home      my running story      races from the beginning      talk to me       product reviews      

Friday 13 January 2017

XNRG Cotswold Challenge: 57 Miles, Surprise Cows & A Suck Like A Dyson

One of my problems is that I have a massive fear of missing out. On the plus side it means I get to have lots of adventures that if I stopped and thought about things properly, I wouldn’t have had. But on the negative side it does mean I occasionally find myself on a hill 15 miles from the nearest pub (and toilet) and wondering what the bloody hell I had got myself into this time. (And why weren’t there any bushes with big soft leave around here anyway?) 

I’d been offered a last minute place on the XNRG Cotswolds Way and my big mouth had shouted yes before my brain had had a chance to say “But hang on it’s only 1 week after Equinox 24, 2 weeks after Bacchus Marathon and 3 weeks after European Triathlon Championships …”)  And here I was again. Up a hill in the middle of nowhere, wondering what the hell I was doing with my pockets stuffed full of snacks. 

Snacks? Maybe it’s not all bad. 

Pic by XNRG

The event was the XNRG Cotswolds Challenge. 57 miles of the Cotswolds Way spread over 2 days which made it sound picturesque and easy. My husband grew up near Cirencester which is practically the Cotswolds and it’s REALLY flat there. I once had to run 3 miles just to find a hill to do a hill training session. 

Perfect. This race was sounding better and better. *Imagines a 57 mile picnic*

It was also wonderful NOT to have a massive kit list of mandatory kit. Sometimes it seems that ultramarathons are weightlifting contests in addition to being running and eating competitions. *Fills extra space in race vest with snacks*

The elevation charts made it look a bit bumpy … but that was GOOD, right? Every hill meant walking time (and therefore eating time) although I did notice that all of the checkpoints appeared to be on the top of one of the lumpy bits. At least it will be easier to leave the checkpoints if I have a downhill to run, I reasoned. 

Hmmm … It sounded nice. *Drifts back into picnic daydream* I’d heard good things about XNRG events and here was the perfect opportunity to find out first-hand.

Gorgeous view ... massive hill

Saturday morning

Running brain: Up and ready to go for a run!
Normal brain: It’s 7am Saturday morning!! What are you doing?

Running stomach: Hooray I LOVE running food! I had flapjacks and cheese for breakfast and I know for a fact she packed 3 creme eggs in that rucksack!
Normal stomach: I despair. I absolutely despair. Do I need to send a memo to bowels re: outdoor poo again?

Bowels: On it. Hope Hands have packed the loo roll.

The start was at a Scout Centre in Chipping Campden which meant driving along lots of pretty winding lanes and through perfect villages which wouldn't have looked out of place in a Jilly Cooper novel. The pink roses, smooth green lawns and grey stone cottages were as perfect as dolls houses and appeared to have been put exactly in place by a child with an eye to detail. Not my child obviously as there were no baby dolls with crayons jammed up their nostrils or barbies with jam in their hair. Instead one of those children with perfect plaits and a scary identical twin. 

I found the scout hut tucked away down a narrow lane and XNRG immediately won a couple of ‘awesome race points’ with me as the car park was right next to the hut. No dragging my massively my over-packed overnight bag for a mile while wishing I’d stolen a supermarket trolley to shove it in. Not today. I just had to drag it 10 metres to the van, while trying not to pull any back muscles before the ultra. (In case you’re wondering I DID give fair warning to the muscular man loading the bags into the van … )

It was all very chilled out. Runners were wandering around, trailing race instructions and pinning race numbers but there was no panic, no flailing, no massive toilet queue. I had worried that the walkers would have used all the available parking as they started an hour before the runners but there was plenty of spaces and my car was right next to race HQ. It would have been difficult to be any closer without parking in the ladies toilet. (And I wasn’t sure I’d be able to reverse the car back out through that frosted glass window).

I was registered within 2 mins. And had visited the loo and was drinking a free coffee within 5 minutes. 

As it was so chilled out, the runners had a chance to have a chat beforehand and it was nice to see who I’d be running with. I was sitting with someone about to do his first ultra and his wife who had recently started running, chatting to another person who worked for a local triathlon company) and to a short and speedy looking girl called Megan. 

The race briefing was given by Neil the Race Director (and ice runner!!) and he started off with some facts about the race. Everyone knows a runner loves a stat.

