Time for some more Trailblazing!

As the Christmas period got nearer, talk between Lou and I about whether to go for another Trailblaze black band became more serious. A few people had attempted the full Thames path and had failed, but there had been one success. A chap called David Carr had made it to the first black band point at Pangbourne the 110km point. A fine effort, but I wanted to make it to the end at Oxford at 166km. Something I knew I was capable of but it’s never easy, and anything can happen. So, the Thames path seemed to be the one, when one day Lou said that maybe we should do Offa’s Dyke instead as it would be nicer for her to follow. I was much happier with this choice as it seemed like a hillier route that took you up and over some decent hills and went nowhere near any cities. It was also virgin trail to me whereas the Thames path had been pounded by my feet quite a bit over the last few years.
So that was it. Decision made. We had booked a rental car for the 30th December to go to my parents for the New Year, so we just extended it by a day and picked up a car first thing on the 29ththen began the drive up to the start at Prestatyn on the North coast of Wales.
We arrived on the sea front and easily located the first dibber and parked up. I had a load of homemade soup and got ready in the car. I started up my Garmin and got outside and dibbed in and started the stopwatch. It was just before 1300. Hopefully I’d be finished before dark the next day. There was a gale blowing in off the sea which thankfully blew me on my way. Soon I’d be up in the hills, where the wind would be much stronger. As you leave Prestatyn you start climbing pretty quickly till you have this incredible view of the coast. I had good visibility but the wind was pretty ferocious up here. Thankfully it was blowing me more up the slope I was contouring around than down and over the edge, but still I was struggling to hold my line as the stronger gusts battered me. It wasn’t too cold but I didn’t really want to be stopping too much in this as the wind would soon get you cold. Soon it would be dark, and being close to the shortest day meant that I would be facing a 15-16 hour night to run through. This would be done alone (except when I would see Lou every 10-15kms) and as previously mentioned on new trails. This would be pretty demanding as it would take a lot of concentration for a long period, but I had bought 5 OS maps that covered all of the path that I planned to run, so hopefully if I just took my time at points that I wasn’t too sure about then all would be good. After my ‘fun’ on the Green Man recently, I was determined to not make such rash and therefore poor decisions that would cost me much wasted time and energy. This would take long enough without extras!
After around 30 mins I found the first cp, which I quickly dibbed before continuing through the fields that seemed to be pretty waterlogged in places and quite difficult to run with any speed on. I was now heading away from the coast so was sheltered, slightly form the brunt of the heavy gusts of wind. The path appeared to be well marked and easy to follow which was a relief. Some paths are poorly marked and are easy to get confused with, but this so far didn’t seem the case with the Offa’s Dyke, though I had barely begun really.  I was going a little faster than normal as I wanted to get as much of the trail behind me as possible before the torch went on. I’m not really sure why. Probably just one of my silly little games I play with myself. As I found my rhythm I realised that I felt pretty good. The weather was pretty good for the time of year, the visibility and therefore the scenery was stunning. I was happy and excited about the trail ahead. Not knowing what lay ahead really seemed to add to this! I passed through the next few dibber with no issues and continued in the day that was starting to show signs of ending. I came into Rhuallt and saw the hire car parked up. Lou jumped out and fed me one of her ace homemade mince pies. I ate it in one and moved on swiftly. I was perfectly warm enough at the moment with shorts, gloves and a thermal on, but I knew that as the darkness fell and I headed out onto the higher, open moorland the temperature would drop. Not forgetting the fact that I’d be getting more tired so would feel it more anyway. I passed through Bodfari still feeling pretty good. It was relatively clear still so I was getting extended daylight. I now skirted around some moorland before starting a steady climb that would take me on to the top of the open moorland. As I got half way up at a point that was pretty sheltered, I saw that the path ahead was really exposed and the light was getting pretty low, so I took the opportunity to get ready for the night. I put on my OMM Kamleika