The One That Nearly Broke Me!

Posted on: 24 May 2018

Hello Buzzers 😊 

I’ve finally had they chance to sit down and write up the Shropshire Way 80k blog (with some help from Richard) and it’s going to be an even longer one that usual!! Short version - Despite the absolute conviction I’d had since booking this one that this was beyond my abilities, we did manage to complete it in 22 hours and 46 minutes. A total of 86.26 km walked and shuffled, official ascent of 2200m, actual walk time of 18:12:24 and the rest spent either leaning on my poles, checking maps when lost or stopping at checkpoints 😂😂

For those who wanted the  detail, here goes! We arrived in Shropshire in the late afternoon on Friday 27th May, checked into the cottage we’d rented in central Clun (adequate but nowhere near as nice as Sir and Lady Bolty’s beautiful cottage (which was already booked up by the time this event was rescheduled). It was however, close to the local shop, castle, river and pub, so quite handy. By the time we’d unpacked the car, had something to eat, done the final kit sorting and packing and had a bath, it was already bedtime! We were meeting up with our Buzzer legends Sir and Lady Bolty at the Shropshire Hills Discovery Centre at around 7.30 the following morning, so it was up at 5am to make sure the old bod had time to wake up, do a load of stretches, eat a decent breakfast and do a last kit check. We parked up near the Centre then walked in to a room that was already very busy. Registration was very well organised with several people checking people in, doing the mandatory kit check and issuing tallies which would have to be clipped at every checkpoint. It was tremendous to meet up with Gerry and Mandy again so soon after London and we sat and had a cuppa and a good chat. At 8.45 we all moved outside to the start where Grant, the organiser, gave us all a briefing, photos were taken then just a few minutes wait before we were off on the stroke of 9am. 

The first leg was a bit of a gallop from the Centre, north up the Onny river valley. The competitors were already fanning out a bit because there wasn’t a single clear path or signposts. Some went left, some went right (we went left) but ultimately we all ended up on the same path. About 3.5 km in, we reached Strefford, turned east and headed up the slope of Wenlock Edge. We were already among the last 6 or 8 by the time we reached the ridge, which is (only) 120 metres above the valley floor. This didn’t bode well for me - I’m just not used to being that far back and I kept telling myself there was nothing wrong with starting slower - there were many many miles ahead and all that mattered ultimately was finishing at all! In reality though, the pride was feeling a little dented and I was already struggling with the old joints. The problems with left foot, both ankles, left knee, hip, neck and right shoulder which have reared their ugly heads this year were already making their presence felt. The hips were the worst though - they just don’t do well up steep hills and mud 😕 By the end of that ridge section, we were almost last and Richard had fallen once. Fortunately no damage, just very muddy knees! There was a self-clip check point in a tree, CP1. We’d seen no buzzard signs for the path so far (it turned out that we only saw one or two for the entire first half!).

The descent from Wenlock was a mud trench. How liquid mud could stick to a hillside at such an angle was almost beyond belief, but it was typically 20-30 cms deep. The safest spot to walk was actually in previous boot prints, where the mud was sometimes only 10 cms deep. I think I may have turned the air blue down that path - every sideways slip caused pain and it wasn’t losing before my back muscles went into spasm. So, one muscle relaxant taken on board and within 45 minutes, that particular pain started to ease 😊 At the bottom we were passed by probably the last walker, Mr Red with a red pack and russet jacket. We were now last.

The next leg was about 5 km of flat, trackless fields, but Grant had scattered a few very small pieces of yellow tape. They never helped find the way forward, being so small, but brought comfort knowing that we were on the right path. Besides, (a) we were following 100 other boots, and (b) we could see Ragleth Hill ahead, 398m above sea level, stark and steep and 130 m of climb. I looked at it when we reached the road a couple of miles away and said that I didn’t think that I could climb that (well, that’s the polite sanitised version of what I actually said 😂😂). Richard said that he didn’t think that I’d ever said that before. 

