ultra running

Monarchs Way – May 2019

 

Is that Brighton in the distance? I can see lights, and that definitely looks like the sea…I’m much too far away to see the pier, but it’s a big enough town to look like I may be getting near Brighton. And that would mean I may be getting near the end of the longest race I’ve ever done. At 615 miles, it is the longest race I’ll ever do.
I’ve been on the move since Saturday 18th May. Today is Thursday 30th May, about 6pm. I’ve slept (briefly) in a tent or on the trail along the way. I’ve eaten (quickly) everything I could find along the way, pubs, cafes, burger vans. I’ve showered twice. I’ve gone to the toilet everywhere.

Mentally, I’m very tired. Physically, everything above the ankle is uncomfortable but manageable…below the ankle, my feet are trashed – blisters, raw wet patches, pain that seems to have no source…everything below my right ankle is a massive, show-stopping problem, and my left foot is not much better.
I’m coming to the end of the longest ultra of my life, but I’ve still got 18 miles to go, so I stop admiring the view, and get moving.


 

The Monarchs way ultra, a 615 mile non-stop race, is a fairly unusual thing. It follows the route of Charles 2nd escaping the armies of Cromwell, and twists and circles around West England, before hitting the coast briefly at Charmouth, and then following the South Downs past Southampton and Portsmouth towards Brighton, finally finishing in Shoreham.

It takes in some astonishingly beautiful areas of the country, puts you on trails that you feel have not seen another human for years, and takes in the occasional town or village. It shows you the countryside at its best, and allows you to view the horizon in the morning, knowing full well that by the afternoon you will be standing somewhere on that horizon, looking back at where you started. It is amazing.

This is the countryside.

It also takes you through some jungle…some of the most overgrown trails you will find, that you are not even entirely sure are trails except that the signpost and GPS track takes you this way. A huge dense hedge on either side (subtly hiding the barbed wire fence running through the middle), forming a canopy overhead, and a trail heading through the middle, framed with tall nettles and brambles that leave just enough space to squeeze through (or not). A fallen tree across the trail halfway that requires some climbing, as there is no going around it, and an exit that takes you out into the sunshine of an open field. Amazing.

This is called a shrubbery tunnel…

It’s not an ultra, in the traditional sense, but more of an expedition. One that tests your mental and physical resilience in a way that a standard 100 mile run does not come even close. It asks you to repeat your experiences of yesterday, and the day before, while slowly deteriorating a little each day, until the logical conclusion of reaching the end, hopefully before reaching the point of needing to stop, rest and recover.
Who could resist that?
A commitment to this race would require some sacrifice. A fortnight off work takes a healthy chunk out of my holiday allowance (meaning less time with my family). The entrance fee is not cheap, although I consider it fairly reasonable for the experience it gives. The kit required is extensive and varied, and bloody expensive. The time to train would be significant, if taken seriously (so….not too much in my case then.)
However, an opportunity to challenge myself on an ultra that until 2018 had had no finishers was too much of a temptation.
The race was first run in 2016, with 3 very very experienced entrants…no finishers.
Then 2017, 3 more experienced runners….no finishers. I followed the runners with their trackers online obsessively.
Suddenly, 2018…10 entrants…lots of foot problems….3 finishers. I couldn’t believe how long the runners were out there, on the trail. Every time I logged on to see where they were, I would try to imagine what it must be like to keep that sort of effort going for days and days. 2 weeks is an eternity when lying on a sunny beach.  Imagine how long it must feel when being on your feet for 20 hours a day.
So, having watched the race for the last few years, I tantalised myself with the thought of entering…how ridiculous that would be, as I clearly had no genuine chance of finishing. In April 2018 I booked the time off work ‘just in case’ I fancied the 2019 race, and politely suggested to my long-suffering wife that I may have a race I’d attempt in 2019. We had a week’s holiday in March 2019 for our 20th wedding anniversary, and I promised myself that I wouldn’t make my mind up until that was over. End of March, I entered…oh dear.


I suppose I should give a quick run-down of my experience & calibre so you know who you’re dealing with. With no previous experience, I started running in 2008 and did the London Marathon, and graduated to ultras in 2014 with the Grand Union Canal Race. I’ve been lucky enough to do a few fairly iconic (i.e. difficult) ultras since then including Thames Ring 250, Arc of Attrition, Spine Challenger, and various 100 milers. I have absolutely minimal running ability, being neither fast, quick nor agile. For example, I completed the alpine-style Ultra-Trail Snowdonia (UTS50) in 2018 and took an appalling 26 hours to complete the 50 mile course (without question, my most “Kill me now” experience). Click on the race names to read the race reports for each of these, but they’re not pretty or exciting.
I’ve also DNF’s (did-not-finish) a reasonable number of races too including Lakeland 100 (too hilly, but I loved the LL50), and Winter Viking Way (too slow). But I’m happy to say I learned as much from my bad races as my good ones, and saw them as part of the game.
However, what I do have to my credit is a certain stubbornness to keep going, to finish what I’ve started. I’m physically a bit of a wimp (I’ve got the arms of a Somalian pirate), but I enjoy running which means I’m happy to spend a lot of time just gently ambling through hours of trail or road. I don’t run quickly, do speed work or hill work, or really anything that requires effort, but I’ll happily get up at 4am on a Sunday to fit in 5 or 6 hours of running along the pancake flat promenade in Kent where I live. It’s a great hobby.
And I think it’s healthy to challenge yourself to something bigger and better than last year, something to push the experience and mind a little further than you’ve done before…which brought me to a 615 mile ultra (naturally!).
We would have a checkpoint every 45 miles or so, to eat and sleep (if we wanted) and have access to our drop-bags. That meant carrying everything we needed for at least 12 hours (at the start) to 24 hours (near the end). We could visit shops and pubs, thank goodness, but no crew was allowed to meet and feed us. It was very much a solo effort.
Having entered the race, and having given myself a healthy 6 weeks to get to the start line, I took a holistic approach to the training plan. I started taking vitamins, reduced my alcohol consumption to just 1 day per week (not that I drunk less, just binged a much as possible on that single day) and slept less and ran more.
The sleep factor was important, as I would spend most of the fortnight event being short on sleep and it seemed logical to get my body used to the effect. Hence I reduced a typical night’s sleep to about 6 or 7 hours, and got used to getting up at dawn to run for a couple of hours before work. It doesn’t sound like much, but I found I adjusted surprisingly well and it served me well during the race.
Although I did run a lot in April (322 miles to be exact), they were all slow easy miles that focused me on the ‘slow and steady’ target. I spent huge amounts of time on these runs considering literally everything that could (and would) go wrong and what I could do to overcome it. It sounds slightly obsessive, but I’d get home after a run, and write down (for example) that I needed to take a tiny sewing kit with me in case something on my rucksack came loose (which it did!) and needed mending. Over the course of 6 weeks, I was prepared for most things, and had also invited 7 very experienced ultra-running buddies to a group on social media that would be able to give me advice on any running problems I experienced that I wanted advice on (I imaginatively called the group “Bob’s running problems”…but more of them later). I spent these 6 weeks making sure I had backups to every important piece of kit (spare GPS device, two spare head-torches, 4 pairs of shoes, numerous pairs of socks, spare headphones, warm weather kit, cold weather kit, very cold weather kit, wet weather kit, sleeping kit, cooking kit, food….more food than I could ever eat, and on and on. ) I suppose my logic was that I could DNF through my own physical failings, but not through some daft mechanical “I’ve got cold” problem.

Soup, noodles, tinned mackerel. Food of Kings!

With about 2 weeks to go, I stopped running and started fast hiking through some rough local trails, with my dog and a fully laden pack, to get my head round what most of the race would feel like. I have to say that I had been quite calm until that point, but for some reason that activity brought everything home to me (specifically, on the evening of Friday 11th May) and I spent the next 7 days in a state of absolute fear at what I was putting myself in for. Hiking is slow when compared to running, and your brain starts to play tricks when you begin to consider how far 600 miles really is.
I was able to hand over one of my two drop-bags to Lindley, race director, the week before the race as I was getting the train to the start line, and he spent a happy hour unintentionally terrifying me on the challenges I faced. I had not realised that two of the three finishers from last year were ‘sponsored athletes’ (i.e. got free merchandise from outdoors companies to wear at events = good runners!) and that the third finisher had bent the rules slightly by staying in hotels for two good sleeps (a loophole closed for 2019!). Lindley emphasised that the race was more of a multi-day challenge than a single-stage ultra, meaning that sleeping/eating and personal administration were just as important as the time on your feet covering ground. God help me, with my total of zero experience in multi-day events.
So, with a slightly wobbly mindset, I left work promptly on Friday afternoon and rushed to catch a train to get me to Worcester in time for a “last meal” for all the runners at a Premier Inn.
It’s probably about time I introduced the other runners, as they all have a part to play in my story:
Lindley Chambers – Race director. Yes, ok, not a runner in the race, but a larger than life character who had brought this race (and a number others) to life. I’d done the Thames Ring 250 race in 2015 (DNF) and 2017 (finished!) so knew Lindley reasonably well. Lindley has a habit of speaking his mind on Facebook which means he comes across quite different when you meet him in person.  He has a gigantic beard and wears sandals and shorts in sub-zero arctic conditions.
Maxine – Lindley’s better half. What can I say, she spent most of my race feeding me and trying to hold my feet together with sticky tape.

That’s Lindley on the left, giving someone a drubbing on Facebook.

 

The truck…

Lindleys truck – yes, this was the truck.

The runners, in alphabetical order…
Ellen Cottom – well known, “hard-as-nails” ultra runner. She’s done more ultras than I’ve had hot dinners, and is apparently indestructible. She was one of the runners that did not finish this race in 2018, so was back for revenge. Fun fact: at the start line, she pulled out a small (but very sharp and pointy) knife that she would be using if she got any grief on the more populated parts of the route. She was able to quote the UK law regarding carrying personal knives if used for camping etc. Excellent.
John Stocker – very fast runner. In 2017, he won the Thames Ring 250 in 58 hours (I took a sloth-like 80 hours). He’s very driven, very competitive, has a race calendar for the rest of the year that includes another two or three more-than-200 miles races. He’s an extremely tough runner, who was returning after DNF’ing this race last year (due to bad feet, which must have been really bad).
Jon Rowles – I’d met Jon a couple of times before at races. He was a good middle-of-the-pack runner (whereas as I am nearer the back, in that respect) but struggled when confronted with lack of sleep. He was also returning after not finishing last year.
Peter Bengtsson – the Swedish joker! Peter was a lovely guy, a very experienced runner that had come over from Sweden for the race and seemed to take the whole experience in his easy-going manner. Nothing seemed to phase him. He was also returning from DNF’ing last year.
The three ‘virgins’ that were new to the race:
Tony Hewett – a lovely guy. I only got to speak to Tony briefly, even though I sat next to him at the meal, but his eyes were sparkling with adventure and he was clearly looking forward to getting stuck in (on the other hand, I was struggling to string two words together). He was a school teacher (I think).
Victoria Ownes – I thought it was great that she brought her whole family to the meal (I hadn’t even invited my wife, which everyone else had done (their wives, not mine, obviously)) and she was quite lively company at the meal. I had Facebook stalked her a little, so I knew she had done quite a few decent ultras.
Me – oh dear. Oh dear.

So Lindley did a quick race briefing that I remember very little of apart from the animated discussion about whether one particular loop on the route should be attempted “anti-clockwise” (-Lindley) or “counter-clockwise” (-Ellen, did I mention she is American? Very American? No? I should have then. ) I don’t remember who won the anti/counter conversation. It’s probably not important.
Race briefing swiftly dealt with, it was onto the meal. Perhaps I’m being unkind, but there were about 15 of us there, and the time it took us to get our meals seemed to be all out of proportion to the length of time it would take to chuck a few things in a microwave and pour a sauce over the top. Lindley and John Stocker kept us amused with race stories and photos though, so the time passed quickly.