waterproof, exchanged the cap for my fleece hat and put my head torch on. As I begun running up the rest of the hill to the ridge I would be following for a while, I noticed that the reason it was so dark was an incredibly stormy looking cloud. At least I had my waterproof on. Within 30 seconds of noticing it I was hit by the most intense thunderstorm I’ve ever had the misfortune of being caught out in. The one saving grace was that the wind was behind me! I had nowhere to shelter so begun sprinting up the hill, half fuelled by adrenalin and half being blown up by the powerful wind. The hail was hitting me with tremendous force, and was really painful on the back of my legs and arms. I tried to tell myself that it really was only a bit of pain and that it wouldn’t do me any actual harm, but as it continued to beat me, I started to doubt that. After what felt like a lifetime, I was offered a place to shelter. I desperately dived over the brow of the hill into the bracken and rolled into the fetal position as the hail was still reaching me. I looked up from my knees and saw a sheep really close to me also sheltering and obviously more scared of the hail than a lunatic in shorts! After a couple of minutes, it eased off and I was able to keep running. The wind was really strong up there and as I progressed along the ridge I would often get hit from the side and it would almost knock me down. It was really tough trying to keep some momentum. I switched on my torch. That was now it for the next 15 hours. I would now be living in the bubble world that the beam from the torch provides. Time to really focus. I was really making an effort to follow every twist and turn I made on the maps so that I really knew where on the map I was at all times. There were a few decent climbs and decents that basically kept you on the top of the ridge before I arrived at Jubilee Tower. The wind was howling up here and I thankfully begun a steady descent that would hopefully give me a respite from the wind. My feet were totally soaked and were getting constantly drenched due to the massive amount of surface water there was stretching across the paths. Wet feet don’t usually give me any issues, but it’s never nice especially when the water is freezing cold! I was feeling the cold a bit in my hands now and had decided when the next sheltered area came, I would put my big goretex gloves on. The descent continued around the hill for quite a way before I arrived at a car park, and there parked up, was Lou! Magic. I bundled into the car and got the blowers on. My hands begun to warm as I told Lou about the Hail storm that had given me a good beating. Lou fed me and I pulled on my big gloves while trying to convince her that conditions weren’t unmanageable for me as she was a little concerned. I left her in a more comfortable state as I crawled out of the luxurious warmth out into the howling wind and instantly felt the chill as the wind penetrated my cooled body. Thankfully I was straight into a really steep uphill that soon warmed me through again. I watched the cars lights disappear into the gloomy night as Lou made her way to the next meeting point. Just me, the wind and mud again. As I climbed, I approached a marker post with directions on. I’m sure that the directions make complete sense, but at this stage of the run, I got a little confused and continued climbing the steadily steepening trail instead of taking the other option which would have took me around the side of the hill slightly down. Five minutes later and I was on top of the hill at the cairn. The wind was incredibly strong up here and just as I looked around trying to determine where the path went next, the hail crashed down upon me, only this time it was hitting me hard in the face. I tried to see but couldn’t, even with the map case sheltering my face. I resorted to laying on the floor with the cairn directly in front of me till the hail passed. It would be too easy to just run down any old track and get lost I sensibly thought (little did I know at this stage that I had already taken the wrong path!). As the hail passed I got up and followed what I thought would be the correct path right down a steep long descent. Eventually I got to the bottom and as I entered a woodland on a firetrail I got that sinking feeling that I had gone wrong. The good thing was that I knew exactly where it had occurred too. I turned and starting climbing while trying to stay calm. It was so easy to loose your temper and hammer it, and ruin yourself. I had a long way to go, I need to get my pacing pretty good at least. When I set out on this run I had totally expected to get lost a little due to the fact that I hadn’t been on the trail before, and the fact that it was going to be dark for so long. This is not to say that I didn’t mind getting lost!
