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)
After a less than fruitful sleep, we were all crammed into the minibus for our transport to the start of the Borneo Ultra Marathon. I had two strategies for this race (1) keep hydrated (2) try and regulate my temperature as much as possible. I wasn’t sure how this race would pan out but I knew to have any chance of surviving the heat of Borneo I’d have to get this right!
Surviving the heat wasn’t the only concern amongst participants of the BUTM. Despite the carnage and ongoing concerns of the Covid19 virus that was sweeping the world, BUTM 2020 was going ahead. I felt bad for the race director. He was in a difficult position. 3 weeks prior they’d advised they were proceeding. Then the global situation intensified. The Sabah region had stayed pretty much virus free until pretty much the day before the race when. So, despite last minute updates to government’s advice the race was still going ahead. This did cause some stir and there was some noise as other races in the following weeks were cancelled. But what can you do, how do you cancel and international event at a few hours notice? It’s a lose lose situation for the RD. Some last minute provisions were made and as we queued up to enter the registration hall, all runners had their temperature scanned and our hands were sanitised. There was advice provided to for social distancing where possible (but let’s remember in the grand scheme of things this is a low key event and it doesn’t draw a crowd of spectators!).
After registering we made our way to the start line which was just a short walk away. This is also where the race would finish as we cross the final wooden suspension bridge across the water. We did the usual pre-race photo rituals and those of us doing the 100km or 50km made our way to the front of the start pen (the 30km has a later start). With little fanfare we were off and started running back through the small town and passed the hall where we registered.
We soon began the first of many long climbs and I settled in near Meghan and Carl as Spencer and Jake ran off in the distance. It wouldn’t be long before I’d turn off and begin a different route for the 100km. First though we began the steep road climb. The pace immediately slowed to a bimble in the darkness of the early morning. The sun was starting to shine and I was hoping to experience this sunrise again in 24 hours time.
A few km in and the 100km runners broke away, turning left away from the 50km runners who’d continue the climb a little further. I had this to look forward to later on where the later half of the 100km follows the same 50km route. For now though, a small quad buster of a trail descent. The ground was lumpy and hard, but my attention was drawn to the views of the surrounding area as the day broke. I briefly chatted to a Canadian woman doing her first 100 mile race and an Irish man from Wexford also doing the 100km (who’d go on to finish 2nd!). I stopped to capture a few pictures and ran on when the roads flattened and became gravel trails. Already the field was thinly spread and I found myself running alone. At the end of the descent I saw a 100 mile runner running back towards me. I assumed we’d gone wrong but he explained the river crossing was ahead and he didn’t want to get his feet wet so was going to cross the suspension bridge. I agreed with him, in the week before my feet took a beating from running in wet shoes and socks as I cooled in the rivers. I promised myself that if I stopped at a river to immerse myself I’d removed them first. It was too early to need to cool in the river though so I followed him across the scariest bridge I’d ever been on. The suspension bridges in Sabah are essentially rusty old wire fencing (think chicken coop wire) with wooden planks along them, not always attached! This one however was missing one side of the wire ‘rail’ as it was broken and hung loose and flaccid along the bridge. The planks in many places didn’t exist and the wire was full of holes. We shimmied across with two hands on the existing rail and sidestepped it. The bridge swinging and bouncing with the movement of runners. I was sure we’d fall in the river!
Shortly after the bridge fiasco, We crossed a concrete road section breaking up the river and even before 8am I was realising just how hot it was and how hot it would get. It was scorching and I was dripping with sweat already. After climbing some more gravel roads we ran into a field where we were scanned before crossing the field and running a trail path along the river. We then began the first of the ‘bigger’ ascents which was a mix of gravel roads and more hard and dry packed trails. Here the heat of the morning really struck and I noticed a number of the local runners would stop whenever there was a bit of shade from the trees. I decided to adopt this technique and grab a few seconds breather also. This would help my goal for regulating the body temperature. It was relentless. I soon realised I’d be stopping a lot on these climbs and taking it slowly so I made my peace with that. As we climbed I also started to think about my liquids. I was getting through my 1.5ltrs (I had an additional 500ml bottle to add to the hydration for later in the day) and I was wondering where and when I’d come across the first water stop. I changed my watch screen to check the distance and somehow I was on 15km already. I was confused as I’d not seen the water station. I thought it must have been in the field where I was scanned (I remember reading about that field in the race notes), but I didn’t see anything. It was a good thing though, it meant that I wasn’t far from the second water stop and had made good early progress.
The second water stop came just before the next big climb and I was glad. I was ready for some food and water. As I arrived I was more confused than ever though. I couldn’t see any water and the only food options (fruit) and fizzy drinks had prices on them and a woman telling me it was RM3 (less than a pound) for a coke, 100Plus or bottled water. What?! I wasn’t going to buy liquids in a race in the high 30degrees out of pure stubbornness. Thankfully I was eventually directed to massive water butts on high platforms with hoses coming from them for drinking water. This made more sense and no wonder I missed it at the last stop. As I refilled my bottles I realised I’d made a kit packing error – in my haste packing the night before I’d put all my caffeinated Tailwind in my race pack rather than the drop bag for the second section at night. Great. I’d be buzzing with caffeine throughout the day now. I decided to try and ration it and water it down a bit to save some for when I’d need it most when I’m tired at night.
As I left the water station we began the first jungle/trail section which was quite technical but also short before the wider trail climbs. Just like the climbs before, this was completely exposed and I was seeking out the shadows to cool down. It was a slow slog to the top but I was able to run a bit as we descended into the next water station. All along the climb and descent there were locals at the side of the road, in cars, outside their houses selling fruit and drink. I didn’t like it. It didn’t seem right to have to buy essentials (yes I class coke and isotonic drinks as essentials in ultras!) during a race.
During this section I recognised several trails from our runs the week before. I ran a familiar ridge and passed a house where we saw a monkey and a pig before passing a place which had amazing views of Mount Kinabalu. Some trails looked so familiar but I wasn’t sure if I’d been on them too! I then arrived at the third water stop and things became a little bit clearer. A volunteer asked me if I wanted fruit and when I asked if I needed to pay he replied saying “no, fruit is free for runners”. I ate so much pineapple my tongue went funny from the acidic goodness. It was ace. I filled all 4 bottles of water and set back out.
And so onto the biggest climb of the race. I was aware this one would be tough and the 14km section (straight up and back down the other side) would take about 4 hours. It was so exhausting. As the sun rose higher in the sky, with it the temperature began to sore. I was looking for the shadows. They were pure temptation. Like a voice calling you over. Come to me. Rest a while. Sit down and take the weight off your feet. Maybe stay a while, stay here all day if you like. I had to challenge myself not to succumb to the relief but to keep moving. I made a pact. I’d stop every time an opportunity presented itself, but not the first shadow, always the second or last one. Make some progress up the climbs and break it up. Each time I’d stop I’d count to ten with deep breathes, resting my hands on my knees and my head lowered to the ground. In and out. I’d watch my heart rate decrease in those ten breathes. Sometimes dropping 30+ BPM. I was working hard in the heat despite moving slower than I’ve ever climbed before.
Eventually I began to reach the top and there was a woman selling drinks. I knew there was a false summit but the trail descended quickly so I asked here if this was the top and she replied ‘yes, all downhill to the next water stop’. I packed away the poles, composed myself and cracked on. She was wrong. It was the false summit and we still had 300m of climbing to cover. I was annoyed! As we began the descent I saw a runner turn right but I saw the markings go to a trail to the left. I stopped and was about to call after him when I saw markings that went the other way too. Another runner also stopped and we debated which was right. We followed the first runner and saw more markings further on, we hoped it was right!!
