Category Archives: Events

A Good Way To Finish

This was do or die.

After 5 months of races, it now all came down to this one final 100 miles.

I had inadvertently fallen into the Centurion Racing ‘grand slam’, a series of four races run by the same team which challenged not only my now favourite 100 mile trail running distance, but extended the challenge to running consecutive races carried out only a few weeks apart.

Trail running has exploded recently, with many, many people discovering the joy of running in the countryside, as opposed to battling with masses in city races, and this series of races catered well for the equally expanding appetite for ultrarunning, by taking in long distance runs along beautiful English national trails.

At the beginning of May, I found myself running 100 miles along the Thames, in the TP100 from Richmond to Oxford, followed 6 weeks later, by a similarly lengthy, but much hillier jaunt along the South Downs way, the SDW100 from Winchester to Eastbourne, in June. Typically, on the hottest day in August, 8 weeks later, I found myself running along the North Downs way in the NDW100, from Farnham to Wye in Kent. I had completed all these races in under 24 hours, setting a new personal best at the Thames Path 100 in May. I was quietly confident of a good race now, but I was also aware, through bitter experience that ANYTHING can, and often does, happen in a 100 mile race and nothing is a given.

A100 Start line 3
A100 Start line 3 (Photo: Stuart March)

So it was that I arrived in Goring, on 17 October, thankfully fully recovered from my previous exploits, having managed to exorcise the phantom niggles the mind throws at you before a race, and I was confidently toeing the start line of my 10th 100 mile race.

Continue reading A Good Way To Finish

Keeping the Dream Alive

I knew this race was going to be the toughest of the year but I could not believe it when James Elson, the Centurion race director, mentioned it was going to be sunny and hot all day, without the promised rain later – I knew right then, this was going to be a battle with many casualties.

I relied upon my 8 previous 100 mile finishes to keep my nerves under control, and remembered my 2 DNF 100 miles, hoping today was not going to be the day my completion ratio went in the wrong direction.

Even so, by the time I got to 20 miles I wondered if I had bitten off more than I could chew, and by 30 miles I was ready to throw in the towel, hang up my ultra-boots and thinking of taking up a less physically demanding lifestyle.

Luckily, though, nothing came to mind.

So I plodded on, sent the now common text of self-pitying whinging to Liz asking her to meet me at halfway where we would then take stock and review life.

Still. I am getting rather ahead of myself.

The North Downs Way 100 was the third of my 100 mile races during 2015 from the four which constitute the ‘Grand Slam 2015 100s’. The races in the series are

  • Thames Path 100
  • South Downs Way 100 (still pending write up….)
  • North Downs Way 100 (this race)
  • Autumn 100 (mid-October)

The NDW goes through Guildford on its way to Kent and is literally on our doorstep, with the first 20 miles being one of my regular running routes from its start at Farnham through to Ranmore Common. However, I have not done the 100 mile race before and was looking forward to it. I had hoped to get to recce the latter part of the course, but moving house had also put paid to that plan. Interestingly, the full NDW National Trail continues for another 20 odd miles all the way from Wye to Dover, where it then loops back to Canterbury before picking up the trail again just before Wye. Luckily, we were about cut the full route short by a merciful 50 miles.

My preparations prior to the event were not quite so fortuitous.

Having finally moved house a scant fortnight before, after eight fraught months of uncertainty, planning applications and legal wrangles with solicitors on all sides, (and let me tell you, ultramarathons are simple compared to the process of moving your abode) it was a miracle that I was able to find any of my gear, chargers, gels, hats, buffs, tops, base layers and general paraphenalia, the packing of which I have now got down to a fine art in my 12L OMM backpack. Nevertheless, my original thoughts of registering on Friday evening were quickly out the window and a 4:15am Saturday morning alarm was set.

One woefully short night’s sleep later, Liz and I were on the road to Farnham, along a misty Hog’s Back which at that time in the morning thankfully provided no impediment to our short journey from Guildford.

Waiting to start
Waiting to start

Liz dropped me off outside the school and we said a brief goodbye. I think she has learned that a combination of nerves and concentration drives me into an even quieter state of mind than normal – if that is at all possible 😉

Although only 10 minutes to the briefing, I had plenty of time to register, get my kit checked and sign waivers, etc, as the queues had already disappeared. I was fastening my race number on, as James began to give his speech.

After that it was a short walk from the school to the narrow trail entrance which was nominally the start of the North Downs – at least for today.

Start: Farnham – 10:00am, Saturday 8th August

The efficiency of the Centurion staff and crew is, I think, becoming legendary, and everything started smoothly within seconds of arriving at the ‘trail-head’.

The route after the first half mile or so had, ironically, been diverted away from the trail, due to maintenance work and the organisers suggested this would add no more than 0.5 mile to the total distance (and not to complain at the end when your Garmin was over-reading). Strangely, even though I had never covered the bridleway we were going along, I knew exactly where it came out and took as much advantage as I could of the wide track and road, knowing we would we hit a short but steep uphill road after popping back onto the official track, before darting back into the narrow confines of the forest borne route once again.

Misty Morning
Misty Morning

354 had applied to run the race but only 218 had finally toed the line at the start, so this was an average race by Centurion standards, and I was not held up more that a minute or so on the initial narrow part of the course heading down through The Sands, where the dominant enterprise seems to be the golf course, then skirting past the village of Seale before heading up towards Puttenham. The trail was a mixture of rooted pine trees, open fields, some agricultural with maize growing, and also the occasional up and down exposed chalk gully, some more treacherous than others. This was to be the model terrain for the day.

It was on one of these gullies that I passed a group of runners and heard my fellow Guildford grand-slammer, Stefan Klincewicz. We had a quick chat about moving house and pacing, and then I wished him luck for the rest of the race and carried on.

It is quite strange covering a part of a course that normally takes up what would be a good and complete long run for a Sunday morning, knowing that it amounted to the merest proportion of my journey today. I nevertheless enjoyed the run through the quiet village and the views of the misty sunrise which gave little hint of the scorching temperatures to come later in the day.

I was expecting the first checkpoint to be in the car park for the Puttenham golf course, and was marginally disappointed when I could’t see it, but they had set up no more than 200m later in a clearing at the top of a rise where I saw the first of the chirpy volunteers.

Aid 1: Puttenham – 7.1 miles, 1:08:41

I took the briefest of stops at the first aid station for a quick coke, which was more for the caffeine than the liquid, as I was already starting to fall asleep from a restless night and early start; not a good place to be with the best part of 24 hours exertion ahead of me.

I settled back into enjoying the strange feeling of running the route with which I was so familiar, thinking how much our dog, Adastra, would enjoy at least part of this run, although alas, no dogs allowed.

The route from Puttenham to Compton is along gravel trail where access to the golf course either side and houses, is required, but this soon descends through a brief forest trail before crossing underneath the A3 at Compton. After this there are several miles of undulating sandy trails, which I have used for MdS training in the past as it allows a good introduction to the strength sapping properties of sand. Strangely enough, today it didn’t seem to bother me too much, possibly because the recent rain and high humidity had firmed up the surface marginally.

As we came down into Guildford, I was pleased I was slowly catching and passing a couple of other runners, but I was also preoccupied with thoughts of running through a route so close to our house, across the river where the children play, and across the playing fields where the dogs have run about so much. As I came along the fields to the Chantries, there were plenty of supporters in the car parks and I kept an eye out for Liz and the children, just in case, but thought it would probably be too early for them.

Puttenham. Image - Stuart March Photography
Puttenham. Image – Stuart March Photography

I made my way through the residential Pilgrims Way and it seemed longer that at any time I had run it in the past, and I was glad to get back to the trail where it skirts round the Chantries hill. At this point we were back to sandy gullies and as if that wasn’t enough to contend with, there was a horse and rider up ahead of me. As I passed the rider, I said good morning and asked how she was doing. She complained there were a load of people coming up behind and her horse was nervous. I passed when she allowed, giving the horse as wide a berth as I could. I ran ahead of her, but she then directed the horse to trot, looking back and complaining there were more people coming! Luckily we were out in a clearing in the forest, but the uphill sandy trail limited my speed somewhat otherwise I would have removed myself from that situation in a flash!

Eventually, after a few moments of to-ing and fro-ing, I gained an advantage just before the trail narrowed and ducked back into the trees.

I knew the next hilly section, St Martha’s, one of the oldest Churches on the Pilgrim’s way, was likely to be testing and although not long, I decided to walk up it to conserve energy. There was a supporter at the top motivating the runners with a pom-pom dance encouraging us to make it to the top – I saw her another couple of times later on the trail.

On this occasion, I hardly noticed the church at the top, having taken many pictures here in the past at what is a surprisingly picturesque site. Still, I pressed on down the sandy trail on the eastern side knowing there was one final climb to Newlands Corner, before several miles of relative flat along the spine of the North Downs towards Reigate.

There is a small winding, narrow trail going up the hill which runs parallel with the road for no more than 200m, but on this occasion, I obviously hit the rush hour as the ramblers coming in the other direction thoughtfully moved aside for me as I trudged my way round.

A couple of us crossed the minor road at the end of the parallel section, and made our way through the long branches to halfway up the hill. Now out in the open, we traversed and rose up in the open until we made it all the way to the top, although we took the high road (below the treeline, but not the undulating direct route across) before the final steep ascent along the chalk and grass combo up to the car park at Newlands Corner.

Aid 2: Newlands Corner – 14.7 miles, 2:21:52

I was briefly confused after reaching the car park that there was no checkpoint. However, being on autopilot, I had run up too far and the gazebos were located slightly further on, towards the road crossing. I stopped for slightly longer here as the heat on the exposed route over the last few miles had increased considerably as the mist had burned off. Even so, I was off relatively quickly looking forward to a steady and largely sheltered section towards Dorking.

The competitors had already spread out considerably and even after only 15 miles, there were probably only 5-10 people stopped at the checkpoints and consequently less so in evidence out on the actual course. I enjoyed the settling into a rhythm in the peace an quiet of a sunny Saturday morning 🙂

The 3km section from Newlands is largely flat, followed by another 12km along the spine through Ranmore common, before dropping down to the A24 crossing and the Box Hill stepping stones. So, although quite a long section, this was supposedly relatively easy. The heat was beginning to pick up though, and on many of the exposed slopes we were running into a bright climbing sun which slowed me considerably.

Denbies Wine Estate from Ranmore Common (Photo: Stephen and Lucy Dawson)
Denbies Wine Estate from Ranmore Common (Photo: Stephen and Lucy Dawson)

The route of the North Downs seems to stick predominantly to the south facing side of the rise and this section was no different. A forest section gave way to a run along sloping fields with crops growing before darting briefly through an expensive residential area with wide tended verges and a middle England village feel about it.

There were many cyclists about as the time drifted on which was to be another common occurrence, at least during Saturday morning, especially as this was a brief part of the route where the Ride London cycle had taken place the previous Sunday; some cyclists were reliving their experience perhaps.

Before descending to the A24, I came across a curiously surprising sight – a vineyard on the slopes of the hill through which I was running. Acres and acres of straight parallel white grape vines, in lines down the slope were the last thing I expected, but this was ‘Denbies’ Wine Estate which turned out to be the biggest vineyard in the UK – right on our doorstep! Who knew!

As the trail circumnavigated the vineyard, it eventually took a sharp downward turn and I soon found myself at the busy A24, where we had been warned earlier to use the subway crossing. The crossing was quite a way and the back and forth route amounted to nearly another 1/2 mile, and I slowed as I drank and used another of my gels as I strolled along the road, in preparation for the anticipated climb up to Box Hill. I was glad after the hot stretch to reach the checkpoint.

Aid 3: Box Hill Stepping Stones – 24.6 miles, 4:06:22

Each aid station was manned by cheery volunteers, who were always busy and helpful with the food, runners, water and checking people in, and they helped me fill my backpack quickly. I had anticipated that I would be using a lot more liquid than on the previous two races, but I was still surprised my water bladder already needed filling at only a quarter distance. Having figured out the malfunction in the lid seal from my previous race, it was a lot easier to fill and I was more confident of not having a completely soaked backside by the end of the race.

Stepping Stone over the River Mole
Stepping Stones over the River Mole

So early in the race, I was still relatively fresh, but starting to feel the effects of the heat, and also anticipating the climb back up to the top of the ridge at Box Hill, so I took on a lot of fruit and coke.  The water melon and tangerine segments, followed by banana for the road, have become my staple fair on these races. I was on my way swiftly though, thanking the volunteers for all their help.

Just before the rise, the ‘stepping stones’ provide a novel, way to cross the River Mole which flows parallel to the road, along the valley, both presumably taking advantage of the natural geography of the region, and I allowed myself the luxury of stopping to take a couple of pictures. All too soon though, I had picked my way across (surprisingly gingerly I might add!) and was on the other side on my way up the hill.

Some years ago, I had done a race along the South West Coast path called the Classic Cliffs, other than starting at midnight and running in the dark with a sheer drop and almost certain death to your left for the first part of the 57 miles, the other thing I remember about it was the steps. Frequent excursions up and down steep wooden steps following the coastal contours, probably 150-200ft at a time, between the creases in the shoreline.

That memory had a reprise today as I turned a corner in the trees and emerged into a clearing and found myself staring up at a series of wooden steps, and if there had been any clouds, the top would’ve been hidden in them – almost 🙂

Steps Up Box Hill
Steps Up Box Hill

The thing with these steps is that then tend to be quite high and require quite a lot of quad, glute and hamstring effort. By the time I was at the top, I was using my hands to push down on my knees for extra support. I hoped there would not be too many more hills of that sort throughout the rest of my journey, although that thought would come to haunt me again before the end.

As I was approaching the limit of the route that I knew, I tried to settle back down into a rhythm and although the route was slightly undulating, it also had a lot of twists and turns through forests, often negotiating fallen trees and my favourite gnarly tree roots to keep an eye out for. I managed this section without any falls, trips or stumbles. The last time I had done this part of the run was winter about 18 months ago, as part of the Pilgrim’s Challenge, and the route was extraordinarily muddy and slippery. Today it was considerably easier.

This was the stretch of the route where the trail approached closer to the London orbital M25 and indeed the drone of the cars on the motorway became ever more noticeable over the next couple of hours.

I chatted to a few people as we ran at similar paces, sometimes slowing for a rest and sometimes getting a second wind and moving ahead of them as they had with me.

The trail evened out a few miles before we reached the Reigate Hill checkpoint, which was positioned just after the crest of a hill overlooking (presumably) Reigate, and I saw many other runners, walkers and bikers coming up the hill to enjoy the views across south Surrey and Sussex, which I had just taken in myself.

Aid 4: Reigate Hill – 32.3 miles, 6:03:03

Lunchtime.

I don’t remember if it was here, but the usual smell of summer barbecues, roasting meat, curries and in general burning animal flesh wafted through the air on many occasions through the day, and this was a picnic area in an English beauty spot at Saturday lunchtime on a sunny, summer’s day, so chances are it was here, tormenting me.

After a few slugs of coke, I grabbed some slices of melon, orange, apple and banana and, after ‘stuffing my face’, left the checkpoint doing my best impression of a hamster, with little more than the banana for the road.

There was still quite a bit of downhill before reaching the bottom of the next valley, or at least diverting uphill again. After a short while I found myself walking (yes, walking) through the outskirts of a village before tracing a path through a school complex (Royal Alexandra and Albert School, Gatton). I kept a lookout for the signs indicating I was on the right track and my levels of confidence that I had missed a turning on my own, were at rock bottom before I eventually spotted some red and white tape fluttering in the breeze.

Golden Cornfields
Golden Cornfields

Even though there was a lot of downhill, I was finding it difficult to run without pain. The same pain I had experienced in my previous race (SDW100) which was way too close to the pain I had felt in my hip 5 years ago in Leadville before it broke.

I was in a quandary.

Again after 30 miles into a race, the discomfort from running was increasing.

My head told me I should stop and that it would be far more sensible to live to race another day, although multiple DNF records are a difficult blemish to expunge from a runners consciousness. I had followed my head in Mont Blanc last year and, it turned out, I had bailed for no good reason.

My heart told me to carry on until it became unbearable as my challenge for the year was to complete all four races, and failure at any point would diminish the accomplishment of all of the other races – past and future. That is, unfortunately, the strategy I had taken at Leadville 2010,  and we all know where that road ended.

My surgeon had told me previously that there was “no way” this hip would ever give me any problems again and “if anything, it would be the other side” that would start to exhibit the same symptoms. So I had that small level of confidence that at least the same stress was unlikely to occur again. My issues was now knowing whether something further, simpler or different might occur.

My wife, Liz, as supportive as ever, was incredibly disappointed for me, as I spoke to her on my journey. Interestingly, either my phone, or her phone, was playing up around this point and one of us had unwittingly dialled the other, and since I had been taking pictures or something anyway, it was several minutes into our conversation before we realised the fortuitous accident.

I explained a now familiar story of frustration from the aching in my left side hip and she listened as I whinged and moaned a bit about not enjoying the challenge; why do I do this; it must be time to give up and act my age(??), as I had already cogitated the matter for quite a few miles.

I had probably 16-17 miles to cover to the halfway point and I decided it best to press on to halfway, where we would, in a repeat of the previous race, see how I felt. The prospect of walking 3-4 hours in the midday heat was not appealing.

Hanging Wood...
Hanging Wood…

By the time I had traversed a golf course and reached the outskirts of Merstham, my route diverted from anything I was now familiar with and nipped across the M25 which was now to remain less than a mile to our south until just after the halfway point. I spoke to an Irish lady whose partner was crewing her and had arranged to meet her at many of the checkpoints. The traffic on the M25 clockwise (heading west at this point) was backed up and slow moving for several miles, and she was concerned he was not going to be able to get to her in time. She ran off as we approached the bridge across the M25, saying something about trying to spot his car 😉 So, of course my mind then whiled away the hours trying work out the improbability of her spotting him in a traffic queue on Britain’s busiest motorway in the 10-15 seconds it took to cross the bridge.

After the crossing, we did a sharp ascent to the top of the rise again and followed a track called (not for the first time) Pilgrim’s Lane. The track went through a farmyard and surrounding miscellaneous building and outhouses, before disappearing once more into a wooded area, but it was fairly level most of the way and I reached the next checkpoint on Gravelly Hill sooner than I had expected..

Aid 5: Caterham – 38 miles, 7:47:38

The aid station was located at the east end of a clearing in the forest and the staff had done their best to utilise as much shelter from the trees as possible. The inexorable motion of the Sun was taking its toll though and the flimsy gazebos were little protection against the heat now convecting up the side of the south facing slope.

Caterham Viewpoint along Gravelly Hill
Caterham Viewpoint along Gravelly Hill

I still had what felt like a long slog of 12 miles to go to the halfway point and I didn’t relish the thought of much of the same type of terrain as I had experienced for the last few hours, especially in this heat. The terrain also caused another problem – gravel in my shoes. I had not fitted any ‘gaiters’ to my shoes, to stop trail detritus finding its way to my feet, so I don’t suppose I should have expected any less. It did mean occasionally after a rough trail, I needed to ’empty’ the sticks and stones, which I did at this checkpoint in the comfort of a chair. It was bliss to sit down, if only for a moment. The biggest problem, however, is always getting up again afterwards 😡

My water was still okay, even though I had been drinking constantly, so I ate a few pieces of iced melon and drank some coke, both of which were most welcome in the heat and, after thanking the volunteers, I was on my way once again and although it seemed like I had spent a good while at this aid station, in reality it was only about 5 or 6 minutes.

The trail from Gravelly Hill veered away from the road down through the ominously named Hanging Wood, which was still and close inside and lived up to its eerie name. I was quickly through and emerged at another bridge across a busy road (A22) before picking up another road called Quarry Road which made me smile as we had moved into our new house in Quarry Street, about two weeks before.

For a couple of miles I travelled past more expensive houses, tucked away in the woods, which meandered up and down, left and right, the road snaking an uncertain path through the trees, before eventually turning to the right back along a trail. After another couple of miles, the route diverted south again and I noticed the exposed white chalk excavations, which presumably gave Quarry Road its name.

English Harvest
English harvest, from a trail on the edge

I considered that the main difference between this and my previous race through another national park, along the South Downs Way, in June. This course was far less consistent, that is, it was far more variable and had far more enclosed forest sections with twisting and turning, undulations in the tracks. The terrain was largely similar, with a variety of loose gravel, compacted earth and roads through small villages to negotiate, but this route had a lot more of the aforementioned ‘steps’ and much of the trail also ran through untended field edges, giving a distinct impression the path was an afterthought at the sudden demise of crops, where spring sowing tractors had been unable to extend their reach.

Less than a mile after one of these fields where the hay was being harvested and the stalks baled into giant cylinders throughout, the trail turned again to an uphill forest section, where I again saw the enthusiastic lady with her pom-poms shouting and encouraging the runners on their way up the hill! One of the other runners asked if she was going to be on every hill for the next 60 miles 🙂 She smiled politely and declined an answer.

At the top, the final checkpoint before halfway was a welcome reprieve.

Aid 6: Botley Hill – 43 miles, 9:07:23

The volunteers at Botley hill had a lot more shelter from the mid-afternoon heat and it was noticeably cooler here to stop, than at the previous checkpoint. Even so, I spent only a scant three minutes filling my face with the usual offerings. The iced water melon REALLY was good.

The route continued through woods, fields and edges of fields before picking up another road through a residential area.

There were quite a few cars parked along this road and many crew / supporters were waiting for their runners to come through. There was one very enthusiastic Aussie lady with a cow-bell encouraging the competitors and I smiled at her and her group as I passed. I saw them many more times throughout the day.

Solitary Journey. Image - Stuart March Photography
Solitary Journey. Image – Stuart March Photography

As I made my way along, a policeman in his car slowed and drove alongside me. Although I didn’t think I had done anything wrong, my adrenaline levels rose ever so slightly, and I wondered if the local neighbourhood watch had reported me for emptying the grit from my shoes onto the kerbside. I was relieved when he asked me what the race was about, and when I explained, he laughed and stated he could probably just about manage 100 miles, in his car, provided he was given the opportunity to stop for lunch 🙂

Throughout races of such a huge length of time (rather than necessarily distance) one does tend to have many ups and downs. These often bear no correlation to the difficulty of the trail, how fatigued the runner is or how hungry. I had a low point myself earlier on, which correlated with the ache in my hip which was progressively getting worse as I continued, but after continual testing, I now found I was able to run more steadily along the gentle trails and so progressed as fast as I could towards the mid-way checkpoint.

Running to the Family. Image: Liz Pomeroy
Running to the Family. Image: Liz Pomeroy

I stopped at a right turning in the trail in order to unload the small but highly irritating stones which were gravitating towards the soles of my feet, but continued quickly on my way as trail turned to lane and lane changed back to trail before I eventually hit the promisingly named ‘Main Road’ with signposts to Knockholt village and from there it was what seemed a very long half mile to the checkpoint.

Aid 7: Knockholt Pound – 50 miles, 10:31:12

It is always such a boost to see my family at the checkpoints, especially for the first time in a race. They were all waiting dutifully for me to come in, and helped me with the usual quick hits of fruit and coke, before I sat down and had some proper food – pasta and chilli.

Crew Savannah. Image: Liz Pomeroy
Crew Savannah. Image: Liz Pomeroy

The village hall at Knockholt Pound was like a sauna with all the sweaty bodies and heat from the weather, so I sat outside in a hallway, but this was almost as steamy. Liz took my top, which I had changed for a fresh one, and damped it in cold water, and hanging this round my shoulders while I ate my pasta was ‘exhilarating’, to say the least! Savannah was a star fetching me additional cokes and fruit while I changed my socks and contemplated my next steps.

Halfway into a race is a huge psychological milestone, but I was unsure if my recent bought of speed was a swan song or a new lease of life. Either way, it was a tough decision to put my shoes back on, stand up and walk back out the door.

I said goodbye to the others, who had migrated outside to look after the dogs, and walking back round through the checkpoint ‘entrance’ had to explain I had already been checked in, so as not to confuse the volunteers ticking runners off.

The route through the village continued briefly, before dipping back south to the NDW trail, which we had been diverted away from a mile or so before the checkpoint, and from there it continued in a similar fashion to previously, through field and woods. Suddenly, after running down through a couple of clear trails at the edge of open fields, I was surprised to find myself running parallel right next to the M25 Motorway (which was no longer suffering its earlier congestion) and after the calm of village life, that was a bit of an assault on my senses. Luckily, after no more than 500m the route headed south-east and over the motorway which continued on its north-easterly circuit of the capital.

A couple of other runners and myself now took a tortuous route on the local roads and trails through another village, on another road known as West and East Pilgrims Way, which were spliced onto either side of the High Street at Otford. It was about here that I heard Liz and the children in the car as they made their way past me. They were unable to stop though, as I later found out, the car was running on fumes and they were off to get fuel.

The route settled down after crossing the railway line at the east end of Otford, and the town abruptly died out in favour of a steep uphill forest trail, but on a positive point is was was as straight as an arrow for a good kilometre.

The joy of a little consistency was unfortunately short lived and we were soon back to running across and around fields of corn, through woods and down the odd lane.

Having left the M25 to its orbital journey, the source of road noise was replaced by the M26 which we were now running parallel with although admittedly it was at least a mile down the slope of the downs, which we were continuing to traverse, along, up and down.

As I emerged from a wooded area I saw a village off in the distance and hoped that this was Wrotham, where my sister and her husband had run a restaurant in the past. The route picked up the Pilgrims Way on the way into the village (I think there was a nomenclaturistic theme emerging here) and as I turned a final curve towards playing fields, I saw the Centurion flags in the early evening light and then spotted my children running towards me.

Aid 8: Wrotham – 60 miles, 13:22:16

It was great to see my family again and a huge boost with around 40 miles to go.  It had taken me some time to reach this checkpoint and the proverbial wheels were starting to fall of some of their wagons, through hunger and tiredness, but I was glad they had a park with swings in which to play as they waited, so at least boredom was not added into the mix. My pace was slow though; much slower than I had hoped to this stage and even a sub-24 hour 100 was in jeopardy, and I knew I would have to move it to get in under that particular wire.

The children again helped with cokes and fruit for me (and I helped to get them some chocolate chip cookies). We discussed the next stop which, for crew accessibility, was at Bluebell hill and as it was already nearly 7:30pm, I did not expect to see them again in the dark of the evening.

I ran off after saying goodbye to everyone, and they ran after me again (unofficial pacers!) so after one final hug, I disappeared down a trail which led to a bridge across the M20 motorway!

More cornfields....!
More cornfields….!

Thankfully the route now settled down on its way up the hill towards Vigo Village, the rise being only a couple of hundred feet and then a nice forest plateau for a while, followed by a similar open section at the edge of a field after descending couple of hundred feet again. There were two or three runners both ahead of and behind me, although as we were now into the pacer permissible stage of the race, it was difficult to tell whether they were two individual runners chatting, or a runner and pacer – I generally assumed they were the latter, as the telltale signs were there; one was generally smiling and chatty, running ahead to open gates, straining to hold back like Usain Bolt at a parent’s sports day, while the other was moving more like Mr Bean, having rode across America on a horse with no saddle, trying to force down an inch of squashed banana without vomiting and caked in dried, salty sweat accumulated over the last 14 hours.

After a small rise it was only a quarter of a mile to the aid station at the top of Holly Hill.

Aid 9: Holly Hill – 65.6 miles, 14:31:14

I only stopped for a few minutes, having only come about 5 miles since a long stop at Merstham. The Sun was pretty much down by the time I reached Holly Hill, and even though it was still light, I got my torch out to hold ready for the impending onset of the night after the twilight as I left the aid station. I also put my Garmin on charge in my backpack – it normally lasts for about 18-20 hours, but had already beeped at me to indicate low charge, and since I was not expecting to take 34 hours, I thought it best to charge it now to get me to the end.

Probably not the best idea, for a couple of reasons.

For some obscure reason, I had it in my mind, even after looking at the aid station list and checking, that the next checkpoint was 72 odd miles, that is, only 5-6 miles from leaving Holly hill. That wouldn’t have been a major problem, but also for some reason it no longer beeps laps when it is on charge (I have it set to indicate every kilometre).

So, imagine the scene. Suddenly, it was getting dark, I had no idea how far I had gone, and no idea why, after 6 miles, the aid station was not materialising. Not a good situation to be in – especially when you think you are close and you tell you wife, I’ll probably be another 30 minutes and an hour later you’re still not at the checkpoint 😯

Nevertheless, the route was actually quite pleasant as the sun was going down, both before and after the checkpoint, and I enjoyed the play of light in the trees and the changing colour of the sky. There was a long section through a forest with a well tended trail for around 3-4 km immediately after the checkpoint where I eventually had to succumb to the use of my head torch, although for quite some while I switched it off when going through clearings where the remaining daylight was sufficient to see the trail. Eventually though, even this was not possible.

I spoke to a chap, Ilsuk Han #25, who was running and walking at a similar pace to me. We talked about other races, running and how he was doing. He seemed stronger and more comfortable than me at that stage, but I largely kept up with him, as we both ‘tagged’ on to a group of others running with a pacer.

Twilight Sunflowers - Image: Richard Goulder (Centurion Running Community)
Twilight Sunflowers – Image: Richard Goulder (Centurion Running Community)

This was a really nice part of the race, where I’d settled into a rhythm as the terrain was now marginally more consistent, I was having a second wind and thankfully the heat from the day had disappeared. It was also about this time that we went through a field of sunflowers which made the most amazing sight, but the light was not really good enough (by the time I got there!) to take a picture, so thanks to those others who provided a few on Facebook!

