MW: the beginning

Stage 1

After some group photos, one of which was a painful reminder of quite how short I am, we set off at 10am. My plan was to walk the first grassy section before making the most of the runnable ground between Worcester and Droitwich Spa. I settled in at the back of the field with Jon and Stephen (who told us his race plan didn’t involve any running in the 1st week!) and shared Spine race stories. When we hit the tarmac in Worcester I started jogging and moved ahead, passing Peter and Rich too. Navigating through Worcester, past the Commandery was a bit tricky (on my recce I’d stuck to the canal tow path), but otherwise I enjoyed the first few Sunny miles on my own.

group photo at the start (with me in the middle impersonating Mr. Chad)

I stopped for a brief chat with some fishermen who were curious about what we were doing, and was disappointed to see Rich closing in on me. I’d expected the running to have put more time into the people behind. Not much later, as I slowed to a walk across some fields, he powered past me, sharing the news that John and Oriol were zooming along at 7+ mph at the front of the field.

After a couple of hours pleasantly sunny, became uncomfortably warm. I was rattling through my water and my feet were feeling hot. I’d started in waterproof socks in case the first few grassy fields were wet, and should have stopped to take them off sooner. I found a tap on the side of a church hall and also sat down and changed into normal socks. I expected the rest of the back of the field to come past while I was doing this. They didn’t, but it wasn’t much later that Stephen and Peter caught me. They were walking fast. Initially I managed to keep up with them with a mix of jogging and slow walking. However randomly, and somewhat worryingly, my left knee started hurting when running on any terrain which wasn’t completely uneven and I quickly dropped back.

I caught Stephen and Peter again at a cafe which appeared to have the world’s slowest service. I couldn’t face proper food, so I got some crisps, a fizzy drink and some ice cream. They were ready to move on before me, so I took my ice cream to the toilets (classy!) refilled my water bottles and walked along slowly eating it. Lindley and Maxine were waiting in the next village. I moaned about finding it harder than I should and plodded onwards.

I made it to Stourbridge by mid-evening and was greeted by a bloke in a Spartathlon t-shirt who’d kindly come out to guide us through the town centre. He showed me to Tesco where I bought some yogurt pouches and my first (of many) bottles of Mountain Dew. I jogged most of the canal tow path to CP1 but didn’t manage to catch anybody. Officially Jon (who’d passed me while I was in the cafe) arrived at CP1 after me, but that was only because he overshot it and Lindley had to phone him and tell him to come back. In reality I was DFL. There were a handful of people still in the CP, and somebody told me that I’d set a new record for the latest arrival at CP1. I wasn’t actually unhappy with my arrival time in and of itself, half an hour on stage 1 is neither here nor there. But I was pretty miserable about how much effort it had taken, and that despite doing a fair bit of jogging I was struggling to keep up with people who were just walking. Maxine offered me some boiled water to rehydrate some food. I didn’t want to use up one of my proper freeze dried meals so soon so just had a pasta pot instead, which in retrospect was a mistake. Otherwise I restocked my snack supplies, re-sudocremed my feet (which seemed to have survived my sock mistake) and changed socks. I left the CP before Jon and Peter (who was in the midst of the first of his, soon to become legendary, CP-faffs).

Stage 2

Stage 2 started with some more canal tow-path followed by a disused railway. I made the most of the runnable terrain, but it wasn’t long into the subsequent field paths that Peter and then Jon caught me. Peter blew right past, but Jon and I stayed close together for a few miles before he decided to stop for a sleep and I plodded on. I passed Boscabel house, the site of CP2 after the Boscabel loop, around dawn. Maxine was waiting in a car and told me some people had stopped there to sleep. I was moving OK and it was quite cold, so I decided to press on until dawn.

A couple of hours later I snuck inside a field for a nap. I took my shoes and socks off to air my feet and had a nasty shock. The balls of both feet were macerated and one had blistered. I drained the blisters and slept restlessly for 45 min before taping both feet up and setting off again. My feet now felt really sore and as I plodded along the uneven tracks most of the Boscabel sleepers passed me. The subsequent rutted fields were agony. I’d spent months worrying that mud would stop me moving fast enough. The ground had dried out, but the rutted fields weren’t actually an improvement: nearly as slow and much harder on the feet and ankles.