The last meal. Photo courtesy of Lindley Chambers

At the end of the meal, I retrieved my drop bag from Lindley and took it up to my room, for a final sort and re-pack. One of the lessons I’ve learnt is being able to locate things during races quickly, as there is nothing more frustrating than trying to find a pack of wet wipes that you know is there, but you cannot find anywhere. All my kit was in plastic bags, separated by type, and in some kind of logical order (to me).
I slept reasonably well, and was down first to abuse the all-you-can-eat breakfast. I even got away with 6 sausages in a napkin to put in one of my drop-bags for a later stage. Magic!
My race pack was deliberately light for the first leg of 47 miles, as this would be where I would be working hard, moving quickly and banking as much time versus the cut-offs. Did I mention the cut-offs? No? I will put the detail into an additional section at the end, but simply put, each 45 miles checkpoint had its own timed cut-off, to prevent people slowing to a crawl. The time allowed for each leg were quite consistent, and quite generous at first, but once sleep deprivation kicks in and the pace slows then the cut-offs would become a real problem. In 2017, two of the front runners were 20 hours ahead of the cut-offs by half way, and still got timed out before the end.
So, my strategy was quite simple. I would move as fast as possible, with as little sleep as possible for the first 4 legs (approx 190 miles). This time saved would be my buffer against the cut-offs and if I managed the pace I wanted, with just 6 hours sleep, I would be 35 hours ahead of the cut-off (34 hours 58 minutes to be exact!). Then, if I could maintain a good pace (but slower, and with more sleep) for the next 4 legs, I would hit the 8th checkpoint in good shape, with only a small erosion to this buffer. Then, legs 9 to 14 I could (and would) lose all this time as I slowed to a virtual stumble, with my body gently falling to pieces. This plan was the best I could come up with, and based on my experience I was pretty confident on my abilities to keep the pace up once the buffer was in place, but the challenge would be to get to that 4th checkpoint quickly enough.
At the starting line, it was clear there was a different approach to the first leg. A few of the returning runners were in long trousers, clearly protecting their legs against rough trail. Ellen and Peter had gaiters, Ellen’s being up to her knees. She meant business!
I was in running shorts, clearly not understanding how much my legs were going to get scratched and beaten on the first leg, but I did have some short gaiters to keep sticks and stones out of my shoes.
There was much discussion (and laughter) at the various weights of everyone’s pack at the start, with mine being much ridiculed for being the lightest (it was, but I more than made up for it later) and, I think, John Stockers being the heaviest, or perhaps Vic’s.

Facebook pic, courtesy of Lindley Chambers. Runners from left to right: Me, Jon Rowles, Tony Hewett, Ellen Cottom, Peter, John Stocker, Vic Owens.

To be fair, all I had for the first leg was the various bits of mandatory kit I needed (waterproofs etc) and a few cheese rolls & tins of mackerel. I carried a little water, perhaps 500 ml, but I generally tend not to drink too much when running. In comparison John Stocker was carrying 2 litres of water and plenty of other stuff too. I felt properly under-dressed

Lindley fixed trackers to everyone’s pack, which would allow the internet stalkers to track our dots over the next two weeks and the next 615 miles.
We had the obligatory line-up holding the various Monarchs way signs, and then without much fanfare, we were off.

Facebook post, courtesy of Lindley Chambers.

Leg 1…..47 miles….started 10:00 Sat, arrived at CP1 approx 19:30 Sat……(Mileage 0-47)

John Stocker immediately zoomed off into the distance, in a cloud of dust, and I opted to fall in behind Ellen and Peter, thinking rightly that they would know the route for the first few miles so I would not need to worry about navigation while I got settled into a rhythm. The whole route was marked with signs, but these were relatively few & far between, and more useful as confirmation of the correct route rather than actual navigation.

We all had GPS devices, usually a Garmin Etrex 30 (mine) or Garmin 64. These would show a route to follow on top of a rudimentary map, on a screen about an inch wide. To be clear, these were not huge smart phones that would guide you, turn-by-turn every step of the way, but a small, dim screen, a pink line (the route) a blue arrow (you) and a need to look at it every minute or so to ensure you had not missed a turn.

This was my GPS, showing the route

It was thick grass around the edge of fields at the start, and as we came to the first clumps of nettles I felt bad for Vic who was probably going to suffer a bit as I had been told she started running barefoot. Apparently she changed to sandals quite soon, but must still have had to work hard to persevere through the rough trail.

I was moving well, enjoying the fact of being moving at last, and passed Ellen as she stopped to fiddle with her pack. I caught Peter, and had a pleasant chat with him while we navigated a town. He was working a 50 minute running / 10 minutes walking system, so the next time he started walking I left him behind, and pushed on by myself…in second place!
It was not long before the town was left behind and I came to my first rapeseed field. This was (if you don’t know) a large field, filled with shoulder-high blossoming rapeseed, absolutely saturated with water from rainfall the previous night. The GPS track clearly showed the route going straight through the middle, and there was no obvious clear route I could see…so I took a quick look around the edge hoping for a cleared track, and when it was obvious it did not exist, I simply pushed my way through. It was suddenly clear why the returning runners from last year were wearing long trousers, as my legs were being scratched to pieces, meanwhile everything I had on was being soaked. The field probably only took 10 minutes or so to push through (and was one of 4 or 5 that day) but it was quite an experience! As I came to more of the fields, it became clear the trick was to follow a slightly clearer route that one of the tractor tyres had taken, so the rapeseed was slightly less thick, but it was still very challenging.

Yes, this is the route!

Slightly easier to negotiate were the field of wheat, only knee high, but still soaking wet.

Easy path when the farmer marks it out…

Quite often the farmer had cleared a route through so it was much more pleasant to traverse.

Despite the challenges, I was enjoying myself enormously and running really comfortably, and in fact I passed John Stocker at some point of the morning. To be fair, I think he was running conservatively (and I wasn’t) and he encouraged me as I went past him…top bloke! It was never going to last long, but it was fun while it lasted.

John celebrating the unique situation of me being first!!

We started hitting patches of forest between fields, where there were yet more patches of nettles. In all the days of running, I never discovered what the point of nettles was…they just seem to exist to be a bloody pain to everyone. They are the wasps of the plant kingdom, and serve no purpose. When I’m commander of the entire earth, I shall command everyone to wipe nettles from existence and then go barefoot through the countryside enjoying themselves (without worrying about nettles).
After about 20 miles, I hit a village and stopped into the first pub I saw to get a can of something fizzy. I found that a quick stop and ‘pick-me-up’ did wonders for my morale as well as the sugar giving me a boost. John Stocker caught me up as I came out of the pub, and Lindley and Maxine had also met us here, so we had a good moan about the rapeseed fields.
At about 30 miles I was beginning to slow a little, and getting a bit of nausea. For those unaccustomed to my usual running problems, I start to feel nauseas at about mile 35-40 of an ultra, I’m then copiously sick at about mile 50, eat nothing for hours / days, and then suddenly (24 hours later) my stomach wakes up and wants to eat the whole world. I’ve given up trying to fight it, and just accept that the exhaustion I feel when I cannot eat is part of the fun, and I should just get on with it.

I slowed a bit more, and found myself a long staff / stick to walk with and keep me company. Moving with a stick is something I’ve done on a few ultras, and I find it helps me keep up a good pace while allowing me to hold my back straight. I stopped to get a can of coke to hopefully settle my stomach a bit (no chance) and sat to drink it and consider my poorly stomach. When I set off, I realised I’d forgotten my stick so tracked back to retrieve it (only 20 metres or so) but at that moment John Stocker zoomed past me again to regain the lead. And that is the story of the epic few hours I was in the lead in an ultra.

The rest of this leg was pretty uneventful, I really loved the trail we were on, the isolation I felt and although I couldn’t eat I was still moving smoothly. The only hiccup I found was that I had somehow cocked up by downloading the 2018 GPS tracks rather than 2019, and so I had created problems for myself because checkpoint 1 had moved further up the trail. Luckily I managed to sort myself out and Lindley expertly re-loaded my GPS with the correct tracks at the checkpoint. Phew!

First night scratched legs from the fields

Checkpoint 1 was one of the few checkpoints that would be indoors, and I probably should have appreciated it more. On my plan, I had given myself an hour to sort myself out, so I had to move quickly to get everything done. A quick wipe of the feet, change of shoes and socks, and load my pack up with everything I would need for the first night leg. I knew my nauseous stomach would cope with cup-a-soup, so had brought along a stash – I had 4, and filled my vacuum flask with another 2 for the trail. At 120 calories each packet of soup, they allow me to get liquid calories on board without being sick everywhere. Maxine prepared me a lovely microwave lasagne, but I only managed a few mouthfuls.

I considered my options of putting on a long pair of hiking trousers to protect my legs, and a pair of heavy knee-high gaiters (used last for Spine Challenger, lots of Pennine way, January weather, plenty of bog), and in the end I wore everything I could to protect my legs. I ended up wearing those long trousers every remaining leg of the race. By the end they were indescribably mucky.

Facebook post courtesy of Lindley Chambers

John Stocker had arrived (apparently) 8 minutes before me, and left at least 20 minutes before me. As I was getting ready to leave, after about 50 minutes Ellen and Peter arrived, both looking in great shape. I was feeling re-energised and looking forward to the first night leg, not tired at all.

Leg 2…..45 miles….started 20:20 Sat, arrived at CP2 approx 10:20 Sun…..(Mileage 47-92)

As I said, I was feeling good for this leg. I usually enjoy travelling at night, and although I hit a low patch about 2am (like everyone) I enjoy the darkness and the single pool of light given out by my head-torch that is the only thing to look at all around. I tend to move quite slowly, as I have a bit of a tendency to fall or trip over things.

First night midnight mackerel!

I stopped at midnight to drink some soup and try to eat food, conscious of the energy I was using and not yet replacing.
At about 2.30am I was starting to feel sleepy, so stopped for a quick nap on the side of the trail. This isn’t as odd as it sounds; I was quite warm and aimed to sleep for no more than 10-15 minutes to give my brain a bit of a rest. I find that my mind will then stay clear for another couple of hours through the night.
Ellen came past me after I’d been asleep for about 10 minutes, and checked I was alright (it must be a bit disconcerting to come across a body laid out on the trail, in the middle of nowhere!) We carried on together, with Ellen fretting about her tracker not working: it had apparently stopped sending a signal a few hours ago. She stopped on a road and phoned Lindley to see what could be done to revive it, and I succeeded in removing it from its protective packet and pressing buttons until it sprang back into life.
Ellen and I stayed together for the rest of the leg, which was in fact a big loop called the Bosecombe loop.  We actually met up with John Stocker at the start of the small circle on the very left of the loop, as he was finishing it and we were starting it. It took us a whopping 1 hour 22 minutes to get all the way round this ‘small’ circle…very depressing to get back to where you started after an hour.

We started at the bottom, and then went on a massive loop, to return to the halfway point.

We seemed to pass through lots of cow-filled fields, which thankfully left us alone. I became well-acquainted with electric fences that farmers use to keep livestock contained, never having really needed to climb over them before. Unfortunately, my first experience was to get one leg over and allow my nether regions to gently come into contact with the wire, giving me a gentle yet very real electric shock that certainly woke me up. You can be sure I gave the wires a lot more respect in future!
Ellen showed me the proper way to treat a barbed wire fence that we had somehow got onto the wrong side of….which was to simply climb over the bloody thing. Sounds obvious now, but I’ve always had a bit of an aversion to tearing my leg open on a bit of rusty wire, so I’ve usually hesitated up until now…no longer! If Ellen can throw herself over, so can I. It was a useful lesson to learn, and one I would put into practise daily!
At about 6am I had a sit and used my cooking kit (that I’d thoughtfully packed at CP1) to boil water for a bit of coffee. In my planning, I’d thought that a night leg would be much more bearable if I knew I had some hot coffee waiting for me at about 6am. Although I did enjoy my sit down and the coffee, I decided it was too heavy to carry for a whole leg just for a coffee, so this would be the only time I did it. I also used the time to put a video on Facebook, which is something I’d thought about doing during the night. I thought, for mainly personal reasons, it would be useful to watch the deterioration over the coming days as I got more tired. It also served me really well as a motivational tool every time I read the comments from friends and strangers on the videos.
I got the first of many calls from Derek, a very experienced, older coach from my running club, who keeps me going during my more taxing ultras by calling me a couple of times per day to check up on me…forcing me to engage with my condition and actually understand how I’m feeling. He has an uncanny ability to calm me down when I’m struggling, and motivate me when I’m down. He’s great and, as always, would phone me just at the times I’m suffering a bit.
The coffee did not give me the required perk unfortunately, and I was tired when I got into CP2 at about 10.30am Sunday morning.

Second checkpoint luxury

Ellen arrived about an hour later.  Peter shortly after that.

The checkpoint was in the grounds of Boscombe House (I think) and we had a night grassy corner, with a rough wooden fenced. There were a couple of tents for sleeping that looked very appealing. My plan allowed me 2 hours here, which included an hour for sleeping, so i was in a hurry to get myself sorted out and to have some sleep.

