The Hike, the hills and me.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Emily from The Outdoor Depot and I confess that, unlike my sporty Husband James, I spent most of my PE lessons as a teenager fake-falling on the athletics track so that I didn’t have to complete the 800mtrs. On leaving school I vowed to avoid exercise and did so successfully until 2012 when, after my second child was born, I decided to try and run a Race For Life 5k. Fast forward 2 years and I had the bug, I’d become an outdoorsy type and I ran the Windsor half marathon. It was a freakishly hot September day, to say I struggled was an understatement and after the finish line I lay on the floor unable to crawl as far as the water point that I could see like a mirage in the distance. I vowed never to do anything so stupid again and decided to stick with shorter runs for health and happiness.

Then, one day earlier this year, my lovely friend Tracy told me she was aiming to do the hike this year and asked if I’d like to join her. After I’d finished laughing I politely declined joining her on the hike but said I’d happily join her on training runs. And so we began, we knew we could do flat so focussed on hills and worked on our heart rate, slowing down to walk the up hills when needed and run the downs and flats. It was great – I’d always assumed that proper runners would run every uphill but apparently not. This was a revelation and completely changed the way I “ran”. I’ve always struggled with nerves and anxiety. I fear being last and I worry about what people think – that they know I’m not a real runner, so to find out that even real runners save energy on the up hills gave me hope. I was enjoying this training! Then Tracy talked me into signing up to the Piece Of Cake Run which sounded delightful – I like cake and I like running so I signed up. Turns out it was a half marathon, also turns out it was another blisteringly hot day, but as it turned out I loved it and we completed it in 3 hours 6 minutes. This was the first time that I allowed myself to consider that I might actually be able to complete the Hike. We started to discuss hypothetical times for Tracy doing the Hike. . . if she could do 13 miles in 3 hours, she could do 26 in 6hours, so factoring in fatigue, checkpoints and navigational issues she could in theory complete the Hike in a decent time, certainly under the 24 hours. And so, sat in Cardingmill Valley Tearoom with a medal hanging round my neck and a friend full of excitement about the possibilities that lay ahead, I felt a pang of jealousy that I was not brave enough to sign up to the hike. That afternoon I saw friend and fellow running mum, Sarah. Sarah had done the hike once before and was keen to improve her time. She asked if I was entering and again I laughed – “it’s 50 miles you know!” was my response, “you’re mad” I told her. But already I had a feeling I might be joining her.

The day after the Cake Run was when the Hike entries went live and, in a post-run elated haze, I received a message from Tracy to say that she had a place but they were selling out quickly. I sat in bed with my mobile phone and felt sick. There have been many times in my life that I have let fear of failure stop me from even trying. Sod It I thought, what’s the worst that can happen? And so it began, I booked my place.

Training started in earnest in July, with our focus being on hilly miles. The summer heatwave gave us beautiful mornings and stunning clear skies, a dream for running in the hills, and a time that I really enjoyed. The peace of the Shropshire Hills is magical. On high days and holidays the world and their dog descend upon Cardingmill Valley, but once you get up and out onto the hill, particularly at either end of the day, you can feel like the only person on earth. One particular training run took in Ragleth and Caradoc followed by Cardingmill Valley and then up to the reservoir where I met up with my husband and kids for a refreshing dip in the cool reservoir – now THAT’S how to train!! Not all runs were so idyllic though, we had scheduled in a run on the bank holiday weekend and headed out early to complete the first 4 checkpoints but the wind was blasting the rain horizontally as we reached the peak of The Lawley and it stung my eyes as I tried to focus on the path. It also made us all realise that our waterproofs were a key piece of kit and one that should not be skimped on. My Montane Minmus had been a faithful friend for many years but was in need of replacing. Thankfully, being the owner of an outdoor shop, I could spec up some decent kit! Sarah and I chose the Rab Spark, a lightweight and super breathable jacket with an excellent hood. Tracy chose the Rab Kinetic with a tougher fabric but the feel of a stretchy softshell. All packed down small for the all important kit check.


