Sunday, 4 October 2015


I've wanted to run 100 miles for ages. Ever since learning about ultra running it’s something I've fancied, and today was the day.
The challenge was the St Oswald's Ultra - along the St Oswald's way in Northumberland. Starting on Lindisfarne, following the coast and then cutting inland along the river Coquet to Rothbury, over the hills and finishing in Chollerford. It looks something like this..

However you look at it - its a long way

I'd trained well - not extensively, my longest run was in the high 30's but I was running well and I felt ready.
The race started at 7am so it was an early start.

Getting to the start was a challenge. Lindisfarne is only accessible when the tide is right, so I'd planned to drive to Berwick and then take a taxi to avoid getting my car stuck on the Island later on. This was a great plan until the taxi I'd booked failed to show (Woody's taxis are well worth avoiding if you ever need a taxi in Berwick). So in the end I drove myself down there and was at the start much later than I intended. I scrabbled together the car park money, and left a nice note to explain that I was in the race and would be back when I was  done, but the no-overnight parking sign was playing on my mind.

As a consequence of all the stress, the start felt rushed and chaotic to me. I think I knew even then it would only ever be a footnote in the day and did a great job of putting everything that had happened out of my mind it would have been all too easy to let these worries sap my strength, there was nothing I could do. What would be would be.

I got all my stuff together. I was running in shorts and a t shirt and wearing Hoka Rapa Nui trial shoes. I had a backpack containing food and all the mandatory race kit (map, compass, waterproofs, headtorch etc) and two bottles of water.  The sun was rising over Lindisfarne castle as we assembled by the abbey for the start.

Sunrise at the start

I felt hurried but hopefully ready. And then we were off I walked across the line and away.

I was very conscious of the danger of going off too fast. The race had 50k and 100k options too, so there would be lots of faster people doing shorter races. There was a real danger of accidentally going off too fast trying to keep up. So I was perturbed when my watch beeped for the first time showing 6:20. Surely, even with all the adrenaline, I hadn't just run a six minute mile? It was only when this happened the second time I realised that the watch I had borrowed from Julie was set in km.

I arbitrarily decided that 6.20 per km was the perfect pace for me and tried to stick to it until the first checkpoint. I work in miles normally and had no idea what the actually was in real money. I think it was helpful I never worked this out, I just ran what felt right.

Lindisfarne was nice, but there was quite a lot of traffic on the road - most was race generated so quite understanding of the runners, who were still quite bunched but it felt busy. I tried not to go too fast and just concentrated on staying consistent. Coming over the causeway and onto the mainland (3miles) was nice, the first landmark. We were then on a narrow path. Someone stepped aside to let me pass, a much appreciated gesture, but I'm not sure how relevant it was with 90+ miles still to go.

After giving a couple of fellow 100 milers my tips on preventing testicular chafing in 100 mile races (unicorn tears are the only sure fire option) we continued. I ate a quarter of a peanut butter sandwich while walking the first hill and feeling like I was properly into the race.

Reaching Fenwick (5.5 miles) was good. I'd recced from here - it was all known ground until mile 95. There is a big hill after Fenwick so I walked that and then on through the woods. There were still plenty of people around but I was happy getting on with it in my own little world.

A slight sprint was required at the right turn after Kyloe woods to reacquaint a runner with the correct route - she had music on and didn't hear my shout. I hoped the sudden spike in my heart rate hadn't compromised my race, but I was pleased to have done a good turn for someone else, that was race karma in the bank.

There was a nice downhill section here where I reached the dizzy heights of my only sub 10 minute mile of the race. Not that I knew,  I was still working in kilometres. We passed through Belford (12 miles / 2hr 15) and then passed an aid station which I ran straight past still having masses of water and being happy eating sandwich and cereal bar.

Then came what must be the least scenic part of the race. We were expertly marshalled across the A1 and the East Coast main line and then went past some giant silos before going through some fields and past a windmill, before reaching a steep climb through the woods. I got chatting to someone here about the importance of pacing as we walked up the hill. He emphasised how we were doing the right thing taking it steady. We picked up another runner and pushed on before my desire to take fuller advantage of the downhills saw me up the pace and edge away.

The approach to Bamburgh is cruel. You can see the town less than a mile along the road, but the route takes you 2.5 miles round the coast. Having had my hopes of being nearly there crushed when I recced, I knew what to expect and  even managed to find the path round the golf course that had totally eluded me last time.

