Traversing a Great Frontier

September 26, 2017

 

Despite the lashing rain and the howling wind, a feeling of euphoria was rising inside me as I ran through the streets of the archetypal British seaside resort of Prestatyn, just as the shops were closing on a Monday afternoon.

 

It had been quite a journey. An epic journey. One of the journeys of my lifetime in fact. And it was now just moments from coming to an end. In the distance I could see ‘The Rock’, a sight that I’d been daydreaming about for what seemed like forever.

 

39 hours earlier…….

 

I awoke with a jolt just before I hit the ground, in the midst of a dream that I was falling. It was something I’d experienced numerous times before, as I’m sure you have. Something that is always followed by a sense of relief as you roll over, and snuggle back down under your warm duvet to go back to sleep.

 

But, this was real. Perhaps only momentarily, but I had been falling…….backwards towards the roots, muds and leaves on the forest floor. I stepped back and somehow managed to stop myself, the jolt from which shuck me back to reality. 

 

Ahead of me I could see the flicker of Becky’s head-torch disappearing into the distance. I needed to catch back up with the companion I’d been stuck in this nightmare with for what already seemed liked an eternity. I really didn’t want to be out here alone in this state.  In fact, I didn’t want to be out here at all. I wanted a comfy bed and that warm duvet, like I have never wanted anything before.

 

There was no sensible choice but to push on though. Stopping now, in the dead of night, in the middle of nowhere, with the temperature plummeting, would have put survival at risk; never mind finishing this bleeding race!

 

Becky and I had set out together from the pretty Welsh town of Knighton some 6 hours earlier, just as darkness had fallen; our bodies having already sustained 24 hours of abuse. We’d anticipated reaching our next staging point by now but had found ourselves stuck in this time warp. It felt like we were going in the wrong direction along a moving conveyor of gnarly hills with almost vertical gradients. Up, down, up, down, up, down, into infinity.     

 

‘We’ll cross a road soon’ said Becky, ‘after which it's just five miles of flat to the check point’; using knowledge she’d gained from an earlier reconnoitre of the area.  ‘Excellent’ I thought, ‘another hour or so and we’ll be there’. But that was over two hours ago, and still no sign of ‘the road’.  Things are very different in the dead of night, especially on already battered legs. Progress was painfully slow. We’d hardly run a step in those two hours, and probably covered no more than three miles.

 

30 hours earlier still…….

 

There was nervous excitement in the air amongst the 39 souls gathered around a rock on the cliffs above the Bristol Channel. In other words, I was ‘bricking it’!  In less than half an hour the gun would go off and the race would be underway.

 

I was bricking it because I was going into the unknown. Way into the unknown. I’d taken on big running challenges before but this would way surpass any of them, particularly because my ability to run the distance was only one of the unknowns. Having already been awake for 13 hours, and with at least 3 nights on the trail to endure, sleep deprivation far beyond what I’d experienced before was going to be a huge factor.

 

Anyway……

 

Enough of the dramatic shit, what was I doing here?

 

Well… the rock we were gathered round was the rock that marks the official start of the Offa’s Dyke Path (ODP), a national trail that winds its way along the Wales-England border all the way to the North Wales coast. And we were about to start the King Offa’s Dyke Race (KODR), an event conceived by Richard (some would say sadistic) Weremiuk of Beyond Marathon. It can be summarised as follows:

 

Distance: 185 miles

At least – one of my fellow competitor’s gps watch measured it at 198.4!

 

Elevation Gain: 32,100ft

More than the Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc or the equivalent to climbing the highest mountain in England AND the highest mountain in the world from sea level!

 

Format: non-stop

Well, you can stop to rest if you like, but the clock doesn’t. And nor do some of your fellow competitors.

 

Time limit: 90 hours

Starting 20:00 on Friday 15th September. So we had to be done by 14:00 next Tuesday, and make intermediate cut-off times along the way.

 

Why…..the hell…..would I want to do it?