The final approach is designed with malice in mind, because as we finally left the road to join the footpath, the path dropped another ten metres or so quite needlessly into a little valley. Now we could see a whole line of other participants slowly ascending. The climb was unremitting, unwavering, at an angle of about 25˚, stepping in boot-size holes in the turf left by all our predecessors. We went up very very slowly,  sometimes only ten steps at a time, at under 2 kph as my hips were constantly threatening to go into spasm so I had to keep stopping (yet more cursing from me!).  At the summit was the self-clip CP2, and the path was suddenly so much easier that we cheered up considerably. The pain was suddenly so much less that it became a pleasure to pick up some speed 😊

View from the summit of Ragleth Hill

Pic of The path ahead

Also, we had Mr Red in our sights. As we came over the shoulder of Ragleth ridge, we passed him, and that induced a good half hour of cheeriness. The path down led directly into the back streets of Church Stretton, which we raced through, past shops where I refused a white Magnum (which Richard later said he knew was a bad sign) and up the other side. The next CP was in Cardingmill Valley and was on a good road. A kilometre out of town CP3 was in the National Trust tearooms, where Mandy met us. She’d waited in the car for two hours for us bless her 😍 She said that participants had come from quite a few different directions, likely reflecting the lack of Shropshire Way signage! She told us that Gerry had gone through in 7th place and was absolutely flying and that really did gladden the heart 😊 

We met a good few other tail-enders at the CP (who’d probably had a good rest before quickly moving on). My first food parcel was there (Grant very very kindly took my food parcels to the various CP’s for me so I wouldn’t have to carry them myself). Fidget pies were on offer for everyone else. Fidget pie is defined on-line as a savoury pie containing onions, apples, bacon, and sometimes potatoes. Mandy said it should have a mashed potato top rather than a pie crust. Richard’s pie seemed to be largely potato and white sauce with bits of thin ham or bacon, all in a pie crust. There were also bowls of little chocolate eggs and rubbery sweets. We left as soon as we could, leaving just one walker behind us. She passed us when Richard realised that he’d lost his pipe and went back to the CP to see if it had dropped out of his pocket there. No luck though so it’s still somewhere out in the Shropshire mud! I spent ten minutes by the stream in that stunning valley, stretching out my back, calves and hamstrings which had stiffened up so much for the short rest. 

The road soon stopped and the rougher path started as Cardingmill Valley got steadily steeper and we got steadily slower, I couldn’t use my poles properly because of you shoulder so was really struggling. The walker ahead, Mrs Green, being in green with clashing, partly orange-dyed hair, gradually pulled away into the distance. We just crept up, frequently stopping, and Rich later said that I was now getting very concerned looks from anyone on the way down who passed us. Finally, finally the path flattened off as we reached the top of the Long Mynd. It’s a barren upland heather moor, with one clear path which brought us to a junction. We turned south west on the path helpfully labelled “Pole Bank Walk”, which took us 2 km to the top of the Long Mynd, Pole Bank, which was CP4 and another self-clip. As summits go, it’s one of the world’s flatter ones, just a slight prominence on an upland plateau. Here, after an unexpectedly dry morning with clearing skies, it briefly hailed on us. There were several school parties on the path, with support vehicles on a road which crossed this path section about half way along.

Pole Bank 

Leaving Pole Bank, though, wasn’t good. The obvious path marked on the map simply wasn’t there on the ground. We had to back off to the road where there was a schematic map board at a junction of road and trails. That’s where unusually for us, we got into a bit of a squabble 😕 I looked at the board then picked the obvious (to me) path and left, not wanting to stop again, whereas Richard still wanted a longer look at the board and our maps, to be as sure as he could be that it was the right one. He wasn’t best pleased and a silent three kilometres later we reached Coates, a farm which was the first certain way-point in the last few km, and which should have been situated at a junction on a minor road. Richard still wasn’t happy though as we could only see the one minor road without the expected junction. I walked on and Richard was just announcing to the world that he now had no idea where we were when I called out that I’d found the junction. So luckily, all was well, and Richard was happy for the first time since leaving Pole Bank! Bridges was just a kilometre away.

There was now a long road section to the Stiper Stones, visible in the distance. Bridges, near Ratlinghope, has a pub and some bridges. Quite a few people were sat relaxing outside the pub. I was rather envious at that moment!  We plodded on for another 4 km to a farm where the road finally stopped. I think we saw our first SW buzzard signs there – I can’t be sure, it was now late afternoon and everything was starting to blur in the mind. There was no obvious path up, just some tractor wheel tracks that pointed north briefly. I struggled up - it wasn’t too steep but it was pretty boggy in places. Richard made the comment that Shropshire must be where they tried out the beta-version of gravity as he was sure that mud and marshes shouldn’t stick quite so well to such hillsides as we’d already met 😂😂 We met a school party on their way down, which indicated where a better path was, and that led us to the awful Stiper Stones track, which is just a strip where the heather has been cleared, leaving a track entirely composed from randomly angled brick to small boulder-sized rocks, for a good 1.5 km. It was a really horrible surface for sore joints and slowed me down considerably yet again. The white quartzite Stones themselves were impressive though. 

