Robin Hood 100

“When you run for 10 miles you have ideas. When you run for 100 miles you have epiphanies.”

Michael D’AULERIO

A 100 mile run.

ONE HUNDRED miles.

Who’d have thought when I started this running journey back in 2015 that I’d be towing the start line of a 100 mile race – I certainly didn’t!

To be honest, I’d been contemplating the idea of running 100 miles since offering to volunteer my services at RH100 in 2020. Volunteering seemed the perfect way to see how the event unfolds first hand – the emotions, the struggles and the determination it takes to take on such a challenge. Unfortunately, being forced to self-isolate put an end to that but the burning desire to challenge myself was still there.  Roll on 12 months and injury – in the build up to race day – put a stop to my first attempt but as disappointing as it was, I got to experience the event as a volunteer which made me even more determined to make the start line the following year.

I’d been building up to the distance for quite some time. I’d completed my first ultra – the Stort 30 back in 2018 and my first 50 miler – ‘Lakes in a Day’ a year later. More recently I’d managed to complete a couple of 100k’s – the ‘Ham & Lyme Ultra ‘ and the Conti 24hr Thunder Run – it was all leading up to this…

Based in Nottinghamshire, the Robin Hood 100 is the brainchild of Ronnie Staton and Hobo Pace. It’s described as an ideal ‘first-time 100 miler’ – offering a fully marked, runnable route on scenic trails. With just shy of 5,000ft of elevation and a generous 30-hour cut-off, the route takes in two loops of Sherwood Forest and Clumber Park sandwiched in between an out-and-back section alongside the Chesterfield Canal.

I’d booked a campsite in Gainsborough – some 20 minutes drive from the start line in South Wheatley and travelled up with Ruth and the boys on Friday straight from the school. Given the usual Friday afternoon traffic, we arrived at sunset but managed to get the tent pitched and some pasta on the camping stove before it fell dark. Tummies full and three exhausted boys ready for bed, we soon settled down for a good nights sleep.

Registration the following morning was relaxed and straight forward – the exact opposite of how I was feeling. The nerves were kicking in as I was mentally preparing myself for the challenge ahead. I bumped into Donna and Nicola – who I met whilst volunteering last year – and enjoyed a pre-race chat and photo which helped settle the nerves and had just enough time to triple-check my kit bag before Ronnie called everyone in for the pre-race brief.

After a relaxed, somewhat humorous race brief, we were ushered to the start. Looking around it was a relatively small field – with only 48 runners towing the start line. Everyone looked pretty relaxed as we waited for Ronnie to send us on our way.

Miles 1 – 20 – The Canal Section.

The opening six miles caught me a bit by surprise as I found myself navigating across farmland and hard-packed, stony trails. It was undulating at best – something I hadn’t anticipated so early into the race. I – like everyone around me – had adopted a run/walk strategy – fast hiking the hills whilst maintaining a steady pace on the flat and downhill sections. Checking my heartrate, I noted that it was in the late 150’s – way too high for this early into the race – I needed to slow down.

I chuckled to myself as I recollected a message I’d received from my running-partner-in-crime Maria just hours earlier: – “F*CKING SLOW DOWN YOU DICKHEAD”. It proved to be great advice, she knows me too well.

At mile 6 I saw Ruth and the boys waiting in the distance – just at the start of the canal section. I stopped briefly to hydrate, take some layers off and give the boys a high five before continuing onto the canal.

I don’t do canals.

It’s the monotony that I struggle with and despite never running the Chesterfield Canal, I’d imagined this picturesque, impeccably tarmacked, runnable terrain where I’d be able to tick off some easy miles and bring down my heartrate before we reached the forest loop at mile 20.

How wrong was I…

I shared the first four miles of the canal section with a South African chap who shouted #FYB (if you know, you know) in my direction as he approached from behind. Wearing my Bad Boy Running vest, it didn’t come as a total surprise and we soon settled into a conversational pace which helped pass the miles. He was a really nice chap who incidentally, I bumped into again some 18 hours later as he was gingerly climbing into the back of a transit van preparing for a power nap. I do hope he woke up and got to finish the race.

By mile 10 we reached crew point 2 in Retford where Ruth and the boys were lying in wait. It was great to see them and even though I was only 10 miles in, it instantly lifted my mood whenever I saw them – something I would be so thankful for later in the race.