Shoes and socks were quickly off, to allow my feet the longest chance to dry out, and I did my best to eat, forcing down a cup of tea, cup of milk, and a bacon sandwich, which tasted great. Unfortunately, they didn’t taste so good when I promptly vomited them back up again into a usefully located bush. Dammit.
An hours sleep felt wonderful though, and after that I tried again and succeeded in keeping down about half of a bacon sandwich and some more cup-a-soups. Clean socks, clean shoes, and I was on my way.

Leg 3…..42 miles….started 12:30 Sun, arrived at CP3 approx 03.51 Mon…..(Mileage 92-134)

I spent most of today hungry but unable to eat, which was really frustrating. The route followed lots canal and aqueducts, which is usually my favourite route as they are so picturesque, but it was difficult to enjoy while knowing that my energy levels were dropping by the hour. I put on an audio book that helped distract me quite successfully but I was pretty low for most of the day.
At about 4pm I was getting increasingly cross and frustrated that I hadn’t come across any shops that I could even get a sugary drink at.  I was physically getting very tired, but had no fuel to replace the spent energy, and of course I needed every but of fuel I could get!

I took a call from a running friend John and I whinged about needing a café or shop, anything to give me some energy. Sure enough, 10 minutes later I came across a café that had just closed (at 4pm) and I was so pissed I took a picture of the closed door.

Bloody closed!

Shortly afterwards Derek called, and patiently listened to me whinge about needing a shop. As always, he calmed me down and focused me on keeping moving, well aware that the faster I moved the sooner I’d find a shop.
Within an hour, I made the decision to leave the route at what looked like a busy bridge over the canal I was on, and was overjoyed to see a small parade of shops nearby. I sat outside Pizza Supreme delicately eating about 20 chips, but more importantly drinking can after can of fizzy sugary drink. Magic. Each can had about 10 grammes of sugar, so 3 cans certainly gave me a boost.

Magic pizza place!


After messaging Ellen who was behind me that at this particular bridge there were some shops, I went on my merry way in a far better frame of mind. It sounds ridiculous, but I found through the whole event that my mood (and hence my pace) lifted enormously with a full stomach and some calories to digest. I would learn that my stomach really does drive the whole body!
As dusk started to fall, I came across the Netherton tunnel. I’d been told about a 2.7km tunnel that has a towpath alongside a canal that goes straight through some hills…much quicker than going round them! I headed into it without any hesitation, but was really surprised how claustrophobic I felt after the first 15 minutes. I was genuinely pleased to get out at the end, it was a proper creepy experience. The towpath was about 2 or 3 feet wide, with the arched ceiling coming down to the ground on my left, and a metal railing on the right to stop me falling into the dark water. No lights, naturally.

The poxy tunnel!

The whole atmosphere was very damp, and water constantly dripped from the ceiling like those caves you go into on holiday. The water from the ceiling created massive puddles on the towpath that I started trying to avoid but in the end gave up as they encompassed the whole path and were long and surprisingly deep. I consoled myself that I would change my socks for my spare dry ones once I got out, which I did. Interestingly, when I got to the next checkpoint, I asked how the other runners had coped with the waterlogged path. Apparently John Stocker had taken his shoes off (to keep them dry), and gone through the tunnel in his socks…putting his dry shoes back on at the end. Ellen had cleverly brought some plastic bags with her, putting them over her feet and hence keeping her feet dry. Clearly I was taking the easy option of just getting wet feet and then changing my socks!
I remember very little about the rest of the night leg, apart from doing my usual ropey job in the dark and slowing down badly. Ellen overtook me again, and I got to the checkpoint about 3.50am about 30 minutes after her. I set my alarm for 2 hours and was asleep quickly, but on waking felt good and I was able to eat some bacon & beans which felt wonderful, had about 4 coffees and even a little bit of watermelon. It was great to be able to eat and keep it down! Even though I was tired, I was raring to go (but that may have been the coffee talking!) My body was in good shape, the only concern was the big toe on my right foot, which I must have stubbed hard as it was slowly swelling all around the nail and turning black. I was still feeling very positive and starting to believe I could perhaps keep going for a few days yet. I was not thinking past the next checkpoint, and being very careful to not to have thoughts of finishing…but still felt good and was having a blast. At the checkpoint I was given the news that Tony had dropped on Sunday, which was a real shame.

Leg 4…..48 miles….started 06:30 Mon, arrived at CP4 approx 23.20 Mon…..(Mileage 134-182)

Facebook video from the start.

I started this leg wearing waterproof socks, as the dew was very heavy and my shoes were quickly soaked. I took them off after a few hours, but I found they did a good job of protecting me from the worst of the “soaking feet syndrome” whenever I did this in the morning. Unfortunately, after about a week on the move my feet became too swollen to allow the extra socks inside my shoes, so I was not able to do this, but it really worked for the first week.
The good news however, was that the breakfast had woken up my stomach, and I was suddenly finding I had some energy to move at a good pace, but even better my stomach was shouting for more food!
I had purposely lightened my pack before leaving the checkpoint, so I was not only feeling strong, but carrying a lot less than the previous two legs (i.e. all the cooking kit was jettisoned, which probably saved me 0.5 kg at least). It was early daylight, which is when I tend to feel best, and sure enough I absolutely motored the first 4 hours.

I reached a park at about 10.30, with a big pond and green spaces, and asked someone if there was a café nearby by. It was a wonderful feeling to order some proper food (a healthy pasta and tuna thing) and sit at a table outside, with my shoes off (much to the amazement of everyone else!) and actually enjoy the feeling of eating.

Real food!

After a couple of days of minimal solid food, it felt wonderful to actually put a load of fuel into my engine room. I was only in that chair for 20 minutes, but the next few hours flew by as the terrain was good along roads and canals. Even the fields I went over were beautiful.

Beautiful surroundings

I had a few close experiences with friendly horses when I went through their fields, but they all seemed friendly enough and came over to say hello.

Horses coming over to say hello…

I have much more confidence with horses (for no particular reason, except they seem more intelligent) that cows…I seem to read about a walker being trampled by a herd of psychotic cows every year or so, but less so with horses.
By 3pm I was making good progress, but it had been a few hours since last eating, and I was keen to maintain the calories going in, so when I hit the next town (perhaps at Alcester) I looked for a pub to get my next meal. I ended up at a little sandwich shop because it appears all the pubs do food at lunchtime and dinnertime, but not in between…however, I loved the expression on the face of the guy that served me when I ordered a massive meatball & cheese Panini, steak pie, multiple cans of Lilt, and then proceeded to sit on the pavement outside his shop and tuck in. It was another absolutely wonderful eating experience again, and I loved being able to message people to show how much I was eating. Even the school kids that congregated at the little parade of shops thought I was a bit of a strange sight.

#tramp-life

 

 

Happy eating…

With another really good feed and a brief rest, I was shortly motoring again and was eating the miles up (as well as everything else). Although I was physically tired, I was cheerful and enjoying myself, and not really feeling ill effects from lack of sleep (at that stage). I had slept for perhaps 3 solid hours from Saturday morning to Monday afternoon, and had travelled about 160 miles, but was still in good shape now that I was eating well. Life was good!
With these thoughts, at about 6pm I had just come to out of a long stretch of trail and hit a road which seemed to be leading me towards civilisation, when I did a bit of a double take at the guy walking along the pavement towards me. He looked familiar, but not immediately recognisable (if that makes sense). As he got a bit closer, he was clearly looking at me as if he knew me, but I still didn’t place him until he was really close, whereupon I realised it was a guy called Mike, that I had shared a house with at university (about 30 years previously) but had not seen or had any contact with since, apart from minimal contact on Facebook. His wife, Janie, who I also knew from university, was there too, and it was a fabulous surprise to see them both, especially as they had brought pizza with them (individually wrapped pieces!).

Even as I sit typing this, I have a massive grin all over my face, it was such a treat to see some friendly faces, especially ones that I’ve not seen for 30 years. They were all grown up, unlike me, who was still behaving like a child (you know, 600 mile runs…that sort of thing) and we had a great 10 minutes of conversation walking along the pavement, before they left me to follow the next canal. I’d hoovered up about 10 pieces of pizza, and was in such a great mood after seeing them I put a post on Facebook after leaving them:

Slight mis-type here…look for the word horse that should have said house.

The ensuing hilarity after I said I’d shared a horse with Mikey kept me chuckling for a while when I got to my sleeping bag. I got a few phone calls through the evening that helped my mood and kept me motoring on.

The sunset was beautiful that night, especially as I was travelling through some decent trail and lovely countryside. My navigation so far had been pretty good, but I found the darkness was confusing me a bit tonight. In one memorable ‘diversion’ my GPS was showing a right turn up ahead, off the country road I was following. There did not seem to be any trail heading right, so I guessed the bridge overhead was an aqueduct of some sort, and I needed to climb up the steep sides to the top, and then follow the aqueduct. Usually, there’s stairs to get up, but I couldn’t find these either, so in my slightly addled state, I decided to climb over a fence and through the bushes and trees to the top, whereupon instead of a calm aqueduct and a path, I came across a railway line and lots of no trespassing signs. Naturally, I decided not to go back down the way I’d come (and I wasn’t sure I could anyway) so I rather dangerously and very gingerly crossed the tracks and went down the other side of the embankment, through yet more dense bushes to the bottom and over a prickly barbed wire fence. On to the path that I needed to follow all the time, clearly evident when I stopped and looked properly. Looking back, this was really good evidence of some dodgy decision making, that frankly probably should have ended in tears. It was a 30 minute wake-up call for me though, as I had not stopped to consider my actions, but just thrown myself into what could have been some serious problems (not to mention, lost 30 minutes needlessly).
The next checkpoint was at campsite adjacent to Stratford upon Avon racecourse, and it was lovely to see the white racecourse rails appear in my head torch beam at about 11pm. This 4th checkpoint was a bit of a landmark for me, as it would be my first (of two) chances to have a shower. I had set my brain to see this point as the first ‘milestone’ to get to, and it felt great to be there.
At first I thought Lindley was a security guard about to throw me off site, as all I could see was his head torch in the distance heading for me. It was great to see him though, and I headed to the tents for some much needed rest. I decided to allow myself four hours sleep rather than the planned three, due to my rather dodgy decision-making suggesting I was rather more tired than I had realised.
At this stage I had arrived at the checkpoint about 5 hours behind John Stocker (he had already arrived and left the checkpoint), but 3 hours ahead of both Ellen and Jon Rowles, so I was not feeling any particular need to increase my pace or hurry up. I was slightly ahead of my plan, which meant I could afford the extra hour without jeopardising the buffer I was building over the cut-offs. More importantly, I knew that lack of sleep could result in a navigation error costing significant time so it was not a difficult decision to make. Also, the extra sleep would have me leaving the checkpoint at about 5 (I would sleep 11.30pm to 3.30am) and this would be just as the sun was coming up. I was finding that finishing a leg late, sleeping at night and then getting moving at first light was working really well for me, and was allowing me to settle into a rhythm that preserved some vaguely normal patterns.
My feet were still in decent shape, but the left big toe was continuing to swell and go a bit blacker each time I took my shoes off.

Feet not in bad condition, except for my left big toe.

I had a lovely shower when I woke up, and washed my used socks on the floor of the shower, which I calculated would give me enough clean socks to allow me a clean pair for every leg. I should explain the socks I wear (Injinji) are pretty expensive, so I couldn’t just buy 14 pairs, one for each leg, hence the washing some halfway.

Actually when I asked Maxine to hang them from the same tree that everyone’s wet shoes were hanging from, she offered to wash them for me in the campsites washing machine (and dry them too!) which was a much better solution.

Note to the reader….everything so far I consider to be the ‘start’ of the run. The next part is the middle (naturally!)

Leg 5…..44 miles….started 05:00 Tue, arrived at CP5 approx 20:30 Tue…..(Mileage182-226)

After another really good breakfast of beans, sausage and potato, and tons of coffee, Maxine showed me the way from the campsite back to the route. I stopped to take some pictures of the racecourse in the early morning mist: it was beautiful.

The racecourse in the early morning mist.


