I’d signed up for the Chiltern Way 200k earlier in the year, when I’d been looking for a race to capture my imagination and be my big challenge for 2014. As moving to the Chilterns in 2010 had been what got me started in trail running in the first place, CW200k seemed like a perfect way to explore my local area even more. And being 32 miles further than I’d run before the distance definitely qualified as big challenge for me.
Only after signing up and doing some recce’s did I realise how much scope there is for getting lost on the route. It’s not a National Trail, and the difference is huge. In many parts the route isn’t obvious, even in the daylight. And whilst it’s marked, most of the markings are small round discs which are perfect if you’re walking, but are really easy to miss if you’re running or it’s dark.
Leading up to the race I concentrated on getting to know the first 50 miles or so of the route, as I was going to be joined for the last 100k by my mate Chris, who has paced me during my last few 100 milers, and who is a lot better than me at navigation (having said that, I’m pretty sure that everyone is a lot better than me at navigation). Unfortunately, Chris got diagnosed with a shortly-about-to-break metatarsal a couple of weeks before the race and couldn’t run. Incredibly he still offered to support me throughout the whole race weekend, but without having him to keep me on track during the night I was seriously concerned about getting so lost that I may not be able to finish the race.
In terms of pacing I’d decided to set off at about 10 minute miles, and allow myself to slow about about 1 minute / mile every 25 miles along the route which, if I kept that up, would be bring me home in exactly 27 hours. That ended up being a very significant under-estimate of the difficulty of the race.
Chris and I arrived at the start about an hour before the 9am kick off. Lindley and the Challenge Running crew had managed to find a cracking base camp with facilities extending to beds available for the night after the race. It was a really impressive set up, and it’s a race that deserves to grow in years to come. Being a new race only 11 of us had signed up for the 200k this year (plus a similar amount for the 100k the next day), with 6 of us making it to the start line.
If anything, the small field made it feel like more of an adventure than a bigger race where there’s some comfort in numbers. Looking round the room at the other racers I felt unusually nervous, particularly as everyone else looked calmer and more confident than I felt.
Leg one: Felden to Coleshill
First leg, first wrong turn. On the first page of the map! Seriously. We’d been issued with 57 pages of maps, and I managed to take my first wrong turn on page one. I’d been running at the front of the pack, just far enough ahead so that I couldn’t hear when the others tried to call me back when I took the main path across a field just before Boving. On the Chiltern Way the “main path” is not necessarily the Chiltern Way. It was a good lesson for later in the race. Unfortunately, it was also a lesson that I utterly failed to learn.
I realised that I was off the route when I ran past Boving Church, and so I stopped to ask the way from a couple of locals. I did something that I repeated many times later in the race, almost always with identical results. I showed them my map, and asked them to point me to where I was. They had no idea. At all. So I decided to head for the main road, where I met someone else and asked them the same thing. No clue. At all. Aaaargh. It turned out (after I’d doubled back to where I’d left the route, which is exactly what I should have done in the first place) that when I asked the guy on the main road where I was, I’d only been about 50 yards away from the route. But he hadn’t even known which road I was on. In his own village! Very frustrating.
Anyway, with about 10 minutes wasted I was back on my way, but now right at the back of the field. I made my way back through the field over the next hour, which was a good chance to say hello to the other runners. I didn’t stop and chat for too long until I caught up with Glyn at the front, and we had a good chat as we ran together for the rest of the leg to Coleshill. It was really good to have some company, and just to enjoy running gently on a beautiful day in the Chilterns, before the pain began to set in. Maybe because there were two of us we managed not to make any wrong turns. Result!
Leg 2 – Coleshill to Hambledon
Chris met me at the checkpoint with all my food (homemade sandwiches, natural chia gels, Chris’ homemade chia balls), and helped me do a quick turnaround which meant that I left Coleshill just before Glyn. I didn’t realise at the time, but from that point on I’d be running on my own for the rest of the race, which would have got pretty lonely if I hadn’t had such amazing support.
