The Viking Way is a challenging 147 miles, from the banks of the Humber to the shores of Rutland Water. Apart from the Cathedral City of Lincoln, its route is almost entirely through thinly populated countryside, quiet villages and small market towns. It crosses an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, escarpments, fens, wolds and heathland on a meandering journey across Lincolnshire and Rutland.
Saturday 7th April, 147 miles
I'm barely holding it together as I reach Sewtern. Rounding a bend in the road, there's a small gathering of cars on a grass verge up ahead, and I guess it must be the Checkpoint. A couple of kids in bright coats run towards me, smiling and shouting. My superheroes. Joining me for the last hundred yards, Lightning walks beside me while Whirlwind holds my hand. Leon joins us with the words: 'You're doing great mate! Only 18 miles to go!'
A panic immediately ripples through me. 18 miles! I've convinced myself that the finish is 14 miles away. Hanging onto that thought. 14 miles. 3 hours.
'I thought it was 14 miles from here?' I ask. I'm pleading.
'No- bit more than that mate!' Leon replies.
Suddenly, I'm not holding it together so well.
I arrive at the Checkpoint to claps and cheers. But I'm sinking. The nausea I've been fighting on and off for the last 12 hours is pulling me under. People are talking, asking me questions, but the words are distorted, unclear, slow-motion. Someone hands me a plastic cup of coke. I take a sip and bend over double, dry-retching, my body rebelling. I rest my hands on my knees, try to be sick again. Tam's telling the superheroes to go back to the car - she doesn't want them seeing Dad like this.
I stay bent over for a while and then stand up straight. I take a few unsteady steps. Stop again. Leon's offering words of encouragement. I want to lie down. I'll lie down and everything will be alright. I can't lie down.
I start walking. Hardly a walk at all. Forward movement. One foot in front of the other.
I leave the road. Back on the track. 18 miles. I need to lie down.
One foot in front of the other. There's a desperation in my determination. But something else has entered the picture. A doubt. A small whisper of failure. For the first time since the start over 30 hours ago, I'm no longer sure I can make it to the finish.
I'd chanced upon The Viking Way Ultra in the middle of last year. My plan on tackling Lincolnshire's LDPs had started taking some shape, and as I'd spent an afternoon planning routes and a timetable for the year ahead, I'd stumbled upon the website. One part of me considered it didn't fit comfortably with my empty miling aspirations for the forthcoming year, but another part was immediately excited. At 147 miles it would be the longest single-stage race in the UK. Being the inaugral running of the event would also make it special. I'd met the Race Director, Mark Cockbain, a couple of times over the years and knew he'd put on a well-run, but gruelling, race. This wouldn't be one of the all-singing, all-dancing ultra fests put on by a big company, but a low-key, grass-roots event with serious athletes. It didn't take me long to decide to jump aboard.
I've never entered a race requiring you to fill out a 'CV' of your running experience before accepting you, but there's always a first. Entry would be limited to 30 competitors. Each one of those would have the experience to tackle the extreme distance, and be tough enough to be self-sufficent for 40 hours.
I listed my accomplishments. Although not a part of the ultra 'scene', I'd taken on several trips and challenges over the years and felt confident they'd show that I had the potential to hack it. A couple of days later, I received the e-mail confirming I'd been successful. I was in!
On logging back onto The Viking Way Ultra site, however, the excitement turned to trepidation. Looking through the list of entrants and their accomplishments humbled me. Every name was a stalwart of the UK ultra scene. Phrases like 'multi course record holder', 'UK representative' and 'double world-record holder' jumped from the screen. How would an unknown kid from Saleby measure up? There would be only one way to find out.
We arrive at the start area at 6.45am. Easter Saturday. I sup a last coffee, pose for photographs and listen to the pre-race briefing. I stand on the edge as 7.00am nears. Lively chatter runs through the assembled group. Everyone seems to know one another. I don't know anyone. I make a bit of polite conversation, check my pack, kiss Tam and the superheroes goodbye, and make for the start line in the shadow of the Humber Bridge. I'm about to embark on the longest journey of my life. I'm ready. The air-horn blows and we're gone.
