In the shadow of Bran Castle, night time home of the legendary Count Dracula, on the outskirts of the Bucegi Natural park, we gather in the castle grounds, a few hundred eager runners waiting to a techno remixed beat of the theme music from Game of Thrones. The darkness is ours and it’s almost time to run the Transylvania 100k. A race that has been on my wish list since I started ultra running.
We set off out of the castle gates and along the main road before turning onto an unsealed road that was long and gradually inclined. We continued along until the foot of the mountains and stepped into the forest. The trails hit us with an immediate change in gradient and fresh smells front the pine trees and morning songs from the birds. It was enchanting.
From about 6km in, the trails became steeper again and my breaths were becoming more pronounced. The climb was long but broken up as we emerged into an opening above the trees before climbing along the side of the mountains. The views were spectacular as we traversed the first of many snow slopes.
The further we climbed the more the clag set in and visibility dropped. We were greeted at a timing point by some Marshalls who were blowing whistles, I assume to signal their whereabouts. I was with Carl and we decided this was a good time to layer up. We were glad of the wind to cool us down but we were now rather high up in the mountains!
We then proceeded to descend. The terrain was slippery with the snow. The trails were single track and narrow. We carefully placed our feet in the footprints of runners who had tread the path before us, crisscrossing our steps. The descent hit some forest and became very steep and difficult to descend due to sharp rocks and narrow gaps.
We emerged to the sound of a vuvuzela (an irritating sound!) being blown as we arrived at the first aid station. The aid station was understandable busy but well stocked with a variety of salty and sweet offerings. We took a moment to take on some fuel knowing that a ‘bit of a climb’ was coming our way. We started talking to a camera man. He welcomed us to the race and told us a little of the mountains and Omu – the peak we would soon visit. He pointed to the monster looming in the clouds to our left. He told us it was raining up top and that it was ‘like hell up there’ (where we were going). He laughed. We laughed nervously too, but we could tell he was being very serious.
From the aid station the climbing started straightaway. First easy along some rocks then long, slow treks along the snow fields at Tiganesti. I remember commenting how still everything was. The air. The sounds. It was like a vast emptiness. Just nothing. It was ever so peaceful and strangely hypnotic. We saw a paw print that we hoped was a bear (I did want to see one!). We were edging closer to the infamous Hornul Mare chimney (the iconic line up to Omu from the Malaiesti Valley). It’s notorious for its steep, difficult ascent with a gradient close to 50degrees. No picture will do it justice.
We decided to ‘spike up’ and put on our micro spikes. So glad we did. We could see other runners struggling without. We started chatting to a Dutch guy who was equally pleased he brought his spikes with him.
As we reached the bottom of the chimney it’s majesty was hidden in the mist. Perhaps a good thing. It took a while to climb. Up top a photographer greeted those who triumphed and climbed the beast. The smiles and jubilations where clearly seen on everyone’s faces. The views, despite being limited by the clouds were still pretty great.
After reaching Omu we began descending. First carefully along little snow slopes. Then as we got lower and the sun came out the trails dried into hard tracks with big rocks to scramble over. I started getting cramp in my hamstring. I knew I needed to up my fuelling when we next stopped!
As the trails became greener we did a little bushwhacking and later reached a river crossing and a wooden rope bridge that was very wobbly. A few of the 50km lead runners started passing us. This blew my mind. They’d completed the first big climb and the chimney section in about 2 hours compared to our 5 and a bit. How the hell did they climb the chimney so quickly?! From here a short jog to the next aid station. I checked my watch and timings and we were pretty much bang on the estimated time of arrival here.
From this point the routes went different ways. So at 27km it was time to say good bye to Carl as he went off on the 80km. My Climb started easy enough as we followed dirt tracks back towards the mountains with great views ahead of the snow capped peaks. Further up the roar of a beautiful waterfall started to dominate the air. To its right was another steep beast of a snow climb. I put the spikes back on and set off for it.
Up top, once conquered, it was a case of traversing more long snow fields as we made the way back towards Omu for a second summit. This time it started to get very steep. There were lots of runners up ahead in the distance. I managed to get passed some who didn’t have spikes and were struggling in the snow. Before the steepest part of the climb it started raining. It only rained for about 20-30 minutes but it was enough to dampen the mood. I thought that might be it and that it would rain non-stop as storms were forecast for later in the day.
As I was nearing the top of the climb I was confused. There were runners going in both directions. The confusion was because we joined the bit of route we previously came down along from Omu. I tried going the wrong way but was told off. I laughed with the Marshalls back at Omu summit when I questioned if we went that way earlier. Anyway. Time to descend the mountain again…
Here things went a little sour. The route down was spectacular but just snow slopes. Steep ones. I started down tentatively. Trying to find the best and safest line between the snowy sections and connecting to those rocks/paths not covered in snow. To the best I could I would follow runners ahead.
After a little while I was following two guys tentatively crossing a little snow slope. They both slipped slightly. Then I slipped more. I went down. At first I wasn’t worried, thinking my spikes and/or poles would help stop me. But I started gaining momentum. My poles hit the snow. They dug in deep and snapped as my momentum carried me on faster and faster. One went pop then moments later the other did the same. One pole ripped the glove (Leki glove system) off my hand, the other pole snapped clean off at the lower section). I saw a mound of rock and thought it would stop me. It didn’t. I was propelled in the air. I thought this might end badly. Somehow, I came to a stop. I don’t know how, but I did thankfully. It took a few moments to compose myself and then I made the decision to start climbing back up to the track and retrieve the broken poles rather than trying to traverse across and guess where to join the path somewhere different. I felt it might be safer to at least get back to where I think I should have been. As I slowly climbed back up I had to dig one pole out as it was wedged so deep. The other part of the broken one was lost deep in the snow somewhere.
Up top I was angry that I had broken more poles (this is my third set in two years!) But it fired me up to finish. I was 35km in and had a long way to go. Next we had a few hundred meters of descent to make. It was all sketchy and I slipped many more times. No where near as bad as before though! Sometimes I thought about just jumping on my arse and sliding down. But that was far too risky. It was difficult to find the way even when my momentum was under my control. Eventually I managed to cross at the bottom and was back on trails. I came across another chap with two broken poles too. He didn’t have spikes like I did, so I was in a better place!
I felt a little energised and jogged a little as the tracks took us along a combination of forests and snow crossings at lower level. I missed some turns several times as the tape markings were sometimes difficult to spot. We then had maybe about 5 km through forests. It was lovely. I was running well and felt a little better, I was certainly glad the hell of Omu was behind us.
Somewhere in the forest I stumbled across a little miracle. There was a black diamond pole just resting against a tree. I called out a few times and no one answered. So I decided to take it with me. Either I’d find the owner and be able to reunite them, or I’d benefit from having one pole. The forest was sometimes difficult to navigate. I met another guy who missed a hand written ‘turn right’ sign and I had to call after him. We turned off the path onto a grassy stretch. It was very easy to miss. We came to the aidstation at 45km in. I had noodle soup and changed some clothes. I made a very conscious decision not to change my socks. This was a silly mistake that would later bite me hard.
I set back out. Maybe 30 mins my behind my estimated schedule. Not bad considering the trauma. 45km done but still a long way to go. I decided to keep the spikes with me for safety (turned out I wouldn’t need them again) as we still had two climbs where we’d be above 2000m. From the aid station it was more forests (and wrong turns) and a massive climb back up to Piatra Arsa. In the forest I found a stick. Almost perfect for hiking / running with. I felt confident now I had two sticks of some sort again, despite their differences in size! I kept telling myself that once this climb was done, the bulk of the elevation would be overcome. We’d done over 3500 in the first 40km!
The climb was long and slow. I came across a group of Polish people I’d be running near for the most of the race. We rested part way up the climb and I took in the views and admired all the old rusty infrastructure (cable cars or mining cars?). Eventually the climb came out in top of the mountain. it felt like it took an age to climb. It was so hot and humid in the forest.
Up top required a bit more bush whacking along some snow lined tracks. The trees were a pain to push passed! Another aidstation with heavy techno music awaited just around the corner. I had some more pasta and coke and set off again. We were on top of the mountain and it was windy and misty. The route took us over and around a summit. Then we started descending. The terrain was now very British like. Similar to being in Brecon or somewhere. Very lumpy tufts of grass. It wasn’t particularly comfortable to run on but was by far one of the better parts of the course so far. It was a fairly easy down hill, pretty straight down the hill and then a skip (jump) over a river before more hill running.
At about 60km we hit the first bit of road in the race. And that was just to cross it. Crazy how ‘on trail’ the race is. 60km of purely trail is impressive. On the other side we soon entered more forests, running down hill with the head torches out as it was pretty pitch black in the dense forest. A Scottish guy soon caught us. He refused to get his torch out and kept running into trees. The trees in all the forests were a pain as they had sharp, stick like branches protruding and would stab you at any opportunity if you got too close. As would the fallen ones we had to hurdle over. So many of these throughout the run!
We then emerged out of the forest and into the aid station at the lake in Bolbuci. I had two slices of pizza and loads of coke here. I wasn’t really eating between aid stations any longer. I wasn’t too hungry but just didn’t fancy my foods. From here it was a long stretch to Moieciu de Sus. It started with a few km on road. The only road section! Before more forest climbing. Up into the mountains where there were flashing lights to help guide us in the mist of the night. Visibility was very poor and we’d be lost without the lights. It was a few km traversing the mountain top and passed the peak of Tataru and the marshal check point before a technical descent. It was a little sketchy crossing the cliff edges with limited visibility to begin descending.
Once we had though it was more forests. We passed some more people. I fell in the forest slipping on a rock. My lower back hit the rock and my fore arm a log on the ground. It hurt. Once back up we soon were on a wide fire/access track. I remembered this from our walk the day before. I started jogging consistently. Probably covered a few km before I had enough and started walking again. At the end, as we reached the car park area, we left the road and started climbing.
It was a steep climb. This whole section was disorienting in the dark. We climbed then navigated along the top. There were lights off in the distance which I thought might be an aidstation. I know from the day before we’d have to back up in the hills near where we left the access road. I was confused and trying to guess where two aid stations would be. We crossed behind farm land and through many horse fields. Needing to climb over fences to enter and exit each. The descent wasn’t as bad as it looked on the route profile. I think that was helped a little by the diversion. Rather than dropping straight down to the aid station we carried on around onto a road and walked maybe 500m along it to the aid station. It was a fairly quick turn around after some pasta as I tried to keep up with the group of Polish runners who now had about 3-4 other ‘hanger ons’ with them.
It was a steep climb through more forests and fields to the other side. It was hot in the night. After some time we were back were I recalled form the previous day’s walk. Running passed the picnic bench, the abandoned hut and joining the trail with the 50k route. Steady dirt track hiking for a few km to the next and final aid station.
I was confused by the remaining distance as the map profile and my watch were very different. Although I knew clocked a few extra kms with the diversion and getting lost. I checked the route in my Coros which said about 13km to go. This felt more accurate than then route profile that suggested more like 20k.
All along this section my eyes were starting to close. I was swaying side to side and was very tired, waiting for the caffeine to hit. I was contemplating a Power Nap at the aid station. It was just a tent on the mountain side though and nothing for me to take refuge in. The Poles left too quickly for me to follow. I ate and drank and then left a few minutes later. The track carried on a little longer before a nasty steep climb in the forest that got the heart rate higher. I was so warm now. And fed up of climbing over fallen trees. I stopped and took off my wind proof and arm sleeves. I needed to feel the cold. Thankfully the caffeine was kicking in and the morning light was starting to dominate. I wasn’t so sleepy any longer.
From the forests the downhill towards Bran started. More forest and some very steep muddy descents. Gravity was pulling me down with a stumble. After 40+k of running on battered feet each step was painful. As too was my right quad which was very limiting in my movement. After what felt like an eternity I got through the mud.
We left the mud behind and annoyingly started to climb again up a gravel road. Up along the top were fantastic views of red roof houses and green farms. It was stunning first thing in the morning. There was a photographer. My watch indicated 3 km to go finally. Finally less than an hour left to run. I plodded on painfully. Then one last steep forest descent and we emerged into the car park of the sports hall where we registered. 600m along the busy main road to go. Only we were diverted to the grounds of Bran Castle. Weaving through the houses and gardens up the steps and round to the front of the castle to the finish line. I walked slowly with the stick. A small gathering of people clapping and Cheering. I thanked them. I crossed the line and lifted my stick triumphantly in the air. I was so glad to have finished. Ale, Carl and Nick soon came to collect me and help me back to the hotel. they’d each finished their races too.
Poles – I’m annoyed I’ve broken another set. Especially as I’ve only used these ones once before. Finding another and a decent stick definitely helped me overcome the last 60km!!
The 100km route has a very tough first 40km. The double summit of Omu is bad enough but the effort of the Chimney climb and the technicality of the second descent was exhausting.
I was obviously not thinking clearly when I received the drop bag at 45km. I knew my feet were wet and sore. I consciously decided not to dry them, nor change socks. I had some rationale why but it was definitely a bad mistake. Post race, my feet were in possibly the worst state ever – besides some trench foot I counter 10 blisters on one foot (the biggest one being the size of my thumb!).
I’m not sure why just one quad hurts so badly (restricting movement) perhaps I landed on it after my slip and air time?
The Aid stations were great. Each one had helpful volunteers and a good variety of food and and options. Sour worms were a delight for me.
The Bucegi mountains are spectacular a great place to run
The chimney is one hell of a climb and experience one needs to have!
