12 months ago I had the opportunity to take part in probably the most mad race going in the UK. Escape from Meriden (EfM) has a prison-break concept from the sleepy village of Meriden in the centre of England, with 200+ runners deserting the village green at midnight to spend 24 hours fanning out over the country trying to get as far away (as the crow flies ATCF) as possible.
I had a fabulous time despite my race plan going awry after 12 hours and having to stop as my feet were wrecked in the wet conditions. I’d wanted to get to the 60 miles ATCF but managed only 39 (although I’d run 47 actual miles). You can read my race report here.
2020 was the year I was going to come back and see to the unfinished business of getting the 60 ATCF. A new route which was better optimised taking into account all that I’d learned in my previous escape.
But it was not to be. A second national lockdown meant that the race couldn’t go ahead. But instead Beyond Marathon, who host EfM, came up with a twist on the format that could be achieved.
EfM: Day Release
The concept of EfM: Day Release was that the 24 hour rule would apply again and that each runner could start at their own chosen location which, in practice, would be from home. Distance measurements would still be ATCF miles but the twist was that your journey had to finish at the starting location. Unlike EfM itself there’s no mass start, with participants having a whole month to pick their time to shine.
You can read about the virtual race here.
EfM itself has three target distances: 30, 60 & 90 miles ATCF. Which in practice means travelling further as no routes are absolutely direct. Day Release effectively folds these distances on themselves measuring outbound target distances of 15, 30 & 45 miles ATCF. So it’s a similar challenge to the main race but with the added jeopardy of having to get back. EfM itself you could just keep running away for 24 hours until you ran out of time and that ATCF distance would count; with Day Release, it counts only if you make it back to base.
Whilst my fitness is OK this year, I certainly haven’t done much ultra-distance training. I think my longest training run was 28 miles. Which is fine but I didn’t know how my feet would withstand such a long period of abuse such as for a 24 hour event. Prior to the virtual race being announced I had considered doing something loop based to try to get a big mileage, but the reality is that my enjoyment of ultrarunning is that I get to go somewhere. With that in mind I decided that I’d like to target the 30 ATCF challenge knowing that I could probably go further but not knowing if I’d get back in time or in one piece.
When I did EfM in 2019 I had plotted an extended route which would have given me the full 90 ATCF miles and this route would have come past my housing estate and off through Manchester. I never got close to this but the idea remained that this could be a decent route which seemed to be efficient over the distance. I altered it a bit as it needed extending to get 30 ATCF miles from home and came up with a route that took me up to the Lancashire town of Clayton-le-Moors. All on road with simple navigation. And hopefully no waist-deep canal tow-paths included.
The route was also important to me in two other ways. Firstly, under the previous lockdown arrangements, Lancashire and Greater Manchester were all under the highest risk cateogry (Tier 3) for COVID-19. So I wanted to avoid running out of that area (whilst accepting that the national lockdown has superseded that). Secondly, and more importantly, public transport links were strong throughout; as I was self-supported this gave the option to be able to get home should something go wrong and I was unable to get home under my own steam.
A number of friends were also going to be doing the race, but due to the lockdown rules (plus different plans) I would end up doing my own thing. Which is fine for something like this; having a buddy to help motivate you on a long distance run can be very useful, however I’m also conscious that dealing with the highs and lows during such distances can be a very personal thing. On my own (and self-supported) I don’t feel like I’m hindering other people’s progress or letting others down. But you can be sure I’ll be dot-watching their races when they set out next week.
Race day; the preparation
The Beyond Marathon Community page is always buzzing around the events but it tends to go into a frenzy around EfM time. That event can be tracked online as all runners carry a tracking device and the stories and adventures that people have on the race becomes very consuming (in a good way). It also means that the race sells out within minutes, although usually there are plenty of resale tickets in the weeks leading up to the event. With Day Release there was an option to self-track or to hire a tracker. I went for the former option as I knew I’d be doing my race at a different time to the majority of the runners. Plenty of others have hired the trackers.
Many of the runners set out their plans in advance with dates/times/locations all divulged. I tend to get really nervous about this as it adds to the pressure on me. I looked at my work diary and picked the day after a job finished. The weather was looking OK too so that was a bonus. So with that, the plans were drawn up, routes learned and at 5am on Thursday 12th November after a rubbish night’s sleep I was filling my water containers and working out whether I really needed the bag full of things I’d decided I was going to carry. A few readjustments later it was 5.50am and I stepped out of the door and started my watch.
