Is that Brighton in the distance? I can see lights, and that definitely looks like the sea…I’m much too far away to see the pier, but it’s a big enough town to look like I may be getting near Brighton. And that would mean I may be getting near the end of the longest race I’ve ever done. At 615 miles, it is the longest race I’ll ever do.
I’ve been on the move since Saturday 18th May. Today is Thursday 30th May, about 6pm. I’ve slept (briefly) in a tent or on the trail along the way. I’ve eaten (quickly) everything I could find along the way, pubs, cafes, burger vans. I’ve showered twice. I’ve gone to the toilet everywhere.
Mentally, I’m very tired. Physically, everything above the ankle is uncomfortable but manageable…below the ankle, my feet are trashed – blisters, raw wet patches, pain that seems to have no source…everything below my right ankle is a massive, show-stopping problem, and my left foot is not much better.
I’m coming to the end of the longest ultra of my life, but I’ve still got 18 miles to go, so I stop admiring the view, and get moving.
The Monarchs way ultra, a 615 mile non-stop race, is a fairly unusual thing. It follows the route of Charles 2nd escaping the armies of Cromwell, and twists and circles around West England, before hitting the coast briefly at Charmouth, and then following the South Downs past Southampton and Portsmouth towards Brighton, finally finishing in Shoreham.
It takes in some astonishingly beautiful areas of the country, puts you on trails that you feel have not seen another human for years, and takes in the occasional town or village. It shows you the countryside at its best, and allows you to view the horizon in the morning, knowing full well that by the afternoon you will be standing somewhere on that horizon, looking back at where you started. It is amazing.
It also takes you through some jungle…some of the most overgrown trails you will find, that you are not even entirely sure are trails except that the signpost and GPS track takes you this way. A huge dense hedge on either side (subtly hiding the barbed wire fence running through the middle), forming a canopy overhead, and a trail heading through the middle, framed with tall nettles and brambles that leave just enough space to squeeze through (or not). A fallen tree across the trail halfway that requires some climbing, as there is no going around it, and an exit that takes you out into the sunshine of an open field. Amazing.
It’s not an ultra, in the traditional sense, but more of an expedition. One that tests your mental and physical resilience in a way that a standard 100 mile run does not come even close. It asks you to repeat your experiences of yesterday, and the day before, while slowly deteriorating a little each day, until the logical conclusion of reaching the end, hopefully before reaching the point of needing to stop, rest and recover.
Who could resist that?
A commitment to this race would require some sacrifice. A fortnight off work takes a healthy chunk out of my holiday allowance (meaning less time with my family). The entrance fee is not cheap, although I consider it fairly reasonable for the experience it gives. The kit required is extensive and varied, and bloody expensive. The time to train would be significant, if taken seriously (so….not too much in my case then.)
However, an opportunity to challenge myself on an ultra that until 2018 had had no finishers was too much of a temptation.
The race was first run in 2016, with 3 very very experienced entrants…no finishers.
Then 2017, 3 more experienced runners….no finishers. I followed the runners with their trackers online obsessively.
Suddenly, 2018…10 entrants…lots of foot problems….3 finishers. I couldn’t believe how long the runners were out there, on the trail. Every time I logged on to see where they were, I would try to imagine what it must be like to keep that sort of effort going for days and days. 2 weeks is an eternity when lying on a sunny beach. Imagine how long it must feel when being on your feet for 20 hours a day.
So, having watched the race for the last few years, I tantalised myself with the thought of entering…how ridiculous that would be, as I clearly had no genuine chance of finishing. In April 2018 I booked the time off work ‘just in case’ I fancied the 2019 race, and politely suggested to my long-suffering wife that I may have a race I’d attempt in 2019. We had a week’s holiday in March 2019 for our 20th wedding anniversary, and I promised myself that I wouldn’t make my mind up until that was over. End of March, I entered…oh dear.
I suppose I should give a quick run-down of my experience & calibre so you know who you’re dealing with. With no previous experience, I started running in 2008 and did the London Marathon, and graduated to ultras in 2014 with the Grand Union Canal Race. I’ve been lucky enough to do a few fairly iconic (i.e. difficult) ultras since then including Thames Ring 250, Arc of Attrition, Spine Challenger, and various 100 milers. I have absolutely minimal running ability, being neither fast, quick nor agile. For example, I completed the alpine-style Ultra-Trail Snowdonia (UTS50) in 2018 and took an appalling 26 hours to complete the 50 mile course (without question, my most “Kill me now” experience). Click on the race names to read the race reports for each of these, but they’re not pretty or exciting.
I’ve also DNF’s (did-not-finish) a reasonable number of races too including Lakeland 100 (too hilly, but I loved the LL50), and Winter Viking Way (too slow). But I’m happy to say I learned as much from my bad races as my good ones, and saw them as part of the game.
However, what I do have to my credit is a certain stubbornness to keep going, to finish what I’ve started. I’m physically a bit of a wimp (I’ve got the arms of a Somalian pirate), but I enjoy running which means I’m happy to spend a lot of time just gently ambling through hours of trail or road. I don’t run quickly, do speed work or hill work, or really anything that requires effort, but I’ll happily get up at 4am on a Sunday to fit in 5 or 6 hours of running along the pancake flat promenade in Kent where I live. It’s a great hobby.
And I think it’s healthy to challenge yourself to something bigger and better than last year, something to push the experience and mind a little further than you’ve done before…which brought me to a 615 mile ultra (naturally!).
We would have a checkpoint every 45 miles or so, to eat and sleep (if we wanted) and have access to our drop-bags. That meant carrying everything we needed for at least 12 hours (at the start) to 24 hours (near the end). We could visit shops and pubs, thank goodness, but no crew was allowed to meet and feed us. It was very much a solo effort.
Having entered the race, and having given myself a healthy 6 weeks to get to the start line, I took a holistic approach to the training plan. I started taking vitamins, reduced my alcohol consumption to just 1 day per week (not that I drunk less, just binged a much as possible on that single day) and slept less and ran more.
The sleep factor was important, as I would spend most of the fortnight event being short on sleep and it seemed logical to get my body used to the effect. Hence I reduced a typical night’s sleep to about 6 or 7 hours, and got used to getting up at dawn to run for a couple of hours before work. It doesn’t sound like much, but I found I adjusted surprisingly well and it served me well during the race.
Although I did run a lot in April (322 miles to be exact), they were all slow easy miles that focused me on the ‘slow and steady’ target. I spent huge amounts of time on these runs considering literally everything that could (and would) go wrong and what I could do to overcome it. It sounds slightly obsessive, but I’d get home after a run, and write down (for example) that I needed to take a tiny sewing kit with me in case something on my rucksack came loose (which it did!) and needed mending. Over the course of 6 weeks, I was prepared for most things, and had also invited 7 very experienced ultra-running buddies to a group on social media that would be able to give me advice on any running problems I experienced that I wanted advice on (I imaginatively called the group “Bob’s running problems”…but more of them later). I spent these 6 weeks making sure I had backups to every important piece of kit (spare GPS device, two spare head-torches, 4 pairs of shoes, numerous pairs of socks, spare headphones, warm weather kit, cold weather kit, very cold weather kit, wet weather kit, sleeping kit, cooking kit, food….more food than I could ever eat, and on and on. ) I suppose my logic was that I could DNF through my own physical failings, but not through some daft mechanical “I’ve got cold” problem.
With about 2 weeks to go, I stopped running and started fast hiking through some rough local trails, with my dog and a fully laden pack, to get my head round what most of the race would feel like. I have to say that I had been quite calm until that point, but for some reason that activity brought everything home to me (specifically, on the evening of Friday 11th May) and I spent the next 7 days in a state of absolute fear at what I was putting myself in for. Hiking is slow when compared to running, and your brain starts to play tricks when you begin to consider how far 600 miles really is.
I was able to hand over one of my two drop-bags to Lindley, race director, the week before the race as I was getting the train to the start line, and he spent a happy hour unintentionally terrifying me on the challenges I faced. I had not realised that two of the three finishers from last year were ‘sponsored athletes’ (i.e. got free merchandise from outdoors companies to wear at events = good runners!) and that the third finisher had bent the rules slightly by staying in hotels for two good sleeps (a loophole closed for 2019!). Lindley emphasised that the race was more of a multi-day challenge than a single-stage ultra, meaning that sleeping/eating and personal administration were just as important as the time on your feet covering ground. God help me, with my total of zero experience in multi-day events.
So, with a slightly wobbly mindset, I left work promptly on Friday afternoon and rushed to catch a train to get me to Worcester in time for a “last meal” for all the runners at a Premier Inn.
It’s probably about time I introduced the other runners, as they all have a part to play in my story:
Lindley Chambers – Race director. Yes, ok, not a runner in the race, but a larger than life character who had brought this race (and a number others) to life. I’d done the Thames Ring 250 race in 2015 (DNF) and 2017 (finished!) so knew Lindley reasonably well. Lindley has a habit of speaking his mind on Facebook which means he comes across quite different when you meet him in person. He has a gigantic beard and wears sandals and shorts in sub-zero arctic conditions.
Maxine – Lindley’s better half. What can I say, she spent most of my race feeding me and trying to hold my feet together with sticky tape.
Lindleys truck – yes, this was the truck.
The runners, in alphabetical order…
Ellen Cottom – well known, “hard-as-nails” ultra runner. She’s done more ultras than I’ve had hot dinners, and is apparently indestructible. She was one of the runners that did not finish this race in 2018, so was back for revenge. Fun fact: at the start line, she pulled out a small (but very sharp and pointy) knife that she would be using if she got any grief on the more populated parts of the route. She was able to quote the UK law regarding carrying personal knives if used for camping etc. Excellent.
John Stocker – very fast runner. In 2017, he won the Thames Ring 250 in 58 hours (I took a sloth-like 80 hours). He’s very driven, very competitive, has a race calendar for the rest of the year that includes another two or three more-than-200 miles races. He’s an extremely tough runner, who was returning after DNF’ing this race last year (due to bad feet, which must have been really bad).
Jon Rowles – I’d met Jon a couple of times before at races. He was a good middle-of-the-pack runner (whereas as I am nearer the back, in that respect) but struggled when confronted with lack of sleep. He was also returning after not finishing last year.
Peter Bengtsson – the Swedish joker! Peter was a lovely guy, a very experienced runner that had come over from Sweden for the race and seemed to take the whole experience in his easy-going manner. Nothing seemed to phase him. He was also returning from DNF’ing last year.
The three ‘virgins’ that were new to the race:
Tony Hewett – a lovely guy. I only got to speak to Tony briefly, even though I sat next to him at the meal, but his eyes were sparkling with adventure and he was clearly looking forward to getting stuck in (on the other hand, I was struggling to string two words together). He was a school teacher (I think).
Victoria Ownes – I thought it was great that she brought her whole family to the meal (I hadn’t even invited my wife, which everyone else had done (their wives, not mine, obviously)) and she was quite lively company at the meal. I had Facebook stalked her a little, so I knew she had done quite a few decent ultras.
Me – oh dear. Oh dear.
So Lindley did a quick race briefing that I remember very little of apart from the animated discussion about whether one particular loop on the route should be attempted “anti-clockwise” (-Lindley) or “counter-clockwise” (-Ellen, did I mention she is American? Very American? No? I should have then. ) I don’t remember who won the anti/counter conversation. It’s probably not important.
Race briefing swiftly dealt with, it was onto the meal. Perhaps I’m being unkind, but there were about 15 of us there, and the time it took us to get our meals seemed to be all out of proportion to the length of time it would take to chuck a few things in a microwave and pour a sauce over the top. Lindley and John Stocker kept us amused with race stories and photos though, so the time passed quickly.
