I did it!!!!!!!!!!
Sorry, it had to be done. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. 50 miles. 8000 feet of ascent. 22 hours of walking.
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll remember I attempted the Longmynd Hike across Shropshire last year and made it to mile 27 before having to drop out after 13 hours of walking. I’d never failed at anything I’d attempted before so it hit me hard and I was very disappointed in myself. As I sat sobbing at mile 27 waiting for the sweeper van to pick me up, a lovely chap who was marshalling came over to give me a hug and told me it was okay to not finish, but to come back next year and do it. At that point, I promised him and myself that I would do so. (For a full recap, see here.)
Fast forward six months and the entries were about to open. I’d recruited a new team mate, Rosie from Team 14 Peaks, by telling her how much fun (?!) the event was and was counting down till the website opened… 3,2,1 bang, we were in. 600 places in the hike sold out in less than 90 minutes. Despite the hellish agony it results in, the hike is a very popular event!
Rosie knew all about my previous attempt and all the mistakes I’d made (not training, not knowing the route, carrying too much food, not having trialled the food I took, not taking the enormity of the event seriously, letting me demons get me down… take your pick. I made a lot of mistakes) and as a result, we’d trained hard, we knew the entire route and we were both feeling fit and strong after an active year with a lot of hiking and hill climbing.
The weekend was getting closer, I was getting more nervous and increasingly paranoid. If I sneezed, I was getting a cold. If I had a twinge in my leg, I was injured. If my stomach rumbled, I was getting sick. I decided to play it safe and avoided pretty much everything all week. Bar a sports massage. I figured it’d help get my legs in the best possible shape.
The big day arrived and after eating the world’s biggest bowl of porridge and awaiting the arrival of Rosie, we drove to Church Stretton, Shropshire. Rosie and I were getting pretty excited and were keen to get started. We checked in and went fairly smoothly through the kit check, leaving us with a couple of hours to sit and relax, drink tea and eat more food. We’d heard this ultra lark was all about eating lots of food, so we did just that. Bagels and nutella. Mmm.
The clock edged closer to 12.30pm, the start time was approaching and it was time to stop eating, get our rucksacks on and head to the start line. Gathering in a field with around 500 people, we looked towards Caer Caradoc, the first of the climbs at 459 metres. All around us were an array of hikers, with various sized rucksacks and an amazing selection of walking poles and staffs. In among the hikers were the fell runners; standing out in the crowd in Salomon trainers of every colour under the sun and amazing thighs.
The clock ticked down and we were off; in true Rosie fashion she was immediately making friends and chatting away to a number of people. I just looked at my feet and glumly considered just how far we had to go.
The first two hills, Caer Caradoc and the Lawley (377 metres) are great fun for being able to see the whole field. Descending Caradoc you can see the forerunners wending their way up The Lawley in the distance, and as we made our way towards and then up The Lawley, you bypass the speedier walkers and everyone smiles and cheers each other on. There’s a real camaraderie amonst all, regardless of whether a hiker or a runner.
The route through Gogbatch (love that name) and up onto the Longmynd, descending into Bridges passed pretty quickly and before we knew it we were at Party Central, otherwise known as The Horseshoe Inn and checkpoint 5. Loads of people, some there to cheer family and friends on, some just there to enjoy a pint and laugh at the nutters who can’t think of anything better to do on a Saturday evening than stagger 50 miles round the Shropshire countryside! We had a quick loo and refuel stop and then got cracking on the long road ascending to the Stiperstones and checkpoint 6 at 536 metres.
As we passed through the car park at the Stiperstones, the marshalls asked us to group together for the night time walking and we found ourselves with two lovely chaps, Rob and Anthony. We stayed grouped with Rob and Anthony and their team mates until 3.30am on Sunday. Walking across the Stiperstones, chatting to our new friends and watching the sun slowly setting was a great moment. In fact, one of our goals before starting the hike was to cross the Stiperstones and the rocky ankle breaking path before it got dark. It was a great boost to have hit one of our goals so early on in the hike. Darkness fell as we approached the short but steep ascent of Earls Hill (320 metres) and coming back down the hill we realised how well we were doing as we passed hoardes of walkers, still with the climb to do. None of us really wanted to admit to it, but there were definitely some feelings of pride (and perhaps a touch of smugness.)
Spirits were high; we had a short walk to Bank Farm and checkpoint 8 where there would be a refreshment tent. We all talked excitedly about cups of tea and hot chocolate and marched onwards, knowing we were about to hit 22 miles and not far off the half way point. Bank Farm was as good as we anticipated; a bustling tent filled with tired but happy hikers, cheery marshalls and tea! Amazing stuff.