It feels strange. I feel like I should be experiencing some form of runner’s high, but I’m not. I don’t quite know how to describe it, it almost feels like I’ve travelled back in time to a lesser experienced version of my running self…
I’m putting it down to a few things. Firstly, for a few years now I’ve been going from one race to another, month after month and often week after week. After breaking my ankle during the UTMB in September, I’ve not had a big running adventure for 3 months. I’ve barely run in that time. So my fitness has gone on a little holiday and I felt more like I did when I first started running ultras, things felt unfamiliar and hurt more than I am now used too. Add to that I’ve also not planned any further races for a while whilst I recover, so the mind and focus hasn’t immediately switched to the next challenge.
Secondly, The Cheviot Goat has been lingering on the horizon for quite sometime, almost 3 years since I first signed up early in 2020 it has been taunting me. Last year we got as far as going to the race location when it was cancelled (due to the aftermath of storm Arwen) and running our own (much shorter!) adventure around the Cheviots – the lesser ‘Cheviot Mutton’ as we dubbed it. So the Cheviot Goat has for a long time been on the ‘Ones that got away‘ list. Last year’s run, whilst great for experiencing the terrain and climate, kind of put me off doing the actual race a little.
So here I was, lining up for a race that I could no longer be bothered with, and really had limited confidence in how I’d physically cope. 9 weeks of rest and 4 weeks of short, easy running (most of which were on roads) was not the build up required to put me in a place where I was excited and looking forward to this run. Thankfully though I was fully prepared for it to be tough and knew I’d get through it somehow. I don’t give up, I won’t give up and I had Jon and Yvette to run with (assuming I could keep pace with them).
The logistics of the race were almost identical to the year before, we even stayed in the same AirBnB in Wooler (and ate in the same restaurant, possibly even the same order for me (minus the dessert!)). We registered the night before and felt the cold in the air as we checked in with the Mountain Rescue volunteers (showing our emergency kit – it is mandatory to have warm layers sealed in a waterproof bag for this event which you can’t use to run in, as well as a bivvy bag – foil blankets won’t do shit out here!) and received our bib numbers and trackers. 10 hours later we were back at the start and ready to go.
For 2022 the route had been changed from previous years. We’d benefit from two aid stations with drop bags (roughly at 20 miles and 40 miles), however as a trade off the route was slightly longer and with more elevation. It didn’t matter that much to me, I had everything I needed and even put a complete change of kit into each drop bag. I was covered for all eventualities. The weather forecast was good, surprisingly good. For a race usually taking place in minus temperatures and either snow or rain, we had sunny spells forecast pretty much throughout and the only minus temperatures were “feels like” temperatures on the higher summits like the Cheviot itself. So I started in shorts. I wasn’t alone in this, there were a few others like me who no doubt overheat quickly and don’t really feel the cold in the legs. I had tights and longer waterproof socks in my first aid station and my plan was to change into these when we arrived there. On top I had a t-shirt and a merino base layer on with my super lightweight OMM sonic smock to keep the wind off. I started questioning my decision a little looking around at the thick down jackets and long trousers and water proof bobble hats many others were sporting at the start line. But I was more distracted by judging people’s footwear choice. I’d opted for the Adidas Terrex Soft Ground. They have absolutely naff all cushioning or support but mega grip. I wore them last year for the 50km we did and they filled me with confidence. I’d hoped to get my cushioning from the soft, boggy terrain. I was surprised to see many runners in more ‘normal’ trail shoes, with plenty of Hokas and Salomon shoes to be seen. I even saw someone in a pair of Brooks road shoes. This I wasn’t expecting!
Anyway, enough people judging. We were directed under the orange glow of the Montane starting arch and soon set off. The route began with a slow steady climb over the first few km to Cochrane Pike. Way off in the distance we could see headlamps disappearing into the darkness as we walked steadily. For the first hour or so it drizzled on and off. This meant I was pulling my waterproof jacket out, then not long later stopping to take off the windproof from underneath as I was too hot. Then stopping again to remove it when the rain stopped. I was fussing. I couldn’t settle. So far so good though. The first 10km or so the terrain was delightful. It was wet, but firm underfoot with very few areas of concern and we were able to cover the undulating route with ease in the darkness until the sun started to break as we ran towards and along Wether Cairn, the highest point in the first section of the race. From here we had a lovely runnable section as we descended. The last part of the descent down to the road was rather steep, but caused no issues. From here we snaked along the road before starting an ascent on the other side.
Jon and Yvette were doing a sterling job of navigating (I was being selfish and hadn’t turned on my own navigation route) and kept us on track when some runners further ahead missed a turn. We all joined back up though pretty much straightaway. I think it was somewhere along this section that we first encountered the bogs. I recall a few sections of relatively flat routes (between the climbs/descents) where we hoping from bog to bog for a while. It wasn’t easy. We don’t train for jumping. Whilst you could easily navigate around the majority, some required a leap of faith. As a bang average height male, none of the jumps were particularly challenging for me, but I couldn’t do that continuously for the rest of the run! We managed to navigate them with nothing more than soggy feet, or rather soggy socks thanks to wearing waterproof socks! It made me think that the stories you hear are all a little bit exaggerated. You’d either have to completely mis-time a leap (feasible!) or be intentionally looking to go into a bog more than knee high. Unless you are running super quickly without time to think/adjust direction or are running with your eyes closed, the bogs aren’t anywhere near as bad as people like to make out. Either way, we’d survived the first bog section and soon completed a few more climbs and descents and were somewhere near Barrowburn, where the aid station would be.
As we were approaching Barrowburn, the day was glorious. It was cold, but it certainly wasn’t anywhere near as cold as I’d expected. I’d been running in two thin layers all morning and only put my liner gloves on when we were bog hoping. With a few more hours of daylight ahead, I felt I could get away without changing into the tights for a bit longer. So planned to just eat and change my socks at the aid station. Arriving at the aid station we headed inside and took the risk of sitting on the comfy sofa whilst the volunteers served us warm soup and bread rolls. Perfect. I struggled to get the fresh socks on and we probably stayed here a little longer than planned. With a long climb to Windy Gyle to follow though we weren’t concerned by the length of our rest and knew it was time well spent to set us up for the next section which, arguably, would be the longest and toughest of the course. Refreshed we headed back out. Despite the sunshine, I added the OMM layer back on top. We were heading towards Scotland after all!
The section to Windy Gyle was delightful too. Slow steady climbs, mostly dry tracks to follow with some undulations. The views here though were fantastic with clear skies showing the rolling hills for as far as the eyes could see. The best bits though were numerous rainbows of insane clarity and brightness. I feel like we passed through the end of rainbows several times. No need for pots of golds though with the fulfilling views we had!
From Windy Gyle, before the section in Scotland we had a short stint along the Pennine Way and the infamous slabs (or Flag Stones – I did get side tracked on the way home reading about the difference between slabs and flags and still don’t know which is the correct term to use). These aren’t too enjoyable to run on. I think some runners do like it, but I’m not one of them. Hard, slippery and uneven, they aren’t particularly fun to run along. Yet they serve a purpose (or many!) particularly on the section later on to the Cheviot Summit which really do keep you away from the bogs. Once we reached the end of the planned route along the slabs we were welcomed to Scotland by the Mountain Rescuer Team (there were numerous points marshalled by mountain rescue on this route. They were all so friendly and helpful and really did keep all runners safe out on the course) and directed off the Pennine way towards the Farm at Cocklawfoot. As we navigated through the farm we were a little confused as there were a few ways the route could go and some signage which we weren’t sure was for us or not. We followed the GPS route and were soon confident we were heading the right direction as the climb towards the Cheviot began.
The climb to the Cheviot summit is the only section of the route we covered on our adventure the year before. We were approaching from a different route this time, but would join up at the Mountain Rescue Hut (Auchope Rigg) for the actual ascent. Like last year, we stopped at the hut for a little break and opportunity to adjust our kit. We sat in the hut chatting to two local lads as we layered up (waterproof on now as it hard started raining as well as warmer waterproof gloves and mittens overtop!) and ate. Chicken and chorizo empanadas for me, wraps for Jon and Yvette (yep, I was keeping pace with them so far!). This is ultra running! As we pressed back on and began the climb it started to Snow, just like it did the previous year, only not as heavy. Annoyingly though it was head on which was a little awkward as it meant I was head down trying to climb. Still until this point we’d been absolutely spoilt with the weather. We were making decent time too and should be able to get off the Cheviot before the sun started to go down. As we overcame the bulk of the climb, the snow eased off and we were rewarded with incredible sunset views over the glistening white hills.
The one thing we learnt from last year was that, once the climb was over, you are still not at the summit! There is a section of a few kilometres along the slabs again before you reach the actual Cheviot summit. Last year it was frustrating. This year it was a known formality. We’d go out along the stones and ‘tag’ the summit before returning along the same track and then descending a different direction. So along we went, cheered on by the Mountain Rescue team who were manning the turning at the return point. The section was dull. There aren’t many things you can truthfully say about it in a greying December evening. Its like some parallel universe from a sci-fi film, just bleak and cold. To your left and right, as far as you can see in the clag are dark bogs broken up only by glistening white snow on the firm sections. Deviate from the slabs and it is likely you’ll get pretty wet. From time to time slabs were ‘missing’, presumably consumed by the bogs. We gingerly crossed them, hoping they were just covered by a layer of water rather than missing altogether. The traverse was slow as we’d stop and give way to runners coming in the other direction. Eventually we reached the summit Trig Point, grabbed a team photo and then set back off towards the marshals.
And here, a little over halfway through at 55 kilometres, things began to get hard…..
We were in good spirits and in pretty good condition. Yvette seemed completely fine, Jon was starting to experience some knee/calf pains and my biggest issue were my left metatarsals hurting, which I think was a shoe/laces issue (I was constantly having to stop and re-tie the laces on the Adidas SGs which kept coming loose – perhaps a design flaw with the flat lace design?). Mentally we were happy, but that all started to change as we descended. The initial part of the descent was rocky. Whhhyyy. Rocks are my nemesis, why I do mountain ultras I do not know. The rocks were small, loose and very slippery. We were very slow to cover this section and to reach more forgiving terrain. Here Jon realised that it was the descents that were aggravating his knee/calf. Whilst the descent ended pretty quickly, it was probably the last time we ran as the ‘flat’ section towards BloodyBush Edge was just wet, boggy and covered in tussocks. The lumpy grass meant we were slow, rolling our feet and angles, bobbing from side to side and trying to avoid ploughing straight into a bog. The headlamps were out by now and runners around us were complaining they couldn’t feel their feet they were so cold (post race there were murmurs that one runner finished with a single shoe and hadn’t realised he lost one because his feet were so cold!). Waterproof socks were proving to be wise choice though as our feet were only cold when fully submerged in water,
The trek felt like it went on for ages, passing the next set of Mountain Rescue marshals as we ascended the short climb to Bloodybush Edge. This was by far my least favourite section of the race so far. From here we headed along an ‘ok’ kind of track towards Cushat Law where we began to descend again towards the next aid station at High Bleakhope. We left the track at Cushat Law and were going ‘off piste’, wandering around in the darkness trying to roughly align with our gps route. We weren’t the only ones. Head torches seemed to face all directions in the darkness and every now and then another head torch would join up with us from somewhere else and say “not that direction”. ‘Bleak Hope’ is a rather apt name for the location were we found ourselves at this point in the race! There was one runner who’d done the March edition (a one off event) and kind of knew where he was going and said we should join up with a quad track somewhere, which we eventually did. From here it was a little jog into the second aid station.
This aid station was in an open barn. There was a fire pit outside and chairs inside. We sat down and went to work. I stuffed my face with crisps, mini eggs, biscuits and a warm cup of coffee. I then decided to swap my thin lioner gloves for a drier pair (hoping they’d add a little more warmth), add a buff to my neck and swap the one on my head for a thin merino hat. This along with refilling my bottles and adjusting my bag seemed to take an age and Jon and Yvette were patiently waiting for me. I first needed to re-tie my laces (again) and then warm my hands by the fire before putting the gloves back on. Which also took an age as my fingers seemed to have swelled and didn’t easily fit back in. We did eventually leave and I was lifted by the knowledge that from here we would finish. I joked that I always say if you get to the last check point/aid station then you can get to the end. It amused me that the second aid station was also the last one on this race. Admittedly there was still a very long way to go and more bogs and obstacles lay in wait!
We had another climb straight from the aid station and then a reasonable descent. I think my mind switched off at this point as all I remember is a section where we had to turn left, only there was no way through thick, knee height heather. So for what felt like a very long time we were bimbling along lifting our tired legs high and then sinking further down than expected as the ground below disappeared. It was energy sapping. Like much of the course since we left the Cheviot, it was difficult to generate any sort of momentum even when walking. The uneven ground meant your stride was constantly interrupted with a wobble to the side or a rocking backwards motion. It required a lot of concentration to try and keep moving forward! A little later, we descended alongside a fence line down to a river where we found two head torches in the darkness pacing back and forth trying to find a way across. They’d seen other runners come this way but couldn’t see where they crossed. A small committee formed as maybe 7 or 8 of us looked for a way. Another runner joined on the other side of the fence and I climbed over and we found a place to cross a littler further along. From this point it was a very, very wet and muddy climb as we started to make our way towards Hedgehope Hill (the second highest point on the route).
Underneath us was some semblance of a man made path, some honeycomb type carpet laid out to try and provide some protection from the bogs. For the most part it was ankle deep below the surface of the water/mud and I remember it bouncing as we walked. At this point I’d given up all desire to navigate around any bogs or attempt to leap over them and was playing roulette trudging straight through. It wasn’t that bad though and once more I never lost my legs to anything more than kneed high.
