Close to Christmas I was having a discussion with Paul which summed up the year and also my outlook on running. In short it’s all about the journey, the adventure. Both literally and metaphorically. We were discussing our motivations and what we wanted out of runs and future plans we we contemplating. This was our joint take away. If it isn’t an adventure, it no longer appeals to us. There are now so many marathons and ultras dotted around the UK (and beyond) that are so easily accessible, but what is the point if it doesn’t challenge and push you somewhere new? What is it really that intrigues us to sign up and tempts us into pressing that ‘sign up’ button?
We’ve been fortunate enough to travel to spectacular places and go on some truly magical adventures. We’ve found that , for us, it is that journey, from the start line to the finish line, which is an experience and a wild ride we desire. We want to feel not only the highs and validations of completion, but the extreme lows and challenges faced to get there. We want to be challenged.
Looking back on 2022 there were certainly plenty of challenges and achievements and one hell of a journey. 2022 literally broke me (just physically I’m glad to say!). My mind ventured to some dark places despite the incredible things my eyes were seeing, but, I didn’t yet find the limit of what I’m capable of. And, looking ahead (more to come on that) I probably (certainly) haven’t learnt from the hard lessons I’ve endured. I’m knowingly setting myself up to repeat the same mistakes in 2023, only bigger.
After I wrote these words I went back and read my opening thoughts for the year – “More of the Same“. It was like a prophecy. In this post, and last year’s reflections, I talk about similar themes, about the heavy belly, the wanky ankles and laid out the 9 events I was planning for 2022. It was never really going to be these 9 as there were two events booked on the same day, and the Centurion Wendover Woods 50 was always going to lose out to the Eiger Trail! For the first time in years the plan didn’t get stretched! This was mostly due to the injuries – my volume of running was significantly lower than the previous 3 years (best part of 50% less distance covered and marathons/ultras run!). So what did 2022 involve…
2022 started with some self inflicted injury. Over the Christmas period 2021 I ran a 55km from the coast in Swansea to Penller’ Castell, finishing near-ish to where my parents live. It was a tough but enjoyable solo adventure and one I’m certain caused me some problems with my ankles. Specifically the right one. I carried this forward into the year. I did get a little unsupported FKT on it for my pains though!
Event wise, first up was a flat 45 miler in February at the St Peter’s Way Ultra with Carl. I came through relatively unscathed and enjoyed the run more than expected and felt the ankle was ok throughout, despite some very muddy sections. What I didn’t enjoy was the difficulty of the logistics to get out and back to this ultra on a Sunday starting and finishing in the arse ends of nowhere.
The following month, the ankle issues flared up a little as I toed the line of the Hardmoors 55. After a difficult start, the pain numbed away and my mind was distracted enough to get through this notoriously tough winter ultra. Only for us it didn’t feel like a winter ultra as we benefitted from glorious sunshine throughout. This was my first trip to the North York Moors and it didn’t disappoint. Most of the run was spent with Jon and Reka and some of it with Jess and Giffy too. A wicked weekend with great mates. Post race the ankle seemed ok.
Next up was an exciting trip to Macedonia and the beauty of Lake Ohrid with with Natalia, Paul and Lisa. This was an unexpected gem and a wild adventure for sure. Everything I wanted and more from the trip – Mishaps and confusion throughout the drive from Albania to Macedonia, amazing food and atmospheres in the picturesque lakeside town and then insane weather and storms throughout the run. The 100km route was diverted and, for the first time, I was held mid race due to safety concerns. Paul and I timed (almost mistimed due to a rather large navigation mistake on our part) our pace on the 100km to meet up and run with Natalia on the 60km. Together we made our way through the storms, albeit not as fast as Natalia would have liked – I was beginning to accept my ankle injury was a little limiting on my pace now. From an organisation perspective this was one of, if not the best organised event I’d done. For such a low-key ultra in a remote location, the organisers really looked after us and ensured our safety. As a result it was one of my favourite running trips of the year!
Natalia and I then squeezed in a trip to Austria and a few great hikes in the Dachstein Krippenstein region overlooking Hallstatt before a month later it was back to the Serpent Trail for me and the scene of one of my first 100km runs. This year I was the sidekick to Nick who was running his first 100km. It pretty much went to plan (if you ignore the side effects of a burger van meat feast the night before) and he finished happy that he’d done it but certain his enjoyment was in slightly shorter distances. For me it was surreal to relive the route and recall such vivid and specific memories from 3 years earlier!
The Serpent Trail was a great ‘warm up for me’ as I was then jetting off to Switzerland for the much anticipated Eiger Ultra Trail. I’d been trying to get a place in this run since 2018 and was excited to see the Grindelwald region in all its splendour. It didn’t disappoint and the landscape was breathtakingly beautiful. The trip was enhanced with a reunion with Matt who we met during the Val D’Aran the year before. Soon we’d be lining up at the start line of UTMB together so it was great to get to know each other more in Switzerland beforehand. Whilst we didn’t run the whole race together, we all came away with our pieces of the Eiger Rock as medals – a medal I’d Been wanting since I started running and heard about. Best medal of the year.
August came around and it was time for the real adventures to begin. I’d planned a trip to Norway followed by three weeks in France before UTMB. Sandwiched in between I was honoured to be a guest at Paul and Lisa’s incredible wedding out in Chamonix. First up was the Stranda Fjord trail race which turned out to be harder than I could ever have imagined. The weather was horrific. The terrain was wild. The course was challenging. I don’t know how I made it through but I did. However, the SFTR did leave its mark on me and on reflection I suspect the damage to my ankles was really done in Norway. It does win the vote for my hardest race of the year though – It broke my kit, it broke me mentally and it broke me physically. And I didn’t have the promised panoramic views to enjoy. I must say though, many months later, I think I’m starting to come to terms with the race. My immediate thoughts post race were a little blunt and this should by no means reflect badly on the organisers, it was my own (lack of sufficient) preparation that is to blame.
The wedding, up in Montenvers Mer-De-Glace overlooking the Chamonix Valley, was a great opportunity to relax and forget about my Norwegian adventure whilst preparing for UTMB. It was such an honour to be invited to the wedding of someone I’ve not only met through running but become so close with. Paul is both the voice of reason and the voice of temptation when it comes to the ‘longer’ ultras. When times get challenging, it is Paul who you want by your side! To witness him exchange his vows with Lisa in a place so special to them was the most touching and inspiring moment of my year. Sharing that week with them and their close family and friends was a lovely distraction from running in the lead up to the ‘big dance’…
UTMB is a dream race for many people. For me it was more of a ‘tick box’ but one I was sure glad to be doing. I earnt my place at the infamous start line and I know many will never get that same opportunity, especially now as the restricted registration process has become so commercialised. Paul, Matt and I were focused and determined. We were finishing no matter what happened. One thing we share in common is this desire and determination to see it through and that’s what we did. I don’t know how I persevered in pain for over half the course, but I did, probably because of them. I know they were my extra level of strength that weekend and I’m so glad to know and run with them, to cross that finish line with them and their families, supported by Lisa, Lara, Mike, Martin and all the friends out in Chamonix who cheered us throughout the race. It was a truly special moment that I will cherish forever. I felt emotions that day I’ve never experienced before with ultra running.
The come down though was hard. Harder than I expected. Unknowingly I’d broken my ankle during the race and fractured my Talus bone. The irony was that I broke the opposite ankle to the one I’d suffered issues with all year and which I strapped up for the race! I didn’t actually find out that the ankle was broken until 4 weeks after the event. After initially being told it was “an infection from an insect bite” (!!) from a nurse at an NHS walk-in clinic, I popped into A&E 3 days after the race. Nothing obvious was seen but I took the offer of a walking boot whilst I waited for an appointment with the Fracture Clinic 4 weeks later, which is when I found out it was broken. It was good to know why I was in pain and also fortunate timing as it was now time to start weening off the cast and easing myself back into walking. In total it was 9 weeks without running which was unheard of for me. At first, whilst I had the cast, it was fine (perhaps the distraction of starting a new job the week after UTMB helped), but soon the withdrawal was hitting and the craving was coming back. Luckily though I had one more race booked in way off in December and I was able to focus on making that start line.
In November I started running again. I had 4 weeks to the race so just went straight back to increasing distances. 5 km runs the first week. 10 km runs the second week. 20 km runs the 3rd week and then back to back runs the 4th week. I couldn’t do it any other way. I knew the risks but wanted to get to the Cheviot Goat and get it done. After years of waiting I didn’t want to postpone this one any longer. I started that Cheviot Goat with more than a little extra timber and baggage after so little training and had nothing but hope and reliance on experience that I could get to the finish line. Thankfully I stuck with Jon and Yvette throughout to survived the baron landscape of the Cheviots. Like how the year started, we ran a notorious winter ultra with incredible summer-like conditions. We were so fortunate.
As the year ends, my ankles still aren’t 100%, but I’m confident they are strong enough, for now. The amount of running I’ve done this year is significantly less than previous years and I’ve lost all routines and consistency I’ve had. It’s been an incredible year for me again but it hasn’t been without struggle, self pity and doubt. All I can do now is take a moment and reassess, rebuild and re-focus. The only way I know how to do that is to sign up for more, for bigger and harder challenges. So that is exactly what I’ve done. Roll on 2023.
As always the constants in 2022 where the people. From all those loved ones and friends I share the trails with, to new friends made along the way, to the team at Maverick Race who indulge my habits and let me help out and volunteer, these are the kindred spirits who provide the adventures, the challenges, the love of running I experience.
My final thoughts for the year are my two observations. Firstly, my desire to persevere, to block out pain and to see it through is possibly stronger than I’d thought. I’m now not sure what my limit is and what would need to happen for me to decide to withdraw from a race. What I do know though is that broken bones won’t stop me if there is time to hobble to the end! Secondly, running without any fear is easy. I’ve not had to experience fear crippling my mind and my ability to make decisions when running. Those who experience true fear but continue to push on, these are the truly strong ones among us!!
