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.


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.


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.


Chris said...

A very well written report

Anonymous said...

great report, thanks

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed the report thanks. Especially the bit where you found yourself heading the wrong way along the path, back from whence you came!