Unbeknown to a lot of people the Ridgeway 86 Challenge just cuts short the full Ridgeway. Towards the end of this centuries old trade route, where pilgrims, druids, and those with fare travelled, it turns off sharply to the right and finishes with an undulating but downhill drop into the Village of Avebury where neolihic stones stand and tourists flock to explore the land. The course record for this race, the National Ultra Trail Running Championships is held by none other than European 24 hour Champion and LEJOG record holder Dan Lawson at 12 hours 7 minutes, taking down my previous record of 12hours 13minutes.
So to the FKT attempt itself. The route trickles on a bit longer until you hit the A4 at West Overton. The actual point to point route. A little less scenic finish, but the full route.
How did this attempt come about?
I had two unique and historical routes I was anticipating FKT attempts. I’ll save disclosure of them for another time.
I hadn’t raced due to ill health in over 18 months and, the year previous to that, things were touch and go anyway. So in terms of the shape I was in physically and mentally, I had no idea. Though, I had never stopped running over this time, this was a mixture of shuffling and sprinting after dogs. Lockdown brought its own significance and conditioned my running. Somehow, stability ensued in a lot of aspects and my confidence grew to a tiny point where I began anticipating personal challenges as mentioned above. Scary and pressure. But a longing and desire was there.
So onto a Facebook post from ‘Mr Ridegway’ himself, Tim Mitchell. He asked if any runners would be interested in attempting the FKT for the full route with his personal support as crew. The previous supported record being 16+hours. Without thinking I got in touch with a DM. A conversation shortly ensued and a prompt date for an attempt was made. Had I done the right thing? Am I fit enough? What if it all goes wrong? What will people think of me? I have no idea the shape I am in? Just some of the questions I asked myself. Doubt, big time. But, I wasn’t thinking primarily about the FKT attempt. But, rather putting myself in the pressure cooker environment of a competitive situation. Equal to what I was most vulnerable too. For me, personally, the stakes were high. Not based on the time. But, how resilient I would be and how I would cope under the pressure and weight of expectation.
I made it clear to Tim I was focusing on the run itself. Time was secondary and something I didn’t need or want to be made blatantly aware of throughout the route. I wanted to test the normal trust I have in my mind and body in a competitive situation, The competition being myself. Tim was so supportive. It was incredible. He was giving up an evening and another day to crew me on this attempt and within the parameters that we had discussed. He was super. Tim was made aware of my simple nutrition and hydration strategy. My plan B and C strategies were in place, all within 3 post office boxes. ‘Mr Ridgeway’ then planned to go to the Ridgeway Challenge 86 check points to meet me where I would swap two bottles for replacements, one carrying tailwind (thanks Mike Julien) or Active Root and the other plain water. This was supplemented with sweet potato mash (&secret ingredients) in tiny pouches and Chia charge bars (thanks XMiles). The strategy was some food on the hour and drinking every half an hour. Simple really. In the last 20miles I would then switch to faster releasing carbs and flat coke for a caffeine hit with water, shot blocs (thanks XMiles) and some jelly babies. For poor Tim’s sanity, I had requested a hot sugary tea at CP’s, 6, 7 and 8. Tim’s role as chief crew, photographer, supporter and also tea-man!
6 am we started the watches. Into my Ultimate Direction Vest they went, invisibly and 30 seconds or so later I slid down the hill from Ivinghoe Beacon towards West Overton 87 or so miles later. As I slipped and slided down this chalk landscape, adrenaline filled, fear, caution and trepidation filled my mind. The weather gods were setting a challenge with a wet, muddy and slippery course and as much a headwind at times as not. But, I was constantly making the decision to be in the moment, run how I felt and smile on the outside as that helped trick me into thinking I was not about to enter the hurt locker.
The first 30 or so miles came and went. Myself. ‘Mr Ridgeway’ exchanging bottles promptly and me grabbing any I needed from the boxes. I was quietly impressed with how my body was responding. Pressure was coming in but instead of fearing it, I embraced it. I focused intrinsically on my body and how I felt running on that particular section. In Grims Ditch the devil sat on my shoulder a bit longer and tapped with his pitchfork. Self doubt, anger, guilt, frustration and weakness crept in. I clutched to something which helped me to accept his presence and wait till he got bored. Focus on the body, the trail and the mind. I can’t tell you what I thought about but I can tell you what I didn’t. Time. I just listened to my body and pushed where I could and tried to relax during the uncomfortable times.
Just before half way, along the Thames, it hit. My hamstrings started to cramp, my pelvis locked and I knew my pace was dropping. As I fought this I really tried so hard not to think how much there was to go but rather accept it as part of the process.
