By Mark Harold. Photos Mark Ramsey.
At 9am on the 3rd of October 2020 off we set from the Crumlin Road gaol. Most of us edjits including myself, were dressed in prisoner attire. The race was a 24hr ultra marathon, with the winner being the person who got the furthest ‘by the crow flies’, from the jail. I’d run the event the year before while still building back my fitness after injury. Then I had stopped at Newry in the late afternoon having run about 40 miles. This year, I was determined to run the full 24 hours.
Right from the start the group split up with some heading south and some heading west. I ran west and got chatting to a few guys. They weren’t running overnight and seemed a bit surprised when I told them my ultimate goal.
As I ran through west Belfast with Mark Ramsey taking snaps, I met and began running with Gary and Keiran. We all got chatting, sharing stories and having a bit of craic. Keiran was dressed like me and we were getting plenty of beeps from cars and shouts of encouragement.
On the Andersonstown road a woman told me I wasn’t the first escaped prisoner to run up this road. It gave me a chuckle.
As it turned out Gary was planning the same finishing point as me with Keiran going a different route, but the same for about 50 miles. I thought we might run close together for many miles but this didn’t pan out. Kerian began to pull away then nearly got run over by a taxi while still in sight. This must have given him an adrenalin rush as he soon disappeared into the distance!
I ran with Gary for a while until he stopped with his support crew around 10 miles. He had told me his brother was supporting him in his car and his mum was collecting him at the finish. I was well jealous, as I had no support and had to make my own way home. This meant I had to stop and queue in shops for food and drink and had to carry everything that I might need. My backpack was huge compared to the rest, including a change of clothes for travelling home.
I ran on keeping to my plan of 9 to 10 minutes per mile. I took very large steps to help stretch when I walked every few miles. At around mile 15 Gary must have been close behind, as I went past his support crew who were out of their car. I shouted over that we could be seeing a lot of each other!
I’d started the race with a litre of fluids, 3 gels and a protein bar. I would have carried more but I had to strip out a lot, when I initially couldn’t get the back pack closed. I kept the protein bar but took the rest in the first 4 hours, as I closed in on marathon distance.
When I reached Portadown, I had my first pit stop at a filling station. I tried to be as quick as I could but still had to queue to purchase 2 x 500ml sports drinks and 2 Mars bars. Off I set again feeling good and strong but had wasted close to 5 minutes.
At 38 miles I reached Armagh and had another stop at a filing station. The Mars bars and drinks had gone down well and easy to find in any shop, so where adopted as my go-to food throughout. After another few minutes, I was off again heading towards Monaghan. I was climbing gradually heading south west but glad the wind was coming from the north.
Not long after crossing the border I had a scary run in with a Rottweiler. As I ran passed a house the big dog came running after me barking and growling for a good 50 metres. I spoke to the dog in the softest tones I could manage hoping to make friends! Thankfully it soon got bored and returned home.
There’s a marked change in the roads over the border with a lot less foot paths. Close to Monaghan I had another scare. I was running over backroads on the right hand side of the road when a car approached head on. He wasn’t going fast but was very close to the side of the road and was making no attempt to pull out round me. It all happened fast but it was one of those moments engraved in my mind. Just as I was dropping down into a crouch ready to spring into a hedge, the driver final caught sight of me. The muppet was driving while looking down at his phone and had to do a quick swerve to avoid me a second away. Phew.
I reached Monaghan about 55 miles in, just afer 6pm. There was an Applegreen shop here and I resupplied with 2 drinks, 2 Mars and really pushed the boat out with a packet of crisps. I also took the opportunity to change into my high-vis clothing, so that was the end of the black and white strips and beeps and shouts of encouragement.
That mile took the longest so far of 17 minutes with about 6 or 7 stationary. It had rained early in the race and there had been a few heavy showers, but the weather had now dried up. Running from Monaghan towards Cavan was a steady climb with some sharp hills. I began to struggle and had to take many walk breaks. I stopped to pee and found it really difficult getting going again. I decided to stretch a bit and check my phone. I was disappointed to find I had no signal and my battery was nearly flat. I wasn’t able to check on how I was doing compared to everyone else.
I considered for the first time of packing it all in. I thought about finding a phone to contact my family to get a rescue lift home. I had been holding off taking any caffeine as I wanted to use it overnight but decided it was the time to get a boost. I took a Revvie and set off again thinking that I had to at least run 100k so over 62 miles. Thankfully by the time I reached 100k I was feeling better again remembering how much of a roller coaster ultras can be. I gave myself a good talking to and ploughed onwards.
On my 70th mile I reached a small town I’d ‘street viewed’ and knew there were a couple of shops. However, the shops were derelict and there was nowhere to resupply. I had no food or drink and 12 miles from Cavan. This was going to be tough but I had no option but to soldier on.
