Organised by the husband and wife team of Richard and Wendy Wemeruik the 12 Labours of Hercules is a unique (to my mind anyway) event taking place in the Shropshire hills around the Long Mynd, situated in the small town of Church Stretton. Beyond Marathon offer amazing value for money, so much so that most of their races feature in this list of Best value Ultramarathons in the UK. They are "no frills" events, you don't get a t-shirt or a goody bag, but you do get a completer's medal and great checkpoints, they certainly don't scrimp on the CP food.
The organisers are deliberately cagey about the route to each "Labour", I guess they don't want you reccying the hell out of the course beforehand. The Route Guide and GPS files were released on the Tuesday before the event (which takes place on a Saturday/Sunday) with instructions to print out yourself as there wouldn't be any spare copies available on the day. As with most of these type of events I tend to reduce in size, print out, then laminate the route sheets because being summer in Britain you can pretty much guarantee some rain! I also transferred the GPS files to my Garmin 305, and borrowed a friend's Garmin 205, as the battery life on these devices is about 12 hours each. So I had a few days to study the routes on the computer, and having completed the Apocalypse 50 could see that some of the legs take in part of the Carding Mill valley area that I would at least partly recognise. The final instructions (start times etc) were released on the Thursday before the event - talk about cutting it fine!
HQ is located in a school at Church Stretton, and you soon realise that it lies at the very bottom of the valley, so every route can only go up. And up they went, to pretty much the top of every hill in the area and back down again. All of the Labours except 1 is an out-and-back affair, only Labour 12, the longest leg, is a loop. At registration you are given your race number and a laminated map of all the routes. The atmosphere at HQ at the start was pretty relaxed, got chatting to a few of the other competitors discussing tactics etc. The "Labours" can be completed in any order you like, and all except 1 are open 24 hrs. The race briefing was at 9:15, with a thorough PowerPoint presentation of each Labour, giving you an idea of what to look for when you got there, and the race started at 10:00. My idea was to start with the longest Labour and work my way backwards, so that each Labour would in theory get easier as the day progressed. However I had a slight change of plan and decided to start with Labour 1, the shortest, in order to "get one under my belt" straight away to suss out the format. I also changed my mind on a few of the other Labours for other reasons. ( I'll go through each Labour in turn, in the order I completed them below). You are also given an electronic "dibber" which you must dib in at the checkpoint, then dib out back at HQ. You must also write your start time that you go out for each Labour on the sheet on the desk, so that the organisers know which Labour each competitor is currently on. When you return to HQ you dib out, cross out the start time of the Labour you just finished and write the new start time of the next one.
I wanted to get an "easy" leg out of the way off the bat to ease into it gently. A few others had the same idea, so a small group of us reached the turn off for the hill together. However, the path wasn't clear and it soon became apparent that we were skirting around rather than going up, so we turned upwards, through a load of gorse bushes. Scratched legs all round we crested the hill to find the checkpoint and perform the Labour - to make a "sword" out of balloons and return to HQ. The descent from the top also involved some gorse - damn that stuff stings! Just under half an hour later I arrived back - half an hour for 1 mile? This could be harder than I thought!
As this checkpoint involved a time limit (the archery club closed at 1) I decided to tackle this one next. The climb to the hill was pretty straight forward, but finding the cave proved very tricky. Wandering about on a hillside looking for something gets very frustrating and seems to eat into the time badly. I was relieved to finally locate the cave, dibbed in and began the return leg to the archery centre. I went slightly off course on the way down and spent a while wandering around until another competitor came along and we found the correct route together. At the archery club I was kitted out with a safety brace on my arm, took my 3 arrows (2 in the red ring, 1 missed the target altogether!) and headed back to HQ.
OK back to the original plan - go for the longest route. This Labour was pretty straight forward and involved memorising some information at each checkpoint along the route and using the 4 pieces of information to access the "Pandora's Box" at the last CP. My memory is appalling so I was worried about this, but fortunately I only had to remember 3 numbers (1, 5, 1 again) because the last number (2) was at the box location. I opened the box, took the transfer (you had to return to HQ wearing the transfer to show you had completed the Labour) and returned to HQ. At this point I was pretty knackered - stopped at HQ for a bite to eat, and began to have serious doubts about finishing.
