Written by Richard Stillion - https://richyla.wordpress.com
Chiltern Wonderland 50
Centurion Running 16/09/2017
1st Male: Jon Ellis 6:36:58
1st Female: Rachel Fawcett 8:41:42
Wonder: to be filled with admiration, amazement, or awe; marvel (often followed by at)
Land: something the government wants to put loads and loads of houses on; or put HS2 on
I only finished the Ridgeway three weeks ago and here I am at the start-line of the Chiltern Wonderland 50 mile race. I’m not the only one either – Victoria Louise Thompson is doing the same.
I was told that in my last blog that it was too cheerful and positive, so I will try to have a bit of a moan in this one. Only a small moan though.
The race is a 50 mile loop returning to its finish where it started with a course that takes in some outstanding countryside. Weather was forecast to be pretty good in all and temperatures 14-15c, which certainly for me is ideal. So, good course and good weather is a double bubble. Sadly, what was bursting the bubble was my IT band. It was flaring up at the end of the Ridgeway and so I didn’t run for two weeks. Last weekend I went for a run and it flared up again, so this race looked like it was going to be a damage limitation exercise. I certainly wasn’t expecting to finish. Anyone wondering what the IT band is – it stands for Irritating Band simply because it is very, very irritating when it doesn’t work properly. In a nutshell, if it’s not good, then you can’t go downhill very easily. Uphill is fine. On the flat is so-so. So, there’s my whinge. Woe is me, I have a hurty leg. I’ve scoured the internet for a good anatomical analysis of it and this is the best explanation:
Hurty Leg Explanation
Right, to Goring Village Hall. With a new back room extension. Kit check, number collection, say hello to James (RD) and wait for the briefing. Have the briefing, then wander down to the start which is on the Thames Path (the fourth leg of the A100). Hooter thing goes off promptly, but I’m wedged at the back (deliberately) and don’t move for a minute or two. I realise that I haven’t switched my Garmin on and it croaks around looking for a signal. I get to the actual start where James is stood and I say I can’t start until I have a signal. He gives me a withering look, so I walk off rather sheepishly in the direction of the others. A dog walker is stood watching us pass and he asks me if I should perhaps start running. I explain I have quite a way to go and I’m in no hurry. So about 4 miles along the Thames, winding up into Hartslock Wood then along to Whitchurch, only we turned left up the hill rather than right into Whitchurch – Louise Ayling was doing a grand, authoritative job of seeing us across the road and making sure we were going the right way.
Random Cornfield for Nici Griffin – I know how much she likes them..
Eventually we came to a very pleasant vista looking out across the Thames towards Reading. This was a steep descent and something which set the precedent of the day of me shouting and a-cussing as I couldn’t get downhill, whilst watching plenty of people whip past me. I could have tripped over my lip I was sulking so much. I eventually resorted to going downhill backwards which relieved the pain, but it was so slow and let’s face it – I looked proper stupid doing it.
I got to the first check point and there was chip timing here – not noticed Centurion doing that before, but I haven’t run with them since last November. Delighted to see Nikki Mills there and had a quick chat about war wounds with her. Despite only a couple of minutes chatting, I was surprised how cold I’d got. I always carry a merino wool t-shirt in a dry bag on these runs and sometimes question if it’s worth it – but clearly it is, if I get into trouble I’m going to be cold very quickly.
The second leg was pretty much the same moving okay-ish, going uphill fine and spitting my dummy out going downhill. I was seriously thinking of dropping at Bix, wondering what was the point of slogging 50 miles in pain? However, on arrival at the checkpoint I saw the bus driver and thought no, keep going – let’s get to at least halfway. The route and conditions were just too good to call it a day.
I noticed quite a few ravens calling and one in particular sounded very excited at one point. I watched it for a bit and sure enough – there were sheep and lambs in a field and I think one was on its way out. The raven was flying around and at one point even jumped on the lamb – presumably to test whether it still had any strength left. I love corvids – intelligent, but they’re pretty evil.
Looking back from Cobstone Hill
I became a bit fixated with Christmas Common at this stage. I love Christmas. It’s great. Anyway, above Watlington, this was the highest point of the race and around the halfway mark. We came to a steep climb and I thought, ooh, this is it. It wasn’t. It was Cobstone Hill. A steep climb with a working windmill at the top. I was hoping to get a good photo of said windmill when I got to the top, but it was shut off and there was a sign outside it which said: “No admittance, don’t go in, you’re not allowed”. Or words to that effect.
