MW: the end (for me)

Stage 8

Stage 8 was the first of two long, hilly stages through the West country. Pre-race we’d talked about this being the crux of the route. To me now it felt like the beginning of the end. Since stage 2 I’d been losing and gaining fairly small amounts of time on the cut-offs. I currently had a ~10 hour cushion. Would this be enough to get me through the next two stages? My guess was probably not.

Things started going wrong very early on. Not long into the stage (but far enough to rule out going back to the CP) my back started aching. When this happens tightening my rucksack shoulder straps usually relieves the pain. So I tugged the straps hard and the chest strap attachment pinged off. There was no way I was going to get it back on on my own mid-stage, so I plodded on with the chest strap dangling. My shoulders joined my back in hurting really badly. I took some painkillers, but this clearly wasn’t sustainable. I sat down and MacGyvered a solution with one of the carabiners I was using to attach my front back to the hip strap of my pack. This wasn’t ideal, the front pack was now bouncing around and it took 5 minutes to get the rucksack on and off, but it took the pressure off my shoulders. I dug my iPod out for some distraction but discovered the power pack hadn’t recharged it, so I was alone with my thoughts.

After a quick power nap in a bus stop at Wookey Hole I got to Wells before Waitrose opened. This was OK, but meant I’d need to stock up on food in Castle Cary, the only other place with shops on the stage, later in the day.
I wasn’t looking forward to the section from Wells to North Wooton. On my recce I’d completely failed to find the path through some woods and had ended up crawling up a steep slope, through dense trees on all fours. In the day-light the path was completely obvious. The mid-night cramps then returned leading to multiple stops. I was quite amused by pooing all over Somerset, but it was really time consuming. On top of the usual poo stop routine (detach poles and remove straps from hands, poo, wipe bum, place wipe in zip-loc bag, relube bum, sanitise hands, reattach poles) getting my botch-job rucksack on and off was a faff. Somewhere along the line the carabiner got forced into a better position though and it became much quicker.

Once the pooing stopped I became aware that my feet were really hurting, every footstep felt like I was stamping bare-foot on concrete. The boots I’d been wearing from stage 3 already had 500+ miles on the clock and I’d only brought them along as a last resort back-up. Presumably after another ~200 miles the cushioning was now completely fucked. For the past few stages I’d been taking a couple of doses of paracetamol a day for my foot pain. It was time to switch to paracetamol and codeine. I was also stopping and sitting down every time I came across a remotely sit-onable object. It wasn’t even a conscious process (“oh there’s something I could sit on, let’s have a break”), I’d just automatically sit down. One time I perched on a wobbly bit of concrete outside a stinking pig farm. This was particular uncomfy as I’d lost enough weight for my usually well-padded bum to become boney. During one of these breaks I made the surprising discovery that not only was I closing in on Jon and Ellen, but even Rick, Alan and Stephen were nowhere near as far in front as they had been. I certainly wasn’t speeding up, so I guess other people were suffering now too.

I sat down for yet another break on the steps at Castle Cary station, and then one of the twice hourly trains arrived bringing an abrupt end to my stop. The speed with which the passengers over-took me walking up the subsequent hill only rubbed salt into my wounds. I got to Castle Cary just as Ellen and Jon were preparing to leave. It was great to share stories of woe. Ellen was also having major foot problems and had resorted to binning her boots and replacing them with a pair of shoes from a charity shop! Jon offered to help me source a replacement pair of shoes/boots and use his fancy Swedish foot cream, but my feet weren’t macerated and there were 2 perfectly good pairs waiting in my dropbag at the next CP.

We said goodbye and I set off to find somewhere to have a hot meal. On my recces I’d discovered that stopping for a proper lunchtime meal would more than pay back the time used in improved speed. Unfortunately it was mid-afternoon and none of the pubs were serving food, so I settled for a huge serving of kebab shop chips. I then did some shopping. First Boots for immodium for my bowels (I later discovered there was some in my pack) and ibuprofen for my feet (I usually avoid NSAIDs when running, but justified it by telling myself I’d make sure to stay hydrated). I guess I looked pretty rough as the pharmacist made a big deal about not taking too many. Then the two corner shops for more food: ice cream and Mountain Dew for now and some bizarre bread rolls with tomato sauce on top for later (they were the least unappealing savoury veggie option).

easting kebab shop chips on the pavement while airing the feet

the good foot, still looking pretty good at this point

All told I was stopped for an hour, but it was worth it, I felt so much better. Leaving Castle Cary two pissed blokes asked me if I was going to walk up Lodge Hill, the overlooking steep but small (150m...) hill. I decided that it was best just to say yes, rather than explaining exactly what I was up to. They were none-the-less impressed. On my recce I’d had to crawl under fences across muddy fields at the top of the hill and had warned Ellen and John about what was coming. The fences and animals had been removed however and the route was now easy to follow (and I hoped I hadn’t confused Ellen and Jon, or made them think I was delusional).