I’d run all of this leg at least once before, apart from a short section of a mile or two in the hills just above Marlow. Naturally, I took a wrong turn during that section and managed to take myself up hill too far to the north. I was familiar with the general area, and so knew which direction I needed to go in. I knew the route went through Bovingdon, which was at the top of the hill on the other side of the valley from where I was, so I cut down through the fields towards a village at the bottom of the valley where I’d be able to ask directions. Unfortunately there was no exit to the field at the bottom of the valley, and I had to crawl on my back underneath a barbed wire fence, which was fine apart from the combination of brambles and nettles covering the ground (a combination that I discovered to be a real favourite of the Chiltern Way).
After being given directions by someone who did know the geography of their own village (hooray) I made my way up the hill to Bovingdon, and back on track. It felt like the detour had cost me maybe 20-30 mins and I realised, at that point, that 27 hours wasn’t going to be possible. Even if I was only 30 mins down on my time after two detours, a 27 hour schedule didn’t have enough fat in it to allow me to make it up. So I began to prepare for a (slightly) longer second day of running than I’d been hoping / planning for. I’d need to get used to recalibrating my finish-time estimates for the remainder of the race, which turned out to be one of the biggest challenges.
Even though I was back on a part of the route I was familiar with, I felt a bit down after Bovingdon, as I’d lost time and assumed that I would probably have lost a couple of places as well. It was obviously too early to be “racing”, but I didn’t want to be giving away places at any stage in the race through unnecessary detours. I was therefore surprised to be told at Hambledon that I hadn’t lost any places, because apparently I wasn’t the only one struggling to stay on the route.
Leg 3: Hambledon to Ewelme
At Hambledon Chris met me again with his daughter Nic, who would be joining Chris as my crew until the following morning, when my wife Tracey and my kids Oliver and Madeleine would be taking over.
This was the one leg that I know really well, and the section around Ewelme is one of my regular weekend training routes. I was therefore able to run the whole section without having to look at the maps, and without worrying about taking any wrong turns.
The leg also contains some of the most beautiful parts of the route. You start by running up the length of the Hambledon valley, with the pretty villages of Hambledon, Skirmett, Fingest, and Turville (with the windmill from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang overlooking the village). Then you go up and over the hill at Southend before descending through a deer park overlooking Stonor House into the Stonor Valley, before crossing straight over the other side of the valley to Maidensgrove, and then descending gradually towards Ewelme.
I knew that Tracey and the kids would be at Ewelme, as well as Chris and Nic, and Chris’ wife Diane and son George. When I got there the kids were all playing football at the sports field by the checkpoint. I could hear them as I ran down through the woods before the checkpoint, and everyone sounded so happy that it gave me a huge boost. I came into the checkpoint feeling positive and still relatively fresh. I’d run about 40-45 miles, and still had a good couple of hours of daylight, and everything just seemed well with the world. Lindley told me that I’d built up a bit of a lead, which reinforced the good feelings.
Leg 4: Ewelme to Stokenchurch
I know most of this part of the route really well too, as far as Ibstone, which is only a couple of miles before the checkpoint at Stokenchurch. Unfortunately, it got dark just as I reached Ibstone and came to the first part of the route that was completely new to me. Somewhat disturbingly, it took me literally only a few hundred yards of the new part of the route to get lost. I’m not quite sure how I did it, as I didn’t see any turnings from the path.
At the start of the race Lindley had attached GPS trackers to all of our packs. At the time I’d hadn’t really given them that much thought, but I now realised what an awesome idea they were (I’d definitely recommend them for every race where getting lost is a significant possibility). Lindley and Chris were both able to follow me on their phones, and so I was able to call them so that they could talk me through which direction to take to get back on track. Fabulous. With not too much time lost, I was met on the outskirts of Stokenchurch by Chris and Nic who ran the last few hundred metres to the checkpoint with me.