Bamburgh is a spectacular place it was great to run past the amazing castle and along to the checkpoint in the car park.

Bamburgh castle - not sure about the face

I was expecting more than there was, but I didn't actually need anything, so I got a water top up and pushed on. At this point I had done about 20 miles in 3h 30. This felt fine. If I'd had a plan this would have been about on plan. I purposefully didn't have a plan as I didn't want to give myself a stick to beat myself with if I fell behind it. What would be would be.

A quick text to Julie to update on progress and onwards. Julie was doing a sterling job, updating the wider world while managing the normal weekend routine of swimming lessons etc.

The run towards Seahouses was fairly uneventful. I stopped at the toilets, slathered various bits of myself in vaseline and splashed my face with cold water. This was a great pick me up, and one I repeated wherever I could. You really end up feeling pretty hot and grimy from the running and anything to keep yourself feeling clean and cool is to be welcomed.

We've been on holiday to Seahouses, so the bit through the harbour felt like home ground, although I did nearly suffer the indignity of being overtaken by a mobility scooter walking up the hill. The route then went round to the golf course. Golfers are a funny bunch, over the day we went over a lot of golf courses, some of them were really supportive with words of encouragement, and some looked at you as if you were some sort of  inexplicable phantom, who had randomly appeared on the course. The chaps at Seahouses were in the former camp, they happily let me run through and helpfully pointed out the right route, correcting another error I'd made on my recce and avoiding the wade through ankle deep rotting seaweed I'd endured last time.

The route then goes along the unspectacular but runnable road to Beadnell (25 miles, 4h 30) and then through some dunes. We crossed a river where a couple of runners were debating the way. There were two paths, one over the top of the dunes and one round the back of them. I really didn't remember running over any dunes when I recceed so I said I was pretty confident of the other path and ran on. I clearly didn't appear too convincing - they got their maps out to check. The seeds of doubt having been sowed I was pleased to see a St Oswald’s way-marker half a mile along the path.

The route then runs through a car park. I remember speeding up here as I formed a totally irrational belief that a passing walker was going to take advantage of my enfeebled state from so much running and mug me. Why I thought this I have no idea. I had little of value and I'm sure he was just a guy out for a walk, but the mind does funny things. I pushed on rapidly.

Descending into Low Newton by the sea I took one hula hoop from the aid station, quickly stopped at the toilets and pushed on through the holiday homes and golf course. The route then hits the second major castle at Dunstanburgh. This one looks like it has seen better days but the ruin on the cliff looks spectacular, and seemed to have a steady stream of tourists, one of whom did a great job of holding open a gate for me. These little things make a real difference.

Dunstanburgh castle

The route then runs into Craster (33 miles 6h15). Coming into the village I somehow got chatting with the guy who had just finished 3rd in the 50k and was second last year in the 100 miles. He was telling me to walk the climb steadily after Rothbury - which sounded like sound advice, and the likely limit of my abilities anyway.

The 50k finishes here in the beer garden of the Jolly fisherman which looked spectacular in the sunshine overlooking the sea. It looked like heaven, there were loads of 50k competitors sitting in the sun, wearing medals and satisfied expressions of a job well done, drinking pints and tucking into a pub lunch. There was little for me here. The guy manning the aid station promised me great stuff to come and told me to get going. Looking back wistfully and sadly I walked out, but it took a while to get over being kicked out of paradise and get going again.

Walking along the path, I was passed by a fellow runner who asked if I had finished, which shows how businesslike I must have looked. She looked at my number and remarked I was a long way from finished and ran on. But she was always in sight up ahead.

I took a while to get going, I ate some food and walked, and then Julie's garmin died having done a serviceable 6h 30 stint so I had to stop to fire up my watch. My plan was that this would work all the way to the finish by using the usb charger I had in my bag at the checkpoints. This nearly worked.

There were a good number of big groups of walkers along this section. You do wonder how they feel about all these runners cluttering up the path, but they were very good at shouting "runner" and moving out of the way, even when I wasn't bothered or really running.

Eventually I reached Boulmer (37 miles 7h). Here, I gave into temptation and had some coke. Far earlier than I had planned as I was intending to save this for a boost later, but I wanted some. As it turned out it was fine as I was on the coffees later anyway and didn't fancy coke. Another set of public toilets were visited - the route is well supplied - and I pushed on towards Alnmouth with the runner who'd passed me earlier and another chap who joined us. It was nice to chat after a while alone.