As we left the comfort of the hotel at 23:30 it was buzzing with activity. The packed restaurant was bouncing with loud music and dancing. Paul had hardly slept as his room was above the restaurant. Thankfully I’d grabbed some sleep earlier in the day. As we walked down the strip we realised this was common for a Friday night in Ohrid, North Macedonia. What was clear when we arrived at the Chinar Tree to merge with the small crowd, was that trail running was less common. Gathered at this ancient tree were just 40 runners huddled together near a modest start line preparing for a 100km adventure…
Upon arrival we sought out a person with a staff badge around his neck to ask about the route. Earlier in the day, when registering, it was indicated that the route would need to be modified due to the storms forecast for Saturday. We hadn’t heard anything since so asked what the route would be. He very clearly explained the situation, that heavy storms were forecast and so we would not be visiting Margaro or the other peaks on the route. We’d have an unchanged course for the first 50kms or so to Vojtino. Then we’d detour to Prevoj on a different route, skipping the big climb to Magaro by staying lower down and going around the mountain. From Prevoj we’d again detour and skip the peaks and ridges and instead head to Assan Gjura more directly on some access roads. The next section would be unchanged to Letnica but then once more we’d skip the last peak and begin descending more directly to the final aid station of Velestovo. We thanked him and he told us to stay close for the briefing. He introduced himself as Dejan, the race director. A few minutes later he gave the safety briefing, re-explaining the situation and route to the whole field before we then gathered in the starting coral with the modest number of spectators cheering us on as he counted down to midnight.
The race began and half the field vanished out of sight almost immediately, racing off through the cobbled streets of Old Town Ohrid. We stayed at the back, right at the back, as per our strategy to enjoy a slow first marathon. Natalia was running the 65km route which began at our marathon mark, Sv Naum, just after our cutoff. The intention was to run with her, so rather than bust a gut and then hang around, we planned to arrive between 06:00 – 07:00 and enjoy the night shift.
In the darkness we weaved around the Old Town. A series of cobble streets saw us climb up to the castle at 700m. Even here we ran on trails and single tracks as we made it to the lakeside and descended passed St. John’s church and onto the lake front where we ran across a very wobbly boardwalk before hitting the strip back towards the hotel. We ran passed the red flag markers which we’d spotted on our way to the start (we saw a few teenagers walking and waving them which gave us some initial concerns about the markings, which were unfounded). As we approached the hotel we could hear Lisa cheering from the balcony and waving us on. We were in a small group of maybe ten other runners, most of whom were Greeks and were leading the pack as we ran passed the finish line after a few km. We all cheered as one tempted fate and ran through the finishers arch. I hoped the timing mat wasn’t switched on already!
Along the lake front we heard the wild calls of nature with many many birds and insects singing into the night as we left the roads and Ohrid and headed onto the trails. It began with a gentle climb on a wide track road. We passed a place called Paradise Nest which was a series of cabins overlooking the lake and soon turned onto single tracks through the forest. Here we chatted with the Greeks who had all come over on a bus tour together. With some steady climbing on rocky trails we then emerged at the first aid station of Velestovo about 12km in. A quick refill and to Paul’s delight a cup of the ‘proper stuff’ – Coca Cola branded cola. We left knowing we’d be back here many many hours later when we’d descend back to Ohrid.
We left the aid station and continued through some farm land. I followed two runners and Paul held off as we couldn’t see any flags or markings. They couldn’t hear me as I called after them. I followed and found the trail and waited, calling back to Paul in the darkness who soon found me after he located the actual trail and looped around the farmland. The route then took us up off the quad track and onto a narrow single path that was very rocky. We continued on this, climbing higher and higher. Below us to the right was the darkness of a valley between two ridges. The second, higher one looming straight ahead, a silhouette in the night sky. The climb continued, alternating between rocky paths and forest tracks which occasionally opened up under the moon-lit sky. The air around us was cooling and the moisture of the night made us cold as our clothes became wetter with sweat and the mist. As we trod on through the mist we almost missed a turn which, thankfully, the runner behind spotted and called after us. This was the summit of the first climb and, the inevitable down followed. My word it was a beauty…
The tracks opened up wider. The forests cleared to open spaces. To our left the mountain dropped away to darkness and up ahead the orange moonlight reflect off the calm lake. It was stunning. We ran free, happy, enjoying the moment, hopping from path to path as we descended towards the town of Konjsko. We couldn’t stop commenting to each other about how amazing it was. It all ended too quickly as we rocked up at the next aidstation and commended them on their excellent spread of cheese sandwiches. We briefly chatted with the volunteers who were excited to see some UK runners (there were two other Brits out there somewhere too) and they told us they’d see us again at the marathon mark at SV Naum. So off we went into the night once more with our bellies and hearts full.
From here the night became a little harder. Naturally tiredness now began to creep in as the excitement of the start began to fade and our bodies fought back against the natural desire to be asleep. The terrain became red in the night as we ran through endless mud/clay tracks and our feet became heavier as they collected the dirt in their lugs. It was super sticky. We had a choice of that or the rocky tracks around the mud. I kept to the mud. The smells were a pleasant distraction though as the forests around us were lush, dense and green. After what felt like a long time of trudging along we caught another, local(ish) runner from North Macedonia. We all chatted away as the trails began to descend again, zigzagging down hill we flew and enjoyed the moment once more. We emerged onto a road crossing where we no longer saw the path or flags/markings indicating which way to go. Come to think of it, we’d not seen a flag marker for quite some time. Oh oh.
I quickly loaded the course to my watch knowing that we were still on the unchanged route so would be able to check our location. It was immediately clear we’d gone wrong, very wrong. We’d come off the mountain far sooner than we should have. We should be crossing this road about 5kms further along. We briefly considered the option of following the road to rejoin the course where it crossed. We decided not too. We felt we had time to recover, and that there was a small chance the next aidstation would be before the road crossing and we’d need to ‘check in’. It was also quite a main road, even though it was early in the morning it wouldn’t be the safest option. So we started retracing our steps back up the mountain.
Turns out it was longer than we thought. The switch back tracks deceived the radius shown on the watch. We weren’t getting back to where we went wrong anytime soon. We didn’t know it at the time, but we’d run almost 3km in the wrong direction and also descended 300m which we then needed to climb. It cost us quite a bit of time! We finally made it back to where we went wrong and waited for the other guy to catch up to make sure he also ended up back on track. As we waited we realised the mistake we had made – there was a slight split in the path. After we took one track they merged once more and we remember acknowledging that and saying it wasn’t a problem. What we hadn’t seen though was that there was a sneaky turn on the other track which we therefore missed. We should have realised we were no longer following the markings, but we were clearly enjoying the downhill too much.
Now we were back on track we ran a little harder. The track was less enjoyable than the descent we previously took and was a little rockier. We kept going and were heating up as the morning light started to replace the darkness and we took off our head torches. It wasn’t too much later that we then descended the mountain where we should have initially and crossed the road once more. Shortly after this we passed through Trejca and after a short road climb we came across the next aid station where three volunteers sat at the side of the road. They acknowledged we were likely the last runners so we let them know there was one more on his way because we’d gotten lost. From here we had almost 9km to go to SV Naum. This section also included a little climb of around 200m and a corresponding descent. It was 05:50, the cut off was at 07:00. After a night of running this was now going to be tight. Tighter than I wanted to admit but thankfully Paul took charge and ran off for the next 9km and I just had to try and keep him in sight.
We followed the road before going back into the forest and soon conquered the climb (which thankfully took us over a saddle in two hills rather than up and over one of the higher lumps!) and were then descending the narrow and rocky single tracks through the forest. We caught up and passed one of the Greek runners and took a moment to enjoy the views near a a village and over the lake as the morning light broke fully into day. I love the end of a night shift on a long run when the morning breaks. It has a real empowering moment for me when your energy levels have dipped and start increasing again with the rays of sunshine. Running through small villages at this point is one of my favourite aspects of trail running as the paths take you in all directions as you explore the unfamiliar land. Here we briefly skirted a village and went back down to the level of the lake where we left the forest and hit upon a shingle beach. Bollocks to that. This wasn’t funny anymore. We were running hard! I was panting hard. I could see Paul looking back checking I was still in sight. My legs were aching and the soft ground didn’t help. Neither did the realisation that we were running on this for as far as I could see in the distance. I wanted to stop so much but calculated we still had 30mins to go to the cut off and possibly as far as 5km still to cover.
We left the beach and then hit upon what felt like an obstacle course. We ran in and out of farmland and had to climb over many fallen trees and duck through narrow overgrown passes. But the topping was the (admittedly small) river crossing that we needed to make. It was clearly quite deep where it met the lake and a rope was set up to help us cross. I ploughed straight in the thigh-high level without giving it a second thought. We just had to keep going. Time was no longer on our side. Running through the endless crop fields we passed a few more runners and for a brief moment between breaths I felt unbeatable. We didn’t stop to acknowledge them but sped on passed. Finally the turn into the monastery was clear and we ran through and into the aid station with 8 minutes to spare before the cut off. The first marathon hadn’t quite gone to plan!
As we arrived, Dejan and the lady from a previous aid station laughed as we explained our cock up and little adventure. We ate and drank as they told us we didn’t need to leave exactly at 07:00 and that they would be lenient with runners. They also told us the lead runner had pulled out after encountering a bear on the course, so to be observant. Great!
The 65km runners arrived and I found Natalia as the rest of them ploughed into the aid station and started raiding it. That frustrated me a little given some 100k runners were still arriving and needed the refreshments! I said goodbye to Natalia (we’d arranged to meet just after the aid station so we were out of the way of their start). After the manic run to the aidstation, Paul decided to stay with us from here also. We were both spent from the mammoth effort we’d just put in. We needed a break and the 30mins until Natalia would start was now going to be our rest and we were looking forward to it. We walked a bit and then sat in the sun a km down the route and cheered the lead runners from the 65km through when they turned up. The first two runners already had a very sizeable lead on the chasing pack. It was very impressive. We then picked up running again when Natalia showed up shortly after them.
From here the route took us through more fields and dense green spaces. We chatted with different groups of runners as they passed us including a few Americans who were living in North Macedonia. There was another river crossing which everyone carefully tiptoed across on some strategically placed rocks. I ploughed through once again to the delight of the Americans. I had wet feet anyway so it made no difference to me and had the benefit of knowing I had spare socks in my drop bag waiting later on.
From here we began ascending. This was now the biggest climb of the run and we’d be climbing 900m to Vojtino. So we climbed. That’s all we’d do. Head down and walk on. We played leapfrog with a few runners and followed the track as it passed through more forests and occasionally opened up onto vast rocks overlooking the lake. The views were beautiful and we took the chance to stop and capture the moments when we could. It really was stunning. Some how, out of nowhere the next aid station then appeared. We’d been so focused on just walking that the section passed by quite quickly. It was fairly small but we welcomed the opportunity to take on more liquids as it was very humid in the early morning heat. Here the volunteers told us it was maybe 4km to Provej, which would be the drop bag aid station. This was where the route was now changed and rather than climbing another 900m or so to the Magaro summit and descending down to Prevoj, we’d climb lower (maybe just a few hundred metres) and circle the mountain instead. It was a shame, but, at the same time we were now glad it wasn’t as far to go. We moved onwards.
