"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 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!