Tuesday 2 April 2013

Viking Way Ultra Race Report - April 2013

Potential Vikings before their adventure
Strap yourself in, this could be a long one!

The Viking Way is a 147.8 mile route running from the Humber Bridge in North Lincolnshire to Oakham in Rutland. Quite what the Vikings thought was so important in Oakham to require such a long march from their landing point I have no idea, but I guess getting away from Hull is excuse enough. Although they might want to fire their navigator as it's not exactly a direct route. Regardless, the route is one of the longest marked trails in the country, and was the perfect location for a new race. Last year Mark Cockbain, an extremely accomplished ultra runner who has done pretty much everything you would care to mention, announced his plans to hold the race, with the caveat that all runners would have to meet a minimum requirement to be allowed in. Somehow my entry was accepted even though all I had done by that point was the South Downs Way and a few smaller races But unfortunately it was not to be, as falling off my bike in the ice and attempting to run the Thames Path 100 miler on what would later turn out to be a pretty dodgy ankle put me out of the running for a good few months last year. The race was a great success, and was won jointly by Neil Bryant and Pat Robbins in 29:22. Only seven people (out of about 30 starters) finished inside the 40 hour cutoff.

Just how drunk were those Vikings on mead?!
Not being one to let things slip, I signed up again for this year determined to make the start line, if not the finish. Unfinished business annoys me. Unstarted business is even worse! This was my first race since the Piece of String Fun Run in November, and I was really excited to get back to it! I had three aims for this race (in order of importance/likelihood):
  1. Make the start line (queue terrified cycling throughout the winter)
  2. Finish the race
  3. Win the race
I'm not really overly-bothered with winning the races I enter; I do these stupid things because I really enjoy them. But I do like to put in the best effort that I can, and as long as I feel like I have put in the best performance I can I am happy no matter what the outcome. However, it would be quite nice to actually win something having come close a couple of times now. 

So on Easter weekend, I travelled on the Highway to Hull (well, railway really) with suitably apt and completely unintentional musical accompaniment from AC/DC with Dave Merret, Jenner Bradley and Tom Foreman, and met up with Dave Fawkner, Riccardo Guissani and Jo Kilkenny in Hull. From there we had a rather interesting taxi drive to the wrong hotel on the other side of the city in a car that broke down several times on the motorway. We just about managed to get back to the station where we found a much better taxi driver. Well, he got us to the hotel in one piece anyway. I was sharing a room with my running wife Jo (my wife is very understanding - last time Mimi Anderson joined us as well), and after registering, saying hi to lots of people, and eating, we had an early night. 

Mark is not one to molly-coddle people, and this race would be fairly minimal in terms of support with checkpoints around 18 miles apart. No pacers allowed, no GPS, no poles (walking poles of course, he's not xenophobic [Urwin, 2009]), frankly we should think ourselves lucky to be allowed to use a map! But the lack of GPS was quite nice as it meant that I could just run on feel and not worry about pace. When there's nearly 150 miles to go, pushing for a pace that isn't comfortable could be disastrous. 

We arrived at the viewing point underneath the Humber Bridge that would be the official start of the race. The weather forecast for the weekend was going to be interesting - generally sunny, cloudy, with low but pleasant temperatures of around 4C, but with the threat of snow and very low temperatures overnight. I got a worrying shock when Wouter Hamelinck turned up in trousers. Crikey, things must be looking bad! Although to be fair he had run the Thames Path 100 the previous week, so wasn't expecting to be super speedy.

Thataway! I think. I wouldn't trust my directions...
I was in my usual shorts and long-sleeved shirt combo, with a Buff bandana to keep my ears warm. I had originally planned to wear my new Salomon Sense Mantras, but had washed them recently and they felt a bit stiff, so I decided to stick with the Speedcross instead which have been well and truly tried and tested. I have been wearing Drymax light trail socks since the Piece of String last year where they worked brilliantly, and for me they are the perfect sock; no messing around with lubricating feet (it affects the hydrophobic inner layer), just pull them on and head out the door. For this race I was also trying out some Dirty Girl gaiters which I have never used before to avoid having to mess around emptying stones and things out of my shoes. This paragraph sounds a bit like an advert. Other brands are also available of course!

