Back in 2022 Nick and I were looking at races we fancied and Nick was eager to run in Malta after a recent holiday there. A quick search threw up the perfect event for us – The Xterra Malta 50km Gozo trail race – which is a route that takes you around the entire island of Gozo off Malta. We signed up and turned it into a little holiday with Natalia and Elise.
We woke on the morning of the race pretty relaxed and slowly made our way to the start line about 10 mins away from where we were staying in Ghajnsielem. It was great, we arrived about 10 mins before the start of the race and caught most of the race briefing (although couldn’t here anything). We liked the vibe, turn up and run, simple. Of course there was time for a ‘before’ photo at the start line.
After a very modest countdown the race began and we trotted over the start line. It was without doubt the most relaxed start to a race I’ve experienced. Although we were pretty near the back of the pack, no one was rushing or racing passed and the majority of the group just jogged on casually as the adventure began.
From the start we ran passed some tavernas with views over the port below and then turned up and along a main road where we crossed and joined up to the trails. Within minutes we had spectacular views as we ran on the coastline along winding paths weaving over the cliff edges. Runners were peeling away into the distance.
After a few km we dropped down to our first inlet of the day. The trails were more technical as we dropped the massive 20m descent and climbed back to 40masl after crossing the small beach and continued back along the cliffs. Way off in the distance we could see the curvature of the island and the majestic forts, churches and citadel inland on the island. The views were exceptional.
Shortly afterwards we had the first real climb of the day, as we climbed 100m and left the coast for a short while before going around a small seaside town (and the first water station) and finding our way back to the cliffs along the coastline for several kms before descending back to another cove. This would pretty much be the story of the day as the trails were undulating with short sharp ascents and descents as we hopped from cove to cove. Each one more beautiful than the last.
Around about 14km into the race we had a beautiful coastal stretch that passed through a little town of Xlendi and another 100m or so climb up some steep rocks (a little bit of simple scrambling was needed here). From here the trails took us high along the coast with more spectacular views of where we’d come from and where we were heading. Particularly in the distance seeing the ‘azure window’ view point where the next aid station was located. We stopped to refresh and reapply sun cream with the temperature now at its highest as it was around midday. It was very hot and humid and we were craving for every breeze of wind we’d occasionally encounter.
After the climb out of the aid station I think the trails started to become a little more technical. They were now rocky underfoot and overgrown with wild foliage evolved with spiky stems and leaves. Our legs were getting shredded and itching as we sweat in the heat.
The trails took us along many more coastal sections littered with salt pans where Maltese salt is collected. The formations in the landscape were a sight to behold. This was now by far the flattest section of the course and after about 30km we were ready for a little rest. Thankfully the penultimate aid station appeared and we could enjoy some fresh fruit and more water and isotonic drink (pretty much all the aid stations had). It was somewhere around here that the 21km race started and we wondered how Elise was getting on in what would be her first trail event.
From here we had several kms along the bushy cliff-side tracks descending to rocky coves and climbing back into the foliage. It was hard going with the uneven terrain and lack of any wind along this section so we hiked most of it. Way off in the distance we could see the red sand of the terracotta beach of Lr-Ramla. Eventually we reached it and had to cross the Sandy beach, passing all the pale, ghost-like sunbathers. We stopped immediately afterwards to empty or shoes which were full of sand. It was a steep ol’ climb as we as ascended back to the mammoth 100masl before back down to the coves at Dahlet Qorrot and the last aid station. The bulk of the race was done now and we had just 10km to go and one final climb.
We climbed out of the aid station and left the coastline for a few undulating kms inland along some ‘roads’ before returning just north east of the start/finish in Mgarr for the final 5km. It was probably the most technical part of the coast where we did a little more scrambling and bushwhacking for a few km and crossed the rocky Beach with the view of the ‘halfa rock’.
After getting off the rocky tracks, we had a very short ascent up the rusty metal ladder and then passed the water sports area of Hondoq-lr-Rummien and continued off trails towards the harbour at Mgarr. We ran passed the ferry terminals and sea front restaurants before climbing back to the finish line.
Over the last few km we’d steadily picked off runners and then held them off. As we rounded the final street we saw one final runner walking to the finish line. We agreed we could catch and pass them so ran on. As we ran passed we realised the runner was a double amputee and felt immediately bad for passing them so close to the finish line. What an achievement though, I can’t imagine how difficult it must be, but navigating those last few rocky kms must have been very challenging!
As we reached the finish line Elise was there to cheer us in with her own finishers medal proudly on display. Her first trail race completed! We took some photos and went in search of the the finishers food and refreshments.
The race was very straight forward and highly enjoyable. The organisers, Xterra are simple and no fuss. Whilst the course was sporadically marked, the ‘red dot’ trail markings were, for the most part, easy to follow. The aid stations were simple and had very little, but it is probably quite a fast race and we were told this year was far hotter than previous versions. Despite all my races, this was the most I had continuously ran on the coast as the route circumnavigates the entire island. It was a joy to run with the crystal clear blue water of the Mediterranean sea at your side the whole way. It is a fantastic way to see the entire island. We made mental notes of some coves and beaches which we went off to enjoy the next day! Despite being a small island and only having about a 4 or 5 ‘climbs’ on the course the route does manage to cover 1300m of elevation, which shows that the trails really are undulating!
For me, this one was going to be a little bit special. Going in to the race I thought it would be the 100th time I’ve run either a marathon or longer. Turns out I missed the occasion and it was the 101st! (Trans Gran Canaria being the 100th) (for the geeks like me – it’s made up of 77 ultras and 34 marathons, with a mean distance of about 67km over those runs in 22 different countries!). Whilst not all races, each run has meant something to me and I guess shows that I really do like running long distances!!
I ran this race back in 2019. I didn’t really enjoy it. I took a battering from the terrain and referred to it as the ‘Rocky Bastard’. I never had any intention to go back and do it again. Then Darryl and Paul happened. They signed up and the rest is now history. 4 years later and I was going back to Gran Canaria…
I did well to rebuff the idea for a while. Quite a while. Then, whilst laid up with the broken ankle, idle thumbs gave in as time passed by. I admit I did become a little curious. Curious as to whether I’d enjoy it more having experienced other, harder races. Back in 2019 this was only my second mountain race (and the first time I’d ran over 100km). So to some degree I suppose I was looking forward to it. Just a little bit. For comparisons sake.
In summary though, I thought it was shitty in 2019 and I still think it is shitty now. Possibly even more shitty. Early on, through the first night I was enjoying it. Possibly more so than I previously remember. But that was probably more for the company and laughter of having friends with me. Possibly also knowing that neither of the others wanted to do this section (they had dropped down a distance after first signing up, then hopped back up to the full Classic route when I signed up!).
The night section can be a bit of a drag. A midnight start followed by a few km along a beach and promenade before a slow steady climb into the wild. There are some annoying river beds to navigate in the low light as you weave around some small villages. Later in the race, as you’re further from the coast, the landscape and scenery is beautiful. Lush dense forests and fields surrounding small mountain towns. There are some incredible views to be had around the towns of Teror and Tejada.
From there the route becomes a little less enjoyable underfoot as the rocks begin to take over and the barren, rocky mountain landscape dominates before the second night draws in. The finishing 10km along the infamous riverbed isn’t something to look forward to after a day of running! Neither are the two 1000m descents over harsh rocky terrain that lead up to it! The course changes since I did the 2019 version, whilst maybe necessary, certainly don’t enhance the route or experience!
From an Organisational view, the set up was as good as I remember and the volunteers and marshals were great. The course marking is impeccable and the pre-race runner’s ‘swag bag’ was a healthy one. The food at aid stations was plentiful although sucked a little bit as there was little variation between aid stations (with the exception of paella at the final aid station which was tasty and warm) and there was ‘soup’ that tasted like dirty dish water. That said, I never felt particularly ‘hungry’ so, for me all, was good. The El Garanon aid station setup confused and frustrated me with the hot food, the drinks and the drop bags all in separate buildings (the drop bag being a few mins walk further away). It made no sense to me and we got very cold walking between them at at night. All you want is to get your drop bag and some food and sit down with it all and make your way through your ‘to do’ list. Anyway…
On to the race itself, our experience…We started off and ran well for the first marathon with a good 8 hr time (including a decent stop at the 42km mark aid station) ticked off. That was a good pace for a target time around a 24hr finish. We, or at least I, enjoyed the night, the dawn of morning and the (fairly) runnable trails we covered. I was a little surprised as to how little I actually remembered. I recalled the quarry after the beach early on and the riverbeds but that was it. Apart from a small section this was predominantly the same route and I couldn’t remember most of it.
