The Shropshire Way 80K - Some would Call it Undulating
by Ollie Perratt
“Get that silly idea out of your head” and “20 miles is a long way to go when the wheels come off”. Those were responses given to me when I said I would love to win the Shropshire Way 80K (SW80K). Understandable, I had never run much beyond 30 miles before and always struggled with nutrition and hitting the 20 mile wall. There were some truly positive comments also - Grant and Amy in particular were phenomenal in their support. But I really did not know what to expect from myself... could I even get round at all or would I just blow up?
I had broken the route into five 10 mile sections, bite size chunks right? I was nervous as anything on the start line by the 'Mammoth tusks', 50 miles is still a long way no matter how you cut it, particularly over our beloved Shropshire Hills.
I found myself at a comfortable pace at the start, maybe a little too comfortable, suggesting I should slow down. There were a few others around me and I am far too competitive so got dragged along with the flow, against my better judgment at the time.
The first section is over the Wenlock Edge to Ragleth, through lovely soft woodland paths and fields, all eminently runnable; and lulling you into a false sense of security of what is to come…
...Ragleth Hill! I found myself pulling away here, on the steep ascent and blistering descent and got to the first manned check point (CP) at Little Stretton village hall far quicker than I thought sensible. The spread they’d put on was fabulous. I dosed up on sausage and orange squash and with no-one in sight as I left the CP it was a climb up Callow, running my own race now. I forced myself to walk a bit, with 40 miles to go I was trying to follow the advice to take it easy. I was, honestly.
After the ascent of Callow then Pole Bank, there is a glorious descent off the Long Mynd to Bridges. The path was soft underfoot with some mud, and a gradient that makes you feel like you’re flying. Down, down you go, onto a picturesque lane to The Bridges pub. I have been known to stop for a pint of XXX there mid run - but it was closed, probably for the best.
Next we have the climb to the Stiperstones. Now, this presented me with a conundrum. It is a loooong pull, perhaps I should walk it, but a steady gradient on tarmac meant I’ve always run it in the past and so I did again. All the way to the self clip at Stiperstones summit. The Stiperstones are awkward buggers to run along, the rocks are a tad too small to hop across, yet large enough to act as foot traps. The Devil’s Chair is at the far end of the hill, I can only assume he threw his Lego around in a tantrum... But I love technical running, and figured I could make some ground here so braced myself for a battering and descended to The Bog.
The second manned checkpoint at The Bog presented me with a mountain of flapjack, and the incredibly supportive volunteers of the Shropshire Way Association. Apparently I was well ahead of second place, and thus the fire was ignited. It might be a silly idea that I could win this, but what an idea! Time to get a wiggle on.
I had recced the route obsessively and knew the next section to Bishop’s Castle was pretty flat. So I stocked up on flapjack and climbed to Nipstone Rock. Then down. Then up again to Norbury Hill. Then down again past the Linley Beeches. Okay, so ‘flat’ has a different meaning in Shropshire. It was a fast leg to Bishop’s Castle and as I got to 30 miles and the third manned check point in 4 hours, they were just setting up so it was a case of 'clip-and-go'. Besides, only a few miles to manned CP 4 at Reilth Top farm.
Coming out of Bishop’s Castle, I knew it was going to be tough, 20 miles and a lot of climbing. My poor little leggies were starting to protest. “20 miles is a long way when the wheels come off”. Well, they’ll bloody well just have to stay on then won’t they! This pretty much set the tone for the rest of the route. There’s no taking it easy now, just bloody single mindedness.
The couple at Reilth Top were delightful and I paused for a bag of crisps, smoky bacon. Apparently second place had just left Bishop’s Castle. That put the fear into me, how long had it taken me, 20 minutes, half an hour? I had no idea and that was not a comfortable thought. So no rest for the wicked, and I had a date with King Offa. From the farm, the route wends its way to Offa’s Dyke where it climbs. Maybe it was the tired legs, or a 1300 year old strategy to keep the Welsh out, but by golly getting to Hergan felt like an epic. I nearly cried from fatigue. Once you’re up though, Cefns awaits.
