A Feast of Crows

Posted on: 04 Dec 2016

A link to Escape from Meriden was tweeted to me in the summer. A read through the quirky site had me chuckling and the concept behind it wiggled its way around my brain for a few days. It was simple and brilliant.

The Start Point: At the alleged centre of England (well where a local publican in the 1800s put up a stone cross and made the claim), a few miles south east of Birmingham’s NEC.

The Route: Completely of your own choice, but make sure you know it, because as the website said “In Warwickshire no one can hear you scream”.

 The Challenge: Achieve the furthest distance, as the crow flies, from the start, in 24hrs. With medals for 30, 60 & 90 mile distances achieved.

Support provided: A GPS tracker with an SOS button, that’s it folks, everything else is up to the competitor.

Without taking it too seriously I started to look at a route and found that Hawkesbury was 65 miles as the crow flies. Despite not having planned on doing such a long run this year, the genius of the concept and the ability to run home made it too good to miss. Better still, Jim was totally up for it.

Jim made the booking, which meant that I was his little friend! The only difference between pairs and solo is having just one GPS tracker between us. Then the route planning commenced in earnest.

Initially I looked at trails, river footpaths and canals, but whilst a lot were available, none headed in the right direction for very long. Keeping off main roads and avoiding elevation were my main goals and I found this cycling journey tool that really helped www.cyclestreets.net

I plugged in the start and end and set it to quietest route and it came up with a route that with only minor tweaks we followed. Had we not had support, then it would have had to have changed to incorporate more locations where we could get food and water. I re-plotted the route into my OS Maps app and Garmin and that was pretty much it done.

We did however have support lined up at 5 “checkpoints” as well as a lift to the start so the logistics were as smooth as possible. It did mean I had to give predicted ETAs which were a little bit of a guesstimate as road would be faster than trail, but by how much? In the end we were only ever 15 mins early or late so I’m chalking that up as a victory for dead reckoning.

So those parts of the preparation went well. As for the running prep, well it would be fair to say that the training for the event followed all my events post Manchester, rock up and run. However with 80 miles ahead of us, I was pretty nervous having not run any back to back runs and nursing a foot niggle since September. On top of this was the unknown of the impact of running on roads for that distance and the DNF from the Great Oggie Run was playing on my mind.

The good news was that as an excellent project manager I’d managed to plan an intensive systems test session the week before and after the run. This meant I was flat out well into the evenings leading up, but at least I had no time to think about how under prepared I felt.

Friday evening, nerves & excitement start to build, attempt to doze therefore fails. Text’s and FB support rolls in (I do read them all before and after, but during I have to preserve battery life for the OS Maps app. Jim is the social manager (he does words better anyway), I focus on the navigation.)

Geoff rocks up, he seems even more excited than I am, as he has a “boys own” adventure plan. His plan is to see us off and then drive to CP1, kip in the car, provide support, drive to CP2, kip again, provide support and then meet us at CP5 later in the day. He’s a blooming diamond and we really appreciated everything he did for us.

As we headed north up the M5 the chatter was calm, the nerves being managed. We reached Meriden just after 11pm. We got registered, I was surprised that they gave us race numbers, I mean it wasn’t like they needed to check us off at their checkpoints! The GPS device was carefully packed (so that hopefully the SOS button would not trigger!) and I had time to chat with Richard Mayneord, who I’d run the Green Man with back in August. His target was the same as ours, as he was heading home, well to his home in Swindon, not our home, that would have been weird.

The race briefing was straight forward. Be safe, be seen, keep warm & know where you’re going. A lot of people were in thin orange jump suits that had been provided to help ensure people stayed warm, and look the part for the escape. Jim and I declined, it just looked like too much hassle to get in and out of.

The start was a short walk up the road to the cross (or rather “stick” as the cross had fallen off). It was slightly odd to all be milling around it, rather than at a distinctive start line. A quiet countdown and we were off. The first 15 seconds was spent negotiating around people as we all headed out on one of the 4 roads out of Meriden.

We trotted down the main road to the SE, the small group in front stopped to decide if they were going to be taking the footpath to the right. I did wonder how they were going to fair if their route was planned only as far as the first 100m! We peeled off right to head south as did 10 others I’d estimate, so we chatted about plans, directions and support strategy. Then after 2 miles I checked my nav and we peeled off right and no one else did. Unlike any other race, we were now unlikely to see any competitors again.

My left foot niggle was being, well, niggly and so I started to be concerned that it would get worse as we progressed, weirdly that was the only time I thought about it as it just seemed to sort itself out. I’m not sure I’d prescribe an 80 mile run to sort issues like this out, but I was mightily relieved.

We were chatting away, steady pace around 10:30 average. Past the police dog handling centre at Balsall Common. Shortly after we came to a road closed sign on Bree’s Lane (maybe the Nazgul were out looking for Hobbits?). I decided to divert us, as even though most road closures are passable on foot I didn’t want to risk it.

