Written by Simon Dicks - https://www.focusedrunning.co.uk/
It was the night before an early start to Gallivare, Northern Sweden. This being my third multi-stage race you may think I was calm and ready for bed, however, I was still anxiously packing and repacking my race bag, checking the mandatory kit over and over again, constantly questioning myself whether I could live without an extra pair of socks, a spare mid-layer top and lots of additional calories. So many questions racing through my mind.
I was checking each item, weighing it and working out how to lose the grams. I hadn’t paid much attention to the weight of my bag before but my mindset had changed. In previous races I’d been running to complete; in this race I would be running to compete.
The journey to Gallivare involved two planes, a train and a final bus to the Mountain Centre where the event truly started. Once there we took our seats and listened to Kris King, Race Director for Beyond The Ultimate events. As the brief went on you could feel the tension, and the fear, rising in the room. The trepidation of what this terrain could do to us, as for me, with each moment, I got more excited for the challenge that lay ahead.
From the moment the race brief finished time seemed to speed up. The room exploded into a hive of activity with medics checking runners for every item on the mandatory list. Simply put: if you don’t have an item you’re not running. I knew my pack was complete with all the required items but there is always something about this moment in epic races - you’re not 100% sure about your bag until the medics sign your kit form, which they did, and I could then focus on eating (something I am not big on).
Food is unique to each runner and only recently have I felt comfortable with myself and the amount I eat during races. I am on the minimal side and trying to eat a 1000-calorie dinner wasn’t easy. It probably took me over an hour to finish and I only felt relaxed when it was done. I was eating 1000 calories based on what I’d heard from past runners so, with the fear of running out of energy, I didn’t want to be caught short.
My race food per day was as follows:
1000 Calorie Expedition food pouch for breakfast & another for dinner
2 x Chia Charge Bars
1 x 20g block of cheddar cheese
1 x Clif Shot Bloks - Cherry
1 x Homemade Chocolate Cookie
1 x 33 Fuel Recovery Drink
1 x Kenco 3-in-1 Coffee sachet
1 x Cadbury Hot Chocolate sachet
Nunn Electrolytes - one per CP (CheckPoint) and at the end of the stage
On the longest day I would have extra cheese and Chia Charge bars. After that day, however, and all the other days I had food left over. I also struggled to eat 1000 calories at breakfast. If I were to change something it would be to have a 500 calorie breakfast with an additional desert meal. Please don’t think my food plan will necessarily work for you. Every individual is different so you really must experiment and find what suits your body … it’s taken me four years and I’m still learning.
We get the call to say the overnight accommodation is ready. Reindeer skins are down so it’s time to go. Setting off through the cold night we find our home for the night are tepees in the snow. There are six of us to a tepee. We dive in to escape the cold, scrambling about to get our expensive sleeping bags down and inside them as quick as possible. I made sure I changed into my night gear before we left the Mountain Centre.
It was an interesting night’s sleep … anxious, excited, cold, do I really need to go out for the bathroom? … this all adds to the experience.
RACE DAY 1 - 31 Miles (Strava)
Back to the Mountain Centre we go, walking briskly to keep warm. My focus is on eating and feeling content that my pack is exactly as I want it to be. The centre is busy with kit all over tables, some people talking, some completely engrossed. I was more on the quiet side today; I felt calm; my mind felt relaxed; I was ready to run. In the final moments before leaving the centre I had a discussion with Simon Wilson and his son Sacha over whether to wear a mid-layer top. Having never experienced such cold weather in the UK it was an unknown for us, so I had cautiously put on a base-, mid- and outer-layer. After ten minutes of debate we all decided that two layers was the way to go, so off came the mid-layer and in the bag it went. This was to be one of the best decisions I made during the entire week, the two layers were just right for my body temperature and effort level.
Stepping out in the two-layer system I could feel the cold. Next to me was good friend Craig Williams who, with a military background, mentioned it’s best to start cold, let your body warm up and then adjust layers if needed. This made complete sense and with my mind set on running as much of the course as possible I felt happy.
Knowing that there would be times of walking, mainly on the hard uphill’s, I would take this as a march, giving my running muscles a rest whilst moving forward making good progress. This also allows me time to eat more comfortably, think about what is coming next and prepare for the next section.
As Kris does the countdown I am focused. I have a plan. I’ll move at my own pace; at my effort level; sticking to my movement strategy whether that be on ice or snow. We start running on a frozen road, the sun is shining, the scene is beautiful, this is why I do these races for moments like this.
The first checkpoint (CP1) is 10km which we reach comfortably. I have a very small lead over Aodh from Ireland as we hit the first of the frozen lakes, which is where the first decision has to be made - snow shoes or not? I persist without them across the lake to the first climb, but here it’s very clear that snow shoes are needed so on they go. I’d practiced taking them on/off many times so this was a quick change but, nonetheless, frustrating to stop. Having gained a minute on Aodh, I’m hoping he’s doing the same! At this time I also make the decision to use the poles, strictly for the uphill only, as I want my hands free for downhill running. In haste I don’t put my hands through the Leki gloves, I hold my poles directly, this caused the gloves to come off of the pole clip a few times, running back to meet Aodh who had kindly picked them up. Not something to be repeated, although happy to see Aodh in snow shoes as well.
After locking my pole gloves in my bag I set off up the climb, only treating myself to the view behind me once at the top. It is truly spectacular. Having never led a race before this is a whole new feeling - the only similar feeling I have had was on day four of the Jungle Ultra when I ran into second place. I now told myself that no-one would be taking this away from me, so I kept moving forward on undulating ice and snow, keeping within my chosen effort level which I hoped would keep me in front.
I find myself moving nicely, feeling happy and absolutely loving it. I have music on and I’m really in a trance, in the zone. I move through CP2 quickly continuing on the same type of ground. , I switch in and out of snow shoes a few times, only to switch back into them again quickly, so I decide they’ll be staying on for the rest of the day and most of the week. I feel a hot spot on my heel, thinking the snow shoes may be causing rubbing, I decide to assess it at CP3. There isn’t anything going on. I have a good chat then off I go. I was there for 10 minutes and Aodh had come into view. At this point my race head kicked in and I would no longer be having good chats at the CPs!
CP4 is the final stop before camp, at the bottom of a climb before a fantastic descent into woodland. I love this hill: the downhill is amazing; you can see for miles; it’s so much fun moving quickly knowing the camp at Aktse isn’t far away. I see the cabins and I know I’m close, I’m buzzing for my first ever stage win in an Ultra. I see the Yeti flags and adrenaline kicks in … I run past the finish line but no-one is there. What an anticlimax for me. I shout hello and up pops a local Sami on top of a roof clearing snow. He logs my time and a medic tells me I’m early :-)
The cabins are amazing, warm and cosy. Now it’s recovery time and preparation for day 2, Aodh comes in second and Alex third, lovely guys I would get to know well over the week.
RACE DAY 2 -27 Miles (Strava)
After a relatively good night’s sleep we are woken by Kris and it’s time to get ready for day 2. I make the decision to wear the Leki gloves from the off to prevent me from having to run backward to meet Aodh again! It had snowed overnight so the ground is soft, meaning snow shoes from the off, something I got used to and in the end I forgot they were even on.
We group at the start for the countdown, again with Lee and Craig at the front, soon to be joined by Aodh. I don’t feel any pressure about the day ahead. Yes I was surprised by my performance on day 1 but there are 3 racing days left and I’m not thinking about the win, purely let’s do the same today and see what happens.
As we set off I am joined by Aodh. He takes a nice video of us running across the lake, then we enter woodland prior to a final lake before the 700m, 6KM accent up Mount Kabla. As I cross the lake before the climb I have a few minutes on Aodh and Alex, I could see them in the distance, but I’m also starting to lose some feeling in my hands. The temperature difference between lake and woods must be 10 degrees or more as I continue across, not wanting to stop to lose time or for the guys to see me stop, I keep pushing on to the woods whilst continuing to lose the feeling in my hands. My biggest mistake of the race was having my down gloves packed away in my bag. To this day I can’t remember why I did this, maybe a slip of preparation concentration. Once I make it to the woods it’s an operation to get the gloves, which is a frightening moment as the cold comes so quickly, affecting me badly as I fumble about and get them on. My fingers are painful and not easy to move but, once the gloves are on, I feel happy to push on, with a look over my shoulder I can’t see anyone and off I go.
They say experience is what you get when you do something wrong, so I put my small but painful mistake down to experience and remind myself how important it is to anticipate potential problems and plan for how I’m going to deal with them when they occur during the race.
Now I’m climbing steadily in sheltered woods towards CP2 which is before the main climb to Kabla. A very quick stop to replace frozen water bottles and I am straight off with no chatting like yesterday. As I work my way up I can see the guys behind me. I check my watch and tried to figure out the margin I have. I think at this point it’s about 10 minutes. The climb is one of those climbs that just keeps giving … when you think you’re at the top you have more to do, so when I finally reach the top I look back over what I’ve run, and again it’s spectacular.
CP3 is before the big decent down to Arrenjarka. Getting to CP3 is a mixture of running and power hiking as it’s up, down, up, down, constantly. When the CP comes into view I pick up speed and execute a quick pit stop to refill with warm water. I’m conscious that I ‘m in the lead so I don’t hang around except for a quick chat with Kris, who is on Facebook ‘live’, before going down hill to camp.
The snow is treacherous if you step off the marked course, and even on the marked course you can find yourself deep in waist high snow. That’s what I discovered on the way down. Smiling to myself I get back up and move on. I keep looking over my shoulder for Aodh and Alex as I haven’t seen them since coming down Kabla. Knowing they could be close behind me is one of the things that keeps me pushing on. Again the run to camp is down through woodland, frozen lakes and finally more woodland and, of course, more frozen lakes. This part of the course is brilliant: happy free legs and the stage finish not too far away. The mind, body and soul are happy and when I can see cabins I know I’m home. This is when the body releases extra energy to push you on, and I’m happy to see Will who guided me in. A 2nd stage win, is incredible and surprising. I’m slowly starting to believe I can do this.
The big downer for the day was hearing that my very good friend Lee Haswell had to withdraw from the event due to suspected and later confirmed broken ribs. I met him in the main centre and had a cuddle and relaxed for a moment. It’s never a nice feeling to see a mate injured and out of the race, but we’re stronger in the long run when this happens.
RACE DAY 3 - 26.2 Miles (Strava)
Marathon day on the frozen lakes. We’re the last cabin to be woken which leaves us with very little time to get ready. Another lesson learned here - take control of the alarm!
A frantic 45 minutes commences, trying to eat, pack and make sure I’m set for the day is a right stress and not something I want to happen again. I hardly eat anything and don’t want to miss the race start, so this isn’t a great start to day 3, a fast day. It feels more like a race day today as we are out of the snow shoes and my feet are running free. My thinking is the same as the previous two days: keep to my effort level; see what happens. Gathering at the start line it’s very cold, down gloves are on and once more I am totally focused on the day ahead.
