Escape from Meriden 2021 – race report

Journey's end
Journey's end

Preface

2 years ago I took part in my first Escape from Meriden (EfM) and whilst I planned and prepped well for the event, I ultimately came up short. You can read that review here.

I was all set to make amends with myself in 2020 but the ongoing lock downs resulted in EfM being postponed for a year and instead the organiser came up with a pandemic-friendly alternative from home called Day Release. You can read about that adventure here where I managed to run my biggest ever mileage to date.

I was therefore looking forward to actually getting another go at the real EfM;  despite generally not seeing people after the mass start, there is a camaraderie throughout all those participating in the madness that is linked together by the social media.

What is Escape from Meriden (EfM)?

It’s a race themed on a prison-break. Everyone starts on the village green of Meriden, in the centre of England, at midnight and the aim is to get as far as possible on foot during the next 24 hours. The person who gets the furthest away is the winner and it’s up to the participants to work out their routing, their ongoing supplies etc. To make it a bigger challenge, the distances involved are measured as the crow flies (ATCF) so there’s much more to it than running circles around the village green.

Er, isn’t your foot out of action?

As you might be aware if you’ve seen my blog recently, I have also been out injured for most of 2021. Something has gone wrong in my foot and we still don’t know what or why. I have had an MRI scan on it but as yet there has been no results. Needless to say, all the normal causes have been ruled out; there’s no weakness there, it just aches like crazy if it’s dragged up or down hills. Which is a problem because that’s the sort of running I like to do.

That said, it seems just fine on the flat. Which generally isn’t the running that I like.

The net result is that with very little running during the year, training has been limited. To the point that I didn’t really start doing anything until September, and that was an exasperated attempt knowing that EfM was only a couple of months away and I hated the idea of not being able to take part, especially as a bunch of my friends were on the starting line. And training properly for long ultras too. But at some point I decided that I wanted to give the race a go anyway, even if it was only possible to do a shorter distance than I’d otherwise be capable with training.

Race day arrives

So Friday 12th November 2021 came and at 2100hrs (having been working all day) I was in a car with San, Gordon & James being transported down to Meriden by San’s husband, Ian.

The journey was notable in that seeing all the place names go by that we’d (hopefully) be running back through. We knew the route worked as San had successfully used it in the summer when Beyond Marathon held a rare summer version of the race. I had entered too, but with my foot being permanently angry at the time I decided not to risk it. Anyway, despite having attempted the race before, the long distances between all these places seemed to be hitting home with me.

I’ve “run” a couple of half-marathon distances in the last couple of months, plus an 18 mile round trip to check a bell installation, but that’s been it for “distance”.

What could possibly go wrong…….?

One change to my preparation (aside from not doing any meaningful training) was to tape up my feet in advance. It might not prevent a blister-fest but would hopefully reduce the damage. I had promised a friend that I wouldn’t do anything too risky (aside from taking part!) and so my aim was to try to keep up with the other 3 for as long as I could (hopefully get through the night with them) and then do a health check at each town we passed through where there was an option to abort and get on the train home. The lingering foot issue was the main concern although my stomach runs a close second for things that might go catastrophically awry.

We arrived in Meriden at 2230hrs in plenty of time to get registered. Thanks to Rachel Gould for the team photo!

EfM - registered and ready to go

EfM – registered and ready to go

We then decamped to the pub because what else were we going to do for the next hour?! Here we bumped into another friend from Lyme Park, Chris (their Lead Ranger) and I saw several others who I recognised from the Beyond Marathon Community group (Craig & Graham). Everyone huddled around tables, looking entirely inconspicuous in red/orange boilersuits and running packs…. A local collared me and asked what was going on so that was the first explanation of the evening.

And they’re off…..

At 2345hrs a large percentage of the pub got up and headed over to the 500 year old cross on the green in Meriden. A few more photos (for the local FB group), a load more hellos to people, a catch up with Alun & Dave, two brothers heading off in opposite directions. And then, on the stroke of midnight, a couple of hundred runners scattered from the cross in all directions and off into the night.

EfM is a strange beast. In many ways it’s a very solo thing because everyone has their own plan. Yet the event is a shared experience. Everyone wants to know what adventures each other had. The social media and live tracking keeping a wider audience absorbed as they watch a fleet of green dots spreading out from the centre of England in all directions.