The horn went and we were off! I jokingly headed out at a bit of a sprint, but then settled down into a comfortable pace (still able to hold a conversation sort of pace). The morning was absolutely beautiful with bright blue skies and hardly a cloud in sight. It was fantastically uplifting and I very quickly settled  into a good place in my mind. Considering my propensity for stats, I actually very rarely record my runs and almost never wear my Garmin anymore. This year I have turned my weekday runs into more functional speed sessions so have started to use it again for this purpose, but generally I like to get out there with as little stuff as possible (as anyone who saw my half-naked running of the Portsmouth Coastal Marathon in December will testify). The finish line was so far away that there was no point in worrying about it - just run! That's the way to approach this race, very similar to the Piece of String. Just run, until somebody tells you to stop. Simple.

I had recced the first 50 or so miles before last year's race with Jo and Mimi, so a lot of it was semi-familiar. My biggest worry with this race was navigation. I can navigate just fine, but what I'm not so great at is doing it on the move while running fast. It's definitely a knack, and I am getting a lot better at it, but it still makes me very nervous. The route is waymarked, but sometimes very sporadically (or in some places marked as a completely different trail which is useful). If at some point you think you've gone wrong, do you retrace your steps to the last point where you knew where you were (potentially losing a lot of time), or do you push on until you can be sure that you are wrong/right? A lot of times, it is not obvious that you are going the right way until you hit the next major feature, so taking the former approach can be quite costly.

A beautiful start to the day!
The first potential navigational snaffoo occurs pretty soon into the race. After a mile or so of running alongside the Humber, we headed off along a trail which was still very snowy after the recent arctic spring the UK had been subjected to. Having to plough through regular thigh-high snow drifts for a mile or so was actually quite fun. I would soon regret those thoughts. The Viking Way takes a sudden left hand turn from this main path which is very easy to miss (not being sign-posted and all), but luckily I remembered about it from my recce. However, when I got to what I believed to be the turning, a marshall was sat in his car and told me to go straight on. Maybe I was wrong and we hadn't reached the turning yet? Oh well, he must know what he's talking about. So I went straight on - and promptly fell arse over tit on some black ice, landing heavily on my knee and opening up a pretty sizeable gash. Oh well, only 145 miles to go. I was still a little unsure, so checked my map again. I was almost positive that this was the correct turning, so went back to check. The marshall was less sure now, and said that maybe I was right. I might have asked, "What sort of marshall doesn't know the route", to which he may have replied, "Who said I was a marshall?". I would later wish that I had learnt the lesson not to follow the advice of other people...

I rolled into the first checkpoint at Bigby (15.8 miles), where Mark began telling me off for being too fast. A little worrying to hear when you still have 130 miles to go... Other than my knee, I was feeling really good though, and the cold weather was helping to numb any pain I may have otherwise felt. Shorts were definitely the right choice! 

About 30 miles into the race, the weather changed and it started to snow. It was here that I made another mistake, as I missed a very well hidden turning off of the main track. I only noticed when the track started to turn off and became less well-defined which unfortunately was a while later. I retraced my steps, and started to search for where I could have missed the turning. I had built up about a half hour lead on the other runners in the first section, but had now wasted it. The second place runner, Cliff King, came running up and pointed me in the right direction, annoyingly obvious when you know it's there!

Cliff ran with me for a while until the Tealby aid station (30.5 miles) where I stopped for a quick chat with Mark and Drew while I restocked. I didn't want to hold Cliff up so told him not to wait for me. I actually prefer to run on my own anyway, so that I can do my own thing and run my own race.

Not entirely sure what I'm in the process of eating here but it doesn't look good!
I could see Cliff up ahead, and could see his footprints in the big snow drifts that were becoming a little too regular for my liking... About 10 miles from the 50 mile checkpoint, I came across Cliff standing at the side of the road waving. His brand new bladder had developed a split and had leaked water all over his back. We rescued what was left and split it between my two bottles, then took one each to take us to the next checkpoint where our drop bags would be for the first time. The bottles contained GU Brew, or witches' brew as Cliff called it. Bitches' brew if you're a Miles Davis fan. Cliff was expecting his second child in the next week or two, so conversation inevitably turned to children. We stopped in a little shop and I was treated to an ice-cream. What a very civilised race this was!

