Last year I was one of a team tackling our first ultra – the 100km Jurassic Coast Challenge. And with that completed most of the team swore off long-distance walking for life.
But with the adrenaline still running high I started thinking about doing another one next year – but which one? There were eight on Action Challenge’s calendar, not counting the 50km end-of-season ‘wind-down’, all with their own attractions. So maybe I could do a couple? And then things started getting a bit out of hand. Having considered doing two, why not more? Why not go for the full program?
It was clear from the start that if I was going to extremes, this was the time to do it. I had attained a high fitness level which could be maintained into next year. I could make a pitch for sponsorship while the Jurassic Coast Challenge was still fresh in people’s minds. The Ultra Challenge program of events was small enough to be manageable, and large enough to give a sense of real achievement. And with my 60th birthday coming up, it seemed like an appropriate way to mark a milestone year.
It says a lot for my confidence, if not my judgement, that I was announcing my decision and registering for events after straining a knee ligament over Christmas – an unexpectedly slow-healing injury which eventually required a two-week layoff to resolve. But after the enforced break I was back out again, and by the start of the season I was ready. Or so I hoped.
Come May Day Bank Holiday I was on the Isle of Wight, a week after Storm Hannah had blasted its way along the south coast. It was a cold, blustery day, and my bright JTH t-shirt was hidden under a warm midlayer until lunchtime. There was squally weather out to sea, but on the island clear skies made for a spectacular sunset at Ryde followed by plummeting temperatures as I walked through the night and came back to my starting point at Chale, having circumnavigated the island.
The Spring Bank Holiday weekend provided hot and humid conditions for the London to Brighton Challenge, and the ice cream vendor parked up near the 30km mark must have made a substantial profit. By late evening the day’s heat had left me feeling nauseous, but the feeling wore off once I was walking and I managed to continue through the night and on to the finish at Brighton racecourse the next morning. There were plenty of others dealing with the effects of an unexpectedly tough challenge, but a nap followed by breakfast did a lot to restore my spirits.
Two weeks later came the Jurassic Coast Challenge – widely regarded after last year as the toughest event on the calendar. The organisers had toned it down a little, notably by cutting back on the long stretches of shingle beach we slogged over last year, but that switchback from Lulworth to Weymouth wasn’t any easier. I don’t usually use trekking poles, but they proved invaluable for coping with the powerful, gusting winds along the clifftops. With no digestive problems I reached the Bridport finish in good shape.
The end of June saw soaring temperatures to make the Cotswold Way Challenge a major undertaking. The route is a strenuous one with little shade and I suspect that the respite provided by the pub at Old Sodbury made the difference between success and failure for many challengers. The runners especially were affected, and I managed to register both my highest placing (in the top 100 finishers) and my slowest time (over 24 hours) of the year.
The challenges were now coming thick and fast, and two weeks later came the Bakewell-centred Peak District Challenge.
There was plenty of variety, from cycle trails to rocky scrambles (yes, scrambles!), from landscaped country estates to secluded nature reserves. With good weather and a charming start/finish point this was one of the highlights of the year.
The Chiltern Challenge was a circular route, and one of the most varied, with rolling hills, woods and quiet country lanes. It was also the wettest, with light drizzle most of the day, and included a section of particularly glutinous clay which will live on in legend as the Cornfield of Doom. But the abiding memories will still be of the red kites swooping low over the Chiltern meadows.
After the August break came the South Coast Challenge with a spectacular start over Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters – best appreciated by those who were prepared to stop for a retrospective survey of the route. But this one had an unexpected sting towards the finish; a path alongside a tidal reach of river which was under six inches of water when I got to it. This was still my fastest challenge of the year though, and I celebrated with a relaxing day at the finish.
Only a week later came the Thames Path Challenge, and a surprisingly green corridor from Putney and out past Windsor. The nights were getting chilly and there were times when the mist rising from the river reduced visibility to a matter of feet. But eventually the fog cleared and the lights of Henley beckoned us to the finish line. With all eight 100km challenges completed I didn’t feel too guilty about sitting out the Henley 10K run the next day!
It was with mixed feelings that I lined up for the North Downs 50 a few weeks later. After an amazing few months it was nearly all over. The ascent of Box Hill was possibly the longest and steepest of the year, but from there it was it was all straightforward up to the 50km mark – where we found that last-minute route changes had extended the distance by an extra couple of kilometres! I finally reached the finish an hour or so ahead of the rain.
It had been a good year. I’d walked in unfamiliar locations, met a lot of friendly people and boosted my personal fitness – and raised a substantial amount of money for JTH in the process.