Escape From Meriden 2019 – race review

Wearing far too much clothing
Wearing far too much clothing

Initial waffly bit

As I introduced in my last post, this weekend I took on my first ‘Escape From Meriden‘. The race, by Beyond Marathon has been running for 4 years, and with the tales of those who have done it, combined with the small field of runners, helps propagate the mystique, uniqueness and attraction of the race.

As I have previously explained, I first came across the race in 2017 when I found the real-time tracking online. A year later I was completely hooked and, perhaps naively, couldn’t wait to get my entry in for 2019.

When I say that it’s a tough race to even get a place in, I will point out that this is the easy bit.

Escape From Meriden

Escape From Meriden (EFM) is modelled on the premise of a prison break. That “prison” being the sleepy village of Meriden that just happens to be the centre of England. To make the experience more ‘authentic’ the escape starts at midnight, with a 24 hour period allowed to run/walk/crawl as far as possible as the crow flies. In addition there is a ‘Chained’ race where several people are linked together by 1m of chain and they have 36 hours to build the distance. The rules are slightly different to the main race, but you can read all about the options on the event website.

Everyone is fitted with a tracking device so that these distances can be worked out, whilst making it an event that can be followed by anyone. You might think that ‘dot-watching’ a bunch of strangers on a website wouldn’t be interesting. However along with the social media updates which re-humanise this it’s difficult not to get absorbed into the adventures that people are having.

As each runner is responsible for picking their own route and thus journey over the 24h period the experience is unlike any other race. So there is potentially a large amount of work to do if you want as few surprises on your route.

Such an event also divides the population into two distinct groups:

– Ultra-runners, who “get” why people do this to themselves
– Everybody else, who just think we’ve completely lost the plot this time

Prior to getting to the event, pretty much everybody you tend to meet is in that second category. “Why?” is the common question, normally followed by quiet mutterings including words such as ‘fruitloop’ along with many others that I wouldn’t wish to put into print on here!!!

Arrival in Meriden and registration

As usual, I started my journey to Meriden about 6 hours earlier than I really should have done. Arriving at the race start line 8 hours early really isn’t necessary. Whist this did give me the opportunity to see the fabled stone cross marking the centre of the country, there really wasn’t a lot else to do in a sleepy village. After a brief walk around to confirm my initial direction of travel I went to the pub and hoped I could hide in there for about 6 hours.

Centre of England!

Centre of England!

Whether it was nerves for the race or just the stress of mingling with the general population with having to get a train but I didn’t feel that well. Unfortunately following a panic episode (which happened on the train) I tend to get very sleepy which isn’t helpful immediately before a 24h race starting at midnight. When you couldn’t sleep much the night before……! However, the Bull’s Head in Meriden were very accommodating and the food was superb. I was even offered a menu which was entirely vegan after it turned out the soup starter wasn’t happening (and my initial choice of main which was vegetarian wasn’t available either so I picked the vegan option). Absolutely superb.

After a couple of hours I saw Stan Bekker arrive in the bar. At this point we were the only two people dressed in running gear so it was easy to identify runners. By this time, Richard, the race organiser had also arrived. And over the following couple of hours more runners streamed in. One of the locals came over to chat to Stan and me; he knew the race and said he always came out to see the start because it was such a funny spectacle with 100+ runners starbursting off the green at midnight. The race isn’t that well known in the village due to the late start, but then again lots of events come through Meriden due to it’s location.

Carb loading at the Bulls Head

Carb loading at the Bulls Head

Registration

10pm arrived and we headed over to registration.

It is a surreal sight I’m sure seeing a room full of people in orange overalls, some of whom were chained together! On arrival Richard checked each person off his list, whilst other team members provided the right tracker for the runner, overall if you wanted it and t-shirt if you’d ordered it. With such an event that doesn’t have a finish line, some things have to be done first. But then again when the T-shirt is orange and emblazened with “Escaped From Meriden – Do Not Approach” it really is something to be worn during the event.

Registration at EFM

Registration at EFM

And suddenly the room is full of people in category 1 above. Suddenly the concept of running for 24 hours in the middle of the night is now ‘normal’. Again this population split into two groups:

– those who had planned their route meticulously
– those who were winging it

The energy in the room was insane, you wouldn’t think most people had been up for a full day already.

Richard did the safety brief and then we walked quietly over to the green ready to “escape” at midnight.

Dressed for the part

Dressed for the part

Off you go!

The start of EFM really is as mad as people say, with orange-clad runners disappearing off the green in all directions leaving Richard alone with Meriden’s Christmas tree which is a staple feature of the start!