I took this one next as it was designated "daylight advised" and I was taking no risks. The route was pretty straight forward and for a change didn't involve any big hills, but was what I would call "undulating". I got slightly disorientated on the way back but soon corrected myself. It's surprising how different things look coming from the other direction, particularly when tired. I was in a pretty bad way when I got back from this leg, seriously knackered and having to give myself a pretty strong talking to to get going again. From here on in I was using my mantra's to try and stay positive. "Relentless forward progress" "Keep going" "One foot in front of the other" "MTFU" "You got this!" (in an American accent). I reminded myself that Sean Conway had just run the length of Britain, and Scott Jurek had just run 2000 miles on the Appalachian Trial, so this was a walk in the park by comparison!
OK so with the 'timed checkpoints' and 'daylight advised' Labour out of the way, and with Labour 11 reserved for night time (it was all on road and easy-nav so I planned to do this one in the dark), I opted for 10 next. This leg has a pretty serious climb up through Carding Mill Valley, before heading out on part of the Apocalypse 50 route. It was nice to be on familiar ground and I made good time getting to the CP. There was no "labour" involved with this one, just dib and return. The return back through Carding Mill Valley is nicely runnable but with quads burning I took it steady all the way back. After 10 hours of running I calculated that I was just about half way through in mileage terms, and knew that if I could get the next stage done I would have broken the back of what was becoming an EPIC race!
I calculated I still had about an hour of daylight left (it was 8pm) so decided to go for 8 next. I figured if I could at least get out to the checkpoint in daylight, then I could find my way back ok. As it turned out, the route was pretty straight forward and didn't involve a task at the checkpoint, so it was just dib, and return. This route (the out portion) culminated in a pretty big climb, and as was becoming apparent, many of the hills involved have "false" summits - just when you think you've reached the top, you crest the hill to find another up just ahead! I managed to get back before dark. My first Garmin had just run out of power as I came into HQ, and it was just starting to get dark -perfect timing! I stopped at HQ for food and drink and readied myself for the Big Walk. My first (borrowed) Garmin was depleted, and I knew that I had 12 hours in the second one, however I felt that was cutting it a bit fine, so decided to do Labour 11 without the Garmin - this would ensure that when I did start the Garmin for the start of the next stage it would comfortably last until the end. I knew I was comfortably over the half way point now, and feeling pretty positive that I could achieve this.
I kitted myself up for night time, jacket, head torch and headed out. It was on this leg that the rain started - nothing too heavy, actually it was nice to cool things off as it had been very warm up until this point. I didn't use the head torch, as the road was shiny from the rain, and as my eyes became accustomed to the dark I managed without it. I probably freaked a few people out who were on their return seeing me looming out of the darkness in front of them! Again, I had conserving energy on my mind as the last thing I wanted was to have a flat battery. I have a CREE head torch which uses those big 18650 batteries and I have a spare set, but as I haven't had it long, I'm not sure how long the batteries last. This leg involved a pretty big climb up "The Burway" - having camped out up there in my van on the Friday night I knew what to expect, but again "one foot in front of the other" and "head down, keep going" got me to the top, then I had a bit of a run across the top, and down a really steep hill before turning left at the bottom, going half a k to the checkpoint, retrieve a "severed finger" from the box and return. The medic car checked up on me on the way back, I guess they were doing this leg as it was the only one exclusively on-road. I got back to HQ about 1am, had a bite to eat and quickly headed out for the next leg. I was conscious that spending too long at HQ between legs could make the difference between completing or not, and so I opted to grab and run, spending no more than 5 minutes between legs from now on.
Having passed this CP on Labour 12 I was happy that I knew where I was going, and the first few k's were on the road, so not too hilly. I was walking a lot by this stage, anything that even smelled vaguely of a gradient became a walk, but I still felt I was cutting it fine time wise, so jogged on where I could. This one involved a Labour - after dibbing at the CP you had to head up hill (again) to the summit to locate a cairn and retrieve a belt to take back to HQ. My Garmin was massively helpful in this respect, when wandering about in the dark on a hillside I'm not sure how I would have managed to find anything without it. I was still running fairly well at this point, and passed a couple on the road section going back. They were confused how come they didn't see me on the way up, I guess we must have crossed paths somewhere on the hillside looking for the cairn? Back at HQ I got chatting to another competitor (Duane) who informed me he was in second place, with 16 miles left to complete. A quick think and I realised I had 15 left, so I cracked on, hoping I might finish before him.
