteries in the GPS and head-torch, and done a lot of faffing already, so all I had to do was get changed, visit the toilet and get to the mandatory briefing for 8.30am.  Interestingly, the worst sight of the whole weekend was during the toilet visit…for those people used to portaloos, as you have at most races, I had assumed they are emptied by a subtle valve at the back, very out-of-sight and minimal fuss.  No!  A bloke with a tanker turns up and puts the nozzle of a huge vacuum hose into the seat of the toilet from above…and the long flexible tube that the stuff is sucked through into the tanker is….transparent.  Hence, while queueing for the toilet, I was treated to the sight of gallons of ‘sewage’ zooming through a tube into a tanker.  The smell was indescribable, even in the open air.   That’s a story I didn’t want to relive.

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At the briefing. Not everyone was bald, but clearly in this picture I’ve gathered a lot of bald people together!

Anyway, enough of this.  The mandatory briefing was amusing and brief.  Clearly quite a lot of people were doing this race for the first time, like myself, but many people returning.  That was the whole feel of the weekend really.

Then quickly onto a bus, to be taken to Dalemain, the start of the 50 mile race, and the halfway point for the 100 mile race.  Not a great bus ride as it happens, very twisty (as you’d expect) and quite stuffy.  I was chatting to the bloke next to me…this was his first LL50, his first ultra, his first time on the course – he really had no idea what he was letting himself in for (I’m not really sure I did either!).

At the start I did the obligatory toilet visit and hung around for 45 mins.  There was quite a crowd of people there, both to see us start and also to see the 100 mile runners at the halfway stage.  The roar from the crowd as these runners came through while we were waiting to start was amazing, and the aid station there was dressed up as a military hospital (like the TV series MASH).  It was my first view of the aid stations, and the effort they made to be a bit special, which I will talk more about later…suffice to say that they stood out as great fun!

Most of the 100 mile runners coming through looked in decent shape, and managed a healthy run in front of the crowds.  They were at about 18 hours of their 40, and so were slightly ahead of being halfway through the race in half their time.  I reckon that it would be impossible to complete the second half faster than the first, so I’m really not sure how many would finish if they reached the halfway stage in over 20 hours.

It was in these 45 minutes before the start that a couple of things happened that stood out.  Firstly, I had a text from work.  Nothing serious, or even important, but at the end of a week off it dragged my mind back to work-related things and reminded me that I was driving back south the following day (Sunday) irrespective of how my body felt after the run and very little sleep.  Once again, looking back, I am reminded about how much my mindset affects my running (much more so than the physical act) as I spent the first 10 miles completely distracted by work stuff, and not enjoying the run at all.

Secondly, and slightly oddly, I thought I had something in my shoe.  Not a problem – I took off my shoe, felt around, nothing.  Took off my socks (three pairs, naturally!)…nothing.  Put my shoe back on, something there.  Very very odd.  I still couldn’t find what it was, so in the end gave up, started running with it, it was very evident on the underside of my foot, but seemed to shift after a few miles and then disappeared entirely.  I’m still not sure that I didn’t imagine it!

Anyway, it wasn’t long before we were called into the large start pen and had a few words of encouragement, before finally getting going.

You’ve done very well to read this far, and I’m happy to say you’ve now (after 1700 words) got to the run itself.  Congratulations!

I took up my customary position at the back of the field, and was probably in the last 20 to cross the line.  We started with about 4 miles around local fields to make up the distance, which was a slow measured plod for me and most of the people around me. There was rather less chat than usual in those first few miles, but that may have been because I was still festering about work stuff.  I did hear a couple of people chatting about their marathon PB times (both under 3 hours 10 minutes, very respectable!), which spurred me on a bit.

The first leg, to Howtown, was fairly flat (compared to the other legs) so I knew I was going to take it quite easy and just enjoy the run.  As we spread out, we 50 mile runners would overtake the 100 mile runners that were ahead, and were identifiable (very cleverly) by their race number on the back of their packs being yellow rather than white.  This meant that as you approached someone from the rear, you would know that they were already over halfway of their 100 mile run, and had been going for 18 or 19 hours at that stage.  Most of the 100 milers that I saw looked in amazing shape (compared to how I feel after 50 miles of 100) and interestingly, looked generally male and over 45 – but that might have been my imagination.

As we passed through Pooley Bridge, the first major village of the run, there was an impressive (and unexpected) crowd at the various pubs, all cheering us on.  When these crowds realised there was a 100 mile runner in amongst the fresh 50 mile people, a huge shout went up “A HUNDRED!!” and the crowd would erupt.  That was my first insight into the regard that everyone (both public and racers) have for the 100 runners…they are collectively known as ‘legends’ and I have to say I agree – having done numerous hundred mile races (and further) I’m not convinced I could do the Lakeland 100.  We’ll see!

After Pooley, was the first aid station, Howtown.  Naturally, everyone there was dressed as cowboys, but I didn’t stay there to do anything other than ‘dib’ in.  I should explain really.  We all had little electronic dibbers attached to our wrists, and at every checkpoint you have to register by dibbing your dibber in a little electronic dibber.   Basically, just electronic timing, but from the 80’s….it worked fine.

So in and out of Howtown, and onto the next leg that had some proper ascent involved!  We’d done about 11 miles by this point, and about  1000 feet of  of climbing.  The next leg, to Mardale, was 9.5 miles but 2500 feet of climbing, over two big grassy hills called (I think)

High Kop and Low Kop.   although I hadn’t done this part of the course before, I’d done enough climbing in my recces to be expecting the worst, and so was pleasantly surprised that 1) it was a long grassy climb, not the rocky  mountain trail I was expecting, and 2) that I was striding faster than the majority of people ahead of me.  In fact that turned into something of a trend – I was faster marching up the ascents, but then was slower on the running downhill (simply because I didn’t fancy a broken ankle on the steep rocky descent, that apparently everyone else was suicidally happy to gallop down).

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This was near the top of High Kop (I think)…fabulous!

After a slow start, I’d reached the last checkpoint in 386th place (out of about 650 runners).  I would get to the next checkpoint in 290th place, showing perhaps that my steady pace had left me in good shape for the first serious climbs.

Occasionally, on these long ascents, we would queue up behind a runner doing the 100 mile race, naturally going a bit slower on the single file track, and would patiently wait for the track to open up before all sprinting ‘politely’ to get ahead of them.  We all wished them well though, knowing what they were going through.

I have to say I really enjoyed this part, over the two big hills.  It was sunny, warm and very pleasant.  I imagine if it had been windy, cold and raining it would have been a very different matter!

I drank most of my customary 500 ml bottle of red coke quite early on in this leg, and then ran without water for most of it.  I wasn’t too worried as the checkpoints were so close together I was never going to get properly dehydrated, but it was unusual of me to not have water with me, and I probably got a bit hung up on that in the heat.

The final few miles of the leg was a long narrow stony track along side a lake.  It sounds idyllic, but the flatness meant you felt you needed to run it, and the stones underfoot made it treacherous.  I had already started to get a crick in my neck from intensely staring at the ground about 2 metres in front – and never looking away.  Chatting to a few others around me, we agreed that we couldn’t really enjoy the scenery around us as we were watching the uneven ground so carefully.  I did suggest mandatory place to stop and look around for 15 seconds but I’m not sure it will catch on!

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Views like this were fairly routine, if you could stop to look at them!

 

By now, perhaps 16 or 17 miles in, the field had really spread out quite a lot, surprisingly.  I was running smoothly, after a sensible start, and I was getting the impression that I was catching quite a few of the 50 mile runners that had started too quickly.  I was pleased to have my GPS for reassurance that I was on the right track, and there were a few forks in the trail at this point that there was little indication of the correct route.

I caught up to a 100 runner, Raj, who was clearly suffering even though we could see the next checkpoint around the top of the lake.  I remembered him from the start of the 100 mile race as he’d been standing right at the front and I thought he looked like a contender for winning the whole thing.   Now, however, he was clearly knackered, and slightly disoriented.  After a brief chat he accepted a Twix from me to try to get his blood sugar up a bit (I had loads with me, as usual) and I think he went on to finish – good man!

The next checkpoint arrived, Mardale, and here the support crew were dressed as Spartans (after their running club).  I had a massive drink of water, filled my bottle (won’t make that mistake again!) and had a cheese roll.  I was carrying about 4 cheese rolls, it being the food of champions (and me) and had had one on the bus to the start.  This second one went down easily, and I was happy that my stomach seemed to be behaving itself, perhaps because I wasn’t overloading it with water.

The next leg began with an unbelievable climb, a long rocky trail that snaked up the side of a mountain (yes, mountain, not hill!)  It was probably made worse by the fact you could see it stretching up ahead of you, and appeared to go on for ever.  This was Garthston  I think, and although the whole leg was 6.5 miles and 1600 feet of ascent, I suspect all the ascent was in the first mile or so.   However, I was still climbing faster than most and was feeling good.

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The view from the bottom…..

 

 

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It looked far nicer from the top!

 

On the long descent I was caught up by a few people, and had the chance to ask them how they had learned to descend so quickly.  Every single one lived locally or somewhere where they had similar trails/mountains to run on, and could not imagine running on anything else.  I tried to interest them in an absolutely flat 20 mile run along the seafront in Kent sometime, but they were adamant that they wanted hills!

The next aid station, Kentmere, was at mile 27 and arrived fairly quickly.  It had everyone dressed in Hogwarts kit, which was very good, if a little surreal.  This one had pasta, fruit smoothies and what felt like a hundred scouts available to help everyone. I took the opportunity to have a sit in the sun for 5 minutes, with some pasta and a big mug of tea.  I felt fine, and although tired I had no niggles or aches (other than my neck) to worry about.  Given my total lack of serious training after the Thames Path 100 in April, I think I was getting off lucky!  It was about 6pm, and I had been running for slightly under 6.5 hours.  Provided i kept moving at a reasonable pace i should finish somewhere about 1 a.m. which would mean I could get some sleep and not be out all night (and would be better than the 14 hours I was expecting to finish in).

I had also moved up in my position from 290th at the last checkpoint to 247th (although I didn’t know this at the time).  If I carried on gaining 50 places on every leg I would be first in another 5 legs!! (There were only 4 remaining, thank goodness).

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Rooooaaarrr!!!!

Leaving this checkpoint, I was even feeling good enough to chat to a family of supporters who were drinking beer on the roadside, and who had a little boy roaring at the runners.  Good fun!

The next checkpoint was at Ambleside, where I had recce’d the route from so I knew what to expect beyond it, which mentally was great.  A climb is much easier when you know how soon it will finish, and I had done the Ambleside to Coniston 15 miles in total 3 times, so I felt I knew it really well.  It was a significant advantage, especially as I would be doing it in the dark.

I don’t remember much about this leg, I don’t remember it involving any serious climbing but it must have done with 1600 feet of ascent in 7.3 miles.  Perhaps I was just enjoying it too much (?)  The last few miles were lovely road running, as we descended to Lake Windermere and the reasonably big village of Ambleside.  It was about 8pm, and there was a group of perhaps 6 of us running smoothly together as we entered the town.  Entirely unexpectedly to me, the streets were lined with people out drinking and to go from hardly seeing a soul as we ran through the wilderness, it was spectacular to suddenly be surrounded by cheering people.  It was (a little) like the London Marathon, where you suddenly realise what ‘real’ athletes must feel like when crowds cheer them.  Brilliant.

Even more brilliant, this was 34 miles, and I knew the route ahead had a few climbs, but nothing unexpected.  Mentally, I was almost home.

The aid station was a bit of a blur, except for a bearded lady, who poured me a cup of cold coffee from a plastic jug.  No idea what was going on there, except that later I found out the bearded lady was none other than Barefoot Aleks, who I stalk on Facebook for his amazing runs.  Small world!

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Still smiling!

I set off for the next leg (5.6 miles, only 770 feet of ascent) with quite a spring in my step, and was chatting to a runner in a Trilby hat (no idea why he was wearing a trilby), as we came to the top of the first climb.  Perhaps it was because I’d been setting my sights on reaching Ambleside, but at about 3 or 4 miles in, I came to a very flat cycle path that instead of running easily I ended up walking most of.  My energy just seemed to disappear when I had the best opportunity to run.  Shame.

 

But on the bright side, take a look at what the next checkpoint had in store for me:

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A sitting room..in a field!!

Who would think to bring some sofas, rugs, and generally provide a sitting room as a checkpoint?  It is easily the best checkpoint I’ve ever come across, and was made all the better by the fact that it was in the middle of nowhere

It was just starting to get dark, so I changed into my head torch, warm hat and warm top.  Meanwhile, a cup of ‘Big Soup’ which went down really well and another big mug of tea.  There were a few 100 runners that I caught up with here, that had been moving for about 28 hours, over horrendous terrain.  There were pooped, and taking a well-earned rest before the last 10 miles.  This checkpoint, Langdale, is surely the rest that everyone wants at 90 miles, but must be very dangerous to stay too long at.

The next leg (a mere 6.5 miles and 1200 feet climbing) was memorable only by the fact that it was as boggy as I expected.  A lot of it was running along a hillside in thick grass, and was cut up by streams running down the hillside to make it interesting.  There were various sections that were simply too waterlogged and meant getting through ankle-deep boggy sections as quickly as possible.  I was wearing my usual 3 pairs of socks – waterproof on the outside, which worked really well, and two pairs of lightweight socks inside to soak up the sweat inevitably caused by wearing waterproof socks.

After this section, there was a long section that I had been dreading, alongside a small lake ‘Blea Tarn’ where the path was particularly rubbish, made even more so in the dark.  I was helped by the wet footprints of previous runners showing the route everyone had taken over the rocks, so it was actually better than I expected.

It seemed natural to form up into groups in the dark, and I was pushing hard to stay with some very speedy runners that I caught while going uphill, but who I would lose when the next descent started.  On one such descent I suddenly heard a chorus of “What the f-!” from the 5 people ahead of me, and saw them all stop.  When I caught them up, with absolutely no idea what could have stopped them all in their tracks like that, I saw a huge cow, with massive sharp horns, lying peacefully across the track.  We gingerly tiptoed past it, but it was not a pretty sight in the pitch-black.

Getting to the next, and final, checkpoint at Tilberthwaite had its good points and bad points.  It meant I had only 3.5 miles to go, which was good, but there was 928 feet of climbing involved.  Basically, it was a hard climb straight out from the aid station (the first section had stairs it was so steep) and then a short flat before a steep descent, which for me meant very gingerly picking my way down over the rocks…in the dark, with my legs trembling from the stress.

Once again, I was grateful the weather was so good, as this last leg would have been dreadful in the rain & wind.  I stayed at the checkpoint for probably longer than I should, having some soup and tea, just to give myself some drive for the hard climb.  There were a few people arriving at the checkpoint that clearly did not know what they had ahead of them, and it was painful watching them realise that the line of head-torches they had seen from a distance stretching vertically into the air was not an optical illusion but it really was that steep.  A few of the marshalls took some pleasure in this it seemed!

Once again, I was reminded how tought the 100 mile race was, having to contemplate this climb and descent for the last 3 miles on already battered legs.

Well, without any more procrastination, I got on with it.  The climb was as hard as I was expecting.  It was the only climb of the whole 50 miles that I had to stop at halfway and catch my breath.  Meanwhile as other runners struggled past me I had to tell them I was just admiring the views (in the pitch black) as I desperately tried to fill my lungs with air.

However, as always with these things, I eventually reached the top.  There was a little group of 4 of us using our combined light to show the way, as it was easy to lose the trail in the dark.  It didn’t take long to get to the descent, which meant we were perhaps only a mile from the finish.

One of the four of us shot down the descent at an unbelievable pace, and finished about 4 minutes ahead of me, risking life & limb over the rocky trail.  The other two were a little more reserved, but still disappeared into the distance quite soon.  I won’t go into any more detail about the slowness of my final descent, it was too depressing.

The final road run through Coniston to the finish was spent looking over my shoulder to make sure no bugger overtook me in the last few hundred yards of a 50 mile race.  Meanwhile simultaneously texting my son (who was fast asleep in a tent) that if he hurried he could meet me at the finish (I should have saved me energy really, he was sleeping the unwakeable sleep of a 16-year-old).

I got into the finish at 12.47 am, which i was quite pleased with, and after dibbing my dibber for the final time, I was ‘announced’ into the hall to cheers from all the finished competitors and their families.  It was entirely unexpected, and a really really nice touch.  The cheer that went up for a 100 finisher was spectacular.

I didn’t hang around long, unlike most finishers that were eating the free pasta meal provided or just sitting to recover in the warm hall before retiring to a cold tent.  I knew that i would stiffen up fairly quickly, so got back to the tent and basically downed 2 pints of milk in one go.  The rest of the night was spent mainly awake, drinking some bottles of Becks that I’d thoughtfully brought and eating Pringles (in the absence of any Doritos available).  I did all this with my head-torch on, while my long-suffering son slept on the other side of the tent.  I still don’t know how he managed to sleep.

About 2 hours rough sleep, and I was up at 6, packing the tent to be on the road before it got too busy.  It was a shame to miss the prize-giving as I suspect it was as funny as the pre-race briefing, but I was keen to get home and sleep in a proper bed!

So, thoughts on the Lakeland 50?  Definitely the toughest 50 mile race I’ve done!  It wasn’t just the amount of ascent and descent, but the actual terrain was simply un-runnable to a soft southerner like myself.  It was clearly OK for the majority of people who had the opportunity to train on it, but that was not me!

I finished in 12 hours 47 minutes, which is a fair bit longer than my usual 50 mile time of about 9.5 hours.  However, I’m not complaining at all, as this was not a ‘normal’ race.  I finished in 234th place out of 625 finishers (672 started) and my positions improved at every checkpoint, which means I got my pacing about right, although I faded towards the end.  In that respect, I had a good run.

I’m not  convinced I could complete the 100 mile version.   It  is definitely a whole new dimension on just running a long way, involving some really technical skills that would take time to build & train.  Perhaps that needs to be tested at some point in the future…the far distant future, when I’ve forgotten how tough it was.  I think I was lucky with the weather, having decent summer weather all the way.  I’m sure the wind and rain would make it thoroughly unpleasant.

The whole Lakeland 100 & 50 experience did live up to the hype I’d read about it though.  It had some of the best atmosphere that I’ve experienced, and the fact that it was a whole weekend experience, with food available and free camping, meant that I’m sure I will be back.  It really did have everything that you could want on a weekend away.

The organisation was faultless, and with so many competitors to look after (about 350 in the 100 mile and 650 in the 50 mile) it was impressive to see such a well-oiled machine working.  Every from the camping to the checkpoints was very well done.

Overall, probably can’t recommend the race enough…but be careful of what your letting yourself in for!

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Participant Details

No.: 1051
Name: Bob Wild
Course: Lakeland 50
Team: Thanet Road Runners AC
Gender/Age: M45
Result: Finish 12:47:26
Location Time of Day Leg Elapsed Position
Pre-Start Dalemain Sat 11:14:54 00:00:00 -00:16:27
Start Dalemain Sat 11:31:21 00:16:27 00:00:00
CP9 Howtown Bobbin Mill Sat 13:34:59 02:03:38 02:03:38 386th (672)
CP10 Mardale Head Sat 16:02:03 02:27:04 04:30:42 290th (667)
CP11 Kentmere Village Hall Sat 17:48:40 01:46:37 06:17:19 247th (652)
CP12 Ambleside Sat 19:51:17 02:02:37 08:19:56 247th (639)
CP13 Langdale Sat 21:13:44 01:22:27 09:42:23 241st (627)
Wrynose Sat 22:29:33 01:15:49 10:58:12 240th (624)
CP14 Tilberthwaite Sat 23:09:14 00:39:41 11:37:53 234th (625)
Finish Coniston Sun 00:18:47 01:09:33 12:47:26 234th (625)

Thames Path 100 – April 2016

For some reason, I’ve delayed writing this report.  Usually I try to get it all out of my brain within a week, but it’s now about 2 weeks after the race, and although I’ve been busy (my eldest’s GCSE’s are imminent) I’m not really sure why I’ve not been too keen to sit and write for hours on end.

I suspect, being really honest, that I’m not sure what my motivation was for doing the race…it started initially that I would accompany two members of my running club around their first 100 miler.  As it turned out, one  was injured and the other trained so hard that he probably could have carried me around on his back.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself….