Windmill. But you’re not allowed near it
I got chatting to a chap about children near here and we were comparing notes on how our kids are running rings round us already. It helped pass the time and took my mind off the ITB. We got to the checkpoint and Louise Ayling was here. Again. I couldn’t be bothered to drop and in fairness, I doubt she’d have let me. I asked how far it was to the next check point and when the cut off was and she said I had three hours and 7 miles so why was I still stood there talking!?
So, halfway done and mooching around country lanes until I saw the sign of Christmas Common. There was a guy here (Ian Robertson?) directing us with the traffic and he had a centurion helmet on a pole. Nice touch! I was told by someone that there was a nice downhill section coming up. Joy. More pain! It was stunning though. The rain predicted for 2pm hadn’t emerged and the sun was shining over another bit of Wonderland.
Descent from Christmas Common
I’d been leapfrogging Victoria quite a bit (not literally – just passing each other) and there was one point where we were in a sort of narrow gulley – I think we were all concentrating so much on not tripping over anything that we’d have missed the turning which, thankfully, James noticed and called us back. Much appreciated.
I was slogging it out and really wanting to get to Swyncombe and some familiar territory. Just before Swyncombe we joined the Ridgeway and I knew where I was going for a bit now. Except I didn’t. I hadn’t checked the route at all and thought I was just doing the Ridgeway bit to Grim’s Ditch. But after high-fiving one of the little fellas at Swyncombe Aid Station, I made my way out and found we weren’t going on the Ridgeway but going through St. Botolph’s graveyard. I like St. Botolph’s church, it’s quite unusual in that it doesn’t have a steeple. It also has a pizza oven at one end. A long climb ensued and the predicted rain from earlier came down. I found it quite refreshing to be honest.
St.Botolph’s. No steeple, but with pizza oven.
Up until this point of the race it had largely been damage limitation and I was constantly calculating when I could just start walking at 3mph, but after Swyncombe, two things happened. 1) My ITB seemed to loosen enough for me to put a hobble on and 2) The downhill gradients seemed to be a much gentler descent and, in fact, runnable. So, finally I could actually start doing a bit of running in places. I was wondering when Grim’s Ditch might turn up, but the course was going all round the houses. I finally came to the Ridgeway and saw it was the down and up field – I first thought it was the Sarah Morwood “flying” field, but thankfully I didn’t have to do that bit. So, down and up, into the wood and over towards the golf course. There seemed to be loads of race supporters here waiting for their own runners, but they all gave me encouragement. A quick bimble across the golf course, past Nuffield Church, onto the view of the White Horse Vale, then, to Grim’s Ditch.
White Horse Vale with changeable skies.
Anyone who reads my blogs – and I have a strong fan base (not) – will know that I love running down Grim’s Ditch. I was worried that I may not be able to run it today, but thankfully it was, indeed, runnable. I didn’t even trip on root (did you see what I did there?).
The aid station was at the bottom of the Ditch and lo and behold – Louise Ayling!! She said something which I didn’t catch so I turned back to hear and she said – why are you coming back, you need to go that way! Marvellous, no frills, get out and finish. I did need my bottles filling though and Ken Fancett was helping out. I thought I might pick his brains for a few top tips and asked him how he managed to keep from being injured.
“I don’t know!”
Fair enough. The guy’s a machine though. Legend.
I think through force of habit I thought I was going to go along Grim’s Bank, but I had to turn left along a road instead. According to the literature, this was going to be one of the fastest sections of the course. Marvellous, a bit of flat running. Needless to say, I turned off the road to go directly upwards. This happened a few times, but there was indeed some extremely runnable sections. The light was fading so the head torch came out – just in time as the track I was now on was full of rabbit holes. It was getting to the point where there were four miles to go, then three miles left, and I was thinking that surely I must be able to see Goring by now, but nope, not a sign. The light faded fast and it was full-on dark when I entered a wood. Usually at this point of a race the Central Governor kicks in and says, no need to run, you’ve finished anyway. Today, however, it was the opposite. I’d spent a lot of the race bumbling about and the CG decided that we should run and get the thing finished. So that’s what happened. We have to get things in perspective when I say I flew to the finish, but it’s how I felt. Just running through the woods and then by some fences which I was praying were the back gardens of Goring houses.
