I doubt anyone in the UK will get the Lee Corso reference, but up front I wanted to clarify my final thoughts on the never-ending “record” vs. “FKT” debate. To be honest, I don’t really care. If the person hearing the term knows what it means, and the person using it doesn’t mean to offend, then I don’t care. Like when I slip up here and say “no pickles please” instead of “no gherkins” people generally just pause for a second, smile, and then get on with it. To me this one is like the relationship between squares and rectangles. All squares (records) are rectangles (FKTs) but a rectangle isn’t necessarily a square. There are many routes where things haven’t been diligently recorded over the years, and the best that can be said is that something is literally the fastest *known* time. On the Pennine Way, and many of the established routes in the UK that are rich with history and tradition, things have been recorded and record is an entirely appropriate label. So generally I try to respect that tradition and use record when referring to the Pennine Way, but I couldn’t care less which term others choose to use.
A long brewing plan
It might seem that I returned to the Pennine Way just to attempt to reclaim the record. In all honesty, I knew I would likely return before I even finished my own run last year, sometime just before breaking Mike Hartley’s 31 year old record and 8 days before Damian Hall then broke mine. There are certain goals that take on extra meaning, where it’s not just can I do it but how well can I do it. They become benchmarks, for me and for others who seek the same challenge in the future. After some major gut issues last year I felt there was much more I could do.
But of course the record was added motivation. I had the usual competitive drive but also admittedly a simmering frustration from endless jokes after anything I did about how Damian was going to come do it better a week later. They were just harmless jokes, ones which I could have ignored, but instead I deliberately chose to let them grow into a little motivational chip on my shoulder. Damian is a great friend, person, and runner, but we’re also competitors. Every comment was a little poke in my side, and I had a picture from last year above my computer monitor as a reminder to get out for my run on those dreary winter days.
This year I decided to go north to south as Damian and Mike had done, getting the Cheviots & Cross Fell out of the way early. I also made a smarter schedule that would allow me to attack and pick up time in the middle portion of the run, I took steps to prevent a recurrence of my gut issues from last time, and my fitness was probably the best it’s ever been thanks to David Roche, the mutual coach of both me and Damian (but I had him first, kind of like the Pennine Way record.
I arrived in Kirk Yetholm on Thursday evening with Nicki Lygo, my crew chief, full-time road support, and all-around Pennine Way guru. I had a full day to relax and prepare after the long trip. Friday evening we were joined by Jen Scotney, had an inspirational viewing of Totally FKT, and I went down for what I can only describe as a night of “could’ve been worse” sleep.
Conditions on Saturday were nearly perfect as I filled my belly with Scottish porridge and then started out from Kirk Yetholm with Jasmin Paris and Graham Nash at 9 AM on the biggest climb of the route, all the way up to The Cheviot. Last year the little out & back to the summit had seemed endless – at night in terrible weather at the end of the run. In Totally FKT you can hear me vent a bit of bleeped frustration as I slap the trig point on the summit. This time it was over before I knew it, & we made quick work of the entire Cheviots section. I even got to see some Cheviot goats, which had never made an appearance for me on all my previous trips up there. The only real setback was a bog attempting to steal my shoe – sucking it off my foot, my gaiter trying in vain to pull it out before its connector broke and the shoe snapped back down into the muck. It would have been fascinating to watch in slow motion.
My plan had been to go out slower than Damian, and not overtake him until a bit past 100 miles. But we had taken advantage of the good conditions and I was ahead. I felt good about the pace, but still the doubts crept in. Coming out of Byrness, led by Martin Wilson and Ed Hyland, places in my legs were already starting to hurt and feel a bit tight. Was this normal? I’ve done these things so many times yet that part always catches me off guard. I have over 200 miles to go, surely everything should still feel great? Oh, right, I’ve already run 50 miles on tough terrain. Yeah, I guess things are just gonna hurt. I was at least in a much better spot than Martin was used to seeing me in – he had joined me last year on the Pennine Way and my Grand Round during my absolute lowest of lows on each.