As we approached the last ‘big’ climb up to Hedgehope, the snow started to fall, again head on. We’d been lucky and it had only rained a few times for short periods, once it was sleet and a few more light dustings of snow. With each though I was looking down at my feet to see where I was going and now my shoulders and neck were starting to ache. I hoped it wouldn’t last long. Thankfully by the time we completed the climb it cleared up and we were able to begin the descent. Albeit slowly as it was yet another slow trek as we navigated the mud and random broken fence posts sticking up out of the ground. For a small deviation we somehow left the path and went off on a tangent and had to trudge along a lumpy section to find our way back on course. I’d realise we went wrong on this section because I’d been following the muddy foot prints of previous runners, where the snow had been melted, to navigate around the bogs. What I hadn’t realised was I was soon following a single set of foot prints belonging to the runner ahead who’d made the wrong turn!
Somewhere along this descent Yvette and Jon mentioned we still had about 10km to go. This broke me a little as I felt like it should have been a lot less by then. We started a climb (I assume somewhere around Dunmoor Hill) which we all assumed was the last climb towards the end of the race, it wasn’t. This was also very rocky and slowed us down somewhat. A few km later at the bottom of the long descent, we caught a bigger group of runners and all got lost together. In the darkness with our tiredness we were all struggling to identify the correct way and would stop every now and then to climb a fence (there was a lot of fence climbing on this route!) to get back on track. Sometimes we’d be leading, sometimes others would be leading. Progress was slow and our moans and groans were becoming more audible. We eventually emerged on a road section and were cheered on by some more marshals. I felt the finish was imminent, but it wasn’t. We were now at Brough Law. The last climb and still a few kilometres from the finish line. Here we were circumnavigating Brough Law and not climbing over it. Jon and another lady were leading the way and pointed out we needed to climb a little higher onto a rocky path. We were ever so slightly scrambling now. Bloody rocks. Most of the pack left us and bum-skidded down and onto some greener tracks. They powered ahead. We continued on the rocky track and eventually emerged behind them on the climb.
After the ascent, as we descended for the last time it dawned on us how long we’d been out there. Yvette pointed out we’d been going for over 19 hours. We were hoping to be finished sometime between 10pm and midnight. I was now nearing 2 am. Bugger, it was going to be an exhausting journey home the next day! Not too long after our whinge at the time, we were back onto a sealed road and Yvette powered on ahead and Jon started running. He could sense the finish. I couldn’t give a shit at this point. We’d been walking for hours, I had no desire to run and finish minutes sooner. I plodded on behind them, passed some parked cars, over Ingram Bridge and onto the gravel track that led around the back to the Café, the finish line. Jon and Yvette waited for me and we walked through the Montane arches, into the café to finish the race together. Ben was waiting for us (legend, coming out in the middle of the night to support us) and we were handed our medals and had a finishers picture taken. We then went inside where Ben brought us all hot soap and bread.
We stayed as long as we could before the risk of falling asleep on the table became real. We collected our drop bags and Jon drove us back to Wooler where a warm shower and a cosy bed was waiting…
Let’s start with the ankle. It hurt the next day. I wasn’t sure if I’d done more damage and needed to wait until the ‘pains’ of the run settled before confirming if it was actually a problem with the ankle again or just the exertion of running 95km. Thankfully I think it was the later.
I didn’t come out of it completely unscathed though. I think I might have pulled both hamstrings a little. A week later and I still have two fist sized black bruises, one on each hamstring. For a few days afterwards I was in pain trying to walk/bend my legs. No idea how I managed that.
Mentally all is good. I started off writing about how I wasn’t arsed about this race. I think that somewhere during the last 3 years I’d built this event into a monster in my head. Severe weather, difficult terrain etc. Don’t get me wrong, it is very tough, but this year I’ve done a few races that have been beyond tough in comparison. So overall it wasn’t anywhere near as hard as I thought it would be. Mostly mild weather throughout and no waist high bog incidents. So a winner! Having good kit certainly helped!
For comparison though, runners who’d done previous versions of the route were indicating there was maybe an hour or two extra duration this year in their times. I’d expected close to 18 hours (and last year was even thinking 15 hours!) and it took us 20 hours, so timewise it would suggest it was tougher than I’d planned. And, for further comparison, this year Jon did the Lakeland 50 (another notoriously hard 50 miler) in 13 hours. This was almost 50% longer in duration.
I think the think I struggled with most was the disorientation of the darkness. Whenever we looked up, in all directions you could see head torches coming and going. It was difficult to get a bearing and a sense of where you’d come from or where you were going. For me this made navigation that little bit harder.
So despite the ‘bla-ness’ I’m experiencing post race, I’m bloody happy. Happy to have finally done the Cheviot Goat, happy that my ankle might be ok, happy that I didn’t get frost bite or sink to a slow, cold death in a bog and very happy to have had the company of Jon and Yvette throughout. Running with likeminded friends always makes it easier and these are two of the best running buddies you could ask for on an adventure.
Huge thanks to Coldbrew Events for putting on this bastard and to the Mountain rescue Teams for supporting us throughout.
When recapping my last race I mentioned how, during the Eiger Ultra Trail E101, I fell over for the first time in a race. We’ll I think it was a floodgate moment. In my next race I must have fallen about 50 times, no exaggeration, I spent a lot of time on my backside in Norway…
The Stranda Fjord Trail Race in Norway had been on the cards for a long time. Originally I signed up to the race back in 2019 and hoped to do the inaugural 100km run in 2020. But we all know what happened that year and the same cause meant 2021 also wasn’t possible for us. Oscar, the Race Director, was incredibly supportive in deferring entries until we could travel to Norway and race. So in 2022, a slightly smaller than planned group of us headed out to finally run in the fjells of Norway.
In the days leading up to the weekend it became increasingly clear that the weather was going to be less than ideal for the race. Clouds and rain meant a weather warning and amendments to the 100km route were activated for safety. At this point I was kind of ok with it. We can’t control or change the weather, and I was expecting the route to be very difficult. So removing some of the most difficult sections would be in my favour I thought. A small benefit to missing out on the legendary panoramic views from Slogen.
Nick and Natalia woke at 1am to escort me down to the town of Stranda for the start. An unnecessary and kind gesture from them both given they would need to wake up in a few hours to prepare for their 48km race. After collecting my GPS tracker I sat inside the building (where we collected our race numbers) with the other runners, waiting until it was almost 02:00 and time to run. We first lined up under the finishers arch before being led around the corner to the real start line. Here I fell for the first time, stepping in a hole in the concrete pavement, before the race had even begun!
Section 1: Start –Duklidalen
The course starts on the town square in Stranda. From Stranda you will first be running a few km on a asphalt road until you hit the trailhead on Framhus. From Framhus you will be running on a nice trail up to Dregetua (693) and then off trail over to Vardnakken (878masl) and further to Blåhornsvatnet on trail. From Blåhornsvatnet you will be running on a nice trail down to Vasset. From Vasset you will be running a few km on a gravel road until you hit the trailhead for the trail towards Lievarden (799masl) and Duklidalen (820masl). In Duklidalen you will find an aid station.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
Moments later and we were off, running the tarmac road switch backs for the first few kms. I was pleasantly surprised at this point that we stuck together mostly as one big group of runners and that I hadn’t been left behind completely.
The roads soon gave way to the forest and we began running in single file in the darkness. And it was very dark, something about it felt darker than the usual nights I’ve experienced. Though the trails were clearly lit by the dozens of head torches bobbing about.
Mostly it was silent now other than the sloshing sounds as we ran through puddles and muddy trails. I felt that most runners were, like me, trying to avoid getting their feet wet. I accepted that it would be wet but didn’t plan on being waterlogged for the whole race so was happy to skip around the trails when I could. I should have known better that weeks of rain in this area would have meant the ground conditions would be far worse than I imagined! It was soon clear that the trails would consistently be this way at the best of times.
Through the forests two things stood out in my memory. Almost getting lost – the spacing between runners was now increasing and a few of us lost sight of the runners ahead of us and this section was not course marked. A quick stop and check of the GPS and we were back on track before the damage was done! And a point where there was a delightful bunch of supporters with coloured lights and music who cheered us through one small section of the track. It created a good atmosphere and led to a few of us to start talking. Whilst talking to a few climbers who were doing the race it made me realise that most of the runners around me were head to toe in waterproofs (or wearing hiking trousers!) and there were very few like me in shorts and tshirts without a waterproof on. Even though it was drizzling with rain, I knew though that I’d overheat on the early climbs so was waiting until the climbs were exposed before I’d layer up.
After a little section on some wider gravel roads, the forests returned and became a little steeper and very, very muddy. Every now and then a series of wooden walkways assisted in avoiding much of the mud. The forest soon gave way and the mountain opened up into a vast exposed climb. The single tracks we followed, still trying to skip around the mud and bogs. So far so good although it was now very windy and cold (the drizzle of fine rain had become more constant now) so I took a moment to layer up with my waterproof jacket.
We continued climbing before reaching the first of the smaller summits (which must have been Dregetua) marked by a stone trig pillar. We then began descending and running again. I set off and was enjoying seeing the head torches of other runners way off in the distance. Here though it was becoming increasingly difficult to avoid the mud as the narrow tracks left little room to manoeuvre as the ground was so uneven. It wasn’t long before I was soaked to my shins and covered in mud. At one point my left shoe came off, stuck and wedged in the mud completely. I had to bend down and pull with both hands to get out back out. I took the moment to tighten both my laces! We then climbed a little more in similar lumpy conditions which was quite tiring on the terrain and in the cold of night. The heat from the first bit of climbing meant my t shirt was soaked with sweat so I couldn’t really avoid getting cold even with the jacket on!
From the next trig point (Vardnakken) we began descending. Down we went through a long series of lumpy bogs. The undulating terrain meant it was quite difficult to get a good rhythm when running. One foot would descend then next foot would ascend a lump. I felt like I was jarring up and down and running very inefficiently. There were rocks hidden in the darkness too.
Once more my shoe got sucked off (the right one this time) and after retrieving it I tightened my laces even more. They were so tight now that they weren’t particularly comfortable. But thankfully they never came off again!!
The descend was consistent until we reached Blåhornsvatnet. From here the descent became steeper and significantly harder. We we going down muddy and rocky switch backs, sometimes off trail, sometimes through streams and always having to look and see which way was the most obvious. It wasn’t long before I was on my arse and covered in mud. Within a few minutes I had fallen multiple times. The mud was so thick that there was no way to grip it properly. Whilst my Inov8 Trailrocs aren’t ideal for muddy runs, I also couldn’t imagine many trainers being much use here! I wasn’t alone. I could hear the gasps and groans of other runners in the night too and could see runners in front of me falling over.
I was already thinking to myself that this was the least fun I’ve ever had in a descent. It was relentless and torturous and I just had to accept it. Accept that it would be uncomfortable and that I’d keep falling. So I just kept moving, letting gravity pull me down, hoping it would be done quicker that way. There were a few points where I just ploughed straight through bogs above my knees and had to drag myself out with my poles. There would be no warning as the ground just sucked you in. Mostly though it was just about shin high. I remember thinking to myself that this was suppose to be the easiest section of the race! The alarm bells were ringing. I then took an almighty slip, skidding a little bit on my heels before twisting and going down on my left side. I know I swore loudly (not for the first time) and I heard a sound from my pole which I landed on top of. It sounded like a crack but I hoped it was just the sound of it hitting the the ground and my weight on top. Once again I picked myself up and carried on, thankfully the trails finally came to an end and we had a section of gravel track to run on. It felt quite long but soon enough we were climbing again (which I believe meant we were now connected to where the 48km runners would start). The gravel was a welcome change and I took the opportunity to remove my jacket again. I was also surprised how quickly my feet and shoes seemed to dry out. It was around 04:30, the morning was breaking and the sun starting to rise, giving a glimpse of the amazing views of Stranda and the Fjord below us.
Inevitably the gravel road became a forest track and the climb became harder as the wet ground and mud returned. Over the course of a few 100m of climbing the tracks became off/track as the mountain opened up to us. The tracks returned and brought with them incredible views off to our left of the Fjord and over to Liabygda. I stopped for a few minutes to layer up again as the exposed mountain meant more rain and the temperature had dropped as the wind picked up. It did give me an opportunity to absorb the views all around me in the early morning mist.
From the climb we descended again, the tracks weren’t too steep but they were very wet and we ran on waterlogged tracks and bogs from the many streams. Up ahead a tent could be seen alone in the wild. The first aid station at Duklidalen and the first opportunity to eat something!
I checked my watch and timings and I had covered the 20km or so in pretty much the time I estimated I would. Not a bad start considering the state of the trails!
Section 2: Duklidalen – Fjørstad
From Duklidalen you will be running on and off trail up the Mønet. There are sections here that´s up to 45 degrees steep, you will have to use your hands at times on this section. Mønet is a cliff with a several hundreds meter drop on the fjord side, be careful and stay on the trail. Further on you will be on and off trail in scree up to Fremste Blåhornet (1478masl). From Blåhornet you will be running off trail along the ridge high above the fjord over Rjupskartind and towards Åknesnibba (1296masl). This section is very technical as the ridge is narrow with drops on boths sides. We recommend you to be catious here. There are parts where light scrambling is involved on this section. Before Åknesnibba the course will take a hard right turn down into the valley with a steep technical descent down, this is also a good place to be xtra catious. Then along Rjupeskarvatnet, and further out Fjørstaddalen past Heimfjørstadsætra and down to Fjørstad on a nice trail. On Fjørstad you will find an aid station.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
Immediately from the aid station we began making our way to the ‘wall’. I believe it was the cliff called Monet. But to me it was a wall on the edge of the world. I couldn’t see where we were heading. Making my way towards it I was texting Natalia ahead of her race and slipped and fell again. This one was my fault for not paying attention. The ground was soaking wet and cold where I fell.
