I saw a link for Deadwater Ultramarathon advertising that places had become available so I must have missed it the first time round. It's a 235 mile, 6 day stage race from the Scottish border to the Welsh border taking in 27,000 feet and running through Yorkshire, where I live, during the long stage. You have to carry all your food, clothes and sleeping bag with a drop bag after 3 days. The Beyond Marathon team will set up camp and provide hot and cold water. That is all.
This seems perfect, I've done the Big 3 UK Mountain Rounds - The Bob Graham, The Paddy Buckley and The Charlie Ramsay and I've been looking for something to fill the void that preparing for these has left. This links the three countries perfectly and would be a great way to conclude my long distance challenges. It has logistics to obsess over, unknown quantities to test and measure and it will push me outside my comfort zone as I've not done a race this long or a multi day stage race before. I love attention to detail and this race seems to demand it in order just to finish. In fact I'm reasonably sure that finishing numbers may be so small that to finish it will be to do well. The deal is sealed when I outline the race to Sally who says "Well you have to enter, go for it".
I look at the details, the stage lengths, the elevation, camp locations, kit lists. This is great, so much to work out! I use the rest of the year to try out every combination of kit and rucksack I can when running with others in the mountains or in my daily morning hill reps. I adjust my mileage and weekly climb to greater than ever before, embracing the tiredness of the gradual build and then resting before building again. I go to weekly track sessions with the Greenhead Monsters at Keighley track and add in weekly Sufferfest training which includes indoor training rides, yoga and mental preparation techniques.
I count down to the race, I've gradually narrowed my focus to the basics and the race day is getting closer. I love it. And then 3 weeks out my father dies suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart attack. He's gone. I can barely function let alone think about the race; with the funeral to organise and work to tie up it's all I can do to get through the immediate days. The funeral is the Monday before the race starts on the Saturday. I do manage to do some running but I can barely run a couple of miles without bursting in to tears and walking before carrying on. I do a couple of Pennine Way loops of the route from my house, at least I'll be rested. We drive up on the Friday - me, Sally, Louis and Rupert.
Registration and kit check are relaxed but throrough and I find out there will only be 18 people on the start line. 60 applied, 45 met the criteria and only 18 have made the start line - it seems getting even this far is tough. I meet the other runners and we chat the small talk of strangers that will develop over the week in to the banter of great friends. I'm not a social animal (that's a bit of an understatement - stop laughing Sally) but we all have this crazy dream in common and that's a great start. There is a great blend of experience from multi day stage races to hard as nails triathlons. On the drive up I found the group created for the race. On the way up! It's been there a while and I read of reccies and conversations about bag weights. Mine's about 7kg, I've deliberately got a lot of food as I think this will come down to calories at the end of the week. Someone has posted that there's is 4 kg and I try not to think about this. There's nothing I can cut or would want to and I've worked hard to get it this light! My running club christened me Arctic John because I always wear an extra layer to everyone else. I have worked hard to only pack clothes I will need and wear. That's all.
There's a bit of a dearth of information about what to pack and how for races such as this and I've watched Elizabet Barnes on Youtube show how she packs her bag about twenty times! I have my running gear - Innov8 lycra shorts, Ininji socks + thin over socks (plus a spare pair of both), Helly Henson short sleeved base layer, Bingley Harriers club vest, arm guards, Ronhill windproof gloves, merino buff (my dad's) and a merino beanie. To keep me dry I have my Haglofs Gram waterproof - fast and light is the tagline but it's robust and waterproof and well tested by me in mountainous conditions so should do over my running gear to keep me sorted. For the evening (and sleeping in) I have my Ronhill leggings, Helly long sleeved and Mountain Equipment winter jacket. I have a silk sleeping bag liner and a Cotswold Outdoor cheap, lightweight bag that packs up small. This and my evening clothes go in an Exped dry bag for the day and this squashes down to provide pack padding which means I can pack my race food in the rucksack away from my back. My race food has come from My Race Kit, with some additions by me, as has my personal admin and medical kit which all go in an extra small drybag. I'll be running with my favourite OMM rucksack - the 20 litre Adventure Light and in Innov8 Roclites for days 1 - 4 and my Asics road shoes for days 5 and 6. There's a few other odds and ends including my Garmin Etrex30 with 1:50 base map and the GPX files loaded and my sandals which are lightweight but robust, something I think will be needed if we get the usual UK Summer conditions.
Lots going on. Family. Details. Emotions. Training. Planning.
Once you set off, of course, you're very much on your own and everything becomes much simpler.
