Ok, you asked for it! These are not the worst you can find on the internet, but they are MY feet and the pain was bloody horrendous by the end. The full race report is here.
These are in chronological order….so you can see the deterioration:
Ok, you asked for it! These are not the worst you can find on the internet, but they are MY feet and the pain was bloody horrendous by the end. The full race report is here.
These are in chronological order….so you can see the deterioration:
Before I start this, I suggest you read my race report from Monarchs Way 2019 first, as it will give you a bit of background and insight into how I found it and what I went through. Obviously, any tactic I suggest is tailored to my slow, back-of-the-pack style of running – if you’re quick then a lot of this probably won’t be for you.
I’ve split my advice into 3 areas…physical, mental, and kit.
Good news! This race isn’t about being able to run a sub-3 hour marathon, a sub-20 hour 100 miler, or a 15 minute park run. In fact, while I think a good pace for the first 50 miles is critical to create a buffer against the cut-offs, after that you can probably get by with a strong fast-hike (and not much sleep).
As always, the starting point of the pace requirements starts with the numbers. I created a spreadsheet for the 2018 runners to show their paces across the various leg, versus the cut-offs. This showed fairly clearly that the three finishers were not the fastest, but the most consistent. Everyone lost time on the two long legs (8 & 9) because they were out there for so long, but the buffer that had been built up was adequate to allow a finish. This is the link to my spreadsheet: HERE and although it may take a little time to understand the various tabs along the bottom, it should hopefully be fairly self-explanatory. You will also see my planned timings for the 2019 race, and the actual timings for all the finishers. (Its a pretty sizeable file, so may take a while to load).
So, physically, you don’t have to be a beast to finish the Monarchs Way (unless you want to win), however, that does not mean it is easy. In fact, I would say that more important than huge levels of running fitness is experience. If you have completed one or two 100 milers, and think you are ready for a crack at Monarchs Way…you’re not. That is not to say you definitely won’t finish, but the odds are against you. I would politely suggest that the next step up from a 100 mile run is to a 200-250 mile race (such as Thames Ring 250), which will give you 3-4 days on your feet on a safe (easier) route, and will give you a taste of the sleep-deprivation you can expect. Foot problems will likely rear their head on a 250 mile race, as well as some dodgy weather, which will all be good practice. A few races in January will give you confidence in poor conditions, as well as spending a lot of time in the dark! Obviously, moving at night is an integral part of the Monarchs Way, so familiarity and confidence no matter how lost you feel is really critical (as well as being able to bivvy out (sleep out) if required).
On the surface, travelling 45ish miles each day and sleeping at the checkpoint every night sounds easy…you need to trust me that its not that simple. The ability to fast-hike (i.e. walk) at 3 or 4 mph for 18 hours is an acquired one, a bit like running I suppose, so takes time and training. The training will toughen your legs and feet to resist the stiffness and damage that will inevitably settle into them. Being able to run well does not automatically mean you can fast-hike (and vice-versa).
Foot care, as you will have seen form my race report, is an acquired knowledge…buy a book and read it! I’m not convinced you can always avoid foot deterioration, but you can definitely treat it.
I’m quite dismissive about the physical side of the race to be honest, I think that if you have bashed out a few long races in tough conditions, then you have a rough idea of what to expect. But you need to trust me when I say that one Centurian 100 miler does not (physically) qualify you to finish this race.
How much do you want to finish? What is your motivation for being there? What is your ‘why’?
I can guarantee that at some point in the Monarchs Way, over the 12 to 14 days it will take you, something will go wrong that will give you real motivation for wanting to stop. You will experience a low that is unlike anything you have experienced before. What will take you past that?
I can tell you about the time I learned that I can put up with serious discomfort, during a race I did in January 2017, called the Arc of Attrition. It is a fairly simple 100 miler, but follows the South West Coastal Path, and has enormous amounts of descending down into coves and bays, and then climbing back up on the other side. I had covered 70 miles, reached the last checkpoint in 20 hours, with about 30 minutes to spare. I was absolutely shattered, stomach issues preventing me from eating anything for fuel, and I was totally understanding how much the next 30 miles were going to drain me. I had a brilliant crew and was running with my running wife John (who had waited an hour for me to arrive at the checkpoint) which made the whole experience easier, but as I left the checkpoint, I had to tell myself that I could put up with any amount of discomfort for the next 10 hours / 30 miles. And I did.
So it was a simple extension of this to reach the point in the Monarchs Way where I told myself I could put up with any amount of discomfort for the next 5 days. But I do not know whether I would have reached that conclusion without putting myself through some rough experiences in the past.
The reason most ultra runners enjoy putting themselves up against a challenge is because modern life is (relatively) easy much of the time. There are complications and ‘boring’ stuff like morgages to deal with, but provided that everyone around you is healthy, a lot of modern-day living does not put you in a place where you have to decide between going forward and retreating. An ultra, done well, allows this to happen.
If you have mastered the above mental challenge, the rest is easy!
Can you be self-sufficient for long stretches on your own? The checkpoints are 45 miles apart, so you will be on your own for over 12 hours (at the start), up to 24 hours by the end. The are some shops and villages along each leg, but not as many as you will need. Personally, I love the solitude, both in the day and at night, which is something of a help. The more you carry, the slower you will go, so a light pack is essential…but running out of water and food is not really an option, so you need to know yourself well enough to judge what you require.
A flexible approach to your race sounds like an obvious statement, but I frequently come across people that tell me exactly when they will be eating/sleeping and they struggle to change their plans when things go south (and things always go wrong). Mending something on the move sounds obvious, but making sure you have the necessary parts is much harder. For example, I always used to put a few strips of duct tape onto walking poles, to distinguish them from other peoples…until I broke one and used the tape to fix it. Every since, I’ve always had some strips of duct tape on my poles for this or any other purpose. Being able to problem-solve is a really useful attribute.
The mental approach to the distance is also (I found) critical. It is easy to say “don’t think of the whole distance, just a leg at a time” but rather harder to do it in practice. However, you will be out on the trail for days, so some kind of ‘distance’ strategy is required.
Planning ahead, knowing where your next village or shop is, will be hugely useful. I spent a few hours going over the route on google maps looking for signs of civilisation, and being able to look forward to a meal in a few hours time is hugely motivating. Similarly, churches usually have an outside tap for water when shops are closed.
Recce any sections that you can, as it will give you an advantage on the day. I would say the two long sections would be most useful to know beforehand, but others will probably disagree with that. I did not get the chance to recce at all, so it is not critical.
Have a good list of what you need to do when you get to the checkpoint, as it will serve you well when your brain has turned to mush. It does not need to be huge, but if it lists all the important stuff it will give you confidence that you have not forgotten anything. Mine included:
MW Checkpoint checklist
Shoes & socks off. Wipe down feet. Dry.
Newspaper into shoes.
New batteries? Replen spare batteries?
Lie out bivvy to dry?
Get rid of rubbish.
New charging block.
Put stuff onto charge. Headtorch, watch, phone, blocks.
Wipe down all over.
Fill water. Fill flask.
Scrape feet. Vaseline. Socks & shoes. Gaiters.
News shorts? Long trousers? New top?
Clean buff. Hat. Gloves. Warm hat & gloves?
I could go on about the mental preparations for the Monarchs Way, as I think it is the most important factor (as for most ultras) but I won’t.
Shoes – at least 4 pairs, as it will take days for them to dry out from the dew on the long grass in the mornings. I used innov-8 roclite 325’s (boots), but learnt that they are not padded enough underneath after 6 or 7 days hence some of my foot pain. Most other runners had hoka’s or similar. I put newspaper into my shoes while they were drying, which was simple but seemed to work well.
Socks- whatever is your preference. I used Injinji liner toe socks, and then a normal pair on top (usually More Miles crew socks). For the waterproof socks I always use Sealskinz, but there is a variety of different makes that others swear by too.
Gaiters – my hardcore set are Berghaus goretex gaiters, and are made for winter races. However, they stopped anything whatsoever getting into my shoes and were also semi-waterproof.
Long hiking trousers – Montane terra trousers did me really well. Quick drying but great protection for the legs in long shrubbery.
Waterproofs – Berghaus deluge trousers, and Mountain Equipment Rupal jacket. The trousers are great because due to a long zip up the side you can put them on over your shoes. The jacket is simply bomb-proof and has got me through some serious weather. I started off carrying a thin lightweight Gravitas jacket by Alpkit, which would keep me warm and reasonably dry, but as time went on and I got slower, I changed to the hardshell as warmth would become critical.
Something on your head for hot & wet weather.
Poles – I have a nice pair of mountain king poles, but for Monarchs Way I wanted something with really comfortable handles…hence I used a pair of cheap (but heavy) poles by Trekrite from Amazon…a bargain at only twenty pounds.
Charging blocks – I managed to keep my gps watch, phone, and head torch all charged throughout the event, using charging blocks that would themselves be recharged periodically by Lindley. I used ones at 20,000mAh, which would contain about 5 full charges for my phone before dying. I would carry one with me, and have one being charged by Lindley throughout. I believe Anker ones are the best, but I just used cheap ones from Amazon.
Food – it really doesn’t matter, as long as you know you will enjoy it after days and days of eating it. As I learned, there’s only so many days you can eat the same thing. Take more than you think you will need, as the checkpoint food is great but limited.
GPS – everyone seemed to have Garmin Etrex 30 or 64. Get used to using it beforehand (they can be quite tricky), especially zooming in and out to make sense of the GRX track you are following. Do not try to use your phone or a watch (or a map, unless far more talented than me) as it won’t work!
Headtorch – I used a Petzl nao+, but anything with a decent amount of lumens will work. And carry a spare!
Bivvy – as part of the mandatory kit, a bivvy bag was one of the heavier bits of kit. I had an Alpkit Hunka bag with me, but did not actually use it, as it was not cold enough or wet enough to need it. It was reassuring to have it with me though.
Is that Brighton in the distance? I can see lights, and that definitely looks like the sea…I’m much too far away to see the pier, but it’s a big enough town to look like I may be getting near Brighton. And that would mean I may be getting near the end of the longest race I’ve ever done. At 615 miles, it is the longest race I’ll ever do.
I’ve been on the move since Saturday 18th May. Today is Thursday 30th May, about 6pm. I’ve slept (briefly) in a tent or on the trail along the way. I’ve eaten (quickly) everything I could find along the way, pubs, cafes, burger vans. I’ve showered twice. I’ve gone to the toilet everywhere.
Mentally, I’m very tired. Physically, everything above the ankle is uncomfortable but manageable…below the ankle, my feet are trashed – blisters, raw wet patches, pain that seems to have no source…everything below my right ankle is a massive, show-stopping problem, and my left foot is not much better.
I’m coming to the end of the longest ultra of my life, but I’ve still got 18 miles to go, so I stop admiring the view, and get moving.
The Monarchs way ultra, a 615 mile non-stop race, is a fairly unusual thing. It follows the route of Charles 2nd escaping the armies of Cromwell, and twists and circles around West England, before hitting the coast briefly at Charmouth, and then following the South Downs past Southampton and Portsmouth towards Brighton, finally finishing in Shoreham.
It takes in some astonishingly beautiful areas of the country, puts you on trails that you feel have not seen another human for years, and takes in the occasional town or village. It shows you the countryside at its best, and allows you to view the horizon in the morning, knowing full well that by the afternoon you will be standing somewhere on that horizon, looking back at where you started. It is amazing.
It also takes you through some jungle…some of the most overgrown trails you will find, that you are not even entirely sure are trails except that the signpost and GPS track takes you this way. A huge dense hedge on either side (subtly hiding the barbed wire fence running through the middle), forming a canopy overhead, and a trail heading through the middle, framed with tall nettles and brambles that leave just enough space to squeeze through (or not). A fallen tree across the trail halfway that requires some climbing, as there is no going around it, and an exit that takes you out into the sunshine of an open field. Amazing.
It’s not an ultra, in the traditional sense, but more of an expedition. One that tests your mental and physical resilience in a way that a standard 100 mile run does not come even close. It asks you to repeat your experiences of yesterday, and the day before, while slowly deteriorating a little each day, until the logical conclusion of reaching the end, hopefully before reaching the point of needing to stop, rest and recover.
Who could resist that?
A commitment to this race would require some sacrifice. A fortnight off work takes a healthy chunk out of my holiday allowance (meaning less time with my family). The entrance fee is not cheap, although I consider it fairly reasonable for the experience it gives. The kit required is extensive and varied, and bloody expensive. The time to train would be significant, if taken seriously (so….not too much in my case then.)
However, an opportunity to challenge myself on an ultra that until 2018 had had no finishers was too much of a temptation.
The race was first run in 2016, with 3 very very experienced entrants…no finishers.
Then 2017, 3 more experienced runners….no finishers. I followed the runners with their trackers online obsessively.
Suddenly, 2018…10 entrants…lots of foot problems….3 finishers. I couldn’t believe how long the runners were out there, on the trail. Every time I logged on to see where they were, I would try to imagine what it must be like to keep that sort of effort going for days and days. 2 weeks is an eternity when lying on a sunny beach. Imagine how long it must feel when being on your feet for 20 hours a day.
So, having watched the race for the last few years, I tantalised myself with the thought of entering…how ridiculous that would be, as I clearly had no genuine chance of finishing. In April 2018 I booked the time off work ‘just in case’ I fancied the 2019 race, and politely suggested to my long-suffering wife that I may have a race I’d attempt in 2019. We had a week’s holiday in March 2019 for our 20th wedding anniversary, and I promised myself that I wouldn’t make my mind up until that was over. End of March, I entered…oh dear.
I suppose I should give a quick run-down of my experience & calibre so you know who you’re dealing with. With no previous experience, I started running in 2008 and did the London Marathon, and graduated to ultras in 2014 with the Grand Union Canal Race. I’ve been lucky enough to do a few fairly iconic (i.e. difficult) ultras since then including Thames Ring 250, Arc of Attrition, Spine Challenger, and various 100 milers. I have absolutely minimal running ability, being neither fast, quick nor agile. For example, I completed the alpine-style Ultra-Trail Snowdonia (UTS50) in 2018 and took an appalling 26 hours to complete the 50 mile course (without question, my most “Kill me now” experience). Click on the race names to read the race reports for each of these, but they’re not pretty or exciting.
I’ve also DNF’s (did-not-finish) a reasonable number of races too including Lakeland 100 (too hilly, but I loved the LL50), and Winter Viking Way (too slow). But I’m happy to say I learned as much from my bad races as my good ones, and saw them as part of the game.
However, what I do have to my credit is a certain stubbornness to keep going, to finish what I’ve started. I’m physically a bit of a wimp (I’ve got the arms of a Somalian pirate), but I enjoy running which means I’m happy to spend a lot of time just gently ambling through hours of trail or road. I don’t run quickly, do speed work or hill work, or really anything that requires effort, but I’ll happily get up at 4am on a Sunday to fit in 5 or 6 hours of running along the pancake flat promenade in Kent where I live. It’s a great hobby.
And I think it’s healthy to challenge yourself to something bigger and better than last year, something to push the experience and mind a little further than you’ve done before…which brought me to a 615 mile ultra (naturally!).
We would have a checkpoint every 45 miles or so, to eat and sleep (if we wanted) and have access to our drop-bags. That meant carrying everything we needed for at least 12 hours (at the start) to 24 hours (near the end). We could visit shops and pubs, thank goodness, but no crew was allowed to meet and feed us. It was very much a solo effort.
Having entered the race, and having given myself a healthy 6 weeks to get to the start line, I took a holistic approach to the training plan. I started taking vitamins, reduced my alcohol consumption to just 1 day per week (not that I drunk less, just binged a much as possible on that single day) and slept less and ran more.
The sleep factor was important, as I would spend most of the fortnight event being short on sleep and it seemed logical to get my body used to the effect. Hence I reduced a typical night’s sleep to about 6 or 7 hours, and got used to getting up at dawn to run for a couple of hours before work. It doesn’t sound like much, but I found I adjusted surprisingly well and it served me well during the race.
Although I did run a lot in April (322 miles to be exact), they were all slow easy miles that focused me on the ‘slow and steady’ target. I spent huge amounts of time on these runs considering literally everything that could (and would) go wrong and what I could do to overcome it. It sounds slightly obsessive, but I’d get home after a run, and write down (for example) that I needed to take a tiny sewing kit with me in case something on my rucksack came loose (which it did!) and needed mending. Over the course of 6 weeks, I was prepared for most things, and had also invited 7 very experienced ultra-running buddies to a group on social media that would be able to give me advice on any running problems I experienced that I wanted advice on (I imaginatively called the group “Bob’s running problems”…but more of them later). I spent these 6 weeks making sure I had backups to every important piece of kit (spare GPS device, two spare head-torches, 4 pairs of shoes, numerous pairs of socks, spare headphones, warm weather kit, cold weather kit, very cold weather kit, wet weather kit, sleeping kit, cooking kit, food….more food than I could ever eat, and on and on. ) I suppose my logic was that I could DNF through my own physical failings, but not through some daft mechanical “I’ve got cold” problem.
With about 2 weeks to go, I stopped running and started fast hiking through some rough local trails, with my dog and a fully laden pack, to get my head round what most of the race would feel like. I have to say that I had been quite calm until that point, but for some reason that activity brought everything home to me (specifically, on the evening of Friday 11th May) and I spent the next 7 days in a state of absolute fear at what I was putting myself in for. Hiking is slow when compared to running, and your brain starts to play tricks when you begin to consider how far 600 miles really is.
I was able to hand over one of my two drop-bags to Lindley, race director, the week before the race as I was getting the train to the start line, and he spent a happy hour unintentionally terrifying me on the challenges I faced. I had not realised that two of the three finishers from last year were ‘sponsored athletes’ (i.e. got free merchandise from outdoors companies to wear at events = good runners!) and that the third finisher had bent the rules slightly by staying in hotels for two good sleeps (a loophole closed for 2019!). Lindley emphasised that the race was more of a multi-day challenge than a single-stage ultra, meaning that sleeping/eating and personal administration were just as important as the time on your feet covering ground. God help me, with my total of zero experience in multi-day events.
So, with a slightly wobbly mindset, I left work promptly on Friday afternoon and rushed to catch a train to get me to Worcester in time for a “last meal” for all the runners at a Premier Inn.
It’s probably about time I introduced the other runners, as they all have a part to play in my story:
Lindley Chambers – Race director. Yes, ok, not a runner in the race, but a larger than life character who had brought this race (and a number others) to life. I’d done the Thames Ring 250 race in 2015 (DNF) and 2017 (finished!) so knew Lindley reasonably well. Lindley has a habit of speaking his mind on Facebook which means he comes across quite different when you meet him in person. He has a gigantic beard and wears sandals and shorts in sub-zero arctic conditions.
Maxine – Lindley’s better half. What can I say, she spent most of my race feeding me and trying to hold my feet together with sticky tape.
Lindleys truck – yes, this was the truck.
The runners, in alphabetical order…
Ellen Cottom – well known, “hard-as-nails” ultra runner. She’s done more ultras than I’ve had hot dinners, and is apparently indestructible. She was one of the runners that did not finish this race in 2018, so was back for revenge. Fun fact: at the start line, she pulled out a small (but very sharp and pointy) knife that she would be using if she got any grief on the more populated parts of the route. She was able to quote the UK law regarding carrying personal knives if used for camping etc. Excellent.
John Stocker – very fast runner. In 2017, he won the Thames Ring 250 in 58 hours (I took a sloth-like 80 hours). He’s very driven, very competitive, has a race calendar for the rest of the year that includes another two or three more-than-200 miles races. He’s an extremely tough runner, who was returning after DNF’ing this race last year (due to bad feet, which must have been really bad).
Jon Rowles – I’d met Jon a couple of times before at races. He was a good middle-of-the-pack runner (whereas as I am nearer the back, in that respect) but struggled when confronted with lack of sleep. He was also returning after not finishing last year.
Peter Bengtsson – the Swedish joker! Peter was a lovely guy, a very experienced runner that had come over from Sweden for the race and seemed to take the whole experience in his easy-going manner. Nothing seemed to phase him. He was also returning from DNF’ing last year.
The three ‘virgins’ that were new to the race:
Tony Hewett – a lovely guy. I only got to speak to Tony briefly, even though I sat next to him at the meal, but his eyes were sparkling with adventure and he was clearly looking forward to getting stuck in (on the other hand, I was struggling to string two words together). He was a school teacher (I think).
Victoria Ownes – I thought it was great that she brought her whole family to the meal (I hadn’t even invited my wife, which everyone else had done (their wives, not mine, obviously)) and she was quite lively company at the meal. I had Facebook stalked her a little, so I knew she had done quite a few decent ultras.
Me – oh dear. Oh dear.
So Lindley did a quick race briefing that I remember very little of apart from the animated discussion about whether one particular loop on the route should be attempted “anti-clockwise” (-Lindley) or “counter-clockwise” (-Ellen, did I mention she is American? Very American? No? I should have then. ) I don’t remember who won the anti/counter conversation. It’s probably not important.
Race briefing swiftly dealt with, it was onto the meal. Perhaps I’m being unkind, but there were about 15 of us there, and the time it took us to get our meals seemed to be all out of proportion to the length of time it would take to chuck a few things in a microwave and pour a sauce over the top. Lindley and John Stocker kept us amused with race stories and photos though, so the time passed quickly.
At the end of the meal, I retrieved my drop bag from Lindley and took it up to my room, for a final sort and re-pack. One of the lessons I’ve learnt is being able to locate things during races quickly, as there is nothing more frustrating than trying to find a pack of wet wipes that you know is there, but you cannot find anywhere. All my kit was in plastic bags, separated by type, and in some kind of logical order (to me).
I slept reasonably well, and was down first to abuse the all-you-can-eat breakfast. I even got away with 6 sausages in a napkin to put in one of my drop-bags for a later stage. Magic!
My race pack was deliberately light for the first leg of 47 miles, as this would be where I would be working hard, moving quickly and banking as much time versus the cut-offs. Did I mention the cut-offs? No? I will put the detail into an additional section at the end, but simply put, each 45 miles checkpoint had its own timed cut-off, to prevent people slowing to a crawl. The time allowed for each leg were quite consistent, and quite generous at first, but once sleep deprivation kicks in and the pace slows then the cut-offs would become a real problem. In 2017, two of the front runners were 20 hours ahead of the cut-offs by half way, and still got timed out before the end.
