chained

Escape from Meriden: Chained – Nov 2019

Sometimes you need a break, to refresh and rediscover your mojo, which seems to have been lost along the way somewhere. A sort-of-holiday that will remind you why its fun to run ultras, to push yourself harder than is sensible, and come out the other end feeling more energised rather than less. It doesn’t make much sense to suggest that by flogging yourself out on a trail for a weekend, you will end up feeling better than before you started, yet that is what happened.
Back in May I was lucky enough to complete the Monarchs Way, a 615 mile, 12 day, suffer-fest, and came out of it ‘a shadow of my former self’ (as described by a running friend). I did finish, but was physically and (more importantly) mentally trashed. Predictably, I couldn’t see it (despite my long suffering wife telling me) and tried to get back to running after 4 weeks, but simply couldn’t manage it with any consistency. After another few weeks off I was able to run, but didn’t enjoy it like I felt I should be, and certainly would rather stay on the sofa than get out the door.
Fast forward a few more months, the summer is ending, and I’m starting to get proper lardy (yup, still eating, but not working off the calories at all). Running is possible, but unbelievably slow (think 10m/m at full speed!) and simply too much like hard work. Things were not getting better, and I was genuinely thinking that my ultra-running adventures were coming to a slightly sad end.
I somehow got myself round the Richmond Marathon in mid-September, in what was for me a very respectable 4 hours 29, although the last hour consisted of me digging myself into a deep dark hole and simply refusing to stop running and walk. I came out of that feeling pretty invicible to be honest, and promptly went and injured myself trying to get some pace back into my running.
I’m quite used to running with a small degree of dull pain in various places, but this sharp pain in my left hamstring was something new and unpleasant, and followed me around for weeks. I tried a couple of runs with my club, the most excellent Thanet Roadrunners, but dragging a leg behind you while running is a dispiriting way to carry on amongst lots of healthy bouncing gazelle-like runners.
Meanwhile, I had to start thinking about a ludicrous ultra I’d entered almost 9 months previously, which would mean 36 hours chained to a good running mate:
Escape from Meriden (from Beyond Marathon Events) is a really novel type of ultra, where everyone starts from the supposed centre of Britain, a place called Meriden, near Coventry. Everyone follows their own route, with the aim of getting a far away ‘as the crow flies’ within a certain time limit. Hence route choice is vital – it’s surprisingly easy to cover large distances of linear miles without necessarily moving as many ‘crow’ miles. Most people do it a singles, but the sadistic Mark Cockbain, of Cockbain Events, adds in a ‘Chained’ category, where we had 36 hours but had to remain chained at the wrist for the duration.

Because all runners have a tracker, the final effect is loads of GPS traces heading out across the land…

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Thanks to Richard Weremiuk, race director, for the picture. The different colours signify single male / female runners etc.  The gold circle is the 60 mile perimeter, black is 90 miles.

As a single runner, the challenge is to make it 30 or 60 or 90 miles as the crow flies, within 24 hours. As a chained pair, we had 36 hours to pass the 60 mile perimeter, and then try to make it 130 linear miles to achieve one of the legendary ‘chained’ medals. We had little or no chance of that sort of distance, but wanted to make it to 60 ‘crow’ miles and then see how far we could get. One of the novelties of the race is that there is the option (if you wish) to run in convict-style orange boiler suits, which make the whole experience far more ridiculous and open to abuse by members of the public.

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Just before the start, looking vey sexy in orange…

I had done the same event last year, but been cut loose after 75 miles when my partner had encountered some horrible blisters and I carried on by myself to reach Liverpool and 100 linear miles. This year I was back to see if I could do the same but remain chained this time!
I would be running with Mark, a really experienced ultra runner that I knew quite well. He was in really good shape, and I was frankly a bit of a wreck, and genuinely not sure whether I had the capability to keep moving for such a length of time. Mark was (as he kept reminding me) a few years older than me, but had completed huge numbers of marathons and ultras. To be fair, he hadn’t done so many of the long 100 mile plus races that I was more used to, but there was nothing about long distance running that he didn’t know. He and his wife Sharon had crewed me on Arc of Attrition and Thames Path (with another ultra runner, the youthful John, who currently is taking a few months rest) and so they knew my usual form of destruction. Mark had been on the end of the phone through some of the tougher patches of Monarchs Way, and had been hugely supportive toward the end when I was hurting.
We had a few meetings to discuss the route options, and agreed (thank goodness) that the overall distance was less important than actually having a bit of fun, so we would follow the Grand Union Canal from near the start towards London. This would be much less direct than a road route, due to the winding nature of a river/canal, but would be flat, picturesque, and I had a bit of knowledge of the path due to running it a number of times over the previous few years on the Grand Union Canal Race in 2014 and the Thames Ring 250. We planned on a 100 mile target in linear miles, about 75 miles ‘as the crow flies’, which would have us finishing about Kings Langley. Our race started at midnight Friday, and so would finish at noon on the Sunday…hence no sleep from early Friday morning to Sunday afternoon – probably 55 hours or so.
Sharon (Marks wife) kindly offered to crew for us, which is no mean feat for someone to navigate/feed/look after two tired runners, whilst keeping herself in one piece. Sharon is a no-nonsense supporter (frighteningly, rightfully nicknamed ‘Taser’, but obviously not to her face) – she will absolutely make a call for you to stop if there is a good medical reason for it, but otherwise will happily push you out into sub-zero temperatures with an extra pair of gloves and a Cornish pasty. However, her experience means she knows when to force you to eat and not to fret if you’re copiously sick all over the floor (as usually happens with me). As you can maybe tell, she’s a bit of a star.
Anyway, route decisions were made, and I was hearing noises that Mark was training hard, covering some good mileage before meeting up with club runs to carry on his training. I was still struggling to walk without pain, and was resorting to stretching (a sign of my desperation!) in the hope of some miracle fixing my leg. I was mentally looking forward to the challenge, but desperately didn’t want to let Mark down halfway. With 4 weeks to go we met for a chained night ‘run’ that I think I ran for about 3 or 4 half-mile sections before having to walk. Mark was very understanding, but we covered 23 miles in about 6 hours, most of it walking due to my leg not accepting that I was supposed to be a runner. Not good, although we found the chained aspect was surprisingly easy to get used to.
The race drew nearer, and I suspect that I would have bailed out if I hadn’t committed to taking part with Mark. My leg was finally starting to mend, and I managed a 4 mile run without stopping due to the pain in the preceding week. Unfortunately, it was going to be a long slog rather than a cheeky bouncing run, and I was thankful that Mark was understanding in this aspect. I didn’t appreciate until afterwards that he was actually quite worried about the whole ‘staying awake for 36 hours’ but he needn’t have worried as that was the least of our problems.
On the Friday in question, we set off for Meriden, checking the many flood warnings that the previous weeks torrential rains had set off.

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Just a few flood warnings then! Our start line was somewhere right in the middle…

It was all over the news that there were numerous road closures due to floods, and the race Facebook page was full of warnings to avoid any routes that went near rivers or canals as they would be impassable. As we had planned 80 miles of canal route this didn’t look promising. Mark and I had both packed 5 pairs of shoes and even more dry, clean socks so we could keep our feet in the best possible condition, but that wouldn’t help if our route was impossible to follow.
We had planned the first 20 miles of our route to be on road before joining the canal at Stockton Locks, to allow for as much quick running at the start as possible. As we got to Meriden quite early, we took the opportunity to drive the first 10, and understand the likelihood of flooding (very little, thankfully) and the possibility of having created a route that took us down fast ‘A’-roads with no pavements (also very little, thankfully).
After a hearty last meal in a nearby pub, we got to the race HQ in a bright Methodist church hall, and quickly found a corner to get changed, and faff with a bit of kit. Registration was quick and easy, and getting fitted with the chain was over in minutes. Mark Cockbain was being helped by Dave Fawkner, who I knew from the Thames Ring 250 in 2015, and they smilingly chained us together knowing the difficulties it would cause. There were quite a few chained pairs, and one triple (god help them) doing the race this year, and the whole church hall was full of orange boiler suited runners, excitedly waiting for a few minutes before midnight, and a slow walk to the starting point.
Mark Cockbain helpfully told us to be really careful when we said we were following a canal for most of our route, which didn’t instil confidence in our route choice. Everyone we chatted to, when we said we were following the Grand Union canal, repeated the Facebook message of ”don’t follow a river or canal due to floods”. It seemed we were making a mistake.
I had a couple of coffees and cheese rolls while the race briefing was going on, and as we left the hall just before midnight I felt my previous worries easing away, as there was nothing to do now but keep moving for as long as possible.

