Not the London Marathon

On a weekend when many eyes were focused on the London Marathon, I ran my self-planned ultramarathon from the Northern Hull Community Rainbow Gardens, across the Humber Bridge and into the heart of the Lincolnshire Wolds.

Unfortunately for me, I didn’t schedule the run for the day of the marathon, Sunday 4th of October, which was a bright day for most of us. Instead I completed my 40-mile ultramarathon on the unseasonably wet Saturday 3rd of October.

Conditions really were pretty awful, bu volunteers, trustees and staff of the Rainbow Community Garden in North Hull braved the rain to see me off at 10am. At the start, I also had the company of two other runners: Andy (a friend) and Ken Upshall, Chair of the Community Garden’s board of trustees.

Ken ran for around 7 miles, as far as the Humber Bridge, where more supporters from the Rainbow Garden were gathered to cheer me and Andy on. Then after another 9 miles, Andy stopped and I continued alone along the Viking Way into the Lincolnshire Wolds.

The weather conditions meant that the trails became increasingly slippery throughout the day, so I had to adapt my route in the afternoon to run partly on the road, rather than on the Viking Way footpath.

After 9 hours of running, and approximately 41 miles (I’m actually not sure of the exact distance, because the battery ran out on my watch at mile 37) I arrived at the finish ‘line’, wearing a head torch as darkness descended. I ended my run in the village of Tealby in the Lincolnshire Wolds, where friends greeted me and provided some much-needed hot water and a meal.

A friend created this video bringing, together some clips and photos from the day.

I wanted to do this run to emulate what I’ll face at the Cape Wrath Ultra, and also to raise funds and awareness for Rainbow Community Gardens. So far, you lovely people have donated more than £800. 

Thank you. And watch this space for more updates on my training for Cape Wrath 2021!

I will run 20 miles, and I will run 20 more

I’ve found it hard to keep training momentum going, through lockdown and the cancellation of the 2020 Cape Wrath Ultra. I’ve transferred my Cape Wrath entry to 2021, so I need to prepare for it. But although I have kept running through the summer, it feels as if I need a kick start to really get ready for another big challenge.

With this in mind, I took a trip to the far north of Scotland to check out the terrain and conditions I’ll be facing. Wow. It’s not going to be easy. I ran on some boggy, uneven ground, and I can see I might be exposed to really variable weather conditions. You can see how it went in the video below.

After I came back from Scotland, I knew I needed to really get going with the preparation. So I’ve designed a 40-mile route, on mixed terrain, to help me do just that. You’re probably aware that I’m hoping to raise money and awareness for the Rainbow Garden Hull when I finally get to run the Cape Wrath Ultra. So I decided to start my run at the Garden, then make my way into the Lincolnshire Wolds, nearer home.

I’ll be setting off from the Garden at 10am on Saturday 3rd October, and hopefully a few of the folks from there will be around to give me a bit of a send off. I’m going to need support, because it’ll be a long run, and it won’t be easy. I’ve been running sections of the Viking Way over the past few weeks in preparation for this, and apart from the challenges of terrain and slope, I’ve found that I also need to beware of getting lost. The route from the Humber Bridge into the wolds looks a little like this:

Keep an eye on this blog, and on my Facebook page and You Tube channel, to find out how this challenge goes. And if you’re in the area, message me on Facebook if you’d like to try and meet me on my route and give me some support. I’m hoping to do the whole run in under 7 hours, so I’ll be able to give you rough estimates of when I’m likely to arrive at various points on the route.

And if you’d like to know more about the Rainbow Garden, visit their website or Facebook page. To support me in supporting them, go to my Just Giving page.

I’m doing all this because I find that running helps me stay well, mentally, emotionally and physically. And I want to support the Rainbow Garden because I know they help other people to do the same. I know the power of physical activity from my running, and I also know how gardening can make you feel better, from my work. I feel privileged to be able to take on these challenges, but it’s always intimidating to set off on a new adventure. Wish me luck for my journey from the garden to the Wolds! I hope it helps set me up for an even bigger challenge in the wilds of Scotland next year.

