In 2016 I entered my first 6 day race with the aim of walking 700km (435 miles) in the 144 hours between when the race started on the Sunday afternoon and when it finished on the following Saturday afternoon. At the time that goal was perhaps a little ambitious. I had only been walking seriously for a few years and going into that race I had only walked in excess of 100 miles on eleven occasions with a longest walk of 283km in 72 hours the previous year.
Still, I believe in aiming high, and I finished that first 6 day race with a total distance of 614km (381 miles). If we had had better weather conditions I think something in the range of 650km may have been achievable, but instead we had torrential rain for the first three days and then excessive heat for the last three days. My race report from the 2016 Privas 6 day race is here.
I returned to Privas in 2017 and 2018 but had disappointing races both years, and in 2019 I decided to take a year away from the really long races before fourth attempt at walking 700km in six days – a distance that only six walkers have achieved in modern-day racewalking – in 2020. But thanks to Covid I’m still waiting for that opportunity two years later – something I’m calling Project 700.
The 6 jours de France is the only six day race in the world that has racewalking judges and therefore the only race from which six day racewalking results are recognised for record purposes (although some countries recognise performances from un-judged events) and in 2022 the 6 jours de France will move from Privas to Vallon Pont d’Arc, 50km to the south. More importantly, the race will be held on a 100% tarmac surface as opposed to the cinder track used in Privas, and the race has been moved forward to early May to avoid the extreme summer heat of August.
At 53 years old, I don’t know how many more opportunities I will get to attempt 700km in six days – although of the six people to have achieved the feat, one was 60 and another was 54 at the time. And of the other four, three were in their early 50’s. Long-distance racewalking is definitely a sport for the older athlete.
My training plan:
The race starts on Saturday 7th May – 18 weeks away. I’ve done very little walking since finishing the Lon Las Ultra in October as I have been trying to get over some niggly injury problems. This means that I am starting from a low base so my training plan will look something like this:
January (weeks 1 to 4)
Four walks per week with mileage growing throughout January. I like to do my long walks on a Saturday and often walk to a parkrun, walk the parkrun (5km) at a faster pace, and then walk home. My aim for January will be to build up to a six hour Saturday walk by the end of January.
I usually aim for the Saturday walk to be about 50% of my weekly mileage so I think the first four weeks of January will range from around 65-70km in week one through to around 100km in week four.
February to mid/late April (weeks 5 to 16)
Week 5 will be an easier week of around 80km before I start my high mileage training which will take me through to mid/late April. In May/June 2019 I completed eight weeks of 100 miles (160km) per week for the first time and am hoping to replicate this to a certain extent. My plan, from week 6 to 16, is to do three high mileage weeks (100 miles per week) followed by an easy week – so nine 100 mile weeks in total.
During the 100 mile weeks I will need to increase my walks to at least five per week, maybe six. I prefer to have three rest days per week if possible to reduce the chances of injury and also to accommodate my work. My usual training/working week involves walking Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday with the Tuesday and Thursday being shorter working days (less than 8 hours) and the Monday, Wednesday and Friday being upwards of ten hours at work. So it will be necessary to find the right balance and also ensure that I have plenty of time for family life and other activities including the swimming and stretching that I want to continue with. Also, when I start my high mileage training in February it will still be cold outside and the days will still be shorter, so there is likely to be a lot of walking in the dark before or after work – as opposed to when I did the high-mileage block back in 2019 during the summer.
During this time I will do a couple back-to-back 50+ km each day weekends and at least one 100km walk – probably an overnighter.
One of the things I would like to do is join Cardiff to Bristol on my map. Having walked from Holyhead to Cardiff and from London to Bristol, I want to close that gap. And I’m thinking that I could catch a bus to Cardiff on a Friday after work, walk up to Severn Bridge overnight, do the parkrun there on Saturday morning, and then walk down to Bristol before catching the bus back home. This could be a mini adventure in late March or early April perhaps.
April/May (weeks 17 and 18)
A two week taper before the race.
My sole focus during the 18 week build-up is to build endurance. I am much stronger mentally than I was when I last walked a six day race, and I’m not so concerned about sleep deprivation for a six day race compared to the likes of the Thames Ring and Lon Las Ultra where I suffered badly. This is mainly because the nature of a six day race means that you can stop at any time to sleep – each lap is only about 1km – whereas in a point to point race sleep opportunities are usually dictated by the location of checkpoints or finding an appropriate place to sleep beside the trail/road.
The only speedwork I intend doing is my weekly parkrun, and even then, I won’t be going too fast if my niggly injuries don’t fully recover.
I started swimming in late October as a part of my recovery from my niggly injuries. I am also cycling to and from the gym where I swim and after each swim I spend 10 to 15 minutes stretching in the sauna at the gym. Ideally, I would like to continue this throughout the training period but this could be dependent on how much time I have available. I have never done much stretching in the past and am about as flexible as a brick but I’m hoping that if I continue the stretching my flexibility will improve and that will help with both the final stages of injury recovery and improving my overall speed when walking.
Even although I have made a deliberate attempt to reduce my Coca Cola consumption in recent years, I still consume at least two large bottles (about 3 litres in total) of Coke every weekend. So I am committing to not drinking any Coke at any time between January 1st and at least mid-March (my wife’s birthday).
In 2015 I stopped drinking Coke for three months (maybe longer, I can’t remember) and I lost seven kilograms with no other changes to my diet. But at the time I was drinking in excess of 2 litres of Coke every day, so that one dietary change made a big difference. This time I am hoping that it will make some difference to my weight but probably only a couple kilograms.
So that is my training plan. The big unknown is, will covid restrictions prevent travel to France for the race in May. If so, I have a back-up plan.
