Running is life. You can read into and over analyse that as much as you want, you won’t get the intended meaning behind it. It was a phrase Nick and I screamed at each other several times during the later stages of the Chilterns Wonderland 50 mile race by Centurion Running. Every time it had us laughing and singing. Its a play on a phrase from a tv show and we’d follow it up with football chants of each other’s names. It is always the simple things that bring most joy. I interpret that to be its meaning in the show too, find joy in what you do. There was plenty of joy on this occasion. It was Nick’s first 50 miler and his longest run to date. We were happy for so many reasons. One thing was clear to me though, he has come a long way!
Transformation. Change. Progress. Development. Whatever word you want to assign to it. It was visible to me. Obviously visible. We judge ourselves constantly. We are hard on ourselves and our own worst critics. But others have that external perspective. As an outsider I can see how Nick has changed when it comes to running. I was there running alongside him when he started running again, for his first marathon, his first ultra and for many runs in between. I’ve seen, and laughed, as he suffered like we all do, hitting the wall, fuelling poorly, struggling up hills, sliding in mud and managing the post race wobbly legs. This time was different though…
After his first ultra, I wrote about ‘Ultra Nick’. I recalled the sadistic joy of watching him go through the pain of discovering himself, I laughed at the grunts and ‘fucks’ he uttered with each change of terrain and slight hill as the race went on and I related it to the different versions of yourself you create each time you push yourself that bit further. That day I said he was now ‘Ultra Nick’. Now he is something else, something more.
So what has changed now? Familiarity for a start. He now has experience. Each run is a learning curve. Each run tells us a little something more about ourselves. We gain a better understanding of how we feel. What are limitations are. What are strengths and weaknesses are. What to expect with each passing mile and each new step into the unknown. We may not feel it, but it shows. I can see Nick running with more freedom. Less fear of the unknown and with greater confidence it what he is capable of. A stronger ability and willingness to adapt as the run goes on. Whether that’s feeling better, recognising the signs the body (and mind) send out, accepting when to stop and rest and when to push on and endure. There’s certainly less encouragement from me and less need for me to share my experiences as he now has plenty of his own to work with.
Above all, he now he runs with freedom and with complete unadulterated joy. Running is life.
How did the day go…? When we arrived at Goring Village Hall for registration, the morning was very overcast with a low mist covering the town. We breezed through registration and were ready to go 10 mins into the rolling start window. The race began with a short trot down the Thames before we took the planned detour due to the path being closed. Nick was already cursing at the realisation he’d somehow recce’d the route in the reverse direct. I was happy, I knew I didn’t want to run along this section after running all day.
As we reached the first climb a friendly runner sped passed, powering up the hill as he wished us a good day. He looked like a competitor, a winner. Nick called it out. Later that day it was confirmed he did indeed win the race in a ridiculously quick time.
It wasn’t long before we reached the first aid station at Tokers Green. It was brilliant. Set up like a 1980s birthday party with cocktail style savoury snacks galore and Ribena. Excitedly I gulped back a few cups whilst tucking into my own bacon sandwich and half a pork pie. This would keep me going for a while and make my pack start to feel a little lighter – the pie was hefty.
As we set back out the mist was well and truly gone. The morning was heating up rapidly and the sun was shinning brightly. We soon found ourselves running into the Country Estate of Crowsley Park. It’s such a beautiful space (ignoring the massive BBC satellite dishes on the grounds) and the tranquillity was momentarily broken by an expletive-ridden squeal from Nick as he jarred his knee and fell to the ground like a sack of potatoes. The family with young kids in front didn’t look too impressed by his choice of words but thankfully he was ok after a few minutes of catching his breath. No lasting damage, just the shock of coming into contact with the ground sooner than the mind expected it.
Another quick stop at Bix where the second aid station saw Nick encounter many familiar faces who he’d met along the Woldingham marathon a few weeks earlier. From here the route took us through another glorious open space – Stonor Deer park. here we were happily chatting away to other runners including a guy from South Africa who told us stories of all his Comrades finishes. We realised how much our pace had increased as we talked to him so had to encourage him carry on and to let us drop back before we passed out trying to maintain it!
The day was now very hot, it didn’t feel like a mid September kind of day! Thankfully though my mind was distracted by the route. Since Bix I was in unchartered territory having never run this section of the Chilterns before. It was delightful and continued to be excellent with plenty of very runnable terrain. There were plenty of hills to break up the running and the route felt like it was a roller coaster – as soon as you were at the top of a climb you would then go straight back down. there was a pleasing symmetry to the terrain and elevation of the climbs and subsequent descents.
A tough climb up Ibstone to the windmill soon greeted us. It was probably the steepest in the route but thankfully short. The garden fire and smoke at the top made it difficult to capture our breathe though. Further on another short climb took us to the school and halfway point aid station.
We planned for a rest here. Nick found a throne and sat down to be treated like Royalty by the volunteers who pandered to his needs. Dimi, with her beaming smile greeted me and whilst we talked Phillip (a veteran of Centurion races) rocked up. After we rested for a little while we then carried on. Ready for the day. More of the same planned, chatting and joking from the moment we left.
After running through another 10km or so of fields and woodlands we arrived at the next aid station. Here everyone was fighting for the shade. It was very bright now and salt was visible on most runners. The coke had run dry and we stayed a little longer as a resupply was imminent. It worked out well as Nick needed fuel and I wanted the Coke. We stayed a little longer than planned but it was very much needed and would set us up for what was to come.
After leaving the aid station we ran with Melanie and Kirsty for a while as we all kept similar pace. I was pushing Nick now though. I was conscious that when he gets chatting there’s no stopping him. He loses focus slightly and gets too comfy. They all joked I ‘wouldn’t let him off the train’. It’s true, the whip was out. We pushed on.
Before long we were bounding down the long straight to Grim’s Ditch. I knew where we were now having run this section at night many years ago. The train was running free and we made a small bit of time over the many familiar faces we’d been seeing all throughout the day. As we entered the small aid station we knew it would soon be filled with all the other inners immediately behind us. We were in great spirits here and were singing Mr Sandman with the volunteers and laughing to ourselves as we left.