Race goals and pointers
The one aspect of EfM I missed last year was that whilst I experienced running through dawn (albeit a soggy affair in Rugeley) I didn’t get the sunset experience as I was finished at lunchtime. With a 6am-ish start I figured I’d get to experience both sunrise and sunset. Although whether the sun itself would make an in-person appearance this year remained to be seen (or not seen).
I’ve picked up a few useful tips over the last couple of years since I really got into ultra-running and these again formed a big structure to my race.
- Be familiar with the route, it’s a lot less stressful than stopping all the time to check you’re going in the right direction
- Have a plan for food/drink stops. This is straightforward on an organised event with checkpoints, but when you’re self-supported good preparation takes away some the guesswork
- Know where key points are; for EfM and Day Release this is where the achievement boundary limits are i.e. 15, 30, 45 miles ATCF
- Break the route up into small chunks. Ultras are long and can be overfacing as a whole. Mini goals help show steady progress
- Look after your feet – I knew this before last year and thought I knew what I was doing. Turns out I didn’t and it ended my race
- Carry appropriate clothing. I find I get very cold when running ultras which is really odd as I’m the opposite normally
- Testing kit prior to race day is a given, but for the avoidance of doubt you shouldn’t plan to be doing anything ‘new’ in the race that you’ve not done in training
- Accept that over a 24h race that you’ll have highs and lows. It’ll be going well one minute yet 10 minutes later it might feel everything is going wrong. And then all good again. This is normal!
Outbound; Hazel Grove to Manchester
I’m not generally a fan out out and back routes, but with something like this there’s not a lot of choice if you’re trying to optimise the route.
6am on a Thursday during a lockdown is pretty quiet, although to be honest the day seemed a lot busier than I expected given the lockdown. It didn’t seem that cold when I started, but I figured I’d have my jacket on over my t-shirt with the compression layer below it. I normally operate hot, but I realised in my race last year that I began to get cold long before I realised it. The day would warm up and I could lose layers if appropriate. Simple really.
There was a bit of drizzle in the air but other than messing up my glasses it wasn’t enough to affect me. Oddly I didn’t remember much of the first few miles, although they’re roads I’ve run on so frequently there wasn’t a lot to note. Coming through Stockport I thought I should get a photo of the Town Hall looking very nice in it’s colourful lighting. But my phone was in my pack and I couldn’t be bothered to stop/find/photo/stow/start.
I made the decision here that I’d do the photos on my return journey. And that I wouldn’t do the whole social media thing as I was going like I did with EfM last year. One thing I’ve realised when I’m running is that I drift entirely into the moment to the point of it being a meditative state. So trying to convey this as a live-experience disrupts this flow.
People-watching on my run I noticed pretty much everyone I saw was using their mobile phones, talking, consuming, whatever. I’m not sure if it’s a generational thing but I like that media disconnect when I’m out doing stupid things like this!
An hour into my race and I was leaving Stockport district and coming into Levenshulme which is Manchester district. My dodgy stomach decided to voice its opinion that it wasn’t happy. This is a frequent problem for me and, to date, I really haven’t found a solution having carefully selected my food intake all week before the race. Anyway, the McDonalds in Longsight was a welcome site for a pit stop and the chance to pick up a coffee.
It was getting light when I was running through Manchester centre. At 7.45am it wasn’t busy but there were definite signs that the city centre was waking up for another working day. 10 miles in!
Outbound: Manchester to Bury
On the map getting across Manchester was the first complicated bit. However I worked in the centre for long enough and before long I was past the cathedral and picking up the A56 which would be a staple of many of my miles today. I’ve never gone out of Manchester this way before and it turns out it’s uphill. So I switched to a run/walk strategy to conserve energy as there was a long way to go.
And it did drag. I kept seeing men in traditional Jewish dress and the hope that I was getting towards Prestwich (one of the bigger Jewish areas of the city). But the village centre kept eluding me, hill after hill.. I vaguely recognised a few bits from it being nearby the training centre I was at for my previous job. And having waited so long to get to the town centre I think I ran through without clocking that I was even there!.