The ‘middle’ marathon quickly went downhill and our mood first started to dip when on the climb to El Hornillo as we were merged with the lead runners from the Advanced Race. All fresh and trying to run past on the narrow trails which made for a very stop start climb and chaos at the aid station. That mood was worsened with some of the route changes (since the 2019 edition) making for a far less enjoyable descent into Tejada. It felt longer and steeper, although it probably wasn’t. We took some ‘back tracks’ weaving through some housing and stayed away from the flatter main road which I previously used. The climbs were mostly behind us now as we navigated towards Roque Nublo and we tried to calculate how much longer we’d me out for. We were slower over the second marathon for sure, but nothing drastic.
The ‘final’ marathon can only be described as a slog. Moody and depleted, it was nothing more than shuffling along cursing the terrain with sore legs and raw feet. Almost 30km of rocky terrain and steep descents was pushing us into the depths of darkness. Tiredness and fatigue only added to the mix. A real slog. Arriving back into Maspalomas, the finish line walk was almost shameful as we made little effort to appease those spectators or the MC who were cajoling us to run at 05:00 in the morning. We had no interest. It didn’t help that each of the final few kms seemed never ending and we had another km walk back to the accommodation to make. We grabbed our medals and gilets and left pretty sharply!
Comparing the experience to that of 2019, I stand by calling the race a Rocky Bastard. It is rocky and it is a bastard. It is probably still up there with one of the harder of the events I’ve done. Revisiting it 4 years later certainly hasn’t changed my view on it and to some extent I wish I didn’t get curious about it!
I also reflected back on what I wrote post race back in 2019. It wasn’t all that dissimilar!:
Pre race anxiety – yep. Still there. Always is. I still get worked up and stressed about the logistics. The travel. The registration. The wait to the start. Until I get running I just can’t relax for the few days leading up to a big event like this.
Customary lack of structured training – yep still there. For different reasons this time of course. There have been 3 months of leading up to the race and other than a 100km run at the Cheviot Goat and the 50km George Fisher Tea Round I only ran over 20km on one other occasion. Not my greatest prep for an endurance event!
Back in 2019, the race bus schedule meant I arrived 2 hrs early at the start with nowhere to wait. This year was better and we arrived only 1 hour early and we found a table inside a quiet pub with food and a clean toilet!
Of course the customary playing of ‘Gran Canaria’ by Los Gofiones welcomed us and started the race. I do enjoy these anthems at the major events. It creates a really special and privileged atmosphere to hype up the start.
There was no overheating at the start this time either. The cooler weather and a decision to start without a windproof layer was a good one. Although all it meant was that I was a little more comfortable!
I think I was more aware of my surroundings on the first section to Teror this time. I now remember clearly the beach, the quarry tracks, the trails through the first few villages and the river beds surrounding them. Also the Monastery with large brick walls on the way in to Teror.
The muddy clay climb was as slippery as I recalled. I can’t remember where it was but I do know it was harder this year with the wetter weather and many runners struggling to climb. The poles were most useful here! I also have fonder memories of Fontanales this time and once again it was a perfect location for a pause, health check and to patch up some minor issues and I found the toilet this year!
Just like 4 years earlier, the forests were as quiet as before and the foliage as fresh and smelt nice as I remembered. Always a pleasure for nature to cover the horrific ultra runner smell!
There were some changes around El Hornillo and the aid station, but not something I noticed at the time. This is where I started comparing myself to my younger, fitter self. After getting caught up in the stampede here we didn’t reach Artenara until around sunrise.
The climb up to Roque Nublo was similar and memorable although I think the initial route from Tejada was different and more scenic this time. Whilst it was beginning to get overcast and the clag was setting in, as we reached the out and back section to the summit the sky cleared up and the sun shone through to warm us up and provide some views. Although it wasn’t as clear as it was last time for me.
El Garanon was reached in the dark this time and we probably stayed for less time than I did before. With a quicker turn around I didn’t bother changing too many clothes and once again couldn’t face removing my socks and seeing the damage to my feet from all the rocks! Ignorance is bliss. I did work my split of Tailwind better this time and didn’t run out before the aid station and had plenty to restock and see me through to the end this year.
The Cobble descent was still shit. I think this might be the least enjoyable section actually. Whilst the riverbed is far from enjoyable, it’s only really bad as you have almost 120km in your legs by the time you reach it and are dreaming of it being over. The cobble descent almost comes out of nowhere. It’s uneven and steep. It goes on for longer than you think, as does that whole section. And this year the descent is longer as you continue down to the next town. And after climbing again afterwards, there’s now another large rocky descent to contend with before you tackle the river bed.
And so the River bed, yeah it was as I remembered. The bushy over-grown reeds and plants at the start, the loose rocks and deceiving little sections where you think it’s over only to be directed back into the thick of it. Mostly though the biggest memory here for me was the mountain silhouette we were heading for that signalled the end. It loomed majestically up ahead at all times. Never getting closer. It’s quite a sight in the darkness. Leaving the riverbed and going under the underpass I was as cranky as I was in 2019.
Unlike 2019 I walked the finish and was happy to be seen to walk. We couldn’t give a shit about running. It had been a long night and we gave up chasing times the the day before!
And finally, the post race sentiments remained. I’ve repeated myself multiple times already. I previously said I wasn’t sure if I’d recommend it and that if I’d done a shorter distance I wouldn’t go back for the classic. Well I did go back. My thoughts were cemented. It’s not enjoyable and if I ever think about doing it a third time then there is permission to slap me! Slap me Hard.
UTMB, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, has a certain pomp and air to it. For those less familiar with the brand, it’s one of the largest trail running races across the globe and the organisation recently partnered to Iron Man with mixed public reaction. Think bigger brand, bigger costs, new sponsors and processes including a new series of ‘by UTMB’ branded events across the world that form the qualifiers for a “World Series”. The final of the world series being the UTMB events in August. Basically it’s changed. For good or for worse, that the Brand will decide. Either way, some 10,000 punters show up for one of the many races of the UTMB:
UTMB – 171 km (106 Miles)
TDS – 147km
CCC – 100km
OCC – 55km
MCC – 40km (for locals)
PTL – a Whopping 300km team event
YCC – various distances for youth ages
Les Mini UTMB – for the little ones
And now the ETC – 15km
I’ve been very fortunate to have previously completed both the CCC and the TDS. Now, after completing Val d Aran by UTMB through which I gained a one-off guaranteed entry to UTMB, I find myself towing the start line at the main event, the 100m ‘Series Final’ that is UTMB.
Running 100miles in the mountains takes a long time for mere mortals like me. Over this time you think of so many things and also decide to explicitly not think of so many things too. I’ve recapped and recalled long races before and I find it’s often as exhausting as the race itself. So I decided I’m not going to put myself through that pain and recap mile by mile of my UTMB experience. Instead, what follows is a dump of thoughts and recollections with a shorter summary of the event. The 45 hours of running will mostly stay between me, Paul and Matt.
I mentioned that somewhere in the region of 10,000 punters show up for the UTMB races. Granted this is staggered over a week with the PTL beginning the proceedings and closing it along with UTMB on the final Sunday in August, but, add in family and friends along with the usual number of tourists and the small towns the races pass through are bursting at the seems. Chamonix in particular is very, very busy during race week (and leading up to it). If you don’t like crowds and the pomp then you probably won’t like this event!
