Home from Home – 50 mile ultra

Whenever I have cause to visit the village of my childhood, I always feel a sense of home and nostalgia; for me, Little Thurlow in Suffolk holds so many memories, and I know the huge estate around it like the back of my hand.  I left Thurlow when I was 18, and I have been settled in Ely, Cambridgeshire for many years, but I often think of Thurlow as home.  Since taking up the madness that is distance running, I have always been taken up with the idea of running from my new to old home, cross country, but I am rubbish at navigation and creating routes.  Of course, I know the route by car, but that would be no fun:  I wanted to know how to do the route whilst encountering hardly any tarmac. This is where Ely Runner buddy Emily comes in!

I have ran a few ultras with Emily, and she knows maps!  She loves them!  She collects them!  She is also brilliant at creating routes and sending them via GPX file.  I decided it was time to ask a favour.  Before I knew it, Emily had messaged me the required file (we both own the same Suunto 9 GPS watch), and after the usual head scratching, I managed to transfer the file into the maps in the Suunto app and onto my watch.  There the file sat, and Sundays went by when I was doing other runs, or just couldn’t pluck up the courage to just do it!  Then, I did it!

I spoke with my wife and children, and got the all clear to be away for the best part of Sunday the 21st March, and the evening before, I did my usual prep.  The kit….

  • Newton Boco AT 4 trail shoes
  • Shorts and technical shirt
  • Merino jumper and socks
  • Buff
  • Ultra vest with soft bottles to carry a litre of water
  • Lightweight power pack with phone charger lead
  • Debit card
  • Bag of wet wipes
  • Head torch
  • One ham and cream cheese sandwich
  • One banana
  • Two packs of chicken fridge raiders
  • Two small Soreen bars
  • One bag of salt and vinegar crisps
  • Two bottles of Lucozade (flattened the previous night)
  • Suunto 9 GPX watch
  • iPhone
  • Foldaway waterproof jacket

This was going to be 50 miles of solitude, and there was a good chance that if anything went wrong it could be ages until I encountered anyone else and there might be black spots in terms of phone reception, so, I ate and hydrated really well the night before, and got a decent night’s sleep, having made sure the watch and phone were both fully charged.  I have told several Ely Runner friends that I needed to do a big run alone, as I feel I am too reliant on the security of company:  emotionally and practically.  This time there would be no-one to share things with, no matter how bad it got.

I was reassured when I studied Emily’s map, as I came to realise that I knew the vast majority of the route.  18 miles or so was Ely to Woodditton (our running club’s annual Christmas run), then there was a small chunk I didn’t know at all, which led to the outskirts of Stetchworth and then onto Great and Little Bradley (where I know the terrain) and then to Little and Great Thurlow (which I know like the back of my hand).  There and back, using the Suunto 9’s breadcrumb navigation, meant 50 miles of trail.

I set off at 0730 having done the usual (bit of breakfast and the application of Vaseline to those areas that can ruin an ultra if they do not receive the preparation they require)!  The trail along the river at that time of morning is beautiful, and I decided to try and stop staring at the ground just ahead of me and actually take things in for once.  I am glad I did, because I encountered no people until close to the Cuckoo Bridge Nature Reserve:  only deer, swans, buzzards and what seemed to be an unusual number of Greylag Geese.  On this route is a section known as Chalk Pit – a wide track, heavily churned up by agricultural vehicles, with huge puddles and very deep mud, often from one side to the other.  Chalk Pit is usually a bit of a laugh, unless you have miles ahead of you after the mud, and you have to encounter it again on the return journey.

Fast forward to Woodditton, where usually I would be pressing straight ahead, or, one can turn left to join the Icknield Way Trail: Emily’s map told me that I should turn right onto the Stour Valley Path and head towards Stetchworth.  The countryside undulates more out this way, and the trail takes you along muddy paths on field headlands and beside woodland before leading onto very narrow paths only as wide as your outstretched arms.  It was on two such paths that I encountered conditions worse than Chalk Pit!  The first was a gentle downward slope of deep well-trodden mud with a hint of horse sewage; there was no way to avoid ‘running’ straight through it.  It occured to me just for a second that Emily had known about this and included it for a laugh;  this was closely followed by the realisation that the return journey would include the same, but uphill!  Nearer into the village were more long stretches of muddy woodland footpath, where at one point a shoe was sucked straight off a foot!  All that was possible at these stages was a gentle trot, or a careful walk.

Could it have been Emily’s idea of a laugh?

