OK, so I ran this race about 10 months ago (Sept 2019), so the race report is just a tad overdue, but I want to put something out there as this is such a great race, that deserves to better known, and if this helps just one person push the ‘enter now’ button, I’ll be happy…
Some background to the race: As the astute reader may have gathered, this is in proper Robin Hood country, a race mainly around Sherwood Forest. I’m partial to this race as it’s virtually the only ultra within an hour or 2 of my house, and it takes in some beautiful forest trails.
It’s put on by Hobo Pace, which is the brainchild of RD Ronnie Staton. You may have heard of Ronnie from his running CV which includes some super long stuff such as Race Across Scotland (215 miles), Lon Las Cymru (250), and Mark Cockbain’s sufferfest The Hill. Or you may have seen Ronnie’s story in Runners World, he was very lucky to survive a stroke on Christmas Eve a couple of years back, and his approach to recovery is inspiring to say the least.
The race started back in 2016 (I think) and has grown year on year, to a starting field of over 100 runners in 2019. It’s held in mid September, so usually very favourable running conditions. I’ve been privileged to volunteer at this race a few times, so it was about time I saw it from a runner’s point of view, and it didn’t disappoint.
RH100 is certainly more on the grassroots end of the scale than most, which gives it a real charm and a friendly feel. The race starts and ends in South Wheatley Village Hall, a few miles outside of Retford. You run about 20 miles through farmland and then along a canal towpath, then do 2 loops of a 30 mile trail around the forest (for most runners this will mean one day time loop, and one in the dark), then back along the towpath (which seems at least twice as long on the return journey). Along the way are a number of well stocked checkpoints, usually every 5-7 miles, with 10 miles being the longest gap. At the largest checkpoint at the start of the forest loop, you have access to a drop bag, so you pass this 3 times at approx 24, 54 and 84 miles. The looped course and drop bag access, along with the relatively easy terrain, make this an ideal first time 100. As it happens, it was my second 100, but I’d recommend this for a first 100 attempt for sure. There are no qualifying criteria, and there are usually places available until close to the date of the race, so it’s pretty accessible in that respect.
Pre-race, I was ready, and having trained regularly on the forest loop that makes up approx 60% of the course, I (thought that I) knew pretty much what to expect from the course. The canal section proved harder than I expected on the way back, and don’t even get me started on the Field of Doom (more of which later). Training had gone well, with my 100 mile cherry popped on the SDW a few months before with a 23:51 finish, so I was very much looking forward to seeing how I could learn from my first 100 and put those lessons into practice to improve my time. Lessons from SDW100 1) Eat more. I really flagged in the nighttime stretch 2) Be quicker through checkpoints 3) Get though the later stages in a better frame of mind, at SDW the section from Southease (84) to Alfriston (91) was a bit of a death march, I could have picked up the pace but mentally got stuck in a rut, so I wanted to avoid this happening again.
Race morning: I arrived at the village hall early, aiming to get a parking spot outside the hall, rather than in the overflow carparks across the road. The point of this was to make the end of the race easier, I had a sleeping bag and mat in the back of the car, I wanted to be able to flop straightaway after the finish if I felt the need to. Parking spot gained and number collected, I sat in the car, ate my breakfast and rested my mind and body before the start.
The first mile of the race was 4 loops of the playing field right outside the village hall. A week or so before the race, Ronnie had told us that he’d had to re-route a small section of the course as part of the woods had been closed to the public (due to illegal motorbike racing in Manton Pit Woods). Ronnie being the considerate RD that he is, didn’t want anyone to lose out on miles due to the diversion, so we made up the shortfall by running round the field 4 times, before setting off on the course proper through the fields on the way to the canal.
It was a bright fresh morning as we made our way through the farmland tracks of north Notts. A small hill early on, and some rutted paths, but pretty steady, chatting to a few runners to ease the ‘oh holy shit I’m going to be running all day and all night’ nerves, and we ticked off a few miles until… The Field of Doom. A ploughed field full of very uneven rock hard sods that was very hard to get an even footing on. The field was only a couple of hundred metres across, but the main topic of conversation as we crossed the field and for a while after was whether that field formed part of the return route, which differed slightly from the outward journey. It was tricky to cross without turning an ankle on fresh legs and with sound mind in the early stages. On tired jelly legs, with a shredded mind after being out all day and all night, we all feared it might be end of the us.