7 mile further on I was parched and ran through a little village called Ballyhaise. I ran passed a Chinese restaurant and then it dawned that I could get a drink. The lady in the shop was friendly and happy to hear that she had saved my life! I bought 2 bottles of coke with the first one lasting only a few minutes. I burped my way down the road heading for Cavan.
I’d planned to run straight through the middle of Cavan stopping at a 24 hr garage to resupply. However, just before Cavan I saw a sign that had my destination. This give me a real lift as I followed the road towards my goal. As I ran south I saw lights to the west and eventually realised I had taken a wrong turn. I heading towards my goal but I was missing out Cavan and the last chance to resupply for a long time.
As I reached a roundabout I made the decision to run straight towards Cavan and not follow the sign to my goal. I reached junction and turn right as my Garmin told me I was back on course. It was after midnight and I had been running for 15 hours and over 80 miles. I wasn’t thinking straight but focused on finding a shop. Cavan was packed with many people drinking and partying in the streets. I got some banter as I ran passed the drunks. After about 5 minutes I looked down at my watch and was horrified to see I was further from my goal than the last time I’d looked 10 minutes before.
I took a seat at some steps and really thought I’d had enough. Was I going the wrong way I thought? I asked a couple who walked passed which was the way to my goal town. They pointed back the way I had come. Feckity feck, I could have cried and had a moment with my head in my hands. I thought again about packing it in and promised myself never again. Not that I wouldn’t run the distance but would never again do it unsupported.
However, the one advantage of having no support was I had no choice. I couldn’t quit and get in a warm car and head home. I hadn’t found the 24 hr garage but had just run passed an open Indian take away. So off I set running the gauntlet of drunks and their abuse once more, but at least in the right direction this time.
I stopped at the Indian, were I was pleased they were selling Lucozade sport. I knew it could be a long time to my next supplies so bought 3 bottle of Lucozade sport and a bottle of coke. The guys in the Indian were amazed to hear were I was coming from and going to.
On again I ran closing in on 100 miles in the dead of the night. I had another run in with a dog as I was chased by a German Shepard for 50m. I was telling him how much of a good boy he was in my sweetest voice.
On my 95th mile I took a short break and lifted a drink out of my back pack. I had no idea how I was doing in the race and suspected that I had been overtaken while in Cavan. I knuckled down and just kept going, slow but steady. I soon passed 100 miles on my Garmin between 3 and 4 in the morning. Not long after 4 am I passed 103 miles, the distance the previous year’s winner had completed.
Around 7 am I was out of drinks but found an open filling station where I bought a few more drinks and Mars bars. I was taking more walk breaks now but had a few more goals that kept me moving. I reach the Carrickedmond GAA club having run 116 miles and gave myself a pat on the back. I knew this was the point where I was 100 miles by the crow flies from the Crum.
I had known since my mistake at Cavan that I wasn’t going to achieve my ultimate goal by the 9am finish. However, I wanted to run over 200k on my watch. I managed this with less than 15 minutes to go and was able to pick the pace up a little in the last mile.
I was looking over my shoulder in the last 10 minutes hoping no one was going to overtake me. I didn’t know my place but didn’t want a sprint finish!
9 am arrived and according to my Garmin I’d run 125.5 miles. I took a short video and was unhappy of not reaching my goal. This had been to reach the Athlone train station, which was about 130 miles from the Crum. There was a train to Dublin at 9:02 and I had hoped to be on it. Instead I was about 7 or 8 miles short with a long walk ahead of me.
It was raining and the walk to the train station was much harder than the race. I tried to run but couldn’t and found myself staggering and shivering in the cold. There was no footpath or hard shoulder and the roads were busy with Sunday morning worshippers. More than once I nearly collapsed while being buffeted by speeding vehicles, as they passed close by. It took me well over 3 miserable hours to reach the Athlone train station. I was so relieved to final get off my feet and change out of my wet clothes. However, I didn’t have a change of shoes and it wasn’t long until my feet were wet and cold again.
My adventure was far from over but I’ll not do into details here as I’ve wrote enough. It was after 9pm before I finally arrived back in Belfast and was collected by my parents. I was so glad to see them at the train station and chuffed to find out that they thought I had won.
I got home to my wife after 9:30 pm and I discovered that I’d given everyone a scare as I went AWOL after the race. The official results were released the next evening and I had run over 107.31 miles by the crow flies. Second and third both reached close to 89 miles, so I had healthy winning margin.
I’ve since checked out all the previous results for Escape from Meriden, which is the English version of the race format. In 5 years the record is 100.89 by Arthus Guillaume and he is the only person to go over 100 miles by the crow flies. So I’m over the moon to have managed a good bit further.
In 24 hours my average pace was 11:29 min/mi with moving time of 22:54 hrs. So over an hour not moving with the majority queuing in shops. My average moving pace was 10:57 and elevation gain 2,177m with the loss at 2,085m.
Next up is the Big Dog’s Backyard virtual world championships where I represent team Ireland.