The start. We are driven to the start line and given a final race briefing by Richard the Race Director. We turn our trackers on. We line up. We set off. I chat to Jo about running and Richard and Tim race past. I look at them going by at about my 10k pace and make the very hard decision to let them go. It's a long way 235 miles. Five minutes later and we see them running back towards us having taken a wrong turn, or rather carrying on instead of taking the right turn! They zoom off again at speed. We run through where we camped overnight and there are the boys and Sally with cowbells cheering us on. It's lovely to see them and the sun is out. Ten minutes later it starts raining and we form a small group of four with Hayley and Anna and the miles tick by at a steady pace. We catch couple of people who we didn't think were in front of us and move onwards.
The way is marked by actual bananas - I say actual bananas because in the race briefing when Richard mentioned bananas I did think he meant giant inflatable bananas of the Manchester City circa 1990's type. But no it's actual bananas on the floor or hanging from trees by bits of string showing us the way. Of course they are. We see Steve the event videographer a couple of times and wave - he will become a familiar and welcome sight as the week progresses. I drop my map faffing with my bag and Darren passes me it back, then he finds Richard's waterproofs which he's dropped while faffing with his bag. I ask him if this usually happens and he laughs and says his wife usually says he walks around with his eyes closed! We run together approaching the last checkpoint and he's good company.
At about mile 20, just after the last checkpoint of the day, Anna and I are a little ahead with only Tim still off in front. Anna says that apparently he's miles ahead. I ponder this for a bit and wonder if what I'm about to do is wise. I really want to go after him to minimise the time loss and I can't work out if I should be thinking like this on day one in a race format I've never done running against people I don't know. I don't want to catch him but just make sure he doesn't gain an hour today. I go over a few things in my head - it's raining, windy and still ten miles from the end of the stage. I've gone steady for the first twenty at conversational pace so in theory I should have plenty in the tank. Right - I'll gradually speed up and stay at a pace that's just higher than comfortable and see where that gets me. The rain gets heavier. The wind gets stronger. I set myself against it and manage to limit the loss to about 30 minutes.
I speak to Fiona, who is an event volunteer, about it at the first finish line although I think really I am just verbalising my own hopes. A quicker last ten miles after an easier first twenty shouldn't have done too much to make me tired this early on. I do feel tired but then I have just run thirty miles! I say first finish line bacuse we will be driven along the line of Hadrians wall to run the last mile in to camp. The route through the forest was blocked due to forestry work and there was no easy way to make it work any other way. It is one of many difficult decisions that Richard will have to make during the week to maintain the integrity of the race and keep it in line with his original vision. I wait for Anna with the clock stopped so we can both be ferried along together.
As we finish in camp this is the first test of my admin skills for stage racing. The routine will become a daily one and I manage to dial it in well. As soon as possible I shower, sort my clothes for drying somewhere and then eat - all within an hour of finishing. Then it's feet tucked in to my sleeping bag and stretching and resting before sorting my pack for the next day with running food and meals. The dehydrated wipes I have are amazing, as are the soap leaves and my Alpkit towel - it really is the little things that make the difference! The others come in at various times and we chat and meet now and then. Tents are chosen as people arrive and people who have run together camp together. Tim, Paul and Darren are a three who have travelled up together and done previous races. Anna, Hayley, Louise and Jo all share together. Then there's a mix of Charl, Richard, Paddy, Gaz, Dave, Ivan, Tony, Andy, Owen and me. Everyone will spend some time with everyone else over the week and as the bonds stengthen so we look out for each other more and more. Greg has had to pull out already after injuring his foot early on in the day but will become part of the event team with Janet.
Day One Official Race Video
Day 2 I find myself a little ahead going through the first field but I'm not pushing it so I see if I can stay away. The first section is flat along a railway and then it's on to the fells for a hilly end. The weather forecast says it's going to get worse later on so a part of getting away might mean I can benefit from the good weather on the tops. So it proves. I run along at a reasonable clip without pushing it - this is a whole new feeling for me. It's a bit odd really. I'm used to giving everything I have in one go, on carrying on until the challenge is completed, emptying myself and drawing on everything I have to get the run completed. This is different. It's a measured approach. Run just within yourself all the time, keep feeding (it's about every 40 miutes for me), keep ticking over, don't get in to the red for too long or for no reason. I realise I could win the stage if I stay away and there's a chance I could get in front overall. This makes me quite emotional and I think of my dad. He would have loved this. I decide that today is going to be about him. This sort of helps, in that I keep going at the same pace, and sort of doesn't because I keep bursting in to tears. I've lost my sunglasses as well now which is annoying.