It wasn’t far to go now. The reality has set in with Nick that we were 100% finishing. The cut offs would not be a concern. We were an hour ahead of it with a 12 hour finish looking likely. As always though, the confidence of knowing the end was in sight started to play on Nick. The possible 12 hour finish was soon changed as he suggested 11.5hrs might be possible. Soon after he changed the goal again thinking 11hr could be achievable. It certainly was, but bloody hell I was looking forward to a relaxed finish not a frantic one.
And so we ran. We kept running. The last few km were mostly downhill. We kept going. Kept catching runners. Kept overtaking them. The train was now a runaway. We were still enjoying it. The sun starting to set on the fields. We were thankful that the increase in pace meant we wouldn’t be needing to get the head torches out as we ran through the last of the forests and soon reached Goring for the last few streets.
Into Goring village we ran. The cheer of the finish line now audible. Residents on the street clapping us in as we we to and around the village hall. The excitement and elation as we finished was a great feeling. We’d done it. He’d done it. Nick was a 50mile finisher now!
We immediately changed into the finishers tee so I looked less salty for the finish line photo. Stuart, as always, captured and immortalised the magical moment. What a day. What a run.
As a UK-based runner and self-proclaimed lover of mountains and the outdoors, the Lake District is often described as the place to be. I’d never been. That all changed and finally, after a few failed trips, I made it to the Lake District for the first time. Of course there was a race involved – what better way to spend a weekend and to see as much as possible than with a race. Enter the Grand Tour of Skiddaw.
It was August 2021 and I was a little blue. The cause is known to me. A combination of the elation of achieving and finishing the Val D’Aran by UTMB was always going to result in a downer as I awaited the next adventure, that coupled with an ongoing niggle to my Achilles which has left me running just once a week (yeah I know, that should probably be zero not once…) and then the cancellation of the next big adventure – the Stranda Fjord – after being unable to travel to Norway. So when I found out a few mates were heading up to the Lakes for a race on bank holiday weekend, I quickly signed up for the adventure too.
The Grand Tour of Skiddaw (GTSs) is a 45 mile loop taking in two of the Wainwright’s – High Pike and Skiddaw. The course profile looked mild on paper with a circa 2,000m of elevation over the 45 miles. It also looked fairly down hill and runnable from the final climb to Skiddaw around half way.
Unfortunately, Jules had to pull out of the race a few weeks before, but kindly drove us up and dropped Jon, Yvette and I off at Lime House School (and a grand school it was!) where we soon met Al and Livvy (who Jon was coaching for the race) at the start line. It was fairly low key with a little over 100 runners towing the line.
Gaynor, the Race Director from Pure Sport Events, gave us a pre-race briefing, dibbed us all in and shouted “go” through the microphone. The small crowd of runners started trudging off out of the school and on to the wonders of the Lake district.
The first section was relatively flat (by the race profile anyway!) as we meandered through lush green fields of farmland with freshly compressed hay bails, passed by the impressive building of Rose Castle and followed the river towards Caldbeck, where the first (and last) aid station would be.
The terrain was varied as we followed each other in single file along the narrow track paths. Yvette quickly started to disappear in the distance as Jon, Al and I chatted and trotted along. We’d formed a little pack with a group of others who caught us up and were happy not to pass by but to keep the pace we were doing.
Those 7 or so miles to Caldbeck whizzed by quickly as the cool morning started to warm up. The brief stop in Caldbeck saw me stash up with Jaffa cakes and crisps as we prepared for the first climb to High Pike. The climb was fairly forgiving. Wide switch backs breaking up the steepness of the hillside. Jon and I settled into a solid hike and powered up. By now the field of runners was starting to spread out.
Before long we passed the boothy near the summit and grabbed a quick photo at the Trig point. My first ever Wainwright! I won’t be trying to ‘bag’ all 214 of them! We were soon picking up the pace as we began to descend between Drygill Head and Great Lingy Hill. Way off in the distance, we caught a feint glimpse of Yvette with her bright yellow Salomon pack acting like a beacon in the fells.
The descent took us down a few hundred metres alongside a stream. The route, although expertly marked, was tricky to follow as it was lumpy with wild growth and slippery from the wet ground near the stream. It wasn’t the quickest descent and I was glad to see the end of it with my ankles feeling rather tender by the end. I’d gotten a little ahead of Jon by now but carried on running as it felt good, knowing he’d catch me up sooner or later.
The next section wasn’t particularly pleasant despite the incredible views it offered. It was a very gradual incline path that was visible all the way off in the distance as we ran towards Skiddaw House Hostel. It was also a little rocky, so the ankles didn’t quite get the rest they were hoping for. I kept running. Here I caught up with Yvette after a good period of consistent running and then we carried on together passed the Hostel and up to the next aid station at the base of the climb to Skiddaw. As we refuelled, Jon arrived just moments behind us.
The climb to Skiddaw was by far the biggest and steepest of the course. It was without doubt the main point and highlight of the race, pretty obvious seeing as the race is named after the peak! A rocky/gravel track zig zagged up the mountain. It was fairly steep in parts and made for slow and steady going. It was a good workout for the legs that was for sure. The further we climbed though, the more the mist obscured the no doubt fantastic views.
We passed two guys who were running as one of the ‘pairs’ – a category of two people entered together and would run entirely together through to the finish. One was suffering cramps quite badly. Yvette stopped to help as Jon and I carried on. I thought that might be the end of them!
It wasn’t long before we were reaching the summit. Here we’d have a slight out and back section to the Trig point and an opportunity to ‘ring’ the race bell. We each took our turn ringing the bell before turning around to begin the descent down towards Longside, Ullock Pike and Barkbeth Hill. This descent was fast, steep and slightly daunting. The misty mountain summit made visibility slightly difficult and the loose scree made the descent slippery. A lot of concentration was required with a steep drop off on one side. I sped down and looked back to see Jon and Yvette as small dots on the mountain side.
