"To much of what we do nowadays is a foregone conclusion". This was part of an email exchange with Oli Sinclair that tipped me towards doing the ONER. I had this weekend planned to run the Jurassic Coastal Challenge, 3 brilliant coastal marathons in 3 days. I had done this event 2 years ago and loved it. Around 5 hours of running each day and then time to relax, stretch, eat, talk and just enjoy being by the coast. I was really looking forward to it. But Oli's point was quite fair, there are not that many opportunities to do something seriously hard, something where finishing is not a given. 3 very hilly marathons run back to back starting at night would certainly qualify as one of those.
The ONER is young but already has an interesting history. in 2007 20 people started and 5 finished. In 2008 (when I did the JCC) around 40 started but the runners were pulled out after 10 miles because the weather was so bad. I remember being in the caravan on the Saturday night thinking the roof was going to blow off and wondering how people could run in such conditions. They ended up running about 55 miles. Last year the organisers (reluctantly I think) re-staged the event in August so the weather was better and there was more daylight and many more finished. This year they went back to the old time as there were suspicions that having it in summer made it too "easy".
So there were were, 6pm in the evening in some field near Charmouth in Dorset. The sun was about to set and many people I knew had just finished their second marathon of the weekend, the first starting where we were stood. We were to retrace their steps along the 2 marathons and then get a head start on them before they started their third at around 10am (or 9am as the clocks were going forward just to confuse us).
The start was very typical, a guy yells "GO" and 61 runners walk/jogged into a rhythm. Given that we could be on our feet for 24 hours no one was really keen to head to the front (and then be responsible for navigating). As always there are stiles and gates to pass which cause a few bottlenecks early on but no one is worried. As the field spread I noticed a couple set off in the distance and a whole trail of runners strewn across the hills. I never turn up to these things with the intentions to run with anyone and was in a crowd with Mark Cockbain, Allan Rumbles, Drew Sheffield and others. The groups got smaller and smaller as the sun set around an hour after the start. Only around 5 miles in there was a turn that a large group of us were debating. This is where Drew and some others left us and they appeared to be wandering out to sea, we could see their headlights and glow sticks in the distance. I think we ended up going the right way.
The Dorset Coast is very hilly. From the start we were ascending hills and then coming down stairways. Everyone walked these from the off, there were not a huge number of opportunities to run early on. This was made harder by the muddiness of the path. I had forgotten to pack trail shoes and was wearing road shoes. It had rained quite a lot the few days before and the 250+ runners who had run the days before had churned it up nicely. It would have been nice to keep our feet dry for as long as possible but within 10 miles we were ankle deep in mud. There was no point wasting energy and time trying to avoid it, I just ran right through. My choice of shoe did not seem to be a disadvantage, I was falling over at the same rate as everyone else. Mark always looked quite funny in the mud, like a baby giraffe. He'd curse quite a lot and wondered why they hadn't just covered it in tarmac. Allan and Drew were more like enthusiastic hippos, charging right in.
It was actually really frustrating and energy sapping to have to deal with so much mud so soon. It would have been nice to get ahead a bit on the sections that were normally good running, before our bodies started to fade but the mud was slowing us down quite a bit. As darkness fell I could not see what I was standing in any more but every now and then my feet would just go right through something.
This was the first time I had a serious kit check before an event. The guys were very strict on it and for good reason, the coast is notorious for sudden changes in conditions. My kit was checked fully, even ensuring that I had everything waterproofed in bags and I had their phone numbers stored in a fully charged phone. While giving the briefing Ben Mason (head of VOTWO) said that while we should all be wearing our head torches we should however try to run without switching them on. This seemed on to me at the time but I thought I'd try it out and it was amazing. When running with a head torch your focus narrows to a particular area that is lit and you are blind to everything else. The moon was full and exposed and running in the dark with little light was a joy. Much easier than I thought it would be. You have to trust your feet a bit more but it was absolutely true what Ben said, you can see in the dark.
It was most convenient to break this up into 3 marathons since the checkpoints were positioned approx every 10k. I was hoping to complete the first one in not much more than 5 hours but in the end it was more like 6. There was a very long stretch of mud approaching the road onto Portland where checkpoint 4 was located. We could see the island of Portland jutting out from the mainland from the start. It was a great sight to watch the sun set and the island light up though it didn't appear to get much bigger as we ran towards it.
This was the first checkpoint that we stopped at for some time and they were amazing. Set up in the back of a couple of vans and with some very helpful people fussing all over you. The guys were very obliging in filling my water pack and getting me all the coke I could drink. There was a van full of goodies to chose from. In VOTWO and many similar events you tend to be faced with a choice between food and science. On the food side we had pasta, sandwiches, chocolate bars and sweets. The science choice was cliff bars and some energy beans. In the middle of the night while I'm soaked with mud, cold and exhausted and with another 2 really hard marathons still to run the decision was easy. Food beats Science.