With Bill Johnson and Jayson Cavill joining for sections, we made our way through the boggy forests north of Hadrian’s Wall, had a nice run along the wall, and arrived at Greenhead where I took a seat for the first time. I was a bit over 11:12 and 64 miles into the run, about 40 minutes ahead of Damian’s pace and over an hour ahead of where I had planned to be at that point. Weather conditions had been great, but underfoot conditions were definitely a bit messier than I had hoped.
Tim Wiggins led us flawlessly through the quagmire known as Blenkinsopp Common while Graham Thomas tried to keep me fed and focused as night fell. The section between Blenkinsopp Common and Alston has a bit of a reputation as many people’s least favorite part of the whole route. For me, it reminds me of the fields I run around in Somerset. It’s like I’ve been training for that section ever since I moved to the UK. At Garrigill I had a seat again. This part had been planned – I wanted to get some significant calories in before the long climb over Cross Fell, and Sharon Dyson had prepared a nice buffet headlined by a burger.
I layered on extra clothes and set off with James Elson and Andy Blackett. I knew that the trek up The Corpse Road to Greg’s Hut would just be long mindless climbing, something I’ve discovered is one of my bigger strengths (thanks Rat Jaw!). I’ve still yet to be on Cross Fell in the day, or without clag, but this was the least bad conditions I’ve had up there. The wind wasn’t even bad. Coming down the other side into Dufton I hit 100 miles almost right at 19 hours as the new day arrived.
In my plan, this section is where I would take the record.There was an opportunity over this stretch to gain a significant amount of time where both Damian and I had slowed down last year. I was over an hour ahead of my 58 hour 14 minute plan, but I had no intention this year of being content with a buffer. I was not just out to break a record; I was out to set one at the outer edge of my limits. There was also still plenty of time for disaster – bad weather, sleep issues, stomach problems – when at the edge for that long it doesn’t take very much at all to fall off.
So I stuck to the plan. The Cheviots and Cross Fell were already out of the way, and I was on my way home. I headed up High Cup Nick led by Tom Middleton and flanked by Julian Jamison, who I think is the first person outside my family who ever crewed me (2016 Barkley) and who happened to move from DC to the UK at about the same time as us. After a wet and slightly precarious descent next to Cauldron Snout and a scramble across the boulders alongside the River Tees, Mel Steventon joined to finish bringing us along the long flat path into Middleton (no relation to Tom). We made good time, and as planned added a nice buffer on the record pace, but this is one section that I didn’t enjoy as much going north to south. The waterfalls along the River Tees and High Cup Nick are some of my favorite parts of the route, and the view in this direction wasn’t as enjoyable or lasting.
Last year I was in the depths of my ulcer-induced crisis at Middleton – wasting a good chunk of time attempting to nap, eat, and do everything I could to reset my body. This time I briefly had a seat, got some food down, and moved along. I set out with John Parkin and Elaine Bisson for the push to Tan Hill Inn. I considered Tan Hill to nearly be the midway point (in terms of time) going this direction, and if I could get there in good shape then I felt pretty confident that I could make it the rest of the way in time. Sabrina Verjee and Ben Turner joined for a solid pick-me-up at what is probably my least favorite part of the route: Sleightholme Moor. When I first encountered this section it was during the Spine Race in the middle of Storm Brendan. I felt like I was wading down a river, complete with an occasional stake in the ground acting as a buoy to keep me in the main channel, I mean path. Fortunately conditions were a bit better this time around, but altogether avoiding the mud and bogs was impossible.
Oftentimes in these things I feel a bit like I’m a baton and all the support is doing the actual work. At Tan Hill Inn I was handed off to Darren Moore, Matthew Beresford, and Matt Neale (with Zepp the Collie!): all a regular sight supporting people’s big adventures. Howard Dracup and Carmine De Grandis also joined as we pushed on to Thwaite and up Great Shunner Fell, the highest point remaining. We flew down the other side with sub 8 minute miles, which at that point felt like accelerating down the first big drop on a roller coaster. It was a nice smooth runnable descent, the kind you have to take advantage of. We arrived in Hardraw, 153 miles in, in under 31 hours. Last year, heading the other direction and just over 100 miles in, I was already starting to have issues and took my first nap. This year I still hadn’t slept and I moved on without sitting down.
