Editor’s notes…anyone reading this please bear in mind it is not mandatory to run 200 mile races to be a member of Wigan Harriers, please don’t let this put you off joining us! 😀
This years Ultra Great Britain took place on Saturday 19th August starting at 6am on Southport Promenade and after spending what seemed like a lifetime beforehand packing, re-packing, checking and re-checking my kit and dropbags, I was ready to line up with 75 other runners and set off on my way to Hull.
We had registered the previous evening to collect our race numbers and as is tradition with GB Ultras events, I was given my original UGB number 15 and this years new t-shirt before having our pre-race photos taken by Mick Hall’s team (all photos are pre-paid and free at this companies events).
This year’s registration was held in the Southport Theatre and Convention Centre and included guest presentations by Lim Nghee Huat (64 year old ultramarathon runner from Singapore who’s raised over $350,000 in the last 2 years), Brendan Rendall (ultra runner who ran the full length of Malawi to raise funds to build a school there), Neil Rutherford (UGB 2016 winner and experienced ultrarunner) and Tony Brammer (UK organiser of the 4deserts ultramarathon series which take place in the Sahara Desert, Atacama Desert, Gobi Desert and Antarctica).
Heading home after registration and having a late bite to eat, it was time to get as much sleep as possible before the 03:30 alarm to set off back to Southport again. As expected, sleep wasn’t great with everything running through my head ranging from how the race would progress, had I packed enough changes of clothes, would the weather be as bad as last year, how bad would my body be destroyed this time and would my hallucinations be as good as last year!
Arriving at Southport at 5am, I stood with Laura who’d kindly got up at 3:30 to bring me to the startline on a very windy Southport promenade. As I met some of my running friends from previous races and we talked about what was about to happen, I felt some arms around me. It was Mark Morgan-Hillam in his coat and bobble hat – he’d driven all the way from home to start to say hello and see everyone set off from the start. We were then issued with our race trackers which would be broadcasting our position live throughout the duration of the race. That was done quite efficiently and after the race briefing and official start line photos, the countdown began.
As the race horn sounded, the pack headed south down towards Liverpool directly into a strong headwind. While it was a dry start, this really affected the running and it was clear we were going to be looking at the prospect of playing ‘beat the hurricane’ during the race as the remnants of Hurricane Gert were due to hit the UK over the remainder of the weekend.
Checkpoint 1 was reached at 3.5 miles to quickly check things and top up on water and after a brief adjustment of my rucksack I was off again, now accompanied by other runners. Rachel Grant who I’d previously met at Hardcastle 24 in 2016 asked if she could stay with me and follow my plan for as long as possible. Happy to help out and support we headed onto the trail towards Liverpool meant the wind was now no longer directly in our faces and was a nice side/tailwind and whilst it was very cloudy, the rain had stayed in the distance.
To motivate us a little more, I put my mp3 player on and we were soon singing Christmas songs mixed with TV theme tunes, a bit of Ed Sheeran and even a remix of Whigfield and Kylie – anything that would be a distraction from what we were actually doing.
The rain (and very heavy it was too) finally hit around mile 17 but we were under the shelter of trees along ‘The Ralla’ near Aintree at this point so, with a tactical slowdown to a jog, we remained under the trees until it passed and thankfully missed it. By this point, we had passed checkpoint 2 manned by Tracey Dutton and Kerry Walmsley and taken on a couple of jaffa cakes, banana and fluid before cracking on again. A quick check of my race plan showed that everything was on track so far.
Having been dropped off in Southport by Laura earlier that morning, she had then gone home to get some sleep before heading out again to pick her friend up from Liverpool Airport and about 09:20, I got a message saying she was trying to follow my ‘blob’ on the tracker and come and find me. Luckily at this point, I’d reached Sainsbury’s in Broadgreen so a quick diversion inside for a toilet break meant that when we came out, Laura had finally found us. It was nice to see a friendly couple of faces for real as well as the mass support online via facebook and messages I’d had during the morning already.
With lessons learned from last years race, I checked my feet at this point and decided they needed to be cooled down. Sitting on the floor in a supermarket carpark in deepest Liverpool with two bags of talc didn’t look suspicious at all but as I dipped my feet into each bag, the cooling sensation I felt was just what was needed after 21 miles.
