When I first started thinking about the end of this challenge, I had an idea that Wiltshire would be my last county. I had had my eye on a really spectacular 102 miler called the Cotswold Way Century. It had a medal, it would count for Wiltshire, it would be a suitably dramatic finish to my adventure.
But it clashed with a friend's wedding, and then it was cancelled because of Covid, and then it clashed with the same friend's wedding again, and then I decided life's too short to wait around for 100 milers and entered Autumn 100, which I duly completed in October last year. At the end of 24 hours and 17 minutes of running, I discovered I absolutely would not have wanted to celebrate the end of an epic 7 year challenge. I didn't want to be interviewed, I didn't want to eat cake and drink champagne, I didn't want to talk to people or write a Facebook post. All I wanted to do was drink cold milk, have a shower and go to bed.
I had a re-think. Finishing my challenge with a 100 miler was a terrible idea, the absolute worst. I'd abandoned the idea of the Cotswold Way Century before I'd even finished A100. Which left a Wiltshire-shaped hole in my race plans.
I started looking at races. Many of them weren't long enough, weren't happening, clashed with other races, clashed with my long awaited skiing holiday, weren't at the right time of year etc etc. Much moaning and gnashing of teeth occurred before I came across this race: Beyond the Far Side. The race website was genuinely funny and I can often tell in advance when an event is going to be run by my kind of people, people who just really love running and putting on fun events and go the extra mile to make sure the participants have a really great time. Their races are often not the easy ones but they are always rewarding.
My favourite race directors so far are Richard Weremuik of Beyond Marathon (Lincolnshire, West Midlands), the It's Grim Up North crew (West Yorkshire, East Riding of Yorkshire), Denzil of How Hard Can It Be Events (Shropshire), the White Star Running team (Dorset), Paul Albon of Big Bear Events (Staffordshire and Warwickshire/Leicestershire still to come) and Steven Mills of Zig Zag Running (Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire). Neil from Crooked Tracks Wiltshire looked certain to join this elite group of truly wonderful race directors who are a huge part of the reason I enjoy running races so much.
Having said that, this wasn't the perfect race for me. It was in January, for a start, and I don't like cold or rain. Secondly, it involved a lot of hills and I haven't really done any training on hills. It's pretty flat in London... Only two months ago I complained about the 300m of ascent in Derbyshire.
The website says:
"The route covers approximately 5.30 miles with an overall elevation of 850ft per circuit.
Each circuit will consist of 3 descents from the Plain back down to civilisation. "Not bad" I hear you say. Well............it kinda is really, because after 2 of these descents
you have to turn around and go straight back up the hill that you have just ran down"
Hmmm. That works out at 1400m for the marathon, which is just slightly over the height of Ben Nevis. Hmm.
Also, it's a trail marathon, and that means mud. Lots of mud. Especially in January.
I ummed and ahhed about it, but secretly I knew I was going to sign up for it. Eventually I bit the bullet on 7th January and went to sign up ... and entries had closed. NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
I sent a begging email to the Race Director telling him my tale of woe. He wrote back the next day:
"It would be an absolute pleasure to have you join us at BTFS and help you with your challenge"
I love him already. I hurriedly threw money at him before he changed his mind.
Two weeks later, Ben and I drove down to Frome on a Friday night straight after work. He drove the car, I googled for somewhere to go for dinner and we ended up at a really lovely restaurant called Eight Stony Street. Definitely recommend it if you happen to be in Frome! I had an amazing squash and sage pizza and Ben was very impressed with their wine. While he was having a look in the wine cellar, I gazed out of the window at the large hill outside and sighed heavily.
I really didn't know if I was going to be able to do this. 1400m ascent is a lot, and 6 hours is not that long. I remembered Surrey
was a really hilly marathon so I went back to see how hilly: 1000m.
That race took me 5 hours 50 minutes (in 2019). In the race
instructions for tomorrow it said:
"All laps must be completed within the time frame that you have signed up for. Any lap that is outside of that time will not be counted towards your overall total tally of laps completed"
Oh god. What if I only manage 4 laps and it therefore only counts as 21.2miles? I'll have to come back to Wiltshire and do another race. Arrggh. And I hate hills, and cold, and mud.
I felt despondent. Why have I done this to myself? AGAIN?