For almost an hour the route had been undulating, but slowly descending, and as the little group of us, made our way along, sometimes dispersing, sometimes travelling together, we eventually hit the highly urban area on the outskirts of Chatham. As we picked through the roads, underpasses and bridges, I retrieved my now charged watch from my pack, so at least I now had an idea of how far I had come. Unfortunately, my expectation about where the next checkpoint was located, was still incorrect and I constantly thought it was imminent.

Having crossed over the M2 motorway, which I considered a major bridge, we turned south and made our way across the longer and more impressive viaduct across the Medway river, along the pavement by the side of the motorway, by the end of which we had added at least another mile to our journey. The motorway over the river was well lit, so I turned off my head torch to save batteries, and the smooth man-made surface afforded the opportunity to get into a nice ‘pace’ (relatively speaking) and so I caught a few others during this section. Once on the other side of the viaduct, we crossed under the motorway again – I grumpily noted there was not a pathway on the western side of the bridge, hence the need to cross over and back again, probably adding an unnecessary 200m to our journey 😉

For another 1/2 mile we ran parallel with the main road, with me checking around every corner for signs of the next checkpoint. My hopes were continually dashed and eventually we turned away from the noise of the road and started a long haul uphill, covering an ascent of 500ft in a couple of miles. I passed quite a few people as I hiked uphill, continually hoping that each light I saw in the distance was an indication of an imminent aid station. My estimated text to Liz of 30 minutes to the next checkpoint had been followed by apologies of confusion as to what was happening with my Garmin and my mind! I also passed a guy who was rather worse off and I chatted to him as I passed, but he was adamant he didn’t need anything and was just plodding slowing along in order to pull out at the next checkpoint. As I turned round every so often to check on him, the line of head torches up the hill confirmed for me that everyone was checking he was okay.

After a couple of miles, the rise diminished a little and going was a little easier. The trail was dusty though, and I was more than a little surprised when a couple of cars came up from behind. I assumed they were crew vehicles heading for the aid station, but thought otherwise when the second driver showed extreme irritation with the fact that another runner and myself did not get out of the way instantly, speeding up as soon as he had the opportunity and kicking up clouds of dust into our head torches, which stuck to my salty skin and made it difficult to breath for several minutes afterwards. Thanks very much!

Bluebell Hill Sunset (before I arrived!) Image: Liz Pomeroy
Bluebell Hill Sunset (before I arrived!) Image: Liz Pomeroy

Eventually, 45 minutes after leaving the road and starting up the hill, I saw lights and people congregating, giving me a good indication that the checkpoint was just ahead. The 6 miles I was expecting had turned into a long tortuous 11 miles and had been one of the toughest mental sections of the day. On the upside, as I ran down the side of the grass verge to the Centurion flags illuminated in the dark, I had 4-5 miles less to go than I had expected and, significantly, I suddenly realised this was under one marathon distance, but more importantly, my family were still waiting for me.

Aid 10: Bluebell Hill – 76.2 miles, 17:00:12

After my miscalculation error, I had not expected them to still be here as it was 11:00pm. Bless them – they had been spotting satellites and shooting stars in the crystal clear sky and playing with the dogs, but they were very tired. I stayed here for over 25 minutes, longer than I should have and went through an ‘I-don’t-feel-like-going-back-out’ moment as I emptied my shoes, drank hot tea and put on my base layer, although regretted than once I was underway again as it was still relatively warm. The children were stars again, getting me everything I needed 🙂

After the struggle of standing up, I made my way off, with a nice long downhill section easing my legs back into some semblance of function after being stationary for so long. The downhill consisted of a narrow channel, reminiscent of the final downhill into Eastbourne on the SDW100 (where there was only 3km to go, I dreamt!), and I had to watch my foot placement in the uneven and rutted surface.

At the bottom of the hill there was a crossing via a subway under the road, before ascending back up 300-400ft to the ridge through a forest in about a quarter mile. That seemed quite hard, but was over quite quickly and was followed by a level trail all the way to the descent into Detling. For the last few miles I had started to notice a hotspot under my left foot again, and despite pulling and pushing my sock about (which had been the cause of problems in the previous race) I hoped the blister which was forming would not cause too many problems towards the end of the race.

There was another brief downhill into the village, and then a well marked route up and over a pedestrian bridge which I surprised myself by bounding up and down quite quickly. The checkpoint was immediately after the bridge and there were several crew and support staff pointing the way for weary competitors.

Aid 11: Detling – 82 miles, 18:45:47

As a result of the ease of the last section, I was feeling good as ran up the steps into the hall where the food and aid was laid out and I got more than a few quizzical looks from those already in the hall.

At this time of night, my need for coke is normally replaced by a desire for a hot drink, and sweet tea invariably hits the spot – tonight was no different. The aid station staff were incredible – so helpful and supportive, even at nearly 1:00am, they were bright and cheery and a real boost.

The lady I spoke to said there were only about three hills left before the end. I guess I shouldn’t have taken that quite as literally as she obviously intended it, as over the next 3 miles I counted about seven.

I left full of confidence and started my way up the first hill. The route was the same as it had been earlier in the day; initially through trees, but then backwards and forwards across undulating fields.

“Ooooh, this must be what she meant about the hills”, I thought to myself as I stealthily negotiated my way down the hill only a few moments after ascending the last. I increased my count.

One.

The trail was dark, and the sky was clear and I enjoyed the open sections where I could spot the constellations ahead of me – Hercules was prominent at the time.

Two.

As I zigzagged up and down the hills I could also see another couple of torches both in front of and behind me.

Three – great, that must be it.

Then there was a flight of steep wooden steps, both down and up. I had flashbacks to Box Hill earlier in the day, and to the Classic Cliffs again.

Four – Huh? Maybe that last one didn’t count as a hill…

More steps.

Five – Oh man, what is going on here?

Six – whose idea was this?

Seven – had enough now.

By the top of the seventh hill, there were one or two of us together, which, after 85 or so miles is actually quite remarkable, and we travelled on chatting together for about 30 minutes before hitting the downhill into the next village.

As we hit Hollingbourne, my companion stopped as he was meeting his girlfriend, but distracted by the departure, I then made a fatal error and missed the signs for the trail.

I travelled downhill along the village ‘main road’ which was all but deserted at 2:30am, for about 1/4 mile before I intuitively felt I had taken a wrong turn. The lack of indications, either permanent or race placed, also helped me to make the u-turn decision. As I arrived back at the junction where I suspected I had gone wrong, a crew / supporter confirmed I should take the ‘other’ route.

Annoyingly, I had wasted over 5 minutes with my detour, and although the route was now very slowly ascending along a paved road, I ran on to try to regain some time.

Moon in Taurus
Moon in Taurus

The moon was rising to the east, slightly to the left of my current heading, and it made a spectacular view with the crescent moon perfectly framing Aldebaran in Taurus, with the Pleiades watching pensively overhead. Oh for a camera, tripod and a couple of hours to spare at that moment 🙂

I think I was running with another one or two people at this stage and there were another group of runners up ahead, probably two competitors and a pacer, I thought, as they were doing a run walk strategy and the pacer was counting out their mile pace to ensure they had a chance of getting in under the 24 hour mark for the ‘special’ buckle.

I ran with them for a bit but did not like the sound of their conversation. They lacked confidence that they would be able to make the cut-off, and I suddenly started to doubt I had calculated correctly. I think the pacer was trying to gain a slight amount of contingency for his colleagues, but in reality it was having more of a negative effect on me.

As a result, I stepped up a gear and pushed to get into a bit more of a rhythm. The surface was relatively flat (i.e. ±100ft undulations), but again variable and through a largely forested area, required a fair amount of concentration to avoid mishap on the uneven ground. Undulating was actually good at this stage and I pushed up to the top of the short rises and enjoyed the respite of the downhills. At one point I was pacing for the whole group of half a dozen or so of us, and I felt strong as the kilometres ticked off slowly.

It was about 5km from Hollingbourne to the next aid station but the going was easy so I covered it steadily and hit the small station at Lenham at about 3:15am.

Aid 12: Lenham – 90.9 miles, 21:15:43

My feet were starting to suffer by this point and I was glad that there was only just over 10 miles to go, with a bit extra added on for detours and diversions (my reckoning was no more than an additional mile or so).

As I stopped I remembered to switch off my head torch, rather than blind the volunteers – at that time in the morning, I’m sure they are just as tired as the runners, but they all keep up a happy demeanour and support the competitors through the last few miles. I did the usual with a quick warm tea and fruit to keep me going. I forced down a dry scotch egg to try to get some protein onboard, along with some crisps for salt, although at this stage I was starting to think about the end and so wasn’t expecting to need much more food. I was out of this aid station within no more than 5 minutes, and as I left, the pacing group I had been with earlier pulled in.

I always estimate about 2 hours to do 10 miles on a good day,  and as I left the checkpoint I was making mental calculations about how long I had to go, both in distance and time.

I ran along a road briefly to pick up the trail lower down the hill following another few runners which I tried to catch, and later on also crossed over another road which was empty, even though the first light of dawn was now starting to obliterate the stars in the sky.

As I carried on and suddenly found myself all alone for the first time in ages.

The route went past a few houses, and what appeared to be another quarry, but eventually started to take a constant slow downhill stance. It was a fairly wide trail through an arch of trees at this stage, with a nicely stable surface and the additional light from the slowly rising Sun helped with my foot placement allowing me to keep up the steady pace I had calculated. I was trying to achieve 7 minute kilometres – laughable, really, but significantly faster than the 10 minute kms I had been reduced to earlier in the day, and if I could cut 2-3 minutes off my average pace over the remaining distance, I would be ‘safe’ for the sub-24 buckle.

As I closed on where I hoped the checkpoint would be, I noted I had not seen any trail markers for some time in my solitary run through the downhill forest section and wondered if I had missed a turning. If I had, I would not have time to retrace my steps and get in in time, so carried on what I thought was the route and luckily eventually saw some crew and supporters encouraging me, and confirming the checkpoint was just ahead; I suppose it is not that strange the thoughts that go through your mind at 4am after running for nearly 24 hours straight.

Aid 13: Dunn Street – 98.4 miles, 22:52:02

I hardly stayed at this aid station for any time at all. There were only 4.5 miles to go, and I didn’t feel I needed anything to get me through that, so I grabbed a couple of bits for the road and guiltily made my way out. I guess the aid station staff are used to people getting out as fast as they can when so close to the finish, but they were just as encouraging and supportive as all the other checkpoints and I thanked them all the same.

Once I got underway, and was clear of the woods, I realised everything was getting much brighter, even though the sun was not quite risen yet, and the sky was light enough that I no longer needed my head torch, so I packed it away as I continued.

The route was largely downhill, albeit slowly, and with the time I had made up on the last couple of sections, I was now confident I could get in sub-24, but obviously wanted to do the fastest time that I could so carried on at the (relatively slow) pace I had managed to maintain before.

We ran across a couple more fields, and I enjoyed the red dawn skies illuminated by the imminent sunrise, before coming across an avenue of tended trees along a light tarmac road, before hitting the trail again with about 3km left to go.

There were a few runners around me, and one guy sped past me as if he had just started out doing a 5k! I was keen not let that happen again, so I upped my pace as much as I could in anticipation of turning the final corner.

We ran through another field, along a road through a village green, and then dipping around the back of some farm sized greenhouses, with the number of supporters walking towards and away from the finish increasing all the time, the dew in the long grass suddenly making my feet soaked, but I wasn’t worried at this stage, and carried on regardless.

As I departed the trail and headed for the railway crossing, I remembered something James mentioned at the start about using the bridge and so I went up and over the pedestrian bridge even though the railway level crossing was open and empty. I even had to find my way out through a ticket office to arrive 5 yards across the road from where I’d been two minutes earlier :laugh: I’ll put that down to a mist of 100 mile exhaustion and 24 hour sleep deprivation! On the upside, the station was ‘Wye’ and as I followed the tape markings, I knew I was close to the finish.

Shortly after I saw a Centurion crew member beckoning me towards the final turn. “Go right round to the back” he said, and I realised why as I passed several doors and rooms of competitors already inside who had completed their race, before I saw the finish line.

I smiled as I saw Liz on the other side of the finish, and I stopped only after crossing under the now familiar Centurion inflatable.

Finish: Wye – 103 miles, 23:40:13

I had done it.

Finish line euphoria
Finish line euphoria

After another scare earlier in the race, I had managed to pull another sub-24 out of the bag. The conditions had been atrocious for the competitors, as eventually only 137 of the 218 starters, roughly 63%, had finished the race, many succumbing to the hot conditions.

I relished the presentation of my buckle and thanked the staff for all their support. I also thanked Stuart, the photographer, who had been up since the early hours of the previous day, who had followed the runners across several locations, and who had also been cheerful and supportive throughout the day. My finish bag was with me almost immediately  and shortly afterwards I was in the hall with Liz, a sweet cup of tea and a hot bacon sandwich, and let me tell you, life doesn’t get any better than that! 😀

I chatted with Martin Walker #100, who came in just before me along with Ilsuk Han who I had run with earlier. Martin sat next to me on the chairs laid out and is also doing the Grand Slam, but was of the opinion he’d not be doing anything like this again after this year.

Having stopped, my feet were starting to swell and my body was starting to stiffen up. It took some time to be able to muster the concentration to bend down and pop my feet out of my trainers, without losing a layer of skin from the soles of my feet at the same time. The simple act of changing shorts, top and socks eventually took me about an hour, and I anticipated walking like John Wayne for the next few days.

Grand Slam finish still a reality
Grand Slam finish still a reality

I’d like to thank my wife for all her support throughout the race and bringing the children to the finish to see me. I would not have got as far as I did without all her love and kindness, advice and ignoring my whinging.

I’d also, again, like to thank the Centurion organisers and volunteers who were tireless in their support of the competitor’s dreams of a 100 mile finish. Congratulations to all those who achieved a first 100-mile finish on a tough course, and to all those still in the Grand Slam 2015 – see you in October!

Back on form?

After the hoardes of runners had taken off ahead of me at the start, some 16 hours earlier, I was astounded to hear from the aid station staff, that I was placed 10th, although their ambiguous questioning ‘Do I know where I am?” I took to be a less than subtle geographical based medical enquiry given the state of my outward appearence at 2am in the morning.

Obligatory pre-race selfie?
Obligatory pre-race selfie?

The run had been a lot quieter than this same race I had done last year, but I had foolishly not made the connection that this was because I was ahead of the bulk of the 265 starters running along the Thames tow path from Richmond to Oxford. In fact, by this stage, about 78 miles into the race at the Wallingford aid station, I had hardly seen anyone for the last couple of hours, with the exception of what I assumed to be the headtorches of my fellow competitors in the distance behind me, which I felt compelled to check regularly and which were strangely spurring me on a lot more than at any time in past races.

Other that a short road half marathon at Fleet in the middle of March, I had done little of note since the disappointment at the UTMB in August last year, after which time I was considering whether it was time to hang up my ultra boots. It seems just as well that I persevered.

In the end, last year, this was the only 100 mile race I completed, although as you might gather from the title of my previous blog, I felt I had not done as much training as I needed to persue such a distance and in the end I scraped in around 23:10.

At the start of the race this year, my concern was more around how far I would get before the rain started, such was the forecast, but with the experience of knowing the route, I had set myself the ambition of trying to beat my longstanding 100 mile PB of 19:15 from the Cotswolds 100 in 2010. Anything can happen in a 100 miles though, so my game plan was to take things steadily.

Startline briefing (Image credit - Centurion / Stuart March Photography)
Startline briefing (Image credit – Centurion / Stuart March Photography)

I got the train up to Richmond and arrived in plenty of time, along with many other competitors taking the same route from the station to the Old Town Hall in Richmond. When we arrived the place was already abuzz with runners and crew and the Centurion Running Staff checking kit for mandatory equipment, before giving out race numbers. I was through this process fairly speedily, but nevertheless stayed indoors as long as I could in order to keep warm.

I met up with a few people from previous races, including Stefan Klincewicz (a local friend from Guildford), Nick Greene, who ran the SDW100 the same year I did, 2013, who I then met in Leadville, and Andy Landells, the fireman I had met in Ouarzazate in Morocco on the way to the MdS in 2013 who had almost joined our tent. It’s a small world.

After only a very brief time, the organisers called for the competitors to move to the tow path for a briefing, where they went through the usual encouragement for those attempting 100 miles for the first time and also a couple of diversions from the normal route – to be expected over that sort of distance, but not as a result of flooding as my races along the Thames have been affected many times in the past.

Start – Richmond – 10:00am, Saturday 2nd May

The race commenced at 10:00am sharp and I allowed the masses to go ahead of me. We had been informed that there were 265 starters and I was expecting to be about half-way down the field at the first aid station. Even so, it was a slow and steady start for most and we hit our first obstacle (from memory it was a single-file wrought iron gate to the tow-path which most of the runners were queuing to negotiate. I jumped over the fence, with a couple of other runners and, in retrospect, may well have gained many places at this point. Who knows.

Richmond Bridge
Richmond Bridge

Although the route goes through the suburban outskirts of London, it is surprising how much greenery and trail there is along for the first few miles, and although this is undoubtedly just a veneer along the meandering river, it nevertheless quickly allowed me to settle into my rhythm for the day.

At the start of what you know is going to be a long day, the time generally seems to pass quite quickly though, and the small group of spread out runners of which I had become a part, soon found ourselves in Kingston where we crossed the rivers for the first of many times.

On my ‘runs home’ which I have done on occasion, I run through Kingston from London and then pick up the river on the opposite side to that which we were running today. It is still strangely familiar though, and as we rounded the bend past the majestic Hampton Court palace, I reminded myself that we really must take the children there for a visit.

Our foray to the north bank was short lived and we crossed back via a busy road, having to stop (amazingly, for the only time during the whole race) at a pedestrian crossing. I resisted the temptation to stop my watch as a few of us waited for the traffic to calm before moving on and then it was a mere 30 minutes or so to the first stop at Walton.

Aid 1: 11 miles – Walton On Thames – 11:42am

With nothing more than a quick stop for coke, some of the delicious watermelon, which became my staple diet for the day, and portion of banana for the road, I was on my way. The aid-station crew were as happy, friendly and motivating, even this early in the race, as they were at all the stops throughout the day, and my thanks goes out to them for the time they all volunteered freely to help so many achieve their aims throughout the day.

Walton-on-Thames
Walton-on-Thames

We continued along south of the towpath, but soon hit a bridge crossing where navigation, or previous experience in my case, proved invaluable. I called ahead to a couple of runners who I realised had missed the marked route, turning over the new bridge at Lower Halliford. For the next few miles, we all ran at a comparable pace, keeping our eyes out for the red and white Centurion tape to keep us on the right path.

We alternated through the small villages and nature trails which had briefly departed from the river through Shepperton, where the famous film studios with a rich British history are located. I was sure we also skirted around a car park which had been used as one of the final aid stations on the “Thames Meander” I had run in 2008, part of my training for the MdS in that year.

From Shepperton, we picked up the north towpath again and it was a short hop through to Chertsey meads, opposite Bridge Wharf where I worked for many years, but which was almost 20 years ago now, and the factory buildings I used to work in have long been turned into ‘desirable’ riverside apartments.

There was quite a long section after this, along a one-way tarmac road, underneath the M3 motorway and through Laleham and then the wonderfully named Staines, where I noticed there were fewer runners than there had been, or at least we were all proceeding at an equitable pace, and hence our positions were static. We crossed back to the south bank again at Staines.

My aim at this stage was merely to keep moving for as long as I could at a reasonable pace and I was pleased to be feeling so good at the 22 mile point, just after going under the M25 motorway, the orbital road many people think of as the boundary to ‘London’. Nevertheless, the checkpoint was a welcome boost.

Aid 2: 22 miles – Wraysbury – 1:21pm

Having only had a bowl of cereal before I set out, my body was telling me it was well past lunchtime when I reached the Wraysbury / Runnymede aid station, so I grabbed what I could after downing a couple of cokes and then started moving again before the forecast ‘crowds’ arrived. I was wearing my Leadville t-shirt from the start and had already had a few comments about it. As I was grabbing my food, I chatted with one of the crew at the aid station who had also done the 100 mile race through the Colorado Rockies.

Wraysbury
Wraysbury

I was out the door within a couple of minutes, but I took the opportunity to walk for a while, while I ate the food I had picked up. Eating on the hoof is not an art I have become particularly accomplished at, mainly because I find when eating with a dry mouth, especially sandwiches or wraps as much as I think I fancy them, all end up like dry lumps of plaster in my mouth.

I kept an eye on the few runners who had left in front of me, and I was eager to keep in touch with them, so started running as soon as I had attempted to finish my food.

I was on my way again at my steady pace, through Runnymede where 800 years ago this year (1215) the Magna Carta was signed. While we were on the theme of anniversaries, I progressed through Old Windsor where I had been born, 50 years ago! I looked up at the Copper Horseman (George III) at the top of the hill in Windsor Great Park as I rounded the river towards Windsor proper.

The river meanders away from the shortest route between Old Windsor and Windsor, taking in a detour through the village of Datchet, after which there was another brief journey through what appeared to be a nature reserve, before popping out to cross a grey stone bridge and then continuing round the curve of the river as it circles Windsor Castle. The Duchess of York had had her second child earlier that day, and the Queen was obviously in residence at Windsor as the flag was flying proudly atop the castle.

The one problem with a sunny Saturday afternoon along the Thames is the number of pubs you have to pass from which the smells of roasting chicken, barbecue steaks, stir-fry pork or lamb curry, in fact anything, is enough to drive a hungry runner to distraction. Passing through the town centre of Windsor, over the bridge to Eton at about 2:30pm, the feeling seemed all the more acute, so I put my head down and ran as fast as possible through the cacophony of olfactory intrusions.

After Eton, the route once again on the north bank, took on a much quieter turn, with most of the activity seeming to be taking place on the opposite side, with only a few walkers coming towards me who were also out on their own challenge. I carried on through the early afternoon sun which was more prevalent that I had been anticipating and soon made it to the Centurion flags waving in the wind in front of the gazebo for the next stop at Dorney, just before the Olympic rowing lake.

Aid 3: 30.5 miles – Dorney – 2:46pm

Just over 30 miles in 4¾ hours and I was feeling fine, but as ever needed to contain my enthusiasm. I refilled the bladder in my rucksack for the first time here, using some of the freebie ‘Zero’ tablets I had received in my Edinburgh goodie bag last year. I grabbed the usual melon and banana to keep me going and was off.

Windsor Castle
Windsor Castle

To my horror, I soon discovered a kit malfunction. I assumed I had incorrectly seated the seal from the lid on my bladder as the cold, wet, electrolyte rich concoction made its way down the back of my pack and the back of my legs. I stopped briefly to adjust it, but to no avail and so for the rest of the race, I had a sticky, but extraordinarily well hydrated back-side. Luckily, having anticipated rain, all my compulsory kit was wrapped up in a highly technical dustbin liner, so having a dry base layer if needed was not a concern and the temperature was also not excessive, so I decided to limit my water intake as much as I dared, planning to gorge myself at the aid points.

Having left behind Windsor, the next major town was Maidenhead with the village of Bray (of Vicar of Bray fame) in-between, just after passing underneath our third motorway for the day, the M4. The noise of the motorways is always incongruous when running along what appears to be a quiet country trail, but this illusion soon disappeared as I made my way into the outskirts of Maidenhead, crossing from the north/east bank to the south/west bank.

There were a lot of ‘crew’ stops along the easily accessible river stretch in Maindenhead and they provided a lot of morale support to all the competitors running past. Nevertheless, I thought I noticed a few runners stopping for impromptu pit-stops along the way but could not tell how many, if any, had pre-planned their crew meetings. Most runners seem a lot more organised than me – I just turn up and run!

I always think of Maidenhead as the the last town in the suburbs of London, at least as far as the Thames is concerned, and although I’m sure others will have their own views on this, on leaving the town the feeling becomes a lot more rural and the signs of habitation a lot less frequent. The path took a detour from the river just before Cookham to divert through the village along the high street, where the national trail acorn signs and Centurion tape then directed me through a churchyard and back to the river. The next checkpoint was a few hundred yards along, at one of the many rowing clubs which adorn the Thames like the teeth of a zip.

Aid 4: 38 miles – Cookham – 4:13pm

I did my now familiar grab and go with the melon and banana, this time snacking on a few fresh strawberries as well. Ordinarily I crave salty snacks on these long runs, but clearly today I was not sweating as much (maybe electrolyte down the back of the legs is the way forward 🙂 )

Thames Path at Cookham (Image Credit: Rod Allday)
Thames Path at Cookham (Image Credit: Rod Allday)

The temperature was also still quite comfortable having, I suspect, never really risen above mid teens, but the mid-afternoon sun was a lot hotter than I had been expecting. As I was still feeling relatively good though, I had allowed myself the indulgence of considering whether I could make it to Henley before nightfall. Last year I had reached Henley at dusk and after a fair stop, had progressed into the night, and needed my head torch almost immediately after leaving. As it is infinitely easier to progress in the light I had decided that my prime objective should be to reach Henley with plenty of time to spare.

I had travelled pretty much due north after the High Street in Cookham, and about a mile or so after the checkpoint, I crossed over a footbridge running in tandem with the railway line, back to the north bank. The aptly named Riverside Road (probably one of many I had navigated during the day) continued with houses on both sides, followed by a path through a quayside packed with enthusiastic young sailors, before finally petering out into the countryside and fields of Berkshire again.

From a northerly route, I had now rounded the bend in the river to a south-west course and was now heading almost directly into the sun. As I cracked on, I got the sense that I was ahead of my time from last year, although that was just intuition from my memory of the position of the sun in the sky which I realised was still surprisingly high.

Bridge over the River Thames
Bridge over the River Thames

The town of Marlow once again afforded a diversion through the town, but this time the challenge of navigation was even greater, with narrow alleys, another churchyard route and the bridge to keep me on my toes, although with a hand from some  race crew looking on expectantly for their companion, I was saved an expensive deviation. The pathway after the bridge again faded into the local countryside, and I was sorely tempted by the ice cream van at the end – if only the queue had been shorter and I had had change to hand.

There were probably half a dozen or so other runners around me and we had constantly traded places throughout the last few hours and continued to do so as even though I was only stopping for a couple of minutes at each checkpoint, they seemed to catch me and leave first, but I generally passed them again shortly afterwards, so I was happy with my time and pacing at this stage.

The remaining miles to Hurley passed quickly, and I was surprised by the appearance of the aid station under the trees, after the wonderful wooden arched bridge which I crossed. Although idyllic, the design is not the best for tired legs, being steep enough at either side to require wooden slats to gain grip.

Aid 5: 44 miles – Hurley – 5:15pm

The aid volunteers were once again encouraging, and I chatted with them for perhaps longer than I should, but I was on my way after a couple of cokes and grabbing banana. I was looking forward to Henley and the chance of some hot food, but I was reticent to fill the bladder in my rucksack, more than halfway as it would simply slop down my backside as I was running.

I settled once again into a rhythm, trying to keep my pace above a meagre 6 minutes per km which up to this point I had managed, but I could feel my pace steadily decreasing and my overall average (albeit with stops) was now inevitably slowing.

From Hurley, the route crossed through an island briefly before picking up flood plains, and then continued largely uninterrupted through fields and countryside, until compacted gravel announced the final couple of miles into Henley. There was a notable diversion through a deer park, and I was certain I spotted some llamas as well, and seeing the same beasts of burden as used in Leadville to haul supplies up the 1000m to the top of Hope Pass, but at precisely the same distance, I felt was ironic.

The deer park was a slight departure from the flat terrain of the previous 40-odd miles, rising up into the private land of the park to circumvent a couple of private estates before coming to a road leading past a very inviting pub and back down to the river. As I ran along, probably no more than 30-40ft above the level of the river, I spotted another runner, but coming toward me. I smiled once I realised it was one of the Centurion crew, and we exchanged pleasantries as we passed each other.

Temple Island, Henley
Temple Island, Henley

Having been travelling largely in a westerly direction since before Marlow, I was now on the final tight northerly bend round the river before heading south again, which would be my direction until Reading and having completed the bend I saw ‘Temple Island’ which I knew was only 2km from Henley. Spurred on with that knowledge, I continued to run all the way into the town and across Henley bridge, almost to the south end of the town where the next aid station was located, and the Sun still a couple of hours away from disappearing and no sign, as yet, of the promised rain.

Aid 6: 51 miles – Henley – 6:32pm

Halfway in a 100 mile race is invariably a major aid station, with drop bags and hot food on offer in addition to the significant morale boost one receives from having a good share of the race behind you (or where the race starts, depending on your point of view!). At this stage I was told I was 22 and I was over the moon about that, as the last update I’d had from my wonderful wife was that I was 32 much earlier in the day. As I settled down for some chilli and pasta, 2 or 3 other runners arrived and we chatted – my Leadville tee-shirt again proving to be the catalyst for conversation 🙂 – it was, however, time to change my top from my dry drop bag, and I filled the bladder in my rucksack again, trying to keep it below halfway to minimise sloshing.

I was off.

In the light.

Spurred on by my success at reaching Henley in daylight, I now resolved to see if I could reach Reading while it was still light – only another 7 miles further on and although I had probably spent 15 minutes at Henley, I anticipated there was still a good hour and a half of light left in the day. I was also keen to catch up with those that had seemingly gone straight through, although I think that only amounted to one or two at the most!

On the downside, I had forgotten the feeling of a cold, wet backside resulting from an overflowing bladder (in my rucksack, that is, rather than exercise induced incontinence), but sure enough no more than a few steps after leaving, I realised I had over estimated the capacity to the lid of the Camelback and it was again being squeezed and sloshed out down the back of my pack and my legs.