We hit the beach before Alnmouth at an unlucky time, the tide was in, meaning a walk along the uneven pebbles as opposed to a glorious run on golden sands. I dropped back from the other two as we went through another golf club and along to Alnmouth (40 miles 7h 50). A quick stop for coke and for the only time I tried some of the ubiquitous aid station banana - it was OK but I only wanted one bite, I would have loved orange or almost any refreshing fruit but banana didn't appeal.

My very first recce run started from Alnmouth so I knew the way out, which was good as it's a little confusing. What I hadn't appreciated running it on fresh legs was what a slog the uphill section away from the town is. Plus the route twists and turns around the estuary so even after you've run a couple of miles you are still very close to the village it feels like you're working hard for not a lot of reward.  Someone passed me and offered some encouraging words about how I'd pick up. Which were prophetic as I cruised straight back past as soon as the course turned downhill.

That was the last I saw of anyone until Warkworth. The course had the now typical mixture of caravan park, golf course and dunes. I then emerged onto the road and was delighted with the short distance to Warkworth. I'd remembered this being longer and was pleased to be wrong.

In Warkworth, we were directed into the aid station in the café. This was nice.  There were really helpful people who made me a coffee and got me coke and my drop bag. Although I'd eaten steadily (a mix of peanut butter sandwich, cereal bar and salted nuts) I still had masses of food in my backpack, so I didn't really need any of the food. I ate my mullerrice, this went down really well, and left everything else. I had no need of my spare socks so I left them. I also had the note my eldest son had written for me to help when things got tough. I read this and had a quick cry, but I took the words to heart. I'd intended to have this in my next drop bag so I don't know how it got here, but I was glad it did.

Motivational note

I had a quick chat with a guy in an UTMB top, remarking this must be easy in comparison. He replied that he'd only done the CCC (UTMB is a stupidly hard race, CCC is it's still stupidly hard little brother).  I christened him Monsieur CCC until I found out later he was called Wiktor.

Leaving Warkworth I ran past another spectacular castle, stopped to throw some cold water on my face and re Vaseline myself at the castle toilets and headed out of town.

Big smile at Warkworth castle

I'd recced this and knew the route was pretty unspectacular.  I felt very alone after the buzz of the aid station. There was a last glimpse of the sea as I headed up into the hills. It had been a fairly constant presence all day and living further up the North Sea coast I felt it connected me with home, so it was sad to see it go.

I've no idea how,  but I found a good rhythm here. The course was slightly uphill for a good few miles and I'm glad I mentally classified this as runnable or it would have taken a while.  There was a real sense of the day turning to evening and of the race entering a new phase. The appearance of reflective route markers indicated the organisers expected some people to be doing this in the dark.

I saw then one of the support teams who I’d been seeing a few times. They belonged to Karen who I'd run with on the way to Alnmouth (and who would go on to be second lady in the 100k). They were always great at giving me some encouragement.  I designated them my adopted race family. They seemed pleased with this honour, well they did in my head, at any rate they didn't moan. I asked who was ahead more out of loneliness than competitiveness. They said a lady had gone through 5 mins before.  

I ran on some more staying steady and keeping moving. We went under the east coast main line. Like the sea earlier this provided a connection with home as the East coast main line passes through where I live. This was nice.

After a bit I saw a runner in front who I assumed was the lady I'd been told about before. She was in the 100k and was walking, seeming to be having a bit of a low. I slowed down for a quick chat and then carried on.

I remembered Felton being nearer to the railway than it was and was getting a little frustrated that I hadn't got to the river yet. As I seemed to be on my own, I treated myself to a quick rendition of Lionel Ritchie's hello - I'd been shown this video at a conference earlier in the week and was really struck by how much Lionel seemed to be doing the thing he loved on the big stage and really enjoying it. This was the ethos I was trying to bring to the race - doing something I loved,  doing it well and enjoying it.

The river came in the end and I ran alongside to Felton.  I could see two runners in the distance but I wasn't really catching up.