This is a great day of running, non-stop, no walking, but very challenging. Starting without snow shoes feels great and I set off across a frozen lake before entering woodland. As soon as we are off the lake the soft snow hits and the feet sink instantly into the snow, sometimes inches, sometimes a foot or two. I don’t immediately change into the snow shoes as the bulk of the day is on a long frozen lake so, with this on my mind and sensing Aodh behind me, I’m not keen to stop and put them on. Then it gets to a point where I’m waist-deep in snow and getting very frustrated with the inability to move, so it’s definitely time for snow shoes. I make the change quickly and instantly know it was the right thing to do. Now I’m moving quicker and with less effort.
After the first woods with the snow shoes on I cross a few lakes and hit CP1 very quickly. I don’t stop. The medics call out lots of questions and I say yes to all, moving swiftly on, hunting CP2 down. This would be the start of the long lake section of 20K. Aodh, and what looks like Dariusz rather than Alex, are only minutes behind me. If I can just keep ahead as each CP goes by the overall win would be getting closer. I’m really in race mode now.
Between CP1 and CP2 it’s either frozen lake or woods. I pass a small settlement with waves and claps, which makes me suspect CP2 is close, and means a fast change out of the snow shoes to make my way across the lake.
Upon reaching CP2 the snow is very soft. I shout at the CP from meters away asking if I should take the snow shoes off. The Sami says yes so off they come. I had prepared myself for this quick change and putting them quickly in my bag, change made, fresh water on-boarded, I move on, checking over my shoulder and there are Aodh and Dariusz, minutes behind. This next section is where nothing changes: you are moving forward but it seems at such a slow pace; you look behind and you see runners; it’s impossible to get a feel for the distance or time difference; the only thing to do is keep moving and fast. My effort level has increased during this stage and I‘m not letting up as I close on CP3 … with 10K to go I just have to keep moving. I can feel myself getting fatigued, slowing down, and looking back I can sense that I’m being hunted down. With that in mind I dig in, kept my cadence up and eventually see the island where the stage finishes. Leaving the main track of the frozen lake, the soft snow stops me in my tracks. 100 meters to go and they hit you with this! I’m cursing. Charlotte, an amazing medic and supporter, is cheering and clapping like mad. I make it to the finish line and fall to the ground. A good day’s racing!
Now it’s time to recover and get ready for day 4. Dariusz finished 2nd, with Aodh in 3rd. This result puts me 42 minutes ahead overall, which is nothing with a long stage to come, but I now feel like I have the opportunity to do something that I would never have imagined possible. I am starting to believe there is a chance to win with just one big day to go!
Race Day 4 - 41 Miles (Strava)
It’s an early start to a long day. We wake to multiple alarms after not wanting a repeat of the previous day. Dariusz is out of the door fast. After getting to know each other and hearing stories, Dariusz is a good 100-mile runner, so him literally running out of the door gets us all thinking he is on for it. My plan for the day is to maintain my effort level, not to blow up and loose the hard fought minutes I had acquired. The 10 minutes wasted on Day 1 could come back to haunt me. We line up at the start and it’s Alex not Dariusz who flies out of the blocks!
Right from the off Alex takes off. I think for a moment ‘Let’s have some of this”, then I tell myself to not get sucked into in a battle. Alex has 1 hour 39 minutes to make up over the day and I know I just need to keep moving at the pace which has served me so well so far. It’s actually nice being the chaser not the chased. At each CP I ask how long ago Alex had left, which allows me to keep focused and not to lose my head with the fact he’s surging ahead with that great spare set of legs he got known for.
Today is mainly flat, with either frozen lakes or woodland, all stunning. It makes me feel privileged to be running in such a place. My memory of this day will be that it was just one foot after the other, ticking off CPs until they eventually got closer and closer to the finish line. At the final CP, the Sami give some basic instructions that we aren’t far from the finish. At this stage of the event and this time of day, I feel like it’s great news, but … either I miss a turning (which I don’t) or his idea of not far is completely subjective, and from the perspective of my legs it is far!
I’m now heading up the trail in search of the finish knowing Alex is approximately ten minutes ahead. I’m feeling happy, but this last stretch goes on forever. It’s so interesting how your brain can keep your body going along quite comfortably, then new information makes your brain think differently and ultimately affects your effort level when the finish is not as close as your brain thinks. With the increased effort level my brain is telling my legs to stop and walk. I don’t. I’ve battled too hard and too long to allow this happen, and I wonder now if the Sami had not given me the information, how different this last stretch may have been.
The last stretch concludes on a frozen lake with large, uneven and impossible-to-run-on ice cracks. Not exactly what is needed at this moment, but it doesn’t matter. I can see the end point in the distance and my legs are kicking on. Hearing the team shouting and clapping, I speed up, zoom under the underpass, then up the hill to the centre and into the Arctic circle, Supermanning onto the ice. This was a special moment for me. Alex had finished 12 minutes ahead; a great day’s running by him, indeed.
Now it’s time to relax once more in the Centre. It feels surreal as I’ve won the race but there’s still one day to go. The fifth day would be a day to run with new and old friends.
RACE DAY 5 - 9 Miles (Strava)
We start off with a group photo: all battered, sore muscles, tendons, blisters, the normal for a multi-stage, but it’s easy to forget that and there are plenty of smiles as we move onto the start line for the final time. It’s a sad moment as this really has been an amazing experience, but it’s going to come to an end.
Aodh, Alex, Dariusz and myself talk about running this stage together which we do. It’s a great end to the week. We soon catch up with my Jungle Ultra mates, Lee and Craig, who had sped off at the start. Dariusz decides to walk the last few kilometres so the three of us run the remainder of the course to the finish, one of my best moments from the race, sharing a good emotional chat with amazing human beings.
Finishing is fantastic. I’ve done something I hadn’t thought possible. Was it the focused and dedicated training that had allowed this to happen? My mind? Or even both? Whatever it was, it had all come together and opened up my world to discovering what more I can do with my body. I’m already beginning to research what my next event could be in the ultra trail scene.
Beyond The Ultimate (BTU)
Everyone who takes part in an Ultra event is there for their own reasons. They are on their own running journey and just putting themselves out there on the start line is amazing. If you are reading this and thinking about signing up to this event or any of the BTU events I simply can’t recommend them enough. The team at BTU is like a family when you’re out there, and once you do one you’ll be hooked. (ICE ULTRA ENTRY)
I caught up with Will from BTU a few months after the event for an Everything Endurance Podcast.
I will be launching Focused Running in 2021, my coaching business for runners. Focused Running was born on the long bus ride back from Jokkmokk. Sat next to me was Lee Haswell who gave me the confidence that I could do something with my passion and experience. Learning to run efficiently is what made the difference at the Ice Ultra. That process wasn’t just one thing - it was a combination of both physical and mental changes that made the difference.
If you’re interested in improving your running, whether it’s to complete a long-distance race or even to compete for a podium finish, then please do register your interest in being coached.
Written by Debra Bourne - http://runningape.wordpress.
I spent 2018 and 2019 running lots of marathons and ultras (mostly ultras) to finish qualifying for the 100 Marathon Club, which I achieved at the end of November 2019. I decided that my next goal would be to run ultras faster, with specific aims for 2020 of a marathon PB (getting my time down to 3:40 or even 3:30); a sub-10-hour Comrades Marathon (iconic 56-mile hilly road ultra in South Africa) and sub-24h-hour at a 100-miler.
In summer 2019 I started attending my club’s speed sessions occasionally, and from November regularly, as well as starting strength training twice a week. Beginning in December I invested in online coaching, choosing Centurion coaching as I thought that, as they surely coached people who were aiming for the Centurion Grand Slam (four 100-mile races during the year), they would be better able than most to cope with my multiple race goals. My coach, Neil Bryant, had been setting me to doing more speed work and runs such as tempo runs and progression runs (increasing speed gradually during the run), as well as making sure that my easy runs really were at an easy pace that wouldn’t impact on the harder sessions, and encouraging me to cross-train at least once a week.
With the whole COVID-19 situation, races were postponed or cancelled right, left and centre. Comrades didn’t happen. Other races such as NDW50 and Wendover Woods Night 50K were postponed. Although I ran a number of 50K virtual events in the course of training, I was running them as training runs, on tired legs. Running 5-mile, 5K and 10K virtual races organised by Chris Morton from my running club, I had some proof that my speed at those distances had improved – I reduced my 5K to 21:20 (from my previous best of 22:24 set in 2012) and my 10K to 44:26 (from 45:30, also set in 2012). However, NDW100 would be my first chance to see how the training had impacted the ultras that were my real goal.
The NDW100 2020 edition was one of the first races to be held in the UK in an in-person rather than virtual format since the COVID-19 lockdown started in April. We were all pleased it was going ahead. Various adaptations had been needed to allow the race to happen, including a couple of course diversions – although James Elson assured us those would not affect the overall distance (103 miles). Gathering for the race briefing evidently wasn’t possible, so that was pre-recorded and linked in the final pre-race email. I got distracted with downloading the revised .gpx and only remembered to watch the briefing at 5 am on race morning while getting dressed and eating breakfast.
Rather than a mass start, runners could set off from the trailhead at any time from 5am to 7am. We were asked to set off earlier if we expected to be faster and later if we expected to be slower, to reduce overtaking and hopefully, by increasing ‘spread’ along the course, reduce bottlenecks at the aid stations. I intended to set off about 6 am, but ran a bit behind schedule – with the nice result that I met up with my Comrades-running friend Amanda. After dropping off our drop bags (to go to the Knockholt Pound aid station at 50 miles and to Detling at 83 miles) with PPE-wearing volunteers, and a last trip to the toilets, we headed towards the start. Amanda went to pick up her tracker from the table, which was useful as I would probably have forgotten about mine entirely otherwise, wasting money and disappointing family and friends who wanted to follow my progress. Trackers taped to backpack shoulder straps (we had to do that ourselves, due to COVID-19), temperature checked by another volunteer in PPE, and just before 6.30 am we were off.
It’s often been said that 90% of running an ultra is the mental side, rather than the physical. One aspect of that is that setting out to run 100 miles (or 103 in this case) is a big task. It’s easier mentally if you chop that down into smaller segments. In the COVID-19 circumstances I was breaking this race down into four large sections based on where I would replenish my food: Box Hill (well, a little before: the crew point at 22 miles), Knockholt Pound at 50 miles, where my first drop bag would be, and Detling (82 miles) holding my second drop-bag. Besides that, I chopped it into sections between aid stations, where I would get water and maybe a bit of additional food.
NDW trailhead at Farnham, and overlooking Denbies vineyard*
The first section is really very runnable, and I reminded myself to take it easy, as there was a long way to go, although I also decided it made sense not to hold back -too- much while the temperature was still reasonable: only in the mid-70s to low-80s Fahrenheit. Despite running easy I found myself passing other runners almost from the outset (probably due to my slightly late start), and settled into a nice rhythm, walking the uphill sections and allowing myself to run – but not push – on the downhills. The aid station at Puttenham golf course wasn’t active for this year, so it was 15 miles to the first checkpoint at Newlands Corner. I’d decided to hand-carry a 500mL soft bottle in addition to the two bottles on the front of my pack, as I didn’t want to risk running out of water.
