When you are running through the stillness of the English countryside at 2:00 in the morning after a perfect summer’s day, chasing a full moon with nothing but the bats and badgers, foxes and fireflies to keep you company, there is a lot of time to think and enjoy the views and the imposed solitude of the environment.
So I was more surprised than anything that I found myself concentrating mostly on getting food and sickly sweet caffeine laced carbohydrate juice in my mouth and calculating my time to the next of the 10 mile checkpoints on the basis of my pace over the last kilometre for the majority of the one hundred and sixty kilometres in my latest ultra-marathon.
Not quite the romantic image one might have of a long distance runner but then perhaps I am sadly deluded that ultra marathon running has romantic overtones
The Cotswold 100 or, more officially, the UltraRace 50/100 was my second Rory Coleman (of seven times MdS fame) organised event of the year but the first of my 3 one hundred milers planned for the summer, so this was the moment of truth. How would my training pay off? How would this compare to Mont Blanc? The next 24 hours would tell – hopefully!
[singlepic id=189 w=320 h=240 float=left]The day had started in a far more relaxed fashion than some of the other races I have done; I had taken the day off and we travelled up to our guest house in Stratford-upon-Avon without incident and the only frustration was the traffic on the M25. The course started and finished at Stratford racecourse with a rather elongated circular 100 mile loop in between, traversing well known Cotswold places such as Snowshill, Moreton-in-the-Marsh, Bourton-on-the-Hill and Chipping Campden and although the hills are nothing like the lake district or Mont Blanc, the Cotswold’s are certainly not renowned for being flat.
44 people in total had signed up for the races this weekend, 34 for the 100 mile and 10 for the 50 mile distance. Of those on the 100 mile run, 21 people estimated their times as +24 hours and so had already started (during the heat of the day!) at 12:00, and 10 were non-starters, leaving only 3 of us to go at the 6:00pm (sub-24 hour) start. The 50 milers were to start at 5:30am the next morning from checkpoint 5.
My wonderfully supportive wife and family accompanied me to the racecourse for 5:00pm where we waited for Rory and the anticipated UltraRace entourage to appear and although slightly off-put by the fact that only Rory in his mini-cooper turned up and that there were only three of us starting (having not know about the non-starters at that stage), we nonetheless listened to final instructions (follow the yellow-on-black ’100′ stickers for 98 miles, then the red-on-white ‘Ur’ stickers for the final 2 miles) and attended to the usual pre-race prep, although this took all of about 3 minutes for all of us.
The 3-2-1 countdown was unsurprisingly informal and all of a sudden we were going, running west off the racecourse with our backs to the point we were hoping to arrive back at in the next 24 hours, after taking another inordinately long detour. I, for one, was hoping the purpose of the journey would be clearer by that stage.
The first few miles of these events always pass quite quickly as you tend to be in a longer distance mindset, and this was no different – apart from the fact that I consciously registered the first kilometre ‘beep’ from my watch and all three of us running together laughed nervously about there only being another one hundred and fifty-nine to go after I had explained the significance.
Checkpoint 1 – Mickleton – 9.5 miles, race time 1:28 (25th June, 7:28pm)
We were at the first checkpoint around 10 miles relatively quickly, in 1:28, with the three of us, Tom Kingsnorth, Michael Sutton and myself chatting about running, ultra-marathons, jobs and football, and although this was slightly over our planned pace of 6:00 min/km (9:00 min/mile) for the first 30 miles or so, at this stage everyone seemed comfortable. I was consciously slowing myself down in these early stages rather than experience another London Marathon demise. After 10 miles though, Michael quickly showed signs of suffering and although Tom and I slowed a couple of times, by the top of the first major hill he was nowhere to be seen and as it was still early days Tom and I pressed on through Chipping Campden.
Tom’s Parents and wife were crewing for him along the way and we first saw them in this historic town and although Tom’s dad seemed to want him to stop, Tom did not appear keen and continued on regardless, perhaps trying to maintain the rhythm we had going. In the first 20 miles or so, the route reaches it’s maximum height and it was about halfway up this hill that I noticed Tom struggling as well. His parents were in a lay-by ahead and I stopped to take a photo while they conferred. As we both continued up the hill his pace slowed again but safe in the knowledge he had his crew to work with him through his strategy, I continued on alone for what was to be the rest of the race.
Checkpoint 2 – Snowshill – 19.5 miles, race time 3:05 (25th June, 9:05pm)
[singlepic id=222 w=320 h=240 float=right]By the 20 mile checkpoint the sun was setting and there were some beautiful views over the rolling landscape into which I had ascended. Rory was again waiting with water supplies and words of encouragement, and a quick photo before I was on the road again. One fifth of the way through the challenge with a lonely night ahead, but with the dawn to look forward to.