At the start of the mini-loop I stopped at a petrol station and bought crisps, ice-cream, a cheese and onion pasty and some Mountain Dew. As I sat under a tree eating I checked the tracker (normally I wouldn’t do this during a race, but the MW field spaced out so quickly it was a way of reminding myself other people actually existed). It looked like Ellen was stopped in a playground a short distance behind me, but everyone else was pulling away.

I made reasonable progress around the mini-loop until I reached the infamous golf course. The footpath has been rerouted from its old route straight across the fairways. However the OS maps, and the race GPS, show the old route. I tried to stick to the new route but struggled (I’m guessing some of the route stickers may have been removed) and had golfers shouting abuse at me, even as I tried to walk around the greens and stay out of their way. Feeling very fed up I laid down with my feet up on a gate next to a small, one bar style to eat some food. A family then appeared and insisted that I had to stand up so they could go through the gate rather than step over the style. I moved and didn’t say anything, mainly because I was scared I’d swear and/or cry.

I plodded onwards, along minor roads, through fields and along roasting concrete farm tracks. I was really happy when I saw Ellen, Peter and Rich getting up from a rest under a tree (Ellen had evidently passed me during my golf course meanderings, Peter and Rich had even had time to stop for a pub meal). Having some company was great. We discussed races we’d previously done, including T184 where I’d got really miserable. And I said that given the state of my feet the MW could well rival it for miserableness. This was also the first time that my MW swearyness became apparent. Normally on multi-day races I get really bumpkiny (‘all-reet mi luverrrr, ‘ow be yon?’) but on the MW I got really sweary; every other word that came out of my mouth was fuck (or a variant thereof).

The other 3 were all faster walkers than me. I’d drop off the back of the pack and then drop into a shuffle-jog to catch back up. This worked really well, right up until the point my foot exploded. Not literally, but that’s what it felt like. They disappeared into the distance as I plodded painfully on. To make it worse I ran out of water, and the only houses were part of a military base (not the best place to go randomly knocking on doors or trying to sneak water from garden taps). I knew there were streams in the woods a few miles on but it took forever to get there.

I eventually got to CP2 at a 5.30pm, around half an hour after the group of 3. Bruce had a chair and a bucket of water waiting for me. I peeled my socks off and inspected the damage: most of the ball of my left foot was blistered. F***. Keeping going for another 12 days on it really didn’t seen possible. Lindley tried to tell me that it could be patched up so that it would start healing and that last year they’d kept Alan going on blistered feet for more than a week. But other peoples’ reactions confirmed that I’d got myself into a bit of a mess.

I ate some food and then settled into my sleeping bag for some sleep. There were no spare tents up, however it was plenty warm enough to sleep out. The problem was noise. Even with ear plugs in and a buff over the top I kept getting woken up by people talking. We’d planned to depart as a group at ~11pm, but by 9.30 I’d given up on sleeping. Lindley dressed my foot and I decided to switch to walking boots and trekking poles to try and reduce the pressure on it. I’d been hoping to get some more substantial food down but the checkpoint had already been dismantled and packed up (apart from water and first aid supplies) even though the cut-off wasn’t until midday the next day so instead I ate one of my flapjacks.

Smiling on the outside, screaming on the inside
(photo: Lindley Chambers)

the foot

Stage 3

The other 3 were also up and about early, so initially we were going to leave together. However after 10 minutes of watching Peter rearranging his kit Ellen and I decided to head off first. I managed to keep up with Ellen for a grand total of about 400m, before her rear red light steadily pulled away. I was expecting Peter and Rich to blow past me soon too, but actually it took several hours and then I recaught them (twice) and also Ellen when they stopped to sleep. Eventually they pulled away for good, but not before Rich had checked that I was OK to do the canals through the Birmingham urban conurbation on my own (I’d been moaning to all and sundry for the past 2 days about quite how grim they were).

