Running (Hiking) the Cotswold Way North Solo

On the 5th of June, I received an email from Kurt at Cotswold Running to announce that the Cotswold Way Century was cancelled. Having volunteered in the odd numbered years and run it 3 times previously in the even numbered years, this was going to be my last time running it and I’d already decided that if it got cancelled, I would not go back for 2021 and would continue to volunteer every year from now on.

Having run it 3 times previously, as well as doing all 10 legs of the Cotswold Way (including numerous recces) and once I ran it over 3 days, I had run the southwards route at least 5 times and some sections would be in double figures. However, when I looked at my northward journey, I calculated that I’d only run about half of it and apart from the 19 miles nearest Bath, it had only been once on each section and over 5 years ago.

So when I messaged Kurt to let him know that I was not requesting a transfer to 2021, I also mentioned that I had a plan to run north solo. I still had one race (of 130 miles) left in my calendar so said that if it got postponed that I’d do my north journey this year, otherwise I’d wait until next summer. Within 24 hours, I had picked the date of Saturday 4th July.

I had a DNF at the Century in 2018, due mainly to rubbish kit not being good enough as it rained solidly for 21 hours. So for numerous reasons I picked a summer date instead of waiting.

  • I’d have 8 weeks to recover for my race
  • Even if it rained, it shouldn’t be as cold as the end of September
  • The night would be short as it was only 2 weeks after the solstice
  • And Tammy was off work that weekend, so I was free and would be able to get picked up at the end

As I was going solo, the biggest concern was being able to get water. Unlike some other trails, there is only one tap on route. I was looking at shops and there was a shop at 19 and 40 miles, but then no other shops until 84 miles. Luckily Max Luff lives in Gloucestershire now so I asked if she minded meeting me at around 62 miles with water. Kurt (who lives at the North End) also offered to meet me and bring some water (and a bacon sandwich) so I was sorted.

I had kept my attempt pretty quiet but the day before I shared a tracker link to a few people I felt would be interested, one of them (Robin Lewis) said he would meet me at the start and join me for the first few miles.

So on the morning of 4th July I had breakfast, got myself sorted, packed my bag with masses of food and water, the route on my watch (in case it’s completely different running north), a first aid kit, my phone loaded with a lot of podcasts, a power pack and cables, and a proper waterproof jacket so I wouldn’t get nearly hypothermic this time.

I caught a bus towards the start at Bath Abbey and set off with Robin at 8:19, planning to keep going until I reached Chipping Campden 102 miles later. Robin had run 45 miles, 3 days previously, so I was hoping that he’d keep me from setting off too quickly. No such luck as the first mile was my fastest and the only one under 10 minutes.

Robin joined me for the first 7 miles and left me at the Gloucestershire border. I would now be on my own for around 50 miles and 13 hours until meeting Max at Painswick Beacon.

You’ll be pleased to know that I won’t be doing a mile by mile breakdown, just highlighting a few things. A couple of miles after leaving Robin, I was bitten just behind my right knee by a dog, this was about 5 seconds after the owner had told me she was friendly.

One advantage of starting early and going the opposite way to usual is that I got to see some views that I usually miss when doing the century as they coincide with the night. In the space of about 3 miles after Stroud there are two parts of the Cotswold Way route which do an out and back just for the view and it was nice to actually be able to see it.

There are 2 places where the route splits in two, I decided that I would do the reverse of the Cotswold Way Century. There is the frankly evil 3 mile loop along the edge of Stinchcombe Hill Golf Course above Dursley in the dark when there is a perfectly functional 1/4 mile alternative route. And the other one is the slightly shorter route through Stroud which avoids Ebley Mill and the canal.

It was great to see Max when I got to Painswick, especially as she’d brought the banana I’d requested. I did not eat nearly enough on my journey and chewing anything was difficult so it was great to have something easy to get my teeth into.

Unfortunately for Max, who was joining me for a few miles, I was suffering from large blisters on my feet, caused by the wet, dewy fields early on. And combining that with not enough long runs and not enough hills in training, as well as self preservation through woods in the dark (didn’t want to trip over roots), my run had long since become a hike, albeit a speedy hike for the most part.

