Behind the runners: How volunteering can make you a better ultra-runner. 

I’ve just taken part in an endurance event that involved about 40 hours of being awake and I only ran 16 miles. And I have LOVED every single second of it. 

This weekend I did my first big girl bit of volunteering with the legends that are Centurion on the SDW100. I’ve wanted to give some time to these guys for ages, but last year’s test pilot outings and stupid running schedule, coupled with bouts of abject misery and pity parties meant it was a no go for me. I also decided this year that my aim for 2020 was to do the Centurion 100 Grand Slam  -  great timing when I have just moved away from a fairly lucrative career path in London to live in the sticks with £4.20 to my name. So I’m going to work to get those places and turns out it’s the best thing I could possibly do. 

I’ve volunteered and marshalled before – I’ve done it for White Star and Rat Race and I’ve loved it, but this my friends, this was something else. This experience has made me love ultra-running and the community around it more than I ever thought possible. This experience has made me a better ultra-runner without even running a step. 

 I’d offered to crew and pace my pal Rosanna for SDW100 already. It was her first go at an organised 100 miler and, as I did it last year, I was happy to help. I love Rosanna, and I wanted to see her cross that line. In my head, I thought I could easily fit in volunteering around crewing and pacing and, having roped him indoors into the pacing bit too, we could split it up. He was going to do the 54-84 mile bit and I was going to do the death march 84-100 mile bit. That gave me time for sleeps. That also meant we would have to do the volunteering early – you need to do at least 8 hours to guarantee a place at the following years event. 

Me at the end of last years SDW100. Fucking shagged.

Me at the end of last years SDW100. Fucking shagged.

I’ll admit I have been a bit scared of Centurion. They are such a slick operation, and they seem to come with a ready-made family around them. It’s like you’re at a party, acting like a dick, and Centurion walk in, like the guys from Grease, and everyone is scared because they are SO cool and confident. They don’t make a lot of noise, they just sit there looking cool and doing stuff right. You really want to be friends with them, but you’re not sure how. That makes sense right?! In reality, they are extraordinarily personable as a team, welcoming, professional and totally lacking in stress. If at any point James or Nici was stressed, I did not see it. 

Saturday morning saw us up at 3.50am, after 5 hours sleep in a rain lashed field just outside Winchester. It had literally hammered it down all night, and I had slept in a tent from Morrisons that resembled a Sainsburys Bag for Life. I was on registration that morning, which was actually really good fun. I’m not sure the runners found my hilarious japes fun, but I did, mainly because I was tired. I felt like I got to know loads of them just by handing them their numbers. It was really exciting to see them filter in through the tent. First timers, packing and repacking their bags, nervously making sure every single thing was in place, old hands quietly contemplating who else was in the running to win, grand slam winners, grand slam contenders, people I knew, people I knew of, people I had fan-girled over, people that I didn’t know. The abiding memory was the feeling in that tent. It was a feeling of shared excitement. It’s easy in this world we inhabit as runners to be blasé, and to not to see what an amazing achievement running 100 miles non-stop is.  But it IS an amazing achievement , and NOT everyone does it. In fact very, very few people do it. Many of these people in the tent had given up huge parts of their life to train for this, and today was the day they faced it down. And all they had was each other and their crews, and that was and is amazing. They didn’t know it, but they were about to make some of the best friends they had ever made out there on the South Downs Way. They would go through hell together, and come out the other side. They would support and champion strangers. They would be pulled up by people they had never met. That in itself makes endurance running at this level beautiful and amazing. 

Squad goals - Harting Downs aid station 2019.

Squad goals - Harting Downs aid station 2019.

At 6am the runners were off. I watched them running off up the hill, with massive amounts of FOMO. If I was a dog, I would be one of those dogs that whimpers when it’s owner walks out the room, except I would it at runners when I’m not running. After helping pack up the registration tent and packing the car, we drove to our aid station – CP3 at Harting Downs about 27 miles into the race. We got there at about 8am and started set up around 8.30. First runners weren’t due in for a few hours, but it was shitty weather and we had to get the tents up and food sorted. The aid station crew was made up of people that I had never met before, but we were pretty much instantly pals. There was no ego and no agenda, just a bunch of really nice people, who had never met each other working together as a team to get the station ready. When else does that happen? Not a fucking lot these days.  

Yeah I like a fruit arrangement. Harting Downs opens for business!

Yeah I like a fruit arrangement. Harting Downs opens for business!

First runners came through and were just charming and lovely. They are just monsters, those guys and gals, but every one of them had a hello and a thank you for everyone working there. Sam, one of our new pals, had a cow bell that he rang as every person left the station. Every person. From the front runners to the last guys. Everyone treated the same, everyone going through their own personal hell at some point. Everyone looked after. Everyone cared for and talked to - cheered on to achieve their own epic.

The runners came through in waves – sometimes the tent was totally full, sometimes empty. The rain meant people stayed there for a while at times - fuck knows why – I did think at some points we might just be carried off the top of Harting Downs by the wind. The tent leaked, the sandwiches got wet, we laughed and made some more. We all got soaked trying to hold the gazebo down, there was a mini hurricane, food flew everywhere, we all laughed and made some more. More people came through, some looking strong, some looking defiant, some looking fucking terrible. Every person was greeted and looked after by a member of the team. Every runner said thank you. We made special sandwiches for the vegans and saved GF cake for the GF people. We encouraged and pushed forward, we gave cuddles and patched up small wounds. We tried to talk people out of DNFing at our checkpoint and, I think in the end, we only had two drop. We worked hard and we witnessed greatness. 

My point here is this - I’ve said it before and I will say it again. I don’t think that being super fast or winning a million trophies is the thing that makes you a great runner. I think it’s being able to support and inspire your fellow runners and fit into a community that makes you a brilliant runner. Watching these people coming through, all fighting their own battles, was hugely inspiring. Being able to offer advice from personal experience (‘eat a salty potato, have jaffa gerkin sarnie’) or just making people laugh when they felt low, was a privilege. Being part of their journey was a privilege. So many people from so many countries and so many walks of life, all together, achieving something which I have no doubt every one of them once thought was impossible was an amazing thing. Watching the struggle, watching the camaraderie of people who had never met before supporting each other. It’s was so very special to witness.

We stayed at Harting Downs until 2pm, when the last runners came through. My heart broke a little when one guy missed the cut off by 2 mins. He took it well. It wasn’t his day. He was about 70 and had run a ton of amazing ultras, including Western States. I hoped that I would still be running at that age. I hoped I would be as graceful in defeat. 

We packed up and shipped out – the team working incredibly well to get everything done in record time. We said our farewells, and Julius and I set off in search of some food and somewhere to have a nap in the car. Rosanna was doing well – her feet were wet and her knees playing up, but we thought she would reach the 54 mile mark at about 7pm, so we had 4 hours to play with. We drove to the Washington checkpoint via the pub for a pint and some food. Poor Julius never did manage to get that nap in, and we headed up to the checkpoint for 7 with Rosanna’s bags and some hot chips we had left over from dinner.

Look at that face! Rosanna getting food RIGHT.

Look at that face! Rosanna getting food RIGHT.

She came in all smiles. We filled bottles and got some food down her. She wasn’t dealing with her feet at all but I let that pass – I wish I hadn’t. She didn’t have a plan – she just wanted to finish the thing. We got pizza and chips in her, and I chatted to some of the people that I’d met at registration. I’d started to feel a bit tired, but you can’t say that when you’re crew – it doesn’t go down well when someone has just run 54 miles and you haven’t. I saw Rosanna and Julius off, and headed to the car to move on to Southease – where I would later pick up Rosanna at 84 miles.

I estimated she would be there between 1 and 3am, so parked the car at the side of the road, sorted bags and kit and managed to get about 3 hours broken sleep between trucks thundering past and me having weird dreams about Julius being a baby with a massive head. 

Crew goals!

Crew goals!

At 3am I headed to the checkpoint. There were runners sitting with their heads in their hands, some of them being sick. This was the start of the death march – the 16 miles to the finish. I handed out some crisps to people who were really struggling and helped people fill up water. I chatted to some runners and crew and encouraged them on – they could walk it in from here I told them. they were just walking home. There were 3 major hills on the last part of the route and the battle was a mental one. But some of them were just too broken to continue and again, that broke my heart. 

Rosanna walks towards sunset on the SDW100 2019

Rosanna walks towards sunset on the SDW100 2019

Eventually I saw Rosanna and Julius walking towards me. Rosanna’s sister had arrived with her dog Ped. Seeing Ped really buoyed Rosanna. Dogs are so brilliant. I got her to sit down and eat, filled bottles, swapped out bags so I could carry some nutrition for her. Realised I hadn’t eaten myself, I felt pretty rubbish. I got some crisps and biscuits in me and a strong coffee, and then we were off, marching into the sunrise. It was 4.10am and I had been awake for over 24 hours with a broken 3 hours sleep. 

Sunrise on the SDW100 2019.

Sunrise on the SDW100 2019.

Rosanna seemed in good spirits. Yes, she wanted it to be over, but she is strong as an Ox and stubborn with it. It was a beautiful morning. I tried to take Rosanna’s mind off her knees with chat about the sunrise and lambs. I tried to encourage the more broken runners we passed along the way. We were in this last bit together, but 16 miles had never seemed so long. 

Striding into Sunday.

Striding into Sunday.

Rosanna knew the route well, having done it a number of times on her bike. Her tiredness showed as she kept repeating the route we were about to take, over and over. I just listened and opened gates and trotted next to her. When the pain got too much, I let her hum to herself – she warned me this would happen. At aid stations, I filled her bottle and ran to catch up with her. We were doing 16-18 min miles. Progress was slow. I wanted it to be over as much as she did – I was fucking knackered! 

Hero shot….

Hero shot….

1.5 miles from the end we hit the road section, and it was here Rosanna started to break. She knew she was close, she knew she could do it, but she was in so much pain. The road was worse than the trails on her knees and feet. I marched just in front of her, standing on road crossings to stop cars turning so she didn’t have to stop. It was about 8.45 am and we had one mile left to go. I didn’t talk, just set a marching pace and shouted out how far away we were at intervals “0.9 miles…0.7 miles”. As we turned the corner to the athletics track where she was to finish, I could see her crumbling. I told her not to break down and to focus. She had to get around the track, Her sister and Ped were there, walking her in, and Julius joined us for a lap around the track. She crossed the line in 27 hours and 10 mins. She broke down in tears. She had done it. It was over. I was extraordinarily proud of her. She had given it everything. 

Rosanna digs deep as she gets to the last 200m.

Rosanna digs deep as she gets to the last 200m.

The moment where it ends.

The moment where it ends.

The finish line was full of broken and happy people. People that had achieved something completely incredible. It made me want to cry. People shared battle stories and admired their buckles. People laughed and joked with others who, before that weekend, they had never met. These people were now firm friends who had shared something that other people just wouldn’t understand. This is humans working as they should work. This is stripped back to basics stuff. This is living.

I love this picture. It sums up everything. So, so proud.

I love this picture. It sums up everything. So, so proud.

There is no social hierarchy in endurance running. Nobody cares how much you earn, what car you drive or what you do. All people care about is helping others to achieve something spectacular and also achieving something for themselves by accepting help and support.

 Centurion have something very special going on with their community.  They are faultless in their organisation and support. They are welcoming and not cliquey. They are non judgmental and treat every single person the same. The last person in gets the same cheers as the first. I want to thank James and Nici for allowing me to have this experience. An endurance test with not much running involved, yes. But also a life affirming weekend spent watching normal people achieve extraordinary things simply through the support of their fellow man. Every ultra-runner can learn from them and their tribe. 

 For more information about Centurion and to volunteer at one of their races click here

The whole squad. Congratulations Rosanna and thank you for letting me be part of it.

The whole squad. Congratulations Rosanna and thank you for letting me be part of it.

 

  

AND THEN THE JOY CAME BACK. Dorset Invader 2019. More than a marathon.

So you know I like to go on and on about how White Star Running are just the best trail running company in the UK? Well if you’re sick of that, then best stop reading here. This weekend I trotted off to the all new Dorset Invader and I can honestly say I think this is the race that’s reset my attitude to running. 

I spent most of last week in the hurt locker, going over and over what I had done wrong to make Devon Coast to Coast so hard. There were little to no physical issues (mainly because we did it so slowly) but mentally I was a bit fucked. I couldn’t see the point in what had done or understand that it was an achievement. I didn’t run all week, partially because I knew I had a marathon at the weekend, but mostly because FUCK RUNNING. Running is shit. It’s pointless and means nothing to anyone. I’m not even very good at it. Running was actually making me feel worse about myself, and I don’t need any help with that. 

I’d been booked in to do the Invader for a while. I’ve done it a couple of times before, and it’s a hard, hilly, and usually with boiling hot or really wet (or both) trail marathon coming in at around 27 miles. Sometimes 28. Sometimes 29. Who knows, right?  For 2019 it’s moved from East Farm near Blandford to Gerrards Farm near Bridport. It’s a beautiful part of the world, with the family run farm boasting 6 hill forts and WSR promising a bit of a knees up on the Saturday night. A weekend of camping with some of my BBR crew sounded fun - I thought it would help pull me out of the hole - and Julius wanted to do the Frolic, The Frolic is a WSR classic. A 12 hour “do-as-may-laps-as-you-can” type affair. You can do it solo or you can do it in teams and it’s a pretty nice day out. Christ knows why Julius would want to run for 12 hours after the hell of Devon C2C the week before. He said he just wanted to ‘do marathon distance’ - but more on that later. 

Campsite views were “alright”

Campsite views were “alright”

We got there on Friday night and set up the tent, had a few beers and had a chat with the lovely WSR race crew. It was beautiful weather and the campsite was amazing - massive, green and full of really handy taps. I LOVE TAPS. Toilet situation ace. Hot shower situation ace. Everything was ace. The Frolic was on the Saturday and the marathon Sunday - I was on doggo and kid (Kidoggo) duty on Saturday. Oh and I was supposed to be supporting Julius too, but we all know I am shit at that. Julius just needed to do 7 laps for the marathon, and then we could have a nice relaxing afternoon. Spoiler - that’s not what happened. 

To cut a long story short, Frolic day was BOLIING, but despite that, Julius managed to do 55 miles in 12 hours. Mental. He came in second male and bounded across the finish line looking like he’d just done a parkrun. I don’t understand him. Man’s a monster. A really positive, annoying monster. I spent the day looking after dogs and kids, but felt myself getting MASSIVE FOMO. It was a weird feeling. I actually wanted to run. I wanted to get my kit on and get out there. So I did. I shared a couple of laps with Susi and Julius and then decided to tap out, mainly because of Kidoggo duties, partially because I felt it a bit in my legs - all 7 miles of it.  But it was amazing to feel like I wanted to run again. 

Out on a lap of the Frolic route. Was nice.

Out on a lap of the Frolic route. Was nice.

What was also amazing was the love and support from the White Star regulars runners and newbies. I felt comfortable and at home again. I didn’t feel out of place or like I wasn’t good enough to be there. I just felt happy. It was awesome. Waiting around for 12 hours for a bloke to come past every hour so you could throw a packet of crisps at him would be pretty boring if there weren’t lovely people to talk to. The atmosphere at these events is amazing. It’s infectious.  

Sunday morning came and it was my go. ME ME ME. LOOK AT ME! Julius was manning the aid station on the marathon and on Kidoggo duties, and I was running alone. The marathon had been routed and re-routed about 30 times mainly due to the fact farmers like to make last minute decisions about sowing fields and where they put their sheep. Poor Andy (the RD) would have been tearing his hair out, if he had any. 

There was quite a big field of runners, and I felt very comfortable at the start. One part of my brain was saying ‘just take it easy, it’s a recovery run’. The other side was saying ‘go and smash the shit out of it’. I decided to take it easy and see what the route was like. It’s 2 loops of a 13 mile ish course, so If I felt good I could go harder on the second lap. 

The route ran out of the farm and onto the same hilly trail course as the Frolic the day before. It then went further out into wonderful Dorsetshire taking in the two biggest hills in Dorset. No shit. It runs up and over Lewesdon Hill (915 ft) and Pilsdon Pen (909 ft). And it’s 2 laps. Nice and hilly times two! The thing is, after last week, these weren’t really hills were they? (Yes, yes they were).  In addition there are loads of lovely little slow burn slopes - the whole thing feels like it’s up hill. The downs are vertical steep, so pretty hard to run down. Throw into he mix some angry farmers removing signs so you manage to go off course at least twice and you have the recipe for a White Star race! 

Dorset Invader is GO!

Dorset Invader is GO!

I started towards the middle of the runners, taking it easy and having a chat with people. The first few miles felt like a slog - but that’s always the case on tired legs. Because I was on my my own, I could run at a pace I felt was comfortable for me, walk up the hills, sing songs about cows. There was no pressure on me. I could just be me. Sitting with myself. And I totally loved it. 

I haven’t run alone for a long time. I usually have a friend or Julius (not my friend) with me. I think this is where I have been going wrong for the past few months. It’s pretty obvious  o me now that I need some Bailey time every now and again. I felt happy and strong alone. I had no physical issues other than a fatigue I could feel in my legs. I was wearing a belt with caramel bars, crisps and caffeine bullets in it, and made sure I ate every 5 miles. The course was beautiful - that’s the thing about hills - you get the views. There were cows and horses and sheep and lambs. There were fields full of buttercups, woods and beautiful country roads. There were the massive hills and vertical descents. I did meet a lot of lovely people on the course, I chatted with them and I ran with a few people for a good few miles, but ultimately I was doing my own thing. And it was working. My pace was good and getting better. I felt happy and strong. And I was getting better and stronger every mile. I was back in my happy place. I had found my running joy again. I wasn’t thinking about anything at all other than what a good time I was having. 

Happy face. Happy place.

Happy face. Happy place.

I had been missing this. Running is a totally personal thing. It’s you really being you. It’s not worrying about anyone else. I didn’t have to worry about anyone else, people or dogs. I could speed up or slow down. I could eat when I wanted, I could run as fast or as slow as I liked. I only had me to answer to. But best of all, I felt strong because there was nobody with me to compare myself too. I felt like I had done enough of these hills in the last few weeks to be able to easily do the ones in front of me. It was great. Even heffing my way up them made me happy, because I could do it faster than the people I was over taking without much effort. This makes me sound like an arsehole, but the feelings from the week before still loomed large - feelings of failure and being a bit pathetic. This experience was turning that on it’s head. 

Dem views…..

Dem views…..

The first lap went by pretty fast. The aid station was in a pub car park and we all had beer tokens for a half pint, but I decided against the beer because I felt like I was doing quite well, and wanted to see how fast I could do the second lap. I’d save the beers for after, and come back to help on the aid station. Julius looked a bit frazzled manning it on his own. It was glorious though. Gerkins for the win. The end of the first lap came down through wheat fields - my favourite thing to run through - and it was then that I started picking off people. 

Now you all know my feelings about putting pressure on yourself, competition and all that bollocks ruining a race blah blah blah. But when you aren’t out to win it or podium from the off, and you start over-taking people in the second half - that feeling IS amazing. I was in my happy place. Out in the countryside with a load of wonderful people, some amazing support and doing something I loved. I honestly never thought I would feel like that about running again. 


Oh Dorset - you beautiful bastard!

Oh Dorset - you beautiful bastard!

As the second lap went on, I felt like I was going from strength to strength. I wasn’t breaking any records, but I was overtaking people, men and women, easily and joyfully. It was a massive confidence boost for me. I kept seeing people on the horizon and taking them out. My pace for the long ultras is so much slower that running a 9.30 min mile feels like flying. So flying I was. In my head. As the last few miles loomed I properly gunned it, for no other reason than I felt I could. My fastest mile was my last, as I desperately tried to take out the two ladies in front of me, but took a wrong turn - DOH. BUT I still came in for 28 miles and 5,055 ft elevation at 5 hours 35 mins. 6th female and 2nd in age category - 29th overall out of a field of 140.

Bailey with a beer. Standard. Thanks for the photobomb, Lee!

Bailey with a beer. Standard. Thanks for the photobomb, Lee!

But more than that I had kicked my running demon in the face. I was good enough to do this. I was good enough for me. I had spent a weekend with the most wonderful people. White Star Running are like a family. If in doubt, go hang out. They make everyone so welcome and they support every single person in the same way. Whether you are a super fast marathon guy or doing your first 10km, they are there for you. That night they threw a big old barn dance celebration and much booze was had. We celebrated each and every persons achievement that day - whether it was a full (ultra) marathon, a half or just a lap of the frolic, all were welcome and all were celebrated. That is what running is about. 

To top it off, the following morning it was the Chaos race - a 4km lap for kids (and their parents) to take on. There are no times, there are no winners, there is just joy and medals for everyone. Watching the kids run with their parents and friends was so amazing and uplifting. Once again, I saw that running could be fun. It should ignite and invigorate you, like it does the kids. 

So yeah. Well done White Star. My new favourite race of theirs. I fully recommend going to their site and booking yourself in for one of their weekends. You will leave with a massive smile on your face, some beer and biscuits, an AMAZING medal and maybe an ultra under your belt. Andy and co - this was the race the reset me, and for that I am truly grateful. High thanks to all the marshals and admin staff for looking after us. 

Next up…….pacing a pal round SDW100 and running a marathon in a fucking prison. 72 laps of it.  You can find out more about this race by visiting the Sussex Trail Events website! 

The weekends spoils. Look at dem medals!!!!

The weekends spoils. Look at dem medals!!!!

Devon Coast To Coast 2019 AKA The Race That Almost Broke Me 

I sit here, a couple of days after running the hardest race I have ever run feeling nothing. I don’t feel epic, I don’t feel like a champion, I don’t feel like I have achieved anything out of the ordinary. There’s a kind of disappointment somewhere there – a disappointment in my self - that maybe I am not as good as I thought I was, that maybe I fucked up my race by being too blasé out the distance and terrain. There is always the eternal question of ‘what’s the point’. There’s a kind of fog which is hard to think through – possibly a type of exhaustion. I am exhausted. But it’s disappointment that looms large above all else. I just have no pride in what I did. I know these feelings will shift and change but they are here now, so I need to explain to myself what, if anything, I did wrong to make me feel this way.  

I signed up to the Devon Coast to Coast last year, when my boyfriend told me he fancied doing a 100 miler. All the Centurion events were booked out at that time, and so on a whim, without looking at any info, I signed us both up for this one. 

The 117 mile race is organised by Climb South West – a fairly new boy on the Ultra Running scene. The inaugural event took place in 2018 and was, by all accounts, marred by problems including terrible weather. I took a quick look at the results. The first man came in at around 26 hours, first lady at around 36 hours. I took this as meaning that the people who had taken part weren’t your top level endurance athletes, and that I had quite a good chance of winning. This is now a laughable concept. I felt quietly confident , and decided to make it my “A” game race for the year. I took it pretty seriously, but as I had already got two sub 24 hour 100 milers under my hat, I stupidly though I had enough experience to smash the extra 17 miles and easily get in for under 30 hours. I was so, so wrong. 

Out on one of the recee days with the wonderful Lorna Spayne.

Out on one of the recee days with the wonderful Lorna Spayne.

Myself and Julius (the boyfriend) had gone out and recee’d most of the route. The only parts we had not done were the first 15 miles to Ivybridge and the last 10 miles from Simonsbath, as I had run those bits a few times in the past. The race is self-nav and runs along the (very poorly marked) Two Moors Way. It runs from Wembury in the south to Lynmouth in the north. It runs straight across Dartmoor and Exmoor and all the bits in between.  

We had gone out and done a weekend in March and then another one over the April bank holiday – we knew most of the quirks of the course and we knew the brutal terrain. I still didn’t waver. I still thought I had this race in the bag. I knew it was going to be hard. I just had no idea how hard it was going to punch me in the face. The week before we ran the Ox Epic – 75 hilly miles over 3 days as a warm up. It took us about 17 hours all in. We felt relaxed and fit. It boosted our confidence. 

We were lucky enough to have my very good friend and Head of Crew ™ Lorna Spayne crewing us. You don’t need crew on this race, as it’s supported with pretty good aid stations, but I am so, so glad we had her. She was involved from day one with planning. She came on the recees and we talked about strategy at length. We had a plan A, B and C and then the usual plan D (just fucking finish it). This plan was printed, laminated and given to everyone. I spent the whole day before the race making snack and food bags so we could easily grab them out of the car. I had clearly written on the plan when we should eat and what we should eat it. When we should get changed and what we should get changed into.  I had this covered. I so thought I had it covered. 

That plan in progress.

That plan in progress.

The day of the race came. Lorna came to the hotel to pick us up at stupid o’clock and take us to registration. We got to Wembury village hall, and that’s when I first started feeling that I may be a little out of my depth. Everyone looked relaxed and fit, everyone had amazing kit. People knew each other and were laughing and chatting and having a lovely time. Lorna pointed out all the amazing athletes in the room – Arc of Attrition winners, Spine runners, people who had done Dragons Back, Bob Graham Rounds and me. And Julius. It made me start to feel nervous and a bit sick. 117 miles is a long way. Dartmoor and Exmoor are horrible. I feel sick. 

 Julius was relentlessly cheerful as always – I was worried I had fucked his first 100 by entering him into this. That was the first time that I really thought I may not be able to do it. 

I gave myself a talking to and decided on the “just 50 miles today and then we will see how we feel” strategy. Just 50 miles. Chunk it down. Except with 117 you can’t chunk it down because there is an extra 17 miles. There was a lot of chat at the start about how long the route ACTUALLY was. Most people’s maps said 107. But then what about getting lost and what about the wiffles and waffles of the moors? I decided to try and keep 117 in my head for the whole time, but I was so hoping for 107.

The calm before the storm. Me and him indoors at the start line of the Climb South West Devon Coast to Coast.

The calm before the storm. Me and him indoors at the start line of the Climb South West Devon Coast to Coast.

 We walked down to the beach and said our goodbyes to our crew and that was it – we started running. The first few miles were lovely – we had some great chats with people that we half knew from other races and took the whole thing really easy. I tried not to think about how far we had to go. It was 15 miles to the first checkpoint at Ivybridge - most of the terrain was runnable, and we go there fairly quickly. Lorna was there waiting and we swapped snack bags and got back on the road pretty fast – we knew the course for the next 80 miles so that made us feel more confident.

Smug face as we arrive at Dartmoor.

Smug face as we arrive at Dartmoor.

We got our heads down and marched up the hills onto Dartmoor. It was such a great day weather wise – cool with cloud cover and a breeze and we were making good progress. FYI the whole thing is up hill. The downs are short and sharp and the ups are constant, rocky and fucking annoying. We had 13 miles to the next aid station at Holne so totted along talking to people, dogs and lambs. Coming into Holne we met Lorna who had hot coffee and pretty much anything else you could think of in the back of her car. Again she fed us and asked us questions. I feel like we spent a little too much time at the car, but after we had refilled and refuelled we trotted off again – next aid station was only 6.2 miles away, and then we were onto the moors proper. 

Loving the moors and their bastard hills.

Loving the moors and their bastard hills.

The climb up to the trig point was long and arduous, but we kept marching pretty quick – we were managing 4 miles per hour on the long climbs, running on the flats and down the hills.  The moors were beautiful and brutal and nowhere near as wet as they had been during the recce so everything was going like clockwork. At this point the ETA on my watch for the following day was 8am. That would make this a 24 hour race. As if that was going to happen. 

Trotting fro the highest point on Dartmoor

Trotting fro the highest point on Dartmoor

 We stopped short of the next aid station to eat the first of 3 dinners. I had bought Wayfayrer wet pouches for Lorna to warm up for us and we sat in the carpark just short of the Metherall checkpoint and ate our dinner. We spent about 20 mins eating and drinking and got back on with it – eyes on the prize to get to the halfway point at Hittersleigh before dark, get changed, get dinner number two and march it through the night. 

Noms dinner.

Noms dinner.

Physically I was ok at this point, I was eating properly and not pushing it speed wise – I was aware this was Julius’ first 100 and wanted to get him there. At some points I was actually having a brilliant time, and things were hilarious and wonderful. I really wanted to triumph in the second half of the race and felt really focussed. What I hadn’t bargained for was how the terrain would take it’s toll on me over time. It’s a fucking hard race. Anyone that’s been up to Dartmoor can tell you that. On paper it doesn’t look too bad –  about 15,000ft elevation across the whole thing. In reality it’s constant up and downs and the terrain moves under your feet, with rock and rubble sending you skidding down hills, bogs to navigate, tiny trails, rabbit holes etc etc.  But it is BEAUTIFUL beyond belief. I wanted to ty and take it all in. I made friends with some ponies. Or tried to. I did a dance on the way up past Castle Drogo and petted dogs and was happy. I wish I could have held on to those feelings. 

Julius in his happy place.

Julius in his happy place.

We managed to get into Hittersleigh (halfway point) at 10pm – we had been running for about 14 hours. We were now firmly in Plan B land, but that was OK. Lorna and Dom refilled bottles while we got changed into night kit – it was getting cold. I changed my socks, put on a warm base layer and gloves, ate my delicious chilli. Drank some coffee and resigned myself to getting back out there. It was now 10.45 pm. I wanted to get to 75 miles before daybreak. It was then that my maths started going bad. 

 Tiredness does weird stuff to you. I personally become obsessed with numbers, when in normal life I am useless with numbers, and never really think about them. I do really bad tired maths over and over again trying to work out when we are going to get to the next aid station, working out how many hours it will take to do 4 miles. Gah. We had left the aid station with a couple of guys that we had run with fairly constantly – Damian and David. They were both lovely and ran just behind us – I think they were glad of the company. We chatted about all sorts of shit. 

 The night section was made easier by the fact we had recce’d it in the day. We knew where stiles were, we knew how the path would trick us. Even with the map on your watch it’s easy to get lost. I hate running at night – the torch is annoying and I hallucinate a bit. I definitely didn’t eat as well as I should have on this section. I just wanted to march through it. At one stage we turned a corner to find about 10 other people all bumbling around, lost, in the corner. It was weird and quite funny. They were all like little minions with their hedtorches, lost in the dark. We scooped them up and got them through to the next field. 

Grass. Very wet grass.

Grass. Very wet grass.