Cefns is the most splendid grassy ridge. It is such a joy to run down and you can really flow on fresh legs. There are a few stiles to tackle though, and the descent was hard on aching legs but I refused to be slowed by such devilish devices and through sheer gumption managed to vault most of them at speed. I was tired, everything hurt, but I needed to win, I needed to prove anyone who thought me incapable of it wrong. I wasn’t running on positives, I was feeding off the negatives and it worked. Welcome to the Dark Side.
And thus I came to the fifth and final manned CP at Clun, half an hour before they were due to open. But the volunteers once again pulled through and set me on my way with Barra Brith, and good grief it was tasty. When they asked if there was anything else I’d like, I’ll confess that a lift crossed my mind.
And so I entered the final 10 miles and the home stretch. This starts with a climb to Bury Ditches. It carries on as a climb to Bury Ditches. Still, I kept climbing to Bury Ditches. Nearly 4 km of incessant up. Then down again. This hurt. Like, really hurt. You start on a little wooded track by a stream, delightful. Then onto a farm track, still downhill. Ordinarily I find this a top descent, but my legs burnt as I kept pace down here, and I noticed the blisters for the first time. Things were getting reaaaal sore. But the wheels MUST stay on. I glanced at my watch and noticed I’d been going for about 7 hours. That put eight tantalisingly close. I worked out timings in my head, how long will it take me to descend off Hopesay, how long to climb to Burrow? Frankly, I had no idea but it seemed tight. Get a wiggle on, Oliver.
Burrow. This isn’t as big as the previous climb, it isn’t as steep as Offa’s Dyke or Ragleth, it isn’t as long as Stiperstones or Pole Bank, but for whatever reason it is interminable. I ran, and I ran, and I think I kept running, or at least shuffling. I know foot movement of some description was involved, as false summits appeared, erroneous turnings, sheep mocked me through the fence, a red kite circled, eyeing up my soon to be corpse. And then I reached the top, a wooden post with a buzzard on orange, the Shropshire Way, and a view of the final climb...
It’s a very pretty descent to Hopesay village, but that climb taunts. The final hurdle. I always told myself I would power up it, buoyed on by the fact it’s only a park run to the finish from here. That didn’t happen. My legs were wobbling as I plodded up, one foot in front of the other. I glanced back convinced someone would have me at this final stretch with no energy left to resist. Keep it together, man. The summit came into view, the legs started rolling over and I picked myself into a run again. The last checkpoint and it was all downhill from there. The emotions started to rise.
I had half an hour to make an 8 hour course. I can do this. I WILL do this!
I had told myself many times throughout to get a wiggle on, well now the wiggle was truly on.
Craven Arms always sits in the distance coming off Hopesay, never getting closer, taunting runners, walkers, even the cattle as they see Tuffins selling their juicy bits. Eventually I found myself on the flat, on the outskirts. COME ON!
Over the B4368, under the train bridge.
Turn left over the stile and into the field. Aaaaaargh, stiles! My quads were on fire, everything hurt as the final kilometre was spent keeping pace over the fields. Another stile, my stride broke and I dragged myself back into gear. A third stile, a fourth then the final stile! Good grief, who invented these infernal contraptions! I clambered over the final one then under the train tracks. I am actually going to do this!
The A49, the Discovery Centre. I could hear cheering and applause. I found the energy for a sprint finish and collapsed to my knees. I was done, broken with nothing left to give. 7 hours 55, I’ll take that.
I had never run 50 miles before, I didn’t know what to expect, some said I’ll smash it, others that I should just be happy to get round. I ran off the negatives, I raced off fear of being chased down, I kept myself together to prove others wrong.
Emotions flittered the entire time, I came close to tears of fatigue and yelled with the ecstasy of freedom. But despite the pain, I thoroughly enjoyed myself throughout, and achieved more than I thought possible.
Even with a mental fortitude, I couldn’t have run what I did without the phenomenal support of the organisers and volunteers. The SW festival truly represents the best our beloved hills have to offer, countryside, food and people.
Published: 17th April 2022