As I reached the ‘wall’ it became clear we were climbing up it. I could see runners scaling it and became apprehensive. It was steep. I held my poles in one hand and used the other to pull myself up with each step. I dared not look down but accepted that it wasn’t as bad as it initially looked and I was at the top maybe 15 minutes later. Up top the grassy cliff turned to rock almost instantly. The climb however continued.
Looming in front of me was a giant of a mountain. Grey in every way. Grey rocks. Grey clouds. Just grey. I assumed this was the first change in the route and this is where we wouldn’t climb. I was wrong though. People ahead of me kept going further up and disappearing into the grey clouds. I put on my gloves as it became colder the higher I went. I then put away my poles and began climbing on all fours. It was quicker that way. I briefly started talking to Kristofer who’d done the 48km last year, who explained this was just the climb to Fremste Blåhornet (I believe he called it ‘Front Bluehorn’) and that the removed part of the course was further up still. He powered on passed me. Eventually I made it to the summit and the timing mat and turned around. Now we were on the diversion route which meant going back the way we came then across and down a valley.. There were a few runners ahead of me but they soon disappeared into the distance as I move so slowly over technical descents like this. I kept watching and making mental notes of where they were and went so I didn’t get lost. I felt alone now, for the first time in the race. I soon couldn’t see runners ahead nor behind me.
After completing the rocky downhill the diversion route took us left and away from the next climb. There was no path though and it was an off track descent from here to the next aid station Fjorstad. I was beginning to see the pattern now and off track terrain meant crossing lots of streams, slipping loads in the mud and bouncing up and down with the lumpy ground. Every now and then I’d get a glimpse of a single runner ahead and another behind me. This was another down hill I did not enjoy. I was initially glad when the route entered a forest area but that happiness soon gave way to frustration as the mud returned with a vengeance. Once again I was constantly on my bum. I started saying “fuck you” loudly. Like a chant. Every time I stubbed my toe on a rock “fuck you”. Slipped on my arse “fuck you”. Stepped in a bog or stream “fuck you”. It became my mantra as I continued tumbling down.
Finally the forest let me free and I ran the small down hill to the aid station, slipping and falling for the supporters and volunteers to enjoy! We all smiled and laughed knowing I wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last to provide the entertainment.
The aid station was a good one. Kristofer was there and changing into spare clothes. On this race you could have a drop bag at each station. I’d opted just for one at the 63km point. I regretted it slightly seeing Kristofer change into dry clothes as I was soaked through. It was warm inside the building so I packed the waterproof away again and noshed down on plenty of watermelon, crisps and cinnamon buns.
Section 3: Fjørstad – Habostadsætra
From Fjørstad you will be running the asphalt road down the Strandavalley for 4km and then into Moldskreddalen on a gravel road for 3km to Mesætra. By Mesætra you will hit the trailhead to Storhornet and cross the river on a bridge, and start the climb up to Storhornet (1309masl) on and off trail. Parts of this trail is technical. After summiting Storhornet you will turn around and follow the course back down for 1km, and then turn right and hit the trail down to Habostadsætra. Ths downhill section is very steep but the trail is very nice. On Habostadsætra you will find an aid station.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
Before long I was back out running with Kristofer on a long road section. It felt good to run. I’ve never wanted to run along a main road with cars driving passed me (very safely and courteously I should add!) so much in my life. It felt like it was the first time I could actually run. It was also a strangely therapeutic few kms knowing I could see this road from our incredible mountain accommodation.
From the road we were once more on a gravel track uphill before, yep, you guessed it, we were back in the wet and slippery forest hiking off track up a steep climb. Kristofer started getting further and further away as I huffed my way up. Once out of sight I had to concentrate more looking for the red trail markers painted on trees or rocks. This climb felt like it took so much longer than it probably did. After the forests it was wild and rugged terrain. Up and down lumps whilst still generally getting higher. There was a person out here all alone. It took me a while to realise he was a photographer. It took a while longer for me to get to him, he waited patiently and snapped me as I said hello and made some bad jokes. I asked if it was Ian, and it was. A world reknown adventurer and photographer. I’d read his blog from the 2021 event and we had a brief chat comparing the contrasting weather conditions. He kindly shared some advice on the climb and temperatures awaiting me and wished me well on the journey.
From here things got a little harder. The climb went off for an out and back section to the next summit of Storhornet. It went ‘up’ pretty steeply and the trail was more prominent and clear for a short while as the the mud and wild terrain tagged out and the went rocky tracks tagged back in. There were many runners coming back and I’d let them glide effortlessly passed me. I had no idea how far I had to run to get back to this point. But up I went. There was another photographer filming runners coming down and he had to film me slowly walking up. I made it clear I wouldn’t be running down like they all were!
Like the Blåhornet summit, this one became very rocky very quickly. It was now just like before as I was stumbling from rock to rock heading into the mist in the direction shadows were coming from. Here I had one moment that ‘threw’ my mind a little off. A lady was coming down and started speaking to me, I assumed in Norwegian, and I explained I only spoke English. She then told me that it was very cold further on and asked if I have any more clothes to put on. I was caught off guard. Whilst her intentions were no doubt full of kindness and support of other runners, I didn’t quite understand the comment. There was mandatory kit and I was clearly in the race with a full bag on my back I also had on my waterproof coat and gloves on, so I don’t think I looked under-prepared compared to anyone else. I assume she was concerned because I was just in shorts. But I reassured her I was fine and carried on. Soon Kristofer ran back passed me and sometime later I looped around the summit and too was heading back down. On this section many runners overtook me as I once again descended so slowly.
Eventually I completed the out and back and was then going down a steep hill in another wet and slippery forest section. I was all over the place. Sliding and slipping everywhere going down the switchbacks. A lady behind was asking if I was ok as I was swearing constantly. Then it was her turn as she slipped and did a pencil roll down one bend/turn. I can’t quite describe how fantastically she rolled and ended up down ahead of me and back on her feet laughing at her ‘shortcut’. She then sped off descending rapidly with ease. She called back to check on me a few mins later when I let out a rather loud expletive laden cry. I was ok. I’d fallen again (Fuck you!). This one was worse though. Whilst I was fine, in the process I’d snapped my fucking pole again (I snapped one in the VDA last year). I was really pissed off. It snapped right at the handle where it slides in and the locking button is. It was fucked and useless now and I’d only covered around 40km of the race. In a mood I carried on into the aid station that wasn’t far away.
A few runners looked at my pole and the volunteer was a superstar, running around looking for things to fix it (his plan was to tape a small rod to the handle to strengthen it). I knew it was a lost cause though but I appreciated their efforts. I filled my sorrow with meat soup (which was frikken ace) and Coke. The aid stations were pretty great for variety in my eyes! I checked my timings and, once again, felt I was pretty spot on to plan as it was about 30 mins before the first cut off. And so, having experienced running with one pole before, I knew I could overcome it, I packed it away and carried on with the single pole.
Section 4: Habostadsætra – Myrsætra
From Habostadsætra you will be running on the marked DNT hiking trail trough a lush birch forrest to Nysetvatnet with a great view towards Brekketind and the Brekketind glacier and then further to Patcellhytta where the climb to the iconic mt. Slogen (1564masl) starts. You will be running on the marked DNT hiking trail up to Slogen. The last part up to Slogen is very steep and involves scrambling, be catious on the way up and down. From Slogen you have a majestic view over Hjørundfjorden. The summit is very narrow, so one have to be carefull on the top. Here you will turn around and go back the way you came up for 1,5km. But instead of going back down to Patchellhytta, you will turn left and continue towards Isavatnet and further down Langseterdalen past Storevatnet on a nice trail. At the parking lot at Myrsætra you will find an aid station.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
The next section began with us walking up a stream. Really?! Fuck this trail I thought. I was waiting for the pain of constantly wet feet to kick in. Like the rest of the route, there was nothing to do about it except power through. It was kind of up hill, but very gentle and certainly not runnable (for me) as it was mostly rocky. My power hike was in full flow though and I was enjoying the intimating views of the mountains surrounding us on all sides and thunderous roar of the river besides me. Off in the distance I could see the lady along with another runner. I kept thinking I was gaining on them but I really wasn’t. The section was another that felt like it went on for a while, but I was content knowing we were at least climbing gradually higher. And so my mind wandered a little. I got thinking back to that last aid station and my timings and realised that all wasn’t quite what it seemed. Whilst I was ‘on time’ and within the cut off. We hadn’t done the climb from Blåhornet nor the ridge or its ‘more’ technical descent. That was the very technical section and no doubt a harder descent for me. So I highly doubt it would have completed that longer section of the route in my spare 30 minutes. I realised I would have been timed out at the first cut off (which was 13:00 at the last aid station) if the route hadn’t been changed due to the weather. I clang onto the hope that if the weather was better then the terrain would be less muddy and I might have moved a little quicker!
In the distance there was a little mountain hut of some sort and a guy out sweeping the decking area in the rain. It amused me. As I walked passed a volunteer called to me and waved me up to him. I checked my watch, yes, I was mindlessly following the two in front. I called after them and they walked back to join me on the climb. Each climb in this race seemed to find a way to be more challenging than the one before. This one was just a pain to start with as the terrain fluctuated between single track and off track frequently and we traversed so many streams and flows of water down off the mountain. It was just miserably wet. Like the number of times I fell, I wish I’d counted the number of streams we’d crossed on this course, I’m certain it would be hundreds. The mountains were leaking water everywhere due to the recent weather. It only stopped the higher we got. And it only stopped because the terrain became rocky. Once more we were playing dot-to-dot connecting the red trail marks and traversing the huge boulder fields.
There was a giant sleeping here. To my left I could sense and enormous presence and was admiring the mountain in the clouds. It was Slogen. The original route included an out and back to summit of Slogen for ‘panoramic views’. But we wouldn’t be doing that today. I was glad. This was also one of the hardest parts in the race so I was relieved to be skipping! Instead we carried on straight passed it. Straight into and across the snow fields. These were fairly short but difficult with one pole and not so aggressive soles on me shoes.
After some time we began our descent towards Myrsætra. This is where my drop bag would be. So I was in good spirits anticipating it. But the descent was tough. It was, you guessed it, rocky. So the the three of us moved slowly. I don’t remember much more than passing down alongside some lakes and rivers. I do remember we were in a valley and it reminded me a little of a section the TDS route in how it looked (but harder!).
There was plenty more falling over here too and I was losing track of my orientation and where we were going. The lady reminded me that soon we’d have the out and back to the aid station to the left and then we’d go back to the right to climb out of the valley. It made sense when she explained it.
Oddly, here I also realised my eyesight was a little hazy. I could see ok, but it wasn’t crystal clear. Almost as if I had clingfilm on my eyes. There wasn’t anything I could do and I assumed it was a combination of tiredness, constant concentration, the wind and the rain and perhaps the white glare from the snow. Anyway, I wasn’t worried, but I was conscious of it and to keep an eye on it (Whey hey!)
We reached the out and back section and now, like before, saw runners and familiar faces going in the opposite direction. There were a lot less of them this time though! I didn’t know how long it would be to the aid station but I was aware of how wet and muddy the track was again. I immediately decided that I would not be changing my shoes or socks. My socks would be soaked as soon as I changed them so I thought it wasn’t worth the effort. As I rounded the last corner into the aid station I had one of my best falls yet. I slipped in some mud and both feet went up in the air, above my waist, as my hands and head threw up behind me with the motion. I landed on my bum and back straight into a boggy patch. I was covered in mud. The volunteers laughed as I arrived (they heard the ‘fuck you’ scream) and I apologised as I sat straight in one of their chairs and covered it in the fresh mud. I ordered more soup, ate more cinnamon buns and finally changed into a dry tshirt after 14 hours.
Not long after the three of us reached the aid station, we were shortly followed by a fourth runner a Polish man I’d been near throughout the day. We sat and ate and drank and joked with the volunteers. We had our own little party before cheering ourselves back out knowing we had five hours to cover the 10km to the next (and final) cut off. Easy we thought… Wrong…
Section 5: Myrsætra – Brunstad
At Myrsætra you will run back up the same trail you came down up to Langsætra where you will follow the DNT marked trail up to Gullmordalsvatnet passing by the Gullmorglacier along the trail (you will not be running on the glacier). This section is very technical and you will be running parts of it on scree. After passing Gullmordalsvatnet you will be on the top of the Gullmorbrekka (979masl) pass, from here you will be running technical downhill to Velleseterhytta and further on gravel road down to Brunstad where you will find an aid station. This is also the location for the the cut off time at 21.00.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
The first section was ok. It was a repeat of the out and back. After which we we were constantly looking for the trail. This section wasn’t marked by the race and no red trail markers could be seen anywhere. We followed our GPS and would be on what seemed to be a trail, then all of a sudden the GPS would say the trail is off to our side by 50-100 m. This meant we were zig zagging up the climb. Crossing all sorts of wild terrain to ensure we kept heading in the right direction. Every now and then the Polish guy would appear from nowhere. He was having the same navigation issues. After an ‘age’, the lumpy foliage turned to rock. But that didn’t make it any easier and the same thing would happen as we’d turn at right angles to try and maintain the correct direction. We at least could now occasionally see some red trail markings on rocks though.