Having done this part of the run in the dark before, it was nice to see it in the daylight, especially since the last time I was going a lot more slowly by this stage. The Thames Meander I had run a similar route in the daylight, but in the opposite direction and seven years ago, but my memory although distant was also strangely familiar.

After Henley, the route covered a couple of wooden bridges spanning islands and across weirs upstream of Henley, before giving me a taste of things to come with tree roots and overgrown pathways, before then dipping through the estate roads of Lower Shiplake, crossing a railway line and then following a road to join back to the river with the long haul through the trails proper to Sonning and eventually Reading.

Reading Aid Station - Party time (Image Credit: Paul Ali)
Reading Aid Station – Party time (Image Credit: Paul Ali)

There were a couple of runners ahead and I passed them as they were walking. As is normal at this stage of events, I asked how they were doing and if they were alright. Both were fine so I proceeded.

The bridge at Sonning is only about a mile and a half from the outskirts of Reading where the checkpoint was located and I covered the ground in about 15 minutes, exceptionally pleased with my pace at this stage of the race and also the fact I had made the extra stop while it was still light.

A couple of the children helping out excitedly ran ahead with my number to report to their parents and helpfully (although not in my case!) asked if I needed any water or refill of my pack.

I was feeling surprisingly good and the staff remarked that I was looking quite fresh as I bounded up the stairs to the warmth of the riverside centre.

Aid 7: 58 miles – Reading – 8:03pm

The crew at the aid station, many of whom had run the race themselves in the past, had really gone to town with a party atmosphere set up through the centre. The best was the collection of ‘motivational’ posters they had plastered around the room where the food tables were laid out. I spend a good few minutes laughing at them while drinking sweet tea and forcing down some food.

Of course, all too soon it was time to leave, and I was on my way along the river once again.

Reading always seems to have a music festival going on, just after King’s Meadow where the aid station is located. A Saturday night in early May was no different, although it seemed rather subdued to me, and I took this as another sign I was here earlier than I had anticipated, and the festivities were yet to get going. As I progressed through to the town there were quite a few colourful characters enjoying the late evening on boats with barbecues galore by the bankside.

Caversham to Whitchurch
Caversham to Whitchurch

We had been warned of a couple of diversions in the briefing notes for the race. I can’t remember where the other one was, but I knew there was a diversion off the path due to work at the bridge in Reading. It was only a short digression, but I was glad once again to be still covering it in the daylight as it passed along the main arterial road around the town. The temptation of passing the mainline station, and being home in 20 minutes, was a fleeting thought. Luckily, on this occasion, I had prepared by reading the notes and getting my bearings beforehand and so the rerouting caused little difficulty.

From rejoining the riverbank, it must then have been less than a kilometer to Caversham Bridge, which seems to mark the western edge of the riverside development for Reading, even though the city itself seems to spread out for many more miles in that direction, but in more of a fan or V shaped profile deliniated by the railway on one side and the main road from Reading to Oxford on the other.

There were two or three runners who I was playing leapfrog with during this stretch, but I got the impression of steadily pulling away and catching others ahead, and as we entered the night our headtorches suddenly becoming necessary, we ran for a mile or so sandwiched between the river on our right and the railway line 20-30ft above to our left. We eventually reached the point where the route traversed the railway line by rising up a pedestrian bridge and I found there was a surprising number of runners and a marshal directing people up the right route. The reason for the number of runners was suddenly evident as I started to climb the awkwardly long, slightly sloping steps. Not the best for tired quads.

Although we were well and truly into the evening dark, and had needed head-torches for the last 10-15 minutes, we had now ascended to the main road which was well illuminated and even when dipping back into a housing estate on the outskirts of Purley, I left my torch off and saved the battery. I had passed the majority of the small group from the railway crossing by this stage but myself and another chap, went on through the estate, as we both knew the way back down to the river, where it popped out opposite Mapledurham (the village I always remember as famous for where ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ was filmed).

The route was now pure fields to the next checkpoint and while I remember it being positively damp underfoot last year as a result of recent rain, long grass and evening dew, this year my feet remained dry. I gave a little ‘thank you’ for small mercies, and ran on. This was about the time I started to become paranoid about the headlamps following me. Although there was nobody in my immediate vicinity, it is almost impossible to gauge distances without reference points in the dark – as I glanced back, was that a swarm of fireflies two inches from my nose, or a plethora of runners rounding the previous bend? Or was I just tired?

As I reached the outskirts of the village of Whitchurch, there were a lot of competitor crew members waiting and as is usual in these event they were all very encouraging to me and I was thankful for their help to point me in the right direction to the aid station, which was a few hundred metres further but off the main road. The way was marked with balloons, and a marshal was directing people up the right way to the hut. I was pleased with the pace I had run for the 9 miles, but had stopped looking at the actual time.

Aid 8: 67 miles – Whitchurch – 9:47pm

Now it was dark and the aid station crew were expecting a long night, I could sense that things were still waiting to ramp up as far as they were concerned and the two others and myself in at the same time was not very stressful for them. I had another sweet tea to keep warm and while waiting was asked if I knew where I was. I responded I didn’t have a clue and was shocked silly when they told me I was in 11th place. How could that have happened? Where had everyone gone? There were so many people ahead of me? I still had 30 miles to do, so could I keep this up? So many questions from such an innocuous answer.

Get used to this view!
Get used to this view!

Obviously, I was seriously motivated now to maintain this position and I left as quickly as I could, as ever, thanking the volunteers for their efforts and time.

The route doubled back on itself and I directed a couple of pairs of runners (probably by this stage with pacers) up the hill to the aid station, before turning back onto the main road and carried on my way with the short stretch to Streatley.

After no more than about 200 metres, the signs pointed left off the road and up a bridleway – as I noticed the turning, I also noticed another runner had missed it and shouted after him to follow me. The bridleway was about the only substantial hill of the journey but at this stage I was still feeling relatively good and so took a steady pace up remembering to focus on the top which was visible! The road was initially tarmac, with farms and a lot of equestrian oriented buildings located on both sides. Eventually the road petered out though and turned into a trail at about the top of the rise, disappearing sharply down a narrow and winding lane with trees and bushes encroaching either side. I realised from the sound of the flowing water that I had picked up the river again and was running parallel to it, albeit some way above, on quite a steep bank.

The undulating trail was actually quite pleasant, without the knarly tree routes I had come to hate, and I took the opportunity to look at the positives of using different leg muscles after so long pounding away on the flat. Nevertheless, I began to realise why this section was only a few miles!

After the forest, there were no head torches but I could swear I heard voices behind me, I popped back onto a level trail next to the river, underneath a large brick, victorian railway bridge, from where it was only about a mile to Goring, and the bridge crossing to Streatley where I found the checkpoint.

It was about this point I had my first ‘wobble’ of the day.

Aid 9: 71 miles – Streatley – 10:38pm

The staff at Streatley were as helpful and accommodating as any, but almost as soon as I stepped in to the station I began to feel nauseous. I took up the offer of warm sweet tea again, and tried to force down a few bits of food. The aid staff were unaware of my plight and I was certainly not of a mind to alert them as such, so after a few brief pleasantries and thanks, I was again out the door to their calm instructions for me to turn right as I left.

For some reason, I turned left as I left, and then turned right, out onto the main road, but luckily my tingling ultra-sense and the absence of any red and white tape markers, made me retrace my steps after less than 50m. I passed the aid station again and was glad to see reflective tape adorning the national trail acorns, curiously directing me through another churchyard – I’m not sure what the association is between the national trail and churchyards along the route, but clearly there is one.

The path continued along the west bank of the river from Streatley, in the same manner as before Whitchurch, with a fairly well trodden path in the fields to the side of the river, which I followed for about 3km. This had taken me about 30 minutes of nauseous tramping, and I had been passed by 2-3 people I had passed previously, and I was consequently getting more grumpy with myself for not being able to do anything about it. In the last hours of the evening after such a good day, I could feel the whole race slipping away from me – Up to this point I believed I could get in under 18 hours, but now reduced to 10 minute km’s, which is walking pace in anyone’s book, I began to send texts to Liz and I got the firm response that I should EAT, as much and anything I could 😥 unfortunately, I only had a couple of gels left and of course, just at that moment, a salty caramel gel was not what I could stomach but…. nothing else for it.

I veeery slowly forced down most of a gel and carried on.

I continued along the path through the short diversion away from the river at Moulsford, and little by little the feeling subsided and I was able to get back into a stride again. The path was gentle enough to allow me to progress and I also knew that in ultras you have to take the rough with the smooth, and after such a good day, my ‘rough’ time was long overdue. Still, I thought it unlikely that I would be able to get back up to the same sort of pace that I had throughout the earlier part of the day and I saw my average pace woefully slipping away.

The rain for the day had been forecast to arrive at about 10:00pm, but it had not really materialised, instead only a few spots of drizzle had been falling occasionally. I was glad of that as although I had my waterproofs, running at night, cold and damp, is no fun.

I had passed, consciously, through the ‘sub-marathon distance remaining’ milestone and was now aiming for 20 miles to go, but the checkpoint at Wallingford arrived first as I attempted to maintain my 10 min/mile pace.

Aid 10: 77.5 miles – Wallingford – 0:12am

The aid station at Wallingford was again located in a rowing club, but set up with tables in the entrance to the building with the normal fare laid out. Unbelievably, I had actually managed to maintain my position through my dark time from Streatley, but my fellow competitors were close behind and again were in and out before me 🙁 but after more melon and banana for the road, I was back out to the dark, thanking the staff.

Last year, there was a significant diversion around the Thames on the way out of Wallingford where I had got lost and wasted a lot of time. This year there were no such issues to consider and maintaining a northerly heading on the west bank was all that was required – I felt I had saved 30 minutes at least, just at this single point.

For a mile or so, the route continued through trees and fields, but with a well defined trail to follow, before crossing over the first of a few weirs which I was expecting before the end. The contrast between the still and silence of the English countryside in the early hours of the morning and the menacing dark while crossing a noisy weir could go a long way to inducing an acute sense of paranoia in most people, including me.

Suffice it to say I was glad to reach the perceived safety of the other side of the river where I picked up another road, which headed up to an apex with the main road from Reading which I had left some hours ago now. I darted through a field in Benson, which I recognised a being where I had stopped at a checkpoint on a previous race some years ago (The Thames Trot); on that occasion it had been early in the morning but I had still had tea! The route ran through the boats and quiet equipment of the marina at Benson, but then immediately regained the bankside as it sharply took a westerly course once again.

I was managing to maintain a pace averaging between 6:00-6:30 min/km (10-11 min/mile) which I was not proud of, but with 80 miles behind me I had to give myself a bit of latitude.

Last year I had walked most of the way from Wallingford to the finish with a fellow competitor, and while it was nice to have some company through the early hours of the morning, it did not help with my pace or my final time. This year I had been on my own for practically the whole race, chatting briefly as I passed individuals (or encouraging them as they passed me!)

I was, nevertheless, still spurred on by the lights behind me, but my occasional glances confirmed they were becoming further behind all the time. I swore at one point I saw another runner just ahead of me, but as I progressed there was no sign so I put this down to some arbitrary reflection of my own head-torch and my mind playing tricks on me.

As I digressed from the bank once again through Shillingford, I remembered a couple of places I should take care as it was easy to miss the turning. After joining the main road for no more that 500m I spotted the gate back to the riverbank. In my jubilation, I crossed the road and did not notice the step down through the swing gate to the open meadow I had to cross. I suddenly jolted down hard on my left foot and felt a searing pain from my middle toe as if the toenail had been suddenly ripped backwards.

I staggered on, briefly cursing my clumsiness and thoughts of failure and not making sub-18 hours came to the front of my mind, to the point I even wondered if I would make 19 hours and if my previous PB at the distance (19:15) was going to be a bridge too far. For a few moments I walked and waited for the pain to subside.

Slowly but surely both the pain and my irritation with myself subsided to the point I could start to run slowly again. As I did I found myself adjusting my gait to abate the pain. It seemed like forever before I stopped walking, and it also seemed like ages before I could ignore my toe and run properly again, but interestingly my Garmin record showed little to no variation in pace, suggesting either that it was only my perception that it was a long delay, or alternatively (and more likely) I was going so slowly by this stage that the delay had had little effect anyway! 🙄

I remember two things about this section of the race from last year. Firstly, my feet were absolutely soaked by the end of it due to the long grass and wet, cold conditions next to the river and I’m happy to report that I had no such problems this year, and secondly, there is NO WAY ON EARTH that the measured distance (7.5 miles) is correct. Perhaps there is some ‘Interstellar’ wormhole-in-reverse thing going on here, i.e. you travel half way round the galaxy just to get to the corner shop to get a pint of milk. Or so it seems. Anyway, suffice it to say that although my pace was much better this time, I still felt like I was travelling twice as far as I should.

As if that wasn’t enough, there was the paranoia of another weir to contend with as well, where I had to negotiate the clanging metal gates across the river with the thunderous water dropping beneath me. At least the crossing was recognisable and I had a feeling I was getting close to the checkpoint. In fact, it must have been 3-4km before I reached the bridge back across the river and was greeted by a marshal, of the standing-outside-waiting-for-runners-at-2am-hero variety, who directed me to the aid station which was a few hundred yards further on.

Aid 11: 85 miles Clifton Hampden – 1:53am

The village hall at Clifton Hamden was empty of competitors but the volunteers were ready for the onslaught of runners which I now accepted were largely behind me. They encouraged me by indicating I was looking ‘fresh’ and I was boosted by their comments even more than the fact I now had only 15 miles to do. I had managed the worst part (to my mind) of the journey and now I could slog it out with my heart, irrespective of whether my legs would work or not.

After a tea (which clearly had become my preferred drink for the day) I left the hall, thanking them and wishing them good luck for the rush which was imminent. As I retraced my steps back down the hill past the traffic lights which seemed redundant at that time of night (think midnight in Radiator Springs, in Pixar’s ‘Cars’ and you’ll have the right idea) and I noted a runner and pacer coming up the hill towards me – I greeted them and confirmed they were on the right route to the aid station and very close.

The next section, after the bridge, was again a departure from my previous memory as last year the sun had just come up before I reached this point but now I was covering it in the dark. My hope was that I would be able to cover the remaining distance before the sun came up, although I was not entirely sure when sunrise was. Either way I noted the advantage of having knowledge of a route in the light and how much easier it made navigation.

This part of the route was a bit of a narrow channel, due to the field having trees on the river bank and having been sown with rapeseed on the other side, the pungent yellow flowers luckily not quite yet at their strongest, although my memory from 2am is a little hazy on this. The route was again largely flat with the occasional undulation of no more than a few metres, but I knew I was on the last curve before the final northerly push from Abingdon (the next stop in 10km) to Oxford. Although I was aware of the curve, there was nothing in the grey sky to indicate I was slowly changing direction and again I relied on my memory of the route to gauge progress. That, and of course, the light pollution from Abingdon lighting up the sky like a beacon and moving slowly on my horizon until it was ahead of me.

There were a few road and rail bridges I went under during this section to break the monotony, and after the 3rd or 4th, I crossed a footbridge and the fields changed from farmland to flood plains, with the houses of Abingdon on the opposite side of the river and, according to my watch, I was only a mile or so from the next aid station in Abingdon.

I had given up looking at my pace by this stage. Provided I kept running forwards I felt that was as much as I could hope for, and I was still conscious that I had absolutely no time to spare if I was going to make my 19 hour deadline.

As I crossed the field, the trail turned into a track and the track turned into a path and after one final corner I could see the the Centurion flags illuminated by torchlight just before Abingdon bridge.

Aid 12: 91 miles – Abingdon – 3:12am

I didn’t think it would have been that long since the aid station volunteers had seen anyone running, but as I approached  they sprang iinto action. The kettles were boiled and ready, and the spread was, as ever, fit for a king. The told me I was the 10th runner through and I must have looked at them incredulously with the hugest smile on my face 😀 . Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to be in this position at this stage of the race. Despite my position, I still had my target to aim for though, so with only one more checkpoint before the end I made my way on, but with a distinct spring in my step.

The last 9 miles were split into a bumpy forest trail four and the final five which continued on the same theme until a gradual transition back to the tended compacted gravel and tarmac trails leading along the river past the many rowing clubs of Oxford.

At first the route continued on the fields before reaching another lock, and I continued straight on, but then immediately saw another runner coming towards me. Understandably, he was very grumpy 😡 . As he ran past he said he’d run on for 2 more miles before realising his mistake. I ran with him briefly, but he was fuming and so I let him go on ahead as we both crossed the lock and the weir to the other side of the river, for the last time.

We ran into a forest with a rough surface and for the first time in a number of miles I had to keep an eye on my foot placement and, of course, had my one and only ‘trip’ for the day.

As I rounded the next corner along the route through the darkness of the forest, my fuming friend was walking ahead having, presumably, calmed down. I asked him if he was ok and he muttered as I passed him. I felt incredibly guilty to be passing him  after his unplanned detour, but I needed to keep moving at pace if I was to beat my target 19 hours.

By this time all the scenery was looking pretty much the same and I was going over and over the pacing arithmetic in my head, attempting to distract myself from the monotony and the exhaustion which was ever looming on my horizon. Whatever you do, when you get to this stage of a race, don’t start to look for suitable ‘snooze-spots’ by the side of the trail, and trust me, I’ve done that before.

Suddenly, as I continued my mental calculations, I realised there was another couple up ahead, a runner and pacer and as they were walking I was gaining on them fast. They very kindly congratulated me, for still being able to run this far into the race, as I passed them and I acknowledged their support and asked how they were doing. Well enough, it seemed, but unable to run at present.

The weather had been fairly kind to us throughout the day. The rain promised for 10 o’clock had only materialised as an intermittent damp drizzle over the last few hours, but nothing I felt I needed get my waterproof out for. As I got closer to the final aid station, the heavens started to open. I had worked out I needed to maintain my current pace with 5 miles to go, to stand a chance of being in under 19 hours. It was going to go to the wire and I had no time to stop.

Aid 13: 95 miles – Lower Radley – 4:02am

The stop at Lower Radley is a farm building, but the volunteers staffing it were no less exuberant than any other location. The rain was coming down in buckets now, with curtains of water descending off the corrugated roof and I quickly put my coat on and grabbed a coke and banana with a couple of final melon slices for the day. The staff confirmed I was in 8th place, which I said I could not believe. They also offered me a chair by the heaters they had set up but I quickly declined, not wanting to to get any form of comfort which would risk settling me down for even a few minutes when I was so close to my final goal.

I left out into the dark and rain with the five miles to go. Now the rain was coming down hard, it was confirmation of my strategy to get as much done in the light and dry as possible, and I spared more than a moment of anguish for those behind me who were likely to be spending several hours in the damp conditions, with the ground getting less tractable and as a consequence, feet and toes suffering even more with blisters.

As I continued on what I thought would be a good 8km I was conscious of the fact that I could not stop for a moment and so quickly got into a rhythm running once more. However, the ground was mostly kind to me at this late stage of the race, and a final excursion through a section with long grass was the worst of it. By this stage, getting wet feet was the last of my concerns. While going through this section I caught up with another competitor (Brian Robb, #259) and I got to within about 20m of him, but who, having noticed I was gaining on him, sped up appreciably. I smiled as he pulled away from me. I was happy with my placing and my time objective, but he clearly thought I was pushing to overtake him 😉 . He also clearly had more speed in his legs than I did at this stage as within 10 minutes he had disappeared out of view.

For what seemed like forever, I continued at my slow, but steady pace in the rain, with my hood up now and yet the precipitation still dripping down my face. In fact, if anything the cooling effect of the rain might have made it easier to run, although at 4:30am after 100 miles, it was probably only marginal.

I had estimated, using my Garmin reading on leaving the last checkpoint, that I would be aiming for about 165km on my watch, so you can imagine my delight when I rounded the final corner in the river and saw the lights of the recreation ground where the Centurion finish line was located, clearly at less than this initial estimate by a good 500-1000m. Still, after 100 miles, every little helps.

I ran into the marked off area of the field, away from the river for the last time, and ran emotionally towards the inflated Centurion barrier to the applause from the crews, volunteers and staff who, even in the rain and dark at 5am, were excitedly waiting and congratulating those who had started out so many hours before in the suburbs of London, halfway across the country.

Finish: 100 miles – Oxford – 4:54am

Nici Griffin presented all the buckles.
Nici Griffin presented all the buckles.

My smile obviously belied my joy at finishing in the position which was confirmed for me as 8th, which to me was still unbelievable. More importantly for me though, was the fact I had smashed a 5 year PB, since only my second 100 miler in 2010, by a good 20 minutes. After a few more years behind me, I was pleased to have improved on this, and I was also first in the M50 age category, so clearly there are some advantages to getting old 🙂 . Liz, when I told her, was also incredulous at the effort I had put in to make up so many places throughout the race – It is a nice compliment to make your wife speechless 🙂

The volunteers at the end were angels.

They got my bags, provided me with chilli and a roll, and copious amounts of warm sweet tea, which this time I had the chance to enjoy without burning the inside of my mouth off in my haste to move on to the next section of trail.

After a shower and fresh clothes, I had the opportunity to inspect my feet. Not in awful condition and, to quote Monty Python “its only a flesh wound – I’ve had worse!”. I discovered the source of my toenail pain to have been a blister which had formed under the toe and the application of sharp forward pressure had merely ripped it off in one clean jolt. I suspected that would detach itself in the next couple of weeks or so.

The buckle. New style.
The buckle. New style.

Otherwise, everything was fine – relative to having completed 100 miles, of course. Stiff and solid legs, but walking still eminently possible, although I might be foregoing the stairs at work for a couple of days 😉

My thanks go out to the Centurion staff for putting on such a great event. Of all the ultras in the UK, theirs are definitely some of the best organised and executed and they should be proud of everything that they have helped the competitors in their events to achieve. This thanks also applies in massive amounts to the multitude of volunteers who assisted with this event, without whom it would have been impossible to start, let alone finish.

My friends I had met up with earlier in the day also had great performances during the race – Nick Greene (#1), who I met in Leadville 2013, came in second with a stunning performance, over 2 hours ahead of me! Also, my Guildford colleague Stefan Klincewicz (#238) got a 100 mile PB with a 22:47 finish.

You take the high road…

We had been planning this weekend for some time, and it was going to be special, not because ‘I’ was running, but because the rest of the family were running – in fact this was to be the first ever time that we had all run together at an event, so really a bit of a family milestone.

Team Pomeroy - Numbers at the Ready.
Team Pomeroy – Numbers at the Ready.

Edinburgh has for a number of years held a ‘festival of running’ on the weekend when the marathon has taken place, and it is advertised as a family friendly event, so ideal, we thought, to motivate the children with a tee-shirt and a medal as they arrange races at all possible distances from junior races of 1.5km and 3km, and then 5km and 10km races on the Saturday and half and full marathon races on the Sunday.

Continue reading You take the high road…

Woefully Underprepared!

This was going to be a race with a difference.

I knew I had not done enough preparation for it, but thought I’d give it a go anyway, with the proviso that I would bail if things got “too tough”

TP100_SmallWaaa-haaaa-haaaa-haaaa! 😆

Define tough, for a 100 mile ultramarathon?

Before I launch into the tough guy clichés and superlatives which abound around some of these events (e.g. “Make friends with pain and you’ll never be alone” or Rule 1 – “No whining” and, of course, the near apocryphal Marathon des Sables inclusion of a “corpse repatriation fee“) let me just say this event was NOT one of those. Indeed, the organisers pitched it as giving

… runners new to the 100 mile distance, the opportunity of completing 100 miles on foot where significant elevation changes and difficult navigation are removed as major obstacles.

No problems, methinks! Just a long training run 😉

Continue reading Woefully Underprepared!

Laying Old Ghosts to Rest

Sitting in our hotel at Twin Lakes, in my semi-exhausted state, looking back out at Hope Pass, the frenetic activity of less than 24 hours ago seemed very surreal.

Hummingbird
Hummingbird at Twin Lakes Inn

The dichotomy between the two days was stark; the crews, auto-homes, gazeboes covering tables of gels, wraps, sandwiches, crisps, pretzels and other runner nutrition or hastily laid out on the car trunks, lining the gravel drive from the exit of the trail to the main road were all gone. The village of Twin Lakes had once again returned to a sleepy hamlet on the Independence Pass road to Aspen.

24 hours beforehand, the historic village had been host to one of the main aid stations of the Leadville 100 Trail Run. Now in its 31st year, the race is an out and back jaunt through Lake County, Colorado, from the old mining town of Leadville, west around Turquoise Lake and up Sugarloaf Pass, before continuing back down the other side of the pass and turning south through the Leadville Fish Hatchery to pick up the forest trails through to the lowest point of the course at Twin Lakes and then immediately ascending 3,400ft over the highest point of the course in the form of the imposing Hope Pass before turning briefly west again to the ‘ghost’ town of Winfield and the halfway 50 mile point, and then turning round and going back through the whole thing in reverse.

24 hours beforehand my life had also been very different. Much less relaxing and my passage through the aid station at twin lakes had been much less sedate than today’s calm outlook might suggest.

I had reached the 40 mile point in a shade under 7½ hours, just before midday on Saturday morning having started the race at 4:00am.

Startline Jitters
Startline Jitters

The start was exactly as I remember from 3 years ago; dark and emotional, with almost 1000 excited runners toeing the line, the occasional waft of deep-heat and the inevitable huge queues for the ‘restrooms’. I tried not to shine my head-torch in Liz’s face after we moved away from the illuminated area to the side of the exit pen, in front of the start line. We said goodbye to each other and I promised to see her in a couple of hours at the first aid point, 13 miles away.

The figures of the clock counted down ominously towards their zero point, although strangely I was not as nervous as I have been on some previous races. Perhaps experience was starting to tell, or perhaps it was the 2:30am wake up call or the altitude numbing my senses.

Carl Cleveland, who we had met in the hotel the previous day, seemed more anxious than me; he needn’t have worried, having paced a colleague for 90 miles at Badwater recently, my perception was that he certainly had the right credentials, but then this was his fourth attempt at the race. As he said, he was giving it a lot of respect. We spoke briefly as we watched the countdown and listened to the announcer motivating the assembled crowd and then, to the sound of a real gunshot in the air, we were off down the first of the dusty roads.

Start to Mayqueen – 13.5 miles


I seem to remember heading off marginally faster last time, but with 100 miles to go, I didn’t have an issue with settling into a rhythm. Even so, I pushed on as much as I could on the initially wide downhill roads until I found myself maintaining a fairly consistent pace with my fellow runners; a good strategy, I felt, given the narrow track I knew we were shortly to encounter. The first easy 3-4 miles of the course was over far too quickly though and I was surprised at how soon nearly 1000 starters had thinned out, although I had to wait a couple of times for my opportunity to enter the trail at a couple of bottlenecks and when we hit a short but tricky ascent up a boulder trail, I noted that this wouldn’t be much fun on the way back.

First 13 miles in the dark
First 13 miles in the dark

We were soon finding our way round the tree-line of Turquoise Lake, skirting the shore of the beauty spot in single file, the water sometimes appearing perilously close from the dark to our left. There were many campers and other temporary residents of the area to keep us company though, wrapped up in thermals, sleeping bags and puffa jackets as protection against the single figure temperatures at the high altitude, but enthusiastically cheering the runners on even though it can only have been 5am; one small group were even helpfully holding out reams of toilet tissue, reassuring the competitors they would be grateful for the impromptu supplies later on.

The trail around the lake was relatively tricky, with the roots of the trees providing a challenge in the dark, although with so many head torches up ahead and behind it was relatively easy to maintain a moderate pace. Indeed, I felt I could’ve gone marginally faster through the tunnels of trees, but also had vivid memories of stumbling on my previous occasion around this point. One runner just ahead of me took a heavy fall and two other concerned runners and myself stopped briefly too assist. As we got back underway and started to emerge from the first forest, I thanked God I had survived this far without my usual tumbles.

Turquoise Lake from Sugarloaf Mtn
Turquoise Lake from Sugarloaf Mtn

There was a brief section of tarmac, lined again with eager spectators and crews watching intently for their runners in the pre-dawn light, before the main checkpoint which was chaotic as the crews jostled to set up their stalls to service their runner’s needs.

I ran through the cheering crowds after the chip on my wrist had obligingly beeped, indicating my official arrival at the first aid station / check point and then I heard Liz shouting for me, seconds before I saw her and I ran on for my first break.

Time In: 06:08:24 (13.5 miles – 2hrs 8mins)

MayQueen to Fish Hatchery / Outward Bound – 10 miles
Leadville – Stage 2
This early in the race I did not need much in the way of food or drink – I had hardly touched my water bottle (with Lucozade in it) so after a brief chat and relinquishing possession of my headlamp, I was on my way again.

This was the first real ‘hill’ but there was a twisting, turning switch back of a forest trail before the main route up to near the top of Sugarloaf mountain. I don’t remember thinking this would be particularly difficult in the dark but this section, amongst others, was to prove my undoing later on in the race.

Up to Sugarloaf Mtn
Up to Sugarloaf Mtn

Nevertheless, although we were still in shadow, the sun was definitely on its way into the world, and after a final steep rise, we hit the Hagerman trail to take us to the top of the pass. The road was relatively good, by which I mean not too steep or uneven, but covered with dust, gravel and the occasional rutting requiring most runners to oscillate from side to side to stick with the ‘easy’ route.

There were quite a few photographers on the race as a whole, their presence generally heralded several metres beforehand by a flag or sign flapping some way down the trail, indicating a smile would shortly be required!

