I ran from Pegasus Bridge to Utah Beach with support every 10-15m it took me 12:58mins
I idi this in memory of the 45,000 British and allied troops that sacrificed their lives during World War 2, let's hope this never happens again, (war, not the run) a very humbling, sobering reality check of how lucky we really are today.
D Day Normandy Beach Landings 2019
2019 sees the 75th anniversary of the D Day beach landings. The death toll appears uncertain but research suggests approximately 45,000 British and Allied troops gave the ultimate sacrifice so that we can walk free and live our lives the way in which we take for granted today. The average age was between 16 and 23, boys and young lads. Let’s try to put this unimaginable atrocity into perspective for a moment, you’re stood on the halfway line in the Principality Stadium and it’s Wales v England for the Grand Slam, now look into the crowd and turn 360 degrees, that’s what 45,000 people looks like! As often said on Armistice Day, these soldiers should ‘never be forgotten’ and fair play the French in Normandy are never going to let this happen as there is a stark reminder with almost every corner you turn in this part of the region.
So where’s this story going? Meanwhile back at the coffee machine in Fire Service Head Quarters my work colleague Chris Ferris enquires if I’d be interested in a trip to walk the Normandy beach landings and help raise some money for charity. ‘That sounds a bit sensible for both of us Chris!’ I check my availability and notice it clashes with a Snowdonia race I planned to run. I explain this and my concerns about my recent recovery from yet another snowboarding knee injury. Ferris was having none of this and continued to explain the error of my ways, highlighting what I’d be missing out on and the reasons why I really should be going. I’m not buying into it at this stage, we are poles apart. ‘It’s not that I don’t want to Chris but I’m a runner and I really need to be training hard, I have a busy year racing ahead’ realising his defeat he delivers me one last shot ‘Well come and run it then!’ Hmmmmm.
That’s all it took and the seed was planted, Ferris now has my full attention ‘We need to talk more!’ So this is where the idea came from and how I found myself agreeing to run from Pegasus Bridge, which the Paratroopers captured from the Germans to Utah Beach where the Americans landed. I had serious reservations about this course. It wasn’t what I was used to 75 miles of flat land, coastal path and loads of tarmac, Yuck! I had a bit of time to train for it but certainly not as much as I needed, recovery and training just don’t mix so I knew it wasn’t going to be a record breaking time.
Before I knew it D Day weekend had arrived sooner than I would have liked. There’s was no bottling it now, my knee had improved but I didn’t know how it would hold out with impact of so much tarmac and my weekly mileage was well below par. I looked at the positives, this wasn’t a race so I wouldn’t have to push myself to my limit to try and climb the ranks. If it started to hurt I could simply slow down, rest or order some red wine and escargot oh lah lah! Note to self- ‘It’s a run not a race!!’
The run took some planning, this was a fair distance and meant I was going to need some support. I’d created my route following as much coastal path as possible but some long sections of tarmac was unavoidable. I’d converted the course into a GPX file to upload to my Fenix 5 and simply follow the arrow. I’d also prepared maps for the guys crewing so they’d be at a key point along the way with my fluids and nutrition, if all else fails I’d just keep the wet stuff to my right and keep running, what could possibly go wrong?
Spirits were high leaving Wales for Portsmouth as you can imagine 27 lads set for a night on the ferry followed by 3 days of walking the beach landings and one idiot running them. The journey to Portsmouth went smooth and pretty uneventful other than the usual banter and storytelling. Following a ridiculously long wait we eventually board and locate our allocated cabins. I’m left to prepare my kit for the morning so the usual pre-race (sorry run!) faff began whilst the lads go exploring like naughty schoolboys. Once I was happy with my personal admin I ventured out looking for 26 Fire-fighters, shouldn’t be hard to find even on a boat this size. I wander around duty-free then locate a sign, restaurant one way, bar the other Hmmmmm!
The party’s going well but a little subdued, I think everyone thought about the challenge ahead. Not renown for my alcohol consumption I opt for a diet coke, there’s no point in me going to bed yet, I don’t sleep well before an event, my mind works overtime. As time draws on and the laughter gets louder I call it a day and try to get some rest before the Crash of Rhinoceros arrive. I chuckled to myself as I can hear them trying to be quiet and clamber into the top bunks. To be fair the snoring was minimal but I probably still only managed 3 hours maximum.
Before I knew it we were rudely awoken by some stereotypical French guy playing an accordion and my mind flashes back to René in Allo-Allo! The big day has arrived, I’ve had my porridge and coffee, drank half a litre of water and I’m focused on the day ahead. It’s a short drive from the ferry terminal to Pegasus Bridge and it’s Shank’s Pony from there to Utah.
27 of us disembark at the bridge and I’m explaining some last minute details for the guys who’ll be crewing before the obligatory photo session symbolising the start. I look around and there are loads of us taking shots of the bridge, unbeknown to some of us the original bridge has been dismantled and re-located in a memorial garden immediately behind us, so funny!