The descent continued as we rolled up and down past Longside where, just as I reached Ullock Pike, I stopped and laid down to enjoy the view over Keswick and Bassenthwaite Lake just below as I waited for Jon and Yvette to catch up. They stopped for a little bit too and we persuaded a hiker to snap a picture for us before we carried on. As we approached Barkbeth Hill the descent became a little steeper and technical once more. As we eased down, the pair of runners caught us up. A solid recovery from the cramping. As we bottomed out we all ran into the farm together for the next aid station and a welcome break to top up food and liquids.
From here we encountered what I thought turned out to be one of the harder sections of the race, mentally at least. It was a 5 mile section along the road from Orthwaite as we made our way back towards Caldbeck. The roads were very straight and undulating and offered no protection from the sun which was now intense in the mid afternoon. It was slow and arduous progress as we ran and walked in equal measures. After what felt like an eternity the road gave way and we climbed the last of the ‘major climbs’ near Fell Side along well maintained hiking paths to re-join the route back where we began the climb to High Pike many hours earlier. From here we knew it was just a km or two back to Caldbeck and the final aid station. We trudged on and had the aid station to ourselves.
Here we had plenty of attention from the volunteers and enjoyed a few good chats and plenty of laughter. We stayed a while and begrudgingly decided we’d better leave and begin the final 12km back to the school. Leaving the aid station we passed Gillian and Jules who’d come outside their accommodation of the Oddfellow arms to cheer us all on. This was the only time I was glad I wasn’t staying with everyone else here (I was closer to the finish, staying near Rose Castle). Running 12km away from the accommodation was not something I would have enjoyed!
Before long we were back on the trails and winding along the river and fields once more. Jon and I had left Yvette slightly behind us in Caldbeck and gone on ahead of her. I felt bad. We kept going though. Mostly alone just the two of us other than one runner who caught us up and passed us. Running along side the river we felt we’d gone wrong. We had. We’d missed a turn into the final field somehow (there was a sign pointing back against us, we’d assumed it was from earlier in the day). We back tracked, adjusted the sign, and were on course again, not far to go, just to small climb out of the field and into the school grounds remained. Back to where it all began.
We rounded the school grounds down to the field the the rapturous applause and cheers from the volunteers. Jon and I ambled over the line and celebrated with a hi five as the volunteers took our trackers and gave us our medals. For a moment they also thought we were the first ‘pair’ as we’d run together. If we’d entered as a pair we would indeed have won that category! Shortly after us the pair did finish which was the two guys (Mike and Andy) who we’d shared much of the section after the Skiddaw descent together. We cheered them in and bought them a beer to celebrate. There goes probably my only chance to claim a podium spot! Behind them, Yvette followed in and together we all celebrated with pizza and beer as we waited and cheered in Al and the Livvy too.
The finish line vibes were excellent as the volunteers all cheered and celebrated with the runners. They fed us incredible home made sweet potato and coconut soup (made by Gaynor!) and had set up their own pub – The Stagger Inn – at the finish line for runners to enjoy. I loved the friendliness of the event and all the staff and the organisation was top notch. The route was expertly marked and as far as I could tell everything ran smoothly. The finishers medal was also great with a high quality medal made from local slate. Another first for me.
What a great way to end a fabulous adventure and running with friends in a new place. An incredible first experience of the Lake district. It certainly helped lift me a little out of the blues.
The Stour Valley Path ultra, or more specifically, the SVP100, has become somewhat of a tradition. A grounding point. A yearly adventure and a pilgrimage for me in some way.
What started as my second ultra back in 2017 has turned into the one place I return to run. But why? I always say it’s because I’m collecting the set of tee shirts, that has been my why for this event. But every year I find out there are more to obtain by hitting new milestones. There is nothing unique about it either, there are many runners out there who are years ahead of me in their collections, some having run the SVP100 every year since its inception. Still, this is my journey…
After my first three 100k finishes I opted to volunteer in 2020 as it was just one week after a 100 mile adventure on the North Downs Way. This time, 2021 I signed up to the elusive 50km which would complete my colour set of t-shirts. Whilst I’m weak and always sign up to the biggest challenge, my 2021 plans should have seen me racing in the mountains of Norway the week before the SVP100 (it didn’t pan out that way!). Opting for the 50 was also the wisest choice.
So here I was, a little lost on Saturday morning as, rather than starting at 7am, I found myself making my way across London to Sudbury to start at 1pm instead. It felt odd. It felt a little disorienting. I rocked up at the start line which was very unfamiliar, as the 50km course does a short loop before joining the 100km runners along the Stour Valley Path to the finish. None the less, a familiar welcome from Matt (the Race Director) sent me on my way.
I started relaxed. This section was very flat. I was full of energy tough and even in a relaxed state I struggled to contain myself a little as we ran along the single track paths after leaving the riverside. We set off in small groups of 6 or so and as I entered a field a few kms in I could see runners stretched out far into the distance. We all said hello to each other and wished good fortunes for the day ahead as we passed and exchanged places. I briefly saw Agata and carried on my way with my fresh legs taking me probably a little too fast.
Before long we joined the SVP and looking back in the distance we could see a 100km runner heading our way. I wondered where I would be if I was doing the 100km this day, not this far along the course that is for certain! I chatted with many runners and one common theme was the black ‘3-star finishers’ tee I was wearing. It was a conversation starter for sure. Runners were amazed I’d finished it 3 times, claimed I must know the way and I was the one to follow, they told me about their past finishes and their own journeys to obtaining the black t-shirt and even joked something must be wrong with me if I was only doing the 50km (actually, there was that too, a pesky Achilles was troubling me for quite some time and I was stubbornly running through the pain with so much strapping and tape around my ankle). Truth is though, these conversations made me smile. They were a huge ego boost. I felt like the biggest, most bad-assed person on the course that day. We can’t deny we all enjoy a bit of a verbal pick me up! Ultimately though this just kept me running harder and faster than I probably should have been.
