Last weekend I was fortunate enough to have my forty third birthday coincide with this years edition of The Winter Poppyline. This is an annual 52 mile walking challenge put on by The Long Distance Walkers Association (LWDA), which starts from Aylsham in North Norfolk and takes in some of the best countryside Norfolk has to offer.
After my long report for last months Spine Challenger, I decided to try and keep this one as brief as I can. Please do not take that as a reflection of the race, far from it. The Winter Poppyline is an excellent event and one that I really enjoyed.
As those that read my pre-race thoughts will know, this was a last minute addition to my racing calendar and coming just four weeks after The Spine Challenger I was not sure my legs would be up to it. However with the weather forecast to be overcast but dry, I hit the road just after 6am for the drive to the start in good spirits.
LDWA events have a reputation for being very friendly, well run and without all the bells and whistles that you find with many commercial running events these days. This is exactly what I needed for my birthday, a low key run around the county I was born in, with the only person you were racing being yourself and your personal objectives.
Registration was a smooth and straight forward process, at which I was issued with my paper tally, which I would need to get clipped at each checkpoint I passed through. I caught up with my good friend John Reynolds, with whom I attended a number of races over the years and we agreed to run together. John had read my pre-race objectives and like me was keen to try and beat the sunset home if we could.
Kit was sorted and at 9am one of the organisers came out, led a small group of runners to the front gate of the high school and without any fuss sent us on our way. The walkers had left on mass at 8am and the chase was now on.
Leg 1: Aylsham to Itteringham, an easy warm-up!
We initially ran through the local housing estates before picking up the disused railway line by Tesco's to head due west out of Aylsham. As we ran John and I chatted, eventually being joined by Neil Carter, a friend of John's.
I had put together a basic pace card for my families benefit. Our first leg was a short 10.5 kilometre stretch through various woods and fields towards the village of Itteringham. As we ran the sun started to burn through the cloud and before long the forecast grey skies had disappeared to leave blue sky and a beautiful day all around us.
The pace was nice and easy, exactly what my legs needed as they had been feeling a little sluggish when running in recent weeks. As we ran John and I caught up on life, our race plans for the year ahead and before we knew it we were rolling into the first checkpoint bang on schedule.
My nutrition plan for the event was a little different, in that I planned to run using Mountain Fuel as my primary source of nutrition, supplementing this with whatever took my fancy at the checkpoints. A quick comfort break and after grabbing a few biscuits and a handful of twiglets we headed out the door for our next leg to Holt.
Leg 2: Itteringham to Holt, crikey it's warm!
Just before the first checkpoint we had started to catch a few walkers and in this next section they came thick and fast, making navigation extremely easy. At places we were forced to drop to a walk, with the path too narrow to pass those ahead but we didn't care as today was all about the fun of running in good company.
The countryside to Holt was spectacular. We crossed wide open fields and ran down leafy lanes. The sun was blazing down by now and John and I were both regretting the additional layers we had worn from the start to ward off the chill air.
As we approached Holt we descended down through some woods, before climbing back up into the country park to the south of the market town. A couple of locals stopped to ask us what we were doing, which we explained. As is usually the case in conversations like this, they were astounded anybody would want to undertake such an journey and wished us luck for the day ahead.
We ran on eventually joining the road into town before going through an underpass and into the centre. I knew some of my family were planning to meet us here and with the clock showing us two minutes ahead of my pace card time, we practically ran into my Mum, Dad, Brother and Sister-in-law as we rounded the final corner towards the checkpoint. We exchanged a quick set of hellos and dashed into the checkpoint to reload our bottles and strip off some layers of clothing.
26.5 kilometres had been ran and only one litre of Mountain Fuel consumed. This was a little less than planned but I had been feeling a little nauseous for the last few miles and had not been drinking so much as a result. At this stage I was not overly concerned as the sickness was something I had actually been feeling for the last few days, so I discounted this as a slight bug I was still carrying rather than poor nutrition.
My family joined us in the hall and I introduced them to John once again, who they hadn't seen since we had run The Norfolk 100 a couple of years before. We both dropped layers and reloaded our bottles. I chatted briefly with my family as I ate some food. The clock as ever was always ticking and if we wanted to beat the sunset we needed to get going, so we said farewell, I grabbed some more food (tea bread – yum!) and we headed out the door. Next stop Sheringham!