Other than the Field of Doom, it was all pretty uneventful through the farmland, and along the canal, we ticked off a couple of aid stations, I barely stopped as I had plenty of supplies, only to apply some SNB to a point on my foot that was rubbing due to wearing thinner socks than usual. Ultra Error #1: Never try anything new on race day. This includes sock/shoe combos. And a quick diversion into the loos at Asda as we passed through the town of Retford at about mile 12 (top tip if you need a quick loo break before you get to the shelter of the forest).
At somewhere around mile 20 we turned off the canal, skirted an industrial estate, visited the Manton Pit Wood aid station, and then headed up a short but fairly steep hill into Manton Pit Woods, which was the start of the forest section. Personally, I totally love running round in the woods, so a race that was mainly in the forest was a big draw for me. A few more miles and then you hit the Forest Loop aid station and I quickly changed into some thicker socks, and grabbed a few items from my drop bag, then headed out again. I’d set up a few medium sized ziploc bags to grab at each pass of this checkpoint. I’d anticipated what I need to pick up, and all bags were clearly labelled with the number of each section, so I knew exactly which bag to take at each point to help cut down on time rifling through a drop bag.
Top tip for drop bags: Use a number of smaller bags in your main drop bag to keep different types of items and therefore make things easier to find. The aim here is to cut down on time spent faffing about at the aid station, and reduce any frustration when you’re trying to find your stuff later on when you’re a little frazzled. I used different coloured dry bags. One for spare clothing, one for night gear, one for tech etc etc. Another top tip – make sure your drop bag is well labelled so it’s easy to find. I’d used a large A5 sized clear pencil case super-glued to the bag, with a card inside to write my name and race number, with a Hawaiian style plastic garland attached to the bag. Might look daft, but it’s very easy to spot my bag among all the others, saving me a little time and hassle.
Now I was on familiar territory, the 30 mile forest loop that is my regular training run. The first section of the loop, to the A614 checkpoint, takes you through Clumber Park, a long stretch along Lime Tree Avenue, which does seem to go on for a while, then through Hardwick village and up a small hill through a field and you;re at the A614 checkpoint. A few miles from there along smooth forest trails until the Hazel Gap checkpoint, then you head off the 10 mile smaller Hazel Gap loop, which is the longest you have between aid stations. This part of the course may be my favourite part, some beautiful forest trails, and then past the Major Oak, and looping back round to the Hazel Gap checkpoint again. After that there’s a short road section, maybe 1.5 miles on road through the village of Norton, then you’re back on trail again, passing through the Welbeck estate, some field by the village of Holbeck, then up a hill and down into Creswell Crags.
Creswell Crags is the site of a number of caves, which were inhabited in the last Ice Age, and in whcih can be found some of the oldest examples of cave art. But my mind was very far from pre-historic art as I approached this section of the course. Since the Hazel Gap aid station, I’d been lusting after an ice cold drink, the day had been heating up, and my mind was 110% focused on a cool icy bottle of orangey fizzy bliss. I’d been dreaming, hoping for, wishing for, oh go then: FANTA-sizing about a bottle of Fanta from the cafe at Cresswell Crags, which I knew closed at 5:30pm. As I passed Hazel Gap I’d been doing the mental calculations of whether I’d get there in time, and it was touch and go to say the least. I’d got a little bit obsessed about this, and found myself sprinting like a fucking maniac down the hill before the turn into Creswell Crags, and along the lakeside path through the gorge. Now a sprint at circa mile 48 of a 100 mile ultra might appear like a bad idea (and maybe it was, and also maybe ‘sprint’ is loose definition) but as far as I was concerned I was hell for leather to make it to the cafe before it shut. With just a minute to spare, I ran into the visitor centre and panting, explained that my life depended on Fanta being available, and scored myself 2 icy cold bottles. It was worth it, the best tasting drink I’ve ever had. I guzzled one and saved the other in my pack for later.
A mile or 2 after the Crags aid station, there’s another hill up through the woods, which is probably the biggest climb of the course, but nothing really compared to most trail races, and few miles of lovely forest paths and you’re back at the Forest Loop checkpoint. Here I stopped for 15 mins, had a sit down in a chair lent to me by by a crew who were waiting for their runner to come through, changed into a long sleeved top and picked up my gear for the night stretch, had a pot pasta and a coffee, and off I went for Loop 2.