Johnny Suckling, the ‘unsupported’ Ridegway record holder, joined me at around 47 miles. To be fair to him, it must have been horrid. I was polite, eternally grateful that he would give up his time to share some miles with me and help pull me along. But, inside I was a complete grump. I warned him that chatter had left the building and the only conversation was the internal chatter with my self doubt, self loathing and the pain from my legs.
The ascent was significant. For some reason it was easier than the flat and downhill.
Tea was on the plan for the next CP and ‘Mr Ridgeway’ kindly obliged with a hot cuppa at West Ilsley Car park. It was ripe. I have an asbestos mouth, inherited from my maternal Grandpa and though the exchange was swift, the short pause caused everything to lock up. Johnny kindly suggested a fast hike to take me from my shuffle. But, I was determined to run. I came here to run and that is what I slowly did in waves of flowing strides where Johnny matched me stride for stride to laboured shuffles where I couldn’t even look at my supporter as I was disgusted with myself at how much of a wreck I felt.
Like a ‘jack in the box’ a man appeared on the trail crouched with a camera yelling ‘Go on Monty’. I had anticipated families walking the trail and certainly the people behind him I considered to be just the same. Except they weren’t. More cheers were yelled and a young girl who turned out to be surprise guest’s daughter held a mini placard she had made with the same words echoed. It was Paralympic gold medal winning coach Job King. A close friend whom I hadn’t seen in years. He had picked up news of my attempt on Facebook, and the raising of money for the Small charity Humanity Direct.org. I was shocked. My body was lifted by his kindness and that he and his partner Fran and family would come out and support me. The hamstrings were as tight Lenny Kravitz’s trousers (you thought I was going to say guitar strings) but I surged. And that is how the next 20 or so miles came and went. Tea, shuffle, surge, shuffle, surge, tea and so on. Not so fun for Johnny, who I am so grateful to for his support. The only conversation he was privy to were expletives at myself and winces of ‘thankyou’ and ‘sorry’. Johnny even tried to entertain me by falling in the biggest puddle on a gravel section and actually doing a side-roll along the puddle. This man really was committed.
Approaching Fox hill Lee Plank, a local whom I’d never met before joined us on the trail. I was humbled. Another, gifting their time and legs to support me. Gratitude doesn’t come close. It was almost his presence, Johnny and my Sensei, mentor and best friend Rod who had also joined us that carried me strongly up foxhil and off.
I was agressive at the checkpoint. Not with anyone. But in my demeanour. There were five or six in support of Tim and myself, including ‘Mrs Ridgeway’ Ruth and Nataline Canfer and son. I was determined and ready to fight. My legs had found a way round the tightness and a simple form was embraced. From here I gritted and grunted. After their kind gift of time Johhny and Lee had to leave the trails to return, borrowed, from their families. Rod was left as the soul bearer of my aggression and fortitude. He knows what to say and do. Supporting with the right words, silence when needed, and acceptance of my grunts and expletives. He is amazing and having supported him on his Swindon2Sea Pilgrimage weeks ago he joined me as he always does. I was bloody fighting. He knew it and said the right things. And there It went to the finish. I fought harder and harder and somehow my body responded and equalled the fight of my mind. It bloody damn hurt and I grunted past an array of police on the trail breaking up a mini rave to the car park at West Overton. ‘Stop’ they yelled as I flew towards the road.
I had done it. I had run the Ridgeway in a competitive situation. Time did not matter to me at this point. I was melting inside. 8-10 friends of the great Swindon running community had come to the finish. Bartering with the police at the car park to allow them in to cheer me in and not part of the illegal rave occurring just above on the trail. The dot tracker was stopped. Tim reached into my bag and stopped the two GPS watches timing the trail. 13 hours 4 minutes and some change.
I was happy. I was elated. No not by the time. But a battle I thought was lost a while ago, was fought and won. A new FKT, great. The proverbial icing on the cake and a time matching my race back in 2011 when I was in good shape. Relief. Humbled. Embarrassed but grateful. But, I reiterate, time wasn’t important to me. The process, the fight, the challenge and how I responded was the most important feedback.
I slept like a baby that night. Induced maybe. But never after a race effort do I sleep properly. Strange but telling. Thank you everyone for your support. ‘Mr Ridgeway’, Tim Mitchell, whose stamina outweighed my own. therunningklub.com/ and Neil and Anna Thubron at XNRG.co.uk. Team Beta running, Skechers and Wigwam Socks. Personally, Rod Viggers, Johnny Suckling, Lee Plank and supporters. Natalie Canfer & son, Job King and family, Julie and Steve Goulding, Chris ‘mountain’ Morgan, Simon Boroughs, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface. This wasn’t an FKT attempt for me. But a test, a challenge of my own making, of myself. And gratefully I battled and won for now. Onward and upward. Raising £1350 for Humanity Direct in the process.
Thank you to everyone.