Battle Of Britain

August 1, 2004, sees the start of the second annual Marathon of Britain: a glorious six-day, 175-mile ultra through the heart of England. Here's Andy Blackford's account of last year's inaugural event


Posted: 31 July 2004
by Andy Blackford


Into the hills: leaving Malvern on Day One

It was 6pm. The sun, relenting after a scorching assault upon the day, cast a benevolent glow upon the golden stone of a handsome Cotswold church – and, in its peaceful graveyard, upon a small, nervous group of ultrarunners.

Rory Coleman, the race director, was characteristically neither peaceful nor nervous.

“First of all, welcome to the first-ever Children With Leukaemia Marathon of Britain! For 12 months, this has been my dream – now I want it to be your dream!”

He spread his arms in a wonderfully inclusive gesture, embracing not only the 35 bemused guinea pigs who had signed up for this extraordinary, ‘self-supported’ running ordeal, but also most of Worcestershire – starting with the gently rolling lawns of Croombe Landscape Park.

This venerable estate, centred on an uncompromisingly geometrical 18th-century house, is most renowned for its artfully landscaped grounds – the very first opus in the portfolio of Capability Brown.

There were the Brits, a handful of Germans (a handful being the collective noun for any number of Germans greater than two) and Cyril.

“And let’s also welcome Cyril, who’s from Ireland!”

There was a pregnant silence – then, in an especially aggressive brogue: “Have you got a problem with that?”

Cyril Bennis was to be my tentmate, apparently.

I was already slightly frayed.

Earlier that day I’d turned up at Evesham railway station, expecting a shuttle to spirit me to the MOB encampment, in the style appropriate to a senior media celebrity.


Field events: runners made hay while the sun shone

Two hours of merciless sun in the station car park elapsed before I was forced to seek urinary relief at the Railway Hotel. Which was deserted. I sidled to the gents, where bizarrely, a loudspeaker was relaying a recording of the alleged comedian, Bernard Manning.

Rory was right about the dream thing. The inaugural MOB, a 174-mile middle England cousin of the Marathon des Sables, was looking like the most surreal event of my running career. And I hadn’t even run a step yet.

Dinner that night was to be the first of many miracles conjured twice-daily from thin air by our mystical support staff. As we waited, we circled warily around the neighbours whose idiosyncrasies, bodily odours and mood swings we would have to endure for the next six days.

Thankfully, one of these turned out to be Luke Cunliffe, with whom I had charged around Dartmoor two years earlier in celebration of RW Online Editor Sean Fishpool’s 30th birthday.

Unaccountably, he was fat. I say unaccountably because he’s a personal trainer. And only a few months earlier, he’d been the only Brit to complete the dreadful Trans 333, just before turning in a sterling performance in the Grand Union Canal 145 mile race – the one where they castrate you with a rusty hacksaw if you sit down for more than five minutes.

He moaned a lot about being overweight. He needn’t have worried. Six days later, despite the best endeavours of our prestidigitatory cooks, he was thin. We all were.

Bennis was thin already. Indeed, he resembled a spectral projection of Richard Harris after an eternity spent in Limbo, deprived of all sustenance. But he was amiable enough for a spectre, and displayed an early enthusiasm for tidiness, which the rest of Tent Four quietly conspired to encourage.

The rest were mostly Malcolm Croft and Del Ripley, proprietors of Tortoise & Hare, the legendary Surrey running store. They looked horribly like Proper Runners.

Croft had dark, burning eyes of the sort that are often seen staring wildly ahead as they streak across the finish line 20 minutes before the next bloke.

Ripley radiated the icy calm of the hard-bitten ultrarunner – the professional who has seen things that would make your orthotics shrivel in your Montrails, but who elects to keep his own counsel.

They reminded me of bounty hunters in a B-movie Western.