Something that I hadn’t bargained for was the change in season. This makes me sound incredibly stupid and maybe I am. When we did the route 8 weeks ago it was spring – all the grass was short and easy to navigate, no crops and it was a bit muddy but not awful. It was also daylight.  Now, in mid-May, the grass was knee high. But most importantly, it was wet. It was full of dew, and it soaked our legs as we marched across field after field. I was wearing my sealskins socks, which are amazing and totally waterproof. That is unless water gets INSIDE them. 

 Water was soaking through my leggings and into the socks, and because my feet were cold, I wasn’t really noticing it happening. And it was happening for about 9 hours. I don’t remember too much about the second part of the night section. I just remember being really, really tired and a bit scared. We still had so far to go. 117 is not a round number. I was losing the battle with my brain. 

 

Day break. I start to break .

Day break. I start to break .

At about 4.30am the sun started to rise. But instead of feeling the usual wave of relief, with light signifying the end is near, I felt even more scared. It was getting light and we weren’t even on 70 miles. I didn’t want to eat anymore. I didn’t want to be out there anymore. We still had about 41 miles to go. The tiredness made those miles seem impossible to comprehend. I was messing this up for me and for Julius by not being quick enough. And my feet hurt. 

 We eventually got into the Wittherage checkpoint at about 5am. Lorna was sleeping in the car – she had met us at just about every checkpoint so far. She had been passing us Lucozade and snacks all night, constantly supporting and encouraging us. When we got into the village hall some people were sleeping, some people were rollering. All of us looked sad and a bit broken. We still had so far to go. So far. Lorna came in and made us coffee. 

 I took my shoes off to change my socks. And here comes the bit where everyone reading calls me a fucking idiot. I didn’t bring a second pair of shoes. I have never changed my shoes half way through a race, and the weather looked fine, so I just didn’t bring a second pair. My trainers were fucking SOAKED. My feet were soaked and wrinkled and soft. I didn’t have a towel to dry them off and it was freezing cold in the hall. So I used a buff. This didn’t really work, but I was not functioning on any real level of intellect, so I just covered them in Vaseline, put fresh socks on and put my soaking trainers back on. This was not my best idea. Not that I had a choice. 

 A quick word on the aid stations. Climb South West have the best people on their stations – everyone is brilliant, friendly, nice and helpful. But they don’t have a whole lot of food at them – so it’s advisable to think about that if you’re planning on doing this. There’s the usual – crisps, jelly babies etc but nothing really chunky apart from at the halfway point. I was hungry. It was morning and I didn’t want another fucking peanut butter sandwich. So I had some watermelon. This was the beginning of the end for me. I had made some stupid mistakes with kit and foot care and couldn’t deal with the fact that we had over 40 miles to go. I was losing my position mentally. Julius was doing well, and I felt like I was holding him back. I tried to encourage him to go on without me, but he wouldn’t. And I am glad he didn’t. But I felt like I was letting him down. 

Trying to find some beauty whilst in a lot of pain

Trying to find some beauty whilst in a lot of pain

 After spending way too much time at the checkpoint procrastinating, we left and headed onwards over Exmoor. Exmoor is so different to Dartmoor – the only similarity being they are both utter fucking bastards for hills. I had marched and run partially through the night but I had not run enough, and I was seizing up. I couldn’t run without everything including my skin hurting. It was a horrible realisation. I was going to have to just do the best I could. I felt terrible for Julius. My feet had also started to hurt pretty significantly.  I could feel them being rubbed raw. I just kept going. 

 Time passed by, the sun came up, the long slow uphills on roads were arduous, the downhills on trails hurt. I was completely exhausted – I had never been on my feet running for this long. It had been almost 26 hours, and I thought I would be much closer to the end than I was. I desperately needed sleep, but there was no way that was going to happen. I felt frustrated and angry. I was irrational and tired. I know that now. At the time I just couldn’t understand why I wasn’t doing better. I didn’t know what better was. I just thought I should be doing this better. 

 I was hungry but felt sick, I wanted to run but could only march. There are parts of this time that I don’t really remember very well. Maybe that’s for the best. 

After another 10 miles we got to the West Ansty Checkpoint. There was some hot food here and pasties but I didn’t want any of them. Lorna was once again there with some food that she had bought from the garage. I sat on the kerb outside the hall looking at the floor. A cat came over for a stroke. It was another 11 miles to the Withypool checkpoint and then 16 miles after that to the end. My feet were now killing me, but I didn’t dare take my shoes off. It was at this point that I realised I was being beaten. I couldn’t do it anymore. I just didn’t have the strength. 

Unhappy march.

Unhappy march.

I thought about my mental health. I thought about the days that I didn’t feel like I could go on living. I compared the two feelings, which was hard in the tired fog I sat in.  I remembered “one foot in front of the other until you get to the end. One minute at a time.” I was in physical pain and I was in mental pain. 22 miles seemed like forever. How would we ever get to the end? How had I let this happen? We left the checkpoint slowly. I’ll just get to the Tarr Steps I thought. Just to the Tarr Steps. 

 After another painfully slow 6 miles, we got to the steps. I stood there and just burst into tears. Lorna was there with ice cream. Julius, who had been mega cheerful up until this point starred at me. I stood there all pale and tired and crying. I couldn’t go on. I announced that I was done. I was going to pull out at the next checkpoint at Withypool, about 5 miles away. I truly believed it was over. 

 Julius came up to me and he looked awful – which is a strange thing because he is always so cheerful. He told me I had to go on. He said he couldn’t do it on his own. I looked at him. I sort of believed him. I once again felt like I had let him down – I was the experienced one and I was letting him down. I felt angry and horribly frustrated. I sat down and ate my Calippo and then we automatically started walking towards Withypool. I’ll just get there and then I can look at my feet. It’s only 5 miles. 

 I love this part of the route – I have run it a lot. That made it even more frustrating. My feet were so painful it was having an effect on the rest of my body – I was moving at strange angles and my ITB had started hurting. The trails I am used to trotting along at speed seemed to stretch forever. It was horrible. I was refusing to eat. I just didn’t want to anymore. I got the standard response form Lorna: “EAT! I don’t mind falling out with you about this!!”. Lorna can be scary. I still didn’t eat. 

Note Julius is STILL smiling……

Note Julius is STILL smiling……

 Eventually we turned the corner to the check point at Withypool. Lorna’s car was there and so was Dom. The marshall’s at the aid stations were so kind. When they asked what we wanted the standard response of “beer” came out of our mouths and to our absolute delight one of the marshall’s produced just that from his car. It was so delicious. For 5 minutes I forgot about everything that was awful. Beer for the win. This is how I would get myself to the end. There was a pub a Simonsbath. I would aim for the pub – just get there and then, if it was too much, I would pull out. That pub was 10 miles from the end. 

 In all the excitement of the beer and the fact I ate a croissant in front of a very proud Lorna, I didn’t think about my feet. As we started the route towards Simonsbath, they got more and more painful. The trails take you across the rocky terrain of Exmoor – nothing flat to run or walk on and it was agony. About 2 miles into the 6 mile section I just stopped. And burst into tears. Again. And told Julius that I couldn’t do it. Again. It hurt so, so much. It felt like there were huge blisters on the ball of each foot full of liquid. I felt like I could feel them popping with every step. This was, of course, all in my brainhole. Julius was so patient with me. He found a routing that was almost flat. I know my way through Exmoor to Simonsbath – again it’s a favourite running route of mine - so I knew how far it was. Julius promised to sort my feet out once we got to the pub. He promised to buy me a beer to help with the pain. We had a full on first aid kit in the car – it would be fine. 

Julius celebrates his first 100 miles.

Julius celebrates his first 100 miles.

We painfully limped into the pub garden and I sat down and took my shoes and socks off. Julius and Lorna looked at me with a sort of mock horror. They were white and wrinkled and soaked. There were pock marks and blisters on the balls of my feet – they were borderline trenchfoot. I’ve seen trenchfoot before, and that is where they were headed. 14-15 hours of being soaking wet and pounded on the rock-hard floor. They hadn’t got anywhere near this bad when I was I Panama. I was an idiot. This was my fault. I just didn’t think they would get wet. Dom bought me a pint and we tried to dry them off – making rudimentary soft bandages out of first aid kit and KT tape. This would have to do. I should have bought other trainers. FUCKS SAKE. I couldn’t find any dry socks (I had so many pairs in the car – I was just too tired to remember). I used a pair of Julius’ normal socks. They would have to do. I put my foot into my trainer, burst into tears and announced it hadn’t worked. Still another 10 miles to the end. That was when I took ALL the painkillers, downed my pint, had a word with myself, got up and for some reason got the fuck on with it. 

Calippo crew

Calippo crew

 The last 10 miles were stunningly beautiful and horribly hilly. Huge ascents and even worse descents. We had lost a lot of time at aid stations and checkpoints. That is a huge regret, but we had no idea what was going to happen. At the pace we were going, our ETA in Lynmouth was now 8.15 pm.  The hours ticked by painfully slowly, but the painkillers meant that I could get a bit of speed up on the march, doing 14 mins miles, which was an improvement on the previous 6 miles. 

The last few miles. Beautiful. Brutal

The last few miles. Beautiful. Brutal

 Finally, we started to see the light at the end. I looked at my watch – 3 miles to go. This was it. I felt buoyed. I could do this. It was nearly over. But there was something strange going on. My watch said it was going to take me and hour and twenty mins to do those 3 miles. I knew there was a hill at the end – the race director had told us, but he just said a slight ascent – it couldn’t be that bad. It couldn’t take us that long. 

View from the top. Doesn’t do it justice, really.

View from the top. Doesn’t do it justice, really.

 It was that bad. The end of the race takes you up Porlock Hill (the steepest A road in the UK at 1 in 4 or 25%). Then you come off it, onto another trail track that is even steeper. This takes you up, and up, and up. I think it’s known as the Two Cleaves – might be wrong. But for someone that’s not keen on ridges with steep drops it’s pretty horrible, even on fresh legs. It just keeps climbing going up on a very thin trail, snaking back on itself over and over again until you reach the top. It took us almost an hour to get to the top. My legs were jelly. I tried to see the beauty in what we were doing, but fear and tired rage were slightly overcoming my ability to enjoy it. Finally, it goes back down, and downhill was still hard. Julius fell once, I nearly fell a couple of times. A 1000ft surprise at the end of a 112 mile race. 

 We popped out on the streets on Lynmouth. It was beautiful. The sun was going down and we could see the end. We tried to run it in, but we couldn’t. We eventually turned the corner to see the race organiser, the van and the Wire Man marking the end of The Two Moors Way. We had done it. We had fucking done it. And it had taken us 36 hours and 37 minutes. 


The end.

The end.

There were no tears, there was no collapse or feeling of completion. I was overjoyed to be allowed to stop, but I was just so, so tired. There were photos and a cuddle. There was Lorna running out from the pub to say she had ordered our dinner. There was the buckle. There was the end. It was finished. 

That photo……

That photo……

We went straight to the pub where some of the other competitors were eating and drinking. It was so lovely to see them all. I ordered a bottle of Pinot Noir and drank it in about 30 seconds. A delicious (organic and free range thanks) steak was put in front of me – I managed to eat half of it. And that was it. It was over. 

“Morning Run”. Casual.

“Morning Run”. Casual.

In the days following the event I’ve had the usual post big race misery. The one I am still sat in now. As I said at the start, my overwhelming feeling is disappointment. I am disappointed in myself. I should have been stronger, faster and more prepared. I let the trail get to me – I almost let it break me. I didn’t prepare for wet feet at all. How had I managed 5 days in the jungle totally fine and fucked up on a trail in England? I feel like I was a burden to Julius. He has the makings of an epic and fast 100 mile runner, and I held him back. I feel like maybe I am not as cut out for these distances as I thought I was. There were times in that race that I thought I might never run again. That scared me. I am known for my whole ‘you run for you’ thing here I am ripping myself apart about it. 

 I know deep, deep down that all this shit thinking is bollocks. I know it will go away. I just wish I could have this event differently. I don’t want to feel like this. I want to feel proud and happy about my achievements. The DNF rate was high for this rate – around 40%. So maybe I WILL do it differently. I think I have to go back. I think I have to make that route a joy and not a hell. I think in two or three years, when I am a little more experienced, I will go and return the favour to those trails. I know what to expect now. 

 Lastly, a shout out to the race organisers. As I said, this is a new race and one that I should really have done more research on. It is a lot harder than I gave it credit for on the recces. The organisation, the marshalls and the checkpoints were brilliant. Not as much food as I am used to, but it’s my opinion that your food is your own responsibility anyway. You just need a good chat and some encouragement at a checkpoint, and you got it from these guys. 

 Finally, an answer to the question ‘how hard was it though?’ There was a runner there called Laura Swanton. She came in first female, completing the race about 10 hours quicker than me. This year, she also won the 100 odd mile Arc of Attrition – a renowned sufferfest held on the Cornish Coast in February. Lorna told me that in passing conversation she had said that the Two Moors Way makes The Arc look like “a piece of piss”. And that made me feel a bit better.  Maybe I just haven’t realised that it IS actually is a very hard course, and I’m not just a bit pathetic. Maybe I did do my best. Maybe I should be proud. That won’t stop me trying again. 

 I have a feeling about this race. I have a feeling it’s going to become very, very big and very, very famous.  Sign up now before that happens.  www.climbsouthwest.com

All that for a buckle…..

All that for a buckle…..

 

Races, Recces and Adventures for 2019

First off SORRY FOR NOT DOING BLOGS (to the 3 people that read them)

2019 has already been quite the year. Let’s get the excuses in, shall we? I have finally moved out of London to lovely sleepy Somerset – home of the Mendips, hills and lots of cows. The running here is ace and I feel like I have finally shaken off the horror of 23 years in London. But it’s a big change – the first month I felt like I was on a different planet – then I had to find work (you know that thing that actually pays you?) So I took a step back from internets for a bit. 

Yeah I don’t know why I moved here either. Shit views…..

Yeah I don’t know why I moved here either. Shit views…..

Another reason for lack of bloggage. It seems I have been writing them for everyone else but me this year. For some reason my inbox went a bit mad and I’ve been asked to write pieces, blogs and interviews for a Bulgarian Travel and Adventure Magazine (apparently I am going to be on the cover?!), Run Deep, Precision Hydration, Lessons in Badassery, Dure, Red Bull and Trail Running Magazine. Plus, I have to do my day job. And look after 4 dogs. And a 9 year-old (not mine but sort of is mine now….) and a man human. Jokes. He’s looking after me. 

 So what’s been going on? EVERYTHING HAS. 2019 started with BBR trotting over the The National Running Show in Birmingham where we had a stand and I gave a couple of talks. I was I the throws of a horrendous depressive episode and had to attempt to put a face on. I still wasn’t over Panama really. I think it took me about 3 months to get over it in the end. I had to do a talk on a panel about mental health and running (oh the irony) and then my own talk about running across deserts, jungles and that.

A few people to talk too. Not scary at all.

A few people to talk too. Not scary at all.

It was very difficult attempting to inspire people when I actually felt like a piece of shit. The show itself was ace and weirdly we have been asked to come back – but more on that a bit later.

I got out in January and February to do a couple of reccees for White Star Running. The weather was JOKES bad. 60mph winds and rain made for a very interesting trot along the coast.

Bit windy on the old Jurassic Coast…..

Bit windy on the old Jurassic Coast…..

We were checking the route for Septembers Run Jurassic races which are going to be amazing. Have a look at what’s on offer here - and rest assured that it shouldn’t be weather like this on the day…..

Then came the first race of the year - Larmer Tree Marathon in Dorset. Lest gusty with 40-50 mph winds making for another interesting run, and it was also Pickle the ultra dogs first official marathon – she loved it. Look at her little face! 

Pickle the ultra dog doing her thing!

Pickle the ultra dog doing her thing!

Larmer Tree Dog Squad.

Larmer Tree Dog Squad.

Then it was off to Bulgaria to do some talking about running. Myself and David from the Bad Boy Running Podcast were asked to go and do a talk at a running expo they had there and it was MEGA fun – defo returning nest year to do the 100KM ultra they are organising – it’s BEAUTIFUL in Sofia.

Sofia trail run selfie.

Sofia trail run selfie.

Bulgarian trails - “challenging”.

Bulgarian trails - “challenging”.

Back home and it was off to Rat Race’s Ultra Tour of Arran for the second year. 62 miles over 2 days with “some” elevation (A LOT) and some demons to slay. As you know I did NOT enjoy this last year - my fear of heights and ledges almost got the better of me, but this year was different. We had about 10 Do-Badders with us and some of them were first time ultra runners, so I felt a bit like I had a duty of care to them.

BBR do The Ultra Tour of Arran

BBR do The Ultra Tour of Arran

As part of my role with Rat Race, I did a little talk to people about the Bucket List which was great and I managed to get round the course with the whole squad without crying. Only issue was I ended up with an eye infection that meant I couldn’t wear my contacts. This is not recommended on mountainous trails. I fell over 3 times - my knee looked like someone had gone at it with a rifle. It really knocked my confidence for trails and I have been super careful ever since. I really hate falling over.  

Ultra Tour of Arran is go!

Ultra Tour of Arran is go!

This race is the definition of “multi terrain”. Ever tried to run over seaweed?!

This race is the definition of “multi terrain”. Ever tried to run over seaweed?!

Arran was beautiful and epic as always. I cannot recommend this race enough. Its otherworldly out there. Here are some pictures – the weather was so kind to us. If you get booking it now it’s pretty cheap – or even better register for a rat race season ticket and it sort of pays for itself! 

Ever the gent, Charles pulls me out of another bog……

Ever the gent, Charles pulls me out of another bog……

Mountain goat Bailey having a nice time on Goat Fell!

Mountain goat Bailey having a nice time on Goat Fell!

Next up was London marathon. It was my sixth year and I wasn’t looking forward to it having only just really moved away. I used to love this race, but I had done so little in the form of road running I was dreading it a bit. So I decided to spice it up by running it in reverse to the start and then running it the right way round.I need some night running experience for later I the year so why not?  I also wanted to raise money for my old friend Scott who we lost to suicide last year. If you want to give a few quid, the charity has been set up now and you can find it here.

London Reverse Marathon Squad arrive at the start after 5 hours of running through the night (Note Toby, our marathon dog - what a legend)

London Reverse Marathon Squad arrive at the start after 5 hours of running through the night (Note Toby, our marathon dog - what a legend)

We got up at 12am after 3 hours sleep and got our stuff together – we were running with a couple of friends starting at Birdcage walk. We decided on a 5-6 hour time as I had the real thing later on, and this was a training run ultimately. That didn’t go to plan and we ended up smashing out 20 miles in about 3 hours – meaning as we came into Greenwich everything was shut. ARGH! I need coffee! I’ve never waited for a Macdonalds to open, but that day I did! We decided to march out the last 6 miles as we had the time and my legs were already staging a protest about the relentless road pounding they were getting. Once we reached the start we headed over to a hotel on Blackheath where my amazing friend and Head of Crew™ was staying.

We had the BEST BREAKFAST EVER and got I got changed into fresh kit and then it was time to do it all over again. I forgot how much waiting about there was at London. I think I stood in the pen for about an hour, little legs seizing up, feeling cold for once. London is usually boiling. I took a minute to look around at the people running. Lots of them were doing their first and only marathon. Some of them made me want to cry. I saw a guy dressed in a bin bag looking nervous, fiddling with his headphones. He has  a message scrawled on his arm in sharpie – obviously written buy one of his kids. It said “I love you daddy and I am proud of you”. He kept looking at it. It made me want to cry. Sometimes humans can be wonderful. I bumped into the legend that is Anna Mcnuff in my start pen. She wasn’t wearing any shoes. Brilliant. She’s running the length of Britain barefoot so was a training run. I had SO MANY QUESTIONS but she seemed very cool about the whole thing. She really is relentlessly cheerful, that woman. 

 Then we were off. I felt pretty good considering the fact I had already done it once that day. As always there were huge crowds and bottlenecks and I was running a lot faster than I had done in a while. You can’t help it at London. You kind of get swept along. I was very wary of eating and drinking – I hadn’t eaten much during the night run and I am used to picnics on ultras now. I tried to take it easy but it felt easier to run at pace so I did what felt good. For once I wasn’t wearing a pack and it’s amazing how much that frees you to go a bit faster. I was relying on the water stops for all my hydration and that worked. 

Choose a hydration strategy that works for you. Mine is beer at mile 23 - thanks City Hash!

Choose a hydration strategy that works for you. Mine is beer at mile 23 - thanks City Hash!

One of the things I really noticed about the marathon this year is the aggro. I am so used to the chilled nature of trail runners that I totally forgot about what happened in New York. Road runners can be total arseholes. There were points when I ran over to the water station, signalling I was doing so, only to be physically bashed on the shoulder by other runners and told to “move out of the fucking way”. When I take water I tend to slow down, walk at pace, finish the water and then run on. It’s pretty obvious. I walk close to the edge so people can pass me. I’m sorry but people need to have a bit more patience. Fucking idiots. ANYWAY I managed to finish in a pretty OK 4 hours 10 mins. Getting out of the mental finish area was awful as always, and I had to meet up with a couple of people because my personal hell wasn’t ending there. I had signed up to help out on a Rat Race private event for the next two days and needed to get to Richmond to drive up to Cirencester. No boozy celebrations for me! So off I went to work with 300 bankers who were out on a jolly for 3 days running, cycling and kayaking 165 miles along the Thames. Wednesday came and I had never been happier to see my bed! 

That’s that job done then!

That’s that job done then!

Turns out road running smashed your body up a lot – especially 53 odd miles of it. My back was killing me, my legs hurt. So I did something I am not very good at – I had a bit or a rest. A few days off, runs at the weekend, went to physio. And then, two weeks later, it was time for The Ox Epic.

This is one of my favourite races of the year. Set on the Rushmore Estate in Wiltshire, its a whole weekend of camping and running courtesy of White Star Running. You can choose what race you do. Theres a 10km in the dark, a 10km in the morning, a half marathon and a 50 miler. So what did I choose? I CHOSE THEM ALL. Last year I managed to accidentally win the Epic - this year was a different story. This was a training run for something much bigger.

Dem hills. This was the last race of the weekend - the half marathon. Just what you want to see.

Dem hills. This was the last race of the weekend - the half marathon. Just what you want to see.

Once again White Star pulled it out the bag - a beautiful weekend and everything went like clockwork for me and him indoors, despite the fact we had all four dogs on site plus a 9 year old to look after. I managed to keep the same pace for all the races and not feel broken, plus I had a really nice weekend! We ran some laps with the dogs, some without, took out time at the aid stations, walked the hills and ran the flats. All in, we managed to get 76 miles in the bag over the weekend and finished knowing that we could do more. It was a chance to practice fuelling and hydration and catch up with old and new pals. Highly recommended and I will definitely be back next year - perhaps with my eyes on the prize again.

Happy doggos and human on The Ox 50.

Happy doggos and human on The Ox 50.

Pretty much everything that I have done in the first part of this year has been pointing towards my one A game race of the year which is happening this weekend (18-19 May). The Climb South West Devon Coast to Coast Ultra. I signed up last year on a whim. It’s 117 miles from the south coast to the north coast of Devon non-stop. This is the furthest I have run without a break, so it really is a huge deal to me to get through it. We’ve been out and about doing a couple of back to back weekend recees to see what the route is like. It’s self nav and we will run a lot of it in the dark. It runs along the Two Moors Way, across Dartmoor and Exmoor, through some horrendous terrain. There are a lot of muddy bridleways, fields and hardly any markings.

Dartmoor. Hostile, hilly and scary. And self navigation.

Dartmoor. Hostile, hilly and scary. And self navigation.

Taken on a day that started out sunny and lovely. Dartmoor seems to have its own climate….

Taken on a day that started out sunny and lovely. Dartmoor seems to have its own climate….

Scoping out what we have to face next weekend.

Scoping out what we have to face next weekend.

Elevation is mental – it literally feels like your going up hill all the time. It’s a really important race for me because it’s one I am not sure I can do. I have a plan A. B. C and D in place but I can’t see myself finishing in under 39 hours. Will I finish at all? Dunno. Stay tuned I guess….

Julius and I out on a recee with our head of crew Lorna - she’s amazing and will be helping us out all weekend with nutrition and logistics.

Julius and I out on a recee with our head of crew Lorna - she’s amazing and will be helping us out all weekend with nutrition and logistics.

So yeah, a lot has gone on so far this year, and there are some awesome plans in the pipeline for the rest of the year. 

Adventure time! AGAIN! 

This is a very dangerous document.

This is a very dangerous document.

I am resurrecting my position as Rat Race Test Pilot for 2019-2020 and doing 4 big recees this year, as well as pretty much all the events.  

June sees me travel to Spain for the Sea to Summit test pilot outing. The highest mountain in mainland Spain is 80km from the coast. Our route connects a start line on a beautiful beach on the Costa Tropical to the summit of Mulhacen (3482m) via a tough 2 day running route, giving 2 marathons back to back and nearly 4000m vertical height gain. No biggie. Plus it’s going to be BOILING and we start at 2am to try and avoid the sun. This is Ben Nevis twice in a day. Fun. 

Big mountain is big.

Big mountain is big.

August sees me trotting off to Malta for The Maltese Falcom. There are 3 islands that make up Malta. This ia a full traverse of the island chain. 3 disciplines. Run across Gozo. Kayak to Comino. Swim from Comino to Malta. Run across Malta. Hot. Historic. Warm sea. An island totally geared up for Endurance sport.  And all in one day. Another world first. 

Malta. Looks alright.

Malta. Looks alright.

In September I am off to Scotland to do something I have always dreamt off. A full coast to coast traverse of Scotland on foot. This is a west-coast-to-east-coast outing, n foot, over 6 days. The difference here is that Rat Race have devised a route that encompasses crossings of water and the use of some rivers and lochs, for which we will carry and use pack-rafts. This very unique route means we will hike or run, get to a body of water, use the raft to cross it or traverse it and then carry on by foot. An insane format in a simply stunning setting and incredibly remote area. The route goes from a starting location at Mallaig to finish just north of Inverness. This is the wildest country in the British Isles. We will be vehicle supported for some of the outing; and then self-contained (pack on back) for a significant portion of the rest. Almost 100% off-road. And in September. Be kind, weather! 

Scotland, you beautiful bastard.

Scotland, you beautiful bastard.

October I will return to Scotland for a multi day traverse of the Outer Hebrides. Another dream event. It is around 150 miles from the bottom to top of this rugged island archipelago off the West Coast of Scotland. We will attempt this journey over 6 days. We’ve not quite worked out the logistics on this (have I not learnt anything from Panama??) But I am SO EXCITED TO DO IT! 

Kayaks in the Hebrides. Wonder if it will look like this in October???

Kayaks in the Hebrides. Wonder if it will look like this in October???

In November I am travelling back to Namibia to crew for the Race to the Wreck event. That means I get to see the beauty of the desrt from the crew vehicle with a bit of running, but most importantly, it means I get to encourage, help and inspire people to complete the crossing. I would like to thank Rat Race for constantly believing me and allowing me to do these awesome things. I am one lucky piglet.  

Also here’s a thing – if you fancy joining me on any of these funtime recees then you can – just drop me an email here for more details. 

I am also doing a few other things in between mega adventures to keep up the training and fly the flag for Rat Race and White Star. There’s the Dorset Invader Marathon, the Man Vs Series, the Run Jurassic Series, Ultra Tour of Edinburgh, not to mention my first Threshold event at Race To the King. Basically it’s BUSY. But I am happy. And that’s the most important thing. 

Finally – big announcement – Bad Boy Running are thrilled to have been asked to curate a new section at The National Running Show 2020. We have been given the honour of curating the Ultra Zone – a brand new zone that focuses completely on Ultras. We have our own stage, our own guests and our own talks and panels, We are in charge. We will be announcing out line up in the next month or so but if I were you I would get your tickets NOW because you DO NOT want to miss this. You can get your free ones here using my code AMB18. We have some of the biggest names in Ultra running confirmed and it’s going to be mega. You can register for your free ticket here. Massive thank to Mike for believing in us (and trusting us – he may regret this….)

I’m also going to try and bet better at this blogging thing – I have a lot to write about so not short on material – it’s just the time. Having said that I am happy to write for anyone else that fancies it. Just drop me a line and I will take a look at it. So yeah. That’s it. Whirlwind update done. See you next week. If I survive.

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The Namibia/Panama Crossings - Panama Coast to Coast, Days 16-17 - Extraction from the Jungle 

The Jungle - Day 16 

Amazingly (or not) I slept the whole way through the night. When I woke up at 5am, the butterfly was still hanging onto my tarp. I could go into a beautiful paragraph about how I felt the butterfly had protected me through the night, but in all honesty, I was just a bit surprised it was still there. I got up, checked my boots, put them on and started the routine of taking down the tarps and hammock in the pitch black. James had gone - his hammock and tarps were packed away and his bag hidden in a bush. He had gone back up the mountain at 4am. He had gone to get his drone. 

The mood in camp was still by no means rosy. For some reason I had hung up my wet muddy kit overnight in the hope it would dry (???) Things don’t dry in 90% humidity. They just don’t. And when it rains, they get even wetter and colder. And it had definitely rained. Pulling on wet compression tights is an endurance challenge in itself. The only warm, dry kit I had were the leggings I was sleeping in. I was guarding them with my life. I now hadn’t changed my underwear or tops for around 4 days. I was washing in rivers and streams, but there was literally no point in the faff of attempting to get changed. As much as I hated myself, I also didn’t care how disgusting I was. I tried to brush my hair with my fingers and three small spiders fell out. Oh well. 

That zip line. Seems legit……

That zip line. Seems legit……

I sat and ate my breakfast and jungle coffee on Ant Rock, staring at the rickety zipline. Whilst the sensible part of me knew it had been there for years, trusted by locals and used time and time again without issue, the catastrophising side of me would not let up. I wondered if Panamanian health and safety ever checked it. Possibly not. Would I want Panamanian Health and Safety checking it? Possibly not. I didn’t want to go over on it, but the river was very deep and fast flowing so there was no choice. I had a little quiet cry. The boys were, of course, loving it. I’m not sure that they understood how scared I was - I actually think they may have found it quite funny, and in a way I was ashamed and embarrassed of the fear of something so basic. Darren goes over taking selfies and having the best time, I go over head down gripping onto the rope like a child with my eyes shut. When I get off on the other side I feel like I might be sick and have to sit down. What a fucking hero. 

