Escaping The Crow...

Posted on: 28 Nov 2017

Hi buzzers. Here is my blog for last weekend’s run, ‘Escape from Meriden’, it was a bit of an epic day and so this blog will be a long one. Apologies. If you want the ‘in a nutshell’ version, it was very hard work, quite a lot of fun, a dash of hysteria, very little dashing, a lot of great support, plenty of food, no sleep, a few tears and a lot of swearing. It was a day that showed the best of what realbuzz stands for and underlined the wonder that is running and the madness that possesses the ultra-running community. Escape from Meriden is a race that I would strongly recommend although it is not to be taken lightly, it is one I have already vowed I would never do again, but also one I have tried to register onto for next year already (unfortunately it is already sold out!)

So, for the long version, cups of coffee, bacon butties, flat coke at the ready…

My first mistake: Yes well I had no choice in the matter, it was bad timing that this race came in the middle of my hardest two weeks work of the year. Putting on a Christmas show really takes it out of you and that Friday was a full day at the end of a 50-hour week. I had not slept well on the Wednesday or Thursday nights. I went straight from work to Bath where Hobs Cowboy picked me up and drove me to his place where he kindly gave me a bed to lie awake in for an hour, then fed me very tasty macaroni cheese (This selfless hospitality was to continue throughout the next 16 hours, I will be forever grateful to the magnificent Hobs) we then picked up Chairman Jim, Gloshawk and on we drove to Meriden. I had been feeling rough all day, aches and pains and mentally shaky; full of doubts in my abilities and actual fear of what was to come. This surprised me; I’ve never been frightened of a race before, can’t put my finger on why but I think it was mostly to do with the thought of letting people down. Jim had given up his plans to kindly agree to run with me potentially all the way to Manchester, Hobs would support til half way then Jenny McC would take over and support for the final 12 hours, what if I failed? I felt the pressure and for a while it wasn’t very nice. But once I put on the compression tights and gathered my rucksack of supplies the fear began to subside and it was replaced by excitement.

So, we got to Meriden around 11pm, the village hall was abuzz with excitement, people shared escape plans, I was glad to hear I wasn’t the only one planning to use the canals to head North, although others were planning on getting onto the canal sooner than me, I had a few doubts about my route but decided to stick to my guns, believe in my planning. We were given the race briefing then we made our way to the village green, the stone ‘cross’ that marks the spot that is supposed to be the very centre of England from which we would run at midnight to who knows where. This was a strange and surreal sight, every runner with head torches and flashing lights, many dressed in orange boiler suits provided by race organisers, some chained together (they would be running potentially the next 36 hours chained together, a coin tossed to decide which wrist was to be chained, thus proving that however mad you feel, there is always someone madder than you!) At twelve o clock people began running, all in different directions, all very haphazard and crazy. At the last minute Hobs had suggested a slightly different route out of Meriden but such was my paranoia that I decided to stick to the route planned, in the end it was only a matter of yards difference between the two. Jim and I headed off and for a while we were 2 of say 10 people heading the same way, more quickly than I expected we were alone and in my head the daemons were telling me “You’ve gone wrong already!”

On we plodded; we were looking at sticking to the roads on and off for the first 49 miles then get off onto the canal. But we would do a little bit of canal work after sunrise. The first target was 14 miles to meet Hobs around 2.30, then Lichfield, 24 miles by 5.30. so anything around 12-15 min miles would be fine. It was a little hilly, a bit chilly, very dark but these miles passed in a steady, fairly happy way. Jim was feeling pain in his right leg, I was feeling more tired than I thought I should be, but we were sticking to the target pace. Little did I know that Jim’s pain was a lot more than he was letting on…

Pit stop one, we were surprised by how much we felt happy to get to this one, only 2 and a bit hours in and we were already feeling it! The smell of hot bacon hit us first and Hobs with all the supplies laid out behind the car was a sight for sore legs! The appropriateness that pit stop one was by a cemetery was not lost on any of us. We fuelled up and headed off after 10 minutes for Lichfield.

