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!!
Since I started writing down my memories and running adventures, I’ve also summarised each year in a single blog. No different this year, only the content is a little blurred and includes a bit more personal snippets than I usually care to divulge, this being my running blog and all!
So where do I begin? Chronologically of course, but is it possible to recap the year that was 2020 without mentioning “the situation”. Probably not. It sucked for most people. Covid-19 that is. I don’t want to focus on it, but I have to acknowledge it. Like everyone else, it wasn’t the year we expected or planned for. So what started off looking like another action packed year of adventure with races spread across the year ended up being more fragmented with an unbelievable adventure followed by months of lockdown, a frantic flourish of running adventures before ending the year back in lockdown. It really was a year of good, bad and ugly running…
Way back in January, in the shadow of Brexit, I left the UK late on the evening of the 31st January and began my planned adventures as I flew to New Zealand. The concern of Covid was becoming real and changes at airports and public places were starting to be seen. One week spent exploring the North island of New Zealand with the ‘Trail Maggots’ made me forget all about it. I felt untouchable on the other side of the planet. So off to Rotorua we went as I kicked off my year of running with my virgin ‘miler’ – the 100 mile Tarawera Ultra Marathon. My journey had begun with, once again, my biggest challenge yet!
Tarawera – What an experience! What a physically and mentally draining experience at that. But what a rewarding one. Crossing that finish line after 27 hours running around the spectacular lakes, mountains and waterfalls made me feel invincible. A hero to myself. Inside, my achievement gave me that warm satisfactory glow we all desire. I wore my finishers pounamu for weeks. Less so out of pride and more out of fear of losing it. I’ll never earn another medal like it!
Straight after Tarawera I spent another two weeks exploring the South Island of New Zealand with incredible adventures planned with Jorge, Natalia and Sean. I was now officially back at work (remotely) and was fortunate to be able to manage my time and squeeze in plenty of runs and hikes with the others. I didn’t want it to end, this was a dream. I still think about it. The space. The mountains. The tranquillity. New Zealand is a phenomenal place.
Next stop, for another week of work before two more weeks of holiday, was a stop over in Bali for a small piece of rest from running and hiking which, sadly for me, didn’t live up to the touristy hype. The places I visited in Bali were beautiful and dreadful at the same time. Still, I met Amir a few times on my travels here, ran around the Mt Batur volcano rim and recuperated a little ahead of the next adventure.
The next one really was the adventure of a lifetime. Adventures in Borneo. So much to say here. The Maverick team. Joanna, Richard and all the guys at Adventures in Borneo. The group of other runners, all the guides. The jungle. The rivers. The pineapples. The warm and welcoming Borneons… What a country. What an adventure. The only thing that would have made two weeks of running around Borneo (and seeing Orangutans) would be to have finished it off with a race. Oh, wait… I did! On the last day of my adventure I ran the Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon and finished in the top ten ahahaha what?! Told you it was like a dream!
The dream quickly became more of a nightmare though as I left Borneo as they entered a nationwide lockdown and made my way back to the UK. I had just two weeks left in my job and I was now panicking about where the work will come from as, the moment I touched down I was advised to collect my laptop and work from home for the remainder of my contract. The UK I’d returned to was unrecognisable. And not because of Brexit which had dominated our lives for so many years. Within a week of my return the UK had too entered a state of emergency and a national lockdown soon began.
Two weeks after I’d flown home, I joined thousands of others in the rapidly growing unemployment community as the lockdown was enforced and the future became bleaker. I was lost. I was worried. Coming back from 6 weeks away to find I was now out of work was not ideal. Still I was thankful. I had a roof over my head, my health and some savings. I tried to remain positive but did find I was bored very quickly. Even doing all those DIY tasks I’d put off for so long and getting involved with various Instagram challenges (including walking steps everyday throughout April) didn’t occupy my mind enough. Turns out work really does give us a purpose in life! A fortunate turn of events in May meant I did find work again thankfully. I was one of the lucky ones.
And so lockdown continued. Race after race was cancelled. I, like many others faffed about rearranging flights, accommodations and trying to recoup money wherever I could (and now in December still am!). The lockdown brought other benefits though. I found myself running semi frequently. Although starting work again I soon fell out of this routine as I struggled to adapt to a new one entirely built around staying in my bedroom for the majority of the day working. Then, a new challenge lay on the horizon though and my running increased once more. The Centurion Running Community One event. I planned it with a personal challenge – to run the entire Capital Ring route with Paul. What an adventure, what a challenge, I was focused once more. In June, just as lockdown began to ease, we set off on an incredible adventure and a challenging one given the circumstances (access to food, water and support along the way was severely impacted). In just a few weeks though I’d refocused my mind, had a purpose once more and even managed to explore many new routes locally within London in the build up.
Fortunately, as the summer progressed, I maintained running thanks to the series of virtual events organised by Maverick Race. I’ve never been one to get involved with virtual events but these were with a difference. It wasn’t just a “off you go, do what you want” approach. They set up their event village and joined in with us each time and flooded social media throughout the day. It did feel like the closest substitute for a real event and provided a buzz that had been missing for so long. What a community!
In the middle of it all there was also a trip to Chelmsford to run with Joe. Joe and I, along with some others, had been doing various press-up challenges throughout lockdown and out of the blue Joe decided he wanted to run a marathon. So he did. With just a few runs under his belt he jumped straight in and ran a full marathon. What a guy!
As the lockdown restrictions continued and the cancellations came one after the other, wiping out my race plans, I was thrown another unexpected challenge. I had a place in two races on the same day in August and I hadn’t yet pulled out of either. The trip to Norway was inevitably cancelled but the Centurion Running NDW100 was still hoping to proceed. Suddenly, I was in line for another 100 miler again 6 months after my first. How had this happened!? This wasn’t the plan.
With just two months to re-plan and yet again refocus my mind for the next challenge, it is fair to say the training and build up was utter pants. I’m sure it was for everyone with the uncertainty. Truth is, by this point I came to accept that I’ve wrecked my body. My legs ached and hurt constantly. I’ve said it for a while. My approach is not sustainable. I can’t keep running so many long distance events and take the weeks off in between. I need to get back to a consistent level of running and training. The consistency I started to see at the beginning of lockdown was a thing of the past. But, hands up, I’m an addict. I can’t stop myself looking for the next challenge and signing up to more events and places to explore. I can’t convince myself to rest, repair and begin again. Maybe that would be my next challenge – To find wisdom and search for that sensible bone in my body, before I break that too.
And so, August came…. Further lockdown easing along with changes to operations and protocols meant England Athletics started to agree permits for running events to begin again. NDW had been given the green light. 100 miler numero deux was on. It was happening.
It was a formidable challenge. Turns out a heat wave decided to hit the UK that week. As if it wasn’t going to be hard enough already now we had temperatures of high 30s to battle against also. Battle I did and with the help of Nick and Jon as my crew and pacers I earned my 100 mile buckle to go with my Pounamu. 55% of runners DNF’d that day. Perhaps I was still benefiting from running in New Zealand and Borneo earlier that year and had some heat acclimatisation still!
The following week I returned, hobbling, to my favourite event – the Stour Valley Path 100 – for my fourth time. This time though, not as a runner. I volunteered to earn my yellow Tee and give back to an event that I partly hold responsible for my fascination (obsession?) with ultra running. Thanks Mathew! After experiencing the Covid protocols from a running perspective the week before at the NDW100, it was surreal to experience it from the volunteer side that weekend and be part of ensuring the safety and wellbeing of other runners chasing their goals.
Two weeks later came my first ever DNS (‘Did Not Start’) at the Wild Boar ultra in Bulgaria. We felt it wasn’t right to be swanning off and travelling the world during a pandemic so, instead, I went to Brecon with Jon and co. It was a sort of gentle easing back into running after the rigours of the NDW. I could have risked it and gone to Bulgaria but it wouldn’t have been the adventure I signed up for without all the others there too. Plus, I found the comparably small hills along the North Downs Way far more challenging than I expected. My Mountain legs were gone and I really would have struggled with the elevation of the Bulgarian mountains!!
After the adventures in Brecon, I was now booked into a double weekender with the Farnham Pilgrims marathon the day after the Eden Valley 50km. Earlier in the summer, as races were cancelled I started to book replacements. This worked out well as races started to get the go ahead but with limited places, they were selling out fast! The Eden valley Ultra was a joy. My first run with the Runaway Racing team and a beautiful looped course just South-East of London. The sun was shining for a super warm Indian summer day. I met Arlene and Jon and set off alone to chase a sub 6 hour finish. Coming in about 5 hours 20 with a big smile on my face I headed back to London to rest ahead of the following Day’s adventure.
The Farnham Pilgrims Marathon was also far better than I expected. Only because It ran along some of the NDW100 route, I assumed it would all be too familiar, but it wasn’t. The sandy course took me through parts of Surrey Hills I’d never explored before and I enjoyed running in the sun once more. The legs definitely felt the pains from the previous day and I completed the marathon in a similar time of just over 5 hours. The support from the Rotary Club throughout the event was top notch. We were well looked after despite the restrictions they had to put in place.
Shortly after my double weekend, we received confirmation that the Cappadocia Ultra Trail in the Urgup region of Turkey was cancelled. We’d expected this and thankfully I hadn’t booked the flights to Turkey yet and didn’t have to worry about chasing any additional refunds. I deferred to 2021 and started crossing my fingers once again. I’ve heard such amazing stories of Urgup and I’m itching to get out their and explore.
September was finished off with my maiden trip to the Peak District with the Maverick Race and their X Series event. This was my first of the X Series events and I was excited to pop my Peak District cherry too. The weekend was fantastic, travelling and exploring with Nick, Ale and Maria. Nick and I ran the whole route together and were accompanied with Daisy who we found at the start line. It had been almost a year since we’d run together and it was great to catch up and hear about all the changes in the last year.
I had such a good time in the Peak District I immediately told the Maverick team I was available to volunteer at their Surrey Hill events the following weekend after my own plans for that weekend were cancelled. A group of us made the way down from London to help out which involved running part of the course, marshalling a road crossing, screaming and shouting into the rain and then helping sweep up the course markings after the final runners. It was good to be out volunteering again and it made me reflect on the different volunteer roles I’d supported events with over the past year. Definitely reach out to event organisers and offer up your support if you are contemplating volunteering.
Still high with excitement I managed to bag a last minute place in Maverick’s X Series Dorset ultra too. I was hooked. Ignoring the recurring aches and pains from all the running I’d been doing. At this point I couldn’t shift my mind from thinking that, all going to plan, with the remaining events I had booked in I’d be able to hit my 50th Marathon (official event of a marathon distance or longer) before the end of the year. It was a goal, a target now!
Maverick Dorset was like picking up exactly where we left off a few weeks earlier. A group of us headed down to the coast and the next morning left the starting line together for another 54km adventure. Through the morning rays we stuck together laughing and enjoying our adventure for 30kms or so until we split off into pairs to finish the day. More beers and Jimmy’s coffee awaited at the finish line before we headed back to the hotel to stuff our faces on some amazing fish and chips like champions.
The following weekend I was heading down to the somewhat familiar trails of the Beachy Head Marathon – I’ve run this course before, on the 30th December 2017, just as I started getting into trail running. But that was a social, group run. It wasn’t an organised event and now it was finally time to go and experience the route under race conditions. It was a tough day as I did set myself a time target for this event. After speaking with Paul and the cancellation of our planned trip to the lake district, I was now planning to be pacing Paul to a sub 20 hour finish on his SDW100 run in a few weeks time. With some incredibly basic math, I needed to be sure I could comfortably run a sub 5 hour marathon on the South Downs. This was my opportunity and I set out and achieved just that. It did give me some confidence as I’ve become so used to just plodding along and enjoying myself too much to care about finish times!
The next day, I headed back down to Eastbourne to help Jon crew Elisa and Lou on their South Downs Way 50 miler. It was great to be back on the other side of the fence and supporting and cheering once more. The girls were phenomenal and both ran a brilliant race to beat their goal and target time. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone mess about and enjoy a 50 mile run quite as much as they did!
I was now heading into a busy period with more back to back marathons and ultras. Next up was another first, the inaugural Wild Trail Runners Marathon as organised by Weronika. A few months earlier I’d offered to help support and run the route with her. The aim was to complete a trail marathon in 6 hours. No pressures. I just needed to help guide some runners depending on the numbers and local restrictions. It was back on the North Downs Way and running from Guildford to Merstham once more. There were about 13 of us so we split into two smaller groups and set off for what we knew would be a wet and miserable day. It certainly was wet, but not miserable as we slipped and slid along the trails. Sadly two runners dropped out before we reached Box hill so we reformed into the original larger group when Weronika and her runners caught up with us. Weronika pulled off a fantastic day and we were all treated to a Wild TR branded beer and a homemade medal for our efforts. I didn’t know then, but it was likely that this bonus medal was to be my last and final medal of 2020…
Arriving home that Saturday evening, everyone’s least favourite Boris announced that England would be back into lock down for a month. Within hours it was confirmed, the SDW100 was cancelled – I’d no longer be pacing next week. The Wendover Woods 50km was also cancelled and soon after it was confirmed too that the Camino Lea Valley ultra would also go the same way. My adapted plans to complete my 50th marathon in 2020 were over. There were bigger things at stake once more and rightly so.
This set me thinking. It was time to do the sensible thing. It only took a second bloody lockdown for some sense to be knocked into me. It was time to rest. With the Cheviot Goat scheduled to be just 4 days after the lockdown was proposed to end, my expectations for it to go ahead were small. My intentions to start the event if it did proceed, they were becoming increasingly smaller… a few weeks later it was indeed cancelled and I deferred to 2021.
And so it was the most opportune time to rest I would have for the past 3 years. 2020 has taken its toll on me physically. I achieved a lot. A helluva lot! 3 of my 5 furthest runs had been completed this year. I did it without any structured or even routined training. I lost a lot of fitness and winged a lot of my events. I relied on my brain and experience (no bad thing!) and to some degree just shrugged my shoulders and got on with it. I was in physical pain. For months now, during each run, no matter the distance, my right leg hurt. It started with a calf pain after the Tarawera Ultra Marathon in February. It morphed into a shin pain after I ran the Capital Ring. Then since the end of summer it was my ankle that was the problem. It was weak. It felt brittle. It hurt a lot even when I wasn’t doing anything. My mindset was simply to normalise it. If it doesn’t hurt any more intensely when I run, then I’ll just keep on running. After the last marathon in October, I had similar pain in my left ankle too. Great, twatty twins for legs. Constant pain wasn’t a good enough reason to stop and rest in my mind. But, Boris had thrown me a lifeline. An opportunity. I had nothing to run for in the next four weeks. Removing the Cheviot Goat from the equation meant I had no goal or focus until the beginning of 2021. Suddenly I had time to stop. Time to rest, to repair and then to rebuild. My Lockdown plan became clear in my head. I planned to not run (yes! Not to run!) for 6 weeks. 6 weeks without pounding the ground, 6 weeks with a shift to low impact exercise to maintain fitness and strength. 6 weeks to allow my body to heal. I’d then start again, easy and low mileage and build it up gradually. The goal was to give myself a chance, a chance to get through 2021, as the way things are lining up, 2021 will fuck me up even more than 2020 did! What I was doing was not sustainable. A new approach is needed, a new beginning was required.
This had become my biggest challenge and thankfully the lockdown removed a lot of the temptation to run which made it easier. It didn’t however remove the temptation to plan and sign up to more events which I succumbed to way too easily. I made it through 5 of the 6 weeks. I was happy with that. I could have made it to 6 but I started exposing myself to running again and the temptation became too much. I felt good. I felt like I’d had a strong and consistent 5 weeks and vowed to continue the strength training, yoga and cycling that I’d reintroduced to my daily routine. 2021 was inching closer and I had new goals and targets to prepare for…
That was the year wrapped up. 2021 is now full of deferrals and substitutes and packed more tightly than 2020. 2020 started amazing, went rockier than the Trans Gran Canaria of 2018, but, somehow, I ended the year with almost 50 marathons under my belt (by completing another 8 official events). Wow, how did this happen? I vividly remember telling people about my plans to do my first ultra just 3 years ago. Here I go though, cracking on, I’ll hit that 50 milestone in 2021 for sure and might as well target the 100 at some point. For fucksake Dai…
Final Thoughts….I am in control. My happiness is paramount and everyday I have the courage and ability to protect that happiness. 2020 came with challenges, heartbreak, fear and more worries than I’m comfortable with. Difficult decisions and obvious sacrifices were needed and there were plenty of mistakes made along the way. Whether it is running or my personal life, I know I can, I’m sure I can and I will and I do. I trust myself and know I’ll never forget what I can control and what I can change to achieve what I set out after.
In last year’s recap I noted down some standout memories, so I thought why not, lets do it again…
The lakes of the Tarawera 100 Miler in New Zealand. Just stunning.
Borneo Ultra Trail. The mountainous landscape and dense jungle forests and Mount Kinabalu as the backdrop
Maverick Peaks. Talk about unadulterated skylines. Hardly a building in sight. Not the highest, but a spectacular landscape.
North downs Way. I didn’t set out to do a second hundred mile event in 2020. But as I approached it, I did want to make sure that the first one wasn’t a fluke. This was supposed to be easier than the first. It turned out to be harder. One of the toughest I’ve done. A heat wave in the UK, my body was drained. My mind was constantly fighting. The 55% DNF rate says it all. I’m proud to have completed this one.
Borneo Ultra Trails. The heat and humidity on this race is by far the worst I’ve ever experienced. It was a long hard day out in the jungles of Borneo. Powered by fresh Pineapple and a rest of well over an hour where I didn’t stop sweating at the halfway mark got me through. Jumping on a 15 hour flight 10 hours after finishing was probably not the best decision I’ve ever made!
Let it be known that you can measure the difficulty of a run by your love of the Chair! The state of me!