On the plus side, big crowds add to the atmosphere and vibes. Watching finishers of other races and supporting runners from all over the world is incredible. Watching the true greats of the sport ‘competing’ with people like me is fascinating and exciting. Although I imagine it is less exciting for the pros as they get mobbed in the streets and have to partake in all manner of commercial appearances before and after the races. The towns really are a little mental during this time. On our race, hitting Les Houches in the early evening on Friday, and Saint-Gervais a few hours later was a crazy experience. Saint-Gervais in particular was pumping with loud music and people lining the streets cheering and supporting runners for hours on end.
Finishing early afternoon on Sunday was quite a surreal experience too. The last of the finishers would be just an hour behind us and the crowds had gathered ready to cheer them home. So we benefitted from a great finish line atmosphere with thousands of people in the streets cheering and clapping runners across the line (you run a good km through the town, past all the pubs and restaurants, to get to the finish line). Having experienced an early Saturday am finish on the CCC and a midweek, midday, finish on the TDS, this UTMB finish really was on another level. As a participant in the ‘main event’ you really are put on a pedestal and cheered like nothing else I’ve experienced.
The UTMB takes in three countries as you loop around Mont Blanc from France, into Italy, crossing into Switzerland before reaching back into France and approaching Chamonix from the other direction. The route is 106miles, covers 10,400m of vertical gain (and also descent!) and crosses through a number of major towns including Chamonix, Courmayeur and Champex Lac. With 15 major aid stations and many more checkpoints/timing points along the way. It’s a military operation. And that’s just one of the races!
The Alpine trails are stunning. For much of UTMB the trails are very, very runnable. There are, inevitably, some rocky sections and some of the climbs are tough. But on the whole the trails aren’t technical on the UTMB (unlike it’s sister the TDS, which takes in some more technical routes from Courmayeur back to Chamonix) nor the climbs/descents too long. In my experience, the terrain alone makes it a very straight forward route and one which shouldn’t be feared. Combining with the distance and elevation though makes for a far tougher beast and it is fair to say I underestimated just how hard this course is.
There are many climbs and summits and at a few points, including the Col de la Seigne (where you cross from France to Italy) and also Grand Col Ferret (where you cross from Italy to Switzerland) you reach an altitude of >2500m. You’re high up in the Alps. The mountains don’t care about us humans, we are just visitors riding our luck at anytime. The weather will turn and the mountains will serve you your ass on a plate if you’re not ready. There is extensive mandatory kit for the races (and in the exception of ‘cold’ weather or ‘hot’ weather there are also additional mandatory kit lists that can be activated the day before the race begins). For us, in 2022, it was thankfully just the normal kit list that was activated. Although, for the first time in my UTMB experience the Organisers didn’t check everyone’s kit on registration. There were subsequent kit checks during the race though.
The 106 miles of the route is a long way. I thought about this alot over the 40 hours. It is the 4th time I’ve run 100miles and I’m beginning to accept what a challenge it actually is. As time ticked by we carried on flirting with cut offs. We were never in danger of being ‘timed-out’ but I was very aware that time could easily be against us at any point. I also wondered how it was so comparable (time wise) to Val D’Aran which felt far harder with more technical terrain and bigger climbs. Truth is, it’s because 100 miles really is a long way. It will take a while to cover on foot regardless of where you are. And so it did take a while for us to cover on foot, we can’t escape that. 100miles in the Alps is also, unsurprisingly, not comparable to 100miles in the UK (although only one of my four 100 mile runs have been in the UK!). I should have already known that 100 miles is a long way. After completing UTMB I think I finally accept that it is!
We expected rain and bad weather as, in the lead up to the event, the forecasts had predicted rain and some light storms throughout, we were preparing for a soggy two days. Come the day before, these forecasts had changed and it was looking increasingly likely that we’d have a dry run. I can’t explain how much this would have helped. Thankfully that is how it stayed and, other than some light rain at the start whilst we waited to begin, we avoided all bad weather across the course. If anything, it was a little hot during the day time and on some of the climbs where shade was limited! We were very fortunate.
Together we were stronger. Matt said after the race that there were points he wondered if he’d enjoy it more alone. I already know the answer to that. I wouldn’t have. I enjoy the company and the distraction from the task. All three of us started together and finished together. That’s a wonderful thing. Over 45 hours we never left each other’s sides. We could have. Mostly Matt could have left me and Paul behind (like we’d left him at Eiger), but he didn’t. Early in the first night Paul went through a tough number of hours of nausea and sickness. He struggled through it and came out the other side (picking up in Italy!). From Courmayeur onwards I moaned about my ankle/leg and could barely run. This slowed us down a lot! Courmayeur is roughly the halfway point and the guys could have left me many times but didn’t. I’m thankful for them sticking it out with me and sacrificing a quicker finish time to help me through. Again, without them I’m not sure whether I would have succumb to the darker thoughts that taunted me over the last 24 hours.
Leaving Chamonix was mental and the first 8km to Les Houches flew by, as did the first climb over Le Delevret to Saint-Gervais with the sun setting just as we came close to the end of the downhill. The town was one giant party. It was full on and very noisy. It was great and the atomosphere was a talking point amongst runners. For me, the first night was mostly enjoyable. After a flying visit through Les Contamines we were running through the Hoka ‘light show’. The sponsors had errected a big tunnel of light and covered the surrounding area in further lights. It was a bit odd and very cheesy. But it was different and for as few moments the night was alive. We ran through the darkness, over La Balme and Col du Bonhomme (where we unfortunately witnesses someone being airlifted from the course) and descended into Les Chapieux at around 50km in the early hours of the morning. It was a long climb from here which, despite feeling my ankles hurting I rather enjoyed as we reached the Col de la Seigne into Italy just in time for sunrise. The sunrise was beautiful. We stopped for a moment and enjoyed the subsequent climb to Pyramides Calcaires which was rather rocky and more technical than the previous 60km we’d run. There was a long descent into the morning to the next major aid station that was Lac Combal. However, things were starting to become far less enjoyable by now.
After enduring a difficult night, Paul was back to his ‘normal’ self as the day began brightening up and generally we were all running well. We had one plan which was to get to Courmayeur without being screwed up! If we could reach halfway with our quads and ankles intact we were all confident for the second half of the course (which follows pretty much the CCC route which we’d all previously completed). So far everything was going to OK but the plan started to unravel slightly as the morning heated up and we began the steep descent into Courmayeur. The steep and dusty trails were hard work and my left ankle was now constantly in Pain. My form had gone out of the window and I was lumbering downhill whichever way I could. The dust the runners were kicking up was unavoidable and we all arrived into the halfway point with dry and dusty throats.
Out of Courmayeur we began the CCC route albeit with a different climb to Refuge Bertone. Rather than the longer route via Tete de la Tronche we went the more direct way, pretty much straight up. It was tough in the heat as we slowly climbed through the forests. By now there was a lot of pain in my left ankle/shin. I was struggling to run but knew I wanted to keep going, it wasn’t even a question I would entertain, I was finishing this race. From Bertone we ran the ‘balcon’ to Refuge Bonatti and again further on to Arnouvaz from where we would begin the climb up to Grand Col Ferret (aka ‘Grand Colin Farrel’). I recalled this section and that it was stunning and enjoyable. It still was, although I wasn’t able to ‘run’ too much. We were also starting to tire at this point and took a moment at Bonatti to lay in the sun and close our eyes for a few mins (being woken by ants biting us!). The climb to Col Ferret was easy going and this was the first time (on my third visit) where I could see the Col clearly. It was visible towards the end of the climb with the wind quickly blowing the clouds away before they could settle.
Now in Switzerland, it was a long downhill to La Fouly. I knew it would hurt. And it did hurt. I was struggling badly now. Climbing was ok, and I knew I could cover ground at a faster than our average pace when going uphill, but the descents were too much for me. Paul and Matt encouraged me when they could but I was starting accept though that I simply could not move any faster, physically it was beyond me. It wasn’t just the pain, but the range of motion I had in my left ankle/foot was now very limited and I couldn’t push off my left foot. I was already thinking about the three big descents still to come later in the race and I couldn’t believe we still had 60km+ to run and so I was a little bit deflated. We’d agreed we’d try and sleep at Champex-Lac for 20 mins so the initial goal was to get through La Fouly and cover the 14km to Champex-Lac. The slog there was very slow (yep, because of me). I remembered I liked this section on the CCC as we ran through the forests and mountain tracks to Praz de Fort, which I really liked, and also the climb to Champex-Lac through Sentier des Champignons with all the wood carvings. Paul didn’t enjoy it so much but we were all decent fast-hikers so, despite my inability to run, we we still covering the ground at an acceptable pace and eventually reached the aid station with plenty of time for the planned sleep.