Firstly, if I can’t do the six day race starting on the 7th May I will do a seven day adventure walk in England – assuming we don’t have restrictions about domestic travel. I have an adventure walk planned (something that I don’t think anyone else has done previously) but I’m not even thinking about that at the moment as my focus is on going to France in May and walking 700km in six days!
And if the race goes ahead but we are not able to travel from England to France, then I will hopefully have the opportunity to do another six day race later in the year – probably the EMU six day race in Hungary in September, but other possibilities include six day races in a number of other European countries during the summer.
The thing is, at present the only six day race with racewalking judges is the 6 jours de France in May, so that is my focus.
“I don’t remember there being a castle in Adelaide” I thought to myself as I realised I was walking beside a castle having found my way on to a road after being unable to exit Bute Park in Cardiff due to a locked gate just a few miles from the finish of the Lon Las Ultra.
Having spent the last almost 90 hours walking to Cardiff, for some strange reason I thought I was in Adelaide (Australia). And on reviewing the course map while writing this race report, I also realise that I shouldn’t have been in Bute Park anyway but should have crossed over the River Taff a mile or so earlier.
The Lon Las Ultra is a 253 mile (407km) running race from Holyhead in Northwest Wales to Cardiff in Southeast Wales. It follows an almost diagonal line across the country climbing in excess of 5,500 metres and dropping the same – starting and finishing at sea level. It is supposedly a national cycle route but some of the hills are so steep, going both up and down, that I can’t imagine anyone cycling it – although apparently people do.
The 2021 edition was the third running of the Lon Las Ultra and to date only nine runners had finished the challenge. I attempted it in 2019 – the year of the horizontal rain – and only managed about 140 miles before dropping out mainly due to being cold and wet, but also due to lacking the mental strength to complete the event.
2021 would be different!
Holyhead to Criccieth – 0 to 60 miles
Unlike 2019 we woke up to a mild day and 29 runners assembled beside the railway station in Holyhead just before 7am for race director Mark Cockbain’s inspirational pre-race briefing – something about “… most of you won’t finish …” – and a pre-race photo.
I set out at a comfortable pace at the back of the field. As usual I was the only walker in a field of runners and whilst I expected to catch some of the runners during the next 3 ½ days, I had no intention of going too fast early on.
I was surprised therefore to find myself playing cat and mouse with a few runners during the morning and early afternoon. One of those runners was David Wright who I had spent a lot of time walking with during our 2019 attempt – David had dropped out at a similar place to me in 2019 after being found asleep in a ditch by a passing horse rider.
My pace through the morning was a very consistent 7km (4.35 miles) per hour and I arrived at the first checkpoint at Menai Bridge (31 miles) in 27th place just after 2pm. The Lon Las Ultra is a ‘self-supported’ event – meaning that not only are odd-numbered checkpoints outdoors but all you get at any checkpoint is water. Checkpoints 4, 6 and 8 (100, 150 and 200 miles) are indoors meaning that they are warm and you have the opportunity to sleep if you want/need to, but other than that the athletes are expected to fend for themselves.
I was in and out of the Menai Bridge checkpoint in about 4 minutes, just enough time to refill my water bottles and get some more food out of my race backpack and stuff it into my pockets, waistbelt, etc.
The first two legs were the longest of the race but also the easiest. No serious hills, not too tired (yet) and mostly in daylight. The only real highlight for me during the first day was the small town of Caernarfon which I arrived at around 4pm. In 2019 I had taken a short detour off the course at Caernarfon to buy McDonalds for an early dinner, but this year I decided that I would prefer Fish n Chips and used Google to identify all the local Fish n Chip shops. The one with the highest star rating was only a block off the race route so I decided that would be my dinner for today. When I arrived the door was open but the owner advised that they were closed until 4:30pm. I told him that I was in a race and couldn’t wait around, and I asked for his recommendation for another Fish n Chip. Not wanting to recommend his competition he suggested that I continue through to Criccieth, but I knew I wouldn’t get there for another five hours and I wanted food now. He said that there were plenty of Fish n Chip shops in the square, so I walked a short distance further and stopped at the first Fish n Chip I found – wrong choice!
The chips were great, but the fish wasn’t. I ate about half of the fish before binning it and ate the remaining chips while walking. I also bought a can of Coke but decided that I hadn’t yet walked far enough to drink Coke (usually preferring to stay off highly processed sugar until at least 12 hours into any race), so I put that in my backpack saving it for later.
‘Later’ was when I reached 50 miles, which I passed in a respectable 12 hours and 3 minutes. I had started to struggle a little and decided to reward myself with a can of Coke just as David Wright caught me up again. This was perfect. Between the Coke and the faster pace that David was running/walking I regained my enthusiasm and my pace immediately picked back up. David and I stayed together for most of the remaining ten miles through to checkpoint 2 which I arrived at at 9:19pm – 14 hours and 19 minutes after race start.
Criccieth to Dolgellau – 60 to 100 miles
The Criccieth checkpoint is at a bus stop beside the sea. Unlikely 2019 when it was wet and cold, the weather was still reasonable but knowing that we were heading up into the hills for the night, and with rain forecast, I put on some warmer clothes and replenished my backpack with my food for the next 40 miles. All up, I was at the checkpoint for about 15 minutes, leaving in 23rd position with three other runners just in front of me.
I love walking at night and really enjoyed the 20 miles through to checkpoint 3. Almost immediately upon leaving Criccieth there is a long steady climb before a descent into a town called Porthmadog (I love the Welsh names 😊 ) and soon after Porthmadog we hit the first really big climb of the race – a 250 metre climb over about 4 kilometres followed by an even steeper descent to checkpoint 3.
I really enjoyed the climb. My only regret being that it was dark, and we were missing what I expected were fantastic views. The rain stopped mid-way up the ascent, but rain was replaced by mist that made it difficult to see too far ahead. Not to worry, I seemed to negotiate the route without any problems and arrived at checkpoint 3 at 3:39am to find two runners suffering more than they should be at this stage of the race. Tom Garrod, especially. Tom was planning on doing a double Lon Las Ultra as a fundraiser for a cancer charity and with only 80 miles of over 500 completed so far, he was not in a happy place.