Average age of the competitors was 43, the oldest person was 76 and the youngest 26. 
59% of the competitors were female. (Does a brief dance for Girl Power)
The checkpoints stay open until the last person is through. (or leaves *more picnic dreams*)
Unless we wanted to run an additional 6 miles we were strongly advised to ignore the ‘Cotswold Way Circular Route’ signs. Apparently there were no bonus points for extra miles. Or even bonus cheese. 
Also the event is worth 4 UTMB points. Uh … WHAT? I thought this was going to be a nice little walk with an occasional sandwich or pork pie thrown in. Surely UTMB points mean it might actually involve some challenging situations. Bears with swords or something.   

Crap. I’d forgotten the bear spray. I’d have to make sure I ran near tastier-to-bears looking so I could leave them to get eaten instead of me. I’m all heart. And about 80% snacks. 

The race start was announced so we all wandered over and started chatting. You have to have a quick chat to find out who has the good snacks (you want to run with them), who insists on playing shite music on their phone (you want to avoid them) and who has the good loo roll stocks (you want to know where they are).

The most chilled out race start EVER (Pic by XNRG)

It was clearly an ultramarathon rather than a road race as no-one wanted to look keen and start at the front and EVERYONE walked over the line. There was a bit of a consensus and we briefly got up a bit of momentum up before grinding to a halt at the start of the first hill as per the Ultra Rules. The herd got to the top of the hill after a bit of puffing and panting and we were soon passing our first ‘Cotswold Way’ signposts.

The first few miles were mainly grassy tracks across fields with an astonishing number of stiles and kissing gates. It was sunny and picturesque and I started the run feeling good. Not smug but good. I’d raced the previous 3 weekends (all over marathon distances) but had come away without any niggles or injuries and my legs didn’t feel particularly fatigued. 

The ‘Feeling Good’ lasted for all of 4 miles then my legs asked me what the hell I thought I was doing and this run had BETTER not be any further than a 10k. 

Me: Uh ... legs? 
Legs: WHAT?? *cross voice*
Me: Nothing. 

I had started counting stiles and gates but gave up early on after I ran out of fingers and toes to count on and I’m from Dorset. I’d just have to eat snacks to distract my legs from all this running. 

The sun was pretty hot – about 21*c and I was glad I hadn’t bothered with the base layer I’d been considering. The arm warmers lasted about 3 miles before being tied around the straps of the vest like flappy pink flags and the visor lasted about 5 minutes after that. 

It was a friendly event and I ran with a few people for sections but didn’t really find anyone running quite the same pace. Janine and I swapped places every so often and had a chat and I ran sections with different people – Mr Fire-&-Ice-Ultra on the long downhill and Mr Tall-With-Blue-Shirt through the ploughed fields. Names get forgotten in races but you remember the kit. (If you die on the trail, we loot your kit)

The views were glorious, everything clear and bright in the sunshine and the Cotswold villages laid out beneath us like a dolls village on a patchwork quilt of fields. Every time I came over a hill, there was a view like a photograph from a Country Life magazine. 

But you had to earn the views. The climbs were brutal. But at least it was easy to navigate. You just looked for the largest hill in the area, then for the steepest and most precipitous way up the side of it and that would be the way you’d be going. The downhills were just as ruthless and my legs who normally adore downhills – it’s ‘free distance’ right? – were sulking about being asked to run long again. 

No flat sections, grumpy legs …. But the views and the fact that I was carrying my bodyweight in snacks made things better. 

Broadway Tower

Running towards Broadway Tower was amazing. You could see it from a long distance away, silhouetted against the sky, hill, stretching up towards the clouds. We ran towards it, passing sheep and walkers as we went. 

Chatting with another runner as we trotted towards the tower, he confided that the Cotswolds Way runs UP 1024ft to the tower, AROUND the tower, DOWN the hill and AROUND the hill. I couldn’t see the problem with this until he mentioned that while the trail was picturesque and interesting, it took us on a about a 4 mile detour around the hill and that if the trail went as the crow flies it would be about 1 mile instead of 4.

*cries all the tears* 

The tower was the 2nd highest point on the Cotswolds and apparently the tower was built as a rich man’s drawing room. The views were gorgeous – apparently you could see for 60 miles in clear weather but I was still VERY impressed at the amount of effort Mr Rich would have had to make to get to it, climbing all these hills. He must have really liked the view. Or been paying his servants well to carry him up here.