So, my strategy was quite simple. I would move as fast as possible, with as little sleep as possible for the first 4 legs (approx 190 miles). This time saved would be my buffer against the cut-offs and if I managed the pace I wanted, with just 6 hours sleep, I would be 35 hours ahead of the cut-off (34 hours 58 minutes to be exact!). Then, if I could maintain a good pace (but slower, and with more sleep) for the next 4 legs, I would hit the 8th checkpoint in good shape, with only a small erosion to this buffer. Then, legs 9 to 14 I could (and would) lose all this time as I slowed to a virtual stumble, with my body gently falling to pieces. This plan was the best I could come up with, and based on my experience I was pretty confident on my abilities to keep the pace up once the buffer was in place, but the challenge would be to get to that 4th checkpoint quickly enough.
At the starting line, it was clear there was a different approach to the first leg. A few of the returning runners were in long trousers, clearly protecting their legs against rough trail. Ellen and Peter had gaiters, Ellen’s being up to her knees. She meant business!
I was in running shorts, clearly not understanding how much my legs were going to get scratched and beaten on the first leg, but I did have some short gaiters to keep sticks and stones out of my shoes.
There was much discussion (and laughter) at the various weights of everyone’s pack at the start, with mine being much ridiculed for being the lightest (it was, but I more than made up for it later) and, I think, John Stockers being the heaviest, or perhaps Vic’s.
To be fair, all I had for the first leg was the various bits of mandatory kit I needed (waterproofs etc) and a few cheese rolls & tins of mackerel. I carried a little water, perhaps 500 ml, but I generally tend not to drink too much when running. In comparison John Stocker was carrying 2 litres of water and plenty of other stuff too. I felt properly under-dressed
Lindley fixed trackers to everyone’s pack, which would allow the internet stalkers to track our dots over the next two weeks and the next 615 miles.
We had the obligatory line-up holding the various Monarchs way signs, and then without much fanfare, we were off.
Leg 1…..47 miles….started 10:00 Sat, arrived at CP1 approx 19:30 Sat……(Mileage 0-47)
John Stocker immediately zoomed off into the distance, in a cloud of dust, and I opted to fall in behind Ellen and Peter, thinking rightly that they would know the route for the first few miles so I would not need to worry about navigation while I got settled into a rhythm. The whole route was marked with signs, but these were relatively few & far between, and more useful as confirmation of the correct route rather than actual navigation.
We all had GPS devices, usually a Garmin Etrex 30 (mine) or Garmin 64. These would show a route to follow on top of a rudimentary map, on a screen about an inch wide. To be clear, these were not huge smart phones that would guide you, turn-by-turn every step of the way, but a small, dim screen, a pink line (the route) a blue arrow (you) and a need to look at it every minute or so to ensure you had not missed a turn.
It was thick grass around the edge of fields at the start, and as we came to the first clumps of nettles I felt bad for Vic who was probably going to suffer a bit as I had been told she started running barefoot. Apparently she changed to sandals quite soon, but must still have had to work hard to persevere through the rough trail.
I was moving well, enjoying the fact of being moving at last, and passed Ellen as she stopped to fiddle with her pack. I caught Peter, and had a pleasant chat with him while we navigated a town. He was working a 50 minute running / 10 minutes walking system, so the next time he started walking I left him behind, and pushed on by myself…in second place!
It was not long before the town was left behind and I came to my first rapeseed field. This was (if you don’t know) a large field, filled with shoulder-high blossoming rapeseed, absolutely saturated with water from rainfall the previous night. The GPS track clearly showed the route going straight through the middle, and there was no obvious clear route I could see…so I took a quick look around the edge hoping for a cleared track, and when it was obvious it did not exist, I simply pushed my way through. It was suddenly clear why the returning runners from last year were wearing long trousers, as my legs were being scratched to pieces, meanwhile everything I had on was being soaked. The field probably only took 10 minutes or so to push through (and was one of 4 or 5 that day) but it was quite an experience! As I came to more of the fields, it became clear the trick was to follow a slightly clearer route that one of the tractor tyres had taken, so the rapeseed was slightly less thick, but it was still very challenging.
Slightly easier to negotiate were the field of wheat, only knee high, but still soaking wet.
Quite often the farmer had cleared a route through so it was much more pleasant to traverse.
Despite the challenges, I was enjoying myself enormously and running really comfortably, and in fact I passed John Stocker at some point of the morning. To be fair, I think he was running conservatively (and I wasn’t) and he encouraged me as I went past him…top bloke! It was never going to last long, but it was fun while it lasted.
We started hitting patches of forest between fields, where there were yet more patches of nettles. In all the days of running, I never discovered what the point of nettles was…they just seem to exist to be a bloody pain to everyone. They are the wasps of the plant kingdom, and serve no purpose. When I’m commander of the entire earth, I shall command everyone to wipe nettles from existence and then go barefoot through the countryside enjoying themselves (without worrying about nettles).
After about 20 miles, I hit a village and stopped into the first pub I saw to get a can of something fizzy. I found that a quick stop and ‘pick-me-up’ did wonders for my morale as well as the sugar giving me a boost. John Stocker caught me up as I came out of the pub, and Lindley and Maxine had also met us here, so we had a good moan about the rapeseed fields.
At about 30 miles I was beginning to slow a little, and getting a bit of nausea. For those unaccustomed to my usual running problems, I start to feel nauseas at about mile 35-40 of an ultra, I’m then copiously sick at about mile 50, eat nothing for hours / days, and then suddenly (24 hours later) my stomach wakes up and wants to eat the whole world. I’ve given up trying to fight it, and just accept that the exhaustion I feel when I cannot eat is part of the fun, and I should just get on with it.
I slowed a bit more, and found myself a long staff / stick to walk with and keep me company. Moving with a stick is something I’ve done on a few ultras, and I find it helps me keep up a good pace while allowing me to hold my back straight. I stopped to get a can of coke to hopefully settle my stomach a bit (no chance) and sat to drink it and consider my poorly stomach. When I set off, I realised I’d forgotten my stick so tracked back to retrieve it (only 20 metres or so) but at that moment John Stocker zoomed past me again to regain the lead. And that is the story of the epic few hours I was in the lead in an ultra.
The rest of this leg was pretty uneventful, I really loved the trail we were on, the isolation I felt and although I couldn’t eat I was still moving smoothly. The only hiccup I found was that I had somehow cocked up by downloading the 2018 GPS tracks rather than 2019, and so I had created problems for myself because checkpoint 1 had moved further up the trail. Luckily I managed to sort myself out and Lindley expertly re-loaded my GPS with the correct tracks at the checkpoint. Phew!
Checkpoint 1 was one of the few checkpoints that would be indoors, and I probably should have appreciated it more. On my plan, I had given myself an hour to sort myself out, so I had to move quickly to get everything done. A quick wipe of the feet, change of shoes and socks, and load my pack up with everything I would need for the first night leg. I knew my nauseous stomach would cope with cup-a-soup, so had brought along a stash – I had 4, and filled my vacuum flask with another 2 for the trail. At 120 calories each packet of soup, they allow me to get liquid calories on board without being sick everywhere. Maxine prepared me a lovely microwave lasagne, but I only managed a few mouthfuls.
I considered my options of putting on a long pair of hiking trousers to protect my legs, and a pair of heavy knee-high gaiters (used last for Spine Challenger, lots of Pennine way, January weather, plenty of bog), and in the end I wore everything I could to protect my legs. I ended up wearing those long trousers every remaining leg of the race. By the end they were indescribably mucky.
John Stocker had arrived (apparently) 8 minutes before me, and left at least 20 minutes before me. As I was getting ready to leave, after about 50 minutes Ellen and Peter arrived, both looking in great shape. I was feeling re-energised and looking forward to the first night leg, not tired at all.
Leg 2…..45 miles….started 20:20 Sat, arrived at CP2 approx 10:20 Sun…..(Mileage 47-92)
As I said, I was feeling good for this leg. I usually enjoy travelling at night, and although I hit a low patch about 2am (like everyone) I enjoy the darkness and the single pool of light given out by my head-torch that is the only thing to look at all around. I tend to move quite slowly, as I have a bit of a tendency to fall or trip over things.
I stopped at midnight to drink some soup and try to eat food, conscious of the energy I was using and not yet replacing.
At about 2.30am I was starting to feel sleepy, so stopped for a quick nap on the side of the trail. This isn’t as odd as it sounds; I was quite warm and aimed to sleep for no more than 10-15 minutes to give my brain a bit of a rest. I find that my mind will then stay clear for another couple of hours through the night.
Ellen came past me after I’d been asleep for about 10 minutes, and checked I was alright (it must be a bit disconcerting to come across a body laid out on the trail, in the middle of nowhere!) We carried on together, with Ellen fretting about her tracker not working: it had apparently stopped sending a signal a few hours ago. She stopped on a road and phoned Lindley to see what could be done to revive it, and I succeeded in removing it from its protective packet and pressing buttons until it sprang back into life.
Ellen and I stayed together for the rest of the leg, which was in fact a big loop called the Bosecombe loop. We actually met up with John Stocker at the start of the small circle on the very left of the loop, as he was finishing it and we were starting it. It took us a whopping 1 hour 22 minutes to get all the way round this ‘small’ circle…very depressing to get back to where you started after an hour.
We seemed to pass through lots of cow-filled fields, which thankfully left us alone. I became well-acquainted with electric fences that farmers use to keep livestock contained, never having really needed to climb over them before. Unfortunately, my first experience was to get one leg over and allow my nether regions to gently come into contact with the wire, giving me a gentle yet very real electric shock that certainly woke me up. You can be sure I gave the wires a lot more respect in future!
Ellen showed me the proper way to treat a barbed wire fence that we had somehow got onto the wrong side of….which was to simply climb over the bloody thing. Sounds obvious now, but I’ve always had a bit of an aversion to tearing my leg open on a bit of rusty wire, so I’ve usually hesitated up until now…no longer! If Ellen can throw herself over, so can I. It was a useful lesson to learn, and one I would put into practise daily!
At about 6am I had a sit and used my cooking kit (that I’d thoughtfully packed at CP1) to boil water for a bit of coffee. In my planning, I’d thought that a night leg would be much more bearable if I knew I had some hot coffee waiting for me at about 6am. Although I did enjoy my sit down and the coffee, I decided it was too heavy to carry for a whole leg just for a coffee, so this would be the only time I did it. I also used the time to put a video on Facebook, which is something I’d thought about doing during the night. I thought, for mainly personal reasons, it would be useful to watch the deterioration over the coming days as I got more tired. It also served me really well as a motivational tool every time I read the comments from friends and strangers on the videos.
I got the first of many calls from Derek, a very experienced, older coach from my running club, who keeps me going during my more taxing ultras by calling me a couple of times per day to check up on me…forcing me to engage with my condition and actually understand how I’m feeling. He has an uncanny ability to calm me down when I’m struggling, and motivate me when I’m down. He’s great and, as always, would phone me just at the times I’m suffering a bit.
The coffee did not give me the required perk unfortunately, and I was tired when I got into CP2 at about 10.30am Sunday morning.
Ellen arrived about an hour later. Peter shortly after that.
The checkpoint was in the grounds of Boscombe House (I think) and we had a night grassy corner, with a rough wooden fenced. There were a couple of tents for sleeping that looked very appealing. My plan allowed me 2 hours here, which included an hour for sleeping, so i was in a hurry to get myself sorted out and to have some sleep.
Shoes and socks were quickly off, to allow my feet the longest chance to dry out, and I did my best to eat, forcing down a cup of tea, cup of milk, and a bacon sandwich, which tasted great. Unfortunately, they didn’t taste so good when I promptly vomited them back up again into a usefully located bush. Dammit.
An hours sleep felt wonderful though, and after that I tried again and succeeded in keeping down about half of a bacon sandwich and some more cup-a-soups. Clean socks, clean shoes, and I was on my way.
Leg 3…..42 miles….started 12:30 Sun, arrived at CP3 approx 03.51 Mon…..(Mileage 92-134)
I spent most of today hungry but unable to eat, which was really frustrating. The route followed lots canal and aqueducts, which is usually my favourite route as they are so picturesque, but it was difficult to enjoy while knowing that my energy levels were dropping by the hour. I put on an audio book that helped distract me quite successfully but I was pretty low for most of the day.
At about 4pm I was getting increasingly cross and frustrated that I hadn’t come across any shops that I could even get a sugary drink at. I was physically getting very tired, but had no fuel to replace the spent energy, and of course I needed every but of fuel I could get!
I took a call from a running friend John and I whinged about needing a café or shop, anything to give me some energy. Sure enough, 10 minutes later I came across a café that had just closed (at 4pm) and I was so pissed I took a picture of the closed door.
Shortly afterwards Derek called, and patiently listened to me whinge about needing a shop. As always, he calmed me down and focused me on keeping moving, well aware that the faster I moved the sooner I’d find a shop.
Within an hour, I made the decision to leave the route at what looked like a busy bridge over the canal I was on, and was overjoyed to see a small parade of shops nearby. I sat outside Pizza Supreme delicately eating about 20 chips, but more importantly drinking can after can of fizzy sugary drink. Magic. Each can had about 10 grammes of sugar, so 3 cans certainly gave me a boost.
After messaging Ellen who was behind me that at this particular bridge there were some shops, I went on my merry way in a far better frame of mind. It sounds ridiculous, but I found through the whole event that my mood (and hence my pace) lifted enormously with a full stomach and some calories to digest. I would learn that my stomach really does drive the whole body!
As dusk started to fall, I came across the Netherton tunnel. I’d been told about a 2.7km tunnel that has a towpath alongside a canal that goes straight through some hills…much quicker than going round them! I headed into it without any hesitation, but was really surprised how claustrophobic I felt after the first 15 minutes. I was genuinely pleased to get out at the end, it was a proper creepy experience. The towpath was about 2 or 3 feet wide, with the arched ceiling coming down to the ground on my left, and a metal railing on the right to stop me falling into the dark water. No lights, naturally.
The whole atmosphere was very damp, and water constantly dripped from the ceiling like those caves you go into on holiday. The water from the ceiling created massive puddles on the towpath that I started trying to avoid but in the end gave up as they encompassed the whole path and were long and surprisingly deep. I consoled myself that I would change my socks for my spare dry ones once I got out, which I did. Interestingly, when I got to the next checkpoint, I asked how the other runners had coped with the waterlogged path. Apparently John Stocker had taken his shoes off (to keep them dry), and gone through the tunnel in his socks…putting his dry shoes back on at the end. Ellen had cleverly brought some plastic bags with her, putting them over her feet and hence keeping her feet dry. Clearly I was taking the easy option of just getting wet feet and then changing my socks!
I remember very little about the rest of the night leg, apart from doing my usual ropey job in the dark and slowing down badly. Ellen overtook me again, and I got to the checkpoint about 3.50am about 30 minutes after her. I set my alarm for 2 hours and was asleep quickly, but on waking felt good and I was able to eat some bacon & beans which felt wonderful, had about 4 coffees and even a little bit of watermelon. It was great to be able to eat and keep it down! Even though I was tired, I was raring to go (but that may have been the coffee talking!) My body was in good shape, the only concern was the big toe on my right foot, which I must have stubbed hard as it was slowly swelling all around the nail and turning black. I was still feeling very positive and starting to believe I could perhaps keep going for a few days yet. I was not thinking past the next checkpoint, and being very careful to not to have thoughts of finishing…but still felt good and was having a blast. At the checkpoint I was given the news that Tony had dropped on Sunday, which was a real shame.
Leg 4…..48 miles….started 06:30 Mon, arrived at CP4 approx 23.20 Mon…..(Mileage 134-182)
I started this leg wearing waterproof socks, as the dew was very heavy and my shoes were quickly soaked. I took them off after a few hours, but I found they did a good job of protecting me from the worst of the “soaking feet syndrome” whenever I did this in the morning. Unfortunately, after about a week on the move my feet became too swollen to allow the extra socks inside my shoes, so I was not able to do this, but it really worked for the first week.
The good news however, was that the breakfast had woken up my stomach, and I was suddenly finding I had some energy to move at a good pace, but even better my stomach was shouting for more food!
I had purposely lightened my pack before leaving the checkpoint, so I was not only feeling strong, but carrying a lot less than the previous two legs (i.e. all the cooking kit was jettisoned, which probably saved me 0.5 kg at least). It was early daylight, which is when I tend to feel best, and sure enough I absolutely motored the first 4 hours.
I reached a park at about 10.30, with a big pond and green spaces, and asked someone if there was a café nearby by. It was a wonderful feeling to order some proper food (a healthy pasta and tuna thing) and sit at a table outside, with my shoes off (much to the amazement of everyone else!) and actually enjoy the feeling of eating.
After a couple of days of minimal solid food, it felt wonderful to actually put a load of fuel into my engine room. I was only in that chair for 20 minutes, but the next few hours flew by as the terrain was good along roads and canals. Even the fields I went over were beautiful.
I have much more confidence with horses (for no particular reason, except they seem more intelligent) that cows…I seem to read about a walker being trampled by a herd of psychotic cows every year or so, but less so with horses.
By 3pm I was making good progress, but it had been a few hours since last eating, and I was keen to maintain the calories going in, so when I hit the next town (perhaps at Alcester) I looked for a pub to get my next meal. I ended up at a little sandwich shop because it appears all the pubs do food at lunchtime and dinnertime, but not in between…however, I loved the expression on the face of the guy that served me when I ordered a massive meatball & cheese Panini, steak pie, multiple cans of Lilt, and then proceeded to sit on the pavement outside his shop and tuck in. It was another absolutely wonderful eating experience again, and I loved being able to message people to show how much I was eating. Even the school kids that congregated at the little parade of shops thought I was a bit of a strange sight.
With another really good feed and a brief rest, I was shortly motoring again and was eating the miles up (as well as everything else). Although I was physically tired, I was cheerful and enjoying myself, and not really feeling ill effects from lack of sleep (at that stage). I had slept for perhaps 3 solid hours from Saturday morning to Monday afternoon, and had travelled about 160 miles, but was still in good shape now that I was eating well. Life was good!
With these thoughts, at about 6pm I had just come to out of a long stretch of trail and hit a road which seemed to be leading me towards civilisation, when I did a bit of a double take at the guy walking along the pavement towards me. He looked familiar, but not immediately recognisable (if that makes sense). As he got a bit closer, he was clearly looking at me as if he knew me, but I still didn’t place him until he was really close, whereupon I realised it was a guy called Mike, that I had shared a house with at university (about 30 years previously) but had not seen or had any contact with since, apart from minimal contact on Facebook. His wife, Janie, who I also knew from university, was there too, and it was a fabulous surprise to see them both, especially as they had brought pizza with them (individually wrapped pieces!).
Even as I sit typing this, I have a massive grin all over my face, it was such a treat to see some friendly faces, especially ones that I’ve not seen for 30 years. They were all grown up, unlike me, who was still behaving like a child (you know, 600 mile runs…that sort of thing) and we had a great 10 minutes of conversation walking along the pavement, before they left me to follow the next canal. I’d hoovered up about 10 pieces of pizza, and was in such a great mood after seeing them I put a post on Facebook after leaving them:
The ensuing hilarity after I said I’d shared a horse with Mikey kept me chuckling for a while when I got to my sleeping bag. I got a few phone calls through the evening that helped my mood and kept me motoring on.
The sunset was beautiful that night, especially as I was travelling through some decent trail and lovely countryside. My navigation so far had been pretty good, but I found the darkness was confusing me a bit tonight. In one memorable ‘diversion’ my GPS was showing a right turn up ahead, off the country road I was following. There did not seem to be any trail heading right, so I guessed the bridge overhead was an aqueduct of some sort, and I needed to climb up the steep sides to the top, and then follow the aqueduct. Usually, there’s stairs to get up, but I couldn’t find these either, so in my slightly addled state, I decided to climb over a fence and through the bushes and trees to the top, whereupon instead of a calm aqueduct and a path, I came across a railway line and lots of no trespassing signs. Naturally, I decided not to go back down the way I’d come (and I wasn’t sure I could anyway) so I rather dangerously and very gingerly crossed the tracks and went down the other side of the embankment, through yet more dense bushes to the bottom and over a prickly barbed wire fence. On to the path that I needed to follow all the time, clearly evident when I stopped and looked properly. Looking back, this was really good evidence of some dodgy decision making, that frankly probably should have ended in tears. It was a 30 minute wake-up call for me though, as I had not stopped to consider my actions, but just thrown myself into what could have been some serious problems (not to mention, lost 30 minutes needlessly).
The next checkpoint was at campsite adjacent to Stratford upon Avon racecourse, and it was lovely to see the white racecourse rails appear in my head torch beam at about 11pm. This 4th checkpoint was a bit of a landmark for me, as it would be my first (of two) chances to have a shower. I had set my brain to see this point as the first ‘milestone’ to get to, and it felt great to be there.
At first I thought Lindley was a security guard about to throw me off site, as all I could see was his head torch in the distance heading for me. It was great to see him though, and I headed to the tents for some much needed rest. I decided to allow myself four hours sleep rather than the planned three, due to my rather dodgy decision-making suggesting I was rather more tired than I had realised.
At this stage I had arrived at the checkpoint about 5 hours behind John Stocker (he had already arrived and left the checkpoint), but 3 hours ahead of both Ellen and Jon Rowles, so I was not feeling any particular need to increase my pace or hurry up. I was slightly ahead of my plan, which meant I could afford the extra hour without jeopardising the buffer I was building over the cut-offs. More importantly, I knew that lack of sleep could result in a navigation error costing significant time so it was not a difficult decision to make. Also, the extra sleep would have me leaving the checkpoint at about 5 (I would sleep 11.30pm to 3.30am) and this would be just as the sun was coming up. I was finding that finishing a leg late, sleeping at night and then getting moving at first light was working really well for me, and was allowing me to settle into a rhythm that preserved some vaguely normal patterns.
My feet were still in decent shape, but the left big toe was continuing to swell and go a bit blacker each time I took my shoes off.
I had a lovely shower when I woke up, and washed my used socks on the floor of the shower, which I calculated would give me enough clean socks to allow me a clean pair for every leg. I should explain the socks I wear (Injinji) are pretty expensive, so I couldn’t just buy 14 pairs, one for each leg, hence the washing some halfway.
Actually when I asked Maxine to hang them from the same tree that everyone’s wet shoes were hanging from, she offered to wash them for me in the campsites washing machine (and dry them too!) which was a much better solution.
Note to the reader….everything so far I consider to be the ‘start’ of the run. The next part is the middle (naturally!)
Leg 5…..44 miles….started 05:00 Tue, arrived at CP5 approx 20:30 Tue…..(Mileage182-226)
After another really good breakfast of beans, sausage and potato, and tons of coffee, Maxine showed me the way from the campsite back to the route. I stopped to take some pictures of the racecourse in the early morning mist: it was beautiful.