I did not take that long to negotiate to the top of the pass and with the sun now fully up, although hidden behind some ominous looking clouds, I took advantage of the long downhill through the ‘power line’ area; a straight down stretch to the road following the electricity distribution for the area downhill.

Straight Down Powerline
Straight Down Powerline

The gradient and rutting on the section was variable and although I managed well with the majority of it, I caught a protrusion at one point and slammed down awkwardly onto my right knee and rolled onto my left hip, to produce my now familiar bloody mess of gravel rash. After a moment to catch my breath, dust myself off and recompose the little self-dignity I had remaining before being caught by the runners approaching from behind, I then started moving stiffly again but was again thankful the mess seemed superficial in nature.

After a slightly more steady descent than I had anticipated, I reached the road for the start of the main Tarmac section. The Leadville Fish Hatchery was not used this year as the aid station had been positioned marginally further on in order, presumably, to improve access for crews, but on turning the corner the traffic was horrendous and as I turned into the checkpoint, I wondered if Liz had made it through.

Luckily she had and, after some more frantic shouting, I spotted her in the crowd.

Time In: 08:07:52 (23.5 miles – 4hrs 8mins)

Fish Hatchery / Outward Bound to Half Pipe – 5.6 miles
Leadville – Stage 3
I was glad of a couple of cups of coke at this stage as the heat had begun to rise and I changed from my long sleeve top to a short-sleeve ‘tee’. The race hadn’t really started yet though, so after another brief stop, we said goodbye and made our arrangements to meet at Pipeline; the impromptu stop just before the no-crew access Half-Pipe aid station.

This section, only about 4 miles, was predominantly on road as I travelled due east past the queues of cars waiting to get into the aid station I had just left, before turning south along a road parallel to the main county road Liz and I had used so many times over the last few days, to get from Twin Lakes to Leadville. The southbound road was mostly clear of traffic and I took the opportunity to run at a steady pace, passing a few others, before turning off-road and up a trail before emerging at the Pipeline row of cars. The heat on the tarmac was starting to rise, so I was glad to reach the shade of the woods as I once again entered the treeline at the base of the mountains, although knew this also indicated I would be going gradually uphill for the next few miles prior to the last 3-4 mile descent into Twin Lakes.

Wilderness
Wilderness

I smiled as I reached Pipeline as this was practically the last point I had seen on my return journey 3 years ago, where we had stopped and I had laid in the back of our car distraught but then tried in vain to carry on in the dark, with 26 miles ahead of me.

Unlike previously, on my present journey I had managed to stay in text contact with Liz most of the time, which at this point was essential to see if she had managed to extract herself from the traffic madness of the Outward Bound Aid Station; She apparently had been a bit cheeky about getting out and was now waiting for me. Nevertheless, there was some confusion as neither of us actually realised this wasn’t the official checkpoint, but I eventually found her and we chatted for a couple of moments while she thoughtfully offered me loads of stuff, none of which I really fancied. I was on my way in a flash and promised to see her again in a couple of hours.

The route was now a pleasant meander through the trees on the dusty trails and although the heat was still increasing, the spruce, pine and birch woodland afforded some protection and since we were off the roads and far from any transport induced haze, the route was most enjoyable. Several times there were fantastic vistas as I came into a clearing and the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains once again came into view. I was starting to remember one of the reasons why I spend early mornings training and invest so many of my lunchtimes during the week in preparation – this is, after all, what it’s all about and I was cognisant of this throughout the entire race.

Round the bowl
Round the bowl

It was not long before I came across the Half Pipe Aid Station and even though barely a third of the race was behind me, I was already slipping into a routine of quaffing as much coke as I could and trying to force down a few crisps for salt, sandwiches for carbs and protein and grabbing a banana for the road. I had made the first 29 miles in 5½ hours which I was more than happy with, but was under no illusions that the real race had yet to begin with Hope Pass, which was starting to loom ever larger in my vision, an imposing barrier ahead of me before I even reached the halfway point to turn back and do the whole thing again – the majority of which would be in the dark. It is easy to become overwhelmed with the task at hand, but repeated steps, no matter how small, will always get you to your destination.

Time In: 09:32:56 (29.1 miles – 5hrs 33mins)

Half Pipe to Twin Lakes – 10.4 miles
Leadville – Stage 4
This final section before Twin Lakes is basically a brief foray up into the edge of the Half-Moon trail, which is an eponymously shaped valley between the bases of Mount Massive to the north-west and Mount Elbert slightly to the south which, at 14,433ft is the highest peak in the area. The ‘up’ section is around 6.5 miles and the down section, a steep but fast descent for around 3 miles. I was not too concerned about the disparity of the effort at this stage, and was looking forward to the longer ‘down’ section on the return match in a few hours time.

Hiding in the woods
Hiding in the woods

The route continued to be a dusty trail, but it mattered little since, by this stage, there were only a handful of runners around me and there was little dust being kicked up.

Suddenly, I happened upon Nick Greene, a fellow Brit who I had spotted at the briefing in Leadville the previous day wearing a 2013 SDW100 finishers t-shirt! Small world 😉 He had managed around 18 hours on that occasion, but was clearly pacing himself at this stage as we parted company during the next running section, briefly making me wonder if I was overcooking things a touch – only time would tell.

I enjoyed the beautiful route as we were creeping up on midday, as it seemingly passed by all too quickly with the memories of each section coming flooding back at every turn; I rounded a corner to a vista section, where the trail followed round the contour of the bowl of a significant crease in the landscape, the blue sky and the green trees continuing with the trail on the opposite side providing a counterpoint to the void in-between. There were also several tributary streams flowing down the side of the mountains perpendicular to the trail which we had to navigate, some of which had simple stepping stones as assistance, but others with large purpose-built structures to allow their crossing – The sound of the water as I approached from a distance was always tempting and a couple of times, I took a few seconds and dunked my hat in the cool mountain water to cool off.

Last Downhill for a while
Last Downhill for a while

It was not long before I came across another photographer and I could’ve hugged him when he confirmed the downhill section was just ahead. The Mount Elbert ‘mini’ aid station (mini, merely because it was supplying only water) was shortly before this, and the huge tanks of water, impressively brought up into the wilderness, were fittingly plastered with ‘Camelbak’ marketing.

The ‘downhill’ section was a little further than I had been led to believe (photographers will do anything to get people to smile, it seems) but it was fun to get into a rhythm with a bit of speed again and I was soon back at Twin Lakes, and down a final technical section with a steep and loose dirt slope delivering me to the front entrance of the fire station, which the food and checkpoint staff had taken over for the day.

Liz was waiting for me as usual as we had been in text contact recently as I updated her on my progress, and her me. The phone network was infinitely better than it had been 3 years ago, when we had had to buy cheap temporary phones on another network in order to stay in contact. I always have difficulty doing other things while I’m running (cue the jokes about males and multitasking) – I find eating and running difficult enough and texting on a phone and running even more so, especially when it is an alien, unfamiliar handset, so at least this time life was marginally easier. We were also lucky that we were staying in Twin Lakes, for the simple fact that we were effectively ‘residents’ and consequently had a reserved parking space at the front of the Inn, otherwise a long walk, jog, or wait for a shuttle bus (promised, but not actually arranged, apparently) would have been in order.

Time In: 11:26:39 (39.5 miles – 7hrs 26mins)

Twin Lakes to Hope Pass Aid – 5 miles
Leadville – Stage 5
I sat down for the first time, drank coke and tried again to force down sandwiches, with little success though. We chatted for a bit and I kept taking more liquid on but perhaps the thought of the now imminent ascent of Hope Pass was causing me more of an issue than I would care to mention; looming large, both physically and mentally ahead of me, I had stopped for 15-20 minutes before I realised it. We walked our way to the road, and I stopped once more to empty my shoes of stones, seemingly procrastinating to the last, but eventually I was on my way.

River Crossing
River Crossing

The support of the crowds through Twin Lakes, as with the entire course, was stupendous – the crews expectant for their own runners, but still providing a most welcome boost to all of the others they saw.

There is a flat section from the village to the river crossing, all of this at the lowest point of the course at 9,200ft, prior to moving onto the hard ascent to reach the highest point of the course, at 12,600ft, over a mere 3-4 miles.

I had considered taking my shoes off to keep them dry but on reflection had decided against it. My previous strategy was blister management based, and since I’d not had any problems with this for some time, I decided the time saving was of higher priority. There was significantly less water in the pools and ponds obstructing the route this time anyway, and even the river seemed a lot lower and calmer, barely reaching up to the top of my ankles. Even so, the chill in the water had a marvellously reviving effect, and I wished I could have stayed there for longer, but noted this as something to look forward to on the return trip!

The route up Hope Pass began in earnest now, marked by the entry to the tree line, but unlike a couple of hours ago we weren’t following a contour, we were crossing the tightly packed lines at a far more acute angle and nearly going straight up.

Nearing the summit
Nearing the summit

There is no respite on the way up Hope Pass; no minor flats, very little in the way of zig-zagging switchback and certainly no undulations except for up and more up, until you reach the top. No; there are only the sound of the streams coming down in the opposite direction which the trail occasionally gets close to, and the promise of a final corner where you realise the trees are thinning, the worst is behind you and the aid station is imminent.

It was just prior to my arrival at the aid station (well, about 40-50 minutes as it happens) that the front-runners started coming through – one of those peculiarities of out and back races, albeit initially a welcome relief from the uphill slog and a moment to reflect and marvel on the capabilities of those in the ‘elite’ bracket – Michael Aish (#107) was first down the hill, at just after 1:00pm (9hrs in) followed by Ian Sharman (#1010) hot on his heels, then another 5 minutes later Nick Clark (#268) bounded past. These three were in a class of their own though as Scott Jurek (#594) was at least 35 minutes behind Clark.

The ‘Hopeless Crew’ (as they are very affectionately known) provided the most enthusiastic support of the day, running (downhill) to greet the oncoming competitors, to grab their water bottles and save them precious moments in the (highly unlikely) event that they chose not to stop! The Llamas who have hauled the fare for the runners uphill, on the previous day, were spread out resting, having earned a well deserved break, prior to their journey back down after the return cut-off later in the day.

Time In: 14:00:39 (44.5 miles – 10hrs)

Hope Pass Aid to Winfield – 5.5 miles
Leadville – Stage 6
On the way out, there is still another ½ mile to the top of Hope Pass. Even so, the feeling of reaching that aid-station was as good as reaching the top, but I still chose not to stop for any length of time here, conscious of the longer ‘rest’ I had had at Twin Lakes some hours ago.

Llamas
Llamas at Hope Aid Station

The extra ½ mile consists of a series of rough switch-back channels, hewn out of the side of the mountains by successive footsteps, the man-made erosion uneven and irregular in the gravelly surface. The front-running competitors were starting to come thick and fast by this point and out of courtesy my fellow compatriots and I, on our slow, uphill, outward journey, all stepped to the side when the faster, returning, downhill runners went by.

Upon finally reaching the top of the pass, which is a ‘saddle’ in nature, going down to the north (Twin Lakes) and south (Winfield) but ascending further to the peaks of Quail Mountain and Hope Mountain to the east and west respectively, I felt had to stop briefly to enjoy the view and took a couple of pictures, before then starting my way back down to Winfield.

Just after this point, early in my descent I was following another runner, gaining on him rapidly, and had to slow at the same time as one of the front-runners was coming uphill, and a photographer was sitting at the side of the trail. The sudden eccentric contraction of my calf muscles as I tried to slow after so long extending it on the uphill portion, was clearly too much and my left calf instantly cramped and I stopped at the side of the trail and tried to stretch it out. The photographer, fearing a worse scenario, came over and helped me, kindly massaging the back of my left calf as I stretched it – over an above the call of duty for him, but typical of the generosity of spirit which is engendered in these races.

About to Cramp
About to Cramp

The contrast between the slow effort of the uphill and the almost frenetic bounding and caution required for my foot placements was a joy, Suddenly, I was no longer struggling to breath, but more in danger of suffering from exposure due to an inability to raise my core temperature, such was the lack of effort required to progress downhill. There were still people coming uphill, and I was surprised that their progress seemed to be as slow as mine had been some moments earlier. The ‘traffic’ down this side of the mountain was nevertheless frustrating and the courtesy given by the uphill runners on the north side of the mountain, didn’t seem to be equally as forthcoming on the narrow trail down the south side.

In relative terms, I quickly made it down to the trailhead, but turned west onto the new Colorado Trail prior to reaching the Winfield road, another departure from the route I was ‘familiar’ with from before. The advantage of this was purportedly to allow runners to take in more trail, reduce issues with dust and fume inhalation from the vehicles sharing the same road on the route to Winfield. The trail was rough and narrow though, and far more undulating than I would’ve liked at this stage – the Winfield road had been dusty before, but wide and after the narrow trail up and down Mount Hope, had afforded the opportunity to pass others and get up a little speed and rhythm even if only for a couple of miles. So, with the promise of the halfway point at Winfield so tantalisingly close, it was frustrating to have to negotiate such a narrow trail stopping and moving aside for more of the front runners who were already heading back.

Arriving at Winfield - Happy halfway
Arriving at Winfield – Happy halfway

Despite my frustrations of course, I eventually reached the point where the trail turned sharply south and downhill towards the noise of the assembled masses in Winfield; the normally quiet area in the wilderness of the Rockies, serving a few hikers and bikers as a launch point for their adventures, was today a bustling metropolis, with expectant crews and, for the first time in the race, pacers ready to pounce on their runners and service their every need on the way back to Leadville.

After the steep downhill trail, I found myself at the road, with the turning in sight within a few hundred metres. There were few cars and I had noticed that the cell reception had been non-existent since the top of Hope Pass; not entirely unexpected, but the sudden drop-off had taken me by surprise and I had thus been unable to contact Liz to keep her informed of my progress.

As I turned down the service road to the site, there were cars, competitors, crew, supporters, pacers and organisers, all jostling for position on the narrow path. The dust was the least of it for that short 100 metres to the checkpoint area. Liz was dutifully waiting and immediately smiled – I was looking much better than at the same point 3 years ago.

Time In: 15:25:47 (50 miles – 11hrs 26mins)

Winfield to Hope Pass Aid – 5.5 miles
Leadville – Stage 7

Winfield was like the triage area of a M.A.S.H. camp. Total chaos with crew and pacers looking for their runners, runners looking for their crew, organisers shepherding everyone through the right areas and funnelling them into the weigh-in and half-way medical check area.

I really don't fancy that
I really don’t fancy that

My weight had reduced about 15lbs which was a touch worrying, but the medical staff just suggested I drink and eat a little more, especially after I confirmed I had had my previous weight taken with heavy shorts and jacket. After the revaluations in Tim Noakes book ‘Waterlogged’ everyone is a lot more relaxed about hydration than even a couple of years ago.

I passed through the marquee and met up with Liz again and as all the chairs were occupied, I grabbed a coke, downed it, grabbed another along with some noodle soup, and went to sit down in the shade of a van outside.

Don't let sleeping runners lie
Don’t let sleeping runners lie

My plans for a quick turn-around at Winfield were rapidly vanishing into thin air as I sat, semi-catatonic, on the floor, staring at my soup and sipping. I might have looked better than last time, but I certainly wasn’t feeling a great deal better – other than a significant lack of pain in my left hip, of course, for which I was thankful. Liz chatted away, asking me various questions about feelings and needs, and timings for the return journey, as I explained about the narrow trail and passing other competitors. Her journey had been even more fraught than mine, due to her perception she was losing time in the queues into Winfield, and the complete disarray in the organisation of the cars (given the road was not being used by competitors now), she had actually parked up and run the final 5km or so to the aid station.

Having finished my soup, and several more cokes, I laid down; just for a second, but was immediately reprimanded and sufficiently chastised to force me to raise myself to a vertical inclination again and start to walk through the crowds to the exit, and back to the trailhead road (after negotiating some ridiculous traffic). Liz was obviously going the same way back to the car, so we continued to chat for a bit, for the few hundred metres to the entrance to the rise which would take me back up to the Colorado Trail. We said our goodbyes and I was gone again up into the wilderness.

Colorado Trail, from Winfield
Colorado Trail, from Winfield

The route back up was steep but short, and I had the promise of a marginally downhill section back along the trail to look forward to. There were still people coming down the trail towards me, but I don’t remember seeing any of the other competitors I had made contact with before the race during this section even though I was looking out for them.

The turn southwards to take me up Hope Pass for the second part of our prearranged ‘away’ fixture seemed to come all too soon and I started my way back up in earnest, remembering that this had seemed the harder part of the journey before as well for any number of reasons I could name; the way up this side is slightly shorter, but correspondingly steeper, albeit with more switchbacks. The tree-line is also lower and as a consequence competitors can see exactly how much further it is to reach the top, long before they actually reach it.

I remember stopping to ‘rest’ through pure fatigue several times on the way back up last time and this time was similar, although I think I stopped less and passed more others. It’s difficult to tell exactly. Either way, the feeling of reaching the top for the second time that day was priceless. The Sun was not yet set, but certainly wiping its feet on the doormat of night-time ready to leave our presence but as a result the top was not quite in shadow and I took that as another good sign that I was on schedule for my target of sub-25:00 hours; my optimistic 21:00 hours had long since disappeared into oblivion. I marvelled at the view once again from the top, but largely carried straight on.

The way home
The way home

The cut-off for the Hope aid station on the way out is particularly strict; the organisers want to minimise the chances of people getting stuck coming back over Hope Pass, and realistically, if you haven’t made it out by 4:15pm (i.e. 12:15 elapsed time) to the 45 mile point, you would struggle to make it back over before darkness. The steady trail of people coming down the hill had slowed to a trickle by the time I was within sight of the top – indeed, some coming down had already had their chips / tags removed and were somewhat happily (knowing their race was over) making their way to meet their crew at Winfield.

After crossing the tipping point of effort, life was, for a few miles at least, going to be considerably easier than it had been for the last couple of hours. The jog down to the aid station was fast, and I stopped for no more than a minute to grab a very flat coke, in a ‘used’ cup – such was the state of their supplies when I transited.

Time In: 17:58:37 (55.5 miles – 13hrs 59mins)

Hope Pass Aid to Twin Lakes – 5 miles (60.5 miles)
Leadville – Stage 8
The way down from here was a pleasant run down the hill, although I was conscious I was unable to reach the same speed and rhythm as I had previously – I’ve had plenty of opportunity over the last 3 years to analyse the minutiae of my original exploits in Leadville and have come to the conclusion that pounding fast downhill for the best part of an hour played a significant part in my injury; it was at Twin Lakes it really started to ‘smart’!

Hope Pass Aid Station
Hope Pass Aid Station

This time though all was fine, and although slightly conservative in my approach I made it down without breaking anything, without stumbling, and managing still to pass a few people. Admittedly, a few others sped past me as well, but I was not concerned at this stage, still believing 40 miles in 10 hours was eminently doable.

The slightly more gradual descent was most enjoyable; although there were still sections where I had to remain conscious of the tree routes, the rutting from repeated erosion of downhill streams and weathering on the side of the hill, along with gravel, pebbles, exposed stone and rocks leading to a somewhat uneven terrain on occasions, but on the whole it was only marginal and I was down quite quickly.

Downhill Trail
Downhill Trail

I reached the flat section before the river which, after travelling downhill for such a long period was suddenly a flat come uphill struggle, but I made it to the river crossing while there was still plenty of light, even though the Sun was now setting behind the Rockies. The crossing was again like an oasis in the desert; cool and welcoming and I waded through as much as I could, taking in the additional ponds and puddles in the trail, filled with the most clear, refreshing water you would ever see, even on a muddy trail after the passage of a few hundred sweaty runners.

The photographers were still out in force, having changed the orientation of their shots and taking as much advantage of the remaining daylight as possible – many of the earlier and later camera bearers were aided with significant flash equipment on the side of the trail but others, presumably, preferred to be more mobile and take advantage of the more natural light during the day.

Flat into Twin Lakes
Flat into Twin Lakes

The route back into Twin Lakes was lined with hundreds of people cheering for all the competitors and I made my way proudly through the cheers of “Good job!” and “Looking good runner!” – it is amazing how much motivation such simple words from complete strangers can impart when you have been running for over 15 hours.

Liz was waiting for me again, outside our hotel and we walked together back up to the Fire Station, and I once more sat, while being plied with coke and this time also a steak sandwich and fries! – she had picked it up on the recommendation of our chef from the Twin Lakes Inn, Matt. I always struggle to eat solid food while on the run; it always seems to get stuck in my gullet, not to put to fine a point on it – lack of saliva lubrication, or something, but I’m sure that’s enough detail for the moment. Whatever the cause, today was no different and although this was exactly what I felt that I fancied, I still struggled to force it down without several gallons of coke and tea.

Time Out: 19:44:39 (60.5 miles – 15hrs 44mins)

Twin Lakes to Half Pipe – 10.4 miles
Leadville – Stage 9

Since I had been through the river crossing only recently, I needed to change my socks for the final part of my journey. This was something we had planned, so not a problem, although my trainers were wetter than I had anticipated and it is amazing how much difficulty this imposed. This was only compounded by the fact that I was starting to stiffen up and bending down to even reach my feet, let alone remove my shoes and injinji socks was a struggle to say the least; I began to understand the advantage of some crews having multiple helpers and loungers with tables around to temporarily hold food and drink in the frenetic activity of the aid station stop. I simply didn’t have enough hands to eat, drink, change socks, shoes, and reapply foot cream at the same time.

Twin Lakes - The Sequel
Twin Lakes – The Sequel

In the end Liz did a fantastic job, but I had stopped again for longer than I had hoped – probably 15-20 minutes and I was conscious that my ‘contingency’ was starting to run out.

I started back out of Twin Lakes with my head torch at the ready. It was not yet dark, but it was certainly well into twilight and I would not be making the next checkpoint without needing it.
From the low point of the course, the exit from Twin Lakes is about 2-3 miles of uphill, not massive in ultra terms, only about 1000ft of ascent, but slow through the trees and actually greater similarity to Sugarloaf than most people would imagine. I had been anticipating this but now with the dark appearing as well I found myself unable to go as fast as I wanted. Note to self, practice uphills with gnarly tree routes and uneven trails in the dark before trying this again! 😉

The promise of a steady downhill spurred me on though and I made my way slowly back up the course, power walking most of this and running where I could to pass a few people and keep my average up.

Treeline
Treeline

I didn’t stop at all at the Mt Elbert mini-stop, having filled up at twin lakes and since night had fallen upon me and my fellow runners, the air was already cooling and I was consequently in need of far less liquid.

The terrain always looks different in the night compared to daylight and I may as well have been on a totally different course, rather than retracing my steps – the night-time has its own attractions though. The stillness of the evening, combined with the thinning out of the runners, led to a very memorable time. Except for the fact I was not here to remember, I was here to race. I was feeling good during this stage and caught and passed many others – although given that the majority had pacers, I only gained half the equivalent number of places!

The moon was in its second quarter, not quite full and also quite low down so was not providing much assistance to me, but was still like an old friend, turning up occasionally, casting a beam of surprisingly bright light and a silvery shadow through the tall pines.

I soon made it through to the Half Pipe aid station, looking along my journey for the display of fireflies over the pond I had stumbled on previously, and smiling at the section where I had looked in vain for an impromptu ‘crutch’ from the forest branches to help me along; this time I was feeling so much stronger and finishing was never in doubt. My time was slipping away though.

Time In: 21:56:59 (70.9 miles – 17hrs 57mins)

Half Pipe to Fish Hatchery / Outward Bound – 5.6 miles
Leadville – Stage 10
I did my usual coke grabbing exercise as I entered the aid station tent, but immediately realised I was actually starting to feel rather cooler than I had for most of the day. Standing in the vicinity of the heater in the aid station brought home just how cold it was becoming outside. I tried again to force down some crisps and pretzels, but as usual they got stuck in my mouth like quick drying cement and I gave up on this as a bad idea. I thought a cup of sweet coffee would be rather more palatable, and even though the Nescafé blend was not a barista latte, I drank it anyway and moved off at my earlier pace to meet Liz at Pipeline.

Whether it was the cold or simply the previous 70 odd miles I had already covered, my legs were starting to slow down at this point, in so much as I was struggling to maintain a pace of better than 7min/km so although the Pipeline Aid point was only 3-4 km, it still took me a further 25-30 minutes to reach it with my slow, baby steps.

The noise and lights of the crews were evident long before the lines of cars parked along the narrow strip of land which, being the last point the cars can reach before Twin Lakes, has traditionally turned into an impromptu aid station.

The next problem I had was to find Liz! She had sent a message saying she was at the far end where she had been earlier, but in the dark, with so many cars, crew members, lights and torches shining in my face, I could easily have missed her, and did not relish the thought of running back up the other end of the parking lot to try to find her. I was therefore relieved when I heard her voice and saw her exactly where she had promised and I had expected her.

Time was moving on but she had brought me some hot sweet tea in a flask which I drank with relish! She had also got some sort of cold cappuccino, frappé, latte milkshake thing and that didn’t last long either. We briefly studied our timings and realised I was going to have to push things harder now, but after so much caffeine, I was on my way in a flash 🙂

The exit from Pipeline was a sharp right turn before a straight trail following a barbed wire fence on the left. I know it was there because I remember it from earlier when the bright sunlight was shining down on me. Now though, it was suddenly difficult to see but for my head-torch occasionally picking out the posts and rusting wire with the sparkling dust I was kicking up along the dry trail, in suspension in the black air.

I had already planned a strategy for this section, trialling it first off-road before moving onto several kilometres of Tarmac – my aim on this ‘easy’ stretch was to do a run-walk strategy to maintain a sub-7 minute pace (unimpressive, but all that my stiff legs could manage by this stage). The reasons behind this were many; firstly, I needed to maintain a good pace to get to the next aid station to give me a chance of meeting my goal for the race. Secondly, the next few kilometres were as flat and fast as you can get in a trail race and finally it was dark and along such a mundane stretch of road on my own, I needed some means to break the monotony.

I allowed myself the opportunity to walk to recover, but only after I had ensured my pace for the kilometre I was running was within my target on my Garmin; up it shot as I walked and down it crept as I ran. I played the game to get the best time I could during those few brief kilometres and, during the late, dark hours of Saturday night along the still and lonely roads on the outskirts of Leadville, with only the occasional passing SUV or truck for company, I soon found I turned the corner and saw the lights of the Outward Bound aid station. I continued my distraction for a while longer but eagerly entered the aid station, again passing the warmth of a fire, but a bonfire this time. I had made it in good time and Liz was happy.

Time In: 23:23:04 (76.5 miles – 19hrs 23mins)

Fish Hatchery / Outward Bound to MayQueen – 10 miles
Leadville – Stage 11
I sat down after grabbing a coke and a sandwich, fairly pleased with myself, but the euphoria of reaching the second to last aid station (excluding the finish, of course!) quickly drifted away into the cool mountain air, helped in no small way by Liz’s valid insistence that I had to get moving, the realisation I still had 23.5 miles, or the best part of a marathon to do with Sugarloaf Mountain in the way.

23.5 miles. 5.5 hours? Doable, I thought.

Perhaps this is where the confusion and thought diminishing effect of fatigue and exhaustion were starting to play a part, nevertheless I was off and out relatively quickly and ready to tackle the mountain, leaving Liz and the heat of the bonfire behind.

I smiled again as I passed the entrance to the Leadville Fish Hatchery; this was where the aid station used to be located, and was the point at which I had had my runners wristband unceremoniously cut off and my chip removed three years ago with my next stop to be Leadville by car. From here on in, I was in new territory.

The road down to the start of the climb was longer than I imagined and I tramped my way as quickly as I could back along the Tarmac passing a group of people along the way. They were discussing meeting with their crew later on from their big pickup and the lights of the vehicle were brightly illuminating the dark road ahead. Their crew vehicle passed me a couple of times waiting for their runners, on the way to the trailhead, from which point we were all on our own.

The climb up Sugarloaf Mountain started out hard, the soft sandy soil giving way to hard compacted chalk and dry mud, with evidence of past rivulets eroding deep channels in the straight slope up, following the power lines down into the valley. It started out hard and remained hard for the next couple of hours.

I occasionally looked back across the valley, with the lights of the cars appearing to move at an incongruously sedate pace from my vantage point halfway up the hill, but actually scurrying from checkpoint to checkpoint and above, the clear night sky was emerging as my eyes became more accustomed to the dark in the light-pollution free, high-altitude area. Generally my focus was in the opposite direction though, uphill, uphill and more uphill.

On the way out I had covered the route up Sugarloaf predominantly in the early dawn light, and the way down when fresh, in the early morning as the Sun was making its presence known. Hope Pass I had covered in both directions in the light later in the day, so now I was essentially covering my first (and only) major hill in the dark.

I knew I could cover it, but it just didn’t stop going up.

For the Record - Elevation Profile
For the Record – Elevation Profile

“Well this sucks”, I thought to myself and I lost my sense of humour about halfway up the second ‘rise’.

I analysed the contour of this ascent afterwards and although difficult to see on the map, or even the race profile, I realised there were four distinct sections signified by repeated ascents and plateaus. Not knowing this part of the course had broken my spirit. Each time I reached what I thought could be the top I found there was more slow, slogging and because of the trees and the darkness it was impossible to tell otherwise. How different this section had been on the way out on fresh feet, coming downhill, in the early morning light. That now seemed like an eternity ago.

With each step I realised that I was using up the precious time I would need to get round the final half marathon section from May Queen into Leadville, but I still had the hope that I could find my way down the hill in a good time to allow me to meet my goal for the last stage.

The infrequent sightings of headlamps threading their way through the forest up ahead eventually stopped as they disappeared over the rise and to the left around the contour of the hill before finally starting a slow descent, initially through the trees with the now familiar gnarly roots, but then eventually onto a section of service road where so many hours, and miles, beforehand I had had my picture taken.

