This year, our second year running the Merry Hill Challenge, the build-up to the race was informed by one thing, and one thing only: heat.
The south-east of the UK in particular has been in the grips of a murderous heatwave for months now, with temperatures peaking a few days before the race at a sweltering 34°C, or 93°F. Readers further afield in places like Arizona, India, or the Sun might not see much to break a sweat over (literally) with such a figure, but given Britain’s reputation for overcast summer days and drizzle, with temperatures above 16°C warranting disgruntled comments and the begrudged rolling up of many a sleeve, such a climate is so anomalous as to warrant genuine terror. Indeed, your typical British summer often exhibits perfect running weather – not so cold as to demand anything more than shorts and a T-shirt, but not so warm that one has to gulp water every 30 seconds just to stop one’s eyeballs from melting.
But not this year; the overwhelming feedback at registration, when I asked folks how their training had been going, was ‘what training?’ We Brits are simply not built for this heat, where your best bet is to run well before sun-rise, and certainly before the afternoon swell (strange as it sounds, the hottest part of the day ever since this heatwave took hold has been around 5PM). British trail runners are if anything far more adept and experienced at battling through mud, rain, and a chilly breeze than through the hot, heavy air of this strange new tropical climate.
And so my expectations going into the race were two-fold: first, that serious attention would have to go into making sure everybody was well hydrated, sun-lotioned up, and wearing suitable coverage, as the second half of the course is essentially one long, exposed climb; and second, that we would not see any records being broken in such heat.
How wrong I was.
So, let’s delve into it shall we? Last year I mused upon particular runners’ stories, but this year my intention with this race report is to give a general flavour of the day as it unfolded, differentiating between the men’s and ladies’ races, though there are a couple of individuals’ stories in particular that I also wish to highlight. So grab a cup of tea, coffee, or strong liquor, and let’s take a look at what happened.
The women’s race
The women’s competition at this year’s Merry Hill Challenge was of a particularly high standard, characterised primarily by the first two back to the gate, Nicky Payne (Harrow AC) and Karmen Pardoe (Purple Patch Runners). Payne and Pardoe would go on to spend the entirety of the race edging back and forth – some loops Payne would come home first, other times it would be Pardoe. Neither looked particularly phased by the feat, but beneath their friendly, relaxed exteriors, a quiet competition was brewing. Neither had any intention to drop out, and as it became clear that the race for first place was between them, their stories became something of a highlight for me personally, waiting at the gate to see how the miles and miles of hills stacking up in their legs would affect them.
Last year, only three women managed a marathon of 7 loops, and only a single female runner managed an 8 loop ultramarathon of 50.4km. This year, though, a strong chase pack of women was also out on the course in splendid form. Alexandra Łapińska-Rodrigues (and, towards the end of the day, her fan club), Donna Coombes, Joanna Payne (Metros RC, and Nicky’s sister), Kelly Burgess (Trail Running Association) and last year’s 3rd place runner Lisa Crane (Vegan Runners UK) all held strong, steady paces throughout the day, with Łapińska-Rodrigues and Coombes taking home an ultra, and Payne, Burgess, and Crane managing sub-6 hour marathons.
Also in the 7-loop marathon club were friend of the race Sharon Davidson (Purple Patch Running), Rosemary Ayoub, and Alina Williamson (both Vegan Runners UK). Ayoub and Williamson set out at a smart, conservatively gentle pace, sticking together all day and striding back to the gate at consistent splits with a smile each time, timing it just right by getting one last loop started with 5 minutes on the clock. Davidson pondered calling it a day at 6 loops but, given a little prompt by this race director, made the right choice to soldier through one more loop to bring home a marathon. With Aldenham Parkrun already in her legs from that morning, Sharon totalled around 30 miles that day – a solid Saturday session if there ever was one!
As the day drew to a close, the Payne-Pardoe odyssey’s conclusion began to reveal itself. Though Payne fought the good fight, and literally sprinted back to the gate to close out her 8th loop and 50th kilometre in an exemplary 5 hours and 32 minutes, her race was run, and she called it a day. In the end Pardoe’s experience and endurance appeared to give her the edge over Payne’s raw speed, as she showed no signs of slowing after 5 straight hours of running and had been a few minutes ahead for some time. By the time Payne retired, Pardoe had headed out on her 9th loop, hitting the gong in 6:19:20 to smash last year’s course record of 8 loops in 6:27:20, taking 3rd place over-all, and looking like, were the race extended to twelve hours, she’d easily conquer 6 more loops in the same time with little more than a shrug.
