Animo!

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

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

The Elevation profile for the VDA

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

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

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

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

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

Bottleneck

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

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

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

Suspension bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Up to the Iron Mines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into the second night

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

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

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

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

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

descending with one pole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


After Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Community, One Love

“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.

Capital Ring

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Timings

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!).

Mile by Mile what we’d encounter. I do love a spreadsheet!

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.

Recces

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….

CROC week

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…

CAPITAL RING

05:00. Paul and I begin the adventure

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!

Exceptional circumstances meant some parts of the route were out of bounds

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!

Harrow on the Hill

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…

This sign made me giggle. There was water behind it actually.

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!

The smiles hide the hunger and frustration

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.

So graceful

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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!