Having refilled my water bottles, I wasn’t planning of hanging around at the checkpoint and convinced Tom to walk with me, figuring that if he got moving and had me to talk to he would start feeling better. Unfortunately, we spent too much time focused on conversation and not where we were supposed to be going and we missed a turnoff soon afterwards. In the totality of the race, this didn’t matter but it did mean that we accidentally took a shortcut of about 1 ½ miles (2 ½ km). Something I felt guilty about for the rest of the race, once I became aware of it, even though I would more than make up the missed distance during the remaining days when I got lost on various occasions.
The miles flew by and soon we were walking through a small town at around 5 or 5:30am when we came across a shop with an open door. I think the shop was a sandwich shop, but I didn’t stop to check it out. Tom did however, and I kept walking catching up with Javed Bhatti a few minutes later. Javed had also stopped at the shop and confirmed that it was selling sandwiches. Javed is a hugely experienced ultra-distance runner, and I took the opportunity to pick his brain about my ongoing problems with sleep deprivation during long races.
Sometime after 6am I arrived at Barmouth from where we were diverted on to an A road heading inland towards Dolgellau. The race should have headed across a pedestrian bridge over the river but unfortunately the bridge was closed for maintenance, and we had to walk (run) along a semi-busy road without footpaths for the next 5 or 6 miles rather than the pedestrian trail on the other side of the river. I didn’t have any problems along this stretch, but Javed narrowly escaped being hit by a car and decided that that was enough for him – he withdrew from the race at the 60 mile checkpoint.
I started to struggle again during this stretch despite having drunk a bottle of Coke at Barmouth, and I decided that I would have my first sleep when I got to Dolgellau. The Dolgellau rugby club being our first indoor checkpoint and therefore our first opportunity to have a sleep in warm conditions, and our last opportunity until 150 miles. I arrived at Dolgellau at 8:53am (25 hours and 53 minutes after the start) but with only 157km on my watch – due to the shortcut I had taken and also the diversion meant that the 100 mile checkpoint was actually at 99 miles. I was now in 16th place. Not too bad, but a long way still to go.
Dolgellau to Rhayader – 100 to 150 miles
After sorting out my food, clothing, etc, I tried to sleep but I no longer felt tired, and both my hips were too sore for me to get comfortable enough to fall asleep. I lay in my sleeping bag for about 20 minutes before giving up and left the checkpoint after about 90 minutes total break.
Immediately after leaving the checkpoint the route heads up hill again, rising from near sea level to 425 metres in just five miles, and then dropping back to 100 metres just as quickly. I don’t particularly enjoy hills (major understatement) and for this reason I don’t spend anywhere enough time training on hills. And because of this, my quads and shins were really struggling with the downhills. I didn’t mind the ups, but the steep downhill sections were slower than the uphills.
Around 2:30pm I came across a nice grassy area just off the road where I decided to have another sleep. It had turned in to a sunny afternoon and whilst the grass was still damp, I spread my foil space blanket over the grass and made a nice comfortable bed. This was my first real sleep since the race began over 31 hours earlier but even so, I woke up just 20 minutes later feeling refreshed.
As I walked back down to the road Steve Willis caught me up. I had walked behind him earlier in the morning when on the A road heading to Dolgellau. It was Steve who informed me that I had accidentally taken a shortcut earlier that morning when I missed the turnoff just after checkpoint 3, and I joked to him that even if we finished together, he was really 30 minutes ahead of me thanks to my ‘cheating’.
We walked together for a while but Steve was struggling and considering dropping out of the race. He decided to stop and have a rest and something to eat, leaving me to continue on alone.
Soon after, I think probably around 4pm’ish I stopped in a town called Machynlleth. Firstly I went to the Co-op to buy some painkillers in the hope that they would reduce the pain I was feeling in both my hips, and then further down the road I purchased a sausage and chips at the local Fish n Chip shop – the same shop I stopped at after my visit to the launderette during the 2019 race. As with 2019, they were the best sausage and chips I had eaten in years, and at only £2.90 I couldn’t believe the value for money!
I remembered Machynlleth from 2019 as being the start of the long climb up to the halfway point. The big difference this year was that I would be making that climb (from close to sea level up to 570 metres) in daylight and I was looking forward to seeing the views that I had missed last time.
I wasn’t disappointed either. Over the final mile or two to the top, every time I went around a corner I stopped to take a photo, and then around the next corner the view was even better, and I took another photo. I felt fantastic and really enjoyed the climb followed by the half hour descent through to checkpoint 4 and halfway.
By now it was getting dark again and I had a short break at checkpoint 5 to put some warmer clothes on and sort out my head torch and flashing taillights. It was 7:27pm. 36 ½ hours since the race started. A maximum of 51 ½ hours to complete the second half (plus a bit extra – halfway was really only 125 miles out of 253). That shouldn’t be a problem, especially with net downhill.
I continued to feel good after leaving checkpoint 5 as we (me and my legs) walked at a comfortable rate but a few hours later I started to struggle again, just as Steve caught me. I was glad to see that Steve had persevered and not dropped out during his bad patch earlier in the afternoon and I keyed off him to try and keep my pace up. I think Steve was struggling as much, or more, than me and I remember stopping to sit down for a short rest a couple times. On one of those occasions I found a chair outside what appeared to be an abandoned workshop and called Steve over telling him that there was another chair that he could sit on.