I ran (shuffle-jogged) as much as I could on this section, knowing it might be my last opportunity to make up some time for quite a while, but before I knew it I was heading off back down the narrow twisting trail, with the sound of the May Queen aid station still distant down the hill.

It was taking me far longer than I had hoped, although given the terrain and my state of fatigue, I should’ve allowed a little more slack in my estimates.

The final couple of miles down into the last checkpoint was very frustrating for me, counterpointed by the last few hundred metres after popping back out onto the trail road again. I ran as fast as I could into the aid station to Liz waiting there.

The look on her face was one of ‘concern’.

Time In: 02:29:45 (86.5 miles – 22hrs 30mins)

Mayqueen to Leadville Finish – 13.5 miles
Leadville – Stage 12
The aid station was a lot quieter than it had been earlier in the previous day – I had seamlessly transitioned from Saturday to Sunday on my way up Powerline a couple of hours ago – but there were still the odd pockets of frenetic activity.

Not that I noticed them.

After 86.5 miles, I had 2.5 hours to do the best part of a half marathon; ordinarily not an issue at all, but in the dark, with tired legs, fatigued mind and the majority of it through some pretty tricky terrain. All these factors were conspiring against me but I needed to give it a shot anyway.

Liz wanted to get me out as fast as possible, but the aid station crew asked several times if I needed anything. I grabbed my usual fare and some banana to keep me going, said my final farewells and was off running again into the night.

On my own.

I ran down the Tarmac to the edge of the forest where it heads towards the western end of Turquoise Lake once more. I knew this would be the last smooth surface I would encounter for at least the next 5 miles, so I made the most of it.

I ran into the trees and disappeared for what seemed like an eternity.

The soft dusty route was not too bad to start with and I was ever hopeful that there would be a slight downhill gradient, at least to the shoreline, but it was undulating at best and the narrow uneven surface with jagged rocks and my new best friends the gnarly tree roots were doing their best to slow me down; and succeeding.

I reached the shoreline of the lake without too much ceremony, but I was struggling to reconcile the effort required to constantly recover and save myself from stumbling with my current levels of fatigue and the minimal gain in speed I was making, so I started a fast walk along an essentially flat course.

This did not sit well with my desire to push as hard as I could to reach my goal, but each time I started running, I tripped, stumbled or fell. The majority of the time I managed to catch myself, but my levels of frustration with my seeming incompetence were increasing with every jitter.

The beauty of the moment, while moving slowly around the edge of the lake, watching glimpses of lights from both crew and runners on the opposite shoreline, with the clear, star speckled skies above the mountain I had come down only a few hours previously was not lost on me though. There are some magical times in races, as in life, and, despite my frustration, this was one of them.

I passed through the open areas where there had been local supporters so many hours previously, but now there was nobody.

I made my way across a car park, which I struggled to remember from nearly a day before, but without the crew, vehicles, supporters and in the dark, it was an alien world; halfway across I questioned the route I was taking, but eventually spotted a familiar glow stick, so continued my lonely trek towards Leadville.

The eastern edge of the lake was a long time coming, but eventually I left the shoreline again for a short section, continuing in the same forest theme, before being ejected onto the road, and crossing it, away from the lake and now diving down the worst possible technical trail you could imagine. The straight drop along a boulder track could not have been more than a half mile down; in the distance and turning onto the road junction, I could see a couple of head torches bobbing away, but it was purgatory nonetheless. The combination of soft earth, large boulders and deep rutting proving impossible to negotiate at times; I was imagining that the front runners would have bounded down this point with a spring in their step, doing their best mountain goat impressions.

Reaching the roadway which was a short section east to the railway line, was a relief and strolling along the wide expanse of dirt track was suddenly like walking in slippers. There were few others around at this point; the competitor and his pacer I had glimpsed earlier were up ahead, but no one behind.

I concentrated on catching the two ahead which I managed by the time we reached the southerly turn down the final trail section parallel with the railway; in fact, I caught them primarily because they were going straight on at that point and ‘helped’ their navigation by shouting after them before they disappeared into a world of pain after 25 hours on the road.

It was here, that there was a sudden increase in the number of competitors around me. I noticed another couple of people up ahead and there was also another runner and pacer pair coming up ‘fast’ behind me – they jogged past me a few moments later, looking as fresh as daisies, chatting away, leaving me standing in relative terms. I resolved not to let anyone else pass me and to make my way as fast as possible to the finish, which by my reckoning was still at least 3 miles distant.

The significance of the passing of the 25 hour threshold at this point was not unexpected, but still a depressing thought after everything I had accomplished up to now.

My legs had long since given up the ability to run and from now I had also lost the will to run. The realisation I was unlikely to make the 25-hour cut-off was a low point, but I would struggle to say exactly when it occurred – perhaps going up Powerline, maybe coming down from Sugarloaf through the forests into May Queen, probably going around Turquoise Lake when I continued stumbling in my vain attempts to increase my speed and believe I could cover a mere half-marathon in 2½ hours. There was always hope, however small, but this time it was not to be and the inexorable march of time once again won the day.

The final trail of the race was about a mile in a southerly direction before turning onto a dusty easterly road. that so many hours before had kicked up mounds of sparkling dirt into the head-torches of 800 runners. The way was easy and smooth now but gradually uphill; a last couple of miles of torment that Ken Chlouber had devised for the route back into Leadville – with little choice, I suspect, for most routes into the highest incorporated city in the continental USA are going to be uphill.

The sky was slowly changing once again, with the veil of the stars being imperceptibly withdrawn; only the brightest in the dawn sky to the east in the direction I was heading, soon remained visible, the constellations of Pegasus, Andromeda, Perseus and Cassiopeia disappearing from view and no longer guiding me home.

The long slow drag uphill eventually came to an end and the tarmac took over at the outskirts of the City. It was strange to be on a road again after so long and I had to remember that the trucks, pick-ups and SUVs, on their lookout for their runners, technically had right of way. At that time in the morning there were few about though.

I passed Lake County School and turned my final corner onto West 6th Street at the aquatic centre where the briefing had been a couple of days before and I could now, in the distance, see the finish.

Finally Finishing
Finally Finishing

There was much evidence of partying through the night in the form of discarded bottles, cans, spent barbecues and unoccupied deck-chairs, presumably to welcome in the early finishers, and I suspect this recommenced later in the day up to the 30 hour mark, but at present there seemed to be an early morning lull in proceedings. Nevertheless the dozen or so people I did see were all still full of congratulation and joy on my behalf at the approaching conclusion of my challenge.

I seem to remember the final few hundred metres were uphill, but in reality it did not really matter; after everything I had been through over the previous 26 hours it was nothing. The sky was getting light now, even if the sun was still behind the mountains to the east of Leadville and I was ready to get that medal.

I ran the final stretch, suddenly finding a previously hidden battery of energy in my legs to propel me along the red carpet and across the finish line, with the announcer suddenly excitedly realising I was another ‘out-of-state’ competitor finishing.

Liz was waiting for me and we could do nothing but embrace without words.

Time In: 06:06:55 (100 miles – 26hrs 6mins)

Liz had had her own marathon throughout the last 30 hours as well. Supporting me on her own to the 11 checkpoints had not afforded her the opportunity to rest at all; the traffic (about which many people subsequently complained), had been awful and her journey each time had left her little time to prepare, let alone rest. At Twin Lakes she had managed to get through and park outside our Hotel on both occasions but only by virtue of the fact we were staying there, and many others had not been so lucky; the stories of runners actually getting to checkpoints faster than their crews, or missing pacers, had been prolific – even so, she had not had the opportunity to grab sleep, fearing she would not be around to meet and help me.

By the end then, both of us were exhausted; both physically and mentally, after the ups and downs of the day.

As a result, I found it difficult to describe how I felt at that point, in the moments after crossing the finishing line. I had completed the Leadville ‘Race Across The Sky’, the race I had dreamed of and visualised finishing for over three years, my 5th 100 mile ultra-marathon, in my 3rd fastest time, 156th Place overall (out of 944 starters and 497 finishers), 40th in my age group (of which I am approaching the ‘upper end’!), but I had set such high expectations for my finish, I was convinced I could get that sub-25 hour buckle – indeed, I still believe I can – and perhaps it was just the fatigue, but I was disappointed and only after several hours, if not days, could I look at the buckle I got and feel proud of what I had achieved.

Ken and Merilee
Ken and Merilee

There is always that nagging feeling I could have done better though – what is that? A psychological flaw, or just an inherent desire to always improve? Is that an ultra-running thing or just me? (Answers on a postcard please…) Either way, I have a strong feeling I will be venturing back to Leadville at some point in the (near) future 🙂

In the days afterwards, we mulled over the race and enjoyed the rest of our stay in Twin Lakes, very appreciative of the staff in the Twin Lakes Inn, Mary, Andy and Sue, who had made us feel such a part of their family, and Matt the chef, who cooked us some magnificent ‘recovery’ food after the event. The owners Liz and James also went out of their way to assist in any way they could and we would definitely stay there again if (when) we go back to Leadville in the future.

On our final night in Twin Lakes we had dinner at the Inn, and were lucky enough to be introduced by the staff there to Ken Chlouber and Merilee Mauqin, who co-founded the Leadville 100 trail race some 31 years ago. It was great to meet them – two people who in the simplest terms, co-founded and promoted a world class race to put their community ‘on the map’ when it was in the throes of an economic downturn.

Their vision of the race as a tough ultra-marathon and a perfect metaphor for life has been encapsulated in their phrase “You’re better than you think you are; You can do more than you think you can.” and embodies the spirit of the residents of Leadville and their desire to rebuild their lives. In many ways the story has come full circle with the reopening of the Climax molybdenum mine in 2012. Perhaps the end of the race is in sight for the Leadville community as well, but if life for the City on a hill starts to return to ‘normal’ they have given the world a fantastic event and experience which will become both their, and the town’s, legacy to the world.

Typically, we were beginning to enjoy our stay, come to terms with the altitude, the jet-lag of the initial outward journey and the exhaustion of the challenge just in time to make our move back to Blighty, and my challenge for 2013 was over.

 

To Eastbourne, With a Fair Wind

I was on an exposed hilltop, with gale force winds buffeting me, in the dark, an hour after the sun had disappeared from view, a mere 14 miles from Eastbourne, but 86 miles from Winchester where I had started the race earlier the same day, practically as the crow flies. That was where I began to wonder if I should have packed a long sleeve top.

The forecast had been for relatively good temperatures (i.e. 17-18°C – good for running), but I’d not checked the wind strength and despite the beauty of the trails up to that point, the sunset had transported me to a different world. That was nearly my downfall and although my Salomon wind-proof jacket was doing a fine job, I was still considering pulling out for fear of suffering from exposure.

Clearly this was a fatigued mind playing tricks on me though, trying everything it knew to get me to pull up. If I stopped now, I reasoned, I would have to get down to Alfriston anyway and by that time I would be back downhill, probably in a warm checkpoint and only have a cheeky 9 miles remaining. Hardly the time to give up; the thought of hauling my weary, cold and battered frame back uphill twice more after this was nonetheless not the most appealing thought.

It was a shame, as the rest of the race had been fantastic.

It had begun with another early start from our hotel in Marwell, the only one nearby which took dogs, just south east of Winchester, as the Centurion Running Petzl South Downs Way 100 race was due to start at 6am, some 9 miles north in Chilcomb Sports ground which is the opposite side of the M3 to Winchester.

I managed to get up and out of the room fairly quietly and although it was light outside I don’t think I woke anyone up as I was leaving; even Adastra was not stirred from her slumber by my stealthy exit just before 5:00am. My decision to prepare everything the night before had been a good one. At least I was leaving in the knowledge that the children would have some fun in the swimming pool before I hopefully saw them later. The race, as with most Ultra-marathons, was not ideal from a spectator perspective!

The Start Line
The Start Line

It was quite warm in the hotel so even with my jacket on, I noticed the cold walking out to my pre-booked taxi. I had plenty of time to make the pre-race briefing, but was a little unnerved when the taxi driver explained he was from Eastleigh, not Winchester, and didn’t have a clue where I wanted to go, so I explained that he should go up the M3, while fumbling for my phone, attempting to get coverage, and wasting a precious few percent of my full charge. The taxi driver proceeded to ignore me and go through Winchester town, typically taking a longer route than necessary. Then asked where to go! I was able to direct him via a fairly roundabout route and my first trauma of the day drew to a close as we pulled onto the single track road leading to the sports ground with 200 other competitors trying to make it to the 5:30 briefing as well.

James Ellison was just mustering people inside as I made it to the clubhouse where the impromptu race HQ had been set up and started the briefing shortly after. It was the usual safety briefing but interesting as he asked how many people were attempting their first 100 miler (about 50%) and how many had completed 5 or more (less that 10%). I was pleased – if I finished successfully, and I was feeling confident, this would be my 4th (out of 5)

I attached my number, 91, to my shorts while he was speaking, apologising for the seriousness of the safety briefing and reminding us about the navigational difficulties of the course (which were few, but the majority of people were likely to encounter them in the dark) and the fact we had a 14mph tailwind from the west, assisting us most of the way 🙂 woo-hoo! After he’d thanked the volunteers, of which there were a large number manning the many checkpoints, accompanied by a echoing chorus of thanks from the assembled competitors, and wished us good luck, I finally packed everything in my drop bag ready for the half way point at Washington.

I decided on a final pre-race wee stop, but the queue (even for the gents) was 5-6 deep. I held my ground, but the 6:00am start was approaching fast, the noise outside in the clubhouse was diminishing as people were leaving. I heard no countdown, but sprinted out after hastily finishing my ablutions and saw the thick line of runners snaking round the football fields, having already started the pre-arranged 1 3/4 laps of the field prior to joining the trail, to space us out for the exit but more importantly to ensure we had run the full 100 miles distance by the time we reached Eastbourne.

Chilcomb to Beacon Hill Beeches – 9.85 miles

Starting Out
Starting Out

As the front runners hit the second corner some 200 metres away, the field was already spreading out. I tried not to panic and ran after the tail markers, and by the end of the first lap of the field, I had probably passed about half of them, but the front runners were already disappearing through a gap in the hedge. I had not been able to see where the exit from the field was and as I approached it I realised why. It was little more than a missing bush in the hedge surrounding the field with a narrow and steep couple of metres down to the trail.

We turned left and were on our way along the South Downs. Next stop, Eastbourne 😯

After the frenetic start I settled down into a nice rhythm and ran steadily, chatting to the other runners about the usual topics, races done before now, training up to this point, etc. The organisers had been right about the wind and for the first of many times during the day, I was glad we were travelling with a tailwind, rather than a headwind.

The first 20 miles of this course fell into the ‘unknown’ category, as far as I was concerned, since I had made a conscious decision not to recce this part of the course, deferring instead to the 60-ish miles straddling the halfway point. My logic was that the first 23 miles would be on fresh legs, and if I couldn’t do that without any problems I might as well pack up and go home, and the final 17 miles I would be slogging out with my heart.

Early Blue Skies
Early Blue Skies

There were some fantastic views after we had got away from the initial roads which seemed to be quite frequent on this early part of the course, and the undulations along the rolling hills were recognisable as a taste of things to come.

It was not long before we reached the first checkpoint and the standard was set for the day. Although it was early, there was plenty of fair on offer, from biscuits and crisps, sandwiches to wraps, coke, gels, water refills, etc. The crew manning the station were friendly and falling over themselves to help. Given that I thought I had seen hundreds of runners disappear ahead of me at the start, I was surprised to learn only 20 or 30 had actually passed through.

I had a couple of cups of coke and some peanuts as I anticipated losing some salt throughout the next few hours! I had hardly touched my water as I was still well hydrated, but grabbed a couple of gels and was on my way within a couple of minutes.

Beacon Hill Beeches to QECP – 22.6 miles

After leaving the checkpoint I ran just behind a couple of others but they suddenly darted off through a field, quoting ‘local knowledge’ and I thanked them for the routing tip which I would easily otherwise have missed. The official photographer was in the middle of this field – I would see him many times during the rest if the day, as he completed his own marathon.

Picturesque
Picturesque

The route now took us through a series of farm fields on our way to the village of Exton. It was a strange detour but we were on wonderful green rolling hills again and far away from the roads we had been using often up to now.

After passing through the village and across the main A32 there was a long section whee the route went through quiet forest trails and skirted round the edge of more farm fields before reaching a peak at a nature reserve on Old Winchester Hill, which has an Iron Age Hill fort. I became conscious at this point that after as little as 10-15 miles I had already spent a long time running on my own, but more than that; without any other runners in sight, either in front or behind. It could end up being a lonely race, but I was already glad I had recce’d the majority of the course on my own a few weeks back.

I ran on, saying hello to the people who were either enjoying the circular path around the reserve, or slightly further on, when I’d reached the road, the partners and family of other competitors, who had arranged, and were waiting, to meet at one of the many ‘non-checkpoint’ locations on the course. At this point I was congratulated by spectators who were waiting, and shown the route off the road and down a field again, but in a dog-leg initially back almost in the direction from which I’d just come.

Early Exuberance
Early Exuberance

Through a few more fields, on and off what appeared to be the proper ‘trail’ which disappeared occasionally, only to reappear several hundred metres down a lane, and through typically English hamlets, I sensed, correctly, that we were getting close to Butser Hill, the final rise before the big dip down into CP2 at Queen Elizabeth Country Park, or QECP.

The fight to the top of the hill was not as bad as I had hoped, and the smooth grass trail down to the point where the crossing under the A3 was situated, was more enjoyable than I had imagined. All in all this was a good section and now I was nearly quarter distance, with the next 60 miles being relatively familiar.

I went under the A3 bridge carrying the traffic from London to Portsmouth and then turned up into the park. I followed the Centurion Running signs up through what was now a forest trail rather than following the roadway which I knew came to the same place, and eventually after direction by the volunteers, hopped my way over a small fence and back down a few yards to the waiting tent.

I ensured they had my number recorded before I grabbed a couple of cups of coke and a handful of crisps – at 23 miles, the cramps were holding off at the moment, but I wanted to be proactive about eating as much as I could. I also needed to empty an annoying stone that was meandering around my shoe, but the organisers had chairs set up for this so another few brief moments was all I needed for this task and then I was off again.

QECP to Harting Downs – 27.2 miles

I started off on my own on the next section and as I had suspected, I was happy with my familiarity for the route, but another another effect I hadn’t anticipated was also prevalent. Last time I had run from here I was starting out and was much fresher on my feet, as a consequence is was psychologically hit by how fatigued I felt now and my consequent lack of speed. Although I was conscious of this, I still had difficulty reconciling the feeling after leaving the checkpoint and so ran very slowly to start with.

Thomas Wilkinson and Me
Thomas Wilkinson and Me

It was at this time I first met Tom Wilkinson, #150, and Hamish McLeod, #140, who were running separately, but who I chatted to for a bit, about racing, ultras and family. Tom especially felt I was helping him considerably, but he was also helping me. The pace between the three of us was very similar, and although we kept leap-frogging each other at various times during the next few hours, we predominantly carried out the next 31 miles to Washington together.

The route out of QECP thankfully skirted round the edge of the main hill but the tended gravel trails were forested and were again frequented by dog-walkers, although the Mountain Bikers seemed absent for some reason today. The exit to the park was fairly obvious as the gravel turned to chalk and we headed downhill to one of the minor parking areas at the park periphery.

My mind soon settled down into the familiarity of the route as I passed through the farmland and buildings I recognised from a few weeks back from a strange metal outbuilding with large brick ‘pattern’ corrugations to a sharp turning in the road before another dog-leg back uphill again, before finally getting to a winding forest section which ran parallel to a road we had just crossed, which was some way below. I knew this section was a short distance from the next checkpoint which had actually came up very quickly, as it was less than 5 miles or so from QECP.

The three or so crew were again very friendly and welcoming and had, to their credit, set up the station under a gazebo, but down on the main trail rather than further up in the car park which I had been expecting; every little helps!

Harting Downs to Cocking – 35.1 miles

Tom was the first to leave the aid station, while I was getting my water-bladder filled for the first time, and I was the last, hanging around way to much while grabbing gels, half bananas, Pringles and coke, until I felt ready to leave, or rather compelled not to stay any longer.

Still a long road ahead
Still a long road ahead

The next section was fairly straightforward but I kept reminding myself it was also an easy section so not to get carried away. It had its ups and downs but nothing really to speak of – the disadvantage of going west to east is that the route gets hillier towards the end; still, at this stage I was far more pleased with the tailwind, which at times was ‘highly’ beneficial, certainly preferable to heading into the wind AND going uphill 😉

I caught Hamish up and chatted with him for a bit and we both caught Tom up after a couple of kilometres.  The scenery sped past as we chatted, sometimes leaving each other on the uphills or downhills or even flats through the forests and fields of the Sussex countryside.

We made it to Cocking, after a couple of great long gradual downhills and after crossing the main road we were directed into the field where the checkpoint crew, and partners and families were waiting – this being one of only 3 checkpoints where they could attend.

I set to with my routine of drinking a couple of cups of coke, grabbing crisps and other savouries and, with a couple of gels and a half banana for the road, I had a chat with some other guys who had arrived and then was on my way. I realised I was spending longer than others at the checkpoints, but was not unduly concerned about it; maybe I should’ve been, as I was losing places each time we stopped.

Cocking to Bignor Hill – 41.7 miles

The next hill from Cocking was the concreted pathway, incongruously smooth for some while, and a number of the 3-4 others I was with at the time commented on it as we made our way up. The clouds and sun were intermittent but it was not cold and the wind was still mostly in the right direction although I felt it might be backing a bit to include a southerly component and wandered if this would be irritating later when we turned south.

Wind getting up
Wind getting up

The relatively flat section continued past the Iron Age burial mounds and through the forests but before we got to the next downhill and road crossing, I started to get cramps; not badly but enough for me to have to stop and stretch out. I had memories of the Thames Trot where I had cramps on and off from halfway (25 miles) to nearly the end. With such a distance to go in this race though, that would not be good! After stretching and running very slowly, things seemed to improve and once I’d warmed up again things were manageable.

After my initial scare with cramps, I spent the next few miles reeling in the people who had strolled past me, while I was stretching on the flat trail. In general, I was able to move faster than most of them, and having had a ‘rest’ felt that I needed to try to claw back some time. The straight flat route through the shaded woods and open fields, sometimes chalky trail, often gravel and grass, continued without much remiss until I started going downhill again and recognised a farm and road I had crossed and run confidently up previously. No such joy today. I caught a couple of confused runners as they approached a sharp left bend in the road and signalled to them that the route continued round that way and back up the hill, except that today the surface seemed exceptionally awkward and we all walked up the deeply ridged track before breaking into a jog at the top again.

I continued to take on gels, every 30-45 minutes, in an attempt to stave off the cramps which appeared to be behaving themselves at this point, but seemed to creep back every time is stopped and there was a checkpoint coming up. The organisers had plenty of GU gels at each of the aid stations, Espresso Love, Vanilla, Chocolate Orange and some purple thing of which I forget the name! They were all hitting the mark, although incredibly sticky – each time I started one, I ripped off the top and sucked as much as I could out of the packet, while squeezing and rolling, as you would a metal tube of toothpaste, but there always seemed to be a bit left that would go everywhere, and I would spend the next 10 minutes cleaning and preening myself while running along – I must remember the wet wipes and a serviette next time 🙂

The crew at Bignor Hill were a welcome sight.

There was only supposed to be water at Bignor, so the other supplies they had on were doubly welcome and the difference between this and the other checkpoints was negligible

Bignor Hill to Kithurst Hill – 50.1 miles

Bignor Hill was pretty much at the top of a hill, unlike most of the checkpoints which clearly, and understandably, were catering for ease of access for the crew. The competitors had to run up and down the hills as part of the competition, but there was no necessity for the volunteer crew to be subjected to such challenges.

The South Downs continued its way west, and I think it was about this point that I caught up with Tom again. We were soon travelling downhill and he was obviously suffering a bit so I tried to explain the route to him – “down this hill, round the corner and across the river, and its only another 10k to Washington”. I’m not sure whether my motivation techniques were working or not, but he was managing to keep up with me and an Aussie, Andrew Tolley who was looking strong, but also running at a similar pace.

Many of the people I spoke to during the day were doing this race specifically to get ‘points’ for the UTMB, the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, for which 7 points (last year) were required to qualify for the lottery such is the popularity of the race nowadays. The SDW100 awards the successful competitors 4 points upon completion. When I mentioned to people I had completed the UTMB in 2009, many seemed in awe, but I was also surprised at the number of other people I met who had also completed it.

We continued down the trail towards Houghton and Amberley and then crossed the River Arun. I pointed out the ‘Washington – 6 miles’ sign to the others, as I remembered how motivating it had been when I saw it myself a few weeks back. With the next checkpoint, and the halfway point, only a couple of miles away, we were now nearly counting down after the midpoint on the miles to the finish. I chose not to tell them this was the lowest point of the course and it was all uphill from here 😉

After the river crossing, we ran our way to the road, and along to the next hill and all walked together up to the next ridge where there was a fairly open and exposed easterly section to the next checkpoint.

I had obviously got confused, with the last checkpoint being so well stocked with food and was consequently doubly surprised by the fair on offer as I turned the corner into the car park. We all stopped only briefly, grabbing gels, coke and crisps, with the prize of hot food at Washington being the focus at the next checkpoint in only 4 more miles.

Kithurst Hill to Washington – 54 miles

The short hop to Washington started with a gradual climb and then undulated through a deep trench-like path, with hedgerows either side for a couple of km, before reaching and crossing another car park.

Tom and I were both suffering at this stage, Tom with general aches in his legs and me with cramps, but we buoyed each other up and ran as much as we could and eventually made it to a fork in the route where we took a slightly more northerly route on the now open and exposed grassland. We were looking for a turning ‘north’ to Washington – the alternative route down to the village, as opposed to a ‘crossing a busy road’ route we had been warned about at the briefing nearly 9 hours earlier.

Washington - With the Family
Washington – With the Family

I stopped to stretch my cramps out, but Tom needed to continue and so got to the signpost ahead of me.  There was a crew member there to point out the direction runners should take, and he confirmed it was now only a mile to the checkpoint, and all downhill.

Tom was having trouble with the downhills so I caught him again and we ran down the trail, and through the first signs of habitation to the checkpoint, before crossing the bridge over the busy A24 and then turning left down towards the village school and playing fields, where the checkpoint was located.

There were plenty of supporters on the way down the hill encouraging us, but I was most surprised when I saw my children running towards me and Liz smiling and taking photos! They were a most welcome sight 🙂

I grabbed the usual coke and a few bits and pieces, but took the opportunity here to have some hot  food – pasta and mince with cheese – and then went and sat outside with Liz and the children. I briefly saw Hamish, who had met his partner here and he confirmed he was doing well, but unfortunately, having met my family, I lost touch with Tom, which was a shame as we had been pretty evenly paced and would have helped each other to the end.

The meeting point are all too infrequent and the stops by their very nature, too short for competitor’s crew to really enjoy, as there is so much to do in such a short space of time – Ultra-running is not the ideal spectator sport! Perhaps I’ll look at one of those 24 hour lap events.

I started to get ready and after another coke and a few crisps, for me and the children, I was saying goodbye and on my way back up school lane to rejoin the trail. The children ran after me for one more hug and then I was gone.

Washington to Botolphs – 61.2 miles

I had already anticipated that the route back up to the trail proper would be a tough one and so had already reconciled the fact I would be walking (and clambering at times) for the next 30 minutes or so.

As I crossed the field where I had photographed the sleeping horses previously (they were over in a nearby corral today) I tried to get my legs moving again after the ‘midpoint’ break – never an easy, but always necessary task.

Having lost contact with my impromptu running buddy, Tom, at the last checkpoint, I was back to running on my own again, although I was quite happy with this for a while.

The landscape levelled out a bit and I commenced my running again, passing the ring of trees making a ‘hill fort’ atop Chanctonbury Hill, and again slowly passing the town of Steyning to the north. The trail took a brief southerly turn before hitting a brief section of flat road on the crest of the ridge, before finally starting a gradually increasing descent into  the now familiar chalk trail and tree line wooded area twisting and turning down to a road and passing through a small farm hamlet with some rather large and expensive looking houses. I turned off the road as the signs for the SDW directed, dutifully following the black and white tape the organisers had attached at every possible navigation point, however minor, and then crossed over the River Adur, which runs further south to join the sea at Shoreham.

The next checkpoint was a few hundred metres past this in a lay-by by the side of the main A283 road. I think I was more surprised and happier to see this checkpoint than any of those previously – and as I had somehow made my way back down to sea level (I must’ve missed that descent) and could see the size of the the next hill to climb, I was in no hurry to leave the comfort of this checkpoint.

I refilled my water and added some GU hypertonic tablets to it as well – I thought this would help with my cramps which had been threatening to come back on and off ever since before Washington.

Botolphs to Saddlescombe Farm – 66.6 miles

Eventually, of course, I could stay no longer at the checkpoint and so took my leave and made my way across the busy road before starting up the next hill which, as I think I may have already mentioned. was a big one.

On the way up the hill, I passed a runner who had stopped with his pacer and was emptying his trainer of stones as he was sitting down in what appeared a rather exhausted manner, so I asked if he was ok as I passed and the group signified all was fine and they were on their way shortly after. I carried on up the trail, with magnificent late afternoon views over the rolling English countryside my prize to behold.

Late in the day
Late in the day

As I came to the next ‘gate’ in the trail, the pacer I had seen earlier ran ahead and opened it for all of us; top man!