At the end of the meal, I retrieved my drop bag from Lindley and took it up to my room, for a final sort and re-pack. One of the lessons I’ve learnt is being able to locate things during races quickly, as there is nothing more frustrating than trying to find a pack of wet wipes that you know is there, but you cannot find anywhere. All my kit was in plastic bags, separated by type, and in some kind of logical order (to me).
I slept reasonably well, and was down first to abuse the all-you-can-eat breakfast. I even got away with 6 sausages in a napkin to put in one of my drop-bags for a later stage. Magic!
My race pack was deliberately light for the first leg of 47 miles, as this would be where I would be working hard, moving quickly and banking as much time versus the cut-offs. Did I mention the cut-offs? No? I will put the detail into an additional section at the end, but simply put, each 45 miles checkpoint had its own timed cut-off, to prevent people slowing to a crawl. The time allowed for each leg were quite consistent, and quite generous at first, but once sleep deprivation kicks in and the pace slows then the cut-offs would become a real problem. In 2017, two of the front runners were 20 hours ahead of the cut-offs by half way, and still got timed out before the end.
So, my strategy was quite simple. I would move as fast as possible, with as little sleep as possible for the first 4 legs (approx 190 miles). This time saved would be my buffer against the cut-offs and if I managed the pace I wanted, with just 6 hours sleep, I would be 35 hours ahead of the cut-off (34 hours 58 minutes to be exact!). Then, if I could maintain a good pace (but slower, and with more sleep) for the next 4 legs, I would hit the 8th checkpoint in good shape, with only a small erosion to this buffer. Then, legs 9 to 14 I could (and would) lose all this time as I slowed to a virtual stumble, with my body gently falling to pieces. This plan was the best I could come up with, and based on my experience I was pretty confident on my abilities to keep the pace up once the buffer was in place, but the challenge would be to get to that 4th checkpoint quickly enough.
At the starting line, it was clear there was a different approach to the first leg. A few of the returning runners were in long trousers, clearly protecting their legs against rough trail. Ellen and Peter had gaiters, Ellen’s being up to her knees. She meant business!
I was in running shorts, clearly not understanding how much my legs were going to get scratched and beaten on the first leg, but I did have some short gaiters to keep sticks and stones out of my shoes.
There was much discussion (and laughter) at the various weights of everyone’s pack at the start, with mine being much ridiculed for being the lightest (it was, but I more than made up for it later) and, I think, John Stockers being the heaviest, or perhaps Vic’s.
To be fair, all I had for the first leg was the various bits of mandatory kit I needed (waterproofs etc) and a few cheese rolls & tins of mackerel. I carried a little water, perhaps 500 ml, but I generally tend not to drink too much when running. In comparison John Stocker was carrying 2 litres of water and plenty of other stuff too. I felt properly under-dressed
Lindley fixed trackers to everyone’s pack, which would allow the internet stalkers to track our dots over the next two weeks and the next 615 miles.
We had the obligatory line-up holding the various Monarchs way signs, and then without much fanfare, we were off.
Leg 1…..47 miles….started 10:00 Sat, arrived at CP1 approx 19:30 Sat……(Mileage 0-47)
John Stocker immediately zoomed off into the distance, in a cloud of dust, and I opted to fall in behind Ellen and Peter, thinking rightly that they would know the route for the first few miles so I would not need to worry about navigation while I got settled into a rhythm. The whole route was marked with signs, but these were relatively few & far between, and more useful as confirmation of the correct route rather than actual navigation.
We all had GPS devices, usually a Garmin Etrex 30 (mine) or Garmin 64. These would show a route to follow on top of a rudimentary map, on a screen about an inch wide. To be clear, these were not huge smart phones that would guide you, turn-by-turn every step of the way, but a small, dim screen, a pink line (the route) a blue arrow (you) and a need to look at it every minute or so to ensure you had not missed a turn.
It was thick grass around the edge of fields at the start, and as we came to the first clumps of nettles I felt bad for Vic who was probably going to suffer a bit as I had been told she started running barefoot. Apparently she changed to sandals quite soon, but must still have had to work hard to persevere through the rough trail.
I was moving well, enjoying the fact of being moving at last, and passed Ellen as she stopped to fiddle with her pack. I caught Peter, and had a pleasant chat with him while we navigated a town. He was working a 50 minute running / 10 minutes walking system, so the next time he started walking I left him behind, and pushed on by myself…in second place!
It was not long before the town was left behind and I came to my first rapeseed field. This was (if you don’t know) a large field, filled with shoulder-high blossoming rapeseed, absolutely saturated with water from rainfall the previous night. The GPS track clearly showed the route going straight through the middle, and there was no obvious clear route I could see…so I took a quick look around the edge hoping for a cleared track, and when it was obvious it did not exist, I simply pushed my way through. It was suddenly clear why the returning runners from last year were wearing long trousers, as my legs were being scratched to pieces, meanwhile everything I had on was being soaked. The field probably only took 10 minutes or so to push through (and was one of 4 or 5 that day) but it was quite an experience! As I came to more of the fields, it became clear the trick was to follow a slightly clearer route that one of the tractor tyres had taken, so the rapeseed was slightly less thick, but it was still very challenging.
Slightly easier to negotiate were the field of wheat, only knee high, but still soaking wet.
Quite often the farmer had cleared a route through so it was much more pleasant to traverse.
Despite the challenges, I was enjoying myself enormously and running really comfortably, and in fact I passed John Stocker at some point of the morning. To be fair, I think he was running conservatively (and I wasn’t) and he encouraged me as I went past him…top bloke! It was never going to last long, but it was fun while it lasted.
We started hitting patches of forest between fields, where there were yet more patches of nettles. In all the days of running, I never discovered what the point of nettles was…they just seem to exist to be a bloody pain to everyone. They are the wasps of the plant kingdom, and serve no purpose. When I’m commander of the entire earth, I shall command everyone to wipe nettles from existence and then go barefoot through the countryside enjoying themselves (without worrying about nettles).
After about 20 miles, I hit a village and stopped into the first pub I saw to get a can of something fizzy. I found that a quick stop and ‘pick-me-up’ did wonders for my morale as well as the sugar giving me a boost. John Stocker caught me up as I came out of the pub, and Lindley and Maxine had also met us here, so we had a good moan about the rapeseed fields.
At about 30 miles I was beginning to slow a little, and getting a bit of nausea. For those unaccustomed to my usual running problems, I start to feel nauseas at about mile 35-40 of an ultra, I’m then copiously sick at about mile 50, eat nothing for hours / days, and then suddenly (24 hours later) my stomach wakes up and wants to eat the whole world. I’ve given up trying to fight it, and just accept that the exhaustion I feel when I cannot eat is part of the fun, and I should just get on with it.
I slowed a bit more, and found myself a long staff / stick to walk with and keep me company. Moving with a stick is something I’ve done on a few ultras, and I find it helps me keep up a good pace while allowing me to hold my back straight. I stopped to get a can of coke to hopefully settle my stomach a bit (no chance) and sat to drink it and consider my poorly stomach. When I set off, I realised I’d forgotten my stick so tracked back to retrieve it (only 20 metres or so) but at that moment John Stocker zoomed past me again to regain the lead. And that is the story of the epic few hours I was in the lead in an ultra.
The rest of this leg was pretty uneventful, I really loved the trail we were on, the isolation I felt and although I couldn’t eat I was still moving smoothly. The only hiccup I found was that I had somehow cocked up by downloading the 2018 GPS tracks rather than 2019, and so I had created problems for myself because checkpoint 1 had moved further up the trail. Luckily I managed to sort myself out and Lindley expertly re-loaded my GPS with the correct tracks at the checkpoint. Phew!
Checkpoint 1 was one of the few checkpoints that would be indoors, and I probably should have appreciated it more. On my plan, I had given myself an hour to sort myself out, so I had to move quickly to get everything done. A quick wipe of the feet, change of shoes and socks, and load my pack up with everything I would need for the first night leg. I knew my nauseous stomach would cope with cup-a-soup, so had brought along a stash – I had 4, and filled my vacuum flask with another 2 for the trail. At 120 calories each packet of soup, they allow me to get liquid calories on board without being sick everywhere. Maxine prepared me a lovely microwave lasagne, but I only managed a few mouthfuls.
I considered my options of putting on a long pair of hiking trousers to protect my legs, and a pair of heavy knee-high gaiters (used last for Spine Challenger, lots of Pennine way, January weather, plenty of bog), and in the end I wore everything I could to protect my legs. I ended up wearing those long trousers every remaining leg of the race. By the end they were indescribably mucky.
John Stocker had arrived (apparently) 8 minutes before me, and left at least 20 minutes before me. As I was getting ready to leave, after about 50 minutes Ellen and Peter arrived, both looking in great shape. I was feeling re-energised and looking forward to the first night leg, not tired at all.
Leg 2…..45 miles….started 20:20 Sat, arrived at CP2 approx 10:20 Sun…..(Mileage 47-92)
As I said, I was feeling good for this leg. I usually enjoy travelling at night, and although I hit a low patch about 2am (like everyone) I enjoy the darkness and the single pool of light given out by my head-torch that is the only thing to look at all around. I tend to move quite slowly, as I have a bit of a tendency to fall or trip over things.
I stopped at midnight to drink some soup and try to eat food, conscious of the energy I was using and not yet replacing.
At about 2.30am I was starting to feel sleepy, so stopped for a quick nap on the side of the trail. This isn’t as odd as it sounds; I was quite warm and aimed to sleep for no more than 10-15 minutes to give my brain a bit of a rest. I find that my mind will then stay clear for another couple of hours through the night.
Ellen came past me after I’d been asleep for about 10 minutes, and checked I was alright (it must be a bit disconcerting to come across a body laid out on the trail, in the middle of nowhere!) We carried on together, with Ellen fretting about her tracker not working: it had apparently stopped sending a signal a few hours ago. She stopped on a road and phoned Lindley to see what could be done to revive it, and I succeeded in removing it from its protective packet and pressing buttons until it sprang back into life.
Ellen and I stayed together for the rest of the leg, which was in fact a big loop called the Bosecombe loop. We actually met up with John Stocker at the start of the small circle on the very left of the loop, as he was finishing it and we were starting it. It took us a whopping 1 hour 22 minutes to get all the way round this ‘small’ circle…very depressing to get back to where you started after an hour.
We seemed to pass through lots of cow-filled fields, which thankfully left us alone. I became well-acquainted with electric fences that farmers use to keep livestock contained, never having really needed to climb over them before. Unfortunately, my first experience was to get one leg over and allow my nether regions to gently come into contact with the wire, giving me a gentle yet very real electric shock that certainly woke me up. You can be sure I gave the wires a lot more respect in future!
Ellen showed me the proper way to treat a barbed wire fence that we had somehow got onto the wrong side of….which was to simply climb over the bloody thing. Sounds obvious now, but I’ve always had a bit of an aversion to tearing my leg open on a bit of rusty wire, so I’ve usually hesitated up until now…no longer! If Ellen can throw herself over, so can I. It was a useful lesson to learn, and one I would put into practise daily!
At about 6am I had a sit and used my cooking kit (that I’d thoughtfully packed at CP1) to boil water for a bit of coffee. In my planning, I’d thought that a night leg would be much more bearable if I knew I had some hot coffee waiting for me at about 6am. Although I did enjoy my sit down and the coffee, I decided it was too heavy to carry for a whole leg just for a coffee, so this would be the only time I did it. I also used the time to put a video on Facebook, which is something I’d thought about doing during the night. I thought, for mainly personal reasons, it would be useful to watch the deterioration over the coming days as I got more tired. It also served me really well as a motivational tool every time I read the comments from friends and strangers on the videos.
