Cotswold, conquered!

This challenge was to be a slightly different one to normal. Different in that it was to not be a race. It is a Trailblaze course, but if you have read my previous posts you will know that I attempted to run the entire Cotswold Way (166 kms) last year but, as it was too soon after JOGLE, my feet just weren’t up to it, so had to make the painful but wise decision to pull at the 90 km point. I know, excuses, excuses. So I really needed to complete this course. It is a truly stunning course which I now knew pretty well which gave me confidence for the night section which would I would have to do as I predicted around the 24hr mark for completion. My main target was obviously completion, but I also knew that I was capable of a sub 24.
I decided that it would be best to start in the evening just as it was getting dark as this would mean that I could get the night section done while I was fresh. I knew from last years attempt and from general experience that some form of support was needed to give me the best chance possible. Fortunately my good friend and housemate Jim offered his services and also convinced his friend Laeticia to help! Amazing! I now had my own crew. I decided that the first 48 miles through the night from Bath to Stonehouse was perfectly manageable on my own, therefore my crew could both get a good nights sleep and be fresh for when they met me in the morning. Jim spent much time poring over maps planning and plotting meeting points where they could both set up cp’s to meet me and look after me. This was a new situation for me having a crew with a vehicle. This means my kit selection was only important for 78km. After that I could swap stuff over with whatever I had in the car. One advantage with running the solo section at night time is that it would be cooler, meaning I wouldn’t be needing so much water. This is always an issue on the longer unsupported stuff. A minor disadvantage being that what few shops I would pass would of course be closed. This would be the first time I would run through an entire night completely alone. Very exciting yet as the day got a little closer, a little intimidating. I now believe that it’s healthy to have a little fear for new big challenges. It keeps you on your toes and sharp so as not to make silly mistakes (hopefully).

I could get a train that would get me to the first trailblaze point in Bath just before 2200 which would be just before it got pitch black. It was just a couple days shy of the longest day so would be a short section of running in the dark.
I would run to the top of the hill just past Stonehouse at the 78km point where Jim and Laeticia would meet me in the car park and I would swap my larger pack for my lighter, smaller, better fitting race pack as I would be supported from that point on so wouldn’t need the space. I would also have some breakfast here as I will be mad for some savoury food after living off of 9bars and flapjacks throughout the night. Maybe a coffee too before pushing on. From then on I would just need to run and leave the looking after me bit to the crew.

As the day approached, I started the now routine obsessive weather forecast watching. It wasn’t looking too bad. It also wasn’t looking too good either though! Plenty of showery weather hanging around. There was even mention of really heavy rain through the night! If I was honest, I did cross my mind to reschedule, but I quickly pushed that thought out of my head. I was ready to take this on now. If I rescheduled, it would potentially not be for a while due to not only my running commitments but the crews time too. It will be really tough so I might as well just get on with it whatever. I’ll treat it as a race. I’ve ran in all conditions and the weather hasn’t stopped me going out yet. I was fully committed!
As the time approached on the Friday evening, I got prepared. My pack weighed a fair bit due to the fluids I was carrying. The weather looked a little wild out and it was damp, and there were, as forecast, plenty of showers around. I sat with Jim and Laeticia waiting to leave for the train. They were both having a glass off wine. It’s times like this when many people would be out relaxing, having a drink with friends before turning in for a good sleep that I question what the hell I’m doing. The time came for me to leave. I said my goodbyes. I would see them in around 9.5hrs if all goes ok. I ran to the train station and got the 10 minute train to Bath before making the short journey to the first point. I started my stopwatch as I dibbed in, then gently set off. The first section is pretty much all up hill so it was good to get set into a rhythm and warm up. I was wearing a t-shirt with a thermal over the top, but within 10 minutes I had to stop to remove the thermal as I was sweating loads! I really didn’t need to be getting too wet with sweat heading into the night if I could help it.
As I headed out of Bath I could make out the finger of highland that signifies the beginning of the Cotswold escarpment, though I couldn’t make out the top as it was shrouded in cloud! I don’t mind bad weather when I’m running normally, in fact I quite enjoy it, but at the start of a 24hr run, it might not be such a great thing. If I get soaked then it opens me up to plenty of Chafing all over! Not good. I Passed through Weston on the outskirts of Bath and ran across a field before hitting the first of the steep off road sections which bought me straight into the cloud. I soon discovered that it was just that – low cloud. It was very wet but not raining. Hopefully I’d pass through it or it would clear before I got totally wet. It was actually really nice and refreshing. I dibbed in the first spot and looked at the time. It was a fair bit slower than my previous time which was good. I obviously wanted to take it steady and play it safe with the distance ahead that I had. I had to finish it this time!

After about an hour of steady running on trails that I knew really well now, I came out of the cloud cover and was suddenly lit up by a very bright moon surrounded by wisps of glowing cloud. It was behind me and cast my shadow in front of me. It was bright enough to occasionally turn my headtorch off. Truly stunning!

Usually night running is pretty intense as you are so focused on the circle of light that is projected just in front of your feet and watching your footing that when it gets light enough to not use your torch you feel a real mental relief.

