Animo!

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

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

The Elevation profile for the VDA

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

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

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

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

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

Bottleneck

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

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

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

Suspension bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Up to the Iron Mines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into the second night

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

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

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

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

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

descending with one pole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


After Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Camino Lea Valley

When I think of ‘Daz N Bone’ (the brains behind Camino Ultra), I can’t help but sing the words “oh oh I’m in trouble, trouble…” from the tune they’ve used as their intro to their excellent Legends of Running Endurance podcast (plug for the guys, it’s an mega entertaining listen and a podcast that is well worth investing your time in). And that’s exactly how I felt going into this 50kn – in trouble.

Firstly, physical trouble. I’ve a wanky ankle. It seems to hurt when I run but holds up ok when I keep on running. With Val d Aran edging closer, I’ve been limiting the time I spend running and have slipped back into my inconsistent behaviours of running long and not frequently. Race wise I also felt in trouble as the course is so flat. I’ll mention this again for sure. It was going to burn.

Arriving into Welwyn Garden City I met Alan and JM on the train. We walked over to the start line where Darren greeted us, got us organised and took our kit bags for the finish line. Gigi was on hand to capture the moment as the three of us set off together. Alan was clear he was heading for a 5 hour finish. My aim too. JM would go wild and run faster for sure, she was holding back though hesitating about the navigation.

I stuck with her initially at a pace that was far faster than a five hour finish. But it was comfortable (for now) and I was enjoying the blast. After navigating a few turns through the town we found ourselves running some lovely trail paths and then about 4 miles in hit the underpass Daz had warned us about. It was flooded from a week of heavy rain. In the middle of it stood David filming the runners. There was no way around this. I’m sure some would stop and try to find a way out. It was clear there wasn’t an easy alternative though so I just ploughed straight in. High kneeing it splashing everywhere I ran straight at David. He loved it. The obscenities as he was splashed confirmed this. I was soaked through. Water up to my nipples and my face covered. I might have regretted it a little later on!!

Splash Splash Splash

Soon after the flood I told JM to go on ahead as I would drop the pace off a bit. She instantaneously vanished from sight! She was wearing a hi-vis top and it’s a good thing as I caught a glimpse of her ahead on the wrong trail. As she feared, she’d gone wrong. Hilarious. But, I’d need to correct her. Screaming after her I detoured but made sure to send the runner behind me in the right direction. Thankfully she heard my calls and was heading back towards me before I’d run too far wrong myself.

We joked about it as we ran through Hertfordshire village and she left me again just before that first aid station. From here the route hugged the river. It was pretty scenic and very flat. The chances of her getting lost again were very slim now as we’d follow the river all the way to Hackney. Earlier we’d covered the one short incline and ‘descent’ of the course and it was now also going to be as flat as it was straight. It was fairly peaceful with occasional walkers on the route and very few other runners during the first 20k or so.

After a while I started to catch a few groups of runners and the customary positive vibes exchanged. I remember one very smiley woman kitted out in the welsh flag and I chanted ‘Wales Wales Wales’ as I approached. Just like the unimaginative football fans do! It was a good week to be Welsh with the national team having pretty much guaranteed a qualification from their group at the Euros! Today was about running though and it was perfect running conditions for it – warm but an overcast day, no chance of over heating or getting sunburnt.

Shortly after passing a few groups I arrived into the second aid station that was supported by the team from KOM fuel. I took a few mins here to eat some food and refill the tailwind. All the while the guys providing excellent encouragement and jokes to entertain the runners as we reached the half way point.

As I left I started to formulate the plan for the next half of the race. Mainly acknowledging the legs were tiring and would soon start to flag. Early on I made the decision to keep running to the third aid station and then begin to drop some walking breaks into the run. Probably a few hundred metres in every km. I had nowhere to be and was well inside the target five hour time.

This next section was then pretty torrid purely because of the midges. Fucking midges. Millions of the little bastards. For many KMs I was like a car windscreen. So many sticking to my sweaty skin. Every time I wiped my face my hand was covered. My arms looked diseased with the black spots and my neck was smothered. I wondered what I’d look like to the passers-by.

Before I knew it I was arriving into the third and final aid station, topping up my water again before setting off. After I hit the 40km mark I executed the run/walk plan. I opted for 200m walk and 800m running for every km. first few went by like a breeze. This approach did mean I was counting the kms though which was mildly annoying and after a few km I wish I could forget the count but I couldn’t. I stuck with it though and continued passing people and wasn’t overtaken by anyone else. I figured this approach would add maybe 15-20 mins to my finish time if that?

Before I knew it I was back on familiar territory of the capital ring. I ran passed the pub where we met Pauls mate on our Capital ring adventure and I knew the finish line of Here East would be moments away. Soon enough a sign of “200m to the finish” appeared and I emerged under the bridge to cheers and claps from the supporters and other participants gathered in the finish area. A big cheer came from David and Dimi by the boat and I swooped under the finishers arch to receive my goodie bag and finishers photo from Gigi.

Moments later Alan crossed the line too. We met up with JM and Johnny and headed off in search of some food. Job done. Another excellent day out thanks to Camino Ultra!

Finishers!

The Beast

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.

Let the Shit Slinging commence!

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.

That View!

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.

Hello!

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.

River path

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…

Bitchin

‘Bitchin’. Nope, not great or wicked. Just two middle age men actually bitchin for 13 hours. Nothing cool to see here. Nothing cool at all…

Bitchin is pretty much all me and Ged did whilst we ran the Ultra X Spring Series 100km. It led to a lot of laughter, passed a lot of time, and confirmed how similar we are. Nothing was safe from the sting of our words. None of it was really justified either, nonetheless that is how we rolled in our latest ultra marathon adventure.

I was probably already in a sub conscious bitchin mode leading up to the race where, due to my own lack of research and preparation, I realised I couldn’t get to the start line in time for the 06:00 start. The Race Directors were accommodating though and Ged and his mum stepped in to save my embarrassments with a lift down. Mini crisis adverted.

The start line was a very subdued place at 06:00 in the morning. With a small field of 100km runners we were split into the two allocated starting groups, given a count down and sent off in groups of about 30 people. Nattering away as we ran out of the recreational ground towards the road, our bitchin began. We couldn’t understand why everyone was running so fast already. Amateurs we thought, they’ll all bonk soon enough. We were pumping out a 10 hour 100 km pace for no reason at all. Many, many hours later we apologetically retracted this statement when we had passed maybe 2 or 3 people from that group only. They clearly had their plans and strategies like we had ours!

Pre race smiles

Running on, we were very much aware that the 3 biggest hills and climbs of the race were in this first 13 miles (which we’d complete again as the last 13 miles as we’d loop back in the opposite direction for the second half of the race), yet being full of energy and excitement, we didn’t notice these hills and barely felt them as we ran down (and up) steadily with fresh morning legs.

We did then get lost after a few miles, but we were not alone. Coming down off a trail descent we joined a country lane where the course markings vanished. Left, right or straight down were the choices. Some runners were coming back from the right and more joined us from behind (the second group of 100km runners who set off after us). With confused looks we all headed left and a few moments later across a cattle grid and straight down, then we all stopped as differing opinions on whether this was correct or if we should have followed the road rather than cross the cattle grid became clear. One runner (who I later realised was Scott Jenkins) was adamant we were right and Ged and I soon stuck with him. A few hundred meters later we then found some course markings once more. What had happened here we do not know! Yep, we bitched about the markings.

Early on, enjoying the ideal morning conditions

Back on track, it wasn’t long before we hit the first indication of the bogs and mud we’d encounter this day. It was nothing major but soon we were splashing through waterlogged fields and fully submerging our feet in the cooling water. At this point one of my shoes came off in the sticky mud. I managed to recover it before loosing it completely, but needed to stop to get it back on. As I sat on a log to readjust, my whole core started cramping and I couldn’t reach my feet, much to Ged’s delight. What a state to be in so soon!

We carried on as the surface became progressively more muddy and we were sliding all over the place as we approached the first aid station. We pretty much ran straight through as it was only 11 km in and didn’t need anything so early on. Ged’s mum was here, as she was throughout the day at each aid station to cheer us on.

The next section was full of the epic views of the Serpent Trail, exactly as I recalled it from when I ran the Serpent Trail 100km event way back in 2018! A beautiful landscape of thousands of trees with roaming views of the South Downs peaking through in between. Every now and again the forest would drop away to reveal the bareness of the hilly summits and reveal the scenic views in all their glory. Before long we were up running along some mountain bike tracks (which I vividly recalled from 2018) and into the second aid station. Here we stopped briefly and chatted to the volunteers including updating them on the sections were markings were missing/sparse and we’d gone wrong.