Up the Carding Mill Valley again for Labour 6, and having chatted to another competitor earlier I knew this one involved some arithmetic, so I had packed a pen and my phone into my bag in readiness. The section of climb past the waterfalls was a bitch, really rocky and hard going. I thought coming back would be very time consuming. The weather had closed in a bit and when I got to the top could not locate the correct path, so stumbled about in the heather for a while. When I finally located the path, the clag had set in making visibility very poor - no more than 10 metres! Again, Garmin saved the day, and I located the trig point to dib in. The Labour involved finding a plinth nearby (not easy with the wind, rain and clag) and adding up 3 distances and taking one away. My mind was mush at this point and was in no fit state for doing mental arithmetic so I was glad to have had my phone with me to take the burden! I didn't relish the return leg through the rocky descent, so decided to take the other route - the descent from leg 10 involved only a short detour and the descent much easier. At this point (around 4am) the sky started to become lighter - didn't actually see sun-rise as the clag and rain were still persisting but visibility became easier for the descent. It was on this descent, back in Carding Mill Valley that I started vomiting. I couldn't even stomach the energy drink, so from here it was nil-by-mouth other than the odd swig of water. Luckily I only had 9 miles left to go.
With only 9 miles left to go, I was spending less time at HQ and just having a quick drink of water and getting straight back out there. I had a hot spot developing on the ball of my right foot, both feet were soaked, but I just wanted to carry on so opted to ignore it. Throughout the leg the hot spot became a blister, but it wasn't too bad and at least it took my mind away from my quads!
At the checkpoint, the Labour was to locate a box and retrieve an apple to take back. It took me ages to find the box having circled the Gaer stone and even climbed up on top of it. This was becoming a chore! Back to HQ and only 2 legs left.
With only 5 miles left and 3 and a half hours I knew I could do this, but with the ever-constant time-losing with route finding and locating the Labours I was taking no chances. So I headed out in the rain for Labour 3. Again into Carding Mill Valley and up to the foot of "cow ridge" I saw another competitor who told me it was a bitch to find! Great! As it happened I took a wrong turn and headed left too early, missing the ridge entirely. From my Garmin I could see that the CP was up to my right. Rather than turn back on myself to locate the ridge, against my better judgement, I decided to just turn right and head straight up the hill. Unfortunately this hill was covered in head-high ferns which just became a battle and I lost at least 20 minutes bashing my way through, getting soaked through in the process. At the CP the Labour just involved picking up a plastic cow from the box and returning it to HQ. At least the descent was straight forward once I had located the right path.
Last one! Woohoo! It was with great relief that I set out for the final Labour, 2 miles with just over 2 hours until the end. I climbed the fairly steep hill holding on to the wire fence line and plodded onwards. I located the checkpoint, and looked up at the extremely steep hill in front, and I just knew before looking at the instructions that I'd have to go up it! Yup, go up the hill and locate the Bull Ring which was in a box on the summit. Again, I lost the path on the descent and sidetracked through the heather, but I didn't care I was on my way home! 8:30am, back at HQ, it was a pretty low key affair - it seemed deserted, but I checked in and looked around for Duane to see if I had beaten him back for second...... And just as I went in to the showers, he came out! Damn, he'd done it, and I was third.
I finished 3rd in an overall time of 22:20:19.
Still, this is still the best result for me, as I'm usually a middle/back of pack type of guy, to come third feels like a major achievement and I am proud that I did myself justice on an extremely tough event.
As always I'd like to thank Beyond Marathon for a brilliant event and all the helpers back at HQ for keeping everyone fed and looked after throughout the day and night. Wendy is vegetarian, and so as a vegan I was happy that a lot of the food was suitable for me.
Also to the Ultra Medic who tended my blistered foot at the end enabling me to walk back to the van!
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