Pilgrim Challenge – part 1


What would I even have to write on these race reports if I didn’t have public transport to grumble about? Not even a 2 day, 66 mile trail event through the most stunning scenery inside the M25 could upstage my hatred of public transport.

I’ve made my peace with the preparation stage of races. If you can get hold of your nutritionally perfect pre race meal, or do your yoga routine exactly 9 hours and 17 minutes before the race starts, or sleep in your own portable oxygen tent, then good for you; but if you have any sort of life you probably have to take what you’re given and hope it doesn’t give you the shits. You might be lucky enough to have a car and be able to drive to bumfuck nowhere, and you might even find parking there, but if not – and you still insist on traipsing around the woods in the depths of winter – you might have to brave the train.

A few weeks out from the Pilgrim Challenge I looked up trains to Farnham and saw that there was a direct train from my home station, and I would be just about safe to make the pre-race briefing at 8.30 on the Saturday morning. Lovely jubbly. Then it was New Year, which South West Trains celebrated with a prolonged series of engineering works closing the line down every weekend until further notice. Suddenly the options were narrowed down to a) leave at 5am and still be late or b) go the night before. Which means a Friday night commuter train. Which means everyone hates you and wishes you dead.


After a hectic week at work and a last minute five-thirty-on-a-Friday job, I jumped on the train as soon as it was announced to find a spot where me and my enormous hiking pack would be slightly less in the way. No baggage racks that would take it, no standing gaps to speak of. The train started to fill up with grumpy, tired, weekending commuters, and I mentally wrote my obituary.

Thankfully a Kind Man came to my rescue by shunting the pack into a gap between seats that I would have had no chance at reaching. He warned me that the 18:55 gets pretty full at least as far as Woking, with a slightly feral demeanour and a war vet twitch in one eye, and retreated to a safe distance. Just in time for an Important Man to bustle in, spend fully ten minutes arranging his newspapers then take the seat next to me, and half of mine with it. I clearly needn’t have worried.

All’s well that ends well, as someone said once, and within an hour I was settled into my hotel in Farnham with fellow Chaser and trail club leader Cat, making excited squeaky noises and covering the room with random bits of running kit. Staying over the night before definitely turned out to be the right call – despite me waking up in the morning to what sounded like my pet budgies and then feeling a bit homesick when I realised it wasn’t them – when we peered out of the window to a blanket of powdery white snow.


We were picked up from Farnham station by the Extreme Energy fun bus and shuttled straight to the starting line, the first sign of just how well we would be looked after over the weekend. Two marquees set up next to the starting pen were the first point of call for runners to pick up their race numbers, electronic tags and cups of hot coffee before leaving it to the last possible minute to brave the freezing weather outside, and I mean freezing. Buffs, double gloves, gaiters, long tights, layers upon layers of clothing, still everyone shivered violently as we waited for the off. I had stuck stubbornly with my short shorts (they’ve never let me down yet) and faced hypothermia with defiance.

To start the race we would beating a path through settling snow and cutting across private farmland before picking up the North Downs Way. I played a game with myself where I tried to keep Cat in view for as long as possible, which I lost almost as soon as we crossed the road. And then remembered she is Superwoman, and I am not, and I was meant to be pacing myself for thirty three steady but treacherous trail miles. Twice.

Thinking about the enormity of the challenge lying ahead is a dangerous move – not that the distance particularly freaks me out, but even my slightly warped brain has trouble processing what to do with sixty plus miles ahead of me. Instead I broke it down into chunks between checkpoints, each of them a separate and manageable 6-10 mile race, knowing that at the end there’d be opportunity for a rest and time to stuff my pockets with salted pretzels, peanut butter sandwiches and sausage rolls. Funnily enough though, every now and again I felt like if I stopped I could never get going again, but as soon as I’d hit a checkpoint and stuffed my mush I’d be raring to go as if back at the beginning of the race, almost without pausing for breath. Somehow, just having something to look forward to gave me the energy to push on. Especially as that something was food.