Although I had started with my waterproof socks on, the start of the route today was a long straight gravel path, so after an hour I stopped to remove them as they were making my shoes too tight. I did a short video on Facebook, telling people how I was doing, and this became a bit of my usual routine as I started each leg.
I messaged a few people, and then made a fundamental error, probably one of the biggest of my whole race. It was simple really. As I messaged, I did a little mental maths, working out that I had covered about 180 miles, I would do about 45 today, so by tonight I would have covered 225 miles. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks – that even by tonight, I would still be a massive 80 miles short of halfway. I had been pushing very hard for what felt like a lifetime (actually, 4 days) and had survived on minimal sleep, and was still today’s leg & two more legs short of being even halfway.
It was 7am, and I suddenly found myself in the hardest mental battle I’d ever experienced in an ultra. Half of my brain was shouting that I couldn’t possibly carry on like this for days on end, and the other half was shouting (at equal volume) that I must not stop, no matter what happened. There is a difficult balance between “can’t” and “must” when they get stuck in your head, and it is fairly normal to have a bit of a wobble in an ultra (especially about halfway). But this was different, and put me in a very dark place for hours.
Unfortunately, at the same time, the route went from pleasant gravel to thick, crap, overgrown, soaking wet foliage.
I was in the well of despair, moving through some really rough terrain, and feeling like I wanted to murder someone. I was getting some great messages from the group of experienced ultra runners I had assembled on messenger and called ‘Bob’s running problems’.
I also got a call from Pam, an ultra-runner from my running club. She took a bit of a drubbing as I wobbled all over the phone call with her, but handled it really well, saying all the right things. She rather cleverly took the conversation away from running entirely, telling me all about that weekend Eurovision Song Contest, which certainly took my mind of my current worries!
I stopped at Chipping Camden for a mid-morning bacon sandwich and tea, but was still mentally off-the-rails. I couldn’t even take any satisfaction from being the smelliest person in the quite posh café.
I was travelling through Cotswold country, so the trails were quite well established and fairly busy with walkers, most of whom were tourists, either Americans or Chinese. It was quite humbling to see them taking time out to enjoy what most of us Brits just take for granted.
Still in the mental shit-zone, at about 11am I caught up with two American ladies, walking quite slowly compared to me, but I followed them for a few minutes before they realised I was there, listening to them talk. We all came to a gate beyond which was a herd of big cows, all gathered at the gate. The ladies didn’t know what to do and to be fair neither did I, but I felt it was my duty to pretend that I knew what I was doing, and proceeded to tell them to wait while I opened the gate and gently eased the cows away from the gate. Hopefully sounding a lot more confident than I felt, I got the ladies to follow me as I went through the herd, and surprisingly the cows didn’t attack but gave us a decent bit of room to manoeuvre. Once through the herd the ladies thanked me and I went on ahead, only realising 5 minutes later that my mood had completed changed, and my previous desperately wobbly mind-set had been replaced with a more familiar ‘everything is lovely’ and ‘I am OK’ attitude. It was a revelation, and I’m happy to say that I never revisited that terrible dark place I had spent the last few hours in.
In other news, having spent the previous leg mainly eating, my digestive system went into overdrive and I won’t tell you how many times I had to go to the toilet…but it was a lot. On the positive side, being in the countryside it was easy to find a quiet secluded space to dig a hole and do my business.
I stopped at about lunchtime to have a rest on a bench and air my feet. I had decided that sweaty, soggy feet would lead to trouble, so I would stop and air my feet whenever reasonable. I’m sure the surrounding houses did not mind me making myself at home on their bench and letting my socks dry out. I had a bit of a chat with my wife, and a short nap, and then got on my way.
I came to a market town, and was surprised at how I felt suddenly being surrounded by crowds of people, having been pretty much on my own for days. It didn’t stop me from going into the local Co-op to buy food and drinks though.
I was finding that the 15g on sugar in a can of fizzy drink (usually Fanta) would give me a huge boost for a few hours, and did not result too much of a ‘low’ when the sugar was gone. Plus, the weather was really quite warm and it was a simple way to stay hydrated.
In late afternoon I came to Boughton-on-the-Water, a quite-famous Cotswold town that I had visited once before when my kids were young. It was full of tourists, and very picturesque, so I took the opportunity to sit at an outside table eating fish and chips, and enjoying the surroundings.
In my dirty hiking clothes, and haggard state, I must have looked a mess!
The rest of the day was spent travelling through some really lovely countryside, and I was in a positive mood to appreciate it, I took loads of pictures.
Although I’d been on the go for days, I still look back on this as being the ‘easy first stages’ where all I needed to do was keep moving and eating – nothing else was causing a problem.
The next checkpoint was at Chedworth, a roman villa (so I was told). All I cared about was that I could stop and rest there and I found the last few miles seemed to take ages to pass. I arrived after travelling along what felt like the longest road ever, but it was a great feeling to see Lindley big truck appear in the distance. As I got there, John Stocker was having his feet seen to by Maxine, which was a pleasant surprise as I had missed him completely at the last checkpoint – I had caught him up slightly!
In fact, I arrived at 20:30 (Tue) and he had arrived at 16:30, so I was still four hours behind him, but it was nice to actually see him, rather than be told he had just left the checkpoint. I quickly got my shoes and socks off, to give my feet maximum chance to dry out, and had a bit of a chat with him, Maxine and Lindley. We had a bit of banter than maybe I should forego sleep at this checkpoint and carry straight on with John, to make a bit of a race of it.
There was also a bit of banter about how often I was stopping to eat (pretty much every 4 hours) and how John was surviving on mainly just the food at checkpoints. These made me feel great…
John soon left though, and I got to the serious business of sorting myself out and getting some sleep. I had achieved the buffer I wanted over the last few checkpoints, and could now choose to get some extra sleep to recover my lack of sleep. I had had a total of 7 hours sleep since Saturday morning (it was now Tuesday evening) and had covered about 220 miles. I was going to reward myself with a massive 6 hours sleep (9pm to 3am) and then get moving with first light at about 5am.
Again, when I was in my sleeping bag I took stock of my body. I was generally in good shape. My body was fine, although I was developing some raw patches on my shoulders where my pack was making its presence felt. My back was also beginning to suffer a bit, with the lack of rest and the weight of my pack I carried everywhere. These were quite minor however to my feet, which were just starting to suffer. I had a couple of minor blisters on my toes, and my left big toe continued to swell and blacken. The nail was visibly raised with the pus developing underneath.
It wasn’t hurting much, unless I accidentally kicked a tree root or something, in which case it hurt massively. The soles of my feet were starting to feel a bit bruised and sore underneath…..nothing to stop me walking on them, but definitely some discomfort there. Overall, I was OK but I look back and can see the beginning signs of the eventual deterioration starting here.
I also made a big learning here, in that I didn’t sort my kit ready for the next morning before going to sleep. Do you remember when your mum used to tell you to get your school bag ready the night before? And you never did? Which meant the following morning was a stress-filled rush? Well, I learnt the following morning that the worst way to start the day was to have to search through bags looking for clean socks and new charging block or batteries. That was the last time I went to sleep without getting everything sorted the night before…my mother would be very proud!
Leg 6…..46 miles….started 04:45 Wed, arrived at CP6 approx 19:20 Wed….(Mileage 226-272)
I begun the day with bowls of pasta (Lindley’s own concoction, but very tasty if you’re a bit of a pasta fiend, like I am), with lots of coffee. Again, I felt really strong when I started, and made really good progress until I hit a field full of the cutest calves I have ever seen. I have said that I was previously quite wary of cows previously, due to their habit of trampling people, but I think these calves were the start of my developing love affair with beautiful cows. I stopped for far too long taking pictures.
Despite the stops for pictures, I made good time to Colchester where I stopped for more coffee and a bacon sandwich in Subway.
It was nice and cool in the morning, and I was enjoying the surroundings. The weather was looking like being hot in the afternoon so I was trying to get as far as possible before the heat sapped my energy. I stopped for a rest and to air my feet, finding that I was getting slightly obsessed with checking the swelling on the left big toe (and taking a picture of it!) It started to get hot from about 11am, and I felt myself slow as the temperature went up, but I had made good time through the cool morning so I was not too worried.
Lunch was two massive tuna and cheese panini’s, that I ate sitting outside a café with my shoes off. When they arrived, I could tell the lady didn’t think I had a chance of eating both, so I made myself feel slightly sick forcing them down. They were massive and very very cheesy though.
Most of my meals I was washing down with as much tea as I could drink, and this seemed to be giving me the calories and liquid that I needed.
I stopped again about 3pm, removing my shoes and socks to check on the state of my feet. I was starting to get a bit more pain from the soles of my feet, which was slightly concerning, and I started taking the occasional painkiller just to take the edge off.
I entered a field with a huge herd of cows in the far distance, which were all jam-packed around the gate in the corner that my route took me through. There must have been well over 100 cows, and I could not work out why they were all so fixated on this particular corner, until I saw a farmer (in his Toyota truck) herding them all in that direction. As I was watching him work, once he was happy the cows were in the right place he forced his way through to open the gate, and the cows happily set off along the track towards some distant farm buildings.
He followed them in his truck, and I walked alongside him. It was quite bizarre, seeing this track filled with cows, presumably going to be milked as their udders were all looking very full, and me walking along behind them. A very odd experience.
As the afternoon wore on, it seemed to get hotter and hotter. I resolved to put sun cream on for the next day if it looked like being hot again. The only exposed bit of skin that was getting burnt was the tops of my thumbs (where my hands wee angled upwards holding my poles) and the back of my neck. I was wearing a long sleeved top which protected my arms (but made it a bit sweaty!) and long trousers (even sweatier!) and a peaked cap shading my face, so I was not in too much danger of getting burnt.
The next checkpoint would be at a pub, which meant that arriving during opening hours would guarantee a pub-meal – quite an incentive! Similar to the last checkpoint, the last few miles seemed to drag terribly, and my feet raised their discomfort level from a mild grumble to a noisy chorus of ‘we want to rest!’ This would become the “last few miles” routine unfortunately.
My natural stubbornness raised its head however, and I pushed on to the checkpoint, taking the opportunity occasionally to look a the tracker on my phone that showed more accurately how far I still had to go. I would begin to do this more and more as the race developed, even though I knew how little it helped me as the distance never seemed to move as much as I wanted it to.
Getting to the checkpoint at last was great, especially as it was only about 19:20 (Wed) so I would have loads of time for a meal at the pub. Like the last checkpoint, John Stocker was still there, but had only just come out of his tent after 3 hours sleep, so again, I had caught up with him slightly. He was feeling quite groggy still, as he was clearly pushing himself hard, and was noticeably less chirpy than when I’d seen him at the last checkpoint.
I got my shoes and socks off, and showed my left big toenail to Lindley, who declared it fit for draining (having filled with pus enough to be ready to pop!).
Surprisingly gently, Lindley sorted it out, and sat back declaring that it looked pretty much back to normal – which it did! He did discuss with me the option of removing the toenail altogether, but decided that it was too firmly fixed in place to do that easily – phew! Lindley also said that Vic, right at the back of the field, was still moving but slowly, and in fact she dropped out that night, after a really strong effort (and some massive 220 miles!)
All of the surgery took place really quite quickly, probably only 20 minutes, and I quickly then got into the pub for 3 pints of cold milk (wow- they tasted great) and fish and chips. Having the chance to sit and reflect on the day was great, and it was a shame that I did not get the opportunity to do do this very often. I posted my progress on Facebook, and also messaged “Bob’s running problems” my messenger group of experienced ultra-runners as my legs weren’t feeling right. They were sore (which was to be expected) but also twitching and feeling odd in way I wasn’t used to. They came back with a number useful ideas (which may seem obvious now, but certainly didn’t then in my addled mind) including sleeping in compression tights to ease the swelling, and elevating my legs to drain them. I was also harangued into taking some s-caps (electrolyte-replacement tablets) to sort me out after a day of sweating. Lots of quick useful ideas, just what I needed.
I had a really bad night’s sleep however, experiencing horrible night sweats and generally tossing and turning for the whole 6 hours I allowed myself. On the positive side, my legs felt great when I woke up, so something had clearly worked.
I had arrived at the checkpoint at about 19:20 (Wed), about 3 hours being John Stocker who’d arrived at 15:11, and ahead of Jon Rowles (21:10) and Ellen (01:18 Thu). I slept 21:30 to 03:30, and was pleasantly surprised to be up at the same time as Jon Rowles. It was great to see a friendly face at breakfast! We had a bit of a joke with Maxine while she sorted out and taped our feet, simultaneously feeding us pasta and coffee somehow. We chatted about the next two legs (8 & 9) which were both over 50 miles – these were likely to ‘make or break’ our race due to the distance and the terrain – and what our hopes were for them. I was quite clear that I just wanted to maintain my current reasonable pace, but most importantly, maintain my travelling in the light and sleeping at night regime, as it was working so well for me. It seemed so easy then…
We left together at about 04:30, in good spirits.
Leg 7…..43 miles….started 04:30 Thu, arrived at CP7 approx 18:32 Thu (Mileage 272-315)
Although it would have been nice to stick together, we were clearly going at different paces, and I’ve learned that travelling as a pair generally means travelling at the pace of the slowest person, so it didn’t take long for me to move on ahead, although I looked forward to him catching me up.
It was just about light, and as today was a relatively short leg, I was keen to get it done and sleep so that I could make a really early start the following morning. I found myself hurrying for the first time, feeling under pressure to push hard. My waterproof socks worked well keeping my feet fairly dry against the dew, and I stopped after a few hours to pin them to the back of my pack to allow them to dry out. I was heading towards Bristol, but could not find anywhere to eat after a few hours…one of the problems of leaving so early was that nowhere was open at 8am along the river I was following. I was feeling pretty cheerful, but even asking other people on the river where I could get something to eat did not make an open pub magically appear. I recorded my usual Facebook video (this time, with added barking Chihuahuas in the background) but I think I allowed my hunger to show through a bit!
Thankfully, an hour later, I was presented with the magical sight of “Joey’s Magic Rolls” and had two massive burgers and teas.
They certainly did the trick! Although it was early in the day, I was starting to feel a bit of pain under my feet already, and that would mean for an uncomfortably long day.
With a fuller stomach, Bristol arrived quickly, and again I felt very out of place in the bustling streets. I rather liked the route I walked though, it seemed pleasantly clean and friendly (and lots of burger vans!). Although I looked like a homeless tramp (and probably smelt like it too) I did not get as many funny looks as I expected, but perhaps I was not looking around much.
Going across a bridge, I became aware of a bloke on a bike stopped next to me, talking. My headphones generally allow me to hear what’s going on round me, but I was not really paying attention so it too k me a minute to realise he was talking to me. Angus had stalked me using the tracker, and had gone to the trouble of tracking me down in the centre of Bristol – no mean feat in the busy streets (although, now I think of it, perhaps I did stand out a bit?).
We had a very brief chat, and he said he had also caught up with Jon Rowles behind me, who had also stopped at Joeys Magic Burger van. Sensible man!
Angus also warned me that there probably was not too many more placed to get food further ahead in Bristol, and I knew that the leg ahead was going to be a challenge as there were no towns or shops for miles. I stopped at the last café and bought two massive BLT baguettes to take with me for an afternoon snack – I didn’t realise how heavy they would be! I slowly left Bristol behind, pausing to take a picture of a bridge I passed underneath…possibly some bridge I should have heard of?
The afternoon was spent in deep countryside, absolutely beautiful.
I stopped for a picnic in the centre of a massive field, which was under the flight path of (I assume) Bristol airport, as planes went overhead every few minutes. I could not eat all of the two massive baguettes, but I was happy to ge the damn things out of my pack just to save the weight. I was really conscious that although I had eaten quite a lot, both the burgers from the morning and the baguettes were mainly stodgy white bread, and hence not great calories for the future efforts…I could have really done with a hot pub meal to give me some energy.
I got to the next checkpoint at about 18:30 (Thu), having endured some massive hills for the last 2 or 3 hours. Although it’s great to get to the top and take a picture, and I was still feeling quite energetic going up the hills, I was struggling with the downhill’s, as the soles of my feet were taking the brunt of the force as I used them to break my momentum going downhill. My heels, which are what I would usually use to slow myself down, were so bruised it hurt too much to use them, and so my only option was to use the friction of the soles of my feet on the inside of my shoes. What had been discomfort as few days ago was turning into something a little more significant, and the hills were definitely not helping.
I had a slightly hairy experience getting through a small herd of cows that were happily feeding until I had to sneak through them and climb over their gate. I stopped (on the other side of the gate) to take a picture and looking back I can see the expression on the face of the brown one with horns…he wasn’t pleased!
However, despite all this, the next checkpoint was at the top of a huge hill, and the views were spectacular. Even better, this checkpoint had a shower available too, although, interestingly, I was significantly less fussed about having a shower as I had been at the first shower. In fact, I was getting quite used to being a bit dirty and smelly, which was just as well as this (checkpoint 8) would be the last shower before the finish line at checkpoint 14.
Getting into the checkpoint, I was surprised to see John Stocker still in his tent, although he poked his head out when he heard me arrive. Maxine had insisted he have at least 5 hours sleep, as he was still pushing himself really hard, and that seemed to have done him some good as he was eager to get going.
We had a bit of a chat about progress, with Lindley chipping in, and John made the inspiring comment “I don’t want to be rude Bob, but could you speed up a bit?” suggesting that he would find it more challenging if I were chasing him down a bit. I took the opportunity to say I had absolutely no chance of going any quicker, but it was frankly quite flattering to share a bit of a joke with someone of his calibre.
Unfortunately, if I chose to go any quicker (which I’m pretty sure I did not have within me) I suspect John would have simply pushed himself harder and leave me behind…it was a pointless exercise.
I had a shower in what looked like a hut from the outside, but was in fact unexpectedly posh on the inside (all mirrors, glass and shiny chrome), and got myself to sleep as quickly as I could. The next two legs were the long over-50 mile sections, which I would need to absolutely nail if I was to maintain my current ‘travel-by-day and sleep-at-night’ regime.
I treated myself 6 hours of lovely sleep again, 20:30 (Thu) to 02:30, and felt refreshed again when I woke. That was three good 6 hour sleeps in a row and I was pretty much caught up from my lack of sleep in the first four legs. My buffer was still in place and although I was feeling some pain, especially in my feet, I was still in good place mentally (which was where it mattered).
That was the middle stage, it passed quite quickly and I have pleasant memories of it. I’ve got very few pleasant memories after here…
Leg 8…..53 miles….started 03:30am Fri, arrived at CP8 approx 00:50 Sat….(Mileage 315-368)
Yes, that’s right…nearly 22 hours to do this stage. This is where the wheels start to come off.
Breakfast consisted of loads of pasta again, coffee and feet being taped up by Maxine again. She had started putting something called ‘fleecy web’ on the balls of my feet which gave me some additional padding and eased some of the discomfort. Lindley reckoned I was experiencing something called ‘shearing’ where simply the layers on the sole of the foot were not sticking together but sliding against each other (as you might expect after being on my feet for days) and that would explain the extra pain I was feeling when using my soles to brake when descending a hill. Ouchy!
Jon Rowles had arrived at the checkpoint just an hour after me, and in fact left the checkpoint about 15 minutes before me. Ellen arrived just after midnight. All three of us were quite consistent in our times and were roughly moving at the same pace. Peter, the Swedish joker was moving slowly right at the back of the field, but was still moving within the cut-offs.
The day started well, with the early 3.30am start allowing me to get some miles in before the sun came up, a good boost to morale. No matter what time I finished, at least I was making the most of the daylight. If I kept up a decent 3mph (including stops for food) which I had been managing easily on the previous legs, I would finish in about 17.5 hours (i.e. about 10pm) which would give me time to sleep and get ready for the next day. It was all planned!
I was happy to disturb some more cows to get a nice picture of the sunrise, and then some more that were particularly inquisitive / predatory.
I came to a gate at the top of a hill, blocked (again) by herd that seems a bit excitable and interested in me. I wasn’t particularly eager to launch myself into their midst, but I didn’t really have much choice, so I got within them…and of course they all scattered, only to slowly come back and investigate.
That is probably the point that I started to understand them a bit more, it is in their nature to be inquisitive, and perhaps the whole trampling thing only happens when (I believe) there are mothers with calves.
I have to say the view from the top of the hill, cows or no cows, was extraordinary.
One of the things I was looking forward to was to go through Wookey Hole, again a place I’d visited before. Unfortunately, the only interesting thing was a crazy golf course (pirate theme, if you’re interested) that I was not expecting at all, and did not remember. I had hoped for some shops but unfortunately as it was 6am when I got there I had no chance of any food.
Not a problem I thought, the next decent town was Wells, which I would be at in an hour, so I’d be able to get something there. Interesting fact, Wells is the smallest city in the UK, due to it having a cathedral but bugger all else. After I took the wrong way round the cathedral (imagine doing three sides of a square, instead of the single one closest to you), I then had to backtrack into the centre to find somewhere to eat. Luckily, I found a Greggs that opened at 7am, exactly when I arrived…so I cleaned them out of their hot pasties and a big cup of tea. A good way to start the day again!
I passed through a herd of sheep that happily followed me from the start of their field to the end, baa’ing all the way (I felt like the pied-piper of sheep). I passed a small airfield that had a plane, all ready for me to use to break all the records for finishing the Monarchs way in a week!
I pushed on, still very conscious of the need for speed on this leg! I came to a railway station at Castle Cray at lunchtime, as I was starting to feel hungry and tired, and was absolutely gutted to find quite a few people, but absolutely no where to eat. There was a burger van, but it was closed, and I had to ask a taxi driver how far to the nearest café. He was happy to tell me that if I carried on the direction I was going I would hit the town of Castle Cray, which had shops and café galore! Fantastic!!!!
I trotted off, checking my maps, phone and GPS furiously to make sure I would not bypass the town, something the route tended to do (as the route was based on Charles II avoiding various armies, he obviously was wary of getting too close to towns and villages). It looked like this would be the exception though, as the route went straight through the middle.
The market square at Castle Cray is a lovely place, and has a number of cafés to choose from, all with tables outside. My criteria for choosing which to stop at was quite simple – I stopped at the first one I came to – went in and was confronted by racks of organic wine and home-made things. At that stage I wasn’t fussed, and went down the menu to the first thing that didn’t had salad in the title…and ended up with a ploughman’s, and added a few home-made sausage rolls, and lots of tea. I’m not sure the lady that served me really knew what to make of me, but said she’d bring it out. I promptly sat outside and took my shoes off – ah bliss.
