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What's it like to run 50 miles?

When I first joined Daventry Road Runners 6 years ago as a way of keeping fit between the football seasons, never in a million years did I imagine myself standing on the start line of a 50 mile (80km) ultra-marathon.


I did this event last year alongside Toby Turk after receiving the entry as a birthday gift from Dan, so I had a good idea of what to expect. This year however, I was solo, which meant there would be no-one with me to help navigate or to just chat to along the way to help pass the time. I knew there would be other Road Runners out on the course, but the chances of us seeing each other much past the start were slim.


I arrived at the Shropshire Hills Discovery Centre a little after 6am giving me plenty of time to register and collect the evet tracker that needed to be attached to my race vest. After a quick kit-check I spotted Mark and Trevor and headed over for a quick chat. About ten to seven, we made our way outside towards the start for the race briefing and a team photo, then we were off. It’s a bit of an anti-climactic start, with most people ambling off the line rather than launching into a full stride. That being said, there’s a couple of bottle-neck bridges and gateways early on so I wanted to be fairly near the front, so not to get held up.


The first couple of miles ease you gently beginning with some flat pavements and roads, then a few fields before we reached the first steep incline. With over 8,000 feet of elevation, almost every hill is a challenging climb. And with the recent miserable weather the wet mud meant that every step was slippy, taking a bit more effort than normal. As everyone was still fairly close together at this point, I just tucked in behind another runner and followed their footsteps.


As we got higher and higher, between the trees you get a glimpse of the beautiful countryside, and it makes you realise how much we’ve ascended. The route levels out near the top and I’m able to start jogging again, meandering through the woodland and dodging tree roots, before reaching the first clip station. Every runner has a laminated card that they must stamp with a different shaped punch at every checkpoint. Some of these are at the aid stations, whereas others, like this one, are unmanned. Immediately after the clip station is the first downhill, which is even wetter and muddier than the way up. I tried my best to stay upright, taking it as slowly as possible grabbing on to as many trees and branches as I could. A couple of runners decided to fully send it and ran straight past everyone, but I pictured that ending in disaster and decided to stick with my tactic.


After successfully reaching the bottom, I continued running across some pretty waterlogged fields for a few more miles before spotting the monster that is Ragleth Hill in the distance. This is probably the steepest climb on the route and to make worse, we have to go all the way to the top just to collect another stamp on our card, before coming straight back down again. I pulled out my new Harrier walking poles for my vest and began the very slow climb. I’d forgotten how difficult this incline was and it seemed to go on forever. About half way up you could feel the wind getting stronger, thanks to Storm Kathleen and I had to take my cap off in fear of losing it. By the time I got to the peak, the wind was ridiculous. I held tightly to the pole as I clipped my card, before beginning the descent. It’s such a relief when you’re the one on the way down passing all the other runners struggling with step.


Back at the bottom and just before mile 9 is the first aid / food station in Little Stretton, where my wife Becci was waiting to cheer me in. Fuelling has always been a big challenge for me. I’m a very picker eater and have never been able to consume the peanut butter or porridge or bananas, that most people recommend and instead rely on just a few Jaffa Cakes as my source of energy. Unfortunately, the watermelon slices and oranges were not my list of edible foods, so I had a quick drink, packed away my poles and headed off again.


Almost immediately after leaving the checkpoint, we started to climb again heading up the Long Mynd. I regretted putting my poles away and regretted even more the decision to not get them out, choosing instead to grin and bear it. I caught up to a couple of other runners and had a nice chat in between gasping for breath, as we made our way up the hill. They’d both done the event before too, so it’s not me that was stupid enough to come back for more.


The next few miles are rolling hills, with some incredible views of the Shropshire scenery, but soon the grassy paths, become very rocky as we reach the Stiperstones. Every step is suddenly very carefully placed as one wrong move could mean a twisted ankle. Again, we clamber over huge rocks to reach another clip station before heading back in the opposite direction. Eventually the rocks turn back into trail path and then finally into tarmac as we descend to The Bog Visitor Centre – the home of the famous fidget pies.


Becci greeted me at the checkpoint again and I sat down on one of the benches for another drink and some apple slices, but this is where I made my first mistake. After a quick photo I said goodbye and headed off up yet another hill, however a couple of minutes later, it suddenly dawned on me that I’d forgotten to clip my card at the aid station. Annoyingly I had to turn around and head back down losing some of the time I’d managed to gain on last year and outing me back behind all the runners I’d passed in the early stages.


