Category Archives: Races

Battling the brambles Harold’s way

The little known true history of the Norman conquest. An expedition into the wilderness to uncover the real reasons the Anglo-Saxon army of King Harold were defeated in October 1066.

Background

King Edward the Confessor died on 5th January 1066 with no heirs. A council of Anglo-Saxon noblemen (the Witan) was convened and chose Harold Godwinson, Edward’s son-in-law, as his successor and he was duly crowned. However there were three other claimants to the throne – his brother Tostig Godwinson; Harald Hardrada the Norwegian King; William Duke of Normandy.

King Harold was anticipating an attack from William of Normandy, so was stationed with his army in the south of England.

However in the late summer of 1066 Hardrada lead a Norwegian army into England. They joined forces with Tostig and prepared to attack York. After defeating a small English army at the Battle of Fulford, they captured York.

Harold and his army headed north, making the journey from London to York (185 miles) in only four days, and catching Hardrada off guard. They surprised the Norwegian army and defeated them at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25th September. Both Hardrada and Tostig died in the fighting.

Harold’s victory celebrations were short lived. Three days later the Norman army of William landed on the beach at Pevensey Bay. Harold turned his troops round and marched back to London and then on to the south coast and into battle again at the Battle of Hastings. 500 miles on foot for the entire army in just 2 weeks!

Not since Pheidippides’ epic trip from Athens to Sparta and back and then to Marathon and back has such an endeavour taken place. Pheidippides’ heroics have been honoured in the equally epic ultramarathon “Spartathlon”, and now finally we have a race to honour King Harold and his Anglo-Saxon warriors. The 1066 100

The race is a collaboration between Richard Weremiuk and Mark Cockbain, and surprisingly, given their reputations, only replicates the final stage of the march. The 100 miles from London to the site of the battle of Hastings – Battle Abbey. No doubt they are still planning the full version: London to York, York to London, London to Battle…

The race start

The race has a 9am start so I was able to get a train into London and out to Barnes rather than pay for an expensive hotel. Registration was a two minute affair – no need for a kit check. The joint RDs wanted to keep it simple – no mandatory kit and only two rules: no pacing, no hiking poles. Chainmail, swords and battleaxes were not required, although a machete would have been useful – more on that subject later. The route was not going to be marked with tape, but there were new 1066 “Harold’s Way” waymarks, and a GPS file of the route had been shared with all competitors. We were advised we would need it. They weren’t wrong.

The start was Barne Elms sports ground, and to help thin out the field before leaving we had to do a lap of the cricket pitch before heading out onto the road. I had positioned myself in the vanguard. After a couple of hundred meters we joined the Thames Path. The route would have us follow this all the way to Crayford, some 30 miles to the East. Mostly the Thames Path is easy to follow, but there are a few sections where it diverts away from the riverside. Fortunately I work in London, and many lunchtime runs have been by the river. From Battersea Park to the Isle of Dogs felt like my home patch. I even ran right past the office after 11 miles.

Checkpoint One was 15 miles into the race at a primary school, and our first chance to re-provision. I had to stop and use the toilets – running in the woods you can go anywhere, but not so easy in central London. It was already warm and it would be another 20 miles before the next CP, so I filled the 1.5l bladder in my pack as well as two 500ml soft flasks for the front pockets. Did the Anglo-Saxon warriors have race vests, or just a pig’s bladder toed over the shoulder? Such questions would haunt me all day.

The bit in the middle

Straight after CP one I had to cross the Thames via the Greenwich Foot Tunnel. Clearly the race was taking a few liberties with historical authenticity at this point, but I suspect this part of Harold’s Way is now the A2, and not much fun to run along.

I ran most of the next section on my own, catching and passing a couple of runners along the way. It was flat and an easy trail down to the Thames Barrier, and then beyond before a rather dull concrete path looping around various industrial units, until finally reaching the Crayford marshes and heading inland along the Darent River. There were a few guys riding motorcross bikes around, and chucking up clouds of dust. Not something Harold’s boys would have been bothered by.

Checkpoint 2 was outside the church in Dartford, and I only stopped briefly to refill my flasks with water. I was running in third place at this stage, but already struggling with my longtime injured left Achilles, and taking longer walk breaks to try and manage the issue.

In Darenth village I had a very pleasant surprise. As I walked up Wood Lane, I saw my children shouting at me. I hadn’t expected to see them so early in the race, but Sarah had driven out to find me, complete with a hamper of fruit and sandwiches. She even had some ice, so I shoved some under my hat to help keep me cool. They offered to meet me at Istead Rise, another 5 miles further on, with an iced coffee. While iced coffee is also not strictly historical, Harold’s army did this journey at the end of September, not early July, and with no Global Warming to bother them i’m sure the weather was perfect.