The aid station in Felton (53 miles 10h 45) was outside a pub. There were a few people to chat to. I asked what the distance was and was told 38 miles, then 45 miles, before 51 was agreed on, having expressed my displeasure at the first two answers. It's actually 53 so when I texted Julie to tell her I was now at mile 51 and had had a really good section she thought I was being sarcastic as in her mind I’d  taken 90 mins for 4 miles. The soup here was tomato.  I think the best on the course. It went down nicely with a roll and settled on the walk up the hill. I passed a cafe that l think my friend Chris needs to buy, and had a nice chat with my adopted race family - I was trying to persuade them to continue to support me all the way to the 100 mile finish after their runner finished at 100k. They didn't seem too up for it.

Crossing the river at Felton
Chris Fox - this café is made for you

The route then runs though some woods and under the A1. Like the railway, this also goes through my home town. I blew a goodnight kiss to one of the cars hoping they would carry it North to my wife and kids. And also hoping they wouldn't notice and wonder why some running weirdo was blowing them a kiss.

It was just after this I caught up to Ronnie. We ran together for a while which was great after being on my own for a while and helped keep the pace up. We ran past a fearsome looking, although fairly placid bull, followed by a sign usefully warning us about the bull we had just run past. Ronnie lived locally and had recced the last two sections twice in the dark. This sounded awesome. If  I could stick with him till the end, he seemed like an ideal companion for the later sections, and his chat was good. However, as so often happens,  a woman got in the way.

The runner I'd passed between Warkworth and Felton who I'd thought was struggling, seemed to have got her second (and third and fourth) wind and caught us up. Without consciously intending to, I upped my pace slightly to stay with her and then turned round and found Ronnie had vanished and so had my dreams of being expertly shepherded though the last sections by someone with impeccable local knowledge.

I couldn't keep up with my new companion, she was running very strongly on the way to winning the 100k ladies race. So after a morale boosting cheer from my adopted race family, I made it to the Anglers Arms (58 miles 12 hours) alone. This was the last I saw of my adopted race family which was a shame as they had made a difference to my race and I'd appreciated the banter. If you ever read this thank you.

Coming into the Anglers Arms I was hot on the heels of the same two guys I'd followed into Felton. I caught up to them soon after the aid station. They had stopped to consider a confusing bit of the route where the path seemed to go through a gate which didn't open. I was pretty confident the route was through the gate and more by luck than judgement I got it open and we went on.

This was how I made the acquaintance of Wiktor and Michael. Wiktor was the guy in the UTMB top who had been at Warkworth. We ran on together for a while. Michael was running the race to get his final UTMB qualifying points and to be honest all the UTMB chat was intimidating me a bit (for the uninitiated UTMB is a 100+ mile race around Mont Blanc) I wasn't sure I was good enough to run with these guys.

At the same time the pace seemed fine, when we were flat. In common with most of the running population they were faster than me at walking up hills.  I sometimes had to put in a few steps of jog to keep up.

But we made good progress and  it was nice to be running with people again, especially through the psychologically difficult point where it got dark and we had to put our head torches on. Michael and Wiktor initiated me into their surefire way to avoid problems with cows in the dark - by turning off our torches. I have to say we had no issues with cows, but the risks of walking through nettles, mud and other unpleasant things were increased. I wasn't quite sure I believed, but I went with the flow.

Its quite a long way to Rothbury, certainly longer than the six miles we'd been told at the Anglers arms, but we kept moving. I think the fact I had recced this section was useful, although some bits seemed to take ages to come.

Eventually we hit the old railway line I'd so spectacularly missed when I recceed and knew we were on the home stretch. Sensing the checkpoint we pushed on. I found myself having to work harder than I really wanted to in order to stay with the two of them. This was OK for the last couple of miles into Rothbury, but wasn't something I wanted for the section out of Rothbury -  I sensed I'd have a hard time keeping up on the walk up the hill and decided I'd let them go after the checkpoint. But for now I followed and held on. Michael's calf with its hot pink strip of kinosieology tape and tattoo being the only things I could see in the dark, these became firmly emblazoned in my mind.

Rothbury is down in the valley, so it appeared quite suddenly. The checkpoint was in a café just over the bridge and looked hugely inviting.

It was great to get to Rothbury. There was a real buzz to the aid station and lots of people around wanting to help. I had some soup, leek and potato,  also very nice though perhaps not hitting the highs of the tomato earlier. A very kind lady who was waiting for her husband got this for me.  Talking to her really brought home what a hard job waiting was, not knowing what was going on. A point that was emphasised a second later when Julie called me. I'd texted her to say I was at the 100k finish safely.  She had misinterpreted this as thinking I was at the 100 mile Finish, and correctly reasoned that the only way I could be there in 13 h 30 was if I'd quit and been driven there. Once we'd straightened out where I was and that I was still very much in the race, it was great to hear her voice and reassure her that I was going well.