We dived dived straight into the sleeping tents. Selfishly I found one and went to work. As soon as I laid down I was shivering. I couldn’t stop it. I should probably have changed into dry clothes first but was so tired I could only think of maximising the sleeping time! Once awake, but very spaced out, Lisa, Martin and Mike went to work fixing us up and sending us back into the night. First up it was the monster climb to Refuge Bovine and we summited deep into the night. Struggling down the descent to Trient (passing through the shithouse party stop that is a barn at La Giete) we then reached Trient just as day was breaking. Mike was there again and over saw another 10 minute power snooze. With the morning chill on our side we powered up the climb to Les Tseppes. We then lost a lot of ground on the ‘nice’ downhill to Vallorcine. We were feeling it now, I was broken and in constant pain and Paul was feeling his quads due to all the downhills. Matt seemed absolutely fine. We were in a good place though knowing that we finally had one ‘climb’ and one ‘descent’ left to conquer. We didn’t stick around too long at Vallorcine and began the climb to La Tete Aux Vents in the midday heat. It was of course a bastard. A rocky climb with no shade and a rocky traverse over to the checkpoint. It wasn’t easy. But I was more worried of the final descent from La Flegere. A whopping 800m downhill to go back to the finish line in Chamonix. The traverse to La Flegere was frustrating and the downhill excruciating. Somehow though we were moving quick enough to be passing more people than whom overtook us. Jana, Paul, Jess and Mikkel came to meet us near Chalet De La Floria and to support us for the last few kms. And then it was the ‘km’ run around the town. The crowds. The cheers. The elation. We’d done it. It happened. We were UTMB finishers.
I’ve saved it till last, but most importantly, this race was all about the people. Firstly Me, Paul and Matt. We were running it. It was for us, by us. We all had our different reasons and motives for being there and the race meant different things to each of us. We’d all worked hard to qualify and prepare ourselves to be at the start line. So it was our race. We were doing it our way. We’d discussed various potential finish times, but these were scrapped pretty much as soon as we started. We were all of the same mindset though and we had one simply mantra we shared from the “it’s happening”. Nothing was going to stop it from happening that’s what we said going into it. It came up several times during the two days and in the final minutes the mantra shifted tense to “It Happened”.
Then there’s the crew. Unexpected, but absolutely essential and critical to us completing the race. Matt’s family – Dad Mike, wife Lara and son George along with Lisa and Martin were on crewing duties. Not always arranged or planned but they were popping up everywhere when we needed them most. They were all dotted along different places at the start in Chamonix and at the first checkpoint in Les Houche. Lara and Mike went to Courmayeur (80km in). Lisa and Martin showed up in Champex-Lac (120km in) with Mike and again on the last climb to La Flegere. Mike also made his way to Trient in the middle of the second night (and had to be sent home to get some sleep and ordered not to show up in Vallorcine too!). Of course they were all then at the finish line to see us finish.
Crewing is a crazy tough ask. The amount of travel, stress, lack of sleep and general thankless nature of following a smelly miserable runner around a race for hours on end is exhausting. Never mind doing it across three different countries! But without them, the outcome of the race would have been very different. From tending to our needs, making us eat, encouraging us, timing our sleeps (and in my case Mike stopping me from pouring coke on myself as I slept!), to giving us extra food and supplies, and so much more. All these things altered the outcome of our race for the better. We couldn’t have done it without them all. This really was a team effort. Whilst three of us ran, a team of us worked tirelessly to achieve the goal. I can’t thank them all enough.
Then there’s everyone else who was out in Chamonix, racing or supporting, who popped up to cheer somewhere along the way from the start line all the way through to the finish. And also all those who contacted us and sent messages of support. These acts of generosity and kindness meant so much to us and helped lift our spirits more than we could express. Big thanks to Jana, Jess, Paul and Mikkel who ran out to see us on the last descent and to all of Paul and Lisa’s family and friends spread across the world who were actively following and messaging us (we’d all spent a weekend together two weeks prior at Paul and Lisa’s wedding!).
Starting UTMB near the back was a bit shitty. It was a slow start and we had bottlenecks on pretty much all the climbs and descents. We did what we could though, embracing the crowds and using them to our advantage to keep our pace slow and steady.
The Finish line time of day vibe is key for UTMB events. There’s very little after race love and attention at UTMB. It’s all about those few minutes as you run through the town and up the finish line. Time it wrong and finish too early and it’s a lonely, anti-climatic finish.
Chasing cut offs is not fun. It’s stressful. We weren’t as tight as last year during the VDA but I was constantly aware and calling them out, running the numbers and doing the math, re-evaluating are progress. It saps away at your spirit and makes you feel like you can’t do it.
Matt is the king of the power nap. Ten mins at a time and he’s refreshed. Me and Paul need to work on it.
The drop out rate as always is huge. 800 runners started but didn’t finish. For us it was perfect conditions. But there are so many reasons that could change that for each individual.
The aftermath – I talked about the pain I was in during the race. One week later and I still cannot walk. The swelling has subsided and the X-rays were clear (no break) but the diagnosis is still pending. Until then I’m in a support boot and still in pain. This time I’ve done something serious to my body. Right now I’d say it was worth it, but I can’t quite understand how I managed to keep going until the end!
The course record was smashed and for the first time the winner went under 20 hours. So did the second place finisher this year. To put that into perspective, there was a longer time between the first finisher and us finishing, than the time taken for the winner to complete the race. I can’t understand how they can cover the distance so quickly!
For perspective, Matt ran the whole race in brand new kit after his luggage was lost on route and didn’t turn up in time. How he didn’t stress and lose the plot I do not know. Most of us runners are meticulous in our planning and preparation, but Matt just accepted it for what it was and went with it. He’s such a calm and level-headed guy!
The Eiger ultra trail. One that has been on my ‘list’ for some time. The E101 is a 100km route circling Grindelwald with a not too subtle >6,000m of elevation gain.
It’s 3:30am and Paul and I have met Matt at the start line in the shadows of the majestic mountains surrounding Grindelwald. Despite the early hour and darkness it is already very hot. We are upbeat and excited as the race gets underway and we pass through the start arch with hundreds of other runners.
For the first few kms we begin running up the Main Street and back passed our hotel. We made many promises about not running this gently inclining road section but, of course, we get completely sucked in and are moving along with the flow of the runners. Thankfully though we soon hit a bottleneck as we come across the trail head and the single track trail to begin our first climb. Here we chatted to Bert, a local runner with numerous finishes on the E101. He shared his experiences with us and gave us an insight into what adventures lay ahead.
The climb was a series of switchbacks through some forests at what was a very civilised pace. No one was trying to jostle for positions or overtake and everyone was comfortable just moving along together. It was quiet and all we could hear in the night was each other as we chatted away. We met Matt during the Val D Aran last year and this was the first time we’d met since and really the first real time we’d gotten to know each other properly. Looking back at Val D’Aran all we really did was moan at each other.
As we climbed, we started to leave the trees behind and the mountain started to open up and we could look back and see the sun rising over the Eiger and the tail of runners climbing both ahead and behind us. It was a surreal view. We then soon arrived at the first aid station which had a very narrow setup and led to the runners being funnelled, but it had everything we needed. A quick top up of water and we continued on.
Now, on the ‘second section’ of the course we had our first chance to run and move at a comfortable pace as the trails opened up on the mountain. We rolled along enjoying the incredible panoramic over Grindelwald with the majestic Eiger standing prominent behind the town. The sun was now up and the moon was fading.