At this point we were sticking together as a foursome as we crossed many more snow fields and rocky sections climbing and traversing our way out of the valley. The lady, who was from Argentina, lady kept kindly offering me her poles as I was really struggling on all the snow crossings. So mostly I was behind them all and would time to time shout out when I thought we were ‘off route’ again. To me it felt like it was night time. We were deep in the clouds and the grey-ness of the mountains. The only light was coming from the snowy floor we trudged over. It was surreal and disorientating at the same time, yet it was only about 17:00.
We were trudging across another snow section when I noticed we we starting to get further from the trail, which was going off on a sort of angle above us. We stopped and debated for some time where to go and eventually agreed we shouldn’t continue on the snow. For one thing, we couldn’t see any recent signs of activity on them! The issue however was that the snow was sloping and above it was a wall of rock. It didn’t look feasible that the route could be up there. But that’s what the GPS was saying (and scrolling out we could see that the route would turn further that way after about a km further along). If we carried on the snow instead we’d soon be far off course and could see nothing ahead to make us want to continue (into the unknown).
So we back tracked and headed for the rocks. It took me a long time with one pole to get up to the rock and my troubles didn’t stop there, the climb facing us was a beast. It was essentially bouldering and rock climbing. I was trying to use strength from my arms which I just do not have to haul myself up onto rocks. And it was all loose. Admittedly I was scared. Actually, very scared. A fall here would be bad. A certainty of a serious injury and likely a very long wait to be rescued. I was glad I wasn’t alone and Argentinian Lady was very supportive and looked after me with constant reassurance. I knew we had to keep going though and that we should even get a little higher to be safer and further from the steep drop.
The climb, even just covering a few meters, was very slow. We were barely moving and the loose rock was causing us difficulties. Several times we knocked rocks back on each other, one time I released a sizeable one that went tumbling down. My warnings weren’t enough for the Polish guy to get out of the way in time and all he could do was raise his arm to protect his head as the rock fell straight into him. I felt so bad, but he reassured me that he was ok, just annoyed by the situation. It only added to our frustrations and concerns of safety.
We were at least now tracking in the right direction according to the GPS and the rocky climb eventually gave way to firmer ground, albeit more snow capped fields. I thought it couldn’t get worse than that section, but I was wrong (again). We were now faced with another directional dilemma. The route indicated we needed to leave the snow and descent a very narrow, very steep rock face. I looked over the edge and it felt like an abyss, the end of the world. Meters below us all I could see was a dark grey mist cloud wrapping the mountain. I couldn’t see a trail or path. It is fair to say I was not keen and I didn’t want to go that way. The alternative though was to remain higher up and walk along the snow covered mountain. I’d had enough of them though and we couldn’t see far enough ahead to determine where we would go or how we could re-join the path if we did continue that way. It felt like ‘down’ was actually the better option. Two of us started to descend…
I was still on top of the snow when, in the distance, a lonely figure, in a bright blue coat, emerged through the clouds with his hand in the air waving. I didn’t know what to think. He was clearly gesturing to us so we called back to let the others know someone was coming. We walked on and met him. He explained he was a volunteer from the race and he’d show us the way. He confirmed we could go either way, but the snow might be the easier route for us. So we followed him.
He was moving so effortlessly I struggled to keep up. He pointed down a steep snow slope and said we can go down here. And off he went, sliding, skiing (without skies) down hill. The French guy went next and pretty much made it the whole way standing up too. I followed and immediately landed on my arse. I sped down like I was on some sort of toboggan, bouncing up and down with the lumps. In no time at all my arse was so cold and starting to hurt with the freeze and friction. The whole thing lasted a matter of seconds. Looking back, my Strava indicates we went down a slope of approximately -50 deg and covered around 70m in descent. My apparent pace was 1:32 km per minute. What a ride!
One by one we all made it and we were at least treated to an incredible view of the Gullmordalsvatnet lake and valley surrounding it. The downside, I could still see no clear trail or path. We were told that we needed to traverse along to the right of the lake. I couldn’t believe it. What?! It was just the slope/side of the mountain with alternating layers of snow and rock. How? He reassured us that as we got closer we would see some race markings to indicate the way we should go. He told us that we would need to climb and descend on the rock and avoid the snow slopes at all times. I could see why, if you slipped on those, nothing would stop you sliding all the way into the freezing lake. Game over. There was another catch though, first we would need to ascend on the initial snow slope, but not to worry, there is a rope. Fuck sake…
One by one we ascended the rope climb. This was awful for me. I had no energy or strength to pull myself up and no grip in the snow to provide any traction. It was yet another very slow ascent. I relied on a tactic of pulling myself up and looping the rope around one hand with each pull to get more leverage. I thought my shoulders would pop out here. Thankfully I soon reached the sanctuary of the rocks. Ha! Now I was thinking that the rocks were my friends!
The volunteer left us here and went back to look for the remaining runners behind us in the pass somewhere. We thanked him but I never got his name. His final words were “it is 2 hours to the next checkpoint”. I looked at my watch. We had 2 hours and 10 minutes until the cut off. Shit. I thought we wouldn’t make it, that we would be timed out. If he was saying 2 hours, it would probably take us longer. I hung on to the glimmer of hope that there might be some sections we could run and that he was talking about walking time.
We still had to travers the lake first though. Painstakingly, we looped up and down each rock section, maybe up to a 20m climb and descent each way. Looking and following the trail flags which we could finally see. Each loop required a small traverse either along the top of the snow slope or along the bottom, right next to the water. I could feel the chill coming off it. At one point I sent another rock tumbling. Down the snow it rolled and then bounced off the bottom of the slope, launching into the air and over the water onto a floating patch of ice with a ‘boom’. The lake didn’t flinch and I didn’t want to follow the rock!
As we finally reached the end of the lake, the paths did become a little easier. They were far from runnable though. Just easier than what the last few kms entailed. It was still a horrid down hill though. In maybe 3km we descended over 500m. It was very rocky and very slippery as we navigated through tens and tens of waterlogged paths and streams. There was plenty of falling over and slipping here too. We mostly descended in silence. I’m not sure what the others were thinking, but all I could think about was the cut off and whether we would make it or not. I wanted too, but I was also wondering how I’d feel if the decision to continue was taken away from me. I genuinely believed that, after this cut off, we would have plenty of time to finish (there was 13 hours for the last 20km or so). So I wondered if we were close to the cut off if I would be of mind to try and negotiate my continue. It was all theoretical, but it kept me focused. Going further down, fast hiking, moving with purpose. It as all I could do.
We then came upon a forest section which was far less steep than before. The trails became a little drier and other than a few big leaps across streams (with broken planks that were intended to be crossed) the next few hundred meters of descent were a little more forgiving. We still weren’t running, but were able to pick up the pace at least. We were racing the clock though as time was against us and I kept looking at my watch and doing the calculations. 50 minutes to go, 40 minutes to go, 30 minutes to go… With every step I adjusted our progression, but it didn’t really make much difference. It was going to be tight if we couldn’t run. And then luck was finally on our side…
From the forests we came across a house with a lady gardening and a man tending to the path. We ran down, said hello and left through their gate. He wished us well and said he hoped we were enjoying ourselves. I think I just laughed. But, from the gate, there was a gravel road. It was steep, but it was dry and even terrain. Gravity did its ‘thing’ and we ran. We were a little spaced out as we all descended at slightly different speeds. But we were all running. After maybe 1.5km, there were people further along. It was the aid station at Brunstad. I looked at my watch. We had 20 minutes to spare. We’d made it. This 10km section of the race had taken us 4.5 hours to complete!
I ran into the aid station with belief. I believed now I would finish. I believed in me. The decision to continue was in my hands, and I know there is only one answer to that question, pulling out is never a consideration, never an option. I would continue and I would finish. We sat and set about refuelling. Eating more soup, more cinnamon rolls, more chocolate sweets and crisps. At the aid station, the Argentinian lady’s family were waiting. It dawned on me that her and her husband, along with their dog, had been sitting opposite me in the reception at the start line some 18 hours earlier. With the positivity we were feeling, the Polish guy said what I’d been thinking “we all stick together now right, and finish?”. There was no hesitation from me. Absolutely, yes I said. The French guy agreed also. I’m not sure if I missed it somewhere but the lady had decided that this was where her adventure would end. She simply had no more desire to continue. I only realised when she was offering me her poles to continue on with as ‘she didn’t need them anymore’. Even now, after bowing out she was still supporting and looking after me. I felt sad and emotional that she wouldn’t be seeing it through with us. I declined the offer of the poles though. I made it this far and was confident I’d be ok.
As we set back out we were a little deflated that we still had over 20km to go. The amended route GPX had indicated we would be doing around 88km in total, but we were already around 77km at this point. It made sense though, the final two sections were unchanged and we still had to complete them. We left just before 9pm (and then stopped straight away as I had forgotten to get my head torch out ready for the darkness).
Section 6: Brunstad – Svartevatnet
From Brunstad you will run to Brunstadsætra through lush birchforrest and crossing the river right before Brunstadsætra. On Brunstadsætra you will get on the nice and very steep trail up to Storevatnet. From Storevatnet you will be climbing off trail up to 1100m and traverse over to Vassdalen (The course is not going to the peak of Ystevasshornet) where you will be running downhill on technical trail down Svartevatnet. At the parking lot by Svartevatnet you will find a aid station.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
Initially we had a gravel road ascent similar to what we had just descended. This was good for easing back into the task ahead. We took this opportunity to chat and for the first time exchanged names. It felt silly that we’d been through so much together without knowing who we were. This was where I learned that the Polish guy was Kamil and the French man was Matt. From the results table I now know that the lovely Argentina was Margarita. These were my companions, my saviours.
A few kms later the gravel changed to forest. The gradual climb, with no warning then became very steep switch backs as we climbed for another 500m in the slippery dense forest. I had to stop a few times to catch my breathe and refocus. It was tough going, but I was happier with this type of climb than the many we’d done before.
After leaving the forest it was more off-track plodding in the open mountainside as we continue to about 850masl where the ground flattened out. Here we could see up ahead a semi-circle of mountains surrounding us. Once again I had no idea where we were going and how we would ‘escape’ from here and descend back down. We continued walking towards it as the day light diminished and darkness began to set in.
We reached a lake where our head torches started to pick up the feint shimmer of the reflective tape for the race markings. One or two at a time. They gave an indication of where to go, but not too much insight as to where we were actually heading. Slowly it became clear that we were just going ‘straight up’ to get out of the plateau. Seriously? Fuck you. In the darkness we began to climb the rocks again. I was struggling with the climb. Matt and Kamil were getting progressively further away. I set myself a target to rest and breathe at each flag marker, only meters away from one another, but I was stopping multiple times between each one. We climbed for maybe another 200-300 meters, up and across scree slopes, the rocks loose under foot and when I grabbed at them with my hands for support. As I reached the top we were now in complete darkness. Besides the reflective trail markers I could now also navigate by following the head torches of the others in the distance.
We began the descent which wasn’t any easier. Loose and sharp rocks, winding switch backs and wet streams to cross. We stopped at one stream and filled our bottles with ice cold water. It was delightful. I gulped back two bottles straight away. Like many before this one, the streams we needed to cross were often bursting at the seams and the ‘path across’ was submerged under rampant and powerful flowing water. They were difficult to cross and even more so in the night. It was a case of steadying ourselves and hoping for the best, accepting that we would be wet to our shins. The aim was to get to the other side and not to get sucked in or fall over. The roar of water in the night was quite something. It was the only thing we could hear out here in the wild.
After a while the rocks gave way to forests and you already know that these were steep, muddy and slippery. As we progressed, a huge lake started to come into focus below us. Way off ahead, on top of a mountain silhouette in the darkness I could see two head torches way up in the sky. I knew where we were heading now. We would descend to a road crossing (Svartevatnet) before the final climb on the other side. I remember looking at this section when we drove along the road into Stranda when we first arrived.
I was glad to get off the forest track as we bottomed out at the lake. Here there was a slightly flat gravel section towards the road. At this point Kamil, who was in front on the descent was now behind me. Matt was up ahead on the road and I shouted at him when I saw the markers on the other side. We started to cross. Then loads of volunteers came into sight further up the road at a lay-by. They gestured us towards them. It was another aid station that I had complete forgotten about.
Here I was ready to leave quite quickly and just get on with it. I was sick of soup now so ate some crisps and cookies. Matt had some soup and a French man came to say hello to him. He was in the area, saw about the race and heard there was a French person running, so he stayed out to say hello and cheer him on. How lovely that was. Kamil sat in a chair and told us to go on without him, that he was going to have some sleep as he was struggling with fatigue. He wrapped up and tried to get comfortable. I let Matt know. Whilst we were there I had a half cup of coffee to try to fight off my own tiredness before we set back out. For now, we were down to two. I was sure Kamil would catch up with us at some point on the climb in the night.
Section 7: Svartevatnet – Stranda
By Svartevatnet you will cross the road and get on the trail to Langevatnet and further to Roaldshornet (1230masl). From the summit of Roaldshornet you can enjoy the epic view over Storfjorden and down to Stranda. You will continue to Blåfjellet and downhill Trollvaregga with technical running down to Skuravatnet. (The course is not going up to Skurahornet, it goes straight to Stranda from Skuravatnet) .From Skuravatnet you will be running on a nice trail all the way down to the outskirts of Stranda, and then on gravel and asphalt roads down to the finish line at the town square in Stranda.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
And so, at 01:00 in the morning we began our final section. From the aid station we crossed the road and began heading into the darkness of the forests once more. The trees lasted only a short while and the climb began. Initially I had flash backs of the first climb of the race when we left the forest and the mountain opened up. The terrain felt very similar. It was a series of gently inclining winding big paths littered with bogs and waterlogged foliage. Compared to the other climbs of the race I was very happy at that moment in time. This felt very manageable.