As the undulating road ahead got darker I started to feel the effects of the previous 20 miles and although I had been eating all sorts of carbohydrates, I was beginning to tire to such an extent that I was starting to panic about being able to manage the rest of the race. This was too early to being feeling like this, I thought, and to have to slow to any great extent and do another 70-80 miles was becoming an overwhelming thought.
Checkpoint 3 – Brockhampton – 30 miles, race time 5:05 (25th June, 11:05pm)
Obviously, the next checkpoint did arrive and Rory was duly waiting with water and food. I was more surprised by the fact that Michael was with him though, having got to 20 miles and decided this was not his race as he was feeling nauseous and exhausted already. Rory opened a bin liner full of goodies and I took a large wedge of Soreen malt loaf and started rummaging through my drop bag as I sat on a discarded tractor tyre by the edge of the road to recover. Suddenly I discovered what I was looking for – Coca-cola. Full fat, caffeine laden nectar. I no longer drink this poison under normal circumstances, but in a long race there is absolutely nothing like it!
I downed one can and contemplated leaving the other for 60 miles, but given the way I felt decided against it and downed the other as well.
Feeling suitably bloated, I sat and chatted to Rory and Michael and if it had not been for Rory reminding me there were “Places to go, people to see and miles to run!” I might’ve been settled for the night. I sheepishly gave back my bag, put on my pack and I was off on the second third of the race. As I left, Tom’s parents drove up, indicating two things to me. Firstly, Tom was still going and not far behind and secondly, I had spent far too long at the checkpoint.
As I meandered my way through the now still countryside the first of my wildlife encounters started; the silent fluttering of bats along my path, chasing the moths confused by the virtual moon of my headtorch; a small hedgehog staring intently at the illuminated ambivalent form progressing at a tangent to it’s own path and numerous badgers scurrying out of sight as I approached. A smile began to cross my face, not only because I was honoured to be privy to these snippets of nocturnal activity, but also because I started to find a rhythm and (probably after the Coke) everything suddenly seemed to be slotting into place. By the time the checkpoint had materialised though, I had probably travelled 2-3 miles without liquid, my pack having run out some time before.
Checkpoint 4 – Lower Chedworth – 41 miles, Race time 7:18 (26th June, 1:18am)
At the 30 mile mark, I’d been informed that the front runners from the 12:00 start had gone through 60 miles in 11.5 hours, so this, of course was my target to beat and with that knowledge and the Coke to keep me going I made it to the fourth checkpoint in a relatively good time, although it was what Rory described as a ‘mobile’ checkpoint which explained why he was racing the other direction in his Mini Cooper and met me at 41 miles!
After filling up with water and also lucozade lemon flavoured ‘rocket-fuel’ powder, which I was trying for the first time (not advisable in the middle of a race) but to which I am now a firm convert having used it in my pack for the rest of the race, I left sharply, having only stopped for a couple of minutes.
I continued on as best I could at this early hour of the morning as it is not easy running with the sensory deprivation that you experience with a headtorch, although the smooth tarmac roads of the Cotswolds were significantly easier than the unmarked trails and fells I have attempted in the past.
Every little distraction was of benefit at this stage to keep me sane, and amazingly they were wide and varied along this part of the route, as I ran and walked my way to where I assumed the next checkpoint would be. There was the delight of fireflies blinking on and off as brightly as Christmas lights floating above a small lake to my left. Then there was the tiny dormouse going about it’s business oblivious to me and my plight as I stopped to change my socks after a blister burst. The full moon low in the sky at this time of the year, had been my constant companion throughout the night and had provided sufficient light to cast playful shadows through the trees but the fog that I ran through briefly at this point caused not only a blinding white-out from my headtorch, but also a sudden chill which I would yearn for later in the heat of the day. There were also a plethora of noises from unseen animals throughout my nocturnal journey, some of which were obvious, such as owls hooting, but others like the bang on a gate five yards to my left as I passed which I will probably never identify, although the adrenaline that particular encounter left surging through my body must’ve held me in good stead for several miles afterwards.