I'd tinkered with a rough plan in the days before the race. Breaking the route into 3 equal stages, I aimed to start slow, reaching 50 miles in no faster than 10 hours. I'd incorporate walking from the start, hiking all the inclines and jogging everything else. I figured slowing over the next 2 sections would be inevitable. The 2nd 50 miles had little ascent, so I planned set periods of running and walking - 30 minutes on, 10 minutes off. I hoped the change of activity would help me maintain some sort of leg function, as well as breaking the distance into chunks that would be more manageable to tackle mentally. Having never run more than 100 miles in any one attempt, the 3rd section would be a complete unknown. My plan was just to keep moving. Hopefully I'd have the buffer from the 1st 2 sections to enable me to finish inside the cut-off of 40 hours. If I didn't, I told Tam, I'd hand in my race number and make my own way to the finish. Getting to Oakham library was the most concrete part of my plan. There was no doubt in my mind that I'd do it.
The early miles slip past effortlessly. I settle into a steady rhythm. Light feet, fast cadence. After starting well back, I'm gradually picking people off and I enter Barnetby, 14 miles in, just inside the top 10. Tam's parked by the roadside. I jog over to the fell wagon for one of Whirlwind's magic kisses before carrying on. The drizzly, overcast weather is condusive to running and I'm feeling great. The injuries I'd spent the last weeks obsessing over temporarily rear their heads, but then just disappear. I pass another 2 or 3 runners on the stretch to Caistor, and by the 2nd Checkpoint at Tealby, I know I'm in 3rd place. Amazing. Out of Tealby, I see the lead runners - Neil Bryant and Charlie Sharpe - a good half-mile in front. I make a vow to hang back, keep the pace easy. There's still a long way to go.
It's not for another half-hour until disaster strikes. Jogging along the road out of Ludford, I hear footfall behind me. Looking back, I see Neil and Charlie - they've overshot the turning, but are now back on track. Suddenly, I'm in the lead.
Throughout my running life, I've rarely led a race. It's a top feeling, don't get me wrong, but it comes with its drawbacks. Too much adrenaline leads to reckless decisions, a push in pace that can't be sustained, an early effort that throws previous careful plans to the wall. I'm determined not to let that happen.
We run as a three for a good few miles, before Charlie drops back slightly. Still sticking to my policy of walking the inclines, we travel efficiently through the hilly heartland of the Wolds. The pace seems easy. The company's good - Neil seems to share an outlook on running similar to my own and we pass the miles in conversation. All's fine - what could go wrong?
It's not long before we're almost at the 50 mile point, greeted by friends from the Club jogging alongside and shouting 'well dones.' I'd planned for a 20 minute stop at the 50 mile and 100 mile marks. These were the only points where we could get access to our drop bags. I'd make sure I changed into a dry base layer, pack my bag with gear for the cold of the forthcoming night stage, get a hot drink and scoff down my pre-prepared corned beef hash. All of these things would set me up for the next 50 miles.
But things don't work out. I sense Neil is keen to get off. I'm flustered. I can't squeeze all the kit I need into my bag. The hot coffee offered gets overlooked in the general busy-ness. I have no time to eat the food I know I need to. Before I know it, we're off. We run down the road for a few hundred yards before I know I've made a big mistake, and that I need to regain control of my own race or risk blowing-up and having to drop out. I tell Neil I need to sort my sack out - it's digging in uncomfortably at the base of my back - and encourage him to push on. He's looking composed and super-easy. It's a relief in many ways. I regain my run and make little effort to catch him. Coming into Horncastle, I know I need to get myself together. After the highs of only minutes ago, my rollercoaster has taken a real dip for the worst. I tell my assembled supporters that I have to let Neil go - he's a class above me, and by sticking with him, I risk losing it all. I walk a long section to the start of the Spa Trail, and now I'm back on it, determined to be sensible.
I settle into a routine of 30 minutes running, 10 minutes walking, and it isn't long before I'm through Bardney and heading into the night.