Quite happy to drift off into my own little world for a while and enjoy the scenery, I suddenly realised this was my first snow all winter, living as I do in tropical south west London. I couldn’t help but grin. As I’ve said before, ultra running keeps giving me more and more reasons to indulge my inner child: tearing down hills, eating peanut butter and jelly babies and drinking orange squash, getting covered in mud without feeling guilty, and now snow. There’s your fountain of youth.

And under the snow, cheekily hidden beneath the crisp crust, there lay icy puddles and mud.


I’ve had a fair few run ins with mud in my running career so far – looking back through my blog posts I found the one on Bromley 10k in January last year and my first attempt at the Moonlight Challenge six weeks afterwards, and I was reminded of that totally hopeless Atreyu-in-the-bog impression and my abject failure to cope. Something about the way it was pulling my feet down, like running in double gravity, just destroyed me mentally. But I’ve put myself through a lot of mud in the last twelve months and made it my friend – the mud along the North Downs Way more than any other – and I even found myself feeling stronger for attacking the boggiest sections and occasionally skipping past other runners. I also remembered the lesson that I learned on the Moonlight Challenge: the faster you go across mud the less you come in contact with it. In other words, get a bloody move on and stop whinging.

The other big challenge I decided to tackle in a completely different way: with a total of 66 miles and just under 6000 feet of elevation to cover, there was no point in wasting my energy running up every hill, and there were plenty of the buggers. Sure, I jogged over the first few undulations feeling smug, but I knew as soon as I hit Guildford that effort saving mode would be the key, all the while putting out of mind the impending climb up Box Hill around mile 21. My trusty tactic of running hills to effort – trudge up, tear down – was as successful as I could have hoped. Successful, in that I didn’t collapse in a heap when faced with the first of 268 stairs.


As thoughtful as it was of someone to build steps for climbing Box Hill, I had to placate my grumbling quads with the thought that at least I’d be going down them tomorrow, which is basically my favourite thing of all things ever. That being said I don’t think it was the elevation that I struggled with so much as the succession of false endings. Only a few more steps to go, then I’m at the top of the hill. What’s this, round the corner? Oh look, more bastard steps. Plainly I cannot count to 268.

Actually, it wasn’t even climbing Box Hill that brought me closest to a nervous breakdown that weekend. Did you know that when you get to the top of Box Hill there’s another little hill just beyond it? Can’t be more than a quarter of a mile long, but it’s almost as high, with a gradient like a painter’s ladder. A band of hikers coming the other way cheerfully informed me I was nearly at the top, as I literally crawled up on all fours. Quite possibly I spat at them.


But once you reach the top, all there is to do is go back down again. At least, figuratively and literally, going downhill is what it felt like. My Garmin disagrees; according to him we had another fair old climb, not to mention 11 more miles to run, but I have absolutely no recollection of this. At some point there would have been the old faithful downhill at Denbies wine estate – a particular favourite spot, can’t imagine why – looking out over glorious acres of vines all dusted with snow like icing sugar on a Yule log. Despite my hazy memory I remember that image vividly, and I remember thinking that I should take a photo and then deciding not to stop and lose momentum, and that the mental image was strong enough I’d never need a photo to remember it. Flawless logic for an exhausted, frozen, mileage-addled brain.

A brain that was to thoroughly let me down, just a couple of miles from the end. I’d veered off course a few times but not in any way that I couldn’t recover from, usually because other runners who weren’t too stupid to read directions would call me back or point me in the right direction. The North Downs Way is pretty easy to follow when you’re out on the downs proper; contrary to what you’d think, those parts were the easiest to navigate. But as soon as it crossed civilisation of any kind – crossing a road, going through a private estate, coinciding with a footpath – I would be stymied by sign blindness and suddenly unable to navigate a road going in only one direction.

Which is exactly how I managed to follow the signs leading us out of the Gatton Park School grounds not back onto the North Downs Way, but instead onto a tiny country road with a 50mph speed limit and not quite enough room for two cars and a pedestrian to pass. This is not a problem for the cars. It IS a problem for the pedestrian.

