We arrived in Strealey on Thames at about 9pm on Friday night, the river was wild, trashing the sides of the banks with a roar. We had plans in this town this weekend but were given a very clear early warning that we humans would not be running the show this time.
Strealey is in an very interesting location, it sits on the UK's most iconic river at a point where the water cuts through the "Ridgeway", an 85 mile chain of hills and high ground stretching from the west of England almost to the capital. Streatley sits low on the river but it is surrounded by high places, wonderful forests and meadows. Armies and Pilgrims marched along this high ground thousands of years ago, it was the ancient M4. The river would have brought trade and culture from afar. This place was a crossroads for ancient England. It was also the ideal place to hold an interesting race.
The location of Streatley, on a flat river path and in the middle of challenging hills and trails presented an ideal opportunity for James Elson of Centurion Running to create a unique 100 mile race, where runners would run out and back 25 miles each of the 4 spurs of the town, heading north on the river and heading back, then south on the river and returning, east on the Ridgeway and back and finally west on the Ridgeway and finishing in the town.
It was also the ideal location for something a bit different alltogether. A race I thought of as a way of challenging people who may have already been challenged in all the conventional ways. We don't have mountains or jungles or deserts or tundra, we have the Great British winter. Without needing to use words like "hardest", "toughest", "longest", "wettest", "highest", "hottest" or anythingelseisest we wanted to put something on that would still be something to some of ultra runnings most resilient characters.
And so we devised THE WORLD'S MOST POINTLESS RACE.
This idea came to me a while ago when I thought about what drives me to the finish of a race. Whether I am running a 10k, a Spartathlon or across the USA there is always a point where I want it all to end. All the time in these cases I think about how much time I have remaining, I can usually estimate based on the distance I have to cover. I imagined what it would be like to take that comfort away, to not know what is left. I am not sure how I'd be able to deal with this. I wondered if others could edal with this.
Soon after I expressed this idea in an interview with Simon Freeman I heard from my friend and Centurion running race director James Elson, he said he loved the idea and we should just do it. I agreed straight away and started to think about how we would practically construct a race that I do not believe has been tried before. The Piece of String Race was born.
We had huge fun devising the routes, picking the runners, setting the rules and talking on and on about it but leaving out one detail, the overall distance of the race. Ultra runner friends and even non running friends were constantly intrigued by this concept and keen to know the answer, how far was it? We would not say. In fact we did not yet know.
I got to the hall around 9 pm and the only person there was Peter Cuisick. Sam Robson and Mimi Anderson were around the town somewhere. We just dumped some stuff and headed to a curry house for a final relaxed meal before the carnage started. While eating our food Wouter Hamelinck came in and we insisted he joined ud for the last relaxing meal he may have for some time.
I met Wouter in Knoxville Airport after we had both failed to complete the Barkley Marathons. I failed a lot more than he did. We went through the list of stuff we had done as you do in these situations and Wouters list was practically a list of everything everyone wants to do. Hardrock, Tor Des Geants, Grand Raid, Trans Gax, Himalayan 850k, The Dragons Back. He runs 100 milers about every fortnight. He is a phenomenal athlete who just seems to turn up to every event he can find just for the joy of it. I told him about this race in the airport and was delighted to see him put in an application for the race.
On entering the hall again we saw Mimi and Sam. James and Drew started looking at maps and figuring out diversions the the Winter 100 course and I was going to have to follow their lead as the POS run shared much of the same course. This race was supposed to be hard without these weather conditions. Looked like these runners had signed up for something even more miserable than we intended.
The start briefing felt unusual. It felt like by telling some of the most experienced ultra runners about saftey was making them suck eggs but it was essential to let them know what they were getting themselves in for. Even though the whole point was that they didn't know what they were getting themselves in for.
An idea we came up with to decide the length of the route was to have 5 different distances hidden in envelopes and for one of the runners to select the distance and hence condeming their fellow competitors to whatever misery was inside. This priveledge was bestowed upon Sam Robson who didn't quite send a photo of his suffering as was part of the race entry criteria.
He picked the envelope and James and I looked and grinned at what was instore. Was it the longest distance? The Shortest? In the middle? No one will ever know.
At 12.01 10 brave explorers left the Morrell room and headed out onto the Ridgeway path which they were told to follow until further notice. The paths ends in 50 miles at Swindon. Were we about to make them run to Swindon? Was that too cruel?