The section wasn’t exactly easy though (easier than the off track 900m climb to the summit over 5km I’m sure!). The climb continued and in places it was quite steep and mostly the ground was covered in a deep layer of leaves that covered a multitude of obstacles – rocks, sticks, snow even! It felt longer than 4km by the time we left the climb and emerged into a grass mountain side that wouldn’t look out of place in the Sound of Music! We were delighted to find the aid station waiting for us. I immediately sought out hot food and my drop bag. I set to work freshening myself up and stocking up on the soup and pasta they provided. I was very hungry and empty and knew I needed food before it was too late. Paul and Natalia patiently waited for me and put up with my antics of snorting Tailwind which I’d spilt trying to refill my bottles.
As we left the aid station we were told we’d now follow a road for a few kms before finding a dirt/quad track. Again we were avoiding the climb to the next summit and were not running along the ridge. The road was indeed very long and the tarmac hurt our achy legs. At midday the heat was absorbed by the black surface and it felt like we were being battered from all sides. It was tough going. We weren’t alone though. We’d made a friend. A dog. He ran casually with us. Not a sound from him. Just a tongue hanging out. He seemed happy. We joked that he liked cheating on us with the faster runners as he’d run with us for a fair bit then would run off and chase the runners ahead of us before waiting for us to catch him up. He ran alongside us for many kms. Even when we turned off the road and followed the track again.
Here we could see Lake Prespa (the other lake hidden from Ohrid by the mountain range) on our right. Lake Ohrid was now hidden by the mountain ridge to our left somewhere. The views were stunning and we enjoyed looking back at the mountains behind us, wondering what if… and then it happened. Pretty much bang on midday as forecast the sky started to darken. The thunder started to rumble. The rain started to come. Natalia was having none of it and started running harder and faster. Me and Paul couldn’t keep up. Within minutes she was out of sight. We carried on, walk-running in the rain. We caught and passed a few other runners and eventually caught up with her at Assan Gjura.
Here at the aid station we sat under the shelter of the outbuilding along with many other runners from all the different distances. Some were coming, some were leaving. We took a moment to gather ourselves, re-calibrating our focus and thinking of the storms and what was left to run. As the rain eased off we psyched ourselves up and prepared to leave. Only we couldn’t. The volunteers and park authorities advised we didn’t as there were more storms coming. They made the decision to hold us all at the aid station for safety. We sat back down not knowing how long we’d be here. The minutes ticked by. Food was running low but we were all fed up of the same thing now anyway. They lit a fire burner and we all huddled inside a room that became our sauna. After a long time one lonely runner arrived at the aidstation from the 100k. She was very wet. Eventually, after about an hour and a half, they let us leave. Initially it was a ‘5 people can go’. Without thinking I selfishly grabbed Natalia and pushed to the front, indicating that us three would leave. My mind was on finishing. My mind was on escaping any risk of not finishing if they cancelled the race. I wasn’t primarily thinking of safety at this point. In my mind we could finish in a few hours and we were descending pretty much for the rest of the race, I felt they wouldn’t be saying we could leave if it wasn’t safe.
We set off. We were legging it. This section was flat at about 1400m asl. Trying to get as far as we could whilst it was dry. Within seconds the many layers we’d put on were coming off again. The ground was a waterlogged and there were puddles in all the tracks and the red earth was equal measures sticky and slippery. The skies however were clear and bright. For now… We ran on from side to side skipping the puddles and mud. Up ahead the sky was getting darker and the feint rumbles of thunder could be heard again. There was a lonely cow, mooing loudly in front of us. We prepared to pass it on widely. It was either distressed or it was warning us. From the left, there was a guy descending quickly from the mountain. He was running in jeans with a bottle of water in his hand shouting and waving. I thought he was chasing after his cow, lost in the storm. Of course he wasn’t. He was trying to get our attention. He directed us to go in the direction he had just come from. He explained that we were running straight into the storms which were about 40 mins away. He told us on the top of the climb there is another guy on the road who will give us further instructions. It was maybe a 10 minute climb, a very slow climb. Natalia went quickly. Me and Paul went slowly. I assumed that this was it, that this was where our race would end. I assumed here they’d be telling us to get in the car and we’d be evacuated from the storms.
As Natalia reached the guy we could hear the instructions he was was providing. He was directing us down another way. This wasn’t game over after all. There was still hope. I woke up from my false misery and we sped up for the last few metres of the climb to join them. He gave us his number for safety and topped us up with coke. Our instructions now were that we’d follow the dirt track road for a few kilometres. Eventually we’d find a turn on our lefthand side marked with the flags and that we should take this route towards Velestovo, the final aid station. He emphasised the path on the left and not the one on the right. The correct route would divert us around the storm and we’d skip the next aid station and head straight to the last one.
We ran on slowly as it was tough. My legs hurt so much. Natalia was fresh and strong and focused on getting down and out of the storms as quickly as possible. I was struggling behind with the inevitable painful ankles. Natalia would run off and wait for us to catch up before carrying on down the road. The route was gradual and not too bad but it was a dirt track and pretty painful on the tired feet. The thunder was growing louder and louder around us and the rain had started yet again. After a while I started to think we’d missed the turn. I check the original route and thought we’d run passed a turn on the that route maybe 1-2 km further back. I couldn’t understand it. How?! We didn’t see anything, we were being alert and would have noticed the marked flags and the escape route! We checked the local maps and could see that this path would bend back towards the storm slightly before connecting with another path which would take us towards the aid station we wanted. We made the decision to carry on and trace this route instead.
A few minutes later we found red flags on both the right and left. This was it! In all my confusion we were doing just fine and hadn’t missed the turn. We turned left as instructed. A few other runners passed us. I was still confused though and it didn’t make too much sense in my head but everyone reassured me that it was right. It wasn’t much further before we hit a little village and Natalia dashed off to the aid station. Me and Paul walked the rest of the path and filmed the view of Ohrid further down. It was beautiful and we could almost smell the finish now. It was pissing down, dark and moody, as we arrived into the aid station. Natalia was a little on edge and uncomfortable with the thought of leaving the sanctuary of the aid station and entering the storms for the final 8km. We reassured her and she emerged from the aid station with us to make the final decent to Ohrid. We made a run for it knowing we’d be finished soon. Far, far sooner than we initially thought. With all the diversions and lack of climbing we’d be coming up short on the distance and finishing whilst it was still light, which was a pleasant thought now.
From here we ran a different route back to Ohrid than which we’d climbed the night before. This one took us through the villages and down some grassy tracks towards the lakeside. The whole way I was behind Natalia and Paul. My legs screaming at me as I kept rolling my ankles on the uneven terrain. At one point I heard them both make some noise and saw Paul pull up suddenly. There were some locals re-cementing the road (during a storm!) and Paul had almost ploughed straight into it. They directed us around and cheered us on our way. Shortly after which we then needed to navigate our way through a herd of goats who were off on their own adventure. Further down we reached the main road of Ohrid. It was flooded. We had a short detour to cross the road around a petrol station to join the path to the lake. Paul went off, making a beeline for the finish. Natalia pushed me hard to get passed the last few 100km runners in our sight. She was running so strong.
Moments later we hit the home stretch and crossed the line, hand in hand. It was done. It wasn’t quite the race we’d hoped for, but the outcome was exactly as planned. At the finish line Dejan, the RD, congratulated us and handed us our medals. It was an incredible experience and an adventure we will never forget.
After finishing, two things were immediately clear to me. Firstly, how accommodating the Macedonians were and how well we were looked after by Dejan, his team and all the volunteers. Personally, I felt safe throughout and never had worries. We knew there would be storms. We knew safety measures were always likely to be activated, but it was the manner in how they were done which was impressive. With runners spread-out over so many different parts of the route it must have been a logistical nightmare to manage. But, we were informed, at registration, at the start of the race and during. The course was very well marked (it was our mistake which made us get lost early on) and the volunteers and Park Authorities were helpful and informative. Whilst we were held at Assan Gjura we were told the organisers were out monitoring the situation and confirming when it would be safe to leave. Having mid aid station diversions to avoid the storms was also something that impressed me. I felt so looked after and cared for.
Secondly, Natalia’s mentality impressed me and I’m so proud of her. She made no secret of her concerns and fear of the storms, in particular the lightening strikes. Yet, she ran, she kept going and she made it to the finish line despite her fears. What impresses me is how strong she is. I don’t share such fears so I will never fully understand what it must feel like to be battling yourself at such a instinctive level. I run without fear so can’t comprehend what it must be like to have your mind working against you when you are tired and exhausted. She never gave up despite the many, many opportunities she had to stop during the race, she just kept going. I’m so proud of her and her strength.
Hardmoors 55, one of a number of events in the Hardmoors race series. These races are set in and around the North York Moors, a place I’d never previously visited, never mind run around. Jon was the architect of this adventure as he looked for an event way back in 2020 to help with his preparations for the CCC. Yep, it’s one of those events on my list of deferrals that, third time lucky, I was now able to tick off.
For the past few years we’d planned for a small group (6 of us) to make this trip. Besides Jon and myself there was also Jess (who we’d not seen in ages), Gif and Reka. Sadly with all the date changes Yvette was no longer able to join us. Jon had arranged a house for us to stay in near the finish in Helmsley (the same place he’d booked two years earlier) and we all met up on the Friday evening arriving full of anticipation for what the adventure would bring. Of course there was messing around and you should always, always, check your wardrobes before you settle in to go to sleep!
It was soon ‘sleepy time’ as we had a rather early wake up call the next day – The organisers had arranged for buses to ferry participants from the finish line to the start in Guisborough. As painful as the early starts and long bus rides can be, I do prefer this set up of point to point races with transport to the start line. This way when you finish there is minimal effort in getting to your bed!
