Posted by Ray Poynter, 26 April 2022
A few days ago I ran 270KM (168 miles) in just under 3 days. I consider that extraordinary – but I don’t consider myself extraordinary. Here is a post about what I did, and what I learned about ordinary people and extraordinary goals.
The event was the inaugural running of the Pennine Bridleway Trail Challenge (you can read about next year’s race here). Because it was the inaugural race and because of a few dropouts, we started the race with seven competitors. The start was at Middleton Top in Derbyshire, which is the start of the Pennine Bridleway. (In the UK, a bridleway is a route that is permitted for people, cycles, and horses.)
The race is unsupported, this means we need to navigate the route and we carry most of what we need (food, emergency gear, water etc) in our bags. There are checkpoints and these are about 70KM (44miles) apart. At the checkpoints we can access our drop bags, we are fed, and we can wash and catch a few hours of sleep.
The first section was the easiest for several reasons. It was slightly shorter than the 70KM average, the first 25KM was on an old railway line (so not too hilly and easy terrain for our feet) and since we started at 10am I ran the whole of this section in daylight. I ran part of this section with one of the other runners, Sérgio Cunha, but that was the only time in the three days that I ran with anybody, the rest of the time I was alone with my own company, and in the later stages the company of my hallucinations. At the first checkpoint, I was in fourth position – with three in front of me and three behind I was feeling pretty happy. The first 57.5KM had taken me 8 hours (with 7:40 being moving time), arriving at Hayfield at 4pm, an average speed of 7.4kph, 862 metres of ascent, and I burned 4035 calories.
At the first checkpoint, I ate some food, had a chat with the FANTASTIC helper and team members, changes my clothes and headed out at 7:30pm into the second section – which was the longest section. By 9:30pm it was dark and it would stay dark until 5:30am Thursday, it was also much colder than during the day. Running in the dark is slower (for me and for lots of other people) than running in the day and when the batteries run out you need to change to your spare headtorch. This section was very steady and it took me 17.5 hours to run the 77.5KM, arriving at Hebden Bridge at 1pm on Thursday (the second day). As I was heading down the path to Hebden, I met Bobby Cullen coming the other way (he is not an ordinary runner, he won the race and was 9 hours ahead of the second finisher.) At Hebden I changed, showered, repacked my bag and had a short sleep. This stage had an ascent of 2529 metres and burned 5951 calories (according to my watch). The moving time was 15:22 from the elapsed time of 17:32 – this time difference will have included sorting kit, changing head torches, checking navigation, and occasionally speaking to people I met on the trail, my average speed was 4.4 kph.
I left Hebden at 4:30pm – a break of 3.5 hours. The runners who had been in positions 2 and 3 (Sérgio and Martin Slack) were still asleep when I left Hebden, so, for a period of time I was in second place ?. Because I left at 4:30pm I knew that I would get 5 hours of daylight before switching to my headtorch. My strategy in long races is to run inside myself, by which I mean, not getting too hot, not too cold, not too hungry, not too exhausted. This means I run a bit slower, but if you get a bit too anything (cold, hot, tired, hungry etc) it takes quite a long time to get back on an even keel. Consequently, people tend to comment that I seem to be comfortable throughout the race, and that is pretty much true. At about 1am I felt very tired (not just sleepy, but also weary, feet warm, etc), so I decided to bivvy. I spotted a quiet park bench near a river in a valley. A wooden bench is a great bivvy, it is off the ground, the wood is not as cold as stone or iron and it is comfortable. I put on my down jacket and a couple of other items of clothing, jumped into my bivvy bag (imagine a sleeping bag, but made of tarpaulin), used my rucksack as a pillow and had an hour’s sleep. While I was asleep Sérgio and Martin passed me and I dropped back into fourth place. The final checkpoint was in Settle and I covered the 72KM to Settle in 18 hours 37 mins, and the moving time was 15:17 – so over 3 hours of not moving. The ascent was 2035 metres, the average speed was 3.9 kph, and I burned 5517 calories. From all these notes about calories you can probably guess that eating is a big part of ultra running.
At Settle, I chatted with the AMAZING FANTASTIC helpers, ate some food, showered, and had about one hour’s sleep.
