As I sat on the train from London to Castleton (in the picturesque Peak District) I felt as prepared as I could. It was only four weeks ago I cycled 412 kilometres from London to Newquay, I picked up a niggle in my achilles tendon, and last week slightly tore my calf muscle while getting off a bus. I had intensive physiotherapy with Mo “Magic Hands” O’Connell all week in order to get me as fit as I could be for the mammoth task ahead.
Arriving at the race headquarters (Olympus), which was a beautifully restored Victorian Gothic Mansion, the afternoon sun was highlighting the surrounding peaks, I couldn’t help but feel quite excited for the 127 kilometres of running with 5200m of ascending/descending that was The 12 Labours of Hercules!
I checked in and had all my kit looked over, afterwards I went to settle into my room, then out for a walk around the grounds to get my bearings. Slowly more and more other runners filtered in throughout the evening, but by 9pm it was time for this adventurer to retire and get some rest.
Race morning (or game day in my former life) is always a fun time, you can really feel the excitement in the air and the buzz of what’s about to take place, plenty of pain!!
I went for a final running test that morning, just to make sure I was physically ok to start the race, mentally I was already at the start line ready and raring to go; everything felt in order.
I made it through my 15 minute run along Castleton’s main street and back, had some breakfast, and got all my kit sorted. Everyone was in a happy and excited mood, it was an extremely friendly atmosphere.
I was ready to get out running, I’d not done more than 90 minutes of running over the previous three months, so today was definitely going to make up for lost time!
Fuelled up on my homemade energy bars I use for all my adventures, it was now time to compete in the inaugural 12 Labours of Hercules ultra marathon. Five, four, three, two, one, gooooo yelled Richard (race director), and we were all off, people headed in different directions to complete their first labour.
I was introduced to a really nice bloke by the name of Charlie Sharpe before the race, and we just so happened to be heading out to the same labour to start. Over the next couple of hours Charlie and I ran together and ticked off Labour 4, a nice run into Castleton then up over a short steep hill to the checkpoint and back, Labour 9 which took us up and over our first real decent climb, and then down a fast rocky descent into a forest where we had to retrieve a “girdle” just like Hercules had to during his Girdle of Hippolyta Labour.
We also completed labour 2, which like Hercules, we had to enter the “underworld” and into the deep recesses of a cave, but instead of capturing a Cerberus like Hercules (a multi headed dog or “hellhound”) we simply had to return with a few droplets of the water that oozed from the caves walls. Both Charlie and I totally missed the checkpoint and carried on further and further into the cave, with the “roof” of the cave becoming lower and lower until we were told by one of the guides that we had come way too far in, I’m pretty sure we were the only ones who got lost in the cave!
We eventually found the checkpoint, and our way out back into daylight. I was beginning to struggle with a niggling pain in my achilles tendon, and as Charlie sped off it was time to head out on a few labours alone.
I thought I would quickly complete Labour 1, which was just half a mile there and back, I returned needing to complete an archery challenge, random but fun! Along similar lines to Hercules, who had to find and capture the Erymanthian Boar, we had to first find the archery location in the nearby bushes, and then hit a target of a wild boar using any bow and arrows skills we had. My first shot barely scraped the targets leg, but my second well and truly would have slowed the boar down; a piercing blow into its neck (remember it was only a picture of a boar, but I was well and truly in character!)
Next I decided to take on labour 3, The Cattle of Geryon, this short labour was going to test out my achilles, although it was only a three mile round trip, there was over a quarter mile worth of climbing up and over Lose Hill. Once I reached the summit and lookout platform of Lose Hill, it was an incredibly steep descent down a lumping grassy field. The terrain was so steep I had to walk down side ways, I even contemplated rolling down for a few minutes until I saw a few football sized rocks nestled against some of the tuffs of grass.
Arriving at the checkpoint, I found a small bag containing miniature cow figurines, I had to “round” one up, and return it to Olympus. Getting back up to the summit of Lose Hill not only took it out of my legs, and put further strain through my achilles, but also my throat started to hurt. I was constantly yelling at myself to keep going, and to stay motivated, as there was no one else around I thought why not, it did help to pass the time.