I put a bit of work in to climbing Cross Fell and I have really quite pleasant conditions (sorry everyone, I didn't know how to share that with you earlier!). I arrive in camp and there's actually nobody there. Then Darren appears and takes my time. We look at the cloud and rain gathering on the tops and I start my routine - shower, food, sleeping bag, stretches. I've made enough time to have twenty minutes lead overall which I'm made up with and wonder if my mum would be ok with me posting it as a tribute to my dad. Then my mum sends me a message which tips me over the edge. "Well done on finishing first today, hope you can keep it up. Your Dad would have been so excited and following it all day long. I am more practical and cutting the grass! Proud of you, love Mum xx" That's me gone for a while.
Day Two Official Race Video
As people come in it's clear they have had conditions to deal with that were a significant challenge. Tim gives me a thimbs up and says "great run today" then disappears to his own tent. Hayley arrives and she has found my sunglasses - brilliant! The showers are a walk away and so are the toilets which is a bit of a pain. But it's the same for everyone. During the night I think I have poisened myself and have to dash to the toilet more than once. In the morning I am a little better but this Raspberry Granola is beginning to grate a little as well. I speak to David about it and he makes me think about the meal I had last night in terms of the gorgonzola in it. This is probably what messed with my stomach rather than there being anything wrong. I don't really like cheese and I suspect dairy disagrees with me. I can deal with that, this is a much better way of looking at it because I can move on. Unfortunately Louise is not to start today although she is dressed and ready to go and joins Jo in retiring from the race injured.
The briefing includes new instructions about a re-routing around flooding and a split stage with a grouping after part one and then a run to the camp at Horton in Ribblesdale for our drop bag treats. I process the information about grouping and realise if I get away in the first part of the stage then get grouped I would only have to stay with the people I was grouped with to keep the advantage and run at their pace. So I set off a little faster than comfortable again, although not much. After 2 miles I take my buff off and wrap it round my wrist. After 3 I realise it's gone and stop, stood still in the road with tears welling in my eyes. That was my dad's buff. It's a week to the day since his funeral and I've lost it. What do I do? If I go back it could be anywhere, someone may have picked it up, it might have blown away, I will lose the intial advantage I have worked to get. As the tears fall I think about what my dad would have said. That makes it a little easier to come to terms with it being gone. He would have said "Hey, no worries. Things are made to be used and if it gets lost or broken then so be it. As long as it's been used that's the important thing. Not kept just for keepings sake". I've probably only been stood for 30 seconds before I take one quick glance back just in case it has literally just fallen off before setting off again.
This time it's with a purpose. The river is run with determination to put time in to people now and it is a lovely riverbank trail path with flashes of sunlight through the trees. I push on to the checkpoint via some unexpected diversion arrows due to more flooding than expected which throws people following my tracker. It also means I electrocute myself crossing a fence when I miss seeing the stile and I shout out and then quickly check nobody has seen me be so stupid, chuckling at a silly mistake. I mention to Richard about the buff and he says he will look when he takes the diversion arrows down but I have made peace with it being gone and settle in to a rhythm to the end of the first section of the stage where I expect to be grouped. Except I am ahead by an amount that means it will be easier for the one person able to give lifts to take me until Richard gets there to ferry the others en masse. This means I will be running alone again for the end of the stage and need to keep up a good pace to maintain the gap gained. So be it.
I leave the car freezing after a 50 minute journey and have to run to warm up - once warm it's a lovely undulating downhill trail run in to the Horton campsite. The last 3 miles I swear I can smell pot noodle on the breeze! And there are Sally, Maria, Louis and rupert waiting to cheer me in to camp. Amazing.
Rupert tries to offer me popcorn and I back away! A quick chat to Sally and the children and then it's on with the routine. There's a washing line to dry my clothes, my drop bag which has a Bombay Bad Boy Pot Noodle as my treat and a couple of cans of gin and tonic. Perfect. I have the Pot Noodle and one drink immediately sat at the camp table. I know how to live! Others come in and I get a real boost from Ivan - I swap out my breakfast of granola in the morning for a chilli con carne. This really lifts my mood. I was not looking forward to the granola at all. In fact I may have left it anyway which would have been a bad move at the start of the long day.
Day Three Official Race Video
The long day.