When we weren’t far from the end of the descent we reached the 4th water stop. We were now 40km in. I filled my bottles and went and sat in the shade in the hut. It was quiet here with only one other runner doing the 100 miler. I sat with my head between my legs and necked a lot of water. A woman asked if I was ok. I felt fine, just too hot. She told me I was 11th. Just outside the top ten and the 10th runner just ahead. I laughed at her. That’s crazy I said and I told her I need to slow down then. I sat back and chilled out. That might have spurred people on, but not me. I went the other way. Top ten?! That’s not me. So I decided to stay here for at least ten mins and recover from the exhaustion of the climb. I eventually got up and went to another hut full of fruit and gorged on more pineapple and watermelon. I tried chatting to the women who prepared it all but they just kept laughing at me. Some sweaty white guy stuffing his chops and not stopping to chew.
I carried on. It was only 4km to the next water station and I now felt recharged and fuelled after the lack of food earlier in the morning. I was able to run a little and the ground was quite forgiving. The next water station was a confusing one as it was also one I’d revisit later in the race. I sat down for another 10 mins and applied more suncream and had some more fruit and water. The exit to this station was a massive suspension bridge and we were then running on some undulating trails heading back towards town. About halfway along the trails the runner I was following stopped. He said he didn’t see any trail markings any more. He was right, I’d stopped paying attention and now also didn’t see any. I ran on a bit but still didn’t find any. I loaded the GPX on the watch and it seemed like we were ok to continue. It wasn’t on the track but it looked to run parallel. We both sat on the floor and composed ourselves. Even thinking in the heat was draining!! The trails did indeed meet once more and we crossed several more suspect bridges. We then ran passed a junction in the race I recognised from the morning (which I’d also visit once more later in the race) and along some road. I was plodding along and before I realised it I was back at the start. Halfway. Time for my drop bag, food and a good sit down and rest.
I was about two and a half hours ahead of my predicted time so I messaged the group. They’d all finished their races now and were still in the area so they came to see me. I was a beautiful sight for them. Half baked with a wet towel draped over me, feet up and chewing on potatoes and other veg (I wasn’t fancying my chances of keeping the chicken curry down!). I was sweating so much. It just wouldn’t stop. I tried to relax and cool down but to no avail. As we talked I found out they’d all smashed their races. We had first female in the 30km, second female in the 50km and several winners in their age categories. Incredible. They went off to collect their podium prizes before leaving back to Kota Kinabalu. Spencer was staying with Jess to crew her sister on the 100 miler and she was flying, she’d arrived and left the aid station. I was getting comfortable. I was content with how the race was going so decided I’d stay for at least an hour. I ate more, bandaged my feet and kept trying to stop sweating. Eventually Jess and Spencer started packing my stuff up and kicked me out, back on my way. Cheers guys.
The next 50km would be broken up. Two big climbs and descents. A bit of flat/undulating trail. A tough trail climb and descent then two small hills and a fairly flat but slightly inclined 8km to the finish line. I was focused.
I started the first climb at a steady paced hike. The temperature had now dropped and the suns heat was diminishing. The climb was immediately easier than those in the morning/midday heat and I no longer needed to stop as I hiked. I felt good. The descent was quite runnable and I plodded on consistently.
I reached the next water stop and took another ten mins to relax. The next climb was tougher than I expected as it was through trail and jungle forest. There were some very steep sections. As I started to climb, it began to rain. Thankfully in the forest I was quite week sheltered so I let the rain cool me. I was also not worried about getting wet because the temperature was still high twenties and I was already soaked through with sweat still.
I summitted as the sun was setting and I took a moment to enjoy the views of surrounding mountains In the twilight. Quite surreal. As I continued along the ridge it soon became dark and I had to put my head torch on. The next descent was a little harder than I expected as the darkness settled quickly and the ground was very muddy and slippery from the rain. I almost stacked it a few times!
At the end of the descent I arrived back at the water station (with the big suspension bridge) from earlier in the day. I cracked into some noodles and rested again. Too my surprise, four 100km runners then showed up (one woman running in some flimsy rubber sandals!) and I was a little shocked. I’d seen only a handful of runners since I started the second loop and most of those were doing the 100 miler. I thought I’d been making better progress now. Clearly not though! I followed them out and we retraced the undulating trails from a few hours earlier. This time I walked behind them. Then, I lost sight of them. I noticed some head torches lights just above me and realised this was were I had to look at the GPX route earlier. I quickly ran back and found the actual root this time and soon caught them up again. We next arrived back at the intersection of all the routes for my third time and I started to veer right. The other runners carried on straight. Aaah. I hadn’t been caught up after all, they were still on their first loop. I was at least 20km ahead of them. That made me feel better.
I was happily walking the next section when I once more realised I’d done this route earlier in the day. I crossed the concrete road through the river again (disoriented and thinking I was going the opposite direction this time – I wasn’t). Despite looking at the route and the elevation I hadn’t quite noticed how many paths I’d duplicate. I knew what lay ahead though. Gravel and pathed roads, climbs and a small descent. Then I’d be at the water station I missed on my first pass (the very first one!). I was getting sleepy now though. I thought about sleeping for ten minutes when I arrived but I settled for coffee instead.
It was back out through the field and along the river before somewhere I turned off on to new trails I’d not yet experienced. Next it would be the biggest and most technical section of the last 50km. Spencer had warned me about how technical this but would be in the dark so I felt prepared.
I don’t really remember the climb. But I do remember the descent. It was brutal. It was very steep and very rocky and rooty. The ground was covered in wet leaves and slippery earth. I was going slowly. I was also feeling it in my feet and the they were hot and raw. I couldn’t wait for this to end.
It was quite surreal being in the jungle at night. The noises were very relaxing and the floor was moving, crawling with insects. I saw so many armies of giant ants, big ugly spiders (eyes glistening in the torch light!) frogs and bats. A few times I stopped and turned off my light to enjoy the darkness and look up at the clear night sky. It was peaceful out here on the mountain with the stars shinning through the gaps In the trees. As the trail flattened out I realised how tired I was actually becoming. I was definitely beginning to fall asleep as I ran and wobbled from side to side. At one point I saw Spencer laying on the ground next to me. I jumped awake as I almost stepped on him. He looked up and said “you alright mate?”. I was beginning to hallucinate and needed more coffee!
I stocked up on caffeine and more noodles at the aid station and carried on for the final two lumps of the race. It was working. The warm food and caffeine enabled me to run the down hill sections which were gravel tracks and road. We crossed many more suspension bridges (quite a few in dire need of repairs!) and I even passed a few runners. Before I knew it I’d covered the 10km of trail and was at the final water stop. I felt good. It felt like a long time since I’d finished a race actually running a bit. Normally I’m resigned to just walking by now! I promised a quick final stop. More coffee and I ate a whole pack of PowerUp sweets I’d had for over a year. A resealable pack, I chewed them all down. This would give me that final kick of energy. And it did. After a quick turn around I was running. I was now churning out some sub 7 minute kilometres as the watch ticked passed the 100km mark. I even ran some of the small inclines and kept the moment going. Partly I didn’t want the people I overtook catching me up. I did now wonder how far off I might be from the top ten all these hours later.
The final section felt quite disorienting and I felt like I was running around in circles. Constantly crossing bridges and looping around. As the kms ticked down I could sense the end. One volunteer I passed (checking bib numbers in) congratulated me. I smiled. He was right. I’d done this. The few km ahead were a formality. I was feeling it. Smiling. Running with confidence again.
Up ahead I saw the bright lights on the other side of the river. All very quiet, but this must have been it. The final bridge crossing. I’d read about it. You finish this side of the bridge and walk across to collect your medal. It wasn’t exactly as climatic as that for me though. There was no one there. I crossed the bridge and ran under the finish arch to total silence. At the finish line two volunteers. One checking all the mandatory kit. The other handing out the tshirts and medals. Very subdued at 05:00 in the morning! Which is always to be expected. I’d come in under 24 hours, I was very happy with that.