Leg 3: Holt to Sheringham, via Shingle Hell!
We had lingered longer in the checkpoint than planned and were now a little behind my pace card. The first few miles out of Holt were along the road, so we took the opportunity to keep the pace up and claw some time back. Eventually we left the road and followed a track out onto Kelling Heath, making our first crossing of the railway line that day, with many more to follow. A train was just leaving Holt station as we arrived, so we had to wait for a moment for it pass before pushing on across The Heath.
Ahead of us lay the coast and the shingle bank from Cley to Weybourne, which John and I had previously covered with Karen in The Norfolk 100 a couple of years before. In that race we had hit the beach at high tide and were forced to travel along the top of the bank for its entire length – four miles. We had found this to totally unrunnable, especially with 80+ kilometres in our legs. At low tide you have the option of the harder packed ground by the water line which was more runnable and I hoped we would have better luck today.
Whatever mood the tide was in today, we had the benefit that we only had to cover the final mile to the cliffs at Weybourne and not the full four mile horror show from Cley. Some initial confusion in the paths on Kelling Heath were soon corrected, and as we ran down the leafy lane towards the coast road I caught my first glimpse of the sea ahead of us.
A short dog leg through Kelling saw us heading on another lane out towards the beach. We rounded a small lake in the salt marshes and climbed the steps up onto the bank. Crunch, crunch, crunch. We were back!
Unfortunately our luck was not in and it was high tide. As we headed towards the cliffs in the distance we did discover some options for firmer ground along the back of the beach, something we had totally missed the last time we had come along here.
We made our way slowly along, running where we could but walking in the main, moaning about the last time we had been here. At some point along this stretch John managed to get his feet caught in some brambles and fell head first onto the beach, landing on his knees and head. He quickly picked himself up, dusted himself down and declared himself okay to continue.
As we approached the end of the beach I could see my parents waiting to take some photos. As we were now falling further behind my pace card, due to the slower ground, we did not linger and started our climb up onto the cliffs, with Sheringham just visible in the distance.
From here the route turns back inland, over the railway line once again and through the woods before dropping into the south side of Sheringham. As we walked and ran John mentioned some soreness in his knee following his fall. It was not getting any worse though, so we pushed on.
As we crossed the coast road towards Sheringham Park we were fortunate to be treated to the view of a steam engine coming along the railway behind us. We turned back east through the park and after passing through the small village of Upper Sheringham we followed a path down towards Sheringham proper and the third checkpoint.
At this point I was starting to feel pretty good and with the prospect of seeing my wife and two sons at the checkpoint ahead, I pulled slightly ahead of John, catching and over taking a number of runners ahead. I hit the main road and turned north towards the town. Ahead I could see my entire family waiting for me, with my wife and son's being joined by my sister, brother-in-law and their children. There was plenty of cheering and a banner being waved as I arrived, passing through the marathon distance as I entered the checkpoint.
Despite the good run in, we were now about twenty minutes behind the arrival time on my pace card. There was no way I was breaking any records today but I was having fun and really enjoying my birthday. Once again water bottles were reloaded and food was consumed. Peaches were on offer, a personal favourite of mine when running ultras and great for calming troublesome stomachs in my experience. A couple of portions were quickly consumed, along with my first cup of tea of the day.
My sister produced a small birthday cake and my family stood around and sang happy birthday. It was great to see everybody and sit in the sun but I was aware of the time pressing on and after grabbing some savoury snacks John and I prepared to leave. We were at the half way point and it was homeward bound from here.
Leg 4: Sheringham to Southrepps, and then there was one!
I am not sure if it was the fact we had stopped, whether the weather had changed, or more likely a combination of the two, but as we left the checkpoint it felt noticeably colder. We ran back up the road to try and get the blood flowing before swinging east and then north around the edge of Sheringham towards the coast once more and Beeston Bump.
A famous landmark at the eastern end of the sea front, Beeston Bump is a small hill which gives fabulous views of the coast and surrounding countryside and is popular with locals and tourists alike. We weaved our way through people out enjoying the afternoon sunshine and soon hit the summit, where John was kind enough to grab a quick photo of me beaming like the happy birthday boy I was.