[singlepic id=225 w=320 h=240 float=left]The advantage of a GPS watch is that you know what distance you have travelled. The disadvantage is that if you are expecting a checkpoint at a certain distance, and it does not materialise, doubt about wrong turnings, incorrect routes and so on, all add to the mind games you experience throughout these events. by the time I had reached 53 miles, I assumed Rory’s throwaway comment about ‘possibly’ seeing me at 50 miles was slightly more prophetic than I had imagined. Looking on the positive side, the dawn was breaking and irrespective of whether there was a checkpoint or not, I was over halfway, and so psychologically ‘counting down’ the miles to the end. Anyway, the 60 mile stop was a food stop.
At about 55 miles I saw two runners ahead and realised these were the 12:00 start back markers, Peter and Cyril (I think), but as I approached them and they noticed me behind them they started to applaud! This was a totally new experience for me – What had I done? They were impressed that I had already managed to catch them up, but I explained that I was far more impressed that they were still going after so long and having had the full heat of the day to deal with, I took my hat off to them. We chatted for a bit as we walked along through Bourton-on-the-Water, but I eventually took my leave and started running again, wishing them all the best.
The final part of the run before the next checkpoint took me through more undulating territory through Upper and Lower Slaughter and then Lower and Upper Swell. The massive van I saw as I came over a rise was like a massage to tired muscles and I ran my way into Checkpoint 6.
Checkpoint 6 – Upper Swell – 62 miles, race time 11:10 (26th June, 5:10am)
The second food stop was a bigger affair than that at 30 miles, and I gladly took up the offer of hot sweet tea when asked by Jen Salter, Rory’s partner in crime in the UltraRace organisation. We chatted as I filled up my pack again with more lucozade and one of the other runners (George) also offered me a kit-kat, which I devoured like I had not eaten in weeks. After another tea and a Coke, I was on my way yet again, but happy in the knowledge that I was ahead of the front runners from the earlier group.
After 4 miles of more minor undulations, during which I had to change my Garmin Batteries (which ironically died about two minutes after I left the checkpoint), there was a bit of a hill to climb (200ft, pah!) but then a turn down onto the main A44 towards Bourton-on-the-Hill and Moreton-in-Marsh, but the joy of this was a steady 400ft downhill over the next 2 miles, glorious – to such an extent that even after nearly 70 miles I put in a 4:31 minute kilometre.
Rory came screaming past at the bottom of the hill, just outside Moreton-in-Marsh with my drop bag which had not made it to the previous checkpoint before I left, and I quickly dropped off my headtorches, which I was hoping not to need again!
After barely another mile, I had made along the High Street of the village which was showing typical signs of waking up and to the next checkpoint, which was being manned by Michael.
Checkpoint 7 – Moreton-in-Marsh – 70 miles, race time 12:49 (26th June, 6:49am)
I chatted again briefly to Michael, who was now feeling better and to my mind was a real hero for staying on to help out with the race assisting everyone else who was still running, before I set off again.
The next mile or so was more uphill and I met and walked briefly again with David Watts, who at one point had been in the leading group from the earlier start, but as he said himself, the heat had got to him and he had overcooked it in the first few miles. His colleague Andy had retired at the last checkpoint.
As I wished him luck with his finish, I noted the temperature was rising rapidly even though it was only around 7am, and it was going to be another hot one.
As I ran on through the tiny hamlets of Batsford, Aston Magna and Paxford, I started to get some early morning messages of encouragement from my wife, Tim and John – I was spurred on by the fact that they were amazed by how I was getting on. Liz had had a broken night’s sleep and now was arranging to get the children dressed and to Breakfast so they could come and meet me, but it was also around this point that technology let her down and her mobile phone jammed. I received a frantic land-line call through from her and we tried to arrange to meet after 80 miles.
Checkpoint 8 – Chipping Campden – 80 miles, race time 15:04 (26th June, 9:04am)
[singlepic id=221 w=320 h=240 float=right]Jen had driven the movable feast which was my salvation yet again to just outside Chipping Campden, to a point on the other side of the village less than a kilometre from where I had run with Tom, some 13 hours earlier.
As I arrived Lindsey Stewart, the first placed female from the 12:00 start, was just leaving. I had a couple of cups of coffee at this point, along with my now regulation can of coke, and filled up my pack with Lucozade rocket fuel for what I hoped was the final time.
I chatted briefly with Jen about her MdS this year (3rd place female overall, with a stage win!) before continuing on my way for the big hill which she informed me was up ahead!
This was the last big one and although I forced myself to run up some of it, the sun was becoming master of the sky once more and I found myself running from the shadow of one clump of trees to the next, getting as close to the hedgerows as I could to savour every last remnant of shelter. The view at the top was another reward and I allowed myself the luxury of only my third photo across the Gloucestershire countryside before the final downhill push.