I trotted back down to Olympus, which would have only been roughly a mile away, once there, I decided to have five minutes to myself to refill my drink bottles and munch on a couple of chia and banana bars I made the day before.
I had now been running for a little over five hours, my legs were doing ok, it was just my achilles that was hurting; surprisingly my calf was holding up quite well.
I followed along the same lines of thinking that I should continue to tick off the labours with the most demanding climbs involved sooner rather than later. My next two Labours would entail me heading up and over a famous lookout of the region, Hollins Cross. Labour 6, the Mares of Diomedes had Hercules capture human flesh eating horses and take them back to his brother King Eurystheus, who had been setting him the Labours. Well, I didn’t have to deal with any blood thirsty horses, but more of an energy sapping hill. Near the checkpoint, before I turned back to head up and over Hollins Cross again, I ran past the appropriately named “The Nags Head” Pub, the organisors would constantly surprise me with these little quirky details.
Arriving back into Olympus, I now was starting to feel tired for the first time, my watch ticked past 6 hours, but I felt like I had been running for more like 16 hours!
Labour 10 took me back up and over Hollins Cross for one final time, already with sore and achy legs, both my achilles tendons were now visually swollen, and I had a sharp pain in the back of my right knee each time I bent it, I knew this Labour was going to be tough.
With 750m worth of ascending and descending, I had to stay focused, strong, and positive, which to be honest was quite easily done due to the magnificent panoramic views of rolling hills, lush green peaks, and beautiful neighbouring landscapes.
Reaching the top of Hollins Cross once again, and running right along what looked to be the highest ridgeline in the area, was spectacular. I stopped to take in my remarkable surroundings of an area I had never seen before. Although I was in pain, and not necessarily thinking straight, I did say to myself I would return to this place, but maybe just for an easier weekend of hiking rather than a full days running.
I made the turn around point at what should have been five miles, but I went down the wrong path and added at least an extra 2 miles onto my journey (so much for my map reading skills..) I once again had a steep descent to the checkpoint where part of the challenge was to collect an apple from a box and return it to Olympus, I contemplated eating the apple and simply returning the core, I thought it would lighten my load plus give me some much needed energy, I opted to find the smallest one in the box and simply carry it back instead.
Trudging back up the hill to the main path, I now had to seriously think what I was doing to my body, I wasn’t quite halfway, both achilles were swollen and painful, and my knee pain was increasing. I decided to simply focus on getting to the top of this climb that seemed to go on forever.
Heading back along the ridge line to Hollins Cross lookout before the final descent down into Olympus, I was starting to come to the realisation that my race may be over. I was barely shuffling, and trying to get over the fences using the wooden stiles was a disaster, I had to literally pick up my right leg to simply get it up over these necessary obstacles.
I stopped and debated with myself on the what I should do; retire or continue on. It was a simple decision, I still had over 60 kilometres to run, and things were only going to get worse. As I slowly made my way down the steep descent of Hollins Cross for the final time, I was content with my decision to regrettably withdraw from the 12 Labours of Hercules.
I arrived back at Olympus having just completed my 7th Labour, with a running time of 8 hours and 39 minutes, and covering 62 kilometres. I was happy with my little jog through the wonderful Peak District, but it had well and truly broke me.
I sat down for the first time all day, iced the numerous parts of my legs that needed some urgent attention, ate some food, and chatted to a few of the other runners who constantly came in and out to refuel and put on their head torches and jackets as it was beginning to get dark and chilly outside.
After an hour of icing and eating, I made my way very gingerly up to my room where a nice hot shower, and more food helped to ease both the physical and psychological pain of what I had just put my body through.
I had a wonderful weekend, and would highly recommend this race to any ultra runner who wants a challenge and something different in their racing schedule. Who knows, I may just head back to Castleton to tackle Hollins Cross and the many other peaks of the area again, and this time maybe finish the 12 Labours of Hercules.
The Adventure. The Travel. The Challenge.