It ain’t over til it’s over ! – Viking Way Ultra Report

I first remember meeting Sam Robson in weather conditions he seems to seek out and revel in. It was about halfway up the climb to Le Signal, 30kms into the 2012 UTMB and the weather had turned as ferral as they come. I spotted his side burns first !

How did I know Sam ? He has long been a fan of Ultra168, always adding comments and insights from the mother country with that sense of humour only a fellow Englishmen understands. He was warming himself by a raging fire on the side of the French Alps, summoning up the energy to push for the summit of the first major climb and the rain had long given way to snow and conditions were getting interesting. We introduced ourselves with a big smile that only partially masked the trepidation we had for what the rest of the course would throw at us and we went our separate ways into the snow. Funny that we then tracked each other up and down the Chamonix Valley for the next 10 hours.

Sam has been been knocking over tough ultras for sometime and I was interested to see how he went over the last weekend of March at the Viking Way Ultra as England struggled to shrug off a long cold snowy Winter.

Sam’s abridged race report follows and as you will soon discover the race is never won until you cross the line ! Let this be a lesson to us all.

Here’s a brief history lesson for you. In around 790 AD, the Vikings landed on the British Isles near Barton upon Humber. Upon realising their proximity to the city of Hull, they quickly left again, trekking 147.8 miles (237 kms)from the Humber Bridge to the small town of Oakham at Rutland Water. Quite what the Vikings thought was so exciting in Oakham to require such a long march from their landing point I have no idea, but I guess getting away from Hull is excuse enough. Although they might want to fire their navigator as it’s not exactly a direct route. Lest we forget, this was in the days before GPS, and I guess that mead can do funny things to your internal compass.

Snow early in the run – a taste of things to come. Photo courtesy of Photography

The resulting route, the Viking Way, is one of the longest marked trails in the UK, and offered the perfect venue for a new ultra. In 2012 Mark Cockbain, an extremely accomplished ultra runner who has done pretty much everything you would care to mention, announced his plans to hold the race, with the caveat that all runners would have to meet a minimum requirement to be allowed in. The race was a great success, and was won jointly by Neil Bryant and Pat Robbins in 29:22. Only seven people (out of 27 starters) finished inside the 40 hour cutoff. It’s not quite Barkley, but it’s certainly a fearsome dropout rate when you consider the caliber of the runners that took part.

I originally signed up for the inaugural race, but a slight miscalculation in the winter (bike + ice = pain) caused me to miss it. Not being one to let things slip, I signed up again for this year determined at the very least to make the start line, if not the finish. Unfinished business annoys me. Unstarted business is even worse.

Mark is not one to molly-coddle people, and this race would be fairly minimal in terms of support with checkpoints around 18 miles apart. No pacers allowed, no GPS, no poles (walking poles of course, he’s not xenophobic), frankly we should think ourselves lucky to be allowed to use a map! The lack of GPS was actually quite freeing as it meant not worrying about pace. When there’s nearly 150 miles to go, pushing for a pace that isn’t comfortable could be disastrous.

Running through the Lincolnshire Wolds. Photo courtesy of Richard Gordon
Running through the Lincolnshire Wolds. Photo courtesy of Richard Gordon

We arrived at the viewing point underneath the Humber Bridge that would serve as the official start of the race and quickly got chatting about what was to come. The weather forecast for the weekend was going to be interesting – generally sunny with a bit of cloud, with low but pleasant temperatures of around 4C, but with the threat of snow and very low temperatures overnight. As a Brit, I’m of the opinion that it is always shorts weather, and this event would be no different. Would I regret that decision? I got a worrying shock when Wouter Hamelinck (le petit yeti) turned up in trousers. Crikey, things must be looking serious!

The route itself follows mainly single-track trail and field boundaries, with some quiet country roads thrown in for good measure. Generally, it is all very runnable with no major hills, although there are certainly some rolling undulating sections through the Lincolnshire Wolds. On a good day it would be possible to run the majority of the route. On a good day…

The veritable arctic conditions that the UK had been subjected to for the past few months had resulted in a surprising amount of snow along the route. For long sections, runners were faced with the prospect of trudging through thigh-high snow drifts lasting for miles at a time. When we hit the first drifts after about 2 miles in it was quite good fun. After 102 miles; not so much. It didn’t help when I slipped on a patch of black ice at the start of the first snowy section and went arse over tit onto the hard ground. Oh well, only 145 miles to go… I began to pray for sections of mud, if only as a reprive from the snow. Luckily we were well accommodated in that regard as well. Be careful what you wish for.

