At the start of the year – roughly around February - I announced that my challenge for the year would be to complete what I called the Wight Cross Bun. This would be a three-part challenge that would be roughly hot cross bun shaped in nature, with the three challenges being:
Complete the Walk the Wight (26½ mile) route from east to west, from Bembridge to the Needles.
Run the Great NorthSouth R#n (20 miles) from the Island's northernmost point to the southernmost.
The Isle of Wight Randonnée
Unfortunately the challenge didn't get off to the most auspicious start back in April for the May Day Bank Holiday weekend. I was really enjoying the day and had cycled halfway around, having reached four of the six checkpoints, and was cycling uphill through Wroxall when tragedy struck; my bike's rear axle snapped. I tried phoning the bike shop but sadly they didn't have any rear wheels in my size. Although I was keen to continue around the Island on a bike without a rear wheel, unfortunately I was forced to concede that that's impossible and so reluctantly had to pull out.
I then had to do something that quite made me feel like a teenager again; I phoned my Dad and asked him to come and get me.
It was a disappointing start to the year in what was supposed to be the easiest event of the three, but at least it was the one I had successfully completed before.
Walk the Wight
Walk the Wight is an event held mid-May each year which purports to be the biggest sponsored walk of its kind in Europe. Now I don't know what 'of its kind' actually means, but there is no doubt that it is a really popular community event. As well as the 26½ mile main walk from east to west there are two half walks, from Bembridge to Carisbrooke along the Bembridge Trail, and also from Carisbrooke to The Needles following the Tennyson Trail. There is also the six-mile route from Freshwater to the Needles for school children. Additionally, there is a flat route for wheelchair users, toddlers and parents pushing perambulators between Sandown and Newport along the old railway line. Numerous nurseries and schools also take part, encouraging their very young children to simply walk around the playing field so that they take part too.
Walk the Wight was started to raise money for the Island's only hospice, the Earl Mountbatten Hospice2, which is where my step-mum works. Some of my grandparents had spent their last days there. I had originally agreed to take part to support a close friend I've known since Middle School whose father had died last year and had spent his final days happily at the hospice. He felt that as the hospice had cared for his father at the end of his life, he owed it to them to help give something back. This was the first event of the three that I had signed up for, with the idea of my then going north-south coming much later.
The extremely hilly route took us 10½ hours to complete, but we completed it and raised money to support the hospice.
The Great NorthSouth R#n
The final challenge was to run 20 miles from the lighthouse at Egypt Point, Cowes – the Isle of Wight's northernmost point, to St Catherine's Lighthouse at St Catherine's Point, the southernmost. This would be via three pubs; the Blacksmith's Arms in Carisbrooke, the Chequer's Inn in Rookley and the White Horse in Whitwell, before finishing the race and meeting back at the Buddle in Niton. This was to be the first time I'd participated in a hash run, also known as a r#n.
What is a r#n?
Running is a hobby, and with most hobbies, there are many different ways you can enjoy it. Some people like to run really fast for such short distances on tracked surfaces you wonder why they travelled there in the first place, or like running round in circles non-stop. These people are obsessed with timing to the millisecond and, calling themselves 'athletes', tend to look down on other runners. Other runners like pushing themselves past the limit, for further and further distances. These are ultra runners, and not all of them have great big bushy beards.
As you can probably tell, a gentle, good-natured rivalry exists between the different runner categories, and this was very evident on the day. For the Great NorthSouthR#n had begun as a hash run organised by the Isle of Wight Hash House Harriers. Hash runners are called 'drinkers with a running problem' as their runs often involve running from, to and via pubs. The routes are usually cross-country or quiet roads and instead of being marshalled, runners have to look out for a trail left by a 'hare'; chalked arrows on roads or follow piles of sawdust or flour, which occasionally are in arrow-shapes, when running through the countryside, woods and fields etc. The time taken is unimportant as the event is an excuse to chun3 with chums. Although the r#n originated as a hash organised by the Island's hash club, it has now reached the point where the vast majority of those who are actually taking place are road runners. Road runners are usually far more focussed on what time they achieve as they normally run distances up to marathons competitively, aiming for PBs4. And me? Well, I'm content to be a reasonably average club runner - a proud member of the club's C team - who will give anything a go if it looks fun. I don't particularly enjoy track running as there aren't enough hills, but have done it when asked by my club to be part of a team. I probably lean more towards trail (cross-country) running as the views tend to be much nicer and the terrain is more varied, but do a fair amount of road running too, particularly in winter. In fact, the further from running on a perfectly straight, level course the better.
The Day of the R#n
What better day could there be to run the Great NorthSouth R#n across the Isle of Wight than 22nd September, 2017's Isle of Wight Day?