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Is there ever a time when cheese rolls are a bad thing?

Mark seemed in good spirits too, it seemed he was itching to get started. It was gently raining and quite cold, but we knew that some decent movement would warm us up soon enough. One of the biggest issues of being chained at the wrist is that there was no option to put a jacket on or off, so waterproof ponchos were our only hope of staying dry if the rain increased. We both had fleecy blankets (with holes cut in the centre for our heads) to wear as ponchos if it got cold, but they were there as a last resort only.
Without too much fuss, someone shouted ‘go’ and simultaneously 200 orange-boiler-suited people shot off in different directions. Quite a bizarre start to a race.
Mark and I started gently (no surprise there!) and chatted to a few runners for the first 30 minutes, but soon were all on our own. One chained couple were heading for Winchester (near Southampton) which was a huge target I think, but unfortunately I’ve no idea if they made it.
We had planned for Sharon to meet us about every 10 miles or so, allowing us to access our kit frequently enough that we wouldn’t have to carry too much. I must point out the advantage that Sharon gave us over the unsupported runners, and they not only carried more than us, but also had to plan for places to eat and get water. We were able to simply plough on until the next point at which Sharon would meet us.
The first 10 miles passed quickly, although the rain that had been a small matter of drizzle at the start had become quite strong after about an hour. We passed a train station and discussed stopping to put on something more waterproof than our boiler-suites. At that stage the advantages of the boiler-suits were showing themselves – as well as keeping us warm they were repelling the water just as well as a soft-shell jacket. Obviously, they would not continue forever like this, but in the short term they were a huge advantage. I suspect we have all fallen for the marketing of the running apparel companies, whereas a paper jacket will offer some huge benefits (for a few hours) at a fraction of the cost. Luckily the rain stopped after an hour, and did not return for the rest of the run.
We passed through the quietest university I’ve ever seen at 1.30am on a Saturday morning, without even being heckled by drunk youths (I’ll admit to being slightly disappointed), and hit our first rendezvous with Sharon at Stoneleigh. It was 2am, and happily Sharon had not expected us until 2.30am so we caught her having a brief doze. It was a testament to her organisation that she had a hot drink in our hands within minutes, as we sat in the back seat of the car.
We were moving well, my leg decided to behave itself (for now at least) and the decision to start on easy road surface made our progress swift and painless. We left Sharon for the next 10 mile road section with a spring in our step and headed out into the dark night. Neither of us was feeling the usual low of the middle of the night, which was great, and we both knew that making good time on the road was our best chance of hitting our 36 hour target.
At the next rendezvous we knew we would be changing from road shoes to trail, as that was the point we would be starting on the Grand Union Canal. We had no idea what the trail would be like, as my recollection was a mixture of both narrow and wide trail, a bit of tarmac and lots of grassy surface. Basically a mixture of everything, but that could all change if the routes were flooded.
Sharon was in a pub car park at Stockton Locks when we arrived, again we had taken a little over 2 hours to cover the 10 miles, although I had been forced to walking for a fair proportion on the last few miles while my damn leg shouted at me. Mark was very patient though, and did not complain.
Sharon fed us tea (for Mark) and soup (for me) while we changed shoes and had some rolls. We both put on Sealskins waterproof socks in case of flooded paths and some heavy duty trail shoes. Without wanting to sound dramatic, running directly adjacent to the canal posed a very real risk of falling in, and trail shoes will give a small amount of traction on a muddy surface. As a single runner, the likelihood of falling in was relatively small, but chained together was far more difficult, especially if the path was narrow. And even more if one of the runners (me) had the worst balance due to a slight inner-ear issue. Put simply, I can’t stand on one foot without wobbling over. Make me run on some nice slippery mud near to a watery pit and I won’t last long without lurching in one direction or another.
Anyway, suitably kitted out and well fed again, we left Sharon and proceeded onto the canal-side for the first time. Both of us were nervous about what sort of trail we would find. Almost immediately we were overtaken by two single runners, and then by a chained pair who were easily recognised in their orange boiler suites. They had covered their chain in an orange wrap, that meant it did not flap about and clink quite so much. Both sets of runners were moving really quickly on the muddy trail, and were quickly out of sight. They must have joined the canal further up behind us and were quite used to the muddy trail, whereas Mark and I were gingerly choosing our steps with care. We would soon learn!
As they went past, the two chained runners (who we were to learn were called Chas and Dave) asked us where we were heading, as they planned to follow the canal as close to London as possible. We said we were hoping to follow it as far as Kings Langley (which was probably 20 miles short of London) but that we were just out for a bit of fun, rather than destroying ourselves in the process. I am quite a fan of canal running (hence the choice of route) but they said they were already finding it a bit depressing in the dark. Oh dear! However, they looked in great shape as they sped off into the distance.

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Canal running, with a nice wide path is lovely…I promise.

The trail for the next ten miles was poor, being mainly very narrow muddy path. This meant single file movement, with the person in front having to trail their chained wrist behind them to give some slack to the poor bugger behind, who was having to extend their chained wrist and watch the floor in front for obstacles. It was slow and back-aching work. I generally went behind and got used to putting my chained wrist onto Marks shoulder so there was less danger of walking into him (and also steadied me from falling in the canal).
We were both thinking that if the next 80 miles of canal was like this we would be in trouble, as it was hard work to concentrate on just the few feet in front of you…nothing else mattered, as you simply couldn’t afford to trip. Luckily, we both later agreed this was the worst section of trail we encountered in the whole run, so we got it out of the way early.
Our next rendezvous with Sharon was at Braunston Marina, and we got there at about 7.30am thankful of the daylight.

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A crow waited for us at Braunston…

Sharon had parked in a small carpark, just off the canal, and had a fabulous pan of sizzling bacon waiting for us. We had covered about 30 miles, relatively slowly, but had survived the first night and were happy with the new daylight. We were in good spirits, and had a bit of fun with a ‘slightly vague’ resident that ignored the whole car park, choosing to park in their usual spot directly adjacent to us. After she enquired what we were doing, she turned down our offer to chain up with us for a few miles, but wished us luck for the rest of the run.

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Sharon, expertly posing with bacon.

We had more tea & soup, bacon rolls and generally felt like we could take on the world.IMG-20191119-WA0012 The new daylight had given us a surge of energy (as it would the following day too) and we were quickly finished our admin and on our way. By this point we had also become accustomed to the chain, and were automatically only using our free hand for doing things, unless we forgot and gave the other person a good hard tug (oo-er missus!).
At this point, about 8am with a good long stretch of daylight ahead, we were in great spirits and making good time. As the day warmed up , I remembered why I loved canal running so much, with the tranquillity and beauty and simple stillness. Luckily Mark was in a similar place, and we ate up the miles chatting away about nothing in particular. It was easy.

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Love canals!

Most of the trail after Braunston Marina had opened into wide grassy trail or path, so we were side by side for most of the time. When ever the trail narrowed, Mark would automatically move in front and I would move my hand to his shoulder so I could follow closely without the danger of careering into him. I imagine we looked like a bizarre couple. As is tradition with my long ultras, I found a handy ‘Gandalf’ stick to bring with me, and take some of the pressure off my back. It would also be useful to beat off drunks as we got closer to Milton Keynes.
Our next rendezvous was in a rather pleasant pub garden, at the Heart of England pub in Weedon. Although the pub wasn’t opened yet, we could see people inside watching as Sharon treated us to Danish pastries and a cafetiere of ground coffee.

Hopefully you’re getting the idea of how vital Sharon was to this run…definitely ‘most valuable player’.
Mark fetched his pole from the car and we set off without too much faffing. It was about noon, we had covered 40 miles and the day was warming up nicely. The canal started to get quite busy with dog walkers, and most people asked us what we were doing (and why!) which broke up the monotony quite a bit. Again, the trail was wide and easy, and we were making good time. We had spent about 12 hours covering only 40 miles, but the midnight start and chain made everything much slower than usual, and we were being careful to pace ourselves to cope with the full 36 hours.