Still on the Road for the Rainbow Garden

These are strange times. While the country is more or less at a standstill due to COVID-19, I am very grateful to be living close to some beautiful landscapes where I can still get out and run.

I’ve found that running has helped get me through some very difficult times in the past, mentally and emotionally (even though the running itself can be physically very tough!). Part of what helps is just getting outdoors, being active and having something to focus on, a goal.

Unfortunately, the goal I’ve been working towards recently has been moved, as the Cape Wrath Ultra has been cancelled for 2020. I’ve taken some time to think about this and I’ve decided to defer my entry and hope to run in 2021 instead.

It wasn’t an easy decision. When this year’s race was cancelled, I’d been training for it for 10 months. To go back to the beginning and start again is a blow. But I am lucky to be able to keep running. And I have another goal, besides completing a race.

I want to help a charity which helps other people to get outdoors, be active, feel a sense of purpose and achievement. The Rainbow Garden in North Hull is a community garden, open to everyone. Run by empathetic and knowledgeable staff, it’s a welcoming place where anyone can find the space to breathe.

The ‘stumpery’ in the Rainbow Garden

We’re all going to need places like the garden more than ever once we start being able to meet up with each other again. I want to help make sure that they are still there for us.

You can help too, by following this blog, my YouTube channel and Facebook page. Your comments help me feel like I’m not on my own. Take a look at the great work the Rainbow Garden is doing on their Facebook page too – while the garden itself is closed to the public, the people who run it are reaching out to people however they can.

And if you can, think about donating via my Just Giving site, to help them keep going. I offered refunds to everyone who had donated before this year’s Cape Wrath Ultra was cancelled but nobody wanted their money back. Now that I’m enrolled in next year’s race instead, you can sponsor me towards that if you’d like to.

I’ll leave you with this video recorded on a recent training run – I’m continuing these at the moment, as part of my daily exercise.

Training during COVID-19

Keep on running

There’s a lot of uncertainty around at the moment, and it’s affecting all of us. The race director for the Cape Wrath Ultra has sent an email out to participants, letting us know that they plan to go ahead with the event if possible, but of course they are monitoring the situation with COVID-19 very carefully. They hope to make a final decision about the event by the 17th April.

In the meantime, I’m training as if the Cape Wrath Ultra will go ahead. If it doesn’t, I’ll be looking to take part in that or another event as soon as it is safe to do so. So the training won’t go to waste.

Last weekend I went for a trail run with some friends – you can see them in the picture at the top of this post. We got some good preparation in for Scotland, seeing some Highland cattle – and plenty of mud!

In other news, I also road (and trail) tested my new trail shoes.

My new trail running shoes get a road test

All is going well, and I’m feeling good. But we’ll have to see how events unfold over the coming weeks, to find out whether the race itself goes ahead.

Most importantly, everybody take care. And thanks to those of you who’ve sponsored me already. Your support means a lot.

If the event is cancelled, you will be offered a refund of any donation you’ve made. But if you choose not to claim your refund, you can be sure that the Rainbow Garden will make excellent use of your donation to support people to maintain their physical and mental wellbeing. And that I’ll keep on running.

Running the Wolds

I need to start introducing some hill work into my training. Looking at the route for the Cape Wrath Ultra (you can see for yourself here it seems that I’ll be climbing 11,421 meters as I cover the 400km trail across 8 days. So I’ve prepared some routes which make the most of the hills that Lincolnshire has to offer.

In this video you can see how I felt after taking a hilly, 19 mile route from Grimsby to Tealby. I drove to my friend’s house in Tealby and got a lift back to Grimsby, so that I could run back to my car.

Reflections on a long, hilly run…and a new adventure in the pipeline?

I’m thinking of taking part in another adventure after Cape Wrath. I have been invited by Major Iván Castro, who was a fellow runner in the Marathon des Sables (MDS), to join him in a challenge he is undertaking in the North America. Iván was one of the runners I shared a tent with (we were in Tent 62), and he astounded me with the stories of his achievements. I’m delighted and proud to have been invited to join him in one of his challenges.