The lady came out with my tea, and then my ploughman’s…not what I expected at all….it was a posh cheese / bread extravaganza, and absolutely marvellous. Once again, I was feeling full and energetic by the time I finished. The tracker was showing Jon Rowles catching me up rapidly (as I was sitting in a café) so I slowly got my shoes back on and my kit together as he came round the corner.
Once again, it was great to see him, and I suggested he sit and partake in the surely the poshest café in Castle Cray. He was more interested in going into the little Co-op that was round the corner, so I bid him farewell and carried on my merry way.
I was moving well through the afternoon, using a few painkillers to take the edge off my feet hurting, but I had a lovely long conversation with my wife and kids that gave me a real lift. I was moving at the right pace I wanted to, and at 6pm decided to stop at another pub for the fastest scampi and chips (and 2 pints of milk) of the whole race. I reckon I was in and out in 20 minutes.
A little later, at about 7.30pm, I was caught up with by another internet stalker, Barry, who walked and chatted with me for a good 15 minutes. He worked at a local airbase, and did a bit of running himself….obviously I told him he must enter this race next year, but perhaps that would be a bit of a step up – I think his next race was a Jurassic Coast 100k though, so that would be pretty challenging (but perhaps not 600 miles!)
He was good company, but we reached a large field filled with a massive herd of (in my opinion) fairly twitchy cows, a lot of who had calves with them. With us in the field they all gathered around the gate in the far corner, and I suggested he go back to his car as it didn’t look particularly inviting. I spent a full 20 minutes walking the longest route round the field to reach the gate without having to go through the middle of the herd. As it was, I still had to pass far closer to them than I wanted, and they absolutely did not move out of my way like all the other cows had done…they were making sure I didn’t get to close to the calves. I was properly unnerved. However, I reached the gate, and basically threw myself over it, telling myself I was OK. It was bad enough that i didn’t even take a picture of them afterwards, to prove I survived!
For some reason, following that field was a field with two massive bulls in, which I’m thankful to say stayed way over on their side of the field, while I gently trotted along my side of the field. Over that gate, and into another field, filled with undoubtedly the most inquisitive cows I’d met yet. They basically chased / followed me at a distance of a metre all the way to the other side of their field. I moved reasonably quickly (obviously not running), but found that I had to stop and turn round every 5 metres to make them back off before they would close in again. Looking back, it was not that bad, but at the time I was feeling particularly hunted.
The sun started to go down, and I was startled to find I was nearing 48 miles distance, but the tracker on the internet showed me having miles to go yet…as much as 5 or 6 miles which would add two or three hours to my finish time. This was quite serious, as instead of finishing at a sensible 10pm, and sleeping before setting off at first light again, I was looking to finish nearer to midnight. It looked like I wasn’t going to get much sleep tonight!
I stopped about 10pm, having covered 52 miles, for a sit-down and a think. The tracker still showed me having miles to go, and I was tired and needed to eat. I messaged Jon and Ellen, both of whom were behind me, to say the mileage on this leg was clearly going to be nearer 56, and to get something to eat if they were passing a pub as they would be out for a few hours yet!
At the same time I messaged a few people, whinging that the mileage was clearly going to be much further…they quite rightly told me to get on with it! I ate the last of my food and did that!
I won’t go into too much detail about the rest of the night, but my final mileage for that leg was slightly over 60 miles and while my pace was as good as I could have hoped (2.9 mph for the whole 60 miles, including stops) I was absolutely buggered by the end, at 00:50 Saturday morning. My feet were proper hurting for those last 3 hours, and I was very very conscious that in order to make the most of daylight for the next leg I was going to have minimal sleep. Dammit. I sorted my kit ready for the morning, thanking my lucky stars that I had eaten that speedy scampi as I hadn’t needed to eat when I got into checkpoint, but could get straight to sleep.
Leg 9…..52 miles….started 05:00 Sat, arrived at CP9 approx 02:10 Sun….(Mileage 368-420)
I slept 1:30am to 04:00, a measly 2.5 hours, when I could have happily used 6. Jon Stocker had arrived at the checkpoint at 23:00, compared to my 01:00, and was sleeping when I came in. Jon Rowles was about 90 minutes after me, and Ellen (with her experience showing) took the leg much more slowly, sleeping on the trail, arriving at 10:00am Saturday. Although she spent a long time on this leg, she made up the time lag massively over the following legs. Sometimes, it’s not about ‘haste’, but about ‘pace’.
I had my usual big breakfast of pasta and coffee, but I could feel I was tired today. I put extra warm clothes into my pack, as I expected to be moving more slowly, and I fully expected to be out for another 60 miles (if the route was longer, like the previous leg.)
I left the checkpoint 2 hours behind John Stocker. Jon Rowles would be leaving about an hour behind me. This leg would be a real test to see whether we could all keep moving and manage our tiredness.
Maxine taped up my feet again, and I was almost looking forward to getting them into my shoes which would force them to numb, easing the pain. Not a good sign.
I was getting lots of positive messages from my running mates and the ‘Bobs running problems’ group. Much of it being “just get it done” but it helped that they knew what I was going through.
There was going to be minimal places to eat on this leg, so it was important to make use of every shop or village I came across. Despite leaving with a good breakfast, into some lovely misty fields, I was getting very hungry by the time I got to a place called Hawkchurch at about 10am. I knew it was a small village, but reasoned that it would have a shop (or something). Sitting on a church wall, opposite the closed pub, it didn’t look hopeful, but with the magic of Google, I found there was a community shop just round the corner. In fact, it was a porta-cabin, staffed by volunteers, who were fabulously helpful when they realised the state I was in, getting me a chair outside to sit in to eat my weight in pasties, with my shoes off as usual.
After eating as much as I could, I shopped again and filled my flask with coffee and my pack with the last of the shops pasties (one of which I carried for days, relying on it to be my emergency pasty if I ran out of food again.)
Although I should have done better with a full stomach, I was moving too slowly after the shop. I was heading for the coast and was looking forward to seeing the sea but I was tired, both physically and mentally, and the miles were slow going. I started to have little rests every few hours, which were gratefully received, but all added to the time.
From the tracker, I could see John Stocker had reached the coast, and seemed to be speeding along it, and Jon Rowles was behind me, putting pressure on me to keep moving, but I was tired and really only going through the motions……I had very little to offer than a slow shuffle. Interestingly, talking to them both afterwards, they felt exactly the same, that I was moving really well while they were slow. I think the reality was that we were all suffering quite badly that day.
I got to the coast somehow, and was charmed by Charmouth. It was a little seaside town, although I only saw a few shops and car parks full of families at the beach, with it being the first Saturday of half term and a bank holiday weekend. It felt really strange seeing all these people going about their daily lives, while I felt like I’d been on the moon (or at least, in the deepest countryside) for a little over a week. I treated myself to an ice cream, and a can of something fizzy, and also packed a can for later.
I had not realised that the coastal stretch, about 4 -5 miles, was some of the hilliest we would encounter, going up and down to some fabulous views. There were quite a few walkers, and the cool sea breeze helped me keep pace with them in the sunshine. At the top of the biggest cliff I sat down and had the can of fizzy for the sugar which helped me push on through the last few climbs. To be fair, I’ve trained on similar cliffs at Folkestone for hilly races, so it was quite a pleasant diversion to simply go up and down for a few miles.
At the end of the coastal stretch is a town of West Bay, which was also packed with holiday-makers. I got some tea from a café, but didn’t feel like stopping to eat (big mistake) and carried on the trail. The route from the coast predictably was quite hilly, and my feet were complaining as I descended the hills again.
As darkness fell I started to see arrows for a local running race that was perhaps being held the next day. It followed some of the same route that I was doing, and it made a nice change to have some massive arrows pointing my way.
Every so often I would look behind me, expecting to see the head torch of Jon Rowles catching me up, but apart from a couple of flashes I could not make him out. I was stopped by a police car in a village, asking what on earth I was doing here at midnight. We had a good chat actually, and I warned them that they would probably see another runner about 15 minutes behind me. They were happy that I wasn’t some random burglar, and that I was well lit up for cars on the road, and let me go on my way.
I seemed to be nearing the checkpoint at about 01:00, having been on the move since 04:00 the previous day, and was tired and pretty pissed off. I could see the route basically followed the road I was on all the way to the checkpoint, and so I stopped checking my GPS too much and just slogged on for the last few miles. However, near the checkpoint there was a right hand turn, back into the forest, for what looked like a 20 minute diversion through a gully and then back to the road. In my sleep-deprived state, pissed off and shattered, I took the rather dubious decision to miss this out and just carry on the road. I was fully aware of what I was doing, but clearly should not have done it as it was basically taking a short cut.
Maxine met me on the road a few minutes later, and remarked that I hadn’t done the last bit into the forest. In my defence, I didn’t try and hide it, but said that I was buggered, and I would take whatever penalty Lindley felt was appropriate for my short-cut. I was not in a happy place at all.
I got into checkpoint at 02:10 Sunday, having been out for almost 24 hours to do a measly 52 mile leg. I was so tired, I hardly had the energy to eat, but I tried my best, and posted this to Facebook. I was really not sure I would be carrying on after my sleep.
I had some serious blisters on the sides of my heels (no idea why) that did not look great, but all I wanted to do was sleep.
I allowed myself 5 hours, probably not enough to get me back to normal, but it was a good start. However, I struggled to sleep deeply as every time I turned over my feet would wake me up. When I surfaced at 08:30, Lindley came over to talk about what I’d done the previous night, and said he would be giving me a time penalty of 1 hour. To be fair to him, I thought that was quite a reasonable choice of penalty, and happily agreed. Someone asked me later what I would have done if he had disqualified me for it (which he would have been quite entitled to do), which I didn’t really have an answer for!
Lindley also gave me a bit of a morale-lifting talking to, as I was fairly down-beat about the shape my feet were in, my tiredness and in fact the deterioration I was experiencing being worse than in any ultra I’ve ever done (and I still had days to go!) He did a good job of explaining that everyone was in the same kind of shape, all deteriorating quickly, and that I only had to keep moving to get to the finish line…it sounded easy. He also gave me the confidence that I had built up my buffer against the cut-offs enough, so I could afford to lose time each leg and still make the finish line with time to spare…all I had to do was keep going. Jon Rowles also got a similar talking to, and was equally surprised that everyone else was feeling like he was. It was quite bizarre.
Bruce, one of the helpers, taped up my feet this morning, rather than Maxine, but rather disconcertingly kept showing Lindley particularly choice raw patches, whereas Maxine had always done it without commenting on what she was finding. Having Bruce and Lindley commenting on my feet was probably not what my brain needed at that point, especially mentioning antibiotics to prevent infection.
Also, I had to stop wearing my decent Injinji toe socks, which I wore with another pair over the top to prevent blisters, as I had so much tape on my feet my shoes were becoming too tight. I was left wearing some standard running socks, which although good, did not give my feet the protection I am used to.
Leg 10…..38 miles….started 10:40 Sun, arrived at CP10 approx 01:20 Mon….(Mileage 420-458)
Did I mention my stubbornness? I thought so.
My train of thought was simple: I was about to start leg 10, which meant I had 5 more legs (including this one) to get to the finish line.
The longest that would take was 5 days.
And I could put up with any amount of discomfort for 5 days, couldn’t I? I could keep moving and eating and getting a bit of sleep, and basically hold out against the trouble my feet were putting me through for just 5 days. It was as simple as that.
I’m not sure, looking back, that I really understood what those days would be like, but I was happy to gloss over the details and just fix on the 5 legs that remained. In fact, as I write this, with the benefit of hindsight, I absolutely would not repeat that decision…they were dreadful.
So off I went.
Jon Rowles, who had arrived a the checkpoint an hour after me, at 03:00am (Sun) left the checkpoint an hour ahead of me (about 09:40) which may give an indication to my state of mind. Ellen arrived in to the checkpoint at 18:50, again taking a measured approach to this very long leg.
This leg was the start of my blatant abuse of painkillers too, to try to quieten my feet down. I worked out as I started that I would only take them every 5 hours, which would spread them across the day as far as possible. As the leg was only 38 miles I hoped that I should be able to maintain my 3 mph pace and get it done within about 12 hours, getting me to checkpoint for 11pm and a good sleep before starting at first light – helping maintain that vital sleeping at night regime. The problem was that I just couldn’t maintain that pace at all, whether the pain from my feet, physical tiredness or just mentally finished. I was only travelling at 2mph across some areas, and that was much too slow to finish when I wanted.
I passed through Yeovil Country Park, which was beautiful, and at 3pm then hit the town centre which placed a Beefeater restaurant in front of me rather conveniently.
I was looking more tramp-like every day, so they didn’t argue with me when I asked to go in a corner away from all the families eating. This also gave me the chance to get my shoes off for a bit. Two pints of milk and fish and chips (yet again) got me back to feeling relatively normal.
Unfortunately the terrain got worse through the later stages, becoming that jungle of shrubbery I mentioned at the start. I was well protected against it, so there was no real problem, but it was dispiriting having to push through bushes rather than having a pleasant view and a clear path.
I was still getting calls from a couple of running friends, Mark & John, each day, and I was happy to whinge to them about pretty much everything. They both cautioned me against taking too many painkillers, absolutely rightly, but the alternative was just too grim to imagine so I carried on popping.
As it got dark it was clear I was not achieving my hoped-for 3 mph, and hence would not be finishing before midnight. This would mean that I was going to have to choose between a longer sleep, which I dearly wanted, but then travelling later in the day and into the following night (dark, slow, depressing) or I could have a shorter sleep, leave at first-light and resume my travel at daytime, sleep at night routine. It was a real problem for me.
I stopped to take a picture of the oldest most-broken wooden bridge I have ever seen, which I then had to go over. So I suppose I must have still had a sense of humour at that point…
At the last big town before the checkpoint, Wincanton, I met up with Jon Rowles at about 10pm who had just stopped for something to eat and we agreed to walk into the checkpoint together. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have eaten here too, as I last ate at the Beefeater at 3pm, but it seemed sensible to make top speed (!) for the checkpoint to get some much needed sleep. There was some light rain for the last couple of hours which was no a problem, but meant that shoes and socks were soaked when we finally reached the checkpoint.
On the positive side, the checkpoint was one of two indoor checkpoints (the other was cp1) so it was a bit of a treat to have toilets, lights, warmth and a kitchen to play with! It was a scout hut (I think) so just one large room, with the kitchen on a little corridor on one side. Jon Stocker was already asleep in the large room, and unfortunately I’m sure we must have woken him up as we clattered in and sorted our kit. Maxine cooked a pizza for me, but I had really lost my appetite and it didn’t really go down very well. I just wanted to sleep.
Leg 11…..46miles….started 07:30 Mon, arrived at C11 approx 06:20 Tue….(Mileage 458-504)
I would love to say I slept really well for hours, but unfortunately I found the hard floor (even with a little mattress) really uncomfortable compared to the soft ground I’d spent my last 10 sleeps on. I also missed enclosure of the tent I was used to, and having 4 of us in the large room meant there was always someone snoring or farting. Coupled with that, I literally could not move my feet without them flaring in pain and waking me up, which was a horrible way to spend the night.
I allowed myself 4 hours sleep (02:00 to 06:00) but did not feel rested at all when I woke up. My usual multiple coffees did not wake me up either, and the breakfast of beans with grated cheese was not going to give me the required energy for a long 46 mile leg. Maxine taped my feet as usual, and could not see anything different on the soles of my feet, despite it feeling like I was walking on broken glass (I told her).
I had arrived at the checkpoint with Jon Rowles at 01:20 Monday, John Stocker had arrived at 21:40 the previous night. Ellen was still quite a way behind at this stage, arriving at 17:45 Monday afternoon, but again she had paced the leg really well, allowing herself to sleep and eat throughout. Peter was still bringing up the rear, moving slowly and spending most of his sleeping time on the trail, but was still just within the cut-offs (he was having various adventures, being invited in for breakfast by a family when he stopped to sort his kit outside their house!)
I had a fairly long leg ahead of me, and knew that I needed some fuel (and more coffee) to have any chance to maintain a good pace (that magic 3 mph was still the pace I needed) so I stopped in the first village I came to, a rather odd village called Mere, and I waited for 15 minutes for a café to open at 9am. It was bank holiday Monday, and I counted myself lucky to find somewhere open at that time of the morning. The rather grump bloke told me I could sit where I wanted as he probably would not be very busy today, so I made myself comfortable while ordering tea and a massive full English breakfast. It was designed to lift my spirits and get me moving!
Maxine had told Jon Rowles and I about the forthcoming leg, and how it had sections of roman road that were lovely. Unfortunately, by the time I got to it, it was just a bloody long overgrown straight path, and I spent a very grumpy few hours trudging along it, feeling like I was getting nowhere. I had resolved not to take as many painkillers today, so I suffered without any relief for most of the day, to allow myself time to clear the multitude from yesterday from my system. It was the right thing to do, but made the day totally miserable.
I was still tired however, and allowed myself a few quick naps on the trail to recharge my batteries. I became a bit of an expert at spotting flat stone-less stretches on the trail, or patches of grass that did not have any nettles or bumps where I could lie down for 10 minutes and close my eyes. It was bliss until I had to get up and moving again.
After a long rubbish day, consciously moving much too slowly, I got a call from a couple of friends Jon & Jo who wanted to meet up with me and say hello as they had spent the day visiting their daughter in Southampton. It sounded like a wonderful idea to see some friendly faces, and this cheered me up enormously, giving me something to look forward to. At my current snail-like pace, I would not be finished this leg until well in to the night, so there was not much happiness in my life at that stage.
Sure enough, about 8pm, I was presented with Jon and Jo on the road in front of me, and bless them, they got me sorted! It was brilliant to have someone talk to for a change, and I actually had something hot to eat (which I had been needing, without realising) and got ready for the night stretch. I treated myself to some painkillers, having gone without for 12 hours, and had a little sleep for 30 minutes too. They both really recharged my efforts, and with the painkillers quieting my feet for a while I made good progress back on the trail. They had turned a miserable day into a much better experience!
It had drizzled gently all day, without any particular force, but at 10pm it started raining properly so I stopped and put on my heavy waterproof coat and trousers. I’m quite comfortable moving in poor weather, having done a few races in January, so a bit of rain in May was nothing to me! At midnight I came across a usefully located shed, that I ducked into for something to eat and drink from my pack (and more painkillers). It was quite cozy in there, and after eating I switched off my head torch and slept for 30 minutes.
My tiredness was resulting in my not moving quickly or particularly safely, tripping on every tree root or stone in the path. Hence at 2am, when I came across a kiddies play area (swings, slides etc) which rather surprised me as I thought I was in the middle of deserted countryside, I took the opportunity to have a nap on a convenient bench. At 4am I did the same on a comfy patch of trail.
All this sleep meant it was a slow end to a slow day though, and I reached the next checkpoint at 06:30 (Tue) having spent a full 24 hours travelling 46 miles. In comparison Jon Rowles had arrived at 23:30 (Mon) even though we had left at similar times. Jon Stocker was still absolutely motoring along, arriving at 21:00.
This checkpoint will remain forever etched in my memory, as we were basically in a field of cut down nettles. I remember thinking that it looked like a version of hell, and there would be no walking barefoot at this checkpoint! Jon Rowles had slept and was preparing to leave as I arrived, which was really dispiriting and showed me how much time I had lost on that leg.
I was going to sleep for 5 hours (more than I could afford, but probably not enough) but that would mean I would not be leaving until the afternoon and hence another night out on the trail, rather than tucked up in a nice sleeping bag. While moving at night was not a problem, it was considerably slower than daytime, the route being less obvious especially when going across huge wheat fields with no obvious path. I had a bivvy bag in my pack if I chose to have a proper sleep on the trail, but waking up cold and stiff, without even a coffee to look forward to was not a great thought.
So I resigned myself that the next 4 legs would probably mean sleeping during the day and travelling at night, and I would just make the best of it. I was still 36 hours ahead of the cut-offs, so not really in any danger unless something went seriously wrong (which was always a possibility). I could afford to move slowly and still finish.
Before I went to sleep I made sure I had a good meal inside me and used a few of the ‘emergency’ foods I had in my drop bag.
I wolfed down a tin of chicken curry and two packets of super noodles that Maxine kindly heated up for me, and it was great to go to sleep on a full stomach. Predictably I woke feeling much happier.
Leg 12…..41miles….started 15:00 Tue, arrived at CP12 approx 07:00 Wed……..(Mileage 504-545)
I woke in a better mood, and had the long-suffering Maxine tape my feet up again. I had my usual breakfast (or was it lunch?) before heading out. This would be my last leg over 40 miles, which was a great thought, and although I was going to be on the trail for a long time I remember thinking that the end was perhaps coming into sight.
I had asked for suggestions from the ‘Bob’s running problems’ group to try to lessen the pain on the soles of my feet, and they had suggested taking the inner soles from one of my other pairs of shoes (I had 4 in total) and putting them into the pair I was wearing…basically improving the padding under my feet. This worked immediately, and made a huge difference to how the bottom of my feet helped, unfortunately it also (understandably) made my shoes really tight and so my feet would gradually lose all sensation until I took them out of my shoes whereupon I’d get fantastic pins and needles as the circulation returned.
After a speedy start, at 19:30 I stopped at a pub in Hersley for a swift dinner of lasagne and tea (and to stroke the pub cat).
I was sitting in a beer garden (with my shoes off naturally) as the weather was quite warm, surrounded by groups having evening drinks and generally enjoying themselves. I was a little out of place. Suddenly there was a bloke in running kit in front of me, and one of the guys from my ‘running problems’ group, Paul Pickford, had turned up to see me. It was, as always, great to see a friendly face, and gave me a massive lift. After a brief chat, he ran off (very quickly!) and I plodded on, grinning. I had spent the majority of the previous 9 days on my own, apart from brief stops at the checkpoints. The strangers I encountered were all really pleasant (unlike some of Ellens nutters, but that’s another story) but they were still strangers, who didn’t know me or what I was doing (or why I looked like I did). That’s why just seeing a friendly face for 20 minutes made a huge difference to the day and my mood.
I had a sit under a tree at midnight, to eat a Cornish pasty and take some more painkillers, and the night gently eased away after I napped at 2am and 4am. I remember coming off the South Downs at about 5am, with the dew on the grass being really heavy after a warm day, and my shoes and socks being absolutely soaked. Wet cold feet, descending hills that made my feet hurt more than usual, meant that as I suffered through the last few miles to the checkpoint, I found myself swearing every time I put my right foot down. I don’t mean subtly whispering something under my breath, but shouting the worst sort of swear words at the top of my voice with every step. Hopefully there was no-one around to hear.
