It was here! After a summer of virtual runs and about 10 medals to prove it, Sunday October 4th 2020 saw the Covid secure Devizes Half Marathon.
I’d entered the race sometime before and was really looking forward to running a race with people in a town that the race was actually supposed to be in, no more virtual Great North Run alone in the Wiltshire mecca of Melksham. My aim was sub 2 and nothing was going to stop me, not even the weather.
Arriving at the start in weather conditions that can best be described as monsoon like I made my way to the information tent and was greeted by two friendly, familiar faces, Mr Biggs and Mr Berry. After some last minute tactic talk I was ready for the off, already soaked to the skin I made my way to my starting bubble and we were off…
Having never run this half marathon before I’d heard varying reports about it and started with an open mind. Although because of Covid there were no spectators the atmosphere amongst runners and marshals was great and I enjoyed every minute of it. It was one of those runs that everything felt good in, legs, lungs and mental attitude. Checking my splits things were looking positive and on I went. (7.41/8.53/8.14/8.36 and so on).
Even being speed buzzed by Laura Midwinter and Chris Hunt as they ran past me didn’t dent my spirit and on I went.
I recall on parts of the run wading thorough water and battling driving wind but nothing was going to stop me, well nothing part from a farmer that decided to close the road to let his cows across much to the annoyance of a few hundred runners. Don’t get stressed I thought as I paused my Garmin and said to myself it won’t take long. After what seemed like an eternity a voice from nearby shouted, “move those f@#king cows or I will “. Everybody was thinking it but luckily a CRC member said it. (You know who you are).
We were off again and the weather didn’t let up, it got worse and some. The last few miles were good, apart from a very muddy uphill off road track that I don’t recall hearing about but after conquering this I cruised to the finish line in 1:54:13.
I collected my medal and headed home, the job was done and little did I know I was about to make my first mistake of the day. Cold, dehydrated, hot bath, hot tea = faint and blue light run to A&E in an ambulance having had your chest shaved in the process.
After 24hrs there, a Covid test and a full heart MOT by two doctors that were keen runners I was given the all clear and allowed home. Their advice to me, never stop running as you are!! There is a bit more science involved in my collapse, I won’t send you to sleep with it now but I am willing to share it if you are remotely interested.
All joking aside my partner thought I’d had a heart attack and gave herself a nasty paper cut looking for my life Insurance policy.
Top tip – Normally after a long run if you are like me you need to eat and eat lots, imagine finding yourself in an A&E starving with no access to food. Smiling and using all the charm that you can muster = being kept in supply of as many NHS cheese and pickle sandwiches that you can physically eat. Result!!
Summary: A splendid, short’n’sharp, muddy up, down, around, and back up and down the shapely outlier of the Black Mountains, Skirrid.
Both Annika Davidson and Andrew Wood had sung the praises of last year’s Skirrid Fell Race so I duly entered the 2020 edition.
As has become the new normal, Covid-19 meant no mass start or pre and post race bantering; rather just a case of parking the car, picking up a race number and joining a small, socially distanced queue to start at 30 secs intervals. However, the wonderful Welsh countryside and a cracking route up, over, down, round and back up Skirrid before a swooping descent remained unchanged. It also offered incentive to turn my legs quicker than I had in a while.
Before getting to grips with the climb up Skirrid, a short lap of the start field provided a warm-up. Following a week of heavy rain, conditions underfoot were somewhat squidgy and my daps of choice, Mudclaws, were immediately put to good use; staying upright on the downhill sections was going to be a challenge.
Leaving the start/finish field, the way ahead was obvious with the shapely peak of Skirrid dominating the view. The gradient and effort level gradually increased as the route squelched its way across sodden fields to get to the open access slopes of Skirrid proper. Trying to catch up runners who had started in front, and stay ahead of those who started behind, provided further onward impetus.
The ascent to Skirrid’s whaleback summit ridge was runnable for some but had me resorting to a “brisk as I could make it” walk for most of the way. The walking pace provided opportunity to take-in and relish the ever-expanding views as elevation was gained. Having reached the summit ridge, it was immediately left by a short descent and a technical, rocky traverse under Skirrid’s summit to reach its very steep North ridge.
‘Skirrid’ is derived from the Welsh ‘Ysgyryd’, which means to shake or tremble. The short, sharp hands and feet ascent of its North ridge to the summit trig point certainly had that effect on my legs. There was no respite though; the way on was an immediate, and equally steep, quad testing descent. Initially heather clad, the slope, whilst precipitous, was reasonably secure underfoot; in its lower reaches loose soil and bracken replaced the heather however, providing less stability and more entertainment. Thankfully the braken contained no bramble snagging hazards. From there, it was a simply splendid splish-splash, gravity assisted dash to the finish line.