I realised at this stage that my friend may have had more than one companion pacing him, when the ‘gate-opener’ asked to run with me for a bit. No problem for me, although I was cramping badly again so explained to him I was not much of a challenge at this stage 😉

We chatted for a bit, as we joined a slightly uphill and open road section at the top of which were the two radio towers I had followed on my Garmin previously. My trusty GPS had not been needed a great deal today, even though it had been dutifully tracking my progress in my pocket and, save for a change of batteries a short while ago, had been very reliable. My impromptu pacer was local to the area and was very familiar with the route, although he had never done the 100 miler himself, and today he was only running as far as Lewes.

My friend, whose name was Kevin Bush, #127, was running with a number of different pacers, but at present he was being paced by his daughter and we chatted as I caught up with them, and he jokingly said that his house was about 200 yards from the next road we reached and it was going to be tough for him not to take a left turn and go home!

I lost them all after Devil’s Dyke where I think a further pacer change occurred! I carried on regardless 🙂

On my own again, I plodded through the heathland and then down the chalky trails to another road crossing and was again surprised to see a Centurion crew member at the road, and she helped me across the busy road (did I really look that exhausted?) and showed me the way into the next checkpoint. Another great welcome at what the crew jokingly described as Satan’s stop (66.6 miles) perhaps not a joke that would’ve gone down to well later for the competitors reaching the stop in the dark of night, but in any case the hot pasta soup went down really well!

Saddlescombe Farm to Clayton Windmills – 69.8 miles

I took my leave after I noticed that several competitors had come and gone and I was still standing and enjoying my soup!

From the farm, there was another brief climb back to open heathland on one side with fenced off farm fields on the slightly higher, right-hand or southern side of my journey. I managed to start to run a bit more after the rest and salty-soup of the checkpoint, but my pace had diminished somewhat and although I still had 19 hours and a PB for the distance in my sights, I couldn’t help feeling it was slipping away.

Windmills
Windmills

As the next checkpoint was only 3 miles or so, I managed to find my way along quite well, and down to the busy A23 road crossing, which involved a tortuous switchback over a bridge, then through the village of Pyecombe and then, after crossing another (thankfully less busy) road, back up through the village golf course. My many pacer friend had caught back up at the last checkpoint and was running with someone else at this point, but his friend had continued to run ahead of me and open gates and point the direction for the route one numerous occasions.

At the conclusion of the tended greens and fairways of the golf course, there was a left turn, which I remember taking previously. About 300m after this there was another set of markers pointing the way to the windmills, which I had not followed previously. I noted the route was a few hundred metres downhill to the next checkpoint, but cheerily greeted the photographer, who had also been out all day completing his own marathon, before turning into the aid station.

The wind had got up on this part of the course and the sedate marquee / gazebo of the other checkpoints had been replaced by serving food out of the back of a van and gels from the back of an estate car. It mattered not, and I grabbed a couple of cokes, a banana and some more gels before making my way back out. The wind was, however, a portent of things to come.

Clayton Windmills to Housedean Farm – 76.6 miles

I joked with the photographer as I retraced my steps back uphill to rejoin the trail, asking for directions. In a state of semi-exhaustion, it is not surprising the strangest things are amusing 😉

I left with my many pacer friend whose wife was now replaced his previous partners, and we chatted away about the UTMB – I had changed my top to my UTMB tee at Washington and he also had one from 2009 when he had completed it. Ultra-running is still a small world! I felt good as we made our way up to Ditchling Beacon so ran, on passing the car park where I was hoping to see the ice cream van, but alas the lateness of the hour was not in my favour on this occasion. I thought of a few of my colleagues at work who were due to be completing the London to Brighton cycle on the Sunday, and who would be equally as glad by the time they got to this point heading south tomorrow.

The route was fairly straight and westward again now, but I was on the lookout for a southerly turn towards the crossing to the A27, where the next checkpoint was located and the final 10km before I was back into unknown territory, but I still had 2-3 miles to go before that point. My cramps had calmed sufficiently for me to get going again, so I upped my pace again to the south turn, noting that I was having to place a lot more emphasis on ensuring my foot placement was safe; after nearly 80 miles my right foot was starting to complain and I was guarding it a little. I did not think it was a stopping issue and there was no sharp pain, more just a dull ache that had increased throughout the day, but upon thinking about it, it had become more noticeable.

Ironically, this was a point where on my previous recce, I had really had enough. Today though, I was getting a second wind… or was it a third, fourth, or even fifth wind? Most likely the latter, and although I was moving faster, it was still a pitiful pace compared to normal, but I was feeling good about the fact I was moving again.

The southward downhill slope, past the point where the yellow rapeseed had been so prevalent before, did not last for long of course. I managed to trail Kevin and his pacer again (different pacer 😉 ), which was useful from the point of view of gate opening again, but as the uneven trail itself was quite narrow and rutted, foot placement required a lot of concentration. After another short westerly and a further southerly section towards a wooded copse, we were at a low point and the only way was up through the steep, gnarled roots of the copse. The sun was getting low in the sky and it was surprisingly dark going through the short wood, but after emerging it was then a short downhill to Housedean Farm.

I noted that we had passed the physiological point of ‘only’ having less than a marathon to complete at some point down this hill, as I was starting to observe my watch on regular occasions.

The refreshments of the aid station were most welcome and as I was starting to cool down a bit, I had a sweet cup of tea instead of my usual cokes. As the sun was going down fast and I was at least an hour from the next checkpoint at my current ‘slowing’ pace, I fitted my torch in preparation for the darkness before leaving.

Housedean Farm to Southease – 83.3 miles

With just under 24 miles to go on leaving the checkpoint I hit a sense of humour failure. The last section of running, albeit downhill, had taken a monumental effort and the thought of the ascent which faced me now was simply too much so I walked practically the whole distance to the top. It is quite depressing to see people you have passed reeling you back in, but then that is the game – sometimes you feel good and pass them, and sometimes vice versa. Nothing complicated. Just life. The temperature was also going down rapidly and with the wind picking up, an extra layer was called for, but having already left the checkpoint I didn’t want to stop again, so struggled to get my coat out and put it on while walking along.

Looking Back
Looking Back

The upshot of my slow pace was that I was passed by probably half a dozen people during the next couple of miles, but eventually I did make it to the top, rounding the bowl of the hill on the way up after taking a south westerly direction for a while, before resuming the easterly trail which was taking us to our destination.

This was practically the perfect point to watch the sun go down over the miles I had just completed, so I took a couple of photos to remember the end of the day.

Buoyed on by the positive influence of the environment, I managed to run some more after this, but my next issue struck as a result. My waist torch, which I had tried to fix simply could not stand up to the rigours of the trail and my repair failed before I had even had the chance to use it. I grumpily put the torch away as I walked along, and mentally thanked the organisers for insisting we carried a backup light source, rather than just spare batteries as normal.

Sunset
Sunset

I soon found my way through to the ‘concrete path’ downhill where I had been lucky enough to take the wonderful rapeseed flower images before. This time the flowers were looking rather more the worse for wear and I imagined they were feeling as bad as I was at the end of their own ordeal 😉

The wind was getting up considerable now and the light was fading fast with the sun having disappeared behind me some time before, and so, perhaps a little too late, I resolved to run as much as I could in the remaining light.

In the fading dusk, I could just make out the post with a small inscription on it marking the prime meridian, the transition from western to eastern hemisphere, or 0° longitude, and today there were no cows to avoid at the bottom of the hill before the farm drive leading to the road to Southease. I ran, slowly, all the way to the next gate up to the trail, but was barely breaking 10 minutes / mile and as I disappeared into the trees sheltering the road down to the village, I had to turn my torch on.

The checkpoint was easy to spot on the green with the illumination inside it and the sweet tea was again most welcome. I was not really getting through any gels at this stage so I didn’t need any replacements, but I grabbed a few handfuls of Pringles and a biscuit or two.

Southease to Alfriston – 91.6 miles

At this stage I only had 17 miles to go, but I didn’t really feel that anything was really going to help my tired legs to move any faster and my right foot / ankle had a serious case of what I assumed was tendonitis.

As I left the checkpoint I switched my head-torch on at the instruction of the crew who were checking everyone, and this being the only light I had left after the demise of my beloved waist torch.

After running down to the river and then crossing the railway bridge (the steps up were not half as tough as the steps down!), I followed the route over the road and was on my own again, in the dark, navigating a course I had not recce’d previously, and the wind was getting stronger with every footstep I took up onto the exposed hillside. At least the rain was holding off, but it had become a lot cloudier since the sunset, or at least it seemed that way; it was probably my “I’ve been out here for nearly 16 hours” mind starting to play tricks on me.

The route up the first hill was a slow turning one, first due south and then, after ensuring the left-hand trail marker to Alfriston was taken, as opposed to Seaford many miles away (think lightly inscribed stone, easily missable in the dark, although in fairness to the Centurion crew, they had plenty of glow-sticks and luminous paint marking the way) the route proceeded northward further up to the ridge of the downs once again.

There was little to see, except the narrow pool of light in front of me, where I tried to pick out the sometimes non-existent trail, occasionally picking out the eyes of confused sheep resting in my path, or behind a fence that I was aware I was following. I did see a large radio mast which was making some interesting noises in the howling wind, but I chose not to look up and inspect it too closely as by this time I had my hood tightly pulled around my face.

I one point I saw some fireworks illuminating the sky over the coast to the south, probably at Seaford, possibly at Eastbourne itself – it was impossible to judge the distance and I had no other reference points as I could not see the town, or even its lights reflected with any certainty on the clouds above.

For what seemed like an eternity I walked on, with the wind from my right side, seeming to get into every crevice in my ‘wind-proof’ jacket; clearly there is a limit with these things and although it was doing a sterling job, the buffeting I was getting was not pleasant. I tried to keep warm with my arms folded across my front and this helped a little, but I was having serious thoughts about whether I should continue if my journey was going to be like this for the next 14 miles.

I was caught by a couple of Irish guys about this point, Gary Dalton, #138, and his pacer. His was suffering as well, but they provided my with good company for a few miles and I provided them with the assurance of a GPS and being on the right track. They were also being affected by the wind and the cold, and were glad when we eventually started descending again through the shelter of a wooded patch of track, signalling the way down into Alfriston.

By this time we had been joined by my Australian friend from earlier, Andrew Tolley, and his pacer and we all found our way down through the forest trail together, passing a  memorable patch of wild garlic, but all of us over the moon that we were now off the exposed hilltops and down into the peaceful tree lined area surrounding the village.

We were in Alfriston almost before we knew it, and the checkpoint was easy to find, even though hidden away.

Even at midnight, the volunteer crew were incredibly cheery and helped with water and warm tea and we were all quickly revived, warmed and ready for the off, although Gary seemed to be suffering and as he was not intending to run any more was becoming depressed at the amount of time he believed it would still take him to finish.

We gave him some words of encouragement, but then Andrew, his pacer and myself left for the final slog.

Alfriston to Jevington – 95.7 miles

We were showed the way by one of the crew, to ensure we did not take a wrong turn and end up on the path to the Seven Sisters and beachy head which would not have been fun on a night like this!

We made our way up the next hill, through a secluded tree-lined track similar to our recent descent; I was hoping this would be our penultimate ascent, although ironically uphills were less of a problem for me than downhills by this stage. The route, had we been able to see much of it, appeared to be settling down into the usual and by now well known format of traversing the ridge before plummeting back down into the slightest of civilisation and we only had 4 miles or so to the final checkpoint before the finish, so I anticipated the up and down would rapid.

We unknowingly passed along the ridge above the ‘Old Man’, a chalk figure cut into the hillside just south of the village of Wilmington, and then almost before I realised, we hit another forest patch and were snaking our way down to the next checkpoint. Admittedly the route down took longer than I anticipated it would, but again being back in the seclusion of the trees was eerily quiet after the constant buffeting and white noise from the wind when exposed.

On our way down, the three of us were passed by several groups youngsters, some of whom gave the impression they were on a guided trek along the downs, and some of whom seemed to have just fallen out of a pub in Eastbourne and were trying to find their way home to Alfriston! We pointed them in the direction of the Petzl markers and glow-sticks and wished them luck with their journey 😀

When we made it down to Jevington, we hit a snag; we hit the ‘main road’ and were out the other side of the village before we had found the checkpoint! We searched for 5 minutes or so, but none of us particularly felt like retracing our steps and my Garmin, which did have the checkpoints marked in it, chose that exact moment to run out of battery (typical!), so we all agreed the organisers were unlikely to penalise us for not reporting in and, in our defence, we had a number of GPS traces to prove our route – it is strange what you think of after 19 hours of low blood sugar levels 🙂

Jevington to Eastbourne – 100 miles

We made our way sheepishly up the trail out of the village and according to my watch, which was under-reading, we still had over 5 miles to go.

So imagine my surprise and joy when, barely at the top of the first hill, certainly less than a miles from Jevington, there was the final navigation point we had been looking for, the trig point indicating the final detour from the South Downs way; we were now leaving the trail which had been our companion since the first kilometre, nearly 20 hours earlier.

The route downhill, the final route downhill, passed a golf course and was described as a ‘semi-circular channel’. This was true, but the surface was uneven, and although Andrew mentioned about running for 1 minute and walking for 1 or something similar, the exposed roots and stones were too much of a risk going downhill so we managed as best we could.

The downhills were painful and whether it was because of this or it was actually longer than I had anticipated, it seemed to take forever to get to the outskirts of habitation on the periphery of Eastbourne, and the final smooth section of Tarmac where we could contemplate a modicum of ‘speed’ once more.

Final Lap!
Final Lap Done!

We all ran intervals and my trusty Garmin held us in good stead once more as we navigated the last couple of kilometres through the urban trail. We turned onto a main road, at the end of which there was the final hairpin and it was along this point that Andrew and his colleague left me. The pain in my shin was too great to run anymore and although I tried a couple of times before the end, it was a painful exercise and with memories of Leadville, I didn’t want to push my body too far past the limits which I had clearly surpassed some miles ago. Again!

The last kilometre was torture. Not because of the pain, but because I could hear another runner behind me approaching and there was nothing I could do to keep the place which I knew I was going to lose. Susie Casebourne, #126, and her pacer wished me luck as they jogged past me, but in the end arrived less than 3 minutes ahead of me.

The last few hundred metres was lonely but inevitable.

In the dark and quiet of the streets of Eastbourne at 2:00 in the morning, I rounded the final corner and was in sight of the Sports Stadium. I managed to run through the open gates and was directed, with some degree of sadism I hasten to add, to complete a loop of the track, which I assumed would be anti-clockwise but subsequently questioned my logic most of the way round, wondering if I should be going the other way; it did not help that I was expecting a giant inflatable Centurion Running ‘End-point’ which was absent but, as I said previously, it is strange what goes through your head after 20 straight hours 😉 By the end of the loop I had figured the wind was a touch too strong for inflatable structures and was happy that I was as compos mentis as anyone else who has run 100 miles.

My ‘100 Miles – One Day’ buckle awaited me next to the sports hall as I slowed for the final time, and I accepted my SDW100 tee-shirt.

This was my full route for the day.

South Downs Actual

Epilogue

The seat inside, out of the wind with a freshly cooked hot-dog, was just the best, although I was in danger of burning my mouth on the food as I was so hungry – hunger is the best chef!

Mimi Anderson was helping out with the volunteer crew and helped me make up my Goodness Shakes, which seems to be becoming a bit of an after race ritual for me.

By the time I had settled down though, I had been sitting down for far too long but I arranged a taxi and was soon at our hotel a couple of miles away on the seafront and after negotiating the night porter’s locking mechanism, I found my way up to our room and was back with my family.

My gorgeous wife had bought me everything under the sun that she thought I might need and I tucked into some chilli-fire Doritos before a quick shower.

I slept well that night.

Back to the Desert

Hip X-Ray - March
Hip X-Ray – March

Five years ago, in 2008, I ran the MdS, the fabled Marathon des Sables; 150 miles across the varying terrain of the Sahara desert in Morocco, carrying everything necessary to survive for a week, excluding water and a rudimentary shelter. During that event, I managed to pick up some debilitating blisters and, to cut a long story short, didn’t really feel I had given the race my best shot. As a result I planned to do the race again, but this time with my wife, Liz.

Life is what happens in between the plans you make, and despite booking to revisit the desert together in 2011, we had to reschedule that commitment due to the minor medical inconvenience of a broken leg, mid-2010.

I was barely off the operating table when Liz visited the desert for the first time on her own in 2011, but I was with her in spirit. For obvious reasons, I had to defer my entry and two years time seemed more prudent than one year given that I had been on crutches for 9 months and was not to be allowed to run for 6 months from the date of my operation at the end of February.

In August 2011, I excitedly started running again and slowly ramped up my Training and distance to the levels approaching those before my ‘incident’ in 2010 and so it was that I found myself on route to the Sahara again on 5th April 2013.

This is the story of my adventure.

Prelude

5 April 2013 – Travelling Day

It was an early start to Gatwick airport. The children were still on Easter school holiday so we had all come on my final journey before the start of my adventure proper.

Ouarzazate Arrival

After checking in, which for a change was most dignified due to our early arrival, we found somewhere to have breakfast together, but then before we knew it, we were saying some tearful goodbyes and I left them waving me off at the newly refurbished immigration control at Gatwick North terminal. A few last minute shopping items were the first order of the day (camp flip flops and maltesers) and then after a quick chat with Mark Gillett the GB photographer, I followed the general throng of MdS, Raidlight, OMM and WAA backpacks which were starting to move en masse towards a far away departure gate.

A week before our departure date, I had been contacted (via an MdS iPhone App!) by Charlie Wakefield, a local runner who I now met up with in the departure lounge, although it was tricky to find someone you don’t know when the other 300 people in the same space are also trying to achieve similar aims, using various combinations of texting, hand signals and good, old fashioned shouting. Charlie was accompanied by Mark Hutchinson and Steve Vinall, who also lived in the Bramley / Wonersh area, only a few miles from Guildford and through which I have run many, many times. They had all met up with Alastair Prain and James Robson at James’ Restaurant in Mayfair earlier in the year, as they were all running for the Charity Mencap and so had agreed to tent together.

There was much discussion, already, over the extent of experience that people had of similar events or Ultramarathons in general, and what training people had completed on the run up to the point at which we all now found ourselves. However, as we had all booked in separately, we got split up on the plane and I sat next to and chatted with an Irish chap, Daragh O’Loughlin who was doing the race for the first time. He was ‘most’ interested in my training hints and tips for the race, although I don’t think he could quite understand my foot preparation strategy, i.e. harden for 2 months, then apply cream to keep soft and flexible!

The first thing most people noticed upon disembarking the plane after the 3 hour journey to Morocco, was the icy wind we were subjected to crossing the Tarmac where suddenly it seemed like the fridge door had been opened, rather than the oven we had been expecting. There was a slight air of disappointment!

[singlepic id=604 w=320 h=240 float=right]We then had a short coach journey (literally 3 minutes) to the hotel, during which I met up with David Perryman and arranged to share a room and discussed a potential tent space which we confirmed shortly afterwards with the rest of the guys. Having carried out a superficial unpack for an overnight stop in our luxurious, but temporary accommodation, we had a relatively quiet time over a Casablanca beer or two as everyone was quite reserved to start with. Andrew ‘Roo’ Landells, a fireman from up the north of the UK, also joined us at this stage to make a tent of 8 (although he subsequently defected to a ‘younger’ tent)

Dinner was a lavish affair, a massive eat-all-you-can-manage-cos-you’re-going-to-be-in-the-desert-for-the-next-8-days buffet and we all suspected at that point we were not the only people who were going to be arriving back in the UK after the MdS, having actually put weight on – still, we were putting the feast and famine theory to the test. There were also some keen discussions around the origins of the ‘lamb’, the thigh bone of which would easily have put a camel to shame.

[singlepic id=615 w=320 h=240 float=left]We all chatted and started to get to know our partners in our forthcoming adventure and over the next couple of days quickly gelled.

An early start the next morning on the coach was preceded by a breakfast in a similar vein to the previous night’s dinner – there was a theme emerging here – but a fleet of coaches arrived outside quite quickly, and all the eager competitors had their bags in the hold and were seated in a relatively short space of time, so we could get on our way.

The convoy of coaches snaked its way, first through the town and then south up through the mountains before turning east for the long journey to our destination. The conurbations became progressively less developed and ‘polished’ as we headed on our journey, and although this would have been the same as leaving the centre of any western metropolis with a rural destination planned, here the difference was almost immediate and far more stark.

We stopped a few times, initially for comfort, but then for lunch, and the temperature was still considerably cooler than anyone had been expecting, perhaps even hoping for – most were still wearing a couple of upper layers and although the sun was hot, the air was cool and a northerly wind was still keeping the temperature down. The forecast was for warmer air from the south bringing increasing temperature over the next couple of days, and as I also remembered the difference between Ouarzazate and the desert from my previous trip, I reassured everyone it would be getting warmer before too long. Much warmer.

Travelling Day – Convoy

After the 5-6 hours promised, we eventually stopped by the side of the road, and each coach in turn went ahead to a junction, apparently in the middle of nowhere, where army trucks then pulled up and we scrambled up into the backs with our bags for the short journey across the rough terrain which the coaches would not have managed, to the first Bivouac, much to everyone’s excitement. By the end of the short trip from the road to the bivouac, certainly no more than 1000m, there were complaints about all the sand and dust being kicked up and deposited upon the occupants and although light-hearted in nature, in retrospect, that was a bit ridiculous 😆

[singlepic id=641 w=320 h=240 float=right]Some of the guys had already commandeered a tent, 138, so we all installed ourselves and almost immediately the wind came up. The Berbers who had put the tents up in the first place were wondering round in small groups, carrying out remedial repairs on the occupied tents which consisted mainly of the British who were around the outside layer of the triple thickness horseshoe shaped pitches of black canvas. In a process we repeated often over the coming days, we got them to secure one side of the tent so the wind was not blowing through quite so vigorously, nevertheless, with the wind and the cooler temperatures, we were in for an uncomfortable first night in the desert.

The French contingent started to arrive after their delayed journey and someone remarked on the fact that arriving late, with only a few brief moments before the night took hold, to the current cold and windy environment, must have been a traumatic start for the first-timers.

[singlepic id=646 w=320 h=240 float=left]It was about this point that James earned his well-deserved reputation as the tent gastronomic delight provider, as he shared crudités and salami with us all; not the only fresh treat from him that we all relished over the coming days.

Our first dinner in the desert was a welcome affair and the warm soup as we all queued was just the best. We shivered our way to the front of the efficient queue, many of us wearing multiple layers, certainly more than we had anticipated needing, and although the wind had subsided a little, the air was still cold and so in the main people were clamouring to get inside the protection of the white tents around the periphery of the eating area to keep warm and most were also considering revising their night-time clothing provisions for the race from this point.

Technical Checks – 6 April 2013

[singlepic id=643 w=320 h=240 float=right]After a fitful night where most of us kept waking from wind, sand being kicked up, and unfamiliar noises and smells (and that was just from inside the tent!) we awoke with the Sun to what would become a routine over the next few days, including packing sleeping bags and mattresses away, identifying who had been snoring most during the night, conversing with the girl in the next door tent (Alastair), general ablutions in the rudimentary facilities which involved searching for the brown plastic bag to stretch over the ‘seat’ of the toilet, and of course breakfast – although not necessarily in that order.

Our self-sufficiency was not due to start until tomorrow morning’s breakfast, so we had another three meals throughout the day provided by the organisation. As a result petit dejeuner this morning was another case of strolling to the inflatable marquee and queuing again, this time with coffee, rather than soup, in the line. I have to say the food distribution was more efficient than I remember from the previous time, so AOI have obviously made improvements there, and the ham, cheese, yoghurt and eggs were most welcome, even after the previous night’s meal.

[singlepic id=656 w=320 h=240 float=left]Technical checks involves all competitors doing a final pack on their rucksack with all the items they want to carry with them and then handing everything else in to the organisation to transport back to the hotel for the finish. We also had to provide a signed medical check form, ECG trace and have evidence of the calories packed, with a bare minimum of 2000kcal being required for each day of the event, so 12,000kcal in total. In return, we were given our dossard numbers, salt tablets and an emergency flare.

The checks were split into several half-hour slots throughout the day, and mine and some of the other guys were at 1:00-1:30, the only dilemma with this being that lunch was served from 12:30-1:30.

We had all spent the morning going through food needs and discussing how much weight we could relinquish given the conditions, which were thankfully starting to warm up a bit. Both myself and Alastair had done the event before, Alastair in 2003, when things were far more rudimentary than they have subsequently become, with all the specific and specialised equipment now available. Even in the last 5 years since I completed the event the choice for competitors has improved no end. We compared notes on our previous events and the others listened intently and started to consider their weight reduction options. David had brought scales with him, so we all took the opportunity after a final, final pack to weigh in. My pack was about 7.8kg, excluding flare and water, but mine was the lightest of our group, with Alastair and David’s both pushing 12-13kg – they were on a walking strategy from the start though, so were less concerned about weight.

[singlepic id=661 w=320 h=240 float=right]We went and queued for lunch, hoping to get things finished early to then get back to drop our cases off in the actual technical check tent. No such luck. We waited for what seemed ages, and although eventually we started moving and the predictable cheese and ham lunch was palatable, those of us in the earlier slot to meet our destiny still had to hurry to make it back to our tent, grab our bags and shuffle over to the main marquee where the organisers, medical staff and reps were doing there inspections.

Mercifully, we has to stand out in the midday sun for very little time at the start of the checking process, and what was now our superfluous luggage was whisked off with remarkable ease; worryingly so! Inside the darkened tent, our eyes adjusted slowly, but only to see more queues first for transponders, then flares and finally the medical ‘checks’ where the doctors gave what appeared to be a cursory glance over my signed ECG and medical declaration; they raised an eyebrow over the state of my broken leg, but were happy when I told them it was all fixed 🙂 After that it was just our numbers to collect, and then we were back out in the sun and on our own.

[singlepic id=669 w=320 h=240 float=left]It is amazing the difference that such a little time can make. Having spent months if not years preparing for the race, this was now starting to get very real; with only one more evening meal to go, we would be on self-sufficiency for 6 days and although we were now but a stone’s throw away from the start line, everyone I spoke to really just wanted to get going. So near, and yet no cigar – yet!

We were now playing the waiting game, although I think this was naturally worse for the other guys than for Alastair and myself, since we had some idea of what to expect, it is difficult to describe to the uninitiated in detail. With a few hours to kill, and to stop our minds wondering too far off course, Charlie, Mark (?) and myself decided to take a ‘stroll’ to the top of the jebel which had been on our doorstep for the last 24 hours overlooking us like a sentinel to warn of impending doom! We had demons to banish.

[singlepic id=673 w=320 h=240 float=right]The stroll at first took us to the base and then up the side where we joined many other competitors who had had similar thoughts. The bedrocks were thick with fossils up to a certain level and the terrain was relatively easy, at least at the relaxing pace we were taking, with nobody timing us. At the top of the ridge, the view over the first bivouac was stunning and well worth the climb, and we took a few pictures to aid the memories, but then made our way down the fast way. The soft sand up the face of the jebel was substantial and was accessible by clambering only a few short metres down below the summit of the ridge at a strategic point. Going down is a lot easier, and a lot more fun, than going up!

We were soon back in the shelter of the tent though and James cemented his reputation as the bivouac gourmet when he brought out some cheese and biscuits for us to enjoy as an entrée to supper which followed shortly after.

[singlepic id=697 w=320 h=240 float=left]There were some quips about the last supper, but in general things were fairly subdued and since the sun had gone down, it was an early night for all to wrestle with our thoughts and try to get some rest on the stony ground.

It was about this point that I realised two things; bad things, now were were adrift in an ocean of desert on board the HMS Self Sufficiency. Firstly, a waist torch is great for racing, but not so cool for trying to find things in a backpack after sundown and my secondary wind-up torch was struggling with all I was asking of it, and secondly, my Thermarest mattress had a puncture; my 200-300g of comfort was almost useless, but better than nothing for insulating from the cool ground, so I anticipated a rocky night. On the positive side, my earplugs worked and blocked out the majority of the noise from the French tents, of which there seemed to be a particularly rowdy instance opposite.

MdS Stage 1 – 7 April 2013

37.2km – Jebel Irhs / Oued Tijekht

[singlepic id=705 w=320 h=240 float=right]I woke with the Sun as expected and got straight up to enjoy the sunrise. We had, over the last couple of days, gathered some firewood to make a fire for this morning and so I set about this straight away. The other guys were a bit sluggish, and indeed a bit sceptical of this approach to breakfast rather than using the stoves and esbit fuel tablets we had all bought, but I got things going for them, which I think they appreciated.

The Berbers were kind to us on this, the first morning, allowing us until almost 6:20am before removing the tent from over our heads. With porridge and strawberries out the way (the only one of that variety I had brought, after memories of having to force it down last time had come flooding back during the ordering process), it was time for the final, but what always seems to be the first ‘real’ pack of the rucksack. I stuffed as much as I could into my pack and then with the sleeping bag and mattress on the outside, deliberated over where to put my camp flip-flops and the flare, eventually deciding upon wedging them with the mattress. It all seemed secure, but this was to come back to haunt me throughout the day.

We all walked over sombrely to the start and Patrick Bauer was already talking on top of his Land Rover, so we all took some photos and said goodbye to each other and wished each other luck. I then tried to make my way forward to get closer to the start line to avoid having to pass a lot of people or get held up by the people who had underestimated the terrain. I didn’t get too far though as the crowd was thick with anticipation of the impending start that they and I had been training towards for so long.