Soggy feet as we track towards halfway

From here to the third aid station was all a blur to me. I did slowly recall bits of it later in the day when we were back tracking along it. But, at the time, I must have switched off and been too engrossed in the bitchin to really notice it and take it in. Closing in on that third aid station we noted we were roughly a 1/3 of the way into the race. Which was good, because the legs started to feel like they’d done some running by now!

The volunteers at this next aid station were full of energy and we exchanged a few jokes and laughs with them. They lifted our spirits as we set back out for the last section back to the start/halfway/finish line point. This next section was an adventure for sure. The longest and trickiest part of the route I thought. There were a few sections that were very muddy. One short down hill section followed by two muddy climbs. Zigzagging down that first section we started to wonder at which point we’d be passed by the lead 100km runners coming back towards us or the 50km runners coming from behind and over taking us. Both seemed a real possibility as we started the 10km countdown to half way.

The up hill mud sections demanded a bit more effort from the legs as the mud started to sap our energy and we looked for the best line to climb along. Halfway up that second climb the first few runners leading the 100km started picking us off. Great effort, probably about 10km and over an hour ahead of us. The first runner was flying along and had a substantial lead on 2nd and 3rd at this point. As we started levelling out into some of the fields and road sections for the final approach to the 50km mark we started passing a number of the half marathon runners. We weren’t sure where they came from nor what point the courses joined up. Either way it gave us a buzz as we powered on.

Half way was upon us. I took a strategic stop here whilst Ged was reunited with his family. Quite possibly one of my fastest mid-race turnarounds where I was in and out in just over ten minutes with some fresh clothes and refuelled ready to go again. Unprecedented for me as I do love a good sit down and chin wag at half way, usually needing to be coaxed back out on to the course…

Coming into the finish, time to turn around and do it all again

The energy for the second half was high. As we ran we were now passing loads of runners from the 50km race and the rest of the pack in the 100km one too. As always, the vast majority of runners responded positively to a hello and offered up encouragement to us also. You can’t beat that buzz. Ged and I talked about this for quite sometime. It can make or break a race for some people. A smile can change your emotions, a “well done” or “Great effort” can pull you out of a dark place. BUT, you have to do it for yourself. So often you see people completely absorbed in the moment and struggling. If you can’t muster a smile or a grunt, you won’t find a way out and will continue to suffer. You need to make the corners of your own mouth move. If you’re reading this, try it! Smile, you’ll instantly feel better about everything.

We decided to play a little game and started repeating to the next runners what previous runners had said to us. My personal favourites were “You look fabulous”, “Brilliant, Brilliant” and “top work chaps” which was unfortunately repeated to some females. Hey ho, that was the game. Quite possibly thought, what made me laugh most was how I kept mishearing what Ged was saying. Every time he said “Well done” to someone, I heard “yeah whatever”. It was a perfect response for our bitchin mood and I really wish he was saying that. I’d love to know what reaction that would create if someone said it to you mid race!

It was time for the muddy sections once more and we couldn’t have been in a better place for them. High with energy, certain of what lay ahead, running down hill, seeing the pain and torture on the faces of those climbing it for the first time and sticking to the best line like we did earlier… we just went for it. We didn’t hold back and splashed on straight through, straight down. Practically hurdling our way downhill as the mud reached our knees in places. We were absolutely loving it. We couldn’t give a shit if we fell (it would have been soft!) or who we splashed with mud along the way. There was no better way to get through it. Wet and muddy was inevitable, we knew that, those climbing hadn’t yet come to accept the same fate. It was all too brief though as we completed each section so quickly. How neither of us face planted into the floor we’ll never know.

Along the way we passed many familiar faces like Ellis and Charlie doing the 50km. Each one lifting us up and giving us a buzz. We felt like heroes as we continued playing our game as, surprisingly, we kept meeting more and more runners all the way back to the third (now fifth) aid station. A huge cheer from the volunteers welcomed us back in as we all picked up where we left them many hours earlier with the jokes. I had to take a minute here, sitting on a tree stump next to a speaker pumping out classics hits, to empty my shoes of all the junk I’d be collecting along the way.

From here I couldn’t remember for the life of me what lay ahead on those trails I’d previously blocked out. We were both struggling to remember each section and the pace began to drop off as we walked pretty much every hill from this point back. The legs, specifically my ankles, were beginning to let their feelings known to me. Rightly so, the aches and pains were settling in.

We couldn’t have been far from the next aid station when the ‘heavens opened’. What started as a soft trickle of rain soon turned into an almighty downpour of hail. It was a little refreshing as we discussed whether we were going to stop and layer up. We opted not too. All around us were clear skies. It looked like a passing storm and neither of us fancied ‘boiling like a chicken’ in a waterproof jacket. We stuck it out and a short while later the summer sun briefly repaid our faith. It was a glorious evening now.

Into the second aid station we did a quick stop and refuel, acknowledging from here it was a mere 25km to go. We knew this was the point of the ultra where it would be come a slog. Time to dig deep for what was left. We set back out, running once more through the mountain bike tracks and the now very muddy and sloppy trails. They had been churned up by hundreds of runners and were now far less appealing to run than they were earlier in the day.

Beaming with BDE

We briefly passed some photographers gathering some drone footage on a hill through the forest tracks before we came slip sliding into the final aid station where the volunteers outnumbered us 5 to 1. Grabbing some cheese and onion crisps I received some odd looks from the volunteers when I excitedly asked if the lumps of cheese were lumps of butter. Disappointed, I stuffed cheese and Haribo into my gob. A strange combo I probably wouldn’t repeat again. I really wanted butter now!!

The last 11 km back to the event village was slow and arduous. I was in pain. My dodgy ankle was screaming with every step. Nothing to do except keep moving and make steady progress. From here we knew the course was basically 3 descents and 3 climbs. Lots of hiking ahead with gravity powering the running in between. We ploughed on, gradually making up some ground on a guy in front of us whilst simultaneously holding off two more who were gaining on us. Grin and bare it.

Clearly bitchin’ about something

Ged kept me going. He kept me distracted from the pains. Kept the bitchin’ coming even now many hours later. Occasionally we’d break rank to retract and excuse a bitch that escaped our mouths and which wasn’t justified. Mostly he kept the energy level there, despite it all we were having fun. And that was one of the moments of realisation of the day – we were having fun. You create your own fun and despite it all, we fucking love this. This is exactly the type of challenge we revel in… Earlier on, as is inevitable, we’d been discussing ultra running. Our experiences both shared and individual, what drove us and what dragged us through. It is here we talked about an effect that we came to call ‘BDE’ – Big Dick Energy.

BDE, we decided, was a mental state we work ourselves into during ultra marathons. A point of sheer confidence and arrogance. An unwavering sense of belief in ourselves and our abilities. A selfish expectation of deserving something, being better than everything and when nothing gets in your way of getting what you want. BDE was that invisible force that propels you onwards in the adventure whilst keeping you away from the darkness the mind can so easily slip into. You make that BDE, whatever it is that can shift you into this unreasoning state of focus, you take it. Right now I was seeping BDE from all my pores, radiating it like a jacket potato ready to explode in a microwave. To anyone I passed I was peacocking the smile and laughter that inevitably draws comments like “you don’t look like you’ve just run an ultra marathon”. I’d take those comments, absorb them and convert them into more BDE, a self sustaining aura fuelling the determination to get to the end. No one would know the pain and suffering inside.

We joked and referenced BDE endlessly through the second 50km. This was the experience of having ‘been there, got the tee shirt’. We knew what we were doing and that only comes with trying, failing, succeeding and repeating. I’ve said it many times before, running is hard. No run is ever “easy”. It’s the perception you create to get the run done that changes. BDE.

We hit that last climb. Out on the road now we were powering up. Me fast hiking, Ged shuffling part run part walk. We were laughing all the way to the end. We crossed that finish line surround by Ged’s family who themselves completed another ultra of their own chasing us around the course for 14 hours. Another 100km done. Another medal for the box of pain.

I’ll remember this day for three main things. Firstly, the vocalisation of BDE. Secondly, the amount of mud (it was far muddier than I expected). I don’t think I’ve emptied my shoes as frequently in a race as I did in this one. Three times I stopped to empty the shoes, once I had to stop because a mound of mud had formed under the ball of my foot. It was completely distorting the fit of my shoes, almost like I had a hard insert between my sole and sock. It was so bad I had to scrape all the mud out with my fingers and drag my sock on the grass like I’d stepped in shit. A new experience for sure. The third thing I’ll remember the run for was the bitching. We bitched about everything you can imagine. It was like we had this faux anger at every and anything we could think of. It passed the time so well and was equally therapeutic as it was pathetic if you’d heard us moaning. At one point we even bitched about colours and why something red wasn’t blue because we happened to think blue was a better colour choice. Anything we could moan about we did, and it made me smile so much.