We sent Andy Humphrey and Jen Bradley to some point along the ridgeway, I said to Jen to make sure she finds the correct spot otherwise all the runners might die. They made it ok. We relaxed a little before the storm in the room at just gone midnight, James slept as in 6 hours he'd have 100 other runners coming in to try their luck against the British winter.
I got texts that the runners at the front wereabsolutely going for it, reaching about 9 miles in 1.10. Over that terrain its a very quick pace though they knew there was a chance that the race may only be a mile long and so the competitive runners made sure they were near the front always. This was not a way to pace a race. Or was it?
While they were out there Rob Westaway and I drew up their next maps, a lovely 11 mile circular route mostly on the Berkshire Circular. It was georgous in the daylight and in nice weather, not too sure I'd fancy it in the dark and wet mind. Wouter, Peter and Sam were the first runners back and I gave them their maps and sent them on their way. They seemed keen to stick together at the moment. Around 20 minutes after Mimi, Mick and Chris came through, looking in good spirits.
I heard early on that Lee was having stomach problems and during the second loop I got a call from him saying that he was not going to ocntinue. This was a shame as he was one of the runners who was most looking forward to this. We managed to get him picked up from a road in the middle on nowhere and bring him back to base.
We chose Lee because of his ultra running pedegree. Anyone who can run on a treadmill for a week is worthy of this test. Lee held the world record for this until very recently and I think is having a go at reclaiming this next year, after having a crack at the spine race. He made an ambitious attempt to run the JOGLE in world record time and has won other ultra marathon events. It was great having him here and hope that he comes again next time.
The leaders were going so fast that there was a chance that they would finish loop three before some of the runners had finished loop two. This was going to cause a problem as when designing the routes we tried to make sure that the runners never saw each other after the start, unless they were running together. The changes meant that there was a chance runners could get lapped and hence those behind will know they have another loop to do at least.
Inevitably this happened but did not think it was a big deal at first. Some of the runners got lost in the first loop but most had managed to get around the second time without too much bother as it started to get light. It was really muddy underfoot and at 10am as promised it started to piss it down which was going to cause all sorts of problems later on.
The 4th loop was a run along the ridgeway path towards Wallingford and then they were supposed to run back down the Thames with the bulk of the 100 mile runners who would have started about then. The timings worked OK except that the path had to be diverted to avoid the river and much of it was waterlogged. James gave the instruction that if you can not see the river bank then avoid. Drew Sheffield and Tim Adams had run over the course in the morning to make sure it was OK but the heavy rain and the rapidly changing nature of the route made it difficult.
Mimi, Chris and Mick returned from this loop having not completed the whole mileage due to not being able to get through the water. They were very honest about it and we said that we'd devise another loop for them to make up the miles. It was obvious now that it was going to be hard to really know what was going on in this race as self sufficiency was the key.
Who would have thought a race where no one knows what's going on would be so difficult?
One thing that struck me as the runners came in and left was that they had all proved why they were picked to run this experiemental race in the first place. We didn't necesserily want to pick an "elite" starting line up but we needed to pick runners who were capable and proven of looking after themselves. The race was to test the hypothesis that it would be very hard to finish a race where you don't know how far you have to go but also the race format itself was being tested. Could a race like this really work? Where runners came and went with different instructions each time, where even those helping out could not know fully what was going on? I was delighted to see that all the runners were taking this race in the spirit it was intended, as a test of psychology but also a test of race format. All ten runners justified their selection from the 50 odd applications we got to take part.
We started to announce cut-offs, with an estimated finish time in mind for the leaders and the opening times of some of the checkpoints we had to impose a schedule. At the end of loop 3 in looked like Tom, Niall and Robert were going to struggle to make the cut off for loop three but they actually sped up considerably (after Tom removed the house he was carrying on his back) and came in at the end in good time. Unfortunately loop 4 proved to be too much and they came in after the cut off we advertised. They were disappointed but relieved at the same time. Rob and Niall had been suffering with stomach problems as Lee had early on.
I had never met Tom, Niall or Rob before, I knew about them through forums and word of mouth and they were all a privilege to meet. Tom was a joy, really pleased to be part of the race and thankful of the idea. He made some suggestions about how to make it even harder, for example not letting runners know how far the loop was. This was something we were playing around with but couldn't do in the end due to the weather. Niall (pronounced Neil) and Rob were outstanding too, they were both looking a bit pale by the end and all three were looking to try again the next time. They would all be more than welcome.