There was of course no post-race hydration and sustenance at the Skirrid Inn; fingers crossed for a return to the full race experience in 2021…
Huge thanks go Andy Creber of Rogue Runs , and his team of merry helpers, for providing the opportunity to “race” amidst these uncertain times. Andy always provides memorable and entertaining race routes and Skirrid is no exception. Being a marked and relatively short course, it is also a great introduction to the pleasures (and pain) of South Wales fell racing; if you want to find out more, fellrace.com provides all you need to know about the entertainment on offer in the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons…
All pictures courtesy of various ace marshalls out on the course.
As the year draws to a close it is always a time to reflect and think about what we have achieved. This year has been one that none of us could have predicted and we have all faced some difficult times.
There have been lots of things cancelled and everything seems to have changed. Many of us have still however been able to run, sometimes together in small groups and sometimes alone.
Just before March several of us signed up for the Mad March Mile and committed to doing a mile a day for each day in March. I thought this was a tall order at the time but as Biggsy is very persuasive I signed up! We got a lovely pottery mug if we completed it so that was the clincher!!
Little did we know that as March went by we would go into a lockdown – something we had never experienced before. As March drew to a close many of us decided to continue MMM as we had a little more free time and were enjoying the exercise.
Well it is now almost Christmas and we are still going. Several of us have exercised everyday since the start of March – the longest March ever!! (I have to be honest and admit I missed one day when I was injured but only one!) It has meant that I have cycled over 2020 miles and ran over 2020 km this year. Who would have predicted that I could do that when I started running (well it wasn’t really running then!!) and cycling a couple of years ago? I might even be a real runner one day!
Doing this has helped me to stay somewhat sane through this weird year and I would like to thank everyone that has ran with me, cycled with me or encouraged me. Most of all I would like to thank members and committee of CRC. You have done so much to help us keep running during this pandemic. You have been forward thinking and very proactive. The booking system is brilliant, the range and number of run sessions fantastic and the friendship continues throughout everything we do.
I am proud to be part of such a great club and would like to wish everyone a good (if different) Christmas and all the best for 2021. Here’s to more running next year, maybe some competitions , but who knows, and let’s see how long March 2020 continues on for!
This was only the 2nd actual race I’d done this year so anticipation was running high! It was an excellently organised race and the marshals were awesome! Seems likely that, due to the wave starts, they were standing out in the torrential rain for even longer than for a ‘normal’ race. The chap standing by the entrance to the garden was amazing – you could hear him shouting encouragement for ages before and after you passed him. I’ve not done this race before but the course was apparently different as it was 3 laps rather than 2 and all on the Westonbirt grounds.
The wave starts are a novel addition to races to stop large groups of people congregating (you’re only supposed to arrive at the start a few minutes before your allocated time) and, naturally, have their pros and cons: • On the upside, as there are runners of different paces starting at different times, you get to pass (and be passed by!) lots of different people so you get to greet runners you wouldn’t normally see. • On the downside, there were a number of people I knew running the race but I only got to meet a couple who had similar start and/or finish times. It’s also slightly odd not knowing who you’re actually racing against, is that person in front on their 1st, 2nd or 3rd lap? Am I ahead of them or not? That person that just passed me, can I get them on the final lap or are they just finishing?
Did I mention the rain? That also meant a significant amount of mud too, the course was all traffic free (apart from a random car near the drinks station – not sure what that was about), undulating and mainly off-track as well around the playing fields so the new Mud Claws were an essential aid to staying upright and moving forwards; I saw several runners heading off on interesting tangents, hope they made it home safely! In summary – It was wet, it was muddy, we had fun 😊
In a year of turmoil ARWNWN provided a constant; now in its third year, Crooked Tracks’s event provides a delightful, circular, rural, 50km route starting and finishing at Tisbury.
The postponement of a long-planned-for event in the Lake District meant Sue and I were able to take advantage of a couple of last minute places in ARWNWN. It offered a slightly shorter and less hilly alternative but having completed it before we both knew it would provide a fab’ autumnal day out in the rolling hills of South Wiltshire.
An 8:30am start time from Tisbury meant a crack of dawn departure from Corsham. The compensation was the delight of an incredible sunrise over Salisbury Plain. Also on the plus side it indicated that the forecast decent weather was fact rather than fiction, with running conditions nigh on perfect. (Disappointing though for Race Director par excellence, Neil Turnbull, who much prefers to provide his punters with attritional rain-lashed muddy affairs.)