When I reached Istead, they were waiting with more food and a delicious iced coffee from Costa. The next section was one of the most scenic of the day – through the village of Cobham, then the woods and Ranscombe Nature Reserve. As I jogged through the woods I heard a bellowing grunt from the undergrowth, which spurred me into a much faster run up the hill than I would normally try. A thousand years ago these same beasts roamed the land, and although I couldn’t see it I kept running hard despite the gradient. A picture of the beast is below…

It was only a few more miles to Rochester and Checkpoint 3 at the castle. Rochester Castle was built by the Normans, after Harold’s journey, so I’m sure when he rested here it was very different. Sarah and the children were here again, along with the CP volunteers. I picked up my headtorch, and more food from my drop bag, but only stayed a couple of minutes. I knew from here the route would follow the North Downs Way up to Blue Bell Hill, so was expecting a bit of a hike.

After leaving the NDW I had a couple of minor navigation errors. I had the GPX file of the route loaded to my Garmin, and was following it, but there were a couple of places where I took the wrong turn where the path forked, and either had to back track, or work my way back to the trail around the edge of a field. Finally I crossed over the M20 and turned down to Allington Locks. I’d asked Sarah to meet me here at the Malta Inn. Sure enough she was there, and my mother and sister had also come out to the pub for dinner and to meet me. There was also a group supporting another runner (Michael), who was now about a mile ahead of me in 2nd place, so a lot of cheering when I arrived.

I stopped to change into some fresh clothes for the night, and enjoy a quick snack. Sarah had ordered me a pint, and mum had a couple of pork pies for me to take. After stopping for 5 minutes I said goodnight to the kids as it was getting late. The beer was a DNF! A half pint would have been enough.

Running on the riverbank with a head torch on was attracting all the bugs so I had to go slow and breathe through my nose or risk a mouthful of insects. Someone was setting off fireworks as I ran through Maidstone town centre. They had a box full of them firing off on the footpath, but finished just as I got there, so I only had to deal with the smoke.

Crossing Tovil bridge there was an ad-hoc aid station, offering food and drink, and another surprise – the kids had persuaded Sarah to let them stay up a little later, so they were all there wishing me good luck for the night section – top crewing!

The night section

Leaving Tovil, there was a climb up the road, and my Achilles was throbbing again, so I walked up. I was having a bit of a low moment, when a cheery voice called out from a parked van, offering a cup of tea. I decided to stop and accept this offer. He was crewing for his wife Helen, and I’d seen him a few times on the route. Helen was apparently just behind me, and sure enough by the time I finished my tea she had arrived. We set off together, and it was good to have some company on the next few miles into CP 4 at Park Wood. Chatting helped take my mind off my injury worries and we made fairly good time.

I asked for another tea at the checkpoint, and told Helen I would catch her up. However when I left the CP, I almost immediately got lost. The directions I’d been given at the CP didn’t tally with the GPX file on my watch and it took a few minutes to work out where I was and get back on course. See below for my aimless wandering in the wood…

My route south via CP4…

Now on track I picked up the pace, trying to catch Helen. I wasn’t chasing for a race position, so much as wanting to run with someone for a while. A mile and a half further on I entered an orchard, keeping the hedge on my right hand side. Soon I saw a headtorch moving on a track below me off to the right. Assuming it was Helen I called out, but it wasn’t her, it was Michael who had gone off course and was trying to find the correct route. I climbed down through the hedge to join him and help work out where we were. Both our GPS devices showed us off the route, so we circled around the orchard looking to get back on the path. Eventually the dot on the watch screen intersected the line showing the route and we were on track. We turned right and broke into a run to make up lost time. Chatting away we carried on running for a good 15 minutes until we saw another head torch coming down the lane towards us.

Round the orchard and then north again!

We stopped him to tell him he was going the wrong way. He wasn’t. I couldn’t believe him when we said we were running north towards Maidstone, but after double checking on the Viewranger app on my phone, it became obvious we had rejoined the path in the orchard and then run the wrong way.

Slowly the three of us trudged up the hill. I think Michael and I were both feeling rather despondent. Our new buddy Chris, probably couldn’t believe he had made up two race positions so easily.

We continued on together for a while now. It started raining as we entered Staplehurst, so we stopped to put jackets on, and carried on. However the walk breaks were now getting longer and more frequent. You could say we were walking with short run breaks. All three of us had independently checked out the section from Staplehurst to Battle and knew is was a 6.5 hour run with fresh legs, so would be at least 8 in the dark and with 70+ miles in the legs.

There were no major navigation issues after Staplehurst. We had to stop and double check the route a few times, and were pleasantly surprised that a few hay meadows had been cut and the route was a little easier than when we ran it before. A few of the really nasty bits had even been changed – the route modified by sympathetic Race Directors! We arrived at the Sissinghurst checkpoint (CP 5) together, and only stayed a few minutes before heading out. The sky was slowly get brighter now, despite the persistent rain, and it wasn’t long before we could pack away the head torches. We were making slow progress still and starting to wonder why no one had caught us, when a pair of fresh looking runners came up behind us, and shot passed as we went through a hop garden.

