Whilst out on a recce run of the NDW100, a group of us discussed various runs later in the year we were hoping would still go ahead (Covid innit) and which were on or near the NDW. Two that were on the list were the Eden valley Ultra and the Farnham Pilgrims Marathon. They were the same weekend in September though. Arlene had an idea – double weekender! We all agreed to sign up. Only Arlene did….
I did sign up to the Eden Valley Ultra, and got as far as the registration screen for the Farnham Pilgrims Marathon. Only I didn’t complete the registration as it said there were over 400 places available. I held off. A few weeks later, whilst running the Fox Way, we found out that the Farnham Pilgrims Marathon had sold out. Doh. Arelene was booked into a double weekend on her own. Oops.
As the weeks went by, with some luck I managed to get on a waiting list and subsequently obtained a spot on the Farnham Pilgrims Marathon. We were back on! Little did I think that after the NDW100 I would not want to spend much time on the North Downs Way again. Oh well.
Shortly before the race weekend the organisers announced the protocols they were putting in place to ensure the event went ahead safely. One of which was dedicated start times. Arlene was starting at 07:20 and myself 2 hours later at 09:10. We said we’d see each other at the finish line, and we did….
The week before the race I was speaking with Rob from the Wild Trail Runners who had also signed up. He kindly gave me a lift to the race, which I’m so thankful for as it started in the middle of nowhere if you weren’t arriving by car. Upon arrival you were requested to arrive no more than 20 mins before your allocated start time and to wait at your car until your wave was called forward. Rob was starting at 08:40 so I had a little longer to wait in the field until I was beckoned forward. Temperatures were checked and wrist bands issued rather than numbered bibs. A short wait in a taped off area before we were released onto our marathon journeys.
With the first steps I was aching. After a fairly speedy 50km the day before, it is fair to say my body had definitely not recovered. I was also probably grossly under fuelled for such an adventure having missed lunch the day before as well as being in a calorie deficit from the race.I knew it was going to be a long day ahead and I was full of acceptance of the torture I was about to endure. Everyone from my wave had overtaken me before we’d made it out of the starting field (probably about 20m!). I was at ease.
I joked about the start of the race being in the middle of nowhere, it is, but it was also very familiar to me after the NDW100. The start was in The Sands, along the road on which the Farnham Golf Club is, which was about 3 miles into the NDW100. Today we ran around the roads on the other side of the golf course and continued around Seale, we’d come back through the fields I’d run during the NDW100 on the way back to the finish. After Seale we rejoined the North Downs Way as we passed through the instantly recognisable Totford Woods and on through the village of Putenham. I was passed by many runners up to this point, thankfully though most were the half marathoners who were speeding passed and who turned off at Puttenham. We passed through Puttenham Golf Course which I again recognised from the NDW. Here though is where we deviated from the NDW and, rather than following the NDW towards Guildford, we took another set of trails further south which saw us run along many single tracks, stables, and country lanes until we reached and crossed the A3100 further south along the River Wey. We then followed the river and snaked along the trails for a few kilometers near Chantry woods.
Whilst the trails were new to me, they were similar terrain to the other trails along the Surrey Hills – sandy and bumpy. Lots of short sharp climbs and lots of trudging through loose sand tracks. In these first ten miles my legs only felt heavier and heavier and the quads and hamstrings burned with the extra effort to push off from the sandy tracks. It was also another scorcher of a day. Thankfully there had been a few water stops already and these were going to be ample throughout the course, or so I thought – the one section they weren’t, was from here to St. Martha’s on the Hill, probably where I needed it the most.
As we edged closer to St Martha’s the incline began to increase. If you don’t know it, the church is on one of the highest points along the Greensand Ridge. Situated just outside of Guildford along the NDW, it is a trail frequented by runners. It’s not the highest nor hardest climb in the area, but it does take some effort.
I’ve never approached the hill from this route before. First we passed a field with lamas, before we started gradual climbs through desolate and barren (recently harvested) fields, before zig zagging up some sandy trails from the south. I soon realised where along the ridge line we were emerging. Along the way the same woman passed me twice, first powering past me, the second time making up for time lost after a wrong turn. I was more confused by her when I saw her for the second time. Up top I was out of water, huffing and puffing from the climb and had a dry mouth from my failed attempt at eating a Clif bar. I thought there might be a water stop at the church but it wasn’t. I had to continue down, tracking west along the NDW for a little longer before reaching the much needed water stop which was nicely situated in some shade. I took a few minutes here and used about 2 litres (1 in my bottles and 1 to drink / pour over my head). It was a very sweaty day now. From this point I was seeing a lot of runners now. Both those over taking me and those I was catching up from earlier waves.
Refreshed and cooled, I had a nice little jog on the go as we descended back towards Guildford. My legs were now more numb than painful and the shuffle was consistent. We broke off from the NDW again as we followed the trails up to Pewley Down (which had some amazing views!) before following the NDW again back to Puttenham Golf Course. Along the way I took advantage of every water stop I passed. Refuelling and pouring a bottle over my head to keep me cool. I was struggling a bit in the heat.
Back at Puttenham we turned off for the final set of trails I was unfamiliar with. Now we followed pretty much the route that the half marathon took earlier in the morning. Well, I thought I was unfamiliar with the trails but it turns out we had a short section along the Fox Way which I recently ran too. I recognised a sign on a gate about not leaving dog poop on the trail! After this we ran a few hilly sections passing through Puttenham Common which I really enjoyed. I enjoyed the hills, because I didn’t have to run, I enjoyed the views which were spectacular and I enjoyed the ponds we ran alongside. I was surprised how many more beautiful trails there were. I hadn’t thought I’d be seeing so much more of Surrey on this run.
Emerging back into Totford Woods we had about 3 miles to go. I knew what was ahead now as we’d have a long straight stretch through some fields that we bypassed on the outbound journey when we went via Seale. Here the photographer was waiting to snap us. Out of the fields it was a slow and gentle incline along the roads back to The Sands. Just before entering the field I passed a runner dressed as Superman doing his 100 marathon. Impressive. I cheered him on before taking out my Buff to cover my face (as requested from the organisers) as I entered the finish line. I plodded on in, collected my medal and found Rob and Arelene patiently waiting at the van. It took me about 9 minutes less than the day before (8km shorter). I’m undecided if I enjoyed it…..
I did enjoy the new trails I experienced and the stunning Surrey Hills and countryside. I also enjoyed the marshals and all the volunteers from the Rotary Club of Farnham Weyside. Everyone was so helpful and cheerful. The people really do make the event and I’ve heard in ‘normal’ years there is an abundance of cake and home made food during this marathon!
I didn’t however enjoy the experience of back to back races. I’ve not yet been seduced by multistage events (although briefly considered registering for the 2021 Dragon’s Back race but thought better of it!) and doing my own back to back has only reinforced that this isn’t for me right now. I prefer the challenge of being in the moment and persevering rather than stopping and starting again the next day.
The morning started with a trek. The train station in Cowden was a little over 2km away from the event base, but we had plenty of time. It would serve as a great warm up, we did have 50km to cover that morning so the legs would need a bit of time to ‘wake up’.
Upon arrival, the registration was straightforward. No queues, no fuss. We walked straight up to collect a number and timing band from the familiar face of Ashley who welcomed us and ensured we were registered efficiently. We were pretty much good to go, we just had to wait for the start. As we waited near the start line we met John and Arlene introduced me to the Race Director – Chris – from Runaway.
The start of this race took the format of segregating runners into 3 groups based on expected finish time and then, from 09:00 onwards, runners would start at roughly 10 second intervals from one another. I went into the sub 5:30 starting group with my mind set on aiming for a sub 6hr start. A little ahead of myself on the starting group but I thought this would be a better approach than going in the sub 6:30hr group.
Our group was called forward and one by one we tapped our timing wrist bands on the scanner and set off to subdued applause and cheers from the other runners lining up. Out the gate we went and ahead of me was a gentle stream of runners bounding off into the woods. I turned my headphones on and settled in for the adventure…
The beginning of the course was beautiful. We trod through vast woodlands and open fields with the morning sun beaming down on us. I felt good and had a smile on my face although It was far hotter than I’d anticipated and I knew come midday this could be a struggle. As a result I probably set off much faster than I intended. But that always seems to be the norm in running events!
We ran south and back towards the village of Cowden where, after exiting a field I took a wrong turn. I felt it almost instantly. So far the route had been well signposted but I hadn’t seen any tape when exiting the field or on along the path I was now running. I slowed and started to turn on my GPS navigation to check my whereabouts. As I was doing so three runners came up behind me and we all felt unsure this was the right way. Our instincts were correct and we back tracked and found our way back along a road that joined back up to the route.
We carried on together chatting away as we entered some wide open spaces and began a long and gradual climb through some more fields. I walked on as they hustled up the climb more quickly. What goes up must come down and from here we entered the woodlands of Marshgreen and enjoyed a long downhill section surrounded by towering trees. Chris was on point along this section directing runners where he thinks some signage had ‘gone missing’. Out of the woodland we emerged to the first of three checkpoints where we were able to refill our food and water as well as tap in our timer bands. There were two other runners leaving as I arrived and I’d see very few other runners for a while after this.
From here the route was again very runnable with a mixture of hard packed fields and road sections. As we neared the second checkpoint the route began a slow and gradual climb as we’d reach the highest point on the route and the two biggest climbs we’d have to navigate. First though was more deep woodland and forests to keep us entertained and focused as we avoided tripping on tree roots.
As I neared Toys Hill the incline increased and I walked on at pace. I knew there was a short downhill section coming that I could recoup some ground. As I built up the momentum the road forked. To the left was a trail sign marked with a cross, so I continued forward and down a long drive way into someone’s garden. Normally I’d be concerned but in the race briefing we were advised that the route would take us through people’s gardens and that it was normal. It had already happened a few times but this one felt ‘off’. Up ahead were two other runners looking very confused. To the left I could see a path the other side of a wired fence hidden in the woods. We backtracked all the way to the fork with the cross sign and saw the path entrance. It was a little confusing and I’m sure we weren’t the only ones to make that mistake this day!
Back on track we ran the undulating hills as we made our way to Idle hill. Just before the next climb, with one of the runners close behind me, we emerged from the forest path into another wide open field on a hill. We had no idea where to go. I was ready to check the navigation again as a passerby asked us where we were trying to get to. In a confused daze I said “I don’t know” as we looked around the field. Right in front of us though was the event photographer waving frantically and directing us. How we hadn’t seen him now seems silly!
Shortly after this we emerged to another road section and the second checkpoint with Ashley among the volunteers cheering us in. The other runners had now left me for dust again and I stopped to chat with the volunteers as I refilled my bottles. Another runner arrived and immediately stated his intention to withdraw. He was the last runner I would see until the final checkpoint some 10km later.
From Idle Hill we’d be making our way in a South Westerly direction towards Leigh. This section was probably the toughest for me. It was now midday and very warm. The hard packed ground from lumpy fields was starting to make my feet hurt and there were a lot of pathed tracks and roads to navigate in this section too. It was a case of head down and keep moving forward. The route was mostly downhill which led to some consistent stints of running.
Around 25 miles into the race I arrived at Leigh and could see the volunteers at the final aid station flagging me down across a greenspace/park. I enjoyed more chats with the marshals, acknowledging how delightful the route was (with the exception of the road sections!) and they gave me an overview of what was remaining. As I was leaving. Another runner arrived. For the first time in the race I felt an element of competitiveness and wondered if I could hold them off for the final 10km or so that remained.
From Leigh we’d be heading to Penhurst which I recalled being mentioned in the race briefing. First though we’d follow a river for a few short kms which was another delightful change of scenery the Eden Valley Ultra offered runners. After a short but steep climb we had a gradual incline which I mostly walked as we arrived up into Penhurst Gardens. From the outside this looked spectacular with its old stone walls and Historic Market Place entrance. Next we zig zagged through the village high street before rejoining the trails for the final few kms back to the event base and where we started.
It wasn’t over yet though as the course finishes with a lovely uphill section with two noticeable climbs. The first being the hardest of the two and I almost missed the turn as you double back on yourself at the summit and alongside the path inside a field. From here it was the now familiar combination of open fields, woodlands and road crossings before we re-joined the path on which we began our journey in the morning.
I ran past the turn we took after the first km or so and knew the finish was just around the corner. I took out the GoPro and for the first time recorded myself crossing a finish line. Without thinking I filmed as I checked out my timer band and completed my 50km.
I finished up with a beer and a chat with Chris before spending some time sitting and cheering in other runners as I recovered. I soon set off on the slow walk back to the station with my legs beginning to cramp. It was now a race to recover ahead of the next challenge – The Farnham Pilgrims Marathon which I’d be starting in a little over 15 hours time….
There is never a perfect night before a race. The real rest is the few nights leading up to it. Despite all our best efforts and intentions, there are just too many factors beyond our control and too many thoughts racing through our excited minds the night before a race. You have to deal with what you’ve got. My less than perfect night before the Centurion Running NDW100 started well, checking into the Bishops Table hotel with ease as my hosts efficiently navigated the COVID restrictions imposed on usual operations. After check in, to my delight, I found I was in the room opposite Gif. Great for a quick chat and to wish each other well for the adventure ahead. Then I tried to sleep…
I made one mistake – I put too much Squirrels Nut Butter ‘Born to Rub’ muscle balm on my sore leg. As I lay awake, eyes closed and sweating in the hot room whilst listening to the boy racers revving their cars down the main road, my leg progressively started to burn. I ignored it for as long as I could until I felt I was on fire. I had to go back in the shower and wash it off. School boy error. My early night and planned 8 hours sleep was not going to happen. I did eventually nod off and woke at 04:00 the next day upside down on the bed and rather drowsy. I clearly had a restless night. I text my crew – Jon & Nick – to let them know I was on my way to the start and to expect me to be hitting the caffeine hard in 12+ hours time…
Walking to the bag drop at the leisure centre I realised I hadn’t sync’d the route to my watch. For some reason I couldn’t then do so. A minor inconvenience but not a problem, the route is well marked and I’d recce’d it all so wasn’t worried about not having it immediately available. At bag drop I met Jack who was doing the heavy lifting on bag duty and he sent me off to the start line a short walk away.
It was odd not registering or checking in, but that wasn’t as weird as the new rolling start line. At the North Downs Way sign we had a photo taken. Two runners were just heading off before I arrived and one joined just after me. Snapped, we were sent onwards to the trail head where the Centurion team took our temperatures and cleared us to run. No mass start. No big hoo-ha or send off. A low-key time trial-esque start over two hours to spread out the runners. It was about 05:45 in the morning and my 100 mile adventure was now underway.
It wasn’t long before I got the first ‘buzz’ of the day. A lady was standing alone on the NDW under the dawning sky cheering on the runners. As I neared her and noticed her bump I realised it was none other than Helen, a friend of Ally’s and whom was the first female at the SVP last year. This was the first time I’d met Helen and it put a smile on my tired face as I began to process what I was about to go through.
I’d set out with a plan. There was a finish time in mind. Ideally I’d beat my 27 hour finish from Tarawera, my first ‘miler’. All going well I’d push on for a sub-24hr finish. It does sound appealing and achievable, 100 miles in a single day. My plan was as simple as get passed Box Hill as quickly as I could before it gets too busy and too hot. If I could make it to Wrotham (mile 60) in under 14 hours then I’d push on for the sub 24 hr target. With a crew of Jon and Nick standing by to support me and pace me through the night I knew I was in great company.
I was happy in the morning. Fairly speedy too. I was progressing along nicely with no worries in the world. Making small talk with runners I passed or who went by me. I was a little surprised to see other runners but only naively so. I guess I imagined a rolling start to spread-out far more than it did, but the reality is different when you enter a field and see maybe five or so other runners spread out in a line over the next few hundred meters. This did make more sense, especially as we’d all set off according to our estimated finish time so would have the similar goals and pacing strategies. As I neared Guildford I did have to shout after two runners who’d misinterpreted one of the signs and taken the wrong path. Thankfully this was an area I’d run many times so I was able to call after them confidently and get them back on track.
Another change to the format of the race this year was the setup of the aid stations and the removal of the first one to prevent a build up of runners early on. Skipping the first aid station wasn’t a problem given the lower morning temperatures and freshness in our legs. So first up it was Newlands Corner, shortly after the first big climb up to St Martha-on- the-hill. This aid station was going to be a learning curve with lessons for the rest of the day. To accommodate runners safely, it was fundamentally different from aid stations runners have become comfortable with. First up there was a ‘funnel’ set up for runners to queue in safely. A volunteer stood a few meters ahead of the funnel directing runners either into the aid station if they wanted to stop or passed it if they didn’t require assistance. We were advised to wait patiently at a distance from each other and start preparing what we needed to, ready to enter. As we reached the front of the funnel we were directed to the anti-bac to sanitise our hands as we waited for the table and equipment to be sanitised by another volunteer as the last runner departed. There were three tables set up here, each in effect a mini aid station with all the necessary water, Tailwind, food and medical items. When instructed, we stepped forward to a vacant, sanitised station to serve ourselves. Another volunteer waited at the far end of the table to provide support from a safe distance if needed. Once we had served ourselves water/electrolytes and individually packaged food items, we were directed out and requested to sanitise our hands once more as we left. We were then set loose back on the trail. The volunteers, all head to toe in PPE, were fantastic.
So what lessons did I immediately learn from this new experience? Firstly, to think through my hand sanitising routine and handling of bottles. I covered my bottle lids in alcohol gel which I needed to wipe off. Secondly, queuing for a few short minutes would be the new norm. Not all runners were as quick on the update to prepare their bottles and own supplements whilst queuing and naturally it takes a little longer when at the table. Thirdly, the selection of food in pre-packed bags is very convenient and I had to fight back the temptation to grab a bit of everything. Fourthly, whole oranges (rather than slices) are firkken great. I took one to eat and one to carry to have slightly later. Finally, I was glad I was a runner and not a volunteer. Being dressed in PPE in that heat and having to fight back the urge to more directly help runners was going to be a very tough day for them, running 100 miles seemed far more appealing!
After Newlands Corner there is a fairly long and runnable stretch of woodlands. Its really lovely, but one of my least favourite sections of the North Downs Way for running. It’s just relatively flat and it seems to drag on for ever. I wasn’t looking forward to this so early into the run but thankfully I enjoyed another few little boosts. First there was a feint sound of a bell ringing, as I neared the source it turned out to be Matt Buck and his daughter cheering on the runners. Shortly afterwards I passed two more familiar faces, Leo and James, running in the opposite direction. Quick hellos, smiles and shouts of encouragement were very welcomed here.
Arriving to Box Hill the route first takes you down through Denbies Wine Estate. Its a nice long and gentle down hill on pathed roads so I took it easy beforehand and walked the road to the path entrance. With perfect timing, I heard a lady tell another runner she was going to walk for a bit and she’d catch him up. I recognised the sound of her voice, turned around and was greeted with a loud “Daiiiii!”. It was Ally behind me. Despite living very close to each other, we’d not run together since we first met during the Serpent Trail Race in 2018. We ran the rest of the way to Box Hill together and it was so good to share some time on the feet with her again after so long. It was a very speedy jaunt down Denbies too!
I was a bit more organised going into the aid station at Box Hill and managed a few jokes with the volunteers. Filling up on Tailwind once more I also picked up another two oranges and enjoyed them whilst walking to the underpass to cross the road. I said my good byes to Ally as she powered on with the intention to get as far passed Reigate Hill before it got too warm. Wise choice. She was looking very comfortable running today.
At Box Hill this year the route took a diversion. We came off the infamous Box Hill steps about half way up and detoured around the bottom of the hill before climbing further along the trails to avoid the busy tourist viewpoint. I think this was a blessing, those steps really sap your energy! It was here I first met a chap called Nigel who was a veteran of 13 Centurion 100 mile events as well as their intriguing “piece of string” race. We swapped tales and experiences as we enjoyed the climb together.
Further on my energy was quickly drained as I tackled Reigate Hill. Here I realised I was in a bit of bother. Whilst I was fine hiking the hill, when I reached the top and tried to run, my legs just told me to naff off. I’d not experienced this before – I started cramping, bad, everywhere. My calves, my quads, my hamstrings, my groin. Both legs, all parts simultaneously pulsing and tensing up. I tried to run but my legs went as straight as sticks rotating out in circles from my hips. It wasn’t going to work. I set my mind to walking to the aid station which hopefully wasn’t too far away. Up on Reigate Hill there was plenty of open space in the now midday sun. Walking was probably a good thing. I managed a smile with a photographer who sympathised with me. I went easy on myself though, I had covered about 50km in 6 hours or so which was well on schedule for my simple plan. I hobbled on to the aid station and then set off once more, briefly seeing Ally duck out from the cafe with ice cold Calippos as I munched down some prawn cocktail crisps and another two oranges, I was really enjoying the juicy oranges!