To absolutely minimise COVID-19 transmission risks at aid stations, each station had been split into three mini-stations (two later on the course), with water and Tailwind options, Pepsi, and some food in small plastic bags. When I arrived at the aid station there was a short queue. After sanitising my hands with gel I had to wait about three minutes before other runners finished and I could step forward to fill my water bottles. The food supply was pretty minimal compared to the usual amazing Centurion spread – half bananas, satsumas, bags of sweets, crisps, nuts/raisins and individual cheeses (Baby Bel or similar). As I am now to all intents and purposes vegan, I was basically carrying all my own food, because I couldn’t rely on things like the sweets being eatable. I quickly refilled two water bottles, chose a satsuma and stepped away from the table so the next runner could come forward. Off to the side I stuffed the water bottles back into their pockets, peeled the satsuma, then sanitised my hands again (holding the satsuma in my teeth!) and set off. It was barely 9am and already hot enough that I could feel the sweat rolling down my face.
My preferred electrolyte additive is Elete – a concentrated salt solution without any flavouring or sweeteners. Often I put it in the water (how it's meant to be used!) but on this occasion I had decided to simply drink it neat at intervals, squeezing out a number of drops onto my tongue, swallowing then chasing with water. It worked fine except for the time I tipped my head back too far and got the concentrate on the back of my throat and going down the wrong way. That hurt, as well as setting me coughing, and my throat felt raw for the next hour or more, and still felt raw the next several times I ate satsumas at the aid stations.
The second aid station would be just before Box Hill at 25 miles. I had arranged for my husband to meet me at the 22-mile crew point at Steers Field, so I was able to replenish my food supplies there to last me to Knockholt Pound, and I put some more sunscreen on my shoulders, neck, nose and ear tips. So far it had been reasonably cloudy, but the sun was starting to break through and the temperature was rising – my Garmin recorded temperatures reaching 93.2 °F during the afternoon, and another runner reported a reading of 44.5 °C – well over 100 °F – in one of the unshaded areas.
At the temperature rose I kept my effort level and heart rate down, running easy and power hiking the hills. To my surprise I was passing other runners on the uphill sections as well as while running. Going through Denbies I overtook Rob Cowlin, who I know from many SVN races, and it was great to see him – one of the worst things about the lockdown for me has been not seeing everyone at races.
The aid station was a little earlier on the course than usual, at a cricket club just after leaving Denbies, rather than in the Box Hill Stepping Stones’ car park. The queue here was five or six minutes. Some runners were taking ages dithering over the food options. Back out onto the road, down to the underpass, through and back up to the Box Hill Stepping Stones car park. I was feeling fine – probably because I'd been holding back compared with previous years running the NDW50. At some point I discovered my watch had stopped recording when I’d attached a powerbank – despite having worked fine doing that on a recce. Irritating.
Due to pressure of visitors at the stepping stones and at the Box Hill viewpoint, we were diverted off the usual trail twice: first over the bridge rather than the stepping stones, then again half way up the usual steps, on a lower level route for some time before a more gradual climb that seemed to go on forever. Having recced this section a couple of times this year, as well as having raced the NDW50 previously, it seemed very strange to be taking a different path. The route had been well marked, but it was comforting to re-emerge onto the NDW and be back on the familiar paths.
The stepping stones that we didn’t use, and the bridge that we did
From Box Hill to Caterham is the section that always seems to me to be one hill after another: lots of ups and downs with very little in the way of flatter bits. Every so often on the tops of the hills I reminded myself to look around and appreciate the views. As usual on trail runs, I was also watching and listening for birds and other wildlife, but this day seemed to be too hot even for the birds to be active. I did hear some birds of prey calling occasionally, and watched one gliding not far above the treetops.
On a recent recce it had been raining and chilly as I ran over Colley Hill, and as I ran the same trail through this day’s heat and sun I couldn’t help think about the contrast and wishing for a bit of that coolness. Through Gatton Park and past the Millenium Stones. Through the Reigate Hill checkpoint, with only a short queue. Across the golf course, then the cricket ground – where I passed a runner with a GoPro and thought nothing more of it until a few days later someone told me they had spotted me on a YouTube video**. Through St Katherine’s Church, pausing a moment to fill one of my water bottles with lovely cool water, and into Merstham, where along the road section suddenly I heard ‘Debra! Go Debra!’ and there was Peter Johnson, a Striders of Croydon clubmate, being really encouraging and saying how strong I looked – which was nice to hear, as I felt like I was melting. A local was spraying runners with a hosepipe as they passed (if wanted) and I closed my eyes and went right through for a good soaking. A runner ahead of me almost missed the left turn off the road, but I called ‘stop!’ and two crew on the pavement waiting for their runner pointed and called out as well, and he stopped abruptly and made the turn. “Nearly missed that!” he said as I passed him a few seconds later. “It’s easy to miss,” I replied – “I did on a recent recce.” Through the underpass then diagonally up across the fields, power hiking in the sun.
Running happy, near Newland’s Corner and Caterham (Stuart March Photography)
At the Caterham viewpoint it was lovely to see my friend Jo Quantrill (from South London Harriers), and we chatted while I waited in the queue for the aid station, also with Donna, one of the volunteers who I knew.
By now I was into very familiar territory, and knew that in the hot conditions some of the most testing miles lay directly ahead: not in terms of terrain, but simply because much of the next section would be fully exposed to the sun, running along the sides of fields rather than through woodland. I enjoyed the woodland while it lasted, and managed to call out a “left” just as another runner was about to miss a turning.
Reigate Hill view and Gatton Millenium Stones
So far my legs felt fine, my heart and breathing were fine, I was drinking and eating without any problems. I had my home-made energy balls, boiled new potatoes (with a little bag of salt to dip them in), lentil crisps, mini pretzels covered in salt crystals, mixed raisins and cranberries, and a bag of mixed vegan sweets. The important thing was to keep moving steadily, not pushing too hard in the heat, and walking the uphills to save my legs for later. I passed the point where I had fallen in the NDW50 last year, this time not tripping on the bit of flint sticking up through the path. Last bit of woodland, down the steps and out into the sunshine. It was hot, but I had expected that. Onwards – down, along past the quarry, a short sharp hill, and along again, passing the steep hill where the Vanguard Way joins the NDW for a little while, knowing that it’s now only a few fields until the Titsey Plantation and Botley Hill.
A pleasant surprise while trotting along the fields, as I realised that the person walking towards me was familiar – another clubmate, Rel Lindley, who had come out to encourage us on our way. That was a great boost and gave me something to think about other than the heat. Past the Greenwich Meridian sign, along one more field then finally a break from the sun, swinging onto the wide uphill track through the Titsey Plantation and up to the Botley Hill aid station.
When running the NDW50, by this point my legs have always been tired, so it was satisfying to note, as a sign that both my training and my pacing were paying off, that I could power-hike up the hill at a good clip, passing people along the way. At the top, however, the aid station was packed, with about six runners before me in the queue and people sitting all around on chairs and tree trunks. I took advantage of the enforced break to put some more suntan lotion on my shoulders, neck, nose and ears, and had a chat with Ollie Dawson – who I had last seen while recceing the Farnham to Dorking section of the NDW a few months before – about other runners we both knew out on the course. Finally I reached the front of the queue, refilled my bottles, took a satsuma and headed on towards Knockholt Pound. Shortly I passed Gareth Allen (who has been doing absolutely crazy virtual races during lockdown, to while away the disruption to his “12 x 100-milers in 12 months” challenge), who said he was really suffering in the heat. Then I saw yet another clubmate, Myles, sitting under a tree and calling out encouragement – another boost.
Towards Titsey – me (courtesy of Rel Lindley); the Greenwich Meridian Line plaque
Along Chestnut Avenue, thankfully wooded, before Westerham Hill, and about halfway I saw Nikki, with her husband and daughter. They offered me a Calippo, apologising for the fact that it was half melted. I didn’t mind – it was cold and delicious. As a bonus, Nikki poured a load of ice into my hat, which felt wonderful, and passed on the news that she had seen clubmates Ally and Tad already, but not Keith Simpson, who, being in the V70 category and a bit slower as a result, had probably set off later. I trotted off down the lane, sucking on the slushy Calippo and redistributing some of the ice down the front and back of my vest. It was horrifying how quickly the ice melted, but it was great while it lasted.
Cross the road, across more fields, up the steep hill and I knew we were only a few miles out from Knockholt Pound. This was where I usually alerted my husband that I was on my way and could he come to see me finish (if running NDW50) or pick me up (from a long recce run). On this occasion I called him to please meet me at Otford (the next crew point), as I could feel a spot on my back where my heart rate monitor strap was starting to rub quite badly and I wanted to tape it up.
A mile or so before the village, we had a second diversion from the NDW, which unfortunately meant running on road for a while rather than the usual fields and woodland, and was unfamiliar. I was relieved to spot the village hall (aid station). One of the volunteers at the front of the hall was Louise Ayling, and it was lovely to see a familiar face (and no queue). I’d volunteered here in the past, and my memory was of the space packed with people. On this occasion there were far fewer runners in the hall, with chairs spread out around the walls and further chairs outside, but there was another familiar face, as clubmate Ally was there. I got my drop bag and sat down to change my shoes and socks. Ally and I chatted a little while we got ourselves sorted – she was having some digestive problems, finding it hard to swallow anything, so was surviving mostly on Tailwind.
It was so hot that even changing my socks and shoes took longer than it should have. Thankfully the volunteers were able to provide some wipes so I could clean my feet of dust and larger bits of road grime before putting on the fresh socks, which felt really nice. I also ate one of my pre-prepared sandwiches, stuffed my next lot of trail food into the side pockets and my head torches into the main pocket of my pack, and of course refilled my water bottles. The volunteers also provided a bowl of ice, so I set off again with ice under my cap, melting and cooling me down – heavenly!
Past where I’d seen wild orchids growing on a recce, down the hill, across the road and onwards towards Otford. I felt a bit bad as I realised I’d taken ages at the aid station and my husband would be waiting for me. Thankfully we had agreed to meet at a bench on a tiny patch of green, after the station, so he would be in the shade and no doubt reading. I finally arrived, and Aidan applied strips of kinesiology tape to protect my back. A kiss and I was off again, up the steep hill and the endless steps, then continuing on the route that was reasonably familiar after two recce runs.
Elephants on the way to Otford; lovely poppies on a field edge
At one point a reminder that we were on the Pilgrim’s Way: two men, one in old-fashioned monk’s garb and leaning heavily on a long staff, walking along the footpath. Into the Wrotham aid station and out again. Passing through some woodland I realised the light was beginning to go, so I paused and dug out my headtorches – my new LEDLenser neo 10R on my cap, and my old Silva Ninox 3 round my waist. A right turn down the lane and into Trosley Country Park. Partway through the park I switched on the main torch, which lit up the route fantastically, but gave a disconcerting dark patch seemingly just under my eyes. I switched the other light on and that area lit up. The combination of the two lights worked really well. The path through Trosley seemed to last forever and I hadn’t seen any of Centurion’s marking for ages, so I was very glad to have recced and know that there was no way I could have left the route. Finally to the end, with a sharp right turn and down a recently-resurfaced path, with another runner remarking as I passed that I was being sensible while he was being stubborn, not turning his light on until the next checkpoint.