Some of my Tent 62 buddies at the MDS, including Iván

Iván is tackling the Pacific Crest Trail this year, a hiking trail which runs through the states of California, Oregon and Washington, in the U.S., and British Columbia in Canada. I’m hoping to join him for part of the trail. Watch this space for more details!

I’m also happy to announce that I am officially raising funds for the Rainbow Garden in Hull, as I take part in these challenges. You can donate here. I’m delighted to be able to support the Rainbow Garden, because they do such a wonderful job of helping folk to get outside, learn some new skills and meet new people. Those are things that have helped me find mental and emotional wellbeing, as I’ve been training for and taking part in my ultra-running challenges.

The Rainbow Garden, Hull

A New Chapter

It’s been 9 months since I ran the Marathon des Sables. Thanks so much to those of you who supported me and followed my journey. Of course, my running didn’t end there. It wasn’t long after my return from Morocco that I started planning my next adventure.

On May 24th I’ll begin the Cape Wrath Ultra – “Scotland’s answer to the Marathon des Sables”. I don’t have so far to travel this time, but this expedition race is certainly a challenge. 400km (just under 250 miles) over 8 days is no mean feat. And the terrain in the Scottish Highlands possible couldn’t be more different to the desert, but it’s hardly any more hospitable.

Click here to see what I’m up against.

I am looking into raising funds and awareness for another charity this time around. Watch this space for an announcement and for updates on how my training is going over the next 4 months.

Mission accomplished

Well, I’ve done it! Last month I set off from Gatwick, on the morning of Friday 5th of April, on a special charter flight. I started to recognise fellow Marathon des Sables runners right from the airport, as they were all in their running gear. The flight went smoothly, taking us to a tiny airport in Morocco, where the “cafe” was a trolley with some drinks of water and a few cans of Coke.

It should have been a 6 hour bus journey from the airport to the bivouac. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of being one of the first to get on a bus. Then, as we waited for all the buses to be ready before we set off, I sat on that bus for an hour before we actually left. En route to the bivouac we were delayed, because our support vehicle had a puncture. In the end it was pitch dark by the time we arrived at camp.

First off, we formed into groups of 8, with each group set to share a tent for the duration of the ultra-marathon. In my group were Dara, Rebeca (who I’d met previously at MyRaceKit, where I bought all my gear for the expedition), Derek, Simon, Nils, Ivan and Fred. Ivan turned out to be something of a celebrity. He is Ivan Castro, a US special ops veteran and Army Special Forces Green Beret, who was able to tell us some very interesting bedtime stories. He told us of the time he changed shirts with Prince Harry at the first Invictus games and also about his experience of running with the bulls in Pamplona. Ivan is blind, and Fred was his guide on the trip.

Some of my Tent 62 buddies

We were in Tent 62. The tents were open-ended and not very high. It wasn’t possible to stand up inside them. When the wind got up, our tent would lift off the ground and in fact it collapsed on us a couple of times. Since it was rather tricky to get out to go to the toilet at night, especially for Ivan, he used a bottle to pee in. I became the keeper of the pee bottle – my job was to make it available to Ivan when needed (and to make sure nobody drank it by accident).

On our first day we went through all our safety checks and had our bags weighed. Mine weighed 10.5kgs. Our next job was to learn how to cook our own food. Despite having practiced this at home, I found it more difficult than I’d expected. Heating water to prepare the food was far from simple, and I seemed to always end up with sand in it. I actually found it rather difficult to eat. This problem increased as the days went by. I ended up eating more sachets of peanut butter, which Fred had brought with him, than anything else. Those were a life-saver.

Ready to go

As the first stage began, the organisers played “Highway to Hell”, the traditional starting track for the ultra-marathon. . This was emotional for me because it was one of Janice’s favourite songs. I found the first stage not too bad, except that I suffered with cramps. I eventually had to increase the number of salt tablets I took, to deal with this problem, from around 6 tablets to 15 each day! Stage 2 was when things started to get really difficult…

The second stage involved the longest dune stage that has ever been included in the Marathon des Sables. There were 8 miles of sand dunes. I heard one man say it was the hardest thing he’d ever done in his life – it later turned out that he was an ex-paratrooper, who had done two tours in Iraq. If he found it hard, I think it really must have been. Dunes are difficult because you are always struggling to get purchase on the ground with your feet.