Before I knew it I was approaching the 25 mile mark. Halfway in just over 6 hours giving me plenty of time to complete the second half and beat last years’ time of 14 hours 58 minutes. I didn’t want to get too carried away though as I knew from experience that my pace would inevitably slow down and there were still plenty of tough miles in front of me. It wasn’t long before I arrived in Bishops Castle at the next aid station. I don’t remember eating anything here, possibly because I knew the farm was only 7km further on, where I was planning a slightly longer stop to enjoy the vegetable stew and charge my watch. It was during this next section that I had my first major struggle.


I remember walking up through a field and starting to feel a bit fatigued and lightheaded. The weather thus far had been surprisingly warm and dry, and the sweat was running into my eyes making them sting. I started to wobble a bit as I was walking, so took out some jelly sweets from my pack, to try and give me a bit of a sugar boost. This is when I first started to question whether I could get it done. I could suddenly feel all my aches and pains and my energy levels were dropping rapidly. I managed to walk to the farm, where I took on some much-needed food. The stew was delicious and just what I needed, given that it was probably past 2pm at this point and this was the first proper bit of food I was having. I helped myself to some flapjack while my watch was recharging and changed into a long sleeved top ready for the temperatures to drop during the afternoon. I felt re-energised and grabbed another flapjack as I left to eat on the way.


After about half a mile, I was crossing through a field when I slipped over, ending up on my backside, while also slinging my half-eaten flapjack into the mud during the process. Luckily, I’d just changed out of my nice white DRR top.


The next big challenge is the Offa’s Dyke climb. I’ve got a video on my phone from last year of Toby as he struggled up this slope with his enormous rucksack, but this time around it was my turn to struggle. I had to stop several times leaning against the tress to catch my breath. It felt so much harder than I remembered. As I looked back, I could see another runner coming up behind me, so I kept moving to try and maintain the gap.


As we approached the final checkpoint in Clun there’s some nice downhill sections. I was determined to make the most of these, but I was starting to feel some pain in my knee, making it uncomfortable to go too quickly. I was only able to run for short periods before easing back into a walk.


Clun is the final aid station on the course. Last year I made the mistake of not having any food as it felt like we were close to the finish, but there’s still another 11 miles to complete and I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again. I enjoyed a bowl of tomato soup with some bread and gave my watch a final charge to make sure it got me to the end. Nothing worse than completing 50 miles and my watch dying before the end. I remember Becci telling me that I looked a bit emotional. On a race this long, you experience a lot of emotions. My feet were sore, I was tired, I didn’t want to get up, but I was also three quarters of the way through a huge achievement, and I didn’t want to give up here. I told her that even if I walk the rest of the way I want to make it to the finish, so I set off on the final stretch.After a mile or so a lady came bouncing past me, closely followed by another couple of runners, who all looked a lot fresher than I did. I knew I had a lonely 10 miles ahead, so I decided to latch onto them for a bit of company and motivation. When they ran, I ran, and I’d do this for as long as I could. I stuck with for about 4 miles, but it was becoming harder and harder to match their pace. When we reached the final uphill, all I could do was watch them scamper off into the distance, leaving me to face the final few miles on my own.


It was at this point that the rain arrived. We had been predicted rain all day, so we were extremely lucky that we hadn’t had any until now. I didn’t put my jacket on straight away as I wasn’t sure how heavy the rain would get, and I foolishly thought I might be able to make it home before it got too bad. A couple of minute later, I realised I had no choice, the heavens had opened, and it was pelting down. With every step the rain got heavier, and the puddles got deeper. The water and mud were above ankle height, and my shoes were filled with water. I was hating life and ready to call it a day, but I was in the middle of nowhere, with no choice but to head for home. As darkness fell, I was too wet and cold to stop and find my headtorch so I marched on straining my eyes to see where I was going.

About a mile from the finish, you go under a bridge, which by this time had flooded with water. I waded through knowing that the quicker I got back the quicker I could get dry. I could soon see the streetlights of Craven Arms and as I emerged from the fields and back to civilisation, I’d done it. 13 hours and 25 minutes, over an hour and half faster than last year.


I was drenched, freezing cold and utterly exhausted. Luckily for me, Becci and Dan were waiting at the finish and managed to get my shoes off, wipe off some of the mud with paper towels from the loos and get me into some fresh dry clothes. I drank a cup of tea, but I just couldn’t stop shivering. The Discovery Centre very kindly provide the runners with a free breakfast, but I managed one mouthful before deciding my stomach wasn’t ready for any food, so we headed back to our Airbnb for a hot shower.


Out of the 195 starters there were 42 non-finishers, showing just how tough the conditions were and I don’t blame any of them. Had that rain started a couple of hours earlier when I was at the aid station in Clun, I’m not sure I’d have carried on either.


I achieved what I set out to do. I beat my time from last year and proved to myself that I could do it solo. I have a huge amount of respect for anyone that attempts these distances, but I think I’ll give it a miss next year.



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