Now I was hurting, over the next half marathon my left knee began to complain, an unexpected ache although I have had this one before on long runs, not for a while. We were still hours away from daylight and I was already struggling. Jim realised and he upped the conversation as I had stopped making any a while back. Jim was the perfect running partner here, he chivvied, he joked, he came up with anecdotes, he even sang at times, and I was acutely aware that it was for my benefit as he knew I needed distraction. He may have had his own pain but he knew his friend was in need and of course Jim would not let a friend down…

Pace-wise we were ahead of the game, we had come across a few lumpy bits that seemed far more lumpy than when I recce’d them and we missed a couple of turns too that added ½ a mile on to our total but we hit Lichfield around 5am. Ahead of schedule. A sign of our fuzziness of collective brain was the fact that we lost Hobs for the second pitstop, but eventually we found him. Spirits were a little low at this pit stop despite more yummy bacon butties. The voices in my head were telling me “You should be fresh, you’re only just over a ¼ of the way, you are never going to make it” I was worried about my knee, it was painful going uphill or downhill. Still we tried to get warm, took on more water, ate loads and then got off.

At some point the sun came up. I can’t remember where we were now, but it was a cold country road lined with trees, we looked to the east and the red clouds were beautiful, so much better than the strange lines of red lights that we had seemingly been running towards for ever without getting any nearer. With the sun rise came a lift of spirits, but not as much as when we hit our first canal.

I had been suffering more and more with the knee. But the moment we got on to our first canal the pain disappeared. Suddenly I felt very good about the strategy, maybe this was going to work! The going was soft and flat and Jim and I both had a new lease of life. I couldn’t get over how quickly the pain had gone. I knew that the majority of the remaining miles were on canal so I was hopeful for the first time.

Pit stop three, Little Heywood, 37 miles, here we were in good spirits, the canal had been kind to us and we decided to change the route plan and stick with it (when I had recce’d this section the canal path was a muddy mess but now things were so much better. Staying on the canal would save us about a mile too so all was good) We had more welcome support from Hobs who told us he’d picked another struggling runner up and driven him to a train station. There was rumour of a lot of drop outs, this was really a tough race. But our spirits were high. I knew now that the next pit stop I would be over half way and would see Jenny, this spurred me on.

Our pace had dropped dramatically from around mile 40 though; my whole left leg was in pain now, mainly the thigh and the groin. The walk breaks were now becoming more frequent and longer. Along the canal there were many bridges, our conversation had dwindled and I knew Jim could have been running more than I was able so I was feeling bad. Often we would see a bridge up ahead and Jim would say “To the bridge?” and I would struggle into a hobble of a run. This was to become the pattern for the next 20 miles with the running dwindling as the pain levels rose.

There was still enjoyment, still determination, still a belief that we could do this. I remember at around 11am I texted my Mum to say “Nearly half way!” We were also aware of all the support from the realbuzz community who were watching our ‘blobs’ slow progress up the country; we had fun trying to predict what people would be saying on the tracking thread on Facebook.

Pitstop 4. Stone, 48 miles, midday. This was a great pitstop as it was where Hobs handed over to Jenny so we had the whole team together! I was not in a good way at all and it took me ages to change a pair of socks! We had hot soup and Cornish pasties, I also spent some time on the floor, trying to stretch out my hip muscles. We ended up spending half an hour here which of course was too long. I felt I needed it as my legs were in a bad way, Jim wanted to get on quicker than I did and this frustrated him. It was so lovely to see Jenny and Hobs but we now knew the hardest part was to come and I seriously doubted I would make it home.

Around this time we began to think about different targets. Medals for this race are awarded for distance as the crow flies from the start, we knew we had the silver medal in the bag, gold was for 60 miles and I had planned to hit that at Macclesfield, 15 miles from home, around 8pm. We now knew we would be extremely lucky to hit that by midnight and so Hobs looked for alternatives.

