Saturday 26 June 2021

West Midlands: Escape From Meriden ultra race recap

In 2018 and 2020, I completed the other two versions of this race (Convergence and Day Release).  I absolutely love the format but given I only do races once, I'd been saving this for a special occasion.  West Midlands has been proving a tricky county to complete - there are very few races and the ones I had found didn't have medals.  When I saw that Escape From Meriden was running a solstice edition - normally this race is in November - I didn't need asking twice.

For anyone who is new here: Escape From Meriden involves plotting your own route and running as far as you can from a set start point (Meriden, obviously).  You have 24 hours and the distance is counted 'as the crow flies'.  There is a "prisoners escaping" theme so everyone is issued with an orange boiler suit at the start.  Previous experience with this format has been useful and I have learned that success requires a lot of planning.  I bloody love planning.  I spent virtually the whole weekend before the race plotting and re-plotting a route, writing lists of kit, food and what-to-do-when-it-all-turns-to-shit lists.  

Between signing up and the planning weekend, I discovered there actually is a suitable marathon in the West Midlands which I may well do next year.  However, with careful route planning, I could definitely reach Bedfordshire on Escape, and possibly also Hertfordshire - neither of which I've done yet.   I can only count each race for one county, but as the number I have left diminishes, flexibility might come in handy.

I plotted a route that went from Meriden, through the south part of Coventry,  Daventry, Towcester, Milton Keynes and Dunstable (Bedfordshire).  This got me to 60 miles as the crow flies, but as I'd done that twice before, I wondered how much further I'd have to go to get the 90 mile medal.  I plotted a bit more... the answer was Highbury and Islington.  Hmmm.  Hmm.  Was this really achievable?  I didn't know, but plotted it anyway.  Then I went through the entire route on Google Streetview, making copious notes on any tricky parts, making changes, then re-plotting in OS maps.   I also worked out where to meet my gorgeous support crew (Ben) and when I might need to eat/change clothing/charge my watch/etc and tried to estimate rough timings.

On Thursday night I drove down to my parents house in Milton Keynes after work.  On Friday I tried to sleep in (not very successfully) and ate a lot of pasta (successfully) - here I am looking relatively glamorous considering what I'm about to attempt:

I went to pick Ben up from the station at 3pm and we drove to Coventry where Ben had booked a hotel.  On arrival, I laid out all my stuff and then had a nap before dinner.  After dinner I put all my kit on and we drove to Meriden for the start.  It was absolutely pissing it down with rain and I made the executive decision that I was going to start in full waterproofs despite the forecast being relatively favourable later.

On arrival at The Green in Meriden, I went and collected my boiler suit and tracker from the gazebo and then retreated to the car to put it on.  I was now wearing three layers and it was quite warm, but needs must given the rain had been absolutely torrential.  Still glad it wasn't November!   Just before the race briefing, the rain suddenly eased off and orange-suited participants mingled on the Green.  The atmosphere was buzzing - especially as I'd started Convergence and Day Release on my own.  Despite going for a wee before leaving the hotel, I needed a wee - I managed to find a fairly quiet spot, but quickly realised the boiler suit was going to be a MASSIVE PAIN every time I needed to go to the loo.  Which is often. Oh well.  I could always ditch it after a few kilometres?

I got back just in time for the race briefing - Ben took this fabulous pic which sums up exactly what it was like.   The Race Director explained what to do if you wanted to withdraw, how to turn the tracker off etc and then at 11:59, counted us down.  Everyone scattered in different directions - at an amusingly slow "ultra shuffle" pace - this was the total opposite to a normal marathon start!