The NDW turns north here, as it has to go to the Medway crossing. Heading towards Holly Hill, I noticed a crumpled empty soft bottle that had evidently fallen from another runner’s pocket, so I picked it up. At Holly Hill aid station (where I also briefly saw Ally), I asked if I could leave it with them, as I didn’t really want to carry it the rest of the way, and they agreed that I could. This was also a crew point, so as I left the aid station and turned back onto the trail I called out to the nearest crews: ‘Pass it along the line – if anyone’s runner has lost a soft bottle, I found it and I’ve left it here.” Immediately one of the crew members replied, “An Ultimate Direction one?” As I frowned, trying to remember what those looked like, he added “grey with a red top?” “Yes!”. “Thank you!” and he headed towards the aid station.
At some point I fished a boiled potato out to eat and it smelled slightly 'off' so I didn't eat the last two in the bag - nor the ones that I had intended to eat that were in the next drop bag. Sadly that removed a good source of both fuel and 'real' food for my stomach, and I didn't really have anything as a replacement – my sandwiches just didn't look appetising.
There’s a little section of the NDW just before the Medway Crossing that I’m very familiar with. The NDW crosses Ranscombe Farm and Nature Reserve, where I have spent many hours running in Saxons, Vikings and Normans events, sometimes in ideal conditions and sometimes in atrocious mud, but always in great company with fantastic camaraderie. It was comforting, therefore, to think of this section as ‘running towards Ranscombe’. Reaching the farm was lovely; this bit I knew so well (although I was used to running it in the other direction) and I remembered the amazing flowers I had seen there during my recce runs. The Medway crossing itself I was not looking forward to, after two very hot crossings on my recces, but at least this late I didn’t have the sun beating down on me, and there was considerably less traffic whizzing past on the other side of the tall fence.
Ranscombe Nature Reserve, with beautiful summer flowers
Onwards towards Bluebell Hill, and a couple of miles before the aid station I spotted another soft bottle on the ground, so I picked it up (nearly full, this time, a very long, very thin bottle), and carried it with me to Bluebell Hill aid station, where I left it and hoped they would transport it to the end for possible reclamation by its owner.
Milestone 79 miles from Farnham, and stones to sidle round into a field
Next stop, Detling. Here I reclaimed my second drop-bag, ate a bit of the instant noodles that I had made up in the morning, and switched out my food bags for fresh ones. I’d also noticed on turning off my Ninox torch that the battery indicator light was orange, so I fished out spare batteries and changed those before heading off again (the main torch was still fine). There was a runner there who was totally unfamiliar with the trail. Those of us who knew it told him that the next section was gnarly to Hollingbourne, but it was only a few miles – and after that it was much easier all the way to the end.
Having remembered the next few miles as truly horrible, they didn’t feel too bad, even in the dark (having good torches really helped), and Centurion’s route markings were plentiful. At one point I glanced at my watch and discovered a blank screen. Despite the earlier recharge, the battery had run out – frustrating! I fished out the powerbank and connected it, gave it a minute then switched the watch on and got the course started again. It was another several minutes before I realised I hadn’t actually pressed the start button yet so it wasn’t recording my time etc. Steps down, steps up, ducking under branches and stepping over roots. I was moving more quickly than I had expected on this section, and even in the dark it was sufficiently familiar from my recce that I always knew I was on the correct route (and in the little section where the course took us slightly off the NDW, straight across a field rather than up and round the edges, I recognised that as well). I even passed a couple of other runners. Concentrating on my footing and balance, I didn’t eat much during this section, which was almost certainly a mistake. When I was on one of the easier bits crossing a field and rummaged around in the running vest pockets, I couldn’t find my bag of sweets, which was a real blow, as I had been relying on them for energy. I also felt guilty for having littered the trail by dropping them somewhere along the route. I tried to eat an energy ball instead, but for some reason found it unappetising and had problems forcing myself to chew and swallow it, and I didn’t try the raisins and cranberries – no idea why not. The wind had picked up and actually felt cool along the tops; I enjoyed the feeling of almost being cold. I'd worried that the LEDLenser would feel heavy, but it didn't – although my head was beginning to itch from having the hat on (and now the head torch on top) for so long.
Finally, I descended into Hollingbourne, where the wet ground indicated a shower that hadn’t touched me. Only 15 easy miles to go! I looked around for the aid station but couldn’t see it. There were some runner crews standing around and I asked one of them where the aid station was. She pointed down the lane and said ‘about three and a half miles that way!’ For some reason, although I knew it was 8.5 miles from Detling to the next aid station and only about 5 miles from Detling to Hollingbourne, I had it in my head there would be an aid station there. Although I still had nearly 500 mL of water left, and didn’t actually need the aid station yet, the information that I had 3.5 miles to the next checkpoint really threw me.
I started off down the lane, power walking initially to give my legs a bit of a rest. Then I checked the time, did some calculations and worked out that, despite having lost about 30 minutes to the aid station queues, and spent too long at the half-way aid station, if I could average 12 minutes per mile I might just squeak in under 24 hours. So I started to run. For at least 20 strides. Then I dropped back to a walk, frustrated. It wasn’t that my legs were obviously stiff and sore – they were not – but my glutes and my hip area in general felt completely tired and lacking in energy for running. The lane was going slightly uphill, so I waited for a downhill section and tried again. This time I maybe managed 30 strides with each leg. It was hugely frustrating. I could power hike at a reasonable pace without any problem, but my legs simply didn’t want to run. As an added problem to the glutes and hips feeling out of energy, my stomach was beginning to feel uncomfortable and on the edge of nausea when I ran, and my guts didn’t like it either! And my feet were feeling sore, despite my having changed into quite padded shoes (for me) at Knockholt Pound. By now none of the food I had left seemed appetising and I was really regretting the loss of my sweets. I nibbled on the savoury snacks, but that was all.
I continued down the lane, power hiking, trying to run whenever I hit a bit of downhill, managing 30 strides with each leg here, 50 there, while a few other runners started to pass me. Into the Lenham aid station, where I refilled my water bottles, took another satsuma and walked on. It was getting light, and my head was itching, so periodically I experimented with turning off my headtorches, and as soon as it was light enough I stopped, stowed the torches in my pack and took my hat off, giving my scalp a good scratch with both hands. Onwards, with a few more runners passing me. By now I knew the sub-24 wasn’t going to happen. At about 5am I phoned my husband, told him I’d hopefully be finishing in a couple of hours.
Along the final fields before the road into Ashford – and a lovely cedar
Onwards. Into Dunn St Farm, the final aid station, where I accidentally put Tailwind into one of my water bottles, but thankfully a volunteer told me in time that I could put water into the other one. I took another satsuma and walked on, still trying to jog for 30, 50 or occasionally 60 double-strides at a time. At one point I accidentally drank the Tailwind, which tasted awful. Across the fields, and I was glad that I had recced this bit, as I knew exactly where I was going, without constantly keeping an eye out for Centurion arrows and tape. Through the old churchyard and onto the road. Only 3.5 miles to go. They went on forever. I was glad of the Centurion signs again, so I didn’t have to use any mental energy on navigation. Walking briskly, jogging for a little, walking again, another brief jog. I forgot to even try to eat: I just wanted to finish.
Most of the road section had been downhill, and I’d forgotten the final rise before the stadium. Nothing to do except get over it, so I kept walking. My husband came into view and pointed me to the correct gate to take into the stadium. As my feet hit the track, I managed to break into a jog and kept it up for about a third of a lap, then dropped to a walk for a little while round the far bend, before persuading my legs into something resembling a run for the last of the curve and the final straight. I tried to summon a smile for the photographer as I approached the line, crossed it and stopped. Done. I had left everything I had out on the course and finished in 24:43:22.
Along the back straight of the track, and finished. (Stuart March Photography)
I collected my medal, posed for the finish-line photos, then headed off the track, accepting the T-shirt, congratulations from the volunteers and the offer of a vegan hot dog, but wanting nothing more than to sit down and hope my innards would stop feeling so uncomfortable.
Me and my NDW100 buckle, outside the Julie Rose Stadium (finish) building***. I still need to earn one of these saying "100 miles - One Day" rather than "100 miles – Finisher"!
Louise Ayling told me that I was 4th Woman and I was really pleased with that, but I’m not sure I managed to smile about it – I had left everything I had out on the course. I felt awful that I couldn’t summon up the energy to thank everyone properly, but I was feeling sick and weak and couldn’t find any posture where I was comfortable.
After trying lying down on the grassy bank, then in the car, hoping to regain enough energy to thank the volunteers properly, I finally gave up and we set off for home – where I confirmed I was 4th woman, 22nd overall – and 1st VF50!
MANY thanks to the Centurion people and all the volunteers who made this race happen – to get this held in the circumstances was amazing, and of course we couldn't do these races without the marvellous volunteers.
Retrospective musings: I’ve run something over 100 marathons and ultras now, mostly ultras, but this was only my fourth 100-mile race and I’m still learning how to tackle them. I am really happy with my performance up to Hollingbourne. I kept my effort level down, my energy remained reasonably high despite the heat, and I was passing other runners throughout. I think I paced myself well through the heat of the day, and the couple of caffeine tablets I took, one at about 11pm and the other a few hours later, seem to have worked as I didn’t get sleepy – a far cry from my first 100-miler when I discovered that it -is- possible to fall asleep while walking. My heart rate stayed easily in the low-aerobic zone throughout, as my pace was limited mainly by the heat.
The last 15 miles I’m not so happy about! In retrospect, after the potatoes smelled ‘off’ I should have made sure I ate some of my sandwiches, even if I didn’t feel like it (some other runners had packed bottles of ice into their drop bags – that would be an excellent idea for another occasion). Once I discovered I didn’t have my sweets (I found them still in the drop bag when I unpacked it, so at least I hadn’t littered the trail) I should have made myself eat more of the dried fruit and the energy balls, and maybe taken another caffeine tablet. The calves, quads and hamstrings were fine, but the glutes got very tired – suggesting that I was using them properly (which is good) but need to strengthen them more.
I enjoyed the race (well, maybe not those last miles) despite the heat. I’m delighted with my placing: 1st VF50, 4th woman and 22nd overall out of a field of 235 starters, and in a race that only 46% of the field managed to finish – the coaching and hard training have paid off. The sub-24 remains elusive, but only 17 runners managed that mark in the heat, and I have two more 100-mile races this year, so who knows!
* All photos except the ones of me and the one of the 100-mile buckle taken on recces, so all in daylight even if I passed the spot at night!
** YouTube video is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E5pmG41U7fs – I appear from 4:57-5:02.
*** I was too tired and feeling too grotty to go back onto the track for Aidan to take a photo with the track/Centurion finish arch in the background - and we were supposed to be staying off the track if possible (keeping numbers down)
Written by Sarah Oppermann
Sarah Oppermann, Ireland / Stage wins: 2 / Finishing Position: 5th Female 24th Overall/ Finishing Time: 39 hours 37mins 45
What and where: The Atacama Crossing (by RacingThePlanet) is a 250km, six stage self-supported race. Carrying all you need for the week on your back, the distances are daunting, but it is the terrain that really elevates the difficultly of this race! Cliché as it may be but mental preparation and kit preparation are as important as the physical training required for this race.