Looking back up the road I suddenly noticed I’d been running alone along a dwindling grass verge, following some orange arrows from another race, for a good fifteen minutes. Given that going back the way I came would mean a) going uphill and b) more miles on feet that were already numb with cold, I decided to sprint to the relatively safety of the other end of the road where I could ring the race director and beg for directions, thereby admitting that I’m a massive numpty. Neil was so graceful, kind and patient while working out where I was and how to get me back on track, I was torn between wanting to find and thank him when I got back to base and avoiding owning up to being the prat who ran a mile and a half down a high road.

So far, and yet so close. My little detour meant I’d had to give up on the vague target of six and a half hours, but since I’d managed to get lost just as we were due to turn into Merstham I was only a few winding streets away from the end. Rejoining the Pilgrim Challenge runners in the village I realised that because of the lack of other runners on the high road I’d been assuming I was dead last, rather than noticing I was just in the wrong place, which is why I plugged on in the wrong direction for so long. Of course I wasn’t last. Sprinting up to the finish line at the doors of the school after six hours and thirty seven minutes I found a fair few pairs of muddy trail shoes lined up, but over half the field still out in the freezing cold.

The challenge welcomes walkers as well as runners, so long after I’d had my nice hot shower, eaten a nourishing pasta dinner and tucked myself up in my sleeping bag with my compression socks and book there were three brave, hardy souls still out on the Downs. They eventually finished the first day in just over thirteen hours, having started an hour earlier than most of the runners and due to start again at 7am the next morning. Let me be clear: these are remarkable, awesome people. Any chump can run as fast as possible to get to a nice warm sleeping bag at the end. Staying out in the freezing weather, open to the elements and the pitch darkness, knowing there’s maybe five hours of sleep between finishing this leg and starting it all over again, is an unfathomable kind of tough.

So that was me done for day 1. A bit sore, not quite as sociable as I’d hoped to be that evening and rueing my lack of camp bed on the hard gym floor, but I was halfway there. Now all I had to do was the same thing all over again, in reverse. Even as I fell asleep, I couldn’t bloody wait to wake up again.

Click here for day 2…

Salisbury 5-4-3-2-1 50k


A day after completing 39 miles of the 50 Mile Challenge, I was straight back on my laptop looking up trail marathons and ultras that fit around the QPR fixture list. Like a kid in a sweet shop, I wanted one of everything and like a kid my eyes are usually bigger than my belly. And then my eyes landed on the Salisbury 5-4-3-2-1, and I knew I’d found the sweet for me.

So named because the route covers five rivers, four hills, three country estates, two castles and one cathedral, runners can choose from 10k, half marathon, 30k, marathon and 50k distances, all taking in the beautiful scenery of Salisbury and a perfect balance of mixed terrain. Salisbury isn’t exactly local to me, but luckily it IS local to Andy’s dad and stepmum who kindly put me up for the night before, provided an amazing pasta dinner (and two glasses of champagne – hic) and a roast turkey sandwich after the race, not to mention lifts here there and everywhere. Very favourable reviews expected on Tripadvisor.

The start and finish is at the fire station on Ashley Road, where runners and walkers can pick up their race numbers, drop off bags, buy t-shirts and queue for portaloos while hiding from the rain. That’s right; rain, in the middle of a heatwave. The forecast for the week was sun-sun-sun-APOCALYPTIC RAIN-sun again. Ah well; it’s not a trail race unless you get good and muddy.

Thanks to the staggered starts, the fact that there were large numbers of participants all doing different races didn’t affect the morning running smoothly, crammed as everyone was in the small footprint of the station while avoiding the rain in the forecourt. Certainly when I was waiting for my 9am start the queue for the portaloos was nothing like your usual M25 style tailbacks, and I had my number in my hand and my bag stowed away within about three minutes.

For the first time I was trying out Event Clips rather than safety pins, in an effort to save the fabric of my clothes. They are incredibly fiddly, and you do have to punch holes through the Tyvek number otherwise they don’t work, so I’m not sure they served the purpose I bought them for, which was to make it easier to swap my number between t-shirts when I got too wet. Luckily though, I came across a much more brilliant solution that I can’t believe I’ve never employed before – fixing my number to my shorts instead, so that it wouldn’t matter what top I was wearing or even if I had my jacket on. Once again, the simplest solution turned out to be the best. And I lost one of the clips on the way round anyway.