The four of us set off at a steady planned pace of 11 min/miles to begin with. We couldn’t have been running for more than 15 minutes before it was just us. Several people hurtled on ahead and I’m sure there were people behind us, but we never saw them. The going was fine, weather was a bit damp and drizzly but OK and we settled into a rhythm, running in 2x pairs. My previous route knowledge lasted only 3 miles as we then headed towards Coleshill rather than Shustoke, the route I took last time.

 

A different route

I learned a lot from my 2019 experience. I thought I had nailed the perfect route – until I ran it! Aside from the flooding, some of the road sections were an unpleasant experience. And it was too quiet for me, something I didn’t expect to be a problem (I was solo self-supported that time). So upon getting home, and as the 2019 race was still going on, I’d re-routed the whole thing to Stone.

San had subsequently run it and sorted out the north-of-Stone section (my revised route went off to Holmes Chapel). So at least there was actual experience on the route (San), I’d now learned it, and James & Gordon had done a mixture of learning for the bit to Stone but had previously run the rest of it for their Day Release runs.

Coleshill to Minsworth

As we approached Coleshill we passed one of the pairs runners (The Golden Girls (TGG)) but shortly afterwards they whizzed past us again. This is something that happened many times during the night as they were destined for Stoke, and we were passing though it!

Coleshill was shut. Nightlife ZERO!

We headed out of the town and across towards Gilson where I managed to empty my pack of salted peanuts throughout my running pack. Unintentionally. As such I spent the entire rest of my race finding now-unsalted peanuts in amongst everything.

Gilson is even less happening than Coleshill, although we got to run under a motorway, which was something of note. Actually we crossed motorways multiple times as they appear to be a Midlands speciality!

I was feeling OK, which is fortunate as we weren’t that far from the beginning. Onwards through Water Orton. The bit of my brain that handles the navigation was also working and picking out road signs and feeling confident in itself. Until I started heading off into an industrial estate on the way to Minsworth and needed shepherding back by the others. No idea how I got that one wrong (as I was certain I was right – I wasn’t!) but thankfully I didn’t screw up any other nav, and for the later sections of the route (north of Stone) that the others had all run before so I just needed to follow!

Minsworth to Sutton Coldfield

The section from Minsworth through Walmsley Ash to Walmsley was uneventful, save for getting some paranoid glances from a guy puffing on a joint whilst on his mobile phone – he crossed over the road when he saw us approaching and eventually dared to ask where we were going. “Manchester” was our reply which left him looking very confused. We had no intention of going quite that far, but trying to explain minor northern towns to stoned locals wasn’t a conversation worth having.

The madness only continued once we got into Walmsley and came across two groups of very merry (drunk!) youths who were still out on the town long after the pubs were shut. Seeing a group running together dressed in overalls definitely piqued their interest. With shouts of “real Forrest Gump” they decided to join us! Complete with 4 pints of milk (possibly stolen!), a bottle of vodka and a bottle of prosecco! And then the chanting began!

If you think of US boot-camp marching chants, but much less sober and practically incoherent, then you’ll get some idea as to what the good people of Walmsley were treated to in their beds!

Where are we going? We’re going to Manchester!

To give them their due, they kept with us for over half a mile before we left the main street to head on towards Sutton Coldfield. We’d been adopting a run walk strategy before this point and were desperate for them to go so we could stop running for a minute and regain our breath and sanity a bit!

One wonders what the lads will remember of their encounter with some escapees from Meriden! Would it be a confused conversation about ‘did that really happen?’ But then this is one of the reasons to go through civilisation, and allow the outside world (albeit soaked in alcohol) to come into contact with the ultra-running world!

As we headed off from the merriment through Sutton Coldfield we had our next encounter with The Golden Girls (TGG) and their support car who was meeting them at different intervals. Their support (we never did ask her name) was very jolly and told us we were mad just like her friends before she whizzed off ahead for the next rendezvous.  We caught up with TGG on the next downhill and had a quick chat as we passed. Of course as soon as the next uphill came along we slowed down and they motored past us. Both really solid runners!