The Atacama Desert is the driest desert in the world (50 times drier than California’s Death Valley with some areas having never experienced rainfall). Originally under the sea it now comprises a plateau of 181,300 sq.km of salt basins, sand, lava flows and salt flats (more like dry frozen broccoli). Due to its strange outworldy appearance, the Atacama has been used as a location for space scenes in films and its low levels of artificial light make it a world renowned destination for star gazing.
Nutrition and Training: Competitors must carry everything they need (nutrition, clothes and medication) for the week. We had to carry 35 mandatory items e.g. (toilet tissue, sleeping bag, eating utensils, headlamps etc) along with a minimum of 14,000 calories. I took about 16,000 calories which was not enough! I counted my recovery drinks and gels into my calorie intake which I may not do next time. A pre-race kit inspection and spot checks during the race ensure competitors take the kit requirements seriously. If you run out of kit/nutrition and borrow something from someone you may face a time penalty- so preparation really is key.
Perfecting the balance between taking enough food for a week with not having an unreasonably heavy bag can only be achieved with practice. I became fixated with what foods contained the highest calories, but weighed the least. I smashed noodles and Doritos into powder and weighed everything I carried (sample below). I cut the end off my toothbrush. I decided against any spare clothes and only carried the mandatory clothing items. I rented a great sleeping bag (Phantom 32) that folded up really small. I rationed my tissue paper for the week. I cut all the pieces of plastic off my contact lens cases/medicine packs. I cut off unnecessary zippers and I repackaged my food into airtight zipfoil. What would usually seem essential for a week in the desert was left behind (no insect repellant, eyedrops, topical disinfectants). I had taste tests during long runs to see how my body reacted to the freeze dried meals (Expedition Foods- will use again!). Some things worked, some things didn’t. One good experiment was using a lesser-known product on my feet to harden them (Tuffoot- typically used for horses’ hooves) which meant I was comfortable only carrying the minimum blister/bandage requirements. A big mistake was taking the back protector out of my OMM backpack (for a 400gr saving). In the end my backpack was around 9.5kg which was about the average with plenty of improvements identified for next time.
Training ranged from 70km to 120km a week, with a long road run every week and on average one long hill run a week. Every long run was done with my back pack (then about 5-6kg) which helped with slowing the pace down (essential for sustaining this type of training). The longest day of the race (80km) was prepared for by doing two 70km runs during a ten day heavy mileage cycle.
Snips of my spreadsheets below:
Stage 1: 35km- Navigation by Rock
Description of course: Through rolling hills of Rainbow Valley and along the Ancient Inca Road. Loose and soft red ground with some areas of compact gravel/stoney surfaces.
Altitude: Starts at 10,518ft- finish at 8,625ft
Most difficult stage: Last 6km through a canyon with no shelter from the blistering heat
Stage Place: 5th female
“You cant turn the wind- so turn the sail” (African Proverb)
The day before Stage one all competitors met in a local hotel for a pre-race briefing, kit check and final feed before a string of buses drove us to Camp 1. After a final meal of fresh food brought from town and some introductions we settled into our 6 man tents and I had a surprisingly easy (but freezing) sleep.
After Samantha (RacingThePlanet) gave us our early morning briefing, the time went so quickly and day one started with a bang- and a lesson in adapting. I knew that something at some stage would go wrong and had been preparing myself mentally for any eventuality. However, I had not prepared for something unexpected to happen so early in the race. The first couple of kilometres were going well – the first stage is enjoyable with some rolling hills and rock plateaus. About 13km in a couple of us at the start of the second pack could not find any pink course markers for about 2km. Ama (Australia), Petra (Slovakia) and I decided to keep running forward and eventually a course steward gave us some directions to follow to the next checkpoint (a shepherd had removed the pink markings). By the time I reached the second checkpoint I was completely rattled- I don’t think I even stopped for water. I felt like we had just wasted hours of time and energy trying to find our way and I decided the only thing I could do was boot it through the blistering sun for the last third of the race. I was so disappointed coming into Camp that I didn’t even check my finishing time. I let that situation get the better of me. If I had done that I would have seen that those who finished before were a manageable time ahead. A really great lesson in controlling the controllables that day.
Stage 2: 36.9km The Slot Canyons
Description of course: Through many water crossings through slot canyons of the San Pedro River, onto the mountain ranges and the Valley of Death into the open terrain of the Salar of Atacama.
Altitude: Starts at 8,625ft- finish at 7,661ft
Most difficult stage: over 20 river crossings but the closest thing to a shower all week!
Stage Place: 7th female
Daytime in the Atacama is a dry exposed heat but the night time is really really cold. The only way to get warm in the morning is to be up as quickly as possible and head out to the fire that sparks up at around 5am. Sleepwear consists of: stance socks, hat, gloves, leggings, a lululemon longsleeve and a northface down jacket. My waterproof windbreaker serves as a pillow and my sleeping bag has a hood so I am fully covered. Breakfast each morning is some oats and dried banana in water washed down with instant nescafe. By the end of the week my plastic bowl tasted of chicken soup, oats, coffee and noodles all in one!
Stage two consists of a dirt track down to the San Pedro river which we have to cross (over 20?) times for about 10km. It’s a pretty amazing experience, requiring lots of concentration, many climbs and descents. I ran the first half of the day with Nicola (Italy), Tanja, Rafeal (Germany), Andy (UK) and Troy (Canada). I tried to keep a pretty quick pace hoping to make up for lost time from day one. After the river crossing, we run through some flat lands, up a valley and a tunnel onto the ridges of the RIO Salado. Things got very fairly hairy quickly after that- I completely overheated. By the time I ran down the
biggest dune ever to the Valley of Death I was pretty delirious. I was taking in as many electrolytes as I could to keep myself from getting heat stroke and could only watch as Corinna (Germany) and my tentmates Ben and Natalie (UK) passed me out in the last seven km. I’m not sure where I finished stage two- 7th perhaps. The last thing I remember was getting water sprayed on my face as I reached the camp.
Stage 3: 38.9km The Atacamenos Trail “the Real Atacama”
Description of course: Cross country across some low vegetation with some sandy and slate terrain with canyons and sand dunes. Some crusty hard packed crusty mud. Final climbs up sand dunes to Camp 4.
Altitude: Starts at 7,661ft- finish at 8,048ft
Most difficult stage: Final climb to camp but really a great day
Stage Place: 1st female
It is strange trying to compete when you don’t have access to your family and friends, a phone and any of the ordinary comforts we typically rely on. If you don’t eliminate self-doubt quickly your mental state can deteriorate pretty quickly. I was getting quite frustrated with how the first two stages were going and it was Petra (Slovakia) and Natalie (UK) who advised me to pace myself how I normally would for Day 3. That’s what I did and things started to turn around from there.
Stage three is basically cross country along the Atacamenos Trail through hard slate, salt flats, some vegetation, and some canyons and sand dunes thrown into the mix. Everyone said this was where we would see the “real Atacama”. There was also a road for a couple of km which I was very happy about- I ran this part with Ash (Atacama veteran) and Nicholas (Australia) who was helpfully blaring music for that whole stage!. It felt like mostly a flat terrain besides a steep (vertical) climb at the end. I forced myself to pace, ignore those around me and look to speed up at the end (how I typically run my races back home). It is difficult to do that when you don’t know what terrain is lying ahead but it is what I should have been doing all along. In the last 6/7km I made my move and looked to speed up. I remember asking Benji (one of the fantastic stewards) at the second last checkpoint who was ahead and when he said there was only one- (Deb (Australia)- fabulous runner and eventual winner) I knew I had enough in me to push and be the first woman home. It was a great day. The end of this stage is a vertical climb up a sand dune and we watched every person finish the stage as their heads popped into view.
I knew I would have to acknowledge the pain in my lower back at some point and decided now was the time to do it. I went to the medical tent which was filled with a constant stream of people. Blisters on blisters, blisters inbetween toes, blisters under nails, blisters hidden by dirt, blisters stuck to socks, shredded feet, twisted ankles. “have you seen his blister?” became as normal as saying good morning. I have never seen such ripped up feet. I learnt from the doctors that the key to blisters is to pop them both sides straight away, drain it, dress it and cover it. Cover the area well enough that your bandage becomes a second skin. Do not remove the bandage. If you ignore your blisters you start to lose more and more skin on your foot and it is game over. I had worked on my feet the months before the race so my blisters weren’t my downfall but my back was in a bad way. 10kg rubbing off my back without any back protector and it was feeling raw. Patrick the medical director strapped it up which was a great relief for the following days.
Stage 4: 46.3km The Infamous Salt Flats
Description of course: True variety! Some steep hills, loose rock on sand, through a small village, through a river valley, open salt plains and the infamous salt “flats”
Altitude: Starts at 8,048ft- finish at 7,598ft
Most difficult stage: Second half of the course- 6km of salt flats- impossible to run on, near impossible to walk on and one twisted ankle away from an early ending! Such an experience!
Stage Place: 2nd female
At our morning briefing we were warned that the salt flats are near possible to reach by vehicle so to be very careful about hydration, twisted ankles and sunburn. Salt flats is a really misleading name. There is nothing flat about the salt flats in the Atacama. They are like really sharp shards of freeze dried broccoli that don’t crumble when you step. The day started with a couple of river crossings through river Valle Jerez, some dune climbs through Tambillo Forest (following Anim!) a run through a village, some long stretches of sand plane and gravel. Then- the salt flats. I had heard from a couple of the veterans that once the salt flats finished it was flat ground through a donkey path for miles. I got through the flats and picked up the pace (it helped that I was being hunted by Chigon (South Korea), Corinna (Germany) and Marc (France)). The final 6km is a long stretch of road completely exposed in the midday sun- past a huge lagoon. All I could see was Tanja and Rafeal (Germany) ahead of me and I just chased and chased and chased. Tanja took first but it was a great moment!
I had forgotten I had 80km ahead the next day. I had completely redlined it- after about 30 minutes of crossing into camp I couldn’t eat anything and had to spend some time in the medical tent. These doctors had seen everything in four days and while they tolerated me in the tent for a while when it was clear I wasn’t going to die I knew I had to give someone else a space. The people competing in this race were absolute warriors- people were so determined to finish. Helen (Malaysia) had some form of ankle injury that required regular medical attention- she was the biggest warrior. My race buddy Ama (Australia) had a stress fracture so prominent that the doctors were taking pictures of it to show people back home.
Typical movements after a stage went something like this: Bathroom. Go to tent and try get a “good spot” for sleeping. Hand sanitize. Change out of sweaty clothes. Put slippers on. Drink recovery drinks and find some shade to lie in amongst everyone else. Cheer everyone reaching Camp and help tent mates with their bags. Eat some crackers and noodles. Do some stretching. Look at other people’s blisters (best blister of the week-).. Listen to Scottish Steve making everyone laugh. Eat freeze dried evening meal and look at everyone else’s food. Jovica (overall winner) had gazpacho in the evening, while Bill (75) (UK) only ate pot noodle for the week. Finish the evening with a treat of some sort (melted haribo or chocolate) by the fire and head to bed by 7.30 for a 5am start.