Sam Booth, who would help get me through nearly half the remaining miles, led the way out while Forrest Gump afficionado and podcast host extraordinaire Rob Pope lifted my spirits with his Tennessee socks and seemingly endless positive energy. It would be needed, as the trek up from Hawes to the Cam High Road and down into Horton was the first really tough stretch I had. Sure, things hurt before that, and there had been difficult parts, but this was the first time I *really* struggled. The weather got rough, with rain and wind picking up before turning to hail. I tried to move faster to stay warm, but I was suddenly having significant pain in my feet.
At Horton I changed shoes. I had been in Jackals up to that point but I decided to switch into an oversized pair of Akasha with a special gel insole that I keep around to try to deal with foot swelling and pain that can occur this far into something. I was also glad to start the climb up Pen-y-ghent and give my feet a break from the pounding of the previous few miles. Martin Stone and Ross Jenkin (who just completed his amazing Big 4 at 40 challenge) joined us for the climb as a beautiful sunset provided our backdrop and rainbows shot up ahead of us.
I felt renewed, and we continued on over Fountains Fell, the last real climb until the home stretch. We arrived at Malham Tarn, 181 miles in, at 37 hours and 28 minutes. The plan had worked. Since Dufton I had been methodically chipping away at the record time, about 10 minutes at each checkpoint. I started the day at Dufton about an hour ahead and by the time I reached Malham Tarn I was 4 hours up with about 80 miles to go.
Weather so far had been not awful relative to some of what I’m used to. Underfoot conditions weren’t great, with plenty of muddy and boggy sections, and there were the stretches of heavy rain and hail, but most of the bad weather fell into the category of what I would call extremely annoying and uncomfortable but not limiting. This weather affects what most people likely will do, but not what they can do. Importantly, there had not been the strong southerly headwind I had feared.
But at that point I also hadn’t slept. Damian had already gotten a nap or two by then. Like a racecar driver deciding to get new tires early, those naps can pay dividends over that critical 2nd night when sleep deprivation really starts to be a major factor.
It wasn’t long after leaving Malham Tarn, where I had joked about an afternoon finish (sub 56 hours), that the sleep monsters began to attack. I felt myself drifting as we made our way through the precarious rocky terrain of Malham Cove, then began to stumble and stagger through the fields that largely make up the section between the Yorkshire Dales and the Peak District.
For the remainder of the run James Ritchie and Suzy Whatmough would be swapping out alongside me, with Jim Graham providing additional road support. James and Suzy previously had the opposite of Martin Wilson’s experience with me: always seeing me early on before I decayed into the miserable wreck they were now witnessing.
By the time we reached Gargrave, I had decided to give in to a nap. I got some food down and requested 20 minutes. After 10 I woke up with throbbing legs and a shivering torso. Instead of getting a move on I spent another 20-30 minutes trying to warm up, my support crew bring me hot bags of water to shove in my jacket. I largely regret warming up there rather than trying to by moving on, but who knows. If I hadn’t have had that time to reset a bit then maybe I would have crashed and burned shortly after.
The stop did undoubtedly refresh me. My pace picked up and I was more energetic and alert. But the question is always whether it’s enough of a pick-up to make up for the time stopped – in this case needing a minute / mile faster for 45 miles to break even. Mark Rochester and Ben Cliff led me through the rest of the night, which I would describe in more detail if I remembered it in more detail. Just before dawn I stopped for one more nap, a much more efficient 10 minutes in Cowling just past the 200 mile mark at 43 hours.
The remainder of the run was constant highs and lows – often swinging back and forth by the minute. There were stretches where I felt like I was flying, followed shortly by me wondering what I was doing and questioning the life choices that had led me to do it. The climb up Stoodley Pike felt endless, but I was spurred on by another fount of seemingly endless positive energy: Danny Bent. With Danny singing and Dave Beales leading, we made our way to the White House pub.