Checkpoint 12 was in a pub car park, and I was so tired I did not care at all that the tent was placed on the gravel surface…I just wanted to sleep.
I arrived at 07:00 (Wed) so the pub was closed, but it would be open when I woke up. I had another tin of curry and two packets of super-noodles, and had a chat with Maxine and Sandra, a helper who was assisting at that checkpoint, while I was eating. She had done GUCR a few weeks earlier, so had a rough idea of what I was going through. I sorted my kit for the next leg and fell into a deep sleep.
I had arrived at 07:00 (Wed), while way ahead of me Jon Stocker had arrived at 18:30 (Tue) and Jon Rowles at 22:00 (Tue). Ellen was still behind me, but arrived at the checkpoint at 18:00 (Wed) just as I was leaving…she was soaking wet, exhausted and massively pissed off (which I don’t blame her for!) Peter was still bringing up the rear, but staying ahead of the cut-offs and making consistent progress.
My plan had been to sleep 08:00 to 13:00 and aim to leave the checkpoint at 14:00. When I woke, though, I was told that Maxine had had to go to build the next checkpoint for Jon Stocker, who was pushing hard and was streaking away from me (relatively speaking). She would be back later, so I could try to tape my feet up myself, or wait for her to return at 5ish.
Although I had a little wobble about the lost time, there was absolutely no chance I would risk trying to tape my own feet (and I wasn’t even sure I could bend my legs that far anyway) so I made the best of the lost time, and went to the pub! I’d like to say I had 14 pints and staggered through the next leg, but I stuck to pie and mash, and pints of milk again.
With a full stomach and inside a nice warm pub, I soon fell asleep and had a useful 2 more hours; bringing my total that day to 7 hours – luxury! The guys behind the bar really didn’t know what to make of the various runners they had seen stagger through the restaurant, but I’m happy to report I was the only one that had a sleep in there. They kindly made me a sign to excuse the tramp-like figure slumped in a corner.
While I slept the heavens opened and rained constantly, only stopping about 5pm when I was making my preparations to leave. It was Lindley that turned up to do my feet in the end, and very gentle he was too! I was on the move by about 6pm, well rested and fed.
Leg 13…..35miles….started 18:00 Wed, arrived at C13 approx 06:30 Thu….(Mileage 545-581)
This leg was only 35 miles, so really shouldn’t have taken me over 12 hours. However, the ground and foliage was soaking wet, and every bit of grass and leaf was just waiting to drench me. I started in my full waterproof kit, but it was too hot keeping my heavy jacket on, so I just had waterproof trousers keeping off most of the water from my waist downwards and got everything else wet.
I stopped at a Beefeater pub at Horndean to eat at about 21:00, as this would be the last chance before they all shut overnight, and was able to gulp down a meal and lots of tea in the time most people were still choosing what to eat.
I got a call from a friend, Mark, who asked the extremely sensible question of what my plans were when I finished? I honestly (and perhaps stupidly) had made absolutely no arrangements for finishing, where to stay, how to get home or anything, simply because I was so sure that I would not finish it seemed like tempting fate to even think in that direction. (Yes, I know how stupid this sounds, now, but it made complete sense at the time!) Bless Mark, he leapt into action when I told him my lack of plans, and started sorting me out a B&B for the night and to come and get me! What a star!
I do not remember much about the night section, other than I spent a memorable part going through a very dark forest, where the mist and condensation reduced the visibility to about 2 metres, and the vague path I was following kept meandering off in the wrong direction. There was some forestry work being carried out, so it looked like there were new paths made for the workers to access new parts of the forest. I suspect in the daytime, navigation was easy, but that night was definitely the most difficult and confusing leg I had done yet. And I was dead tired, that probably didn’t help.
I was managing my feet with far too many painkillers, but they were soaking wet for the whole 12 hour leg, so rubbing themselves to pieces. I had my normal stops at midnight, 2am and 4am for something to eat and a 10 minute nap to keep my head together.
The next morning was a lovely sunrise but I was not interested…I just wanted to get to the checkpoint (my last checkpoint before the finish!) and have a rest in my sleeping bag.
I arrived at 06:30 (Thu) and did my usual job of eating a tin of curry with super-noodles. For some reason I didn’t have much of an appetite, perhaps the excitement of being near the end. After just 2 hours of sleep, I woke and again was much too pumped up to go back to sleep. I spent a little time on my phone trying to sort out arrangements for finishing, as Mark couldn’t come down to collect me until the Saturday, and I was intent on finishing on Friday. In the end I called my sister Sue, who was able to sort her life out to get me Friday morning. This was genuinely the first time I had made the commitment that I was actually going to finish this thing.
Jon Stocker had arrived at that checkpoint at 14:40 (Wed) and Jon Rowles just behind him at 18:10 (Wed). Ellen would arrive at 13:30 (Wed). Peter, bringing up the rear would be there at 10:00 (Sat) and was still within the cut-offs. You can imagine the logistical nightmare for Lindley and Maxine with a spread of 65 hours between the first and last runners.
With a quick breakfast and coffee, Maxine taped my feet for the last time (I did share my slight anxiety about what I would do without her to sort my poorly feet each morning, after the race), and I got on the move. I hate to think the shambolic figure I must have looked like, but I was just looking to get to the end now. While I was at the checkpoint Maxine heard that Jon Stocker had finished at about 09:30, in an amazing time of 287 hours, a new course record.
Leg 14…..34miles….started 12:00 Thu, arrived at C14 (the bloody finish!) approx 05:30 Friday …..(Mileage 581-615)
The first section of this leg seemed to be full of hills, some of them really steep and rather challenging in my hobbling style. I got to a decent big town, Arundel, and happily stopped in a pub for more pie and mash. The girl behind the bar happily loaded my two pints of milk and two teas onto one tray, and looked at my pityingly when I asked her to carry them out to the beer garden as I was worried I would drop them. Once she took a good look at me, though, she said yes.
So there I was, eating (again) in a beer garden with my shoes off, and looking at the route I had ahead. I had a big section of countryside, before descending into Brighton to the pier, and then tracking along the seafront for a while to Shoreham. It didn’t look far (famous last words).
I kept moving, but again much more slowly that I wanted due to my feet and general exhaustion. The route followed the South Downs way (I think) and was bloody uphill or downhill most of the way.
The very memorable vision of seeing the sea for the first time, and when I saw Brighton was really emotional, even though I still had miles to go. The thought of being near enough to the finish line to be able to see it (in the distance) after 12 days was truly humbling. I stopped at the same time as a bunch of mountain bikers, and checked with them that it was definitely Brighton in the distance. Naturally, they asked where I was coming from as I looked like death, and I was chuffed with their faces when I said “600 miles away”.
I’d like to say the rest of the afternoon and evening was great, but I’d be lying. I just wanted it all to be over, but I was moving so slowly that the 15 miles I still had to cover after seeing Brighton for the first time was going to take hours and hours. As darkness fell I was still out on the downs, and the route seemed to consist of lots of little diversions out to a point and then returning back along the same path, it was maddening (but I made very sure I completed every single one of them!).
At long last I reached the outskirts of Brighton, and moved through the outskirts heading for the centre. It was about 01:00am Friday morning, and I hadn’t eaten since the pub in Arundel at 3pm-ish. I was tired, and hungrier than I should allowed myself to get. As I neared the centre I started to see group of ‘youths’ (as I like to call them, being firmly middle aged), but apart from a bit of banter with them they didn’t come near me. To be fair, I suspect they were more afraid of being attacked by the smelly homeless man, than the other way round.
I had to stop at a burger place, at about 2.30am, as it looked like I still had some miles to go and I was not going to make it without some fuel. I had a bit of a chat with the owner, and he made me the biggest double burger I’ve seen in a while…one of those that the fillings all slip out the far side when you pick it up to eat it. I had 2 cans of fizzy with it, and left with a bag of chips (just in case I got peckish in the next 10 minutes).
And I’d like to say the next three hours were a triumph of mental awesomeness as I pulled my poor broken body into a fast sprint and hoofed it to the end. Unfortunately, that was not the case, and I spent the next three hours slogging from the pier on Brighton’s seafront to Shoreham. It was a straight, flat, boring trek, and I was taking some real pain from my feet as I always seemed to do at the end of each leg. I had had too many painkillers in the last 24 hours to take any more, and I suspect some of the pain was in my head anyway.
My will to keep moving was definitely wavering, and I allowed myself a 10 minute rest on every 20th bench…and there were benches quite frequently along the seafront as you may expect. Too frequently, I was checking the tracker on my phone that showed my dot getting closer to the finish line, but ohhhh so slowly. Just wasting time to get to the end.
As dawn came up at about 4.30am, I was still much too far from the finish, but all I could do was keep dragging myself towards the end. I hope I’m giving the right impression here, I was truly finished. I was limping badly, and not really lifting my feet but shuffling them along the ground. Each and every step was a struggle, and a groan or a swear with each step made it slightly more bearable. Obviously, I should have just given myself a shake and got on with it, but I was so shattered I just did not have anything left to give. I have never been so broken in my life.
I had left Brighton and Hove behind me now, and the residential areas had turned into an industrial park full of lorries. Very picturesque.
I could see a figure ahead, in the far distance but could not make or whether it was Lindley at the finish. With his beard he is usually quite noticeable, but not today (or maybe my eyes were just not working). Anyway, it turned out to be him, and he kindly videoed me shuffling to the finish, looking entirely broken, which I was.
It was a perfect, entirely low-key finish, which suited me down to the ground. I had a sit on the Monarchs Way bench, signifying the end of the route, and then climbed (slowly) into the back of Lindley’s truck, for a sleep while we waited for Ellen to come running (yes, she ran the last bit along the seafront, god help me) to the end. I finished at 05:30 (Fri) with Ellen just behind me at 08:30 (Fri).
I’m not going to lie; I felt absolutely nothing other than relief at finishing…no elation, no emotion, nothing. I’d had a horribly rough night and morning, and was not really with it. I just wanted to sit, rest, get my shoes off, and eventually sleep. Lindley drove me back to the previous checkpoint where my sister (bless her) was waiting, and we got my drop-bags and headed for home.
And that’s it! Peter went on to finish in the early hours of Saturday morning, within the cut-offs, and that brought Monarchs Way 2019 to a close.
John Stocker – 287:32:48
Jon Rowles – 290:04:28
Bob Wild – 308:30:05
Ellen Cottom – 310:25:38
Peter Bengtsson -325:20:47
DNF – Victoria Owens & Tony Hewett.
I would say my recovery was….slow.
I attended the minor injuries unit the morning after I got home to get my feet sorted. The doctor displayed a professional interest in the mess my feet were as he discussed with the nurse the best way to treat them. I went to have various parts of them re-dressed (mainly my right foot toes) another 5 times. I lost two toenails, and another one that is looking wobbly. My feet still hurt when I walk on a hard floor, in my socks, as if all the ‘meat’ on the soles that normally provides padding has gone, and I’m just walking on the nubs of bones. I will not make you suffer through horrible foot pics here…but if you are interested, you can see a few HERE.
I was tired after finishing, but was only able to sleep in short spaces of 5 or 6 hours (with epic night sweats), rather than a lovely long 12 hour sleep. I was back at work on Monday morning, where my colleagues were very understanding at my lack of energy and concentration – it provided much hilarity. I was able to shuffle around, but just walking up stairs would have me out of breath and needing a sit down. A full week after finishing, I was still feeling absolutely tired all the time. Two weeks later, I’m happy to say it’s mostly passed.
I didn’t want to know how much weight I lost, but you could see my ribs quite clearly when I took my shirt off. My wife said I looked grey. I undertook the serious task of absorbing as much beer and Doritos as possible for the next week, and then the same the week after. To be fair, my eating regime for the last 5 days was rubbish, and I paid the price for that.
My bad memories of the event are gradually fading, as they usually do after an ultra, otherwise you would never do another! This report, as usual, has helped me recall the good parts and relive the bad. But nothing will ever allow me to forget that final struggle along the seafront to the finish line…that has scarred me. Would I ever do this race again…no…but that is more due to my nature of not wanting to do the same race twice (if I finish it first time round). There are too many fabulous races out there to waste precious time doing the same one twice (especially if it takes a fortnight to complete!)
And would I do another long race, or even a longer one beyond 600 miles? Probably, yes, but only if I can learn a lot more about how to keep my feet in one piece.
So, just a few thanks…
Firstly, thanks to you for reading this. It has taken a fair few hours to write (as you can imagine) and I do it entirely for my own amusement and to be able to read at a later date. Otherwise I simply forget all the details and it disappears in to the ether. Hopefully you got something from it, please leave a comment if you did.
Then, thanks to Lindley and Maxine (and Bruce and Sandra) for setting up this great race and looking after me so well. Maxine especially must have had a horrible time dealing with my manky feet every day, and did it without once complaining, no matter how tired she was.
To the other runners, whether finishers or not, thanks for making this such a brilliant experience. Every interaction I had with you all was cheerful and positive, even when we were all hurting.
Thanks to my “Bob’s running problems” group of experienced ultra runners, who helped me far more than I would ever have believed. To go to sleep, having posed a problem, and then wake up to loads of ideas and suggestions was great, and it really felt like you were out there with me. So, in no particular order….Jo Barrett, Ben Davies, Dave Falkner, Paul Pickford, John Hunt, Mark Foster….you’re all super-stars.
Thanks to the guys that phoned me and somehow kept my spirits up…Pam and Derek especially, and John and Mark. I found the fact of knowing people out there were watching the tracker and thinking of me enough to call was really uplifting, especially at the low points.
To the guys that came out to meet me on the trail….Janie & Mikey Brownstone, Jon & Jo Holl, Paul Pickford, internet strangers Angus and Barry. What an unexpected treat to see you all, and what a massive lift you gave me.
To all the pubs, cafes and shops I went into, looking like a tramp. Thanks for being nice to me.
Thanks to my kids, Michael and Abigail, who put up my strange ways, and don’t complain too much. I owe you an ice cream.
To my long-suffering wife, Claire (who accidentally told me she never reads my whole race-report, but just skims to the end to see if she’s mentioned) thanks, I love you, and I will be testing you on the contents of this report later tonight.
And finally, thanks and apologies to my body, mind and most importantly my feet for what I put you through with this run. Whilst I did not know what to expect, I never thought I would beat myself up quite this badly…and I promise never to do it again (until next time).
And that’s it. The end. Unless you want to read all about my recommendations and suggestions if you plan to run this race…which is HERE.
There’s a small population of runners that run ultras for fun.
There’s a really very small proportion of those ultra-runners that know what a ‘Cockbain Event’ is.
There’s a really really small proportion of those people that would consider entering a Cockbain event. I’m now one of them.
Let me explain…
Imagine a standard 100mile or 150 mile ultra.
Then think of ways to make it as hard as possible. Perhaps the checkpoints should be few and far between, with minimal facilities. Maybe the navigation should be made more difficult by banning GPS devices, so only a map & compass are allowed. Let’s put the race in January, so it gets dark at 5pm and stays dark for 13 or 14 hours. How about following a national trail, but a relatively low-key one so the signposts are minimal and the trails are muddy and unruly. Obviously, you cannot have a crew or anyone to support you along the way. And finally, just in case there is a chance of more than 20% of starters finishing, let’s put some really tight cut-offs in place, to weed out most of the ‘average’ runners (and some of the great ones, if they make a navigation error).
….and there you have a Cockbain ultra.
They are, by design, some of the most challenging races available in the UK, and hence have few starters, and even fewer finishers. Even as I placed my entry for the Winter Viking Way in mid 2018, I knew the chances of finishing were absolutely tiny but I had been watching these events for a while and it seemed the right time to tackle one.
The Viking way is a 147 mile path, from Hull, winding south, to finish at Oakham. Not too hilly, but poor terrain and lots of countryside to travel through. In the Lake District you get some massive lumpy bits to go over, but some spectacular scenery to reward along the way. The Viking way is relatively flat, with flat rubbish scenery to go with it, as if to make it even crapper to look at & run along.
Have I set the scene? Does it sound appealing enough? Didn’t think so.
Let me explain the time constraints for you. You have 40 hours to complete the 147 miles, which is just on the difficult side of quite doable and there are cut-offs at 50 miles (12.5 hours) and 100 miles (26.5 hours). For a good runner, on good terrain, these are not outrageously tight, but put a lot of the route on poor muddy track, and add in a lot of navigation that naturally slows the pace (and loses time with every wrong turn) and you start to get a little short of time.
In my younger days (well, 2014) I had run the very flat Grand Union Canal race (145 miles) in a respectable 32 hours, but I’ve become fat and lazy (and old) since then so I was quite realistic about not hitting the cut-offs going into the race. This was more a chance to experience a winter race (like the Spine Challenger I did last year) and also dip my toe into the exclusive club of Cockbain. I’d be lying if I didn’t have a vague hope that I would suddenly become a running god and finish the race.
So, training in the months before was pretty poor (see the note above about becoming fat and lazy). I did get the chance to recce the first hundred miles in early November, which gave me a good feel for the terrain to expect (30% grassy edge-of-field tracks, 50% muddy trail, 20% road or path). I spent about three days on the trail, carrying full camping gear, and took it quite slowly, especially with the map reading. But by the end I felt I had a good handle on what to expect. Mistakenly, I only did a few hours in the dark, which did not prepare me at all for the night-navigation that I would later find so difficult.
The weather was forecasting snow & rain in the weeks before, but finally settled on rain, which rather suited the starting point, Hull. I got there on the Friday evening, and had an amusing chat with Oscar, the receptionist at the Premier Inn where most of us were staying. He was amazed at the stream of runners coming to check in, and was talking to everyone as they came through. He’s definitely a future ultra runner.
Surprisingly, the race registration wasn’t a long line of tables, manned by cheerful volunteers checking kit and handing out race numbers, answering questions and organising pre-race logistics. Nope. It was Mark Cockbain, in the bar, with a plastic box containing an envelope for each runner. In the envelope was a race number, safety pins, and a tracker. Job done – that was quick!
With the rest of the evening stretching ahead, I had a meal and listened to the chat of the other runners and crew that were there. It was good to put faces to Karen and Peter (the main crew) who I suspected I’d be relying on at the later stages of the race.
On saturday morning, myself and a few of the runners I’d met the previous night got a taxi to the start on the far side of the Humber Bridge. The taxi driver was entirely bemused at what he was seeing. It was darker than I expected, even though it was only 6.30am, and the group of 29 starters was lit up with head torches and reflective bits in the darkenss.
Mark gave a suitably harsh race briefing, including such gems as:
• “If you get lost, don’t call me…I’ve got the same maps you’ve got and I won’t know where you are”,
• and a treat of “I was hoping the weather would be a lot worse for the race, it only looks like a bit of rain overnight. I’m disappointed”
It was a great way to start, absolutely what was needed to tell everyone that they were in for a tough time. Looking around, I felt I was the only Southerner there (everyone else had a good strong northern accent…I must practise mine for next time).
And then it was time to start, a long blow on an airhorn and we trotted off along a nice path leading under the Humber Bridge.
As expected, a small group of about 5 went off really quickly and soon disappeared into the distance. The rest of us kept a more gentle pace and settled into the first few hours. I chatted to quite a few people, including Dave Fawkner & Ben Davies who I’d met on the Thames Ring 250 with in 2017, and Alan Cormack that I’d chatted briefly to before Escape from Meriden (Chained) in November. As always, those first few hours were very pleasant and relaxed…before the tough bits started.
I remembered the route pretty well from my recce, but as there were so many runners strung out over the course of a mile it was easy to stick to the route. The first checkpoint at mile 16 came quickly, and sure enough, it was a culinary delight consisting of bags of mini-cheddars, a tub of Haribo, water and coke. Like most others, I was carrying food I knew I liked, so I whipped out a tin of mackerel (yes, I know it sounds disgusting, but I like it) and carried on. Definitely no pampering at the checkpoints!
Along this next section I got talking to Bev, one of the three lady starters, who was running really well. Talk turned to the recent Spine race that had finished the previous weekend, and the miles flew by. We went through a lot of fields that, in previous years, had contained some cows & bulls (the race is usually held in April) but at this time the fields were all empty, apart from some deer and rare sheep that Bev pointed out to me.
We caught up to a group of three blokes, all running strongly, one of whom was a guy called Riccardo that I’d never met before but seen his name at previous races. He (and the two other blokes who were Carl & Karl I think) were previous finishers on the Viking Way and were clearly out there having fun. Carl or Karl had the fullest Raidlight rucksack I’ve ever seen, I’ve no idea what he had in it, but it looked heavy.
Going up one particular hill, someone brought up the matter of writing race reports (because hardly anyone writes race reports for Cockbain races, they are too busy getting out running and being hardcore), and Riccardo suggested that he didn’t think anyone should write a report unless they finished the race. Oh dear. I had to confess that I’d probably be writing one, even with a DNF highly likely, so I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise personally to anyone that is wasting their time reading this rubbish. Sorry.
The terrain was still relatively decent (compared to later in the race) with the ground not being too wet (yet). The second aid station at Tealby (mile 31) came around quickly and had hot water! I took the opportunity to have some hot soup (I never run without cup-a-soup nowadays) and a Cornish pasty. My usual stomach problems were not going to happen today! I spent a few minutes sorting out a couple of paracetamol and refilling bottles, before leaving with another tin of mackerel to eat on the first mile.
I linked up with Ben after this, who rather cleverly kept me running whenever possible, rather than walking. We chatted the miles away talking about everything from running to families to jobs. Ben seemed happy to stick with someone else despite me going slower than I should have, and it made a massive difference to me to have someone to keep me moving quickly. We travelled through long sections of countryside, following the edges of fields , until we came to the next town. It was still light and fairly warm, and all very pleasant. Ben’s family were meeting him every hour or so, for a bit of moral support, so it was nice to have a couple of exciting kids (even if they weren’t mine) to look forward to.
My maps consisted of 34 A4 pages, and every 10km or so I’d take great pleasure in getting rid of a page and moving to the next one…very therapeutic! Shortly before we got to the third checkpoint (mile 50, and access to our dropbags) Ben dropped back as his family had met him for the last time, and I carried on. It was dusk by now, and starting to get a bit colder and the rain started. 20 minutes later, it was blowing a gale and throwing some good horizontal rain at me. (Ben never did catch me up, dropping out with an injury shortly afterwards, which was a shame as he was going really well.)