I got the first of many calls from Derek, a very experienced, older coach from my running club, who keeps me going during my more taxing ultras by calling me a couple of times per day to check up on me…forcing me to engage with my condition and actually understand how I’m feeling. He has an uncanny ability to calm me down when I’m struggling, and motivate me when I’m down. He’s great and, as always, would phone me just at the times I’m suffering a bit.
The coffee did not give me the required perk unfortunately, and I was tired when I got into CP2 at about 10.30am Sunday morning.
Ellen arrived about an hour later. Peter shortly after that.
The checkpoint was in the grounds of Boscombe House (I think) and we had a night grassy corner, with a rough wooden fenced. There were a couple of tents for sleeping that looked very appealing. My plan allowed me 2 hours here, which included an hour for sleeping, so i was in a hurry to get myself sorted out and to have some sleep.
Shoes and socks were quickly off, to allow my feet the longest chance to dry out, and I did my best to eat, forcing down a cup of tea, cup of milk, and a bacon sandwich, which tasted great. Unfortunately, they didn’t taste so good when I promptly vomited them back up again into a usefully located bush. Dammit.
An hours sleep felt wonderful though, and after that I tried again and succeeded in keeping down about half of a bacon sandwich and some more cup-a-soups. Clean socks, clean shoes, and I was on my way.
Leg 3…..42 miles….started 12:30 Sun, arrived at CP3 approx 03.51 Mon…..(Mileage 92-134)
I spent most of today hungry but unable to eat, which was really frustrating. The route followed lots canal and aqueducts, which is usually my favourite route as they are so picturesque, but it was difficult to enjoy while knowing that my energy levels were dropping by the hour. I put on an audio book that helped distract me quite successfully but I was pretty low for most of the day.
At about 4pm I was getting increasingly cross and frustrated that I hadn’t come across any shops that I could even get a sugary drink at. I was physically getting very tired, but had no fuel to replace the spent energy, and of course I needed every but of fuel I could get!
I took a call from a running friend John and I whinged about needing a café or shop, anything to give me some energy. Sure enough, 10 minutes later I came across a café that had just closed (at 4pm) and I was so pissed I took a picture of the closed door.
Shortly afterwards Derek called, and patiently listened to me whinge about needing a shop. As always, he calmed me down and focused me on keeping moving, well aware that the faster I moved the sooner I’d find a shop.
Within an hour, I made the decision to leave the route at what looked like a busy bridge over the canal I was on, and was overjoyed to see a small parade of shops nearby. I sat outside Pizza Supreme delicately eating about 20 chips, but more importantly drinking can after can of fizzy sugary drink. Magic. Each can had about 10 grammes of sugar, so 3 cans certainly gave me a boost.
After messaging Ellen who was behind me that at this particular bridge there were some shops, I went on my merry way in a far better frame of mind. It sounds ridiculous, but I found through the whole event that my mood (and hence my pace) lifted enormously with a full stomach and some calories to digest. I would learn that my stomach really does drive the whole body!
As dusk started to fall, I came across the Netherton tunnel. I’d been told about a 2.7km tunnel that has a towpath alongside a canal that goes straight through some hills…much quicker than going round them! I headed into it without any hesitation, but was really surprised how claustrophobic I felt after the first 15 minutes. I was genuinely pleased to get out at the end, it was a proper creepy experience. The towpath was about 2 or 3 feet wide, with the arched ceiling coming down to the ground on my left, and a metal railing on the right to stop me falling into the dark water. No lights, naturally.
The whole atmosphere was very damp, and water constantly dripped from the ceiling like those caves you go into on holiday. The water from the ceiling created massive puddles on the towpath that I started trying to avoid but in the end gave up as they encompassed the whole path and were long and surprisingly deep. I consoled myself that I would change my socks for my spare dry ones once I got out, which I did. Interestingly, when I got to the next checkpoint, I asked how the other runners had coped with the waterlogged path. Apparently John Stocker had taken his shoes off (to keep them dry), and gone through the tunnel in his socks…putting his dry shoes back on at the end. Ellen had cleverly brought some plastic bags with her, putting them over her feet and hence keeping her feet dry. Clearly I was taking the easy option of just getting wet feet and then changing my socks!
I remember very little about the rest of the night leg, apart from doing my usual ropey job in the dark and slowing down badly. Ellen overtook me again, and I got to the checkpoint about 3.50am about 30 minutes after her. I set my alarm for 2 hours and was asleep quickly, but on waking felt good and I was able to eat some bacon & beans which felt wonderful, had about 4 coffees and even a little bit of watermelon. It was great to be able to eat and keep it down! Even though I was tired, I was raring to go (but that may have been the coffee talking!) My body was in good shape, the only concern was the big toe on my right foot, which I must have stubbed hard as it was slowly swelling all around the nail and turning black. I was still feeling very positive and starting to believe I could perhaps keep going for a few days yet. I was not thinking past the next checkpoint, and being very careful to not to have thoughts of finishing…but still felt good and was having a blast. At the checkpoint I was given the news that Tony had dropped on Sunday, which was a real shame.
Leg 4…..48 miles….started 06:30 Mon, arrived at CP4 approx 23.20 Mon…..(Mileage 134-182)
I started this leg wearing waterproof socks, as the dew was very heavy and my shoes were quickly soaked. I took them off after a few hours, but I found they did a good job of protecting me from the worst of the “soaking feet syndrome” whenever I did this in the morning. Unfortunately, after about a week on the move my feet became too swollen to allow the extra socks inside my shoes, so I was not able to do this, but it really worked for the first week.
The good news however, was that the breakfast had woken up my stomach, and I was suddenly finding I had some energy to move at a good pace, but even better my stomach was shouting for more food!
I had purposely lightened my pack before leaving the checkpoint, so I was not only feeling strong, but carrying a lot less than the previous two legs (i.e. all the cooking kit was jettisoned, which probably saved me 0.5 kg at least). It was early daylight, which is when I tend to feel best, and sure enough I absolutely motored the first 4 hours.
I reached a park at about 10.30, with a big pond and green spaces, and asked someone if there was a café nearby by. It was a wonderful feeling to order some proper food (a healthy pasta and tuna thing) and sit at a table outside, with my shoes off (much to the amazement of everyone else!) and actually enjoy the feeling of eating.
After a couple of days of minimal solid food, it felt wonderful to actually put a load of fuel into my engine room. I was only in that chair for 20 minutes, but the next few hours flew by as the terrain was good along roads and canals. Even the fields I went over were beautiful.
I have much more confidence with horses (for no particular reason, except they seem more intelligent) that cows…I seem to read about a walker being trampled by a herd of psychotic cows every year or so, but less so with horses.
By 3pm I was making good progress, but it had been a few hours since last eating, and I was keen to maintain the calories going in, so when I hit the next town (perhaps at Alcester) I looked for a pub to get my next meal. I ended up at a little sandwich shop because it appears all the pubs do food at lunchtime and dinnertime, but not in between…however, I loved the expression on the face of the guy that served me when I ordered a massive meatball & cheese Panini, steak pie, multiple cans of Lilt, and then proceeded to sit on the pavement outside his shop and tuck in. It was another absolutely wonderful eating experience again, and I loved being able to message people to show how much I was eating. Even the school kids that congregated at the little parade of shops thought I was a bit of a strange sight.
With another really good feed and a brief rest, I was shortly motoring again and was eating the miles up (as well as everything else). Although I was physically tired, I was cheerful and enjoying myself, and not really feeling ill effects from lack of sleep (at that stage). I had slept for perhaps 3 solid hours from Saturday morning to Monday afternoon, and had travelled about 160 miles, but was still in good shape now that I was eating well. Life was good!
With these thoughts, at about 6pm I had just come to out of a long stretch of trail and hit a road which seemed to be leading me towards civilisation, when I did a bit of a double take at the guy walking along the pavement towards me. He looked familiar, but not immediately recognisable (if that makes sense). As he got a bit closer, he was clearly looking at me as if he knew me, but I still didn’t place him until he was really close, whereupon I realised it was a guy called Mike, that I had shared a house with at university (about 30 years previously) but had not seen or had any contact with since, apart from minimal contact on Facebook. His wife, Janie, who I also knew from university, was there too, and it was a fabulous surprise to see them both, especially as they had brought pizza with them (individually wrapped pieces!).
Even as I sit typing this, I have a massive grin all over my face, it was such a treat to see some friendly faces, especially ones that I’ve not seen for 30 years. They were all grown up, unlike me, who was still behaving like a child (you know, 600 mile runs…that sort of thing) and we had a great 10 minutes of conversation walking along the pavement, before they left me to follow the next canal. I’d hoovered up about 10 pieces of pizza, and was in such a great mood after seeing them I put a post on Facebook after leaving them:
The ensuing hilarity after I said I’d shared a horse with Mikey kept me chuckling for a while when I got to my sleeping bag. I got a few phone calls through the evening that helped my mood and kept me motoring on.
The sunset was beautiful that night, especially as I was travelling through some decent trail and lovely countryside. My navigation so far had been pretty good, but I found the darkness was confusing me a bit tonight. In one memorable ‘diversion’ my GPS was showing a right turn up ahead, off the country road I was following. There did not seem to be any trail heading right, so I guessed the bridge overhead was an aqueduct of some sort, and I needed to climb up the steep sides to the top, and then follow the aqueduct. Usually, there’s stairs to get up, but I couldn’t find these either, so in my slightly addled state, I decided to climb over a fence and through the bushes and trees to the top, whereupon instead of a calm aqueduct and a path, I came across a railway line and lots of no trespassing signs. Naturally, I decided not to go back down the way I’d come (and I wasn’t sure I could anyway) so I rather dangerously and very gingerly crossed the tracks and went down the other side of the embankment, through yet more dense bushes to the bottom and over a prickly barbed wire fence. On to the path that I needed to follow all the time, clearly evident when I stopped and looked properly. Looking back, this was really good evidence of some dodgy decision making, that frankly probably should have ended in tears. It was a 30 minute wake-up call for me though, as I had not stopped to consider my actions, but just thrown myself into what could have been some serious problems (not to mention, lost 30 minutes needlessly).
The next checkpoint was at campsite adjacent to Stratford upon Avon racecourse, and it was lovely to see the white racecourse rails appear in my head torch beam at about 11pm. This 4th checkpoint was a bit of a landmark for me, as it would be my first (of two) chances to have a shower. I had set my brain to see this point as the first ‘milestone’ to get to, and it felt great to be there.
At first I thought Lindley was a security guard about to throw me off site, as all I could see was his head torch in the distance heading for me. It was great to see him though, and I headed to the tents for some much needed rest. I decided to allow myself four hours sleep rather than the planned three, due to my rather dodgy decision-making suggesting I was rather more tired than I had realised.
At this stage I had arrived at the checkpoint about 5 hours behind John Stocker (he had already arrived and left the checkpoint), but 3 hours ahead of both Ellen and Jon Rowles, so I was not feeling any particular need to increase my pace or hurry up. I was slightly ahead of my plan, which meant I could afford the extra hour without jeopardising the buffer I was building over the cut-offs. More importantly, I knew that lack of sleep could result in a navigation error costing significant time so it was not a difficult decision to make. Also, the extra sleep would have me leaving the checkpoint at about 5 (I would sleep 11.30pm to 3.30am) and this would be just as the sun was coming up. I was finding that finishing a leg late, sleeping at night and then getting moving at first light was working really well for me, and was allowing me to settle into a rhythm that preserved some vaguely normal patterns.
My feet were still in decent shape, but the left big toe was continuing to swell and go a bit blacker each time I took my shoes off.
I had a lovely shower when I woke up, and washed my used socks on the floor of the shower, which I calculated would give me enough clean socks to allow me a clean pair for every leg. I should explain the socks I wear (Injinji) are pretty expensive, so I couldn’t just buy 14 pairs, one for each leg, hence the washing some halfway.