Direct trial: navigation skills are tested en route

God knows what they thought of me. They already knew Cunliffe – together they formed the Flame Health Team, handsomely equipped with gleaming new kit and branded shirts, courtesy of an imaginative and far-seeing sponsor. While I, the ageing privateer, was clad in exactly the same kit I wore finishing second to last in the 1962 Middlesbrough Boys’ High School Cross-Country.

That evening I laughed intemperately. I was consumed by a kind of gallows humour with its roots in my inability to provide a satisfactory answer to the question: ‘What in God’s name am I doing here?’

We went through a rather perfunctory kit inspection. Needless to say, I’d left everything to the minute just after the last one, then raced around town in a frenzy, loading up with kilos of unnecessary stuff – cast-iron fire dogs, mahogany table lamps and an impressive Druidic headdress cast in phosphor bronze and emblazoned with a hundred leaden figurines representing the elfin spirits of the woods.

In the excitement, I had quite forgotten my whistle.

Fortunately, this oversight was rectified by the redoubtable Stephen Partridge – a key figure in the MOB’s translation from ill-conceived fantasy to ghastly reality. Only Partridge would carry a spare whistle.

Next morning, we were woken at 6am by a pitifully poor impression of a cockcrow. Coleman mustered us for a final briefing. It was already hotter than the Sahara when I ran the Marathon des Sables.

He surveyed us slowly, nodding and grinning evilly. He took us through the day’s section of the road book, our comprehensive (if indecipherable) guide to the route. He illuminated some of the more arcane convolutions of the course.

“This race is 98 per cent off-road. I’ve run every inch of it. It took me 12 months. It’s a bastard, frankly.” He displayed all the self-satisfied sadism of the poacher-turned-gamekeeper.

“Lastly, a warning. It’s about the stiles. Many of them are rickety. Some are slippery with moss. Be extremely careful on the stiles.

“Now – the bus is waiting to take you to the start. Good luck, everyone, and God bless.”

We turned to go, but Partridge intervened dramatically: “Wait, everyone! Before you go, there’s one thing you should know. It’s about the stiles. Many of them are rickety. Some are slippery with moss. Be extremely careful on the stiles.”

Coleman stared at him blankly. “Thank you, Stephen.”

The bus took us to the charming town of Malvern, a celebration of 18th-century prosperity. Winding streets, clinging to the side of that astonishing geological aberration, the Malvern Range.

A few elegantly chosen words from our glamorous starter, Floella Benjamin (surrealism was already taking hold), and we were off.

The race literature makes no bones about it: “Competitors must have considerable orienteering skills to complete this event successfully.”

Three minutes in, and we were all completely lost. We careered for 10 precious minutes around the roads and tracks that were supposed to lead us to the ridge of the Malverns.


Steeple chase: the race was run against a backdrop of villages, churches and rolling hills

I suppose propelling us up a 1:4 incline bearing 10kg rucksacks at the height of a heatwave was Rory’s idea of a joke. And we responded, I think, with admirable good-humour. So far there were no blisters, stress fractures or obvious cases of heatstroke. And the view from the top was simply stunning. Across the Vale of Evesham shimmered the misty ridges of the Cotswolds. Little did we know it then – the course had been a well-kept secret – but we could just have made out the destination of the third day’s run.

Back down the Malverns and 17 miles ex-Floella, we broke the tape by the elegant private church at Croombe Landscape Park. Cunliffe and I had notched up a creditable joint sixth place. I was privately amazed. Mr Banks, my grammar school PE teacher, would have eaten his mortarboard.

My success was largely down to Cunliffe’s excellent map-reading. He ran with his head buried in the road book.

AB: “Look! Muntjack! Dwarf deer originally introduced by private collectors for their private zoos, but now breeding successfully in the English countryside!”

LC: “Hard left, then right in 150 metres.”

AB: “Ah! Now this is a really ancient track! Hooper’s Law enables one to date a hedgerow by counting the established species therein, then attributing 100 years for each species.”