This has loomed large in my mind since finding out about the event. It's only a little short of The Fellsman in terms of distance and climb. I like the Fellsman, it's one of my favourite races but I don't usually prepare for it by running 3 consecutive days of 30 miles plus! This is the day that has got me out of bed every day, that has driven my training and planning. The day that has called to me - this is my terrain, the route goes past my village, over moors where I have run other races, walked with my family, past where I work. It is often rough underfoot, boggy, indistinct, hilly, magnificent, dark and gloriously Yorskhire at it's finest.
I start harder than comfortable, harder than usual just to see what happens. I get a gap up Penyghent and it grows. There is clag on Fountains Fell and the forecast 'drizzle' at eight am comes in from six thirty as driving wind and rain. I glance back to see Tim and Richard starting the climb. I give a yell and a shout with a big grin on my face and leg it down the other side. This is brilliant. I don't know how the others will find the conditions but I love this. On and on to Gargrave then up and over towards Lothersdale. Richard resets my tracker so people can see it and seems bemused when I ask how far I am ahead. It does matter to me. I've decided to put it all out there today, this is probably the first time in my life I have thought there's a chance I could win a race while I was in it. I've only won one other, the Hardcastle 12 hour race a couple of years ago, and I only thought I could win that right at the end. This time I'm going to make this my day, no let ups, no excuses. I've trained for this day in this race since I entered. I've trained for it being the hardest race in the world and for the hardest day in the hardest race. Let's see what I've got.
Supporters above Lothersdale
Sally meets me with Louis and Rupert with my mate Jim and her Dad on his bike. I say meet but that would imply I stopped! I give high fives and crack on. It's a tricky balancing act between pushing hard and keeping eating but today I'm on it. Nothing can stop me. My foot hurts so I stop to loosen the laces on my shoes, taking out one of the cross lace patterns and allowing the shoe to expand. If this doesn't work then I may have to stop and walk. It works.
Hail, wind, thunder, lightning, torrential rain, burning sunshine (only briefly), floods, bogs, lost paths. They come and go and as I descend in to Hebden bridge there is only the climb up to Stoodly Pike to go before a run off to the campsite accross the moors and down. At the checkpoint Tom offers me officially sanctioned Pepsi and a treat. Which I decline. I appreciate the gesture and I'm not sure if I'm thinking straight or not but I've trained to do this race with what I've got. I open a pack of peanuts, mix a banana milkshake and carry on up the climb wondering if I will rue that decision. I don't. I arrive in camp in sunshine and know I've nailed this day. Yorkshire day. I've loved every challenging moment of it and give a loud cheer and punch the air. My favourite day of running bar none.
Day Four Officail Race Video
Even the cold shower afterwards can't dampen my enthusiasm and I'm over 3 hours ahead of the next group in. As I get some rest I look at the tracker and realise the challenges that the others are now facing. Ivan, Andy and Owen have retired on this stage after giving their all. At first light I get up to see Gaz come in after 24 hours and walk with Paddy for the last section of road and get him settled for a couple of hours sleep before the day five start. They will have a maximum of an hours sleep before having to manage 30 miles of canals to get to the next checkpoint having been on the go for 24 hours already. I shed a tear as Gaz slumps in his chair, broken but not defeated. There is no doubt in his mind about continuing at all. It's just working out the logistics to make it happen, he stayed with Andy to make sure he was ok then carried on throught he night. Paddy too entertains no thought that this is over, it's very much still on and I am a long way from my euphoria of yesterday. These guys have everything on show in their eyes - drive, determination, pain, courage. The long day has tested them to the limit and they have met that challenge and are preparing for the next. It is an amazing display to take the line for day five and one that will live long in my memory.
Canal Hell becomes just that - I try and run with a group but I've got a pace dialled in from trianing for this day and it is hard to run at someone elses pace. I want this day to be over as quickly as possible so I switch off the brain and move my legs in a relentless battle with the towpath. On and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on. This is a bad day. A very bad day. I am leading, but only because the desperation of spending one more minute than is neccesary on these towpaths is too much to bear. I pass Tony's Chippy and the smell makes my stomach long for fish and chips with curry sauce. There are more to come as I run through Manchester.
Through Manchester - sounding more chipper than I feel!
Andy Gibbons comes to meet me and run the last three miles in to camp. I persuade myself once off the canals that the road is uphill. Andy assures me that this is Cheshire and there's no uphill anywhere but I'm not having that! I see two children waving and wonder who they are waving at. Then I realise it's Jen with Jamie and Joshua. They are from round the corner but live over by us now and have come to wave me on for the last mile. I high five and it gives me a boost. Seeing people really makes a difference, running is such a mind game. I come in to camp and I realise I'm nearly done. Today was hard but that should see me finish and finish in the lead barring an accident tomorrow. I can't quite believe this.