I was having a good afternoon up until I met a traveller coming the other way. He’d spent some time walking with Rick and told me that he’d been marching along and “not hobbling like you”. Great, thanks. It’d been a hot sunny day, but the sky rapidly clouded over and thunder started in the distance. Just as I got to the exposed ridge after Cadbury Castle it started raining heavily. There was nowhere to shelter so I put on my (new!) waterproof and resolved to make a dash for it. The rain didn’t last for long and the raincoat wasn’t very breathable so soon I was over-heating and had to stop again to change layers in Sandford Orcas.

Leaving the village I encountered Ellen and Jon coming in the opposite direction, struggling to find the route having gone around in a circle. It could have been worse, Sandford Orcas is the start of the big Yeovil loop and earlier in the day Alan had turned the wrong way and headed towards the South coast. It was great to have some company. I told them that I was planning to have a sleep break in the porch of one of the churches in the upcoming villages and they decided they’d join me. The initial plan was to stop in Trent. The church is at the end of a very long, spread out village and when we got there the porch was locked. So we plodded on to the next village, Mudford, where I’d slept on one of my reces. Thunderstorms were rolling around and at one point there was fork lightening on 3 sides of us. It felt epic, like we were hobbits on the way to Mordor (apologies to Ellen, who’s normal person sized).

We stopped for ~45 min in Mudford. I napped for a bit and struggled to eat some of the weird bread I’d bought earlier. I’d thought about ordering pizza to be delivered to the church porch, but never quite got around to doing anything about it. Before we set off I headed around the side of the church for some undercarriage maintenance, the scabs on the welts from stage 3 had fallen off and everything was a bit tender. I felt better for the break, but not long after Ellen and I realised we’d lost Jon. We shouted back, nothing. Ellen phoned Lindley for advice, and then Jon’s head torch came into sight. We plodded along and I dished out paracetamol, pro plus and some mini pretzels I’d been carrying for days.

I had it in my head that once we reached Ilchester the stage would almost be in the bag. On my rece I’d had a pleasant trot South through grassy fields and green lanes to Montacute. And after that there would only be a couple more miles to the CP. The reality couldn’t have been more different. We soon found that dense 5-6ft high maize had been grown in some of the fields and the route went right through the middle of it. I tried to force a route through the maize but soon gave up. We then tried to walk along a ridge beside a drainage ditch at the edge of the field, but decided that this was too dangerous as there were invisible pot-holes. In the end we forced our way through the edge of the maize. This wasn’t the end of the fun, the green lane was over grown with wet nettles and thorns. Thoroughly fed up we stopped for a power-nap on a drive.

The section through Montacute and Hamdon Hill country park (an old childhood haunt) wasn’t too bad, but we somehow lost and then regained Jon. I remembered seeing a photo of Chris and Alan being brought water here last year in broad daylight. The Sun was not long up, so maybe we were a couple of hours up on them? We’d need to be if we were going to have any chance of finishing the next stage. The steep decent into Norton Sub Hamdon was agony, and for the first time ever I had to stop at the bottom of a hill for a rest.

The last few miles of minor roads and field paths dragged even more than the ends of previous stages. It rained heavily so the waterproofs had to go back on, and then the Sun came out again and we roasted. The biggest low point came in an orchard, a mile out from the CP. I knew which direction we needed to go in. We were heading for a farm which was the otherside of a hedge, but there was no gap in the hedge and I had absolutely no memory of this section of the route. I had no idea where to go. My GPS wasn’t helping and the batteries in Ellen’s had just run out. We ended up sat on the floor trying to work out what to do. A common issue with the MW is missing barely visible styles in hedges and ending up on the wrong side of them. Eventually my sleep-deprived brain realised that must be what we’d done here. I dragged myself to my feet and we reluctantly backtracked (every extra metre was mental and physical agony) and found the small gap we’d missed.