We reached the 50 mile point at Fulletby in just over 9 hours, not bad at all given we were only a third of the way there. Unfortunately Cliff had to pull from the race due to personal reasons and was able to get a lift to the train station with Peter Foxall. I grabbed my overnight gear (reflective gear, head torch, spare clothes just in case) and headed off for the next section.

This section was relatively straightforward, and it was a lovely evening for running. I still felt great and was able to keep walking down to a minimum. I was listening to Salem's Lot on audio book which some people might find a little creepy, but I figured I could probably still outrun a vampire if it came to it. I got into the checkpoint at Stixwould (63.7 miles) with a very annoying cough that had been getting worse throughout the day. It wasn't bad, but my regular coughing was starting to bug me. I suspected the damp air during the night section would only make things worse, but if that was the worst thing to worry about at this stage then that was just fine and dandy!

Photo taken by a random photographer outside Barnetby le Wold 
The sun was going down and the temperature was dropping rapidly, so I decided to put my waterproof trousers and windproof on. I know, I know. What a wimp! But given that it was cold enough to freeze the water in my bottle (as well as Javed's head torch!), I figured that it was a good idea. I didn't want to be put out of the running with hypothermia. Apparently several other runners suffered quite badly and were helped out by kind members of the public, which is really nice to hear (nice to hear about the good Samaritanism, not about people pulling out).

The cold and the dark were making things very difficult, and this was not helped by some very annoying navigational issues. Most of the time the problem wasn't knowing where I was, but that the layout of the land didn't match the map. In the most annoying instance, the path led into a horse paddock that was completely surrounded by electric fencing. I went back to the entry point to confirm that I was in the right place, and there was the Viking Way marker. So where the heck did it go next? I walked around the entire perimeter, which was surprisingly large (must have been a very important horse), several times but to no avail. I looked at the map to see if there was another way through, but this would involve a lot of backtracking and going a long way around. In the end I went back to where I originally expected the exit to be, and found that a small section was covered in a non-electrified coating (I think - well it wasn't buzzing and sparking at me anyway). This meant that with a bit of work (easier when not wearing a backpack, with freezing cold hands having just run 70 miles) you could climb through without killing yourself. I still wasn't entirely convinced this was right, but I took the shot, and lo and behold up ahead I found the exit from the field. In the daytime this would probably have been obvious. Oh well!

Also there were several times where the map indicated that there should be a path through a field, but the path hadn't been ploughed by the farmer so it was not obvious exactly which way to go (particularly if  the destination was a long way off in the distance). Another time, I knew that there should be a path behind some houses, but I just couldn't figure out for the life of me how to get to it. No matter which way I tried to approach it, there seemed to be no way to get through. In the end I found the entrance hidden behind what appeared to be a loading area of a hospital. Obviously. This section just did not go well navigationally. Once I found the route, the running was great and I was still keeping up a good pace. But I was conscious of how much time was being wasted on route confirmation.

Approaching the checkpoint just outside of Lincoln also took far longer than it should have done. The map looked quite simple - follow the route, then turn south along the road until you hit the river, then follow the river until the bridge. I followed the route, turned south (following a route marker I might add) and suddenly ended up at the end of a field at a fence with a very angry sounding dog barking at me. Hmm. That's not right. So I went back to the road, and tried to orientate myself to the right course. Eventually I was able to make my way down to the river, and turned West (following a route marker I might add again) - only to be blocked in my route by a massive metal fence. There had already been several cases of the real route being hidden behind obstacles, so after a bit of fruitless searching I decided to just push through it. Eventually, after almost being chased by the biggest bull I have ever seen, I found the turn off up towards the checkpoint (81.2 miles) where Drew and Claire were waiting.

