MW: postmortem

Some random musings on feet, gear & food, ‘undercarriage issues’ (TMI alert!), advice for future entrants and my future plans.


My feet have a tendency to blister across the balls. However, I’ve now got a footcare routine which usually prevents that: regularly grating with a pedi-egg and moisturising with E45 pre-race and then sudocrem, good socks and regular airing during multi-day races. I got through Vol State, the Thames Ring and the Spine with only one or two very small, painless blisters. And I’ve never needed medical care for blisters during a race before.

My plan for the MW was to wear Dexshell socks with thin liners over-night and while the dew was down and then change to regular socks for the day. Footwearwise I really struggle to find running shoes that are wide enough and had drawn a complete blank with finding lightweight boots that were comfy. Even men’s Altra Lone Peaks in a size 7 (my feet are a women’s 6 in normal shoes) were far too narrow. So my plan was to wear men’s inov8 RaceUltra 290s in a 7 for the first 3 stages (which I was planning to run a large fraction of), changing up to a pair of men’s Roclite 325 boots in a 7.5. And then, if/when they got too tight (my feet don’t tend to swell much, but there was very little spare room in these) my last resort was a battered old pair of Women’s Roclite 336 boots, which already had 500+ miles (including half of the Spine and various other multi-day outings) on the clock.

Things went badly wrong very early on however and I got blisters which needed draining and taping daily from stage 2 onwards. I had to put the 336 boots into service much earlier than anticipated. They kept me in the game, but by stage 7/8 they were, unsurprisingly, completely wrecked. The creased uppers blistered the tops of my feet and there was so little cushioning left it felt like my feet were being hit with a wacker plate with every step. I switched back into the RaceUltras for stage 9 and having some cushioning felt great but, despite only having done 100 miles in them before, the upper started splitting. (So even if I’d been unbroken enough to get to the end my footwear wouldn’t have been...). At the time I wondered if I should have spent more time and effort trying to find lightweight boots which fit. However despite a Summer of buying and returning every running boot on the market I still haven’t found a pair which fit.

I think I was the first person to have bad feet problems, but by the end of the first week everyone was having issues. My good foot was in pretty good shape up till half way through stage 8. But then it too blistered badly after a night of forcing our way through overgrown wet crops and fields. I think the reality of the MW is that however good your footcare is, before and during the race, painful foot issues are inevitable.

Gear and food

My extensive receing helped me to nail a lot of my gear choices. Unless you’ve got hardy legs and arms, you’ll want to cover them up for the numerous overgrown sections. On my upper body I wore either a really lightweight long sleeved top or a t-shirt and sleeves. Waterproof trousers are a good way of temporarily covering your legs, but my chafing issues made wearing them really painful, so instead I ended up wearing a pair of thin, quick drying long tights.

I’d been planning to navigate via a combination of A4 annotated maps and memory. I think some of the fiddlier navigation (i.e. crossing to the other side of a hedge while otherwise moving in a straight line) is a lot easier to spot with a map than a GPS. My foot problems meant I used my poles much more than planned, so I used the GPS more than maps (keeping it in a waterproof case on elastic around my neck and tucked behind my front pack). My Oregon 350 is getting a bit old and I liked what I saw of other people’s eTrex 30s: compact and with a compass that works even when you’re standing still. Another useful trick I’d copy if I were to do the MW again is cutting up the guidebooks and having the relevant pages to hand. (Unlike the Penine Way...) the MW is far too long and fiddly to memorise and some sections looked completely different to they had a few months earlier. On these occasions the guidebook would have been useful, but I couldn’t be bothered to take my pack off and get it out.

OMM Kamlieka waterproofs (the older versions, not the flimsier looking current ones) have never let me down before. However when heavy storms were combined with pushing through overgrown paths they soaked right through. In retrospect I would have packed a heavier weight hard shell jacket (and not had to go shopping in Bristol to buy a not particularly good one...).