In the dark at Rothbury

I charged my watch,  ate a muller rice and left everything else from my drop bag excepts gels which I restocked. I'd been consistently eating little and often and was carrying plenty enough food for my current consumption. Especially with the promise of more soup at Kirkwhelpington. This was a bit of a mistake, I could have used my spare socks and more flapjack later.

Then came a chance chain of events that had a profound positive impact on my race. As I stood up to leave someone asked if I'd had everything I wanted and mentioned coffee. No one had previously mentioned coffee so I said actually I'd have a quick one before I left. While waiting for this I got chatting to another of the aid station volunteers and asked if he had any tips for tackling the next and trickiest section of the course. He said I should buddy up with someone and nodded towards another runner who was just getting ready to leave.

This seemed sensible to me,  so I asked the guy if he wanted to head out together. He seemed a bit reluctant to saddle himself with me, which I think I would have been in his position but we agreed to walk up the hill together and see how we went with a view to at least getting through the forest together. 

And so Peter and I teamed up.

Having been reluctant to walk up the hill with Michael and Wiktor, it immediately struck me that Peter also fell firmly into the category of people who can walk up steep hills faster than me. Having just persuaded him to let me tag along I was very conscious of not wanting to slow him down so followed up the hill at a good pace.

We chatted and exchanged running histories. I was a bit scared by Peters 19 hour West Highland Way pedigree, he assured me it was a while ago. We seemed to have similar goals and a similar pace when we ran so all seemed good.

We walked up the hill, ran down to the car park and then walked up the next hill. In the dark you could see the lights of Rothbury below.  It  gave a real sense of how much we had ascended. 

The paths on the top were quite runnable and,  as long as you dodged the rocks, soft underfoot and quite nice to run on. We'd both recced this section and were finding the route well with reassurance from the gps on my watch.

It was very apparent that Peter's head torch was stronger than mine. I felt more comfortable with him in front but was very conscious I should do my share. I tried to, but the split was unequal.

There was a point where we passed what appeared to be a very remote house who's occupants were all sat round a bonfire.  Their cheery shouts were a welcome break in the isolation.

For much of the time, we could see a light in front of us. It was waving about like a hand torch rather than a headlamp and we couldn't work this out,  as we couldn't see this was a sensible way to equip yourself.

Eventually we caught Dave, who had a head torch and a hand torch for his map and we ran on together.

At some point it became apparent we had gone wrong as the path vanished. Both Peter and I had recceed this and remembered there was a clear path the whole way. In the dark it was tricky to work out quite where we should be headed and the map wasn't too clear.

We debated a bit about what we should do. We all seemed to have slightly different views about which way to go. Luckily at that point we saw two head torches off to the left and shouted to ask if they were on the path - they were so we jogged over and joined them. Our saviours were Michael and Wiktor, who I'd assumed had already left Rothbury, but had in fact stayed longer.

The five of us ran together over the highest point of the course and into the feared forest section. A lot of the forest is fine and on good tracks, but some of the route is amongst the trees and more intricate. The first section is it like this. The markers seemed ambiguous, the first marker indicating a route to the right and then two more indicating a parallel route to the left, but with no obvious connection between the two. We fought to the left and were rewarded with a good path, which I think I missed on my recce.

Being in a big group was good here, lots of eyes to spot the route and lots of psychological support. When the route went through the trees there were a lot of roots to trip over, rocks to kick and dips to fall into. We seemed to find most of them between the five of us and there was a near constant stream of shouts of "root" "dip" and various swear words. But we kept up a good momentum and on the wider forest roads made good progress. The route was pretty well marked.

Peter had earlier expressed a desire for some moonlight - the harvest moon was due that night but the night had started cloudy. As we ran through the forest the sky began to clear and he got his wish, this was nice but meant the temperature fell too. I was wearing two tops, a long sleeved one I'd put on at Rothbury over the t-shirt I'd worn from the start. I still felt fine, especially when we were running, but you could feel the temperature falling.

