Lake District

As a UK-based runner and self-proclaimed lover of mountains and the outdoors, the Lake District is often described as the place to be. I’d never been. That all changed and finally, after a few failed trips, I made it to the Lake District for the first time. Of course there was a race involved – what better way to spend a weekend and to see as much as possible than with a race. Enter the Grand Tour of Skiddaw.

It was August 2021 and I was a little blue. The cause is known to me. A combination of the elation of achieving and finishing the Val D’Aran by UTMB was always going to result in a downer as I awaited the next adventure, that coupled with an ongoing niggle to my Achilles which has left me running just once a week (yeah I know, that should probably be zero not once…) and then the cancellation of the next big adventure – the Stranda Fjord – after being unable to travel to Norway. So when I found out a few mates were heading up to the Lakes for a race on bank holiday weekend, I quickly signed up for the adventure too.

The Grand Tour of Skiddaw (GTSs) is a 45 mile loop taking in two of the Wainwright’s – High Pike and Skiddaw. The course profile looked mild on paper with a circa 2,000m of elevation over the 45 miles. It also looked fairly down hill and runnable from the final climb to Skiddaw around half way.

Unfortunately, Jules had to pull out of the race a few weeks before, but kindly drove us up and dropped Jon, Yvette and I off at Lime House School (and a grand school it was!) where we soon met Al and Livvy (who Jon was coaching for the race) at the start line. It was fairly low key with a little over 100 runners towing the line.

Here we go again…

Gaynor, the Race Director from Pure Sport Events, gave us a pre-race briefing, dibbed us all in and shouted “go” through the microphone. The small crowd of runners started trudging off out of the school and on to the wonders of the Lake district.

The first section was relatively flat (by the race profile anyway!) as we meandered through lush green fields of farmland with freshly compressed hay bails, passed by the impressive building of Rose Castle and followed the river towards Caldbeck, where the first (and last) aid station would be.

The terrain was varied as we followed each other in single file along the narrow track paths. Yvette quickly started to disappear in the distance as Jon, Al and I chatted and trotted along. We’d formed a little pack with a group of others who caught us up and were happy not to pass by but to keep the pace we were doing.

Those 7 or so miles to Caldbeck whizzed by quickly as the cool morning started to warm up. The brief stop in Caldbeck saw me stash up with Jaffa cakes and crisps as we prepared for the first climb to High Pike. The climb was fairly forgiving. Wide switch backs breaking up the steepness of the hillside. Jon and I settled into a solid hike and powered up. By now the field of runners was starting to spread out.

High Pike, my first Wainwright

Before long we passed the boothy near the summit and grabbed a quick photo at the Trig point. My first ever Wainwright! I won’t be trying to ‘bag’ all 214 of them! We were soon picking up the pace as we began to descend between Drygill Head and Great Lingy Hill. Way off in the distance, we caught a feint glimpse of Yvette with her bright yellow Salomon pack acting like a beacon in the fells.

The descent took us down a few hundred metres alongside a stream. The route, although expertly marked, was tricky to follow as it was lumpy with wild growth and slippery from the wet ground near the stream. It wasn’t the quickest descent and I was glad to see the end of it with my ankles feeling rather tender by the end. I’d gotten a little ahead of Jon by now but carried on running as it felt good, knowing he’d catch me up sooner or later.

The next section wasn’t particularly pleasant despite the incredible views it offered. It was a very gradual incline path that was visible all the way off in the distance as we ran towards Skiddaw House Hostel. It was also a little rocky, so the ankles didn’t quite get the rest they were hoping for. I kept running. Here I caught up with Yvette after a good period of consistent running and then we carried on together passed the Hostel and up to the next aid station at the base of the climb to Skiddaw. As we refuelled, Jon arrived just moments behind us.

A tiring run along the slight rocky incline

The climb to Skiddaw was by far the biggest and steepest of the course. It was without doubt the main point and highlight of the race, pretty obvious seeing as the race is named after the peak! A rocky/gravel track zig zagged up the mountain. It was fairly steep in parts and made for slow and steady going. It was a good workout for the legs that was for sure. The further we climbed though, the more the mist obscured the no doubt fantastic views.

Posing for Jules on the climb to Skiddaw

We passed two guys who were running as one of the ‘pairs’ – a category of two people entered together and would run entirely together through to the finish. One was suffering cramps quite badly. Yvette stopped to help as Jon and I carried on. I thought that might be the end of them!

Ring the bell!

It wasn’t long before we were reaching the summit. Here we’d have a slight out and back section to the Trig point and an opportunity to ‘ring’ the race bell. We each took our turn ringing the bell before turning around to begin the descent down towards Longside, Ullock Pike and Barkbeth Hill. This descent was fast, steep and slightly daunting. The misty mountain summit made visibility slightly difficult and the loose scree made the descent slippery. A lot of concentration was required with a steep drop off on one side. I sped down and looked back to see Jon and Yvette as small dots on the mountain side.

The descent continued as we rolled up and down past Longside where, just as I reached Ullock Pike, I stopped and laid down to enjoy the view over Keswick and Bassenthwaite Lake just below as I waited for Jon and Yvette to catch up. They stopped for a little bit too and we persuaded a hiker to snap a picture for us before we carried on. As we approached Barkbeth Hill the descent became a little steeper and technical once more. As we eased down, the pair of runners caught us up. A solid recovery from the cramping. As we bottomed out we all ran into the farm together for the next aid station and a welcome break to top up food and liquids.

Enjoying the views (and a waffle) from Ullock Pike

From here we encountered what I thought turned out to be one of the harder sections of the race, mentally at least. It was a 5 mile section along the road from Orthwaite as we made our way back towards Caldbeck. The roads were very straight and undulating and offered no protection from the sun which was now intense in the mid afternoon. It was slow and arduous progress as we ran and walked in equal measures. After what felt like an eternity the road gave way and we climbed the last of the ‘major climbs’ near Fell Side along well maintained hiking paths to re-join the route back where we began the climb to High Pike many hours earlier. From here we knew it was just a km or two back to Caldbeck and the final aid station. We trudged on and had the aid station to ourselves.

Here we had plenty of attention from the volunteers and enjoyed a few good chats and plenty of laughter. We stayed a while and begrudgingly decided we’d better leave and begin the final 12km back to the school. Leaving the aid station we passed Gillian and Jules who’d come outside their accommodation of the Oddfellow arms to cheer us all on. This was the only time I was glad I wasn’t staying with everyone else here (I was closer to the finish, staying near Rose Castle). Running 12km away from the accommodation was not something I would have enjoyed!

Before long we were back on the trails and winding along the river and fields once more. Jon and I had left Yvette slightly behind us in Caldbeck and gone on ahead of her. I felt bad. We kept going though. Mostly alone just the two of us other than one runner who caught us up and passed us. Running along side the river we felt we’d gone wrong. We had. We’d missed a turn into the final field somehow (there was a sign pointing back against us, we’d assumed it was from earlier in the day). We back tracked, adjusted the sign, and were on course again, not far to go, just to small climb out of the field and into the school grounds remained. Back to where it all began.

We rounded the school grounds down to the field the the rapturous applause and cheers from the volunteers. Jon and I ambled over the line and celebrated with a hi five as the volunteers took our trackers and gave us our medals. For a moment they also thought we were the first ‘pair’ as we’d run together. If we’d entered as a pair we would indeed have won that category! Shortly after us the pair did finish which was the two guys (Mike and Andy) who we’d shared much of the section after the Skiddaw descent together. We cheered them in and bought them a beer to celebrate. There goes probably my only chance to claim a podium spot! Behind them, Yvette followed in and together we all celebrated with pizza and beer as we waited and cheered in Al and the Livvy too.

The finish line vibes were excellent as the volunteers all cheered and celebrated with the runners. They fed us incredible home made sweet potato and coconut soup (made by Gaynor!) and had set up their own pub – The Stagger Inn – at the finish line for runners to enjoy. I loved the friendliness of the event and all the staff and the organisation was top notch. The route was expertly marked and as far as I could tell everything ran smoothly. The finishers medal was also great with a high quality medal made from local slate. Another first for me.

What a great way to end a fabulous adventure and running with friends in a new place. An incredible first experience of the Lake district. It certainly helped lift me a little out of the blues.

My first slate medal

Chasing Tees

The Stour Valley Path ultra, or more specifically, the SVP100, has become somewhat of a tradition. A grounding point. A yearly adventure and a pilgrimage for me in some way.

What started as my second ultra back in 2017 has turned into the one place I return to run. But why? I always say it’s because I’m collecting the set of tee shirts, that has been my why for this event. But every year I find out there are more to obtain by hitting new milestones. There is nothing unique about it either, there are many runners out there who are years ahead of me in their collections, some having run the SVP100 every year since its inception. Still, this is my journey…

After my first three 100k finishes I opted to volunteer in 2020 as it was just one week after a 100 mile adventure on the North Downs Way. This time, 2021 I signed up to the elusive 50km which would complete my colour set of t-shirts. Whilst I’m weak and always sign up to the biggest challenge, my 2021 plans should have seen me racing in the mountains of Norway the week before the SVP100 (it didn’t pan out that way!). Opting for the 50 was also the wisest choice.

So here I was, a little lost on Saturday morning as, rather than starting at 7am, I found myself making my way across London to Sudbury to start at 1pm instead. It felt odd. It felt a little disorienting. I rocked up at the start line which was very unfamiliar, as the 50km course does a short loop before joining the 100km runners along the Stour Valley Path to the finish. None the less, a familiar welcome from Matt (the Race Director) sent me on my way.

A different start for this year’s run

I started relaxed. This section was very flat. I was full of energy tough and even in a relaxed state I struggled to contain myself a little as we ran along the single track paths after leaving the riverside. We set off in small groups of 6 or so and as I entered a field a few kms in I could see runners stretched out far into the distance. We all said hello to each other and wished good fortunes for the day ahead as we passed and exchanged places. I briefly saw Agata and carried on my way with my fresh legs taking me probably a little too fast.

Before long we joined the SVP and looking back in the distance we could see a 100km runner heading our way. I wondered where I would be if I was doing the 100km this day, not this far along the course that is for certain! I chatted with many runners and one common theme was the black ‘3-star finishers’ tee I was wearing. It was a conversation starter for sure. Runners were amazed I’d finished it 3 times, claimed I must know the way and I was the one to follow, they told me about their past finishes and their own journeys to obtaining the black t-shirt and even joked something must be wrong with me if I was only doing the 50km (actually, there was that too, a pesky Achilles was troubling me for quite some time and I was stubbornly running through the pain with so much strapping and tape around my ankle). Truth is though, these conversations made me smile. They were a huge ego boost. I felt like the biggest, most bad-assed person on the course that day. We can’t deny we all enjoy a bit of a verbal pick me up! Ultimately though this just kept me running harder and faster than I probably should have been.

The hours and kilometres ticked by and passed ever so quickly. This last 50km of the 100km SVP is the more undulating and hilliest part of the course. There are plenty of short sharp climbs to break up the mostly flat path. I reached all the familiar checkpoints and aid stations and was welcomed with the usual buzz and support from the fantastic volunteers. Everything was going well. My Achilles didn’t start hurting until probably about 20km in and even then it was a manageable pain.