Having said our goodbyes, we carried on down towards the next checkpoint at Halewood and spending a short amount of time there, ran on to Checkpoint 4 at Hale Village Hall. Here, the checkpoint was filled with a huge range of treats supplied by Jemma Coleman who’d even labelled up special bags for individual runners. Eamonn Brady made me a coffee and I talced up again while eating some Kola Kubes. Ahead of schedule, we left the checkpoint and trekked on down to the next checkpoint at Spike Island in Widnes, just after the Runcorn Widnes bridge. This part of the course remained almost pancake flat with the exception of a set of steps which led to alongside some sort of chemical factory and as we slowed to a jog up the steep steps, it gave us chance to savour some wild blackberries growing alongside – such a nice taste to hit the mouth after 30 or so miles!
With us just about to leave Spike Island, fellow club runners June White and Lisa Heyes appeared with some home made flapjacks and a flask of coffee. A quick drink and wth a couple of pieces of flapjack stowed safely in my rucksack and we were off down the St Helens canal which runs alongside Fiddlers Ferry. Anyone who’s ever run this section knows how monotonous this can be with a heavily clogged-up canal of weeds on one side and a never ending flaky gas pipe on the other – hardly something to stimulate the mind!
Lisa and June turned back after 5 miles and from this point on, progressing through the next 3 checkpoints was relatively uneventful – regular pauses to check feet and apply talc, take on little bites of food at checkpoints and spending no more than 10 minutes at each one before setting off again.
As we approached Checkpoint 8, Rachel was starting to feel the effects of foot pain and blisters but with the encouragement of the prospect of hot pasta ahead (the first hot meal since the night before), we pushed on along the banks of the River Mersey and reached Didsbury around 9:30 pm.
Ian Stewart and Kevin Rex were waiting for us here and as I changed my footwear to trail shoes, talced my feet, changed t-shirt and wolfed down some food and TrueStart coffee, Rachel realised that her feet had taken a battering and started to apply tape and compeed. Surprisingly my feet at this point were in amazing condition to last year with only one small blister which I’d dealt with earlier in the day.
Accompanied by Kevin and Ian, we set off in darkness with the prospect of 18 miles of trail and hill climbing to reach the next checkpoint at mile 81 in Broadbottom. My plan was to arrive there at around 0330 on Sunday morning but as we climbed steadily through Stockport and Reddish Vale, it was clear that a combination of fatigue, pain, Rachel’s injuries and the battle to convince our heads we needed to stay awake instead of sleep meant the game plan got scrapped. Rachel was struggling and I changed my aim to get her to her furthest ever distance run and convince her that this point was not the point to be DNF’ing. I knew it would mean that my finishing position and time wasn’t going to be what I had aspired to but knowing that I felt in good condition still, had no injuries and knew what was coming ahead, decided that helping getting someone else to the finish and achieve.
Super-support crew Laura turned up at Stockport just by the pyramid having earlier been to a concert with her friend and surprised us by parking up by a billboard next to a disused pub (the same pub where last year in torrential rain, Kev had almost got beaten up by just asking to use the toilet – a scouser in Manchester isn’t a great combination at 1am in the morning!). A brief top-up of water and a short motivational chat and we were off again.
By the final couple of miles approaching the checkpoint, it was a battle to keep spirits up and Rachel was determined to pull out at mile 81. She’d gone further than she’d ever done before but the pain she was in was getting worse. Having worked out a new plan in my head, I convinced her to tape and treat her feet up at the checkpoint, get some food, try and sleep for an hour or so and then decide how she felt.
Ian and Kevin were the same absolute stars as last year and thankfully there were no 3am meltdowns from me this year through not being able to see the road in front of me in heavy rain but these were instead replaced by literally falling asleep running on regular occasions. On one occasion, I woke up on the other side of a two-lane road near a barbed wire fence. Kev was oblivious to this as his head was buried deep in his phone (either updating facebook or tracking other runners blobs!)
After Ian and Kevin had headed home, a couple of pieces of toast were downed along with a sweet tea and sleep was attempted. It’s not the greatest quality sleep either lying on two plastic school chairs or on a gym mat but it was a power nap regardless. At around 7 am, Rachel was feeling a little more positive and we decided to head out and set ourselves a short target of 22 miles and aim to reach Penistone (mile 103) by a target of 4pm before having a proper rest.