 Jim mentioned we’d not decided on any items to count. On the CW102 you’ll remember we counted gates vs stiles. Later on we passed a kennels so decided Jim could count dog residences and as I knew we were going to be going up to the viewpoints on the Cotswold Way I continued the theme by deciding to count doggers! Jim won 2 – 0 but I thought I might have got one when we started to see a car stopping and driving off slowly as we approached.

Slightly worringly it seemed to be heading the same way we were. Then in the distance I started to see green flashing Christmas tree lights, but on a tree that was moving. Now I thought I was seeing things, but thankfully Jim acknowledged he could see them too.

We caught up to the car and I could see in the boot loads of supplies and sure enough it was a close support vehicle for a fellow escapee. We had a passing chat with the crew as we went by and then they drove past to catch up with their guy. This game of leapfrog continued for a few miles more.

 We crossed over the M40, 12.5 miles in at 2:15 am, not the most picturesque of landmarks, but a distinct point on the map that indicated we had made progress. In my head it marked that a third of the night run had been completed. I love night running, the stillness of the world, the heightened senses, something about it just “clicks” with me. However there is something uplifting about a dawn that always boosts my morale. That boost wasn’t needed, yet.

We caught up eventually with the Christmas tree, Tiernan, was his name. He had a route plotted to Salisbury but didn’t expect to get that far, and like us he’d opted for the quieter roads and so had not followed the group heading for Swindon on the Fosse Way. Usual running based chat ensued, turns out he’d completed a triple ironman, managing the 78 mile run in 28 hours – blooming amazing after all that swimming and cycling.

Those miles ticked away quickly with something new to talk about and we ran for about 3 miles before we parted as we headed into Stratford Upon Avon. I thought about the blob tracking and whether people would clock that we were together for those miles.

A quick call to Geoff (to wake him up – well he is the sleepy one out of the Wiggles) and soon enough, just before 4am (and slightly ahead of plan) we reached our wondrous CP. A 24hr shell garage, serving costa coffee. Geoff had coffee to offer but we decided to save that for the next CP. Stratford was the only place we were passing through that had a shop, the rest of our route only had what we carried, or our marvellous support team brought to us.

My T shirt was sweaty so I changed it over, blooming cold work doing it but I reckoned worth it. Then scoffed some Christmas cake, filled up the water, chugged the coffee and before I completely froze we were off again. The next couple of miles was spent trying to get hands warm again. I was shocked how quickly the extremities cool down once I’d stopped running.

There was a nice(?) 6 mile stretch of cycle path, flat as a pancake and good time was made, although it did get a tad dull towards the end. Then onto road again and we were now encountering glittery roads, all very lovely to look at, but we were having to walk sections we’d have wanted to run and were struggling therefore to maintain any sort of rhythm. This continued until about midday and was a cause of a lot of frustration. Overall it probably didn’t have too much impact on our time, saving our legs maybe, but it was mental torture, especially when having to walk downhill sections.

After the cycle track I felt we’d broken the back of this second section, although I knew we had a fair old hill to come. Jim had suggested that our “breakfast” CP be at the top rather than the bottom of the hill ahead, and it was absolutely the right call. Knowing we were only a few miles from the CP spurred me on, also there was that sliver of light just starting in the east and we also were in and around familiar territory, as the Cotswold Way started to criss-cross our route. I had planned to follow it for a couple of miles, but Jim rightly pointed out we’d end up with wet socks and then freezing cold feet, so we stuck to the road.

The sunrise we were treated to as we passed by Broadway Tower was the visual (as well as the physical) high point of the run. 35 miles were in the legs, 7 hours down. The plan said it would take us 13 more hours to cover 45 miles. It’s hard to square away that the pace is going to degrade that badly and my optimistic side always wants to believe we’ll keep moving at a better pace.

Into then the comforting warmth of Geoff’s car, ahead of plan again. Heaters on full and sandwiches and crisps to nosh on. Jim was oddly quiet (I didn’t clock he was actually asleep). Resupplies taken on, then we were off again. That first quarter mile, running away from the warmth, getting the muscles going again, just horrible. Jim explained he was struggling and gave an over arching apology for needing to walk more regularly. No apology was required as he well knows, we all go through tough times, his just came earlier than mine.

The next 2 ½ hours were so frustrating. 11 miles of icy roads equated to a lot of walking at a point when we just needed a steady slow run to keep the miles ticking over. Even the road signs started to mock us, with the village of Ford always seemingly 4 miles away. There was a regular amount of traffic around now, even on these quiet lanes, it made me glad I’d not chosen busier roads.

We passed the halfway point around 9am, a quick acknowledgement with a burst of Bon Jovi, but I knew the tougher miles were ahead.

We met up with Claire, Jim’s sister in law, at a non-descript road junction. It was perfectly timed so again the plan was working. We were both slightly bemused with the camping toilet that was in the boot of her Landrover. I knew my brain was beginning to flag when all I could think of was that  there was no way I’d be able to fit in the boot to sit on it! Another burst of warmth in a car, cheese sandwich and coffee. These breaks were like a little oasis, but all to soon it was time to roll with it again.