Having said that, both of us were starting to suffer a little and I was very conscious that at noon we were only one third of the way through the event but I was careful not to say that out loud. Mark spent much of this leg feeling some real pain in his left foot, and debated whether to take his shoes off to look at the damage or wait until the next rendezvous when he would have clean socks to put on. I was beginning to feel the sleep-deprivation (about 30 hours so far), and started to fall asleep on my feet in the middle of the afternoon. I’ve had this a few times, and it’s the oddest feeling of entirely losing consciousness while still walking along. While still having my hand on Marks shoulder, as my head would drop I would automatically lurch away from the canal, pulling Mark with me, waking myself up and apologising to him for pulling us both into the adjacent hedge. After a few near misses, I asked Mark if I could have a few minutes sleep on the ground (while he sat patiently next to me) and sure enough, 7 minutes later I was fully awake and ready to go. Bizarre.
The next rendezvous was at the entrance to Blissworth Tunnel, and gave Mark a chance to get his shoes and socks off and see what damage he had done to his feet, which he had convinced himself were blistered to pieces. In fact, they were pink and healthy, and after he gave them a clean and a dry they looked in great shape, certainly not the feet that had carried him for 50 miles. He chose to change his socks for a clean dry set of waterproof socks and liners, but remaining in his trail shoes that, although wet through, were serving him well. I chose to stick with my existing combination as my feet felt battered but no real pain.

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Coming up the bloody steep path from the canal to the car park.

Sharon fed us well again, with tea and soup hitting the spot. Both Mark and I were eating snacks during each leg, but having a roll (or something) at the meeting point with Sharon. I was carrying soup in a flask with me, which I find keeps my stomach settled, while Mark was drinking gallons of electrolyte mixed with water. Both of us were feeling energetic and cheerful (so far) but definitely starting to get sore & achey.
While we sat with Sharon, Chas and Dave turned up, the runners that passed us shortly after we joined the canal at mile 20.

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Nothing strange here!

They had been making good time, but so far had been unsupported and had made a few diversions for food and water. One of them took the opportunity to remove a shoe and have a look at a blister, and generally sort themselves out a bit. They were suitably impressed with the support that #mvp Sharon was giving us and we all agreed that Sharon was a better wife than most, and clearly we had some work to do with our own wives to bring them up to scratch.
On that positive, but slightly libellous note, they set off ahead of us, onto a road section. It was about 2.30pm, and I was very aware that the next time we saw Sharon it would be getting dark, and that darkness would last for at least 13 or 14 hours, while our bodies would be crying out for sleep. This night would be the hardest part of the whole race, and the need for sleep by 2am on Sunday morning, having not slept since getting up Friday morning, would addle our brains and jeopardise our decision making skills. One of the best reasons for simple following a canal for as long as possible is that it is almost impossible to take a wrong turn, no matter how tired you are. However, the danger of falling in is magnified ten times, making life much more exciting.
After leaving Sharon, Mark and I faffed to make sure his Garmin was charging properly before it got dark, and Sharon zoomed ahead in the car, arriving at a turn off in time to point Chas and Dave the correct way. (She’s too good! I’d have sent them absolutely the wrong way).IMG-20191118-WA0003
We quickly passed through Stoke Bruerne, where they were holding a ‘floating market’, basically lots of canal boats selling tat (if you ask me). The multitude of public on the path seemed to be enjoying it though, and Mark and I wound our way through them causing much amusement. The other side of Stock Bruerne consisted of miles more canal, and darkness soon fell. I started feeling quite nauseus (quite usual for me) and started eating boiled sweets continuously to keep my blood sugar up.
As it got dark our conversation dried up, and we begun a night of a lot of long silences. We both knew that the next rendezvous was critical for getting some good hot food on board, so had asked Sharon to heat up some spaghetti Bolognese as well as hot water ready for our arrival. A small diversion brought us off the canal but we had planned to meet in an Asda car park that was just off the canal, thinking it would be a good place to top up supplies and possibly use a toilet, but disappointingly it didn’t have toilets so we just camped in a nearby car park for 10 minutes, in the dark. I changed my shoes and socks and ate pasta, while Mark kept his eyes out for doggers and drunks (there were a surprising amount of cars that drove in, saw us, and then drove straight out).

 

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Clearly in good spirits, with mugs of spag bol too…

I was pleased to be able to eat a decent quantity of spag bol, as my nausea was pretty much a constant companion at that stage. In fact, I was feeling good, and ready to take on the long night section. Mark, unbeknownst to me, was not feeling quite so cheerful, and quietly asked Sharon to look at when we would likely be past the 60 mile perimeter ‘as the crow flies’ in case he needed to drop. He was beginning to feel the onset of the night ‘depressions’ that always hits as the body gently start to shut down ready for sleep. Not good.
I put on some music as we left, as it was a treat I had been looking forward to for the last 20 hours. It was quiet enough that I could still talk to Mark, but it gave me a bit of a boost.
We were back on the canal and moving quite well by about 7.30pm. A bit of mental maths said that we had covered about 60 miles so far, and we had slowed to a consistent 10 miles every 3 hours. 12 hours from now should put us at mile 90 at about 8am, without any stops…and we would need plenty of stops! 20191117_061256That left us less than 4 hours to complete the last 10 miles if we wanted to cover 100 linear miles in the given 36 hours. It was slightly concerning at how little time we really had to finish what should have been a fairly easy distance in the long timescale.
The next 3 hour leg was rough. We got to the rendezvous at about 10.30pm, and we were in bad shape. The first hour had been fine, with coffee and hot food having the predictable positive effect. It was very dark and the path went from easy and wide at one moment, to being narrow and slippery the next. The freezing cold pitch black canal water beckoned to me to come in for a swim. I had graduated from resting a hand on Marks shoulder to hanging onto the handle at the top of his pack (between his shoulder blades). This was both easier to hang onto, and also slightly more central , hence less de-stabilising for Mark when I lurched left or right. It also gave me the added ability to pretend to hold him up when he slipped on the mud. Obviously, I had no chance of actually supporting him (by holding my left arm up at shoulder height) but it made me happy to feel like I was contributing to the partnership.
The second hour was a downward spiral into silence and depression. It was dark and we had a long night ahead of us. I couldn’t help think that it was not even midnight…we were still less than two thirds of the way through this monstrosity, and the hardest parts were to come. Oh god, this was going to last forever.
I do not remember anything about the last hour. Mark was in better shape than me, and did well to keep urging me on while I just wanted to lie down and sleep. I was back to my trick of falling asleep on my feet, and lurching away from the canal, destabilising both of us and putting us both at real risk of an early bath. The rendezvous seemed to be taking too long to arrive, and we were both checking our gps watches every few minutes to see the distance ticking away.
Just as I was admitting defeat and saying I needed to sleep on a convenient bench, we saw a torch waving in the distance from a bridge, and thank goodness Sharon had been found. There was no mucking about, both Mark and I slumped down and went to sleep. Although it was not even halfway through the night, the previous day had taken its toll and I think we had pushed hard to get as far as we had without any rest.
20 minutes later, I woke up feeling much better and refreshed, and Sharon woke Mark up shortly afterwards. We were in a residential street, where everything was well lit by a rather convenient streetlamp. It was chilly, but not too cold (that was to come later) and once we had some coffee inside us we both started to come back to life. I had some more hot spag bol, and Mark had cold rice pudding. Yes, that’s right, it was near midnight, he’d been awake for the last 41 hours (apart from the last 20 minutes) and all he wanted to eat was cold rice pudding. Yuk!
Sharon ran around us getting bits and pieces of kit from the back of the car, whilst keeping us entertained with stories of the sights she seen so far that night. I don’t think we were actually at the rendezvous point for very long, probably only 45 minutes or so including the sleep, but it helped me reset my brain for the rest of the night.
And onto the next 10 mile leg.
I’d like to say this one was better than the last, but in fact this leg signified the absolute lowest part of the whole run. As before, the first hour passed quite rapidly, we covered 3.4 miles which kept us on target for a 3 hour / 10 mile leg. We both tried to keep nibbling snacks during the night, if only to pass the time. The soup in my flask had gone lukewarm and was pretty gross. We went pass midnight, and the canal was deathly quiet and pitch black. We both had good head-torches on but they created a pool of light around us, rather than penetrating the dark to any depth. The canal was, predictably, identical for every mile apart from some of the trees and bushes lining the path changing. Every so often a hanging bramble would catch one of us, waking us up as the damn thing tugged hard at the boiler suit. It was getting cold, but our constant motion was generating enough heat to keep us warm – there was no chance of stopping though.
By the third hour the silence between us had descended again, and it was the lowest part of the night – about 1.30am. Our bodies were settling themselves ready for sleep and could not understand why, after 43 hours awake, we were not getting into bed. Mark was struggling more than me this time, and whereas I had battled with falling asleep, Mark was just ready to sit down and quit. Bizarrely, this rather brought me to life and I went a little hyper trying to keep Mark:
a. moving (“We’re nearly there”),
b. positive (“This is the absolute lowest point of the whole run, it can’t get any worse than this”) and
c. focussed on the end point (“The rendezvous after the next one will be in daylight, yay!”)
It must be said that Mark did amazing well through this, in the depths of depression as he was. The classic quote, which I shall spend the rest of his life reminding him, was when I’d said about nearly being at the next rendezvous, he said “I can’t really see the end”, in a small weak voice that perfectly summed up how desperate he was feeling. It was, indeed, the lowest point of the whole run.
Thankfully, somehow we made it to the next rendezvous, a dodgy lay-by in a place called Slapton, and Mark threw himself down to sleep. It was too cold (we found) to be outside the car, so we all got in and shut the doors to keep out the cold. The temperature display in the car said 2 degrees and at 2.15am it was bitter. We all fell asleep, Sharon included, and I woke almost an hour later to see Sharon in the driver’s seat, asleep, with her forehead on the steering wheel. Undoubtedly the most uncomfortable way to sleep I’ve ever seen. Sharon woke up when I started trying to move my stiff legs, and we bravely tried to wake Mark up. Both Mark and I were shivering and groggy, and Sharon made the ultimate sacrifice of getting out of a cold car into a freezing outside to make coffee. Predictably, with coffee warming us Mark and I slowly came back to life, but we were both stiff and cold.
I’m not going to lie here, I think Mark would have happily stopped at that point if I’d let him. He’d had a terrible last hour and I think was mentally counting the 10 hours he had left to continue and realising he simply didn’t want to carry on. I didn’t want to continue, but knew that just a few minutes of movement would warm us while dawn and daylight beckoned. Daylight, I knew, would change everything by bringing our tired brains back to life.
So I was pretty ‘no-nonsense’ with Mark, not really giving him the option to consider how much nicer his day would be if he dropped, but getting him to work out what kit he needed to be as warm as possible and getting him moving. Sharon had, rather cleverly, not put the car engine or heating on so it was not tropical temperatures in the car. I suspect if she had we’d still be sitting there now desperately trying to muster up the courage to get out of the car!
It was about 3.45am when we left the car, and the difference that the coffee and food had made to us in the last 30 minutes was amazing. It was freezing cold (the temperature display in the car dropped to 1.5 degrees in the end) but with some brisk movement (even some running by Mark) we were warmed and much happier. We were both very aware of how close we had been to dropping at the last rendezvous point, and once the coffee wore off we potentially would be back there again. Sharon had filled my flask with coffee rather than soup this time, and we agreed to share it after 90 minutes, which would hopefully be halfway through the 10 mile section.
It didn’t take long to get the first indications of dawn arriving, and I must have said ten times how it was going to change our thinking and bring about the final push to the end. I think I’ve done too many night events.
At a bridge up ahead, at about 6am, we saw someone in a orange boiler suit waving at us. It was Chas and Dave, shouting that they were done in and were getting a taxi to their hotel. B*stards. We still had 6 hours of hard graft to go, and the thought of getting into bed was a lovely one (although, not with Chas and Dave, I should point out).
At about 6.15am we stopped for coffee from the flask, but it was lukewarm and positively nasty. I managed 2 mouthfuls before passing it to Mark, who helpfully retched after drinking some nearly sending us both into the vomit zone.
We checked the tracker, and realise that Chas and Dave had dropped as we had just passed the 60 mile perimeter circle. Although we have travelled over 80 linear miles, we had only just passed 60 ‘crow’ miles, and that shows how our route choice was so vital. Although the canal was easy to navigate, very flat, safe from cars etc, it was undoubtedly not a direct route due to its winding nature, and we were paying the price for it’s lack of straightness.