Portland was going to be a mixed bag. It was notorious for people getting lost as there are quite a few twists and turns in the coastal path which are easy to miss, especially in the dark when tired. On the other hand much of it is road which would give us a chance to make up a bit of time. Getting to the checkpoint at the lighthouse at Portland bill was fairly straightforward, there was one large hill and some trail that I recalled from the Portland Marathon. The Lighthouse was shinning it's light across the sea in the dark and was easy to see in the hills of Portland. Like with Paris last week and the Eiffel tower shining at night I thought those who had run this during the day were missing out. Lighthouses look fairly useless in the day, it was great seeing it in action.
At checkpoint 5 I had my first cup of coffee for 10 days. I had given up accidentally (when I had food poisoning) and decided to stay off it until this run. Previously when running in the night I had to drink lots of coffee as it had little effect with the huge amounts I normally drink. Now I was ready to reap it's benefits. At no point did I feel sleepy during the event, earlier though while wading through the mud I did think about just lying down on a bench, that's got to beat slipping around in the wet. The next section was along some quite tough coastal path that was very rocky. I had done this before in the Portland Marathon and normally it is brilliant to run on but only in the light. Taking on all those rocks in the dark was difficult as well as the ups and downs on narrow paths going to the sea and back up. This was the first and only time I used my torch.
Sure enough we did get lost in Portland, we had to do a loop of the prison which has walls and corridors sticking out of everywhere. We took a turning onto a road and as soon as we hit tarmac Mark sets off like roadrunner and tried to make some time up. Around half a down down this street we were stopped by some marshals in a van telling us that we had gone wrong and should head back, uphill. We re-traced our tracks and I was using a gps device that helped to keep us on the route, when I could be arsed taking it out of my pocket. We took in the lovely sight of a quarry (off route) and made some other mistakes but eventually made it back down onto the long road out of Portland.
It was quite an odd sight, we'd be scratching our heads trying to figure out which way to go and then a bunch of other runners would just appear from some place we never ran down and head off in another direction that we did not follow, almost as if they were in a different event. As soon as we hit the road Mark set off again and started talking about not finishing within the cut-offs. We were due to arrive at the halfway stage at 3.30, so 9 and a half hours for the first half giving us a 2 and a half hour buffer from the cut-offs. The times the checkpoints close are based on a 24 hour run. Getting more than 2 hours ahead in the first half was more than enough I thought, particularly as we had gotten lost and had to wade through all that mud in the dark. I thought that once it got light we'd be moving quicker and we were told there is a lot less mud in the second half. It was quite funny watching Mark panic a bit though. I think he likes seeing "DNF" against his name less so than being called a Mackem.
We were so fortunate with the weather for the night. Around 8 degrees and with no rain forecast until well into Sunday. It was hard enough with the rain that happened before and I can't imagine how difficult it would have been if it was raining too. At the halfway point we stopped again for more food and sat down a bit. The next section was on road and promenade through Weymouth, more chance to get some quick(ish) miles done. I started to feel a bit chilly and made a comment to Allan and Mark that I was regretting the choice to wear "Man Shorts" instead of "Girl Tights". Mark and Allan were both wearing shorts but everyone else at the CP were wearing tights and one got a little upset with my comment. I didn't mean anything by it. Well I did.
Weymouth was easy running, even with all the drunk people. It was around 4am and the town was alive with people staggering in and out of kebab and pizza places. The kind of thing I do when I have a weekend off running, which is not so much nowadays. We pushed the pace for a bit and headed out of the other side of the town and hit the hills again. At 5am the clouds started to light with the upcoming sun. Having run for near 12 hours it was good to see the sun on it's way again. This is the 5th time I have seen the sun set and rise again in the same race, each time is pretty special. It was made even better by running without a torch. If you haven't done either before I recommend it.
I did not really study any of the maps beforehand but had memory of what happened in the JCC a couple of years ago. I seemed to recall the end of day 2 being very hard with lots of climbs. We were about to hit that. The "easy" running of the previous 30k was not as easy as we'd hoped. The first marathon had really drained us and on approaching the hilly end to the second we were all exhausted. By this point it was just the 3 of us, normally there were more people around that we didn't know and running in groups is a good idea when map reading and darkness are involved.
At the start of the race I hadn't "agreed" to run with anyone. I see Mark, Allan, Drew and various others quite a lot at different ultra and we are usually in different states of disrepair according to what events we had done recently. We'd always chat in the early stages and then settle in to our own pace and get on with it. Usually we would all be separated but today (and yesterday) Mark, Allan and I were together throughout. It was almost as if it were decided early on when we were navingating our way around that farmhouse that we'd stick together till the end. It was great having those guys out there.