At some point Michael and Wiktor moved away from us and Peter, Dave and I carried on. We spent a lot of time anticipating the end of the forest and eventually we were right. There is a really long runnable downhill as you exit the forest and we pushed down this last mile. Dave was getting cold and starting to drop off the back as we ran down. He had a support crew and arranged for them to meet him with more clothes at the edge of the forest, where there was also an aid station.

The guys manning it must have drawn the short straw when they were handing out assignments. This one was remote and cold. But the welcome was excellent. I had a cup of tea here, wanting something warm but worried about taking too much caffeine in case I came crashing down at some point. We had a sit down and gathered our strength for the next leg.

The next bit was pretty grim. The route went along the road through a field and then along a horrible muddy section next to some trees. I don't think any of us enjoyed this. I remembered not enjoying it on the recce too. No one else had recced this far so I felt a bit more responsibility for finding the right route, the gps on my watch was useful and the markers were good. Eventually we turned left into a proper quagmire, through a gate and the worst of the mud was behind us.

We ran on through farmland chatting away. The guys at the aid station had mistakenly filled us up with sports drink not water. Dave had no other fluids and was a bit concerned. I still had a bottle of water and shared this. I had barely noticed the other bottle didn't taste right and didn't let it worry me, my stomach continued to feel pretty good and I was eating a little something at the first sign of hunger.

We settled into a routine here. Peter mostly led, Dave and I mostly followed. I occasionally interjected observations of what I remember of the route from my recce sometimes these were even right, I occasionally said "the GPS says that way" and occasionally "are you OK Dave?". We told each other that we were doing well and were going to make it. I for one truly believed this, I think we all did. We were somewhere in the 70+ miles and I was feeling fine considering how far we'd gone, I was happy to be with people and we were working well together. We were walking sometimes, but at same time where things were runnable one of us was ready to suggest a run, and I don't think there was a single occasion where we didn't then run. Race wise this was definitely close to best case scenario territory, I wasn't at all focussed on time now and had let the thought “sub 24” gently and harmlessly drift away.

Just before Kirkwhelpington there is a field of cows. I remembered this from my recce where the beasts all gracefully stampeded down hill like wildebeest crossing the Serengeti. There had been some chat about these cows at the aid station so we approached with some trepidation. In defiance of the Michael/Wiktor protocol we kept our torches on. The were cows on all sides, but seemed content to let us pass. There was a marker in the corner of the field but it was by a barbed wire fence and it didn't seem right to climb it. We hunted for a couple of minutes before finding a gate in the opposite corner and headed into Kirkwhelpington (80 miles 19 hours).

The aid station in the village hall was a welcome oasis of warmth. It felt like there was a lot to do here so I got on with it. I charged my watch, emptied and refilled both bottles, changed the batteries in my torch. washed my face, slathered myself in Vaseline. Drank a soup and coffee, texted Julie to keep her informed. I told her I was running with good people, and she texted straight back to say this made her feel a lot better, I immediately wondered why I hadn't seen fit to mention this before, it would have eased her anxiety. It was nearly 2am and it didn't seem she was getting much sleep. I put my jacket on over my two tops as it was cold. I was now wearing everything I had, hopefully it wouldn't get colder.

Kirkwhelpington aid station

It felt really cold when we walked out. This was the last shelter until the end so it was sad to leave. I turned on my head torch and it didn't work. I told the guys to go on and I'd go and sort it and catch up. They refused and waited, in my head this was the moment that really cemented us as a team who were going to the end together. I just had a battery in the wrong way. It was soon fixed and we were off on the last leg.

There was a long walk up the hill after Krikwhelpington. I felt full of energy at this point babbling away to Dave and Peter as we plodded steadily upwards. We weren't running anything remotely uphill now and there were some questions about extended bits of flat - not that there were many. We were still quite disciplined where it was runnable, one of us would suggest running and we would.

The route followed the roads at first and then over the hill and down to a farm. The farmer had refused permission for the race to pass his land so there was a diversion here. Having missed the race briefing I didn't know this - thankfully the others had been present. The diversion went along the road, it was well marked with yellow arrows but nothing reflective so we were constantly on edge trying to make sure we missed nothing. After a while we realised that we were just following the road all the way to Little Bavington and relaxed a bit. The steady road running was probably easier than what we were missing.

