Spartan blog

An Emotional Journey

Picture the scene, it’s a beautiful day in May and I’m 21 miles into my first ever ultra race. My calves are cramping a little but life is good and I’m “enjoying the journey”. I climb up a stile only a mile or so from my home, a stile that I’ve been over dozens of times, and I lose concentration as I jump down the other side. My right ankle buckles and I hear a gut-wrenching tear as I collapse in a heap. There’s a bench 10 metres ahead and I manage to hobble to it, sitting down to watch my ankle and foot double in size in the space of a couple of minutes. A few minutes later Shaun Telford runs up and asks if I’m ok, and I say that I think my race is over. He looks at my ankle, agrees, and tells me that he’ll let the marshals at checkpoint 4 know what’s happened. I put my jacket on and start the slow and painful mile or so walk to the checkpoint where I retire from the race with 10 miles remaining and phone home for a pick up. My first ever “Did Not Finish”. Gutted.

That day was exactly one year ago and I returned this year more determined than ever to finish the Sandstone Trail Challenge, 33 miles from Whitchurch to Frodsham via the Bickerton and Peckforton hills. 250 people had entered, more than 10% of them Spartans, and we were ready to make our mark!

The day started at 5am with a bowl of Natasha’s chicken, vegetable and pearl barley broth – the stuff is running rocket fuel. Getting through a bowl of it at 5am though is a challenge in itself, but I manage most of it, washing it down with some energy drink before nipping upstairs to say goodbye and jumping in the car to drive the couple of miles to Paul Chrisp’s. We share the journey to Frodsham and register before joining the growing throng of white Spartan shirts lurking in the corner. More and more Spartans arrive over the next half hour until there are so many familiar faces it feels like a club run! I munch through a cereal bar, check my kit one last time, and take in a final view of the hall that marks the end of the race before heading outside to board the coaches. Judging by the number of Spartans on the coach, next year we’ll need a Spartan-branded battle bus to ferry us all to the start!

Tales of past experiences and race tactics are discussed on the journey to Whitchurch. As we cross the county border from Cheshire to Shropshire someone remarks that we have to travel all the way back under our own steam. Suddenly the enormity of the event strikes home and I’m forced to remind myself that it’s “only” six 10k runs – chunk it up and focus on one bit at a time, as the advice goes. 8am and we’re dropped off at Tesco, sternly reprimanded by the store manager for using the customer toilets, and then head off down the road for the short walk to the start.

A few minutes jostling in the car park and then we’re off, to cries of “FOR SPARTA!”. The path quickly narrows and the whippets at the front of the pack disappear around the corner. I settle into a steady run, reminding myself that the first few miles are flat and easy, and I don’t want to get too excited too soon. Still, the instinct to pass people is hard to ignore and I quickly hook up with Paul, Rob and Steve D to form the Spartan peloton and we reel people in one by one, passing a couple of Spartans and exchanging words of encouragement. The canal miles pass quickly and we head off across the fields, herding cattle as we go. We enter the boggiest patch of the whole race and chuckle at other runners taking a wide berth trying to avoid getting their feet wet. A bit of mud never hurt anyone so we decide on a direct line, the Spartan line. Paul quickly sinks up to his knees in the bog and we have to haul him out of the squelchy vacuum as he almost loses his shoes. Maybe the Persians were right after all, so we hop, skip and jump around the worst bits to emerge at the other end of the field muddy and wet. Onwards – checkpoint 1 is close, so we join up with Steve Frood and the 5 of us arrive to shouts of “go Spartans”. It’s good to see Fay, Neil, Stuart and other familiar faces. A couple of Jaffa cakes and a swig of orange juice and we’re off again, one 10k down, five to go.

A few more easy miles and then we’re into the hills. The steep ascent to Maiden Castle is tough even on fresh legs, so it’s no surprise that my thighs start to burn a little on the way up. I take the opportunity to shove some jelly babies into my mouth before emerging at the top to take in the fantastic views across Brown Knowl and beyond. There’s no family Mee snapping photos at the top this year – Steve is out there in front of me somewhere. We run through a small group of free range mountain ponies near the top before notching up a gear on the way down to checkpoint 2 at Bickerton church. At the checkpoint I pass on the sweet stuff and grab a handful of hula hoops to satisfy my salty cravings. Ged arrives a few minutes after us and we wish him well before heading on our way. Two 10k’s done.

The slog up to Raw Head and the Peckforton hills beyond is long and the four of us take the opportunity to slow the pace and save our energy for later. Nearing the top the trail turns into a bit of a rollercoaster and we step up the pace again, patting the trig point at the summit as we run past. I remember last year feeling a bit weary running along this top ridge, but this year is all good and I still feel fresh! Even better, we’re now into the stomping grounds that I use for my long weekend runs, so I start to feel good about the pace and can easily visualise the rest of the route from here to checkpoint 3 at Beeston. The last mile to the checkpoint is mostly downhill and Steve D starts pulling away. I follow, buoyed on by the thought that my family are waiting to see me at the bottom of the hill, and we all arrive at the checkpoint within a few seconds of each other. I grab a couple of Jaffa cakes and some Swiss roll and head off on my own, telling the guys that I’m going to see Natasha and my boys, and that I’ll catch them up later. Three 10k’s left, half-way is somewhere around here, and I’m really enjoying myself!