Sutton Coldfield to Stonnal (Shell refuel 1)

The next section was a long drawn-out affair also known as the A454. After the vague buzz still ongoing in the pubs of Sutton Coldfield, it was a procession of sleepy suburban houses interspersed with a few nice churches to look at as we passed. We also passed and were subsequently re-passed by TGG who confirmed they were pretty much going the same route as we were to Stoke; interestingly last time they ran EfM they took the Lichfield route I tried in 2019 – and came to exactly the same conclusion that I did about it!

The A452 undulated it’s way north-west and collectively we were getting a bit jaded. I was trying to focus on looking for the hospital on the left which was just before our turning off the monotonous A-road but it seemed to be eluding us forever. But eventually it conceded defeat and let us pass. Mill Lane soon appeared. And it was very dark!

The goal at this point was to get to the Shell garage on the A452 at 20 miles in. We saw TGG rendezvous with their support car up ahead and as they disappeared off in front of us, the magical neon of the petrol station waved at us welcoming us in. Turns out that San “knew” the night attendant there as he was on shift last time she ran through and he remembered her!

We had a long stop mostly because he was disinfecting the coffee machine when we arrived. And we NEEDED coffee. He very kindly opened the door (overnight the shop isn’t usually available to the public, instead being a counter service only) so we could use the toilets which was very welcome as my stomach was firmly in “unimpressed” mode! I’ll leave the rest to your imagination on that front…..

After acquiring coffee and topping up water (plus one of the not-sausage rolls I had in my bag and some less-than-appetisinh escaped peanuts) we were off again feeling thoroughly revitalised!

Brownhills to Pye Green

The A452 is another long straight stretch of road working its way through Brownhills and up to the A5. But we had a spring in our step again and it seemed to pass quickly. I even had the wherewithal to photograph the statue at the top end of the town. I thought it was a cricketer, but turns out it’s a miner……..

Brownhills Miner

Brownhills Miner

Onwards, ever  onwards, across Brownhills Common, over the A5 and the march north-west continued towards Hednesford. We were approaching 0600hrs and whilst the traffic wasn’t busy, life outside of the ultra-bubble was beginning to wake up to Saturday. When I was learning the route, this section was one I was quite concerned about (rather than the bit I actually got wrong!) but aside from the fact it seemed to go on forever (A454 you’re not the only one) it was straightforward.

We passed (and were re-passed) by TGG on this stretch too!

In many ways we were just counting down the miles to the next Shell garage at 27 miles. I think that TGG support vehicle was at this petrol station. To be honest it’s a bit blurry here, not least because the drizzly rain meant I couldn’t see much through my glasses. Anyway, the shop was open and as such toilets were used, coffees consumed, glasses wiped down from the drizzly rain outside and back out again to regroup with the others before we continued on.

And we found a churchy monument that actually interested us all, rather than just my need to photograph old buildings.

The others were surprised how quickly I’d dispatched my coffee, but I explained that it was a by-product of my last job where such opportunities had to taken quickly! That said I do seem to have a sore tongue 2 days later, so maybe I’ve lost my knack of drinking coffee at the temperature of lava ….

Across Cannock Chase to Stafford (and grab the silver award)

Hednesford turned out to be pretty unmemorable; the left turn took me by surprise as it looked far more obvious on Google maps. But aside from a bit of traffic dodging we started heading uphill. TGG were long gone and we headed out of civilisation and into Cannock Chase. In the summer, San told how wonder CC was to run through with the dawn breaking around her, with the woodlands beautiful and summery.

It turns out that it’s not quite the same on a drizzly November morning when the dawn is steadfastly refusing to break. The only way we could tell it must be getting later was the steady increase in traffic. There’s no pavements but the roads are dead straight so we could see / be seen easily. At least 2 cars shouted hello to us! This is a long section, about 5km in total. And being in the dark and drizzle, it wasn’t the most enjoyable experience. I was feeling OK but the others were a bit of a mixture so we tended to concertina our way through the woodlands until we finally popped out onto the A34 on the other side. By which point dawn had finally broken. Well, it was light anyway!