Take yourself back to June 2015,  the end of the Thames Ring 250,  (well, the point at which I ended anyway, rather than the official end which was about another 80 miles or so further on.)  I was pretty buggered at the end, and decided that 2016 would be a much more sociable running year, rather than going for these massive races on my own.  Hence, when a couple of friends suggested how much they would like to complete a 100 mile race, it seemed a good way to still run a lot, but in company!

Both runners, Pam and John, were accomplished runners, having completed 50 miles before, so the step up to 100 miles wasn’t too ambitious (in my misguided eyes).  Plus, all three of us cover the “running spectrum” if I can call it that…

John is the (slightly geeky) Labrador puppy of running (I think I’ve said that before!)  He is 10 years younger than me (see…there’s my excuse out already!) and has only been running for 2 or three years, but has embraced, it showing his huge enthusiasm & talent.  With a marathon PB of about 3.20, he is a superb runner and after an initial taste of ultras at a local 50 miler, he has realised that days of running slowly, eating constantly, is far more fun that running quickly.

Pam is the classic, slightly older lady (am I allowed to say that?) that suddenly realises she can run and run and run, and when everyone around her is slowing down she can maintain the same steady pace.  She doesn’t believe it but she has some awesome endurance (as I believe more mature women generally have) but she has to battle with her head telling her silly things while she is running (i.e. that she is going to miss the next cut-off, or she is too tired to finish).

And me?  Somewhere in the middle I guess.  I can run a bit, eat a lot, then run a bit more slowly, and carry on to the end.  I don’t have Pam’s endurance, or Johns legs…but I’m pretty stubborn and I don’t like to stop.

The three of us have been working towards TP100 since about last September, and have run together a lot .  It’s good fun, running with other people, having spent the last few years generally running on my own.  A couple from the running club had agreed to crew us (Mark and Sharon are wonderful wonderful people, but quite mad) which would make the logistics of getting to & from the race much easier, as well as giving us much-needed TLC during it.

John trained unbelievably hard for the race, and stuck to his training plan rigidly.  This meant lots of back-to-back runs on Saturday and Sunday, usually over 20 miles each.  Often this meant him getting up at 4am on Saturday so he could get his run done early, and then posting all about it on Facebook so the rest of us mortals could read about his impressive exploits over breakfast.  It was truly inspiring and massively annoying.  This is a picture of his training plan, which I think he was following since November.

 

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This is his training plan, in miles…..madness!

 

 

The three of us did the Thames Trot 50 mile race in February (see the race report HERE), and did a long night run together, to prepare them for the 2am “it’ll never get light again” moment.  This consisted of setting off at about 10pm, running 40 miles through the night, with the aim of meeting our running club’s Sunday morning run, and doing the last ten miles with them.  Pam and I had completed a smaller version of this about a month before, starting at 3.30am, and that had gone well, so I didn’t expect any problems with extending the distance.  Unfortunately, on the longer night run, Pam ran with us for the first 44 miles, but realised at that point she was hurting far more than she should.  To her credit, she was still running, and somehow holding it together, but when we stopped to join the club run, she quite rightly took the decision to stop and it turned out she was nurturing a couple of small but very painful injuries that the night run had made much worse.  Her physio was prescribing some proper rest, so unfortunately she was out of the TP100.  I’m thankful to say she is recovering, and has another 100 miler booked for the summer, which she will complete!!

This put me in a bit of a quandary.  My TP100 race plan had been to accompany Pam the whole way, not really worrying about my race, but making sure that Pam finished within the cut-off.  Now, without Pam, I had no excuse not to push for a decent time (apart from a lack of training) and it seemed rude not to take advantage of having a crew by running with as little kit as possible.

So, against my better ‘slow is nice’ judgement, I decided to push hard for the first half, aiming to get to the aid station at mile 51 in about nine and a half hours, and then seeing how much pace I could maintain for the second half.  To recap about the previous year, I completed the race in about 22.5 hours, with massive blisters (where my shoes magically developed some rips in the fabric, which meant I had two 30 minute stops at miles 51 and 85 to try to repair my feet)) and carrying everything I expected to need in the TR250 – i.e. I would only use the aid stations for water, I was carrying everything else (clothes, food, medical supplies, flasks for hot food, kitchen sink, you name it, I carried it).  The race report is HERE, but don’t read it as it wasn’t nice or pretty.

This year would be different, I decided.  I would glide like a fairy over the ground, with literally no kit other than the mandatory kit that the very excellent Centurion Running insist upon, and not suffer blisters or 30 minute stops.  I would finish gracefully, under 22 hours, smiling, and smoking a slim Panatella cigar.

So, let’s get to the day itself (but well done for reading this far, you definitely deserve a star).

We set off from the deepest corner of Kent at about 6.30am, just about managing  to fit all of my crap in the boot…although I wasn’t carrying it with me this time, I was making sure it was with the support crew if I needed it.  John was clearly a little nervous in the car, I was slightly more relaxed (and tired) so managed a bit of sleep on the way.  Mark and Sharon expertly dropped us at the start and zoomed off to park the car, while John and I got registered.  At the time (about 8.30am) reception was nice and clear, with just a few people making their nests in the corridors.  Kit check and the various paperwork bits went smoothly, John being particularly taken with the tattooed and pierced young lady that gave him his number.

With that quickly out of the way (why can’t every race HQ be as organised as Centurion??) we dipped out and headed to McDonald’s for some slimy porridge for John.  I’ve seen more appetising frog-spawn, but he ate the lot.

Then back to the car, to get changed and organise our kit.  It was great to have a bit of time to do this away from the hubbub of the race HQ, and although the parking cost Mark £6, as he kept mentioning for some reason, it was money (sort-of) well spent.  John and I talked Mark & Sharon through the kit that we would be leaving in the car, and it felt pretty organised really.  I should say that our team was named “Team Lucky Gonk” by Mark & Sharon and there were notices of this in the car windows….but as I refused to use the name (very 80’s, I thought) that’s the last you’ll hear of it.20160430_084002

So, we’re back at the start, standing in what appeared to be blue sky and decent sunshine, after months of crap weather.  The weather forecast had predicted rain showers, but that was changing daily as the race neared.  The only consistent thing was the prediction of a cold cold night.  It turned out to be truer than I expected!!

The sign of an organised person, I sometimes think, isn’t that nothing goes wrong…but that when something does (inevitably) go wrong, it can be dealt with calmly.  Thus, when I switched my garmin on and the battery was flat, I didn’t waste time fretting and gnashing my teeth, but simply, took the battery pack I’d packed for the halfway point to recharge my watch (to make sure it lasted the full 100 miles) and started charging before I’d even began running.  Without question, the best thing about the Garmin 310xt, is the ability to charge it ‘on the go’ so it still records data while charging.  Thus, within about an hour or two of the race starting I was back up to about 90% charge, and still had all the splits of my impressive (not) first few miles.

At the start there was a few nervous looking people around, and a lot more spectators than I remember from last year.  There was the usual massive variety of packs being worn, from the absurdly large to the impossible tiny.  This year, however, I was wearing the string bikini of rucksacks, rather than the full length fur coat that I normally carry around with me (yes, OK, my metaphors are slightly mixed, but it makes sense to me!).  One guy had a pair of really thick gloves (think Arctic here!) on the outside webbing of his pack, he was clearly expecting some cold weather!!

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Me, Sharon and Mark, and John….team Lucky Gonk

There was a bit of pre-race instructions, and then we were off.  As always, a slight sense of the surreal, to think that we would now be running for the next 24 hours (or thereabouts), but the sun was out, the river was calm, and there was a lovely sense of community with a few hundred people setting off on an adventure.

John, Mark, Sharon and I had met the previous week to discuss arrangements and timings of the race, and what the support crew would need to do and when.  As John was going to be steaming ahead on his magic legs, we planned his first 25-odd miles at about 10 minutes per mile, which is a really steady pace for the start of a 100 mile run.  My pace was going to be rather more sedate later on, but I fancied I could keep up with him for the first marathon if I was lucky.

As it turned out, after the first couple of slow miles while the runners thinned out a bit, John and I kept up a pretty consistent 9.30 minutes per mile for the first 26.  John was running easily, but was worried this was too fast for the start.  I was thinking the same but felt good and was enjoying chatting to John and sharing in his adventure of his first ‘proper’ ultra.  We had a bit to eat and a short walk at about mile 12, but it was a lovely day and life was good.

Mark and Sharon met us at mile 25, and I think they fed John, but I was feeling good so didn’t want anything at that stage.  We passed the first marathon in about 4 hours 12 mins, which felt great and comfortable.  Now the challenge was to complete the next marathon in about 4.5- 5 hours!

Shortly after this point, John entered what shall be known as his “I’ve-run-30-miles-I-need-a-poo” stage.  It turns out that John, masterful and speedy runner, generally (always) needs a poo after about 30 miles of running.  On the drive home, where he admitted this character trait to us all, he explained that it had become a regular thing with long runs.  Now, I hear you say, that’s fine, everyone needs the toilet occasionally, and it is fine.  Obviously, though, it is useful to be aware of this and plan where you are soon going to be at an aid-station with a toilet.  It’s not so good to be needing the toilet rather urgently, with an aid-station a mile or two ahead, and lots of runners following along behind.

Did I mention the laminate I lovingly created for John??  Being the slightly-anal obsessive that I can be, I’d made us both a little credit card sized laminate that showed where we were meeting the crew and where the aid stations were.  Naturally, John turned to me after about mile 1 and said he’d dropped his – d’oh!  I, luckily, am not quite so butter-fingered as him, so I was able to tell him that I wasn’t sure that the next aid station at mile 30.5 had a toilet (in fact it did, but no-ones perfect!)  So John had to make a quick exit from the route to a nearby clump of sizeable trees and bushes, to help the local ecosystem with some much-needed fertiliser.

Why am I telling you this?  Two reasons.  The first, most obviously, is that I can embarrass John by recording forever  on the interweb his misfortune on having an enforced ‘al fresco’ poo.  Not a great reason, to be fair, as I have a similar problem far too frequently.

The second reason, however, is far far more important.  You see, the first point of the race that our times would be recorded was at this forth-coming aid-station, and hence which ever of us that got there first would record the faster time for this beginning stretch.  Anyone tracking us (I’m imagining a proportion of our running club) would realise that I had got there first, and that I was clearly not the slightly-old pedestrian that I feel sometimes.  So, with that in mind, I watched John go off to relieve himself and pushed on to record the fastest time over 30.5 miles of the two of us.

Bob – 5 hours 01 min 41 seconds (71st place of 295 starters)

John – 5 hours 02 min  55 seconds (74th Position)

There you have it.  Facebook must have been ablaze with the toxic shock of Bob beating John over any distance, even if it was only 1 minute 14 seconds (incidentally, that’s a really really quick poo, John, well done).

John caught me up shortly after, of course, and the natural order of the world was restored.  It was fun for a while though.  Unfortunately, John began to feel a bit nauseous, although he wasn’t sure why.  He manfully struggled through it, knowing we were meeting the support crew at mile 35 which would mean he could get a little rest and something to help with his stomach.  Mark and Sharon were ready, as always, and quickly had him eating some ginger biscuits to try to relieve the symptoms.  I saw he was in good hands, and carried on slowly.  I was feeling surprisingly good at this stage, although I was starting to tire and John (although feeling slightly rough) was running much more smoothly at this stage.

It was strange to be running on my own, but I quickly got chatting to some of the other runners around me and kept going.  I was not eating enough at this stage, which was pretty daft looking back, but I simply didn’t feel I needed it.  The weather was still blue sky and sunny, and really quite warm, but following my experience at the Thames Ring (where I drank lots of water but wasn’t able to absorb it, so basically had a sack of water sloshing around inside me) I was taking fairly small sips of water about every 10 minutes.

I remember approaching an ice cream van at some point, and as I ran towards it I thought how nice it would be to stop and have a nice cool ice cream.  Bizarrely, about 2 feet beyond the ice cream van, a wind appeared from nowhere and blasted me with cold air and rain for just a couple of minutes, before completely disappearing and blue sky appearing once again.  It was the oddest thing.

By the time I’d got to mile 46, I was suffering for my earlier pace.  My 10minute running, 2 minute walking regime had deteriorated to more of a 5/2, and then to a run 100 steps, walk 100 steps.  I was still ahead of my expected pace and I could feel that I was gently running out of steam, but to be fair I had pushed a hard pace for a long way and I was only 5 miles short of the aid station that would mean a change of shoes, something hot to eat, and most importantly a sit down.

It was at this point John caught up with me, and showed his huge amount of training and talent by skipping past me and looking very fresh.  He said he was running 2 miles before walking 2 minutes, which was a really sensible plan.  This was the last point I saw him, and he looked very strong.

A rather slow few miles later I got to the 51 mile aid station, where Sharon had some hot noodles for me and Mark helped change my shoes and socks.  I decided not to wear my waterproof socks for the second half of the race, as I clearly had not needed to wear them for the first half, and my feet had been absolutely sweltering in them, with my normal two pairs of socks underneath. (Yes yes, I know, three pairs of socks is a little excessive, but in my defence I’ve never had any problems with my feet, and it works for me!)

I didn’t stick around long here, as the support crew had everything organised so well.  I left in a bit of a hurry, with a cup full of noodles, clean shoes and socks, and a bit of energy.  It was now about 7.30 pm, and although it was still an hour or so before it would get dark, the night was looming ahead of me as a long hard stretch.

Mile 51 aid station arrival:

John –  9 hours 06 mins 55 seconds

Bob – 9 hours 23 mins 28 seconds

It was from here that the miles all seemed to blend together.  Usually I make an effort to remember how I feel at various times, but perhaps because I was tired or because I wasn’t properly motivated, I was simply trying to eat up the miles and not think too much.  I remember vividly getting to one aid station where I’d also arranged to meet the crew, and Sharon had walked out to meet me (which was lovely) and all I could do was tell her how shit this was, and I didn’t know why I did it to myself.  I’ve definitely gone through rough patches before (in every race, like everyone else) but I really meant it that time!

I remember running through endless fields, and getting rained / hailed / snowed (??) by very short sharp showers.  It was the oddest thing, as by the third time it happened I knew it was going to pass quickly, and didn’t bother trying to cover up.  I’ve never known weather like it (or perhaps I’ve just never been outside for it!).

As it was getting dark, I got chatting to the first of a few memorable people, that made the run much more fun for me.  I was chatting with him (no, I didn’t find out his name) and I was mentioning that I’d run this route on the Thames Trot earlier in the year, and it was a massive mud-fest…absolutely horrible.  He said that he’d done the race too, and from what I’d said he guessed that he’d read my blog on it…yes, it’s true, he was someone who had read one of these race reports that I churn out (for my amusement) and I was momentarily flummoxed by that.  I don’t think I’ve ever met someone that’s read my rather sad running blog that I didn’t know before.  (Note to readers, this could be you next time!  If you are ever running anywhere and come across a particularly average runner, check they are not me…if it’s me, you will get your own very special mention!  Try to tell me your name though, that will help.)  I chatted with nameless runner for (I think) quite a while, and it rather helped pass the time as he’d done some of the same races I had.

As it got darker and darker, I could feel the temperature dropping steadily.  I had a thick running top on, as well as my normal thin one that I’d been wearing all day and my running waterproof, that usually keeps me very warm indeed.  I had a warm beanie hat and gloves and was moving briskly (which normally means that I’m far too hot), so I  was ready for cold temperatures.  I just wasn’t ready for really cold temperatures.

Some miles later I’d put on some running tights that I’d thankfully given the crew ‘just in case of emergency’, and they helped keep my legs warmer, but I could still feel pretty much every extremity (hands, feet, lips) getting really cold.  I’ve done (I think) at least 9 or 10 runs through the night, both in races and training, and I have never got that cold, thankfully.  I was drinking warm tea at every possible opportunity, although I wasn’t eating enough (still).  It got to the point in the early hours of the morning I simply got anything else I’d brought – a pair of waterproof trousers – and put them on, and ended up wearing thick socks on my hands as my gloves weren’t coping and my hands kept going numb.  I don’t think I’d have coped without Mark and Sharon meeting me every few miles and giving me access to all my spare clothing.

I hit somewhere about mile 71 aid station after 14.5 hours.  It was about half-past midnight and I was realising that it was going to be a long cold night.  John had gone through this point about an hour ahead, and was going well (so Mark and Sharon said).  Mark was going to run with him from mile 77, to give him a strong push for the last 20 miles or so, which was great.  Sharon was going to have the unenviable task of trying to get forwards and backwards to look after both runners, which she did amazingly well.

Sometime in the early hours (it was all a bit of a blur by then) I met an American who was flying back to Houston at 4pm that afternoon.  It made for amusing conversation to hear his thoughts on the race at that stage, but he couldn’t slow down or he’d miss his flight.  The terrain had gone from hard trail, with numerous trip-hazard tree roots, to the occasional impassable mud bath, and I took a proper tumble in one of them…a full ‘both-feet-immersed-in liquefied-mud-and sitting-in-it-too’, that prompted most people that I chatted to, to comment on why I was covered in mud.

I remember the aid station at mile 77, where there was a guy wrapped up in a sleeping bag in front of a gas fire, clearly very cold indeed.  It really brought it home how lucky I was to have so much clothing and a crew looking after me.

At about 3am, I teamed up with a lady that I chatted to for hours (but naturally, never got her name).  Her husband had already finished (I think he came second male, in an amazing 17 hours) and so he was tucked up in bed, nice and warm, while she was still out in the freezing cold, slogging away.  I won’t deny that she was feeling a bit pissed off at life in general, but we kept each other amused for a few hours, talking about anything and everything (from kids, to the American  elections, to life in general).

At about 4am, we climbed a hill, away from the river, to get to an aid station (at about mile 85), cold, tired, pissed off, remarking that there was still no light in the sky or birds starting to sing, which usually suggest that dawn is coming.  Once inside the light, warm hall, Sharon fussed around me, bless her, and I got yet another cup of tea.  She scolded me to eat and I tried (and failed) to get something down me.  The aid station was warm and light though, and there were clearly a few runners suffering in there.

We left that aid station a couple of minutes later, my nameless lady and I, and as we came down the same hill, to the Thames Path, we could both feel the cold pressing down on us with every step.  On the rather more positive side, we both remarked that we could hear the birds singing (which we’d missed 10 minutes previously apparently) and that meant dawn was not far away.

The river and fields were covered in a thick fog, and our torches were only penetrating about 3 feet in front.  All you could do was keep your eyes on the rough ground ahead and keep putting one foot in front of the other.  It was a long night.

As the sun came up, the fog lifted slightly and showed the most picturesque landscape, covered with mist and glistening with dew.  Naturally I was far to grumpy to take a picture, but it was lovely.  The sun rose, as it always does, and everything looked much more positive in the light of the new day.

My companion’s sister and brother-in-law walked out to meet her at about 5.30am, which I thought was great, and I sadly had to leave her behind as the new light and finish line beckoned.  I got to the aid station at mile 91 at about 6am, and met up with Sharon for the last time.  She had done an amazing job keeping up with John and I, and had kept positive and cheerful throughout what must have been a long, cold and boring night.  Mark had run with John as planned, and clearly the crew had been indispensable throughout!  John was still doing well, although had got a little lost at one point and had lost about 30 minutes.  He was running well.

I’d like to say I also galloped the last 9 miles to finish before 8am, which would have brought me in under 22 hours, but unfortunately I whimpered to a finish at about 8.12am  Mark (who’d finished with John about 50 minutes before) had run back down the course to meet me, and was a lovely sight to see, and realise it wasn’t far to go.  I managed a run for the last few hundred yards, over a rather pleasant green field and under a finish line inflatable arch.  A couple of pictures (in  which I look surprisingly well) and a buckle, and then it was time to roll in the grass like a dog.  If you ever want to relieve your stiff achy body, perhaps after a long aeroplane trip or a 100 mile run, just roll around in the grass.  Dogs know what they’re doing.

John had finished in 21 hours 21 mins (54th), and was sitting in a chair looking pleased with himself.  I’d finished in 22 hours 12 mins (71st place), and was rolling and stretching in the grass.  I think that sums us both up.