Every year I take the same pictures in the same place. This is one of my recurring favourite views from the trail

Besides running a little too fast for my current fitness level, the one mistake I made was to start filling my bottles up from the High5 powder available at checkpoints rather than use the Tailwind I’d brought with me. It’s a mistake I often make on the shorter ultras and I should know by now what will happen – cramps. My body is accustomed to the Tailwind solution and the added sodium content. When I switch to other products with less salt in them…. yeah, I cramp. It was a scorcher of a summer’s day too. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I started cramping around the 40km mark! I had been fuelling well though and was far ahead of the finish time I’d set out with. So I started to walk more for the final 10km.

Along the last section I was playing leapfrog with a number of people I’d chatted to throughout the day. There was a friendly lady on the 100km who was running very strongly and full of enthusiasm, another 100km runner on his way to a 7-star finish (an immortal in my eyes! what an achievement). And another lady on her way to her first ever 100km finish. After a few kilometres the man vanished off ahead and I didn’t see him again as he chased his fastest finish time.

With just a few kilometres left, after the diversion on the route, I was trucking along quite comfortably, recognising familiar landmarks of the route. We were running along a path which I recalled and I had a feeling we’d soon be leaving it, back into the fields. There was a gate, I tried to go through it but it was locked. So I carried on. Through the bushes and over the other side of the fence I kept thinking I was going wrong. I checked my route and I was. I did need to go through that gate. I was confused. I tracked back and then saw a bunch of runners the other side of the fence. I knew it. How?! Turns out the padlock on the fence didn’t stop you lifting the latch (something I didn’t try as I only tried to slide the latch out). All was good again. Every year I miss a few turnings on this race!

Before long I was coming back off the roads and looping around the filed and heading towards the finish line. Here more familiar faces welcomed me and gave me my medal. It was by far the earliest (and lightest!) I’d ever finished the SVP course. It really makes a difference not doing the first 50km!

After a quick shower I was soon walking back along the roads to the train station eating the customary sausage and chips from the rugby club. A sub 6 hour finish was far faster than I intended and once more my Achilles was on fire. Time to go home and get ready for the next adventure.

Now I have the full colour collection of Green, Black, Yellow and Grey SVP t-shirts. The only question I have to ask myself is now I’ve chased the tees, do I keep going back and chase the stars? Time will tell…

Been there, done that, got the tee…

Past finishes

Animo!

The Torn dera Val D’Aran by UTMB, aka the ‘VDA’. This was the first edition of this event that has been franchised under the prestigious UTMB banner. The VDA being one of a handful of events as part of the weekend. A 162km (100 mile) circular route around the mountainous Val D’Aran region in the Pyrenees.

Our journey began back in the summer of 2020 when the first edition was postponed to 2021 and they reopened registrations. Paul was the mastermind once more and it took very little to persuade myself and Darryl to sign up too. Later on Paul C also signed up, but 2020 wasn’t finished with us just yet…. I’m not sure how many flights were cancelled, how much additional money we spent nor how many times the travel rules and restrictions changed in the weeks leading up to the race, but I do know it led to many, many sleepless nights spent stressing over deliveries, tests and forms. Paul C had to drop out the week before and I was left guessing until I woke up just 5 hours before the flight was due to take off. Until this point I still hadn’t received the negative test that was now required to enter Spain and I was prepared to go to the airport and hope for the best with numerous, less than ideal, alternative travel plans. For those who know me well, you know this isn’t how I like to roll. I like to deal with greater certainty. I thrive in a process and I struggle when I can’t control aspects of that process.

The Elevation profile for the VDA

Arriving at the airport with all my barcodes and forms, I already felt like a winner. Now, with a little over 30 hours to go to the race start, I could finally start thinking about the race itself… I wasn’t alone though. We went as threesome and we planned to run together. We are all now experienced ultra runners. We know each other well. We also knew and recognised that we are getting into some big league running with this event. 100 miles. 10,600 m of elevation. The Spanish mountains. It was an ultra that would push each of us beyond our comfort zone and redefine our boundaries once more.

It’s been a while since I’d run fuelled by a little fear. I think it is a good thing. It’s needed. We arrived not knowing how we’d cope. We were realistic that it will take us very close to the 48 hour cut off mark. We were accepting that it is going to hurt a lot and hurt in new ways we’d not yet experienced. But, mentally we were focused. We broadly knew what we’d face and why we were there and that, together we were stronger. Together we stood a chance of getting to the finish line.

Lining up on the start line along the main street in Viehla, the pre race jitters kicked in a little. This wasn’t like any other race in the last two years. This was a mass start, just shy of 1,000 runners bunching together at 18:00 trying to remain in the shade as ‘Conquest of Paradise’ (The song adopted as the UTMB signature theme) blasted out of the speakers. The MC was gearing up the crowd and initiating a final countdown. It’s hard not to feel special in a moment like this. Before we knew it the countdown was over and we were shuffling along through the town, about to begin the first of many climbs.

I cannot recount two whole days of trail running. It would take me longer to write that much never mind that I’m sure none of us have the time to read a two day long recap. I do broadly remember the sections though, the feelings and emotions and I can stitch together the adventure with what I can remember…

The first 20km or so was an absolute delightful. For the first few hours we had the sun with us, as we took in some beautiful climbs between Pomarola and Geles which presented us with incredible views and a mesmerising sunset behind the mountains from Montpius. All along this section we were like children playing. We had complete freedom. We were so pleased to be where we wanted to be, to be in the moment that we were laughing and joking non stop. We didn’t contain it to ourselves either but extended it to others, whether they liked it or not. Every time a runner went passed us, we made ‘fast car’ noises. Vrroooom. Every single time. It went down like a led balloon except for one guy who stopped in a fit of laughter and offered a fist bump. We liked him. We never saw him again though.

Bottleneck

Somewhere along the first climb there was a point where we all came to an abrupt stop. Runners waiting impatiently as the wide fire track converged to a single track path. We were at a physical standstill for a good five minutes. Those behind us would have waited longer. Oddly, after this, the etiquette improved and runners no longer tried to squeeze past each other and gain places along the narrow tracks.

As darkness settled in, we arrived at an aid station (Geles) which was manic. Runners were everywhere, grabbing what food and drink they could, layering up, shuffling through. There were chocolate spread sandwiches available which we snapped up and ate as we too started adding layers. Now the Sun’s heat had been replaced with the chilling mountain wind, a few moments break was enough for us to get very cold very quickly.

The next section saw us run towards the French border and soon after Antiga de Lin we crossed the wobbly suspension bridge deep in the night and began one of the biggest climbs of the course. The darkness here was our friend as it hid from our view the absolute monster of a climb. It was exhausting. The darkness masked the beauty but illuminated the ‘snake’ or runners by their head torches lighting up the trail. Every turn we took exposed more of the snake. It appeared to reach to the stars. One thing was clear, it was going to be a while to climb to the summit of Cap dera Picada (2400m).

Suspension bridge

The snake of runners was like a continuous train. Each runner was a carriage being dragged along by the momentum. Pulled from the front and pushed from the back. One would step to the side of the trail to break. The train would form up and fill the gap. Other times as runners re-entered the train it would adjust to accommodate them. It was an ongoing process. Every time I raised my gaze from the floor I’d see runners stepping aside or re-joining the train. We did it ourselves too, many times. At one point we stepped aside and sat down. We turned off our head torches and just sat there in the darkness. Above us was the Milky Way was visible, crystal clear. A beautiful sight worth stopping and taking in!

Eventually the trail became rockier as we approached the top. Above us runner silhouettes were all along the ridgeline, lit up by the Moon behind them. The Moon reflecting the Sun’s light and guiding us, showing us the way to go. Along the top the trails continued to undulate. The first of our collective low points hit us somewhere here during the night as Paul pulled up and vomited pretty severely. After this there was no stopping him and we struggled to hold pace and keep up with him. He’d struggled for a few hours during the night and was now emerging from his inner battle with the breaking of the new day.

We arrived at another aid station (Coth de Baretja) located on a long down hill section. We took some hot broth to warm us up and sat outside the tent in the chill. Already vans were collecting runners who were dropping out. The climb had claimed some victims. We were about 45km in at this point. We knew the next time we’d stop would be at the 55km mark. So off we went, heading into the day break as the morning Sun started to break through the darkness of the night before. Experiencing a day break on a trail run is an amazing and powerful experience. The energy it brings is difficult to describe. Your tiredness gives way with a freshness that only the Sun’s rays can provide. We were moving freely again and soon found ourselves approaching the aid station in the school at Bossost.

This was a significant milestone. The 55km mark. It sounds insignificant but, besides being the first of three aid stations with hot food and about a third of the race, it meant we’d now covered over 4,000m of elevation gain. Over 55km that is quite a lumpy run! The rest of the 6,000m was more spread out with a lot more downhill to cover. Before the race we’d aimed to get to this point without being completely broken. If we could do that, we knew we stood a good chance of getting through to the end. As we sat there, gathering our thoughts, we were hustled by a volunteer telling us that we had an hour until the cut off at 08:45. We knew this and weren’t bothered. We knew we were capable of completing the race and were currently way ahead of schedule with a projected finish around 40 hours. But, suddenly, we felt a little on edge. We were now aware of how tight these cut offs actually were. It felt crazy that with so much time in the bank we were being hurried at just the fifth aid station and first thing in the morning. It was now very apparent to us that a lot of runners would not be making this cut off!

After Bossost came Canejan and from there Sant Joan de Toran. Both of these were fairly short sections and didn’t include too much climbing. One of them was a 6km stretch and I remember thinking it was one of the hardest 6km I’d ever done. There was an initial part that ran along side some industrial factories and then the paths took us through some forest sections along a cycle/adventure track next to the main road. I remember signs for UTMB all long here. Then we began to climb, crossing over a dam and a massive waterfall. Each section had maybe 400m of climbing, but it felt like so much more. I was tired!

Being tired now was not a good thing. As we approached midday, with the sun getting hotter and hotter, we embarked on the next huge climb towards Tuc des Crabes (2,400m). Here we’d climb 1,500m through a valley. We started off through some lush green forests before the path opened up in the valley floor. We stopped at a river where some runners were completely submerging themselves. Paul and Darryl filled up some fresh water, I stuck with the 2 litres of Tailwind I’d prepared at the last aid station.

We met an Australian, Matt, and chatted with him as we climbed. Like the runners around us, we’d break frequent and often, sitting in the shallows of shade on the mountain paths. Often you’d stop when there was a chance as runners littered the path seeking out the shade spots. By now we were seeing familiar faces that we’d been leapfrogging with throughout the night (and would continue to do so with until the finish!). Stephen another Brit, David from Scotland and two Spanish guys who we could barely communicate with other than make fast car noises at – like the guy early on, they saw the funny side in it. We’d clearly done it to them when they’d passed us and sometime later they repaid the favour to us. It was now a running joke with them and we loved it. Every opportunity the five of us would ‘Vroooom’ each other and laugh.

The climb was exhausting. It was the midday heat. It sapped our energy. The higher we climbed though, the better the views became. After the climb came a descent into Pas Estret. By now our mood had changed dramatically. All three of us were now feeling the toils of the climb. We were hot, tired, thirsty and hungry. the terrain over the last 50km had been very rocky and our legs and feet were feeling the blunt of it. We were looking forward to a break at the aid station and were disappointed when we reached it. As he shuffled in, we saw four vans fill with runners who were dropping out. Inside the tent, runners were laying everywhere. It was struggle to reach the food as runners rested in the shade under the tables. The food was sparse with the aid station having run out of many things and the rest was simmering in the sun. Sandwiches were dry and stale, chocolate was melted in the trays and the water was warm. Luckily I’d been fuelling well so far and still had plenty of food on me that I’d sourced from Xmiles before the trip. Some more Stroop Waffles and some Kendal Mint Cake sorted me out as we stopped to rest. We then had to force ourselves to leave knowing we had another climb to do.