The A34 would be a companion for many miles, but the first few of these were a gentle meander towards Stafford. Just south of the town we crossed the first virtual achievement line, that of 30 crow miles i.e. a 30 mile radius of a circle with the centre at Meriden. I’d equalled my 2019 silver award. We thought we saw TGG support vehicle nearby, but we didn’t see TGG. We definitely hadn’t passed them by then (they’d stolen a huge march on us when we were at the petrol station). We could have popped over to the vehicle, but we weren’t sure if it was the right one, which would be a weird and embarrassing encounter if it wasn’t them!

Breakfast in Stafford

My game-plan was to do a rain-check at Stafford to see whether it was safe for me to continue. Absolutely no point damaging myself for no reason. As we came into the town centre we were all upbeat, breakfast at McDonalds was the plan and we even got a cheery hello from one of the traders in the town who was one of the folks who greeted us in Cannock Chase near the German Cemetery.

I looked at the menu and concluded that my normal pescatarian diet was going to have to be on hold for the race. Annoying, but I see my diet as reducing meat intake for a sustainable approach to the environment rather than some stick to beat myself with. Basically the veggie option sounded too grim to contemplate for a stomach that was never far from mutiny at any given moment.

I was incredibly thirsty, despite taking on plenty of fluids, so a huge orange-lemonade was ordered. And 20 minutes after I’d ordered and with the others all but finished their breakfasts, I was still waiting, despite having chased up once. I found the manager and within 2 minutes I was finally tucking in to some real food. Or at least McDonalds’ equivalent of food. I’d used tailwind in water overnight, plus a few of the sorry peanuts from the incident before, a not-sausage roll and a few jelly sweets that were long past their sell by date (it’s sugar, what’s it going to do?!)

Once eaten we decided it was time to wave goodbye to the orange suits.

Onwards to Stone

We rejoined the A34 and followed the long trek to Stone. Again a lot of concertina-ing with Gordon seemingly trying to set a land-speed record at the front, James plodding behind and San & me occupying some middle ground that we hoped would mean we could get back to Macclesfield. I think this probably the first time we actively started talking about plans. My ultimate goal, foot allowing, was to get the gold award I’d been unable to achieve in 2019.

The heart wanted to run all the way home, but the head didn’t want to risk doing any more than was necessary. 2 months ago I’d not run more than 5 miles since the spring and the risk of the mystery foot injury resurfacing and putting me out of action for even longer was something I wanted to avoid. Accepting what I was already doing was riding high on the lunacy scale of stupid acts of self harm.

Meanwhile San was still getting over a bug that had lingered for weeks so equally didn’t want to take any risks (besides she had already done the running all the way home thing). For me it was a helpful conversation to grapple with the contradictory thought about what I should or shouldn’t do.

After much A34 action, we turned off into Stone and headed to the M&S Simply Food that sits on the bank of the canal. Much food was consumed and a catch up with a few other escapees who were bound for Chester. That’s the weird thing with this event. You see nobody from the race for ages and then randomly bump into each other.

The first canal: Stone to Hanley

I’ve mentioned that a few sections seemed to drag on. The first canal section was another of these. On the positive side, Ian parked up part-way along the route and ran back to join us and lead us back to the car for a cuppa and a sit down on the wall by the canal. We carried on with Ian helping pace and keep us sane. Which was great until the towpath was shut for repairs! A bit of asking directions and poking Google maps gave us a diversion which didn’t actually add much distance over the closed section. Stoke was approaching, we could see the Britannia Stadium on the skyline and it looked (in my mind) that canal purgatory would soon be over. Ian said his farewells and turned back to the car and on we continued.

I think it was about this point I had my first really low point. We seemed to be running under endless amounts of Stoke and yet the junction we needed to come off seemed to always be further on. Checking my GPX trace the canal section (including divert) was just shy of 9 miles. Which at that pace is about 2 hours of towpath bashing!

When we finally got off the canal and started the climb up into Hanley (the shopping town within Stoke) I was in a really bad place mentally. Feet were unhappy, back was sore, shoulder was screaming and the rest of me was basically wanting to abandon. I guess this is the advantage of working as a group as on the whole everyone has their highs and lows at different points. The traffic was busy as it was lunchtime in a city and the act of crossing a road when you feel there is a time delay between the brain and the feet is not a pleasant one.

