June 2018

MW: the middle

Stage 5

This stage starts with a long section of runnable disused railway line. I should have run it. But my foot was still feeling tender and I convinced myself that I’d overheat if I alternated running and walking in the pre-dawn chill. I stopped at Chipping Camden for breakfast, two large croissants from the Co-op.

It was a decent morning. The sky was overcast so it didn’t get too hot and I managed to jog some of the roads. I even actively enjoyed the grassy decent into Moreton-in-Marsh. The clouds were clearing though and it was going to be another hot afternoon. I stopped in Moreton-in-Marsh for a Co-op lunch: sandwiches, crisps, Mountain Dew and my first ice cream of the day. Checking my phone I saw Peter was passing through Chipping Camden (I’d later learn he’d been late leaving CP4 due to a headache) while Ellen and Jon were one and two towns further down the route respectively, a pattern we’d maintain for most of the day.

The next section of the route was new to me, when I did my rece I used last year’s GPS which missed out Stow-on-the-Wold. I know wold means hill, however I’d assumed that in this case it was a river and therefore (like most of the other Cotswold towns) Stow would be in a valley. The steep climb up to it was therefore a nasty surprise and I stopped and rewarded myself with not one, but two ice creams. I stopped behind a hedge in the fields after Stow to re-lube my undercarriage, and narrowly avoided being caught by the first walkers I’d seen all day. I still didn’t do a good a job with the rest of my self-care. I was wearing sleeves and longish tights so thought I could get away without suncream. The result was a bright red face which would look ridiculous during the next two rainy days.

I got to Bourton-on-the-Water late in the afternoon and would have loved to join the crowds drinking outside pubs. But instead I went to Londis and bought a cheese and onion pasty, crisps and another ice cream to eat on the grass. I’d felt pretty good up to this point, but the rest of this stage took forever, the route plunged in and out of a seemingly never ending sequence of steep sided valleys and the sky clouded over. I did manage to jog most of the gravel track into CP5, but was secretly glad when Lindley came out to meet me, giving me an excuse to walk it in.

I arrived at CP5 an hour or so after dark and, again, Jon was getting ready to leave. I padded my chilli and rice tea out with bread and butter while gazing longingly at an empty takeaway pizza box in the bin. I managed a decent ~4 hours sleep, only waking up briefly to drag my kit bags into the tent when it started raining. Brian made me some bread and butter for breakfast and I asked him about the weather forecast. The clouds and rain during the night suggested we could be in for a wet day, but there was no signal for me to check the forecast myself. He told me it might rain a bit. I also asked about Peter’s whereabouts, the other tents were unoccupied so I’d assumed he’d passed through the CP while I was sleeping. However he was still to arrive, which surprised and worried me since all day he’d been not far behind me. Brian woke Lindley up to drain and dress my foot and then went out to walk Peter in. He seemed even happier to see us than I was to see him and greeted us with big handshakes.

Might have been a good idea to take my pack off before sitting down...
(photo: Lindley Chambers)

Stage 6

I set off into drizzle an hour of so before dawn. The rain got steadily worse until it was a full blown storm. Post dawn drowsiness hit me as usual and I was very glad to find a giant tree to shelter under for a 5 minute power nap. I got to Cirencester just before 8am, soaking wet and fed up. For several miles I’d been dreaming of a Wetherspoons veggie breakfast, but of course somewhere as poncy as Cirencester wouldn’t have a Wetherspoons. In fact the only place that was (about to) open was a French restaurant. Probably my least favourite type of food, but I was desperate for somewhere warm and dry where I could consume lots of calories. It was a bit posh, but the waiter was very friendly and tolerant as I dried myself and my kit off while eating two breakfasts.

2 poncy French breakfasts

I was slow getting moving again. My feet hurt and I stopped at Tesco for supplies. Finally leaving town I bumped into a bloke (Henry?) who’d come out to meet me and had spent most of the last hour trying to work out where I actually was. The morning was tough. It carried on raining, and wearing waterproof trousers made my chafing issues worse. Two things kicked me into trying to move faster: a stunning field of red, purple and blue wild flowers and the discovery that Ellen and Jon (who were now together) were pulling away from me and Peter was closing in from behind.