Timings were looking good until Lincoln!
I had built up quite a lead up to the previous checkpoint, but suspected that taking 5 hours to cover 17 miles probably hadn't helped matters. Next up was the section that terrified me the most - running through Lincoln high street on a Saturday night. Finding my way there wasn't too bad, except for the fact that the park was closed and I had to take a detour. The cathedral in Lincoln sits at the top of a steep hill (cleverly called Steep Hill) which would take in all of the clubs and pubs that Lincoln has to offer. I prepared myself as best as possible, then got ready to leg it as fast as I could. I was in the lucky position of being the first one through, so I think that by the time people realised what the hell I was doing it was too late - I was gone. There were plenty of shouts after the fact, but nothing too hurtful to my delicate temperament. I hope that no other runners got any abuse in this section. Hopefully everybody just thought they were seeing things.

All things considered, the night time section was a bit of a disaster with regards to navigation. I rocked up at the Wellingore checkpoint (96.8 miles) just as the sun was rising at 5am (ignoring the daylight saving time change). This means that the last 33.1 miles had taken nearly 10 hours. Not my greatest effort! On the plus side (in the nicest possible way), it looks like everybody else took a similar time so it wasn't just me! I'd be interested to do this section in the daylight to see if it was just the fact that it was night time that caused the problems; I suspect so. Despite this I was still enjoying myself - it was just enjoyment of running punctuated by moments of frustration. I really like night-time running; the silence and the solitude, where the only universe that exists is that which you can see in the small circle of light in front of you. If I were a philosophical kind of guy I would probably say something insightful and meaningful right now...

I decided to take a little extra time at the checkpoint to make sure that I was all set for the final 50 miles. I ate some food (about 2 bites of a pasty, a mouthful of pork pie, the usual), changed my socks, stripped back down to my shorts, and reapplied lubrication to my, ahem, nether regions. Just think of how many people have done that then reached into a bowl of jelly beans at an aid station on your next race. Don't worry, I had gloves on for the rest of the race! Just as I was leaving, Wouter came into the checkpoint having made up some time with his amazing navigation. I think it's the beard...

A little bit of snow. It got much worse!
The next section looked like it was going to be pretty simple. 17 miles pretty much straight South. Easy! Time to make up some of the time that I had lost overnight. After a little bit of stiffness setting off, I got into a nice rhythm and started to pick up the pace. It was a great feeling to be moving at what felt like a fantastic pace (I suspect it was really an incredibly slow waddle), particularly with the newly risen sun  on my face. After the freezing temperatures of the previous night, the beautiful blue skies and gorgeously warm golden rays were an absolute delight.

I came into the Marston checkpoint (113.5 miles) feeling incredibly happy. Things were going brilliantly (despite the slow-going of the night section) and I was having an absolute blast. The chaffing that I had developed earlier seemed to have subsided (or had become so bad it had gone numb), and my feet still felt great. The night section had been the part that I was most worried about due to the cold, and from this point onwards I would be in uncharted territory distance-wise, but now that we were into what looked to be a beautiful spring day there was no doubt in my mind that I could finish this. As I got into the checkpoint, I had a brief dizzy spell as the lack of sleep started to catch up with me. I sat down while my bottles were refilled, but got myself sorted and headed off onto what would be the last long section of the race (18 miles). However, as I was about to turn off the road back into the fields, I realised I had made a rather silly mistake. My bottles were both sat back at the aid station. Doh! I turned tail and ran back up the hill to the checkpoint, but luckily Patrick noticed and drove down to meet me. Phew! That could have been interesting!

The next section was not a whole lot of fun. I had been forewarned about how bad this section had been last year, with lots of mud churned up by all-terrain vehicle riders. Oh how I wish all we had to deal with was mud. Instead, the snow drifts were back and were worse than ever. Unrelenting is the word I believe! I like snow as much as the next person, but this was a running race - I wanted to run dagnabbit! Wading through thigh-high snow drifts for miles at a time, particularly after having run over 100 miles already, was getting annoying. It was a pretty straight path so there were no navigational problems, but it was impossible to get any momentum going.

There is some lovely countryside out there in the Wolds
My head was feeling a bit woolly by this stage, and I was really starting to feel the lack of sleep. Ordinarily this wouldn't be a problem as the act of running would usually wake me up, but slogging through the snow just wasn't helping matters. Combined with that, my iPod had run out of battery, and annoyingly my spare seemed to have lost its charge in my bag. Instead, I was stuck with the last song I had heard (Beelzeboss by Tenacious D) going round and round like the first song you hear when your alarm goes off in the morning. No matter what I tried singing, I just couldn't get that song out of my head. I stopped briefly to phone Jen to let her know I was still going strong, but that the conditions meant that I would be a lot later than I had hoped.