The approach to Lullworth Cove and the 2nd marathon finish was every bit as hilly as I remembered. The sunshine was not helping us get up huge flights of steps with uneven sized steps and many of the paths were still very slippy. It usually took a couple of breaks to get up each one. I'd turn around and sometimes sit down to take in some of the breathtaking views of the cliffs and the harsh terrain that we had just climbed. The route into CP 8 was every bit as hard as I remembered and I recall 2 years ago stopping at that point and recovering a little to complete the third marathon. I also recall the first half of that third marathon being even harder than the end of the second, with some truly massive climbs and much more steep, proper hands and knees climbing sometimes. Unfortunately today I was not about to be whisked off in a van to a BBQ and a nice bed, having just scrambled over miles of harsh hills I had another marathon of them coming up.
Lullworth Cove arrived at around 7.30 in the morning, that gave us 10.30 hours to do the last marathon. There was a long but shallow stairway down to the CP which was quite hard work in our conditions. I think this was our longest CP stop, I just lay down in the grass for a few minutes and thought about how nice it would be to fall asleep. I had changed my socks at the previous CP which gave me a little relief from the mud that filled my road shoes. I still don't think it mattered what I wore, even slippers. Times like this you really start to crave the things we normally take for granted, like a bed or a shower, a clean pair of socks or a toothbrush. Even a toilet with handrails. The staff again fussed over me, making sure I had enough water and was full of food before heading out on the last marathon. It would be about an hour before the first group of the JCC people would start running. It felt quite nice getting ahead of them and making the path muddy for them as they had so kindly done for us the 2 days before.
10.30 hours for a marathon sounds really easy in any condition, that is slow walking. It did not help however that the start of this marathon involved the biggest and hardest climbs yet. Not just the number and the height of them but the steepness too. In our conditions there was a need to have something to hold onto and we had a choice of weak tree branches or rusty barbed wire fence. Those hills were all harder than before and as soon as they went up they went right back down again giving no chance of doing any running. Those small breaks where it was possible to run Mark would get us all moving. 45 minutes after we had left Lullworth we saw a sign that said it was 2 miles away. This instantly made us do the sums, that is little over 2 miles an hour which is really pushing it for a finish in the cut-off.
It didn't help that we managed to wander off course somehow and inland quite a lot. There were a few firing ranges around which we would have to go around but for some reason we went on the wrong side and all of a sudden when I looked to my right I could see a huge mass of land between us and the coast. I could not even see the sea. As if by magic a VOTWO van pulled up and told us we were way off course and had to go back. Allan looked (and sounded) rather vexed at this point and looked like he might want to push someone off a cliff. Luckily for us we were miles away from one, that being the problem in the first place. It did not take too long to correct the mistake though. We took a road then a hill (special bonus hill) back onto the coast where we saw the first runners from the JCC bobbing along.
The detour had set us back a little but we were still in good spirits. Given that most of the JCC runners had not passed us yet and we only had 30k to go meant that we were likely to finish in good time. It was a lovely morning and a lot of walkers took advantage and were on the path. All were very nice and would cheer and stand aside to let us stagger through. I took every opportunity to answer their questions about what the hell we were doing. "SEVENTY EIGHT MILES?". There were some more really steep climbs that I had to use my arms to drag myself up and now we had the added challenge of trying not to get in the way of others. There was a steep slope that was so muddy that I lost my shoe in it. When I put my foot back in and bent down to put it back on I got cramp. I was stuck there for about a minute with my feet glued to the mud and cramp and the only way out was to roll over like a pig in mud and get the shoe back on. I was really sick of the mud by then, it wasn't wet any more it was just like glue. While we were laughing and cursing at the ridiculousness of going up only to go straight back down again Mark commented "You're doing the UTMB this year aren't you? It is just like this, only that's 2 days long".
CP 10 was a huge milestone and we rewarded ourselves with a sit down. We now had 6.30 hours to run a half marathon and were told by the guys there that the last 21k were "easy". Just one more biggish hill and otherwise quite runnable. I felt in quite good shape all things considered. My calves and quads were not hurting at all as they usually do in hilly events. The soles of my feet were very sore and I had a blister on my heel which was causing some bother. My right knee was also hurting, probably from running 65 miles on a slightly slanted path. It's always nice when doing hard races with cut-offs to get to the point where you know you can just walk and still finish. We were at that stage now, the last 13 miles were fairly easy by the standards of before but we were keen on getting it finished.