I stopped in Tetbury for a slightly less poncy lunch: cut-price ice-buns and giant pretzels from Co-op. As I sat on a bench redressing my foot a bloke rushed out of a nearby hairdressers to ask if I was OK and offer me a bowl of warm water. If I hadn’t just retaped my foot I’d have taken him up on it. The afternoon dragged by, the highlight was getting caught in a traffic jam of cows on the way to be milked. For the last two days my goal had been getting further than the first drop in 2017, now I switched to focusing on getting to Somerset and breaking my previous longest race distance (314 miles). Another incentive was seeing how long the OH Steggy could keep coming up with new ‘motivational’ messages.

The day had a nasty sting in the tail. The skies clouded over and it started raining really heavily again. I barely had time to get my waterproofs on, let alone find shelter. It was one of the heaviest storms I’ve ever been out in and it soaked straight through my usually reliable OMM Kameleika waterproofs and I had to put on a Primaloft jacket to stay warm. The final few miles from Chipping Sodbury to the CP had been straight-forward when I’d recced them. But it was a different story now it was dark and the field paths had become overgrown. The rain had stopped, but pushing through wet bushes was making me wet again. I was therefore happy to meet Andy Persson, who’d come out to walk me in to the CP. Having someone to talk to was a very welcome distraction from quite how wet and miserable I was. I did feel guilty about how wet his jeans got though (and also temporarily leaving him behind in the dark without a light while he shut a gate).

At the CP Lindley was about to start treating Jon’s feet and told me to sit down and he’d sort me out with food and my drop bags once he’d finished. Jon’s feet were a mess so this wasn’t a quick job and I was now trapped in the corner of the gazebo. I stripped off some wet clothes and put on all of the dry spares I had in my pack. I was really hungry and ate the remains of my supplies from the stage and anything edible I could reach from the CP table. After about 20 min Lindley was about to start on Jon’s 2nd foot and I was starting to shiver so I asked him to find the bag with my spare clothes in. Dinner was a pasta pot which didn’t do much to satisfy my gnawing hunger so I hit my flapjack stash again. Ellen was getting ready to leave her tent, so we had a quick chat before I settled down for another ~4 hour sleep.

I got up at the pre-arranged time, but there was no sign of Lindley. I briefly contemplated dressing my foot myself, but my boots were in the van drying off, so I had no choice but to bang on the door and wake him up. Four hours was nowhere near enough time for my waterproofs to dry off, so I switched to my back-up set. I’ve got several decent hard-shell jackets, but they were all at home as I didn’t think I’d need them for a low altitude Summer race. As my backup I’d packed a lightweight Alpkit jacket. It’s a perfect good jacket, but not up to coping with storms like we’d had the day before. I’d already realised I was potentially in trouble the night before and had discussed buying a heavier duty jacket in Bristol with Andy. I now ran the plan by Lindley as he sorted my foot out. He ok-ed me going off route to buy a jacket and regaled me with stories about having to do army exercises in wet clothes (call me a lily-livered desk jockey but I didn’t fancy another day of being soaking wet and cold while ‘running’ on empty).

blisters on the bad foot getting better

Stage 7

I got started a bit before dawn into drizzly weather again. I stopped for breakfast in a church porch and later my usual post-dawn power-nap in a fancy stone bus shelter. There’s a long runnable stretch along the River Avon so, for the first time, I dug my iPod out and got my head down. I managed a decent shuffle-jog most of the way to Bristol. I was so proud of my shuffling (which seemed to be closing the gap to Jon and Ellen a bit) I decided to give it a name: shoggling. At the time this seemed really clever...

Every day I’m shuffling (or shoggling)

Just before reaching the heart of Bristol I saw a familiar race coming the other way, Roz Glover had come out to meet me. We chatted as I shoggled and Roz walked. Roz is a fast walker, but it still brought home that my shuffling speed wasn’t all that. Like the last evening it was great to have company and a distraction from the miserableness. A bit later Rich met us with a big stash of food. It wasn’t completely clear under what circumstances we were allowed to accept food, but after the pasta pot dinner the night before I wasn’t going to say no and I gratefully stuffed my face.