I was pleased to note that quite a few people were going the same way as me.  I knew I had some fairly horrible bits of night running ahead of me and secretly hoped someone would have planned a similar route so I could run with them.
Sadly this was not the case, and after about 15 minutes, I could no longer see anyone ahead of me.  I occasionally saw a light behind me, but even that was lost by the time I got to Coventry, so I was really on my own now.  I have run alone at night a few times, but never without someone on the other end of the phone.  I was meeting Ben for breakfast just outside Towcester at 7am - he was already on his way back to the hotel to get a few hours sleep - so this was the first proper night run I've ever done solo.  I felt badass and wasn't scared at all - despite there being no pavement, this was a quiet country road in the middle of the night.  There was nobody around and it was eerily beautiful. 
I knew that was going to be short-lived and it was.   It wasn't long before I reached the outskirts of Coventry.  Again though, it felt very safe.  These were quiet residential areas, everyone was asleep in bed.  There were a handful of taxis about but no pedestrians.

I'd run 9km before I saw another person.  I stopped a couple of times to go for a wee (boiler suit still a pain in the arse) and remove various items of clothing because I was too hot.   At one point I hid just inside a little park and took off my waterproof trousers and jacket and stuffed them into my vest.  I decided to keep the boiler suit on - partly for visibility and partly because I thought it was funny. 

As a woman running alone at night in an unfamiliar area, I guess it's natural to worry about interactions with random people.  Fairly early on, in Coventry, I saw a white Mercedes with blacked out windows ominously pull up ahead of me.  The passenger window wound down as I approached and I prepared myself for a possible confrontation.  As I approached, a guy in his mid-twenties leaned over and shouted, "Hey, what's with all the torches?"  I said, "I'm running a race," he replied, "Where are you going?" At this point I decided he wasn't too much of a threat so I stopped and said, "I started in Meriden and I'm headed for London".  He said, "You're a f***king legend".  I laughed and started jogging again, shouting "thanks" over my shoulder.  He drove past 30 seconds later, shouting, "YOU GO GIRL," over the noise of the engine roaring.  It's not often women in their mid-40s get that kind of admiration!  The feeling of being absolutely badass lasted for miles!

I got through the rest of Coventry without incident.  Just as I joined the A45, I saw a van stopped.  Its occupant was having a wee on the hard shoulder, directly in my path.  I didn't really want to stop, so I held my hand in front of my face and cheerily shouted, "I'm not looking!" as I approached so as not to startle him.  I heard someone inside the van say something unintelligible, then the bloke looked up and shouted, "You can look if you want love".  Hmm, no thanks!  I upped the pace and sped off round the corner.  The feminist in me needs to say - FFS men, please don't do this.  It was 01:30 on the side of a dual carriageway and I was clearly busy.  Why would you do that?  There is literally zero positive impact that can come from this.  All it did was make me feel uncomfortable.  

But frankly, uncomfortable is better than scary, and the next bit was likely to be the worst bit of the whole race.  In my pre-race notes, I had written:

From ‘Raining Cats And Dogs’ to (closed) McDonalds Dunchurch (approx. 2.5 miles) there is either no path or minimal on the A45.  Be very careful! 

The first bit of the A45 wasn't great.  The path was intermittent, there were no lights, and lorries came roaring along it at great speed.  I put on my high vis jacket and had a really bright forward facing light and two rear facing lights (and was wearing an orange boiler suit) but I still felt quite nervous.  I told myself it was only a short section and I just needed to hold my nerve for a couple of miles.

The path was quite overgrown and there were were some pretty savage nettles - I actually didn't take a photo of the worst of it - but this was still a much better prospect than running in the road.  I discovered boiler suits are not a very effective protection against nettles.  Although probably better than nothing!

This was the scene when I arrived at 'Raining Cats and Dogs'.  It was very, very dark.  There were no lights.  The speed limit increased to 60 miles an hour, which is VERY VERY fast when you are a pedestrian on a dual carriageway.  And then the path ran out....

Women often say to me that they think I'm brave and that I do things running that they wouldn't consider doing.  I usually say, "nahh, you could do it if you wanted, you just have to want it enough," but I think I crossed a line today.  Very few people would do this.  This was insane.

