Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Escape from Meriden


"In Meriden, a 500 year old cross marks the centre of England. You have 24 hours to get as far as you can away from Meriden. You can only travel on foot. The Crow will be watching you."


Well, you can't really pass on a challenge like that, can you. And I love events with almost no rules, it seems to take the game back to where we started before all the insurance, kit lists, medical forms and so on trickled in over the years to make what is an essentially very simple pastime complicated. Like when we used to rock up to Milngavie Station Yard on an April Saturday morning about twenty minutes before the start of a 50 mile run to check in and receive the iconic briefing from Murdo MacDonald - "Hello everyone, this is the Fling, there are no rules, just try to let us know if you drop out, see you in Tyndrum, off you go now!"

Escape from Meriden is a bit more structured than that but only where necessary. You have 24 hours, starting at 11.59pm on a Friday evening, to get as far away as you can. You can go in any direction and use any route you like, so long as it is on public access land. The distance you get will be measured "as the Crow flies" so getting a route that is as near to a radial "spoke" from the start pays off with minimum wasted miles. Clear 30 miles and you get a silver medal, 60 miles a gold, and 90 miles for the coveted "Black Crow". Everyone carries a tracker for the distance recording. And that's it. You can enter as a solo competitor, a pair if you like company, or a chained together pair if you really want to get close. You can have a support team to follow you around if you want, but that seems a bit against the spirit of the adventure and I didn't see much evidence of many runners having support (at the start at least).

The other appeal for me is that a bit of planning and making good decisions on the day pays off, which keeps an old duffer like me at least in the same game as the real athletes if still nowhere near their achievements. My house in Chester is about 70 miles as the crow flies from Meriden so that seemed like a reasonable target. Looking at previous results (the event had been run twice before, once in November and once in the summer), I guessed I would have to cover around 85 miles on the ground to get home if I picked a fairly efficient route.  In the very unlikely event that I still had time left, pushing on up the Wirral to West Kirby would get to the Black line. Main trunk roads are not the most pleasant pedestrian experience, especially at night, so the realistic options available seemed to be roads with pavements, (hopefully) quieter country lanes, old railway lines, canal towpaths and easy to follow tracks and footpaths.

The Shopshire Union Canal runs from the Wolverhampton to Chester, passing within 100 yards of my house, so it seemed to be the most logical feature to base my route on. To reach it from Meriden there were several options but eventually I chose a route mostly through the leafy suburbs of the West Midlands to hit the Shroppy at Brewood just south of the A5, around 33 miles from Meriden. Google Streetview showed the line having a few miles of country lanes, but the majority along urban roads with pavements, most of which appeared to have street lighting. So, good to go.

An easy train journey on the Friday evening saw me in Birmingham International station at around 9.30pm, studying the timetable of the X1 bus to Coventry. "Yes, you're in the right place" said a voice from behind. It was Andy Adkin, also heading to Meriden from Manchester. By the time the bus arrived there was a little gang of around eight runners waiting to get on for the short trip to Meriden. Registration was simple, just a question of picking up a number to pin on somewhere (16 for me) and a GPS tracker to go in the top pocket of the rucksack. Plenty of time left for lazing around, drinking tea, and chatting to some of the other runners about their plans. People seemed to be heading towards every corner of the country  -  this really is a great event format. Looking at other runners' gear I seemed to be travelling fairly heavy, but my thinking was that comfortable self-sufficiency needs a fair bit of stuff, and I was aware that although the weather seemed pleasant enough at the moment, going into the second period of darkness was likely to be the crunch period. I was starting off in a light fleece and pertex showerproof, but in the bag I had a fairly chunky goretex and light down jacket in case things got chilly and/or wet. And I wasn't intending to travel particularly quickly anyway.

After a fairly short briefing, during which RD Richard's main messages were to stay away from main roads with no pavement and not forget to post our trackers back on Monday, we were out of the hall and milling around on the green by the 500 year old stone cross. "Go" was at 11.59pm. I hung around a short while to witness the amazing spectacle of 120 runners scattering in all directions, made even more impressive by the 100 who had taken up the offer of a free, lightweight, bright orange boiler suit to wear over their clothes - the mass jailbreak theme was really brought to life!

I joined a dozen or so participants heading north along the dark country road to Maxstoke, about 3 miles distant. A bit of chat at the start but then we soon separated into our various paces and I was alone, one of a string of lights heading out into the darkness. At Maxstoke I lost the last of the bobbing lights as everyone else seemed to be continuing north, whereas my way led more northwest along a much narrower lane which led in another couple of miles to the first town, Coleshill. It was now well after 1am but Friday night is the universal "night out" time so I wasn't surprised to see a huge gang of young people around in the centre, either waiting for taxis or just not wanting to go home yet. The atmosphere was noisy but friendly enough; I had turned my light out and no-one seemed to pay any attention to an ageing jogger in a woolly hat trundling past, not even the young lady pulling down her knickers for a wee in the gutter.

After a short unlit section along a dual carriageway with a footpath, I turned under a motorway bridge to emerge at the village of Water Orton, and from here it was mostly residential suburbs for miles. The next major town was Sutton Coldfield and by then it was getting pretty late. Apart from a trio of homeward-bound singers it was quiet apart from the occasional taxi. The only other residents I saw were three foxes, one of which didn't realise I was there until I was about ten yards away when he sensed me and scuttled quickly off; they live in Sutton Park I suppose.

I was enjoying the progress. The route was gently undulating for most of the way, with long gentle uphills which I walked, and similar downhills which I jogged. I was maintaining about a four and a half miles an hour average pace which was easily as good as I had hoped for. My dodgy knee had hurt for the first two or three hours and I was looking forward to a painkiller at 4am, but by then it had stopped so no drugs required it and stayed trouble free for the rest of the run. My route bisected Walsall and Aldridge then carried on through Bloxwich, the last major urban centre, by when it was going to work time for the early starters. I knew there was a 24 hour petrol station on the exit from Bloxwich, so I had my first stop for a large latte and picked up a bottle of Oasis at the same time. I wasn't particularly cold but it was still good to have a hot drink.

Crossing over the M6 by Hilton Park services, I was then back into unlit country lanes for the last time. Not great at first because there was now quite a lot of "taking a short cut to work" traffic to avoid, but it was getting light fast and by the time I passed the prison near Cross Green it was time to turn my lamp off. It was only about three miles to Brewood, I hoped there would be a shop open there before I joined the canal because I was now running short on supplies. Two Snickers bars, a quarter pound block of Dairy Milk and a packet of Haribo Starmix had somehow disappeared during the night, along with a litre and a half of drinks (and the large coffee). I'm normally not too fussy about what I eat on these outings so long as it has calories, so as long as there was a shop open I was sure I would be OK. I do get bored with water though so on this trip I just went with a variety of drinks, whatever was available, Lucozade Sport, Oasis, Ribena, Vimto, that sort of stuff. In Brewood the Co-op was open, so I topped up with another litre and a packet of gingernut biscuits which would see me good for a few miles, then it was onto the canal.