Up to the Iron Mines

We knew we had to keep going. We also knew that, after the next climb we’d be treated to the views of the old Iron Mines. We’d read about and seen glimpses of these in various YouTube videos we’d watched to recce the route from afar. When we reached them, they didn’t disappoint. First we ran through some tunnels on the edge of the mountain with the old cart tracks still in place. Through the tunnel, panoramic views of Lac de Montoliu in the valley floor greeted us. Further up the old mining structures, dilapidated and left in ruins. My mind whirled wondering all the scenarios for how they were built this high up in the mountains in such a remote area. Before descending we encountered a group of guys with a trumpet. They played a tune for each runner and cheered us all on. We loved it. We sat with them for a bit and cheered along with them. They entertained our requests and even played the UTMB theme for us when Paul emerged on the summit. This section of the route was very rocky but it was an iconic section for sure. The rocky trails back down were difficult to run on and jabbed at my feet as we covered the 1,000m decline into the next aid station.

Before long, night was closing in once more and I powered on ahead of the others knowing our drop bags at 104km were waiting for us. To my horror, when I arrived I was told we were only at 98km and the drop bags were at the next aid station. This was Montgarri, not Beret, I was mortified. Paul and Darryl asked the same when they arrived behind me. The only good news was that it was 6km to Beret and it only had 200m of incline and 40m descent to cover. We layered up again and pushed on. A quick pose for a photograph we trekked on into the forests.

We continued on and reached Beret as the night descended into darkness. We made a joint call to try and get some sleep. A micro sleep. We had a long way to go and another full night to endure. We knew there were some ‘technical’ (let’s be honest, by now we’d realised that the majority of the trail was very technical!) later on. We gave ourselves an hour at the checkpoint. Eat, freshen up and use whatever time we could to sleep. Darryl found a deckchair, Paul laid out on the floor and I placed my head on a table. None of us really caught any sleep, but I’m sure the rest and moment to close our eyes helped more than we realised.

As we headed back out, still maybe an hour ahead of the cut off times, it was howling. Since we’d stopped, the wind had picked up and the temperature had dropped rapidly. As we walked on, we were descending again when we were joined by Rodrigo. A Portuguese gent living in Cambridge. He’d come alone and, like us, had never experienced running through two consecutive nights without sleep of running. He asked if he could stick with us to ensure he was safe and didn’t fall asleep in the night. We obliged and acknowledged we weren’t moving that quickly anymore but he was happy to stick with us.

I was hitting a lull here and was very happy in my own little bubble just head down and plodding onwards. My feet and legs had been hurting for a long time and I was really feeling them now. The 700m descent into the villages of Unha and then Salardu were slow and painful for me and I didn’t enjoy the cobbled streets or rocky trails along the river. Each turn in the villages seemed frustratingly familiar even though we’d not be here before. In the depth of the night, Paul was sick once more. Each of us were battling in our own ways and all we could do was grind away at the terrain in front of us.

The cut offs were once again looming and were now very much at the front of our minds. We knew we’d be fine and that the cut offs would be more lenient later in the race. But, for now, we were shuffling to ensure we made it. We left Salardu about 45 mins ahead of the cut off and left with a purpose. The next aid station was at Banhs de Tredos with a cut off at 05:00. It was 12km away with a whopping 800m climb (the fifth biggest single climb of the race). We were so confident that if we made it there in time, we’d no longer have to look over our shoulders at the cut offs.

We had a quick turn around at the aid station and formed a plan to put some speed in over the next 12km. We kept it simple and simply set out to once more beat the next cut off and hopefully bank a little time along the way to attempt another sleep. So we did. We left with a brisk pace. Powering up the roads before tackling the 800m climb through the dense forest. We worked as a team. Sticking together and clearing a path up passed other runners. We took breaks to rest and fuel every 200m. Ticking them off. Hard and fast. We were up the 800m climb in what felt like no time at all.

Into the second night

At the top the hills evened out and the vast forests we were in became visibly more clear. We descended back down a little and made it to the checkpoint with plenty of time. We all went straight into a position to sleep. Paul and Rodrigo on the floor laying on cardboard boxes. Me and Darryl hunched over on chairs with our heads on the table. It was cold in the tent and so we all had emergency foil blankets draped over us. We all woke a short time later when we were shivering. A volunteer asked us if we were leaving. I acknowledged we were and rallied the others. We all seemed fine and we had plenty of time before the cut off. Now though we had more climbing to do. It was time for the ‘technical’ section and another 1,000 meters of ascent…

As we left Banhs de Tredos it was very cold and dark. The others dug out more warm layers but I opted just for the addition of my windproof smock. I figured that I’d soon warm with the exertion of the next climb. I wasn’t wrong. Almost immediately we started climbing. Here the terrain was wet and muddy and the trails that were littered with huge boulders to overcome. There was a lot of lunging movements as we climbed. It soon dawned on me that there would be no let up, it was going to be like this all the way to Colomers…

Eventually the darkness started giving way to the light of Sunday morning and the sheer beauty of our surroundings started to reveal themselves. We were 2,000m high and, glistening ahead of us, the stillness of lakes sat in wait. We could see the head torches of runners skirting the perimeter of the lakes up ahead and we followed the paths they created. The further we went, the lighter it became, the more surreal the surroundings became. Each bit of climbing brought more lakes to trek around, each more majestic than the ones before. However, the terrain was truly brutal. With 130km in our legs, I was in no place of mind to enjoy the beauty. It’s a shame. Being miserable with the demands of the course I purposely left my GoPro in my drop bag back at Beret. I had no interest in the effort of turning it on anymore. Looking back, this was my one regret. However my brain cannot undo what my eyes have seen and I’ll never forget watching the sunrise over these lakes surrounded by jagged mountain ranges on all sides.

As morning continued to dawn, we were still climbing. It made no sense. We were each in our own spaces now and I was plodding on ahead. I’d somehow wriggled myself to the front of all the runners in the area and was pretty much leading the way. I couldn’t figure out where we were going. I was desperately seeking the orange marker flags amongst the grey terrain. Occasionally I’d see a glimpse of a runner way off in the distance but I could see no obvious way out of the mountains.

Bit by bit the route would reveal itself and we ended up climbing, literally rock climbing, our way out as we reached Tuc de Podo (2,700m). This was by far the most technical terrain I’d ever experienced. I can’t hide the fact I was quite scared at numerous points. I wasn’t alone feeling this way. As I reached the top, there were a few volunteers and we were scanned in. We’d been climbing for 3 hours solid. At a decent pace. Still aware there were cut offs looming at the stop after the next aid station. I sat and waited for Paul and Darryl, absorbing it the views and resetting my mind. Shortly after me the ‘fast car’ Spaniards arrived. One was fuming. I could see him berating the volunteer who scanned us in. When he saw me he joined me and found the words to communicate to me his frustrations. Basically that he thought it was dangerous. Tired runners who hadn’t slept for over 30 hours and who had already covered 130km should not be exposed to that terrain. I found myself agreeing. There were no real qualifying standards for the race nor prerequisites for having experience on this sort of terrain. Added to that, not once was any of our mandatory kit checked by the organisation (another frustration I’ll come to later…). He calmed himself down and carried on. I sat and waited.

descending with one pole

We had another 6km to the next aid station (Colomers). All down hill. But all rock and boulder fields. We were hustling. Stephen was near me and asked if I thought we would make it. I recall my response to him was “if we run”. So I kept running. Darryl and Paul were exhausted. Rodrigo seemed quite energetic. I told him to help me make the others hustle and move a little faster. I felt we needed to use the downhills to our advantage now. As we were running I had a disaster, one of my poles slipped down between to rocks and my momentum snapped it clean, breaking the lower section. Bollocks. I’d become so heavily dependent on the poles and knew I’d be using them for the rest of the route. I recalled earlier on a runner talking about carrying Gorilla tape. I said this out loud and Rodrigo responded with “it’s me”. Amazing. He patched up my pole with the tape and we continued on catching up with the others again. Sadly though it didn’t last and there was nowhere near enough tape to secure them properly. One pole it was going t to have to be then…

The downhill was tough. Darryl bonked and needed to stop and get some fuel in. As was the theme, runners we’d passed now passed us back. Back up and running I hustled us along. Looking back, I hadn’t picked up on the signs of how Darryl was suffering. I was so focused on getting us down to the aid stations. We bottomed out and with 1km to go crossed a dam at Lac de Major Colomers. Descending further we eventually arrived into the aid station we went. I was with Stephen again and he too was carefully watching the cut off times but had mistakenly thought the next cut off was here. It wasn’t though. It was Ressec in another 9km or so where the cut off was. We had time to make it for the 12:45 cut off for sure. We would make it. I was sure of it. If we made that then I was also sure we’d have no issues of finishing in the final 48 hours. I thought we’d get there by 12 and have 6 hours to finish. We made sure Darryl fuelled more here and I gave him some food from my Xmiles stash. The KMC recharge bars were particularly refreshing now. Then, in a small group with David and Matt in tow, we gathered our things and headed back out. Rodrigo had vanished before we reached the checkpoint. we assumed he was good now the night had passed.

The next climb was a bit of a shock to the system – it was an incredibly steep climb for 400m. I struggled with only having one pole and found it hard to support my body and pull myself up. The rocks were loose and we were all conscious of them moving and falling under our foot movements with runners above and below us. I reached the top and sat and waited for the others who I’d seen not far behind me on some of the switchbacks. As I sat I started dwelling on something Darryl had mentioned earlier on – We no longer had the few hour buffer we thought we did. Those early calculations we had of a 40-45 hour finish didn’t include the few attempts we made at trying to sleep during the night nor the sheer demand of a 3 hour climb through the rocky lake section. We had no spare time banked any longer. For the first time I was really concerned that there was a strong possibility we wouldn’t make it. We simply had to move faster than we were, there was no alternative.

I briefed the others when they arrived. All four of them acknowledging the situation. I took charge and led us down. Running where I wouldn’t normally run. I was powering us passed other runners. We were our own train now and we were shifting. A strange thing had happened to me. Normally in races, when I’m in pain then that is just the end of it. I endure and succumb to it. I accept the pains and hobble on. This time though, with the pressure and reality of being timed out, I somehow found a way to block it out. I described it like a switch that numbed the pain. I was able to run and ignore the pains. I was using my frustration of the event and the difficulty of the route to focus my effort into finishing. I was focused, this was going to get finished.

Darryl however was suffering. He wanted to finish, I knew that, but his anger and frustrations were only adding to his pain. He was hitting a very, very dark place. We were struggling to pull him out of it and find a way to to foucs him once more. After we had descended the next mountain, David continued on whilst I waited for the other three. They were further back than I thought and several other runners came passed before them. Darryl looked bad. They were all chatting though and carrying on what I thought was a bit of a leisurely pace. I walked ahead. I thought I’d wait for them at the next aid station, Ressec, and try again there to hustle them once they’d rested.

