|The finish line in front of Bath Abbey on the night before the race. On the way to my traditional curry and beer pre-race feast|
Suitably warned, we walked en masse up the road to the start line in the centre of the village, ready for the midday start. Immediately, things started to go wrong. My Suunto watch, which has performed flawlessly ever since I got it to replace my piece-of-shit Garmin Fenix, was refusing to lock onto satellites no matter how much I waved my wrist in the air. As I'd planned to use the watch to navigate as well as to monitor my progress, this threatened to throw me off my game. As a result, the first 4 or 5 kilometres were spent distracted and fiddling with the bloody thing, my heart rate getting way too high as I failed to attend to what I was doing and went too hard up the first big hill.
Eventually, Mr Suunto and I both calmed down, and I found myself running up grassy slopes to Broadway Tower, chatting with a runner called Craig and regularly leapfrogging a tall man with a ponytail. Craig and I blasted down the long slope to Broadway and I lost him as I jogged through the village, the milling tourists staring and smiling at the crowd of garishly dressed runners that had descended on their scone-shopping. The first few hours were great. The route ran up and down a lot of slopes, through woods and across fields. Never constant, and never boring, the path changes angle, camber and surface almost constantly. There were plenty of hands-on-knees power-hike uphills. I stuck to my plan of shovelling in lots of gels and Wagon Wheels (which are a superfood I discovered on the Oldham Way Ultra), and within 3 hours I was cruising past Hailes fruit farm, reflecting on how much things had changed - Hailes had been the end of a full day's walking when my friend and I hiked this route 12 years earlier! Up and down the slopes I ran, and somewhere around Cleeve Hill I found myself again near the man with the pony tail - who turned out to be called Jonathan - and another runner who was also called Ian.
|Up the first big slope, just ahead of Jonathan|
Refreshed and with our water bottles refilled, we set off again into the night. The gaps between the aid stations were long - perhaps too long. The big intervals made breaking the race into manageable chunks difficult - and, of course, it's exactly this sort of technique that most runners use to handle the immensity of an ultra. Ian started to find the going a bit tough after checkpoint 3, and it was with relief that we eventually made it to Painswick Rugby Club. This was the 48-mile point, and the only indoor checkpoint. Ian and I both said we'd take a reasonable break to fully sort ourselves out - there was a nice unspoken agreement in the air that said we'd both leave this checkpoint together. I took my shoes off and immediately began to eat like a bear rising from hibernation. I ripped the tops off a family pack of rice puddings and inhaled the lot in seconds. I then opened my throat and dropped down a string of liquorice allsorts, Snickers, Eccles cakes, jelly babies and - just possibly, given that I later found its lone sibling under my chair - a stray Drymax sock.
|Ian and Ian|
Around 30 minutes after arriving, Ian and I left the club and headed down a dark field to a strand of trees. Almost immediately, as we debated which path to take, we met a cheerful copper-haired woman from Cornwall called Emily, and the three of us fell into step. We trotted along an undulating trail through a long wooded section and then down to scuttle across an eerily quiet dual carriageway, chatting happily away the whole time. Emily proved to be lively and great running company.
A few minutes later, heading up a bramble-lined slope from Kings Stanley, we ran into a group of male runners. One of them had a tinny speaker blasting Oasis tunes from his backpack pocket. Not really wanting the beautiful stillness of the evening broken like this, the three of us kept trying to fall back and let the music boys get ahead. Except they never did. They kept surging away, leaving us in silence, only to slow to a walk a few moments later, at which point we'd catch up again. This kept on happening. Surge-slow-catchup. Surge-slow-catchup. Repeat over and over until reaching the Frocester Hill checkpoint at 58.5 miles. Here, at last, we realised what was going on. As I filled up on more rice pudding (this time with a massive dollop of jam - thank you checkpoint man!) we could see that one of the music boys was collapsed in a chair, thoroughly exhausted from the effort. He hadn't been able to keep up a run for any length of time, which explained the surging and slowing. (We didn't see him again, and I'm sure he must have dropped. His companions later flew past us in a flustered panic next to the Tyndale Monument, having misunderstood a message about cut-off times.)