Tarawera. My first 100 miler. Like any first, it will linger in your memories forever. What a place to experience my first 100 miler. Everything about this event was fantastic. I’ll never forget this achievement.
Best Kit Bought
Tough one, I’ve not had to buy much this year as I already own far more kit than I need. Almost by default it goes to the Adidas Terrex Agravic Split Shorts. Less the ‘best’ and more the ‘new’ item of kit I’ve enjoyed the most – I needed new shorts. The shorts are proper short but kitted out for trail running with multiple waistband pockets and pole holders. They are made of pretty much no material (not reflected in the ridiculously expensive price!) but are so comfortable to wear.
Most overused Kit
Inov8 Roclite 275G. Damn these shoes are like slippers and boy are they tough and hard wearing. They’ve been on all the big runs in the last year. I’ve now switched to using them for the last half of these races (which in a few cases have still been 80km runs!) as they are so comfortable and offer great protection when my feet are a little worse for wear. The Graphene grip is fantastic too.
Squirrels Nut Butter. You don’t run 100s of miles without chafing and the Nut Butter is by far the best anti-chafe solution I’ve used. My skin would be non existent without this!
Fav Race Swag
Maverick Race won this one. For all their events, besides a medal you get items from their many sponsors. Iced Coffee, beer, protein bars, protein shakes. Whatever goes on the day of the event you are doing. One thing is for sure, when you finish, you struggle to carry everything you’ve just been given. Most generously, this was also reflected in the virtual event series Maverick put on in 2020 with many vouchers, discounts and stickers arriving in the post for the events you completed. These guys know how to please us!
There were a lot of dogs on the trails this year. There were two standout candidates though…
The late comer that was Bruce with his little bowtie – a ‘borrow my doggy’ dog that Nick started bringing on runs. Boy can this lil’ fella run and he’s the quietest dog I’ve ever met.
Then there was little Bonnie who took us on a run around the Thursley Nature Reserve in Surrey. She started off unsure, but a few hours later was chasing me around the field.
Thought of the year
“That was a good few miles of running!!” After what would always turn out to be just a few 100m of running during the tail-end of the NDW100 event. Time and distance were certainly distorted for me!
When Nick offered me painkillers in the NDW100 my response was “nope, don’t fuck with the boys in the Command Centre“. Got to keep the mind clear and stay focused, pain and discomfort is a remainder of the reality of the situation.
Fav Trail snack
Pineapple. I’ve never tasted pineapple as good as that fresh pineapple growing on the Pineapple Ridge in Borneo. It has always been my favourite fruit but this took it to a new level!
Without doubt the Tarawera 100 mile finisher Pounamu. I will probably never receive such a fantastic finishers gift again. Personal, chosen by me from the hundreds of variants on the finishers table. Earned, not bought. This is something else!
Most memorable moments
Running around London with Paul. it made for a great Strava map!
Finishing the NDW100 knowing that it meant the first 100 miler I finished wasn’t just a fluke.
The end of the rest period!! I was glad to be back running again.
Most beneficial training
Toss up between stairs (again) and yoga. Let’s go for yoga. 20 minutes a day has now become part of my routine. Never have I stretched so much in my life! To be fair, I did try yoga for the first time in the most spectacular of places in Borneo…
2020 was not all that bad it seems, but lets not be too positive – let’s get some miserable shit in here as well this year, simply because I’m a grumpy Grinch…
Most irritating comments of the year
“This must be easy for you”. This always feels like some sort of backhanded compliment smothered in self pity at the same time. Here’s the thing, no, no its not. No run is ever easy and they can’t be compared. For example, having run a longer distance previously doesn’t make a shorter distance run any more achievable or certain.
“What’s your next race / what have you got lined up?”. I may just be a grumpy twat, but this always feels like a bit of small talk and an opener for someone to just brag to you about what they have coming up.
“I couldn’t do what you do”. That’s bollocks. You can. Anyone can. I’m not special. What you’re really saying though is “I don’t want to do what you do”, because if you did want too, you would.
Social Media trends that annoyed me the most
Boosting one’s self worth by offering some much needed “top” tips to nobody who asked… oh it’s warm, top tip – drink water and hydrate when you run. Never thought of that one. No one cares.
Advertising the water repellent fabric on your (gifted) trainers by running through tiny puddles. Sigh. No one cares.
Measuring your trail running CV by the amount of mud on your shoes/socks/legs. Well done. No one cares.
The ongoing need to demonstrate one’s resilience to weather by captioning that you are wearing shorts. Congrats, we can see that. Guess what… No one cares.
The Instagram inception stories… you know the ones where I share a story you tagged me in and then you share my story and I share your story of my story of your story and down the narcissistic rabbit hole we go. Yep, No one cares.
Posting a story of your own post on Instagram. Got to hit that “look at me” algorithm. Still, No one cares.
I could go on but I won’t because clearly I do care. Dammit.
Worst recurring song lyrics stuck in my head
“Have you ever put butter on a pop tart, its soo frikken gooood…” Cheers Nick. It’s been lodged in there for months
On my last few runs it has been “Scooter – Fck 2020” that has been stuck on loop. Every so catchy/terrible and certainly the song of the year.
This was one of those events that wasn’t on my radar at the start of 2020. After The Maverick X Series Snowdon was cancelled, I changed my entry to the X Series Peaks event instead. The Maverick Race team have been incredibly accommodating throughout 2020 with all the cancellations and deferrals. I was excited by the change, you see, I’d never been to the Peak District before. I’m not sure how that was the case seeing as I like to go and explore with running, the Peak District is a trail runners paradise! Now though I would finally get that chance thanks to Maverick Race!
There were a lot of familiar faces heading from London to the Peak District and unfortunately, due to changes to the Government restrictions the week of the race, we ended up forming smaller groups to be compliant. I’d be heading north with Nick, Ale and Maria. Nick even added me to the car insurance for the weekend as it was a long journey and it would be the longest event he’d raced since he started running – his legs may not have been up to the full drive back to London!
We spent the night before the race over indulging in some fantastic food at a nearby restaurant Jon had kindly booked for us. I sure did over indulge that night and struggled to get to sleep as a result. Thankfully come the morning though I was ready for more food and Nick and I managed to get the hotel to make a bacon/sausage sandwich we could take on our run. Ale and Maria were running the Marathon distance so we’d meet up with them again after the race as Nick and I had another 13km or so to run and so started earlier.
We walked over to the event village, registered with ease (as is typical at a Maverick Race) before seeing all the familiar faces we knew – Alan, Gif, Claire, Yvette, Ben, Jon, Elisa, Lou, Sophie and Daisy, as well as all the recognisable faces volunteering and working the event. Chatting away, we all started moving into the funnel of runners being let off at 10 second intervals. Nick and I lingered fairly near the back chatting away to Daisy, Sophie and Gif. Before long it was our turn and we stepped forward together as the Geezers of Maverick Race rang the bell and sent us off on our adventure. Leaving the field Jake snapped our pictures and we exited onto the trails as we slowly began the first of many many climbs we’d experience.
The initial route saw us run alongside a hill on a cambered, single track path before joining some wider gravel trails. We lost Gif here and carried on chatting with Sophie about the day ahead. We walked the hills enjoying the company as many other runners began running past us. As always, what goes up must come down and we were soon running through some open hillside paths heading to the forest in the distance. After a brief spell of running we were reunited with Daisy and began catching up on the many months since we last ran together at the end of 2019! Plodding along with enjoyment it wasn’t long before the first marathon runner whizzed past with “Calves like bollocks” as Nick excitedly exclaimed.
It was about 4 miles in now and I was getting desperate for a toilet, which was bad timing as we approached the delight of the park surrounding Chatworth house. Sadly far, far too public to escape and relieve myself! The view of the house was spectacular in the morning sunshine. We ran through the grounds and alongside a river before exiting through a medieval kissing gate that rotated.
After leaving Chatworth house the trails began to climb again, initially up a steep road through a village and then through the dense forests of Froggat Woods before summiting near the Froggat Stone Circle. Up top there were loads of cows chilling out on the paths not one bit bothered by the runners huffing and puffing up the climb. After running the undulating hill with uninterrupted views of the surrounding area, we began our next descent which was fairly short but one of the more technical parts of the course with lots of wet, slippery rocks to navigate.
We emerged to the first aid station where we proceeded to refuel. Prawn Cocktail crisps catching my eye and getting the taste buds flowing. As we walked on, stuffing our faces, some eager runner started shouting “out of the way” as he barged through us. We were all thinking the same thing – “who is this Jerk?!” before realising it was Ale with his GoPro. Classic. He’d made maybe 20-30 mins on us after his later start, however we managed maybe just 50m together before we hit the course split where we diverted for the longer route. No sooner had we said hello then we were saying our goodbyes.
The split took us on the next climb through Bolehill Wood, just as Nick started eating his breakfast sandwich. It was steep, occasionally the hands were needed for some extra support. Not a good time to eat, and neither was the next section as we ran through some stunning white tree forests. Nick cursed at us loudly as we made him run. The route climbed and we briefly sumitted as we circled around Over Owler Tor and the vast open space of the peaks greeted us with incredible panoramic views before we ran off through some open heather-dense trails and a short decline to a road crossing.
From here we looped around the highpoint of Higger Tor and began the next long climb to the highest point on the race (a gradual climb over about 2 miles of distance). We walked and talked, enjoying everything the Peaks were giving us. We knew up top the delights of the next checkpoint would soon welcome us with another well deserved break. We hiked steadily, passing a few runners along the way including two ladies in hi-vis orange t-shirts. I remembered earlier thinking they were marshalls, but we never quite reached them. It made sense now. We also passed a couple and the girl was visibly struggling a little. They said they were ok and continued behind us as we navigated the busy trails with many walkers and hikers.
As we reached the short flat break before the last bit of climbing to the summit we saw the aid station in a tourist car park. Spenny was out there (clearly very cold in the blustering wind) supporting the runners and we spent our time chatting away as I devoured more Prawn cocktail crisps and stocked up on Haribo. Spenny sent us on our way and told us to look out for Jake taking more pictures up top. We were too slow though, we met him way before we even began the final short climb. We stopped once more to chat and as we did Sophie came jogging passed us and insisted she was running for the photo. We clapped and cheered her as Jake worked the lens.
After saying goodbye to Jake we took another moment to stop and to take out some layers and gloves. A few mins chatting at each stop, plus the exposed trails and high winds meant we were suddenly feeling the chill. We knew it would be worse further on so took the chance to address it early on. Good call! Up top was very chilly! The winds were strong and we hit them head on. Loads of walkers were enjoying the views here and we joined them for some photo opportunities before trudging on and running as much as we could across the rocky trails.
The trails were undulating and we constantly switched between a slow run and walking. With all our stopping on the way to the peak, we’d been passed by all the runners we caught on the long walk. I could see the two “Hi-vis ladies” in the distance. We ran on and saw the Maverick signs direct us sharply left where we’d begin our descent. I hadn’t seen the ladies turn off. I was certain they carried on straight and were now lost to sight of the lumpy terrain. A climber heard us discussing it and confirmed he saw them run on straight. I told Daisy and Nick to continue and I’d go after the runners and then catch up. I sprinted on straight. It wasn’t long before I could see them and soon after they could hear me shouting after them. They figured out my waving gestures and headed back towards me. I turned around and started back after Nick and Daisy, bounding down the descent with a smile on my face, but now hot. Very very hot! The faster running meant I was suddenly overheating and had to start stripping the layers away again when I caught them. About half way through the descent we reached a road and stopped once more as Nick then needed to take his jacket off. He didn’t look great and vocalised it well. He was “bonking”. 18 miles in and his legs were hurting and he needed a moment. He drank and ate and re-composed himself. No shame in admitting when something is tough. When running ultras you need to recognise these moments. Understand when they are happening and learn not to ignore them. Taking the time to address and correct them is key to continuing the race successfully. He managed it very well – he just needed a moment to refocus and agreed to continue the descent and we’d stop again at the bottom. We were moving once more and completed the descent through fields and single track paths as we headed towards the village of Hathersage. Marshals directed us through the streets and we found a quiet road to take the rest we promised.
Nick sorted himself out, finding what he needed from his pack and taking a painkiller to ease the cries from his knees. As we started out again we were joined by Gif. We carried on together for about half a km before we stopped again as we found Paul King from the Maveick Trail Division team out on the course checking runners were ok and the trail markings were still in place (There were some issues with course signs being removed the night before the event!). I was loving all the stops to chat to the volunteers and Maverick Crew. It is such a friendly company and set of events.
After leaving Paul we ran about 4 miles of fairly flat trails through more fields, alongside the river, down through allotment paths and country parks surrounded by more towering trees. We took turns to spur each other on, continuing to chat as we had non-stop all day. I could hear Nick talking away and I led on, knowing he was distracted from his aches and pains. We caught up and lost Gif once again on this section as we left Froggat. We passed another field with some young cows happily lazing on the trail path. We hoped Gif would navigate them ok – there were loads of them and they didn’t look like they would be moving anytime soon!
We had two more short but steep climbs to overcome near Stoney Middelton before we were running in the forest once more. It was tough here. We’d covered more than a marathon and the path was slightly inclined and very straight. We kept moving. Head down. Nick leading the way, high off the kick of his painkillers. We kept repeating to each other “keep going”, passing walkers as we persisted to get through this long straight, torturous trail without stopping. Eventually we did, emerging into more fields before beginning our climb up the long wide gravel path. It was another slow and ongoing hike as we walked past the quarry. We knew this was the last climb though and just a few miles would be left once we reached the top. But it felt like forever.
Eventually it came to an end and we were once more heading down, for the last time. After crossing a recently ploughed field, we joined the Monsal Trail. A walking and cycling path near Bakewell. We had about 3 km to go. No problem. Only the 3km felt like double that. It was flat, more gravel, straight and full of families and young children cycling. It was dull after all the beauty and excitement of the last 7 hours. Nick was storming ahead, getting it done. Daisy and I followed on behind him.
As we came off the trail and headed back into the Showground we knew it was done. One last run down the showground road to the finish line. Smiles all around, relieved to be off the Monsal Trail, relieved to be finishing the run, relieved to soon be heading home to warm up and eat more great food!
We hit the finish line stretch, I pulled my buff over my face and crossed the line. There were loads of our friends there cheering us in. We joined in with beers and medals as we too cheered in Gif who finished shortly after us. It was just our group and the Maveric Team remaining and for me this sums up the spirit of Maverick Race. What a community, supporting and cheering, helping out and creating an inclusive environment for all kinds of runners. Thanks again Maverick Race!
Whilst out on a recce run of the NDW100, a group of us discussed various runs later in the year we were hoping would still go ahead (Covid innit) and which were on or near the NDW. Two that were on the list were the Eden valley Ultra and the Farnham Pilgrims Marathon. They were the same weekend in September though. Arlene had an idea – double weekender! We all agreed to sign up. Only Arlene did….
I did sign up to the Eden Valley Ultra, and got as far as the registration screen for the Farnham Pilgrims Marathon. Only I didn’t complete the registration as it said there were over 400 places available. I held off. A few weeks later, whilst running the Fox Way, we found out that the Farnham Pilgrims Marathon had sold out. Doh. Arelene was booked into a double weekend on her own. Oops.
As the weeks went by, with some luck I managed to get on a waiting list and subsequently obtained a spot on the Farnham Pilgrims Marathon. We were back on! Little did I think that after the NDW100 I would not want to spend much time on the North Downs Way again. Oh well.
Shortly before the race weekend the organisers announced the protocols they were putting in place to ensure the event went ahead safely. One of which was dedicated start times. Arlene was starting at 07:20 and myself 2 hours later at 09:10. We said we’d see each other at the finish line, and we did….
The week before the race I was speaking with Rob from the Wild Trail Runners who had also signed up. He kindly gave me a lift to the race, which I’m so thankful for as it started in the middle of nowhere if you weren’t arriving by car. Upon arrival you were requested to arrive no more than 20 mins before your allocated start time and to wait at your car until your wave was called forward. Rob was starting at 08:40 so I had a little longer to wait in the field until I was beckoned forward. Temperatures were checked and wrist bands issued rather than numbered bibs. A short wait in a taped off area before we were released onto our marathon journeys.
With the first steps I was aching. After a fairly speedy 50km the day before, it is fair to say my body had definitely not recovered. I was also probably grossly under fuelled for such an adventure having missed lunch the day before as well as being in a calorie deficit from the race.I knew it was going to be a long day ahead and I was full of acceptance of the torture I was about to endure. Everyone from my wave had overtaken me before we’d made it out of the starting field (probably about 20m!). I was at ease.
I joked about the start of the race being in the middle of nowhere, it is, but it was also very familiar to me after the NDW100. The start was in The Sands, along the road on which the Farnham Golf Club is, which was about 3 miles into the NDW100. Today we ran around the roads on the other side of the golf course and continued around Seale, we’d come back through the fields I’d run during the NDW100 on the way back to the finish. After Seale we rejoined the North Downs Way as we passed through the instantly recognisable Totford Woods and on through the village of Putenham. I was passed by many runners up to this point, thankfully though most were the half marathoners who were speeding passed and who turned off at Puttenham. We passed through Puttenham Golf Course which I again recognised from the NDW. Here though is where we deviated from the NDW and, rather than following the NDW towards Guildford, we took another set of trails further south which saw us run along many single tracks, stables, and country lanes until we reached and crossed the A3100 further south along the River Wey. We then followed the river and snaked along the trails for a few kilometers near Chantry woods.
Whilst the trails were new to me, they were similar terrain to the other trails along the Surrey Hills – sandy and bumpy. Lots of short sharp climbs and lots of trudging through loose sand tracks. In these first ten miles my legs only felt heavier and heavier and the quads and hamstrings burned with the extra effort to push off from the sandy tracks. It was also another scorcher of a day. Thankfully there had been a few water stops already and these were going to be ample throughout the course, or so I thought – the one section they weren’t, was from here to St. Martha’s on the Hill, probably where I needed it the most.