The hours and kilometres ticked by and passed ever so quickly. This last 50km of the 100km SVP is the more undulating and hilliest part of the course. There are plenty of short sharp climbs to break up the mostly flat path. I reached all the familiar checkpoints and aid stations and was welcomed with the usual buzz and support from the fantastic volunteers. Everything was going well. My Achilles didn’t start hurting until probably about 20km in and even then it was a manageable pain.
Besides running a little too fast for my current fitness level, the one mistake I made was to start filling my bottles up from the High5 powder available at checkpoints rather than use the Tailwind I’d brought with me. It’s a mistake I often make on the shorter ultras and I should know by now what will happen – cramps. My body is accustomed to the Tailwind solution and the added sodium content. When I switch to other products with less salt in them…. yeah, I cramp. It was a scorcher of a summer’s day too. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I started cramping around the 40km mark! I had been fuelling well though and was far ahead of the finish time I’d set out with. So I started to walk more for the final 10km.
Along the last section I was playing leapfrog with a number of people I’d chatted to throughout the day. There was a friendly lady on the 100km who was running very strongly and full of enthusiasm, another 100km runner on his way to a 7-star finish (an immortal in my eyes! what an achievement). And another lady on her way to her first ever 100km finish. After a few kilometres the man vanished off ahead and I didn’t see him again as he chased his fastest finish time.
With just a few kilometres left, after the diversion on the route, I was trucking along quite comfortably, recognising familiar landmarks of the route. We were running along a path which I recalled and I had a feeling we’d soon be leaving it, back into the fields. There was a gate, I tried to go through it but it was locked. So I carried on. Through the bushes and over the other side of the fence I kept thinking I was going wrong. I checked my route and I was. I did need to go through that gate. I was confused. I tracked back and then saw a bunch of runners the other side of the fence. I knew it. How?! Turns out the padlock on the fence didn’t stop you lifting the latch (something I didn’t try as I only tried to slide the latch out). All was good again. Every year I miss a few turnings on this race!
Before long I was coming back off the roads and looping around the filed and heading towards the finish line. Here more familiar faces welcomed me and gave me my medal. It was by far the earliest (and lightest!) I’d ever finished the SVP course. It really makes a difference not doing the first 50km!
After a quick shower I was soon walking back along the roads to the train station eating the customary sausage and chips from the rugby club. A sub 6 hour finish was far faster than I intended and once more my Achilles was on fire. Time to go home and get ready for the next adventure.
Now I have the full colour collection of Green, Black, Yellow and Grey SVP t-shirts. The only question I have to ask myself is now I’ve chased the tees, do I keep going back and chase the stars? Time will tell…
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!!
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!
Another weekend, another Maverick adventure… This time we were off down to the South west Coast to run the Exmoor X Series ultra. Some usual suspects for this one with Nick driving us down, Ale hopping in for his first ultra (that he didn’t want to do) and Carl also being roped in to tag along too for what would be his first Maverick event (not counting two weeks in Borneo!). Whatever lay ahead, there was sure to be lots of smiling and laughter with this group.
We knew it would be tough. Maverick don’t shy away from advertising this event as a difficult one. The nickname of ‘The Beast’ alone should be an indication of its difficulty. If not, the elevation profile with somewhere over 2,000m should give you all you need to know – there are some fruity climbs along the SWCP to be tackled in this event. We didn’t have any goals as, whatever time we’d finish, we had nowhere to be or go. We’d booked dinner in the hotel so had little to worry about. We estimated probably about 8 hours or so though.
As we sauntered down the start line, some time after the main pack of runners had already set off, Race Director Ben gave us some insight and that they’d clocked closer to 60km when marking up the course. Always good to know and to set the brain to a target distance! Bell ringing, we pranced off, down into and around the field as we began our journey along the coastal path.
Theme of the day was ‘Shit Slinging‘ a rather naughty, unhygienic but unapologetically funny game we’ve started playing on some runs. Without all the detail, you get points for kicking shit at each other. As simple as that. Into that first field there were legs flying everywhere. To anyone who saw us they must have been wondering what on earth we were up too. I think Carl stormed to an early lead.
After the first climb along an open hillside we hit onto some lovely trail paths that wound back down to the coast and to the Valley of Rocks. We’d stopped by here the night before for a post meal walk. It had incredible views and the sunset the night before was mesmerising. We turned right and ran along the coast path as I continued stopping at every opportunity to kick goat shit in the direction of the others. It even earned a little laugh from a lovely old couple who stepped aside to let us pass. We were enjoying ourselves! Rounding a blind corner I stopped to wait for Nick and pretend to ‘sling some shit’ at him, as I faked the manoeuvre, to my horror it wasn’t Nick but another runner he’d let passed. Oops. I don’t think he appreciated the fright!
Further ahead was Jake and Faye capturing the magic with the incredible back drop of the Valley of Rocks behind us. Fist bumps all round and a big cheer for Carl who they hadn’t seen since we left Borneo 16 months ago!
More magical footpaths saw us wind back down and around Lynmouth Harbour before we began the next climb. All along this section were familiar faces, first off Giffy climbing ahead of us along the woodland paths. Next up we found Rosie who was marshalling along a road section and making sure we’d not miss the turning. It was two years since we all met at the LoveTrails festival and camped together! It really feels like just yesterday that we met. Then. as the climb steepened along another open hillside, ‘Gaddy’ came up behind us. We’d met briefly for the first time queuing up at the toilets many hours earlier, but this was now a chance to properly say hello and have a chat before he powered on ahead.
As the climb came to an end at Countisbury, we began the decent along one of the more technical parts of the course, with loose scree and a sheer drop to the ocean. It was Phil who was lurking nearby to capture the incredible view for the runners at this spot. It was slow going here as a bottleneck began to form on the single track path. Shortly after reaching the bottom, we arrived at the first aid station and spent quite some time joking and chatting with Justin, the other RD and Maverick Founder.
From here we enjoyed several miles of undulating coastal path, with sections winding through beautiful lush green forests. It was so peaceful and tranquil that it was easy to loose yourself and enjoy the run, even though at times the bottlenecks would form again on the tight and narrow paths. We were fortunate that we didn’t encounter too many walkers and hikers as there were a lot of runners now bunched together.