As always though, none of these memories would exist without the excellent company. It truly does make these adventures. Cheers to Ged, he’s a top ‘chap’ and it had been far, far too long since we last ran a race like this together back in 2018!!

The Longworth family support
Finish line. Again

North Downs Ridge 50km

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 short queue at registration

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.

The view at Ranmore

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.

Back through the vineyard

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.

Medal hunter

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.

Centre of The Universe

In a parallel universe I would be here in April 2021 having run some other 16 official events (in 7 different countries and 12 of which being ultras)… These are the ‘Ones that got away‘ and sadly it is not the case. Those are not the times we live in now. It transpires that we live in a reality to the future we chased not that long ago. Time and Space were warped drastically by science and politics. The running calendars and plans were ripped up and rewritten over and over again. Then, Saturday 17th April 2021 came around and flashed a glimpse of the new future, and for the first time in a long time I ran in an organised event again…

On this day there were many, many running events taking place across the UK. Runners flocking back to their natural habitat of chasing metal souvenirs. Due to further clashes, I could have been at a number of these events myself, but instead I was running towards the ‘Centre of The Universe’ (CoTU) for what would be my first event of 2021.

CoTU was (is!) an original and unique concept from the masterminds of ‘DazNBone’ who are the faces behind the Camino Ultra running event Company. Whilst Race Directors continue to adapt and tweak their processes and protocols to make a “COVID secure” environment for their events to be permitted and granted approval to take place, DazNBone went one step further… They took away some of the more familiar but troublesome aspects of planning a mass participation running event in a COVID-secure way – they removed the start, not just the mass start but the actual start and along with it the defined route and Aid Stations. Bam. Have that!

I absolutely loved this. Not as simple as it sounds, and a bold move I’m sure many thought. The concept was that all participants would choose their own start line and devise their own route to the finish line, the “Centre of The Universe”. Whilst this wouldn’t appeal to all runners (many like the security of a well marked route and plenty of support along the way), to those more accustomed and experienced with ultra running it was like music to our ears. Personally I couldn’t give two shits about ‘event villages’ and ‘mass starts’. I’m done with that. I love the finish line feels and hanging around at an event village after I’ve completed my race to absorb all the post-achievement vibes and atmosphere, but, getting to a start line hours ahead of the event and hanging around waiting for it to start then jostling for space with hundreds of other runners, naaa. That can stay in the Pre-COVID world as far as I’m concerned!

Admittedly I am over simplifying things. There was a little more to the event than I suggest and it by no means insinuates that it removes all the work and hassle for them, far from it! So first off, the finish of the CoTU was in Hackney, London. This is the aim, the target for all runners to reach. The chosen start lines however must have been outside a 30km radius from this point. There was a time limit too of 9 hours. Within this period runners needed to get from their chosen start to the CoTU and cover a minimum of 50km (they could do more if they desired!).

You weren’t alone either, Camino provided all runners with a tracker to ensure safety and accountability throughout the run. Big Brother was watching! They also replaced the Aid Stations by supplying all participants with a box of fuel (Not the kind you’ll find from BP!) before the event. So each runner had their own mobile aid station they could carry with them to support and get them to the CoTU.

Without running an organised event for nearly 5 months (after consecutively running in at least one marathon/ultra a month for nearly 3 years!) I was eager to go. I went straight onto the route planners and chose a location I wanted to start from (Caterham) which was easy to get too (for me!) and would provide as much trail and scenic running as I could squeeze into the 50km. I also started roping people in to join me. Paul was, as always, signing up before I’d even finished describing it. Come the weekend there was a group of 5 of others who would run all or part of the route with us. Plus a dog, Nick’s new best mate – Bruce.

Paul & Bruce

The route I plotted was very much a route of two (almost) halves. 30km of trails from Caterham to Beckenham and the final 20km along sealed roads, parks and paths tracing the riversides up to Greenwich before following the canal paths to Hackney. In my mind I knew it would be enjoyable to begin with before becoming a slog into London. The narrow canal paths I expected to be busy with Lockdown easing having begun and decent weather predicted for the weekend.

This is exactly how it turned out. Sort of. Some alarm clock malfunctions meant we were two support runners short at the start as Paul, Nick, Sophie, Bruce and I set off in the crisp and frosty morning from Caterham station. Now, whilst this was where our adventure began, it wasn’t our official ‘start’. You see Caterham train station lies just inside a 30km radius from the CoTU, so it wasn’t until about 2km later and a planned ‘U’ shaped detour on the trails that our race actually began…

The starters!

It was cold, but, with a backpack full of bacon baps and the joys of running in a group again we merrily trotted on. We had no time goals and planned to just enjoy the adventure for what it was. Throughout the first few km I was rearranging where Reka and Carl would meet us. Reka would join Yvette and run with us from Beckenham and Carl was going to get South of Croydon and meet us in the middle of nowhere by tracing the route backwards until we met. I’m so glad they both worked on alternatives as it would have been so easy to turn around and say “next time”…

Those first 20km or so went by so quickly as we enjoyed the tranquillity of the open fields, rolling hills and lush green countryside pretty much all to ourselves. As we started descending from Biggin Hill we found Carl (or he found us?) and we carried on to one of our planned ‘stops’ along the way, a donut shack near Addington that sprung up during the lockdown of 2020 and seems to be incredibly popular with cyclists, hikers and runners alike. We chowed down on some fresh, warm donuts as Nick treated Bruce to a sausage. The fuel of ultra runners!

Donut stop!

We cracked on for the final 10km of trails and weaved our way through to Beckenham where Reka and Yvette were waiting at our next planned stop – A Sainsburys where we could refill our water. Here the memories were tested as individuals tried to remember when was the last time they’d seen each other. Safe to say for most of us it had been a very long time!! Sophie left us here and the now group of 6 (plus Bruce) cracked on. Nick hadn’t intended to run from here but felt good and Bruce was eager to keep going (a quick call to his owner confirmed he was good to lead the way).

The full gang!

And so the second part of the adventure began. The route from Beckenham to Greenwich was something I’d only recently discovered was possible via public paths, walking routes and cycle tracks. Essentially the cycle route 21 – the Waterlink Way – connects Beckenham to Greenwich via a series of parks and green spaces which avoids many km of otherwise horrifically busy main roads. It surprised me how nice it was the first time I ran this route back in January.

Finally reached Greenwich

With the route being incredibly flat from Beckenham onwards, it wasn’t long before we arrived in Greenwich where, no surprise, it was very, very busy. With the population regaining its freedom and the sun starting to shine longer and brighter, people were inevitably out enjoying themselves. The Greenwich foot tunnel, which is a novelty the first few times you go through it, was so busy it was like a blocked drain. We weaved our way through as quickly as we could before tracing the river round to Limehouse. This was where I hit my low point. I’ve run the Limehouse section too many times. I don’t think this part of the Thames path is particularly enjoyable nor interesting. Some decent views for sure, but you can get good views of London from so many places. From here, we’d follow the canal path via Poplar to Hackney. This was what I referred to as the “10km of shit stuff”, it too is far from interesting and somewhere I’ve run more than enough times to enjoy anymore. It’s very narrow in places and is a pain to navigate when there are groups of walkers, buggies and prams and cyclists all jostling for space.

I was slowing down as quickly as the kms ticking by. With a few km to go I kept reminding myself that this was excellent training. 30km of pleasurable trails followed by a long run on hard packed surfaces would be good mental and physical conditioning for the adventures to come.

Eventually we reached Hackney. Noticeable not only for the sheer chaos of the area with people everywhere drinking and ‘partying’ with the now unfamiliar sounds of enjoyment all around, but also because of the big landmarks like the City Stadium, the Helter Skelter whatsit and the massive ‘Here East’ sign which marked our CoTU destination. As we approached the finish line a small group began cheering and clapping, the familiar smiles of ‘DazNBone’ beaming at us and the group filtered off leaving me and Paul to enter the finishers area and cross that first finish line of 2021… We are back baby!! We are back!

I can’t thank my friends enough for this weekend. Its a recurring theme from my running life and adventures. I’ve met so many incredible people and many stick around and comeback for more and more adventures with me. I’m so grateful for these friendships. That friends give up their time to support you is an amazing feeling and I really am appreciative to Sophie, Nick, Carl, Reka and Yvette for sharing it with us and getting us to the finish line. Huge ‘kudos’ to Nick and Bruce for completing the whole ultra with us too! It goes without saying that Paul is a top fella and this is a small adventure compared to the many we’ve already shared and have planned to share in the future together. It’s no surprise he is at the top of my list when an idea creeps into my head. I’m always certain he’ll agree and help me realise that dream before the idea finds a way to escape my clutches!