The final stretch

The final checkpoint was due to be at Bodiam Castle, but we were told that because of the rain had been moved to the village hall at Sandhurst. The three of us ran in together at 7am. Only 12 miles to go! Michael told us not to wait for him, as he wanted to take a few minutes and sort himself out. Chris and I were about to leave when Sarah arrived. She had woken up early and heard the rain so driven down with fresh dry kit and a thermos. The racedrone tracker had helped her find me. Chris ran on while I took some food for the final stage and a fresh hat.

I thought I would catch Chris, but he was obviously enjoying a second wind and was out of sight. I ran the next mile or so, with no walk breaks but didn’t see him. As I ran down to Bodiam Castle I could see him in the distance making his way around the field over the river. I carried on towards Seddlescombe, and as I jogged down through a field towards the village, I heard a car passing slowly in the lane behind the hedge. A quick glance was enough to recognise the family car, so at the next stile I climbed over and flagged them down. Sarah and the children were in the car with a takeaway coffee. A Costa never tasted so welcome. It was only a mile to the village, so I decided to walk and enjoy the coffee, and I would see them there to return the empty cup.

I knew the last 3.4 miles from Seddlescombe to the finish would be grim. When I ran the section a month earlier it was very overgrown, and sure enough it still was. I walked most of it, ducking under brambles, trying to dodge nettles and thistles, but still getting scratched to shreds and stung to bits. The mad dash across the A21 was only slightly life threatening, and then more nettles before starting the climb up to Battle itself.

The final mile is a bit of a slog, up the hill to Battle. However I eventually made the climb and broke into a jog down Mount Street, before the final left turn onto the High Street. It was still very quiet in the town although it was after 10am by now. The peace was quickly shattered when my two children spotted me and ran down to greet me then jog the final few meters to the finish line at the doorway to the abbey.

With the best support crew

I finished in a time of 25hrs, 18 minutes in 6th place. This was my slowest ever ‘100’ mile race, but with the extra detours I took, it was also my longest ‘100’ mile race at 110 miles.

The End

King Harold died at the end of his ultramarathon. In fact so did Pheidippedes… these long foot races may not be good for your health! History tells us that Harold was shot in the eye with an arrow from a Norman archer. However history is written by the winners, so this established truth needs to be questioned and re-assessed. The account by William of Poitiers is very flattering about the strength and bravery of the Norman army. However this overlooked text from the Anglo-saxon chronicles is worth examining:

Harold was informed of this (the invasion) and he assembled a large armie and came against him at the hoary apple-tree. Much weakened by bramble and thistle, inflamed by nettle and sore of foot the armie rested atop Senlac ridge.

And William came against him by surprise before his army was drawn up in battle array. But the king nevertheless fought hard against him, with the men who were willing to support him, and there were heavy casualties on both sides.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicles- British Library

A recently discovered section of the Bayeux Tapestry clearly shows Harold and his army’s struggles to reach the battlefield, before their final demise.

Recently discovered fragment of the Bayeux Tapestry

Many thanks to Mark and Richard for putting on this race. While the terrain looks benign, it’s a tough challenge, but an enjoyable one. Thanks also to all the volunteers who make these events possible, and to the runners i met and spent time with on the journey.

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Crawley A.I.M. 24hr Race

We drove the short distance to Crawley on Saturday morning, arriving at 10:30 and soon set up our gazebo. Sarah was going to crew for me all night, while the children were staying for the start and then getting collected by my sister and mother later in the afternoon. There were plenty of familiar faces from Spartathlon and other races, so the atmosphere was very relaxed, and i was still pinning my race numbers on a couple of minutes before the start.

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At exactly 12:00 we were off. I was planning on running at a steady 9:15 minute/mile pace for the first few hours and had worked out that was 2:18 per lap. I was very happy to hit that number on lap 1, but it felt very restrained, and i had to focus on keeping the pace slow. 

The 6 hour race started at the same time as the 24 hour race I had entered, so it wasn’t long before the race leaders were lapping me. One of my goals was to try and be really disciplined with nutrition – to eat every 30 minutes during a short walk break, and Sarah had a detailed plan to what to offer up. The children were a great help here, running across to the infield and handing me a sandwich / gel / drink etc. For a while they were also counting off my laps each time i passed the gazebo… 90, 91, 92 etc. This was a little too much, but fortunately they soon bored of that game.

Time goes very slowly on the track. Every 400 meters you pass a large clock, and although i tried hard not to look at it, it seemed like only a couple of minutes had passed every time i looked up. Despite this things were not at all dull. The race was quickly getting strung out with the leaders pushing a few kilometers ahead on the board, but still never more than 200 meters ahead or behind. It was easy to fall into step with someone, share a few laps and a chat, and that really helped the time pass.

My right knee started getting uncomfortable after about 3 and a half hours. I had picked up an injury in training about three weeks before the race, so had backed off with my training – forced into an early taper. A diagnosis of bursitis triggered by tight quads was followed by some massage to loosen the muscles and ultrasound and icing of the knee. Everything seemed to be on the mend, but i’d not had a rigorous test until race day.