The next five miles consisted of a fairly straightforward but long slog through Snailbeach (love that name too), past the halfway mark and towards the checkpoint at Shelve. As a group, we were walking at a cracking pace and I was struggling to hold on to it. Luckily, we had a pit stop at the local pub where we made use of the facilities and cracked on. The short break was just what I needed. I’d been apprehensive about this section of the hike since we were heading the point of my finish in 2013 and I’d remembered a very long very painful hobble to Shelve. I was over the moon to arrive at the checkpoint, feeling strong, and looking forward to moving into the second half of the hike. As we drank more tea and ate more flapjacks, I recognised a familiar face; it was the lovely chap who’d given me a hug last year and made me promise to return – and he remembered me! He gave me another big hug and as we set off, I had a huge grin on my face knowing I’d beaten last year’s demons and was still feeling good. It soon wore off though, knowing we were approaching Corndon Hill, a beast of a steep slog up to 513 metres. Battling up the hill through the heather, I went back to my standby of counting. I count my steps up to any multiple of 50, depending on how knackered I am. If I arrive at a multiple of 50 and can take another step, I have to continue to the next multiple before taking a 10 second rest. Sounds ridiculous, but it works and I made it to the summit with only three breaks.
No rest for the wicked though and we descended Corndon, battling through the heather, sliding on the stones and dirt but eventually making it to the base before quickly making our way to the checkpoint at Woodgate Farm – a particularly nice checkpoint with straw bales to sit on and homemade flapjacks!
More tea was consumed and I continually repeated to myself that we only had the ascent Black Rhadley to go before heading back to the Stiperstones where we’d be only 12 miles from the finish. I was feeling confident that we would finish, and in a far better time than we’d anticipated but I was really starting to hurt. My feet were feeling good (thanks to Orthosole – a full review to come later) but my left glute, hamstring and knee were pulling and feeling really uncomfortable.
Marching rapidly on in the early hours of Sunday morning we made it through two small checkpoints and onto Black Rhadley (401 metres) where we were greeted at the top with a small caravan playing opera. Delightful. No time to enjoy it though, we were heading back down the hill and swiftly heading towards the Stiperstones. Looking back, it felt as if it went really quickly, but I know in reality it was yet another long hard slog, trying to maintain the pace of the group and feeling increasingly crap.
The route towards the Stiperstones is a beautiful one – in daylight. It runs through a small wood and crosses a field of sheep before hitting the road which takes you directly to the Stiperstones carpark and checkpoint 13. In the dark, however, it just meant tree roots to fall over and sheep shit to slip in. I was relieved to hit the road, and even more relieved when the checkpoint came a little earlier than I expected, arriving at mile 38 at 3.30am.
Heading into the refreshment tent, I quickly grabbed a cup of tea and sat on a blanket next to Rosie where things quickly unravelled. I became aware that I was struggling to catch my breath and I was starting to feel really odd. I caught Rosie’s attention and told her I was feeling unwell, just as I started to violently shake. As a first aider was called, Rosie quickly got me wrapped up in her down jacket and got my hat and gloves on me. I was feeling very strange, though I couldn’t work out exactly what it was, and as one of the first aiders asked me what was wrong, I realised I couldn’t get my words out and struggled to talk. I was quickly helped out of the tent and into the first aiders car where the heaters were turned on full blast since I was apparently quite cold (and green according to Rosie). My temperature was taken, my blood sugar was taken and the next thing I knew, a voice was coming through the radio; “We need the ambulance, we have a hypothermic female who needs collecting. She’s done.” At the realisation that my race was over, yet again, and with only 12 miles to go, I began to sob.
I was furious with myself. I’d made my big mistake hours earlier; I started hiking in the sunshine in a lightweight base layer with the sleeves rolled up. As we continued hiking into the night and the temperature dropped, I had stayed as I was since I felt warm from the exertion. Despite my team mates adding layers, I had remained in my base layer with the sleeves rolled up with the end result that my body temperature had dropped to three degrees below normal.
Some undignified begging followed, to no avail. The ambulance arrived, I was helped into it and yet more stats were taken. The good news; my temperature was rising. The bad news; it was still below what it should be and they were still refusing to let me continue.
By now, our team mates had continued on but Rosie had stayed with me. We continued to beg for me to be allowed to continue. I was feeling far better; I could talk again and believe me, I made the most of it as I made every effort to convince the first aiders and St John’s ambulance that I was well enough to continue.