We eventually made it to the CP, hours after even the worst case ETA I’d calculated the afternoon before. Rick was there getting ready to leave. It was hot and sunny but his boots were still full of water from the night before. Lindley made us dehydrated breakfast porridge meals. I always thought I didn’t like them because they were too creamy, but this one tasted fantastic. Even better Maxine then arrived with a car full of bakery products. Ellen and I decided to team up for the next stage and debated whether to have 3 hours sleep or 4 (our cushion on the cut-offs was getting thin). We decided on 4. I felt a bit guilty as Lindley kicked Alan out of a tent (unsurprisingly he’d ended up dropping after this detour the day before) so we had one each.

When I got up Jon was already ready to leave and Ellen was having her feet, which were completely trashed, dressed. My right foot which had been absolutely fine 24 hours before was now in a bit of a mess too, with a big blister on the tip of my big toe (I may or may not have made ridiculous faces when it was lanced). The worst news was my left foot. Lindley told me that there was bleeding deep under the skin and he suspected I might have chipped a metatarsal bone. I tried to force my feet into my newer Inov8 boots but they wouldn’t go, so my only option was to go back to the Race Ultras I’d worn for stages 1 and 2. To top if off the 10 hour cushion on the cut-off I’d had at the start of stage had disintegrated to less than 4.

Despite all these bad things I was high as a kite. Fuelled by the no-doze and Mountain Dew that Ellen (new friend for life!) had given me I marched back and forth across the field trying to numb the pain in my feet while singing along to the Madonna track that was playing on the van radio. Peter had recently arrived at the CP and it felt like a bit of a party. In the midst of all this Rick phoned Lindley from Hawkchurch to ask for advice about whether he should stop and sleep in a bed there. The next stage was a long one, and we were likely to be passing through the only two towns when the shops were closed, so we got Lindley to make us sandwiches and also packed some of the remaining bakery goods.

Stage 9

The stage started with some pleasant fields and the late afternoon/early evening was sunny but not too hot. We soon caught Jon who’d left the CP ~half an hour before us and was moving really slowly. He made a miraculous recovery though. A couple of miles later, as we jogged down a minor road, he bombed past, never to be seen again. Ellen and I settled into an effective routine. Sometimes we’d talk, other times whoever was feeling better would lead while the other followed, tens of metres back. As I knew the route I did most of the nav. However Ellen was always ‘on it’, GPS in hand, querying if where I was saying we needed to go didn’t seem right and helping when I couldn’t remember. I was amazed at how much more cushioned my shoes felt and kicked myself (not literally...) for not realising that the boots were trashed sooner.

We stopped in Hawkchurch at dusk to put on extra layers (and in my case relube my undercarriage). We continued to made decent progress towards the coast, but were both feeling sleepy. There were several place on the run-in to Charmouth where I thought we could sleep: a road bridge and a playground. The road bridge was too cold and (despite it being the early hours of the morning) there were people in the playing fields clearing up after some sort of party. The other option was, as usual, the church. It didn’t have a porch so we settled down for a power nap on some concrete around the back. I didn’t actually manage to sleep at all, even in my bivvy bag with all my layers on I was too cold. Before leaving town Ellen did a spot of bin diving, for some bags to put on her feet to keep them dry.

The climbs along the coast soon warmed me up again. Tiredness also rapidly hit again. I focussed on getting to Seatown and once there suggested we stop for a quick power-nap. Ellen quite reasonably pointed out the woods we’d just passed through would have been a better, warmer option. I’d had the public toilets in mind, but they were several hundred metres away, and possibly locked. Instead we laid down on some concrete by the car park pay hut. This time I curled up under my new raincoat and was warm enough to sleep. Checking my phone I was surprised to see that Jon was catching Rick while Peter had been stationary for a long time back in Hawkchurch (I’d later learn he over-slept).

Sun-rise was beautiful and the sheep provided a distraction (and a scare when we thought a fox was going to catch a lamb) but it was a long slog. I’d been day-dreaming of getting breakfast in the Morrison’s cafe in Bridport. We got there before it opened so it was another petrol station feast instead. Ellen drank chocolate milk and Mountain Dew while I ate everything vegetarian in sight, and the other customers looked at us with some combination of bemusement and disgust.

Petrol station breakfast with Ellen (spot the Mountain Dew...)
(photo: Ellen Cottom)

Heading through Bridport we got stuck behind a bin lorry: it was moving even more slowly than us along a very narrow road. Normally food and sunshine would perk me up, but today that didn’t happen. Despite taking both paracetamol & codeine and ibuprofen at the maximum recommended rate, my foot was really hurting and I convinced myself I could feel things moving around inside it. I’d started this stage thinking it might well be my last and this was now seeming likely. I told Ellen she should move ahead and drop me. It rapidly got hot again and we both stopped to remove layers . In my case it had to wait until I reached some fields as a complete change, down to my underwear was needed. Ellen stopped a bit further along the route and when I caught her (and attempted to sit on a branch that really wasn’t big enough to hold my weight) I again told her that she needed to drop me. And this time she did.

