This race has been a part of my ultra-running journey since its inaugural run in 2013 when Kurt Dusterhoff’s Cotswold Running company started the modern version of the race. Simply put, it’s the whole of the Cotswold Way, 102 miles end to end. Non-stop in under 30 hours.
I volunteered in 2013 and 2014, failed to finish in 2015 and 2016, volunteered again in 2017 and here I was in 2018, back to put this thing to bed.
I am no stranger to tough races or the 100 mile distance. I have finished 6 x 100 mile races in the UK, as well as tough races in the USA, Dolomites and the Alps and countless shorter distance ultras and marathons, so I have the ability to finish this race, but somehow always manage not to.
In 2015 and 2016 I was not prepared enough and exhausted both times from busy seasons, so this year I made this my A race. I hadn’t raced since the Thames Path 100 in May and focused on getting to start line in September fresh and focused. I have always been of the belief that of the two, it’s better to stand on the start line a little under trained than over trained.
Unlike previous starts here, when historically we have been very lucky with the weather (aside from during the night in 2016), the weather was grim from the start. We walked to the start line in waterproofs and I managed to catch up with a few friends. I wasn’t overly anxious but was focused on just getting this done and hurling this big monkey off my back.
Soon after we were sent on our way I stopped to take off the waterproof. It was still drizzling but I was feeling too hot, so wanted to make sure I felt good. I had spare t-shirts in my drop bag and crew bag anyway and I knew that being damp in the day wasn’t an issue, so long as I was warm overnight when my body temperature had calmed down somewhat.
The first few miles from Chipping Camden are fairly flat and quite dull, so I made sure I didn’t go off like a rocket and kept my pace and breathing calm and steady. Anyone can run the first 20 miles fast, I reminded myself, and this wasn’t a 20 mile race. The rain eased off a little as we approached the iconic Broadway Tower and then ran the long descent into Broadway, which is a beautiful place. Running down the high street to polite clapping from the residents and tourists, I felt good. I heard one of the marshalls comment to someone “these guys are pacing it right”, which gave me a boost. It’s always easy to go off too fast in the excitement of a race, so this helped my confidence further.
Underfoot the ground was still pretty decent, despite the deluge of the last few days. Its been an exceptional summer so my hopes were that despite the rain, the ground having been so dry would soak it all in and we wouldn’t be in a mud bath, particularly in the later stages. More on that later, but for now it was very runnable.
I hit the first aid station at 13 miles in bang on 3 hours which was my target, quickly re-filled my bottles and kept moving. Even stopping for a few seconds I felt cool, which was a world away from 2015 when I stopped here to ask if anyone had any suncream!
Legs felt ok, attitude was good, it was the no-mans land of get to 50 miles unbroken and then the real race started.
Somehow in the next section I felt like I was suddenly at the very back of the field. This was a bit of a surprise as I felt I was moving well and on time for my personal goals. Whilst I am never usually at the very back (although I am increasingly slower- which needs to be addressed), I felt this must be down to other runners exuberance than my own slow pace and reminded myself to ignore everyone else and focus on my own splits. Simply put, I wanted to always be at least an hour ahead of the cut offs. Always.
Just before the second aid station at Aggs Hill, mile 27 I saw someone who was connected to the race, but didn’t know his name. whilst the area is vaguely familiar, I didn’t know exactly how far it was to the check point so I asked him. “about six miles, mate” was his response.
What? I cant be that far off my pace, surely? I panicked a little and pushed harder than I would have otherwise at this stage of the race. Thankfully, I then came across the aid station about 3 miles later in 6 hours exactly- bang on my goal time, an hour ahead of the 7 hour cut off for this point.
Here I saw Nikki Mills who had kindly agreed to take my crew bag to hand to Alan Mercer at 6pm. I changed my top here as the early evening air was cold now and added a gilet to my layers to stay warm. Changing clothes felt great and I was soon on my way, happy with my status.
I have said it before, but one of the things I love most about ultras is how they break you down to your most simple desires. I am not thinking about money or cars or holidays, just maybe a can of lemonade in 10 miles time. It’s the most humbling sport and what keeps me coming back.
The next aid station was at mile 38.5 and between Aggs Hill and here it would get dark, so I made sure my torches were easily accessible without having to root through my bag in the rain. The technical term for the weather at this stage was ‘pissing it down’.
Halfway between Aggs Hill and Birdlip, Alan Mercer took over crewing for me and I was in very safe hands. The ultra running community is a special place and despite the fact we hadn’t met aside from facebook, Alan said he would crew me overnight from 6pm to 6am where he would hand over to another friend of mine, Chris, who would get me through the day leg to the finish.
Alan was calm and knowledgeable so helped give me a huge boost as I started into the night.