As we arrived into Guisborough, the morning was breaking and it was shaping up to be quite some day. Stepping off the bus we started immediately began stripping off our layers and re-packing our bags. At registration we were formed into queues for drop bags and had to go through the kit check before registration could be completed. In all the races I’d done, I’d never experienced the drop bag being done before registration. I must say how much I approve of this approach. It certainly helps minimise the chances of runners going through registration and mandatory kit checks and then removing kit into their drop bags. It also helped me as I hadn’t prepared any drop bags, so I had one less queue to go through!
Before long we were (trying to) listen to the race director provide the race briefing before jostling for position along the narrow footpath that was the start line. Other than a few flags there was no real marking of the start, certainly no starting arch anyway. I liked it. Minimalist with no unnecessary fath. At 8am we were beginning our 55 mile adventure that would take us all the way back to Helmsley.
As soon as we started, with no reasoning or thought, I started heckling Jon. It amused me. It annoyed him. That amused me more. “Go on Jon”. “You can do it Jon”. “Good luck Jon”. “Keep going Jon”. “Turn right here Jon”. There was nowhere for him to go, squished in with all the other runners on the narrow trails there was no escape for him. I couldn’t help myself. No one else was amused though, just me. And I was immensely amused by it. I’ll do it again and again to whoever I’m running with!
As the footpath came to an end, the first of many, many climbs began as we ascended up alongside Spa Wood. We gently began hiking and made our way up to the beautiful woodland area where it alternated between some flatter single track paths and some small runnable hills. Here the views were breath taking as we traversed towards Guisborough wood and looked back on Guisborough and beyond. Here we’d run for several km as we made our way to Rosebury Topping
The peak of Rosebury Topping came into view and conveniently hid the ‘dip’ that we’d first descend before having to make the climb back up to the summit for a small out and back section. As we began, approaching runners were speeding passed us in the other direction and there were plenty of pleasantries exchanged as we all congratulated each other whilst gasping for air as we powered up the short switch back climb. Over the first few kms our group of runners had kind of separated a little with Reka, Jon and myself ahead of Gif and Jess. At the trig point though we all conveniently met back up and posed for a photo.
From here we repeated the down the back up and cheered on the other runners behind us as those ahead of us had to us. It was then a short run along some easy trails before an enjoyable downhill section into to Kildale, which was the first checkpoint.
The checkpoint set up for the Hardmoors races are quite a unique set up. Whilst they are checkpoints, ultimately the event is more synonymous with a self supported type race. It’s not marked course/route and you have to carry a physical map of the route at all times. In this event there are two drop bags available on the course too. But, these are non returnable and must be ‘small’. They are intended for food only and not kit. So in effect you are stashing your own supplies along the route rather than relying on the checkpoints for fuel. As a result, besides water and squash, the offerings at the checkpoints are quite basic and minimal. I decided not to use drop bags and carried all the food I wanted with me rather than having to plan/think about when I might want access to them. The others all utilised the drop bags and were looking forward to accessing their stash now the first 10 miles or so was completed.
At Kildale we took a few moments as Jon and Reka collected their bags. Then we headed back out and onwards to a large climb back up onto the Moors. Jon and I were in a group chatting to various other runners and we were all commenting on the weather (and food!) as it was now nearing midday and the day was indeed very warm. We were happy and these conditions, despite how though the heat would become, was certainly favourable compared to the usual expected rain, snow and wind experienced on a Hardmoors race in March.
As we chatted Jon and I could see Gif and Reka further up in the distance waving back at us. It wasn’t much further later and we caught them up and carried on again together again and before long we were running passed what I believe was the Captain Cook monument. There were plenty of school kids doing their Duke of Edinburgh awards who were hiking around here and I laughed with one as they played their rock music and cheered us on.
We started to spread out a little after this as Gif dropped back and Jon and Reka raced on ahead of me in the middle. I was struggling to keep Jon and Reka in my sights. event though it was so open and bare on top (with little shade from the midday heat that was picking up). As we followed a sharp turn, looking back we saw incredible views as far back as Roseberry Topping and around the the u shape of the horse shoe which we’d run. It was a beautiful sight. This was a welcome distraction as it was very dusty on the ground and my leg was now hurting quite a bit.
The second aid station was soon upon us (after another fantastic descent) and the marshals had split it so there was water just before the climb started. Those not stopping could refill and go rather than stop at the aid station a little further up the climb. We opted to have a few moments and ate some food whilst chatting with the volunteers who once again were spoiling us. In a box of sweets I found a Wham bar. Result. I’d not had one for years and it was an absolute delight. Another 10 miles or so had been completed.
From here we climbed and then we’re treated to a series of ‘sisters’ or small(ish) ascents and descents in the rolling Moor tops as we navigated along the edge of the hills. Up ahead above us were tens and tens of gliders effortlessly flowing through the sky above. It was mesmerising to watch them glide, gently bobbing up and down above our heads.
Somehow, after may 25 miles or so of rather uncomfortable and painful running, I slowly started feeling better. I knew it meant the pain in my leg was just numb and I was now used to it. Either that or Wham bars having magical healing properties that haven’t been documented! Either way it was a good thing, for now. It meant I could enjoy the downhills a little bit so whilst Jon and I carried on Reka would speed off down the descents and wait for us at the bottom to catch up.
Shortly after this Jon started to feel ill. Almost out of nowhere he stopped to be sick. Something wasn’t right and he seemed to know straight away it was his nutrition (Tailwind). Somehow he picked himself up and found that reserve and toughness to crack on and was able to keep moving, although he was a little quieter than he had been before.
Possibly close to the 30 mile mark, a little over half way through the race, he broke his silence. To mine and Reka’s surprise he muttered the forbidden words “I’m thinking of dropping out”. He said he was 99.9% certain he wouldn’t carry on. Me and Reka were having none of it. We offered some encouragement, slowed and walked with him when he tried to make us go on ahead and told him to rest at the aid station and think it through. We wouldn’t be far from the next checkpoint now.
As we got closer we had a short little section which we shared with another, local, runner. I chatted with him whilst Reka stayed with Jon. I was enjoying the local knowledge he was sharing and he told me he thought the next section, where we’d be heading south after the aid station, was his favourite part of the course. This excited me as it was quite some course so far!
We ran into the village Osmotherley together. This was the second (and final) checkpoint with a drop bag. There was some food on offer and I started filling my face with pizza, rice pudding and plenty of coke. Jon sat and took his time, gathering his thoughts but not eating or drinking just yet. Not long after we arrived, so too did Gif and then Jess. They whole team was together again and we sat, ate and laughed together. Jess was bringing the energy with her infectious smile and laugh. She was in her element and having a great time.
There there was a table of food left behind due to the bag drops which other runners decided not to take with them. I kept going back and helping myself to the best of the leftovers. I was in heaven. It was like an old school tuck shop. I had hula hoops. Tangy Toms. A Freddo and more. I was enjoying the stop and must have clocked up a few extra hundred meters just walking around and back and forth.
Gradually Jon started coming around and eating himself. He’d decided to no longer use the Tailwind and started drinking water. Gif, who like me was covered in salt from the heat of the day, started to panic at the mention of cut offs and made to leave with Jess. There was a complete misunderstand as we were well within the cut off. She thought that we were now up against the final cut off at the next aid station and was worried about making it in time. Either way we sent them on their way and Reka and I stayed with Jon despite his protests. We weren’t leaving him now, I guess we thought there was still a chance he’d convince himself to quit as he had intended too.
After about 45 minutes he was ready to give it a go. So out we went, the three of us together. From here, for the remaining 20 miles or so, we knew it would be a run walk strategy. This suited me too as, whilst I wasn’t in direct pain anymore, I was very conscious of the leg and making it worse than I already had.
Although it was still super hot, Jon seemed a lot better. He was moving a little more freely now and he ran when he could. That suited me to a tee. Reka would bound off at speed whilst we plodded on and then wait for us to catch her up. After a big climb we caught up with Gif again and the four of us jostled and interchanged with various other runners for a few kms. As they had been all day, the views were amazing and we started to see the Moors in a different light (literally) as we started to run into the evening and the Sun’s rays diminished.
It wasn’t long until we were stopping to layer up. The wind proofs and gloves were coming out as without the Sun the temperature started to plummet. It was a good reminder of how fortunate had been that we’d managed to get as far as the evening without needing to layer up!
We ran through many woodlands and more open space moorland before reaching the Yorkshire Gliding Club Airfield where the course would deviate for a slight out and back loop where the final aid station would be. Like many hours earlier we cheered on the runners ahead and they encouraged us too as they ran back towards us. Here we saw some runners who sat near us at the aid station in Osmotherley. They were pleased to see Jon made it back out and cheered him loudly.
The route then took us sharply down hill and through a forest section at Hood Grange Wood. Here there was a runner running in shoes (road shoes) that had broken under the uneven terrain. He said he’d been running for about 30 miles with his heel sticking out the back of the collapsed arch. We were amazed. I certainly don’t think I could have run in a broken pair of trainers like that. Tough going!!
We could then hear the music from the aid station and see the lights set up in the evening darkness. The aid station was a welcome sight. The Marshalls instructed us to take out our head torches (also checking we had them) and helped us refill our water and refuel on snacks. Head torches on we left and climbed back out the steep steps alongside the white horse, which of course we couldn’t see in the darkness .
From here it was a final 9 miles to the finish. It was a slow slog of a section! Throughout, in the darkness we almost took a few wrong turns missing the trail signs which were now slightly more difficult to navigate as our minds wandered off. There was also a long stretch of trail alongside a river (I think) that was littered with toads. There were so many sitting in the darkness that it was very difficult under the torch light to avoid stepping on them. We slowed to a walk here to be sure they weren’t harmed. As we hit some pathed roads Reka ran on ahead and scared runners in front of us with the brightness of her head torch – they thought she was a car coming out of nowhere !)
With a few places gained we powered on for the final few miles. There was one last climb and then it was mostly flat and down hill before we eventually came to the end of the Cleveland way. The day before we’d walked this road and stopped at the ice cream shop which was sadly ,but unsurprisingly, closed (it was around 9pm after all!). A few twists through the village and we were on the last section, a climb to the finish line.
It was a bastard uphill for a few more hundred meters. Not long. Not steep. But we were tired and hungry. For the first time Reka seemed to drain of energy and we laughed that she couldn’t flag so close to the finish. Finally, after what felt like a very long time, we crossed the finish line, well, we walked through the door into the building! A no frills finish line for sure.
We were given our times and our medals, treated to warm drinks and some vegan chilli and sat down with Jess as we waited for Gif to join. Not long afterwards she appeared through the doorway and, for the last time we were altogether at a checkpoint again. This time we only had to leave to walk the few mins back home to our warm beds.