The opening 4 miles on the canal had been runnable and I’d managed to maintain a consistent, steady pace. It was tarmacked, flat and nice underfoot – just as I’d imagined it to be. Then it changed. As we left the well populated, well maintained canal sections of Retford, we found ourselves heading further into the countryside where the terrain was a little more rugged and unkept. There were large sections of grass – some long in places – and others where the grass had been cut but the grass chippings were left on the ground. It was uneven underfoot. It was like running through sand and very energy sapping. Given the conditions and the general monotony of the canal itself, the remaining 11 miles was hard work. I found myself running for 100 paces, then walking for 50 – on repeat which slowly ate through the miles but kept my heartrate in the mid 130’s.

Miles 21 – 51 – Forest Loop 1

It was a relief to eventually come off the canal and reach the slightly more undulating, forestry trails of Clumber. Any sort of elevation uses different muscle groups and you get an instant relief from the repetition of ‘flat running’.

There was a short section of forestry trails before we reached Aid Station 4 – which also doubled up as the bag drop – and the official start of the first of two, 30 mile loops.

Ruth and the boys were waiting here – again much to my relief – and I fueled up with a bacon sandwich (amazing surprise from Ruth) and some electrolytes. I was still feeling relatively fresh and was looking forward to running the trails around Clumber and Sherwood Forest, with it’s varied terrain, views and elevation.

Within a mile or so of leaving the aid station you reach Lime Tree Avenue – a two mile stretch of lime trees – the longest of it’s kind in Europe – planted in 1840 with over 1,296 common limes. It’s a beautiful site as the trail cuts straight through the middle of the trees, especially given this time of the year with all the colour and crisp leaves on the ground.

At the end of Lime Tree Avenue, you turn off the trail and navigate through woodlands which are sheltered from the sun. It was a degree or two cooler under the tree canopy which was a welcome relief from the midday sun. I really enjoyed this section and managed to tick off some steady miles with favorable conditions underfoot.

Ruth and the boys were waiting at the next check-point at mile 26. I felt slightly guilty every time I saw them – half of me wanted to spend a bit more time with them them but the other half knew that I needed to be as efficient as possible through the check-points and keep the momentum moving forward. If you stop, your muscles cease up and it’s harder to get going again. A brief chat, a chance to take some fluids on board and then move on. I’m sure she understood.

There was a 5 mile stretch of woodland trails before we reached check-point 6 – and the start of the 10 mile loop towards Sherwood Forest. This would prove be the longest section in between check-points on the entire course. I enjoyed this section. There were a lot of straight trails – making navigation less of a worry – and you get to run past (well, take a slight detour off the main route) the Mighty Oak – thought to be between 800 and 1,000 years old. Legend has it that Robin Hood and his Merry Men used to rest and camp under the Mighty Oak on their adventures.

It was towards the end of this loop that I started experiencing foot and Achilles issues – which was becoming increasingly more painful with every step. I’d taken some painkillers and had implemented a more ‘walk-than-run’ strategy to alleviate the pain but secretly knew I’d have to change something in order to finish. I was on mile 35 and knew I’d be seeing Ruth again at mile 45 so decided to soldier on – stretching the Achilles out at regular intervals but my pace was notably slowing.

By mile 41 I’d had enough and called Ruth who confirmed she was 4 miles away. 4 miles at the pace I was doing would have taken me well over an hour so I got her to come and meet me. I’d been wearing my Inov Parkclaw’s – a hybrid shoe designed for both trails and road. The ground underfoot was firm-to-hard in racing terms and I felt I’d benefit from additional cushioning. Fortunately for me, I’d left a pair of Hoka road shoes in the boot of Ruth’s car so changed into these and the relief was instant.

It was a game changer.

I ran to the next check-point which took you passed Creswell Crags – an archaeological park with caves, gorge and a museum. It was approximately 6.30pm now and the crowds had dispersed but I did get questioned by a couple of dog walkers – both amazed that the runners they had seen in passing were on a 100 mile run!

I met Ruth at the aid station here and she handed me a McDonalds – I’m not normally a massive fan but it was by far the best Big Mac I’ve ever eaten!

Leaving the aid station, there was approximately 5 miles of forestry trail before we made it back to the bag drop and the end of the first loop. I held off from using my head torch until mile 49 – but being under the tree line it got very dark, very quickly – so used the beam of my my headtorch for the last couple of miles.

Half way in 12hrs 15 minutes.