Moises preps the line - note the wellies - they wore wellies for the whole trip. Photo: James Appleton

Moises preps the line - note the wellies - they wore wellies for the whole trip. Photo: James Appleton

The plan for today is to try and get the hell out of the jungle. Again there is a plan A and a plan B.  Plan A is to smash out a 20km march - apparently it’s ‘not as hilly today’ and it COULD be possible to make it to the extraction point. plan B is go as far as we can today, camp and then get to extraction at lunchtime the following day. We are all hopeful of plan A. However, there’s something about the word ‘elevation’ that is lost in translation with Moises and Elvin. Their idea of hills and our idea of hills are VERY different. They have lived here their whole lives. They run up and down these ascents in wellies. They are tiny monsters. Possibly the fittest men I have ever seen. Later, James and I decide to take them back to the UK and manage them as trail runners. We’d make a fucking KILLING. The thought of them whizzing round the Bob Graham Round in record time in wellies was almost too amazing. Anyway, the point is that the trails that day were not flat. They were steep as fuck. Again. 

Once everyone is over on the zipline, we set off. We have agreed to leave James to follow on - he's fast and fit, and he is with Elvin. We have no idea if or when he will come back, but Elvin knows the route, so on we go. There is talk of another village on the way up the valley. Rick thinks that there is a possibility we can ask some of the villagers to help us with the packs in exchange for some money. 

The village. The only photo I took.

The village. The only photo I took.

We are all bang up for this - even an hour is some relief. Just a few kilos out of the pack helps. On the crest of a hill, we find ourselves in the middle of the tiniest village - it literally has 2 small mud shacks. The shacks have no walls, and browning dry palm leaves for roofs. In the shacks live families of 16-20 people. Around them are pigs, dogs and chickens, all thin and munching on anything they can find on the floor. One girl even has the smallest kitten I have ever seen in her hands. I want to take pictures of everything, but it’s disrespectful and the whole village was looking at us like we had just come down from space.

After a few minutes negotiation, we are instructed to thrown the heavy parts of our kit in a pile on the floor - some of the villagers would hoof it up the next hill with our bags. This was AMAZING news. I took out my hammock and my wet kit , kept my bladder and pretty much everything else - my bag was so much lighter - this was dreamy. My mood was immediately lifted.  We pretty much emptied Robs pack on the floor - he still wasn’t right. Throughout the trip I had been feeding him salt tabs and making him drink, but he would go through these really low patches where he had no energy at all. I think he was constantly leaving it too late to do anything about being hungry and thirsty - the rule in these environments is, if you have a hotspot or a twinge deal with it immediately - same with eating and drinking. If you even feel a tiny bit low, deal with it immediately or it will come back and bite you on the arse. 

I was almost totally out of snacks now - I know right? Me. Out. Of. Snacks. All I had was a bag of fruit pastilles. I was being so careful with them. I had said to everyone that the opening of the fruit pastilles would mark the beginning of the end. They were for emergencies and sad times. I could see that the team, although overjoyed about the fact our bags were lighter, were hungry and tired. So I opened the fruit pastilles and gave one to everyone. They were the best thing I had ever tasted. I tucked them away for later. 

Darren takes five. Photo: James Appleton

Darren takes five. Photo: James Appleton

We left the village and started off up yet another hill. The mud and elevation were similar to before, but the jungle was different. There were more tiny farms and even some “fields”.  The vegetation started to change. It became greener and more cartoon like. It was getting to be quite pleasent. Maybe it was the fact that we knew we only had one more day maximum in here, maybe it was the different setting, with lighter bags, or maybe it was the one fruit pastille. Whatever it was, we had all perked up. Rob was still at the back, but we were trying our best to push him on without annoying him. There is a fine line between encouragement and pissing someone off in these environments. A very fine line. 

Merlin and Darren taking it all on on one of the final days. Photo: James Appleton

Merlin and Darren taking it all on on one of the final days. Photo: James Appleton

After an hour or two we started to hear voices behind us. It was the guys from the village, carrying our stuff up the hill. Now, I expected the guys doing this to be a bunch of 18 year old badass farmers, but as they came into view, I realised this was not the case at all. The group was made up of 5 or 6 children, boys and girls. I say children - none of them were more than 15 years old. The youngest was maybe 8. All of them had our shit strapped to their backs with shawls and makeshift bags. All of them had wellies on. None of them broke a sweat. They swaggered past us, silently. I couldn’t even hear their breath. We were huffing and puffing and these kids seemed to glide up the hill with most of our gear. Mental. I felt terrible. I felt like we were in some way taking huge advantage of these people. I didn't expect to see young girls carrying my stuff! They kids stormed up the hill and disappeared from sight. It started to rain. It started to rain a lot - proper jungle shower time. I put my jacket on and put my head down. Onwards. We walked on for another 2 or 3 hours. I was getting really hungry, and was so sad about the lack of snacks. The environment really felt different now - less threatening. There were occasional hard packed trails with beautiful views, and fields of long, green grass. The mud was still there but it was manageable now, the ascents easier with less on our backs. The views took my breath away. The rain was on and off and the end was in sight. We rounded a corner and saw the kids from the village sitting on a grassy mound with our stuff all around them. Time to put it back in our packs again then…

The constant march continues. Hopefully this shot shows the scale. Photo: James Appleton

The constant march continues. Hopefully this shot shows the scale. Photo: James Appleton

Jim and Rick were about five minutes behind us, but we had lost Rob - he was still behind us but the gap between us was getting bigger. We sat down on the grass and started sorting our stuff. Jim and Rick caught up, so we were just waiting for Rob and Moises now. The kids looked at us with silent, stony stares. I decided I was going to have a precious pastille, so got them out. I gave one each to Rick, Jim, Merlin and Darren and then offered them to the villagers. They took them with trepidation, and I watched as they put them in their mouths. Their eyes lit up as they chewed them. I realised they had probably never had anything like this to eat before. I felt both massive love and gratitude for them, what they had done for us and their badassery getting up those hills, and then massive guilt that I had just introduced them to the world of sugar and E numbers. After about 25 mins, Rob and Moises appeared. All of us stood up and cheered. Rob seemed in good spirits and waved at us. He sat down on the grass for a little rest. We still didn’t have James with us. We were all slightly nervous about where he was. It was now about 2pm and we had been on the move since 7am. We started trying to do ultra maths in our head - trying to work out how long it would have taken him to run up that hill, get back down, get his pack and catch us up. It was futile though - we had no idea. For all we knew he may be lost to the jungle forever.

Rob digs deep. Photo: James Appleton

Rob digs deep. Photo: James Appleton

We decided, once again, to split Robs stuff up between us so he could go on with a lighter load. He seemed totally cool with this, so we set about repacking, with each person taking a few kilos extra. I still had the stinking bin bag, and now it was starting to rip. I attached it to the back of my pack with bungy chords and hoped for the best. Then I heard a shout. James was back, We could see him and Elvin bouncing towards us, sweaty and soaking wet. I didn’t want to ask the question. Nobody did. We were so over the moon to see him. 

He didn’t find it. They had left at 4am and RUN (YES RUN) up that hill to the spot where they lost the drone. They used head torches until first light, when they continued the search, deciding to call it off at 8am and head back down to the river crossing. James was gutted, really gutted. Alvin on the other hand, swore that he would return and find the drone at a later date. I for one 100% believe he will do that. James and Moises had managed to catch us up, even though we’d had at least a 2 hour head start and they’d been carrying their full packs. They were monsters. So, so fit. I had so much respect for them. Total legends. I gave them both a precious pastille. In fact I think I gave them two each because they were special.

So the band was back together. We looked at the GPS, and Rick and Jim had a chat. We wouldn’t make it out today. We would have to spend one more night in the jungle, and get out the following day. Although this news made my heart sink slightly, I knew that tonight was finally the last night in the jungle.  Any longer and we would miss our flight home. If we could keep going for another 3 or so hours, we could set up camp and then have about 10km the following day to the extraction point. And that would be it. 

A familiar sight. Packs back on - painfest. Photo: James Appleton

A familiar sight. Packs back on - painfest. Photo: James Appleton

We hurriedly ate lunch and said goodbye to the villagers. Packs back on and we were marching again - happy to be together, Moises and Elvin had promised that there would be no more steep ascents. Why the fuck do I trust these guys? 

This section was undulating, up and down and up up up, then down. It was a bit like being in a REALLY hilly New Forest. The trails were easier to follow - they were trails the locals used to get to and from market. They weren’t as boggy, and the trees became more spread out. I would describe the flora and fauna as like being shrunk and put into a forest in the UK. Things looked familiar - ferns and trees and flowers but everything was a thousand times bigger. We were like tiny borrower people. 

Jungle vegetation dwarfing Rob in front of me.

Jungle vegetation dwarfing Rob in front of me.

I was mega hungry now. Like proper hungry for sweets. I had given out the last of the pastilles to Elvin and Moises, and was desperate for something sugary. I went a bit quiet. Surely we had to be stopping to camp soon. I climbed yet another hill and saw James standing at the top taking pictures. He asked me if I was OK. He was always checking other people were OK. I whinged about how hungry I was and the lack of snacks. He then opened his bag and produced half a snickers. He may as well have got out a million quid. He gave me the squashed chocolate and I starred at him. He told me to enjoy it, so I nibbled tiny bits off it, sharing it with Merlin. It was totally delicious. One of the best things I had ever tasted. He reminded me I had carried his red bull for him and he hadn’t forgotten. This is human kindness. It’s something I will always treasure. I was so grateful, and that tiny bit of chocolate kept me going for another half an hour until we stopped to set up camp. 

Rules of a good campsite generally include having a running water source. We were at the top of a hill and there was no water to be seen or heard. Never the less, Moises and Elvin pick up the water filter and dart off to find some. They said they thought there was a well near by. We all set about hacking away and putting up hammocks and tarps. This spot was so much better than yesterdays - it’s more forest than Jungle. The mood was uplifted and bright. This was it - the final time we would have to do this. We were all feeling really positive - tomorrow we just had 10km and then we would be out, on a boat, on our way to Boco Del Torres - we would get there in the dark and leave there in the dark, but we WOULD be able to have a shower and proper food and a fucking beer. And we would be on our way home. The thought of all of this was just the best thing ever. 

Setting up camp for the final time. Photo: James Appleton

Setting up camp for the final time. Photo: James Appleton

I had, by this point, become a bit of a pro at putting my hammock up. Or so I thought. I spent an hour or so sorting my stuff out, helped the boys with their feet and ate my dinner. Darren came over to my hammock with a travel size Jack Daniels he had been saving and let me have a cheeky sip. It was delicious. For the first time I noticed that Moises and Elvin don't sleep in hammocks - they sleep on the floor under a tarp. They were laying there, laughing and joking on the floor of the jungle. What a couple of fucking badasses. 

I got my warm leggings on, hung my stuff up and got in my hammock. And then it started to rain. It was such a lovely sound, and I was soon asleep. 

That night I wake up at about 2am. It’s pitch black. I am on the floor. Turns out, I’m not yet a pro when it come to putting a hammock up. The rain has made the trees wet, and it’s slipped down onto the floor. I can hear something walking around - not a human, something with 4 legs. It shuffles past me. I don't feel scared. I just lay there. I wriggle a bit. Yes, I am definitely on the floor. I think of Moises and Elvin on the floor too. I turn my face a bit and feel something on it, poking its legs through the mosquito net, and crawling towards the top of my head. I keep my eyes shut and breathe. To this day I don't know if it was a spider or a stick insect or a massive fucking ant. All I know is that I was too tired to be scared or to panic. I went back to sleep on the floor. 

The Jungle - Day 17 - Extraction 

5am alarm. My first thoughts are “this is it - this is the end.” I am both excited and kind of sad. The sort of sadness you have as a kid on Christmas morning when you realise you have waited all year for this day to come, and waking up means ultimately it will end. It felt like I wanted the day to last forever, because it ending would mean the whole adventure was over. 

Jungle mornings. Photo: James Appleton

Jungle mornings. Photo: James Appleton

I had got used to the early mornings, the routines and the lack of food. I liked knowing all I had to do was run/walk/trek. I loved not having distractions. I loved my team mates. I loved the silence and the noises. I loved the rain. I loved feeling like the only people on earth. Of course, there were things I HATED. Wet feet all the time, being disgusting, not being able to get clean. Having hair that was now one massive dreadlock. I missed my boyfriend, family and my dogs (mostly my dogs). I did not miss any other part of my life back home at all. 

After packing away my hammock for the final time, I helped Merlin and Darren with their feet (I am now out for hire as a chiropodist). I was sat on a street stump rubbing lube all over my trotters, when Rick came over. His feet were killing him - they were sore, blistered and were starting to rot. He asked me what I was doing to mine. I had made sure, without fail, that every single night I took my socks off and poured rubbing alcohol on my feet. I had then let them dry out all night in the open and, in the morning, I would cover them with lube and fresh socks. Not any old lube. Ann Summers Silicon Lube, as recommended by my friend Lee. Sexy lube. It’s better than the water based stuff, because it forms a waterproof barrier between your feet and your wet socks and boots. It’s like another skin. My feet were battered and bruised, but they were not blistered and were not rotting. Rick looked at me like I was mental, then grabbed the lube and rubbed it all over his feet. I had a feeling it may already be too late…..

Welcome to Bailey’s foot spa. Photo: James Appleton

Welcome to Bailey’s foot spa. Photo: James Appleton

Everyone was pretty chirpy that morning. Rob especially. He had suffered the most during this trip, and I knew he was desperate to get out and go home. He had suffered but fuck me, does that man have grit. He had pushed and pushed himself to his very limits and not given in. I’d seen him laughing and I’d seen him crying. Probably crying more than laughing (jokes Rob). He had a steely determination to get this done, even when I could see he was in real mental and physical pain. Of everyone we had with us, it was Rob I admired most. Darren, Merlin and James are famously fit, agile, young men. Jim is a bulldozer. He shuts down and gets on with it. This was Robs first attempt at something of this level, and he was giving it everything he had. I’m not saying that anyone had it easier than anyone else. I’m saying this was a group of mixed ability - as it should be - and to me, Robs effort and stubbornness stood out as something to be admired. 

Rob has a funny way of doing stuff. He's VERY methodical, and every night, when we set up camp, I would watch him getting jobs done in a very rigid way - he had his routine, his way of laying his kit out and putting his tarp and hammock up. He would get well and truly in the zone, and wouldn’t stop until everything was in it’s right place and sorted. He was like king boy scout. I think this was his way of regaining some kind of control in an environment where he felt he had none. Merlin and Darren were the same. Military precision with stuff. I felt like although I had the admin down, I would kind of float about doing this and that. Have a fag, put a hammock up, sit down, look at an ant, get a sleeping bag out, sing a song to a stick insect, stare at nothing. That sort of thing. I had my things that I did EVERY day and night - feet, contact lenses etc. but those boys could faff for hours with ropes and tarps and hanging stuff. Granted my camp looked like shit. The boys had made shelves out of machetes and bits of bamboo. Merlin had a machete shelf for his jungle formula. He later fashioned it into a bog roll holder. I always found it interesting to watch them.

The new jungle range from IKEA.

The new jungle range from IKEA.

After our final jungle coffee, it was packs on our backs and onwards to extraction. No more big climbs, just down, down, down towards some unnamed village where we would have a taxi boat to take us off to the mainland. The plan was get there by 1 or 2 ish, get out and get the boat taxi to Bocas Del Torres in time for cocktails and sunset. There was some talk of us going to film the pack raft segment, but I kind of ignored that. Having never pack rafted before, I wasn't planning to start now. TODAY I WAS GOING TO GET A COLD BEER AND A SHOWER. That, my friend, is motivation. 

The slow downhill soon turned back into a steep uphill. The views were frankly astonishing. I felt like I was in a holiday brochure. Even the photos I took on my phone were out of this world amazing. We didn’t really know how far we had to too go - again it was all estimates and guess work, but we knew that every step we took was a step closer to home. The sun came out and we stopped at the top of a hill for a rest. It was fucking BOILING, the hottest it had been and there was no real shade that wasn't in knee deep cow shit. We realised we had all run out of water - we had been up high all day, with only a slight downhill and so hadn't seen any rivers to get water filtered. James took the opportunity to do some filming and I chatted with Merlin and Darren. Rob was behind us. Rick pointed to a lake in the distance. That lake was the extraction point. Beyond the lake was the sea and the island. We were almost there. 

From this hill we could see the sea and there lake. We were nearly home. Photo: James Appleton

From this hill we could see the sea and there lake. We were nearly home. Photo: James Appleton

When Rob got to the stop, he was very red and very hot. He wasn’t talking much - but that wasn’t unusual - Rob always went quiet when he was hurting. He stood to the side of the group, leaning on his poles to recover, and then he took his shirt off. I kind of thought this was weird behaviour and I should have questioned it at the time. Looking back on it, this was a very clear sign that all was not well with him. Darren and James often had their shirts off (obvs, they're the posterboys) but Rob not so much. Merlin never did - he was, as I said, cursed with being ginger. It would have been suicide for Merlin to even thing of such a thing. 

Rob didn’t look great, no not because he had his shirt off, but because his face was almost totally drained of colour. We pooled together some old bits of pit stop bar, a few skittles and the last of our water for him . He’ll be OK I thought - he just needs ten minutes. Ten minutes came and went, and we pressed on, down a hill towards a water source. We got to the bottom after about an hour and found a small, dirty stream. We sat there and got our lunch out, while Rick filtered water and we all topped up.

We sat and ate our lunch in silence. Rob still didn’t look great, but we were so close to the end now. I was sure he could get through the next hour or so. We all grabbed some water and picked up our packs. Rob was carrying his full pack again, he’d insisted on doing so that morning. This was it - the final stretch. 

Splashy. Photo: James Appleton

Splashy. Photo: James Appleton

As we were at the base of a valley, we decided to follow the river bed - this meant slogging it through some pretty deep water for about a mile before we started the climb back up. Once up we were headed across farmland - long grasses and easy to walk trails - we were only a couple of miles from the extraction point. The thought of this gave me a huge boost. Darren, Merlin and I got a march on - Jim and Rob weren’t far behind. James was between us taking photos, going back and forth. Every corner that we turned I willed to be the last one, every field that we crossed I hoped to see the lake that marked the extraction point. My mind started playing tricks on me - tricks like thinking I could hear running water, thinking I could see the lake. I was at the front now, I could hear Darren and Merlin close behind. We came to the top of a ridge and below us was a small stream. We were about 800m from the end now. We decided to wait for the rest of the crew. I sat down, washed my gators and filled my water bottle. We chatted and chilled, talked about what beer we were going to have when we got out. Fifteen minutes passed, then thirty.  Jim and Rick appeared over the top of the ridge and sat down. There was no sign of Rob and Moises. Forty minutes passed and no sign of Rob and Moises. Alvin started shouting up the ridge, something he often did to try and work out where Moises was. Nothing. Forty five minutes passed and nothing. We were really starting to worry. Then we heard Moises shouting. He was saying he needed help. James jumped up and sprinted up the ridge to try and find him. We were all silent. I felt sick with worry. I think we all did. British awkwardness set in. Keep calm and carry on mentality - something that should actually be chucked in the bin. 

Selfie in the river bed before disaster struck. I find this picture physically painful to look at. I was so, so tired.

Selfie in the river bed before disaster struck. I find this picture physically painful to look at. I was so, so tired.

After another ten minutes, we start to hear voices. It was James shouting that he needs water. We look up and see James holding Rob. Rob is grey. His eyes are sunken and rolling in his head.  James is holding him up as he stumbles and slips down the mud towards us. His feet aren’t moving properly. His lips are almost blue. He is sweating, swaying and shaking, leaning all his bodyweight on James. He looks like he’s crying, but no tears are coming out. He is mumbling and making no sense. Moises is carrying Robs pack on top of his own. He has been carrying both for at least a mile. 

I don’t know what to do. I stand there, horrified. The boys sprint into action with Jim and Merlin grabbing him and trying to make him sit down. Rob is saying he can’t feel his legs. He’s moaning and it looks like he’s hyperventilating. He keeps saying he’s cold but he’s obviously very hot. Jim is very calm and is trying to lean him against a tree. Merlin is talking to him, telling him to breathe. Darren is helping Jim support him. We eventually get him on his knees and start taking his top off. We need to cool him down, but he doesn’t want to lay down in the stream, and is fighting against Jim and Darren. James is holding his shoulders and telling him to keep calm. I stand there like a useless sack of shit, unable to work out what to do. My instinct is to run away. I feel like a terrible person. I busy myself filtering water and trying to get Rob to drink it. I search bags for bits of food. And I watch as the rest of the crew battle to get Rob to come round. 

Robs body has given up. It becomes apparent that he is severely dehydrated. Dangerously dehydrated. He isn’t making sense. Between moments of hyperventilating silence, he yells and shouts that he is hot or cold, and that he cant feel his legs. He’s crying. Sometimes he apologises. Sometimes he just cries out. Eventually the team get him to lay down in the water. He doesn’t want to put his head in it. James calms him down and coaxes him into the water by cupping his head and holding it. All the boys are working as a team and I am just stood there staring at them. It’s fucking horrible. 

This goes on for a while, and eventually Rob starts to calm down. We give him the bits of food we have found and make him drink water. I think we get some more salt tabs down him. After another half an hour, he starts to come round, and we can understand what he is saying. I don't remember much about what happened at this point. I know Merlin distracted me by finding a tiny crab to play with. 

Merlin makes a friend.

Merlin makes a friend.

This was one of the defining moments of the trip. We had all pushed ourselves so hard, and we were so near the end. Maybe we had been too distracted by finishing to notice Rob deteriorating. We should have picked up on his behaviour when we stopped earlier. But what matters, is at the point where disaster struck, everyone pulled together. Without a plan in place, the crew just got on with it and managed to turn around a situation that could have been so much worse. I will never forget what happened that day. It was a real fucking wake up call. I felt useless, and since that day, I have read up on pretty much everything to do with dehydration and what to do about it. I wish I could have been more helpful. I am only grateful for the expertise and precise care that Jim, James, Merlin and Darren were able to provide. There is a breaking point, and Rob had reached it. We were all immensely lucky that it happened this way. If Rob had been alone without Moises, it could have had a far more tragic outcome. 

After another twenty minutes, we decide to press on. We distribute Robs stuff between us, and get him some new poles - his are totally bent. We attempt some lame humour on the hike up, and tell Rob we love him. We are now keeping a close eye on him. When we get to the top of the ridge, we see the village. We’ve done it. We have reached the extraction point. 

Puppies!

Puppies!

We are overjoyed. We stumble down into the village where the taxi boat will pick us up. There is a tiny school, houses, loads of animals and a shop. We slump outside the shop. It’s over. There are baby chickens and tiny puppies and even kittens. No really, there were! And in the shop there is ice cold fizzy orange and crisps. Jim buys us all a bottle and it tastes like rainbows. 

I feel weird. Elated, exhausted and empty. The whole village stares at us. The tiny puppies nibble my fingers and try and eat the bin bag (I still have the fucking bin bag - now it has maggots in it). 

We are escorted down to the lakes edge and put in a dodgy looking boat. It’s over. Jim wants to head out to the pack rafts to do some filming this afternoon - just so we have that in the bag for the promo video. We all agree to go. Merlin and Jim will pack raft and Darren and I will sit in the dugout. Like I said before - I have never pack rafted before, and I wasn’t about to start now. 

The taxi boat arrives. It’s over. Photo: James Appleton

The taxi boat arrives. It’s over. Photo: James Appleton

When we get off the taxi boat we sit and wait for our lift at a bus stop. Rob is still not well. I try and make him eat some pudding I’ve found in a bag. He’s like a petulant child, and keeps refusing, but I eventually get it down him.  We have to wait and hour and a half to be picked up. Darren falls asleep on a bench. Jim phones home and talks to Dani - he comes back to tell me my boyfriend has been freaking out because our trackers stopped working in the jungle and he thinks that we are all dead. It seems like he's about 3 hours away from calling in a full search party. I text him to let him know we are OK. I feel empty. 

Darren personifies how we all feel.

Darren personifies how we all feel.

Looking back on this time, at the end of the crossing, is weird. We behaved like we had just finished a normal, slightly tiring day. In reality, we had just crossed a country for the second time in a week. We had faced some of the most hostile conditions on earth. We had cried, ached, screamed, slogged, and dug down to the last of our energy supplies. We had snipped at each other, cuddled each other, supported and at times and for brief moments, hated each other. We had helped each other, shared food, jokes, snacks and vital medical supplies. We had slept in the jungle for 4 nights with only each other for protection and company. We had seen the darkest sides of each other. We had seen the kindness in each other. We had, each of us, given our everything to the team, the terrain and the adventure. We’d had only had each other. And now it was over. It felt impossible that it was over. But it was. None of us would be able to process our true feelings until many weeks after we had got home. So for now, we pretended everything was OK. 

Eventually our lift arrived to take us to where we would film the pack raft scenes for the video. We were all exhausted. We arrived at the gate of a huge hydroelectric power station. We left Rob in the car to sleep, and made our way down to the enormous and raging river. When the event is done with the public, this will be the final stretch - you will pack raft your way down to the coast and be taken to the island. I kind of wish I’d given it a go now, but to be quite honest I was physically done, and as much as I love doing new stuff, I didn’t think this was the time or the place for me to be learning how not to drown.

Now THAT is a boat……the dugout.

Now THAT is a boat……the dugout.

Darren and I sat in the dugout looking after the equipment while James, Jim and Merlin negotiated the rapids in what were basically blow up rubber dingies. All was going pretty well until James went over on a particularly ferocious corner, tipping him and his five grand camera into the water. We managed to get the camera back, but it was “quite wet”. Once again James was devastated. These things happen but twice in a week?! James spent the next two hours beating himself up about it and I didn’t blame him. 

Scenes filmed, we made our way back up to the car. Rob had slept and felt a little better. That was it. It was time to go to the island. On the way we stop in a town, and all rush to the corner shop to buy beer and crisps. The beer was magnificent. We sat outside the car and drank and laughed and ate crisps. I felt like we were pretending it wasn’t over.

The first beer…….

The first beer…….

We got to the water ferry terminal and said our goodbyes to Moises and Elvin. Those two, as much as I hated them for taking us the wrong way and telling out-right lies about how there were “no more hills” had been such legends. Some days, I wonder what they are up to. We get onto a small boat and speed off towards the island. It was dark at this point, and as we flew across the waves, the ocean lit up with bioluminescence in the most beautiful and magical way. It was over, and tomorrow we would be going home.

Here is where our story ends for now. I could go into how I had a meltdown on the island because I couldn’t have a shower before dinner, and how the boys calmed me down. I could go into how we had to get up at 5am to film James’ final beach scenes, clinking glasses of fake wine. I could go into how that night I cried myself to sleep, wondering what the point of it all was. But I won’t. 

If I am completely honest with myself, I still haven’t processed those last few days or where they have left me mentally. Am I scarred or reborn? I don’t know. Have I lost my purpose? Definitely. Did that trip make me or break me? I honestly can’t say. Would I do it all again? FUCK YES. 

I hope that this blog has given you some insight into what it’s  REALLY like to take on a challenge like this. It’s been an endurance challenge in itself writing it - so I imagine reading it has been the same. I hope it inspires you to want to see the world, to want to travel, achieve insane world firsts and visit places that are totally off the grid. I hope it fills you with hope, and the knowledge that humans can be the most wonderful of creatures when all they have is each other.  There will be a final word on all this, a kind of epilogue I guess, when I can pick myself up enough to write it, and when I have worked out the real effect this journey had, and continues to have on me. For now, I want to say thank you to my team mates - James Appleton, Darren Grigas, Merlin Duff, Jim Mee and Rob Atkin. Without any one of those people, we wouldn’t have been able to achieve what we did.  A huge thanks to our guide Rick Moreno and to Moises and Elvin the superhuman Panamanians. And a thank you to every person that reads this blog. I am not the best writer but I am trying. I am not the best runner, but I am trying and I am not the best person, but experiences like this will force me to keep on trying.

I don’t know what the next adventure will be. My life is changing in every way at the moment. I am moving out of London to the countryside, and taking stock of the world and where my place is in it. This trip has given me that. It has forced me to take stock. I am just grateful that I got the opportunity to share it with so many brilliant people. 

Early morning on Bocas Del Torro. This is what you could have won…….

Early morning on Bocas Del Torro. This is what you could have won…….

The Namibia/Panama Crossings - Panama Coast to Coast, Day 15 - The Jungle/Dronegate

Morning……

Morning……

I wake up at around 4am to the sound of a very large cockerel who can’t tell the time. It’s dark and I am freezing cold. I roll over and remember where we are - on a porch in the middle of the Panamanian jungle. I am very, very hungry and everything aches. After another hour of attempting to get a bit more sleep, the rest of the team starts to stir and, as with every other day, we start crawling out of our sleeping bags and attempting to ‘get dressed’ even though we are almost all already dressed. The wet, muddy kit we hung over the porch is still wet and muddy. Our shoes are still wet and muddy. Everything is wet and muddy. Everything is cold. Rick starts to heat the water for our breakfast pouches and we roll our hammocks and sleeping bags up and re-pack our bags. I have decided to be rubbish captain, so I have a massive bin bag of shit, including old food packets and used bumhole roll to attach to my pack too. It’s disgusting. This in itself is an endurance challenge. I decide to try and find somewhere to have a wee, and am directed to a small hut that looks like it may contain the remains of some other unfortunate adventurer. It looks like this. 

Murder shack/toilet.

Murder shack/toilet.

When I open the door, all I can see are spiders and bugs. But I actually don't care. I am too tired to care. I realise I haven’t done any video updates, mainly because I have been too busy trying to survive, so I recorded this one. Sorry the sound is so low - for some reason I didn’t want to wake people up?! (We were all already up and that massive cock is doing a pretty bad job of being quiet). When I look at my face in this video, I can actually see the mental pain in it. This is the face of someone scraping the barrel for just a tiny scrap of energy. 

Overnight, Jim has come up with a plan A and a plan B. None of the plans have a day on the island in them. I am, therefore, not interested in the plans. 

Plan A: We crack on as fast as we can go, and get to where the pack rafts are, pack rafting out of the jungle as planned, all be it a day late. 

Plan B: We are too slow to get to where the pack rafts are without risking missing our flights back to the UK, we have to be extracted from the jungle early, by boat from a village. 

We all want to do plan A. None of us want to be seen as quitting early. We’ve come this far and we want to finish. The thing is, we don't actually have a choice regarding plan A or plan B. The choice will be made for us by the jungle. Either way, we have at least 2 more days of this. 