Going up to Stiperstones

We walked past the Devil’s Chair (with no feeling of temptation right then to climb them!), which is the biggest set of crags, and Manstone Rock, which was also CP5, a self clip. Richard looked for the path that led down just before Cranberry Rock, while I was still cursing (yet again 😂😂) and stumbling over the rubble. We had an eye on the clock and knew that we were headed for being timed out. To be honest, right then, part of me almost hoped it would happen then the pain would at least lessen, but the Buzzer part woke up and recognised a much better path and I tried my hardest to speed up, even managing a bit of a jog on one smoother part. That path was an absolute delight after the rubble, being largely grass, and led down to the car park at the foot of the ridge, CP 6. We got there at 5.31pm, which was technically past the CP closing time of 5.30 and I felt gutted, thinking we’d blown it 😕 We should have been timed out and forced to stop. Instead they gave us loads of encouragement, fresh tea, and Richard quickly stuffed down a cheese roll, taking another along with him. I picked up my next food parcel there but couldn’t face eating so tied it to the front of my pack. We can only suppose that they took pity on us seeing how hard we tried on that descent and decided to pass us as fit to continue! We were only there long enough to drink the tea while the CP was dismantled around us. If we hadn’t timed out here, we were now pretty sure we would time out after the next leg, the 10 km to Bishop’s Castle and that was a very depressing thought. So do we give in or plod on do it the Buzzer Way, giving it everything we could muster? 

For the first time we deviated off the Shropshire Way. There had been a discussion before the start about this point. From the car park, should competitors go back up the hill, rejoining the Shropshire Way at Cranberry Rock and then following it down, or take the road from the car-park to where it met the SW again? The latter was shorter and avoided the 83m climb back up the hill. Grant had said that the route was entirely up to us, we just had to hit every CP and he really didn’t expect anyone to climb back up again. He also explained that in the brief so hopefully no one did the ascent a second time! We met the SW again within a kilometre of the car park, and now it was marked with the buzzard sign. We headed south west into the Nipstone nature reserve and Nipstone Rock. Shortly after that, I got a text from Mandy that had been sent half an hour earlier and I’d only just got reception back. Gerry was in a bad way with sickness and shaking and Mandy didn’t yet know where he was, but he was too bad to continue. I don’t remember too much of this section because I was really worried about Gerry, just hoping that Mandy had found him and hadn’t yet had the chance to text me. There was no phone reception for so long and that was so frustrating. I think there were more outcrops like smaller Stiper Stones. I certainly remember a steep narrow and muddy downhill path and lots of gorse!  Part way down we passed a group of three walkers we recognised and they were looking distinctly jaded and footsore. Finally, we were no longer last and that gave us a little boost 😊 We overheard a snatch of conversation in passing along the lines of “…when we reach the road we need to rethink our strategy”. 

Down and down to the river we went, my toes hitting the front of my boots with every step - they were getting sore enough by now to be irritating. After every down comes an up, and after a short road section (which felt like bliss) it was up all the way to the top of Linley Hill. It was a real struggle with the hips again but at least now on the flatter bits and downhills, I was trying my absolute hardest to make up time - no way did I want to timed out now as we were almost halfway. Through Linley hamlet and then on a path across flood meadows, where we overtook another competitor. At Lydham we headed south west across-country south west and then south towards Bishops Castle via another hill but in our now totally jaded state brought on by trying to up the pace, we’d somehow got lost again 😕 After a short discussion, we decided that going back to the last point of certainty would take too long so we headed down the side of a field towards the road into Bishop’s Castle. It was only a short stretch in the end but embarrassingly we met Mrs Green just before reaching the pub, approaching from entirely the wrong direction to have been following the SW as she had. We reached CP7 at the Castle Hotel, 43 km from the start 50 minutes before the cut off and we were absolutely delighted to have gained a bit of leeway back. Even better, phone reception had finally returned and a text came in from Mandy saying hi she found him and although he was still being sick, he was OK. We were absolutely truly and completely gutted for him, but so thankful he was safe and on his way home to warm up. Several texts from HD also came in and they were so deeply appreciated. 