I walked back to the registration hall, collected my drop bag, found the driver Joanne had arranged for me and headed back to the lodge to get some sleep. In 12 hours time I’d be on a flight back to the UK and in 24 hours time I’d be heading to work, and my adventure would have sadly come to an end! What an adventure it has been though!
Joanne and Richard from Adventures in Borneo had prepared an incredible two weeks of running and adventure for us. The Planning and organisation and support from them and their team was incredible. They’d supported us through the race too. Not only with the logistics and organisation but through their advice, experiences and getting us exposed to the trails and climate beforehand. The group, now friends, who’d done the adventure all performed incredibly. When I found out the results at the half way point I was amazed. So strong and everyone had such a great time. I too had a great run and did squeeze into tenth place in the end. Unreal.
The race itself was enjoyable. I started off mentioning the difficult circumstances surround the event and I am so glad I was able to run the BUTM. The trails and route was pretty epic and the volunteers and organisation were great and helpful. The pre-race information was, if anything, too informative (detailed route instructions that you’d struggle to visualise) and as far as I could tell the whole event ran smoothly. The trail markings and directions were great and any fears I had of running through the jungle at night were not valid. I also mentioned about having to buy drinks. This was the biggest negative for me. I believe it’s intended to support the local communities but I think this can be achieved via the entrance and registration fees. It’s great that people are out providing extra support to runners, but I don’t think this should be at the expense of the provisions at the actual aid stations. This was the first ‘supported’ race I’ve done where I’ve eaten most of my own nutrition stash. There just wasn’t much at the aid stations to have (pineapple and noodles aside!). I’d definitely recommend this event and do now have my eye on their sister race ‘TMBT’ (Interpreted as either ‘The Most Beautiful Thing’ or ‘The Most Brutal Thing’ depending who you speak to!) held in August each year…
As I sit by a pool overlooking a lake, reflecting on my recent achievements and completion of my first 100 mile run, one thought that has come to mind is routine.
… it exists everywhere. Throughout our lives we get into habits and make routines. Running is full of routines. The regularity of runs and training, plans and coaching instructions. Morning and afternoon commutes or that favourite time of day that works best for us. Sometimes they even have silly little names like the ‘Sunday long run’. We each find a routine that works for us.
I’ve got my own routines for running. These have been fundamental to the achievements and successes I’ve had over the past 12 months. One of which is not something I could foresee when I started running – daily supplements. Nutrition is a big part of the routines associated to running. Besides the obvious elements of our diets, an example might be the post run ‘recovery shake’ after a particularly strenuous run, I subscribe to this one. For the past year though I’ve also been taking a number of supplements. I’m very fortunate to be supported by Xendurance as part of their TeamXND of runners. Getting to try out numerous of their products has been great, But three have made it into my daily habits – Xendurance, Immune Boost and the Omega+D3. Let me tell you why…
Immune Boost – This is a daily multivitamin full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. designed to build a healthy immune system. If I can help maintain a health body, supporting my bones, tissues and organs, then I think my body will stand a better chance to cope with the rigours of endurance running.
Omega +D3 – Fish oil is well known as a great supplement and the Xendurance Omega+D3 is exactly that in a form that promotes improved absorption of the fatty acids, along with some additional vitamin D to support the retention of key minerals like calcium. Great for keeping those joints and organs healthy.
Xendurance – A ‘performance product’ that is designed to help repair and rebuild the muscle tissue and reduce soreness. Fighting stresses encountered during exercise ad reducing the amount of lactic acid built up, it helps the body to recover quickly. With the amount of running and stress I put my body under, this product is ideal to help me cope and maintain a healthy balance.
This routine, whilst desired and believed in by me, is also dictated by the dosage. I take 3 of the Xendurance tablets and 3 of the immune boost each morning and night as well as an omega 3 each morning and night. 14 pills a day. 420 or so each month. That’s a lot. Normally it’s manageable. Some before bed and some with breakfast in the morning. It did take a while to get into the habit of taking them. Now though it is all part of my daily routine for life. Get up, have breakfast, take my supplements and go to work… That becomes a little more complicated when I’m doing longer ultras, and even more difficult over the past few weeks as I’ve travelled around.
For the last 4 weeks I’ve been living out of a bag (it’s not all bad, I’ve been in some amazing places after all and it’s a big ol’ bag!) and keeping the process going while on the road has required a little more thought and attention. Although, mostly it is the same – I just need to remember to take them as the rest of my routine and living pattern is completely disrupted. I also believe in the benefits they give me so that makes it a little easier not to forget. So no special techniques or pill boxes here, just leaving the packets somewhere accessible as a reminder seems to work just fine.
What is a little more difficult is managing the dose around the really long runs/events. Firstly I don’t increase the dosage leading up to a big event. You can do, but for me those would be marginal benefits that probably won’t make a difference to my overall objectives, performance or recovery. What I do make sure I do though is continue to take the dose throughout the run. For those ultras I’ve been out there for longer than 20 hours or so, this means taking pills with me!
Depending on when the run starts I’ll usually take a dose before I start (usually they are very early or very late in the day and this aligns nicely). I’m conscious that I’ll then need at least two doses carried with me for roughly 12 and 24 hours later. Initially I left some in a drop bag in a race I did early last year. I was so preoccupied with my drop bag ‘routine’ though that I completely forgot to take them. So now I carry them. Somewhere obvious so that when I do stop, I’m aware that they should be taken. A little chest pocket on my running vest is the ideal size and location. I do often wonder if it raises an eye brow at the aid station when I empty a little plastic bag and all these pills spill into my palm!!
Likewise I did the same when I took a 26hr flight to New Zealand and I used the flight meals as the reminder to take my supplements. My seat neighbours didn’t seem to notice me ‘popping’.
So why have I made these supplements part of my routine? Pretty much as I mentioned above. I believe in the benefits. Whether you do or don’t, even if you have a pseudo effect it’s still a benefit in my mind. The Immune Boost ensures my body gets the key vitamins I need as a base. The ones that my diet and other habits might be lacking in. Keeping the insides strong and healthy will, if nothing else, maintain my ability to run and help fight any illness I might be subjected too. The Xendurance though is the main one. I said it in the little ‘Forest Sessions’ filming video I did with TeamXND last year – I find my legs are less heavy after the big ultras than they were before I started taking them. My body’s ability to get up and go again seems stronger. And with my desire to do more and more, longer and longer runs, this is a huge help!
Writing this got me thinking a little about my year with TeamXND. What initially started with a trial led to this routine. And there’s a lot in between to be thankful for. I’m thankful to Kieran for getting me involved and making the introductions. To the team at Xendurance who’ve supported and encouraged me over the year. And to the other athletes I’ve met through the team, who’ve shared the experience and inspirations with me.
The highlight of course was the little get together we did in the New Forest in the summer. This was an opportunity for a few of us to meet face to face. To talk about our passions and motivations for running. To share our stories and also our experiences with the Xendurance products. We were a varied bunch. All with different purposes and goals, and that’s what was so inspiring. Xendurance and their products have supported us all in unique and different ways to help us achieve those goals and live our passions to the fullest.
I can’t deny the nerves and awkwardness I had being in front of the camera, something that isn’t a natural thing for me but chatting away with the others made it easier. As did the little run myself and Jakob managed to squeeze in whilst the others filmed in the forest. Chatting away more with Jakob was inspiring, whilst we do similar events, again our motivations and drivers are quite different. His outlook and philosophy is was quite poetic to listen to as we wound away through the forest oaths, past some of the healthiest looking cattle I’ve ever seen in my life. Hopefully we’ll be crossing trails and some events this year!