From Reigate was a struggle. I think I’ve mentally blocked it all out. There was a lot of walking and not too much running. Suffering with early signs of heat exhaustion already, I was slipping into some dark thoughts. I just couldn’t get the legs to fire up again. The cramping was persistent. I had a lot of salted food in crisps, salted cashews, pretzels and Tailwind and I hoped at some point it would all kick in. I made it to Mersham and the welcome sight of the wonderful ladies who I volunteered with the year before. They gave me some ice in a little packet which I put under my cap and sent me on my way. Next stop, Caterham.
Just after Mersham is a long road used as a crew point location. It was amazing to see so many supporters here. One familiar face I spotted was David Bone of the famous duo DaznBone. He was out there crewing Daz who wasn’t far behind me. Again such a boost to receive a warm smile and encouragement from someone I’d not met in person before. Shortly after seeing Bone I had another boost when I was thinking how much I’d enjoy a cold tap. Almost exactly as this thought crossed my mind a lady running towards me clapped me on and shouted back “there is a cold tap at the end of the church yard”. Fucking yes!!! Unbelievable luck. I was like a hawk seeking it out before practically having a shower in the graveyard. It was bliss. The good points continued briefly as I then passed Ale who’d cycled down to wait on the trails and say hello. Thanks Ale!!
As I carried on to Caterham, those good feelings soon evaporated and it was back to a now familiar story of struggle. I’ve very little recollection other than climbing in what looked like a desolate field and having to take a moment on a log before nature came calling and then further on meeting Ian and chatting away as we walked. We shared stories from our adventures and the day so far as well as comparing the aches and pains we were feeling. We came to the same realisation that one reason we might have been struggling in the heat more than we anticipated is the possible concentration of Tailwind at the aid station. I know from my volunteering the year before that it is difficult to mix such a large quantity and also ensure enough for all runners. Ian and I came to the conclusion though that the concentration was weaker than what we are used to. I made two decisions here to attempt to get my race back on track, firstly, I’d switch to using the Tailwind I’d brought (I guess I anticipated this problem a little) and secondly I accepted I needed to rest for a few mins every now and then. With the new aid station set ups you are very much ‘in and out’ and I think the little rest I’d normally have chilling and talking to runners and volunteers was missing. I decided I’d find some shade at Caterham and sit down for a bit. I also made a third decision – that I’d “DNS” my next race in Bulgaria which was just two weeks away. If I was struggling with the Surrey Hills now, I’d really struggle with a tired body in the Rhodope mountain range. I had to accept my fitness level is far from optimal for what I want to accomplish and, with the rest of my friends having already making the decision not to go, it wouldn’t be the same experience I’d originality signed up for. It was decided. I’d be sensible this time.
I did just as I promised at Caterham, saying farewell to Ian as he wisely warned me not to sit for too long, I sat on a bench perfectly in the shade with a view looking back across the NDW. As I ate more oranges and pretzels a local runner joined me and sat at the end of the bench. We had a delightful chat as he praised us all for our achievements. He was an older gentleman who lived locally and took up running during lockdown. Despite living close by he’d never been on the North Downs before and now every weekend he ran an out and back 25km route. This was the bench he used to escape the sun on the hot days. I thanked him for the conversation and moment on his bench and wished him well. It was a great moment to speak so easily with a stranger on the trails.
After Caterham I momentarily had a bit of a jog on again, the legs cooperated for a while at least. There was another crew spot and as I ran down the forest trails I heard a voice call out “there he is”, looking up I once more saw Bone. I felt like he was here supporting just me. It was great. His beaming smile transferred energy to me, which was much needed as I’d left Caterham completely forgetting about this section to Botley Hill. Annoyingly I thought I was now heading to the half way mark, but I wasn’t, not yet. I was ready for a longer break and some fizzy coke (I always hold off hitting the coke until at least halfway). Botley Hill was a bitch in the heat. The climb was slow and awkward.
The Botley Hill aid station was fairly busy. Maybe somewhere between 5-10 runners arriving at the same time. A real test for the volunteers. They did a great job providing us clear instructions and helping ensure turnaround was efficiently managed. I grabbed a banana and some more crisps to go with my now customary two oranges. I don’t like bananas but I was still cramping badly so was willing to do anything I could to try and calm it down. I found a log and sat down and probably spent about ten minutes trying to chew the banana. I forced it down. I had to. You need to during endurance events. “Can’t eat” and “Don’t want to eat” aren’t acceptable. You need to do everything you can to ensure your body has the fuel to keep going. No excuses.
We were now passing through loads of fields which I recognised from the recces I’d done. It was amazing to see them at a different stage of growth. Some fields which were golden were now lush green crops ready for harvest. Others were down to the dry soil after already being recently harvested. I found it fascinating. I arrived in one and could see runners ahead walking up the next side of the field. I knew here we weren’t far from Knockholt (I took a wrong turn here on a recce so remember it well) and I started power walking. We chatted away with the usual “how you feeling?” ice breaker leading to a general consensus that we all felt absolutely fucked and couldn’t run. None of us could recall the last stretch of consistent running we’d done. Oddly, this made me feel a little better. I wasn’t alone in finding this tough! Out of the field we saw the signpost indicating 1 mile to Knockholt Village. I walked on. An older gentleman soon ran passed me proclaiming “Half a mile to go”. I tagged on behind him and ran it all. The furthest I’d run for hours. I thanked him as we reached the village.
By now it must be clear that I was dinning out on the generous support of familiar faces and strangers alike. That was my energy source this day. Whilst the soaring summer temperatures took my physical energy, it couldn’t beat my mental strength which was being topped up constantly, something I hadn’t planned for. Knockholt saw a massive refill of energy in the familiar shape of Paul Christian. What he was doing all the way out here in Knockholt I did not know. It was great to see him and I’m so grateful for him being there. I was a little out of it, fantasising of the shade of the village hall and some coke, so kind of ignored him as I rushed in the aid station. As too I stared in a daze at another chap, Andy, who called out and said hello to me. Sorry Andy!
Coming back out of the aid station I felt rested. I knew Otford was the next stopping point and I’d agreed a few hours earlier to meet up with Jon and Nick for the first time here instead of later on at Wrotham. In the dark moments of the earlier heat Jon had sensed I was struggling and proposed a new crew plan. Spot on Jon, I can’t thank you enough for making that decision! Leaving Knockholt, Paul walked with me. We chatted away and he gave me some tips following his successful completion of the route last year. We passed Hezel who was getting ready to Pace Giffy and powered on back to the NDW. Fresh with Paul’s energy I started running again. My legs were working. It was starting to cool down. My mind was clearing and I was able to focus on the section at hand, putting the bigger picture to one side for a bit. For so long I’d been thinking of the end goal. Thoughts like “I’ve over two marathons still to go”, “how can I walk 50 miles”, “The cut offs are actually going to be tight today” etc. were poisoning my mind, dragging me down and making it difficult to focus. Now thought I was breaking through them. Positivity was setting me straight. Otford here I come…
There was plenty more running during this section although some serious cramping also hindered me in the still blistering hot evening. At one point as I shuffled passed some runners my legs went completely. I don’t know who panicked more, me or them as they checked in if I was ok as I abruptly came to a stop and wobbled to the side of the trail. All good I assured them. Clearly it wasn’t. The one good thing for my legs though was that they were no longer the primary source of my pains. Nope. My feet had now taken the lead in the pain stakes. Whilst the cooling temperatures and food might help the cramps diminish, nothing was going to happen to make my feet feel better than they did now, and they didn’t feel good. Hot spots and blisters were forming. 12 plus hours of feet slapping the baked Earth was starting to be felt.
The picturesque village of Otford soon came round after a few less than enjoyable kms along some busy main roads. I was looking everywhere for Jon and Nick (having not read the exact location of this crew zone) and eventually found them up near the station. I aggressively waved them across the road, indicating there was no way I was crossing it (later realising they were on the correct side I needed to be on! oops, sorry lads). They sat me down and gave me Calippos. Hell yes. This is what I needed. Jon made sure I didn’t stay for too long, knowing that I’d a planned rest stop in another 6 miles when I reached Wrotham. So eventually he kicked me out of the chair and made me get moving. Top work right there, he knew what he was doing. I would have happily sat there through the night. He also let me know that he and Nick had agreed a new change to out pacing plan. He’d join me from Wrotham rather than 12 miles later. I wasn’t immediately sure what this meant for the rest of the night, but I was very grateful as I was ready for the company now.
Getting to Wrotham was a sweaty mess. There is a lovely climb out of Otford that instantly gets the heart pumping. Along the way families offered ice pops from over their garden fences, unknown to them most runners had just been gorging on Calippos at the crew point. As I progressed through this section, the sun’s rays diminished almost in perfect synchrony as I arrived into Wrotham just as I would have needed to start using my torch. Jon and Nick waved me down and the pit stop began. Propped up in a camping chair, with the Champions League showing on a tablet, I sent Nick off to prepare a Pot Noodle and began my routine. First up, stripping off and having a dry shower. Jon and Nick laughed as I seemed to enjoy this so much, washing my hair, torso and body. Thankfully the feet weren’t looking too mangled at this stage but I took the precautions of adding some padding and tapping the hot spots I could feel. We struggled to get the socks back on and Jon rightly pointed out it was time for me to get new ones (I’ve plenty in a box!) as they were stiff from the amount of dirt and washing they’ve been through. Eventually we won the battle. Shoes changed, fresh kit on, warm food consumed and bag repacked, it was over way to quickly and after a good half hour plus Jon was dragging me out of the chair and forcing me to leave once more. Good man.
The memories go hazy here. I had to question timings and locations after the race with Jon and Nick as I was clearly confused on the order of my recollections. Apparently next up was Holly Hill. I distinctly remember sitting next to a runner in the dark only for Jon to later point out it was a skeleton dressed in running gear. I also had a spot check on my kit here and recall joking with the volunteer. In my mind though this all felt much later in the race, but no, it was still Saturday evening!
I think my memory is hazy due to Jon, in a good way. Now I had company I was focusing less. Jon was expertly ensuring I was on course and keeping me occupied with conversation and pushing me to run when the opportunity presented itself. If the ground wasn’t lumpy, wasn’t inclined and wasn’t endless pathed road, I was good to go. With him leading the way, setting the pace, I was able to keep my head down and focus on where I was placing my feet to minimise the pain. Thankfully the taping saw me good for the first few miles. I do recall one section in the dark we passed some runners concerned that they’d missed a turn as they hadn’t seen tape or signs for a while but we were confident and led the way.
After Holly Hill there was a a fairly long down hill section. The space opens up and we could see head torches in the distance as well as the silhouette of the Kentish country side and Bluebell Hill. I knew from my recces we’d soon cross along the M2 over the River Medway where we’d then meet Nick once more. In the darkness though I was disorientated and moaned a bit as the lights of the M2 seemed so far away. I couldn’t figure out our direction and sighed as we crossed a bridge and I realised it wasn’t yet the M2. We caught up with Nigel along this point and fast hiked the rest of the way together into Nashendarn Farm Lane, looking for Nick. I was looking forward to this stop. Besides being a little over a marathon to the finish (which was a significant milestone in my head as I’d now really be able to start counting down and am always confident in walking a marathon in a long race) it was also our planned ‘treat’ stop. Nick had spent the last few hours waiting in a Mcdonalds. Here he was waiting for us with a delivery burger and fries. It tasted so good.
Calories loaded up, we were back out, hiking the climb to Bluebell Hill. I remember this from the recce too. I’ts a long gradual climb over a couple of kms until you reach the top. The terrain is fairly varied but mostly stony gravel paths which aren’t exactly fun after 75 miles of running. Up top though was another surprise and boost as Paul Christian was waiting at the aid station to say hello once more. What a gent, I don’t know exactly what time it was but it was probably around midnight and he was even further away from home now too. We all had a moment chatting as Nick arrived too before Jon got me back on my feet and onward to Detling. Running down from Bluebell Hill I had a bit of a spring in my step and with the midnight breeze it was the first time in about 20 hours that I wasn’t overheating. Which was good, because there was another fine climb at Westfield Woods soon to come which would make me sweat again. The climb was slow as I awkwardly lunged up the deep steps and loose dirt track. Up top we were once again exposed to the elements, briefly interchanging open fields with single track paths through overgrown foliage. The now familiar process of Jon leading the way, me head down trudging along behind him.
There were prolonged moments of silence. Jon noticed me go quiet, he knew, he’s been through it himself. I was head down focusing. I wasn’t alone in my thoughts though. There was a centurion there too, he was running slightly ahead of me through the woods. He was huge, too big to fit on the path. A bulking mass of metal smashing through the foliage with his gladius. I felt like he was tormenting me, teasing me even. He couldn’t speak, he lumbered on aggressively and I could hear the sound of his armour chinking. A sound which drove right through me. Head down and focus I kept thinking. He’s not my enemy, only I am. I convinced myself he was here to guide me through the night, I chose to use him, to follow him and accept the thrashing sound of metal in the night. He left me as we emerged from Boxley Wood when a few other speedy runners galloped passed on the downhill as I relied purely on gravity to keep me moving forward.
We emerged onto Detling Road with just the bridge crossing left to cover before the next planned long stop at Detling where another Pot Noodle was on the cards. Crossing over the road an Irish accent directed down into the aid station before doing a double take and proclaiming “it’s you guys”. The instantly recognisable accent of Paul Martin! He escorted me in as Jon went in search of Nick who was sleeping in his car. Slacker. Paul saw to our needs, joking away as more runners arrived and slumped into chairs around us. Nigel arrived and I offered him a Pot Noodle, the smell of noodles in the air must have been great as, before we knew it, Paul was running around gathering all the Pot Noodles he could to serve everyone. What a top bloke. He updated us on the now significant drop out rate and gave us motivation and energy to get back out there. Jon and Nick swapped duties here and Nick led me out to begin the last 20 miles, immediately turning the wrong way, thankfully only for a few metres though.
From Detling the route provides another sadistic treat for tired legs which is the infamous Detling steps. After a short climb and winding path around some fields, you descend down very narrow, very steep and very over grown steps. About 50 of them I think. They were slippery with dew and cow shit. I must have moaned a bit here and I wouldn’t have been alone in doing so! The section to the next crew stop was undulating providing plenty of opportunity to hike the small climbs and run the short downhills. Nick continued the pacing theme with a good grasp of the terrain and when to push me on and encourage. Finishing with a downhill flourish we emerged into Hollingbourne which was one of the last minute additional crew points added to the race. I was glad of this addition. Mentally I’d now split the final 30km or so into 6-7km sections between aid stations and crew points. It was much more manageable. Jon met us at the Dirty Habbit pub with more food and water and a quick sit down to rest the now completely battered legs. Morning was slowly breaking and the darkness of night was giving away to the greyness of an overcast morning sky.
Back out. Nick had me on a ‘trot’ to Lenham, the next aid station. From Hollingbourne the rest of the route is mostly gravel paths with very short, runnable (not this time!) climbs before tailing off into a mostly downhill stretch to Ashford. The theme was ‘trot trot trot’ as Nick kept pushing and encouraging me. He’d been looking forward to this and having a run himself after tracking and following me all day. From time to time he acknowledge a good stretch of prolonged running. I’d occasionally be buzzing with it too only to have the life sucked out of me when what I thought would have been a mile or two of solid running would turn out to be a few hundred metres at best. I was at that stage now where the relativity of speed and distances was completely lost on me. That point where you question your comprehension of physics and how it is possible you’ve covered only such a short distance. You recall every detail you saw, every path, tree and field. How?! How can all that exist in such a small space. Fuck you. Ok, two more miles till the next stop. There were definitely moments where my shuffling was based on pure anger and it was the only thing that kept me running until the legs gave up again another few hundred metres later. I even remember moaning at the size of the bank we had to “climb” to get into the Lenham aid station. It must have been about the size of a pavement curb at best, but it felt like the mountains of Madeira to me!
Despite the dark times, the simple pleasures Nick was enjoying was rubbing off on me, pulling me back into the light. “Trot Trot Trot” he’d say, “trot, walk, walk” I’d do. One last crew spot to go as we headed towards Charing. My mind now processing each section with elements of finality. One last crew spot. One more aid station. One more ‘path’ before Ashford…. Jon had text ahead to indicate the road was closed so he couldn’t bring the car to meet us. I told him a chair and lucazade is what I needed him to bring. As we arrived and I sat down, I asked him for water. He gave me that look and laughed “that wasn’t on the list! I’ll go get it…” Thanks Jon! Charing was another spot I was happy to stay at indefinitely. As I stood to begin again my legs were as stiff as two planks. Each rest now required a good few minutes of persuasion to get my knees to bend.
From Charing we headed along the hard gravel path to Dunn St campsite. The path was painful. There is very little enjoyable about this section. The fields surrounding it are lovely, but I’d seen enough fields. The main road wasn’t far away and the sound of morning traffic was an alien sound not heard for hours, not enjoyable. Nick dragged me onwards as once more I’d claim Space and Time were fucking with me. Every turn I anticipated the camp site ahead, every turn the camp site wasn’t there. Eventually it did appear as I was teaching Nick the Polish for ‘chicken’. I can’t remember why. I went to sit down and he went off to play with the chickens at the campsite. The volunteers were great here. Full of energy and excitement to see us. They were working the ‘graveyard’ aid station. The one open for probably the longest duration between the first and last runners, the one many runners won’t reach. They encouraged us to fill up our bags with food and goodies and they let us know there were probably about 60 runners still out there. Some ahead of us, many still behind us.
This was it now though, 5 more miles to go. A short run on the trails and through some fields before the final, dreaded road section to the stadium. I knew it, I could visualise all the road. I was ready for it, I wanted it now, the finish that is. Leaving the trails we began a trot along the road and were soon passing groups of runners. Nick playing Pac-Man, pointing ahead and claiming “we’re gonna eat them up” as he’d set the targets and nicknames for the runners we’d chase down. With maybe 5 or 6 km to go we had about 50 minutes left to get a sub 28 hour time. I told Nick I wanted it, I didn’t care about the other runners. A few minutes later I’d claim someone was catching us or that we need to get passed those ahead of us. I was inconsistent with my thoughts. Nick kept the consistency though, trot, trot, trot.
We broke out onto the main Faversham road and could see dots of runners ahead. We stepped it up. The grey morning was now breaking into a scorching hot day again and we could feel the heat beaming down on us. We got to the intersection of Ulley road with a group of maybe 6 – 8 other runners. It was on. After some jokes and good wishes we all broke into a mad dash. I remember thinking it was way too early to be “sprinting”, but we were. We powered ahead, my watch was saying we were running sub 7min/km pace. Ulley road felt like it went on forever as we pushed hard. Rounding the corner I needed to slow and walk. More runners ahead. I couldn’t do this all the way to the finish. I told Nick to let them go. The few hundred metres we’d need to cover down Canterbury road had a very slight incline which I knew would drain me if I attempted to run it. Two runners ahead, two more went passed. We let them. Up ahead we’d need to go the ‘long way’ round a roundabout, keeping to the right-hand side of the road. The two runners who overtook us cut the corner and went left, passing the other two who followed the slightly wider course. We cursed them.
Around the roundabout we walked and then began running again for the last street. I wasn’t entirely sure how far along it would be (on my recce I’d cut off along this road to run to the train station) but I did know we had three-quarters of a lap of the track still to do. It didn’t matter though, this was it, this was the end. It was almost in touching distance now. We reached the track and followed the signage directing us how to get in. Jon was there cheering and waving us in. Nick started to peel off but I told him to follow me and join for the lap of the track, this was his as much as mine now. I regret Jon also couldn’t join us on the “victory lap”. We paced around the track and began smiling as the final straight loomed. We joked about racing, but it never happened. Instead I ducked my head as I crossed the finish line. What I thought was a perfectly formed athletics-style finish but in reality was probably just me nodding forward and sleepily looking at the ground with my arms flapping like a penguin.
