There’s a small population of runners that run ultras for fun.
There’s a really very small proportion of those ultra-runners that know what a ‘Cockbain Event’ is.
There’s a really really small proportion of those people that would consider entering a Cockbain event. I’m now one of them.
Let me explain…
Imagine a standard 100mile or 150 mile ultra.
Then think of ways to make it as hard as possible. Perhaps the checkpoints should be few and far between, with minimal facilities. Maybe the navigation should be made more difficult by banning GPS devices, so only a map & compass are allowed. Let’s put the race in January, so it gets dark at 5pm and stays dark for 13 or 14 hours. How about following a national trail, but a relatively low-key one so the signposts are minimal and the trails are muddy and unruly. Obviously, you cannot have a crew or anyone to support you along the way. And finally, just in case there is a chance of more than 20% of starters finishing, let’s put some really tight cut-offs in place, to weed out most of the ‘average’ runners (and some of the great ones, if they make a navigation error).
….and there you have a Cockbain ultra.
They are, by design, some of the most challenging races available in the UK, and hence have few starters, and even fewer finishers. Even as I placed my entry for the Winter Viking Way in mid 2018, I knew the chances of finishing were absolutely tiny but I had been watching these events for a while and it seemed the right time to tackle one.
The Viking way is a 147 mile path, from Hull, winding south, to finish at Oakham. Not too hilly, but poor terrain and lots of countryside to travel through. In the Lake District you get some massive lumpy bits to go over, but some spectacular scenery to reward along the way. The Viking way is relatively flat, with flat rubbish scenery to go with it, as if to make it even crapper to look at & run along.
Have I set the scene? Does it sound appealing enough? Didn’t think so.
Let me explain the time constraints for you. You have 40 hours to complete the 147 miles, which is just on the difficult side of quite doable and there are cut-offs at 50 miles (12.5 hours) and 100 miles (26.5 hours). For a good runner, on good terrain, these are not outrageously tight, but put a lot of the route on poor muddy track, and add in a lot of navigation that naturally slows the pace (and loses time with every wrong turn) and you start to get a little short of time.
In my younger days (well, 2014) I had run the very flat Grand Union Canal race (145 miles) in a respectable 32 hours, but I’ve become fat and lazy (and old) since then so I was quite realistic about not hitting the cut-offs going into the race. This was more a chance to experience a winter race (like the Spine Challenger I did last year) and also dip my toe into the exclusive club of Cockbain. I’d be lying if I didn’t have a vague hope that I would suddenly become a running god and finish the race.
So, training in the months before was pretty poor (see the note above about becoming fat and lazy). I did get the chance to recce the first hundred miles in early November, which gave me a good feel for the terrain to expect (30% grassy edge-of-field tracks, 50% muddy trail, 20% road or path). I spent about three days on the trail, carrying full camping gear, and took it quite slowly, especially with the map reading. But by the end I felt I had a good handle on what to expect. Mistakenly, I only did a few hours in the dark, which did not prepare me at all for the night-navigation that I would later find so difficult.
The weather was forecasting snow & rain in the weeks before, but finally settled on rain, which rather suited the starting point, Hull. I got there on the Friday evening, and had an amusing chat with Oscar, the receptionist at the Premier Inn where most of us were staying. He was amazed at the stream of runners coming to check in, and was talking to everyone as they came through. He’s definitely a future ultra runner.
Surprisingly, the race registration wasn’t a long line of tables, manned by cheerful volunteers checking kit and handing out race numbers, answering questions and organising pre-race logistics. Nope. It was Mark Cockbain, in the bar, with a plastic box containing an envelope for each runner. In the envelope was a race number, safety pins, and a tracker. Job done – that was quick!
With the rest of the evening stretching ahead, I had a meal and listened to the chat of the other runners and crew that were there. It was good to put faces to Karen and Peter (the main crew) who I suspected I’d be relying on at the later stages of the race.
On saturday morning, myself and a few of the runners I’d met the previous night got a taxi to the start on the far side of the Humber Bridge. The taxi driver was entirely bemused at what he was seeing. It was darker than I expected, even though it was only 6.30am, and the group of 29 starters was lit up with head torches and reflective bits in the darkenss.
Mark gave a suitably harsh race briefing, including such gems as:
• “If you get lost, don’t call me…I’ve got the same maps you’ve got and I won’t know where you are”,
• and a treat of “I was hoping the weather would be a lot worse for the race, it only looks like a bit of rain overnight. I’m disappointed”
It was a great way to start, absolutely what was needed to tell everyone that they were in for a tough time. Looking around, I felt I was the only Southerner there (everyone else had a good strong northern accent…I must practise mine for next time).