I’d also have packed a lot more food to eat at checkpoints and during the more remote sections. For every stage I was planning on carrying ~2000 calories of food (flapjacks, Mars bars and pretzels), buying, and eating, another 1000 en route, plus 1000 at checkpoints. But the 1000 at checkpoints didn’t always happen and there were some stages where there were few opportunities for buying food or refilling water bottles. I actually found getting enough food and water far easier when I ran Vol State completely unsupported.

Undercarriage issues

I’ve belatedly discovered that most of my chafing is actually folliculitis, small pus filled bumps forming around the hair follicles at the tops of my thighs. I’ve had minor issues in 3-4 day races in Summer before, but the only time it’s been a significant issue was at Vol State last Summer. I’d assumed/hoped that that was mainly down to the heat and humidity. However it’s now clear that it’s a problem in warm weather full stop. And in fact not being able to properly air my undercarriage made it much worse (at Vol State I washed my kit and spent several hours lying naked in an air conditioned hotel room everyday). So I need to try and stop it happening in future.

Wearing baggy shorts would possibly help, but without tight lycra my thighs rub together and chafe. More permanent hair removal might help. But the thought of letting a random stranger anywhere near my crotch fills me with horror. So (in a classic incidence of throwing money at a problem) I’ve bought an Intense Pulsed Light hair removal device. It’s too soon to tell whether it’s working. Finger (and legs) crossed...

Advice for future entrants

Don’t do it! (In my more miserable moments I’ve told people that it’s a ridiculous race which no one should enter, ever..). More rational advice is to be aware that it’s hard. Far, far, harder than any other race I’ve attempted. But the fact Stephen finished (and Ellen got very close) demonstrates that you don’t have to be an elite international ultra runner to finish it. You do however need to be a fast walker, good at self care (in particular feet) and have a sustainable strategy for sleeping and fueling. The distance itself isn’t the biggest challenge. What makes it tough is the route: overgrown field paths, rutted tracks & fields, and fiddly navigation. There are some sections which are ‘cruisable’, but a lot of it isn’t. I’d strongly recommend doing the Yeovil loop over a weekend in late Spring/early Summer (when the crops are high and the paths overgrown). And then imagine doing this when you’ve already got ~350 sleep-deprived miles on your feet (and another 200 miles to go afterwards...).

Future plans

First the million dollar question: would I try and do it again? Probably not. Definitely not next year. But not a definite 100% never no (I’ve kept my maps ‘just in case’). Partly because it’d usually be difficult for me to take 2 weeks off work at that time of year (although if I really wanted to I probably could). And partly because if I’m going to do week plus long races which take months of preparation and wipe me out for at least a week afterwards, I should probably choose ones which play to my strengths and maximise my chances of finishing. My not-so-secret weapon in multi-day races is my shuffle. So it makes sense to choose races where I can deploy it as much as possible. It’d be easy to convince myself that if my foot hadn’t caused problems from so early on I could have finished. But the reality is my walking is (currently...) too slow for the MW.

The MW has made me think about masochism and what motivates me. I’ve always had a tendency to do hard things largely to prove I can, not just in ultra-running, but also in other hobbies and at work. I’ve happily done races (e.g. Vol State and the Spine) which even some other ultra-runners would think were pointlessly masochistic. However the MW is probably the wrong side of type 2 fun for me. The inevitable trashed feet, fighting through head high nettles and even taller crops and desperately searching in the dark for over-grown styles to cross rutted fields when there are perfectly good, more direct, minor roads. Admittedly I’d feel more positive about the MW if I’d actually finished it (or even maybe just not struggled so much from early on).

Being a woman in a very male dominated area also complicates things (multi-day ultras are nearly as big a sausage fest as theoretical physics). The kudos for doing stuff not many women do is nice. But it sometimes feels like you’re representing 50% of the population, whether you want to or not. Pondering going back to the MW really brought this home. I realised that I’d be really happy if Ellen finishes next year. Not just because I’ve seen first hand how badly she want it, but also because then the ‘female finisher’ box would be ticked and that would significantly reduce my motivation for trying again. Years ago I stopped doing ‘come and have a go if you think you’re clever enough’ style theoretical physics, and started working on things which interest me and suit my skills. It’s about time I applied the same logic to running.