Day Five Official Race Video
I think about it during my routine shower and feed. My feet are looking good, I have no injuries, I am feeling strong and the only blisters I have are from my flip flops on the top of my toes where the strap is! I didn't reccie walking in my flipflops, I make a mental note for next time then stop myself. What next time? This was to be the race that completed my long distance challenges but I really have enjoyed the whole eperience. I have spent much of the week running alone for long periods of time and I decide I would like to speak to actual people tomorrow rather than cows or fields, waterfalls or flowers.
Most people are tucked up in bed when I see on the tracker that Gaz and Paddy are approaching - they have been out for so long. I take my headtorch and walk out to meet them coming over the bridge. I see someone is walking in with Paddy a way back so go to Gaz. He is limping in, stepping in and out of the road and holding something in his hand. As I get closer I realise it's his shoe! When I ask him if there's anything I can do and why he's holding his shoe he says he just needs showing where to go and that his foot is hurting too much in his shoe but it's ok when he takes it off. I have no idea how long he's been going like this for but try and lift his spirits by talking to him about having a meal before going to bed and sorting out his mat and sleeping bag. He will get a nights sleep and then there's only the last stage to go. I guide him down then go back and walk in with Paddy who has had Janet go out to him. They both get a hot meal and I know Gaz will be ok when I leave him in his sleeping bag and say to him to not stay on his phone all night and he quips "No mum". He's been out for 42 hours without a significant break over some of the most challenging and variable terrain in the country and he can still crack a joke! I show Paddy to the showers and he requests an alarm call at 5:30 so he can get ready. These guys are incredible!
I sleep well and set off with Anna, Hayley and Tim, with Richard joining us later on, and we swap stories and life experiences while running the obstacle course that is the final stage. Over ditches, branches, fences and up hills, across golf courses and following roads. Running with Hayley it's clear she is in pain. She doesn't need us to help her finish but we can make it more bearable by talking to her about anything and everything and passing a change of food to break it up. (Honestly Hayley I wouldn't try that gel flavour again unless you've had a week of calorie depletion, you'll be disappointed!) My friend Richard comes out to meet me and it's when we see him in his clean running gear that we realise how dirty we must really be. We chat for a couple of miles and that gives me a real boost, seeing people always does. Which means Hayley must have been boosted beyond belief! It's like running with a local celebrity and at every turn people are there to cheer her on. I've no doubt that if I was ever down here again and needed anything I would only have to knock on any door and say I knew Hayley and I'd be sorted! Andy Gibbons comes out again to run in with us all and he chats to Hayley, keeping her going. I run with Tim for a bit and leave him to it - it means he won't be giving me motivational abuse for a while at least!
A feature of the week has been the boost strangers will give you when you say to them "We've run from Scotland". They are full of motivation, smiles, amazement and goodwill. Tim tries this on the way in to the final stretch and the man looks at the sky and then back at him and grumps " I see you brought the weather with you". We burst out laughing. Tony and Dave come flying past as we power walk in. Richard has given Hayley his poles, a real act of selflessness as he has a bad knee, and she started out tapping a strong rhythm to support her painful legs. Now it is being pounded out with grim determination - all the runners showing why they have been able to finish this hardest of races.
Approaching the finish line
Longer than a traditional stage race, no rest day after the long day and no shortened final day. Six continuous days of ultra marathons with a long day in the middle. We finish together. I can't really comprehend what we've done. This race is something else, Beyond Marathon indeed, and destined to become a classic. It is hard but if you train like it's the hardest thing you'll ever do and then some it can be done. I haven't done any other stage races for comparison but every day gave a deliberately different challenge that meant your body and mind were always being pulled and stretched in different directions. For me the goal was to finish but I've gone way beyond that - I actively enjoyed the whole challenge and came first overall. First. Overall. Me! The Beyond Marathon team of Richard Weremiuk (Race Director) Darren and Tom (Camp) Fiona, Janet and Greg (Volunteers) and Jonny and Su (Medics) you were Beyond Compare. Thank you so much for everything you did.
Day Six Official Race Video
Thank you to everyone involved in the race - Richard you pulled together a great team and it was magnificent. This will be the stage race by which all others are judged. It really is that good. Tracker watchers I thank you for your interest and thanks afterwards. I've obsessed over other people's trackers enough to know the emotional connection you can get to a number on a screen.
I hope you enjoyed the ride as much as I did!