There was another steep climb to navigate as we first climbed through the forest tracks before tackling the bulk of the climb through open fields in the heat of the midday sun. Up top, several runners broke for a rest as we plodded along after the course split. More undulating miles before we dropped down into the seaside town or Porlock Weir. Here we could smell the cooking of fresh seafood and smoky BBQs on the go. Thankfully though our next aid station was here and our bellies didn’t mis out.
I didn’t know at the time, but this aid station was supported by Justin’s parents. It was by far the best one and possibly the best aid station I’ve ever had the pleasure of stopping at during a maverick event. Pineapple. my favourite fruit and so refreshing. Mrs B was chopping away and could barely keep up as I kept taking chunks of fresh pineapple. Washed down with salted potatoes, crisps, sweats, biscuits and Milka cake bars (another new discovery for me, these were delicious). We had a good 10 minutes here and continued chatting with Justin as he arrived to check up on everything. It was a good stop and much needed. Nick was experiencing an early bonk and was struggling for some energy it was a good opportunity for him to eat and the cooked potatoes were another great addition to the aid station spread!
Refuelled, we headed back out. We knew the next section was going to be tough as it was the largest climb of the course. a straight up 400m climb. Not something to be scoffed at. No way to tackle it other than steady, relentless plodding forward. One thing at the back of my mind that was empowering here was knowing that, as we climbed, we were gradually turning back on the loop at West Porlock. Once we’d reach the top, we’d be around halfway through and from here on in running back in the direction of the finish. Always a good feeling. Part way up we met Gaddy again and soon after the summit he joined us and we all ran along together for a little while.
This part of the route was more of the same with a few little climbs and descents separated with undulating trails through open hilltops and dense forest footpaths. It really was a beautiful course and such a variety of terrains and footpaths. We’d been leapfrogging a number of other runners at this point and occasionally split into smaller groups chatting away with each other. After narrowly missing a headshot at Nick, an opportunity presented itself with some fresh (goat?) shit lining up in my path directly behind Carl. Like a pro I swung my leg and struck the sweetest of shit slings with a direct hit on Carl’s arm. He was not happy, understandably so. Me, I was in hysterics. I thought I was so funny. I told you it isn’t glamourous!
The fun soon came to an end though when a few of the group were running back towards us. Somehow we’d gone wrong. I remember seeing a sign that was pointing one way and I’d clearly misinterpreted its direction. The course marking was good, we’d fucked up. Running back on ourselves we were now behind most of the groups of runners we’d passed sometime ago, including ‘Hop-a-long’ and ‘Bagel-man’. Other runners always have endearing nicknames to us. All was not lost though as we embarked on a really enjoyable downhill section with incredible views over the town of Oare. It really was beautiful and an enjoyable downhill. We stopped briefly to chat with Chris and another who were doing some course clearing / marking and gave them the heads up that there was a sign that was easily misinterpreted. We carried on our way before arriving at the next aid station.
Here Justin was yet again. Doing an incredible job on the organising. Stuffing our faces yet again, we were chatting away when I noticed a few things. Firstly the runners at the aid station were looking a little worse for wear. It was a very challenging course and understandable to be feeling that way. We probably had about 10 miles (and a good few hours) still ahead of us. Secondly, I noticed Nick was coming out of his slump. The food was going in and his energy levels were higher than they were previously. I saw the opportunity and hurried us all along and back onto the course before he started peaking and hitting a sugar rush. I wanted us to be on the move when that happened.
Restarting began with an enjoyable downhill section before we hit the beautiful and pristine area of Brendon. Somewhere here we were greeted by an emu too! A volunteer directed us along the course with a cheerful “please be respectful” and we soon found out why. the section was delightful and we passed through a country house were the owner came out to confirm we were too pass through their property. he wished us well and cheered us on.
From here we picked up the riverside path that ran along side the East Lyn River. Justin had told us that the second half of the route was delightful and he wasn’t lying. After the pleasure of the SWCP earlier in the day, winding along the river bed with more undulating footpaths was glorious. The dense woodlands offered us plenty of shade and Carl and Ale powered us along at a steady pace. this section flew by in no time at all and before we knew it we were back out on a road and nearing the next aid station.
We were doing a bit of math now. I thought we’d have less than 9km to go, Ale and Carl were estimating closer to the 9km. At the aid station they told us it was 12km to go. Gaaah. We weren’t’ convinced though. Surely it was slightly off otherwise our GPS really couldn’t be trusted! With a big cheer and sadistic laugh we were sent off on our next climb which was probably the steepest of the last four facing us. Ale was holding up and was well beyond the Ultra territory now. Not bad for someone a few days earlier had been told by a physio to not run more than 5km! I’m sure he was enjoying it in his own way, but he was vocal about how boring it was. He’s lucky there was no shit around at this point to kick at him.
In-between the next climb was an incredible section of downhill switch backs. the paths were so fun to run and it really did remind me of some of the overseas locations. Steep climbs, rocky technical footpaths, dense green forests and winding footpaths rather than the typical rolling hill climbs of other national parks. I was beaming and really enjoying the area. Shame it really is so far to drive to from London!
We soon passed by Lynton and the Gulf petrol station at Barbrook which we’d driven passed several times already this weekend. from here we knew it wasn’t far to go. We’d now just be circling around the main road (which wouldn’t be safe to run along) before crossing directly opposite from the campsite/finish line. First up one last climb that I agree was quite dull, wide long gravel roads. The beautiful day was going grey and it was starting to try to rain. Into the deep end now, nothing left but to grin and bare it. head down, keep moving. With a few km to go we passed Brit and some other maverick Volunteers who cheered us across. Just the last road section to the campsite and down hill into the finish line.
All four of us, side by side we crossed that line like we had 9 hours earlier. We took our medals and the never ending amount of freebies from Maverick and joined the many familiar faces sitting down. Reka who’d finished many hours earlier (a machine she is!) was asking us if we’d seen Gif. It really had been a long time since we saw her waaaaay back before that first aid station. I went back to the car to get some warmer clothes and we soon saw Gaddy cross the line too. As we hopped in the car to head back for Dinner, Gif was coming down the final straight.