Covid-19 required some tinkering with the format of the race in terms of admin and phased start times. The only change in the business part of the day was reversing the ARWNWN route of the previous two years. There were a few familiar AVR faces in our start wave and the race crew; it was great to catch-up with folk we had not seen for many months in the absence of racing.
As is the way with Crooked Tracks our wave of runners were away without faff or fanfare. The gentle incline from the start quickly spread out the runners and I fell in step with Andrew Jeffries from AVR. We enjoyed a bit of banter and followed the faster runners in front, which was a mistake. Within ten minutes of the start it transpired we had missed a turn and were off track. The correct marked trail was thankfully recovered without too much extra distance or loss of time; a good early reminder to pay attention to navigation.
The reversing of the route provided some entertainment outside of the opportunity for navigational blunders. Uphills that were long and emotional at the end of the route in the previous two years’ became brief downhill canters this year. Of course it also meant the reverse would be true later in the day…
Andrew J was keen to make progress so I let him go and stuck to my own pacing strategy, which was intended to get me round in under six hours. The phased starts meant a fair bit of solo running although with ace holloways (A holloway is a sunken path characteristic of the rounded hills of southern England; a route that centuries of footfall, hoof-hit, wheel-roll and rain-rush have harrowed down into the bedrock) and beautiful autumnal colours to enjoy the miles romped by. In what felt like no time at all the first picnic station arrived along with some morale boosting CRC support from Andrew Wood. As with previous years Crooked Tracks did not disappoint on the food front and there were a fine array of tasty treats available. Unusually nothing really appealed so I took a couple of jam and peanut butter wraps to force down on the hoof and bid farewell to Andrew W.
The route onto the next picnic spot at Old Wardour Castle provided undulatling running alternating between woods and fields. The terrain was very much runnable, particularly at this relatively early juncture. I was therefore able to maintain target pace. The effort to do it though felt worryingly hard with well over half the distance to go. So following the ultra adage of “if in doubt eat something” I guzzled a gel, told myself to buck-up and pressed on.
Scenery and paying attention to the route marking to stay on track provided distraction. Morale was also improved by a lucky find. In the best tradition of the Wombles I bent down to pick up a bit of litter, which on closer inspection turned out to be a twenty pound note. The temptation to divert off route at the next village and spend it at the pub was resisted; cola, jam/peanut butter wraps and Jaffa cakes were just around the corner beneath the towering ruins of Old Wardour Castle. The brief swoop down to, and the view of, the castle was one of the highlights of the day; I do like a bit of downhill.
Andrew Wood’s appearance also provided an additional boost at the picnic stop. Again I had no appetite for the fine fare on offer so I just grabbed some bits’n’pieces and pressed on for the second half. Distracted by my picnic on the go, I immediately took a wrong turn and had to back track a little. By this stage the start waves were beginning to overlap with slower runners in first wave being overtaken and the faster runners from the wave behind in turn overtaking me. Both provided opportunity for brief banter and mutual encouragement as is the way with ultras where the slower pace allows for conversation.
Having struggled to put fuel in the tank, energy levels juddered a bit over the next few miles. My pace dropped accordingly as the undulations became a bit more pronounced and longer. A stiff, head-on breeze also helped to check momentum. The six hour target drifted out of reach despite my best effort to prevent it. Andrew Wood thankfully caught me up and provided much needed encouragement at a point where I could have easily stalled. With some nudges from him to eat and drink I ground on albeit more slowly than I had been aiming for. Also on the credit side, it was still a cracking day out in the countryside; the lake and parkland splendour of New Wardour Castle provided feast for the eyes and the route finding was relatively straight-forward and well marked.
Andrew’s company helped overcome a couple of long, gradual climbs and we enjoyed trading places and chat with a few runners as we all headed toward the third picnic stop of the day. Andrew departed having seen me over the third quarter slump/hump. I briefly called in to the third and final checkpoint of the day to re-fill on water. The food unfortunately continued to hold no appeal. An ace gentle downhill in a joyous tunnel of autumnal hued and goldfinch crowned hedges did however. The busy hum of the A303 at its end added to the ebb and flow of the day; marking / marring the turn back south towards Tisbury and the finish.
Another recurring theme of the day was faster runners unfamiliar with route reovertaking having lost their way. It provided a regular reminder to keep focused on route finding and meant I shared the concluding miles with a runner who had already passed me three times. They had run a couple of extra miles in what was their first ultra and off-road event; they were keen to not add to that total and having established that I had experience of the route adjusted to my more sedate pacing to try and achieve that. Of course I immediately dented that misplaced confidence in my navigation skills by going the wrong way. Thankfully I quickly realised the error of ways and we were soon cantering down the finishing slope to rest weary legs, receive our super-duper “dog tag” finishing mementoes, enjoy a brew, and feast on ARWNWN’s traditional beanie stew with cheese topping and lush fresh buttered bread.
