Last year, approaching my 50th birthday, I decided on two challenges to celebrate this: running 10 marathons in 10 days, and running a 100-mile ultra. In late November/early December I completed the 10-in-10 and (apart from the couple of days with a lousy cold) thoroughly enjoyed it.
On 9th March I started part 2: the Viking 100 Endurance Run organised by Saxons Vikings and Normans (SVN).
I had decided to make my first 100 an “easy” one: no worries about logistics, navigation, or the possibility of walking off the side of a mountain while half-asleep in the small hours. Traviss, the person behind the SVN events, designed this event to meet those criteria, enabling people to try out the distance in a safe manner before going for a point-to-point or circular 100. The Viking 100 is held on a lapped course, with a 6.25 mile lap, so as a bonus I could think of it as 16 laps, not 100 miles.
Having looked at a spreadsheet produced by one of the other runners,Enda, who I knew from the 10-in-10 and other SVN events, I decided to aim for completing the first 8 laps/50 miles in 10 hours, giving 14 hours for the remainder to get a 24-hour finish. That was goal A. Goal B was completing within the generous time limit of 32 hours. And either way my parallel goal was not to get injured. I had been troubled by a piriformis niggle for several weeks, but due to work pressures only made it to a physiotherapist the week before the 100. At least I did get to the physio, and after sessions on the Tuesday and Thursday it was much improved.
I was really unsure what to take with, but Traviss said there was plenty of room in the home-base barn, so I packed everything but the kitchen sink, including six pairs of shoes (three designs, two sizes of each), complete change of running gear, additional tops and socks, two waterproof running jackets etc. etc. And a crateful of food to give more choice on top of what the organisers would supply, and warm clothes, plus the usual running bits and pieces in my KitBrix, including headtorch, backups, and spare batteries. And a 7-litre tea urn, plus a 5-litre pump-action thermos already filled with hot water, just in case anything went wrong with SVN’s urn (I’m a believer in the umbrella principle – the disasters you’re prepared for don’t happen).
Weather forecast was middling: high 10C/low 7C – so much better than last weekend – but a high chance of rain for periods both during the day and at night (exactly what times varied with every forecast I read).
Friday evening was spent madly packing, plus making four batches of my vegan flapjacks (they usually go down well with runners at SVN events, particularly the cinnamon ones), and taking the parkrun equipment down to Lloyd Park.
Alarm went off at 5 am and my husband and I managed to get into the car by just after 6, only about 20 minutes later than intended. Aidan drove while I snoozed. No travel problems and by 7.30 am we were parked at the farm and carrying my stuff into the barn. All the spaces round the sides had gone, except for at the far end, so we set up in a middle row with a few others, piling the bags and crate up plus an upright folding kitchen chair and a camping chair. Everyone had lots of stuff, so our pile didn’t look excessive.
At 07.50 or so Traviss held the usual short briefing and at 8 am Rachel counted down from 10 and we set off – up the farm drive, down the road a short way, then onto the very muddy path on the edge of a wheat field. We had used the same route for the Moonlight Challenge a few weeks ago and hoped it would be better this time. It was worse. However, it was only a few hundred yards, then we were out of it onto a decent concrete path up to the road, down along the road for about 100 yards (or on the grass verge), then off again onto farm tracks and footpaths – a fair amount of concrete, but some softer sections. Ignoring the meandering of the paths, the course is a lollipop: out for a couple of miles to ‘Jelly Baby Junction’ (a small aid station), around the head of the lollipop, including past the Wantsum Brewery taproom, and a field of solar panels with the grass kept short by sheep, back to Jelly Baby Junction then down the ‘stalk’ back to home base – including up the same awful section of mud. I was wearing trail shoes – initially my old VivoBarefoot Neo Trails – but even in trail shoes it was bad, and even worse on the way up the hill than on the way down.
