Over the 19th - 20th April 2014 Andy Horsley ran the Viking Way Ultra and here is what he had to say ………
After a great but tiring weekend at the London Marathon I had six days to recover before attempting the Viking Way Ultra for an unprecedented third time. The previous two years I had only just made the cut off at the finish and was aiming to make the finish a bit more comfortable for both me and anyone else following the race who had stayed up in previous years. I had only managed two very short (4-6 mile) runs in between so I hoped my generally good recovery would be OK.
Staying over at the Premier Inn the night before again was convenient for registration, meeting up with new and old friends and for the start. However their “Good Nights Sleep” policy was severely tested by a faulty fire alarm throughout the night which resulted in a lot of sleepy runners and a steady stream of refunds.
The start was again on the banks of the Humber at Barton. The weather promised to be warm for the first year and without the snow and mud of previous years, at least for the first half!
We all gathered for the 7am kick-off with 40 hours to get to Oakham library, 148 odd miles away. It was good to meet up with quite a few familiar faces as well as some new ones and the atmosphere was lively and positive whilst we posed for photos and generally got ourselves together.
At 7am, Mark – Race Director sounded the horn and 20 something of us sped off at a full on jog along the Humber river bank. No-one sped off in front and most of us stayed fairly close together for the first few miles. The first thing I noticed was that there had obviously been a period of dry weather and the mud on the banks was rock solid, a bit like running on an uneven concrete road. Secondly it was warmer than previous years and with no immediate prospect of rain, the long sleeved top came off and I was running in a thin top under my back pack.
The first few miles or so are fairly easy running with no large hills. There was plenty of adjustments going on with people making minor directional errors and adjusting kit as well as pauses for food and calls of nature. I ran with a few people at different points until I was running on my own after about 10 miles. Feeling fairly fresh despite the previous weeks efforts I jogged on and arrived at the first checkpoint at about 15 miles, approximately 10 minutes or so up on last years time. Even more surprising was that I was first into the checkpoint, considering the calibre of people behind me I decided I needed to ease up a touch.
A quick flapjack and coke later and I followed the path across the next field with no sight of other runners yet. Up to this point, because I had run this previous years I had not looked at the map. However a mile or so later I found myself at a dead end having run down the side of a hill into a farmyard. After a quick circle of the area , a bit of map checking and a run back up the hill I found the gate I had missed behind some bushes and carried on in the right
direction. A few miles over some small hills and I had cause to get the maps out again with no obvious path ahead, I waited for Luke to catch me up to confirm that I was indeed on the right track. Luke and I ran together on and off until after Caistor when he pulled ahead slightly on the long climb up Nettleton.
It was during this long climb on very hard packed uneven mud that I managed to fall over. Luckily I somehow rolled onto my back as I did it and only managed to graze my hands and knees. I sat up a bit shocked looking at the herd of cows who had gathered round to see what was going on. Nothing like an inquisitive bunch of bovines to get you up and moving quickly again. I was a touch more careful as I negotiated the rest of the climb. As I got to the top of the hill, Ed, Richard and Cliff caught up with me, they were running together and I ran with them on and off for the next few miles. This was up and down quite a few hills but easy to navigate. A couple of miles out from the checkpoint there is a section of lovely running, mostly downhill and on grass and I found myself slightly ahead of the others.
Indeed I could see Luke just ahead again. I got to the 30 mile checkpoint where the usual enthusiastic supporters were gathered. Again I was surprised to find I was first there – Luke had taken a wrong turning at the last gate out of the woods and arrived shortly after. In fact the others got there fairly soon so we had all arrived within a minute or so. I stole a few bits of food, grabbed a drink and headed off again into the Wolds.
The next section involved a few hills, some navigation and it was 20 or so miles to the next checkpoint. It was also quite warm and I wanted to minimise any time spent at the aid stations. Over the next 10 miles or so I was caught up and passed by Luke, Cliff and Richard at different points (Ed had paused to enjoy the facilities at the last checkpoint).
It was getting quite hot but I was religiously eating and drinking to schedule and not feeling too bad. As I went through Donington, having paused for a navigational break I spotted two sweaty characters coming out of a corner shop, holding ice lollies and grinning. Cliff and Richard didn’t seem worried about the e-numbers. I didn’t want to miss an opportunity so I nipped in and was transported back to the 1940’s briefly while I bought a couple of lollies and the proprietor told me that he admired my balls! I told him I hadn’t got time for that but thanked him and proceeded on my way at a brisk walk whilst trying to juggle and eat my cold treats.
