Land's End to John O'Groats run

Martin Ilott‘s solo run

Standing at the south-westerly point of Great Britain on a beautiful, breezy spring morning in May marked the beginning of a project which had taken several years of preparation and now provided the opportunity to fulfill a boyhood ambition, to run from Land’s End to John O’Groats (LeJog).

As a child I had been inspired by Don Shepherd’s solo run across America in 1964 at the age of 38 (My Run Across the United States 1970, TAFNEWS Press). Now 38 myself, and suffering a mini-mid life crisis, I was attempting to emulate this feat by running across my home country. However, this is where the similarities end:

  1. Don Shepherd averaged 43.65 miles a day, taking 73 days to cover the 3,200 mile distance from Los Angeles to New York. I hoped to cover 35 miles a day, taking a month to complete the 1,000 mile route to John O’Groats on minor roads and cycle paths.

  2. Don dedicated his run to the 37 ladies who shared his company at night. He ran the days alone, carrying his belongings in a small backpack. I was more fortunate in having my father to act as coach, companion, baggage handler, sponsor, masseur and chaperone.

It was with some apprehension that I approached my family and employer, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, to negotiate a month’s leave. I was surprised by the reaction, both very encouraging to the point where a more sensitive person could have taken it the wrong way. Was I that dispensable and should I have been bolder and gone for three months to join the 2002 run across America now taking place?

For those not into ultra-marathons (running events greater than the marathon distance of 26.2 miles), running 35 miles a day for 28 days may appear a little excessive. However, it is worth putting my efforts into some perspective. The cycling record for LeJog is one day and 20 hours held by Gethin Butler.

In fact my final overall time of just over 28 days was only a little slower than the running record of 26 days and seven hours held by Arvind Pandya. Close, but for the fact Arvind was running backwards! The forward running record is just over ten days (90 miles per day!) held by Don Ritchie and Richard Brown. The walking record is less than half my time; 12 days 3 hr and 45 minutes by Malcolm Barnish.

My running career started during college days at Liverpool University, where a gentle two mile jog around the perimeter of Sefton Park with a friend and fellow vet helped us to wind down after the stress of excessive swotting.

The distances crept up (the runs becoming solo) and encouraged by my father’s runs in the London Marathon, I entered my first marathon in Paris 1989. Despite “hitting the wall” and struggling with cramping calves in the last few miles, I was bitten by the marathon bug!

The next 10 years were spent running over 150 marathons, using every vacation and spare penny on traveling to events throughout the UK, Europe and the USA. These ranged from big city marathons such as Boston and New York with thousands of runners to small club events with fewer than 100 participants.

The three most memorable marathons were the 100th Boston Marathon in 1996, my 100th Marathon at Harrow and the New York in 2001. Boston is the oldest and probably the most prestigious marathon and in 1996 I had the honor of meeting the great John Kelley, who had completed almost 60 Bostons, starting at the tender age of 20 and running his last at the incredible age of 82 in 1990.

In the aftermath of September 11th it seemed a remote possibility that the 2001 New York Marathon would be held. However, supported by Mayor Giulianni and many dedicated organisers, over 24,000 runners completed the course encouraged by 12,000 volunteers and a record 2.5 million spectators.

The theme “United We Run” captured the essence of the marathon as a truly unifying force: a race where all men and women from nearly every nation around the world start equal and everyone finishes a winner. It was a beautiful autumn day and the emotion and energy of the runners and spectators was inspiring.

In recent times, injuries have begun to take their toll on marathon times. I seem to have covered the alphabet of common running injuries starting at “a” for athletes foot (a chronic problem!) and Achilles tendinitis through chondromalacia patella and hallux rigidus (arthritis of the metatarsal phalangeal joint) to iliotibial band syndrome, shin splints, patellar tendinits and ending with “z” for “zimmer frame” required!

However, I looked towards the ultra-events as heralding a new series of challenges. LSD or Long Slow Distance running appeared preferable to the gutsy running of sub-three hour marathons and at the same time I discovered that the training technique decreased the risk of further injuries.

Training for “Lejog” involved abandoning the car and running or cycling the 17 mile journey to work, a weekly total of 120 miles for each discipline, which would hopefully prepare me for undertaking the task of completing 250 miles per week on foot.

From Land’s End, I had decided to follow the national cycle route 3, avoiding the A30 and was soon following pretty country lanes lined with banks of bluebells and primroses. As I worked north I followed the spring and never tired of the delightful sights and smells of these wild flowers.

Mousehole, a little fishing port approximately 10 miles from Land’s End, was the first point of rendezvous with my dad. We were keeping in touch with mobile phones, an essential tool for this type of event, but we soon discovered they were all too liable to fail in the hilly less populated areas of the country.

Cornwall proved to be the most testing county, with an almost inexorable series of ascents and descents to negotiate. At Mousehole, I was glad of the descent into the pretty fishing port. The support car, a brand new S-type Jaguar purchased by my father to celebrate his 40th wedding anniversary, had got stuck in the one way system and my he was attempting to reverse back past a line of irritated tourists.

Another valuable lesson from Day one, the car was not designed for a trip along the back roads of Britain and suffered numerous dents and scratches over the four week period. It also became apparent that the atlas I was using to navigate the daily routes, ripping a page a day to carry easily in a back pack, was very different from my father’s atlas in scale, detail and village names.