 

Never an easy question to answer, but I guess I wanted to find out if I was capable of something of this scale and format. And, because the point to point ‘journey’ along an historic route appealed to me. Much more than running round laps or covering the distance on a flat, completely runnable, course.

 

The Wherefores……

 

Primarily I wanted to finish it at all costs! And I wanted to exchange the coin of King Offa, which Richard had handed to me before the start, for a trophy when I reached the ‘Rock’ at the other end of the trail in Prestatyn.

 

Well perhaps not at ALL costs. My ‘rules of failure’ are not set quite as high as at least one ultra-runner I know. I wasn’t prepared to risk death, permanent disability, or even long term injury. But I was prepared to put up with a significant amount of pain and discomfort; both physical and mental, if necessary.

 

Also, I wanted to see how competitive I could be in the race.  Although the goal of completion was more important than competing with others in the race. Well, unless by some miracle I found myself in contention for a podium position in the latter stages.  Fat chance probably, but past experience has shown that you never know in an ultra. It’s not that unusual for the hare to succumb to the tortoise.

 

So, what was my plan?

 

I usually like to have a race plan in mind. Even though it has to be adaptable, I find having a plan really helps me. But the unknowns in this race, especially the sleep deprivation, had left me in in a quandary on this occasion. The best I could come up with was:

  1. Start very conservatively

  2. Get to Montgomery (CP 6, 100 miles) if possible before sleeping

  3. Re-plan from there, informed by state of body and mind

 

And how did it pan out?

 

As you’ve already heard, things seemed to be going pear shaped before I reached Montgomery. But that’s only a small part of the story.  The rest of the story is as follows…….:

 

Stage 1: To Monmouth, 19 miles

 

Having ceremonially visited ‘The Rock’ the official start was a few hundred metres walk along the ODP, to avoid congestion at the multiple stiles on that stretch.

 

At 20:00 precisely we were off, and treated to a gentle start down the road through the village of Sedbury. Some of the local kids, almost certainly oblivious to the nature of our race, shouted typical words of encouragement/abuse as we passed them on street corners. ‘If only they knew’ I said to the runner next to me, raising a chuckle. A mile or so in, we started to head upwards and off-road onto the trail proper; the field already starting to spread out.

 

We were feeling thankful that the forecast inclement weather had not materialised. Other than a little mist alongside the River Wye, it was turning into to a wonderful clear night. 

 

I chatted to a few of the other runners over the next few hours, sharing experiences from other races and discussing the ODP’s initiator’s inability to take any straight, flat line, when it was possible to find a hillier and twistier one.  Oh, and not being a user myself, I was already starting to get pole envy.

 

This first section passed relatively uneventfully, apart from a small navigational error (in which I dragged a couple of others with me) and sliding down the steep muddy hill down into the village of Redbrook on my arse.

 

Stage 2: To Pandy, 17 miles

 

After topping up my bottles and quickly grabbing some snacks, I was preparing to head out of the CP into stage 2 when potential disaster struck. As I was putting my pack back on, one of the chest straps failed; coming adrift from the pack itself. After unsuccessfully trying to reattach it for 10 minutes, I sought the assistance of Anthony Bethell from Raidlight, who was helping out in the kitchen. Another 10 minutes was lost while Anthony made further attempts to reattach it with various kitchen implements, but to no avail. Eventually we managed to improvise a solution and I was on my way again; although I quickly realised it was not a solution that would be suitable for the remaining 160odd miles.

 

This next section was tricky to navigate in the dead of night with patchy mist, resulting in a group of 6 or 7 of us concertinaing in and out as the miles ticked slowly by. Sporadic conversation ensued, the main topics being ‘which way is it?’ and plans for rest/sleep as the race progressed.

 

The night was old by the time I found myself on the long descent into Pandy, and I was starting to feel a bit weary. Suddenly I sensed a runner gaining on me quickly from behind, and assumed it was Simon, who I’d being toing and froing with for the past 20 miles. I stopped and stepped off the path to let him past but, when I looked behind, there was nobody in sight. What the hell? Were hallucinations getting to me already?