The finish line, despite its subdued set up this year, was great. A volunteer directed me to collect a medal and a t shirt before instructing me where to stand for a finish line photo. Post photo I was directed towards a food tent where I collected a hot dog before moving on through the bag collection and reunited with Nick and Jon for the last time. Shortly after I was butt naked in the car park, changing out of my wet clothes ready for the drive home. It was over. I’d run a 100 miles for the second time, proving to myself that the first time wasn’t a fluke achievement. With a rapid last 5km covered in just under 35 minutes I finished in 27 hours and 45 minutes, sub 28 hours achieved. I was a centurion now……
As the final few hours of the race unfolded it soon became apparent the extent of the difficulties the runners faced as 55% of starters DNF’d, making it one of the highest drop out rate of any centurion 100 mile event. This made me far more accepting of my struggles during the middle of the race and understanding of how alone in I felt. Huge respect to everyone who started that day, regardless of where their race ended, they put themselves outside their comfort zone and were brave enough to attempt something special.
I can’t thank Jon and Nick enough and acknowledge how this really was a team effort. I’ve no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t have finished within the cut-off of 30 hours without these guys. 2 hours sounds like an ample buffer, but the reality of how tight that equates to is another story. Without them I would have run a lot less between Wrotham and Ashford for sure. those spare 2 hours would have evaporated as quickly as a muddy puddle in the midday heat. It isn’t just about the running though. These two sacrificed so much for me on the weekend. they volunteered and agreed to crew me with out fuss, they gave up hours leading up to the weekend in preparation, wrote off their weekend to commit themselves to my selfish desires. They drove miles and miles, spent ages sitting around in the car and at the side of the road, pandered to my every need and inconsistent requests. Not once did they moan or flinch at my demands. they were solely focused on enhancing my experience and doing everything they could to make sure I made it on time. This weekend was a team effort for sure and one I’ll never forget. Thanks gents!
“One Community”. The Centurion Running virtual event held in May 2020 amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic. Not your average event. There are many like it (well, as in many virtual races) in these strange and testing times where groups of runners are coming together to run virtually and tackle the prestigious running events from around the world which are on hold. Virtual events are now the way to get set your focus, obtain your bling bling and hit those highs and lows of running…
I’ve never been into virtual events previously. They don’t really do anything for me and always seemed a bit gimmicky. I like the buzz of the adventure you see, getting out and exploring, experiencing things for real. As the lockdown continued though I got involved in some VRs, mainly in the Maverick Race VR series. If you’ve read my posts before you’ll know I’m a fan of the Maverick team and their events and it has been a great way to support the company in these difficult times.
Then along came Centurion Running with a big one. The One Community. Centurion Running have a series of events like no other. A selection of 4 x 50 milers and 4 x 100 mile endurance events make the backbone of the Centurion race calendar along with a few additional and unique events like their Wendover Woods, night races and the infamous Piece of String. For a while I’ve been contemplating an attempt at a Grand Slam buckle – running all four of the 100 milers in a single calendar year…but I’m just not ready for such a mammoth task. After my stint volunteering last year I have a place in the NDW 100 to look forward to later in 2020 if, big if, the powers that be reduce the lockdown restrictions and we begin to emerge once more into the great outdoors.
The One community (CROC) is a race for all. A chance for Centurion to bring the extensive and loyal community together and celebrate. In their own words “to try to offer our community a way to engage around event but recognising that we can’t do that in person right now. It is extremely important for many of us to have a focus – and our hope is that our One Community event will hopefully provide many of you with that, whilst also offering a chance to involve a wider range of runners than we would traditionally be able to through our regular events. As a result we have set up the Centurion Running One Community virtual event, to take place over the last week in May. This will be the first time we have organised anything like this and we hope it will help bring everybody together behind a shared focus, achieving so much positive interaction along the way.” A great vision if you ask me.
There were a range of options across the week from 5km up to 100mile. Participants could choose how and when they achieve their chosen distance – all in one go or staggered across the week. And that is what I love, it is so inclusive. You could adapt as your ability/fitness/commitments require. During the week you could also upgrade or downgrade too, so you can flex those goals!
I wanted in. I began to plan. At this point I was currently without work, a casualty of the sudden impacts on the job market when, finishing my last role after returning from my adventures in March, I suddenly found myself stuck at home, isolating without a purpose. Yeah it was fun at first, but the novelty soon wore off. I used this time sort of wisely and began with resting. With all my upcoming races being cancelled, I no longer had a focus, no longer targets to be fit nor ready for. I took the opportunity to recuperate a little from the strains I’d placed on my body. As the weeks went by I was able to begin increasing the load, exploring local trails and going further afield as the restrictions eased. During this time I thought about the CROC and soon my plan was set, I knew what I wanted to do.
For a while I’d been tempted to run the Capital Ring in full. A circa 78 mile loop of walking trails around London. What an adventure that would be. What a challenge too – When I first started looking at this route in 2019 there was a Fastest Known Time (FKT) of around 18 hours which, at the time, I thought would be a respectable target time. Now I revisited the Capital Ring again in 2020, in the year or so since my first curiosities, many attempts had bettered that FKT and it was now an impressive 13.5 hours. A target beyond me I knew, which was good, as it removed any pressure of doing an attempt myself and getting sucked into thinking solely about times.
I thought that if I waited until the end of May, the last weekend of the event, to make my attempt, the restrictions might be eased further. I could fill the beginning of the week with the remainder of the miles needed to hit the 100 mile target for the week and have a few days rest before attempting the “longer” run. And so I began to define the plan. Firstly, 78 miles is a long way. It is tough enough as it is without the implications of it being self supported. Outside of race environments this meant no aid stations or check points, no food/water support and no medical assistance. At this time I would not want to be a burden on the UK health services if something went wrong so I thought the best thing to do would be to find a companion. Someone like myself who was willing and capable and ideally someone who’d inspire and motivate me along too. Thankfully I knew many such people and I didn’t have to look far. I decided Paul was the man for this job and floated the idea to him.
Backstory – me and Paul first met during the Country to Capital Ultra in 2018. We kept in touch, joined for various runs and were always training towards similar aspirations. I was able to see him finish the CCC and knew, like me, he too was itching and craving for an adventure whilst caged up at home during the pandemic. Plus being a raving loon of an Irish man I knew he’d bring the “craic” and is a formidable runner who would challenge me along the way. It took no persuasion whatsoever. I mentioned the basis of the plan and he was in.
Ideally I’d have loved to turn this into a mammoth challenge with many of my friends from the running community, but it wouldn’t be the right thing to do. Not now, not during these times. It would be great to pick up and drop people long the way, but with exercising, outdoor pursuits and social distancing all under tight restrictions, even meeting and exercising with one other would be a challenge. Thankfully, a few weeks into the planning the Government eased the lockdown restrictions in the UK with two key guidelines that gave us the green light to proceed: (1) we could exercise outside with unlimited amounts (2) we could meet and exercise with one other person from outside our household as long as we maintained a social distance. We weren’t planning on holding hands so we were in agreement that we felt comfortable to proceed with our plan. It was set.
Time to up the planning…. The first week of May we set about planning it thoroughly. Here are some of the key considerations that we made.
Background Research and the Route
The capital Ring walk is a circular route around London consisting of open space, nature reserves, Sites of Specific Scientific Interest and many parks and residential areas. It is split up into 15 sections. from Woolwich to Beckton. It is easily accessed on foot the whole length. You could start and finish in many places along any section and, conveniently it passes nearby where I live – Crystal Palace. With travelling a consideration of the lockdown guidelines, I’d already, selfishly, decided to start and finish from home. I made Paul aware of this when I first mentioned the idea.
The route is well known. There is a wealth of information available including official route guides, maps and GPX files as well as an abundance of individual reports from walkers and runners completing individual sections or the whole ring. Here are some of the resources I found most useful:
TFL Website – on the TFL website you can find detailed descriptions and maps (PDFs) of each sections. these include summaries of the section including step by step instructions for each turn and the alternate paths. It also includes additional information about nearby landmarks and transport hubs.
Google Maps – there are an abundance of GPS files to trawl through and download. I found the Google maps file to be great as it is interactive and split into the sections ready. Great for virtually checking the route and switching to Google Street View.
LDWA – The Long Distance Walkers Association has a wealth of updates and news about the route as well as lots of detail about each section and the types of things you can expect to see along the way.
Fastest Known Times – this website collates a list of the known times people have completed routes on foot. There is a well documented section on the Capital Ring with many attempts. Many of these link to detailed run reports and insights from other individuals about how they approached it and what they encountered on their adventures.
With this route, starting from home, I’d never be more than approximately 15 miles from home. As a long distance runner I was comfortable with this. no matter the situation, I knew I’d be able to get home on foot reasonably and safely. For Paul, being more central, it would be less. Again, given the lockdown restrictions I also felt this was acceptable as I think I could consider it ‘local’ and it involved no transportation.
With an overview of the route, I set about plotting my own version manually. Using Strava and Google Maps I went through the route mile by mile. I plotted on my own GPX route. There are many GPX files available but I wanted to walk through my own and and not rely on pre-prepared information. For each mile I noted in a spreadsheet, starting from home, where the mile would end and the next would begin. It took a few hours to do so, but now I’d virtually mapped the ‘course’ and compared it to the sections notes available. I had an idea where I’d be at any given point of the day, where the more complicated parts of the route would be and where I needed to spend my attention researching.
So now I knew where we’d be running, it was time to focus on the when. The two questions were ‘when should we start’ and ‘what would that mean for our predicted progress along the way’…. This was particularly important because, whilst under no real time pressures, the route does goes through many parks, public spaces and sometimes restricted areas. Opening and closure times along the route could be a problem, and this would vary depending on where and when you begin. Knowing my own capabilities and comparing to other attempts I knew this was likely to take over 15 hours and many of the places along the route would begin closing from as early as 18:00. Thankfully, attempting this in summer bought a few additional hours to opening/closure times. Regardless, I’d decided starting from home was the best option rather than seeking and optimising the starting location based on the route restrictions and my projected average pace. I’d simply have to make it fit and plan alternative detours where necessary. Besides, after 78 miles of running, I’d be thankful to be as close to home as possible (something I selfishly explained to Paul when I first floated the idea – Sorry mate!).
As I’d have limited opportunity to recce this course, I had to be prepared. So with my mile by mile account I set about noting all the restrictions, all the parks and areas that would be navigated each mile. I projected some average paces (including breaks etc.) and used Google street view to navigate the whole course. By doing this I noted several other things to be aware of and which would require some research. Being unable to travel to far afield (and not wanting to run multiple ultras in the weeks before the event) I decided I could only really recce the first two and last few sections (i.e. from and to Crystal Palace), most of which I was thankfully quite familiar with already. This would cover off most of the south sections of the Capital Ring. I wasn’t overly worried about the north as, if we set off early enough, this would all be during the daytime when restrictions wouldn’t apply as much. With the assistance of Local Council websites I began filling in the blanks and finding out what parts would be open and when. Soon we settled on 05:00 as a good time to start.
From the plan I set about running the sections I’d identified as accessible to me. Nothing untoward was discovered and I used these runs to photograph entrance points of parks as well as notices like opening/closure times. A few parts were found to be closed with diversions either because of local works or simply due to social distancing restrictions. I also checked a few alternative detours such as around Wimbledon Park (which doesn’t open until 09:00 on weekends!).
Paul, being Paul, also took it upon himself to recce some of the route, being further north he recce’d pretty much all the northern sections by the end of May. Result, between us, in a matter of weeks we were confident we had to whole route recce’d bar a few kms. This was far better than I’d expected. I knew Paul was the right man for the adventure!
Prior to our big day we had a video call to talk through our notes and recce runs. We both agreed that the recces were so worthwhile as we were not only able to confirm the opening/closure times and general navigation but also identify those areas that were more confusing due to the multitude of alternative paths and signage (or lack of!). We also discussed the various points where we could go to shops / cafes and where our concerns lay, such as the longer trail sections with no immediate access to facilities etc.
Refuelling and hydration was our main concern. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem. With plenty of parks, shops and cafes along the route as well as public toilets and water fountains this would normally be straightforward. Running such a route during a pandemic though would mean either these facilities would all be closed, or, at best they’d be busy with long queues. Tough shit though, these are the conditions we were choosing to run under. We’d both recce’d and noted numerous points along the route where we could easily detour and ensure we were adequately fuelled. We also identified a cafe around halfway through which Paul ran passed and was open the week before our planned attempt.
Concerns and Plan management
There were a number of concerns we’d be executing the plan with. Firstly, heat. The UK was experiencing the warmest May on records. It was going to be warm, in the high 20s (centigrade) and many parts of the route were completely exposed. Running through the whole day meant we’d have to endure all the sun’s glory. Suncream and hydration would be critical.
Secondly, refreshments and hydration I’ve already noted how we planned detours to ensure we would be getting enough water and liquids. Coupled with the heat of the weekend though this would be especially important.
Finally, for me, shoe choice. This is an incredibly flat route of about 2,000ft across 78 miles. surprisingly though we’d estimated it was approximately 50% trail 50% pathed (I expected more pathed paths!). My trail shoes all seemed a bit extreme for this type of run and the support and cushioning of road shoes would be welcomed. Only, having not run much road for a while I either had an old pair of very worn Brooks Ravennas (veterans of 15 marathons!), their brand new (still in the box) replacements or a pair of Adidas Boosts I’d been wearing for casual trainers over the past year and not exactly worn in for running. I began my training runs and recces in these and soon remembered that they are a tight fit in the toe box. I wasn’t sure how they’d stack up over 78 miles as my feet swell. Then I remember I had another pair of trail shoes I’d won in a competition in 2019. Again brand new in the box – New Balance Hierro. They were bulky and heavy for a trainer, but cushioned and the sole was far from aggressive like many of my other trail shoes – to me they seem like light trail/hybrid type trainer. So I soon switched to them and covered about 70 miles in the two weeks prior to the run. I decided that with the wider toe box I’d attempt the Capital Ring in these, but I had no idea what they would feel like after more than 40km of continuous running. My feet might suffer….
Now, with all the planning and preparation completed, we were ready….
And so, finally, the week of the One Community event was here. The CROC kicked off and social media was flooded with amazing feats and achievements from the running community. Our friend Ged ran the 100miles in one go on a treadmill starting at 1 minute past midnight. Another, Martin, ran it in loops near his house. Another gentleman signed up to all the event distances and was running 35 miles each day for the week. Numerous families and young kids were attempting it and for many the week was seeing personal achievements in times, distances and commitments. The atmosphere was amazing for something we couldn’t physically experience together. Inspiration and motivation was truly all around us.
On Monday I covered an easy 15 miles along local hills in Crystal Palace. Tuesday morning before work I added another 10 miles of loops in the playing fields near my house. 25 miles were banked and I was hoping we’d cover the 78 miles with no issues – I really wouldn’t want to have to go back out on Sunday and run any missing miles! Paul had done similar covering about 30 miles early in the week and we were now itching to go and just had to wait patiently until our Saturday adventure came along. Enough preamble though, let’s get into the main event and the big day…
Just before 05:00 on Saturday 30th May I met Paul outside Crystal Palace station. After a photo opportunity we set off. Without speaking about it we’d kind of the split the day into various combinations of sections – 4 sections thinking of the ring as the fours sides to a square, but also the 3 groups of sections were I would navigate the first section until just after Richmond, Paul would see us venture North and cross London towards Hackney and I’d guide us back south and towards Crystal Palace. It’s just how our recce’s worked out.
Crystal Palace is my playground. Imagine the ridicule when, upon beginning the first climb, just 0.3 miles into the adventure, I proclaim we’ve climbed the wrong street, we run back down and then realised we were correct the first time. Doh
My initial concern, that a few of the small parks and paths leading to Tooting might be closed so early in the morning were answered when they were all open. Within no time at all we’d breezed to Streatham, passed the Streatham Pumping station (with its glorious 1800s architecture) and were making our way through Tooting Common. Here we were momentarily disrupted from our stride when A fire engine, sirens blaring, was manoeuvring into the Upper part of the Common and we had to patiently wait as it made the turn. At 06:00 there seemed to be a fire ablaze in the bushes and some early risers were directing the fire engine accordingly. We were soon back running again and winding our way through Wandsworth and Earlsfield toward Wimbledon.
Wimbledon Park was the one place guaranteed to be closed on our trip. With an 09:00 opening time on weekends, there was no way we could start late enough in the morning without risking closures of multiple other parks later in the day. We knew we’d have to take a diversion and would do so by taking Melrose Avenue up to Southfields Station, looping around the park and joining up back on Wimbledon Park Road (approximately 0.6miles of detour). As we progressed along Melrose Avenue though we found the side entrance to the park was open so, excitedly we ran into the park and traced back to navigate around the fields. Frustratingly as we arrived at the exit on Wimbledon Park Road though it was indeed locked up. Dammit. Climbing the huge gate was an option but one I wasn’t prepare to do. We continued a full loop of the fields before reemerging on our detour having added an extra mile and a half to the run already.
It was trouble free running as we continued on into Wimbledon Common, passed the Windmill and weaving our way through the woodland paths with big smiles on our faces. The relatively short run through Richmond Park was a treat as the sun began shinning brightly as the deer galloped around us. Leaving Richmond it was now a section along the canal paths as we’d navigate north along the route. Here the pandemic struck our plans for the first time as Richmond Lock footbridge was closed due to “Covid-19” as it wouldn’t support Social Distancing. We’d expected to encounter such occurrences but I wasn’t ready for one so soon. Back we went to cross at Twickenham Bridge with another 0.5 miles added to the total. We should have guessed by now that the route was going to be a bit longer than we’d prepared for!
Heading north was a delight with the canal paths fairly quiet in the early hours as we traced along the river passing Brentford, and the Brent River parks. Knowing the restrictions we’d face during the day in obtaining water and refreshments, we’d planned a detour near Hanwell to some local shops. This worked out as planned and we were able to refill our water and continue on our way with minimal fuss. 24 miles in, our focus now became the 40 mile mark where we’d planned a lunch stop in a cafe along the route.
The adventure through Greenford was delightful as the day began to warm up and the parks and green spaces treated our eyes to the wonders that London has to offer. The climb up Horsenden Hill was a delight with some wonderful views to take in and absorb. With the heat of the day beginning to sap away at us, we stopped once more in Harrow-on-the-hill to get more water and begin our adventures through the next set of parks in North London. Here I really enjoyed the views, particularly seeing the arch of Wembley stadium from perspectives I’d never seen before. Having never ventured into these parts of London, I was truly enjoying exploring, despite the pains of running around 50km beginning to set in!
It felt like there was an abundance of green space along the route and the Capital Ring used streets to connect them all up. Past Wembley we entered into Fryent Country park which was glowing with colour as the yellow flowers shone in the midday sun. From here we planned our next detour, skipping past a connecting trail path and down to a petrol Station near Neasden which we knew had both a toilet and an M&S food store. We had a bit of queuing to do as it was busy and probably hung around for about 15 mins as we refuelled with cold water and snacks. The next little stretch was alongside the Brent Reservoir as we ran through the delightful Welsh Harp Open Space. After this came a few miles on street as we navigated East across Hendon. We were about 40 miles in at this stage and would soon be reaching our planned ‘lunch’ stop at a cafe in Lyttelton Playing Fields…
We’d fantasised over the cafe’s menu (mostly lasagne) for some time, Paul in particular was getting hungry now and was eagerly anticipating each turn as he jogged his memory on when we’d appear at the cafe. The parkland was beautiful and peaceful, very quiet considering what we’d seen elsewhere. At 13:00, we were ready for the rest and agreed we’d be flexible between 30 mins to an hour. Only that plan was soon scuppered. The damn cafe was closed. We were at a loss. Our brains shut down with disappointment and we suddenly felt flat. We agreed to stop and rest anyway and took 15 mins to reapply sun cream, eat more of our own stash and reset our minds. Paul introduced me to the wonders of Kendal Mint Cake as we sat on a bench. As our brains settled, we knew we’d soon be coming up at Finchley where there would be alternative food options along the High street. So off we set once more.