LC: “Across the field, then a 30-degree turn east-nor’east, passing the sewage works on the right.”

Cunliffe ran from Malvern to Nottingham through some of the most beautiful countryside in all of fair England, and I swear he saw about six feet of it. He endured this without complaint and it’s the primary reason we did so well. In rueful retrospect he called it “the plight of the navigator”.

I’d loved to have helped, of course, but the road book was designed by The Borrowers, and was thus indecipherable to anyone with eyes more than 40 years old.

I’ve made the point to Coleman, who has promised to produce a ‘talking book’ version next year for the aged and infirm.

That evening, I extended the hand of friendship to the Bounty Hunters – tentatively, as you do to men with guns.

I asked Croft how he’d come to own a running shop. To cut a long story short, he’d tried to get a proper job but his interviewer had asked him what frightened him. He’d replied, “Giants”.

Tortoise & Hare is founded on unusual principles. It’s miles from anywhere, it doesn’t open until noon, but it doesn’t close until 8pm. Its customers have names like ‘Spikey Al’, and are expected to spend several hours there. They are received with enthusiasm proportional to the number of doughnuts they bring.

Next day, they were on their way back to count the doughnuts. England, particularly its already burnt-to-a-crisp middle, lay in a state of shock under a sun like a sledgehammer. Croft succumbed to a virus and Ripley dropped out in a heroic gesture of solidarity and drove him home.

Not a breath of breeze stirred the wilting junipers as we trudged and jogged along the scarp of the Cotswolds. On either side, plains of scorched stubble stretched away into a vague penumbra of heat and dust. Crouched beneath sweltering hills, Stanton and Broadway played dead. The temperature lurched into the high 90s.

Cunliffe and I found we were good at heat and hills. By the time we’d climbed to the weird, Italianate fantasy that is Broadway Tower, we knew that we must be hard on the heels of the leaders.


Out to dry: airing kit after a day on the trails

As we crossed the finish line, there was the merest smattering of applause. At first we were crestfallen; then we realised that there was nobody there to applaud. Almost everyone else was behind us.

This was a new concept to us: the less applause, the better your position. Excellent.

I agreed to run the MOB for two reasons: 1) Coleman, 2) I’d run up the Himalayas, across the Sahara, through the rainforests of Guyana. But my knowledge of England was largely restricted to what I’d glimpsed from the window of a speeding car on the M1.

I figured I should try to catch at least a flavour of the landscapes that had inspired such giants as Elgar, Vaughan Williams and The Chuckle Brothers.

I wasn’t disappointed. The following day we descended upon Stratford-upon-Avon, almost 20 miles into a 28-mile day. There we saw the swans that Cyril, as the highly unlikely ex-Mayor of that famous town, had once tried to protect. (His efforts brought down upon him the wrath of the fishing fraternity. They placed a mischievous advertisement in the Angling Times, which resulted in his receiving around 10,000 unsolicited telephone calls. “So I gave up politics. Now I’m just a folk singer. And every year, me an’ the missus go to Lapland to help Santa.”)

We wound through 32 miles of Leicestershire – a county of extraordinary beauty (and vicious hills) that I would have gone to the grave underestimating, if not for the MOB.

It was all little more than an aperitif for the Long Day, a 54-mile haul through Coventry and Sawley in the best traditions of any lunatic stage race.

We were about 35 miles into the Long Day. It was unbelievably hot and I was having trouble keeping up with Cunliffe, Anke Molkenthin (former Marathon des Sables winner) and eventual winner, the amazing Andy Rivett.

We reached the summit, capped by an ancient tower and affording fantastic, panoramic views of the surrounding country.

The leaders, though, didn’t pause for a moment. They just peered at their maps, poking and grumbling.

“Look!” I barked (they tell me). “I’m all for competition. But this is beautiful! If you don’t look at it, what’s the ****ing point? We might as well be on a ****ing treadmill!”