Couldn’t take any photos in the dark, so here’s a photo looking towards Stonor Park.
I think I came out by the train station and was about to head straight downhill when a chap on a seat shouted out that I needed to turn down a street and turn right. Very nice of him. There seemed to be lots of people about clapping and congratulating which was really nice and then I rounded a bend, past the pub and towards the Village Hall where a marshal directed me inside to the finish table.
Chris was there asking why I hadn’t fancied a sub-7 hour run! I had a medal – I say medal, the thing is huge, put over my neck, followed by the race finish photo. I was trying to look like Monty Burns doing an “Excellent” pose, but it just looks like me smiling. Read into that what you will.
Corinne was there with a cup of tea and a bite to eat and there was Eileen Naughton bringing me my bag. Again. She was doing the same three weeks ago on the Ridgeway Race. Same hall, same bag!
So, a nice sit down and a bit of reflection. Nici came over and gave me a hug. Also, James came over and gave me a hug as well. I managed to have more of a chat with Nikki now that I wasn’t in the race and getting cold. It’s nice to sit and reflect on the race and have a chat post-race, but at the same time, I’m also somewhat exhausted and wanting to go home.
I saw Ilsuk when I left the hall, he had a complete change of clothing on so I assumed he’d finished a while back, and, checking his time, he had. A great run from him. The drive home was misty which I guess meant temperatures were getting low. I did the usual post-race routine of getting cleaned up, crashing into bed and spending a sleepless night with adrenaline surges and leg pain keeping me awake. My whimpering thankfully didn’t keep the wife awake.
I’ve mentioned the people I knew the names of, so thank you to them, but thank yous also go to absolutely everyone involved with the running of the race from start to finish. James and Nici, aid stationers and Mr March. For some reason, I never remember to mention Nick Sheffield, so must amend that herein. Everyone who I’ve failed to mention – thank you. Finally – the course marking. Top drawer – I think it was James, MrMillsSir, Nick Greene, Russ Bestley, Drew Sheffield and Paul Murray. I only got stuck a couple of times, but given where the markers were, this was understandable, but it was only a question of a bit of back tracking probably less than a hundred metres or so, so for 50 miles of course marking, it was spot on. And the course was stunning. If I hadn’t mentioned it before.
Race dedications go to my children. My inspirations. Especially what Euan said the night before – he’ll know what I mean.
And a special mention for Victoria – we shared the pain on this one. We both decided that running the Ridgeway, then running a 50 miler three weeks later must never be repeated. Well, not until next time.
Written by Rachel Fawcett - https://fawcettfitnessrunning.blog
….then I went training with the local athletics club, a really good half mile interval session with some great runners. I was indestructible remember, so when my hamstring tendonopathy started to play up, it didn’t matter because I could take on the world: I didn’t stop, I had to finish the session. As a result of those intervals I couldn’t walk properly, run properly do anything properly. I am clearly an idiot. I tried to give the place in CW50 back so that someone else could run this incredible route, but it was too late. At this point I had a proper girly strop at Supportive Husband who made appropriate noises to try to make me feel better before I looked properly at Nici’s response to my request to give the place back…it was too late, but she was sure it would all be ok and that she would see me at the start line. Right, strop back in its box and determined head back on, rehab, here I come.
Before I knew it I found myself in Goring Village hall happily absorbing the greetings, running banter and general positive vibe which Ultras seem to bring. I was facing 50 miles of Wonderland; muddy paths, woodland trails full tree roots, some stunning views and a few obligatory hills. The weather was looking good allowing me a bit of stretching in the Autumn sunshine knowing that rain was due in by the afternoon. Standing next to the Thames (the hilly bit apparently), I decided that I don’t much like rain so had best get as much of the course done before it came in, the starter horn went off and I committed to keeping up with what can only be described as a cheeky pace.
I felt surprisingly relaxed, I hadn’t done any of the planned training, I hadn’t done my usual build up to a race but I had done something I don’t usually do, I had rested. I was puffing like a steam train, probably because I hadn’t stretched my lungs for a while, but my legs felt strong. I soon became aware of Charley behind me, the pace was pretty tough and I was willing her to just get it over and done with and overtake. Half way to CP1 a bunch of us found ourselves simultaneously shouting to the pack in front that they were going the wrong way leading to us all confessing that it was quite a tasty pace but we were all chasing the rain.