I came into the Sewstern checkpoint (131.2 miles) to find Mark, Alex and others cheering me in. Mark had taken to calling me Chuck Norris since I told him about my black belt in Tae Kwon Do earlier in the race. I don't think Chuck Norris could run the Viking Way though... Despite the massive slow down, I was apparently still quite far out in front, so I assumed that everybody was finding it tough out there. There weren't too many people left in the race now, as many people had unfortunately been beaten by the previous night's cold weather. It's a real shame as I'm sure that once the Sunday morning rolled around many people would have found a new lease of life and been able to push to the end.

Waiting for me at the end. What better prize could there possibly be?!
There was now only 17 miles left until the finish; 10 miles to a mini checkpoint at the edge of Rutland Water, then 6 miles into Oakham itself. When Mark told me that the nearest competitor was still quite far behind, I stupidly thought about winning. Up until this point, I was just trying to run, without worrying too much about what other people were doing or allowing it to dictate things too much. I was here to complete the race first and foremost. But now there was a real chance that I could win one of the toughest ultra races in the UK. I phoned Jen again to let her know that I was into the last stretch, and found out from my brother-in-law that they were coming to cheer me in. The thought of my beautiful baby girl and my gorgeous wife waiting for me at the end was an amazing thought, and I headed off to Rutland water with purpose. I could do this. Baring something stupid, this was in the bag.

Oh what a stupid thing to say...

I arrived into the Rutland Water checkpoint and saw Javed waving to me. "How many people are ahead?!" I shouted. "Wouter has just come in, Lee left about 20 minutes ago", came the reply. "Shit!", I shouted. "Shit, shit, shit!!!".

I didn't stop. I ran straight through, with Javed kindly pointing the way to the path that would take me around Rutland Water and across the bridge to Oakham. 20 minutes ahead, with about 7 miles to go. Could I catch him in that time? I didn't stop to drink, I didn't stop to eat, I didn't stop to pee, I just ran as fast as my legs could possibly take me (so probably not that fast), hoping to catch sight of him in the distance. If I could see him ahead, I would be able to catch him. "Come on", I thought, "you're nearly there. Think of Jen. Think of Charlotte. Think of the people that are probably wondering what the bloody hell has happened to you!". And so I ran into the night, aiming across the water to the lights of Oakham beyond. No matter how hard I pushed, they never seemed to be getting any closer, and there was just no sign of Lee up ahead. I came into Oakham high street with Drew and Claire cheering me on, and turned the corner to see the finish line at Oakham library. People cheered, and I stopped briefly to give Charlotte a kiss. I finally crossed the line in 36:35, and was handed what is possibly the most sought-after medal in the UK ultra-running scene. This thing is hhuuuuuuuuuuuuuugggggggggeeeeeee! If it had been raining I could have sheltered under it!

Totally worth it!
I sat down before the lack of sleep and the fact that I hadn't eaten anything in the last two hours caught up with me. It was really nice to see people at the end. Mark and Alex who had organised the whole thing brilliantly, Simon Robinson who had come down to cheer my through the line (sorry for keeping you waiting around for so long!), Pam Storey who gave me a big hug at the end (despite how sweaty and smelly I was), Claire and Drew who had worked so hard throughout the whole race (even after doing the same the previous week at the Thames Path 100), Jen and Trevor who had been hanging around for hours to see me, Lee who was in the process of putting on some warmer clothes after his fantastic finish (lovely and warm when running, but shorts and a vest quickly become poor choice when you stop!), and all of the other supporters and crew.

In total this year saw 6 out of 33 starters  (18 %) claim the title of True Vikings. Not quite Barkley (two finishers this year), but not far off! The race was won by Lee Brazel in 36:05, Wouter was third in 36:56, Stephen Forde came in in 38:42, Riccardo Giussani in 38:19, and Andy Horsely became the only person to finish both years' races coming in in a nail biting 39:53 - only 7 minutes before the cutoff!