By now I had caught some other people and ran with a lady called Dominique for a bit. This was her first 100 miler and she was running it to raise money for Prostate Cancer. Her father was crewing and she explained the reasons why she was raising money- it was a pleasure to meet him. The full results haven’t been published as I write this and I don’t know her surname, but I do hope that she finished.
The next few miles were uneventful and we made steady progress to Birdlip, where it was fully dark upon arrival. I now had 10 miles to cover to be in by midnight at Painswick, the halfway point. The cut off was 1am so midnight was my goal. At Birdlip I stopped only very briefly and they had minestrone soup which was just perfect. Again, the simplicity of ultras- I wasn’t thinking about lunch at Nobu, but minestrone soup from a polystyrene cup was about the best thing I had ever tasted. I had second cup and took it with me as I marched towards the woods. Most of the night leg was in the woods and this was great as it was warmer. However, it was also a lot mistier with the humidity. It didn’t take long before it was a pull pea soup fog.
I had a headtorch and also a hand held torch. Hand helds are slightly more hard work as your arm swings, but they are also a lot better in the fog. Head torches light up all the moisture in front of your eyes which can make it almost as blinding as running with no torch at all, so the hand held was perfect to keep lower and light the way as much as possible. It was still very hard to see anything and I felt my pace slow dramatically as I made sure I was on course. This is an unmarked race, so having the route as a GPS file on my watch was essential for confidence although I tried to navigate by the national trail markers as much as possible to keep my pace up.
I made a couple of minor navigation errors here and there, but nothing major as I made my way to Painswick. Here I met another lady called Karen and we shared a lot of the race, back and forth, from here on in.
At some point around here I also saw Henry Church who had driven out to cheer me and another friend on and he had the best thing possible right now- a cold can of coke. Thanks for coming out, mate and having a chat and walk with me for a bit.
What was becoming apparent was how much muddier underfoot it was becoming. The shoes I had decided on for this race were ones I had used all summer so they were nicely broken in. However, as a result of the dry trails all summer, the lugs were somewhat worn down in places so slipping was inevitable. A few days before the race as I knew the forecast I debated buying a new pair of the same shoes, with thicker lugs, but decided against it as I would rather slip a bit than have blisters from new shoes. Whilst slipping was frustrating at times, aside from this my feet felt good and it was the right call.
As Karen and I came into Painswick, Alan was waiting and it was exactly midnight. Bang on schedule. I wanted to get in and out and hadn’t sat down all day so I ate some vege chilli, which was amazing and was back on the trail within 7 minutes. Alan was even kind enough to lend me his own hat, to save me having to dig through my pack to get mine and lose time. That’s the sort of friend you need on a crew.
I knew my buffer on the cut offs was OK, but also wouldn’t allow any errors so I started to worry a little. By the time I met Alan again in Stroud I was worried and he helped push me on to get to Coaley Peak as soon as I could. I lost Karen for a bit before Stoud but she caught me whilst I was with Alan and we worked a team on the big climb to Coaley Peak, where we decided we wouldn’t stop and keep moving to bank time. Its amazing how much things look different on paper to reality. I felt I would be fine for time and move at a gentle pace, but increasingly as my ever battered body broke down, I was having to work much harder than I would have wanted to keep up a pace good enough to finish.
At Coaley Peak, by not stopping we ended up with three other runners and formed a group of five which helped with the pacing. This wasn’t a formal agreement, you either kept up or got dropped as we were all on our own mission to finish, but because the foggy woods at 3am aren’t an overly lovely place to be alone, we all worked as a group to stay together.
One of these guys was Lee Scott who I first met at the Arc of Attrition back in February. We also shared some miles on the Thames Path this year. Lee is a great bloke and set a decent pace which I tried to maintain. A couple of hours later we hit Dursley where I saw Alan and grabbed some food and drink before the next push to Wooton Under Edge. I felt OK here and whilst my cut off buffer wasn’t amazing, I was still the right side of things.
As I spoke with Alan I lost the other runners so had to use my GPS to find the trail out of Dursely. From here there is a steep climb up to Stinchcombe golf course and as I got back on the trail I realized I wasn’t climbing like I thought I should be. I check my GPS and I was off course. However it was only by a fraction, so I kept going thinking maybe the watch had a small error in the thick woods. What I didn’t realise is that I was on a lower logging track and the trail I should have been on climbed almost parallel above me, so the GPS was spot on- I was almost on the right track but at the same time, heading in a completely different direction.
I turned around and tried to find my way. I found a path that rose, so followed that even though it was overgrown. Eventually it came to a halt at a fallen tree and I swore and shouted as I knew I would have to double back to Dursely. I had now lost half an hour on my already slender cut off buffer and was starting to get distraught. This race means so much to me and I knew it was almost impossible to make it after this massive mistake.