Beyond Stetchworth the landscape opened up and I started to get my bearings.  I no longer needed the breadcrumb navigation on the watch and switched over to the distance/ pace/ heart rate display.  A long gravel track lead me to the bottom of Water Lane in Great Bradley, where the gently flowing river crosses a ford, where I played as a child.  I paused here for a moment and tried to eat something (nutrition during ultras is something I still really struggle with).  I then took in the trail around the edges of Great Bradley, which leads into the Hamlet of Little Bradley, where I passed its amazing, tiny, 11th century round house church, before heading along the bank of the Stour towards the Thurlows.

Finally I had arrived in the village of my childhood – Little Thurlow, and I ran through it to the end of Emily’s map, which for some reason ended in the middle of the field behind the Village Hall in Great Thurlow.  Curiously, I felt a huge sense of achievement, which is odd, because I have ran trail marathons and ultras, and I have ran further than the 25 miles I had just covered.  I can only assume it had something to do with where I had ran to, and how long it had been a bit of an ambition of mine to do it.  I headed back a short distance and found a spot up against the fence in the huge meadow behind my late Grandparents’ home. I tried to get a banana down me, but again, I couldn’t eat; I just sat there thinking about the contingency plan I had discussed with my wife whereby she would come and get me once I was in Thurlow if I simply couldn’t face the run back.  I couldn’t face the run back, I couldn’t eat, and I was thinking about my Grandparents and how old I was now, whilst back in my childhood village. It was a bit of a dark moment.  An internal pep talk then ensued, where the sensible me told the miserable bastard sat in a field failing to eat a banana that he should not care about distance or pace, and to feel fortunate to be able to take in all this countryside, and to soak up the journey back.  No call was made to my wife.

The gorgeous Little Thurlow

The run out of the village was lovely and my mood lifted.  As I headed out along the Stour again, back towards Little Bradley, I recalled fishing the river, seeing otters, and how us kids made a raft one summer.  All was fine through Great Bradley, but as I headed back towards Stetchworth, the miserable bastard made himself known again: he had worked out that if things were to get really tough, it would likely happen around the 35 mile point, which would be back on Devil’s Dyke, and that would be after the uphill mud had been negotiated in Stetchworth.  Part of the idea of this run was that I was to do it alone, but I decided to message Ely Runner friends Lauren and Emily, to ask them if they would take a video call as I hit the uphill mud section:  I knew they would laugh and in turn this would give me a little lift.  When the time to make the call arrived I noted that the sun had slightly dried and hardened the track, but there was still a really wet, deep, squelchy middle section, which Emily and Lauren found most amusing.  I can’t quite work out why they so wanted me to roll in it though: they didn’t get their wish.  I was really grateful for the quick chat and laugh.

One of the mental milestones.

I was pleased to get off the Stour Valley Path and run from Woodditton onto Devil’s Dyke.  I had decided that this would be a bit of a milestone on the run, but I also knew that, having been depleted by the mud and having not eaten enough, approaching 35 miles meant testing times ahead.  I encountered several people on the narrow top of Devil’s Dyke, and each time I gave way to them and edged slightly down the Dyke edge, not only to socially distance, but if I am honest, to grab 30 second breathers.  All I was interested in was the flat Lucozade in my ultravest; the food was not going to get eaten.  It was necessary to power-walk some of the chalky steep slopes on the Dyke, using the technique of pushing the hands down onto the quads

Chalk Pit on the way back was just as bad, and by now I was at that stage where if I staggered or slipped, correcting myself was harder due to fatigue, and this resulted in me sliding into some of the bigger puddles. My thoughts turned to the long stretch along the drains out at Reach Lode, where it is stunning, but it’s a long bit with no variety! It was here that I spotted two fellow Ely Runners, Lisa and Mark with their little one on the other side of the drain. We discussed my run, and Mark enquired as to whether I was mental: fair enough!

Things were starting to hurt by the time I had passed through the Nature reserve and headed along the river back to Ely. The sun started to set as I passed the Marina, and all was quiet other than the Greylags and the numerous pheasants startling me more than I did them as they flew off to roost.

Close to Ely

Once I reached the Barway Pump House I knew the end was in sight, and it was a matter of one foot in front of the other while keeping the lights of the railway station and the bypass as my focus. I ran towards the railway crossing and stopped, as I had decided that if the 50 mile mark was not near my house; tough – I would be walking the rest as a cool down.

Running 50 miles of trail is always going to be tough, but the terrain and conditions can make things a little easier, or even tougher. Running such a distance alone is so different to doing so with company. Ely to Thurlow through the mud is a run I am glad I completed and I will never forget it. But I think this is one 50 mile route I’ll try just the once.

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