‘How hard can it be?’
It’s an approach that lets me buy-in to uncertainty and challenge. It’s an approach I’m very fond of, but it’s not a plan. In a couple of days I was going to trot along The Ridgeway, 87.5 miles of route I’m unfamiliar with, as quick as I could. A plan was needed.
Armed with a map and a friend and his car who I’d meet at certain points to get topped up with food and drink, I started to pull a provisional itinerary together. Provisional, because I didn’t really know how fast I could go over that kind of distance – there were lots of unknowns! Thinking about replenishment and motivation, it made sense to meet my friend (Simon, aka Britney) every 3 or 4 miles if possible.
I went low-tech and traced the dotted red line on the map with my finger, for about the right amount and then looked for spots where roads intersected the route. These were the spots where Simon could meet me easily. This did mean that Simon would cover lots more miles than me – one stretch of 5 miles for me was nearer 12 miles for him in the car. More time to listen to Britney’s greatest hits, I guess.
The route was broken down into 25 sections – the shortest just over two miles and the longest just over six. The sections I expected to do in the darkness of the wee hours would be shorter. Every 16 or so miles, a hot brew was planned. Just over half-way, a long-ish break and a breather was plotted in. Contact details for loved ones were exchanged, in case either of us had an issue (I figured Simon might slip into a boredom coma if I take too long).
In the back of his car I kept, looooots of food. Plenty of water and nuun tablets (they dissolve electrolytes into the water and taste good!). Spare kit in case of a downpour. Warm kit for stops or if I’m moving so slowly that I’m not generating much heat. Headtorches. Foam rollers for stretching on. Toothbrush. Clumpy walking boots in case I twist an ankle and want to carry on with some strapping. Cuddly toy. Way more than was needed, but better to have it and not need it, I reckoned.
Not really a thorough plan – just enough to give some structure while allowing flexibility and accommodating mishaps. As I trotted along, revisions could be made en route, particularly to the expected timings. The key thing in my mind was that the weather would be great on Friday, but change on Saturday afternoon to some icky rain. Best not to take too long!
We set off from Sheffield, where I live, at about 08:45 on the Friday morning – I’d been up since around seven checking things over. I checked my trainers were packed at least four times. Heading down in the car to Avebury, near the start of The Ridgeway, I realised my worries about Simon being bored were unfounded – he’d brought the most eclectic music collection you could imagine. Several times on the journey I worried that I might not have my trainers with me, or the spare pair that I was suddenly unsure if I’d packed. I had. It was good to get out of the car and escape another of Simon’s music choices.
It was 12:30 by the time I was good to set off. Very little fanfare, just a quick photo at the sign post saying it’s a loooong way to Ivinghoe Beacon. I’d expected to have lots of thoughts about why I was doing this, about my Dad dying a year ago, about my Nan, about many profound things. Actually I was overcome by the smell of fertiliser for the first few miles and didn’t think about anything other than how aromatic the countryside is. The Avebury Stone Circles were a little off the route and I’d expected to have a good look at them from the ridge – no such luck.
Gentle uphill on nice trails was the general theme for the first section before meeting Simon near the Hackpen Hill chalk-cut White Horse. I was looking forward to seeing the horse from the ridge – no such luck. It was early, the weather was lovely, I was feeling good and trotting merrily up to Barbury Castle, which is an excellent Iron Age hill fort. It’s probably awesome with the right perspective – for me it was a cheeky bit of uphill.
Nice, nice, nice bit of open fields leading on to Ogbourne St George. What a great name for a place. There are lots of great named villages around here and I was often reminded of a great gift from my beloved years ago – a map of the UK with all the daftest place names on it. Washer Willy’s and Bottom Flash are among my favourites. My first navigation worry occurred as my mind idled away over childish names. There were signs of private land, but it looked like The Ridgeway went thatta way. Being a good citizen I followed the public paths, but after a mile or so became a little worried at not having seen the acorn symbol of reassurance. Map out. Phew – I’d chosen wisely. Another hundred metres and I found an acorn symbol on a small wooden post!