Sérgio left Settle before me and since I was going to leave while Martin was still asleep, I would technically have been in third place – expecting to drop back to fourth as the day went on. However, we got the bad news that Sérgio had pulled a muscle and had to drop out, despite having covered about 220km – therefore I headed out of Settle in second place. The daytime was glorious, another sunny day (I did get a bit sunburned), the scenery was fantastic, for example running on the shoulder of Ingleborough with fantastic views of Pen-y -ghent. However, as the evening came in the wind got stronger and colder. As the evening drew in I put on more clothing and put on my goggles (there was no rain or hail, but the goggles were a massive help when the wind was blowing so cold and strong right into my face. About 1am Saturday morning I was trudging up Cam High Road (if you know, you know) into the teeth of a really strong, really cold wind. About two-thirds of the way up the hill I felt I was at risk of not running inside myself, I felt sleepy, my bag felt heavy for the first time, and I decided to bivvy. However, there was no park bench, it was windy, and I was about 500m above sea level (another source of cold). I found a gulch below the track that was almost out of the wind, blew up my mat and made a reclining chair out of it, put on my waterproof trousers, and climbed into my bivvy bag and closed it over my face (I decided not to use my sleeping bag as it would have been slower to use and unpack and I didn’t want to take my shoes off at this point). It took about 5 mins to get ready, 2 mins to fall asleep, and I slept for about 45 minutes. When I woke I felt much refreshed and I was beginning to get cold (even wrapped up and sleeping on a mat, you start to get cold on rocks, at that altitude and the wind was cooling the air). Refreshed I completed Cam High Road and then had the joy of the wind being at my back for the next few kilometres.
There was one more tricky section to negotiate. Around Wold Fell at about 3am I ran into low cloud and the visibility kept dropping down to about 1 metre, with my torchlight bouncing back and making everything a milky haze. These sections required me to walk slowly, look for clues on the ground, and keep an eye on the gpx trail. The relief when I got through this section was palpable, followed by the joy at meeting up with Lizzie and Sean who were running the final water station which was a massive boost. Lizzie had switched from runner to helper when she had a problem with her shoulder at about 90KM.
The rest of the run was pretty straightforward, with nice views from the fells down to the River Ure. People often comment that I seem to smile most of the time I am running, which is largely true. However, as I was climbing the last big hill I was aware that I was not smiling. So, I smiled, and I instantly felt good – there is lots of academic research that suggests smiling makes you happier, and that seems to be true for me. As I approached Kirby Stephen I realised that if I got a wriggle on, I would finish in just under 3 days – so that is what I did. My final time for the whole distance was 71 hours 56 minutes 42 seconds, and I managed to hold on to second place. In the end, three of us finished the whole distance, Bobby, me and Martin. My stats for the final leg were 19 hours 16 minutes elapsed time, 14 hours 44 mins moving time, 2107 metres of ascent, average speed of 3.6kph, calories 5638, and distance 70km.
At the end of the race, I was met by lots of the team, including Stu Westfield filming and interviewing me. The final stats were 3 days, 277km travelled (the course was supposed to be 270km, so my navigation was reasonable, but not perfect), 7536 metres of ascent (Everest is 8849 metres btw), 21,141 calories, 63 hours on the trail, 53 of those hours moving, 9 hours in the 3 checkpoints. The average moving speed was 5.2 kph – a brisk walk ?
Before the race I was unsure about whether I could run this far. My furthest previous run had been 108 miles (174km) and that had only required one night. This run was much further and involved travelling through three nights. However, after about 8 hours I felt that provided a) I kept running within myself and b) there were no unforeseen accidents, I would finish.
This was a great event and if you are looking for a tough, friendly, 3 or 4 day event, then I would warmly recommend it. Entries for next year are already open and the entry will be capped at 40 and I know that Bobby has already entered to see if he can get his time down to under 60 hours. Find out more about the 2023 race by clicking here.
Thanks to Stu Westfield and Ranger Ultras for the video (and some of the photos)
What did I learn about ordinary people?
I have never been an athlete in the sense that I won things, not at school, not at university, and not as an adult. I have played sport most of my life, for example, third team rugby, and a participant in 10Ks, half marathons and such. However, over the last few years I have focused more on balancing a) not being injured with b) specific training. By knowing how to run inside myself, and by doing things that expand what running inside myself means (things like 50K fell runs) I have expanded what I can achieve. I am never going to be fast (I am getting ‘fast for age’ but that is not fast), but I am now able to cover distances that I consider extraordinary. I am sure that the same logic would apply to many other people, with many other types of goals (not just running). It is about building an understanding of what you can do, understanding what you need to work on to expand your boundaries, and then simultaneously staying inside your boundaries and moving towards your goal. The key thing is to realise that while many people who do extraordinary things are extraordinary, it is also possible for ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
Some people have challenged me by saying that I am not ‘ordinary’, but they are judging me by what I have done (which is, as I have said, extraordinary). But my point is that I have found ways for ‘ordinary me’ to do extraordinary things. For example, I am not faster than 10% of the population, nor stronger than 10%, nor do I have a better physique than 10%, as a human specimen, I am firmly within the normal distribution.
Of course, the ways for ordinary ME to do extraordinary things will be different to the ways that ordinary YOU should do to achieve the extraordinary – and your extraordinary goals will be different from mine. It requires reflection, it requires prioritisation, and it requires focus. The question is often not are you good enough, but do you want it enough?
I would love to hear your thoughts?