As we edged closer to St Martha’s the incline began to increase. If you don’t know it, the church is on one of the highest points along the Greensand Ridge. Situated just outside of Guildford along the NDW, it is a trail frequented by runners. It’s not the highest nor hardest climb in the area, but it does take some effort.
I’ve never approached the hill from this route before. First we passed a field with lamas, before we started gradual climbs through desolate and barren (recently harvested) fields, before zig zagging up some sandy trails from the south. I soon realised where along the ridge line we were emerging. Along the way the same woman passed me twice, first powering past me, the second time making up for time lost after a wrong turn. I was more confused by her when I saw her for the second time. Up top I was out of water, huffing and puffing from the climb and had a dry mouth from my failed attempt at eating a Clif bar. I thought there might be a water stop at the church but it wasn’t. I had to continue down, tracking west along the NDW for a little longer before reaching the much needed water stop which was nicely situated in some shade. I took a few minutes here and used about 2 litres (1 in my bottles and 1 to drink / pour over my head). It was a very sweaty day now. From this point I was seeing a lot of runners now. Both those over taking me and those I was catching up from earlier waves.
Refreshed and cooled, I had a nice little jog on the go as we descended back towards Guildford. My legs were now more numb than painful and the shuffle was consistent. We broke off from the NDW again as we followed the trails up to Pewley Down (which had some amazing views!) before following the NDW again back to Puttenham Golf Course. Along the way I took advantage of every water stop I passed. Refuelling and pouring a bottle over my head to keep me cool. I was struggling a bit in the heat.
Back at Puttenham we turned off for the final set of trails I was unfamiliar with. Now we followed pretty much the route that the half marathon took earlier in the morning. Well, I thought I was unfamiliar with the trails but it turns out we had a short section along the Fox Way which I recently ran too. I recognised a sign on a gate about not leaving dog poop on the trail! After this we ran a few hilly sections passing through Puttenham Common which I really enjoyed. I enjoyed the hills, because I didn’t have to run, I enjoyed the views which were spectacular and I enjoyed the ponds we ran alongside. I was surprised how many more beautiful trails there were. I hadn’t thought I’d be seeing so much more of Surrey on this run.
Emerging back into Totford Woods we had about 3 miles to go. I knew what was ahead now as we’d have a long straight stretch through some fields that we bypassed on the outbound journey when we went via Seale. Here the photographer was waiting to snap us. Out of the fields it was a slow and gentle incline along the roads back to The Sands. Just before entering the field I passed a runner dressed as Superman doing his 100 marathon. Impressive. I cheered him on before taking out my Buff to cover my face (as requested from the organisers) as I entered the finish line. I plodded on in, collected my medal and found Rob and Arelene patiently waiting at the van. It took me about 9 minutes less than the day before (8km shorter). I’m undecided if I enjoyed it…..
I did enjoy the new trails I experienced and the stunning Surrey Hills and countryside. I also enjoyed the marshals and all the volunteers from the Rotary Club of Farnham Weyside. Everyone was so helpful and cheerful. The people really do make the event and I’ve heard in ‘normal’ years there is an abundance of cake and home made food during this marathon!
I didn’t however enjoy the experience of back to back races. I’ve not yet been seduced by multistage events (although briefly considered registering for the 2021 Dragon’s Back race but thought better of it!) and doing my own back to back has only reinforced that this isn’t for me right now. I prefer the challenge of being in the moment and persevering rather than stopping and starting again the next day.
The morning started with a trek. The train station in Cowden was a little over 2km away from the event base, but we had plenty of time. It would serve as a great warm up, we did have 50km to cover that morning so the legs would need a bit of time to ‘wake up’.
Upon arrival, the registration was straightforward. No queues, no fuss. We walked straight up to collect a number and timing band from the familiar face of Ashley who welcomed us and ensured we were registered efficiently. We were pretty much good to go, we just had to wait for the start. As we waited near the start line we met John and Arlene introduced me to the Race Director – Chris – from Runaway.
The start of this race took the format of segregating runners into 3 groups based on expected finish time and then, from 09:00 onwards, runners would start at roughly 10 second intervals from one another. I went into the sub 5:30 starting group with my mind set on aiming for a sub 6hr start. A little ahead of myself on the starting group but I thought this would be a better approach than going in the sub 6:30hr group.
Our group was called forward and one by one we tapped our timing wrist bands on the scanner and set off to subdued applause and cheers from the other runners lining up. Out the gate we went and ahead of me was a gentle stream of runners bounding off into the woods. I turned my headphones on and settled in for the adventure…
The beginning of the course was beautiful. We trod through vast woodlands and open fields with the morning sun beaming down on us. I felt good and had a smile on my face although It was far hotter than I’d anticipated and I knew come midday this could be a struggle. As a result I probably set off much faster than I intended. But that always seems to be the norm in running events!
We ran south and back towards the village of Cowden where, after exiting a field I took a wrong turn. I felt it almost instantly. So far the route had been well signposted but I hadn’t seen any tape when exiting the field or on along the path I was now running. I slowed and started to turn on my GPS navigation to check my whereabouts. As I was doing so three runners came up behind me and we all felt unsure this was the right way. Our instincts were correct and we back tracked and found our way back along a road that joined back up to the route.
We carried on together chatting away as we entered some wide open spaces and began a long and gradual climb through some more fields. I walked on as they hustled up the climb more quickly. What goes up must come down and from here we entered the woodlands of Marshgreen and enjoyed a long downhill section surrounded by towering trees. Chris was on point along this section directing runners where he thinks some signage had ‘gone missing’. Out of the woodland we emerged to the first of three checkpoints where we were able to refill our food and water as well as tap in our timer bands. There were two other runners leaving as I arrived and I’d see very few other runners for a while after this.
From here the route was again very runnable with a mixture of hard packed fields and road sections. As we neared the second checkpoint the route began a slow and gradual climb as we’d reach the highest point on the route and the two biggest climbs we’d have to navigate. First though was more deep woodland and forests to keep us entertained and focused as we avoided tripping on tree roots.
As I neared Toys Hill the incline increased and I walked on at pace. I knew there was a short downhill section coming that I could recoup some ground. As I built up the momentum the road forked. To the left was a trail sign marked with a cross, so I continued forward and down a long drive way into someone’s garden. Normally I’d be concerned but in the race briefing we were advised that the route would take us through people’s gardens and that it was normal. It had already happened a few times but this one felt ‘off’. Up ahead were two other runners looking very confused. To the left I could see a path the other side of a wired fence hidden in the woods. We backtracked all the way to the fork with the cross sign and saw the path entrance. It was a little confusing and I’m sure we weren’t the only ones to make that mistake this day!
Back on track we ran the undulating hills as we made our way to Idle hill. Just before the next climb, with one of the runners close behind me, we emerged from the forest path into another wide open field on a hill. We had no idea where to go. I was ready to check the navigation again as a passerby asked us where we were trying to get to. In a confused daze I said “I don’t know” as we looked around the field. Right in front of us though was the event photographer waving frantically and directing us. How we hadn’t seen him now seems silly!
Shortly after this we emerged to another road section and the second checkpoint with Ashley among the volunteers cheering us in. The other runners had now left me for dust again and I stopped to chat with the volunteers as I refilled my bottles. Another runner arrived and immediately stated his intention to withdraw. He was the last runner I would see until the final checkpoint some 10km later.
From Idle Hill we’d be making our way in a South Westerly direction towards Leigh. This section was probably the toughest for me. It was now midday and very warm. The hard packed ground from lumpy fields was starting to make my feet hurt and there were a lot of pathed tracks and roads to navigate in this section too. It was a case of head down and keep moving forward. The route was mostly downhill which led to some consistent stints of running.
Around 25 miles into the race I arrived at Leigh and could see the volunteers at the final aid station flagging me down across a greenspace/park. I enjoyed more chats with the marshals, acknowledging how delightful the route was (with the exception of the road sections!) and they gave me an overview of what was remaining. As I was leaving. Another runner arrived. For the first time in the race I felt an element of competitiveness and wondered if I could hold them off for the final 10km or so that remained.
From Leigh we’d be heading to Penhurst which I recalled being mentioned in the race briefing. First though we’d follow a river for a few short kms which was another delightful change of scenery the Eden Valley Ultra offered runners. After a short but steep climb we had a gradual incline which I mostly walked as we arrived up into Penhurst Gardens. From the outside this looked spectacular with its old stone walls and Historic Market Place entrance. Next we zig zagged through the village high street before rejoining the trails for the final few kms back to the event base and where we started.
It wasn’t over yet though as the course finishes with a lovely uphill section with two noticeable climbs. The first being the hardest of the two and I almost missed the turn as you double back on yourself at the summit and alongside the path inside a field. From here it was the now familiar combination of open fields, woodlands and road crossings before we re-joined the path on which we began our journey in the morning.
I ran past the turn we took after the first km or so and knew the finish was just around the corner. I took out the GoPro and for the first time recorded myself crossing a finish line. Without thinking I filmed as I checked out my timer band and completed my 50km.
I finished up with a beer and a chat with Chris before spending some time sitting and cheering in other runners as I recovered. I soon set off on the slow walk back to the station with my legs beginning to cramp. It was now a race to recover ahead of the next challenge – The Farnham Pilgrims Marathon which I’d be starting in a little over 15 hours time….
There is never a perfect night before a race. The real rest is the few nights leading up to it. Despite all our best efforts and intentions, there are just too many factors beyond our control and too many thoughts racing through our excited minds the night before a race. You have to deal with what you’ve got. My less than perfect night before the Centurion Running NDW100 started well, checking into the Bishops Table hotel with ease as my hosts efficiently navigated the COVID restrictions imposed on usual operations. After check in, to my delight, I found I was in the room opposite Gif. Great for a quick chat and to wish each other well for the adventure ahead. Then I tried to sleep…
I made one mistake – I put too much Squirrels Nut Butter ‘Born to Rub’ muscle balm on my sore leg. As I lay awake, eyes closed and sweating in the hot room whilst listening to the boy racers revving their cars down the main road, my leg progressively started to burn. I ignored it for as long as I could until I felt I was on fire. I had to go back in the shower and wash it off. School boy error. My early night and planned 8 hours sleep was not going to happen. I did eventually nod off and woke at 04:00 the next day upside down on the bed and rather drowsy. I clearly had a restless night. I text my crew – Jon & Nick – to let them know I was on my way to the start and to expect me to be hitting the caffeine hard in 12+ hours time…
Walking to the bag drop at the leisure centre I realised I hadn’t sync’d the route to my watch. For some reason I couldn’t then do so. A minor inconvenience but not a problem, the route is well marked and I’d recce’d it all so wasn’t worried about not having it immediately available. At bag drop I met Jack who was doing the heavy lifting on bag duty and he sent me off to the start line a short walk away.
It was odd not registering or checking in, but that wasn’t as weird as the new rolling start line. At the North Downs Way sign we had a photo taken. Two runners were just heading off before I arrived and one joined just after me. Snapped, we were sent onwards to the trail head where the Centurion team took our temperatures and cleared us to run. No mass start. No big hoo-ha or send off. A low-key time trial-esque start over two hours to spread out the runners. It was about 05:45 in the morning and my 100 mile adventure was now underway.
It wasn’t long before I got the first ‘buzz’ of the day. A lady was standing alone on the NDW under the dawning sky cheering on the runners. As I neared her and noticed her bump I realised it was none other than Helen, a friend of Ally’s and whom was the first female at the SVP last year. This was the first time I’d met Helen and it put a smile on my tired face as I began to process what I was about to go through.
I’d set out with a plan. There was a finish time in mind. Ideally I’d beat my 27 hour finish from Tarawera, my first ‘miler’. All going well I’d push on for a sub-24hr finish. It does sound appealing and achievable, 100 miles in a single day. My plan was as simple as get passed Box Hill as quickly as I could before it gets too busy and too hot. If I could make it to Wrotham (mile 60) in under 14 hours then I’d push on for the sub 24 hr target. With a crew of Jon and Nick standing by to support me and pace me through the night I knew I was in great company.
I was happy in the morning. Fairly speedy too. I was progressing along nicely with no worries in the world. Making small talk with runners I passed or who went by me. I was a little surprised to see other runners but only naively so. I guess I imagined a rolling start to spread-out far more than it did, but the reality is different when you enter a field and see maybe five or so other runners spread out in a line over the next few hundred meters. This did make more sense, especially as we’d all set off according to our estimated finish time so would have the similar goals and pacing strategies. As I neared Guildford I did have to shout after two runners who’d misinterpreted one of the signs and taken the wrong path. Thankfully this was an area I’d run many times so I was able to call after them confidently and get them back on track.
Another change to the format of the race this year was the setup of the aid stations and the removal of the first one to prevent a build up of runners early on. Skipping the first aid station wasn’t a problem given the lower morning temperatures and freshness in our legs. So first up it was Newlands Corner, shortly after the first big climb up to St Martha-on- the-hill. This aid station was going to be a learning curve with lessons for the rest of the day. To accommodate runners safely, it was fundamentally different from aid stations runners have become comfortable with. First up there was a ‘funnel’ set up for runners to queue in safely. A volunteer stood a few meters ahead of the funnel directing runners either into the aid station if they wanted to stop or passed it if they didn’t require assistance. We were advised to wait patiently at a distance from each other and start preparing what we needed to, ready to enter. As we reached the front of the funnel we were directed to the anti-bac to sanitise our hands as we waited for the table and equipment to be sanitised by another volunteer as the last runner departed. There were three tables set up here, each in effect a mini aid station with all the necessary water, Tailwind, food and medical items. When instructed, we stepped forward to a vacant, sanitised station to serve ourselves. Another volunteer waited at the far end of the table to provide support from a safe distance if needed. Once we had served ourselves water/electrolytes and individually packaged food items, we were directed out and requested to sanitise our hands once more as we left. We were then set loose back on the trail. The volunteers, all head to toe in PPE, were fantastic.
So what lessons did I immediately learn from this new experience? Firstly, to think through my hand sanitising routine and handling of bottles. I covered my bottle lids in alcohol gel which I needed to wipe off. Secondly, queuing for a few short minutes would be the new norm. Not all runners were as quick on the update to prepare their bottles and own supplements whilst queuing and naturally it takes a little longer when at the table. Thirdly, the selection of food in pre-packed bags is very convenient and I had to fight back the temptation to grab a bit of everything. Fourthly, whole oranges (rather than slices) are firkken great. I took one to eat and one to carry to have slightly later. Finally, I was glad I was a runner and not a volunteer. Being dressed in PPE in that heat and having to fight back the urge to more directly help runners was going to be a very tough day for them, running 100 miles seemed far more appealing!
After Newlands Corner there is a fairly long and runnable stretch of woodlands. Its really lovely, but one of my least favourite sections of the North Downs Way for running. It’s just relatively flat and it seems to drag on for ever. I wasn’t looking forward to this so early into the run but thankfully I enjoyed another few little boosts. First there was a feint sound of a bell ringing, as I neared the source it turned out to be Matt Buck and his daughter cheering on the runners. Shortly afterwards I passed two more familiar faces, Leo and James, running in the opposite direction. Quick hellos, smiles and shouts of encouragement were very welcomed here.
Arriving to Box Hill the route first takes you down through Denbies Wine Estate. Its a nice long and gentle down hill on pathed roads so I took it easy beforehand and walked the road to the path entrance. With perfect timing, I heard a lady tell another runner she was going to walk for a bit and she’d catch him up. I recognised the sound of her voice, turned around and was greeted with a loud “Daiiiii!”. It was Ally behind me. Despite living very close to each other, we’d not run together since we first met during the Serpent Trail Race in 2018. We ran the rest of the way to Box Hill together and it was so good to share some time on the feet with her again after so long. It was a very speedy jaunt down Denbies too!
I was a bit more organised going into the aid station at Box Hill and managed a few jokes with the volunteers. Filling up on Tailwind once more I also picked up another two oranges and enjoyed them whilst walking to the underpass to cross the road. I said my good byes to Ally as she powered on with the intention to get as far passed Reigate Hill before it got too warm. Wise choice. She was looking very comfortable running today.
At Box Hill this year the route took a diversion. We came off the infamous Box Hill steps about half way up and detoured around the bottom of the hill before climbing further along the trails to avoid the busy tourist viewpoint. I think this was a blessing, those steps really sap your energy! It was here I first met a chap called Nigel who was a veteran of 13 Centurion 100 mile events as well as their intriguing “piece of string” race. We swapped tales and experiences as we enjoyed the climb together.
Further on my energy was quickly drained as I tackled Reigate Hill. Here I realised I was in a bit of bother. Whilst I was fine hiking the hill, when I reached the top and tried to run, my legs just told me to naff off. I’d not experienced this before – I started cramping, bad, everywhere. My calves, my quads, my hamstrings, my groin. Both legs, all parts simultaneously pulsing and tensing up. I tried to run but my legs went as straight as sticks rotating out in circles from my hips. It wasn’t going to work. I set my mind to walking to the aid station which hopefully wasn’t too far away. Up on Reigate Hill there was plenty of open space in the now midday sun. Walking was probably a good thing. I managed a smile with a photographer who sympathised with me. I went easy on myself though, I had covered about 50km in 6 hours or so which was well on schedule for my simple plan. I hobbled on to the aid station and then set off once more, briefly seeing Ally duck out from the cafe with ice cold Calippos as I munched down some prawn cocktail crisps and another two oranges, I was really enjoying the juicy oranges!
From Reigate was a struggle. I think I’ve mentally blocked it all out. There was a lot of walking and not too much running. Suffering with early signs of heat exhaustion already, I was slipping into some dark thoughts. I just couldn’t get the legs to fire up again. The cramping was persistent. I had a lot of salted food in crisps, salted cashews, pretzels and Tailwind and I hoped at some point it would all kick in. I made it to Mersham and the welcome sight of the wonderful ladies who I volunteered with the year before. They gave me some ice in a little packet which I put under my cap and sent me on my way. Next stop, Caterham.
