Sometimes I sign up to races and events and then a littler later on I develop a little regret for my decisions. This was one of them. And the regret was for completely pointless reasons really. I signed up to the St Peter’s Way ultra nearly two years ago and multiple delays meant it was now something I’d given very little thought too. I always knew it would come a long, but I’d just be some a little too comfortable without it.
The race was on a Sunday which just meant I’d be more tired than usual at work on the Monday and it was in Essex which is a mission to get too without a car when public transport would be more limited. What made it more of a pain was that the race started in a small town (Chipping Ongar) and finished 43 miles or so further east, on the coast of Bradwell on Sea. The regret was because I simply couldn’t be bothered with all that hassle. But, there was also a little motivation hidden in its logistics also. The organisers (Challenge Running who were amazing by the way!) put on mini buses to take runners from the finish back to the start. Only they were at roughly 3 hour intervals (it’s an hour or so round trip for the driver) and the first was at 14:30 and the last at 20:30. I wanted to make that middle bus at 17:30. That would be around a 9hr 20min finish for 43 miles. Very doable. But, yep, another catch was that the buses were on a first come first served basis. I estimated I’d need to finish around 4pm to be in with a chance of safely securing my place on that bus.
And here is how it went…
Carl and I travelled up to Harrow and stayed the night there on Saturday (yep, had two years to book accommodation near to the start and didn’t!). An Uber to the start the following morning saw us join the low-key race centre and registration located in a small carpark where we collected our bibs. The nice surprise was seeing John at the start who I didn’t realise was running and that he’d done this race before. We chatted a bit and wished each other well for the adventure. The ongoing theme for the day would be me and Carl spending the hours calculating the chances of making the bus. We’d started straightaway sizing up the field of 80 or so runners lining up at the race briefing.
With an uncharacteristic (for a trail race) “on your marks, get set, go!” we joined the runners in an initial single line through the narrow track and the first of many (many!) kissing gates (and stiles) that we’d encounter throughout the day. We’d read about the ‘mud’ of the route and it was apparent early on. The route went through so many fields, massive green fields that were very soft underfoot. They started off nicely and began progressively getting more and more muddy. As always the worst parts were straight after you climb over a sty and then enter the field.
During the race briefing we’d been advised that much of the initial section of the route (with 4 aid stations the route was split into 5 sections each with hand written instructions to follow the route – we stuck to a gpx file!) had changed from previous years and to our benefit we’d be following more closely the original footpath to the at peters chapel. Early on we saw splits in runners going different directions in the fields. We stuck to our route and later chatted to a multi time finisher who confirmed we were indeed following the new and correct route.
As the day progressed we got to experience the great hospitality and support at the aid stations. As we crossed progressively muddier fields and, towards the second aid station, we found ourselves running more and more on our own as the field spread out. We passed through some lovely little villages and also along the Blackwater marina of Maylandsea which broke up the route slightly as we began to leave the muddy fields behind.
It was here we stared to sense we were close to the coast and that all (all 400m!) of elevation was behind us. Yep. Essex is indeed pretty flat. We then came into the final aid station where there we a handful of other runners and we were shortly joined by a chap called Alex who was running his furthest distance to date and had taken a few wrong turns trying to follow the hand written instructions. He tagged along with me and Carl for the remainder of the race.
We let him know our thoughts for the bus. We estimated that only a small fraction of runners would not start, not finish or would have family and a lift from the finish. We assumed that it would be a 15 seater minibus and that therefore we’d probably want to be in the top 35-40 finishers to get on that 17:30 bus. We also didn’t want to bust a gut to finish around 4pm and have to wait until 20:30 to begin the journey home!! Alex was more relaxed and went with the flow and chatted away to us. It was refreshing chatting to Alex and adding a third person to the conversations and hearing about his experience of the day and his runs – he’ll soon be heading off to the Sahara to tackle the Marathon Des Sables. Good luck to him on that beast!
Towards the end of the route we ran along a sea wall. In the distance was a building that we thought could be the finish line (St Peter’s Chapel). It did, from a distance, look way too modern, although we did estimate it was probably the few km away that corresponded with our distance covered. We Were hopeful that the end was in sight!
Also in the distance we’re two other runners. We were tempted to try and leg it after them, but realistically it was beyond us. We wondered if our presence was enough motivation for them to keep pushing to the end too. Either way we continued our run walk strategy which had served us well over the last 8 miles or so.
A few final turns and we could clearly see that the building was indeed the chapel and finish line as the runners ahead turned inland and headed directly to it. Shortly after then the three of us crossed the line and received our welcome from Lyndsey (the RD) and secured our space on the bus. We made it!
In the end we finished just under 8 hours and in positions 31 -33. It went almost exactly to plan. Our estimates were slightly off though as only 4 runners made that first bus and we secured 3 of the remaining 5 seats on the 17:30 and we only just secured our spot – There were 5 other runners who finished within 10 mins of us. I felt bad for them and glad we kept pushing to the end. we had just enough time to ‘cleanup’ and grab some food in the shelter of the Chapel – outside the temperature was rapidly dropping. And what a Chapel it was, a very unique finish to a race indeed!