Looking miserable (and short) in the drizzle in Brizzle

deluxe pavement picnic
(big thanks to Rich Cranswick and Roz Glover)

Rich then took me to the main shopping centre and showed me the outdoor shops. On the way we discussed my shuffle (which I’d regained my pride in). Apparently it makes me instantly recognisable. Going shopping in the middle of a race, in a city I’d been to lots as a kid, was really surreal. I went round the cheaper shops but couldn’t find anything with a decent number of Schmerbers (even while running, I’m still a scientist at heart). I ended up in Blacks buying a half price, but still not cheap, North Face jacket. After all that shopping I was hungry again and went to Burger King for coffee, chips and foot airing.

Leaving Bristol the weather gradually got better and the waterproofs came off again. I stopped in Long Ashton for Co-op discount bakery products (ice buns and giant pretzels again) and foot airing. The rest of the afternoon was sunny with good views, but the constant rolling hills slowed me down. Thanks to my shuffling I’d closed the gap to Ellen and Jon to ~ 2 hours by Bristol but now it was growing again. I was cheered up by some interesting looking sheep sticking their noses through a wire fence for nose-rubs (I’m guessing it was really food they were after).

As usual the last few hours dragged. At one point I came across a foot-path which was completely over-grown with head high stinging nettles. I thought sod that and took a long cut around it. I then got really frustrated about having to find invisible overgrown styles in hedges in the dark in order to cross rutted fields when there were perfectly good minor roads going from A to B more directly. Again animals provided some light relief as a calf repeatedly charged playfully at me (I later discovered it had done the same to Ellen and Jon several hours earlier). Eventually I reached the camp site and Lindley came out to walk me in.

After the pasta pot experience the night before, I decided to dip into my dehydrated meal stash and asked for some boiling water. But Lindley offered me one which he had, which tasted great and (accompanied by yet more bread and butter) filled me up. Ellen and Jon were still sleeping so I got sorted quickly and told Lindley that I planned to get up at 4 and leave at 4.30. There was a shower block, but I couldn’t be bothered with the faff so had another wet-wipe wash in the tent. I didn’t have the best ‘nights’ sleep. After ~2 hours I woke up with stomach cramps and only just managed to make it to the toilet block in time. And then I had a nightmare in which my tent flooded and I failed to save my pet rabbits from drowning somewhere else.

I got up when my alarm went at 4, got myself ready and had some breakfast. By 4.30 there was still no sign of Lindley. This time I had my boots, but I really needed some expert foot care (the uppers of my boots had creased up and caused various blisters and raw patches on both feet). I tried knocking on the van door, but that didn’t work so I ended up phoning him. While he was sorting my feet his alarm went off to remind him to wake Peter up, so it looked like Peter was going to be starting the day not far behind me.

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

MW: preparation

My main motivation for receing as much of the MW as possible was to minimise the amount of time lost to navigating (and getting lost). I also thought it would be good race specific training. And finally, I like a ‘project’.

Rece 1

Spurred on by following the 2017 race I set off on my first rece in June, the weekend after the General Election. To say it wasn’t a success would be a gross under-statement. I’d planned to get the first train to Worcester on the Saturday morning. However having stayed up all night on the Thursday/Friday I didn’t make it out of bed till mid-morning and it was mid afternoon before I even got to the start.

The fun and games started just before Droitwich Spa when I got confused by the conflict between the route stickers and that year’s race GPS. I ended up doing a route which was a hybrid of the two and involved crossing a major road junction. In the process I acquired a stalker, a small-ish teenage boy. After initially asking for directions he then followed close behind me, stopping whenever I did and making a series of agitated phonecalls in a language I didn’t understand. At one point a woman stopped her car and asked if I was OK. I answered ‘yes’, because I wasn’t sure what else to say. Eventually I’d had enough and told him in no uncertain terms to stop following me. This did the job, but I was left feeling somewhat unsettled.

Not long after it started raining and I encountered the first over-grown field path. I hadn’t bothered to put on gaiters and soon the insides of my waterproof boots were soaked. The route was quasi-rural and I’d vastly over-estimated the ease of finding both food and suitable places to sleep. I eventually stopped at about mid-night and bivied hungry right next to the path.