After the brief respite I carried on, the next few miles were fields, hills and paths punctuated by the odd village and navigational pause until the long drag up to Fulletby and the 50 mile checkpoint. It was a welcome sight after a long section and I had access to my drop bag for the first time. I took a few minutes out here to down some extra food and drink and change my shirt. Yet again the marshalls and support crew were magnificent and reaching and then leaving the checkpoint was a real boost.
Despite the welcome I left as soon as possible. The next part of the race was about 14 miles and mostly downhill or flat which was a boost as I was starting to tire. I think I was in 4th place at this point but had been told that there were several others just behind me so I didn’t want to hang around too much. After a couple of gentle downhill miles (which I managed to lose my way a couple of times) the terrain flattens out and a road takes the route into Horncastle. After a bit more navigation I left town via the canal path and back into countryside. The route then flows an old railway line track for several miles until arriving via a golf course at Woodhall. This part has several Viking related sculptures along the way to relieve boredom. Woodhall itself was full of the Saturday evening usual activities and the welcoming smells of restaurants, pubs and fast food outlets, I avoided all of them including the famed chip shop. Last year it was dark when I was here so it was nice to get through in daylight this time.
After the town the route takes a turn up an alleyway and back out into flat fields, woods and paths again before hitting a road to the next checkpoint at 64 miles. It looked a bit unfamiliar but I realised that the past two years I had done this part in the dark. At the checkpoint, which was again a morale boost, Drew managed to ‘sell’ me some Cornish Pasty which went down very well and I downed some coke before heading off up the road, still in daylight. I had seen no other runners since about 40 miles.
More unfamiliar flat miles followed but was glad of the remaining daylight as a couple of farmers had herds of cows loose on the trail, together with calves and bulls. They were all quite lively and I had to push past a few but got through unscathed. There was also a couple of irate dogs to try and avoid along the way. By the time I had cleared the farms it was getting dark. I kept my head torch off for as long as possible to save batteries and improve my night vision. After a while I became aware of another runner approaching from behind. It was Dan, we chatted for a bit before he went on ahead, moving a lot better than I was. By now although it wasn’t muddy, the grass was long and full of dew making my feet wet.
After a few more miles I was aware of another runner approaching from behind. When he caught up I realised it was Dan again, he had temporarily got lost and was having navigational issues in the dark so we agreed to stick together at least until the next checkpoint. Dan was good company as we worked our way across the flattish countryside between the various ruined buildings scattered across this part of the world. Eventually the trail dropped to a road and then down to the river where we turned for the route towards Lincoln. Dan went on ahead again and we agreed to meet at the next checkpoint. The temperature had dropped quite a lot (nowhere near as cold as last year) and I found the 3 miles or so along and up to the next checkpoint a bit slow going.
Eventually I arrived where I was greeted by Fiona and Karen who looked after me even to the point of helping me get some warmer clothes on, thanks ladies, much appreciated. It was the middle of the night but they were still bouncing around. After an all too brief sit down, Dan and I set off again alongside the railway line into Lincoln. We had agreed to stay together for the Lincoln part as it tends to get a bit lively in the town centre. Sure enough, just after turning left at the cathedral (having looked for the invisible marshal), we went on the steep downhill past all the Lincoln nightlife and got the usual heckles and shouts from the locals.
Once through the town we climbed up to the ridge on the other side and Dan went ahead again, he was still moving better than me. The route then follows a ridge along a path for about ten miles. This part was easy to navigate in the small hours through a few villages and eventually brought me out at Wellingore and the 100 mile checkpoint. I did struggle a lot with sleep deprivation having missed the best part of two nights sleep and my eyes were having difficulty staying open. In fact at times it was like sleep walking and I found that as long as I kept my legs moving I could almost have a nap while walking, however I was not feeling refreshed.
I arrived at the checkpoint and I was pleased to note that I was an hour up on my previous times and felt considerably better than before. Mark, Alex and Yvette were all there making me welcome. I desperately needed to rest my eyes so I crawled into the back of a car and closed them leaving instructions to wake me within 15 minutes if need be. Shutting my eyes felt lovely but I was unable to sleep so got up myself after 6 minutes feeling slightly better. I downed some food, topped up my drink and went back onto the trail. Whilst I was there, Steve and Jon had arrived at the checkpoint behind me.