With my legs spinning like Roadrunner’s, I meep-meeped my way across field after vertical field to get to the bottom of the hill. Finally at the bottom of the grassy hill, through a gate I emerged in the pretty town of Broadway ... and more downhill. My legs discovering that they were expected to run more than 6 miles were threatening to go on strike. I promised them cheese if they’d get me to the checkpoint. 

The first checkpoint was at 9 miles was at the top of a hill with flinty, chalky tracks. I stumbled up the hill, knees knocking, a perfect example of ‘How NOT to Run’ and a couple of walkers kindly said to me “You’re being awesome.” 

“I’m really not.” I said. Then thought ‘what an ungrateful cow I am, they were being kind, not honest’ and apologised and shuffled away.  

Me pretending to run because I've seen a camera (Photo by Janine)

I got to the checkpoint and exchanged a few words with Janine who was also having a hard race. Why was I so ruined 9 miles in? I decided not to overanalyse that and ignored the shouting from the legs about previous weekends doing stupid things. Like running.  

I grabbed some Haribo – or tried to - but the whole lot was stuck together and what I thought was a single cola bottle turned out to be the pick n mix equivalent of a paperchain. Decisions. Do I grab the lot and shove it in my mouth? Decided I’d probably get murdered by irate runners – or at the very least disqualified - if I ate the entire tub so I disentangled 3 or 4, munched them to a terrible death and walked out of the checkpoint dribbling liquid sugar down my chin. 

The narrow trail looped up to a farmyard and a woolly gang of sheep charged through it in front of me on their way to their field. I flattened myself against the hedge and crossed warily when the bleating had died away, making sure I shut the gate behind me. I passed a couple of walkers and thought I’d better warn them about the “Herd of sheep”. I didn’t even realise my mistake until they were long past. They were probably thinking “Herd of sheep? Of course I’ve heard of sheep …” *Gets mowed down by flock of sheep charging past.*

Runner’s brain appeared to be kicking in early today. I couldn’t remember what a collection of sheep was called and now I was struggling to get any water out of the new hose in the race vest. I might suffer from dehydration but on the plus side I’d have developed a suck so powerful, I’d be able to get crème eggs from the fridge to my mouth while sitting at the dining room table. 

More bloody hills

At least I was past the first checkpoint which meant I was over a third of the way through today’s miles. *Reminds self not to mention tomorrow’s 30 mile day to legs* There was a short section on a lane and then what appeared to be a mountain. A big green mountain. Oh look. Is that a mountain goat? A sheep you say? Nonsense. *Stifles sheep’s attempt to bleat* Definitely a mountain goat. 

I started climbing the hill. 

And climbing.

And climbing.

Really…? I got a proper grump on. I was so out of breath I couldn’t even moan. I promised myself I would drop out at the next checkpoint. This was too tough for me. 

As I looked up, there was a race medic at the top of the hill. Possibly with oxygen tanks and emergency cheese. She confirmed that the 2nd checkpoint was just around the corner. 

Well maybe I’ll just go and check what snacks they’ve got. Seems SILLY to drop out this close …

I got the aid station and set about clearing them of all their glasses of squash and refilled my water bladder. I was so relieved to get to the aid station and to be able to drink fluids without needing to utilise the suck of a Dyson (water hose STILL faulty) that it cheered me right up. So much so, I skipped out of the checkpoint and left my race instructions, map and mobile phone on the table. 

Sarah, you bloody idiot. Now you can’t even pretend to be taking photos when you stop halfway up one of those big hills for a breather. 

Oh and good luck finding your way for the next 12 miles. 

The path was uphill. Flinty uphill but after being able to take on some fluids I was feeling a LOT better physically despite feeling a bit frantic about the phone. Not only did I have all my photos and everyone’s contact info on there I also had my bank cards tucked into the back of the case. AND I couldn’t tweet about how peeved I was about losing my phone. Disaster. *Does jazz hands*

An uphill. Massive.

The hills didn’t calm down at all. In fact the hills felt vertical. Actually vertical. I was reduced to running downhills, walking uphills and shuffling flats. And crying tears of self-pity and pathetic-ness over my sore legs. And definitely not tears about not being able to tweet about sore legs.

I got to the next checkpoint, grabbed some more drinks and was off out as quickly as possible. I’m a terrible time waster at checkpoints so my plan was to refill fluids as quickly as I could and get out. I let the checkpoint heroes know that I had left my phone at the last aid station and had my fingers crossed that I’d see it again at the end. Hopefully without any arse photos.

