Back in December, when organiser Peter Herridge had first described the Liberty Loco, it sounded like a perfect way to spend a summers day: a social run following the Liberty Trail from Ham Hill, across the Somerset levels to Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast. I marked the event on the calender against the date of June 16th, fully aware that the furthest I had ever ran was 13 miles. Yet I wasn’t worried. Yes, the overall route distance would be around 28 miles in all – but it would be divided into manageable stages. Participants would be able to run as many or few of these as they wished and those stages they chose not to run would be spent in the comfort of a support vehicle. It sounded fun: a luxury run, if you will.
Originally we had intended to travel to Somerset as a family and the presence of our daughter would have meant that there was no way either of us could run the entire route. However, at the eleventh hour, Caroline’s parents stepped in as baby-sitters. So, with Lily in their capable hands, we both had the opportunity to run as many stages as we were able. Caroline’s lack of recent running activity (due to a painful run-in with a teddy bear) meant she had no intention of running more than one or two of the legs. As I had completed a marathon as recently as May I was hopeful I could run the whole thing but was unsure whether or not my troublesome left hip would hold up.
The day before the run, we had made the 60 mile journey to Lower Odcombe and, following setting up camp, we met up for the first time with Peter, his wife Gina and some of the other the hardy souls intending to take part. It was a diverse group and there was some discussion of the route, our expectations for the run and wider talk about running (including some descriptions of extreme ultras just to put our run into perspective), all peppered with light-hearted banter. The mood was relaxed and inclusive, and this tone, set there and then around Peter and Gina’s kitchen table, would be carried over to the next day.
By the time we had all gathered at the starting point at Ham Hill, there were twelve runners ready to take part in the challenge. Aside from myself and Caroline there was: Stuart, who we’d met a couple of weeks previously when he and I ran from Dorchester to the coast; Craig, Simon and Krister who had all flown in from various countries on the continent especially to take part; Dick, Gary and Andy (old friends of Peter); Ade and Ed, Peter’s son-in-law and son, respectively; and, of course, Peter himself. The thirteenth member of the crew was Gina who would drive the minibus, take photographs, and generally take care of us all.
Heading out on to the trail
After a final pep-talk, a group photo and a farewell kiss from Caroline (she had decided she would join us for stage three) I fell into line with the others and the Liberty Loco was under way!
There were grey skies overhead but it was dry and the previous night’s gusty winds had diminished: pretty decent running weather. The starting pace was very easy and I ran chatting with Stu as we followed the trail winding downhill through lush woodland. When the we arrived at the first uphill section I was surprised to see Peter indicate that we should walk it. But this was good sense – he had, after all, ran the whole thing in sections over the preceding months so knew what lay ahead. It also was in-keeping with the spirit of the event as it allowed the group to stay close together.
Before I knew it, we had completed the first stage and arrived at the minibus. A brief interlude – no need to refuel yet – and we were off again. As we headed out on the second leg, the pace quickened slightly, yet remained conversational. And it was the conversations with the other people in the group – the pleasure of getting to know one another a little better – that contributed to the joy of the day. Of course there was a good deal of interesting talk about running. But I also learned of the wonders of the folding bike from Andy, Gary shared with me the joys of geocaching, Simon his enthusiasm for triathlons … everyone contributed their own story as part of the whole that made up the day. Edgar’s story resonated particularly strongly. He and Peter had walked the Liberty Trail together as father and son some ten years ago, and now he was attempting to complete the route again by running it in a single day.
At the end of the second leg a wicked headwind began to blow as we approached the minibus. Not only had the wind picked up but the pace of the running had also quickened. Everyone who had started out at Ham Hill was now nicely warmed up and had found their individual rhythms. It would have been a tough time for anybody to join in and for Caroline it was a struggle to settle into a comfortable pace. But such was the beauty of the Loco that we knew there was no need to hurry. We took our time and I was pleased that Andy and Gary had hung back too, not least so as to give us some strength in numbers whilst passing through a fairly imposing herd of cows.