Next morning I got moving just after dawn, and narrowly avoided getting caught having a wee by a pack of super keen elderly walkers. I’d also under-estimated how overgrown the route would be. My legs and arms got scratched to bits by brambles and then pollen got into the wounds and made my legs swell up. To cap things off I discovered that Hoka Tor boots aren’t wide enough for my feet-it felt like my toes were being crushed in a vice. By late-morning I decided that I’d had enough and slowly trudged my way to the nearest train station and headed home with my tail between my legs. I’d managed a grand total of ~50 miles in just over 24 hours. I’d later come to realise that that’s actually not a bad day’s walking on the MW.

Rece 2

Having entered the race the moment (literally...) entries opened I set off on my next rece over the August bank holiday weekend, aiming to get to Stratford-upon-Avon. This time, to get an early start, I stayed in a ‘hotel’ in Wolverhampton the night before. It was cheap. It was also the 2nd worse place I’ve ever stayed in the UK. It took half an hour to even get checked-in as people puked and argued with the receptionist and each other. And when I finally got to my room it looked like a DSS hostel. Getting the hell out of there was at least a good motivation for getting up early in the morning.

I got the first train back to Codsall, where I’d stopped before, and was soon back on the route. I occasionally struggled with the fiddly navigation, missing invisible styles and unmarked turns. But on the whole I enjoyed making my way around the Boscabel loop. I stopped and bivied at White Ladies Priory. Which was a nice location, apart from the condom wrapper I spotted when I got up in the morning.

The next morning was a bit of a death-plod as I’d again made the mistake of over-estimating the availability of shops, and wasn’t carrying enough food and water. After one of many ‘does the route really go there’ moments (a scramble up a steep embankment, followed by a climb over fence) I detoured to a Costa for brunch. The route through the West Midlands urban conurbation then got increasingly grim. Miles of canal tow-path where half the benches were burnt out and all the people on it were off their faces. It made the last section of the Grand Union canal into Paddington seem pleasant. I made sure my GPS and phone were packed away and avoided making eye contact with anyone.

I really didn’t fancy heading into the Netherton tunnel on my own with this company, so instead I headed ‘over the top’ in increasingly heavy rain. I was extremely glad to make it back to fields but, with the route running parallel to the M5, there was nowhere quiet to sleep. Next morning, feeling throughly miserable from the lack of sleep and food, I decided that I’d far rather spend what was left of the BH weekend with the OH. I plodded to Bromsgrove and threw the towel in early, again.

Rece 3

I squeezed this one into a term-time weekend in November and don’t have much to say about it. It was actually quite pleasant! The weather was Sunny and not too cold, and this section of route, in particular the Wooten Wawen aqueduct, was nice. There were some low points though. My new Inov8 waterproof boots started leaking within metres of entering the first wet fields. And when I turned my phone on in Stratford-upon-Avon I found a message from the B&B asking where I was (even though check-in was supposed to be open for another few hours) as they were going to a party. I ended up sitting on the door step for a while waiting for them to come back. But this was a good opportunity to clean myself up.

The next day was a short one. Fuelled by an excellent veggie breakfast, I ran all of the disused train line out of Stratford and a fair bit of the rest of the route. I made it to Moreton-in-Marsh just before dark, and with just enough time to scrape the worst of the mud off myself before the next train arrived.

Rece 4

I squeezed a long weekend trip into the gap between Christmas and work restarting. To avoid camping I booked, cheap, hotels and limited myself to shortish (35 mile) days to make sure I got to each one in time. The limited milage and kit to carry made for a much more enjoyable weekend than my usual wild-camping slogathons.

The route through the Cotswolds was interesting, but not too challenging (in terms of both terrain and navigation). It did include the most ridiculous MW ‘deviation’ however. There’s a nice flat, even path between Lower Slaughter and Bourton-on-the Water. The Heart of England Way follows this route. The MW on the other hand, turns off of it. Up a steep muddy field, along a narrow, bendy but busy road, down a steep rocky field, and finally across a field with signs warning of adders!