We headed off with 12 miles to our next pitstop at Westport Lake, around 60 miles in total but my initial ability to run a little ground to a halt within a couple of miles. I was finding it too painful to start running and equally painful stopping, we decided we would make better progress in the long run if we just tried to keep up a steady walk. I was feeling dreadful now both mentally and physically. I knew I was holding Jim back and he was wanting to get this thing finished. I think we can safely say we were no longer enjoying it. Jim was aware that around 4pm we would lose daylight again and he wanted to get as many miles in as possible before then but I was just getting slower and slower. In the end we were lucky to get to Westport still in daylight. Jenny met us on the canal and walked us back to the car where she had jam and peanut butter sandwiches and crisps etc waiting which was heavenly. We had decided to only spend 10 minutes tops at this checkpoint. We were over an hour behind schedule now. It was clear by now that our mood had changed and I think Jenny was getting worried about me, still, on we went.

Even though Hobs was heading home, his job of supporting us done, he still had our backs; he knew we were in trouble and he found a new route that would get us to Gold medal a whole 6 miles earlier than I was planning. However our state of mind was by now not great, we were finding it hard to think straight at all and the thought of trying to navigate a new route in the dark, in this condition, was frankly terrifying! But this was the last roll of the dice as I knew I didn’t stand a chance otherwise. Leaving Westport our new route would take us about 17 miles to gold, at that point we had potentially almost 8 hours left, so it was still doable. In fact we were confident even then that we might be able to achieve our new goal by 8 or 9pm.

This was when what was left of my wheels fell off completely! As darkness fell we got to the end of the canal near Kidsgrove. When I had recce’d this section I ended up going up a huge hill here. There was no way I was capable of that now. We asked directions and were very lucky to come across a man who was out supporting another runner, he was local and told us exactly where we needed to go, he also offered us food and drink, he was our complete saviour in our hour of need. At this stage hysteria had set in and our spirits were high… until we spent our darkest hour trying to find our way through a park that supposedly took us to the canal again at Kidsgrove. Jenny had driven to the other side and was waiting for us, Hobs was on the other end of the phone, the buzzers were watching as our blobs floundered around in a wood for an hour. That hour completely broke my spirit. I lost my challenge in that park. Although looking back we probably didn’t go wrong, it probably took no longer than it should have considering I could hardly walk. But it was the uncertainty that killed us. By the time we met Jenny again we were questioning everything, not least the direction we should be taking along the next canal (even though there was clearly only one direction we could take!) I felt I was grumpy and rude to Jenny which she didn’t deserve, and I almost found it impossible to get down the handful of steps onto the canal path.

It was getting very cold now, dark, windy, sleet. I was crawling. We took 37 minutes to walk one mile. I was moving so slowly that my body started shutting down, I was not creating any heat, I was shivering uncontrollably. My left leg was in so much pain. Jim tried to make a walking stick for me out of a twig from the side of the canal, it didn’t work. I was so frustrated, I knew if I’d had a crutch I could have tried hopping the rest of the way. Jim offered to carry me at one point but he was in pain too. I was beginning to feel in danger. I asked Jim how much further we had to go, he said 9 miles. I knew then this was the end. I told Jim I couldn’t go on and then I broke. Tears welled up in my eyes as they had a few times before but this time I couldn’t hold them back, Jim held me as I sobbed for what seemed like a few minutes.

We called Jenny to say it was over, she was .9 of a mile away and so set off along the canal to meet us. Jim wrapped me in a foil blanket and I clung on to him as we shuffled along in the rain. Every lock we came to in that .9 of a mile was like climbing Everest for me; the slightest slope, particularly downhill, brought me to a standstill. At this point I even doubted I could make the .9 of a mile by midnight! When we met Jenny I tried not to look such a mess because I didn’t want her to worry about me. She knew though. Between them Jenny and Jim half carried me back to the car. I was bundled into the back seat and the rest is a blur, I fell asleep almost immediately and I don’t remember much between then and sitting eating fish and chips once we were home.

So we had managed 67 miles in roughly 19 hours, only 53 as the crow flies so we missed our gold. This was not as far as I’d managed in the same time on Hadrian’s Wall which was far more hilly and on a hot day, I felt a terrible sense of failure, my body, broken, had let me down. I was miserable; I felt I had let Jim down too after all he had sacrificed for me…

But time has passed now and I can look back more positively. I know what we did was still pretty amazing; something very few people would attempt let alone achieve. I’m proud.

And what’s interesting is that I’m already considering doing it again…

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