When I get back to the porch (un-murdered), there is an animated conversation going on between Moises, Erwin and the family that own the shack. News is relayed that the farmer is willing to help us up the next climb, putting some of our bags on his mule. The climb is horribly steep and muddy, and we can give him one dry bag each from our packs to take up. We are totally overjoyed. Having a slightly lighter pack will make a massive difference. Rob is suffering the most. By his own admission he is the least fit, and not used to this type of terrain or endurance challenge. I think the fact he has taken it on at all is immense. This is a stress test for an event. There will be many different types of people taking part, from super fit athletes to normal office workers wanting a challenge. He’s a vital part of ‘the experiment’. He has dug so deep over the last two days, but always has a nice word to say - he’s a very positive guy and his attitude is hugely admirable. I bloody love Rob. We need to make sure that everyone is taken care of. I know I am tired and hungry, but I also know I am currently capable of carrying more than him. In order to keep as fast a pace as we can, we all agree that he should have the lions share of mule-space. We pay the farmer around a months worth of wages (a mere $50) to take our stuff and watch as he packs it onto the poor pony. 

Poor mule guy

Poor mule guy

We set out across the farm, falling over the huge ridges filled with cow shit and mud, stumbling down the hill towards the next ascent. The mule walks effortlessly on it’s 4 legs (DAMN YOU MULE) and the family dog runs up the hills in front of us. It was amazing having a dog with us. I forgot how much I missed my dogs. My heart aches for a dog cuddle. 

The hills were much the same as yesterday, if not worse. I couldn’t understand how the mule was getting up them. The hoof worn path upwards was an extremely narrow, deep trench - the mud touched us on both sides, there were scrambles and our packs, even though lighter, kept getting caught in the narrower stretches. The tracks twisted and turned, and with no clear view of what was ahead, it was impossible to see when you would get respite from the constant uphill. Everything was burning. I decided to try and zone out, and took 2 strong pain killers on top of my teeny breakfast, to try and stop my shoulders and knees hurting. I was counting my steps up - every 20 steps I had to stop to regulate my breathing and heart rate. I leant on my sticks and thought of nothing but sitting down. I was now really having to ration my snacks. We had two extra days of this and I had to plan ahead. Two extra days and nothing to look forward to. There would be no beach, no day of relaxation. We would reach Boco Del Torres in the dark and leave for home in the dark the following morning. My carrot had gone and I felt hopeless.

More hills. Photo: James Appleton

More hills. Photo: James Appleton

A slight aside from the story here. As many of you know, I have suffered with depressive episodes for much of my teenage and adult life. I struggle with it a lot, and I use running as a way to help that. My lack of belief in myself has pushed me to do these challenges - kind of a self harm that’s good for me. The long and the short of it is I don’t particularly like myself and if something bad happens, it’s because I deserve it. (That’s the illness talking).

My main trigger for these episodes is abandonment. If people say they are going to do something with me, or for me, and then change their mind at the last minute or don't turn up, it triggers me. The monkeys on bicycles in my brain tell me this behaviour means I don’t matter, people don’t like me and I can’t trust anyone - the broken part of my brain is proved right through the behaviour of others - often behaviour that stems from an issue completely out of their control, I might add. Depression is not rational.  If it’s plans that change or are cancelled, I deal with by telling myself I deserve to be disappointed. Why would something brilliant ever happen to someone like me? You see reader, the ill part of my brain really doesn’t like me at all. It tells me that I deserve the worst, and when the worst happens, it is proved right.

What had happened here, is that the plan that I’d had in my head for the last 4 months had changed beyond recognition. The thing I had been promised (my days on the beach), had been taken away. The thing I was focussing on was gone. I was teetering on the edge of extreme sadness and anger - two emotions that are very closely linked in my psyche. I felt like there was no point in going on and there hadn’t been a point in starting. But in the jungle you have to go on. Nobody is coming to get you. Your hand is forced. And there was the point in starting, staring me in the face. The point was to get to the bare bones of this very familiar feeling of unfairness and abandonment, sit with it and push through it without distraction.

That face says it all….. Photo: James Appleton

That face says it all….. Photo: James Appleton

This may all sound very dramatic, but I am trying to be honest about what happened to me in there.

My sphere of reference had narrowed so much. My reality was different. My world was in this jungle, in the here and now. I hadn’t looked at the internet, social media or talked to my friends or family. I couldn’t. My phone was now just a camera. The things that I looked at, engaged with, worried about and used as a distraction from myself were gone. There was nothing to distract me from me. That feeling was both terrifying and exhilarating. No escape from the horror of the jungle or the horror of my own thoughts. I had to face my brain and sit (or walk) with it. And ultimately that was the most glorious thing. This challenge was giving me the tools and time I needed to sit with my feelings. Physically, all we had to do here was follow instructions. Get up, get moving, stay moving until we were told to stop. Mentally, we had a far bigger battle, and nothing to distract us from it.

Now, on reflection, this was lightbulb moment day. For all of us, our ‘real world’ is full of man made distractions, issues and divisions, designed to stop us thinking too much about our core selves and what actually makes us happy and functional.  Our ‘real world’ stops us questioning why we feel the way we do and helps us medicate, mask and hide those feelings to become (or to pretend to be) the people that we think we should be. The opinion of others is paramount, the opinion of ourselves doesn’t matter. Stripped of these distractions, we have no choice but to focus on what’s going on in our heads. And it changes us. It focuses us and provides moments of clarity. During this challenge, we become selfless and aware of others. We worked as a team without judgement or prejudice. We were strong, calm and supportive. We triumphed in the face of adversity. We dealt with multiple unforeseen circumstances, and overcame them. Humans are social, pack creatures. We’re programmed to look after each other. When there is nothing divisive around you, you cannot be divided.

The crux of it was that nothing had been taken away from me, because there was nothing there in the first place. The whole plan was fluid. It was a recce. Things go wrong. Thats what it’s a recce. I had managed to come to a rational conclusion. I was still disappointed, still tired and still fighting, but I’d rationalised it. And that was a win no matter how tiny.

This would not be the last time that I had to untangle my good brain from my bad.

“Can I get off this ledge now, James?” Photo: James Appleton

“Can I get off this ledge now, James?” Photo: James Appleton

After about 3 hours and around 2.5 miles of climbing the equivalent of a muddy Snowdon, we reach the top of a ridge. The plan is to go round the top go the ridge rather than down into the village and up again. I approve of this plan - anything to keep us away from anymore huge ascents. This is where the mule says goodbye and we take our bags. Rob insists that he takes his full pack. We try and persuade him otherwise, but he is adamant. Jim and Rick are talking to Moises and Elvin about directions. It’s a pretty animated conversation, but I am sure they know what they are doing. We put our packs back on and start walking. It feels like we are going down hill, and then it becomes obvious we definitely ARE going down hill, stumbling and sliding down rocks. Everyone is quiet - I think we were all thinking the same thing. If we were supposed to be going along a ridge, how come we are going down hill? Rob is really lagging behind the rest of the group. We take it in turns to wait for him and encourage him, but he’s really quiet now. We all are. 

After a couple of hours, we spot a small settlement. It’s a village and a school. A village that, had we been going the correct way, we would have avoided. We were on the wrong route. We had really fucked up.  Up ahead, Rick and Jim are sat with Moses and Elvin looking at the map. I stay back. I don't want to hear what they have to say. 

Going the wrong way….. Photo: James Appleton

Going the wrong way….. Photo: James Appleton

We have come the wrong way. Something has been lost in translation, and we have added hours, ascent and miles to our day.  We are now in a river bed, in a stream. You don't get river beds on ridges. Jim and Rick are having it out with Moises and Elvin. The rest of us stand back, starring at our feet like school kids waiting for our parents to stop arguing. I look at my watch. It’s nearly 2pm and we haven't eaten since 6am. I quite curtly remind Jim of this fact, and sit on a rock in the stream to eat my lunch and filter some water. I don't care what anyone else wants to do, this is what I am doing. Everyone else follows suit. 

Darren’s feet are sore. The blister between his big toe and second toe had got grit in it, so he popped it a few days earlier. He is wearing toe socks and I imagine that’s why it hurts. I ask him if he wants me to have a look and to try and patch it up. My foot box of dreams has gone largely unused, as my feet have been good. I was pretty thorough looking after them, drying them out at night with rubbing alcohol and covering them with silicon lube every day. Top marks to smug face Bailey and her pretty feet. When he took his sock off, I felt a bit like being sick. There was a yellow, deep hole between his two toes. It was pretty bad. And it was open. It was in a place that is hideously hard to dress. I felt so sorry for Darren - this must have been so fucking painful, but he hadn't mentioned it until now. I got my magic box out and tried my best to dress it, pouring alcohol and iodine into it, letting it dry out a bit and then using gauze and tensoplast to cover it. I had no idea if it would hold. But if we could get Darren to the end of the day, we could re-dress it then. I’m not going to put a picture here because it’s gross.

Jim comes over and tells us the bad news. We are not going to making it out of the jungle in time to use the pack rafts. We are now on plan B, and need to head to a point where we can be evacuated from the jungle by boat. This would, he said, take about 1.5 - 2 days if we could keep pace up. We weren't going to make the crossing the way we had planned. We weren't going to finish what we came here to do. We were gutted. 

Realising the worst.

Realising the worst.

We now had another huge climb to get over and then we needed to keep going, hopefully finding somewhere to camp before nightfall. I don't say anything. We get up and start walking upwards again. 

We reach a turn at the top of a hill and we stop and wait for Rob and Merlin. The team are taking it in turns to walk with Rob, although none of us have said this or arranged it. It’s just a natural thing that has happened. Like something we know we should do. Rob finally approaches us, and he looks awful. He's pale, swaying and shaky as he walks. He is really suffering. Darren, Merlin, Jim and I make the decision, there and then, to get his pack off him and distribute the weight between us. He tries to refuse, but we’re not taking no for an answer. We empty out the kit and pack it into our already bulging bags. We need to keep moving, and we need Rob to keep moving with us. I can tell Rob is annoyed, possibly embarrassed but he’s relieved. It could have been any of us that needed help. Not having a pack makes a huge difference. We move on. Up and up. We all just want today to be over. 

My mood deteriorates and I am thinking too much about nothing. We’ve been going for 11 hours. I feel burning anger at the loss of time. I am storming on ahead over tree stumps, wacking the jungle with my poles, head down. To top it all off, I have “baby shark” going round and round in my head. Jungle madness. I come to a fallen tree and duck down to get under it. Merlin is behind me. My pack is too big and I get wedged under it. Merlin tells me he will give me a shove and that’s it. I explode. 

“I DON’T WANT A FUCKING SHOVE! I CAN FUCKING DO IT MYSELF. FUCK OFF”. I think those were the words, but I can’t be sure. I basically screamed at Merlin and Darren (who was in front of me) and then burst into tears. I can’t remember this very clearly, but I know it happened, I know there was loads of swearing and I know that this was the moment I broke. This was the moment it all came out. I sat there by the tree, just angry and crying. I think Darren tried to give me a hug or say something nice, but I was too enraged with the world to appreciate it. I think Merlin was a bit scared. 

After a couple of minutes, I got up and re-started my silent march. I’d had a cry and a shout. I’d broken a little bit more, but getting it out physically had actually really helped. A physical manifestation of frustration is good once in a while. Especially when there are only trees and your mates around to hear it. Nobody can keep stuff like this in all the time. I highly recommend it. Just maybe not on the tube/bus/in a library.

Merlin trots on to Hobbiton Photo: James Appleton

Merlin trots on to Hobbiton Photo: James Appleton

Fast forward 30 mins, and my ultra strop was over, and we were back to pushing on and even chatting a bit. Merlin and I were making up some amazing songs about ants. We got to the top of an enormous hill - one of the highest peaks we’d reached. It was stunningly beautiful, the jungle laid out below and around us. We stood for a minute, lost in this insane world. James got the drone out. This was the money shot. We all stood on the edge of the world as the drone flew round us. James was over the moon at how brilliant it looked. In his excitement, he looked away from the screen for maybe 3 seconds. And it was then we heard the crash. The drone had crashed into one of the thousands of trees behind us. And we had no idea which tree it was.

James jumped to his feet, grabbed Elvin and a machete and started pushing his way down the ridge, disappearing from sight into the jungle, desperately looking for the drone. It was about 5.30pm and it would be getting dark soon. The drone was almost out of battery and all James had to go on was the last image on his phone - an image of ‘some branches’. To begin with, I thought he would easily find it, but after 5 minutes it became clear that this was not the case at all. 

Jim, Rob, Rick and Merlin had gone on. We could see a farmhouse half way up the hill, on the other side of the huge river that flowed below us, and thought maybe we could ask them is we could set up camp there. It didn’t look too far away. But there was a catch. The only way across the huge river at the bottom was by zip line. Man powered zip line. This was the first I had heard of the zip line and I felt sick at the thought of it. Darren and I waited at the top of the hill, hoping James would emerge resplendent, drone in hand. But nothing. We knew that we needed to go - it was already getting dark and dark is dangerous. We talked about it, and admitted James was the fittest of the lot of us and was in good hands with Elvin. Below us we could hear them mercilessly hacking at the jungle.

We picked up our bags and started to descend the mountain. As we slowly started down the ridge, I could hear James crashing around below, machete in hand, repeatedly shouting “FUUUUUCK! FUUCK!”. It was awful. I will never forget how painful his shouts were. James was not giving up. 

The darkness was coming in very fast. The canopy above us just made it worse, and this was by far the steepest descent we’d had. It was very, very slow to get down. There were huge rocks, mud, trunks, spikes, creatures and branches everywhere. It seemed to be getting darker by the second, and I started to feel really scared. Where were the rest of the team? Why were we out here at this time? This was really fucking dangerous. The jungle noises started, things started flying at our face. We got out our headtorches. My heart was beating very loudly. It was one of the first times I had been genuinely scared. Where was the edge of the ridge? I was tired and shaky - my fear making me even less steady on my feet. Within 20 minutes, it was pitch black and we were still trying to get down. My head torch was flicking - warning me the batteries were low. I couldn’t change them now. It would mean emptying my whole bag on a sheer ridge in the dark. I prayed it would stay alight. It kept cutting out. 

A “friend” Darren found on the way down in the dark. Photo: Darren Grigas

A “friend” Darren found on the way down in the dark. Photo: Darren Grigas

I remember trying to calm myself down, thinking that every time I looked up, I would see the rest of the team. Every time I looked up, I just saw Darren’s head torch shining in front of me. It went on and on and on. I felt angry we had been put in this position. Angry we hadn’t got down in daylight. Then I slipped. 

I fell quite heavily onto my side and immediately felt pain in my left arm. Darren shouted up to me, checking if I was alright. I had slipped onto a thin, sharp stump that had cut the top of my arm through my top. My hands were grazed, my arm was cut, but I was ok. The adrenaline rush that went through me as I went down burnt up the last of my energy, and I could feel the tears coming. I got up and kept stumbling down. The little confidence I had in my legs had gone. I just wanted it to be over. 

After another 45 mins of stumbling downhill, rock after rock, in the pitch black, we could hear water - this must be the river. I could see light and the rest of the team came into view. All sitting, looking broken and sad, by a waterfall. Jim asked where James was. None of us knew. He was now somewhere in the jungle, in the dark, machete in hand, swearing at the trees, trying to get his beloved drone back. 

It’s fair to say that all of us had lost our sense of humour at this point. We walked another kilometre to the edge of the river. I starred at the zip line in the dark. It looked like it had been put up by a child about 100 years ago. There was no way we were getting over that river tonight. We would have to camp on this side of the river and go in the morning. I looked around to try and find a couple of trees to put my hammock up in. There was nothing but dense jungle vegetation. Moises started hacking at it, as we all looked for plots in silence. Nowhere to sit, no light in which to set up camp, inky blackness and the sound of the river and nothing else. I found a rock covered in ants and sat on that. Fuck the ants. Fuck the jungle. I thought about punching Jim. Again. 

Moises shouted my name - he had cleared me a spot for my hammock but it was the least inviting place on earth. It’s hard to explain how horrible it was. I walked over to check it out as best I could in the dark. There were huge green and red ants everywhere, spiders scuttling over the hacked vegetation under my feet. The leaves from the plants Moises had cut down had fallen onto deep, wet, rotting bark. Everything was alive. But there was no choice. This was my bedroom. I set up my hammock in the darkness, praying that it would stay up and no little jungle friends would get in. It looked terrifying. It was terrifying. 

We heard voices coming from behind us, and James emerged with Moises, head down, covered in mud, sweat and blood. His arms were horrendously scratched and he looked like a ghost. There was no drone with him. He was absolutely gutted. The drone had the memory card in it - all the shots he had worked so hard to get over the last 3 days were gone. I felt to awful for him. But not as awful as he felt. I’ve never seen anyone beat themselves up the way James did that night. I was seriously worried about him. There was nothing I could say to make it better. James still thought there was a chance to get the drone back, and planned to run up the mountain we had just come down at daybreak to try and find it. If someone had offered me a million pounds in cash, I couldn’t have run up what we had just come down. The thought of him doing it in just a few hours time made me feel sick. 

Mood in camp was more than bleak. We were all completely exhausted, and this was a late night. The last descent in the dark had really frightened everyone. It was already gone 9pm and we had to be on the move again at 6, so up for 5. We had around 20km to go to get to the bailout point. Today we had covered about 12km in 10 hours. There was no way we would be able to do 20km in one day. But still we talked about it being achievable. Today had destroyed us. Merlin got in his hammock and went to sleep, refusing to heat up his dinner or talk to anyone. I went down to the river and had my first wash in days - pointless when you have to put the same kit back on. It made me feel cold, but nothing else. James and Darren set up their hammocks in silence. Darren was camping in the spot that we hard earlier spotted a large coral snake. But he was beyond caring. We all were. 

My butterfly pal. Photo: Darren Grigas

My butterfly pal. Photo: Darren Grigas

I put on my coat and sat on Ant Rock to eat my dinner. It took about 2 mins to eat those dinners, but they were 2 mins of calm and relative happiness. For 2 mins you could sit down and feed yourself. For 2 mins things were semi normal. As I sat there, a huge moth flew at my head torch over and over again - a moth the size of a bat. She wouldn’t leave me alone, and was so big her wings scratched my face. I asked Rick what she was, and he said she was actually a type of butterfly and shouldn’t have been out at night. She kept coming back, eventually settling down on my shoulder. I kinda liked her. She was very beautiful. She raised my spirits.  

I got up, and my little (massive) butterfly friend was still on my shoulder. Because I am mental, I had a little word with her and told her it was bed time and she had to go. She flew off my shoulder and under my tarp, hanging just to the right of where I was sleeping. We were pals. I managed to get into my hammock with difficulty, not wanting to leave my boots on the floor for fear of them becoming home for a family of spiders or ants. But there was nowhere to hang them. I stuffed one boot inside the other and hoped I wouldn't need to get up for a wee in the night. That day was done. Tomorrow was a new one. I was asleep within seconds. 

The Namibia/Panama Crossings - Panama Coast to Coast, Days 13 and 14 - The Jungle.

I wake up at 5am, as instructed, with the same feeling I had the day before I collected my A-Level results. Sort of sick, sort of excited. I put my feet on the floor and HOLY FUCK does my right foot hurt. Last nights compeed has done nothing but make the blister worse - more fluid has built up and it’s pushing against the dressing. There’s nothing else to do but get up and rip it (and the top layer of skin) off. It hurts. A lot. But no time to dick about now. I have to borrow a needle from James to get the rest of the fluid out, but I can’t get my boot on otherwise. It’s gross and painful. I put alcohol and iodine onto it, plaster and tape it and hope that it doesn’t get worse. 

After a huge breakfast (a mostly silent one, like a wake) it’s time to leave. Our bags are put in the car and taken to the bottom of the hill. Even picking them up to put them in the car is horrible. This is it. This is what I have to carry for the next “3 days”. At the bottom of the hill, we put our packs on. The plan today is to cover 25km of jungle and then camp. It is 7am when we leave. 25km takes me about 2 hours if I’m running. It CANNOT take more than 5 hours. With a lunch stop. It just can’t. Here is a picture of Merlin at the start of the trek. I like this, because he looks so fresh and clean and innocent. He looks like one of the kids at the start of the film ‘I.T.’ 

The face of innocence.

The face of innocence.

Let’s get this clear. With the jungle, there is no support crew, no shop, no people, no extra snacks, no extra water, no nothing. There are no get outs, no going back and no trotting off on your own. You are dependant on yourself and each other. You cannot just say “I’m a dickhead, get me out of here”. If you want out, it’s helicopter and you had better be injured. That is the only way. No phone signal, very weak GPS. It’s fucking serious. Once you’re in, you're in.

Packs on. Let’s go.

Packs on. Let’s go.

From the get go, it was so hard. I had never done anything like this before. The cheat sticks came straight out. The terrain to start was hard, chalky rock, sometimes vertical in it’s ascent. We all got on with it, hoofing ourselves up, trying to drink enough water and take enough salt. It was already hot, but it was manageable. I had taken some ibuprofen and codeine, and my foot didn’t hurt anymore, but that meant everything else did. After a couple of hours we got to the outskirts of the jungle. The first 2 miles had taken us 28 minutes and 29 minutes respectively. This was going to be a LONG day. Those two miles were the fastest 2 miles we would do that day. Or all week, for that matter. 

On the up. Photo: James Appleton

On the up. Photo: James Appleton

On the edge of the real jungle, it started to get muddy. Really muddy. December is the end of rainy season in Panama. When the event goes ahead in 2020, it will be done in March. It will be a lot drier. To try and get an idea of the mud, here is a video of a mule taking a cock back from wining a cock fight. 

Seriously, that chicken has won a fight and so is allowed to ride the mule home, but also MUD. That animal had 4 legs! This is not a muddy puddle. This is life from here on in. 

We trekked on and on, trying to keep our spirits up. A 44 min mile, a 49 min mile, a 50 min mile, on and on it went. Energy was sapped. We stopped for our first lunch of cold, wet pasta. I think that was the day he had lunch on the Continental Divide. But if I’m honest I can’t remember. We did do that one day though. I had never felt so tired. Everything was heavy. The knowledge there was no bed or shelter tonight was also there at the back of my mind. Mentally I was doing OK, but it wasn’t until 9 miles in, at about 3pm, when we put our packs down, that I felt a true sense of how utterly depleted I was. Taking the pack off, and staring at the thick jungle where we were supposed to sleep was pretty hilarious. The aim was to set up camp at 3 or 4pm every day, in daylight. Today was the only day that we would actually do that. 


Moses and Elvin set at it, chopping down the huge vines and leaves to make space for the hammocks. Didn’t look much like a campsite, if I’m honest. Now was the real test. Can Bailey put a hammock up on her own? I had done it once in the lodge with help. I was sure it would be fine.

Taking ‘Air B’n’B’ literally. Home for the night.

Taking ‘Air B’n’B’ literally. Home for the night.

It took me about an hour, but I got it up before 5pm and I was SO FUCKING PROUD OF MYSELF! Here’s a little video I took - apologies for the bad sound, but my little face is so happy. I have even managed to forget how hard the day had been and make it seem fun! These were halcyon days. The naive. halcyon days. 

After putting up the hammock, I began to realise how disgusting I was. I was sweaty and dirty and had nowhere to sit. I couldn’t take off my boots because I had nothing else to put on my feet. The jungle floor is a mixture of mud, debris, roots, spikes, killing things, and then you’ve got the locals - snakes, spiders and a billion ants. My feet were white, wet and rotting. Why didn’t I pack those sandals? WHY? 

It’s impossible to get changed and keep dry unless you are super organised and have a chair and some sandals. I had neither of these things and my hammock opened from the bottom so I couldn’t sit in it. All my special dry kit was in one of many dry bags - socks, some leggings to sleep in, one extra pair of pants and two tops - but there was just no way to dry my soaking wet stuff for tomorrow - my leggings, top and sports bra were soaked in sweat and river water, and my boots were wet through. It’s always wet in the jungle. These things would never dry. So I made the decision to sleep in my wet bra and hang my leggings up. That bra didn’t come off for the whole time I was in the jungle. More on that later. 

Setting up camp. Look how organised my bags are. Chucked all over the floor in a heap organised. Photo: James Appleton

Setting up camp. Look how organised my bags are. Chucked all over the floor in a heap organised. Photo: James Appleton

The excitement of first night jungle camp gave me a little bit of energy, so I went and got the water to warm up our pouches for dinner from the stream a few hundred feet away. We ate our tiny meals, and talked about how we were on track to make it to the island of dreams. Oh island of dreams. You are my carrot and I love you. I couldn’t wait to celebrate our achievement with beers and sand and sunbathing. Just a few days away.  Just a few days. 

At 7pm it was bedtime. It’s dark in the jungle. Really fucking dark, and too wet to make a fire and sing songs. We were all shattered. I managed to get into my dry leggings and sleeping bag without getting any little bug pals in my hammock with me, and before I knew it, I was asleep. 

I woke up at about 2am. The specialist quilt around my hammock (attached to the outside) had slipped and I was FREEZING cold. There were noises everywhere. It was weird. I didn’t want to wriggle about in case my hammock fell down. This was a lesson. Next time quilt IN hammock. I slept on and off until 5am when it was time to get up, pack up and ship out. 

The Jungle - Day 14

We wake up in the dark, we get up in the dark. The head torch is king. It’s really hard to motivate yourself to put on cold wet kit, but there is no choice here. It’s like a military operation. I covered myself in lube the best I could - feet, shoulders and all the other bits. I smelt so bad that I was almost offending myself. I managed to clean my teeth and get warmish - putting on the cold wet clothes from the day before with my Montane jacket over the top to try and warm myself up. New dry socks though - and then feet straight into cold, wet boots (checking for fun spider buddies in them before, obviously). Rick warmed the water for breakfast and “jungle coffee” while we took down our hammocks and tarps and diligently packed them away. Everything has mud on it, most stuff is wet and we are very, very tired. It’s strange how your brain switches into survival mode. You just get on with it, almost zombie like. I am no longer scared of ants or spiders or beetles. I just want to fit in with my crew and get things done. I don’t want to be a burden and I don’t want to be broken. 

Camp takedown and breakfast Photo: James Appleton

Camp takedown and breakfast Photo: James Appleton

After breakfast and coffee (basically ground coffee in dirty water, heated up - you drink it if you’re desperate, believe me, grouts and all), it was time to head out. The route was much discussed - something I did not take part in. I trusted Jim and Rick and the guides to get it right. They didn’t need another person messing it up. I would just mess it up. Packs onto aching backs, still hungry. The calorie deficit is so real. Snacks are limited to what you have in your pack, and you are just burning everything you have with every step. 

Start of day two. Rivers to cross.

Start of day two. Rivers to cross.

The first part of todays route is knee deep through a river. Darren and Merlin take their shoes off. I can’t be fucked, and what are you going to dry your feet on when you get to the other side anyway? Darren has done what nobody wants to do, and cut the back of his leg with his own machete. While this may sound funny, it’s not. He needs to be careful. He also has a huge blister between his big toe and second precious toe. More on that later. 

Slightly wet under foot….. Photo: James Appleton

Slightly wet under foot….. Photo: James Appleton

The route is more gruelling than anything I have ever done. It is SO muddy and so rocky. The descents are as bad as the ascents, if not worse. Your legs go to jelly, and the weight on your back pushes you to fall. We cover the height of Snowdon in just a few miles. You have no idea when the ups will stop, and sometimes they don't for hours. Picking a line is almost impossible. The wet kit rubs on my skin and there are multiple rivers to get through. They provide a few seconds of freezing comfort on my hot little feet. I am very aware I am eating a lot. I have rationed my snacks, but I am so, so hungry. I get through the days snacks in the first 4 hours. I save one Pulsin bar for later.  The group are getting quieter. The hills are getting steeper. There are no photos that can do the climbs justice. I stopped taking pictures because I didn’t have the energy to get my phone out and anyway, they don;t show the horror. For a good 4 miles, it’s scrambling. Hands pulling you up wet, muddy, vertical ascents. Trying to use your poles to pull you and your kit up. The rocks drop away from under you. There is no energy. The group get more and more quiet. The group spread out, but ultimately we have to stay together. My heart beats so hard I can feel it in my eyes. Progress is extremely slow, but its the best any of us can do. This is the first time that I realise we may be in trouble. Big fucking trouble.

Some mud.

Some mud.

One of Darrens photos. I just don’t have anything that explains how hard it was, but I am trying!

One of Darrens photos. I just don’t have anything that explains how hard it was, but I am trying!

This was vertical, and went on for about 2 miles.

This was vertical, and went on for about 2 miles.

This environment is relentless. It wants to kill you. I have done some really hard stuff in my time, but this tops it all. I have my first cry at about 3 miles in. I don't stop to cry, I just let tears roll down my face as I try and pick the best line to get up the never ending hills. Sometimes. because I am on my own, I just shout “FUUUUUUCK” really loud at nothing. My legs burn, my lungs burn and my brain has nothing in it. Rob is lagging behind. I am worried about him. Eventually I get to the top of a hill where the rest of the team are sitting. 

This is what they looked like. 

Happy Campers.

Happy Campers.

It’s at this point that Jim starts talking about us not making it to the island. I wanted to punch him in the face. Again. We are much slower than expected (because we were trudging through hell) and we needed to make up a lot time to be able to complete the jungle in 3 days. This seems impossible. We are going to be here for at least 4 days. Maybe 5. We sit in silence. I share some sweets with the team. I use all the coping strategies that I have had in place to protect my mental health throughout my life to deal with my feelings. They are feelings of anger, disappointment and frustration and are directed mainly at myself. I put the wall up in my brain. The protective wall that will stop me breaking. For now. 

Jim is talking to Rick and the guides about how we can get to camp before nightfall. Moses and Elvin don’t speak English - Rick is translating. Moses and Elvin have only ever done this route once, backwards, and that was a while ago. I don’t know how I am going to go on. I refer back to the wall and slowly stand up. 