The trail was busy today and there was even a 100 mile race on, on the same trail. I didn’t see any of the runners but decided they must have been actually superhuman. I was finding 28 miles hard work on this terrain and in the heat. And I’d get a sit down and a snack after that. These guys had to do over 3 times this. 

I couldn’t work out why I was finding it all such hard work. I knew my legs were fatigued but it felt more than this. Then I noticed that my hands had swollen up which they do when I don’t have enough salt. 

I twigged. Sarah, you double-idiot. You haven’t eaten anything since the Haribo at checkpoint 1. I rooted through my snacks trying to find something salty. I didn’t have anything but found a 9 bar which I gratefully scoffed although after not eating for so long even the nutty bar didn’t taste good. I decided I was going to pull out at the next checkpoint.  

Up a hill, over a stone stile and past a standing stone I ran along a field edge and passed a couple of lady runners and came into the last checkpoint. 

Passing people always cheers me up and instead of dropping out, it gave me the incentive to be extra quick at the checkpoint and I ran in and ran out and after being reassured that it was practically all downhill from here except for one teeny tiny hill, I decided to get to the end and volunteer to marshal the next day instead of run. 

God, Booker. You’re pathetic today. Just keep running and stop moaning. And try not to drop any snacks.
Actual mountain goats. *cough*

The path kept rising, flinty and deeply trenched and I passed a family out walking with their dog. The bouncy dog wanted to run alongside me and say hello. I wouldn’t have minded, I could have done with some company.

The paths opened out and I came out onto a golf course. A lady supporter told me I was nearly there – ‘one last hill’ so I kept running and running. I crossed paths with a lady going the opposite direction with hi-viz pink on running with her dog. We exchanged greetings and I carried on up the hill. And up.

I knew I had to carry on until the end of the golf course, until I saw an XNRG sign telling me where to leave the Cotswolds Way trail and drop down into the town to the sports hall which was to be my shelter tonight. 

I came over a ridge and the path went slightly downhill. That was it! That had been the last hill.

No. It bloody wasn’t. The signs suddenly pointed left to a sheer green cliff. Really? REALLY? I heaved a sigh and started walking up the hill. I had a conversation in my head asking me at what point it would be ok to crawl. To actually drop down to my hands and knees and crawl up the hill using tufts of grass to drag myself upwards. Pride was nowhere to be seen. The only reason I DIDN’T do it was because if I had a nice lie down now I would decide that it would be fine to sleep here. The golfers would just have to golf AROUND me. I started wondering if Domino’s pizza would deliver if I just slept here.

Check out that view! (Take crampons and oxygen)

I heaved a massive sigh and carried on up. As had been the theme of the day the ‘top’ of the hill was a false peak. It was the hill that kept on giving. PAIN. It kept on giving me pain.

I spotted the trig point and aimed for that. I hugged it. Last hill.

There had BETTER not be any more hills. 

I spotted a post in the distance and aimed for that. I really hoped that it was a Cotswolds Way sign as I had no idea where I was going. And having lost the route instructions I had no idea where to drop off the trail to get to the town below. Hell. I was just going to have to keep running. 

The golf course went on forever. FOREVER. I find the ‘tok’ of golf balls being hit quite a peaceful soothing sound. Or I used to. Before I had to run on the equivalent of a treadmill masquerading as a golf green. Mile after mile of undulating green grass rolled out beneath my feet. And still no sign. 

And then. Like a cold beer to a dehydrated runner there was the sign. I could have cried. In fact I did. Tears of sheer relief that I wasn’t on the way to Stroud without any dinner. And best of all the sign was pointing DOWN the hill.

My legs took over and whisked me down the hill in delight! Wheeeee!! Until I ground to a halt at a fork in the trail. There was no sign. And I had no route instructions having so cleverly left them at CP2 this morning. 

Do you feel lucky, runner 8?

No. I didn’t. In fact I should choose the OPPOSITE fork to the one I thought it should be as this would probably be the right way. But what if luck KNEW I was going to do this and was tricking me by making the obvious fork the right direction? And what if luck KNEW that I KNEW luck would be tricking me and …

Oh hell, I’m REALLY confused now. I chose the left fork as this seemed to be more downhill than the right fork. 

It all ended in a massive bushy bush in what appeared to be someone’s garden. I backtracked back UP the hill and looked to see whether I could find any clue as to where the path should be. Nope. No clue. 

My watch was saying I had only 1.8 miles to go ... but I had no idea in which direction.