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We were tracker number 589, one of the few still going, and had just passed the 60 mile gold perimeter… Thanks to Richard Weremiuk for the tracking system.

However, the ‘chained’ challenge is about the furthest linear distance, once you have passed the 60 mile perimeter, so our target now was just to keep going. Dawn was making the surroundings look almost pleasant and we both started chatting again and behaving almost normally. I had resumed my normal position of moving along slightly behind Mark and holding onto his handle, and we kept up a good pace.
The path was generally good, apart from one memorable section that was completely washed out from one side to the next, and was too deep to just run through. In the end, despite gingerly walking around the mud at the edge of the small lake we both fell over a got a bit wet, although not as bad as it could have been.
This leg was turning out to be closer to 11.5 miles than our usual 10, but that didn’t matter as we were awake and cheerful, and Sharon had promised bacon (if possible) at the next 90 mile rendezvous.

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Something in the distance!

At that point our whole world had shrunk down into 10 mile sections, lasting about 3 hours, and the thought of bacon was pretty damn exciting.
As we got to the pub car park, Sharon was waiting on a bridge up ahead, and it was great to see her in daylight. She said that someone from the pub had been cleaning and had come out to see what she was up to, and had switched on the patio heaters for us. So we not only had bacon, coffee, but sat under this tiny heater that did little except look nice. It didn’t matter, we were all in good spirits and fooling about, perhaps a little punch-drunk from coming out of the other side of a rough night.


Mark and I had gently talked about what we would do if we had time to spare once we got to the 100 mile mark, as he was adamant that we would stop as soon as the watch indicated we had covered the distance, whereas I was more keen to maximise our distance to the full 36 hours. Although we were both stiff and tired, I think it shows how cheerful we still were by being able to joke about that. At least, mostly joking, as I was dead serious about wanting to carry on until noon, and I know damn sure that Mark was serious about stopping at 100 miles. We were edging towards disagreeing about it (whilst eating lovely bacon rolls), when we both realised that actually we did not have too much time to waste, being at about 91 miles with 3.5 hours left. A simple navigation error or twisted ankle would cost us time we did not have, so in a bit of a panic we swiftly sorted kit and left the rendezvous point…then returned a minute later to collect the pole & stick we had left and a charging block for Marks garmin gps watch, which had been nominated as the official distance record.
Second time lucky, we set off again, with Mark wondering aloud what we would do if we did not make it to 100 miles before the 36 hour cutoff. We were properly panicked!
Although Mark was getting tired he was still moving well, and we made good time. I was being helped by the coffee and bacon at the last rendezvous and feeling pretty positive (although I did have to keep slowing to sort out its of kit, which was starting to annoy Mark).
Mark remained adamant that he would be stopping at 100 miles no matter how much time we had left, and I didn’t want to push it. Besides, I knew my Suunto gps watch was tracking about a mile ahead of him somehow, so if his watch stated 100 miles I knew mine would be slightly more. Mark asked quite a few times to see what distance my watch was showing (he also knew it was ahead of his) but I wouldn’t show him, stating that I thought the battery might have died.
The only thing I remember about this last section was a long stretch of canal that was holding a fishing competition and we tapped our way past numerous anglers with huge long poles blocking our way, and we just had filthy looks from them all. We were pretty bedraggled at that stage, and although most of the passers by said good morning, literally no-one asked us what we were up to, unlike the previous day.
And then, before we knew it, we had reached the final rendezvous point and walked up an adjacent slope to find Sharon parked at the top. Predictably, Marks’ watch only showed 99 miles, so we had a nice stroll through a local park, back through the park, again, round the park to try to make up the magic mileage. We had the bright idea of drawing a massive phallus for the benefit of the gps trace, but sadly the end result didn’t really look like what we wanted.
Mark’s watch finally (finally!) showed 100.1 miles, and we took some obligatory pictures in front of landmarks to show where we had got to.
I unveiled my watch, happily showing 101.6 miles (which is the Suunto distance, versus the measly Garmin 100.1 miles) and we had our final sit down by the car. Phew!
After that, it was a quick change out of muddy shoes and boiler suits, and a zoom to the hotel, with a quick stop at a garage for Cornish pasties and pork pies. What a relief!

And that’s it! 101.6 miles chained, wearing orange boiler suits, and a total of about 55 hours without proper sleep (I’m not including the two short dozes in the back of the car). After a shower and a couple of hours sleep in a comfy bed we hit the bar, and relived the whole event over dinner. Excellent.

