I had heard about the brutality of the Viking Way a few years ago. I’d spoken to people about it during the Spine race (comparing mud roads) and had read a few race reports. I’d ruled it out due to the tight cut offs and amount of running required. I don’t like running.
I’d attempted one of Mark Cockbain’ s races before, The Hill in 2014 but it was a bad period for me, landing right in between my parents dying. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for a race but as I was in the UK anyway, I thought it may be just what I needed. It wasn’t. I just wanted to be home in Jersey with the Mrs and kids. I dropped out after a few hours and couldn’t wait to hitch a ride down to Gatwick and fly home. I had no regrets at all and don’t really count it as a DNF, I shouldn’t have been there.
I decided to enter the Viking Way whilst competing in the 185 mile King Offa’s Dyke race last year. I was running with a couple of mates that were keen and Mark Cockbain was manning the 100 mile checkpoint so he probably talked us into entering. Unfortunately, Chris and my good friend from Jersey (and Viking fan) Pete both had to drop out for various reasons before the event. I was close to it myself. I’d won the 300 mile Yukon Arctic Ultra in February and in hindsight, six weeks recovery wasn’t enough considering I left Canada with quite severe shin splints which put me out of action for the whole time. Nevertheless, I kept the race on my radar and reserved judgement until closer to the day. A week out I knew I had to make a decision about flights, trains etc and either bite the bullet or withdraw from the race. I went for my first run since the Yukon on the Saturday before the race, a piddly little six mile run along Jersey’s rugged coastline and I even had to walk most of that. I had been smoking lots in my down time and my lungs were struggling along with lethargic, heavy legs. I suffered with DOMS for four days. This was ridiculous. Painful legs for half a week after a little six mile walk. Something was wrong but I booked flights and trains anyway and decided to toe the start line and see what would happen. You never know.
I’d received criticism from those closest to me in the lead up to the race for being negative and not having my usual positive attitude but I wasn’t being negative, I was being realistic. After my appalling training run, I just couldn’t see how I would manage 147 miles minimum in under 40 hours whilst navigating tough, muddy terrain without the assistance of GPS, walking poles etc.
I had been on the Viking Way a couple of weeks before on a borrowed mountain bike in an attempt to reccie the course a bit but failed miserably when I suffered mechanical failure (puncture and no pump – what a muppet!). I walked through the night through knee deep muddy fields, picked the lock of a disabled toilet to sleep on the floor in the dry and hitch hiked back to Lincoln to get a train back to my car at the race finish in Oakham. Epic fail! It gave me a little confidence boost in that I knew a 30 mile section in the middle of the race so wouldn’t need to worry about navigation here and the signage was better than I had expected but it was very muddy and surprisingly hilly.
Anyway, after a flight, a bus, two trains and a lost taxi driver I made it to the Premier Inn at the Humber Bridge just in time for race registration, a quick dinner, a few beers, a couple of glasses of wine and a few minutes spare to prepare for the early start the next morning – pin numbers on shorts, fill water bladders etc. We were driven by minibus from there at 06:00 on Saturday morning over to the other side of the Humber Bridge for the start of the race which was due to be 147.8 miles all the way through Lincolnshire to Oakham following the historic Viking Way. I think there had been a few last minute drop outs so from an initial list of 30 competitors, we had 22 on the start line. Following a less than motivational but comical race briefing from Mark that I wish I’d recorded we were off trotting along the banks of the River Humber with a nice sunrise behind us and the promise of good weather much to the RD’s disappointment.
The field thinned fairly quickly and I was probably in the front 25% but started drifting back after a couple of hours. It was always nice to keep someone in your sights as it made navigation a little easier. As long as you trusted the person in front. I ran with a few familiar faces and met a couple of new people which is always nice but I ended up alone, straining to keep up with those in front but also putting distance between me and the folks behind.