After four hours on we track, we were asked to reverse direction – as a track newbie i had no idea how this would work, but it was really simple. There were timing mats on the start line, and a couple of race marshalls stood on the line and asked us to loop around them and head back the way we came, staying out in lanes two and three until all runners on the lap had reversed. It was all very easy, and it actually felt great to have changed direction. My knee felt better and everything seemed to be fine again.

One of my goals was to keep moving at all times, and my only stop in the first 5 hours was a quick toilet break. I was taking on food and drink during walk breaks and never needing to stop. However, five hours in and my knee was getting sore again. With 30 miles run this is typically when I have a low patch. I regularly give up running for ever and this point in the race.

There was a first aid tent by the timing mats, so i decided to stop for a few minutes and get some treatment on my leg. Lindley Chambers was looking after the first aid tent, so massaged my quad to try and free it up a little before taping the knee. I told Sarah I’d push on for a bit and see how it felt.

Looking at the timing sheet i was running steady 2:20 laps at this stage, which fits with my memory of feeling much better. The six hour race was also keeping me entertained, as i could check the leader board and look out for the lead runners. Several had started to pick up the pace and push for the last thirty minutes, and there was even a sprint finish or two as the clock clicked on towards 6:00:00.

The weather had been cold all day. We even had a hail shower, but it only lasted ten minutes. However with my personal aid station never more than 2 minutes away I had manged to grab a jacket and stay warm and dry. However once the sun had dipped behind the leisure centre building and we were in shadow it was getting very cold.

Sarah bought me a hot noodle soup, and i kept moving – 30 minutes run, then walk and eat.  After seven hours on track my knee was sore again, and even feeling wobbly – like it would collapse on me. The strapping was now irritating and making it feel worse, so for the first time i stopped by my drinks table and sat in the chair to rip the tape off. I was starting to wonder if continuing was a good idea, but i wasn’t ready to stop.

There is also a 12 hour race at Crawley, and that was scheduled to start at 8pm. I saw a few runners arriving and getting set up, and knew it would be getting busy on the track soon. We were due to change direction again at 8pm, so i wondered how that would work with the race start, but again it was simple. At ten minutes to eight the race marshalls were back on the start line, instructing us to turn. Three minutes later we were all heading round the track in the traditional anticlockwise direction and a few minutes later the 12 hours runners were lining up on the outside of the track for their start.

Fifteen minutes later i decided to stop. The knee pain was back, but more significantly i could feel it was affecting my gait, both when running and when walking. The most obvious sign was a blister developing on my heel where i never normally get them, but also my hip was feeling the strain. I stopped and told Sarah that i didn’t want to risk further injury and would stop soon. I asked her to check the timing to see how many laps i’d done – 191.

No point quitting until i hit 200, so after a couple of minutes rest i was back on the track, and counting down the last couple of laps.

200 and done!

Quitting when i did meant we were home and warm before midnight.

Why did i DNF?

On a scale of 1 to 10 I doubt the pain in my knee ever exceeded a 4. However after GUCR in 2017, I am scared of getting an injury that will stop me running for any length of time. What made me decide to stop was the realisation that i couldn’t maintain a good running form, and the knowledge that limping to the finish would risk more injuries. There was also the knowledge that it was already really cold, and forecast to get worse. Asking Sarah to sit out in the freezing weather all night, while i smash out an epic performance is one thing, but this was going to be a slow miserable grind, and way short of any target i would be proud of.

Thanks to the organisers and volunteers for putting on a great race.

Photographs by Jon Lavis, Anna & William Barker

Spartathlon -wet and windy

10k to go and it’s 2:30 in the afternoon. It’s an easy downhill from the Shell station, then a left turn and along to the Evrotas bridge, before the final mile and a half into the centre of Sparta and the statue of King Leonidas. A jog / walk would see me finished in another hour and a quarter.

It had been raining constantly since 7pm last night, but in the last couple of hours the wind had really picked up. Water was flowing up the road towards me, and broken branches littered the tarmac. Stronger gusts tried to blow me off my feet, and I was holding my hand in front of my face to protect myself from all the flying debris. I needed to run to stay warm, nearly tripped over my own feet as the wind blew me sideways, so resigned myself to walking. A fallen tree was blocking half the road, but a bulldozer was already trying to clear it away. I guess this is the only road to Sparta the local authorities were working to clear. The driver opened his cab door to shout at me. The wind took his words away, but I knew he was offering encouragement.

CP 73 came and went in seconds. No stopping now. Out of the hills the buildings offered some shelter from the wind, so I jogged for a couple of minutes. I suddenly had a panic I was going the wrong way. I looked around. The streets were deserted, no runners ahead or behind. I carried on for another minute, and a police car passed. He stopped, blocking a side road and waved me on. Eventually I saw the bridge and knew where I was. The pedestrian section was flooded with water ankle deep, but seemed safer than the road so I waded through, pausing to watch the muddy torrent flowing beneath the bridge.