Actually when I asked Maxine to hang them from the same tree that everyone’s wet shoes were hanging from, she offered to wash them for me in the campsites washing machine (and dry them too!) which was a much better solution.
Note to the reader….everything so far I consider to be the ‘start’ of the run. The next part is the middle (naturally!)
Leg 5…..44 miles….started 05:00 Tue, arrived at CP5 approx 20:30 Tue…..(Mileage182-226)
After another really good breakfast of beans, sausage and potato, and tons of coffee, Maxine showed me the way from the campsite back to the route. I stopped to take some pictures of the racecourse in the early morning mist: it was beautiful.
Although I had started with my waterproof socks on, the start of the route today was a long straight gravel path, so after an hour I stopped to remove them as they were making my shoes too tight. I did a short video on Facebook, telling people how I was doing, and this became a bit of my usual routine as I started each leg.
I messaged a few people, and then made a fundamental error, probably one of the biggest of my whole race. It was simple really. As I messaged, I did a little mental maths, working out that I had covered about 180 miles, I would do about 45 today, so by tonight I would have covered 225 miles. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks – that even by tonight, I would still be a massive 80 miles short of halfway. I had been pushing very hard for what felt like a lifetime (actually, 4 days) and had survived on minimal sleep, and was still today’s leg & two more legs short of being even halfway.
It was 7am, and I suddenly found myself in the hardest mental battle I’d ever experienced in an ultra. Half of my brain was shouting that I couldn’t possibly carry on like this for days on end, and the other half was shouting (at equal volume) that I must not stop, no matter what happened. There is a difficult balance between “can’t” and “must” when they get stuck in your head, and it is fairly normal to have a bit of a wobble in an ultra (especially about halfway). But this was different, and put me in a very dark place for hours.
Unfortunately, at the same time, the route went from pleasant gravel to thick, crap, overgrown, soaking wet foliage.
I was in the well of despair, moving through some really rough terrain, and feeling like I wanted to murder someone. I was getting some great messages from the group of experienced ultra runners I had assembled on messenger and called ‘Bob’s running problems’.
I also got a call from Pam, an ultra-runner from my running club. She took a bit of a drubbing as I wobbled all over the phone call with her, but handled it really well, saying all the right things. She rather cleverly took the conversation away from running entirely, telling me all about that weekend Eurovision Song Contest, which certainly took my mind of my current worries!
I stopped at Chipping Camden for a mid-morning bacon sandwich and tea, but was still mentally off-the-rails. I couldn’t even take any satisfaction from being the smelliest person in the quite posh café.
I was travelling through Cotswold country, so the trails were quite well established and fairly busy with walkers, most of whom were tourists, either Americans or Chinese. It was quite humbling to see them taking time out to enjoy what most of us Brits just take for granted.
Still in the mental shit-zone, at about 11am I caught up with two American ladies, walking quite slowly compared to me, but I followed them for a few minutes before they realised I was there, listening to them talk. We all came to a gate beyond which was a herd of big cows, all gathered at the gate. The ladies didn’t know what to do and to be fair neither did I, but I felt it was my duty to pretend that I knew what I was doing, and proceeded to tell them to wait while I opened the gate and gently eased the cows away from the gate. Hopefully sounding a lot more confident than I felt, I got the ladies to follow me as I went through the herd, and surprisingly the cows didn’t attack but gave us a decent bit of room to manoeuvre. Once through the herd the ladies thanked me and I went on ahead, only realising 5 minutes later that my mood had completed changed, and my previous desperately wobbly mind-set had been replaced with a more familiar ‘everything is lovely’ and ‘I am OK’ attitude. It was a revelation, and I’m happy to say that I never revisited that terrible dark place I had spent the last few hours in.
In other news, having spent the previous leg mainly eating, my digestive system went into overdrive and I won’t tell you how many times I had to go to the toilet…but it was a lot. On the positive side, being in the countryside it was easy to find a quiet secluded space to dig a hole and do my business.
I stopped at about lunchtime to have a rest on a bench and air my feet. I had decided that sweaty, soggy feet would lead to trouble, so I would stop and air my feet whenever reasonable. I’m sure the surrounding houses did not mind me making myself at home on their bench and letting my socks dry out. I had a bit of a chat with my wife, and a short nap, and then got on my way.
I came to a market town, and was surprised at how I felt suddenly being surrounded by crowds of people, having been pretty much on my own for days. It didn’t stop me from going into the local Co-op to buy food and drinks though.
I was finding that the 15g on sugar in a can of fizzy drink (usually Fanta) would give me a huge boost for a few hours, and did not result too much of a ‘low’ when the sugar was gone. Plus, the weather was really quite warm and it was a simple way to stay hydrated.
In late afternoon I came to Boughton-on-the-Water, a quite-famous Cotswold town that I had visited once before when my kids were young. It was full of tourists, and very picturesque, so I took the opportunity to sit at an outside table eating fish and chips, and enjoying the surroundings.
In my dirty hiking clothes, and haggard state, I must have looked a mess!
The rest of the day was spent travelling through some really lovely countryside, and I was in a positive mood to appreciate it, I took loads of pictures.
Although I’d been on the go for days, I still look back on this as being the ‘easy first stages’ where all I needed to do was keep moving and eating – nothing else was causing a problem.
The next checkpoint was at Chedworth, a roman villa (so I was told). All I cared about was that I could stop and rest there and I found the last few miles seemed to take ages to pass. I arrived after travelling along what felt like the longest road ever, but it was a great feeling to see Lindley big truck appear in the distance. As I got there, John Stocker was having his feet seen to by Maxine, which was a pleasant surprise as I had missed him completely at the last checkpoint – I had caught him up slightly!
In fact, I arrived at 20:30 (Tue) and he had arrived at 16:30, so I was still four hours behind him, but it was nice to actually see him, rather than be told he had just left the checkpoint. I quickly got my shoes and socks off, to give my feet maximum chance to dry out, and had a bit of a chat with him, Maxine and Lindley. We had a bit of banter than maybe I should forego sleep at this checkpoint and carry straight on with John, to make a bit of a race of it.
There was also a bit of banter about how often I was stopping to eat (pretty much every 4 hours) and how John was surviving on mainly just the food at checkpoints. These made me feel great…
John soon left though, and I got to the serious business of sorting myself out and getting some sleep. I had achieved the buffer I wanted over the last few checkpoints, and could now choose to get some extra sleep to recover my lack of sleep. I had had a total of 7 hours sleep since Saturday morning (it was now Tuesday evening) and had covered about 220 miles. I was going to reward myself with a massive 6 hours sleep (9pm to 3am) and then get moving with first light at about 5am.
Again, when I was in my sleeping bag I took stock of my body. I was generally in good shape. My body was fine, although I was developing some raw patches on my shoulders where my pack was making its presence felt. My back was also beginning to suffer a bit, with the lack of rest and the weight of my pack I carried everywhere. These were quite minor however to my feet, which were just starting to suffer. I had a couple of minor blisters on my toes, and my left big toe continued to swell and blacken. The nail was visibly raised with the pus developing underneath.
It wasn’t hurting much, unless I accidentally kicked a tree root or something, in which case it hurt massively. The soles of my feet were starting to feel a bit bruised and sore underneath…..nothing to stop me walking on them, but definitely some discomfort there. Overall, I was OK but I look back and can see the beginning signs of the eventual deterioration starting here.
I also made a big learning here, in that I didn’t sort my kit ready for the next morning before going to sleep. Do you remember when your mum used to tell you to get your school bag ready the night before? And you never did? Which meant the following morning was a stress-filled rush? Well, I learnt the following morning that the worst way to start the day was to have to search through bags looking for clean socks and new charging block or batteries. That was the last time I went to sleep without getting everything sorted the night before…my mother would be very proud!
Leg 6…..46 miles….started 04:45 Wed, arrived at CP6 approx 19:20 Wed….(Mileage 226-272)
I begun the day with bowls of pasta (Lindley’s own concoction, but very tasty if you’re a bit of a pasta fiend, like I am), with lots of coffee. Again, I felt really strong when I started, and made really good progress until I hit a field full of the cutest calves I have ever seen. I have said that I was previously quite wary of cows previously, due to their habit of trampling people, but I think these calves were the start of my developing love affair with beautiful cows. I stopped for far too long taking pictures.
Despite the stops for pictures, I made good time to Colchester where I stopped for more coffee and a bacon sandwich in Subway.
It was nice and cool in the morning, and I was enjoying the surroundings. The weather was looking like being hot in the afternoon so I was trying to get as far as possible before the heat sapped my energy. I stopped for a rest and to air my feet, finding that I was getting slightly obsessed with checking the swelling on the left big toe (and taking a picture of it!) It started to get hot from about 11am, and I felt myself slow as the temperature went up, but I had made good time through the cool morning so I was not too worried.
Lunch was two massive tuna and cheese panini’s, that I ate sitting outside a café with my shoes off. When they arrived, I could tell the lady didn’t think I had a chance of eating both, so I made myself feel slightly sick forcing them down. They were massive and very very cheesy though.
Most of my meals I was washing down with as much tea as I could drink, and this seemed to be giving me the calories and liquid that I needed.
I stopped again about 3pm, removing my shoes and socks to check on the state of my feet. I was starting to get a bit more pain from the soles of my feet, which was slightly concerning, and I started taking the occasional painkiller just to take the edge off.
I entered a field with a huge herd of cows in the far distance, which were all jam-packed around the gate in the corner that my route took me through. There must have been well over 100 cows, and I could not work out why they were all so fixated on this particular corner, until I saw a farmer (in his Toyota truck) herding them all in that direction. As I was watching him work, once he was happy the cows were in the right place he forced his way through to open the gate, and the cows happily set off along the track towards some distant farm buildings.
He followed them in his truck, and I walked alongside him. It was quite bizarre, seeing this track filled with cows, presumably going to be milked as their udders were all looking very full, and me walking along behind them. A very odd experience.
As the afternoon wore on, it seemed to get hotter and hotter. I resolved to put sun cream on for the next day if it looked like being hot again. The only exposed bit of skin that was getting burnt was the tops of my thumbs (where my hands wee angled upwards holding my poles) and the back of my neck. I was wearing a long sleeved top which protected my arms (but made it a bit sweaty!) and long trousers (even sweatier!) and a peaked cap shading my face, so I was not in too much danger of getting burnt.
The next checkpoint would be at a pub, which meant that arriving during opening hours would guarantee a pub-meal – quite an incentive! Similar to the last checkpoint, the last few miles seemed to drag terribly, and my feet raised their discomfort level from a mild grumble to a noisy chorus of ‘we want to rest!’ This would become the “last few miles” routine unfortunately.
My natural stubbornness raised its head however, and I pushed on to the checkpoint, taking the opportunity occasionally to look a the tracker on my phone that showed more accurately how far I still had to go. I would begin to do this more and more as the race developed, even though I knew how little it helped me as the distance never seemed to move as much as I wanted it to.
Getting to the checkpoint at last was great, especially as it was only about 19:20 (Wed) so I would have loads of time for a meal at the pub. Like the last checkpoint, John Stocker was still there, but had only just come out of his tent after 3 hours sleep, so again, I had caught up with him slightly. He was feeling quite groggy still, as he was clearly pushing himself hard, and was noticeably less chirpy than when I’d seen him at the last checkpoint.
I got my shoes and socks off, and showed my left big toenail to Lindley, who declared it fit for draining (having filled with pus enough to be ready to pop!).
Surprisingly gently, Lindley sorted it out, and sat back declaring that it looked pretty much back to normal – which it did! He did discuss with me the option of removing the toenail altogether, but decided that it was too firmly fixed in place to do that easily – phew! Lindley also said that Vic, right at the back of the field, was still moving but slowly, and in fact she dropped out that night, after a really strong effort (and some massive 220 miles!)