I was struggling with the cold though, and could only rest a few minutes at a time. At some stage soon after Steve decided to stop for a sleep and I continued on alone again. A while later I arrived at a main road at the top of a long hill climb. I checked the route map and discovered that I shouldn’t be there. I had missed a turnoff about 1km earlier and now had to descend back to join the correct route. When I got back to the turnoff Steve was just arriving. While he was rested and feeling good, I had just wasted over half an hour walking up and down a hill that I didn’t need to! But, I rationalised to myself, I had made up for my accidental shortcut from Friday morning.
I couldn’t stay with Steve. He was going too fast, and I was feeling terrible. At the halfway checkpoint I thought there would be a good chance of getting through to 150 miles around 2:30/3am – given the downhill nature of the 25 miles in between checkpoints, but I was walking slower and slower, resting more and more often, and the downhill was interspersed with frequent sharp uphill sections.
I started thinking about withdrawing from the race. Every muscle and tendon in my legs was in pain. I was not enjoying myself anymore. Before leaving home my wife had told me that a DNF wasn’t an option. “Either finish or don’t come home” she had told me before I left for Wales on Wednesday – half joking, half serious.
I started justifying my upcoming DNF. I had been struggling with injuries most of the year and had been forced to visit my osteopath less than a week ago due to the pain I had in my right hip which I assumed was caused by over-compensating for my piriformis injury in recent weeks – although I hoped it was just one of those nervous pre-race injuries that seem to arrive in the week before a race (and disappear as soon as the race starts).
I decided that I was so close to checkpoint 6 at 150 miles that I should at least walk through to there before making any decisions, and when I arrived at checkpoint 6 at 6:11am (47 hours and 11 minutes) I realised that with 247km on my watch (242km plus 5km of getting lost mileage) I had actually walked my second best 48 hour distance ever! And that was with over 3,500 meters of elevation change!
So I wasn’t going as badly as I thought I was. I was in 12th place, although there were only 15 of us left in the race – of 29 starters.
Rhayader to Llanfynnch – 150 to 200 miles
I slept for 80 minutes at Rhayader, my longest sleep of the race and bringing my total amount of sleep since the race started to about 100 minutes. I felt good when I woke up and after some mucking about sorting out clothing and food, I was on my way at almost exactly 9am.
I’m not too sure how much later, but it wasn’t too long before I became aware of the painful chaffing in an area just above the top of my legs. The further I walked, and the more I thought about it, the more painful it became. It wasn’t long before I was walking like John Wayne after ten hours on a horseback. I applied some Vaseline which I carry for occasions such as this, which fortunately are not very common, but that really didn’t make much difference. A Google search suggested that Sudocrem was what I needed and a couple very uncomfortable hours later I found myself in Builth Wells looking for relief. Firstly, I visited the local Co-Op but couldn’t find any lubricant of any sought. I purchased some Savlon antiseptic cream in case I didn’t have any success elsewhere, along with a couple banana’s and two small bottles of Coke. Not sure what the person behind the till thought with this stinky ‘runner’ in front of them buying an eclectic ‘range’ of products.
Further down the road I found a Boots pharmacy and they had just what I wanted/needed. Next, find a secluded spot to apply the relief – an alleyway just around the corner. Then a walk across the road to the local park where I rested for a few minutes while eating a banana and washing it down with 500ml’s of Coke.
The relief wasn’t immediate and I needed to apply more Sodocrem during the next hour, but soon I was back walking as if nothing was ever wrong.
I arrived at the 175 mile checkpoint at 5:25pm (58 hours 25 minutes since race start) in 12th place, almost two hours behind Steve and over two hours ahead of Andrew Nesbet and three hours ahead of Gordon Hughes and Vic Owens. I was feeling a little tired, but not sleepy and I was on my way again after a short stop to refill water bottles, etc.
That was at 5:25pm. A little while later, probably around 6:30pm (I remember that it was still daylight) I called my wife for my evening check-in call and remember telling her something along the lines of “…remember when we went cycling in Wales …” and then I remembered that we had never been to Wales (other than Cardiff) together, and we definitely hadn’t been cycling in Wales. I was going to tell her that I was in that place where people went to name their bikes. I’m not sure what that meant, but in my mind it was a magical place that cyclists took their new bikes on some kind of pilgrimage resulting in them being given a name for their bike.
I had only said a few words when I realised that I must be imagining things, but the strange thing was that while I talked to Ruth I ‘knew’ that I had been here before. In 2019 I had dropped out of this race at around 140 miles. There is no way that I had been to this part of Wales before.
I was conscious enough to know that this was some sort of hallucination brought on by sleep deprivation, but I couldn’t explain how I ‘knew’ that shortly we would take a sharp left turn followed by a sharp right turn soon after. In writing this race report, I suspect that I had reviewed the course route on my phone a few minutes earlier perhaps, which is how I ‘knew’ the course, but at the time I started thinking that perhaps some higher being was guiding me.
A while later I ‘knew’ that when I reach the end of this road there will be a large barn behind a brown fence on the left and a little later there will be a white bus stop on the right. I also ‘knew’ that the white bus stop was temporary and had been put there especially for the cyclists to rest in after they had named their bikes during their pilgrimage.
Sure enough, I passed the big barn and then soon I arrived at the bus stop where I decided to have a short sleep. I checked my watch (I can’t remember now what time it was) and woke up 14 minutes later.
And now it gets interesting. When I woke up I thought that was a really strange dream. I had dreamt that I was in a race in the middle of Wales, but I ‘knew’ I was in North London at a bus stop I had walked past many times before. And I thought I recognised the person outside their house across the road too. I thought to myself that I just need to walk to the end of the street, turn right and head down the hill back towards London.
On getting to the end of the road though, surprise, the street names were Welsh. I was in Wales! I looked at my watch. The watch said I had been going for 60 something hours. It wasn’t a dream after all.
I checked my phone. I was on course but needed to turn left and not right.