Leg 5: Stokenchurch to Little Hampden
Despite the slight detour after Ibstone, leg 4 had been another good one, and I was happy with how everything was going. Between Stokenchurch and Little Hampden, however, the wheels came off properly. My pacing schedule predicted that this leg should take me 2 ½ hours, but it ended up taking me six.
My first wrong turn was one of the most frustrating of the whole race. Just after crossing the road at Bledlow Ridge, the way markers seemed to point me a down a path that was so overgrown that it was actually impassable due to that classic combination of nettles and brambles. After scoping alternatives, and finding none, I tried to push my way through for about 5 metres through the nettle / bramble combo, getting stung and scratched from shoulders to feet. There was no sign of any let up, so I turned round and made my way back.
What was so frustrating was that I was standing by a way marker, and yet still couldn’t work out where I could possibly go. To make things worse I couldn’t get through to Lindley or Chris on their phones. It was now about 10:30pm. I didn’t want to worry Tracey, but I called her to see if she could find me on the GPS. She told me that I was no longer on the route, which didn’t make any sense, because I was standing by a way marker! What it took me far too long to realise is that the route must have been moved since the way marker had been put there.
I made my way back into the village, and went into the pub to ask the way, and they pointed my in a completely different direction to the one I’d been going in. Looking at the map now it looks like there’s a short section of the original route that has just fallen into disuse, requiring a left turn when you reach the road at Bledlow Ridge, before taking a right turn back on to the trail further down the road.
After being met by Chris and Nic in their car, I got lost again before Loosley Row. I made my third round of phone calls to get a GPS fix, and the inevitable happened just after I’d been set right: my phone ran out of battery. From that point onwards, the GPS would be no use to me, and I’d have to make my way on my own.
I did then have a decent couple of hours without getting lost (although I did walk into an electric fence trying to avoid some over friendly cows – ouch), until I reached Warren Wood, not long before the next checkpoint. I entered the wood at the right place, and my map said that I should be taking a path that stayed close to the left edge of the wood.
I set out on what I thought was the path, but was soon climbing over fallen tree after fallen tree. Worse, the path wasn’t sticking to the left edge of the wood, but was pushing me further and further into the main part of the wood. By the time I realised that I was definitely no longer on any kind of path, I could no longer see the edge of the wood.
Knowing I was lost, I decided just to try and find my way out of the wood, in order to avoid getting stuck in there all night. I headed to where I thought the left edge must be, and was lucky to come out to a trail which various markers on it. Although none of the markers were for the Chiltern Way, there were signs for the Icknield Way, which was marked on my map. I could see that the Icknield Way crossed the Chiltern Way somewhere in the area. The only problem was that I didn’t know where I was, and so didn’t know which direction I needed to be going in order to get back onto the route.
Obviously there were only two potential choices, so I chose one fairly at random. I ran on for a bit, trying to see if I could make out any of the features on my map. Then I stopped and got out my compass. Unfortunately, as I had no idea where I was, knowing which direction north was in didn’t really help very much.
It was now about 2:30am, and I had the same feeling that I had during when I got lost during the 2012 SDW100: that I could end up staying lost all night. But I kept trying different directions until, miraculously, I stumbled across a path with a Chiltern Way marker on it. Naturally I then chose to go the wrong way for a bit, but I hadn’t gone far before I turned around, and within 10 mins or so I came out at checkpoint 5.
Leg 6: Little Hampden to Studham
After the last leg, it was good to have a fairly uneventful one this time. The sun was up by the time I crossed the Grand Union Canal at Cow Roast, and Chris and Nic met me at various points along the way. By this time I was becoming increasingly monosyllabic, but there was some lovely countryside for them to enjoy, particularly going through the stunning beech woods in the Ashridge Estate. On another day, this would have been a complete joy. Early morning sunshine, broad soft trails, and herds of fallow deer running through the woods. But I was getting very tired and sore, and didn’t appreciate it as much as I should have at the time.
