Sometimes I sign up to races and events and then a littler later on I develop a little regret for my decisions. This was one of them. And the regret was for completely pointless reasons really. I signed up to the St Peter’s Way ultra nearly two years ago and multiple delays meant it was now something I’d given very little thought too. I always knew it would come a long, but I’d just be some a little too comfortable without it.
The race was on a Sunday which just meant I’d be more tired than usual at work on the Monday and it was in Essex which is a mission to get too without a car when public transport would be more limited. What made it more of a pain was that the race started in a small town (Chipping Ongar) and finished 43 miles or so further east, on the coast of Bradwell on Sea. The regret was because I simply couldn’t be bothered with all that hassle. But, there was also a little motivation hidden in its logistics also. The organisers (Challenge Running who were amazing by the way!) put on mini buses to take runners from the finish back to the start. Only they were at roughly 3 hour intervals (it’s an hour or so round trip for the driver) and the first was at 14:30 and the last at 20:30. I wanted to make that middle bus at 17:30. That would be around a 9hr 20min finish for 43 miles. Very doable. But, yep, another catch was that the buses were on a first come first served basis. I estimated I’d need to finish around 4pm to be in with a chance of safely securing my place on that bus.
And here is how it went…
Carl and I travelled up to Harrow and stayed the night there on Saturday (yep, had two years to book accommodation near to the start and didn’t!). An Uber to the start the following morning saw us join the low-key race centre and registration located in a small carpark where we collected our bibs. The nice surprise was seeing John at the start who I didn’t realise was running and that he’d done this race before. We chatted a bit and wished each other well for the adventure. The ongoing theme for the day would be me and Carl spending the hours calculating the chances of making the bus. We’d started straightaway sizing up the field of 80 or so runners lining up at the race briefing.
With an uncharacteristic (for a trail race) “on your marks, get set, go!” we joined the runners in an initial single line through the narrow track and the first of many (many!) kissing gates (and stiles) that we’d encounter throughout the day. We’d read about the ‘mud’ of the route and it was apparent early on. The route went through so many fields, massive green fields that were very soft underfoot. They started off nicely and began progressively getting more and more muddy. As always the worst parts were straight after you climb over a sty and then enter the field.
During the race briefing we’d been advised that much of the initial section of the route (with 4 aid stations the route was split into 5 sections each with hand written instructions to follow the route – we stuck to a gpx file!) had changed from previous years and to our benefit we’d be following more closely the original footpath to the at peters chapel. Early on we saw splits in runners going different directions in the fields. We stuck to our route and later chatted to a multi time finisher who confirmed we were indeed following the new and correct route.
As the day progressed we got to experience the great hospitality and support at the aid stations. As we crossed progressively muddier fields and, towards the second aid station, we found ourselves running more and more on our own as the field spread out. We passed through some lovely little villages and also along the Blackwater marina of Maylandsea which broke up the route slightly as we began to leave the muddy fields behind.
It was here we stared to sense we were close to the coast and that all (all 400m!) of elevation was behind us. Yep. Essex is indeed pretty flat. We then came into the final aid station where there we a handful of other runners and we were shortly joined by a chap called Alex who was running his furthest distance to date and had taken a few wrong turns trying to follow the hand written instructions. He tagged along with me and Carl for the remainder of the race.
We let him know our thoughts for the bus. We estimated that only a small fraction of runners would not start, not finish or would have family and a lift from the finish. We assumed that it would be a 15 seater minibus and that therefore we’d probably want to be in the top 35-40 finishers to get on that 17:30 bus. We also didn’t want to bust a gut to finish around 4pm and have to wait until 20:30 to begin the journey home!! Alex was more relaxed and went with the flow and chatted away to us. It was refreshing chatting to Alex and adding a third person to the conversations and hearing about his experience of the day and his runs – he’ll soon be heading off to the Sahara to tackle the Marathon Des Sables. Good luck to him on that beast!
Towards the end of the route we ran along a sea wall. In the distance was a building that we thought could be the finish line (St Peter’s Chapel). It did, from a distance, look way too modern, although we did estimate it was probably the few km away that corresponded with our distance covered. We Were hopeful that the end was in sight!
Also in the distance we’re two other runners. We were tempted to try and leg it after them, but realistically it was beyond us. We wondered if our presence was enough motivation for them to keep pushing to the end too. Either way we continued our run walk strategy which had served us well over the last 8 miles or so.
A few final turns and we could clearly see that the building was indeed the chapel and finish line as the runners ahead turned inland and headed directly to it. Shortly after then the three of us crossed the line and received our welcome from Lyndsey (the RD) and secured our space on the bus. We made it!
In the end we finished just under 8 hours and in positions 31 -33. It went almost exactly to plan. Our estimates were slightly off though as only 4 runners made that first bus and we secured 3 of the remaining 5 seats on the 17:30 and we only just secured our spot – There were 5 other runners who finished within 10 mins of us. I felt bad for them and glad we kept pushing to the end. we had just enough time to ‘cleanup’ and grab some food in the shelter of the Chapel – outside the temperature was rapidly dropping. And what a Chapel it was, a very unique finish to a race indeed!
Our adventure didn’t quite end there as on arrival back in Chipping Ongar it became apparent that taxis were going to be difficult (we were told we’d have a 3 hour race) and the next bus was a bit of a slow journey towards Epping. By pure chance, after a trip to a petrol station for some food, we once more bumped into Alex who very kindly gave us a lift back into London! What a gent! Thanks again Alex!
As always, despite my trepidation about the event, I thoroughly enjoyed it and, as always, loved the experience of running somewhere new. Although I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it quite as much if I didn’t have Carl by my side throughout to cheer me up through all the mud. Coincidentally this was 2 days short of two years since we first met, in Borneo running with Maverick Race! Happy anniversary Borneo Carl.
‘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!!