Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Idiot's Guide To Faltering

I'm in one of those moods, and Tam's squaring me up.

'I don't get why you're on about next year - you're not even half-way through what you want to do this year yet. Why do you always have to have some big scheme going on? Why can't you just have a year where you just take it as it comes? You're obsessed. Always on about doing this, doing that - it wears me down sometimes.'

She's right. She mostly is.

'I'm not obsessed,' I tell her. 'This running lark - I can take it or leave it.'

She gives me a look - yeah right - and leaves the room.

The alarm goes off at 5am. I've set the bedroom clock 10 minutes fast. If I'm going to have time to get my exercises in before heading to work, I need to get up at 4.50, but getting up before 5 always seems too early.

I lean over - turn the alarm off, roll over and give Tam a kiss. 'See you later.' She mumbles something and I get out of bed. I hitch up my compression tights a little and walk to the bathroom. Since that last race, when my legs felt as battered as they've ever been, I've taken to going to bed in the tights. Not the best look, but I've seen the studies that show that compression increases blood flow, aids recovery and reduces muscle soreness. It's a price worth paying.

Once down in the kitchen, I make myself a cup of coffee. Decaff, of course. Not only is it a good idea for the ticker, but I've read the studies that show that caffeine consumed before a race can have a significant performance enhancing effect. Surely that effect will be more pronounced if I cut the consumption of caffeine at all other times?

I've got 20 minutes to do my exercises before I have to get off. After The Viking Way, I was in bits. Everything's slowly returned to normal, but my right knee continues to give me trouble. ITBS? Maybe. I spent a couple of days on the internet and checked out a lifetime of ITB and core strengthening exercises. I avoided the numerous stretching routines because barefoot runners don't stretch. The Sock Doc says so, and he's the expert.

I go through my drills - how long will they take to work? - and then head off for work. It's a busy time of year at The Factory. Demand is higher than ever for cheap children's colouring boards, and I've got a list of orders 2 pages long to sort out. I get into the office with the best of intentions, but can't resist a quick look on the computer. 10 minutes. That's all. I log onto the Mablethorpe Running Club forum. See what's going on there. A quick look at my favourites - i run far, Mud, Sweat and Tears, Riding The Wind, Living The Dream, the Fell Runners forum, Barefoot Running University, Alpine Works. A quick look at Facebook - anything going on? - any new blogs from friends, virtual or real? - 1:40 at 40, Fell Running Fruits, Vagabond Runner, Ultrarunning Life. That's it. 10 minutes turning into an hour and a half. For the rest of the working day, I'm on the back foot.

The packing guys start at 8. We're a man down today, so I take up my position at the end of the shrink-wrap tunnel. It's a monotonous job, but I don't mind. I spend some time thinking of the footpaths I've still to run. An image appears of that path marker I spotted the other day on the other side of Louth. I wonder where that leads to? I must get out the OS map when I get home. I daydream about a little project for the future. The 50 Churches. It's a little project I've daydreamed about a lot recently. Pick 50 churches and chapels in Lincolnshire, around The Wolds. Link them all up using footpaths, bridleways and country lanes to make a route. Run it. Dead easy. I've no idea what sort of distance I'll be looking at - 50 miles, 100 miles, 200 miles? No idea - but I spend the next hour mulling it over contentedly.

We stop for a break at 10. In the office, Tam's got the accounts and payroll up on the screen. 'Don't touch that!' she says as she goes out to make a coffee. If I'm quick, I think, I'll just have time to check out who's doing what in the JOGLE race before she gets back in.

At dinner break, I've checked Facebook and the forums again quickly and am eating my 'power snack' whilst flicking through the latest Sportsshoes catalogue. My lunch is concocted from whole-grain brown rice, chick peas, kidney beans, anchovies and mackerel fillets. It doesn't taste great, but I've read studies that prove that each one of those ingredients can have a positive effect on your running.

'Do you know what I fancy doing sometime?' I ask Tam.

'Go on...' she answers.

'A long thru-hike. That's what the Americans call it. One of the National Trails, maybe. Take a bigger pack, sleeping bag and a bivvy, and mix in running and walking. Sleep on the trail. That'd be ace!'