We didn’t hang around (apart from having some excellent chilli), I think all of us were tired and wanted to get home as quickly as possible.  The journey home was very memorable (see the note above about Johns poo-ing habits) and then we were home and it was all over!

So, thoughts….

Massive thanks to Sharon and Mark for the support.  They were simply awesome, and had anything and everything we wanted and needed before we asked.  A master-class in how to support runners.  Thanks guys.

John, what  a runner!  21 hours 21 mins for his first 100 miler…which surely means he can break 21 hours in the next one if he doesn’t get lost (like a plonker).  Then what is he capable of!

Me?  Hmm, it wasn’t my favourite run, and I’m pretty sure I’d not have finished if I hadn’t had a crew with extra clothing.  However, I didn’t train with any real purpose for this race (my ‘A’ race is the Lakeland 50 in July) so apart from running a lot, my preparation was pretty poor.  My head was in a funny place as well, not really committed to the level of suffering that would be needed, as I’d done the race before and there wasn’t any real challenge for me.  Note to self, my motivation comes from the variety of races I do, and from the not knowing what to expect in a new race.  When I’ve done it before it all seems a bit boring & hard work.

Massive thanks to all the volunteers and the organisers.  Centurion are definitely the premier race organisers for ‘safe’ 100 mile runs.  The aid stations were well stocked and frequent.  I really cannot fault them at all.

And what else?  Well 207 people finished out of 295 that started, about a 70% finish rate.  But an awful lot of people dropped during the night, as I’d expect.  If anyone reading this was in that situation, don’t beat yourself up over it…it was a tough tough night.

And what now?  Well, as I said, a race in the Lake District in July…and then maybe something later in the year.  John has discovered that no-one has set a speed record for completing the North Downs Way, 150 miles of hills, so he thinks it would be great to do that!!  I’m not so sure.

Sometimes I think we’re all mad.

 

 

 

Moonlight Challenge – February 2016

My favourite race of the year: full of cheerful marshals, friendly runners and thick thick mud….

I very seldom do the same race twice, mainly because I enjoy the challenge of something new, and it seems a bit pointless to put yourself through a tough experience if you have already done it once.  The exception to this is the Moonlight Challenge, a 33 mile jaunt in mid-February that (as suggested by the name) is run in the dark and is goes over rough trail, concrete track, smelly farmyard, and cycle track.  It invariably attracts some of the worst weather that flat marshland in winter can throw at you….gale force winds, horizontal torrential rain, freezing temperatures, thick gloopy mud, and on one memorable occasion, thick falling snow.  It is one of those runs that people tend to return to year after year, because it is so unpleasant and illogical to be out running whilst being punished by the elements.  It’s fantastic fun too.  Each 6-and-a-bit mile lap has a couple of aid-stations, and consists of the first two miles of very rough trail, before settling down to decent track for the last 4 miles.  Because it is run as a ‘personal challenge’ rather than a race, a lot of people take it quite gently, pausing in the warm after each lap and just enjoying the experience…this makes it for a pleasant, friendly atmosphere.

You may have already guessed I’m a bit of a fan…and I should say that I’ve got to know the organiser, Mike Inkster, quite well over the years, so you can expect this to be a thoroughly biased race report.

This year’s weather, unlike the previous years, was looking to be half-decent from the advance weather forecasts, with balmy temperatures (for February) of 10-12 degrees forecast, relatively low wind and no rain! Naturally, on the night itself we had horizontal rain & some very strong headwinds, but to be fair this was the best weather I’ve ever run the race in.  I could tell you about last year (2015), when I spent some of the course running with one eye closed as the only place the wind & rain could get at me was the gap between my glasses and my eyes (my jacket hood was zipped up to above my nose) and as the wind was coming from my right hand side, the wind was whipping across my eyeball very painfully…so I closed the eye – genius!  I could tell you about the year before that, which I think was the year it rained constantly through January and February, flooding the worse parts of the route to create a half-mile channel of liquefied mud that we traipsed through trying to stay on our feet (quite like this year actually!)  Or the most memorable, year before that, when I remember sitting in my car before the start, with the car thermometer stating it was -10 degrees outside.  That was the year that last couple of hours got really hairy with heavy snow that made any flat surface very slippery underfoot, and I nearly slid off the road on the way home.  Happy times.  Anyway, enough of the reminiscing…you get the idea.  My race report from last year is HERE, so if you’re a real glutton for punishment, then have a look.

But back to this year…I had a bit of a busy day at work, so missed lunch, but managed to grab a Cornish pasty that I ate as I drove to Brook Farm at the start location. As usual, I take a perverse satisfaction in arriving in a shirt and tie, straight from work, while everyone else is Lycra’d-up.  It was still just about light as I got my race number, a surprisingly chunky goody bag, and grabbed a strong coffee (the first of many).  There were quite a few cars still arriving as I got changed in my car (note to self – get a bigger car or smaller legs if attempting to put on compression tights in the driver’s seat again).  In fact there were enough cars to require some creative parking in amongst the farm buildings, which was nice (and slightly amusing) to see.

Once I’d got changed, I was able to grab another coffee and chat to a few people as we stood around in the warm barn waiting for the start. Pam (from my adventures on the Thames Trot a few weeks ago) was there with her husband, and Mark, another stalwart ultra-runner from the very excellent Thanet Roadrunners who I often run with.

I’d chosen to run in a fairly light-weight top, given that it was going to be warm, but also in thin water-proof jacket that would keep the worst of the wind off, as well as keeping me dry (there was a little drizzle going on). I had the same footwear as Thames Trot…three pair of socks (liner pair, padded pair and Sealskinz waterproof over the top)…and trail shoes with gaiters.  I’d run the route earlier in the week to gauge the trail parts, and there was a rough 300-400 metre stretch at the start that was just thick mud with very few redeeming features.  Although not a long stretch, it would make for an unpleasant time if the feet got muddy & wet at the start as they wouldn’t really dry out.  As it happened, my feet survived unscathed, clean & blister-free.

Mike, the race director, gave a “sort-of” motivational speech at the start (“If you’re daft enough to be here, good luck…etc”) and advised everyone to take it easy on the initial stretch of mud, as it was particularly slippery and there was very little to be gained by running this treacherous part of the route. I’m massively pleased to say that when the time came to be sensible, I (and everyone else surrounding me) treated this with the contempt it deserved and ran, slipped, slid, squelched and fell through the mud to gain precious nano-seconds over our rivals.  Good work!

briefing 1

Mike giving the ‘motivational’ briefing…”well done for coming…you’re all mad…etc”

After the pre-run pep-talk, Mike took us outside to demonstrate (as he does every year) how to throw common-sense aside by holding a lit firework in his hand to signal the start of the race. Usually the firework shoots out of Mikes hand, showering him with sparks and explodes a few seconds later high up in the air.  This year, for some reason, it decided to shoot in a slightly horizontal trajectory, arching calmly over a nearby field to explode about 30 feet away, 7 feet from the ground, possibly scaring a field of rabbits to death (definitely reminiscent of something from World War 1).

We all set off, led expertly by a bloke with a pair of luminous trainers.   He had been proudly showing them off before the start, and I have to say I was quite taken with them.  I don’t really think the pictures do them justice, and I think the future of night running lies in luminous shoes.  Frankly, why stop there?  Why wear high-viz clothing, when you could be completely luminous?  We could paint cars in luminous paint and get rid of street-lights.  Or just paint the underside of planes in luminous paint, and save loads of electricity.

lumo shoes 2

It’s a rubbish picture, but luminous shoes are the future!!

I was quite near the front at the start, for no particular reason other than I had been admiring someone’s luminous shoes, but over the mud we all thinned out quite a lot, as we all tried to work out the best way of running on it. At that stage, it wasn’t deep, but a very thin layer of squelchy mud on a reasonably solid surface.  It was only when that top layer started to move sideways that trouble started as there was no grip.  By the time everyone had done 5 laps over the mud, it resembled frogspawn, with a three inch layer of slime, on top of a squelchy base layer which allowed you to slip and slide everywhere.

I’ve seen a lot of unusual things when out running, including a Jacuzzi-boat and a (bloated) dead deer in a canal, but few things had made me smirk and smile quite as much as a sporty BMW in the middle of a field, in the dark, with a stream of unkind runners sliding past. I believe it belonged to one of the marshals, who slightly underestimated the treachery of the mud, and to be fair he did very well to get as far as he did before trying to turn round and getting properly stuck.  I allowed my imagination to picture the marshal having to get out of his car in some expensive shoes and sinking deeply into smelly mud.  I know he got the car out OK (more about that later) but I do hope he had a hosepipe at home to clean the car (and his shoes) off.

At the end of the stretch of mud, there were luckily a couple of unavoidable puddles that meant most of the mud was washed off before we tracked it halfway across Kent. I’m sure that I was three inches up in the air with the amount of earth and mud I had stacked up on the bottom of my shoes by the time I reached these puddles.

After the mud, everything seemed fairly tame as we crossed a train-line and did about another 1.5 miles of trail, including the Green Bank – a nicely elevated bank of overgrown earth that is carefully angled to get the worst of side-wind ever.

Mark and I were running together, and both agreed we had set off far too quickly,  I think there were only about 5 or 6 people ahead of us (including Mr Lumo-shoes) as we came to the end of the Green Bank. We had quite a lot of catching up to do, as we regaled each other with stories of how well his training was going (Mark) and how I had taken to eating massive spaghetti bolognaise at 10 o’clock in the morning as a training tool (me).

By the time we reached Jelly Baby Junction (the main aid-station on the loop at about mile 3 & 5) we were both regretting our initial pace, but it was a lovely night for a run so (to be fair) it was very difficult to slow down! A quick hello to Sharon & Derek, who were getting ready to keep the constant stream of runners fed and watered, and we carried on.  There was a light drizzle, but apart from a couple of stretches where the headwind was quite rough it was warm and pleasant.

By the end of the first lap, Mark and I had set the running world to rights, had run through the race plans for my forthcoming 100 miler and Mark’s Australian adventure (involving lots of stairs!), committed to some nameless future expedition or adventure race (perhaps Everest or something similar), and worked out some of the detail of Marks future coaching career. Phew!  We had also not slowed down, going at a ballistic (for us) 9.45 minute per mile for the first lap.

The start/end of each lap consisted of going from the pitch black farmyard into a brightly lit, warm, barn and I’m sure I wasn’t the only runner to be blinking like an owl the first time I went in. I shouted my number (no-one was going to miscount any of my laps!) and then turned straight round to get back out there!

The start of lap 2 was suspiciously similar to lap 1…the mud was just as muddy, the car was still stuck, we were still going too quickly, the only difference was that we’d stopped talking as we were both knackered. After the Green Bank, Mark kindly suggested that I could carry on at the same suicidal pace if I wanted but he was going to slow himself down (without my bad influence around!) and so he gently dropped back.  It was only when he’d gone that I realised my torch was not as strong as I thought, and in fact was very dim indeed – probably should have put some new batteries in it before setting off on a 6 hour run in the dark….d’oh!  As a result, I spent a lot of time running with it switched off, in order that when I came to a difficult part I could switch it on and my darkness-adjusted eyes would think I had the Blackpool illuminations strapped to my head.

Luckily, at this point I was caught up with by Darren. He had a hat the same colour as the soles of his shoes.  Very impressive colour-coordination.  We chatted for quite a while, so I grew to learn quite a lot about Darren.  Amongst other things, he’d only started running in the previous October (perhaps 5 months before) and had never run marathon…so it made very little sense to do his first in the roughest conditions he could find, across farmland in February.  To be fair, he had some great history as a high–level cyclist, so was very fit but I thought it would be interesting to see how he coped with the mental stresses of pushing further than he had before.

We chatted for the last few miles of the second lap, and at the finish/start I shouted my number and grabbed my customary 12-mile bottle of fat coke and a Twix. I chugged the coke quickly, and having whooped at the girls marshalling the start of the mud, I got stuck in to the next lap!  I had no idea how many people there were in front of me, but I had been watching a green flashing armband for some time in the far distance, and decided that I needed to push on and catch him up as it was getting annoying seeing it all the time but never catching him up.

Darren and I were followed from the start to the mud by a massive tractor, which trundled onto the muddy section to pull the BMW out, and forcing us to detour out into the field to get past it. I assume the tractor was successful, as next time round both tractor and BMW were gone, leaving some massive gouges through the mud.

Darren and I roughly ran together over most of this lap, where he would get ahead of me as we ran over the trail parts, while I huffed and puffed over the rough ground, but then fall back on the better surface as I kept a steady pace. I was still enjoying the night, and keeping up a surprising (for me) pace, but now some of this pace was due to Darren looking exceptionally strong and I certainly couldn’t let him get too far ahead of me, could I?  In fact I think it was towards the end of this lap, going up a bit of a hill, that Darren said “It’s all getting a bit real now”, which is good ultra-talk for “Bloody hell, I’m in so much pain I could chew off both of my legs”.  He was entering the mind-zone of knowing he’d run about 20 miles (not an inconsiderable distance) but also knowing he still had another 13 to go.  And that would take a few more hours.  And his legs wouldn’t feel any better in that time.

I’d like to say that, sensing his discomfort, I kicked up my heels and sped past him with a carefree laugh, but actually I got all a bit supportive and told him that he was looking really strong and namby-pamby stuff like that….very disappointing.

Onto lap 4, a bottle of water and another Twix to start, and a whoop to the marshals before the mud who were doing sterling work keeping warm and cheering the runners going past. Once the mud was past, Daren seemed to drop back quite a way (probably to get away from my incessant talking) and he was replaced by number 36.  I suspect I could find his name out, but while we were chatting, and at the end, I was happy to call him number 36 (for that was his number) so that will do now.

We ran together for only 3 or 4 miles, but I learnt that number 36 also hadn’t run a marathon yet…what is with these people that choose an ultra, in the dark, over farmland, as their first long run?? It just shows how the ultra-madness is grabbing people early in their running ‘life’ now, rather than waiting until they are fat and old (and hungry) like me. Number 36 was doing amazingly well, as I think he said he’d never run 20 miles, but was starting to suffer a bit to be honest.  I was still trotting along fine, my legs were aching but only what I used to, and my energy levels felt good. As with Darren, I was able to chat to number 36 about the mental side of running a long way, as he clearly had the legs to do it.

By the end of the fourth lap, about 26 miles, Darren reappeared from nowhere, and we ran into the barn together. I vividly remember thinking that I was OK (!) and was still running at a pace I wouldn’t have considered normally (somewhere rather better than 10 minutes per mile, on rough ground).  The remaining single lap of 6 miles was going to be a bit of a victory lap, and I would push the pace as much as I could just to finish as tired out as possible.  It didn’t turn out like that!

Because the drizzle seemed to have stopped, I took off the waterproof and left it behind, setting off slightly ahead of Darren and another runner that had joined him. We all slipped and slid through the mud, which was at its worst by now, but thankfully it was going to be the last time.  It was horribly squelchy and pretty unpleasant to be honest.  The couple of puddles at the end were much deeper than 5 hours previously, and it was too much trouble to do any fancy footwork except sploshing straight through them.

Just as we left the mud behind (for the last time, whoop whoop) Darren and his friend caught up, and the friend called out that he thought I was in second place.

Now……let’s just hesitate a second. Despite the fact that I was running quite quickly (for me), I had absolutely no idea who was in front or behind me due to the clever figure-of-8 course.  There is always someone in front, someone behind and someone running in the opposite direction at the crossover.  It’s very difficult to understand what position you are in, and to be blunt, it is very seldom (if ever) something I get fussed about as I’m normally somewhere near the middle or back.  But hang on!  Second! Fantastic!! When did that happen!!!

Even as these thoughts went through my mind, the friend gently eased past me and left me (and Darren) behind. I’d like to say I didn’t shout some stuff at him (in a good-natured way) about how mean it was to tell someone they are in second place, and then overtake them….but I did.  I also told him he was looking tired and exhausted, but that didn’t stop him either.  Bugger.  If I’d thought of it, I’d have rugby tackled him to the ground and then Darren and I could have tied him up and beaten the shit out of him…but I didn’t. (But I will next time).

He disappeared into the distance, leaving me with fleeting memories of when I was once second in an ultra. That’s one to tell the grandchildren!

(Note to self…probably don’t share this many inner thoughts when writing a race report, people may take it the wrong way.)

So, there’s just me and Darren…running over the fields and onto the Green Bank. I’m guessing that we were both thinking that we had to keep up with the other person, to hold onto (joint) third, after second had been so cruelly snatched from our grasp.

Unfortunately, it was here that I caught up to Pam, who was at that point a full lap behind. She had started a bit late when, just before the start, her (how do I put this delicately…..) upper-body-ladies-running-apparatus had come undone, and she’d had to re-fasten it.  (Hope she doesn’t mind me mentioning that).

Anyway, I made the crucial mistake of slowing down to have a chat with Pam, and to cut a long story short, when I looked up Darren had sped off into the distance and was long-gone. Dammit.

Never mind. I ran most of the last lap with Pam, chatting away, and had a quick catch-up (for the last time!) with Sharon and Derek who were still doing sterling work at Jelly Baby Junction, keeping everyone fed and watered.

I got to the finish about 4 minutes after Darren, in 5 hours and 46 minutes, which I was really pleased with. The winner finished in 5 hours 15 which was a great time considering the conditions.   A medal and certificate, and  I quickly put on a thick jumper and grabbed a cup of tea from the endless supply, and said well done to Darren.  Shortly after me, number 36 came in, looking great (considering) and then there was a fairly constant stream of finishers every ten minutes or so.  Thankfully the barn was being heated by a jet engine (see the picture below if you don’t believe me) so it was quite a pleasant environment to stand around in for a while.  There was a decent range of food too, so I helped myself to some tasty home-made soup (which really hit the spot!) and even some Doritos….every race finish should supply Doritos!

Mark finished about 30 minutes later, looking as fresh as a daisy, and at that point I said my thank-yous and set off for home. The mud had dried onto my shoes quite successfully, so any that didn’t come off in my car would spray all over the carpet at home when I took my shoes off.  But as I told my wife, that’s clearly what vacuum cleaners (and wives) were invented for.

moonlight shoes 2

You can’t really see the mud in this picture….

 

moonlight shoes 3

…but it’s in every nook and cranny of the shoes!

Logic would suggest that I’d take the next day easy, but for some reason I decided to join my normal Sunday morning Thanet Roadrunners club run (after about 5 hours sleep). At the time it seemed like a fun way to ease my stiff legs, and the first few miles were OK.  Unfortunately, by mile 8 I’d lost whatever motivation I’d started with and getting to 12 miles was thoroughly rubbish. An experience not to be repeated!  Luckily, a monster roast dinner and some cheap red wine sorted me out later.

So, another year and another brilliant Moonlight Challenge. Better weather than usual, great organisation as usual, wonderful marshals as always…a great night for a run!

Thanks to Mike and all at Challenge Hub for putting on a cracking night, and especially to the marshals who stood in the cold spurring us runners on. Thanks to whoever owned the BMW for giving me a bit of a laugh….hope the mud came off OK.  Thanks to Sharon and Derek for manning Jelly Baby Junction – definitely the best aid-station in the world.  Not forgetting Gavin and Maria who manned a superb aid-station at Davis’s dyke (what I call the Green Bank).

Thanks to Mark and Pam for their excellent conversation at the start and at the end, and thanks to Darren and number 36 who put up with my wittering-on for ages. Good work guys!  Looking forward to running with you in the future…did you know there is a 50 mile Challenge and (even better) a 24-hour Challenge in the summer??

And thanks & congratulations to you, reader, for making it this far! Unless you’ve skipped the boring parts and are just reading the last paragraph in case there is something interesting here….there isn’t.  Sorry.

 

Thames Trot – Feb 2016

It seems a long time since I last wrote a race report….8 months in fact, but a new year brings a new start, and what better way to start than 50 miles of mud, intermittent rain, gale force winds, and a couple of friends.

The weather forecast did predict the terrible conditions, so I shouldn’t really complain, but there was a sense of being assaulted from all sides (from above – by the rain, from the sides – by the strong winds, and worst, from below – by the thick claggy mud.) I can deal with one or two of these forces of evil, but to have all three was a rough way to spend the day.