The next 5 miles follow a dead straight road/track and about half way along Steve passed me, he was moving well and looking good for a strong finish. Then the trail turns off the road back into the countryside starting with a two mile steady climb through fields to a radio mast. It was now morning and the weather was looking cloudy, not as warm as yesterday and with the forecast of rain.
After a few more hills, a couple of villages and some muddy fields I arrived at the next checkpoint at about 113 miles. Again everyone there seemed to be having a great time and made me very welcome. Mark even encouraged me to sit down for a chat on how different it is to be at this stage with plenty of time in hand, unusual for me. There was still a way to go though!
I left the checkpoint boosted by their support. Down the road, across a couple of fields and I missed a turning – a gentle reminder to concentrate and stay awake still. After a couple of miles the route passes through another town and up and over the A1. It then follows a straight road leading onto rutted track for several miles. This was easy to navigate but hard going and muddy in places. After a few miles the track improves and leads down to a canal path. Along here Jon caught up with me, again moving very well, we chatted for a bit before he went on ahead looking good.
After the short canal path the trail turns over a bridge and up a steep muddy hill where motorbikes and 4x4s had churned up the terrain and were enjoying their Sunday. The motorcyclists were very considerate and polite as they destroyed the path, the 4x4s less so and more than once I was splashed while they tried to negotiate the trail. This went on for about another 5 miles, crossing over road junctions. At the top of a hill at about 125 miles I saw another runner ahead. It was Dan who had stopped. His feet were trashed and he was shivering with cold. I think he had slowed down in the preceding miles and suffered with the mud and weather. I tried to talk him into carrying but he had already decided to go home having run further than he had before, a shame but a great effort.
A few miles later the trail circles a glider field which gave me a few hundred yards to get rid of some of the accumulation of mud on my feet and body. Why is there never a suitable stick around when you need it? Another 2 or 3 miles of rutted, very muddy trail followed and then there a couple of miles of road leading up to the 131 mile checkpoint. I think this was the first time I had got here in daylight. Dave and Kath made me very welcome again and I even enjoyed a brief chat with them where I caught up on the rest of the runners. Cliff had apparently pulled out and Jon and Sean had taken wrong turnings and were both behind me but catching up fast to beat the cut-offs – I knew how that felt! I left, again motivated to try and keep ahead of the others as long as possible. A couple more miles of rutted mud led back to a longer road section through to Thistleton. From there the trail goes back across country. In previous years I had struggled here but this year it was light and the farmer had carved a path through the crops so I was able to carry on without too much hesitation, even if the signposts were missing.
Circling an airfield proved no problem this time and I carried on on the tracks, over the hills and through the villages until I reached Whitwell on the banks of Rutland Water. This was the last checkpoint before the finish with about 10k to go. Yvette was manning the station and the lemon cake and coke was enough of a boost to get me going quickly. Steve was apparently just ahead of me and Jon just behind me.
I set off through the country park, it was just starting to get dark again but was light enough to see and I exited the park a couple of miles later with enough light to not use my head-torch. I kept looking behind me as I didn’t want to get overtaken so late on. I was feeling really tired again and the hallucinations started again. This time I knew what was happening and managed to ignore what looked like jungle animals lining the path. They were in fact trees but I knew there were no giraffes or zebras near here!
I looked out for the lights of the road junction but they were still off to confuse me but I soon approached the roundabout just before Oakham and the finish. Peter, who had been manning the death-bus for the last couple of days, accompanied me for a short distance before I turned the corner, into the library grounds and the finish for 4th place.
As an added bonus the mayor of Oakham was there to meet me at the finish along with Mark and Alex. It was great to finish again, my 3 rd out of 3 attempts. Considering the attrition rate of this event I was dead proud.
Thanks yet again to Mark and Alex for organising a great event/challenge, it has got better each year even though I found this year the hardest. Also thanks to the many helpers this year – Drew, Claire, Fiona, Karen, Kath, Dave, Yvette, Peter and others who all made it more enjoyable. Congratulations to all the runners who toed the line, particularly Richard, Luke, Jon and Steve who all completed too. I look forward to next year…I think!