While trying for the first time ever to take a pre-race selfie (I am SO 21st century) I bumped into a lady who thought I was a race photographer – what a poor lookout for the art of photography that would be – and who turned out to be from Witney Road Runners (although originally Holland). Aukje was doing her first ultra to raise money for the Teenage Cancer Trust as her own 16 year old daughter is currently fighting the disease. Remarkably, her training for this event had all taken place on a treadmill at home because she was unable to leave her daughter to go on long runs, which puts into perspective every time I’ve chickened out of a training run because of three drops of rain or a y in the day. She and I took each other’s photos by the starting clock and jiggled about nervously waiting for the off. I couldn’t keep up with her and lost her before the first corner, but I emailed her after the race and of course, she nailed it. Even though I never run for charity now, it reminded me of why I decided to do my first marathon last year; to raise money for two cancer charities who had helped a friend of mine and to repay their kindness. That race feels like so long ago now.

The extra distance making up the 50k route is actually a northbound loop tacked onto the beginning of the marathon route, joining up again at Old Sarum – after that the two groups stayed together the whole way round. Psychologically this was really helpful, as long as you knew that you were actually ahead of the mile markers (marked for the marathon route) and not making up the distance at the end. Plus, the 50k runners got to run through something the marathoners wouldn’t – a gorgeous farm with cows, sheep, donkeys and a camel. An actual live camel. I tried to get a photo but he wasn’t having any of it. The donkeys meanwhile were amusing themselves by running alongside us, getting to the end of their enclosure, trotting back and doing it all over again with the next set of runners. You don’t get that on city marathons.

The trails just before and after Old Sarum were very narrow – literally wide enough for one foot in front of the other, which made for a comedy bit of mincing – as well as rough underfoot and cambered, so it was important to concentrate. Picking my way between rocks and hidden trenches I was still feeling pretty strong at that point, and I tried also to remain aware of my posture, keep my shoulders down and my core strong. It’s moments like this that I find yoga practice has been particularly useful for, maintaining balance and developing a good economic running form. And what’s more, it meant that I wasn’t hunched over by the time I got to the top of the hill like I used to be, and I got to see some breathtaking views.

Salisbury cover

There is one slight drawback to the staggered starts, although I can’t see how you’d get around it or if it really makes that much difference; because the marathon runners start half an hour after the 50k runners, there are some slightly hairy overtaking moments just after Old Sarum while the faster runners in the second group try to get past the slowest ones in the first (i.e. me) on the narrow twisty trails. That being said it was all terribly polite – “Excuse me, pardon me, could I get by please?” – and soon enough I was able to recognise the sound of much faster feet about to crash into me with enough time to dive into the bushes. To be fair it’s not a PB course, as if that weren’t blindingly obvious.

After the next aid station and on the way up another grassy hill I fell in step with another runner and we began chatting away. Although originally from Salisbury, Claire turned out to be representing Ealing Eagles RC who organise my favourite half marathon, the Ealing Half, which we’d both be running for the third time in a month or so. We shared stories about previous races – remembering that in the first year the goody bag included a can of London Pride, probably the best thing I’ve got from a race other than a medal – and for the second time in two races I found myself thoroughly enjoying the social aspect of long distance running, debunking the myth that it’s a lonely sport. It’s certainly peaceful, meditative and quiet if you want it to be, but I’ve learned more chatting with fellow runners at organised events than I ever have from magazines or social media.

I found the variation between road and trails just right – as soon as I found myself tiring of the uneven terrain, a paved section popped up and usually took us to a beautiful stately home or picturesque village; before the flat ground threatened to become boring we were back in the woods or tiptoeing around bulls in a field. I didn’t even put my iPad shuffle on until somewhere around mile 17, and nor did I miss it until then. With my Garmin running out of battery around mile 19, the major technological break rough for me turned out to be investment in a pair of gaiters – I had gambled on my road shoes, having ended up with blisters from the trail ones last time out, but bought a pair of Inov8 gaiters to go over the top and keep out stones and crud as well as wick away moisture, and they worked an absolute treat.