I got a bit lost in Fulletby, the last village before CP3, and was rescued by another runner Colin, who was having a rough time and really not enjoying himself. As we walked the last mile he told me about having finished the Spine 4 times, but his heart wasn’t in it today, so he’d probably drop out at the upcoming checkpoint. I really felt for him, mainly because I simply didn’t know what to say.
At about 6pm, the checkpoint finally arrived, and I’d like to say it was somewhere warm and dry, out of the wind and rain, with a full selection of sumptuous foods to sample. But of course, the reality was trying to shelter in the rear of a freezing transit van (with the rear doors open, naturally) with a load of drop bags and other runners. The weather was properly filthy and the crew there did a storming job looking after people as the wind was making it difficult enough just to boil a kettle on a camping stove.
I changed my soggy gear into dry stuff, and prepared for a night of rain in my hard-shell waterproof jacket and trousers. They wouldn’t be much good for running, but would keep me fairly dry. I was realistic enough to know that I probably would be pushed for time if I did make the 100 mile cut-off, so I carried a sensible amount of kit with me in case of trouble.
There were more runners appearing every few minutes, so I tried to get out of the transit as quickly as I could so that someone else could get the shelter. It didn’t help that I was positioned by the side door of the transit, which was thrown open every time someone wanted sugar with their tea (because there was nowhere else dry to keep the sugar, of course) but it unleashed a hell of a gale through the van. Phew!
Back onto the road by the transit, and the wind really showed what it could do. It must have been pretty exposed there as the crew were doing an amazing job in the conditions. Once I got away from the road and back onto the trail the trees gave me a bit of shelter and I stopped to put some music on to see the night out.
I saw a couple of runners making the very sensible decision of ducking into a chip shop at the next town, Horncastle, and went in to see what looked good. It was Alan Cormack and a friend, both looking very strong and ordering lots of chips. I settled on a bottle of Coke and moved on, thinking they would catch me soon.
In the dark, the navigation got rather more difficult, until a long straight disused railway (with some bizarre sculptures) that must have lasted 3 or 4 miles before a golf course and then Woodhall Spa. It was quite sheltered in the trees and much more pleasant. Quite a few runners overtook me as I was slowing to my usual plodding speed, and I got to Woodhall Spa about 10pm. The wind and rain had stopped thank goodness, so I took the opportunity to have a bit more food (yup, more magical mackerel) before my stomach shut down for the night.
It was probably from here that I really started to make some navigation errors in the dark. It was taking me far too long to work out which way to turn at each junction, and somehow I managed to enter checkpoint 4 (mile 63, Stixwold) from entirely the wrong direction. The two guys there were kind enough to say that I was about the third person to have arrived from that direction, but I suspect they were just saying that. They had rigged a decent tarpaulin over their truck and had a couple of chairs that looked very inviting, but I knew I couldn’t stay long without getting cold, so I had a very pleasant bowl of soup and went on my way. At that point I was in pretty good spirits and I head into the night feeling pretty chirpy and positive.
Unfortunately, the night stretched out ahead, and by midnight I was starting to flag a little. Some little things were bugging me that I should have just ignored, and to cap it all my headtorch died and I had to change to my spare battery. Very frustrating. From my recce I knew that I had a couple of tricky parts to navigate, as well as a couple of very muddy fields to go across (rather than round the edge). There was a couple of other runners (one of which had a really hacking cough) leapfrogging me every so often, so at least I knew I was on the right route, but my judgement was starting to slip. I tried to stop and eat at about 2am, but my stomach was not having anything and decided to be sick a few times for fun.
The wind and rain started up again, but it was quite manageable, until I got to a long embankment (yes, another disused railway) on the stretch into Lincoln. On the maps it only looks like about 3 miles, but the wind & rain were vicious, coming really strongly from the side, to the extent that I was using my hand up against the side of my face to protect the only area of skin exposed to the wind. It was bitterly cold and I knew there was a turn off the embankment coming up soonish, but it seemed to take forever.
I remember really struggling to stay on the narrow track, with the tiredness and wind pushing me all over the place. Not to mention the mole hills. Dear god, the sodding mole hills. The absolute last thing you want, when keeping your head bent downwards to protect from the wind, and your half-asleep brain only just keeping your body moving forwards, is mounds of loose earth, like little land mines, that are just the right height to smash your foot into and to try to trip you up, without actually stopping you, but giving you that tripping sensation every few seconds. Bloody moles had clearly sabotaged the track along this bloody embankment, and had laid their sodding hills with military precision to catch out sleepy runners every couple of steps. Little bastards.
But the embankment came to an end after about 3 weeks, and I made the right turn that I’d been waiting for. I knew the checkpoint was close, but not exactly where, and was really surprised to see a car parked on the road up ahead, with its lights on. I convinced myself that it wasn’t the checkpoint as there was no table or anything nearby, just a lone parked car, which I thought must belong to a supporter or something. Then Karen appeared out of the darkness, like an angel, and said “quick, get in the car where it’s warm”. Oh bliss, I threw myself in, still wearing my pack, just to get out of that awful wind. It was warm and lovely in there, with the other runner (that had the cough) already in there. Karen sorted me with a cup of soup, and I started to warm up and come back to life. It was 5am, and the thought of another couple of hours in that weather and darkness was not appealing at all.
The other runner, Nick, started to make noises about dropping out there. With a cough like that I think he made absolutely the right decision. A car pulled up behind, which turned out to be Ronnie Stanton, supporting one of the runners behind me that he coached. It was just as well he was there as another runner, Jon Steele, turned up who would have made it a very tight fit in our car! Karen somehow looked after all of us at the same time, and I started to think about having to get out of the car to carry on….not a great thought. Even just opening the car door to get my pack off blasted the whole car with cold wind (sorry Nick) and I shut it again pretty quickly.
But I couldn’t stay there for much longer. With hindsight I should have eaten more to get my body woken up, but I couldn’t really stomach much. That warm car was a loveliest place in the whole of England just then and I was going to have to leave it. I consoled myself with the thought that I reckoned it was only 12 miles to the checkpoint after Lincoln and I could rest or stop there if I wanted. This was, unfortunately, entirely incorrect, as it was nearer 17-20 miles to go, but it was probably just as well I didn’t know that.
Out of the checkpoint, the wind grabbed me straight away and got rid of any warmth I’d built up in the lovely warm car, but I got straight on and moved quite well for the next hour or so to warm up. I had been warned that the navigation through Lincoln was difficult: “head up hill to the cathedral, then to head downhill to the football ground and turn left.” The map was sketchy to say the least and I’d been told about a runner in previous years that had been lost in Lincoln for some time.
Rather luckily, just as I approached a locked gate that the route went through, Jon Steele caught me up and proceeded to take me directly up to the cathedral and then jog back down the hill, chatting all the way (well, not so much on the way down). He had finished the Viking Way in 2014 (in a vey respectable time) and was a really friendly bloke. He went ahead of me on the descent, but I saw a sign for the football ground and followed my nose until I found it.
The streets were pretty empty apart from people going to work (it was about 7am on Sunday, so there weren’t many!) I asked a convenient local if I was going in the right direction on the map, and he luckily pointed me in the right direction through the maze of streets to the far side of Lincoln. After a particular bugger of a hill (the road sign said 12% but I reckon it was near vertical) and then I was back on trail, a long path that seemed to overlook the whole city.
It soon got light, which perked me up as usual, and the Jon caught me up from behind, having got lost near the football ground somewhere. We stuck together for the next few miles semi-following the map & signposts, apart from one memorable part when we had somehow got turned round and were about to head the wrong direction until Ronnie Stanton turned up in his car (excellent timing) to point us in the right direction.
Shortly after that (funny that!) Jon decided to run ahead to see if he could make the cut-off at the next checkpoint, which I hoped meant it wasn’t far to go. Unfortunately it lasted ages, and the last page of the map before I got to the checkpoint seemed to take forever. The track was muddy and unpleasant…nicely sloping down towards a rusty barbed wire fence in case you slipped. Three mountain bikers went past, and then hilariously had to keep stopping to unclog their chains from all the mud that was clogging them up.
I’d like to say the last hour or so was a triumphant lap of honour into the final checkpoint, but it was a slow long drag. I’d missed the cut-off, so wouldn’t be going any further, but it was a shame to finish like that. I was pretty sure that there would be no-one left at the checkpoint, as they would have been waiting around for ages, and I’d already made my plans to backtrack to the previous town, Wellingore, and get a taxi if required. But I was massively surprised to see a few cars still there, and the van (meat wagon) that had been transporting runners that had dropped back to the checkpoint was waiting for me. That was a very pleasant surprise, and an easy way to get back to the hotel.
Because the race entry was relatively small, most of us were in the same hotel in Oakham, and so after a quick sort out and sleep, there was a small crowd in the bar watching the tracker and waiting for runners to finish. My wife had driven up to meet me (because it was our 20th wedding anniversary, obviously) and we had a nice meal in the hotel before a good nights sleep.
In the end, 6 runners finished, which was a superb achievement given the conditions. Alan Cormack, who was the last person through the 100 mile checkpoint before it closed made a valiant effort to beat the cut-off, but didn’t make it in the end.
And what do I think a few days later? I had a blast, only managing 100 miles (which isn’t great) but the atmosphere and team spirit in this small race more than made up for it. With only 29 starters (and 6 finishers) it was a friendly feel, and meant most of us were at the same hotel at the start and finish. The non-pampering aid stations were fine and adequate, provided you didn’t expect a banquet (or brought your own food), and was a great leveller.
The route was pretty uninspiring to be honest, with little scenery and too much mud. But it was mainly off-road and had towns every few miles so easy for re-supply. In January, the fields were deserted, but I imagine in April they are a lot busier with walkers and rampant cows & bulls.
The crews at the various checkpoints were brilliant, with just the right amount of care (but not too much). Karen and Peter were in the background all the time, and the organisation all seemed very slick.
So is a Cockbain event suitable for everyone? Absolutely not, but don’t let that put you off. I’m not quick enough to achieve cut-offs on most Cockbain races, but I loved the atmosphere and enjoyed every minute.
Last but not least, as always, a very quick thanks to my long-suffering wife, who is getting used to travelling to odd places for our wedding anniversary, maybe Kirk Yetholm next year! Who knows?
There comes a time in every man’s life that he has the urge to see how far he can run whilst chained to another runner. It may not be the most logical urge, but it should not be ignored.
And that is the short version of how I came to be linked at the wrist to a bloke I’d met just once before, at midnight, at the centre of England (a place called Meriden, near Coventry) with 36 hours of running ahead of us…and the inevitable awkwardness to come that occurs when you need the toilet and can’t hold it any more.
But I’m getting ahead of myself…let me explain.
The ‘Escape from Meriden’ race is a great idea: a few hundred runners all set off from the same place and can take any route they want to get as far away from the central point as they can, as the crow flies. This means that route choice is hugely important, and puts a new slant on the usual ultra races that simply ask you to follow a pre-determined route. There are no cut-offs here, or even a finish line….you run as far and as fast as you want, stopping for food whenever you want, until your time is up. You have a tracker that shows where you’ve gone, and tells the computer what your final distance was.
You have 24 hours as a single runner, which is quite a respectable time to get a decent distance away if you choose a direct route. If you choose to be chained to a friend, as part of the Cockbain Events twist on the idea, you get 36 hours to travel as far as possible. Naturally, given the sadistic nature of Cockbain (who simply makes already difficult ultra runs as hard as possible, verging on the impossible), the 36 hours allows more time to fall out with the idiot you have chained yourself to, more time to need the toilet, more time for the cable ties at your wrist to cut deeper, and more time to not be able to put on or take off any upper clothing as it gets cold at night or warm in the daytime.
And the race started at midnight, so that people would get the least possible sleep beforehand and feel really terrible at the end.
And did I mention that they like you to wear an orange boiler suit so that you both look like escaped convicts? No? I didn’t think so…it’s kind of unlike most other ultras in most respects, but that’s a good thing. Perhaps.
I’d entered in November 2017, after seeing the aftermath of that years run, and had planned on running with my usual running mate John, but he has taken some time out and so a few months ago I asked a guy I’d met doing Ultra-Trail Snowdonia in May whether he’d be interested. Adrian basically prevented me from dying on the jagged peaks of Wales (race report HERE, but be warned – it wasn’t pleasant) and after spending most of the 26 hours together for that event we were quite well acquainted. He is a true mountain goat, and considers ‘scrambling’ (what I call “dangerous mountain climbing”) a key part of a good hilly ultra. He has completed loads of tough races abroad, like UTMB 3 times, MdS, and others that need abbreviations as I can’t spell them.
I don’t have quite the same qualifications, but I’ve done a few longish ultras like TR250 and GUCR, and a few fairly tough races like Arc of Attrition and Spine Challenger. I’m happiest running on the flattest part of flat Kent, especially if I’m allowed to walk a lot and eat cheese rolls.
But the most important quality I needed for my partner at this event was the fact that Adrian is happy to chat away for hours and hours (hopefully 36 hours in fact) which he had shown me in May. It’s not easy spending that long with someone (attached to them!), but I was confident that we would while away the hours in a very enjoyable way.
My original route, when John had been my partner, had been to link up to the Grand Union Canal, which would lead us toward London for 100 miles. Adrian had other ideas however and rather cleverly worked out a detailed route that took us towards Liverpool (literally in the opposite direction to the one I’d been planning). His route was more direct, and was also mainly on canals, so was flat and simple.
One of the principles of the race, as it has no finish line, is to get a certain distance away from the starting point as the crow flies to earn a medal. For the single runners, in 24 hours, 30 miles away meant a silver medal, 60 miles away gave a gold medal and 90 miles away meant a much coveted black medal. To travel 90 miles in 24 hours as the crow flies would mean a total distance of probably closer to 105 miles, which is good going considering there are no aid stations or rest points.
As a chained runner the targets were a little simpler…get over 90 miles as the crow flies & 130 miles total distance to earn a chained medal. That’s much easier to understand, although much harder to achieve, even if you do have 36 hours to do it in.
Adrian’s route would get us 90 miles in about 105 miles of running, and then if we were in good enough shape we could make up the distance to 130 miles by running back and
forth along the flattest piece of land we could find.
We communicated by messenger throughout October and November, making arrangements and sorting out most of the logistical things. It was pretty clear that our best chance of getting a long way was going to be to find someone to crew us as the route did not have much in the way of places to eat. Adrian managed to find a willing guy, Dom, who was looking to turn our run into an assignment for his journalism course, and thought we would make for an interesting subject. I think it is a great idea, but I imagine you won’t be seeing me on Netflix any time soon.
My thoughts beforehand were quite mixed: I was looking forward to the run (as always) and with my wife driving up to Liverpool at the end, it was looking likely to be a really decent weekend away. However, I was understandably nervous about the chain aspect – the picture that Mark Cockbain put onto Facebook a few weeks before made the chains look bloody heavy and that would be really unpleasant after a while.
I was also really quite uncomfortable about the fact that I wouldn’t be able to put a coat or top layer on or off for the duration of the run. I really don’t like to be too hot or cold, and the idea of having to wear the same layers at 2 a.m. (beside a freezing canal) and at 2pm, when the sun would be shining, was preying on my mind. In the end I decided on two good thick layers, both with zips to vent heat as required, but nothing waterproof or too heavy, with the hope that the activity would keep me warm enough. Both Adrian and I had plastic ponchos that we would use if it rained hard, but luckily the worst we had was some heavy drizzle.
The race started at midnight Friday night, so I got the train to Meriden in the afternoon (from deepest Kent) and spent the next few hours in a pub eating burgers and dozing. As it got busier in there I found a quieter corner and sorted my kit out. Whilst everyone was starting to get pissed, it appeared I was the only one in there changing my socks and changing batteries in GPS units, strangely.
At about 8pm I made my way to the local Methodist Church, to find it all locked up and 3 other runners slumped outside waiting for someone to turn up. The midnight start was particularly disconcerting as we all felt ready to get going, and still had hours to wait.
I wondered off to the town centre to get some more food (fish and chips this time, if you’re interested) and some orange juice. And some more food for the run (you really can never have enough!)
We got in about 9.30ish, and lounged around on chairs while the organisers sorted themselves out. There was a very relaxed atmosphere, with no mandatory kit check, no race numbers (although they were available if you wanted), and even the coffee that was provided by the church helpers was done for a donation rather than £2 per cup.
As Adrian hadn’t yet arrived, I registered and got our tracker, and collected our orange boiler suits. I should point out that boiler-suit-wearing wasn’t strictly enforced, but I thought it made for much more fun. In fact, it may well become a ‘thing’ in future as by the end mine had kept in really good condition, despite various bushes and trees tugging at it along the way and despite the hours of drizzle on the first night (it was made of papery material, so didn’t absorb the moisture). It kept me warm when I needed it but unzipped down to the crotch to release heat if required. It definitely should be part of every ultra from now on, but perhaps not in bright orange.
Mark Cockbain set his table up in a corner, with chains, and stood there looking suitably hardcore. Most people avoided him. I definitely did.
While I waited, I got chatting to a Scottish guy that I thought I recognised from Facebook, and sure enough it was Alan McCormack who I’ve followed through some amazing runs that he’s done over the last few years. He was doing chained too (naturally!) and I was suitably in awe to be in the same room as him.
Adrian got there about 10.30pm, and we went outside to Dom’s car to faff with kit and stuff. We sorted our kit and I talked Dom through the mechanics of the little camping stove I’d brought along for hot food. We got into our orange boiler suits and wandered back into the hall for the race briefing (“Don’t travel on motorways, don’t die, good luck”) and saw quite a few chained runners had already got their chains fitted. We got to the table and were in fact the last people to be linked together. I had a thick sweat band on my left wrist, which I hoped would deal with the inevitable chaffing, and the two chunkiest cable-ties were quickly tightened on. The chain wasn’t as heavy as I’d worried about, but it was still very noticeable, and as it was only a metre long neither Adrian nor I had much space to manoeuvre. It was going to be interesting running like this!
We were the last to leave the hall and make our way to the stone cross that signifies the centre of Meriden (and England). There seemed to be a lot of people waiting to run, and before we knew it there was a countdown and we were off. Probably the most bizarre thing of the whole race was a start where the whole group of 200 runners all went in different directions.
Congratulations reader! You’d made it to the start of the run! It (surely) can only get more interesting from here….or perhaps not!
So Adrian and I set off running, attached at his right wrist (& my left) by a 1 metre chain. In fact, despite not having practised or even met each other since the race we did in May, we settled into an easy jog and began to work out what our game plan was going to be for the next 36 hours. Adrian had planned a good flat, easy, route and I had it on my little GPS unit that would keep us on track. I would be the navigator. Adrian was probably going to set the pace for the first part as he was less used to running on flat canals, so he would go in front if we couldn’t run side-by-side. He would keep his phone switched off to conserve battery, and in fact was barely carrying anything other than his phone and a bit of food. I would keep my phone on as I was carrying a charging block & leads and tons of other essential bits & bobs. This meant I was in charge of communications with Dom in the car. It was a good start as we chatted about what the next few hours and miles would hold.
It was amazing how quickly everyone else disappeared into surrounding roads leaving us to our own devices. Luckily, we both took the chance to have a wee (together) before we were entirely alone – sorry about that everyone. The roads we started on were quite quiet, and as it was midnight we were able to run side-by-side most of the time.
When we joined the canal our path was quite wide and decent, but every time we came to a narrow part Adrian took the lead and trailed his right arm back slightly and I went behind and extended my chained wrist, meaning that we still kept up the pace without too many difficulties.
The route took us south of Birmingham and onto Wolverhampton. It was all fairly built up and industrial for the first 20-30 miles, which wasn’t the most picturesque part of the run, but the surface was excellent which more than made up for it.
Although it was the early hours of the morning, and neither of us had slept, we chatted the miles away and caught up with what each other had been up to in the last 6 months. The drizzle was quite heavy, but the boiler suits kept the worst of it off and it wasn’t a problem. I remember thinking that I must have got my clothing about right, as I wasn’t too hot or cold.
Dom met us at about mile 17, having missed us earlier due to our tracker not updating particularly quickly. It is particularly challenging to drive in an area that you don’t know, to a point on a GPS route that you hope to meet some runners, find somewhere safe to park and the get to the route to intercept the runners, especially when it is pitch-black! Dom managed this admirably well considering it was his first time doing anything like this.
Adrian spent a little time sorting out his feet, while I had a quick bite to eat. We were all fairly chirpy (given the time of the morning) and I was looking forward to dawn and feeling a bit more energetic in the daylight.
As we left the more industrial areas behind the path changed to grass, which was much softer on feet. The grass was very wet though, so shoes quickly became soaking wet. I was wearing (as usual) my trusty waterproof socks, which meant my feet were sweaty but mainly dry. Adrian was having a rather harder time of it, and would change his socks numerous times over the next 12 hours to try to stop his feet rubbing.
Dom met us again at about mile 28, which was about 6.30am I think, just as it was getting light. We’d worked out a plan before we got to Dom, so Adrian took the chance to have a quick nap (in the driver’s seat) while I sat on the floor outside the driver’s side of the car boiling some water and making cup-a-soup.
4 soups later (in 15 minutes) I was feeling lovely and warm inside and celebrated with a tin of mackerel and some painkillers. It appears that John isn’t the only person I’ve run with that has a problem with my eating tinned mackerel in a race, as Adrian strangely turned down my offer of his own tin of fish (in a tomato sauce, naturally) which might have made him immune to my whiffy breath for the next 20 miles. Doing all this while only really being able to use one arm was slightly challenging, but it’s amazing what you can get used to if required!
A small group of workmen had gathered to watch us near some gates, as their dog sniffed around my mackerel, but none of them asked us what we were up to. In fact, we passed numerous dog –walkers and people out and about during the run and hardly any of them asked what we were doing….dressed in orange boiler suits and clearly chained together at the wrist. Perhaps they were scared of us? Sadly, we weren’t accosted by any policemen as has happened to other runners…maybe next time.
As we set off again, we were both in good spirits and feeling more alert with the rising daylight. At this stage we’d slowed to a fairly brisk walk for most of the time. The rough grassy ground didn’t help, and although there was a narrow path made by previous walkers we made better progress going on the left and right of the path so we a little more slack on the chain than one-in-front and one-behind.
As expected, every so often one of us would go through a bad patch where the chain would start to tug a bit more than usual as someone was going slower than the other. To be fair, this was taken (by both of us) as pretty much to be expected, so the faster one simply adjusted his pace downwards a little to allow the other time to come out of the patch. Usually, when running by yourself, it is easy to slow a little and give yourself 10 minutes to forget how tired you are and how rubbish you feel (and how much longer you’ve got still to go), but when attached to another person by a bloody chain it’s really not that simple. I hope I was as understanding to Adrian as he was to me.