CP1 arrived surprisingly fast, hamstring felt like it was about to explode but somehow I knew it would ease. Centurion events stand out with their well stocked stations and unbelievably encouraging crews, I imagined all Ultras would be like this but my small experience has shown me that they aren’t which is what makes the Centurion CP’s so special. Before I knew it, my water container had been stocked, I had shoved some food in and was off.
It’s at this stage where I would love to give a blow by blow account of where I went and what point I arrived at which CP. The truth is that it all has all blurred into one, I’ve seen photos with me in them and have no recollection of where they were taken. The pictures I have in my head are of tree roots, a windmill at the top of a stinker of a hill, some views which we all said ‘wow’ at the same time, the back of Jim and James’s trainers, some steps which none of used words to describe (just lots of ‘ouch’ ‘ooh’ and ‘aghh’) and an extra hill.
Yes, an extra hill, thrown in totally for free….and we weren’t the only ones. The brilliant things about Centurion events is that the routes are really well marked, so a lack of markers should be an indicator that all is not well. It took us to the top of a nettle infested hill to figure it out, but it was a mark of just how we were carrying each other along when we shrugged it off and cracked on trying to find the right route.
But this day wasn’t about where we went and how I felt at each point, it was about two things for me; the magic of trail running and people. The route was fantastic, how on earth did they find these glorious twisting paths linking the Thames Path, the Chilton Way and the Ridgeway. I love nothing more than running through woods and on muddy paths where I can lose myself in my thoughts and feel a bit more connected to nature. This route had that in bucket loads. The nettles were in autumn mode and couldn’t really be bothered to sting properly, the hills were so scenic that they were worth all the climbs, even the mud felt manageable.
And then it was about the people. Charley, Jim and James. I couldn’t tell what we chatted about but we chatted for about 45 miles. We laughed at downward steps and me confidently turning right having been told ‘it’s left here’. We all took a tumble at some point and we checked on the tumblee. We got over the extra hill and congratulated ourselves on our extra milage. We waved heartily at the lovely supporters who weren’t there to support us but cheered us anyway. This is the Centurion Army, not just the people who refuse to let you stand on your own at the start and insist on chatting to you, but also the people on the trail who look out for you. These are the strongest memories for me.
Coming into Goring we realised that it was actually a race and so Charley and I upped the pace only to hear a shout from behind ‘you need to turn left’, luckily I got it right this time and we embarked on the dog leg around the back to the village hall. We had clearly gone off too fast but Charley can shift rapidly and still find the energy to chat positive words. The sprint in was brilliant, not what I expected to be doing in a 50 miler but to come in with under a second between us was incredible.
I always learn something from races. This time I learnt just how far I can push myself when I am surrounded by hard runners who don’t take prisoners. There were lots of opportunities to lose the route on this race and I knew that, if I dropped back, I was liable to get very lost and disheartened so motivation was high to stick with this incredible group of people who just kept driving hard. I stupidly asked near the end if the upward slope we were on counted as a hill (and therefore could we walk) and was told in no uncertain terms that we were too close to the end for much to be counted as a hill and that we just needed to run hard from there on in. Yup, they were a tough crowd.
In summary, it’s the best race I’ve ever been lucky enough to be part of. It was such an enjoyable day due to the route, the organisation and obviously the people; running, supporting and volunteering. Anyone looking for an Ultra, this is definitely one for the list.
Written by Jasmine Sandalli - https://medalmagpie.blog
Written by Samuel Bolton - https://samuelsultrarunning.wordpress.com
I suppose this is more of a breakdown of my thoughts on the race and a way of helping me remember some of the more eventful bits rather than a full race report. I hope you find it useful.
I try to run races that have some significance to me in terms of where I’ve lived, the beauty of the course or their uniqueness. The ST24 definitely fitted the last category.
The idea of the ST24, from what I understand, is that you physically deplete yourself so much you stop thinking about the everyday occurrences in your life and start to think about what really matters to you. The use of a running track is no accident. In meditation you’re taught to focus on signal objects such as a pin head or your own breath, this race used a 400 metre track.
I also like the fact that there is no plastic goodie bag of crap and advertising at the end.
Run 3 laps and walk 1. That way it would hopefully stop me from going off too fast but also having something to concentrate on to break up the monotony. Concentrating on the 3/1 tactic became my pin.