Thomas Telford's canal, which eventually became known as the Shropshire Union, or the "Shroppy", was the last major narrow canal built in England.  The skill of the surveyors and the tenacity of the constructors, selecting the lines and levels and moving the vast quantities of earth required, created a waterway that was level and straight, with long elevated sections and a minimum of curves and locks, effectively the HS2 of the day. Unfortunately, this also created a feature which is not so inspiring to run along, especially for someone who does most of his stuff in the Lakes. But I knew this before I started and it was the obvious efficient route for the direction I wanted to go, so I was prepared to live with the potential boredom; if you can't take a joke you shouldn't have joined sort of approach. Step 1, out came the radio and I was accompanied by Radio 4 for the next 8 hours or so.

The first landmark came up as the canal crossed over the A5 on the short "Thomas Telford" aqueduct which I'd seen many times from the road below but never from up here before, doubly significant today because it was just a few hundred yards short of the "Silver Medal" line, 30 miles as the Crow flies from Meriden ; whatever happened now I was guaranteed some bling for finishing.

One thing that I wasn't really prepared for was the softness of the towpath surface along the majority of the canal. There were some sections of good firm grass or prepared surface, but the majority seemed to be either slightly tussocky or damp and muddy. In sections where the canal was tree-lined there was also a continuous carpet of leaves to be kicked through. But I was still making good enough progress with my walk/jog approach. I tried alternating miles or half miles, sometimes time periods like 10 or 15 minutes, sometimes just going to "that bridge in the far distance" to break the thing up a bit. I was determined to get to 40 miles in under 10 hours and it duly arrived in 9.55 but I had a feeling the writing was on the wall now and the inevitable slowdown wasn't far away. On the plus side I still had 14 hours left to cover the remaining (estimated) 45 miles to Chester.

At Norbury Junction at 44 miles in a teashop appeared over a bridge on the far side of the canal so I had my first sit down since Meriden accompanied by a pot of tea and a substantial chunk of flapjack. Rather forbodingly though, a sign on the bridge warned canal users that this was "the last services for 10 hours cruising!" The  11 miles from here up to Market Drayton seemed a fairly long haul but somewhere along this stretch I met a cyclist coming in the opposite direction who greeted me with "Are you escaping from Coventry too then?" He had seen a couple of others earlier who he said were looking a bit tired. How far ahead, I asked, maybe two or three miles was the reply. A bit of a spur, maybe I would catch them. I never did, they must have got a second wind and speeded up, or so I thought at the time. The day had brightened up though, after a gloomy morning we were now getting odd patches of sunshine, though still chilly enough for me to keep my hat and gloves on for more or less the whole trip.

I'd run out of fuel again by Market Drayton but the canal only skirted the town so a detour to find a shop was necessary. Morrisons was the first after about half a mile. I nipped in to the front snacks area for a couple of bottles of drink and more chocolate and retraced my steps to the canal, not wanting to spend too much time off the main direct route. I later found out that this was at just the time that Nick and Andy were in the Morrisons' cafe refuelling so I passed within a few feet without seeing them. They then left the canal and made some faster progress along roads from there.

After Market Drayton I rolled on through Any Answers, a play based on a Graham Greene novel, Weekend Womans Hour (!!??), but so did the canal and the brushes with civilisation started to become more frequent. The first real flight of locks since the start led down to Audlem, where it got more gloomy again as the second period of darkness approached. The Bridge Inn was virtually on the towpath so I felt by now that this was one gift horse I really shouldn't overlook.

It was wonderful in the pub. I settled down in a corner by the fire with a large coffee and an even larger bag of crisps, listening to the locals chatting over the "one before going home for tea" and watching the sports results on the TV. The rugby against the Aussies had gone pretty well and Liverpool had secured a comfortable 3-0 win so the world seemed pretty much to rights. I could have stayed (a lot) longer, but chivvied myself out of the door after about twenty minutes feeling good and looking forward to the evening. I should have got another bottle of drink here but didn't bother as I had half a litre left and it wasn't too far up to Nantwich.

It was now fully dark. I'd made the decision in the pub that my jogging had finished for the trip and I didn't bother to put the radio back on. I was happy just to cruise along in the darkness with my thoughts at a steady three and a half miles an hour, a pace that I can normally keep up for quite a long time. Some fairly assertive "Canal Closed, Turn Here" signs raised a slight concern but I assumed the towpath would still be passable and this proved to be the case. In fact there was quite a lot of major maintenance going on along the length of the canal that I travelled, with boats "marooned" in between workings until the Spring I guess.

On a trip like this you have to create landmarks because there are no set checkpoints to break the thing up. Nantwich was important to me because it got me to Page 10.  I had printed out my route as an OS 1:50,000 map on a series of A4 sheets. Eleven sheets covered from Meriden to Hargrave, about two and a half miles from my house (I thought I might just make these last two and a half without a map..). Now there wasn't an equal distance covered on each sheet of course but ticking the sheets off as I went through the day was definitely satisfying, and getting to the "last but one" would be a welcome milestone. So, Nantwich, Page 10.

The canalside mileposts gave the countdown to Nantwich. The first one I'd seen was "Nantwich 34" and we were now down to "Nantwich 1". The only problem was that when that mile was done there was no sign of any useful facilities, just an almost completely dark marina. The map showed that the canal was almost a mile to the West of the centre on a high embankment, and at 6.30pm there was no guarantee of shops anyway, I would be hoping for petrol stations. I had completely run out of drink but decided to press on to Barbridge 3 miles further on in the hope that it would be better.

Just as I passed the start of the Llangollen canal at Hurleston Junction, my headlamp started to fade and it started raining. From other competitors stories after the event I think we had the best of the weather coming North, the South had a much wetter Saturday, but for me it was now going to be wet to the end. I stopped to put on my waterproof jacket and change the torch batteries.

Barbridge was also significant because it marked the "Gold Medal" line for the event, 60 miles from Meriden. I reached it at 7.45pm after travelling just over 71 miles. I was no way going to make it to the "Black" line but it seemed silly not to push on to see how far I could get in the 24 hours. I was still hoping to get home, a totally artificial target but then if you actually tried to find anything at all rational about the game we were playing I think you might be a bit pressed. I thought I remembered there was a pub at Barbridge, because you can see it from the road on our normal route from Chester to the M6 southbound, but it only became apparent that it was on the other side of the canal when I had gone a hundred yards past the access bridge. "Well, I'm not going back," I thought, and pressed on. Fifteen minutes later I was having a bit of a word with myself; this was the second poor decision I'd made this evening, and I really know that it's not an incapacity to deal with the challenge that normally screws up events, it's making bad decisions. There was almost 4 hours of the time still to run, if I was going to use it efficiently I needed to get some fluids on board.

The map showed a pub at Alpraham, a short detour off the canal, so by 9pm I was in the Tollemache Arms with a pint of Coke going down nicely. While sitting comfortably I looked at the remaining distances on the map. Maybe three and a half miles to the Shady Oak near Beeston, another four to Hargrave, then two and a half home, say ten in total. It still looked OK but I mustn't hang around. I rang Jan to let her know my plans and that I still hoped to make it home. I finished my fourth packet of crisps of the day (nothing but healthfood on this trip) and wandered out into the night again at about 9.20pm.

I jogged the half mile of road back to the canal at Bunbury locks just to show some purpose then started my last stint on the towpath. I hadn't gone many yards when my torch started to dim, at first slowly then rapidly. This was a bit worrying. My spare batteries had lasted barely an hour and a half. I'd started out with a brand new set in Meriden, but the ones I'd put in at Barbridge were just three that I'd found in the drawer taped together. I'd assumed that as I hadn't untaped them they were spares from another trip so were OK. Evidently not. What I had left was a tiny spare torch, used mainly for changing batteries in the dark, and another taped bunch of three batteries which for all I knew now were no better than the ones I had in the torch. I persisted for as long as possible with the fading ones until I was going so slowly that it didn't make sense so I stopped and put the last set in. They seemed OK but then so had the previous ones  -  nothing for it but to press on (they just about made it to midnight but another lesson learned, I'll only ever go with new unwrapped spares in future!).