Footwear and check-in times also caused problems again. A new pair of (non-waterproof) Inov8 boots blistered my heels and (despite being a men’s 7) squished my toes. And I hadn’t spotted that the hotel in Cirencester was in fact a (ridiculously expensive) hostel and check-in closed at 8. Thankfully they were still open (but understandably not happy) when I showed up at 20 past. After a short final day I got the train home from Bristol, travelling in the bike compartment because I was caked in mud.

Rece 5

Another civilised hotel based trip. I set out from the Travelodge in Bristol into rain. It eventually stopped and the route through the Mendips was interesting but muddy. I thought I was going to get to my next hotel, in North Wootten, a few miles South of Wells, in time for dinner. Instead I struggled to keep to the route through dense woodland, and at one point ended up crawling under trees up a hill.

Somerset in general was ‘fun’. The route was often completely over-grown (spot the 2nd style in the first photo below) or knee deep in mud and shit. A proper dinner eluded me yet again, and I arrived in Yeovil just in time to have a dehydrated meal and crawl into bed.

The MW in Somerset, in fine fettle

Rece 6

Up till now I’d been doing the route in order, to allow me to change my plans without messing everything up. However the new few stages were very rural, with limited or no accommodation. So I planned to leave them to later, when the weather would be better and I could camp with lighter gear (ha ha-see rece 7 below...). Therefore my next rece was going to be a short one from Rowland’s Castle to the finish, staying in hotels and hostels. Snow, and the cancellation of all South West trains out of London, put pay to that. Fortunately I managed to get all but one of the hotels and both my train tickets refunded.

Rece 7

Thanks to work I didn’t have any spare weekends to try rece 6 again so it was back to the West Country for a camping trip around the Yeovil loop. Day one was fun, I got to watch all sorts of aircraft flying in and out of Yeovilton airbase and met lots of interesting looking sheep. The route was really wet and muddy and just before Crewkerne a dog-walker directed me around a section which was apparently knee deep in water. The weather began to deteriorate and I spent a windy night trying to sleep just outside Hawkchurch.

Day two was tough. I was surprised by quite how steep the hills were and as I made my way along the coast it started snowing. I stopped in the Morrison’s cafe in Bridport for a much needed hot meal. The navigation and route remained challenging. At one point the route was heading along a green lane. A fallen down tree blocked the lane. I assumed it had come down recently and crawled under it only to find myself trapped in the midst of overgrown bushes. I eventually escaped by climbing a barbed wire fence into an adjacent field. A few miles later another green lane turned, literally, into a river and I alternated between paddling in shin deep water and trying to inch along the muddy banks.

The snow then got heavier and there was soon several inches of snow, covering everything and making route finding hard. I gave up on finding footpaths across fields and stuck to minor roads instead. I’d been aiming for Broadwindsor, but called it a day several miles sooner and bivied on the edge of Pilsdon Pen hill fort. Despite having full “Spine sleeping gear” it was a chilly night, and the local sheep weren’t particularly happy with my presence.

It continued snowing through the night and I decided that if I wanted to get home that day my best bet was to get to the nearest train station ASAP rather than carrying on along the route back to Yeovil. Three hours of road walking through snow got me to Crewkerne station. No trains were running towards London, but there was a delayed service going in the other direction (along the single track!) towards Exeter. After conferring with the OH by phone I decided to get it (the alternative was another long walk to Yeovil). That train broke down a few stations down the line, but eventually another train arrived and I made it to Exeter and then home.

Rece 8

I planned to do my final long camping rece, from Yeovil to Rowland’s Castle over the Easter bank holiday. Because of more bad weather and minor illness instead I worked that weekend and postponed it for a week. I also set off a day early so I could do the Broadwindsor to Yeovil section that I’d got snowed off of.

After an ‘interesting’ few hours killing time in Yeovil Wetherspoons and bus station I finally made it back to Broadwindsor (my grandparents lived just outside Yeovil and I really don’t remember the bus station being so grim back then). I struggled to stay on route through Nine Springs park in the dark, but otherwise I made my way back to Yeovil OK. After running, almost literally, into some badgers I stopped to sleep in the porch of the church at Mudford. I’d been so relieved to get home from my last rece that I’d forgotten to unpack my rucksack. When I got my bivvy bag out several weeks later it was stinking and covered in mould. Repeated washes didn’t help much. For this trip I was therefore stuck with a lighter, less robust bag, so I wanted to try and find sheltered places to sleep. The bag also wasn’t very breathable and I woke up with a damp sleeping bag.