Although I had started with my waterproof socks on, the start of the route today was a long straight gravel path, so after an hour I stopped to remove them as they were making my shoes too tight. I did a short video on Facebook, telling people how I was doing, and this became a bit of my usual routine as I started each leg.
I messaged a few people, and then made a fundamental error, probably one of the biggest of my whole race. It was simple really. As I messaged, I did a little mental maths, working out that I had covered about 180 miles, I would do about 45 today, so by tonight I would have covered 225 miles. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks – that even by tonight, I would still be a massive 80 miles short of halfway. I had been pushing very hard for what felt like a lifetime (actually, 4 days) and had survived on minimal sleep, and was still today’s leg & two more legs short of being even halfway.
It was 7am, and I suddenly found myself in the hardest mental battle I’d ever experienced in an ultra. Half of my brain was shouting that I couldn’t possibly carry on like this for days on end, and the other half was shouting (at equal volume) that I must not stop, no matter what happened. There is a difficult balance between “can’t” and “must” when they get stuck in your head, and it is fairly normal to have a bit of a wobble in an ultra (especially about halfway). But this was different, and put me in a very dark place for hours.
Unfortunately, at the same time, the route went from pleasant gravel to thick, crap, overgrown, soaking wet foliage.

Absolute rubbish path…

I was in the well of despair, moving through some really rough terrain, and feeling like I wanted to murder someone. I was getting some great messages from the group of experienced ultra runners I had assembled on messenger and called ‘Bob’s running problems’.
I also got a call from Pam, an ultra-runner from my running club. She took a bit of a drubbing as I wobbled all over the phone call with her, but handled it really well, saying all the right things. She rather cleverly took the conversation away from running entirely, telling me all about that weekend Eurovision Song Contest, which certainly took my mind of my current worries!
I stopped at Chipping Camden for a mid-morning bacon sandwich and tea, but was still mentally off-the-rails. I couldn’t even take any satisfaction from being the smelliest person in the quite posh café.

I was the smelliest thing in this posh place…

I was travelling through Cotswold country, so the trails were quite well established and fairly busy with walkers, most of whom were tourists, either Americans or Chinese. It was quite humbling to see them taking time out to enjoy what most of us Brits just take for granted.
Still in the mental shit-zone, at about 11am I caught up with two American ladies, walking quite slowly compared to me, but I followed them for a few minutes before they realised I was there, listening to them talk. We all came to a gate beyond which was a herd of big cows, all gathered at the gate. The ladies didn’t know what to do and to be fair neither did I, but I felt it was my duty to pretend that I knew what I was doing, and proceeded to tell them to wait while I opened the gate and gently eased the cows away from the gate. Hopefully sounding a lot more confident than I felt, I got the ladies to follow me as I went through the herd, and surprisingly the cows didn’t attack but gave us a decent bit of room to manoeuvre. Once through the herd the ladies thanked me and I went on ahead, only realising 5 minutes later that my mood had completed changed, and my previous desperately wobbly mind-set had been replaced with a more familiar ‘everything is lovely’ and ‘I am OK’ attitude. It was a revelation, and I’m happy to say that I never revisited that terrible dark place I had spent the last few hours in.
In other news, having spent the previous leg mainly eating, my digestive system went into overdrive and I won’t tell you how many times I had to go to the toilet…but it was a lot. On the positive side, being in the countryside it was easy to find a quiet secluded space to dig a hole and do my business.
I stopped at about lunchtime to have a rest on a bench and air my feet. I had decided that sweaty, soggy feet would lead to trouble, so I would stop and air my feet whenever reasonable. I’m sure the surrounding houses did not mind me making myself at home on their bench and letting my socks dry out. I had a bit of a chat with my wife, and a short nap, and then got on my way.
I came to a market town, and was surprised at how I felt suddenly being surrounded by crowds of people, having been pretty much on my own for days. It didn’t stop me from going into the local Co-op to buy food and drinks though.

I was finding that the 15g on sugar in a can of fizzy drink (usually Fanta) would give me a huge boost for a few hours, and did not result too much of a ‘low’ when the sugar was gone.  Plus, the weather was really quite warm and it was a simple way to stay hydrated.

15g of sugar in every can…rocket fuel!

In late afternoon I came to Boughton-on-the-Water, a quite-famous Cotswold town that I had visited once before when my kids were young. It was full of tourists, and very picturesque, so I took the opportunity to sit at an outside table eating fish and chips, and enjoying the surroundings.

mmmm, fish and chips

In my dirty hiking clothes, and haggard state, I must have looked a mess!
The rest of the day was spent travelling through some really lovely countryside, and I was in a positive mood to appreciate it, I took loads of pictures.

More countryside

Although I’d been on the go for days, I still look back on this as being the ‘easy first stages’ where all I needed to do was keep moving and eating – nothing else was causing a problem.
The next checkpoint was at Chedworth, a roman villa (so I was told). All I cared about was that I could stop and rest there and I found the last few miles seemed to take ages to pass. I arrived after travelling along what felt like the longest road ever, but it was a great feeling to see Lindley big truck appear in the distance. As I got there, John Stocker was having his feet seen to by Maxine, which was a pleasant surprise as I had missed him completely at the last checkpoint – I had caught him up slightly!
In fact, I arrived at 20:30 (Tue) and he had arrived at 16:30, so I was still four hours behind him, but it was nice to actually see him, rather than be told he had just left the checkpoint. I quickly got my shoes and socks off, to give my feet maximum chance to dry out, and had a bit of a chat with him, Maxine and Lindley. We had a bit of banter than maybe I should forego sleep at this checkpoint and carry straight on with John, to make a bit of a race of it.

There was also a bit of banter about how often I was stopping to eat (pretty much every 4 hours) and how John was surviving on mainly just the food at checkpoints.  These made me feel great…
John soon left though, and I got to the serious business of sorting myself out and getting some sleep. I had achieved the buffer I wanted over the last few checkpoints, and could now choose to get some extra sleep to recover my lack of sleep. I had had a total of 7 hours sleep since Saturday morning (it was now Tuesday evening) and had covered about 220 miles. I was going to reward myself with a massive 6 hours sleep (9pm to 3am) and then get moving with first light at about 5am.
Again, when I was in my sleeping bag I took stock of my body. I was generally in good shape. My body was fine, although I was developing some raw patches on my shoulders where my pack was making its presence felt. My back was also beginning to suffer a bit, with the lack of rest and the weight of my pack I carried everywhere. These were quite minor however to my feet, which were just starting to suffer. I had a couple of minor blisters on my toes, and my left big toe continued to swell and blacken. The nail was visibly raised with the pus developing underneath.

Big toe getting ready to pop!

It wasn’t hurting much, unless I accidentally kicked a tree root or something, in which case it hurt massively. The soles of my feet were starting to feel a bit bruised and sore underneath…..nothing to stop me walking on them, but definitely some discomfort there. Overall, I was OK but I look back and can see the beginning signs of the eventual deterioration starting here.
I also made a big learning here, in that I didn’t sort my kit ready for the next morning before going to sleep. Do you remember when your mum used to tell you to get your school bag ready the night before? And you never did? Which meant the following morning was a stress-filled rush? Well, I learnt the following morning that the worst way to start the day was to have to search through bags looking for clean socks and new charging block or batteries. That was the last time I went to sleep without getting everything sorted the night before…my mother would be very proud!

Leg 6…..46 miles….started 04:45 Wed, arrived at CP6 approx 19:20 Wed….(Mileage 226-272)

Facebook video from about 9am.

I begun the day with bowls of pasta (Lindley’s own concoction, but very tasty if you’re a bit of a pasta fiend, like I am), with lots of coffee. Again, I felt really strong when I started, and made really good progress until I hit a field full of the cutest calves I have ever seen. I have said that I was previously quite wary of cows previously, due to their habit of trampling people, but I think these calves were the start of my developing love affair with beautiful cows.  I stopped for far too long taking pictures.

Cute calves, early in the morning!

Despite the stops for pictures, I made good time to Colchester where I stopped for more coffee and a bacon sandwich in Subway.

It was nice and cool in the morning, and I was enjoying the surroundings. The weather was looking like being hot in the afternoon so I was trying to get as far as possible before the heat sapped my energy. I stopped for a rest and to air my feet, finding that I was getting slightly obsessed with checking the swelling on the left big toe (and taking a picture of it!) It started to get hot from about 11am, and I felt myself slow as the temperature went up, but I had made good time through the cool morning so I was not too worried.
Lunch was two massive tuna and cheese panini’s, that I ate sitting outside a café with my shoes off. When they arrived, I could tell the lady didn’t think I had a chance of eating both, so I made myself feel slightly sick forcing them down. They were massive and very very cheesy though.

Lovely area I was going through.

Huge cheesy panini’s

….gone!

Most of my meals I was washing down with as much tea as I could drink, and this seemed to be giving me the calories and liquid that I needed.
I stopped again about 3pm, removing my shoes and socks to check on the state of my feet. I was starting to get a bit more pain from the soles of my feet, which was slightly concerning, and I started taking the occasional painkiller just to take the edge off.

I entered a field with a huge herd of cows in the far distance, which were all jam-packed around the gate in the corner that my route took me through. There must have been well over 100 cows, and I could not work out why they were all so fixated on this particular corner, until I saw a farmer (in his Toyota truck) herding them all in that direction. As I was watching him work, once he was happy the cows were in the right place he forced his way through to open the gate, and the cows happily set off along the track towards some distant farm buildings.

Taking the cows to milking!

He followed them in his truck, and I walked alongside him. It was quite bizarre, seeing this track filled with cows, presumably going to be milked as their udders were all looking very full, and me walking along behind them. A very odd experience.

As the afternoon wore on, it seemed to get hotter and hotter. I resolved to put sun cream on for the next day if it looked like being hot again. The only exposed bit of skin that was getting burnt was the tops of my thumbs (where my hands wee angled upwards holding my poles) and the back of my neck. I was wearing a long sleeved top which protected my arms (but made it a bit sweaty!) and long trousers (even sweatier!) and a peaked cap shading my face, so I was not in too much danger of getting burnt.
The next checkpoint would be at a pub, which meant that arriving during opening hours would guarantee a pub-meal – quite an incentive! Similar to the last checkpoint, the last few miles seemed to drag terribly, and my feet raised their discomfort level from a mild grumble to a noisy chorus of ‘we want to rest!’ This would become the “last few miles” routine unfortunately.
My natural stubbornness raised its head however, and I pushed on to the checkpoint, taking the opportunity occasionally to look a the tracker on my phone that showed more accurately how far I still had to go. I would begin to do this more and more as the race developed, even though I knew how little it helped me as the distance never seemed to move as much as I wanted it to.
Getting to the checkpoint at last was great, especially as it was only about 19:20 (Wed) so I would have loads of time for a meal at the pub. Like the last checkpoint, John Stocker was still there, but had only just come out of his tent after 3 hours sleep, so again, I had caught up with him slightly. He was feeling quite groggy still, as he was clearly pushing himself hard, and was noticeably less chirpy than when I’d seen him at the last checkpoint.
I got my shoes and socks off, and showed my left big toenail to Lindley, who declared it fit for draining (having filled with pus enough to be ready to pop!).

Ready for surgery!

Surprisingly gently, Lindley sorted it out, and sat back declaring that it looked pretty much back to normal – which it did! He did discuss with me the option of removing the toenail altogether, but decided that it was too firmly fixed in place to do that easily – phew! Lindley also said that Vic, right at the back of the field, was still moving but slowly, and in fact she dropped out that night, after a really strong effort (and some massive 220 miles!)
All of the surgery took place really quite quickly, probably only 20 minutes, and I quickly then got into the pub for 3 pints of cold milk (wow- they tasted great) and fish and chips. Having the chance to sit and reflect on the day was great, and it was a shame that I did not get the opportunity to do do this very often. I posted my progress on Facebook, and also messaged “Bob’s running problems” my messenger group of experienced ultra-runners as my legs weren’t feeling right. They were sore (which was to be expected) but also twitching and feeling odd in way I wasn’t used to. They came back with a number useful ideas (which may seem obvious now, but certainly didn’t then in my addled mind) including sleeping in compression tights to ease the swelling, and elevating my legs to drain them. I was also harangued into taking some s-caps (electrolyte-replacement tablets) to sort me out after a day of sweating. Lots of quick useful ideas, just what I needed.
I had a really bad night’s sleep however, experiencing horrible night sweats and generally tossing and turning for the whole 6 hours I allowed myself. On the positive side, my legs felt great when I woke up, so something had clearly worked.
I had arrived at the checkpoint at about 19:20 (Wed), about 3 hours being John Stocker who’d arrived at 15:11, and ahead of Jon Rowles (21:10) and Ellen (01:18 Thu). I slept 21:30 to 03:30, and was pleasantly surprised to be up at the same time as Jon Rowles. It was great to see a friendly face at breakfast! We had a bit of a joke with Maxine while she sorted out and taped our feet, simultaneously feeding us pasta and coffee somehow. We chatted about the next two legs (8 & 9) which were both over 50 miles – these were likely to ‘make or break’ our race due to the distance and the terrain – and what our hopes were for them. I was quite clear that I just wanted to maintain my current reasonable pace, but most importantly, maintain my travelling in the light and sleeping at night regime, as it was working so well for me. It seemed so easy then…
We left together at about 04:30, in good spirits.