Loop 5 was to be a nice 13 mile trail heading back towards Wallingford. It was light now and we didn't anticipate many problems. Wouter finished loop 4 way ahead of anyone else and Sam was now in second, Peter came in third but was going to drop out due to injury. I think he expected the race to be shorter than it was. It was a great shame to see him go too.
This was the first time I met Peter Cusick. I have seen his name on finishing lists of some really tought stuff such as the world deca ironman championships in Mexico and the GUCR. He was a lovely man and very fast runner and it was a real shame to see him drop out. Hopefully next year he'll come back. Read his race report here.
So we were now down to five. Wouter tearing it up right at the front, Sam not far behind and then Mimi, Mick and Chris running as a group. These three were given an extra loop to do to make up for what they missed in loop 4. Alex Flynn was on hand to help divise something that was a long slog up a hill and back down again. Alex was supposed to be running this event too but pulled out during the week as he had other race commitments. I had read a lot about Alex before this race. He has been diagnosed with Parkinsons disease and has taken up some epic challenges to raise awareness and funds for the cause. It was a pleasure to meet him at last and he was really helpful over the weekend, popping in to give support and offer advice.
I had also never met Chris Ette and Mick Barnes before but again knew that they were incredibly tough athletes. Chris Ette is the son of Eddie Ette, the first person to complete the Arch to Arc triathlon of running from Marble Arch to Dover, swimming the channel then cycling to Paris. He had recently completed a deca ironman. Mick is a veteran of many hundred milers and a very strong character.
I've known Mimi for a while now. I had her and a couple of others in mind when I thought up this race and was delighted to see she was one of the first to sign up. She thought it was a joke at first. She has achieved more than pretty much anyone I know, world records, race wins and all sorts of adventures. I really wanted to see how she would fair in a race such as this. She sounds so relaxed when outside of running but as soon as she is in the arena she is super focused and determined to finish. Read her report here.
Loop 6 was going to be evil. Rob and I had ran this course two weeks ago and found a nice trail run to Reading, about 13 miles away and the intention was that they would do this really hard section, intercept the Winter 100 checkpoint on the Thames at Reading and then head back along the river, an easyish 12 miles. However the flooding of the river meant that we could not do this and instead, after about 70 miles of running we had given the runners a really really tough marathon to do, out and back along the trails, in the dark and with horrific mud. This is where the string started to unravel.
It was not the intention to make the race this hard. I wanted something that was predominatly on "easy" trails without the need for navigation. I knew this bit would be very difficult. Wouter can follow a map with extreme precision, I have never seen anything like it. Sam is quite handy too and set out on the loop sometime after. Mimi, Mick and Chris did their "penalty" loop before setting out. We sent Jany and Matt off to a pub near Reading to man the checkpoint. They were brilliant in helping over the weekend.
It soon became very clear as the rain thrashed down that this loop was a bad idea and in retrospect I would not have done it had we known just how muddy it would be. I was anticipating that perhaps the fastest would do this bit in 5 hours but it was more like 8. James and I decided to cut the loop short and Mark Cockbain and Alex were sent to a point that made it 10 miles instead of 13, the problem was that Wouter had already passed though at that point. He was on his way back when Sam was intercepted and told to go back. The others ended up doing something else entirely.
I wanted to keep people in the race as best I could. This wasn't supposed to be about the navigation, the mud or the rain but about the distance and the uncertainty. I didn't really have an idea as to how many people would finish, I didn't want no one to finish, that was not the point. I wanted to create something unique that would challenge some of the runners that had done it all before. I didn't want to send them into a mudbath and make things hard just for the sake of it. It was really hard trying to keep it all together at the same time as trying to make it a race where everyone was doing the same thing. I asked Dick Kearn whether he thought that organising races was stupider than running these races. He replied that the former certainly ages you faster.
Wouter returned from the evil marathon not long before Sam did though Sam had done less of the route. Wouter then left onto the Ridgeway where Mimi, Mick and Chris already were having been diverted. It was all a bit of a mess. I got a call from Mimi saying that they were on the Ridgeway and sat in an ambulance and deciding whether to drop out or not. It was a really tough call but all three decided to call it a day then at around midnight, they had been going for about 24 hours.