New (ginger) friend

The morning of day two involved some more surprisingly steep hills and some friendly alpacas. I stopped in Wincanton for a pub meal and (probably not so) surreptitiously dried my sleeping bag by the fire. After an afternoon of flatter terrain I stopped for another church porch bivvy in Fonthill Bishop. Day 3 brought lots of nice straight tracks, that were easy to navigate and make good progress along. Settling into a good routine I had another pub lunch and a church porch bivvy at Houghton.

The next day was less fun. It rained and for the first time ever I had arse crack chafing (it was so bad that climbing styles was agony). A car fire while I was having a pub lunch provided some excitement. And removing old layers of sudocrem and reapplying it much more sparingly reduced the arse crack pain. I decided a night in a hotel, and a shower, would be a good idea and found myself a room in a pub in Warnford for that night. The pub was closed when I got there but they’d texted me a code so I could get in. Having a shower and sleeping in a bed (rather than on a concrete church porch floor) was heavenly. I booked a cheap train ticket home from Rowland’s Castle for the next afternoon. The final half day was very wet and very muddy, so I was very happy to make it to Rowland’s Castle and kill the time until my train having a beer in a very ‘locally’ pub.


So was all the time I spent receing worth it? It definitely made navigating the route easier, partly from knowing where I was going and partly from being familiar with its foibles. It wasn’t great training though. Carrying a big rucksack with several days of clothes and food (and often camping gear as well) got me into the habit of plodding really slowly. This was fine for the Spine, but to finish the MW you need to move a bit faster. I’d have been better off following Ellen’s lead and practising walking fast. On the other-hand I had some great adventures and saw interesting places I wouldn’t otherwise have been (I don’t plan on ever revisiting the stretch of canal North of the Netherton tunnel however).

Apart from the reces my training went OK, but not great. The leg problem which started in November, and messed up the 24 hour track race in Sweden, continued. The only time it didn’t hurt was after day 3 of my final recce. It started again once I was back to everyday life and sitting in cars, trains and planes. But this did at least give me confidence it wouldn’t be a problem on the MW (and indeed again it magically cleared up after 3 days of walking). A couple of times during medium length runs I felt like I’d trod on a stone. I iced my foot, and didn’t think too much of it. Having a sabbatical from lecturing meant I could take two weeks off in May to do the race, but it also led to a lot of research related travel. I got carried away with saying yes to things and ended up going to the US 3 times in the first 4 months of 2018. This was fun, but tiring, and the long-haul flights made my leg hurt.

MW: preamble

IMG_1256 (1)

A blog about a painful, 9.5 day, 420 mile DNF is inevitably not going to be a festival of positivity. So before I get started with the moaning some thank yous:

To Lindley Chambers and Maxine Lock from Challenge Running for their super-human efforts in putting the race on. Maintaining rolling open-air checkpoints with runners dispersed over many, many miles, while fixing badly trashed feet, recharging power-banks, replacing lost phones and finding Hokas in Somerset is probably nearly as hard as actually running the race.

To Bruce Ballagher for his fantastic support at checkpoints 2-4, in particular for knowing exactly what was needed and just doing it (in my case this included a gentle telling off for letting my lips get badly chapped...).

To John Tennant and the Monarch’s Way association for their ‘painting the Forth Bridge’-esque work in keeping the route stickered and passable, despite the worst efforts of some of the land-owners (and also to the sub-set of famers who actually keep the footpaths across their land clear).

To Andy Persson, Roz Glover and Rich Cranswick for providing much appreciated support in the Bristol area and the rest of the back half of the pack for company at various points along the way. And apologies for the unsolicited lectures on the correct pronunciation of West Country place names and how to shoo cows out of your way.

To the OH for putting up with me banging on about the Monarch’s Way for most of the last year.

To ‘coach Steggy’ (more about her later...) for the motivational messages.

The beginning
The middle
The end (for me)