Reading up on 100-mile races, I knew that mentally hard sections can hit quite early (as well as later), so I was not totally taken by surprise when I started to get negative thoughts while I was only on lap 3. These were centred around the possibility of injuring myself such that I wouldn’t be able to run Comrades in June. However, I kept going, telling myself I could always pull out later if any of the niggles became actual pain rather than points of mild discomfort.
Back to that mud. There was another muddy section near the start of the ‘head’ of the lollypop, but at least that was flat, and did have a hard gravel base. The start/finish section was just mud. When the rain came during the afternoon it became even worse than it had been early on. The consistency of the mud was such that while those wearing road shoes were sliding all over the place, it was sucking my trail shoes into the ground at every stride: my heels kept raising half out of the shoes, did come out a couple of times, and it took a lot of muscular effort to take each step. People started straying off the mud path into the field – which was sown with wheat, so then everyone had to be told to keep off the wheat. After a few laps my Neo Trails started to press into my left ankle and I switched to my Inov8 RaceUltra 270s, only to find that those stuck to the mud worse than the Neo Trails had – so I tried switching to my Inov8 Trailroc 235s, in case the different lug pattern helped, and they were slightly better.
Having the lap format at least meant that I had the option to change my shoes, as well as to eat from a range of options available, and during the evening and night, to drink hot drinks if I wanted to, and eat hot food (instant noodles!). There were also toilets, which I found I was visiting every lap – a combination of making sure I was drinking enough and of drinking (caffeinated) cola at Jelly Baby Junction.
Although the views were relatively limited – mostly arable fields and trees, plus the nearby A299 – there were sections that I always enjoyed: the single-track footpath between the two wooden bridges, from which I spotted the pair of swans in the field again (as they had been during the Moonlight Challenge); the cycle path paralleling the main track on the way to/from Jelly Baby Junction; seeing Reculver castle on the skyline; towards the top of the hill in the middle of the ‘loop’, where a skylark was singing his heart out all day – I love following the amazing sound and spotting the tiny bird hanging in the sky – and another skylark during the long downhill back towards Jelly Baby Junction.
Mid-afternoon, I came into the barn and Rachel thanked me: they had turned on their hot water urn and it had promptly ‘died’ and not been revived by a new fuse. My back-up urn and 5-litre flask meant they didn’t need to send anyone out on an emergency mission to find and purchase a new urn or kettles.
Gradually, losing at least 5 minutes a lap to that muddy section, I realised I wasn’t going to finish the first 50 miles in 10 hours – in the end those first eight laps took about 10 hours 30 minutes. At that point I sat down and changed my Injinji socks for a fresh pair, as the first pair were low-cut, leaving about an inch gap to my Skins: mud was drying in this area and then rubbing against the edge of the socks, which was starting to irritate my skin. The replacement pair were longer and I was able to tuck them up under the Skins, so no more rubbing from dried mud – result.
I also put my headtorch on, and I took some spare batteries – plus my tiny back-up headtorch so I would have light if the main one needed changing in the middle of nowhere. I was wearing my new Montane Minimus jacket, since I wasn’t sure when the rain would come, so I was able to put the batteries and mini torch in the pocket of that. Before I had gone a mile I realised that the batteries did need changing, but decided they could wait until Jelly Baby Junction where there would be a solid surface. Arriving there with the light getting dimmer and dimmer, I took the old batteries out and got the new ones in, with a bit of a struggle to get the cap back on. I turned it on. No light. Opened it and checked that the batteries were in correctly. One was upside down, so I reversed it. Still no light. I then remembered that I had mislaid my battery checker so not checked that the rechargeable batteries were still properly charged. Evidently they were not. Thankfully one of the volunteers at the aid station, Derek, came to my rescue with some spare batteries, and I was on my way again – although those only lasted two or three laps before I needed to change them again (with some other batteries I had back at base).
About 10pm, when I had done 10 laps trudging through the mud, Traviss finally decided to divert us up the road, avoiding that muddy time-sink – a welcome relief to everyone. That also meant that, to make the 100 miles, he added an extra piece onto the course at the end of the 16 laps, varying in length depending how many laps you had done before the course change.