5 hours for the 1st 25 miles, 5 ½ hours for the 2nd, 6 hours for the 3rd and 7 ½ for last. 100 miles in 24 hours.
I’d attempted to run 100 miles once before at the White Rose Ultra but dropped out at 83 miles as it passed my house. Afterwards, I had a terrible feeling of failure and beat myself up for a bit about not being strong enough mentally to have finished. “It’s all learning though”, I told myself and “sometimes you need to fail to succeed”. I’ve learnt a massive amount about racing 100 miles from the WRU 100 and crewing for Nick Thompson on some of the Centurion races……grit in your shoe, you have ups & downs, food makes you tired and you come through it, sort hot spots straight away, eat and drink constantly, you feel better when the sun comes up, start slow and get slower…..
What crew? Lucky me and my friend James applied and were accepted together. Every other runner seemed to have a gazebo, tent, sleeping bag, table, flag of their country etc. We stuffed a carrier bag of food and clothes under the cover of an industrial grass roller to keep it from getting wet. We crewed for ourselves and later, thankfully James crewed for me. Russ Beasley was also a big help and a lady who gave me some sudacrem which almost certainly saved my race at that point.
The ST24 ultra in some ways reminded me of going to an all-night dance club abroad. You randomly end up talking to someone from Belarus for hours, sweat so much that when you go to the toilet you slide off the seat, you drink your body weight in water and dance (run) all night. People finally spill out into the day light, a distant memory of the person that entered the club smelling great and with their best gear on. You go back to someone’s house party to carry on but by this time everyone is more tired and less coherent. Some people pop pills, some have cups of tea, others pass out in the corner, only to get a second wind later. For anyone who has run this race or something similar, you’ll know what I mean.
I made sure I ate and drank something every 4th lap. My friend Nick told me that ultra running is really just an eating and drinking competition and in some ways he’s right. At points in the race you know you really need to eat or you’ll start to go downhill and you’re body and mind will start to rebel.
I ate and drank whilst I was walking. I’d learnt that you can lose a lot of time at aid stations. Over the whole 24 hours I only sat down once to change my socks and twice to go to the toilet.
Now this seems crazy, but this is truthfully what I ate and drank. Every mile (4×400 meters =1600 metres/1 mile) I was very methodical and had a cup of either water, coconut water, coke, electrolytes, energy drink, ginger ale, tea and/or crisps, a banana, apple, pretzels, twiglets, peanuts, soup and baked beans. I’d say that’s easily 100+ portions of food and/or drink.
I didn’t eat the sandwiches. This was the races only fail. Who puts butter on a jam sandwich and even worse, who puts butter on a peanut butter sandwich! I think even Sri Chomney would have vetoed that.
The lap counting system is kind of flawed but kind of brilliant. Instead of having a tag on your leg that records a lap every time you go past, they have a volunteer allocated to about 4 people who you shout to or they shout at you every time you pass the start/finish line. These volunteers are brilliant. Imagine trying to keep your concentration to count 4 different runners as they go past you every minute or so for hours on end.
I have to say the counters were one of my highlights. They were so positive all the way through. My third counter did a 7+ hours stint from about 9pm until way past 4am, giving big whoops and yells every time I passed. When she rotated, I nearly cried. I don’t know what it was like for them, but for me it felt like you shared a real concentrated experience. I’m so sorry I can’t remember everyone’s name but I’m almost certain I wouldn’t have got past 100 miles if it wasn’t for their joy and selfless encouragement.
That’s one of the great things about a track ultra, you share the whole experience with every runner and every crew member. On a regular ultra, if you’re like me, you might see the leaders at the start and picking up the trophy at the end. On a track ultra you see the whole race unfold in front of you, from the runners that go off way too fast and blow up, to the ones that take it steady and slowly move up through the field.
I think every runner must have a different experience. My most depleted run was crewing on the Thames Path 100. My runner had pushed on and finished and I was left to stumble back as elderly ladies passed me with a walking stick. The last 3 miles took me 2 hours that day, but they were the 2 miles I remember the most fondly. That feeling of total exhaustion but total satisfaction, of a long time goal completed. Helping a friend finish a 100 miler.
