ultra running

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.

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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.

 

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Arc of Attrition 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Holy shit!  Didn’t expect that!

 

John naturally had to enter then, and got this:

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You  can see the amazing balloon from a mile away!

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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It was beautiful though….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Running!

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that brought us to mile 64.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pause.  Deep breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Finishing!

 

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

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

 

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

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Looking a little tired….John & his buckle.

 

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

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

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

And then we both passed out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Nuff said.

Bob.   17-2-17

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

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

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

 

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John thinks he looks menacing…..

 

 

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

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

Healthy breakfast!

Healthy breakfast!

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

 

Thames Trot – Feb 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Clearly, fabulous weather lay in store for us today!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bob and pam pic

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

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

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

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

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

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

nice scenery

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

better trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

pam with trophy

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

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

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

john hunt pic

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

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

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

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

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

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