To be fair to the Race Director, he explicitly says to avoid roads without pavement.  However this was the most direct route and I couldn't find an alternative, and it was literally 4 kilometres.  I could just walk it. I promised myself a cup of tea from the 24 hour Esso garage in Dunchurch if I survived it.  Dig deep, Alice!

I crossed the central reservation so I could face oncoming traffic, through head height weeds.  The ground  underneath my feet was squishy and unstable.  I tried not to think about what would happen if I were sucked into a bog.  Walking was not an option as it was too slow and I was in a hurry to get the hell off this road.  I settled for running whenever I could, then stopping and stepping into the weeds whenever a car/lorry approached, then running again.  It felt endless, my heart was in my mouth, but I was making progress.  Eventually I spotted some roadworks on the opposite carriageway, so crossed the central reservation again and was able to run on a coned-off lane past some bemused transport workers.  Finally, the path reappeared.  I've never been so happy to see stinging nettles!

I turned off to Dunchurch.  Obviously you can guess what happened next:

Bloody Google was lying about the 24 hours.  Dammit.  I settled for a squashed cheese sandwich.  I had barely eaten anything so far due to vast amounts of cortisol streaming through my veins.  There was a proper path, and the village was really quiet, so I tried to be grateful for that.

At 38k, I remember thinking that my legs and feet felt like they normally do after I've run a marathon, but my brain felt wide awake like I'd hardly even started.   The next section was back into the countryside, through Willoughby and Braunston.  It was just starting to get light and I saw some lights off to my left that looked weirdly like a seaside town to me.  I took these photos - I can't really see it now - but I remember thinking that the hill on the right hand side looked like a cliff overlooking the sea.  It was Northamptonshire so obviously not.  I think it might have been a motorway (!)  I've heard you get hallucinations in 24 hour races but this was too early for that so I think it was just my brain entertaining itself.
Also around this time I finally had the idea of looking at the tracker on the website to see if anyone else was nearby.  I realised I was being trailed by Prisoner 657: Terence O Mahony-Doran.  He was so close behind me I immediately turned around to look for him but couldn't see him.  I figured we would cross paths soon enough and cracked on.  It was getting lighter still now.

As I approached Daventry I watched closely for my turning into an industrial estate.  It was probably about 5am by now and it was quite surreal passing workers on their way into work.   I saw one guy drinking a can of Red Bull and thought, "urggh how could you?"  He probably thought the same about me going for a run for 'fun' as he trekked into work.
Once through the industrial estate, I passed through a more residential area and hit the first marathon mark after 5 hours 15 minutes.  Time for a selfie!  I posted this onto my Facebook page and over the course of the day saw many lovely, inspirational comments from people which really helped - thank you.

Shortly after this I came across a garage.  It looked open so I ran over optimistically.  It was 05:29 and it had literally just opened.  I really wanted a cup of tea but they didn't have any so I settled for a mocha.  Just as I left the garage I bumped into Prisoner 657 - Terence, but he preferred to be called OD.  I was walking as I was drinking and he slowed to walk with me for a bit.  Apparently he had gone a slightly different route and thereby avoided the A45 (GOOD PLAN) but our routes had converged ages ago and he'd been chasing me ever since.  He told me he had ditched his boiler suit back in Braunston.  He was aiming for Dunstable too so we were bound to see each other again.   
Outside Daventry it was back into countryside and shortly afterwards the start of the A5 which I was to follow for many, many miles. 
I had prioritised safety over boredom for most of my route and I knew there was an awful lot of 'footpath next to long straight road' in my future.  
Somewhere along here, I ran into OD again.  He told me he was meeting his crew shortly and stopping for breakfast.   He kindly offered me water which I accepted before carrying on.  My plan had been to meet Ben outside of Towcester but I'd already fallen behind schedule.  I was feeling tired and hungry and there was still another 10k to go.  I rang him to see if he could meet me earlier but there was no answer, I figured he would call back shortly.  Unbeknownst to me, he was in the garage getting petrol and didn't see my missed call because the sat nav was on.  I was starting to feel a bit rubbish and knew I needed food.  I ate some crisps and some sweets to try to perk myself up. I rang again half an hour later and this time he answered straight away.  He came and found me and parked in a layby which weirdly smelled a lot like goats.  I didn't have the energy to care and sat in the car and ate my porridge and a banana.  I took out my waterproofs and high vis and extra layer which made my vest a lot lighter, refilled my bottles and gathered a new selection of snacks ready for the next section.  