When Chris met me at Studham it was going to be the last time he’d see me for a while, as his son George was playing in a cricket final in a couple of hours. I felt pretty bushed, and wasn’t as chatty to the volunteer at the aid station as I should have been. I was perked up a bit by the sight of some chocolate Freddos, but was conscious of slurring my words slightly, possibly from dehydration. I’d planned on taking much less time between aid stations, and having to go 4-6 hours between the last couple of checkpoints on just a litre of water at a time was taking its toll.
Leg 7: Studham to Sharpenhoe Clappers
I spent most of this leg reflecting on three things: (i) the fact that I’d been slurring at the last checkpoint; (ii) the fact that I’d taken so many detours; and (iii) the fact that Tracey and the kids were looking like they were going to have to sacrifice their whole Sunday for my race.
Those three things all added up to increasingly negative thoughts, and by mid-way through the stage all I could think about was quitting. If I’d have had any battery left in my mobile, or any money in my pocket for a payphone, I may well have called Tracey and asked her to come and pick me up. I even thought about stopping at a pub and asking to use their phone so that I could quit. The race was a lot harder than I’d expected, and I didn’t feel like I was up to the challenge. I knew I was beaten, and just wanted to try and avoid disrupting everyone else’s day as little as possible.
I was nearly 11:30am when I approach the checkpoint where I’d decided to stop, and was met a little way before by Tracey, Oliver, and Madeleine. I felt really emotional, and knew they’d be disappointed when I told them I was going to quit. I told them I was done, and all three of them came straight back with “no you’re not”. As I was in full on quit mode though, I told them I couldn’t carry on because I was too dehydrated (there was no way they were going to ask me to carry on if they thought it was dangerous). They seemed to accept that, but apparently Oliver was still motioning behind my back that there was no way I was stopping.
Leg 8: Sharpenhoe Clappers to Peter’s Green
When I got to the checkpoint I told Lindley I was stopping, and gave him my dehydration excuse. Lindley, however, knows a thing or two about ultras, and realised that I was talking a pile of crap. There was nothing wrong with me physically, and I just needed to get my head right. He told me that there were only two of us left in the race, but that Glyn had been finding navigation even more difficult than me, and was going to struggle to make the cut off. Lindley was therefore relying on me to have at least one finisher, and he wasn’t going to let me stop. He said I had loads of time in the bag, and just needed to collect myself and crack on.
I sat down to change into a fresh pair of socks, and pulled myself together. I told Tracey and the kids that if I carried on then I wouldn’t be finishing until night time. It was obvious that they didn’t care about that, and just wanted to support me any way they could to get to the finish line. It completely changed my outlook, and my head clicked back into place.
Tracey had bought me some melon slices (my favourite snack for late in a race) and I scoffed them down, but they tasted really salty. Lindley told me that I was producing far too much salt (my face was completely caked), and that I needed to stop guzzling the s-caps that I always take to keep my electrolytes in balance.
After a bit of confusion about which way to go just after the checkpoint, I then ran a completely event-free leg. No getting lost, and everything felt nice and smooth. I did begin to get quite sleepy though, and there were points at which I felt that if I closed my eyes and relaxed, I could easily have fallen asleep on my feet.
Leg 9: Peter’s Green to Felden
It felt great to pick up the last set of maps. Once I was done with those, the race was over. I was feeling really positive after no getting lost in the last leg, and it was like the end was just around the corner.
I was feeling good about route finding after the last leg, and Chris said that from looking at the remaining maps he didn’t think there was much scope to go wrong. That seemed to good to be true, and it was. I got really confused just after Harpenbury Stables, when I was sure that I should be carrying straight on over Redbourn Golf Course when I got to the road. I stopped at someone’s house to ask, but they weren’t sure, so after 10 mins or so of dithering I set off across the golf course before realising that the path was veering off in the wrong direction. Eventually some walkers were able to tell me that the direction I needed was 90 degrees off to the right, which suggested that my decision making was now pretty shot.
The route after that went over several ploughed fields with no discernible path, which was slow going. The ground was too broken to run and, again, I felt like I could easily fall asleep on my feet if I let myself.
