The Monarchs Way race was a new event put on by Lindley Chambers of Challenge Running. The event was designed as a continuous (i.e. the clock doesn’t stop until the finish) run of 615 miles covering the Monarchs Way (following an approximation of the route taken by King Charles II when fleeing from Cromwell) over 14 days with Checkpoints available once a day.
I had decided I would run for a charity associated with my workplace the Alexander Devine Childrens Hospice (www.justgiving.com/paulali2016) and I would like to thank everyone who sponsored or supported the run. We managed to raise around £1900 for charity and every penny helps.
The continuous nature of the race meant that competitors had the option to cover the minimum distance per day or more if they wished.
In running terms an average mileage of 44 miles per day doesn’t seem that significant (a marathon, a half marathon and a 10k a day for 14 days). Practically, mandatory kit requirements, self-navigation, rural trails over multiple days with camping options each night at best meant I was under no illusions this was going to be a long hard slog and more of a hike than a run.
Despite grumbling about it at the time, I had run an ok time at the Thames Path 100 a few weeks earlier and then spent the next few weeks just ticking over and tapering. I wasn’t at peak fitness but was injury free.
I arrived Friday afternoon and met up with fellow competitors Allan Rumbles and Tim Welch. I’ve known Allan for a few years and he is an experienced runner having completed numerous long distance ultras although by his own admission he hadn’t trained as he would have liked for this event for personal reasons. Tim described himself as a ‘cut off chaser’ in a self-deprecating manner but is an experienced racer with more of a background (I believe) of multi-day stage races.
As we chatted over dinner with Race Director Lindley and supporting crew Maxine and Brian we knew this was a completely different proposition to anything we’ve tackled before and we were approaching this with a mindset of this being an adventure rather than a race. Strategy wise we were all quite open with our approaches which were all pretty flexible to be fair. We had all decided that we would probably not stop to sleep at the first Checkpoint and gain some miles going into Day 2. We all recognised that looking after your body, feet, eating well and getting some sleep were all key requirements to finishing this race. No one was being too bold.
My personal (and somewhat loose) plan was to try and complete 3 legs in 2 days buying me a day ahead of the cut offs and then settle into a leg a day and then possibly try and complete the last two shorter legs in one go at the end. So I was possibly looking at a 12 day finish but I had 2 days contingency if things went wrong. Not the most ambitious plan but something I was comfortable with. I also suspected that with just the three starters over such a distance then there would be little contact with the others although I was hoping to see them at Checkpoints.
Lindley had been promoting the race and had been in touch with the Monarchs Way walkers association who had shown some interest in the race and a couple of them were kind enough to turn up at the start of the race and see us off.
The start was surreal, very very low key (as expected) and I didn’t feel any emotion at all. There was no excitement, anticipation, nervousness or fear I commented to Tim that I just felt.. empty.
We set out at 10am in good weather (I had a new hat.. which looked suspiciously like the old hat) and the three of us trotted 100 yards for the cameras across the field before settling into a hike for a couple of miles, generally chatting and settling into the race. I managed to record my slowest ever mile for the first mile of any race with a 15m/m to start with. For a race of this size, if I kept up that pace I would be delighted.
After a couple of miles through a few fields we headed onto the paths into Worcester. I wanted to do a bit of running and bid my best wishes to Allan and Tim as I plodded on by myself. The guys were content to hike a bit more and I left them to their own devices.
I spent the first day, running, hiking and walking by myself until I was due to meet Lindley at Checkpoint 1. Lindley had organised 3 cars with 3 crew (Lindley, Maxine & Brian) to ensure each runner would be met. Each car had a tent, sleeping mat, food and supplies and each crew was assigned to a different runner so they also carried out drop bags. For the first few days the crew were likely to setup and move along together but with race spread then they would all be self sufficient over the next week or so. If the race had bigger numbers then there are options for hiring camper vans and bigger setups but this arrangement worked fine for the few of us.
The Monarchs Way is not designated as a national trail and therefore is not as well maintained as other trails you may all be familiar with. This resulted in trekking up and down through lots of fields, finding the rights of way, getting caught by lots of overgrown bushes and enduring many many stingy nettles. We were provided with maps but each of was carrying a handheld GPS device and I would suggest (in my inexpert opinion) that unless you were a skilled navigator then it would be difficult to successfully navigate the route without incurring some bonus miles particularly during the night where there are some precise routes and paths to be found.