The CP was another self-clip in the bar, with a water supply. Here we met out first DNFs, collapsed in arm chairs ruefully studying their feet and wondering whether to call a taxi. We were very nearly last in but knew there were at least four behind us now although we never did see them again. The bar sold us a Magnum each, and we headed on, slightly lost in the streets at first until we got oriented. It was now about 8.45 pm (the cut-off time was 9.00), the sun had set 20 minutes before and it was suddenly felt very cold outside. Despite the warmth of the busy bar, we had chilled off and the Magnum definitely wasn’t helping for once. We got back into our jackets and as we faffed around for gloves, hats and head torches we were overtaken by a male walker we’d seen in the pub. Within a kilometre we were on a field path wet with dew. 1.5 km of wet grass paths, through which there were no obvious signs that others had passed as the dew fell long after they sped gone that way. Then a short road section, and then the first real night section, where the road became a track up a hillside to Middle Woodbatch Farm. With the decreasing temperature and increasing humidity I was by now was groaning like an old woman as pain levels ratcheted up several ore notches. As we reached the farm I tried to stretch out my back by leaning on my poles as Richard searched around for the Path through the farm. Eventually, he knocked on the door (although we’d been spotted anyway). Mrs Farmer wasn’t happy being visited by strangers tramping into her garden at about 9.45 at night, but showed us where the track was. She spotted me, still standing draped over my poles a short way down-hill, and asked if I was alright, which helped break the ice a bit. 

So we followed a nice clear path with nice clear buzzard signs through a small wooded section and a field, and then entered a large field of young grain, and there was no sign nor visible path - not a single trace of the prints of 100 previous boots. The map showed the path with a zig-zag at about this point. We knew we were within 200 metres of a road which was our next section, but we just couldn’t find it. I was pretty much out of it by now and It didn’t immediately occur to Richard to take a compass bearing from our entry point (he was getting very jaded too). My gut instinct said go right but Richard wanted to go left and around the field as the road was at the other side of it to where we currently were. I was just too tired and sore to argue so plodded on after him. At the other side of the field we found an impenetrable wire fence and hedge between us and where we wanted to be. I suggested getting a grid reference from my phone and fortunately there was signal there unlike over so much of the route where there wasn’t (so easy to forget the basics when you’re just plain knackered!). Richard got a bearing on our destination and we hit a marked path within a few minutes. This whole cross-country night section was only a little over a kilometre, but we had gone wrong twice and it had taken us an hour to do. All that hard earned time gained had been lost with interest and once again we were fighting the clock and facing missing the next cut off time. We reached the road, turned south for a kilometre, gave it everything we had and reached CP8 at Reilth Top farm at 10.55 pm, 5 minutes before the cut off. The whole family seemed to be up and awake in the barn and were such lovely people. Hot tea and lamb stew (which even Richard couldn’t face at that time of night, and I couldn’t eat because if the allergies), happy chat, bouncing dogs, stretchy cats on a barrel head. They had another one of my food parcels - I still hadn’t touched the last one! Fortunately for me, Richard found room for it in his backpack. I really wasn’t doing too well with the fuelling and hydration which definitely led to problems over the next few hours.  

We left Reilth Top at around 11.15pm, very relieved to have made the cut off but wondering how long we could actually keep this up. I wanted to go back to the formal SW path but the farmer had already said that was nuts and we should go south to a well signposted but almost unused path, which was the one Richard wanted to take. Since the farmer had directed everyone else to do the same, it seemed the sensible thing to do. We found the path - a shortish link across a steep hillside between two roads. The moon was well up but often covered by cloud. It was such a help though, not just in finding the path but also in showing the horizon, which in this hilly country gave useful location and direction information. This path was indeed almost non-existent, but now we could see the trail of earlier boots. There was one hilarious moment here was when we first got on that path - I could see a  vague shape halfway down the field and was convinced it was bull. As we drew closer, the shape became ........ a shed! 😂😂 on teaching the bottom, of the steep field, we followed a kilometre of road before getting back on the Shropshire Way due west along a small steep stream valley. This was such an excellent path, entirely obvious, almost flat and easy to follow at night. We reached CP9, a self-clip tied to a tree where the SW meets Offa’s Dyke. 