We'd planned for Ben to run with me a couple of times and the first one was just before Milton Keynes.  By this point this was not that far away and having eaten, I suddenly felt much better.  I set off feeling invigorated and soon passed through Towcester and continued along the A5, which looked almost identical to earlier:

I knew from the tracker that OD was ahead of me now - he'd overtaken while I'd stopped.   
It wasn't long before I came across Ben waiting for me.  It was SO lovely to have some company at this point and as we ran, I filled him in on the exciting events of the night.  I stopped to tie my shoelace and a car went past honking its horn, I didn't think anything of it until it came back the other way honking its horn again and I spotted my best friend Lee-Anne frantically waving!  She was meant to be meeting me in Stony Stratford so it was a lovely surprise to see her there.  Around this time I got a text from my mum:

Poor OD.  Being stalked by my mother!

By this point we were so close to Stony Stratford that we decided Ben would run all the way in with me.  When we arrived, there was Lee-Anne, jumping up and down with excitement.  She had just seen OD and realised he was also in the race and told me all about it (apologies if I didn't seem wildly interested!) as we walked through the town.  She gave me a mini Snickers-type bar, which I ate immediately, and a croissant for later.

Lee-Anne's fascinating fact* of the day: Ancient Romans who were down on their luck would scoop out clay from roads to make into pots, and this was the origin of the word 'pothole'.  
*not sure this is actually true

After a short while we continued up the hill until we saw my parents, carrying the banner they made in 2016 for my first marathon (awww!) and also jumping up and down with excitement.  They hugged me, they hugged Ben, and right at that moment, OD ran past.  He held out his arms as if to join in with hugging, saying "what about me?" or words to that effect, which made me laugh.  Then my mum said, "Is that Terence?  I've been watching you!" or similar stalker-esque words.  It was quite funny.

My mum and dad had brought me Coke as requested, and as usual had brought more than needed so Ben had some too.  Photos were taken, Coke was drunk, and soon it was time for me to crack on along the redways of Milton Keynes.  Ben turned round here and headed back to the car, before driving to our next meeting point in Furzton.

I've run the Milton Keynes redways many times, they're flat, straight and have no traffic, so I sailed along fairly comfortably.

It wasn't long before I completed marathon number 2 of the day!  This one took 5 hours 45 minutes, which was only 30 minutes longer than the first, and I'd had a couple of long-ish stops.   I was feeling pretty good at this point:

Not long after this I reached the meeting point at Furzton Lake.  Ben called me just as I arrived, telling me he was nearly there.  It was really warm by then and I planned to get changed here, so I took a photo of me in my Penny Lane top before I changed it.

Ben arrived and as usual I was delighted to see him.  I got changed in a very public place and didn't care; Ben had brought hot water and made me a Pot Noodle which I sat in the car and ate.  I look slightly crazed here (and a bit like a Grand Prix driver in the hat and boiler suit!) but I was feeling pretty good.  I'd asked Ben to bring me some 'surprise' snacks as I knew I'd get bored of all the things I'd brought.  At this point he produced a cinnamon roll and a cardamom roll he'd brought from a Turkish cafe in Stoke Newington.  I wish I'd taken a photo but I didn't have the presence of mind.  I managed a few bites of each and they were delicious.