The trails took us up towards ‘First’, but not quite all the way. Just before the final climb to the summit, the route diverted us away and we began the first descent. Bert was with us once more and told us this was the ‘easy’ downhill and to save our legs. I’m not sure there was much we could do to save our legs as the steepness of the sealed track meant gravity was in control here.
The downhill was long and sweeping as we looped back and forth on switchbacks used for the mountain carts. Our legs thumped at the ground and our feet heated up with the constant slapping. As we came upon the Firstbahn station we had a brief rest bite at the aidstation, once more ensuring we had enough water consumed and packed as we’d now begin the climb back to the summit of First. At around 10am the day was truly heating up now and the sun could be felt on our exposed skin.
We had a basic plan for the heat management. It was as simple as ensuring we drank enough and smothered ourselves in plenty of suncream! So far all was good and I was confident my morning lathering would see me through to around midday, so at First we planned a little longer rest and to apply the next layer.
This climb once more started with a long forest section. The smells were fresh and clean. Segments of the route were a long series of steps made out of long longs. The legs were definitely ’feeling it’ after the previous quad-buster of a downhill. As we left the forest we were hit with the full force of the sun as we climbed an exposed track on the side of the mountain. There was no escaping it now until the final ascent to First not in the distance you could see the clear line of shadow where the angle of the mountain would block the sun’s rays.
It was a lovely climb. The incline was gradual and gentle terrain still very forgiving and not too rocky. Into the shade we went into single line as we climbed the last few hundred metres to the summit. Here the route weaved you around the mountain side and under the tourist attraction of the summit viewing platform. A series of metal walkways were constructed and the views were incredible. Maarten, whom I met at MIUT and Cappadocia, was on hand to provide the support and loudly cheered us in. There was a small gathering of tourists and supporters over looking us from the platform as we made away along and under them. I whooped and cheered as me and Matt passed through but I had a very muted reply!
This aid station was slightly larger than the two before and we took a few extra minutes to eat, acknowledging we were all hungry, and to apply more sunscreen. We chatted to another Irish Paul, enjoyed the view and then set off towards Faulhorn. Just as we set off once more Maarten provided the energy and gave us a mid-morning boost. From here we had clear views of the trails we’d run and could see Faulhorn off up in the distance. Faulhorn would be the highest point on the race at around 2,644m. The tracks were once more very forgiving and were long gentle gravel tracks. Once more, as I was sure it would all day, the Eiger stood proud and prominent watching our progress.
Very soon we were at a series of lakes which were amazingly tranquil and provided a view looming back down onto First. We’d hardly noticed how high we’d climbed already. After weaving through the lakes, for the first time the trails turned a little more technical and became rocky and narrow for a short descent. As we began, the first of the 50km runners began to pass us and zipped by. The lead runner was flying up and down with ease (he went on to win with an incredible time!).
Before completing the climb to Faulhorn we had another aid station after descending a few hundred metres. This was the first time we were a bit confused. None of us could remember this on the route profile. Still, it was a fairly easy section with a very short out and back to to the water stop where I filled a third bottle of water ready for the climb. I’ve no idea how hot it was now but it felt above 30 degrees, although occasionally we’d catch a cooling breeze.
So after accepting that we hadn’t already started climbing to Faulhorn, we now began the climb. It was the toughest so far. Whilst it did feel marginally steeper than the earlier climbs, I think it was the heat which, was energy sapping, that made this more difficult. Matt drifted a little behind us and Paul powered on ahead. I was plodding somewhere between the two. Like Matt, I felt it a little harder to breathe with a regular rhythm as the progressive climb took all my energy. I put it to one side and focused on keeping up with Paul who was passing people frequently and getting further away. I saw him disappear over the summit as I lagged behind.
Up into Faulhorn there was a huge Eiger Ultra Trail arch erected on the summit marking our arrival to Faulhorn which we passed through. The views were spectacular and runners stopped on the platform to take selfies. I spotted Paul a few metered below at the water station and I went after him.
Initially this aid station was to be limited for water refills, however, the day before the race the organisers had added more water here, as well as additional water stops in the next section and later somewhere later on in the second half of the route. It was greatly appreciated and there was even coke available at Faulhorn. I broke my own ‘no coke before halfway’ rule and knocked some back. It was well earnt in this heat I thought.
The immediate descent from the aid station was rocky and once again a little more technical at first. It wasn’t long before we left the rocks behind and started descending into a valley. After passing a refuge/mountain cafe there was another rocky section as we continued downhill. We then looped back around with amazing views over the Brienzersee lake and across to the Hardergrat ridge (which Paul ran along a few weeks earlier). Check it out. It looks spectacular and terrifying in equal measures!
Through this section there were increasing number of hikers marking the trek in the opposite direction from Scheidegg to Faulhorn. We exchanged pleasantries with everyone as we passed. The trails then left the valley behind and levelled out to some lovely undulating trails with more expensive views off into the distance and the trails we’d run earlier in the day. Paul was checking up on Matt and they agreed we’d meet and wait at the halfway mark. It was just a very long descent over about 10 miles to go before we reached there.
First we hit up ‘Egg’, the extra water stop, and then eventually some switchbacks to another mountain lodge where there were plenty of supporters. As we left there was a family with small kids offering high fives which I, and all the runners around us, greatly indulged in. It’s such a boost to interact with people when running an ultra. Shortly after there was a man with a hose pipe spraying runners and me and Paul danced in the rain. It was so cooling and refreshing.
Paul and I both started to feel the need for more water, despite the extra stop and carrying an extra bottle we’d been drinking loads (the heat management plan was being perfectly executed so far). It felt like the next stop wasn’t coming anytime soon luckily we then spied a tap / trough on the side of a building and took advantage, Paul submerging his whole head. As we walked on, pleased with our find, we could see the next aid station was just a few hundred metres further ahead. Typical.
From here we entered the forest, and the descent began to steepen. The trails were narrow and the ground was littered with lumpy tree roots. It wasn’t easy underfoot and we accepted this is how it would be for quite some time. After what felt like a few km of consistent rooty downhill running, out of nowhere we started to climb again. I was furious. It couldn’t visualise it on the elevation profile. It hit me hard. I called out to Paul that I needed a break. Like hours earlier on the climb to Faulhorn, my breathing was erratic again. Every race profile is like this and has those sections where you are going downhill but have a ‘hidden’ uphill included (or vice versa). The distance and elevation never easily transfers to a small visual elevation profile. It really messes with your mind sometimes and, today, it was messing with me. It took my strength and my energy and I needed a few mins sitting on a rock to regain composure and carry on. Fucking tree routes!
We were soon back in the rhythm and then, for the first time ever in a race, I hit the deck. I went down like I’d been tasered. Mid-flow I got cramp in my right calf and my lower body just seized up. I did a quarter of a turn and just fell, rigid and straight, down bouncing off what I thought was my left arm and shoulder. On the floor I then instantly got cramp in my other calf too and couldn’t get up. I was like a bug on its back flailing my. A runner coming behind called out and I’ve no idea what I mumbled back as I slowly relaxed and clambered back to my feet. It seemed like my left arm had come out and broken the fall and I had a few little indents on my palm from small stones. Somehow despite all the roots I’d fallen on a fairly clear and soft area. Frustratingly though, covered in sweat it was like I’d been dipped in breadcrumbs. My arms and hands were covered in soil and I was now irritable. I’m amazed I’ve lasted this long without falling before. With no issues or concerns we just got back on with it.
I don’t know how much longer the downhill carried on for, but there was one last steep section through a field as we approached the halfway mark.
I set about the full works. Pasta. Potatoe. More coke. Full wet wipe wash. Tshirt change. Sock and shoe change. Fresh hat. Fresh buff and more food and tailwind added to the bag. Not long after as we were getting ready to leave, Matt showed up. I made a big mistake here and led the decision to crack on without him. We said we’d wait, and he was bang on schedule for a 22:45hr finish. I said me and Paul wanted to try and finish in under 22 which was the qualifier time for western states. So we left without him. It was a mistake as, despite running the next 50km without him, he finished only 10 mins behind us, bang on that 22:45hr finish. Sorry Matt!