Just after Mersham is a long road used as a crew point location. It was amazing to see so many supporters here. One familiar face I spotted was David Bone of the famous duo DaznBone. He was out there crewing Daz who wasn’t far behind me. Again such a boost to receive a warm smile and encouragement from someone I’d not met in person before. Shortly after seeing Bone I had another boost when I was thinking how much I’d enjoy a cold tap. Almost exactly as this thought crossed my mind a lady running towards me clapped me on and shouted back “there is a cold tap at the end of the church yard”. Fucking yes!!! Unbelievable luck. I was like a hawk seeking it out before practically having a shower in the graveyard. It was bliss. The good points continued briefly as I then passed Ale who’d cycled down to wait on the trails and say hello. Thanks Ale!!
As I carried on to Caterham, those good feelings soon evaporated and it was back to a now familiar story of struggle. I’ve very little recollection other than climbing in what looked like a desolate field and having to take a moment on a log before nature came calling and then further on meeting Ian and chatting away as we walked. We shared stories from our adventures and the day so far as well as comparing the aches and pains we were feeling. We came to the same realisation that one reason we might have been struggling in the heat more than we anticipated is the possible concentration of Tailwind at the aid station. I know from my volunteering the year before that it is difficult to mix such a large quantity and also ensure enough for all runners. Ian and I came to the conclusion though that the concentration was weaker than what we are used to. I made two decisions here to attempt to get my race back on track, firstly, I’d switch to using the Tailwind I’d brought (I guess I anticipated this problem a little) and secondly I accepted I needed to rest for a few mins every now and then. With the new aid station set ups you are very much ‘in and out’ and I think the little rest I’d normally have chilling and talking to runners and volunteers was missing. I decided I’d find some shade at Caterham and sit down for a bit. I also made a third decision – that I’d “DNS” my next race in Bulgaria which was just two weeks away. If I was struggling with the Surrey Hills now, I’d really struggle with a tired body in the Rhodope mountain range. I had to accept my fitness level is far from optimal for what I want to accomplish and, with the rest of my friends having already making the decision not to go, it wouldn’t be the same experience I’d originality signed up for. It was decided. I’d be sensible this time.
I did just as I promised at Caterham, saying farewell to Ian as he wisely warned me not to sit for too long, I sat on a bench perfectly in the shade with a view looking back across the NDW. As I ate more oranges and pretzels a local runner joined me and sat at the end of the bench. We had a delightful chat as he praised us all for our achievements. He was an older gentleman who lived locally and took up running during lockdown. Despite living close by he’d never been on the North Downs before and now every weekend he ran an out and back 25km route. This was the bench he used to escape the sun on the hot days. I thanked him for the conversation and moment on his bench and wished him well. It was a great moment to speak so easily with a stranger on the trails.
After Caterham I momentarily had a bit of a jog on again, the legs cooperated for a while at least. There was another crew spot and as I ran down the forest trails I heard a voice call out “there he is”, looking up I once more saw Bone. I felt like he was here supporting just me. It was great. His beaming smile transferred energy to me, which was much needed as I’d left Caterham completely forgetting about this section to Botley Hill. Annoyingly I thought I was now heading to the half way mark, but I wasn’t, not yet. I was ready for a longer break and some fizzy coke (I always hold off hitting the coke until at least halfway). Botley Hill was a bitch in the heat. The climb was slow and awkward.
The Botley Hill aid station was fairly busy. Maybe somewhere between 5-10 runners arriving at the same time. A real test for the volunteers. They did a great job providing us clear instructions and helping ensure turnaround was efficiently managed. I grabbed a banana and some more crisps to go with my now customary two oranges. I don’t like bananas but I was still cramping badly so was willing to do anything I could to try and calm it down. I found a log and sat down and probably spent about ten minutes trying to chew the banana. I forced it down. I had to. You need to during endurance events. “Can’t eat” and “Don’t want to eat” aren’t acceptable. You need to do everything you can to ensure your body has the fuel to keep going. No excuses.
We were now passing through loads of fields which I recognised from the recces I’d done. It was amazing to see them at a different stage of growth. Some fields which were golden were now lush green crops ready for harvest. Others were down to the dry soil after already being recently harvested. I found it fascinating. I arrived in one and could see runners ahead walking up the next side of the field. I knew here we weren’t far from Knockholt (I took a wrong turn here on a recce so remember it well) and I started power walking. We chatted away with the usual “how you feeling?” ice breaker leading to a general consensus that we all felt absolutely fucked and couldn’t run. None of us could recall the last stretch of consistent running we’d done. Oddly, this made me feel a little better. I wasn’t alone in finding this tough! Out of the field we saw the signpost indicating 1 mile to Knockholt Village. I walked on. An older gentleman soon ran passed me proclaiming “Half a mile to go”. I tagged on behind him and ran it all. The furthest I’d run for hours. I thanked him as we reached the village.
By now it must be clear that I was dinning out on the generous support of familiar faces and strangers alike. That was my energy source this day. Whilst the soaring summer temperatures took my physical energy, it couldn’t beat my mental strength which was being topped up constantly, something I hadn’t planned for. Knockholt saw a massive refill of energy in the familiar shape of Paul Christian. What he was doing all the way out here in Knockholt I did not know. It was great to see him and I’m so grateful for him being there. I was a little out of it, fantasising of the shade of the village hall and some coke, so kind of ignored him as I rushed in the aid station. As too I stared in a daze at another chap, Andy, who called out and said hello to me. Sorry Andy!
Coming back out of the aid station I felt rested. I knew Otford was the next stopping point and I’d agreed a few hours earlier to meet up with Jon and Nick for the first time here instead of later on at Wrotham. In the dark moments of the earlier heat Jon had sensed I was struggling and proposed a new crew plan. Spot on Jon, I can’t thank you enough for making that decision! Leaving Knockholt, Paul walked with me. We chatted away and he gave me some tips following his successful completion of the route last year. We passed Hezel who was getting ready to Pace Giffy and powered on back to the NDW. Fresh with Paul’s energy I started running again. My legs were working. It was starting to cool down. My mind was clearing and I was able to focus on the section at hand, putting the bigger picture to one side for a bit. For so long I’d been thinking of the end goal. Thoughts like “I’ve over two marathons still to go”, “how can I walk 50 miles”, “The cut offs are actually going to be tight today” etc. were poisoning my mind, dragging me down and making it difficult to focus. Now thought I was breaking through them. Positivity was setting me straight. Otford here I come…
There was plenty more running during this section although some serious cramping also hindered me in the still blistering hot evening. At one point as I shuffled passed some runners my legs went completely. I don’t know who panicked more, me or them as they checked in if I was ok as I abruptly came to a stop and wobbled to the side of the trail. All good I assured them. Clearly it wasn’t. The one good thing for my legs though was that they were no longer the primary source of my pains. Nope. My feet had now taken the lead in the pain stakes. Whilst the cooling temperatures and food might help the cramps diminish, nothing was going to happen to make my feet feel better than they did now, and they didn’t feel good. Hot spots and blisters were forming. 12 plus hours of feet slapping the baked Earth was starting to be felt.
The picturesque village of Otford soon came round after a few less than enjoyable kms along some busy main roads. I was looking everywhere for Jon and Nick (having not read the exact location of this crew zone) and eventually found them up near the station. I aggressively waved them across the road, indicating there was no way I was crossing it (later realising they were on the correct side I needed to be on! oops, sorry lads). They sat me down and gave me Calippos. Hell yes. This is what I needed. Jon made sure I didn’t stay for too long, knowing that I’d a planned rest stop in another 6 miles when I reached Wrotham. So eventually he kicked me out of the chair and made me get moving. Top work right there, he knew what he was doing. I would have happily sat there through the night. He also let me know that he and Nick had agreed a new change to out pacing plan. He’d join me from Wrotham rather than 12 miles later. I wasn’t immediately sure what this meant for the rest of the night, but I was very grateful as I was ready for the company now.
Getting to Wrotham was a sweaty mess. There is a lovely climb out of Otford that instantly gets the heart pumping. Along the way families offered ice pops from over their garden fences, unknown to them most runners had just been gorging on Calippos at the crew point. As I progressed through this section, the sun’s rays diminished almost in perfect synchrony as I arrived into Wrotham just as I would have needed to start using my torch. Jon and Nick waved me down and the pit stop began. Propped up in a camping chair, with the Champions League showing on a tablet, I sent Nick off to prepare a Pot Noodle and began my routine. First up, stripping off and having a dry shower. Jon and Nick laughed as I seemed to enjoy this so much, washing my hair, torso and body. Thankfully the feet weren’t looking too mangled at this stage but I took the precautions of adding some padding and tapping the hot spots I could feel. We struggled to get the socks back on and Jon rightly pointed out it was time for me to get new ones (I’ve plenty in a box!) as they were stiff from the amount of dirt and washing they’ve been through. Eventually we won the battle. Shoes changed, fresh kit on, warm food consumed and bag repacked, it was over way to quickly and after a good half hour plus Jon was dragging me out of the chair and forcing me to leave once more. Good man.
The memories go hazy here. I had to question timings and locations after the race with Jon and Nick as I was clearly confused on the order of my recollections. Apparently next up was Holly Hill. I distinctly remember sitting next to a runner in the dark only for Jon to later point out it was a skeleton dressed in running gear. I also had a spot check on my kit here and recall joking with the volunteer. In my mind though this all felt much later in the race, but no, it was still Saturday evening!
I think my memory is hazy due to Jon, in a good way. Now I had company I was focusing less. Jon was expertly ensuring I was on course and keeping me occupied with conversation and pushing me to run when the opportunity presented itself. If the ground wasn’t lumpy, wasn’t inclined and wasn’t endless pathed road, I was good to go. With him leading the way, setting the pace, I was able to keep my head down and focus on where I was placing my feet to minimise the pain. Thankfully the taping saw me good for the first few miles. I do recall one section in the dark we passed some runners concerned that they’d missed a turn as they hadn’t seen tape or signs for a while but we were confident and led the way.
After Holly Hill there was a a fairly long down hill section. The space opens up and we could see head torches in the distance as well as the silhouette of the Kentish country side and Bluebell Hill. I knew from my recces we’d soon cross along the M2 over the River Medway where we’d then meet Nick once more. In the darkness though I was disorientated and moaned a bit as the lights of the M2 seemed so far away. I couldn’t figure out our direction and sighed as we crossed a bridge and I realised it wasn’t yet the M2. We caught up with Nigel along this point and fast hiked the rest of the way together into Nashendarn Farm Lane, looking for Nick. I was looking forward to this stop. Besides being a little over a marathon to the finish (which was a significant milestone in my head as I’d now really be able to start counting down and am always confident in walking a marathon in a long race) it was also our planned ‘treat’ stop. Nick had spent the last few hours waiting in a Mcdonalds. Here he was waiting for us with a delivery burger and fries. It tasted so good.
Calories loaded up, we were back out, hiking the climb to Bluebell Hill. I remember this from the recce too. I’ts a long gradual climb over a couple of kms until you reach the top. The terrain is fairly varied but mostly stony gravel paths which aren’t exactly fun after 75 miles of running. Up top though was another surprise and boost as Paul Christian was waiting at the aid station to say hello once more. What a gent, I don’t know exactly what time it was but it was probably around midnight and he was even further away from home now too. We all had a moment chatting as Nick arrived too before Jon got me back on my feet and onward to Detling. Running down from Bluebell Hill I had a bit of a spring in my step and with the midnight breeze it was the first time in about 20 hours that I wasn’t overheating. Which was good, because there was another fine climb at Westfield Woods soon to come which would make me sweat again. The climb was slow as I awkwardly lunged up the deep steps and loose dirt track. Up top we were once again exposed to the elements, briefly interchanging open fields with single track paths through overgrown foliage. The now familiar process of Jon leading the way, me head down trudging along behind him.
There were prolonged moments of silence. Jon noticed me go quiet, he knew, he’s been through it himself. I was head down focusing. I wasn’t alone in my thoughts though. There was a centurion there too, he was running slightly ahead of me through the woods. He was huge, too big to fit on the path. A bulking mass of metal smashing through the foliage with his gladius. I felt like he was tormenting me, teasing me even. He couldn’t speak, he lumbered on aggressively and I could hear the sound of his armour chinking. A sound which drove right through me. Head down and focus I kept thinking. He’s not my enemy, only I am. I convinced myself he was here to guide me through the night, I chose to use him, to follow him and accept the thrashing sound of metal in the night. He left me as we emerged from Boxley Wood when a few other speedy runners galloped passed on the downhill as I relied purely on gravity to keep me moving forward.
We emerged onto Detling Road with just the bridge crossing left to cover before the next planned long stop at Detling where another Pot Noodle was on the cards. Crossing over the road an Irish accent directed down into the aid station before doing a double take and proclaiming “it’s you guys”. The instantly recognisable accent of Paul Martin! He escorted me in as Jon went in search of Nick who was sleeping in his car. Slacker. Paul saw to our needs, joking away as more runners arrived and slumped into chairs around us. Nigel arrived and I offered him a Pot Noodle, the smell of noodles in the air must have been great as, before we knew it, Paul was running around gathering all the Pot Noodles he could to serve everyone. What a top bloke. He updated us on the now significant drop out rate and gave us motivation and energy to get back out there. Jon and Nick swapped duties here and Nick led me out to begin the last 20 miles, immediately turning the wrong way, thankfully only for a few metres though.
From Detling the route provides another sadistic treat for tired legs which is the infamous Detling steps. After a short climb and winding path around some fields, you descend down very narrow, very steep and very over grown steps. About 50 of them I think. They were slippery with dew and cow shit. I must have moaned a bit here and I wouldn’t have been alone in doing so! The section to the next crew stop was undulating providing plenty of opportunity to hike the small climbs and run the short downhills. Nick continued the pacing theme with a good grasp of the terrain and when to push me on and encourage. Finishing with a downhill flourish we emerged into Hollingbourne which was one of the last minute additional crew points added to the race. I was glad of this addition. Mentally I’d now split the final 30km or so into 6-7km sections between aid stations and crew points. It was much more manageable. Jon met us at the Dirty Habbit pub with more food and water and a quick sit down to rest the now completely battered legs. Morning was slowly breaking and the darkness of night was giving away to the greyness of an overcast morning sky.
Back out. Nick had me on a ‘trot’ to Lenham, the next aid station. From Hollingbourne the rest of the route is mostly gravel paths with very short, runnable (not this time!) climbs before tailing off into a mostly downhill stretch to Ashford. The theme was ‘trot trot trot’ as Nick kept pushing and encouraging me. He’d been looking forward to this and having a run himself after tracking and following me all day. From time to time he acknowledge a good stretch of prolonged running. I’d occasionally be buzzing with it too only to have the life sucked out of me when what I thought would have been a mile or two of solid running would turn out to be a few hundred metres at best. I was at that stage now where the relativity of speed and distances was completely lost on me. That point where you question your comprehension of physics and how it is possible you’ve covered only such a short distance. You recall every detail you saw, every path, tree and field. How?! How can all that exist in such a small space. Fuck you. Ok, two more miles till the next stop. There were definitely moments where my shuffling was based on pure anger and it was the only thing that kept me running until the legs gave up again another few hundred metres later. I even remember moaning at the size of the bank we had to “climb” to get into the Lenham aid station. It must have been about the size of a pavement curb at best, but it felt like the mountains of Madeira to me!
Despite the dark times, the simple pleasures Nick was enjoying was rubbing off on me, pulling me back into the light. “Trot Trot Trot” he’d say, “trot, walk, walk” I’d do. One last crew spot to go as we headed towards Charing. My mind now processing each section with elements of finality. One last crew spot. One more aid station. One more ‘path’ before Ashford…. Jon had text ahead to indicate the road was closed so he couldn’t bring the car to meet us. I told him a chair and lucazade is what I needed him to bring. As we arrived and I sat down, I asked him for water. He gave me that look and laughed “that wasn’t on the list! I’ll go get it…” Thanks Jon! Charing was another spot I was happy to stay at indefinitely. As I stood to begin again my legs were as stiff as two planks. Each rest now required a good few minutes of persuasion to get my knees to bend.
From Charing we headed along the hard gravel path to Dunn St campsite. The path was painful. There is very little enjoyable about this section. The fields surrounding it are lovely, but I’d seen enough fields. The main road wasn’t far away and the sound of morning traffic was an alien sound not heard for hours, not enjoyable. Nick dragged me onwards as once more I’d claim Space and Time were fucking with me. Every turn I anticipated the camp site ahead, every turn the camp site wasn’t there. Eventually it did appear as I was teaching Nick the Polish for ‘chicken’. I can’t remember why. I went to sit down and he went off to play with the chickens at the campsite. The volunteers were great here. Full of energy and excitement to see us. They were working the ‘graveyard’ aid station. The one open for probably the longest duration between the first and last runners, the one many runners won’t reach. They encouraged us to fill up our bags with food and goodies and they let us know there were probably about 60 runners still out there. Some ahead of us, many still behind us.
This was it now though, 5 more miles to go. A short run on the trails and through some fields before the final, dreaded road section to the stadium. I knew it, I could visualise all the road. I was ready for it, I wanted it now, the finish that is. Leaving the trails we began a trot along the road and were soon passing groups of runners. Nick playing Pac-Man, pointing ahead and claiming “we’re gonna eat them up” as he’d set the targets and nicknames for the runners we’d chase down. With maybe 5 or 6 km to go we had about 50 minutes left to get a sub 28 hour time. I told Nick I wanted it, I didn’t care about the other runners. A few minutes later I’d claim someone was catching us or that we need to get passed those ahead of us. I was inconsistent with my thoughts. Nick kept the consistency though, trot, trot, trot.