Stage 5: 80km The Long March
Description of course: Around the lake shore to cross a plateau, some hard packed red sand, up a large dune, across a plateau into the Moon Valley and up some valleys home
Altitude: Starts at 7,593ft- finish at 7,780ft
Most difficult stage: the unexpected Sand storm
Stage Place: 5th female
The positives of starting to run out of food are that backpacks get lighter. I was saving my freeze dried carbonara and Doritos for the end of this day and they did not disappoint!
80km is a long distance to run, and even more so when you are underfed, tired and the terrain is so varied. We had every type of terrain during the Long March- starting on some sort of soggy marsh which I was not expecting! Strange scorched ground that was like upturned tiles, huge (cruel) sand dunes, wide open desert and a dirt road that never seemed to end. There was even a sand storm in the middle of the day which looking back on it was pretty cool (I think I got caught in it with Patrick(USA)…..The highlight of the day was being given a big juicy orange at checkpoint three or four. It was my only piece of fresh food for the week and it was glorious. Heading out of the desert onto the road that leads to Moon Valley we had been told to stay exactly on course as we were running through a patch of landmines- no off course toilet stops allowed!
At the end of every stage, you know you are near camp when you hear the crew beating the drums. By the end of this stage I was a little delusional, paranoid and the darkness started playing tricks on my mind- I kept thinking I had gone off course and was struggling to spot the pink markers. It was the only time I needed to use my poles for extra support. I ran about 34km alone without seeing anyone except the crew at the last three checkpoints and as soon as the sun went down I was completely spooked. A park ranger in a truck drove past me in the Moon Valley and I was convinced it was following me. I kept thinking the stars in the distance were the lights of the camp. So for me, hearing the faint sound of the drums was like seeing an oasis in a desert- after nearly 14 hours I was so glad to make it home (to eat my carbonara half asleep).
People were finishing this stage at all times and well into the morning- some over 24 hours on their feet. It was really emotional seeing people come in having pushed all limits. Our camp spirit Luke (UK) even wore his survival bivvy during the night section which we laughed about for hours. After the long march we had a day to rest. By that stage I had pretty much run out of food. No 1000 calorie freeze dried meals left so I think I had a pack of noodles and some crackers and sweets.
Stage 6: 13km The Final footsteps into San Pedro
Stage Place: 1st female
Really lucky to have my family (6 supporters!) fly in to finish the last stage with me. One of my brothers acted as a pacer for me which will forever remain a treasured moment. Watching everyone cross the line was incredible- so many inspirational people from all over the world from whom I learnt so much. From the crew to the runners, everyone was always genuinely supportive and that is one of the best things about the ultra-community- even if someone is passing you- you will give them kudos. So many lessons learnt- maybe for another post. A special race and one I feel I have unfinished business with……watch this space.
Written by Ilsuk Han
It was shaping up to be the worst of times. And we didn’t know it yet, but it was to get bleaker still. It was still relatively early into this new decade, and on 5 March Paris Marathon announced its postponement due to Covid-19. Just a few days earlier on 1 March Tokyo Marathon did run but as a very much stripped-down affair for elite athletes only.
But that was Tokyo, half-way across the world and a whole lot closer to Wuhan, where this coronavirus reportedly spread from, and World Health Organisation had yet to declare the disease a pandemic. Surely Paris Marathon had overreacted? Alas – subsequent weeks saw similar announcements from Boston Marathon and London Marathon, both rescheduled to Autumn and, in the case of Boston, subsequently cancelled. Sign of the times, sure, but I had stopped running big city marathons some years ago, so just sympathised with friends who had been affected, shrugged, and carried on.
And then, on 15 March, an email from Centurion Running which impacted me more directly – postponement of the season-opener South Downs Way 50 from April to October, and North Downs Way 50 from May to July (subsequently moved again to November). They weren’t the only Centurion races to be affected – the Track 100 got cancelled and Thames Path 100 was moved from May to September, but I wasn’t entered in those. I was however entered into both SDW50 and NDW50 and South Downs Way 100, which would also eventually get pushed back from June to November.
Source: Chris Mills/Centurion Running
And just like that, I – and indeed, all other runners – went from looking forward to a decently busy and challenging race schedule to…nothing. Nothing but weeks and months of being laid off, furloughed, or working from home, with a daily allowance of outdoor exercise if lucky and news updates of ICU cases and deaths that punctuated the lockdown, both here in the UK and globally. There remained the faintest glimmer of hope that we might have actual races come the end of Summer and into Autumn, but at this point no one seemed to have any clarity or certainty beyond what was next on Netflix.
And then it got me. I certainly didn’t see it coming, at least to me. In the span of two weeks, from secretly hoping that SDW50 might just get postponed since I was less than adequately trained, I went from someone who hadn’t been running because of a misplaced “mojo” to someone who struggled to even make it out of the bed, never mind go out for a daily dose of exercise.
You see, in between doing all the things that I did to occupy myself with instead of running, I had caught what was later confirmed to be the virus. In the week prior to that day waking up and thinking that I felt rubbish, I had dined out with friends, gone to the cinema twice, been to a live gig, had a social run with 20 others and beers after (the only kind of running I did in the last year), and been to the pub twice. Promiscuous, I know, but “social distancing” had yet to make it into the popular vernacular.
What followed for most of April was lockdown in every sense of the word. Not only the one that was government mandated, but also one imposed on my body and mind by the coronavirus. While I didn’t have the cough or shortness of breath, I did lose smell and taste and was generally void of any energy. Even after more than two weeks of bed rest, an outing to the local store for supplies left me drenched in sweat and exhausted.
My first attempt at a run on 9 April, exactly three weeks since initial onset of malaise, was a pitiful shuffle, one where the 4.7 miles out the door and a lap of Battersea Park which normally takes about 45 minutes took almost one hour as I struggled to sustain a jog for more than a couple of hundred yards at a time. I did go out for two more runs that week, a 6 miler and a “long” one of 7.8 miles, encouraged by the fact that I didn’t seem to be relapsing and stubbornly determined to make full use of my allotted time outside.
A life-affirming post-recovery run
I totalled 18.5 miles in that post-Covid Week 1. Now, ironically, that is actually more than I had been averaging since I completed Autumn 100 in October the previous year, such was the lack of mojo in the ensuing “dark” months. But now, with a newfound appreciation for the freedom of movement and simply gratitude for having what little health I had left, I was determined to, well, just get out as often as I could manage and keep moving in a bid for post-Covid recovery.
The following week I accumulated 36 miles over five runs, and the same in the week after that, including a run over 10 miles. I guessed that over that period I went from 60% to maybe about 85% of full fitness. Not quite there yet but most definitely moving in right direction, seemingly with every run. There was no doubt in my mind I was one of the lucky ones.
It was in the following week, 1 May, that after days of teasing us into the lead-up, Centurion announced details of the One Community Virtual Event, which was to take place in the week of 25 to 31 May. Entrants had from midnight to midnight over the week to complete a challenge distance of their choice, from 5km to 100 miles, with a buckle award to 100-mile finishers and wooden medal for the rest. As per Centurion tradition, runners had the option to forgo the swag and plant a tree instead.
He ain’t heavy but….
It was just what I – and as it turned out, 1000s of others in the running community needed right there and then. It was an event which brought with it the kind of challenge and focus that was too absent to many of us who had all, in some way or another, lost too much in those uncertain and restless days of forced lockdown. Whether intentionally or accidentally, but crucially unavoidably, Centurion had found not only the right chord, but probably the only chord that could have been struck at that time. And boy did it reverberate. Centurion RD James Elson sums up the event as it impacted on the community as a whole much better than I can in his event report so I’ll just stick to what I did, and what it meant to me personally.
The challenge was a timely opportunity to plot my way back to post-Covid recovery. It was also a chance to revel in my newfound joy for running. It was a chance to do some training for once for whatever races may or may not happen later in the year. But a challenge it most definitely was, since I had decided to go for the 100 miles and I had never, in the decade that I had been calling myself a “runner” had a 100-mile training week.
Centurion thoughtfully organised a podcast featuring Robbie Britton alongside James in the lead up to the event week, and that proved valuable in coming up with a strategy. Doing the 100 miles in one hit was implicitly discouraged – not that I’d contemplate it for a second anyway. But incorporating a double session day or two seemed sound advice, as was the one to start the week with a long run to bank the miles and maybe thereby allow the luxury of a rest day later in the week.
My One Community 100-mile Week
Monday 25 May: 26.1 miles on the familiar and local trails of Thames Path, Richmond Park, and Wimbledon Common. Good to bank some decent miles but only 26% done!
Tuesday 26 May: 12.1 miles on North Downs Way from Newlands Corner to Seale. I love the NDW and the route ends at a friend’s house for a BBQ, so great way to get to 38%.
Wednesday 27 May: A double session day, with 10.6 miles along the Royal Parks in Westminster in the morning and 6 miles on the local Thames Path loop in the evening. Much to reflect on during my runs today. An NHS letter received in the morning confirmed presence of Covid-19 antibodies in the blood plasma that I had donated two weeks prior. As great as the One Community event is, and as fun as the week is, it was a sobering reminder of why such a virtual event was necessitated in the first place. Stay alert, stay grateful. Over halfway at 54%.
Thursday 28 May: A rest day ahead of a big one the next day but still nervous about having to cover almost 50 miles over 3 days. Still at 54%.
Friday 29 May: 30 miles along the southern half of Capital Ring from Woolrich to Wimbledon. I had always wanted to explore Capital Ring and this was as good an occasion as any. Sunny and a bit too warm, as it had been the whole week. 84% done and beginning to believe that the goal is achievable.
Saturday 30 May: 28 laps of a local block for 8 miles total. There were some in the community who were doing laps (of whatever) to achieve their goals so I decided to throw some into my mix. I admit it was a bit of lap envy which prompted this but shoot me if I ever mention laps again. 92% done.
Sunday 31 May: 9 miles on Thames Path from Richmond to Hammersmith with Philip who is amongst the few who I can spend long time with on the trail, as we discovered during our 2019 Grand Slam attempts. Perhaps it’s because he also likes a beer or two after a run and so we celebrated reaching our goals with some beer. 101 miles!
Celebratory beers at the “finish”
All in all, it was a great week and one I’ll never forget. It was uplifting from a personal perspective in terms of individual achievement but to do so as a member of a vibrant and supportive community is very special indeed. I rediscovered my love for running and long solo runs in particular. There is always the risk once the world returns to “normal” that finding the time and energy may prove again difficult, but for now thanks to Centurion One Community I can keep moving towards my 100% fitness with the sun on my face.
It sounds cliché, but the one lasting takeaway from this whole experience is to never take anything for granted. Not your freedom, not your health, not your loved ones, or a supportive community. In that sense, I feel we managed to turn what was potentially the worst of times into the best of times, even if only for a fleeting week or so.
Indeed, the entire event was an abject lesson in how to make the most of a bad situation, to look ahead to what can be gained rather than dwelling on what’s been lost. As in ultrarunning, so in life.