At the start of 2021 I wrote my thoughts under a title of ‘A New Dawn’. It turns out it was more of a false dawn. I wrote some shit down and instantly forgot about it. Hey ho, whatever. I talked about consistency and how I was intending to be more structured and consistent. Well that went pretty badly to start with as I began the year with an injury. It did soon fall into into place as the fear of running 100miles in the Pyrenees shocked me into a routine. Inevitably the intensity of training for for that event and the subsequent fatigue after it led to more injuries and down time. Before I knew it I was once more stuck (and still am) in the old habits of running far, followed by not running much and just repeating over and over. Maybe in 2022 I’ll try again. ‘Something needs to change’ I said, I tell you now that what needs to change is the pumpkin of a belly I’m lugging around on the runs – It is getting heavy and bounces about now! I also nattered on about showing respect to running. To some degree that is there, the experience levels keep increasing and the learning that goes with it too. I am also still more than slightly obsessive about it. But I’m more willing to accept that that is just who I am at the moment. I love it, so why shouldn’t I enjoy and obsess about it?
So as I’ve been doing each year, I stop and look back and reflect. 8 of the races I’d planned didn’t happen. I found many others which took their place instead though and, through these, I achieved something else that I mentioned at the start of the year…
I wrote about the big Five-0. Hitting 50. Nope, not my age you cheeky beggars. But a milestone none the less. A pointless one though really, as it is just a number and meaningless in the grand scheme of things. However, I’m using it as a marker, a point in time of you like. A marker to celebrate me. Yep, this is a narcissistic bit of writing and more about me than all the other posts about me which I evidently like to write. I’ll reflect beyond the last year and look back on the past few years since I started taking on endurance events.
So what is this ’50’, well, it is the number of ‘official’ events of marathon distance or longer I’ve completed. Haaa. Told you it was meaningless. There’s a lot to summarise here as I’m going to be touching on each and every one of those runs. If you fancy it, you’ll find links throughout to all the write ups I’ve done after each event.
In some ways this is a reflection on who I am now. How I came to be here, now, writing about having run 50 ‘marathons’. When I think about it, it really is quite something (back slap to me). They say 1% of the population have done a marathon (not sure what kind of bullshit that is, and I’m going to reference it without any research to support it), if that is true, then I’ve achieved something very few do (although I personally know many people who’ve run hundreds!!). So let’s celebrate and indulge a little. Time to reflect as it has been quite the journey…
First off though, I’m going to explain how I define this number. What my definition of ‘official’ really is… You see, there is such a thing as the “100 marathon club”. I looked into it. Personally I think it’s a complete load of bollocks (contradictory given I’m writing about a half century achievement?). From what I’ve understood about it, you register and pay them to become a member, they validate and vet your achievements against their definition of events that qualify. This then gives you the “right” to wear their kit (a twatty tee shirt with ‘100’ on it. Yuk. Naaa thanks). It seems very much like an ‘old boys’ club. Exclusive and elitist and more focused on road running. I may be very wrong, but that’s what my takeaway was when I looked into it. Each to their own eh, but I decided that it is not for me. I believe that you are what you achieve, not what someone else says you’ve achieved! I do agree though that each run only counts once, and a 100 mile run doesn’t count as four marathons!
So I decided to define my own runs, I’ve run the bloody things after all, and I could have cut this a number of different ways. I decided that, for me, the definition of an ‘official’ event/race was one that is paid for. Or more specifically where there is a cost for participation as it doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve paid for it. For example, I ran the 50k event at a Salomon festival a few years back, but as a support runner, I was gifted the place to help out during the run. So that counts as other people paid for that run and I would have too if I didn’t work at the event. Another example is a Wild Trail Runners event that was organised. A group of twelve of us ran a marathon along a planned route with a medal for finishers. But, it was free to anyone to join. So that doesn’t count in my tally. Oh, and of course I had to complete the distance set out to run. So yep, that blotch on the running CV, the Limassol marathon, doesn’t count either!
So what is the outcome of this classification? Well it ruled out a surprising amount of runs I’ve done. At the time of writing this, 32 times I’ve run a marathon or longer which I now consider “unclassified” or ‘Training runs’ if you like. Shit, so really I’ve run a marathon or longer 89 times as I write this!! Double back slap for me. I didn’t realise it was quite that many. I vividly recall making the decisions to do the first one!
So time to reflect, let’s break it down. It’s been an (exponential) learning curve for sure…
Pre-2017 – The early years
2013 is when it all really began, back in London. What a way to kick off this journey – The London Marathon. I really did enjoy. After 5 years of rejection I had a guaranteed place (an old rule!). After completing the race I did immediately say that I’d like to do one again one day. I soon came up with the very non-committal challenge of ‘I’d like to do a marathon on every continent’. Plenty of time before I die (hopefully!) to achieve that…
I then didn’t run far again till 2015. Gate-crashing a colleague’s holiday to hike Kilimanjaro, with 6 weeks to go, as we arranged our tour I stumbled across the Kilimanjaro marathon in Moshi. I then had the thought to tick off another continent on that non-committal challenge. A little persuading to change our tour dates and I was in. This was like no other event though. Fresh faced and naïve with only having run London, I was amazed to find (unsurprisingly) there were only 300 or so runners at the start line. Probably about 90% of whom were either Kenya or Tanzanian. 4 hours later with very little time spent running around other people I crossed the line. The next day I began my recovery by hiking the highest peak in Africa.
The same routine followed and I didn’t run much again for the next 18 months or so. Then, in the summer of 2016, I felt the now familiar itch. I wanted an adventure. I wanted to run again and I also wanted to go back to Asia. Time to get another ticked off, and so, after some research I settled on the Bagan temple marathon in Myanmar. I tried desperately to get out of the tour that accompanied the race but I wasn’t successful. On reflection, what a blessing this was. On this trip I first met some friends who’d heavily feature in the adventures to come and, having spent a week with people who travelled with the intent to run, I was surrounded by stories and experiences beyond my wildest imagination. The bug sunk its teeth into me that week.
Yearly Marathon count = 3
2017 – Welcome to the trails
After Bagan, my decisions were made for me. I had friends signed up to Tel Aviv (Feb 2017), Paris (March 2017) and Lisbon (Oct 2017) marathons. I signed up to join them and after returning from Bagan in December I carried on running through the winter to maintain the marathon fitness.
Sometime in the spring of 2017, I first heard about ultras from my great friend Daryl who was also curious about them and directed me towards the Race To The Stones non-stop 100k. My curiosity was getting the better of me and so I signed up to run it with Daryl. He never signed up to the event, but a chain of events had been started and I couldn’t undo the thoughts in my head. I was trained and marathon fit. But unsure about how to approach an ultra. I knew I couldn’t keep running at the marathon pace I was now used to and struggled on each run to slow down. So I stated reaching out to run with other people. ‘Run With Dai’ was born. In the lead up to July’s race I ran my first ultra of 30 miles in solo laps around Richmond My first non-event marathon distance! Then I just dived straight in to the 100km distance, completing RTTS in 11.5 hours. The feeling was unbelievable, I was buzzing afterwards.
Shortly after the race, the itch was beginning to take control and I remember skiving in work one day looking at other 100km events. I stumbled across the SVP100 which was 3 weeks away and I signed up. I felt the training was there and would naturally just carry over. I misjudged this race big Time! Being my second trial race I hadn’t yet understood how different they could be. The set ups, the organisation and aid stations, the terrain, elevation. Everything! Everything is incomparable between trail events. This run battered me (I was ruined for weeks afterwards with a bad back) and took some 13+ hours.
As the year went on I felt I would continue the running and looked forward to 2018 where I began planning to do a marathon each month. I quickly started booking events and soon had 6 in the diary including my next world major in Berlin for Sept 2018.
Then, in December that year, a colleague introduced me to The North Face Never Stop London – community. I became a regular and met many, many people I now call friends. Jana introduced me to a series of trial events called UTMB and that registrations would soon open. It turned out those two 100km races I’d completed gave me enough points to apply to one of the races – the CCC. Another 100km event in the Alps. She also invited me along to their weekend runs and I soon started trail running most weekends with a group of (at the time) strangers. Welcome to the trails!
Yearly Marathon count = 5 (+2 unofficial)
2018 – Chasing times
And so began the next chapter of my running. The more I ran with other people, the more time I spent running on trails, the more I fell in love with enjoying running. Running became easier (but never easy!) as I ran with very little pressure.
As the year began I soon I started filling the rest of the year with trail and ultra distances instead. Including, The CCC as I got lucky first time in the ballot. Admittedly I was afraid, very afraid. I’d never been to the mountains before never mind running in the Alps! A new challenge lay in wait and it was one I couldn’t quite comprehend back then.
I soon started ticking off the marathons and with each one my finish time decreased substantially. First there was the Muscat Marathon in Oman (where Angela and Stephan from Myanmar joined me!), followed by the Malta marathon in February. Come March I was heading to the Limassol Marathon in Cypress with a 3:02 minute PB. For the first time ever a ‘sub 3’ hour marathon became a a recurring thought in my mind. It was very possible, and with with little thinking or planning I ‘went for it’.
This was a pivotal moment for me. A moment of sheer ignorance and naivety. I was now taking marathons for granted and thought I could just do anything. Yes, trail running and regular long running had improved my speed remarkably. But to think I was ready to run 26 miles averaging 6:52min miles was stupid. But not as stupid as the plan I concocted to get around it… knowing I’d struggle to be that consistent, I decided to front load the run and “bank some time”. So I ran faster than I believed I could – I ran the first 10 miles at 6:20 min miles and the next ten at 6:40 min miles to ‘bank’ those minutes. I told you it was stupid. I blew up spectacularly. So much so I woke up in a medical tent having passed out (I guess – I’ll never know what exactly happened) at the 25 mile mark. My first DNF and a wake up call. I vowed never to put myself in such a position again and wouldn’t chase times, care about the figures on a watch nor to put myself at risk.
I was back running the following month and continuing my monthly adventure with the Brighton Marathon and then the Helsinki Marathon in Finland. Leading up to September’s alpine adventure I ticked off a few more ultras including my first trip to Brecon for the Brecon Ultra and completing the trilogy of Threshold events with the Race to the Tower and Race to the King events. This was then followed by my third and fourth 100k distance events in the Freedom Racing Serpent Trail and back once again to the SVP100. I was hooked and loving it. I was even persuaded into a trip to Chamonix to experience some of the course before the CCC race and I am so glad I did. A learning experience for sure.