The path was getting muddier and slower going, not helped by the now steady rain. The Shady Oak looked cheery and very tempting, probably a good job that it was on the far side of the canal and would have involved crossing the bridge, otherwise I might have sidled in. It seemed a long way to Tattenhall, the novelty was starting to wear off a bit now but I was still just about keeping in touch. But the mile or so from Tattenhall to Hargrave were the worst of the whole journey. Really boggy now, for the first time I had completely soaked feet, sliding and stumbling. After what seemed an age I emerged onto the road at the Hargrave bridge. There are two and a half miles of road parallel to the canal from here back to my house; I must have run them hundreds of times. I'd felt that if I could get to here with half an hour left I was in with a chance on the easy surface. I looked at my watch; it was 11.35pm  -  24 minutes until the Crow got me.

I started to give it a shot but as soon as I started running I realised that I couldn't. I was too tired to maintain the slightly faster than 10 minute miles required - a pace I hadn't got near for the whole distance so far  -  for more than a few paces at a time. As soon as I realised that it was game over, the urgency left me and I was reduced to a very slow shuffle for the last twenty minutes. At midnight (just to be on the safe side) I stopped, called in the cavalry and Jan was with me in five minutes.

The whole thing was a great experience, with a bit more sense of adventure than you get in many ultras these days. In spite of not quite making my target I found myself really quite happy with my performance. I'd never travelled so far on such flat territory before and the damage I expected from repetitive use of the same muscles didn't really happen. I was tired enough Sunday but more or less OK by Monday. I've decided not to go running again until Wednesday just to give a good recovery period. I think the escape format is brilliant, I'm sure I'll get around to doing another one sometime.

Officially I made it to 69,1 miles from Meriden, which put me in 15th place out of 74 starters in the solo category (another interesting feature of this event is that no-one gets a DNF!). My watch at the finish showed that I had covered 85,5 miles on the ground. I am really impressed by the guys who made it to 90 miles who will have covered way over a hundred miles on the ground, on their own and with no support, in November.

This was my second Beyond Marathon event, after Offa's Dyke in September, and I can already see why people keep coming back. Many thanks to Richard and the team for putting on such an intriguing event. I've already signed up for Deadwater next year!





Monday, 13 November 2017

White Rose Ultra

I really had no intention of running the White Rose ultra this year, but after failing to make the start of the Lakes in a Day event from getting two punctures on the way there, I had a quick look around to see what was available to fill the gap and the White Rose seemed an easy decision. It offers a choice of 30, 60 and 100 mile courses all based on a 30 mile loop in the southern Pennines near Huddersfield, only about an hour and a quarter drive from Chester so it would be possible for the 30 at least for me to travel over on the morning of the race and get back in time for dinner. I ran the 30 a couple of years ago in the company of John Kynaston (it was his first lap of the 60) in wall to wall sunshine; I had enjoyed it, but though the views are good and there is a fair bit of climbing (around 4500 ft this year), the course follows a lot of easy tracks and quite a high percentage of country roads, so the pace required is reasonably quick, which I thought wouldn't be great for my knees in their current condition. In 2015 John and I had taken 5 hours 47 mins for the lap; I suspected I would not get anywhere near that this time, but the cutoff for the 30 miles is a fairly generous 8 hours so I could take it much easier and still get round. I needed the trip anyway, having done nothing of note since Offa's Dyke back in September.

The start/finish location had been changed since 2015. Back then it was in a dingy old mill building, this time it was in a rather smart Visitor Centre at the eastern end of the Standedge canal tunnel near Marsden, and I arrived in good time just after 7am to register ready for an 8am start. The weather forecast was a bit mixed. Rain for definite at first, followed by a clearing later in the day with a drop in temperature and a rise in wind speed  -  so wet first, then cold!

All three events were started off simultaneously on the dot of 8am, after a brief briefing from RD Wayne Law, so around 350 competitors left the visitor centre and set off up the first hill. It was raining. The pattern of the loop was fairly simple, a series of climbs up to moor level followed by returns down to valleys, in a jagged loop. The first up/down was fairly short, but the climb was up a narrow tarmac road so it enabled the field to thin out to everyone's preferred pace easily, without any jostling or difficulties with overtaking. Not that I was really interested in overtaking anyway, but it was encouraging to see that all the field around me were walking the hill and I wasn't completely at the back. The ascent was followed by a nice runnable descent back to valley level; I had decided to keep my jogging fairly comfortable even on the downhills to see if I could get round without too much knee pain, and on the first descent this seemed to be working fine.

The most memorable ascent is a long gentle one from Marsden, picking up the Pennine Way path after a mile or so all the way up to the highest point on the loop near the A635 at the top of the Wessenden valley, at around the 1500ft contour. It's a gentle climb on a nice track with good views. In 2015 this had come over halfway around the course, and with it being a hot day John and I found it a bit of a pull and had to walk from time to time. This time though, because of the new location of the start/finish, it was the second ascent of the day, and in the cooler, rainy conditions was runnable, or at least joggable, all the way. Near the start I fell in with and started chatting to a 100 mile runner, Perry, and we spent most of the remainder of my day together. It was good to have the company. On the ascent it had stopped raining and as we were jogging steadily we were warming up so jackets came off (it was never wet enough to warrant waterproof trousers all day, but then these are a garment I don't wear often anyway).

There was an unmanned water station at the high point but neither of us needed to stop. There were two water points and two food points (which had stuff like biscuits and jelly babies) around the 30 mile loop. I was experimenting with going light on food and drink because I've been doing a bit of "no food" training to try to get better at fat burning, so I took  no food with me and just picked up a ginger biscuit and a few jelly babies at the two points they were available. That and the litre of water that I started with seemed fine for the 30 miles.

There was a very long easy descent after this, but after that I don't really remember much detail of the rest of the course. It was a series of ascents, many of which I walked, and descents, but all on good ground under foot, country lanes, jeep tracks and the occasional but infrequent bit of muddy footpath, across farmland, bits of moor and through villages. The route was fully marked and I suppose not having to pay attention to a map makes you less aware of the overall scheme of things, a bit like when you're using a satnav in the car.

After the initial rain had stopped the day got colder and windier as forecast, presumably in the wake of a passing weather front. Jackets went back on again and as the morning turned into a grey afternoon it started to feel a bit bleak. Still, it was pleasant enough to be out in the countryside and making steady progress.

The steepest uphill on the course had been reserved for the final mile or so before the finish, a bit of a sting in the tail when we thought we were almost done. The end for me came in just over six and a half hours, as I came in in 102nd place out of 197 finishers. Around 45 minutes slower than two years ago but I was happy enough, it had been a fairly relaxed trip and I wasn't out for personal records. I wished Perry all the best for the two and a bit more loops he still had on the agenda and sidled off inside for tea and a warming bowl of chilli. One of my knees had been a bit painful for the final 10 miles or so but otherwise I seemed to have survived OK.