CP74 was my final drop bag. A Union Flag for the finish. The checkpoint was abandoned, blown away by the storm. There was a bin bag by the side of the road and I could see runners’ numbers on bags inside, so rummaged through until I found mine. No child escort this year, but I had not been expecting one in the circumstances. I ran on up the main road. A few brave souls came out onto their balconies to cheer. I could see another runner a few hundred meters ahead, but no one behind. Perfect! Last time I’d had to queue at the finish, and this year I wanted King Leonidas all to myself. I could see the guy in front turn right, so walked up to the junction to give him some space. Finally I unfurled the flag, and turned onto the final avenue. A slow jog and a few cheers, but no crowds this year. Everyone was too tired, wet and cold. I heard a shout and looked up. Chris Mills and Paul Rowlinson were there cheering, and taking photos and video. I ran up to the steps and towards the plinth. My foot slipped on the bottom step and I nearly fell face first into the statue, but recovered. For a second time I could kiss the foot of the statue.

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Although I ran Spartathlon in 2016, it doesn’t feel like a repeat. This was not the same race, but a completely different experience.
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The Essex 30

With the Berlin Wall race in August and then Spartathlon looming large I was hoping for a warm race for some good hot weather training. Fortunately the British summer delivered and the race took place in bright sunshine and warm still air.

The 30 mile race is organised by Challenge Running and takes place in conjunction with a 100 and 50 mile race.

Route

The race route is an out and back, and starts at Felsted Village Hall. After a short road section it turns onto the Flitch Way (a former railway line, so straight and flat). After 4.3 miles there is a checkpoint at the old Rayne Station ( now the Booking Hall Cafe) and then you turn around and head back to Felsted. The 100 mile race is 12 laps, 6 for the 50 and 4 for the 30 mile version.

Race day

I drove up in a relaxed mood looking forward to a good long run. With the promise of a flat route I was aiming for a solid steady paced run. I had no real pace plan, but wanted to run to feel and try and be consistent and run with no walk breaks.

I’d not expected to know too many people here, but met up with Gill and Ian Thomas and then Paul Ali at registration so knew I’d have some good company on the route. Before long we were off. I’d been chatting with Ian before the start and found my self on the front row of the start. However Craig Holgate shot passed me and was soon disappearing into the distance. Another runner (Mark Prigg) also passed me, but then we settled into a steady pace toward the Flitch Way. The route itself has a fair bit of shade from the tree cover, but it was already warm at the 9am start and the temperature was building.

Picture of the strat line

Race Start

By the turn around point I had passed Mark, but Craig had pulled out a significant lead. I’ve seen Craig race before and knew he holds the course record, and he looked like he was trying to improve on it!

Out and back laps are often perceived as dull because you get the same scenery again and again, but I do enjoy seeing other runners during the race, and everyone seemed to have a huge smile on their face and offer encouragement to other runners.

The first lap went well, and I managed not to go out too hard. Back at Felsted and Gill offered to refill my flask while I ate some fruit. Ian was just behind me, and he was running the 100, but I knew his target time so expected him to be starting fast.

Lap two was much the same as the first. I’d been focused on not going too fast at the start, but now I was relaxed and in fact ran this lap a little faster. However it was getting hotter and by half way through lap 3 I was starting to regret my kit choice. I have a good waist belt with a 600ml bottle, but decided that the sloshing noise of water in a hard bottle would be annoying. Instead I picked a small waist belt with a 250ml soft flask. For the first couple of sections this was enough, but now I was finding 250ml wasn’t quiet enough for the 4.3 miles between checkpoints. At the end of lap 3 I had to fill my flask, drink it and refill before leaving Felsted, and when I got to the turnaround point I stopped for a good few minutes to drink before heading back.

Two miles from the finish I felt a sharp stabbing pain on the top of my left foot. I stopped immediately and saw a wasp trapped under the tongue of my shoe, with his stinger jabbing into my skin. After flicking it away, hopping up and down and swearing a bit, I hobbled on. Fortunately it didn’t seem to have done much damage so I managed to run in to the finish.

Results

I was happy with my performance and pacing and I ran the entire distance with no walk breaks, although a few stops to drink and beat off predatory bugs. So a good day out.

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My lap times were consistent until lap 4 where I dropped a lot of time, but. that was mostly non moving time. My running speed was solid all the way.

1st place and taking 6mins off his own CR was Craig Holgate in 4:02:09

I finished in 2nd place in 4:49:28

It took a couple of hours and several pints of water, two McDonalds milkshakes in the car, plus more milk and tea at home to rehydrate, but when I finally cracked open a beer I could reflect on a good race. Thanks to Lindley Chambers and the team at Challenge Running for putting on a great event, and I’ll be back for more in future.

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Weald Challenge 50km – the third time

I ran this race in it’s first year (2014), and again the following year. In 2016 I was there, but supporting Sarah who was running. Last year I ran GUCR, but decided for this year it was time to come back.

It was a beautiful morning when I left the house, and I’d been offered a lift by David Milloy who was running, so could relax as he drove down to the start.

