As a seasoned ultramarathon runner, Damian Hall thought a Long Distance Walkers Association 100-miler would be, well, a walk in the park. Some toes, and egos, were harmed in the making of this story. Words: Damian Hall, Pictures: Summit Fever Media.

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“This is the maddest thing you can do to yourself, ever,” writes Julie Welch in the hilarious Out On Your Feet, about the Long Distance Walkers Association’s annual 100-mile challenge walks (LDWA 100s).

“Except throw yourself off Clifton Suspension Bridge, and even that would be over quickly. [LDWA 100s] go on for practically eternity, and you’re not even halfway.

It turns your feet into bleeding stumps, your muscles into concrete and your brain into oatmeal.”

If you didn’t read that and impulsively want to taste some of that compelling horror, you’re probably reading the wrong magazine. I’d only read a few pages of Out On Your Feet when I knew I had to try a 100-mile challenge walk.

Now my leisure activity of preference is ultramarathon running. And they can get fairly, er, uncomfortable, towards the end.

But you’re moving faster than walking pace (well, mostly). So what if that discomfort went on for much, much longer? Could I last the distance? Would bits of me fall off?

Would my brain turn to oatmeal (an improvement, some might say)? The LDWA holds many challenge walk events, including their Champions League final, the LDWA 100, held annually in May but in different locations. Around 500 people gather to walk 100 miles in 48 hours, with about 70 percent of entrants finishing. ultra marathon 2

2015’s event, the Red Rose 100, was held in Lancashire. In little Anderton, I feel more relaxed about the whole thing, because, to put it kindly, almost everyone looks, well, older than me.

I’m no spring chicken. But this lot, to put it politely, have already got their bus passes. My fellow challenge walkers don’t look like athletes at their peak. If these golden oldies can march 100 miles in one go, it’ll be a cinch for me. And they’re merely walkers.

They’ve probably brought a Thermos flask, blanket and The Guardian along. I’m a heroic ultramarathon runner and we’re world famous for running 100 miles on one gel, 100ml of water and no sleep. It’s not a competitive event. But, you know, I’m definitely going to win.

As a brass band plays the pre-start atmosphere is friendly and relaxed, the testosterone tension of an ultra pleasingly absent. I don’t feel nervous. I should have been.

The snake of backpack-wearers weaves down a track onto a pavement across a reservoir and into sun-pierced, bluebellsplattered woodlands. This is going to be lovely.

The front 20 or so break into a jolly jog and I follow suit. We emerge onto the sun-blessed west Pennines. There are big views from the rocket-like Darwen Jubilee Tower, from where I spy Manchester and the Peak District.

I’ve heard a lot about the checkpoints and the first doesn’t disappoint. There are doughnuts, cheese, biscuits, cake and much more, and I tuck in eagerly. “This isn’t up to much,” says one chap, a little ungratefully, “Just you wait till the next one.”

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He’s not wrong. Checkpoint two, in Feniscliffe, has a huge smorgasbord of tasty nosh and I scoff down delicious tuna sandwiches and watermelon.

I’m travelling much as I would in an ultramarathon, as is everyone around me. Gently running the flats and downhills, hiking the uphills. The sunshine is glorious. Lancashire is glorious.

Everything is glorious. LDWA folk are friendly folk and I chat away to new pals, most of whom have done LDWA challenge walks before. They cite the great atmosphere and lack of race pressure as the main attractions.

One chap, in his 50s, says: “I don’t do so many now. Maybe only a dozen a year.” Another guy says these events are notorious for chewing up and spitting out “skinny ultra runners”. (Wait, is he talking about me?)

“They’ll struggle to finish,” he says, “while some old real-ale drinker with a big bear belly will saunter past them.”

I knock back beans on toast, rice pudding and fruit salad at checkpoint three in the pretty Abbey town of Whalley.

Before checkpoint four (28 miles down, but already eight and a half hours gone) in quaint little Barley, I knock back three delicious pizza crumpets and minestrone soup. I like this.

You just stuff your face. Then go run-walk it off. Then the path leads directly up a wall.

Ah, this is Pendle Hill, the biggest in Lancashire and famed for witchy goings on. And sure enough, near the top I’m approached by a lady in a big black pointy hat who forces me to eat bats and frogs (OK, bat and frog sweets).

The top of Pendle Hill is one of those magical places where you forget all your troubles and just want to sit for hours. It’s about 7pm and the light is golden brown, the views go on forever and if the walk ended here I’d be the happiest man alive.

But it doesn’t. It’ll be dark in a couple of hours, and I’ve covered less than 40 miles. Ho hum. The descent is like a fell race. No real path, just bombing steeply downhill and I shriek with joy and panic.

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We enter the Forest of Bowland as it gets dark and I’m accompanying a poor chap with chronic hiccups that last for about an hour.