[singlepic id=715 w=320 h=240 float=left]We had the traditional happy birthday to a few competitors who were ‘lucky’ enough to have been born on this day in history, and then after AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, which has become a traditional send off, there was a countdown from 20, to 10 and then we were off.

In a scene reminiscent of a Bond movie, where the villain thinks up more and more fiendish ways of dispatching the hero, a helicopter tracked forwards and backward over us a few times, at no more than 40-50ft, flying sideways above us, to give the cameraman hanging out the door the best possible shots of over 1000 runners quickly spreading out through the Moroccan Sahara.

[singlepic id=720 w=320 h=240 float=right]The first section of 13 km was fairly flat, presumably to break people in gently, with only the odd rise through a few hundred feet jebel and then some small dunes (dunettes?) just before CP1, but I managed to run most of this stage. The only time I had to stop was when my sleeping bag, camp shoes and flare all decided to make a break for freedom. I was in such a good rhythm at this point, that this was frustrating, especially to then see all the people I had passed, running on ahead of me again. I tried tying it on in a different way and hoped it was secure, and was off on my way in a couple of minutes, desperately hoping I could get back into a good stride again.

At the base of the next jebel, there was a bridge crossing over a river, and for a few hundred metres we followed the riverbank, marvelling at the beautiful contrast between the lush green reeds and vegetation along to bank, compared to the dusty, orange brush only a few metres either side. The first checkpoint, at 13.4km followed soon afterwards, where I stopped just to change water and add a Nuun tablet, a process with which I was to become very adept over the course of the next 18 checkpoints, and I was off without sitting down, resting or even taking my backpack off – minimise stopping time was my race strategy.

[singlepic id=721 w=320 h=240 float=left]After leaving, I thought that I should probably have checked the security of my sleeping bag and its other attendant items, and sure enough within a few kilometres, it had made another break for it, with the Frenchman behind kindly shouting about my ‘sac’ just in case I had failed to notice the massive and sudden change in weight behind me! After frustratingly wasting more time and revising the security of my packing once again, I carried on as we were subjected to a few more dunes and flat oued (dry river) bed and although it was generally very undulating it was also beautiful and I tried to look around and enjoy the whole experience, while also keeping an eye on the rocky terrain and watching my footing. I found that the second stage was not as comfortable as the initial stage and I wondered if I had started out too fast for the hot conditions and as a result I was glad to get to the next checkpoint, CP2 at 24.8km.

I maintained my strategy and stopped only briefly again to fix water and nuun and subsequently set off quite well and ran for the next few kilometres through a mixture of hilly passage, sandy oued and stony valley floor on the way to what the road book described as the summit of a ‘small sandy pass’ but which in reality was a 300ft climb to the top of a jebel, Amessoui Jebel; I learned quickly that the naming of jebels in the road-book was significant and was to be trusted far more than any attempts to interpret their scale as shown in their innocuous representation on the drawings on the maps in the road book. 😉

[singlepic id=726 w=320 h=240 float=right]After this tough uphill section, which had consisted of a gradual climb and then hard scramble up soft sand and boulders to its summit I was rewarded with a view of the finish and the salvation of the bivouac in distance and we were told it was only 3k.

This was 3km that seemed to go on forever though, and despite being largely descending, it was into the wind and through some stony terrain towards the end. I managed to run the majority to the finish, but it had been deceptive to see the bivouac from such a distance and it took over 20 minutes to get there.

I had finished though in 4:59:02, in 234th position.

I was largely pleased with my time and position, but felt I needed to improve on this over the next few stages. The last time I had been in the desert I had got blisters from the outset, and there was always that underlying fear that the same would happen again due to the harsh terrain and heat, but I was over the moon that I had very little to worry about in the way of blisters at this stage.

When I got back to the tent, the first thing I did was to make up my Goodness shakes – I had made a last minute decision to add one of their powdered shakes to my pack for recovery after each stage and these ended up being like absolute nectar! One of my better decisions for the sake of a few extra grams.

It was not all rosy in the #801 garden though as I was concerned about the fact my sleeping bag had fallen off twice, along with my flare and camp shoes (which sound like something Kenneth Williams or Graham Norton might wear around town). I resolved to sort out the pack strapping, which I had luckily decided not to ‘trim’ prior to the event, tomorrow morning, since everything was already spilling out of my pack now I was settled in the tent.

[singlepic id=727 w=320 h=240 float=left]For supper, I had an 800kcal sweet and sour chicken, which actually tasted quite palatable and afterwards as the sun was setting on our first day, I finished off my trail mix. During the race itself, I had only had my Torq bar and a couple of handfuls of mix, and already I was starting to loose my appetite for my carefully planned and measured trail mix. Since it was a significant part of my daily calorie allowance I was having to force it down though.

The other guys in the tent did really well and were pleased as punch to have finished their first stage and have 23 miles under their belts. David was the first to pay a visit to doc trotter though and was told his blisters were the worst for the day. James yet again delighted us with a pack of salami from his restaurant as well as a final pack of vacuum packed carrots! The high-life indeed.

We had all now become fairly adept at lighting the fire with gathered firewood and were slowly throwing away the esbit fuel and stoves which everyone had carried along for the first stage. The whole primeval fire ritual in the desert thing had gone down very well.

MdS Stage 2 – 8 April 2013

30.2km – Oued Tijekht / Jebel El Otfal

[singlepic id=728 w=320 h=240 float=right]We were up early again today, about 5:30 with the Berbers turning up a bit earlier than yesterday. The sunrise was not the same as the previous day either as it was unusually cloudy, at least on the horizon. There was talk in the tent of the temperatures being cooler as a result of the cloud cover and everyone was considering a fast start to get as much possible done before the heat of the day really took hold. We were being rather optimistic though and by the time we had been through the fire building and finished breakfast, the Sun was already peeking through some of the lower layers of cloud.

I had the first of my freeze-dried scrambled egg for breakfast which, I’m sad to report  was a double disappointment because I was anticipating it to be just what I wanted and in fact it wasn’t as nice as I was hoping, but also because I had another two morning’s meal of the same type to use. I had anticipated the scrambled egg with potato and peppers would be quite salty and just what my body would need, and under any other circumstances that may have been the case, but in the extremes of the desert, it clearly didn’t work for me. Getting the water to a temperature where the potato chunks rehydrated was also a problem and they were disturbingly crunchy 🙁 It hardly seems worth mentioning that the egg was also a very strange consistency and all in all the scrambled egg breakfasts were not the secret weapon for which I had been hoping.

[singlepic id=731 w=320 h=240 float=left]The other guys in the tent were still chucking stuff out to lighten their packs which the Berbers were very pleased about – one local came along clutching a bin bag full of cast offs! All our packs were getting lighter though through the use of the freeze dried food we all have – two meals a day plus sundries (gels, energy bars, trail mix, etc.) amounts to a minimum of 500-600g – I’m losing about 600g a day, but the other guys are losing more at the moment – Alastair is walking most of the race and probably started out with the heaviest pack, but is probably reducing his pack weight by 700-800g per day as he has puddings as well!

The race was on, so I wished the guys good luck and walked over to the familiar start, which this time I managed to join about halfway along the inflatable ‘funnel’, where I listened to Patrick again, but suddenly remembered I needed to put sun cream on my face. I had no time with less than 2 minutes to take my kit off, scrabble around for cream then pack it all away, so I was about to rely on my hat for the day – with such a high sun i didn’t think it would be a major problem.

Then suddenly they were playing the usual AC/DC, Highway to Hell, and the countdown began and we were off for the start of stage 2.

My legs were sluggish to begin with, but I reminded myself that it always takes me 5k to warm up and get into a rhythm. The ground was flat and it seemed that there were an inordinately large number of runners stretching ahead of me already so I tried to push on although in doing so I had to move away from the relatively clear track into the rock strewn area and I tripped several times, getting progressively more frustrated with my incompetence. This finally came to a head when I did a face plant, as I was forced into the rocky ground by momentum of the 7kg on my back succumbing to the force of gravity.

[singlepic id=732 w=320 h=240 float=right]Bloodied, and with memories of Leadville, I took it easy up the first jebel we had reached momentarily after, although with the snaking single file of runners taking the only viable path up the rise ahead of me, there was little choice but to take it ‘easy’, and I was thankful at least there was no sand and a ‘path’ to use.

As I had anticipated, the hard climb up was rewarded with fantastic views of the runners both ahead starting to traverse the sheer edge of the cliff face, and also looking back behind me, some miles of runners back towards the Bivouac barely visible in the distance, where we had all started from some time ago.

It was about 4km from the base of Hered Asfer Jebel to the summit and we went up and down a few times through a variety of ravines, summits, valleys and plateaus before finally descending again into another valley the other side of which was just before the first checkpoint at 12km.

[singlepic id=737 w=320 h=240 float=left]I still maintained my minimalist approach to the checkpoint stops and splashed some water on my knees and hands to wash off the blood and dust from my earlier stumbling.

There was now about 3km of slight downhill which was more of the same type of terrain, sandy, some brush, some rocks strewn around, but it was at least possible to run some of this up to the base of Joua Baba Ali Jebel. We had been warned there were three significant climbs today and the start of the second was initially sandy which was very slow and tough; trying to climb a 15% gradient in soft sand with each footstep sinking as far as the last, I was surprised to make it to the rocky outcrop before negotiating the final tens of metres towards the top, as quickly as I did.

I had memories of a wet, foggy, damp and lonely visit to Crib Goch, a rocky outcrop close to Snowdon in Wales which I had visited once in training for the UTMB in 2009. Although the visibility was significantly better here, for which I was thankful, the similarity of the steep descents on either side was not lost on me. Although it did not bother me, I mentioned to another runner as we were progressing that it would not do to be afraid of heights and I later heard that several people had been ‘concerned’ with the heights and some had needed step by step assistance to make it to the end of that section.

[singlepic id=742 w=320 h=240 float=right]The undulating and gradually ascending traverse along the edge of the cliff edge seemed to go on forever, although it was actually only 3km or so; the terrain was sufficiently punishing as to slow down most people, including myself – the knife edge strata laid down during a long gone age, thrust up into the sky by some tumultuous event over inconceivable eons, was now the surface we were trying to negotiate – having already stumbled several times on significantly easier footings, I was taking no chances here as one false step or failure of my footing here would rip me to shreds, or worse.

After what seemed like an age, the ‘way down’ from the ridge was visible, and an all too brief descent down a relatively sandy face.

I had a bad mental section after this and although it was a relatively flat 5k to CP2, I was questioning why I was doing this, why I was here, why I was putting myself through this, again! I was passed by Steve Vinall from our tent, who I think was more surprised to see me, than I was to se him. I eventually made it to Checkpoint 2 at 24km but had walked more than I wanted to which just made me more grumpy with the whole situation. I filled my bottles as previously and washed my graised knees again and then set off for final jebel, El Otfal Jebel, which had been looming on the horizon for the last few hours, but which looked suspiciously like the one we had had to go up at the start of our long day, 5 years ago. I smiled at the fact I was familiar with the course, but not about the course with which I was being presented. Still, reuse is good!

[singlepic id=744 w=320 h=240 float=left]Yet again this jebel subjected us to rocky foothills, followed by what was described as an ‘average’ 25% climb requiring caution and technical skills (no kidding!) consisting of a mount of soft sand that would’ve had Lawrence of Arabia quaking in his boots, followed by a sheer climb up another boulder ridden pass which each ‘runner’ had to negotiate individually. The final stretch, which confirmed my suspicions on the familiarity of this particular barrier, was a slight upward traverse along a cliff face of sand at the top of the 300m jebel along which there was a rope secured, mainly to stop weary competitors toppling to their doom, like the ambulance in ‘Ice Cold In Alex’. Although I faced this at the other end of the day to when I had encountered it 5 years ago, this was definitely the same climb and I knew we were now nearly at the top and a few hundred yards later I saw the UK photographer, Mark Gillett, snapping away at the tired competitors from the summit – he said Liz would like the pictures, even if I didn’t!

I stood for a moment to enjoy the view, and could barely make out the final bivouac nearly 5km through the heat haze and dust in the distance.

[singlepic id=747 w=320 h=240 float=right]The descent was also as I remember; best for mountain goats, with 1200m of flat slabbed descent down smooth rock, before turning into 1km of stony, sand patches before a small section (a mere 2km) of dunes before the final section of firm ground on which the bivouac was founded. Stage 2 complete.

I was soon on my way back to tent 138, with my evening’s 4.5l of water cradled in my arms and my one complementary cup of sweet mint Sultan tea (and no more than one, as we had been reminded in the morning, since presumably many competitors had been going back for multiple cups on the first day and the organisers felt that may have given them, an unfair advantage! Carbo-loading on miniature cups of mint tea? Whatever next!)

Steve Vinall, who had passed me earlier, was back already and had started the firewood collection, and Charlie Wakefield arrived shortly afterwards.

The glorious taste I was coming to expect from my Goodness Shakes was in no way diminishing and after collecting some firewood and emailing home (a process which normally took at least and hour in a queue) I joined the others in preparing supper – tonight’s delight was my first chicken tikka, which I am happy to report was significantly better than the scrambled egg breakfast I had had to force down this morning.

Mark and James were already back after I had finished my email and Alastair and David also arrived back during the daylight, although David unfortunately had to go back to Doc Trotters for more treatment to his feet and so disappeared again until after dark.

MdS Stage 3 – 9 April 2013

38.2km – Jebel El Otfal / Jebel Mouchanne

[singlepic id=753 w=320 h=240 float=left]The next morning I tried the scrambled egg again, this time putting a bit more water with it and ensuring that it was a hot as possible. The potatoes were still crispy and the rest was still not nice. I was resigned to the fact now that this had been a bad choice, but at least I only had one more of these meals left after today.

The 3rd day (from my extensive, only-completed-the-MdS-once-before experience) is always the worst. The competitors are at the stage when they’ve completed 2 days, but the 3rd day is still there between you and the halfway point, and even that marks the start of the 4th and long day, which is, rightly, feared by many as the day of reckoning and the focus of the effort. After the long day, of course, there is only a marathon and a bit to complete, but with nearly five behind you, no amount of blisters would separate most from their medal.

The start was similar to the previous days but I felt more apprehensive than previously after letting my time slip towards the end of yesterday. In the tent we had all discussed our strategies, and most felt that today was quite a flat day and consequently fast from the off, and I was determined to run as much as I could before the heat of midday, but had to remember today was only a couple of miles short of a full marathon.

[singlepic id=764 w=320 h=240 float=right]As we started out I realised we we running towards a village and this continued to take the same route Tim, John and myself had run on the Long day of the race in 2008. As a result I was almost buoyed on with thoughts of how well I was doing in comparison to that first race and ran almost continuously, along the dusty roads, and endless plains due south to about 10k, then a mountain pass with the village of El Maharch to the left  and on to the first checkpoint at 13km, after passing local trucks on the road with somewhat bemused drivers and passengers slowly inching past the hundreds of runners on the sandy trails which doubled as their roads.

The first checkpoint was a formality as I was feeling good, but we then had a series of three relatively small, but strength sapping sand and rock jebels, Ras Khemmouna, to clamber over. It felt surreal being at top of the 2nd of these as I had previously taken a series of pictures at this point last time to create a panorama, and subsequently taken time to ‘stitch’ these together and study it in some detail, so I knew the area and the view really well. The descending slopes were sandy, fast and fun though!

CP2 was a long way round the base of a hill and since it was on uneven type terrain, similar to which I had fallen the previous day, I took it a little gingerly during this point.

[singlepic id=766 w=320 h=240 float=left]Immediately after CP2 we ascended the sandy Mhadid Al Elahau Jebel and then traversed ridge for a couple of kilometres with glorious sights along the valley floor to either side, then there was a fantastic sandy descent to enjoy.

The next part of the route had a slight (described as ‘deceptive’) rise to it and as it was getting hot, I started to loose my sense of humour earlier than previous day on the unending kilometres that now stretched before me. The prevailing wind for the whole race up to this point had been warm and dry winds from the south; today was no different, and while it was an extra force to try to overcome, which I could have done without, I consoled myself with the fact that at least it wasn’t a full blown sandstorm we were heading into and tomorrow the route took a turn to the north east, so the wind would hopefully be behind us.

The next checkpoint at 32.4km could not come soon enough, and yet there was still another 5-6km to go to the finish. I tried to run as much as possible, but my legs were not playing ball by this stage and it was as much as I could do to manage a slow shuffle.

[singlepic id=768 w=320 h=240 float=right]The bivouac eventually came into view and I was glad to have completed half of the MdS 2013.

The sweet sultan tea tasted so good after a day out in the heat constrained to water, or water and Nuun electrolyte tablets, but they still refused me a second cup, even though I begged really politely – they’d been given their orders!

I strolled slowly back to the tent and wasn’t surprised when I saw Charlie had made it back to the tent just before Steve today, and I was in third; from a tent point of view we were sharing the honours nicely and we all joked later it was Mark’s turn next!

The Goodness Shakes worked as well with my recovery as it had previously and tasted perfect in some of the relatively cool water I had collected upon my arrival.

Mark joined us shortly afterwards followed by James, who considering he had an ankle injury which he had picked up recently and had been nursing since the start, was managing really well.

Since we were at day 3 of our racing we were all getting into a routine which consisted of putting various solar chargers out in strategic positions in the Sun ready to charge phones and watches, stretching and massaging various aching body parts (Steve’s Back, James’ ankle, my calves and stomach were continually cramping), then emailing, which involved queuing in the sun for the dozen or so laptops for our 1000 letter missives to home, checking our positions as they were posted up on the boards outside the admin tents and for some there were regular visits to the medical tents and Doc Trotter ‘Clinique’. Tonight was my first visit to sort out a couple of small blisters which I thought it worth seeing to before the long day.

Sultan Tea
Sultan Tea

The queue at the Clinique was understandably long by this stage as people sat and laid on carpets after disinfecting their feet and waited for their allotted slot prior to treatment. Since my feet were not bad at all, I wondered if I should just have got some iodine and gauze to ‘self-administer’, especially since the sun was going down and I hadn’t eaten yet. Still, after about an hour I got in and the nurse very quickly sorted out the blisters I had on each feet, three of which were behind nails (one requiring a drill through the nail to release the fluid build-up), one on each little toe and one on the side of my right big toe. Luckily I did not have anything under the balls of my feet, or on my heels which had caused such a problem last time. The general approach was to drain, flush with sterile water, then iodine (ooh, that smarts!) and then tape as small a piece of gauze as possible over the incision with thin strips of zinc oxide tape around the toe to secure.

It must’ve taken about 1½ hours in total and my feet felt worse afterwards, but I was confident they would feel better in the morning, and the process would get me further through the impending long day than I might otherwise have managed.

When I got back to the tent, Alastair and David had arrived back, both of whom were happy and smiling; in fact, given the state of his feet, we were all super-impressed with David’s super-positive attitude. He left to get his feet seen to by the Doc Trotters again, but sensibly took his food with him to eat in the queue. I prepared my food very quickly and to say I enjoyed the Chicken Korma supper immensely would be the understatement of the year!

MdS Stage 4 – 10 April 2013

75.7km – Taourirt Mouchanne / Jebel El Mraïer

[singlepic id=758 w=320 h=240 float=right]The anticipation of the long day had given me a fitful night. I was not alone. Most of the other guys in the tent were complaining of restless sleep and broken slumber. Breakfast was the first order of the day and I had already made the decision that I would force down my remaining porridge with mango; on reflection, it was probably not as bad as I had expected, and certainly more palatable than the scrambled egg, potato and peppers I had had to endure over the last couple of days. Most of the others were also fighting their own battles with food, but although I had not tried it, the kedgeree seemed to be winning the populous vote at the other end of the tent!

Everyone was apprehensive at the start though, including me, and everyone took a lot longer to prepare than the last few days and to get to the start line and we all slowly said our usual good luck and goodbyes and dispersed into the crowd.

The day seemed to be a lot hotter to begin with, but I decided to try to run as much as possible before the heat of the day really took hold. Everything started out okay with some fairly innocuous terrain, running back in an easterly direction for the first time in the race. The initial route was fairly ordinary and what I had come to expect by now albeit slightly ascending for last 4km to CP1 at 11.5km. I concentrated on moving forwards for the first few km and hence did not take any pictures during this part the stage – something I always regret afterwards.

[singlepic id=769 w=320 h=240 float=left]After CP1, the next section had a big initial climb and then about a 3km succession of up and down dunes to contend with – the first of the day and I ran with Mark for a bit for this stage, essentially walking up the soft sloping sides and then running quickly down the other side before hitting variable soft, rocky flat terrain and then repeating again. It was impossible to get any kind of rhythm going as I was stronger on the up-hills and down-hills, but Mark was faster on the flats, so eventually he shot off, as his game-plan was to stop for food at one of the later checkpoints.

From CP2 to the rest of the day I was therefore on my own; over 50 long km.

[singlepic id=773 w=320 h=240 float=right]The terrain between the next couple of checkpoints was (predictably) stony or sandy, but at one point, about 5km before the 3rd checkpoint, there was a substantial section of bushes to get through with a path, the organisers had done their best to hide, either side of a dried and dusty river bed, Rheris Oued, which we had to cross before CP3. It was at this point someone measured the temp as 54°C and even after exiting this there was another dusty 2km to the checkpoint. It was probably early afternoon about this time, and 6 hours into the run, I was starting to be caught by the elite 50 runners, who had commenced their campaigns for the day some 3 hours after mine.

Yet more dunes followed after CP3, but this was the psychological halfway point I had been working towards for some time, especially after the previous section which had been quite mundane. The heat of the day was still debilitating though as we skirted around the base of another jebel and along the side of a dried out lake. I laughed at the romantic images that these descriptions conjured up, but also imagined the beauty that the life-giving water must give to this area on the rare occasions that it does rain. On the narrow path descending from the jebel I was passed by Tobias Mews, one of the top Brit men, who was going well and who was talking and encouraging to all those he came across; impressive for someone running almost twice as fast as me. I arrived at CP4 shortly afterwards at the base of some more dunes, only these looked quite a bit more substantial than anything we had seen during the race so far.

[singlepic id=775 w=320 h=240 float=left]Having done over 45km at this point, I had already decided I would be best to try to have something to eat, but since I didn’t want to stop and cook up a freeze dried meal, nor did I really know how I would cope with a big meal in the heat, I decided to settle for one of my goodness shakes. On the face of it this was a good decision, and for just another 10 minutes stopping, I savoured the relatively cool liquid as much as I could, although inevitably I reached that depressing ‘staring-at-the-bottom-of-an-empty-bottle’ stage far too quickly, and it was time to push on.

The largish dunes I had to negotiate now were about 7.5km in length, so I took them steadily and actually enjoyed picking my route through and took some nice pictures as the sun was setting directly behind me suddenly feeling renewed energy and revelling in the beauty of the environment and my splendid isolation, so although they took an hour or so, the time passed quite quickly.

[singlepic id=780 w=320 h=240 float=right]Just after the dunes I was passed by Marco Olmo, a veteran Italian of the MdS and UTMB races, and at over 65, an amazing sportsman. My backpack, the Olmo 20, was designed by him for the Raidlight company, but I was slightly disturbed to see that he was not using either this or any of the later incarnations of the eponymous pack himself, but an MdS specific ‘WAA’ bag.
I tried fruitlessly to run after him to discuss his mistake, but to no avail and he disappeared into the distance across the next oudi.

By the end of the dunes it was starting to get dark and by the time I reached the top of the next visible rise I had to put on my waist light, at the same time snapping the glow stick I had attached to the back of my pack at the previous checkpoint. The bobbing luminous sticks of the other competitors disappearing into the distance were soon complemented by the bright green laser coming from shortly before CP5, which I reached soon afterwards, although not before helping one of the Jordanian competitors out with a drink of water – having started 3 hours later in the midday heat had obviously taken its toll on him.

[singlepic id=784 w=320 h=240 float=left]With 21km still to go I felt the end was in sight, but it was now dark and although I was hoping it was going to be getting cooler, there was no sign as yet of the heat relenting.

The staff manning the checkpoint 5 were obviously in for a long night and I left them building bonfires to warm competitors who might be feeling the chill of the air when they stopped. As I left the ‘light’ of the impromptu camp, I noticed the stars had started to emerge from the darkness, and although I glanced up a few times, there was little chance to look around at them on the stony ground, and my stumbling and faltering quickly reminded me why I was here and that I would have little opportunity to enjoy myself over the next few hours!

I passed the time counting down the kilometres and trying to pass as many people as I could on what seemed like a never ending succession of small dunes, stony tracks and sandy river beds and eventually, of course, the final checkpoint, CP6, arrived at 65.5km – mercifully, before I was expecting it from my Garmin.

[singlepic id=785 w=320 h=240 float=right]After leaving CP6, I hit a few kilometres of soft dirt, like trying to negotiate a recently ploughed field; having almost got into a rhythm prior to this point, it was frustrating to be taking slow and inefficient steps once again and I started to question the parentage of the course designers for more than the first time during this race. The distance was ramping down slowly though and after another bought of small dunes, this time with the added entertainment of camel grass and no visible pathway through, I and the others I was chasing, eventually turned the final ‘corner’ of luminous sticks and the lights of the bivouac, and the salvation of the finish line, came into view.

My trusty Garmin had kept me company all through that long day, and by my estimation I was literally within the final kilometre when it breathed its last, and the lack of charging from previous days finally took its toll. Much like me – it had had enough.

The finish line shone like a beacon as I approached and although today there was no medal, the welcome ‘beep’ of the timing equipment indicated my transponder was attached and working properly and my final journey for the evening was to try to find Tent 138 in the darkness, but not before that welcome cup of sweet Sultan mint tea and a hug from Tom, the ‘Running the Sahara’ rep, who was doing a sterling job welcoming people in from the dark, but to his credit also seemed genuinely happy to be welcoming ‘his’ British team back to the bivouac.

Having picked up my water and staggered blindly in the dark with the 4.5L of water for the remaining 30 minutes of the evening 😉 I eventually met up with Mark, Charlie and Steve who had already made it back to the tent – we had joked earlier that it was Mark’s turn to get back first and take the tent honours, since we seemed to be taking it in turns. Ironically, he had passed Steve and Charlie at one of the earlier checkpoints as they were eating and he had appropriately obliged.

I did not intend to cook up a meal before sleep, but my Goodness Shakes again tasted like nectar of the Gods and was all the recovery food I needed at that point before I commenced with the repair and rejuvenation of slumber.

Rest Day

By the morning of the next day everyone except David had arrived back; James had arrived a fraction after me and Alastair had arrived early morning, around 4am. Everyone had their own plans to maximise the rest day and prepare for the final stage tomorrow. Charlie was planning to visit the ‘self-administration’ queue for supplies, and James and Steve were working on ankles and lower back respectively to ensure that they stayed the course. Mark spent a long time resting after his monumental effort to come in first in the tent on the previous stage.

[singlepic id=788 w=320 h=240 float=left]The first order of the day as far as I was concerned was firewood, with 2 days supply to extract from the local environment, there was no time to waste. The nearby dunes hid a whole swathe of bushes I suspected might hold some suitable material, but getting up and down the soft sand, albeit no more than 5m high, in just my socks (my flip-flops had long since lost their grip on my feet in that environment) proved even more tricky than some of the previous day’s effort as I slid and slipped down to knee height, while trying to balance the spoils of my foraging on my forearms. I smiled, as the comedy moment was not lost on me, but my dignity was largely saved by being behind the dunes.

David arrived back at about 9am, having walked all the way and made it through the 75km in a shade over 24hours. Given that, he was in a remarkably cheery frame of mind, having only snatched a few brief moments of rest at the bonfires of some of the earlier checkpoints. It was now impossible for him to sleep, since the tent and the camp in general, were waking and becoming a marketplace of cacophony as people had their breakfast and tended their aching muscles. David planned to attend Doc Trotters to have his feet sorted out as usual, but Alastair was still undecided.

I was planning to have breakfast, with chicken tikka on the menu, deferred from supper last night 🙂 and then email home to report on the the previous days efforts. I had little else I needed to do to occupy me, except for trying to sort out some charge for my watch and iPhone, but there was lunch, rest and then probably supper to also look forward to.

The background noise of the camp was interrupted every so often with cheers and clapping as runners arrived throughout the day; the temperature rose sharply in the morning so any runners still out on the course after 10am would have been subjected to a full day of heat, some of whom would only have snatched a few brief hours of fitful rest at a checkpoint, before rising and finishing the challenge of the long day.

Bivouac from Email Queue

Back in tent 138, there was a lot of food swapping going on. I had several bags of ‘luxury’ trail mix with which to negotiate, as I had gone completely off the taste, and David was happy to swap an expedition foods chicken tikka for trail mix. James was hungry enough to sample the remaining scrambled egg and potato I had left and he was also happy to mix some of my trail mix in with what he had left as well. Everyone was happy, and I had another gold standard chicken tikka which I decided to save for breakfast tomorrow morning. I also had a Spaghetti Bolognese which I was planning to eat for lunch and my final Chicken Korma for this evening. That concluded my meal planning for the whole race, because at the start line tomorrow I had no more need of meals, just race snacks, which I was restricting to a Torq bar and my final Goodness Shakes (for emergency)

I meandered over to the email tent and contacted home, for what I assumed would be the last time, not knowing whether the facility would be available tomorrow, and then really just rested. Alastair decided to make his way to Doc Trotters to sort his feet out and he was gone for some time. When he arrived back he was clearly in extraordinary pain, after he had passed out during the minor surgical operation the medical staff had carried out on his feet – unfortunately, his blisters had been deep under the thick skin of his heels and they had decided they needed to remove this skin to relieve the pressure.

We all slept well that night.

