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Spine Challenger – Jan 2018

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

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


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

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

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

Me! At the start!!


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


The view from the back…..

 

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

Nice and steady at the start

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

Still smiling somewhere near Kinder downfall.

Thick cloud & hills

Thick cloud & hills

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Snow!

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

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

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

Last of daylight at the reservoir

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

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

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

BURGERRRRRRRR!

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

Footbridge over the M62

The M62 at night

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Covered in bog at the café!

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

Here comes breakfast, with a slightly embarrased waitress

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

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

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

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

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

It was cold up there!

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

Really really cold!

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

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

Beef goulash soup….yum!

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

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

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

Footprints to follow….

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

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

Nothing dry!  Thanks to Drew Wilson for the photo.

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

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

Magic pristine feet!

 

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

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

 

The slabs on the approach to Snake Pass

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

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

This is the approach to Kinder Downfall

Wild country!

 

It’s a bit grim isn’t it!

 

I think this is near Kinder Downfall, possibly

 

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

Thames Ring 250 – June 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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Calm, tranquil and flat!

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

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

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

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The  condemmed men ate a heaty breakfast…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Every good ultra should have a hat stall….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ah, the lovely facebook.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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yummmmmm………mackeralllllllllll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pic by Paul Ali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s tough work, looking after runners!

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

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Chris and John at the finish.

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

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

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

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

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Breakfast of champions!!

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

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

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John looking completely buggered somewhere….pic by Pam Philpott

 

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

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

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

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

 

Lakeland 50 – July 2016

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

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

The website states:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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The view from the bottom…..

 

 

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It looked far nicer from the top!

 

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

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

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

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Rooooaaarrr!!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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Still smiling!

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

 

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

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A sitting room..in a field!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Participant Details

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

A few days hiking and wild camping with Michael – July 2016

It seemed like a great idea at the time!  I would be travelling up to the lake district for a race, the Lakeland 50 on a weekend at the end of July, so why not extend it slightly and have a few days holiday at the same time?

This, over the first few months of the year, especially while my son was slogging away at his GCSE’s, turned into a full week in the Lakes, and although we talked about the whole family coming up…in the end it turned into just Michael and I.

Oh yes, did I mention we planned to wild camp?  I.e. carrying everything we needed so we could just stop wherever looked nice in the evening and make up a camp.  A particularly helpful friend, Mike Inkster, had lent me a little one man tent, sleeping bag & mat, which were unbelievably light, but with two of us going I began the long-winded process of finding something acceptably light but not too expensive that I could use.  In the end, I found a rather useful company called Alpkit who seem to be the ‘value’ side of sports kit – good quality but £120 for a sleeping bag rather than £300.

So, a load of new kit, a couple of practice camps near home (which got Michael used to waking up freezing cold!), and we were ready to go.  The packs we’d be carrying were quite heavy, but I was confident we could cope with some mileage if the climbing was not too bad.

The plan –

Drive up Sunday, and park the car in Coniston.  Get the bus to Ambleside, where we had a b&b booked (for a good nights sleep!).  On Monday we would walk from Ambleside to Coniston, which was about 15 miles, and camp somewhere near Coniston.  The added benefit was that we could be near the car if we were caught out by the weather or had a problem.

Tuesday was going to be the big day, with a route of 19 miles (possibly longer) and some huge ascent.  We would follow the first 20 miles of the Lakeland 100 route from Coniston to Wasdale Gap.  I knew this would be a test for us both…..a long way, over poor terrain, carrying heavy packs, after an uncomfortable nights sleep, in possibly poor weather.  We would camp at somewhere quiet in Wasdale.

Wednesday was the final push to Keswick, another 14 miles or so, and to a b&b and a soft bed!!   Then a couple of days of rest before the 50 mile race (for me).

We would be travelling very very light…the only spare clothes we would have while hiking was a clean pair of socks each day, although we both had a pair of quality waterproof socks to protect our feet from gangrene.  As well as our tents and sleeping bags, we had a tiny cooker, some noodles, and water bottles, as well as lots of ’emergency’ things that we didn’t use in the end (water purification tablets, a sharp knife, first aid kit etc).  We were well kitted-up.

 

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At the start of a long walk.  Monday morning and we look cheerful & well rested.

You can see from the above picture, we were ready for rain…and it did rain all day!  Marvellous!

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The walking was quite good for most of Monday, on a reasonably easy route.  It did rain though, and it was very wet underfoot.  We’d had a massive breakfast though, so were in good spirits.