The day’s entertainment was not quite over though. With a table booked at the Quarrymans Inn for post-event feasting and rehydration, Sue and I were keen to be on our way home. Unfortunately I had left the lights on in the car when parking up in the morning. The ensuing flat battery provided one final hurdle to overcome. Thankfully that was eventually achieved; with the help of motorhome hero and their jump leads we just made our booking at the QMs; where the pie (not a lie) and beer provided a champion end to a day that ebbed and flowed as the best ones do.
With great thanks to: Andrew Wood for support on route; the jump lead hero; and, most of all, Neil Turnbull and all the Crooked Tracks team for a tremendous trio of ARWNWN outings.
I cannot remember exactly what it was that made me think that I could run 100 miles; it was certainly not before my first ultra (Escape from Meriden in November 2017) and it was not after the ill-fated Cotswold Way Century attempt in September 2018 that remains (hopefully forever) my most embarrassing race attempt at any distance to date. Therefore at some time in between those dates I have got it into my head that my chisel and grind style would be suitable for running extreme distances.
The 80 miles racked up (albeit as a timed-out DNF) in the Grim Reaper ultra in Lincolnshire last year gave that perception more credence and this year I had entered the Ring O Fire multi-day 135 mile race round Anglesey. Sadly the covid pandemic has put that back a year so I am eternally grateful to Mark Cockbain for putting up his ‘Unlocked Ultra’ challenge that enabled me to attempt 100 miles for some tangible reward (a bronze medal if I broke 28 hours).
The 50 mile attempt six weeks earlier turned out to be a good sighter for the 100 mile challenge. I had decided that Cherhill away run route should still be used but with the lane added, primarily to chop out a twelfth lap of the dreaded Calstone Climb but also in my mind was the desire to make the distance something akin to but still marginally harder than the Ring O Fire coastal course. Roughly speaking the days are split into 35, 65 and 33 miles so a 35 / 65 mile split would be noted.
I was slightly more organised this time, arriving at Cherhill 30 minutes earlier than I did for the 50 mile run. At around 9:20am on the August Bank Holiday Saturday I was on the startline and away. The weather was kind; sunny but unlike the July attempt not too hot.
The main issue on my mind in the early miles was how to avoid suffering the severe cramp that kyboshed the previous attempt going over 50 miles. In all honesty, I did not have a clue other than telling myself not to run any mile quicker than 10 minutes and using the lane to cut down the constant ascending and descending that I felt contributed to my downfall. Hence it was a pleasant surprise that the confidently predicted hip flexor, groin and hamstring tweaks failed to materialise in the first half of the race. 35 miles came and went in 8 hours 23 and 50 miles in 12 hours 41. Both were in my target time area so as I moved into the darkness laps things were going as well as I could reasonably expect.
Cherhill was reasonably busy during the day but it was back to its lovely remoteness during the evening and overnight. To that end I had enlisted the help of Carl; Dan; Julia and the Mackies as a messenger contact in case I ran into difficulties. I knew that one or two of them had it in mind to meet me at some stage for heckling purposes; what I did not expect was that they would all come over at some point and run all or part of a lap with me. I was conscious that the ‘Unlocked Ultra’ rules required me to be self supported and that they should not pace me; however I was extremely thankful for the company, particularly in the later laps when I was fading like butter on hot toast.
I have always been reasonably proficient with fuel in a race, never before citing it as a contributor to any deficiency in performance. However, I had never run entirely self-supported over such a long distance before. In hindsight running in a remote location proved to be a major disadvantage in that respect: I could not gain any access to hot food or drink when I needed it in the final quarter of the challenge and required the Mackies to bail me out in that regard.
Pre-race, I had surmised that the last darkness lap would be the most challenging and as long as I made it to sunrise the worst would be over. This was a critical error of judgement. The ninth lap began with sunrise at the opposite side to the course and, as at the Grim Reaper event the previous year, the dawn light prompted hallucination. At the far end of the stony track a massive flag of Northern Ireland (the Ulster Banner) that is used in Olympic events was draped across the course. I have no idea how my subconscious dredges this sort of stuff up but as I got nearer I realised the flag was in fact the same configuration of large puddles that were there for the previous eight laps.