Relentless, forward progress. Photo: James Appleton

Relentless, forward progress. Photo: James Appleton

A route had been planned. We follow on. Hours go past, we go on. We trudge through fake steps that fall away underneath us, through mud and cow shit, stepping on rotten wooden struts that either give way or make us slip over. We are calf deep in mud most of the time. I feel like I have turned into some kind of psychopath. Just staring ahead with nothing going through my brain. Nobody is going to come and get us. We have to stop at some point.  The tracks we are making run along ridges with huge drops. The earth falls away but the drops are masked by the tops too trees that grow next to us. I know they are there and they make me panic. We have to tuck under fallen trees with the packs on. The trunks mean you have to almost slide under on your stomach. Getting up hurts. Its starting to get dark - it gets dark quicker when you;re under the canopy. Then another huge climb up. We need to camp. We need to stop. 

The shack that saved us. Photo: James Appleton

The shack that saved us. Photo: James Appleton

The jungle fades away to reveal thick, muddy fields where cows graze. We are at the top of a hill and can see a tiny shack in the middle of the field. We have to stay there. That is what my brain is saying. They have to let us stay there. It’s getting dark, and we have been moving for nearly 10 hours. I say to Merlin and Darren that we have to stay there. They say nothing. We stumble towards the shack, and Rick, Jim, Moses and Alvin are already there, talking animatedly to the owners. We are all leaning down, with our heads resting on our poles. We can’t do it anymore. We are really in the shit. We are massively behind schedule. The small family that live in the house invite us onto their porch using hand gestures, and give us a bucket to wash out boots in. It’s like washing your boots in a muddy puddle, but we are so grateful. Water is precious and this is a gift. They say we can sleep on their porch. We are so grateful. We sit there, dazed and confused and exhausted.

Darren sums up everything we are feeling. Photo: James Appleton.

Darren sums up everything we are feeling. Photo: James Appleton.

Talking about that map. On the porch. AGAIN. Still don’t understand the map.

Talking about that map. On the porch. AGAIN. Still don’t understand the map.

Tonights bed fellow. The point is, you’re too tired to care. He’s just living his life. Photo: Darren Grigas

Tonights bed fellow. The point is, you’re too tired to care. He’s just living his life. Photo: Darren Grigas

They say a firm mattress is good for the back sooooo…..

They say a firm mattress is good for the back sooooo…..

We start getting undressed the best we can - which is not well - organising hammocks on the floor. There is nowhere to hang them. We have to sleep on the floor. There are huge spiders everywhere, and no space to stretch out, but we don’t care. This tiny family, who have nothing, have invited us as guests to use their porch and we are so in need of it. All they have is this land, a pig, a few chickens, a mule and a cow or two. These children have never seen a car or a television. They don’t know what the internet is. They look at us like aliens. We are so grateful. They are living. In a way I am jealous of them. To live a life like this is to actually live. 

I felt ashamed of what I was missing. I felt embarrassed at the riches we looked like we possessed. James spent time with the family - taking photos of them and showing them to the spellbound children. James later put the following post up on his facebook and with his permission I have copied and pasted it here. I think he sums it up better than I ever could. 

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“I'm not sure I have the right words for this picture yet, but here goes. I was also in Panama recently, crossing coast to coast and documenting the recce of a race along the same route. What was expected to be a three day 65km jungle section ended up being five days and closer to 90. We climbed over the height of Kilimanjaro in mud you wouldn't believe. The afternoon we realised that we were, to put it bluntly, in the shit, we stumbled out from the jungle into a small hillside of pasture. One small turquoise shack sat halfway down the knee-deep boggy slopes. The family of four who lived there saw our state and, with less than an hour to dark, let us spend the night on their front porch, giving us free access to their water (no small thing). The simplicity of their lives was so staggering it actually hurt me somewhere inside to see, I'm not going to try and explain this feeling, because I don't want to do it injustice, but that home and its family of four was one of the single most achingly beautiful things I have ever seen. They were all pretty shy, except for this young girl. With her tiny pet chick and a permanent infectious smile, she was a bold little character, and gracious enough to let a grimy, mud-soaked photographer do his thing. No hashtags for this one, it isn't right, just a photograph of something utterly unique.” James Appleton.

We heat up some water and cook our pouches. We eat them fast. We know that we are in trouble. We are so far behind now. But we have ground to sleep on, and we need to sleep. I don’t get changed. I just roll myself into my sleeping bag, in my wet, sweaty kit, put my net over my face and lay on the wooden porch. We all do. We are a team. Tomorrow will be better.  Behind me I can hear a pig snuffling. I am safe. I am with my team, and we will look after each other. 

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The Namibia/Panama Crossings - Panama Coast to Coast, Days 11 and 12. 

The morning after the traverse before was spent discussing what we had achieved over breakfast. Despite a good nights sleep, everyone was totally knackered, caught in a kind of daze. We couldn’t really take in what we had achieved the day before. Where most runners would be spending the day in front of Netflix with Just Eat on speed dial, we hurriedly packed out bags and headed to Panama City to catch a flight to Las Olas, where the ext day we would attempt the second traverse of the country. 

This traverse was the inaugural Panama Coast to Coast. This is the event that Rat Race will be putting on in 2020. This is the real deal, and nobody knew if it was possible. The itinerary was as follows: 

Day 1: Start running from Las Olas on the Pacific Coast. 50km on roads and trails. Vehicle supported. Accommodation in jungle lodge.

Day 2: Continue running from where we stopped. Another 50km on roads and trails. Vehicle supported. Accommodation in jungle lodge.

Days 3-5: Jungle stage. 3 days totally self sufficient in the jungle. No crew. No support. Sleeping in hammocks. Approximately 25km per day 

Day 5: Emerge at edge of jungle, jump on pacrrafts and paddle to the coast. Boat to Bocas Del Torro (Carribean Island of dreams)

Day 6: Full day of R&R on Bocas Del Torro. White beaches, food and yes, the drinks are free. 

All looks pretty do-able. On paper. The point is this. Myself, Darren and Jim had been travelling and running now for almost 2 weeks. We had already covered over 200km on foot through some extremely tough environments. There were no rest days. Our bodies were shot, but our minds were sharp. We were all 100% focused on getting to that island. We were all 100% in it for the long haul. Our fresh new buddies, Merlin, Rob and James would spur us on and bring new energy. We would all make it to that island and we would all get very drunk. That was the plan.  But sometimes, things don’t go to plan. And sometimes, they REALLY don’t go to plan. 

Day 11 - 50km run from Las Olas to Chiriqui

Sunrise of the first day of Panama Coast to Coast

Sunrise of the first day of Panama Coast to Coast

Having arrived at our amazing hotel in the dark (AGAIN), we had yet another 5am alarm call. We wanted to start running at 7 and James had to get his epic starting shots. We meet on the beach as the sun is rising. I am aching all over but excited to get a bit of road running done. Merlin is the most excited man on earth - I love him. His excitement lifts me and Darren up more that I though possible. The sunrise is beautiful and, at 7am, we turn away from the Atlantic and start the journey across Panama.

And we’re off. Photo: James Appleton

And we’re off. Photo: James Appleton

Merlin and Darren are boys. We all know this. Off they go together, way ahead of me, grabbing their 9 min miles while they could. I stayed behind, trotting along the road at ultra (slow) pace, taking in the beauty of the Panamanian countryside. I was tired and achey, but pretty content. It was hot and, although I was happy to have some tarmac under my feet, it served only to bounce the heat up, making it feel hotter than it was. I had learnt a lot from Namibia, so was drinking a lot of water and taking a shit tonne of salt. I had snacks and tunes. I was happy. There was a lot to look at. Huge birds flew overhead and huge rivers flowed under the bridges. There were cows and horses in the fields, and some of the streets were lined with amazing houses, brightly coloured with children on the porches and dogs EVERYWHERE.

The joy of a semi tarmac road. Oh and a volcano

The joy of a semi tarmac road. Oh and a volcano

Everyone I passed was friendly, with the cars honking their horns and the kids waving at me. As the hours went by it got hotter and hotter. My suntan lotion was being sweated off faster than I could put it on, and I could feel myself burning. I was on my own, but looking after myself. Water, salt, water, salt, snack. Every so often, Rob would swing by in the support vehicle and James would shout some abuse at me, but I was taking it easy and making sure I could function.

Good doggos doing the guarding.

Good doggos doing the guarding.

Jim had set off an hour ahead of us that morning. He had a set 4kmph pace and he was sticking with it. Eventually, after a few hours, I caught up with him and then, soon after, Merlin. Merlin is a monster with a massive pedigree. He’s won OCR’s and ultras. He’s got a super fast marathon time and he is the loveliest man I have ever met. But he has one thing that will always fuck him over on these events. Merlin is ginger. The heat was getting to him and short of putting a hazmat suit on, it was impossible for him not to burn. He had slowed right down, but seemed to be coping, so I didn’t have to shout abuse at him, and I kept trotting on. At about 25km, the support vehicle came into view and I could see Darren. He had shot off and seemed to be having a really good day. I was loving everything. I was still tired, but with no time pressure and a huge amount of self care, I felt like I was doing really well. I ate a massive amount of food at the car, and waited for Jim and Merlin and then we all set off together, with Darren out front. 

A happy little face coming to the support vehicle about 13 miles in.

A happy little face coming to the support vehicle about 13 miles in.

Things stared to get a little more rural - lots more dogs (yay) and loads of streams and waterfalls. Today had been pretty flat. There were some slow inclines, but it was a good first day. I eventually caught up with Darren whose phone battery had run out (it’ll do that if you keep taking selfies, Dazzler) and he was a bit lost. We ran along together having a chat and generally enjoying ourselves. At one point we decided we were thirsty for sports drink, so stopped for a beer in one of the local shops. Nobody spoke any english, so I ended up googling a picture of Panama lager on my phone. It worked. The international language of beer photos.

We trotted on together, not fast but having a nice time,. We stopped in a river for a swim and before we knew it, we had reached the bus stop that marked the end of the first day. That was lovely. We had a lovely time, plus we had managed to do 27 miles in just over 6 hours, which I was proper chuffed with. Our feet looked like this. 

We’re not in the jungle yet, kids…..

We’re not in the jungle yet, kids…..

After about an hour, Merlin and Jim arrived in really good spirits. We all got in the car to the jungle lodge, which was about 90 mins away. Tomorrow, the car would bring us back here to continue where we had left off. We’d all had a great day. If this sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. This is the start of a horror film. 

Merlin and I, living our best lives at the bus stop. #iwokeuplikethis  Photo: James Appleton

Merlin and I, living our best lives at the bus stop. #iwokeuplikethis Photo: James Appleton

Turns out the jungle lodge is one of the most spectacular places on earth. It is 10km up a dirt track that takes an hour to drive up in a 4x4 - it’s that rocky and steep. It was on the drive up that James decided to get out of the car and run up it, top off, like a human springbok. I have never seen anything like it. That man is an animal, and even though I was proud of what I had achieved that day, watching him sprint up that hill effortlessly, at 7 min miles, brought me firmly back down to earth. He is a true athlete. At the top of the hill, in the clouds, was the lodge. At 6,300ft, Mount Totumas Cloud Forest is the highest eco lodge in Panama. It is beyond prose. I’ve put a link to it here so you can judge for yourselves. This was our home for two nights.

View from the balcony of the Cloud Forest Lodge. No pictures will do it justice.

View from the balcony of the Cloud Forest Lodge. No pictures will do it justice.

Outside the glass walls, the clouds passed by, as hummingbirds buzzed around like bees. We were all dumbstruck by it’s beauty. This place is a labour of love, and one of the best places in the to see some of the rarest birds in the world. I could have sat on the balcony forever. The fridge was stocked with beer and wine, and the showers were basically outside. That night we ate dinner and laughed and relaxed. The next day would be hard, but with amazing food in our stomachs and a few beers in our bellies we were happy. We’ve got this, I thought. We can do this. 

Day 12 - 50km run from Chiriqui to Mount Totumas

Another 4.45 wake up call for the 90 min journey back to where we finished yesterday. Another day of creaking limbs and slow stretching. It was at this point that I started taking notice of my massive kit fail at Heathrow. Half the stuff that I had thought I brought with me, I had not. I had hardly any running kit. The lodge had very kindly done a kit wash for us, but looking at what I had, I realised that I was short a lot of leggings and long tops. I needed these for the jungle stage. I wanted full body cover. I decided not to worry about it. But I can’t not worry. The worry was there, and tomorrow we had to go into the jungle.

Todays run was all uphill (almost 6000ft uphill it seems), on roads. I was worried and mega tired. I was not mentally there, and that is my own fault. I started the day in a mood. I started the day not believing I could do it. I also just wanted to stay at the lodge. It was so beautiful there. I just wanted a day resting, watching the clouds. Fuck you, wonder lodge. 

Start of day two and James makes me run along this. Fuck you, James. Photo: James Appleton

Start of day two and James makes me run along this. Fuck you, James. Photo: James Appleton

The car dropped us off at the bus stop and drove off. Here we go again. 27 miles of road. To cut a long story short, I didn’t have a great day. I was alone for a lot of it, and much slower than the day before. There were rickety bridges. The hills were MENTAL and swirled upwards forever and, having 50km of roads in my legs already (AND THE REST, BAILEY!), I had totally gone off them. Although I had tried to look after myself the day before, on reflection, I had gone too fast. 

Ups and downs. All day.

Ups and downs. All day.

It was, however, beautiful. It was like being in one of those car ads, where they whizz down roads on the edge of mountains. The houses were still there, the wonderful villages and people. At one point I found this tiny puppy outside a house and gave him a cuddle. 

There is always a light (puppy) at the end of the tunnel (road)

There is always a light (puppy) at the end of the tunnel (road)

Views though……

Views though……

There were goats, baby cows, and lots of dead snakes on the road. I was trying to take it in - trying to convince myself I was living, because I was. But I was lonely, and really far behind Darren and Merlin. I felt a bit shit about myself. Eventually I reached the town that we had driven through on the way to the lodge. Not far now, I thought. But it is far when you’re not in a car. It is very far indeed. It’s all up winding roads, up hills. And this leg demanded that the last 10km was up the rocky hill to the lodge. 

Darren and Merlin had left notes on the road, scratched in white chalky stones. I loved them. They made me realise that we were a team, and nobody was judging anyone else. They made me smile and spurred me on.

The nicest thing to happen to me all day. Apart from the puppy.

The nicest thing to happen to me all day. Apart from the puppy.

Eventually, I turned another impossible corner and Darren was running towards me. He had been there for ages, but he was running up to meet me so we could do the last 10km together. I wanted to punch him and cuddle him at the same time - a common theme in my ultra relationship with Darren. Merlin was on top form too. So James, Merlin, Darren and I “ran” the last 10km together, up that fucker of a hill to the lodge. I walked when I had to, ran when I could. It was brilliant to be back with the boys. My sense of hope was coming back. But the jungle was there at the back of my mind. Tonight I had to pack everything I would need for 3 days self sufficient. All the food, clothes, hammock, sleeping bag, first aid, water, everything I would need. What would we be facing in there? I was scared. I was exhausted. I had no clue what was coming up. The boys were funny and made me laugh. On the way to the lodge, James kept making us run through a river to do the same shot over and over again. But I was with my team, and I felt so much better.  If you’re wondering, he got his shot.

Worth the wet feet? Yeah I guess so……. Photo: James Appleton

Worth the wet feet? Yeah I guess so……. Photo: James Appleton

Back at the lodge, I had work to do. I had to pack the jungle bag. I had naively chosen the Ultimate Direction Fastback 35 as my jungle bag. I was sure 35 litres would be enough. Rick was there for a hammock lesson, so between learning how to put one up and feeling like I could sleep for a thousand years, I tried to sort out kit. Sorting kit on a tired brain is very fucking hard, as we proved in the Heathrow episode. I kept making piles and then changing the piles and then making another pile. I didn’t have the right kit. I would need full body coverage in the jungle, and only had one pair of leggings and one long sleeved top. I had stupidly left the others in Jims car. In addition to that, on the flight from Panama City to Las Olas, one of the jars of isotonic powder had exploded on the food packets, so I had to wash them all (all 60 of them) to prevent them turning into sticky monstrosities in the jungle, thus attracting ant friends. Heres what the tuck shop looked like on the floor of my bathroom.

Freshly washed food.

Freshly washed food.

I couldn’t concentrate on one task, so I tried to do 7 at once, and did none of them properly. I eventually managed to pack my bag, but it was almost bursting. I tried it on, and it hurt to wear. I realised that it wasn’t big enough, and I was going to need to re-pack, using my 60 litre Karrimor backpack in order to fit my bladder in. My UD bag, however amazing it was, just wasn’t going to cut it. I needed a lot of support on my hips and so was going to have to take the bigger one. Once I had packed it, it weighed in at around 20kg. It was at this point that I realised I had never attempted to carry this kind of weight for any distance, other than the distance from my flat to the tube station. I just hadn’t thought about how heavy it would be. Our two local guides had arrived to meet us. Tiny, super fit humans who live and work in the jungle every day. Their names were Moises and Elvin. They spoke no english and looked hard as fucking nails. They were there to help navigate and attempt to keep us safe. They took one look at my bag, pointed at me and laughed. I will never forget that. Fuck you, I thought. I WILL carry that bag. (Side note - this was an over reaction my part - I fucking love those guys now). That night we sat down for dinner with Rick and looked at the map. This is the map. 

Map. It’s very, very green. Top right, our local guides. Moses and Elvin. Hardest men in the world.

Map. It’s very, very green. Top right, our local guides. Moses and Elvin. Hardest men in the world.

It made literally NO sense to me. It was all green. Turns out it made no sense to anyone. Everyone was nervous. We packed and repacked and packed and repacked again. We chose our meals. The boys sharpened their machetes (not a euphamism). We would be in the jungle for “3 days” so took 4.5 days worth of rations in individual wet pouches. Just in case. Thank fuck we did that. We took a breakfast, a lunch and a dinner plus a pudding for every night. That’s 18-19 pouches of wet food in such delicious flavours as ‘Beans ’n’ Burgers’ and ‘Spaghetti Bolognese’. It’s a lot of weight. Then factor in everything else you need to bring. And the 3 litres of water you should be carrying. James and I decided against puddings - it was extra weight and we had the ultimate - THE JAR OF NUTEELLA - REMEMBER HIM???. That would be our pudding. One spoon a night. The other item I decided not to take was my sandals. I woudn’t need them in the jungle. It was extra weight. They were a luxury. This was to become one of my biggest regrets. The only shoes I had were my Salomon Jungle Ultra boots. 

James had to carry not only his pack, but also his cameras - making his weight 10kg more than anyone else. He’s tiny. He’s fit, but he is tiny. He also runs on sugar. I had a bit of room in my big bag, so took 2 cans of red bull for him. This small gesture would pay dividends later on in the saga. It pays to be kind, people. Remember that. 

In all the packing and brain hurtyness, I had forgotten I had a hotspot on my foot that, as I walked round the lodge, was getting worse. When I looked there was a huge fluid filled blister on the ball on my right foot. FUCK. I never, ever get blisters. This was my fault. I knew I had grit in my shoe, I knew my feet were wet but I didn’t clear my trainers out. In my mentalness, I decided to compeed it, and see how it was in the morning. This was totally stupid. Compeed is prevention, not cure. I wasn’t thinking straight. Even with the compeed on, I was limping. How was I supposed to wear jungle boots for 3 days with my foot feeling like this? I convinced myself it would be better in the morning using mainly a beer.

So we had dinner, a last shower and went to bed. Tomorrow would be the start of our total immersion in the jungle. But it’s only three days. Only. Three. Days. 

The Namibia/Panama Crossings - The Panama Canal Traverse, Day 9

Before we get started on the Panama leg, a word on being “tired and trying to get your shit together”. We arrived at Heathrow from Cape Town at around 7am, picked up our disgusting, sweaty, sandy bags, and headed to the car park where Jim had parked his car. The challenge was to dump all the Namibia kit, and repack the bags with our Panama kit. I had (I thought) diligently packed 2 bags, so all I would need to do was swap the stuff in my rucksack out for the stuff in my suitcase (which was the car, obvs). But I was very tired, jet lagged, stressed and a bit confused, so this task was akin to doing a rubiks cube after 5 pints of lager.

 Once at the car, we emptied our bags onto the floor and began to play a fun game of kit jenga. I couldn’t get my head around what it was that I needed to take. Would it be hot or cold? How wet would it be? Should I take the old food and the new food or just the new food? How many days kit would I need? Just one or everything? Should I take 2 pairs of trainers or one? What day was it? ARGH!  Bear in mind I had this all sorted in my head before I left for Namibia, it was just now it all seemed so impossible. Around me, Darren and Jim were doing the same thing so the floor of the car park looked like the worlds shittest jumble sale. I did my best, separated bits into dry bags and thought that I had done a good job. That was until I got to Panama - more on that later. 

After hiding the BA lounge and wondering if it was OK to have a glass of wine at 9am (it was), we got on the plane to Miami, where we had a stopover, before arriving in Panama City for our transfer to the Melia Hotel - AKA the words WEIRDEST hotel. Everything was late. We were waiting to meet the rest of our team, and they were there alright. Their luggage, however, was not. We waited about 6 hours in the airport to get hold of the luggage. Panama City airport has very little in the way on entertainment or places to lay down. No rest day for us. Bye bye swimming pool time.

L-R: Jim, James. Rob, Merlin and Darren looking at maps. Waiting for luggage.

L-R: Jim, James. Rob, Merlin and Darren looking at maps. Waiting for luggage.

Having lost Dani and Handsome Pete (both way too sensible to come to the jungle) our new team consisted of the lovely Rob Atikin (Rat Race Event Director and all round legend), Merlin Duff (OCR king and funniest man on earth) and James Appleton (Super fast fell runner and photographer of all things wonderful). Merlin was going to attempt both traverses with myself, Jim and Darren, Rob was going to do the second crossing and crew us for the first, and James was going to film the whole thing and show us what real runners are capable of in the process. We also met Rick who was going to be our guy on the ground for both events. Rick often takes trips (DAY TRIPS) into the jungle - he’s like the Ray Mears of Panama - but he had never done anything like this before. 

Once we finally had the luggage, we got in the van and drove to the hotel, stopping off at a supermarket for supplies for the first crossing. This was a bit like letting a bunch of ravenous school children run around a sweet shop. It was here that James bought a jar of Nutella. That jar of Nutella is very important. Do not forget about that jar of Nutella.  We arrived at the hotel in the dark. This was to become a theme in Panama. We only ever saw the places we slept in the dark. The Melia Hotel on the Panama Canal was formerly known as the ‘School of the Americas’, and was a US-funded institution that trained some of Latin America's infamous dictators. It was so massive, so creepy and so empty. We were the only people in there and it must have had 200 huuuuge rooms. It was too late for dinner, so we ate snacks and were then informed that we would have to be up at 4.45am to attempt the first traverse. This was one of the first times that I felt like punching Jim in the face. There would be plenty more times in the coming week. We had 4 hours to get some sleep. 

Morning!

Morning!

As an aside, this traverse is NOT part of the Bucket List event - we just wanted to see if it was possible. The planned route goes like this. Starting at the Atlantic Ocean, near Colon (quiet at the back) we were to run 6 miles to the Gatun Lake (a major part of the Panama canal), jump in a kayak, row 9 miles to the edge of the jungle, get out and run/hike/hack 13 miles (spoiler - it was a lot further than 13 miles) through jungle, along the Panama pipeline, until we popped out at Gamboa, then run 13 miles to the end of the Panama pipeline near the City of Knowledge/Panama City and the Pacific Ocean. So all in, about 41 miles ish in a day, crossing a country. Seems easy right? Seems doable? Please note, Jim has attempted this twice and failed. That is what was supposed to happen. Here is what actually happened. 

My 5am start face

My 5am start face

We reluctantly got up at 4.45am to start the first 6 mile run. It was dark and hot and humid and we were all already VERY tired and hungry - breakfast was a yogurt bought from the shop the day before and a small muffin. We just about managed to get some coffee out of the hotel. I was suddenly aware I was running with 3 very fit blokes. As my 3 regular readers know, I’m not very fast at all, I was tired and ratty and I now felt like I was under quite a lot of pressure. I let the boys get on with it and run ahead, and to be honest we all took it relatively easy in the end - a nice little warm up along Panamas roads, to the edge of Lake Gatun, where the kayaks were waiting. I’ve never been in a kayak, which is a fun fact. Lucky Darren got me as a kayak partner. He was thrilled.  They put me at the front and Darren at the back, so I was in charge of setting the pace - I THOUGHT he would have to do all the work - I was very wrong. 

Lake Gatun. Kayak Time!

Lake Gatun. Kayak Time!

The lake was beautiful and still. It’s man made, and so has the tops of trees poking out of the water, where birds sit and occasionally dive for fish. As I said, it’s a major part of the Panama canal, created between 1907 and 1913 to enable ships to pass from the Atlantic to the Pacific. At the time it was built (is that the right word?) it was the largest man made lake in the world.  As we set off, we could hear Howler monkeys everywhere. We were flanked on either side by thick jungle and it looked amazing. It was serene, stunning and calm. But we all knew what else lived in that water. Crocodiles. Lots of them.  

After 6 miles of kayaking (which, it turns out, is quite tiring) we pulled up to the shore and changed from our running shoes into our jungle boots and kit. I pulled on some waterproof trousers over my leggings, put my boots and gators on and was immediately boil-in-the bag Bailey. We got back in the kayaks, and made our way to a tiny clearing off the lake - as we pulled in, a huge crocodile wacked it’s tail out of the water and swam off. He was not happy to see us. I was pretty excited to see him, but he was having none of it. He was the second crocodile we had seen on the way to the jungle, but I was weirdly not scared. The kayaks seemed pretty sturdy and I’m not sure we would have provided much of a snack for them. We’d not really had any breakfast. 

Kayak parking. Not easy.

Kayak parking. Not easy.

The second I set foot in the jungle, I knew it was going to be really fucking hard. The damp, deep leaf litter gave way under our boots. The trees were covered with ants and spiders and there was no path that anyone could make out. We had a local guy with us who had run this route before. Not, it turned out, very recently, Everything was overgrown, wet and decaying and within 30 minutes we all silently acknowledged that this was going to be a very long day. 

Here’s me doing an explain before I realised how horrendous my life choices were.

The reason you don’t grab the trees

The reason you don’t grab the trees

It’s so hard to explain what it’s like in there. The first thing I will say is it’s hot, humid and everything is wet. Everything including your feet. They will now be wet forever. There is mud - a lot of it. It is not flat, it goes up and down all the time - the downs being very, very difficult to navigate. You slip and slide down, and there is nothing to hold onto. All the trees are covered in either insects or long spikes, so you can’t grab them. We fell over a lot. There are lots of very high bridges, that are rotten, partially fallen down. You have to guess where to put your feet to avoid going through them. We had big packs on, filled with litres of water and snacks. In my head, 13 miles was nothing. In the jungle, it may as well have been 50 miles. It’s very, very slow going. 

Welcome to the Jungle. Yes, that is a bridge. Yes, we do have to cross it. Yes, it IS rotten and very high up.

Welcome to the Jungle. Yes, that is a bridge. Yes, we do have to cross it. Yes, it IS rotten and very high up.

This. For 18 miles.

This. For 18 miles.

We were “following” the pipeline, but finding it was difficult. We were all on the verge of dehydrating, and had to keep topping our bladders up in streams and rivers, plus we were eating snacks way too fast. I was taking salt tabs every two hours, but still felt totally drained. We kept having to stop and check the GPS co-ordinates, we were tired and ratty, and didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. There were fallen trees everywhere, and getting over them was a gamble - the huge trunks would either hold, or you would fall through rotten bark, and be covered in ants and termites, up to your waist in insects. Then you would have to get out. At one point, we were all so hot we made our way down to a river and just got in it - it didn’t matter that we were now 100% soaking wet, it was just too hot to function. The few minutes cool gave us all a second wind. For about five minutes. 

There were moments of wonder and glory. Like watching the ants going about their business, and having discussions about how they could actually take over the world. These moments were few and far between. And most of these conversations I THINK I actually had with myself. Like this…..

We trekked on and on, dripping in sweat, and eventually it started to become VERY obvious that this was not a 13 mile section. It was a lot longer than that. We had started to run out of food - there was no way crew could get in to help us. Rob was meeting us on the other side of the jungle with the van. And the food was in the van. I started to worry about the second traverse. How could anyone survive in here for more than a few hours? How would we survive for four days? 

Looks a bit like a pipe…..is actually a “path”

Looks a bit like a pipe…..is actually a “path”

It was relentless. We trekked on and on, staying together as a group, sometimes breaking off for the “runable” bits. It started to get dark. My watch ran out of battery. I didn’t know how far I had come, or how far we had left to go. As it got darker, the bats and monkeys came out. I could hear them but not see them. My mind started to go, and I started to hallucinate big black cats and things flying at my face. At this point I was on my own - Jim was behind me and Merlin, Darren and James ahead. It was horrible. Not knowing where the end of this leg and the van were was horrible. I was so hungry and thirsty.  See below for my sense of humour failure.

After what seemed like forever, I could hear voices. It was getting really dark now - we had been in the jungle for around 10 hours. I came round the corner and then saw Merlin, James and Darren sitting on the ground. We were out of the jungle, but there was no van. There was, however, a shit load of mosquitos. And they were all over us. The van had apparently been waiting for us for hours, and Rob had decided to go and grab some food. We called him back, and after 30 minutes he was there. We were all hungry and very, very tired and we still had a 13 mile road section to complete the traverse. It was at this stage that people started to talk about if they could actually go on. It was all I could think about. I could just get in the van. I could just get in, and go to sleep. I was so, so empty.  I felt like crying. In fact I may have even had a cry. I was irrational and angry we’d had to wait, and I couldn’t see how I would be able to run another 13 miles with an empty tank and an empty mind. I so nearly pulled the plug. So nearly. But I didn’t. I silently took my boots off, changed my socks, ate a massive bag of pretzels, drank a litre of water and a coke, changed my top and got my head torch out.  Fuck this. I have never DNF’d and I wasn’t going to do it now.  My feet were white and wrinkled. They looked like the feet you see poking out of the end of gurneys in Silent Witness. I poured alcohol on them, let them dry and hoped for the best. I would deal with them after I had done this 13 mile section. And I would do this section. 

Lonely old 13 miles of roads ahead.

Lonely old 13 miles of roads ahead.