Finchley High street turned into a bit of a mess. There were a few cafes, corner shops, a Subway and a Dominos. We thought the pizza option would be quickest and easiest, but we were defeated once more. “Delivery only with no collection” was the sign that greeted us at the entrance. We contemplated phoning in an order and giving the shop’s address to deliver outside but thought better of the hassle. Subway it was. There were a few small children (under 10) waiting outside and we joined the now normalised queuing process. There wasn’t much shade and at 13:00 it was hot waiting around in the sun. As the kids went in next we chatted with their mum a little. She was pleasant. The wait went on. Eventually one of the kids came out to say it was now cash only and mum went off to get some. We continued to wait patiently, only the wait dragged on as confusion inside mounted. After some time we realised the only person working inside the Subway hadn’t started making the families order as he was waiting to see the money (in his defence they were ordering a lot, maybe £40 worth). We later found out that a few times already this day he’d made orders that weren’t paid for due to the card machine issues. So his nervousness was understandable. Eventually we did manage to get served and grabbed two of his quickest sandwiches to make. Along with some coke and more water from a shop we sat down again in Cherry Woods to eat our lunch. This whole process of buying a sandwich cost us an hour in time. Frustrating, but necessary and we did know before we’d began that the changes to ‘life’ as a result of the pandemic would indeed cause us a few delays along the way. It might be that the concept of ‘fast food’ is no longer what it used to be!
Back up and running again we made our way through Highgate Woods and Queen’s Wood. I remember it was nice to be back in the shade of the woods, but I think I’d spaced out a little here. I remember digesting the food and feeling heavy from all the coke. I just sort of followed silently behind Paul as he led the way. We then joined up to the Parkland Walk which was a beautiful set of trails leading past Stroud Green to Finsbury Park. This was a lovely section to run, albeit very busy with walkers and cyclists. Large groups of people and plenty of dogs meant space was a bit of an issue. At the end of the Parkland Walk, the walkway enters straight into Finsbury Park. Well, it would on any normal day, but this was another Covid-19 closure issue and we had to detour a mile around and back into the park. We knew we’d feel all these little detours later! Finsbury Park was very busy, and we navigated through it before joining the new river paths around the wetlands and reservoirs. I really enjoyed this section which was again completely new to me. Lots of new housing developments with glorious views and wide open spaces. As we ran the river, a family of swans with their little cygnets graciously swam down the river.
At the end of the path we stopped for a tactical “re-lube”. We are both fans of Squirrels Nut Butter for minimising chafe, and on a run of this proportion there is no escaping it – it is inevitable. Constant reapplication is key to minimise the damage and the screams in the post run shower! Here though we realised, somewhere along the way, Paul had dropped his tub of butter. I’d brought only a small sample size pot so we began to ration what we had between us as we still had over a marathon to run! We could feel the screams already.
After the reservoir we were heading to Stoke Newington via Clissord park. Holy shit it was busy! There was no doubt in my mind, this was confirmation for me, Lockdown was over. Clissord park was like a festival site. Huge masses of people congregating in groups some probably 20 plus in numbers. Every bit of space was taken up. I guess it is inevitable with it being a summer weekend, recent frustrations at politicians, recent announcements about upcoming easing of measures and no where else available to go (no shops, entertainment venues, sports or holidays…). Agree with it or not, social distancing isn’t compatible with such volumes of people in the same place at the same time. It was the same along Stoke Newington high street too. We stopped for more water and had to run along the busy main road as pavements were packed with people out and about. Thankfully it wasn’t far along the high street before we entered Abney Park Cemetery and then some quieter side streets towards Springfield Park (where we passed a sign for the Capital Ring which, for the first time, indicated Crystal Palace – one marathon to go!) and Walthamstow Marshes. I’ve run in a lot of cemeteries recently (for no real reason other than they’ve been along my routes) and Abney Park Cemetery was another fine example with a lot of historical importance.
The tow path along Walthamstow Marshes was wide and we coped ok with the crowds here. Our next destination would be Milfields Park where Connor, a friend of Paul’s would join us for a section. We found him patiently waiting outside a closed pub and then headed off towards Hackney Marshes and then Stratford. It was a good few miles following the tow path along the Marshes and again it was very busy, especially as we reached Stratford and the London Stadium where it is very ‘hip’ and a number of canal boats were playing music/serving alcohol to the thousands of people sitting along the banks. Despite the crowds, with Connor’s fresh legs pacing us we managed to make speedy progress down the river Lee.
From the London Stadium the route takes you onto the Greenway. Another long stretch of nearly four miles of completely exposed pedestrian and cycle path which we’d follow to Beckton. Me and Paul were flagging here. The monotony of a long run and over 50 miles in our legs was bad enough, but the exposure to heat, even now at 17:00 in the afternoon was just draining. We were begging the sun to piss off for a bit! Thankfully again Connor’s fresher legs pacing us really helped us just get through this section quickly. I was back ‘in charge’ now as we’d completed all the northern sections that Paul had recce’d. My first task was try to recall where there was a shop so we could get more water. As great as these parkways and pedestrian areas were, they were not supported with amenities for ultra runners on an adventure! My mind was hazy. I knew there was a shop down near Cyprus station, but I couldn’t think of anything sooner or even how far away that was. As we ran through the several parks around Beckton, we kept entering new little spaces I’d forgotten about. Eventually though after a few miles (that felt like many more) we found a corner shop and hit it hard. Another 20mins of sitting on a wall in the shade, gulping down water was what we needed. From here it was a dull 2 miles around Royal Albert Basin to the Woolwich Foot Tunnel where Connor would leave us once we got South of the river and he’d head towards Greenwich.
Crossing the foot tunnel was uneventful and we didn’t have to wait or queue for the lifts. Emerging the other side we tracked the river path and wound through the housing estates in Woolwich until we reached Maryon Wilson Park. I was glad to reach here as this was one of the parks with a particular closing time. It gave me confidence that we were here about an hour before closing. There was another smallish detour due to a foot path closed because of social distancing measures and we had to track around the animal enclosures.
The next section I knew fairly well now and it was nice to look forward too. A serious of parks, commons and woodlands meant we’d be off the main roads for a while. It also meant shade from the still intense heat of the sun which was refusing to rest up. The downside, and which I’d pre-warned Paul of, was a long series of climbs. Nothing substantial, but with 60 miles previously covered, we’d feel these for sure. Particularly around Castlewood and Oxleas Wood. We planned a few mins rest at Severndroog Castle to sit down and recuperate. As I drank a small can of coke I’d brought with me, I realised the next challenge I was facing. In the woods and shade, as the sun did slowly start to set (it was now about 19:30), when we weren’t moving I was getting cold very quickly. My clothes were wet with sweat and I’d naively (overly confident?!) decided not to bring any other layers for the trip. I got up and we set off. No more stopping for extended periods I thought. From Oxleas woods we picked up the signs once more and saw one that said 13 miles to Crystal Palace. A half marathon remaining, a good milestone and goal. The end was realistic at this point and we could begin to visualise it.
Making our way through the parks to Eltham we missed a turning and went a short direction in the wrong way, following signs rather than our gut we were clearly on autopilot now just trying to get it done. Back on course we emerged just south of Eltham and once more went in search of water. We were about a mile from Eltham High street (in the wrong direction) and were hoping for something closer. We had to ask a bunch of teenagers who kindly sent us in the direction of a petrol station that wasn’t too far off route. Turns out it is the worst petrol station shop and was about the size of a shoebox. They did however have water and Lucazade so we were content.
Running passed the stables alongside Eltham Palace we were treated to an incredible view of the sun setting across London. We tracked on and in my head I was confident once more as, other than the Downham Woodland walk, there were no more closure times to be concerned with. Access all the way home would be fine. The Downham Woodland walk closed at 21:00 and this too wouldn’t be a problem as parallel streets run its entire length, however it would be a nice few km’s away from residential streets. Thankfully, despite arriving a few mins after 21:00 it wasn’t closed and we made it along the length of the walk. Emerging into Beckenham we’d both acknowledge we had very little remaining in our respective tanks and would happily walk the last few miles once we got north of Beckenham. Particularly so because this was deceivingly uphill (very gradual) and very dull as we’d be following streets through a few residential areas with two small parks which were unspectacular. Before that though we’d power on through Beckenham Palace Park, which, in the woodlands was now dark and made for slower progress. Emerging the other side we plodded on along the streets where we reached the subway going under New Beckenham and the train lines. This was the milestone for me, we’d walk from here.
In the darkness, with tired minds, I thought we’d missed the turn into Cator park as the GPS signalled we had (dodgy signal I guess). A small but irritating mishap as our vocalisation of our pains became louder and louder. We were now averaging about 16 minute miles, which was still good given we kept repeating to ourselves “20 min miles, 1 hour to go”. I’d like to say those last 3 miles flew by, but they certainly didn’t. We eventually crossed Penge East and arrived at the bottom entrance to Crystal Palace Park. All that remained was to navigate around the Dinosaurs, sadly too dark for Paul to experience these wonders, before we arrived triumphantly back at where we started some 17 plus hours earlier. Fist pumps, emotional hugs and cheesy selfies later where we walked to find Lisa who’d waited patiently to pick Paul up. She treated us to banana bread and coke before they kindly dropped me home. I went straight in the bath with an ice cream before climbing into bed. Reflecting on our achievement and that we had literally just run around London, which, in 17.5 hours, we are claiming this as an unofficial Pandemic-FKT (PFKT) 🙂 Capital Ring, you beauty.
Things we learned:
Running a long way during a global pandemic isn’t easy. We anticipated a lot of things but I guess we were still surprised by the impact it had on running:
the planning and restriction. Being able to run together and recce the whole route easily would have helped with the planning. On the day having to take detours because of closure of certain paths added to the time on our feet.
the sheer busyness of everywhere as people can only go outside, so paths and parks were rammed. #Cumgate and easing of Lockdown measures the weekend of our run probably led to some reckless abandonment of the guidelines by the British public.
public toilets are closed. Don’t underestimate the strategic or tactical need to relieve yourself on a long run. Having no public toilets definitely led to a bit more thought. We had many conversations about the benefits of Strategic crapping versus Tactical crapping. Which type are you?
water stops/fountains are closed. Fresh drinking water when you need it is essential to long distance running. Whilst there is plenty still available, you do have to think a little harder and plan where you will detour and find water when park fountains and cafes are closed.
cafes are closed. Likewise for grabbing food on the go. The many little cafes found in the public spaces are ideal for the Capital Ring. Not when they are closed though.
shops require you to queue. We estimated that detours and queues probably added over 2 hours to our adventure. The Subway fiasco alone cost us an hour of time, all for a shit sandwich. Don’t underestimate the impact this has on your mental state and momentum too.
Food and water stores in shops aren’t what they used to be. In many of our stops we had to buy multiple smaller bottles of water because they’d “run out” of larger bottles. Whilst not a problem, it did mean we probably spent a lot more money than we thought we would.
Some tips for the taking on the Capital Ring
Plan your start and finish location accordingly. It might be that starting and finishing nearer home is right for your adventure, but it might not necessarily be the case depending where you are.
Opening and closure times will dictate your progress and might result in a few extra miles of detours. Apart from Wimbledon Park, starting and finishing in Crystal Palace worked out perfectly. However, if we started later, or at a different time of year, we most definitely would have had to detour around some closed areas later in the evening
Opening and closure times vary seasonally and across London Boroughs. Just because a park was open in one area or one week of the year doesn’t mean it will be in the next. Also, whilst summer means longer opening times, it is also likely to me that it will be hotter and you’ll need to hydrate more.
If you do expect to be out after dark take a headtorch! Whilst the street light is enough in many parts, the parks and commons will be dark and you don’t want progress hindered when you are getting tired!
Plan for refreshments along longer sections. This probably sounds repetitive now, but make sure you plan where and when you can access shops along the route to top up on food/water. We were able to minimise our detours by planning ahead.
Watch for signs showing multiple routes/alternative paths. Some sections of the route will have signs directing you in many different ways. This is because of how the route has evolved with developments and in some parts you can reach the same destination by more than one route. The Southern Eastern section also follows the Green Chain Walk. Whilst you can follow these signs for a bit too, be conscious that the Green Chain Walk is a completely different route and has other paths that the Capital Ring does not follow! Also the signs for the London Loop (a longer loop around London) are very similar to the Capital Ring signs, you don’t want to end up following the London Loop when south of the river!!
Be attentive as in some areas the path will take you off the more obvious paths. You’ll be trudging along, following an obvious path or direction and next thing you know you’ve missed a subtle turn. This happened to us a few times and it is clear in Woolwich too when following the route (Clockwise) along the Thames Path and then you suddenly turn off through a housing estate with no warning or signs.
GPS or a map is advised. Whilst the route is often obvious, well maintained and signposted, it is also easy to get lost. Some parts aren’t signposted or the signs are hidden in the overgrowth or the section is closed due to building works. A GPS and/or map of the route will be useful in these situations!
The terrain is varied (we estimated 50% road 50% light trail). In non summer months it could be muddy in the parks/fields and slippery along canal paths and tow paths. I wore Trail shoes New Balance Hierro V4 and Paul wore Road Shoes – Hoka Cavu). The terrain is forgiving and our feet were fine (one very manageable blister for me). Plan your footwear to the weather and conditions – getting wet feet along an 80 mile run might result in more damage to your feet and slippery conditions could lead to injuries.
Lastly, for me I would definitely advise some company. Whilst it is achievable solo I’d argue that it is definitely be more achievable if you’re not alone. If you’re a Londoner, the temptation to stop and get on a bus home etc. will definitely be greater. Paul was without doubt the perfect buddy to pair up and tackle this challenge with!
After a less than fruitful sleep, we were all crammed into the minibus for our transport to the start of the Borneo Ultra Marathon. I had two strategies for this race (1) keep hydrated (2) try and regulate my temperature as much as possible. I wasn’t sure how this race would pan out but I knew to have any chance of surviving the heat of Borneo I’d have to get this right!
Surviving the heat wasn’t the only concern amongst participants of the BUTM. Despite the carnage and ongoing concerns of the Covid19 virus that was sweeping the world, BUTM 2020 was going ahead. I felt bad for the race director. He was in a difficult position. 3 weeks prior they’d advised they were proceeding. Then the global situation intensified. The Sabah region had stayed pretty much virus free until pretty much the day before the race when. So, despite last minute updates to government’s advice the race was still going ahead. This did cause some stir and there was some noise as other races in the following weeks were cancelled. But what can you do, how do you cancel and international event at a few hours notice? It’s a lose lose situation for the RD. Some last minute provisions were made and as we queued up to enter the registration hall, all runners had their temperature scanned and our hands were sanitised. There was advice provided to for social distancing where possible (but let’s remember in the grand scheme of things this is a low key event and it doesn’t draw a crowd of spectators!).
After registering we made our way to the start line which was just a short walk away. This is also where the race would finish as we cross the final wooden suspension bridge across the water. We did the usual pre-race photo rituals and those of us doing the 100km or 50km made our way to the front of the start pen (the 30km has a later start). With little fanfare we were off and started running back through the small town and passed the hall where we registered.
We soon began the first of many long climbs and I settled in near Meghan and Carl as Spencer and Jake ran off in the distance. It wouldn’t be long before I’d turn off and begin a different route for the 100km. First though we began the steep road climb. The pace immediately slowed to a bimble in the darkness of the early morning. The sun was starting to shine and I was hoping to experience this sunrise again in 24 hours time.
A few km in and the 100km runners broke away, turning left away from the 50km runners who’d continue the climb a little further. I had this to look forward to later on where the later half of the 100km follows the same 50km route. For now though, a small quad buster of a trail descent. The ground was lumpy and hard, but my attention was drawn to the views of the surrounding area as the day broke. I briefly chatted to a Canadian woman doing her first 100 mile race and an Irish man from Wexford also doing the 100km (who’d go on to finish 2nd!). I stopped to capture a few pictures and ran on when the roads flattened and became gravel trails. Already the field was thinly spread and I found myself running alone. At the end of the descent I saw a 100 mile runner running back towards me. I assumed we’d gone wrong but he explained the river crossing was ahead and he didn’t want to get his feet wet so was going to cross the suspension bridge. I agreed with him, in the week before my feet took a beating from running in wet shoes and socks as I cooled in the rivers. I promised myself that if I stopped at a river to immerse myself I’d removed them first. It was too early to need to cool in the river though so I followed him across the scariest bridge I’d ever been on. The suspension bridges in Sabah are essentially rusty old wire fencing (think chicken coop wire) with wooden planks along them, not always attached! This one however was missing one side of the wire ‘rail’ as it was broken and hung loose and flaccid along the bridge. The planks in many places didn’t exist and the wire was full of holes. We shimmied across with two hands on the existing rail and sidestepped it. The bridge swinging and bouncing with the movement of runners. I was sure we’d fall in the river!
Shortly after the bridge fiasco, We crossed a concrete road section breaking up the river and even before 8am I was realising just how hot it was and how hot it would get. It was scorching and I was dripping with sweat already. After climbing some more gravel roads we ran into a field where we were scanned before crossing the field and running a trail path along the river. We then began the first of the ‘bigger’ ascents which was a mix of gravel roads and more hard and dry packed trails. Here the heat of the morning really struck and I noticed a number of the local runners would stop whenever there was a bit of shade from the trees. I decided to adopt this technique and grab a few seconds breather also. This would help my goal for regulating the body temperature. It was relentless. I soon realised I’d be stopping a lot on these climbs and taking it slowly so I made my peace with that. As we climbed I also started to think about my liquids. I was getting through my 1.5ltrs (I had an additional 500ml bottle to add to the hydration for later in the day) and I was wondering where and when I’d come across the first water stop. I changed my watch screen to check the distance and somehow I was on 15km already. I was confused as I’d not seen the water station. I thought it must have been in the field where I was scanned (I remember reading about that field in the race notes), but I didn’t see anything. It was a good thing though, it meant that I wasn’t far from the second water stop and had made good early progress.
The second water stop came just before the next big climb and I was glad. I was ready for some food and water. As I arrived I was more confused than ever though. I couldn’t see any water and the only food options (fruit) and fizzy drinks had prices on them and a woman telling me it was RM3 (less than a pound) for a coke, 100Plus or bottled water. What?! I wasn’t going to buy liquids in a race in the high 30degrees out of pure stubbornness. Thankfully I was eventually directed to massive water butts on high platforms with hoses coming from them for drinking water. This made more sense and no wonder I missed it at the last stop. As I refilled my bottles I realised I’d made a kit packing error – in my haste packing the night before I’d put all my caffeinated Tailwind in my race pack rather than the drop bag for the second section at night. Great. I’d be buzzing with caffeine throughout the day now. I decided to try and ration it and water it down a bit to save some for when I’d need it most when I’m tired at night.
As I left the water station we began the first jungle/trail section which was quite technical but also short before the wider trail climbs. Just like the climbs before, this was completely exposed and I was seeking out the shadows to cool down. It was a slow slog to the top but I was able to run a bit as we descended into the next water station. All along the climb and descent there were locals at the side of the road, in cars, outside their houses selling fruit and drink. I didn’t like it. It didn’t seem right to have to buy essentials (yes I class coke and isotonic drinks as essentials in ultras!) during a race.
During this section I recognised several trails from our runs the week before. I ran a familiar ridge and passed a house where we saw a monkey and a pig before passing a place which had amazing views of Mount Kinabalu. Some trails looked so familiar but I wasn’t sure if I’d been on them too! I then arrived at the third water stop and things became a little bit clearer. A volunteer asked me if I wanted fruit and when I asked if I needed to pay he replied saying “no, fruit is free for runners”. I ate so much pineapple my tongue went funny from the acidic goodness. It was ace. I filled all 4 bottles of water and set back out.
And so onto the biggest climb of the race. I was aware this one would be tough and the 14km section (straight up and back down the other side) would take about 4 hours. It was so exhausting. As the sun rose higher in the sky, with it the temperature began to sore. I was looking for the shadows. They were pure temptation. Like a voice calling you over. Come to me. Rest a while. Sit down and take the weight off your feet. Maybe stay a while, stay here all day if you like. I had to challenge myself not to succumb to the relief but to keep moving. I made a pact. I’d stop every time an opportunity presented itself, but not the first shadow, always the second or last one. Make some progress up the climbs and break it up. Each time I’d stop I’d count to ten with deep breathes, resting my hands on my knees and my head lowered to the ground. In and out. I’d watch my heart rate decrease in those ten breathes. Sometimes dropping 30+ BPM. I was working hard in the heat despite moving slower than I’ve ever climbed before.
Eventually I began to reach the top and there was a woman selling drinks. I knew there was a false summit but the trail descended quickly so I asked here if this was the top and she replied ‘yes, all downhill to the next water stop’. I packed away the poles, composed myself and cracked on. She was wrong. It was the false summit and we still had 300m of climbing to cover. I was annoyed! As we began the descent I saw a runner turn right but I saw the markings go to a trail to the left. I stopped and was about to call after him when I saw markings that went the other way too. Another runner also stopped and we debated which was right. We followed the first runner and saw more markings further on, we hoped it was right!!