By 4.45am, my temperature had risen back to normal and a compromise agreement was reached; if I waited another 15 minutes and promised to remain in all the layers I was bundled up in, I could continue with the proviso that if I got cold or Rosie felt I looked unwell, she would immediately call the first aiders who would come and collect me.
We were back on! I was so grateful to Rosie, despite being told by the first aiders that I was done and she should continue without me, she stayed with me and I was happier than I can say that we could continue together.
At 5.15am we were ready to leave the Stiperstones. We had a new team mate, an amazing individual named Phil who was hiking the route for the 25th time. Phil is 80. Unbelieveable.
As we left the checkpoint, my euphoria quickly faded as I realised how weak I felt. I’d been unable to stomach food for some hours, and the large amounts of tea I’d drunk to defrost had played havoc with my stomach. A number of unceremonious hedge diving ‘comfort breaks’ followed over the next hour before my stomach finally began to settle. A long descent back to Bridges is followed by a very long ascent back onto the Mynd up to Pole Cottage (475 metres) but our spirits were lifted by the sight of the sky lightning up and dawn breaking as we approached checkpoint 14.
We took advantage of another refreshment tent, but I very quickly realised that I still couldn’t stomach food or even hot chocolate – a first for me. I strategically suggested we carry on before I curled into a little ball in the corner and cried.
By now, I was on empty. I had warmed up but I had nothing left at all in me. I was dropping further and further behind Rosie and Phil who continued to wait for me and encourage me on. Knowing we were only 8 miles from the finish and with only one more hill to climb, I plodded on, one foot in front of another, in pain and wanting nothing more than for this to be over. We were being overtaken by scores of people but I continued to plod.
After what felt like hours, we had descended the Mynd to Minton and now we simply had to walk through the village to the base of Ragleth Hill, climb, walk across the long summit, descend, and walk through the village of Church Stretton to the finish line at the school.
I repeated this to myself constantly; across, up, across, down, home. Across, up, across, down, home. Across, up, across, down, home. It kept my feet moving, albeit slowly.
By this time, however, I wasn’t the only one struggling. Amazing Phil was having trouble with his back, and this was affecting his balance. He’d had a couple of falls on the Mynd and decided to rest on a bench for a while before finishing. He told us to go on ahead and let the marshalls know he was on his way. We said our goodbyes and set off to the base of Ragleth Hill. At 398 metres, the summit of Ragleth is not too high, but it’s a very steep climb. Once again I was counting my steps but I was nowhere near my fifty count. I was simply aiming for 20 steps before stopping for a 20 or 30 second break. It felt like a lifetime before seeing Rosie sitting at the summit waving at me and cheering me on. It hurt, I couldn’t breathe but I’d made it. We were now only two miles from the school. As we passed the checkpoint, we saw two figures on the path ahead. It was Rosie’s parents, come to meet us and walk us in. Rosie was delighted and it was a real boost to our tired spirits.
We were now up and across. All that was left was down and home. At a slow and steady pace, we descended the steep and slippery path through the trees and arrived among the first houses of Church Stretton. Walking through the streets, all I could think of was seeing Owain at the finish line and I started to cry. I cried as we walked through the houses, into the centre of Church Stretton, out of the centre, past more houses and towards the school whereupon I saw a figure in a blue coat. I turned to Rosie and started sobbing as I recognised Owain. Diving into Owain’s arms, I continued to sob even as he told me and Rosie to stand by the ‘final checkpoint’ sign, while Rosie had a huge grin and a thumbs up for the photo.
As we made our way into the school and handed in our tallies at the final checkpoint for a finish time bang on 22 hours, I continued to sob all over the ladies at the checkpoint. I couldn’t believe we had made it. It had been a long slog with highs and lows, and I was completely overwhelmed.
Finishing the Hike has been a real highlight of my year. From being so gutted to fail last year, to go through the amount of pain it took to complete this year, with an amazing team mate in Rosie, it was the most incredible experience. Thank you Rosie for being there all the way!
I also owe huge thanks to all the marshalls but particularly the first aider and St John’s ambulance crew who took such good care of me and allowed me to continue. This is one hell of an event, like no other I’ve experienced and I’m delighted to say, I’M NEVER DOING IT AGAIN!. I do intend, however, to marshall next year and hope I can make a difference to tired and exhausted hikers too.
By the way, Phil finished too. Within the 24 hour time limit. He wasn’t last either. What a superstar.