Written by Daragh Kelly - https://ultrarunningtriathlon.home.blog/
I first came across The Spine Race in 2015 just before heading off to the Sahara desert for Marathon Des Sables as I dot watched an Irish athlete, Eoin Keith, complete the 430 km course that follows the Pennine Way from Edale village near Manchester to Kirk Yetholm on the Scottish Borders in the middle of January and I thought to myself that it was just pure nuts.
But it somehow had got my attention so the following year was dot watching again and suggested to Sean my friend and training buddy that we should enter the baby/sprint version The Challenger in 2017…. a mere 170km with a 60 hour time limit. Seemed like a doable challenge…. what could possibly go wrong.
So in March 2016 Sean, Alan (brother in law) & myself sent off our applications with a full list of our previous race history to The Spine Challenger wondering if we would be accepted. A few days later the acceptance mail arrived and entrance fee paid…. no turning back now.
Roll on January 2017 & the three of us headed off to get the ferry to Hollyhead with another friend Brian who was acting as crew for us during the event.
Friday consisted of registration, kit check, race brief, food & few pints. Personally I felt like a duck out of water as everyone else seemed like hardened mountain men & women well capable of doing the event.
Saturday morning we headed off to the start to be fitted with trackers & the gun went off at 8am in light snow. Shortly after Jacobs Ladder the first climb we made our first navigational error in whiteout snow conditions. Following the group in front we all veered off course costing us about 1km and 10/15 minutes. This was to be the first of many. We were now at the tail end of the competitors. During daylight hours we were moving well but the real problems started once it got dark and our inability to use our Garmin sat navs efficiently. We just kept missing small turns by a few meters here and there but left us on the wrong side of walls in various farmer’s fields with no way out bar the obvious backtrack.
We stuck together and arrived at the first checkpoint, Hebden Hay, at 6am with just 2 hours to spare over the cutoff. Totally spent after c75km we had no time to sleep so just food, change of clothes and back out just before 8am. Over next few hours we moved well with no major nav errors but stopped with Brian for a bacon roll & an hours sleep in the back of the jeep.
Still at the back end of the field every time we overtook someone they seemed to retire from the race leaving us in last place all over again. Dusk arrived and with it our nav errors reappeared through the low lying fields around Cowling, Lorthersdale and making a complete hash of the section off the canal into Gargrave. Sean decided to pull out here with foot blister issues that had been slowing him down for the previous few hours.
On out into the night along the river into Malham with some interesting detours along the way and being passed by the race leaders of the full Spine Race…..who started a full 24 hours behind us. At about 4am we arrived into Mahlam village totally spent, ready to throw in the towel and get into the jeep with Brian & Sean only to be met by two members of the Spine safety crew who encouraged us to keep going as there was only about 5km to the next checkpoint with 3/4 hours to make it. Fu)k it….. on we continued up the road to Mahlam Cove where after climbing all the steps we couldn’t find a route across the top. Hallucinations stared in earnest and we were like a pair of zombies…. we were now a danger to ourselves and decided to make our way back down to Mahlam just as dawn was breaking and phone HQ to retire. Game over but were any lessons learned?
Straight after DNFing whilst having a few sociable Guinness in The Board Inn in Hawes we realised that the Challenger Race was doable for us providing we could sort out our navigation issues. Maps & Garmin sat nav weren’t the problem…. it was the fools using them.
In May 3 of us flew into Leeds and between a hire car & a taxi we reccied Gargrave to Hawes with an overnight bivi on Fountains Fell. Staying in YHA Hawes the following night on our way to the airport we reccied Stoodley Pike to the road before Hebden Hey.
Roll on January after a 50 mile race in December on the Wicklow Way we were on the start line again. No issues whatsoever…Navigation was spot on all the way. Into Cp1 with over 7 hours to spare, 10 minutes cat nap in the bothy at Top Withens, 30 minutes in Mahlam Tarn & felt strong finishing in Hardraw in 51 hours…..even with terrible weather from Mahlam to the finish. Job done, box ticked, itch relieved etc…… not really.
The following morning we hobbled into Hawes YHA … Cp2 for the Spine Race (which started 24 hours after The Challenger). As Sean was getting his feet sorted by the medics I surveyed the room of athletes still in race mode with less than half their race done….. I was in awe of them. Seed planted in my head for next year…. now to convince Sean.
Back home and after a week I was back into training for Ironman Austria which kept me focused until July…. 2 weeks family holiday & then it was all about The Spine…..Sean had signed up in August…… Dublin City Marathon in October, plenty of 5/6 hour night runs in crap conditions finishing up with a 100 mile race on the Wicklow Way in December in atrocious weather ….perfect Spine training……5 weeks to The Spine. Took it fairly easy over the Christmas period. Nothing to be gained…. time would tell if the training was right or not.
Kit sorted, flight to Manchester, train to Edale & 2 nights in Ramblers. It was great to catch up with Steph last years MRT female winner now on Spine Safety duty, Caroline & other members of the Spine crews. A few quiet pints to settle the nerves.
Saturday was all about registration, kit check, race brief, food, more food & an early night of fitful sleep listening to the rain and wind hopping off the bedroom window all night…. not a great omen for the week ahead.
Sunday morning up early for breakfast to discover that my left knee had locked and I couldn’t bend or straighten it…. it had been niggling me a bit for a few weeks but generally came good with light stretching….not this morning of all mornings though. Not much to do but keep doing gentle stretches and head to the start to get our trackers fitted. Weather outside was wet & wild so our original plan to wear light OMM jackets was quickly revised to our heavy Columbia jackets and waterproof leggings…. which would make moving slower.
Eight am and we are off up the road past Ramblers Inn and onto the Pennine Way proper. The wind and rain kept the pace slow but gave my knee time to free out and after an hour or two it was completely fine and didn’t bother me again until a few days after the finish. By the time we got up Jacobs Ladder and onto Kinder we were been blown all over the place. Pace was much slower than this time last year as we ran lots of this section down to Snake Pass and beyond….not a possibility today. Quick stop at Torside where MRT (mountain rescue) had kindly set up offering hot drinks & top up water. The weather calmed a bit for a few hours but the rivers were swollen and Sean managed a dunking into one of them. Head torches out and the wind & rain reappeared battering us. To our disappointment there was no sign of the burger van just before the M62 so on we moved over Blackstone Edge towards the MRT unofficial checkpoint beside the Whitehorse pub.
About 2km from here we noticed a headtorch about 50 meters off to our left & off course. We called out to it and got a confused response so we made our way over to investigate. Another competitor was trying to bivi out in a storm drain (Broad Head)…. less than 2km from hot drinks & some shelter. Turns out the guy had fallen, had a nasty laceration on his cheek, couldn’t see properly with wind blindness and was extremely cold. He had tried to hit his SoS button on his tracker but it wasn’t working and he couldn’t read his phone to call race HQ so he decided to try to bivi unsuccessfully. We gathered his stuff up and got him moving down towards the White Horse pub. I ran on ahead with some of his stuff to alert MR while Sean walked him down to safety…… if he had bivied out nobody would have seen him in the storm drain off course. Drama over and with a soup and some food we headed along Warland reservoir and up towards Stoodley Pike … a brief respite from the weather which was still battering us. Not too far now to Cp1 at Hebden Hey….. just down hill to Charlestown and a long slog up to the road before the turn off to the Cp.
We arrived in Cp1 about 2 hours later than last year but considering the weather & our good deed we weren’t too concerned but it had taken a lot more out of us. In & out in about 1.5 hours and back out into the night with plenty of moors ahead. As daylight approached the tiredness really was affecting us so we decided that if the bothy was free at Top Withens we would take an hour there. Fortunately as we arrived there were 2 or 3 competitors were just about to leave so out with the sleeping bags for an hour of sleep. Feeling refreshed we started out towards an unofficial Cp at Lothersdale set up by a local Tri club. Along the way we met up with Emiko a lovely Japanese lady & we all fell into pace for the next 24 hours. Into Gargrave at dusk & the Co Op for last supplies before Horton. Here we met up with James & Tony and the 5 of us made good time to Mahllam, over the cove and into Cp1.5 at Mahlam Tarn where Sean, Emiko & myself decided on an hours sleep before tackling Fountains Fell and Pen Y Gent in worsening conditions. We slept out on the veranda of the old house but sleep didn’t happen as someone was shaking the foundations with their snoring.
Just before leaving the checkpoint we were told by the Spine Safety crew that a diversion was in place for Pen Y Gent due to high winds and poor visibility. Two minutes later we were told that it wasn’t fully confirmed but by the time we got there a safety crew would be there to advise us one way or the other. I clarified that in the event of no safety crew being there could we then make our own decision re the diversion taking into account the weather conditions….. The answer was absolutely yes but not to worry as a crew would be there. Happy with the clarification we headed out towards Fountains Fell.
As we headed up visibility was a few meters at best with driving rain and strong winds…..goggles made visibility even worse. So it was heads down with our eyes glued to our gps units keeping on the purple line & keeping close together as a group. TBH I really struggled here after not getting any sleep due to our snoring friend. Eventually we were on the road section upto the turn off point to PYG expecting to meet a safety crew at the turn off point. Nobody there so on we went up thinking that they were further up the track or that a diversion sign had been put out further up. The weather was getting worse if that was possible but most concerning was the visibility ……Head torches had to be used as hand torches to get any idea of where we were going. About 1km from the summit we had to make a decision as there was no sign of safety crew ….. decision was to look for a diversion to Horton as there was no way that we were comfortable scrambling over the top in driving wind, rain, fog with 1 hand being used to hold a torch. Maps out, diversion found and we started making our way to the haven that is PYG cafe in Horton for a nice bowl of stew. From there its a long 23k to Hawes on a lonely exposed Cam High Road. Sean and Emiko had said to me to push on as I was moving slightly faster so on I went solo just as dawn was breaking. The last few km into Hawes take an eternity through farmer’s fields but eventually I arrived into Cp2…… about 7 hours ahead of the cutoff. The place was jammed with crew and weary competitors so after sorting my feet out I grabbed my spare sleeping bad & got 2 hours sleep. Then it was up, food, sort kit, change batteries and out to tackle Great Shunner Fell. Just as I was putting on my boots and waterproofs I was called aside and informed of a 1 hour time penalty for diverting off PYG. I was fuming & my explanation fell on deaf ears…. to be fair to Andy, who told me, he was only the messenger of the RD’s decision & I apologised for my grumpiness but did ask for him to speak with the powers that be to explain my discussion with the Cp crew in Mahlam. Out the door and down the road only to realise that I had forget to put on my waterproof leggings which were sitting on a chair in the Cp…. back I went and set off again.
Sean had gone ahead of me but I made good time going over Shunner Fell and caught up with him going into Thwaite. Here we met up with Chris Whorton and his friend where had a 5 minute break & chat before the tricky section to Keld followed by the never ending slog upto Tan Hill pub. Somewhere along here the wind & rain reappeared with vengeance. Battered again I arrived here around midnight and took an hour or so to dry off and have a freeze dried meal before tackling the bogs of Sleightholme Moor. Sean arrived in just before I headed out and was in good form but was going take his time there.
