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Old King Offa had a dyke

by 1
Friday 10th November 2017
By Pip Haylett

“What the hell is that?!”
“Looks like a badger”
“It is a badger. It’s not moving very much, is it alive?”
“It’s so grim up here, even the wildlife has given up”
King Offas Dyke is a raised earthworks and a path, build around 700 and something AD by the good / evil / complete b*stard Offa, King of Mercia.  It’s about 185 miles in length, and pretty much follows the border between England and Wales.  Last year, Richard and friends at Beyond Marathon thought it would be a good idea to stage a race along its length.  That’s 185 miles, from near Chepstow on the south coast, to Prestatyn on the North.  With just under 10km of ascent and decent along the way, you pass through some iconic towns and, more importantly, up and over a lot of hills and mountains as you run the length of Wales.
This year was the second running of the race, that saw me and 40 odd others trying to run the full distance, and some more folk running the 100 mile ‘Mercian Challenge’.  These would be stopping at half way, whilst the remainder of us carried on to Prestatyn.  
For the full race, there are 10 aid stations along the way, mostly in village halls or similar, where you can stop to refuel and sleep as required. Carrying a sleeping bag, runners decide when, where and how long they want to stop for along the route.  As long as you complete in the 90 hour cut off, it’s entirely up to runners to manage this aspect.  The route is not marked by the race organisers, so you carry a map, try to follow the acorn signs that mark the route as a national trail, and hope you don’t go too far off course.
I like to go into these things with a bit of a plan, with “try not to die” and “don’t be shit” as the main objectives, although things change along the way, I find it helps to have a plan of attack.  This one was a bit different though, being completely new and previously unexplored territory.  
However, my basic plan was
start very conservatively (slowly)
eat as much as possible
take ‘lots of’ short sleeps, but adapt these as required
Obviously there are many ways to manage sleep on a run that starts on Friday, and you hope to finish on Monday.  Mine, after consultation with many people who know these things better than me (Natalie White, Kirsty Reade, Helen Hall were the main helpers here), was to go for a few short naps along the way, rather than ‘run 100 miles, get a good 8 hours, then carry on’.  
As my train approached Chepstow on Friday afternoon, I noticed a man wearing a Lakeland 100 t-shirt, and a UTMB finishers gillet.  We started to chat on the walk to the start line.  He was called Steve, and had finished the Lakeland 100 (July), and the UTMB (august) this year.  I tried to do the UTMB then this race last year, but was in no state to run the length of Wales 2 weeks after the UTMB.  This guy however, had already had an epic year of running, and continues to do so.  Turns out the overall winner had also finished the UTMB a few weeks earlier.  I need to work on my recovery!
The course starts in Sedbury, at a rock marking the start of the Offas Dyke path near the coast.  We were all given a ‘King Offas Dyke’ coin by Richard, the idea being that we would exchange this for a trophy at the end, assuming we got there... or keep it with us if we didn’t, as a reason to come back and finish next time.  So at 8pm on Friday, we all gathered at the start line, and headed off into the night on what we all expected to be quite an adventure.  From the sounds of things, most people were more than a little apprehensive about the run.  And rightly so… when asked ‘what time are you hoping to do?’ at the start of a race, it’s not often the reply is ‘Monday, I’d like to finish on Monday’.
The first part of the course heads out of Sedbury, through Chepstow, and into some woods.  It was dark though, so I’ve no real idea what this bit looks like, apart from ‘a bit woody’. After chatting to a few people along this first section, I started running with Becky Wightman, who would go on to win the 100-mile race, in what was her first attempt at the distance.  
Arriving at Monmouth and the first aid station, I had the first of what would be ‘many’ pot noodles.  Richard had apparently bought 300 pots for us to eat along the way, so this seemed like a good place to start on what would become a veritable feast of noodles.  Quick stop, some snacks, a pot noodle and a photo, and we headed back out into the early morning.  The next section, to Pandy, was dark, misty and tricky, with many route options and a lot of slippery hilly bits. 
Arriving at Pandy my sleep plan suggested I have a little kip here. So I said goodbye to Becky as she carried on whilst I got my first 20 minute kip.  I also ate two pot noodles.