After that point, the ‘strangeness’ started and it’s a darn good job that Richard retained all his faculties or I’d still be under a bush somewhere. I can remember almost nothing between that point and Clun 10km on. Richard says I started weaving around, groaning and cursing and was bouncing off the bushes beside the path. In the end, he put my hand in his pocket and held it tight there so I couldn’t ‘escape’. I can remember the hand in the pocket because it felt so lovely and warm. I can also remember looking up and seeing the moon and Jupiter through a break in the cloud and insisting we stop so I could take a picture. I’d frequently been topping up on high calorie little snacks but hadn’t managed any carbs since Cardingmill Valley. I’ve a suspicion that it was the combination that, poor hydration and the effect of my body fighting the developing virus that I didn’t really know I was coming down with at the time. Whatever, without Richard, there’s no way I’d have got through that section he must have almost dragged me through so all credit goes to him. 

We reached CP10 in Clun at about 2.30am and I do remember that because there was suddenly warmth, light’ hugely supportive volunteers (one of whom also had AS) and....... loads of hot tea 😊 That’s exactly what I needed. ‘Mrs Green’ was there too, unseen since Bishop’s Castle. We were the last out but at least one more walker was still expected so I guess the others we passed had dropped out now. Only 12 more miles to the finish and we had seven hours to do it. Maybe this was going to be possible! 

More hills, the stings in the tail. We were so tired by now that it was just head down and plod on % at least the way was well marked now. All that mattered was to keep going forwards be it it up, down or still occasionally sideways, just keep moving. Bury Ditches must be so impressive by day but dawn wasn’t approaching just yet. Plod, plod, plod, even seeing the occasional flash of Mrs Greens Head torch ahead (one of you ‘set-the-vegetation-alight’ ones 😂 It felt like a very long slog to that last self-clip, CP 11 in Bury Ditches car park. I think I even tried to sit on the table full of bottle of water before realising that this wasn’t a terribly good plan. I actually drank almost a whole bottle of water there, that I do remember. On we trudged, 8 miles to go. 

Onwards we went and an hour later, realised we’d lost our both concentration and the way yet again. I could honestly have sat down and bawled my eyes out but what was the point? I sure as heck didn’t feel like going backwards so yet again, we took a bearing and plotted a route to the nearest road and eventually ended up on the main road to Craven Arms, inadvertently adding on another few km for our trouble. At least being on a road again (which still leaves me feeling guilty) made navigation straightforward - and we just kept on plodding ever so slowly. Fortunately there wasn’t anything in the much of the way of traffic which was just as well as ai think we were both weaving around a bit by then. It seemed to take an absolute age to reach Craven Arms. I found my eyes were closing even as I walked. 

Make it we did though and the relief seeing the Discovery Centre coming into view was just huge. It didn’t feel like a victory at all, it was just the biggest most wonderful relief. No fanfare or finish line, just through the doors and the lady at a desk took our tallies and said a big well done. A few others were sitting at the tables having just arisen from a couple of hours sleep. We sat at a table with the sun streaming through the glass doors on us, gently toasting ourselves, totally and utterly spent. A nice volunteer brought a cooked breakfast which was a nice touch 😊 So there we have it, 22 hours and 46 minutes, a total of 85.26km, many hills and shedload of pain but it got done. 

No words can thank Richard enough for being by my side, keeping me safe and moving forward during that strange part of the night, listening to the endless cursing and groaning and getting us safely back to the cottage in Clun. He really is a hero 😍 Heaven knows how but we even managed to have a voicing hot bath before finally catching some sleep. For once, I could have slept on a bed of nails and not noticed. Four solid hours of sleep without so much as twitching - almost unheard of in recent years and so very much appreciated. 

A meal out at the local pub with the Boltys on Sunday evening and it was such a huge relief to see Sir Bolty looking relatively OK. Sunday morning we even managed a short walk down to the river and around the castle before heading home and very beautiful it is too. 

Pics of river and castle 

I certainly appreciated it more than in the middle of the night when we last passed them 😂😂 I felt absolutely no sense of pride at all in finishing until a good couple of weeks afterwards. I suspect that was because I’d felt from booking it, I wouldn’t finish it and because I’d found so damned hard both physically and mentally. Quite honestly, I very nearly did call it so many times but writing Jim’s magic words on my hand reminded me just why we don’t quit 😊 

So there we have it! If you made it all the way through to here, you should do an ultra - they’re shorter 😂😂

 

Happy training everyone 😊

 

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