This night section into Middleton-in-Teesdale was probably the hardest for me mentally…. I saw nobody from Tan hill so it was wet, dark & lonely. I found navigation on some parts quite difficult …. just finding the right track in the dark was frustrating but generally I was heading in the right direction. Tiredness was affecting me again and I had a 5 min nap somewhere around Lunedale but it wasn’t enough. The section from here to Cp3 through the churned up farmer’s fields was mentally draining especially with the Cp so close but yet so far. Here Leslie Binns passed me but neither of us were capable of conversation …… just wanting warm food & sleep. I pulled out my phone to call my wife Orla to catch up with events at home and take my mind off my pain & suffering. If there any 1 point that I would have DNfed it was here but after the call everything seemed somewhat better….. she told me to look at all the WhatsApp messages of support for Sean & myself.
Eventually into Cp3 with about 7 hours to spare…… At this stage my brain could only handle Cp to Cp and cutoff times…..the old story of how to eat an elephant…..small chunks at a time. Shoes off and feet cleaned, powdered. They were in bits….. half a dozen big blisters & toe nails falling off. The medics were busy so I grabbed a bed to sleep for 3 hours. Just before dozing off I checked my messages to see nearly 600 whatsapps from various groups….I couldn’t believe the support, quite emotional tbh, and whilst I just scrolled through before sleep it gave me a huge boost.
Up & refreshed I got food while the medics did a super job patching up my feet. Relaxed and had a good chat with Caroline and some of the safety crew. Sean appeared but gave the bad news that he was pulling out…. his feet were killing him and making him slower than normal. He told me just to focus & get the job done…..he was making arrangements to get to Newcastle & a flight home.
Back out around 5pm along the river towards Cauldron Snout…..I really enjoyed this section and made a few calls to Orla & Brian … our crew from the 3 years ago…no better boy to get you fired up. Just as I arrived at Cauldron Snout wondering how the feck I was going to get up there Leslie appeared. He knew the way up having done the summer Spine & being timed out on the winter one last year. He was on his way to doing the double so I asked if he minded me tagging along……up and over with no problems. We were fairly evenly matched pace wise but he was stronger overall. Good time made to High Cup Nick where I took 5 minutes & he motored on. Along the way we had passed Will & Graham and Graham caught up with me on the descent to Dufton where there was a Spine half Cp….. hot water only. There we grabbed a quick nap and in the meantime Will had arrived ready to pull out. The Safety Crew encouraged him to eat and get back out there which he did…. fair play to them because he moved really well all the way to Alston.
The next section was a steep climb up to Great Dun Fell and Cross Fell. It was bitterly cold, snow, ice & wind with reported wind chill of -17. A group of 5 formed and in single file we made our way over Cross Fell and down to Greggs Hut for some of Paul’s & John’s now famous chilli noodles whilst having experienced one of most beautiful sunrises ever.
Graham, Will and myself didn’t hang around and started the long descent to Garrigill where we met a lovely mother & daughter who invited us into their home for breakfast…. we settled on coffee & homemade flapjacks…. they were offering this to all competitors wanting nothing in return & they do it every year….hats off to them. 6km to Alston along a lovely riverbank on a crisp morning …. the nicest lead into a Cp along the way.
Alston was a somewhat quieter Cp with the field more spread out and reduced numbers. Excellent food & staff. Again with 7/8 hours to spare over the cut off I set my alarm for 2.5 of sleep but slept through it for another 1.5 hours…. panic stations. Will & Graham whom I had arranged to leave with had well gone. Nothing to be done but more food and my feet sorted…. they were in a complete mess now and really hurting. Medics did a great job while I was eating my second dinner & having a good chat with Emiko….. telling her that my youngest son was stalking her all week….he’s only 9. In fact she had a huge following in Ireland. She was very tired & didn’t have much time to get a long sleep but overall she was as strong as the rest of us.
Out again around 7pm with a probable bivi at Greenhead. These first few hours after a Cp see me in a good place feeling strong. A nice easy to navigate section I soon met up with Leslie and we moved well together with easy conversation. About an hour before Greenhead we caught up with Will & Graham with all of us planning a hour or 2 sleep before tackling Hadrian’s Wall.
Arriving at the public toilets there between 4 & 5 am we all started boiling water for a hot meal & got our sleeping bags out for a few hours sleep…. the stench from the men’s toilets was too much for a few of us so we slept out in a covered area…. it was -5. Waking up around 8am I made some porridge whilst trying to defrost my shoes which had frozen solid while I slept….the hand dryer in the wc was put to good use.
Beautiful morning on Hadrian’s Wall with nobody in sight. I was moving well but did have to stop a few times to drain & tape blisters. The downhills were agony on my feet which were now a problem. Off the wall and the long forest sections to Horneystead Farm for some warm food and coffee. There I met with Peter Hoffmann and continued together to Bellingham feeling better after the food stop.
Arriving in Bellingham around 6pm the Cp was like a war zone….. bodies looking shellshocked, kit everywhere and a big queue for the medics…. nothing to be gained hanging around here as there was no chance of sleep. So food, kit check by safety team and got a great job done on my feet by the medics. Out the door around 9pm with Graham & Will and a vague plan to bivi in the forest section on the way into Byrness
We moved well together but tiredness hit us around 2am near the end of the detour around Padon Hill so as soon as we got into the shelter of the forest we found a spot under trees and got our sleeping bags out for two hours sleep……our last before the finish nearly 24 hours away.
Arriving at Cp5.5 in Byrness around 8am, meeting Will’s parents outside, we were given drinks & a hot meal by Colin & Joyce the owners of the B&B where the checkpoint is set up……great supporters of the Race for many years…. many thanks. Max 30 minute stop so back out for the final push of 44km over The Cheviotts….we had about 7 hours of daylight but this was going to take a fair bit longer than that.
Straight into a hard uphill climb for a few kms making our way to Hut 1 & a chance to make up a hot meal. Everything was now taking forever with us frequently having to stop just to sit & close our eyes for a few minutes. My feet were in absolute agony…. just think of walking on lego in your bare feet for hours on end. We met some woman with her dog along the way who was planning on entering next years event…..I think she was shocked by the state of us. Hut 1 arrived so food and a drink and back out relatively quickly……About 5/6 hours to Hut 2.
Weather cleared up with some views and spectacular scenery especially around Windy Gyle …..we were really up in the clouds. The light began to fade along with our energy ….we were running on empty with nothing left. The ground became icy just before Hut 2 so traction aids on and soon we were greeted by a welcome party from Hut 2. Safety crew led by Steph ( mad as a brush in the best possible way) & Laurence came out to meet us & walk us into the Hut. More food and the final 10k or so ……about 3/3.5 hours of agony for my feet.
Finishing was only a matter of time now and the realisation of what was achieved was beginning to dawn on us. It was quite emotional but that was probably more to do with tiredness …. real men etc. Orla had phoned me to say that Sean had got the ferry over & driven up to the finish with his wife and two friends Brian & Brian….. This news was completely chocking me up especially since I had no plan made to get home or anywhere to stay.
An amusing drug dealing exchange with Graham on a Scottish mountain, worthy of a cameo in Trainspotting 2, had us ready for the final sprint to the finish….We managed to run a whole 200m to a great crowd of supporters and spine crew. Wall of The Border Hotel kissed and a pint of Guinness handed to me by one of the Brians…. down in one go….how it stayed down I will never know.
We ended up having a few pints in the bar & Sean had booked a room upstairs. It was so nice just sitting with friends, a few drinks & a stupid grin on my face.
Three weeks later I’m still coming to terms with it all. Physically the tiredness was something else. If I closed my eyes at all during the first week I was gone asleep. Every night I was waking up every 2 hours or so in a panic thinking that I was still out there on the course. This passed after about 2 weeks. Blisters took about a week to dry up and I’m now the proud owner of 1 toenail. No feeling in my big toes yet. I wore a pair of runners 3 sizes bigger for about a week waiting for swelling to come down. The only real injury is my knee which troubled me on day one….it’s some tendon damage in the back of my knee which will take time to sort out but in the meantime is quite painful especially at night.
Emotionally its been more of a rollercoaster. On the journey home I read through all the messages of support and it created a nice timeline of events during the week and some realisation of what I had done. In my head I just went out for a long “run” but reading the messages back tells me something else…. how family & friends went about their daily lives…work, school, travelling to various part of the world for an entire week and all the time I was just moving north, eating or sleeping…..but yet they were all glued to my little dot on a map. Haven’t got my head around it yet. Honestly I am totally humbled by all the kind words from everyone and especially with so many of them coming from much more talented & accomplished runners than myself.
What went right……Well before heading over to the event I knew that so many things had to go right if I had any chance of finishing. Mentally I think I’m fairly strong & can push through the bad times. Breaking the event down into more manageable sections worked well for my sanity…..ie getting from Cp to Cp with X number of hours to spare & tried to keep that cushion all the way….. being tight on the cutoffs all the way would have affected me mentally & physically through reduced sleep/rest time. The weather was another major factor…. heavy snow in the Cheviotts would have dented my chances seriously but we were lucky IMO that the worst of the weather was upto Middleton and after that it was just very cold but dry. Kit wise everything worked well with the exception of my tinted goggles. The best bit of kit was my paramo jacket. I wore this most of the time with just a marino wool top over a Bjerne long sleeved string top and was warm all the time…. I didn’t let it get wet & wore a Columbia outdry jacket during the heavy rain over the first few days. Sleep wise I think I did ok….often I pushed hard just to make it into a Cp a few minutes earlier which resulted in more rest/sleep..fairly obvious but try to tell that to your body when you are trying to push on. I left myself open to the idea of biving out when totally knackered & the two times I did this made a huge difference to my pace afterwards. Feet wise I don’t know what else I could have done. They were ok upto Middleton and after that it was managing them as best I could …..& suck up the pain. In all I feel lucky that most things went in my favour and gave me the opportunity to finish.
Finishing up with Graham & Will was great …..Mentally I don’t think that I could have done the Cheviotts on my own & I think that the 3 of us worked well together & had good craic along the way. Well done to Leslie on his Summer/Winter Double & the best of luck on his future exploits. Emiko is a fantastic woman and came so close to finishing……. hopefully she will be back again to get that medal.
The Spine crew… safety, checkpoint, medics, transport etc are a special bunch of volunteers. Each and every one of them will just do about anything to get you to the finish line….safely. Scott & Phil should be so proud of them. They really make the race.
Sean my running pal will be back again and is already tempting me by saying a two time finish would be special…..way too soon pal.
Orla and the kids thanks for all the support over the years. At times juggling work, kids & sport can be difficult but we manage well….. I will let you know soon about the next adventure. Would I do it again? … as I finished never but as time passes…….
…..Seven months on & I have entered The Challenger again in 2020. Luckily the full was sold out so wasn’t an option. Only back running since May with long recovery from above knee injury. After an MRI scan showed up torn ligaments and cartilage (again) running was not possible but hours of turbo training & gym work have paid off so I’m back in the Dublin/Wicklow mountains with Cody (dog) who had put on a few lbs whilst I was injured.
Roll on January 2020