Wearing far too much clothing

Wearing far too much clothing. With a Christmas tree that’s far too early.

My plan involved a trek north with a view to getting home. Or if it went amazingly well, all the way to Rawtenstall, although that was a ‘just in case’ matter rather than a serious likelihood. Home was 81 miles away, a substantial distance beyond my furthest run ever. Things were complicated by the worst flooding in years in Warwickshire and it wasn’t clear whether some of the roads were going to be passable. I’d done some rerouting on my  plan but in the end I found myself drifting towards the ‘winging it’ mentality simply because it wasn’t worth trying to pre-empt stuff I knew nothing about!

There’s only really one way out of Meriden to go North & North-West so the first couple of miles was a procession of orange overalls. I had to stop after a couple of miles and remove several layers of clothing as it wasn’t a cold night. The group thinned out rapidly and my intention of 10min/miles for the first 6 hours was soon abandoned for run/walk/whatever. The roads were clearer than expected and I decided to stick with Plan A and run the section of canal from Kingsbury Water Park to  Fazeley.

It was uneventful, quite slippy and a bit wet, but nothing too bad. Except for the internal monologue when I tried to get the GPS to acknowledge that I was not still in Stockport. In the end it was shoved back in the bag before I risked hurling it into the canal. OS maps on my phone worked a treat as that section went on forever and I was worrying that I’d miss the huge main road that I had to join……

Upon getting into Fazeley I was alone. Completely. No cars on the road. Clearly there isn’t any nightlife that goes on that late. I ran and walked the section until I got to the 24h ASDA where I passed the ’39 sleeps until Christmas’ sign to get some water and some cherry coke, which tasted like the best thing ever at that time.

I knew I was slower than my guestimate when I set the route, but it wasn’t a problem. As I left the retail park David caught me up. Neither of us were in a mood to run so we wandered and chatted whilst there was only the occasional passing vehicle and absolutely nobody else about.

This section of road was great, no issues, lots of pavements. As we headed towards Lichfield the conversation gradually stopped and we trudged along in single file. It was only as I was leaving the A51 I suddenly realised I was alone. I picked my way through Lichfield without issue, save for a minor nav error to go the other side of a block of shops. Having never actually been on any of these roads before tonight it was weird to be so sure of my location and route Google streetview is an amazing tool!

I left Lichfield and rejoined the A51. Which was horrible. Whilst there was a path in the most-part, it was very overgrown and wet. Running on it was challenging so again much walking ensued. The road, whilst not busy, had plenty of fast moving waggons  and lots of spray. And it was featureless so was all about counting the miles down. I had a nice diversion into Longdon Green which was pitch dark but at least was quiet, but sadly only for about half a mile before I had to rejoin the A51. To be fair, it wasn’t horrific after this, but it wasn’t pleasurable and I was glad to turn off to Brereton.

My original plan on getting to Rugeley  involved the Tesco which had long-since opened by the time I got that far. However a garage was open and they had coffee…..

Coffee!

Coffee!

That was needed. I had been doing OK with my nutrition to this point with a large bag of salted mixed nuts to provide the carbs and the sodium. But it’s amazing how it perked me up! I’d originally hoped to be at the first milestone distance by daybreak, but I was trudging through Rugeley when the street-lamps turned off (for the record, it was still dark). I said hello to a few people out picking up papers and stuff from the bakery, although my stomach wasn’t interested in that sort of food. I decided to skip Tesco and carried straight on to rejoin my favourite A51 road for the last time (or not).

It was a murky morning as it began to get light. My glasses were soaked with rain but it did feel great to be in daylight again. The roads were quiet until I passed through Wolseley Bridge. By which point the A51 was something more akin to a wet Le Mans. The tracks on the verges were not great and I was getting concerned as to how long my waterproof socks would remain that way. Stupidly, I’d confused my waypoint distance at Great Haywood with the 30 mile ATCF point and was left wandering for 2 miles beyond my expectation before I finally achieved that. Obviously not a serious issue, but psychologically I didn’t need it!

It’s worth noting that on the planning phase, this was just a small milestone, so sure was I that I’d have passed it before daybreak. I had a minor panic looking at the tracking which initially showed my pin still on Meriden Green, but just at point I was about to send a panicky message to Richard, the pin vanished and reappeared at my current location. It would appear that my GPS devices were conspiring again me on this race!

The A51 got steadily more grim and I decided to jump onto the canal. It was in my original plan anyway because I wasn’t sure if there was a footpath during the next section. The towpath was very wet and within about half a mile my socks had given up and my feet were soaked. And with nowhere here to be able to do anything about it, I just gingerly had to keep going. At least the scenery wasn’t too bad.