Sunday was a hot day compared to the previous day and even by early morning, the heat and humidity had sapped our recently re-stocked energy levels. As we reached the top of the Pennines at Woodhead Pass, we took advantage of the fully closed road to once again check our feet, apply talc and let them cool down. What wasn’t expected was the ‘falling asleep on a rock’ part of this routine – I had just closed my eyes while letting my feet cool down and woke as another couple of runners came and joined us.
Two had now become 4, and we took on some water before heading down through Dunford Bridge and along the tarmac trail into Penistone. At this point, all my energy had gone and it was a case of staying awake between each 1km positioned bench before stopping, regrouping and moving on again. About 3 miles away from the checkpoint, Rachel needed an impromptu toilet stop and as she went to find a bush, I sat on a piece of concrete on a bridge. This became the most comfiest piece of concrete so far and I once again fell asleep – sat upright!
Rachel returned after an unsuccessful expedition and woke me. We trudged along now with the sun beating down and our bodies feeling like that point when you’re driving in your car playing petrol roulette – with your petrol light having been on forever, wondering at which point you’re going to stall. Looking ahead there were some small fat, long-necked birds which in my dubious mental state looked very much like Velociraptors! As we got closer and they moved out the way it was clear that we hadn’t been transported into Yorkshire’s version of Jurassic Park but these were in fact grouse or partridges (or something similar).
Shortly after our prehistoric vision, June White appeared with her dog Barney and stayed with us on our final stretch to the checkpoint. Supported (literally) arm in arm, we got closer until the point when I thought I was having yet another hallucination. Thankfully, it really was Darren Finnegan coming towards me and not some sort of crazy daytime nightmare! Seeing Darren overloaded the emotions and after pulling myself together I told him that I had enough. I’d got Rachel to 103 miles, I’d done the race last year and had nothing to prove and had literally nothing left. Darren reasoned with me and the fact that the strong headwind would have sapped my resources early on in the race and I wasn’t to let the chimp beat me down! After having to withdraw from the race at mile 26 due to injuries sustained at Lakeland 50 a couple of weeks earlier, it was such a nice gesture for Darren to drive out and come and support the other runners and he was a welcome face to many of us.
Darren changed my mindset and with only a mile to go, I had turned my head around and agreed with his suggestion to get some proper rest and set off to cover miles 103-143 early next morning. Before I could get that opportunity, I saw a runner coming towards me in the distance at full pelt. Thinking ‘this person must be out for a nice Sunday run’ I started to move to the side but then realised as my eyes focussed once again that it was Laura who’d also driven out to Penistone to surprise me. What a surprise and a huge motivation that was as I got the biggest hug and almost collapsed on the floor. She helped me up the steps (yes steps at mile 103 – what cruel Race Director makes you climb steps to a checkpoint!) into the village hall and I sat down. Darren tended to my feet (brave man) as Jemma brought me coffee and a couple of slices of pizza. A further surprise then followed – not only had Laura come out to surprise us, but she had her car loaded up and out came a huge cool box containing homemade ham & cheese sandwiches, pork pies, red velvet cake, galaxy caramel cake, fresh pineapple, minstrels, dinky deckers and water. This was a sight for some very sore, tired and foggy eyes!
After having sorted out my feet and refuelled, my mind was coming to its senses and I moved into a side-room to climb into my sleeping bag. It was now about 6pm and I said goodbye to Laura and Darren and we had decided our plan of action was to wake at 0300 and set off again at 0400. Sadly, my timing for resting meant that I just missed Paul Carter and Michelle Jones who’d also driven out to meet us at Penistone checkpoint.
Sleep wasn’t great. Too much noise from the main room combined with pain all over my body and sleeping once again on a gym mat meant I wasn’t as fully refreshed when Jemma came in and turned on the light. Coffee, cheese and tomato as a breakfast soon changed that and after a quick wash and brush of the teeth, change of clothes and armed with a pair of walking poles, I was ready for the off.