Down we went, immediately swinging back south away from the coast, to head up into the woods behind West Runton for our eastward run towards Cromer. As we started our climb up into woods John raised concerns about his knee. Despite initially not getting any worse, with the drop in temperature it was now tightening up and he had a noticeable limp as we ran. Being a soft tissue therapist John was able to self diagnose the source of the problem and while he felt he could walk it into the finish if need be, he was concerned what the long term damage could be. With Lakeland 100 still to come, his A race for the year, John didn't want to do anything to jeopardise it and a decision to stop was quickly made.
This leg was the longest of the race, with twenty kilometres between the checkpoints. We still had over fifteen to go, so I suggested we try and arrange one of my family to pick John up from Cromer. I quickly called my Dad and a plan was soon hatched for my brother and his wife to meet us in the centre of Cromer by the church. They were heading home and could easily drop John back at the start on their way.
On we marched, running where we could, although our pace had now dropped a lot and John's limp was getting worse. The church in the centre of Cromer was clearly visible on the horizon as mile by mile it drew nearer. Down into the town we ran, weaving through the traditional traffic jams you find in the centre of Cromer, finally arriving at the church just after 3pm.
My brother was yet to arrive, so I waited with John. It was a real shame to see him have to stop, as I had really enjoyed us running together. However I totally understood his reasons and the need to look at the bigger picture. Both our watches showed we had just passed the fifty kilometre mark, so an ultra had definitely been run and John was able to tick another one off his 12 in 12 list to mark his fiftieth year.
A beep of a car horn signalled the arrival of my brother and sister-in-law. I was getting really cold sitting in the shade of the church, so after a quick chat John and I shook hands, I thanked him for his company and headed off on my way.
There were crowds everywhere along the front but I ran picking my way through them, desperately trying to get some warmth back into my body. An impromptu LDWA checkpoint had been setup in a little shelter on the sea front, at which I grabbed a handful of peanuts, munching them as I headed up onto the cliff top path.
As Cromer dropped away behind me the crowds started to thin out and I was soon following the permissive path along the cliff top beside the golf course. I was still cold but was really enjoying the path, which while a little technical in places but still very runnable as it weaved its way through the gorse bushes.
Ahead was the cliff top car park at Overstrand and I wondered if any of my family would be there to meet me. They weren't unfortunately but I took the opportunity to dive into the public toilets to pull on an additional layer and try and warm up a bit.
I was now well behind my pace card and a daylight finish was totally out of the question, so I switched my focus to how far I could get before I needed my headtorch. I could definitely make it to the next checkpoint but could I make it to North Walsham or even the final checkpoint just after it?
My legs were starting to feel pretty tired but I pushed on regardless, only stopping to walk on the steeper uphill sections. I crossed back over the coast road and headed south back inland, my journey along the coast now finished.
As I climbed up through some woods a radar station could be heard whirring away beside us. As I cleared the trees I could see some other runners ahead, which gave me something to focus on as I slowly closed up behind them. The sun was dipping towards the horizon now, giving some spectacular light as we ran through farmland and around woodland. More runners appeared ahead which I also caught and passed as I pressed on towards the next checkpoint at Southrepps.
Despite being some of the first runners away at the start, we had been catching other runners all day. This had initially confused me until I'd realised that quite a lot of people had obviously gone off with the walkers an hour ahead of us, planning a run walk strategy to get around. I was not complaining as this gave me people to focus on and catch, as I attempted to put the tiredness in my legs out of my mind.
Eventually I hit the road and turned for the final run down into Southrepps and the checkpoint at the church. I arrived and checked in, also handing them John's tally and informing them he had pulled out through injury. As with all the checkpoints, the staff were extremely kind and helpful, offering all sorts of goodies. There was a veritable feast of comfort food on offer and I enjoyed some soup and picked at some savoury bits and pieces as I filled up my bottles.
The other runners I had passed duly arrived and we chatted about the day, agreeing how it had turned noticeably colder in the afternoon. As I was getting ready to leave my family arrived, after enjoying the beach at Sheringham. I delayed my departure to chat with them outside the church and a plan was laid for them to miss the next checkpoint go and get some food with the boys, with the aim of them being at the finish in time for my arrival. Light was starting to fade fast and I keen to still try and make it to North Walsham before I needed my torch, so I said goodbye and headed off.
Leg 5: Southreps to Felmingham, into the night!
Most of the other runners in the church had departed ahead of me as I hung back chatting with my family. As I left the village into the farmland once more, I could see them strung out ahead of me and over the next mile or so I caught and passed them all again.