When we weren’t far from the end of the descent we reached the 4th water stop. We were now 40km in. I filled my bottles and went and sat in the shade in the hut. It was quiet here with only one other runner doing the 100 miler. I sat with my head between my legs and necked a lot of water. A woman asked if I was ok. I felt fine, just too hot. She told me I was 11th. Just outside the top ten and the 10th runner just ahead. I laughed at her. That’s crazy I said and I told her I need to slow down then. I sat back and chilled out. That might have spurred people on, but not me. I went the other way. Top ten?! That’s not me. So I decided to stay here for at least ten mins and recover from the exhaustion of the climb. I eventually got up and went to another hut full of fruit and gorged on more pineapple and watermelon. I tried chatting to the women who prepared it all but they just kept laughing at me. Some sweaty white guy stuffing his chops and not stopping to chew.
I carried on. It was only 4km to the next water station and I now felt recharged and fuelled after the lack of food earlier in the morning. I was able to run a little and the ground was quite forgiving. The next water station was a confusing one as it was also one I’d revisit later in the race. I sat down for another 10 mins and applied more suncream and had some more fruit and water. The exit to this station was a massive suspension bridge and we were then running on some undulating trails heading back towards town. About halfway along the trails the runner I was following stopped. He said he didn’t see any trail markings any more. He was right, I’d stopped paying attention and now also didn’t see any. I ran on a bit but still didn’t find any. I loaded the GPX on the watch and it seemed like we were ok to continue. It wasn’t on the track but it looked to run parallel. We both sat on the floor and composed ourselves. Even thinking in the heat was draining!! The trails did indeed meet once more and we crossed several more suspect bridges. We then ran passed a junction in the race I recognised from the morning (which I’d also visit once more later in the race) and along some road. I was plodding along and before I realised it I was back at the start. Halfway. Time for my drop bag, food and a good sit down and rest.
I was about two and a half hours ahead of my predicted time so I messaged the group. They’d all finished their races now and were still in the area so they came to see me. I was a beautiful sight for them. Half baked with a wet towel draped over me, feet up and chewing on potatoes and other veg (I wasn’t fancying my chances of keeping the chicken curry down!). I was sweating so much. It just wouldn’t stop. I tried to relax and cool down but to no avail. As we talked I found out they’d all smashed their races. We had first female in the 30km, second female in the 50km and several winners in their age categories. Incredible. They went off to collect their podium prizes before leaving back to Kota Kinabalu. Spencer was staying with Jess to crew her sister on the 100 miler and she was flying, she’d arrived and left the aid station. I was getting comfortable. I was content with how the race was going so decided I’d stay for at least an hour. I ate more, bandaged my feet and kept trying to stop sweating. Eventually Jess and Spencer started packing my stuff up and kicked me out, back on my way. Cheers guys.
The next 50km would be broken up. Two big climbs and descents. A bit of flat/undulating trail. A tough trail climb and descent then two small hills and a fairly flat but slightly inclined 8km to the finish line. I was focused.
I started the first climb at a steady paced hike. The temperature had now dropped and the suns heat was diminishing. The climb was immediately easier than those in the morning/midday heat and I no longer needed to stop as I hiked. I felt good. The descent was quite runnable and I plodded on consistently.
I reached the next water stop and took another ten mins to relax. The next climb was tougher than I expected as it was through trail and jungle forest. There were some very steep sections. As I started to climb, it began to rain. Thankfully in the forest I was quite week sheltered so I let the rain cool me. I was also not worried about getting wet because the temperature was still high twenties and I was already soaked through with sweat still.
I summitted as the sun was setting and I took a moment to enjoy the views of surrounding mountains In the twilight. Quite surreal. As I continued along the ridge it soon became dark and I had to put my head torch on. The next descent was a little harder than I expected as the darkness settled quickly and the ground was very muddy and slippery from the rain. I almost stacked it a few times!
At the end of the descent I arrived back at the water station (with the big suspension bridge) from earlier in the day. I cracked into some noodles and rested again. Too my surprise, four 100km runners then showed up (one woman running in some flimsy rubber sandals!) and I was a little shocked. I’d seen only a handful of runners since I started the second loop and most of those were doing the 100 miler. I thought I’d been making better progress now. Clearly not though! I followed them out and we retraced the undulating trails from a few hours earlier. This time I walked behind them. Then, I lost sight of them. I noticed some head torches lights just above me and realised this was were I had to look at the GPX route earlier. I quickly ran back and found the actual root this time and soon caught them up again. We next arrived back at the intersection of all the routes for my third time and I started to veer right. The other runners carried on straight. Aaah. I hadn’t been caught up after all, they were still on their first loop. I was at least 20km ahead of them. That made me feel better.
I was happily walking the next section when I once more realised I’d done this route earlier in the day. I crossed the concrete road through the river again (disoriented and thinking I was going the opposite direction this time – I wasn’t). Despite looking at the route and the elevation I hadn’t quite noticed how many paths I’d duplicate. I knew what lay ahead though. Gravel and pathed roads, climbs and a small descent. Then I’d be at the water station I missed on my first pass (the very first one!). I was getting sleepy now though. I thought about sleeping for ten minutes when I arrived but I settled for coffee instead.
It was back out through the field and along the river before somewhere I turned off on to new trails I’d not yet experienced. Next it would be the biggest and most technical section of the last 50km. Spencer had warned me about how technical this but would be in the dark so I felt prepared.
I don’t really remember the climb. But I do remember the descent. It was brutal. It was very steep and very rocky and rooty. The ground was covered in wet leaves and slippery earth. I was going slowly. I was also feeling it in my feet and the they were hot and raw. I couldn’t wait for this to end.
It was quite surreal being in the jungle at night. The noises were very relaxing and the floor was moving, crawling with insects. I saw so many armies of giant ants, big ugly spiders (eyes glistening in the torch light!) frogs and bats. A few times I stopped and turned off my light to enjoy the darkness and look up at the clear night sky. It was peaceful out here on the mountain with the stars shinning through the gaps In the trees. As the trail flattened out I realised how tired I was actually becoming. I was definitely beginning to fall asleep as I ran and wobbled from side to side. At one point I saw Spencer laying on the ground next to me. I jumped awake as I almost stepped on him. He looked up and said “you alright mate?”. I was beginning to hallucinate and needed more coffee!
I stocked up on caffeine and more noodles at the aid station and carried on for the final two lumps of the race. It was working. The warm food and caffeine enabled me to run the down hill sections which were gravel tracks and road. We crossed many more suspension bridges (quite a few in dire need of repairs!) and I even passed a few runners. Before I knew it I’d covered the 10km of trail and was at the final water stop. I felt good. It felt like a long time since I’d finished a race actually running a bit. Normally I’m resigned to just walking by now! I promised a quick final stop. More coffee and I ate a whole pack of PowerUp sweets I’d had for over a year. A resealable pack, I chewed them all down. This would give me that final kick of energy. And it did. After a quick turn around I was running. I was now churning out some sub 7 minute kilometres as the watch ticked passed the 100km mark. I even ran some of the small inclines and kept the moment going. Partly I didn’t want the people I overtook catching me up. I did now wonder how far off I might be from the top ten all these hours later.
The final section felt quite disorienting and I felt like I was running around in circles. Constantly crossing bridges and looping around. As the kms ticked down I could sense the end. One volunteer I passed (checking bib numbers in) congratulated me. I smiled. He was right. I’d done this. The few km ahead were a formality. I was feeling it. Smiling. Running with confidence again.
Up ahead I saw the bright lights on the other side of the river. All very quiet, but this must have been it. The final bridge crossing. I’d read about it. You finish this side of the bridge and walk across to collect your medal. It wasn’t exactly as climatic as that for me though. There was no one there. I crossed the bridge and ran under the finish arch to total silence. At the finish line two volunteers. One checking all the mandatory kit. The other handing out the tshirts and medals. Very subdued at 05:00 in the morning! Which is always to be expected. I’d come in under 24 hours, I was very happy with that.
I walked back to the registration hall, collected my drop bag, found the driver Joanne had arranged for me and headed back to the lodge to get some sleep. In 12 hours time I’d be on a flight back to the UK and in 24 hours time I’d be heading to work, and my adventure would have sadly come to an end! What an adventure it has been though!
Joanne and Richard from Adventures in Borneo had prepared an incredible two weeks of running and adventure for us. The Planning and organisation and support from them and their team was incredible. They’d supported us through the race too. Not only with the logistics and organisation but through their advice, experiences and getting us exposed to the trails and climate beforehand. The group, now friends, who’d done the adventure all performed incredibly. When I found out the results at the half way point I was amazed. So strong and everyone had such a great time. I too had a great run and did squeeze into tenth place in the end. Unreal.
The race itself was enjoyable. I started off mentioning the difficult circumstances surround the event and I am so glad I was able to run the BUTM. The trails and route was pretty epic and the volunteers and organisation were great and helpful. The pre-race information was, if anything, too informative (detailed route instructions that you’d struggle to visualise) and as far as I could tell the whole event ran smoothly. The trail markings and directions were great and any fears I had of running through the jungle at night were not valid. I also mentioned about having to buy drinks. This was the biggest negative for me. I believe it’s intended to support the local communities but I think this can be achieved via the entrance and registration fees. It’s great that people are out providing extra support to runners, but I don’t think this should be at the expense of the provisions at the actual aid stations. This was the first ‘supported’ race I’ve done where I’ve eaten most of my own nutrition stash. There just wasn’t much at the aid stations to have (pineapple and noodles aside!). I’d definitely recommend this event and do now have my eye on their sister race ‘TMBT’ (Interpreted as either ‘The Most Beautiful Thing’ or ‘The Most Brutal Thing’ depending who you speak to!) held in August each year…
‘Chasing Pounamu’ is a short documentary about one runner’s quest to complete the Tarawera 100 mile endurance run. Runners completing the event are gifted a Pounamu – a local Maori gemstone made into a necklace. It’s a heart warming and emotional watch (you can find it on YouTube). One I watched a few weeks before I headed out on my own quest to ‘chase the pounamu’…
Last year, when Kirsty left the UK to return to New Zealand, a few of us said we’d come and visit sometime. Little did I realise a few months later I’d be signing up to my first 100 miler in New Zealand. 100 miles was never on my to do list. However, over the past 12 months my running distances had been slowly creeping up and 100 miles suddenly became the next logical step. Although It wasn’t until I was on the sign-up page for the Tarawera Ultra Marathon (TUM) that the decision was made as, unlike the other events at TUM, the ‘miler’ finishers are gifted with a pounamu. I signed up immediately.
Fast forward some 8 months later and we are reunited with Kirsty in Rotorua. Like many events I didn’t feel as ready as I could or should be. Especially for tackling my first 100 mile event. A recurring pain in my ankle/shin had kept me from running for the whole of January (with the exception of the Maverick race in Amberley). My mind was focused though. No way was I not starting. No way was I not finishing. No way would I be leaving without that Pounamu! For weeks my mind had been consumed by the race. I’m not sure why. Maybe because of the costs. Maybe the extent of the adventure I was embarking on for 6 weeks. Maybe because I was nervous. Either way it helped me to focus and visualise on the end goal. I was determined and would be relying more than ever before on the experience I’ve accumulated from running ultras…
The day before the race we went to the Maori Powhiri at Te Puia. A traditional welcoming ceremony which welcomed the runners to the event and officially opened it. With talks from the race founder, Maori leaders and the town Mayor as well as singing and dancing it ended with a hongi – a significant expression performed by rubbing noses. It was , to a ‘Westerner’ unusually special. I’ve never felt so at home at an event before. The runners were told that we were now part of their community. Their family. That together we’d see success in the event. It was all rather touching. We then went and registered and collected our bibs (and do the weigh in for medical reasons). This was the quickest of processes as we’d already passed our mandatory gear checks – the event had a unique collaboration with Macpac (an outdoors retail chain) where you could visit any store in the days leading up to the event, do the mandatory gear check in store and receive a signed certificate to present at registration instead of taking your kit with you. This made the whole process so much slicker, how any of it is actually governed come race day I do not know though! The afternoon involved some relaxing in the heated hotel pool and then as much sleep as I could possibly get!
It was time. After a few hours sleep I found myself creeping around in the dark at 2am. The 3 others in the room were still sleeping, squeezing in an extra hour for the later start of their 100km race. Final preparations and checks completed and it was time to leave, just as it started to hammer down with rain. Hugs and high fives all round. Andy kindly drove me to the start back in Te Puia and Jorge, being the ever generous and supportive friend he is, came along too. We rocked up in a very empty car park. Jorge sported Adrian, the man at the centre of ‘chasing Pounamu’ and I followed him inside the cultural centre to the start line right up by the active Pohutu geyser – Pohutu happens to be the largest active geyser in the southern hemisphere and erupts once or twice every hour, sometimes reaching heights of 30 metres!) which was erupting magnificently in the darkness. The start line was covered in the spray and mist from the sulphur activity. I sat on the hot rocks nearby and waited patiently. I did one final ‘body check’ and mentally confirmed all was good – nothing but the normal few amber warnings flagged up. I was as ready as I could be.
As the MC started to welcome the runners and brief us on the journey ahead we congregated behind the start line. Our welcome climaxed in a traditional Maori Haka and traditional singing. With Pohutu erupting behind us it was a truly surreal and magical moment as the race director and crowd of supporters counted us down and sent us off on our challenge…
For a moment I was overwhelmed as I crossed that start line. To cheers and applause I realised this is the moment of races I like most. A sense of awe from the crowd. Respect and appreciation as they spur on loved ones, family, strangers. There’s no competition, only encouragement. the beginning of an epic challenge and adventure, however it turns out. At this moment I feel invincible. I smiled and clapped back, as I always do. I wish this feeling would last more than a few seconds!
We ran through Te Puia and very quickly found the trails as we made the first 13km to the first aid station. The first set of paths were hard and dusty. Uneven but nice to run. They led us into the first of many forest tracks we’d run this day. It was still raining but as we entered the Redwood forest the rain was but a light mist/spray that was cooling in the humid morning. The head torches lit the way as we traced the winding paths through the woodlands. The pack of just under 300 runners was already beginning to spread and I found myself following a group of maybe six runners keeping pace together. Before I knew it a sign screamed out at us “aid station 200m ahead”. Little did I know how much I’d look forward to these signs later in the day!
Leaving the aid station we were immediately back into the forests. These paths were different though. More single tracks. The floor littered with roots. A few times I tripped but thankfully never fell. Areas of steps provided extra challenges in this part as we navigated the trails in complete darkness due to the thick foliage and cover. The smells were incredible and so vibrant and I was smiling as I wound my way through moew twisty tracks. Another aid station came and went and I then found myself running alongside the Green Lake. The sun was starting to rise and the paths navigated ran alongside the lake as the sun began to glisten and reflect off the water. The trails were undulating with little stretches of running broken up by short climbs. We burst out of the forests and ran a section along a sealed road. Cones marked the way and signs encouraging the runners to keep inside the cones. I felt the road. It was dull and tedious after the trails before it. Thankfully though the Buried Village soon appeared. The third aid station and one of historical importance – a heritage site persevering a village buried under rock, ash and mud following the eruption of Mt Tarawera.
Inside the Buried Village the atmosphere was electric. Loads of supporters welcoming the runners in to the aid station and a lady on a mega phone cracking the jokes and encouraging everyone on. I had some jam and Nutella sandwiches made for me by the volunteers and cracked on to the next section which would be the second longest stretch between aid stations with about 15km until I reached Isthmus. I did stop very quickly for a picture at the view point and then again to take off my arm warmers and pack them and the head torch away.
This section was by far my favourite part of the race. The Buried Village was beautiful and the trails undulating along the rock face. Fauna surrounded us and we were soon presented with incredible views across lake Tarawera as the sun continued to glisten and reflect off the water. The paths then opened up as we reached the lake. The soft grassy trails which followed the contours of the lake were a joy to run on. As we closed in on Isthmus I noticed some odd signs warning of zombies and that ‘any zombies chasing humans would be shot on sight’. It took me a while before I realised the it was a sign for the aid station and that all the aid stations were themed. This one for a Zombie apocalypse. I thought it was a great way to raise a few smiles and provide entertainment.
A bunch of runners came in after me and I didn’t hang around too long. It was just over a km until I’d reach the ferry crossing to get to the other side of the lake Rerewhakaaitu. I didn’t want to end up in a queue for the boat so I stepped on it a little. As I arrived at the jetty there was sadly no boat waiting for me. Two ladies, Sue and Femi sat waiting with mocktails. The volunteer was preparing juice and ice mocktails for the runners and they were an absolute treat. I picked one up, clinked glasses and sat down to joined them. As we waited he explained there had been an issue with one of the two boats. By the time it arrived 12 of us shuffled onboard to get to the other side. A few minutes later as we unboarded the runners fled off into the distance and running through the private farm roads. We then hit a long road on a gradual incline. I briefly chatted to sue as she ran a steady pace running to heart rate. She gradually pulled away as I was adamant I was walking it all. I didn’t want to burn out so soon!
The road continued for about 5km before we reached the next station at Rerewhakaaitu. It was still morning but getting very hot now. I took advantage and lathered up with the suncream available at the aid station before hitting the road again. And that is what it was. More road. More tarmac gradually climbing as far as my eyes could see into the distance. I hiked on. I was amazed by the persistence of runners who ran it all. The farmer themed aid station of Okahu broke up the road briefly but more was to come. By the time we left the road I think we must have covered somewhere between 10-15km. It was soul destroying. The return to the trail was most welcomed.
The trails were now long and wide gravel tracks worn over time by vehicles. Again the paths were undulating with gentle inclines and down hills alternating. A good section for running and getting into the flow again. That was until towards the end of the section where a climb of about 200m was lurking. As we reached the top and the aid station at Wihapi the volunteers apologised for the hill. I laughed and said it was easier than the road. It certainly was for me!
From here the wide gravel paths continued. Only down hill. The longest section of downhill on the route and I thought it was as soul destroying as the road. Why? Because it was so straight. You could just see the path continue into the distance and never ending. Mentally I found it tough to keep moving at pace. Somewhere around here I’d started talking to another runner – Thomas. We’d been leap-frogging each other for a while and had settled into a comparable pace. He seemed fine with it when I kept pointing ahead and indicating where and when I’d start walking or running. Puhipuhi was the next destination and one that marked where the route would join with that of the 100km runners. Those runners would be well passed by now though having started 3hours after the miler and having just 20km to run to get to the same aid station. Hopefully that would mean the trails would be quieter for me for the rest of the day. The volunteers offered me plenty of ‘crippies’ and ‘lollies’ as well as the option to lay in their paddling pool. I declined the later but did discover Mountain Dew. Something I’ve never tried before. I thought it was ace, even though it is probable a chemical concoction I do not want to know more about! As I drank the Mountain Dew, it was the first moment that it dawned on me how far the race was. 80km in and we were only half way there. Halfway! Shiiit. That thought would linger for a long time.
Chatting away to Thomas I completely zoned out on the way to Tiktoki. I remember the trails were still long and wide but now more grassy and more dirt like rather than gravel. Some woman also joined with us for a short while. She was memorable because she was completely soaked (somewhere she’d gone for a dip in the lake!) and because she shared insight and knowledge as the was her second time. She encouraged us to reach Hhumphries before dark as that section was technical. She vanished before we reached Tiktoki and was no where to be seen when we arrived. As we sat and ate at the aid station we chatted with several other runners. One explained he was done with the sweat food and a volunteer overheard and brought out bacon and egg pie. Woooah. This was great. Back on it now! 10km until the 100km mark and a key milestone in my race because (1) I’d mentally split it into 3 x 50 kms. I knew if I got to 150km I’d finish. So 2/3 of the race would have been completed when I reached the Outlet. (2) it was where my drop bag was located. So time for a longer rest and mid-race maintenance. For me this means a wet wipe shower, change of socks, t-shirt and shoes. Reapply Squirrels Nut Butter to prevent chafe. Swap out and refill my nutrition stash and dump any unnecessary items. This time I got rid of the Gopro, sunglasses and running belt (used to carry my phone but I was no longer in the mood for photos so in the backpack it went!). Before I reached the Outlet though it was more windy forest trails. The highlight of which was a section running along one of the clearest rivers I’ve ever seen. Somewhere hidden here is the Tarawera Falls. You could hear it for a long time before we reached it. The water was gushing out of the mountain through many holes. We took a moment to enjoy the view before continuing.