And there are some of the hidden benefits of this routine, who would have thought that taking supplements would also bring inspiration and friendship into my life?!
If you’d like to know more about the Xendurance product range, get in touch. I’d be happy to share more thoughts and insights into what I use. Also keep any eye on their Instagram page (@Xendurance_EU) right now as they present more videos of TeamXND runners sharing their experiences!
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
‘Chasing Pounamu’ is a short documentary about one runner’s quest to complete the Tarawera 100 mile endurance run. Runners completing the event are gifted a Pounamu – a local Maori gemstone made into a necklace. It’s a heart warming and emotional watch (you can find it on YouTube). One I watched a few weeks before I headed out on my own quest to ‘chase the pounamu’…
Last year, when Kirsty left the UK to return to New Zealand, a few of us said we’d come and visit sometime. Little did I realise a few months later I’d be signing up to my first 100 miler in New Zealand. 100 miles was never on my to do list. However, over the past 12 months my running distances had been slowly creeping up and 100 miles suddenly became the next logical step. Although It wasn’t until I was on the sign-up page for the Tarawera Ultra Marathon (TUM) that the decision was made as, unlike the other events at TUM, the ‘miler’ finishers are gifted with a pounamu. I signed up immediately.
Fast forward some 8 months later and we are reunited with Kirsty in Rotorua. Like many events I didn’t feel as ready as I could or should be. Especially for tackling my first 100 mile event. A recurring pain in my ankle/shin had kept me from running for the whole of January (with the exception of the Maverick race in Amberley). My mind was focused though. No way was I not starting. No way was I not finishing. No way would I be leaving without that Pounamu! For weeks my mind had been consumed by the race. I’m not sure why. Maybe because of the costs. Maybe the extent of the adventure I was embarking on for 6 weeks. Maybe because I was nervous. Either way it helped me to focus and visualise on the end goal. I was determined and would be relying more than ever before on the experience I’ve accumulated from running ultras…
The day before the race we went to the Maori Powhiri at Te Puia. A traditional welcoming ceremony which welcomed the runners to the event and officially opened it. With talks from the race founder, Maori leaders and the town Mayor as well as singing and dancing it ended with a hongi – a significant expression performed by rubbing noses. It was , to a ‘Westerner’ unusually special. I’ve never felt so at home at an event before. The runners were told that we were now part of their community. Their family. That together we’d see success in the event. It was all rather touching. We then went and registered and collected our bibs (and do the weigh in for medical reasons). This was the quickest of processes as we’d already passed our mandatory gear checks – the event had a unique collaboration with Macpac (an outdoors retail chain) where you could visit any store in the days leading up to the event, do the mandatory gear check in store and receive a signed certificate to present at registration instead of taking your kit with you. This made the whole process so much slicker, how any of it is actually governed come race day I do not know though! The afternoon involved some relaxing in the heated hotel pool and then as much sleep as I could possibly get!
It was time. After a few hours sleep I found myself creeping around in the dark at 2am. The 3 others in the room were still sleeping, squeezing in an extra hour for the later start of their 100km race. Final preparations and checks completed and it was time to leave, just as it started to hammer down with rain. Hugs and high fives all round. Andy kindly drove me to the start back in Te Puia and Jorge, being the ever generous and supportive friend he is, came along too. We rocked up in a very empty car park. Jorge sported Adrian, the man at the centre of ‘chasing Pounamu’ and I followed him inside the cultural centre to the start line right up by the active Pohutu geyser – Pohutu happens to be the largest active geyser in the southern hemisphere and erupts once or twice every hour, sometimes reaching heights of 30 metres!) which was erupting magnificently in the darkness. The start line was covered in the spray and mist from the sulphur activity. I sat on the hot rocks nearby and waited patiently. I did one final ‘body check’ and mentally confirmed all was good – nothing but the normal few amber warnings flagged up. I was as ready as I could be.
As the MC started to welcome the runners and brief us on the journey ahead we congregated behind the start line. Our welcome climaxed in a traditional Maori Haka and traditional singing. With Pohutu erupting behind us it was a truly surreal and magical moment as the race director and crowd of supporters counted us down and sent us off on our challenge…
For a moment I was overwhelmed as I crossed that start line. To cheers and applause I realised this is the moment of races I like most. A sense of awe from the crowd. Respect and appreciation as they spur on loved ones, family, strangers. There’s no competition, only encouragement. the beginning of an epic challenge and adventure, however it turns out. At this moment I feel invincible. I smiled and clapped back, as I always do. I wish this feeling would last more than a few seconds!
We ran through Te Puia and very quickly found the trails as we made the first 13km to the first aid station. The first set of paths were hard and dusty. Uneven but nice to run. They led us into the first of many forest tracks we’d run this day. It was still raining but as we entered the Redwood forest the rain was but a light mist/spray that was cooling in the humid morning. The head torches lit the way as we traced the winding paths through the woodlands. The pack of just under 300 runners was already beginning to spread and I found myself following a group of maybe six runners keeping pace together. Before I knew it a sign screamed out at us “aid station 200m ahead”. Little did I know how much I’d look forward to these signs later in the day!
Leaving the aid station we were immediately back into the forests. These paths were different though. More single tracks. The floor littered with roots. A few times I tripped but thankfully never fell. Areas of steps provided extra challenges in this part as we navigated the trails in complete darkness due to the thick foliage and cover. The smells were incredible and so vibrant and I was smiling as I wound my way through moew twisty tracks. Another aid station came and went and I then found myself running alongside the Green Lake. The sun was starting to rise and the paths navigated ran alongside the lake as the sun began to glisten and reflect off the water. The trails were undulating with little stretches of running broken up by short climbs. We burst out of the forests and ran a section along a sealed road. Cones marked the way and signs encouraging the runners to keep inside the cones. I felt the road. It was dull and tedious after the trails before it. Thankfully though the Buried Village soon appeared. The third aid station and one of historical importance – a heritage site persevering a village buried under rock, ash and mud following the eruption of Mt Tarawera.
Inside the Buried Village the atmosphere was electric. Loads of supporters welcoming the runners in to the aid station and a lady on a mega phone cracking the jokes and encouraging everyone on. I had some jam and Nutella sandwiches made for me by the volunteers and cracked on to the next section which would be the second longest stretch between aid stations with about 15km until I reached Isthmus. I did stop very quickly for a picture at the view point and then again to take off my arm warmers and pack them and the head torch away.
This section was by far my favourite part of the race. The Buried Village was beautiful and the trails undulating along the rock face. Fauna surrounded us and we were soon presented with incredible views across lake Tarawera as the sun continued to glisten and reflect off the water. The paths then opened up as we reached the lake. The soft grassy trails which followed the contours of the lake were a joy to run on. As we closed in on Isthmus I noticed some odd signs warning of zombies and that ‘any zombies chasing humans would be shot on sight’. It took me a while before I realised the it was a sign for the aid station and that all the aid stations were themed. This one for a Zombie apocalypse. I thought it was a great way to raise a few smiles and provide entertainment.
A bunch of runners came in after me and I didn’t hang around too long. It was just over a km until I’d reach the ferry crossing to get to the other side of the lake Rerewhakaaitu. I didn’t want to end up in a queue for the boat so I stepped on it a little. As I arrived at the jetty there was sadly no boat waiting for me. Two ladies, Sue and Femi sat waiting with mocktails. The volunteer was preparing juice and ice mocktails for the runners and they were an absolute treat. I picked one up, clinked glasses and sat down to joined them. As we waited he explained there had been an issue with one of the two boats. By the time it arrived 12 of us shuffled onboard to get to the other side. A few minutes later as we unboarded the runners fled off into the distance and running through the private farm roads. We then hit a long road on a gradual incline. I briefly chatted to sue as she ran a steady pace running to heart rate. She gradually pulled away as I was adamant I was walking it all. I didn’t want to burn out so soon!