The first canal is actually quite pleasant, but having to walk it (due to my foot) rather than running as I’d planned was pretty demoralising. And then I completely ran out of gas. I sat down on a pavement next to a major road and slammed down several Mars bars and slogged out the next two miles to a Tesco. Coming off of the route I tried to cut a corner through some grass and stumbled across what I thought was a rough sleeper. Just as I was turning around I realised it was in fact Rich and (without thinking...) said hello and woke him up.

I spent half an hour in the Tesco car park eating as much food as a I could, having struggled to find the energy to even walk around it. The food gave me some more energy, but my stomach was very unhappy and the long hot afternoon involved multiple desperate poo stops behind any bit of shelter I could find. Looking on the bright side the canal was much quieter and less seedy than when I’d reced it on a bank holiday weekend. There was one group of people who seemed to be off their heads and having a party, but they were harmless and friendly.

I caught up with Rich and Ellen having a break just before the Netherton tunnel and I joined them for a bit. I was looking forward to the tunnel as I’d skipped it on my recce (heading into a 2 mile tunnel on my own, carrying a GPS and other kickable stuff on a day when there was a high density of drunks and druggies hadn’t seemed like a good idea). Not long afterwards Rich and Ellen pulled away again. I felt OK for a while but then, all of a sudden, it felt like someone had set fire to my crotch. I was in the midst of an urban area so spent several miles waddling like a cowboy before I found a dog shit strewn alley where I could inspect the damage. As well as my usual chafing, I had bleeding red welts on my thighs from the seams of my tights, I’m guessing these were the result of the multiple, rushed toilet stops on the canal. I applied lashings of sudocream and took some heavy duty painkillers.

As I waddled my way to CP3 Ellen and Rich repassed me at speed. They’d stopped and had a meal, which really rubbed in quite how slowly I was moving. I was thoroughly miserable and my prospects of finishing were getting even worse. Only pride was keeping me from stopping. I didn’t want to be the first person to drop and I didn’t want to go back to work early and have to tell people how badly I’d failed. I recaught Rich just before the CP, thanks to a confusing section where the path seems to have been moved due to building works. We got there at about 5.30, Ellen was already eating, Peter was sleeping and everybody else was long gone. Bruce did a fantastic job of plying us with food until we couldn’t eat any more. He also offered me some lip balm and gave me a gentle telling off about how badly chapped my lips were. My self-care in general was worse than usual, I guess because I was expecting to drop soon. I only bothered to put my pole straps on when Rich pointed out that not using them was what was making my hands blister (and not some mysterious multiple blister causing hydration imbalance as I was speculating...).

Arriving at CP3 (and looking very short again...) with Rich
(photo: Lindley Chambers)

I then headed to a tent to do some repair work on my crotch and sleep. Thanks to Vol State last year I had an arsenal of US-grade lotions and potions: Desitin (a more user-friendly version of Sudocrem) and Neosporin (an anti-septic cream). This CP was right next to a motorway, however the white noise from the traffic was good for sleeping. I still woke up an hour or so before my alarm and, after Lindley had redressed my foot and Bruce plied me with more food, I headed off just before dark. Ellen and Peter had already left, while Rich was still sleeping.

While Ellen, Rich and I had arrived at CPs 2 and 3 at similar times our movement patterns and plans were very different. Ellen and Rich were moving at a good pace and taking decent mid-stage rest breaks while I was plodding slowly with only occasional short breaks. They both had specific time schedules: Rich was ahead of his very conservative ‘through hiker’ style plan while Ellen’s schedule had a faster start. My plan was simply to move as fast as I comfortably could while keeping one eye on the cut-offs. I had hoped to build a significant buffer on them, but the idea was to let that buffer come to me rather than chasing it. I left CP3 just over 12 hours ahead of the cut-off. Which I’d have been OK (but not happy) with if I’d been cruising, but my ‘as fast as I comfortably can’ mantra had long since been ditched. I was struggling, both physically and mentally, to hang onto the back of the pack at a point where normally I’d be moving through the field.