As I was going through my drop bag routine I told Thomas to crack on. I was going to be here for a while and didn’t want him waiting for me longer than he was prepared for. As is the case with these races you often see people again at different stages. We wished each other well and I got stuck into some more hot noodles. I was all about the hot savoury food now! Loads of runners came and went in my time at Outlet. But when I left I was born again!
The next section was the technical bit to Humphries bay running alongside the northern side of lake Tarawera. Crazy to think I’d been looking across the lake to this area maybe ten hours ago after I left the Buried Village! It was Only about 7km and I was feeling rejuvenated so I ran. I ran well. I passed maybe ten runners on this section as I leaped and bounced around the roots and lunged up the rocks and powered through. It was fucking humid too. As the day started to end the humidity In the forest increased. My fresh kit was quickly as wet and stinky as the stuff I’d changed out of. Despite the running it took a while. A good 1.5 hours for such a short distance before I emerged into the scout base of Humphries bay. Here I persuaded a volunteer to make me a cheese toasty using the volunteers sandwich maker. She wasn’t too eager but how can you say no to someone running a 100 miles?!
Leaving Humphries it was a similar story as I made my way towards Okatania. More forest paths. Less technical thankfully but still many roots and fallen trees to climb or duck under. The legs didn’t appreciate those lunges now! It was still very bright as the sun set over the lake but as soon as you turned back into the ‘bush’ it was pitch black. The headlamp had to come out. It felt odd as I could look up and see the light beyond the foliage. It just wasn’t reaching the ground. I found Thomas again and we carried on into the darkness for the several km remaining of this section, which felt so much longer.
I lost him once more at the Okatania aid station. This one was pumping. Okatania, with its circus theme, was a hive of activity. Not only was it another drop bag and support aid station, but it was where miler runners could have a pacer join them for the last marathon. Yep. Three back to back marathons done, one remaining. I sat down with some soup and more egg and bacon pie and a woman started talking to me. She was waiting for her husband and was asking how it’s going and if she could get me anything. So kind. I was sorted though. Warm belly and more fluids taken on board as well as a third water bottle filled up – the next section was 16km. I’d been drinking a litre between aid stations and despite it now being night, the humidity, length of the next section and the imminent climb meant I should be wise and prepared. I had noticed that despite all the fluids I was still not fully hydrated though after all this time and it did bother me a little and was on my mind.
Stocked up I set off to make the climb. Maybe a little over 500m lay ahead. This didn’t phase me and I was ready for a good walk. I’d also picked up my poles at the 100km mark ready for a lot of walking. After bringing them all this way I at least needed to make some use of them. So out they came. And off to the Blue Lake I marched.
It was a lonely old climb. I thought I’d see groups of people encouraged by their pacers storming past me but it never happened. What did surprise me though was that on the climb I began overtaking some 100km runners. I didn’t think I’d catch the ck end of this event. They were in high spirits though and with each one I passed we congratulated each other’s efforts and called bullshit to the climb and pains. As I broke the back of the climb the descent began. It was runnable. Single track easy underfoot. I ran on. After a few km though the ran became a hobble. Whilst I’d been blocking out the pains in my legs (particularly my ankle/shin pain and my destroyed quads) I couldn’t block out the pain in my left foot. The sole was raw. A blister for sure on the padding. Pressure was rather uncomfortable but there was no choice but to keep moving forward. The slow progress then began to make me tired and I was wobbling a little for sure.
Before the Blue Lake there was another section. Coming out of the long trails from Oktania we reached the aid station at Millar road. A smallish aid station but one busy with volunteers. I asked for warm food but there was none. They did have coffee though. I needed it. The long walk had made me sleepy. I needed a kick. I sat down with more jam sandwiches, a cheese scone and some ‘chippies’ whilst I drank the coffee. I noticed runners coming in and either layering up or being wrapped in blankets as they sat. Mmhhh. I realised it was cold. I took my arm warmers back out. It wasn’t cold by UK standards but I was beginning to shake a little.
As I left Millar road I walked with another guy. We talked a bit but I forgot his name. I was spaced out now. I overheard a volunteer tell another runner about long sections of road and another 1.5km of technical forest tracks. As we walked the first part of the road the pain was too much for me to fully engage in conversation. I also kept needing to pee. So I’d dropped back from the runner before we reached the technical part. In the bush it was so dark. The paths were windy with twists and turns. I kept having to stop and look which way I was going. My head torch died and I needed to change the battery to see (thankfully it died in a small clearing in the bush and the moonlight was enough to see in my bag for the spare). The bush was spectacular in the dark. But I was getting sleepy. So very sleepy.
Eventually we left the forest behind and emerged onto a road. Back at Blue Lake. To my right was the aid station, lit up a few hundred meters away. To my left, arrows and cones marking the path. Ah. Shit, I forgot we had to do a loop of the lake first. About 4km. We ran this as a group a few days before in the opposite direction. I at least knew what to expect. But this wouldn’t mean I’d enjoy it. 4km hobbling took a long long time.
I rocked up 2 hours later than estimated at the Blue Lake aid station and I only had one thing on my mind… “is there a medic or someone who can treat a blister for me?”. Thankfully there was. A running coach went to work and gasped when my sock came off. “We need to drain that one!” Much to the shock of the volunteers who’d gathered round. It was probably about the size of a watch face on the padding of my sole. I drank more coffee whilst she went to work and then taped it up to relieve the pressure. Immediately I felt better and that I could hobble a little faster at least. I thanked them and set off on my way. As I left the aid station Jorge, Kirsty and Andy were there to cheer me on. I find this level of support and friendship incredible – after running all day, 100km for 14-18 hours with minimal sleep they still put others first over their recovery needs. It’s so generous. A short chat and I was back moving. 15km to go via the Redwoods back to town…
From Blue Lake to Redwoods was a tough 9km stint. It started with some twisty gradual climbs on loose gravel paths. Any thoughts I had on running were gone again. The loose rocks ached the raw skin on my feet. As we continued we ventured back into the forest trails. This time surrounded by the huge redwoods all around. My watch kept beeping as it lost signal. The darkness was pure. Above us a super moon shining bright in the sky. Towards the end of the section we climbed again. I passed more runners from the 100km and a few milers on the climb too. Each one questioning when it would end. Each one with a different understanding of how long the final section through town would be, it ranged from 2km to 9km. Naturally I hoped for the former! As we levelled out the town lights were visible in the distance. Like all ultras though I questioned how far further this last stretch would be and when we’d descend to town level and how/where we we going. It looked so far. What goes up must come down though and soon we did. Rapidly. Steps. Heaps of them. Deep earth packed Steps with un-level wooden breakers. I limped down them all eventually reaching a road and volunteers each egging me on the final few hundred m. I arrived at the Redwoods aid station to be treated by a Mexican day of the dead party. The sun beginning to rise and two familiar faces – Paul, the founder of the Tarawera race (who welcomed us at the Powhiri) and a gentleman I’d seen many times throughout the day supporting his wife. He chatted to me each time. He’s had just 5 hours sleep in the last two days and looked exhausted now. I assured him his wife Billie was just behind me. They pushed me on for the last stretch with encouragement. It was close to 7km to go. Damn. I wanted more coffee but there wasn’t any. I was no reliant on the rising sun to bring some life back into me and keep the eyes open as I left the aid station
Into finish now. 7km. 2 hours. It was happening for sure. Even if I slowed down further the sub 30 ‘Western States’ qualifier would be achieved. I believed more than ever before. A few runners ran past me. They clearly believed too. We followed some park paths for a little while before hitting the geothermal valley area. Woah. Besides being hit in the face with the heat and sulphur smell, it was beautiful. Natural rocky landscape steaming from vents. I expected to run through the main streets of town. Long straight blocks of buildings. Nope. We’d loop through parks and wooden walkways surrounding the thermal areas all the way to the lake. It made it far more manageable. I plodded on. Billie and her husband ran past. It was about 7am. The sun was shinning. I reached the last sign saying 200 m to the finish. There were a group of people standing and clapping. I stopped to talk. We joked about running the last bit. The only bit that matters. A few moments later I started again. The plod became faster. I was shuffling now. The crowd gathered at the finish line began to cheer. The MC announced me as I entered the finishers area. I shuffled over the line with a beaming smile. I didn’t know what to do and the first words that came out to a volunteer were “where do I sit down?” I was so spaced out. Exhausted. A lady came over and apologetically encouraged me to come and get my gift, the Pounamu. Yes!!! A table was laid out. There were loads of Pounamu in boxes on display like a jewellery shop. They were massive. Far bigger than I expected. Each one different. Different colours. Different shades. She explained the purpose, the shape and meaning and significance of the ‘Toki’ design. She explained that we were to choose our own. It was personal. It took me a while but with a little help I found my Pounamu. The dark green jade called to me. She put it round my neck. I asked her to get a finish line photo. A videographer took pictures and filmed and asked if he could have a few words. Before she left the lady asked me if I wanted a hug, “fucking right I do” and at that moment I felt the sense of achievement and closure from the race. As the videographer asked me questions I realised how spaced I was. I’ve no idea what I answered. I was led in to the recovery zone to be weighed – we were weighed at check in and on finishing to check we were medically ok. They advised they were looking for a weight loss/gain within a 4kg tolerance to ensure we hadn’t taken in too much or too little liquid. I’d lost about 1.5kg. Perfect he said, go get some food and relax in the recovery area. As I went in I saw Femi from the boat ride some 14 hours earlier?! Then Jorge, Andy and Arlene arrived. They’d seen me finish as they were parking. They helped feed me and get me home. They updated me on everyone else’s races and achievements.
Milers are hard. It’s a long ass way
I once again broke it into thirds. The first 50km was a breeze. The middle dragged on and on and the final was a slog. The realisation at 80km that it was only half way was horrible.
The generosity of friends. Tracking and following, supporting. Its incredible at the best of times. Its another level of generosity when they do it after running 100km themselves!
The sheer size of operation – around 690 volunteers and 150 permanent staff. 200 kms of trails across private land, public land, Government land and tribal land. There is a huge amount of organisation to such a successful event.
The generosity of the event. There was something very psecial in the Powhiri welcome. I’ve never experienced that before. Also starting in a cultural site and the Haka at the start. Incredible. The amount we got out of it too with entrance to cultural/heritage sites such as Te Puia and the Brried Village, the race swag, the support throughout the race and the huge pounamu. The expensive race entry was fully justified this time!
It takes a lot of coffee for me to get going when I’m tired.
The morning is a very special time when running. The light from the sun is powering and what goes before it is soon forgotten when the day breaks.
Rotorua is special. It has so much. Tens of lakes. Woods and forests such as the Redwoods. Mount Tarawera and the geothermal valley. Any one of those alone would make it special, Rotorua has them all!
Ultra Nick He’s such a groovy guy Ultra Nick He’s running all the time.Running through the Forests Having lots of fun, Here comes Ultra Nick you know That he's the mighty oneUltra Nick, We think he's mighty fine Ultra Nick, A hero for all time
I’m not quite sure where the memory came from. One minute we are running along. The next I’m singing ‘Ultra Nick’ to the tune of Earthworm Jim. Nick recognised it straight away…
Saturday was full of memories and sharing. It was the Hurtwood 50. A local-ish and increasingly popular ultra marathon in the Surrey hills brilliantly run by Freedom Racing. This was Nick’s first ultra. Like his first marathon in Luxembourg just 6 months ago, I was stoked to be at his side. I love running with people and supporting them through such achievements.
A few weeks ago we ran in the Surrey Hills and Daryl who I met during the TDS joined us. It turns out that Daryl and Nick went to the same school and a few hours later we’d roped Daryl in to joining us at the Hurtwood also.
On the morning as we travelled down to Dorking, Jorge messaged to say he’d be at the start. He was combining his training with supporting us too. What a guy! Always so thoughtful and generous with his time. We rock up at the leisure centre and meet Jorge in the registration queue when some fella wanders over. Excitedly he proclaims “I’ve had a hair cut”! Bloody hell. It’s Daryl, only without his shoulder length hair. He’s had it chopped off after about 8 years for charity. Hero!
We stop by Rachel who is on duty volunteering at the registration and we say our hellos to her and the many other familiar faces like Derrick and Sarah we see before we head outside to join the start. Tom, the RD, gives the race briefing and talks about the community. Immediately it’s clear the importance such an event has when, after asking “hands up if this is your first ultra”, Hands all around us are thrown up into the air. It’s great to see. Little did they know what they were in for – The Hurtwood route is a fairly hilly and muddy one! Rachel was in charge of sending us off and, with a few loud blasts the air horn, off we trotted.
We had no real plan for this run. A vague finish time in mind that was realistic and challenging and the same time. I think it is important not to put pressure on yourself, particular for a first time doing something new – it is daunting and hard enough without putting expectations on yourself. Instead we’d run from checkpoint to checkpoint, treating each as a little run in itself. At the Hurtwood there are two checkpoint locations. As it is an ‘out and back’ course, you visit each one twice. Fairly evenly spaced out that makes it five 10k-ish sections.
The first section heads out towards Leith Hill and the tower. A few little inclines and declines are followed by a short single track section before a much longer, steady and shallow incline. Eventually, around 12km later you reach the short but steep climb to the Tower. The largest climb on the course. Along this section, with 300 runners, it was fairly busy, but you always had plenty of space. We briefly ran with Sarah before she sped on as we stopped for cake and crisps at the checkpoint.
The next section involves a number of rolling trails as you run through various forest tracks and reach the view points at Holmbury Hill and Pitch Hill. Beautiful views across the South await at both sections. We didn’t stay long at either though as the cold December morning presented plenty of chilly winds and each time we stopped we’d get cold quickly. Daryl in particular was feeling the cold on his ears, something he hadn’t felt for 8 years! About 18km Jorge said his goodbyes and turned around to head back. Then shortly after, at one of the car parks, we met Nick’s mum who’d once again come out to support him, just as she did in Luxembourg. It wasn’t long later that the leader (shortly followed by Second and Third place) sped past. We cheered them through.
As you reach the second check point the course splits. Here you do a loop, heading down through some stunning forest paths, lined with tall trees pointing up to the sky, before slowly climbing back towards Winterfell Woods. This section has a stint along some roads. Around this time we spent a little bit of time with Laura who I’ve followed on Instagram and always pops up at the same races. I later found out this was her 50th marathon/ultra. Half way to entry to the 100 Marathon club. What an achievement already!
Back at the second (now third!) checkpoint we scoffed more crisps and cake and joked with volunteers and runners alike. We were surprised to see some runners still arriving into the check point for the first time (including some ladies Nick recognised as teachers from his school) and I think this gave Nick a huge boost. Along the loop section though Nick had started to feel the pains of the run (which was already one of his longest trail runs to date), especially in his ankle. He was doing far better than he probably realised. Daryl and I were confident we were sitting comfortably in the ‘middle of the pack’ somewhere.
Fresh from the refuel, and after Daryl accidentally tried to send a runner back out on a second loop, we headed ‘back’ the way we came towards Dorking. We made some strong progress along this section and got to say hello to ‘Mum’ again too. Approaching the final checkpoint we stopped and tucked into the sandwiches the volunteers had kindly prepared. Cheese sandwiches were a welcome delight and we joked how none of us had eaten any of our own food – the spreads at each checkpoint were great (even if demand was putting pressure on the supply!). Once more we made the big climb to Leith hill and wasted no time running straight passed and down the other side. It was getting grey now and was far colder at the view point than it was earlier in the day.
As we left Leith Hill the sky turned dark and the rain began to fall. We were on the long steady decline now though and momentum was working in our favour. Despite our aches and pains we plodded on, racing the rain almost. The protection of the forest was enough to avoid us having to stop and layer up. The continuous running at this point started to take its toll on our tired legs and groans and moans became the soundtrack to our progress.
To Nick’s annoyance we weren’t yet done with the hills either. A few remained and each one increased the volume and frequency of the moaning. Variants of “fuck” were coming thick and fast and more combinations than I thought possible. I won’t even go into how his “ass hurts”. We gained several places and held off a few runners chasing us down too. Finally breaking free of the forest we arrived back into Dorking and had less than a mile to plod through the town, all slightly downhill. The volunteers ensured our safe passage across the streets as we hunted down one last runner. We got closer and closer before calling the decision to ease off. The finish was strong, but we were busting a gut now and it might have got messy at the finish if we sustained the effort any longer.
Rounding that final bend we pushed Nick forward toward that finish. Rachel, now on Medal duty, directed him in. Jorge screaming to the beat of the cow bell being rung by Nick’s Mum. Aimee cheering him in, me and Daryl whooping him on. He had his own entourage that dominated the finish line. His transformation was complete. Ultra Nick was born.
Last Ultra of 2019
Afterwards we went to the pub. We stayed for quite a while and I for one was rather pissed when I left. I shouldn’t laugh, but one of the highlights was Jorge getting ‘egged’ as we left the pub. I heard the crack and just thought he’d stepped on an egg. But his leg was covered. I’m still laughing now. Sorry Jorge!
Whilst running the Hurtwood there were many thoughts bumping around in my mind and the conversation often revolved around experiences. First times, subsequent times. Things we’ve learnt along the way. Thanks Nick was experiencing and going through in the moment. Daryl is an experienced ultra runner and we shared many similar views and experiences about what we’ve encountered on our journeys and adventures. Be that the way people talk to us, the way we feel, the things we look forward too, the techniques we use to avoid succumbing to the pains and darkness etc. We saw some of these in Nick too. Particularly the hurt and the pain. The way he felt every change in elevation. the impact of the mud or the roots. We took joy in it. Lots of Joy. Having been there and done that, it filled us with amusement and plenty of laughter. As much as I love running and supporting people, the sadist in me also loves being there to laugh as they fall, as they moan, as they suffer. I can’t help but enjoy that too!
I started this blog saying I’m not sure where the memory of Earthworm Jim came from. What I do recall is what triggered the memory. Before the race, as motivation, and then again towards the finish line, I referred to Nick as ‘Ultra Nick’. The way I said it rhymed easily with the tune. But why did I say it? I was thinking of the evolution. The variations of ourselves and the changes we go through as part of hobbies, passions, life events. Specifically with running, how, after each achievement we become a new version of ourselves. We ‘join a club’ as they say, and become another number who has done something specific.
What are those version of ourselves for running? It could be anything you want really. It could be based on distances, emotions, achievements, memories, ambitions. Absolutely anything. It is unique to you and not defined. Thinking about Nick, and the running we’ve done together in the last two years, the versions and transformations I imagined were:
Nick 1.0 – Nick the Casual Runner – he ran occasionally. He didn’t need much persuasion to join me for a run but it was down low on his priorities.
Nick 2.0 – Nick the Frequent Runner – Something changed, he was running more often and further each time. The London Burger Run became a regular in his diary.
Nick 3.0 – Nick the Half Marathoner – Several halves later he’s running regular half marathons each month. Things are escalating quickly.
Nick 4.0 – Nick the Enjoyment Seeker – Running has become fun. It’s no longer a chore. He’s organising, coaxing and leading others, supporting them on their own running trajectories.
Nick 5.0 – Nick the Marathoner – He’s popped his cherry. He’s a mixer of emotions and thoughts and ambitions. More marathons are scheduled, there’s no turning back now.
Nick 6.0 – Nick the running addict – He wants it all. He’s signing up to all sorts. He’s pushing, he’s challenging, the change is going exponential
Nick 7.0 – Ultra Nick – … He’s running all the time.
In the week leading up to the race, conversations with colleagues and acquaintances have typically gone…
“See you next week”
“Oh, are you going away?”
“Yeah, to Poland “
“What are you doing there?”
“How far? Are you doing a marathon?”
“No, it’s a little further, 150km”
“Oh, nice. How many days are you doing that over?”
The conversations tend to just end there. That’s been fairly typical this year. If you’re not interested in running you won’t know. You won’t understand what is feasible or not. It may sound ridiculous but 24 hours is a long time, you can achieve a lot in that time and in the world of trail running, covering 100-150 km of mountainous terrain is very, very feasible. You don’t even have to run that fast or even run that much and can walk a lot of it. Much of it is in your head and, as always, I think it comes down to mental strength.