They stared at me like a schizophrenic who had neglected to take his medication – then they were off down the hill with me flailing uselessly along behind them.

Anyway, five of us crossed the line that night, 14 hours and 56 miles after setting out, and I’ve never run so well or felt so fulfilled.

The next morning’s 10, beautifully flat miles up the River Trent to the gates of Nottingham Castle were almost a formality.

The MOB does what all great races do. It binds a band of people together in a huge, pointless, epic enterprise that each of them will always count among the defining experiences of their lives.

You’ve either done it or you haven’t. I don’t often say this, but you really should.

So you want to run the Marathon of Britain...

Find out more at www.marathonofbritain.com
Enter the 2007 race online

Previous article
One runner, one Channel, one swim
Next article
RW Pocket Race Guide - Mid-July

marathon of britain, trail, ultra
TwitterStumbleUponFacebookDiggRedditGoogle

Discuss this article

Remember Penry, the mild-mannered cartoon janitor who regularly turned into superhero Hong Kong Phooey?

Runner's World would like to introduce our own version. By day, Heidi Wilson looks after our ad clients. Then she's been taking a deep breath and running the long route home: up to 30 miles, some nights.

Heidi's been training all year for the 175-mile 2004 Flame Health Marathon of Britain - a six-day jaunt through the heart of England, which starts this Sunday, August 1. (See Andy Blackford's article above, about last year's first-ever race.)

She'll be logging in to this forum thread every evening to tell us all how it's going. With a bit of luck, we'll be adding pictures to a photo page, too.

May the wind be at your feet, crazy girl!

Sean and the RW staff

ps – if you’re feeling inspired, the race’s official charity is Action on Addiction, and Heidi is running for the Alzheimer’s Society, in memory of her best friend’s father (you can sponsor her here)

Posted: 31/07/2004 at 17:04

Thanks guys, I am still alive!

First stage done – 15.5 miles.

Rory (Race Director) woke us up this morning trying to impersonate a cockerel, which set the day off with a smile. I continued to smile all through the day, it was such a great day.

At 10am we set off at the Abbey Archway, with map firmly grasped in hand. It was straight up 100 steep steps, to an ever steeper ascent up to Worcestershire Beacon, the highest point in the Malvern Hills at some 1,500 feet. It was well worth it as the views were breathtaking. The scenes continued as we navigated our way along the ridgeway crossing all the major summits of the Malverns. It was then cross-country all the way to the final checkpoint three, at Upton-upon-Severn. The finish was through a field to Croome Court, and we had to hurdle over what felt like hundreds of miniature hay stacks, which led aptly through the graveyard to the Finish.

My partner, who I had thought I would set off with, darted off like a whippet, and came in good third overall. I was grateful to find a perfect running partner, Mike, who shared my navigational nerves, and provided some good banter along the way.

The winner of the stage was last years overall winner, Andy Rivett coming in a very fast time of 2hr 25mins. (He is the current world record holder for running from Lands End to John O’Groats). The last competitor came in 5hr 21mins. I came in 12th in 2hr 59mins, after getting lost a few times!

Some say tomorrow is the toughest day, 33 miles of tough hilly terrain – I can’t wait to find out. Now, where’s my dinner!

Posted: 01/08/2004 at 21:53

oooooooooo
good luck lass
enjoy dinner
Posted: 01/08/2004 at 21:56

Hey Heidi,

Sounds ummm, great! Hope your 33 miles is going welll...look forward to your next installment.

run well!

Cath
x
Posted: 02/08/2004 at 10:24

Hi, enjoy yourself Heidi, getting lost is half the fun (or so I'm told)
Andy Rivett is very strong and won the first ever 24 hour race I took part in.
Looking forward to today's report.
Say hi to Andy and Paul Shields from me if he's there.
Posted: 02/08/2004 at 10:36

H

Forgot to say good luck. You mentalist!
Posted: 02/08/2004 at 11:05

WOW - Hey hat off to anyone who is able to run this kind of distance!! (Mind I have only started running since March & completed my first 10k yesterday so there's plenty of time for me yet :)

Good Luck Heidi, I will be interested in following your progress...enjoy :)

Tamsy
Posted: 02/08/2004 at 11:19

Hey heidi,

good luck!!! I'll be eager to read your race reports.