But cattle with attitude is the kind of thing one expects to encounter on a jaunt through the English countryside, alongside a good helping of mud and plenty of stabbing, stinging and otherwise hazardous plants. I think everyone was somewhat surprised at the density of the vegetation at times – Peter joked that he should have brought a strimmer. Particularly perilous were fields of clumped, thick-stemmed grass that seemed to reach around the ankles and calves as if to deliberately trip us up.
The joy of the minibus
Happily, as far as I am aware, there were no falls or any kind of serious injuries along the way and Gina’s medical talents were not required. Her catering skills, however, were very much in evidence and greatly appreciated. Home-made flapjack and delicious salty boiled potatoes were among the delicacies on offer. I also had my own stash of bananas and apricot flapjacks and I think I supplemented the intake of real food with just two gels, such was the range available. Each rendezvous with the minibus also enabled me to have a good drink of water.
My mental approach to dealing with the challenge of the distance was to think of the day as a series of short runs, each stage being a gentle 3-4 miler through gorgeous countryside, with the added bonuses of walk-breaks up the hills and 10 minute recovery stops when we met up with the minibus. I remember finishing stage five and feeling like I could do this all day.
Badly behaved weather
As we got stuck into the business end of the run – around stage six – the weather became a little less kind. There was wind. Then there was rain. And finally, through stages seven and eight, the two elements teamed-up to produce pretty much the worst kind of conditions one can expect in the middle of June.
Yet, despite the rain being thrown in to my face, the hostile vegetation, the feeling that mud had formed a new inner sole in my shoes and the stark fact that my legs now were beginning to feel the miles, it was the beauty of the natural landscape – fern-filled woodland, lush pasture-land and, when the skies permitted, wide horizons and rolling vistas – that provided inspiration and lifted the spirit. The downpour just added to feeling that I was immersed in nature. It was invigorating and certainly helped keep my mood buoyant and and my body energised.
Conversation was less fluid now but we were almost at the final support stop. My Garmin at this point read just under 28 miles. Diversions along the way had meant that we had covered more ground than planned. It was obvious now that the final distance would be close to the 50k mark.
Upon reaching the minibus for the penultimate time, I clambered in and irrationally considered changing my soaking clothes. I felt freezing cold. It was at this point that Edgar revealed to Peter that he had managed only 5 miles of running since racing a half-marathon in March! Yet his remarkable determination had seen him complete all eight stages so far. He was going to make it. It was inspirational. We are all going to make it! No time for changing clothes. Let’s go! With those that had skipped some of the later stages now rejoining the group, all twelve Liberty Loco runners set off on the descent into Lyme Regis.
The final push
My legs were trying to succumb to cramp and I was glad to have Caroline by my side to spur me on. The route weaved through a very pretty stretch of woodland before opening out into wide fields and the sun, absent pretty much all day, finally shone forth. We entered Lyme Regis through quaint narrow streets and headed toward the sea-front promenade. Here we ran the final kilometre to The Cobb against a background of rolling breakers and bemused onlookers.
We had done it! Everyone congratulated one another and walked the short distance to the waiting minibus. Once we had changed into dry clothes it was straight to the pub for beer and some reflection on our individual experiences and achievements that day. Pretty much everybody had ran further than they had ever ran before in a day. More significant than the miles, I feel, is that we had run with a great sense of togetherness. Peter ends each Spikes podcast with a simple statement: Run with Joy. We had, in spite of the challenging conditions, done just that.
It’s been a busy week since returning from Somerset and I’ve struggled to find the time to write this (although I have had the opportunity to enjoy for the first time podcasts by both Stu and Krister whilst I have been working). I wanted to end by expressing my appreciation to everyone who I met over the weekend for contributing to a most memorable day. In particular, Peter and Gina for all their efforts and for being so welcoming. Also a massive thanks to Caroline for agreeing to come along in the first place and for being game enough to get involved in what, to many, would seem like a mad venture.
She and I returned to our tent that evening – noting with pleasure that it was still standing – and, after showering, we headed up to the pub for a nightcap. I recall having just about enough energy to talk through the day’s experiences and sink a pint, before heading to the tent and falling into probably the best night’s sleep I’ve had since entering fatherhood.
Finally, for those who are interested, here is a link to the route on the Garmin connect site. Thanks to Andy and Gary for providing this (I managed to pause my Garmin just before stage nine!)