The route was also fairly unforgiving on the feet. Overgrown grass which was shaded was often wet and a lot of the ground was firm and rutted which meant my feet took a pounding and I alternated between getting wet from the ground conditions, then drying and then getting wet again over and over despite the decent weather. I’m not sure what the correct footwear choice is here.. probably hiking boots. I had brought 4 pairs of shoes with me, 2 road pairs and 2 trail pairs and was going to alternate between them depending upon the conditions. As this leg took me through Worcester and along Canal Paths for a decent stretch I went with the Hoka Conquest 2 to start.
My navigation skills are untested, I’ve run a few LDWA events and taken part in a few hiking events but generally participate in events on marked and national trail designated routes. I did elect to brush up on my skills and took part in a 1 day course organised by Lindley which was well received although I had elected to rely on a handheld GPS device as my primary form of navigation for confidence and speed with map-reading a contingency plan.
I was navigating on a budget with an eTrex 20 device, loaded with open source type maps and a GPX route of the course and this generally worked really well. I didn’t have to check my maps once during this leg. The Monarchs Way association have also taken it upon themselves to mark the route as best they can with signs and stickers and I saw plenty of these along the route.
However, it wasn’t perfect. I made a few small micro navigation errors (i.e. picking the wrong side of a bush) or not spotting or being able to see the exit gate in a field, or some areas being overgrown so a path was difficult to spot but most of this was corrected within 50-100 yards as the device could show me when I was off-course. However, the GPX route was not completely accurate despite Lindleys best preparation (his planned recce of the route was cut short due to injury) and there a few occasions when there was no visible path according to the GPX so a little bit of back-tracking was required to ensure I picked out the correct route. I was conscious of one or two errors particularly one by a fishing area but I stumbled across a toilet at the right time so that wasn’t an issue! Overall, the GPX route was 40 miles for the first day and Lindley expected a bit more with small twists and turns in the route and I came in under 42 miles so pretty good effort overall.
I had know from the start that I wouldn’t be running all of this and made steady progress throughout the day with a walk, run strategy. I stopped briefly at a Tea Room around 2pm for a bottle of coke and a cake and I also munched through a few of my own supplies before carrying on. I was conscious of carrying a tracker and texted Lindley to say I had stopped briefly for lunch.
I continued on in the afternoon in fine weather and enjoyed the last long section along a flat Canal Path which allowed a bit of running. I arrived at the Navigation Inn early evening and met all of the crew there where I stopped to have some food, rest briefly, change my socks, trainers (to a dry pair) and re-taped the feet, topped up some supplies before heading out for Leg 2. I switched to the Hoka Speedgoat which were a little looser than the Conquest and gave my feet some breathing space as they were feeling a little sore and I could feel some hot spots largely caused by the constant soaking of the feet due to the undergrowth.
Checkpoint 1 stop (Photo Lindley Chambers)
Allan and Tim were a couple of hours behind and were reported as having a merry old time with numerous ice-cream breaks and witty banter being shared between them.
Aside from some expected stiffness in the legs and feet then I felt pretty good and ran a few miles along the Canal Path. The next leg was 46 miles long and I had planned to try and cover perhaps half the distance before bivvying out for a few hours. I was definitely planning on sleeping every night and didn’t want to suffer in that sleep deprived state. Chatting with Lindley, I realised I would actually pass Checkpoint 2 before completing a loop and then returning to the Checkpoint officially. Lindley was going to set up Checkpoint 2 a few hours after I left and it made sense that I would stop here and sleep under supervision before completing the loop the next day and making the Checkpoint officially if that makes sense.
It took me longer than expected to complete this next section and I was relieved that I met Lindley after 17 miles just after midnight. He had a tent setup and I put some drying sleeping clothes on and crashed out for a couple of hours and was awoken in the early hours as I heard Allan arrive and press on with Tim a short distance behind.