 

Stage 3: To Hay on Wye, 16.5 miles

 

Some of my colleagues had decided to grab sleep at Pandy, but I was keen to push on and stick to my strategy. Buoyed by caffeine, a pot noodle, an improved repair to my bag (thanks to a spare shoelace) and the fact that it would soon be daylight for the first time in the race, I headed back out to start the long climb into the Black Mountains.

 

This section was dominated by the traverse of a spectacular high level ridge, with relatively easy running, that should have made for an enjoyable time. In reality, after dawn I felt myself succumbing to the sleep monsters for the first time. As my eyes started to droop, there was a big desire to lie down. But, with the weather now turned to wind and rain, that didn’t seem an appropriate course of action. So I pushed on along what later became known as the ridge of infinity, running as hard as I dare just to help stay awake.

 

There was a bit of respite from the monsters when I caught up with, and chatted to, another runner for a short while; Danny I believe.  But then I didn’t see another soul until I encountered Stephen on the descent into Hay on Wye, so was glad to enjoy some company again.

 

At the race briefing the previous evening, we’d been promised fried egg baps for breakfast at Hay. They were duly delivered by the CP volunteers and boy they were good. So good I had to have two!

 

Section 4: To Kington, 15 miles

 

The next section quickly became my favourite so far. The views were superb as the ODP traversed the Hergest Ridge, the weather was great and I was feeling strong from my eggy breakfast. And the icing on the cake was being cheered into Kington by Paul, a friend and club-mate from back home, and his wife, who had made the trip over from their holiday destination in Brecon to support me. Something that gave me a real boost.

 

Section 5: To Knighton, 14.5 miles

 

I couldn’t afford to sit around and chew the fat (well, the pot noodle) with Paul for too long through; I had a job to do. So I was soon back on the trail and heading up into another spectacular section. Making a mental note to come back to this area and explore in more detail with fresh legs. I’d not seen any other runners since Hay but I was happy with my own company and that of the hills for the moment.

 

During the latter part of this section I began to question whether I could last right through to Montgomery without sleep. I knew the next section was longer than the last few and that progress would be slowed by the darkness that was soon to arrive. And I was thinking back to how the sleep monsters had already haunted me earlier in the day.

 

I suspected many of those behind me would be stopping for sleep at Knighton, so decided that I’d sleep for a maximum of an hour and then push on. That way I felt I could reach Montgomery by about 1am Sunday, have more sleep, and head on again while maintaining a gap on them. Not that I was being competitive ;-)

 

Soon after arrival at the CP though, a second potential disaster struck. Having removed my shoes and socks I somehow managed the throw the scalding hot cup of tea the CP crew had made for me all over my feet. Aaaaarggghhhhhh!!!  That’s not a good idea at all.

 

The crew did what the wonderful crew at every CP along the route did through, and jumped into action to look after me. Even magically producing some burn gel from somewhere to sooth my scald.

 

Fortunately, there was no significant damage done and I was soon lying down on a camp bed the crew had set up in another room; having given instructions to wake me in 60 minutes. Something they duly did after what seemed like only 5 minutes.  There was a massive temptation to stay put for more kip, but I knew I’d be mad with myself later if I did that. So I dragged myself up and started preparations to get back out on the trail.

 

A few more had now arrived but didn’t look like they were in a mood to continue any time soon, with the exception of Becky.

 

Section 6: To Montgomery, 18 miles (of purgatory)

 

Becky, who was taking part in the concurrent Mercian Challenge 100-mile race, only had one section to go and didn’t want to hang around at Knighton.  So we headed out into the night together. Something that turned out to be a wise decision. Running together that is, not necessarily heading out into the nightmare that was section 6. It was more like section 666! I’m sure we were beamed up at some point and dropped into the middle of the Barkley Marathons (find the movie on Netflix if you’ve not heard about it).

 

At some point we passed the sign which marked the half way point of the ODP. It should perhaps have been something to celebrate but, at the time, it just made me more depressed; knowing that I still had the same to do all over again.