On the trails to Ressec, I later heard my name called out from behind. It was Paul and Matt was with him. No Darryl though. Paul said he was in a bad place and was walking slowly. Paul was feeling the urgency now too. We felt that there wasn’t much that could be done here and we continued to the aid station where we’d wait. We hoped another rest and more fuelling would do the trick so we carried on. We arrived at 12:05. 40 mins ahead of the cut off. I thought we could have got here around 11:30 but we’d dropped off the pace. It was still enough time to have a decent rest though despite meaning we no longer had 6 hours for the final two sections (a plan we’d discussed back at the last summit). At this rate it would be more like just over 5 hours. It was going to be tough now. Very achievable but we’d have to hurry ourselves along. One thing was certain was that we couldn’t make the time if we continued at the pace we had been going at over the last few kms.

We waited, expecting to see Darryl maybe 5-10 mins behind us. The clock kept ticking. We found some pizza. He still didn’t show. We were worrying now. Then, with ten mins to go, he showed up. He was exhausted and had been hallucinating. In hindsight we shouldn’t have gone so far ahead of him, we shouldn’t have left him. He was slurring his words explaining the hallucinations he’d been having. I don’t think he was fully aware of what was happening. I asked him what I could get him and he asked for water. I needed his cup, but he didn’t respond when I repeatedly asked him for it. When I eventually came back with water for him, we pushed him. He had just 5 mins remaining before the cut off and he needed to make a decision. He either dropped here, now, after 43 hours of running. Or somehow turn himself around in the minutes remaining and pushed harder than he was. Deep down, me and Paul knew the answer. But Darryl had to decide for himself. If he came, and we wanted him too, we’d stick together. But he had to be sure he could move quicker. He called it. He knew. I went outside to tell the volunteer that we would be leaving but also asked if there was a medic. If we were leaving without him we needed to know he wasn’t alone and was going to be ok.

And so, after 150km, the 3 became 2. Paul went to the toilet and I became emotional as I waited. It hit me hard. I was shaking and trying to hide it when a volunteer started talking to me and encouraging me to finish strong. I wanted it so much. But I didn’t want it this way. I wanted us all there. Darryl and Paul C too who was stuck back in London. Darryl had worked so hard. 150km! It was cruel. Paul pulled me back together and we set off. We now had a new mission. Two sections. 15km or so. 5 hours. That’s all that stood in our way. The first section was to be a 700m climb and a 300m descent. The last section a 400m climb and a 1200m descent. Not an ordinary 15km to overcome! This was not going to be an easy way to end a race…

We set off with a renewed focus, straight away we were passing people. We were moving with a (relatively) ferocious pace now and were completely comfortable with it. We passed people who left the aid station a long time before us. We acknowledged them. Those we’d been chatting to along the way asked after Darryl. Each time it made the goal more important. We had to finish now.

The first climb I kind of enjoyed. It felt like the most forgiving of the many we’d done over the past two days. A long looping fire track, long gradual single track switch backs through lush forests then a slightly steeper section climbing through the grassy mountain summit. At the top we rested on the crown. Staring at the descent down. 2km to drop 300m. At our pace maybe 30 mins. We’d absolutely annihilated this section. We ran the steep grassy descent and into the final aid station. We completed the section in 1hr 30. We’d planned for 3 hours for this and 2 hours for the last section. We knew now with certainty that we’d finish. The impact this had mentally was incredible. The relief and pressure dissipated and drained out of us. There was nothing but smiles at the finial aid station. Runners looking at each other knowingly, acknowledging the job was done. However, as the pressure drained so too did my ability to block out pain. As quickly as the power ‘switched on’ the same switch now flicked off. I was a spent force. There was no way to turn it back on.

The next climb was unforgiving. It was more direct and steep. I had to stop very frequently to sit down and breathe. Eventually we reached the top and began to descend. An huge descent to drop and a nasty way to finish off an already destroyed body. I felt everything. Every blister. Every stone. Every blade of grass. I walked. I only ran when gravity forced me to move faster than I could handle. David was with us now and as vocal about his pains as I was. We supported each other. Paul was far more spritely and high off the knowledge of the pending finish. He was on the phone arranging a live stream video of the finish for his fiancé and family. How he never tripped on the sharp downhills I do not know.

The trails gave way to the cobbled roads of Viehla. We’d ran this very section when we started the journey two days earlier. A few people were out clapping and cheering. One group had a shower hose spraying water into the street. We took turns performing for them and basking in the refreshing chill of the water. A few streets later we turned one last time and were now on the main road, the home stretch.

Darryl was there getting the ice creams in. We’d joked about this for days. A joke stemming back to when me and Darryl finished the TDS – we saw an ice-cream shop as we approached the finish line. We went to get one but we’re put off by the size of the queue waiting. So we said we’d finish here with an ice cream. Sadly, the ice cream man was rather slow and lacked the purpose we did. Darryl told him we’d be back and we told Darryl to run with us. The three of us reached that line together. We rang the bell. We rang the damn bell. It was over.

I know one thing for certain, running together we were stronger. We may have set off together and not quite finished together, but if it wasn’t for Darryl and Paul I wouldn’t have made it. We each supported the others, dragged us through our dark moments and made this adventure memorable for what it was. We did it together and the achievement is a shared one. He may not have physically rang his own bell at the end, but if Darryl didn’t make the hardest decision of the weekend, me and Paul may never have rung ours. I can’t thank these guys enough!


After Thoughts

Running is a bit of a conundrum. It isn’t easy. There is always physical and mental suffering involved. You achieve what you set out to, whether it’s 10 miles or 100 miles. Sometimes though you question whether it’s worth it. I’ll look back on this experience one day and maybe the thoughts will be different. But right now I can’t say I enjoyed that. It was tough. Far tougher than I expected and I expected it to be the toughest thing I’ve ever done. I think there is a very good chance that this will will actually be the toughest thing I’ll ever do. I’ve no desires to be in that ‘place’ again. I don’t really like the 100 mile distance. It’s a beast to conquer. This race is very though. Looking at the stats, the first finisher came in at 24 hours. The top runner took an entire day, that is 4 hours longer than UTMB! 50% of the participants did not finish. Nearly 500 runners set out and never made it back to the finish line. That tells you all you really need to now… it’s tough.

Throughout the run we moaned about the cut offs. We felt they were very tight and unforgiving. In hindsight though… we finished in the ‘golden hour’ so, arguably, the cut offs are perfectly good. If we’d been an hour later for any checkpoint, we wouldn’t have finished on time. On the flip side, without arrogance, I’m not a cut off runner. I’m always comfortably mid pack. So the entry level of the race is something to consider if you are thinking about signing up!

Overall, I also felt that the event didn’t carry the prestige of the UTMB name. The organisers acknowledge they have a lot to improve and that should be commended. But, the feeling out on the course was one of anger and frustration. The grumbles about the dangerous sections and cut off timings were common. Despite the language barriers, people were sharing these feelings. For me, two things stood out that fall well short of expectation for a UTMB branded event. Firstly the lack of mandatory kit check and secondly the aid stations.

Let’s start with the mandatory kit… there’s a big list, and rightly so. When playing in the mountains you need to be prepared. We were blessed with great weather for two days. However, the night we finished a thunder and lightning storm hit the region. It was an incredible storm that came on in no time. When we went to collect our bibs, that is all we did. Despite bringing everything, no one checked or asked for anything. They simply took our runners insurance, gave us the bib and that was it. I even asked if they wanted to see my kit and they said ‘no, tomorrow’. Tomorrow they never did neither, nor the next day. That’s right. Not once did anyone ask any of us for any single item of kit. At one of the early aid stations during the first night I did spot what looked like a table set up with paper lists of kit items. No one stopped us nor asked as we walked passed. The table was empty there was no reason not to ask at least one of us…

Given the severity of the consequences and the recent examples of when things go badly, I’m shocked that there was not a single item of kit checked over the two days. I thought this was very poor from the organisers.

Secondly, the aid stations. There were plenty and there was plenty of food. But… for a 48 hour race, there were some issues. There was a lack of variety and questionable quality controls. Most aid stations we arrived at presented us with discoloured fruit and dry bread that had been out in the sun for so long. Many food stations had trays where the food items, like chocolate, had melted and none of them offered any hot drinks other than some very cheap and bland broth. The exception to this was the pizza at Ressec. This felt completely out of place though and I’d be surprised if this wasn’t reactionary rather than planned. Either way though it was very much appreciated. Most concerning though was the quantity. We were arriving into checkpoints that were running out of food. That should never be the case. Especially not with the early pace we were keeping! Thankfully I had so much of my own food from Xmiles that this wasn’t really a problem for me. This was meant to be supplementary though, and not my main source!

In the days after the event there was another twist in the saga as, after travelling home we each felt rather unwell. Soon after we discovered a Facebook group where over 500 runners have identified as having come down with the same symptoms of illness. The organisation are investigating the cause, but it has left a rather sore feeling for many of the participants!

The Beast

Another weekend, another Maverick adventure… This time we were off down to the South west Coast to run the Exmoor X Series ultra. Some usual suspects for this one with Nick driving us down, Ale hopping in for his first ultra (that he didn’t want to do) and Carl also being roped in to tag along too for what would be his first Maverick event (not counting two weeks in Borneo!). Whatever lay ahead, there was sure to be lots of smiling and laughter with this group.

We knew it would be tough. Maverick don’t shy away from advertising this event as a difficult one. The nickname of ‘The Beast’ alone should be an indication of its difficulty. If not, the elevation profile with somewhere over 2,000m should give you all you need to know – there are some fruity climbs along the SWCP to be tackled in this event. We didn’t have any goals as, whatever time we’d finish, we had nowhere to be or go. We’d booked dinner in the hotel so had little to worry about. We estimated probably about 8 hours or so though.

As we sauntered down the start line, some time after the main pack of runners had already set off, Race Director Ben gave us some insight and that they’d clocked closer to 60km when marking up the course. Always good to know and to set the brain to a target distance! Bell ringing, we pranced off, down into and around the field as we began our journey along the coastal path.

Let the Shit Slinging commence!

Theme of the day was ‘Shit Slinging‘ a rather naughty, unhygienic but unapologetically funny game we’ve started playing on some runs. Without all the detail, you get points for kicking shit at each other. As simple as that. Into that first field there were legs flying everywhere. To anyone who saw us they must have been wondering what on earth we were up too. I think Carl stormed to an early lead.

After the first climb along an open hillside we hit onto some lovely trail paths that wound back down to the coast and to the Valley of Rocks. We’d stopped by here the night before for a post meal walk. It had incredible views and the sunset the night before was mesmerising. We turned right and ran along the coast path as I continued stopping at every opportunity to kick goat shit in the direction of the others. It even earned a little laugh from a lovely old couple who stepped aside to let us pass. We were enjoying ourselves! Rounding a blind corner I stopped to wait for Nick and pretend to ‘sling some shit’ at him, as I faked the manoeuvre, to my horror it wasn’t Nick but another runner he’d let passed. Oops. I don’t think he appreciated the fright!

Further ahead was Jake and Faye capturing the magic with the incredible back drop of the Valley of Rocks behind us. Fist bumps all round and a big cheer for Carl who they hadn’t seen since we left Borneo 16 months ago!

More magical footpaths saw us wind back down and around Lynmouth Harbour before we began the next climb. All along this section were familiar faces, first off Giffy climbing ahead of us along the woodland paths. Next up we found Rosie who was marshalling along a road section and making sure we’d not miss the turning. It was two years since we all met at the LoveTrails festival and camped together! It really feels like just yesterday that we met. Then. as the climb steepened along another open hillside, ‘Gaddy’ came up behind us. We’d met briefly for the first time queuing up at the toilets many hours earlier, but this was now a chance to properly say hello and have a chat before he powered on ahead.