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This is the final traces from all the chained pairs, with our trace being the bottom right, closest to London. The gold circle was the 60 mile perimeter. Thanks to Richard Weremiuk for the picture.

It feels, with hindsight, like the whole weekend was an exercise in good planning really, from the route details to the meeting points with Sharon.  Running while being chained together is actually not difficult if you both go at the same pace, but the usual admin required to travel a significant distance is made much harder while chained.  It helped enormously that both Mark and I were fairly experienced so knew what to expect, and what to do.  We decided, during the run,  that the chain slowed everything, from travel to admin, by about 20% and we were lucky that we both felt the same lack of pressure to reach a huge mileage total.  I think our relaxed approach also meant we enjoyed (?) the experience rather than stress over it.  It was an unusual way to spend a weekend, but not unpleasant…although that could have been different if the weather had been unkind and the floods had been a problem, as they were for some.

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At the end…in one piece!

And so, a few thanks:
First, and of course most importantly, the award for most valuable player goes to Sharon. As I’m sure you’ve worked out by now, she was the driving force behind what we achieved, and we would not have made it anywhere near as far without her supporting us. To everyone that went significant distances unsupported, congratulations, as that is tough. Sharon somehow coupled the difficult tasks of drviving, navigating and meeting us at the right places, with cooking, feeding, helping and most of all looking after us…all at the same time. And staying awake for days too. I don’t know how she did it.20191117_080934
Secondly, Mark, thanks for letting me borrow Sharon for the weekend…….and for being such decent company and patient while I slowly plodded along the canal. I’m chuffed to bits that we made it, which was not certain at all when we started (and was definitely unlikely at about 2am that morning). You were a huge source of knowledge when I first started ultra running a few years ago, and it’s been a pleasure to run with you this weekend. I hope your ankle feels better soon.

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Yup, definitely some slight swelling here…

I should probably say thanks to Beyond Marathon events & Cockbain events for putting on a great ultra, but as all they did was strap a tracker onto us and push us out the door, I’m not sure they warrant it. It was great fun though and I heartily recommend their events.

I’d like to thank my wife Claire, who doesn’t read these reports apart from the last few paragraphs to see if she’s mentioned. Thanks for putting up with me being a bit wafty since Monarchs Way in May and thanks for letting us borrow your car, again. And happy 50th for next week.

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No caption required!

And lastly, at this stage I normally thank my legs for putting up with another weekend of being trashed, but as the left one in particular has been such a bugger for months I’m going to skip past that, and say thanks to my feet, who didn’t destroy themselves like they did on Monarchs Way. Good work fellas.   Until next time….

 

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Escape from Meriden: Chained – November 2018

There comes a time in every man’s life that he has the urge to see how far he can run whilst chained to another runner. It may not be the most logical urge, but it should not be ignored.
And that is the short version of how I came to be linked at the wrist to a bloke I’d met just once before, at midnight, at the centre of England (a place called Meriden, near Coventry) with 36 hours of running ahead of us…and the inevitable awkwardness to come that occurs when you need the toilet and can’t hold it any more.
But I’m getting ahead of myself…let me explain.
The ‘Escape from Meriden’ race is a great idea: a few hundred runners all set off from the same place and can take any route they want to get as far away from the central point as they can, as the crow flies. This means that route choice is hugely important, and puts a new slant on the usual ultra races that simply ask you to follow a pre-determined route. There are no cut-offs here, or even a finish line….you run as far and as fast as you want, stopping for food whenever you want, until your time is up. You have a tracker that shows where you’ve gone, and tells the computer what your final distance was.
You have 24 hours as a single runner, which is quite a respectable time to get a decent distance away if you choose a direct route. If you choose to be chained to a friend, as part of the Cockbain Events twist on the idea, you get 36 hours to travel as far as possible. Naturally, given the sadistic nature of Cockbain (who simply makes already difficult ultra runs as hard as possible, verging on the impossible), the 36 hours allows more time to fall out with the idiot you have chained yourself to, more time to need the toilet, more time for the cable ties at your wrist to cut deeper, and more time to not be able to put on or take off any upper clothing as it gets cold at night or warm in the daytime.
And the race started at midnight, so that people would get the least  possible sleep beforehand and feel really terrible at the end.
And did I mention that they like you to wear an orange boiler suit so that you both look like escaped convicts? No? I didn’t think so…it’s kind of unlike most other ultras in most respects, but that’s a good thing. Perhaps.
I’d entered in November 2017, after seeing the aftermath of that years run, and had planned on running with my usual running mate John, but he has taken some time out and so a few months ago I asked a guy I’d met doing Ultra-Trail Snowdonia in May whether he’d be interested. Adrian basically prevented me from dying on the jagged peaks of Wales (race report HERE, but be warned – it wasn’t pleasant) and after spending most of the 26 hours together for that event we were quite well acquainted. He is a true mountain goat, and considers ‘scrambling’ (what I call “dangerous mountain climbing”) a key part of a good hilly ultra. He has completed loads of tough races abroad, like UTMB 3 times, MdS, and others that need abbreviations as I can’t spell them.
I don’t have quite the same qualifications, but I’ve done a few longish ultras like TR250 and GUCR, and a few fairly tough races like Arc of Attrition and Spine Challenger. I’m happiest running on the flattest part of flat Kent, especially if I’m allowed to walk a lot and eat cheese rolls.
But the most important quality I needed for my partner at this event was the fact that Adrian is happy to chat away for hours and hours (hopefully 36 hours in fact) which he had shown me in May. It’s not easy spending that long with someone (attached to them!), but I was confident that we would while away the hours in a very enjoyable way.
My original route, when John had been my partner, had been to link up to the Grand Union Canal, which would lead us toward London for 100 miles. Adrian had other ideas however and rather cleverly worked out a detailed route that took us towards Liverpool (literally in the opposite direction to the one I’d been planning). His route was more direct, and was also mainly on canals, so was flat and simple.

One of the principles of the race, as it has no finish line, is to get a certain distance away from the starting point as the crow flies to earn a medal. For the single runners, in 24 hours, 30 miles away meant a silver medal, 60 miles away gave a gold medal and 90 miles away meant a much coveted black medal.Screenshot_20181119-132439_Facebook To travel 90 miles in 24 hours as the crow flies would mean a total distance of probably closer to 105 miles, which is good going considering there are no aid stations or rest points.
As a chained runner the targets were a little simpler…get over 90 miles as the crow flies & 130 miles total distance to earn a chained medal. That’s much easier to understand, although much harder to achieve, even if you do have 36 hours to do it in.
Adrian’s route would get us 90 miles in about 105 miles of running, and then if we were in good enough shape we could make up the distance to 130 miles by running back and

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Route!

forth along the flattest piece of land we could find.
We communicated by messenger throughout October and November, making arrangements and sorting out most of the logistical things. It was pretty clear that our best chance of getting a long way was going to be to find someone to crew us as the route did not have much in the way of places to eat. Adrian managed to find a willing guy, Dom, who was looking to turn our run into an assignment for his journalism course, and thought we would make for an interesting subject. I think it is a great idea, but I imagine you won’t be seeing me on Netflix any time soon.
My thoughts beforehand were quite mixed: I was looking forward to the run (as always) and with my wife driving up to Liverpool at the end, it was looking likely to be a really decent weekend away. However, I was understandably nervous about the chain aspect – the picture that Mark Cockbain put onto Facebook a few weeks before made the chains look bloody heavy and that would be really unpleasant after a while.