I got up, changed and had some breakfast and saw Tim pass through before heading out 10 minutes after him. I ran a few miles and caught up with Tim and we walked together briefly and chatted before I headed on. I found this section pretty difficult (and this was confirmed by Tim and Allan when we spoke later) with more rutted fields, overgrown paths which was pretty unforgiving on the feet. Navigation wise this loop was a little more difficult than the first aswell. I had one particular issue near a golf course where for the life of me I couldn’t find the right path and then had to walk all around the edges of the golf course before finding the path again. This was the section which took its toll on my feet and legs and there was little running but more hiking. I arrived back at Checkpoint 2 officially around 2pm. Allan had arrived half an hour earlier and was having a kip (as he hadn’t slept the night before). I had a huge portion of beans, sausages and bacon (which went down very well), had a brief doze, organised my gear and set out. I should offer a thank you aswell to Boscobel House for allowing us to setup the tents their and use the facilities.
Checkpoint 2 stop (Photo Lindley Chambers)
Tim had just arrived as I was about to leave and Allan was stirring so we all took the opportunity to compare notes and all agreed the last leg was hard going.
I left the next leg around 4pm with approximately 40 miles to complete which was later than I expected. I was hoping to get to the next Checkpoint and sleep most of the night but even at a hopeful 4mph pace then this would be a 2am arrival. If I was slower than this could easily be a night leg which I wanted to avoid so I forewarned Lindley I may bivvy down for an hour or two if necessary but would text (as agreed) if I did. As phone signals can be unreliable in more remote places I didn’t want anyone to worry unnecessarily.
I settled into a hike and ticked off a few miles but the pace was slower than expected. I had about 6 hours of light before it started to get dark. I passed through a few roads and villages and through the suburbs of Wolverhampton. My only real stops here was at a corner shop around 8-9pm where I bought a bottle of coke and an ice cream before moving on.
It was pitch back as I passed through the 1.5 length of Netherton Tunnel which ran underneath Wolverhampton and was flooded in places which meant more wet feet. I was making slow but steady progress but my knees (left in particular) was feeling increasingly uncomfortable.
I passed a pub with some late night revellers who saw the night hiker out and kindly started singing the Proclaimers 500 miles song… oh how right they were about the distance!
Looking at the time, I was caught in a situation where I wasn’t too far from the Checkpoint (10 miles at 2.5 – 3 hours at the pace I was travelling) but starting to feel very tired having only had a couple of hours sleep. Do I stay or do I go was the question I pondered as I stumbled around in a sleep deprived state. I started to imagine things. I know it’s all the rage these days to say you had hallucinations during the night leg of a race and at some level I was conscious it was just tricks of the mind but I thought I saw Lindley by his car a few times waiting to check up on me and various small creatures on the path infront of me. At one point I saw a few ducks in my way and tried to step over them to find my feet magically passing through them to realise it was just some shadow. Yes, I was pretty tired.
I settled into a habit of walking a few miles and then having a minute or two break to shut my eyes, rest my feet and legs and then go again. I was noticeably unsteady on my feet and my left knee would flex slightly as it didn’t like the weight.
In the early hours of the morning I had the first of my two incidents. I was passing through a cow field looking for the exit gate and right of way. Normally I find cows to be pretty docile but not this group of 20 or so. As I walked past them they started to congregate and walk towards me, I started to move a bit quicker and they started to trot. I shone my head torch in their faces to wave them away trying to defy them like some Priest with a Holy Symbol waving away a horde of Vampires but they started to circle me. I was feeling a little uncomfortable now and looked ahead to see a gate, I stumbled as fast as I could as the cows broke into a trot, vaulted the gate awkwardly and collapsed on the other side. Graceful it was not but I had made it! I then turned around with a bit of false bravado as the cows glared at me angrily (I did capture it on video but the footage was too dark to see)…. before realising I had gone over the wrong gate and I had to go back into the cow field and find the correct exit.
I was caught in a situation where I couldn’t use the same exit as the cows had effectively blocked it barring trying to push them out the way which didn’t seem a good idea.