We broke out onto the main Faversham road and could see dots of runners ahead. We stepped it up. The grey morning was now breaking into a scorching hot day again and we could feel the heat beaming down on us. We got to the intersection of Ulley road with a group of maybe 6 – 8 other runners. It was on. After some jokes and good wishes we all broke into a mad dash. I remember thinking it was way too early to be “sprinting”, but we were. We powered ahead, my watch was saying we were running sub 7min/km pace. Ulley road felt like it went on forever as we pushed hard. Rounding the corner I needed to slow and walk. More runners ahead. I couldn’t do this all the way to the finish. I told Nick to let them go. The few hundred metres we’d need to cover down Canterbury road had a very slight incline which I knew would drain me if I attempted to run it. Two runners ahead, two more went passed. We let them. Up ahead we’d need to go the ‘long way’ round a roundabout, keeping to the right-hand side of the road. The two runners who overtook us cut the corner and went left, passing the other two who followed the slightly wider course. We cursed them.
Around the roundabout we walked and then began running again for the last street. I wasn’t entirely sure how far along it would be (on my recce I’d cut off along this road to run to the train station) but I did know we had three-quarters of a lap of the track still to do. It didn’t matter though, this was it, this was the end. It was almost in touching distance now. We reached the track and followed the signage directing us how to get in. Jon was there cheering and waving us in. Nick started to peel off but I told him to follow me and join for the lap of the track, this was his as much as mine now. I regret Jon also couldn’t join us on the “victory lap”. We paced around the track and began smiling as the final straight loomed. We joked about racing, but it never happened. Instead I ducked my head as I crossed the finish line. What I thought was a perfectly formed athletics-style finish but in reality was probably just me nodding forward and sleepily looking at the ground with my arms flapping like a penguin.
The finish line, despite its subdued set up this year, was great. A volunteer directed me to collect a medal and a t shirt before instructing me where to stand for a finish line photo. Post photo I was directed towards a food tent where I collected a hot dog before moving on through the bag collection and reunited with Nick and Jon for the last time. Shortly after I was butt naked in the car park, changing out of my wet clothes ready for the drive home. It was over. I’d run a 100 miles for the second time, proving to myself that the first time wasn’t a fluke achievement. With a rapid last 5km covered in just under 35 minutes I finished in 27 hours and 45 minutes, sub 28 hours achieved. I was a centurion now……
As the final few hours of the race unfolded it soon became apparent the extent of the difficulties the runners faced as 55% of starters DNF’d, making it one of the highest drop out rate of any centurion 100 mile event. This made me far more accepting of my struggles during the middle of the race and understanding of how alone in I felt. Huge respect to everyone who started that day, regardless of where their race ended, they put themselves outside their comfort zone and were brave enough to attempt something special.
I can’t thank Jon and Nick enough and acknowledge how this really was a team effort. I’ve no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t have finished within the cut-off of 30 hours without these guys. 2 hours sounds like an ample buffer, but the reality of how tight that equates to is another story. Without them I would have run a lot less between Wrotham and Ashford for sure. those spare 2 hours would have evaporated as quickly as a muddy puddle in the midday heat. It isn’t just about the running though. These two sacrificed so much for me on the weekend. they volunteered and agreed to crew me with out fuss, they gave up hours leading up to the weekend in preparation, wrote off their weekend to commit themselves to my selfish desires. They drove miles and miles, spent ages sitting around in the car and at the side of the road, pandered to my every need and inconsistent requests. Not once did they moan or flinch at my demands. they were solely focused on enhancing my experience and doing everything they could to make sure I made it on time. This weekend was a team effort for sure and one I’ll never forget. Thanks gents!
“One Community”. The Centurion Running virtual event held in May 2020 amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic. Not your average event. There are many like it (well, as in many virtual races) in these strange and testing times where groups of runners are coming together to run virtually and tackle the prestigious running events from around the world which are on hold. Virtual events are now the way to get set your focus, obtain your bling bling and hit those highs and lows of running…
I’ve never been into virtual events previously. They don’t really do anything for me and always seemed a bit gimmicky. I like the buzz of the adventure you see, getting out and exploring, experiencing things for real. As the lockdown continued though I got involved in some VRs, mainly in the Maverick Race VR series. If you’ve read my posts before you’ll know I’m a fan of the Maverick team and their events and it has been a great way to support the company in these difficult times.
Then along came Centurion Running with a big one. The One Community. Centurion Running have a series of events like no other. A selection of 4 x 50 milers and 4 x 100 mile endurance events make the backbone of the Centurion race calendar along with a few additional and unique events like their Wendover Woods, night races and the infamous Piece of String. For a while I’ve been contemplating an attempt at a Grand Slam buckle – running all four of the 100 milers in a single calendar year…but I’m just not ready for such a mammoth task. After my stint volunteering last year I have a place in the NDW 100 to look forward to later in 2020 if, big if, the powers that be reduce the lockdown restrictions and we begin to emerge once more into the great outdoors.
The One community (CROC) is a race for all. A chance for Centurion to bring the extensive and loyal community together and celebrate. In their own words “to try to offer our community a way to engage around event but recognising that we can’t do that in person right now. It is extremely important for many of us to have a focus – and our hope is that our One Community event will hopefully provide many of you with that, whilst also offering a chance to involve a wider range of runners than we would traditionally be able to through our regular events. As a result we have set up the Centurion Running One Community virtual event, to take place over the last week in May. This will be the first time we have organised anything like this and we hope it will help bring everybody together behind a shared focus, achieving so much positive interaction along the way.” A great vision if you ask me.
There were a range of options across the week from 5km up to 100mile. Participants could choose how and when they achieve their chosen distance – all in one go or staggered across the week. And that is what I love, it is so inclusive. You could adapt as your ability/fitness/commitments require. During the week you could also upgrade or downgrade too, so you can flex those goals!
I wanted in. I began to plan. At this point I was currently without work, a casualty of the sudden impacts on the job market when, finishing my last role after returning from my adventures in March, I suddenly found myself stuck at home, isolating without a purpose. Yeah it was fun at first, but the novelty soon wore off. I used this time sort of wisely and began with resting. With all my upcoming races being cancelled, I no longer had a focus, no longer targets to be fit nor ready for. I took the opportunity to recuperate a little from the strains I’d placed on my body. As the weeks went by I was able to begin increasing the load, exploring local trails and going further afield as the restrictions eased. During this time I thought about the CROC and soon my plan was set, I knew what I wanted to do.
For a while I’d been tempted to run the Capital Ring in full. A circa 78 mile loop of walking trails around London. What an adventure that would be. What a challenge too – When I first started looking at this route in 2019 there was a Fastest Known Time (FKT) of around 18 hours which, at the time, I thought would be a respectable target time. Now I revisited the Capital Ring again in 2020, in the year or so since my first curiosities, many attempts had bettered that FKT and it was now an impressive 13.5 hours. A target beyond me I knew, which was good, as it removed any pressure of doing an attempt myself and getting sucked into thinking solely about times.
I thought that if I waited until the end of May, the last weekend of the event, to make my attempt, the restrictions might be eased further. I could fill the beginning of the week with the remainder of the miles needed to hit the 100 mile target for the week and have a few days rest before attempting the “longer” run. And so I began to define the plan. Firstly, 78 miles is a long way. It is tough enough as it is without the implications of it being self supported. Outside of race environments this meant no aid stations or check points, no food/water support and no medical assistance. At this time I would not want to be a burden on the UK health services if something went wrong so I thought the best thing to do would be to find a companion. Someone like myself who was willing and capable and ideally someone who’d inspire and motivate me along too. Thankfully I knew many such people and I didn’t have to look far. I decided Paul was the man for this job and floated the idea to him.
Backstory – me and Paul first met during the Country to Capital Ultra in 2018. We kept in touch, joined for various runs and were always training towards similar aspirations. I was able to see him finish the CCC and knew, like me, he too was itching and craving for an adventure whilst caged up at home during the pandemic. Plus being a raving loon of an Irish man I knew he’d bring the “craic” and is a formidable runner who would challenge me along the way. It took no persuasion whatsoever. I mentioned the basis of the plan and he was in.
Ideally I’d have loved to turn this into a mammoth challenge with many of my friends from the running community, but it wouldn’t be the right thing to do. Not now, not during these times. It would be great to pick up and drop people long the way, but with exercising, outdoor pursuits and social distancing all under tight restrictions, even meeting and exercising with one other would be a challenge. Thankfully, a few weeks into the planning the Government eased the lockdown restrictions in the UK with two key guidelines that gave us the green light to proceed: (1) we could exercise outside with unlimited amounts (2) we could meet and exercise with one other person from outside our household as long as we maintained a social distance. We weren’t planning on holding hands so we were in agreement that we felt comfortable to proceed with our plan. It was set.
Time to up the planning…. The first week of May we set about planning it thoroughly. Here are some of the key considerations that we made.
Background Research and the Route
The capital Ring walk is a circular route around London consisting of open space, nature reserves, Sites of Specific Scientific Interest and many parks and residential areas. It is split up into 15 sections. from Woolwich to Beckton. It is easily accessed on foot the whole length. You could start and finish in many places along any section and, conveniently it passes nearby where I live – Crystal Palace. With travelling a consideration of the lockdown guidelines, I’d already, selfishly, decided to start and finish from home. I made Paul aware of this when I first mentioned the idea.
The route is well known. There is a wealth of information available including official route guides, maps and GPX files as well as an abundance of individual reports from walkers and runners completing individual sections or the whole ring. Here are some of the resources I found most useful:
TFL Website – on the TFL website you can find detailed descriptions and maps (PDFs) of each sections. these include summaries of the section including step by step instructions for each turn and the alternate paths. It also includes additional information about nearby landmarks and transport hubs.
Google Maps – there are an abundance of GPS files to trawl through and download. I found the Google maps file to be great as it is interactive and split into the sections ready. Great for virtually checking the route and switching to Google Street View.
LDWA – The Long Distance Walkers Association has a wealth of updates and news about the route as well as lots of detail about each section and the types of things you can expect to see along the way.
Fastest Known Times – this website collates a list of the known times people have completed routes on foot. There is a well documented section on the Capital Ring with many attempts. Many of these link to detailed run reports and insights from other individuals about how they approached it and what they encountered on their adventures.
With this route, starting from home, I’d never be more than approximately 15 miles from home. As a long distance runner I was comfortable with this. no matter the situation, I knew I’d be able to get home on foot reasonably and safely. For Paul, being more central, it would be less. Again, given the lockdown restrictions I also felt this was acceptable as I think I could consider it ‘local’ and it involved no transportation.
With an overview of the route, I set about plotting my own version manually. Using Strava and Google Maps I went through the route mile by mile. I plotted on my own GPX route. There are many GPX files available but I wanted to walk through my own and and not rely on pre-prepared information. For each mile I noted in a spreadsheet, starting from home, where the mile would end and the next would begin. It took a few hours to do so, but now I’d virtually mapped the ‘course’ and compared it to the sections notes available. I had an idea where I’d be at any given point of the day, where the more complicated parts of the route would be and where I needed to spend my attention researching.
So now I knew where we’d be running, it was time to focus on the when. The two questions were ‘when should we start’ and ‘what would that mean for our predicted progress along the way’…. This was particularly important because, whilst under no real time pressures, the route does goes through many parks, public spaces and sometimes restricted areas. Opening and closure times along the route could be a problem, and this would vary depending on where and when you begin. Knowing my own capabilities and comparing to other attempts I knew this was likely to take over 15 hours and many of the places along the route would begin closing from as early as 18:00. Thankfully, attempting this in summer bought a few additional hours to opening/closure times. Regardless, I’d decided starting from home was the best option rather than seeking and optimising the starting location based on the route restrictions and my projected average pace. I’d simply have to make it fit and plan alternative detours where necessary. Besides, after 78 miles of running, I’d be thankful to be as close to home as possible (something I selfishly explained to Paul when I first floated the idea – Sorry mate!).
As I’d have limited opportunity to recce this course, I had to be prepared. So with my mile by mile account I set about noting all the restrictions, all the parks and areas that would be navigated each mile. I projected some average paces (including breaks etc.) and used Google street view to navigate the whole course. By doing this I noted several other things to be aware of and which would require some research. Being unable to travel to far afield (and not wanting to run multiple ultras in the weeks before the event) I decided I could only really recce the first two and last few sections (i.e. from and to Crystal Palace), most of which I was thankfully quite familiar with already. This would cover off most of the south sections of the Capital Ring. I wasn’t overly worried about the north as, if we set off early enough, this would all be during the daytime when restrictions wouldn’t apply as much. With the assistance of Local Council websites I began filling in the blanks and finding out what parts would be open and when. Soon we settled on 05:00 as a good time to start.
From the plan I set about running the sections I’d identified as accessible to me. Nothing untoward was discovered and I used these runs to photograph entrance points of parks as well as notices like opening/closure times. A few parts were found to be closed with diversions either because of local works or simply due to social distancing restrictions. I also checked a few alternative detours such as around Wimbledon Park (which doesn’t open until 09:00 on weekends!).
Paul, being Paul, also took it upon himself to recce some of the route, being further north he recce’d pretty much all the northern sections by the end of May. Result, between us, in a matter of weeks we were confident we had to whole route recce’d bar a few kms. This was far better than I’d expected. I knew Paul was the right man for the adventure!
Prior to our big day we had a video call to talk through our notes and recce runs. We both agreed that the recces were so worthwhile as we were not only able to confirm the opening/closure times and general navigation but also identify those areas that were more confusing due to the multitude of alternative paths and signage (or lack of!). We also discussed the various points where we could go to shops / cafes and where our concerns lay, such as the longer trail sections with no immediate access to facilities etc.
Refuelling and hydration was our main concern. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem. With plenty of parks, shops and cafes along the route as well as public toilets and water fountains this would normally be straightforward. Running such a route during a pandemic though would mean either these facilities would all be closed, or, at best they’d be busy with long queues. Tough shit though, these are the conditions we were choosing to run under. We’d both recce’d and noted numerous points along the route where we could easily detour and ensure we were adequately fuelled. We also identified a cafe around halfway through which Paul ran passed and was open the week before our planned attempt.
Concerns and Plan management
There were a number of concerns we’d be executing the plan with. Firstly, heat. The UK was experiencing the warmest May on records. It was going to be warm, in the high 20s (centigrade) and many parts of the route were completely exposed. Running through the whole day meant we’d have to endure all the sun’s glory. Suncream and hydration would be critical.
Secondly, refreshments and hydration I’ve already noted how we planned detours to ensure we would be getting enough water and liquids. Coupled with the heat of the weekend though this would be especially important.
Finally, for me, shoe choice. This is an incredibly flat route of about 2,000ft across 78 miles. surprisingly though we’d estimated it was approximately 50% trail 50% pathed (I expected more pathed paths!). My trail shoes all seemed a bit extreme for this type of run and the support and cushioning of road shoes would be welcomed. Only, having not run much road for a while I either had an old pair of very worn Brooks Ravennas (veterans of 15 marathons!), their brand new (still in the box) replacements or a pair of Adidas Boosts I’d been wearing for casual trainers over the past year and not exactly worn in for running. I began my training runs and recces in these and soon remembered that they are a tight fit in the toe box. I wasn’t sure how they’d stack up over 78 miles as my feet swell. Then I remember I had another pair of trail shoes I’d won in a competition in 2019. Again brand new in the box – New Balance Hierro. They were bulky and heavy for a trainer, but cushioned and the sole was far from aggressive like many of my other trail shoes – to me they seem like light trail/hybrid type trainer. So I soon switched to them and covered about 70 miles in the two weeks prior to the run. I decided that with the wider toe box I’d attempt the Capital Ring in these, but I had no idea what they would feel like after more than 40km of continuous running. My feet might suffer….
Now, with all the planning and preparation completed, we were ready….
And so, finally, the week of the One Community event was here. The CROC kicked off and social media was flooded with amazing feats and achievements from the running community. Our friend Ged ran the 100miles in one go on a treadmill starting at 1 minute past midnight. Another, Martin, ran it in loops near his house. Another gentleman signed up to all the event distances and was running 35 miles each day for the week. Numerous families and young kids were attempting it and for many the week was seeing personal achievements in times, distances and commitments. The atmosphere was amazing for something we couldn’t physically experience together. Inspiration and motivation was truly all around us.
On Monday I covered an easy 15 miles along local hills in Crystal Palace. Tuesday morning before work I added another 10 miles of loops in the playing fields near my house. 25 miles were banked and I was hoping we’d cover the 78 miles with no issues – I really wouldn’t want to have to go back out on Sunday and run any missing miles! Paul had done similar covering about 30 miles early in the week and we were now itching to go and just had to wait patiently until our Saturday adventure came along. Enough preamble though, let’s get into the main event and the big day…
Just before 05:00 on Saturday 30th May I met Paul outside Crystal Palace station. After a photo opportunity we set off. Without speaking about it we’d kind of the split the day into various combinations of sections – 4 sections thinking of the ring as the fours sides to a square, but also the 3 groups of sections were I would navigate the first section until just after Richmond, Paul would see us venture North and cross London towards Hackney and I’d guide us back south and towards Crystal Palace. It’s just how our recce’s worked out.
Crystal Palace is my playground. Imagine the ridicule when, upon beginning the first climb, just 0.3 miles into the adventure, I proclaim we’ve climbed the wrong street, we run back down and then realised we were correct the first time. Doh
My initial concern, that a few of the small parks and paths leading to Tooting might be closed so early in the morning were answered when they were all open. Within no time at all we’d breezed to Streatham, passed the Streatham Pumping station (with its glorious 1800s architecture) and were making our way through Tooting Common. Here we were momentarily disrupted from our stride when A fire engine, sirens blaring, was manoeuvring into the Upper part of the Common and we had to patiently wait as it made the turn. At 06:00 there seemed to be a fire ablaze in the bushes and some early risers were directing the fire engine accordingly. We were soon back running again and winding our way through Wandsworth and Earlsfield toward Wimbledon.
