When: June 8th 2019
From: Bird In Hand Farm, Whiteshill, Stroud
To: Broadway Tower
Distance: 84.5 km / 52.5 miles
Elevation: +1,939m / -1,880m. Net +59m
Course: Mostly following the Cotswolds Way National Trail from Bird In Hand Farm, North of Stroud to Broadway Tower.
Other routes touched: Bruce Trail Friendship Trail, Wysis Way, Gustaf Holst Way, Gloucestershire Way, Cheltenham Circular Footpath, Wynchcombe Way, Isbourne Way, Warden’s Way, Wychavon Way (old), Windrush Way, Donnington Way, Wyche Way
Finish time: 14 hours 47 minutes
I wasn’t really up for this one. On previous Ultras I’d been mentally in top form, over excited and raring to go. I’d done my usual zero training, so no change there. What was different this time was that I also didn’t feel that I’d got enough rest or nutrition. Those were both my “keys to success” and I’d done neither. The problem was that Tower is renowned as being the toughest of the Race To The series.
Race To The Tower is 10 miles shorter than the Race to the Stones but it's significantly hillier. I got a reminder of this as my train pulled into Stroud through a steep valley. It was raining too. Booking a hotel right next to the train station was too tempting. I could just get on the first train back in the morning and not worry about it.
The thing is: that’s not me. I love Ultras and I never give up. It was still drizzling in the morning, but I woke up with my normal sense of puppy-like excitement. This would be an awesome day.
In the taxi ride to the start line I remembered my first Ultra. Back then I had absolutely no idea whether I could go that distance. It didn’t help that everyone I spoke to was on their 5th or more Ultra. The biggest tip that one of them told me that day was to run your own race. Don't change your plan on the day just because you’ve heard that someone else does it differently. Don’t worry about how fast, slow or gracefully other people are running. Just do your thing. I’ve always remembered that and it always works.
I was feeling good that I was now one of those that had done 5 Ultras. Then I met Gobi Man. Not only was this one of a long chain of Ultras, he’d also done several multi-day runs abroad. He’d done Marathon de Sables, a Peruvian Amazon Rain Forest Run and this race was just a warm up for a seven day Gobi race. I made a note of the company that runs these events (don’t tell my wife).
Suddenly it was race time and I snuck into an earlier wave to get off 10 minutes earlier. As usual I’d prepared a spreadsheet with detailed minutes-per-mile and checkpoint locations. After a few years of over-optimistic planning I’d refined my pace and stuck to 12 minute miles for the first half-marathon distance. After that I would drop a minute per mile every 10 miles.
As with previous Ultras, Timi (the wife) and my mum were my Support Crew. They drove to the Cotswolds late morning to meet me half-way. By then I was already an hour ahead of plan so we met further along the route. By then the damp start and a few misjudged puddles had soaked my trainers so my feet needed some attention. As much as Timi complains about the madness of the big runs, she does an outstanding job of patching me up and feeding me. It’s always a massive motivation to see both of them in the tough final stages.
The Cotswolds Way is stunning. Ultras tend to be in interesting areas but this was exceptionally beautiful. I love the UK National Trails and an Ultra is a great way to fully experience them. The varying terrain keeps you focused and helps you to be fully present in the environment in a way that road running often can’t. I did listen to some podcasts along the way, but for the majority of the 15 hours out there I was in "The Zone", fully present in the race.
I was surprised to see Gobi Man when I overtook him at mile 40. He’d started in the Wave before me and I’d assumed that he’d already be a couple of hours ahead. It turned out that he’d taken a wrong junction and gone 2km in the wrong direction. After that he’d lost his mojo and was having a tougher race. I felt bad for him but it secretly made me feel good about my own efforts.
In stark contrast to the evening before I felt on top form throughout the race. Even the long lonely twilight stretches were fine. These are the bits that can wear you down. Runners are now well spaced-out and you can go for a long time without seeing anyone. The long flat section towards Broadway was actually a bit of a slog. I could see Broadway Tower in the far distance from about 8 miles out. It didn’t seem too far but the final part was a curve into the town so it didn’t get closer for a few miles.
By Broadway it was fully dark and running through the High Street was a highlight. It’s a pretty village in daylight and magical when lit up at night. It was a warm Summer evening and the outside dining areas were packed. The claps and cheers of encouragement were much needed.
Just past the High Street it got quiet and dark again. The route turned right off the road and into fields again. This was the final mile and it was a bastard. There was no gentle finish, just a seemingly endless climb up to the top of the hill. Timi and mum had been there for half an hour. I was still 45 minutes ahead of time but slowing down. Finally, at the top of the hill and through the trees, the Broadway Tower appeared, lit up in lime green and marking the end of the double marathon. Timi was there at the final 100 metres and joined me to cross the finish line.
It’s a very different feeling crossing finish lines now. I used to get a wave of emotion about finishing something I didn’t think I could do. Now it’s not about proving anything so the feeling is more about satisfaction, enjoyment, excitement and just a bit of being absolutely bloody knackered.