Silence greets me.

I glance over. Tam's reading the paper. Her eyebrows are raised and she's gently shaking her head.

I decide not to take it any further.

The afternoon passes quickly, and then I'm home. In a bid to get rid of this niggle, I've decided not to run tonight. I get changed, take myself off to the back room and start my core strength and mobilty routine. It's a bit tiresome, but I've read studies that show a lack of core strength and mobility in the hip flexors are a contributing factor to ITBS. So it's: squats, one leg squats, clams, plank, side plank, bird dog, standing clam, glute bridge.

I keep looking out the patio doors while I'm doing my pointless exercises. It's a great night for a run. I suppose a mile won't hurt. I do a few foot drills and spend 5 minutes 100-upping. Then, I slip on my shoes and jog up the lane. At the half-mile turn-around, my knee feels fine. I decide to go a bit further - I suppose 4 miles won't hurt. At 3 miles, the dull twinge on the outside of my right knee becomes a bit more than a dull twinge. By the time I'm home, the euphoria of the first mile has been replaced by a pissed-off defeatedness.

Tam's in the kitchen when I get back, fresh from her marathon training. 'Good run?' I ask her.

'Yeah - did 8 miles at race pace,' she replies, 'Felt great! What about you? I thought you weren't running tonight?'

I'm in one of those moods. 'Feel like packing in,' I say , 'It's one bloody thing after another.'

'Chris,' she says, ' Don't talk bollocks. Give it a couple of days and everything will be ok again. It always is.'

'We'll see,' I tell her. 'Anyhow - it's not the end of the world. This running lark - I can take it or leave it.'

I feel much more positive after putting the superheroes to bed and having a bath. Tam asks about watching a film after tea, but I tell her I need to get to bed - I've an early start the next morning.

The alarm goes off at 5am. I lean over - turn the alarm off, roll over and give Tam a kiss. 'See you later.' She mumbles something and I get out of bed. I hitch up my compression tights a little and walk to the bathroom. Groundhog Day. Another day - addicted.

This running lark - can I take it or leave it?

Saturday, 21 April 2012

In Search Of Sal Paradise

The people you meet during your formative years often leave an impression that stays with you for the rest of your life. On the cusp of moving on from childhood, they change you slightly, shape you into the adult you're about to become.

It was during the long summer of 1985, the months between finishing school and departing for University, that I met two people for the first time.

Jack Kerouac. William Wharton.

It was Paul, my best friend in those long gone days, that introduced us. Me and Our Kid would call off at the seaside shop he worked at whilst biking home from our summer jobs on the caravan site. We'd hang out for half an hour, talk rubbish. We'd chat about things that were important back then - Pop Art, David Bowie, clothes, girls we'd fallen in love with but daren't talk to, and books we'd read. It was on one of these visits that Paul produced a couple of tatty paperbacks from his holdall: 'On The Road' by Jack Kerouac, and 'Birdy' by William Wharton.

Both books slayed me. For the rest of that summer, I was obsessed. 'Birdy' had the most immediate impact. It was the catalyst for a series of consequences that made my life a nightmare for much of the seven years that followed. Maybe I'll write about that one day, but I probably won't. However, it's 'On The Road' that's stayed with me the longest.

As an 18 year old, 'On The Road' is impossibly romantic. It's a blueprint for a life that deserves to be lived. Of course, on first reading, you don't know that Jack Kerouac died a morose alcoholic, and Neal Cassady paid heavy prices for his spontaneous explosions of 'just being' and was found lifeless on a New Mexico railway line at the age of 42. No, on first reading 'On The Road', you want to live that life. You want to express that freedom, the abandon that the novel encapsulates. You want to be their alter-egos, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriaty.

On looking back, my days of searching for Sal Paradise were naive, stupid, the best of times, the worst of times. For every love, there was a heartbreak. For every moment of drunken euphoria, a morning of desolate hangover. For every high, a catastrophic low. For every glimpse of God, a realisation that life is meaningless and that one day we'll all die.

