My tortured cries rang out across the Cotswold Way, falling on the ears of the runner at the bottom of the hill I’d just climbed.
Replying with concern, she shouted back
“Are you okay”
In utter disbelief I looked down at the little pile of jelly sweets in the mud and tears began to well in my eyes.
“No, I’m not okay, I’ve just dropped my sweets”
Trying to comprehend how this potentially race ending disaster had just happened, I glanced at the flimsy sandwich bag that had contained them just moments earlier, and there was my explanation, a massive hole.
Disbelief was quickly replaced with rage and the misty morning air turned several shades of blue
“FOR F**KS SAKE………..”
My mind began to unravel, a meltdown of epic proportions would surely follow…..
Looking back now, this of course seems a total over reaction to dropping a few jelly sweets in the mud, but for me those jelly sweets had been my life line for the past ten hours. I’d had horrendous nausea since leaving the Painswick aid station at 47 miles and was unable to eat or drink anything….. except those precious jelly sweets.
I’d tried various foods at the aid stations, including Neil’s spaghetti hoops when I arrived at Wotton, mile 70, but for some strange reason everything just tasted like pickled onions. Running without a crew but lucky to have friends manning this aid station, I was presented with a bag of cheese and tomato ketchup sandwiches from Zosia. I was really touched that she’d made my favourite sandwiches, but as I looked at them, my heart sank. I’d given up trying to eat cheese and ketchup sandwiches several hours before as they were making me retch. Not wanting to seem ungrateful or wasteful though, I vowed I’d give them another go, so I put them in my pack as I set off for the next aid station at Horton.
Descending the hill into the Kilcott valley I really started to suffer, weak, dizzy and shivering, I desperately needed more calories than the jelly sweets could provide so I decided to give the sandwiches another go. Not entirely convinced this would be a good idea, I very gingerly took my first bite, but the moment the bread touched my lips my stomach cramped and those pickled onion flavoured spaghetti hoops were expelled violently across the trail in front of me.
Looks like I’m sticking with the jelly sweets
Feeling slightly better, I stood back up and was startled to find a cow standing over my shoulder, I think he’d wanted to see what all the commotion was about so had stuck his head over the fence to find out. Feeling ungrateful and not wanting to waste Zosia’s sandwiches I held them out to the cow, but having witnessed my reaction to them, unsurprisingly, the cow didn’t fancy them either. Clutching those jelly sweets, I continued towards Horton, totally unaware that they’d soon be lying in the mud, and I’d be on the verge of total meltdown….
The Cotswold Way is a beautiful yet brutal race, one that always leaves me broken. After toeing the start line the previous two years, I was well and truly done with it, but had promised to volunteer at the aid station I’d just visited at Wotton. So how had I found myself back here again, 75 miles in and having a nervous breakdown over some jelly sweets?
Rewind three weeks and I found myself sat sobbing on the misery bus in the Italian Alps. Absolutely heartbroken, I had just DNF’d at my dream race, UTMB. I haven’t started on that report yet, but basically, I had problems with breathing, heart rate, palpitations and dizziness, and my race ended after just 62 miles. I immediately knew I wanted another shot at the ballot but didn’t have enough points, hence my last minute entry to this race. I’d signed up before I’d even traveled home.
The next week I went straight to the doctor and the reason for my breathing issues became clear, anaemia and probably asthma too. Not exactly ideal rolling up to the start of a hard 100 mile race just three weeks after UTMB, legs still knackered and two new illnesses, but if I could just make it round within the 30 hour time limit, then those points and another shot at the ballot would be mine.
Back to the race and I seemed to get off to a good start. Despite the continuous rain, muddy underfoot conditions and knackered legs/lungs I was running well and even got to the first few aid stations quicker than last year. I was having a brilliant time and remember heading into the night after leaving Birdlip at 38 miles with a big smile on my face, confident of a strong finish.
How wrong could I be?
Very. It turns out I was very wrong.
Into the woods around Coopers “cheese rolling” hill and the first signs of trouble, a thick fog that descended leaving visibility poor. No longer able to see the National Trail markers I relied on the GPS on my watch to lead the way. The rain was still falling, the mud underfoot was becoming more and more difficult to run on. My pace dropped quickly from here, but arriving at Painswick, 47 miles with 2 hours 15 minutes in the bank I remained calm. Clearly in no rush I took half an hour to dry my feet, change shoes, eat some chilli and faff around with my kit.