I was running with two friends from the very excellent Thanet Roadrunners, and it is only fair (as they will feature a fair amount in this report) that I spend a moment describing them so that you get the full effect of their personalities on the day.

John is a relatively new runner, who did his first marathon in 2014 and has never looked back. He is somewhat younger than 35 (I’m terrible at ages) and has the legs of a thoroughbred stallion (imagine marathons of about 3.15 or so) and the personality of a Labrador puppy.  His total enthusiasm for running is infectious, and having moved on from marathons relatively quickly (due to the fact that you can take an ultra much easier and eat all the time), he did his first 50 miler last year (and loved it) and is doing the Thames Path 100 with me in May.  He needs to be held back in the first half of an ultra or will bound away with limitless energy at the start, only to potentially come to a sticky painful ending near the finish (although, to be fair, that hasn’t happened yet).  John gets very excited about his beard.

Pam is a slightly different kettle-of-fish, being somewhere north of 55 years old, and about 5’0 tall, she is quiet, retiring, and completely unaware of how good she is. She readily admits that she tends to find the first 20 miles of a long run quite hard, but then, when everyone else starts to suffer and slow down, she just keeps motoring along at a steady pace…forever.  Not quickly, but so consistent that she will eventually overtake the quick starters who are reduced to a walk later on.  She completed Ring of Fire successfully last year, and also plans to do the Thames Path 100 with John and I in May.  As I said, she doesn’t know how strong she is, and worries too much about getting lost, being last, how everyone else is, and pretty much everything.  Oh yes, I should also mention that I have yet to hear her swear…and my lifetimes ambition is to push her to the breaking point of getting a good strong “f*ck, f*ck, f*ck” from her.

starting pic

Me (on the left), John and Pam at the start. Don’t worry, Pam is going to start her beard soon.

Anyway, that little bit of character-assassination done, I should probably start talking about the run itself. We’d planned to do it for a while, as a decent test for our legs, and also very much as a recce for the Thames Path run in May.  2 other extremely quick runners from the club (Brad & Shaun) had agreed to drive & crew for us, which was great as it meant we didn’t have to worry about anything (apart from Brad’s erratic driving).

Speaking of Brads driving, it was a cold and rainy morning as we zoomed around the M25 to Oxford. The view from the car window gave a hint of the day to come:

rainy window

Clearly, fabulous weather lay in store for us today!

 

The hotel at the start was actually quite pleasant, although pretty much covered with runners everywhere when we arrived. It was one of those venues that had a very small channel through the middle of a sea of brightly-coloured lycra-clad excitable people that shared a love of putting themselves through tough times.  Happy times!

I lost the rest of the guys as I got myself sorted out in record time, deciding in the end (after much thought) to wear three pairs of socks (yes, three) that would keep my feet dry (Sealskins, Xmas present, thanks Mum) and blister free (Injinji toe socks and another pair of thin Nike socks on top). Although this was a first (and a personal best of number of socks worn at the same time during a race) it actually served me really well, and my feet suffered no ill effects at all.

A cheese roll, a quick trip to the toilet, I collected my timing chip and caught up with the others, raring to go. The start was a fairly calm (drizzly) affair, although I’m sure there was a rush at the front from those that wanted to get stuck into the mud first.

It didn’t take long for the country road to turn into country track, and then into mud trail. I should probably try to describe the mud…it wasn’t liquid and wet, but squelchy and slippery and impressively deep in places.  The track was flat in the centre, with steep slopes at either side as you got to the grass margins.  Imagine that if you are on flat, your foot will sink in and cover the bottom and side inch or two of your trainer.  If you try to avoid the flat by running at the edge, where there is a slope, you risk slipping down into the thicker mud at the bottom, or going over entirely, which would mean you’re would be flailing about in the barbed wire fence on one side or brambles on the other.  I think the bigger your feet are, the easier it was, as you had a bit more stability.  Certainly, John was galloping on ahead while Pam was struggling a bit behind.  I was trotting along in the middle, finding that running in the verge (as near to the edge of the mud) was working for me although every time I ripped my way through a bramble I was risking tearing my clothes.

mud 2

This was a comparatively good (i,e, runnable) stretch of the mud.

Within the first few miles, John had disappeared off ahead, and I hoped he would keep himself in one piece, although the mud was a limiter in how fast he could go….I just hope the path didn’t suddenly become smooth pavement and for John’s afterburners to start firing. It turned out he was chatting with a very experienced runner Pete Johnson (100 Marathon Club) who was holding him back!

I was quite conscious of Pam behind me, and waited under a bridge for her to catch me up. She was gamely plugging on, but confessed that the mud was causing her problems.  There wasn’t really much to discuss, other than just getting on with it, so we ran together for awhile before I moved on a bit quicker as I was getting cold.

At the first aid station, Brad and Shaun were waiting in the cold, bless them, and I did feel sorry for them a bit. As I said, they’re very quick marathon runners, who had waited for 2 hours for me to run 10 miles, whereas they would run it in about an hour (albeit on a road).  Pam caught up and she grabbed some of the supplied fruit cake, pronouncing it very good.  She was starting to worry about the cut-offs already, and was understandably finding the mud very tough going (as was everyone).  John had speeded through about 15 minutes earlier and looked in good shape apparently.

We left the first aid-station quickly, and moved onto a slightly better path on a forest track. The improvement in morale was immediate and it was lovely being able to run (relatively) properly for a while.  It didn’t last for long though, and soon we were back to mud.  Oh dear.

I’d gone ahead of Pam at mile 11, so that I could slow at mile 12 for a walk and my customary bottle of fizzy-fat-coke. As always, it gave me a burst of energy and I drank the full 500 ml very quickly.  Copious burps later (apologies to anyone walking their dogs in the local countryside at that point, it was very noisy), and a Twix, and I was good & ready for the next 12 miles.  I’d also spent the walk deciding whether I was going to stick with Pam to the bitter end, or go on ahead.  We were in real danger of missing the cut-offs if the mud carried on (and I believed it would) but I’d suggested to Pam that if we missed the cut-off we’d just keep going, and the support crew could meet us at the end provided it wasn’t too late.  Alternatively, I could move on with the aim of getting to the end by myself and then come back to fetch Pam and run the end with her.   Hmmmm.

In the end, it seemed a bit pointless to abandon Pam for the sake of a simple 50 mile run, which I’ve done a few of and wasn’t really that special, so I waited for her to catch up with me and see if we could work a way through the mud a bit quicker.

We made slightly better progress running together, and it was fun to watch everyone around us struggle through the mud too. Particularly memorable were a husband and wife, who were clearly both quite good runners but she was absolutely hating the mud and basically was running along telling him how much she was hating it.  He was being quite supportive…”It’ll be over soon etc”….but she was having none of it.  Later on, he turned up near me on his own, so I guess she dropped out.  I wouldn’t have wanted to be in their car on the way home.

About 15 miles in, we thankfully came to a long stretch of fields, alongside the Thames, so it was possible to find a decent route that was runnable. This was clearly the opportunity to catch up a bit of time that we’d lost on the mud.  Without wanting to worry Pam, I felt that we needed to push the pace a bit on the better ground, to keep us ahead of the cut-offs for the afternoon.  We played a bit of a game, spotting someone in the far distance and then pushing to try to catch them up.  The feeling of success of watching them get closer and closer until you overtake them is worth much more than your Garmin telling you that you are going a little quicker.

The footing was much better, apart from where everyone converged to go through a gate, where-upon it was a sea of mud, but I would gallop ahead for 10 metres to hold the gate open for Pam (and get a bit of a rest at the same time) and Pam would just steam straight on, losing no time.

The wind was starting to increase, and there were some very exposed long stretches that Pam ended up running directly behind me to try to shield her from the worst of the wind. I’m not sure it made much difference, but there wasn’t anything else to do!

At the second aid station, at the Waterfront Cafe, which took another 2 hours to cover 9 miles, we refilled water bottles (having cleverly drunk them dry before arriving) and moved on quickly. As we were perhaps only an hour or so ahead of the cut-off, it didn’t feel sensible to hang around like so many others seemed to be.  Pam had added some Tailwind to her drinks, and then struggled to get the tops screwed on (those annoying soft bottles that you can’t really get hold of properly).

The aid stations all had bottled water, which was great, but I was pleased I’d brought my own food as there was only gels, jelly babies and homemade fruitcake available. It takes a harder runner than me to cope with gels for 50 miles, and I am (regretfully) suspicious of homemade stuff while at races, I much prefer to know what is in it!  Luckily, I was packing Mars / Twix and other sugary stuff (and a couple of cheese rolls for emergencies) so I wasn’t too fussed.

The next aid station at Streatly-0n-Thames was only about 7 miles further on, which would have put us at about halfway. We had left the previous aid station only an hour ahead of the cut-off, so we could not afford to lose too much time.  It was quite simple….if we ran we would be OK, walking would not make it.   Unfortunately, the muddy parts were rough here, and the long fields had some of the strongest head-on winds we encountered here.  We kept plugging on, overtook quite a few people, but it was clear that everyone around us was flagging (like us).  Pam was very very quiet and basically running with her head down, answering when I spoke but not talking much.  She said that her legs were sore & tired (understandably), and had taken some ibuprofen earlier, but she kept plugging on.  I hadn’t talked to her about the pace and cut-offs in any detail, but made sure that I maintained a constant mantra of ‘constant motion forward’.

bob and pam pic

Pam and I, about halfway. Feet looking a little muddy perhaps…..but still smiling!

Having run the path before, but having an appalling memory, I kept having flashes of “I’ve been here before” that made me think that the trail would improve just around the corner. Unfortunately I stopped sharing this with Pam after being wrong so many times that even I got cross with myself.  It was better to let the tarmac path that had just arrived be a pleasant surprise!

I did, however, remember that the path after Streatly was decent (although slightly hilly) and wouldn’t be muddy…that was something to look forward to!

Thankfully Streatly arrived. Brad and Shaun were a lovely sight, and we were both extremely relieved to stand and chat for a couple of minutes.  As I was getting water, I saw two people dropping out, and there were clearly some tired people there.  Pam was a little bit wobbly on her feet, which gave me an insight how hard she had been pushing to get that far.  She gave Brad & Shaun a hug (but not me, her tormentor, I should add).  We left the aid station at 2.27pm (having been running for about 6 hours in horrible conditions), which mean we were only 33 minutes ahead of the cut-off.  As we crossed the bridge to the other side of the Thames, Pam started talking about dropping out, but how she didn’t want to let me down.  Good, I said (unsympathetically), let’s carry on then.

Perhaps I should explain here. I have total belief (and had already explained to Pam earlier that day) that ultra-running is mainly mental, with a small amount of physical attitude required.  Our bodies are capable of some extraordinary things, and the only thing that stops most people completing challenging feats is their mind telling them they can’t do it.  Actually, they are far far stronger than they think, but generally don’t get the opportunity to discover this.  Pam was a classic example of this, that her mind was the barrier to carrying on, rather than her legs (which although hurting, were still working well.)

We were only 33 minutes ahead of the cut-off, both tired and sore after a challenging marathon over terrible terrain….with another marathon to go. The aid-stations would now be every 6 miles or so, which would help by focusing us on the pace we needed, but made the chance of getting behind the cut-offs much higher if the trail was mud for any significant length of time.

nice scenery

It wasn’t all mud…there were some lovely sections….

 

Three things happened about now, some good, some great, some not so great…..

First thing that happened…we worked out how to run through the mud, at a decent pace, without either of us slipping over or either of us getting left behind. Quite simply…we ran holding hands.  Daft as it sounds, it gave us both the stability we needed to actually run rather than walk, and also I was able to go slightly in front and keep the pace up (with my big stable feet) while Pam could use me for balance, and not have to worry about anything other than where to put her feet next.  Although Pam was definitely less stable than me, due to her smaller feet, she also definitely saved me from going in the river on one memorable occasion, so it worked really well.  And most importantly, we kept the pace up through the worst mud I’ve ever run in, overtaking plenty of people, who not doubt thought I was the most chivalrous companion ever.

The second thing that happened is that Pam’s ‘ultra’ legs started to appear. Anytime the terrain was decent (field, track, path, whatever) she would settle into this trot at about 12 or 13 minutes per mile, and just knock out the miles while the going was good.  She didn’t slow down, she didn’t stop to walk, she just kept motoring along.  The amount of people we overtook on these good sections was massive, and we both knew that anyone behind us was in jeopardy of missing the cut-offs, especially if they weren’t moving well.

The third thing that happened was not so great. Although I’d had an easy day so far, running at far slower than my normal pace, I was starting to feel a bit queasy, my stomach was protesting at feeling empty, and I was resorting to my saviour of boiled sweets to keep my energy (and morale) up.  Pam was relentlessly eating up the miles and I was occasionally having to walk behind her (so she couldn’t see!) and have a breather.  Not for long, I hasten to add, but I knew I couldn’t let her get out of sight or I’d never catch her up again!   I pulled out one of my emergency cheese rolls, knowing that my stomach wasn’t interested in anything sweet, and tucked in.  I offered a bite to Pam and was lucky not to lose a finger by the size of the bite she took.  It did the job though…..you can’t beat a nice cheese roll.

I think we had a long stretch of good path or roadway here and there was a constant stream of people in the far distance that we eventually overtook. I’d like to say the scenery was lovely, but on that windy overcast and rainy day, it wasn’t great.  It will be better in May.

The next aid station was at the bottom of a hill, and once again it was a pleasure to see smiling Brad and Shaun waiting. Pam chugged a couple of paracetamol, we refilled water bottles, and quickly got on our way at about 4pm, still the magic 30 minutes ahead of the cut-off.   John (remember him?) was steaming ahead, and in great shape.  Great news.  Even better was the initial walk uphill, through a housing estate, which allowed legs to recover and stomachs to settle.  Ahhh, lovely.

The next (final) checkpoint, at Sonning, closed at 6pm, and it was only 6 miles or so ahead. To maintain our gap ahead of the cut-off we only needed to cover the 6 miles in 90 minutes.  Easy eh?  I don’t seem to remember much about this stage, other than the relentless forward motion.  I know I was sucking my way through my boiled sweets (as was Pam…luckily I always carry loads), and although it wasn’t dark, it was definitely getting gloomy.  There were still some patches of mud, but by holding hands we got through them unscathed.  Head-torches went on with about 2 miles to go, and it took a while to get used to the artificial light on the mud or trail shining so differently to the sun.  It made it very difficult to judge the best route to take, to avoid the wettest patches.

I love running in the dark, without any distractions apart from the small pool of light surrounding me, and this was no exception. I’d stopped Pam earlier from talking about mileages (how far to go, when is the next checkpoint etc) but I found myself doing the same in my head, as I’d reached that  tired point that each mile seemed to be passing agonisingly slowly.  I was still moving well and felt relatively unscathed (feet dry, legs OK etc) but weary.  Pam was, I think, just sore and tired, but was dogmatically pushing on.

better trail

Some of the route was runnable….just not enough of it looked as nice as this!

The final aid-station arrived, phew! We didn’t hang around, but grabbed what we needed and moved on.  We had maintained our pace, and had 30 minutes (still!) ahead of the cut-off…so we now had a full 2 hours to complete the next 7 miles.  Unless the mud got particularly bad, we had it in the bag!!

And that was when the mud got really bad. Just at the point that legs were at their most tired and sore, the path took a turn for muds-ville, and it was deep and thick and even.  By that point, we didn’t really try to go round the worst of it, but just sloshed through the centre of the track, in pitch black, trying to stay on our feet (but still holding hands, naturally).

We probably had only 1 to 2 miles of this, but it felt like much much further, and then, when the trail turned to better path or the edge of a field, I was paranoid about taking a wrong turn and going the wrong way. A few times we stopped and waited for some people behind us to catch up to check the correct route, before heading off faster than them when we were confident of the way.  There was one memorable field, that everyone was strung out along the left hand side, just torch beams wavering as we all slogged along, when a cry went up that the correct path was on the other side of the field….cue everyone heading off to the other side of the field, to resume the route on a much better track.

The last couple of miles were actually quite pleasant, alongside the side of the Thames in Henley, on a tarmac path. There was a small group of us, enjoying the fact that we were nearly there and we could soon stop running.  Amid some joking about a sprint finish, we saw the headlights and gathering of people that meant we’d finished.  We followed a slightly tatty finishers funnel, to get a bit of a cheer from the thirty or forty people huddling to stay warm in the cold drizzle, in the shelter of what (from what I could see) seemed to be a big public toilet (but I’m sure it was more than that!)

John, who had finished about 2 hours before us, was with Brad and Shaun clapping us home, which was a lovely sight. We got our medals and rather snazzy timing sheets telling us that we’d finished in just under ten and a half hours (still 30 minutes ahead of the 11 hour cut-off!), and then Pam, to her great surprise, was told she had won her age category.  Her first win at an ultra, and she’d done it in style!!

pam with trophy

Pam, with trophy, at the finish. Behold the smile of a tired but very pleased person. Credit: Shaun Mason.

After some faffing with her trophy, an official photo (!), and a hot cup of tea, we stiffly walked to the car to get changed. Pam disappeared off, I skulked in the shadows, and slung all my filthy muddy gear into a bin liner for my wife to deal with (thanks, dear).  Then we all crammed into the car for a jovial journey back.

John had a great race, finishing 46th overall in about 8hrs 39 minutes…a very strong time given the conditions.  He had a few wobbles, namely when Brad & Shaun put the wrong flavour electrolyte into his drink (these prima-donna athletes!!), and also when he discovered he had the wrong sort of blueberry muffins bought for him (by me, unfortunately).  But still a great finish on a rough day.  His crowning triumph was to film himself running the last few metres over the line, and then posting it online…sheer genius.  If you want a glimpse of him in action, follow @johnvoorhees1 on twitter and experience the genius.

john hunt pic

John at mile 33. He was clearly feeling good at this stage. Credit: Shaun Mason

Brad and Shaun hopefully enjoyed their long long day looking after us. Brad is now talking about doing an ultra (but, in his words, only a baby 32 mile one).  Shaun has not committed yet.  I suspect they’ve both got a few more blisteringly fast marathons in them before they before slow ultra runners.

Pam had a few bruised toes and feet in the following days, but was rightly pleased with her finish (and win!). Hopefully she has a bit more confidence in her ability over the longer distances.

And me? Well, apparently there were 210 finishers (Pam and I were 178th & 179th), and another 80 starters dropped out on route, so I think it’s fair to say we did well just to finish.  I’m chuffed to bits at getting Pam round in the time…although I never doubted her legs, I don’t think she would have kept going if she had been on her own.  I felt great at the finish, tired but still capable of a lot more, so I think perhaps I’ve learned a different approach to my usual “start quickly and get progressively slower” style.  Although there is no easy way to run 50 miles (or 47 as it turned out to be), I felt pretty good the following day.

The day had everything that  a good ultra should…and a bit more besides.  Mud, wind and rain were always part of the curriculum when I was at school, but not any more.  Not that I was any good at sport at school, but I seem to remember being covered in mud after games (now called PE), but that is just showing my age.  Go Beyond Ultra put on a decent, well organised and friendly race in nasty weather…but I still think the aid stations could have been a little better (whinge whinge).

And look!  You’ve made it through to the end of this race report…well done!  You’re probably as tired as we were on finishing…go and get yourself a pasty!!

Thames Ring 250 – June 2015

 

Before you start – a warning: this isn’t the story of a muscled athlete smashing out the miles before finishing in glory. It isn’t even the story of a good day (or three) out. But it does have a ring of truth about it, and (for me) some great moments. It is long, and boring. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

And something else too. Very often, it is easy in race reports to make yourself sound like a bit of a hero. I have tried my best not to do this, with the aid of late nights, red wine and a sarcastic sense of humour. The last thing we need is another bloody hero…

 

Excerpt from “Bob Wild – Adventurer, Spy, Lover” Series – ‘Book 3 – Thames Ring 250 ‘

I smiled to myself as a considered the colour of my wee. It had gone from the dark brown marmite-colour of a severely dehydrated runner, during the evening before and overnight, to the beautiful golden stream of a hydrated person. Happy days.

I rubbed a hand over my raspy chin, knowing that soon it would be the knee-length growth of a proper ‘ultra-beard’. Again, I smiled to myself, knowingly.  I was, clearly, a bloody hero.