Wouter and Sam headed onto the ridgeway where the rest of the run as to take place. James and I had spent some time thinking about the endgame, where and how we were going to finish this. The loops now were going to be on the "easily" navigable trails on the Ridgeway and they would be in amongst the 100 mile runners. With various out and backs along the path and then a short 5 mile circular on the Berkshire trail we invented. When both runners left Streatley I was given a lift to a part of the Ridgeway where I was ready to tell the runners that it was all over. Sam was given an extra loop to make up for some of the miles he missed on the death marathon. I was looking forward to it all being done.
We headed out, the rain had stopped but the wind was vicious. Atop a beacon on the Ridgeway I waited for the runners to arrive. I got to a lorry parked up a hill and spoke to some people who said they had not seen a runner come through for hours. The leader of the 100 race Richie Cunningham and second place Nick Weston were through but there was no one else in sight. I managed to get some sleep in the ambulance before I saw runners coming it.
I had been up since 6am on Friday morning, it was now 3am on Sunday. I rarely felt tired, I was buzzing all over the place and a bit stressed by trying to keep everything together. I was clearly tired though as was James Elson who still had till 4pm to keep going to. Sometimes I was speaking in tongues, at some point I asked James "can you remember where I left the clip board" to which he replied looking at his watch "about 15 minutes I think". Now it was the final few miles and I was almost over. Paul and Luke were onhand to help out at the penultimate checkpoint which of course the runners didn't know. Those guys too were brilliant for dedicating their saturday night to staying in a car in the middle of freezing nowhere to help this race happen.
Wouter came through, looking releved to have finished and glad that he was not going to miss his 4pm train. We were trying to keep it all under wraps but in total he would have run about 115 miles, perhaps more. Jany and Matt bundled him into the car to drive him back to the base and I waited for Sam.
I met Sam earlier this year at the pilgrims challenge. I didn't know at the time but he was the guy who I read about in the news who ran the London Marathon and then ran home to Cambridgeshire. I was glad when he applied to be in the race and was also very glad that he was going to be one of the only two finishers in the first edition of this event. We could see headlights in the distance but they took an age to get here up the hill. Sam actually had a half hour sleep only a few miles from the end. Obviosuly I doubt he would have done this if he knew the finish was only an hour away.
When he finally came through with some other 100 mile runners he looked a little suprised to see me. The conversation went something like this;
Sam - "ahhh, Hello" (not quite twigging that this was the only time I had left the Streatley base
Me - "I guess you know what this means?"
Sam - (looking a little lifted) "Is that the end?"
Me - "Yes it is, congratulations".
Then there was a hug, not too much of the soppy stuff but a sense of relief from us both I think. Sam had finished the inaugural Piece of String Fun Run and no one died. Telling a finisher that they were finished was what I had looked forward to for the whole year I had this idea.
This was just before sunrise.
And so the endless race came to an end. It was the first time I have tried my hand at race directing and have learned so much. There are a load of things I will change for next year but it made me feel great to already be talking about next year. A lot of people seemed really captivated by this race and although I don't think I got the answers to the questions I originally had when I set 10 runners on this challenge I think there is now an appetite to continue this pointless race.
A few thankyous. All of those who helped out. Jen Bradley, Andy Humphrey, Rob Westaway, Gemma, Mark Cockbain, Alex Wilson, Jany Tsai and Matt, Alex Flynn. Keith Godden who was a really great person to have around and a calming influence when things seemed to be going wrong. Many of the runners here were geared up in the great things he has on his website so have a look here. Paul Rushden and Luke Charmichael were fantastic in taking on that last station in the middle of the night and it was great to have that covered. Dick Kearn, Drew Sheffiled, Jo Kilkenny, Claire Shelley, Paul (Ultra Paolo - sorry I don't know your second name), Richard Lendon. So many people around to help out at this crazy event.
I'd like to thank all the runners too. Like I said earlier you all demonstrated why you were chosen to participate and it would be great to see you next time.
Mostly I think James Elson deserves a huge well done. In the space of two years your races have become the standard to meet. It does not suprise me that your races fill up in days. Your dedication to putting on a great but safe event for ultra runners is unrivalled and if there were a poll for "UK race director of the year" I reckon you'll clean up.
In fitting with the ideals of the race we are not going to publish official finishing times, rankings or distances. All that we are going to say is that in the inaugural Piece of String race 2012 there were 10 starters and 2 finishers.
Now, about my other evil race idea...