I really didn't envy the 60 and 100 competitors carrying on into what was clearly going to be a pretty chilly night. It must have been tough, the attrition rates were quite high - only 12 out of 36 starters completed the 100; unfortunately, Perry was not among them.

Meanwhile I could enjoy the warmth inside and was back in Chester for dinner as planned. A generally friendly and well-run event but I'm not sure the running surface is really my thing, it's doubtful if I'll go again. I'm writing this a week later after returning from one of the Lakeland 100 recces yesterday, from Coniston to Buttermere, 27 miles and around 7000ft of ascent; tougher ground and slower, but more to my taste these days.






Saturday, 7 October 2017

Map, compass,......................and GPS.

Navigation.

Unless we stick to races which follow lines of flags or equally well-marked trails we all have to do some at times. It may be just deciding which track to take at a junction in good visibilty, or it could be finding your way across a trackless, featureless plateau on a dark and misty night, but it's all navigation. And we are all more or less comfortable with the deal, ranging from "I'd much rather follow someone who seems to know what they're doing" to "I'm happy with my own abilities under all circumstances". To help us find our way we have a range of tools which we may or may not have the desire, or the ability, to use.

I last posted about this around three years ago but it's a subject that I think is always interesting to return to from time to time, and in particular the "map versus gps" debate which raises its head on Facebook groups with some regularity.  Two positions that I don't really understand are (a) "the only way to navigate properly is using a map and compass, anything else is cheating", and (b) "I'll carry a gps as a backup to using my map and compass (or vice-versa), but I will normally stick with my preferred method". Let me try to convince you that the game is more complicated (and much rewarding) than this.

So let's have a look at how we navigate, what tools are available and how to choose and use them. What qualifications do I have for addressing this? Well, none at all really, except that I first set a map to a compass over fifty years ago and have been finding my way around hillwalking, mountaineering, ski-touring and running outings fairly regularly ever since. I get lost from time to time (and we'll come to what "getting lost" means later), but anyone that tells you they don't is being a bit economical; the key then is getting back on track, which I don't think I've ever failed to do. Of course, you'll get my view of the world, which certainly isn't the only one, and if all I do here is to make you think a bit more about yours, then the exercise will have been worthwhile. The debate is part of the fun. So here goes:

Maps

If you don't have regular flags to follow, then the first thing you need is a map. Actually, even with flags you might need something else. On the Alpine events such as the UTMB, TDG and so on which always follow paths, flags will always keep you on track, but where the event crosses trackless ground at times such as in the Skyrunning races, it's possible for mist to obscure one flag from the next, leaving you with a bit of work to do if there's no path on the ground. So if ever you read or hear when entering an event that "the course is fully marked", it's a wise move to take this with a pinch of salt and at least have an overall idea of where it goes. But I digress, back to maps.

We're spoilt in the UK; the maps available to us are pretty well as good as they come.  The OS 1:25,000 series are detailed enough to get you anywhere, and have been available (originally in the "2,5 inches to the Mile" form) for as long as I can remember. The other option for the runner is the Harvey's 1:40,000 series. They don't cover the whole country but do take in a lot of interesting areas such as the Lakes and most of the long distance trails; they're waterproof and you don't need as much paperwork to cover the ground. Many events produce a bespoke map in this style, Lakeland 50/100, Dragon's Back, the "10 peaks" races and so on. The only real disadvantages are that you don't get as many contour lines and you don't get low-level field boundaries.

I'm assuming here that anyone reading this can read a map, that is to understand what is meant by the various lines and symbols  -  if you can't, just pick one up and look at the key in the corner! But for a map to be any use on the ground you need to have two other bits of information  -  (1) where are you NOW? and (2) in what orientation should you hold the map to represent the ground around you? In a landcape with plenty of features, you can orient the map from the ground just by turning it to represent what you see, and you can constantly check where you are as you move by noting landmarks as you pass them - path junctions, corners of woodland, footbridges and so on. Most runners using a map as a prime source will fold it to show just the section they are currently traversing, and put their thumb on the landmarks as they pass them  -  "thumbing the map". In my view, even on ground that you are unfamiliar with, this is the fastest way to navigate ground with plenty of features in clear weather in daylight (for example most of the national trails, the Lakeland 100 course and similar trips) You get the big picture and the detail simultaneously and it is easy to see where to go and to judge progress.

"Thumbing the map" in easy territory in 
daylight (Offas Dyke Race)
























Compass

But what happens when things get a bit less clear, say the mist brings visibility down to a hundred metres or so? Well what happens is you lose the landmarks by which you oriented your map - the church spire, the clump of trees, the stream, the nearby hills, the track zig-zagging up the hillside, so you have much less confidence that it tells you accurately what's in front of you. This is where you set the map to the compass (I'm not going to describe that, you know how to do it). Again, if the ground has reasonable features, most runners won't bother with bearings, they will just hold the compass in the same hand as the map and keep orienting the map as they go to keep the N-S gridlines lined up with the needle  - orienteering compasses have a thumb grip (and often no degree markings) to make this easier.

Now to the next level of difficulty; it's still daylight, still misty, but there is no path on the ground to follow. This might be on an open hillside or moorland, or even in a series of cultivated fields where there is no path, you're just moving from one stile or gate to the next. Here's where the scale and accuracy of the map can help. There is a lot of detail on the 1:25000 OS maps, which means that identifiable features are closer together. In a series of fields with each boundary and the line of the path marked on the map (even if not on the ground), you can often just keep the map oriented in your hand and set off in the direction shown on the map from one landmark (say the corner of a field) with a good chance of finding the next one (say the exit gate) if it's not too far, maybe a couple of hundred yards; you may not hit the gate spot-on but it won't be far away when you reach the field boundary and should be within sight.

But if your map shows less detail (such as the Harveys 1:40,000), or identifiable landmarks are further apart, you may need to be more precise about how you progress from one to the next; you may need to follow a bearing. Again I'll assume that you know how to translate a direction on the map to a bearing on your compass; but it's how you follow the bearing that often gets overlooked. Not many people can follow a bearing accurately by just looking at the compass and moving in the direction that it points; try it on a park or football pitch, you're likely to find that you rapidly veer off to one side or the other like most of us. The normal way to follow a bearing is to select something in the far range of your vision that is on the bearing and then go to it; then repeat the process with more of these "bearing markers" until you reach the landmark you set the bearing for. Bearing markers will be rocks, fence posts, trees, anything that doesn't move; the further apart they are, the more accurate your progress will be.

This sounds OK, but what if the ground in front of you is so featureless that there are no features you can use as bearing markers? Well, there are at least three tactics that you may be able to use to get somewhere;-

1. If you are not alone, you can use each other as markers; one person goes ahead on the bearing, directed by one standing still to go left or right to stay on the bearing until at the limit of visibility. You then move to him/her and repeat the process. No good if you are alone though!

2. You can accept that you may not follow your bearing accurately by "aiming off". Suppose your next landmark is a footbridge across a stream. Your concern is that you will miss it, so you set a bearing to miss it deliberately, say by aiming to the left of it by a hundred hards or so (how far you aim off depends on how far away it is), When you eventually hit the stream you now know that you have to turn right and follow it to reach the bridge.

3. You may not have features in the precisely the direction you want to take, but you may be able to use other reliable features as "handrails". In the example I gave above, instead of aiming off you may find that a wall or fence leads from where you are to meet the stream say a quarter of a mile from the bridge. You can then follow the fence then the stream as reliable handrails; you will travel further but you will know where you and get to where you want to go without problems.