Rachel and I set off having said goodbyes to the amazing checkpoint team with our first checkpoint 26.5 miles away, one of the longest stints without a break on the whole route. We covered the first 4 miles pretty quickly but as dawn was breaking, so was Rachel’s achilles (or so she thought) and the intense pain meant frequent stops were necessary. Doncaster loomed and it was looking like 129 miles was her limit but we pressed on. Spurred on by facetime conversations with Laura and random discussions about snails kept the distractions away from the current problems. We were joined along this section by Paul Edwards who had set off after us that morning and despite getting lost a couple of times, caught us and joined us through the woodlands alongside the River Don. As we sat on a bench to treat the feet and let them cool down once again, we saw an otter in the river (funny how the littlest things stick in your head).
At the checkpoint in Bentley, although I was feeling sore, I still had only the one blister thankfully which hadn’t got any worse and was being held at bay by the Compeed. Others who were lay on the floor as we arrived weren’t in as good a state and the floor resembled an army field hospital with bodies strewn everywhere with various foot / leg injuries. As one runner was having his blisters drained by one of the checkpoint volunteers, I got access to my roller and started vigorously rolling out my aching quads – this seemed to work after about 30 mins and injected a new lease of life into them.
Feeling like Tigger but not smelling as fresh, it was time to head out. Jemma the checkpoint heroine had arrived here once again laden with Subway for me, Rachel and Paul who had joined us. With that to fuel us, it was onwards to mile 143 and the prospect of finally seeing Mark and Leanne Morgan-Hillam at Sykehouse (or Psycho House as it had been affectionately named last year). As we moved, our tracker had obviously notified Mark as he called me to let me know Keith West had just arrived there and they were bringing him down in the car so he could run the best part of the 13 or so miles.
About 3 miles in, we were nearly run off the road by Mark as we ran over a railway bridge but it was such a nice sight to see their happy faces and the fresh-legged Keith step out of the back seat. After a quick selfie, we were off and we made our way over railways and through the quaint villages to Sykehouse. Along this point disaster struck – my garmin watch battery had died and had not been recording my progress. Armed with numerous powerbanks for the duration of the course, I quickly plugged one into my watch and worked out that I’d only lost about 0.5 miles of the course. Not wanting to miss out any of the route on Strava and for it not to count, I did what any sane person would do 139 miles into an event – I ran back to the point of data loss and ran back again to catch up our newly increased merry (?) crew.
As darkness started to fall, it was time to endure one of the worst parts of the route – 4 miles of canal leading to Sykehouse. No cottages, no roads, no life, just canal. Oh and a few cows looking weirdly at us form the other side of the water – and a heron flying along (or maybe it was a pterodactyl?) What makes this canal so bad are the sprayed on number markers on the ground every 5 metres. They go on forever and ever, and ever.
Mood was low, the light was lower and it was now starting to drizzle. Every step was painful and as it approached 9:30pm, the checkpoint seemed like forever away. Thankfully it wasn’t and as we once again were greeted by the cowbell ringing Jemma, we stepped through the doors of Sykehouse Village Hall to be greeted with open arms and huge smiles from Mark and Leanne.
Hot food was served this time in the form of ravioli on toast with cheese and a cup of tea. Socks off once again and a check of the feet revealed no new blisters or injuries, just bruised feet from what was now 143 miles and 63 hours of being on them. Rachel however was a different story and her blisters had swelled, were bleeding and her feet were shot – her race was unfortunately over. She was distraught but it was the right decision as her injuries were too bad. Paul wasn’t in too great a shape either and with taped up toes and a strapped up knee, his progress was limited too. Nevertheless, he wanted to continue and was determined to finish and asked if I would stay with him as he had no depth perception due to reduced vision in one eye. I of course agreed and we made a plan to finish the race whatever it took – as Paul said ‘three eyes were better than one’ and on that note, we agreed to grab some sleep and set off at 3am.
Blearly eyed, I was woken by Mark at 3am and got changed again before making my way into the main part of the village hall. Paul was all ready to go and after loading up with water, saying goodbye to Rachel, I finally saw Julie Valentine for the first time since the start. She was continuing but setting off shortly after us so after a bit of a chat and a Harriers photo, I left with Paul to continue to the next checkpoint which was 27 miles away in Broadfleet.
It must have been raining very heavy overnight while we slept as there were huge puddles on the roads and as we dodged them and progressed through Snaith, I realised that we must have dodged the predicted back end of the hurricane. Another humid dawn turned into yet another hot day and after a brief stop at McDonalds after 13 miles in Goole for a coffee and another rollering session, we set off towards the River Humber. Conditions had been dry underfoot up to that point and at mile 165 I was STILL wearing the same socks that I had been wearing since the start – they had performed amazingly.