That’s it. I’m going cross-country. There will be FOOD at the finish!! 

RAAAAAAAAAAARRRRR!! Through the prickly bushes, branches whipping at my face and spiky things sticking in my legs I emerged triumphant, scratched and with nettles in my hair onto a path. Directly opposite some red XNRG tape fluttering merrily in the breeze.

Woooo! I’m on THE path! I threw myself down the hill, past the big boulder where I had seen some runners earlier from the heady heights of the golf course, down the steep, steep road where I was greeted by yet another XNRG sign and onto a track into a field. The field swooped downhill in what would have been glorious if I had been running on fresh legs but what was quad achingly tough on grumbly sore legs. I doubled the amount of cheese I was promising my quads if they’d get me to the finish line and followed the trail, through a gate at the end, onto a housing estate and onto a main road, still all downhill. Last push, over a bridge, across a road and where a neon sign and a very welcome finishing arch was waiting for me. 

Neil the Race Director and the other runners and crew were welcoming everyone in under the finish arch with cheers and a handshake and despite there being a lot of runners remembered everyone’s names! After such a beautiful but tough run, that satisfying finish was very welcome!

And through the doors to … Coffee! Chocolate! Snacks! Hot showers! 

I grabbed a hot coffee, had a shower and was reunited with my phone! (Thank you SO much Ed! There weren’t even any extra pics on it!) 

My bedroom

It was such a relief to be clean and have some food. I inflated my air mattress and set up my sleeping bag and went out to call my husband to let him know I’d be dropping out. 

“Simon? I’ve had a really tough day. It was SO hard. Beautiful, absolutely beautiful course but hills… ” *pauses to contemplate sheer amount of hills* 
“I’ve decided I’m not going to run tomorrow. It’s too much after the last few weekends racing and …”
*Someone puts up a piece of paper on the door*
*Squints but can’t read it*
“Ok. I might see if I can marshal so I’ll give you a shout when I’m on my way home tomorrow.”
*Goes to look at paper*

*Flabbergasted face* Bugger me. Currently in 2nd place. 

No wonder I found it so hard. Despite the sad legs and losing count of stiles, it appeared that losing my phone and NOT stopping for a selfie every mile magically makes you a bit quicker. It was also a bit of a relief to see other runners doing the REALLY-hilly-Trail-Marathon-Waddle too. So not just me crawling up the hills too.

Maybe I’ll just TRY to run tomorrow after all then …

Spotted Ben a twitter buddy who had come to run the 2nd day. I don’t like to lie. I told him it was ALL vertical. 

The dinner was included in the event cost and everyone all piled into the school canteen where there was salad and massive portions of lasagne on offer. Due to my dodgy tummy (stopping or a poo every 5 miles tend to slow down most running events), I had a massive bowl of salad and the wonderful canteen man brought me a MASSIVE slice of gluten free chocolate cake. Winning at cake. 

Everyone was chatty and friendly and it was brilliant hearing about everyone’s adventures even if Ed was trying to convince us that jam and rice sweet baby food was definitely the ultra fuel of the future.  I even got a sports massage from one of the crew. A sports therapist (not an off-the-cuff massage from the canteen man) and best of all no elbows or pointy thumbs were used.

As part of the event, Extreme Energy have a guest speaker on the first night and we were lucky enough to have Mark Bayliss who completed the 289 Enduroman Arch to Arc triathlon and who managed to make a hole in his own shoulder in the attempt. Apparently he was clean shaven before the swim but the amount of time it takes to swim over 20 miles means that stubble grows and the amount of times you take a breath in that time meant that he effectively rubbed a hole in his own shoulder. Ouch. Not only did he do a TWO HUNDRED AND EIGHTY NINE MILE TRIATHLON, he was also the first to finish it without a wetsuit, setting a new world record. 

It's a bit rubbery but I like to call this home. 
Wow. With that inspiring talk in our minds, we headed to our sleeping bag beds in the school sports hall. After scrounging toothpaste off a stranger I went to bed. By bed I mean a sleeping bag, on an air mattress surrounded by snacks. It was comfy, snacks were easy-access and I was warm. All was good. Or it was until everyone else got into their sleeping bags on their rubber air mattresses. 

Have you ever heard 65 people turning over on rubber mattresses in unison? It sounds like balloon animals mating. At 100 decibels. 

I plugged my headphones in and drifted off to sleep to the sound of a rubber poodle getting it on with a rubber flower. 