And then it was time to start, a long blow on an airhorn and we trotted off along a nice path leading under the Humber Bridge.
As expected, a small group of about 5 went off really quickly and soon disappeared into the distance. The rest of us kept a more gentle pace and settled into the first few hours. I chatted to quite a few people, including Dave Fawkner & Ben Davies who I’d met on the Thames Ring 250 with in 2017, and Alan Cormack that I’d chatted briefly to before Escape from Meriden (Chained) in November. As always, those first few hours were very pleasant and relaxed…before the tough bits started.
I remembered the route pretty well from my recce, but as there were so many runners strung out over the course of a mile it was easy to stick to the route. The first checkpoint at mile 16 came quickly, and sure enough, it was a culinary delight consisting of bags of mini-cheddars, a tub of Haribo, water and coke. Like most others, I was carrying food I knew I liked, so I whipped out a tin of mackerel (yes, I know it sounds disgusting, but I like it) and carried on. Definitely no pampering at the checkpoints!
Along this next section I got talking to Bev, one of the three lady starters, who was running really well. Talk turned to the recent Spine race that had finished the previous weekend, and the miles flew by. We went through a lot of fields that, in previous years, had contained some cows & bulls (the race is usually held in April) but at this time the fields were all empty, apart from some deer and rare sheep that Bev pointed out to me.
We caught up to a group of three blokes, all running strongly, one of whom was a guy called Riccardo that I’d never met before but seen his name at previous races. He (and the two other blokes who were Carl & Karl I think) were previous finishers on the Viking Way and were clearly out there having fun. Carl or Karl had the fullest Raidlight rucksack I’ve ever seen, I’ve no idea what he had in it, but it looked heavy.
Going up one particular hill, someone brought up the matter of writing race reports (because hardly anyone writes race reports for Cockbain races, they are too busy getting out running and being hardcore), and Riccardo suggested that he didn’t think anyone should write a report unless they finished the race. Oh dear. I had to confess that I’d probably be writing one, even with a DNF highly likely, so I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise personally to anyone that is wasting their time reading this rubbish. Sorry.
The terrain was still relatively decent (compared to later in the race) with the ground not being too wet (yet). The second aid station at Tealby (mile 31) came around quickly and had hot water! I took the opportunity to have some hot soup (I never run without cup-a-soup nowadays) and a Cornish pasty. My usual stomach problems were not going to happen today! I spent a few minutes sorting out a couple of paracetamol and refilling bottles, before leaving with another tin of mackerel to eat on the first mile.
I linked up with Ben after this, who rather cleverly kept me running whenever possible, rather than walking. We chatted the miles away talking about everything from running to families to jobs. Ben seemed happy to stick with someone else despite me going slower than I should have, and it made a massive difference to me to have someone to keep me moving quickly. We travelled through long sections of countryside, following the edges of fields , until we came to the next town. It was still light and fairly warm, and all very pleasant. Ben’s family were meeting him every hour or so, for a bit of moral support, so it was nice to have a couple of exciting kids (even if they weren’t mine) to look forward to.
My maps consisted of 34 A4 pages, and every 10km or so I’d take great pleasure in getting rid of a page and moving to the next one…very therapeutic! Shortly before we got to the third checkpoint (mile 50, and access to our dropbags) Ben dropped back as his family had met him for the last time, and I carried on. It was dusk by now, and starting to get a bit colder and the rain started. 20 minutes later, it was blowing a gale and throwing some good horizontal rain at me. (Ben never did catch me up, dropping out with an injury shortly afterwards, which was a shame as he was going really well.)
I got a bit lost in Fulletby, the last village before CP3, and was rescued by another runner Colin, who was having a rough time and really not enjoying himself. As we walked the last mile he told me about having finished the Spine 4 times, but his heart wasn’t in it today, so he’d probably drop out at the upcoming checkpoint. I really felt for him, mainly because I simply didn’t know what to say.
At about 6pm, the checkpoint finally arrived, and I’d like to say it was somewhere warm and dry, out of the wind and rain, with a full selection of sumptuous foods to sample. But of course, the reality was trying to shelter in the rear of a freezing transit van (with the rear doors open, naturally) with a load of drop bags and other runners. The weather was properly filthy and the crew there did a storming job looking after people as the wind was making it difficult enough just to boil a kettle on a camping stove.
I changed my soggy gear into dry stuff, and prepared for a night of rain in my hard-shell waterproof jacket and trousers. They wouldn’t be much good for running, but would keep me fairly dry. I was realistic enough to know that I probably would be pushed for time if I did make the 100 mile cut-off, so I carried a sensible amount of kit with me in case of trouble.