Hope yourself and all the other MOB runners have a great time.



(p.s. We crossed paths at the MOB lite back in March)

Posted: 02/08/2004 at 13:28

i'm intrigued, keep us informed Heidi, am watching with interest. Best of luck, too.
Posted: 02/08/2004 at 14:57

Good luck Heidi. Hope the 33 miles went OK. Ran a 6 miler on Sunday in the heat and that was bad enough! I reckon it's nearly as hot today!

Mark
Posted: 02/08/2004 at 15:02


Gav
Yeah, Good Luck Heidi. 175 miles is a long way. How much assistance do you get along the way? Are there vehicles that follow you if you need a drink or a sleep? Take care and enjoy the running. Gav
Posted: 02/08/2004 at 15:12

Hi Heidi,
Good for you!
Hope the second day ahs gone well.
bests wishes
emma
Posted: 02/08/2004 at 15:24

Hope you enjoyed the 33miles today! Sounds like superb fun, in a kinda strange way. I'd love to be able to do something like this one day... it's on my list of 'things to do sometime in my life'!

Will look forward to reading your reports.
Good luck!


Posted: 02/08/2004 at 15:57

Good luck and have fun!:o)
Posted: 02/08/2004 at 16:04

Oh yeah. If you don't win, well...
Posted: 02/08/2004 at 18:48

Stage 2 – 33 miles.

Hi Guys,

Thanks so much for the messages. It was so lovely to read them after a hard day’s work.

Hi Jason, hope all is going well. Well done Tamsy for your first 10k, great news. Gav, the event is supposed to be unassisted. You are provided with a tent, water, breakfast and evening meal, but you have to provide the rest – so the backpack is very heavy! There are checkpoints along the way, today there were 5, with water at each station to top up your bladders/bottles. Other than that – you are on your own!

Today was tough, and I am now finding walking rather painful on the thighs. We started off more level than yesterday crossing over the River Avon to the first checkpoint. We had to stock up on water as it was a long way to the next checkpoint, as the vehicles could not get up the hills we were faced with! The hills soon came into view, with the Banbury Tower as our target point. I now know why we had the Race Doc check our lungs, as they were gasping for air as I scrambled on hands and knees to the top. The route followed around the hills, showing us the most amazing landscapes and then back down to checkpoint two. By this time Mike and I had grouped up with some fellow runners, and we tackled the next stage together. We had done the MOB Lite last year, which takes you through some of this stage. Mike declared ‘I remember this, I know where to go’ and we were immediately lost, scrambling aimlessly through grassy fields! Onto check point four, and up the penultimate hill, I was really starting to feel it now, and the midday sun was ferocious. We realised that we had all finished our water, and with the rest of the hill to climb, the next few miles to the next checkpoint got very worrying. We made it though, and the MOB van was such a gorgeous sight. The last hill was a killer, but was the last of the four highest peaks in the Cotswolds we tackled. But the navigation was easier and Mike and I managed to sprint the last bit to make sure we came in under 7 hours.

The screams from Iodine being inserted into blisters has died down, and we are now all sitting in the tent supping our tea and looking at the sunset over the Cotswolds. Fantastic.

Yesterday, I was dodging all the cowpats that covered the fields, today I was only dodging the wet ones, I dread to think what I won’t care running through at the end of the race….

Unfortunately we had a couple of people drop out today. Andy Rivett, the current leader, was unfortunately one of them, suffering from heat exhaustion. Hanno is the new leader, after coming in first today with an amazing time of 5hrs 38mins. The last person crossed the finish in 11hr 32mins. I came in after 6hr 56mins.