I recollect hallucinations with wry amusement when reporting on them after the event but the reality here was that it was effectively the end of the road in terms of breaking the 28 hours. My strategy in the race was to walk the three large inclines (Morgan’s Hill; Poacher’s Croft and Calstone Climb) and to run or trot at sub-15 minute miles the rest of the loop. 74 miles in, at the top of Poacher’s Croft on the swing round to the Landsdowne monument I instructed my legs to run and the response was minimal. My speed had dropped from 18 minute miles – enough to squeak under the 28 hours – to 25 minutes. I had hit the dreaded wall. My mind became a sea of negativity and as I dropped down onto the lane I decided to extend the trudge on it so when I got back to the car I would be on 81 miles and could give up at my longest ever distance. I relayed a message to the gang saying I had stopped to nothing.
A mile later I had reached Calstone Climb and was marginally more positive in that I had decided I would rest in the car for a time and see if things improved. While I was pondering this strategy over, the Mackies came from the other direction. The fact that they had traipsed back to Cherhill must have pricked my conscience and as we met I had already decided to continue. Dave’s, let us say, choice words of encouragement further embellished that view and after a stoppage for food I was left with two and a bit laps to complete.
Three of the next seven miles were sub-20 minutes but they were ticking ever so slowly. I looked at my watch an inordinate amount of times but that served to frustrate further. For some reason Stuart Henderson’s comment in the previous week that the furthest he had run was 86 miles lodged in my mind and as I crept past that total I was slightly uplifted. At this point any semblance of positivity was gold dust as I had decided some time earlier that everything was falling to pieces. The truth of the matter was that my mind had fallen to pieces but save for a number of blisters on my feet the body was standing up to the task remarkably well, something I observed with frustration in the days immediately after the event.
I do not remember anything of the final lap at all other than it was dreadfully slow and painful. The Mackies had stuck with me throughout the final 20 miles but they kindly offered to let me run the final couple of miles – a shuttle along the path that did not take in any hills – myself. I recognised a couple from one of the houses on my post round going the other way and shouted hello to them; little did they know I was on my ninety-ninth mile! There were plenty of people on that path, all seemingly there to get in the way but I eventually neared the final stretch where the Mackies were there shouting ‘Sprint Finish!’ I said ‘OK’ and did! Legs not so tired after all! The last 25 miles had taken nearly 10 hours to complete and I crossed the line (right next to the car) in just under 30 hours and 37 minutes; thus the final 65 miles had taken over 22 hours. Not ideal given I have only 18 hours to complete the second day of the Ring O Fire but at least I can rest overnight in that event.
A couple of weeks later I marshalled one of Mark’s events (the White Horse 100) and was lucky enough to meet and thank him. I confessed (much to his amusement) that I was operating a ‘me versus him’ strategy and for each mile that I noticed was under 16 minutes I was saying to myself ‘one to me there Cockbain…’ but unfortunately although I was just ahead on points at mile 75 he then landed the knockout blow.
There is a lot of room for improvement, not least in the fueling and mindset over the last 20 miles but I can now say that I have managed to run (walk/ shuffle / stagger) 100 miles. After all, it apparently counts so long as it is on Strava.
Event: Unlocked Ultra (Target of 50 miles in 12 hours or less) Date: 20th July 2020 Result: DNF – Missed Cut-Off
It is fair to say that the last 15 months have not been my finest running period. Back injury, plantar fasciitis and hip flexor issues had me on the treatment table more often than out on the trails or road but thanks to Jane Clarke for firstly sorting the back and then (along with Andrew Wood) for putting up strength and conditioning exercises on the club Facebook page I began to string together some weeks without being injured. Indeed, after a 22 mile practice run I felt confident enough to have a go at the ‘Unlocked Ultra’.
The Unlocked Ultra is the brainchild of Mark Cockbain, a race director that thrives on setting exceptionally challenging ultra events. The Tunnel Ultra (yes the 200 mile one in Bath, forward and backward, forward and backward) would be his best known one in this area. I was casually flicking through his Facebook events page (memo to self – think twice before doing this again) where I noticed he had set two challenges during the lockdown period.
One was the ‘Accumulator’ where you simply start from the 1st of the month running one mile, two on the second and so on up to 30 or 31 miles on the 30th or 31st depending on the month you choose to run in. I was not keen on the challenge the back end of a month would pose so chose the Unlocked Ultra. The format is similar to the Escape from Meriden race that Dan and I attempted in 2017, the further you run, the higher the reward; you get a ‘wood’ medal for running 50 miles in 12 hours; ‘bronze’ for 100 in 28; ‘silver’ for 150 in 48; ‘gold’ for 200 in 60 and ‘legend’ for 300 in 120. Silver upwards are for the Damian Halls of this world but despite my weekly mileage being relatively low I fancied the 50 in 12 hours with an option to up it to 100 if I was feeling strong enough.