I'm older now. I'm happier. I've found people to be with, and a way of life that nurtures and fulfills me, but is lived on a level, without the need for the swings between extremes. I'm glad I lived those days - they helped me get here and I like the way things are now. In spite of this, there's the odd time when that feeling returns. It comes out of nowhere, and when it does, I know it will be dumb to say 'no'. I have to go and search for Sal again.

I'd set the date a while back. Sunday 15th April. I'd meet up with the lads in Wasdale and we'd have a blast up to the summit of Scafell Pike, England's highest peak, as a pre-amble to doing the National 3 Peaks challenge at the end of May. It hadn't clicked when I'd pencilled in the calendar some months back that the Viking Way Ultra was the previous weekend, and I'd thought we could all make a weekend of it, enjoy some time away. As the back end of the week rolled round, however, I was still done in. My legs were operational, but only just. The tiredness that had smothered me since the end of the race had lifted slightly, but there was no way I could do more than the bare minimum. I'd thought of backing out, but I hate letting anyone down. No - I'd go up on the Saturday afternoon, stay the night and drive round to Wasdale on the Sunday morning. I'd leave Tam and the superheroes at home, but be back for Sunday evening. A bit of time by myself might do me good, Tam said, shake me out of the post-race doldrums I'd found myself in. I could book a room for the Saturday night - Travelodge or a B and B - enjoy a bit of comfort. Somehow, however, the whole idea didn't appeal. Then 'On The Road' came to mind, as it does sometimes. The search for Sal Paradise. Straight away, I knew a much better option.

It's 8pm, Saturday evening. I turn off the A592 at Gosforth and start driving down the narrow lanes that lead to Wasdale Head. The sun's about to set.

Three miles down and the road leads to the shore of Wast Water, the most isolated and magical of  the Lake District's waters. The perfect spot is right there. I pull the fell-wagon onto a rectangle of shale on the water's edge. As a home for the night, I can think of nowhere better. I turn off the engine, grab my camera and down jacket, and stroll down to the shore. I listen to the silence, smell the impossibly fresh air and take a few photos. I stip-step across large boulders to a tiny island down the way, sit myself down and take it in. I'm alone. The world is beautiful. I think of Jack Kerouac's trips to Big Sur, his summer in seclusion as a forset ranger, looking for fire. I'm a writer, an artist, a lover, a father, a runner. I'm alive.

After an hour, as the light disappears, I head back to the wagon. There's already too many miles on the clock, but I've no doubt that it's going to be part of the family for many more years yet. The sales guy had been suprised when I didn't want to know the in's and out's of performance. 0 to 60 and miles per gallon weren't all that important. Was it reliable? Will it get us from here to there? That was quite important. But not as crucial as the most important question - 'Is there enough room for me to be able to sleep in the back?' It was. So we bought it.

Inside, I blank out the windows with silver sun shields. I enjoy a snack I bought from home, slip into my sleeping bag, read a book by headtorch for a while, and sleep the best sleep I've slept for a week.

I'm woken by the dawn's light and the trickling of water upon pebbles. I take a while to come to and decide on a few more minutes inside my warm bag before bracing myself for the freezing temperature outside.

Half an hour later, I've washed in the Lake, I'm swigging a hot mug of sweet tea and the kettles boiling again on the portable stove with water for my porridge. All the summits are clear - it's a wonderful day. The view from the tops will be awesome.

It's not long before the lads arrive. We drive round to the carpark at Brakenclose and take the tourist path to the summit cairn and back. It's still early - not yet 11 - and the lads decide on a return trip to the top, this time by the Mickledore path. I know I'm up for no more and make my excuses - last week's race is still weighing heavy on me. The lads get off and I brew another cuppa. I make a sandwich, change into clean clothes, and then I'm on the road, heading home.

There's a bit of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriaty in all of us. There's times when you need to dance all night, get blind drunk, run uncontrollably down stupidly steep mountain tracks. There's times when you need to wake up the neighbours, throw yourself from a break-water into an icy sea, or just spend a night in the wilderness, by yourself, sleeping in the back of a van.

It's important to search for Sal Paradise sometimes. We all need to do it. It reminds us of the things we've got and the things we've let slip by. It reminds us how it feels to be alive.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

No. 14: The Viking Way

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