Salisbury 3

The eerily lit but picturesque Great Yews Wood was a highlight – I entered it just in time for the sun to come out and dry up the latest downpour, which shone through the thick canopy and made the wood glow green. I felt like a character in Wind of the Willows – probably more Mr Toad than Ratty, but hey – and was having so much fun I very nearly missed the timing mat at the 32k split point. One thing I definitely didn’t miss though was the homemade flapjack being handed out just afterwards. If the race is this well catered every year I’m never bothering with a backpack again.

After leaving the wood we turned north again, towards the next checkpoint at Coombe Bissett (or as Andy’s niece and nephew like to call it, Coombe Biscuit). By this time I was beginning to tire – not helped by wading through newly softened ground and trudging up some fairly relentless hills – and had to walk a fair bit of this section. Unlike previous long runs though I knew it was just my body complaining – mentally I was still feeling fresh and enjoying the day. So I took stock, recognised that I was hitting my wall and allowed myself to walk for a bit.

The thing about the wall, I’ve learned, is that once you get over it there’s usually more road on the other side. I think it’s one of the reasons I prefer above marathon length distances. Think about it – in marathons, I usually hit the wall around 20 miles so by the time I cross the finishing line I’m still recovering and probably a little demoralised for ending on a low note. As long as I was stopping at 26 miles I never got the exhilarating feeling of coming out the other side, and so I never knew there was one. For me, fatigue isn’t a linear progression – i.e. the longer you run the more tired you get. It’s more like a sine wave with peaks and troughs. Yeah, this bit feels horrible, but be patient; eventually your muscles will loosen up again and you’ll get your next wind. Three years on from my first jog to the end of the road I don’t know that my body has got stronger, but I know that my mind has, all thanks to this simple truth.

Back onto roads temporarily, I trotted up to the Fox and Goose checkpoint to take advantage of the jelly babies and an opportunity to stretch. There was an uplifting hubbub and lots of friendly chatter between runners, marshals and pubgoers, bringing us back to society temporarily after a long stretch through fields and woods. It started to spit so I got my waterproof out, only for it to ease up within minutes of leaving the pub, forcing me to pause and pack it away in my backpack again – I ended up doing this five or six times and I don’t think it helped my momentum. I’m still trying out options to find the race kit that suits me best, and on this day I was wearing a hydration backpack with enough room to carry my spare top and socks, waterproof jacket and food – unfortunately it meant stopping to unclip the pack, take it off and rummage around every time I needed something. Of course what I really want is one of the super awesome Ultimate Direction race vests with everything to hand, but since I don’t swim in gold coins like Scrooge McDuck I think I’ll make do with my belt pouch and water bottle next time.

Salisbury 4

I continued to struggle for the next couple of miles, up to and through the racecourse, and stuck with my program of walking when I needed to and trotting when I could bear it. The iPod came in very handy here, taking my mind off the pain – I’ve discovered that podcasts are absolutely perfect for long runs, not having a beat to throw off your rhythm and providing just enough distraction. I had downloaded a handful of Freakonomics podcasts which are both fascinating and thought provoking – I figured I’m doing nothing else with my brain for a few hours, so I might as well learn something.

Fuelled by more orange squash and homemade baked goodies – amazingly juicy bread and butter pudding this time – I started to loosen up again and by the time we reached Wilton and turned east for the final stretch I was almost feeling strong again. The sun was drying up the last of the rain showers, and since the rain had washed the salt from my face and my muscles were feeling refreshed I could have believed that I was back at the beginning of the race, not twenty odd miles into it. I became aware of the mechanics of my body again; the rotation of my hips, the power in my thighs, the balls of my feet pushing off the ground. I was over the wall.

Without my Garmin to tell me how fast I was going I relied on how I was feeling to gauge pace. I came across the 22 mile marker, meaning presumably that I was four miles from the end, but by this stage I was reluctant to believe the markers. This was at 2.55pm – so I didn’t think I could be far off my target of seven hours even if there were more than four miles left. It gave me the drive I needed to push on.

Despite a couple of wobbly moments where the arrows seemed to be for marathoners rather than 50k runners – further fuelling my distrust of them – I kept up a comfortable but raceworthy speed. Turning into a park I passed one other 50k runner who asked me how far away I thought we were. For some reason I still had four miles in my mind, whereas he was expecting the answer to be nearer one, so we went our own ways having thoroughly confused each other. I hadn’t seen any mile markers since the one at 22 (26?) and I didn’t see any more before the finishing line. I just gently ramped up my pace.