The day of the run came, after a week of uncertainty about the weather and the usual routine in which I magnified every twinge or itch in my legs and feet into the first signs of something portentous. I packed my kit the night before, knowing that a bus had been hired for the day so that I would be able to keep some belongings, such as energy snacks, on the bus and access them at the stop points. I also had a change of clothes for when I had finished and, naturally, a towel – yet disaster had struck. I did not have any plasters.
If there is one thing I have learned in my life as a runner, it is the importance of plasters5. When doing long runs I suffer from Jogger's Nipple, a well-known running affliction, and experience has taught me that when doing a run where the mileage is in double digits, always wear plasters. Some runners swear by Vaseline or other lubricants, however that doesn't work with me and all I end up with at the end is red Vaseline. 9 miles and under I can get away with, but 10 miles or more I do need to wear plasters, or they will bleed. Yet I did not have any with me! So after breakfast and getting dressed, I popped into a convenience shop. After wasting ages going up and down all the aisles looking for plasters – no, none next to the toothpaste, they're not in the stationery section etc – I spotted that they had a packet behind the counter. They only had boxes of assorted fabric plasters, so without realising the consequences, I thought 'They'll do', purchased them and walked out the shop.
I arrived in Cowes by public transport and walked to the start line, a good hour before the start of the run. The bus was already there and soon the organiser arrived, who registered us and gave us the all-important run t-shirt6, which this year was bright red, before showing us to the changing facilities – the bus. It was all very well thought out – women changed their tops on the top deck, where it would be difficult for men to see in – while men changed on the lower deck, as it wouldn't matter if anyone saw us changing.
Soon I had applied four plasters, two in a cross on each nipple, and was wearing my new t-shirt and for the first time ever decided to run while carrying my mobile phone, in case of emergency on the unmarshalled course. I strapped my bag in to a seat and then bumped into someone I'd been at school and BB with that I hadn't seen for over 20 years who was doing the run too, so that was a pleasant surprise.
There were 78 runners taking part, although not all of us planned to do the whole run, with many intending to run to one of the three pubs along the way. After a group photo around Egypt Point Lighthouse and the briefing in which it was explained about following the sawdust piles, it was time to get started.
The First Leg: Egypt Point to Blacksmith's Arms
When the pre-race photo was taken, I was on the right side of the photo, slightly west of Egypt Point. The point got its name in the 16th Century when the area was popular with Romani people, with 'gypsies' being short for 'Egyptians' as that is where it was mistakenly believed that they originated. As the run's first and longest leg, the 7-mile stretch to the Blacksmith's Arms, began by heading west, I found myself starting at the front. Despite setting a slow-but-steady pace and expecting to be overtaken by everyone else at any second, I was most surprised that I never actually was. After a very short stretch along the esplanade the route left the seafront to head steeply uphill up an all-but vertical, stepped woodland slope and over the first stile of the day into Gurnard, passing the round house and then along a road to Northwood. I let those in front of me speed off while I still expected the horde behind me to overtake me in turn, but still they didn't. From there I'm not certain exactly which path the trail led by, possibly passing Furzyhurst, but I certainly ended up in Parkhurst Forest near the statue of the Signalman. This statue marks the spot of the signal station built in 1796 to warn of French Invasion. By this time I was the only runner in sight.
Inside the forest the path became incredibly muddy with large sections of black but light and fluffy, but heavily waterlogged mud. Sadly I spent too much time trying to watch my footing that I ran straight into a low-lying branch that cut a gash out of the side of my face next to my left eye. Lesson learned; look for sure footing, branches, overgrowth as well as sawdust markers, and seeing if I can spot another red-shirted extra. Yet something else was preying on my mind; I was in pain. I checked my chest and my worst suspicions had come true; the plasters had all fallen off. I was sweating and the plasters could not cope with the sweat and had simply fallen off, leaving the sweat to cause my shirt to both cling to and abrasively rub against the sensitive areas of my chest.
Soon I came to a junction where the trail joined a long, gravelled section through most of the forest. When the route left this, it headed down a steep, straight-line downhill section cluttered with fallen branches and deep tractor ruts on a slippy, sticky grey clay; the sort of mud that either makes you slide uncontrollably or will glue to your shoes, making them grow heavier and wider. Fortunately at the bottom I emerged from the forest at Tucker's Gate.