Registration was quick and simple and we soon lined up for the race briefing. All the pre-race communications had warned that only the half marathon route would be marked, and the 50km runners would need to navigate (a run book and GPS files were provided). However during the briefing Stuart told us he had marked the full route, which was great news, and meant I would need to worry too much about navigation.

8am, and we are sent on our way. I set off at an easy pace and had decided to run on feel rather than check my pace on my garmin. In fact I ignored the watch for most of the run, only checking once an hour, so was very pleased to make it to half way, and the highest part of the route up in Ashdown Forest, in the time I had predicted.

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Running across the Forest with my support team

This meant Sarah and the children were there to cheer me on and offer to fetch me an ice cream from the van in King’s Standing car park. The weather was still perfect for running so i declined on this occasion. An hour or so later when it had warmed up, i’d have happily accepted.

After about 3 hours of steady running, it really started feeling warmer. I was carrying two 250ml soft flasks, but one was leaking badly, so I could really only carry about 250ml. I made sure i stopped and drank at the next check point as well as refill the flask.

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Temp chart from my Garmin Fenix

I’d planned to meet Sarah again at the Blackboy’s Inn, but shortly after leaving CP4 and climbing up to the road I saw Claire Milloy waving at me and then heard Sarah call out. A runner had collapse by the side of the road, and they were looking after her.

I later discovered this was the leading lady who was suffering badly with cramp. In the end she had to withdraw, and Sarah drove her back to the finish.

Shortly afterwards I caught up with a couple of runners from the half marathon race, and from the top of the next hill I could see the church steeple at Chiddingly. It was still some way off, but once I saw it I knew there was only of couple more fields to cross before the end.

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Crossing the final field – race on

The runner in front had twice looked over his shoulder at me, and I assumed he was struggling. If I see a runner looking back, I always take this as an invitation to race, and I knew once we hit the road for the last section I would have a chance to push hard and catch him. The last stretch is about half a mile but seems further as you have to run up the hill to the start line and then carry on for another couple of hundred meters to the school. I pushed hard, and manage to catch him with a hundred meters or so to spare, and then power passed to the line.

My Garmin says I ran the last half mile at 6:43 min/mile pace.

 

 

 

I’m very glad I did as this meant i once again managed a top 10 finish!

My 3 Weald Challenge Results

Times

Slower but still in the top 10.

Dark Star

Dark Star Brewing make some fabulous beers. At the moment I’m rather taken with their Cocoa Nut Porter (available from The Beer Boutique, Tunbridge Wells). They also sponsor the River Marathon put on by Sussex Trail Events. Its a 28 mile trail race along the banks of the River Adur, and on the Downs Link path, that passes directly in front of the brewery in Partridge Green.

I ran this race in 2015, and although the profile suggests it should be flat and fast, the fact that it’s January and mostly on the river bank, means its muddy and slow. I was in great shape in 2015, and finished in 3:47, but this year my longest training run has been 18 miles, so i knew it was going to get tough in the last 7 or 8 miles.

I was a little nervous, as this was my first race in over 6 months, and sure enough I made a few basic errors: too much wine the night before, too little breakfast, no pre-race kit photo for social media, starting too fast.

The start is at the Scout hut, and after crossing the river it’s straight onto the path along the bank. I guess they have improved the path since I last ran as the first mile or two were all paved or firm gravel and I was beginning to think I’d made a bad shoe choice. However soon enough the good trails ended, and it became the muddy track I remembered. When I saw a runner slip and slide a few times in his Altra shoes, I knew that the Inov8 Mudclaws were the right choice after all.

The race leader had shot off at a remarkable pace, and even though i was much slower I realised my pace was still too quick, but it felt good at the time. After 10 miles the route finally left the river path and hit the graveled Down Link path a number of people started passing me – i guess they were taking advantage of the better underfoot conditions, but i was happy with my own pace. Out and back routes can be a little dull, but i do like the fact you get to see the entire race spread out. Soon the leader was coming back toward me, chased hard by another and then a steady stream of runners. A mile of so further on, and I ran under the bridge and into the old West Grinstead Station for the turnaround check point and then back the way I had come.

The worst part of the route is  after leaving the Downs Link and rejoining the river bank. For two miles you have to run through the same churned mud that two hundred runners have already turned into a quagmire. However eventually I reached the bridge and crossed over the the other bank for the rest of the run.

 

 

By now i’d run 20 miles and was really starting to feel it. I walked for a minute or two while i ate a Nakd Cashew bar, and then started plodding toward the finish. First marathon in months, and i choose one that comes with free bonus miles. I needed a couple more short walk breaks, but finally reached the uneven concrete path and then end was in sight.

After hosing down my legs and shoes, I went into the scout hut for a superb bowl of chili washed down with a Dark Star Lager. I wouldn’t normally chose a lager, but it was very refreshing and was great with the food.