We passed another runner here. He was standing in the road, we asked if he was OK and he said yes. However 5 minutes later the official race car came by and asked if we were OK and then carried on past. I hoped he wasn't pulling out - we certainly never saw him again.

There was a long stretch of road along to Hallington where we made steady progress. Dave's dad and girlfriend were meeting us regularly which was nice. I was joking with Dave that every time he called to request something else his girlfriend's expectations were going up. I think we settled on flowers, chocolate and champagne as reasonable recompense for a night driving round rural Northumberland. Dave’s support crew were good to all three of us and we were grateful for their help.

I thought I'd got the route straight in my head - the road went to Great Whittington where there was an aid station and then on to the Hadrian's wall path. Somewhere on the long road I realised this was wrong and there was another fell to climb. This was a bit depressing, but there was nothing to be done. Dave said he was starting to fall asleep as we ran along, you could see why - it was a long straight tarmac road and he was following, little thinking was needed and it was monotonous. We put him on the front as we reached the end of the road and began the ascent. This seemed to wake him up a bit.

I struggled up the hill, I'd just had a gel and it took a few minutes to settle so I felt a little queasy, this was quite a steep uphill and I consistently found keeping up when walking up hill a challenge. This was the nearest I ever got to having to dig really deep and it wasn't too bad. Once it levelled out I was fine again.

At the top of the hill a succession of fields present a navigational challenge. At one point we were in a field criss-crossed with paths and no clear idea of which one to follow. We made a choice that seemed a reasonable compromise between the map, the GPS and the well trodden paths and set off. We were lucky we'd not gone far before we saw a reflector off to the right, adjusted our course and found the gate. Looking subsequently at strava, a number of people went a bit wrong here.

We hit the road and it was a mile down to the aid station (90 miles 22 hours), where some more dedicated helpers were standing round in the cold in order to make us coffee. It was much appreciated. My watch was nearly out of battery so I put it on to charge. We needed the GPS more than me being bothered about tracking the run. I ate some flapjack and sat on the cold stone wall. This was not the most luxurious aid station but with such a short distance remaining we should be getting on with it. The watch hit 20% and we were off.

I'd been dreading the next session. This took ages when I recced it and I got lost and had issues with cows. I'd spent ages telling Peter and Dave how bad it was too. The route goes to the right of a field past an old windmill. When I'd recced, the path was indistinct and overgrown it  was better today. Then there is a diversion, when I recced this it took ages to work out, but we seemed to flow through easily. It wasn't actually long before we could hear the road, certainly less than the 5 miles they'd said at the aid station. Someone may have said "is that the bit you were making such a fuss about?" They would have been right. The moon was setting now and it was a spectacular orange colour, well worth staying up all night for.

Hitting the road and the Hadrian's wall path was a great moment, this was the home stretch. There are a lot of fields cows and stiles. We progressed.  The sun was now rising behind us, flooding the world with amazing colour. We'd run from sunrise to sunrise and it's certainly the first time I've ever experienced the full cycle of the day and night with such awareness and intensity, mostly this amazing stuff goes on without you really noticing. At one point we got to a steep muddy bank we had to descend. My first reaction was I can’t do it, it looked too steep. Peter headed down and  said it wasn't too bad so I followed,  grateful for his taking the initiative.

One of the lingering questions of the run was about to be answered. What was the pub near the finish called. This had been bugging a part of my brain all day. I knew it was an E word. It turned out to be the Errington arms. (94.5 miles 23h40)

A quick pit stop outside the pub. Dave’s dad gave me a digestive biscuit and I charged my watch. This was lucky as it had just run out of juice and stopped itself.  I restarted it and we headed on up the hill behind the pub.

We walked up the hill. I now had my watch charging on the go with the charger in my hand and the wires round my wrist.  I didn't know if this would work but it would be nice to have the full route tracked,  plus the gps of the route was useful and reassuring. I let it get to 20% then removed the ridiculous and cumbersome wire feeling a bit ashamed I couldn't just let go and run.

We continued. The route went through some woods.  Peter picked up the pace. I was struggling to hold on here. We crossed the road. A long time ago someone told me this was a promising sign. We ran down a hill and saw Kaleel the photographer, which resulted in this stunning image.
Sunrise - Photo credit - the amazing Kaleel Zibe
The sun was coming up and we were above the clouds in the valleys on either side, it was amazing. Kaleel told us five miles. We chose not to believe him. We knew it must be less than 3 to Chollerford.   We knew we had to go to Heavenfield and that was all we knew. It was the bits we didn't know - like where the hell was Heavenfield,  that were frustrating us. The St Oswald's tea room seemed promising but no dice, or tea.