The good mood quickly evaporates when I get to the field where my family are supposed to be and nobody’s there. I’m there 5 minutes sooner than the rough time I predicted but I can’t stop and wait. I decide to press on but I pull my phone out of my backpack and leave a message for Natasha, saying that I’ve passed through checkpoint 3 and am on my way past Tarporley to checkpoint 4 at Willington. She quickly replies saying that our youngest son caused a bit of a fuss, making them late, but that they’re on their way to Willington and will see me at the Rock Farm checkpoint. My enthusiasm returns, but the peloton passed me as I was faffing about with my phone so I cover the next few miles alone. The weather turns sour and I stop to put on my jacket just as Steve F catches me up and we walk/run the next few miles across ploughed fields and up the big cow field hill just before checkpoint 4. The views from the top of this hill are magnificent and we look into the distance back to the hills of Peckforton and beyond. It’s incredibly satisfying to see the landscape stretching out beneath us knowing that we’ve run just about as far as we can see! Heading across a stile and into the final field before hitting the road to Willington, I can just about make out Natasha and my two boys waiting for me. I smile and run down to the checkpoint. Two-thirds done, only two 10k’s left.


I crack out a huge smile when I run up to my boys to see that Spencer has drawn a sign saying “Go Daddy Go” and Oscar is holding one up saying “Think of Evelyn” (more on that later). They cheekily tuck into the runner’s biscuits and entertain the checkpoint volunteers. I’m happy to be at the point where my race ended last year and still be feeling good, so I scoff some more hula hoops, kiss Natasha, ruffle the boys’ hair and head off down the road with a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye. Running alone I head up to Summertrees farm, through Primrose Wood to Gresty’s Waste and then Terra Firma – the hallowed homelands of the Delamere Spartans. The forest is quiet thanks to the weather and I enjoy the familiarity and peacefulness. My pace slows as cramps start to creep into my legs, but I’m not bothered and stop a couple of times to stretch them out. Running up to Barnsbridge Gates I spot Natasha and a small group of Spartan ladies bracing themselves against the wind and rain. I stop for a cup of water and check my watch – 26.4 miles covered so far, 0.2 miles further than I’ve ever covered before.

Another round of farewells and I’m on my way again, soon catching up with another runner and we get chatting, quickly realising that we’re both Spartans that haven’t met before. We run together for a bit and eventually meet up with Jason before heading out of the forest. Checkpoint 5 beckons and we stop for one final refuel and some words of encouragement from the volunteers . Five 10k’s done, only one left. I’m not familiar with the final stage between Delamere and Frodsham, so it’s good to have some company and Jason knows the route. We walk much of the way, each of us suffering different aches and pains. Before we know it there are 4.5 miles remaining and we’ve been on the go for over 6 hours – can we cover the last 4.5 miles in under an hour to finish within 7 hours? Under normal circumstances it would be a breeze, but running hurts and there’s at least one more big hill between here and the finish. We press on, running when we can, inevitably looking like something out of the Ministry of Silly Walks.

Into the final wooded area and Jason says that as soon as we get up to the ridge he’s going to “lock in” and bolt to the finish. We hobble up the hill and swear our way up the big steps at the top before finally emerging at the monument on the highest point. Jason legs it and I now know roughly where I am and how far it is to the finish. There are a couple of runners catching me and Matt, so I decide that it’s now or never and grimace as I start running downhill for the final time. Out of the woods and onto the streets of Frodsham, following the bits of tape tied to lampposts marking the route, I can almost smell the finish. I look at my watch, 6 hours and 56 minutes – can I get there before it hits 7? I head down the path next to a church that I’ve inspected from every angle on Google Maps, knowing that at the other end it’s just across the road and up another alleyway for a couple of hundred metres to the finish. I give it all I’ve got and, incredibly, find myself catching another runner. I pass him with about 100 metres to go and see Natasha and my boys waiting on the final corner next to the finish. I shout to the boys to run with me but they’re in wellies and Spencer falls over! Natasha comes to his rescue and I sprint the final few metres to the hall and the finish line, stopping my watch at 6 hours, 59 minutes and 14 seconds with cheers and cries of “SPARTA!” coming from the crowds. I love my running club.

I hand in my checkpoint card and head outside to see my family. The boys are upset that they didn’t run with me to the finish, so I put on a brave face and do a quick lap of the field, holding hands with them and telling them that only very special runners are allowed to run around the field. They giggle and enjoy running with their Dad, and for a brief moment I'm the happiest man in the world. Back to the finish line and into the hall for a well-deserved sit down and Spartan handshakes all around. Natasha gets me a cup of tea and I munch through pie and peas, two amazing homemade flapjacks and a huge bowl of fruit salad. Zero 10k’s left, 33.5 miles covered and my first ever completed ultra race. Job done.

Completing the race this year was doubly important for me. I needed to know that I could do it, but more importantly I was raising money for a local charity that due to a recent ordeal are now very close to my heart. Many of the people reading this have very generously pledged their cash, and for that I am incredibly grateful. My daughter Evelyn’s short life has brought some good to the world and will help other families facing similarly dark circumstances. If you’re reading this and feel that you’d like to know more and donate, you can do so here:

High on successfully completing the race, I’ve now entered the “Gritstone Grind” race along with a bunch of other Spartans. 35 miles along the Gritstone Trail in the Peak District, where it’s a little bit hillier. Roll on 8th September.


Alan Harding's picture