As we left the Frocester Hill checkpoint, Emily, Ian and I picked up a new companion. Wearing a Vegan Runners vest, this man's name was John. John was great company and it was lovely to have him with us. From hereon in were were a foursome.
Alright, I'm just going to say this and get it over with: whoever planned the Cotswold Way is an evil bastard. There - I've said it. There is no other explanation for why the route goes over Cam Long Down when there's a perfectly good footpath that takes a much straighter AND FLATTER route towards Dursley. But oh no, we can't go that way because whoever it was decided to send us up the steepest, nastiest slope of the route so far. Ouch, is all I can say. And also: bollocks. My right IT band had started giving me intermittent pain - something I've never experienced before - and pointless and unnecessary slopes were not my favourite things right then. Incidentally, as I'm not going to mention it again, the IT band pain proved to be a weirdly temperamental and unpredictable thing for the rest of the run. I'd get sudden and terrible sharp pains on descents, forcing me to shout bad words and start running crablike. And then it would instantly clear up as though it was never there. At one point I went 40 km without feeling it, only for it to reappear out of the blue and leave me yelling "Fuckity fuck fuck!" into the night. Weird.
Anyway, the awfulness of Cam Long Down behind us, we trotted through Dursley after 2 AM. Late-night drinkers asked what we were doing and wished us well as we headed up the high street and thence up a desperately steep hill towards the golf course. Near the top, there was a rustling sound and a big hairy badger burst out of the undergrowth and stared at us, its eyes green in the reflected torchlight. Deciding we were no threat, it turned its back and trotted away up the slope. John and I were thrilled - I'd never seen one in the wild before.
As we took the long, awkward and dispiriting route around the golf course, listening to the screeches and hoots of owls all around as we ground up and down little slopes, Ian started suffering again. Over the next few hours he went from being cheery and talkative to a silent presence pounding out the miles at the back of the group. The rest of us all understood this. He was finding this run to be really hard and was just dealing with it in his own way, deep in his pain cave. Good for him for ploughing on like that. The guy's got guts.
I, on the other hand, was still - somehow - feeling brilliant. I genuinely didn't understand why I felt so good when the rest of the group were all showing signs of struggling, but there you have it. Firmly believing that the pendulum would soon swing the other way, I resolved to make the most of feeling good and tried my best to keep the others going through the night. I spent a lot of time running in the lead, pushing the pace slightly. I could have gone substantially quicker during this stretch - had I been alone, I would have run, or at least walk-ran, many of the stretches that we walked that night. The rest of the group picked up on this, and a few times people said I should run ahead if I wanted to. But I really didn't want to. I was enjoying their company. Moreover, I truly believed it would soon be my turn to have a bad spell. I'd never run this far before so didn't know what was going to happen. By keeping the group moving, and trying to be cheerful and encouraging for the others when they were low, I was doing my part now in order that somebody could do the same for me if I needed it later. We were now, as far as I was concerned, a team. We had become Team Badger.
I think a big part of the challenge of the Cotswold Way might be the way it refuses ever to let you get into a rhythm. It roller-coasters up and down slopes almost constantly. "I see you're almost getting comfortable hiking up that hill - time for some quad-busting downhill, boy! Just getting used to that cowfield with its painful camber, are you? Try this rocky slope. Oh you like the rocky slope do you? Too bad, it's just about to turn into a long woodland track that's not quite runnable and which makes you duck under a series of dangling thorns before landing you at the edge of a cornfield..." It was even worse at night, because then the Cotswold Way - which is obsessed with visiting viewpoints - finds more ways to taunt you. "Yes, you can see the next village a mile away, can't you? But not so fast! I'm going to make you run an 8-mile looping detour around a bunch of topographs and memorial benches from which you can't see anything because it's dark. Bwah-ha-ha!"