The next milestone was the motorway underpass. Not exciting, but it’s an obvious feature when you look at the map. But not before an urgent visit to the Tesco superstore courtesy of the stomach. I did pick up a pack of sandwiches whilst I was there, and practically inhaled them in the car park before heading into the underpass. Mmmmm, calories 🙂
Although I hadn’t clocked it at the time I was now in the outskirts of Whitefield. This was important as the 15 mile ATCF point was just beyond the supermarket in Whitefield. So in theory my quarter of the way mark. Whitefield was mostly flat before dropping down the hill and along for a few more miles into Bury town centre. Distance travelled 20 miles.
This was the next ‘big’ place and a fabulous one at that. The centre with the church and cenotaph looked fabulous in the morning sun and actually navigating across the town was easier than I was anticipating (when I’m plotting everything using Google Street View the routes can appear far more complicated than they are). I didn’t need any supplies with the Tesco sandwich having gone down nicely and before long I was heading up hill (again) out of the town into the district of Walmersley.
Fun fact, had I done my planned EfM race this year I’d have been passing through a different place called Walmersley. 😉
Outbound: Bury to Clayton-le Moors
Having left Bury I was pretty much out of Greater Manchester and into Lancashire. To this point the whole route had been very urban with the advantage of there being lots of options for food and for dodgy stomachs. But now there was (finally) a lot more green space and the terrain was becoming ever more hilly; predominantly uphill heading out, so at least the return journey would have some downhills! I stopped to patch up one of my feet that felt like a hotspot was developing. And rescued a couple of the flapjacks that I’d made and put in a tuppaware, only to hear them bouncing around in my back for the last 4 hours.
I guess at this point I was trying to remember what places were coming up and when, it was all a bit jumbled in my head. The countryside was now opening out properly and I could see Ramsbottom in the distance in the valley below. The A56 undulated along above it (mostly uphill) for what felt like an eternity with very little to measure progress. A team of litter pickers were busy out collecting rubbish off the pavements but that was the sum total of people I saw. And on the road went. I knew the next ‘landmark’ was where the A56 itself turned off and became a dual carriageway and after the long trek of Ramsbottom it actually appeared swiftly afterwards.
Beyond this lay the village of Edenfield, a place I had studied previously as it was not far from the 90 ATCF for my original Meriden plan (although I had to keep going to Rawtenstall in order to get the last bus back to Manchester else I’d be sleeping rough!).
But for today’s jaunt, I had to leave this road in Edenfield and drop down (finally a downhill) to the river below, before the big climb up the other side.
This next section I termed ‘the loop’ because the route along the A680 starts at a roundabout with the A56 crossing it, and a few miles later comes to another roundabout for the A56 to cross. In between was the village of Haslingden which, on the map had two promising petrol stations as refuel points, but on arrival I decided I didn’t fancy either of them. This was another long slog although there was a choice of Tesco, Shell & McDonalds as a reward at the end. Although I forewent all of them as there was a bit of a problem.
I’d checked my mileage and was currently at 30 miles total. But the sign to Accrington said that was a further 3 miles. My plotted route to Clayton-le-Moors was only 32 miles and I couldn’t understand how I was effectively 3 miles underestimating the total outbound distance (I’d had in mind to do 35 but that would take me way beyond and through Great Harwood).
Suddenly there was an element of doubt. How had this difference come about? All I could think of was my supermarket stop-offs might have munged the GPS accuracy. [side note, a day later I measured the same route with Garmin’s mapping tool and that gave a figure midway between plotaroute and my actual figure.]
But having got over the concept of an extra 3 miles (each way) I plowed on through Baxenden and then down the steep hill into Accrington. I knew it was steep because part way down my right knee told me it didn’t like it! So I had to walk it in until things settled as I wasn’t intending to break down this year!
Once through the town centre there was a sign for Clayton-le-Moors being 1.25 miles away. It even has a nice sign:
Seemingly all uphill again but suddenly I was crossing the motorway (on a bridge obv) and the finish was in sight. By which I mean the halfway point. And there was no marker, just a gut feel of ‘that’s far enough to ensure the 30 ATCF is met’, before turning around. I went past all the streets that I’d made a mental note of as being 30 miles ATCF from home. And kept going. I was so spooked by the difference in actual mileage that I kept going to make sure that I didn’t get home to find the straight-line distance was only 29.97 miles!.