Another band of heavy storms rolled in, and I knew I was in trouble when people started handing me my full waterproofs and good Gore-Tex layers. But, few things keep you awake better than hail in your face. My stomach also began to shut down. On the move I was relying nearly completely on my 8 month old daughter’s baby food squeeze pouches. At support points I was stopping just a bit to get in rice pudding and pot noodle.
The final stretch was a bit of a daze. My anchor leg support runners were Jamie Rutherford and Marcus Scotney, with Simon Bennett providing reinforcements through a storm going over Black Hill. On Bleaklow my mind had just enough bandwidth to fixate on and follow Marcus’s bright yellow shoes. I had slipped into that state where I wasn’t entirely sure if it was real or a dream, just that I was still controlling my actions.
I followed those shiny shoes past Kinder Downfall, over Kinder Scout, down Jacob’s Ladder, and through the fields leading down to The Old Nags Head pub in Edale. I turned the last corner, went through the last gate, and released my final reserves of adrenaline to cruise down to the finish where my family was waiting. I didn’t specifically plan the timing this way, but for the entire run I had the motivation of knowing that if I ran fast enough I’d finish at a reasonable hour and they would be there. 58 hours, 4 minutes, 53 seconds, for ~3.5 hours off the record and a finish just past 7 PM – even the pub’s kitchen was still open.
A collective record
Any record like this is a collective achievement, built on the efforts and imagination of the past, competition and support of the present, and the desire to leave a mark for the future. I would not have had the courage to go for sub 60 hours without Damian’s incredible run. I hope my record also drives someone to do what they otherwise wouldn’t have thought possible and that at some point in the future the time is lowered again. There is still time that can come off of it now, and in the future further improvements to the trail and to gear will leave people with advantages over us similar to what Damian and I had over earlier efforts.
Then of course nothing like this would be possible without incredible support. My wife Jessi is an absolute rock, supporting me and four kids during these adventures, my coach David Roche has gotten my fitness to a place I didn’t know existed for me, and my returning crew chief Nicki Lygo has selflessly given so much to my and other Pennine Way efforts and also helped me work out some of my gut issues. Jen Scotney and Sharon Dyson were also flawless road support throughout, and I had a small army of amazing support runners and a number of others who unexpectedly contributed valuable support along the way.
But could it have been faster?
At the outset I mentioned that my main goal was to see how well I could do it, to put down a time on this route that truly reflected my capabilities. I feel I did that this time. I’m not only thrilled with the outcome, I’m content with my performance. But of course that still didn’t keep me from analyzing it and picking everything apart. So, time to geek out a bit.
For something this long, a 58:04 finish pretty much nailed my 58:14 schedule (the schedule I shared on the OpenTracking page was slowed down to be just fast enough to beat the record). And, it was pretty consistent with the 57:59 schedule I originally made last year (which is the schedule David referenced in a Trail Runner Magazine article).
My basic approach for creating schedules for these types of challenges is to:
- Map out the route with some nominal average level of effort applied to it (or better, find the data for an actual run on the route, like, say, maybe Damian’s run from last year)
- Upload it to Strava and let it calculate the GAP (grade adjusted pace)
- Create an ideal curve with a smooth decay of my GAP, based on previous experience and top performances for similar lengths of time on a track (where there are many fewer variables to contend with)
- Reverse Strava’s pace to GAP conversion from step 2 and apply it to my ideal GAP curve from step 3 to get my “ideal” split for each mile
Of course the process above isn’t perfect, and for routes like the Pennine Way in particular it’s problematic because GAP can’t account for underfoot conditions and weather, but in general it works pretty well for me and over distances this long the law of large numbers comes into play and errors mostly average out. And most importantly, I haven’t yet come up with a better method.
The chart above shows a few things. First, why my plan revolved around the middle section. The moving average of Damian’s pace (green line) had a significant uptick from around mile 85 to around mile 210. That’s where I felt I had the most to gain, and I would need to capitalize on that opportunity to hold on during Damian’s big surge over the final 20 miles.