20160725_121533There was a few of these massive wall-stiles, which were very slippery.  The rain, by lunchtime, had soaked our waterproof jackets completely, so Michael had to put on one of my plastic ponchos to keep the warmth in and the rain out.  It wasn’t ideal but did the job.20160725_133129The scenery was well worth it though.

20160725_140224And the local wildlife was interesting too!

We stopped for a bite to eat at Tilberthwaite, just before a big climb and the last few miles to Coniston.  Luckily it stopped raining for the 20 minutes that we stopped, but as we began hiking again, we sheltered under a convenient bridge while the next batch of rain passed.

20160725_144437I love the climb out of Tilberthwaite, and we met a slightly lost group of Duke of Edinburgh students (doing the Gold award) near the top.  We were all heading for the Coniston, so they followed us for about a mile, until we were at the highest point.20160725_153459

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Useful to find a helpful student to take a picture!

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Spot the ones still standing, and the D of E students slumped on the ground.

So we finished the route for Monday, actually clocking up about 18 miles somehow, which made it a much longer day than I’d planned.  This was supposed to be the easy first day!  Once we’d found a nice spot to spend the night, we headed for the pub and warmth and food.  Very nice it was too!

 

The camp was just by a river, and a nice wire fence that was perfect for hanging things from.  There also seemed to be a huge quantity of slugs in the vicinity, no idea why.  Most important, it was very sheltered by the overhead trees, and dry underfoot.20160725_201441

The next morning was an early start, as we had a long way to go!.  We were up and packed by 7am, and with only some super noodles inside us we needed to walk to the first pub quickly!

I’d had a fair bit of coffee, and Michael had some hot chocolate, to warm us up.  It was cold, but at least it wasn’t raining!

I’d warned Michael that the first climb out of Coniston was the toughest, with both the terrain and ascent being very hard.  To be fair, he did amazingly well, and by 10 am we were at Seathwaite eating Pringle’s.20160726_09215020160726_092157

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Seathwaite, Pringle’s, and a rest!  Phew!

However, Seathwaite was only 7 ,miles in, and we had a long way to go.  On the positive side, the weather was good and we knew there was a good pub for lunch at Boot.

 

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Looking quite happy, at the top of the latest ascent.

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This is what we had to climb down, after the picture above was taken.

We stopped for lunch at Boot, which we both needed.  Michael, bless him, fell asleep he was so tired.IMG-20160726-WA0000

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Mordor!

It was tough hiking, with lots of ascent and terrible terrain and we were both getting tired towards the end of the day.  However, some sections were just gorgeous, with the impression you could see for many miles.  At the top of some of the ascents, we were convinced we could see the sea.20160726_160908Our camp on the Tuesday night was, thankfully, a decent clearing. It had been dry most of the day and although we were shattered, it was great to stop.  We set up the tents and shot off for the pub.  Unfortunately, just as we set off, it started raining, and it didn’t stop until Wednesday morning.

 

20160726_181645However, the pub was good, and the food was better…20160726_191056

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Breakfast was on it’s way!

We’d decided the previous night that we would take it easy on Wednesday, rather than going for another massive day.  Both of us were pretty shattered, and after a fairly bad nights sleep in the rain I think we made the right call.

 

We would walk over another massive ascent, Black Sail Pass,  and then stop for lunch at the most remote Youth Hostel Association hostel, which  can only be accessed on foot.  This would be about 8 miles of hiking, but would allow us to get the bus to Keswick for a b&b without too much effort.

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The start of Wednesday, at Wasdale.  Do we look tired and smelly?  That’s because we were!

20160727_10063920160727_104326This picture shows where we’d walked up, on the way through Black Sail Pass.  Lots of stopping to rest, in order to keep going!  But look at the blue sky…that was great!20160727_10550420160727_11424420160727_11425420160727_120101

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A sheep.  Did not give a toss.

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After Black Sail Pass…do we look relieved!

20160727_12151020160727_121515And so back to civilisation, at Buttermere, where the bus stop was.  We had a tuna sandwich and a sit-down.20160727_145456We had covered just over 50 miles in three days, over massive passes and rough terrain, with both of us carrying everything we needed for two nights of wild camping.  We had eaten well in the evenings, but with minimal breakfast…with hindsight I would make more effort to ensure Michael had a decent breakfast.  I think I’m used to ‘running on empty’ more than he was, and I had the benefit of coffee (caffeine!) to spur me on through the first few hours of the day.

 

It was a spectacular few days though, and was almost worth the four months of GCSE revision…but not quite.