 

But, after what seemed like a lifetime, we did eventually cross ‘the road’ that I’d been promised, and started to make better progress across the flatter fields towards the CP. This gave me a lift in spirits and coherence, which enabled me to think rationally about my plan for the remainder of the race.

 

Looking at the time (it was 3am Sunday), the plan actually seemed to write itself.  Two hours sleep, sandwiched between two of the baked potatoes we’d been promised at CP6, would see me heading out at first light. So, if I could get through to CP9 at 150-miles on Sunday, I could sleep some more and just leave myself with 35 miles to do on Monday. Simple eh?

 

 

As we bowled into the small village hall we were in a celebratory mood, both from getting through the section from hell, and from Becky not only completing her first 100, but also winning it outright. It was sobering to hear from one of our fellow competitors though. He’d arrived there with the medics a while before, having been rescued from his emergency bivouac out on the trail. Seems he’d also been victim of the sleep monsters and, being alone, had been unable to fight them off. I realised I could have easily have succumbed to the same fate.

 

Section 7: To Llanymynech, 20 miles

 

My alarm call from the CP crew came all too soon but they did let me hit the ‘snooze’ button and stay in my sleeping bag for a little while longer. 30 minutes later though, I was under strict orders to get my arse in gear; due my earlier insistence that 2 hours sleep was my intention.

 

After the hardship of the previous night, I was apprehensive about getting back on the trail, and unsure about how my body would cope with the day ahead. There was positive news though. There were still just 3 ahead of me and the chasing pack had opted for sleep back at Knighton.

 

Within a few minutes of heading out of the door, I was actually feeling amazed at how strong I felt again. Despite the 100 miles behind me, baked potatoes and some sleep had really recharged the batteries.

 

Apart from the 400 metre climb to and descent from the Beacon Ring fort, this section was relatively flat. In fact, pancake flat in the second half of it. The previous year’s competitors had complained about the endless fields in this part of central Wales. I was glad of them though, and welcomed the opportunity to make a reasonable rate of progress.  The only irritation came from the erratic weather, causing me to stop numerous times to layer and de-layer as sunshine changed to rain and back again every 5 minutes.

 

 

‘I bet you’re going miles’ I suddenly heard, as 2 ladies out for their Sunday morning run along the Montgomery Canal towpath caught up with me. A comment most likely provoked by my back pack and less than sprightly running gait. Neither a witty or inspiring comment came to mind at that point, but hopefully they were not too unimpressed by my response.

 

A mile later I spotted familiar figure up ahead, wielding a camera, so knew I was probably getting close to my lunch time pit stop.  Anthony had run out to take some photos and accompanied me into the check point. I was glad of the company as it had been a lonely section. In fact, I was not destined to see another competitor for the remainder of the race.

 

Section 8: To Chirk Castle, 15 miles

 

Refuelled by a slap up Sunday lunch of roast beef (I wish! It was another beef and tomato pot noodle) I was soon on my way again; in the familiar routine of having to climb back into the hills from a check point.

 

I’m not going to lie; this section was tough. But it was not as tough as what had gone before, nor as tough as what was still to come. So, as my body was still in working order, I had no reason not to feel positive and enjoy the afternoon sunshine. In fact, the sunshine was so nice, I did treat myself to a little lie down in the grass on an inviting hillside above the village of Nantmawr.  Not without first setting my alarm to wake me up 10 mins later though. 

 

Another familiar routine I’d slipped into was, in the latter part of each section, completely underestimating the time and distance to the next check point. Less than 2 miles from Chirk (or so I thought) I encountered Dylan, one of the race volunteers, running up the trail towards me while out for an afternoon leg-stretch. ‘Only just over 3 miles to go’, he said, causing my heart to sink. That extra mile may not sound much, but at that moment it seemed highly significant.