As we had previously, we navigated by reflection of the race markings. Each one opening another insight into where we were heading. The large silhouette of the mountain standing tall in front of us and getting closer with each step. As we neared it, the climb took us to the mountain face and the rocky ascent began, but, it was no where near as bad as the ones before. I felt this was the easiest climb of the night and possibly of the whole race. I was thankful.
Before we reached the summit, my watch died. I hate this watch. I accept it is now a good few years old (it is a Suunto 9 Baro) but the battery just does not last what it indicates it will. Barely 24 hours with some of that on the Ultraks mode. Useless. I couldn’t care less about charging it now. I just wanted to finish the race and rest.
The climb wasn’t too bad either and we emerged onto the roof of the mountain. It was, of course, rocky but for the most part we were now traversing the top along to the next point at Roaldshornet. It was very cold and windy on top and we stopped to layer up ready for the final climb to the summit. As we hiked along to the summit, with a gentle undulation, the sun started to rise to the East. It was going to be spectacular. We’d miss the full sunrise and views from the summit, but we had a glimpse of the orange glow breaking up the darkness. We kept moving and covered the final little dip and climb back up to Roaldshornet where we could start to see the landscape ahead of us for our descent back to Stranda. From here it was all ‘downhill’ (of course every trail downhill has some sneaky ‘uphills’ included!).
The descent was going to be long though and it was still very technical. Once again lumbering over a boulder field of rocks. For many parts I had to sit and lower myself down and we were trying to find the best and most accessible route between markers, sometimes straying from the more obvious path due to slippery rocks or muddy sections that we were still slipping and falling on. Eventually, further down, we could see a short ridgeline way below leading to what looked like dry dirt trails. We were heading for it and we’d then loop down into the forests back towards Stranda. We had a visual aim, although it still felt like a very long time until we reached the ridge.
We continued the descent from the ridge which was a lot harder than I expected. It was a complete mess from the rain and the mud and bogs were everywhere. Where possible we avoided the trail, running over the lumpy ground along the sides instead. In some places, wooden structures were there to go over the marsh land, but they weren’t really helpful to us. With so many runners having been through the day before, the land was completely churned up and the walkways covered in mud and equally as slippery and dangerous. I think I fell more along this section than anywhere else on the course! Matt must have been sick of hearing me swearing and groaning. I did one spectacular fall where I slipped and skidded downhill, completing a 180 spin and falling flat on my front, face first, into a bog. The mud muffled my scream. It was slower progress than I expected at this point and it certainly wasn’t the dry dirt trails I’d been imagining from the view at the top. From time to time we looked back, expecting to see Kamil come bounding passed us. At one point I swore I saw a head torch on the summit at Roaldshornet.
The mountain side started to give way to forest tracks, which weren’t all that better. They felt steeper and, whilst drier for the most part, still had many wet and muddy sections. The benefit now was that the trees could be used to steady ourselves and break our falls. As we ran down, we were getting hotter and hotter. The layers from the mountain were definitely no longer needed now, but the inclination to stop and delay the finish further was low. We wanted it to be over as soon as possible.
A few kilometres later we left the forest and hit some road. We crossed some fields and were then back on the road in a section we both recognised from visiting the town. It wouldn’t be long now until we were on the main road into Stranda and down to the finish line. We were running. Probably very slowly but we were running for the first time for many, many hours. It was painful and slow but we were inching towards the finish as we ran down the deserted and quiet road. It was some time after 06:00 in the morning.
We rounded the final turn and climbed the steps into and through the hotel before the finish line (it was strange passing straight through a building to get to the finish!) and emerged into the final stretch to a lone clap from a volunteer at the finish line. We walked over the line. The final finishers. We hi fived and smiled. We’d done it.
I thought the volunteer was Oscar (the Race Director) but it was Martin. He told us he was at the last aid station with Kamil when he dropped out. It took us a moment for the realisation to set in, Kamil hadn’t continued on after his attempt to sleep. I felt bad for abandoning him and wondered if he would have been ok if he kept going? Martin gave us our medals, congratulated us and went and fetched us pizza. Then Matt’s wife, Natalia, Nick, Arlene and Gif all arrived and congratulated us, taking us back to the safety of a shower and bed! We had done it.
I knew this race was going to be difficult and would include terrain that I’m not always comfortable with. However, it was worse and harder than I imagined. The weather for the race was actually ok, but the terrain had suffered from weeks of rain and that made it far more difficult that it could have been. I reckon I must have fallen 30-50 times. I wouldn’t be surprised if we crossed 100s of rivers and streams throughout the 100km. I’m actually surprised my feet weren’t in a worse state when I finished (they were pretty mangled though!). Oscar acknowledged the conditions in has post race breifing:
SFTR 2022 was just as hard and muddy as it can be! We got a bit of everything with some glimpses of sun, rain, snow, wind. The feedback from the elite field in Golden Trail World Series was that this was the most technical race they ever participated in. So all of you who joined the race should be proud of your effort! The good news is that we ordered sun for SFTR 2023, the bad news is that we ordered sun for 2022 too 😉
It is without doubt the toughest 100km I have done (and we didn’t quite get to the 100km mark!) It took around 5-8 hours longer than my typical time for a mountainous 100km. That is quite a significant time difference. Despite the course and the conditions, the local Scandinavians ran incredible times. I’m amazed at how effortlessly they cover this sort of terrain, they are phenomenal athletes.
Reflecting back on the progress, I actually would have been timed out at the first cut off (around 40km / 11hrs) if the route hadn’t been amended. I see no way I could have completed the original route in the time I had remaining at the cut off. The gods were on my side on this occasion!
I also think we would have been timed out at the second cut off (Brunstad) if it weren’t for (1) the volunteer who found us in the Gullmorbrekka pass at showed us the way (thank you so much!) (2) the short road section down to the aid station at Brunstad which meant we could run! without those, I’m sure we wouldn’t have made it in time.
I came away from this race with my ankles pretty beaten up, loads of cuts and bruises, one broken pole, a ripped pair of gloves and a shoes shredded on all sides. Yet, I saw it through, I persevered and once more can say I’m a finisher and have re-evaluated my own limitations and strengths. I love this sport!
As with every race I met some incredible people. People who show all kinds of determination, strength and will power who go above and beyond to help and support you. Thank you Margarita, Kamil and Matt. And of course, thank you to Oscar and his team and thank you Norway!
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.
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.
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.
The Cappadocia Ultra Trail (CUT) is a 119km trail run in the heart of Turkey. Set in the Cappadocia region, runners do a sort of figure 8 from Urgup. Exploring the historic landscape as they traverse the high plateaus and valleys from one side of Cappadocia to the other. The terrain in the region is made up of ‘tuff’ – a thick ash (from ancient volcanic eruptions) that solidified. In many places, millions of years of wind and water erosion has left behind incredible structures (like the Twin Fairy Peaks) and in others, humans carved the malleable material into vast networks of caves, living quarters and other structures, both above ground and below. A remarkable region that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Like the course itself, the CUT for me was a race of two halves. The spoiler in my story is that the first half was the more difficult experience and, unusually, I finished the race much stronger than I started.
Each race is an experience and one to reflect on. Each time we run we learn something a little bit more out ourselves. This is why I like ultra running so much. I don’t think it ever actually gets easier. Hopefully we just get stronger and wiser and are able to deal with the challenges better. Going into the race I already new some mistakes I’d made even before I’d stepped a foot over the start line. I thought it would be my struggle to shake a mucus-y cold from the week before that would make the race harder. Turns out it was my own planning. I’d mentally prepared for 24 hours of running and, being further East than usual, and the sun setting earlier, I’d brought mostly caffeinated Tailwind. For some reason I didn’t question my choice to bring so much. And so I started with two bottles of caffeinated Tailwind at 7 in the morning. I was junked up and, along with the multiple morning coffees, It went straight through me! That exciting story unfolds as I recount the morning’s adventures…
The start line was a breeze. With about 20 minutes before the race start we’d walked down from the cave hotel we were staying in nearby, dropped off our bags and bumped into Sammy, Sarah and Harry. 5 minutes later we were waiting in the numbered holding pens and ready to go. The race began with a steep uphill section along the roads as we’d leave Urgup. I didn’t want to run the hill but was caught up in the dash of runners (and two stray dogs who’d some how made their way into the starting pens with the runners!). Before he’d shot off, Paul had explained that the trails were fairly narrow early on and that we could expect some bottlenecks. So I stuck with it, huffing and puffing my way up.
It was soon over and at around 7:30 in the morning we were running on the dusty trail paths with incredible views of the area and hundreds of hot air balloons floating in the sky above Goreme. Having taken a hot air balloon ride the day before it was a surreal experience to now be running the trails we’d seen from above. The trails weaved through the rock formations and faster more confident runners bounded past, hoping from rock to rock as the rest of us followed in single file down the gullies carved out as paths between them.
My morning mistakes immediately started to hit me as I could feel my stomach cramping. Too soon I repeated to myself internally. Too soon. I sipped the Tailwind solution, trying not to take the full caffeine payload too early, saving plenty of it for the later stage of this section. Soon we reached the first aid station situated along a road as we left the town of Ibrahimpasa and I topped up on water, watering down what was left of the existing Tailwind in one bottle and switching to the basic lemon flavour in the other, before carrying on whilst ramming some cake into my mouth.
The route took us down through the town and onto a path at the back of the houses/caves. The two dogs were still running with us and Coren caught me up. We ran together a little while weaving through the back paths, duck-walking our way through some tunnels and cave systems before we began the largest climb of the first half of the race and then making our way up and over a major road which had armed police stopping the traffic for runners. The route then took us down onto a phenomenal down hill trail through some white chalky rocks. It was steep and slippery. Here the runners were split into the more hesitant and the clearly very confident ones who bounded passed the rest, bouncing from side to side.
My body screamed at me the whole way as I looked for a place to escape off the trail. The landscape was barren and there was nowhere to grab a moment of privacy and I struggled on, no doubt pulling some questionable faces. A short while later the rocky section was over and we entered a section of golden forest. I saw my opportunity and took it. A sacrifice to the God of Thunder needed to be made. Relieved, I emerged back out and joined the train of runners. This section, leading to Goreme was glorious as the yellow leaved trees shone in the light of day and the trail teased its way through the forest.
The route led us up and into Goreme, where I caught back up with Coren and Yvette who’d passed me. We ran together through Goreme, recognising it from the previous morning where we’d floated over the day before on our Balloon ride. Leaving Goreme we were stuck behind a smelly garbage truck on a narrow lane which turned my stomach even more. I thought I’d be over my issues now, but the last few kms had made me think otherwise. I wasn’t well that was for sure and the initial sacrifice had been rejected. We weren’t far from the next aid station but I didn’t know what to expect and felt unpredictable so was keeping my eyes peeled again.
We began the next, steep climb to the aid station in the town of Uchisar. Along the way was a tap, I filled my bottle to drink from, before deciding it probably wasn’t the best idea, so poured it over my head instead. As I reached the aid station I bid farewell to Coren and Yvette and went toilet hunting. After some language barriers and misdirection, I eventually found one in a Mosque. It wasn’t pretty but it was necessary and I was thankful for the privacy and a running tap. I washed my face and emptied an absurd amount of mucus and dust out of my nose before setting off out and hoping my body and mind would now work together.
With the delivery complete, my attention turned to the second issue or mistake I’d made and which had been masked by my previous distractions. Knowingly, I made a poor choice of footwear for the race – the Adidas Two Ultra Parley. A Good shoe that is comfy and decent for hard packed trails, but I find lacking in both stability and support. I took a risk and it was slowly proving to be a bad choice as the laces were causing pain in my metatarsals. Occasionally, sharp pain would shoot through my foot and I’d limp forward. I was going to have to address this soon, but for now I was running OK and the next aid station wasn’t far away as it was a short section of about 6 km as we’d loop around to the other side of Goreme.
I put my foot issues to the back of my mind vowing to loosen the laces when I next stopped. With my mind preoccupied, I don’t remember too much about those 6km other than passing a horse ranch and feeling like the shackles had been removed. My body was relieved and after 30k I was able to focus on the running. I caught up with Coren and Yvette again as we hiked some gentle climbs in the heat of the day. The sun reflecting back off the white ground. I mentioned I’d not used suncream and Yvette said she had some she’d give me at the aid station too. Soon I was sitting on the side of the road creaming up. The metatarsals on my left foot were screaming at me. I used the rest break as a chance to loosen those laces which I think were adding pressure to my foot (there is no padding on the tongue of these trainers). It helped a little. But before setting back out I recognised the next challenge I was facing (or soon to face) – with nearly 40k of running complete I realised I had eaten very little. After a huge breakfast, I wasn’t yet hungry, but soon would be. I grabbed some satsumas which were delightfully juicy and started to eat some of my snacks knowing that I was going to have to eat more to keep going!
Despite thinking I’d be low on energy from not eating, from aid station 3 I felt like I was flying. Besides the pain in my foot which I was still feeling, I was running carefree. There were some more incredible trails through woodlands and I overtook a few runners as I enjoyed the gentle downhills and small climbs. We went through some more fantastic rocky sections with huge caves (no ducking to get through these), as we ran passed what I think was the ‘Pigeon Loft Cave’. After the woodlands I emerged onto a long dusty/sandy straight back out in the open. I plodded on and started to notice it was a bit more windy now. I say a bit, I mean really windy. Up ahead I could see the dust swirling on the path and then it hit me. The wind. The dust. The combination. I could barely keep my eyes open even with my head turned away and facing down. I caught a glimpse of the sky, it was grey. A storm of some sort had hit us. I really hoped it wouldn’t last!