Everyone was silent as we set off in the dark. It was that kind of party. Darren, James and Merlin went off ahead of me.  Again, I was on my own as I started running. It was so nice to be back on roads. I say that, it wasn’t so great when my head torch batteries decided to run out. My spares were in the support van. I spent at least 4 miles running down unlit Panamanian dual carriageways, using my iPhone as a light. My backup torch was also in the van. Ultra brain. It’ll fuck you right up. After about 5 miles, I spotted the support vehicle at the side of the road - GREAT - I could change my batteries!. I was actually starting to feel better. It was good to get the legs going again, and the salt from the pretzels was kicking in. I was sort of enjoying myself again (although I felt drunk with tiredness). It was the classic thing - I wasn’t letting my body stop - I had told it that this was how it was going to be, so my body had to get on with it, and my mind was following.  My ultra strop was over and the end was in sight.  At the side of the vehicle, I spotted Merlin sitting down, head in his hands. He did not look good. Darren was talking to him and Rob was trying to get him to drink water. Merlin was done. He was saying he was going to get in the car. I wasn’t having any of this. I’d just taken two caffeine bullets and was high as a fucking kite on caffeine. I offered Merlin a cuddle (no), some sweets (no), my last caffeine bullet (yes), some drugs (no) and then I offered to tell him he was a fucking pussy and needed to get on with it.  That seemed to work. He started to get up. 

I changed my batteries and trotted off like a shetland pony. James came with me. I was now very aware that I was running with one of the UK’s best fell runners, and that put a rocket up me. We ran along (well I ran, James jogged) chatting about stuff and rubbish and it was brilliant. The route was horrible - along roads and busy dual carriageways, but I had got into my stride now. It was almost the end.

Turning off the dual carriageway to see the Pacific shining in the dark was amazing. It was about 9pm. We had been going for almost 17 hours and we had done it. We had crossed Panama. We were the first people to have traversed the pipeline in a day. Merlin and Darren came in about 35 minutes later and I was so happy to see them.  We were all so elated. We were like ghosts of our former selves. We looked pale, thin and done in. Covered in mud, blood and sweat. But we were overjoyed. Rob joined us in the van and told us Jim was still going about an hour behind us - of course he was - he never gives up. 

Here’s a little video to show how mashed up I was. I sound like I’m drunk, and forgot to turn my phone round. But you get the idea.

We got in the van, and Rob drive us to out hotel for the night - once again we go there in the dark. Ace. The poor woman at reception looked at us like we had just appeared out of a bog. It was at that point we realised how muddy and disgusting we actually were. And we needed to get our shit together, because we had a flight the next day, taking us to Los Olas and the start of our second traverse. 

We washed our kit in the showers (sorry again to the hotel…..) and managed to get the receptionist to order us a pizza from the local takeaway. It took AGES for the smallest pizza in the world to arrive, but with that, a hot shower and a couple of beers, all was almost forgotten. Almost. 

Jim arrived, and we were all together again. I swear that was one of the best nights sleep I ever had. One days rest (I say that, it was one day’s flying) and we would have to start the whole thing again. 

The Namibia/Panama Crossings - Man vs Table Mountain, Day 7

Coming back to the real world after being in what was essentially semi-solitary confinement for 5 days was weird. We were all in a sort of daze at the cars and shops and people of Swapkomund. Having a proper shower was the best thing ever. We were all completely exhausted. That night we went out for dinner with the crew and then slept, before getting up and attempting to sort out our filthy, sand and mud covered kit. I would like to apologise to whoever had to clean those rooms. After stuffing it all into bags the best we could, we headed out for the tiny airport and caught a (very delayed) flight to Cape Town, where we would spend one night before attempting the big 3 - Signal Hill , Lions Head  and Table Mountain 

The idea was to see how long it would take us to get up and over all 3 on foot (spoiler - it took me over 5 hours). This time, the victims were just Darren and myself - Dani and Jim made the genius decision to take the time to recover, and handsome Pete had to head home - so apologies for all the rubbish pictures. My personal photographer had better things to do. The idea was to get up early and start the run and then head straight to the airport to catch our flight back to the UK where we would have 6 hours to wait before out flight to Panama. In that time we would have to swap out kit - we had left our Panama kit in the back of Jim’s car at Heathrow. We were going to try and dump the Namibia stuff we wouldn’t use, and pack the essential Panama kit we needed. Hectic right? 

The thing about air travel is that unless you are travelling in business it is NOT conducive to recovery after these huge runs. Every flight is painful. Trying to sleep while your legs ached and pinged, worrying you would not get enough rest to be able to attempt what was coming next. I would go as far as to say the flights were actually part of the challenge. Especially when they hadn’t changed the film choices. 

At dinner the night before the run, we discussed the route. We were to head up and over Signal Hill, up and over Lions Head and then up to the top of Table Mountain and get the cable car down. It was over 6,000ft of elevation across 9 miles on very tired legs, up hills with my favourite things in the world on them - ridges. Ridges and drops. I tried to block out this thought by drinking wine. That was the sensible thing to do. 

The next morning Darren and I set off after breakfast, along roads and straight up the worlds longest steps. They weren’t  ACTUALLY the worlds longest, they just felt like it. 

And so it begins……again……

I was already NOT HAVING NICE TIME. There are no proper paths up Signal Hill - you sort of scrabble up and I didn’t like it at all. To be frank, Signal Hill is a bit of a shit show on the edge of Cape Town. There are NO tourists there, loads of littler and it feel like the sort of place I used to go and drink Strongbow when I was 13. I was tired and scared of the ledges that were up ahead of me. Once at the top, there was an amazing view of Lions Head and Table Mountain. As beautiful as it was, I was still bricking it.  I decided there and then I was not going to get too the top of Lions Head - I would be too scared and it wasn’t worth it. It’s important to know your limits, and and I know that getting up there would mean nothing to me except a possible panic attack and having to be rescued. I would go as far as I could, and then loop round and come down. I didn’t need to stand on the top of a tiny rock to prove anything to anyone. 

Signal Hill from the bottom of Lions Head 

Lions Head and table mountain in the background

It was a beautiful day with amazing visibility, and Darren was loving it - he’s a big fan of rocks and ridges - and this just made me feel even more shit. Why couldn’t I be more like him? Why did I have such an issue with drops and ledges? I felt like a total idiot. I felt, once again, like I wasn’t good enough. I let Darren run on ahead of me like a fell goat, and I plodded on feeling like Mr Blobby at a Crossfit session. I tried to take in the views, but at the back of my mind I felt like a bit of a failure. 

Camps Bay from halfway up Lions Head 

Some nice, “technical” trail…..

The trail up to Lions Head starts very friendly and lovely, but soon turns into craggy rocks on the edge of a big hill. There are people coming down towards you as you go up - I hate this - and so I focused on the floor. I imagined all the tourists laughing at me huffing my way up in running gear. Every now and again, I would look up at the view whilst leaning on the solid side of the mountain to avoid the possibility I might throw myself off. It was both mesmerising and terrifying. I probably got about 500 ft from the summit before I stopped and hid on a ledge for a bit. I waited for Darren to come back down for 10 mins, but them decided to make my own way down and head up Table Moutain. I had stupidly run out of water and it was very hot. 

Views alright though……

The trot down was a lot easier - the paths were wider and they were runable but my legs were shattered and running hurt. How the hell was I supposed to do another 300km on them? At the bottom of Lions Head, I crossed the road the saw there was a tap that was dripping water, so I filled up my flasks and started to try and find the trail up Table Mountain. At this point it all looked a bit like the New Forest, and after a few false starts I found the trail that would take me up - and joy of joys it was ALL steps. ARGH! STEPS! 

Table Mountain trails 

I was totally on my own now, and I felt better for it - I could take it at my pace and get on with what I needed to do - and that was get to the top. I could be as slow as I wanted, as long as I got there. This is a reminder that you are the one that judges yourself, and yes it is easier to do that negatively when other people are there, but ultimately you have control over your thoughts. The flora and vegetation were beautiful and I decided to try and enjoy it - and for a little while, I did. 

There were some amazing bushes and flowers and hardly anyone else on the trail. I met a good few lizard friends, some of them bright green and red, some of them blending into the rocks. The path up to Table Mountain is steep - steeper than Snowdon - but loops round, with little waterfalls everywhere and places to sit for a minute. And then the sheer drops start.

Hullo?

Spot the lizard…..

Regular readers of this blog (all 3 of you - hi mum!) will know that I have this stupid fear of heights and drops. I have tried and tried to get over it - most notably last year when I had a near meltdown on Arran. I don’t know what it is about them, but I am terrified of big drops, narrow paths and cliff edges. I feel like I am going to either fall down or throw myself off. I have to use my hands to guide me, stare at the rock face and not look down. It’s ridiculous. The thing about being halfway up Table Mountain when the ridges start is you can’t do anything about it - you either get to the top or you go back. And I was NOT going back. Because that would mean looking down. The funny thing is, looking back on this as I write it, the vertical scrambles seemed like the hardest thing the world. They were, on reflection, simply a tasty warm up for what was to come in Panama. 

Some of the ascent featured vertical scrambles up rocks - I used my bands and tried to control my breathing and be nice to all the people coming down the other way. I tried to make funny jokes with them, but my voice sounded weird. I was hungry now - really hungry - and because it had been billed as 9 miles I hadn’t bought anything to eat with me. The hunger and anxiety bought on the shakes. I’m a fucking idiot sometimes. As I turned a corner I could see the cloud was coming in - sweeping the top of the mountain, and I was headed straight for it. Suddenly I heard my name being shouted from behind me - it was Darren. I could have sworn he was in front of me?? He had been doing parkour or some shit at the top of Lions Head, and so WAS actually behind me and he had FOOD! He stopped and checked to see if I was ok (I wasn’t), chucking me a few shot bloks  and a bit of cliff bar (noms) and then trotted off ahead of me - like the fell goat he is. In my head I had thought I was near the summit - turns out I was still an hour away and now I couldn’t see the summit. All I could see was cloud.

Staring up into hell…..

I dealt with the next couple of miles by counting steps, resting when I could and trying to stay calm. I wished I had bought my headphones. Eventually, the vertical scrambles stopped and I realised I was at the top. In the cloud. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face and was convinced I was going to fall off the edge. The top of Table Moutain is of course, flat. I was not going to fall anywhere. There was no edge.

Finally at the top. 

Cloud hiding the imaginary edge 

I followed the path until suddenly the cloud completely cleared and I could see the cafe and cable car at the top. Thank fuck. I had done it - I was there. I met up with Darren and went straight to the cafe for a rehydration beer. I met some of the locals who live at the top of the mountain - the dassies - fun little animals that look like a cross between a gerbil and a beaver. They lounge around on the rocks at the top. They are funny. They are brave. 

Gah! Dassies!

View from the top…..

Cable car down……

What is also funny (or not) is the way I processed what I had just done. I didn’t congratulate myself for getting there, I beat my self up for how long it had taken me and what a total wimp I had been. I managed to take some photos from the top, and did a little ‘positive vibes’ video for the Bad Boy Running lot, but ultimately, my overall feeling was disappointment in myself for not having done it better. I was tired, physically and mentally from the previous week, and possibly (no shit) irrational at this point, but I just felt massively disappointed with myself. I still sort of do. 

We got the cable car down and met up with Jim and Dani who droves us and our sweaty, disgusting selves to the airport. We were due to fly from Cape Town back to Heathrow and I need a shower. BUT there was a water shortage in Cape Town so all the showers at the airport were switched off. The thought of sitting on plane for 10 hours in this state made me want to cry. But superhero Jim to the rescue - he managed to smuggle both me and Darren into the business class lounge for showers and food. 

So that was it - goodbye South Africa. Man Vs Table Mountain is definitely worth doing if you like that wort of thing. Believe me, I will go back and do it again. I will keep doing the things that scare me until they don’t scare me anymore. That might mean I am doing them forever, but so be it. 

The plane arrives and I sleep for the full 10 hours home.  Which is good because shit is about to get really, really real. 

Pretending to have a nice time at the top of Table Mountain. 

The Namibia/Panama Crossings Part Two. The Desert, Day 5

DAY 5 Conception - The wreck of the Eduard Bohlen - 9 miles (AKA Look Mum, I Crossed A Desert!)

I wake up with a HANGOVER because I am not used to drinking wine anymore. Just a baby hangover, but a baby one when you have a desert to finish crossing is still a pain in the arse. Coffee and salt tabs for breakfast plus a bit of granola - and we are off. Darren is fresh as anything, so he whizzes ahead to try and catch Dani and Jim. I realise that I am going to be alone for a lot of today. Not sure if that’s a good thing. I don’t feel mentally strong, but there you go. It is what it is.  That’s life. 

It’s a grey morning and I struggle to find the footprints that Dani and Jim have left for us. The dunes have more of less flattened out now - they are more undulating than mega frustrating, and it’s cold, because we are heading to the coast - I have 2 layers on. It feels like a different life to the one we were living yesterday. I trek away on my own, with my own weird thoughts. They are thoughts of pride, mixed with the inability to accept what I have done. Feelings of ‘who the fuck cares’ and feelings that I should try and keep myself together. I want to sit and cry. 

The irony of runnable terrain when you are totally exhausted…

I trot over a small dune, and suddenly I can see and smell the sea. It’s almost too much for me to take in. It’s almost over. The smell ignites my childhood memories of holidays, and the mist is rolling in across the flat sand. It’s beautiful and bleak. 

I keep trotting on - not wanting it to end, but willing it to end at the same time. What will I do when I get to wreck? Will I cry? No, I can’t cry. I just want to cry at the moment. I am all out of snacks and everyone is ahead of me. I am last. Always last. 

Old German mining railway left to rot on the skeleton coasts salt plains

The sea is not getting any nearer, but I come over a dune towards some plains. The salt plains. They are wet and cold and salty. Do what they say on the tin. The sand drops away under my feet and it’s more like an estuary than a desert. In front of me, is what looks like water, but I have learnt not to trust the desert. Turns out that this time it IS water. My feet are very wet and my shoes are full of grit.  

Seem fine to walk on right? 

NOPE. 

The water gets deep quickly and is running fast. It has dead fish in it. It’s about calf deep now, and my radio comes into action. It’s Jim. He has already crossed it. He says it will take me 45 mins at least. I look at it, and, being mental and not being able to judge distance, think “nah, that’s ten mins”. It takes me 90 minutes to cross the fast flowing estuary and get to the support vehicle. I have no pictures or video of it, as my hands and phone were too wet and frankly, I was too exhausted to film it. 

One of the things I remember vividly about this trip is those 90 mins. It was so hard. Lifting your tired legs and feet out of wet, deep mud.  Feeling like you are going backwards, and having nobody to talk to. The support vehicle seemed like it was getting further and further away. It was horrible - really horrible. It’s something that in times of stress I will always recall. Relentless forward progress. You will get there. I stood and shouted the word ‘FUCK’ many, many times at the water. I hated it. 

Back on firmer land with unidentifiable dead shit. 

Eventually, I made it to firmer sand and got to the vehicle. I said very little to Danny and David. I wanted to change my socks - I had 3 miles to go, so really no need. I felt mental, and probably looked and talked like I was. My shoes were filled with grit and water and I did my best to dust them off. Danny and David told me it was only 5km to the end. I put my head down and started marching. And then I started to cry. 

I didn’t want to cry at the end. I wanted people to think I was cool and casual, not overwhelmed by what we had done. I don’t want people to think I am ‘girly’ or ‘weak’. So I cried on my own. the irony of this is that crying doesnt make you weak - it helps you remain strong. I know this now - I couldn’t compute it at the time.  

Vertebrae from a whales spine, the skeleton coast. 

I kept on marching, I wanted to see the things I had come to see. The whale bones that litter the skeleton coast. Old wine bottles, washed up from ships that met their fate here. I saw a lot of it. Jackals coming out of their holes to chase down baby seals. Pieces of wood and metal from vessels long gone. It was bleak, astonishing and humbling. A world lost in sand and time. 

Wine bottles in the sand 

Then, in the distance, I see it. The wreck of the Eduard Bohlen. He has sat there since 1909 when he was wrecked in thick fog. The Bohlen completely symbolises the loneliness of the Skeleton Coast. It’s remains lie rusting in the sand, partially buried. A home for jackals, bones of their prey scattered around the hull.  A symbol of the possible future of mankind. Once full of wonder and promise - now a wreck forgotten and alone. It’s a lot for me to think about. I think about how transient everything is. 


Whale bones hidden in sand

Whale bones covered in sand. Wreck of the Bohlen in the background.

I try and run, but my brain tells me no. I am done. Exhausted. I take in what is going on around me and march it in. Nothing here but the remnants of a once promising and golden future, that the people of the 1900’s would have been proud of. Old glass bottles against dead whale bones. All preserved, but meaning nothing now to the people they once meant the world to. 

But I’ve done it. I have fucking done it. I have become the first woman to cross the Namib Desert on this course from east to west. I hold it together, but the team form an arch with their hands, and I run through it. It’s over. They know I have been crying, they just don’t say it. 

An emotional little Bailoid tries to hold it together…

The finish line

I am given a beer, and I take a minute to calm myself down. The feelings that I have are not really for writing here, mainly because I don’t know how to write them. I am both proud and empty, I have forgotten the hard bits. 127 miles through one of the most hostile environments on earth. I am tired, so tired.  Race to the Wreck. I have done it. 

Knackered

Ghost ship.

Time is running out to leave - we have a 7 hour drive out of here. I don’t have much time to get myself together. I eat lunch, have a quick run around the wreck and wish I could stay here for a week investigating it all.  We get in the fun bus. We’re all very, very quiet. The drive back is one of the scariest thing about this trip. The fun bus going up and down dunes at what feels like vertical angles is terrifying. We pass a dead humpback whale on the shoreline, more wrecks, dead seals and hopeful jackals. It takes seven hours of driving across those dunes, but then, suddenly, we hit tarmac and we are back in the human world. 

Thats what a dead humpback whale looks like then…

More wrecks on the way out

Some casual driving on the way back….. FFS

We have one night in a hotel before we fly to Cape Town the following day. This journey is not over. One days travel and then its Man vs Table Mountain (or the Cape Town Three Peaks Challenge of Death as I have snappily renamed it). And that’s before we travel to Panama to attempt the double traverse in a journey that fundamentally changes everything for me.

So thanks for reading the first instalment of this ridiculous trip. If you want more info on the race it’s on sale now and I am happy to talk to  anyone about it - just get me on the website or social media. 

Next up on the blog: Man Vs Table Mountain

THANK YOU….. 

RAT RACE CREW

Massive thanks to Jim and Rob and the whole team at Rat Race for once again trusting me to trial one of their ridiculous ideas. This is a hard event, a really hard event, but totally achievable and I am honoured to have been part of the Test Pilot team and hope I have done you proud. I would recommend this to anyone who has ever sought to do more than just a desert multi-day. This is the real deal - an immersion in culture and a world first. And it’s on sale now, kids! Click here for details.

Thanks to Dani Brodie for representing the female side of endurance challenges with me - this was her first ever multi-day event - no pressure then, throw yourself in at the deep end why not? She handled it with style and enthusiasm, and in the end totally nailed the whole route. A total pleasure to be with, she provided some much needed female company on those nights round the brai, and I am so glad I got to spend this time with her. 

Handsome Pete Rees for making me laugh with his fear of pretty much everything, his health and safety lectures (NO IBUPROFEN BEFORE FOOD!) and providing us with top notch pictures and video that makes us look a lot more epic than we actually are. 

Lastly thanks to Darren - my adventure husband. It really is like being married - we constantly bicker and don’t sleep with each other. Magical. Darren - I know I can be an annoying rat, and so thanks for putting up with me and my stupid voices.  It’s good to know I have a constant to talk to when things get horrible and your support means the world. 

SUPPORT CREW

Eternal thanks to the crew put together by David Scott who runs Sandbaggers. Without their local and in depth knowledge of the Namib, we would never have made it. Without the expertise of the drivers, the trucks could not have made the journey over the dunes, carrying our supplies, tents and bags. I’ll be honest, some of those climbs in the car were touch and go….. and who the hell tries to run over an Ostrich? MONSTERS LIKE YOU, THAT’S WHO. 

The Namibia/Panama Crossings Part one: Travelling Tales….

The day I am due to travel, I wake up mega anxious, stressed and slightly hungover. I can’t concentrate on anything, even though I know everything is done. I packed yesterday and my work stuff is covered. I am so anxious that I don’t want to eat. I am packing and repacking stuff over and over again. Moving stuff around the flat for NO reason. I tell myself to go out and get a sandwich. I am packed, and the cab is not due for another 2 hours. I might even be able to squeeze in a pint with my pal Lucy. So out the door I go, patting my pocket with my keys in. Slam the door. Then the horror, as I realise the keys I have in my pocket are not my house keys at all. They are my OLD house keys. I rush round the back of the house and try and jimmy the window - no luck. I have left the house without anything but my phone and old keys. I can see all my packed bags sitting in the living room I have NO access too. I phone the landlord, but it’s a Sunday. I sit down. Think. I’m going to have to call a locksmith. So I do. And he charges me almost £300 to drill the lock off and replace it with a new one.  He turns up in twenty mins and I stand there watching him, biting my nails, looking at my watch. 

I didn’t want to ever meet this man. Locksmith ninja. 

He finishes, and I go for a very quick beer and small cry with Lucy before my cab arrives at 2pm. I’m really going now. I cannot believe that just happened. That was pretty horrible. But I dealt with it, right?! Surely that’s the hardest thing I will face? Right?

When I get to Heathrow, my fellow adventurers are there waiting. It’s Jim (Rat Race CEO and all round amazing human), his wife Dani (who I now have a massive girl crush on), Darren (you might remember him from Monglia) and me. Handsome Pete is doing the camera work, and he will join us later when we get to Namibia. I offload my Panama kit into their car - we will do a kit swap on our way back through Heathrow to Panama, which is great because I don’t fancy slogging around with 3 massive bags. One massive bag will do for now. 

Jim and Dani are planning to do both the bike and run stage in Namibia - it’s down to myself and Darren to see if the route is do-able solely on foot. 

Bit of background for you. The Namib Desert is the oldest desert in the world - 55 million years old and 81,000 square kms. It is 2000km long and, crucially for us, 200km wide. I say crucial, because that is what we are trying to do. Cross the width of the desert, from east to west. On the west coast lies the wreck of the Eduard Bolen. This is where we will finish. Fun fact, the Namib desert is home to the biggest dunes on earth, and is one of the most hostile environments on the planet. Even worse than Reading town centre at about 7pm. It’s hot, dry and full of things that may well kill you, if you don’t die of thirst or heatstroke first. We’re not dicking about here. This is serious stuff. The area we are running across is primarily National Park, but not in the way we think of National Park here in the UK. This route has NEVER been run before - it’s a world first. There are parts never touched by humans. Our men on the ground have had to get 3 different letters from the government to allow us to do this. National Parks in the UK have way marked trails and picnic benches and shops. There is nothing like that here. There are no marked trails, because the trails change and shift every day. We didn’t know it yet, but we weren’t going to see one other person apart from our team for the whole 5 days we were out there. 

The plan is to run across it over 4 days - 50km a day on foot for myself and Darren. Jim and Dani are going to attempt to ride the first two days on fat bikes, BUT they will be trying to cover 100km a day each in comparison to our paltry 50km. So they will start 100km behind myself and Darren and try and catch us up in time for the 3rd day. Let’s just remember that none of us have any experience on this terrain (Darren has done Sandy Jog Week AKA MDS but wotevs) and none of us know what the terrain will actually be like in order to prepare anyway. I am imagining it’s all dunes going downwards, soft fluffy white sand and then sometimes flat white lovely sand. Spoiler: It is not like that at all. 

After a traditional trip to Wetherspoons Terminal 5, we jump on the plane, change at Johannesburg and a few hour later, arrive in Windhoek, Namibia. On the flight to Windhoek, I have a huge Ghanian guy sat next to me, who, it becomes very clear, is terrified of flying. I have to hold his hand and talk him down. Literally. Talk to him all the way down until we land. He’s very grateful and I was really happy that I could help him. It felt like he was a personification of my own fears about, well, everything. This also means I have successfully managed to avoid almost all of the sleep on all of the planes. I am amazingly stupid and bad at sleeping. So after about 18 hours in transit, I feel FRESH AS FUCK. The excitement of meeting up with Handsome Pete, David Scott (our expedition leader and pal from the Mongolian adventure) and the rest of our team keeps me up and bouncing along, and, after a quick stop at the local supermarket for beer and supplies, we start the 4 hour car journey to Namibgrens Farm on the east side of the desert, where we will spend our first night. 

View from the car en route to Namibgrens Farm

Namibia is massive and it’s hard to get places. “I’ll sleep in the car” I think - but, because the roads are dirt tracks and the cars are basically 4x4 buggies on speed, the bouncing about all over the place means no snoozes for me. Plus, there’s so much to see out on the drive. We drive past Warthogs, Oryx’s and Ostriches just mooching about. Causal. I ask our driver a million questions about the history and geography of where we are going. Turns out Namibia was a german colony from 1884, with the administration taken over by the Union of South Africa (under the League of Nations) after WW1. It became independent in 1990, but the German influence is obvious in the place names and the organisation of the streets in the major towns. Of which there are two.  

But the town has gone now. We’re heading out to the wilderness. We have finally arrived at Namibgrens Farm, where we will spend the night, before starting on our run tomorrow. The farm is literally in the middle of nowhere (4.5 hours to the nearest shop) and we have a real bed each for the night. A rare treat. After we have got changed and had a shower, we are picked up by Johnny, who is part of the support team, in what looks like a cartoon desert truck. In hindsight, this truck has a lot to answer for. This truck is now known as The Fun Bus, mainly for ironic reasons. Here is the Fun Bus. Fuck the Fun Bus. 

Looks a lot cleaner than I remembered……

Ten mins down the road, the rest of the support team David, Danny and Hein have set up a Brai on the edge of the desert. There we sit and eat, and drink beer and gin and tonic in the dark, whilst being briefed on hydration, foot care and how not to die. Danny and Hein are local expedition experts, and know the desert back to front. Not only that, they can drive huge vehicles up 33% sand dunes. Not fun for either the driver or the passengers. We’re in good hands here. It’s magical and we are excited. We all get to bed for about 8pm. Tomorrow we start.

Dinner location on the first night

The Namibia/Panama Crossings: Prologue

Dune life (photo: Pete Rees) 

I started writing this blog on the hoof, halfway through the two trips. Mainly because I didn’t want to forget what was happening to me. I was too scared to get my laptop out in the desert, because everything I touched ended up covered in sand or mud or both. Like that skittles ad, but more annoying. I’m now home, scraping through the memories and photos and trying to piece together what was the adventure of a lifetime. I am safe, but blown away. Trying to understand what I have achieved without sounding like a complete tool. In the last 3 weeks, I have crossed The Namib desert on foot, east to west from the outskirts of the Namib National Park to the wreck of the Eduard Bolen. I am the first woman to do so, setting the fastest known time of about 38 hours for the 200km distance. Total ascent for the route was about 4,200m or about 4 Snowdons. Just over a quarter of a million steps. The day after I finished, we flew to Cape Town and ran the big 3 - Signal Hill, Lions Head and Table Mountain, all in one terrifying day. We got in a car at the foot of Table Mountain and travelled for 60 hours via Heathrow to Panama City. The day after we got to Panama, we began the first of two traverses. The first, the all-in-one west to east crossing on foot and kayak, taking in the Panama canal and pipeline in another world first. The second, the 5 day Panama Coast to Coast run - 50 miles road running followed by 3 (or 5 in this case - more on that later) days total self sufficient trekking through primary jungle, taking us on foot from the Pacific to the Atlantic Coast. In total, over the second phase of this traverse we clocked up over 28,000ft of elevation - that is the equivalent of Mount Everest from sea level.  

My favourite canyon in the Namib desert (photo: Me)

Top of the world in Panama (photo: Me)

Most of you reading this know about the planning for these adventures. Both events are reccee’s for Rat Race Bucket list events. (You can read about it here) We are the test pilots - we basically stress test, to see if the route works, identifying and overcoming any issues that we may come across in a smaller group, before throwing a bigger group into it. If you haven’t read the blogs about preparing for this then do that first! It’s not a decision I took lightly.

I want this to be a true account of what happened. It will be long. In places it will be a tough read, for both you, the reader, and me the author. It will probably take me 4-6 weeks to get through the write up and I will be posting as I get it done. My overall feelings at the moment are of bewilderment, confusion and lack of belief. I have struggled to talk to my friends who have reached out to me about it, because I don’t want it to come across as boastful or overly dramatic. I am almost embarrassed to talk about what I went through. I feel like it’s not that interesting to anyone but me. But I know that some people want to read about it, and I owe it to myself to try and accept that I HAVE achieved something remarkable. I will try and be as honest as I can here. At times, this was the most beautiful and inspiring thing I have ever been a part of. At times it was the hardest and most horrifying thing I have ever been a part of. This trip has not made me a different person but has helped me accept the resilience of my own character. This trip has almost bankrupted me. This trip has taught me lessons about my own strength and weaknesses; it has surprised and delighted and broken and battered me.the experience is a metaphor for life. One step at a time. Deal with what you can now. Deal with what you have to tomorrow. This is the story of a normal person out to achieve something extraordinary, for ultimately no reason at all, other than that it was there to be done. It’s written in first person and second person for every person. I am not the best writer, but I hope it reads OK.   Be warned, this experience is a gateway drug. If I can inspire even one person to throw caution to the wind and get outside, live their life and believe they have more in them, my job is done. 

Stay tuned…..

Groundhog Day - Trotting the Thames Path AGAIN

I honestly don’t know what’s wrong with me sometimes. Two months after swearing that I would never run it again, I find myself on the train to Oxford to run 50 miles of my favourite worst nightmare, the Thames Path. 

How has this happened? Well, I was signed up to the Atlantic Coast challenge this year, but had to defer when my partner in crime and caravans pulled out - I just couldn’t afford to do it on my own, and this left a large gap in my ‘endurance training’ in the run up to Namibia and Panama. So, I got on the internets, and started looking for another race. The only thing I could find that was affordable and nearish my house was the Thames Path Trot. On the Thames Path. Thames. Path.

Organised by Go Beyond Ultra, a company I have never run with before, this is a “50” (it’s actually 48) mile run from just outside Oxford, to Henley-on-Thames. My rose tinted spectacles told me this was the “nice” part of the Thames. Here’s how my brain works: 

“The bit through Abingdon is lovely!”(Allie, you had a meltdown in the rain there) 

“Iffey Lock is glorious!” (Allie, the path was so overgrown you needed a machete) 

“The run out of Goring is AMAZING!” (Allie, you get PTSD from the A100 when you see the village hall) 

“Henley is so nice - some brilliant pubs there” (Allie, how do you know? You have only ever run through it in the dark). 

