It is easy to get inspired by some of the trail running races and exploits you read about in trail running magazines and then when you look into trying to take part in an epic challenge or race yourself you find that there are barriers to participation such as cost, qualification, training and support. So when our small running club of 80 members from North Wales was thinking about a way to celebrate 25 years of existence someone suggested organising a challenge of our own. It was suggested that the club ran the 180 mile length of the Offa’s Dyke long distance footpath from the Bristol Channel to the Irish Sea. The thing we hadn’t considered but had been warned about was the hilly nature of the route. It transpired that at the end of the journey we would have climbed over 30,000 feet. Now if this sounds like a tall order for a club of differing abilities and only a handful of people with any experience of this sort of thing you would be right. However the plan took hold and the challenge was broken down into 5 days and then a further 24 legs of varying distance of 5 to 13 miles. Members of the club were then given the opportunity to run as much or as little of the challenge as they wanted to. Some people wanted to attempt the whole thing others would join for the day and some would join the run for a few days.
So with some sort of plan in place and a date set for June 2016, 8 months ahead, preparation began in earnest. We organised training runs on the parts of the dyke focussing on running as a group, learning how to eat and drink on the move and on getting the kit right. We built up distances to about half of the expected daily average and found that we managed to keep together and run at a respectable pace. We found that by taking it slowly we should be able to cover the 36 miles 6,000 feet of climbing each day in around 10 hours.
In readiness for 1 June start 16 runners and a driver piled into a minibus for the journey down to Chepstow for the start. We had an age range of 40 years from youngest to oldest amongst the runners and widely varying levels of experience and ability. However that plan was to stick together and each individual to choose what they felt they were able to run. On the 1st of June we headed to the misty Sedbury cliffs on the Bristol Channel to start the epic and we were pleased that is was cloudy and slightly damp. We took the obligatory group photo and set off.
Over the next 5 days we ran as a group with the smallest group being 5 runners and the biggest 21 towards the end. We were met by the minibus 3-5 times a day to fill up on water and snacks and the ability to break the day down into manageable bits was invaluable as was the support from people who had not run the leg. We stayed in bunkhouses and B&Bs each night and spent our short evenings eating together. Many of us went to bed thinking about waking up each morning wondering how we were going to face another 36 miles. We learnt a lot about ourselves and how important personal administration and support from others was. We learnt how to manage niggles, blisters, lost toenails, dehydration as the weather got hotter, chaffing from sweat and all the other issues encountered when putting your body through repeated strain. Some of us were unlucky and succumbed to injury, illness and problems with feet but amazingly bounced back to join in later on. The human body is truly amazing in that it can adapt to the stresses placed upon it continue day after day to do things it has not experienced before. Each day we celebrated milestones such as 10 miles, half marathon and marathon as well as perversely, “only a marathon to go”. One of our biggest potential issues was the fresh leg syndrome. As some of us were trying to complete the whole distance in 5 days there was the danger that fresh legs from runners joining us could push the pace too fast and jeopardise the long term aim. However those who joined us were great, supportive and understood the unwritten rule that we went at the pace of the slowest.
It was quite a moment then on the 5th of June at around 8pm when a hoard of Denbigh Harriers ran through the streets of Prestatyn towards the finish with the sea in sight after 41 miles and the hardest day yet in terms of distance, climbing and heat. We were greeted by clubmates, family and friends to celebrate a huge achievement from a little club. So if you dream of doing what you read about in magazines there is really nothing to stop you. All you need is a like minded group of committed people, a lot of planning and a fair amount of determination…. Oh and a pinch of luck.