Jon Rowles and I, looking pleased to be on the move! Please admire the perfect shape of the top of Jon’s head.

Leg 7…..43 miles….started 04:30 Thu, arrived at CP7 approx 18:32 Thu (Mileage 272-315)

Although it would have been nice to stick together, we were clearly going at different paces, and I’ve learned that travelling as a pair generally means travelling at the pace of the slowest person, so it didn’t take long for me to move on ahead, although I looked forward to him catching me up.
It was just about light, and as today was a relatively short leg, I was keen to get it done and sleep so that I could make a really early start the following morning. I found myself hurrying for the first time, feeling under pressure to push hard. My waterproof socks worked well keeping my feet fairly dry against the dew, and I stopped after a few hours to pin them to the back of my pack to allow them to dry out. I was heading towards Bristol, but could not find anywhere to eat after a few hours…one of the problems of leaving so early was that nowhere was open at 8am along the river I was following. I was feeling pretty cheerful, but even asking other people on the river where I could get something to eat did not make an open pub magically appear. I recorded my usual Facebook video (this time, with added barking Chihuahuas in the background) but I think I allowed my hunger to show through a bit!
Thankfully, an hour later, I was presented with the magical sight of “Joey’s Magic Rolls” and had two massive burgers and teas.

Magic rolls!!

They certainly did the trick! Although it was early in the day, I was starting to feel a bit of pain under my feet already, and that would mean for an uncomfortably long day.
With a fuller stomach, Bristol arrived quickly, and again I felt very out of place in the bustling streets. I rather liked the route I walked though, it seemed pleasantly clean and friendly (and lots of burger vans!). Although I looked like a homeless tramp (and probably smelt like it too) I did not get as many funny looks as I expected, but perhaps I was not looking around much.
Going across a bridge, I became aware of a bloke on a bike stopped next to me, talking. My headphones generally allow me to hear what’s going on round me, but I was not really paying attention so it too k me a minute to realise he was talking to me. Angus had stalked me using the tracker, and had gone to the trouble of tracking me down in the centre of Bristol – no mean feat in the busy streets (although, now I think of it, perhaps I did stand out a bit?).

Angus!

We had a very brief chat, and he said he had also caught up with Jon Rowles behind me, who had also stopped at Joeys Magic Burger van. Sensible man!
Angus also warned me that there probably was not too many more placed to get food further ahead in Bristol, and I knew that the leg ahead was going to be a challenge as there were no towns or shops for miles. I stopped at the last café and bought two massive BLT baguettes to take with me for an afternoon snack – I didn’t realise how heavy they would be! I slowly left Bristol behind, pausing to take a picture of a bridge I passed underneath…possibly some bridge I should have heard of?

Something famous?

The afternoon was spent in deep countryside, absolutely beautiful.

Seeing for miles!

I stopped for a picnic in the centre of a massive field, which was under the flight path of (I assume) Bristol airport, as planes went overhead every few minutes. I could not eat all of the two massive baguettes, but I was happy to ge the damn things out of my pack just to save the weight. I was really conscious that although I had eaten quite a lot, both the burgers from the morning and the baguettes were mainly stodgy white bread, and hence not great calories for the future efforts…I could have really done with a hot pub meal to give me some energy.
I got to the next checkpoint at about 18:30 (Thu), having endured some massive hills for the last 2 or 3 hours. Although it’s great to get to the top and take a picture, and I was still feeling quite energetic going up the hills, I was struggling with the downhill’s, as the soles of my feet were taking the brunt of the force as I used them to break my momentum going downhill. My heels, which are what I would usually use to slow myself down, were so bruised it hurt too much to use them, and so my only option was to use the friction of the soles of my feet on the inside of my shoes. What had been discomfort as few days ago was turning into something a little more significant, and the hills were definitely not helping.

I had a slightly hairy experience getting through a small herd of cows that were happily feeding until I had to sneak through them and climb over their gate. I stopped (on the other side of the gate) to take a picture and looking back I can see the expression on the face of the brown one with horns…he wasn’t pleased!

Pissed off brown cow!

However, despite all this, the next checkpoint was at the top of a huge hill, and the views were spectacular. Even better, this checkpoint had a shower available too, although, interestingly, I was significantly less fussed about having a shower as I had been at the first shower. In fact, I was getting quite used to being a bit dirty and smelly, which was just as well as this (checkpoint 8) would be the last shower before the finish line at checkpoint 14.

Getting into the checkpoint, I was surprised to see John Stocker still in his tent, although he poked his head out when he heard me arrive. Maxine had insisted he have at least 5 hours sleep, as he was still pushing himself really hard, and that seemed to have done him some good as he was eager to get going.
We had a bit of a chat about progress, with Lindley chipping in, and John made the inspiring comment “I don’t want to be rude Bob, but could you speed up a bit?” suggesting that he would find it more challenging if I were chasing him down a bit. I took the opportunity to say I had absolutely no chance of going any quicker, but it was frankly quite flattering to share a bit of a joke with someone of his calibre.
Unfortunately, if I chose to go any quicker (which I’m pretty sure I did not have within me) I suspect John would have simply pushed himself harder and leave me behind…it was a pointless exercise.

Fabulous views from this checkpoint!

I had a shower in what looked like a hut from the outside, but was in fact unexpectedly posh on the inside (all mirrors, glass and shiny chrome), and got myself to sleep as quickly as I could. The next two legs were the long over-50 mile sections, which I would need to absolutely nail if I was to maintain my current ‘travel-by-day and sleep-at-night’ regime.
I treated myself 6 hours of lovely sleep again, 20:30 (Thu) to 02:30, and felt refreshed again when I woke. That was three good 6 hour sleeps in a row and I was pretty much caught up from my lack of sleep in the first four legs. My buffer was still in place and although I was feeling some pain, especially in my feet, I was still in good place mentally (which was where it mattered).

That was the middle stage, it passed quite quickly and I have pleasant memories of it. I’ve got very few pleasant memories after here…

Leg 8…..53 miles….started 03:30am Fri, arrived at CP8 approx 00:50 Sat….(Mileage 315-368)

Yes, that’s right…nearly 22 hours to do this stage. This is where the wheels start to come off.
Breakfast consisted of loads of pasta again, coffee and feet being taped up by Maxine again. She had started putting something called ‘fleecy web’ on the balls of my feet which gave me some additional padding and eased some of the discomfort. Lindley reckoned I was experiencing something called ‘shearing’ where simply the layers on the sole of the foot were not sticking together but sliding against each other (as you might expect after being on my feet for days) and that would explain the extra pain I was feeling when using my soles to brake when descending a hill. Ouchy!
Jon Rowles had arrived at the checkpoint just an hour after me, and in fact left the checkpoint about 15 minutes before me. Ellen arrived just after midnight. All three of us were quite consistent in our times and were roughly moving at the same pace. Peter, the Swedish joker was moving slowly right at the back of the field, but was still moving within the cut-offs.
The day started well, with the early 3.30am start allowing me to get some miles in before the sun came up, a good boost to morale. No matter what time I finished, at least I was making the most of the daylight. If I kept up a decent 3mph (including stops for food) which I had been managing easily on the previous legs, I would finish in about 17.5 hours (i.e. about 10pm) which would give me time to sleep and get ready for the next day. It was all planned!
I was happy to disturb some more cows to get a nice picture of the sunrise, and then some more that were particularly inquisitive / predatory.

Amazing sunrise, with added cow!

This cow wanted to eat me, or love me.

I came to a gate at the top of a hill, blocked (again) by herd that seems a bit excitable and interested in me. I wasn’t particularly eager to launch myself into their midst, but I didn’t really have much choice, so I got within them…and of course they all scattered, only to slowly come back and investigate.

They looked mean and moody

That is probably the point that I started to understand them a bit more, it is in their nature to be inquisitive, and perhaps the whole trampling thing only happens when (I believe) there are mothers with calves.
I have to say the view from the top of the hill, cows or no cows, was extraordinary.

The view was amazing

One of the things I was looking forward to was to go through Wookey Hole, again a place I’d visited before. Unfortunately, the only interesting thing was a crazy golf course (pirate theme, if you’re interested) that I was not expecting at all, and did not remember. I had hoped for some shops but unfortunately as it was 6am when I got there I had no chance of any food.
Not a problem I thought, the next decent town was Wells, which I would be at in an hour, so I’d be able to get something there. Interesting fact, Wells is the smallest city in the UK, due to it having a cathedral but bugger all else. After I took the wrong way round the cathedral (imagine doing three sides of a square, instead of the single one closest to you), I then had to backtrack into the centre to find somewhere to eat. Luckily, I found a Greggs that opened at 7am, exactly when I arrived…so I cleaned them out of their hot pasties and a big cup of tea. A good way to start the day again!
I passed through a herd of sheep that happily followed me from the start of their field to the end, baa’ing all the way (I felt like the pied-piper of sheep). I passed a small airfield that had a plane, all ready for me to use to break all the records for finishing the Monarchs way in a week!

Now if i could just work out how to start it!

I pushed on, still very conscious of the need for speed on this leg! I came to a railway station at Castle Cray at lunchtime, as I was starting to feel hungry and tired, and was absolutely gutted to find quite a few people, but absolutely no where to eat. There was a burger van, but it was closed, and I had to ask a taxi driver how far to the nearest café. He was happy to tell me that if I carried on the direction I was going I would hit the town of Castle Cray, which had shops and café galore! Fantastic!!!!
I trotted off, checking my maps, phone and GPS furiously to make sure I would not bypass the town, something the route tended to do (as the route was based on Charles II avoiding various armies, he obviously was wary of getting too close to towns and villages). It looked like this would be the exception though, as the route went straight through the middle.
The market square at Castle Cray is a lovely place, and has a number of cafés to choose from, all with tables outside. My criteria for choosing which to stop at was quite simple – I stopped at the first one I came to – went in and was confronted by racks of organic wine and home-made things. At that stage I wasn’t fussed, and went down the menu to the first thing that didn’t had salad in the title…and ended up with a ploughman’s, and added a few home-made sausage rolls, and lots of tea. I’m not sure the lady that served me really knew what to make of me, but said she’d bring it out. I promptly sat outside and took my shoes off – ah bliss.

Posh lunch

The lady came out with my tea, and then my ploughman’s…not what I expected at all….it was a posh cheese / bread extravaganza, and absolutely marvellous. Once again, I was feeling full and energetic by the time I finished. The tracker was showing Jon Rowles catching me up rapidly (as I was sitting in a café) so I slowly got my shoes back on and my kit together as he came round the corner.
Once again, it was great to see him, and I suggested he sit and partake in the surely the poshest café in Castle Cray. He was more interested in going into the little Co-op that was round the corner, so I bid him farewell and carried on my merry way.
I was moving well through the afternoon, using a few painkillers to take the edge off my feet hurting, but I had a lovely long conversation with my wife and kids that gave me a real lift. I was moving at the right pace I wanted to, and at 6pm decided to stop at another pub for the fastest scampi and chips (and 2 pints of milk) of the whole race. I reckon I was in and out in 20 minutes.

Scampi and chips, speedily!

A little later, at about 7.30pm, I was caught up with by another internet stalker, Barry, who walked and chatted with me for a good 15 minutes. He worked at a local airbase, and did a bit of running himself….obviously I told him he must enter this race next year, but perhaps that would be a bit of a step up – I think his next race was a Jurassic Coast 100k though, so that would be pretty challenging (but perhaps not 600 miles!)