A few miles further on, as I jog towards Barlings Abbey, I notice a head-torch some way back. I'm being caught - that's for sure. Neil must be a good way ahead, I'm certain. As I run out of Fiskerton, I'm surprised to Tam waiting - we'd not arranged to meet here. With the time getting on - 9pm- I'd assumed she'd gone back home. When I pass, she tells me I'm the first through. Where's Neil? Maybe he got through before she'd parked up? But Tam informs me that she's been here for a couple of hours and there's no-one else gone past. Again, I'm in the lead.
I find out where Neil's gone a half-hour later as we're on the banks of the Witham, heading for the Lincoln Checkpoint. The head-torch that's been chasing me down for the last hour finally catches up, and it's him. He explains that he missed a turn, lost his bearings, but managed to see my torch in the distance and set off in that direction. We jog up the hill to the nearby Checkpoint - at 81 miles, just over half-way.
Although I've been eating little and often up till this point and have felt fine, a general queasiness creeps on me as I stand by the food table. I try and get a drink of tea down, but can't face any grub. This is not a good sign. As we get off, I tell Neil to go on and walk steadily towards the illuminated Cathedral, hoping the nausea will pass. Entering the outskirts of the city, I try a gel but am immediately sick. I cling to some railings near the Arboretum and puke my guts up. Afterwards, I feel a little better, but decide to walk through the city centre and restart my running/walking routine once I'm up South Common and out of Lincoln on the other side.
I know there's 3 people on my tail - we'd seen lights on the river bank at the last Checkpoint. Climbing up South Common, the lights come past. I don't know one of the guys, but recognise the other 2 as legends of the UK ultra scene - Pat Robbins, England representative for 24 hours and multi-record holder of the 145 mile Grand Union Canal race, and Mimi Anderson, a long distance phenomenon and world record holder for John O'Groats to Land's End. I wish all 3 good luck, feel some feelings of deflation, but buoy myself with the thought that being passed by runners of that calibre is no reason to be ashamed.
The miles to the 96 mile point pass in a blur. The nausea comes and goes and my pace ebbs and flows with it. My mood descends at one stage, but a phone call to Tam brings me back again.
I reach the Checkpoint with under 21 hours on the clock. I'm surprised to see the third runner of the passing group in the tent. 'My body's ok, but my head's gone,' he tells me. 'My head's ok, but my body's gone,' I tell him. I sit for a few minutes, sort maps and gear out for the final stretch and try, with only some success to get a No-Frills pot noodle down me. And then I'm up - shattered, sick, ready to go. I ask Cliff if he wants to come with me. He politely declines and I set off down the Ermine Road track, now in 4th place.
There's a meditative feeling about running in the dark. It's the small hours of Sunday morning. Gradually I'm jogging less, walking more, until I reach a point where my running action is slower than my walking action. I press on, hiking, the voices on my radio keeping me company, the head-torch giving me enough light, until the new day dawns.
With the light comes an uncomfortable feeling that I'm being chased down. Over the next 20 miles, it becomes an obsession. Every few minutes, I look over my shoulder, convinced that the pack is descending on me. Each time, there's no one in sight. But I'm prey for the hunters and I've no doubt I'll be captured soon.
A few miles further in and I'm walking along the banks of the infant Witham, near Marston. I'm feeling strong again, lost in concentration. The early morning stillness is broken by an excited shout. I look up and see a runner jogging towards me. Eventually I gather that it's Marvellous Mimi! By rights she should be miles in front of me by now. What's she doing here? We fall into step for a mile or so as she explains her nightmare of a morning. She'd gotten hopelessly lost and was on the phone to the Race Organiser asking for help, when I appeared. It's great to have a chat with a real person again after what seems like an eternity. I help her get her bearings on the map, point her in the right direction, and with much thanks she trots gingerly on towards the next village.
An hour later, as I leave Long Bennington and get onto the northern stretch of Sewstern Lane, I can still see Mimi up ahead. Even though I'm walking, I'm still moving fairly quickly. Part of me reasons that a big push over the last 30 miles might secure me 3rd place. Part of me tells myself I've got absolutely no resources left for any sort of a push, let alone a big one. More pressing, however, is the runner on my heels. Time and time again on the Sewstern Lane, I've looked back and seen the runner gaining on me. Dressed from head to toe in black, he's moving surprisingly quickly and sticking to the good, grassy ground in the middle of the 4x4 tracks. A mile from the A52 crossing, where I know Tam and the superheroes are waiting to greet me, I resolve not to look back again. I figure he'll pass me in no time.