Coming through Salisbury Town Centre I knew we couldn’t be far from the end, although for some reason I’d forgotten than we’d end up where we started and that I should have been looking for the fire station. I was flying now, darting between pedestrians and skipping over the many little bridges, somehow managing to overtake about 5 or 6 runners on the way. Every time I overtook someone I felt a rush of adrenalin, followed by a pang of fear that I’d get lost now I didn’t have anyone to follow. My podcast playlist looped back to the beginning and I just ignored it, chanting “I must be at the end now, I must be at the end now” over and over. I didn’t know what pace I was going but I knew there was air turbulence cooling my face even though there was no wind, so I must have been under 9 minute miles albeit briefly.

Finally the fire station appeared on the left and with it the finishing clock. I sprinted to the timing mat, watching the clock hit 15:36 just before I crossed it. Six hours and thirty six minutes. Not bad for a slow runner.

It took me a good week to work out that I’d done the last four miles in forty minutes including stopping to ask for directions and doubling back twice (unnecessarily). Considering I was struggling to walk not a few miles earlier, a 10 minute mile average at the end of a 50k was almost as much of an achievement to me as the whole race. Yet again I’d proved that I could recover, and yet again I’d finished on a high. Another return for next year’s calendar, I suspect…

Salisbury 5

50 Mile Challenge 2014


Almost as soon as I’d yanked off my running shoes at the end of the Brighton Marathon this year, I was looking up my next race. There wasn’t much point in looking around though. I already knew which one I wanted to tackle next.

Back in February I had entered the Moonlight Challenge, a race of up to five laps each measuring a quarter of a marathon, on a farm in Kent, in the middle of the night. Race is a misnomer actually; it’s called a challenge, because that’s exactly what it is. Finishers get a medal and a certificate regardless of the distance they complete, and there’s no award for coming first. I had both massively underestimated and missed the point of the challenge at the time, entering it in the hope of finishing my first ultramarathon before my 30th birthday in March but being forced to call it a day after the fourth muddy lap took the last scrap of energy out of my tired legs. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks after that I began to appreciate this fantastic event for what it was, and to stop measuring success by dates and times. I had any number of excuses handy for why I hadn’t finished the fifth lap, but they never gave me anywhere near as much freedom as just getting on with it would have done.

So here I was again in the middle of July, with a double or quits challenge to complete eight laps this time. The 50 Mile Challenge is actually a double marathon or 52.4 miles, with a very generous thirteen and a half hours cutoff point for the final lap, and is run on the same course starting at 6am instead of 6pm. As usual, I had barely done any training thanks to work commitments – both a full time job and a freelance project that nearly killed me – and the day before travelling to the race I would be flying back from a holiday in Menorca and hoping that there weren’t any Icelandic volcanoes planning a surprise eruption. Details, details.

Team Mum and I stayed in a Travelodge a twenty minute drive away and test drove the route to the starting line the day before so that I could pick up my race number. Good job too – driving there just five months beforehand did not prevent us from getting lost again and nearly throwing the satnav out of the window. Nor, unfortunately, did it mean we made it on time the next morning for the 5:45am briefing. In fact, we drove up just in time to see the rocket set off for the start at 6am, me in the wrong shoes and still changing them as the other runners set off. All captured for posterity on the DVD of the event, including a soundbite of legendary organiser Mike Inkster telling me not to look so scared. Not an auspicious start.

In a funny sort of way though it was the perfect start. I’ve said before the reason I love these sorts of events is the lack of fanfare and buildup, and to all intents and purposes I could have been setting off on a Sunday training run, except I was in a farm in Kent – and I keep saying Kent and not being more specific because I still don’t know where exactly in Kent we were. So off we plodded, me more ploddy than most as I spent two full minutes trying to get signal on my Garmin to record the first lap. Even the bloody Garmin didn’t know where we were.