The rules were simple: you picked your own route and had to be self-supported. Many competitors chose their house as a base; I decided that the temptation would be too great after 30 or 40 miles to turn on the TV or find something else more relaxing. A dull flat route around the lanes was feasible but in the end I plumped for Cherhill, my favourite local route. Yes it has three stiff climbs per lap but I knew it like the back of my hand and I could organise laps where I could reach the checkpoint (my car parked in the Smallgrain Plantation car park) relatively frequently.
The days leading up to the attempt I was feeling a little nervous; I treated that positively as it indicated I cared about the outcome and would not give up at the first hint of trouble. Come the day, I took a little long getting all the gear and food loaded up and was only ready to start at 9:50am. This meant I had no wiggle room with darkness for the first part of the challenge.
I ran the first lap with no pack, reasoning it was an unnecessary burden for what would be an 8.25 mile loop. I decided to use the lane at Calstone Wellington for the early loops, calculating that the horrible Calstone climb only needed to be done six times for the 50 miles. Other than unnecessary dithering at the car the first few laps were uneventful; I noted with satisfaction that my time through 22 miles was identical to my practice run and I was set fair.
Bitter experience taught me that the first marathon or so is basically a warm up where you can get the miles on the board and things could quickly unravel at any stage thereafter. The first issue was that after the fourth lap, I realised that I did not bring enough water to fuel me for 100 miles. Therefore the 50 miles in 12 hours would now have to be the main goal and any miles achieved after that would be a bonus.
A bit like cricket, I use a ‘run rate’ method to continuously calculate what my speed is and what I need to do to meet the cut-off / target. When the required rate creeps up above 4 miles an hour (15 min/miles) it is a concern; above 5 (12 min/miles) and it is a serious issue. By running the downhill / flat sections as best I could I was keeping in touch – but eventually the equation was 7 miles left in an hour and 20 minutes. At this point I was in the first field leading down to the church and realised that the only hope I had was to ditch the Calstone Climb and accept a fate of doing a shuttle run along the lane for the best part of 6 miles. My tired mind was just coming to terms with the forthcoming tedium when my legs cut a swathe through the plan by completely seizing up, presumably with severe cramp. Reduced to a 2.5 mile an hour walk, the task was hopeless. Dan had promised to run the last part with me but unfortunately for him he had turned up at just the wrong time.
I decided to shelf the lane running and do a last short lap so the 50 miles would be completed just as I was back at my car so I need not run any further. Foolishly I did not bother collecting my headtorch for the short lap and although Dan was trying his best to keep my spirits up I was tired, frustrated, tottering round in darkness and just wanted to be back home. I did eventually complete the 50 miles in a shade over 13 hours.
So what next? The answer to me seems obvious; I am not quite fit enough to complete 50 miles in 12 hours round Cherhill so 100 miles in 28 hours is the revised aim. Or more realistically 100 miles in however long it takes. The lap has been revised so the lane is fully utilised and is now an 8.75 mile loop. I will be (hopefully!) six weeks fitter. The weather might be slightly cooler. I will bring enough water. I have now had a sighter and on August 29th (Bank Holiday Saturday) barring injury, the 100 mile attempt will be made.
Editor: To find out how Stewart got on for his second attempt, the report for that will be released at Midday on Thursday.
With a decent weather forecast, easing restrictions and a socially distanced format, the 2020 edition of the Four Fans Fell Race provided a welcome reason to head over the River Severn to the Brecon Beacons with Andrew Wood.
Event start/finish was on the hillside opposite the Storey Arms Outdoor Centre, the very popular launch point for wannabe ascensionists of the highest summit in the Brecons, Pen y Fan. Even before 9am parking was at a premium. On the plus side, the Storey Arms burger van was open and provided an “old school” pre-race feeding opportunity.
Always a “no bells; no whistles” event with a small number of entrants, the 2020 Four Fans was even more austere than usual. No marshals and just a sign-in process before hitting start on the MapRunF application (An app that uses SmartPhones for timing and route checkpoints, avoiding the need to put marshals out on the course) and heading in the opposite direction to the Pen Y Fan hordes.
