As dawn broke on the fringes of Thetford Forest, James Ryder and I met up with a few fellow Ely Runners – Justin Smith, Lisa Redman, Martin Lewis, Jo Board, Charlotte Sygmuta – in the car park on Knettishall Heath. We’d all registered, finished pinning race numbers to shorts, and were now raring to get going.
‘OK everyone, welcome to the 2020 Peddars Way… duathlon!’ shouted the appropriately named Kevin Marshall in his hi-vis vest, making light of the fact that some serious wading would be required as several boardwalk stages at the two-mile mark were severely waterlogged from a swollen River Thet. Justin, still smarting somewhat from having been openly mocked by the race organisers for his enquiry as to whether to ‘single or double bin bag it?’, was in no mood for jokes and could be heard muttering quietly at the back.
Briefing done and mobile GPS trackers activated, the assembled crowd gathered for the start and on a countdown from ten, a hardy field of 200 runners set off, heading east several hundred metres towards the convergence point of the Angles, Icknield, and Peddars Way trails, where we’d hang an immediate right on to the footpath proper and then hold a steady North, North-West for the next 48 or so miles – easy!
James and I, having done a few longer training runs together, had a rough game plan, agreeing to stay together for the duration of the race. It would be James’ longest run to date (the ER Christmas Woodditton-double being his previous benchmark) so I think we were both quietly keen to see what might happen at the 35-mile mark and beyond. Navigating the Peddars Way was said to be very easy - ‘Acorns would be our friends’ - yet part of the appeal to James of a long-distance run is the thorough research beforehand: OS Explorer maps unfolded fully and studied in detail, GPX route downloaded and configured to several devices, Google Maps street view (fully dragged, dropped and zoomed) and various hardcopy trail guides consulted for notable points of interest en route… like an incident room but before the incident has occurred! Which was all very handy as I’d done zero prep bar borrow a couple of Landrangers from Ely Library two days before, dutifully packed but yet to be unfolded.
Weather conditions were very favourable - overcast and mild - with what little wind there was being behind us. Settling in to a relaxed pace and the field now spreading out nicely (although it took quite a while for us to shake the guy with the annoying clanking enamel cup and bike light hanging off the back of his pack), our main aim was to finish before sunset, due at 16.28. Almost immediately, James was providing commentary, pointing out a STANTA (‘Stanford Training Area’, an MOD WWll-requisitioned DANGER AREA that now houses both a Nazi and an Afghan village) here… an iron age tumulus there… and look! some definite evidence of Sparrow Hawk activity… whilst also advising that we had not one but five standing stones to look out for along the way, specially commissioned pieces hand-carved by Tom Perkins featuring extracts of poetry from ‘A Norfolk Songline’ – all very exciting, and educational to boot! Maybe half-past-four was a bit optimistic with all this I-Spy activity to carry out?
Periodically checking the watch, we were pleased to see that our suggested finish time was – yup – still consistently hovering very close to our desired ETA, so adhering to that quickly became our main goal for the day. Arriving at check point 1 just after 10.00, a half-marathon ticked off very comfortably in two hours, we stopped just long enough to refuel on some delicious home-made coconut-dusted dateballs, with James snaffling some gooey flapjack away for later I noticed, Ryder’s rider.
Departing after just a minute or two, the path now ran directly on or parallel to a short stretch of road section - ducking back and forth behind and in front of the hedge as space allowed. Running well, we passed quickly through the hamlet of Little Cressingham, and then had to cross a sodden field somewhere between South and North Pickenham, gingerly making our way over a stream via a small (and extremely muddy) bridge. Shortly after, we were caught up whilst walking a short climb by a runner, very damp throughout, who sheepishly admitted that in trying to avoid the worst of the mud, he’d somehow lost his footing on the very edge of the bridge and gone headfirst into the stream! We were also on the very edge (of outright laughter) but we checked he was ok and were ready to sacrifice a spare base layer and (Manchester Marathon) space blanket if need be. He reassured us that he was fine and had some dry kit in his drop bag waiting at halfway five or six miles away, so we sped on leaving him wringing out his shorts at the side of the road. We soon arrived at the McDonalds crossing on the busy A47, 22 miles in.
From the golden arches, it was only a few miles before we crossed the A1065, safely bridged a picturesque ford with fast-flowing water and entered the village of Castle Acre, all very scenic. But this was a race so there was no time for photos! We admired the ruined priory from afar without breaking stride and then passed through the rather more authentic 11th-century archway of the bailey gate to cheering and clapping from assembled pockets of supporters and well-wishers, gathered here as a good vantage point just ahead of CP2.