All of the surgery took place really quite quickly, probably only 20 minutes, and I quickly then got into the pub for 3 pints of cold milk (wow- they tasted great) and fish and chips. Having the chance to sit and reflect on the day was great, and it was a shame that I did not get the opportunity to do do this very often. I posted my progress on Facebook, and also messaged “Bob’s running problems” my messenger group of experienced ultra-runners as my legs weren’t feeling right. They were sore (which was to be expected) but also twitching and feeling odd in way I wasn’t used to. They came back with a number useful ideas (which may seem obvious now, but certainly didn’t then in my addled mind) including sleeping in compression tights to ease the swelling, and elevating my legs to drain them. I was also harangued into taking some s-caps (electrolyte-replacement tablets) to sort me out after a day of sweating. Lots of quick useful ideas, just what I needed.
I had a really bad night’s sleep however, experiencing horrible night sweats and generally tossing and turning for the whole 6 hours I allowed myself. On the positive side, my legs felt great when I woke up, so something had clearly worked.
I had arrived at the checkpoint at about 19:20 (Wed), about 3 hours being John Stocker who’d arrived at 15:11, and ahead of Jon Rowles (21:10) and Ellen (01:18 Thu). I slept 21:30 to 03:30, and was pleasantly surprised to be up at the same time as Jon Rowles. It was great to see a friendly face at breakfast! We had a bit of a joke with Maxine while she sorted out and taped our feet, simultaneously feeding us pasta and coffee somehow. We chatted about the next two legs (8 & 9) which were both over 50 miles – these were likely to ‘make or break’ our race due to the distance and the terrain – and what our hopes were for them. I was quite clear that I just wanted to maintain my current reasonable pace, but most importantly, maintain my travelling in the light and sleeping at night regime, as it was working so well for me. It seemed so easy then…
We left together at about 04:30, in good spirits.
Leg 7…..43 miles….started 04:30 Thu, arrived at CP7 approx 18:32 Thu (Mileage 272-315)
Although it would have been nice to stick together, we were clearly going at different paces, and I’ve learned that travelling as a pair generally means travelling at the pace of the slowest person, so it didn’t take long for me to move on ahead, although I looked forward to him catching me up.
It was just about light, and as today was a relatively short leg, I was keen to get it done and sleep so that I could make a really early start the following morning. I found myself hurrying for the first time, feeling under pressure to push hard. My waterproof socks worked well keeping my feet fairly dry against the dew, and I stopped after a few hours to pin them to the back of my pack to allow them to dry out. I was heading towards Bristol, but could not find anywhere to eat after a few hours…one of the problems of leaving so early was that nowhere was open at 8am along the river I was following. I was feeling pretty cheerful, but even asking other people on the river where I could get something to eat did not make an open pub magically appear. I recorded my usual Facebook video (this time, with added barking Chihuahuas in the background) but I think I allowed my hunger to show through a bit!
Thankfully, an hour later, I was presented with the magical sight of “Joey’s Magic Rolls” and had two massive burgers and teas.
They certainly did the trick! Although it was early in the day, I was starting to feel a bit of pain under my feet already, and that would mean for an uncomfortably long day.
With a fuller stomach, Bristol arrived quickly, and again I felt very out of place in the bustling streets. I rather liked the route I walked though, it seemed pleasantly clean and friendly (and lots of burger vans!). Although I looked like a homeless tramp (and probably smelt like it too) I did not get as many funny looks as I expected, but perhaps I was not looking around much.
Going across a bridge, I became aware of a bloke on a bike stopped next to me, talking. My headphones generally allow me to hear what’s going on round me, but I was not really paying attention so it too k me a minute to realise he was talking to me. Angus had stalked me using the tracker, and had gone to the trouble of tracking me down in the centre of Bristol – no mean feat in the busy streets (although, now I think of it, perhaps I did stand out a bit?).
We had a very brief chat, and he said he had also caught up with Jon Rowles behind me, who had also stopped at Joeys Magic Burger van. Sensible man!
Angus also warned me that there probably was not too many more placed to get food further ahead in Bristol, and I knew that the leg ahead was going to be a challenge as there were no towns or shops for miles. I stopped at the last café and bought two massive BLT baguettes to take with me for an afternoon snack – I didn’t realise how heavy they would be! I slowly left Bristol behind, pausing to take a picture of a bridge I passed underneath…possibly some bridge I should have heard of?
The afternoon was spent in deep countryside, absolutely beautiful.
I stopped for a picnic in the centre of a massive field, which was under the flight path of (I assume) Bristol airport, as planes went overhead every few minutes. I could not eat all of the two massive baguettes, but I was happy to ge the damn things out of my pack just to save the weight. I was really conscious that although I had eaten quite a lot, both the burgers from the morning and the baguettes were mainly stodgy white bread, and hence not great calories for the future efforts…I could have really done with a hot pub meal to give me some energy.
I got to the next checkpoint at about 18:30 (Thu), having endured some massive hills for the last 2 or 3 hours. Although it’s great to get to the top and take a picture, and I was still feeling quite energetic going up the hills, I was struggling with the downhill’s, as the soles of my feet were taking the brunt of the force as I used them to break my momentum going downhill. My heels, which are what I would usually use to slow myself down, were so bruised it hurt too much to use them, and so my only option was to use the friction of the soles of my feet on the inside of my shoes. What had been discomfort as few days ago was turning into something a little more significant, and the hills were definitely not helping.
I had a slightly hairy experience getting through a small herd of cows that were happily feeding until I had to sneak through them and climb over their gate. I stopped (on the other side of the gate) to take a picture and looking back I can see the expression on the face of the brown one with horns…he wasn’t pleased!
However, despite all this, the next checkpoint was at the top of a huge hill, and the views were spectacular. Even better, this checkpoint had a shower available too, although, interestingly, I was significantly less fussed about having a shower as I had been at the first shower. In fact, I was getting quite used to being a bit dirty and smelly, which was just as well as this (checkpoint 8) would be the last shower before the finish line at checkpoint 14.
Getting into the checkpoint, I was surprised to see John Stocker still in his tent, although he poked his head out when he heard me arrive. Maxine had insisted he have at least 5 hours sleep, as he was still pushing himself really hard, and that seemed to have done him some good as he was eager to get going.
We had a bit of a chat about progress, with Lindley chipping in, and John made the inspiring comment “I don’t want to be rude Bob, but could you speed up a bit?” suggesting that he would find it more challenging if I were chasing him down a bit. I took the opportunity to say I had absolutely no chance of going any quicker, but it was frankly quite flattering to share a bit of a joke with someone of his calibre.
Unfortunately, if I chose to go any quicker (which I’m pretty sure I did not have within me) I suspect John would have simply pushed himself harder and leave me behind…it was a pointless exercise.
I had a shower in what looked like a hut from the outside, but was in fact unexpectedly posh on the inside (all mirrors, glass and shiny chrome), and got myself to sleep as quickly as I could. The next two legs were the long over-50 mile sections, which I would need to absolutely nail if I was to maintain my current ‘travel-by-day and sleep-at-night’ regime.
I treated myself 6 hours of lovely sleep again, 20:30 (Thu) to 02:30, and felt refreshed again when I woke. That was three good 6 hour sleeps in a row and I was pretty much caught up from my lack of sleep in the first four legs. My buffer was still in place and although I was feeling some pain, especially in my feet, I was still in good place mentally (which was where it mattered).
That was the middle stage, it passed quite quickly and I have pleasant memories of it. I’ve got very few pleasant memories after here…
Leg 8…..53 miles….started 03:30am Fri, arrived at CP8 approx 00:50 Sat….(Mileage 315-368)
Yes, that’s right…nearly 22 hours to do this stage. This is where the wheels start to come off.
Breakfast consisted of loads of pasta again, coffee and feet being taped up by Maxine again. She had started putting something called ‘fleecy web’ on the balls of my feet which gave me some additional padding and eased some of the discomfort. Lindley reckoned I was experiencing something called ‘shearing’ where simply the layers on the sole of the foot were not sticking together but sliding against each other (as you might expect after being on my feet for days) and that would explain the extra pain I was feeling when using my soles to brake when descending a hill. Ouchy!
Jon Rowles had arrived at the checkpoint just an hour after me, and in fact left the checkpoint about 15 minutes before me. Ellen arrived just after midnight. All three of us were quite consistent in our times and were roughly moving at the same pace. Peter, the Swedish joker was moving slowly right at the back of the field, but was still moving within the cut-offs.
The day started well, with the early 3.30am start allowing me to get some miles in before the sun came up, a good boost to morale. No matter what time I finished, at least I was making the most of the daylight. If I kept up a decent 3mph (including stops for food) which I had been managing easily on the previous legs, I would finish in about 17.5 hours (i.e. about 10pm) which would give me time to sleep and get ready for the next day. It was all planned!
I was happy to disturb some more cows to get a nice picture of the sunrise, and then some more that were particularly inquisitive / predatory.
I came to a gate at the top of a hill, blocked (again) by herd that seems a bit excitable and interested in me. I wasn’t particularly eager to launch myself into their midst, but I didn’t really have much choice, so I got within them…and of course they all scattered, only to slowly come back and investigate.
That is probably the point that I started to understand them a bit more, it is in their nature to be inquisitive, and perhaps the whole trampling thing only happens when (I believe) there are mothers with calves.
I have to say the view from the top of the hill, cows or no cows, was extraordinary.
One of the things I was looking forward to was to go through Wookey Hole, again a place I’d visited before. Unfortunately, the only interesting thing was a crazy golf course (pirate theme, if you’re interested) that I was not expecting at all, and did not remember. I had hoped for some shops but unfortunately as it was 6am when I got there I had no chance of any food.
Not a problem I thought, the next decent town was Wells, which I would be at in an hour, so I’d be able to get something there. Interesting fact, Wells is the smallest city in the UK, due to it having a cathedral but bugger all else. After I took the wrong way round the cathedral (imagine doing three sides of a square, instead of the single one closest to you), I then had to backtrack into the centre to find somewhere to eat. Luckily, I found a Greggs that opened at 7am, exactly when I arrived…so I cleaned them out of their hot pasties and a big cup of tea. A good way to start the day again!
I passed through a herd of sheep that happily followed me from the start of their field to the end, baa’ing all the way (I felt like the pied-piper of sheep). I passed a small airfield that had a plane, all ready for me to use to break all the records for finishing the Monarchs way in a week!
I pushed on, still very conscious of the need for speed on this leg! I came to a railway station at Castle Cray at lunchtime, as I was starting to feel hungry and tired, and was absolutely gutted to find quite a few people, but absolutely no where to eat. There was a burger van, but it was closed, and I had to ask a taxi driver how far to the nearest café. He was happy to tell me that if I carried on the direction I was going I would hit the town of Castle Cray, which had shops and café galore! Fantastic!!!!
I trotted off, checking my maps, phone and GPS furiously to make sure I would not bypass the town, something the route tended to do (as the route was based on Charles II avoiding various armies, he obviously was wary of getting too close to towns and villages). It looked like this would be the exception though, as the route went straight through the middle.
The market square at Castle Cray is a lovely place, and has a number of cafés to choose from, all with tables outside. My criteria for choosing which to stop at was quite simple – I stopped at the first one I came to – went in and was confronted by racks of organic wine and home-made things. At that stage I wasn’t fussed, and went down the menu to the first thing that didn’t had salad in the title…and ended up with a ploughman’s, and added a few home-made sausage rolls, and lots of tea. I’m not sure the lady that served me really knew what to make of me, but said she’d bring it out. I promptly sat outside and took my shoes off – ah bliss.
The lady came out with my tea, and then my ploughman’s…not what I expected at all….it was a posh cheese / bread extravaganza, and absolutely marvellous. Once again, I was feeling full and energetic by the time I finished. The tracker was showing Jon Rowles catching me up rapidly (as I was sitting in a café) so I slowly got my shoes back on and my kit together as he came round the corner.