In the end I was 35 (actual) miles from home and I decided that would do. I thought about carrying on to Great Harwood golf course which was a bit further up the road, but when you know you’ve got to retrace your steps, adding extra miles seems crazy (turns out it was only an extra 0.75 miles each way).
The outbound leg took 7 hours. My original idea (based on the lower mileage) was that I’d take about 6 hours to get out and 8 to return. So the pacing was OK but the plans were adrift due to the distance error. I anticipated a total journey time of 16 hours.
It felt really odd turning around and heading back the way I had just come. I nipped into a local shop to pick up a fizzy drink and another sandwich. All a bit of a fail as the drink turned out to be sugar-free and the sandwich was a low calorie offering. Clearly not aimed at the ultra-running community!!! So it was back to Accrington Tesco Express for a full fat version of lunch, plus a litre of water to make-up my two remaining Tailwind bottles (I’d packed them dry to save carrying the extra kg of water weight around with me.
After much faffing trying to get everything straight in my bag I started the climb back out of Accrington. I was looking for a decent photo of Accrington (I saw loads on the way in) but by the time I found something I wanted to capture, it was the pretty sign going into Baxenden. It felt like a slow plod to begin with and that wasn’t helped by the angry stomach deciding it hadn’t been angry recently.
Back to ‘the loop’ with the knowledge that there was a McDonalds on hand there to help settle things back down again. All set and at last the first bit of return-journey downhill. Which probably wasn’t fast, but at least I felt like I was running, although I was gradually getting more concerned about me tripping over my feet. Whilst my energy levels were good, my head was getting tired and the feet were getting to be a bit sore.
Still, nothing like a low sun to raise the mood.
The uphill from the river that I had been dreading was actually fine. Not as long as the other uphills and not particularly steep, even with 40 miles in the legs.
Edenfield was a hive of activity with the local primary school having just kicked out so there was plenty of dodging around people and scooters and bad parking, all the stuff that I’m used to living in Stockport (although the Edenfield natives are friendlier)! And some more scenery to enjoy in the late afternoon sunshine. I also noticed a road sign with the distance to Accrington being 6.25 miles, if only I’d seen that on the outward leg!
I kept focusing on the next mini goal, which at this stage was the A56 merging into the road I was on. A friendly hello with a resident clearing up leaves, a bit more dodging on either side of the road and suddenly that goal was met. I couldn’t remember what the next one was until I saw the monument on the other side of the valley. It was Ramsbottom time again. I think it’s a sign of which way the hills on the road were that the return through Ramsbottom was quick; some decent downhills and the flats were more in my favour in this direction.
The head was definitely getting a bit foggy now as I wasn’t sure where I’d hit next. I recalled forever climbing out of the Manchester towns and hoped for some more easy descents. These came, along with a steady increase in traffic, being towards the end of the working day. Much thinking ‘is Bury next?’ until I dropped back into the wide pavements of Walmersley and the start of the suburban sprawl of Manchester. Bury appeared not much longer afterwards and the light was definitely fading now. I managed to get some photos of the fabulous buildings in the centre and ticking off another big milestone. 50 miles in, so therefore it was roughly 20 more to go.
I had been dreading the climb out of Bury, but in fact it was the rush-hour traffic blocking junctions and making it hard to cross roads that was the bigger issue.
The ‘big’ targets were falling away now and I set my mind on the next goal. With Manchester being 10 miles further ahead, I split the difference with Whitefield somewhere in between and roughly three-quarters of the way through my trip today.
In celebration (!) of getting to Whitefield Fire Station the stomach made its feelings known and a pit-stop at the Morrisons superstore was required. I was going to pop in anyway to get another drink. I was feeling increasingly thirsty which was odd as I was drinking plenty of fluids containing electrolytes. It might be that my body was shouting ‘no more orange flavoured drinks’ but I ignored it and came away with an orange-flavoured lucosade!
When I emerged it was properly dark.