The road continued for about 5km before we reached the next station at Rerewhakaaitu. It was still morning but getting very hot now. I took advantage and lathered up with the suncream available at the aid station before hitting the road again. And that is what it was. More road. More tarmac gradually climbing as far as my eyes could see into the distance. I hiked on. I was amazed by the persistence of runners who ran it all. The farmer themed aid station of Okahu broke up the road briefly but more was to come. By the time we left the road I think we must have covered somewhere between 10-15km. It was soul destroying. The return to the trail was most welcomed.
The trails were now long and wide gravel tracks worn over time by vehicles. Again the paths were undulating with gentle inclines and down hills alternating. A good section for running and getting into the flow again. That was until towards the end of the section where a climb of about 200m was lurking. As we reached the top and the aid station at Wihapi the volunteers apologised for the hill. I laughed and said it was easier than the road. It certainly was for me!
From here the wide gravel paths continued. Only down hill. The longest section of downhill on the route and I thought it was as soul destroying as the road. Why? Because it was so straight. You could just see the path continue into the distance and never ending. Mentally I found it tough to keep moving at pace. Somewhere around here I’d started talking to another runner – Thomas. We’d been leap-frogging each other for a while and had settled into a comparable pace. He seemed fine with it when I kept pointing ahead and indicating where and when I’d start walking or running. Puhipuhi was the next destination and one that marked where the route would join with that of the 100km runners. Those runners would be well passed by now though having started 3hours after the miler and having just 20km to run to get to the same aid station. Hopefully that would mean the trails would be quieter for me for the rest of the day. The volunteers offered me plenty of ‘crippies’ and ‘lollies’ as well as the option to lay in their paddling pool. I declined the later but did discover Mountain Dew. Something I’ve never tried before. I thought it was ace, even though it is probable a chemical concoction I do not want to know more about! As I drank the Mountain Dew, it was the first moment that it dawned on me how far the race was. 80km in and we were only half way there. Halfway! Shiiit. That thought would linger for a long time.
Chatting away to Thomas I completely zoned out on the way to Tiktoki. I remember the trails were still long and wide but now more grassy and more dirt like rather than gravel. Some woman also joined with us for a short while. She was memorable because she was completely soaked (somewhere she’d gone for a dip in the lake!) and because she shared insight and knowledge as the was her second time. She encouraged us to reach Hhumphries before dark as that section was technical. She vanished before we reached Tiktoki and was no where to be seen when we arrived. As we sat and ate at the aid station we chatted with several other runners. One explained he was done with the sweat food and a volunteer overheard and brought out bacon and egg pie. Woooah. This was great. Back on it now! 10km until the 100km mark and a key milestone in my race because (1) I’d mentally split it into 3 x 50 kms. I knew if I got to 150km I’d finish. So 2/3 of the race would have been completed when I reached the Outlet. (2) it was where my drop bag was located. So time for a longer rest and mid-race maintenance. For me this means a wet wipe shower, change of socks, t-shirt and shoes. Reapply Squirrels Nut Butter to prevent chafe. Swap out and refill my nutrition stash and dump any unnecessary items. This time I got rid of the Gopro, sunglasses and running belt (used to carry my phone but I was no longer in the mood for photos so in the backpack it went!). Before I reached the Outlet though it was more windy forest trails. The highlight of which was a section running along one of the clearest rivers I’ve ever seen. Somewhere hidden here is the Tarawera Falls. You could hear it for a long time before we reached it. The water was gushing out of the mountain through many holes. We took a moment to enjoy the view before continuing.
As I was going through my drop bag routine I told Thomas to crack on. I was going to be here for a while and didn’t want him waiting for me longer than he was prepared for. As is the case with these races you often see people again at different stages. We wished each other well and I got stuck into some more hot noodles. I was all about the hot savoury food now! Loads of runners came and went in my time at Outlet. But when I left I was born again!
The next section was the technical bit to Humphries bay running alongside the northern side of lake Tarawera. Crazy to think I’d been looking across the lake to this area maybe ten hours ago after I left the Buried Village! It was Only about 7km and I was feeling rejuvenated so I ran. I ran well. I passed maybe ten runners on this section as I leaped and bounced around the roots and lunged up the rocks and powered through. It was fucking humid too. As the day started to end the humidity In the forest increased. My fresh kit was quickly as wet and stinky as the stuff I’d changed out of. Despite the running it took a while. A good 1.5 hours for such a short distance before I emerged into the scout base of Humphries bay. Here I persuaded a volunteer to make me a cheese toasty using the volunteers sandwich maker. She wasn’t too eager but how can you say no to someone running a 100 miles?!
Leaving Humphries it was a similar story as I made my way towards Okatania. More forest paths. Less technical thankfully but still many roots and fallen trees to climb or duck under. The legs didn’t appreciate those lunges now! It was still very bright as the sun set over the lake but as soon as you turned back into the ‘bush’ it was pitch black. The headlamp had to come out. It felt odd as I could look up and see the light beyond the foliage. It just wasn’t reaching the ground. I found Thomas again and we carried on into the darkness for the several km remaining of this section, which felt so much longer.
I lost him once more at the Okatania aid station. This one was pumping. Okatania, with its circus theme, was a hive of activity. Not only was it another drop bag and support aid station, but it was where miler runners could have a pacer join them for the last marathon. Yep. Three back to back marathons done, one remaining. I sat down with some soup and more egg and bacon pie and a woman started talking to me. She was waiting for her husband and was asking how it’s going and if she could get me anything. So kind. I was sorted though. Warm belly and more fluids taken on board as well as a third water bottle filled up – the next section was 16km. I’d been drinking a litre between aid stations and despite it now being night, the humidity, length of the next section and the imminent climb meant I should be wise and prepared. I had noticed that despite all the fluids I was still not fully hydrated though after all this time and it did bother me a little and was on my mind.
Stocked up I set off to make the climb. Maybe a little over 500m lay ahead. This didn’t phase me and I was ready for a good walk. I’d also picked up my poles at the 100km mark ready for a lot of walking. After bringing them all this way I at least needed to make some use of them. So out they came. And off to the Blue Lake I marched.
It was a lonely old climb. I thought I’d see groups of people encouraged by their pacers storming past me but it never happened. What did surprise me though was that on the climb I began overtaking some 100km runners. I didn’t think I’d catch the ck end of this event. They were in high spirits though and with each one I passed we congratulated each other’s efforts and called bullshit to the climb and pains. As I broke the back of the climb the descent began. It was runnable. Single track easy underfoot. I ran on. After a few km though the ran became a hobble. Whilst I’d been blocking out the pains in my legs (particularly my ankle/shin pain and my destroyed quads) I couldn’t block out the pain in my left foot. The sole was raw. A blister for sure on the padding. Pressure was rather uncomfortable but there was no choice but to keep moving forward. The slow progress then began to make me tired and I was wobbling a little for sure.
Before the Blue Lake there was another section. Coming out of the long trails from Oktania we reached the aid station at Millar road. A smallish aid station but one busy with volunteers. I asked for warm food but there was none. They did have coffee though. I needed it. The long walk had made me sleepy. I needed a kick. I sat down with more jam sandwiches, a cheese scone and some ‘chippies’ whilst I drank the coffee. I noticed runners coming in and either layering up or being wrapped in blankets as they sat. Mmhhh. I realised it was cold. I took my arm warmers back out. It wasn’t cold by UK standards but I was beginning to shake a little.