Of course there is then’ DazNBone’. David and Darren. I met these fellas briefly during the carnage of the NDW100 last year and there has been nothing but encouragement and support from them ever since. A remarkable pair who have such an upbeat and positive outlook on life and approach to running. It was great to cross one of their finish lines and I’m excited to make may way to that finish line in Hackney again later in the year (only coming from the North this time!) for their Lea Valley Ultra (go sign up and join me!!). Huge thanks to Gigi for the awesome finish line photos too! Go check out his photos on Instagram – @gigigiannella_photo / @everyday.runner

What a decent bunch. Thanks for capturing the moment Gigi!

The Ones That Got Away

The Covid-19 pandemic. From a purely selfish running perspective will be remembered, by me, for the absence of 16 events I would have completed. Yes, would have – despite the challenges they pose, I believe you have to attack them with confidence. That’s a fair few events and the ones I’m classing as the ones that ‘got away’, the ones that, someday sooner or later, I will conquer….

Each one of these events represented a different challenge, different reasons why I’d signed up to them and also different reasons why they eventually didn’t happen. One day I’m sure I’ll want to remember these details, so here’s a summary…

Hardmoors 55 – An adventure with mates. Instigated by Jon, as this was to be one of his races in preparation for his maiden 100 mile run (the SDW100). A group of 6 of us agreed to go north to Yorkshire and tackle this 55 mile, unmarked ultra by one of the well renown and respected event organisers in the running world. Scheduled for the end of March 2020, it was inevitably the first of my scheduled races to bite the dust as the UK was plunged into lockdown two weeks beforehand. Rescheduled for November it was once again cancelled when the second lockdown was implemented. I’m now deferred to race in March 2022. Third time lucky…

Boston Marathon – This one hurt. One of the World Marathon Majors. Everyone knows about Boston Marathon, the history and the prestige but also the difficulties in qualifying. My sub 3hour marathon (at Berlin 2018) gained me that Boston Qualifying time. In 2019 it still wasn’t enough and I didn’t have enough of a buffer with all the BQ applicants. 2020 I was a year older, my BQ time flattered by an extra 5 mins for my new age group, I was in. Then I wasn’t. Patriots day was mid-April and countries all around the world were deep into lockdown. Just a few weeks before the event it was all called off. It was a pain to cancel all the flights and hotels and try to recuperate expenses for what is a very financially demanding race! The organisers later rescheduled the event for September but this too was also cancelled and made into a virtual event. I ran the virtual Boston race purely for the finshers items. 2021 was postponed from patriots day (which landed on my Birthday) and is now planned for October. I shall roll the dice again and hope my BQ time is good enough for the reduced field size proposed for the 125th Boston Marathon. It won’t be the same, but it will still happen….one day.

Maverick Snowdon X Series – I’d planned to do the Snowdon X Series ultra with a group of friends from the Wild Trail Runners. May was too soon and it was inevitable that this event was cancelled. Sadly it’s not scheduled for 2021 either so I will have to wait patiently. Thankfully I was able to move my entry to their Peak District X Series Ultra which DID go ahead in 2020….

Maverick Original Sussex – A short one at a mere 20km, I signed up to this for the joy and atmosphere of Maverick Races. Another early summer race that was quickly cancelled. I’m deferred onto the 2021 event in a few weeks which IS going ahead. I can’t wait to run with the Maverick lot again!

Edinburgh Marathon – This one I never really wanted to do, but I agreed to run it with someone else. Nothing against Edinburgh, just it seems a bit of a pain in terms of logistics. Still, it was postponed, then it was cancelled and became another virtual event which I did. I took the voucher option after it was cancelled and recently it was announced that the 2021 event has also been cancelled. I don’t know when, but this one will be near the bottom of the list of events I rearrange to conquer…

Strandja Fjord – A big trip to Norway was planned for August. Over ten of us were venturing to the Fjords for what felt like it would be a real adventure. The 100km race has over 7,000m of elevation and some quite brutal looking terrain. Sadly none of us were surprised when this one was also cancelled and we immediately deferred to 2022. I did partake in the virtual event (with just 2 other participants on the 100km virtual!!) they held for this as I had a back up race planned – After signing up to the NDW100 I then went and booked this event on the same day. I never cancelled my place on the NDW100 and it did happen. So I submitted the run for the virtual event and claimed my “Corona Edition” tee shirt as a bonus.

Wild Boar (Persenk) Ultra – This race in Bulgaria was another one I never wanted to do. I’d never even heard of it. After failing to get their place in the CCC ballot, Jon and Ged hatched a plan and came across this little known race in the mountains of Bulgaria. Before I knew it I too was tagging along. And then I wasn’t. After not wanting to do it, now I REALLY want to do it. The race did go ahead towards the end of August, however the travel restrictions meant that, one by one, everyone else planning to go had to pull out. I came so close to going by myself. The flights and accommodation were booked, the quarantine was arranged, the mandatory bear bell was purchased, work even signed me off to work remotely from Bulgaria. Ultimately it came down to the fact it wouldn’t quite be the same without everyone else and it wouldn’t have been the right thing to do – suddenly jump on a plan and travel during a pandemic. I bailed. Other commitments mean this isn’t going to happen in 2021, but who knows for 2022….

Chicago Marathon – We knew fairly early on that this one also wouldn’t happen. Another World Major Marathon, there was no way that an event of this scale would take place in October. A blessing at first as I’d booked two massive ultras and a marathon in America in the same month. But then the whole month was cancelled…. Chicago Marathon have been great with their refund policies and I have the option to run the race in either 2021, 2022 or 2023. I won’t be doing it in 2021 due to other deferrals and the crossed fingers for Boston! 2022 we will see…

Cappadocia Ultra Trail – This has been on the wish list for a few years. I’ve heard so many fantastic things about the Urgup region and the Cappadocia Trail. Sadly it wasn’t meant to be and I’m really hoping it does get to go ahead in 2021. The benefit of the deferral has been that there is now an even bigger group of us booked to go this year!

13 Valleys Ultra – This was a new race planned for 2020. Through some contacts I’d managed to get a place at the event and I was very excited to go run around the Lake District (I’ve still never been). Unfortunately, being a new event, the organisers just didn’t have the option to plan and prepare everything needed during a lockdown to be able to execute the event the way they wished. I’m hoping they are able to bring the event to life in the years to come…

Wendover Woods 50 – The first of the substitutes… With so many cancellations, I was frantically trying to replace ‘lost events’ in my calendar. After the success of the Centurion Running NDW100 I signed up and got a place on their Wendover woods 50km. 3 Loops of Wendover Woods, at night…. Nothing about this race appeals to me. One loop of Wendover Woods is painful enough. I’ve run two at night before and it hurt, a lot. Alas, I’m deferred to 2022 (due to a date clash in 2021) and now have and extra 18 months of pre-suffering to endure.

Camino Lea Valley – A small and new ultra from the DazNBone duo that is Camino Ultra. Another substitute for all the other cancellations. Sadly this too was deferred to November and then fully cancelled. Roll on summer 2021 where I will conquer it.

Cheviot Goat – I didn’t want to do this one either. There is a theme here and that theme is “Jon”. Jon talked me into this one also. This one is different though. I don’t want to do it because I know it is going to be tough. Winter in the Cheviots will make it hard. 55 miles in winter in the Cheviots will make it tougher. A single Aid station in 55 miles in winter in the Cheviots will make it very tough. No course markings, a single aid station in 55 miles in winter in the cheviots makes me not want to do it. I’m going to do it in Winter 2021….

Hurtwood Double – I’ve done the Hurtwood 50km in 2019. I’ve run the route many times too. I had no desire to go and do it again. Then after cancelling their 2020 edition and moving it to January, I signed up because they offered a choice to do it twice over two days and claim the Hurtwood Double. Good luck unravelling my logic there. I took the refund when the event was subsequently postponed again and the date moved to one which I already had a race booked in for. I’ll stick with the 2019 medal on this one.

St Peters Way – This was one I talked Nick into. I’ve not run much up in Norfolk and this 40-odd mile point-to-point ultra sounded like a good way to (1) see some of the area (2) get Nick running further than 50km in preparation for his 50 miler later in 2021. The New Year lockdown meant this plan has been shafted into 2022.

North Downs Ridge – I’ve no idea why I signed up to this. I’ve seen enough of the North Downs Way in the last year. I don’t particularly like this section (from a running event perspective). But I did sign up because I’m needy and have issues. I’m now doing it in a few weeks, May 2021….

Your Community Needs You

Volunteering at the Centurion Running NDW100 in 2019

Let’s talk about volunteering…. I’ve done a fair bit of volunteering at running events in the past few years. It is something I enjoy and really do like giving back and supporting events, particularly those that I have run in or would like to participate in. Race volunteering can be quite a complex thing. Where do you start? How do you get involved, what will I be expected to do, need to bring etc. So I thought I’d share my thoughts and experiences on volunteering at running events.