Our first checkpoint was Fan Number 1, Fan Frynych, and the route initially followed a reasonable path that formed part of the Brecons Way. Navigation was not therefore a challenge in the morning hill cloud that was at least keeping the sun off. The temperature was, however,already ominously high, as was the humidity…
After a gentle uphill introduction on a well marked path, the more direct racing line to the first Fan required a bit of map and compass work but we picked up the “runners’ trod” without too much difficulty. The short out and back excursion to reach the summit trig point (A triangulation station, also known as a trigonometrical point, is a fixed reference point, often on hill and mountain summits, used in the past for map surveying. Typically marked by a four sided concrete pillar.) / checkpoint was duly reached without drama and in good fettle at this early stage. There was still a good way to go though.
As we headed further West the ground started to get a little rougher and the sun started to make its presence felt, burning off the morning cloud. The leg to the next checkpoint was a decent stretch which was enlivened by a brief but close sight of a family of mewing Peregrine Falcons.
With the cloud dispersing navigation became easier and brought the second Fan and checkpoint, Fan Nedd, into sight. A direct line to it provided some tussocky entertainment and colorful language but delivered us efficiently to the foot of the all too obvious climb to the summit. At these points I have found it is better to focus on the ground directly in front and establish a sustainable uphill rhythm; the summit, like Christmas, always eventually comes and provides delight.
Delight in this instance was the close proximity of the third Fan of the jaunt, Fan Llia; just a mile away. The mile unfortunately involved just under a 1000ft of down followed by the same up; it was time to disengage the brain and crack on. Apparently there is a runnable line off Fan Nedd. It eluded us however. We instead enjoyed some impressive tussocks that required some “high-stepping” action and robust vernacular to overcome. The lovely stream crossing at the bottom of the valley provided welcome and cooling refreshment ahead of the long climb to gain the height lost; such is the way of fell racing.
The summit of Fan Llia, and the third checkpoint was hard won. Expansive views of the Brecon’s Wild West were the reward. It also provided a route choice to the fourth and final Fan, Fan Fawr. The first and most direct option provided another steep, rough down and up, while the second offered a more runnable traversing line with less height loss. Having had our fill of down and up we elected for variety and took the second option. With the midday sun now beating down it certainly seemed a better choice with multiple stream crossings at the head of the valley providing opportunity to cool off. The subsequent uphill to Fawr’s summit provided a final morale tester ahead of a mercifully short but leg testing swoop back down to the route’s starting point at the Storey Arms.
There we collapsed gratefully on the grass and reflected on a cracking couple of hours tackling the Four Fans with nothing more to worry about other than the simplicity of getting round some points on the ground as swiftly and efficiently as possible in one piece. That achieved we withdrew for much needed refreshment after another tough but hugely satisfying and rewarding outing across the Severn Bridge.
PS. It was a time trial race and we were delighted to have bimbled round without getting lost and just avoiding the “relegation zone” end of the results table.
During lockdown I did a few virtual events, mainly because I liked the medals and thought they would be a good memento of a rather weird year. With no competition however I struggled to show any speed at all and so looked for other challenges to keep me motivated. I ran for 65 days on the trot and did 100 miles in a month, which was a lot for me, although I appreciate that some people do this distance in an event!! Then I saw the details of the Phoenix P24, The Longest Day – all you had to do was run 1 mile every hour on the hour for 24 hours, simple! It was apparently the first event of its kind ever run in the UK so always interested in doing something new I signed up, joined the Facebook group and started counting down the days until June 20. It surprised me how many people did sign up and the amount of runners who weren’t based in the UK. Regardless of where you resided however you had to run your first mile at 8am (UK time) and then every hour on the hour until 7am on 21 June.
I decided on 1.1 miles every hour so that would give me a marathon distance and was handy as the loop that I decided to run, during the hours of daylight, was exactly 1.1 miles. A video was posted on the FB group page of an American guy who had done something similar and he suggested having a list of 20 minute jobs, ie all those little things that you keep meaning to do but never get round to, to do during the downtime in between runs. He did actually make a garden table in between his runs but my carpentry skills aren’t up to that standard! I duly made a list of about a dozen jobs to do to keep me busy – one of the items was to make a shepherd’s pie and boy was I glad of this one the following day!
Fuelling was a big concern because although I was only running 1.1 miles it was going to be a long day and also I was planning on no sleep until I’d done! Regardless of how far I run I struggle with eating beforehand so knew I had to go for the little and often approach to avoid nausea but had to eat enough so I didn’t feel sick through lack of food! Therefore I stacked my ‘aid station’ with chocolate, squashies, crisps, more squashies (best post-run food ever!!), some cake and haribo. I was ready! The only other bit of prep I did was to set alarms for 5 minutes to the hour every hour just in case I got distracted and decided to make a garden table or fell asleep!