I was now out front on my own. I had stopped using my route book to navigate and was now using a combination of map memory and the OS maps on my phone to navigate along the route. As I ran along a lane I could hear some feet approaching from behind and a runner (Kevin Shelton-Smith) passed me. We exchanged pleasantries and Kevin slowly ran on ahead of me.
At the path junction back into the fields Kevin continued down the road and after a quick double check to make sure I was correct I called him back. He was extremely grateful and together we ran out across the fields and on down into North Walsham, not really together but never more than twenty metres or so apart.
As we entered North Walsham it was now dark but the street lights meant we could push on without torches. Not quite the final checkpoint but only a little over ten kilometres to go to the finish I was pleased with how far I had managed to get. Not bad so soon after a hundred mile race I thought!
Kevin and I navigated our way through North Walsham and as we headed out of the town Kevin pulled slightly ahead. As we left the street lights I saw Kevin pause and then rather than take the path out across the fields, he turned and headed up the road. I repeatedly tried to call him back but with the traffic noise I was unable to attract his attention. A quick look on the map showed that following the road he would swing back around onto the route anyway, so I left him to it and dived into the field.
There was just enough light to see where I was going as I crossed the field but before long I decided that it would be sensible to finally break out my headtorch. After a quick comfort break and with my head torch now on, I rejoined the road just behind Kevin.
We headed out into the fields once more towards Felmingham and the final checkpoint. There was the very faint reminence of the sunset on the distant horizon and I stopped to take a couple of photos, letting Kevin pull away. I had been running on my own since I had left John at Cromer and wasn't in desperate need of the company, having a great time, enjoying the countryside, the navigation and alone with my thoughts.
As I approached Bryant's Heath I caught Kevin once more and after some initial confusion with which way to go, we joined forces to navigate our way through. In daylight this would have been a doddle but at night the cris cross of paths weaving through the trees was a nightmare and rather than the direct line we wound an S shape through the Heath, eventually hitting the track on the far side.
We ran together down into the village and on towards the checkpoint. No need to reload water bottles now as it was only eight kilometres to the finish. A warming cup of hot chocolate was consumed, as was some cheese and twiglets to give that savoury fix. Buttered hot cross buns were on offer but I couldn't face them now as was feeling a little nauseous again and keen to get to the finish.
Leg 6: Felmingham to Aylsham and The Finish!
Kevin and I left together and ran back through the village to pick up the Weavers Way along the disused railway line, which would take us the majority of the way home. On we ran in the dark, chatting about all sorts of things, from past races to politics, to life history. We passed a few other runners along the way but eventually we crossed the A140 and the lights of Aylsham should be seen before us.
A final field was crossed and we picked up and followed a lane down into the town. We crossed the river, up the hill and finally turned into the school. Around the side of the school we ran and there was my family waiting by the canteen door and cheering me home. Okay I had not made it back in daylight but I had finished with a smile on my face and hugs from my boys, what more could a birthday boy want?
I lingered outside with my family chatting and feeling a little nauseous, something which is pretty normal for me in the first few minutes after completing an ultra. I eventually went inside and handed my tally in and stopped my watch. It summed up the day and the overall feel for the event that rather than desperately wanting to stop the clock I was happy to sit and let it tick on. If you are interested my final time was 10:21, hours off my PB for fifty miles but that wasn't the point. My challenge was complete, the time was inconsequential.
Post race thoughts
There we have it, another ultra marathon in the bag and what a great event it was. If you're looking for a low key friendly event which gives you a taste for some of the best landscapes that North Norfolk has to offer, then you can do far worse than give The Winter Poppyline a try. Everyone raves about how good LDWA events are, how welcoming they are to runners and I will happily join them in their praise.
Thanks to everyone involved in the event for making it so much fun. Thanks to Kevin Marshall for allowing me to take his place after he had to drop out through injury – wishing you a speedy return Kevin. Thanks to John for his company during the first half of the course – it was great to run with you again mate and I look forward to our next running adventure together.
Finally thanks to all my family for not only paying for my race entry but then coming out to support me on my birthday. It was great to see you all there and I can only apologise that I wasn't able to spend longer with you.
So what is next? Well the next few weeks will be more rest and relaxation, just running for fun until Easter. After that the proper training will start once again ahead of my main objective for the year, Lakeland 100 in under 30 hours.