I followed the edge of the field to see if there was another gate (there wasn’t) but worked out the direction I had to go in. The barbed wire fence didn’t look like it would support my weight and with a wobbly knee then I wasn’t confident of climbing over this without some injury and so I elected to go into stealth mode. I turned off my head torch, removed my backpack and gently slide underneath the barbed wire, retrieved my gear and tiptoed out of the field picking up the correct route before switching on my head torch after I had put sufficient distance between me and the angry cows.
I continued trekking through the night in increasing discomfort and found myself walking a few miles and then having to pause for a break through tiredness and stiffness. I wasn’t too far away from the next CP and decided to press on and sleep in relevant comfort there. I realised I had lost one of my gloves after the cow incidents but thankfully Tim picked this up a few hours later (thanks Tim).
I thought my brush with danger was over for the night as I followed a trail through a wooded area and I was confronted by two large badgers (actually much bigger than I had expected) standing in my path.
We must have startled each other as they started making some grotesque snarling sound and I didn’t really have any time to think but just reacted by flashing my head torch at them to scare them away which didn’t work as they both then started to charge me! Once again, it was reaction not thinking time and with no time to grab anything or run, I shouted as loudly as I could at them to scare them off and was readying the right foot to give the onward charging badger a swift boot in self-defence if he came for me but thankfully they both scurried narrowly past me and physical contact was avoided. That was my chance to head on down the path and I moved on as quickly as I could in the opposite direction. I assume I must have stumbled near a den or something or perhaps they didn’t like my smell after 30+ hours of hiking.
Checkpoint 3 stop (Photo Lindley Chambers)
I managed limp into Checkpoint 3 around 4am. Lindley was waiting for me and organised some hot food before I crashed out for a couple of hours. I woke at 6am to find that I could hardly move my legs, both knees were sore (the left was worse) and my feet were feeling battered. Deep down I knew I would struggle from here but I had to at least try and continue. I had put a lot of time and effort (and money) into getting here, had the pressure of charity fund-raising on the mind and couldn’t give in too easily.
Brian escorted me to the toilets as I shuffled there and I then returned had some breakfast, changed into my running gear, attended my feet and then set off for the next leg.
I was hoping that by starting to walk this would loosen the muscles and reduce the stiffness and after a slow first mile I thought the discomfort was bearable. I felt I had completed the ‘little push at the start’ of the race in my head by making a day up and was planning on doing 1 leg a day and then having a good amount of rest each night from that point with the possibility of a double leg at the end to finish this off.
I followed the route up and down a couple of hills, into a farmyard where I couldnt spot the right exit and the farmer kindly pointed me in the direction of a path which actually wasn’t the one I wanted. However, I managed to get back on track but the pace was slowing, and the left knee was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with some swelling and tenderness on the inside of the knee and odd twinges of pain. Occasionally the knee would flex and wobble as it was struggling with weight bearing.
I struggled on stop/start for a little while and then gave Lindley a call to explain the problem. He kindly drove out to meet me (I didn’t take him long as I hadn’t made that much progress from the start) and strapped my knees up with compression tape and gave me a set of poles to use which may assist by taking some of the weight of my knees. I decided to press on for an hour and see how it went. I’ve not used poles before and tried to get into a rhythm walking with them. I walked on for another 45 minutes or so but the pace was slowing to 2 mph and I was stop starting again in discomfort.
I had only made less than 5 miles in the 2.5 hours since I had left the Checkpoint. With 46 miles to be completed that day I was looking at least a 20 hour uncomfortable hike, limited sleep before repeating again for the next 10 days.
This just simply wasn’t going to happen and having only completed 135 miles in 48 hours I reluctantly made the call to Lindley to withdraw and arrange collection back to the Checkpoint. I was really disappointed to have to withdraw from the race particularly as this was my big event of the year.
I had put a lot of effort into preparing for the event and I had elected to do some fund raising as well and I had failed to deliver my end of the bargain. I also knew this was my one-shot at the event, taking this amount of time off (I had bought some extra holiday through work), childcare cover and cost means that it’s not something I can just enter on a whim each year. With a history of knee niggles then there’s a real risk that my body may not be able to handle an event of this nature.
So, I am sorry to say I failed. It is an incredibly challenging race, even if my knee had not been an issue then despite great care, my feet were pretty bashed (soreness and blistering) and I definitely needed to start getting more sleep, so whether or not I would have finished the event is still debatable if I’m honest.