When it came around to doing the CCC I felt like a fraud. Imposter syndrome is a real thing and I was suffering from it at the start line with thousands of other runners from all over the world. I didn’t feel like I belonged. Truth is though, I did. I’d earned my place at that start line and I was there having trained hard (although the more experienced version of me doesn’t think the events I used to gain the points should be valid – they don’t prepare you for the dangers and rigour of the mountains!). Looking back, those nerves weren’t justified and perhaps I just didn’t enjoy all the hype around this “prestigious” event. I came through the CCC well within the cut offs and did, despite what I’ve said and written, enjoy the event. A huge achievement and perhaps another milestone on the running cv.
Two weeks later I was back on the road for the Berlin Marathon. I felt good. I was at the start line with zero pressure having just completed what I felt was a far bigger and more significant challenge. My recurring thought was ‘I just ran for 21 hours, I can run for 3’. Three. Three hours. I wasn’t thinking about additional minutes. Just three round hours. I ran. I was happy. I was comfortable and enjoying it. I just kept going, kept smiling. I was very consistent and I can remember the moment when I knew I was going to break 3 hours. The difference from 6 months earlier in Limassol? Just the lack of pressure. I clearly excelled in it. I laid that demon to rest.
I was deep into the ultra trails now and was signing up to races for 2019 as soon as they became available. Without thinking, with no long term plan, I was signing up to races that were longer, involved more elevation and which would take me on more adventures to incredible places. I was hooked. The next phase of my running I was like an obsessive collector.
Yearly Marathon count = 15 (+4 unofficial)
2019 – Bigger is better
Wow what a year this was! 2019 started straight away in January with the Country to Capital ultra which finishes in London. Here I met Paul for the first time who’d soon become a fixture in these achievements. This was a race as part of my plan for my biggest challenge yet – The Trans Gran Canaria. This would be the first time I’d go further than 100km, a fair bit further too as it was 128km in some rather challenging terrain! Another whole new experience and steep learning curve in what remains one of the mentally darkest, grumpiest runs I’ve ever completed.
There was no rest though as the next trip saw me head to Italy for the Sciacche Trail in Cinque Terre which was another race to prepare me for what was to come – MIUT, the Madeira Island Ultra Trail. This was a bucket list event. Ever since I saw some pictures of the landscape I was hooked on the idea of running it. at 115km long this event had the largest elevation profile of any I’d done so far. It surpassed my expectations and remains one of my favourite running experiences to date.
By June I was preparing for the next big event which was the Lavaredo Ultra Trail. 115km in the Dolomites. Another spectacular, and physically painful, event. This was followed up with my 3-star achievement at the SVP 100 again at the beginning of August before heading abroad once more for the next set of events.
Then, ignoring everyone telling me how stupid it is to do a mountain ultra 3 days before the biggest run of my life (felt like every run in 2019 was the ‘biggest run of my life’!), I headed to Switzerland for the Ultraks Matterhorn Ultra. I loved this event and felt free running in the shadow of the Majestic Matterhorn all day. Afterwards I slowly made my way to Chamonix once again, this time for the TDS by UTMB. This was something quite remarkable and incredibly satisfying. Despite the difficulty of this race, I felt (mostly) alright throughout and, after a long sleep, OK afterwards too. This will forever be possibly one of the most enjoyable ultras I’ve ever done.
What wasn’t enjoyable was the Tallinn Marathon in Estonia two weeks later. Everything about that event was slow and painful, especially the cobbled streets of the Old Town. The exertion of the TDS was clearly being felt as I pounded the pavements and cobbled Estonian streets for 5 hours.
Thankfully, by the time I headed back to Poland a few weeks later for the 150km Lemkowyna Ultra Trail, my body had recovered enough and the conditions of the event weren’t quite up to the muddy standards they tend to expect. This is an incredible, lesser known event that is very well organised and takes you on a journey through some beautiful hilly landscapes of southern Poland. It was this race that I think I properly felt tiredness and fatigue during a race for the first time. I remember maybe 10km from the finish I was struggling to keep my eyes open and knocking back copious amounts of caffeine to keep me going!
To finish the year off it was a shorter and more local event as I took on the Hurtwood 50 with Nick in what would be his first ultra. The similarities and familiar feelings were there as I experience Nick beginning to go through the same motions as I did a year or two earlier. What a year 2019 was indeed! Having never run more than 100km before, I did so 5 times that year and each time in a spectacular location. There were also another 5 solo ultra adventures including an epic 30miler from the Brecon Beacons to my Parents house on Christmas day. This was never the plan, but I couldn’t get enough. The ‘bigger the better’ seemed to be my new approach. But ultimately these were all races that excited me and it was that which enticed me to enter them in the first place – I’m not doing events for the sake of it. There are many events each week (even on most days of a week) where you can run laps on a course to make up a marathon that is eligible for the ‘100 marathon club’. I have no interest in that. I want to combine my running with a sense of adventure and explore somewhere new in doing so. Yes the events I enter are all mainstream, but if you’re not into your trail running then they need some explaining. I loved it. This was my passion.
In 2019 however I realised that, the more I ran though, the less I could ‘run with Dai’. Most runs were now social runs and often in groups though. I simply didn’t have the time to arrange to travel and meet individuals for runs that would often now be quire ‘short’ (it is all relative!). So it’s taken a back seat instead as I chase personal glories and the thrill of finishing events that challenge me in new ways.
Travel was clearly a big part of my running lifestyle too. I wanted to go where the new experiences would be. Run in places that scare and excite me. Places I can fondly look back on with epic memories. I promised myself to continue doing just that.
Yearly Marathon count = 15 (+5 Unofficial)
2020 – Miler Man
On the topic of travelling for running, midway through 2019 an opportunity to travel with friends to New Zealand presented itself for the beginning of 2020. I didn’t need too much persuading, I was in. I went to sign up to the 100km event with everyone else, then, I saw the finishers medal for the 100 mile event – A jade stone pounamu – I thought fuck the 100km, I wanted that pounamu and I signed up to the 100 mile distance at the Tarawera Ultra Trail event instead. There was my motivation to finish right there!
The obsession with running carried on and I ticked off that first 100 mile event (and later that year the second one too). I followed up the NZ adventure with 10 days running in Borneo with the Maverick Race team. I’d done a few of their events by now and really liked everything about them and what they offered. Borneo had always been a place I wanted to visit and this was the perfect opportunity to do so, combining it with my love of running. The week ended spectacularly with the 109km Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon. I’m not sure I’ll ever run in such heat and humidity ever again!
Looking back, I was so fortunate to squeeze those trips and two events in before March and when the global impacts of Covid started to become clear. This naturally led to a year (and more!) of disruption and as races started to be cancelled, I looked for different ways of getting my running kicks without the travel adventures. I embraced the local running and found many incredible places that are within my running reach. 12 times in 2020 I found myself running my own ultra challenges, including an 80 mile loop around London with a good buddy Paul as we decided to run the entire Capital Ring route.
Later in the year as restrictions started to relax, I’d managed to sign up to numerous other events to replace those that had been cancelled or postponed. The North Downs Way 100 was one of them and turned out to be a long and arduous trek as the British weather decided to try and top the temperatures I’d experienced in Borneo now many months ago.
I followed this up with the excellent Eden Valley Ultra, the Pilgrim’s Marathon in Farenham and trips to both the Peak district and Dorset for the Maverick X series Peak District and Maverick X Series Jurassic Coast. Throughout the year as I was ticking off more events and when I realised I was creeping close to this 50 milestone. It was probably late summer when I started thinking about it and came to the definition I summarised earlier. The way things were going, with more events signed up too, I’d hit 50 before the end of the calendar year. That obviously didn’t happen in the end though and here I am now a year later reflecting on that achievement.
Yearly Marathon count = 8 (+12 Unofficial)
2021 – New Adventures
Just like the summer of 2020, there was a long pause on mass events and it wasn’t until April that I did my first organised event of the year. Up until then it was a few more months of local trails and exploring new places I could reach from my doorstep as well as some recces of routes for other events scheduled for later in the year.
One of my favourite places to run near to home is Coulsdon and the Happy Valley. There are so many different trails and ways I can get there from home and its also feasible to venture down and along sections of the North Downs Way too. I spent a lot of time running around Caterham also and decided this would be a great place to start the ‘Centre of the Universe‘ ultra organised by Camino. A mass event where the runners dictate where they start and what route they take to reach the finish at the ‘centre of the universe’ (or Hackney!). I loved this concept and had a great time running with a group of friends (and Bruce!) all day.
Come may I was once more racing on the North Downs Way as I ran the North Downs Ridge, the third of my events with Freedom Racing who do an excellent job! I then ran the 100km Ultra X Spring Series in Haselmere with Ged and then, in June, I was heading back to a Maverick race with the return of their X Series Exmoor ‘The Beast’. I’d never been to Exmoor before and it was an incredible place with some absolutely stunning trails to explore. In between these two events I fancied something a little different so ran the length of the Downs Link from Guildford to Shoreham-by-Sea. Whilst it was nice to explore somewhere new, this one was for the brain. It was flat and straight and the terrain consistently gravel tracks. I knew it would be a mind-bender but that was all good training in my eyes.
That training would soon be put to good user as the year’s big event was looming in the not too distance future. First though, another Camino Ultra event with their Lea Valley Ultra, another run ending in their universe of Hackney.
From here it was a few weeks of stressing about travel requirements, testing and worrying about phantom injuries. At the beginning of July I headed out with Paul and Darryl to a new event Val D’Aran by UTMB in the Pyrenees. For the third time I’d be running a 100 miles, I never planned it to become a regular thing. This time though I’d be doing it in one of the most technical places I’d run and would have to overcome 10,000m of elevation for the first time. It is unquestionably the hardest event I’ve ever done. It took 47 hours and was basically a long distance hike to the finish. Though as the hours ticked by, nothing was going to stop me from getting to that finish line!
After VDA I made one of the most sensible running decisions of my life, I did the 50km event at the SVP100 instead of my favourite 100km! Ok, perhaps not so sensible seeing as I ran a marathon with Nick the week before and self diagnosed myself with an Achilles injury. Still, it felt slightly better at the SVP. I’m useless at resting and I soon signed up to some more events though and next was my first trip to the Lake District to run the Grand Tour of Skiddaw with Jon. Here I sampled the best soup I’ve ever had in my life! you need to sign up to this event just four the Soup that Gaynor, the RD, makes. you won’t regret it. The race is pretty ace too.