All this so far is pretty standard stuff and anyone who has spent any time wandering around the hills will have probably used most if not all of these techniques. It's not rocket science and easily learned and practised. But what you notice is that as conditions get progressively unhelpful, then navigation gets a bit more time consuming, both in thinking time and often in travel time too.  But then there are a couple more factors that influence ultra running events in particular.

Darkness

Now you may be different but when I've gone out for a day in the hills I've normally tried to confine my activity to the daylight hours, which makes the whole thing not only easier but a lot more fun. Ok, I might have walked up a few glaciers in the dark on "Alpine starts", and had my share of benightments, but these were normally minor parts of the trip and a bit of faffing around navigating carefully didn't compromise the day too much.  But once you get into the ultra game, unless you confine yourself to shorter events in the summer, then progress in the dark is very much part of the deal. It might be only two or three hours at the end of an event because you don't travel as fast as the leaders, or maybe 16 hours out of every 24 on the Spine, but either way how you navigate in the dark will have a significant impact on your race.

In the dark, everything gets more difficult. Running itself is more difficult for a start. In daylight, even in quite thick mist, you're getting signals via your peripheral vision on the near distance of the way ahead, allowing you to concentrate on where you put your feet while adjusting your direction of travel at the same time. In the dark you have no peripheral vision so must concentrate on one thing at a time.

Navigation, as we've covered up to here, is still completely possible with your map and compass, but again because you get limited feedback from the ground, only what you can see in your torch beam, then everything gets slower. Which leads to the other factor:

Speed

Ultra events are races. Now you may not actually be competing to win, but how fast you cover the ground will always be important to you. And as we have seen, the impact as navigation gets more difficult, through featureless ground, poor visibility and darkness, is that you move slower. How fast you navigate might be the difference between meeting the race cut-offs and missing them.

So here's where we start to get to the real debate. Do we have any more tools nowadays that will help us counteract this reduction in speed? And of course the answer is yes.

Reliability of electrical/electronic devices

Let's get this one out in the open before we start.  A frequent criticism I hear of the use of electronic navigational aids is "What happens when they go wrong?" Well I have two answers to that:

1. I have been using electronic aids to navigation, in the form of watches (in their non-gps form), altimeters, hand-held gps units and more recently the gps-enabled watches, for around forty years now. I have never had one fail, other than when I forgot to charge it or put batteries in.

2. I would never advocate the use of electronics as an outright alternative to a map and compass and the ability to use them, so whatever happens you will always have a way to navigate.

So what I'm much more interested in is what can the electronics do for us that is better than a map and compass.

Altimeter

Long before the advent of gps we were using altimeters. Knowing the elevation you are at gives you a real step up in information to work with. It helps pinpoint your current location, gives you good feedback on where you are on a long climb for example, and also allows you to "handrail" a contour when no permanent features are available. This latter technique was the one that got you up crevassed glaciers in the mist in relative safety. On the Tor De Geants, an altimeter is on the mandatory equipment list (or was when I did the event five years ago) and proved much more useful than anything else in giving you feedback on how far up a particular climb you were ("Just how much longer is this going to go on upwards?") On all modern gps watches you get an altimeter as part of the deal, so it's really worth learning how to use it and when it can help you. But the real development in electronic navigation came with the advent of the hand-held gps.

Hand-held gps

These were a bit of a waste of time until the end of the cold war, not having more than about a hundred metre accuracy until the signals from the military satellites on which they depend were unscrambled for civilian use; nowadays, if you stand still for a minute they will pinpoint your position to within a metre or two, giving you immediate access to the fundamental rule of all navigation, that is knowing where you are NOW.

There are lots of models out there, the one you choose will depend on your individual priorities. They all have the facility to load a predetermined route and then to show you where you are in relation to it  -  you can in effect just "follow the line". All but the most basic models will allow you to load maps as a background to the line, so you can see where you are in relation to the world around you as well as in relation to your route. Larger models allow you to have a bigger screen so can see more of the map, but are bulkier and heavier to carry. Touch-screen models are faster to operate but I personally would only use a button-operated type  -  slower and clunkier but unaffected by weather and can be operated wearing fairly thick gloves.

However, just like a map or a compass, a gps is of limited use unless you take the time to understand what it can do and how to get the most out of it, and then practice as much as you would with a map.  Buying a gps to put in your pack as a "back-up" should navigating with a map get too challenging is for me a pretty questionable exercise. Without practice, you may find it no better than (or even worse than) a map.

In good visibility on almost any ground, a competent map navigator will be faster than a gps user  -  he is getting more information simultaneously and can translate that into action immediately. But when conditions begin to cut off some of the information available, a gps will start to become faster. Taking bearings, using bearing markers, aiming off, using handrails, all of this fairly time consuming stuff becomes unnecessary, you just follow the line on the screen. The flip side is that in doing this you become (if only psychologically) more detached from where you are on the ground. I use a Garmin ETrex30 unit, which when set to the scale that I feel is most efficient for following a route, shows less than one square kilometer of map on the screen. Great for negotiating the next two hundred metres but you get no idea of the big picture, what the next mile or two of ground is likely to be like, any obstacles, climbs, etc coming up, how far to go to the next checkpoint, and so on.


Route screen on my Etrex30 gps - easy to follow but a limited 
view of the world
























A great combination in poor conditions, especially at night, is to have a companion so that one of you can work the gps and the other the map. By feeding each other information you can make rapid progress and understand the big picture at the same time, almost as well as in clear conditions.

I think it's worth a word here about how you put routes into a device. I often see comments or questions such as "can I get a gps file for route (X)". Technology is so simple and easy these days, you can just see a file somewhere and with a couple of clicks it's in your machine. I personally never do this. I like to see the file on a map first, then I recreate it using the waypoints that I choose rather than the ones that the originator has chosen. This is because the originator's aim is to describe the route, whereas I want to follow it, and these are different objectives. I may want to put waypoints at all the key direction changes, and ignore a lot of the others for example. Plus, I find that by actually manipulating the route manually a lot of it stays in my brain before the event much more easily than if I just imported it without thinking.

GPS Watch

But why would you bother with a hand-held gps, when you can follow a route just by using your watch? Well, for me, a few reasons:

1. On a watch you only get a route line, no map possibilities, so although you can still follow it there is nothing to tell you where you are on the ground at any point.

2. Gps watches always run from rechargeable batteries, and the gps function is a relatively high power use, so charge has to be managed carefully even on shorter ultra events. On a hand-held you simply put in another set of batteries and are good for another couple of days.

3. Most runners keep an eye on elapsed time and distance, maybe even other parameters such as pace, quite regularly, and if using the watch for navigation as well this means frequent switching of functions which can become a bit of a pain over an extended time period.

But this doesn't mean I get no navigational input from a watch. One task that I find it very useful for is providing a fast spot check on current location. This can be useful for, eg; 

1. Settling those "well I think we're about here" sort of conversations (maybe with yourself)

2. Getting a quick progress report. Say you're going along a long, easy to navigate track but in misty or dark conditions (Lairig Mhor, Cam Road, Old Coach Road sort of territory) there aren't that many features to tell you what progress you're making so getting your location can answer the "how much more of this do we still have to do?" question. It's just another way of getting the bigger picture.