As the climb came to an end at Countisbury, we began the decent along one of the more technical parts of the course, with loose scree and a sheer drop to the ocean. It was Phil who was lurking nearby to capture the incredible view for the runners at this spot. It was slow going here as a bottleneck began to form on the single track path. Shortly after reaching the bottom, we arrived at the first aid station and spent quite some time joking and chatting with Justin, the other RD and Maverick Founder.

From here we enjoyed several miles of undulating coastal path, with sections winding through beautiful lush green forests. It was so peaceful and tranquil that it was easy to loose yourself and enjoy the run, even though at times the bottlenecks would form again on the tight and narrow paths. We were fortunate that we didn’t encounter too many walkers and hikers as there were a lot of runners now bunched together.

There was another steep climb to navigate as we first climbed through the forest tracks before tackling the bulk of the climb through open fields in the heat of the midday sun. Up top, several runners broke for a rest as we plodded along after the course split. More undulating miles before we dropped down into the seaside town or Porlock Weir. Here we could smell the cooking of fresh seafood and smoky BBQs on the go. Thankfully though our next aid station was here and our bellies didn’t mis out.

I didn’t know at the time, but this aid station was supported by Justin’s parents. It was by far the best one and possibly the best aid station I’ve ever had the pleasure of stopping at during a maverick event. Pineapple. my favourite fruit and so refreshing. Mrs B was chopping away and could barely keep up as I kept taking chunks of fresh pineapple. Washed down with salted potatoes, crisps, sweats, biscuits and Milka cake bars (another new discovery for me, these were delicious). We had a good 10 minutes here and continued chatting with Justin as he arrived to check up on everything. It was a good stop and much needed. Nick was experiencing an early bonk and was struggling for some energy it was a good opportunity for him to eat and the cooked potatoes were another great addition to the aid station spread!

Refuelled, we headed back out. We knew the next section was going to be tough as it was the largest climb of the course. a straight up 400m climb. Not something to be scoffed at. No way to tackle it other than steady, relentless plodding forward. One thing at the back of my mind that was empowering here was knowing that, as we climbed, we were gradually turning back on the loop at West Porlock. Once we’d reach the top, we’d be around halfway through and from here on in running back in the direction of the finish. Always a good feeling. Part way up we met Gaddy again and soon after the summit he joined us and we all ran along together for a little while.

This part of the route was more of the same with a few little climbs and descents separated with undulating trails through open hilltops and dense forest footpaths. It really was a beautiful course and such a variety of terrains and footpaths. We’d been leapfrogging a number of other runners at this point and occasionally split into smaller groups chatting away with each other. After narrowly missing a headshot at Nick, an opportunity presented itself with some fresh (goat?) shit lining up in my path directly behind Carl. Like a pro I swung my leg and struck the sweetest of shit slings with a direct hit on Carl’s arm. He was not happy, understandably so. Me, I was in hysterics. I thought I was so funny. I told you it isn’t glamourous!

The fun soon came to an end though when a few of the group were running back towards us. Somehow we’d gone wrong. I remember seeing a sign that was pointing one way and I’d clearly misinterpreted its direction. The course marking was good, we’d fucked up. Running back on ourselves we were now behind most of the groups of runners we’d passed sometime ago, including ‘Hop-a-long’ and ‘Bagel-man’. Other runners always have endearing nicknames to us. All was not lost though as we embarked on a really enjoyable downhill section with incredible views over the town of Oare. It really was beautiful and an enjoyable downhill. We stopped briefly to chat with Chris and another who were doing some course clearing / marking and gave them the heads up that there was a sign that was easily misinterpreted. We carried on our way before arriving at the next aid station.

That View!

Here Justin was yet again. Doing an incredible job on the organising. Stuffing our faces yet again, we were chatting away when I noticed a few things. Firstly the runners at the aid station were looking a little worse for wear. It was a very challenging course and understandable to be feeling that way. We probably had about 10 miles (and a good few hours) still ahead of us. Secondly, I noticed Nick was coming out of his slump. The food was going in and his energy levels were higher than they were previously. I saw the opportunity and hurried us all along and back onto the course before he started peaking and hitting a sugar rush. I wanted us to be on the move when that happened.

Restarting began with an enjoyable downhill section before we hit the beautiful and pristine area of Brendon. Somewhere here we were greeted by an emu too! A volunteer directed us along the course with a cheerful “please be respectful” and we soon found out why. the section was delightful and we passed through a country house were the owner came out to confirm we were too pass through their property. he wished us well and cheered us on.

Hello!

From here we picked up the riverside path that ran along side the East Lyn River. Justin had told us that the second half of the route was delightful and he wasn’t lying. After the pleasure of the SWCP earlier in the day, winding along the river bed with more undulating footpaths was glorious. The dense woodlands offered us plenty of shade and Carl and Ale powered us along at a steady pace. this section flew by in no time at all and before we knew it we were back out on a road and nearing the next aid station.

River path

We were doing a bit of math now. I thought we’d have less than 9km to go, Ale and Carl were estimating closer to the 9km. At the aid station they told us it was 12km to go. Gaaah. We weren’t’ convinced though. Surely it was slightly off otherwise our GPS really couldn’t be trusted! With a big cheer and sadistic laugh we were sent off on our next climb which was probably the steepest of the last four facing us. Ale was holding up and was well beyond the Ultra territory now. Not bad for someone a few days earlier had been told by a physio to not run more than 5km! I’m sure he was enjoying it in his own way, but he was vocal about how boring it was. He’s lucky there was no shit around at this point to kick at him.

In-between the next climb was an incredible section of downhill switch backs. the paths were so fun to run and it really did remind me of some of the overseas locations. Steep climbs, rocky technical footpaths, dense green forests and winding footpaths rather than the typical rolling hill climbs of other national parks. I was beaming and really enjoying the area. Shame it really is so far to drive to from London!

We soon passed by Lynton and the Gulf petrol station at Barbrook which we’d driven passed several times already this weekend. from here we knew it wasn’t far to go. We’d now just be circling around the main road (which wouldn’t be safe to run along) before crossing directly opposite from the campsite/finish line. First up one last climb that I agree was quite dull, wide long gravel roads. The beautiful day was going grey and it was starting to try to rain. Into the deep end now, nothing left but to grin and bare it. head down, keep moving. With a few km to go we passed Brit and some other maverick Volunteers who cheered us across. Just the last road section to the campsite and down hill into the finish line.

All four of us, side by side we crossed that line like we had 9 hours earlier. We took our medals and the never ending amount of freebies from Maverick and joined the many familiar faces sitting down. Reka who’d finished many hours earlier (a machine she is!) was asking us if we’d seen Gif. It really had been a long time since we saw her waaaaay back before that first aid station. I went back to the car to get some warmer clothes and we soon saw Gaddy cross the line too. As we hopped in the car to head back for Dinner, Gif was coming down the final straight.

That night we were all very tired and exhausted. Thankfully we didn’t have to hobble far for dinner which was absolutely brilliant too. The next morning we began the next ultra – the long drive back to London…

Bitchin

‘Bitchin’. Nope, not great or wicked. Just two middle age men actually bitchin for 13 hours. Nothing cool to see here. Nothing cool at all…

Bitchin is pretty much all me and Ged did whilst we ran the Ultra X Spring Series 100km. It led to a lot of laughter, passed a lot of time, and confirmed how similar we are. Nothing was safe from the sting of our words. None of it was really justified either, nonetheless that is how we rolled in our latest ultra marathon adventure.

I was probably already in a sub conscious bitchin mode leading up to the race where, due to my own lack of research and preparation, I realised I couldn’t get to the start line in time for the 06:00 start. The Race Directors were accommodating though and Ged and his mum stepped in to save my embarrassments with a lift down. Mini crisis adverted.

The start line was a very subdued place at 06:00 in the morning. With a small field of 100km runners we were split into the two allocated starting groups, given a count down and sent off in groups of about 30 people. Nattering away as we ran out of the recreational ground towards the road, our bitchin began. We couldn’t understand why everyone was running so fast already. Amateurs we thought, they’ll all bonk soon enough. We were pumping out a 10 hour 100 km pace for no reason at all. Many, many hours later we apologetically retracted this statement when we had passed maybe 2 or 3 people from that group only. They clearly had their plans and strategies like we had ours!

Pre race smiles

Running on, we were very much aware that the 3 biggest hills and climbs of the race were in this first 13 miles (which we’d complete again as the last 13 miles as we’d loop back in the opposite direction for the second half of the race), yet being full of energy and excitement, we didn’t notice these hills and barely felt them as we ran down (and up) steadily with fresh morning legs.

We did then get lost after a few miles, but we were not alone. Coming down off a trail descent we joined a country lane where the course markings vanished. Left, right or straight down were the choices. Some runners were coming back from the right and more joined us from behind (the second group of 100km runners who set off after us). With confused looks we all headed left and a few moments later across a cattle grid and straight down, then we all stopped as differing opinions on whether this was correct or if we should have followed the road rather than cross the cattle grid became clear. One runner (who I later realised was Scott Jenkins) was adamant we were right and Ged and I soon stuck with him. A few hundred meters later we then found some course markings once more. What had happened here we do not know! Yep, we bitched about the markings.

Early on, enjoying the ideal morning conditions

Back on track, it wasn’t long before we hit the first indication of the bogs and mud we’d encounter this day. It was nothing major but soon we were splashing through waterlogged fields and fully submerging our feet in the cooling water. At this point one of my shoes came off in the sticky mud. I managed to recover it before loosing it completely, but needed to stop to get it back on. As I sat on a log to readjust, my whole core started cramping and I couldn’t reach my feet, much to Ged’s delight. What a state to be in so soon!

We carried on as the surface became progressively more muddy and we were sliding all over the place as we approached the first aid station. We pretty much ran straight through as it was only 11 km in and didn’t need anything so early on. Ged’s mum was here, as she was throughout the day at each aid station to cheer us on.

The next section was full of the epic views of the Serpent Trail, exactly as I recalled it from when I ran the Serpent Trail 100km event way back in 2018! A beautiful landscape of thousands of trees with roaming views of the South Downs peaking through in between. Every now and again the forest would drop away to reveal the bareness of the hilly summits and reveal the scenic views in all their glory. Before long we were up running along some mountain bike tracks (which I vividly recalled from 2018) and into the second aid station. Here we stopped briefly and chatted to the volunteers including updating them on the sections were markings were missing/sparse and we’d gone wrong.

Soggy feet as we track towards halfway

From here to the third aid station was all a blur to me. I did slowly recall bits of it later in the day when we were back tracking along it. But, at the time, I must have switched off and been too engrossed in the bitchin to really notice it and take it in. Closing in on that third aid station we noted we were roughly a 1/3 of the way into the race. Which was good, because the legs started to feel like they’d done some running by now!

The volunteers at this next aid station were full of energy and we exchanged a few jokes and laughs with them. They lifted our spirits as we set back out for the last section back to the start/halfway/finish line point. This next section was an adventure for sure. The longest and trickiest part of the route I thought. There were a few sections that were very muddy. One short down hill section followed by two muddy climbs. Zigzagging down that first section we started to wonder at which point we’d be passed by the lead 100km runners coming back towards us or the 50km runners coming from behind and over taking us. Both seemed a real possibility as we started the 10km countdown to half way.