One of many snowdrifts. Photo courtesy of Richard Gordon
One of many snowdrifts. Photo courtesy of Richard Gordon

As the sun set, the temperature dropped rapidly and it no longer seemed like shorts weather. Bottles froze, feed pipes and bladders solidified, and one chap’s head torch froze and refused to work. It was here that the race saw the majority of its victims fall. Many runners pulled out at the checkpoints with mild hypothermia, and some runners were forced to shelter with good Samaritan members of the public. I’m not entirely sure what I would do if a group of smelly shivering runners turned up on my doorstep asking to sit in front of my fireplace with a cup of tea at 3 in the morning. I suspect that the words “sod” and “off” might feature prominently.

With the fading light, falling temperatures, and lack of sleep catching up to us, the navigational issues started to creep in. Whilst the majority of the route follows specific trails or roads rather than relying on heading across open fells, calling it a “marked route” is perhaps giving too much credit. There are long sections where there are no indicators whatsoever that you are going the right way, and some sections marked as a completely different trail. It’s very easy to miss a sudden turning and keep running happily in the wrong direction for quite a way before it becomes obvious from the features around you that you are in the wrong place – particularly when you can’t see anything.

Most of the time the problem wasn’t knowing where we were, but that the layout of the land didn’t match the map. In the most annoying instance, the path led into a horse paddock that was completely surrounded by electric fencing. I went back to the entry point to confirm that I was in the right place, and there was the Viking Way marker. So where the heck did it go next? I walked around the entire perimeter, which was surprisingly large (must have been a very important horse), several times but to no avail. The correct route was to crawl through the sparking fence (easier said than done after 70 miles with a pack on). Of course.

"Barkleyesque" conditions ? Photo courtesy of Richard Gordon
“Barkleyesque” conditions ? Photo courtesy of Richard Gordon

As the sun rose on another beautiful day, all negative thoughts were washed away in the heat of the morning glow. It is such a shame that so many people were forced to pull out before the new day, as I suspect that many more would have finished if they had survived the night. Having said that, the final 50 miles were probably the toughest of the entire event, with huge sections requiring slogging our way through either sticky mud (churned up by the ATVs and bikes that frequent this area of the trail), or more of the dreaded snow drifts.

My own personal race had been going well throughout the day, and I had held the lead throughout much of the day. However, a very stupid and costly error in route-finding only 10 miles from the finish (I can’t blame this one on the course – it was all me) meant that I came into the final checkpoint 20 minutes behind the new race leader. “How many people are ahead?!” I shouted. “Wouter has just come in, Lee left about 20 minutes ago”, came the reply. “Shit!”, I shouted. “Shit, shit, shit!!!”. I think that I handled it quite well. Despite sprinting the final 7 miles to the finish at Oakham library (well, I say “sprint” but let’s be honest it took me an hour and a half) I never caught Lee. I finally crossed the line in 36:35, second place and was handed what is possibly the most sought-after medal in the UK ultra-running scene. This thing is hhuuuuuuuuuuuuuugggggggggeeeeeee! If it had been raining I could have sheltered under it!

In total this year saw 6 out of 33 starters  (18 %) claim the title of True Vikings. Not quite Barkley (two finishers this year), but not far off! The race was won by Lee Brazel in 36:05, Wouter was third in 36:56, Stephen Forde came in in 38:42, Riccardo Giussani in 38:19, and Andy Horsely became the only person to finish both years’ races, finishing in a nail biting 39:53 – only 7 minutes before the cutoff!

Many started - few finished. The Viking wannabes. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Wilson
Many started – few finished. The Viking wannabes. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Wilson

Many races claim to be the “toughest”, the “ultimate”, the “most extreme”. The Viking Way makes no such claims, merely that it is an “extremely hard to achieve challenge”. And it is that for sure. Part of that is due to the tough checkpoint cutoff times. Part of it is the long distance between checkpoints, making it relatively self-sufficient. Part of it is having to have your wits about you when navigating, where I believe that the most important skill is having confidence in your route selection (I’m what they call “geographically embarrassed”). The ban on gizmos such as GPS, whilst making navigation harder, actually took away some of the stress of the race, allowing us to relax and run on feel. And at the end of the day, the most important thing for me was that I thoroughly enjoyed this race from start to finish; despite the conditions, despite the cold, despite the cock-up at the end. I thoroughly enjoyed my pillage through Lincolnshire.

Race winner Lee Brazel in a time of 36 hours 5 minutes. Photo courtesy of Trevor Sykes Photography

Is it the hardest race in the UK? It’s difficult to say as it didn’t break me, and given slightly nicer conditions I would say that the route itself is extremely runnable. However, many incredibly tough runners have already been defeated and that must tell you something. The race will return in 2014, and I suspect many people will return for another attempt to finally become a True Viking. And goodness knows how big the medal will be next year, but if it’s not a full sized Viking shield I will be highly disappointed!

Thank you to Sam Robson on his achievement and for taking the time to share his story with Ultra168.

Sam’s Blog

Twitter: Stupid_Runner

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