Although funny at the beginning the errors between the systems of navigation became a daily fuse for disagreements. A simple problem to correct, the purchase of two identical atlases, became a point of principle that neither of us was prepared to compromise on. We would rather follow different roads, miss meeting points, make long and irritable calls and add daily miles than agree which atlas was the most accurate. When my father was asked, during a radio interview, what he had learned about his son during their time together, the immediate response was that he was reminded how very difficult he could be!

The first night was spent in St Agnes and we were treated to dinner by the hotel owner. This marked the first of many kind and generous acts we accounted en route. The days became more routine as we worked our way out of the west-country. It would start with a hearty breakfast, a massage and painstaking application of foot creams, Vaseline and plasters to tender friction points. It would end with a long, hot, deep bath, further massages and lights out at around 9 pm (how did Don Shepherd cope with his evening activities?!)

The nights were usually disturbed by sweats, as I flushed the toxins from an exhausted body, and my father’s snoring. I managed to cure the snoring by forcing him off his back, only to find this precipitated bouts of sleep talking.

I kept the running to approximately three two hour sessions a day, never running more than 15 miles in one session to avoid depleting glycogen stores and risk “hitting the wall” as the metabolism shifted to fatty acids.

A diet of jelly babies, chunky KitKats, dried apricots and Ribena were consumed liberally throughout the day, followed by a high protein meal each evening. Four pairs of shoes and socks were rotated each day to minimize the risk of injury and a Gore-Tex jacket proved invaluable during a very inclement May. A bright yellow cap was used primarily to wave to oncoming traffic and probably prevented serious incident on several occasions.

The high points of the trip included crossing the Severn Bridge, the descent through Glen Coe after a treacherous climb in appalling conditions to the summit of Rannoch Moor and running along unspoiled stretches of the Lancaster and Taunton canals.

The low points? These I try to forget: a torn vastus medialis muscle and ankle sprain in Bristol jeopardized the trip, but I was fortunate in having a well stocked medical kit from a good veterinary suppler to nurse my injuries through several critical days. Deliberately being sent five miles in the wrong direction during a thunderstorm when navigating towards Church Stretton in the Welsh Borders and fending of a dog attack on the outskirts of Glasgow.

Other memorable moments were a run along the Great Glen with an old school friend and the visits by my wife, Rebecca, in Bristol and Lancaster. However, Rebecca will not want to remember the visit to Bay Radio in Lancaster, where she was mistaken for my mother during a live Saturday morning broadcast!

On the last morning I ventured out early to complete the last 16 miles from Wick to John O’Groats. The sun shone and a gentle prevailing wind carried me over the final few miles along the coast of North East Scotland. Predictably, the arrival was met with a slight feeling of anti-climax. I was alone, my father preferring to lie in and taste the delights of his last Scottish cooked breakfast than head out at dawn. I was fortunate in finding a Swedish cyclist about to embark on a JOGLE to take some photos as a record to my achievement.

My father arrived soon after and some further photos were taken and postcards written to family, friends and sponsors. We then set off towards to Edinburgh to meet Rebecca, my mother and the children arriving for a short vacation in the Highlands. As we drifted back down the A99 my thoughts were drifting towards the next project; may be trans-America was possible after all!

And what had I learnt from the experience? That without chocolate there would be chaos and disorder in the universe and that my father could be very difficult! More significantly is “To have a dream, make a plan and go for it. You’ll get there I promise! (Quote from a multiple sclerosis sufferer, Zoe Koplowitz, who took over 24 hours to complete the 1993 New York marathon on crutches).
I would like to thank my family, the VMD and many friends and work colleagues who supported my efforts and raised over £3000 for the “Dreams Come True charity”, which as its name suggests exists to bring some laughter and happiness into all too often tragically short lives of the seriously and terminally ill children all over the UK. If anyone wishes to send a donation I can be contacted at 32 Harcourt Road, Windsor, Berks SL4 5LZ on 01753 853156 (H) or 01932 338421 (W).

Table of the daily starting and finishing points.

Route Approximate distance Date
The Southwest and Welsh Marches ---
Land’s End – Redruth 34 miles 3/05
Redruth – St Columb Major 33 miles 4/05
St Columb Major – Launcesto 46 miles
Launceston – N Tawton 29 miles 6/05
N. Tawton –Sampford Poveney 34 miles
Sampford Poveney – Bridgewater 31 miles
Bridgewater – Bristol 32 miles 9/05
Bristol – Severn Bridge 19 miles 10/05
Severn Bridge – Hereford 32 miles 11/05
Hereford – Ludlow 31 miles 12/05
Ludlow – Shrewsbury 34 miles 13/05
Shrewsbury – Bickerton 36 miles 14/05
Bickerton – Warrington 42 miles 15/05
The North Country
Warrington – North Preston 40 miles
North Preston – Lancaster 31 miles 17/05
Lancaster – Windermere 34 miles 18/05
Windermere – Mosedale 36 miles 19/05
Southern Scotland
Mosedale –Gretna Green 37 miles 20/05
Gretna Green – Moffat 39 miles 21/05
Moffat – Hamilton 38 miles 22/05
Hamilton – Balloch 37 miles 23/05
Balloch – Crianlarich 36 miles 24/05
Crianlarich – Glencoe 35 miles 25/05
Glencoe – Invergarry 35 miles 26/05
The Scottish Highlands
Invergarry – Inverness 45 miles 27/05
Inverness – Tain 35 miles 28/05
Tain – Helmsdale 34 miles 29/05
Helmsdale – Wick 37 miles 30/05
Wick - John O’Groats 16 miles 31/05
Total miles Approx 1000 miles ---
Total time 28 days 23 hr ---
Average speed during run 9 minute miles ---

Further details of the run can be obtained from the website

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