 

I eventually stumbled into the spectacular check point at the Castle at around 6:15pm feeling a bit sorry for myself. That mood evaporated instantly though as the treatment from Rachel, who was in charge of the place, made me feel like royalty for the next half hour. I was fed, watered, offered a towel to keep me warm, brought a heater to dry my shoes and given an extra chair to put my feel up. One of the greatest things about the whole race, was getting this kind of treatment from the wonderful volunteers at every check point.

 

 

Section 9: To Llandegla Campsite, 15 miles

 

Tempting as it was to stay longer, I knew I should make the most of the remaining daylight and honour my goal of reaching the 150-mile point before the end of Sunday.

 

 

 

The relatively easy running over the next few miles and the spectacular sight of the Pont Cysyllte Aqueduct helped maintain my improved mood, despite becoming a bit disorientated finding my way out of Trevor. And the subsequent stretch along the Panorama Walk in the hills high above Llangollen had me making another mental note of an area to revisit as a tourist. 

 

It was a beautifully still night, as I contoured my way around the westerly slopes of Eglwyseq Mountain and up onto high barren moorland to its north.  And I kept thinking to myself how fortunate we’d been with the weather during the nights so far. Then, almost like I’d stepped on some hidden sensor right on the highest point, there was a flash of lightening, immediately followed by a crack of thunder and stair-rods falling from the sky. ‘Shit’, I shouted (out loud I think), this isn’t the place to be in an electrical storm, nor was I relishing the prospect of a soaking.

 

Full body waterproof cover was called for, for the first (and, as it turned out, only) time in the race. This was quickly donned and, with an injection of adrenalin, I scampered off across the moor to begin my descent through the forest towards Llandegla.

 

Sometime after midnight, the drowned rat that was me dripped in to Tom and Darren’s palace at the campsite that formed CP 9 for more royal treatment.

 

Section 10: To Bodfari Woodland Skills, 19 miles

 

The rain continued for much of the night while my bodily batteries recharged with the aid of spicy stew, hot tea and 4 hours cocooned in my sleeping bag on the tent floor. I stayed a bit longer than intended but the gen from the guys was that my 4th position remained safe, my pursuers having bedded down at Chirk. 

 

Nonetheless, by first light on Monday I was heading onwards and upwards into the Clwydian mountains, a section we’d been told at the race briefing was stunning but not kind on the legs.  Something that proved to be completely accurate on both counts.

 

Although the ODP had been even tougher than I’d expected overall, I was pleased that my body had held out better than expected so far. Fresh socks every 50 miles and regular application of Vaseline had kept my feet in pretty good shape and, although there’d been a few twinges, no critical muscles had given up the ghost. My knees were starting to give me some feedback now though, and down hills had started to become the enemy. Envy of those that had equipped themselves with poles was back! That said, I remained in a buoyant mood and determined to enjoy my day in these wonderful mountains.

 

Since leaving Chepstow on Friday evening, I’d tried hard to stay in the moment and only think about the destination as the next check point. If I thought about the end game, it was too scary and demoralising, as the magnitude of the task was just too huge. However, on reaching the Jubilee Tower standing majestically on the summit of Moel Famau, I decided that this could now change.  ‘Prestatyn 20 Miles’ said the sign, a distance that, despite my slow pace, now seemed extremely manageable.  I pressed on, feeling confident that I’d be done by nightfall and, hopefully in time to get home to my own bed that evening.

 

The trail along the northern part of the Clwydian range was busy with day hikers and DofE kids, who I passed with a (relative) spring in my step; a little part of me wanting them to ask how far I’d run.  Well, when I say run, actual running was now quite a challenge. On anything approaching steepness, whether up or down, that wasn’t really happening any more. So I invented ‘compulsory run zones’, to motivate myself into a trot every time the terrain permitted. Despite the closely packed contour lines and underfoot hazards, I was on a mission to keep the average pace above 3mph, a speed that would get me a sub-3 (days that is).

 

Shortly before 1pm I located the Michelin starred restaurant that was the final check point, hidden in the forested hills above Bodfari. I was spoilt for choice by the extensive gourmet menu, and ended up going for an al a carte selection of pot noodle (again), tuna sandwich and prawn cocktail crisps.  