The next section up to Coaley Peak things really started to unravel. Navigating through thick fog, particularly around Haresfield Beacon, where there was no trail to follow, was confusing. Despite knowing the route well I became disorientated and ended up running straight into a cow, I’m not sure who was most scared! Whilst focusing so hard on navigation I totally forgot to eat for a couple of hours, and then when I tried, I just felt horrendously sick. Somewhere in this stage of the race my mind started playing tricks on me, the hallucinations that had always escaped me throughout my ultra running career had finally arrived. No technicolour unicorns or anything exciting, just tree stumps that became cows, a row of logs that became pigs, and when I looked at the leaves on the floor, I saw goldfish. Arriving at Coaley Peak completely confused and from the wrong direction I was concerned to realise I’d lost an hour of my time buffer.
But it’ll be fine. I know the route really well from here….
Shortly after Coaley Peak I came to a huge fallen tree obstructing the trail. My gut instinct told me I’d gone the wrong way but I hadn’t seen any other paths so carried on. Eventually my watch started telling me I was off course.
Not knowing what to do I phoned Chris, and we had the most random husband-wife 4 am phone call ever.
“Chris, I’m lost. Where are you?”
“I don’t know, I’m lost on the golf course, I can’t see where I’m going”
“Did you climb over a massive tree?”
Not really able to get much sense out of him I hung up and started to retrace my steps, and that’s when I noticed torch lights on a trail above me. Shortly after climbing back over tree I was back on track, but my mistake had cost me precious time that I really didn’t have. My addled brain started doing sums, from the pace I was moving I now knew I’d be struggling to make the final cut offs.
Just keep moving.
Don’t get lost again
I was doing fine, I’d managed all of the above, and then I reached the golf course. Going round in circles after losing the trail I was completely disorientated, and if it wasn’t for the runner who caught me up then I might still be out there now.
Eventually we made it off the golf course and as the sun rose on the climb up to Nibley monument I realised how far behind I was compared to last year, I could feel the pressure building. Unable to silence the internal monologue, my mind began to unravel the moment my precious jelly sweets fell into the mud.
“You’ll never make the cut off”
“You’re just too slow”
“You’re rubbish at running, you may as well just give up”
But as I looked at the hole in the sandwich bag, a switch seemed to flick. It was like the negativity was replaced with pure rage. My frustrations over my health the past year, my heartbreaking DNF at UTMB, I was utterly sick of failing. The UTMB points I’d been chasing became irrelevant. I needed to know I could still do this. I had to finish even if it killed me.
Arriving at Horton I was close to hypothermic but friends were manning the aid station so I was well looked after and seeing them gave me a much needed boost. Still ahead of cut offs I had enough time to put on some warm layers and attempt to eat some much needed food. I managed a cup of noodle soup, pickled onion flavour of course, but I managed to keep it down which was the main thing. Trotting off towards Tormarton I felt happier in the knowledge I just had 22 miles left.
Somewhere near Dyrham Park an angel in the shape of friend Chi Zhang appeared, he was running towards me with melon. Chi has paced me before at several of my 100 mile events and knows well that melon is the only food I can manage in this state. I hadn’t seen or heard from Chi for months but he’d been tracking me online and driven out to surprise me. Such a kind gesture, I would’ve cried if I had the energy.
Dropping down into Bath I knew I’d finish around 30 minutes ahead of the cut off, and as I turned the corner to finish at the Abbey I felt nothing but relief. Never before had I been so close to the cut offs, or had to work so hard to finish a race, but I got it done and that’s all that matters.
After a disastrous year its time for a break. I’ve continued to push my body through illness for the last year and it’s just not getting me anywhere. Hopefully I can get back on track ready for the Arc of Attrition next February, but we will see.
Jake Hayes, massive thanks for the lift to Chipping Campden with brief detour to Chipping Norton!
Annabelle Wescott, massive thanks for the support along the route and lift home from Bath despite being unwell.
The friends that popped up along the route for hugs and support, Martin Walker, Heather Rawlings and Chi Zhang.
Zosia Young for the sandwiches I didn’t quite manage to eat, and every other person that volunteered in awful conditions.
Kurt Dusterhoff, for the last minute entry, I promise I’ll volunteer next year!
Likeys and Rockstar for their ongoing support.