But, I wasn’t out yet and vowed I would never drop and not go down without a fight. Once back on the trail I saw headtorches above me and it was Alan and Chris, who had arrived to take over crewing. I am sorry Chris saw me like this as I was furious and angry with myself, but they kept me focused and said I had time if I kept moving.
This coincided with a 2.5 mile loop of the golf course which is so tough to do when you know you are almost out of time. I had to get to Wooton by 8am to make the cut offs and when you know there is a route that is 400 yards as opposed to 2.5 miles, its hard to stay focused. But the course is the course and I would never cheat, but your brain is all over the place at 6am in fog so thick you can’t see your arm in front of you, that it tries to tell you its ok to just give up and call it a day. No way. Not this year. So I followed the route around the outer stretches of the course and made excellent time fuelled by anger, swearing and lemonade.
I knew I was close to being timed out so when I saw Alan and Chris after this loop they said they had some good news and some bad news. The bad news was I had 6k to go to Wooton, not 4k as I had thought, but the good news was they had checked and the cut off was 8:30am not 8am. So my half hour fuck up, may not yet be the end of the world.
This put a pep in my step and combined with there now being enough daylight to lose the torches, I was off and racing to Wooton. All the pain in my legs, hips and feet I put to one side and I threw myself down the hills with abandon. I slipped a couple of times, going arse over tit, but didn’t care- it was pure adrenaline. I had gritted teeth and was breathing like a man possessed, often grunting on the climbs. I dread to think what an early morning dog walker would have thought.
I saw Chris briefly before the final big climb on this section and he forced me to take a gel and gave me no sympathy- both exactly what I needed. I made the climb and then raced the flat to Wooton through the woods before a big descent into the town.
Chris was here again and told me I had to be in the check point by 8:17 not 8:30. It was now 8:05 so I threw myself down the high street and arrived in 8:13, panicked and stressed but also now believing I had enough time to move steadier and make the final cut off at 1:30pm at mile 87.
I am not sure if it was the adrenaline wearing off, having made this cut off after such a battle, or the fact my body was now trashed from pushing so hard or just general fatigue but I felt myself having increasingly less energy as I moved on. I had 11 miles to make Horton at mile 82 now and needed to be there by 11am at the latest to stand a chance of hitting Tormarton by 1:30. 11 miles in two and a half hours sounds easy, but on that terrain and with the state of my body after the night, it was a big ask.
But as they say, I hadn’t come this far to only come this far, so I pushed on. I’d caught Lee at this point as he was in severe pain but we vowed we wouldn’t stop until we knew it was impossible. My quads were blown, the connector between my shin and my foot was in agony on both feet and my knees really hurt. I mustered a shuffle but it was really, really hard.
I cried a bit thinking after all I pushed that I may now be timed out, but wiped away the tears and kept focused. I was not out yet.
Horton took an absolute age and I saw Chris halfway between the two points. He tried to keep me fired up, but knew time wasn’t on my side as my body was more and more uncooperative. I pushed as much as I could, but just couldn’t maintain a decent average pace. I cant begin to tell you how frustrating that was.
The last 20 miles of the Cotswold Way are the easy bit. If I had just banked another hour I could have walked in from Tormarton, but cut offs are there for a reason and I have to respect them. As I approached Horton, I got lost again only for a moment, but it meant a switch was flicked in my mind. I now didn’t have enough time. Like a balloon being popped, everything left me and I was broken, beaten and finished. I am gutted to say that when I got to Horton I handed my tracker in and pulled off my race number.
So, so close, and yet so far. I have to remain positive and take all of the good things from this weekend. I have never been more focused in a race and I gave it absolutely everything. I left everything out there on that course and if that is the benchmark of personal worth, then I am proud of my race.
If it wasn’t for my mistake at Dursley, I am 100% convinced I would be sat typing a different report, looking at my medal. But that is ultra running and for me, its not about the medals its about the experience and whether or not I can say I am proud of my performance.
Its not the result I wanted and I know I am becoming a bit of a joke at this race now, but I will put it to bed. It means a lot and I know I am capable. I don’t know if it will be next September, but I will get to the Abbey in Bath one of these years. That I can promise you. I think its time to get a coach and get focussed on where I can improve.
My thanks go to Chris and Alan for giving up their weekends for me. I persuaded Chris to enter the South Downs Way 50 miler next April after he nailed his first marathon earlier this year. Having now spent a few hours with me on Sunday morning, he’s probably regretting that now, but the Cotswold Way has a way of stripping you absolutely raw! To Alan, to come out and help a virtual stranger all night in those conditions, I am eternally grateful and will return the favour whenever you need it.
I failed to finish, but I didn’t fail to try. And for that I have salvaged some personal pride.