We crossed the main drag and found a wall to sit on. There was another big climb to come and much thought-gathering was needed. James offered to run ahead to get some coffees but as my stomach was also getting involved in this “I hate the world” moment I wanted just to keep going. Sneyd Hill isn’t huge but after 14 hours on the go it definitely felt a challenge. But we got there and parked ourselves in Starbucks for a much needed caffeine hit.

The purgatory of the Biddulph Way

Safe to say that whilst I felt a bit more revitalised post-coffee, I was a bit wobbly to begin with. And my garmin was suffering too, alerting me that it only had 5% battery left. And that wasn’t going to last another 10 hours! I realised afterwards that all the others had newer versions of my watch which is why they didn’t have a problem. Still, I popped into a local store to get some more water and headed down Ford Green Road to catch the others as we all headed towards the start of the Biddulph Way (BW).

The BW was a trail I’d considered when I was running EfM in 2019 but as I’d quit before I got there I hadn’t set foot on it, save for a 1 mile section where the Gritstone Trail briefly joins it. The others were very familiar with it having run up and down it several times on each others’ Day Release runs where they followed this route.

The BW is a very pleasant trail with stunning views, especially once you get away from the city end. However it does seem to go on forever. We stopped and started and at one point Gordon and I were quite far ahead until the others caught us up. In the meantime we saw Alun fly past us; he’d apparently taken a wrong turn and was rushing back in the right direction to make up the lost time.

In the meantime I’d borrowed a charger from James to try to rescue my watch tracking. It’s only important for my own records as the race uses its own tracking system. However I realised quite a long way down the  BW that although the watch was charging nicely it had at some point decided that it didn’t want to track me any more! So it looked like I’d stopped early on Strava, which was annoying because assuming I could get to Macclesfield, it would be my longest run ever.

I restarted the watch but realised I’d have a gap as I didn’t know when it had stopped. It turned out I’d lost about an hour of tracking and just over 4 miles. Very annoying as I like these things to look clean and tidy, but ultimately it doesn’t make a jot of difference in the real world. But I was particularly unchuffed about the situation!

Around the time that I’d restarted the watch we bumped into a couple of San’s friends who had come out to support and bring a few bits of kit that had been left in Ian’s car to be collected later in the day. By this time we weren’t moving fast but we did get a bit of a move on to get to the end of the BW section where we were jumping on to the canal. Having done all the sorting, they dashed back off and we swapped from trail back to towpath.

Canal 2: slip-sliding our way towards Macc

Although we joined the canal in daylight, it really was the last bit before dust set in. And boy did it get dark fast. It wasn’t a problem initially as the going was pretty good, although we all kept going off at different paces and took a bit of coraling by San to manage to keep together. Just at the point of darkness the going underfoot got a lot slippier and with me not really picking my feet up enough (a common problem I have) I managed to face-plant into the ground.

Having already been furious about the watch issue,  the fact I smacked the hell out of my hand as I tried to break my fall left me in a particularly foul mood. I’d managed to hit another low point and really struggled to get back out of it. I got up and just followed the others. I had nothing useful to say and just wanted the day to end in all honesty. I nearly went over a couple more times and decided that running now was not really an option until the tow path became much firmer (and less muddy) under foot. We picked up a bit of pace again.

I was now just holding out for a few more miles to get into Macclesfield where I could stop. However we still had the joy of Bosley Locks, which was my first experience of them.

And it was grim.

The towpath was fine but it felt like death by a thousand cuts as lock after lock appeared out of the darkness for what felt like forever. It probably wouldn’t have been so bad in the daytime, but after a long day and in the dark, not much fun. It was also the source of my only hallucination in the run; I experienced what I believe is called “third man syndrome”. I knew I was at the back of the group, but I was certain there was someone behind me. Even if I knew there wasn’t! Very strange but it didn’t bother me too much, more intriqued me as I’ve never experienced anything like that before.

Final stretch into Macclesfield

We did have a cup of tea to look forward to once we got off the canal. I must have looked at the tracking map a dozen times to see when we were going to rejoin civilisation! It came, I think to the relief of us all, but in a typically British problem, the tea was delayed as all the stores were now serving Saturday evening takeaways to all and sundry.  It was agreed to rendezvous a little closer into Macclesfield, at yet another Shell petrol station, and we were met there with hot beverages and friendly faces.