Once again, it was great to see him, and I suggested he sit and partake in the surely the poshest café in Castle Cray. He was more interested in going into the little Co-op that was round the corner, so I bid him farewell and carried on my merry way.
I was moving well through the afternoon, using a few painkillers to take the edge off my feet hurting, but I had a lovely long conversation with my wife and kids that gave me a real lift. I was moving at the right pace I wanted to, and at 6pm decided to stop at another pub for the fastest scampi and chips (and 2 pints of milk) of the whole race. I reckon I was in and out in 20 minutes.
A little later, at about 7.30pm, I was caught up with by another internet stalker, Barry, who walked and chatted with me for a good 15 minutes. He worked at a local airbase, and did a bit of running himself….obviously I told him he must enter this race next year, but perhaps that would be a bit of a step up – I think his next race was a Jurassic Coast 100k though, so that would be pretty challenging (but perhaps not 600 miles!)
He was good company, but we reached a large field filled with a massive herd of (in my opinion) fairly twitchy cows, a lot of who had calves with them. With us in the field they all gathered around the gate in the far corner, and I suggested he go back to his car as it didn’t look particularly inviting. I spent a full 20 minutes walking the longest route round the field to reach the gate without having to go through the middle of the herd. As it was, I still had to pass far closer to them than I wanted, and they absolutely did not move out of my way like all the other cows had done…they were making sure I didn’t get to close to the calves. I was properly unnerved. However, I reached the gate, and basically threw myself over it, telling myself I was OK. It was bad enough that i didn’t even take a picture of them afterwards, to prove I survived!
For some reason, following that field was a field with two massive bulls in, which I’m thankful to say stayed way over on their side of the field, while I gently trotted along my side of the field. Over that gate, and into another field, filled with undoubtedly the most inquisitive cows I’d met yet. They basically chased / followed me at a distance of a metre all the way to the other side of their field. I moved reasonably quickly (obviously not running), but found that I had to stop and turn round every 5 metres to make them back off before they would close in again. Looking back, it was not that bad, but at the time I was feeling particularly hunted.
The sun started to go down, and I was startled to find I was nearing 48 miles distance, but the tracker on the internet showed me having miles to go yet…as much as 5 or 6 miles which would add two or three hours to my finish time. This was quite serious, as instead of finishing at a sensible 10pm, and sleeping before setting off at first light again, I was looking to finish nearer to midnight. It looked like I wasn’t going to get much sleep tonight!
I stopped about 10pm, having covered 52 miles, for a sit-down and a think. The tracker still showed me having miles to go, and I was tired and needed to eat. I messaged Jon and Ellen, both of whom were behind me, to say the mileage on this leg was clearly going to be nearer 56, and to get something to eat if they were passing a pub as they would be out for a few hours yet!
At the same time I messaged a few people, whinging that the mileage was clearly going to be much further…they quite rightly told me to get on with it! I ate the last of my food and did that!
I won’t go into too much detail about the rest of the night, but my final mileage for that leg was slightly over 60 miles and while my pace was as good as I could have hoped (2.9 mph for the whole 60 miles, including stops) I was absolutely buggered by the end, at 00:50 Saturday morning. My feet were proper hurting for those last 3 hours, and I was very very conscious that in order to make the most of daylight for the next leg I was going to have minimal sleep. Dammit. I sorted my kit ready for the morning, thanking my lucky stars that I had eaten that speedy scampi as I hadn’t needed to eat when I got into checkpoint, but could get straight to sleep.
Leg 9…..52 miles….started 05:00 Sat, arrived at CP9 approx 02:10 Sun….(Mileage 368-420)
I slept 1:30am to 04:00, a measly 2.5 hours, when I could have happily used 6. Jon Stocker had arrived at the checkpoint at 23:00, compared to my 01:00, and was sleeping when I came in. Jon Rowles was about 90 minutes after me, and Ellen (with her experience showing) took the leg much more slowly, sleeping on the trail, arriving at 10:00am Saturday. Although she spent a long time on this leg, she made up the time lag massively over the following legs. Sometimes, it’s not about ‘haste’, but about ‘pace’.
I had my usual big breakfast of pasta and coffee, but I could feel I was tired today. I put extra warm clothes into my pack, as I expected to be moving more slowly, and I fully expected to be out for another 60 miles (if the route was longer, like the previous leg.)
I left the checkpoint 2 hours behind John Stocker. Jon Rowles would be leaving about an hour behind me. This leg would be a real test to see whether we could all keep moving and manage our tiredness.
Maxine taped up my feet again, and I was almost looking forward to getting them into my shoes which would force them to numb, easing the pain. Not a good sign.
I was getting lots of positive messages from my running mates and the ‘Bobs running problems’ group. Much of it being “just get it done” but it helped that they knew what I was going through.
There was going to be minimal places to eat on this leg, so it was important to make use of every shop or village I came across. Despite leaving with a good breakfast, into some lovely misty fields, I was getting very hungry by the time I got to a place called Hawkchurch at about 10am. I knew it was a small village, but reasoned that it would have a shop (or something). Sitting on a church wall, opposite the closed pub, it didn’t look hopeful, but with the magic of Google, I found there was a community shop just round the corner. In fact, it was a porta-cabin, staffed by volunteers, who were fabulously helpful when they realised the state I was in, getting me a chair outside to sit in to eat my weight in pasties, with my shoes off as usual.
After eating as much as I could, I shopped again and filled my flask with coffee and my pack with the last of the shops pasties (one of which I carried for days, relying on it to be my emergency pasty if I ran out of food again.)
Although I should have done better with a full stomach, I was moving too slowly after the shop. I was heading for the coast and was looking forward to seeing the sea but I was tired, both physically and mentally, and the miles were slow going. I started to have little rests every few hours, which were gratefully received, but all added to the time.
From the tracker, I could see John Stocker had reached the coast, and seemed to be speeding along it, and Jon Rowles was behind me, putting pressure on me to keep moving, but I was tired and really only going through the motions……I had very little to offer than a slow shuffle. Interestingly, talking to them both afterwards, they felt exactly the same, that I was moving really well while they were slow. I think the reality was that we were all suffering quite badly that day.
I got to the coast somehow, and was charmed by Charmouth. It was a little seaside town, although I only saw a few shops and car parks full of families at the beach, with it being the first Saturday of half term and a bank holiday weekend. It felt really strange seeing all these people going about their daily lives, while I felt like I’d been on the moon (or at least, in the deepest countryside) for a little over a week. I treated myself to an ice cream, and a can of something fizzy, and also packed a can for later.
I had not realised that the coastal stretch, about 4 -5 miles, was some of the hilliest we would encounter, going up and down to some fabulous views. There were quite a few walkers, and the cool sea breeze helped me keep pace with them in the sunshine. At the top of the biggest cliff I sat down and had the can of fizzy for the sugar which helped me push on through the last few climbs. To be fair, I’ve trained on similar cliffs at Folkestone for hilly races, so it was quite a pleasant diversion to simply go up and down for a few miles.
At the end of the coastal stretch is a town of West Bay, which was also packed with holiday-makers. I got some tea from a café, but didn’t feel like stopping to eat (big mistake) and carried on the trail. The route from the coast predictably was quite hilly, and my feet were complaining as I descended the hills again.
As darkness fell I started to see arrows for a local running race that was perhaps being held the next day. It followed some of the same route that I was doing, and it made a nice change to have some massive arrows pointing my way.
Every so often I would look behind me, expecting to see the head torch of Jon Rowles catching me up, but apart from a couple of flashes I could not make him out. I was stopped by a police car in a village, asking what on earth I was doing here at midnight. We had a good chat actually, and I warned them that they would probably see another runner about 15 minutes behind me. They were happy that I wasn’t some random burglar, and that I was well lit up for cars on the road, and let me go on my way.
I seemed to be nearing the checkpoint at about 01:00, having been on the move since 04:00 the previous day, and was tired and pretty pissed off. I could see the route basically followed the road I was on all the way to the checkpoint, and so I stopped checking my GPS too much and just slogged on for the last few miles. However, near the checkpoint there was a right hand turn, back into the forest, for what looked like a 20 minute diversion through a gully and then back to the road. In my sleep-deprived state, pissed off and shattered, I took the rather dubious decision to miss this out and just carry on the road. I was fully aware of what I was doing, but clearly should not have done it as it was basically taking a short cut.
Maxine met me on the road a few minutes later, and remarked that I hadn’t done the last bit into the forest. In my defence, I didn’t try and hide it, but said that I was buggered, and I would take whatever penalty Lindley felt was appropriate for my short-cut. I was not in a happy place at all.
I got into checkpoint at 02:10 Sunday, having been out for almost 24 hours to do a measly 52 mile leg. I was so tired, I hardly had the energy to eat, but I tried my best, and posted this to Facebook. I was really not sure I would be carrying on after my sleep.
I had some serious blisters on the sides of my heels (no idea why) that did not look great, but all I wanted to do was sleep.
I allowed myself 5 hours, probably not enough to get me back to normal, but it was a good start. However, I struggled to sleep deeply as every time I turned over my feet would wake me up. When I surfaced at 08:30, Lindley came over to talk about what I’d done the previous night, and said he would be giving me a time penalty of 1 hour. To be fair to him, I thought that was quite a reasonable choice of penalty, and happily agreed. Someone asked me later what I would have done if he had disqualified me for it (which he would have been quite entitled to do), which I didn’t really have an answer for!
Lindley also gave me a bit of a morale-lifting talking to, as I was fairly down-beat about the shape my feet were in, my tiredness and in fact the deterioration I was experiencing being worse than in any ultra I’ve ever done (and I still had days to go!) He did a good job of explaining that everyone was in the same kind of shape, all deteriorating quickly, and that I only had to keep moving to get to the finish line…it sounded easy. He also gave me the confidence that I had built up my buffer against the cut-offs enough, so I could afford to lose time each leg and still make the finish line with time to spare…all I had to do was keep going. Jon Rowles also got a similar talking to, and was equally surprised that everyone else was feeling like he was. It was quite bizarre.
Bruce, one of the helpers, taped up my feet this morning, rather than Maxine, but rather disconcertingly kept showing Lindley particularly choice raw patches, whereas Maxine had always done it without commenting on what she was finding. Having Bruce and Lindley commenting on my feet was probably not what my brain needed at that point, especially mentioning antibiotics to prevent infection.
Also, I had to stop wearing my decent Injinji toe socks, which I wore with another pair over the top to prevent blisters, as I had so much tape on my feet my shoes were becoming too tight. I was left wearing some standard running socks, which although good, did not give my feet the protection I am used to.
Leg 10…..38 miles….started 10:40 Sun, arrived at CP10 approx 01:20 Mon….(Mileage 420-458)
Did I mention my stubbornness? I thought so.
My train of thought was simple: I was about to start leg 10, which meant I had 5 more legs (including this one) to get to the finish line.
The longest that would take was 5 days.
And I could put up with any amount of discomfort for 5 days, couldn’t I? I could keep moving and eating and getting a bit of sleep, and basically hold out against the trouble my feet were putting me through for just 5 days. It was as simple as that.
I’m not sure, looking back, that I really understood what those days would be like, but I was happy to gloss over the details and just fix on the 5 legs that remained. In fact, as I write this, with the benefit of hindsight, I absolutely would not repeat that decision…they were dreadful.
So off I went.
Jon Rowles, who had arrived a the checkpoint an hour after me, at 03:00am (Sun) left the checkpoint an hour ahead of me (about 09:40) which may give an indication to my state of mind. Ellen arrived in to the checkpoint at 18:50, again taking a measured approach to this very long leg.