Our adventure didn’t quite end there as on arrival back in Chipping Ongar it became apparent that taxis were going to be difficult (we were told we’d have a 3 hour race) and the next bus was a bit of a slow journey towards Epping. By pure chance, after a trip to a petrol station for some food, we once more bumped into Alex who very kindly gave us a lift back into London! What a gent! Thanks again Alex!
As always, despite my trepidation about the event, I thoroughly enjoyed it and, as always, loved the experience of running somewhere new. Although I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it quite as much if I didn’t have Carl by my side throughout to cheer me up through all the mud. Coincidentally this was 2 days short of two years since we first met, in Borneo running with Maverick Race! Happy anniversary Borneo Carl.
A Maverick Race event is always a guaranteed great day out. There’s no point me repeating the words I’ve used so many time before about how fabulous the team are, the meticulous organisation of the events, the friendly and supportive volunteers, their amazing routes or the abundance of freebies and finishers items. Just sign up and experience it for yourself.
One of the things that attracted me to this particular event was the route. Based in the South Downs, the route took runners onto some of the lesser trodden paths away from the more mainstream South Downs Way. Looking at the map before I signed up I could see it would take me to places I’d not run before. So it was a great opportunity to explore some new areas.
Once more I headed down to the race with Nick after an early start. We rolled up, collected our bibs and casually walked over the start line five minutes after all the other runners had set off. I love the rolling start window the events now have! The cut-offs are very generous and the vibe of these events is very relaxed and friendly.
It wasn’t long before we’d caught the rest of the pack as the trails began with some single track paths and inevitably some bottlenecks formed. We squeezed passed a few larger groups and settled into our own grove as we wound through the forest paths of Slindon and then Houghton forest.
Somewhere along the forest tracks we ran past Jake for the first time that day. He was out in the open, partly camouflaged by some bushes, taking pictures before we soon arrived at the first aid station. From here we turned away from Houghton and began a more common section as we ran up the South Downs with its rolling hills and wide open spaces. The radio masts at Gatting Beacon visible up ahead.
After a while of running along the downs, we descended from Cross Dyke and soon came upon the second aid station at the Cadence cafe. We took a quick stop to refuel and fill our water before we began a climb back up to the hills again. Here we found Jake once more and stopped for a quick chat. We joked about my lack of enthusiasm for jumping shots and he proved the quicker man, capturing me with a teasing jump. 1-0 Jake.
The hills were gentle but long and Nick started to hit some rough patches. He’d been recovering from that mad cold going around as well as a week holidaying through all the whiskey distilleries in Scotland. This was his second run since the Chilterns 50 (the other being a marathon) so he always knew it would be a struggle today. I ran ahead and would wait for him to catch up. I kept repeating this, probably to his annoyance.
There were plenty of hills, including a lovely leaf lined downhill. I bundled down whilst Nick moaned behind me. ‘It’s dangerous’ Nick kept repeating. Admittedly the damp leaves made it a slippery descent. The downhill was inevitably followed by a steep incline. This time it was Phil who was hiding in the trees and waiting with his camera to capture the pain in the runners faces. A brilliant spot indeed.
This section was the longest between aid stations and we knew we still had a long way to go before we could replenish our water. All through this section we played leapfrog with other groups and pairs of runners. We chatted and joked our way along with them. The joke’s weren’t so amusing though as we slowly made our way hiking up a long sealed tarmac road. All the runners were hoping the aid station wouldn’t be far away as we all now needed a top up of fluids. Thankfully we soon came upon it, much to everyone’s relief.
After a little party at the aid station we set off again. From here it was 10k to the next one. We were in better shape now and ran some solid sections again through forest tracks and paths near East Dean. As we looped around Upwaltham we were greeted with a huge down hill into the final aid station which I bombed down with joy. I could tell here that many runners had now had enough and were ready for the finish. Much to their delight we had one more steep climb to get through first as we made our way from the aid station to West Wood. This sapped all the fun out of it for everyone around us and the moans were audible way behind us as more runners started the climb.
From here it was back to the dense forest tracks and for us plenty of stop start running from here until the finish. The rain started to come down and we forced ourselves to power through the open fields to get out of it and back to the shelter of the forests at the other side. At the end of the field Brittany was waiting in the cold, holding the gate open for runners with the great news that it was only 1km to go. We kept going, trotting on towards the finish line. As we rounded the corner back from Slindon Estate back into the college we pushed and shoved each other, wrestling before finally crossing the line a show for the crowd. A fist bump of thanks to Justin, Ben and Paul from the Maverick Team for another awesome race.
Another awesome day was finished and crowned the day off with a pizza for the ‘bearded wonders’ from the awesome chulli pizza team.
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!
‘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