Sunday: Day 2

We were woken at an insanely early hour by the strip lights coming on in the school hall with the tick, tick, crash noise. It was like being head raped by strobe lights. However after a shower and getting into my run kit and a MASSIVE coffee, everything felt better and I was looking forward to starting day 2.

Having all put our sleeping bags fairly close, Megan, Janine and I had been chatting and realised we had several friends in common including Susie Chan who had accidentally cheered us up on the Saturday night by posting a picture of her kit for Berlin marathon upon realising she’d packed 2 left trainers … 

Megan, Janine and me
Megan and I decided we’d run together the 2nd day. There had been hardly any time between our results on day 1 so it would be good to run with someone of a similar pace. It was Megan’s first running ultra and she was smashing it, although she’d previously WALKED 100 miles which sounded insane and scary with hallucinations and 2 nights of darkness. Wow.

The first surprise - which shouldn’t have been a surprise - was the massive UPHILL. If I’d been thinking straight I would have remembered that I’d left the Cotswolds Way at the top of that massive hill that I’d run down last night. 

And therefore to get BACK to the Cotswolds Way I’d have to run back up that hill. 

Surprisingly, my legs were feeling pretty good after a nights rest. And that lasted for all of a mile. Much longer than I’d expected. Ben sprinted on up the hill and Megan and I decided that we would strategically walk this one. 

Strategy = WALK hills now so we didn’t have to CRAWL the next 30 miles. 

When we got to the top of the hill, we had the most amazing views out across Stroud. All the houses laid out below us as we ran along the high ridge above the town. The trail over the next few miles, twas interesting and fun, and it looped and dived like a rollercoaster and twisted like a serpent. It was exciting running and great to run on legs that had rested well overnight. It also helped that Megan and I were running together so with swapping race and adventure stories, the miles flew past. 

Practising 'insane face'
I don’t know whether it was because the second day’s terrain was much nicer or because of the company or a combination of the two but day two was so much better than day one. The trails twisted through pretty woodlands and we had some amazing views from the chalky downs. Despite the elevation being over 1600m, the paths felt a lot more interesting today.

Here's Megan!
However, despite NOT leaving my map and instructions at a checkpoint today AND having Megan navigating too, we still managed to lose the trail a few times. Mainly it was fairly straightforward and there were posts with the acorn symbol denoting a national trail with the reassuring ‘Cotswolds Way’ text but occasionally either I missed these or they weren’t where I was expecting these to be. 

However, almost as though we were being looked after by middle-aged guardian angels in gaiters and hiking socks, a group of walkers almost always turned up and pointed us in the right direction. We did however become disoriented and stood for some time looking at a signpost which clearly said ‘Cotswolds Way’ but totally confused as the acorn symbol had changed colour from yellow to blue. 

I was making up for the lack of food the previous day by snacking enthusiastically and constantly on the blackberries in the hedges although I avoided the mushrooms along the banks as mushrooms should ALWAYS be consumed with eggs and not having a frying pan handy I abstained. 

You’d think that by the second day, we’d have become used to hills but no. And thanks to tired legs from yesterday’s elevation, they also appeared more vertical. If that was possible. 

Every flat section I looked forward to walking the hills for a break and every hill, quads screaming, I pined for the flat bits where I didn’t have to climb up an insane elevation. I just couldn’t conceive how the people ran 102 miles along this. I wanted to crawl up it … really no I didn’t. I wanted a LIFT up it. After a few discussions on how to alleviate the quad ache, Megan and I tried walking up the hills backwards – briefly before we realised it might be a bit terminal  if the hill ended in a cliff - but found it didn’t actually help that much. Although the fear of imminent cliff-death did take your mind off the pain in your legs. 

All the smiles
There was a brief section on the road where I took advantage of scoffing yet more blackberries and distracted by a squashed frog, we completely lost the trail. We backtracked – yes it definitely looked as though the signs were pointing this way yet there were no more posts. We tgambled and followed what appeared to be an animal trail along a hill ridge, looking desperately for signs that we were on the right path and hoping that we didn’t lose too much time. The views were marvellous but that didn’t distract us from the fact we might be adding another few miles on a long trail. I had the gpx file on my watch but apart from telling me I was 75m away from the route, it wasn’t terribly useful. And for once there weren’t any walkers around to direct us, which was most worrying. We must be miles off course if there aren’t any middle-aged hikers around!