Back at the Checkpoint, Allan and Tim had arrived and were having a sleep. Both guys were also suffering but were going to carry on. Unfortunately, Allan pulled out later that day due to bad blistering and Tim withdrew the next day I believe due to sleep deprivation resulting in slow progress so it was a 0% finish rate. Has there ever been an ultra-race (Barkley aside) with no finishers?
Therefore, the challenge has been set for runners in future years. There are plenty of better runners/ hikers than me so I firmly believe the event is do-able but it will still be a difficult challenge.
I would like to thank Lindley, Maxine and Brian for their sterling working supporting the three of us. There was a 1 to 1 ratio between runners and crew and they were also planning on being out on the route supporting for the entire period of the race so their efforts are very much appreciated.
To Allan and Tim, I’m not sure I can offer a well done as none of us completed the event but it was great to catch up and share some stories/banter before and during the event.
Finally, thank you to everyone who supported my efforts to raise some money for the Alexander Devine Children’s Hospice charity. This is the area that I feel the guiltiest about not completing the event especially when I’ve asked people to put their hands into their pocket. I’m really sorry I couldn’t continue and hope you don’t mind you donations going to this very worthy cause.
For anyone reading this blog and thinking about tackling this next year then here are a few thoughts to consider based on my (albeit limited) experience of the race. None of these were major issues at all but areas which could have been a lot more difficult if I hadn’t considered each of these.
- Investing in a handheld GPS device is invaluable (particularly at night) unless you are a skilled navigator. I used a budget device (e-Trex20) and obtained some inexpensive maps through the www.talkytoaster.com website. From memory I think I had around 3 errors where I went 500 yards off route and then a dozen ‘micro’ errors where I backtracked 50-100 yards to find the correct path. Over 135 miles of completely unknown terrain that is pretty good going (despite feeling frustrated with the odd error). The GPX files will be updated and get more accurate as Lindley reviews the data where the actual paths differed from the GPX route so this will get more accurate each year.
- I’m not sure there is a correct choice for footwear as the terrain is mixed and hard going on the feet ranging from rutted terrain, mud, roads, foot-paths and canal paths (and there’s another 480 miles of unseen terrain). As the trail is quite rural there are lots of overgrown areas and your feet will get wet a lot (i.e. through long grass or areas where it is shaded and ground doesn’t dry out) so thinking about foot care is very important. All three of us suffered blistering to various degrees and I was being ultra-cautious with my feet with constant taping/care/using foot powder at each Checkpoint and attending to hot-spots during the race. I was alternating between three pairs to give the other pairs time to dry out after each leg.
- You have to carry mandatory kit (waterproofs, bivvy bag, spare cloths, food for the day, 2l of water, maps, compass, phone & charger, head torch, spare light & batteries) which can mean say 5kg of weight coupled with self-navigating and occasional breaks means you will move a lot slower than ultra ‘running pace’ so plan accordingly. It took me longer than planned to complete each leg as I got slower due to injuries.
- I had planned to cover the first 3 legs over 2 days to give myself a day’s contingency and with hindsight, it may have been prudent to take an even more cautious approach and just aim to complete 1 leg a day. I could have stopped around 6pm on Day 1 had an evening’s rest and sleep and headed out early in Day 2. I hadn’t planned to go through the night at all but ended up doing this due to my slower pace.
- This wasn’t a major issue but a thought to organise your kit well to minimise time at the Checkpoint. I had a couple of large holdalls with kit organised into smaller labelled bags so I could easily find what I needed. Electronic items and medical supplies (such as batteries, spare head torch, power charges, scissors, tape etc.) were all placed in a small plastic box which was accessed more frequently. Upon reflection I could have organised my items into a holdall of stuff I needed to a quick stop (medical/batteries/socks/snacks and change of clothes) and a holdall of stuff I wanted for a night-stop (sleeping bag/dry sleeping clothes). This isn’t about trying to shave a minute or two at a CP but about less faffing about as I was accessing all of my bags. It took me a while to unpack and pack each time I stopped.
Good luck to anyone thinking about taking this challenge on in the future.