After what seemed like some distance the rising apex of the hill started downwards and I started to pick up pace as I enjoyed another downhill stretch, although by this stage my legs were getting far to stiff to really get up any appreciable speed – my expectations were conservative by this stage though and I was happy with an average 5:00 min/km for a couple of kilometres.
[singlepic id=191 w=320 h=240 float=left]I had been looking out for Liz and the children who were trying to find me on the route, as we were out of touch due to technical difficulties (!) and they eventually found me at about 88 miles, having had to follow the ’100′ stickers themselves, much to the excitement of the children who saw ’100 sticker spotting’ as a great game.
We hugged and the tears in my family’s eyes and the gifts of collected sycamore helicopters and poppy flowers showed me their pride in what I was doing. The cold can of coke was another gift and they played in the gorgeous long grass of summer as I ran off to the next checkpoint.
The rivers and streams that I seemed to be traversing with increasing regularity were temptation beyond belief – all I wanted to do was jump into an icy stream and sit for half an hour, the pain in my legs seeming to increase exponentially as I reached the final stages of the race.
Checkpoint 9 – Alderminster – 90 miles, race time 17:05 (26th June, 11:05am)
The final checkpoint, with 90 miles covered in 17 hours, was a simple water stop, with the ever positive Michael and another marshal (who’s name I unfortunately forget) in attendance.
[singlepic id=197 w=320 h=240 float=right]For the first time in 17 hours of the race, and longer from the previous day, I laid down on the grass. I could’ve stayed there for some time – but for the fact that Liz had met me two minutes before and shouted, half jokingly at me to get up and get running! The children’s excursion into the meadow earlier, had provoked a somewhat worrying reaction, and they were in dire need of anti-hystamine and the last thing my dear wife needed on her mind was me flaking out at the final hurdle!
As I left I was told there was another final hill (Loxley) and although I tried running down this, it was not happening. As I meandered my way slowly for the next few miles, I contemplated the block that had suddenly reared it’s head to my running. The stiffness in my legs was painful, but not debilitating, the blister under my right foot was getting steadily worse and I cursed my foolishness for not changing my socks earlier. The heat though! On the tarmac roads, with every car that now passed giving me an extra boost of warm air – nice
The extra route we were directed along by the stickers seemed to go on forever, but eventually, after more coke (which Liz DID pick up from the side of the road!) and an ‘entertaining’ dusty single track road (involving multiple near-death experiences) on which ironically I saw more cars than I had come across in the last 18 hours in total, I eventually took a last right-turn onto the main Stratford road.
Two miles to go, I had been told, nearly a day beforehand, but this seemed like the longest two miles of the race – the midday sun, the main road traffic, a near empty hydration pack, 98 miles behind me and all I wanted to do was lie down by the side of the road, curl up and sleep. The last dual-carriageway, after spotting the pre-warned Ur stickers was purgatory, but eventually of course I crossed the Avon for the final time, and turned almost unexpectedly onto the other side of the racecourse where I could see my family waiting and waving and with almost a spring in my step, I ran the last 500m to where they were running to meet me. I ran on to Liz and after a warm hug, ran on to Rory for the official completion of the race.
Finish – Stratford Racecourse – race time 19:15 (26th June, 13:15pm)
[singlepic id=201 w=320 h=240 float=right]My first thoughts on finishing were of complete contentment and relaxation, not exhaustion. Rory confirmed my time as 19:15:50 and he was full of admiration for what he described as my ‘awesome’ time. I played with the children for a bit and after cooling my calves down by immersing them at a nearby tap, which Savannah also proceeded to do, I sat down. After some water, Rory presented me with a glass trophy and we had a few photos!
All the way along, I had been aiming for about 18 hours total for the race, assuming that everyone else would be aiming for a similar target, and my previous reports for the 12:00 starters from earlier in the race confirmed as such but after my expectations had been revised in the last 20 miles or so, I assumed I was well off the pace.
How wrong could I be.
Only when I was about to leave and one of the other competitors asked what the winning time was did I realise, the time was mine! 19 hours, 15 minutes and 50 seconds. I was astounded and only after several confirmation texts from Rory later, did the truth sink home. I had won.
The full Garmin record is here http://connect.garmin.com/activity/38392302
I have to say a big thank you, once again to my long suffering family and especially my wife, Liz, without who’s support this race and all the training leading up to it to make it the success that it turned out to be, would not have been possible. This one was for you.
Thanks also to Rory and Jen for all the effort they put in to organising such a great event and all those who helped out for many, many hours on the day.