My feet started to really hurt after stage 2. I had some blisters, which I dealt with myself, but the following day, during stage 3, I found that I was suffering a lot of pain in one foot. Afterwards I needed to see the doctor, who removed some dead skin from a hot spot on my foot with a scalpel, and treated the area with iodine. Hot spots happen due to friction on your skin, which causes the skin to die off. All this was bad enough, but the next day was the long stage.

I ran all day and into the night on the long stage. This was incredibly tough. Once it got dark, I could only see green glow sticks marking the way. I paired up with a fellow runner called Annabel, and we supported each other through this stage. For a while, we ran with another woman too. She was having terrible problems with her feet, though. She had to have the side of her shoe cut because her toes was so swollen they could no longer fit inside it. We decided to wait with her, while she decided whether or not to continue with the stage, but after half an hour she realised she would have to stop.

Annabel and I carried on but of course, my own feet were a problem too. Because I was so tired, I fell twice on the route, getting my feet wet in a “wadi” (a kind of small desert stream). I stumbled into camp in the early hours of the morning and collapsed into my tent.

The next day I got some much-needed further medical attention for my feet. Two hot spots were treated this time. I had also been needing to take care of my back each morning before setting off for several days now, because it had been rubbed quite badly by my backpack. It was really difficult to keep track of all my first aid supplies, and do all my maintenance every morning, taping up my feet etc.

Thankfully, I had some time to rest before stage 5. This stage was marathon-length, and far from flat. It contained steep hills of up to 25% gradient, which you needed to climb with the assistance of ropes. Despite this, stage 5 was my best day. The pain in my feet seemed to disappear. It is amazing how you can keep going through pain.

It wasn’t just me. The man in the tent next to me had damaged his achilles tendon and had his leg all strapped up. He was a doctor, and you might expect that he would be more cautious than some, knowing the risks of exacerbating injuries, but he still managed to run and finish the marathon stage.

I don’t know what happened that day. Perhaps Janice was helping me, but I felt the best that I had done through the whole event. I ran for a while with the elite runners (they started after the rest of us and when they caught up with me I found, to my surprise, that I was able to keep pace with some of them for a while). I also managed to pass one of the Morroccan runners (who were much better acclimatised to the conditions than I was) on the way up a hill. T

I made up around 110 places in stage 5, finishing in around 470th place (which is pretty good going if you take into a account the time I spent waiting with another runner on the long stage and a one hour time penalty I incurred because I didn’t have a medical certificate at the start).

As a group, Tent 62 agreed to do the final “charity” (10k) stage together, and I had the honour of acting as Ivan’s guide for part of it. I’m lucky to have met such amazing, inspiring people, and I’m immensely proud that I, a normal bloke from Grimsby, managed to complete this challenge alongside them.

Back at Blue Cross Animal Hospital in Grimsby with my medal

If I did the Marathon des Sables again there are a few things I’d do differently. I would take walking poles, to help me through those sand dunes. I would also bring some different food: more snacks, maybe some of those peanut butter sachets! I think I could do better if I returned, having learned from mistakes the first timearound, but I’m not sure that I ever will.

However, since I got back, I’ve done a half marathon, and was pleased to find that I ran better than I have for years. I’ve now signed up for another ultra-marathon next year, this time not so far from home. Cape Wrath Ultra is in the far north of Scotland, and I think several of my Tent 62 friends will be joining me. Watch this space for upcoming adventures, and thank you so much for all your support.

So long, and thanks for all the support

The title of this blog post was inspired by the Douglas Adams book, from his Hitchhiker’s’ Guide to the Galaxy series (So long and thanks for all the fish). The series meant something special to Janice and I. While she was in hospital, if she was tired or finding it hard to communicate and I wanted to know if she was aware I was there, I would ask, “What is the meaning of life?”. If you know your Douglas Adams, you’ll know the answer is 42. She always got it right.

