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.