"Each step forward has a sacred meaning of its own"   Sri Chinmoy

West Mendip Way solo ultra 55k - June 3rd 2023 - Mendips, Somerset

Early in 2023 I started to make plans for a return to ultra-distance running after quite a long absence. Here's the background....

Back in the mid 2000s I had finished the Sri Chinmoy 47 twice, the Barry 40, the Self-Transcendence 24 Hour and the South Wales Traverse. Injury had kept me out for a while and that was what inspired me to switch to Triathlon (completing my first Iron Distance event in 2009) and Audax riding (completing a RRTY, an AAARTY and a 400k). The next thing that hindered long distance running was the illness that nearly finished me off in 2012, but I did bounce back from that to complete a few marathons, all of them solo/virtual events. Ultradistance was looming on the horizon as something I could attempt when I was fully fit again, usually "next year" and then the year after that, etc. etc. etc. Now seemed like the right time to actually bite the bullet and do the distance, especially after managing to complete ultramarathon distances on foot in the Sri Chinmoy 7 Hour walk in 2022 and again in 2023.

There's a tradition in the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team of runners covering their age in miles, or sometimes kilometres, to celebrate birthdays. I last did that back in 1999 with 31 miles on the Bristol and Bath Railway Path for my 31st. This time round with 55 as the number in question I knew 55 miles would be a big ask and quite a step up from recent events, so I opted for kilometres. After all, I'd walked 34 miles in the 7 hour walk and that was roughly the same as my age in KM, so I knew I could cover the distance on foot. The route I chose was a tough one though, the hilly (clue's in the name) West Mendip Way from Uphill to Wells. That's 49km so I decided to start from the railway station and include a pre-trail 6km around Weston and along the Prom before kicking off the trail itself from Uphill Sluice, the rather surprising start point for this hilly, waymarked route.

OK, enough scene-setting, here's the day of the run........

My plans to get a train down to Weston were scuppered by industrial action (which I support so I'm not complaining) but Kokila kindly offered to drive me down and drop me there, then meet up again 7 hours later in Wells. That 7 hour prediction was based on a recce run of 20 miles out-and-back on the first part of the WMW, but I left things pretty elastic as anything can happen when you get up over 20 miles! I stepped out of the car after a short meditation, waved goodbye and jogged off into the cool breeze with 3 litres of Nuun electrolyte in a cambelbak, arm warmers and windproof gilet, a bunch of gels and veloforte bars and a whole tube of sunblock covering all my exposed skin. There's always a trade-off between being spontaneous and being prepared...

After my loop around the seafront, dodging dog walkers and loping along at a 10-11 minute pace accompanied by gentle sloshing from the camelbak, I came off the main drag on to the verdant Uphill Road and ran between delightful woodlands and meadows into the village. I was navigating using Bike GPX on my phone, checking it every so often while aware that the trail I'd managed to download was an old track that probably didn't match the new, improved and revised route of the WMW. At least it gave me a way to get back on the trail if I found myself losing it here and there.

Soon I had my first view of Uphill Church, perched high on its hill, then the start of the route proper at the sluice. Something more dramatic than this hidden plaque obscured by shrubbery would be nice, but at least there's something there to mark the trailhead. I knew this part of the route and found it easy to follow through the flattish countryside of Walborough Nature Reserve, to the old Toll Road then across the main Weston Road to the slopes of Purn Hill. Even in Bleadon, the first village on the WMW, the route was very different from my GPX and it's clearly been changed and updated over the years.

After Purn Hill, first climb of the day, came a short section on roads and back lanes before the hard-to-find entry point to the trails (having recce'd the route before was handy here!) led me out on to Hellenge Hill with some dramatic views over the hazy Somerset Levels.


From this green, sun-soaked paradise I emerged on to Roman Road, the ancient track that led from the Mendip lead mines to the sea a couple of millennia ago, then where the lane turned north and descended from the hill, I carried on along the ridge, still running at a steady pace on the trail. Again, it was handy having run a recce of these initial miles and having downloaded a GPX to help me out where the blue WMW signs were hidden or absent. Descending into Loxton I got my first view of Crook Peak.

The trail led across fields from Loxton to the crossing of the M5 and then a section on lanes, contouring around the base of Crook Peak. A peloton of club cyclists swept past me heading towards Weston, just before I took the turning into the cool woodland, where the trail zig-zags to the shoulder of the peak. This time, I resisted the temptation to bag the summit of Crook Peak, staying on the WMW and remaining totally focussed on covering the distance to Wells. Views opened up, down over the levels, as the haze began to lift. I could see the Tor, Brent Knoll, the islands in the Bristol channel and numerous landmarks I remembered from when I lived in Somerset.

The trig on Wavering Down came and went with views in all directions from this tranquil vantage point, then I descended past the limit of my recce run on to unexplored stretches of the trail. The going here was hard, descending on bare earth with tree roots and rocks poking through, making it hard to get firm footing. The end of this stretch came at the A38 where I found the trailhead on the opposite side easily enough and climbed past the aptly named house called Welworth Clime to find a path between fields of golden buttercups, stretching along the flanks of the hill. At times on a run like this you feel transported from the earthly trail to an almost heavenly path and running in the sunlight, between these fields of flowers, I had one of those moments.