54ish miles in, it was somewhere around 6:30pm as I set out again. I felt strong and was on pace to finish somewhere around 22-23 hours, which is what I’d been aiming for. I took stock of how the race was going so far, and what I’d need to consider for the night section as before long it would be getting dark. So far – everything had gone pretty much to plan, I’d been eating and drinking well. The only minor mishap was that somewhere along the way I’d dropped a small baggie containing my supply of caffeine and salt pills. The salt pills weren’t missed as I’d been drinking an electrolyte drink (Active Root) and eating salty food when passing through checkpoints. Had it been a hot day, it may have been different, but the midlands in mid-September is unlikely to be a scorcher. I regretted not having a spare stash of caffeine pills though. But I did have a number of coffee bags. Top Tip: coffee bags are a perfect late-stage-of-the-race treat. Aid station coffee is invariably the very cheapest form of instant, so to have a nice cup of coffee is one of those little treats that can make a difference.
As I passed through Hardwick Village for the second time, the sun was going down so I put on my headtorch, A LEDLenser Neo 10, which is bright enough and the battery will last me all night. On both 100s I’ve done so far, the start of the night stretch has been one of the most exciting times, there’s some perverse joy in knowing that you’re going to be running through the night, and will still be running the next time you see the sun. The night stretch at SDW was the hardest section by a long way, but I still embraced it as it’s a very rare situation, that most right-thinking people are never going to find themselves in. I was feeling fresher today today though than at SDW, and I had the added confidence that comes with knowing I’d done it before.
Approaching Hazel Gap, as I ran through the by now pitch black forest I heard howls from the nearby kennels, looking up in the sky and seeing the moon was full, I hoped they were from the kennels…
The night section through the woods was steady and uneventful, no werewolf attacks, but there was plenty of noise from the animals and birds of the woods, and I really enjoyed hearing all of this as I ran through. I rarely use headphones in races, and I’m really glad I didn’t while running through the dark forest on this race. It was a pretty special experience, one of the reasons why I do this kind of thing. It’s a very bizarre way to spend a Saturday night, but it made absolute perfect sense to me. One moment that stands out in particular was a field not long before the Crags aid station, as I ran through the field the moonlight was bright enough to light the way, and for a time I turned off my headtorch and I was even able to see shadows cast by the silvery moonlight. You don’t get that on a usual Saturday night. Another one of those perfect moments to illustrate the bizarre joy of running 100 miles.
Before I knew it, I was back at the Forest Loop checkpoint again. Another sit down and some noodles. Top Tip: a toothbrush and paste in your drop bag is always a good idea, a quick brush will make you feel much better. The checkpoint was much less busy than the previous 2 times I’d passed through. It was around 1:15am and by now the runners were spread out across many many miles of the course. A year back I’d spent many hours through the night manning this checkpoint, so it was strange to be on the other side.
Side note – if you’ve never volunteered at a race – do. Not only is a great way of supporting these events, which would simply not be able to happen without willing volunteers, but its also valuable experience if you’re preparing to run an ultra. You’ll learn so much from seeing runners come through, get a sense of what can go wrong, how to help make things go right, and it’s a lot of fun. It can also be extremely rewarding if you talk someone into carrying on, when they were about to quit.
As I left this checkpoint for the final time, and headed back out, I knew for certain that I’d finish, I had plenty of time to get back, even if I had to walk the whole thing. There was still almost 20 miles to go, but I was feeling OK (as OK as you can feel at this stage in the race) and I still has some running left in my legs. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I now it would be done, and as long as I could keep a reasonable pace, running some and walking some, I’d be well inside 24 hours, maybe nearer to 22 which was my goal time.
But – I’d underestimated how long that canal stretch really was. It felt so much harder on the way back, and by now I was struggling to get food in, all I could really manage was sweets as I passed the aid stations, but Haribo at least kept some energy coming in, with a quick coffee at each one too. This is where I wished I’d not lost my caffeine pills, as a couple of them would have perked me up along the way and I’d rather have been drinking sports drink than coffee, but I kept moving, slower than before, but still moving forwards knowing that the vast majority of the miles were already in the bank.