So, these moments of extra light were a real positive to my night. As the night progressed and I passed through more hotspots, I realised that I was losing more time against my previous effort. I felt good and wasn’t too sure why this was. It kept going through my mind, till I came to the obvious conclusion that this time I was in the dark so my footing was no-where near as sure as normal. My descending was definitely a lot slower, especially as it was a bit greasy in places. This made me feel happier with my performance and gave me a nice little confidence boost.
I was starting to dry out and was relatively warm which was also good. I was really enjoying the run so far, and everything was feeling pretty good. Well, should I say that everything was feeling as it normally would for the time spent running so far! It still felt pretty daunting if I thought forward to all that remained of the course. That is the key to these things – not to dwell on the enormity of the task but to take one step at a time. Literally sometimes! The same philosophy can be used for any seemingly unattainable task in life. As much as you know what you should do though, when you have so much time in your head then it’s pretty tough to not think of the trail ahead. Especially when you know it! As the miles built up and I kept on trudging forward I was starting to realise that there was no way that I would be pulling back any of the hour that I had lost early on. I would have to contact the crew later on to let them know that they wouldn’t have to meet me till an hour later than planned. As the night progressed, I realised that I wasn’t losing any more time. I lost an hour relatively quickly but then didn’t seem to be losing any more. I can only guess that I either went off more conservatively due to the task in hand, or it took me longer to warm up. Either way it was nice to know that I was not losing any more time, and that I didn’t have to worry about food intake and hydration.

As things progressed, my feet got pretty tender as seems to be normal now. I seem to have forgotten whether they got this painful during big days a few years ago or whether it is worse. They definitely got pretty painful but whether it was this bad is unknown. Pain is a funny thing when you are experiencing it and you have plenty of time to analyse it.

Each time I met up with my crew, they both looked after me with much care. a few times they asked me if I needed a drink and I said I was ok. They would then tell me to drink anyway which I would then realise was always the right thing to do. James was picking up all sorts of different bits and pieces for me to eat throughout the day which was great. The variety and the surprise was really good. I really struggle with making decisions when tired so to have this taken off of my mind was great!

Other than my feet and usual aches and pains and tiredness, I felt pretty good really. My confidence was quite high. The weather was glorious. There were some dark, stormy clouds being blown over by the gusty winds, but the most I got was a little damp, nothing more. The sun was beating down on me mostly though and was pretty hot. Due to being up on the ridge most of the time you get a fair bit of wind was now lovely and cooling. I had a pretty tough section which was really slow. This didn’t phase me too much as experience told me that this would pass, I just had to ride it and be patient. Sure enough, my second (third, fourth…?) wind came and my next section was lots faster and felt great. The distance was passing pretty quickly. It certainly helped knowing the course. No surprises!
Even this far into it, feeling as tired and achy as I was I still found myself grinning at just how fortunate I felt to be doing such a thing in such beauty!

After 23hr 30mins I met up with the crew in Broadway. There was 10k left. I knew that I could never finish in under 24hrs especially as there was a massive hill to climb in that 10k! Never mind, I was really happy that I was now going to finish this thing. This has been a target for 18 months now, and this is the second attempt, so I was really chuffed. James put on his running kit, took my pack off of me and we set off together for the finish in Chipping Campden. It was really nice having James with me for the pacing and more importantly the company. We ground our way up the hill. I was happy to know the route exactly from now on. It was impossible to beat 24hrs, but I would still push as hard as I could to the end. I would be annoyed with myself if I pushed hard for 23.5hrs and then slacked off for the last 10k! We finally made the top of the hill. My feet were agonising and I was feeling pretty exhausted but could still run with the occasional short walk. James was trying to keep me running, but I just really felt too tired to run continuously to the end. It was getting dark, but this didn’t phase me as I was close now. Nothing would ruin my moment now. We crossed some fields and as we came to the corner of one I remembered that it turned and dropped downhill all the way into the village at the end. Descending by this stage was pretty painful on the quads and the feet, but I went as fast as I could. Within minutes I saw Laeticia approaching on foot. We all ran together the final few hundred metres to the final hot spot. I dibbed in in 24:30. I was really happy. A few photos were taken, before I gingerly carried on running into the village to the market hall building to the official start/end of the Cotswold Way. Here, there is a marker stone. I sat on it and some more piccies were taken. Then I walked to the car 20 metres away and sorted myself out, before crashing in a painful blissful state. Another of my targets achieved.

That was the Saturday night. On the Wednesday morning, I went to the Glastonbury Festival and had an amazing time with some great friends. It is never very relaxing, as you don’t tend to sleep much and you’re constantly on the go, but I had an extra week off after that and now I am back into full training which is good.

I will take this opportunity to thank James and Laeticia for sacrificing a day for me and doing a fantastic job of looking after me when at my most pathetic. I most certainly couldn’t have done it without you. Thanks.

And if anyone has survived to the end of this post I have some pretty exciting and truly scary news (for me anyway!). I have been on the waiting list for the Trans Europe Foot Race next August since October last year. I have slowly been creeping up the list until a few weeks ago when my name finally made it too the Start list! I’m in! This means that I am now in a race that crosses Denmark, Germany, France, Spain and ending on Gibralter. 4000km in 64 days! Scared witless? You bet! All I need to do now is sort out my entry fee of 6000 Euros which I don’t really have, and see if work will support me and let me take the time off.

If there is anyone who could help me out financially or with footwear then please get in contact. I’m sure that it will make the media and be good promotion for any business.

I’m now in training for the North Downs Way 100 miler in 5 weeks. Really looking forward to this, being the inaugural race. Then Spartathlon!

Happy running. Cheers.