Ruth and the boys were at the Aid Station and I took 10 minutes to regroup, spend some time with them before I headed out into the pitch black for loop 2.

Miles 52 – 82 – Forest Loop 2

I left the Aid Station with the belief that Ruth and the boys were heading back to the campsite, knowing that I’d see them again when the sun rose the following morning.

I was on my own.

Within about 300 metres my head torch caught the reflection of a piece of course tape hanging from a tree and I instantly turned off the trail to follow – only to be called back by a runner behind saying the tape had been moved. A quick check of my GPS confirmed this was the case and I was back on track. I made the instant decision from herein to follow the GPS on my watch rather than the course markings – (which we later found out were being moved by some people out on the course – why?!?). I thanked the runner before carry on along the correct trail.

I’d just reached the end of Lime Tree Avenue when I caught up with Sheila, an Irish lady whom I’d spend the next 15 miles with. It was great to have some company – to help pass the miles and share the navigation with (funnily enough the ‘Nav’ aspect would cause a few issues later on but I’ll come to that).

We’d adopted a ‘power walk’ strategy – averaging 4mph (15mm pace) – and were eating up the miles – mostly lost in conversation. It appeared Sheila was a bit of an ‘Ultra Legend’ as we reminisced at past adventures and I was in awe of her running CV. This wasn’t her first 100 miler and and I was lapping up the stories and advice she was passing on. So much so, that we appeared to take a slightly different route to the first loop on sections – guided mainly by the GPX file.

It was about mile 60 when we realised that we hadn’t passed the (56 mile) check-point. We double checked our location on the GPS and were insistent that we were still on the correct path so carried on in the belief that they may have removed the check-point, or at least relocated it for the night section. We continued to power walk until we reached the check-point at mile 61 – the start of the 10 mile Mighty Oak loop.

Obviously we’d missed the checkpoint.

We took 5 minutes to sit down here and I took the opportunity to take some paracetamol and Ibuprofen. My Achilles was still sore – and despite stretching it out on regular occasions there was nothing else I could do to alleviate the pain. The change in shoes certainly helped but the constant repetitive nature of running on an inflamed Achilles was difficult to manage.

At mile 65 we passed some benches and Sheila took the opportunity to sit down and rest for a few moments. I was still feeling ok and making good progress so I continued on without her – secretly hoping she’d catch me up. I never saw her again, but later found out from the results that she dropped out of the race at mile 84 – which I’m sure was the right decision for her at the time.

I was approaching the end of the 10 mile loop – mile 71 – when my phone rang. I’d had missed calls from Ronnie and Ruth. My heart sank. I tried to call them back but had no phone signal. My mind was playing overtime. Was I off-route? Was I disqualified? Was Ruth and the boys ok? I continued pushing forward – the next check-point was in a mile or so, I’d be able to get some more information there, or at least have a phone signal to call them back.

Just as I was approaching the aid station my phone rang again.

Unknown number.

I answered to a concerned marshal asking where I was. The signal was intermittent – constantly cutting in-and-out as I was trying to give my location. I was also trying to understand what was going on. He then handed the phone over to Ruth who was equally as concerned.

Apparently, Ruth had been waiting at the Aid Station at mile 56 – unknown to myself as I thought she’d gone back to the campsite – and was growing increasingly concerned that I hadn’t shown up. Given the lack of signal in the forest, the race doesn’t distribute trackers so all runners have to sign in at each check-point. Obviously, I’d missed the check-point so hadn’t signed in. Due to the lack of trackers, I’d been sharing my location with Ruth on google maps – and this (for whatever reason) had me off course by about 3-4 miles running around a lake. I can see why she was worried! Marshals had been sent out to find me…(apparently they came back with a runner who was aimlessly running around the lake – but as Ruth confirmed at the time – it wasn’t me – but lucky for him that he was found safe and sound!)

I explained that I was still on the course and that we had followed the GPX file (which we later checked did by-pass the check-point) and was told to continue. (Apparently I wasn’t the only runner who missed the check-point – someone had taken down the route tape so several runners had followed the GPX file, rather than the tape and took a slight diversion).

I managed to regroup and continued to push towards Creswell Crags.

With all the excitement (I appreciate it wasn’t exciting for Ruth) it had given me a second wind and I managed to run large sections between miles 71-82 – albeit at a conservative pace.