From the half way we had a series of two big climbs to overcome. The first climb was before the town of venkat. It started with a series of roads climbing on switchbacks. Here we Met another Swiss runner in Nicole who was doing her first ultra and chasing that sun 22hr finish also. We chatted as we climbed before the roads changed into forest tracks again. They were rooty, but not as bad as before. Some sections where steep and it was very humid with little wind or breeze reaching us. Occasionally we’d get a burst of sun and see the mountain alongside us. Slowly we tracked around the side of it.
There was also a brief stop where there was another water tap. From here we were back into the forests and making our way down hill to Wegen. One thing that was noticeable here was that we started seeing a lot of volunteers and mountain rescue dotted along the course. We were being very well Looked after! On the downhill I continued to cramp. I was cramping in my ankles and shins which was a whole new weird experience which I don’t know how to describe. Thankfully nothing too bad though.
The town of Wengen was delightful and I made a note to come and visit one day, it was very picturesque. We weaved through the aid station after collecting more water and coke and began the big climb to Mannlichen which was approximately 1,000m gain in around 5km. Pretty much a vertical Kilometer (VK).
After climbing through some narrow back streets of the town, we were yet again back in the forest. Every time there was an opening I tried to see where the hell we were going, but I couldn’t. I could see the end goal of Mannlichen on top of the mountain, but I could rarely see any runners on the mountain side climbing. I was so confused. Paul and I agreed to break the climb up. There was the extra aid station somewhere along here so we agreed to stop again before and after it. Paul was the time keeper and I was eager to test him and push the limit of how long I could stay sitting down for!
We weren’t alone and there were plenty of runners we passed and who passed us. At each stop we got talking to Jason, yet another Irishman, as we leapfrogged each other along this section. The route took us across the mountain face and through a series of snow barriers built to protect the town which was way down below us now. The breaks, and the water stop, were greatly appreciated. As we eventually summited a friendly voice called out and cheered our arrival. Like earlier in the day at First, Maarten was above us supporting and crewing runners reaching the aid station. He followed us into the aid station and tended to our needs like a hero. I was very hungry again and slowly ate a Chia Charge flap jack and remember Paul bringing me lumps of chocolate. It was very good chocolate!
Up top it was cold. Very cold. We discussed layering up and I acknowledged my stupidity in not bringing my arm sleeves or lightweight wind proof from my halfway drop bag. I always run with them but for some reason I purposely didn’t this time. Whilst I knew we’d run into the night, I guess I was so focused on the heat of the day that I didn’t think they would be needed. It wasn’t a problem though as I had a long sleeve top and a waterproof jacket in my bag, so I certainly wouldn’t be getting too cold. We cracked on, knowing that we’d warm up when we began running again. And boy did we run…
We acknowledged that we’d ‘broken the back of the beast’ now. There were no more aggressive climbs to come our way and we were probably 3/4 of our way through the distance by now. It was a huge boost. What made it better was that the trails were very wide, smooth and it was a very gentle downhill. It felt like we were running so fast for a few km as we were running straight toward the Eiger’s north face which was covered in cloud. What a sight it was.
All good things come to an end though, and so did the easy downhill as we then turned away from Grindelwald and headed off-track for another (comparatively) little climb. It was a little punchy and I remember passing loads of cows here. I was constantly looking to my left and across to the Eiger where I could see there were so many trails, but I couldn’t see a single runner on any of them. Once again I was disoriented and I had no idea where we were going. I knew we’d come back along the Eiger towards Grindelwald somewhere, but I just couldn’t see where. The tracks kept twisting and turning and my sense of direction was getting a little messed up. Eventually we dropped down and joined a wide gravel path again, crossed a train track and walked up a gentle hill towards the next aid station.
There was a runner here squatting down taking a picture of the Eiger reflecting in a small pond. As painful as it was, we stopped and indulged for the same picture. It was worth it.
We were soon at the next aid station. This was quite possibly the best location of any aid station I’ve ever been too. It was inside a train depot. It was getting dark and colder outside but inside it was so warm and smelt of oil. I loved it. Here we found some warm broth which was exactly the salty delight I needed. Sitting, eating, I looked around and noticed it was a little like a medical centre with a number of runners sleeping or receiving medical attention.
After a good 15 minutes or so, we left and headed back out for a short little downhill before climbing again to the Eiger Glacier. We passed a runner who was being sick but whom signalled he was ok. Then, moments later as we started to climb he sprinted passed us and continued to run the uphill. I couldn’t understand his miraculous recovery! It was around 9:30 now and our head torches were on as the last of the light started to leave us.
The climb up to Eiger Glacier was tough going. It was a mixture of dry trail (with more cows lining the track!) and little rocky sections. In parts it was steep with some narrow switchback trails before a long climb on a small ridge. It was another slow climb and one which slowly chipped away at our depleting energy levels. We took another moment at the top before beginning the descent towards the finish. It was a very long descent of around 1,200m over 10km kilometres back towards Grindelwald.
It was now obvious why, hours earlier, I couldn’t see any runners on any of the trails. We were tucked right up close on the mountain face. To our left the mountain dropped away on long scree slopes. Way off to our left headlights of runners descending form Mannlichen could be seen.
The trails were runnable. Not as nice as the initial descent from Mannlichen but the rocks were well trodden and flattened to the track for the most part. As we ran, we were in silence and all we could hear were the many, many waterfalls falling from the Eiger which we’d cross one after the other. After what felt like a long few kilometre of steady plodding the relaxing sound of water started increasing and becoming more ferocious. There was one huge waterfall absolutely gushing from the mountain and the sound was thunderous. From here we began descending at a steeper rate on a series of increasingly more rocky switchbacks. Surprisingly my feet were holding up very well. I feel the trails had been incredibly easy going and forgiving on this route considering we were running in such a mountainous area. The quads were definitely feeling it now though and the fatigue was kicking in!
For a while, Paul and I had been discussing what remained of the route. I recalled one big climb once we bottomed out from this descent. We’d heard mixed reports of the elevation ranging from 200m to 600m. We didn’t know. What we did know was that we didn’t want a 600m climb! We soon reached the next aid station, and I clocked the elevation profile on a board. My heart sank a little as I saw we still had plenty of descending to go as well as another small climb before another much bigger one. Paul asked for details and again a new number was thrown out about how big the last climb was “maybe 400m”. A bit deflated, we carried on with the remaining descent which was now on road (which didn’t make it any easier at this stage!).
Finally, we levelled out and began the last 10km or so of the route which would see us run parallel to Grindelwald, passing it before looping back and down into the town. From here we could see the finish line in the town. It is annoying seeing a finish line during a race and heading in the opposite direction, and this time was no different, especially as we were running ever so slowing now.
We began the little climb, although it went on and on and I clocked another 200m. Here the trails were very technical forest trials, yet again (and unsurprisingly) littered with roots once more. Our mood was sinking but we knew we just had to keep moving. After another hour or so we reached a small little aid station. Paul questioned the distance and vertical gain here too and we received a far more favourable response of “280m”. This was good. I perked up and and cracked a lot of jokes to the volunteers. I felt like I was on stage and absolutely killing it. They were probably just wishing I’d leave already. Eventually we did.
As we progressed along the 280m climb, a few runners caught and passed us. We kept our heads down and moved along and we’re joined by another runner whom we chatted to at the last stop. He was craving a bit of company in the night. Pretty much bang on 280m we arrived at Feinsteing. I was impressed. If anything, the root marking and distance markers were exceptional throughout. The trails had dedicated Eiger Ultra Trail flags, glow sticks, arrows on the ground, reflective paint throughout and even Eiger Ultra Trail specific trail signs. At every 5km/10km marker my watch had been pretty much in sync too. I’ve never had that before. Although Paul would argue differently with his Suunto (same model) clocking slightly longer. Anyway, from here it was about 4km downhill on road to the town with a small uphill towards the end to join the main street where it all began.
We begrudgingly left the comfort of the final aid station, acknowledging that a Western States qualifying time was beyond us now. There’s no way we were clocking a 30min 5km pace (even downhill) after running all day. We calculated that the 4km remaining would take more like 40mins. The downhill and roads weren’t particularly enjoyable. Now my feet were hurting after that last technical section and I wasn’t enjoying the feet slapping sensation like we felt all the way back on the first descent some 20 hours earlier.