Second, my actual pace (black line) was really close to my plan (dotted red line). At the beginning when conditions were good I was moving a bit faster (but still following the same trend). At the end, when conditions got bad and I just wanted to go to bed, I slipped a bit. The end result was finishing 10 minutes ahead of schedule after over 58 hours.
|Lamb Hill Refuge Hut
|Road after Padon Hill
|Bellingham (Spine CP)
|A689 west of Lambley
|Middleton in Teesdale
|Tan Hill Inn
|Horton in Ribblesdale
|Thornton In Craven
|A58 White House pub
|A57 Snake Pass
From the start to Greenhead I built up a buffer of a bit over an hour on my schedule, maintained that buffer until the stop at Gargrave (between Airton and Thornton In Craven), but then only got behind schedule a few times, the most being 12 minutes at Kinder Downfall.
But generally my schedules, while tending to err on the ambitious side, are for average conditions and reasonable allowances for breaks. Going back and looking over my data on Strava, I had about 2 hours total time stopped with 1.5 hours of that coming in the last ~70 miles starting with the 45 minute Gargrave stop.https://www.strava.com/activities/5319961999/embed/03c2889726b80b351a1a6c1660d277cf5755ca8a
So that sounds like a lot, but the question is always whether the benefit outweighs the time stopped. Coming into Gargrave I had dropped to ~13 min GAP (grade adjusted pace) and then coming out I was around 11:30 GAP. So I needed to retain that benefit for ~30 miles to make up for the stop at Gargrave. And who knows, if I hadn’t have had a bit of a reset there maybe I would have gone over the edge and irrecoverably imploded.
This all leads to the question: what could be done under ideal conditions? No mild hypothermia at Gargrave, less stopping, less mud, and better weather. If everything went perfectly, I think I could do ~56 hours. But the probability that things that went wrong would go right is now less than the probability that things that went right would go wrong. Part of the beauty of these challenges is that there are always marginal gains – perfection is nearly impossible.
And someone might decide to have a crack at it (I hope one day they do!) who is better than me – better fitness, better mentally, and better prepared. The Pennine Way might also keep getting more flagstones until the whole thing doesn’t have a single step in mud. Then we can again refer back to some of the best performances on the track for similar amounts of time. The American record for 48 hours on a track is ~11 minutes per mile, which is about 48 seconds better than my GAP, which translates to about 55 seconds better pace, which would give a time of 54:20. Increase the pace a bit due to the slightly longer duration, then decrease it a bit due to people who are better than the current American record, and we’ll call it even. I reference the American record just because that’s what I have the data for, and because expanding to the world record would include a certain seemingly untouchable outlier from Greece who would really skew the numbers here.
Not much changed on my gear compared to last year. For shoes, I was in the La Sportiva Jackal up until I switched to my intentionally oversized Akasha in Horton. Both the Jackal and Akasha did very well and were well-suited for that terrain and distance. The Akasha has long been my general purpose go-to shoe for long distances, only starting to get pushed aside a bit when the Jackal was released last year.
I again wore a pair of XOSKIN toe socks with a pair of their non-toe socks over top. They were soaking wet for nearly the entire time, but never once did I even remove them. No blisters, no foot issues at all. This is a strategy that has been working for me for years now. As important as it is to avoid foot issues at these distances, I have no plans to change a thing. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I also had an XOSKIN long sleeve top on nearly the entire way, and a pair of their new XOUNDERWEAR liner briefs. No chafeage anywhere.
My feet were also no doubt helped by my Ultimate Direction FK Gaiters, which stayed in place (despite one having front hook broken by a bog early on) and kept the dirt and grit from the bogs out of my shoes. I don’t see gaiters in the UK nearly as often as in the US, probably because there’s less sizable debris (rocks, sticks, etc.), but over that distance keeping even the small grit out is important. I also wore an Ultimate Direction Race Belt, where I kept my schedule, gloves, and a few other small odds and ends. I used Ultimate Direction FK Poles, first just on the steeper sections and then more liberally near the end.
At night I used my lightweight and reliable Petzl Actik Core, which was perfect for these situations where I have frequent road support and support runners guiding the way. If solo, with tougher navigation, or needing light for longer stretches on a single battery, I would normally use a Petzl NAO+.