Sometime later, probably around midnight based on what I can work out looking at Strava, I had some more hallucinations. I thought I was in a strange game that I didn’t understand. In the game we were supposed to collect ‘bases’, whatever they are, and my partner in the game wasn’t playing the game properly which was resulting in us visiting these same towns over and over again. I got annoyed, threw a tantrum and lay facedown in a ditch.
Firstly, I was alone at the time. Secondly, sleep deprivation is known to cause déjà vu which explains why I thought I was visiting the same towns over and over again. Thirdly, my Strava map shows that I did wander around a town called Talgarth for about an hour before wandering down the road and lying in a ditch.
Later in the race I caught up with Andrew Nesbit who confirmed that when he passed me in the ditch I was sound asleep. He said that in his sleep deprived state, the flashing lights on my back caused him to think he had come across a car in a ditch until he got closer to me.
At 1:54am (according to Strava) I turned my watch off. It was at this stage that I decided I had finished the race. I didn’t think I could go any further. I restarted my watch at 2:51am.
I’m not sure what happened in between. Did I stop my watch then lie face down in a ditch and go to sleep. If so, the last kilometer before doing that had taken me 43 minutes. Or did I stop my watch after I woke up when I decided to drop out of the race. I don’t know.
My phone history shows that at 2:17am I rang Peter the meat wagon guy – the guy whose job it is to drive all over Wales collecting athletes when they can’t go on any further. I told him I had had enough and could he come and collect me. He told me to go back to Talgarth and wait for him, and my phone history shows that I rang him again at 2:33am to tell him I was now back in Talgarth.
While waiting for him I started to feel better and when he arrived to collect me I said that with only about 12 miles (20km) to go to the 200 mile checkpoint, I thought I should walk there and then reconsider my options at that stage. I apologised for not wanting to DNF and for dragging him out in the middle of the night, and started walking back towards my ditch again.
In total, about 3 hours had elapsed since I first arrived in Talgarth – remember that. Three hours. It becomes important later on.
The walk to checkpoint 8 at Llanfynnch turned out to be a little under 20km and took me about 3 ¾ hours. Not bad considering the mileage I had covered to date and the issues I had had in the previous few hours. Along the way I caught up with Andrew, walked with him for a while, and then continued ahead of him when he slowed down, arriving at checkpoint 8 about 20 minutes ahead of him. Other than an hour or so of rain, the walk was uneventful, and I was actually feeling pretty good.
Llanfynnch to Cardiff – 200 to 253 miles
I left the checkpoint at about 7am, 72 hours into the race, just as daylight was breaking. I needed my head torch for the first 15 minutes or so, but after that I could see my way clearly.
The next section was a 10 mile uphill climb from 200 metres above sea level to 500 metres and then, according to the guys at the checkpoint, it was all downhill to Cardiff!
The 15 mile climb went well. Andrew passed me early on and upon reaching the top Lindley Chambers and someone else were waiting with some food. I had heaps of food with me so I only took a banana , and started the ‘downhill to Cardiff’ section. I calculated that all I needed to do was walk 11 minutes and 40 seconds per kilometre for the next 64km – about 3.3 miles per hour. And with it all being downhill and a total elevation drop of 500 metres, that won’t be too difficult will it?
Five kilometres later and I was already five minutes behind schedule. This was anything but downhill all the way! Down for a bit then steep up again, then steep down. Not conducive to fast walking.
I decided to ignore my watch until we were off the steep section and nearer checkpoint 9 at Merthyr Tydfil – another place I had never been to but ‘knew’ like the back of my hand. Approaching Merthyr Tydfil we headed on to the Taff Trail which would take us all the way to Cardiff. Over and over again I ‘recognised’ the area and even ‘knew’ when we would be crossing the river or under/over the roads running alongside the trail.
Checkpoint 9 was ‘basic’ like all the odd numbered checkpoints. In fact this one was probably the most basic – see photo – not even a chair to sit in for a short rest.
There was a McDonalds nearby but by now I had worked out that I needed to average exactly 11 minutes per kilometre for the remaining 46km (17 ½ minutes per mile for 28 ½ miles) and I was struggling to average 11:30, so no time to stop.
I asked one of the people at the checkpoint for Coke and they said they would arrange something and find me along the way somewhere – thanks to whoever that was even if you could only find Pepsi!
I tried as hard as I could but I really struggled to walk fast enough. 11 minutes per kilometre is about 17 ½ minutes per mile – about the speed that someone would casually walk to the shop. And I couldn’t hold that pace. It wasn’t physical. I put in a couple faster kilometres – in the low 9 minute range – but I couldn’t hold the pace.
Soon I found myself having imaginary conversations (arguments) between my mind and my body. My mind asked my body to go faster and my body responded by saying that we wouldn’t need to go faster if you (Mind) hadn’t gone ‘la la’ last night.
Another ‘conversation’ I remember was when my pace had managed to speed up a little and I imagined that my mind and body were now friends again and they were talking to me about how I had taken my feet for granted – “… You put your shoes and socks on 3 ½ days ago and haven’t looked at your feet since – you have taken them for granted …”
The conversations kept me entertained through to Pontypridd where I lost 28 minutes (according to Strava) walking 2km trying to find the correct route after finding the gate to the local park locked and not seeing the sign showing the after-hours diversion.
It was while I was wandering around trying to find the correct route that Gordon and Vic passed me. They had been over an hour behind me at checkpoint 9 about 12 miles earlier but they were focused on getting to the finish before 11pm – the race cut-off.
It was getting dark when I found my way back on to the correct route and I stopped for a few moments to put my head torch on. But where was my head torch? I couldn’t find it even after empty all the remaining contents of my backpack on to the ground. Fortunately, I had my spare head torch. But it wouldn’t turn on! The reason it is my spare head torch is that it isn’t 100% reliable but it has never not turned on.