I always find writing about long single stage races difficult as everything is a blur. There were no real distinguishing moments to talk about. The terrain was nicer than I expected with a mixture of farm tracks, public footpaths, bridleways, roads, pavements and little villages. I took a couple of wrong turns on route to the first check point but nothing major. The checkpoints were good with a chair, shelter, wonderful volunteers, hot drinks and all the food you should need – gels, biscuits, pot noodles, soup, energy bars, crisps, nuts etc. Nothing to complain about. In fact I think I put on weight during the race.
We had a bit of rain throughout the day and I had to put a coat on for a while, mainly to keep my phone and maps dry but overall it was very nice and I was happy to be getting a bit of a tan. Always a bonus. I made it to the 50 mile mark in about 10.5 hours with 2 hours in the bank. The cut off was 12.5. This made me very happy but I was slowing down and it had been a tough fifty miler. My legs had been sore and tight from the first hour and there was no letting up. I had been told that I would need at least a two hour buffer to make up for the slow going through the muddy sections in the last third of the race. Great.
Onwards I plodded, now in the company of Trisha, a great newbie to Ultrarunning but a sponsored runner with several wins to her name. I’d probably been running with her since not long after checkpoint 2 so since 14:00 ish. We carried on into the night passing most of the areas that I had reccied. Woodhall Spa was a nice landmark to get to as this is where I had aborted my reconnaissance a few weeks previously. We had caught up with another couple of runners, Marcin and Ben who we’d been leapfrogging most of the day. A young lad cheered me up when he offered me his left over pizza as he was leaving the posh Pizzeria in this lovely town. I obliged, had a quick photo with him, enlightened him and his family as to what we were doing, had the usual jaw dropping looks of astonishment, and then carried on for the long, slow, flat section towards Lincoln. We kept each other awake with crap jokes and lots of tales from previous races and life experiences, the usual stuff during these events but Trisha was starting to struggle a bit. I was having to wait but I didn’t mind at all, I was always looking for any excuse to collapse to the floor for a minute or two. We got a bit lost on a couple of occasions but never for more than 10-15 minutes. Still frustrating though.
My saviour……Pizza boy
Check point 5 which was just short of Lincoln at 82 miles couldn’t come soon enough. We were both knackered and fed up and were breaking our running down to 2 minutes running, 1 minute fast walking just to keep us moving. Trisha had already said she would be stopping for a short sleep and she didn’t mind if I carried on alone. I had already pulled my maps from my bags an hour earlier expecting this to be the case. At the check point I had some food quickly, lubed up again to try and relieve the pain from my very bad chaffing I’d been experiencing since about four hours in and cracked on alone towards Lincoln. Usually in a race, the midpoint is a milestone for me and if I make it that far, which I always have except for “The Hill” I would not DNF. On this race, given the tough nature of the last part, I had made a pact with myself that Lincoln was the half way point and once there, there was no chance on earth that I wouldn’t complete the race. Then I got lost on an industrial estate with no signs. Great.
I managed to find my way to the lovely cathedral in the centre of the city and from there plodded down the steep cobbled road to get south of the centre, trying to ignore the occasional comments coming in my direction from the few drunks and homeless people that dotted the streets at 03:00. Most of them were OK and I was quite grateful I had been slow enough to this point to miss the revellers. I wouldn’t have wanted to run through here an hour or two previous wearing a head torch and compression socks.
Navigation became harder from here with less signs and I suppose, increased fatigue. I had to dig out my compass and take a bearing at one point not far out of the city and I kept it handy for the rest of the race.
Check point six was a relief to get to as this was the 100 mile point and the last cut off. If you didn’t make it here in 26.5 hours you were out of the race. I made it in 25 hours so still had a small buffer but after a 30 minute break to pierce blisters, re tape feet and change socks I was warned by Mark that I would have to run to make the finish. Then started the stress and I hate that in a race. I experienced it a lot during Dragons Back and it puts a whole heap of pressure on. Constantly trying to figure out pace and then work out if you’re going to make it. I don’t need all that, that’s why I do longer, slower races.