This time it was different. This was more a sense of lessons learnt. At the WRU100 I gave up at 83 miles because I didn’t know any different. I was tired, very tired and I hadn’t yet felt the massive disappointment of not finishing a 100 mile race. I had that knowledge of disappointment pushing me on and also knowing that you need to break 24 hours in 1hr sections. Just treat it an hour at a time and forget the total time, otherwise the thought of it will eat you up and you’ll quit.
Hallucinating? Lots of people say they do on ultras. At times in the night I thought I saw my wife but quickly realised it was just a person with a similar shape and form. Was this hallucinating? I don’t know?
I do know for the last two hours I purposely didn’t listen to music, switched off strava and tried to just focus on my running. All I could think about was finishing over 100 miles, my wife, kids and how great everyone had been. Is this transcendence or is this still my selfishness?
I passed 100 miles with about ½ an hour to spare and spent the last ½ hour of the race watching everyone potter or even sprint round the track trying to reach their individual goals.
I did finish the race with real sense of calm and satisfaction. I’d banished the demons of not getting past 100 miles at the WRU before. I was absolutely knackered, I was so happy to have finished the bloody thing and I was chuffed to have shared and witnessed such an experience with so many committed and genuinely lovely people.
A huge thank you goes to Shankara and all the volunteers, especially the 4 that counted me through, I’m so sorry I can’t remember your names but you were an absolute highlight. I’ve made a promise to myself that I’ll come back and volunteer myself.
James Young, Roz Glover, Artur Venis, Russ Beasley and all the other runners and crew for helping me through the run with your positive words and actions.
Nick Thompson and Andy Lang, you seduced me into ultra running and I owe you a lot.
Nige , Andy W, Jeff and the whole Meltham AC family….you rock.
Caz, George, William and family. I love you.
Shoes: I wore Nike Pegasus 28 trail which in hindsight were a little too hard for the track and my feet were quite swollen by the end of it. I should have worn my Hoka One One Clifton 2, but I was worried they would be too bouncy and coupled with a bouncy track, may end up blowing up my knees.
Socks: I wore Teko Super Cushion Marathon Socks which were great. I did get some blisters but I think that was down to swapping to an old pair of cushioned walking socks from Trespass after about 11 hours as I couldn’t find my 2nd pair of Teko’s.
Chaffing: I’d go Sudacrem over Vaseline every time and put plasters on your nipples, especially if it’s raining.
Clothes: Change into a warmer top before it gets dark and put on a warmer hat. I saw a lot of people go downhill over night. You need full waterproof jacket and trousers too. Plus a change of everying. Trust me, you can’t bring too many items of clothing.
Food: Keep eating and drinking constantly. Have a food plan and stick to it.
Music: Keeping the Rave Alive – DJ Kutski
Running: Have a broken down race plan, ideally broken into manageable segments but don’t make it too complicated and don’t stress if it goes off course. You have lots of time, especially at the end of the race. If it really comes to it and you’re really struggling, have a sleep for a couple of hours, set 2 alarms and ask someone to wake you up. Believe me, loads of people did it this year. Some finished top 5.
People: Try to talk to people. They will become your allies and potential race saviours. If not, you might be theirs.
You: Enjoy it and try to take it all in.
“Parakeets, they’ve got Parakeets! I’m glad I saw them now rather than the end when I thought I was hallucinating.”
The track is surrounded by trees and so blocks the wind. I spent most of the early laps identifying them. I can confirm there is a mix of oak, ash, sycamore, hawthorn, holly and other native broad-leaved species.
Over a 24 hour period, I also witnessed a group of mushrooms growing from basic mycelium to full fruiting bodies!
Written by Pascal Fallas - https://www.pascalfallas.com
On Saturday 10th June 2017 I ran my first ultra marathon. Those who know at least a recentish version of me know that I am a keen runner. Keen here probably equates to a mixture of insanely passionate, obsessed, class-A-level-addicted and so on. I have run several marathons over the last 12 months, each one nudging the finishing time marginally downwards. My first, on the South Downs in Sussex/Hampshire left me close to destroyed, but also elated beyond pretty much anything else I’d ever done. Subsequent marathons have seen me finish in faster times but nowhere have I come close to replicating the, frankly, life-changing journey and sense of achievement following that first one.