The course was exactly the same as it was back in February, with the one distinct difference that it wasn’t a bog. Nonetheless prepared for the worst and wary of weather reports forecasting a storm, I had my new trail shoes on – last time I’d learned the hard way that the only way to get a foothold in the boggiest parts was with some sort of foot armour. It was a risky move as I had only run in them once, for just half an hour, but I had my foam soled Gel-Lyte 33s on standby in case the bog never appeared. The trail shoes were stiffer and heavier than I was used to, but while I was taking it easy in the early laps they handled the terrain just fine.

I remembered how I’d kept my head down last time missing out on both the scenery and the social interaction, and how utterly miserable it had made me. This time I made sure I left out the earphones for a bit and chatted to some of the other runners, and immediately the decision paid off. The first two laps passed in no time at all, thanks to the marvellous Gil: a veteran member of the 100 Marathon Club approaching his six hundredth marathon or ultra distance. We talked about all sorts – tips on quick but nourishing meals (particularly ones you can do in one pan), the best websites for shoes, the best events, the best books. His attitude absolutely changed me; I told him about my experience in February and how I’d like to have gone quicker in Brighton, and he told me that negative experiences are just opportunities to learn, and the most important thing is to enjoy it. It’s really all about joy.

We finished the first half marathon at a steady, almost metronomic pace, under perfect running conditions – warm but breezy, cloudy but not too muggy. Mum had been planning to walk one of the laps with me, so she joined me for the third lap when I could slow down a bit to preserve energy for later. We kept up with Gil’s metronomic pace for a while but eventually let him take off while we enjoyed the scenery.

Soon enough though it became obvious I’d hung onto the trail shoes for a lap too many. With the weather showing no signs of the storm that had been forecast and the ground only getting harder, I could feel blisters forming all over my toes and became desperate to get back to base to change. It was too much for mum though, still injured and not yet able to walk so far without a break, and although she patiently and stoically put up with my impatient grumbling about getting back I could tell she was in pain too. Eventually I had to take the damn things off altogether and do the last mile in just my socks. The rough gravel burned the soles of my feet for a bit, and the chronic pain of blisters rubbing became the acute pain of stones cutting into my skin, but I actually found this much easier to deal with. Plus, running without shoes was surprisingly liberating and had an immediate effect on my posture. Not sure if a cross country run was the best time to try barefoot running though.

Finally back to base my mum collapsed into the car, I quickly changed into my lightweight shoes and petulantly tore off the waterproof jacket that had been tied around my waist so far, annoying me. My muscles were cooling down and I was eager to get out and run again, so I barely even took the time to eat a Nutrigrain bar before shooting off. Back along the road I shot, hoping to get the pistons firing and make up lost time. Guess what happened next?

It turns out that wicking fabric is great for removing moisture from the body, but it has a saturation point. My shorts found their saturation point about two hundred yards into the next lap, when no sooner had I taken off my waterproof shoes and jacket the storm clouds finally made good on their promise and it started bucketing down. I weighed up whether or not to go back for my jacket, but I figured I was already wet anyway, and going backwards not halfway into the challenge would psychologically crush me. Still though, this wasn’t rain. This was Noah’s Ark territory. And with the ground unable to drink it up quickly enough, ankle deep standing water was everywhere within minutes.

I remembered how badly I reacted to the mud and waterlogging the last time and felt much more zen about it this time. There was bugger all I could do about it, and at least it washed the salt from my skin. I kept my pace up to avoid getting a chill, although half an hour later it was still pouring down with no sign of letting up. On top of this, I was wearing low rising sock liners instead of ankle socks so every bit of grit and mud was getting right inside them, causing more friction on my burgeoning blisters. Now I understood why Mike always wears gaiters. They went straight on the shopping list for next time.

It wasn’t all gloom though – for the first time, I realised how much I had developed as a runner mentally, rather than physically. The old Jaz was sobbing and shouting obscenities about mud and bemoaning a lack of preparation; the new Jaz was taking it on the chin and enjoying the cool water, laughing about the conditions with the other runners and the marshals, recognising that it would eventually let up and even if it didn’t it wouldn’t matter. I think that’s my own manifestation of the wall – the feeling that it’s always going to be this bad forever and ever and why bother. Experience teaches you actually it won’t always be this bad, and you’ll feel like a bit of a dick later for having moaned so much. I thought about Gil’s words of wisdom, hoped that I would bump into him again and plugged on.