It was great to have company for a couple of hours even if we did misnavigate to the top of Cooper’s Hill (you know, the cheese rolling one), one of only 2 navigation difficulties, neither of which were major or added any time or distance.

Oftentimes, people doing long distances and going into the night will experience hallucinations, a stick on the ground will slither like a snake, branches in the distance will look like a person. I didn’t suffer with anything like that but I did have one brain freeze when walking along a road and everything suddenly went dark. I was going past a very large house at the time and assumed they’d turned their lights off. It took me about 5 seconds to realise that my headtorch batteries had died. It was supposed to last 10 hours on full beam, I got about 4 hours out of it. Luckily I am conscientious and had a backup headtorch.

Not long after the sun rose on the second morning, I was going across Cleeve Common Golf Course, which at 1,040 feet has the highest point on the Cotswold Way, providing beautiful views all around.

At just around 24 hours, I was coming down a rocky path (tough on the blisters) from Belas Knap Long Barrow towards Winchcombe when I saw Kurt waiting for me. He had a bacon roll and a cup of tea for me. They were both fantastic. Kurt also met me again another 2 miles on with another cup of tea. And with 12 miles left to go, I saw him walking with his family and he told me he’d left some fruit salad in syrup for me, behind his car. Kurt was a real Godsend.

I’ve often said that the Cotswold Way looks harder going north than south (and not just because you’re heading away from home) and I was being proved correct. From looking at an elevation profile, there are 4 hills on the route which climb around 200 metres in very short forward distance. One was after 40 miles, the other 3 were the last 3 hills.

For the last climb, up to Broadway Tower, I had been joined by David ‘Mitch’ Mitchell, friend of Kurt and the only known person to have gone there and back on the Cotswold Way in a single go (just over 50 hours). I had joined him from Tormarton to Bath and back to Tormarton again on his run, so it was a great pleasure to have him with me for my last 6 miles.

The tower at Broadway never comes, it’s a long slog, the tower is hidden and it’s relentless. As we finally neared the top, Kurt joined us too. The nice thing about finally reaching Broadway Tower, is that you then basically have 5 miles of flat and a downhill to finish.

Kurt went off to wait at the finish, where Tammy and the kids would also be waiting for me and I walked along with Mitch. He had cycled to Broadway and was wheeling his bike along, so with half mile to go, he cycled off to let them know I was coming and allow me to finish solo.

I was hobbling down a rocky path, but then it turned into glorious paved roads. I knew I had to take a right before I met with Chipping Campden High Street and nearly took one too early, but just resisted.

Having navigated the correct right and then left onto the High Street, it was a small straight line to the stone that marked the start/end of the Cotswold Way. As I got to the last building, I thought it was time to start running again and at least finish as I started.

After 31 hours, 1 minute, 30 seconds I stopped and laid down on the stone and that was it, I had gone north on the Cotswold Way powered only by my feet and I never have to do it again!

Along with Mitch, we may be the only two people who’ve completed both ways of the Cotswold Way in single goes, although Mitch was much quicker and did them both together. Indeed, his north run was quicker than mine when he’d already gone south.

From a psychological perspective, I find it fascinating. I was weak mentally as I could have run much more than I did, especially once the sun rose on the second day. But I was also mentally strong, because I was happy to just keep moving forward and never had any dark moments. I kept my pace up at all times.

It took a little while to recover and I still have remnants of the blisters now after 5 weeks. I couldn’t even stay awake that evening, so the celebratory bottle of red had to wait until the day after. While I could have gone faster, I had a lovely hike along the Cotswold Way and enjoyed myself.

I’d like to thank Kurt, Max, Robin and Mitch for meeting me along the way for company and to provide me water and tea. Also like to thank the supporters following me on the tracker. And obviously I’d like to thank Tammy, Oscar and Bonnie for supporting me in doing these things and picking me up at the end.