We took a turning which Megan decided looked as though it was the right kind of direction and we popped out right next to a sign proclaiming we were on the Cotswolds Way … and next to a group of people with thick sticks and their socks tucked into their trousers. Nice one, Megan. We realised that we weren’t far from Cooper’s Hill, where the famous cheese rolling takes place every year and multiple people break bones falling down the cliff trying to catch a runaway round of Double Gloucester. See – I THOUGHT these hills were insanely steep. 

Near cheese rolling hill
Following the trail downhill, we popped out of the hedge and onto a road which took us for a mile or so on road downhill through the pretty town of Painswick. 

I’d hit flapjack-and-blackberry-saturation-point some time earlier and to rub it in the town was plastered in signs proclaiming the upcoming ‘Painswick Feast’. And today was the day the feast had been laid out. Townsfolk stood on their village green, watching these smelly, slathering runners come past, drooling over the food but uninvited and unwelcome to the feast. 

Passing the sausage stand, I begged: “Throw us a sausage!” No luck. Past the cider and beer tent: “Throw us a beer!” Nope. Not a drop. 

I’d just have to run a bit quicker to that beer at the end of the race. 

Megan and I chatted practically the whole way. To each other, to the walkers, to the other runners. We even phoned the Race Director and chatted to him. Although it mainly went; “Help we’re lost. We can’t find the checkpoint and we really NEED cheese.” The miles flew past. 

I’ve done a few marathons and ultra marathons but I’m still completely unable to work blister plasters. I’m sure they make them complicated on purpose. The manufacturers think “Ok so we’ve got a smelly runner, hyped up on sugar from pick n mix, off their face on sugary gels with filthy hands and fingers that don’t work properly. Let’s make them have to take off 3 layers of plastic and THEN make sure the plasters stick ONLY to their socks.”

I didn’t get any blisters from the race (using my trusty combination of injinji socks, nappy cream and Salomon trail shoes) but I did manage a foot chafe. (Like a blister but I get to scream more in the shower). Baffled by my first aid kit, I managed to stick 1 plaster to my shoe and the other to my sock before I begged for help. Megan could see that I’d probably take another hour before I’d manage to successfully stick the plaster to any actual skin so stepped in to help. 

Time was important as we were hoping to keep our positions in the race of 2nd and 3rd ladies. As there were 2 start times to today’s race, it was difficult to know which racers had started at which time and gauge how well we were holding the positions. As we filled up our water bladders, the checkpoint heroes mentioned that several ladies had been through before us, Speedy Janine and a couple of others who were quite a long way in front. Eeek! We were just going to have to push on as fast as we could and hope that our margin from day 1 would be enough to hold them off. 

We were motivated enough even to run UP HILL out of the checkpoint. 

We had several tough miles of flinty trails, each seemingly a long, long drag up to the summit and then a steep, sharp downhill too vertical to enjoy on our battered quads … and then repeat. The views were astounding but the ascent and then sharp descents really started to fatigue my legs. If (when) I run this trail again, I need to really do some more hill work. It was such an insanely beautiful trail that it would be a huge benefit if I could run the downhills without squawking about my quads every time my foot hit the ground. 

Yep. Another bloody trig point.
Also I was TOTALLY over trig points. I go for a run and it’s usually a bit of an achievement to spot a trig point, shows I’ve run up a massive hill and here’s the proof. But on the Cotswolds Way, with it’s insane need to go up EVERY MASSIVE HILL IN THE AREA they began to become regular, then commonplace … then evidence that there was another insane downhill coming up.

Trig points? Totally over them. 

However, despite her fearlessness on marching the up hills and sprinting the downhills, Megan had her own kryptonite. Cows. Not normally something that you have to worry about in everyday life, in the office or at the shops, they were nevertheless hiding at strategic points along the Cotswolds Way as though staking Megan out. I didn’t realise that she was scared of cows until from my vantage point a few feet in front on a different camber, we were chatting away and I thought “Gosh She’s brave, weaving in and out of those cows like that!” In fact, from where Megan was running, the cows were hidden by the hedge and she didn’t even realise they were there until one lurched out of the hedge in front of her. 

I was pretty impressed at how high she could jump. Should the cow have been unavoidable, she’d have cleared it no problem. Should she ever switch from ultras to high jump I have no doubt there could be a few gold medals for GB … but there may need to be bovine incentive. 