I reasoned it’s not so bad, it’s a course I know and I need to get the miles in, so I signed up (for a very reasonable £52), and got on with my life. 

But I had missed something hadn’t I? I had blocked out the horror that lies between Goring and Henley. My brain was protecting me from that dark place, a place I swore I would never run through again. A place of angry outbursts and discarded cheese sandwiches. A place where friendships with pacers are cast aside and minute mile records are smashed, out of fear rather than personal choice. A flat, dismal grey abyss, where the rich are separated from the poor by a river and Race Directors run out to accompany you for the sake of their own insurance. I had blocked out the horror that is READING.  

No. Just no. 

The race is on a Saturday which is a wonderful thing because it means you can get drunk after - and this year was their 11th edition. The 8.30am start meant a 4am wake up call for me to get to Oxford, which was nice, and it was a stunner of a morning. My Head of Crew ™ Lorna picked me and a lovely stranger called Sylvia up from the station at 7.30am. Sylvia was running too - I didn’t just ‘pick her up’ on the train. Not that kind of party. 

Race HQ was at a REALLY nice hotel, and when we arrived it was full of runners - the nice kind, not the awful kind - and couples trying to have a romantic break that was being ruined by discarded banana skins and people in lycra. I haven’t felt so welcome and positive at the start of a race for ages. Everyone was chatting and there were all sorts of weirdos. Serious guys who were nice with it, the first timers, the chancers, the plodders; it was a brilliant reflection of the ultra community in one posh room. 

I went to drop my bag and bumped into Simon, the RD, who asked me if I was “that girl with the blog who wanted to drop pasta at the aid station”. I confirmed I was that very person. There can be only one. We had a quick chat about stuff that I was doing, and turns out Simon has the exact hammock I need for my Panama travels. And he offered to lend it to me. HOW NICE IS THAT??? This is why I love us Ultra lot. Simon doesn’t know me at all, yet he offers me this mega expensive piece of kit to borrow, just like that. He’s a legend. I like him a lot. Today is a good day. But still. READING. 

Doing some running

The race starts at 8.30 - I am running the first 10 miles with Lorna (a little Saturday stroll for her) and we run along faster than we should, having a catch up chat and paying ZERO attention to pace. It was one of those really cold crispy mornings and I start to feel guilty for hating on the Thames Path, because it’s actually quite magical. Totally different from the shitshow it was back in August. Sunbeams and glory, and I am running too fast. Lorna leaves me at the first aid station, where I make my first mistake and decide to eat a GU gel. I bloody love GU gels, but I have self inflicted rules about sugar - nothing during the first half of a race. Why I ate it I don’t know, but I did. It was yummy. I was like a child at a birthday party for all of 10 mins. I didn’t really have anything else in my stomach - breakfast was long gone, and because I had been chatting, I hadn’t paid attention to actually eating real food. This will come back to bite me on the arse. Almost literally. 

Snacky McSnackFace making some bad decisions

I trot on alone, listening to 6Music, still running too fast, having a chat with random strangers. The usual. I get to 20 miles and realise that I am well ahead of time in what I thought would be my “training run”. I start to get a bit worried. I managed to cover 25 miles in about 4.15, which for a race of this length, for someone like me, is punchy. BUT YUMMY GU GELS! It’s very flat, and I needed to slow down. And then I realised I was properly hungry. 

This was pre-Reading…..

Also pre-Reading

I had been snacking on nuts and stuff a tiny bit, but had totally failed to get any crisps or real food down me. I kept doing that thing where I was like “a couple more miles then lunch” which is stupid. If you’re hungry, eat. By the time I got to 30 miles, I was starving. I stopped and got out my lunch - cheese and onion rolls and crisps - and tried to get it down me, but I didn’t want it. The sugar monster was in me and wanted sweets. I’d left it too late and I felt sick. After a mile of walking and stuffing my face I realised that the sugar rollercoaster wasn’t my only issue. I was in Reading. 

It’s just so shit, isn’t it? I can’t work out what’s better, running through it scared for your life in the dark, or seeing it in the daylight. It just depresses me that we, as an intelligent race, can come up with a place like Reading. By this point, I felt really sick and had utilised natures toilet, aka the bushes, a number of times (RIP Buff) and I knew it was because of the too much sugar thing. 

Natures toilets. Spot the bush. 

I was managing 4-5 miles an hour and not enjoying myself AT ALL when I saw the ray of light that is Julius running towards me. Hurrah! I am not alone! 

Poor old Julius. Why he comes out to pace me I do not know. To be fair, I had emptied myself of the sugar monster and just felt tired, so we trotted and chatted and generally had a nice time for the next 10 miles. I love the fact he doesn’t push me to go faster when he knows there is literally NO POINT. He had a massive bag of snacks (not a euphemism). What a winner that man is. 

Me emerging from Reading…..

Once you come out of Reading (think about coming out of the Upside Down in Stranger Things - it’s the same) and start to hit Henley, it becomes quite nice, but a bit technical on the old nav, and there is the chance you could get lost. I’ve done this route a lot in the dark, but I was lucky Julius had run from the end to meet me, so he knew where we were going. Sometimes you feel like you are running down the end of a posh persons garden, when it’s actually the Thames Path. About five miles from the end, it started raining which was not in the plan, but I have learnt now to always pack my jacket and I kept thinking “the pubs will be open!” so we made OK time and I got in at about 9 hours 5 mins. Perfectly acceptable - better than I thought I would do. Thank fuck that’s done etc. 

At then end we are greeted by Simon and his team. There was a stand with hot drinks, cake and snacks (no beer BOO!) that was brilliant PLUS changing rooms and toilets - a stroke of genius at the end of a 50 miler. I drank a coffee and went to the pub. As is my way. 

The spoils…..

So overall I had a lovely time. I fucking hate the Thames Path. But this run was actually OK. The race company are brilliant. Aid stations well stocked, brilliant medal, lovely runners and a wonderful RD. I am now looking at their races for next year because they are DEFO my people. A serious note - this is the perfect first 50 miler. Flat, good cut offs and amazing support from volunteers and race company. I might even do it next year for a laugh. 

Also look how knackered I am in this picture. 

Next up - New York Marathon! 

Crafty Fox Marathon, Downslink Ultra and Pacing a Pal…..

Well, I’ve been shit at this, haven’t I? I’ve just had loads on and so have totally not had time to do the writing thing that I love doing the most. I have, however, been doing a fair bit of running. September saw the inaugural Crafty Fox marathon - a classic White Star marathon ish in the lovely village of Ansty. For reasons known to nobody apart from myself, I decided to wear a fox tail. Calm down everyone, it’s not a real one. I left that at home. This was 2 loops of a beautiful working farm, with cows and views and posh schools and loads of lovely runners. 

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TAIL!

It was my first marathon in a couple of weeks, and my training had been less than satisfactory. At this point in the year, I’m just trying to keep things ticking over rather than win stuff or beat my PB’s or even do anywhere near ‘well’. My “A “races have been done, and I have achieved what I set out - there’s just the small matter of 3 weeks of running across deserts and jungles in November to deal with, so ultimately I need to keep fit for what will be day after day of ‘challenging’ endurance running. 

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HILL!

I turned up with about 30 miles in two weeks under my belt, telling myself it was “only” a marathon (epic mistake). I also didn’t pack anything substantial to eat because, again, I just thought it’s “only” a marathon. I am a twat. As is the way with White Star races, this was not flat. I was running with Julius, who was taking it easy as he had the half marathon the next day (where I was marshalling) so we set off, almost immediately walking up a massive hill. The course was lovely - farmland tracks, mega up hills and cows trotting next to us. The downs were as steep as the ups and, after about 6 miles, I started to get hungry. The aid stations had the usual mix of WSR stuff, but I really needed a sandwich and I didn’t have one. The fact that I was hungry, basically meant my run was a slog. It took away from the beauty of it -  all I could think about was food. As it was a test race, the usual Love Station was less full than it would have otherwise been, which led this vegetarian to eat 71 mini sausages on the first loop. Sorry everyone, but a girls gotta eat. If I am honest, I hated that second loop, but it is my fault entirely. Food is important. 

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Another hill…….

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Not a cult……

This is a beauty of a race - as long as you’re not starving. The race village felt like a party zone - so many great faces and the brilliant Piddle Brewery delivering the goods on the booze front. The medal is awesome too. Would I do it again? 100%. Will I make sure to eat and get a bit more training in? Yes. As I said, I am a tail-wearing twat. 

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MEDALZ

After a month off events with weddings and other stupid normal human stuff in the way, it was time for the Downslink Ultra. This is an event run by Jason McCardle - A Do-Badder and all round good egg. A race director who is also an endurance runner is a good thing - they know what’s what. I had been promising him for ages I would do a Sussex Trail Event, and had to this point failed, so I was really looking forward to this. It’s basically 38 miles down a disused railway track, running from Guildford to Shoreham-On-Sea. It’s flat - I LIKE FLAT! And I totally loved it. 

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Start line pose…..

The wonderful Lorna Spayne (Head of Bailey Crew OBE) picked me up in the morning, and drove me to the start, and then went off on marshalling duties. She’s so brilliant. I love her.  The run is point to point, so Julius had parked his car at the end and got a bus up to meet me at the start. Clever ain’t we? 

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Dream team….

Navigation is simple - follow the signs. The route is packed trail, with some stunning trots through forest and old tunnels. Although it’s a long, straight line, it never gets boring to look at - the weather was AMAZING - we lucked out with one of those cold, sunny autumn days, but once again my lack of midweek running was showing, and at times I found it a struggle. The start was at the top of a hill (approved) where we all whizzed down sandy trails and across very quiet roads to reach the first aid station at around 6 miles.

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I mean……….

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Dat Autumn sun filter….

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At the second aid station, I bumped into Jay and mentioned how lucky we were with the weather - the day before had been appauling. “I know” he said “I ran it yesterday to check the route”. That’s what you want - and RD that does that is a keeper, and believe me a lot of them don’t! 

Aid stations were stocked with stuff for everyone - props on the vegan bites Jay! - and with super lovely marshals. I can only compare this to White Star for it’s organisation and support. You can tell Jay is a runner - he knows what runners want to eat for a start. The other runners were great and happy to chat as we clattered along - no Salomon men here (well a few but I didn’t see them because SLOW). Once again, Julius ran with me - I am trying to train him to run slower for the longer races we have booked in next year - not easy. He reminds me of my dog. I have to shout “WITH ME” every 5 mins when he tries to run off. I don’t have a lead for him though. Not that sort of party. 

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Welcome to the jungle….

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A train……

This is a race for people that like to be sociable. Of course, it’s a great course for a PB - it’s flat and trail - nothing stopping you smashing it out - but it’s also very social, with wide paths and loads of space. It would be great for groups of people wanting to take on their first Ultra, as the cut offs are pretty decent and you don’t have to run in single file at any point. I think if I had been on my own I would have got bored at points, but the autumn light was so brilliant and the changing scenery also made it seem less like a never ending railway track. 

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Countryside……

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It’s alright this…….

We went through fields, trails and small towns, under tunnels and through bits of ‘british jungle’. The main aid station is right next to a pub, and holy shit was it epic. Everything from sandwiches and mini wraps to cheese and pineapple on sticks to melon. This time, I had been sensible, and packed sandwiches and snacks and nuts, but I didn’t need too. There was even coffee! I was so happy I gave Jay a cuddle and 11 out of 10 for aid station glory. He just looked at me, confused.

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Pro running shot courtesy of Lorna!

After this point it started to get a teeny bit more industrial on the run into Shoreham - not the worst end to a race I have ever experienced (Newcastle anyone?) Head of Crew Lorna met us about 2 miles from the end and ran us in. I was pretty happy with 7.14 on the back of no events the previous month and the chilli at the end was delicious, as were the showers. Sussex Trail Events know how to put on a good value, fun and achievable event. It’s safe, beautiful and genuinely a runners race. Jay understands what we want and need, and there’s nothing more to it. I am now eyeing up pretty much everything else he has on offer for next year - go and have a look for yourselves here

The following week I had the pleasure of being asked to pace my good friend Dan at his first 100 miler - the Autumn 100. As many of you know, this was my first 100 mile event this time last year and I was over the moon to be asked to help Dan out from the 50-75 mile mark. I know what a huge deal your first 100 mile race is and I know how important those pacers can be, so I was both scared I would fuck it up, and thrilled that I got to be part of his story. 

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Dan looking better before I got to him……

The Ridgeway is leg 3 of a 4 leg race. It’s 50 miles in to the A100. Usually runners run it in the dark - and it is DARK up there - no light at all. I worked on a pace plan with Dan in the weeks before, giving him an A, B and C plan so he wouldn’t feel he was failing at any point. I worked out that to be on course for a sub 24 hour time, he should be with me at Goring at 8pm and ready to go at 8.10.  If we could do this 25 mile leg in 6 hours, he would be on for that sub 24 with 7 hours for the final leg (always keep an hour for aid station faff and procrastinating).

I got to Goring at 7pm (just in case) and had been watching his tracker like a hawk all day - he looked like he was on target. Sadly, in the last part of the second leg, he slowed slightly and came into Goring 40 mins later than planned, which means we didn’t leave until 8.50. I would have to try and get him through this leg slightly faster than planned and let his next pacer Kieran know that he was going to have to think more 6 hours than 7 for leg 4. 

Being a pacer is frought with difficulties. I know Dan quite well and I love him, we have run together before a lot - he came and ran with me on the Thames Path for 40 odd miles - but working out how far you can push a person is hard. I didn’t want to piss him off, but I had a job to do. We weren’t allowed to crew the runners - that means you can’t touch them, help them get changed or get them food and drink. They have to do it themselves or get a centurion member of staff to do it - that is massively frustrating. I got him out of the hall as soon as I could, and we started walking at 14 min miles up the hill towards the ridgeway. I explained we were late setting out, and we would have to do some running. Dan did not look impressed. He has already run 50 miles. I was fresh out the box. 

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Halfway through the night shift…..

I was so worried about time and I tried to make Dan run as much as possible, but it was hard. When we walked, we walked at 13-14 min miles and I made him run down most of the hills. I could see him flagging. That far away look you get in your eyes - he had it. I kept on trying to be helpful. You need to be able to read when it’s ok to chat and when you should shut up. I pushed him to run as much as possible, and tried to get him to eat more. He wasn’t eating or drinking enough - I know exactly how he felt - but I also know you have to keep shovelling it down. The second half of the leg featured our best friend the “hammering side rain”. We were cold and wet - I ALWAYS run through this weather - to get out of it quicker - but Dan was only managing 2 mins running and then 5 - 10 mins walking. I texted ahead to tell Kieran to get ready to smash the next leg out in 6.30 rather than 7. 

As we came to the end of my leg I did a bit of home truth chat. I told him he could do it in sub 24 IF he could manage to do a 6.30 on the last leg. I told him about how you feel towards the end, and I hope that I helped him and didn’t scare him. We got in to the hall at 6.06 for my leg. Kieran was waiting, got him fed and changed as quickly as possible and got him out. When I saw him in the light of the hall I felt terrible I hadn’t fed him more. He was flagging. He had been running for almost 17 hours and he was half the Dan he usually was. I gave him a cuddle and went to get in the car home. It was 3.30am. Dan had over 7 hours more running to do.

The last leg was appalling for Dan - the weather was awful and his feet were playing up very badly. Despite this, he managed to get back in just over 25 hours - which is a fucking epic time for a first 100. I was lucky on mine - I didn’t have that driving rain and wind. With it, it would have been a very different story. Dan has achieved what 99% of people can’t, and for that I am immensely proud. I loved pacing him and being part of his journey and I learnt a lot from it. Huge thanks to Kieran for bringing him home in one piece. And thanks Dan for allowing me to annoy you for 6 hours. 

So that’s where we are at! Next up for me is the Thames Path “Trot” - 50 miles of Thames Path - because we all know how much I love the Thames Path right? (Kill me now) Then I am off to New York for the marathon. And then Namibia and Panama. Jesus christ, will this hell never end? (I hope not…..) 

To Live A Life Less Ordinary.....

So here’s something a little bit different. This week there was discussion in the Bad Boy Running group on Facebook about adventures. My pal Lorna posed the following question “On a scale of 1 to 10 how much do the adventure podcasts such as Sean Conway, Anna Mcnuff etc make you feel inadequate?! 10 for me! If you had no responsibilities and could just up and leave for an epic adventure what would you do?” Much discussion ensued over this - head over to the Facebook post to take a look, but something about it really got to me. 

That post…..

For some time now, there has been something not right about how I am living. I haven’t been running as much as I would like - down to a little bit of my mojo being sapped by the Thames Path, the arrival of Pickle the very nervous but totally wonderful rescue dog, and my crippling anxiety about the thing that enables me to run. My job. 

As some of you know I have worked for many years in the music industry, marketing bands and making you buy music you don’t want. Living the glamorous life that you all read about. Parties and festivals and famous people. I am partially responsible for Ed Sheeran. But please don’t hate me (I love him, he’s great). I am so lucky. Or so I was constantly told. 

When we were young - in the years PR (Pre Running)

Two years ago I decided that I didn’t want to do it anymore. Or I thought I didn’t. I was fucked, to be frank. Tired out, abused, taken for granted, under paid, miserable, on the receiving end of some pretty #metoo behaviour.  So I went and started my own business as a freelance marketing consultant. To the music industry. And it’s gone well. I had good clients and the money was coming in. I was making a profit. I was doing things on my terms most of the time and I had time for the running adventures and the money to pay for them. Then I lost my biggest client. My bread and butter. And I haven’t been able to replace them as yet. And I don’t think I want to. And I have had a lot of time to think and worry. When Lorna posed this question in the group, it came at a time when I had agreed to take part in a reccee of a race across Namibia and then one across Panama in November/December of this year. A reccee that was not only going to cost me about five thousand pounds, but was also going to put me out of work action for 3 weeks. It was OK though - I had my big client and I had money coming in. And then I lost them. What the fuck am I supposed to do now? 

That’s there to be run……the Namib desert

So is that - The Panamanian jungle 

I read through people arguments on Lorna’s post, looking for some answers. Should I cancel the trip? How was I going to afford it? Was I being spectacularly stupid? How was I going to get a client when I had 3 weeks of ‘holiday’? There were a lot of people saying if it wasn’t for job/kids/partner etc they would do something epic. Some people even said they wished they could go back in time and get these things done before they had “settled”. I have never settled. I did for a while (the married years pre running) but I never really settled. 

People like to tell you how to live or how you ought to live, especially on the internet. Good education, stable career, pension, husband, wife, children, save, mortgage, sensible, safety, plan. Saving it all up for a rainy day. But what if every day is a rainy day? What if it’s raining from day one and it only stops occasionally to allow a glimpse of sunlight into the otherwise black room of your brain? What if everything that you have been told you want is wrong? What if the things YOU thought you wanted are wrong? What if the thing you love starts to destroy you? Was that part of the plan?

Losing my biggest client was not part of the plan. The plan was long term. I want to make a living from my running. Something that is NOT the done thing. I am told by people that I am inspiring and clever and engaging and funny. I do not necessarily believe this, but the proof is in the pudding and I do know people that have gone out and done their first 10k, marathon, ultra because I have talked them into it - whether that is inspiring or whether I am a good sales person, I don’t know but there it is. I have done some pretty great adventure runs and I love to talk about them, I love to see people finish their first marathon or ultra and I love to be able to help with advice that I believe is contrary to most of the stuff you get from magazines or online. The CEO of The National Running Show recently referred to me as the first of the “Rock and Roll runners” - a description I totally love. Running is my passion. It has changed my life. Even if I don’t get out and do it every day like the shiny people on instagram, I am always thinking about it. What sort of races I could do, where I could go and how I can help other people make their races and race companies great. How to makes things accessible and brilliant. how to make people glorious. 

Before I lost my client, I was branching out and doing all the extra curricular I could around running - going out to Mongolia with Rat Race - the ultimate adventure, becoming their only female ambassador, doing the various bits of press etc. Running all the White Star Races, bringing the White Star community into the Bad Boy Running community to make it the most glorious and dangerous group of all time. Working with the National Running Show to secure a partnership with Bad Boy Running, becoming and ambassador for them and being lucky enough to be asked to speak at their event. I was running races most weekend - winning some of them - and triumphing in all my A game races for the year which I am very proud of (SDW100 sub 24 hour, winner  and now course record holder of the TP184 and winning the Ox Epic 2018). Everything I wanted to do with regards to running this year I have achieved, and that to me is amazing. So why have I managed to achieve these things but NOT managed to secure another music client? Maybe it’s because I don’t actually want to. Music and me, I think we are finally done. The long drawn out process of splitting up and getting back together is over. 

From when I did a win. 

I woke up in the middle of the night last night, petrified and afraid. I cannot afford Namibia and Panama. I can’t afford the flights or the time off. I have very little money coming in and no savings. I have no 9-5 bread and butter money. I am fucked. So, so fucked. I am going to have to cancel it. And then I thought of Lorna’s post again. I thought about the people that I admire and look up to - the Sean Conway’s and the Anna McNuff’s. I thought about Mongolia and how much that experience can NEVER be taken away from me. I think about my own mantras - see the world through your eyes not your phone. Relentless forward progress. You have more in you. I think about being old and the regrets I may have. I can’t go - I have a dog and I need to make money. I need to be sensible and grown up. I am going to have to email Jim and cancel it. I am going to have to do what society tells me I should do. 

I think about when I am most happy. I think about the Crafty Fox marathon at the weekend and how much I am looking forward to seeing the White Star lot and how much I am looking forward to running. I think about how kind Jim and Rat Race have been to me. I think about how happy I am when I give a talk to a bunch of people that think they could never run a marathon or a 10k or an ultra and how, when some of them email me months later to tell me they have done it, I feel like doing a little cry. I think about my breakdown. I think about the death of my dear friend Scott. I think about my future. I can’t see further than tomorrow. I call my sister, my most wonderful sister, and talk to her. And I make a decision. Based entirely on gut. Based on my sister being spectacularly supportive and kind and talking to me from her heart.

Fuck it. Fuck it all. I know what I want to do. I want to inspire people, I want to live a positive life, and give back the joy running has given me to people. I want to make people believe in themselves. I want to show people they are capable of so much more than they think. I want to write a book. I want to run all over the world. I want to be an extraordinary, ordinary person. And I want to be happy doing it. I don’t want to be rich, or famous or the best or the fastest. I want to be the kindest and the most honest and the most accessable. I need money to live, but there has to be a better way. I don’t have children. I have Pickle the dog, but she will be well looked after. I have nothing left to lose, and even the tiny bits I do have to lose mean nothing. I want to live a life less ordinary. 

So I am going. I am going to run 300km across the Namib Desert to the Skeleton coast. Then I am going to run 200km across Panama from the Pacific to the Atlantic coast. I will be poor. I will have to move out of London. I want to move out of London, so this is not a problem. I will have to work hard to secure talks and part time work. I will have to scale back my whole life. But I will do it. And I will do it fucking well. 

Normal service will be resumed next week after the inaugural Crafty Fox marathon. Now go and sign up for something extraordinary. 

How To Run 184 Miles Along The Thames Without Going Completely Mentile.

So this months Strava stats suddenly look pretty good. Over the last 4 days I have run the entire length of the Thames Path with the lovely people at Ultra Running Ltd. That’s 7 marathons in 4 days, pals. That’s 184 miles (plus 5 bonus ones getting lost), 41.5 hours, 18,000 calories and I think about 405,000 steps. That’s quite a lot. 

It all started last year when I signed up to the first two days of the BRC Thames Challenge knowing that I had another ultra in Salisbury on the Sunday, which prevented me from doing the whole thing (excuses in early). I thought I’d give it a go and see what all the fuss was about - at the time it was my longest multi day - and to be quite honest it broke me. By day 2, I was in my hotel room having a cry looking at the withered stumps that were once my feet. Fast forward a year, and, boosted by experience and stupidity, I was going to give the whole thing a go. 

The race is organised by Ultra Running Ltd, a company that are basically a one man show run by Steve Worrall, the worlds nicest man, from the back of his big orange Land Rover. The race is over 4 days and is split into 4 individual stages that can be done together, or independently, depending on how much of an idiot you are. 

Day 1 is the Cotswold ultra, 44 miles from Kemble to Bablock Hythe.  

Day 2 is the Oxford ultra, 65 miles from Bablock Hythe to Hurley. 

Day 3 is the Windsor ultra, 43 miles from Hurley to Kingston-upon-Thames. 

Day 4 is the Richmond Ultra, 31 miles from Kingston-upon-Thames to the Thames Barrier. 

Seems legit right? It’s a river, you can’t get lost, “it’ll be fun”, they said.

Day 1: The Cotswold Ultra - 44.3 miles 

I decided to stay in Kemble the night before the race, and met my first match in the local taxi drivers who do NOT like to pick people up or drop them off anywhere. This is strange as I did think it’s what they existed for, but they really don’t like doing it. I got to the start at 7.30am to meet up with some of my pals from Putney Runners who were also running, and the rest of the 4 day challengers. There were 12 of us attempting all 4 days, which was a pretty good turnout. It was lovely to know that I wouldn’t be on my own, and I hadn’t seen Jean-Marc since Sierra Leone, so I was looking forward to catching up with him.  

No bells and whistles here…

Apparently this is where the Thames starts….

We set off at 8 am, running across fields to the post and stone that mark the start of the Thames and then doubling back on ourselves to head out towards Bablock Hythe. The day was pretty uneventful, animal count was high - delicious cows and sheep - and I was feeling pretty good. Weather was overcast and hot. 6 Music was playing some bangers.  As is the way with these things, I eventually found myself on my own as the pack stretched out. The classic game of “hold it back Bailey” had begun, and I felt like I was right at the back of the pack. I was averaging an 11 min mile pace, which even I felt was too fast but I didn’t see anyone for AAAAAAAGES and I felt sad and lonely (what’s new?) so I started talking to all the animals I met along the way, including the imaginary ones. 

The company that run this event are tiny and the aid stations are few and far between - on average every 10 or so miles. They do sandwiches jelly beans, a bit of cake, coke and squash. Anything else you want, you have to bring yourself. Which is why my pack had 3 tins of Peppa Pig pasta and 700 packets of salt and vinegar squares in it. It was fucking heavy. 

Aid Station 1: Enjoy your lunch while I tape my trotters, people…

Last year I won this stage of the race before I had even started, as I was the only woman (pick your races, people) but this year there was a fair bit of competition with 5-6 ladyzzzz on the start line, and I knew there was lovely Emma Putney Runner in front of me, so I was taking the whole thing relatively easy, because of the “long game” plan. I had to finish the 4 days and so I couldn’t go all batshit mental competitive and ty and win individual ones.

Always yapping…

This is one of the best days route wise - it runs through villages and fields and along the rural parts of the Thames. I entertained myself buy taking selfies in cornfields, and listening to Adam and Joe podcasts. People along the route are lovely, always saying hello and I was having a relatively nice time. I particularly enjoyed it when the Rob, the first man as far as I was concerned, came running up behind me after about 4 hours, on the phone. He’d got lost (HOW??? HOW??!) and had spent 1.5 hours going in a massive circle. He seemed OK about it - I would not have been OK about it at all. This route is not marked. You have to follow signs. And there are lots of signs. And some of them are the wrong signs.

On and on and on…

Some nice bits….

A thing that I saw. 

Professional race nutrition was tins of children’s pasta, salt and vinegar squares, caffeine bullets and squash. It worked. I came in an hour earlier than the previous year feeling brilliant, and was, to my surprise, handed the first lady trophy - Emma had taken a wrong turn and ended up shin deep in a ford (it happens) so came in second. I chucked my legs in the river for ten minutes and grabbed a beer and all was well. I felt a LOT better than the previous year. The camaraderie was brilliant, and we all waited for the final people to come in before having delicious pub dinner and going to bed. God this blog’s boring isn’t it? Hopefully something bad happens to me later…..

WINNING!

OH PISS OFF…….

Day 2 - The Oxford Ultra - 65 miles

Day 2 started cold with glorious sunshine, so for some reason I put on a compression base layer. This just proves what a twat I can be. I’d had a brief look at weather and it said we might be in for “a bit” rain so I packed the jacket and we started off from the car park we had finished in the night before, just after 8am. Rob (or Lost Boy as we shall now call him) sped off up front. With everyone else shouting not to follow him. With good reason. 

It all started SO well……

We all had a days running in our legs and we had already lost 2 challengers so the atmosphere was a little more muted this morning. We knew it was a long way, plus we had to risk out lives running through Reading at about 6pm. It was like we were all marching into our own funeral. 4 miles in and I was too hot and on my own Base layer off, trotters trotting nicely, and I settled in for the long, lonely slog that was going to be day 2. I didn’t have a strategy for the day other than finish it. I ran at 11 min miles for as long as I felt like it, walked at 15 min miles when I wanted to and was making good progress into checkpoint one - where as you can see, I was still smiling. 

Happy face. This would not last. 

It had started to rain a bit, so I debated putting on my jacket then thought “nah, it’ll pass”. Then it really started raining. Then all that is good in the world was sucked out of it in a vortex of armageddon like rain clouds, and it started fucking shitting it down. It did this for 3 hours. THREE. HOURS. 

Here comes the rain……

No pictures of me totally drenched because my phone would’t work it was that wet…….

This part of the route is basically though the British jungle. It’s overgrown national trust path, which in the sunshine would be glorious, in the rain is horrendous. The path had got super slippery where it had been so dry for weeks before, and I was wearing my lightest trail shoes as I had been expecting hard packed trail. Cue me being like bambi on ice, with my rain jacket on but sticking to me as the wind blew and making me cold, everything soaked, EVERYTHING. No let up. My sense of humour was failing. I couldn’t even use my phone because it was too wet. My hands started to wrinkle like I had been in the bath. 

Welcome to the Jungle. 

At mile 17 I stopped under a railway bridge to take stock, and attempt to look at the weather and eat some crisps. I managed to get through to my boyfriend who told me that I was indeed running away from the weather and it would get better. I thought he might be lying. I decided to believe him for my own sanity. Mega props to Ultimate Direction for the Fastback 25 and it’s waterproof qualities - my dry warm kit for the night section was still dry. I had to keep going. But my mood was 70% rat at this point. It continued to hammer it down for the next 10-15 miles. Spikey sideways rain. Big sloppy rain. Think-it’s-going-to-stop-and-then-it-doesn’t rain. When it finally did start to stop, the pain was almost worth it for the relief. And then the sun came out. It was momentarily joyful. 