The canal at first light was beautiful. Autumn was at its best and the fallen leaves made the ground (and the surface of the canal) look like a brown carpet. There were enough leaves still on the trees to give a nice canopy and I happily spent most of the daylight hours taking pictures in my mind of the scenery. I like canals, however mind-numbingly boring others find them…including Adrian unfortunately.
At mile 40 Dom met us at the Hartley Arms, a pub on the canal. Obviously we didn’t go into the pub, but what we walked up to was almost as good:
It was only 9.30am-ish, but we were in heaven in those comfy chairs, with hot water and food, and another change of socks for Adrian. His feet were being well looked after, but he was clearly suffering. I suspect we probably spent too long sitting there (only about 20 minutes) but it was the first comfy sit-down we’d had and we were going to make the most of it!
And then we carried on! Common sense would have keep us all snuggled up in those chairs for hours, but no! At some point I remember Dom leaving the car to run with us for a few miles, just to actually see what we got up to in between his meeting us. I suspect he couldn’t understand why we were going so slowly, as we shuffled through the leaves and his young legs bounced him along. I’m sure he was suitably unimpressed with ‘old-man’ running…
Although I was eating well and the weather and terrain was good, we naturally slowed as time went by. By this stage we were both using a pole on our unchained arm, to give us a little support. My back was starting to hurt (once again, carrying too much) and the pole just took the edge off the ache with the help of more painkillers.
At lunchtime Dom found us again (he was getting very good by this stage) and we had a quick sit and something to eat.
I was in increasingly good spirits, but I think Adrian was properly suffering at this point despite hiding it well. I was actively enjoying the canal experience – flat, monotonous, mind-numbingly boring – whereas Adrian is used to majestic peaks and climbs, meaning his legs get a thorough workout rather than just using the same muscles constantly.
As we carried on, and the afternoon ebbed away, we started to work out where we were likely to get to. The tracker showed us as only covering about 30 miles as the crow flies, despite our actual mileage being more than 40, which was depressing considering we hoped to travel 90 miles as the crow flies. Looking back, our route was less than direct at the start, where we go south of Birmingham, but after that we made some very straight progress. Unfortunately, at that stage of the afternoon we weren’t really able to work that out, so it felt like we were making really slow progress.
A few single runners appeared from behind us as overtook us. It was pretty unmistakable to spot the orange boiler suited runners, and although I’ve no idea what route they took it was nice to not feel quite so alone.
Having spent most of the previous 12 hours chatting away, we started to proceed silently for periods of time, which with hindsight I should have noticed more than I did at the time. Adrian raised the prospect of him stopping after we reached the 60 mile perimeter (as the crow flies), which would probably be about 10pm (that night), given our current pace. His feet weren’t improving and he was experienced enough to know when things weren’t going right. I suggested the idea of carrying on to 6am (Sunday), until dawn, to see how far that got us. We’d both been awake for about 35 hours at this stage (since 6am Friday morning) so the prospect of a second night awake wasn’t a pretty one, but once that night was over the daylight would be wonderful and we only had to carry on to midday Sunday (having starting at midnight Friday night).
One of the benefits of having a crew with us was that it gave us options if we did split up, as now appeared likely. Adrian could get a lift back to his house and get some sleep, whereas I could keep going (even though unchained now, so officially out of the race) to see how far I could get. I don’t do many races, but I like to make the most of them when I do, so it made sense to me to keep going until the 36 hour time limit was up.
We carried on, up what felt like the longest canal in the world. What made it worse were the milestones for Nantwich, which started at mile 36 and finished at about 3 miles short of our 60 mile target. Rather like watching a clock move, those miles counted down so slooooowly it was positively painful. Even I started to lose my love of canals by the end.
We had another stop at about 5pm, perhaps mile 50. We both changed our shoes and socks, and I had some hot ravioli (and made Adrian eat a couple of pieces too). I sometimes really struggle to eat on an ultra, but today was not that day! I was eating well, and could feel my energy levels bubbling along (within reason). Adrian was suffering, quickly getting very cold as soon as we stopped and needing a jacket over him to hold some warmth. This was probably one of our quicker stops due to the cold, and we knew we had to keep moving to.
As we left, we both put some headphones on to have some music to help us through the falling darkness and impending sleep-monsters. Of course, this meant that we now shouted every conversation with each other, which must have been great for anyone within a mile of us on that totally silent night.
Adrian had a very strong hour when we left, helped by dry shoes & socks, music and some hot food inside him. He was galloping along in front, making the most of his energy, while I was doing my best to squeeze up behind him as close as possible, trying not to trip or hold him back too much. The miles ticked away and Nantwich got closer (slowly, oh so slowly). Unfortunately, the grassy trails soon wetted through Adrian’s shoes and socks, making his feet sore again, and he understandably slowed a little.
I think it was at this stage that I got my first taste of proper frustration with the chain. I was feeling sleepy and knew that I had a horrible 10-12 hours ahead of me. I wanted to fast forward through as much as possible but the chain (in my imagination) was bringing me back to reality all the time. If I lost my balance and lurched left, the chain would tighten and both Adrian and I would have to adjust our stride. It was impossible to get a nice meditative stride going, that I could sleepwalk though, as there was a bloody chain (with someone attached) tugging at me every so often.
I’d like to put a positive spin on the next few hours, but they were pretty rubbish. Poor Adrian wasn’t getting much sympathy from me, and was giving every effort to ignore the pain. I was striding along in front at one minute, with the chain quite tight between us, to falling asleep on my feet the next. It wasn’t great.
Dom managed to meet us once more with about 6 miles to go, at about 10pm. He’d got the chairs out and both Adrian and I gratefully sank into them and took some weight off our soaking feet. Adrian almost immediately started to get cold, but we took a few minutes to eat and sort ourselves out.
There was a brief discussion about going the last few miles by road rather than canal, to get away from the wet grass, but as it was a mile further that was quickly put to bed. I had another 2 cup-a-soups bringing my total for the day to about 12 I think…lots of good calories there!
It was evident when we set off just how tired we both were, as we needed Dom’s help to find the canal and get back on the route. Those last few miles seemed to take ages, especially as there was some kind of diversion away from the canal due to repair works to a bridge. The diversion was slightly debatable, and in our sleep-addled state both Adrian and I were long past debating, and were firmly into “polite argument” territory. We were both too sensible to get riled up, but I’m sure I was just as keen to go the way I thought it was as Adrian was. Happily, we got back to the canal in the end.
Finally, finally finally, we got to Barbridge which was our end point, about three miles beyond bloody never-arriving-Nantwich at almost exactly midnight. This was our agreed splitting point, as we were firmly through the 60 mile as-the-crow-flies point, and we had travelled 75 miles in total. Dom had rather cleverly got to a pub that we found quite easily, and we had a picture taken to show we got that far still chained together.
With that formality out of the way, it didn’t take much time to cut the damn thing off Adrian and go back to being a single runner again. I was genuinely surprised at how much I’d grown to dislike that damn chain, just as I’d been surprised how much it hadn’t bothered me at the start.
Sitting as a ‘free man’ I quickly gulped down some hot beans and chucked a couple of wagon wheels in my pack for the next few hours. Even half asleep, I was awake enough to put in my spare head torch battery and a waterproof, but I was still trying to travel as light as possible. Dom would drive Adrian home, get a few hours sleep at his house, then come back to keep me going at 5.30am-ish for the last few hours until the race was officially finished at noon. The chain would come with me, still attached to my wrist…even if the race was officially over for us, I would morally stay ‘chained’ until the end.
I set off with a bit of a spring in my step…I was free to go at my own pace (slow or fast) and although I was sleepy my energy levels were good. I was walking with 2 poles now, which meant my back ache that had become a constant nag soon dissipated. I shortly came off the canal completely and was faced with the prospect of hours of road to get to Liverpool.
A few things went wrong here. Quite shortly, Dom phoned up to say that he felt he’d need more time to get Adrian home & get some sleep himself – he wouldn’t be back for 5.30am-ish, probably closer to 9am. Oh dear, not great but to be fair he was as knackered as anyone so I couldn’t really complain, and obviously he was driving so absolutely needed to get some rest.
Then I went wrong, twice, and stupidly got myself confused to get back on the right track. Only probably 15 minutes wasted, but the mental telling off I usually give myself for going the wrong way is quite draining.
And then my head-torch died. This is an expensive 17-hour-battery-life piece of kit, and for some reason the fully-charged battery decided to die on me…at about 1am on some pitch-black road in the middle of nowhere. Can you tell I was slightly emotional about it? By some huge stroke of luck I’d packed my spare battery when I left Dom and Adrian, so I swapped them over and it sprang back into life. Phew!
The roads I was travelling on were fairly undulating country roads, without a pavement, but due to the time of night there were very few cars. I was pretty careful to keep my eyes peeled though, as those cars were going at some serious speeds on the windy roads and there was little room for manoeuvring if I didn’t put myself in a hedge every so often.
And then I got another call from Dom. He’d dropped Adrian off, but hadn’t been able to sleep so was heading back to Manchester to get some proper sleep. This meant he would not be able to come back to crew me for the remaining time, but he’d left my kit at Adrian’s house in Liverpool.
It was about 1.30am, and I am confidently going to say I didn’t take this news particularly well. I had a couple of wagon wheels and about 500 ml of water to last me the next 10.5 hours, until noon. I had money, if I saw any shops (and they were open), but at this point I was in deep countryside. I’d been awake for about 43 hours and on the move for just over 24 hours. I wasn’t a happy rabbit.
After a fairly short conversation, I sat on a grass verge and pulled everything out of my pack to work out what I’d got. I had a waterproof jacket in case of rain which was the most important thing. I had some pro-plus in my little medical kit (that I don’t think I’ve ever used) so took one of them to spice my life up a bit, and also found a rather battered rogue tin of mackerel that I’d been carrying around for months right at the bottom of my pack. I had 2 wagon wheels too. Provided I was careful with my water consumption, by taking a couple of big gulps every hour I probably wouldn’t run out until 6am. The mackerel and wagon wheels would get me that far too. After that I’d get a bit hungry, but in daylight I would be able to knock on a door if necessary…hiding the chain, obviously, and possibly having to provide a reasonable explanation for my orange boiler-suit too.
The pro-plus perked me up a little, and I spent the next 5 hours moving reasonably well, with my brain filled with all manner of odd thoughts. The roads were boring and but my GPS was all I had to follow as I didn’t have a map or anything. Adrian’s route was spot-on so I simply followed it home. In fact the night passed quickly, with the help of a considerable number of my pro-plus tablets. I stopped at about 3am for a ‘picnic’ of mackerel, wagon wheels and another pro-plus.
I was starting to imaging things in the shadowy light – every scrunched up leaf was a £10 note, the tree up ahead looked like a bunch of kids waiting to mug me, that car cruising past me and then turning round up ahead looks just like a police car. In fact, the last one was actually a police car, coming back for a closer look at the orange-coloured demented walker at 4am in the middle of nowhere. Strangely they didn’t stop to chat.
As the surroundings became more built up, I became aware I was getting nearer Liverpool and my finish point. My wife, the long-suffering Claire, was driving up from Kent in the morning, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her I hadn’t made it after she’d driven all that way….so I needed to get there!
As dawn broke, and the birds started signing, I reached the bridge over the Mersey that meant I was pretty much at Liverpool. Still a long way to go, but I vividly remember taking ages to cross the bridge and seeing the red dawn in the distance. I was too tired to appreciate it at that point but looking back it was very poignant.
On the far side of the bridge, and with daylight fast approaching, I realised I had completed my second night out, and that I’d be able to sleep in about 7 or 8 hours. That was a good thought. I didn’t feel particularly sleepy, but I was aching quite badly and was looking forward to finishing and getting the weighty pack off my back.
As I stopped to take this pictureI was passed by a female runner, out for a pleasant Sunday morning run in the dawn. She gave me a second look (not surprisingly) and I commented that I hadn’t expected Liverpool to look so lovely. She replied, in the thickest scouse accent possible, that it was a very beautiful place. Hmmm, not sure about that.
About 30 minutes later she passed me again, going the other way, and this time stopped to ask what on earth I was doing. I explained, and checked my location with her, and on the spur of the moment asked to have a picture taken with her and my chain, to show it was still attached.
Maybe (I thought) I could persuade people I’d run all the way chained if I asked random people to pose for photos with me & chain. As you can tell, my thought processes weren’t too great at that point.
As I carried on round the water’s edge, I started to work out where I wanted to finish at noon. The ideal place would be to stop at the hotel where I was staying with my wife, so I could meet her there when she arrived. Google maps told me it was a little over 8 miles away, but it was only 8am, so I could get there slowly and take my time. It was that point that I stopped following Adrian’s awesome route and headed for more central Liverpool, but at that time of the morning I’d covered about 28 miles since midnight and I thought I could probably manage another 8. I knew I hadn’t made the 90 miles distance as the crow flies, but I would cover over 100 miles total distance which was a good thought.
Just after 8am I had a call from my wife saying she was about 180 miles away, and it seemed the race was on! She had 3 hours to drive 180 miles and I had 3 hours to walk 8 miles. I know who my money was on to get to the hotel first.
I took quite a few rest breaks here, and I’m sure that the other people at the bus stop I rested at were grateful I didn’t get on their bus. I put something up on Facebook to explain I wasn’t chained anymore but was still going, and took the opportunity to text the race director that I was by myself but would carry on until noon.
I started to see shops along my route, and began the salivating thought of my usual finishing food of pints of milk and Ginsters slices. I think my body seems to know that at the end of a run, the drinking of milk is a sign to relax and rest. Although I hadn’t eaten for hours I was not feeling particularly hungry, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to eat, drink, rest. Ohhh the thought of sitting down and taking the weight off my feet was lovely.
I managed to keep moving until about 10, when I weakened and decided I could get something to eat in the next shop I came to. 10 minutes later I was buying 4 pints of milk and three pasties, and to try to delay eating them as long as possible I wasn’t allowed to eat them until I came to a green area (not a grass verge) that I could properly lay down on.
So there I was, walking along residential streets carrying 4 pints of milk, dressed in an orange boiler-suit, chain wrapped round one wrist. I must have looked a very odd sight. At this stage my brain wasn’t really functioning properly. A stranger pulled up in front of me, across the pavement, and I remember looking at him as I couldn’t understand why he was stopping on the pavement (I guessed he must be parking or something) but he had a UTMB t-shirt on so maybe he was into running as knew what I was up to. This is what I thought as I walked round the rear of the car to carry on my journey. When he said my name, I assumed I must know him, but I really couldn’t work it out until I got closer to the car and realised it was Adrian, come out to see if I was ok. I was (I think) pretty short with him as I was struggling to string too many words together and all I wanted to do was get to this green are and drink my milk. He was taking his family out for breakfast (got his priorities right!) and although he asked if I wanted to join them I couldn’t think past the pints of milk I was carrying. Sorry Adrian!
So at about 11am I finally got to lie down in the grass, and eat and drink.
It was as good as I expected. I lay in the sun and tried to ignore the cars slowing down as they passed me to get a better look at the tramp on their green spilling milk down his front.
And then I was up and off for the last few miles. Eventually Claire did beat me to the hotel, and I stopped at noon and sat on a park bench, asking her to come and get me for the last half mile. At that point I’d been awake for 54 hours, and wasn’t really making too much sense in my head. I stopped my Garmin at noon and worked out I’d travelled 106 miles, 75 chained to Adrian. Not very far in 36 hours, but good fun nevertheless.
I’d like to say the hotel didn’t think I was mental when we arrived, but I’d be lying. No amount of explaining was going to alter the perception of what I looked like. I lasted another 2 hours, consisting of a shower, Doritos and beer, before finally falling into a deep sleep for the afternoon. Magic.
Adrian reunited me with my kit, and Claire and I had a pleasant meal before zooming back to Kent the following morning. I wasn’t particularly stiff or sore, probably because I didn’t really push myself too hard on the run, and my feet were in really good shape. The only casualty was that my mind was a bit addled for about 2 days afterwards, as I tried to get my head back to normal…nothing unusual there then.
And that was it. I’ve got great memories of this run…especially the second night and the arrival in Liverpool. The whole concept of no finish line and no route means you are absolutely on your own and can go as hard or gently as you want. The race format has loads of scope, and in fact next year they are doing an “Escape from GB” where you have 48 hours to get as far away as possible….a great idea.
The final results were that only the chained couple got the 130 miles distance in (which is very impressive) but Adrian and I came about 6th (out of 14 starters) and passed the 60 mile distance comfortably. By myself I travelled 84 miles as the crow flies, in 106 miles total.
So, my thanks as always to the race directors Richard Weremiuk (Beyond Marathon Events) and Mark Cockbain ( of Cockbain Events) for a great idea and well executed race.
Thanks to Adrian and Dom for an enjoyable time, and I apologise for all the canals. Thanks Adrian for putting so much work into an awesome route that worked out really well.
Thanks to Claire for driving to Liverpool and back. The things she does for me!
And finally, thanks and apologies to my brain for generally getting muddled over the course of a couple of days. I think it’s mostly sorted out now. Possibly.
n.b. If you made it through this without wanting to top yourself, follow my blog so you’ll never miss the chance to hear me complain about running again!
From the Humber Bridge to Lincoln…wild camping in November is quite hard (but not impossible). Not interesting enough to write about, but a few nice pictures:
It’s now November 2018, and that fact alone will tell you that I didn’t have a great experience in July, when I did the Lakeland 100. Hence this is going to be a short (but sweet) report, rather than my usual mega-autobiographies….
After almost surviving the Ultra-Trail Snowdonia 50 in May (race report here), but at 26 hours to travel 50 miles…it’s not pretty) my mind was pretty blown for the following few weeks…and by that point there was little point in training seriously for LL100, so I didn’t really. I’d done the LL50 in 2016, and loved it (race report here…it’s a lot prettier) so I didn’t get too anxious about the 100 mile version, but I knew how rough it was going to be and was under no illusions how bad shape I was in. My running partner John was back with me, but was in equally poor shape having suffered with a few injuries and mojo-loss in the first half of the year. However, we’d been planning this trip for a year and were being expertly crewed by Mark & Sharon Foster, who had seen us round the Thames Path 100 & Arc of Attrition, so we set off for the lake district despite being rather unprepared.
At this point I should mention that 2018 had an unbelievably hot summer, with numerous days over 25 degrees…which is great unless you’re trying to run and basically having massive heat-related problems. I had my running kit down to a vest, skimpy shorts and a pair of socks…which was just about keeping me cool. Anything like a t-shirt was far too hot for me. I was suitably worried about how I would survive in such heat for hours on end…
The drive up was long and slow due to a combination of traffic & a car with old-fashioned air-con (windows) meant it was longer than it should have been but I managed to sleep for pretty much all of it, as usual. A pleasant night in a B&B in Ambleside, and then over to Coniston on Friday morning. A swift registration meant it was a pleasure to show John the atmosphere I had been raving about since 2016, and the reason we were here doing such an iconic race. John naturally got caught out for not having a good enough cup, and had to buy one…which was deeply satisfying. We caught up with Chris Kay, who we’d met on the Thames Ring 250 in 2017, who looked in great shape.
Then it was out to a field to park the car, and lie about waiting for the 6pm start. Although in the shade, it was roasting…easily over 28 degrees at midday, and absolutely the worst running conditions I could hope for. John and I were too restless to lie about for long, and went off in search of something to eat that would power us through 100 hilly miles in a day….but settled on bacon rolls (yum!).
Then it was time to get kit sorted and going. The starting corral was quite full, and John professed to feeling emotional at the opera singing while we waited to start.
I was totally unmoved, probably because I knew what was coming in the first 10 miles, and John didn’t (afterwards, he said he could not believe how long / steep / high the first climb was…and that was just the first taste of what was to come).
As usual, John set off quickly, and I gently followed. We all started walking at the first climb, and I caught up with John and then lost him again in the crowd. He apparently thought I was still ahead of him (somehow) so pushed on quickly to try to catch me up, while I slogged on behind.
It was hot hot hot, and I remember thinking after 30 minutes that my running vest was absolutely soaked with sweat, and that I must keep drinking to prevent myself getting too dehydrated. The first few aid-stations came and went, and I was already struggling to eat, after less than 15 miles. I was going too slow and I knew it.
A few times Mark and Sharon managed to get into position to say hello (no help allowed from crew, other than moral support). This was no mean feat in the Lake District, where a 20 mile drive might take an hour and only move 5 running miles. It was always brilliant to see them and helped enormously. They updated me on John’s progress, which was good, as he was so far in front of me at this point he was pretty much on another planet.
The first 20ish miles were quite dry underfoot, unusually, and made for decent running. Having covered the route before, it was nice to revisit some of the more memorable parts.
As it started to get dark, I teamed up with another runner, Paul, who was also dragging his heels a bit at the rear of the pack. It was good to have a bit of company, but I was just not feeling the energy and bounce I should have in the early stages of a race…I was slogging away like I’d already run 50 miles.
I got to Buttermere aid-station after 1am, I couldn’t eat (to be honest, the food wasn’t great) but I managed to get a couple of cup-a-soups down and was happy with that. I’m pretty sure I saw Jo Barret there, who I finished Spine Challenger with in January, but it’s all a bit hazy.
I set off from the aid station with a resigned head-down attitude. It was the lowest ebb of the night – that horrible low patch between 1am – 4am when everything is crap. Paul had the good grace to tell me there was a particularly tough climb coming up and I was not in a happy place. With the benefit of clear hindsight, I should have stopped, put on some music and taken some chocolate or a pro-plus of something to get my head back in the game. Although I thought of it, I didn’t want to slow Paul down on the narrow trail, and perhaps that was my undoing.
At about 3.30am, we were going along a very narrow trail, with a steep climb on the left and a very sharp drop down to a ravine on the right. As I was in front I could see two figures about 15 metres down the slope on my right, seemingly huddled together. As we got close, we could see that someone had mis-stepped and fallen, and there was someone trying to help, but the slope was so steep there was no way a single person could get them back up the slope. My first instinct was a lot of “what do we do etc.” as it looked like the person had an arm at a funny angle possibly broken (from where I was) and was only semi-conscious. It only seemed right to get down the slope to help the other person, so I slid down and supported her from the other side.
As more runners appeared above us there was quite a few different shouted ideas of what to do, including calling out mountain rescue(!), but in the end me & the other helper managed to get the injured runner to the top of the slope by inching up on our bums and lifting her in the same way while she pushed with her legs. She was still very dazed and shocked, and clearly was not with what was going on at all.