August saw more of the same training, plenty of hills and miles, but also saw our first attempt at night running. By now we had been taken under the wing of our friend and “hill machine” Sarah. She was a great help as she had knowledge of the route. We decided to get dropped off at Stiperstones carpark as dusk fell, and attempt to navigate the 12 miles home to Stretton in the dark. It was such a great experience, something I’d never done before. We had a great laugh, watched a beautiful sunset, and made it home in around 3 hours. Running in the dark was such a different discipline, I was distracted by the twinkling lights in the distance, trying to work out which town it was, my mind wondered to how amazing this was, The Long Mynd is a designated dark skies area so I couldn’t resist a bit of stargazing . . . and so I didn’t see the uneven terrain under foot! It seems that in the dark your peripheral vision, that we rely on so much, is redundant! Thankfully it was nothing worse than a slight twist. Sarah and I were using LED Lensor head torches which had excellent range and crisp light that could be easily focussed. Tracy, having not had time to source a head torch yet, brought her camping head torch and immediately we could see the difference in quality! The kit is a source of much debate. It’s easy to see cheaper options that on the surface offer the same benefits, but it’s only once you put them to the test that you can really appreciate great engineering and the research and development that companies put into their goods. I know many who bought cheap and cheerful waterproofs just to pass kit check with the hope of a dry night, but when the proverbial hits the fan I want to know that I’m going to stay dry and warm, because it’s a long night otherwise.

By now we were formulating a plan, you have to have a plan! We knew our side of the hills, Caradoc and Lawley are regulars for us, they’re our playground and we felt confident here and up to Pole Bank. We had all run from there to Bridges at some point so were happy with this section too but we were less familiar with the 25 ish mile loop out from Stiperstones and back. So, as school started back in September, we packed the children off in the morning (we have 6 between the 3 of us!) picked up fellow hiker in training Bruce, and the four of us drove to our start point, the Stiperstones. We knew we were racing against the school clock so ran the route cutting out the ascents of Earl’s Hill and Black Radley, but concentrating on remembering route and the markers along the way that we would be able to recognise in the dark. It turns out that many of the markers we remembered were transient . . . like the nice new Rangerover parked outside a house, or the smoke in the distance that we needed to head for, and even the field of corn that a farmer had the audacity to harvest in an attempt to fox us! On this outing Sarah was sadly attacked by a rogue pot hole in Habberley but valiantly continued for the 20 plus miles with a severely swollen ankle. It was a warning to us all to take more care, and so any unnecessary risk was removed from our diaries until further notice. We all became more aware of people with coughs and sneezes too, and attempted to avoid any illness for fear of being under par come the beginning of October. I was starting to burn with a feeling of possibility, I felt that this really could happen, I really could be one of “those” people. It was one of the most exciting feelings, almost like awaiting childbirth – you know it’s going to hurt, but you know you’re going to do it. It might not be elegant or fun, but it’s going to change you and you will be proud.  

While Sarah rested her damaged ankle, Tracy and I ran the Stiperstones loop once more in September, including Earls Hill this time, to reinforce the route, and were pleased that it seemed to have stuck in our memories with just one slight detour! By now we were feeling confident with the route, we hoped we had put in enough training, it was all getting a bit close and feeling a bit real! We had started to talk about the route in 3 parts. There was the first section; Caradoc to The Stiperstones. We knew we could get through here before dark, but how much further? The second part for us was the Stiperstones loop; we felt more confident about this but hadn’t done it in the dark, or after having already done 12 miles.The third section was the home run, 12 miles back from Stiperstones. All we had to do was get home and (in our minds) that was pretty much all down hill!