These are just examples; there are plenty of other occasions when a ten second exercise on the watch to give you your precise location can give either useful information or a confidence boost - worth the time I think.

Getting Lost.

We all get lost on occasions -  by which I mean either (a) you don't know where you are, or (b) you think you know where you are, but are mistaken.  In my experience this normally happens not because you don't have the ability to navigate that particular ground but because you lose concentration and take your eye off the ball. You may be chatting to another runner, going along a series of tracks that don't seem to need any detailed navigation, following other people because it was pretty easy so far and you didn't feel the need to find your own way  -  then suddenly it dawns on you that you've broken the first rule  -  you don't know where you are NOW.  I find this can often be exascerbated by not having all the tools to hand  -  map, compass, gps etc maybe still in sack.  You're then tempted, rather than stop and get sorted out, to push on in the hope that you will see someone else or get an indication on the ground that convices you that you're still on track. That way lies a lot of time wasted.

I've tried to instil some personal discipline by making sure that on any event that I don't know pretty well from start to finish, I have all the tools to hand; map, compass, gps, all in separate pockets of lightweight frontpack which took a couple of hours to make and clips with two mini carabiners onto the straps of any pack I happen to be wearing (shown in the photo earlier in this post). With stuff handy it's easy to keep an eye on where you are on the map. And if all else fails I still have two devices that can tell me precisely where I am now (hand-held and watch), and I use them sooner rather than later. I always switch the hand-held on to follow the route, even if I don't intend using it much if at all - a set of batteries will last a day or two and it seems a small price to pay to get information quickly when you need it. Similarly with my watch; on a long event I won't bother with the "running" mode, I just switch it to a "walk" mode so it still gives basic feedback on time and distance but the battery will last a couple of days so if I need it for a quick position, it's available.

Now this doesn't mean that you can't get back on track without using the electronic devices; if you've learned your stuff well you will do it  - but it will take longer. Which leads us nicely to the end game; what am I really saying after all this ramble?

Efficient navigation

I'll recap what I said earlier here; these I my views, you don't have to agree with them but I've developed them over a fairly lengthy period and they seem to work for me. So my philosophy is as follows:

1. Of course I want to navigate accurately, but I also want to navigate efficiently so that I don't waste time either on the navigation or by covering unnecessary distance.

2. I have numerous tools to help me navigate, and it seems foolish not to use them all.

3. I have discovered that for me, in daylight and with good visibility, I move faster using a map, or a map and compass combined.

4. I know that in poor visibility or at night, unless the ground has regular easily-identifiable features, I move faster using a hand-held gps. I will normally refer to the map regularly for the bigger picture.

5. If I am in any doubt at all about where I am in any conditions, I will immediately get a grid reference from my watch.

6. This means that any new piece of navigation kit that I get, I have to take the time needed to learn to use it effectively, and to practice with it so I know exactly what it will and won't do.

Happy navigating!

..........................................................................

Well, all that sounds ok. But I've been in the Lakes for a week or so just pottering around on routes that I know well  - the only navigation equipment I've taken with me is my brain. This afternoon I just started to look out my kit for the "Lakes in a Day" event which starts first thing tomorrow morning.............and realised I'd left my compass back in Chester.  A quick sprint down to Blacks for a replacement. You may re-assess my competence if you wish.........

Saturday, 23 September 2017

King Offa's Dyke Race

Pre-start manoevering

I thought of having a go at the KODR last year but by the time I got around to entering the race was already full, so I determined not to get caught again and got my name down as soon as entries opened for the 2017 edition. Surprisingly, by the time we got to the start line on 15th September there were less than half the number of entries this year than last (33 compared to 73); this was a bit of a shame because as I was to discover it is a really great event and deserves to be a sell-out every time. Hopefully, by the next running in 2019 word will have got around and it will be full again.

The concept is simple; you follow the Offa's Dyke long distance footpath from Chepstow at the mouth of the Wye in the Bristol Channel to Prestatyn on the North Wales coast. Ten checkpoints/feed stations are passed along the way, all but one inside village halls, sports centres, etc, giving an average leg length of around 17 miles. The clocks is ticking continuously so you can get sleep at any of the CP's (if you have time), but you have an overall 90 hours to complete the course and there are cut-off times at all the CP's. You can have a drop bag for spare clothes, extra food etc, which will meet you every 50 miles. Allowing for diversions to CP's the total distance is 185 miles and the cumulative height gain 29,500ft. A shorter event, the Mercian Challenge, is run in parallel for the first 100 miles and finishing at Montgomery.



The start was due for 8pm Friday evening so I made the easy journey down from Chester to Chepstow by train, with a short walk from the station to registration at the Rugby Club. There was no start list published so the only person who I knew was going was Greg Crowley, as we'd talked about it at the Dragon's Back earlier in the year. But Greg is a different class of performer from me and I didn't expect to see him after the start, so I was pleased at registration to run into Jess Palmer, with whom I'd covered a fair chunk of the Northern Traverse last year. He'd entered the KODR but was recovering from a recent chest infection so had traded down to the shorter event. He was planning to go as slowly as he could over the 100 miles while staying in shape and not having to worry about the cut-offs; a strategy that suited me just fine.

After the pre-race briefing Race Director Richard gave us all a small King Offa coin. The deal was that we would carry this to the end of our race, where we would exchange it for a finisher's trophy. Should we not finish, we were to keep the coin "to knaw away at you until you return in a subsequent year to exchange it at the finish". I put mine inside the small plastic bag carrying the tracker, hoping that the next time I touched it would be in Prestatyn. 

We were bussed the couple of miles out to the start on the banks of the Wye. We walked the first few hundred yards from the rock marking the start of the Offa's Dyke path as the path is narrow and constrained by stiles here, then reconvened at a wider section for the countdown and the start proper. It was by now spot on 8pm and dark.

Start















The first 50 miles  -  Chepstow to Hay-on-Wye

It was amazing just how fast the majority of the field headed off up the trail. I was walking and occasionally jogging with Jess and another runner called Rob, but inside half a mile everyone else was out of sight. I think one other runner, Les Lepper, was behind us somewhere, but apart from that we were detached at the back.

It had been raining on and off but nothing too heavy, and it was turning into a reasonably fine if somewhat misty evening. We were chatting and following the frequent "acorn" signs that marked the national trail without paying much attention to the map. Then we crossed a couple of fields with no track on the ground and found ourselves up against a gate with no stile and no acorn. Oh well, penalty for inattention. Out came the GPS and we followed it back to the trail, picked up the acorns again, put away the GPS and carried on. After we had gone maybe three miles, I pulled out the GPS again and was concerned to see the writing was upside down, at just about the same time that Jess remarked that we were crossing a railway bridge that he thought he'd seen before. Reality dawned; when we had picked up the trail again we had followed it in the wrong direction and were now almost back to the start. Hoping that no-one had been looking at our trackers too closely to reveal this incompetence, we set out again resolving to pay more attention to navigation from here on.

The trail climbed then ran in and out of woodland overlooking the Wye valley to our left - there would have been good views across to Tintern Abbey in daylight - then dropped down to follow the river bank for several miles. The river was creating its own misty micro-climate limiting visibility to barely ten yards, but as soon as we started to climb again it cleared immediately. There followed another long wooded section, where we caught up with Les, who seemed surprised to see us because he thought he was already last. Shortly after, we descended one or two slippery slopes; Jess and I seemed to cope with these a bit better than the others so we pulled ahead. We later found that Rob had a fall down one of these which would ultimately end his race. One more climb up past the Naval Temple and a final 700ft of descent down to the river again saw us at CP1 at Monmouth, 19 (or for us, 21) miles from the start, which we reached an hour or so before the cut-off, nicely on plan.