I thought perhaps I had left my main head torch back at checkpoint 8. The only option was going to be to use my phone as a torch – how long would that last? And to walk as fast as I could and hopefully catch Gordon and Vic so that I could follow them with their head torches. The online tracker showed that they were only 1.2km ahead.
I put in a 9 minute kilometre. It was 8:30pm. There was about 20km to go. I calculated that I needed to walk 7 ½ minutes per kilometre to get to the finish by 11pm. Unlikely. The next kilometre was closer to 12 minutes followed by two more at 9 minutes each. There was no way I could go any faster than that and I wasn’t catching Gordon and Vic either.
And then I remembered that I had worn my head torch for the first few minutes after leaving checkpoint 8 earlier in the day. I felt the pocket of my jacket and there it was.
Suddenly the urgency to walk fast was gone. I had a head torch and I wasn’t going to get to Cardiff by 11pm, so why push it?
My pace immediately dropped and that was when the giants arrived. My mind started playing tricks on me again. Initially it was only occasionally that I would see a giant in front of me, and when I got nearer I would realise that the giant was actually just a tree.
Later on though, every tree was a giant – except for the trees that were actually huge bridges in the sky.
This went on for hours. I was tired and whenever I found a park bench or anything else I could sit on, I would stop and rest for a few moments. And when there weren’t giants and bridges, I felt like I had been here before. This time I ‘remembered’ being here on a school trip with my youngest son – who like me has never been to Wales other than to Cardiff city itself. More sleep deprived hallucinations and déjà vu.
I remember stopping and talking to two real people. On both occasions I asked them if they were real. I don’t know what they thought when asked that question – “Are you real?”.
Somewhere along the line I missed a turnoff over the river and followed what I thought was the proper route all the way through Bute Park and up to a big wooden locked gate. Thinking I was on the correct route, and with the river on my right I headed left looking for an exit from the park.
It was at this point that Karen Webber rang me. It was 12:30am and Karen and Peter (the meat wagon man) were waiting for me at the finish even although the race had officially finished 1 ½ hours ago. I explained my situation and apologised for taking so long, thanking Karen for waiting for me. I had assumed that I would finish the race alone, take a quick selfie finisher’s photo, and then walk to my hotel. It was nice to think that there would be someone at the finish to welcome me.
Karen suggested that I finish at the hotel rather than the Celtic Ring – the official race finish line – but I explained that I wanted to finish the official race even if I was late. I didn’t yet realise that I had gone off course.
As I was speaking to Karen I found an exit to the park and told Karen that “I will walk fast and see you soon”.
And then, just after hanging up on Karen I looked to my right and saw that I was walking beside a castle and thought to myself that “I don’t remember there being a castle in Adelaide”. Fortunately that was only a fleeting thought and I quickly remembered that I was in Cardiff, although I wasn’t sure how to get to the finish from where I was.
I opened Google Maps on my phone and typed in ‘Celtic Ring, Cardiff’. 1 ½ miles. 2 ½ kilometers.
The end was in sight and my pace picked up accordingly. 13 minutes, 11 minutes and then 10 minutes for the last kilometre.
I walked into the Celtic Ring and received a big hug from Karen – one of the biggest ultra-marathon fans around.
Karen took a photo for me and we walked the short distance to the hotel where Peter was waiting, having gone back to get me some warm clothes.
And that was my race. Holyhead to Cardiff in 90 hours and 5 minutes. 2 hours and 5 minutes too late to be an official finisher but 13th to cross the finish line out of 29 starters.
Could I have finished within the 88 hour cut-off? Absolutely. I lost three hours when I went ‘la la’ on Saturday night in Talgarth. If only I had simply stopped and had a 30 minute sleep.
I lost 30 minutes when I got lost in Pontypridd and 30 minutes on Friday night when I went the wrong way, although I gained about 30 minutes on Friday morning when I accidentally took a short-cut. In total I walked 420km according to my watch – an additional 13km (8 miles).
Will I try again?
My aim was to walk from Holyhead to Cardiff. I didn’t manage that in 2019. I did in 2021. It doesn’t matter to me that I took two hours longer than the race cut-off.
I have added a line across Wales to my ever-growing map of where I’ve walked, and I have other lines to add elsewhere.
A couple people that I would like to congratulate:
James finished first equal in 76 hours and 16 minutes together with Stephen Davies.
I first met James when he was a race-walker at the UK Centurion qualifying race in Bury St Edmonds in 2017. James qualified as UK Centurion 1175 in an impressive 21 hours 24 minutes that day but has since switched to running and had his best race to date at the Lon Las Ultra. James’ race report is here.
Tom was not in a very good condition when I caught him at checkpoint 3 early on Friday morning. But he bounced back and finished the race in 3rd place in 79 hours 32 minutes.
He then had a 20 hour rest before running back to the start, completing 506 miles in total in a little over nine days!
I spent a reasonable amount of time with Steve on the Saturday and a little bit on the Friday as well. At one stage on the Saturday he told me he was thinking about dropping out. He didn’t, and went on to finish 9th in 85 hours 42 minutes.
I didn’t spend much time with Andrew. Only an hour or two in the early hours of Sunday morning. Andrew finished in 10th place in 87 hours and 11 minutes.
Gordon Hughes and Vic Owens
I didn’t spend any time with these two. I caught them some time before checkpoint two and they passed me at Pontypridd. Their finish time: 87 hours and 58 minutes!
I can’t imagine the mental pressure you two put on yourself to get to the finish before the 88 hour cut-off. Awesome!
Everyone else who started
Whether you finished or not, this is one very tough race. Congratulations on just being brave enough to start the race.
A big thank you:
Firstly to Karen and Peter for staying up to welcome me to the finish. It means a lot to me. Thanks.
Thanks also to Mark Cockbain for organising a great race, and to all the volunteers that helped us get from Holyhead to Cardiff.