It was about 10am, I’d just woken up from a 90 minute sleep (my first in 28 hours), and I’d gone to sleep knowing that I had at least a litre of water inside my stomach (or somewhere inside me), but it wasn’t getting absorbed because despite drinking a lot, I was sweating it out even faster.

However, with a much healthier colour to my wee, and a sleep inside me, I could sort myself out for the rest of this 250 mile race, and get moving. I’d come 82 miles in about 24 hours, had a sleep, and would now push on until mile 156, where the next sleep would be, in another 24 hours or so.

All I had to do to complete my good mood was eat something. My stomach had, understandably, not been my friend for the last day as it was heavily occupied with absorbing litres of water, but I knew that if I couldn’t get some food inside me I would get progressively more wretched until it was game over.

So I prepared a smorgasbord of lovely food. I prepared a bag of rehydrated food (600 calories, bland but good texture), couple of sausage rolls (100 calories each, tasty but junk), 2 paracetamol (OK, no calories, but necessary), a handful of TUC biscuits (no idea how many calories, but crunchy, tasty, salty, and lovely). And I put about three grains of rice from the rehydrated food in my mouth, chewed, swilled, swashed, moved it around with my tongue, did anything I could with it, but it wasn’t going to go down my throat. Every time I moved it to the rear of my tongue for swallowing, my throat closed and an ominous rumbling started that would inevitably lead to the retching I’d had for the last 24 hours.

“That’s OK, don’t panic” I told myself. “Biscuits, with their lovely texture and salty exterior will slip down easily”. I nibbled off about 2 millimetres off the corner. Chewed. It became a paste in my mouth. Nasty, slimy buttery yellowy paste. It wasn’t going anywhere.

I looked fondly at my paracetamol, as they lay and smiled up at me, promising some relief. They would take the edge off my stiff and sore muscles and allow me to keep positive for the future miles, rather than wallow in the pain and misery of muscles protesting at overuse. I didn’t think I’d be able to get them inside me either, and with no food to digest they probably wouldn’t work particularly well.

At this point the story goes one of two possible ways:

Either I would shrug on my man-suit, toughen up, and carry on running on an empty stomach, confident that my trusty dependable body would sort itself out in time. Or I would stay where I was and keep trying to eat, forcing down calories as if eating witchety grubs on a celebrity- jungle eating challenge.

To be continued…… 


 The Thames Ring 250 is a tough run.

Billed on the Trail Running Association website as “England’s Longest non-stop trail race,” it follows various canals on a circular 250 mile route that initially goes into London and then out and up to Milton Keynes and even more upwards to Northampton, before turning the top of the circle and coming down through Oxford and Abingdon to finish very near the start. Probably easier just to give you a map:

THe route.  We started in the 7 o'clock position (near Wallingford) and went anti-clockwise.

The route. We started in the 7 o’clock position (near Wallingford) and went anti-clockwise.

The race runs every 2 years: because of its extreme nature there are not enough people to fill the capacity (of 50) even every 2 years. I have a suspicion this may change in the future. There are cut-offs for every checkpoint (about every 25 miles) and in total you are allowed 100 hours, exactly 4 days and 4 hours. A good bench-mark is to complete a 100 mile race in 24 hours, so having an extra 3 days to do the next 150 miles is not totally impossible but tough.

What sort of people want to do this sort of thing? Normally I’d would suggest ex-army (probably SAS), in top physical condition, recently arrived back from Afghanistan with a severe case of PTSD, too much energy and a garage full of survival kit. But in fact, everyone doing it was just like me….normal bloke with a normal job, bit of a runner (no speed left, but can keep running for a while), looking for a challenge, used to putting their body under a bit of stress, and looking for something to push beyond the normal limits.

And what made me think I could do this? Well, nothing really. In fact, when I entered I was fairly certain that the distance was beyond me.   I had done a 145 mile race (the Grand Union Canal Race) in May 2014, and that went well, so it seemed a logical progression to aim for a 250 mile race and see how I coped. However, when I did the GUCR, I finished in a smashed-up heap, unable to go any further than the nearby car. The thought of doing that to myself and then carrying on for another 100 miles was ludicrous. Simply was not going to happen.

So I entered. And I planned.

In the race you are not allowed support, except at the checkpoints every 25 miles. You can buy whatever you need from shops, but they are few and far between. This means that the lovely idea of having a crew to meet you every few hours to spoon feed you hot food and coffee is not going to happen. The checkpoints would have provisions, of course, and shelter in case the weather was poor, but between them you would be self-sufficient. Not a problem for a single 25 mile section, but after three or four checkpoints and especially overnight, I was expecting to need a food system that would deliver me quick and easy hot food at the roadside without needing to stop for ages.   It needed to be accessible without taking my rucksack off, and obviously quite light. I settled on 2 vacuum flasks, each holding about 2 mugfulls of liquid. I could put two cup-a-soup type pasta meals into one, fill it with hot water, and then screw the lid on for an hour to eat later. The other would be coffee or something which would keep me awake. Both of these would sit above my hips in the netting of a Raidlight rucksack, and did not get in the way of too much running. Perfect.

I played with many different varieties of shoes in the 6 months before the race. Partially because I wanted to move to a more cushioned shoe that would protect my knees, which took a massive battering during GUCR, and also because my usual type of shoe (Mizunno Wave Inspire 7, if you desperately want to know) went out of production years ago (they are now up to Wave Inspire 11’s), so I couldn’t get them. So I spent a couple of happy afternoons at my local running shop as they patiently brought me pretty much every shoe they had, and settling on a couple of good bets. Then turning to eBay, where I stalked a few other brands that liked the look of, with the aim of getting a few second hand pairs that wouldn’t break the bank while giving me a few different choices.

At the same time I was playing with choices of shoe, I was suffering with two ongoing injuries that were getting in the way of ‘normal’ running. A verruca on the sole of my foot was simply like walking (or running) with a stone in my shoe. This meant I started to bend my left foot inwards (to avoid stepping on the stone) and hence my left thigh muscle was being bent and stretched out of shape and generally being very tight to run with.

The all important blister kit!

The all important blister kit!

Yes, yes, I know. Trying different styles of shoe, while completely distorting my running style was a recipe for disaster, and I had blisters galore. My expertise grew every week as I practised taping my feet, reading books like ‘Fixing your Feet’ and discovering the glories of putting duct tape over problem areas. In the end I had a small operation to remove the verruca and this made me realise how much my running gait had been buggered.   It took about 3 weeks for the hole in my foot to close up, but in those three weeks I learnt how to walk with poles (as it hurt too much to run) and I suspect I was the only person walking most of the Brighton Marathon course at 4am on the morning of the marathon as I couldn’t run it later that day. (I didn’t expect it to be quite so busy with drunks along the seafront at that time, and got quite a lot of healthy abuse/banter, but I like to think I gave them something to remember later and wonder if they dreamt it!)

So, I’d finally sorted my feet out, chosen a variety of shoes (some soft road shoes, some tougher trail shoes for when the terrain got rough), and worked out how I would feed myself over the length of 250 miles. I had done a recce of about 80 miles of the route, from Bletchley to Kings Sutton in March, so I was happy with the navigation and terrain.

I did a trial run with all my kit, in the Thames Path 100 race in early May. I did this 100 miler fully-loaded, carrying all my food and kit, just using the aid-stations for water. It worked well, and I finished in about 22.5 hours, still able to drive home after. The only serious problem was blisters again, but this was due to my shoes actually shredding on the course, allowing loads of stones and twigs in, which I did not realise until later. New shoes please!

Never had a shoe shred like this before, no wonder they were full of gravel

Never had a shoe shred like this before, no wonder they were full of gravel

I had also done a couple of nights of minimal sleep, to understand the effect it would have on me. Although thoroughly unpleasant, it was a good learning experience. I ran through though Friday night, getting to bed at about 4am for a 5.30am start on Saturday morning. I worked through Saturday, and then went to a local 24-hour running event being held from lunchtime Saturday to lunchtime Sunday (the 24 hour Marshside Challenge, run by Challenge Hub – they’re very good!). By midnight Saturday I was thoroughly pissed off though, tired and unhappy, and made the mistake of calling my wife who said the fateful line “Well, you could just come home to bed”, so I did. The evening served the purpose of teaching me just how pissed off I get with lack of sleep, though, so not a complete waste!


 

So we are about a week before the race. I was well prepared with kit, I had food for each of the checkpoints organised, and little snack bags for between each of the checkpoints organised.

This was about halfway through the packing extravaganza....

This was about halfway through the packing extravaganza….

A small selection of tasty morsels...one for every checkpoint

A small selection of tasty morsels…one for every checkpoint

Everything was labelled and named. All I have left to do was pack it into two drop bags that would be transported ahead of me throughout the race (nope, I don’t understand how they kept the bags of 40 competitors spread out over 60 or 70 miles all ahead of the correct people either, but they did).

I had a couple of drinks with some running mates to run through my plans in a bit of detail with them, while they suggested improvements or things that could go wrong. One critical change was to sleep earlier, at checkpoint 3 (about mile 82) rather than waiting until later, and this worked well. But the rest of the plan felt robust and like it would work…if I could just hold everything together and keep moving forward.

I’d read pretty much all the previous race reports I could get my hands on, simply to know what to expect. There were some really good details in most of them, from particular sleep strategies, to the mind-set towards the end. They all made it sound very tough, if only from a point where fitness stops helping and it’s a battle against the head. Interestingly, few people seemed to drop out due to actual injury, probably because of the relative slowness of movement towards the end, but a general fatigue (as you would expect!) is the killer. The time allowed for the final stage of 18 miles is 9 hours, which on any given day should be do-able! If only I knew then what I know now!

With a fortnight to go, 3 crazy fools decided to do ‘the double’…which meant doing the 250 mile loop once, within the same cut-offs, before finishing and joining the start line for a second loop. The start time of the main race was 100 hours after they started the first loop, so they had to finish in a decent time if they were to have any recovery time before setting off again.   This goes way beyond tough, and enters the realms of, ohhhhhhh very hard indeed. All were experienced guys and knew the size of the challenge they were taking on. I’d briefly got to know one, Rich Cranswick, as he ran the Thames Path 100 in a clown costume alongside me, and hence I watched their progress carefully.

Ernie, Rich and Javed, setting off to attempt the 'double'.  500 miles in 200 hours....

Ernie, Rich and Javed, setting off to attempt the ‘double’. 500 miles in 200 hours….

Rich, Javed and Ernie made good progress as they started, and regular Facebook updates and a brilliant satellite tracker meant you could see where they all were on the route at any time. They didn’t stay together, which initially I found strange, but as they told me later, it would be just too difficult to sync up their run & sleep patterns. So they are all out there, separated by a few miles, with a few people meeting them at checkpoints to feed & water them. Other than watching their progress, I didn’t worry too much about them, simply assuming they would all get to the end of the first lap as with their experience they would not have volunteered for something that wasn’t achievable, would they?

So when Rich pulled out at about 170 miles, I’m standing in my kitchen thinking “Hang on, this guy was aiming for twice as long, is massively experienced, had good support, and didn’t get to the end of the first loop.” Facebook didn’t tell me whether he had been injured, suggesting that he had dropped out due to fatigue. Shit. If superman can’t complete a lap, what hope have I got? This really got to me, and I had a couple of days of having to give myself a bloody good talking to, in order to quieten my mind.

In the end, Javed and Ernie finished the first loop, but Ernie didn’t start the second due to some problems with his Achilles, and Javed…well, I’ll tell you more about Javed later.    

So it is Tuesday morning, before the race starts on Wednesday at 10am. I am all packed up, and sent the kids to school & the wife to work. I’ve got about 4 hours until my train to take me up to the start, and my mind is exploding with thoughts, not all bad, but exploding nevertheless. There is another blog, below this one, containing some of my pre-race thoughts. Not very interesting, though.

I won’t tell you about the train journey across London. It’s enough to say that the drop bags weighed a ton, and every station & tube was specifically designed to have maximum stairs. Bollocks.

Doesn't look like much, but it weighed a ton!

Doesn’t look like much, but it weighed a ton!

The pub I was staying at was very central and just what a pub/restaurant should look like, all oak beams and stairs. I took great pleasure in asking for some poor lad from the bar to carry my heaviest bag up the two flights of stairs to the bedroom, and even more pleasure in seeing him struggle. It’s not that I’m mean, but these youngsters don’t know they’re born etc when I was young I lived in a cardboard box on the central reservation of the M25 and ate gravel (if you get the reference, you are probably as old as me).

There was a small group of what I took to be runners in the beer garden (where else?) so after I double checked my kit, I ordered a beer and went to introduce myself. I found myself chatting away to two Swedish guys, Debbie (Ernies partner, who was currently doing the double) and Rich Cranswick (who had decided to have another stab at the main race, having dropped out of the first loop of the double). To his credit, Rich was still a little spaced out and every so often would lose flow of his conversation, but he was in great spirits. Debbie was glued to her laptop, showing how Ernie was getting on. He was about 5 miles from the finish, but struggling with an injury and was going very slowly. He would definitely finish, but was in some pain. It was quite an eye opener to see Debbie’s level of (understandable) concern, and I suppose I saw a bit of my wife in her as she didn’t take her eyes from the little blue dot on the screen as it updated every minute or so.

I was lucky enough to have dinner with Debbie (and the laptop) and chatted about the various races we’d done (GUCR), which we ones were too hard (The Spine, don’t even start me off about the Spine) and which were just too expensive (MdS). Interestingly, we never really talked about the Thames Ring, which Ernie has completed before, but that was probably for the best.

Selfie the night before....looking healthy -ish

Selfie the night before….looking healthy -ish

As Debbie thought Ernie was almost at the finish, she rushed off to make sure she was there for him, and I sat for a few minutes to finish my meal (very nice steak & chips if you want to know) before heading up to bed. I won’t say the bed was rather large, comfy and ornate…but 8.5 hours later I woke up thinking “What happened?” Great preparation for being awake for the next few days!!

 

Rather a posh bed for me, but I did sleep well!

Rather a posh bed for me, but I did sleep well!

Breakfast the next morning was supposed to be a ‘full English’ but actually was a sausage, two bits of bacon and some mushrooms. All superb quality, but it was one of those times when I wished for quantity rather than quality. I chatted to another competitor called Dave at breakfast, who’d been up in the night being sick, and didn’t feel like eating breakfast at all. Oh dear, not a great start. We arranged to get a taxi together to the start…it was only 0.9 miles, but carrying my bloody heavy drop bags that far was just not an option. In fact, as we were sitting outside the pub waiting for the taxi, a chef came out saying the taxi had a flat tyre and that he’d take us to the start instead! That’s service for you!

The start was a scout hut somewhere, with a decent number of very strong looking runners there in various states of preparation. I checked in, had my mandatory kit checked and found myself a corner to sort myself out. I followed the lead of most others by putting on suntan lotion, but I hadn’t really recognised the fact that it was going to be hot. At least not as hot as it was. I prepared my 2 water bottles with fresh water and electrolyte tablets. I had a couple of electrolyte tablets ready in each of my checkpoints bags, which would cover the 1.5 litres of fresh water I would fill up with at each checkpoint. I didn’t like the taste of the electrolyte, but I tend to sweat profusely in hot weather, and have suffered in the past by not replacing the chemicals in the sweat I lose when I take only plain water on.

I was a little worried that I had, without a doubt, the biggest heaviest rucksack of anyone. Most people had tiny snug packs that probably held a waterproof and some water. I could carry enough for a week, and still have space left for bear-repellent-spray (just in case) and a bag of Doritos. Ah well, I consoled myself, in a couple of days, when I’m having a nice picnic down by the canal I will thank myself for having room for a few nibbles.

Lindley Chambers presented finishers medals for the guys that completed the first loop of the douple, Javed and Ernie, and gave a few starting instructions, before getting us to walk about a mile to the actual starting point (back to my pub!). That walk was lovely, a band of brothers going to war…some wouldn’t finish, some would, but at that point we’d all worked hard for months to get to the start line together. A real feeling of camaraderie. Apart from the bastards that got driven to the start to save their legs……f*ck them.

So there we are, waiting to start. There were a few instructions from Lindley. Absolutely can’t remember what he said. I was in my customary position right at the back. Everyone wishing everyone else good luck. And we were off.

Intermission:

Well, you’ve made it this far, committed reader. We are 8 or so pages in, and just about to start running 250 miles. It’s only going to get harder. Do you really want to start? There is no dishonour in quitting now; you’ve given it a fair attempt.

don't quit

 

Back to the running then…

Miles 0-27.

Average pace approx 12m/m (a bit slow, but it was very hot)

Time taken 5 hrs 21 (from tracker)

There is one massive benefit to starting at the back. You get to look around, go slow, chat away with other like-minded slow-coaches, and know that you’re not getting off too fast. I wanted the first 27 miles to be almost a meditation to the distance, as this was where I would feel the best, and where I would be able to reflect on what had got me here. I was chatting to loads of different people around me, including Glyn Raymen, who I met last year on Winter 100, where we discovered that within the small group we were running in there were three of us (Marcus Shepherd was the other) going to be attempting the TR250 in 8 months time.   How time flies!

At about 10 miles or so, I was running alongside Javed, one of the finishers of the first loop of the double. He was running as smoothly as a shaved fox, despite the fact that he had completed the previous 250 miles in about 81 hours. We joked that he must have had some serious work done to his legs in the intervening 20 hours to aid his recovery. I still (even now) wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it as he comfortably covered the same distance at the same pace that I was running.   He had some intriguing ‘theories’ and ideas of different ‘operating systems’ of the various mindsets that he thought would help him through the next four days, and I have to say that I’m not sure I’ve ever run and chatted with someone that challenged my preconceptions so much. For example, I would assume that when attempting to run 500 miles (or even 250) the mind should break it down into manageable chunks (of, perhaps, 25miles) and not think about the ‘whole’ but just the next 25 miles, and maybe each of those 25 mile legs into 5 or 8 mile sections. On the contrary, Javed tells me, during the first loop he worked to the whole distance in his head, approaching the massive mileage as ‘one’. I’m not explaining it very well, but wait for his book, it’ll be interesting!

I became conscious I was slowing a little in the heat. My water wasn’t going down as well as I wanted, I could feel it starting to accumulate in my stomach a bit, which never makes for pleasant running, and I remember thinking (at midday) that I may find this heat a bit of a challenge.   The route was picturesque though, the sun was shining, and all seemed well with the world. I had a rice-crispy bar and felt fine.

At about mile 13 Paul Ali popped up taking pictures along the Thames, and took this rather splendid shot of a few of us looking like were actually enjoying ourselves. I think the guy in orange is Darren, who was still in my vicinity at mile 156, looking a bit rougher there though. The guy in blue is Marcus Shepherd, who looked very strong and naturally broke into a proper run when he saw the camera.

Someone taking a picture!  We'd better run then!!!  Marcus in blue, Darren in orange, and Mark (with Sleepy on the far left).  I'm the good-looknig one on the right.

Someone taking a picture! We’d better run then!!! Marcus in blue, Darren in orange, and Mark (with Sleepy on the far left). I’m the good-looking one on the right.

Quite a few people popped into a shop at mile 19, and from there it didn’t take long to get to the first checkpoint at mile 27. I think I hardly stopped here, just fresh water and a snack-bag of a few goodies.   The checkpoint was well organised, with my drop-bag waiting for me by a chair, requiring the minimum of effort from me (which is just what the doctor ordered).

Checkpoint 1, with chairs and drop bags laid out. I’m kneeling in the middle.

Mile 27-55

Average pace 13.30 m/m

Total time 12 hr 20 (from tracker)

Yup, it was definitely getting hotter and sweatier. The arms of my T-shirt had sweat stripes on them, and I knew I was starting to get dehydrated. Not a major problem, but it would be if I couldn’t start to get some water into my system (I was drinking enough, it was just sitting in my stomach). I hadn’t had a wee since I started 6 hours ago, and since I have a fabulously weak bladder (I normally can’t hold a cup of coffee for 30 minutes) I knew I needed to do something different to get the water into my system. So I slowed a lot, took a lot more walking breaks to allow my body a bit of rest and my stomach to do what it could. This helped a lot, and I started wee-ing, but only very small amounts of a dark yellow colour (too much information?) – good news is that kidneys still work, bad news is that they’ve got a lot of work to do!