That night we were all very tired and exhausted. Thankfully we didn’t have to hobble far for dinner which was absolutely brilliant too. The next morning we began the next ultra – the long drive back to London…
‘Bitchin’. Nope, not great or wicked. Just two middle age men actually bitchin for 13 hours. Nothing cool to see here. Nothing cool at all…
Bitchin is pretty much all me and Ged did whilst we ran the Ultra X Spring Series 100km. It led to a lot of laughter, passed a lot of time, and confirmed how similar we are. Nothing was safe from the sting of our words. None of it was really justified either, nonetheless that is how we rolled in our latest ultra marathon adventure.
I was probably already in a sub conscious bitchin mode leading up to the race where, due to my own lack of research and preparation, I realised I couldn’t get to the start line in time for the 06:00 start. The Race Directors were accommodating though and Ged and his mum stepped in to save my embarrassments with a lift down. Mini crisis adverted.
The start line was a very subdued place at 06:00 in the morning. With a small field of 100km runners we were split into the two allocated starting groups, given a count down and sent off in groups of about 30 people. Nattering away as we ran out of the recreational ground towards the road, our bitchin began. We couldn’t understand why everyone was running so fast already. Amateurs we thought, they’ll all bonk soon enough. We were pumping out a 10 hour 100 km pace for no reason at all. Many, many hours later we apologetically retracted this statement when we had passed maybe 2 or 3 people from that group only. They clearly had their plans and strategies like we had ours!
Running on, we were very much aware that the 3 biggest hills and climbs of the race were in this first 13 miles (which we’d complete again as the last 13 miles as we’d loop back in the opposite direction for the second half of the race), yet being full of energy and excitement, we didn’t notice these hills and barely felt them as we ran down (and up) steadily with fresh morning legs.
We did then get lost after a few miles, but we were not alone. Coming down off a trail descent we joined a country lane where the course markings vanished. Left, right or straight down were the choices. Some runners were coming back from the right and more joined us from behind (the second group of 100km runners who set off after us). With confused looks we all headed left and a few moments later across a cattle grid and straight down, then we all stopped as differing opinions on whether this was correct or if we should have followed the road rather than cross the cattle grid became clear. One runner (who I later realised was Scott Jenkins) was adamant we were right and Ged and I soon stuck with him. A few hundred meters later we then found some course markings once more. What had happened here we do not know! Yep, we bitched about the markings.
Back on track, it wasn’t long before we hit the first indication of the bogs and mud we’d encounter this day. It was nothing major but soon we were splashing through waterlogged fields and fully submerging our feet in the cooling water. At this point one of my shoes came off in the sticky mud. I managed to recover it before loosing it completely, but needed to stop to get it back on. As I sat on a log to readjust, my whole core started cramping and I couldn’t reach my feet, much to Ged’s delight. What a state to be in so soon!
We carried on as the surface became progressively more muddy and we were sliding all over the place as we approached the first aid station. We pretty much ran straight through as it was only 11 km in and didn’t need anything so early on. Ged’s mum was here, as she was throughout the day at each aid station to cheer us on.
The next section was full of the epic views of the Serpent Trail, exactly as I recalled it from when I ran the Serpent Trail 100km event way back in 2018! A beautiful landscape of thousands of trees with roaming views of the South Downs peaking through in between. Every now and again the forest would drop away to reveal the bareness of the hilly summits and reveal the scenic views in all their glory. Before long we were up running along some mountain bike tracks (which I vividly recalled from 2018) and into the second aid station. Here we stopped briefly and chatted to the volunteers including updating them on the sections were markings were missing/sparse and we’d gone wrong.
From here to the third aid station was all a blur to me. I did slowly recall bits of it later in the day when we were back tracking along it. But, at the time, I must have switched off and been too engrossed in the bitchin to really notice it and take it in. Closing in on that third aid station we noted we were roughly a 1/3 of the way into the race. Which was good, because the legs started to feel like they’d done some running by now!
The volunteers at this next aid station were full of energy and we exchanged a few jokes and laughs with them. They lifted our spirits as we set back out for the last section back to the start/halfway/finish line point. This next section was an adventure for sure. The longest and trickiest part of the route I thought. There were a few sections that were very muddy. One short down hill section followed by two muddy climbs. Zigzagging down that first section we started to wonder at which point we’d be passed by the lead 100km runners coming back towards us or the 50km runners coming from behind and over taking us. Both seemed a real possibility as we started the 10km countdown to half way.
The up hill mud sections demanded a bit more effort from the legs as the mud started to sap our energy and we looked for the best line to climb along. Halfway up that second climb the first few runners leading the 100km started picking us off. Great effort, probably about 10km and over an hour ahead of us. The first runner was flying along and had a substantial lead on 2nd and 3rd at this point. As we started levelling out into some of the fields and road sections for the final approach to the 50km mark we started passing a number of the half marathon runners. We weren’t sure where they came from nor what point the courses joined up. Either way it gave us a buzz as we powered on.
Half way was upon us. I took a strategic stop here whilst Ged was reunited with his family. Quite possibly one of my fastest mid-race turnarounds where I was in and out in just over ten minutes with some fresh clothes and refuelled ready to go again. Unprecedented for me as I do love a good sit down and chin wag at half way, usually needing to be coaxed back out on to the course…
The energy for the second half was high. As we ran we were now passing loads of runners from the 50km race and the rest of the pack in the 100km one too. As always, the vast majority of runners responded positively to a hello and offered up encouragement to us also. You can’t beat that buzz. Ged and I talked about this for quite sometime. It can make or break a race for some people. A smile can change your emotions, a “well done” or “Great effort” can pull you out of a dark place. BUT, you have to do it for yourself. So often you see people completely absorbed in the moment and struggling. If you can’t muster a smile or a grunt, you won’t find a way out and will continue to suffer. You need to make the corners of your own mouth move. If you’re reading this, try it! Smile, you’ll instantly feel better about everything.