Why Should I Volunteer?

Race volunteering, Let’s be honest up front, it isn’t a selfless act. There are many, many benefits in it for the individual. Most race organisers offer an incentive in some form to encourage volunteers. It may be a free tee shirt, a free race entry for the following year, vouchers or kit from sponsoring partners as well as many other freebies in the form of food and sponsored gifts. Some of the larger, international races also provide accommodation for volunteers, particularly for stage races where volunteers work multiple consecutive days. Besides these obvious tangible benefits, there are also the less obvious benefits like networking. You get to make connections with key people in the industry and form friendships with other runners and volunteers you’ll frequently meet at events. These can lead to all sorts of future opportunities, but, more importantly, friendships. Also, it is fun and a nice thing to do.

That being said, whilst we may offer our time to volunteer because we want to take advantage and for example, participate in the event the following year, these incentives might not always outweigh the commitment. A race entry for example might be anywhere from £50 to £200 quid for a UK trail ultra. That’s a small price to pay to enter an event and normally exceptional value for money. Volunteering isn’t always free. Typically you’d give up a whole day, maybe 8 hours or more of your time to support (to gain a spot in an event through volunteering, there will usually be a minimum commitment of volunteer hours required). You’ll spend possibly hours travelling to and from the event and that costs too. So if you really want to do a race, volunteering isn’t normally the most cost effective way to do it. Although, for popular events with limited places, a guaranteed entry for volunteers could be a significantly worthwhile investment of your time rather than playing with the race lottery.

Most importantly though, race directors and organisers need volunteers. We want so much for these events to be available to us, and they don’t happen without a huge amount of work behind the scenes to make them a reality. Race Directors often rely on small armies of volunteers to support them and make sure the events run as smoothly as they do. If you want events to continue to happen, to continue to be affordable and viable to run, give back and help out where you can.

After running the SVP100 3 times, in 2020 I finally earned the ‘yellow’ Volunteer tee.

How Do I get involved?

Simple, contact the race organiser. Most race organisers will have a specific section on their website or even a dedicated email address to contact if you would like to help out. Drop them a message or get in touch with them via their social media pages or in person if you’re at the event. Most organisers are desperate for help and will welcome your offer with open arms. Be patient though, there is a lot going on when organising events so it may take them a while to respond and take you up on your offer or they may direct you to someone else to speak to. Don’t be put off if that is the case. Many events have community groups and Facebook pages where you can also get involved and make contact with the organisers too.

I’d highly recommend getting in touch with Maverick Race, Centurion Running and the SVP100Ultra as great events to volunteer and support at…

What about pre event day?

Leading up to an event you can expect to be contacted by someone from the organisation to give you some instructions. They’ll ask for your key contact details and any information to help them support you (e.g. dietary requirements if they are providing food for the day) and details that could help them arrange all the volunteers. For instance if you can drive, if there are preferred roles you’d like to support with, if you are first aid trained or able to provide additional support during the day. Besides all that though, you need to be prepared yourself and think about how you will be ready to support on the day. Things to think about are:

  • Figure out where you need to be and when – Do you know what is expected of you and when?
  • How are you going to get to the event – This is likely to mean getting to the race at least an hour before the race registration begins and before runners start arriving.
  • What do you need to take with you – Have you the right clothes for the day, do you have water and food supplies to see you through?
  • Make sure you know who to ask for when you arrive. Don’t be offended when it’s assumed you are an eager runner who has turned up early!

What might I end up doing?

Types of roles and responsibilities you can expect to get involved with could include any or all of the following, depending on the scale of the event. Obviously this isn’t a comprehensive list of roles, but if you are a first time volunteer you’ll probably end up doing something like this, so don’t expect to be managing and coordinating other volunteers, acting as a deputy race director or MC-ing and event!

  • Set up and support at an event village – Race villages don’t set themselves up. Tents and marquees need constructing. Fences, flags and tape need laying out. Tables and layouts need arranging. Kits, race numbers, medals and all sorts of stuff need setting out. At one event I volunteered at we even had to construct the winners trophies and ensure all the engraving was placed on the correct trophies!
  • Course Marking – Most events will have signs and/or tape to help direct runners and keep them on the correct route. You may be able to get involved with walking/running the route and either setting out the course markings or checking they are still all in tact!
  • Parking – someone needs to coordinate the runners when they arrive at an event by car. Humans persistently demonstrate that we can’t be relied upon to park responsibly!
  • Registration – This is a hugely varied role from welcoming runners, to checking people are who they say they are, that they have paid to run the event, that they have their bib numbers and any other race items required (like pins, trackers). It could be that you are providing critical safety instructions, providing runners with their race packs like t-shirts or other gifts. In some events you might also be tasked with checking people have the required and mandatory kit with them.
  • Directing runners and supporters (e.g. where to go, what to do) – Races are exciting right? We all turn up with butterflies in our stomach, see people we know and ultimately don’t focus on what we need to do or where we need to go. How many times at an event have you asked where the toilets are, where the drop bag is or which way to the start line even? You might be that person providing the critical directions needed!
  • Drop bag stands – we’ve all experienced the carnage of a badly managed drop bag zone. It isn’t an easy task to take in bags from runners, ensure they are correctly labelled, stored in the right place and sent to the right checkpoint (if it is for a mid-race drop bag!). This can be incredibly stressful but vital to the efficient flow of runners at an event. We’ve all seen the crowds of runners pushing towards drop bag zones throwing bags over people queuing. You want to avoid it ending up that way!
  • Checkpoints and aid stations – most races will have, at minimum, a water stop. Ensuring these are set up before the first runner and adequately stocked so all runners, right through so that not only the last runner but also the course sweepers are able to get water and fuel they need to carry on. 
  • Shopping. Speaking of checkpoints and aid stations. Where do you think all the food and drink comes from? Someone, somewhere, will have to go shopping and buy it all! If you are tasked with this you will most likely be given a shopping list with the types of things and quantity to buy. You also won’t be expected to pay for it out of your own pocket and will be told how to reclaim the expenses, so don’t worry if you do end up being sent to Tesco to buy 200lts of coke, 50 oranges and all the jaffa cakes you can find!
  • Marshal points directing runners – Ever got lost on a race because you took a wrong turn? Yep, me too. Most events will put marshals at key points to ensure runners don’t get lost. Be the human signpost. Keep everyone accounted for! Being a Marshal may even mean manually accounting for runners and ensuring no one is missing. You’ll have to be alert!
  • Marshalling road crossings – Likewise, you might end up standing at a road crossing. Most of the time you won’t be expected to stop traffic (on quieter country roads I do tend to do this if I have enough visibility of the road, the runners approaching the crossing and feel it is safe to do so) but you will be expected to stop the runners. When runners are in the ‘zone’ we do tend to be quite ignorant of what is going on around us. We didn’t see the warning signs put out 100m from the crossing warning us of the danger ahead, we were too busy listening to Tina Turner pumping out “Walking on broken glass” to hear the HGV roaring up the road. Sometimes even we are just too damn exhausted and spaced out to realise the impending danger. Marshalling a road crossing is all about being the eyes and ears for the runners and ensuring that they don’t unknowingly (or sometimes intentionally) dash out onto a busy road! 
  • Event finish line – medals, directing etc. This is like the registration in reverse. You might still be ensuring every runner gets their allotted items (medals, appropriate sized t-shirts etc), directing them away from the finish line, getting their photos, drinks and generally telling them where to go. You may also need to deal with that runner who has pushed themselves a little too hard or has taken an unexpected turn for the worse. You need to be on the ball at the finish line to spot those signs of a runner in need of a helping hand!
  • Drop bag collection – remember the prophesied carnage from earlier in the day…. Hopefully you’ll help to avoid that. At the same time though, recognise that this can be a time consuming role. Ever walked into a hall to find one bag amongst a few hundred? Even when it is meticulously laid out, it might be that one bag that is put in the wrong place. That one bag that has the name/number tag no longer attached. Ever seen a number ‘1’ that looks like a number ‘7’? Yep that can lead to confusion too! Or what about when you can’t find the bag and you ask a runner to describe it and they tell you it is ‘Green’ only it turns out the zip is the green bit and the rest of it is blue. Ever seen how many North Face Basecamp duffle bags are found at a trail race? Dozens of them, guaranteed, especially the yellow ones! It can take time to find the right bag, even under ideal circumstances. You also need to ensure you are giving the right bag to the right person. 
  • Course Sweeping – Safety of runners is paramount and the role of a sweeper is to follow (not closely!) the last runners and ensure the trails are swept of all event markings, litter and that all runners are accounted for and not left out on the route! This is a fantastic way to run some or all of an event whilst volunteering!
  • Pack up and closure of events – When you think it’s all finished, you remember the boxes you took out of the van, or the marquee you fought to construct in the wind… yep, they need to be put away. The rubbish needs to be picked up. It doesn’t finish until it looks like the event  never happened in the first place!