We were trudging along through a camp site when we saw the next trail marker sign. It said 100km. We couldn’t believe it. That crept up on us out of nowhere. It worked us up and with a little moaning we powered through the last little climb back to the Main Street. Thankfully we merged further down than our hotel so didn’t have to run passed it! We emerged onto the street to cheers from some supporters out late in the night and then picked up the pace as we finished the course. The last little surprise being the very steep finishers bridge into the finish line. The risk of falling with our tired legs giving way was probably quite high! Thankfully we didn’t tumble for the camera. Seconds later we crossed the finish line. We’d done it. As Eiger E101 finishers we were handed our little piece of the Eiger – a rock from the moutain as our medal. I love it, but right then i was sick of the rocks!
Without knowing or realising, as we went into the sports centre to collect our bags, Matt snuck passed and finished just a few minutes after us. What a guy. Such consistent running all day!
Another weekend, another Maverick adventure… This time we were off down to the South west Coast to run the Exmoor X Series ultra. Some usual suspects for this one with Nick driving us down, Ale hopping in for his first ultra (that he didn’t want to do) and Carl also being roped in to tag along too for what would be his first Maverick event (not counting two weeks in Borneo!). Whatever lay ahead, there was sure to be lots of smiling and laughter with this group.
We knew it would be tough. Maverick don’t shy away from advertising this event as a difficult one. The nickname of ‘The Beast’ alone should be an indication of its difficulty. If not, the elevation profile with somewhere over 2,000m should give you all you need to know – there are some fruity climbs along the SWCP to be tackled in this event. We didn’t have any goals as, whatever time we’d finish, we had nowhere to be or go. We’d booked dinner in the hotel so had little to worry about. We estimated probably about 8 hours or so though.
As we sauntered down the start line, some time after the main pack of runners had already set off, Race Director Ben gave us some insight and that they’d clocked closer to 60km when marking up the course. Always good to know and to set the brain to a target distance! Bell ringing, we pranced off, down into and around the field as we began our journey along the coastal path.
Theme of the day was ‘Shit Slinging‘ a rather naughty, unhygienic but unapologetically funny game we’ve started playing on some runs. Without all the detail, you get points for kicking shit at each other. As simple as that. Into that first field there were legs flying everywhere. To anyone who saw us they must have been wondering what on earth we were up too. I think Carl stormed to an early lead.
After the first climb along an open hillside we hit onto some lovely trail paths that wound back down to the coast and to the Valley of Rocks. We’d stopped by here the night before for a post meal walk. It had incredible views and the sunset the night before was mesmerising. We turned right and ran along the coast path as I continued stopping at every opportunity to kick goat shit in the direction of the others. It even earned a little laugh from a lovely old couple who stepped aside to let us pass. We were enjoying ourselves! Rounding a blind corner I stopped to wait for Nick and pretend to ‘sling some shit’ at him, as I faked the manoeuvre, to my horror it wasn’t Nick but another runner he’d let passed. Oops. I don’t think he appreciated the fright!
Further ahead was Jake and Faye capturing the magic with the incredible back drop of the Valley of Rocks behind us. Fist bumps all round and a big cheer for Carl who they hadn’t seen since we left Borneo 16 months ago!
More magical footpaths saw us wind back down and around Lynmouth Harbour before we began the next climb. All along this section were familiar faces, first off Giffy climbing ahead of us along the woodland paths. Next up we found Rosie who was marshalling along a road section and making sure we’d not miss the turning. It was two years since we all met at the LoveTrails festival and camped together! It really feels like just yesterday that we met. Then. as the climb steepened along another open hillside, ‘Gaddy’ came up behind us. We’d met briefly for the first time queuing up at the toilets many hours earlier, but this was now a chance to properly say hello and have a chat before he powered on ahead.
As the climb came to an end at Countisbury, we began the decent along one of the more technical parts of the course, with loose scree and a sheer drop to the ocean. It was Phil who was lurking nearby to capture the incredible view for the runners at this spot. It was slow going here as a bottleneck began to form on the single track path. Shortly after reaching the bottom, we arrived at the first aid station and spent quite some time joking and chatting with Justin, the other RD and Maverick Founder.
From here we enjoyed several miles of undulating coastal path, with sections winding through beautiful lush green forests. It was so peaceful and tranquil that it was easy to loose yourself and enjoy the run, even though at times the bottlenecks would form again on the tight and narrow paths. We were fortunate that we didn’t encounter too many walkers and hikers as there were a lot of runners now bunched together.
There was another steep climb to navigate as we first climbed through the forest tracks before tackling the bulk of the climb through open fields in the heat of the midday sun. Up top, several runners broke for a rest as we plodded along after the course split. More undulating miles before we dropped down into the seaside town or Porlock Weir. Here we could smell the cooking of fresh seafood and smoky BBQs on the go. Thankfully though our next aid station was here and our bellies didn’t mis out.
I didn’t know at the time, but this aid station was supported by Justin’s parents. It was by far the best one and possibly the best aid station I’ve ever had the pleasure of stopping at during a maverick event. Pineapple. my favourite fruit and so refreshing. Mrs B was chopping away and could barely keep up as I kept taking chunks of fresh pineapple. Washed down with salted potatoes, crisps, sweats, biscuits and Milka cake bars (another new discovery for me, these were delicious). We had a good 10 minutes here and continued chatting with Justin as he arrived to check up on everything. It was a good stop and much needed. Nick was experiencing an early bonk and was struggling for some energy it was a good opportunity for him to eat and the cooked potatoes were another great addition to the aid station spread!
Refuelled, we headed back out. We knew the next section was going to be tough as it was the largest climb of the course. a straight up 400m climb. Not something to be scoffed at. No way to tackle it other than steady, relentless plodding forward. One thing at the back of my mind that was empowering here was knowing that, as we climbed, we were gradually turning back on the loop at West Porlock. Once we’d reach the top, we’d be around halfway through and from here on in running back in the direction of the finish. Always a good feeling. Part way up we met Gaddy again and soon after the summit he joined us and we all ran along together for a little while.
This part of the route was more of the same with a few little climbs and descents separated with undulating trails through open hilltops and dense forest footpaths. It really was a beautiful course and such a variety of terrains and footpaths. We’d been leapfrogging a number of other runners at this point and occasionally split into smaller groups chatting away with each other. After narrowly missing a headshot at Nick, an opportunity presented itself with some fresh (goat?) shit lining up in my path directly behind Carl. Like a pro I swung my leg and struck the sweetest of shit slings with a direct hit on Carl’s arm. He was not happy, understandably so. Me, I was in hysterics. I thought I was so funny. I told you it isn’t glamourous!
The fun soon came to an end though when a few of the group were running back towards us. Somehow we’d gone wrong. I remember seeing a sign that was pointing one way and I’d clearly misinterpreted its direction. The course marking was good, we’d fucked up. Running back on ourselves we were now behind most of the groups of runners we’d passed sometime ago, including ‘Hop-a-long’ and ‘Bagel-man’. Other runners always have endearing nicknames to us. All was not lost though as we embarked on a really enjoyable downhill section with incredible views over the town of Oare. It really was beautiful and an enjoyable downhill. We stopped briefly to chat with Chris and another who were doing some course clearing / marking and gave them the heads up that there was a sign that was easily misinterpreted. We carried on our way before arriving at the next aid station.
Here Justin was yet again. Doing an incredible job on the organising. Stuffing our faces yet again, we were chatting away when I noticed a few things. Firstly the runners at the aid station were looking a little worse for wear. It was a very challenging course and understandable to be feeling that way. We probably had about 10 miles (and a good few hours) still ahead of us. Secondly, I noticed Nick was coming out of his slump. The food was going in and his energy levels were higher than they were previously. I saw the opportunity and hurried us all along and back onto the course before he started peaking and hitting a sugar rush. I wanted us to be on the move when that happened.