I crossed Forest Road, the main road to the West Wight. There I ran down Poleclose Lane and passed Broadwood Farm, where a small group of fellow runners finally caught up with me, the first people I'd seen for miles. We passed Alvington Manor Farm, Reads Farm and New Park Farm and at each I expected the route to turn south to Calbourne Road and the location of the pub, but instead we continued west, with the trailing even clearly directing us to duck beneath an electric fence instead of towards our destination. Eventually we reached Betty Haunt Lane, named after local 18th Century legendary wench Buxom Betty, who is said to have been a smuggler's daughter until falling in love with an excise officer and betrayed her smuggling family and friends, only to be strangled in revenge. We finished by
running up the foothills of Bowcombe Down towards the end of the first leg, the 400-year-old pub called the Blacksmith's Arms.
The Second Leg: Blacksmiths to Chequers
At the Blacksmith's Arms the first thing I did was jump straight on the bus in order to reapply four new plasters, but my worst fears were confirmed; they obviously were non-stick plasters. I checked the back of the box and in the small print it said 'Low allergy adhesive helps reduce the risk of an allergic reaction', or in other words, they were useless. After towelling myself down to remove the sweat as best I could under the circumstances, I reapplied the four plasters and hoped for the best. I then popped into the pub and was surprised to see that most people were already there, despite my starting at front and not seeing them overtake me. While I was in the queue someone explained that what they do in order to keep all the runners roughly together, despite having different running speeds, is have one of the organisers send the faster ones who are in front on longer loops and detours while the slower runners go a shorter route. Whether this is actually true or not I cannot say, however it would explain a lot. Still, I'd ended up in the right place at the right time, and ordered a pint of coke and a pint of water, while many of the hash runners had pints of various alcoholic beverages.
Before I left the pub I also managed to have a quick energy gel. Many runners I know really swear by energy gels, saying how great and helpful they are and that you should have one every twenty minutes. While I don't dispute that for a second, all I know is that when I run, my hands get sweaty, and I can never open the wretched packaging. It certainly takes longer than 20 minutes and far more energy to open one than the gel actually contains, just to be able to drink the thing. If there's a knack to it, no matter how I've tried, I just can't acquire it.
After checking in and out to confirm I had arrived safely at this leg and was pressing on with the next, I headed uphill to climb up Bowcombe Down as the start of the six-mile run route to Rookley. This was the hilliest section, as we had to cross the Island's spine. At the top of Bowcombe Down we crossed the Tennyson Trail, which I'd walked earlier that year as part of the Walk the Wight, before descending to Bowcombe (pronounced 'Buckem'). From there it was uphill and down Down near Garstons Down before taking Snowdrop Lane into Little Gatcombe, rounding Chillerton Dow into Chillerton and through Lower Rill to the Chequers Inn outside Rookley.
The Third Leg: Chequers to White Horse
The Chequers Inn is located at the half marathon mark, meaning 13 miles run, 7 to go. I'd last been to the Chequers Inn in 2011 to celebrate my mum's 60th birthday when my daughter was a toddler. This time I was the one barely able to walk, especially as once again the plasters had fallen off long before my arrival. I again jumped on the bus, grabbed fuel snacks from my bag and this time decided not to take any half measures; I applied the plaster box's two large fabric strips to my chest, one to each side, in the hope that being giant-sized, they would somehow remain stuck. I also popped into the pub for my two pints, water and coke.
After checking in and out I was told that the next leg was downhill all the way, if I ignored the uphill start. At least though my legs were getting increasingly tired, the legs of the run were getting shorter, with the next pub a mere four miles away, just over a parkrun. However the lack of hills didn't mean it was an easy run; in fact it was probably the hardest stretch of the day.
It started easily enough, running along Bagwich Lane and by Bagwich Farm. That made me smile as, back in year 5 at school, one English lesson had been to write a story in pairs about how a place on the Isle of Wight got its name, with each member of the pair writing an alternate line. Each pair was given a grid of the Isle of Wight map, and for example, if your square had 'Fishbourne' in you might write about how fish are born. We were given SZ515822, a square containing Southview Grange, East Appleford Farm, Milk Pan Farm, Toabridge Farm, Eastview Farm and a farm named Bagwich, so we ended up writing a politically incorrect story about an old bag who was really a witch – but then we were nine. The story wasn't very good, but the person I wrote it with is still my friend and was who I Walked the Wight with earlier that year.
Anyway, after passing Bagwich Farm and my trip down memory lane, at Roud the route led to a stile and a footpath alongside the Eastern Yar7. After crossing the stile I made a dreadful error; I put my right foot down, only to immediately think 'I used to have a foot and leg beneath my right knee, I wonder where they've gone?' Yes, the ground was a quob or swamp and my right foot was now watshed, or soaked through. I gingerly made my way to the other side of the field, looking out for suspicious areas of vegetation and sticking to as dry a route as possible, but the ground was not at all solid, with a wading sort of soaked mud predominating. For the next two miles or more there was no visible trail, as leaving one would have been impossible, leaving me to hope that I was still on the right track.