We arrived at the village hall at 12.30 amidst a hive of activity – bottles and pouches being refilled, drop bags being hastily retrieved and rummaged through, runners in various states of undress… Over a quick cup of Leek & Potato soup, James admitted to having been mildly troubled by a shin splint niggle and/or a popped blister the last few miles and was wondering whether to call it a day and for me to push on alone as he breezily stated that, ‘DNF’ing doesn’t bother me at all’. Now he tells me! Luckily, the pain of one ailment shifted focus from the other and, a fresh pair of socks later, James was ready to go and now definitely committed to the long haul of the full distance. Keen to learn more about medieval English history, rustic typography and sites of SSI, I was very pleased at his change of heart and the momentary blip of hesitation would barely register on our oft-checked ETA metric.
Whilst the first half of the day has been in the company of lots of other competitors, it thinned out quite significantly after CP2 and we realised that we were leapfrogging the same few runners, usually solo or pairs, acknowledging this with them as we yo-yo’ed back and forth. CP3 was only seven miles on, so we reached (and exited) this very quickly, keen to keep the momentum going.
Pushing on now at a slightly quicker pace, we covered mile after mile of by now undulating Norfolk countryside on arrow-straight path, passing a fair few sizable pig farms along the way. We soon fell into line/step/conversation with a lady who introduced herself as Caroline from Norwich (Wymondham AC), nine marathons under her belt and running strong but admitting being a bit wary of navigating successfully once darkness fell, as this was her first Peddars (her first ultra, even). ‘No problem’, we said, ‘we’re aiming to finish before sunset so stick with us’ which she did from there on, often leading the charge.
Ticking off the miles, we ran as a three with Caroline even stopping at one point when we did to also take a minute or two to read the mossy inscription on the third of the typographical sculptures we’d spotted. Initially a bit confused as to why we’d suddenly skidded to a standing stop at the standing stone, I pointed to James and explained that he was a letter-carver, whereupon James pointed at the stone and said, ‘and he’s a letter-carver’s letter-carver!’ That cleared up, to make up for lost time we then positively sprinted the next few miles of delightful downhill twisty single-track, skipping over exposed roots and needing to call out head-height hazards, such was our speed!
Just outside the village of Sedgeford, tour-guide James pointed out a sizable cottage, the quirkily named Militia? No… Armoury? No… Magazine, yes! and went on to tell us that, dating from the 1640’s, this ancient chapel-style building was designed to disguise its actual use as a munitions store during the English Civil War. Back in race-mode, things were looking good, no-one was suffering and the skies had even cleared a little as there was very definite sunshine now appearing over our left shoulders – we might even be treated to a sunset of sorts, yet we still had some ground to cover.
Like James, Caroline was supremely well-prepared and kept referring to a neatly typed list of bullet point directions - edited race notes, perfectly pocket-sized and laminated, I noticed – and always well in advance of any upcoming junctions or decision-making. Consequently, there was no need to slow down and we covered the last five miles at speed – perhaps even our fastest split of the day, not bad after eight-plus hours of running.
Whilst we could now sense and smell the sea being close by, we couldn’t quite see it, but the sight of ‘Beach Road’ was a worthy substitute and spurred us on even more. Racing three-abreast down the lane towards the sand, Caroline hardly broke tempo when she saw her family waiting at the last junction but merely waved, high-fived her son and carried on running. With a nod to the Barkley Marathon style, we needed to tear a page out of a book tied to a fingerpost (an old Clive Cussler paperback) as evidence of not having cut the final corner, and then it was a U-turn off the sand and back up to the home straight.
We ran down the middle of the road side-by-side eagerly looking out for the village hall, with the finish line just inside. A ‘Positive Steps’ flag came in to view up on the left and suddenly, James started sprinting, he was off like a rocket, clearly intent on securing the first of our three spots! Wow, history-buff and nice-guy no more, that earlier DNF proclamation was just a red herring as this fella was making like Henry Kelly and Going for Gold! There was no way we could catch him but, hold on, he’s stopped, right outside the hall? That’s not where the timing-chip mat is, you… Oh he’s now, erm, hugging his wife and daughters, who’d been patiently waiting to welcome him home. Caroline and I neatly sidestepped this family scene, entered the village hall and, ‘BEEP!’, we’d crossed the finish line and our race was done. It was 4.47pm, but still daylight (just) so no head torches needed!
Met by the welcoming face of fellow Ely Runner Alastair Berry, beans on toast were ordered up and mugs of tea were thrust upon us as Alastair, with a comical look left and right, furtively slipped James and I a huge pain-au-chocolat each (he’d thoughtfully bought one for each Ely Runner competing, but was keeping them well under wraps). As at check point 2, the hall was decked out with an ominous floor-covering of clear plastic sheeting and duct tape, looking like the set of an East Anglian ‘Breaking Bad’ remake (think CSI Holme rather than Holme-N-t-S), with the room periodically breaking out into rounds of applause as more runners crossed the line (but now with headtorches, we noted, smiling to ourselves), some getting extra cheers and whoops if they had now won and were being awarded the coveted ‘Grand Slam’ tankard. Time was you only had to buy a few gallons of Esso to get given a free glass - nowadays you need to run three very challenging ultra-marathons in quick succession to do so!
In summary - a great race, with perfect company, and a definite for next year!