As I left Millar road I walked with another guy. We talked a bit but I forgot his name. I was spaced out now. I overheard a volunteer tell another runner about long sections of road and another 1.5km of technical forest tracks. As we walked the first part of the road the pain was too much for me to fully engage in conversation. I also kept needing to pee. So I’d dropped back from the runner before we reached the technical part. In the bush it was so dark. The paths were windy with twists and turns. I kept having to stop and look which way I was going. My head torch died and I needed to change the battery to see (thankfully it died in a small clearing in the bush and the moonlight was enough to see in my bag for the spare). The bush was spectacular in the dark. But I was getting sleepy. So very sleepy.
Eventually we left the forest behind and emerged onto a road. Back at Blue Lake. To my right was the aid station, lit up a few hundred meters away. To my left, arrows and cones marking the path. Ah. Shit, I forgot we had to do a loop of the lake first. About 4km. We ran this as a group a few days before in the opposite direction. I at least knew what to expect. But this wouldn’t mean I’d enjoy it. 4km hobbling took a long long time.
I rocked up 2 hours later than estimated at the Blue Lake aid station and I only had one thing on my mind… “is there a medic or someone who can treat a blister for me?”. Thankfully there was. A running coach went to work and gasped when my sock came off. “We need to drain that one!” Much to the shock of the volunteers who’d gathered round. It was probably about the size of a watch face on the padding of my sole. I drank more coffee whilst she went to work and then taped it up to relieve the pressure. Immediately I felt better and that I could hobble a little faster at least. I thanked them and set off on my way. As I left the aid station Jorge, Kirsty and Andy were there to cheer me on. I find this level of support and friendship incredible – after running all day, 100km for 14-18 hours with minimal sleep they still put others first over their recovery needs. It’s so generous. A short chat and I was back moving. 15km to go via the Redwoods back to town…
From Blue Lake to Redwoods was a tough 9km stint. It started with some twisty gradual climbs on loose gravel paths. Any thoughts I had on running were gone again. The loose rocks ached the raw skin on my feet. As we continued we ventured back into the forest trails. This time surrounded by the huge redwoods all around. My watch kept beeping as it lost signal. The darkness was pure. Above us a super moon shining bright in the sky. Towards the end of the section we climbed again. I passed more runners from the 100km and a few milers on the climb too. Each one questioning when it would end. Each one with a different understanding of how long the final section through town would be, it ranged from 2km to 9km. Naturally I hoped for the former! As we levelled out the town lights were visible in the distance. Like all ultras though I questioned how far further this last stretch would be and when we’d descend to town level and how/where we we going. It looked so far. What goes up must come down though and soon we did. Rapidly. Steps. Heaps of them. Deep earth packed Steps with un-level wooden breakers. I limped down them all eventually reaching a road and volunteers each egging me on the final few hundred m. I arrived at the Redwoods aid station to be treated by a Mexican day of the dead party. The sun beginning to rise and two familiar faces – Paul, the founder of the Tarawera race (who welcomed us at the Powhiri) and a gentleman I’d seen many times throughout the day supporting his wife. He chatted to me each time. He’s had just 5 hours sleep in the last two days and looked exhausted now. I assured him his wife Billie was just behind me. They pushed me on for the last stretch with encouragement. It was close to 7km to go. Damn. I wanted more coffee but there wasn’t any. I was no reliant on the rising sun to bring some life back into me and keep the eyes open as I left the aid station
Into finish now. 7km. 2 hours. It was happening for sure. Even if I slowed down further the sub 30 ‘Western States’ qualifier would be achieved. I believed more than ever before. A few runners ran past me. They clearly believed too. We followed some park paths for a little while before hitting the geothermal valley area. Woah. Besides being hit in the face with the heat and sulphur smell, it was beautiful. Natural rocky landscape steaming from vents. I expected to run through the main streets of town. Long straight blocks of buildings. Nope. We’d loop through parks and wooden walkways surrounding the thermal areas all the way to the lake. It made it far more manageable. I plodded on. Billie and her husband ran past. It was about 7am. The sun was shinning. I reached the last sign saying 200 m to the finish. There were a group of people standing and clapping. I stopped to talk. We joked about running the last bit. The only bit that matters. A few moments later I started again. The plod became faster. I was shuffling now. The crowd gathered at the finish line began to cheer. The MC announced me as I entered the finishers area. I shuffled over the line with a beaming smile. I didn’t know what to do and the first words that came out to a volunteer were “where do I sit down?” I was so spaced out. Exhausted. A lady came over and apologetically encouraged me to come and get my gift, the Pounamu. Yes!!! A table was laid out. There were loads of Pounamu in boxes on display like a jewellery shop. They were massive. Far bigger than I expected. Each one different. Different colours. Different shades. She explained the purpose, the shape and meaning and significance of the ‘Toki’ design. She explained that we were to choose our own. It was personal. It took me a while but with a little help I found my Pounamu. The dark green jade called to me. She put it round my neck. I asked her to get a finish line photo. A videographer took pictures and filmed and asked if he could have a few words. Before she left the lady asked me if I wanted a hug, “fucking right I do” and at that moment I felt the sense of achievement and closure from the race. As the videographer asked me questions I realised how spaced I was. I’ve no idea what I answered. I was led in to the recovery zone to be weighed – we were weighed at check in and on finishing to check we were medically ok. They advised they were looking for a weight loss/gain within a 4kg tolerance to ensure we hadn’t taken in too much or too little liquid. I’d lost about 1.5kg. Perfect he said, go get some food and relax in the recovery area. As I went in I saw Femi from the boat ride some 14 hours earlier?! Then Jorge, Andy and Arlene arrived. They’d seen me finish as they were parking. They helped feed me and get me home. They updated me on everyone else’s races and achievements.
Milers are hard. It’s a long ass way
I once again broke it into thirds. The first 50km was a breeze. The middle dragged on and on and the final was a slog. The realisation at 80km that it was only half way was horrible.
The generosity of friends. Tracking and following, supporting. Its incredible at the best of times. Its another level of generosity when they do it after running 100km themselves!
The sheer size of operation – around 690 volunteers and 150 permanent staff. 200 kms of trails across private land, public land, Government land and tribal land. There is a huge amount of organisation to such a successful event.
The generosity of the event. There was something very psecial in the Powhiri welcome. I’ve never experienced that before. Also starting in a cultural site and the Haka at the start. Incredible. The amount we got out of it too with entrance to cultural/heritage sites such as Te Puia and the Brried Village, the race swag, the support throughout the race and the huge pounamu. The expensive race entry was fully justified this time!
It takes a lot of coffee for me to get going when I’m tired.
The morning is a very special time when running. The light from the sun is powering and what goes before it is soon forgotten when the day breaks.
Rotorua is special. It has so much. Tens of lakes. Woods and forests such as the Redwoods. Mount Tarawera and the geothermal valley. Any one of those alone would make it special, Rotorua has them all!
2019. Growing up in the 80s, “2019” sounded so futuristic. A utopia world of hover boards, homes in the sky and intergalactic travel. Not quite. I spent it doing (no surprise here) running. One of the oldest and most traditional of movements. Some fancy technology in the smart watches and tech fabrics etc., but otherwise pretty basic. Just me running.
The year started with some good news – a message confirming I’d been accepted onto the Tailwind Trailblazer programme. What even is that? – it’s an ambassador programme. A mutual partnership whereby I use and promote the product and in return I get some support from the brand. I’m happy with that as it’s a great product (see what I did there?!) and one I was using regularly. First impressions were that the support was great. A collective of varied members with a diverse, multi-discipline background and huge amounts of personal experiences. It made me think a little and I decided to end a few other associations that were no longer right for both myself and the other companies.
Despite the positive start though, my mind was in overdrive. I’d carried into the new year an injury which was lingering from a night run back in December. I’d come up with two plans to manage it, plan A was ignore it and carry on regardless. Plan B was to start pulling out of races. Thankfully I found an suitable plan compromise and was able to continue running enough and not have to resort to any DNS.