Wimbledon Park was the one place guaranteed to be closed on our trip. With an 09:00 opening time on weekends, there was no way we could start late enough in the morning without risking closures of multiple other parks later in the day. We knew we’d have to take a diversion and would do so by taking Melrose Avenue up to Southfields Station, looping around the park and joining up back on Wimbledon Park Road (approximately 0.6miles of detour). As we progressed along Melrose Avenue though we found the side entrance to the park was open so, excitedly we ran into the park and traced back to navigate around the fields. Frustratingly as we arrived at the exit on Wimbledon Park Road though it was indeed locked up. Dammit. Climbing the huge gate was an option but one I wasn’t prepare to do. We continued a full loop of the fields before reemerging on our detour having added an extra mile and a half to the run already.
It was trouble free running as we continued on into Wimbledon Common, passed the Windmill and weaving our way through the woodland paths with big smiles on our faces. The relatively short run through Richmond Park was a treat as the sun began shinning brightly as the deer galloped around us. Leaving Richmond it was now a section along the canal paths as we’d navigate north along the route. Here the pandemic struck our plans for the first time as Richmond Lock footbridge was closed due to “Covid-19” as it wouldn’t support Social Distancing. We’d expected to encounter such occurrences but I wasn’t ready for one so soon. Back we went to cross at Twickenham Bridge with another 0.5 miles added to the total. We should have guessed by now that the route was going to be a bit longer than we’d prepared for!
Heading north was a delight with the canal paths fairly quiet in the early hours as we traced along the river passing Brentford, and the Brent River parks. Knowing the restrictions we’d face during the day in obtaining water and refreshments, we’d planned a detour near Hanwell to some local shops. This worked out as planned and we were able to refill our water and continue on our way with minimal fuss. 24 miles in, our focus now became the 40 mile mark where we’d planned a lunch stop in a cafe along the route.
The adventure through Greenford was delightful as the day began to warm up and the parks and green spaces treated our eyes to the wonders that London has to offer. The climb up Horsenden Hill was a delight with some wonderful views to take in and absorb. With the heat of the day beginning to sap away at us, we stopped once more in Harrow-on-the-hill to get more water and begin our adventures through the next set of parks in North London. Here I really enjoyed the views, particularly seeing the arch of Wembley stadium from perspectives I’d never seen before. Having never ventured into these parts of London, I was truly enjoying exploring, despite the pains of running around 50km beginning to set in!
It felt like there was an abundance of green space along the route and the Capital Ring used streets to connect them all up. Past Wembley we entered into Fryent Country park which was glowing with colour as the yellow flowers shone in the midday sun. From here we planned our next detour, skipping past a connecting trail path and down to a petrol Station near Neasden which we knew had both a toilet and an M&S food store. We had a bit of queuing to do as it was busy and probably hung around for about 15 mins as we refuelled with cold water and snacks. The next little stretch was alongside the Brent Reservoir as we ran through the delightful Welsh Harp Open Space. After this came a few miles on street as we navigated East across Hendon. We were about 40 miles in at this stage and would soon be reaching our planned ‘lunch’ stop at a cafe in Lyttelton Playing Fields…
We’d fantasised over the cafe’s menu (mostly lasagne) for some time, Paul in particular was getting hungry now and was eagerly anticipating each turn as he jogged his memory on when we’d appear at the cafe. The parkland was beautiful and peaceful, very quiet considering what we’d seen elsewhere. At 13:00, we were ready for the rest and agreed we’d be flexible between 30 mins to an hour. Only that plan was soon scuppered. The damn cafe was closed. We were at a loss. Our brains shut down with disappointment and we suddenly felt flat. We agreed to stop and rest anyway and took 15 mins to reapply sun cream, eat more of our own stash and reset our minds. Paul introduced me to the wonders of Kendal Mint Cake as we sat on a bench. As our brains settled, we knew we’d soon be coming up at Finchley where there would be alternative food options along the High street. So off we set once more.
Finchley High street turned into a bit of a mess. There were a few cafes, corner shops, a Subway and a Dominos. We thought the pizza option would be quickest and easiest, but we were defeated once more. “Delivery only with no collection” was the sign that greeted us at the entrance. We contemplated phoning in an order and giving the shop’s address to deliver outside but thought better of the hassle. Subway it was. There were a few small children (under 10) waiting outside and we joined the now normalised queuing process. There wasn’t much shade and at 13:00 it was hot waiting around in the sun. As the kids went in next we chatted with their mum a little. She was pleasant. The wait went on. Eventually one of the kids came out to say it was now cash only and mum went off to get some. We continued to wait patiently, only the wait dragged on as confusion inside mounted. After some time we realised the only person working inside the Subway hadn’t started making the families order as he was waiting to see the money (in his defence they were ordering a lot, maybe £40 worth). We later found out that a few times already this day he’d made orders that weren’t paid for due to the card machine issues. So his nervousness was understandable. Eventually we did manage to get served and grabbed two of his quickest sandwiches to make. Along with some coke and more water from a shop we sat down again in Cherry Woods to eat our lunch. This whole process of buying a sandwich cost us an hour in time. Frustrating, but necessary and we did know before we’d began that the changes to ‘life’ as a result of the pandemic would indeed cause us a few delays along the way. It might be that the concept of ‘fast food’ is no longer what it used to be!
Back up and running again we made our way through Highgate Woods and Queen’s Wood. I remember it was nice to be back in the shade of the woods, but I think I’d spaced out a little here. I remember digesting the food and feeling heavy from all the coke. I just sort of followed silently behind Paul as he led the way. We then joined up to the Parkland Walk which was a beautiful set of trails leading past Stroud Green to Finsbury Park. This was a lovely section to run, albeit very busy with walkers and cyclists. Large groups of people and plenty of dogs meant space was a bit of an issue. At the end of the Parkland Walk, the walkway enters straight into Finsbury Park. Well, it would on any normal day, but this was another Covid-19 closure issue and we had to detour a mile around and back into the park. We knew we’d feel all these little detours later! Finsbury Park was very busy, and we navigated through it before joining the new river paths around the wetlands and reservoirs. I really enjoyed this section which was again completely new to me. Lots of new housing developments with glorious views and wide open spaces. As we ran the river, a family of swans with their little cygnets graciously swam down the river.
At the end of the path we stopped for a tactical “re-lube”. We are both fans of Squirrels Nut Butter for minimising chafe, and on a run of this proportion there is no escaping it – it is inevitable. Constant reapplication is key to minimise the damage and the screams in the post run shower! Here though we realised, somewhere along the way, Paul had dropped his tub of butter. I’d brought only a small sample size pot so we began to ration what we had between us as we still had over a marathon to run! We could feel the screams already.
After the reservoir we were heading to Stoke Newington via Clissord park. Holy shit it was busy! There was no doubt in my mind, this was confirmation for me, Lockdown was over. Clissord park was like a festival site. Huge masses of people congregating in groups some probably 20 plus in numbers. Every bit of space was taken up. I guess it is inevitable with it being a summer weekend, recent frustrations at politicians, recent announcements about upcoming easing of measures and no where else available to go (no shops, entertainment venues, sports or holidays…). Agree with it or not, social distancing isn’t compatible with such volumes of people in the same place at the same time. It was the same along Stoke Newington high street too. We stopped for more water and had to run along the busy main road as pavements were packed with people out and about. Thankfully it wasn’t far along the high street before we entered Abney Park Cemetery and then some quieter side streets towards Springfield Park (where we passed a sign for the Capital Ring which, for the first time, indicated Crystal Palace – one marathon to go!) and Walthamstow Marshes. I’ve run in a lot of cemeteries recently (for no real reason other than they’ve been along my routes) and Abney Park Cemetery was another fine example with a lot of historical importance.
The tow path along Walthamstow Marshes was wide and we coped ok with the crowds here. Our next destination would be Milfields Park where Connor, a friend of Paul’s would join us for a section. We found him patiently waiting outside a closed pub and then headed off towards Hackney Marshes and then Stratford. It was a good few miles following the tow path along the Marshes and again it was very busy, especially as we reached Stratford and the London Stadium where it is very ‘hip’ and a number of canal boats were playing music/serving alcohol to the thousands of people sitting along the banks. Despite the crowds, with Connor’s fresh legs pacing us we managed to make speedy progress down the river Lee.
From the London Stadium the route takes you onto the Greenway. Another long stretch of nearly four miles of completely exposed pedestrian and cycle path which we’d follow to Beckton. Me and Paul were flagging here. The monotony of a long run and over 50 miles in our legs was bad enough, but the exposure to heat, even now at 17:00 in the afternoon was just draining. We were begging the sun to piss off for a bit! Thankfully again Connor’s fresher legs pacing us really helped us just get through this section quickly. I was back ‘in charge’ now as we’d completed all the northern sections that Paul had recce’d. My first task was try to recall where there was a shop so we could get more water. As great as these parkways and pedestrian areas were, they were not supported with amenities for ultra runners on an adventure! My mind was hazy. I knew there was a shop down near Cyprus station, but I couldn’t think of anything sooner or even how far away that was. As we ran through the several parks around Beckton, we kept entering new little spaces I’d forgotten about. Eventually though after a few miles (that felt like many more) we found a corner shop and hit it hard. Another 20mins of sitting on a wall in the shade, gulping down water was what we needed. From here it was a dull 2 miles around Royal Albert Basin to the Woolwich Foot Tunnel where Connor would leave us once we got South of the river and he’d head towards Greenwich.
Crossing the foot tunnel was uneventful and we didn’t have to wait or queue for the lifts. Emerging the other side we tracked the river path and wound through the housing estates in Woolwich until we reached Maryon Wilson Park. I was glad to reach here as this was one of the parks with a particular closing time. It gave me confidence that we were here about an hour before closing. There was another smallish detour due to a foot path closed because of social distancing measures and we had to track around the animal enclosures.
The next section I knew fairly well now and it was nice to look forward too. A serious of parks, commons and woodlands meant we’d be off the main roads for a while. It also meant shade from the still intense heat of the sun which was refusing to rest up. The downside, and which I’d pre-warned Paul of, was a long series of climbs. Nothing substantial, but with 60 miles previously covered, we’d feel these for sure. Particularly around Castlewood and Oxleas Wood. We planned a few mins rest at Severndroog Castle to sit down and recuperate. As I drank a small can of coke I’d brought with me, I realised the next challenge I was facing. In the woods and shade, as the sun did slowly start to set (it was now about 19:30), when we weren’t moving I was getting cold very quickly. My clothes were wet with sweat and I’d naively (overly confident?!) decided not to bring any other layers for the trip. I got up and we set off. No more stopping for extended periods I thought. From Oxleas woods we picked up the signs once more and saw one that said 13 miles to Crystal Palace. A half marathon remaining, a good milestone and goal. The end was realistic at this point and we could begin to visualise it.
Making our way through the parks to Eltham we missed a turning and went a short direction in the wrong way, following signs rather than our gut we were clearly on autopilot now just trying to get it done. Back on course we emerged just south of Eltham and once more went in search of water. We were about a mile from Eltham High street (in the wrong direction) and were hoping for something closer. We had to ask a bunch of teenagers who kindly sent us in the direction of a petrol station that wasn’t too far off route. Turns out it is the worst petrol station shop and was about the size of a shoebox. They did however have water and Lucazade so we were content.
Running passed the stables alongside Eltham Palace we were treated to an incredible view of the sun setting across London. We tracked on and in my head I was confident once more as, other than the Downham Woodland walk, there were no more closure times to be concerned with. Access all the way home would be fine. The Downham Woodland walk closed at 21:00 and this too wouldn’t be a problem as parallel streets run its entire length, however it would be a nice few km’s away from residential streets. Thankfully, despite arriving a few mins after 21:00 it wasn’t closed and we made it along the length of the walk. Emerging into Beckenham we’d both acknowledge we had very little remaining in our respective tanks and would happily walk the last few miles once we got north of Beckenham. Particularly so because this was deceivingly uphill (very gradual) and very dull as we’d be following streets through a few residential areas with two small parks which were unspectacular. Before that though we’d power on through Beckenham Palace Park, which, in the woodlands was now dark and made for slower progress. Emerging the other side we plodded on along the streets where we reached the subway going under New Beckenham and the train lines. This was the milestone for me, we’d walk from here.
In the darkness, with tired minds, I thought we’d missed the turn into Cator park as the GPS signalled we had (dodgy signal I guess). A small but irritating mishap as our vocalisation of our pains became louder and louder. We were now averaging about 16 minute miles, which was still good given we kept repeating to ourselves “20 min miles, 1 hour to go”. I’d like to say those last 3 miles flew by, but they certainly didn’t. We eventually crossed Penge East and arrived at the bottom entrance to Crystal Palace Park. All that remained was to navigate around the Dinosaurs, sadly too dark for Paul to experience these wonders, before we arrived triumphantly back at where we started some 17 plus hours earlier. Fist pumps, emotional hugs and cheesy selfies later where we walked to find Lisa who’d waited patiently to pick Paul up. She treated us to banana bread and coke before they kindly dropped me home. I went straight in the bath with an ice cream before climbing into bed. Reflecting on our achievement and that we had literally just run around London, which, in 17.5 hours, we are claiming this as an unofficial Pandemic-FKT (PFKT) 🙂 Capital Ring, you beauty.
Things we learned:
Running a long way during a global pandemic isn’t easy. We anticipated a lot of things but I guess we were still surprised by the impact it had on running:
the planning and restriction. Being able to run together and recce the whole route easily would have helped with the planning. On the day having to take detours because of closure of certain paths added to the time on our feet.
the sheer busyness of everywhere as people can only go outside, so paths and parks were rammed. #Cumgate and easing of Lockdown measures the weekend of our run probably led to some reckless abandonment of the guidelines by the British public.
public toilets are closed. Don’t underestimate the strategic or tactical need to relieve yourself on a long run. Having no public toilets definitely led to a bit more thought. We had many conversations about the benefits of Strategic crapping versus Tactical crapping. Which type are you?
water stops/fountains are closed. Fresh drinking water when you need it is essential to long distance running. Whilst there is plenty still available, you do have to think a little harder and plan where you will detour and find water when park fountains and cafes are closed.
cafes are closed. Likewise for grabbing food on the go. The many little cafes found in the public spaces are ideal for the Capital Ring. Not when they are closed though.
shops require you to queue. We estimated that detours and queues probably added over 2 hours to our adventure. The Subway fiasco alone cost us an hour of time, all for a shit sandwich. Don’t underestimate the impact this has on your mental state and momentum too.
Food and water stores in shops aren’t what they used to be. In many of our stops we had to buy multiple smaller bottles of water because they’d “run out” of larger bottles. Whilst not a problem, it did mean we probably spent a lot more money than we thought we would.
Some tips for the taking on the Capital Ring
Plan your start and finish location accordingly. It might be that starting and finishing nearer home is right for your adventure, but it might not necessarily be the case depending where you are.
Opening and closure times will dictate your progress and might result in a few extra miles of detours. Apart from Wimbledon Park, starting and finishing in Crystal Palace worked out perfectly. However, if we started later, or at a different time of year, we most definitely would have had to detour around some closed areas later in the evening
Opening and closure times vary seasonally and across London Boroughs. Just because a park was open in one area or one week of the year doesn’t mean it will be in the next. Also, whilst summer means longer opening times, it is also likely to me that it will be hotter and you’ll need to hydrate more.
If you do expect to be out after dark take a headtorch! Whilst the street light is enough in many parts, the parks and commons will be dark and you don’t want progress hindered when you are getting tired!
Plan for refreshments along longer sections. This probably sounds repetitive now, but make sure you plan where and when you can access shops along the route to top up on food/water. We were able to minimise our detours by planning ahead.
Watch for signs showing multiple routes/alternative paths. Some sections of the route will have signs directing you in many different ways. This is because of how the route has evolved with developments and in some parts you can reach the same destination by more than one route. The Southern Eastern section also follows the Green Chain Walk. Whilst you can follow these signs for a bit too, be conscious that the Green Chain Walk is a completely different route and has other paths that the Capital Ring does not follow! Also the signs for the London Loop (a longer loop around London) are very similar to the Capital Ring signs, you don’t want to end up following the London Loop when south of the river!!
Be attentive as in some areas the path will take you off the more obvious paths. You’ll be trudging along, following an obvious path or direction and next thing you know you’ve missed a subtle turn. This happened to us a few times and it is clear in Woolwich too when following the route (Clockwise) along the Thames Path and then you suddenly turn off through a housing estate with no warning or signs.
GPS or a map is advised. Whilst the route is often obvious, well maintained and signposted, it is also easy to get lost. Some parts aren’t signposted or the signs are hidden in the overgrowth or the section is closed due to building works. A GPS and/or map of the route will be useful in these situations!
The terrain is varied (we estimated 50% road 50% light trail). In non summer months it could be muddy in the parks/fields and slippery along canal paths and tow paths. I wore Trail shoes New Balance Hierro V4 and Paul wore Road Shoes – Hoka Cavu). The terrain is forgiving and our feet were fine (one very manageable blister for me). Plan your footwear to the weather and conditions – getting wet feet along an 80 mile run might result in more damage to your feet and slippery conditions could lead to injuries.
Lastly, for me I would definitely advise some company. Whilst it is achievable solo I’d argue that it is definitely be more achievable if you’re not alone. If you’re a Londoner, the temptation to stop and get on a bus home etc. will definitely be greater. Paul was without doubt the perfect buddy to pair up and tackle this challenge with!
I don’t know if I was having one of those moments, a small midlife crisis or something, but I found my mind wandering. I was semi-committed to going to New Zealand for the Tarawera Ultra Marathon when I came across an advert for the Maverick Camp Endeavour in Borneo. I’ve always wanted to see the Orangutans and love the work the Maverick team do, so I got thinking… Besides, the two week adventure was just a few weeks after Tarawera so I convinced myself that it made sense to give life the middle finger and swan off to the other side of the world for 6 weeks. So I signed up.
Leading up to the trip everything was easy. Ben, Justin and the Maverick team do a great job at organising all their events and this was no different. I had everything I needed and plenty of assurances all would be looked after. They weren’t wrong. Even with the Covid-19 outbreak and mass hysteria that swallowed the world, everything was exactly as promised. Better even!