Leaving south through Whitefield I was soon through the motorway underpass and in Prestwich village centre. And the whole section seemed to be predominantly downhill as I maintained my steady progress towards Manchester. I was slightly thrown seeing the ‘Welcome to Salford’ sign; I hadn’t realised that I had covered any ground in Salford this the morning despite noticing Broughton Fire Station, which should have been a big clue.
Anyway, it turns out heading south through Salford towards Manchester is another decent downhill. And after almost 60 miles, that was a good thing. Under the bridges and suddenly Manchester Cathedral was back in frame again.
Manchester in the early evening is a hive of activity, regardless of whether or not there’s a lockdown going on. I chose to walk most of the city centre as it was mostly stop/start people in all directions, and in particular on the approach to Piccadilly railway station. It was something of a relief to drop down and under the motorway and away from all these people. 60 miles in, 10 to go. Barring a major pratfall, this should be a successful trip.
By now I was hurting. A lot. Although oddly it hurt less to run than it did to walk. I was just getting a bit worn out after the longest time on my running legs I’d done. It was only later when I reviewed the GPS trace that I realised the section between Manchester and home was uphill (albeit only a little bit). That might explain why it felt like such hard work. Longsight was a drag, Levenhulme went on forever in a Ramsbottom-esque fashion but with more neon. It just kept on coming, admittedly very slowly as I stumbled my way through it.
I was entirely focused on the McDonalds at the other end. Not for food or dodgy guts, but because it was on the Stockport boundary.
From counting down major towns, through to districts I was finally in the last district and counting down the village areas that make up Stockport. It took me an hour to cover the 6ish miles this morning. I figured it would probably take 90 minutes as I wasn’t moving very well. I knew this as a lady ran past me in Heaton Chapel and disappeared into the distance in no time. I’m rarely overtaken when I’m out running and certainly not left as if standing still like in this case. It was a case of grinding out the last few familiar miles at the end of a long day and getting home. I found myself checking my watch was still recording on a paranoid level of frequency! It was the only evidence of my efforts and the panic of losing it was significant!
The long downhill through Heaton Norris took me over the bridge across the M60 and I was 4 miles and 5 villages away from my front door. I’d love to say they were rattled off in a final fit of exuberance. But I’d long since run out of that. Just 1 flask of tailwind and two sore feet to get me there. It wasn’t pretty or textbook, but instead a method of one foot in front of the other.
Having taken 7 hours to complete my outward leg, I was anticipating a total journey time of 16 hours. I checked my watch details in the middle of Hazel Grove and it was showing 14 hours 32 minutes. I knew I could walk the last bit and be comfortably (figuratively speaking) home inside 15 hours. How the return leg was only slightly slower than the outgoing leg I’m not sure. I walked up my drive, put a hand on the front door, and stopped my watch.
Mission accomplished! 70.42 miles, 3,200ft of climb in 14h42m. My official ATCF distance was 30.71 miles in each direction.
By the time I got indoors I was seizing up. Looking at my feet it appears the heels did manage to blister, despite the tape – more tape underneath the heel required next time. But at least this probably explained why walking hurt more than running as the heels would be off the ground whilst doing the latter. It’ll take a couple of days for things to heal and to settle down after which I’ll look to get a sport massage; I don’t tend to run much on the road so to put out 70 tarmac miles will likely have disrupted things!
Most of the planning worked out well. The time lost was as much down to the stomach issues as it was the uncertainty regarding the total distance. I didn’t dare stop anywhere for any length of time for fear of seizing up, although with the lockdown regulations in force the opportunity for a sit-down meal anywhere was off the table (and into a takeaway bag).
I guess the question that remains is that if I could get the 30 miles ATCF in 14:42 could I have managed the top level of achievement at 45 ATCF within the 24 hour period?
Realistically that would require running 100 actual miles or more. My gut feeling is that it would have been very tight with a big risk of not getting back in time. I’m happier to have been successful at this level of achievement rather than failing to finish (been there done that!). It does make me thing seriously about how I can better protect my feet as well as whether I can do anything to reign in the stomach issues which could have been a real problem had I chosen a non-urban route without regular options to deal with that issue.
But with those comments in mind, it does make me wonder just how far I could manage in the traditional Escape from Meriden format. I have a ticket for 2021 and now have an idea of what I could achieve assuming I can get past the issues I’ve experienced.
But I’ll wait until my feet stop hurting before making any plans!