Reaching the fell-wagon, it's so good to see my family again, but I can't let go of the thought of the 'ghost' runner catching me. I chat for a couple of minutes, say to Tam -'I'll just wait until the next guy runs through - he's been gaining on me for ages.' A few minutes later, he's still not through. I get off again, while Tam says she'll wait there until the runner comes through and meet me at the next road crossing.
Five miles later, we meet again. Tam tells me that they waited for 40 minutes and no one came past. I'm relieved in many ways, but also anxious. I saw that guy, not once, but every time I looked round. Am I going crazy?
Sewstern Lane is designed to break you. Coming at 110 miles into the route, it's an ancient road that has been decimated by 4x4 traffic, trail bikes and quads. Its steep inclines are rutted by tyre tracks and a thick layer of mud covers much of its length. Many parts are un-runnable. Some parts are hardly negotiable at all. It drains the rest of my strength and saps away any remaining positivity. By the time I reach Sewstern, the next Checkpoint, I'm barely holding it together.
In any good action movie, there's always a rope-bridge scene. The hero emerges from the jungle path, natives at his heels, to be confronted by a rickety bridge, suspended precariously thousands of feet above a raging river, hardly visible at the bottom of a sheer-sided gulley. He steps onto the bridge, breifly reassesses, then, looking back towards the advancing enemy, realises that if he's going to survive, he's got little option but to cross. As he clambers over, the camera goes to close-ups of ropes fraying. With each step, the framework of the bridge unravels. Until the hero takes one step too far. The fraying ropes snap, the bridge collapses, and the hero is left clinging to a solitary rung as he dangles by his fingertips against the walls of the cliff.
I'd stepped onto the rope-bridge as I'd entered Sewstern Lane, 20 miles ago. Even though I knew the rope was fraying, I had no alternative but to continue. The end always lays in front, not behind. Gradually, the bridge weakened. At Sewstern, it fell apart.
As I leave my family and friends at the Checkpoint, I'm dangling by one hand. But falling to the river below is something I dare not comprehend. Mustering unknown reserves of resolve, I continue. Between Sewstern and the banks of Rutland Water, I pull myself slowly to the top of the cliff. It takes an immense effort, but somehow I manage. At times I want to let go, fall in glorious flight to the water below. But I don't. I've come too far.
Finally, I'm waiting to crest the hill out of Exton where the sweeping panorama of Rutland Water will, no doubt, knock me for six. When I get there, there's a glimpse of water to the left, but it's hardly earth-shattering. I stand for a minute or two, force down a power bar and head down the hill, through the pub car-park, to the road.
Then something strange happens. I'm revived! There's a purpose in my step that i've not felt for hours. The finish is near. I'm almost done. I head out on the undulating path that leads to the Oakham road, and for the first time since the morning, I check my watch. Time has long since failed to be an issue - to finish inside 40 hours was my singular goal - but now I'm spurred on by the thought of finishing in under 35 hours. I push and push, and the minutes slip away.
Oakham awaits. Leon and Lightning meet me on a street corner and tell me the library is yards away. There's a small crowd gathered as I approach the finish. My family, Pat Robbins - the joint winner, Mark and his other half. I muster a final jog across the line and stop. I've arrived. The fourteenth footpath - the longest one- done and dusted.
* * * * *
The inaugral Viking Way Ultra saw 28 competitors set off from Barton. 75% of the field failed to reach the finish.
The race was won by Neil Bryant and Pat Robbins, running in together in an outstanding time of 29 hours 22 minutes.
Third place went to the incredible Mimi Anderson in 33 hours 52 minutes.
The other results were:
4th - Chris Rainbow, 35 hours
5th - Charlie Sharpe, 36 hours 23 minutes
6th - Paul Dickens, 37 hours 28 minutes
7th - Andy Horsley, 39 hours 45 minutes