Ellen soon disappeared from sight. Initially I thought that if I kept plugging away I might catch her again, but it soon became apparent that this wasn’t going to happen, even gentle hills were reducing me to a (metaphorical) crawl. A bit later Lindley popped up. We chatted and I told him that I was almost certainly going to drop at the next CP. He didn’t try and sway me either way, but I got the impression he thought it was the right decision.

On my last legs/foot
(photo: Lindley Chambers)

Vocalising my (almost) decision to Lindley flipped a switch in my head and after he left I ducked behind a hedge and sat down in some long grass. The tights I’d been wearing for days had split and the thigh underneath had rubbed raw. I hadn’t been planning to wear the tights, I’d bought them from Sport Pursuit a few weeks beforehand because they were cheap and purple (my two main criteria when buying clothes). I threw them in the drop-bag at the last minute as a ‘just in case’ backup, but they (combined with a tatty old pair of pants) were the least uncomfortable clothing for my undercarriage. The only option I had now was to change back into the heavier tights I’d worn over-night. Since I was going to drop I no longer had to ration the Desitin so, after some airing, I applied it liberally, which was bliss.

After I got moving I decided I should phone the OH and let him know my intentions. This was the first time we’d spoken since the start. After an incident during T184 (I was miserable, he told me there was only 40 miles to go, I threw my toys out of the pram) we’ve found that communicating by text messages works better during races. He’d spotted that Ellen had pulled away and guessed what was going on. But he was surprised at quite how happy I sounded. At that point I was: it was a gorgeous day and the pressure was off.

That happiness only lasted until I encountered a farm with limited signposting and electric fences (I’d shortcut this bit on my recce due to snow). I wasted a lot of time wandering around in a futile search for an alternative to crawling under the fences. I stopped at the church in Pilsdon and took my shoes off. Lying down with my feet and back on the cold concrete was bliss.

Pilsdon Hill provided another challenge. It was steep and the rocky decent was torture. I then nearly got squashed by multiple tractors speeding along narrow roads. Thoroughly fed up I decided to stop for a cold drink at the pub in Broadwindsor. Walking in I did a double-take. Never (outside of Brighton...) have I seen so many women with short hair, tattoos and piercings. Had I stumbled across the only lesbian bar in Dorset? They, and their dogs, were friendly and I had a pleasant break.

I tried to keep a decent pace up along the gently rising road/track out of Broadwindsor. While the time pressure was off, I wanted to get to the CP before Ellen left, to give her some bits and pieces which might be useful. At one point I could hear the footsteps of some walkers behind me, so I sped up. They sped up, so I pushed harder. Eventually I realised that the footsteps were my own. Exhausted I sat down on the verge, checked my phone and discovered that the field was disintegrating. Rick and Jon had both dropped and while Peter had gained a lot of ground he was too far back to make the CP before the cut-off.

I was determined to make the CP under my own steam, but the remaining few miles (which involved two classic pointless MW footpath detours) really tested my resolve. If someone had appeared in a car I probably wouldn’t have refused a lift. The only highlight was a stand-off with a badger. She (I’m assume there was a set nearby) blocked the path, squared up to me, and hissed. I waved my trekking poles at her and she scuttled down the path at surprisingly high speed.

Just before the CP I started crying, the first time I’ve ever cried during a race. But I quickly pulled myself together, I didn’t want anyone seeing me crying (or taking photos). I needn’t have worried though, the CP resembled the Marie Celeste. One of the tents was half zipped up and I initially assumed Ellen was inside sleeping. So I rummaged through my dropbags to find the things I wanted to give her (zip-lock bags and sudocrem for her feet plus pretzels). Eventually the penny dropped. If Ellen was here, why wasn’t Lindley? I got my phone out and discovered that Ellen was in fact a mile or two into the next stage and it looked like Lindley had gone to collect Peter. I changed into some clean (ish!) clothes, scavenged some food and went online to book a hotel for the night. For hours I’d been dreaming of checking into the Premier Inn in Yeovil, but it was full. Thoroughly disappointed I instead booked a room at the `Globe and Inn-RelaxInnz’. It looked (and sounded) a bit grim, but it was cheap and had check-in until 11. After a while Lindley appeared with Peter, who’d been being looked after by the locals in Pilsdon.

Not long after throwing the towel in
(photo: Lindley Chambers)