Two days from now I’ll be driving south, ready for the flight which will take me to Morocco on Friday. The training is done, the backpack packed. I’ve practiced my food preparation and I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.

I’ve been training through the Lincolnshire winter and spring, which probably doesn’t bear much relation to the conditions I’ll encounter in the desert. Still, Lincolnshire scenery has been pretty inspiring. I thought I’d share some of it with you today. We can compare it with the desert scenes when I get back.

On one recent run I was stalked by a kite. An amazingly majestic creature, soaring above while I struggled over a hilly, rugged footpath across farmlands.

Kite overhead

I’ve also enjoyed running past quaint houses and waterways – thinking of the how water will soon be a luxury for me, to be carefully rationed.

So that’s it. So long, I’m off to run the Marathon des Sables. Thank you to everyone who has supported me. I really can’t tell you how much it means. When I get back, I’ll have a lot to share with you, I’m sure.

Runner with a cause

With only a little over 3 weeks to go before I set off for the desert, I’m tapering off my running. I’ve put in most of my training miles already. Now I just need to keep my fitness levels steady and prepare for take-off!

It seems like a good time to revisit the reasons why I’m doing this. And why I’m using the challenge to raise awareness and funds for Blue Cross. One particular story, from the early days of my late wife Janice’s career as a veterinary nurse, stands out in my mind. I’m afraid it’s a distressing tale.

It was Christmas around 35 years ago. Everything was closed up for the holidays, but the owner of a shop opposite the old Blue Cross building, on Cleethorpe Road, had come to check his premises. While there, he heard a noise from the 8 foot (or alley, if you’re not from Grimsby!) behind his shop. He went to investigate and found a dog and her puppies, trapped inside a wooden box. She was in an awful state, with no food or water. In fact, she’d eaten some of her pups.

Thankfully the story then took a happier turn. The man brought the dog and her surviving pups to Blue Cross, where Janice and the other staff took care of them. She was a lovely dog, as you can see from the picture taken as she recovered from her ordeal.

Janice and a colleague with the recovering rescued dog

I have never been able to understand why the person who abandoned that poor dog didn’t just leave her and her pups across the road at the Blue Cross hospital. Although that would still not have been ideal, at least she would have been likely to attract attention there and get help. It seems as if she was deliberately abandoned in a place where she might not have been found until she’d starved to death.

That’s why I’m fundraising. Sadly, cruelty to animals still takes place. But Blue Cross are always there to help pets. Twenty four hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

Janice devoted her working life to Blue Cross Grimsby animal hospital and, in her memory, I’m proud to be running for this cause. If you want to contribute, please visit my Just Giving page to donate.

Cat naps and tea trays

Not long to go now. In just over a month I’ll be setting off on a multi-day ultra-marathon, described on the Marathon des Sables website as “the equivalent of running from London to Dover, deciding not to go to France after all, and running back again in 120 degree heat.” All while carrying a backpack.

I’m running more miles per week than I’ve ever done before in my life. And I’m finally getting used to the backpack. I think I’ve got it adjusted correctly at last, so that it is (sort of) comfortable. I’m trying very hard to get the nutrition right and I’m still experimenting with my freeze dried food in preparation for the expedition. I’m also trying to make sure I get enough rest

Sleep is vital, and it’s not always easy, with thoughts of all the preparations I’ve yet to complete buzzing around in my head. I’ve also just marked the one-year anniversary of the day when Janice suffered her initial brain haemorrhage. Not a good day, I’m afraid. But, I have some very strong support when it comes to resting after a run.

Donald getting into the spirit of the post-run rest

My cats, Donald and Douglas are really happy to join me when I rest up after a run. Strangely enough, they have shown no interest at all so far in the running itself…

In case I get too serious, and worried about the challenge ahead of me, a friend has suggested one way I could speed my descent on any sand dunes. Does anyone feel like sponsoring me extra if I slide down them on this tea tray?

Potential sand dune descent equipment