Like most of the best ideas, this was dreamt up in the pub. I’ve known Hugh Williams-Preece since the end of last year when he called me out of the blue and suggested a pint in the Red Lion pub in Piccadilly. In 2010 Hugh had run 50 marathons in 50 days from Lisbon to London and a mutual acquaintance, who organises the epic cycle race across Britain, suggested that we meet.
Hugh was looking for a new challenge. Something that really did prove that you could start from zero and become an ultra-distance runner. One drink became several dinners over the winter as we plotted running across the world (7 marathons, 7 days, 7 continents) as Ranulph Fiennes and Mike Stroud had done. That idea was parked – a logistically headache, but one that we will return to. By February we had mapped out a plan closer to home about getting kids running, of which more anon. And then, about a month ago, it dawned on Hugh that the idea, the big idea, had been staring at him in the face all along. 840 miles. John O’Groats to Lands End. A World Record Attempt.
The Jogle, as the course is referred to as though it’s little more than an extension of a run around the park, is one that is familiar to many who have cycled the length of the country. So appetizing a challenge is it that I know some who have gone back year after year to break their record. Andrew Murray (not that one) even ran it as the first leg of his Scotland to Sahara race last year, starting in 40 mph headwinds and driving snow, which made life tricky for the BBC crew who had come to film him, let alone Andrew, running in ankle-deep snow. As you might expect, Rory Coleman has also organised, for the last couple of years, the Jogle challenge run over 16 days. Sleeping in a bus on the side of the road, runners clock up 60 miles a day. 2010’s winner was Neil Bryant, who has since set up what I think is the fastest growing ultra-running community website in the UK. He’s about to set off to run across Europe.
Hugh’s idea was slightly different. He wanted to raise the bar and, understandably, if he was going to take time off work to train three times a day for a year, he wanted to have a crack at something special. He wanted to take on a world record. To do that he was going to have to beat 9 days, 2 hours and 26 minutes, set in 2002 by Andi Rivett. To read it like this with a map of the UK in front of you, a finger running the shortest distance over the length of the country, is slightly mesmeric. Day one finishes in Inverness. Day nine starts in Okehampton. It already feels familiar – these are places on the map that we have a connection with, and because of that, when your eyes scan across names like Shrewsbury, Monmouth and Bridgewater there is a lack of intimidation. (It’s hardly got the ring of the Atacama Desert, or the Arctic circle.) That is until the course gets broken down into the everyday language of training. 97 miles. Every day. Even running at a pacy average 6 mph, that’s over 16 hours on the hoof. Run any slower than that though and the number of hours left in the day to eat and sleep diminishes rapidly. And anyone who has done a multi-stage race will know that the key to survival is having as much recovery time as possible.
None of this has put Hugh off. Quite the opposite. He’s signed up for the Winter 100-mile race in December and we’re doing the Thames Path 100 together in March. (If ever there was a sign that ultra-running is hitting the main stream, this race is it – registration went live at 10am Friday 6th July. By the end of the day 165 of the 250 places had been taken up). Hugh has given himself a year to prepare for the challenge and, as with his 50-marathons challenge, has enlisted the help of ex-Olympian Greg Whyte, who trains James Cracknell and David Walliams to draw up a training plan.
Ultimately, as far as I can tell, the key is what every ultra-runner I have spoken to has told me. Get out and run every 100/200 mile race in the calendar. To get even a glimpse of what running 97 miles on day two with 16 hours of miles already in your legs, let alone what it will feel like on days 7, 8 and 9, requires knowing what it feels like to run on exhausted legs. The last person to attempt the record stopped after day 3 with a stress fracture.
What then has this got to do with me? I have been appointed chief goader, my role being to help with the logistics in the build up and then spend as many days as Mrs H will allow next June handing out gel bars, keeping Hugh up to date with the cricket, and generally helping make his life as easy as possible. My legs are already itching to have a crack at one of the stages, but it’s no small comfort to know that if I want to stay in my slippers on the bus on day 2, then I can. In the meantime we’re focusing on the sponsors, drawing up budgets and plotting the route. We’ll have to meet again soon, but it’s not clear at what stage Hugh (who likes a drink) is going to sack off the booze. But, as I say, that’s his problem not mine, and for that alone I am rather glad.