I decided there was only one thing for it, and that was I was going to have to change my mindset. It is bloody impossible to run a good race if you spend the whole race thinking "I'm rubbish and I can't do this," (Suffolk was a classic example). Therefore I needed a new, better plan. I needed to embrace the hills. I needed to actively start liking hills. No - more than that - I needed to LOVE hills. In fact, I needed to be the kind of person who entered this race precisely because I LOVE HILLS SO MUCH.
NOBODY LOVES HILLS MORE THAN I LOVE HILLS. HILLS ARE THE BEST. I decided if anyone asked me tomorrow why I was doing this race, I would tell them it was because I couldn't wait to run up all those hills. I mentally tried to do this with a straight face. It was tricky, but I thought I could pull it off.
This race report is already quite long, and I haven't actually got to race day yet. Sorry about that.
The next morning we woke up, I packed all my stuff, and Ben drove me to the race start in Westbury, passing a 'Welcome to Wiltshire' sign on the way.
We parked down the road and walked up to the leisure centre where the start was. I went to the loo and dumped my stuff and rushed outside for the race briefing. It was pretty minimalist and at the end the race director said "Any questions?" and someone said "Where's the mud?"
Shortly afterwards there was an open, mildly uphill section overlooking the quite beautiful countryside:
The track was quite rutted and my vision was being a bit hit and miss as I had my contact lenses in. Sadly my glasses that could correct the problem were in the car with Ben, rapidly heading in the opposite direction. Oh well... Hopefully it would be OK once it got a bit lighter (it was).
At the bottom of the hill there was a marshall telling us where to turn around (lucky as I may have just carried on otherwise!) and loop back up the hill. It was pretty chalky and I heard the lady in front of me talking to someone about how this bit could be treacherously slippery when wet. I was really glad it wasn't wet. It probably wouldn't be a bundle of fun in the heat of summer either, with chalk dust scattering up your legs and then down into your shoes every step. I silently thanked the weather gods again.
Somewhere on this hill I caught up with the lady in front of me, Ruth, and we stayed together for the rest of the lap. She told me she was doing South Downs Way ultra in June and it would be her first (and only!) 100 miler. I'm going to be volunteering at that one, and I told her that I'd just done A100 - which is by the same company, Centurion Running - so of course we had plenty to talk about. She is currently doing the 600 miles in 100 days Slam and we talked a lot about how much mileage is the right amount and I managed to dissuade her from doing a 70 odd mile race 4 weeks before SDW. We talked about nutrition, checkpoints, poles, map-reading, having a coach and other races we've done and the time just flew by.
Before I knew it we'd done the third hill and were approaching the end of the first lap. I checked my watch and it said 1 hour 4 minutes - I had been hoping to do the first few laps in about an hour so that I could slow down near the end so that wasn't too bad. Ruth said a friend who'd done it before had told her sometimes the mud is knee deep at this race and to expect to only cover about 20 miles in 6 hours. This was obviously worrying (despite the lack of mud this year) and I resolved to keep cracking on.
At the aid station I needed to go to the loo to resolve my now-traditional GI problems (*SIGH*) so Ruth headed out on her second lap without me.
I don't remember much about the second lap. I caught up with Ruth and overtook her just after climbing the second hill. After that there was a long flat section along the side of Salisbury Plain - I'd been chatting on the first lap and hadn't paid much attention, but this time I realised it was a great place to make up some time so I upped the pace here.
There were lots of signs warning about the military using firearms which was definitely a good incentive not to get lost.
This time I paid a bit more attention on the third hill. This was a longer, flatter hill than the first two and much more runnable. It went through the woods and down to a pair of concrete bollards, where there was helpfully a marshall pointing out where to turn around.
You can see the hill curving up to the left in this photo. This was probably the muddiest part of the course and all things considered it was really not that bad. Definitely nowhere near bad enough to require the multiple pairs of waterproof socks and changes of shoes I had brought!
I returned to the hall and had some Coke, a fig roll, a peanut butter & jam wrap and a jaffa cake from the aid station and set off for Lap 3. This time I remembered to check my Garmin and I was at 2 hours 13 minutes when I left, so that lap had been quite a bit quicker than the first.