At this stage I did crack out the iPod Shuffle, which I’d loaded with an audiobook of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. It turned out to be the perfect choice: romantic tales of vagabonds crossing America with nothing but a canvas kit bag and a brass neck, of sunshine and heat and dust and haze. I can see why it inspired legendary ultra runner Jenn Shelton and it carried me through laps four and five.

Eventually the rain did let up, and almost as if it had never come at all the clouds parted to reveal beaming sun to dry me off; even my cotton vest which was so saturated I could have wrung about a pint of water out of it. I got back to base after lap four to find my mum fully recovered and back to her bubbly self, having made friends with the wife and daughters of another runner. She’d also had a costume change into pink trousers and glittery flipflops and they’d set up chairs, tables and refreshments under a gazebo like a makeshift living room. What a bloody legend.

At this pit stop I cleaned and powdered my feet and changed into fresh (ankle high) socks – not much I could do about my trainers still being damp, but it was better than nothing and immediately put a spring back in my step. I also changed into my QPR shirt and took the waterproof out with me this time. Not taking chances again.

Although my mental strength was holding out, my body had started to creak by the fifth lap and I had to take a few breaks to stretch my hamstrings and hips. It was definitely half and half running and walking now. To quote Zapp Brannigan, the spirit is willing but the flesh is spongy and bruised.

Every now and again though I would bump into Mike Inkster running the other way round the course, checking up on the competitors and offering words of support. Mike is absolutely key to the spirit of the challenge, taking care as he does to get to know the runners and their own personal challenges so you feel like you’re always being looked after. I was gutted to hear this is his last challenge; logistical problems and sheer exhaustion after running them for fourteen years mean he can’t do it any more. There is a rumour that it may be taken on by the Thanet Road Runners who also man Jellybaby Corner, but for the moment I had to decide whether or not I could afford not to try the full fifty miles if it did turn out to be the last one.

Lap five was tough – I was glowing with the thought of finally being an ultra runner but my muscles were packing up. The team at Jellybaby corner were egging me on to finish all eight laps but as I rounded off the fifth I knew I’d need a bit of a rest before considering the sixth. Still though, I had always told myself six would be the minimum and so after 15 minutes in mum’s temporary lounge to eat a banana and put my feet up I made for the start again. Mike always says that when you think you’ve had enough you always have one more lap in you, and as usual he’s not wrong.

As she did back in February, mum came out with me for the first couple of hundred yards of the last lap. I almost persuaded her to do the whole thing, but she was still recovering from the effects of lap three and thinking about a three hour drive home via my house afterwards, so she let me go at the entrance to the farm.

I to’d and fro’d about whether I should try for the full distance, but just over halfway through lap six I knew this would have to be my last. It took me an hour and 40 minutes to complete 6.55 miles on the last lap – and that includes running the last three miles when I knew I was nearly home and that with a bit of effort I could get in under ten hours. A little bit of good natured heckling from the team at Jellybaby Corner – whose good humour and boundless patience became a highlight to look forward to each lap – set me off for the final mile and a half stretch on road. I didn’t have my Garmin on GPS mode, just timer, as I knew the battery wouldn’t last otherwise, but a few mental calculations helped me keep my pace steady and I finally sprinted through the finishing area at 9 hours and 58 minutes.

A little part of me still thought about finishing the last two laps, even if I crawled them, but by then I knew that I’d come here to do what I needed to and I couldn’t make my mum hang around for another 3 and a half hours. I got my certificate and medal from the support team, cheered in a few more finishers, and collapsed into the front seat of mum’s little Corsa.

I’d finally done it. I was an ultramarathoner. But this was in no way the end of the challenge for me – all it did was unlock the door to a world I really belong to. Apart from when I got my 10k PB three years ago (which I’ve barely come near since) I’ve never got quite so much joy out of running as I do ultra running. Just to know the experience of the run is half the achievement, that nobody cares what time you do or when you place as long as you’re happy, that if you fell you would always be picked up again: all this convinced me that this is what I was designed to do. So my hamstrings and creaky knees had better get used to it.