At Tosside we glance back to see Pendle Hill and a caterpillar of headlamps inching down it like mine workers. A group of eight of us reach the much anticipated “breakfast check point” at Slaidburn at 1am, 57 miles in.

Here we can get to our drop bags for fresh socks and, better still, brekkie. Basically all the checkpoints feel like Christmas at your grandparents.

Smiley, caring silver-haired folk rush around attending to your every need, offering tea, cake or almost any tasty foodstuffs you can imagine. At Slaidburn I gorge on a bacon and egg buttie.

When I get up with a dirty plate, three people rush at me, insisting I sit down, remove my sullied dish and bring me more of… whatever I want. Each checkpoint is staffed by a regional LDWA group and local specialities include Welsh cakes, Cornish rhubarb and, my favourite, Staffordshire oatcakes.

The checkpoints are so very difficult to leave. Then things start to get tiring and blurry.

Darkness steals views and sends thoughts inwards. I don’t really remember the next couple of checkpoints. I’m sure I ate just as much custard and was smiled at and cared for by just as many de facto grandparents. I just wasn’t really there.

The sky hints at dawn from 4.45am and while it’s very welcome, the rain it brings is less so. The wet stuff comes down for the next five hours. It’s mostly drizzle but it dampens my spirits and feet, which become tender and whimpery. Self-pity is growing.

I start to imagine injuries – is that a heel blister or a ruptured Achilles tendon? I also sneakily start to think of ways I can exit the event without too much shame.

It’s just tiredness talking. And the slow realisation that these old warhorses are infinitely tougher than me. That hurts too.

For most of the night I’ve travelled with Alison Brind and Julian Brown, both presumably in their 50s and exactly the type of people I idiotically wrote off at the start.

Alison is thin, with petite features and a gentle demeanour. She modestly explains how in her 50th year she marked the occasion with 50, 20 plus mile events.

“In truth,” she says, “this is a bit of a benign 100.” I – heroic ultra runner – am struggling. She – little older lady – thinks this is a soft event.

At the Chipping checkpoint just after 5am pizza crumpets are on the menu again and it’s harder to force myself up out of the chair. Still 30 miles to go. At Hurst Green I’m back on the cakes and feel slightly cheered that there’s less than a marathon left. ultra marathon 5

But if I’d known how much longer I had left on my feet I might have given up there. As tiredness and foot tenderness take their toll I struggle to keep up with others. On my own, I find motivation harder. The moorland is mostly behind us and fields take over.

I feel angry: with my feet, with my slowness, with all these damn wet fields, but above all, with myself. I underestimated the event. I underestimated the people. I overestimated myself.

And I still haven’t got a good enough injury to quit. Dammit.

The next checkpoint takes nearly three hours to reach and the challenge walk has become a real death march. I’m still shuffling when terrain allows. But sometime in the late morning I overtake a fresh-looking silverhaired lady and we stay in sight of each other for about an hour. I shuffle. She only ever walks. She keeps catching me up.

Finally, at a checkpoint, I flop down in a chair and gasp for tea and cake. She saunters straight on, as fresh as a buttercup.

At 1pm – 27 hours in – I reach the penultimate checkpoint. I gulp down yet more custard and tea. And dash out with renewed optimism, knowing there’s only six miles to go. In theory anyway. Then, disaster.

The organisation has been meticulous and extraordinary throughout. The 16-pages of route description we follow is detailed and faultless. But in my giddy desperation to finish, I misread it. I hike up a steep hill and shuffle on for about 1km. Until my surroundings… definitely don’t match the descriptions.

I get my GPS out. The batteries fail. I put in replacement batteries. They fail. I switch batteries with my torch… it fires up. Yep, 1km off course.

Now 1km isn’t far on fresh feet. On sore feet that have just travelled 94 miles across moors and bogs and up and down dales, I assure you, it’s a long, long way. I somehow manage not to cry.

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I’m back on track, but I’m so determined to avoid more topographical humiliation that I follow the route descriptions to a paranoid degree. When a mentioned stile hasn’t turned up quite yet I shuffle back on myself to be certain I’m still on route.

I do this several times. I’m always on track, but always convinced I’m off it. I’m going slowly mad. I zigzag in the woods for what should be four miles but is probably about six.

Finally, 29 hours after I left it, I run towards the Anderton Centre. A silver-haired man emerges and starts clapping. He leads me into a room full of people, who all clap and smile warmly, as if they’re my relatives. Maybe they are? I’m too tired to know.

I’m weary, but also heroic and happy. I’m not even in the top 20 finishers. But this is the best feeling ever. I get fussed over, my feet fixed up, and fed – a delicious hot pot, followed by yet more cake – by a collection of more warm and cheery de facto grandparents.

Who are all much, much tougher than me.

Do do something like this unprepared. Check out our Training Section.