The other good news was my feet. Having spent the run so far just waiting for the first blister to start, I was beginning to get a bit of confidence my shoes (a fairly bog-standard pair of road-shoes) were doing the business, plus two pairs of socks (Injinji toe socks & a lightweight pair over the top of them) that allows lots of movement without any actual friction on my skin. To have made it this far with no troubles was good news, considering I’d had 15 mile runs over the last few months that had given me major problems. I planned to change my shoes at the next checkpoint, to another pair of road shoes and allowed myself to think that my feet might hold together for the first hundred miles, a milestone I’d only dreamt of a month ago.

The heat was still very rough, and I ended up going into a Harvester along the river to change my bottles for ice and water. I imagine I wasn’t the only sweaty smelly runner visiting them this evening, as they didn’t question what I’d asked for (“Lots of ice and tap water please”) or even asked what on earth I was doing. I’m still sure that iced water kept my core temperature down as the evening started to cool around me. I remember thinking that it saved my life.

At about 9pm I spoke to my wife, just to let her know I was still alive. I’d purposely kept my phone switched off until then, in order to conserve the battery but also to keep my head focussed on the task in hand. However, it felt good to speak to home, take stock of where I was and start to think about the next checkpoint. The 55 mile checkpoint at Chertsey would be at the start of the first night, and I would need to take a little time to make sure that I had got my night gear sorteed and eaten properly before heading out into the night.

A guy called Spenser overtook me at about mile 45. He looked really strong, and was very distinctive due to his star-trek-high-tech-navigator-thingy attached to his wrist. I’m still not sure what it was but it looked about the size of a smart phone and basically was pointing him, turn-by-turn, through the route. The rest of us had maps with directions (which were pretty simple) and this was enough. I talked to Spenser a few times over the next few days, and he had finished some tough races (notably the Spine, the bloody Spine again) in the past. He went past me like a rocket, and was in good shape.

Then I was chatting to Dave, the guy I’d spoken to at breakfast, who was feeling the effects of his being sick overnight at the pub, and needed to get some food inside him. He was searching on his phone for the closest place he could get some hot food before night fell. I offered pizza.

Shall I tell you about pizza? About magic pepperoni pizza, that is possibly the most calorific hot cheesy tasty greasy food you can eat, and if your body is crying out for calories you can just inhale it and it will hit your muscles like spinach does for Popeye. I’d had my first experience of magic pizza recovery while on a 24 hour run in 2011, when my wife presented it to me at about 8pm and it was gone 15 minutes later. Last year, in GUCR, my support crew somehow got me a large pepperoni pizza at mile 65, and I wolfed it down while still moving – it was very memorable and was 2000 much-needed calories.

I’d already spoken to the local Domino Pizza about three weeks earlier with a very strange conversation…

Me – “Hello, I like you to deliver a pizza to a specific patch of grass opposite this particular postcode in about three weeks at 10 o’clock at night, will you be able to do this?”

Domino pizza – “WTF? Ummmm, yes”

Me – “Cool. I call you back in three weeks then. Thanks, bye”

I’m sure I’m not the only person to arrange a pizza three weeks in advance, but I’m certainly the only one writing here about it.

Soooo, I phoned up for my pizza, to an understanding Dominos outlet (well done Dominos Addlestone!), and ordered two pizzas to be delivered to checkpoint 2 in about an hour. They were very helpful, and agreed to write my name and runners number on the box, as well as giving rather explicit instructions to the driver about where to deliver. I also phoned Rachel, one of the organisers of checkpoint 2 to warn her that a bloke might be delivering a pizza to her before I got there, if I’d mucked up my timings.

Night was falling and my head torch was making the shadows jump around me as I marched the last few miles to the checkpoint where my pizza would be waiting. And I felt OK as I got my head together with what I needed to get done at the checkpoint before leaving it. I would change my shoes and socks, and most important check my feet for any hotspots. I would re-apply some sudo-cream to my nether regions as I was getting a little chafing. I would swap my Garmin to recharge one in my drop-bag, while using my wife’s for the next 50 miles (cracking idea that – getting her the exact same Garmin I use for her birthday, well done Bob). I would swap my sweaty top for two layers that would keep me warm overnight. I would have a small coffee to give me a little caffeine, but not loads otherwise I wouldn’t sleep at the next checkpoint. I would make sure I have a warm top in my rucksack, and get another snack-bag for the next leg (although I’d hardly touched the last one). And I would eat pizza.   All good. I wasn’t hungry, and I was dehydrated, but I thought I could get both fixed with a dose of pizza.

I got to the checkpoint at Chertsey about 10.30 pm, and set about sorting my kit out as described above. Everyone there was in good spirits with lots of banter, especially when Rachel recognised my number as the guy who’d phoned her about the pizza. Spenser headed out shortly after I arrived, but there must have been 5 or 6 of us there, with the same number of volunteers. All were really helpful and jumped to fetch anything asked for. I had a largish coffee while I changed my shoes, and was really chuffed to see my feet looked absolutely fine – I’ve seen them look worse after a Sunday morning long run. A quick once-over with a wet wipe & it was on with new crispy socks – lovely.

Quite a few others were arriving, including Javed who set about himself with a foam roller on a mat on the floor, and I was just beginning to wonder whether I’d have to wait too much longer for my pizza when the unthinkable happened.

I felt a rather unusual ‘bubbling’ from my stomach, and just had time to get to the far side of the checkpoint, in the relative gloom, before emptying my stomach into the bushes. Multiple times. This wasn’t just being sick. This was complete voiding of everything I’d been carrying in my stomach, and carried on until my body was absolutely sure there was no remnant of anything solid or liquid hidden away in any nook or cranny inside me.   This was the Marks & Spenser of ‘getting your guts up’. Just when I was straightening up, thinking “that must be it” I would bend double again just to see if my body could tense itself up even more and I could squeeze any more out.   And while I was doing this (as quietly as possible) I was acutely aware that there were 15 people about ten feet away that didn’t want to see/hear my troubles. I honestly don’t know if anyone realised what I was doing, but I’m sure someone must have heard…or maybe not. I’ll never know though, because as I was straightening up for the last time, thinking that I’d fucked everything up by having too much coffee, feeling that horrible weak wobble after doing something you really didn’t want to do, and thinking that emptying my stomach was absolutely the last thing I needed to do….when my pizza arrived.

What should have been a brilliant strategic moment of ultra-running nutrition combined with calories-on-a-moped turned into a “Oh, god, there’s no way I can eat a pizza right now”. Rachel was shouting for me, the poor pizza delivery guy was completely bemused as to what we were all doing in the dark, and I walked away from the bushes of puke to get my pizza from him. Luckily I’d had the foresight to order two pizzas (one for me, one for everyone else – don’t want to be too generous) and I slung the second in the middle of the seating area with an invitation to everyone to get stuck in. Lindley popped up from somewhere (no idea how) and took a picture!

Lindleys picture.  You can see my majestic blue foot at the left hand side.  Javed is sitting on his roller mat.

Lindleys picture. You can see my majestic blue foot at the left hand side. Javed is sitting on his roller mat.

My plan had always been to eat the pizza on the move, as I’ve found it doesn’t slow me down too much and gives it longer to digest. With hindsight, I should probably have sat for another 30 minutes, giving my stomach time to settle before setting off, but without thinking really I set off from the checkpoint, pizza in hand. It was about 11pm.

Mile 55 to 82.

Average pace 16m/m

Total time at end of stage 22 hrs 41 (according to tracker)

I’d like to say the pizza was magic, as usual, and it slipped down great. But trying to eat pizza 5 minutes after being violently sick was not great. To my credit, I persevered for about 40 minutes. In that time I managed about a slice and a half. I could chew it to a paste in my mouth, and then I’d take a mouthful of water, swill, swallow, and repeat. Trust me; it was a criminal waste of good pizza. After doing this for a while to force some much needed food inside me, I lost the will to get even more water inside my sloshing stomach. I was like a walking water-balloon. I slung the rest of the pizza away, knowing full well that I was throwing away the calories I would need for the following day. This wasn’t going to end well, unless something amazing happened.

I was heading through the night in the company of a guy called Ben now. Ben was a stocky runner, who was perhaps slightly less confident in the navigation that I was…or perhaps he was better at knowing when we were lost than I was. Anyway, we stuck together for the night, got lost a few times, found the right way a few times. I’m still not sure whether we were incredibly lucky or clueless by how often we accidentally found the correct path, but whichever we kept moving forward. Ben had done a few big ultras (including UTMB) in the past, and was very strong. He managed to keep up a gentle run at my strong marching pace, and together we watched the sun come up. It was probably only dark for about 5 or 6 hours, but there was a long stretch at about 2am (which is usually my lowest point) where I felt like we were just constantly walking uphill forever.

Overnight, we caught up to Spenser (star-trek-navigator-thingy-still-on-his-wrist) who had gone from the strong challenger at about mile 45 to a shuffler. He looked rough, and the difference in the space of a few hours was a shock. He was OK though, just a bit of a tough patch, and plodded along behind us.

Sometime in the early Thursday morning we moved from the Thames Path, and onto the Grand Union Canal. It was like coming home for me, as I like the canal and its calming atmosphere. Also, it was very difficult to get lost when all you had to do was follow a canal towpath. Flat, leafy, minimal people…lovely.

Overnight, my wee was still very very dark. It was difficult to tell in the torchlight, but it was either the dark-brown of marmite (but not the consistency of marmite I should add!) or the reddish-brown of bloody water. I’d heard stories of blood in urine, which never usually boded well, resulting in kidney damage and other pesky things. Hopefully I was just dehydrated. I was drinking plain water, but not eating anything. I just couldn’t seem to swallow anything.

When the sun was up, it was nice to be able to remove my head torch and reflect that the first night was over. I knew the nights would be the worst time, as usually I could just ‘caffeine’ my way through them, but this would mean I would not sleep properly at the next checkpoint, so I had to forego the coffee for the greater good of better sleep. A sensible trade-off I thought. The night hadn’t been pleasant, in fact it had been tiring and annoying, but it was over and I now had hours of daylight. It was dawning on me though that it was very likely I would still be going through Saturday night, in order to finish before the cut-off at 2pm Sunday. This was a bit of a blow, as I’d hoped to finish by late Saturday, hence only having to suffer through three nights (Wed, Thu, Fri) but at the pace I was doing, I would clearly be out there for a while.

And then my phone went off.

I should explain that I had expected to feel pretty shit at various stages of the race, and in order to keep my mind in as positive a place as possible, I had asked for friends from my running club (the awesome Thanet Roadrunners) to call me at various times in order to give me a bit of a boost. I find I can’t be faffed to check twitter or Facebook when I’m on the go, but I’d set my phone to answer automatically if I was listening to something on my earphones, so I could talk to callers without having to take my phone out of my rucksack. It worked amazing well, and I was lucky enough to get more calls that I can mention from friends as I ran.

So, it was about 5.30am on Thursday morning, I was feeling OK but perhaps a little groggy from a tough night and little to eat, and I had the pleasure of calls from John H & Michelle, which was a great way to focus on what was ahead rather than what was behind me. Good start to the day.

I got to the checkpoint 3 at Yiewsley at about 8am I think. There was a nice grass verge that looking just right for a snooze, and I was planning on sleeping here for about 90 minutes, and then eating. The sun was up and I felt that with a good sleep, my stomach could deal with the water sloshing around in it, and then I’d awake ravenous and ready to eat enough calories for a day’s running. Good!

My sleeping arrangements at checkpoint 3.  Nice grass verge!

My sleeping arrangements at checkpoint 3. Nice grass verge!

I slept really well, after a couple of cups of orange juice, and although I set my alarm for 90 minutes I woke up unaided in 82 minutes. I felt this was a good omen (clearly I wasn’t that tired!) and I stood up, stretched, and looked for somewhere to go to the toilet. Another good sign, my wee was back to golden yellow (I promise I stop talking about this soon!) and I’d clearly dealt with all the water in my stomach. I was stiff, but not disastrously, so I was feeling quite positive. Even better, there were still people arriving at the checkpoint that I’d just spent 90 minutes sleeping at, so I wasn’t last (my usual default position).

And this dear reader, is where you joined the travels of “BobWild – Adventurer, Spy, Lover” and you’ll remember (if you’ve made it this far) that far from enjoying a hearty breakfast to give me the calories I needed for the day ahead, I could eat nothing without retching. Not even a buggerdly Tuc biscuit just to get something into my stomach.

It was clear that I couldn’t carry on forever like this, but the bizarre thing is that I wasn’t (yet) feeling exhausted – though that would come. I simply accepted that I wasn’t going to be forcing anything down, got my kit together and got on the move.

Mile 82 – 105.

Average pace 17m/m

Total time at end of leg 30 hrs 30 mins (according to tracker)

I didn’t set off feeling anything other than frustrated that my body wasn’t playing by well-established rules. I would run/walk as far as I needed to, chucking junk calories down my neck as I felt like it. My body would protest, but ultimately come through with the goods, propelling me to the finish line, and then in the following few days would make me pay by swelling/aching/throbbing/peeling until we negotiated a truce. Simples!

But without the junk calories, clearly we were playing a different game. To be fair to my legs & body, perhaps I changed the game by attempting a 250 mile run….slightly further than usual.

Setting off on Thursday morning, perhaps carrying enough for a week?

Setting off on Thursday morning, perhaps carrying enough for a week?

I spent the first 5 miles of this leg chatting to a guy who was in a surprisingly similar position to me. I didn’t catch his name, but he was questioning his reasons for doing this particular challenge. I was in the same place, wondering what I had left to prove to myself in running along way. I didn’t catch the name of this guy (whoops) but it was odd that we both had the same thoughts at the same time, and although they may sound negative, I think they were rather more a reflection on what we had left to face. No question of carrying on to the end of this race, but to think harder & longer before entering the next one. We parted company when we both needed a poo at the same time…he went off to ask some offices we were passing if he could borrow their facilities, and I (as is my custom) went to find a bush. For the record, mine was small but a lovely consistency and colour…no problems there (even if it was food from 24 hours ago)!

Settling in for the long haul now, I put on an audio book (Dick Francis if you’re interested, 11 hours long and a really good way to make the time pass) and put my head down. I was heading for the checkpoint at mile 105, which felt like a good milestone, and I had given myself an hour there to change shoes & socks and (again) try to eat.

I remember spending a lot of this leg fantasising about an ice cream. It was still hot and an iced lolly seemed to be the absolute pinnacle of fine dining. Naturally, there wasn’t a shop to be found which I found myself getting quite angry at. After perhaps 10 miles I came across a couple of runners having chips at a little café alongside the canal. And all I wanted was an ice cream. But the shop nearby was closed (back in 10 bloody minutes is no good to me!) and so I made myself carry on. Again, with hindsight, maybe a chat and a sit, with some salty chips would have hit the spot, but at the time I was fixed on cool creamy ice cream.

It was shortly after this I came across a guy called Jon, not a competitor but just a runner out for the morning, who asked what we were all doing and then kept me company for ages chatting about the event and other things. It was great to let the miles slide by without thinking. Jon kept me company until shortly before the next checkpoint and then had to run back to where we met! Apart from a can of coke from a pub, there wasn’t much to say except thanks! (Apart from his starring piece in this version of War & Peace, obviously).

Lovely scenery all the way

Lovely scenery all the way

I suspect this leg would have been much tougher without Jon to take the edge off, as I was tired, getting pissed off and it was hot again. As it headed towards mid-afternoon it felt like the heat was just radiating out of me, although there was a slight breeze thank goodness. The scenery was still great though, with some lovely stretches of deserted countryside interspersed with the odd village.

I arrived at checkpoint 4 at Berkhamsted, and felt good surprisingly. It was early afternoon I think, everyone had thrown themselves down on the grass outside a pub and the sun was shining (which was nice when stationary, only a pain when motoring along). I had a luxurious hour to change shoes & socks and do a bit of kit stuff, as well as eat. I’d decided to change my eating plan (which clearly wasn’t working anyway) and head back to my old faithful of ravioli. I’d brought along a couple of ‘emergency’ tins in my drop bags, in case I fancied them, and pulled one out for the volunteers to heat up. Once again, the volunteers were amazing, offering help with anything and suggesting things to eat or drink that I suspect many of us wouldn’t have thought of. Once again, my feet seemed to be in great shape, and a new set of socks felt lovely going on. I was changing to trail shoes now, as the terrain was moving from reasonable canal path to the occasional stretch of grassy track, which was a challenge. Also, the soles of my feet were just starting to get a bit bruised from the pounding, and the trail shoes would protect that a bit with their harder soles. However, my feet & legs were holding up better than I could have hoped at 100 miles, with no specific problems apart from general fatigue.

Happy selfie at cp4....still able to smile!

Happy selfie at cp4….still able to smile!

Lovely surroundings at cp4

Lovely surroundings at cp4

The ravioli arrived as I finished faffing with my kit. I eyed it nervously. The last two times I’d tried to eat had not gone well, and this orangey gloop in a cup didn’t inspire confidence. I’d got 2 paracetamol and 2 ibuprofen out in readiness (and hopefulness) in case I could eat, and they smiled up at me from the grass offering relief form the inevitable pain.

I ate the ravioli…and it was good! With more relief that I probably should have felt, I ate about three-quarters of the tin, and it stayed down. Magic. I wouldn’t go as far as to say all my problems were over, but I hoped this was the end of the eating problems. That would be good. With some hot food inside me, I lay back on the grass and enjoyed the sunshine.

 

Having a lie down in the sun at cp4.  Feeling good!

Having a lie down in the sun at cp4. Feeling good!

While I was there I saw Rich, Javed and a few others come into the checkpoint and go to sleep (I don’t think they’d slept earlier that day as I had.)

This is what they do with dead runners...with Rich Cranswick at least.

This is what they do with dead runners…with Rich Cranswick at least.

Mile 105 – 132

Average pace 17.15m/m

Total time at end of leg 37hours 55mins (according to tracker)

So, I left that checkpoint in good spirits, with hot food inside me and a plan. It was very hot still, but I got into the habit of stopping every mile or so to wet my cap & buff in the canal and basically keeping my core temp down with these. It worked, and was even better when I poured cold water over my thighs: bliss. I was still listening to my audio book and the miles were passing nicely. Still very hot but I could cope with it. The scenery was just as nice as always too, and I was taking a bit more notice of the canal boats I was passing. I was taking it easy, stopping every 6 miles or so for a mouthful of lukewarm, weak coffee to give my stomach something else to play with other than water.

Even after 100 miles I was bounding up the smallest slope...oh no, hang on......

Even after 100 miles I was bounding up the smallest slope…oh no, hang on……

I started getting phone calls from my running club about 4pm this afternoon, and would continue to get them pretty much consistently all the way to the end. Once again, too many calls to list them, but they were all positive and cheerful, and thanks to everyone that called me for giving up their time to talk to me, it helped a lot.

I was soon going to hit a 24 hour Tesco, at Leighton Buzzard, and I was talking to myself about what I could treat myself to, to keep my calorie intake going. In the end (and it took a while to decide) I chose a simple apple (crunchy, juicy, cold, tasty, yumyumyum) and a cold bottle of something fizzy. Having drunk bland water for the last few days it was going to be a real treat.

It was just about dusk when I came off the canal path to go into Tesco, and I went through self-serve till to get my apple & drink…it took me ages to get the damn till to work, showing how mentally tired I was.

I got back out on the track, and took my first bite of the apple. Mmmmm. The canal path wasn’t busy, but there were a few people milling about at 8pm, enjoying the warm evening. By bite three I was loving the apple, and the taste in my mouth, which made it all the more surprising when I had to stumble to the bushes and puke the whole lot up again. Saying sorry to passers-by, between retches, probably wasn’t the highest point of my run, however, I am a polite man. It was so annoying, so frustrating, that I felt I was back to square one. After a relatively short space of time, I felt OK, and I apologised again to a girl with two dogs that clearly thought I was the devil (maybe she was right).