My next target was reaching the bag drop at mile 82 – changing into another pair of road shoes (in my drop bag) then tackling the final canal section. As monotonous and soul destroying as the canal section was, I knew it was the last push to completing a 100 mile run.

Nothing was going to stop me now.

Miles 82 – 102 – The Last Leg

I took 10 minutes at the Aid Station to regroup – change my footwear and take some food on board. The hard work was done. I was 82 miles into a 100 mile ultra and I knew nothing – bar a serious injury – would stop me finishing.

But it was the canal.

I’ll power walk.

There were 4 miles of trail before I hit the canal. 4 miles and some serious elevation. It caught me by surprise. Even walking, my legs were starting to cramp and I could feel my Achilles pulsating with every step.

4 miles which felt like an eternity – but reaching the start of the canal was a pivotal moment.

It was 6am and the morning light was starting to break. I took one step onto the canal and tried to embrace it. The long, rugged, damp grass. The unbroken view of canal towpath. The flat landscape. The monotony. Everything I normally despise about canals – but I was 16 miles away from the finish line.

I adopted a ‘run-for-50-paces, walk-for-50-paces’ strategy which was soon replaced with a ‘run-for-25-paces, walk-for-25-paces’ strategy. It was slow. It was painful but the miles were slowly nibbling away. 16 miles to go soon turned into 12, which soon enough turned into single figures.

Then, with 8 miles to go the wheels completely fell off!

I’m not sure why – or how it happened – but I went from making ‘slow, steady progress’ to ‘hands-on-my-knees every 20 metres or so’ progress. It felt like someone had flicked a switch. I felt exhausted. Not just physically tired but mentally tired. I found myself walking large sections with my eyes closed.

Ruth called during my ‘mini meltdown’.

It proved to be perfect timing.

Maybe not for her but it allowed me to pour my frustrations out, share my pain with someone else – someone who’d listen. I’d been alone with my thoughts for hours. I needed to share my pain. Ruth was doing her best to reassure me it would be ok and that I was so close to the finish line, but in all honestly I wasn’t listening – I just needed to vent! I remember saying I wanted to stop, just curl up at the side of the canal (maybe even jump in) and go to sleep – it was all words, I had no intention of doing so, it was all words.

8 miles to go.

I can do this.

I did some mental math. Math when you’re running is difficult. Math when you’ve run 94 miles is nigh on impossible.

I calculated, at my current pace, it would take me the best part of 3 and a half hours to get to the finish line. I was hurting. It would hurt if I walked. It would hurt if I ran. I may as well run. I told Ruth I’d meet her at the finish line, hung up and started running.

I put my headphones in and started listening to some music. What I wanted to hear was some upbeat, get-me-going tracks – but what I got was Radiohead, Snow Patrol and Embrace. It had the same effect. I found myself overcome with emotion, running along the canal, in a flood of tears singing ‘Run’ by Snow Patrol at full pelt.

The miles ticked along fairly quickly – 7 miles to go – an Oasis classic – ‘the Masterplan’ – 6 miles to go – ‘Shed Seven – Chasing Rainbows’. 5 miles to go – ‘Embrace – All you Good Good People’. I was a wreck – but I was a running wreck. I found myself overtaking a few runners on the canal – god knows what they must have thought!

The last check-point was at mile 99 and coincided with the end of the canal section. I was hit with instant relief. The marshal kindly filled my soft flask up for the final push and I was just about ready to leave when Ruth and the boys came running into the check-point.

I grabbed a chair, sat for 5 minutes whilst enjoying a Calippo (Ruth’s awesome!) and a can of Coke. I was exhausted but extremely grateful.

Leaving the check-point, I knew that there were 3 miles left to the finish – a parkrun. I checked my watch which confirmed I had 40 minutes to achieve a sub 27 hour finish.

That was my next target.

What I had forgotten was just how hilly the initial few miles were before we hit the canal. Every hill felt twice as high on the way back and every field twice as long on tired legs.

But I kept pushing forward until the final descent into the village hall in South Wheatley – the Hobo Pace flag and the finish line!

I’d done it.

102 miles in 26:54

I was overcome with emotion at the finish line and incredibly proud of my achievement. Ruth and the boys were there to greet me at the finish line – just as I imagined they would be. I couldn’t have done it without their support – both prior to the event or during.

Next up: London Marathon in 2 weeks.

4 thoughts on “Robin Hood 100

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