I climbed back up the hill and dropped back down the other side till I reached the post that directed me back onto the correct route. I was happy again. Now, if I could just have no more real mess ups like that I’d be very happy. I carried on trouble free to llandegla at 49km, where I bumped into Lou again. I piled in the car and had some more soup. I was having to keep my map in a Ortlieb waterproof case to protect it. These things are great, but seeing as I was covering a fair bit of ground I was having to constantly get the map out and refold it, or actually change maps once I had gone off the end of one. I was running across 4.5 maps over the whole run so this was a constant task. I left Lou and ran through the village that seemed deadly quiet, before turning off the road into a forest. I followed the path up hill for quite a way in the woods before running out into the open moorland and was instantly blown away with the sheer beauty of the stars which had come out. I stopped for a second and looked up letting my eyes adjust to the dark and saw more and more stars as they did so. Now I was still I was also struck by the quiet night that was all around me. It is moments like this that make all the hard times and the moments of doubt fade away. They give me strength when the pain is almost unbearable. Unfortunately I had to keep moving I looked back down at the trail and began running again with a grin on my face. I really wanted to do a midwinter all nighter, but was very aware that I would miss a whole load of scenery. The beautiful night sky really went away to balancing out that loss, and I was happy that the night section was making me grin. Things were going well overall.
I passed through World’s End before running along the path the hugged the steep side of the mountain which demanded lots of caution and concentration as one foul step would send me tumbling down the hill quite a way! I really enjoyed the trail along here and thankfully stayed upright. I eventually ended up on a road and found the next dibber. I quickly dibbed in and moved on. I left the road and entered another forest on a really nice trail that slowly took me down to the town of Trevor, where I saw Lou. I ate some more and downed a bottle of Lucozade before starting off again. I was beginning to feel a little stiff now but all was good for over 60km. After going through a few fields I was on a canal path for a little way. What a contrast! Smooth, not muddy and completely flat! Not really what makes me tick, but it would be nice to get some easy miles behind me. This was short lived though and soon I was back in the mud and passing through Bronygarth. I was increasingly following the incredible earthworks that is Offa’s Dyke. It was still pretty high in other places, but was pretty difficult to make out in others. I loved the way that this massive thing just went through all the farmers fields and was just part of the beautiful scenery. It did make the going pretty difficult at times. Next was Trefonen. I was having to climb over loads of stiles. This gets harder and more painful as the run progresses, and it was about now that I really started feeling fatigued. Everytime I slid and sloshed around in the mud I could feel the wasted energy draining from my sore legs. I saw Lou again just on the outskirts of town. She was trying to grab some shuteye but obviously wasn’t succeeding as her head popped up as I approached. I tried not to hang around too long here. I grabbed something to eat and sorted my maps before stiffly bounding off. I was soon back onto a canal path. This time for a little longer. When I had to turn off the canal path there was a dibber. That meant I was at the 98km point in Four Crosses. This was the first black band point. Just another 60 odd km left!
I met Lou again briefly before pushing on. I was beginning to see the first signs of daylight now so was really excited. The wind had died down a lot and the sky was looking pretty clear. I may even get a decent sunrise! I crossed through some more fields again before hitting the bank of the River Severn, which I then followed for a fair way. On my laft was a good lump of a hill called Moel Y Golfa which was the perfect foreground to the beautiful orange sunrise that took place before me and reflected off of the smooth surface of the river that was silently flowing past with incredible power. The Petzl came off and the fleece hat was replaced with the cap again. This is always such a liberating feeling and I was feeling especially good as I had just completed my first complete winter night with no real drama. I met Lou on the road I had to cross before a short spell on another canal. I then passed through Buttington before beginning to climb up what looked like a pretty tough climb that was a decent length too. As this progressed it got more and more difficult breaking me down to a slow march. I had underestimated this hill on the map, it was a killer getting steeper and steeper, till I finally reached the top puffing and really feeling the strain. I tried to let gravity ease me down the hill with as little energy expenditure as possible before arriving at Forden where I saw Lou and did a map swap. The going was really difficult with large areas that were very difficult to run on, and as time passed and I got more and more exhausted it got that much more laborious. The countless stiles where getting pretty taxing now. The weather was looking good though so I was relatively lucky. The forecast was for there to be quite a bit of rain later that afternoon. Hopefully the forecast would prove wrong, or I would finish before it arrived.
Although the difficult footing and general exhaustion were slowing thing a bit now, I hadn’t had to do much climbing for a while, but when I looked at the remainder of my route at the next map adjusting point, I noticed that this would be changing soon with some very close together contours coming up! No option other than just getting stuck into it. This was getting pretty testing. I had kept on top of my nutrition and hydration, but I was really lacking any real speed. I just had to hang on now. Soon enough, I came to one of the hills, and my god! I thought I wasn’t going to be able to get up it at one point as it was so steep and slippery. Not only was this really hard at this point in the run, but this was adding some serious time the whole thing. It was starting to look as though I wouldn’t be beating the darkness. The clouds had come over as forecast. How long before the rain. The terrain was rolling now and I wasn’t really making any time back on the downhills as they were just too slippery to have much confidence.