And so October arrived. My normal pre event nerves some how didn’t appear. I felt calm, and excited. I knew the route, we had done trial runs with food options (Marmite sandwiches on white bread were a fave, Torq & SIS gels were a must, and Chia Charge flapjacks were delish) and I felt ready. I packed my kit days in advance and was pleased to fit it all into my Raidlight Responsiv 10L vest. James had fitted me with Inov-8 Trail Talons which fitted my wide toes perfectly and on the day paired them with my favourite Teko merino wool socks. I’d advise getting footwear properly fitted regardless of your chosen activity, but especially for a long distance. So many people have asked if I had blisters or lost toe nails as if it’s a certainty and whilst it can’t be guaranteed, our custom boot fitting really does come into it’s own at times like this. I wore my new Ronhill Afterlight tights which are perfect for night running, and I packed a longsleeve Ronhill Merino baselayer and my new Ronhill Matrix Fleece in my pack for when it got cooler. If you get cold hands the built in mitts are brilliant on this piece! 

The start line was a buzz of excitement and we were blessed to have some of our close friends Angela, Gail and Helen there to wave us off.  Being the owner of the Outdoor Shop meant I was stock-spotting, seeing who was using what and hoping they would all be pleased with their purchases.  Seeing customers around the course was great too and their support of me was much appreciated.  I do find it strange that registration and kit check are in the town yet the start line is a mile away, I think the hike should be reclassified as a 51 mile route! 

Tallies were issued and the claxon sounded at which point my stomach did a flip and I felt the lunch I’d enjoyed two hours earlier at The Hollybush. All nerves soon settled though and I convinced myself it was just another day out with Tracy and Sarah. We made good time up to High Park but my legs are still not fans of the hills. Sarah was a gem and refilled my water as I stretched. The High Park checkpoint was the first taste of the party atmosphere that we found later on in the day, and was also a chance to see our friends and supporters again. I can’t stress how much this support means, to see people who so totally believe in you and want you to do well is a fabulous feeling that causes a surge of energy and happiness. Onwards through Pole Bank and to Bridges where the weather broke. Here we had to decide whether to don the waterproof trousers or not. None of us are fans of the waterproof leg wear, especially on such a mild day, so we decided to stick with jackets and crack on. 


Another boost came at The Bridges where our friends had just arrived giving us the boost to scale the seemingly never ending road climb to the Stiperstones. Before we headed through the gate towards Manstone we grabbed a hug from Andrea and Sally who were setting up the Stipertones checkpoint for the way back. I love the technical route through the Stiperstones, however it is Sarah’s nemesis and the enemy of anyone with ankle issues. We took it steady, were treated to some hail, and made it over the slippy stones to head towards Earls Hill. On route Sarah had to deal with childcare phone calls, being a mum really doesn’t switch off. With the wet weather behind us, we enjoyed a peaceful sunset as we descended Earls Hill and donned our headtorches. My husband James had arrived at The Mytton Arms in Habberly with our kids ready for a squeeze as we headed by. My boys had crafted a poster exclaiming “Go, Go, Go Mummy, Go!” which I did! We took our first proper pit stop at Bank Farm, taking the opportunity to change to dry socks and have a warm drink. It was here I did my Facebook Live post and found I was more emotional than I realised. I had taken on a knee injury on the way down Earls Hill and was starting to feel I was holding Tracy and Sarah back, but as we were grouped here we officially became a team of three and I did my best to self medicate for the pain and hope that it eased.

The next notable climb after that was Corndon. I was by now truly flagging and the tears came as we passed the cheery checkpoint (I do not envy those fantastic souls with just a tent to protect them from the elements on top of Corndon!) I had gone very quiet, the chat had subsided as we all concentrated on safely navigating the dark terrain. “Are we all ok?” came the question . . . all I could manage was a sniff and a sob. I was not ok. I knew Sarah would be in pain with her ankle injury but she dealt with it so well. I felt like the weakest link. Our pace slowed significantly, we had covered our first 25 miles in under 8 hours but the second 25 was to take us over 10 hours. Tracy and Sarah were amazing, so supportive and encouraging. With their help I made it back to Stiperstones and as we entered seeing the “38 miles done, 12 miles to go” sign it crossed my mind that I might not want to finish. I was buoyed momentarily by seeing Andrea and Sally again who told us how well we were doing. And then I was floored, I thought I could hold it together but there was a tap on my shoulder and I turned to see my husband. I buckled and sobbed into his embrace. I wasn’t sure why, initially I think it was because I was about to give up and it was a huge relief to have him there to take me home, looking back I think seeing him gave the belief that I could do it. He told me how proud he was that I’d got that far and that he would be proud of me no matter what, I knew I had to carry on and that I could do it, after all I only had to get home, it was only 12 miles. It also crossed my mind that if I gave up I might feel inclined at some point in the future to enter again, and at this moment in time I never, ever wanted to have to go through this again, so I told myself I had to carry on. The ladies at the checkpoint helped me fill my bottles and cup and gave me some flapjack, they looked after me like a mother looking after a scared child!