The long wet grass on the riverbanks soon changed that and my trainers were soaked through which meant that my socks and feet got wet too, bringing on the first of what would be 4 awkward blisters on my toes. A dip into my bag of talc and a change of socks minimised the damage and we were soon off the grass and back onto the road again, heading into the next checkpoint at mile 170. One of the Race Directors along with Jemma Coleman had run out a couple of miles to meet me and Paul and join us for the final stretch so we ran in with them in the now beating heat.
With just 30 miles remaining, our heads were in a good place now knowing the end was in sight even if our bodies weren’t feeling as strong. Paul’s feet were painful and he went to sleep on the floor with his legs raised at 90 degrees to reduce the blood flow to his feet. In the meantime, Jemma treated my feet with tape to try and prevent my toes from ripping open.
It was now about 4pm and our plan to reach Hornsea in time for last orders was looking in doubt! Just as we were leaving, Keith West appeared once again – he was on his way home from Hull and had checked the tracker to see where we were and so called in to see how we were. After a brief hello / goodbye we headed back along the riverbank to Brough and were on the lookout for the final checkpoint – the Humber Bridge.
The infamous Adam Gallimore was host to this checkpoint and greeted us in his unique style as we entered the checkpoint at about 6:30pm. One of my friends from East Hull Harriers had rung me earlier to wish me well and came out to meet us at the checkpoint. She was armed not only with Cadburys chocolate fingers, energy drinks and haribos but had been to McDonalds and turned up with a ¼ pounder meal and coffee for me and Paul – such a nice and well timed gesture. (It seems evening picnics under the Humber Bridge have become a regular thing after last years Dominos with Mark & Leanne!)
Fully fuelled up and with feet retaped, we set off towards Hull. Fear had descended on us as we’d be running (now very slowly and in a lot of pain) through the dockside area dressed inconspicuously with headtorch, watch, phone and backpack. Not a high-risk target at all! Fortunately, we made it through the delights of Spyvee Street and picked up the Trans Pennine Trail once again and headed in the pitch darkness to Hornsea.
Only 16 miles remained now and with only fields either side and trees surrounding the trail, this had the effect of making the trail look like we were constantly in a tunnel and that the ground was on a constant incline – even though it was flat. Our heads, body and hearts were mashed now but we were determined to finish.
5 miles remained and we saw a headlight coming towards us – we initially thought we were hallucinating but as the headlight got closer, I realised it was once again Laura who had driven the 130 miles to the finish line and then had run out to meet us to help get us to the end. She had come laden with sandwiches, water and protein bars and after an impromptu picnic at the side of the road (and both me and Paul falling asleep on the road for about 3 minutes), we were now re-focussed on getting to the end.
With the end in sight, I shook Paul’s hand and let him take the finish line first, his full-size Welsh flag held high above his shoulders as I held back a couple of hundred metres while he had his photos taken and received his medal.
It was then my turn to finish and I crossed the line at 03:38 on Wednesday morning – almost 94 hours after starting the race. Time and finishing position wasn’t important to me this time after last years achievement of finishing 4th, I’d achieved my aim of helping Paul realise his achievement of completing the race, battered, bruised and unable to do anything more than hobble but at least we did it.
Not the race in terms of time or position that I wanted but sometimes, it’s about sacrificing your own personal goals and supporting others. To me, I achieved more satisfaction this year in helping Rachel achieve her first ever 100 mile and 200km distance and Paul complete the race which he said he wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.
Recovery has been slower than last year, probably due to the increased bruising and pounding on the body but on reflection I loved the race. The organisation and support from the GB Ultras Race Directors is second to none and you’re made to feel that your race is personal and not just a race number or chip. The checkpoint volunteers were fantastic and were outstanding in the help the provided to every runner whether they were the first through or the final finisher.
Ian has been raising money for UK Sepsis Trust.
Next year the UGB race moves to Scotland and as well as the distance extending to 214 miles, the ascent increases from 6600ft to over 21000ft with only 8 checkpoints along the distance.
Will I be there? Of course I will!
Final Editor note: Big congratulations to Ian for completing this epic event again and to first timer Julie Valentine. You should both be very proud.