I first attempted the Cotswolds Way 100km last year. At the time I’d never ran a single ultra marathon. It was to be my first.
Or not, as the case turned out. The day was an absolute scorcher. I held on (and was in 5th place at the half way marker) but struggled around the second half and got sun stroke, eventually retiring at 94km.
This year would be different. I’d run 23 ultra marathons since, including 10 in 10 days and 5 in 4 days. I knew what I was doing. And in the weeks running up to it, I told myself one thing – at least the weather can’t be as bad as last year!…
The start line
Naomi and I jumped on the train to Bath after work on the Friday and went straight to our hotel. I did my usual fussing, making sure I had everything ready, and then off to bed.
Up bright and early for a 15 minute walk to the start line and registration. I collected my race pack, grabbed a coffee and milled around. The heat was already worse than last year for the time of day. 7:30am and 23°c.
Naomi had pulled out her “Matt’s #1 Supporter” top – a perfect description.
The time for the start was approaching so I made my way into the pen while route and safety information was announced.
The time ticked down, the whistle blew and off we went. A gentle jog took us around the outskirts of bath, up through the golf course and, 2km in, up the first of the long and steep hills.
The first leg
There’s no running up these kind of hills over this kind of distance. So we all power walked up the first, along the ridge at the top and away from Bath. It was at this point that all thought of times went out the window.
I wasn’t aiming for a time anyway, but it’s inevitable when you set off that there are some numbers swirling around in your head. 5km in and I was struggling with catching my breath in the humidity. All things reset to “survive”.
Out into the countryside as we dipped down and back up, the path undulating but with zero shade. The first 10k was a struggle – something which should be unheard of for me – running the flats and downhills and jogging the smaller inclines.
Just over 10k in and I came into the first checkpoint at Bath Racecourse.
I’d fallen in with a couple of guys who were running the first 50k only and we headed back out together. The stretch between checkpoints was longer here – a 14k stretch until the next. Not massively far but it meant that water rations had to last longer.
The heat was increasing but still bearable. Just before the 11km route we all came to an intersection in the countryside with three routes and no sign – presumably it had blown down. We picked what looked like the most obvious route but after a few minutes hit a fence and dead end.
Checking the route I’d uploaded to my Garmin, it showed us as being about 50 metres parallel to the route we needed to be on. The only way down beyond a long backtrack was to crawl face first under barbed wire, through stinging nettles and, still crawling, down the steep hill the other side.
Emerging relatively intact we ploughed on. Up and down yet more hills, the incline taking its toll. I’d brought a pair of foldable poles with me – I have the North Downs Way 100 Miler in a month. Even more hilly and I wanted to try the poles before then. I think they helped but I need to get more efficient with them.
We got held up crossing a major road, with constant traffic at 60mph. One person dashed across but I waited and eventually someone held up all the traffic behind them and let me go.
By this time I was approaching the second checkpoint and was just over half marathon distance. Normally I’d be going strong but this was agony. Along and through some fields – the scenery was at least stunning – and slowing to a jog.
Eventually the checkpoint came into view a couple of fields away. I picked up the pace and crossed the checkpoint, scanning my pass and being sprayed (gratefully) with water by the marshal.
My feet never blister but I could feel hot spots coming up on both feet. I took a moment to swap socks and put on blister plasters, refilled my bottles and jogged back out.
I fell in besides another runner for the next 5km and we chatted as we went. Reaching another hill he powered on and I slowed to walk up it, allowing me to take on a gel.
I paused at the top to rub cream into my legs. Endless fields of nettles had taken their toll and my legs were a swollen and itchy mess.
And then on, reduced to a jog. Up the steepest (but shortest) hill yet and then down through a church yard which was hosting a tea party. An old lady offered me a cup of tea. I politely declined. Hot drinks need not apply.
Just around the corner was a different offer. On a residential street a dad had set out a bucket with ice water and sponges which his kids were offering. A quick cool off with a sponge on my head and back on, feeling slightly refreshed.
That didn’t last long. Hills and heat. There’s only so many times you can describe them.
Eventually I reached a long path up between fields, the white path reflecting the heat back up.
Taking the path through a field, I clambered over a gate and landed ankle deep in mud. How there was any moisture left in that heat I don’t know, but it was now in my shoes. Yay.
Up the next hill and there was a short period of shade. I decided to you that as a walking period, to maximise my time in the shade while still moving forwards.
And then I could see a town I remembered from last year. The checkpoint. Down the hill, around the corner and into the playing field. There were a number of people sitting around, some having decided to go no further, some who had made the decision to walk to the next checkpoint at 49k and then drop out.
The final stretch
After refiling my bottles and soaking my Buff in cold water, I dragged myself back out, walking through the sprinkler in the field.
I was walking now, with the occasional jog. Through a field of cows who were far too inquisitive for my liking.
Up more hills, down more hills and across more fields. By this stage, every step felt the same and one field was indistinguishable from the last. It was only 10k between checkpoints but those Kms felt like they stretched further and further.
Coming out of a field I sat down in the shade of a tree to cool down. Another runner came level with me and I walked on with her for the next couple of km. She’d already been in contact with her husband and had decided to drop out at 50k.
I gave Naomi a call and she agreed to meet me at 50k with cold drinkso we could chat through whether I was going to continue. I dragged myself to the checkpoint, sat down with some food and refreshed myself.
Naomi arrived and I decided I had to at least attempt the next checkpoint. She was only supposed to meet me at the end but agreed to come to each checkpoint.
Back up and out I went. Up through the town of Wotton and right to the top of the next hill. A couple of guys came up next to me and we chatted. They’d already decided to hike to the next checkpoint and drop out there as it was easier to get a train.
Reaching the top I decided that was enough. I’d travelled 2km at most from the checkpoint and had already drained one of my bottles. My head was spinning and I felt sick.
I’m more than happy to push through pain for a race, but I started running for my physical and mental health. This felt like I was going to end up sacrificing the former for nothing. And so I called Naomi and said I was coming back. I walked down the hill and got in the car, messaging the race organiser to say that I was dropping out.
And I have no regrets about doing so. I know that I’m more than capable of covering the distance and covering it well. The day was brutal and my Garmin had recorded a maximum temperature of 39°c at one point.
There will be other races (the North Downs Way 100 Miles in August for one). Dropping out means I get to run them. Carrying on could have meant anything.
And so on I go. I have a couple of short ultras a fortnight from now, then two weeks off before the NDW 100. Always moving forwards.