After the swamp the path joined the Yar River Trail, but things did not really improve much. For though the ground was now much less waterlogged, it was still slippery and muddy. The densely overgrown path was now only as wide as a shoe, but muddy, and the overgrowth for the next three miles was non-stop stinging nettles, and I only had ankle-high socks. For the next three miles the impossibly-narrow path undulated and twisted, with sharp turns, sudden and steep ascents and descents, always winding and never straight and never wide. Whenever I thought it couldn't get any harder to keep going, there would be another stile just to annoy those of us who were struggling with the muscles needed to raise our legs. While the layer of mud caked on my legs offered some protection, it was just a case of keep going through the nettles as best as possible, but the unpredictable terrain meant it was quite impossible to run.
Eventually the path led to a road and, after finally being able to run again, I ascended away from the water-laden nettle layer and ran along a path into the village of Whitwell and the White Horse Inn.
White Horse to St Catherine's and the Buddle
The White Horse Inn is the oldest inn on the Isle of Wight, opening in 1454. In 2005 it had also been the second pub visited on my stag do as they used to do particularly fine meals, although sadly the thatched roof later caught fire and, due to insurance, it has since been replaced by a slate roof so it doesn't look the same.
Obviously long before I arrived at Whitwell the large, fabric strips had fallen off, having refused to stick, and my nipples were bleeding. It hardly seemed worth putting plasters on me when I was already bleeding as the damage I'd sought to prevent had come to pass, and there was only 3 miles to go to the finish. After the obligatory two pints and a toilet stop I headed uphill for the final push to the finish.
By now my running style had changed quite drastically to being very stiff-legged. Still, on I went for the final 3-miles of the journey, passing the church and along Ashknowle Lane towards Niton. After skirting the village the route zig-zagged down the narrow Niton Tunnels footpath and onto the road at the end of the Island, with the sea clearly in sight once more. Down the lane zig-zagged before the path emerged in a cow field, with the cows perched, as they do, at the very edge of the cliff. From there it was a short run across the field to the outskirts of the lighthouse, and the end of the run. As I arrived, a group of runners from the Ryde Harriers club were having their photograph taken to celebrate the end of the run. Run photographs always make passport ones look glamorous in comparison. Although in my mind I picture yourself as running like a gazelle, gracefully caressing the ground as I all-but glide through the air with the gentlest ease, or like a cheetah, all noble, controlled power and speed, when I actually see the photograph, that isn't how I look at all. Instead I look like Laurence Olivier's interpretation of Richard III entering a gurning contest. Some people make running look effortless; I make it look like my body's been twisted and distorted and I'm in immense pain. Still, there was no mistaking the look of achievement on everyone's faces.
Having my phone with me, and being deceived by the appearance of half a bar of signal, I celebrated by attempting to send a text to friends and family, although I wouldn't get a reply for 3 hours when I returned somewhere with a signal. We then walked uphill half a mile to the Buddle Inn where the bus was waiting, for the final stop of the day and a well-deserved drink. This, the Island's southernmost pub, had again been a pub I had visited on my stag do and was a 16th Century inn that was said to be a haunt for smugglers in the 18th Century. The Beer & Buses Pub of the Year in 2014, 2015 and 2016, it still has many of its 16th Century features, including the uneven steps up to the main entrance which aren't very easy after you've run 20 miles, but the well-earned pint of Buddle was well worth it.
Despite the 20-mile run, everyone arrived at the end within 15 minutes of each other, with the exception of three older ladies who arrived about 1¾ hours after everyone else, just as the organisers were getting quite worried. They, like us, had successfully made the distance. Having had no lunch I was quite hungry when I arrived at the Buddle, but had expected the bus to leave in 20 minutes so didn't order any food. When everyone had finally returned I then caught the bus back to the starting point and then travelled home. I didn't have any energy to stand and cook dinner, so my plan was to get some money out from one of the cash machines at the local shops and buy a chippy (they're cash only) but annoyingly both cash machines were out of order. I arrived home, had a well-deserved shower8, and as everyone else was out and I didn't have any energy left, settled down to enjoy a Pot Noodle.
Having successfully run a hilly, muddy and challenging 20-mile route without getting so much as a blister, I knew I was one step closer mentally to signing up to one day attempt a marathon. But there would be other runs - with better plasters - first; as the Great NorthSouth R#n took place at the end of September, I had signed up to do the hilly and muddy Clarendon Marathon (Salisbury to Winchester) as part of a relay team after being told it was in October, without realising it was the following weekend...