The basis of the trip was an 10 day adventure with an option to stay on two additional days for the Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon race. Each day was part of a packed itinerary full of running, yoga, adventures, culture, snorkelling and seeing the land. We were fully catered for in terms of accommodation, food, transport and activities. Essentially I just needed to turn up and follow instructions – something I was ready to do after a month of travelling and making decisions for myself! It was one of the best experiences of my life and went a little something like this…
I stopped by Bali on my way to Borneo (from New Zealand) and arrived late on the Friday night. As I exited the quiet arrivals hall a driver walked in with the ‘Maverick – Camp Endeavour’ sign and I was soon whisked to the Downbelow Lodge in Kota Kinabalu downtown. The Downbelow Lodge being the mainland base of ‘Adventures in Borneo’, Maverick’s Collaboration partner in Borneo run by Joanne and Richard. As the first arrival, I had the room to myself for the night.
The next morning I woke easily, refreshed and headed out in search of food. I’d identified a few local landmarks to go and visit including the Atkinson clock tower, Signal Hill Observatory, and the local food and Handicraft markets. On my journey I’d take in a breakfast stop in the highly recommended Nook cafe (a breakfast of Waffles with fruit and the biggest yogurt bowl with more fruit and muesli!). Heading back to the Lodge for midday I stopped by several shopping malls, mainly just to cool down in the air conditioning! It was scorching out there!
Atkinson Clock Tower
View from Signal Hill
A number of others had arrived. And I first met Carl who I’d be sharing a triple room with for the trip. It wasn’t long before we found out we live just a few minutes away from each other in Crystal Palace! After another trip to the mall for lunch, a few of us met up and went out for a short run along coast. We covered approximately 5km as we began to get to know each other, speculate on the week ahead and swear at the blistering heat and humidity. I laughed to myself that only runners would turn up to a running trip and add more runs to the itinerary! This wouldn’t be the last either…
That evening we went for a ‘welcome’ meal in a nearby restaurant and got to meet Joanne and Richard and some more of the team who’d look after us for the week, including Jess who was our guide and local trail running hero. Later that night a few more of the group arrived including Jake, who was also the Photographer for the trip, and the last addition to our trip room – Spenny. Our Maverick rep and all round legend of the running community (I first met Spenny in the UTMB after party in 2018 after I’d completed the CCC and he the TDS. There was this giant of a man, drunk from a day of celebrating his achievements and slurring every word that came out of his mouth). After chatting for a while we hit the sack as it was an early start the next day as the adventures would begin!
The next morning we were up early for breakfast in the lodge and a boat transfer to Gaya island. Here we’d enjoy a run on Gaya island and the opportunity for snorkelling and diving before staying overnight on Manukan island. Upon arrival we met the final two members of the group (Alex and Tiff) who’d arrived earlier and headed to Gaya ready. As we walked the Long Island pier to the beach, Richard gave us all a thoughtful welcome and quick speech to set the scene for the week. The key message he delivered (besides the essential health and safety advice) was to enjoy. Enjoy ourselves as we were here to experience Borneo and find our own way to take it all in. They’d flex to our needs and desires for the duration and look after us. All we had to do was focus on doing what works best for us. I liked this message. He also warned us against the risk of wasp nests and the two venomous snakes we might encounter. We all laughed nervously.
Running along the beach of Gaya Island
The full Maverick group
First ‘jungle’ run
Jess led us off on the run, flanked by our other guides Mira, Roger and Stanley. The trails of Gaya were well marked and it was clear where to run (although comically we all missed a turn and finished the run slightly short!). The run was tough. Just 7 km covered in total but by 2km I was drenched. I Don’t think I’ve ever sweat so much in my life. I looked like I’d just emerged from the sea with my shorts and t-shirt sticking to my skin like clingfilm. The humidity was a whole new experience for me (and I’ve run in quite a few humid places!). For the first time I realised how tough a 100km will be in these conditions. Oh yes, as part of the trip we had the option to sign up to race at the BUTM (Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon) and I’d opted for the 100km race. I immediately started questioning if I could consistently run 10km in 3 hours out here and make it back to the finish in time to fly home (the cut off was 4pm and my flight was at 7pm)! Besides the humidity, the terrain was quite technical with tree roots throughout the trails and leaves covering the trip hazards. Masses of huge and crispy leaves crunching under our feet. The incline to the highest point on the island was tough, Despite it only being about 300m. The downs were surprisingly slow due to the challenging terrain. As we arrived back at the dive site we sat in the warmth of the sea, basking in paradise whilst our hosts prepared lunch. Above us Joanne pointed out the various species of bird including the White Hornbill birds gliding through the blue sky.
Cooling down post run
Love a sign. At the highest point of the island
The first of many perilous bridges we’d encounter
Glad to have finished running!
Just before lunch the team welcomed us more formally and gave a full briefing of the week ahead including the many options we can tailor as a group or individuals. They explained where we’d run, where we’d stay, rough timings and schedules for the week and whom to ask for help. Every base was covered and it was clear this was going to be a smoothly run adventure! Before we tucked into a huge lunch of curried dishes and rice, another surprise and gift from Joanne – beautifully handmade brass bracelets from our guide Jess – “Perfectly Imperfect”. Engraved with the words “Trust your Kolumpa” (Kolumpa translating to “shoes” in her Tribe’s language). A special gift with words of wisdom that are unique to us all on the trip to cherish.
‘Perfectly Imperfect’ by Jess
After lunch we transferred to the nearby Manukan island for our overnight stay in resort. After checking in we were whisked straight back to Gaya island for a snorkelling session. There was word of whale sharks in the area and we went in search for them. Sadly we didn’t see them, but the Joanne and some of the team did as they left us after snorkelling to head home for the night. We did however see a variety of fish and sea turtles!
Later that evening we enjoyed yoga on the beach, as the sunset, led by the delightful Lily. This was my first yoga experience and what a way to sample it!! She released our senses with a variety of essential oils and calmly talked us through the poses with the biggest and friendliest of smiles you can imagine. It was then time for dinner and we were all relaxed and exhausted in equal measures. This was only day 1 of 10!
The next morning, a few of us woke up early to catch the sunrise. The benefit of having a professional photographer with us in Maverick’s very own master of the lens – Jake. Sadly it was overcast but were able to enjoy an additional short run along the length of the island and back. An enjoyable and sweaty way to start the day. The outward trail to the ‘sunset’ point was mostly slabs and stones with the return through the forest being a short climb and then descending back to hotel on some forest trails. I joined Carl and Spencer in cooling off in the sea and getting plenty of stings from the jelly fish! We were wide awake now!
Into the jungle paths
We followed up with a breakfast of champions and I ate everything I could find. Cereal, toast, fruit, pancakes, yoghurt and lots and lots of coffee. After breakfast we snorkelled again, this time off the neighbouring Sulung Island. Here the coral was more vibrant and colourful. Baby reef sharks could be seen in the shallow waters as well as few rather large jellyfish. Knackered, I spent most of the time clinging to the floaty ring! After Lunch at the resort we then headed back to mainland and checked back into to Downbelow Lodge. That evening we ventured out for a run to Tanjung Aru beach to see the sunset.
Having fun underwater
Might have bitten down too hard…
For the run we were joined by Jess’ sister Narna along with an additional film crew in tow (filming a documentary on the sisters). We ran the along the busy main roads and cycle path to the beach. From there we turned and ran back along the beach where we had plenty of photos and stopped at the beachside market to enjoy a fresh coconut as the sunset. That evening we headed out for dinner and drinks to a Mexican restaurant where the food was fantastic. The next day we’d begin our journey into the mainland of Borneo…
More posing for the camera
Running to the beach
I’m not playing this game
We woke to breakfast in the lodge once more before we Loaded into the buses and drove to Kiulu for the next adventure. We arrived at the Kiulu Farmstay – Where we’d spend the night camping in a facility built by the local community and volunteers. We were greeted with what I thought was the best food from the trip so far – A combination of banana hearts, chicken, potato, papaya and local greens with chilli along with rice wrapped in banana leaf. All grown/produced on the Farmstay which was a cooperation from 13 nearby villages. We took the opportunity to capture a few photos with the drone whilst we digested lunch before heading out on the next run – A 10km with 400m of elevation that would take us to a waterfall deep in the jungle.
A snippet of the amazing foods
Adventures in Borneo!
As we left the farmstay we ran up through a village to the beginning of the trail. We crossed over the first of many basic bridges built of wire and wood. Very, very wobbly. We climbed and ran some dirt tracks before running along the river and some wild and rocky trails. The smells were vivid, we weren’t sure what it was but it smelt like coriander to us.
Off for a run
Many more bridges
Dirt paths and gravel roads aplentyy
We then ran a short out and back with a ‘fruity’ climb to the waterfall. We took the local advice to dip in the water to cool off in the cold (but not icy) water. It was incredible. Instantly our temperatures were regulated and we were just as wet in the water as we were before we entered!
Chilling with the boys
Post run dip in the river
We ran back to the farm stay and jumped straight into the river there too so we could cool off again before we enjoyed another sunset evening yoga session with Lily alongside the river. This session involving more essential oils and massage techniques. All very relaxing but we were subjected to lots of bites from insects as the sun sent down!
Yoga by the river
Dinner that evening was another wild spread with fresh river fish, chicken and lots of veg added to the feast. Of course more rice was included. The Farmstay manager introduced his son to us and also brought out the infamous rice wine we’d heard so much about. It’s is a wine produced from local fermented rice. Whilst we waited then for the wine to be prepared (after the rice produced, which involves harvesting the rice that is then washed, supplemented with a local yeast (specific to the village), and left to ferment, water is added and 10 minutes or so later the alcohol seaps into the water to produce the wine) he told folklore stories. Stories of forbidden love, of tragedy and stories about the Head Hunter tribes (yep – exactly as it sounds!). We then sang a traditional song and drank the rice wine as we each introduced ourselves to him. We ended the night sitting by the campfire and chatting away under the blanket of stars in the clear nightsky.
Today was the early wake up as we’d head for the longest and most challenging run of the trip – a 30km-ish point-to-point run. We’d negotiated a slightly later start and a 5:30 breakfast that consisted of donuts, cake and noodles. With the run starting later at 9am, our bags would be transported to the village of Lobong Lobong where we’d be based for the next two days. Given the difficulty of this run, Richard and Joanne had arranged for a number of water stops along the way. We were still advised to carry 2 ltrs or water and it was estimated that the run could take between 6 and 9 hours to complete. Briefed up by Richard we set off and said our goodbyes to the Farmstay whilst some of the group opted out of the run and instead went on a rafting adventure and would meet us at the end of the run.
Setting off on the ‘long run’
Amazing backdrops all day long
We started out from the Farmstay and ran along road with a slight incline. I was conscious of the challenge ahead so started out conservatively with a slow plod slightly behind the group. We crossed many wobbly suspension bridges and wound down by the river. The route followed this approach and terrain as we passed through a number of small villages and paddy fields. At one point, as we ran, a few buffalos ran ahead and it looked as if the front runners were chasing them. After about 10km we approached the team and the first water stop that was prepared for us. Here we guzzled back the fresh goodness and reloaded ready to continue the adventure.
Running through fields
Stopping to enjoy the views
Next up was a short 3km section to the second water stop but this was a gravel path climb. Up and up for 3km in the blistering heat of the morning we climbed about 600m. Brutal. We were thankful for the next water stop so soon along with the unobstructed view of mount Kinabalu to enjoy whilst we tried to regain our composure.
Steep jungle descents
Even steeper climbs
Sent back on our journey, from here we next headed into the jungle and along a ridge line. It was a narrow single track, both rocky and on a camber. Not the easiest to run along, but the views from the ridge were spectacular. It soon transitioned into a very steep downhill. Very slidey with banana leaves and bamboo leaves covering the floor and making it particularly slippy on top of the loose dirt. We were falling all over the place. At the bottom we rested in a river stream and cooled off in the fresh jungle water the way the locals do – fully submerged.
The only way to cool down
The water was so cool and clean
Found a jelly baby
The climb back out was very steep, steeper than the downhill even as we climbed about 450m in just a mile. It went on and on and we made slow but steady progress as we climbed through the humid jungle before descending once more. Eventually, after about 23km (cumulative), we emerged from the jungle and had another water stop with the team to rest and refill our water. From here the ‘gradual climb’ to Pekan Nabalu would take us the final 10km to our finish point in the village. Only it wasn’t ‘gradual’ it was a consistently steep 400m climb with some additional descents thrown in for fun.
A few hours later, in the blistering afternoon sun we finished in the town with beer and food. 32km covered with 2500m of elevation completed. It took almost 8 hours and was without doubt one of the hardest 30km runs I’d ever done. Once more my mind wandered to the 100km BUTM as I wondered what on Earth I’d signed up too. My rational thoughts kept reminding me that whilst it was over triple the distance, it was only double the elevation…
That evening we made the short journey to the Tanak Nabalu homestay in the near by village of Lobong Lobong. The villagers were so welcoming and we had a huge dinner of rice, vegetables and curried meats prepared for us along with piles of fresh fruit. Afterwards Jess had us all getting arty and hand carving soft wood boards (which she uses to print t-shirts), all while drinking copious amounts of rice wine.
After a long run the day before we slept well (also probably helped by not camping again!). We woke to breakfast on our respective home stays and ours was an absolute feast. There were mounds of noodles and rice and eggs as well as banana bread and fruit. It was then straight off to the village hall for some morning yoga with Lily which was a somewhat painful but great stretch out.
Following the yoga we set out on our next run – a 14km run along three ‘Pineapple Ridge’. So called because pineapples grow along the ridgeway. Obvious! Setting off just before midday it was incredibly hot and sweaty. Dry earth terrain with big steep climbs from the beginning saw us lunging upwards as we began the 750m climb. We stopped briefly along the way for photos as mount Kinabalu popped up with no clouds as we ran along the ridgeline. Naturally we put Jake to good use here! Further up we stopped at some villager huts for a break from the sun and a quick regroup. We ran the last 2km into the village to receive great views into the valley and back across to Pekan Nabalu on the distance ridge opposite.
Words can’t describe this one
‘Big Mike’ our host for lunch treated us to plenty of fresh juicy pineapples, Rose milk and another delicious spread of local food before it was then time to run back to the homestay and complete the loop by running along the village roads back down the valley. These were roads that initially were very steep down hills on sealed roads before the road disappeared and became gravel tracks and eventually un-pathed trails. Pineapples continued to line the side of the track with the mountains completing the idyllic background for our run. We crossed the rickety suspension bridge and made our way back into the home stay village.
Upon our arrival all the homestay hosts were waiting for us and we were treated to rice wine and banana frittas. Soon word crept out that in the house I was staying there was also banana bread. Turns out our host was a cook which explains us being constantly spoilt with food. She was so so generous. This particular rice wine was strong. The strongest yet that we’d tried. Two bamboo cups of the stuff and I was feeling pissed. I wasn’t alone. Some of the others went and found some beer and we met a few local characters whilst we enjoyed them – Like local ‘shop’ keepers and the very, very old lady walking up the street with a bamboo walking stick who went out of her way to come into the garden (not easy for her to open the gate!) and shake all our hands and say hello, despite her lack of English.
That evening we joined another group for a ‘cultural display’ by some of the villagers in the town hall after we were treated to yet another feast of amazing foods (spotting the theme of the trip yet?). The rice wine was coming thick and fast now. Debbie bought beer for us all and then we watched and listened as the locals played the gongs and danced a traditional village dance. We had the opportunity to try the gongs and dancing ourselves. Much to everyone’s amusement.
Dong Dong, Dong Dong, Dong Dong…
Might have been spotted being less stiff than usual
I left early that night when it was all over. The wine had gone to my head and I left the others chatting away and doing more arts and crafts (bracelet weaving) led by Jess. Tomorrow we’d wake to yoga before beginning the long journey (5hr) to Sepilok on the East coast of Borneo.
We rose to another morning yoga session with Lily in the village playing fields with the cows surrounding us with their curiosity whilst the sunrise behind Mount Kinabalu theatrically took place. The tough stretches worked our achy bodies and plenty of groans accompanied the morning (not just from me this time!).
Can’t even straighten the arms
The yoga spots were insane!
We dashed back to the homestay for brekkie and to pack before we loaded into the vans. It was a five hour journey (with a lunch stop at a market) which followed and we drove along some roads that were very windy and very bumpy. It was a tough journey. We eventually arrived at the Sepilok Jungle Resort after 5pm and were all so glad to escape the mini bus.
We headed straight into the pool with beers and chilled. Today was the first of two non-running days and we were ready to relax. It was lush. That evening, for dinner I had chicken nuggets. They weren’t so lush!
Today was a day I’d been particularly looking forward too. In the morning we’d visit the orangutan rehabilitation centre where orangutans are reared, cared for and released back into the wild. I fucking love monkeys and orangutans. We started with a little video on the centre and I was welling up watching and learning about the work the volunteers do. We then headed out to the observation platform to watch the morning ‘feeding time’. The gibbons knew what to expect and started gathering on mass and crowding out the young orangutans. As the basket of food was delivered, carnage followed. Orangutans and gibbons descending like the rain, gathering up the bananas, melons, leaves and bamboo sticks. Fighting and hoarding was inevitable. There was even a little breakfast sexy time amongst the gibbons
After feeding time we went over to the outside nursery where we could watch the younger, and newer, orangutans play. There were plenty of comedy moments as they played together, swinging around the nursery and wrestling each other. After we said goodbye to the Oranutangs we popped next door to visit the Sunbears. Whilst there we also saw a viper hiding out in one of the trees along the walkway!
Following some lunch the afternoon couldn’t have been any more different. Whilst some of the group were whisked off for an additional river cruise excursion, we took a trip to the city of Sandakan where we visited the Sandakan war memorial which charts the Japanese torture of British and Australian pows during the Second World War as well as the death marches (260km) where prisoners were led on foot Ranau. This was a chapter of history I never knew about. All very sad and thought provoking.