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These looked bloody heavy

I was also really quite uncomfortable about the fact that I wouldn’t be able to put a coat or top layer on or off for the duration of the run. I really don’t like to be too hot or cold, and the idea of having to wear the same layers at 2 a.m. (beside a freezing canal) and at 2pm, when the sun would be shining, was preying on my mind. In the end I decided on two good thick layers, both with zips to vent heat as required, but nothing waterproof or too heavy, with the hope that the activity would keep me warm enough. Both Adrian and I had plastic ponchos that we would use if it rained hard, but luckily the worst we had was some heavy drizzle.
The race started at midnight Friday night, so I got the train to Meriden in the afternoon (from deepest Kent) and spent the next few hours in a pub eating burgers and dozing. As it got busier in there I found a quieter corner and sorted my kit out. Whilst everyone was starting to get pissed, it appeared I was the only one in there changing my socks and changing batteries in GPS units, strangely.
At about 8pm I made my way to the local Methodist Church, to find it all locked up and 3 other runners slumped outside waiting for someone to turn up. The midnight start was particularly disconcerting as we all felt ready to get going, and still had hours to wait.
I wondered off to the town centre to get some more food (fish and chips this time, if you’re interested) and some orange juice. And some more food for the run (you really can never have enough!)
We got in about 9.30ish, and lounged around on chairs while the organisers sorted themselves out. There was a very relaxed atmosphere, with no mandatory kit check, no race numbers (although they were available if you wanted), and even the coffee that was provided by the church helpers was done for a donation rather than £2 per cup.
As Adrian hadn’t yet arrived, I registered and got our tracker, and collected our orange boiler suits. I should point out that boiler-suit-wearing wasn’t strictly enforced, but I thought it made for much more fun. In fact, it may well become a ‘thing’ in future as by the end mine had kept in really good condition, despite various bushes and trees tugging at it along the way and despite the hours of drizzle on the first night (it was made of papery material, so didn’t absorb the moisture). It kept me warm when I needed it but unzipped down to the crotch to release heat if required. It definitely should be part of every ultra from now on, but perhaps not in bright orange.
Mark Cockbain set his table up in a corner, with chains, and stood there looking suitably hardcore. Most people avoided him. I definitely did.20181116_210930

While I waited, I got chatting to a Scottish guy that I thought I recognised from Facebook, and sure enough it was Alan McCormack who I’ve followed through some amazing runs that he’s done over the last few years. He was doing chained too (naturally!) and I was suitably in awe to be in the same room as him.
Adrian got there about 10.30pm, and we went outside to Dom’s car to faff with kit and stuff. We sorted our kit and I talked Dom through the mechanics of the little camping stove I’d brought along for hot food. We got into our orange boiler suits and wandered back into the hall for the race briefing (“Don’t travel on motorways, don’t die, good luck”) and saw quite a few chained runners had already got their chains fitted. We got to the table and were in fact the last people to be linked together. I had a thick sweat band on my left wrist, which I hoped would deal with the inevitable chaffing, and the two chunkiest cable-ties were quickly tightened on. The chain wasn’t as heavy as I’d worried about, but it was still very noticeable, and as it was only a metre long neither Adrian nor I had much space to manoeuvre. It was going to be interesting running like this!

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Just before the start….at least one of us is smiling (that’s me on the right, Adrian on the left)

We were the last to leave the hall and make our way to the stone cross that signifies the centre of Meriden (and England). There seemed to be a lot of people waiting to run, and before we knew it there was a countdown and we were off. Probably the most bizarre thing of the whole race was a start where the whole group of 200 runners all went in different directions.
Congratulations reader! You’d made it to the start of the run! It (surely) can only get more interesting from here….or perhaps not!
So Adrian and I set off running, attached at his right wrist (& my left) by a 1 metre chain. In fact, despite not having practised or even met each other since the race we did in May, we settled into an easy jog and began to work out what our game plan was going to be for the next 36 hours. Adrian had planned a good flat, easy, route and I had it on my little GPS unit that would keep us on track. I would be the navigator. Adrian was probably going to set the pace for the first part as he was less used to running on flat canals, so he would go in front if we couldn’t run side-by-side. He would keep his phone switched off to conserve battery, and in fact was barely carrying anything other than his phone and a bit of food. I would keep my phone on as I was carrying a charging block & leads and tons of other essential bits & bobs. This meant I was in charge of communications with Dom in the car. It was a good start as we chatted about what the next few hours and miles would hold.
It was amazing how quickly everyone else disappeared into surrounding roads leaving us to our own devices. Luckily, we both took the chance to have a wee (together) before we were entirely alone – sorry about that everyone. The roads we started on were quite quiet, and as it was midnight we were able to run side-by-side most of the time.
When we joined the canal our path was quite wide and decent, but every time we came to a narrow part Adrian took the lead and trailed his right arm back slightly and I went behind and extended my chained wrist, meaning that we still kept up the pace without too many difficulties.
The route took us south of Birmingham and onto Wolverhampton. It was all fairly built up and industrial for the first 20-30 miles, which wasn’t the most picturesque part of the run, but the surface was excellent which more than made up for it.
Although it was the early hours of the morning, and neither of us had slept, we chatted the miles away and caught up with what each other had been up to in the last 6 months. The drizzle was quite heavy, but the boiler suits kept the worst of it off and it wasn’t a problem. I remember thinking that I must have got my clothing about right, as I wasn’t too hot or cold.
Dom met us at about mile 17, having missed us earlier due to our tracker not updating particularly quickly. It is particularly challenging to drive in an area that you don’t know, to a point on a GPS route that you hope to meet some runners, find somewhere safe to park and the get to the route to intercept the runners, especially when it is pitch-black! Dom managed this admirably well considering it was his first time doing anything like this.
Adrian spent a little time sorting out his feet, while I had a quick bite to eat. We were all fairly chirpy (given the time of the morning) and I was looking forward to dawn and feeling a bit more energetic in the daylight.
As we left the more industrial areas behind the path changed to grass, which was much softer on feet. The grass was very wet though, so shoes quickly became soaking wet. I was wearing (as usual) my trusty waterproof socks, which meant my feet were sweaty but mainly dry. Adrian was having a rather harder time of it, and would change his socks numerous times over the next 12 hours to try to stop his feet rubbing.
Dom met us again at about mile 28, which was about 6.30am I think, just as it was getting light. We’d worked out a plan before we got to Dom, so Adrian took the chance to have a quick nap (in the driver’s seat) while I sat on the floor outside the driver’s side of the car boiling some water and making cup-a-soup.

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Cup-a-soup and mackerel for brekky!

4 soups later (in 15 minutes) I was feeling lovely and warm inside and celebrated with a tin of mackerel and some painkillers. It appears that John isn’t the only person I’ve run with that has a problem with my eating tinned mackerel in a race, as Adrian strangely turned down my offer of his own tin of fish (in a tomato sauce, naturally) which might have made him immune to my whiffy breath for the next 20 miles. Doing all this while only really being able to use one arm was slightly challenging, but it’s amazing what you can get used to if required!
A small group of workmen had gathered to watch us near some gates, as their dog sniffed around my mackerel, but none of them asked us what we were up to. In fact, we passed numerous dog –walkers and people out and about during the run and hardly any of them asked what we were doing….dressed in orange boiler suits and clearly chained together at the wrist. Perhaps they were scared of us? Sadly, we weren’t accosted by any policemen as has happened to other runners…maybe next time.
As we set off again, we were both in good spirits and feeling more alert with the rising daylight. At this stage we’d slowed to a fairly brisk walk for most of the time. The rough grassy ground didn’t help, and although there was a narrow path made by previous walkers we made better progress going on the left and right of the path so we a little more slack on the chain than one-in-front and one-behind.
As expected, every so often one of us would go through a bad patch where the chain would start to tug a bit more than usual as someone was going slower than the other. To be fair, this was taken (by both of us) as pretty much to be expected, so the faster one simply adjusted his pace downwards a little to allow the other time to come out of the patch. Usually, when running by yourself, it is easy to slow a little and give yourself 10 minutes to forget how tired you are and how rubbish you feel (and how much longer you’ve got still to go), but when attached to another person by a bloody chain it’s really not that simple. I hope I was as understanding to Adrian as he was to me.
The canal at first light was beautiful. Autumn was at its best and the fallen leaves made the ground (and the surface of the canal) look like a brown carpet. 20181117_090427There were enough leaves still on the trees to give a nice canopy and I happily spent most of the daylight hours taking pictures in my mind of the scenery. I like canals, however mind-numbingly boring others find them…including Adrian unfortunately.

 

 

At mile 40 Dom met us at the Hartley Arms, a pub on the canal. Obviously we didn’t go into the pub, but what we walked up to was almost as good:
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It was only 9.30am-ish, but we were in heaven in those comfy chairs, with hot water and food, and another change of socks for Adrian. His feet were being well looked after, but he was clearly suffering. I suspect we probably spent too long sitting there (only about 20 minutes) but it was the first comfy sit-down we’d had and we were going to make the most of it!
And then we carried on! Common sense would have keep us all snuggled up in those chairs for hours, but no! At some point I remember Dom leaving the car to run with us for a few miles, just to actually see what we got up to in between his meeting us. I suspect he couldn’t understand why we were going so slowly, as we shuffled through the leaves and his young legs bounced him along. I’m sure he was suitably unimpressed with ‘old-man’ running…
Although I was eating well and the weather and terrain was good, we naturally slowed as time went by. By this stage we were both using a pole on our unchained arm, to give us a little support. My back was starting to hurt (once again, carrying too much) and the pole just took the edge off the ache with the help of more painkillers.
At lunchtime Dom found us again (he was getting very good by this stage) and we had a quick sit and something to eat.