We could see the next checkpoint already, it was a lighthouse in Swanage. As we started to run we saw more and more runners of the JCC pass. It was easy to tell us apart, we had mud all over our legs whereas the JCC people's legs were pristine. We got a lot of congratulatory pats on the back from the runners as they flew past us. For the first time as I was leaving the checkpoint I met James Elson, a fellow British Badwater entrant for this year. It was good to finally meet him though I probably was not my most conversational. Soon into the stage Ian Sharman came flying past, he had won the 2 previous days and was winning the third. He looked very comfortable and more so than Huw Lobb who as a few minutes behind him. A few others passed before Claire Shelley bounced by in her usual way.
Not long after that I fell over and twisted my ankle. I was gutted that with little over 12k to go I was reduced to a walk as it was quite painful. Mark and Allan waited a little to see how I was and I told them to go an ahead as it was likely I'd be walking the rest. It was a real shame as I was really looking forward to a strong and quick finish. The last checkpoint seemed to take an age to come as I tried running a few times to test the ankle but stopping quickly each time. I finally staggered into the final checkpoint and filled my water for what I thought might be a 4 hour walk to the finish and was really surprised to see Mark and Allan still there. They could have been long gone by now. I took some painkillers off Mark and we all set off together, initially walking through a very slippy harbour. Then Mark would start pointing to things as he had done for the last 20 odd miles and say "Let's run to that building/phonebox/beach house/chav". It kept us focused and going till the end.
There was a minor wander inland up one last hill and then back out onto the beach in Studland. I definitely remember this from 2 years ago and was promised that the finish was less than 2 miles away. Shortly before hitting the beach we saw 3 other dishevelled ONER's hobbling along quite slowly. Allan immediately said "If we take these bastards we can get 10th place". I had no idea what place we were in but he seemed keen on getting ahead of them and as we were a group I had no choice but to participate. We ran the whole section of the beach, occasionally being overtaken by some sprightly JCC runners. In the distance we saw a shape of a man pointing inwards and we knew it was pointing to the finish line. Gemma appeared taking photos then pointed us into the sand dunes where we were told there was just half a mile to go.
These were not big sand dunes, none of them were as tall as me however they annoying enough to make us say "Bastard" quite a lot. Then there were some deep puddles to wash our feet in as we made it to the finish area. Mark yelled "THERE'S A BOGIE ON OUR TAIL", and we looked around to see a runner steaming in to beat us to the finish. He suspected it was a ONER and I really couldn't care less, in fact it was a JCCer and it didn't matter. It had just started to rain as we crashed into the finish area with arms raised and been missed my the cameras completely. 21 hours and 7 minutes.
Soon after we staggered into the finish area I saw Jany Tsai, Toby Mellville and Jo Proudlove come in shortly followed by Nick Morrison-Smith (who I stole a few photos off here). It was great to see them again. I had not stopped moving since they wished my luck 24 hours earlier. We heard news that the weather had turned really bad and they were pulling the race at the last checkpoint. I can't imagine getting that far and not being able to finish but I think in the end everything was ok.
I don't like to take part in debates as to which race is harder than which and what is the toughest race ever, they always end up descending into a pointless list of quotes and stats. I know I'm going to be asked to compare this with some of the other things I've done and it will be hard to do so. The races I've got the most satisfaction from are those where finishing is not a given. Nowadays most 50 mile runs are just that, a foregone conclusion that by hook or crook I'll get to the end. This on the other hand was different, for so much of the run I (and Mark and Allan) were occasionally worried for our finish. It was only at CP 10 with a half marathon to go that we felt like we could finally relax. For 65 miles it was in the balance, it is quite stressful at the time but when it is lifted it is an amazing feeling.
The West Highland Way race and the Bob Graham Round were mentioned as comparable to this, I don't know having not done either. I think all people on the starting line of these events have a healthy fear of failure and a realistic expectation that it could happen. What if it rained all night or we got even more lost? If I twisted my ankle earlier or didn't have Mark and Allan to run with? There are a lot of things that could have happened that would jeopardise that 24 hour finish. The prospect of giving it everything and still failing is what brings people to do these things. It's what made me decide to do this instead of the 3 day option.
I have recently been reading a very good paper about how to run the Badwater Ultramarathon. Almost in the first paragraph the author had some things to say on the "hardness" of races. You can make any race more difficult, by adding more hills, more miles, more extreme weather or something else, but it does not really matter because if you to the same people will still finish it. There comes a point in some races where you have to go further than you can imagine and this was certainly one of those. Mark has proved himself over the past decade as a man who can finish anything and even he would admit that this was really tough. Allan has breezed through the ultras he has done until now and this was his biggest test so far and he succeeded. I'd like to think that I was one of those people who can finish anything, I think I am. Finishing the ONER though was the first evidence of this I had gained since I kissed the foot of Leonidas. I have a few more tests this year that are anything but forgone conclusions.