This leg was the start of my blatant abuse of painkillers too, to try to quieten my feet down. I worked out as I started that I would only take them every 5 hours, which would spread them across the day as far as possible. As the leg was only 38 miles I hoped that I should be able to maintain my 3 mph pace and get it done within about 12 hours, getting me to checkpoint for 11pm and a good sleep before starting at first light – helping maintain that vital sleeping at night regime. The problem was that I just couldn’t maintain that pace at all, whether the pain from my feet, physical tiredness or just mentally finished. I was only travelling at 2mph across some areas, and that was much too slow to finish when I wanted.
I passed through Yeovil Country Park, which was beautiful, and at 3pm then hit the town centre which placed a Beefeater restaurant in front of me rather conveniently.
I was looking more tramp-like every day, so they didn’t argue with me when I asked to go in a corner away from all the families eating. This also gave me the chance to get my shoes off for a bit. Two pints of milk and fish and chips (yet again) got me back to feeling relatively normal.
Unfortunately the terrain got worse through the later stages, becoming that jungle of shrubbery I mentioned at the start. I was well protected against it, so there was no real problem, but it was dispiriting having to push through bushes rather than having a pleasant view and a clear path.
I was still getting calls from a couple of running friends, Mark & John, each day, and I was happy to whinge to them about pretty much everything. They both cautioned me against taking too many painkillers, absolutely rightly, but the alternative was just too grim to imagine so I carried on popping.
As it got dark it was clear I was not achieving my hoped-for 3 mph, and hence would not be finishing before midnight. This would mean that I was going to have to choose between a longer sleep, which I dearly wanted, but then travelling later in the day and into the following night (dark, slow, depressing) or I could have a shorter sleep, leave at first-light and resume my travel at daytime, sleep at night routine. It was a real problem for me.
I stopped to take a picture of the oldest most-broken wooden bridge I have ever seen, which I then had to go over. So I suppose I must have still had a sense of humour at that point…
At the last big town before the checkpoint, Wincanton, I met up with Jon Rowles at about 10pm who had just stopped for something to eat and we agreed to walk into the checkpoint together. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have eaten here too, as I last ate at the Beefeater at 3pm, but it seemed sensible to make top speed (!) for the checkpoint to get some much needed sleep. There was some light rain for the last couple of hours which was no a problem, but meant that shoes and socks were soaked when we finally reached the checkpoint.
On the positive side, the checkpoint was one of two indoor checkpoints (the other was cp1) so it was a bit of a treat to have toilets, lights, warmth and a kitchen to play with! It was a scout hut (I think) so just one large room, with the kitchen on a little corridor on one side. Jon Stocker was already asleep in the large room, and unfortunately I’m sure we must have woken him up as we clattered in and sorted our kit. Maxine cooked a pizza for me, but I had really lost my appetite and it didn’t really go down very well. I just wanted to sleep.
Leg 11…..46miles….started 07:30 Mon, arrived at C11 approx 06:20 Tue….(Mileage 458-504)
I would love to say I slept really well for hours, but unfortunately I found the hard floor (even with a little mattress) really uncomfortable compared to the soft ground I’d spent my last 10 sleeps on. I also missed enclosure of the tent I was used to, and having 4 of us in the large room meant there was always someone snoring or farting. Coupled with that, I literally could not move my feet without them flaring in pain and waking me up, which was a horrible way to spend the night.
I allowed myself 4 hours sleep (02:00 to 06:00) but did not feel rested at all when I woke up. My usual multiple coffees did not wake me up either, and the breakfast of beans with grated cheese was not going to give me the required energy for a long 46 mile leg. Maxine taped my feet as usual, and could not see anything different on the soles of my feet, despite it feeling like I was walking on broken glass (I told her).
I had arrived at the checkpoint with Jon Rowles at 01:20 Monday, John Stocker had arrived at 21:40 the previous night. Ellen was still quite a way behind at this stage, arriving at 17:45 Monday afternoon, but again she had paced the leg really well, allowing herself to sleep and eat throughout. Peter was still bringing up the rear, moving slowly and spending most of his sleeping time on the trail, but was still just within the cut-offs (he was having various adventures, being invited in for breakfast by a family when he stopped to sort his kit outside their house!)
I had a fairly long leg ahead of me, and knew that I needed some fuel (and more coffee) to have any chance to maintain a good pace (that magic 3 mph was still the pace I needed) so I stopped in the first village I came to, a rather odd village called Mere, and I waited for 15 minutes for a café to open at 9am. It was bank holiday Monday, and I counted myself lucky to find somewhere open at that time of the morning. The rather grump bloke told me I could sit where I wanted as he probably would not be very busy today, so I made myself comfortable while ordering tea and a massive full English breakfast. It was designed to lift my spirits and get me moving!
Maxine had told Jon Rowles and I about the forthcoming leg, and how it had sections of roman road that were lovely. Unfortunately, by the time I got to it, it was just a bloody long overgrown straight path, and I spent a very grumpy few hours trudging along it, feeling like I was getting nowhere. I had resolved not to take as many painkillers today, so I suffered without any relief for most of the day, to allow myself time to clear the multitude from yesterday from my system. It was the right thing to do, but made the day totally miserable.
I was still tired however, and allowed myself a few quick naps on the trail to recharge my batteries. I became a bit of an expert at spotting flat stone-less stretches on the trail, or patches of grass that did not have any nettles or bumps where I could lie down for 10 minutes and close my eyes. It was bliss until I had to get up and moving again.
After a long rubbish day, consciously moving much too slowly, I got a call from a couple of friends Jon & Jo who wanted to meet up with me and say hello as they had spent the day visiting their daughter in Southampton. It sounded like a wonderful idea to see some friendly faces, and this cheered me up enormously, giving me something to look forward to. At my current snail-like pace, I would not be finished this leg until well in to the night, so there was not much happiness in my life at that stage.
Sure enough, about 8pm, I was presented with Jon and Jo on the road in front of me, and bless them, they got me sorted! It was brilliant to have someone talk to for a change, and I actually had something hot to eat (which I had been needing, without realising) and got ready for the night stretch. I treated myself to some painkillers, having gone without for 12 hours, and had a little sleep for 30 minutes too. They both really recharged my efforts, and with the painkillers quieting my feet for a while I made good progress back on the trail. They had turned a miserable day into a much better experience!
It had drizzled gently all day, without any particular force, but at 10pm it started raining properly so I stopped and put on my heavy waterproof coat and trousers. I’m quite comfortable moving in poor weather, having done a few races in January, so a bit of rain in May was nothing to me! At midnight I came across a usefully located shed, that I ducked into for something to eat and drink from my pack (and more painkillers). It was quite cozy in there, and after eating I switched off my head torch and slept for 30 minutes.
My tiredness was resulting in my not moving quickly or particularly safely, tripping on every tree root or stone in the path. Hence at 2am, when I came across a kiddies play area (swings, slides etc) which rather surprised me as I thought I was in the middle of deserted countryside, I took the opportunity to have a nap on a convenient bench. At 4am I did the same on a comfy patch of trail.
All this sleep meant it was a slow end to a slow day though, and I reached the next checkpoint at 06:30 (Tue) having spent a full 24 hours travelling 46 miles. In comparison Jon Rowles had arrived at 23:30 (Mon) even though we had left at similar times. Jon Stocker was still absolutely motoring along, arriving at 21:00.
This checkpoint will remain forever etched in my memory, as we were basically in a field of cut down nettles. I remember thinking that it looked like a version of hell, and there would be no walking barefoot at this checkpoint! Jon Rowles had slept and was preparing to leave as I arrived, which was really dispiriting and showed me how much time I had lost on that leg.
I was going to sleep for 5 hours (more than I could afford, but probably not enough) but that would mean I would not be leaving until the afternoon and hence another night out on the trail, rather than tucked up in a nice sleeping bag. While moving at night was not a problem, it was considerably slower than daytime, the route being less obvious especially when going across huge wheat fields with no obvious path. I had a bivvy bag in my pack if I chose to have a proper sleep on the trail, but waking up cold and stiff, without even a coffee to look forward to was not a great thought.
So I resigned myself that the next 4 legs would probably mean sleeping during the day and travelling at night, and I would just make the best of it. I was still 36 hours ahead of the cut-offs, so not really in any danger unless something went seriously wrong (which was always a possibility). I could afford to move slowly and still finish.
Before I went to sleep I made sure I had a good meal inside me and used a few of the ‘emergency’ foods I had in my drop bag.
I wolfed down a tin of chicken curry and two packets of super noodles that Maxine kindly heated up for me, and it was great to go to sleep on a full stomach. Predictably I woke feeling much happier.
Leg 12…..41miles….started 15:00 Tue, arrived at CP12 approx 07:00 Wed……..(Mileage 504-545)
I woke in a better mood, and had the long-suffering Maxine tape my feet up again. I had my usual breakfast (or was it lunch?) before heading out. This would be my last leg over 40 miles, which was a great thought, and although I was going to be on the trail for a long time I remember thinking that the end was perhaps coming into sight.
I had asked for suggestions from the ‘Bob’s running problems’ group to try to lessen the pain on the soles of my feet, and they had suggested taking the inner soles from one of my other pairs of shoes (I had 4 in total) and putting them into the pair I was wearing…basically improving the padding under my feet. This worked immediately, and made a huge difference to how the bottom of my feet helped, unfortunately it also (understandably) made my shoes really tight and so my feet would gradually lose all sensation until I took them out of my shoes whereupon I’d get fantastic pins and needles as the circulation returned.
After a speedy start, at 19:30 I stopped at a pub in Hersley for a swift dinner of lasagne and tea (and to stroke the pub cat).
I was sitting in a beer garden (with my shoes off naturally) as the weather was quite warm, surrounded by groups having evening drinks and generally enjoying themselves. I was a little out of place. Suddenly there was a bloke in running kit in front of me, and one of the guys from my ‘running problems’ group, Paul Pickford, had turned up to see me. It was, as always, great to see a friendly face, and gave me a massive lift. After a brief chat, he ran off (very quickly!) and I plodded on, grinning. I had spent the majority of the previous 9 days on my own, apart from brief stops at the checkpoints. The strangers I encountered were all really pleasant (unlike some of Ellens nutters, but that’s another story) but they were still strangers, who didn’t know me or what I was doing (or why I looked like I did). That’s why just seeing a friendly face for 20 minutes made a huge difference to the day and my mood.
I had a sit under a tree at midnight, to eat a Cornish pasty and take some more painkillers, and the night gently eased away after I napped at 2am and 4am. I remember coming off the South Downs at about 5am, with the dew on the grass being really heavy after a warm day, and my shoes and socks being absolutely soaked. Wet cold feet, descending hills that made my feet hurt more than usual, meant that as I suffered through the last few miles to the checkpoint, I found myself swearing every time I put my right foot down. I don’t mean subtly whispering something under my breath, but shouting the worst sort of swear words at the top of my voice with every step. Hopefully there was no-one around to hear.
Checkpoint 12 was in a pub car park, and I was so tired I did not care at all that the tent was placed on the gravel surface…I just wanted to sleep.
I arrived at 07:00 (Wed) so the pub was closed, but it would be open when I woke up. I had another tin of curry and two packets of super-noodles, and had a chat with Maxine and Sandra, a helper who was assisting at that checkpoint, while I was eating. She had done GUCR a few weeks earlier, so had a rough idea of what I was going through. I sorted my kit for the next leg and fell into a deep sleep.
I had arrived at 07:00 (Wed), while way ahead of me Jon Stocker had arrived at 18:30 (Tue) and Jon Rowles at 22:00 (Tue). Ellen was still behind me, but arrived at the checkpoint at 18:00 (Wed) just as I was leaving…she was soaking wet, exhausted and massively pissed off (which I don’t blame her for!) Peter was still bringing up the rear, but staying ahead of the cut-offs and making consistent progress.