Someone messaged me a few days after the race saying that Not all DNF’s are equal. I don’t know whether he was comparing his DNF to mine (Officially I am listed in the race results as a DNF because I didn’t finish within the 88 hours), or my 2019 DNF to my 2021 DNF. But thanks.
And thanks also to all the people who watched our dots moving across Wales of the race tracking website, sent us messages of support, commented on the Cockbain Events facebook page, etc. Knowing that we had your support helped when times were tough.
For me it is the end of the year. I have struggled with niggly injuries since January and I’m now taking two months of complete rest to try and recover. I am seeing an Osteopath (thanks to medical insurance) and have joined a gym to work on my core strength and swim every second day.
At this stage my next race won’t be until May 2022 when I intend to smash my six day PB and hopefully become one of just six or seven race walkers to have walked 700km in an official six day walking race.
If I say so myself, I write some interesting race reports. But how do you write an interesting race report about walking 414 laps around a 400 metre athletics track?
The 2021 edition of the Sri Chinmoy 24 hour track race, a race that has been held at Tooting Bec track every year for the last 30+ years, was at a new venue this year – Millennium Stadium, Battersea Park.
My first 24 hour race in October 2013 was the Sri Chinmoy 24 hour race held at Millennium Stadium in Auckland, New Zealand. In that race I completed just under 163km (101 miles) in 24 hours. Little did I know at the time that that first 24 hour race would be the start of an incredible adventure that has seen me complete 33 more walks of 100 miles or further including New Zealand race-walking records, multi-day races and solo adventures.
The London Sri Chinmoy 24 hour race is a running race but included in the 45 starters were two people who would be walking the whole way – myself and David Hoben. Other competitors included both male and female elite GB runners, visually impaired runner Sinead Kane who would be running with guide runners, and 81 year old Patricia Seabrook who would break multiple world age-group records during the race.
I’ve come to learn that ultra-distance races are much easier mentally if you have a reason for doing the race – your ‘Why’. When the going gets hard, and even during a great race you will have times when it gets hard and you question why you are doing it, you can think about your ‘why’ and that ‘why’ will help you get through the difficult stages of the race.
The best race I’ve ever had was when my ‘why’ was the strongest. I had entered this race for two reasons:
It was in London meaning that I could catch the train to the race that morning and catch the train back home after the race – no need for any accommodation or long-distance travel (the Sri Chinmoy race is the same weekend as one of my favourite French races – the Roubaix 24 hour race – but with travel to France a little risky at present, staying in London was a much better idea), and
I wanted another sub-24 hour 100 mile time.
My ‘why’ was therefore that I wanted to complete another (my 16th) sub-24 hour 100 miler. I also gave myself another reason not to fail by walking parkrun in Richmond on my way to the race that morning. I would look like an idiot if I did a 5km ‘warm-up’ and then failed to achieve my race goal.
There certainty wasn’t any guarantee that I could walk a sub-24 hour 100 miler in this race though. I’ve been carrying a couple minor injuries all year – my left shin which I hurt in 2019 in still not completely healed and my right piriformis muscle has been plaguing me since January. Another few weeks, one more race, and I’ll be taking a two-month rest to get over the injuries.
Mentally though, I felt very strong and I felt confident that I could walk somewhere between 100 and 105 miles.
The first nine hours:
The race started at 12 noon in warm, sunny conditions with a gentle breeze to keep the temperature comfortable. I settled at the back of the field for the first two laps before passing David and Patricia and for the next six hours I was in 43rd place of 45 athletes.
The one thing I didn’t like about the race was that we were all asked to run/walk in single file (no problem with that) on the white line separating lanes 1 and 2. This would allow faster athletes to under-take slower athletes rather than lose distance by overtaking them. The problem with this concept was that as a walker, for the first period of the race I was travelling slower than everyone else in the field, and therefore most of my laps were between 405 and 407 metres in length (On athletics track the inside of lane 2 is 407.67 metres in length). If I was to walk 100 miles (402 laps) I would need to walk an extra 2 kilometres if I averaged five extra metres per lap. At an expected pace of a little over 8 minutes per kilometre, that meant I actually needed to walk 23 ¾ hours or better for 100 miles, and then the extra 2km to reach my sub-24 hour 100 mile goal.
In my first 24 hour race back in 2013 everyone (runners and walkers) was allowed to walk on the inside of lane 1 and faster athletes had to overtake. My second 100 mile race was also on a track (the UK Centurions qualifying race in 2014 – a walkers only event) and again we walked on the inside of lane 1.
If I was an elite runner I be thankful for the rule imposed by the race organisers, and this was a runners race, so who am I to complain – I’m currently the 43rd fastest in a field of 45.
Unlike many of the trail running races I have competed in over the years, I didn’t know too many of the other competitors and the last thing I wanted was to get offside with any of the runners or the race organisers, but every time we reached the curve at either end of the track I would look behind me and if there was a reasonable gap between myself and the approaching runners I would cut the tangent and walk into the inside of lane 1. Occasionally the runners catching me would be running faster than I anticipated and would call out “Track” and I would step out towards lane two to allow them to undertake me. I found that I was constantly looking over my shoulder but I also felt that I was at least able to average a saving of a couple metres every lap, probably averaging 404 to 405 metres each lap.
Surprisingly I started unlapping myself against many runners after just six hours. I was expecting that it would be eight to nine hours before the runners started to slow. As a walker I find that my overall pace is more consistent than most runners in ultra-distance races, and unlike most runners I had no intention of stopping at any stage during the race, and I didn’t have a chair near my food, etc. My personal rule is ‘Don’t sit down in races shorter than 36 hours’. It’s a rule that I don’t always apply, but for this race I had no intention of stopping or sitting down.