So the morning of the longest day arrived I dragged myself out of bed early so I could shove some toast down me, listened to the race brief on FB live and off I went on my first run. The weather was great for running and lap 1 was over before I knew I’d left the house! On about the 4th lap I saw one of my neighbours who thought she was seeing things as thought she’d seen me running a few hours ago. I quickly explained what I was doing and her response was ‘WTF?’
For the first 6/7 runs it was just a case of wait till the top of the hour, press the Garmin, run, home, next item on my to-do list, wait for the alarm to go off and repeat!
The race director had suggested several themes for a few runs to alleviate the boredom – 2pm was a family run, 8pm beer run, midnight fancy dress. Now my kids have both left home so my husband, who I have never seen run in 20 years of knowing him, took it upon himself to accompany me for the 2pm run. With all due respect he did make it without stopping but don’t think it will become a regular thing as he declared he would be sticking to fishing in the future and leave me to do the running.
7pm was the halfway point and this lap was run to Bon Jovi on repeat:
Woah, we’re half way there Woah, livin’ on a prayer Take my hand, we’ll make it I swear Woah, livin’ on a prayer
I admit that I joined in very loudly with Jon’s dulcet tones which must have been a joy to anyone who was out walking at the same time but hey ho I was halfway there. From the FB group there were people all round the world doing exactly the same!
I had my chestlight ready for the darker hours and a route – basically back and forth outside my house. I live in a hamlet with no street lights so my lap was ok during the hours of light but creepy as hell in the pitch black. So 10pm was the last proper run I did and then 11pm saw me don my lights and off I went – now at this point everything was stiffening up; the distance I was running wasn’t very far however the stop/start nature of the challenge was playing havoc with my tired, old body!! I had also overestimated the distance from my house to the pull in at the end of the road and trying to run and see the time (without my reading glasses!) was difficult!
My husband went to bed and left me to it after my 11pm run so it was just me, the dogs and Netflix until the following morning. I don’t think I’ve ever drunk so much tea during the night before – I was struggling to stay awake and to find something decent to watch on the TV, the time before each run seemed to be getting longer and longer as well!
It started raining in the early hours of the morning and I can assure you that putting cold waterproofs back on is not a pleasant experience. I did discover that my elderly neighbours have pink flamingos and other weird stuff in their garden which they illuminate at night – unfortunately because of the rain and tiredness I didn’t take any photos. I also discovered that the pull in at the end of the road is used by canoodling couples and at 3am I’m not sure who was the most surprised when I ran past them – they perhaps thought I was some kind of pervert with my lights….
At 4am I could see dawn approaching from the east and I knew the end was nigh – only 3 more to go! The support on the FB group throughout the night was excellent with virtual marshals encouraging us and I don’t think I would’ve completed without them.
I can only loosely describe my last 3 outings as runs – everything was stiff and achy and I must have looked like a geriatric running. I just wanted to sleep. 7.11am and I was done – time for breakfast which tasted fantastic as all I’d really eaten was sugar for the previous 24 hours. Then it was time for bed.
After a few hours sleep I got up, did some washing and came to appreciate how many shorts/t-shirts/pairs of socks/sports bras I actually possessed and had worn during the duration of the challenge. I’d worn the same trainers throughout though even when they were soaking wet – it’s not like I’ve only got 1 pair so I can only blame it on sleep deprivation.
By midday I was absolutely ravenous and was so grateful for the shepherd’s pie I made. I uploaded my results on to the internet and I was done – time to kick back and wait for the medal to arrive. I have included a photo of Bruno, one of my Rottweilers, wearing the medal as he is a significantly more photogenic than me and did run about 100 yards with me!
I really enjoyed the challenge and have to admit to those 24 hours being one of my most productive in a long time. There’s another P24 scheduled for October when the clocks change again but I might only do the 12 hour one then!
If you want to watch the American guy’s video of his 24 hour challenge you can find it at YouTube Link
Since P24 I’ve also done their M25 Vultra which was running the equivalent of the M25 – 117 miles and you could pick the length of time you wanted to complete in, from 1 day to 30, (needless to say I picked the 30 day option and it took me 24) and the 7 in 7 which was any distance you wanted but you had to run for 7 days on the trot!
I’ve also done the ‘Run 8K with a mate’ charity run for the Samaritans – this was with my daughter Nats and as she’d been the last person I’d run with on the day that lockdown was announced it was fitting that she was the first person I went out with again!
Running has kept me sane this year and it’s been nice to get back to some club sessions over the last few weeks – really need some effort/tempo sessions now though before I lose any speed that I might once have possessed.
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.