Finally we came to a gate marked Heavenfield (98 miles 24h 40). This  looked promising. For some reason, I was looking for a stone cross.  My brain wasn't ready to accept the giant wooden one in the corner of the field as what we were looking for. This was in spite of it being a) a cross and b) in the right field. Peter said with finality this was it - he'd seen it on the website. So we reached the end of the St Oswald's way. Now to get to Chollerford and the race finish. We went on.

As we ran through the field I thought I had my first proper hallucination when I thought I saw my mum. However it turned out to actually be my mum. She had walked up from the finish to find us. She said there were two downhill miles to the end.  This info seemed to give us the kick up the ass we needed to get it done and we set off. I kind of wanted to stay and talk to my mum but I wasn't leaving the group now so I ran. My mum followed,  keeping up comfortably.

We turned left off the main road. I had no idea where we were,  so didn't realise what an illogical detour this was. Peter did,  and was more disappointed by it. Nonetheless, 3 downhill roads, and we were done. My mum came in for a bit of stick (mostly from me) when the second road was uphill. It wasn't much but we felt it. Then came a sign Chollerford 1/4. This was very welcome.

My mum had been keeping up nicely. With all due respect, the fact that my mum, who is in her 60's and hasn't run a step since she last did the mum’s race when we were at school,  was keeping up gives you some idea of the pace. To add insult to injury as we neared the line she ran on ahead to take a picture at the finish.
100 m to go - a final sprint

We ran down the hill, walked a bit,  and the ran over the bridge and into the George hotel car park, and we were done.

There was no euphoric sense of elation as I crossed the line. It was more a quiet sense of satisfaction and achievement. That said,  it was nice to stop although it all seemed a bit sudden and overwhelming. We shook hands. This didn't seem quite enough, so we had a group hug and then headed into the hotel that served as race hq.
At the finish

I had a cup of tea. There was beer, but at 8.30am  it didn't seem right somehow. I had a shower, which didn't hurt as much as I'd feared and limped down to breakfast. I had the full English without eggs. I was offered 3 types of eggs ( poached, fried or scrambled) but I couldn't really cope with choosing so had none. And then onwards to recovery.
Looking wrecked in race HQ

One of the reasons I wanted to do this was to push myself beyond the limits. To learn more about myself, maybe even to come back a different person having mastered the challenges and explored the places within myself.

I don't think this happened, the emotional roller coaster I was expecting never came.  It was really hard but I don't think I had to dig too deep and I don't think I found  anything I didn't already know I had within myself.

The race was mostly characterised by a calm acceptance of what was involved and a quiet and unshakable confidence that I was equal to it and that I would succeed. Elements of vanity around 24 hours, and doing it on my own fell by the way side, but I always knew I'd see the end. And when I did,  it was an expected conclusion with a quiet sense of achievement.

Ironically, having expected to learn about myself, the lesson I really learned was about others. The thing that made it 'easy' was running with others, Peter and Dave especially, but everyone else I met too. We all wanted the same goal and in working together to achieve it we were more than the sum of our parts. He fact that people who have never met before can come together to achieve so much is the real thing I learned.
To close I must thank everyone who helped make the race the experience it was for me. The organisers, and marshals, always excellent and friendly. My fellow runners especially Peter and Dave, Michael and Wiktor. All the supporters out on the course, always happy to help and cheer anyone, especially Dave’s team, and my adopted race family. My mum who was a massive help at the finish. Julie, who helped not just on the day, but has been supportive over all the years leading up to this. And everyone who has sponsored me. Running for charity has been a new thing for me and I've really enjoyed the positive aspect that giving something back has brought. As things stand over £2000 has been raised and I'm very proud. So thank you all. 
I was running to raise money for bloodwise who do great and important work fighting leukaemia. I have been genuinely amazed by the level of support I have already received, and am very grateful to everyone who has donated.  If  you haven't sponsored me yet and would like to, there's still time to do it here.  I'd really appreciate it. And you are safe in the knowledge I've already done the race.

1 comment:

  1. that has just inspired me to sign up.....only to the 100km though as my longest run to date is only 32 miles and it killed me!!!! 6 months to go


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