That apple was probably the start of the end if I’m honest. A few people since have told me that an acidic apple is the absolute last thing I should have eaten with a dodgy stomach, and hindsight is a wonderful thing. It was the shock of being sick again that surprised me I think. Even as I watched the liquid pour from me, I remember vividly thinking thank goodness that I’d digested the lunchtime ravioli, all I had in my stomach was a little coffee, water and three bites of apple. But it didn’t change the fact that I was back to square one (in my mind) of empty stomach, feeling rubbish, getting dark. Just keep moving forward I told myself. Just head towards morning.

The next big milestone was going to be the checkpoint 6, Nether Heyford, at mile 156 (which was the one after next at mile 130) as this was going to be my next sleep and proper rest. Nether Heyford was the one that the cut-offs became relatively generous onwards, so you could slow a bit as required and still get to the next checkpoint in time.

My phone calls kept coming as I kept moving, and I was pushing hard to get to the next checkpoint at Milton Keynes and then keep moving to CP6. I was clear with everyone (in amongst a lot of swearing I’m afraid) that checkpoint 6, Nether Heyford was the target.

I had quite a tough time heading into that night, knowing that it was going to be a long night and I hit the checkpoint at Milton Keynes at about midnight with an attitude of “I’m not staying long”. One of my callers, Derek, who kept me going with numerous calls throughout the night, had suggested trying hot sugary water at the next checkpoint, just to get some glucose inside me. Two cups of that, a couple of cups of orange juice, and I tried a plateful of baked beans (nope, sorry, not happening). I was off again.

I had my picture taken at this checkpoint. Not pretty, but I reckon I look better than I felt. My memories of this particular checkpoint are….hazy.

130 mile checkpoint, about midnight.  I'm pooped (but smiling somehow).

130 mile checkpoint, about midnight. I’m pooped (but smiling somehow).

Mile 135 – 156

Average pace 22m/m

Total time at end of leg 48 hours 31 minutes (according to tracker)

And on into the night. I was still moving forward, but quite slowly. And a new problem was making its presence felt. I was needing to stop every 20 paces or so, and straighten my back. Imagine the movement where you put both hands into the small of your back and arch your back, to hear it click and crack and generally relieve stiffness. I’m not sure why I was needing to do it (or so often) but it was becoming a big requirement. Soon, I was having to steady myself on a tree as I arched my back and although the symptoms relieved themselves immediately I stretched, I was counting the paces until I could stretch again. It was becoming torture.

I was telling myself that lying down for a ten minute sleep was the worst thing I could do now, as I would get stiff and cold and definitely wouldn’t want to get up, but by 7 miles distance from the last checkpoint (and hence about 20 miles to the next checkpoint, at the magic mile 156) I lay on the ground, set the timer on my phone to alarm in 10 minutes, and fell asleep immediately on the path. I’d read of others doing this and couldn’t see the point, but to be fair I woke with the alarm going off, and forced myself to my feet. The relief of getting off my feet was huge, and actually more than made up for the discomfort of getting warmed up again. My back was still killing me though.

Derek, one of my callers, had already spoken to me a few times through the night, and agreed to call me every 45 minutes to keep me going. Some of these calls only lasted a few minutes….one lasted 14 minutes, poor guy. I remember telling him that for some reason when I was walking along my left hand was level with my left knee, which must have been bending my back over horrendously… hence my need to stop and stretch it out every 20 steps. I think, looking back, it was all related to some damage I’d done at some point that evening to my right leg (of which, more later) which was meaning I was compensating with my back and generally trashing every muscle I had left.

Derek talked me through to another sleep at mile 14 (20 minutes this time) and shortly after waking up I found a stick. Just a simple stick, but by taking a lot of weight on it on my left side, I was able to stand up straighter and hence my back was much more manageable. I was still stopping to stretch, but probably every 30 or 40 paces, and the underlying pain was slightly better.

I was lucky enough to continue to get a lot of calls as the sun came up, and a new day started. These calls are universally acknowledged by my callers to be ‘sweary’. I vividly remember one caller, Warren, who did absolutely the right thing in talking to me about the lovely dawn I must have seen and the great countryside I must be passing through. Apparently my reply was “fuck the sun” or something similar. Sorry Warren.

Once again, I must say that these calls were brilliant, taking my mind off the aches and pains, allowing me to vent to a sympathetic voice, and most of all have people telling me how well I was doing. I’m convinced that one of the reasons I kept going for as long as I did was knowing the support I had out there.

Some of the facebook 'updates' were great...

That was a tough night, no doubt, probably one of the toughest things I’ve got through in a while. It was a combination of my back feeling like hot pins were poking in, tiredness, and the general tiredness from having been on the go for 44 hours without enough food. As I got closer to the checkpoint at mile 156, I could feel my energy levels at rock bottom, and while I knew I would be able to sleep there, I would have to eat first to give me a something to digest while I was asleep.

I vividly remember a long long slope, up over the Blissworth tunnel, where the canal goes through a hill, but the path goes over the hill. I’ve been over this hill a number of times, and it’s a pain but it’s not a mountain. I had to shuffle up this slope, stopping every 5 steps or so to lean on my stick and catch my breath. I remember thinking to myself what I’d been brought down to by a simple slope, which I normally would run up chatting. Tough times. After the hill, I was so pooped I gave myself another 10 minutes sleep on a bench, just to get some strength back.

Although my Garmin suggested I only had 3 or 4 miles to go, I started being caught by other competitors who looked in good shape (compared to me!)  

More facebook

More facebook

Javed overtook me, still running, and still cheerful (don’t forget, he’d done about 400 miles at this point). I told him I couldn’t understand how he was still behind me as I was going so slowly. He explained he’d lost 2 hours taking care of a runner who was projectile vomiting, and another who was very confused. I’d read about these runners who get so disorientated and confused they forget what they’re doing. True to form, Javed (& Rich, apparently) had given up their own race time to help the next person. Javed asked what was up with me and I explained about my back (not that it needed too much explaining, as I was walking with a bloody stick like Gandalf). He said he’d leave his foam roller out for me at the next checkpoint to see if that would ease some of the pain. A good guy.

The next couple of guys went past me, and seemed to be suggesting it was a lot further than 3-4 miles to the next checkpoint. I was already looking at about 1.5 – 2 hours of pain….the thought of it being double this was just horrible. It was daylight, but I was shattered and the usual lift I get from daylight wasn’t working. I slogged on. I’ve no idea how long I spent waiting to get to the checkpoint, but it felt like days, and I felt no pleasure in getting there, just a sense of relief.

However, I had got there. It was 10.30am. The previous night I’d expected to be there by 8am latest – see how slow I was going! The checkpoint closed at 3pm, which meant if I didn’t leave by then I would be disqualified. I decided to aim to leave by 2pm, in order to give me an hour’s grace on the cut-off if I needed it at the next checkpoint.   This meant I had 3.5 hours. I could use that! Half an hour to get ready to sleep and eat a little, 2 hours sleep, and then an hour after to get some more food inside me and sort out my kit for the next leg.

The checkpoint volunteers were, as ever, brilliant: nothing was too much trouble. I slumped in a corner near Javed (who was fast asleep in another corner) and sorted my feet (still no blisters… magic) and changed clothes. I switched my phone to flight mode (no phone calls to interrupt my beauty sleep, thanks) and set the alarm for 2 hours. Then I had about 4 cartons of orange juice, 2 or 3 cups of hot sugary water (still nice) and best of all, some pasta in a sort of minestrone soup. Kept it all down too, which was great. Although I didn’t feel hungry, just tired, I reckon I should have eaten a lot more here, and allowed my body to digest it while sleeping.

The other thing I did, before sleep, was text my wife. Obviously she knew things weren’t going according to plan, and I texted to say I may need picking up that evening if I dropped out. I liked the idea of waking up raring to go with a whole new energy bank charged and set, but the reality was not quite so pleasant. I was still lucid enough to know that if I was going to drop out, I’d be far better to do it voluntarily in daylight, rather than collapsing in the dark under a bridge somewhere and being found and raised by otters.

Sleeeeeeeeep.

But just as I was going to sleep, I seem to remember some conversation amongst the volunteers that they’d had to leave the main hall area as there was a Zumba class in there for an hour. As I went to sleep I pondered the idea of joining in the Zumba class, with the little energy I had left. This may have been entirely a dream.

Selfie just before leaving cp6.  Not smiling anymore !

Selfie just before leaving cp6. Not smiling anymore !

It was amazing how much better I felt when I woke up. Just a little happier, a little more energy, a little more positive. I could even see a point to carrying on.

Walking wounded hospital at cp6.  I think that is Darren in the orange, being tended to by Maxine.

Walking wounded hospital at cp6. I think that is Darren in the orange, being tended to by Maxine.

Javed was up and about when I woke, and he looked good, still strong and cheerful. I quickly sorted my feet and got my socks and shoes sorted. Fourth pair of shoes, only one more pair to go for mile 200 to 250, I remember thinking. I moved from the sleeping room to the main room (no sign of any Zumba instructors). Another pasta meal, and more orange juice, I looked at the competitors around me. They looked smashed. A couple were having their feet taped up by the lovely Maxine, the medic (not a job I’d choose), I saw her lancing blisters on one poor guy which looked painful. Darren, a guy I’d run a bit with at the start was there, also looking smashed. It felt like a hospital for walking wounded. And I felt like I belonged there. There were probably 4 or 5 still there as I finished my last bit of hot food, and I could be wrong, but I don’t think Spenser had even arrived at that stage, let alone slept or fed.

My 2pm time limit was approaching, so I shrugged on my rucksack, which although I’d taken out everything but the most essential stuff (i.e. water, food, waterproof, map, one flask of hot sugary water) still felt like it weighted a ton. I collected my stick.   One of the fantastic volunteers walked me back to the canal, chatting all the way, and made sure I headed right on the canal not left (taking me back to London, now that would be frustrating). I was with it enough at that stage to ask him to take my picture, and I’m quite surprised how I look mostly ok. It was shortly after 2pm on Friday, I’d been going since 10am Wednesday, and I’d had a total of 4 hours 10 minutes sleep. I’d eaten little more than a couple of slices of pizza, a tin of ravioli, and litres of water, and I’d been violently sick twice. To be fair, I probably should not have been able to keep going then. 

Me and my stick!  This was just as I re-joined the canal after checkpoint 6 at mile 156.

Me and my stick! This was just as I re-joined the canal after checkpoint 6 at mile 156.

 

Mile 156-the end

Average pace 28.10 m/m (slooooowwwww)

Don’t worry; we’re nearly at the end!

It didn’t take long for the energy levels I’d felt at the aid station to fade. My left arm was aching having been using a stick to support my back for the last 15 miles, and I had returned to stopping to stretch my back every 5 or 6 paces. It probably took about 5 miles to start to feel the pain & exhaustion in all its glory again.

My phone calls started again from my support network. Almost the minute I switched my phone back on was from John H, one of the most frequent callers. I suspect he could hear in my voice that I was suffering. I asked him to get my wife to call me. To his eternal credit, he didn’t try to talk me out of it, didn’t tell me to toughen up, didn’t tell me to wait for 5 miles and then decide, didn’t hang up (god!), and didn’t call me a loser. Just did what I asked, really quickly.

At that stage, I was suffering horribly, in as much all-over pain as I can recall, but that wasn’t the deciding factor. Even the slow slow pace I was going, which was telling me I probably wouldn’t make the checkpoint cut-offs, wasn’t the reason I decided to drop out. Actually it was the thought of not one but two more nights to cope with before finishing. That deep deep low at about 2am, knowing that there are hours to go until daylight. Even now, a week later, it feels absolutely inconceivable to think I could have coped with more nights. As you read about every so often in stories, you can withhold stress and pain to a certain level, but at some point you reach a stage that if it is within your power to stop the pain, then you will. Whether that is to tell the secrets you want to withhold, or to let go of something you want to hang onto, I’d reached the stage that I needed a way to make it stop.

Just.

Make.

It.

Stop.

I’d love to say I’m just like James Bond, but apparently I’m not.

So I called my wife, to say if she left now she’d get to me at about 7 or 8 pm, before it got dark, and by then I’d be ready to stop. This still meant about 4 hours of plodding, but I felt I’d be able to get to mile 172 by then, which I had stuck in my head as a satisfactory distance. No idea why.

It was about here I met another competitor John, running towards me, looking pretty agitated, and asking which way to race HQ. He was quite jumpy, and had spoken to his wife explaining how he wasn’t sure what he was doing. She’d tried to get him moving towards the next checkpoint (or race HQ as he saw it), but he couldn’t work out which way to go. I was in my own world of pain, but was happy to have a sit with him for a minute while I looked at the map to get my bearings. He even had a cup of my hot sugary water (isn’t that what you take for shock?) as he conversationally said he thought he might have had a stroke. (No signs of it though, I was pleased to note, but he was gabbling away so there was clearly something wrong). He helped me to my feet (which was quite amusing at the time) and we set off in the right direction to find the next bridge and hence know where we were.   John was worried that he’d be pulled out if the medic did come out to see him, and it took quite some effort to keep him with me rather than him running ahead (god only knows how he could run at that stage, but he could). At the next bridge, we got hold of his wife again, and made arrangements for the medic to meet us at the next lock, only about 15 minutes away (my speed) or 5 mins (Johns lunatic speed) so I let him on ahead on the promise that he would stop at the next lock and wait for me. 15 minutes later, he’s somehow got himself to the other side of the canal, running up and down a car park looking for the medic van, while I’m shouting at him to get back over this side of the bloody canal. A great spectator sport I’m sure, for the afternoon walkers.

Soon enough, Maxine turns up, and we have a sit on a lock (once again, any excuse for a sit down) as she feeds John some sushi. He’s extremely worried about not being allowed to carry on, and it takes both of us to persuade him that 10 minutes in the back of the van asleep will not stop him from carrying on. In fact, he’s much better after this sleep and carries on, only to drop out a little later. His wife sent me a lovely thank you on Facebook, and it was nice to get something positive out of those last few miles.

I dragged those last few miles out. They were hard. Every so often there was a lock, which required about 15 stairs to go up, or a short steep slope. It made little difference which route I took as I had to sit at the top for a rest. Having made the decision to stop, I won’t say I was happy, but I was relieved that there was an end in sight. My phone calls carried on, and every single person was supportive of my decision. That meant such a lot.

I stopped for an ice cream at a canal side shop. I actually had to sit down in the shop while I got the money out as there was no way I was going to be able to stand. The guy in the shop said there’d been a few runners through, and they looked tired too.

And then a few miles on, I saw a pub. It was called the New Inn, and was on a reasonably main road over the canal (rather than tucked away from anywhere). And I thought “That’s far enough”.

In the pub, I got a cup of tea, with more magic sugar, a pint of water, a bag of crisps and lots of looks. An old boy at the bar asked me what I was doing, and I said I’d just gone about 170 miles of a 250 miles race, but I was calling it a day. “Fair enough” he said. Priceless.

I found a corner, and called Lindley to say I was dropping out. To his credit he said I had loads of time, was I sure? Oh yes, I was sure. I think he heard in my voice that I was finished. He said he’d get the awesome Maxine to come get me as soon as possible.

I sat in the pub, drank my tea, and had one more phone call, from Pam, the next Thanet Roadrunner ultra-runner… I thought that was quite fitting.

I watched people in the pub around me with normal (boring) lives. Then I went to sleep.

Half an hour later, the old boy from the bar was shaking me awake, asking if I was OK and if I needed a lift anywhere. Nice guy.

Maxine arrived and whisked me away to the next checkpoint.

Lots of care and attention at the checkpoint, but I was ok, just tired. I met John’s wife, who said thanks. I waited for my wife to whisk me back to real life.

Home at about midnight Friday night. (There were some guys still going out there.)

Awake at 4am. Hobbled downstairs for beer and Doritos (…….starting the recovery quickly!). Looking at the tracker, to see guys still going.

This is what you call planning!  Post-race recovery sorted...

This is what you call planning! Post-race recovery sorted…

Saturday morning, glued to the sofa, no appetite, pleased to be home though. Runners are still going.

Saturday afternoon, in the garden with the family, having a barbeque. There are runners still going, how can they still be going?

Saturday night. There are still runners out there. I’ve been home for a day. How?

Sunday morning. People start to finish, lots of Facebook updates. I’m watching Darren & Spenser. I can’t conceive how they have coped with another two nights out there. But they have. Rich has sped up over the last 40 miles and finishes joint second. Javed finishes his second lap in about 86 hours, compared to his first in 81 hours. Extraordinary.  The overall winner completes in an amazing 68 hours, a new female record.

But I watch Darren and Spenser. Darren finished with three hours to spare. There is a picture of him at the end looking like a desert island castaway. He has some tough reserves!

And Spenser?   Well, my whole family (and most of the internet) gathered to watch his tracker finish with 5 minutes to spare – yes, 99 hours and 55 minutes. I have no idea how he did it, but he did. What he must have gone through, with his star-trek-navigator-thingy…I’ve no idea. But I salute him for his fortitude.

And me?

Well, after a few days of aches and pain, I’m just left with my right leg still swollen and hurting. Two doctors on Tuesday told me I had ripped my cruciate ligament (which basically holds my knee together) and when I asked how long that would take to mend, shook their heads sadly and said it required reconstructive surgery and 6-9 months rehabilitation. That was a shock, I can tell you.

However, a consultant on Wednesday said it couldn’t be that, but he rushed me to an mri scanner that afternoon for 90 minutes of scanning to understand what exactly I have done. A bit scary.

Interestingly, my wife said I should weigh myself, to see how much I’d lost, as the first thing she said to me when picking me up was “Your face has changed shape”. So on Sunday morning, 36 hours after being driven home, after lots of beer (I was definitely fully hydrated) and at least 2 or 3 good meals, I did. I had, at that stage, still lost 7 lbs on my normal weight (putting me at about 153 lbs). I’m going to guess I lost double that over the course of the 68 hours I ran.

So I wait, and wonder.

My first ‘proper’ DNF (did not finish). I’m not massively unhappy as I made it a fair way, and there was no way I could have carried on. Physically I was done, and mentally too I think. That is where I can’t really beat myself up as it was inconceivable that I try to carry on through another night.

Sad? Yes, as the medal was something I aspired to, and I like to complete things I start. But satisfied that I gave it my best shot? Yes. I gave it what I had.

So, a few thanks:

Lindley Chambers and volunteers, for a near-flawless race. For your cheery helpfulness, for your support and kindness. I don’t really know how else to put it. Thanks.

To all those at Thanet Roadrunners, who gave up their time to call me in my hour of need, giving just amazing support. To John, Jon and Mark for all your help, support and guidance – owe you a beer or three guys. To Derek, who apparently doesn’t need sleep, but instead can spend the night calling lunatics in the dark by canals, to keep them sane. I have no words that sum up my gratitude.

Thanks to my wife & kids for putting up with my lunatic ideas. I promise I’ll plan nothing stupid for at least a week now. Especially you Claire, who drove to get me two days before we planned, without complaining (too much) and then didn’t even complain when I sat around the house for the next few days drinking beer and eating Doritos, feeling sorry for myself.

I’d also like to say thanks to my legs for all their support (boom tish!) and I will continue to punish my misbehaving stomach with too much beer and Doritos for a few days more – that’ll teach it.

And thanks, I guess, to you for giving up a piece of your life to read this. Apologies for the lack of excitement, women, daring and general heroics. Apologies for the abundance of wee, vomit and sweat. I’ll do better next time I’m sure. Thanks for reading.

Bob

Thames Path 100 – May 2015

Warning – I think this is going to be long. I know it’s going to be boring. Abandon hope all ye who chose to continue reading. The race report you are about to read has been brought to you by the combined power of sarcasm and black coffee.

This was one of those races that kind of crept up on me. I entered it last year, mainly as a training run for the Thames Ring 250 that I’m doing at the end of June, and with the very real expectation that by doing it so close to the TR250 I would remind myself of the pain I had to come, as well as trying out various new nutrition & kit bits.

I had a very specific approach to this 100. Firstly, no aid stations (other than water) or drop bags. When I do the TR250, I will only get support at the 25-mile-checkpoints, so no lovely hot food & coffee every 6 miles or so like I had in GUCR last year. So my nutrition had to cope with being carried for 100 miles, start to finish. Secondly, although I could get water at the frequent aid stations (about every 6-10 miles) I would carry enough to last for 25 miles to see how the weight would affect me. Finally, any kit I’d need, such as night clothing, waterproofs, a change of shoes & socks, would all have to be carried from the start. 