The sun cream I’d recently applied meant the sand stuck to me. I was covered. Every time I went to drink I had a mouth full of dust as an accompaniment. Eventually I broke off the path and was now crossing a field with the wind behind me. I passed Sarah as we began another climb.
The climb was pretty scenic. Further up ahead there was a guy I recognised from Madeira two years ago – Maarten. We ran together a bit and swapped stories of the last two years and races (including both being at Val d’Aran a few months earlier). We were talking about how hot it was and how much water we had when a girl came up from behind, clearly struggling with the heat and pleaded if we had any water to spare. Luckily, knowing this was a longer section, I’d filled a third soft flask so had a spare 500ml which I gave her. She drank nearly all of it in seconds, gratefully thanked us then vanished off into the distance. She would have been one of the lead runners in the shorter 38km race which started a few hours after we did. Not long later we came across a make shift water station before the course split for the 38km race to head back to Urgup more directly as we detoured off to Cavusin.
We went left at the course split and began another scenic but slightly more technical trail that undulated along and down the side of the mountain. Mesmeric views of red rock formations were all around us as the trail led down to the next aid station where I continued to address my nutritional problems. I grabbed a full bottle of water, some coke, more satsumas and hot lentil soup and went to find myself a place to sit along a wall. I’d started to fill my belly as Maarten arrived and shortly later Yvette, completing the Madeira reunion. After a few mins I left them both sitting in the shade and carried on.
The next section towards aid station 5 began with a big steep climb as a snake of runners weaved up to the top of the mountain we’d just circumnavigated. It was very hot now in the middle of the day and the climb was exhausting. Up top the paths traced the edge of the mountain as we made our way back along the top, almost to where the course split had happened a few hundred metres lower down. The views were spectacular and way down below I could see runners on the trails we’d arrived on. I wondered to myself how far behind me they were. It would only be a few miles for sure.
The top of the mountain was fairly flat but rocky. I mixed up the running and walking as the trails were so visible so far ahead I couldn’t mentally commit to keep running it all. Eventually there was a very steep but short descent and we arrived at the next aid station. A small tent halfway up the mountain. As I sat and drank more and ate some food, I got chatting to two guys from Yorkshire. I wished them well as I left and began the last section of the first half of the race back to Urgup.
As I drank from one of my refilled Tailwind bottles, I noticed another error I’d made where I’d mislabelled a Tailwind portion and instead of lemon I had another caffeine one. Despite feeling more settled, it worried me a little and I didn’t want to repeat the morning’s mistakes which were still very fresh in my memory. So I tried to make sure I’d drink from that bottle last and prolong when I took in more caffeine. Thankfully it was only another 8k to the halfway point and I wasn’t likely to need a full litre.
The route was pretty as we traversed lots of gradual ups and downs and undulated along trails between farmland and areas of modern housing. There was lots of walking and I was starting to feel the effect of not fuelling early on. I knew I’d need to continue that process of addressing the imbalance at halfway, this time with more substance. As I walked I began talking to Omar from Jordan who was doing his first Ultra, the 63km. He was so friendly and smiley and enjoying his race, knowing he was on the home stretch. Shortly after seeing, as we approached the iconic Twin Fairy Chimneys, the 38km course re-joined our route and there were loads of other runners surrounding us. I had a momentary boost as I powered passed a bunch of them and felt a surge of arrogance and confidence in my performance and race. A timely mental boost to see me through to the halfway point!
We then reached another major road crossing manned by the police. I can see now that it is the same road from earlier in the day, just many miles further along. The Police stopped a car for me to pass and the driver started shouting out the window. It was Sammy. Amazing timing. I then descended down the red bricked pavement to the aid station. Wincing with pain as my foot broke my stride and technique. I’d been adapting my running for the passed two sections but now on the hard ground I was more than a little worried that the damage may done already.
Into half way I went. Sarah was already there and Sammy busy supporting and getting her ready to head back out. I grabbed my bag and went straight for the food asking for “everything”. I had some soup, pasta with tomato sauce and cheese and a giant potato to go with it. I then found a place on the grass to sit in the shade and went about executing my on-the-fly strategy. I removed my shoes and socks and let my feet catch some air whilst I ate. There was a blister that would need taking care of on my little toe. I’d been ignoring it as it had been giving me grief for a while and it was clear now why. A blood blister.
In between eating I’d clean and fix myself up – a wet wipe shower, removing dodgy tape from my toes that had peeled loose, reapplying it and addressing the blister. Yum. Yvette and Maarten had arrived and we all joked as I cramped trying to reach my feet. I ate the dry potato by dunking it in the soup. I was conscious I needed more salt intake too so grabbed some more cheese and finished off with a GU energy waffle, a bit of cake and some more juicy satsumas for dessert. A good feast was had. Eventually, 15mins longer than planned and an hour after arriving, I set back out with a change of trainers (Inov8 Trailroc).
From halfway I felt good. The change in trainers immediately helped my foot with the greater padding and support offered by the ever trusty Inov8s. The route crossed the road and onto a trail with an immediate short but very steep sandy decline. I was covered in stand as gravity pulled me down at speed I shouldn’t have after 60 odd kms of running. Great. I needed to stop and take off my shoes already. I found what looked like a rock and sat down. It was just a mound formed of the sand/dust though and it collapsed under me. I picked myself up, carried on and tried another rock with more success.
I remember running passed some cows in an enclosure as this section of the route led us more ‘off path’ and we ran through many fields and farmland. A few times we crossed back and forth over a small river. For a short while I was chatting to a guy from Cardiff as we spurred each other on through the lumpy terrain. We joked about the derby game that would happen on Sunday and I teased that we can’t be friends or run together as I dashed off ahead. The route then took us up the river we’d been criss-crossing. I ran up the river by following the narrow banks and jumping side to side trying to avoid getting wet feet. It was a long and smelly stretch that required a bit of focus as I didn’t want to step in the water as it didn’t seem all that clean and I was thinking of the open wounds on my toes which I’d sliced up at the halfway mark. I was glad to be navigating this in the light which was now diminishing as the sun was setting,
I was beginning to feel stronger now and able to run consistently with no pain in my foot any more. As I ran I passed a woman and few guys together as we climbed another of the few smallish inclines this section had. They cheered me on and shortly afterwards we reached another town, Mustafapasa, as the moon took over now the sun had set. As we left the town and ran back onto the trail I put my torch on and gained pace on runners ahead who were still struggling with the low light or stopping to search in their backpacks for their torches. One guy clearly tried to keep up with me, probably knowing we weren’t far from the next aid station, and piggy-back on the light from my head torch. I was having none of it though and picked up the pace. I could hear him grunting as he dropped further and further back. I didn’t do it purely out of spite, but more so because of the sound of his poles. The sound of other runners’ poles tip-tapping on the ground really annoys me in races.
From here I ran all the way into the next aid station. It was a smallish one just off the main path. I sat down and began drinking Coke and eating pieces of apple. The volunteers here were very friendly and supportive. One volunteer asked if I wanted salt. I didn’t, but I did think it was a good idea as my legs were very tender and with the cramping I suffered at half way I dived straight in, pouring the sachet straight into my half drunk Coke. Ew. What was I thinking. Salty coke was not pleasurable. It was knocked back though.
As I left the aid station another runner caught me up and asked me if I wanted music. I absolutely fucking did not want any music. I like music. I hate it on a trail run though. I hate it even more at night when running and it was a beautiful night so far. Peaceful. Clear skies. Glistening moon and stars with the lack of light pollution. Nope, I didn’t want that spoilt with some tin-cup music out of a phone speaker. I think my blunt reaction made it awkward as we were then walking/running together in silence. He also had poles tip-tapping on the floor, so I used a small climb as a chance to take a piss and let him go on ahead. Thankfully that worked and I never saw him again.
We then began a monstrous climb. I knew this was coming, but was secretly hoping one of the many smaller ones leading up to it was actually the ‘big ‘un’. Sadly my attempt to count the hills had failed. Although this was one of the biggest climbs on the course, at 500m it shouldn’t be particularly troublesome. But, unexpectedly it was like a sand dune. So dusty/sandy. Every step my foot would submerge to the ankle. It made the climb slow and difficult. Nothing else to do though other than keep trekking along. The subsequent descent was no better and the run down very sandy also. I gave in to the pain and discomfort and let gravity take control and I just ran it all (it felt superhuman at the time, but it was only about 3km), kicking up sand everywhere. I was constantly coughing and found it difficult to breathe and see as I made my own mini sand storms (the light from the head torch struggled to penetrate through all the dust). I passed Sarah on the down hill and powered into the aid station.
I felt good. For a while I’d been thinking that a sub 20 hour finish was possible. I was averaging around 9min 30 per km throughout so had about 30 minute buffer on a 20 hour finish time. However, each climb would eat away at that average and we had three big climbs to get through in this second half. The run down after the first one had a big impact though and I clawed back nearly 10 mins. However that soon vanished… As I sat down at the aid station and emptied the sand out of my shoes, I asked for soup. I still needed to keep fuelling properly to sustain the final 30km push. The soup was so hot though that I had to wait for it to cool a bit. As I did I got very cold sitting there so dug out the arm warmers. Those minutes gained were ticking away so I used the time to plan ahead and rearranged my bag making sure I had more food accessible and also changed my head torch battery now so I wouldn’t have to do it again later on. As I was faffing, Sammy arrived and shortly afterwards Sarah did too. We all moaned about the ‘sandy bastard’ and got excited for the soup!
With my soup consumed I set back out, accepting that a 20 hour finish was probably now out of reach and distracted by the cold. I was hoping I’d soon warm up from running/hiking which, thankfully I did. Although I immediately then had cold feet when the route took us across a wider/fuller river section which I spectacular mis-timed my attempt to jump across. Dammit.
I began the second of the big climbs. This one about 400m. It was a decent path though with a wide track and it was not as steep as the previous one. I was thankful it was more forgiving than the last climb and hiked up quickly. Up top was a longer flattish section than the previous mountain. I powered on in full ultra hike mode. I was averaging 9 minute kms when walking. This was faster than my average pace and faster than the 10min kms average I needed to sustain a sub 20 finish. I stated to believe a little again but couldn’t be bothered to run and didn’t need too – as we joked the next day, I’ve a pretty good power hike and I teased its all inspired by Shakira and ‘hips don’t lie’. I was in a happy state now and was content with however it would finish from here. Two more aid stations to go and still enough time for ten mins rest at each. I believed it was back on.
As I walked this whole section I vividly pictured a flip-book cartoon of my inner body system functioning through races. I’ve often described to friends how I visualise the ‘boys in the command centre’ who run the show from the inside. This time I saw them all. All the internal body parts and their controllers, the conversations and messages flowing through the command centre. The instructions being followed to process the food, to engaged the legs and run, power up the power hike mode and so on. It kept me entertained for quite a while. Maybe one day I’ll attempt to draw it out.
I ran the descent and once more made up some time. I pushed it for another 3 km or so until I arrived at the aid station in Karlik. It was so hot inside the building. I took water and left straight away. I felt strong and I didn’t need a rest nor the sweltering heat of the aid station. There was 20k left to go and I felt surprisingly good. I had everything I needed after my bit of prep at the last stop and knew the soup would kick in sooner or later, plus I had Kendal Mint Cake ready to eat and get a sugar high from. So I just cracked on.
There was one big climb and descent left to the final aid station. My optimism after leaving Karlik was soon diminished though. The climb was off path. It was very uneven underfoot with lots of rocks, uneven lumps of foliage and dirt and at some points quite steep climbs. It was not going to be as forgiving as the last section. I kept on walking. I passed a few runners and a few familiar faces passed me. One couple I’d caught up with were running very consistently. We leapfrogged each other now on and off for a few km as when I hiked a climb I’d power passed and they’d eventually overtake me on the flatter parts running. I gave into the temptation to keep playing this game and followed in behind them as we began the descent. It was technical. Not super technical but rocky and steep none-the-less. It was rather painful on the now very sore feet. Clearly they’d left one of the hardest sections to the end of the race! I wasn’t in a happy place any more.
It felt like a lifetime to get to the final aid station. But eventually I did. There was nothing here to entice me to hang around as it was just a tent on the mountain. So I filled my water and joked with the volunteers. Next stop, the finish line. 10 km to go. I’m outta here…
The first task was a final, shorter climb up the mountain again. From here a short stint along the top once more before descending down the other side. Once up top I began running. It was still rocky terrain, but everything was falling into place again. There is always a point in a race, no matter how far from the end you are where you know you’ll get to the finish. I’d passed that point and was full of belief. The energy levels and confidence were high. After so much caffeine over the last 20 hours I was wide awake (all the Tailwind I’d drank since 5pm at halfway was caffeinated!). I caught up a lot of people as I began to descend, confidently whizzing past them. Another guy up front looked familiar. It was Paul! I wasn’t expecting to see him but here he was. I screamed out to him, terrifying him in the process. I carried on running the downhill and he soon fell in line and began running with the momentum too.
A short while later we came off the trails. We were somewhere in Urgup now. Maybe 3 km to go. Here the route twisted around the town as we’d make our way back to the start. A long gradual climb through the streets was not an exciting finish. Even less so was the very, very steep but short hill as we went through a building site and some back ally near a fancy hotel. It was probably the steepest climb on the course! Thankfully though it was then downhill to the finish as we hit a cobbled side street down to the start line.