So, early this year it was time to plan for something else that would push me beyond what I knew my body and mind could do. Staying local for logistical ease and to honour a promise to my other half (then in the final throes of a PhD and busy), I signed up for the Norfolk 100km race, run by Positive Steps. And then pretty much continued to run as I had been doing during the previous months, the only real adjustment being pushing the long run at the weekends a little further than I might normally.
But 100k? Approaching 2½ marathons?? What on Earth?!
(In case you’re thinking that I do such things to impress, the reality is that any and all attempts I make to explain what I get up to are met by a response on a spectrum between incomprehensibility and pity, alongside a not insignificant dose of - usually - good natured mockery. One person actually got angry with me.)
Despite being a local event, it was still an early start to make the short journey to the start at Castle Acre, near Swaffham. Once the instructions and bag-drop logistics were dealt with we set off for the day, with feathery rain over the initial miles keeping things pleasantly cool. Most people seemed content to set a very gentle pace, which facilitated random conversations with a series of changing partners – in my case, a headteacher I’d once done some work with, a colleague, a lady worried about how her fragile back would hold out over the distance, and a chap who managed a good-for-age qualifying time for London but then forget to register during the entry window.
The Peddars Way turned out to be narrow, overgrown and uneven in places, but otherwise very runnable and the first checkpoint at Harpley arrived strangely quickly. After a brief pause I settled back into an easy and sustainable rhythm: everything felt good. The light rain cleared to dry but overcast skies, and the temperature began to slowly but perceptibly increase.
The next 10 or so miles were spent chasing among the backs and packs in front of me, in gentle undulating rhythms, with skylarks heard everywhere (but almost never seen), braying pigs and startled lambs for company. Easy, lovely running. Eventually we broke off the country paths to float through Ringstead, before the first view of the sea on the descent into Holme.
Having broken the back of the ‘first marathon’ and covered a good third of the course I took a little longer at the second checkpoint and filled up with sausage rolls and jaffa cakes, and refilled my water. By now mentally done with the straight and steady footpath, I was grateful for the shift to expansive coastal vistas and flora/fauna variation over the coming section – which I already knew to be the most beautiful stretch of the course.
Setting off once more from Holme, we quickly turned sharply eastwards and ran for some time on boards across the sand dunes. Beneath the hints of sun behind the cloudy skies we passed some frankly staggering coastal views - desolate, massive expanses of sand and marsh, with raptors hovering almost everywhere you looked. The sun really started to break through during the shortish detour inland to Thornham so, with the time probably moving on its way towards midday, it was a small relief to turn off back into woodland on the lead up to checkpoint 3. I’d run most of the race up to this point with a colleague but our pace had started to diverge by this juncture and we separated at the checkpoint.
Soon after this I found myself pacing out over the damp sandy expanse at Holkham, under a sun gradually growing more fierce. Actual running was difficult, but from time to time the sand compacted enough to make it possible in short bursts. I slowly chased down the person in front of me, who turned out to be working at the university I went to many years ago. More connections. He was in training for an even longer event in the summer so wasn’t pushing the pace, and it became a welcome opportunity to take stock and recover some energy before heading into the final third of the race. Moving among the many sunbathers, swimmers and general beach denizens, we chewed the fat for the mile or two to Wells, before parting at the start of the long sea wall which leads into the town proper.
In had by now developed into a blistering day and, on my own once more, I pushed on, picking up the pace again and didn’t see any other runner for a long time. This really wasn’t a position that I’d wanted to find myself in when endlessly thinking through the race in the weeks beforehand. I hadn’t been particularly worried about injury or energy, but I certainly experienced some fear about missing a turning, getting lost and adding unnecessary mileage, pushing a potential finish time way into the evening – or even putting a finish inside the cut off time at risk. I had planned on keeping another runner in sight preferably for as much of the time as possible. But with these sorts of distances and the smallish field of people willing to undertake them, it was inevitable that things would stretch out somewhat. So I found myself alone.
But not really alone. Dog walkers and hikers were passing all the time, some curious about what I was doing, incredulous at how far I’d come and usually sympathetic (with the odd visible wince) about the remaining distance. The path continued to wend and wind and, contrary to my worries, there was little opportunity to err throughout the whole of this section. Instead of being concerned about going off-route, I was otherwise engaged by the visit of calf cramps, old and familiar companions, who would stick around, intermittently, for the remainder of the course. I get these far too often – usually during the latter stages of a hard-paced marathon, where they have a tendency to take down any designs on a good-for-age qualifying time that might be floating around at the time. By the time I got down to the checkpoint at Stiffkey, the pain was stabbing my legs with some regularity and I had to introduce longer periods of walking than was ideal – which was a touch frustrating as my energy levels still felt good.