The periodic deluges required a bit of a rotation between my La Sportiva Run Jacket and Ultimate Direction Ultra Jacket + Pants.
I used a COROS Vertix, which has proven to be an outstanding watch. I originally decided to try one because of its battery life, but its interface and other features have also been great for what I do. The navigation now includes waypoints, and it was quite nice to know how far (and how much climbing) before the next checkpoint. I did just have a bit of an issue at the beginning due to me trying to load my original full GPX route into it, which had over twice as many datapoints as most handheld GPS devices can handle. So I’ll remember to downsample those a bit in the future. It did need to be charged once along the way.
Nutrition required some changes from last year. It’s not that what I ate last year caused my stomach problems; that wasn’t the issue at all. But I found in training leading up to it that I had a bit of PTSD of the stomach (not at all trying to make light of actual PTSD, but I can think of no other way to aptly describe it). Like if you eat something and then get sick later, the thought of eating that food can make you queasy in the future even if it’s not what actually caused you to get sick. In my long training runs even the thought of pulling some of my previously tried and true foods out of my pack would make my stomach tighten up.
So I had quite the spread for this, with far more options than I would ever eat. I ate pretty well throughout, aiming for 250 – 300 calories an hour, although I do feel I started to get a bit light on calories over the final stretch. That’s one reason I stopped more often was to try to get some food down.
When I was packing things up my son pointed at something and said, “Dad, is that healthy food?” I kind of laughed and said that no, nothing here was healthy. But for endurance events of this length, these are the important criteria for food, in order:
- Food that you’ll eat
- Food that won’t keep you from eating later (i.e. won’t give you GI issues)
- Food that won’t get squished or fall apart in a running vest
- Food that has the optimal nutrient profile and will be converted to energy and absorbed in the scientifically proven quickest and most efficient way
As much as we’re all sold on #4, that doesn’t matter at all if it’s something that doesn’t meet criteria 1 and 2. And really, I think those same criteria apply outside of running as well. Except for #3. It’s hard enough to not be able to take ice cream on a run; I would never want to impose that rule on every day life.
My coach is big on recovery and time to adapt to big stimuli, so I had a week off. The usual recovery nemesis, DOMS, wasn’t that bad. Honestly I’ve had worse from marathons (running hard on asphalt for 26.2 miles hurts!). But edema / water retention always leaves my legs swollen like tree trunks for a week or so.
Systemic exhaustion and lack of energy are bad for ~1 week. Sudden “attacks” where gravity seems to increase by 10X, mentally it feels like I’ve been hit by a train, and there’s no choice but to lie down.
Sleep deprivation: I can’t just go sleep 30 hours. Clawing back sleep debt is gradual over 2+ weeks. I don’t sleep well the 1st night with the adrenaline, aching muscles, etc. Plus, life. I have a job and a family. A huge reason why this is my first blog post since January is that for me running is in addition to all those normal parts of life; a week after I posted about doing less in 2021 a lot happened that left me no choice but to do less in other areas. Life has its own highs and lows just like an ultra does.
Hunger. For 3-4 days my stomach instantly incinerates anything tossed into it. Day 1 by 2 PM I had eaten everything in the fridge that was supposed to feed our entire family for dinner. I also often get cotton mouth & tongue ulcers from multi-days. So I largely stick to soft foods (treacle pudding and ice cream in the pub at the finish, and of course a nice southern breakfast complete with sweet tea).
The “post-race blues.” These things really wreak havoc on hormones, plus even if successful there’s the mental shift of no longer having *the goal* – as if it had been pulling me forward but someone just cut the rope. It takes a while to mentally refocus.
By about 10 days later I had started easing back into running, feeling fairly normal and going about life as usual. I even finally got my first Covid vaccination two days after finishing (my coach’s response to whether that would be ok: “Generally the 1st dose has some mild inflammation, which for you right now is like throwing a cup of water in the ocean”).
At that point my sights were set on the next challenge, and part of the delay in getting this post finished was due to getting plans together for that.