There were more runners appearing every few minutes, so I tried to get out of the transit as quickly as I could so that someone else could get the shelter. It didn’t help that I was positioned by the side door of the transit, which was thrown open every time someone wanted sugar with their tea (because there was nowhere else dry to keep the sugar, of course) but it unleashed a hell of a gale through the van. Phew!
Back onto the road by the transit, and the wind really showed what it could do. It must have been pretty exposed there as the crew were doing an amazing job in the conditions. Once I got away from the road and back onto the trail the trees gave me a bit of shelter and I stopped to put some music on to see the night out.
I saw a couple of runners making the very sensible decision of ducking into a chip shop at the next town, Horncastle, and went in to see what looked good. It was Alan Cormack and a friend, both looking very strong and ordering lots of chips. I settled on a bottle of Coke and moved on, thinking they would catch me soon.
In the dark, the navigation got rather more difficult, until a long straight disused railway (with some bizarre sculptures) that must have lasted 3 or 4 miles before a golf course and then Woodhall Spa. It was quite sheltered in the trees and much more pleasant. Quite a few runners overtook me as I was slowing to my usual plodding speed, and I got to Woodhall Spa about 10pm. The wind and rain had stopped thank goodness, so I took the opportunity to have a bit more food (yup, more magical mackerel) before my stomach shut down for the night.
It was probably from here that I really started to make some navigation errors in the dark. It was taking me far too long to work out which way to turn at each junction, and somehow I managed to enter checkpoint 4 (mile 63, Stixwold) from entirely the wrong direction. The two guys there were kind enough to say that I was about the third person to have arrived from that direction, but I suspect they were just saying that. They had rigged a decent tarpaulin over their truck and had a couple of chairs that looked very inviting, but I knew I couldn’t stay long without getting cold, so I had a very pleasant bowl of soup and went on my way. At that point I was in pretty good spirits and I head into the night feeling pretty chirpy and positive.
Unfortunately, the night stretched out ahead, and by midnight I was starting to flag a little. Some little things were bugging me that I should have just ignored, and to cap it all my headtorch died and I had to change to my spare battery. Very frustrating. From my recce I knew that I had a couple of tricky parts to navigate, as well as a couple of very muddy fields to go across (rather than round the edge). There was a couple of other runners (one of which had a really hacking cough) leapfrogging me every so often, so at least I knew I was on the right route, but my judgement was starting to slip. I tried to stop and eat at about 2am, but my stomach was not having anything and decided to be sick a few times for fun.
The wind and rain started up again, but it was quite manageable, until I got to a long embankment (yes, another disused railway) on the stretch into Lincoln. On the maps it only looks like about 3 miles, but the wind & rain were vicious, coming really strongly from the side, to the extent that I was using my hand up against the side of my face to protect the only area of skin exposed to the wind. It was bitterly cold and I knew there was a turn off the embankment coming up soonish, but it seemed to take forever.
I remember really struggling to stay on the narrow track, with the tiredness and wind pushing me all over the place. Not to mention the mole hills. Dear god, the sodding mole hills. The absolute last thing you want, when keeping your head bent downwards to protect from the wind, and your half-asleep brain only just keeping your body moving forwards, is mounds of loose earth, like little land mines, that are just the right height to smash your foot into and to try to trip you up, without actually stopping you, but giving you that tripping sensation every few seconds. Bloody moles had clearly sabotaged the track along this bloody embankment, and had laid their sodding hills with military precision to catch out sleepy runners every couple of steps. Little bastards.
But the embankment came to an end after about 3 weeks, and I made the right turn that I’d been waiting for. I knew the checkpoint was close, but not exactly where, and was really surprised to see a car parked on the road up ahead, with its lights on. I convinced myself that it wasn’t the checkpoint as there was no table or anything nearby, just a lone parked car, which I thought must belong to a supporter or something. Then Karen appeared out of the darkness, like an angel, and said “quick, get in the car where it’s warm”. Oh bliss, I threw myself in, still wearing my pack, just to get out of that awful wind. It was warm and lovely in there, with the other runner (that had the cough) already in there. Karen sorted me with a cup of soup, and I started to warm up and come back to life. It was 5am, and the thought of another couple of hours in that weather and darkness was not appealing at all.
The other runner, Nick, started to make noises about dropping out there. With a cough like that I think he made absolutely the right decision. A car pulled up behind, which turned out to be Ronnie Stanton, supporting one of the runners behind me that he coached. It was just as well he was there as another runner, Jon Steele, turned up who would have made it a very tight fit in our car! Karen somehow looked after all of us at the same time, and I started to think about having to get out of the car to carry on….not a great thought. Even just opening the car door to get my pack off blasted the whole car with cold wind (sorry Nick) and I shut it again pretty quickly.