I’d continued my involvement with the team at MyCrew and managed the plan with my injury, mixing it up with some local hill training as a result. Tuesday’s weekly hill runs became a thing for two months as well as some regular night runs. I met a few new friends through this process and got to know some others a little better too. This showed the values in some of the partnerships we can strike up with companies and brands.
Race wise, January started with the Country to Capital. The early year opener. One many runners do to get ready for other events. I almost didn’t start due to my foot (I’d had a few physio sessions by then and received plenty of advice advising me to DNS). But I did. I went in with a ten hour finish in mind. Faster than the cut off but fairly relaxed. I finished in seven hours. Fairly fast. It was a lovely day, I felt comfortable and I kind of just just went for it and kept going. Not racing but pushing. A highlight was a brief encounter with Paul (who I’d go on to share many runs with throughout the year) and the lowlight was definitely towards the end with the flat, dirty canal paths. I just wanted it over.
February brought the first of the big ones – TransGran Canaria. The one that scared me a little. Other than the CCC I’d not run in the mountains. Now here I was preparing for a 129km run. I’d heard the stories. The rocky river bed. I hit my lowest point in my running experiences out in Gran Canaria. My mind was lost to the rocks and I became an angry bastard. I ended up Walking the last 26 miles. 8 hours pounding on. I finished in 23 hours. A huge finish on my estimate of 27 hours. Yvette and Jorge followed me all day along like the absolute heroes they are. Along with Matt and Ale they showed me what incredible friendships and support I had found through running.
March was the first of the little ‘breather’ periods in my year. Early on I headed to Maverick Liphook and popped my Maverick cherry with the Wild TR bunch. It was a lovely break and intro back to running after TGC. The ice cold wet mud was so soft and refreshing. I loved it.
Country to Capital
Trans Gran Canaria
April was another international escape with the same Wild TR group as we headed to Italy and the Cinque Terra region for the Sciacchee Trail. For me I used it as a test in my mind ahead of events later in the year. 50km, with a few km vert thrown in and a heap of steps. It was two weeks before Madeira and the one I was focused on. This run was all about seeing how I’d recover in that two week period. Again I loved it. It was a super hot weekend in Italy with great company and many memories gathered. Nothing low about this one but I’ll always remember the miles shared with Kirsty and Maggie.
Soon after it was time to head to Madeira and tackle the MIUT 115km. This was the one I wanted. The one that terrified me. The one I’d looked at a year ago and thought hell yeah, I want some of that. Almost like a ‘dream race’ if you like. It lived up to expectations. The hardest run I’ve done for sure. But by far the most spectacular. The difficulty of the race was balanced by its beauty. The last few miles will always be remembered as it seemed to never end, but my word the climbs and the views were simply out of this world. My favourite place I’ve run!
May became the bonus month with the Three Forts Challenge and Maverick x Tribe ‘run free’ events. The planned rest for the month was not realised. Instead on day two of the month I was already doing a marathon (ultra technically). Rest was clearly going well! Running it with friends though made it a very enjoyable experience. Likewise for ending the month with the Maverick run which again was a very social event and one in inadvertently turned into another ultra by running 6 miles from the bus stop to the race start!
Lou, Elisa, Kev and Martha
June. Four more events this month – Luxembourg, Samoens, Lavaredo and the Salomon festival at Boxhill. It started off with a return to road. Pacing Nick to an enjoyable (for me) first marathon. Without question one of, if not the best road marathons I’ve done with incredible support and entertainment around a beautiful city. Topped off with a lovely little photo book memoir for all participants (and which I made the cut!). An impromptu 50km at the Salomon Fest followed where I supported Tom Wake in leading the guided run. Bonus here was finally meeting Mark, someone I’d been in contact for a while with through a mutual friend. He only went and completed the Dragons Back a few weeks earlier! The Samoens soon followed which was more about getting away with a wicked bunch of runners than the run itself (a modest 33km but with some fruity elevation!). This one hurt. I was faster than normal as it was a shorter race and the quads felt it. Also I had some weird issue with my insoles where they kept scrunching up on the downhills after getting soaked as I ran through several rivers. A great weekend though! Then the next one – 120km in the Dolomites. It was stunning. It was brutal. So hot. So rocky. It broke me like no other. I thought TGC broke me the most, physically it was Lavaredo. Mentally I was fine as I had Paul (another Paul that is) with me. It was 4 weeks later and the skin from the blisters and trench foot still hadn’t fully healed. Might be a reason why that was…
July. The week after Lavaredo I headed to the LoveTrails festival in my hometown of Swansea. I didn’t run much, but I ran enough to make things worse. I felt something in my foot. Something bad. It hurt and a yelled out. Yep, dickhead move. Anyway, the weekend was still decent and my highlight was being one half of Sonic and Tails with Nick. Overall I thought the festival had quite a forced feel to it and I know I shouldn’t have run. 40km the week after Lavaredo was not smart. 15km after I fucked my foot further mid run was not smart either. I did go to A&E two weeks later. Only to receive a bollocking for not having been to a GP and then I walked out rather than wait the 4hr wait period. I bought some ice instead. Worked out OK in the end.
Taking Nick’s Marathon Cherry
Salomon Trail Festival
Paul the Finisher
August. Panic began to set in. August was the big challenge. 3 ultras in two weeks. Two of them in the mountains of the Matterhorn and Alp regions. One of them 145km just 3 days after the last one. With concerns over my foot still, I returned to running after three weeks off. It seemed to work…I headed into the SVP100 for the third time. Determined to get my black 3 star finisher tee. This time I was running alone and approached it cautiously. A course pb for me boosted the confidence ahead of the next challenge – the Matterhorn sky race. I travelled alone, extending my trip for the UTMB festival. The race is one of my favourites to date. Challenging but oh so beautiful. Expertly organised and a hell of a lot of fun. Two down. One to go. The TDS in sight. My biggest challenge. The longest distance. Highest elevation gain. Most technical of courses I’d run. Longest time on feet. Over 35 hours I damn well earned that finishers gilet. I made a friend along the way too! A few days spent chilling and running around Chamonix with friends followed to top off an awesome adventure.
2 years of medals
You’d think that would be a good place to stop and rest huh? Nope. Somehow I succumbed to the fear of missing out and had signed up to the Estonia Marathon in Tallinn the following week. The flat roads weren’t too kind on the body so soon after the TDS. At times this felt harder than the run the week before! Thankfully James was there to keep me going and motivated.
There was a little short break then. I carried on running, although not much. The one unexpected adventure was when Nick and I hit up the trails in Co. Mayo in Ireland after a wedding. We had the best of times running the Foxford Way Loop, found a dog and bagged ourselves a Fastest Known Time in the process. Hilarious. Next up in October was another ultra, one which would top TDS for distance – the 150km Lemkowyna ultra trail. The one I wouldn’t really know what the expect. Would it be muddy or not? It was. And I got through it in a tad over 24 hours. Everything went like clockwork and it was another fantastic weekend spent with incredibly supportive friends.
Estonia with James
Foxford Loop FKT with Nick
Lemkowyna Ultra Trail
Lemkowyna, like Lavaredo, broke me physically. Not literally. But my feet were smashed up. The left foot had a huge blister on the padding of the sole that 4 weeks later still hadn’t healed. The right foot bruised up similar to after Lavaredo and caused issues with my big toe. Another three weeks of no running followed. Maybe I should avoid races beginning with ‘L’ and ending in ‘Ultra Trail’!
Three weeks later and I eased back into running. I was itching. My mind was all over the place scrambling at plans for 2020 and I couldn’t contain it any longer. More on the plans another time though…
November was race free. I filled it with social runs instead. A group run in the Surrey hills. A jaunt to the Cotswolds. Volunteering at a Maverick event in Kent and a burger run. Then it was time to get going again as 2020 had a countdown that was well and truly underway! Underway it was but immediately my achilles started hurting. Too much too soon again no doubt. I just ploughed on though. Same old approach.