The up hill mud sections demanded a bit more effort from the legs as the mud started to sap our energy and we looked for the best line to climb along. Halfway up that second climb the first few runners leading the 100km started picking us off. Great effort, probably about 10km and over an hour ahead of us. The first runner was flying along and had a substantial lead on 2nd and 3rd at this point. As we started levelling out into some of the fields and road sections for the final approach to the 50km mark we started passing a number of the half marathon runners. We weren’t sure where they came from nor what point the courses joined up. Either way it gave us a buzz as we powered on.

Half way was upon us. I took a strategic stop here whilst Ged was reunited with his family. Quite possibly one of my fastest mid-race turnarounds where I was in and out in just over ten minutes with some fresh clothes and refuelled ready to go again. Unprecedented for me as I do love a good sit down and chin wag at half way, usually needing to be coaxed back out on to the course…

Coming into the finish, time to turn around and do it all again

The energy for the second half was high. As we ran we were now passing loads of runners from the 50km race and the rest of the pack in the 100km one too. As always, the vast majority of runners responded positively to a hello and offered up encouragement to us also. You can’t beat that buzz. Ged and I talked about this for quite sometime. It can make or break a race for some people. A smile can change your emotions, a “well done” or “Great effort” can pull you out of a dark place. BUT, you have to do it for yourself. So often you see people completely absorbed in the moment and struggling. If you can’t muster a smile or a grunt, you won’t find a way out and will continue to suffer. You need to make the corners of your own mouth move. If you’re reading this, try it! Smile, you’ll instantly feel better about everything.

We decided to play a little game and started repeating to the next runners what previous runners had said to us. My personal favourites were “You look fabulous”, “Brilliant, Brilliant” and “top work chaps” which was unfortunately repeated to some females. Hey ho, that was the game. Quite possibly thought, what made me laugh most was how I kept mishearing what Ged was saying. Every time he said “Well done” to someone, I heard “yeah whatever”. It was a perfect response for our bitchin mood and I really wish he was saying that. I’d love to know what reaction that would create if someone said it to you mid race!

It was time for the muddy sections once more and we couldn’t have been in a better place for them. High with energy, certain of what lay ahead, running down hill, seeing the pain and torture on the faces of those climbing it for the first time and sticking to the best line like we did earlier… we just went for it. We didn’t hold back and splashed on straight through, straight down. Practically hurdling our way downhill as the mud reached our knees in places. We were absolutely loving it. We couldn’t give a shit if we fell (it would have been soft!) or who we splashed with mud along the way. There was no better way to get through it. Wet and muddy was inevitable, we knew that, those climbing hadn’t yet come to accept the same fate. It was all too brief though as we completed each section so quickly. How neither of us face planted into the floor we’ll never know.

Along the way we passed many familiar faces like Ellis and Charlie doing the 50km. Each one lifting us up and giving us a buzz. We felt like heroes as we continued playing our game as, surprisingly, we kept meeting more and more runners all the way back to the third (now fifth) aid station. A huge cheer from the volunteers welcomed us back in as we all picked up where we left them many hours earlier with the jokes. I had to take a minute here, sitting on a tree stump next to a speaker pumping out classics hits, to empty my shoes of all the junk I’d be collecting along the way.

From here I couldn’t remember for the life of me what lay ahead on those trails I’d previously blocked out. We were both struggling to remember each section and the pace began to drop off as we walked pretty much every hill from this point back. The legs, specifically my ankles, were beginning to let their feelings known to me. Rightly so, the aches and pains were settling in.

We couldn’t have been far from the next aid station when the ‘heavens opened’. What started as a soft trickle of rain soon turned into an almighty downpour of hail. It was a little refreshing as we discussed whether we were going to stop and layer up. We opted not too. All around us were clear skies. It looked like a passing storm and neither of us fancied ‘boiling like a chicken’ in a waterproof jacket. We stuck it out and a short while later the summer sun briefly repaid our faith. It was a glorious evening now.

Into the second aid station we did a quick stop and refuel, acknowledging from here it was a mere 25km to go. We knew this was the point of the ultra where it would be come a slog. Time to dig deep for what was left. We set back out, running once more through the mountain bike tracks and the now very muddy and sloppy trails. They had been churned up by hundreds of runners and were now far less appealing to run than they were earlier in the day.

Beaming with BDE

We briefly passed some photographers gathering some drone footage on a hill through the forest tracks before we came slip sliding into the final aid station where the volunteers outnumbered us 5 to 1. Grabbing some cheese and onion crisps I received some odd looks from the volunteers when I excitedly asked if the lumps of cheese were lumps of butter. Disappointed, I stuffed cheese and Haribo into my gob. A strange combo I probably wouldn’t repeat again. I really wanted butter now!!

The last 11 km back to the event village was slow and arduous. I was in pain. My dodgy ankle was screaming with every step. Nothing to do except keep moving and make steady progress. From here we knew the course was basically 3 descents and 3 climbs. Lots of hiking ahead with gravity powering the running in between. We ploughed on, gradually making up some ground on a guy in front of us whilst simultaneously holding off two more who were gaining on us. Grin and bare it.

Clearly bitchin’ about something

Ged kept me going. He kept me distracted from the pains. Kept the bitchin’ coming even now many hours later. Occasionally we’d break rank to retract and excuse a bitch that escaped our mouths and which wasn’t justified. Mostly he kept the energy level there, despite it all we were having fun. And that was one of the moments of realisation of the day – we were having fun. You create your own fun and despite it all, we fucking love this. This is exactly the type of challenge we revel in… Earlier on, as is inevitable, we’d been discussing ultra running. Our experiences both shared and individual, what drove us and what dragged us through. It is here we talked about an effect that we came to call ‘BDE’ – Big Dick Energy.

BDE, we decided, was a mental state we work ourselves into during ultra marathons. A point of sheer confidence and arrogance. An unwavering sense of belief in ourselves and our abilities. A selfish expectation of deserving something, being better than everything and when nothing gets in your way of getting what you want. BDE was that invisible force that propels you onwards in the adventure whilst keeping you away from the darkness the mind can so easily slip into. You make that BDE, whatever it is that can shift you into this unreasoning state of focus, you take it. Right now I was seeping BDE from all my pores, radiating it like a jacket potato ready to explode in a microwave. To anyone I passed I was peacocking the smile and laughter that inevitably draws comments like “you don’t look like you’ve just run an ultra marathon”. I’d take those comments, absorb them and convert them into more BDE, a self sustaining aura fuelling the determination to get to the end. No one would know the pain and suffering inside.

We joked and referenced BDE endlessly through the second 50km. This was the experience of having ‘been there, got the tee shirt’. We knew what we were doing and that only comes with trying, failing, succeeding and repeating. I’ve said it many times before, running is hard. No run is ever “easy”. It’s the perception you create to get the run done that changes. BDE.

We hit that last climb. Out on the road now we were powering up. Me fast hiking, Ged shuffling part run part walk. We were laughing all the way to the end. We crossed that finish line surround by Ged’s family who themselves completed another ultra of their own chasing us around the course for 14 hours. Another 100km done. Another medal for the box of pain.

I’ll remember this day for three main things. Firstly, the vocalisation of BDE. Secondly, the amount of mud (it was far muddier than I expected). I don’t think I’ve emptied my shoes as frequently in a race as I did in this one. Three times I stopped to empty the shoes, once I had to stop because a mound of mud had formed under the ball of my foot. It was completely distorting the fit of my shoes, almost like I had a hard insert between my sole and sock. It was so bad I had to scrape all the mud out with my fingers and drag my sock on the grass like I’d stepped in shit. A new experience for sure. The third thing I’ll remember the run for was the bitching. We bitched about everything you can imagine. It was like we had this faux anger at every and anything we could think of. It passed the time so well and was equally therapeutic as it was pathetic if you’d heard us moaning. At one point we even bitched about colours and why something red wasn’t blue because we happened to think blue was a better colour choice. Anything we could moan about we did, and it made me smile so much.

As always though, none of these memories would exist without the excellent company. It truly does make these adventures. Cheers to Ged, he’s a top ‘chap’ and it had been far, far too long since we last ran a race like this together back in 2018!!

The Longworth family support
Finish line. Again

North Downs Ridge 50km

It was somehow already the beginning of May and I found myself heading back down to the ever too familiar trails of the North Downs Way for the Freedom Racing North Downs Ridge 50k. This race was one of the ones that was cancelled earlier in the year and one that, in some ways, contradicted my Modus Operandi for races – which is to only do events that I really want to do (despite how obvious that may sound!). It’s the route you see. I’ve run It so many times (and you’ve read me type it so many times…) and this particular section of the North Downs Way which includes my least favourite part of the trail (purely because it’s so damn runnable!). It is because of the organiser though that I signed up. This was to be my third Freedom Racing event after the Serpent Trail and the Hurtwood and I’ve enjoyed each one immensely. FR are a small, family centred events company which I’m happy to support. So, off I went.

Tom, the Race Director, had adopted the now very familiar flexible start line approach for this event. I opted for the ‘faster’ time slot and arrived for 8am with a rough 5.5 hr finish in my mind (justifying starting in this group rather than the later group).

The start was easy. I walked from Dorking station to the event HQ at Denbies Vineyard. When I arrived it was straight into a short queue for registration. Bib and dabber collected, I went to the toilet and changed quickly in the field, dropped my bag off and then walked into the starting pen. I was the only one. No queuing. I dib-dabbed in and off I trotted.

The short queue at registration

The route starts with a short stretch and climb out of the Vineyard as you join the tarmac path of the first climb to the church at Ranmore. I wouldn’t normally run this but I was fresh and eager so I plodded on upwards. Passing the few walkers as I reached the top, I continued in the gentle pace I’d settled into with my heart full of joy of another adventure underway.

I mentioned a rough 5.5 hr finish time I had in mind, but really I had no real aims for the day and a sub 6 hour finish would, as always, be a good day out for a 50k for me. As a fairly hilly route with an out and back set up I’d be happy with that. Immediately after starting out though, I devised a game to keep the brain occupied – I’d keep a count of the people I passed and the people who passed me. I’d try and remain with a positive count by the end of the race. A small challenge but one with great potential for distracting the mind throughout the run. As I’d started behind the ‘slower’ group but at the start of the ‘faster’ group, I assumed it would be a comparable count each way. I added the rule that being ‘passed’ involved people overtaking me, people running in the opposite direction as me before I turned around (at about mile 12.5) and again people I saw coming the other way on the final loop. So potentially some runners could hit my count 3 times.

The view at Ranmore

It started good. The numbers were positive despite a few speedsters soaring passed (all in carbon road shoes I noted, the trails were very dry…) and it was steady progress. None of the hills here and until the sandy climb to St. Martha’s were steep enough to consider walking so I just kept plodding along. I skipped through the first aid station as it was only about 5 miles in. I had enough food and water to last a while and knew it would help avoid it becoming too busy as the first ones always do.

Those first 12 miles then wizzed by and and a few familiar smiling faces helped add a little atmosphere and buzz to the day. I was heading down the descent from at St. Martha’s to the next aid station, where we’d turn around, and my number count was going haywire. I was around 50 and suddenly struggled to keep count as I passed runners and runners came towards and passed me. I was suddenly around 20 by now.