Barry, my second internet stalker

He was good company, but we reached a large field filled with a massive herd of (in my opinion) fairly twitchy cows, a lot of who had calves with them. With us in the field they all gathered around the gate in the far corner, and I suggested he go back to his car as it didn’t look particularly inviting. I spent a full 20 minutes walking the longest route round the field to reach the gate without having to go through the middle of the herd. As it was, I still had to pass far closer to them than I wanted, and they absolutely did not move out of my way like all the other cows had done…they were making sure I didn’t get to close to the calves. I was properly unnerved. However, I reached the gate, and basically threw myself over it, telling myself I was OK. It was bad enough that i didn’t even take a picture of them afterwards, to prove I survived!
For some reason, following that field was a field with two massive bulls in, which I’m thankful to say stayed way over on their side of the field, while I gently trotted along my side of the field. Over that gate, and into another field, filled with undoubtedly the most inquisitive cows I’d met yet. They basically chased / followed me at a distance of a metre all the way to the other side of their field. I moved reasonably quickly (obviously not running), but found that I had to stop and turn round every 5 metres to make them back off before they would close in again. Looking back, it was not that bad, but at the time I was feeling particularly hunted.

The sun started to go down, and I was startled to find I was nearing 48 miles distance, but the tracker on the internet showed me having miles to go yet…as much as 5 or 6 miles which would add two or three hours to my finish time. This was quite serious, as instead of finishing at a sensible 10pm, and sleeping before setting off at first light again, I was looking to finish nearer to midnight. It looked like I wasn’t going to get much sleep tonight!
I stopped about 10pm, having covered 52 miles, for a sit-down and a think. The tracker still showed me having miles to go, and I was tired and needed to eat. I messaged Jon and Ellen, both of whom were behind me, to say the mileage on this leg was clearly going to be nearer 56, and to get something to eat if they were passing a pub as they would be out for a few hours yet!
At the same time I messaged a few people, whinging that the mileage was clearly going to be much further…they quite rightly told me to get on with it! I ate the last of my food and did that!
I won’t go into too much detail about the rest of the night, but my final mileage for that leg was slightly over 60 miles and while my pace was as good as I could have hoped (2.9 mph for the whole 60 miles, including stops) I was absolutely buggered by the end, at 00:50 Saturday morning. My feet were proper hurting for those last 3 hours, and I was very very conscious that in order to make the most of daylight for the next leg I was going to have minimal sleep. Dammit. I sorted my kit ready for the morning, thanking my lucky stars that I had eaten that speedy scampi as I hadn’t needed to eat when I got into checkpoint, but could get straight to sleep.

Leg 9…..52 miles….started 05:00 Sat, arrived at CP9 approx 02:10 Sun….(Mileage 368-420)

I slept 1:30am to 04:00, a measly 2.5 hours, when I could have happily used 6. Jon Stocker had arrived at the checkpoint at 23:00, compared to my 01:00, and was sleeping when I came in. Jon Rowles was about 90 minutes after me, and Ellen (with her experience showing) took the leg much more slowly, sleeping on the trail, arriving at 10:00am Saturday. Although she spent a long time on this leg, she made up the time lag massively over the following legs. Sometimes, it’s not about ‘haste’, but about ‘pace’.
I had my usual big breakfast of pasta and coffee, but I could feel I was tired today. I put extra warm clothes into my pack, as I expected to be moving more slowly, and I fully expected to be out for another 60 miles (if the route was longer, like the previous leg.)

I really enjoyed the early mornings, except for the lack of sleep.

I left the checkpoint 2 hours behind John Stocker. Jon Rowles would be leaving about an hour behind me. This leg would be a real test to see whether we could all keep moving and manage our tiredness.

Long-suffering Maxine taping my feet in the dark

Maxine taped up my feet again, and I was almost looking forward to getting them into my shoes which would force them to numb, easing the pain. Not a good sign.

I was getting lots of positive messages from my running mates and the ‘Bobs running problems’ group. Much of it being “just get it done” but it helped that they knew what I was going through.
There was going to be minimal places to eat on this leg, so it was important to make use of every shop or village I came across. Despite leaving with a good breakfast, into some lovely misty fields, I was getting very hungry by the time I got to a place called Hawkchurch at about 10am. I knew it was a small village, but reasoned that it would have a shop (or something). Sitting on a church wall, opposite the closed pub, it didn’t look hopeful, but with the magic of Google, I found there was a community shop just round the corner. In fact, it was a porta-cabin, staffed by volunteers, who were fabulously helpful when they realised the state I was in, getting me a chair outside to sit in to eat my weight in pasties, with my shoes off as usual.

Oddest village shop…

Shoes and socks off!

Nutritious meal….not

After eating as much as I could, I shopped again and filled my flask with coffee and my pack with the last of the shops pasties (one of which I carried for days, relying on it to be my emergency pasty if I ran out of food again.)
Although I should have done better with a full stomach, I was moving too slowly after the shop. I was heading for the coast and was looking forward to seeing the sea but I was tired, both physically and mentally, and the miles were slow going. I started to have little rests every few hours, which were gratefully received, but all added to the time.
From the tracker, I could see John Stocker had reached the coast, and seemed to be speeding along it, and Jon Rowles was behind me, putting pressure on me to keep moving, but I was tired and really only going through the motions……I had very little to offer than a slow shuffle.  Interestingly, talking to them both afterwards, they felt exactly the same, that I was moving really well while they were slow. I think the reality was that we were all suffering quite badly that day.
I got to the coast somehow, and was charmed by Charmouth. It was a little seaside town, although I only saw a few shops and car parks full of families at the beach, with it being the first Saturday of half term and a bank holiday weekend. It felt really strange seeing all these people going about their daily lives, while I felt like I’d been on the moon (or at least, in the deepest countryside) for a little over a week. I treated myself to an ice cream, and a can of something fizzy, and also packed a can for later.

I had not realised that the coastal stretch, about 4 -5 miles, was some of the hilliest we would encounter, going up and down to some fabulous views. There were quite a few walkers, and the cool sea breeze helped me keep pace with them in the sunshine. At the top of the biggest cliff I sat down and had the can of fizzy for the sugar which helped me push on through the last few climbs. To be fair, I’ve trained on similar cliffs at Folkestone for hilly races, so it was quite a pleasant diversion to simply go up and down for a few miles.

At the beach!

 

At the end of the coastal stretch is a town of West Bay, which was also packed with holiday-makers. I got some tea from a café, but didn’t feel like stopping to eat (big mistake) and carried on the trail. The route from the coast predictably was quite hilly, and my feet were complaining as I descended the hills again.

After the coast….hilly!

As darkness fell I started to see arrows for a local running race that was perhaps being held the next day. It followed some of the same route that I was doing, and it made a nice change to have some massive arrows pointing my way.
Every so often I would look behind me, expecting to see the head torch of Jon Rowles catching me up, but apart from a couple of flashes I could not make him out. I was stopped by a police car in a village, asking what on earth I was doing here at midnight. We had a good chat actually, and I warned them that they would probably see another runner about 15 minutes behind me. They were happy that I wasn’t some random burglar, and that I was well lit up for cars on the road, and let me go on my way.
I seemed to be nearing the checkpoint at about 01:00, having been on the move since 04:00 the previous day, and was tired and pretty pissed off. I could see the route basically followed the road I was on all the way to the checkpoint, and so I stopped checking my GPS too much and just slogged on for the last few miles. However, near the checkpoint there was a right hand turn, back into the forest, for what looked like a 20 minute diversion through a gully and then back to the road. In my sleep-deprived state, pissed off and shattered, I took the rather dubious decision to miss this out and just carry on the road. I was fully aware of what I was doing, but clearly should not have done it as it was basically taking a short cut.
Maxine met me on the road a few minutes later, and remarked that I hadn’t done the last bit into the forest. In my defence, I didn’t try and hide it, but said that I was buggered, and I would take whatever penalty Lindley felt was appropriate for my short-cut. I was not in a happy place at all.
I got into checkpoint at 02:10 Sunday, having been out for almost 24 hours to do a measly 52 mile leg. I was so tired, I hardly had the energy to eat, but I tried my best, and posted this to Facebook. I was really not sure I would be carrying on after my sleep.

This was before i went to sleep….not wanting to carry on tomorrow.

I had some serious blisters on the sides of my heels (no idea why) that did not look great, but all I wanted to do was sleep.

I had a matching blister on the other foot too!

I allowed myself 5 hours, probably not enough to get me back to normal, but it was a good start. However, I struggled to sleep deeply as every time I turned over my feet would wake me up. When I surfaced at 08:30, Lindley came over to talk about what I’d done the previous night, and said he would be giving me a time penalty of 1 hour. To be fair to him, I thought that was quite a reasonable choice of penalty, and happily agreed. Someone asked me later what I would have done if he had disqualified me for it (which he would have been quite entitled to do), which I didn’t really have an answer for!
Lindley also gave me a bit of a morale-lifting talking to, as I was fairly down-beat about the shape my feet were in, my tiredness and in fact the deterioration I was experiencing being worse than in any ultra I’ve ever done (and I still had days to go!) He did a good job of explaining that everyone was in the same kind of shape, all deteriorating quickly, and that I only had to keep moving to get to the finish line…it sounded easy. He also gave me the confidence that I had built up my buffer against the cut-offs enough, so I could afford to lose time each leg and still make the finish line with time to spare…all I had to do was keep going. Jon Rowles also got a similar talking to, and was equally surprised that everyone else was feeling like he was. It was quite bizarre.
Bruce, one of the helpers, taped up my feet this morning, rather than Maxine, but rather disconcertingly kept showing Lindley particularly choice raw patches, whereas Maxine had always done it without commenting on what she was finding. Having Bruce and Lindley commenting on my feet was probably not what my brain needed at that point, especially mentioning antibiotics to prevent infection.
Also, I had to stop wearing my decent Injinji toe socks, which I wore with another pair over the top to prevent blisters, as I had so much tape on my feet my shoes were becoming too tight. I was left wearing some standard running socks, which although good, did not give my feet the protection I am used to.

Leg 10…..38 miles….started 10:40 Sun, arrived at CP10 approx 01:20 Mon….(Mileage 420-458)

Facebook video from the start.

Did I mention my stubbornness? I thought so.
My train of thought was simple: I was about to start leg 10, which meant I had 5 more legs (including this one) to get to the finish line.
The longest that would take was 5 days.
And I could put up with any amount of discomfort for 5 days, couldn’t I? I could keep moving and eating and getting a bit of sleep, and basically hold out against the trouble my feet were putting me through for just 5 days. It was as simple as that.
I’m not sure, looking back, that I really understood what those days would be like, but I was happy to gloss over the details and just fix on the 5 legs that remained.  In fact, as I write this, with the benefit of hindsight, I absolutely would not repeat that decision…they were dreadful.

So off I went.
Jon Rowles, who had arrived a the checkpoint an hour after me, at 03:00am (Sun) left the checkpoint an hour ahead of me (about 09:40) which may give an indication to my state of mind. Ellen arrived in to the checkpoint at 18:50, again taking a measured approach to this very long leg.
This leg was the start of my blatant abuse of painkillers too, to try to quieten my feet down. I worked out as I started that I would only take them every 5 hours, which would spread them across the day as far as possible. As the leg was only 38 miles I hoped that I should be able to maintain my 3 mph pace and get it done within about 12 hours, getting me to checkpoint for 11pm and a good sleep before starting at first light – helping maintain that vital sleeping at night regime. The problem was that I just couldn’t maintain that pace at all, whether the pain from my feet, physical tiredness or just mentally finished. I was only travelling at 2mph across some areas, and that was much too slow to finish when I wanted.

I passed through Yeovil Country Park, which was beautiful, and at 3pm then hit the town centre which placed a Beefeater restaurant in front of me rather conveniently.

Yet more fish and chips and milk.

I was looking more tramp-like every day, so they didn’t argue with me when I asked to go in a corner away from all the families eating. This also gave me the chance to get my shoes off for a bit. Two pints of milk and fish and chips (yet again) got me back to feeling relatively normal.

Unfortunately the terrain got worse through the later stages, becoming that jungle of shrubbery I mentioned at the start. I was well protected against it, so there was no real problem, but it was dispiriting having to push through bushes rather than having a pleasant view and a clear path.

This is called a shrubbery tunnel…

I was still getting calls from a couple of running friends, Mark & John, each day, and I was happy to whinge to them about pretty much everything. They both cautioned me against taking too many painkillers, absolutely rightly, but the alternative was just too grim to imagine so I carried on popping.