But I couldn’t stay there for much longer. With hindsight I should have eaten more to get my body woken up, but I couldn’t really stomach much. That warm car was a loveliest place in the whole of England just then and I was going to have to leave it. I consoled myself with the thought that I reckoned it was only 12 miles to the checkpoint after Lincoln and I could rest or stop there if I wanted. This was, unfortunately, entirely incorrect, as it was nearer 17-20 miles to go, but it was probably just as well I didn’t know that.
Out of the checkpoint, the wind grabbed me straight away and got rid of any warmth I’d built up in the lovely warm car, but I got straight on and moved quite well for the next hour or so to warm up. I had been warned that the navigation through Lincoln was difficult: “head up hill to the cathedral, then to head downhill to the football ground and turn left.” The map was sketchy to say the least and I’d been told about a runner in previous years that had been lost in Lincoln for some time.
Rather luckily, just as I approached a locked gate that the route went through, Jon Steele caught me up and proceeded to take me directly up to the cathedral and then jog back down the hill, chatting all the way (well, not so much on the way down). He had finished the Viking Way in 2014 (in a vey respectable time) and was a really friendly bloke. He went ahead of me on the descent, but I saw a sign for the football ground and followed my nose until I found it.
The streets were pretty empty apart from people going to work (it was about 7am on Sunday, so there weren’t many!) I asked a convenient local if I was going in the right direction on the map, and he luckily pointed me in the right direction through the maze of streets to the far side of Lincoln. After a particular bugger of a hill (the road sign said 12% but I reckon it was near vertical) and then I was back on trail, a long path that seemed to overlook the whole city.
It soon got light, which perked me up as usual, and the Jon caught me up from behind, having got lost near the football ground somewhere. We stuck together for the next few miles semi-following the map & signposts, apart from one memorable part when we had somehow got turned round and were about to head the wrong direction until Ronnie Stanton turned up in his car (excellent timing) to point us in the right direction.
Shortly after that (funny that!) Jon decided to run ahead to see if he could make the cut-off at the next checkpoint, which I hoped meant it wasn’t far to go. Unfortunately it lasted ages, and the last page of the map before I got to the checkpoint seemed to take forever. The track was muddy and unpleasant…nicely sloping down towards a rusty barbed wire fence in case you slipped. Three mountain bikers went past, and then hilariously had to keep stopping to unclog their chains from all the mud that was clogging them up.
I’d like to say the last hour or so was a triumphant lap of honour into the final checkpoint, but it was a slow long drag. I’d missed the cut-off, so wouldn’t be going any further, but it was a shame to finish like that. I was pretty sure that there would be no-one left at the checkpoint, as they would have been waiting around for ages, and I’d already made my plans to backtrack to the previous town, Wellingore, and get a taxi if required. But I was massively surprised to see a few cars still there, and the van (meat wagon) that had been transporting runners that had dropped back to the checkpoint was waiting for me. That was a very pleasant surprise, and an easy way to get back to the hotel.
Because the race entry was relatively small, most of us were in the same hotel in Oakham, and so after a quick sort out and sleep, there was a small crowd in the bar watching the tracker and waiting for runners to finish. My wife had driven up to meet me (because it was our 20th wedding anniversary, obviously) and we had a nice meal in the hotel before a good nights sleep.
In the end, 6 runners finished, which was a superb achievement given the conditions. Alan Cormack, who was the last person through the 100 mile checkpoint before it closed made a valiant effort to beat the cut-off, but didn’t make it in the end.
And what do I think a few days later? I had a blast, only managing 100 miles (which isn’t great) but the atmosphere and team spirit in this small race more than made up for it. With only 29 starters (and 6 finishers) it was a friendly feel, and meant most of us were at the same hotel at the start and finish. The non-pampering aid stations were fine and adequate, provided you didn’t expect a banquet (or brought your own food), and was a great leveller.
The route was pretty uninspiring to be honest, with little scenery and too much mud. But it was mainly off-road and had towns every few miles so easy for re-supply. In January, the fields were deserted, but I imagine in April they are a lot busier with walkers and rampant cows & bulls.
The crews at the various checkpoints were brilliant, with just the right amount of care (but not too much). Karen and Peter were in the background all the time, and the organisation all seemed very slick.
So is a Cockbain event suitable for everyone? Absolutely not, but don’t let that put you off. I’m not quick enough to achieve cut-offs on most Cockbain races, but I loved the atmosphere and enjoyed every minute.
Last but not least, as always, a very quick thanks to my long-suffering wife, who is getting used to travelling to odd places for our wedding anniversary, maybe Kirk Yetholm next year! Who knows?