Worth a read
Ben and Anne had caught me at this point. Anne, I knew from the Spine and thought would do well, she’s a machine and Ben I had only met the day before and had told me he had attempted this race several times before and had always DNF’d for various reasons; timed out, injury, hypothermia etc.
It was always disappointing but reassuring to see the number of retirees increasing in the “meat wagon” – the support mini bus that was at most check points. Peter the driver would head out and pick up whoever didn’t want to continue or couldn’t continue. The list of people still running was dropping and I think there were 11 left and I was number 9. Unfortunately Trisha couldn’t be roused from her slumber and didn’t continue for much longer and I think was timed out.
I left the CP on my own and did as I was told. I ran. And I kept running for bloody hours which after 100 miles was quite a tough ask but I carried on running, nearly all the way to the next check point but I was very tired and was falling asleep on my feet so I ducked into a sunny graveyard and had a five minute sleep on the floor. I know, a choice of venue but it was warm, sunny and peaceful. After that I carried on plodding. I had a few walking breaks, I stopped to chat to a fisherman for a minute and have a look at some trout, I went wrong on a few turns, had to wade through a stream which aggravated by blisters and as I was coming to CP 7 I noticed two runners in front of me. Always spurred on by a bit of competition I accelerated loads and caught up with Marcin, a chap I had met and ran with a little the day before. Marcin explained that he’d had enough and would call it a day. I tried to talk him out of this as he’d done 113 miles and only had around 35 to go but he’d made his decision. I ran off in search of the check point and came across Andy, another competitor I had ran with yesterday morning at the start and a Viking Way legend. This guy has finished the race about four times and he also explained that he’d had enough and was retiring. Both men were full of support for me and were impressed with how fresh I looked. It was all put on in an effort to destroy them mentally and just around the corner, out of sight I collapsed into a heap and cried in pain 😉
Andy was good enough to give me his chocolate covered coffee beans as I’d forgotten to pack my caffeine tablets and I was concerned about staying awake in the least few hours. Thanks Andy. I absolutely despise coffee and NEVER drink it but these were actually quite nice and certainly did the trick. I still have a few left. The crew at this check point advised that the latest anyone had ever left this checkpoint and finished in the time limit was 13:00. I was leaving at 12:50 so it was all still a bit tight and I knew navigation in the last few hours would be tricky and it would only take one nav error to lose me an hour or more. The stress was still on.
Some strange signage in this part of the world
I left there feeling pretty good but the pain in my feet was a lot worse. All of my blisters seemed to burst at the same time leaving me in excruciating pain but it would only be twenty minutes or so before the mind would get used to it and the pain became the norm….until the next bastard burst.
I kept running at a good pace and tried to minimise walking as much as possible. If the terrain was runnable, I ran it although I did have to stop fairly regularly to stretch off my tightening quads and hammies. This leg was 17.7 miles and I was constantly looking at the time to see how long it would take, then I could work out how long the next 16.6 miles would take on similar terrain but at night. I think I made it to CP8 at 17:50 so five hours and I had five hours and ten minutes to do a similar leg with one mile less. Hmmmm, it was a bit close for my liking. I was told that Anne was about an hour behind so I knew it probably wouldn’t be on for her and that Ben had dropped out or been timed out. I was gutted for him. For me, I had to get a wriggle on. I stocked up with gels and water as I’d finished the last leg very dehydrated. It was really warm in the late afternoon sun and with my increased speed, or at least increased effort, I had run out of water ages ago. I dashed off (slowly) with reassuring words that most people take four hours to get to the finish but don’t stop running just in case. I was convinced that I couldn’t do it in four and would need to keep moving at every opportunity. I had also been told that the mini checkpoint at 141 miles would not exist today due to parking restrictions. This was disappointing as it’s nice to see an encouraging face but it also gave me one less reason to stop for a break. 16.6 miles to go in just over 5 hours. Should be easy and most of the mud was behind me…hopefully.