MdS Stage 5 – 12 April 2013

42.2km – Jebel El Mraïer / Merdani

[singlepic id=790 w=320 h=240 float=right]After the previous day’s rest and all the food I had managed to take on board, I was expecting things to go well today, but I was still very apprehensive of the final stage given my previous fatigue, especially on the long day.

The top notch chicken tikka, went down a treat for breakfast, and with all the ‘space’ now left in my pack I also managed to get my sleeping bag as a soft spine stuffed into the middle, with other remaining bits and pieces of creams, anti-venom pumps, flares, charging kit, etc, down the side. The food was now history, except for an energy bar and one final sachet of Goodness Shakes berry flavour milkshake powder, which I was saving for during the race if I needed it, but preferably for afterwards as a celebration; this was, after all, effectively the end of the race.

Everyone in the tent which, thanks to our friendly Berbers, had disappeared at the usual inordinate hour, were pretty much wrapped up in their own thoughts and preparation, even after 5 days and everything becoming ‘second nature’, I suspect race nerves and apprehension was still kicking in for everyone. As a result we all drifted over to the start line individually for the beginning of the final stage.

[singlepic id=791 w=320 h=240 float=left]I stood close to the front again and soaked up the atmosphere with the birthdays being announced and calls of support from Patrick Bauer for those who had had to drop out on the previous stage. Then the familiar AC/DC anthem sounded to out to cheers from the crowd and the countdown got us under way.

The first couple of kilometres were predictably sandy, continuing our recent heading off to the east, but this soon turned into a rocky plateau on which most people, including myself, managed to get into a rhythmic shuffle, somewhere between a slow run and a walk. The heat was already starting to build though, with the early promise of cloud having long disappeared into a distant memory.

At about 5km we hit a ‘crevasse’ in the dusty, dry river bed, which had been described as requiring ‘technical crossing’ skills; in the past this had meant a rope, or crampons might be required but on this occasion merely slowed everyone to a snaking single file while following the only navigable path through the dried up vegetation, down the sheer bank of the dusty river bed, before crossing and repeating the few meters of clambering ascent out on the eastern side. I managed to pass a few people on my way to complete the distance through to the first checkpoint at just over 10km.

[singlepic id=792 w=320 h=240 float=right]I quickly filled my bottles with water at CP1 and was on my way. Overall, I was happy with my speed through the checkpoints, and I don’t believe I could have saved much more time – indeed, out of the 19 checkpoints throughout the 5 stages, I probably only took my backpack off 3 or 4 times, having quickly become quite adept at filling my front mounted water bottles without even taking them out of their holders, although it was always quite a juggling act with Nuun and salt tablets, and of course one has to remember not to bend over while the lids are off 🙂

The next section was significant as there were suddenly signs of habitation, including small groups of children, some supporting the exhausted competitors as they shuffled along, some begging, all cheery, and all apparently having appeared from nowhere. In the distance I eventually spotted what I assumed must have been their ‘village’; a veritable conurbation for the area, and the largest I had seen for a week. Still, I was surprised at the calmness with which they stood around in the midday sun, without water in the middle of the desert and wondered, not for the first time, what they thought of all these mad westerners with all their kit, running through their land?

[singlepic id=793 w=320 h=240 float=left]The next checkpoint, CP2 marked over halfway in the final leg of this year’s race, and it was psychologically welcome, the sight that met my eyes afterwards, less so.

The final stretch of small dunes was a precursor to the promised larger ‘building’ sized dunes, Erg Znaigui, so for the next 10km it was the now familiar slog, constantly up and down predominantly soft sand, negotiating a passage but eagerly searching out the harder ‘virgin’ sand to make footsteps more efficient and reduce the energy sapping impact as much as possible. Under the circumstances, this was a relatively vain effort though, so I took the opportunity to again enjoy the beauty of the ergs and the privilege of the situation that I had been afforded.

As I entered the large dune field, a few people were taking a route to the left of a massive mountain of a mound, but I was already committed to a right hand path, which the majority seemed to be following. I continued, but was glad when I reached the other side, to see the paths eventually joined. It seemed the left hand path was slightly shorter as well, since the competitors who took that route seemed to be a consistent distance ahead and I was not going that slowly!

[singlepic id=794 w=320 h=240 float=right]The beauty of the dunes were soon behind me though, and there was then a relatively flat section which I ran along on the final 2km to CP3 at the top of a rise at 33.7km. The heat in the exposed valleys was extreme and having run out of water in the dunes, I was glad to reach this checkpoint. I was refreshed (relatively speaking) quite quickly and on my way, with the knowledge there was now a mere 8km to go to the finish. A mere 5 miles, which under normal circumstances on the UK trails, without a backpack, I could easily complete in 35-40 minutes. The difference here is stark though. The heat is oppressive. The terrain is unforgiving. The weight of a rucksack, even after days of shedding mass, had got the better of me several times over the last couple of stages. Now though, I was like a horse on the home straight. A knackered horse, I’ll grant you, fit for not much more else than a glue factory, but I definitely had the bit between my teeth and I was slowly reeling in my fellow competitors and passing them.

[singlepic id=795 w=320 h=240 float=left]We followed a series 2 or 3 rises, Jebel Debouaâ, between sharp rocky plains just after leaving the third checkpoint, until finally there were further signs of habitation. The strange, purple coloured sand in the deeply rutted road, evidence of heavy trucks, led the way up ‘the’ final rise to a mine works and then, just after the summit, the old village of M’Fis. To my western eyes it looked deserted, with crumbling mud walls evident on both sides of the path marked out by the race organisers luminous red dawbs of paint. Then I noticed definite signs of habitation; electricity lines to ‘street lamps’, a worker coming out of his house acknowledged me, a football pitch crudely marked out and a couple of local boys leaning up against a corner. It could’ve been in any village, anywhere in the world, and I had to keep reminding myself this was the edge of the Sahara desert one of the most inhospitable places on the Earth. Life, it seems, is prolific – human life, even more so.

The village marked the final turn on this year’s race and the final 5km to Merdani, bivouac 6 and the medals.

The path was as straight as a die though, and tortuous beyond belief. Not because of the terrain; that was uncomfortable, but nothing compared to what had been thrown at the competitors over the past few days. It was because we were simply moving towards a visible destination without ever seeming to get any closer. The bivouac was just visible on the horizon from the village, and despite the mildly undulating route, remained so most of the time. I ran as much as I could but at this stage my running pace was little faster than my walking pace, nevertheless, I was catching a couple of other runners and this remained my focus for the next couple of kilometres.

It was only when I got close to one of them with about 3km to go that I realised it was James. I quickly caught up with him and we chatted about the usual desert and race trivia; heat, dunes, water, sand, etc., and then, in much the same way as a kettle doesn’t boil when you watch it, we found ourselves on the final 500m flat to the finish. James had been suffering a little because of his ankle, but had agreed to run the last stretch into the finish – at one stage he insisted that I go on ahead, but I explained that was no longer important and in my view that making new friends and finishing together was far more valuable than a few extra seconds off my time.

MdS 2013 Finish
MdS 2013 Finish

To this point we had not been passed by anyone, but there was a loud group coming up behind us and so we ran from here as we had agreed.

Patrick Bauer was waiting, smiling, as he had presumably been for the last few hours. His energy for this event is astounding, and although he makes it look effortless, I am certain the week is a marathon in its own right for him.

James and I crossed the line together and congratulated each other before receiving our new, shiny, hard-won medals from Patrick, with a very French hug at the same time! To stand out and hand each competitor their medal is impressive enough, but to hug every competitor, unwashed after 6 days in the desert, is certainly above and beyond the call of duty, but an act of recognition which is not lost on any of the competitors.

We stood briefly for our photos to be taken, and after mouthing hello’s to the web-cam, we left the finishing enclosure for the final time. The 28th Marathon des Sables 2013 was over.

We were still out in the desert though!

With our sweet Sultan tea and water in hand, we both made our way back happily to the tent. Charlie and Mark were already back and relaxing, having arrived some time before, and Steve was also back, but receiving an IV drip in the medical tent having nearly passed out after crossing the finishing line due to dehydration – he only accepted the assistance after confirming he would not be penalised! Perfect timing from a true competitor.

Otherwise, there was a strange quiet around the tent, a collective sigh of relief perhaps, or maybe an unwillingness to accept that the event was over, or merely an uncertainty of how now to occupy our time now that we were all finished but still out in the desert for another day. There was a lot of polishing and wearing of medals but with backpacks now devoid of food, the wait to supper at 7:00pm was likely to be a long one. I finished my final Goodness Shakes Superberry milkshake and then went to send a final, final email before strolling over to the finish and helping to welcome in the still arriving competitors, while allowing myself the luxury of a few extra cups of mint tea, which the sultan crew were now allowing!

The Band - Photo Courtesy Charlie Wakefield
The Band – Photo Courtesy Charlie Wakefield

When I arrived back, Alastair and David were also back and while we had no doubt that they would finish the stage, it was nonetheless a relief to have the whole tent having successfully completed the challenge; we had heard tales of several tents where more than one competitor had dropped.

There was a ‘stage’ that had been set up, a hundred metres or so to the north of the camp and, for the desert environment there were rather surreal noises coming from the crew warming up and doing sound checks on the equipment, covers from Adele, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Coldplay, Gloria Gaynor and ABBA were all emanating from the distant stage, and luckily, tent 138 had front seat passes and we all planned to enjoy it from the comfort of our own sleeping bags after supper.

The allotted time for the feast, our first of non-freeze dried food for 6 days, arrived and everyone was ‘eager’ to put it mildly to get to some real food. Unfortunately, the other 1000 or so competitors were understandably having similar thoughts and had also decided to try to circumvent the ‘queuing’ stage by arriving early. As it turned out, the wait was not too bad after all and the chicken soup in the vats outside was a delicious precursor to the main event at which we had a choice of wine, beer or coke.

I don’t normally eat fresh tomatoes, but clearly they were what my body was craving, along with the feta cheese and some sort of lamb stew along with all the usual trimmings of a few vegetables and cous-cous. The Sun had pretty much set by the time we had our trays of food so a corum of tent 138 made our way once again to one of the peripheral tents around the queuing area, with lighting inside. We sat down and toasted each other with our cokes and wines and then tucked in to our hard won meals, none of which lasted long!

Steve joined us from the medical tent some way through, with his tray as well, explaining that he had been given a couple of bags of IV drip and was feeling a bit better, but after settling down and trying to eat he came over decidedly pale, so Alastair and Charlie escorted him back to the medical tent where he unfortunately had to stay for another few hours – he was getting his money’s worth now 🙂

The rest of us chatted about our experiences but were ready for kip before too long, even though it was only about 8pm, we were obviously still in the early night routine. A few of us made our way over to watch the unedited highlights of the footage which had been taken throughout the week by the official MdS ‘Cimbaly’ film crew. The raw footage was split into days, terrain, genders and other classifications, and although it understandably concentrated on the elite front-runners, it still provided a wonderful view and memory of the race, which although only a matter of hours in the past was already becoming like some surreal event in which other people had competed; the film of the first and second days already seemed like a past age. There were regular eruptions of shouting and applause from the assembled crowd as a dossard number here or a face there was recognised in the images projected onto the side of a van in front of the stage that had been erected for the entertainment to come later.

In the dark, we made our way the short distance across the soft sand to our tent to settle down; most of the rest of the audience were doing similarly, but before too long the band were limbering up and after they started playing their songs, it was impossible to get to sleep! They were very good, having been flown in predominantly from Canada for the occasion, and their set must have been a couple of hours long, with a gap in the middle where there was a rather bizarre ‘Priscilla, Queen of the desert’ thing going on. I’m not sure if the band were dressed in drag to do the ‘Dancing Queen’ and other familiar numbers, but the audience were certainly entertained and surprisingly jumping up and down on their feet, although I suspect the audience by this stage consisted more of officials than competitors.

Eventually they said their good nights and the microphones clicked off for the last time.

Then the banging started, as the local roadies worked through the night to take down the scaffolding which had been used to support the lighting rig and create the stage. Luckily, my earplugs worked relatively well still, as they did not finish dismantling the last of the metalwork until just before the dawn. Nobody was too concerned though, as we no longer had an early start to worry about, and even breakfast would be relatively fresh in comparison to the freeze dried scrambled eggs, or porridge, we had been subjecting ourselves to over the last few days.

MdS Charity Stage – 13 April 2013

7.6km – Merdani / Merzouga

Things were a lot more relaxed on the final day in the desert. No worrying about tents being pulled down around your ears, whether there was enough firewood to heat the water for an extra cup of tea to go with your reconstituted freeze-dried gloop, and whether you should really have shaken out the sand which had blow into your sleeping bag overnight as those few extra grammes of dead-weight would undoubtedly not help your time. In fact, no tents to take down either, and we were woken at a very respectable hour by the staff in their land cruisers doing a circuit of the camp with horns blaring and shouts and claps in congratulations to all the competitors, and no doubt to a certain extent themselves, for the adventure we had all just completed.

Staff Drive by - Image Courtesy Charlie Wakefield
Staff Drive by – Image Courtesy Charlie Wakefield

No, the race was over, but the organisers had given us the ‘opportunity’ to carry out a final 7km, charity stage. This was the first time they had tried this format and everyone was a little unsure about it. We had decided as a tent that we would all stick together, which effectively meant walking it, which we reckoned would only take a couple of hours, but then we had a 6 hour coach journey to contend with. 5 hours running through the desert was nothing compared to the anticipation of that little nugget of joy.

There was also water to get though, and the allocation of a light blue UNICEF t-shirt to don during the coming journey; the organisers wanted a sea of blue traced across the desert to mark the occasion, and I imagine it would have been quite impressive. For now though, the biggest concern was the size of the garments as for some reason there was a steady stream of people wishing to downsize after trying on their normal fitting. Perhaps if the organisers had handed them out at the beginning of the week, it might have been a different matter 🙂

Tent 138 - Photo Courtesy Charlie Wakefield
Tent 138 – Photo Courtesy Charlie Wakefield

Still, breakfast was first and despite a hearty supper the previous evening, I was strangely hungry; I can’t quite imagine why. The bowl of strong, sweet coffee went down a treat before the main helping of bread, ham, cheese and a freshly cooked egg; I use the term cooked in a fairly lose sense since there was a fair amount of impatience for the final item on the menu, and the chef was doing his utmost to keep things moving. Either way, it was not to be sniffed at, and I eventually went back for seconds.

The packing of things into our packs, although now largely empty, became a little more frenetic when we realised our relaxed morning was coming to an end, all the other competitors were already making their way over to the start and the voice of Patrick Bauer could be heard calling people over the distant tannoy.

We made our way over to the start after one last glance back at the tent that had been our home for a week; she had served us well and never again were we likely to be together as a group in a similar situation. All these little things started to remind me of the magnitude of what we had done, and the friends I had made during this week. It is true that you really get to know people well in times of stress and the guys in my tent were a good bunch – I could not have hoped for any better.

Charity Stage - Photo Courtesy Charlie Wakefield
Charity Stage – Photo Courtesy Charlie Wakefield

The start was similar to the previous days, except that there was no AC/DC and after the countdown there was no rush across the line, merely a sedate stroll as most people took on the spirit of the event and walked in groups.

David and Alastair were struggling with the state of their feet and after a couple of km in the dunes of the mighty Erg Chebbi, the pace we had to follow for David turned out to be too slow for Alastair, so he took off at his own pace. The rest of us stuck with David, chatting about our intentions for the future, and other such things as we went along, passing the helicopter, which had landed in the dunes for no apparent reason other than for people to have their picture taken with it, as well as one of the organiser’s Land Cruisers, which was at a rather precarious angle on the side of a dune, being dug out by competitors and organisers. We gathered the driver’s final day exuberance was to blame, as we saw him 15 minutes later, passing and nearly over-cooking it again as he came blindly over the top of another mound.

The time passed quickly, and although it was after midday by the time we got to Merzouga, on the other side of the dune field, we did not notice the heat as much as the previous days.

[singlepic id=809 w=320 h=240 float=left]The finish was lined with children of all ages asking competitors coming in for their water bottles, seemingly a prize we were now expected to give away and which many of the runner were doing so. Otherwise the finish was unsurprisingly anticlimactic, with our flares and timing tags being collected before we were given water, offered more sultan sweet mint tea, and given an allocation on one of the groups of coaches, shortly to be bound for Ouarzazate. We all quickly found a seat on the 1pm coach and then waited. And waited. And waited.

The organisers seemed to be failing at the last hurdle with the transport back to the hotel. We sat for nearly an hour with no real visible signs of any progress, except the distribution of a lunch pack which everyone was very pleased about, although this only happened a few moments before we left.

After eventually making a move, my frustration at having to wait at the start of our journey was compounded by a stop by the roadside after only 30 minutes of travelling, for lunch, which our coach had already finished on the move. As we were travelling in convoy though, we were not permitted to carry on alone.

[singlepic id=816 w=320 h=240 float=right]Soon though, the convoy of a half dozen or so coaches started to make their way back along the dusty roads, through an area of Morocco which has clearly had less investment than some of the more northern parts. This was evident all the way back on the journey, as the buildings and villages slowly became more structured, developed and generally more recognisable as belonging to a more affluent and organised society.

The hours ticked by slowly on digits of the red LED clock which seemed to reset itself to zero each time the driver switched off the engine to stop, which happened several times. I tried in vain to charge my phone using my solar charger, but it too eventually gave up the ghost as the sun was setting ahead of us. We travelled through some gorgeous countryside and although I though I recognised it from the outbound journey, I soon realised we were taking a different route and would thankfully be missing out the nerve-wracking route through the Atlas Mountains. Indeed, as a result we found ourselves heading into Ouarzazate in the dark from the east of the city, as opposed to the south from which we had departed over a week ago.

After the stopping schedule for the various hotels became clear, Charlie and I decided to beat the queues so jumped ship with our bags and started up the hill where we happened upon one of the organisers Land Cruisers and stopped to confirm we were heading in the right direction, but were pleased to accept the a lift to the Berbere Palace when offered!

We quickly signed in and put bags into our rooms and I went back to pick up David and his bag. The rest of the coach had just arrived, so perfect timing, nevertheless, it was about 7:30pm by this stage and dinner was about to start, the smells from the massive buffet wafting throughout the reception rooms of the hotel, driving everyone insane with desire.

[singlepic id=817 w=320 h=240 float=left]First things first though. Smell is a powerful thing, whether good or bad, and a shower was called for to clean up before supper. It is interesting to consider the ‘sweet odour’ of the travel reps, photographers, medical and other organisation staff when they pay you a visit during the race when out in the desert, as it is, I have no doubt, inversely proportional to the stench of the competitors, and while all of the ‘non-competitors’ smell sweetly, with the implication of the state of OUR odour being just too horrific to imagine, to their credit they never once complain or pass judgement on us, even when hugging us crossing the finish lines; they seem genuinely impressed and in awe of every single one of ‘their’ own group, which in Patrick Bauer’s case includes ALL the finishers.

There is nothing quite like the first shower after a week in the desert. The dirt builds up so slowly over the days while you are out there it is difficult to tell when you reach the point of maximum filth. I would estimate 2-3 days at the most, before your hair, legs, arms, face and skin in general, is absolutely caked in its own mini-Sahara. When you step into the shower it just drops away. 8 days of ex-foliation has its effect, and your skin feels suddenly incredibly smooth. The same happens with your hair which, after a similar period without significant tending, is greasy, matted and full of sand. The sand drops out easily with soap and it is as if a miniature sleeve around each individual strand has been slid off as your hair once again returns to its normal thickness and weight.

I felt human again and supper was as nice as we had all been anticipating, especially with a bottle of chilled Casablanca beer.

Free Day – 14th April 2013

There was little that I wanted to do on our free day in Ouarzazate but continue to sleep in a soft, comfortable bed. Unfortunately, after a week of waking with the sun, the shouts of the Berbers and the rude removal of canvas from around me, my body clock was somewhat set to wake early in the morning. On the positive side, breakfast was being served from quite early too, so I quietly stole out of the room and made my way to a nearly empty dining hall, grabbed a coffee and some of the mini pastries and settled down to catch up on some of the news I had been missing for a week.

[singlepic id=826 w=320 h=240 float=right]I spoke briefly to Rory Coleman and asked how he had found his 10th MdS. He replied that he felt it had been a tough one. This was confirmed a short while later when I met and discussed the event with Steve, the Sahara Marathon manager, effectively the director of the UK contingent. He explained that the organisers had never made the first day so tough, and never put three massive jebels on one day, as they did this year on day 2. He confirmed my suspicions that they had been trying to make it tougher because of the change of format with the addition of the final ‘charity’ stage which did not count towards the timing, but also because the general standard of competitors entering had been going up over the last few years. So presumably they felt they could raised the bar, without disillusioning people too much, while still attempting to retain the title of toughest foot race in the world; a difficult line to tread, and one which the organisers have been criticised for in recent years, with the plethora of similar format races now available globally. Interestingly, Steve also talked about other races, perhaps with a view to becoming UK representatives for other events, but said he had not yet found any others that met the exacting safety standards and organisation of the MdS.

[singlepic id=833 w=320 h=240 float=left]The others slowly drifted down for breakfast, by which time, of course I had had about 8 courses, and was thinking about brunch and we conveyed to outside next to the hotel pool, as it was shaping up into a lovely day.

After a few more coffees, none of which appeared to be decaf….8-) we decided to drift down to the hotel where we had to collect our prized ‘finisher’ tee-shirts and the MdS boutique where no doubt we would all purchase lots of overpriced and expensive branded kit which would sit in our closets for an age until eventually the colours came into fashion.

It was warm outside, but a pleasant walk through the sunny streets was not a problem. David and Alastair both stopped off for some more supplies from Doc Trotter at a hotel on the way, and then met us at the Kas Hotel, presumably named as such as it was opposite the city’s Kasbar. The queues were long, but mobile, and we all made it through in 30-40 minutes. The only thing I bought was an updated solar charger, which would be lighter and more efficient for any future return to this type of multi-day self-sufficiency race; Planning for 2015? Maybe! 🙂

[singlepic id=846 w=320 h=240 float=right]It wasn’t quite time for lunch yet, but rather than sit in the hotel for a beer, we found a little terrace next to the Kasbar where we could soak in some sun; ironically having been plastered in factor 30-50 over the last few days, we all still looked like lily white westerners. We had forgotten that alcohol would not be on offer, but happily settled for soft drinks although the amount of tartrazine in my orange juice was questionable – it probably could have doubled quite nicely as one of the luminous post markers on our recent long day exploits 🙂 Nobody was complaining though, the sun was out, everything was relaxed and the majestic Atlas Mountains on the horizon provided a magnificent backdrop to our final day in Morocco.

About half of our group wanted to search out the old town, buy gifts and, as James and myself described it, find somewhere ‘authentic’ for lunch, so we split at this point and walked over to the old marketplace in the south of the city. We had a couple of excursions into shops to barter but this was largely fruitless, although we had a couple of vendors on the hook for later on or, despite Charlie’s bartering skills, more likely the other way round. In the meantime, James had found somewhere really authentic for lunch!

[singlepic id=849 w=320 h=240 float=left]With stories of food poisoning and soft western stomachs abounding, we placed ourselves in the hands of culinary fate. As it happens the food was simple, but as authentic as we had hoped, as could be judged by the number of locals eating there, in a fantastic local environment looking out onto the marketplace – who could ask for more! The different varieties of skewered meat were highly spiced but a delicious treat. As is often the case the price was also unbelievable and with the confusion of a Moroccan Dirham to Euro rate also adding to the complexity, we had to confirm several times before we finally believed 5 of us had eaten a gorgeous meal for around £20.

With gifts still to buy, but time becoming limited, Charlie and I made our way back to the shops we had bartered in earlier, to a smiling owner, and accepted their ‘final, best offer’ for some brightly coloured and embroidered tops, mine destined for Savannah.

[singlepic id=853 w=320 h=240 float=right]Steve, Charlie and myself made our way back to the Kasbar to have a look round the old fort which was a maze of passages, stairs, rooms and windows, but each area was unique in its own way with tiles, paintings and pictures decorating the whitewashed walls. Interestingly there was little furniture around the place and since we were in a hurry and had opted not to take a guided tour it was impossible to really understand the use of the individual rooms, let alone the whole building from the past.

After a whistle-stop tour with a few photos, we made our way back to the hotel, stopping off at the tourist trap to barter, badly, for some more trinkets. For Liz and the children, I bought a Moroccan bracelet and a southern cross necklace each; having bought Liz a similar necklace last time I was out here, my family now all have one, which I thought appropriate.

Celebration Supper - Photo Courtesy Charlie Wakefield
Celebration Supper – Photo Courtesy Charlie Wakefield

We managed to get a lift back in one of the organisers land cruisers, yet again, as it seemed now the race was over, they were scratching around for ways to help the competitors but taxiing them around the city was a most welcome assistance as far as we were concerned!

The evening started with a few beers, the now familiar endless buffet after which there was a prize giving and auction for the local charity by Patrick Bauer and Sahara Marathon’s Steve, of various artefacts of clothing, such as a race director’s vest, and signed copies of the remaining few road books for this year’s event – James managed to get one of the road books for his restaurant in Mayfair. After all this entertainment, not to mention a few beers, we all retired as it was an early start to checkout, breakfast and then the short trip on the coaches.

Epilogue
Return Journey – April 15 2013

It definitely was an early start in the morning. Stupid o’clock. Despite setting my alarm for whatever time I thought was appropriate the night before, it still went off an hour later than I was expecting the morning after but, having largely packed the night before I was ready in a flash and went to check out while David finished his last bits and pieces. I needn’t have worried as although busier than the previous day, at about 5:45, breakfast was still fairly relaxed.

People were drifting in and out and I eventually saw some of the others, as I went for a second helping of pastries and coffee – so much for the return to a no carb diet 🙂 Nevertheless, we were all ready to go and through the maze of luggage within the next 30 minutes.

Quarzazate Kasbar - Photo Courtesy Charlie Wakefield
Ouarzazate Kasbar – Photo Courtesy Charlie Wakefield

I always thought it was somewhat ridiculous to have so many coaches available for a 1 mile trip from the Berbere Palace to Ouarzazate airport, and it seemed the organisers had seen sense, having only a couple of coaches providing a shuttle service back and forth.

Travelling always seems to be a series of queues, and it today was to be no different. So from the queue for the coaches, it was check-in, then security, then as this had taken so long, only a short delay before boarding. James, Mark and David broke up the boredom by doing a bit of last minute shopping in the Airport shops before coming through security, obtaining a few fossils and other memorabilia before leaving Morocco behind

The flight was uneventful and I tried desperately to make detailed notes of the last few days, optimistically thinking I could write up my adventures during the 3 hour flight; as of this sentence it has taken over 6 weeks of commuting and a few snatched hours at weekends to get to this point.

As we came in to land, descending slowly through the thickening grey cloud, the desert already seemed like a different life, certainly not mine.

The plane doors opened and the assembled masses alighted into the anticipated, but still surprising intensity of the cold air on the pier, before we got to the heating of the terminal building, and made our way to the final couple of queues. Passport control was long, but efficient and we were through in a few moments. The baggage carousel was less so and the multitude of frustrated ex-competitors and myself were left stranded for what seemed like an age, although in reality was probably only about 10 minutes. Airports seem to have a way of playing with your perception of time.

Gatwick Welcome - Photo Courtesy Charlie Wakefield
Gatwick Welcome – Photo Courtesy Charlie Wakefield

The members of tent 138 of the MdS 2013 all realised their loved ones would be on the other side of customs, so we said our final goodbyes and wished each other well now that we were disbanding for the last time. After having been through so much, in such a short space of time, it was strange to even think of ‘getting back to normality’. James was talking of going straight into work in the afternoon, David had a longer journey than most back to Leamington Spa, Charlie, Steve and Mark were planning to work the next day and Alastair had done a disappearing act again.

Our final short walk through the customs hall was crowded with passengers arriving from other parts of the globe, but they looked on quizzically as each of the MdS 2013 competitors emerged from the doors to applause from their families who had missed them over the last 10 days of the event, the balloons, banners and cheers evidence of the successful completion of something special, but still they would have had no idea what we had been through. Even the family members who would have followed their progress in the intimate detail of daily updates and emails from their loved ones, would have little concept of the reality of the event. It is so unique to each individual and the experience, although shared to a certain extent, is a very personal one. The only person on the outside of the exit who I knew understood this was standing quietly to the side.

As we embraced tightly, I took another step back to the reality of life, but also came closer to realising that life’s great adventure is what you make of it, and so is never really over.

Update from RTP – Stage 5

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Last email update!

It feels absolutely great to have finished and have that behind me – hope you saw me on the webcam about 7:22hours – very slow but there was so much sand (dunes) and it was so hot. 

I ran out of water twice before the check points and just glad to get it done really.

 

Strangely not the same elation as last time, but met a great bunch of guys and have enjoyed the comeraderie in the tent immensely. I feel same as John did last time. Disappointed I didn’t have the energy to run more after the third day. Cloud is coming over now – typical, but welcome. Have medal and lots of stories to tell!

Please thank everyone for their mails, messages and texts. Coverage is patchy and I haven’t had battery to be able to respond, but will do in due course. 

Looking forward to going out for lunch or supper when I get back, cool beer will be good and I have been dreaming of having a cheddar ploughmans. Will be in touch soon again.

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Stage 5: Check Point 2 at 12:25:26

And he has just arrived at Check Point 2. Just under two hours. I reckon it is very tough for him out there. I wonder what is happening with feet, heat, food and fatigue. Go ML, it is almost over and you can then place this one on your long list of ‘things accomplished’ as well. ILYMML X xxxx