My finish time was 4:27:30 in 25th place

Results

  • 1st   Paul Sargent       3:40:48                           Ellie Morgan        4:14:52
  • 2nd Jonny Burke        3:44:19                           Lorna Spayne      4:17:10
  • 3rd Paul Perry            3:52:28                           Megan Lennox    4:28:44

 

The race photos were taken by Jon Lavis – thanks for your support on the course.

GUCR 2017

After crewing for Dan Park at last year’s race, I was determined to come back and run the Grand Union Canal Race myself. So when the ballot draw was an announced and I saw I had a place I was very excited, and determined to make this a key event for the year. The rest of my race plans for the year were structured to get me in shape to run well on the canal towpath.

However my training did not go to plan. In December I had to take a two week break brought on by plantar fasciitis, and all year has been a battle with my left foot and ankle. Some days it feels fine, but then the PF returns, or achilles pain flairs up. I ran Country to Capital in January, mostly to familiarise myself with the last part of the canal, and although my fitness wasn’t great the ankle held up. However when I tried to pick up the training the achilles flared up again.

So my training preparation looked like this:

img_2842

No consistency

Nothing like the consistent 250 mile months i’d been hoping for.

I reset my race goals, and mentally prepared for a 36 hour slog. Travelling up on Friday afternoon, gave me time to check into the Premier Inn and head over to race registration early. There were plenty of familiar faces, so I was soon chatting to a bunch of Spartathlon veterans, and heading to the pub for a meal and couple of beers.

I slept relatively well, and after sorting my kit, made my way to the start at 5:40. I had entered as a supported runner, so would have a crew. My children have been very keen to crew for me, so Sarah had agreed that she and the kids would crew during Saturday and Sunday, and I had a team from my running club lined up for the night shift. However they were not going to meet me until about 9:30 at Hatton Locks, so I was carrying enough food and water for the first 20 miles.

My plan was to run the first hour, and then walk 5 minutes, run 55 minutes and repeat… a lot. This would give plenty of time to eat during the walk breaks.

The 130 or so runners set off at 6 am on Saturday in beautiful conditions. I was running with Paul Beechey for a short while, but knew he would be going for the race win, so after the first couple of miles i dropped the pace a little to let him pull away img_2797and settled into a steady run with Alex Wherrity. He was also planning on a 55/5 so I ended up staying with Alex all the way to Tom o’the Woods where he met his crew.

It had started getting warm and humid very quickly but then a couple of rain showers at about 9am had freshened things up nicely and it was good conditions for running. The towpath was dry, and it wasn’t as hot as the forecasts had suggested.

After about 30 miles I could feel some discomfort in my ankle, but nothing serious. However I was visibly limping, as Russ Tullett pointed out when he saw me at one of the crew meeting points.

My support crew, Sarah, Anna and William, were meeting me every few miles, keeping me supplied with food and drink, so I didn’t need to carry much now and had ditched my race vest in favour of a small belt and hand held bottle. I obviously need to practice using the hand held though, as I nearly drowned myself. I struggled to get any water from it, so gripped firmly in two hands and squeezed. The jet of water hitting the back of my throat was enough to set off my gag reflex and bring me to a spluttering halt on the path.

 

40 miles in, and i started considering whether or not i would finish. My ankle was hurting more, but i decided to put my iPod on, and hope the music would distract me. It did, but not in the way i hoped. The damn device was stuck on repeat, so insisted on playing the same track over and over until I manually picked another track. Fortunately I found a 40 minute house music mix to listen to for a while. At Braunston Junctionimg_2800 the instructions say to cross bridge 95 to RHS of canal, or cross at the double iron bridge just after. I chose the later option, but heard a shout from behind. It was Paul Ali ensuring I took the correct turn and didn’t end up on the Oxford branch running to Coventry. I was feeling a little sorry for myself at this point, so just waved from the bridge and let Paul go ahead.

I saw Paul go into a shop ahead of me and knew he was stopping for an ice cream. Sam and I had bought one for Dan here last year. I carried on, and found Sarah at the Admiral Nelson, where she had a cup of tea for me. The iPod frustration had distracted me from the ankle, so I said I would carry on to CP4, The Heart of England pub. If I was going to stop, I wanted to do it before the night crew set out. No point having them drive to Milton Keynes just so i could quit there.

On the next leg I caught up with Ian Thomas and walked a short section with him. I think Ian has had more injuries than me this year, so was struggling with fitness, but was in good spirits and determined to make it to the finish. My chat with him inspired me to keep going, and I banished any further thoughts of a DNF.

At about 19:30 I finally arrived at Navigation Bridge (70.5 miles done). This was only about 30 minutes behind my plan, so despite the problems I was still making good progress. My support crew was changing over here, so while I sat and ate some of the soup they had made for me, I said goodbye to the family. They were going to get dinner and check into a hotel for the night while the new team (Claire Hayhurst, Carol Tsang and Steve Barnfield) took over. After a few minutes rest, Steve and I set off. After eating, I wanted to walk the next mile, before breaking into a gentle run along the canal. The plan was to meet up every few miles to swap support runners, and keep eating and drinking.