I’ve done most of these roles myself through volunteering. Some memorable times include being on Water and and Tailwind (hydration drink) duty at a checkpoint in the middle of the Centurion Running NDW100, to running up and down stairs to collect drop bags for runners at the SVP100 finish line, to standing alone in the woods in the pouring rain marshalling road crossings and course sweeping and collection for Maverick Races to even spending 8 hours dancing inside a giant penguin costume at the London Winter Run. The role of a volunteer is a varied one.

The 2018 Winter Run. I was kept warm as a dancing penguin. I fucking hate dancing!

What to expect

  • Larger events, like a mass participation road event, you’ll tend to rock up at a set time, meet a team leader, be given instructions and get on with it, leaving at a set time
  • At a smaller event, you may meet the entire team of volunteers and be involved in a little of everything
  • Be prepared to go the extra distance. You can’t expect the race directors and team to pander to you and your needs. It may be that you need to figure out a way to get to your volunteer spot in the middle of nowhere. Local transport, run, walk if you can. Don’t be put off if you can’t get a lift to where you need to get to!
  • Hanging around alone. You have a responsibility to ensure the safety of runners. That might mean you are waiting for hours before you first see a runner and are on point for a long time after the last runner goes past. Be prepared for loneliness, but stay alert.
  • Be prepared to travel – races won’t be on your doorstep. It is your responsibility to manage your time and ensure you are where you need to be when you should be!
  • Be patient. No doubt you’ll have plenty of questions before volunteering and even after (when will I get my free stuff?!), but be patient. The race directors will be fielding endless amounts of questions from participants, other volunteers, locals and the community surrounding the event as well as authorities giving the race the permit to proceed. You won’t be forgotten about, be patient whilst the questions are prioritised and addressed.
  • Most races you’ll volunteer at will be experienced. They’ll have plans and processes in place for coordinating and managing the volunteers. You’ll be told what to do and given what you need in good time. Don’t panic if you’ve not been given detailed instructions weeks before the race!

What to do

  • Get involved. Offer help, ask what you can do. It might just be unloading boxes from a van, but it needs doing. Take the initiative and don’t just stand about like a lemon waiting to be instructed.
  • Do it with passion, do it with interest. Standing around at the side of the road or in the middle of a wet field might sound dull but you can make it interesting. Dance, sing, clap and cheer. Be stupid. Make people laugh, bring some enjoyment to what you are doing and it will rub off on others.
  • Entertain and support. As a runner you’ll know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a big smile and someone encouraging you on. This is your opportunity to give back
  • Be prepared. It can be long and tiring volunteering. Take food, take plenty of water, take warm and appropriate clothing. 
  • Gain some knowledge about the event. Passers by will want to talk to you and find out what you are doing. Make sure you know how to give them information and share the word about the event. 
  • Be prepared to support runners. We always want to know where we are, how far left to go, where is the water etc. Make sure you have the key information to hand. No one enjoys it when they are told there is ‘only 1 mile to go’ but that 1 mile turns out to be 3 miles.
  • Explore your surroundings, this I think is particularly more relevant for trail events. Go past your checkpoint, explore just before it. Know where runners are coming from and where they are going and what hazards they can expect to encounter. You can help them prepare then.
  • Make sure you know who to contact in an emergency. This could be in the case of an injury to a runner, an angry local who has a complaint or your own personal situation should it arise. 
  • Be yourself, bring your character
Getting my thirst on with Centurion Running & Tailwind

Some things to think about

  • Understand the commitment you are making. That free tee shirt sounds great, but do you really want to help and are you committed? I’ve already mentioned the stresses leading up to organising a race. The last thing organisers need is a volunteer pulling out last minute because they’ve changed their mind. Obviously sometimes life means you have to pull out, but don’t pull out because you’ve changed your mind or underestimated the responsibility you’ve volunteered for.
  • Be prepared. Events are prepared to deal with the inevitable injuries to a runner, but they are not prepared for the avoidable situation where a volunteer has caught pneumonia because they didn’t bring a jacket, or they didn’t bring water and are dehydrated etc.
  • Make sure you can get there on time and can get home afterwards. It isn’t a race director’s responsibility to coordinate you or help you when you realise you missed the last train home because you weren’t prepared.
  • Be helpful. Don’t be rude, don’t try and dominate or change the processes in place. If you have feedback, save it and provide it directly to the event organiser, maybe after the event, as a suggestion for future consideration. You are there to help runners, be patient with them. It is inevitable they will ask questions you’ve heard a 100 times already that day, or be frustrated that the course was 10 meters longer than they thought. Remember you are representing the event and the organisers. Be helpful where you can.
  • Be thankful. Build those relationships for next time you volunteer or participate in the event.

SO…

Whatever your reason, volunteering is incredibly fulfilling. Don’t be put off, don’t feel guilty that you are doing it for the wrong reasons such as the personal incentives. Don’t be afraid of being uncomfortable. Races rely on the support and volunteers to make them happen. Behind every race is an army of people getting involved. Many of these you will never see on race day. I’ve volunteered because I want that race entry (thanks Centurion Running!) or a particular tee shirt (yep, I wanted the yellow SVP100 tee in my collection!) or a voucher to buy some trainers (Cheers Maverick Race!) I could afford to just buy anyway. But, despite all this, for each event I’ve volunteered at, I’ve gained knowledge, experience, thanks and memories that go far beyond just running. Be part of the community you love so much, get involved!

Marshalling road crossings with the Maverick Race hi-vis

Maverick X Series Jurassic Coast

Another weekend, another adventure with Maverick Race, this time down on the South West coast in Dorset. I was in two minds about this one. I wanted to do it, I was greedy for the trails and another Ultra, but I was hesitant as I have a few more events in October, November and December and am still feeling the aches from the rest of the year’s adventures. There was only going to be one winner in this decision and I signed-up. Along with some of the usual bunch of running mates we headed down to Wareham on the Friday evening for another weekend away…

At the beginning of the event I dashed to the Adidas Terrex stand to try on some trainers. I recently bought some of the Two Ultra Parley trainers in my usual size and they were huge. A nice comfortable fit around the feet, but long, very long. There was a huge amount of space at the end of my toes. The guys at the stand were incredibly helpful and I came away with more confidence in their sizing as well as a new headband. Result, happy days.

Whilst lining up and queuing to start, Nick made a new friend. A beautiful and very calm husky with piercing eyes. We’d see his new mate again later on along the run. As we waited for Fiona to get through the registration queue we slowly made our way closer and eventually started near the back of the field of runners. There were a lot of people doing the ultra this time, or at least it felt like there were far more than what was in the Peak District a few weeks earlier.

We started off in pairs and after a short section in the forest we reformed into a small group of six – me, Nick, Maria, Jules, Charlotte and Fiona. For the rest of the morning we’d all run together chatting and joking away at every opportunity. We left the forest into a steady downhill along a road, turning left at a junction where there was a sheep-shaped sign for a farm. Shortly after this a runner ran passed in a recognisable Wild TR t-shirt and vanished into the distance. A cyclist coming the opposite way then told us to watch for wet feet. We were confused as it was a beautiful morning but soon realised what he meant when we saw the road ahead was all flooded. The group all started tiptoeing through the deep flood as I filmed and then ran straight through, splashing them and giggling like a kid. We all hoped the wet feet wouldn’t trouble us in 50km time and I immediately regretted the decision of wearing slightly thicker socks for this run!

After the puddle and some fields, we began a series of small and gentle climbs through the wide open space, surrounded by panoramic views with the morning sun shining down on us. It was far hotter than I expected as we climbed in the calm of the morning. We caught up with some of the dogs including Nick’s new buddy and carried onwards. At each opportunity I said a prolonged thank you to all the volunteers and marshals, it brought a smile to all our faces and I soon started to memorise the speech as I repeated it to each and every marshal we encountered.

The first outpost was then in our sights at the start of one of the more prominent climbs on the course. A group of people from a Tri-club were out supporting a team mate who was near us and we absorbed all their support as if it was intended for us. I stopped for water at the outpost as the others carried on and I caught them up towards the top of the climb as we approached a field full of cows on the top of the climb. The cows were standing their ground in the middle of the path and winning the battle against the runners who’d all deviate around them. 1-0 to the cows. From here we descended and I whizzed passed the others and momentarily took us the wrong way. Thankfully only by a few meters!

After crossing a busy road we climbed once more before reaching the second outpost where Ben was volunteering and keeping us going. A belly full of prawn cocktail crisps and we set back off for the next section of about 12km along the coast until the next outpost. We ran down through the village and started making our way towards the coastline.