 

Section 11: To Prestatyn, 12 miles

 

As you’ve already heard, the ODP can be cruel. It always seems to take the route of most resistance. And its most northerly section turned out to be particularly mean. Soon after departing Bodfari I crested the last of the Clwydian’s foot hills and saw the North Sea, just a few miles of relatively flat terrain away. But could I make a ‘B line’ for it? Of course not! The ODP goes down to cross the A55 duel carriageway, the ODP goes up into the hills to the east, the ODP goes down almost to the outskirts of Prestatyn, and then, for one final twist of the knife, the ODP climbs back up almost vertically to traverse the cliff edge that towers above the town.  

I didn’t care about that though. I’d made it through this epic journey unscathed. And a little tiny part of me even felt disappointed that the adventure was coming to an end.

 

As I carefully negotiated the steep steps down the hillside to meet the streets of the town, the heavens started to open again. Which kind of felt like an appropriate way to arrive at the British seaside.

 

With only a mile to go, I really couldn’t be arsed to unpack my waterproofs again, so, welcoming the smooth pavement under my feet, started to wind up my sprint for the finish line. It’s always amazing how aches and pains can fade when a struggle is coming to the end isn’t it?!

 

Soon I had the actual finish line in sight. I knew I did by the big banner at the end of the street with ‘FINISH’ on it. And the crowds now lining the sides of the street were…….. completely non-existent. In fact, in keeping with the wonderful low-key nature of the whole race, the finish line was completely deserted too.  There was not single a person in sight as I entered the last 100 metres. ‘Not to worry’, I thought, ‘they’ll be recording my time from my tracker’. But then, at the very last second, I spotted RD Richard, sprinting across the promenade towards ‘The Rock’, flanked by two of the race crew.

 

With a big smile on my face, I raced up to touch the rock at 17:23 hours on Monday, 69 hours and 23 minutes after starting out. And, after a quick photo opportunity, scuttled into the shelter of the Nova Centre where I was able to exchange my currency for my finisher’s prize.

 

Such is the nature of the event, the 3 runners that had finished ahead of me had long since departed, the chasing pack behind me wouldn’t finish for another 5-6 hours and the last of the competitors would be coming in at some point tomorrow. Celebrations therefore consisted of a shower, a table for one and train home to a comfortable bed.  My drop bag arriving 6 minutes before the train was due did create some excitement though; and mustering a sprint over the station bridge, after being whisked up with the road by Anthony, was quite a challenge.

 

Reflections

 

On the train home I was able to reflect on the adventure that had gone before. I was extremely chuffed to have completed the longest and toughest race I’d attempted to date, and to have made 4th place.

 

Could I have gone quicker? Perhaps a little, mostly by cutting down dwelling time at check points along the way. This would have been a risk though. I’d found stopping for a good feed and some human interaction with the volunteers really effective at recharging my batteries, both bodily and mentally, ready for the next section. So cutting this out may well have resulted in crashing and burning further up the course.

 

Notwithstanding the malfunction with my pack, my kit had served me well. My body had held together much better than I’d ever expected. And, navigation, apart from some very small deviations, had been fine; using mostly a Cicerone map by day and smartphone app by night to supplement the national trail acorns. So, on the whole, a good day (well 3 days) at the office!

 

The Credits

 

Many thanks to:

  • Richard Weremiuk and Beyond Marathon for putting on a great and iconic event.

  • Every single volunteer working on the event for treating the competitors like royalty and looking after our every need at the check points along the way.

  • The other competitors for their company along the way and, in particular, Becky Wightman for working with me through my ‘critical juncture’ of Saturday night, when completion could have gone either way.

 

Huge kudos to everyone that put themselves on the start line in Chepstow, and massive congratulations to those that fought through to reach their finish line; whether that was in Montgomery or Prestatyn.

 

Will I be back for the next edition in 2019?  Hmmmmmmm

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