And so, off to Poland I was. To the Beskid mountains. I came here last year, to the Lemkowyna Ultra Trail, and did the 48 km was event. Now I was back for the big one, the 150 km… Last year was a treat. The event is billed as a muddy one with the strap line “enjoy the mudness”. In 2018 though freakish weather meant we had a glorious sunny dry day and very little mud. All that was to change on 2019. The weeks leading up to the event had seen plenty of rain and mud was once again on the cards.
This posed a challenge. How would my legs cope with the fatigue induced from running in mud? What kit would I need, What shoes? How long might it realistically take? It’s a 3 hour bus back to the start once I’m finished, what else will I need when I’m finished? I left the planning there. Things mostly out of my control. I’ve more than enough kit to cope with the majority of situations now so I decided not to worry anymore.
The race itself, it drained me. In a different sort of way. I was tired. I enjoyed it. I didn’t think and recall the journey as I normally do. I didn’t put the effort into mentally tracing my steps. It was all very similar and so I can’t recall and write about the adventure like I have in many other races. What I do remember though is many of the thoughts I pondered along the way. The things that came into and out of my mind…
As I left the house at 11pm, the group sent me off with one final Polish lesson. Kurczak, Ziemniaki, Chleb. All I needed for the aid stations!
The start was subdued. Runners casually making there way out of the meeting point and to the start. Whilst I chatted with fellow English speakers Mike and Alice, the race just started. No music. No countdown. Just a casual movement which became a run.
The polish countryside is stunning. I thought this last year too. Covering 150 km is a great way to experience it. Rolling hills. Views of idyllic castles, churches and houses. Little farming villages, streams and fields were the order of the day.
It was peaceful. Very peaceful. Less than 500 runners started and were out on the 100/150 km course. I was alone for a long time and I liked it.
There’s always a point at night where you stop, turn around and gasp at the trail of head torches behind you. This race was no different and the moon was glowing with them. beautiful.
There are different levels of mud. At some point no amount of grip or technical footwear will help you. Slipping and sliding is inevitable and managing how you do it becomes critical.
I slipped about 4 or 5 times. I never trip or fall when running. The mud got me and I was hands and bum down more than I liked.
Hot soup is great. Hot chicken soup is greater. Hot chicken noodle soup is the greatest.
Spiced pumpkin soup is special.
It was cold. Very cold. I ran the whole of the night sections with a jacket. I’ve not need to do that before.
The Inov8 Thermoshell is an incredible piece of kit. I bought it a few weeks earlier and this was the first run I’d done in it. It was very lightweight, warm and breathable. I put it on again the next night and was immediately snug once more. Possibly my new favourite piece of kit.
Warm fires at night are bliss. Having a few minutes at a checkpoint camp next to a blazing hot fire is lush.
Polish runners are so considerate and thoughtful. I didn’t have to ask anyone to let me pass them and no one tried to kill me with their poles. They were keen to chat and understanding when I couldn’t reply.
Muddy steep hills were challenging, especially to descend. Trying to do that in wetter conditions would have been terrifying. We were lucky it wasn’t wet during the race itself.
There was a long climb at the top of which was a wooden structure. It reminded me of the church Sandor Clegane helped build in Game of Thrones. I sat on a bench and looked at it for about ten minutes.
Hallucinations. First time I’ve had it. Only briefly in the last 30 km. I saw the most spectacular crystal chandelier above me glistening in the light. As I got closer I realised it was the moon and the trees flickering in the wind!
Caffeine kick. For the first time I drank coffee during a run. 15 km from the end I was drowsy and nodding off as I hobbled along. I knocked back a coffee and then doubled up on caffeine (Tropical) Tailwind. I was buzzing and ran most of the last 15 km or so. I was wired. I ran through the pains I had.
Apples. I’ve not had them at a race before. Smashing stuff. Crunchy. Juicy. Tasty. Easy to eat. Sugary. I like apples. My forth favourite fruit (after pineapple, strawberries and passion fruit if you just know).
Cup of coke? I went for a bowl of coke. Game changer. Fuzztastic. Gulp gulp gulp. Belch.
Polish churches are architecture masterpieces. Sounds like ‘costu’ in English.
The ‘middle’ sections of these long races feel like the longest parts.
I constantly checked and tried to trace my way using the elevation profile on my bib. I mis-judged it so many times. Hills don’t look like hills on a 150 km route profile picture!
The silence of the night was disturbed only by the mass barking of dogs locked up away from the runners. Miles away from villages you could hear the dogs!
Memory is an incredible thing. The last 48km was so clearly memorable to me. Only the order of trails/sights/memories was a little jumbled.
Damn windy. Head winds whilst hiking up mountains is not easy. I was pissed off when a group of runners clearly used me as a wind shield. I didn’t blame them though.
Pictures – I took less. Whilst it was beautiful to see all around, the landscape was similar and too darn cold to keep fishing out my camera.
The last 48 km I latched onto a group of four runners. I used them (it might have been those that used me in the windy parts?!) My mind was going and collectively they were strong. I sat back and when they ran, I ran. When they walked, I walked. I used them. Until I took the coffee and my mind fired up again and I left them in my caffeine trail.
I visualised my body working. Buses driving messages from my brain to my body. Loads of tiny workers shovelling the food I consumed into a burning fire engine like a steam train. My legs like two grumpy trees telling me they were in pain. Functioning.
I visualised the finish I always do. I could see myself crossing that finish line. Celebrating. This time I saw exactly how – A chicken dance. I did eventually do the chicken dance I thought about for so many hours.
Tamas running passed me before 70 km. So strong. He started an hour after me! What a legend.
Runners drinking beer at 82 km. How?! Talk about stereotypes.
The realisation at 60 km that I was no where near halfway through. That was tough.
The disappointment when my Suunto went bezerk and at 82 km I thought I’d done 86 km.
The count down by comparable races. Only a TDS to go. Only a TGC to go… A Lavaredo to go… A MIUT to go… A CCC to go… A Brecon Beacons to go… A Cinque Terra to go… A marathon to go… A Wild TR weekend run to go… A run to work to go… A park run to go. I don’t even do park runs. Fuuuck when will this end.
Running 100 miles is an incredible achievement. I’m still 15 km off that. Wow. So much respect for those achievers now. Those who have the strength to even start and those who persevere to the end. So inspiring.
Leaving a message for Julian and Astrid whose wedding I was missing. The words were in my head but I’m not sure what I bumbled down the phone.
At the finish I was shattered. Momentarily I fell asleep on a bench.
I like polish food!
The race itself…
It’s is exceptionally well marked. Tape and reflective signage every few metres. You can’t get lost (although others somehow did!?!).
It is superbly organised (just like the year before). With 5 different races starting and ending at different locations, this is not an easy feat. Lemkowyna make it seem effortless. As a non-Polish speaker, it’s very easily negotiated (OK, we had Polish speakers in our group but I’d be comfortable attempting it myself).
The volunteers went out of their way to help you. Not only filling bottles and serving you but sitting you down and fetching you things. All things.
The volunteers and support were amazing. Big shout out the the man I met at the 82 km mark and chatted too and whom came to find me at each checkpoint there after to talk to me and see how I was getting on. So thoughtful!
The bell medal. Unique. Now I have two.
The finishers top (150 km finishers) is great too. High quality Columbia kit.
Finish line food – an abundance. Healthy, vegetarian, meaty, local specialities. They had it all.
The trails were mostly forest paths. Soft and not too ‘rooty’. There were a lot of long road sections also.
The aid stations are about 20 km apart which is longer than most races. There’s nowhere to get water in between. I carried 1.5 l at all times and was thankful I did.
There were two ‘bonus’ aid stations with water and some other supplies towards the end. A very welcome surprise!
What else do I remember? Support and friendship. That’s what. I’ve said this a few times over the last year. Friends and companions on such adventures is a huge boost. The joking, the laughter, the shared panics and emotions. The common understanding of what you need and don’t need. The different approaches, advice and learnings. Not being alone. The achievement of succeeding is one thing, but sharing it with others is something else. I was spoilt with such a special group. They took control. They looked after me. Cooked for me. Cleaned after me. Ordered for me. Drove me about. Waited and cheered me. Travelled 50 km in the wrong direction and waited for hours for me. Forever and constantly I am in their debt. Their support and friendship is mind blowing. Daisy and Claire called it out, making new friends as adults is strange and often not easy (the innocence of childhood friendships is lost as you grow older…). But through running I’ve met people with similar characteristics, traits and mindsets and we’ve bonded over the most memorable experiences together.
Whilst I was out in the polish countryside, there were a lot of other runs and running achievements happened the same weekend and conversations I had with others summed up my own experience this weekend. This snippet from Sarah said it all… “...Like a roller coaster, so many highs and lows but we rally through to the end. The things we put ourselves through for fun, and I have to say it was fun…“. We find our enjoyment…
Earlier in the year James asked me if I wanted to join him for the Tallinn marathon. I was hesitant. A week after TDS, after a fairly jam-packed August. Hhhm. Maybe not. Then Luxembourg happened and it was frikken great. Bobby and Nick went and signed up to Tallinn immediately. I soon had the FOMO and was signing up to join them. After all, a trip to a new country and exploring a city whilst doing what I love…
Fast forward a few weeks and Bobby and Nick have both pulled out. Bastards. Suddenly I’m heading out with an unnecessarily expensive hotel booking (I could have shared a dorm for cheaper but I’m such a princess and don’t like sharing around a long run, I need some space!). James was still there but I’d missed the chance to jump in with him and his mates.
Anyway, August is done though, 3 big races conquered, all went better than I’d even hoped. Considering what I’ve achieved, I feel bloody good. Yeah sure, a few aches and pains and the ankles are still feeling a little brittle, but I feel great. I’m heading into Tallinn without a care in the world. My mind is clear and I’m ready to kick back, relax, run and enjoy the experience. No pressure. All I need to do is control it when I start running. I’ll ‘run to feel’ though and don’t imagine I’ll be feeling a fast run, so that’s good. It’s also a special weekend in Tallinn with celebrations to mark the 800th anniversary and it’s also the 30th edition of the marathon. So there is plenty going on.
It was a 9am start on a Sunday and I’m staying just minutes from the start . I’m not used to such luxury and take full advantage by staying in bed untill 8 and being very casual. I meet James and Chris just before 9 and we head down to the starting pens. We are briefly separated as they go to B and I’m ushered to C but some confusion just before the start sees the two pens merge into one.
There’s a lot of runners and, as we are given the green light to go, we start plodding down the cobble streets of the old town. Tallinn is a small place and the route will see us leave the old town, head to Seaplane Harbour, out of town with various bendy turns and switchbacks before heading back towards, and finishing in, the Old Town under the Viru Gates.
The roads were wide and many had been closed off for the event so there was no fighting for space. We soon settled into a rhythm of around 6 min/km and chatted away as we began our sightseeing adventure. It wasn’t long before we reached the first water station (and every water station infact as they were only about 3km away from each other!). We all made the mistake of trying the salty bread – dry traditional Estonian black bread sprinkled with salt. It was, of course, salty! Much water was then needed!
After passing through Seaplane Harbour and then several residential streets (with some fascinating architecture of old traditional buildings mixed with modern apartments) we ran through a long main Street. There was an old lady hanging out of her window banging a saucepan which made us laugh. We then ran through what would be the first of many parks and green spaces.
A little further on was a real highlight as, first noticed by the foul smell, we realised we were running through the grounds of a zoo. Whilst we didn’t see many animals there was a bear(!) inspecting the runners from his cage. Running the paths leading through the zoo was a whole new experience, and whilst sad and odd to see animals caged up, it was nice from a running perspective.
Shortly after the halfway mark we were running through some lush trails and forest paths with trees all around us before we emerged near the sea front. We felt good, but tired. The green spaces were welcomed though and thankfully we spent very little time on main roads with cars.
Around 25km in, Chris stared to struggle. He’d picked up an injury and, after about ten mins of slow walking and shuffling, James and I made the reluctant decision to leave him and carry on. At that point he was going to just walk back and pull out (he’d be able to skip through the various switch backs and take a more direct route back to town). Both James and I were feeling it too though – I was aching in my knees, which is a new one for me.
Despite most of the running happening out of town, there were pockets of support along the way and some great chants including “c’mon Brexit” and my favourite “blah blah blah” (or at least that is what it sounded like, I’ve no idea what it meant!).
The next section took us along the coast and had a few kms of long switchbacks which were painfully dull, seeing runners winding ahead of you. After that was a stretch around, then up into, a park before returning to the coast once more. With about 10km to go I started a run-walk strategy with a brisk walk after each water station just to take the pressure off my knees a little.
It soon quietened out and with the last water stop done James and I pretty much ran alone to the finish line. Tracing our steps back along the initial part of the route into town (without the loop around Seaplane Harbour). As we neared the finish line Craig casually called out “hello” to us and he was then at the finish line as we hobbled the last 200m along the cobbled streets of the Old Town and through the Viru gates.
Medal collected we headed back for a quick shower before returning to see Chris cross the line. Turns out that after we left him he decided to stick at it and he’d continued on to complete his first marathon (after covering no more than a half in his training and battling through the pain on the day!!). We missed him by about a minute!
I’m hugging a man. His arms are around me. He’s wet with sweat and he stinks. I am absolutely rotten with sweat and stink too. We are both smiling though. The embrace is special. We are acknowledging over 35 hours of running technical Alpine trails coming to and end, most of that time spent together, supporting one another and motivating each other through. 35 hours ago this smelly man was a complete stranger, his mere existence even unknown to me. Now he’s not only a friend but someone I’ve shared an incredible journey with and whom will always be in my memories. His name is Darryl.
Moments earlier we’d crossed the finish line of the Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie (Aka The “TDS”) at the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB). A 145km trail race in the Alps starting in Courmayeur (Italy) and finishing under the famous UTMB arch in Chamonix (France)…
5 minutes earlier – Chamonix
Somehow, despite hours of walking and persevering with the ‘ultra shuffle’ we muster enough strength to run the final stretch through the streets of Chamonix. Cheered on by the immense crowd, clapped through as the sea of spectators part to make way, we see many familiar faces of our friends. The moment is electric, so many emotions are pulsating through my body, my only reaction is to smile. A huge, wide smile. I don’t think anyone could experience that sort of finish and not have a smile on their face.
We are spent. It’s very hot. We are walking the final 8km into Chamonix. We are happy with this. I’ve run this path once before many years ago on a stag do (With another Daryl!), Darryl more recently did it on the TDS last year. “It’s flat” he claims and so he told another runner, Robin, a few kms earlier. I should know by now not to trust Darryl’s memories, he’s already admitted it’s hazy at the best of times. It’s not that flat (only in relative terms!). It’s undulating. We slow our fast hike back to a shuffle. We are in this for the long haul. 8km feels like 80kms and it takes almost two hours to walk to Chamonix. We eventually leave the riverside trail and hit the main road. We’ve not been alone on our walk and have chatted with several other runners who’ve walked it ‘home’ too. As we hit the main street we all look at each other and begrudgingly start shuffling faster and ‘performing’ for the crowd. Me and Darryl contemplate buying ice cream but are too afraid to stop moving again.
117.5 Hours – Les Houches.
We dropped off the winding switchbacks of the paved roads into the final aid station. For the last time we fill both our flasks and our faces and head back out on the trails. As we grab fistfuls of ice from a bucket, shoving them under our caps, I notice those around us. The volunteers – so supportive and encouraging, the runners – exhausted and many slumped on benches. We crack on. As the Compressport sponsored sign read, “finishing is your only fucking option”.
Descending from Col di Tricot wasn’t nice. The paths were littered with rocks and hikers. We’d run, stumble, jump and walk our way down. Eventually reaching a wobbly wooden foot bridge before climbing yet again. The rocky climb, however small, sapped our energy and by the time we reached Bellevue we were gasping. As we refreshed with water we questioned how that was only 4km we’d covered. 5km still to descend.
The next 5km were through the forest paths, shaded from the sun at least. We slowed to a walk. Our feet were hurting once more, raw and sore. The rejuvenating effects of the medical attention we received not that long ago had well and truly worn off now. Somehow runners were still running past us, we were impressed with their physical state. A familiar shout out from one was instantly recognisable. It was Alan. Supercharged and nimbly descending at speed. He called out to Darryl “Hey! How did Dai get on?!”, “I’m down here” I replied from around the next switchback. Alan was ready and willing to ‘walk it in’ with us and finish together, but I told him to keep going, he was on form again after a bad night and Darryl and I had each other. He vanished into the forest. We eventually made it to the road, a long stretch of paved switchbacks leading into Les Houches. The flat tarmac was a welcomed feeling.
115.5 Hours – Col di Tricot
We’ve made it to the top, finally. That climb was tough, the sun had done it’s job and I was definitely burnt on my neck. There was no water up top which we’d been hoping for. The timing point indicated 9km to go to reach Les Houches. 4km of which would take us to Bellevue where there would be water. All downhill, about 1,200m to descend in total.
Strapped up from Les Contamines, we left the aid station and were on the move again. It had been a long stop. About 1.5 hours. We were good again though and able to move quite quickly once more. The medics had worked their magic. We powered up past the church, up the roads and back to the trails, immediately passing many runners. Our power hike continued. Two more big climbs were left to conquer, the first barely noticeable and through the shaded woodlands we went. The second climb a bit of a beast with a steep zigzagging climb to Col di Tricot.
As we emerged from the first climb and descended we could see Col di Tricot opposite. It wasn’t small nor insignificant. It felt like a long time before we crossed the bridge, thread through the small hamlet and climbed to the switchback trails. The midday sun was bright and there was no shade on the climb. Darryl believed there would be water up top and I hoped he was right, whilst I had plenty now, the steep climb would be thirsty work.
112 Hours – Les Contamines
Once inside, Darryl went to find the foot doctor and I went to find the toilet again! After I had fun squatting and propping myself up against a wall, I found Darryl laughing and joking with the medics. It had already a while, and I’d eaten before finding him, but he was getting the full treatment both feet lanced, sterilised and wrapped in more padding than a winter jacket. I was jealous, so I queued up for a bit of foot TLC myself. I even got my ankle properly strapped and, whilst I was getting repaired, Darryl then went for a massage. We were smiling and laughing again and ready to get this race finished!
Leaving Col Du Joly, we wondered how we still had 24km to go. I do not know. Morning was breaking. The mist on the mountains was lifting and the the trails becoming lighter. Darryl was talking to another Brit and I cracked on. I was cold and needed to warm up – my body temperature had dropped significantly whilst stopping at the aid station. The head torch was soon turned off and we started a long descent. First the fields and ski paths before we hit the longer stretch descending through the forest paths.
As I hobbled down I was making the questionable sex noises. Oh, ee, ahh, fuck me, aaagh. I wasn’t alone and a chorus of squeals could often be heard. Many runners went passed, many we’d spoken too. Darryl was a little way behind now and I enquired after him to the Brit as he passed. He told me Darryl was moving but slowly. After about 4 km of descending I waited at the bottom. I found a bench and sat on it until Darryl arrived. He wasn’t looking good, he was stumbling and barely moving forward. His feet were destroyed and he was in quite some pain. He told me I shouldn’t have waited, I told him I’m not leaving him now, we’d done maybe close to 100km together and we had plenty of time to finish, I had no where to be in any urgency and I wasn’t going to leave him and potentially see him pull out. We walked on together. Slowly, very slowly. We hobbled at a pace slower than 20mins per km. It took around two hours to walk the flattest section of the race to the next checkpoint of Les Contamines.
110 Hours – Col Du Joly
Darryl’s hopes of medical attention were dashed when the medic told him that the ‘foot doctor’ was at the next aid station. Um, Ok then. We layered up as we left the aid station, it was still dark and cold. We refuelled on warm soups, re-jigged our packs and left for the final 24km.
From Hautelace we were confused. Very confused. We were still wandering in circles around the town and every now and then saw a trail lit up by tens of head torches in the distance. They were high. It was spread out and long. We kept questioning over and over if that is where we were heading or if that is the descent to Beaufort which we’d already completed. Every few minutes we’d have the same debate all over again.
The trails eventually took us in a different direction which did make sense finally. The climb was slow and a real slogfest in the dark. Sometime later we topped out on the summit and the open trails. It was windy and we could see the head torches both out in front and behind us. There was plenty of mud and my fresh clean shoes and socks (from the drop bag) were now soaked through. We ran along the ridgeline in the wind before we stopped to layer up and have some food. I was sleepy and hungry. I went into the chocolate reserves and came out with some chocolate coated raisins. They worked a treat and perked me up enough to keep moving with more clarity.