OD collage 1

Heading out the door, I saw Steve (Braithwaite) of earlier train fame, who was about to leave too.  This was perfect timing, and I was to spend the rest of the race running with Steve.  From Pandy, this section took us up into the Black Mountains, and a sunrise traverse along a spectacular ridge.  Revived by a little sleep, and a pot noodle breakfast, the sun came up on the first morning and everything seemed good.
Saturday saw us run through Hay on Wye (2 egg baps), Kington (pot noodles, party bag filled with millionaire short bread squares and peanuts), moving well through some amazing countryside and scenery, making steady progress along the path.
Checkpoint 5, 82 miles in at Knighton, 8pm Saturday evening, and time for a little 2-hour sleep.  According to my schedule, I was 2 hours up on expectations, so things were looking okay.  By this point there were a few other runners looking slightly worse for wear, and I gave a blister plaster to Steve, who had a blister for a heel.  After patching himself up, Steve 2 (McAlister) would leave with us as we headed out into the second night.  This section was tedious.  It was dark, we were tired, and although only 18 miles, it seemingly never ending.  Always ‘one more field’ to run until we hit the magic road that would take us to the checkpoint.   We passed the rather underwhelming ‘half way’ sign at 2am, suggesting that after 30 odd hours of running, we still had a long, long way to go.  However, the reward for arriving at Montgomery was a chance to catch up with Becky who had not only finished, but also won the 100-mile race, a first meeting with our drop bags, more pot noodles and another planned sleep.
Having completed the section from hell, and even with some sleep and pot noodles, Sunday, started to drag on a bit.  The route was amazing however, with sections of the dyke very much visible, and some incredible views.  Over the course of the day, we drifted into a run / walk pattern to get through the seemingly endless fields, hills and changing weather.  120 miles, coming into checkpoint 7 at Llanymynech my ankle was on fire, and I was really struggling to move it, or to keep up with the Steves.  
This was nearly it for me, and I very nearly quit.  120 miles is nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to prove, and my ankle was knacked.  However, I had a chat with the medics, 2 paracetamols, 2 pot noodles, and felt a bit better.  Steve 1 also was not really feeling it, and almost talked himself into stopping, but after another pot noodle, we tentatively made it out the door.  

OD collage 2

2200hrs, Sunday night, we finally arrived at the National Trust Chirk Castle.  Apparently it is beautiful, but I’ve no idea about this.  All I can say is that it was getting to be a struggle.  It was late, dark, we were now incredibly tired, and it was raining.  The toilets were in an outhouse, so you had to get back into full wet gear just to go for a pee.  Still that 2-hour sleep was amazing, all be it far too short.  Leaving the safety of the castle at midnight, there were some hairy sections on this bit of the route.  With driving rain, remote welsh hillsides, muddy slippery paths, I was glad to have the Steves in shouting distance in case of an untimely slip and fall down a mountain.  
Then it was Monday morning, we went off course for a few miles having missed a turning.  Back on track, there were tents at Llandegla, and stew for a breakfast stop at 150 miles, and last drop bag access.
Monday was great.  Changeable weather, but the path was easier, now only ‘undulating’ rather than steep, and offered up stunning views.  We got a bit of a scare when we heard that someone was catching us, so found an extra bit of pace to hold them off as we passed the “20 miles to go” sign.  We’d decided that having run so far together we would probably finish together, and I was quite surprised to hear we were currently in ‘joint 5th’ place.  
In and out of the last check point at Bodfari Woodland Skills.  2 egg rolls, probably another pot noodle or two.  Still smiling, but struggling a little now. Ankles both increasingly sore and swollen.
Last push – it was dark, and we could see the bright lights of Prestatyn right there, just in front us us… But no.  Offa in his wisdom decided to build his flippin dyke up, ‘round and along the hillside to the east, rather than going straight there.  It was pouring with rain and miserable now.  Offa took a lot of abuse, and even the Badger had had enough, and decided to end it all on the path.
Finally, finally we hit the strip late on Monday evening, and the run in to the finish.  Not quite the sprint finish we had planned, but there was the rock at the end of the path, and the chance to stop running.  

OD 5

Lots of tired smiles.  Exchanged coin for trophy.  Had a shower, food, and a sleep on the floor of the sports hall gym, then got up at 6:30 to get the 7:20 train home.
I need to thank both Steve Braithwaite and Steve McAlister.  Their company throughout was amazing, and it would have been a very different run without them.
Before I set off, I spoke to my friend Chris Morgan, who had completed the course last year.  “Whatever happens, do not give up, do not stop.  If you finish, every time you look at a map of the UK, you will smile and you will know you have run the length of a country”.  Wise words, and I’ll never look at a map of the country without a grin.
It took 3 night and 3 days – nearly 75 hours in total, with 6 hours sleep and a lot of pot noodles - but it was an amazing weekend, and a stunning course.  I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone… Say what you will about Offa, he makes exceeding good dykes.
Find out more about the race here: kingoffasdyke.co.uk

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