I passed 40 miles (64km) in exactly nine hours. Looking at the race stats while writing this race report I see that of the first 161 laps, 145 of them took me between 3:10 and 3:30, three laps were faster than 3:10, seven took me between 3:31 and 3:35 and the other six laps involved either quick toilet stops or quick stops to restock my pockets with some of the food I had brought with me to the race – I had made a late decision to bring my own food rather that eat food from the aid station that we passed during each lap as a health precaution – covid and hygiene. My slowest lap in the first nine hours took 4:25.
I was feeling good and not only was I unlapping myself against many runners (I guestimated that I was probably walking faster than about half the runners in the race), I was also starting to move up the leader board.
It was now dark, but we were walking/running on a floodlit track, and the wind had completely died away. It was a beautiful night. I was still walking hard enough that I wasn’t cold at all, although many runners were beginning to put warmer clothes on. I was on pace for a good result if I could hold the pace.
A minor slow-down:
I don’t know why, but I started to slow down a little after nine hours. Rather than comfortably walking most laps in 3:20, give or take, I was now struggling to keep my lap times under 3:30.
From the start I had been walking two laps at a fast walking pace, a few seconds per lap slower than my powerwalking pace, and then I would powerwalk for the next 23 minutes through to the end of the half hour. Because of my injuries I can’t race-walk anymore – losing about 15-30 seconds per kilometre on my normal race pace – but this pattern of 7 minutes easy, 23 minutes harder seemed to work well.
On the half hour I would eat and ‘rest’ during the two easier laps, and on the hour I would use my phone to check the live results on the internet. The organisers were manually updating a leader board every hour but unlike the multi-lap races I compete in in Holland and France there was no electronic scoreboard, so I used my two easy laps at the top of each hour to check the online results and also eat and drink – I was drinking water from the aid station whenever I needed it.
Checking the internet results also enabled me to skim back through my lap times to check that I was maintaining an even pace. Most of the race I would check the seconds on the race clock at the end of each lap and then work out how long my lap had taken me. As the race went on though, it became increasingly difficult to remember the number of seconds that were on the race clock for the three and a bit minutes each lap was taking.
Anyway, my focus was now on walking sub-3:30 minute laps and that kept me going for a while but eventually I decided that it was time to start drinking coke and switch my food intake up a level by increasing the quantity of food I was eating that contained processed sugar. Normally in a race of 24 hours or longer I try to get through to at least 12 hours before increasing my sugar intake, but I had my first coke at just 10 ½ hours.
Mentally, if not physically, it did the trick and I started feeling better. I passed 12 hours with exactly 85km (53 miles) completed, and I reached 100km in 14 hours and 10 minutes. A reasonable pace and still on track for 105 miles.
In the 89 laps I walked between 9 hours and 100km, 51 were under 3:30 and another 21 took between 3:31 and 3:40.
The bad patch:
And then happened. No sooner had I passed 100km I started losing more time on every lap. I was still trying to walk under 3:30 per lap, but it was now much harder.
I was still working my way up the leader board, passing runners regularly and spending more time walking on the inside of lane 1 than earlier in the race, and in as far as bad patches go, this wasn’t really too bad.
I kept focusing on my lap times, walking two easier laps every 30 minutes, and eating and drinking regularly. Compared with many races I’ve done, the race wasn’t actually that hard and I was still maintaining a pace that would see me complete 100 miles comfortably within the 24 hour time limit.
From 100km through to 20 hours only 14 of the 97 laps I completed were under 3:30. The majority (60 laps) took between 3:31 and 3:45, and 16 laps took between 3:46 and 4 minutes – with the remaining 7 laps being laps containing toilet breaks or food restocking stops.
Four minutes per lap is 10 minutes per kilometre. Too slow!
The final four hours:
Shortly before the 20 hour mark I switched from listening to podcasts to some high-tempo music. This worked for a while and combined with the fact that it was now daylight (8am) and the knowledge that there were only four hours left, I was able to pick my average pace up again – at least in my mind anyway. The stats might tell me otherwise (67 laps with only 10 of the sub 3:30, although 56 of them were under 3:45).
I passed 100 miles in 23:18 – my 8th best time for 100 miles and fastest since my PB (and NZ record) in May 2018. At 100 miles I was in 23rd position. Not yet in the top 20 that I had decided to aim for 20+ hours earlier, but not bad considering that I had been in 43rd position for the first six hours.
A couple runners had stopped at 100 miles and two of the runners in front of me also eased the pace enabling me to finish the race in 19th place overall.
I also managed to impress myself by walking my fastest two laps in the last two laps of the race. Lap 413 took me 3:00.7 (not that I noticed the exact time until later). When I got to the end of lap 412 with just over 7 minutes left on the clock I decided to wind up the pace and make my last full lap my fastest of the race. Kathy Crilley had come down to watch the end of the race and she had my marker stick (that we had to put on the track when the race finished at 24 hours to enable partial laps to be measured) and she was intending to walk the last lap with me.
I told Kathy that I was going to walk fast for the last lap and she started running to keep up. In the end she handed me the marker stick and I went on to finish lap 414 in an impressive 2:47.4 (6:58/km pace) – my only lap of the race under 3 minutes – and then walked another 253 meters to finish the race in 19th place with a 24 hour distance of 165.853km (103 miles).
Looking at my split times for each 10km segment you can definately see that I felt better during the first 100km, but I’m not too disapointed with the last 60km either. I think I achieved what I wanted to from the race – a sub-24 hour 100 mile walk and a good last long walk before my next race.
In total I walked 414 (and a half) laps. A quarter of them took 3 minutes 16 seconds to 3 minutes 20 seconds, and 260 (63%) of them were in the 15 second range between 3:16 and 3:30 – very consistent pacing.
I have one race left this year. In mid October I will be competing in the Lon Las Ultra – as 250 mile race from Holyhead in North West Wales to Cardiff (South East Wales). I dropped out of this race in 2019 and am going back this year to redeem myself!