By now, in the dark, another problem was surfacing. While I had run most of the first lap with Enda, a fellow 10-in-10er, I ran most of the way alone. I like running alone (as well as with company), so that wasn’t a problem of itself. However, despite my best intentions, I had spectacularly failed to get any early nights in the week before the event: the earliest I had managed to go to bed was 11.30pm, and both Thursday and Friday we hadn’t got to bed until after midnight. There were always reasons – Lloyd parkrun photos to be uploaded, other voluntary commitments, a rare evening out with a friend, and on the Friday of course getting everything ready for the Viking 100. The overall result was that I had arrived at the 100 already sleep-deprived. While I was running I felt okay, but after 50 or 60 miles I was most definitely using a run/walk strategy, and every time I took a walking break my eyes were closing, my feet were slowing and wandering all over the road – I was literally falling asleep on my feet.
Reaching the home-base barn at the end of the lap, I decided that a short snooze was necessary. I have had plenty of experience with driving while tired, and usually 10 or 20 minutes nap then allows me to keep my eyes open for another hour or two. So I put a warm coat on, wrapped a fleece jacket around my legs, set my watch to a 10-minute countdown alarm, asked my husband to wake me if the alarm didn’t and settled into the camping chair. I was just falling asleep when a fellow runner woke me by loudly asking me when I was starting off again – turned out he was concerned that I might have been there for ages and was losing time! My husband explained I was just trying for a few minutes of sleep and he apologised. When the alarm went off, seemingly moments later, he had left a Cadbury’s crème egg to say sorry. I ate it, hoping that the sugar rush would be helpful, gulped some tea and set off again.
The whole night then followed a pattern of: set out, run and walk; by about 2/3 of the way round find my eyes closing again; get back to the barn, eat, drink, set 10-minute timer, snooze, wake to the beeping of the alarm, get up and get going again.
I had an ordinary wrist watch on, so I knew what time it was, and a Garmin (310xt) set to give me elapsed time, distance and lap pace (average pace per mile). I wasn’t sure how long the Garmin would last, so at 14 hours I started my older Garmin (another 310xt, but beginning to come apart at the seams) going and when I got to 65 miles I pressed the start button. The first one surprised me by lasting well over 16 hours. I got a bit confused once I swapped, because my old Garmin was set to time, distance, lap pace and ‘instantaneous’ pace – and the values were not in the same parts of the screen as on the other one.
I did my best to keep to my usual practice of saying “well done!” to everyone I passed/was passed by, whether going in the same or the opposite direction, but I may have missed a few during the depths of the night.
Bright points of the night hours were when I spotted small mammals along the path: several field mice, one rodent that might have been a mouse or a vole, but disappeared too quickly for me to be sure which, and a young rabbit. The first mouse was the most memorable because it paused for several seconds within the beam of my headtorch before darting back into the undergrowth by the side of the path.
About 4 am, Traviss comforted me by saying that I had only one more lap to do in the dark and it would be easier once it was light. He was correct: once the sky lightened my eyelids stopped closing and I was able to run more, walk faster during the walking breaks, and didn’t need any more naps, so the last two laps went faster. I had already noticed that the birds were beginning to wake up, and while the light levels rose I enjoyed a veritable dawn chorus – a very welcome sound. During the last lap I even heard one of the skylarks again. I was also able to see, under the solar panels near one section, the sheep grazing there – combined solar and sheep farming! Somewhere in those last couple of laps I passed Sol, another 10-in-10er – who asked me if I had enjoyed the cream egg – so then I knew who that had been, and was able to thank him for the egg.
I was quite pleased during these two loops to discover that my running speed was sometimes in the 12-minute-mile range – not too bad at 90+ miles into my first 100-mile event – although I was walking more (200-300 L-R paces run, 30-50 L-R paces walk, mostly), and had by now given up trying to run on the remaining slippery mud section, as I didn’t want to risk slipping and injuring myself at this stage. Passing Jelly Baby Junction towards the end of my second-last last full lap, Sharon gave me a freshly-fried vegan sausage in a finger bun, plus ketchup – and it tasted very good. Onwards – back to the barn, bit of food and drink and out again, still on a reasonable run-walk schedule, although with more walking creeping in.