From here, it wasn't far to Bletchley.  I spotted a few runners with medals who were limping along having just finished the Milton Keynes marathon, I wondered what they thought of me plodding along in my boiler suit.  Just as I arrived in Bletchley, I spotted OD.  He was looking a bit tired and we walked together for a while.  He told me he was planning to stop when he got to 100km as that would be the furthest he'd ever run. 
We chatted for a while - he was in the army, but about to start training as a paramedic and had done most of his long distance running in the form of Ironmans. (In my opinion, Ironman would be much improved by making the bike ride half the distance of the run and the swim as short as possible - I kept this thought to myself!)  We ran through Fenny Stratford and back onto the A5 near Little Brickhill.  I was feeling good here and left OD behind, unbeknownst to me for the last time.
I was meeting Ben at The Flying Fox pub which was in Arse-End-Of-Nowheresville somewhere along the A5.  As I approached I had a look at the tracker.  OD was hot on my heels.

I met Ben and we started running, I remember being mildy annoyed I had to wait for him to cross the road - a sure sign that I was getting tired as this literally took 1 minute.  The path was flat and straight and boring and my legs hurt.  I started talking to Ben about whether it was still possible for me to make it all the way to Highbury considering I already felt knackered and it was still a LONG way to go.  I didn't think I could do it but I didn't want to give up either.   I set an interim target of completing three marathons (79 miles) and reviewing again then.  We saw a man coming towards us and at first it looked like he was mimicking my shuffling gait.  Ben said, "Look at him, is he taking the mickey?"  I looked, then I looked again.
It was my dad!
My parents had decided to surprise me by turning up randomly when I wasn't expecting them (aww!) and bizarrely it happened to again be at the exact moment when I was running with Ben.  My mum also appeared and we all had a quick chat and a photo and went on our way.  Ben carried on for another few kilometres and then headed back when we reached Hockcliffe.  I had been dreaming of Calippos for a few miles as it was very warm so imagine my delight when I passed a shop that sold knock-off ones.  This was definitely a high point!
The road towards Dunstable continued - straight, rural, next to a road.  There's something bizarre about running so far in one direction - you almost don't have to think at all about where you're going because it's always the same way.  I remember thinking about Sri Chinmoy Transcendence, a 24 hour race around a running track in Tooting.  I've always thought it sounded hideous but I started to wonder about the meditative nature of repeated steps on endless, identical paths.  And running tracks are kinder on the legs than tarmac.  It was starting to sound kind of appealing.
As I approached Dunstable, I had another look at where I was on the tracker.  To my surprise, I was in second place now.  The gap between myself and OD was also widening and I knew he would retire in Dunstable so perhaps I could hold onto my position...?
Finally I arrived in Dunstable.   I plodded my way through the city centre, which was full of roadworks and traffic jams until I made it to the garage where I was meeting Ben.  He brought me an espresso, which was gratefully received, and listened to me moan about how tired I was but how I was going to have to force myself to continue until three marathons were done. 
I dragged myself onwards.  Went through a village called Markyate where Ben met me again and I moaned relentlessly.  I felt sick and was trying to force myself to eat despite everything making me feel nauseous.  I remember watching normal people amble down the village high street and feeling bitter that THEY weren't having to run three marathons today.  At times like that, normally I remind myself that running is my hobby and I do it for fun - but not today.  There was definitely some sulking.

I kept going.  Soon I came to this sign, which marked my sixth county today: West Midlands, Warwickshire, Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire.  This was a small boost.
Shortly afterwards, there was a small turn off the main road (which I nearly missed!) allowing me a breather from the A5 at last.  I went through a couple of small villages.  This one had a particularly lovely view from where I stopped for a wee:
It was so nice to be in the countryside on roads which actually had bends and hills!  Also I knew I was getting very near the end now.  This was about kilometre 125 of 127.  Just one more little village and it would all be over...
I saw Ben in a layby about 1 km before the end.  He said encouraging words, I remember feeling very grateful I would soon be able to stop.  I was just so tired and I felt so sick.  At the next roundabout I saw a sign for St Albans, which I knew was just beyond where I planned to finish.  So close now!
My watch ticked over to 127km halfway along a busy road.  There was nowhere for Ben to stop so he'd carried on a bit further.  I stopped to take this picture - you can see I'm really struggling to look happy! - the third marathon had taken me 7 hours. 