I was, and am, in awe of such feats of pure endurance. Despite what one might presume, ultra-running truly is a sport of strength, both physical and mental, rather than straight cardiovascular fitness, and Pardoe’s achievement at this year’s race was nothing short of magnificent. All the while underplayed, of course, by a humility and straight-forwardness that reminded me of Nicky Spinks. No doubt such an approach is not only beneficial, but vital in achieving such remarkable athletic goals.
The men’s race
First back to the gate in an impressive 26 minutes and change was William Mann, who in 2017 managed 8th place but this year looked dead-set on smashing the competition. Indeed, Mann’s first loop actually took the course record for the Merry Hill Challenge Strava segment, which as official an indication of his athleticism as is imaginable. As we all know – if it’s not on Strava, it didn’t happen.
Hot on his heels was Max Holloway, last year’s second place who, due to injury, this year elected to run only a single loop, but run it fast, followed by Ian Roberts (Broxbourne Runners), Michael Burke (Haywards Heath Runners), and Alan Kennedy (Watford Joggers), all newcomers to the Merry Hill Challenge.
Eventually Mann surprised those of us at the gate who had been so impressed with his blitzing pace by dropping out after three loops, in an exceptionally speedy 1:25:58. Suddenly first place was wide open, and it really felt like anyone’s game.
And this feeling remained, for the next 5 hours.
There’s really no other way of saying this: the men’s competition was tight. Although Michael Burke held a consistent lead for the rest of the day, he was rarely more than a few minutes ahead of the next man in line and, in a race of this timescale, minutes count. Burke’s unusual fuelling strategy (semi-skimmed milk, as well as a vest emblazoned on the back with the nickname ‘Milky Burke’ – runners are a unique bunch) seemed to hold out, though, as he eventually came in to finish his ninth loop in 6:07:01. In second place, however, was Mike Fearon, who had climbed seemingly out of nowhere up the rankings in the last few loops of the race to finish just 42 seconds behind Burke. At one point on the last climb of the course, Fearon told me, he had seen Burke up ahead of him, but as he was walking he assumed that he was a runner on a previous loop and not, in fact, the guy he had been chasing for hours.
16 minutes later Patrick Barrett came in on his ninth loop to close up the men’s podium in 6:23:02. No other men managed 9 loops, but Steven Kjar (Serpentine RC), Andrew Fish (Tornadoes Endurance), and Paolo Luzzi all managed an 8-loop ultra, Luzzi doing so on a knee that gave out three or four loops in. Rather than calling it a day, Paolo got hold of some painkillers (against sensible race director advice, of course) and soldiered through to match his distance at last year’s race, even walking in the last loop with aforementioned Vegan Runners power-duo, Ayoub and Williamson.
Four other men managed a marathon, namely Ian Roberts (Broxbourne Runners), Alan Kennedy (Watford Joggers), Paul Carse (100 Marathon Club), and, the one and only, Tony Abbott, who was nothing other than the champion he needed to be that day.
It is at this point that I must announce the introduction of a new, annual award to the Merry Hill Challenge, an award which recognises the race’s most tenacious, relentless, downright inadvisably brilliant participant. And, this being the first year such an award has been dished out, the recipient has the honour of not only winning the title, but also of giving the award its name.
So may I present to you the winner of this year’s Tony Award: Tony Abbott.
Tony signed up the day before the race.
Tony had never run more than a half marathon.
Tony wanted to do four loops, to run further than he ever had.
Tony did seven.
Way to go, Tony.
Tony started the day just like everyone else; a little cautious, understated in his ambitions for the race. Probably wondering if this was such a good idea after all. His extremely last-minute sign-up, though, triggered something in the back of my mind. What kind of a person does something like that, signing up for a 6 hour race with basically no training and no preparation? Someone feeling a bit stifled, perhaps, or bored, opportunistically grabbing a chance to really go through something, to suffer, to grow.