As we hit the coast we started to walk the many short sharp climbs, running in between as we switched our gaze from the medieval ruins to the dramatic coastline and the calm sea with the sun glistening off the surface.  There was very little wind and it was becoming a beautiful day. After the initial set of steps to climb we had a treat of a very steep down hill that immediately looped back up in an equally steep stepped climb. The steps were frustratingly deep and at a slight slant which made it difficult to maintain any real momentum without falling. We joked with and were cheered on by the many walkers out enjoying the climb too.

After more single track coastal trails we could see in the distance the cliffs dropped away and further ahead the dots of runners tracking inland along a long twisting gravel track and further on again even more distant runners looping back to the coast along what looked like a very, very steep climb. It felt like a long time before we reached it ourselves and indeed it was steep, with lots of steps. Nick pulled out the garlic bread (left over from the previous night’s meal) and started chomping away as we climbed. Big lunges once more taking us up the deep steps eroded into the hillside path.

The route was very undulating for the next five miles or so with very steep climbs broken up with lots of single tracks along the cliff edge. Many walkers and hikers kindly stepped aside to let us pass as they cheered us on.

A short while later, with lots of runners ahead and also behind us, we ran down towards an open public space in a cove where there was a public toilet with a tap. We were all gasping and mostly out of water and took turns filling our bottles and wetting our heads. We knew it was only a matter of meters until the third outpost would be seen, but we needed the refreshment. Many runners joined in and queued behind us.

We continued on through the carpark and there it was, the outpost. Jake was there taking pictures as we arrived and Spenny cheered us in and immediately set to work filling our bottles including doubling up with the jugs and doing two runners at once. Top man. We weren’t as efficient though and hung around yapping. It was here, about 30km in, that we split as a group. We’d never set out to run the whole thing together and were sort of in pairs by now, so Charlotte and Maria headed off and a little while after Nick and I followed as Fiona and Jules finished up at the outpost.

King of the Jugs

With a banana in his shorts (whey hey!) Nick ran on and I followed. After running through some fields and army land we began to climb the second largest climb of the day. This was another long, wide and twisty path, a welcome break from the sharp steps of the previous climbs.

Up top the white cliffs in the distance presented a stunning view as we ran down towards them. I recognised the next climb from the section of the route from the Endurance Life Coastal Trail Series ultra I did in 2018 (in far far worse conditions, this was a gloriously crisp and sunny autumn day compared to the overcast stormy day back in 2018). As we ran down to the cove of Pondfeld we could see the girls ahead of us on the final climb. We set up after them with Nick stopping to talk to two gentlemen hiking their way down. I carried on. The climb was the steepest and covered maybe just shy of 200m in total. The ground here was full of divots and make shift steps eroded into the hillside. Up top we looped back along the open hill. I waited and waved Nick over as he rounded the top. 

Always Smiling

We ran on and Jake appeared once more on the trail and  waved us over to get some epic photos along the top of the hill. We followed the straight paths now for maybe 5 miles or so with a slight incline over the distance that helped break the run up with a few short walks. We stopped to take a picture of the Grange Arch and also stopped when we saw Jay directing runners across a road with the tunes blasting out. After the road section we stopped yet again at the final outpost where a generous runner gave Nick some of her Tailwind when he couldn’t locate his own in his pack.

We continued on the straight trails, running through fields and wide open spaces with more photo opportunities along the way. With maybe 6 miles to go, we could, for the first time sense the end of the run and were looking forward to the finish line delights. A nice gentle run down through the fields was a welcome break for the feet and quads compared to the rest of the steep descents and quad busters faced before it.

As we ran on Nick became conscious of time and that, if we kept going we’d sneak in sub 7 hours. We had no times in mind for the run, but now Nick had set his target and had his sights set on a strong finish. I’ve been there myself before. Once a time gets in your mind, you begin to focus, it is hard to let it go. I was confident he’d do it, truth is though I didn’t have the same desire burning in my heart. He started to pull away from me. As we ran the final big descent down to Corfe Castle, he opened quite a gap on me. He waited at the bottom as I filmed and then ran on, entering the forests and woodlands of the last few km where we’d run through various plantations. We estimated about 5km left to go. From here just undulating trails left to cover….

Almost immediately I lost Nick again. He was running strong. I couldn’t keep up. With the twisting forest tracks I couldn’t see him ahead of me. I once caught a glimpse of him climbing a stye at the far end of a field and disappearing into the woodlands. I was sort of loving the trails as they once more brought a huge variation to the last several hours of coastal tracks and hillside paths. Upahead was a weird wooden church type structure (like a tree house almost) which I diverted and ran through, I think to the confusion of the runner behind me. As I climbed a stye into a field I once more sore Nick up ahead and tried to speed up after him.

I’d been passing loads of runners and new Nick was playing ‘Pac-Man’ hunting them down and chomping them off. I did catch up with him eventually, but more due to a bottle neck of runners on a series of very narrow wooden plank paths as we crossed some flooded riverside areas. Together again I told him to go for it. Keep going. I’d keep up if I could.

Maybe a mile to go. Ten mins under the 7 hour barrier. We were confident. We pushed on. Rounding a few small roads into a wide gravel track we saw Maria and Charlotte ahead. As we reached them Nick excitedly exclaimed we were going for sub 7. He encouraged them too and we kept running.

Shortly after our excitement and belief started to fade away. We hit 33 miles and had 6:57 showing on the watch. Something wasn’t right. It didn’t feel like we were minutes away from finishing. Up Ahead loads of runners walking a long winding sandy path. We powered on painfully and tried to maintain focus. I tried to convince Nick to walk but he was having none of it. It felt never ending. The minutes ticked by, 7 hours passed. Undefeated we knew we’d covered the distance in the time. This was just a little extra and GPS differences. We kept going. 

Nick’s determination was incredible. I’ve never run like this, he was getting stronger and faster the further he ran. Unlike in the Peaks a few weeks earlier, there was no bonking, no fading, no moaning. He was buzzing and running strong in what was only his third ultra.

We came off the sandy tracks and arrived at the cross roads where we saw the sheep sign 7 hours early. Fucking hell, this was not near the finish! There was a long road and a short forest section still to cover. We ran on, powering up the hill which I once more tried. unsuccessfully, to convince Nick to walk. We passed many more runners along this section who we’d seen hours earlier including a man and his young son running the marathon. We praised them and continued, busting into the forest and finally hearing the feint cheers at the finish line.

We then ran into the field and crossed the line with cheers from those still hanging around and the one and only PC fresh off his 9th place finish! Hero. As we grabbed a beer and coffee, Charlotte and Maria arrived too. We grabbed our bags from the car, changed, said goodbye to Charlotte who began the long drive home. With warm clothes on, we headed to the finish line just in time to cheer Fiona and Jules over the line. Despite separating with 20km to go, we all finished really close to each other. 

Finishers

I finished off the evening by meeting up with a few of the others who I shared two amazing weeks in Borneo with earlier in the year. They’d run the 20km course and were waiting in the pub. Bliss. A perfect end to another amazing weekend.

Less than a year ago Nick ran his first ultra, just a few months after his first marathon. We ran the Hurtwood 50 together and I described the transformation he was going through and the different versions of him as a runner I’d seen that year. Two of those were: 

  • Nick 6.0 – Nick the running addict – He wants it all. He’s signing up to all sorts. He’s pushing, he’s challenging, the change is going exponential
  • Nick 7.0 – Ultra Nick – … He’s running all the time.

10 months on and I think this couldn’t be more true. The change was and still is exponential. He is seeking out challenges to push himself and test his limits. His aims and desires are radical compared to 18 months ago. He is that one friend constantly coaxing me and others into long runs, into events and races. He is the yes man who is always up for the adventure and challenge. With 3 Ultras in the last year he really is Ultra Nick now. He’s running all the time….

Maverick X Series Peak District

This was one of those events that wasn’t on my radar at the start of 2020. After The Maverick X Series Snowdon was cancelled, I changed my entry to the X Series Peaks event instead. The Maverick Race team have been incredibly accommodating throughout 2020 with all the cancellations and deferrals. I was excited by the change, you see, I’d never been to the Peak District before. I’m not sure how that was the case seeing as I like to go and explore with running, the Peak District is a trail runners paradise! Now though I would finally get that chance thanks to Maverick Race!

There were a lot of familiar faces heading from London to the Peak District and unfortunately, due to changes to the Government restrictions the week of the race, we ended up forming smaller groups to be compliant. I’d be heading north with Nick, Ale and Maria. Nick even added me to the car insurance for the weekend as it was a long journey and it would be the longest event he’d raced since he started running – his legs may not have been up to the full drive back to London!