33 miles again tomorrow.

Posted: 02/08/2004 at 23:07

Well done Heidi

Good luck hope the weather is cooler tomorrow
Posted: 02/08/2004 at 23:28

hello
what shoes/boots are you wearing?



why blisters????????



i cant believe rivet dropped out
Posted: 02/08/2004 at 23:38

Andy dropped out with heat exhaustion? Hope he's ok-he's run the MDS!!
Well done Heidi, sounds like you survived a tough stage. Thanks for posting, it sounds like you're doing very well. Good luck.
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 07:53

Well done Heidi and good luck for the future stages.

Simon
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 07:55

Good luck on the next 33 miles Heidi and well done for having the guts to do such a difficult race!
all the best!
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 09:50

"Hope he's ok-he's run the MDS!!"

....would that be Marathon de Sade?

:)
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 09:55

.....as has already been said, Heidi, mentalist!
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 10:02

I think you've got it about right on that one Dodge!!
I'm surprised cos Andy seems to do well in the heat.
What's so mad about spending a week wandering around the countryside then?
I'm seriously tempted.
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 10:13

Erm, Dodge - what was that little run you were planning in 05?
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 10:15

...and carrying all your kit with you.
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 10:18

(nice X-post)

:)
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 10:18

tim... you can't afford it.
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 10:22

Keep the race reports coming.......

Andy privitt dropped out with heat exhaustion, on only the second stage - damm it must be tough.

Someone better up their pace and beat that mad german ;-)
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 10:35

I don't think I'd be allowed anyway Ed.
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 11:28

Hi,
Many congratulations on your run so far. I was wondering if you could pass on a message of good wishes to Andy Mouncey,(bloke with no hair and long legs). Could you tell him ole hairy head is sending loads of positive waves.... but not dreaming of him.
Thanks everso much, and good luck with the rest of your adventure.
H.H
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 11:29


Hi Heidi,

Well done- sounds like you are doing fantastically. You really are a superstar- we are all very proud of you and what you are doing this week. You truly are amazing.

Keep going and I can't wait to see you when it's all over.

xxxxx
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 13:52

Just wanted to say good luck and I hope the weather stays nice and cool for you this week.

tt
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 14:21


Roz
Awesome! Keep it going!

Girl Power!
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 14:28

unfortunately missing this years mob due to slight injury and pulled back, well done all especially heidi, was looking at last years times and day 2 was won in 7:21, either this years maps are easier to follow or everyone is running a damn site faster. looks like the weather is going to cool down for the rest of the week, should be helpful for the big day.
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 16:25

Heidi

Hey you!! Neil here. I am really sorry to hear about Andy - please tell him that I hope he is OK and that I look forward to seeing him soon.

How is Dan getting on? Are his knees holding out? Talking of which I hope your scars have healed from your cartoonesque slid down the back window of that car!!!

I am really sorry that I am not there with you guys this year but I am fondly thinking of you as the clouds draw in and the thunder follows the lightning!!

You are doing really well!! Keep it up and enjoy the experience!! I am very jealous!!

Say Hi to Rorz and Richie for me and everyone else.

Take care and write soon!!
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 18:21

I was slightly heartened by the slowest time yesterday



does that mean-----------
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 18:29

Yes... you can do it next year PH!
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 20:40

Judging by your picture you have lost your grip on reality;)
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 20:43

This is exciting stuff Heidi, I remember reading a report of last years race and thinking it was unbelievably tough, particulary in the baking heat. You are doing very well indeed, all that training has paid off! Looking forward to tomorrows report, keep your pecker up.
Posted: 03/08/2004 at 21:28

See more comments...
We'd love you to add a comment! Please login or take half a minute to register as a free member

Smart Coach
Free, fully-personalized training plans, designed to suit your racing goals and your lifestyle.