After wading through a waterlogged field I met Lou at a road crossing at Brydrinog. I sorted my maps for a final time as there was only 11 km left. Lou asked me if I needed her before the end, and I told her to meet me at the end. I proceeded up a boggy farm trail the climbed and climbed. The sky was getting darker and darker. Partly due to the clouds, but partly as it was beginning to get dark. I had already got my torch back out as I really didn’t want to stop again now. My right foot felt a bit sloppy and I looked down expecting to see my lace undone, but it was fine. My head was foggy so I just ignored it for a bit, until I noticed it again. Something wasn’t right. I stopped and looked at the mud laden shoe. You could barely see the thing because of the mud. Then, as I moved my weight between feet my foot slid a little and the issue presented itself in all it’s glory. There was a 12cm tear on the outside of my shoe along the bottom of the upper. The sole was pretty loose because of this. Hmm, this wasn’t good. I was going back up onto the tops of the hills again in the darkening night completely exhausted with broken shoes. If the sole became too loose, the shoe would become useless. I would have to run barefoot! This seemed like an almost impossible concept as my feet were feeling pretty battered after over 90 miles. I was forced to be as cautious as possible to try not to tear it any more. Just around 9 more kms. I couldn’t be beaten by a shoe!
After following the farm track for a bit further I looked ahead and saw an incredibly steep hill that I knew had to be climbed. This would take me on top where I would stay for a while before descending into Knighton where my amazing support, Lou would be awaiting me in a nice warm car. As I begun the climb I realised that sheep grazed up the hill as it was really torn up with no path that I could see and incredibly slippery mud. This was worse than the previous slippery hill, and I really wondered whether I would actually get up this one as I really found it difficult to make any progress. I had to use my fingers and with what little energy that remained I hauled my body to the top, and with much relief I saw a sign that signified that I was on the trail. The fog had come down now, it was dark and it was raining. I didn’t care as it was pretty much done now. I was going to enjoy the remainder. The final descent was very steep and it felt like my foot was just going to tear out of my shoe at any moment, but it didn’t matter now. I saw at the bottom of the slope some lights which I imagined to be Lou. As I got closer I saw it was a car. When I approached the headlights flashed on and lit up the final dibber. I dibbed in for the final time. 28hrs! All I was thinking as I stood there in the rain was that this had possibly been the toughest day of running I had experienced. I had spent a lot of time in the car, but there had been 5000m of ascent overall so this had been a pretty big one. That coupled with the underfoot conditions, the massive amount of time in the dark and the fact that this was the first time I had seen the trail. Overall I was really pleased with my performance. It had been a toughy not only physically but mentally. After I struggled to get my sodden, muddy kit off and get my warm, dry clothes on, I crawled into the passenger seat and thought back over the past 28hrs.

Garmin upload

The back of my lower legs were incredibly sore. I had never felt anything like it before except it was a little like shingles. A cat brushed by my leg later and the pain was excrutiating. It was really painful in the shower, and next day it looked like someone had whipped my legs many times. Around my sock line my skin wasn’t just cut many times, it was also bruised. This was a new one to me. The only thing that I could think of as being different was the hail storm! It certainly was a really heavy storm with very strong winds, but whether this was the culprit, I don’t know but I have no other ideas. A week later and I felt good and fully recovered.
I am now back into training mode. It feels like I haven’t really done any training for such a long time as I have just been doing big runs then taking the week off followed by a big run, and so on. It feels good too. I feel pretty strong and fit. One run a week seems to be getting me into pretty good shape! My next race is the Trans Gran Canaria at the beginning of March which is a 125km event with a whopping 8000m of ascent. I really can’t wait for this one it will be truly incredible and beautiful. Anyway that’s it for now. I will try and do a little summary for 2011 and go over my plans and dreams for 2012.
Cheers
Neil.

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