Aha, I hear you thinking, he is some kind of explorer who is going to strip down the weight of everything to its simplest components and hence make the 100 miles easier by only carrying the essentials. No. I carried tonnes and tonnes of stuff, some of it not used but a sensible precaution, such as waterproof trousers, some of it was just silly (such as the two tins of ravioli, all bagged up and ready to eat, just in case – but carried for 100 miles, untouched) and some was just “what was I thinking” like the 8 sachets of pasta meals where I only used two.

In fact, a full display of my kit can be seen here.

The full kit, all laid out, please note, the bed was not included on my run.

The full kit, all laid out, please note, the bed was not included on my run.

I carried (or wore) everything here, with the exception of the second pair of shoes, as I decided that it would be even more fun to destroy my feet over the course of 100 miles and keep the same shoes on throughout. For those wondering, it’s usual to change shoes after about 50 miles as the cushioning has become compressed by that point and is not really helping your feet at all. So, I can confidently declare that the only piece of kit I left out of my pack was the one that would have helped (judging by my feet now, three days later.) 

Right, that’s enough of the self-flagellation about carrying too much kit. Let’s talk about travel arrangements. The TP100 runs from Richmond (London-ish) out to Oxford. Most people sensibly get a lift or train to the start, run to the end, and then get picked up by loving relatives or friends, who carefully look after them and get them home in one piece with a hot meal, pints of Stella and bags of Doritos waiting, and a sofa. Naturally, I planned to drive myself to the finish point the day before, work out where to leave my car as close to the finish as possible (obviously there was going to be loads of free parking in central Oxford, where I could leave my car for 24 hours, on a bank holiday weekend, wasn’t there?), and then get a hotel outside Oxford to stay at Friday night, so I could drive to the parking space on Saturday morning, then walk to the train station, and get the train to the start in London.  Simple!  Then just run back to Oxford, finish, walk to my car, jump in and drive the 3ish hour’s home. Even as I type that, I think I’m insane. However, that was my plan. Driving through Oxford on Friday afternoon of a Bank Holiday weekend was a nightmare, finding a road that I could park in on Saturday morning was rough; driving back out of Oxford to the hotel was still a nightmare.

The condemmed man ate a hearty last meal....with lager on BOGOF!!

The condemmed man ate a hearty last meal….with lager on BOGOF!!

Getting buy-one-get-one-free bottles of beer at the hotel was the best moment of my life, as was the steak I had.

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday morning – 4am. The first flaw in my master-plan had arrived. In order to park & get to the train station & get to the race briefing at 9.30am, I had to get up in the middle of the night. Slightly hung-over too. Ooops. 

Skip forward a few hours, I’m on the train to London, with a growing band of other runners, guzzling coffee, thinking that if it takes a train travelling at 70 mph about 90 minutes to get to London, how long does it take a runner carrying his own body-weight in food to run back. And what does he feel like at the end?

As we neared Richmond on the train, the entire carriage I was in was invaded by French supporters at Twickenham (no idea what they were supporting, but they all got on at Twickenham so it must be rugby related I assume, and the team had yellow & blue in the supporters kit I think, as this was the uniform all the Frenchies were wearing.) All the runners looked at them suspiciously, as we made space for them to sit, and the French looked at us in amazement, clearly thinking that the English dress-sense on a Saturday morning was skin-tight Lycra and rucksacks. I hope that was a good story for our Gallic friends to take home with them. 

Right then, if you’ve made it this far, well done! I will now proceed to talk a little about running.

This event was run by Centurion Running, a super-slick operation (albeit not cheap) that organises 50 & 100 mile ultras throughout the year. Good organisation, great atmosphere, and usually a good mix of quality runners (that disappear into the distance), newbies (that disappear into the distance, behind me) and people like me, just here for the food. 

There was an organised kit check, with a bit of banter, and the customary waiver (“I understand that the damage I do to myself is my own stupid fault”) and before long I was making final adjustments to my kit, and taking photos of toilet queues (doesn’t everyone do this?)

People milling around (& queueing for toilets) at the start

People milling around (& queueing for toilets) at the start

 

A swift race briefing, which included the rather amazing amount of volunteers (I think about 95), and we had a brief wait before the off. I had time to look around and admire people with tiny packs that probably held just a waterproof top and a banana, while mine started to bite into my shoulders like a sack of bricks, held on with barbed wire.

Just about to start!

Just about to start!

 

…And then we were off! I do enjoy those first few hundred yards where everyone is feeling great and happy. The weather (at that point) was good, cool and calm, so was great running weather. It was going to rain about 5pm apparently, and then carry on raining for the next 12 hours, so was going to be a wet night.

 

Within the first mile, the compact bunch of runners came to a style to climb over on the route. Now obviously, waiting for 30-45 seconds in the first 10 minutes of a 100 miles race is not a big deal, but none of us viewed it that way, so when some people found an alternative route snaking round the edge of the trail (which missed out the bottleneck at the style), everyone blasted round it, chuckling excitedly to themselves that the 45 seconds they had just saved was going to make all the difference in the next 95 miles. Happy days. 

This is when I first saw the clown. 

Yes, indeed. Not content with running a long ultra, some sicko had decided to wear a clown costume throughout (complete with wig & red nose) to make the rest of us feel even worse. I got chatting to the guy a few times (more of that later), and I have to say rather liked his style (and the pictures at the finish must have been great). 

However, he was a great runner, so I spent the next 10 miles watching him gradually disappear into the distance. I ran the first 11 miles comfortably, just trying to get used to the swing of the rucksack which tended to overtake me on downhills & want to stop for a rest on uphills. 

I ran straight past the 11m checkpoint, slightly amazed, as always, that everyone else was taking on food & water so early.   At 12 miles I started my first bottle of Coke (yes, always Coke for the first 20ish miles, lots of sugar caffeine & E-numbers…..rocket fuel) and chatted away. I had a particularly surreal conversation with a guy trying to remember the name of the song that Robson & Jerome released when they were in “Soldier Soldier” (back in the last century I think), but all was good and I was feeling fine.

Ignore the railings...it's Hampton Court

Ignore the railings…it’s Hampton Court

We passed Hampton Court, lots of rowers on the river (they have a lovely hobby – clean and speedy, unlike the sweaty plodding I do), and some amazing looking houses (on stilts!). There was a bare-chested guy on an exercise bike at the doorway of one of the rowing clubs looking very athletic (with a HRM chest strap) as we all meandered past. He must have thought we were mad. 

I’d purposely said I would allow myself to run ‘by feel’ for the first marathon distance, as about four weeks previously I’d had to miss the Brighton Marathon due to a little bit of surgery on the sole of my left foot. I’d watched the marathon from the sidelines, which was gutting, so I wanted to run normally for a bit before I started to get sensible. Hence I was quite happy to get to the first marathon out of the way in about 4hr 20, which felt fine. 

About mile 22 or so, I met Rich, one of the more memorable characters I’ve chatted to on a run. In fact, we ran together to the aid station at mile 51, which considering how variable my pace usually is, was really quite unusual. It was Rich’s first 100 miler, but he’d recently done a 50 mile in sub-9 hours, so he had a good set of legs. With his pace keeping us running, and my sorry-excuse-of-a-fitness-level asking to “please please can we walk for a bit” we kept each other going for a long time, both walking and running.

I firmly believe that Rich and I are twins separated at birth, despite him being about 6 years younger than me, and here are just a few reasons why: we both run f or the same reasons, with similar goals, we have similar jobs in management (although I still don’t understand Rich’s job in IT – something about online vs. offline marketing, I don’t know), family stuff and kids, an addiction to Doritos (his is so bad that he gave them up for lent, to see if he could, in the same way I gave them & alcohol up during February), although he tends towards Sweet Chilli flavour, whereas I’m more a Cool Original kind of bloke, both enjoy food too much (he has a great recipe for a Courgette & cheese bake), and I could go on and on. It’s not often I pretty much ‘zone out’ for 25 miles, but I approached 50 miles thinking “Where did the last 4 hours go?”

Lovely open fields and bouncy grass

Lovely open fields and bouncy grass…and no trouble with route markings here!

 

There had a been a few rather frustrating places where I didn’t think the route marking were good enough (probably me just being grumpy) but Rich had this awesome knack of spotting the tiny National Trail Acorn signposts before I could see the house that he was describing it being next to…Him – “The signpost is next to the big white house straight ahead”, Me- “I can’t see any fecking house, for feck’s sake”. Good job he was there really.

 

I’d been eating a bit, mainly my routine rice-crispie bars (tasty and sweet) and some biscuits (bland but healthy) and drinking quite a lot, but I knew I’d have to start eating ‘properly’ soon to keep my energy levels up. However, I felt good, Rich and I planned to run to the finish together to use each others strengths (his excellent pace, my dubious experience), and we made plans to catch up after the 51 mile aid station as I thought I’d be out quickly (as usual) and he planned to change his clothes and eat a bit. 

So we hit the 51 mile aid station in 9 hrs 41, which meant a 4hr20 marathon and then a 5hr 20 one. Quite happy with that. I was in 85th position at that point, and had been in that position quite consistently though the various aid stations so far, which boded well. 

And then I stopped at the aid station. I don’t mean stopped and collapsed or anything. I mean I stopped and looked at my feet. And felt my feet. And realised that they were hurting a lot more than I probably had realised, or had wanted to realise. In fact, both feet were throbbing, specifically on the soles of the feet. A lot of the path had been tarmac or concrete, and I think my trail shoes hadn’t protected them much. The grassy parts were better, but still hard. Added to that, I was wearing my trusty waterproof socks, with a lining sock underneath to wick away the sweat, but didn’t seem to be doing the job very well today. So my feet were poached like when you stay in the bath too long.

Right, change of plan. Socks off (apologising to passers by, who were on a nice Saturday afternoon walk, seeing my gross feet being repaired), draining blisters and cutting plasters to fit. I’ve done this before, when a run has finished, but never halfway through before, and it didn’t bode well for the next 50 miles. For some reason, I was getting big blisters on the flat part of the heel and behind the toes on my right foot, and I couldn’t understand why. My left foot wasn’t quite so bad, but I still taped it up to relieve some of the pressure. I got some clean socks and my shoes back on, tried an extremely careful walk. Shiiiite! That hurt. Paracetamol & ibuprofen. Get on my waterproof jacket as the sky was looking ominous, and pulled out my vacuum flask to get hot water from the aid station for my pasta snack things.

I should pay tribute to the aid stations I’d seen so far, which were cheerful, well-stocked and helpful, but the 51 miles was like a military kitchen, with massive bubbling pans of pasta and lots of helpers (dressed as super-heroes I think, but I may have dreamt that part). With my flask full of hot water, I screwed the lid back on to give it time to cook the pasta and set off after Rich. He’d left after about 10 mins and I was amazing to realise I had been there for almost 30m minutes repairing myself. However, I told myself, if my feet stay in one piece it will be the best 30 mins of the day.

I plodded off, feeling a bit gutted to have lost Rich to chat to, but I suspect I’d not have kept up anyway. My feet calmed down after a mile or so, so I walked and ate pasta. Yum. It was about 8pm, just starting to get dark. I felt ok, apart from my feet hurting, and wasn’t particularly worried about going through the night as usually this is where I can keep quite a constant pace while people around me slow down. 

Now, I suspect you’re pretty bored with my talking about all this kit I’ve been carrying. But I have to say that one of the things I most impressed myself with on the run, was that about mile 53 or so, I recharged my Garmin watch ( with a lead and power pack thingy) while on the go, so that it lasted for the full 100 miles. Not many people can say that! Nor do they want to actually, but it made me smile. 

The next few hours passed in a bit of a blur. I’d purposely not got a mileage counter going on my Garmin, so I had no idea how far I had gone. I didn’t know the time, or where the aid stations were. In fact, I was probably the only person going into the aid station asking what time it was and what mileage we were at. I’d consciously not looked at the locations of the aid stations, so I wouldn’t rely on them. My watch simply showed how fast I was moving at that time (i.e. what my ‘minutes per mile’ was) and as long as it was better than 15 m/m I was doing fine. I found this quite liberating – there was no countdown to the next time I could stop – so I just kept going.

Big old river isn't it!  Just as it was getting dark.

Big old river isn’t it! Just as it was getting dark.

Through the night it started to drizzle, but it was actually quite cooling and not really a problem. At some point we joined the route of the Winter 100 I’d done the previous October, which was nice to see some familiar paths. I started to see quite a bit of wildlife in the night, cows and sheep staring back at me (they weren’t sleeping, strangely) and there seemed to be lots of frogs around (or maybe that was just me).

I was conscious I wasn’t eating as much as I usually do, and contemplated having more pasta snack, cold ravioli, biscuits or whatever that I had with me, but simply didn’t want it and more importantly didn’t feel bad enough that I needed it. If I’d had a large pepperoni pizza with me that might have been different! I was taking on coffee at each of the aid stations to keep my head clear, but it wasn’t going down well. 

I passed the aid station at mile 71 at about 1am, just under 15 hours after starting. The worst time for me is usually around 1-3am, simply because that is when I start to go to sleep, so rather than enjoying a sit down in the light, warm, surroundings, I just gave my number and carried on. I even forgot to have a coffee which made the next hours tough. However, I saw a lot of people sitting at the aid-station looking rough, and it’s hard to get back up off a chair once you’ve relaxed.

Awesome spread at the food stations

Awesome spread at the food stations

 

Back into the night! I still don’t really remember much about the next few hours. I must have been awake, as normally overnight I have a iPod to keep me company but I remember thinking I didn’t need it at the time. I also wasn’t feeling too rough as my stash of sherbet lemons was pretty much untouched (if you don’t know what that means, try having a sherbet lemon during a particularly rough patch – it’s very difficult to feel awful with a sherbet lemon in your mouth!) 

I’d been seeing quite a lot of the clown costume guy at this point. Despite him zooming ahead early on, somehow I’d caught him up, and we’d chatted for a bit (about how every time he overtook me I’d been ‘clowned’, and then when I overtook him back I was ‘de-clowned’). He was threatening to get a whole team of clowns doing the race next year, which would be hilarious, but I don’t think I’d be one of them. 

We met again at the checkpoint at mile 85, where I’d decided it was time to have another look at my feet, the right one in particular, as I was resorting to walking on the side of my foot rather than the flat as it was hurting so much. I won’t go into the details, but it wasn’t pretty. I finally realised what some of the problem was – my shoes had both shredded in the same spot, and the right in particular was letting in all the grit and stones that the gaiters were supposed to keep out. This meant that I had a shoe full of ‘bits’ that were just destroying the underneath of my foot. Having tipped out the rubbish, taped up my foot again, and tried to tape up the hole, I chose to swap my sock for the one I’d taken off at mile 51 as it was in slightly better state (less blood etc) but it wasn’t pleasant pulling it on. That was probably the worst point of the whole night, knowing I still had 15 miles to go on a foot that was in poor shape, in a ripped shoe, on a rough trail. So I had a sherbet lemon and felt better.

Never had a shoe shred like this before, no wonder they were full of gravel

Never had a shoe shred like this before, no wonder they were full of gravel

 

The clown was at the aid station at the same time, looking rougher than I’d expected, considering every time I’d seen him he’d been running… He explained that he’d been hoping for a sub-20 hour time, but now was going to be happy with sub-24. I left shortly before him, and I think I finished about 30 minutes ahead. 

There had been a few tired people at that aid station (including one guy asleep, that I reckoned was going to feel awful when he awoke) but I headed back into the night (sucking a sherbet lemon) knowing that dawn would be there soon and that would be great. In fact, almost straight way I was able to switch off my head-torch and could feel it getting lighter all the time. It was just as well, as the trail became very rutted for the next few hours, and the rain had turned from drizzle to proper rain that just kept coming. I suspect the people that still had a few hours to go must have been getting very wet and cold.

I have no recollection of the aid station at mile 91, but apparently I passed it after 20hrs30mins, about 6.30am. I do remember getting to the aid station at mile 95, as it was a sort-of open sided farming shelter (think of a barn without sides) and the rain was cascading off the roof like a waterfall that you had to go through to get to the food. It was like going under one of those hidden waterfalls in The Hobbit. Sort of.   A cheerful guy there said I was going to be well-within 24 hours, which was lovely, except (I said) that I’d decided I was going to make it in under 23 hours. “Right then, you’d best get going then”, he said, showing me the way out – fantastic! I have to confess, I did have a couple of bits of pork-pie at the food table here, it was just too good to resist. I still don’t know why I wasn’t eating much; I much make more effort to have more variety with me another time, as normally I eat like a pig.

Last 5 miles.   The trail was the worst yet, earth, packed with roots, stones, broken twigs. Not difficult, but very uneven and required concentration to prevent injury…..just what I wanted. A guy ran past me wearing some Vibram 5-fingers, I hate to imagine what his feet must have felt like.

The last 3 miles went back to path alongside the river though, so it was nice to limp along, smelly and dirty, while Sunday morning joggers (joggers, not runners, see what I did there?) bounced past me all nice and clean. I was overtaken with about 2 miles to go by a couple that eventually finished just ahead of me; he was talking constantly to her about just keeping going. To be fair, they were both running though, so better than I could have done. I let them go, thinking that I couldn’t possibly keep up with them, until I looked behind me about 5 minutes later and saw another three runners catching me up. Somehow I broke into a rather shambolic run, and actually did the last 0.7 miles in an impressive 11.5 mins. Eat your heart out Mo Farah.  The finish was nice and open, on a playing field, with a few people around clapping, which was great.

Total time 22 hours, 34 mins, about 8.35am. Couple of pictures at the finish line, I’ll not produce them here as I take an awful picture on a good day…and this wasn’t even a good day. I got my “100 miles 1 day” buckle from Nikki which was great, and then what seemed like a lot of people came to offer me a drink, food, anything else I wanted. I saw Rich, and was chuffed to hear he finished in 22 hours 11, which is a brilliant time for a first 100 miles. I said well done, shook his hand, and then set off to the car to get moving before I stiffened up. It was great to get my shoes off at the car, put on some warm clothing, and I was driving out of Oxford by 9am. I spent most of the car journey eating Cornish pasties and Doritos, and pulled over for 30 mins sleep at a service station. Home to a hero’s welcome (well, sort of “Don’t you bring all that mud indoors!!”)

Phew! What a weekend!

So, my thoughts overall:  I’m happy with the time, so not sure I’m going to be too fussed about doing another 100 miler unless there’s a good reason. I did the first 100 mile of GUCR in about 22 hours, but that was without a heavy rucksack and with a buddy runner from 70 miles, so it probably works out the same.  I’m not too bothered to see if I can go faster.

My position in the field stayed surprisingly static for the first 58 miles, about 80-85th throughout. Then I went from 84th at mile 58 to 75th at mile 71 to 56th at mile 91. My slow-but-steady approach making up for a lack of pace. I finished 54th overall, out of 180ish finishers and 260 starters. The winner finished in 16 hours 35mins, so I’ve got a little way to go before I start contending the front spot. That is some amazing running.

Nutrition worked OK, but I must remember more variety and not take so much (for god’s sake). Carrying two tins of ravioli around 100 miles is not funny. My kit worked really well, apart from the shambles that my feet become. I still don’t know if a second pair of shoes would have made the difference, or it was just a rough trail. I know there were lots of people on twitter complaining of bruising on the soles of their feet afterwards. My legs are fine, my back is bruised because of the rucksack, but that’s probably the worst of it.

And my feet? Specifically, my right foot. It hurts, a lot. I don’t think I knew how much I pushed until the following day when I pretty much couldn’t walk on it. Even now, three days later I still can’t really put it flat on the ground. All hail the great gods paracetamol and ibuprofen.

I got a few good learning’s for the Thames Ring 250. Mainly, that if I feel like that after 100 miles, I need to slow down if I want to keep going for another 150 miles. And look after my feet!

Thanks, as always, to Centurion Running for their brilliant event, and the superb volunteers at the aid stations. I’m sorry if I didn’t appreciate you at the time, but I think you were all great.

And thanks to you if you made it this far on this, possibly the ultra-equivalent of race reports. If you send me your name and address I will post you a belt buckle (or something) proclaiming you as a finisher…. “I survived an Ultra-Average race report”

 

Chunky buckle......

Chunky buckle……