Aside from this (and the lack of a runner to chase down), everything was going well and I didn’t stick around long at the checkpoint, munching down some peanuts and crisps, but probably not as many as I could have done with, due to the almost complete lack of appetite by this point. (Most of the food I carried in my backpack ended up surviving the whole race.) So, onwards and upwards and outwards along tracks which bent across marshlands towards the sea and then (rather viciously) took you back inland towards Cley, just at the point when you can actually see the beach you’re destined for a handful of metres across the way. And running back inland meant – as it did several times earlier – running into a strong energy-sapping headwind.
At Cley I actually lost the path. I found myself, oddly, in a pub garden which was hosting a wedding reception and I must have been a severely incongruous, muddy and sweaty sight in amongst the beautifully attired people getting hammered in the afternoon sunshine. I was pointed (roughly and hopefully) in the right direction and found a little door in the corner of the garden which had a sign leading back to the coastal path. Thoughts of sitting down and drinking beer forever wafted into the 99% of my being that isn’t the hugely stubborn 1% which won out and decided to get the damn thing done. After all, by now there were probably only a dozen or so miles remaining, although it was hard to tell exactly as my watch went its happy way to oblivion around this point. Then, for the first time in hours I was met by another runner, coming back towards me on hiking poles.
He too had lost his way, but had been working on the basis that the final checkpoint was in Cley itself rather than on the beach so had been wandering around the village in search of it. A robotics engineer from Poland, now living in London but a previous resident in these parts, he too was suffering with cramps. I set him right and we headed off back out towards the sea along the exposed mud path. Although he forged ahead and we took slightly different routes across the shingle beach section, we ended up completing the final section of the race together.
After a brief stop at the checkpoint, the shingle began. All my reading about this race beforehand had mentioned this section. Notorious and widely reviled, the difficulties of running (or trying to) along a shingle beach for 4 miles had been flagged up to me well in advance. And right at the end of the race too. In reality though, it wasn’t too bad, at least by the time I hit it. The tide had withdrawn enough to expose some sandy patches and so I chose to run right down by the gently foaming sea for as much as I could, ducking under extending fishing lines and occasionally dodging waves. The late afternoon sun was the strongest it had been all day and was searing into my calves (my god, what a state they were in over the following week) and around my neckline and hat, but by now my mind was only locked, lazer-like, onto the finishing line.
In a nice touch, the organisers set up an impromptu checkpoint at the end of the beach, at which the polish engineer and I took stock and prepared for the final section, which no-one could quite decide was 5k or 5 miles (or perhaps even another distance). We set off quickly, up and down some of the hilliest landscape on the whole course, a quick waltz through Sheringham and then back out, up and over Beeston Bump, where (unbelievably!) we were passed by a runner I’d last seen somewhere before Holkham. He very politely apologised and carried on his way. This was the first person I’d seen from behind me since about lunchtime. Right at the end!
The Race Director met us at the top of the Bump, congratulated us and then merrily informed us that we hadn’t quite finished. So, a short descent from the peak, then a gentle (ha! With those calves?!) jog along past some caravans and across a road before entering (ecstatically!) into the grounds of Beeston Hall School: the finish.
It took me 12 hours and 45 minutes and I finished in 12th position, which I was delighted with. At the very end, we drove to Cromer and I plunged into the water, letting the bitter North Sea work its glacial wonders on my battered legs.
A quite amazing experience that – naturally – I swore never to do again. But I will. Of course. Well, maybe not the exact same race (although maybe), but there’s something magical and transformative about days like this. After the soreness and blisters go away and the toenails repair and regrow, all that remains is the extraordinary memories of being free, being wild, testing yourself and pushing through whatever expectations you had of your ability. It makes you want to destroy routine and normality and convention and limiting self-belief, again and again and again.
Finally, it’s worth noting just how well organised an event this was. The course was well marked where it needed to be and the checkpoints were fantastic - staffed by cheerful and hugely encouraging volunteers and packed full of the good stuff. For more information on the excellent range of Positive Steps events (including some of more sensible distances), visit their website: https://positivestepspt.co.uk