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Mmmmmmmm, lunch!

I was in increasingly good spirits, but I think Adrian was properly suffering at this point despite hiding it well. I was actively enjoying the canal experience – flat, monotonous, mind-numbingly boring – whereas Adrian is used to majestic peaks and climbs, meaning his legs get a thorough workout rather than just using the same muscles constantly.

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Adrian was loving (!!!) the canals

As we carried on, and the afternoon ebbed away, we started to work out where we were likely to get to. The tracker showed us as only covering about 30 miles as the crow flies, despite our actual mileage being more than 40, which was depressing considering we hoped to travel 90 miles as the crow flies. Looking back, our route was less than direct at the start, where we go south of Birmingham, but after that we made some very straight progress. Unfortunately, at that stage of the afternoon we weren’t really able to work that out, so it felt like we were making really slow progress.
A few single runners appeared from behind us as overtook us. It was pretty unmistakable to spot the orange boiler suited runners, and although I’ve no idea what route they took it was nice to not feel quite so alone.
Having spent most of the previous 12 hours chatting away, we started to proceed silently for periods of time, which with hindsight I should have noticed more than I did at the time. Adrian raised the prospect of him stopping after we reached the 60 mile perimeter (as the crow flies), which would probably be about 10pm (that night), given our current pace. His feet weren’t improving and he was experienced enough to know when things weren’t going right. I suggested the idea of carrying on to 6am (Sunday), until dawn, to see how far that got us. We’d both been awake for about 35 hours at this stage (since 6am Friday morning) so the prospect of a second night awake wasn’t a pretty one, but once that night was over the daylight would be wonderful and we only had to carry on to midday Sunday (having starting at midnight Friday night).
One of the benefits of having a crew with us was that it gave us options if we did split up, as now appeared likely. Adrian could get a lift back to his house and get some sleep, whereas I could keep going (even though unchained now, so officially out of the race) to see how far I could get. I don’t do many races, but I like to make the most of them when I do, so it made sense to me to keep going until the 36 hour time limit was up.
We carried on, up what felt like the longest canal in the world. What made it worse were the milestones for Nantwich, which started at mile 36 and finished at about 3 miles short of our 60 mile target. Rather like watching a clock move, those miles counted down so slooooowly it was positively painful. Even I started to lose my love of canals by the end.
We had another stop at about 5pm, perhaps mile 50. We both changed our shoes and socks, and I had some hot ravioli (and made Adrian eat a couple of pieces too). I sometimes really struggle to eat on an ultra, but today was not that day! I was eating well, and could feel my energy levels bubbling along (within reason). Adrian was suffering, quickly getting very cold as soon as we stopped and needing a jacket over him to hold some warmth. This was probably one of our quicker stops due to the cold, and we knew we had to keep moving to.
As we left, we both put some headphones on to have some music to help us through the falling darkness and impending sleep-monsters. Of course, this meant that we now shouted every conversation with each other, which must have been great for anyone within a mile of us on that totally silent night.
Adrian had a very strong hour when we left, helped by dry shoes & socks, music and some hot food inside him. He was galloping along in front, making the most of his energy, while I was doing my best to squeeze up behind him as close as possible, trying not to trip or hold him back too much. The miles ticked away and Nantwich got closer (slowly, oh so slowly). Unfortunately, the grassy trails soon wetted through Adrian’s shoes and socks, making his feet sore again, and he understandably slowed a little.
I think it was at this stage that I got my first taste of proper frustration with the chain. I was feeling sleepy and knew that I had a horrible 10-12 hours ahead of me. I wanted to fast forward through as much as possible but the chain (in my imagination) was bringing me back to reality all the time. If I lost my balance and lurched left, the chain would tighten and both Adrian and I would have to adjust our stride. It was impossible to get a nice meditative stride going, that I could sleepwalk though, as there was a bloody chain (with someone attached) tugging at me every so often.
I’d like to put a positive spin on the next few hours, but they were pretty rubbish. Poor Adrian wasn’t getting much sympathy from me, and was giving every effort to ignore the pain. I was striding along in front at one minute, with the chain quite tight between us, to falling asleep on my feet the next. It wasn’t great.
Dom managed to meet us once more with about 6 miles to go, at about 10pm. He’d got the chairs out and both Adrian and I gratefully sank into them and took some weight off our soaking feet. Adrian almost immediately started to get cold, but we took a few minutes to eat and sort ourselves out.

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I’m not sure we’re quite in the same place, mentally

There was a brief discussion about going the last few miles by road rather than canal, to get away from the wet grass, but as it was a mile further that was quickly put to bed. I had another 2 cup-a-soups bringing my total for the day to about 12 I think…lots of good calories there!
It was evident when we set off just how tired we both were, as we needed Dom’s help to find the canal and get back on the route. Those last few miles seemed to take ages, especially as there was some kind of diversion away from the canal due to repair works to a bridge. The diversion was slightly debatable, and in our sleep-addled state both Adrian and I were long past debating, and were firmly into “polite argument” territory. We were both too sensible to get riled up, but I’m sure I was just as keen to go the way I thought it was as Adrian was. Happily, we got back to the canal in the end.
Finally, finally finally, we got to Barbridge which was our end point, about three miles beyond bloody never-arriving-Nantwich at almost exactly midnight. This was our agreed splitting point, as we were firmly through the 60 mile as-the-crow-flies point, and we had travelled 75 miles in total. Dom had rather cleverly got to a pub that we found quite easily, and we had a picture taken to show we got that far still chained together.

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Finished!