As it got dark it was clear I was not achieving my hoped-for 3 mph, and hence would not be finishing before midnight. This would mean that I was going to have to choose between a longer sleep, which I dearly wanted, but then travelling later in the day and into the following night (dark, slow, depressing) or I could have a shorter sleep, leave at first-light and resume my travel at daytime, sleep at night routine. It was a real problem for me.
I stopped to take a picture of the oldest most-broken wooden bridge I have ever seen, which I then had to go over. So I suppose I must have still had a sense of humour at that point…

Obviously, no hesitation going over this…

At the last big town before the checkpoint, Wincanton, I met up with Jon Rowles at about 10pm who had just stopped for something to eat and we agreed to walk into the checkpoint together. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have eaten here too, as I last ate at the Beefeater at 3pm, but it seemed sensible to make top speed (!) for the checkpoint to get some much needed sleep. There was some light rain for the last couple of hours which was no a problem, but meant that shoes and socks were soaked when we finally reached the checkpoint.
On the positive side, the checkpoint was one of two indoor checkpoints (the other was cp1) so it was a bit of a treat to have toilets, lights, warmth and a kitchen to play with! It was a scout hut (I think) so just one large room, with the kitchen on a little corridor on one side. Jon Stocker was already asleep in the large room, and unfortunately I’m sure we must have woken him up as we clattered in and sorted our kit. Maxine cooked a pizza for me, but I had really lost my appetite and it didn’t really go down very well. I just wanted to sleep.

Leg 11…..46miles….started 07:30 Mon, arrived at C11 approx 06:20 Tue….(Mileage 458-504)

Facebook video from the start.

I would love to say I slept really well for hours, but unfortunately I found the hard floor (even with a little mattress) really uncomfortable compared to the soft ground I’d spent my last 10 sleeps on. I also missed enclosure of the tent I was used to, and having 4 of us in the large room meant there was always someone snoring or farting. Coupled with that, I literally could not move my feet without them flaring in pain and waking me up, which was a horrible way to spend the night.
I allowed myself 4 hours sleep (02:00 to 06:00) but did not feel rested at all when I woke up. My usual multiple coffees did not wake me up either, and the breakfast of beans with grated cheese was not going to give me the required energy for a long 46 mile leg. Maxine taped my feet as usual, and could not see anything different on the soles of my feet, despite it feeling like I was walking on broken glass (I told her).

Check out the look of joy on Maxines face, as she tries to keep my feet in one piece…

I had arrived at the checkpoint with Jon Rowles at 01:20 Monday, John Stocker had arrived at 21:40 the previous night. Ellen was still quite a way behind at this stage, arriving at 17:45 Monday afternoon, but again she had paced the leg really well, allowing herself to sleep and eat throughout. Peter was still bringing up the rear, moving slowly and spending most of his sleeping time on the trail, but was still just within the cut-offs (he was having various adventures, being invited in for breakfast by a family when he stopped to sort his kit outside their house!)
I had a fairly long leg ahead of me, and knew that I needed some fuel (and more coffee) to have any chance to maintain a good pace (that magic 3 mph was still the pace I needed) so I stopped in the first village I came to, a rather odd village called Mere, and I waited for 15 minutes for a café to open at 9am. It was bank holiday Monday, and I counted myself lucky to find somewhere open at that time of the morning. The rather grump bloke told me I could sit where I wanted as he probably would not be very busy today, so I made myself comfortable while ordering tea and a massive full English breakfast. It was designed to lift my spirits and get me moving!

Maxine had told Jon Rowles and I about the forthcoming leg, and how it had sections of roman road that were lovely. Unfortunately, by the time I got to it, it was just a bloody long overgrown straight path, and I spent a very grumpy few hours trudging along it, feeling like I was getting nowhere. I had resolved not to take as many painkillers today, so I suffered without any relief for most of the day, to allow myself time to clear the multitude from yesterday from my system.  It was the right thing to do, but made the day totally miserable.

This is the roman road…but a bit overgrown

I was still tired however, and allowed myself a few quick naps on the trail to recharge my batteries. I became a bit of an expert at spotting flat stone-less stretches on the trail, or patches of grass that did not have any nettles or bumps where I could lie down for 10 minutes and close my eyes. It was bliss until I had to get up and moving again.

After a long rubbish day, consciously moving much too slowly, I got a call from a couple of friends Jon & Jo who wanted to meet up with me and say hello as they had spent the day visiting their daughter in Southampton. It sounded like a wonderful idea to see some friendly faces, and this cheered me up enormously, giving me something to look forward to. At my current snail-like pace, I would not be finished this leg until well in to the night, so there was not much happiness in my life at that stage.

Sure enough, about 8pm, I was presented with Jon and Jo on the road in front of me, and bless them, they got me sorted! It was brilliant to have someone talk to for a change, and I actually had something hot to eat (which I had been needing, without realising) and got ready for the night stretch. I treated myself to some painkillers, having gone without for 12 hours, and had a little sleep for 30 minutes too. They both really recharged my efforts, and with the painkillers quieting my feet for a while I made good progress back on the trail.  They had turned a miserable day into a much better experience!

I was in bits when they found me…and like this at the end.

It had drizzled gently all day, without any particular force, but at 10pm it started raining properly so I stopped and put on my heavy waterproof coat and trousers. I’m quite comfortable moving in poor weather, having done a few races in January, so a bit of rain in May was nothing to me! At midnight I came across a usefully located shed, that I ducked into for something to eat and drink from my pack (and more painkillers). It was quite cozy in there, and after eating I switched off my head torch and slept for 30 minutes.

A cheeky stop in a woodshed, at midnight

My tiredness was resulting in my not moving quickly or particularly safely, tripping on every tree root or stone in the path. Hence at 2am, when I came across a kiddies play area (swings, slides etc) which rather surprised me as I thought I was in the middle of deserted countryside, I took the opportunity to have a nap on a convenient bench. At 4am I did the same on a comfy patch of trail.
All this sleep meant it was a slow end to a slow day though, and I reached the next checkpoint at 06:30 (Tue) having spent a full 24 hours travelling 46 miles. In comparison Jon Rowles had arrived at 23:30 (Mon) even though we had left at similar times. Jon Stocker was still absolutely motoring along, arriving at 21:00.
This checkpoint will remain forever etched in my memory, as we were basically in a field of cut down nettles. I remember thinking that it looked like a version of hell, and there would be no walking barefoot at this checkpoint! Jon Rowles had slept and was preparing to leave as I arrived, which was really dispiriting and showed me how much time I had lost on that leg.

Picture courtesy of Maxine.
Me in the nettle field…maybe it wasn’t quite that bad after all.

I was going to sleep for 5 hours (more than I could afford, but probably not enough) but that would mean I would not be leaving until the afternoon and hence another night out on the trail, rather than tucked up in a nice sleeping bag. While moving at night was not a problem, it was considerably slower than daytime, the route being less obvious especially when going across huge wheat fields with no obvious path. I had a bivvy bag in my pack if I chose to have a proper sleep on the trail, but waking up cold and stiff, without even a coffee to look forward to was not a great thought.
So I resigned myself that the next 4 legs would probably mean sleeping during the day and travelling at night, and I would just make the best of it. I was still 36 hours ahead of the cut-offs, so not really in any danger unless something went seriously wrong (which was always a possibility). I could afford to move slowly and still finish.
Before I went to sleep I made sure I had a good meal inside me and used a few of the ‘emergency’ foods I had in my drop bag.

A welcome change to my diet…curry and noodles

I wolfed down a tin of chicken curry and two packets of super noodles that Maxine kindly heated up for me, and it was great to go to sleep on a full stomach. Predictably I woke feeling much happier.

Leg 12…..41miles….started 15:00 Tue, arrived at CP12 approx 07:00 Wed……..(Mileage 504-545)

Facebook video from the start of the leg.

I woke in a better mood, and had the long-suffering Maxine tape my feet up again. I had my usual breakfast (or was it lunch?) before heading out. This would be my last leg over 40 miles, which was a great thought, and although I was going to be on the trail for a long time I remember thinking that the end was perhaps coming into sight.
I had asked for suggestions from the ‘Bob’s running problems’ group to try to lessen the pain on the soles of my feet, and they had suggested taking the inner soles from one of my other pairs of shoes (I had 4 in total) and putting them into the pair I was wearing…basically improving the padding under my feet. This worked immediately, and made a huge difference to how the bottom of my feet helped, unfortunately it also (understandably) made my shoes really tight and so my feet would gradually lose all sensation until I took them out of my shoes whereupon I’d get fantastic pins and needles as the circulation returned.
After a speedy start, at 19:30 I stopped at a pub in Hersley for a swift dinner of lasagne and tea (and to stroke the pub cat).

Pub cat

I was sitting in a beer garden (with my shoes off naturally) as the weather was quite warm, surrounded by groups having evening drinks and generally enjoying themselves. I was a little out of place. Suddenly there was a bloke in running kit in front of me, and one of the guys from my ‘running problems’ group, Paul Pickford, had turned up to see me. It was, as always, great to see a friendly face, and gave me a massive lift. After a brief chat, he ran off (very quickly!) and I plodded on, grinning.  I had spent the majority of the previous 9 days on my own, apart from brief stops at the checkpoints.  The strangers I encountered were all really pleasant (unlike some of Ellens nutters, but that’s another story) but they were still strangers, who didn’t know me or what I was doing (or why I looked like I did).  That’s why just seeing a friendly face for 20 minutes made a huge difference to the day and my mood.

I had a sit under a tree at midnight, to eat a Cornish pasty and take some more painkillers, and the night gently eased away after I napped at 2am and 4am. I remember coming off the South Downs at about 5am, with the dew on the grass being really heavy after a warm day, and my shoes and socks being absolutely soaked. Wet cold feet, descending hills that made my feet hurt more than usual, meant that as I suffered through the last few miles to the checkpoint, I found myself swearing every time I put my right foot down. I don’t mean subtly whispering something under my breath, but shouting the worst sort of swear words at the top of my voice with every step. Hopefully there was no-one around to hear.
Checkpoint 12 was in a pub car park, and I was so tired I did not care at all that the tent was placed on the gravel surface…I just wanted to sleep.

Facebook post, courtesy of Lindley Chambers

I arrived at 07:00 (Wed) so the pub was closed, but it would be open when I woke up. I had another tin of curry and two packets of super-noodles, and had a chat with Maxine and Sandra, a helper who was assisting at that checkpoint, while I was eating. She had done GUCR a few weeks earlier, so had a rough idea of what I was going through. I sorted my kit for the next leg and fell into a deep sleep.
I had arrived at 07:00 (Wed), while way ahead of me Jon Stocker had arrived at 18:30 (Tue) and Jon Rowles at 22:00 (Tue). Ellen was still behind me, but arrived at the checkpoint at 18:00 (Wed) just as I was leaving…she was soaking wet, exhausted and massively pissed off (which I don’t blame her for!) Peter was still bringing up the rear, but staying ahead of the cut-offs and making consistent progress.
My plan had been to sleep 08:00 to 13:00 and aim to leave the checkpoint at 14:00. When I woke, though, I was told that Maxine had had to go to build the next checkpoint for Jon Stocker, who was pushing hard and was streaking away from me (relatively speaking). She would be back later, so I could try to tape my feet up myself, or wait for her to return at 5ish.
Although I had a little wobble about the lost time, there was absolutely no chance I would risk trying to tape my own feet (and I wasn’t even sure I could bend my legs that far anyway) so I made the best of the lost time, and went to the pub! I’d like to say I had 14 pints and staggered through the next leg, but I stuck to pie and mash, and pints of milk again.

With a full stomach and inside a nice warm pub, I soon fell asleep and had a useful 2 more hours; bringing my total that day to 7 hours – luxury! The guys behind the bar really didn’t know what to make of the various runners they had seen stagger through the restaurant, but I’m happy to report I was the only one that had a sleep in there. They kindly made me a sign to excuse the tramp-like figure slumped in a corner.

Even though I was asleep…I thought this was cool

While I slept the heavens opened and rained constantly, only stopping about 5pm when I was making my preparations to leave. It was Lindley that turned up to do my feet in the end, and very gentle he was too! I was on the move by about 6pm, well rested and fed.

This big man (Lindley) sorting my feet

 

 

 

 

 

Leg 13…..35miles….started 18:00 Wed, arrived at C13 approx 06:30 Thu….(Mileage 545-581)

Facebook video from the start of the leg.