Running across the smooth rabbit-nibbled grass of the last down, we were soon at the final checkpoint on the hill with the last beautiful views of the run. The rain had started and the pick n mix was starting to melt so I saved it the trouble of dissolving. By eating it. The previous evening, I’d mentioned that I hadn’t brought myself any salty food and the organisers had gone out and specifically bought some salted peanuts for the runners. How amazing is that? Another reason that the XNRG races are so popular - they really do look after their runners!

The last few miles were through woodland on soft trails. There was a 6 mile organised walk on the same route so we were passing plenty of hikers with the mandatory green-socks-tucked-into-purple-trousers and massive backpacks. Most of them greeted up in a friendly manner, but a few seemed appalled that we appeared to be taking the 6 mile walk far too enthusiastically until we reassured them we were part of a different event. 

It was lovely running through the woods, shaded and pretty with the autumn leaves covering the ground. Poor Megan was suffering with a dodgy tummy but despite having to fertilise the undergrowth, she was soldiering on. My watch was showing that we were in the final miles now and we emerged from the wood onto a steep lane winding downhill. The rain had stopped and we followed the twisting road as it wound between high hedges and pretty houses and past a nunnery.

Maximum smug was achieved as we came up to the gates and spotted the inflatable finish arch! Hooray!

See that small curb? I didn't ...

We ran up to the finish arch, massive smiles in place, spotted the race photographer and got a bit of a sprint on. 

This was my mistake.

Instead of looking where I was going, I was looking at the race photographer, determined to get ONE decent race photograph … and in doing so DIDN’T spot the small bump in front of the finish arch.

I slid across the finishing line … on my face.

Nice work, Sarah. Well at least it’ll be a MEMORABLE photo.

Janine, Megan and I picked up 1st, 2nd and 3rd lady prizes which was fantastic and I got a bobble hat as a prize! That’ll come in VERY handy! Love a bobble hat! We all stood in line to smile for the photo and I realised I was holding my plaque the wrong way round so looked down to move it and *click!* the photo was snapped. 

I appear to be channelling Gollum. “My preciousssssssss.”

Certified full-blood hobbit
I had a coffee and a snack and grabbed my kit and just made it onto the next bus back to the start when my phone rang. It was the husband. 

“How did the marshalling go? Or did you head straight back home?” 

Whoops. Last thing he’d heard from me was that I was dropping out of the race. Gave him the good news about the bobble hat and the not-so-good news about face-slide and settled back in my comfy bus seat to finish off the rest of snacks.

Tired legs, bling, snacks, bobble hat. Life was good. 

Fancy a crack at one of the XNRG Events? List of races here: 


Day 1: 27.3 miles Strava
Day 2: 31.4 miles Strava


About The XNRG & The Cotswolds Way Ultra:

About the Cotswolds Way: The Cotswold Way Ultra takes in 57 miles of quintessentially English Countryside, passing through rolling farmland and ancient beech woods, and taking in a rich slice of British history from Bronze Age barrows to Neolithic burial grounds and Stone Age hill forts. But don't be fooled by the Cotswolds' reputation for gentle contours: this route takes in 2750m of vertical ascent over two days (1140m over 27 miles on Day One and 1610m over 30 miles on Day Two), making it a great training weekend for anyone preparing for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc or the Marathon des Sables.

The Cotswold Way National Trail runs from Chipping Campden in the north, to Bath in the south, and for this event Race Director Neil Thubron has chosen a section of the route that is particularly striking for its glorious scenery and historic landscapes.

Extreme Energy ultra events are fully supported and fully inclusive, so whether this is your first ultra or your one hundredth, you'll find yourself in good company and in safe hands. The Cotswolds Way Ultra is open to runners or walkers, and includes an overnight stay at Cleeve School Sports Centre, Bishops Cleeve for two day participants (available at a supplement for one day participants). Sleeping accommodation is a large hall; rest areas, showers and dining area are also provided.

Shiny. Don't touch it. It's mine. 


  1. You have yet to write something that hasn't produced fits of laughter, belly laughs of admiration for just getting on with it, and for being so undeniably honest about how much you enjoy all this! Awesome stuff Sarah! Just Awesome!

    1. Thanks Taff. You realise it's all your fault I got into this ultra stuff, don't you?

  2. Sorry, but I laughed... Lots....
    Seriously awesome as always.... One day I wud love to do an ultra with u, but need to get fit enuf to keep up.... Just wave cake in my direction tho as that usually helps!!! Lol xx well done!

    1. That would be awesome! Choose the event, Tigger - I'll be up for that.