It was 10:30 am, 46 miles had been done. The next planned CP was Daglingworth at 60 miles at 2pm. The miles in between seemed to undulate a fair amount, annoyingly so. The sky clouded over, there was increase in air temperature and there was drizzle. Now the walking breaks were coming more regularly. I needed them, but I also dislike them. Jim’s walking stride and cadence means he always pulls ahead on the walk and we get strung out, when we get back to running I close that gap, but in the back of my head I feel like I’m lagging behind and slowing us down. It’s purely psychological of course, the reality is that Jim’s faster walking pace ensures our overall pace stays high.

With the dull weather the miles seemed also grey and pretty endless. Conversation was limited. I do remember seeing a crow perched on a lone tree in a field and wondering if the race organiser was keeping tabs on us after all.

We met up with Kim & Annice on time and they sacrificed the warmth of the car, standing outside whilst we ate a luscious thick soup & hot pasties. I spent a bit of time changing kit, all of it in fact which required a certain amount of careful towel placement to avoid exposing my backside to the local villagers. I made a big error as I changed my socks, I felt the balls of both feet and decided that there were no hot spots, just hard skin, so didn’t bother with blister plasters. Jim was catching 40 winks but was quickly up and ready to go.

It was now 2.15pm, 60 miles complete. Whilst the villages we were now passing through were still unfamiliar to me, the roadsigns showed us names we recognised as “local” and that certainly helped. It started to get cold again, but I’d wrapped myself up with an extra top layer and now had 2 hats and 2 sets of gloves on, no way was I going to get cold now, although it did make checking navigation on the phone slightly more cumbersome.

Somewhere along this section the “hard skin” on the ball of both feet turned into blisters. Stupid boy! I’d not had this before and wasn’t sure what to do, but painful as they were, it made no difference if we were running or walking so it was just the case of cracking on and I’d take a look at the next CP. Lunch also decided to make its presence known again, with a lovely bout of acid reflux that stayed with me for the rest of the run. This was definitely my “woe is me” section and whilst I internalised it as much as possible, I’m sure Jim picked up on it. Jim had mentioned earlier in the day how good the steak was at the Beaufort and that thought helped spur me on.

We got to the final CP about 5pm, Geoff again out to meet us, the star. His wife Nicki had cooked up a batch of homemade chicken strips. I ate one, but the tummy was not happy. I then addressed my blisters, Jim was concerned, not for me, but for the proximity of my grim feet to the chicken strips!!!

I slapped a blister plaster on each foot, but I recognised how fruitless this was as the blisters were three times the size of the plasters. However we were 10 miles from home and whatever happened, this challenge was getting done.

It was all walk now, within a couple of miles my left blister popped. Brief agony, but then it actually felt better from the right foot. I was very determined not to fall behind, I swung my arms and forced marched behind Jim. We made the call to take the more direct (but busier) route home, I was tucked in behind Jim, frankly I was physically on auto pilot, just following him. Mentally I was locked deep inside, I cannot tell you what I was thinking, all I know is that I blocked out pretty much everything. However that steak dinner was getting closer with every step

Getting to the pavement at Didmarton was a relief and seemed to draw me out again. 4 miles from home, about an hour. Thoughts turn to our goal, the pub. Jim, reminding me of my eagerness on the CW102 to run the last section to the finish, clarifies he will not be running until we reached the war memorial, in my head I’m thinking it will be a blooming miracle if I run another meter!

Upwards on Beech (Bitch!) Lane and then into the inevitable headwind on Stareval Lane. Into the village, past the war memorial (still walking) then as we close on the Beaufort, we spot  Geoff outside, phone in hand filming, so we gave it a token trot for the last 25 meters and that was it. 80 miles, 20 hours. Job done.

Inside the pub was Kim and our friend Andrew. We ordered steak and chips and had a first pint. One moment I was feeling fine, the next I was dizzy and white as a sheet. Geoff gave me a lift home, leaving my steak dinner on the table. I was in bed five minutes later and asleep within seconds of that. I think the blood sugars just went crazy with that pint, given I’d not eaten for 6 hours. Kim clearly was worried about me as I was allowed to sleep in our bed without having had a shower.

The next morning I was up at 7am and felt fine, well from the waist up. The legs were aching and the feet throbbing but a long soak helped revive them and I then tried to stay semi active to keep them ticking over.

Quite a few learnings came from the run. It was the first time of going into myself and whilst it’s not something I want to do regularly, I’m pleased to know I can do it. I won’t be making the same mistake with hot spots again. The ability to run an ultra without months of dedicated training is ok, but the difference is in how much pain you suffer during and after.

I know I bitched about the icy conditions, but really we got lucky with the weather. The days either side of the event were horrible. The format of the event was brilliant, although it was weird not being around other runners, afterwards, seeing all the routes that were taken has been fascinating. I feel for those that ended up just shy of the 60 / 90 miles, but you cannot argue with the crow. The added dimension of the route planning certainly added to the sense of satisfaction of completing the challenge we’d set ourselves.

Oh and that steak dinner I left, well it wasn’t wasted, Kim brought it home and the kids scoffed it, a veritable Feast for Crows.

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