That little arrow in the picture above was to be the most significant symbol since I started running. Just 18 months ago I hadn't run more than a half marathon. Now I was about to start a race on one day and not finish until the next.
The week leading up to the race went slowly, to say the least. Alternately nervous, excited and terrified, it was basically just waiting around and reminding myself that I'd done everything I could to complete the race. At 86 miles, the Ridgeway Challenge is 36 miles longer than anything I'd run before and therefore made me wonder if I could actually do it. This in itself though was exactly what I wanted - starting something that I didn't know I could finish. Robbie assured me I could, as did Jackie who had just completed Lakeland 100 whilst injured. It was just a question of wanting it. I wanted it.
I also had a plan. Being brave is important, but so is knowing your limitations. I researched this race via other people's reports, talked to friends who had recently completed their first 100-milers (Tim Lambert's blog post on the North Downs Way 100 is a cracker, and Naomi Newton-Fisher's on her Thames Path 100 taught me a lot), and picked out what I thought were the most important parts. They came down to this:
- Start slower than feels natural
- Walk all of the hills, and that means all
- Eat at least once an hour
- Sip water throughout
- Tend to any blisters or chafing early
- Keep warm at night
- Just focus on getting to the next checkpoint, not the overall distance Thanks for the reminder Jenni!)
In the build-up, a lot of people asked how long I expected to take. Based on my 9:48 at South Downs Way 50, I initially thought that 20 hours would be a good time, but after hearing how much tougher it gets after 70 miles when you haven't been that far before, I revised this to 22 hours. I don't want to put any needless pressure on myself, and besides, anything over 50 miles would be a PB anyway. Using the excellent pacing calculator on climbers.net, I printed out the splits for my crew (more on whom shortly) and then promptly forgot about it.
With a drop bag option at the halfway point and full support at regular checkpoints, there's no reason you can't do this race completely solo, and I would happily have done this myself. However, my girlfriend Cate wanted to be as close as possible to keep an eye on me and pull me from the race if I wanted to do anything stupid like carry on with a broken leg, just to say I finished. In order for this to happen though we needed a driver and up stepped good friend Crossy. No stranger to distance running himself, always up for an adventure, and perhaps most crucially, very laidback, he was the perfect person to accompany Cate and help make sure I stayed alive. (By the way, I wasn't expecting this to be all that dramatic but when you hear about someone dropping out of a 100-mile race with hypothermia after 98 miles, it's not entirely impossible.)
So, on Saturday 23 August 2014 we all headed up to Ivinghoe Beacon, with Ilsuk who I'd done the night recce with, and for whom this was his first ultra race. With only 92 entrants it was always going to be a low-key affair and it felt very chilled out as we registered and waited to start.
I shook hands with race Director Tim Mitchell, chatted with Ilsuk, Sean and Becky and felt more relaxed than I had all week. As Robbie says, this is the fun bit!
Still not sure what this pose was about. I blame Crossy
We walked down a hill, then up one to the start and we were off. Seanie skipped off like Kilian down a mountain trail, Becky disappeared and even Ilsuk had gone ahead. I was happy to take it easy and see what happened.
Based on our night run, I fully expected Becky to make the female podium and for Seanie to do really well, despite not really training. Bloody young people! I soon saw Ilsuk who appeared to be waiting for me and we jogged along together, enjoying the sights and taking it easy.
I can't remember masses about the first 10 miles except that I stopped for a wee and then took this photo (above) of Ilsuk. There were some pleasant glades and trails and I vaguely recalled that if I reached CP1 at Wendover at about 1:45 I'd be on track. I had, however, decided not to use my Garmin for several reasons. Firstly, the battery probably wouldn't even get me to halfway. Secondly, seeing the average pace drop can be a bit disheartening, even if you don't care too much about time. Finally, I quite liked the idea of not knowing how far I was along at any point.
At CP1, Wendover
We came into Wendover bang on schedule, said hi to the crew, felt a bit bad that I didn't need anything from them and sauntered off with Ilsuk. Everything was going well, although at times I was struggling to keep up with Ilsuk. I mean, I could have kept up with him but I just wasn't sure if I wanted to, given how far we still had to go. Mainly it was very comfortable though, and after a near miss with an angry-looking cow, we went through some beautiful woodland trail. I was just telling Ilsuk how much I loved these paths when I caught my toe on a tree root and fell over, incorporating a neat forward roll into the movement. At least, that's how it felt. More likely it just looked like a lanky idiot tripping over in the woods. Ilsuk dusted me down and aside from a bit of a graze on my knee, I was fine.
Nothing like as bad as it looks
The next checkpoint was Whiteleaf at about 17 miles and I think I got there slightly ahead of schedule. I probably then used that buffer up putting a plaster on my knee, and got a timely reminder from Cate about taking an S!Cap before going on my way, grabbing a tasty homemade ham, cucumber and hummus wrap from Crossy as I went. Ilsuk had gone on ahead and I might have caught up with him if I hadn't got lost in Princes Risborough.