By mile 90 I was definitely starting to flag, but this was about 13 miles later than at SDW, so that did make me feel better, knowing that the death march section was going to be less than I’d got through before. “I know I feel shit, but at least I have to tolerate this for less time than I have done before, therefore I know I can get through it”
There was a mile that seemed to last forever, I checked my watch thinking I must have done at least half a mile since I last checked it, but no, it was only 0.2 of a mile. A text message from my wife about 3:30am who’d been watching my progress via LiveTrack “Nearly there?” 12 miles to go might feel ‘nearly there’ compared with the 92 miles my watch was showing I’d done already, (perhaps we didn’t need that extra mile at the start?) but it still feels like a hell of a long way in the middle of the night.
I was finding the canal path to be very much harder going that it had been on the way out, it seemed more uneven, much closer to the water, and a couple of times I worried I’d fall in, but looking back I think that was just my tired legs and shattered brain playing up. I listened to a podcast featuring an interview from John Kelly about running the Barkley to put into perspective that a few more hours along the canal and through some farms were not really that big a deal, having something to listen to did seem to take mind off things and help the miles pass, so I’ll remember this for another time.
Gradually the miles fell away and I passed the final aid station, just after my watch battery had died. Back on the farm tracks, and by this time it was light again. There was none of the uplifting sense of joy that came with daybreak on the South Downs, this morning was grey and overcast, but it was still extremely satisfying to know that the night had passed, and the the end was just a few miles away now. The rutted farm tracks were 100 times more rutted, and a little piece of me died as I entered that fucking field again, which was an absolute monster to cross now. But I reminded myself that we don’t do these things because they’re easy, which is a thought I often come back to when things get hard, and got on with it. After what seemed like 4 hours, but was probably less than 5 minutes, I’d got to the bottom of the field, and I was only a couple of miles from the finish. It’s funny how your sense of time and distance can get completely warped when you’re so tired.
A couple more miles of farm track later, and I was running back into the village hall, with a finish time of 22:52, which I was happy with. Having been welcomed in to the hall by the volunteers, given my medal and shirt, and offered soup, which I declined as by now my guts were seriously rebelling against me, I found a chair and had a chat with a few other finishers, then went back to my car, sent a few text messages to let family know I’d finished, and it was my watch that had died rather than me, then had a lie down in the back of my car. I didn’t feel like I was sleeping, but before I knew it, over an hour had passed and I did feel refreshed. The van with the drop bags arrived back, and I was feeling OK, so I did the hour drive home. I’d promised myself that I would only drive back when I was 100% sure that it was safe to do so, I was prepared to sleep at the village hall for longer if necessary. It was a real luxury to be at home just a few hours after finishing a race, rather than in a Travelodge half way across the country.
Post race – my legs felt good, better than after SDW100, but for a week or so I had that feeling of deep fatigue, I know what ‘bone tired’ means now. So a week of rest and plenty of food.
Reflections: All in all I was pretty happy with how things went, pacing strategy was good and I was pleased with my finish time. I should have forced down more food in the night section, which would have helped the returned stretch along the canal, but after running for so long I tend to forget to eat later on, I need to get better at this. The race organisation was great, and the volunteers were super helpful. There’s no such thing as an easy 100, but this is at the easier end of the scale, so if you’re thinking about dipping your toe into the world of 100 milers, this is a great start. And for the more experienced runners, it’s an excellent chance to smash that PB.
Gear: Shoes were Altra Paradigm road shoes. I’d ran the forest section a couple of weeks before the race, so I knew that road shoes would be OK, and welcomed the extra cushioning of the Paradigms. If it had rained much the week before, I’d have worn Lone Peaks, as sections of the forest can get slippy and muddy. Socks: Injinji toe socks, no blister or lost toenails, so that’s a result. Pack: I wore a UD Mountain vest 4, which has plenty of space for the mandatory kit and more. Clothes: Montane C2SK shorts, the most comfortable shorts I’ve ever had. A Nike vest for the daytime, long sleeved Montane Dart top for the night. Torch was LEDLenser Neo10, with an Alpkit Gamma for back up, which I didn’t need as the Lenser lasted all night long.
If you made it to the end of this report, then you certainly have the stamina to run a 100 miles, so get yourself on the Hobo Pace website and sign up!