I then almost stepped on some Goodr sunglasses and stopped to pick them up, checking with each runner coming passed if they’d dropped them. I had better luck as I announced my arrival at the aid station with a loud “anyone drop their glasses?” to which thankfully someone realised they had indeed dropped them. Chatting to the lady I completely lost count of who came and went in the aid station. So I stopped my game and pigged out on sausage rolls, flapjacks and frazzles. Delightful. Fully stocked I headed back out, jogging the climb to St Martha’s once more.

On the return leg, more familiar faces were there with big hi fives from Meg and Daisy and a fleeting hello to Frank at the top of the hill. Back down the sandy path I went. Beaming in the sunny, warm mid morning sunshine.

Running back to the next aid station and onto Denbies again was all very unmemorable. I just kept steady, holding the pace and realising that I was actually holding pace for a solid effort at a sub 5hr 50k. I don’t think I’d ever gone sub 5 before. Other than a marathon distance and 100 miles, I’ve no idea what any of my PBs actually are. But now I had a new game to play, a new way to occupy my mind for the last ten or so miles. I just needed to keep on steady and hold the pace…

I briefly stopped to refill some water at Denbies and carried on for the final loop. This section, as we’d head towards the village of Westhumble, was new to me. Straight away we were met with a long ol’ road incline which warranted a walk. No point busting a gut here. It was much longer than I expected and glancing at the watch I noted that the elevation gain ticked over 700m. I wasn’t expecting that much elevation for the day either, but it made me feel strong, given how little walking I’d done and how comfortable I felt.

Soon I was back on trails and it was delightful to experience a few miles of new trails to explore. The whole loop was deceivingly uphill which I tried to hold my pace on. By the time I’d completed the loop and was heading back down the road section I saw that I’d done another 100m of elevation gain. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Back through the vineyard

Crossing back over the NDW it was now down into Denbies for the final straight through some of the vineyard and across the finish line. Dib dab done. I stopped the watch and I was a few mins under 5 hours. Tidy. I’ll have some of that.

Medal hunter

I dropped the timing chip off. Collected my bag and checked the train times. With one in 20 mins I knew I had time for a quick change of clothes and a fast hike to the station. I stopped to get a picture next to the Freedom Racing trailer and a rapid chat with Tom the RD, thanking him for another excellent adventure before I trundled off.

Another day, another race. Another sense of achievement. Job done.

Your Community Needs You

Volunteering at the Centurion Running NDW100 in 2019

Let’s talk about volunteering…. I’ve done a fair bit of volunteering at running events in the past few years. It is something I enjoy and really do like giving back and supporting events, particularly those that I have run in or would like to participate in. Race volunteering can be quite a complex thing. Where do you start? How do you get involved, what will I be expected to do, need to bring etc. So I thought I’d share my thoughts and experiences on volunteering at running events.

Why Should I Volunteer?

Race volunteering, Let’s be honest up front, it isn’t a selfless act. There are many, many benefits in it for the individual. Most race organisers offer an incentive in some form to encourage volunteers. It may be a free tee shirt, a free race entry for the following year, vouchers or kit from sponsoring partners as well as many other freebies in the form of food and sponsored gifts. Some of the larger, international races also provide accommodation for volunteers, particularly for stage races where volunteers work multiple consecutive days. Besides these obvious tangible benefits, there are also the less obvious benefits like networking. You get to make connections with key people in the industry and form friendships with other runners and volunteers you’ll frequently meet at events. These can lead to all sorts of future opportunities, but, more importantly, friendships. Also, it is fun and a nice thing to do.

That being said, whilst we may offer our time to volunteer because we want to take advantage and for example, participate in the event the following year, these incentives might not always outweigh the commitment. A race entry for example might be anywhere from £50 to £200 quid for a UK trail ultra. That’s a small price to pay to enter an event and normally exceptional value for money. Volunteering isn’t always free. Typically you’d give up a whole day, maybe 8 hours or more of your time to support (to gain a spot in an event through volunteering, there will usually be a minimum commitment of volunteer hours required). You’ll spend possibly hours travelling to and from the event and that costs too. So if you really want to do a race, volunteering isn’t normally the most cost effective way to do it. Although, for popular events with limited places, a guaranteed entry for volunteers could be a significantly worthwhile investment of your time rather than playing with the race lottery.

Most importantly though, race directors and organisers need volunteers. We want so much for these events to be available to us, and they don’t happen without a huge amount of work behind the scenes to make them a reality. Race Directors often rely on small armies of volunteers to support them and make sure the events run as smoothly as they do. If you want events to continue to happen, to continue to be affordable and viable to run, give back and help out where you can.

After running the SVP100 3 times, in 2020 I finally earned the ‘yellow’ Volunteer tee.

How Do I get involved?

Simple, contact the race organiser. Most race organisers will have a specific section on their website or even a dedicated email address to contact if you would like to help out. Drop them a message or get in touch with them via their social media pages or in person if you’re at the event. Most organisers are desperate for help and will welcome your offer with open arms. Be patient though, there is a lot going on when organising events so it may take them a while to respond and take you up on your offer or they may direct you to someone else to speak to. Don’t be put off if that is the case. Many events have community groups and Facebook pages where you can also get involved and make contact with the organisers too.

I’d highly recommend getting in touch with Maverick Race, Centurion Running and the SVP100Ultra as great events to volunteer and support at…

What about pre event day?

Leading up to an event you can expect to be contacted by someone from the organisation to give you some instructions. They’ll ask for your key contact details and any information to help them support you (e.g. dietary requirements if they are providing food for the day) and details that could help them arrange all the volunteers. For instance if you can drive, if there are preferred roles you’d like to support with, if you are first aid trained or able to provide additional support during the day. Besides all that though, you need to be prepared yourself and think about how you will be ready to support on the day. Things to think about are:

  • Figure out where you need to be and when – Do you know what is expected of you and when?
  • How are you going to get to the event – This is likely to mean getting to the race at least an hour before the race registration begins and before runners start arriving.
  • What do you need to take with you – Have you the right clothes for the day, do you have water and food supplies to see you through?
  • Make sure you know who to ask for when you arrive. Don’t be offended when it’s assumed you are an eager runner who has turned up early!

What might I end up doing?

Types of roles and responsibilities you can expect to get involved with could include any or all of the following, depending on the scale of the event. Obviously this isn’t a comprehensive list of roles, but if you are a first time volunteer you’ll probably end up doing something like this, so don’t expect to be managing and coordinating other volunteers, acting as a deputy race director or MC-ing and event!

  • Set up and support at an event village – Race villages don’t set themselves up. Tents and marquees need constructing. Fences, flags and tape need laying out. Tables and layouts need arranging. Kits, race numbers, medals and all sorts of stuff need setting out. At one event I volunteered at we even had to construct the winners trophies and ensure all the engraving was placed on the correct trophies!
  • Course Marking – Most events will have signs and/or tape to help direct runners and keep them on the correct route. You may be able to get involved with walking/running the route and either setting out the course markings or checking they are still all in tact!
  • Parking – someone needs to coordinate the runners when they arrive at an event by car. Humans persistently demonstrate that we can’t be relied upon to park responsibly!
  • Registration – This is a hugely varied role from welcoming runners, to checking people are who they say they are, that they have paid to run the event, that they have their bib numbers and any other race items required (like pins, trackers). It could be that you are providing critical safety instructions, providing runners with their race packs like t-shirts or other gifts. In some events you might also be tasked with checking people have the required and mandatory kit with them.
  • Directing runners and supporters (e.g. where to go, what to do) – Races are exciting right? We all turn up with butterflies in our stomach, see people we know and ultimately don’t focus on what we need to do or where we need to go. How many times at an event have you asked where the toilets are, where the drop bag is or which way to the start line even? You might be that person providing the critical directions needed!
  • Drop bag stands – we’ve all experienced the carnage of a badly managed drop bag zone. It isn’t an easy task to take in bags from runners, ensure they are correctly labelled, stored in the right place and sent to the right checkpoint (if it is for a mid-race drop bag!). This can be incredibly stressful but vital to the efficient flow of runners at an event. We’ve all seen the crowds of runners pushing towards drop bag zones throwing bags over people queuing. You want to avoid it ending up that way!
  • Checkpoints and aid stations – most races will have, at minimum, a water stop. Ensuring these are set up before the first runner and adequately stocked so all runners, right through so that not only the last runner but also the course sweepers are able to get water and fuel they need to carry on. 
  • Shopping. Speaking of checkpoints and aid stations. Where do you think all the food and drink comes from? Someone, somewhere, will have to go shopping and buy it all! If you are tasked with this you will most likely be given a shopping list with the types of things and quantity to buy. You also won’t be expected to pay for it out of your own pocket and will be told how to reclaim the expenses, so don’t worry if you do end up being sent to Tesco to buy 200lts of coke, 50 oranges and all the jaffa cakes you can find!
  • Marshal points directing runners – Ever got lost on a race because you took a wrong turn? Yep, me too. Most events will put marshals at key points to ensure runners don’t get lost. Be the human signpost. Keep everyone accounted for! Being a Marshal may even mean manually accounting for runners and ensuring no one is missing. You’ll have to be alert!
  • Marshalling road crossings – Likewise, you might end up standing at a road crossing. Most of the time you won’t be expected to stop traffic (on quieter country roads I do tend to do this if I have enough visibility of the road, the runners approaching the crossing and feel it is safe to do so) but you will be expected to stop the runners. When runners are in the ‘zone’ we do tend to be quite ignorant of what is going on around us. We didn’t see the warning signs put out 100m from the crossing warning us of the danger ahead, we were too busy listening to Tina Turner pumping out “Walking on broken glass” to hear the HGV roaring up the road. Sometimes even we are just too damn exhausted and spaced out to realise the impending danger. Marshalling a road crossing is all about being the eyes and ears for the runners and ensuring that they don’t unknowingly (or sometimes intentionally) dash out onto a busy road! 
  • Event finish line – medals, directing etc. This is like the registration in reverse. You might still be ensuring every runner gets their allotted items (medals, appropriate sized t-shirts etc), directing them away from the finish line, getting their photos, drinks and generally telling them where to go. You may also need to deal with that runner who has pushed themselves a little too hard or has taken an unexpected turn for the worse. You need to be on the ball at the finish line to spot those signs of a runner in need of a helping hand!
  • Drop bag collection – remember the prophesied carnage from earlier in the day…. Hopefully you’ll help to avoid that. At the same time though, recognise that this can be a time consuming role. Ever walked into a hall to find one bag amongst a few hundred? Even when it is meticulously laid out, it might be that one bag that is put in the wrong place. That one bag that has the name/number tag no longer attached. Ever seen a number ‘1’ that looks like a number ‘7’? Yep that can lead to confusion too! Or what about when you can’t find the bag and you ask a runner to describe it and they tell you it is ‘Green’ only it turns out the zip is the green bit and the rest of it is blue. Ever seen how many North Face Basecamp duffle bags are found at a trail race? Dozens of them, guaranteed, especially the yellow ones! It can take time to find the right bag, even under ideal circumstances. You also need to ensure you are giving the right bag to the right person. 
  • Course Sweeping – Safety of runners is paramount and the role of a sweeper is to follow (not closely!) the last runners and ensure the trails are swept of all event markings, litter and that all runners are accounted for and not left out on the route! This is a fantastic way to run some or all of an event whilst volunteering!
  • Pack up and closure of events – When you think it’s all finished, you remember the boxes you took out of the van, or the marquee you fought to construct in the wind… yep, they need to be put away. The rubbish needs to be picked up. It doesn’t finish until it looks like the event  never happened in the first place!