Last full lap done, into the barn for a quick drink and a Twizzler for a last bit of energy as I set out on the additional part-lap: up to Jelly Baby Junction and back. At this point my legs suddenly and unexpectedly went on strike. I could still walk, but running became a mere shuffle and I could rarely persuade my legs to keep jogging for as much as 100 left-right steps at a time. I’m not sure exactly why, but I suspect it was a combination of: 1) I had told myself at the outset that this was 16 laps; I had completed those 16 laps so my brain was saying I should be stopping; 2) my second Garmin had now logged 35 miles, giving a total of 100 miles – again, a reason why my brain would think it was time to stop. However, according to Traviss’s course measurements and calculations I still had 3 miles to go, so I set off through the light rain (we had three periods of rain I think – mid-afternoon for a couple of hours or so, again for a while during the night and then a third after it got light again, but temperatures were quite mild and it could have been a lot worse) walked and shuffle-jogged onwards, more walk and less jog with each mile, until finally, finally, I walked up the last slope of road and found Aidan waiting for me at the turn into the drive. I set off down the drive towards the barn, Aidan beside me, and pushed my legs into a jog down the slight slope. Inside and to the table. I stopped and rang the bell – done!
Rachel timed me in at 25:50:12 – about two hours longer than I had hoped for, but I had finished.
Traviss handed me my “Viking 100 Endurance Run” belt buckle and my Viking 100 Endurance Run FINISHER T-shirt. He noted that I looked happier than I had done all night, and I explained that I’d spent the whole night struggling to keep my eyes open – I hadn’t been unhappy, in pain or even physically that tired – just sleep-deprived.
Wandering to our bit of the barn, I sat down, took my shoes off and started to peel off my socks. This turned out to be difficult because the mud had seeped into each toe of the sock and then dried, forming firm cylinders that were not easy to pull off. Still, no blisters, so they had done their job. Clean dry socks, a pair of overtrousers and a warm jacket went on quickly to stop me from getting cold. I made up my usual recovery shake and drank that, then Aidan and I packed everything up – except the big flask, which was filled up with hot water from the urn, and Rachel thought that would do for the remaining 100-mile people still out on the course. At this point I found the vegetarian hot dog sausages that I had looked for and failed to find during the night, so I ate three of them with a tortilla wrap while we were loading and getting into the car, and happily dozed while Aidan drove us back home.
I’m so glad I did this event. I’ve been wondering for several years – since before my three big injuries – whether I could manage a 100 – and now, despite it all, and even with the permanently scarred (so weakened) ankle tendon, I have. It was also great doing this with such a great bunch of people – fantastic people at both the main base and Jelly Baby Junction; Enda, Sharon (not doing the 10, and arriving late, but it was still great to see her), Elaine, Nick, Sol, Lucy, Kat, Mark, David and lots of other runners who have become familiar from the 10-marathons-in-10-days and from other SVN events, and Simon who I first met on the South Downs Way 50 in 2013. I am totally in awe not only of the people who ran this quickly – Robert Treadwell finishing first in 17:37:07 – but also of those such as Somei, Kat, and Lucy, who took more than 30 hours – and finished.
I’ve already signed up for Samphire Hoe 100 in March next year. Meanwhile: Comrades!
- Avoid going into a 100-mile or other overnight event already sleep deprived. Physically I held up quite well, but the sleepiness cost me about an hour in naps at base camp, and I don’t know how long in slower walking and short semi-snoozes leaning on any solid object (such as a fence post) available around the course.
- Load fresh batteries into your head torch the day before the run; don’t leave this to do on the journey to the event – when you might fall asleep and forget about it. Also, check your spare batteries beforehand. Do have a spare torch so you can see to change the batteries if you need to do so away from base.
- Physically, my legs will keep going – even allowing me to keep running fair stretches – for 100 miles, which is great!