Sun’s out! Face out! 

By the time I reached checkpoint 2, we had lost a further 2 people due to the weather. Lost Boy had got lost again. There were now 8 of us left in the challenge. I got my pasta down my neck hole and a sandwich for the ‘journey’, and started off to the next checkpoint. It was at this point the demons started chasing me, and eventually caught up around mile 30. 

Being alone on these long runs is hard, especially for those of us that suffer with mental health problems. I didn’t want to use my phone because I knew I needed the battery when my watch inevitably ran out. I was slipping further and further into the “not good enough” hole. I was completely out of love for what I was doing. I couldn’t run properly, I was too slow, I wasn’t a real runner, I was a let down to people, what I was doing was worthless, nobody cared and I was probably going to fail so might as well give up now. I know that I portray this image of wonderment and idioticness, but the monkeys on bicycles in our brains can get to us all, at any time. Instead of fighting it, I let it sit on me for a few hours. I did an instagram update, I had a mini cry and I got on with it. Little steps forward, all of them a bit more towards the end of the day. I was trying to find something to take my mind off my hideous self, so I decided to take photos of all the discarded clothing that I was seeing on my little trot. There is a LOT of it. I decided I would make it into a coffee table book to sell at Christmas in Urban Outfitters and call it “DUDE WHERE’S MY BRA? The Thames Path - A Pictoral Guide”. Please see my instagram for exclusive content.

One of my exclusive shots of some underpants on the Thames Path. 

After the third checkpoint I started to see out of the fog of misery. Steve (head marshall) had gone and got me a veggie sausage roll, a banana and some peanuts and I felt like kissing him. They really do look after you, this race company.  He also gave me a tracker   (an electronic on, not the snack bar)and said we all had to have one because Lost Boy was getting constantly lost and also READING. LOL Rob. LOL Reading. LOL. I was very tired, but I knew that at the next CP, I would meet my sister so have someone to shout at, I mean run with, for the night section, and that spurred me on. A lot of this part of the path I had covered on the Autumn 100 back in October and obvs in the same race a year ago, so it was easy to follow and I didn’t need to do much nav. Reading was horrible, but when I got to the final checkpoint, my sister was there and I had someone to chat to and moan at. She’s so lucky. Also, the sun had come out (the massive bastard). Sadly, even that couldn’t make Reading look good. Even painting Reading gold and parading unicorns through it can’t make Reading look good. 

Beautiful Reading

Top tip, kiddos. Yabbering away with your sister will make you miss signs and I missed a very obvious one, putting me on the wrong side of the river and giving me a 2.5 mile out and back that I certainly didn’t need. It was getting dark and I was exhausted. I had a very high calorie deficit and I managed 9.30 min miles in my anger at going wrong, which was not my best idea. Head torches on for the last bit (which I have done before) AND I GET LOST AGAIN! This time in the deer park.  So my 13 mile run with my sister turns into a 17 mile run and I come in at about 14 hours for this stage at 11.20pm. No dinner. BUT FIRST LADY TROPHY! Always good when you come first but you have also come almost last. That’s really winning. 

Beautiful end to a shitty day 

When I get to my hotel, there is a massive glorious spider pal above my bed, that I politely ask the man at reception to remove for me, so it doesn’t get in my mouth when I am asleep. `The man refers to me as one of those “hysterical women” who jumps on chairs. The man doesn’t realise who he is talking to. The man gets ‘the stare’ and the following sentence: 

“Hysterical woman? Cool. Here’s the thing. I would remove spider guy if there was a big enough glass in my room. There is not. I have just run 70 miles and have paid quite a lot to stay here.  Also, if I was a man would you have described me as ‘hysterical’”? The man looks scared. The man should be scared. 

The man comes to my room with a glass and is scared of the big spider and has to go get a bigger glass. He then produces half a bottle of red wine as a sorry. I forgive the man. 4/5 on TripAdvisor. 

I go to bed with no dinner, and no spider pal.  

Winning and losing is quite something. 

DAY 3: The Windsor Ultra - 43 miles. 

Breakfast of campions this morning - some hotel biscuits. TripAdvisor rating down to 3/5. I’m almost late for the start, due to me thinking the start is closer than it is (5 hours sleep not great) but the lovely Steve picks me up and I literally jump out of the car and start running with BBR’s very own Dan Barratt. Today will be better because he is here and he is wonderful. 

LOOK DAN IS HERE!

It’s sunny and glorious and me and Dan are hammering out a good pace of 5mph. The first ten miles fly by. My calves are killing me but I medicate with caffeine bullets and dips in the Thames. There are a lot of what I am calling “day trippers” here today - people only doing one day - so there is no way I am going to win. I am going to try and not let my legs blow up, although I don’t really know what blow up means. Me and Dan talk about it for a bit. We wonder what it would look like if someones calves ACTUALLY DID blow up. We get to Windsor - I have never been there before- and its really quite nice. I can understand why people have weddings there. We stop in the shop for a San Pellegrino and it is delightful. 

Windsor-on-sea

Dan produces some magic treats from America. These include birthday cake flavour GU and Ginger Beer Shot Bloks. I feel like I love Dan. About 12 miles from the end, at the last aid station we are met by the beautiful face of Ultimate Hell Week winner and all round total badass Claire Rees. She is wonderful and I love her but I am scared because she is the fastest of all the beasts. She’s come for a run and a chat and has bought pizza. I decide I no longer love Dan, I now love only Claire. 

It’s funny what running with other people does for you. I am so lifted by Dan and Claire and we run more than walk, laughing and catching up and generally having a nice time time. My calves don’t hurt anymore and I am having the best time. About 6 miles from the end we stop for a beer - why not? I’m not going to win and I am thirsty. I know I am tired but my two pals are making it so much fun. We trot out the last 6 miles with fizzy beer tums, and as we come into the finish, it starts to rain. I feel happy and strong and that is totally down to the company that I have kept today. This little community I am part of makes everything better. 

The Dream Team, end of day 3. No trophies but smiles all round. 

That night I stay in a hotel in Kingston. There is a wedding on. But I do get dinner. And a bath. One more day to go. One more day until I can say I have achieved what I set out to do. 

DAY 4: The Richmond Ultra - 31 miles.

I wake up and attempt to get out of bed, promptly falling over because my legs don’t work. I feel like Pinocchio with rickets. Breakfast this morning is a delight - one smooshed up banana I found in my bag, hotel biscuits and a packet of salt and vinegar squares. I am such a winner, I think to myself. 

I head down to the start and am astonished to find about 40 people there - it’s a London Ultra on a Sunday - of course it’s gonna be busy, but I am so used to my little group of pals I am kind of annoyed that everyone else has crashed the party. But then I find a running dog and it’s all OK. 

Final day. Lets do this. 

31 miles seems like nothing after the last few days, but don’t be fooled - it’s a long way. I have told my friends that I will be in at 5pm - giving me 9 hours to do the distance. I now realise that this is stupid and text them saying I will be there nearer 3, It can’t take me 9 hours to do 31 miles…can it? 

The klaxon goes and we start - literally everyone apart from the full challengers runs off at 7 min miles. I feel pathetic. I trot along with a few of the slower people having a chat and visualising the finish. My legs don’t feel as bad as they did yesterday and I know I am going to finish. I keep feeling like I might cry, but I push it away, Now is not the time for crying. I know this stretch of the run - I have done it a million times before - it’s my turf and I am very much at home here. I remember when I trained for my first marathon, and diligently ran up and down here at the weekends, and then I think about the journey I have come on since those days, 6 years ago, and feel like I might cry again. I distract myself by continuing to take pictures of discarded clothing for my best selling coffee table book. 

Last bits of green on the way home…

The first aid station comes and goes and I am very much at the back of the pack. I don’t care. I am making good time considering. It’s funny, but people keep coming in behind me having got lost - I have no idea how this has happened to them. It’s a straight path! 

Just after 12 miles, I spot a familiar red vest and see it’s one of the BBR crew in the shape of Richard McDowell, possibly one of the best marathon runners that we have in this country. This year he ‘accidently” came 11th British male (this includes ALL the elites) at London Marathon, with a time of 2.27.56. This man is a fucking MACHINE. He has his son Wilf in a running buggy. I pray this slows him down - he’s come to pace me. 

Familiar sights start to come into view. 

I always feel really bad running with these mega fast runners. Sometimes I feel like a science project, like they want to see why I go slow and how I go slow, but Rich is nothing but supportive. We chat about what happened at London and his plans to rip Bournemouth  Marathon a new one. I know I am running too fast, but again I am having the BEST time chatting to him. Again I run more than walk. Wilf is a funny distraction. He’s eating cucumber sticks. I am running 9.30 in miles over 150 miles into a race. The world is a funny place. We come into town and suddenly there are cars and buses and people and I hate it. I want the quiet of the trails back. We go past the Houses of Parliament and down Embankment and at Waterloo Bridge, Rich leaves me. I am slightly relieved, and walk the next mile as recovery. I now have only 11 miles to go. I have covered 21 miles in 4 hours. I text my friends to tell them I might be early.

Double whammy - clothes AND bridge  

I get to the final aid station at Wapping and give Steve a hug. I can almost smell the finish and I know the route. I press on with a couple of other slower runners, still running with walking breaks in between. I cannot wait to finish. Under the tunnel at Greenwich and through the nightmare that is the building site round the O2 and I catch a glimpse of the Thames Barrier. I am over 3 hours earlier than I thought I would be. 

Such an ugly, beautiful sight……

Finally I see the end. There is a slide in the kids playground that I slide down, and I am done. I have finished the BRC Thames Path Challenge. I am the only female finisher for 2018, and only the 3rd female finisher over the events 6 year history. I have broken the female record for the course by about 3 hours. I am overjoyed and relieved. Nobody is there to meet me because I have come in too early. I have a really big trophy. 

Finish like a pro. 

Professional photo shoot. 

My best friends turn up and I am jubilant. We go to the pub and I am full of happiness and bravado. It’s not until later, when I am at dinner with my boyfriend that I finally burst into tears. I have achieved something that I honestly did not 100% believe I could do. I am immensely proud of myself, I am exhausted but I am not broken. I hope that every single person that reads this blog can take from this that YOU have more in you than you think. There were times when I wanted to stop. There was a full 8 hours of darkness on day 2. This is not an easy race. It’s mentally challenging, it’s physically hard in that its so flat (hill means enforced walking, flat does not) and the drop out rate is high, mainly due to the flat, monotonous and brutal (when it rains) nature of the trail. But completing something like this - it will make you strong. And it will make you believe in yourself. 

Massive thanks to every single person who helped me finish. Huge props to Ultra Running Limited, who are a brilliant, small company that deserve to be recognised and supported. The way they treat their runners is second to none. Make sure you look at their races and get involved. 

Thank you to all the people I ran with and met along the way, and my family and friends for being kind and putting up with me nagging them. Thanks to the Do-Badders for pacing and to my sister for putting up with my ratty nature. And massive thanks to Julius and Oscar for looking after me post race. 

So what’s next? I have a few more marathons this year (like 10 more) a few more Ultras this year (maybe 3 more) and then it’s adventure time come November and December, when I set off to Namibia and Panama to attempt to run 300K across the Namib Desert and 200K coast to coast through the Panamanian Jungle with the lovely Rat Race Crew. All standard stuff. 

Until next time…….

Stuck In the Middle With You: How to get a Strava segment in the middle of the English Channel.

My trainers look REALLY clean at the moment. Like REALLY clean. This is probably because I am spending most of my running time semi submerged in water. 

After attending Love Trails festival the previous weekend (no blog on the because I pretty much hated it although the running was good!) I trotted out to Dover for attempt number 487 to recce the Rat Race Project Explore: Goodwin Sands 5K. We have honestly tried to do this about 6 times and every single time it has been called off with hours to spare due to “weather”. Let me explain. 

Goodwin Sands is a sandbank situated in the English channel between Deal and french France. It’s about 10 miles off Dover, in the middle of the worlds busiest shipping lane. It pops up for about 45 mins a day and then it’s gone. Basically, this is a 5K in the middle of the sea and the only one of it’s type in the world. Sounds legit, right? 

Map!

So the day came and it looked like we were actually game on. After a few beers the night before and some map checking, we headed to Dover Marina on Tuesday morning, where we jumped on a pretty nifty little boat and sped out towards the sands. Submerged during the day, this is the site of shipwrecks and plane crashes, with the submerged bank often catching mariners off guard. On the way out we spotted wrecks on the rocks and heard tales of buried war planes. You can see some of the wreckage as you speed out to sea, leaving the white cliffs behind you as you bounce along the waves.

Dover from le bateau. 

After a 20 min boat ride we were given our life jackets and escorted off the boat to start the recce. As we dismount the boat, we start to see the seals. In my eyes, seals are the wolverine clowns of the sea, with sharp flipper claws and cute bitey faces. They were bobbing along next to us, like curious dogs, as we appeared out of the water. I was beside myself with joy, I decided I wanted to cuddle a seal. I was warned against this and it did prove difficult. (Spolier - the seals did not want a cuddle from me)

There she is! Goodwin Sands starts to appear. 

Myself and Lee (of Mongolia fame) were given flags and told to find a 5K route. Why does Jim trust me with this stuff?! So Lee took the lead and we decided to attempt to run the ever changing edge of the sands and mark out a 5K loop using the flags. 

The sand looked flat and compact. It is neither. Much like the frozen lake it is VERY hard to judge the terrain - what looks flat is actually undulating, rippled and quite technical. And in some places, very, very soft - stand there too long and it will suck you in and not let go. Pools of water are everywhere and there are constant rivers of water running up and down the bank, some of them a lot deeper than they look. 

Wettest MDS ever. 

Boats waiting for us to hopefully not die. 

Lee before the incident we don’t mention where his life jacket went off because he “splashed” it. 

Lee and I soon learnt that the edge of the bank is the flatest and easiest part to run on, so started making our way around the edge. There were seals everywhere, sunbathing on the bank and looking slightly pissed off at having to move as we approached. They slithered into the sea like massive slugs and then stayed there bobbing up and down and waiting for us to leave so they could get on with their hectic schedule of sunbathing. They were massive and funny. 

“Please be my friend!”

LOOK AT THEM!

We made our way round, dropping flags, going back on ourselves and trying to navigate to 5K, working out how we would mark the route for the actual event in August. It was stunningly beautiful, quiet, almost eerie and being able to run towards the white cliffs while being in the middle of the sea was just amazing. The solitude was beautiful, the fear that you could get stuck was real and the sand was deep and very wet. 

Spot the seal.

NOT my friends. 

We eventually came back to where we started an hour after we had been dropped off. Longest Parkrun ever. But we had done it and we now know other people can do it in safety. 

On the way back we talked about the type of runner the event would attract - would people be smashing it out? Would they be going hell for leather, trying to get round in the faster possible time or would they stop, walk a bit and take in just how amazing this experience is? Is it possible for the fast people to actually do 2 loops for a 10K? I guess we will find out in August when the first intrepid Rat Racers get to try it for themselves. 

Dover from the sands. Epic. 

Goodwin Sands 5K is all booked up for this year but you can still register interest for next time round here. I would recommend you do. This is once in a lifetime stuff. Just don’t even thing about seal cuddles. 

Also massive thank to Lee for being my personal videographer on this one - I will miss you pal. Strava segment after the jump!


LOL Strava. 

Rat Race Man Vs Roast, I mean COAST.

Alriiiight mooy lovelies! (That is Cornish for hello…)

Earlier in July, I found myself on a train to Penzance to take part in the inaugural Rat Race Man Vs Coast “challenge”. 20 ish (24) miles of glorious north atlantic trails and hills with a load of water thrown in. Like Takeshis Castle, with a load of runners. 

It was my first Man Vs event, and despite me thinking the titles are a load of old bobbins, I was pretty excited to see what all the fuss was about. The route takes you from St. Michaels Mount in Penzance straight north crossing the whole of Cornwall (all 4 miles of it). Once you hit the North Atlantic coast, you trot along, all the way to Lands End where you fall off the end then drink beer. 

The start of Man vs Coast 

The Mountain of Michael AKA St Michaels Mount, the backdrop for the start. 

Unsurprisingly it was BOILING that weekend, and by the time I had taken the 5 hour train trip to Cornwall it was, in classic Bailey fashion, too late to have dinner. Again. So I did was any self respecting runner would do, and went to the pub for 2 pints and 2 packets of scampi fries. #carbloading. 

When I got back to the hotel, I bumped into a couple of other people I had met on Rat Race events and, to cut a long story short, ended up staying up until 1am with the guy that ran the hotel pouring my own wine from his stocks. This, my friends, is how you prepare for a race. 

It’s a little bit of a logistical pain the bumhole, this one. Registration is in Penzance, camping is at Lands End and the race starts back in Penzance. This means driving to Penzance, picking up your number, driving to Lands End, setting up your tent and then booking yourself onto a coach to take you to the start in the morning - a drive of just over and hour for start to finish. As you know I am lazy and self entitled, so I decided to stay in a hotel and then work out a way to get back from Lands End the following evening when I was drunk and vulnerable. Seemed legit. 

Saturday morning and I managed to miss breakfast as well because I am amazing, settling for a coffee and 2 biscuits I found in my room. The start line was a taxi ride away, and my nice new hotel FWENDS gave me a lift down there, where I met up with #bogsquad from Arran and a load of Do-Badders. There were a LOT of them there and it was lovely. 

The race starts in waves - GEDDIT!? Me and Spike having the best time. 

The race starts in waves which are seemingly randomly picked. I was here for training, to see my mates and to have a lovely time - others were not, and the wave system seemed to get a lot of “serious” people hot under the collar. Once started, you run straight out and into the sea where there is a giant yellow inflatable you have to swim around, then you head back onto the beach to do some running.  Unfortunately the inflatable came loose, so instead of the planned 50m swim it was looking more and more like a 50 mile swim, with every runner that went past pushing it further out to sea. Cue RR MD Jim Mee jumping into the water with a life jacket on to act as human inflatable, while the big yellow sausage (the inflatable, not Jim) floated away into the ether. What can I say? It was the inaugural race and I found this quite hilarious. 

Is this a sewer? It looks like a sewer….

Once back on the beach, it was a run along to the next water based obstacle - a pontoon in the sea that you swam towards, scrambled up on and then jumped off. What is the point of this, you say? There is no point, it’s just funny. A bit more running on the beach, and then through a tunnel that appeared like it may once have been a sewer, up a river, a scramble onto the bank and we were on dry land. 

Bailey bank scrambling. 

Once out of the water were off up the country roads and away from the sea running on tarmac with lovely wet feet as we made our way North across Cornwall from the English Channel and onto the North Atlantic coast. It was about 4 miles of roads and hills, via village called Ding Dong (no shit) eventually topping out onto the coastal path which is where I came into my own. 

DING DONG!

Just the best…..

Weeeeeeee!

Quick stop at Pit Stop one for water and salt, and up onto the cliffs. It was stunningly beautiful and the weather made the colours jaw dropping. The trails were really hard packed because of the weather in the previous week, and relatively technical, but I was loving it. Ferns, castles, cliffs, this run has it all. We live in the best country. Sometimes. 

NO FILTER NEEDED!

Secret beaches are part of this epic route. 

Second pit stop was well stocked with melting pit stop bars and jaffa cakes - and we quickly left in search of some more water to throw ourselves in. This race would have been VERY different if it was raining. VERY different. 

The next obstacle was a jump from a pretty massive rock into the sea - it’s so brilliant to be able to do this stuff you would never otherwise do - the crew are brilliant and supportive and anyone that was having second thoughts about jumping with gently coerced into it, emerging triumphant and soaked. theres always the option to not do the jumps but as you know by now I am VERY suggestable. I honestly think that it’s all down to rat race that I am no longer too afraid go heights. 

Get on the rock, jump in the sea - EASY!

Out of the water, and back along the cliff tops for some scramble sections up and down the rocks. Up the ‘Vertical Kilometre’ (or “Crisp Eating Hill” as I like to call it). Onto the beach for some bouldering, back into the water to retrieve some bobbing flags, and then up again. This is a total trail runners paradise and the water just made the heat easier to cope with. The next obstacle involved a rope bridge made of nets and what looked like safety pins, another cliff jump, a scramble up more rocks and a rope assisted climb down. That scared me, but again with the support given by the crew, I managed it pretty easily and actually loved it!

Tiny People and BIG old rocks

No words. 

Scrambles!

That looks runable….

 Now, I know there were some issues around this point with queuing for things and looking at the people from the top of the cliffs was a bit like watching lemmings trotting off to their certain deaths. I was back of the pack with Spike so I didn’t experience any huge waits for anything and was happy just sitting in the sun for 10 mins. 

The last obstacle was a bodyboard, if a bodyboard can be an obstacle. Running down onto the sandy beach, we were handed our boards and told to go “catch a wave”. Fucking ridiculous, but OK then. I swapped my dolphin board for a shark one, and did what I was told quite badly, dropping the board off for the final run up to Lands End for a beer and a chat with my pals. 

Of course I chose this bodyboard…..

Made it!

So yeah, 20 odd miles of fun run, splash splash and LOLS. There were, however, issues at the end with people not happy about their times or position on the leaders board. It’s pretty hard to be able to put a leaders board together when the obstacles aren’t mandatory - some people missed them altogether and others did them all, but to be honest, this isn’t a “race” to PB or try and win - this is a brilliant day out with some huge challenges and a big old party at the end. Bring your mates along, forget your splits and just have the best time ever. 

Next up, a little run around a sandbank in the middle of the English Channel…….

Rat Race Recce Report: Subterranean Snowdon

Now a few if you may know my feelings about cycling. Cyclists are cheats, bikes are cheat machines, some of them poo in their lycra, horse attacking half wits etc. but that didn’t stop me from from biting Jim’s arm off when he asked if I wanted to come to Snowdonia to recce one of the new Rat Race Projects - ‘Subterranean Snowdon’. 

I’ve done Snowdon a few times - Snowdon trail Marathon, Snowdon Ultra etc, but this promised to be more than trotting up a mountain and stumbling down again. 

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Sometimes it pays to be short….

The premise is that you start of half a mile underground in the old mines at Llanberis. You make your way up to the surface and jump on a mountain bike (gross) for 15 miles to the foot of Snowdon then run up the Watkin Path- possibly the most technically difficult way up - its’ got ridges  and drops and all sorts. You know how I like a ridge right? (Spoiler - I don’t). Once you get to the top you run down the other side and then abseil down 3-5 waterfalls to the bottom. Sounds fun right? Looks good on paper right? Reality is it’s the most exhilarating, exciting and terrifying fun you can have in 12 hours. 

We stayed the night in a little hostel in Llanberis and after a big old breakfast and briefing myself, Ross (our safety guide ninja) Jim, Darren and Handsome Pete made our way towards that start of the event - the slate mines at Parc Padarn. It was a little overcast and chilly but nothing to get upset about. Yet. 

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Yeah, that’s a train…..

We’re put in a tiny train that looks like a well dodgy, yellow vertical version of the DLR, and clank our way down the mine shaft. A little bell goes and the doors open - we are now half a mile underground in a warren of still functional mines. It’s pretty dark in mines isn’t it? That’s why I was wearing a stupid at with a light. Our guides were great and led us through the little passages (poor Handsome Pete bashing his head every 3 seconds, Jim and I not having that problem at all) until we reach a pretty steep rail track that obviously hasn’t been used for some time. We have to climb up it, towards the light - a climb that starts off ok but ends as more of a scramble. I’m not really that claustrophobic but this gets your heart rate and anxiety going for sure. Once at the top, it’s straight onto our bikes which have been waiting for us at the top of the mine. This is where it starts to get funny. 

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Follow the light, kids. 

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This is the hole we popped out of……

I haven’t been on a bike for ages (boris bikes drunk don’t count) and I am so glad we had Helen - our lovely mountain bike guide - to help.  I basically had to learn how to ride one again - and it is NOT the same as running. Whereas Darren looked like he was about to win the Tour de France, I came across more Pee Wee Herman. 

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Thrilled. I was thrilled. 

But that’s ok. I didn’t fall of. And Helen was brilliant. She was really encouraging and gave me some amazing tips - and didn’t laugh at me once for being shit. Well maybe once but that was because I was being shit. If the idea of riding a bike puts you off doing this - don’t let it. There loads of support and (don’t tell anyone) I actually had a really good time!

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Standard Pete Rees crouch. 

The first part of the ride is roads - downhill and fast and really good fun. The uphills were a struggle for me - running and cycling are very different AND I am bad at maths AND I’m not really very ambidextrous which made changing gear just LOL-worthy. Darren was flying up the hills, Jim was flying up them, I was getting off and walking a bit and flying DOWN them.  Handsome Pete was hanging out the back of a van filming us. Standard. Then it started raining. (It now won’t stop raining until the second we finish the trip). 

After all the fun of the roads and the beautiful farm tracks comes the really hard bit - mountain biking down very steep, very wet technical terrain. It would be hard enough to run down with trail shoes and not slip, let alone ride a bike down. I looked at the trail with slight horror wondering how I was every going to be able to do it, but once again Helen gave me a masterclass about putting my seat down, balancing and standing up - and down I bounced actually LOVING it and not falling off. Darren on the other hand had bought his MAMIL bike and DID fall off. Lessons learnt? You need a mountain nike for this or else you’re going to be carrying it on your shoulder. 

Over to Darren on that……

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Jim and Darren survey the “track”

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At this point we had been on the bikes for about 3 hours and the rain had really set in - we were all pretty much soaked. The beauty of Snowdonia make up for it though and although wet, by the end of the second leg we were all feeling awesome. 

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Serious briefing time at the start of the Watkin Path….

Quick stop at the trucks to get a change of gear, and we were off up Snowdon along The Watkin Path. This is one of the most beautiful routes up with waterfalls and woods and a gradual incline before you start to get to the big boy section. It was still drizzling but as we ascended it got worse and worse. It’s about 6km to the summit, but its a lung buster with some decent scramble sections and some terrifying ridges to deal with. It got to the point where it was so foggy and rainy I couldn’t see Handsome Pete or the Guide who were no more than a meter in from or behind me. 

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Love a water feature….

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Visibility getting worse

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OK, where is everyone? 

The good thing about this for me was I couldn’t see the drops on either side of the ridges. Anyone that read my UTA blog knows that I have a really bad fear of ridges with drops on either side. The best thing is if all I can see is cloud or fog - and that’s how it was here. Gutted there were no views, massively relieved there were no views. It was REALLY fucking windy though. 

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Lovely ridge. Thank God I can’t see it properly. 

We were all soaked and freezing and even getting changed at the Summit in the lean to of the NOT OPEN cafe seemed like false economy - the rain was NOT giving up but I was freezing so wicked on a couple more layers and put my sodden jacket back on. 

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Up we go - there were sheep up here - how the fuck did they get up there? 

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Lovely view from the top…..

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And down again…..

We started the trot down the Pyg Pass - again it was GREAT that is was so foggy and I managed the trot down pretty easily with no view. As we descended the fog lifted, but the rain and wind remained. We kept moving, because whenever we stopped we got cold. It was technical trail and bogs, technical trail and bogs, all the way up and down until we finally got got to Cwm Dyli Waterfall. It was huge and so noisy you couldn’t hear yourself think. It was awesome. 

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This is FOR real people. First waterfall drop. 

We were in a cloud at the top of the falls, and we were totally soaked and it was windy. We were all starting to get cold so did our best to keep moving while Ross and the Rat Race squad got our abseil kit ready. It was at this stage that it dawned on Handsome Pete that he might have to abseil. I had not been thinking about this part, because I needed to get over bike fear before anything else. But now, looking at the ledge we had to throw ourselves off backwards, the slippery ledge that had tonnes of water gushing over it, it became a little bit real. 

No audio apart from waterfalls - but this is where I explain to Pete there are 5, FIVE abseils. You can add your own subtitles for LOLs. 

Handsome Pete was having none of it and decided to him from up the top - filming was being made very difficult by the rain and the fact we didn’t really have a waterproof casing for the camera. Quite how my phone survived this ordeal even in my bag, is beyond me, but the only shots I have of the waterfall abseils are shots from a previous recce - but you get the idea! 

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Fun vs Not fun. You decide! 

We managed 3 abseils. I HAVE done this before (in Thailand where it’s dry) and I know where I should be putting my feet etc but it’s a different kettle of fish when you have tonnes of water gushing over you, and the rock you’re going down is VERY slippery and VERY smooth. It’s a case of not freaking out, really. The minute you realise you have started to freak out, you start to freak out more then it’s game over. 

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I got to the bottom of the first drop and fell in the plunge pool like the lady I am, then got roped up for the second one. This one was huge - there’s a picture of it above. I was literally being waterboarded by nature. You can get the idea of the power of the water in this video taken the week before on the same waterfall. 

There came a point towards the end where I totally lost my footing and swung straight into the rock and under the falls. It was actually quite glorious but fucking painful. I just kept swinging in and out like a pendulum, occasionally bashing against the rock, until Stuart - one of the badass RR experts - managed to pull me out by my harness. Embarrassing but hilarious. My bruises are amazing. 

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The third one was smaller and much more manageable and their was the option of doing 2 more, but it was late and we were all freezing and starving so we called it a day. In better weather it would have been amazing and I would have kept going all day - as it was I was very wet and cold and I knew it was stupid to carry on for no reason. 

End of the day, the whole squad got together for a curry before an amazing nights sleep. Love the Test Pilot Squad! 

So is this something I would do again? 100% yes. It’s a brilliant challenge for anyone who’s relatively fit (enough to run a 10k I reckon) and the support is amazing. I knew I could do all the things I did, I just didn’t know how much I would enjoy it. It’s hard - don’t get me wrong - it’s a really long day and you are on the go the whole time but it’s also fun and beautiful and exhilarating and it teaches you stuff about your organisational skills and brainhole. Top tip for anyone thinking about this? Take a spare waterproof if it’s raining and don’t scrimp on waterproof trousers - lifesavers. 

Next up? It’s Man Vs Coast with the Rat Race crew and a little recce on a sandbank that’s been put off and put off and put off. Fingers crossed for this time!