So, navel gazing out of the way, what are my future plans? I’d been planning to do the EMU 6 day race in 2019 and the DNF doesn’t change that (provided my foot heals by the Autumn). Beyond that the strategy is to try to pick races which play to my strengths and which I’m enthusiastic about actually doing (rather than having done). Right now what’s taking my fancy is a return to Vol State and, with the benefit of last year’s experience, seeing how much closer to 5 days I can get. I’ve already started the search for baggy, lightweight shorts that don’t give me thigh chub-rub. I’ve also taken a leaf out of Ellen’s book and started working on my walking speed on a treadmill.

MW: aftermath

Lindley drove me to Yeovil and helped me carry my bags into the hotel. The door was open but reception was closed. I called the contact number on the confirmation email and a phone rang behind a shutter. We wandered the corridors looking for a room with a key in the door. We then tried the pub it was attached to. Despite being 10.30pm on a bank holiday weekend it too was completely closed. I was gutted and struggled not to cry when I phoned the OH to update him. For hours I’d been dreaming of having a bath and then lying naked on clean, white sheets (I don’t know why I was particularly obsessed with white sheets. Black/navy bedding, is usually more my style). Lindley took me back to the CP, stopping on the way to get some pizza.

After a large quantity of pizza I crawled into a tent, had another wet-wipe wash and crawled (not naked...) into my sleeping bag. I had several nightmares. First a variation on the ‘flooding killing my pet rabbits’ dream I’d had a few days before. And then the first of what would be a recurring series. I was convinced I was still in the race, and crawling on all fours while the CP was moved along the route behind me. I woke up, looked out of the tent door and was disappointed to see that the CP was still in the field next to the pub car park and I hadn’t made any progress.

First thing in the morning Lindley told me and Peter he was heading to the next CP and would be back for us, and to pack up, in a few hours. I slept for a couple more hours and then got up and ate some more. When Lindley got back he had a passenger on board. John S, Thames Ring 250 course record holder, who’d led the race for a long way had had to drop as his feet had blistered down to the bone and he could barely walk. He was understandably gutted at his first ever DNF. Peter and I were both fairly perky after a good (by race standards) night’s sleep and poor John had to put up with us and Lindley talking bollocks while he waited for his dad to pick him up. He seemed particularly unimpressed by my claim that my legs were in better shape than at the start (which was true, my left foot on the other hand...).

Once John had been rescued, Peter and I helped Lindley pack up the CP (we got the toilet tent back in its bag but left the toilet itself well alone...). It was an informative lesson on just how much work went on behind the scenes moving the CPs. I really enjoyed the morning, and was actually glad that I hadn’t been able to get a hotel room the night before. After another trip through the backroads of Somerset I checked into the Premier Inn for an afternoon of baths and snoozing. My big job for the afternoon was sorting, and slimming down, my kit. The split tights went in the bin along with the comfy pants that had become a bit of a biohazard after being worn (and smeared in various lotions and potions) for multiple days. I considered keeping the trashed boots as some sort of twisted souvenir, but thought better of it. Throwing away food felt wasteful but even getting my remaining clothes and gear home on the train was going to be a challenge. That evening I made the mistake of eating in the attached restaurant rather than hobbling the ~100m to the nearby Wetherspoons. My main course took nearly an hour to arrive, and I was on the verge of eating the furniture.

The bad foot (that’s dry blood under the skin, not mud)

I had another restless night’s sleep, including a nightmare where I thought the curtains were a maize field and multiple trips to the bathroom to soak my feet to relieve the pain. After getting my money’s worth from the breakfast buffet, I headed to the train station. The taxi driver commented on the weight and size of my bags, and when I apologised told me that it was me, not him, he was worried about.