Then I shuffled the final bonus 400m to where Ben was parked before stopping my watch. Obligatory final few metres picture:

And here I am posing at the end.  I was pleased with myself for sticking with the boiler suit all the way to the end like a proper convict!  Although  I decided it was more of a 'watermelon' than 'Guantananamo Bay' kind of hue...
It's not often I get a new "longest run" on Garmin - the last time was Convergence in 2018 so I'm extremely happy with that.  It's also going to improve my map as long straight runs look awesome!

I peeled off the boiler suit, ate a delicious spinach and cheese flatbread thing which Ben had brought and turned off my tracker.  I texted the Race Director to say I'd retired and had a look at my Strava trace.  Then Ben drove me back to my parents house whereupon I was so tired I refused champagne (SHOCK HORROR) and crashed out at 8pm.
I'm not sure the penny really dropped until the next day that I had actually won Solo Female.  I knew there was a prize for Solo but for some reason I didn't think it was segregated by gender, so I assumed James would win it as he finished miles ahead of me.   I saw this Facebook post the next day:
A few days later, it was confirmed:
I still don't know what this actually means.  It always takes a few weeks for the medals to be sent out and I don't know if there's some kind of commemorative plaque/trophy/memento.  I've never come anywhere close to winning anything before and it wasn't my goal today.   
I do feel the need to point out: 
- there were a lower number of entries than usual in this race (due to Covid restrictions?) (56 vs 143)
- at Day Release there were several female finishers who completed longer distances than me
- when Helen Pike (who beat me at Convergence) won this race in 2019 she did 82 miles
.... so I feel like a bit of a fraud for achieving this with a meagre 70 miles as the crow flies.  Like it doesn't really count, or I don't really deserve it.  
On top of that, in the days following the race, and still now two weeks later, I feel a nagging sense of disappointment at myself for quitting at 127km.  I didn't even look at my what-to-do-when-it-all-turns-to-shit-list of things to do when the going got tough (have a sleep in the car, use my foam roller, blast out 80's tunes, try Tailwind for the nausea etc etc).  I didn't do any of those things.  I just stopped and gave up and turned my tracker off. 
I reckon if I'd slept for 30 minutes, I might have managed the last 35km I needed to do to make 90 miles as the crow flies.  I had SIX HOURS left that I didn't use.  I've got my first hundred mile race coming up in October and the fact that I felt I couldn't go on after 79 miles makes me nervous.  I should have at least tried.  It's not like me to give up. 
I know it's still a great achievement.  I ran three back-to-back marathons, I ran the furthest I've ever run, I even won, for goodness sake.  You don't get to complain when you've won.  But I just don't think I did everything I was capable of and that's a bitter pill to swallow.

To end on a happier note, I've been fundraising to raise money for my local hospital as part of Jog On June all this month and I absolutely thrashed everyone else, ha ha.   If you want to donate, you still can here :

I managed to log 210 miles in June, which is 8 sets of the 30 miles required to complete it and my highest mileage in a month maybe ever?!  
Thank you very much to the Race Director and well done to OD and all the other runners.  It was a bloody brilliant day.  I actually think I might have to break my "never run the same race twice" rule for this one because it feels like unfinished business.  Another Solstice Edition please!

Sorry this is the longest race report ever written and congratulations on reaching the end at last :)  

Addendum written 29/7/21
Look what has just arrived in the post!

Despite all the things I said up there ^^^ I am utterly delighted to have my first ever 'proper' trophy.  And it's so beautiful!  It's already in pride of place on my mantelpiece (less than an hour after it was delivered!) and I'm absolutely made up.  What an epic race to achieve it in as well.  Thank you so much!