With that formality out of the way, it didn’t take much time to cut the damn thing off Adrian and go back to being a single runner again. I was genuinely surprised at how much I’d grown to dislike that damn chain, just as I’d been surprised how much it hadn’t bothered me at the start.
Sitting as a ‘free man’ I quickly gulped down some hot beans and chucked a couple of wagon wheels in my pack for the next few hours. Even half asleep, I was awake enough to put in my spare head torch battery and a waterproof, but I was still trying to travel as light as possible. Dom would drive Adrian home, get a few hours sleep at his house, then come back to keep me going at 5.30am-ish for the last few hours until the race was officially finished at noon. The chain would come with me, still attached to my wrist…even if the race was officially over for us, I would morally stay ‘chained’ until the end.
I set off with a bit of a spring in my step…I was free to go at my own pace (slow or fast) and although I was sleepy my energy levels were good. I was walking with 2 poles now, which meant my back ache that had become a constant nag soon dissipated. I shortly came off the canal completely and was faced with the prospect of hours of road to get to Liverpool.
A few things went wrong here. Quite shortly, Dom phoned up to say that he felt he’d need more time to get Adrian home & get some sleep himself – he wouldn’t be back for 5.30am-ish, probably closer to 9am. Oh dear, not great but to be fair he was as knackered as anyone so I couldn’t really complain, and obviously he was driving so absolutely needed to get some rest.
Then I went wrong, twice, and stupidly got myself confused to get back on the right track. Only probably 15 minutes wasted, but the mental telling off I usually give myself for going the wrong way is quite draining.
And then my head-torch died. This is an expensive 17-hour-battery-life piece of kit, and for some reason the fully-charged battery decided to die on me…at about 1am on some pitch-black road in the middle of nowhere. Can you tell I was slightly emotional about it? By some huge stroke of luck I’d packed my spare battery when I left Dom and Adrian, so I swapped them over and it sprang back into life. Phew!
The roads I was travelling on were fairly undulating country roads, without a pavement, but due to the time of night there were very few cars. I was pretty careful to keep my eyes peeled though, as those cars were going at some serious speeds on the windy roads and there was little room for manoeuvring if I didn’t put myself in a hedge every so often.
And then I got another call from Dom. He’d dropped Adrian off, but hadn’t been able to sleep so was heading back to Manchester to get some proper sleep. This meant he would not be able to come back to crew me for the remaining time, but he’d left my kit at Adrian’s house in Liverpool.
It was about 1.30am, and I am confidently going to say I didn’t take this news particularly well. I had a couple of wagon wheels and about 500 ml of water to last me the next 10.5 hours, until noon. I had money, if I saw any shops (and they were open), but at this point I was in deep countryside. I’d been awake for about 43 hours and on the move for just over 24 hours. I wasn’t a happy rabbit.
After a fairly short conversation, I sat on a grass verge and pulled everything out of my pack to work out what I’d got. I had a waterproof jacket in case of rain which was the most important thing. I had some pro-plus in my little medical kit (that I don’t think I’ve ever used) so took one of them to spice my life up a bit, and also found a rather battered rogue tin of mackerel that I’d been carrying around for months right at the bottom of my pack. I had 2 wagon wheels too. Provided I was careful with my water consumption, by taking a couple of big gulps every hour I probably wouldn’t run out until 6am. The mackerel and wagon wheels would get me that far too. After that I’d get a bit hungry, but in daylight I would be able to knock on a door if necessary…hiding the chain, obviously, and possibly having to provide a reasonable explanation for my orange boiler-suit too.
The pro-plus perked me up a little, and I spent the next 5 hours moving reasonably well, with my brain filled with all manner of odd thoughts. The roads were boring and but my GPS was all I had to follow as I didn’t have a map or anything. Adrian’s route was spot-on so I simply followed it home. In fact the night passed quickly, with the help of a considerable number of my pro-plus tablets. I stopped at about 3am for a ‘picnic’ of mackerel, wagon wheels and another pro-plus.
I was starting to imaging things in the shadowy light – every scrunched up leaf was a £10 note, the tree up ahead looked like a bunch of kids waiting to mug me, that car cruising past me and then turning round up ahead looks just like a police car. In fact, the last one was actually a police car, coming back for a closer look at the orange-coloured demented walker at 4am in the middle of nowhere. Strangely they didn’t stop to chat.
As the surroundings became more built up, I became aware I was getting nearer Liverpool and my finish point. My wife, the long-suffering Claire, was driving up from Kent in the morning, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her I hadn’t made it after she’d driven all that way….so I needed to get there!
As dawn broke, and the birds started signing, I reached the bridge over the Mersey that meant I was pretty much at Liverpool. Still a long way to go, but I vividly remember taking ages to cross the bridge and seeing the red dawn in the distance. I was too tired to appreciate it at that point but looking back it was very poignant.
On the far side of the bridge, and with daylight fast approaching, I realised I had completed my second night out, and that I’d be able to sleep in about 7 or 8 hours. That was a good thought. I didn’t feel particularly sleepy, but I was aching quite badly and was looking forward to finishing and getting the weighty pack off my back.
As I stopped to take this picture20181118_072223I was passed by a female runner, out for a pleasant Sunday morning run in the dawn. She gave me a second look (not surprisingly) and I commented that I hadn’t expected Liverpool to look so lovely. She replied, in the thickest scouse accent possible, that it was a very beautiful place. Hmmm, not sure about that.

About 30 minutes later she passed me again, going the other way, and this time stopped to ask what on earth I was doing. I explained, and checked my location with her, and on the spur of the moment asked to have a picture taken with her and my chain, to show it was still attached.

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From the look on her face, she thinks I’m a nutter

Maybe (I thought) I could persuade people I’d run all the way chained if I asked random people to pose for photos with me & chain. As you can tell, my thought processes weren’t too great at that point.
As I carried on round the water’s edge, I started to work out where I wanted to finish at noon. The ideal place would be to stop at the hotel where I was staying with my wife, so I could meet her there when she arrived. Google maps told me it was a little over 8 miles away, but it was only 8am, so I could get there slowly and take my time. It was that point that I stopped following Adrian’s awesome route and headed for more central Liverpool, but at that time of the morning I’d covered about 28 miles since midnight and I thought I could probably manage another 8. I knew I hadn’t made the 90 miles distance as the crow flies, but I would cover over 100 miles total distance which was a good thought.
Just after 8am I had a call from my wife saying she was about 180 miles away, and it seemed the race was on! She had 3 hours to drive 180 miles and I had 3 hours to walk 8 miles. I know who my money was on to get to the hotel first.

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Random paperboy…looking scared

I took quite a few rest breaks here, and I’m sure that the other people at the bus stop I rested at were grateful I didn’t get on their bus. I put something up on Facebook to explain I wasn’t chained anymore but was still going, and took the opportunity to text the race director that I was by myself but would carry on until noon.
I started to see shops along my route, and began the salivating thought of my usual finishing food of pints of milk and Ginsters slices. I think my body seems to know that at the end of a run, the drinking of milk is a sign to relax and rest. Although I hadn’t eaten for hours I was not feeling particularly hungry, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to eat, drink, rest. Ohhh the thought of sitting down and taking the weight off my feet was lovely.
I managed to keep moving until about 10, when I weakened and decided I could get something to eat in the next shop I came to. 10 minutes later I was buying 4 pints of milk and three pasties, and to try to delay eating them as long as possible I wasn’t allowed to eat them until I came to a green area (not a grass verge) that I could properly lay down on.
So there I was, walking along residential streets carrying 4 pints of milk, dressed in an orange boiler-suit, chain wrapped round one wrist. I must have looked a very odd sight. At this stage my brain wasn’t really functioning properly. A stranger pulled up in front of me, across the pavement, and I remember looking at him as I couldn’t understand why he was stopping on the pavement (I guessed he must be parking or something) but he had a UTMB t-shirt on so maybe he was into running as knew what I was up to. This is what I thought as I walked round the rear of the car to carry on my journey. When he said my name, I assumed I must know him, but I really couldn’t work it out until I got closer to the car and realised it was Adrian, come out to see if I was ok. I was (I think) pretty short with him as I was struggling to string too many words together and all I wanted to do was get to this green are and drink my milk. He was taking his family out for breakfast (got his priorities right!) and although he asked if I wanted to join them I couldn’t think past the pints of milk I was carrying. Sorry Adrian!
So at about 11am I finally got to lie down in the grass, and eat and drink.

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Finally having a sit down…but my eyes seem to have disappeared.

It was as good as I expected. I lay in the sun and tried to ignore the cars slowing down as they passed me to get a better look at the tramp on their green spilling milk down his front.
And then I was up and off for the last few miles. Eventually Claire did beat me to the hotel, and I stopped at noon and sat on a park bench, asking her to come and get me for the last half mile. At that point I’d been awake for 54 hours, and wasn’t really making too much sense in my head. I stopped my Garmin at noon and worked out I’d travelled 106 miles, 75 chained to Adrian. Not very far in 36 hours, but good fun nevertheless.
I’d like to say the hotel didn’t think I was mental when we arrived, but I’d be lying. No amount of explaining was going to alter the perception of what I looked like. I lasted another 2 hours, consisting of a shower, Doritos and beer, before finally falling into a deep sleep for the afternoon. Magic.
Adrian reunited me with my kit, and Claire and I had a pleasant meal before zooming back to Kent the following morning. I wasn’t particularly stiff or sore, probably because I didn’t really push myself too hard on the run, and my feet were in really good shape. The only casualty was that my mind was a bit addled for about 2 days afterwards, as I tried to get my head back to normal…nothing unusual there then.
And that was it. I’ve got great memories of this run…especially the second night and the arrival in Liverpool. The whole concept of no finish line and no route means you are absolutely on your own and can go as hard or gently as you want. The race format has loads of scope, and in fact next year they are doing an “Escape from GB” where you have 48 hours to get as far away as possible….a great idea.
The final results were that only the chained couple got the 130 miles distance in (which is very impressive) but Adrian and I came about 6th (out of 14 starters) and passed the 60 mile distance comfortably. By myself I travelled 84 miles as the crow flies, in 106 miles total.

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These are the traces of the chained runners. The one that finishes at Liverpool (north west) is us.

So, my thanks as always to the race directors Richard Weremiuk (Beyond Marathon Events) and Mark Cockbain ( of Cockbain Events) for a great idea and well executed race.
Thanks to Adrian and Dom for an enjoyable time, and I apologise for all the canals. Thanks Adrian for putting so much work into an awesome route that worked out really well.
Thanks to Claire for driving to Liverpool and back. The things she does for me!
And finally, thanks and apologies to my brain for generally getting muddled over the course of a couple of days. I think it’s mostly sorted out now. Possibly.

 

n.b. If you made it through this without wanting to top yourself, follow my blog so you’ll never miss the chance to hear me complain about running again!