We spent the night before the race over indulging in some fantastic food at a nearby restaurant Jon had kindly booked for us. I sure did over indulge that night and struggled to get to sleep as a result. Thankfully come the morning though I was ready for more food and Nick and I managed to get the hotel to make a bacon/sausage sandwich we could take on our run. Ale and Maria were running the Marathon distance so we’d meet up with them again after the race as Nick and I had another 13km or so to run and so started earlier. 

Ready to run

We walked over to the event village, registered with ease (as is typical at a Maverick Race) before seeing all the familiar faces we knew – Alan, Gif, Claire, Yvette, Ben, Jon, Elisa, Lou, Sophie and Daisy, as well as all the recognisable faces volunteering and working the event. Chatting away, we all started moving into the funnel of runners being let off at 10 second intervals. Nick and I lingered fairly near the back chatting away to Daisy, Sophie and Gif. Before long it was our turn and we stepped forward together as the Geezers of Maverick Race rang the bell and sent us off on our adventure. Leaving the field Jake snapped our pictures and we exited onto the trails as we slowly began the first of many many climbs we’d experience.

Jake capturing the emotion of the Maverick Event

The initial route saw us run alongside a hill on a cambered, single track path before joining some wider gravel trails. We lost Gif here and carried on chatting with Sophie about the day ahead. We walked the hills enjoying the company as many other runners began running past us. As always, what goes up must come down and we were soon running through some open hillside paths heading to the forest in the distance. After a brief spell of running we were reunited with Daisy and began catching up on the many months since we last ran together at the end of 2019! Plodding along with enjoyment it wasn’t long before the first marathon runner whizzed past with “Calves like bollocks” as Nick excitedly exclaimed.

It was about 4 miles in now and I was getting desperate for a toilet, which was bad timing as  we approached the delight of the park surrounding Chatworth house. Sadly far, far too public to escape and relieve myself! The view of the house was spectacular in the morning sunshine. We ran through the grounds and alongside a river before exiting through a medieval kissing gate that rotated.

Chatworth House

After leaving Chatworth house the trails began to climb again, initially up a steep road through a village and then through the dense forests of Froggat Woods before summiting near the Froggat Stone Circle. Up top there were loads of cows chilling out on the paths not one bit bothered by the runners huffing and puffing up the climb. After running the undulating hill with uninterrupted views of the surrounding area, we began our next descent which was fairly short but one of the more technical parts of the course with lots of wet, slippery rocks to navigate.

We emerged to the first aid station where we proceeded to refuel. Prawn Cocktail crisps catching my eye and getting the taste buds flowing. As we walked on, stuffing our faces, some eager runner started shouting “out of the way” as he barged through us. We were all thinking the same thing – “who is this Jerk?!” before realising it was Ale with his GoPro. Classic.  He’d made maybe 20-30 mins on us after his later start, however we managed maybe just 50m together before we hit the course split where we diverted for the longer route. No sooner had we said hello then we were saying our goodbyes.

The split took us on the next climb through Bolehill Wood, just as Nick started eating his breakfast sandwich. It was steep, occasionally the hands were needed for some extra support. Not a good time to eat, and neither was the next section as we ran through some stunning white tree forests. Nick cursed at us loudly as we made him run. The route climbed and we briefly sumitted as we circled around Over Owler Tor and the vast open space of the peaks greeted us with incredible panoramic views before we ran off through some open heather-dense trails and a short decline to a road crossing.

Open hillside tracks

From here we looped around the highpoint of Higger Tor and began the next long climb to the highest point on the race (a gradual climb over about 2 miles of distance). We walked and talked, enjoying everything the Peaks were giving us. We knew up top the delights of the next checkpoint would soon welcome us with another well deserved break. We hiked steadily, passing a few runners along the way including two ladies in hi-vis orange t-shirts. I remembered earlier thinking they were marshalls, but we never quite reached them. It made sense now. We also passed a couple and the girl was visibly struggling a little. They said they were ok and continued behind us as we navigated the busy trails with many walkers and hikers.

As we reached the short flat break before the last bit of climbing to the summit we saw the aid station in a tourist car park. Spenny was out there (clearly very cold in the blustering wind) supporting the runners and we spent our time chatting away as I devoured more Prawn cocktail crisps and stocked up on Haribo. Spenny sent us on our way and told us to look out for Jake taking more pictures up top. We were too slow though, we met him way before we even began the final short climb. We stopped once more to chat and as we did Sophie came jogging passed us and insisted she was running for the photo. We clapped and cheered her as Jake worked the lens.

After saying goodbye to Jake we took another moment to stop and to take out some layers and gloves. A few mins chatting at each stop, plus the exposed trails and high winds meant we were suddenly feeling the chill. We knew it would be worse further on so took the chance to address it early on. Good call! Up top was very chilly! The winds were strong and we hit them head on. Loads of walkers were enjoying the views here and we joined them for some photo opportunities before trudging on and running as much as we could across the rocky trails.

Nick along the summit line

The trails were undulating and we constantly switched between a slow run and walking. With all our stopping on the way to the peak, we’d been passed by all the runners we caught on the long walk. I could see the two “Hi-vis ladies” in the distance. We ran on and saw the Maverick signs direct us sharply left where we’d begin our descent. I hadn’t seen the ladies turn off. I was certain they carried on straight and were now lost to sight of the lumpy terrain. A climber heard us discussing it and confirmed he saw them run on straight. I told Daisy and Nick to continue and I’d go after the runners and then catch up. I sprinted on straight. It wasn’t long before I could see them and soon after they could hear me shouting after them. They figured out my waving gestures and headed back towards me. I turned around and started back after Nick and Daisy, bounding down the descent with a smile on my face, but now hot. Very very hot! The faster running meant I was suddenly overheating and had to start stripping the layers away again when I caught them. About half way through the descent we reached a road and stopped once more as Nick then needed to take his jacket off. He didn’t look great and vocalised it well. He was “bonking”. 18 miles in and his legs were hurting and he needed a moment. He drank and ate and re-composed himself. No shame in admitting when something is tough. When running ultras you need to recognise these moments. Understand when they are happening and learn not to ignore them. Taking the time to address and correct them is key to continuing the race successfully. He managed it very well – he just needed a moment to refocus and agreed to continue the descent and we’d stop again at the bottom. We were moving once more and completed the descent through fields and single track paths as we headed towards the village of Hathersage. Marshals directed us through the streets and we found a quiet road to take the rest we promised.

Nick sorted himself out, finding what he needed from his pack and taking a painkiller to ease the cries from his knees. As we started out again we were joined by Gif. We carried on together for about half a km before we stopped again as we found Paul King from the Maveick Trail Division team out on the course checking runners were ok and the trail markings were still in place (There were some issues with course signs being removed the night before the event!). I was loving all the stops to chat to the volunteers and Maverick Crew. It is such a friendly company and set of events.

After leaving Paul we ran about 4 miles of fairly flat trails through more fields, alongside the river, down through allotment paths and country parks surrounded by more towering trees. We took turns to spur each other on, continuing to chat as we had non-stop all day. I could hear Nick talking away and I led on, knowing he was distracted from his aches and pains. We caught up and lost Gif once again on this section as we left Froggat. We passed another field with some young cows happily lazing on the trail path. We hoped Gif would navigate them ok – there were loads of them and they didn’t look like they would be moving anytime soon!

We had two more short but steep climbs to overcome near Stoney Middelton before we were running in the forest once more. It was tough here. We’d covered more than a marathon and the path was slightly inclined and very straight. We kept moving. Head down. Nick leading the way, high off the kick of his painkillers. We kept repeating to each other “keep going”, passing walkers as we persisted to get through this long straight, torturous trail without stopping. Eventually we did, emerging into more fields before beginning our climb up the long wide gravel path. It was another slow and ongoing hike as we walked past the quarry. We knew this was the last climb though and just a few miles would be left once we reached the top. But it felt like forever.

Eventually it came to an end and we were once more heading down, for the last time. After crossing a recently ploughed field, we joined the Monsal Trail. A walking and cycling path near Bakewell. We had about 3 km to go. No problem. Only the 3km felt like double that. It was flat, more gravel, straight and full of families and young children cycling. It was dull after all the beauty and excitement of the last 7 hours. Nick was storming ahead, getting it done. Daisy and I followed on behind him. 

Corn fields towards the end

As we came off the trail and headed back into the Showground we knew it was done. One last run down the showground road to the finish line. Smiles all around, relieved to be off the Monsal Trail, relieved to be finishing the run, relieved to soon be heading home to warm up and eat more great food!

We hit the finish line stretch, I pulled my buff over my face and crossed the line. There were loads of our friends there cheering us in. We joined in with beers and medals as we too cheered in Gif who finished shortly after us. It was just our group and the Maveric Team remaining and for me this sums up the spirit of Maverick Race. What a community, supporting and cheering, helping out and creating an inclusive environment for all kinds of runners. Thanks again Maverick Race!