30 miles to mark my 30th birthday!

30 miles to celebrate turning 30! That’s what I promised myself, and on Sunday I did just that (and a little bit more but who’s counting!?) To mark a momentous birthday I wanted to do something special, that would challenge me, push me to my limits and I would remember for a long time to come.

Finding a 30 mile race is usually pretty challenging, initially I though I might have to sign up for a marathon and then just keep on going for another 3.8 miles after I crossed the finish line, but then I stumbled upon Winter Tanners. A 20 or 30 mile challenge organised by the very friendly Long Distance Walkers Association (LDWA), and yes, in a few cases they welcome runners as well as walkers to their events. I’ll post a full race report next time, but for now I wanted to talk about my highlights, doubts, fear, excitement, pride – the full emotional rollercoaster – that I felt during the event.

Winter Tanners isn’t just any distance race. There is no marked route. No marshals. No signs. This is a test of self-navigation as well as endurance. It’s not enough to simply be able to cover 30 miles on foot. You have to find your way using grid references, shorthand directions, a map and compass. The route changes every year, so you can’t just look on Strava, plug the GPS route into your phone or watch and off you go. This is hardcore and I don’t know what the hell I was thinking when I signed up and thought I was in any way capable of doing this.

Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about when I say they give you directions

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TL and 15Y later TR up drive. In 1 furlong TR thru KG down enclosed FP to go over FB and ST, thru KG & cross field (60 degrees). Go thru KG, over FB and ST, & TL to eventually cross FB and TL again. Keep ahead thru KG & cont ahd to main RD.

This was the description covering 1 mile, we had 30 times this in the entirety!

You think running 30 miles is hard enough? Try reading shorthand instructions, then trying to interpret these as directions at the same time, all while wading through knee-high sticky mud, icy paths, steep climbs and even steeper descents.

In the week leading up to the race I took it easy on the mileage, but I had to race XC the day beforeĀ with my club down in a snowy Croydon, so I guess my legs weren’t the best prepared. It wasn’t the 30 miles I was worried about though. The night before the race I took out the OS Explorer maps we’d been instructed to buy and using the final route descriptions tried to mark out the route with a highlighter. It turned out to be an impossible, and looking back, useless task. It took us more time than it would have taken to run a mile to try and work out how to leave the start in the right direction! After more than an hour we hadn’t even made it to the first checkpoint. I went to bed late feeling anxious and wasn’t surprised when I woke up on race day feeling tired and unprepared. At least getting to the start in Leatherhead was easy – fellow Fulham Running Club mates James and Leo were driving down so I jumped in the car and we arrived ready to go for an 8.30am start.

I’ll leave my extensive account of our 30 mile journey for the race report but in summary…I DID IT! Using just the printed route descriptions I managed to navigate our way from start to finish, only detouring/getting lost once at the beginning, essentially due to our naivety of judging 2000 yards (?!) and our eagerness to run and play follow-the-leader (lesson learnt, don’t assume others know the way).

It was the exact moment of getting lost though that I am most proud of –

Initially I panicked. I had five men around me, none of whom knew where we were or at what point we had got to in the route instructions. I have no idea what came over me but before I knew it I had located ourselves on the map, looked for the next checkpoint and planned our route to get their as quickly as possible. No sooner than I had decided to make a move, I was leading a group of clueless men down a footpath, across a field, onto a country lane and somehow, with a little luck, back on track with lots of other walkers and runners on the right route! Hallelujah!

From then on, despite adding a few extra miles and probably a good half an hour onto our time, we followed the route exactly. I began memorising the at-first obscure abbreviations of the descriptions and with each mile it became easier to find our way.

The best bit though, apart from absolutely nailing our navigation after getting lost, was just a mile from the finish. Apparently I’d made my bid to run #30for30 loud and clear, so Nige had rallied the troops and to my absolute surprise, a big group of my closest friends were waiting for me just before the finish, cheering me on with homemade signs! I couldn’t have been more delighted with their support! Thank you to all who wished me luck, the special ones who made it out on a miserable January Sunday to give me a sweaty hug and especially to Leo and James, we got each other round the Winter Tanners challenge together!

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