It is the day before what should be my longest race of the year and I’m lying on the floor of my house with a sprained back, checking the maximum dosage of ibuprofen and finding it painful to move. Having just moved house the day before, I’ve also just realised that the new comfy road trainers that I bought specifically for this race must be buried in a box somewhere and I can’t find them; pretty far from ideal preparation! Luckily for me, the race I’ve entered makes it impossible to DNF!
This is a unique concept for a race (as far as I know). At midnight, 100 runners gathered around a stone cross in a village called Meriden, near Birmingham, which traditionally marked the centre of England. We then all set off in whatever direction we chose with the aim of getting as far away as we could, as the crow flies, within 24 hours. There were clearly no checkpoints as everyone was taking different routes but you were permitted to stop at shops or receive external support from a crew.
Rob and his fellow escapees donned orange jumpsuits for the start
I really enjoyed the planning element of this race, but maybe that is just because I really enjoy looking at maps! There were so many elements to consider in creating the most efficient route: a footpath may be more direct but would the muddy fields slow me down? A canal would be flat and make the navigation easy, but often they don’t take a direct route. Also, my race planning involved checking the opening times of petrol stations and shops to make sure I would be able to resupply when required. Some people had the added logistical challenge of having to make it to their planned train station in time to make their journey home.
This is how much Rob likes maps - he makes his own custom versions
This race was made possible due to the Race Drone GPS trackers that we were issued with at registration. These allowed the race director, and everyone else, to be able to follow our progress online throughout the race. Not only did it make it very easy for supporters to meet up with runners, but it provided a fascinating live display of racers heading off in every direction across the country.
When each runner stopped and switched off their tracker, or when 24 hours was up, their distance in a straight line from Meriden would be recorded. There were different prizes for making it 30, 60 or 90 miles, although obviously to achieve any of these would require a much longer route in real terms. When measured in a straight line my house, in South Oxfordshire, was 62 miles from Meriden and so this made a natural target for me. I liked the thought of a race finish line at my own front door! I planned the most efficient route I could with a mixture of road and canal which came out at approximately 77 miles.
The first 25 miles or so of the run was an absolute pleasure. After the first 20 minutes or so the other runners all took different directions and I was running down completely empty country roads. For long stretches the sky was clear and the moon was so bright that I was able to run with my head torch switched off, enjoying the peacefulness and adventure of being out in the night by myself. The next section for me was along a canal, through Banbury and all the way down to Oxford. This was tougher going as it was muddy in places. At around 7 AM, just as I was entering Banbury the sun came up which made life easier as it had been a very chilly night. Banbury was actually the perfect place to run into at breakfast time as I ran past a coffee factory and a bakery which treated me to some delicious smells!
I was fortunate to have support from my dad and my wife who shared the job of meeting me at various intervals to provide food, water and changes of clothes. The fact that they could track my position live on the internet made this easy to coordinate but it still couldn’t make the job of waiting by a canal at 0530 on a freezing Saturday morning any more pleasant!
From about the 50 mile point my right knee was starting give me some problems and I was having to walk and shuffle more than run. The 6 mile straight road stretch from Kidlington into Oxford was particularly boring and hard work. I had to force myself to run (shuffle) for 100 steps then I’d allow myself to walk for 50. It did become quite obvious that there was actually almost no difference between my walking and running pace at this stage and the only difference was that I swung my arms more!
My friend Kirsty met me in Oxford to give me some support and run with me for a bit. This was a real boost as I had been starting to struggle mentally by this stage and was feeling tired. We ran together for probably the worst part of the route, on pavements initially then along a surprisingly busy A road in the dark. With oncoming cars giving us very little space I would ideally have been hopping up onto the grass verge but my right knee was refusing to bend much at all without a lot of pain so that wasn’t really going too well! At this stage I decided to call it a day at 70 miles, which was my furthest ever run, rather than push on and spend probably another 2 and half hours limping down busy roads just to get to an arbitrary number.
Other than those last few miles I really enjoyed this race, it is so unique and challenging in a different way to other races and it provided me with some memorable experiences; like the contrast of running down empty moonlit roads and then later joining a queue of drunk people to buy a bottle of water at a shop in Leamington at 0230! I’m sure there will be many fascinating stories to come out from other runners’ journeys across the country.
Weirdly my back, which had been so painful and almost caused me not to start the race, was fine once I started running and didn’t cause me any issues. I think the nature of this race did make it more difficult than I, and many others, expected. The fact that you are potentially completely by yourself for almost the whole race, with no other runners, supporters or checkpoints to help you does add to the psychological challenge. Also, the fact that you can choose to stop whenever you want and that then becomes your own personal finish line is great in that it means everyone can push themselves to their own limits and never DNF. However, when you start to struggle and everything hurts you don’t have the goal of a finish line to aim for and this means it is purely a struggle with your own conscience as to how far you choose to push yourself.
The final results and Rob's route
For those tracking online it was an exciting finish, as midnight approached there were four individuals were approaching the 90 mile distance and Martin Wilcock and Chris Baynam-Hughes who were running as a pair had surpassed 90 miles and reached the coast but amazingly they didn’t stop there! They actually waded over a mile out to sea at low tide to Hilbre Island. That is some serious commitment and one of the most impressive race finishes that I’ve ever heard of! Many of the other runners had found the race harder than expected and had to adjust their plans to a more realistic goal. As 24 hours was reached only one individual runner made it past that important 90 mile point. Ian Ferguson achieved this with under 2 minutes to spare covering a very efficient 102 miles! Several others were heartbreakingly close and may have covered more distance but didn’t quite make it. Overall it was a brilliant race from Beyond Marathon that I would highly recommend to anyone. My advice would be to spend some time planning an efficient route and stay off those A roads!
Find out more about Escape from Meriden here: www.escapefrommeriden.co.uk