This leg was only 35 miles, so really shouldn’t have taken me over 12 hours. However, the ground and foliage was soaking wet, and every bit of grass and leaf was just waiting to drench me. I started in my full waterproof kit, but it was too hot keeping my heavy jacket on, so I just had waterproof trousers keeping off most of the water from my waist downwards and got everything else wet.
I stopped at a Beefeater pub at Horndean to eat at about 21:00, as this would be the last chance before they all shut overnight, and was able to gulp down a meal and lots of tea in the time most people were still choosing what to eat.
I got a call from a friend, Mark, who asked the extremely sensible question of what my plans were when I finished? I honestly (and perhaps stupidly) had made absolutely no arrangements for finishing, where to stay, how to get home or anything, simply because I was so sure that I would not finish it seemed like tempting fate to even think in that direction. (Yes, I know how stupid this sounds, now, but it made complete sense at the time!) Bless Mark, he leapt into action when I told him my lack of plans, and started sorting me out a B&B for the night and to come and get me!  What a star!
I do not remember much about the night section, other than I spent a memorable part going through a very dark forest, where the mist and condensation reduced the visibility to about 2 metres, and the vague path I was following kept meandering off in the wrong direction. There was some forestry work being carried out, so it looked like there were new paths made for the workers to access new parts of the forest. I suspect in the daytime, navigation was easy, but that night was definitely the most difficult and confusing leg I had done yet. And I was dead tired, that probably didn’t help.
I was managing my feet with far too many painkillers, but they were soaking wet for the whole 12 hour leg, so rubbing themselves to pieces. I had my normal stops at midnight, 2am and 4am for something to eat and a 10 minute nap to keep my head together.

Lovely sunrise at 4.52am (according to the timestamp)

The next morning was a lovely sunrise but I was not interested…I just wanted to get to the checkpoint (my last checkpoint before the finish!) and have a rest in my sleeping bag.
I arrived at 06:30 (Thu) and did my usual job of eating a tin of curry with super-noodles. For some reason I didn’t have much of an appetite, perhaps the excitement of being near the end. After just 2 hours of sleep, I woke and again was much too pumped up to go back to sleep. I spent a little time on my phone trying to sort out arrangements for finishing, as Mark couldn’t come down to collect me until the Saturday, and I was intent on finishing on Friday. In the end I called my sister Sue, who was able to sort her life out to get me Friday morning. This was genuinely the first time I had made the commitment that I was actually going to finish this thing.
Jon Stocker had arrived at that checkpoint at 14:40 (Wed) and Jon Rowles just behind him at 18:10 (Wed). Ellen would arrive at 13:30 (Wed). Peter, bringing up the rear would be there at 10:00 (Sat) and was still within the cut-offs. You can imagine the logistical nightmare for Lindley and Maxine with a spread of 65 hours between the first and last runners.
With a quick breakfast and coffee, Maxine taped my feet for the last time (I did share my slight anxiety about what I would do without her to sort my poorly feet each morning, after the race), and I got on the move. I hate to think the shambolic figure I must have looked like, but I was just looking to get to the end now. While I was at the checkpoint Maxine heard that Jon Stocker had finished at about 09:30, in an amazing time of 287 hours, a new course record.

Leg 14…..34miles….started 12:00 Thu, arrived at C14 (the bloody finish!) approx 05:30 Friday …..(Mileage 581-615)

Facebook video, near the start of the leg.

The first section of this leg seemed to be full of hills, some of them really steep and rather challenging in my hobbling style. I got to a decent big town, Arundel, and happily stopped in a pub for more pie and mash. The girl behind the bar happily loaded my two pints of milk and two teas onto one tray, and looked at my pityingly when I asked her to carry them out to the beer garden as I was worried I would drop them. Once she took a good look at me, though, she said yes.
So there I was, eating (again) in a beer garden with my shoes off, and looking at the route I had ahead. I had a big section of countryside, before descending into Brighton to the pier, and then tracking along the seafront for a while to Shoreham. It didn’t look far (famous last words).
I kept moving, but again much more slowly that I wanted due to my feet and general exhaustion. The route followed the South Downs way (I think) and was bloody uphill or downhill most of the way.
The very memorable vision of seeing the sea for the first time, and when I saw Brighton was really emotional, even though I still had miles to go. The thought of being near enough to the finish line to be able to see it (in the distance) after 12 days was truly humbling. I stopped at the same time as a bunch of mountain bikers, and checked with them that it was definitely Brighton in the distance. Naturally, they asked where I was coming from as I looked like death, and I was chuffed with their faces when I said “600 miles away”.

Bugger me, that’s Brighton in the far distance!

I’d like to say the rest of the afternoon and evening was great, but I’d be lying. I just wanted it all to be over, but I was moving so slowly that the 15 miles I still had to cover after seeing Brighton for the first time was going to take hours and hours. As darkness fell I was still out on the downs, and the route seemed to consist of lots of little diversions out to a point and then returning back along the same path, it was maddening (but I made very sure I completed every single one of them!).
At long last I reached the outskirts of Brighton, and moved through the outskirts heading for the centre. It was about 01:00am Friday morning, and I hadn’t eaten since the pub in Arundel at 3pm-ish. I was tired, and hungrier than I should allowed myself to get. As I neared the centre I started to see group of ‘youths’ (as I like to call them, being firmly middle aged), but apart from a bit of banter with them they didn’t come near me. To be fair, I suspect they were more afraid of being attacked by the smelly homeless man, than the other way round.
I had to stop at a burger place, at about 2.30am, as it looked like I still had some miles to go and I was not going to make it without some fuel. I had a bit of a chat with the owner, and he made me the biggest double burger I’ve seen in a while…one of those that the fillings all slip out the far side when you pick it up to eat it. I had 2 cans of fizzy with it, and left with a bag of chips (just in case I got peckish in the next 10 minutes).

Mmmmm….burger

And I’d like to say the next three hours were a triumph of mental awesomeness as I pulled my poor broken body into a fast sprint and hoofed it to the end. Unfortunately, that was not the case, and I spent the next three hours slogging from the pier on Brighton’s seafront to Shoreham. It was a straight, flat, boring trek, and I was taking some real pain from my feet as I always seemed to do at the end of each leg. I had had too many painkillers in the last 24 hours to take any more, and I suspect some of the pain was in my head anyway.
My will to keep moving was definitely wavering, and I allowed myself a 10 minute rest on every 20th bench…and there were benches quite frequently along the seafront as you may expect. Too frequently, I was checking the tracker on my phone that showed my dot getting closer to the finish line, but ohhhh so slowly. Just wasting time to get to the end.
As dawn came up at about 4.30am, I was still much too far from the finish, but all I could do was keep dragging myself towards the end. I hope I’m giving the right impression here, I was truly finished. I was limping badly, and not really lifting my feet but shuffling them along the ground.  Each and every step was a struggle, and a groan or a swear with each step made it slightly more bearable.  Obviously, I should have just given myself a shake and got on with it, but I was so shattered I just did not have anything left to give.  I have never been so broken in my life.

I had left Brighton and Hove behind me now, and the residential areas had turned into an industrial park full of lorries.   Very picturesque.
I could see a figure ahead, in the far distance but could not make or whether it was Lindley at the finish. With his beard he is usually quite noticeable, but not today (or maybe my eyes were just not working). Anyway, it turned out to be him, and he kindly videoed me shuffling to the finish, looking entirely broken, which I was.

Finished…..pooped.
Courtesy of Lindley Chambers

It was a perfect, entirely low-key finish, which suited me down to the ground. I had a sit on the Monarchs Way bench, signifying the end of the route, and then climbed (slowly) into the back of Lindley’s truck, for a sleep while we waited for Ellen to come running (yes, she ran the last bit along the seafront, god help me) to the end. I finished at 05:30 (Fri) with Ellen just behind me at 08:30 (Fri).

I’m not going to lie; I felt absolutely nothing other than relief at finishing…no elation, no emotion, nothing. I’d had a horribly rough night and morning, and was not really with it. I just wanted to sit, rest, get my shoes off, and eventually sleep. Lindley drove me back to the previous checkpoint where my sister (bless her) was waiting, and we got my drop-bags and headed for home.
And that’s it! Peter went on to finish in the early hours of Saturday morning, within the cut-offs, and that brought Monarchs Way 2019 to a close.
Finishers:
John Stocker – 287:32:48
Jon Rowles – 290:04:28
Bob Wild – 308:30:05
Ellen Cottom – 310:25:38
Peter Bengtsson -325:20:47
DNF – Victoria Owens & Tony Hewett.

John Stocker at the finish. Facebook pic courtesy of Lindley Chambers

Jon Rowles at the finish. Facebook pic courtesy of Lindley Chambers.

Ellen at the finish. Facebook pic courtesy of Lindley Chambers

Peter a the finish! Facebook pic courtesy of Lindley Chambers.

Vic Owens. Pic courtesy of Lindley Chambers

Tony, enjoying a rest at CP1. Facebook pic courtesy of Lindley Chambers.

The aftermath:
I would say my recovery was….slow.
I attended the minor injuries unit the morning after I got home to get my feet sorted. The doctor displayed a professional interest in the mess my feet were as he discussed with the nurse the best way to treat them. I went to have various parts of them re-dressed (mainly my right foot toes) another 5 times. I lost two toenails, and another one that is looking wobbly. My feet still hurt when I walk on a hard floor, in my socks, as if all the ‘meat’ on the soles that normally provides padding has gone, and I’m just walking on the nubs of bones.  I will not make you suffer through horrible foot pics here…but if you are interested, you can see a few HERE.
I was tired after finishing, but was only able to sleep in short spaces of 5 or 6 hours (with epic night sweats), rather than a lovely long 12 hour sleep. I was back at work on Monday morning, where my colleagues were very understanding at my lack of energy and concentration – it provided much hilarity. I was able to shuffle around, but just walking up stairs would have me out of breath and needing a sit down. A full week after finishing, I was still feeling absolutely tired all the time. Two weeks later, I’m happy to say it’s mostly passed.

I didn’t want to know how much weight I lost, but you could see my ribs quite clearly when I took my shirt off. My wife said I looked grey. I undertook the serious task of absorbing as much beer and Doritos as possible for the next week, and then the same the week after.  To be fair, my eating regime for the last 5 days was rubbish, and I paid the price for that.
My bad memories of the event are gradually fading, as they usually do after an ultra, otherwise you would never do another! This report, as usual, has helped me recall the good parts and relive the bad. But nothing will ever allow me to forget that final struggle along the seafront to the finish line…that has scarred me. Would I ever do this race again…no…but that is more due to my nature of not wanting to do the same race twice (if I finish it first time round). There are too many fabulous races out there to waste precious time doing the same one twice (especially if it takes a fortnight to complete!)
And would I do another long race, or even a longer one beyond 600 miles? Probably, yes, but only if I can learn a lot more about how to keep my feet in one piece.

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So, just a few thanks…
Firstly, thanks to you for reading this. It has taken a fair few hours to write (as you can imagine) and I do it entirely for my own amusement and to be able to read at a later date. Otherwise I simply forget all the details and it disappears in to the ether. Hopefully you got something from it, please leave a comment if you did.
Then, thanks to Lindley and Maxine (and Bruce and Sandra) for setting up this great race and looking after me so well. Maxine especially must have had a horrible time dealing with my manky feet every day, and did it without once complaining, no matter how tired she was.
To the other runners, whether finishers or not, thanks for making this such a brilliant experience. Every interaction I had with you all was cheerful and positive, even when we were all hurting.
Thanks to my “Bob’s running problems” group of experienced ultra runners, who helped me far more than I would ever have believed. To go to sleep, having posed a problem, and then wake up to loads of ideas and suggestions was great, and it really felt like you were out there with me. So, in no particular order….Jo Barrett, Ben Davies, Dave Falkner, Paul Pickford, John Hunt, Mark Foster….you’re all super-stars.
Thanks to the guys that phoned me and somehow kept my spirits up…Pam and Derek especially, and John and Mark. I found the fact of knowing people out there were watching the tracker and thinking of me enough to call was really uplifting, especially at the low points.
To the guys that came out to meet me on the trail….Janie & Mikey Brownstone, Jon & Jo Holl, Paul Pickford, internet strangers Angus and Barry. What an unexpected treat to see you all, and what a massive lift you gave me.
To all the pubs, cafes and shops I went into, looking like a tramp. Thanks for being nice to me.
Thanks to my kids, Michael and Abigail, who put up my strange ways, and don’t complain too much. I owe you an ice cream.
To my long-suffering wife, Claire (who accidentally told me she never reads my whole race-report, but just skims to the end to see if she’s mentioned) thanks, I love you, and I will be testing you on the contents of this report later tonight.
And finally, thanks and apologies to my body, mind and most importantly my feet for what I put you through with this run. Whilst I did not know what to expect, I never thought I would beat myself up quite this badly…and I promise never to do it again (until next time).

And that’s it. The end. Unless you want to read all about my recommendations and suggestions if you plan to run this race…which is HERE.

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.

 

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’.

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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.

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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.

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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!!

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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!!