Coming off the trail and onto a main road, I took a right instead of a left and found myself by the train station. I retraced my steps and got back on track after about 20 minutes. It wasn't ideal but figured it wasn't worth getting upset about in the grand scheme of things. And even though I was in no danger of winning the event myself, it was good to know that people as experienced as Marcus Scotney could get plenty lost and still go on to win.
Then the rain started. Just a light drizzle at first but then full-on hail, so I jacketed up and felt my feet getting totally soaked. Alarm bells went off as I wondered about blisters forming but couldn't do anything until the next CP anyway so just pushed on.
A marathon done, just 60 miles to go!
By the time I got to CP 3 (Hill Road), I'd done a marathon and wasn't feeling all that great. Nothing in particular was wrong, the rain had stopped, I just felt a bit weary. Understandable, but not ideal. I topped up with water, had an S!Cap, an ibuprofen, a banana and Nutella wrap and pressed on. It was only 5 miles to Swyncombe and the next CP and for a while Ilsuk and I ran together before he dropped back slightly.
Before I heard the football score
Before I knew it, we were there, topping up on water, eating a banana and finding out that Arsenal were a goal down to Everton after about 30 minutes. It occurred to me then that in the course of my race I would miss Football Focus, the afternoon games, the late kick-off, Match of the Day, and probably still be running during the MOTD repeat on Sunday morning. I put those thoughts out of my head, hoped for at least an equaliser for the Arse (it finished 2-2) and prepared myself for the 12 miles to Goring and halfway.
I was expecting this section to be one of the hardest but it was amazing. There were a few poppy fields, which I assume is were they grow all the heroin...
.. and then some of the most wonderful trails along Grim's Ditch as the sun was going down.
It helped that a lot of this was downhill but I felt really good and fairly flew along some of these sections, still remembering to walk now and again, eat, and drink as often as I needed to. Which, it turned out, was quite a lot. In fact, by the time I hit the river and met these curious chaps...
... I was getting low on water. With only a few miles to Goring though I figured I'd be all right and looked forward to a feed and a change of clothes.
The sunset in Berkshire
Cate and Crossy were already in the hall having had some lemon drizzle cake (which I never saw, annoyingly) when I arrived, thirsty and hungry. As they had been all day, the volunteers at the checkpoints could not have been more helpful, getting me food and drink while I sat down. Crossy filled up my water bottles and Cate asked me the vital questions: How are you feeling? Do you need an S!Cap? What's the capital of Peru? (It's Lima.)
This is how pleased I was with my pasta
I was slightly surprised to see Becky and Seanie in the hall, although the latter was about to leave, and wondered if or when I'd see them during the night.
In the first few miles after Goring there are a lot of uphills (or it certainly felt like that) so I walked them and introduced a new run-walk strategy of running for 9 minutes and walking for 1. It wasn't exactly dynamic but it enabled me to break it up into manageable chunks and keep my heart rate down while providing natural drink breaks. Sounds a bit rubbish, only running for 9 minutes at a time but it's still 54 minutes in every hour so I felt like I was doing the right thing.
After a few miles of this...
... I reached the Bury Down checkpoint at 52 miles. Becky was there with her running partners and asked if I wanted to join them. I had a hot chocolate I wanted to finish so said I'd catch up. I also wasn't sure if my run-walk approach would fit in with their pacing so didn't mind too much if I didn't catch them. As is transpired, I must have passed them a short while later while someone (Becky) was answering a call of nature.
My slow/slightly less slow approach was seeing me overtake a few people although this fell apart a bit when I carried on straight instead of turning right. The guy behind me whistled and I finally realised it was meant for me and got back on the trail. When I caught up with him he told me that a friend of his had been in sixth place before getting lost for 50 minutes. Luckily my detour was about 5-10 minutes at the most.
Then I was on my own for another stretch before seeing a headtorch up ahead. And then another light, but the second was a hand torch, and I realised it was a couple walking. I was about to catch up with all of them when my headtorch went off. For a minute I thought I'd hit the switch myself, but after several presses it wouldn't switch on. I stopped, used my iPhone torch to put spare batteries in the headtorch and resolved to use only the lowest setting as far as possible from now on.
It was gone midnight by now and my appetite had pretty much gone. I knew I needed to eat but was really struggling so had a gel with caffeine. The effect was almost instantaneous and suddenly I was flying (speed is all relative - probably 10 minute miles at best at this point!) and knowing the route I felt good again. Then there was that light again. I jogged up alongside preparing to say hi, how are you? before going on. But then I saw it was Seanie!