It’s exactly the kind of thing I would do. To me it’s an extremely sane, albeit not very measured, response to the flaccidity that so much of our modern, comfortable lives can become drenched in. Why not elect to hurt, if only for a while? To be reminded that you have a body, and a mind, and that body and that mind have limitations, and you can stride towards those limitations and look out into the abyss beyond and say, “This is the edge of me, and now I know this, and that is enough.” And then to return to the centre, and take stock, and be reminded how how truly comfortable comfort really is.
But that’s just me.
After the first few initial loops, Tony’s family came along to see how he was doing. Physically, he looked to be in quite a lot of discomfort, experiencing cramping, aches and pains, and general fatigue. But mentally, and dare I say spiritually, there seemed to be zero doubt in his mind about what he was here to do. Something had clicked, in that strange, primal way that such things often do in endurance sports. Buried underneath the necessary maintenance of his body, the exterior preoccupation with his achey muscles and blistered feet (Talcum powder saved his day, I think), there was a stony, cold indifference to the suffering. That initial plan of four loops was long-gone; Tony was on, and in, here and not-here. He was in a state of flow. It just so happened to be a stumbling, wincing, torturous kind of flow.
Beyond the 6th hour, the official cut-off for starting another loop, the race takes on a strange new flavour. The majority of the runners have finished, packed up, and gone home, their medals draped around their necks, their legs a little sore, smiling, laughing, congratulating and commiserating. The aid station has been dismantled, a few bowls of sweets, fruit, and cake left out. Even the volunteers have gone home.
But I wait at the gate.
The air feels strange, tinged, and heavy. All is silent.
And they are still out there.
Those who go through the sixth hour have exhausted the race of all its potential; they can do no more, go no further, and are left with nothing but one more loop to reflect upon this fact, and ponder what they have achieved. The two or three loops before were mentally ticked off, all just to reach this – the last loop. The end.
Tony took home a marathon, his first, in 6:47:29. I think he’s a total bad-ass, so he wins the award this year.
Well done mate.
- Michael Burke – Haywards Heath Runners
9 loops (56.7km)
- Mike Fearon
9 loops (56.7km)
- Patrick Barrett
9 loops (56.7km)
- Karmen Pardoe – Purple Patch Runners
9 loops (56.7km)
6:19:20 – COURSE RECORD
- Nicky Payne – Harrow AC
8 loops (50.4km)
- Alex Łapińska-Rodrigues –
8 loops (50.4km)
- Sam Millberry – Metros RC
3 loops (18.9km)
2:52:29 – COURSE RECORD
- Byron Crane – Tamworth AC
3 loops (18.9km)
- George Rice – Watford Harriers
2 loops (12.6km)
|First Name||Surname||Gender||Race number||Number of loops||Official distance (km)||Gong time||Club|
|Michael||Burke||M||74||9||56.7||6:07:01||Haywards Heath Runners|
|Paul||Carse||M||79||7||44.1||4:21:20||100 Marathon Club|
|Victor Hugo||Limachi||M||58||5||31.5||4:17:51||Vegan Runners UK|
|Matthew David||Stears||M||21||3||18.9||2:23:48||Dacorum and Tring AC|
|Karmen||Pardoe||F||63||9||56.7||6:19:20||Purple Patch Runners|
|Kelly||Burgess||F||69||7||44.1||5:51:20||Trail Running Association|
|Lisa||Crane||F||4||7||44.1||5:52:56||Vegan Runners UK|
|Sharon||Davidson||F||59||7||44.1||6:08:59||Purple Patch Runners|
|Rosemary||Ayoub||F||57||7||44.1||6:53:32||Vegan Runners UK|
|Alina||Williamson||F||62||7||44.1||6:53:34||Vegan Runners UK|
|Michelle||Ashwell||F||19||5||31.5||4:24:55||Dacorum and Tring AC|
|Celine||Wilock||F||77||4||25.2||2:28:35||Vegan Runners UK|
|Sam||Millberry||M (J)||23||3||18.9||2:52:29||Metros RC|
|Byron||Crane||M (J)||52||3||18.9||3:05:04||Tamworth AC|
|George||Rice||M (J)||65||2||12.6||1:26:34||Watford Harriers|
|Alison and Robert Gunn||Team||Honorary Walkers||1||6.3||02:09:30|
|Marco||Valle||M||78||DNS||DNS||Vegan Runners UK|
|Andrew||Gwilliam||M||35||DNS||DNS||Barking Road Runners|