After that we visited a Buddhist peace temple (Puu Jih Shih). It had some great views over the town of Sandakan and the sea. Finally we went to a local food market. It was your typical Asian food market. Nothing special from a tourist perspective. I bought a couple of ice creams including a uni-cornetto which was fucking ace!
Upon returning to Sepilok a few of us went for yet another off-itinerary run to stretch our achy legs. Over dinner we laughed and joked over the memories we’d made from the trip so far. It was clear we were having an incredible time!
Back on the road today as we made the very bumpy journey back west to Sinurambi. As it was two days prior, the ride was painful and slow. Slightly more tolerable though as four of the group had departed on the additional day trip and another 4 had opted to fly west instead. So at least the bus wasn’t as crowded or as stuffy this time round!!
We arrived at the property just after 4pm. Wow. By far the best place we’d stayed. Rose and Terry’s B&B was high up in the mountains with stunning views over the surrounding mountains, Kota Kinabalu and the cluster of islands we’d visited at the start of the trip. The house was spectacular. We didn’t get long to start enjoying though as we headed straight out for a quick run before yoga by the pool watching the sunset from high up in the mountains.
The run was short (less than 5km) but immediately steep. Quite possibly the steepest road I’d ever run on (it hit >40% gradient in some parts!). We then left the road and headed into the jungle. Up and down we bobbed before reaching the waterfall that didn’t exist. The lack of rain meant it was completely dried up. So we bounced back up through the lively forest to complete a loop. The Forest was alive with the sound of wildlife. Noisy crickets screeching and making sounds that seemed to lie about their size. As we found our way back to the road we had to run back down the steep road and within seconds the soles of my feet were on fire! I dived straight. Into the pool as we returned to the B&B.
Did I mention we did Yoga?
Now we were all reunited with the day trippers arriving back, Lily then took as through a yoga session over looking the city as the sunset in front of us. This session was hilarious as we performed ‘couples’ movements in pairs. As the sunset we all relaxed with smiles on our faces listening to the dulcet tones and jokes that Lily made as she taught.
Rose then treated us to the best meal of the trip. No rice or noodles in sight. We enjoyed crispy pork, potatoes, fresh veg and salad as well as stuffed pumpkins and amazing soup with sweet corn and vegan banana cake and vegan ice-cream for desert. Dinner was also a celebration as today was Jess’ birthday. What a good end to the day.
An early-ish wake up call with brekkie at 7am as, before 9am, we were out and heading up to the salt trails. A trail so called as villagers and tribes used to travel the paths to trade items for salt. We were back in head hunter territory now. It was a fairly short but difficult run with 15km and 1300m covered. The climbs we were now getting used too – steep and rooty. There were a few sections that were good for brief spells of running but overall it was a another run were the sweat was instantaneous and we were soaked through. Sadly no rivers or streams to cool off in this time. Just 3 huts along the way that provided an opportunity to rest from the sun.
Back for a quick dip in the pool followed by another marvellous lunch from Rose and Terry. The rest of the afternoon was relaxing before one final yoga session with Lily overlooking Sabah once more before dinner and beers by the pool.
For the final time
Good bye sun
The final day and sadly all that remained was a final meal with Rose and Terry before a midday transfer back to the Downbelow Lodge and sleep before the Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon (BUTM) where we all ran races from 30km to 100km. I ran the 100km starting at 6am on the Saturday and finishing at 6am on the Sunday. After the race it was back home for some sleep and a shower before 12 hours later I was heading home…
The trip really was a fantastic way to acclimatise to the heat and humidity of Sabah. I sincerely doubt I would have completed the BUTM race if I did my usual approach of turning up a day or two before the run and having a short trip. Getting familiar with the trails and climate in advance was a huge benefit.
In hindsight, we were incredibly fortunate, for many reasons. Firstly, as the first edition of the Camp Endeavour with Adventures in Borneo, I think we were spoilt rotten. The trip represented insane value for money and we were treated like royalty the whole time. Whilst some of the group opted to ‘upgrade’ various hotels and transport options, this was in no way a reflection on the offering of the tour. As a group of runners on a running adventure, the basic package was pure luxury for expectations and what we paid.
Secondly, the day after the last of the group flew home, the Sabah was locked down amid the Covid-19 pandemic. We were incredibly fortunate to have this wonderful trip and opportunity with no issues. We were able to complete the full itinerary including the races at BUTM which has probably been one of the last international running events that has taken place this year. For all of us to make it safely to Borneo, enjoy ourselves and return home safely in these difficult times is surely a reason to be thankful!
The friendliness of the people of Borneo was special. Everywhere we went, everyone we met were so welcoming and intrigued to meet and interact with us. We were always greeted with smiles and laughter, and of course rice wine!
With the ongoing uncertainty for the coming months, spare a thought for the small businesses who will be impacted by the economic climate and whose livelihoods are thrown into doubt as cities around the globe lock down. There are many, but to me right now writing this both Maverick Race and Adventures in Borneo are dear to me. They rely on social gatherings and events. So support them where you can – buy a race entry/ trip with them, use their shops and commerce sites, buy vouchers to be redeemed in the future when all becomes stable and help them be here still when that day comes.
Maverick Race. Ben, Justin and the team have done a great job with all their events and this was my first experience of an overseas adventure with them. I’m grateful for this opportunity and thankful for their organisation and making it all so easy for me!
Adventures in Borneo. Joanne and Richard are fantastic. They are the operation behind Camp Endeavour: Adventures in Borneo and without them it wouldn’t have been feasible never mind possible. The incredible amount of work they sunk into making this happen showed. As I mentioned before, we were spoilt, this wan’t your run of the mill running trip. I don’t think it would have been possible to be in better hands. Their team in the office, the guides, drivers and all those who supported us, thank you too! We made many new friends on this adventure.
Lulu – Our ever present tour rep for Adventures in Borneo. You probably did more running than we did as you tracked after us all and ensured everything ran smoothly. The first one up, the last one to bed. The first one to the table, the last to eat. Your generosity was unheralded!
Jess, Mira, Roger, Stanley – our trusty trail guides. Keeping us on track, on time and smiling throughout the runs. Your advice was welcomed and laughter and zest for the trails infectious!
Lily – Our beautiful Yoga instructor. It was so challenging for me (to even sit on my knees!) but your patience and instruction was a virtue, your smile brighter than the sunrise and your jokes and sense of humour made everything so much easier!
To all our hosts from the Farmstay, Homestays, hotels and Rose & Terry. Thank you for welcoming us into your homes and spoiling us with your hospitality!
To all the others on the trip – thanks for the laughter, the stories, the beers, the piss taking, the memories. I don’t think a better bunch of strangers could be found. Thanks for the friendship. Until we meet again…
Jake. Thanks for the pictures. They are alright they are! 😉 One talented man right there! Go check him out. Taking pictures is an art, running kms everyday chasing runners around the jungle to take pictures is next level! (and if you didn’t clock it, all but a few of the pictures here are his work! All credit to that man for his eagle eye and skills behind the camera)
When I planned a little visit to Bali, there were a few things that really interested me. Climbing and running around Mt Rinjani, Mt Agung and Mt Batur. Sadly my research suggested that Agung and Rinjani weren’t possible without longer, organised treks with guides and my short time in Bali just wouldn’t accommodate it. Mt Batur however seemed very reasonable. Rather than do a day trip with a 4 hour round trip in a car, I planned to stay nearby and go solo, if I could…
I say if ‘I could’, because my research also suggested this wasn’t really possible. The only reviews you’ll find are for tour guides and organised treks. I did find a few limited reviews suggesting it was possible to do without a guide, but that it would be difficult. You see, there seems to be a bit of a racket going on. You’ll read about access being ‘mafia’ controlled and that the Association of Mount Batur Trekking Guides are all supposedly a part of it. I took it with a pinch of salt. This wouldn’t exactly be like the Godfather! Before I continue, don’t get me wrong – I wasn’t trying to avoid paying, supporting the local community or being disrespectful to the authority. It just doesn’t seem legit. Spending a few days in the area, every single person seemed to be a guide, a taxi driver, a tourist information point and an excursion brooker. Even kids in the street were offering to be my guide if I paid them.
The day before I planned to do the hike and see the sunrise, I went for a little recce to check it out. I’d plotted a few routes on the Suunto App and went to see if the paths were exactly that, paths, and what sort of checkpoints I might encounter the next day.
I first entered the tourist car park where the tours began. This was also next to the office for the Association of Mount Batur Trekking guides. I say office, it was more a hole in the wall. As I followed my route through the carpark, a lady outside her house stopped me. “Where are you going?”, “Need guide?!”. Little did I realise at this point that it would be the soundtrack to my adventure. I chatted with her politely. She told me her son would take me up for 500,000idr (about £25). Meet her tomorrow at 3am at her house she said. Yeah sure!
I carried on for a little while, passed some temples and disused buildings. No checks. All good. I didn’t walk for that long and reckon I was over a third of the way to the top already. It was mostly dirt paths. I didn’t plan on doing the actual climb or steeper parts though. I did pass two Russians on my way. They were hiking up in flip flops and ponchos. It then started pissing down. Torrential. I turned around. I’d seen what I needed too and was confident. I was also soaked through instantly so I found some shelter and waited. A while later the Russians returned. They’d given up in the rain.
That night I read more reviews about the guides and the so-called ‘mafia’. Some were quite intimidating. I vowed to continue with my plan though – stubborn bastard and all that. I thought maybe I can just spend a few 100,000idr to bribe my way up if I got stopped. Some reviews referred to people getting asked for ‘tickets’, so I thought to myself I’d pay for that if I had too. I decided I’d go earlier than I’d planned. Originally I thought 04:30 to 05:00. Now I planned to go earlier and beat the guides and tourists and just wait at the top for the sunrise.
03:00, I got up. 03:20 I was out the door. I had my route. I took the short cut I’d seen the day before and which was indicated on the maps. I put the low level red light on from my head torch. Stealth mode. I got to the end of the track and had successfully bypassed the trekking office and car park. I was feeling smug. Then some hikers appeared from the adjoining path. Shit. I thought I’d be ahead of the game at this time. I cracked on.
Soon I was rounding the temple I’d passed the day before. Maybe just shy of a third of the way and then, Bam! I was stopped. Two 4x4s parked across the route and two guys blocked my path. “Where are you going?!” came the all too familiar sound as they directed me to a guy in official looking clothing (sure he wasn’t anything official) sitting at a desk. He questioned me further and insisted I had to have a guide. It’s a conservation area he told me. Both bullshit but I wasn’t getting out of this one. I was annoyed. This desk wasn’t here yesterday. I thought I was early enough to avoid this crap. He wanted 500,000idr. I said 300,000. We met half way at 400,000idr. Again, if this really was an official operation then I don’t think they would be negotiating with a tourist at 04:00. He was ok thought really. We made some small talk. I hated it. But we were pleasant to each other. He called a guide on the phone. He let me continue with one of the men and said that the guide would catch up. I appreciated that much at least.
Soon the guide arrived on a motorbike. Wayan was his name. Hilarious as that was the fake name I’d prepared if I was approached and asked where my guide was. He didn’t speak much English. He asked the same old questions. “What’s my name?”, “Where am I from?”, “How much did I pay?”… More bullshit. I tolerated it. I tried to be nice. I knew it would wear off and I’d soon be a grumpy fuck with him.
As we walked on he kept telling me to slow down. I wasn’t going that fast, just walking. After he had to ask me a few times, he then explained he was tired and wanted a cigarette. Brilliant. I let him. I’m nice like that. We caught some more people. A big bunch of maybe ten or so Russians. I powered past. I couldn’t be doing with their noise – they were playing music. We climbed on and on and another thing struck me. Something that had been lingering for a while. The smell of petrol. So many motorbikes kept speeding up the man made tracks. No care for the hikers. Honking their horns and revving their engines as they struggled up the inclines. Conservation area my arse. A Beautiful volcano, one of nature’s wonders. One polluted with smoke and fumes. I moaned to Wayan, said they should stop the motorbikes going up. He said nothing.
As we pushed on we began to speak less and less. The questions he asked were repetitive. Over and over, “What’s my name?”, “How much did I pay?”. I could see where this was going. He wanted money. I eventually told him I paid 600,000idr. That I’d paid to go round the crater. He was shocked. “Long walk” he said (it isn’t a long walk!). “Yep” I said. That’s why I paid so much. He was hesitant.
A few more essential cigarette stops later we reached the sunrise viewpoint. He pointed to a bench and said to sit and watch the sunrise from there. I checked my watch, I had about an hour a half to wait. I sat for a few minutes. I could see streams of head torches climbing. I was getting fidgety. I went to the hut where he was and told him I’d sit just the next level up. He said ok. When I got there I was amazed by the volume of benches. Clearly set up for a tourist trap. Constantly I was nagged and pressured to buy bracelets and Bintang (beer, yep at 05:00 in the morning on a volcano crater!) and soft drinks. All for 5x the price you could buy just an hours walk earlier. Don’t be fooled by people saying they walk that stuff up everyday. Nope. The motorbikes are bringing them.
I sat a bit longer. More and more people started arriving. I was noticing that very few had any kit like warm jackets or waterproofs or even water with them. Some were even wearing plimsols. It was quickly becoming unbearable. The noise. The inane bullshit chat and music again. I overheard some crap that made me wince. In a short space of time I noted the following being said from one group of Australians:
“We are so inspo”
“I’m going to open my insta fitness page now. “
“That climb was so shocking”
“I probably look so disgusting, I’m all sweaty”
“Where does the sun rise, in the west?”
“Do you know why I was a fat child? because my daddy used to make me put the butter inside the jacket potato”
Thankfully Wayan came and found me. He said to sit and wait here. I said no. “Let’s go walk the crater now” I said. He was hesitant. Again asked how much I paid. I told him the same story. He asked if I didn’t want to see the sunrise. I told him that it’s cloudy. That we won’t be seeing any sunrise today, that we should walk the rim whilst everyone else waited. That way we’ll be back around before the sun rises and might get lucky then we can go straight back down. He said ok.
The walk round the crater was quick, it’s not far. It’s mostly loose sand like dirt. Hard and sharp lava stone in some places but nothing too technical. We were almost back to where I sat before by 06:00. We’d briefly stopped at the Mount Batur summit point at 1,717m. Other than that we only stopped once all the way around for him to show off. To show me the steam from the rocks. It was pointless really, the steam was venting all around us, you couldn’t not see it, in fact it made navigating by torch light a little difficult! This was were they cooked eggs and bananas for the tourists though. Clearly it was also where they liked to smoke. The ground was covered in cigarette butts. For some reason he then started smoking, yet again, and blowing the smoke into the vents. “Look”, “look” he explained like an excited child. He was blowing smoke into a rock that was already venting natural steam. Wow, I was so impressed.
Back near where I sat we stayed at another ‘viewpoint’ to see if the sunrise would show. I knew we wouldn’t see any sunrise today. It was still so cloudy. We stayed there maybe 20-30 mins. We had a brief chat where he told me we’d done a long walk, big effort. Then the moment we’d both been waiting for, that ‘people tip the guides’. I told him I had no more money (lie). That the checkpoint guard took all my money to make him come with me. He repeated, “no money?”. I repeated “no money!” We were in a dance now. And so the conversation continued for a few mins. “No money!”. He also asked if I had money at hotel. Cheeky fucker. I told him no – all paid on card. I almost left him there and then. We sat in silence the rest of the time we spent at the point. We were joined by more Russians who’d ‘lost’ their guide. I suspected they’d ditched him too.
As the clouds thickened and became gradually lighter, The main noise of the morning consisted of people screaming and yelling into the volcano’s crater. I think it was mostly the guides. Wayan did it once as we walked round. Why they did this I do not know. There was no echo. It’s far too big.
We then started to walk back down. I started walking faster this time. Almost running. He kept telling me to slow. I’m sure only because he wanted more cigarettes again (I’d been in his company for maybe 2 hours and I’d counted he’d lit up 9 times. I despise smoking). It didn’t take us long to get down. We’d jumped the rush that would no doubt start as the masses began to descend. We arrived back to where I got stopped a few hours earlier – the desk now deserted like it was the day before. I’m adamant that you could climb all the way during the day unobstructed. Clearly they target the tourist times. We said our goodbyes at the bottom. Me given directions to the fake hotel I’d repeatedly said I was staying at. Wayan jumping back on his bike and speeding away. Probably equally pleased to get away from me as I was from him.
Wayan, with Cigarette number 9 on the go
The Desk where I was stopped a few hours earlier
As I continued alone, the morning was bright back down in the village. I stopped off at the two temples along the way and caught some good views of the morning sun over the lake. I was also barked at by some stray dogs in a pack, I thought to myself, these are the real mafia of the mountain. I was back at the hotel by 07:00, too early for breakfast so I got straight to washing the smelly kit – it was a very humid climb. All in all it wasn’t that bad. I climbed the volcano as I wanted too and got to see the day break (no sunrise). I covered about 10km and 700m elevation. Maybe 3 / 4km and 300m less that I’d planned and hoped for but I had no desire to carry on any further. That was beaten out of me.
Another Temple View
Would I recommend it? Naaa, I wouldn’t. I Guess that’s why I’m writing this. There’s a few honest blogs and reviews out there but one more to add to the pile of reality won’t be a bad thing for anyone who might stumble across it.
If you’re into the touristy thing of paying for something you don’t have too, being crowded in, not having your personal interests or safety looked after and like to be pestered and nagged to buy overpriced items whilst listen to other people’s music and motorbike engines and breathing in cigarette smoke and motorbike fumes, sure, do it. On a summer’s day when it’s not cloudy I’m sure the view and sunrise is actually magnificent, but then it is in so many, many places. This won’t be a lasting memory I’ll treasure.
The dirt path terrain, fresh with motorbike tracks