Restarting began with an enjoyable downhill section before we hit the beautiful and pristine area of Brendon. Somewhere here we were greeted by an emu too! A volunteer directed us along the course with a cheerful “please be respectful” and we soon found out why. the section was delightful and we passed through a country house were the owner came out to confirm we were too pass through their property. he wished us well and cheered us on.
From here we picked up the riverside path that ran along side the East Lyn River. Justin had told us that the second half of the route was delightful and he wasn’t lying. After the pleasure of the SWCP earlier in the day, winding along the river bed with more undulating footpaths was glorious. The dense woodlands offered us plenty of shade and Carl and Ale powered us along at a steady pace. this section flew by in no time at all and before we knew it we were back out on a road and nearing the next aid station.
We were doing a bit of math now. I thought we’d have less than 9km to go, Ale and Carl were estimating closer to the 9km. At the aid station they told us it was 12km to go. Gaaah. We weren’t’ convinced though. Surely it was slightly off otherwise our GPS really couldn’t be trusted! With a big cheer and sadistic laugh we were sent off on our next climb which was probably the steepest of the last four facing us. Ale was holding up and was well beyond the Ultra territory now. Not bad for someone a few days earlier had been told by a physio to not run more than 5km! I’m sure he was enjoying it in his own way, but he was vocal about how boring it was. He’s lucky there was no shit around at this point to kick at him.
In-between the next climb was an incredible section of downhill switch backs. the paths were so fun to run and it really did remind me of some of the overseas locations. Steep climbs, rocky technical footpaths, dense green forests and winding footpaths rather than the typical rolling hill climbs of other national parks. I was beaming and really enjoying the area. Shame it really is so far to drive to from London!
We soon passed by Lynton and the Gulf petrol station at Barbrook which we’d driven passed several times already this weekend. from here we knew it wasn’t far to go. We’d now just be circling around the main road (which wouldn’t be safe to run along) before crossing directly opposite from the campsite/finish line. First up one last climb that I agree was quite dull, wide long gravel roads. The beautiful day was going grey and it was starting to try to rain. Into the deep end now, nothing left but to grin and bare it. head down, keep moving. With a few km to go we passed Brit and some other maverick Volunteers who cheered us across. Just the last road section to the campsite and down hill into the finish line.
All four of us, side by side we crossed that line like we had 9 hours earlier. We took our medals and the never ending amount of freebies from Maverick and joined the many familiar faces sitting down. Reka who’d finished many hours earlier (a machine she is!) was asking us if we’d seen Gif. It really had been a long time since we saw her waaaaay back before that first aid station. I went back to the car to get some warmer clothes and we soon saw Gaddy cross the line too. As we hopped in the car to head back for Dinner, Gif was coming down the final straight.
That night we were all very tired and exhausted. Thankfully we didn’t have to hobble far for dinner which was absolutely brilliant too. The next morning we began the next ultra – the long drive back to London…
It was somehow already the beginning of May and I found myself heading back down to the ever too familiar trails of the North Downs Way for the Freedom Racing North Downs Ridge 50k. This race was one of the ones that was cancelled earlier in the year and one that, in some ways, contradicted my Modus Operandi for races – which is to only do events that I really want to do (despite how obvious that may sound!). It’s the route you see. I’ve run It so many times (and you’ve read me type it so many times…) and this particular section of the North Downs Way which includes my least favourite part of the trail (purely because it’s so damn runnable!). It is because of the organiser though that I signed up. This was to be my third Freedom Racing event after the Serpent Trail and the Hurtwood and I’ve enjoyed each one immensely. FR are a small, family centred events company which I’m happy to support. So, off I went.
Tom, the Race Director, had adopted the now very familiar flexible start line approach for this event. I opted for the ‘faster’ time slot and arrived for 8am with a rough 5.5 hr finish in my mind (justifying starting in this group rather than the later group).
The start was easy. I walked from Dorking station to the event HQ at Denbies Vineyard. When I arrived it was straight into a short queue for registration. Bib and dabber collected, I went to the toilet and changed quickly in the field, dropped my bag off and then walked into the starting pen. I was the only one. No queuing. I dib-dabbed in and off I trotted.
The route starts with a short stretch and climb out of the Vineyard as you join the tarmac path of the first climb to the church at Ranmore. I wouldn’t normally run this but I was fresh and eager so I plodded on upwards. Passing the few walkers as I reached the top, I continued in the gentle pace I’d settled into with my heart full of joy of another adventure underway.
I mentioned a rough 5.5 hr finish time I had in mind, but really I had no real aims for the day and a sub 6 hour finish would, as always, be a good day out for a 50k for me. As a fairly hilly route with an out and back set up I’d be happy with that. Immediately after starting out though, I devised a game to keep the brain occupied – I’d keep a count of the people I passed and the people who passed me. I’d try and remain with a positive count by the end of the race. A small challenge but one with great potential for distracting the mind throughout the run. As I’d started behind the ‘slower’ group but at the start of the ‘faster’ group, I assumed it would be a comparable count each way. I added the rule that being ‘passed’ involved people overtaking me, people running in the opposite direction as me before I turned around (at about mile 12.5) and again people I saw coming the other way on the final loop. So potentially some runners could hit my count 3 times.
It started good. The numbers were positive despite a few speedsters soaring passed (all in carbon road shoes I noted, the trails were very dry…) and it was steady progress. None of the hills here and until the sandy climb to St. Martha’s were steep enough to consider walking so I just kept plodding along. I skipped through the first aid station as it was only about 5 miles in. I had enough food and water to last a while and knew it would help avoid it becoming too busy as the first ones always do.
Those first 12 miles then wizzed by and and a few familiar smiling faces helped add a little atmosphere and buzz to the day. I was heading down the descent from at St. Martha’s to the next aid station, where we’d turn around, and my number count was going haywire. I was around 50 and suddenly struggled to keep count as I passed runners and runners came towards and passed me. I was suddenly around 20 by now.
I then almost stepped on some Goodr sunglasses and stopped to pick them up, checking with each runner coming passed if they’d dropped them. I had better luck as I announced my arrival at the aid station with a loud “anyone drop their glasses?” to which thankfully someone realised they had indeed dropped them. Chatting to the lady I completely lost count of who came and went in the aid station. So I stopped my game and pigged out on sausage rolls, flapjacks and frazzles. Delightful. Fully stocked I headed back out, jogging the climb to St Martha’s once more.
On the return leg, more familiar faces were there with big hi fives from Meg and Daisy and a fleeting hello to Frank at the top of the hill. Back down the sandy path I went. Beaming in the sunny, warm mid morning sunshine.
Running back to the next aid station and onto Denbies again was all very unmemorable. I just kept steady, holding the pace and realising that I was actually holding pace for a solid effort at a sub 5hr 50k. I don’t think I’d ever gone sub 5 before. Other than a marathon distance and 100 miles, I’ve no idea what any of my PBs actually are. But now I had a new game to play, a new way to occupy my mind for the last ten or so miles. I just needed to keep on steady and hold the pace…
I briefly stopped to refill some water at Denbies and carried on for the final loop. This section, as we’d head towards the village of Westhumble, was new to me. Straight away we were met with a long ol’ road incline which warranted a walk. No point busting a gut here. It was much longer than I expected and glancing at the watch I noted that the elevation gain ticked over 700m. I wasn’t expecting that much elevation for the day either, but it made me feel strong, given how little walking I’d done and how comfortable I felt.
Soon I was back on trails and it was delightful to experience a few miles of new trails to explore. The whole loop was deceivingly uphill which I tried to hold my pace on. By the time I’d completed the loop and was heading back down the road section I saw that I’d done another 100m of elevation gain. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Crossing back over the NDW it was now down into Denbies for the final straight through some of the vineyard and across the finish line. Dib dab done. I stopped the watch and I was a few mins under 5 hours. Tidy. I’ll have some of that.
I dropped the timing chip off. Collected my bag and checked the train times. With one in 20 mins I knew I had time for a quick change of clothes and a fast hike to the station. I stopped to get a picture next to the Freedom Racing trailer and a rapid chat with Tom the RD, thanking him for another excellent adventure before I trundled off.
Another day, another race. Another sense of achievement. Job done.
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!