Shortly after setting off, Mattgreen rang me for a chat. This was great timing and kept me entertained/distracted for the next hour. I told him about how much I LOVED HILLS and how I'd even convinced myself by this point as I was genuinely really having a good time. Yes, the hills were brutal. Yes, I still needed a rudimentary Gandalf/cub scout stick to get me up the first one huffing and puffing. But being out in Proper Countryside was fun and I was making good time. I felt a lot stronger and more positive than I have done on most of my recent runs, as anyone who reads my Strava will testify. I passed Ruth going down Hill 2 just as I came up it - I hadn't realised I'd got that far ahead of her. At the junction for Hill 3 I got a bit confused about which turning to take, and I said, "Oops - that could've been bad. Imagine if I got halfway down and realised it was the wrong hill!" and Mattgreen said, "that would just mean you got to do a bonus hill, which you would've LOVED because you love hills". I think that might've pushed even my new-found fondness for hills severely ... but luckily I took the right turning. Lap three sailed by comfortably.
I arrived back at the aid station and the volunteer asked what I wanted. I said, "Coke please". She said, "Flat or fizzy?" I said "Flat please". The race director, who was standing nearby, added deadpan, "One line or two?"
I paused for a second while I tried to make sense of this before the penny dropped and I burst out laughing. That'd get me going! I settled for jelly babies and a caffeine bullet and left the aid station on 3 hours 23 minutes. Is that good or bad? Two more laps to do and I wanted to have 2 hours - no 3 hours - to do them in, but I've got less than that, but how much less? I need to subtract 23 minutes from 3 hours, or is it 2 hours? I rang Ben. Lovely as ever, he patiently did the maths on my behalf and explained: "If you do the next two laps at the same pace as you have been running, you'll have 25 minutes to spare".
This didn't sound like as much spare time as I was hoping, but hopefully it would still be possible. As I ran along thinking about it, I realised that because this is a six hour race, I would definitely get a medal regardless of whether I finished the 5th lap in time. Technically I will have completed a marathon in Wiltshire and got a medal for it so it would count towards my challenge. I considered this for quite a while. It seems a bit like cheating but it is within the rules, if not quite within the spirit of the rules. Would I let myself get away with that? I thought about epic women runners like Anna McNuff, who missed out a few marathons on her barefoot tour of Britain because she had a foot infection, and Elise Downing, who sometimes used bridges instead of running the entire perimeter when she ran the coast of Britain, and Laura Maisey, who had to skip out some of the Alps when she ran Home from Rome because they were covered in 6 feet of snow. One does not have to follow the rules to the letter. Especially when one has made up the rules oneself. Nevertheless my completer-finisher mentality would not be all that happy about it. Frankly it seemed easier to just get it done in 6 hours and negate the need for this conversation.
I sweated and grunted my way up Hill 1, with the help of my Gandalf stick that I'd handily carried down the hill at the end of lap 3 and slung in a bush so I could collect it on the next lap. I muttered, "I should've brought poles" through gritted teeth to runners coming down the other way using their lovely poles. At the top, someone took a photo of me. I haven't seen any of the race photos yet, but I'm willing to bet I look like a complete twat.
I bombed it down Hill 3. My headphones played It's Raining Men which I must've heard dozens of times but this was the first time I caught the line:
God bless Mother Nature, she's a single woman too/She took off to heaven and she did what she had to do
LOL. I grinned at every person I passed, shouting "Well done!" and leaping over mud and holes in the path. People grinned back at me. I was on fire and I was LOVING those hills.
At one point I nearly tripped but managed to save myself before I face-planted. It crossed my mind that usually I attribute falls-avoidance to my superior core strength, but having done literally no core since before Christmas - shamefully I am yet to do a single burpee in 2022 - I can't really claim that anymore. Better lucky than good I guess!
Garmin reported that my 4th lap was my fastest yet in just 1 hour 6 minutes, and when I left the aid station I had a full 1 hour 30 minutes to finish the final lap. Surely I could manage that?I turned the music back on and got on with it. I had expected to be in pain from all the hills but I didn't even need a paracetamol; I raced the flats again and on the final downhill, another runner shouted, "What lap are you on now if you don't mind me asking?" I shouted "Fifth" and he said "Blinking flip!" as I disappeared off down the hillside. The very last bit went through the woods and there were a few deep holes so I was careful to pick up my feet. I knew now I would definitely finish in time.
Shortly after this Ben appeared in the car and we went off to Gloucester for a lovely dinner with his daughters and then drove back to London afterwards, finally arriving home about 10:30pm. Quite a day!