December wasn’t what was planned. I felt a little odd as I’d been telling people I’d be doing it. The intent was to go to the Cheviot Goat. A challenging off track event on the Scottish border. It’s easiest to just say the plans didn’t materialise and leave it there. I took advantage though and signed up to a more local event – the Hurtwood 50 and would run it with Nick. What a great day this turned out to be with a group of friends sharing an experience. I then followed it up with my own 8 week training plan ready for the new year’s adventures. I hit some big mileage in December including two self made ultras over Christmas week along the South Downs and running home from the Black Mountains on Christmas morning. Happy days.
Hitting the Surrey Hills
What else went on with my running in 2019?
– Stairs. These became a regular in my training. Leading up to MIUT and TDS I hit this hard. Weekly sessions climbing stairs for an hour. I Definitely felt the benefit from this and felt strong hiking the inclines.
– Xendurance. Something else which became a regular for my nutrition and health. I was lucky enough to get introduced to them earlier in the year before Trans Gran Canaria and I’ve loved using their products ever since. I definitely feel they give me a marginal gain. Working with Team XND has been a delight and a included a fruity lil’ trip to the New Forest with some filming too which was a whole new experience.
– Later in the year Maggie asked me to get involved with Wild tr as one of their support runners. Whilst I’ve not quite made it to that many hill sessions, the long runs are something I look forward too. Being able to support and help out the leaders on occasions is a great responsibility and a pleasure to be asked. I do love running at the back of groups too.
– A job change. Nothing major, but It was a little disruptive and it has taken some time to readjust to the new routine. Changing life conditions, no matter what, present new obstacles to your training. Thankfully this one has worked out great with a wicked bunch of colleagues who are very understanding to my needs. They also listen when I bore them about running!
What did I learn this year?
– Not sure this was a learning, but I kept thinking ‘just get passed this next month’. But then I went and back loaded that next month with more races. I thought August was hard enough with three races including two 3 days apart, the later being the new TDS. So then I went and booked the Estonia marathon for the following week. I seem to like making things a little more difficult for myself. I recognise this but still need to work on preventing it.
– Learning to not run. It’s hard. It’s frustrating. It messes with your mind. A few injuries throughout the year saw me take a few weeks off running here and there. Without doubt I benefited from this and have been quite impressed with my body’s healing capabilities. That being said, I struggled with it. The desire to go out and run. The mental challenge. The paranoia, it’s all in your head but that can be so tough to deal with, especially when you use running to control your headspace!
– The misconception. It’s all around us. People think what they want. They assume. They thrust thoughts and opinions on you. With running they make assumptions. Remember all is not what it seems. I’m not running that much really. Just long distances when I do. People ask if I run all the time. Far from it. Maybe once it twice a week!
– I can’t stop signing up to things. That has continued. So many races I want. I’ve been planning 2020 and was trying to avoid races and to do something else instead. Already that’s failed and I’ve signed up to my first 100 miler in the process.
And so 2020 beckons. 2020 fills me with so much excitement – The 2020 plan is forming and its bigger and bolder than the years before it. More running, more adventures. more travel. More races – the one thing I said I wouldn’t do in 2020. Races and running events were not on my mind. Those initial plans are now on hold though. Signing up to a 100 miler and looking to turn it into an adventure abroad, the flood gates opened and suddenly 2020 is filling up with more of the same. Planning for 2020 continues. It’s definitely big at the start and I do want to do more UK based races now I’ve signed up to so many overseas!
So 2020 beckons. 2019 is over and its the end of a decade. So let’s sum up my 2019 year with my best bits:
Madeira– the ‘sea of clouds’. Pico Ruivo. Bliss. Madeira stole my heart. Never have I had so many jaw drop moments in a race.
Lavaredo– stunning scenery around the Tri Cime is a beautiful sight.
Matterhorn– Speaks for itself. That view with the waterfall. Wow. I’ll never forget that one.
Pico Ruivo & Sea of Clouds
Transgran Canaria – mentally the toughest. I learnt a lot here. Physically it was tough too but this is still the race I’ve hit my lowest ebb in.
Lavaredo – possibly the toughest physically what with the heat and the battered body I had afterwards. I needed a break after this one!
Madeira – time per distance it was beyond anything else I’ve done. Says it all really. It’s fucking hard! Steep climbs. Temperamental weather.
TGC – Roque Nublo
Madiera Sea of Clouds
TDS – A beast to conquer. What a finish line atmosphere. I’m proud of this one.
Being there with Nick as he popped his marathon and ultra cherries. What a boy. He’s thrown himself into the running and is going from strength to strength and it’s wicked being at his side when he achieves.
Three in a row at SVP100. Wouldn’t have foreseen that 2 years ago when I lined up for the first time. The bug bit me hard
Best kit I’ve bought
Inov8 Trailroc – Damn these shoes are tough. Multiple technical ultras finally beat them down though.
Omm jacket – A post Christmas sale purchase. The sonic smock is possibly the lightest and smallest item I have. Great wind protection and a lifesaver during the cold night of MIUT. It’s so packable I literally take it everywhere.
Inov8 jacket – I love this jacket, the Thermoshell. Another super lightweight item but with more insulation and perfect for cold and windy nights on the trail. I’m not sure I would have lasted in Poland without it!
OMM Sonic Smock
I’ve used the TrailRocs on all sorts of terrain and they handle more than well!
Inov 8 Thermoshell
Most overused bit of kit
Inov8 Trailroc – They got me through all the big ones – TGC, MIUT, Lavaredo, TDS. I might not have feet left without them!
Salomon S-lab Ultras – I’m still wearing them with their holes, tears and completely worn out lugs. They are my go to every day trail shoe. Still great though.
Stance socks – I’ve so many. So many of them are now completely holey. My fist fits through holes on one pair. I still wear them though too.
Straight out of the box. Who doesn’t love a bit of colour co-ordination!?
SLab Ultras and Stance Socks
Favourite race swag
Trans Gran Canaria arm warmers – best arm warmers I have. Nice warm, stretchy material. No rubbery parts that itch your skin. Wicked design. So functional.
Three star SVP Tee – I wanted this one. I love it.
Lemkwoyna Ultra Trail – A cowbell medal and Columbia finishers top. Both just awesome and high quality.
The Black finishers Tee
There is only one – Sam
Most repeating thought
“I ain’t running that”
“What the fuck is that?”
Favourite trail snacks
Tailwind especially now the cola flavour. Tailwind is my base nutrition. I constantly sip it between aid stations in races and use real food to provide the goods on top. Essential to be fuelling
Chicken noodle soup. In particular that served during MIUT. So tasty. So salty. It was simply the best and I had so much of it.
Oranges – juicy and refreshing.
Matterhorn Sky race. It’s different. A hole in the middle. Simple design.
Schiachee Trail. It’s local wood. It has meaning.
Maverick original. It’s a solid weapon of the highest quality.
Being Sonic and Tails at LoveTrails
Flooded rivers with the crew in December. Waist high in freezing waters. A whole new experience
Cheering and supporting at events. Its been great to be able to give back to those who support me when I race.
Most beneficial training
Stairs. Vert in the city. Perfect.
Hills. Regular. Irregular. Anyway you want them
Night runs. People always question why. They say “it messes your body up”. I like to think of it as acclimatisation. Guess what people – what do you think ultra running does to you? Yep. It fucks your body up. So find a way to prepare for it.
To all those I’ve run with. To those I’ve promised but not yet delivered. To those who supported me. Cheered me. Assisted me. Believed in me. I thank you all. You’ve made this year extra special.