Passed by a runner who was also carrying a pack, I wondered if he was going far at a pace that was much quicker than mine. Resisting the urge to keep up, I thought about how far I had to go. It’d been about three and a half hours trotting at a nice pace so far, so that left about twenty one hours if things went well. At this stage, optimism was alive and well. At the next road crossing I found the quicker runner getting into his car looking very hot and tired. Glad I held back!
A longish section followed, most memorable for distractedly thinking about scones having seen a sign to a tea room. Lots of merry bimbling and chatting to a couple of people as I made my way to Uffington Castle Fort, which is more pretty Iron Age hilliness. There’s a beautifully stylised white horse to be seen here, and Dragon Hill, which is a natural mound named for its association with the legend of St George. I was really looking forward to a spectacular view – no such luck as I was too absent minded having detoured to a trig point to get a photo of the ‘leg-pop’, inspired by a great IG feed (@thehillwalkinghijabi). She pulls it off with greater style and verve, but my spirit was willing.
Conscious that I was slipping behind the entirely fabricated and optimistic schedule, I popped the headphones on for some 90s Techno and put the hammer down. By which I mean I went from a slow jog to a middling jog – I wouldn’t say I really broke into a run! I’d been going for nearly seven hours when I noticed a barn and grain silo that gave off a strange aura of being post-apocalyptic against a reddening sky. With half an eye out for zombies, I was pleased to meet up with Simon. I think my mind was cracking after hours of trotting under a hot sun.
I was drifting off listening to Simon talk about listening to test reports or something or other on the radio. Cricket is impenetrable to me at the best of times, never mind when I’ve only got half an ear out as I’m shoving calories in as quickly as I can. Perhaps not picking up on my disinterested ‘uh-huh’ at the mention of some bowling thing, Simon trotted with me to the Lord Wantage Monument and then headed back to his car. I spent the next few miles bumping my gums (in my mind) about class privilege and the extractive, exploitative nature of capitalism. The sun went down beautifully, bringing an end to my rumination.
Just a few miles further and I found myself on a beautiful bit of track. Not entirely tarmac, but pretty smooth and about 10 foot wide. With the sun down and feeling pretty good I felt I was really motoring along this section. So much so that when a turn came up that I should have taken, I didn’t look closely enough. There, some folks and a couple of dogs were having what looked like a late night picnic on the corner, so I didn’t want to shine the head torch all around them to look for the Ridgeway acorn signs. Mistake. Cruising by with a bit of pace I went straight into Compton, which was about a mile past the turning point, and downhill. Gah!
After some cursing and regretting the ‘tidy progress’ I’d been making on a smooth surface, I got back on my bearings and pulled in to meet Simon again near Streatley. I was complaining about my heels, thinking that maybe I had heel cracks as I never, ever get blisters. Didn’t have any blisters on any of the training runs. Didn’t get blisters on any of the ultras I’ve done previously (that I remember). No heel cracks, but instead a beautifully matching pair of blisters – one for each heel and about an inch and a half across. Scissors out, popped, drained, taped up, fresh socks on. Midnight had just rang out, so the blisters were officially now a birthday treat. On Saturday the 25th of July, I turned forty-five.
Streatley and Goring on Thames were very, very pretty. I’d like to come back when I’ve won the lottery and enjoy a couple of scones here. As it was there were some very drunk people rolling over the bridges and their slow swaying progress was a good match for my own. The heels were more comfortable now, at least. On arriving in South Stoke I found Simon was kipping in the car. Who could blame him? He was probably dreaming about cricket. I’d rather be trotting.
Big moment in South Stoke – I switched to the other side of the map and was at the half-way point, in my mind. Two in morning and so a bit behind the guessed-at schedule, but with the navigation error and heel trouble I was pleased with things. In the second half, things got a lot more painful. Spoiler alert – there were tears.
On with the show.
(Photo of me, running along hilly trails when it still felt very jolly)