After crossing the M1 the route went along the A5 for a while, and I was met by Chris for a short uphill section into Flamsted, where Tracey and Diane and the kids were waiting with lots of goodies in the Churchyard. It was a great moment. I was now only a few miles from the end, and everyone seemed to have been having a lot of fun supporting me along the way. The kids were now all kitted out in the same Stort 30 t-shirts that the checkpoint volunteers were wearing, that Lindley had really kindly given to them. They were definitely feeling like part of the Challenge Running team. Even the news that Arsenal had been held at Leicester didn’t dampen the atmosphere.
Soon after Flamsted I got distracted by some frisky cows and managed to lose my bearings around Oaken Grove. After trying a few different directions I ended up in the middle of a ploughed field looking vacantly about when, luckily, a nice bloke with a dog on a quad bike drove over to me. After apologising for being on his land I asked if he knew where I was on the map, expecting the same blank look I’d been getting from most other people I’d asked over the course of the race. Luckily, the guy knew exactly where we were, and proceeded to point out where I was in relation to every single feature on the map. Result.
I was soon back on my way, and pushing hard to get to the outskirts of Hemel Hempstead before it got dark again (pushing hard is all relative – by this stage my running pace was probably slower than an ordinary walking pace). For the first time ever I’d been having hallucinations during the latter stages of the race. I’d heard about other runners hallucinating and hadn’t really understood what it would be like, but for me they happened in a really matter of fact way. I’d imagine that I saw a small fire by the side of the path, or that there was a way marker when there wasn’t one. The most vivid was when I was about to pass through a gate, and saw a young couple embracing at the side of the gate. They were holding each other close, and I decided not to give them my usual “hi there” as I ran past, as it looked like the moment was too personal. So I just ran past them, only to realise when I did so that they were actually a bush. Anyway, on the way down into Hemel Hempstead I had the hallucination which my crew found the most amusing when I finished, which was thinking that there was a small man (i.e. a child sized grown up) lying on his back in the middle of the path ahead of me. The hallucination was only momentary, and when it had passed I processed it fairly matter of factly, but it did make me realise that I needed to get to the end and get some sleep.
Chris met me at the bottom, and we had time to squeeze in one more wrong turn. We were at the bottom of the hill at 9pm, and it should have taken 15-20 mins to get from there to the end, but it was gone 9:45 when Lindley’s better half Maxine met us in a field to tell us that the end was only a few hundred yards away.
I’d begun to feel that, however close it seemed like I was getting to the end, I was never actually going to make it, and the relief was huge. As I ran the last few yards Lindley cranked out a bit of Eye of the Tiger on his stereo, and I was cheered in not just by my crew and the Challenge Running team, but by Glyn and Nikki who had both had to drop out earlier in the race (hugely appreciated, guys). In the end I was the only finisher and, after coming in second at the TP100 earlier in the year, it was my first ever race win. It’s still to be confirmed, but I think I may have also become the first person to complete the whole of the Chiltern Way in a single non-stop effort.
In the immediate aftermath I told Lindley that I couldn’t run next year’s race, as I’m going to be concentrating on the Centurion Grand Slam. Having given it a week’s thought, though, I think I can fit in both.
The Chiltern Way 200k is a monster. It’s not the distance that makes it tough, but the combination of distance, tricky route finding, and difficult terrain. Whilst lots of the route is runnable, there are plenty of sections that aren’t. Some sections are overgrown, and other sections have really awkward footing. For anyone who wants a really tough trail running challenge in this part of the country, I can’t think of a better race. It deserves to become an established part of the ultra calendar and, injury permitting, I’ll be back next year to give it another go.
This race was by far the hardest thing I’ve done. In the end I had been running for nearly 37 hours, which was 20 hours longer than my last 100 mile race, and a full 10 hours longer than I’d hoped to do here. Getting my head around those extra 10 hours would have broken me if it hadn’t been for the incredible support I had from my own crew, and from the guys at Challenge Running. It was a true team effort, and I wouldn’t have been able to finish on my own.