And so we headed out into the now frosty night, the warm lights of the fairy light laden marquee fading in the distance. Sarah, feeling the chill, suggested a little jog down to the Bridges. “No” came a sharp reply from both Tracy and I. And so we trudged our way, with Sarah skipping around us like a sprite on Ibuprofen, towards Pole Cottage. Here we found our good friends Neil (with a very welcome virtual hug from his wife Helen to pass on to us) and Matt as well as James with another pep talk. As we left and headed our way down to Minton we were treated to a blood red crescent moon rising on the horizon. The sky was so clear and a pure treat to the eyes. As we arrived in Minton Tracy admitted that she was done in, she wanted to be home and this was no longer fun. I felt relief that I was not the only one, and as I swayed from side to side like a drunk on my way home I couldn’t help but think of my warm bed at the base of the Ragleth. Why oh why do we have to go all the way back to the school?! I ignored the strong urge to head home and dug deep to climb that last ascent. Stupidly it’s one that I do regularly, it’s on my doorstep, we live in it’s shadow, but on this morning it was the final hurdle between me and my bed. At the penultimate checkpoint I was greeted by a softly spoken and very gentle mannered chap called James Hurrell who greeted me by name and said he knows my husband. I am ashamed to say I could barely speak and I think I may have grunted at him! Again – and this needs saying – these guys had only a small tent to protect them. We were moving so were warm. They were static and it was freezing with frost under foot. They are the heroes of this event, giving up their time and sleep to see us crazies safely through the night. So as dawn broke and the skies blazed with shades of orange and red, we descended through the woods and along the sleepy side roads of Church Stretton. The park was eerily quiet with frost sparkling in the slide and the roads were empty, awaiting the early risers out to fetch the Sunday papers. As we neared the school we saw the figures of a few people ready to cheer us in. It was 7.14am we never expected it to be any one we knew, yet there were Angela, Gail and James all teary eyed as we staggered through the door. The relief was unbelievable, Terry and Ange were there and ushered us through to the final checkpoint where our times would be calculated and verified. We’d done it. It felt bloody awesome, it felt painful, it felt unreal. Shoes came off and we hobbled through to the hall and the smell of breakfast. What more could you ask for. Tracy’s Brother had completed it for the second year and had smashed his time earning a 13 hour time this year. Terry brought our certificates over to us and gave us a fabulous hug, he’s an inspiration and an institution having been involved since his father set up the event up 51 years ago, so to have his congratulation was a compliment indeed.

So here we are, one week on. Sarah and Tracy have already filed the pain away somewhere and are considering next year. I said never again. . . but then I said never again after my first half marathon and look how far I’ve come! If you are thinking about giving it a go I would say without hesitation that it was one of the most amazing things I have ever done. The atmosphere, the volunteers, the kit check, the breakfast – they are all unique experiences in their own right and make this event really very special. I would urge you to train though, I wish I’d done more, gone further. I would also recommend finding yourself a team, it helps with training and on the day. I was privileged to be with two very able ladies who were strong mentally and physically, but were also genuine friends who sacrificed better times to get me through. Your team needs to be strong, because the unexplained emotion that hits in the dark of night needs good friends. Thank you Tracy and Sarah x