I have discovered from doing a couple of these long "non-stop" events before that one key for consistent progress is to manage sleep properly and not let the cut-offs compromise this. Two hours sleep when you're tired is all you need and will set you up for another 24 hours at least, but you don't know at the start when exactly you're going to need the first one - it depends on a lot of variables. We had to carry a sleeping bag, or at least a liner, with us because your drop bag would not reach every checkpoint; I chose to take an OMM 1.0 bag because it's much more comfortable than a liner and still weighs almost nothing. Then, I had agreed with Jess that we needed to build up at least a three hour cushion over the first three or four legs, which would enable us to sleep whenever we were tired after that.

We pushed on out through late-night Monmouth and eventually into the countryside beyond. After we had been going about an hour we were caught by Dave Lee (of Spine fame) who had been well ahead of us but managed a couple of laps of a housing estate before escaping the town. We carried on together until the next CP. Jess calculated that our combined age was 199, but that as he was only due to celebrate his 60th next year we should refer to him as "junior". The section was mainly fields, not very memorable but needing some concentration at night. The only highlight was passing the "White Castle", whose ramparts could be seen just off the track in the torch beam. It got light a few miles before the CP at Pandy, which we reached just before 7.30am, now an hour and a half ahead of the cut-off.

The volunteers at the CP's were brilliant right through the event, it was difficult to do anything for yourself. Food appeared, bottles were refilled, garbage disposed of, all wothout having to lift a finger.

The next leg to Hay-on-Wye looked to be good. It started with a long climb up onto the eastern ridge of the Black Mountains, which it then followed northwards with very little undulation for at least ten miles. Once on the ridge you could see the track ahead for miles, and Jess and I wondered why we couldn't see Dave, as we knew he had left Pandy just a few minutes before us. It turned out that he had had another navigational glitch and was now behind us. Along the ridge, which was always very slightly uphill, we had decided that jogging, although possible, was too energy-consuming and so we had decided to walk it all. I knew from the Northern Traverse that Jess naturally walks at a slightly faster pace than me. I was feeling it a bit of a stretch so I told him to go on ahead, and watched as he slowly disappeared into the distance.

The weather was perfect and the views were good though, so even for me the miles rolled by fast enough, and I was soon at the point where I had only a steady, easily runnable descent of about 2000ft down to the CP at Hay, 50 miles in, the first drop bag CP, which I reached at around 1pm, now over 3 hours ahead of the cut-off. I was now in the comfort zone and would not have to worry about cut-offs again for the remainder of the race, unless something went seriously wrong. However the descent had been long enough and steep enough to remind me that I still have a knee that isn't all that great. It hurt on and off from here to the end, but as I was generally going at a fairly modest speed the impacts were not great and the discomfort was manageable.

Jess said he had only beaten me to Hay by 10 minutes or so, so after a change of socks and shirt, fried egg roll, a dish of pasta and a couple of mugs of tea I was good to join him for the next bit.


Hay-on-Wye to Montgomery (100 miles)

The 50 miles from Hay to Montgomery are characterised by an almost endless series of hills oscillating between the 500ft and 1700ft contours; none are very long but most are steep, and there is almost no level ground. This gives a bit of a clue on how Offa's Dyke can pack in a bit more overall climb than the similar length and more obviously mountainous Wainwright "Coast to Coast" route.

We set out from Hay just after lunchtime. Some of the route was through pasture and some through more open moorland, but the hills started coming soon enough  -  Little Mountain, Disgwylfa Hill, Hergest Ridge, and it seemed that before long we were on the long, gentle run downhill to Kington. At Kington at 6.40pm we were approaching 24 hours on the go and just about to go into the second night. I could easily have slept a bit here but the Kington CP was in a tiny hall and the only CP on the course where it was really not possible to sleep. We would have to grit the teeth and carry on to Knighton. Knighton was only 14,5 miles distant so that should not be too much problem.

It got dark almost as soon as we left the CP, the temperature dropped and it started to rain. Added to this the hills on this section were definitely steeper than on the last, so it wasn't going to be an easy 14 miles. What was interesting though was that the path started to follow obvious traces of Offa's Dyke itself, the mound and ditch that we hadn't seen a lot of so far. The path was quite tortuous and tricky to follow at times, through high bracken, woods and open moorland. We met two or three other runners along this stretch, though as we were all moving and navigating at different speeds we didn't stay together long. I was getting sleepy and felt physically very tired on the last couple of uphills, definitely my lowest point in the race; I wasn't certain that I could carry on beyond Knighton, but on the flip side I knew the difference that a couple of hours sleep might make.

Eventually Knighton turned up and we tumbled into the warm checkpoint just after 1am. After a cup of tea I found a quiet spot in a side room (they even had mattresses here) and crashed out after setting my alarm for 2 hours later. I had left my wet jacket over a chair, but kept my wet socks on - I didn't want to put them on again after they had cooled down!

The sleep worked well; I rose feeling completely renewed and after more tea and jam sandwiches was ready to go, as was Jess. It was 18 miles to Montgomery, one of the longer sections, and runners familiar with the route told us that the hills on this section were probably the most strenuous of the whole route. It was dark on the first one as we pulled out of Knighton, but after this there were a few miles of gentle walking, first along a contouring path then along a jeep track alongside the dyke, during which daylight re-appeared.

Everything gets easier in daylight. The navigation becomes easy because you can see features in the distance as well as those close to you, and your peripheral vision means that you can pick out the next few yards of track while still concentrating on your feet if necessary, The weather was getting better too, no rain and the day was warming up. The real rollercoaster started after Newcastle, about halfway through the stage, but in the conditions I found it far less arduous than the hills before Knighton the previous evening, and it didn't seem too long before we were off the last high ground and following a flat section of the dyke towards Montgomery. The official path bypasses the town by about a mile, so our route diverted off through an attractive country estate to finally reach the 100 mile CP in the village hall.

This was end of the road for Jess, and he was pleased enough to collect his finisher's medal after completing his course in just over 40 hours. I wished him well, it had been great to have his company over the first "half" of the trip. As for me, another shirt and sock change, a lovely baked potato with cheese and beans, and I was out on the trail again, this time solo. The comforting thought was that even after a reasonable pit stop I had only used up just over 41 hours for the first 100 miles, which meant that I had 49 hours left for the final 85.

Montgomery to Llandegla (150 miles)

Another long section of 20 miles led to CP7 at Llanymynech. I started off in warm sunshine along a completely flat path following the dyke through agricultural territory. After a few miles though the trail climbed up through wooded plantations for a thousand feet or so to the Beacon Ring, an ancient hill fort, then descended again through more open country down to the village of Buttington where it met and crossed the River Severn. Here began the heralded only "flat bit" of the Offa's Dyke path, as it follows river and canal banks for ten miles. In fact a lot of it was along a modern form of "dyke", as it followed the crest of a levee built to restrict the river during flood periods. I tried jogging at times, but the grass was quite long and it always seemed more effort than was worth it, so in general settled for a steady walk. As dusk fell the track finally left the river to follow the actual dyke again, but this was now across fields full of cows and it was difficult to avoid treading in a lot of slop in the darkness.