I don't remember much about the next few miles except that it was varied - fields, paths, deep and cool woodlands, a sketchy descent to a rickety bridge across a stream and then an area I remembered from the Mendip Muddle at Rowberrow Warren. Here, the heat was building and I was aware of the cooler air seeping from the pinewoods either side of me. Shame the trail bypassed them into open, sun-baked terrain. The long, slow climb brought me out on to the lane on the high ground near Cheddar Gorge, then there was a long descent on a traffic-free lane to Black Rock. The trail here was the most lovely of the day - a wide, dry valley feeding into the upper reaches of the Gorge. I began to encounter crowds of people who were out doing the Gorge Walk and soon there were parties of teens with bluetooth speakers sharing their music with the sheep and the other hikers. I heard several languages - French, German, Hindi, something that may have been Russian or Ukrainian - the gorge seemed to be attracting travellers from every corner of the world, while the rest of the Mendips was the preserve of a few dog walkers and hikers, plus of course the occasional runner like myself.

I missed a turning somewhere just after Black Rock and found myself on the road, so I had to find the entry point to the gorge walk a couple of hundred metres further down and slog my way back up on the trail. I was starting to feel hot and tired, the hard terrain sapping my energy. I realised I hadn't taken on enough fuel - it was over 4 hours into the run and I'd only had 2 bars and 2 gels. So I forced myself to chew another bar, walking as I did so, hoping the carbs would soon hit my bloodstream.

I found myself on the heights overlooking the gorge and paused for a couple of photos that could never do it justice. The land was lovely in all directions but I was too tired and exhausted now for my mood to lift much and i realised I was hitting the wall. Of course the dips always come and they tend to go too - but I told myself I needed an iced coffee or a coke pretty quick if I was to stay on schedule and get back running rather than walking.

The bar did seem to help and I ran down into Cheddar Gorge, or perhaps shuffled would be more accurate. The crowds were as thick on the road as they had been on the gorge walk. I saw long queues everywhere so I waited until the bottom of the gorge before joining one. I had hoped to find somewhere further down the hill with no queue at all, but the last place was the last place and there was no way I could carry on without some calories inside me. I waited patiently for a cold bottle of coke and walked up the lane called Lypiatt with it, sipping the sweet nectar of sugar and caffeine. On the last part of the road down through the gorge I'd been completely spent and unable to run even the downhills, but the coke helped enough to get me shuffling/jogging even on some upslopes and then quite quickly running down to the lane below Draycott Sleights.

Here the trail on my GPX app and the trail marked on the signs diverged, but I followed whichever one was easier hoping they'd come back together every so often. The Sleights nature reserve was beautiful, with the route leading me across open grassy hillsides then up to magnificent beach hedge that I followed, thankful for the shade. I began to muse on the mindset of people who plant a row of trees like this, knowing the end product they wanted would only be visible and useful to later generations. That's delayed gratification for you.

Walking again after the rush from coke had worn off, I hauled myself wearily up to the roof of the Mendips, the vast green plateau that stretches over to Priddy and the villages I used to know very well about 35 years ago in a very different life. The path was no more than a sheep track in places and the blue waymarks were few and far between, but the flatness and beauty got me running again. I forced down my 4th energy bar, finding it easy enough to chew but impossible to swallow with such a dry throat. Sips of electrolyte helped wash it down and the slow run/walk shuffle carried on. I was getting up to marathon distance and realising that my optimistic goal of finishing in around 7 and a half hours was out the window. I texted Kokila to let her know I'd reach Wells Cathedral around 4pm. I crossed field after field and found it hard lifting my fatigued legs over the stone stiles. Sometimes the act of lifting one over the wall triggered a short cramp. I kept swigging electrolyte, glad I'd carried the full 3 litres.

Around Priddy I broke into a steady run, broken a couple of times by the need to roll myself under electric fences (just too high to risk trying to step over) and then the route took me around numerous field boundaries, into a narrow path that came out at the top of Ebbor Gorge. I was hoping to run the descent,  but much of it was on high steps and I was concerned about the effect of long, crunching strides down those sylvan stairways on my knees and calves. I ran alongside the steps where space allowed or walked down where it didn't, all the way promising myself another cold drink with sugar and caffeine at Wookey Hole as a reward for my efforts. And of course to help me over the final climb of the day, my old home, Milton Hill. These thoughts had started earlier on top of the Mendips where I saw chocolate coloured cattle and my mind latched on to the idea of a chilled chocolate milk. Then I saw more that were kind of a caramel colour and this made me crave a caramel frappucino. The white cows made me think of vanilla shakes. Yes I was hungry and thirsty and my mind was just serving up images of what my body was craving.

At Wookey the queues were long and the crowds thick and fractious. Couples were arguing raucously in the heat of the late afternoon and I didn't fancy shoving my way through that restless energy to wait for who knew how long for a drink. I decided to go with what I had and just jogged and shuffled my way through Wookey to the trails on to Milton Hill. Here I lost the route then found it again and had my hands on my knees for a while slogging up to a delightful hilltop with views over Milton. That seemed to have taken the last of my energy and I got nothing but bubbles when I sucked on my drink tube, meaning I had finally run completely out of drink. This was the endgame though, the final countdown of a few KM to the goal. I ran past my old site entrance where I used to live, remembering incidents from the late 80s when I was there for a few moments, before I was 100% focussed on trying to run the last part of the route. I got my legs moving - it was all downhill or flat from here. As I came into Wells and found the Cathedral Green I still had the best part of 1KM to run to make it up to 55 for my birthday, so I jogged around the cathedral and back again, coming to my target mileage as I got to the tree where Kokila was waiting in the shade reading a spiritual book. I slumped down and took a selfie with the amazing gothic cathedral and felt utterly sick and tired in the physical, but deeply satisfied with the day. After 17 years off, I am running ultra distance again.


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