To be fair to the crowd of runners at the top of the slope, I reckon everyone stayed until we were safely up, and had gather the runners belongings that had scattered down the slope…but at that point it was clear she was going no further but would need to return to the last aid station, about 3 miles back. And she was not in a capable state of getting there (safely) alone.
There were no immediate volunteer to give up their race and return with her. So I said I’d go.
It was a spur of the moment decision, and I’ve agonised about the consequences ever since, so I’ll give you two different scenarios that might be true:
Scenario 1 – I’m a selfless hero, who saw the injured runner as clearly needing my help, and my conscience would not allow me to leave someone in such a potentially dangerous situation (miles from help, pitch black, middle of the night etc etc). I have some good running friends, who I hope would get similar sort of help if they needed it, even if it came from complete strangers. Anyway, it’s only a race, right! There’s plenty more out there to do!
Scenario 2 – I knew I wasn’t going to finish, I was already knackered and I hadn’t yet travelled 35 miles. This would be a easy way to quit without everyone thinking I’d quit. Perfect.
Ahhhh, which one is it? I honestly don’t know…maybe both.
Anyway, I walked her slooooooowly back to the aid station, passing the back-of-the-pack runners as we did. At the aid station (which had by then closed) they got us some tea and we dressed the runners grazes and scrapes. We were given a lift to the next aid station, Braithwaite I think, where Mark and Sharon met us and drove us back to Coniston where we let the injured runner get back to her tent at about 8am. Even after a few hours in a warm car and a sleep she was still confused enough to struggle to find her tent in the field at Coniston.
I spent the rest of the weekend in the back of car, travelling around with Mark and Sharon, catching John at various points. through the morning the weather steadily deteriorated, and those that had set off with the appropriate kit for a balmy summers weekend were quickly reminded of the changeability of the Lakes.
After we waited at Mardale Head (about mile 75) for an hour, watching the gazebo being lifted off its feet by strong winds, we finally opted to wait in the car, as it was so grim. John struggled in eventually, but he was shot to pieces. Immediately he saw the car, he fell to the ground and was clearly going no further. We warmed him up and tried to get him to carry on, but to be fair he was in pieces and the weather was getting worse. He’d managed some huge climbs and had done awesomely well, but his race was over. I have a sneaking suspicion that the fact I had already dropped made his decision easier…if I’d been still going he would have carried on somehow.
And that was it! We zoomed back to the b&b, managed a very woozy Chinese meal out, and slept like the dead. The next morning we ate well, and then headed south….a little stiff but none the worse for a bit of adventure.
So, where does that leave us? Naturally John was dead keen to enter the 2019 race, but it didn’t take long to persuade him that I thought it was too soon to go back to the Lakes (for me, anyway.) Me? I’m a bit more ‘relaxed’ about trying the LL100 again. It’s beautiful, but my legs need more in them to manage it comfortably. I’ve become a flat-land runner.
And was it a DNF? I’ve decided yes. I was unlikely to finish, and took an easy way out…but helping someone in the meantime. That’s enough – it wasn’t an entirely wasted effort.
So as always, my thanks to Mark and Sharon for another awesome weekend away. John for being great company and a brilliant training partner. He is now taking a well earned few months break from running, and thinking about what his next race will be.
Thanks to my long-suffering wife, Claire, who gives me leave to do these things.
This may have taken months to get around to write, but it is still a great race even with a patchy ending. It was a cracking experience, and I’m sure I’ll be back there someday.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the things I spent hours upon hours doing in the months before I did the Spine Challenger, was to research kit. I spent time reading every race report that I could find, but gave me valuable insight into what to expect and what to take with me. I spent time on the internet, reading about all the different types of kit available, at different prices, and their advantages and disadvantages. And the finally, and most importantly, I tried everything I bought to see if it did what I wanted.
So I’m going to run through the kit I ended up with, and why, and whether it worked for me. To understand my experience of the event itself, you can read my race report HERE, which may be useful as I will refer to certain things that happened.
I should make clear that I was only looking to complete, rather than compete, which means that I worried about weight from a comfort point of view (i.e. I didn’t want my back to hurt) rather than needing to run with my pack. I couldn’t in fact run very far with my 8kg pack, but a strong hike got me finished on 43.5 hours, which was better than expected.
From the ground up:
Shoes – I ended up using 2 pairs of non-gore-tex Innovate Rocklite 305’s. They have great grip, and are quite comfortable. In training I have run long runs in them on pavements, as well as hiking over rough terrain, so they are fairly versatile (i.e. not just hiking boots or trail running shoes). With 2 pairs, I was able to change for clean ones halfway, which meant my feet got a rest. There was lots of debate about whether Gore-Tex shoes were worth it, but the overall consensus seemed to be that Gore-Tex will keep the water inside the shoes once it gets in, where as non-waterproof shoes with quality waterproof socks allows the water that gets in to get out again, and feet stay (mostly) dry in the meantime.
Socks – I’ve been wearing this combination for a few years, and have found they work really well for me. I have a pair of Injinji toe liner socks next to my feet, and some thin running socks next to them. Injinji are really expensive, but I find they last for years (I’ve been using some 4 year old pairs, from when I did GUCR in 2014), and they prevent any skin rubbing on skin, preventing blisters. The thin running socks are simply there to absorb sweat that comes out of the Injinji. Over the top of these two is a pair of good calf-high Sealskinz, which although not perfect, keep the water out for as long as possible. Three pairs of socks may feel like overkill, but I have used this combination in numerous ultras and they keep my feet problem-free. In the Challenger my feet certainly weren’t dry after 12 hours, but the socks absorbed most of the moisture and my feet stayed clean. I took 2 full sets of the three pairs, and another for emergency that I carried with me.
A quick note here: no waterproof sock will keep your feet dry if you go through every puddle and stream available. I will do everything I can to keep my shoes dry, skipping around puddles and mud until it is absolutely avoidable to get them wet. I don’t like running with wet feet, and the cold would have been serious if my feet had been wet for hours. If there is no danger of feet getting wet, then don’t use waterproof socks, as they are bleeding expensive and hold the sweat inside, basically poaching your feet over a long period of time.
I should also add, that I have great feet! I almost never get blisters or problems, and when I watch people having their feet taped up at events I shudder. I’m just lucky.
Gaiters: when I’m out running I have a simple pair of dirty-girl gaiters, that cover my ankle and prevent sticks and stones going into my shoes. For Challenger, I invested in a pair of Bergaus GTX gaiters. These are expensive, but are probably one of the most important bits of kit after jacket and shoes. The gaiters have a strong thick strap under the shoes that can be easily replaced when worn out as they are attached by Velcro. The gaiters go from the tops of your shoe (another good reason for using a boot) right up to your knee, and fasten with velco all the way down. They close nice and tightly around your lower leg, and provide superb protection against water and mud. I don’t think you can run in them, but I didn’t try to be fair. They were comfortable and secure, I didn’t have to adjust them at all once I fitted them correctly. I suspect they will last me for years.
Underwear: I wore a pair of compression shorts under my trousers, to keep everything ‘tightly held in’ and prevent any chafing. These minimise any movement of my nethers, and hence no sore bits. They are quite tight to wear for hours, but worth it I find.
Trousers: I had 2 sets of base layers, once was a simple pair of compression tights for the first day that kept my legs warm under a cheap pair of running tights. The second was a pair of merino wool leggings from Mountain Warehouse (about £30). I only bought the merino wool pair as the internet seems to be convinced on the magic qualities of the wool…keeping cool and warm as necessary, and wicking moisture away easily. I have to say this was the first I’ve ever owned, but they did seem to be very comfortable and warm. I’m not convinced they were worth the price however, but as long as they last I will feel they were worth it. I can’t see myself wearing them for any other running events, but possible hiking in the cold.
I wore cheap running tights (from Sports Direct) over the top of both. I started with the compression tights and cheap tights for the first half, when my pace was going to keep my legs warm. After the first day I changed to merino wool and a second pair of running tights, when I expected my pace to drop and my legs to get cold. One the second day of the challenger, when I was in heavy rain and wind, my legs never felt anything other than warm and cosy.
I saw some runners wearing Montane hiking trousers and the like, which I suspect worked fine, but it seemed yet another expense.
Waterproof trousers: I used a pair of Bergaus Deluge trousers as my main pair. They performed well in the heavy rain, and even better they have a long zip up each side so can be put on over shoes – the last thing I wanted out on the trail was to struggle to put trousers on over shoes. I’m not a massive fan of waterproof trousers, but these did a great job without overheating my legs. If you want to have a look a them, go to Go Outdoors, where they have racks of every different type of waterproof trousers in different sizes, and try loads on. It’s like internet shopping but with stuff to try on.
Top base layers – I had 2 merino wool base layers, for similar reasons that the internet said they worked really well. Interestingly, I usually overheat on long runs and I found these worked well. They did fill with sweat if I didn’t vent them on big climbs, but did a great job of keeping me warm.
Top layer – 2 normal winter running tops that I use every year. These are quality Gore Mythos ones that I’ve had for years, but are fleecy on the inside and warm. They have a thumb hole that keeps the arms stretched all the way down to my wrist, which I like anyway, but this proved invaluable on the Challenger, and there was no skin exposed when wearing gloves.
Jacket – the most important piece of kit. I spent hours literally deciding which to get, as I didn’t own a good enough jacket previously. I went for a hard-shell jacket, which was going to be bulletproof in poor weather, but was heavier and less breathable. My recommendation is to go for the best you can afford, and I got a Mountain Equipment Rupal jacket. It was great, and gave me huge confidence when the weather got really bad on the final night. I spent a few nights training in it in the preceding months, so I was very experienced in unzipping to stay cool (it did get very hot on climbs) but I found that it was superbly wind-proof and overall I was really pleased with it. I strongly suggest you do more than internet shop for it though, research and then get into Go Outdoors or Cotswold Outdoor and try it on! (Then go home and order it for as cheap as possible).
Neck gaiter – I just used lots of buffs. I had a really thick one that I didn’t use, and the normal thin buffs did the job, even in strong wind. The added benefit was that they could be pulled up over the chin and nose if the wind was biting cold on exposed skin.
Hat – I took one very warm waterproof hat, that I got cheaply off the internet a few years ago, and wore at night. My jacket hood kept the rain off when the rain started so it didn’t need to be particularly waterproof, just warm. During the day, or if it was too hot, I used a buff on my head instead.
Quite a few people had peaked caps, to shade their eyes from the sun (I always run in one) but luckily we had not one scrap of sun the whole time.
Headtorch – I usually use a Petzl myo, which I find does everything I want and had great battery life. For the Challenger I traded up to a Petzl Nao plus, which was horrifically expensive (really really expensive) but after a recce in November with the Myo, I wanted more light for the night sections (i.e. most of it). I found the Nao plus gave loads of light (750 lumens I think, for 16 hours) and I liked the reactive lighting (which meant it dimmed in well lit areas to save battery), but in truth I didn’t like the rechargeable battery which forced me to buy a spare rechargeable battery just in case required out on the trail, and was fiddly to change. The charge time is 6 hours too, which meant it wasn’t possible to fully recharge while at an aid station. You can control the torch through an app, which also tells you how much battery life you have left….but it’s a gimmick.
I also took the Myo with me as a spare, just in case, and spare batteries for both torches. The Nao plus worked superbly on both nights I was out, and although it was overkill it did a great job.
Goggles – part of the mandatory kit, these were probably the most alien thing I’ve ever taken on an ultra. However, I read reports of racers having to retire a few years ago due to scrapes on their cornea from strong winds, so they are not to be ignored. I wear glasses, so I have a slight advantage in winds that others don’t, and for that reason I was perhaps a bit blasé about the goggles. I read lots of suggestions about them, and in the end I went for a reasonable pair of safety goggles from Screwfix. They have them on display in the shop-part of a screwfix, which meant I was able to try them on over my glasses. I read that a clear pair is much better at night than a yellow tinted pair (which is used for skiing), and mine were quite comfortable. I never actually used them, even in really strong wind.
Gloves – this was really interesting. I was clear that I needed a couple of good pairs that would keep my hands warm in the rain, and also a light flexible pair if it wasn’t raining. So this is what I ended up with – my normal thin running gloves, a pair of tough waterproof thermal gloves from Screwfix, a pair of thick Mountain Equipment mittens, and finally a pair of Sealskinz gloves that I bought at the last minute and didn’t actually use. The thin gloves were fine, but every gate or style that was wet was going to get my gloves wet, and cool my hands. The Screwfix waterproof gloves fitted really well over these gloves and protected them from any moisture, especially when going through the boggy section where I could easily slip and put my hand on the ground. These were basically rubber gloves, but I wore them more than any other glove especially when it was properly raining. My mittens are gorgeous and very warm, and I wore them every evening as the light fell and it got much colder. They are Primaloft, so warm when wet, and would be my glove of choice in the real cold. When I did my recce, I was able to put hand warmers into the mittens which kept my hands toasty when I was getting cold.
Overall, I have learnt that if my feet, hands and neck/head are warm then the rest of my body generally follows. Hence socks / gloves / buff & hat are probably the things that I already knew what worked for me, and I didn’t have to look around too much.
The only other bit of clothing I took, but didn’t actually wear in the end was a decent warm Rab microlight jacket, that fitted easily under my hard-shell, and kept me fantastically warm when I got really cold. It packed down to tiny proportions, and weighed about 250g, a worthwhile trade-off for the heat and confidence it gave me. I didn’t actually use it, but it was my “hypothermia-preventer” if I had needed it.
I was really tempted to carry more layers, t-shirts or more long sleeved tops that I could put on if required, but I kept them in my drop bag and in the end didn’t require them.
Rucksack – OMM classic 32ltr. Was bigger than I needed, and I had to be controlled so that I didn’t fill it with even more stuff, but I’ve used it a lot and it fits well. I especially like the various pockets it has on the waist belt and top. I used an OMM trio front pack, which was great, very big (4 ltr) and hold everything I needed for easy access. I had a single water bottle fitted to one of the shoulder straps woth an OMM pod, worked very well.
GPS unit – Garmin Etrex 30. I’ve had this for a few years, and it is simple to use but very good. If you don’t use one much at the moment, then get out and use it, especially if you aren’t very technological gifted. It is a bugger to get used to, but I can strongly recommend to make your mistakes when you’re not in a race. Please don’t underestimate this, unless you are an expert map reader. I can read a map, but not after 40 hours with no sleep, and the GPS saved me more than once.
Sleeping bag & bivvy bag. Dead simple…Alpkit Pipedream 400 and Hunka XL bivvy. The sleeping bag is good down to -6 degrees, and I slept outside in frosty weather in November with no problems. It weighs 800g, which is heavy, and is quite bulky, but it is such a reasonable price it seemed daft not to get one. The XL bivvy seems to be decent, but quite small (even though XL) for me – I’m 6ft.
Rollmat – also from Alpkit.
Stove – I used an MSR pocket rocket, and a titanium pot from Alpkit with waterproof matches from the internet. I didn’t take a heavy wind blocker, but a couple of pieces of stiff silver foil (cut down bits of silver tray) that would work if I couldn’t find any shelter. I didn’t use them in the end, but practised until I could set them all up, boil 2 cups of water to make cup-a-soup, drink and pack up in just under 10 mins. Even in that short time I was getting really cold (practice when out hiking, not in your kitchen!), so it is vital to practise to be quick. I was tempted to go for a jetboil or something similar, but I love the compactness of the kit I had.
Yaktrak pro – mandatory kit, didn’t use them, but the ice on the last night was eye-opening, so I almost used them. You need to practice putting them on! Get them cheap from the internet (mine cost £7.50, they are £20 in the shops)
Maps – a lot of people used the OS A-Z for the Pennine way, which has a highlighted line over the Pennine way. I went a bit more down-market, and cut up the required OS explorer map (i,e. waterproof and pretty bomb-proof) into A4 sized chunks. These were numbered 1 to 17, and each covered about 6-12 miles of the route. Hence, I could have a single piece of map in front of me, that was quite small and manageable, and I would change for the next map every few hours when I got to the top of the page. Worked really well (but it felt like heresy to cut a map up). I saw people using Harveys maps, but I really struggle with their scale. I’m sure I don’t need to say it, but please practice map reading a lot, even if you don’t intend to use them. Your GPS will do a lot for you, but confidence in your own abilities to get you out of trouble will be important.
And what else did I take?
Hand-warmers, from Tesco, one use only but stayed warm for 10 hours on my recce which was was beyond my expectations.
Plastic poncho, to protect in case of poor weather. These take up no space, are very light, and made me feel confident. I used on on the last night, and seemed to help (but that may be down to my bulletproof jacket).
Rubber gloves – plain old Tesco washing-up gloves, very light, which I kept on the outside of my pack and used when I took my disgustingly muddy boots and gaiters off. Purely psychological, but I hate to get my hands covered in bog when taking my shoes off.
Waterbottles, obviously. If using one with a bite valve and straw from the bottle, do put a bit of insulation on them. I found that while my straw didn’t freeze up (it was wrapped in felt and duct tape), my bite valve would crack when I used it as the water inside wiuld freeze. I learnt to blow the water out, back into the bottle, after every drink.
Food – tough one this, as everyone is different. I took 2 freeze-dried meals in my rucksack, 1000kcal each, in case of emergency. In my front pack I had a small bag of ‘nibbles’, like bars of chocolate, a cheese roll, a pork pie, boiled sweets, flapjack etc. It was about 12 hours worth of food for me, and I carried an identical bag in my rucksack. It worked well for me but obviously there were people there hardly eating anything from their pack and relying on cafes and pubs.
Spare shoelace. Just in case.
First aid kit, as required, and the smallest sharpest penknife I could find that had a pair of scissors on it. Look on amazon.
Phone, iPod, headphones…not necessary, but very welcome in the night. I also carried a charging block & lead, but didn’t use it…it just made me feel safer.
Poles – can’t forget these! I’m quite a fan of poles up the ascents, and used them for the Arc of Attrition and on the Spine. I know there are loads of sexy thin pair around, but I also read that alot of the thin ones get broken on the spine as there are a lot of nooks and crannies for the tip to slip into and get snapped off when you keep moving forward. On my November recce that was exactly what happened to me. So my pole of choice is…Amazon best seller “Pair of Trekrite Antishock Hiking Sticks / Walking Poles – Black”. These are chuncky and strong, and even when I did snap the tip off one on my recce I still used it for days. They are telescopic, which means they are bulkier than folding poles, but they work fine. Best of all they are £20. They weigh 285g each, which is loads, but I think worth it (Black Diamond are £80 and only a little lighter). Personally, I’d rather spend my money on a better jacket or solid gaiter than poles, but that’s just me.
I should point out that if I was in an event that only used poles for a small amount of time, these would be a nightmare to carry with you until they were required, so I’d probably get something smaller….but for Challenger, perfect. Oh yes, almost forgot, put duck tape around the top third of the pole, as it’s much warmer on bare fingers than the metal pole when holding them.
This is me at the end of the Challenge, after 6 hours of proper spine weather…you can see my front set-up.
My GPS is the grey think hanging in front of the OMM front-pack. I kept it there to be able to refer to it easily, rather than getting it out of a pocket. It was fixed to the front-pack with velco.
And my drop bag….
Two compartments at either end. One was filled with the immediate stuff I’d need to swap my muddy shoes out at the checkpoint aft erthe first day – plastic gloves (for keeping hands clean when getting boots off), bin liners (for dirty boots & gaiters), kitchen towel (to dry feet), crocs (for keeping bare feet of the ground…I wanted my soggy feet to dry out as much as possible, so they needed to spend some time in the air, without socks on, so used crocs. Not very good, as they were a bit restrictive and tight on my tender feet, I would have been better with soft sandals).
In the other compartment was all the ‘important’ stuff for the checkpoint that wasn’t clothing…about 3 charging blocks & leads (for charging head torch rechargeable battery, watch, phone), spare batteries (for GPS), replacement hand warmers (if I had used them in the fist leg, I would remember to replace them).
In the mid section of the drop bag was everything else! Complete change of clothing for the second half of the race (and a bin liner for all the dirty clothes to go in), small towel (which I didn’t use, probably a bit of a luxury to be honest), more spare batteries, maps for the second half,
And obviously the most important thing….a checklist ot make sure I did everything I needed to. With only one crack at the checkpoint & dropbag, you simply cannot forget anything, and no matter what you think your mind will not be running at 100%. Doing yourself a checklist also means you have run through what you need to do at the checkpoint previously, and so save you thinking on the day. It doesn’t need to be complicated, but it’s vital. Even though I had ‘fill water’ on mine, I was so keen to be on my way that I forgot…idiot!
And what else can I suggest…
Personally, I had all the big elements of my kit sorted by start of November, ready for a recce for a few days and a test of the kit. That gave me a chance to replace if things didn’t work, and also allowed me to use the vital Xmas period to justify spending yet more money on the smaller bits. Even more important, that allowed me to shop around and get everything at internet-cheap prices. Also, that allowed me to use November to practise will full race kit, clothes and pack, to get used to it. I cannot stress enough how important that is…you need to know where everything is without thinking about it (for example, I always put my gloves in the same pocket, so I always knew where to find them…as lack of sleep starts to bite that becomes really important as I found on the Thames Ring 250).
Training on muddy hilly ground is crucial, just to get used to it. I was driving for 45 mins to get to my cliffs, and then spending 7 hours going up and down, before driving home. Best to do this at night too…good practise, and also you are home for 10am Sunday morning and a day with the family (I didn’t say this was easy!). Also, staying up most of the night and then the rest of the day is great practise with sleep deprivation.
The few weeks beforehand, spend some quiet time working out what you want to achieve…not so much a finishing time, but if the weather and conditions get really poor, what is going to give you the motivation to keep going rather than DNF’ing. This sounds a bit cheesy, but you will be tested to the max out there, and it’s a big expense to quit halfway.
Read every race report that you can find, even if they scare you to death. It’s critical to know what to expect & where you will hit the big ascents. I didn’t watch videos of Pen-y-Ghent before hand (there is a link in my race report) but with hindsight I should have. Some people had used Google streetview to look at areas they could get to, but that is (perhaps) going a little to far. The internet has huge resources!
And finally, enjoy the experience. It’s not about a couple of days on the pennine way, but rather about taking on a huge challenge and spending 6 months getting ready for it. I’m sure there are some people who started preparation in December, but they are better than me! I’ve been left with a massive sense of achievement, as well as a “job-well-done” feeling, that is worth all the hassle.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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…