Stage 4

With a full stomach and a not so hurty foot I made decent progress through the night. I started feeling sleepy and promised myself a nap at a church just after Bromsgrove. I passed Peter, asleep on a bench, by a canal just beforehand. The canal was really cold so I pressed on up the hill to my church. I’d successfully slept in multiple church porches on one of my recess, but it turned out this church didn’t have one. There were benches, but a cold wind was blowing up the hill so I pressed on to a school playground where I got my bivvy bag out for a 45 min nap. Peter passed me just as I was getting up, and rapidly disappeared into the distance.

A couple of hours later, after some fiddly navigation where the route stickers and map didn’t match, I stopped for breakfast on a park bench at the top of a gentle rise. While eating I got my phone out and discovered that Rich had dropped as he wasn’t feeling well. While I felt sorry for Rich I was also selfishly relieved that I wouldn’t be the first to drop. A proper runner then appeared running up the slope at a decent pace. It was in fact Peter. He stopped for a quick chat and told me he’d had problems with the dodgy nav section before moving off again at speed. I passed him having a rest a bit later and then we spent a couple of hours walking together. It was really good to have some company. We split up in some woods just before Alcester, when i stopped to re-lube my undercarriage.

I bought lots of supplies in the supermarket in Alcester and ate them, legs spread (but fully clothed) for airing, in the churchyard. I got moving again and passed Peter, fast asleep, beside the trail. And then something really strange happened. For the first time since day one I actually felt happy, and I started run-shuffing short sections again. Stratford-upon-Avon, and CP4, was further away than I remembered and the feeling happy didn’t last for long, but I did keep the running up. That wasn’t entirely a good thing, twice I missed turn offs and kept going on good trails, when (in one case) I should have turned and picked my way through a building site... Neither mistake cost me more than a couple of minutes, but it was frustrating.

I struggled a bit following the GPS route through Stratford (when I reced it I’d gone off route to a B&B) and again when finding the CP at the camp site at the race course. The route had been marked, but the GPS route I’d downloaded was different. Once I got to the camp site I got my phone out and tried to work out where I needed to go from the tracking map. That confused me even more as it didn’t have the exact location of either the CP or (since it hadn’t yet updated) me. In the midst of this a badly trained dog nearly knocked me over (“it’s only a puppy”). Fortunately I then spotted and recognised Bruce’s van.

Bruce drove me to the shower block (after doing an excellent job of making sure I had everything I needed with me, including clean clothes) where I struggled to get in an out of my kit in a small cubicle. (I was tempted to just strip off in the communal area, but then remember that it was a public campsite and ‘normal’ people were using it too.) Back at the CP Jon was getting ready to leave and Peter arrived while I was eating. He’d also struggled to find the CP, although neither of us had as bad a time as Jon, apparently he wandered around for ages and when Bruce went out to meet him he ran off in the opposite direction. I got my phone out to check my latest daily message from Steggy, a bad-tempered looking cuddly Stegosaurus we bought while on holiday in the US last Summer.

Motivational message from Coach Steggy
(this was one of her politer, less politically incorrect, efforts...)

After telling Lindley that I planned to get up at 4am, I headed to a tent for ~4 hours sleep. By 3.30am I was dozing, and I heard Maxine ring Lindley, who was sleeping in the next tent, to tell him that Stephen was closing in on the next CP and his bag needed moving ASAP. I quickly threw my kit on and crawled out of my tent in the hope that I could get Lindley to drain and dress my foot before he went. In the past I’ve always taken care of my feet myself, but my left foot was beyond my foot care skills, and I couldn’t afford to waste several hours waiting for Lindley to get back. Lindley sorted my foot out and then got Bruce up to help me finish getting ready to leave. I told him that wasn’t necessary. Apart from my foot, I could sort myself out, but he said that Bruce would need to be up to herd Peter out of the CP.

Big food at CP4, Stratford Upon Avon
(photo, and food,: Bruce Ballagher)

Foot looking better