The first train to Bristol was, apart from the screaming kids who stopped me sleeping, OK. The fun and games started from Bristol. The train was shorter than it was supposed to be and I only managed to squeeze on thanks to a bloke grabbing me and my bags and pulling me on (which brought back memories of being hauled onto the TransMongolian express by a dodgy trader after being detained at the Russian-Mongolian border on my honeymoon...). After a few stops it quieted down sufficiently that there was room for me to sit on my bags in the vestibule (the conductor kindly found me an empty seat, but there was no space in that carriage for my bags). I was freezing cold and had to rummage through my bags for warm clothes and food. I felt very jealous of the other people who’d dropped close enough to home that they could be picked up by family (but reminded myself that Alan had had to travel all the way back to Scotland on his own).

At Birmingham the train emptied and, before the hordes on the platform got on, I made a hobble-dash for the nearest luggage rack. Just as I was about to cram my bags into the bottom of it a women jumped up, barged in front of me and (ignoring my sarcastic ‘thank you’) moved her small suitcase into the bottom rack, forcing me to heft my bags onto the top layer. Further down the line someone tried to turf me out of ‘their’ seat, despite the above seat indicators clearly saying that seat reservations weren’t in operation. And when we finally got to Chesterfield a bloke who was stood in front of the door opening buttons refused to move (“you need to be patient love, they’ll open on their own”, “no they won’t if someone doesn’t push the button”). I dragged myself and my bags into the waiting room (the OH had left work as early as he could but hadn’t yet made it to the station to pick me up) and cried. Not gentle tears, but great big snotty sobs. The unhelpful behaviour of so many different people on the train unleashed 10 days worth of suppressed emotions.

After another night of vivid dreams I spent Thursday snoozing and avidly watching the race trackers, in particular Ellen’s, with mixed emotions. I really wanted Ellen to finish, because I knew how determined she was to do it. Her continued progress made me question whether I’d thrown the towel in too soon, but I was also worried that she’d push to the point of collapse/serious harm. By Friday I felt OK and enjoyed a day relaxing in the garden with coach Steggy. That was a false dawn however. I spent the weekend alternating resting with getting on top of domestic crap while the OH marked exam scripts. I was a bit tetchy (OH: well at least you had good weather apart from the storms. Me (growls): no it wasn’t, it was stupidly hot) and the OH didn’t really get why I was so down about not finishing a race I hadn’t expected to finish. (“Yes I thought it was more likely that I wouldn’t finish than I would, but if I’d thought there was zero chance of me finishing I wouldn’t have entered it.”). I obsessed over whether I’ve DNF-ed too many events in the last few years and tried, with limited success, to cheer myself up by reading blogs I’ve written about my more successful races. Sunday evening brought another bout of crying.

chilling with coach Steggy (“lazy fucking mammal”)

I bounce back from 3-4 day events fairly quickly, a couple of good night’s sleep is all that’s needed. However my MW recovery was even worse than the Spine: 10 days of really poor sleep and mental fuggy-headedness. I felt guilty about not firing on all cylinders at work and questioned whether I should do week+ long races if they take so long to recover from (I work in a field where working evenings and weekends and not taking most of your annual leave is de rigour). I don’t know how much of this negativity was due to the DNF (this was the first time I’ve DNF-ed a really long race). The stressful journey home probably didn’t help either.

The blisters healed fairly quickly, but 3 months later my foot still isn’t completely recovered. A post-race X-ray showed no sign of a fracture (ruling out major damage), but fresh stress fractures don’t always show up on X-rays. A visit to a podiatrist a couple of weeks later ruled out a stress fracture, unfortunately, since a stress fracture would have healed by now. It’s not 100% clear what the issue is, but it’s focussed around one of the metatarsal heads. After 2 months it had stopped hurting, so I started running again. I was (uncharacteristically...) sensible and started with 3 miles of mixed running and walking and slowly built up to 5 miles of off-road running over 3 weeks. And then the foot ‘went’ again. Nowhere near as badly, but I’m limiting myself to power walking on a treadmill for a few more weeks.

I’d always intended to have a break from focussed run training over the Summer. I’d planned to spend the time it freed up on yoga. However, inevitably, I’m into one of the more dynamic forms of yoga which involves lots of jumping and can’t be done with a ‘broken’ foot. And not being able to do anything active is very bad for my head. Looking on the bright side, I’ve had plenty of time to work on my headstands though.

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)

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