By this point the skies had cleared and it was noticably colder. The others added more extra layers but I was still fine as I’d already added one of my layers, knowing that I literally had a couple of miles left to go. We finished the drinks, crossed over the road to the better pavement, and set off.

Or at least I thought we had.

I jogged on in front assuming everyone else was behind me and it was only when I got down to the traffic lights at the bottom of the hill I realised I was on my own. Not sure what happened and I didn’t hear anyone say to hold on.

So having found myself alone, I decided I’d get down to the 60ATCF mark so at least that was done and meet them there. I don’t think I was capable of turning around and running up any hills by now!

I knew the target distance was near a monument, but frustratingly I couldn’t find it (I’m sure it’s huge and obvious but I was too far gone I think to notice anything other than railway stations and churches).

Studying the tracking map didn’t help either, I was still on the wrong side of the 60ATCF mark so I carried on towards the railway station which I knew was beyond it. I figured everyone would appear soon enough, but they didn’t. So I waited there knowing that as Gordon and James were definitely continuing they would have to run past here.

After a few minutes Gordon, James and a couple of their friends appeared. San had stopped at the 60 mark (they all found the monument!) and gone home as planned. I gave them a wave on as they were continuing north for a few more miles, took a “finish line” photo, turned off my tracker (having confirmed with Richard (race organiser) I had passed 60ATCF!) and went looking for a taxi home.

Journey's end

Journey’s end

Final thoughts

Did I enjoy the experience? Absolutely.

Would I recommend the race to you? Absolutely.

Is it a tough challenge? Absolutely.

Do I regret not running the last 10 miles back home? Well it’s definitely a difficult one to resolve. By the time I got to Macclesfield my feet were beginning to feel like they were going to fall apart and my back and lower legs were painful. On the one hand, I can’t say that I ran home (heart). On the other hand, I can still walk and get to work etc (head). The goal for my race was to reach Macclesfield and that was achieved. My original 2020 plan was to run to Holmes Chapel, which isn’t home either, so it’s somewhat futile worrying about something which is entirely arbitrary in the scheme of things.

Was it better to do it with friends or solo unsupported? It’s definitely a more social experience in a group and that support dug me out of two deep lows so it was definitely beneficial (hopefully I was useful to the others, I daren’t ask!). That said I usually run alone, and solo/unsupported is more what I’m used to. I don’t like letting people down so don’t want to call on them to support only to have to quit before I get there.

Was it sensible to do a 73 mile ultra off the back of no meaningful training? No, it was a stupid idea. It did prove that endurance fitness does seem to hold together quite well for a longer time than speed fitness. But the risk of overloading muscles is heightened in this situation and it could have ended with another failed attempt and a further long layoff with injury. That said, it was cathartic to have completed something I started in 2019. And to actually complete something in 2021 after what has been a pretty rubbish year from the running point of view.

Did the taping work? Yes, it made a massive difference and I think I only have one small blister on the side of my foot. Feet were achy for a couple of days but nothing like the 3-days of sharp pain I had in 2019.

My EfM route

My EfM route

Taking a break

2021 has posed a number of challenges, nearly all relating to health. The inability to get out and run has been a major issue for my mental health. Getting out for one event has at least tempered that, although I’ve since experienced quite a big post-race blues which isn’t something I usually suffer with.

It has opened my eyes to a number of other issues which I’ve been mulling. The self-imposed pressure on doing stuff on social media. The weird world of Strava where seemingly you post your running in front of lots of other people for somewhat obscure purposes; am I really so insecure I need other people to see (and comment) about the runs I do? When I started running I don’t think I even timed my early races, let alone shared the GPS tracks with the world!

As such I’ve decided to take a break, to get my body and mind back on an even keel again. I’ve removed my Strava activities and logged out of Facebook – I want to delete it, but currently can’t due to all the running commitments organised on it (ditching WhatsApp earlier in the year caused all sorts of issues). I’ve even sold my running watch (although will no doubt replace it with something newer in due course).

Hopefully soon I’ll get some useful news about my foot from the MRI scan which will help me work out what running I will be able to do going forwards.

In the meantime I’ll still be coaching others, where I feel I can make a positive difference.

Thanks for reading and let’s see what the next adventure will be!

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