We continued on and the trails became increasingly more muddy and technical. We were ready for the next aid station now and Darryl was starting to struggle with pains in his feet. We looked forward to the opportunity for some medical attention and warm noodle soup. First though we had to navigate a steep descent and subsequent climb along some sharp rock faces in the darkness.
We were slowed to a plod as the runners started to back up under the difficulty of the terrain. At one point I yelled out and almost lost my foothold as I touched an electric fence that was stupidly close to the trail (on my other side was a drop into the darkness!). We laughed it off but I did question what I was doing here in the dark!
Over the last little climb, the music pumping from the aid-station could finally be heard.
105 Hours – Hautelace –105 hours
Hautelace was a little confusing. Probably because it was 1am and we were tired, probably because it was fairly soon after the big check point and probably because of the route. This was also part of the new course and it felt like we were walking in circles around the town. I heard rumours afterwards about villages paying the organisers to be part of the route and I wondered, if true, if this was one of them – we were on a tour!
We finally pulled ourselves together shortly before midnight and headed back out from Beaufort for the third and final 50km. As we were leaving Alan showed up and indicated he hadn’t been so good and that he was going to have a sleep. I joked with Darryl that we’d see him run past us in a few hours time!
We climbed into the darkness and soon reached a town. After doing what felt like laps of the town we weaved into the aid station which was pretty much empty. We had a long stretch of running through the night ahead of us though so we took the opportunity to get some more food and water in before we headed back out into the night and up into the darkness.
102.5 Hours – Beaufort
Beaufort Aid Station. The long awaited, very much anticipated 90km mark. The aid station where we could access our drop bags, the aid station where the risk of dropping out (due to home comforts) increases. The one where hot food would be available. The one that marks the end of the “second” section (in my head I broke the race into three 50km sections) and the point where there is “only 50km to go”.
The entrance to the aid station was a a long walk. It felt like we were taking a detour around the aid station. I spotted the Live Cam and gave it a good middle finger. I was moody. That last 50km seemed to drag on and on and on (a bit like this blog?)…
After leaving Gittaz it all got a bit shit. Literally. One of the highlights for me here was the actual shit I had (it was surprisingly healthy for an ultra marathon poop!). But this whole section here was shit. Don’t get me wrong, it is another set of beautiful trails and the views and scenery was absolutely stunning (Exhibit A – The Black Lake), but it was shit because it was tough and it dragged. This was the section of off-track climbs, false summits and the beginning of the night.
The climb from La Gittaz was immediately steep and immediately lumpy. It was long, we were exhausted and it continued to deceive us. False summit after false summit and lumpy ups and downs were the order for 10km or so as we tagged Côte d’Ani and Pas d’Outray. Sometime around Côte d’Ani we took a moment. We sat down after the disappointment of reaching another false summit and we needed a few minutes to get ourselves over the disappointment of coming over the top and seeing the enduring trails and runners heading off into the distance. We weren’t alone. For every few runners who went passed, one would stop and join us. By the time we left there must have been about 7 or 8 of us grumpy bastards sitting in a circle laughing at each others miserable appearance. We also wondered if we could get the next long downhill done and out of the way before darkness. Spoiler – we didn’t. Not a chance in hell it would ever have even been possible. As we continued to descend the darkness enveloped us and and the head torches were back out and we trudged on.
The descent into Beufort was long, technical and difficult. This was the first section of the new route. Darryl wasted no time in pointing out that it immediately made the course harder than the old version (which he’d done previously last year!). After what felt like a lifetime we reach the aid station and settled down for a break and a freshen up with our drop bags. Whilst I fumbled through my routine, Darryl went off and had his knee tapped.
98.5 Hours – La Gittaz
La Gittaz was quite a cute little aid station. It stank a bit (think actual farmland) and there were plenty of small stone brick buildings in the area. The aid station itself was small, and the volunteers and support few but very boisterous.
We’d run down into the aid station through about 800m of descending trails. They were mostly steep and technical, but the end was a real treat. We ran down alongside a gorge and the sound of the water flowing below us was brutal. It sounded like high-speed wind battering you. The path was carved out through the mountain and winded down and around before dropping into open fields.
Before La Gittaz
The incredible Gorge
I’d left Darryl behind and we agreed we’d meet again at the aid station. Just as we descended the fields he caught up with me and we walked in together before I headed straight off to the Eco Loo for a very much needed good ol’ shit. What? It had probably been about 24 hours since my last one and that Lasagne and Burger was still bouncing up and down inside me!
96.5 Hours – Cormet de Roselend
I spot the Live Camera. I’d forgotten about these. As I ran into the aid Station I stuck the thumbs up and the tongue out for the world to see. I’m alive, I’m doing ok…
It had been a long one. 4 and a half hours had passed since I left the last aid station and I was certainly feeling a bit exhausted now (inevitable seeing as I’d been on the move for over 12 hours at this point).
Leaving Bourg Saint-Maurice I began the big climb. I didn’t feel it was as bad as people made it out to be. Perhaps because I was in a great place mentally and physically. In my mind it was split into a few smaller sections that I can recall. First off a steady climb on some soft and soily trails. As we climbed I could hear a deep voice bellowing out above “Alleeeeeee Hup Hup Hup Allleeee Allleeeee”. It was a great voice. Eventually I reached him – an old man with his wife ringing a cowbell. He was fantastic. “Merci, Superb” I called as I passed.
Beyond the old man the climb continued as we hit some open fields (and a bit of sun) and rounded an old fortress. It was here I was stunned to find loads of runners laying down and resting. And I mean loads, tens of them, everywhere. I couldn’t figure out if this was a strategic stop – part way up an exhausting climb, gaining some much needed sleep after an early start, planning for the future. Or whether it was because they were dead on their feet with exhaustion from the climb and they just had to stop. Part of me wondered if it is because the views were spectacular and it was just a wonderful place to stop and rest? I’ll never know, but for certain it looked far more enjoyable than some of the places I saw runners curled up in later that night!
I met Darryl again along the climb and we continued together chatting and catching up on the past few hours. We passed a short water station (by water station I mean a hose pipe filling a bucket) which gave a chance to replenish and soak my face and hat. It was also here that the famous 5 Euro soft drinks were on sale. I declined to get involved.
The climb continued and the terrain became varied. From muddy trails to razor sharp rocks. The fast hiking very quickly became slow lunging and scrambling! The views though were sensational and Darryl and I decided to take a little rest at the top of one of the peaks and enjoy a moment. Plus we were both starving and I wolfed down a few bars of food and Darryl rested his knee which was starting to cause him some pain.
We carried on up the rocky climbs before my balls almost detached themselves from my body and ran off back the way we’d come. In front of us were a group of volunteers, all happy singing and dancing, hiding from us what was a sheer drop of the mountain top. It also happened to be the way we had to descend. What the fuck? Down there? There was a rope. There were runners holding onto the rope and shuffling themselves down the sharp rock face backwards. Fucking hell I was terrified. I’d come to run, not to abseil with no equipment. The only way was down though, so I packed away the poles and headed on down.
We’d gone barely a few metres when a pair of poles went flying passed us following a shriek from above. A runner almost lost himself as he tried to head down using his poles and not the rope. Not worth it. Get a grip!
We made it. It took sometime but we made it to the end of the rope section. The path was still very technical and steep though and the run down into the aid station was painful. The memories of the pains in my feet from Lavaredo and Trans Gran Canaria all came flushing back!
92 Hours – Bourg Saint-Maurice
There is the slightest of inclines through the streets. I walk into the aid-station (which was the first major/crew-support aid station on the course). No running here. I’ve just been on one hell of a run. but I am buzzing. beaming. smiling ear-to-ear. “Dai” I hear as I look across the packed aid-station to see Ryan calling me over. He introduces me to his Wife Emma who gives me the biggest of hugs and gets a sweaty kiss before offering me potatoes which I happily take.
Ryan is a bit dazed. I caught up with him on the downhill which was a huge surprise (he is a speed demon!) before he turned and showed me his bloody face. A bad fall had left him a bit spaced out after taking most of the impact literally head on.
After another very long downhill, maybe about 15km and a descent of about 1,500m with much more running, more speed work, I remember looking at my watch and thinking I have no right. No right to be running 6 min/kms at 40-odd kms into a race, never-mind a 145km race! But I kept going.
I soon bumped into Ryan and then arrived at a water station where I proceeded to refill all my bottles ahead of the ‘big’ climb. A volunteer kindly told me the aid-station was in 3kms though and this was just a water station in between. So I legged it back out through the town and parks…
When I arrived, after speaking with Ryan I saw Darryl heading out and spent a moment talking to Alan who arrived just after me. We did a quick kit check reminder to fill all our bottles as the next climb was an un-shaded beast – almost 2,000m of climbing in the midday heat (not sun though as it was mostly overcast thankfully!).
I chatted to Emma a little longer after Ryan left (and ate more of his spuds!) before leaving myself. I spent very little time at this aid station as quite frankly, I felt great. I had energy and a smile and saw little point sticking around any longer. So off I went.
90 Hours – Col du Petit Saint Bernard
The Point of Col Du Petit Saint Bernard sticks out in my memory for one reason only. This was the French/Italian border crossing! and the technical, small stone descent before a much longer descent. Ahhhh wonderful. I did enjoy the little border crossing they’d erected for the runners though. That was nice.
Other than that, my mind has gone a little blank. We climbed together, the fresh smells of the forest, the morning warming. It’s about 10am but I can’t picture the scene. I don’t think Darryl was with me at this point. Maybe he was. A few hours have passed though and I don’t recall too much of where or what I saw in this time.
Sometime earlier though morning had broken, I put the head torch away and started to enjoy the grey misty morning as we climbed about 600m, from which we had stunning views of the valley and lake below. I was above hundreds of runners and I’m looking down, but also up. Hundreds more were above me and the climb continued to the cheers and sounds of supporters at a timing point. As I reached them I breathed a deep breath. I took a moment to absorb the views and point to the distance trail path leading off into the un-see-able distance.
From the peak at Col Chavannes I got moving again. Woaaaah boy do I get moving again. The path was very runnable, about 10km of shallow descent on fairly decent and wide track. It is fast. Another consistent period of running 5 min/kms. I knew my quads were going to hate this in a few hours, never-mind the next day!!
There’s a short break in the rhythm as the path deviated sharply down and cross a river before ascending some forest tracks. At this point I first met him, the sweaty stinky man. I had no idea what would happen next and how a friendship would form. “Alright Mate” he says “How’s it going?”. As simple as that. A mere conversation starter. One runner to another, one human to another, one person looking to change their day. Thank you Darryl, you certainly changed my day!
86.5 Hours – Lac Combal
I’m running along a flat gravel path, It’s flooded with puddles of water and I’m zig-zagging along at close to 5 min/km pace. Crazy. Still, it feels good so I keep at it. I’m distracted by a ‘Full Kit Wanker’. A lady wearing head to toe in branded UTMB event gear. And I mean head to toe – Columbia UTMB edition trainers, Compressport UTMB socks, base layer shorts, shorts/skirt, Tee, Arm Sleeves, Buff and Running cap. She has it all. Maybe over 400Euros of kit right there. Wow. We all like a souvenir (I bought a Matterhorn race hoody just days earlier!) but that is a lot of kit to (potentially) try out for the first time on a 145km run!
The distraction takes my mind off the running and a big aid station soon appears. I grab some food, refill my water and am about to head out before I notice a sign saying about 19km to the next aid Station. I turn around, drink some more water, part fill a third soft flask and eat some more food before heading back out. I don’t want to be caught short so soon into the race!
As I continued on the climb I stopped for a moment and turn around to try and photograph the stream of head torches snaking back for miles in the distance. It doesn’t do it justice, but its an incredible sight – maybe up to 1,500 heads bobbing away. So far I’d not used my head torch. Like a parasite I was using the light from those around me and being a sneaky bastard and saving my battery for night time (even though I’m carrying four batteries!) I continued the climb before a nice easy descent into Lac Combal. I’m running (with the head torch on now!), I’m smiling. It’s been a good start, a fast start and I think I’m a little ahead of Alan, I last saw him just before the climb started and I couldn’t recall him storming passed.
85 Hours – Col Checrouit Maison Veille
A little over an hour has passed. Its 5 in the morning and still Dark. I’m about half way through a 1,000m climb (over 10km) and I’ve stumbled into the first aid-station at Col Checrouit Maison Veille, some 1,900m above sea level and its a little cold. Runners are in jackets and gloves, sipping hot drinks. I’m in a T Shirt with arm sleeves rolled down. It’s sweaty work this fast hiking! I fill up my bottle with the help of a lovely volunteer before heading out and swearing. Fucking Prick. He’s filled me up with sparking water. Why would you do that? The smallest of things, but it pissed me off. I’m not a fan of sparkling water. Regardless, I find a way to calm myself down and move on. It’s just a bit of gas.
84 Hours – Courmayeur
Hans Zimmer (“He’s a Pirate”) is pumping out. Hi-fives and fist pumps are exchanged. Cheers and whoops are let out. Screams of “Ale Ale” and cowbells ringing fill the main street of Courmayeur. The 2019 TDS is under way and my 84 hours of recovery comes to an end. It is time to run again. This time, further and higher than I’d ever been before. Time to push those boundaries and redefine myself.
Before the race began I was subjected to one of the random bag searches whilst in the starting pen. Great. Whilst I fully endorse and support this approach, it isn’t half a pain in the arse. When you pack and re-pack your bag and organise it in such a way, only to then be rushed to unpack in a crowded space to show you have all the mandatory gear is just a nightmare. Either way, I passed. I got my green sticker on my bib.
You really can’t fault the organisation of UTMB. from bag checks to bus transportation to the start line, it really is a military operation and you can clearly see where you 200 Euro entry fee has been spent. You are so looked after and accounted for during the event. I’ve almost forgotten its been 3 hours since I first woke, trudged to the bus and started eating croissants.
71 Hours – Chamonix
It’s about 3pm on Tuesday and I’m leaving the race registration tent. I’m in. I’m Done. I’m set to go. The rigorous testing and inspection of your documentation and kit has been passed. Phew. Time to head home, re-pack the kit and drop bag, eat more food and go to sleep. At 1am I need to be up and heading to the bus to Courmayeur.
That morning I’d skipped the organised morning “shake out” run so that I can head up the VK with the others (I didn’t want to do both). Most of them bailed on the second run, but Yvette showed me the way. We did about half way before turning back and heading home so I could register. Post registration I finally got to eat and rammed a lasagne down my throat before an hour later heading out for a burger with Alan. I was bloated now but heading to bed. 7pm, If it goes well I can get about 6 hours sleep before the journey begins….
45 Hours – Chamonix
Its a whole day later and I’m stepping off the Chamonix Express into Chambalama Town (Chamonix that is!). So far the trip has been fantastic and worked out exactly as planned and I’m where I want to be when I want to be there. I pick up the key to the apartment, meet Yvette and Jess and head into the main town to cheer home the MCC runners. There are a few friends running and due to finish within the next few hours. We grab a burger and make it in time to support them all across the infamous UTMB arch/finish line. The rest of the day is spent eating and meeting many friends before heading to bed and trying to get a semi-decent night’s sleep. I’m not sure how Tuesday will pan out but I know I want to get the legs moving a little bit and eat and sleep as much as I can.
21 Hours – Visp
Arriving in Visp I head straight to the hotel with my fingers crossed that I can check in early, I can. Result! I was staying at St. Jorden, which very quickly became apparent was some form of religious retreat (an ‘Education and Seminar House’ as they put it!). This didn’t bother me though and I was given some very helpful advice relating to the thermal baths and local buses before I set off out in my short shorts.
I get to the Thermal baths very quickly, pay my 25Euro for three hour access to both the pools and Sauna rooms and head on in. I’m immediately disorientated though. It is busy. I’ve a little armband to activate doors and lockers and straightaway signs are instructing me to remove my shoes. I wander on in and first stumble upon the ‘Grotto Bath’ – a pool maintained at 40 degrees. It is awesome. I follow it up with a stint in the ‘Cold Water Grotto’ which is so relaxing as it is in pitch darkness. I keep alternating between the two before heading outside (after a stop off at several steam baths of various temperatures and aromas).
Outside I find a series of swimming pools with jets, streams and water features. I enjoy a few trips around the ‘River Pool’ and smile as the water current pushes me round and round. I then head off to the slide. Yes, the slide. I’m like a child all over again and it is frikken brilliant. I don’t know how many times I go on it, but it is great fun. I must have been in here for about 2 hours by now so I head back inside to repeat my hot/cold water “treatment”, steam rooms and get naked in the saunas. I’ve one eye on my watch now as the buses aren’t all that frequent and I want to get the next one. Whilst in the Grotto Bath I decide to lay on the loungers – when you recline your feet are elevated. That will help with my recovery I think to myself. I’m sure it did too, because the next thing I remember is waking up and it is 45 mins later. Shit, I’m late. I rush out, in a panic realise there is a bus in less than 10mins, but I can’t find the changing rooms. I dive into a disabled toilet and start getting changed but am disrupted by someone banging on the door. “Hold on” I scream before grabbing my stuff and making to leave. Outside a cleaner is looking at me disgusted and starts yelling at me pointing at my trainers. I try to explain I don’t understand and am lost and continue the long walk of shame to the exit, to many tuts and disapproving eyes along the way.
Outside I try to leave but the armband flashes red and buzzes every time, after some time the receptionist realises it is because I am “late”. Ten mins overdue, I’m instructed to a machine to pay a fine. 5 Euros, phew, that’s OK. I run out and jump on the bus just in time before it leaves. I slept very well that night!
15 Hours – Zermatt
Morning has broken. My legs ache. I feel well rested but my quads are definitely a little tender. The Matterhorn Sky Race was faster than I expected and I was already feeling it. After a relaxing evening and a good long sleep I felt like I’d lost a big chunk of my recovery. That wasn’t the case though, sleep is what I needed. I just didn’t need tender legs!!
I finished packing my bag and headed down to the hotel breakfast bar. I had a casual day ahead with no rushing. My trains were booked and I had plenty of time. I ate, and ate and ate at breakfast. I didn’t really eat a proper meal the night before and I was pushing in the calories now. Plus I didn’t know when I’ll get a chance to eat next that day, so I relaxed and ate a shit tonne of food.
As I sat on the train from Zermatt to Visp I did a quick bit of research on what Visp had to offer. It wasn’t long before I came across the Thermalquellen Brigerbad – Thermal Baths and Spa. Sod exploring the mountains, this was the best Idea I’d had in a long time.
0 Hours – Zermatt
It’s about 16:00 on Saturday. Moments earlier I crossed the line of the Matterhorn Sky Race. Now I’m sitting down eating the post race meal with Jason and Pritt, two runners I met along the way. “What’s next?” they ask. “The TDS at UTMB” is my response. “When is it?” they ask. I take a look at my watch. “It starts in 84 hours” I tell them….
Lets rewind (or fast forward? I’m so lost with my own writing now!) a little. The race is done, completed. I’m wondering why I thought I could do it? With such technical terrain, I’m not quite so sure I thought I even could do it. But I did. And I did it well (I’ll modestly say). I felt OK afterwards. Probably the best I’ve ever felt after an ultra. It was just a long ass slog.
It was very much a three part race. The first 50km, the middle 50km and the last. I loved the first 50km. I felt free and ran more than I’m used to running in mountain races. The middle 50km dragged on and seemed to take a lot longer than the first 50km. Then the last 50km was all about survival and perseverance, as many ultras often are.
I was fortunate that, unlike many runners, I had no issues (other than sore feet). That I also found a companion to support me through. I keep saying it, ultras are far far easier with friends!!
It did make me question the distance though. 150km is a lot. It’s long. When you’re telling yourself, “only 50km to go”, “only another 12 hours”, and when you’re OK with that, it should be questioned!!
Last year’s CCC left me underwhelmed. The finish in particular was a let down, but this year the TDS gave me the full UTMB experience. Finishing midday with all the exceptional support was a phenomenal experience. It was an electric atmosphere unlike last years finish and one I’ll never forget.
The TDS was modified for 2019. Increased from 120km to 145km with the additions through the Beaufort valley. Those I spoke to who’d done the ‘old TDS (Like Darryl and Alan) now claimed it was too much. Too hard. The additions unnecessary. Many say its harder than UTMB which, whilst longer and has a little more elevation, is far less technical. There’s only one way for me to confirm, let’s see what the UTMB ballot God’s have to say about next year…
To all those who helped me achieve, supported and believed, thank you!