After the lakes I also ticked off another place I’ve been trying to get to for a while and ran an ultra around the Malvern hills with Lauren. She was soon heading off to achieve phenomenal things at the Marathon Des sables, whilst I was back out with Nick once more for his longest run to date – the Centurion Chiltern Wonderland. We had such a great time running a big loop around the Chilterns and it was a great feeling to see him run so confidently and use all his experience to great success.
After dialling it back a little and getting into a semblance of a running routine again, it would soon all be disrupted once more as a few of us broke free and headed to Turkey for the exceptional Cappadocia Ultra Trail. In Urgup I took on the 120km CUT and had a mixed time to begin with before finishing strongly in what has to be one of the rewarding and most incredible events I’ve done.
I then squeezed in another Maverick race, their Frontier South Downs with Nick before getting ready for my final event of the year… Sadly, the Cheviot Goat didn’t happen due to terrible unforeseen circumstances with major storms in the area causing devastation the week before. After 6 hours of travelling, we were notified of the cancellation when we were just an hour away and 3 hours before registration was due to begin. We made the most of our trip though and planned our own, shorter 50km run in the Cheviot Hills instead.
With the year almost over, I made one last attempt to squeeze in another adventure whilst I was home in Swansea for Christmas. After being banned from running for a week, I desperately needed that escapism so persuaded my parents to Taxi me to the coast and I ran the entire length (55km) of the Gower Way path.
Yearly Marathon count = 11 (+9 Unofficial)
Well, I’ve mumbled off on a tangent and a right ‘ol trip down memory lane! What was suppose to be a reflection on 50, has turned into a reflection on my running journey (hate that phrase!) as a whole. As I type this, The Beast by Maverick, the X-Series Exmoor was my 50th official Marathon. At the end of the year the official count is at 57 (41 ultras, 16 marathons). My unofficial is standing at 89 (64 ultras, 25 marathons). Phwooar.
That is over 4,100 km of running official events (>5,500km unofficial) in 20 different countries (on 4 different continents) visited purely for running. I guess that non-committal challenge I set 8 years ago is well underway now! It is hard for me not to look at the distance per event too. I know I said each event counts once, but over those 57 events, the mean distance is 73km which certainly is significant in that the number of longer distances has substantially increased in the last 3 years!
Each of these events has beaten me up in new ways. The Trans Gran Canaria attacked my mind (and feet!). The Madeira Island Ultra Trail destroyed my quads, Lavaredo wrecked my feet. The TDS pushed me longer than I’d ever ran before. The Lemkwoyna Ultra Trail pushed me through the mud, the cold and the tiredness of the Polish mountains. Tarawera sent me deep into the darkness of the bush and Borneo brutalised me with the intense heat and humidity and then there was Val D’Aran which was like nature declared war with my body and mind. Just when you think you’ve experienced it all, the technicalities of the Pyrenees shows you there is so much more!
So what now… More of the same obviously. The path continues into 2022. It won’t stop here. 2022 is already full of more plans and adventures. Maybe I’ll get to an ‘official’ century one day. Maybe I won’t. But for now, this is me. This is my lifestyle of choice. It’s not without sacrifice nor stress. But that’s within my control. I love nothing more than getting a bag of food and clothes together and exploring somewhere new for the first time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’. 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!
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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!!
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
After a less than fruitful sleep, we were all crammed into the minibus for our transport to the start of the Borneo Ultra Marathon. I had two strategies for this race (1) keep hydrated (2) try and regulate my temperature as much as possible. I wasn’t sure how this race would pan out but I knew to have any chance of surviving the heat of Borneo I’d have to get this right!
Surviving the heat wasn’t the only concern amongst participants of the BUTM. Despite the carnage and ongoing concerns of the Covid19 virus that was sweeping the world, BUTM 2020 was going ahead. I felt bad for the race director. He was in a difficult position. 3 weeks prior they’d advised they were proceeding. Then the global situation intensified. The Sabah region had stayed pretty much virus free until pretty much the day before the race when. So, despite last minute updates to government’s advice the race was still going ahead. This did cause some stir and there was some noise as other races in the following weeks were cancelled. But what can you do, how do you cancel and international event at a few hours notice? It’s a lose lose situation for the RD. Some last minute provisions were made and as we queued up to enter the registration hall, all runners had their temperature scanned and our hands were sanitised. There was advice provided to for social distancing where possible (but let’s remember in the grand scheme of things this is a low key event and it doesn’t draw a crowd of spectators!).
After registering we made our way to the start line which was just a short walk away. This is also where the race would finish as we cross the final wooden suspension bridge across the water. We did the usual pre-race photo rituals and those of us doing the 100km or 50km made our way to the front of the start pen (the 30km has a later start). With little fanfare we were off and started running back through the small town and passed the hall where we registered.
We soon began the first of many long climbs and I settled in near Meghan and Carl as Spencer and Jake ran off in the distance. It wouldn’t be long before I’d turn off and begin a different route for the 100km. First though we began the steep road climb. The pace immediately slowed to a bimble in the darkness of the early morning. The sun was starting to shine and I was hoping to experience this sunrise again in 24 hours time.
A few km in and the 100km runners broke away, turning left away from the 50km runners who’d continue the climb a little further. I had this to look forward to later on where the later half of the 100km follows the same 50km route. For now though, a small quad buster of a trail descent. The ground was lumpy and hard, but my attention was drawn to the views of the surrounding area as the day broke. I briefly chatted to a Canadian woman doing her first 100 mile race and an Irish man from Wexford also doing the 100km (who’d go on to finish 2nd!). I stopped to capture a few pictures and ran on when the roads flattened and became gravel trails. Already the field was thinly spread and I found myself running alone. At the end of the descent I saw a 100 mile runner running back towards me. I assumed we’d gone wrong but he explained the river crossing was ahead and he didn’t want to get his feet wet so was going to cross the suspension bridge. I agreed with him, in the week before my feet took a beating from running in wet shoes and socks as I cooled in the rivers. I promised myself that if I stopped at a river to immerse myself I’d removed them first. It was too early to need to cool in the river though so I followed him across the scariest bridge I’d ever been on. The suspension bridges in Sabah are essentially rusty old wire fencing (think chicken coop wire) with wooden planks along them, not always attached! This one however was missing one side of the wire ‘rail’ as it was broken and hung loose and flaccid along the bridge. The planks in many places didn’t exist and the wire was full of holes. We shimmied across with two hands on the existing rail and sidestepped it. The bridge swinging and bouncing with the movement of runners. I was sure we’d fall in the river!
Shortly after the bridge fiasco, We crossed a concrete road section breaking up the river and even before 8am I was realising just how hot it was and how hot it would get. It was scorching and I was dripping with sweat already. After climbing some more gravel roads we ran into a field where we were scanned before crossing the field and running a trail path along the river. We then began the first of the ‘bigger’ ascents which was a mix of gravel roads and more hard and dry packed trails. Here the heat of the morning really struck and I noticed a number of the local runners would stop whenever there was a bit of shade from the trees. I decided to adopt this technique and grab a few seconds breather also. This would help my goal for regulating the body temperature. It was relentless. I soon realised I’d be stopping a lot on these climbs and taking it slowly so I made my peace with that. As we climbed I also started to think about my liquids. I was getting through my 1.5ltrs (I had an additional 500ml bottle to add to the hydration for later in the day) and I was wondering where and when I’d come across the first water stop. I changed my watch screen to check the distance and somehow I was on 15km already. I was confused as I’d not seen the water station. I thought it must have been in the field where I was scanned (I remember reading about that field in the race notes), but I didn’t see anything. It was a good thing though, it meant that I wasn’t far from the second water stop and had made good early progress.
The second water stop came just before the next big climb and I was glad. I was ready for some food and water. As I arrived I was more confused than ever though. I couldn’t see any water and the only food options (fruit) and fizzy drinks had prices on them and a woman telling me it was RM3 (less than a pound) for a coke, 100Plus or bottled water. What?! I wasn’t going to buy liquids in a race in the high 30degrees out of pure stubbornness. Thankfully I was eventually directed to massive water butts on high platforms with hoses coming from them for drinking water. This made more sense and no wonder I missed it at the last stop. As I refilled my bottles I realised I’d made a kit packing error – in my haste packing the night before I’d put all my caffeinated Tailwind in my race pack rather than the drop bag for the second section at night. Great. I’d be buzzing with caffeine throughout the day now. I decided to try and ration it and water it down a bit to save some for when I’d need it most when I’m tired at night.
As I left the water station we began the first jungle/trail section which was quite technical but also short before the wider trail climbs. Just like the climbs before, this was completely exposed and I was seeking out the shadows to cool down. It was a slow slog to the top but I was able to run a bit as we descended into the next water station. All along the climb and descent there were locals at the side of the road, in cars, outside their houses selling fruit and drink. I didn’t like it. It didn’t seem right to have to buy essentials (yes I class coke and isotonic drinks as essentials in ultras!) during a race.
During this section I recognised several trails from our runs the week before. I ran a familiar ridge and passed a house where we saw a monkey and a pig before passing a place which had amazing views of Mount Kinabalu. Some trails looked so familiar but I wasn’t sure if I’d been on them too! I then arrived at the third water stop and things became a little bit clearer. A volunteer asked me if I wanted fruit and when I asked if I needed to pay he replied saying “no, fruit is free for runners”. I ate so much pineapple my tongue went funny from the acidic goodness. It was ace. I filled all 4 bottles of water and set back out.
And so onto the biggest climb of the race. I was aware this one would be tough and the 14km section (straight up and back down the other side) would take about 4 hours. It was so exhausting. As the sun rose higher in the sky, with it the temperature began to sore. I was looking for the shadows. They were pure temptation. Like a voice calling you over. Come to me. Rest a while. Sit down and take the weight off your feet. Maybe stay a while, stay here all day if you like. I had to challenge myself not to succumb to the relief but to keep moving. I made a pact. I’d stop every time an opportunity presented itself, but not the first shadow, always the second or last one. Make some progress up the climbs and break it up. Each time I’d stop I’d count to ten with deep breathes, resting my hands on my knees and my head lowered to the ground. In and out. I’d watch my heart rate decrease in those ten breathes. Sometimes dropping 30+ BPM. I was working hard in the heat despite moving slower than I’ve ever climbed before.