So there it was, I had finished and come second in what is certainly amongst the toughest ultras in the UK. And yet I was disappointed in my performance. It's pathetic I know, but unfortunately I'm far too much of a perfectionist and tend to focus far too much on what I can do to improve than on what went well. It's both a blessing and a curse, but regardless it's very much a defining feature of me and certainly isn't going to change any time soon. Most important is that I measure my expectations and my performance on my own abilities and not on that of other people. I never went into this event to race it, but to know that I lost out on the win not through performance but through stupidity is very frustrating. That's not to say that Lee wouldn't have caught me anyway of course, as he was absolutely flying towards the end!

Full sized fried egg used for scale...
So how did that happen? Well, long story short, it was navigation again. I got lost trying to get to a little village called Exton after following directions from a random passer by (I hadn't learnt from the start of the race), and because I was so paranoid about losing time, I didn't want to retrace my steps. I thought I was on the right path, but it took me to a different woods than I was expecting so that when I got out of the other side I was in completely the wrong place. By the time I stopped, breathed, composed myself, and sat down with the map to work things out, it was clear that this was going to cost me. If it had happened earlier I may have been able to pull it back. But this late in the game, it was over.

But looking back on things, I'm over it - no bitching or moaning or feeling sorry for myself. Sure it would have been nice to have kept the lead and finally taken a win, but hey that's part of the journey. I'll just have to try again next year! And boy, what a journey it was! Despite the snow, despite the cold, despite the navigation, and despite the final fluff, I had an absolute blast out there! There weren't many times that I didn't have a smile on my face, happy to be out doing what I love. I haven't been doing this for very long, and to have room to improve is a really nice situation to be in. Certainly the good things far outweigh the bad:

Bad things
  1. The snow was an absolute arse to deal with
  2. My night time navigation needs some work (although to be fair most of the time I was in fact correct in where I thought I was and should be going, it just took time to confirm it)
  3. I cocked up the end pretty badly
Good things
  1. Gear choice was spot on (I have very little to show for my journey except for a bright red nose from the cold, and one or two blisters)
  2. Hydration was perfect (two 500ml bottles, one with water or electrolytes and one with half cola, half water)
  3. Nutrition was perfect (about 10-15 gels, and a few bits and pieces at the checkpoints. Not much but it worked perfectly for me)
  4. I can easily keep up a good pace for this long a distance (it's just that running in the wrong direction isn't terribly helpful...)
  5. I really, really enjoyed it
To me, the last point is the kicker. I wouldn't do this if it wasn't fun. Sure sometimes it hurts. Sure sometimes it can be frustrating. But if you're having fun then who cares? The most amazing thing to me was when I returned and saw the amazing messages from my friends, family and well-wishers on Twitter and Facebook. It really means a lot to me how supportive everyone was, and I'm so pleased to have made so many amazing friends through this sport. Sorry to have disappointed everyone following along at home, but at least my little twist ending kept everybody on their toes! And hey, as long as improvements can be made, things can only get better. So now I'm already thinking about improving my time from last year's South Downs Way. This weekend is a really good sign that this is possible, so as far as I'm concerned it's onwards and upwards. And before that, I am travelling over to the island of La Palma to take part in the fabulous Transvulcania where I get to compete against some of the biggest names in our sport. Somehow I don't think I'll be coming in second there! Roll on May!


  1. You write really really good race reports, and you are really good at running. And you do maths for a living. You are properly living the dream Sam.

    Anyway well done, epic performance in those conditions.

  2. Was very exciting to follow on Twitter. Shame you had to wimp out with vaseline and trousers ;-) but bloody good effort sir. I doff my buff to you

  3. Epic performance as was expected in an event like this. Great report too, I cannot believe how you recall this amount of detail.

    The journey is everything mate. Well done again mate

  4. Well done Sam, great effort!

  5. Fantastic write up, I really really enjoyed it. Congratulations and commiserations all in one. Hopefully I may well bump into you at the Transvulcania gathering :)

  6. Good report Sam, I got lost in that field with the horses the first time I did it. Well done on the finish :-)

  7. Great effort Sam and entertaining write up. Congratulations.


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