The track reached dry land in the village of Four Crosses, from where it followed a canal towpath for a couple of miles to Llanymynech and the CP, where I arrived around 9.30pm. I had plenty of time for another sleep so took another couple of hours here. When I woke up there were several runners all preparing to leave, but there was also a heavy rainstorm going on outside so there seemed to be a reluctance to get out into the night. After a while it slackened off a bit so four or five of us took the plunge sometime after midnight. 

We went at different speeds up the initial steep hill through the woods out of the village, so I found myself on my own for a while, but after a mile or two I came back together with two of the others, Graham and Simon. We had a slightly unnerving experience as we set out across one field and saw what looked like a galaxy of bright lights coming towards us; it was a herd of cows, young heifers I think, on the charge. Some vigorous waving and shouting brought them to a halt about ten yards from us, but they still had another couple of goes as we made our way round them and out of the other end of the field. It wasn't clear if there were any houses nearby but I'm afraid our shouts would have disturbed their sleep if there were!

The route continued to follow a wandering line through fields, bits of lane and scrubby slopes until the village of Trefonen where we picked up the line of the dyke once more. Simon was moving faster and had gone on ahead, Graham and I continued together. The rain seemed to have mostly gone and we could occasionally see stars so the weather seemed to be improving. We got to a section of very boggy fields alongside the dyke which made for slow progress. We saw a light ahead and as we approached Simon shouted to be careful because he had had a shoe sucked off by the mud. We took a wide line around where he was. He didn't sound distressed so we pressed on, but talking to him later he got very cold sorting himself out so we should have stayed with him and I really regret not doing so at the time.

Graham and I plodded our way on through fields and over hills, eventually it got light and we did a final long descent then reascent up to CP8 in the grounds of Chirk Castle. Graham was very tired and looked to find somewhere to sleep immediately. Shortly after us Simon turned up saying the lost shoe affair had made him feel pretty low but that he was getting it back together again now. I was feeling fine so fortified by a Pot Noodle Curry (at 7am!) I headed out again. Lanes and fields in a gentle drizzle led down to the Llangollen canal, then the rain drifted off as I followed the towpath along to and over the famous Froncysyllte aqueduct. Up through the woods and onto the panorama road I felt I was getting to home ground as I'd reached the only bit of Offa's Dyke that I already knew; living in Chester, the trail from Llangollen to Bodfari is one of my regular training grounds. For the first time since leaving Chepstow I could confidently put the map away and just enjoy covering familiar ground.

Reaching the traversing path under the Eglwyseg escarpment I was suddenly aware that I was almost falling asleep. Fortunately, or maybe causally, this coincided with a bit of warm sunshine so I lay down on the grass and slept for twenty minutes. It was enough to banish the sleepiness completely and I was soon on up the hill past World's End, across the boardwalk and down through the forest to CP9 which was in some tents in the campsite at Llandegla. It had just started to rain a bit again but the marshals had everything really well organised and the plate of beef stew which I had almost immediately after arriving was the best meal I'd had since leaving Chepstow.


Llandegla to Prestatyn (185 miles)

There were one or two runners considering sleep but I wanted to make the best use of the daylight over the Clwyds, so after eating I stayed at Llandegla just long enough for a final sock change. I used Dexshell waterproof socks throughout, a decision based on the assumption (borne out in practice) that the course would be wet enough to ensure that shoes would be almost continually wet. I don't use liners, I just smear my feet liberally with Sudocrem when changing socks. The system seems to work for me, my feet don't stay completely dry but they keep clean, warm, not too wrinkly and I don't get blisters.

I made good time over to Clwyd Gate then on over Y Fenlli to the Moel Famau col. The climbs felt easy enough, either because they are less steep than those further south or because of my familiarity with the ground. The tracks are good here, mostly dry and not technical, allowing you to get into a good rhythm. There are also very few gates or stiles, in contrast with the majority of the Offa's Dyke path. Moel Fammau summit was mist shrouded, but as I dropped out of it on the descent beyond the cloud layers made for a spectacular sunset. It was dark before I reached Moel Arthur, so I traversed this and the final hill Pen y Cloddiau by torchlight. The long descent to Bodfari went well until the final few hundred yards, which I don't do often and which was disappearing into mist and long grass.

From the valley road crossing in Bodfari it was necessary to climb several hundred feet up the hill on the other side to reach the CP. For the first time the instructions seemed a bit imprecise, and it was difficult to see where you were heading, especially up a steep muddy field path. Then a winking light came into view marking the key direction to take. I'm sure this initiative on the part of the CP team saved a lot of frustration for runners arriving at this point in darkness. Further along one of the CP team had come out to meet me (as they did for all runners) and guide me along the final two or three hundred yards to the CP. Unfortunately, just as I reached her we were treated to a sudden torrential downpour, so we both got to the CP rather wet.

The CP was in a little wooden cabin but nicely appointed and they even had a food menu! I had some rather good homemade soup ("Brazilian Vegetable") and a cheese sandwich. I was in two minds whether to sleep an hour or press straight on and get the thing done. In the light of the rain still hammering down I asked if anyone had a forecast; the rain was due to stop later apparently, so I decided I was in no hurry and retired to the back room for an hour. It had stopped raining when I woke, so after some tea and cake I was out of the door and on to the last lap. One of the CP staff had said runners were averageing about 5 hours for the last section; I left just after 1am and made 6am my target. 

There were a few bits of open hillside but it was mostly fields again, still needing attention for the navigation. I think the problem was that I had mentally switched off at the last CP, thinking it was more or less all over, but there were still a couple of substantial climbs, and my dodgy knee had by now siezed up to the extent that stiles were becoming a bit of an effort. Still, the miles gradually ticked by. About 4 miles from the end I was passed by Karl, going at a much more respectable speed than me, but apart from that I saw no-one. There was one last climb up onto a ridge behind Prestatyn, which the path then traversed for a mile or so with great views out over the town, then a final descent down to the last section of road through the town. This was another mile or so and I managed a steady jog most of the way down until interrupted by a footbridge over the railway line. After this the finishing flags soon came into view. The only person at the finish at this time in the morning was RD Richard, who must have had a long night (or couple of nights, as Greg had finished in first place in the early hours of the night before!). All that was left was to step up to the rock marking the finish of the Offa's Dyke Path, trade in my coin for a finisher's trophy and I was done.

Finish






















I finished in 81 hours 51 minutes 52 seconds, in 14th place out of 33 starters.

Shower, sleep and food (well that was my sequence at least) were available at the finish. A few runners were still around later in the morning. The final cutoff was 2pm but we all gathered at least a couple of hours before that to welcome the last finisher Les as he completed his trip.

It was a good journey, tougher than I expected but I survived pretty well. It's now three days since the finish and the swellings that I had on both feet and especially my right knee have all now gone back to normal. I've felt tired for a day or two but will probably get out for a gentle jog again by Sunday.

This was my first "Beyond Marathon" event and I was impressed by the thought that had gone into the race and the organisation on the day. Richard and his team deserve a lot of thanks for allowing us to play. I'm sure I'll do more.

Interestingly, looking back I saw that I finished the 190mile, 28,000ft of climb "Northern Travese" last year in 81:28:11.  To have got within just over 20 minutes on two such different courses seems strange  -  there must be a story there but it will have to wait until I've given it a bit more thought.