A pre-dawn snack at the Wotton-under-Edge checkpoint, where I was thrilled to see a helper wearing the woolly hat they gave us after the JW Ultra two weeks earlier. Then up, on stiffening legs, over lots more hills on narrow and rocky tracks. Finally, after 12 long long hours, the sun started to dawn on what proved to be a beautiful and surprisingly warm Sunday. As the sun rose, so did Ian, emerging from about six hours of silent focus to make a totally unexpected and funny joke. Naturally, the rest of us teased him mercilessly about needing six hours to come up with a punchline.
Well, all I can say is that, with eighty miles or more in our legs, those last miles were tough. We did manage to rally quite impressively between Tormarton and Cold Ashton, but then soon slowed down again. We walked a lot of what we'd have run on fresh legs. And there were stretches here where I started to feel like the slow one, trailing behind the rest of the group as we trotted across uneven fields.
The race had been, for a long time, extremely stretched out. Throughout this whole stage there was no feeling of chasing a runner in front, and nor did we feel chased down. With the exception of Carl Zalek, who appeared out of the blue near Tormarton and then blasted away towards Bath looking strong, we were in a bubble battling towards the end by ourselves and fighting nothing but the clock and our own inertia. I was, increasingly, finding it physically tough. My legs were heavy. But - and this might be the important thing - at no stage did my mind feel bad. I never once felt defeated or entertained the slightest thought of stopping. I take a lot of comfort from that even as I think back on how worn my body felt by the slow sapping attrition of the Cotswold hills.
And so, slowly and painfully, we approached Bath. John had his head down and was getting on with grinding out the miles like a champ. But Ian and Emily were both in a bit of a state at this point. Ian kept sitting down and saying he'd have to drop out at the last checkpoint; Emily was overheated and just couldn't cool down enough. Both were getting punch-drunk and not thinking straight, to the point I had to remind them to eat. I had a full bottle of water left and sprayed half of it over Emily's head. As a married man, I felt guilty making another woman moan in pleasure like that.
And so, together, we ground slowly to the final checkpoint, 99.5 miles in. Here, we found the beaming bundle of positivity that is Tim Lambert, who gave us great encouragement and made us feel like champions. He was able to tell Emily that she was definitely in line for the third woman place if we kept moving. Right, that was it - we had the longest, hardest 2.5 miles to go and couldn't wait around for somebody to steal Emily's podium spot. John and I bundled Ian out of the checkpoint before he could even think about dropping out and we got on with Phase 2 of "The Cotswold Way planner is a right bastard". The route crawled up and over a series of ridiculously steep slopes around Weston, and the only saving grace was that most of them had bannisters - Emily quickly showed us how much easier it was pulling ourselves up the slopes hand-over-hand, and we all followed her lead.
Knowing Bath well, I was able to offer some reassurance as we got closer. "That's the absolute last climb now", "From here it's less than a kilometre", "Turn right at the Circus and it's all downhill from there." As the final climbs disappeared behind us, Ian came awake again, once again emerging from 4 hours of almost total silence to make a really good joke. Now it had happened twice, we had to tease him all the more for it.
Finally, as we came down Quiet Street, I was able to say "We're just a hundred metres from the finish - let's really run from here!" And we did. Down Milsom street then left into the Abbey courtyard. We ran in side by side through the tourist crowds, claiming a four-way joint finishing position at 26 hours and 11 minutes. Since the night, it had been clear that we were running as a team - one for all and all for one. There was no way that race could have finished in any way other than the four of us crossing that line together. It hadn't always been pretty, and there had been some low moments, but we'd worked together and pulled one another through the bad times. My wife Sarah was waiting for us outside the Abbey doors and I fell into her arms with an enormous smile on my face and teary eyes. Emily was handed her third place woman award. Photos, medals, laughs.
|Team Badger at the finish. Photo: Nicola Dusterhoff|
|Checking Sarah's pictures at the end. Photo: Nicola Dusterhoff|