He was really struggling and seemed delighted to see me so I was more than happy to stay with him. Maybe if I'd been battling for a podium place, I'd have made my excuses and gone on but running together seemed like much the better idea. Before long we were at Sparsholt Firs for a cup of tea, a banana and an offer of a massage "anywhere you like" from a volunteer who may just have been more delirious than I was. I declined this kind offer, although Crossy seemed pretty keen. What happened after I left, I don't know. What happens on an ultra, stays on an ultra.
CP7, Sparsholt Firs
The next 8 miles to Fox Hill felt fairly slow, although I was so far ahead of my 22-hour schedule by that point, I wasn't all that bothered how long it was taking. The only parts of this section I can remember are me getting hiccups after eating a Nakd bar (I think these might have saved me during the night) and them only disappearing when Seanie's blister burst which he had to plaster. It must have been the shock of seeing his feet that got rid of the hiccups. Gamely, he pushed on through the pain and we reached Fox Hill at about 2:45am.
Black tea with sugar, please!
It was at this point I discovered to my surprise that Seanie and I were in 16th and 17th places. We celebrated my having a boiled potato dipped in salt, a hot drink and a warm by the fire - probably the most welcome sight of the day or night, especially given that the temperature was down to about 3 centigrade at that point. I genuinely felt I was in the better situation running than manning a checkpoint, although the cheery volunteers assured me they were happier where they were.
I warm my hands, Seanie warms his arse
From this point on I didn't know the route, it was at least 10 miles to the final CP, and I could tell Seanie was suffering. Don't get me wrong - after 70 miles I was tired but at least I didn't have any blisters to contend with. It was also hilly and exposed in places and so we just kept at it, jogging a bit, walking a bit, but always moving forwards.
Finally, there was the hint of some natural light on the horizon.
The fields came into full view as the sun slowly revealed itself and finally we thought we saw someone at a gate. It was just a post but shortly after that a sign for CP9 appeared and gave me a huge lift. As we came into the Barbury Castle checkpoint (where this is no castle, so don't get your hopes up) Seanie spotted his wife Ruth and dog Chewie, who had turned up unexpectedly to see him. Cate and Crossy were also there and it felt like we'd already made it to the end.
The sun was coming up, giving me the sunrise I'd been dreaming of on this run, and there were hot dogs on offer. Seriously, a hot dog at 6am wasn't what I thought I'd want but boy, it went down a treat.
Hot dog o'clock
I took the opportunity to make a toilet stop and in so doing, my whistling saviour from earlier nipped through the checkpoint and overtook us. I don't think Seanie and I could have chased him down even if we'd wanted to but we set off hoping to finish the job in the next hour and a half. Five miles in 90 minutes sounds painfully slow but well, by then it was painful. There was a constant mental battle between wanting to run to get it finished and the pain associated with actually running.
As we were trying to figure out if we could see Avebury in the distance, someone - first lady, Paula Hewitt, as it transpired - trotted past us saying "Not far now." We saw her turn right off the trail and presumably the final stretch to the finish, and followed. I spotted someone on the path behind us and suddenly panicked that we were fading too fast and wouldn't even get in the top 20 so I urged Seanie to pick it up. But the guy never materialised and we jogged it over the line together, with a couple of race officials, Cate and Ruth applauding us in. It was 7:38am, 19 hours and 38 minutes since we'd set off.
Before the race I was a bit worried that either it wouldn't live up to my expectations as an experience, or that my body would let me down in some way. Happily, neither of these things happened, and I surpassed even my loftiest goals. I probably still didn't eat enough but other than that (and getting slightly lost), I feel managed my race as well as I could and I'm delighted with how it went.
I'm also really pleased that I ran with Seanie and that he made it on basically no training (the git). Becky arrived about 15 minutes after us at the finish, also blistered and broken but brilliantly, second lady. I knew she'd podium! Ilsuk had knee and blister trouble too and despite walking all the way from Goring, still managed to get in under 23 hours, a truly heroic effort.
Of the 80 starters, 54 finished, which I think shows what a challenge this race is. Well done to everyone who started - putting yourself out there is a huge undertaking in itself. It would also be remiss of me to not mention the winner, Nathan Montague, who finished in 12 hours 13 minutes, breaking the course record in the process. An amazing performance.
Finally, some thanks are due. To race director Tim Mitchell, all the incredible volunteers who were up all night to give us a kind word and food and drink - you guys rock. We literally couldn't do this sort of nonsense without you, so thank you. To Robbie Britton, who has spent a year or so coaching me, imparting his wisdom and convincing me I could actually do this. To everyone who sent emails, texts, tweets, comments on Facebook showing support and love. And to most of all to Cate and Crossy who sacrificed a night's sleep and so much more to help me out and make this journey as incredible as it was. You were amazing. I love you guys! I actually have a little lump in my throat as I type this - thank you both so much.
Where not my own, photos are courtesy of Cate, Crossy and The Trail Running Association. Check out their website and if you're of a mind, sign up for this race next year - you won't regret it.