We decided to play a little game and started repeating to the next runners what previous runners had said to us. My personal favourites were “You look fabulous”, “Brilliant, Brilliant” and “top work chaps” which was unfortunately repeated to some females. Hey ho, that was the game. Quite possibly thought, what made me laugh most was how I kept mishearing what Ged was saying. Every time he said “Well done” to someone, I heard “yeah whatever”. It was a perfect response for our bitchin mood and I really wish he was saying that. I’d love to know what reaction that would create if someone said it to you mid race!
It was time for the muddy sections once more and we couldn’t have been in a better place for them. High with energy, certain of what lay ahead, running down hill, seeing the pain and torture on the faces of those climbing it for the first time and sticking to the best line like we did earlier… we just went for it. We didn’t hold back and splashed on straight through, straight down. Practically hurdling our way downhill as the mud reached our knees in places. We were absolutely loving it. We couldn’t give a shit if we fell (it would have been soft!) or who we splashed with mud along the way. There was no better way to get through it. Wet and muddy was inevitable, we knew that, those climbing hadn’t yet come to accept the same fate. It was all too brief though as we completed each section so quickly. How neither of us face planted into the floor we’ll never know.
Along the way we passed many familiar faces like Ellis and Charlie doing the 50km. Each one lifting us up and giving us a buzz. We felt like heroes as we continued playing our game as, surprisingly, we kept meeting more and more runners all the way back to the third (now fifth) aid station. A huge cheer from the volunteers welcomed us back in as we all picked up where we left them many hours earlier with the jokes. I had to take a minute here, sitting on a tree stump next to a speaker pumping out classics hits, to empty my shoes of all the junk I’d be collecting along the way.
From here I couldn’t remember for the life of me what lay ahead on those trails I’d previously blocked out. We were both struggling to remember each section and the pace began to drop off as we walked pretty much every hill from this point back. The legs, specifically my ankles, were beginning to let their feelings known to me. Rightly so, the aches and pains were settling in.
We couldn’t have been far from the next aid station when the ‘heavens opened’. What started as a soft trickle of rain soon turned into an almighty downpour of hail. It was a little refreshing as we discussed whether we were going to stop and layer up. We opted not too. All around us were clear skies. It looked like a passing storm and neither of us fancied ‘boiling like a chicken’ in a waterproof jacket. We stuck it out and a short while later the summer sun briefly repaid our faith. It was a glorious evening now.
Into the second aid station we did a quick stop and refuel, acknowledging from here it was a mere 25km to go. We knew this was the point of the ultra where it would be come a slog. Time to dig deep for what was left. We set back out, running once more through the mountain bike tracks and the now very muddy and sloppy trails. They had been churned up by hundreds of runners and were now far less appealing to run than they were earlier in the day.
We briefly passed some photographers gathering some drone footage on a hill through the forest tracks before we came slip sliding into the final aid station where the volunteers outnumbered us 5 to 1. Grabbing some cheese and onion crisps I received some odd looks from the volunteers when I excitedly asked if the lumps of cheese were lumps of butter. Disappointed, I stuffed cheese and Haribo into my gob. A strange combo I probably wouldn’t repeat again. I really wanted butter now!!
The last 11 km back to the event village was slow and arduous. I was in pain. My dodgy ankle was screaming with every step. Nothing to do except keep moving and make steady progress. From here we knew the course was basically 3 descents and 3 climbs. Lots of hiking ahead with gravity powering the running in between. We ploughed on, gradually making up some ground on a guy in front of us whilst simultaneously holding off two more who were gaining on us. Grin and bare it.
Ged kept me going. He kept me distracted from the pains. Kept the bitchin’ coming even now many hours later. Occasionally we’d break rank to retract and excuse a bitch that escaped our mouths and which wasn’t justified. Mostly he kept the energy level there, despite it all we were having fun. And that was one of the moments of realisation of the day – we were having fun. You create your own fun and despite it all, we fucking love this. This is exactly the type of challenge we revel in… Earlier on, as is inevitable, we’d been discussing ultra running. Our experiences both shared and individual, what drove us and what dragged us through. It is here we talked about an effect that we came to call ‘BDE’ – Big Dick Energy.
BDE, we decided, was a mental state we work ourselves into during ultra marathons. A point of sheer confidence and arrogance. An unwavering sense of belief in ourselves and our abilities. A selfish expectation of deserving something, being better than everything and when nothing gets in your way of getting what you want. BDE was that invisible force that propels you onwards in the adventure whilst keeping you away from the darkness the mind can so easily slip into. You make that BDE, whatever it is that can shift you into this unreasoning state of focus, you take it. Right now I was seeping BDE from all my pores, radiating it like a jacket potato ready to explode in a microwave. To anyone I passed I was peacocking the smile and laughter that inevitably draws comments like “you don’t look like you’ve just run an ultra marathon”. I’d take those comments, absorb them and convert them into more BDE, a self sustaining aura fuelling the determination to get to the end. No one would know the pain and suffering inside.
We joked and referenced BDE endlessly through the second 50km. This was the experience of having ‘been there, got the tee shirt’. We knew what we were doing and that only comes with trying, failing, succeeding and repeating. I’ve said it many times before, running is hard. No run is ever “easy”. It’s the perception you create to get the run done that changes. BDE.
We hit that last climb. Out on the road now we were powering up. Me fast hiking, Ged shuffling part run part walk. We were laughing all the way to the end. We crossed that finish line surround by Ged’s family who themselves completed another ultra of their own chasing us around the course for 14 hours. Another 100km done. Another medal for the box of pain.
I’ll remember this day for three main things. Firstly, the vocalisation of BDE. Secondly, the amount of mud (it was far muddier than I expected). I don’t think I’ve emptied my shoes as frequently in a race as I did in this one. Three times I stopped to empty the shoes, once I had to stop because a mound of mud had formed under the ball of my foot. It was completely distorting the fit of my shoes, almost like I had a hard insert between my sole and sock. It was so bad I had to scrape all the mud out with my fingers and drag my sock on the grass like I’d stepped in shit. A new experience for sure. The third thing I’ll remember the run for was the bitching. We bitched about everything you can imagine. It was like we had this faux anger at every and anything we could think of. It passed the time so well and was equally therapeutic as it was pathetic if you’d heard us moaning. At one point we even bitched about colours and why something red wasn’t blue because we happened to think blue was a better colour choice. Anything we could moan about we did, and it made me smile so much.