Typical conditions in the last third
This section wasn’t too bad for a while, fields, roads, more fields, sun setting, nice views. I wanted to get to Greetham in the day light as I’d been warned by several friends that had DNF’d the race previously that they had got lost in this area and ended up on the wrong route. I couldn’t stand the thought of getting lost and not finishing the race after so much effort and pain so I made sure I was there just before the sun disappeared. As soon I knew I had made it passed the tricky bit I put my head torch on for the last couple of hours. But that’s where it all started to go wrong. I was doing OK, ticking off fields, making good progress, running where terrain allowed and walking like John Wayne due to the chaffing when it didn’t but then I seemed to screw up. I got lost around Whitwell which is where CP9 should have been. Signage was awful, I didn’t seem to be where I wanted to be, I had to back track on several occasions but still wasn’t convinced I was in the right place. I was startled by a handful of small deer bounding in front of me which was nice but at this stage I didn’t give a shit. I was stressing and I wanted to get to the finish on time. I used my compass and tried to figure out where I was. Eventually after about ten minutes of panicking and contemplating jumping a few fences and doing a bit of garden hopping I backtracked and found the Viking sign that I’d been following for two days. I made it into the village with relief and followed the signs for Rutland water. Once here, I screwed up again and just couldn’t find the path. It was dark so I couldn’t see the lake and couldn’t use that for orientation and it was tricky to know what was in which direction. There were café’s, shops, car parks, boat parks, outdoor gym areas but no signs for a foot path. I called Mark for info but his phone wasn’t working and got annoyed so I ripped my race number off my shorts to get the number off the back for Peter in the meat wagon. I didn’t want picking up but I did want a clue as to where I should be heading. Peter gave the phone to Mark who tried to tell me where I should head. I asked if he thought I was going to make it and he said yes it’s only about 10km. On a normal day that wouldn’t be a problem but with only 1.5 hours left I didn’t have a big Cushion. I ran as quick as I could maintain and quicker at times but after a while still had the feeling I was lost. I became very disorientated around Barnsdale and spent about twenty minutes running up hills, down hills, everybloodywhere looking for what was on my map. The maps weren’t incredibly detailed but eventually I managed to find my way onto the main road that led into Oakham and I saw a sign stating that, but with no distance mentioned. It looked like 5km to the finish but could have been more and I just hoped I was where I thought I was. I was running as fast as I could and put my watch on to show my speed was 10 minute miles. Surely that would be enough but I just couldn’t see the lights of Oakham. Surely this close I should see more signs of life, signs stating there was a round about coming up, an industrial estate, something. A car pulled in on the other side of the road and offered me a lift but I declined stating that I was in a race and had to keep going. I asked how far to Oakham library and was told two miles. I knew at this point that I was going to make it to the finish in 30 minutes. I walked a bit when I knew I was close to the finish and dawdled the last few hundred meters once I could see the finish banner and the four people at the finish line.. Thanks for waiting folks. I was disappointed to see that one of those people was Anne Green and she hadn’t made it to the finish. I had about 25 minutes to spare so she would have been cutting it very close. I was presented with my medal, trophy and beanie hat which were all great and, in true Cockbain fashion, huge. I like a decent medal, it makes it all worth it.
My fiancé had booked a hotel within walking distance so I had a beer and retired for a shower and a lie down before an early start the next morning and few trains, buses and a plane back to work. I finished this race in a bit of a state with quite bad feet. I’ve been managing foot health well for the past couple of years but this one took its toll and I know I’ll be losing three nails soon and had a lot of blisters. Never mind, nothing permanent and I’m over the moon to knock out such a tough race whilst still recovering from an equally tough one six weeks before. Not a bad start to the year but I might take a bit of time off now.
This was a well organised and great value race that I hope is put on again in the future. I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking to step up from the 100 mile distance.
Well done to all finishers.
Thanks as always goes to my sponsors