My original plan had involved the canal through to beyond Weston, but when I got the village, I aborted and stopped at the pub to dry off my feet and try to repair the inevitable damage. I think I already knew that it had probably gone too far, but I did what I could and rerouted along the tarmac. Slowly and painfully.

Weston Hall

Sore, patched up feet. And Weston Hall

When I finally reached the intersection between road and canal I bumped into another runner plus support team who seemed to be less broken at least. Moments later another runner going in the same direction who was meeting his support but sounded less than enthused with life at the moment!

I rejoined the A51 (yes, again) for a short while before finally leaving it to go cross-country to Stoke on Trent. The roads were fine, although much busier than I’d anticipated, especially due to the lack of pavements. The drivers were courteous, although to be fair I probably looked like something out of a zombie apocalypse by this point so they might have been scared….. Progress was slow; the profile was now mostly climbing for the foreseeable and my feet were not happy. I decided that I would have to stop but thought if I could get to Longton I’d be able to get a train hope.

Except the trains were on strike.

I mulled my options as family had offered to rescue me if needed, but as it was a 40 minute journey I really didn’t want to drag them out all that way if I could avoid it. I did the maths and realised that the 60 miles ATCF was well within the pace I was going, if I could keep it up. I decided that was a good idea (?!) and continued onward to Hilderstone, where there was a plant sale at the pub and nothing else happening. Looking back I was probably getting a little cold at this point but I turned off the road towards Meir Heath which was the next place that looked like it would have any life going on.

I knew it was about 3 point something miles to Meir Heath, with Spotacre being about three quarters of a mile along the way. I then thought about arranging a pick up at Meir Heath as it would take an hour for me to get there. However, Spotacre just never seemed to appear. I questioned if I’d turned off the right road, even though that wasn’t actually possible without ending up in a field!

Almost as if by design, as the Spotgate Inn came into view I had a sharp pain in my left heel and it was clear that was journeys end. The call was made and it was the right decision. I sent Richard my ‘retirement’ text, turned off the tracker and sat in the pub until my lift arrived. The landlady at the pub was amazing. When I told her about my trip she told me the coffee was on the house and to go and get warmed up! Kindness of strangers is amazing.

Journeys End

Journeys End

So that was my first Escape From Meriden. Sure it wasn’t the result I wanted, but that’s the nature of such an event. Aside from that, I’d still run 47 miles that morning which is still a long way.

Run route

Run route

Kit list

For information this is what I carried (and yes, most of it came home with me):

Decathlon 15l rucksack
– Extra Fleece layer
– Spare buff
– second set of socks (normal base layer plus SealSkinz)
– First Aid kit
– plastic bag to keep wet & dry stuff separate
– lightweight Inov8 water-proof jacket
– lightweight Decathlon waterproof trousers
– spare headtorch
– 2x 500ml chest-mounted flasks
– 1l water bladder
– spare gloves
– foil blanket

Inov8 6l bumbag
– phone
– garmin eTrex GPS
– anker powerbank
– food (salted nuts, snickers bars, nutri-grain bars, cereal bars, hula-hoops, haribo, shotbloks
– money and bank card (thank heavens for contactless)

Kit
– long sleeved tech t-shirt
– short-sleeved race t-shirt
– long sleeve fleece layer*
– orange lightweight overall (the papery type)
– Decathlon long winter running tights
– socks plus Sealskinz
– Saucony ISO 3 trainers
– hi viz waterproof coat
– buff*
– wooly hat*
– Led Lensor head torch
– ID necklace with ICE details
– thick gloves

* (lasted about 2 miles before removing)

Obviously things were far from perfect and I think the weight in the bumbag may be the reason why my lower back is sore after the race. I’m also keen to try to work out if there was any way I could have protected my feet more.  I’m totally open to suggestions of better kit choices (please do!) but when you’ve not done an event like this before it’s sometimes difficult to know what to take (I tend to go with too much stuff).

Wrap-up

It’s been a priviledge to be a part of EFM this year. Reading the stories about where people got to, where plans went awry and the usual photograph proving that a runner has managed to come into contact with a local member of constabulary is a reminder of why this is so good. It’s odd, everything you’re doing in it is about the individual, but the shared experience between everyone just makes it that little bit more special.

I did a few videos on the way on Instagram so do check those out.

A huge thank you to Richard and his Beyond Marathon team for creating such an incredible event.

Would I do it again? Absolutely! I’ve learned a lot and I want to prove to myself I can get the gold award next time. It just won’t involve canals! As a footnote, this may have just happened:

Already planning!

Already planning!

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