My plan had been to sleep 08:00 to 13:00 and aim to leave the checkpoint at 14:00. When I woke, though, I was told that Maxine had had to go to build the next checkpoint for Jon Stocker, who was pushing hard and was streaking away from me (relatively speaking). She would be back later, so I could try to tape my feet up myself, or wait for her to return at 5ish.
Although I had a little wobble about the lost time, there was absolutely no chance I would risk trying to tape my own feet (and I wasn’t even sure I could bend my legs that far anyway) so I made the best of the lost time, and went to the pub! I’d like to say I had 14 pints and staggered through the next leg, but I stuck to pie and mash, and pints of milk again.
With a full stomach and inside a nice warm pub, I soon fell asleep and had a useful 2 more hours; bringing my total that day to 7 hours – luxury! The guys behind the bar really didn’t know what to make of the various runners they had seen stagger through the restaurant, but I’m happy to report I was the only one that had a sleep in there. They kindly made me a sign to excuse the tramp-like figure slumped in a corner.
While I slept the heavens opened and rained constantly, only stopping about 5pm when I was making my preparations to leave. It was Lindley that turned up to do my feet in the end, and very gentle he was too! I was on the move by about 6pm, well rested and fed.
Leg 13…..35miles….started 18:00 Wed, arrived at C13 approx 06:30 Thu….(Mileage 545-581)
This leg was only 35 miles, so really shouldn’t have taken me over 12 hours. However, the ground and foliage was soaking wet, and every bit of grass and leaf was just waiting to drench me. I started in my full waterproof kit, but it was too hot keeping my heavy jacket on, so I just had waterproof trousers keeping off most of the water from my waist downwards and got everything else wet.
I stopped at a Beefeater pub at Horndean to eat at about 21:00, as this would be the last chance before they all shut overnight, and was able to gulp down a meal and lots of tea in the time most people were still choosing what to eat.
I got a call from a friend, Mark, who asked the extremely sensible question of what my plans were when I finished? I honestly (and perhaps stupidly) had made absolutely no arrangements for finishing, where to stay, how to get home or anything, simply because I was so sure that I would not finish it seemed like tempting fate to even think in that direction. (Yes, I know how stupid this sounds, now, but it made complete sense at the time!) Bless Mark, he leapt into action when I told him my lack of plans, and started sorting me out a B&B for the night and to come and get me! What a star!
I do not remember much about the night section, other than I spent a memorable part going through a very dark forest, where the mist and condensation reduced the visibility to about 2 metres, and the vague path I was following kept meandering off in the wrong direction. There was some forestry work being carried out, so it looked like there were new paths made for the workers to access new parts of the forest. I suspect in the daytime, navigation was easy, but that night was definitely the most difficult and confusing leg I had done yet. And I was dead tired, that probably didn’t help.
I was managing my feet with far too many painkillers, but they were soaking wet for the whole 12 hour leg, so rubbing themselves to pieces. I had my normal stops at midnight, 2am and 4am for something to eat and a 10 minute nap to keep my head together.
The next morning was a lovely sunrise but I was not interested…I just wanted to get to the checkpoint (my last checkpoint before the finish!) and have a rest in my sleeping bag.
I arrived at 06:30 (Thu) and did my usual job of eating a tin of curry with super-noodles. For some reason I didn’t have much of an appetite, perhaps the excitement of being near the end. After just 2 hours of sleep, I woke and again was much too pumped up to go back to sleep. I spent a little time on my phone trying to sort out arrangements for finishing, as Mark couldn’t come down to collect me until the Saturday, and I was intent on finishing on Friday. In the end I called my sister Sue, who was able to sort her life out to get me Friday morning. This was genuinely the first time I had made the commitment that I was actually going to finish this thing.
Jon Stocker had arrived at that checkpoint at 14:40 (Wed) and Jon Rowles just behind him at 18:10 (Wed). Ellen would arrive at 13:30 (Wed). Peter, bringing up the rear would be there at 10:00 (Sat) and was still within the cut-offs. You can imagine the logistical nightmare for Lindley and Maxine with a spread of 65 hours between the first and last runners.
With a quick breakfast and coffee, Maxine taped my feet for the last time (I did share my slight anxiety about what I would do without her to sort my poorly feet each morning, after the race), and I got on the move. I hate to think the shambolic figure I must have looked like, but I was just looking to get to the end now. While I was at the checkpoint Maxine heard that Jon Stocker had finished at about 09:30, in an amazing time of 287 hours, a new course record.
Leg 14…..34miles….started 12:00 Thu, arrived at C14 (the bloody finish!) approx 05:30 Friday …..(Mileage 581-615)
The first section of this leg seemed to be full of hills, some of them really steep and rather challenging in my hobbling style. I got to a decent big town, Arundel, and happily stopped in a pub for more pie and mash. The girl behind the bar happily loaded my two pints of milk and two teas onto one tray, and looked at my pityingly when I asked her to carry them out to the beer garden as I was worried I would drop them. Once she took a good look at me, though, she said yes.
So there I was, eating (again) in a beer garden with my shoes off, and looking at the route I had ahead. I had a big section of countryside, before descending into Brighton to the pier, and then tracking along the seafront for a while to Shoreham. It didn’t look far (famous last words).
I kept moving, but again much more slowly that I wanted due to my feet and general exhaustion. The route followed the South Downs way (I think) and was bloody uphill or downhill most of the way.
The very memorable vision of seeing the sea for the first time, and when I saw Brighton was really emotional, even though I still had miles to go. The thought of being near enough to the finish line to be able to see it (in the distance) after 12 days was truly humbling. I stopped at the same time as a bunch of mountain bikers, and checked with them that it was definitely Brighton in the distance. Naturally, they asked where I was coming from as I looked like death, and I was chuffed with their faces when I said “600 miles away”.
I’d like to say the rest of the afternoon and evening was great, but I’d be lying. I just wanted it all to be over, but I was moving so slowly that the 15 miles I still had to cover after seeing Brighton for the first time was going to take hours and hours. As darkness fell I was still out on the downs, and the route seemed to consist of lots of little diversions out to a point and then returning back along the same path, it was maddening (but I made very sure I completed every single one of them!).
At long last I reached the outskirts of Brighton, and moved through the outskirts heading for the centre. It was about 01:00am Friday morning, and I hadn’t eaten since the pub in Arundel at 3pm-ish. I was tired, and hungrier than I should allowed myself to get. As I neared the centre I started to see group of ‘youths’ (as I like to call them, being firmly middle aged), but apart from a bit of banter with them they didn’t come near me. To be fair, I suspect they were more afraid of being attacked by the smelly homeless man, than the other way round.
I had to stop at a burger place, at about 2.30am, as it looked like I still had some miles to go and I was not going to make it without some fuel. I had a bit of a chat with the owner, and he made me the biggest double burger I’ve seen in a while…one of those that the fillings all slip out the far side when you pick it up to eat it. I had 2 cans of fizzy with it, and left with a bag of chips (just in case I got peckish in the next 10 minutes).
And I’d like to say the next three hours were a triumph of mental awesomeness as I pulled my poor broken body into a fast sprint and hoofed it to the end. Unfortunately, that was not the case, and I spent the next three hours slogging from the pier on Brighton’s seafront to Shoreham. It was a straight, flat, boring trek, and I was taking some real pain from my feet as I always seemed to do at the end of each leg. I had had too many painkillers in the last 24 hours to take any more, and I suspect some of the pain was in my head anyway.
My will to keep moving was definitely wavering, and I allowed myself a 10 minute rest on every 20th bench…and there were benches quite frequently along the seafront as you may expect. Too frequently, I was checking the tracker on my phone that showed my dot getting closer to the finish line, but ohhhh so slowly. Just wasting time to get to the end.
As dawn came up at about 4.30am, I was still much too far from the finish, but all I could do was keep dragging myself towards the end. I hope I’m giving the right impression here, I was truly finished. I was limping badly, and not really lifting my feet but shuffling them along the ground. Each and every step was a struggle, and a groan or a swear with each step made it slightly more bearable. Obviously, I should have just given myself a shake and got on with it, but I was so shattered I just did not have anything left to give. I have never been so broken in my life.
I had left Brighton and Hove behind me now, and the residential areas had turned into an industrial park full of lorries. Very picturesque.
I could see a figure ahead, in the far distance but could not make or whether it was Lindley at the finish. With his beard he is usually quite noticeable, but not today (or maybe my eyes were just not working). Anyway, it turned out to be him, and he kindly videoed me shuffling to the finish, looking entirely broken, which I was.
It was a perfect, entirely low-key finish, which suited me down to the ground. I had a sit on the Monarchs Way bench, signifying the end of the route, and then climbed (slowly) into the back of Lindley’s truck, for a sleep while we waited for Ellen to come running (yes, she ran the last bit along the seafront, god help me) to the end. I finished at 05:30 (Fri) with Ellen just behind me at 08:30 (Fri).
I’m not going to lie; I felt absolutely nothing other than relief at finishing…no elation, no emotion, nothing. I’d had a horribly rough night and morning, and was not really with it. I just wanted to sit, rest, get my shoes off, and eventually sleep. Lindley drove me back to the previous checkpoint where my sister (bless her) was waiting, and we got my drop-bags and headed for home.
And that’s it! Peter went on to finish in the early hours of Saturday morning, within the cut-offs, and that brought Monarchs Way 2019 to a close.
John Stocker – 287:32:48
Jon Rowles – 290:04:28
Bob Wild – 308:30:05
Ellen Cottom – 310:25:38
Peter Bengtsson -325:20:47
DNF – Victoria Owens & Tony Hewett.
I would say my recovery was….slow.
I attended the minor injuries unit the morning after I got home to get my feet sorted. The doctor displayed a professional interest in the mess my feet were as he discussed with the nurse the best way to treat them. I went to have various parts of them re-dressed (mainly my right foot toes) another 5 times. I lost two toenails, and another one that is looking wobbly. My feet still hurt when I walk on a hard floor, in my socks, as if all the ‘meat’ on the soles that normally provides padding has gone, and I’m just walking on the nubs of bones. I will not make you suffer through horrible foot pics here…but if you are interested, you can see a few HERE.
I was tired after finishing, but was only able to sleep in short spaces of 5 or 6 hours (with epic night sweats), rather than a lovely long 12 hour sleep. I was back at work on Monday morning, where my colleagues were very understanding at my lack of energy and concentration – it provided much hilarity. I was able to shuffle around, but just walking up stairs would have me out of breath and needing a sit down. A full week after finishing, I was still feeling absolutely tired all the time. Two weeks later, I’m happy to say it’s mostly passed.
I didn’t want to know how much weight I lost, but you could see my ribs quite clearly when I took my shirt off. My wife said I looked grey. I undertook the serious task of absorbing as much beer and Doritos as possible for the next week, and then the same the week after. To be fair, my eating regime for the last 5 days was rubbish, and I paid the price for that.
My bad memories of the event are gradually fading, as they usually do after an ultra, otherwise you would never do another! This report, as usual, has helped me recall the good parts and relive the bad. But nothing will ever allow me to forget that final struggle along the seafront to the finish line…that has scarred me. Would I ever do this race again…no…but that is more due to my nature of not wanting to do the same race twice (if I finish it first time round). There are too many fabulous races out there to waste precious time doing the same one twice (especially if it takes a fortnight to complete!)
And would I do another long race, or even a longer one beyond 600 miles? Probably, yes, but only if I can learn a lot more about how to keep my feet in one piece.
So, just a few thanks…
Firstly, thanks to you for reading this. It has taken a fair few hours to write (as you can imagine) and I do it entirely for my own amusement and to be able to read at a later date. Otherwise I simply forget all the details and it disappears into 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.