Eventually I began to reach the top and there was a woman selling drinks. I knew there was a false summit but the trail descended quickly so I asked here if this was the top and she replied ‘yes, all downhill to the next water stop’. I packed away the poles, composed myself and cracked on. She was wrong. It was the false summit and we still had 300m of climbing to cover. I was annoyed! As we began the descent I saw a runner turn right but I saw the markings go to a trail to the left. I stopped and was about to call after him when I saw markings that went the other way too. Another runner also stopped and we debated which was right. We followed the first runner and saw more markings further on, we hoped it was right!!
When we weren’t far from the end of the descent we reached the 4th water stop. We were now 40km in. I filled my bottles and went and sat in the shade in the hut. It was quiet here with only one other runner doing the 100 miler. I sat with my head between my legs and necked a lot of water. A woman asked if I was ok. I felt fine, just too hot. She told me I was 11th. Just outside the top ten and the 10th runner just ahead. I laughed at her. That’s crazy I said and I told her I need to slow down then. I sat back and chilled out. That might have spurred people on, but not me. I went the other way. Top ten?! That’s not me. So I decided to stay here for at least ten mins and recover from the exhaustion of the climb. I eventually got up and went to another hut full of fruit and gorged on more pineapple and watermelon. I tried chatting to the women who prepared it all but they just kept laughing at me. Some sweaty white guy stuffing his chops and not stopping to chew.
I carried on. It was only 4km to the next water station and I now felt recharged and fuelled after the lack of food earlier in the morning. I was able to run a little and the ground was quite forgiving. The next water station was a confusing one as it was also one I’d revisit later in the race. I sat down for another 10 mins and applied more suncream and had some more fruit and water. The exit to this station was a massive suspension bridge and we were then running on some undulating trails heading back towards town. About halfway along the trails the runner I was following stopped. He said he didn’t see any trail markings any more. He was right, I’d stopped paying attention and now also didn’t see any. I ran on a bit but still didn’t find any. I loaded the GPX on the watch and it seemed like we were ok to continue. It wasn’t on the track but it looked to run parallel. We both sat on the floor and composed ourselves. Even thinking in the heat was draining!! The trails did indeed meet once more and we crossed several more suspect bridges. We then ran passed a junction in the race I recognised from the morning (which I’d also visit once more later in the race) and along some road. I was plodding along and before I realised it I was back at the start. Halfway. Time for my drop bag, food and a good sit down and rest.
I was about two and a half hours ahead of my predicted time so I messaged the group. They’d all finished their races now and were still in the area so they came to see me. I was a beautiful sight for them. Half baked with a wet towel draped over me, feet up and chewing on potatoes and other veg (I wasn’t fancying my chances of keeping the chicken curry down!). I was sweating so much. It just wouldn’t stop. I tried to relax and cool down but to no avail. As we talked I found out they’d all smashed their races. We had first female in the 30km, second female in the 50km and several winners in their age categories. Incredible. They went off to collect their podium prizes before leaving back to Kota Kinabalu. Spencer was staying with Jess to crew her sister on the 100 miler and she was flying, she’d arrived and left the aid station. I was getting comfortable. I was content with how the race was going so decided I’d stay for at least an hour. I ate more, bandaged my feet and kept trying to stop sweating. Eventually Jess and Spencer started packing my stuff up and kicked me out, back on my way. Cheers guys.
The next 50km would be broken up. Two big climbs and descents. A bit of flat/undulating trail. A tough trail climb and descent then two small hills and a fairly flat but slightly inclined 8km to the finish line. I was focused.
I started the first climb at a steady paced hike. The temperature had now dropped and the suns heat was diminishing. The climb was immediately easier than those in the morning/midday heat and I no longer needed to stop as I hiked. I felt good. The descent was quite runnable and I plodded on consistently.
I reached the next water stop and took another ten mins to relax. The next climb was tougher than I expected as it was through trail and jungle forest. There were some very steep sections. As I started to climb, it began to rain. Thankfully in the forest I was quite week sheltered so I let the rain cool me. I was also not worried about getting wet because the temperature was still high twenties and I was already soaked through with sweat still.
I summitted as the sun was setting and I took a moment to enjoy the views of surrounding mountains In the twilight. Quite surreal. As I continued along the ridge it soon became dark and I had to put my head torch on. The next descent was a little harder than I expected as the darkness settled quickly and the ground was very muddy and slippery from the rain. I almost stacked it a few times!
At the end of the descent I arrived back at the water station (with the big suspension bridge) from earlier in the day. I cracked into some noodles and rested again. Too my surprise, four 100km runners then showed up (one woman running in some flimsy rubber sandals!) and I was a little shocked. I’d seen only a handful of runners since I started the second loop and most of those were doing the 100 miler. I thought I’d been making better progress now. Clearly not though! I followed them out and we retraced the undulating trails from a few hours earlier. This time I walked behind them. Then, I lost sight of them. I noticed some head torches lights just above me and realised this was were I had to look at the GPX route earlier. I quickly ran back and found the actual root this time and soon caught them up again. We next arrived back at the intersection of all the routes for my third time and I started to veer right. The other runners carried on straight. Aaah. I hadn’t been caught up after all, they were still on their first loop. I was at least 20km ahead of them. That made me feel better.
I was happily walking the next section when I once more realised I’d done this route earlier in the day. I crossed the concrete road through the river again (disoriented and thinking I was going the opposite direction this time – I wasn’t). Despite looking at the route and the elevation I hadn’t quite noticed how many paths I’d duplicate. I knew what lay ahead though. Gravel and pathed roads, climbs and a small descent. Then I’d be at the water station I missed on my first pass (the very first one!). I was getting sleepy now though. I thought about sleeping for ten minutes when I arrived but I settled for coffee instead.
It was back out through the field and along the river before somewhere I turned off on to new trails I’d not yet experienced. Next it would be the biggest and most technical section of the last 50km. Spencer had warned me about how technical this but would be in the dark so I felt prepared.
I don’t really remember the climb. But I do remember the descent. It was brutal. It was very steep and very rocky and rooty. The ground was covered in wet leaves and slippery earth. I was going slowly. I was also feeling it in my feet and the they were hot and raw. I couldn’t wait for this to end.
It was quite surreal being in the jungle at night. The noises were very relaxing and the floor was moving, crawling with insects. I saw so many armies of giant ants, big ugly spiders (eyes glistening in the torch light!) frogs and bats. A few times I stopped and turned off my light to enjoy the darkness and look up at the clear night sky. It was peaceful out here on the mountain with the stars shinning through the gaps In the trees. As the trail flattened out I realised how tired I was actually becoming. I was definitely beginning to fall asleep as I ran and wobbled from side to side. At one point I saw Spencer laying on the ground next to me. I jumped awake as I almost stepped on him. He looked up and said “you alright mate?”. I was beginning to hallucinate and needed more coffee!
I stocked up on caffeine and more noodles at the aid station and carried on for the final two lumps of the race. It was working. The warm food and caffeine enabled me to run the down hill sections which were gravel tracks and road. We crossed many more suspension bridges (quite a few in dire need of repairs!) and I even passed a few runners. Before I knew it I’d covered the 10km of trail and was at the final water stop. I felt good. It felt like a long time since I’d finished a race actually running a bit. Normally I’m resigned to just walking by now! I promised a quick final stop. More coffee and I ate a whole pack of PowerUp sweets I’d had for over a year. A resealable pack, I chewed them all down. This would give me that final kick of energy. And it did. After a quick turn around I was running. I was now churning out some sub 7 minute kilometres as the watch ticked passed the 100km mark. I even ran some of the small inclines and kept the moment going. Partly I didn’t want the people I overtook catching me up. I did now wonder how far off I might be from the top ten all these hours later.
The final section felt quite disorienting and I felt like I was running around in circles. Constantly crossing bridges and looping around. As the kms ticked down I could sense the end. One volunteer I passed (checking bib numbers in) congratulated me. I smiled. He was right. I’d done this. The few km ahead were a formality. I was feeling it. Smiling. Running with confidence again.
Up ahead I saw the bright lights on the other side of the river. All very quiet, but this must have been it. The final bridge crossing. I’d read about it. You finish this side of the bridge and walk across to collect your medal. It wasn’t exactly as climatic as that for me though. There was no one there. I crossed the bridge and ran under the finish arch to total silence. At the finish line two volunteers. One checking all the mandatory kit. The other handing out the tshirts and medals. Very subdued at 05:00 in the morning! Which is always to be expected. I’d come in under 24 hours, I was very happy with that.
I walked back to the registration hall, collected my drop bag, found the driver Joanne had arranged for me and headed back to the lodge to get some sleep. In 12 hours time I’d be on a flight back to the UK and in 24 hours time I’d be heading to work, and my adventure would have sadly come to an end! What an adventure it has been though!
Joanne and Richard from Adventures in Borneo had prepared an incredible two weeks of running and adventure for us. The Planning and organisation and support from them and their team was incredible. They’d supported us through the race too. Not only with the logistics and organisation but through their advice, experiences and getting us exposed to the trails and climate beforehand. The group, now friends, who’d done the adventure all performed incredibly. When I found out the results at the half way point I was amazed. So strong and everyone had such a great time. I too had a great run and did squeeze into tenth place in the end. Unreal.
The race itself was enjoyable. I started off mentioning the difficult circumstances surround the event and I am so glad I was able to run the BUTM. The trails and route was pretty epic and the volunteers and organisation were great and helpful. The pre-race information was, if anything, too informative (detailed route instructions that you’d struggle to visualise) and as far as I could tell the whole event ran smoothly. The trail markings and directions were great and any fears I had of running through the jungle at night were not valid. I also mentioned about having to buy drinks. This was the biggest negative for me. I believe it’s intended to support the local communities but I think this can be achieved via the entrance and registration fees. It’s great that people are out providing extra support to runners, but I don’t think this should be at the expense of the provisions at the actual aid stations. This was the first ‘supported’ race I’ve done where I’ve eaten most of my own nutrition stash. There just wasn’t much at the aid stations to have (pineapple and noodles aside!). I’d definitely recommend this event and do now have my eye on their sister race ‘TMBT’ (Interpreted as either ‘The Most Beautiful Thing’ or ‘The Most Brutal Thing’ depending who you speak to!) held in August each year…