I’ve done most of these roles myself through volunteering. Some memorable times include being on Water and and Tailwind (hydration drink) duty at a checkpoint in the middle of the Centurion Running NDW100, to running up and down stairs to collect drop bags for runners at the SVP100 finish line, to standing alone in the woods in the pouring rain marshalling road crossings and course sweeping and collection for Maverick Races to even spending 8 hours dancing inside a giant penguin costume at the London Winter Run. The role of a volunteer is a varied one.

The 2018 Winter Run. I was kept warm as a dancing penguin. I fucking hate dancing!

What to expect

  • Larger events, like a mass participation road event, you’ll tend to rock up at a set time, meet a team leader, be given instructions and get on with it, leaving at a set time
  • At a smaller event, you may meet the entire team of volunteers and be involved in a little of everything
  • Be prepared to go the extra distance. You can’t expect the race directors and team to pander to you and your needs. It may be that you need to figure out a way to get to your volunteer spot in the middle of nowhere. Local transport, run, walk if you can. Don’t be put off if you can’t get a lift to where you need to get to!
  • Hanging around alone. You have a responsibility to ensure the safety of runners. That might mean you are waiting for hours before you first see a runner and are on point for a long time after the last runner goes past. Be prepared for loneliness, but stay alert.
  • Be prepared to travel – races won’t be on your doorstep. It is your responsibility to manage your time and ensure you are where you need to be when you should be!
  • Be patient. No doubt you’ll have plenty of questions before volunteering and even after (when will I get my free stuff?!), but be patient. The race directors will be fielding endless amounts of questions from participants, other volunteers, locals and the community surrounding the event as well as authorities giving the race the permit to proceed. You won’t be forgotten about, be patient whilst the questions are prioritised and addressed.
  • Most races you’ll volunteer at will be experienced. They’ll have plans and processes in place for coordinating and managing the volunteers. You’ll be told what to do and given what you need in good time. Don’t panic if you’ve not been given detailed instructions weeks before the race!

What to do

  • Get involved. Offer help, ask what you can do. It might just be unloading boxes from a van, but it needs doing. Take the initiative and don’t just stand about like a lemon waiting to be instructed.
  • Do it with passion, do it with interest. Standing around at the side of the road or in the middle of a wet field might sound dull but you can make it interesting. Dance, sing, clap and cheer. Be stupid. Make people laugh, bring some enjoyment to what you are doing and it will rub off on others.
  • Entertain and support. As a runner you’ll know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a big smile and someone encouraging you on. This is your opportunity to give back
  • Be prepared. It can be long and tiring volunteering. Take food, take plenty of water, take warm and appropriate clothing. 
  • Gain some knowledge about the event. Passers by will want to talk to you and find out what you are doing. Make sure you know how to give them information and share the word about the event. 
  • Be prepared to support runners. We always want to know where we are, how far left to go, where is the water etc. Make sure you have the key information to hand. No one enjoys it when they are told there is ‘only 1 mile to go’ but that 1 mile turns out to be 3 miles.
  • Explore your surroundings, this I think is particularly more relevant for trail events. Go past your checkpoint, explore just before it. Know where runners are coming from and where they are going and what hazards they can expect to encounter. You can help them prepare then.
  • Make sure you know who to contact in an emergency. This could be in the case of an injury to a runner, an angry local who has a complaint or your own personal situation should it arise. 
  • Be yourself, bring your character
Getting my thirst on with Centurion Running & Tailwind

Some things to think about

  • Understand the commitment you are making. That free tee shirt sounds great, but do you really want to help and are you committed? I’ve already mentioned the stresses leading up to organising a race. The last thing organisers need is a volunteer pulling out last minute because they’ve changed their mind. Obviously sometimes life means you have to pull out, but don’t pull out because you’ve changed your mind or underestimated the responsibility you’ve volunteered for.
  • Be prepared. Events are prepared to deal with the inevitable injuries to a runner, but they are not prepared for the avoidable situation where a volunteer has caught pneumonia because they didn’t bring a jacket, or they didn’t bring water and are dehydrated etc.
  • Make sure you can get there on time and can get home afterwards. It isn’t a race director’s responsibility to coordinate you or help you when you realise you missed the last train home because you weren’t prepared.
  • Be helpful. Don’t be rude, don’t try and dominate or change the processes in place. If you have feedback, save it and provide it directly to the event organiser, maybe after the event, as a suggestion for future consideration. You are there to help runners, be patient with them. It is inevitable they will ask questions you’ve heard a 100 times already that day, or be frustrated that the course was 10 meters longer than they thought. Remember you are representing the event and the organisers. Be helpful where you can.
  • Be thankful. Build those relationships for next time you volunteer or participate in the event.

SO…

Whatever your reason, volunteering is incredibly fulfilling. Don’t be put off, don’t feel guilty that you are doing it for the wrong reasons such as the personal incentives. Don’t be afraid of being uncomfortable. Races rely on the support and volunteers to make them happen. Behind every race is an army of people getting involved. Many of these you will never see on race day. I’ve volunteered because I want that race entry (thanks Centurion Running!) or a particular tee shirt (yep, I wanted the yellow SVP100 tee in my collection!) or a voucher to buy some trainers (Cheers Maverick Race!) I could afford to just buy anyway. But, despite all this, for each event I’ve volunteered at, I’ve gained knowledge, experience, thanks and memories that go far beyond just running. Be part of the community you love so much, get involved!

Marshalling road crossings with the Maverick Race hi-vis

Beachy Head Marathon

It is the 24th October 2020. I’m running the Beachy Head Marathon along England’s South East coast starting and finishing in Eastbourne. As I am running, I’m also reflecting on my trail-running journey as, back on the 30th December 2017, this is the route I ran when I tagged along for my first social/group run. In some ways, this is where my journey began.

It was after the Never Stop London Christmas party when Jana told me that her and some friends would be going for a group run after Christmas and that I should join. So I did. I joined them on the way down to Eastbourne and, little did I know back then, we ran the Beachy Head Marathon route. The intention was to do the whole thing, all 26 miles of it. But, as we reached Exceat, after 20 miles, with it then becoming very dark, we decided to skip the last few miles along the Seven Sisters and jumped on a bus back to Eastbourne and then home.

My first time running with Cool Cats and meeting this lot

That day was a baptism for me on the trails. Whilst I had completed 3 trail runs in 2017, all were at events. This was my first social run, the first time being unsupported without checkpoints and it ended up being the beginning of something special (I didn’t realise this at the time). I remember it was tough. I had the essential kit but I was probably not quite prepared for the day and the elements ahead. I remember early on I slid in the mud and landed side-on in a muddy puddle. I recall the open hillside tracks with the rain and the wind battering our faces – we couldn’t hear each other talking and ran a lot of it in apparent silence. It was the first time I’d met many of those I ran with that day and it was the first of many, many, runs with them and the mighty Gwyn (Susana’s dog). On the bus back to Eastbourne Susana gave us all a medal she’d made. I’m fortunate to call many of them friends now. I loved it all. Now, almost 3 years later, I was back on the Beachy Head route, for the Beachy Head Marathon in its 40th year. My trail running journey continues!

I knew a few people running the route that day. I didn’t expect to see any of them with the social distancing restrictions put in place. To my surprise though, just a few minutes in I ran into Megan who I travelled Borneo with. We caught up as we ran probably about half of the route together. It was great to see here again and especially nice after seeing some of the others from Borneo a few weeks earlier.

Rather than the usual ramblings of how the run went, instead I’ve summarised what the Beachy Head Marathon is and what you can expect if you decide to take on this fantastic event (which you should!)….

What is the Beachy Head Marathon?

It is a trail marathon which means it follows a mostly off road route. It has been taking place every year since 1981 and is a very popular event attracting runners from all over the UK. 

The marathon is a strange sort of loop shape (kinda looks like an animal of some sort), starting and finishing on the edge of Eastbourne. Mostly it follows the South Downs Way as you first run towards the village of Jevington, and then continue on through and past Alfriston. When you reach the lookout point at Bo Beep Carpark, you begin to track back towards Eastbourne passing through Litlington and down to the coast via Westdean and Exceat. Once you leave Exceat you follow the undulating coastal trails of the Seven Sisters all the way to the Birling Gap and finally up to ‘Beachy Head’ and back to where it all began. 

What to expect.

  • Firstly the start. It is uphill. If you’ve ever been to Eastbourne and the end of the South Downs Way, you’ll know. The cliffs drop off and the Downs very quickly become the seafront. This is where Beachy Head starts. Immediately after crossing the line you begin the first of many, many climbs. There is no shame in walking the start!
  • There are plenty of long and open hillside trails with endless views from the South Downs. With plenty of climbs along the route you’ll reach some spectacular view points of the rolling hills. These are mostly unobstructed and you see the hills fall away and rise again in the distance.
  • Wind and rain. With little shelter from the elements and an October event date, expect plenty of rain leading up to and during the event. Running along the open hill tops and next to the coast means it is very likely you’ll encounter some high winds. This year we had a slight deviation on the route due to the forecast gale force winds.
  • The rain inevitably leads to mud. Plenty of mud. The trails will become caked in mud. If getting your trainers dirty isn’t your thing, then don’t sign up. Trail shoes are a wise choice if you want to stand some chance of remaining on your feet throughout.
  • With a number of road crossings, big participant numbers and the multiple aid stations along the route, you can expect to encounter a lot of volunteers and marshals who are all fantastic and encouraging. It isn’t supported in the way road events are, but you won’t be missing the whoops and cheers as there is plenty of encouragement and support available along the way.
  • Speaking of aid stations, besides the usual water, sweets and chocolates, the Beachy Head Marathon provides an extra delight along the route with sausage rolls available approximately halfway round. By Lord is it a good one! Vegan options are available if that is your thing.
  • Steps. Whilst most of the climbing is done along trail paths, at two points you will climb a hill by using the large steps built into the hillside. In particular, the last climb before you reach Exceat, where the steps will torment your tired legs. As you descend back down into Exceat you are rewarded for your efforts with wonderful views of the meandering Cuckmere River as it meets the English Channel.
  • With legs still aching from the fast downhills and the steps to Exceat, it’s not over quite yet as you reach the Seven Sisters for the last 6 miles of the course. Here you run along the undulating cliff top trails as you make your way to the Birling Gap. If your legs weren’t hurting by now, then the last climb out of the Birling Gap back to Eastbourne might just be runnable!
  • Remember that big climb the race started with? That is your final challenge as you must now attempt to run down it without falling under the steepness of the path and the momentum you build as you descend. Try not to fall because there will be photographers waiting to capture your stumble in all its glory,
  • Throughout the course there are photographers doing a wonderful job of capturing the highs and lows of the event. With your head down concentrating on the trails, it’s likely the photographers will see you before you see them!
  • Once you finish, besides the standard medal and water for all finishers, you also get another local delight with a pasty (meat or vegan) for all the finishers. You won’t be needing a pub meal after this one!
  • If you can manage it, and your legs still work, you can enjoy a leisurely hobble along the seafront and into Eastbourne. A perfect way to finish the adventure!

In short, it is a good one. Whether you’re a first time marathoner, first time trail runner or seasoned addict, get the Beachy Head Marathon on your to do list and have some fun!

walking along the seafront with Megan after the race