As always though, none of these memories would exist without the excellent company. It truly does make these adventures. Cheers to Ged, he’s a top ‘chap’ and it had been far, far too long since we last ran a race like this together back in 2018!!
It was somehow already the beginning of May and I found myself heading back down to the ever too familiar trails of the North Downs Way for the Freedom Racing North Downs Ridge 50k. This race was one of the ones that was cancelled earlier in the year and one that, in some ways, contradicted my Modus Operandi for races – which is to only do events that I really want to do (despite how obvious that may sound!). It’s the route you see. I’ve run It so many times (and you’ve read me type it so many times…) and this particular section of the North Downs Way which includes my least favourite part of the trail (purely because it’s so damn runnable!). It is because of the organiser though that I signed up. This was to be my third Freedom Racing event after the Serpent Trail and the Hurtwood and I’ve enjoyed each one immensely. FR are a small, family centred events company which I’m happy to support. So, off I went.
Tom, the Race Director, had adopted the now very familiar flexible start line approach for this event. I opted for the ‘faster’ time slot and arrived for 8am with a rough 5.5 hr finish in my mind (justifying starting in this group rather than the later group).
The start was easy. I walked from Dorking station to the event HQ at Denbies Vineyard. When I arrived it was straight into a short queue for registration. Bib and dabber collected, I went to the toilet and changed quickly in the field, dropped my bag off and then walked into the starting pen. I was the only one. No queuing. I dib-dabbed in and off I trotted.
The route starts with a short stretch and climb out of the Vineyard as you join the tarmac path of the first climb to the church at Ranmore. I wouldn’t normally run this but I was fresh and eager so I plodded on upwards. Passing the few walkers as I reached the top, I continued in the gentle pace I’d settled into with my heart full of joy of another adventure underway.
I mentioned a rough 5.5 hr finish time I had in mind, but really I had no real aims for the day and a sub 6 hour finish would, as always, be a good day out for a 50k for me. As a fairly hilly route with an out and back set up I’d be happy with that. Immediately after starting out though, I devised a game to keep the brain occupied – I’d keep a count of the people I passed and the people who passed me. I’d try and remain with a positive count by the end of the race. A small challenge but one with great potential for distracting the mind throughout the run. As I’d started behind the ‘slower’ group but at the start of the ‘faster’ group, I assumed it would be a comparable count each way. I added the rule that being ‘passed’ involved people overtaking me, people running in the opposite direction as me before I turned around (at about mile 12.5) and again people I saw coming the other way on the final loop. So potentially some runners could hit my count 3 times.
It started good. The numbers were positive despite a few speedsters soaring passed (all in carbon road shoes I noted, the trails were very dry…) and it was steady progress. None of the hills here and until the sandy climb to St. Martha’s were steep enough to consider walking so I just kept plodding along. I skipped through the first aid station as it was only about 5 miles in. I had enough food and water to last a while and knew it would help avoid it becoming too busy as the first ones always do.
Those first 12 miles then wizzed by and and a few familiar smiling faces helped add a little atmosphere and buzz to the day. I was heading down the descent from at St. Martha’s to the next aid station, where we’d turn around, and my number count was going haywire. I was around 50 and suddenly struggled to keep count as I passed runners and runners came towards and passed me. I was suddenly around 20 by now.
I then almost stepped on some Goodr sunglasses and stopped to pick them up, checking with each runner coming passed if they’d dropped them. I had better luck as I announced my arrival at the aid station with a loud “anyone drop their glasses?” to which thankfully someone realised they had indeed dropped them. Chatting to the lady I completely lost count of who came and went in the aid station. So I stopped my game and pigged out on sausage rolls, flapjacks and frazzles. Delightful. Fully stocked I headed back out, jogging the climb to St Martha’s once more.
On the return leg, more familiar faces were there with big hi fives from Meg and Daisy and a fleeting hello to Frank at the top of the hill. Back down the sandy path I went. Beaming in the sunny, warm mid morning sunshine.
Running back to the next aid station and onto Denbies again was all very unmemorable. I just kept steady, holding the pace and realising that I was actually holding pace for a solid effort at a sub 5hr 50k. I don’t think I’d ever gone sub 5 before. Other than a marathon distance and 100 miles, I’ve no idea what any of my PBs actually are. But now I had a new game to play, a new way to occupy my mind for the last ten or so miles. I just needed to keep on steady and hold the pace…
I briefly stopped to refill some water at Denbies and carried on for the final loop. This section, as we’d head towards the village of Westhumble, was new to me. Straight away we were met with a long ol’ road incline which warranted a walk. No point busting a gut here. It was much longer than I expected and glancing at the watch I noted that the elevation gain ticked over 700m. I wasn’t expecting that much elevation for the day either, but it made me feel strong, given how little walking I’d done and how comfortable I felt.
Soon I was back on trails and it was delightful to experience a few miles of new trails to explore. The whole loop was deceivingly uphill which I tried to hold my pace on. By the time I’d completed the loop and was heading back down the road section I saw that I’d done another 100m of elevation gain. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Crossing back over the NDW it was now down into Denbies for the final straight through some of the vineyard and across the finish line. Dib dab done. I stopped the watch and I was a few mins under 5 hours. Tidy. I’ll have some of that.
I dropped the timing chip off. Collected my bag and checked the train times. With one in 20 mins I knew I had time for a quick change of clothes and a fast hike to the station. I stopped to get a picture next to the Freedom Racing trailer and a rapid chat with Tom the RD, thanking him for another excellent adventure before I trundled off.
Another day, another race. Another sense of achievement. Job done.
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.
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…
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!
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).
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.
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
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….