Unplanned, we crossed the finish together. Maria and Ale, the legends, were there at 02:30 in the morning to cheer us in. Their support at this ridiculous hour was incredible after their own exhaustions of running their own races earlier too. Shortly after finishing we heard the sad news that Yvette had withdrawn at 100km. An incredible achievement to get so far on a very difficult route and enduring her own struggles over the 20 hours. We grabbed our stuff and finishers merch and headed back up to the caves (great, more climbs!) where we found her waiting in the cold outside the rooms.
Cappadocia was done and, for Paul, redemption after his DNF (did not finish) a few years earlier. I finished the race in 19 hrs 24 mins. Far faster than I was expecting and a strong finish in 76th position sharing joint second Brit with Paul hahah.
On reflection, I’ve no doubt that my strength in this event was my adaptability and able to think forward. I was acutely aware that it’s a long game. It always is. I’d mentally settled in for 20-24 hours of running. So when it was all a struggle early on I could think clearly that what I did now (at that moment) would affect me later on. It wouldn’t help immediately. There is no secret pill or easy fix in ultra running. You can enjoy the moment but you have to be thinking ahead. Hours ahead. In this case knowing after a troublesome first 30km a bonk was inevitable if I didn’t address the problems and start fuelling properly. I’m proud of myself for this one and turning it around before it got the better of me. All hail the boys in the command centre!
Looking back over the data from my run, I’m impressed with how my second half pace and speed per section didn’t drop off too much from the first half, despite factoring in the elevation, difficult terrain and general fatigue. The second half was very consistent. The chart of my race position ranking constantly improving after my early difficulties in the first 30km also brings a smile to my face. A satisfying end to the race indeed!
The Stour Valley Path ultra, or more specifically, the SVP100, has become somewhat of a tradition. A grounding point. A yearly adventure and a pilgrimage for me in some way.
What started as my second ultra back in 2017 has turned into the one place I return to run. But why? I always say it’s because I’m collecting the set of tee shirts, that has been my why for this event. But every year I find out there are more to obtain by hitting new milestones. There is nothing unique about it either, there are many runners out there who are years ahead of me in their collections, some having run the SVP100 every year since its inception. Still, this is my journey…
After my first three 100k finishes I opted to volunteer in 2020 as it was just one week after a 100 mile adventure on the North Downs Way. This time, 2021 I signed up to the elusive 50km which would complete my colour set of t-shirts. Whilst I’m weak and always sign up to the biggest challenge, my 2021 plans should have seen me racing in the mountains of Norway the week before the SVP100 (it didn’t pan out that way!). Opting for the 50 was also the wisest choice.
So here I was, a little lost on Saturday morning as, rather than starting at 7am, I found myself making my way across London to Sudbury to start at 1pm instead. It felt odd. It felt a little disorienting. I rocked up at the start line which was very unfamiliar, as the 50km course does a short loop before joining the 100km runners along the Stour Valley Path to the finish. None the less, a familiar welcome from Matt (the Race Director) sent me on my way.
I started relaxed. This section was very flat. I was full of energy tough and even in a relaxed state I struggled to contain myself a little as we ran along the single track paths after leaving the riverside. We set off in small groups of 6 or so and as I entered a field a few kms in I could see runners stretched out far into the distance. We all said hello to each other and wished good fortunes for the day ahead as we passed and exchanged places. I briefly saw Agata and carried on my way with my fresh legs taking me probably a little too fast.
Before long we joined the SVP and looking back in the distance we could see a 100km runner heading our way. I wondered where I would be if I was doing the 100km this day, not this far along the course that is for certain! I chatted with many runners and one common theme was the black ‘3-star finishers’ tee I was wearing. It was a conversation starter for sure. Runners were amazed I’d finished it 3 times, claimed I must know the way and I was the one to follow, they told me about their past finishes and their own journeys to obtaining the black t-shirt and even joked something must be wrong with me if I was only doing the 50km (actually, there was that too, a pesky Achilles was troubling me for quite some time and I was stubbornly running through the pain with so much strapping and tape around my ankle). Truth is though, these conversations made me smile. They were a huge ego boost. I felt like the biggest, most bad-assed person on the course that day. We can’t deny we all enjoy a bit of a verbal pick me up! Ultimately though this just kept me running harder and faster than I probably should have been.
The hours and kilometres ticked by and passed ever so quickly. This last 50km of the 100km SVP is the more undulating and hilliest part of the course. There are plenty of short sharp climbs to break up the mostly flat path. I reached all the familiar checkpoints and aid stations and was welcomed with the usual buzz and support from the fantastic volunteers. Everything was going well. My Achilles didn’t start hurting until probably about 20km in and even then it was a manageable pain.
Besides running a little too fast for my current fitness level, the one mistake I made was to start filling my bottles up from the High5 powder available at checkpoints rather than use the Tailwind I’d brought with me. It’s a mistake I often make on the shorter ultras and I should know by now what will happen – cramps. My body is accustomed to the Tailwind solution and the added sodium content. When I switch to other products with less salt in them…. yeah, I cramp. It was a scorcher of a summer’s day too. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I started cramping around the 40km mark! I had been fuelling well though and was far ahead of the finish time I’d set out with. So I started to walk more for the final 10km.
Along the last section I was playing leapfrog with a number of people I’d chatted to throughout the day. There was a friendly lady on the 100km who was running very strongly and full of enthusiasm, another 100km runner on his way to a 7-star finish (an immortal in my eyes! what an achievement). And another lady on her way to her first ever 100km finish. After a few kilometres the man vanished off ahead and I didn’t see him again as he chased his fastest finish time.
With just a few kilometres left, after the diversion on the route, I was trucking along quite comfortably, recognising familiar landmarks of the route. We were running along a path which I recalled and I had a feeling we’d soon be leaving it, back into the fields. There was a gate, I tried to go through it but it was locked. So I carried on. Through the bushes and over the other side of the fence I kept thinking I was going wrong. I checked my route and I was. I did need to go through that gate. I was confused. I tracked back and then saw a bunch of runners the other side of the fence. I knew it. How?! Turns out the padlock on the fence didn’t stop you lifting the latch (something I didn’t try as I only tried to slide the latch out). All was good again. Every year I miss a few turnings on this race!
Before long I was coming back off the roads and looping around the filed and heading towards the finish line. Here more familiar faces welcomed me and gave me my medal. It was by far the earliest (and lightest!) I’d ever finished the SVP course. It really makes a difference not doing the first 50km!
After a quick shower I was soon walking back along the roads to the train station eating the customary sausage and chips from the rugby club. A sub 6 hour finish was far faster than I intended and once more my Achilles was on fire. Time to go home and get ready for the next adventure.
Now I have the full colour collection of Green, Black, Yellow and Grey SVP t-shirts. The only question I have to ask myself is now I’ve chased the tees, do I keep going back and chase the stars? Time will tell…
‘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!!
Whilst out on a recce run of the NDW100, a group of us discussed various runs later in the year we were hoping would still go ahead (Covid innit) and which were on or near the NDW. Two that were on the list were the Eden valley Ultra and the Farnham Pilgrims Marathon. They were the same weekend in September though. Arlene had an idea – double weekender! We all agreed to sign up. Only Arlene did….
I did sign up to the Eden Valley Ultra, and got as far as the registration screen for the Farnham Pilgrims Marathon. Only I didn’t complete the registration as it said there were over 400 places available. I held off. A few weeks later, whilst running the Fox Way, we found out that the Farnham Pilgrims Marathon had sold out. Doh. Arelene was booked into a double weekend on her own. Oops.
As the weeks went by, with some luck I managed to get on a waiting list and subsequently obtained a spot on the Farnham Pilgrims Marathon. We were back on! Little did I think that after the NDW100 I would not want to spend much time on the North Downs Way again. Oh well.
Shortly before the race weekend the organisers announced the protocols they were putting in place to ensure the event went ahead safely. One of which was dedicated start times. Arlene was starting at 07:20 and myself 2 hours later at 09:10. We said we’d see each other at the finish line, and we did….
The week before the race I was speaking with Rob from the Wild Trail Runners who had also signed up. He kindly gave me a lift to the race, which I’m so thankful for as it started in the middle of nowhere if you weren’t arriving by car. Upon arrival you were requested to arrive no more than 20 mins before your allocated start time and to wait at your car until your wave was called forward. Rob was starting at 08:40 so I had a little longer to wait in the field until I was beckoned forward. Temperatures were checked and wrist bands issued rather than numbered bibs. A short wait in a taped off area before we were released onto our marathon journeys.
With the first steps I was aching. After a fairly speedy 50km the day before, it is fair to say my body had definitely not recovered. I was also probably grossly under fuelled for such an adventure having missed lunch the day before as well as being in a calorie deficit from the race.I knew it was going to be a long day ahead and I was full of acceptance of the torture I was about to endure. Everyone from my wave had overtaken me before we’d made it out of the starting field (probably about 20m!). I was at ease.
I joked about the start of the race being in the middle of nowhere, it is, but it was also very familiar to me after the NDW100. The start was in The Sands, along the road on which the Farnham Golf Club is, which was about 3 miles into the NDW100. Today we ran around the roads on the other side of the golf course and continued around Seale, we’d come back through the fields I’d run during the NDW100 on the way back to the finish. After Seale we rejoined the North Downs Way as we passed through the instantly recognisable Totford Woods and on through the village of Putenham. I was passed by many runners up to this point, thankfully though most were the half marathoners who were speeding passed and who turned off at Puttenham. We passed through Puttenham Golf Course which I again recognised from the NDW. Here though is where we deviated from the NDW and, rather than following the NDW towards Guildford, we took another set of trails further south which saw us run along many single tracks, stables, and country lanes until we reached and crossed the A3100 further south along the River Wey. We then followed the river and snaked along the trails for a few kilometers near Chantry woods.
Whilst the trails were new to me, they were similar terrain to the other trails along the Surrey Hills – sandy and bumpy. Lots of short sharp climbs and lots of trudging through loose sand tracks. In these first ten miles my legs only felt heavier and heavier and the quads and hamstrings burned with the extra effort to push off from the sandy tracks. It was also another scorcher of a day. Thankfully there had been a few water stops already and these were going to be ample throughout the course, or so I thought – the one section they weren’t, was from here to St. Martha’s on the Hill, probably where I needed it the most.
As we edged closer to St Martha’s the incline began to increase. If you don’t know it, the church is on one of the highest points along the Greensand Ridge. Situated just outside of Guildford along the NDW, it is a trail frequented by runners. It’s not the highest nor hardest climb in the area, but it does take some effort.
I’ve never approached the hill from this route before. First we passed a field with lamas, before we started gradual climbs through desolate and barren (recently harvested) fields, before zig zagging up some sandy trails from the south. I soon realised where along the ridge line we were emerging. Along the way the same woman passed me twice, first powering past me, the second time making up for time lost after a wrong turn. I was more confused by her when I saw her for the second time. Up top I was out of water, huffing and puffing from the climb and had a dry mouth from my failed attempt at eating a Clif bar. I thought there might be a water stop at the church but it wasn’t. I had to continue down, tracking west along the NDW for a little longer before reaching the much needed water stop which was nicely situated in some shade. I took a few minutes here and used about 2 litres (1 in my bottles and 1 to drink / pour over my head). It was a very sweaty day now. From this point I was seeing a lot of runners now. Both those over taking me and those I was catching up from earlier waves.
Refreshed and cooled, I had a nice little jog on the go as we descended back towards Guildford. My legs were now more numb than painful and the shuffle was consistent. We broke off from the NDW again as we followed the trails up to Pewley Down (which had some amazing views!) before following the NDW again back to Puttenham Golf Course. Along the way I took advantage of every water stop I passed. Refuelling and pouring a bottle over my head to keep me cool. I was struggling a bit in the heat.
Back at Puttenham we turned off for the final set of trails I was unfamiliar with. Now we followed pretty much the route that the half marathon took earlier in the morning. Well, I thought I was unfamiliar with the trails but it turns out we had a short section along the Fox Way which I recently ran too. I recognised a sign on a gate about not leaving dog poop on the trail! After this we ran a few hilly sections passing through Puttenham Common which I really enjoyed. I enjoyed the hills, because I didn’t have to run, I enjoyed the views which were spectacular and I enjoyed the ponds we ran alongside. I was surprised how many more beautiful trails there were. I hadn’t thought I’d be seeing so much more of Surrey on this run.
Emerging back into Totford Woods we had about 3 miles to go. I knew what was ahead now as we’d have a long straight stretch through some fields that we bypassed on the outbound journey when we went via Seale. Here the photographer was waiting to snap us. Out of the fields it was a slow and gentle incline along the roads back to The Sands. Just before entering the field I passed a runner dressed as Superman doing his 100 marathon. Impressive. I cheered him on before taking out my Buff to cover my face (as requested from the organisers) as I entered the finish line. I plodded on in, collected my medal and found Rob and Arelene patiently waiting at the van. It took me about 9 minutes less than the day before (8km shorter). I’m undecided if I enjoyed it…..
I did enjoy the new trails I experienced and the stunning Surrey Hills and countryside. I also enjoyed the marshals and all the volunteers from the Rotary Club of Farnham Weyside. Everyone was so helpful and cheerful. The people really do make the event and I’ve heard in ‘normal’ years there is an abundance of cake and home made food during this marathon!
I didn’t however enjoy the experience of back to back races. I’ve not yet been seduced by multistage events (although briefly considered registering for the 2021 Dragon’s Back race but thought better of it!) and doing my own back to back has only reinforced that this isn’t for me right now. I prefer the challenge of being in the moment and persevering rather than stopping and starting again the next day.