We were soon heading into Milton Keynes, and this was a surprisingly nice section. There are no roundabouts on the canal! It was getting dark at this point, and my right leg (my good leg!?) was starting to hurt now, with pain at the front of the shin. At the next meeting point (Peartree Bridge), I sat down while Claire used some massage treatment to relieve the pain, I also switched into some warmer clothes for the night section and put on my head torch.

Bridge 99 is a major checkpoint at mile 85. Rod was here, with a badger that may have been dressed as James Adams, but people hallucinate in this race, so who knows. The volunteers had a can of freeze spray which they gave me, so after more treatment on the shin, I was soon off again.

The walk breaks were becoming longer and more frequent. In fact it would be fair to say i was walking with some run breaks, but I was enjoying the route and the company. There is quite a variety of wildlife on the canal. during the morning I’d seen duck, geese and swans all with their fluffy young. At night it was bats, frogs, hedgehogs and foxes.

The crew meeting point at 90 miles was good. The crew had parked in Tesco car park, right by the canal. The car was under a floodlit covered area, so the crew had a camp stove out for hot coffee which I drank while Claire once again pummeled my right shin.

Running along the canal is generally very easy, with a good tow path, and no real navigation required. However between 98 and 105 miles it was tough. There is a fork in the canal at Marsworth Junction. My notes said this was 1.5 miles after bridge 127. Claire and I ran passed the bridge, but 2 miles later had still not seen the junction. We walked on slowly looking in vain for the British Waterways office where we should bear right. After 2.5 miles, and starting to get a little concerned, we phoned Carol – no answer. We phoned Steve who eventually answered. I think we had woken them but it must have been 2am, so it wasn’t unreasonable for them to be having a powernap. I was carrying a small tracking beacon, so they were able to confirm that we were still on the red line representing the race route. We then deployed every navigationally challenged runners friend – Google Maps and followed the directions to the next main checkpoint. The Grand Junction Arms is at 100 miles, and there were at least 4 runners cocooned under blankets, who looked like they were out for the count. It felt a bit creepy and i didn’t want to hang around, so drank a quick cup of tea and left.

At the next lock gates we met up with Steve and Carol. Steve and I ran on for the next few miles. At this point the canal is cutting across a number of fields, and the tow path was just long wet grass. In places it was very narrow where the hedges were growing towards the canal. Not wanting to trip and fall in we slowed down and walked most of this.

I was surprised how light the sky was getting even at 03:45. It is a great feeling to run through the night and watch the sky lighten and the sun start to rise, and it normally inspires me to push on. However by now my right shin was really very sore.

I arrived at Boxmoor Bridge, Hemel Hempstead (mile 108.5) just after 6am, running with Carol. The crew had set up by the lock gates, and had a chair for me as well as food.

My shin was very painful, and my change in gait had caused a few blisters. With 37 miles still to go I decided to stop and fix my feet. Taking my shoes and socks off was very much a team effort. I couldn’t reach my feet well enough or see where the blisters were so my poor crew had to lance the blisters and tape my feet. Putting clean socks and shoes on was a serious challenge. I did plenty of howling while Carol and Claire tried to help me put a shoe on my right foot. The level of pain had definitely increased, and in the daylight, there was an obvious dark skin discoloration on my shin. This was getting concerning, but I was determined to get to the next checkpoint at Springwell Lock as Sarah and the children had arranged to meet me there, and take over support crew duties for the final push to the finish.

It was now Steve’s turn to run with me, so the two of us set off. Me hobbling, while Steve walked behind. We followed the tow path under the bridge, but only made it 50 metres beyond, before I stopped. I was used to pain in my left Achilles, but the pain in my right shin was far worse. It hurt like it was broken. “Can you break a leg just by running?”. We retreated back to the lock gates. I think everyone knew my race was over, but it still took some time to accept the idea. They propped my leg up, put ice packs on it, and made me more noodle soup. As I cooled down and started shivering I was wrapped in blankets, while we waited for Sarah and the children to come and fetch me. After an hour i called the RD to inform them i was dropping out, but safe and my crew woukd take me home.

I was practically carried to the car, and then driven home. After a shower, cooked breakfast and a couple of hours sleep, I was still in considerable pain, so I went to A&E for an X-ray. No fracture, but the doctor had no idea what the problem might be. I don’t think she entirely believed my explanation that I run 108 miles. At least they gave me some crutches to help me move.

At least I have a new personal record. 108 miles is my longest distance for a DNF. I’ve also learnt a lot from the experience.

Knowing the pain of failure, and that injury lurks just around the corner, will make my next race finish all the sweeter. I can’t wait for that feeling again. However first i need to let my body fully recover. Not until i’m injury free (no niggles or tightness) will i take on another long race. I think I need to run a few parkruns, maybe a local 10k or two before i put my body under so much stress again.

I have had a place at the Lakeland 100. However this year, although i’ll go to Coniston, i’ll be on the sidelines, watching and cheering on the other runners.

A huge thank you to my crew for helping me make it so far.