Following a few photos, many handshakes and genuine wishes of good luck we part company. It’s 08:00 as I set my watch and head off upstream to the coast whilst the lad’s head off to Sword Beach where I’m expecting to catch them up at some point. Weather conditions are perfect for running, it’s dry, cool and still, my fear is a decent head wind but today I’m in luck. As I head up the gravel river path I pass a couple of early morning anglers and a couple of cyclists, Bonjour! Then the path leads onto Sword Beach, a long vast stretch of golden sand. It’s now that the reality hits, not just the enormity of war but I’ve also a busy day ahead of me. I’ve run much further than this which gives me confidence but the surface and course will still be tough and anything can go wrong with long runs.
The houses fronting onto the beach are amazing, real Amityville style and all individual, no two the same and every now and then would be some architectural designed modern house, a real mixture of ancient and modern. It’s not long before I spot a group of young offenders up ahead but there doesn’t appear to be any responsible adults with them and they seem to be freelancing, up to no good! I’m concerned as I approach carefully then realise there’s a familiarity to this bunch of delinquents. Spirits remain high, the atmosphere is still great and everyone looks fresh but its blister-free early days yet. We say our farewells for the second time and now it really is time to knuckle down to business.
I focus on Check Point 1 where I’ll fill my water flasks at mile 10. Without fail, Mark Kibblewhite and Steve Bowens (AKA Kipper and Bows) are waiting, “Only 65 miles to go!” I exclaim, they both look a little bewildered at this point, they’ve never crewed for anything like this before and not used to general ultrarunning banter. Also the both need caffeine and nicotine at this point. I fill my soft flasks with energy powder and water, make a guestimate of my ETA at the next check point and I head off along the coastal path again, no point wasting time in the CP’s.
The next section went pretty uneventful, I was zoned out and enjoying the pace, I’d come off the tarmac that suits me much better. Another runner passed me and slowly pulled away, the competitiveness in me wanted to run alongside but for once in my life I did the sensible thing and held off, there was still a long way to go yet and I didn’t want the wheel to fall off the wagon, this has happened many times previously and trust me it’s hard to get it back on.
I’d got my guestimated timings wrong and arrived at CP2 early, Kipper & Bows are nowhere to be seen. No drama, I check my fluids and decide to push on, it’s entirely my fault for getting the times wrong. The big question everyone kept asking me was how long is it going to take you? Every time I commit to estimating a time it usually goes horribly wrong so I’m always reluctant to answer. I can usually estimate a marathon to within 10 mins but there’s so much that can go wrong with the long courses, head wind, bad stomach, cramps, off course etc. However, with a crew supporting me I had to provide them with something, I would have been happy with somewhere between 12-15 hours and had tried to stagger the CP’s taking account of fatigue. This time it had gone wrong very early on, I managed to get a message through to Kipper that I’d gone through and to meet me at CP3 instead of trying to find me on the course. I still felt good, I’d passed Juno and was now heading along Gold Beach, next CP 30 miles – Port du Besson. As I descend into the port I could see the lads parked up next to the fish market. As I approach the van I entered a cloud of smoke like a dirty bomb had exploded, Bows had managed to locate his cigarettes and was making up for lost time. “Only 45 miles left lads!!” Kipper has already pulled my race vest off and started filling my flasks again, I manage to scoff a mini mars bar and back out on the course again. I’m mindful it’s a lot of hanging around for the lads only to see me very briefly, I’m sure they can manage without my sparkling personality.
The course varies along the coast, we have the Romans to thank for the endless miles of tarmac, single-track coastal paths, waist high crop fields, sand dunes, shingles but predominantly tarmac. I think you know how I feel about that by now, I’ve been banging on about it long enough now.
The next leg sees the planned route disappear into the ether like my retirement date, I’m aware I’m off course because Garmin has very kindly informed me but I decide to keep the wet stuff to my right and continue in the general direction until I can hop back on course. This leg gets inside my head, I’ve run out of fluids, solids, I’m cold and soaked through because it’s now raining, it’s five bonus miles longer than anticipated and I now hate Ferris with a passion.
I eventually reach the van, I can see Kipper up ahead and boy am I glad to see him! Bows has now disappeared, maybe looking for more Woodbines. Kipper does his usual routine and now I need some solid food. I down a peanut butter, banana and chia seed wrap and suddenly my Raynaud’s kick in and I’m shaking and chattering again. Kipper looks at me in alarm, I can read his mind and he’s trying his best to remember the content of his resuscitation training. “It’s ok Kip, it’s just my body shutting down” maybe I could have used a better explanation. I forgot it’s a new experience for him. I get my jacket on and get moving again, my legs are so stiff right now I can hardly shuffle along. I reassure Kipper but he’s not convinced I’m in control, all I really need is to get moving, five minutes and I’ll loosen off again.
That’s exactly what happened, it’s not long before I’m back on pace and the jacket’s off again, more deserted ghost towns then I enter a port, I can see the path ahead but I have to run around the complete basin to get there because it’s high tide and the bridge to where I want to get to is closed, typical.
Like clockwork Kipper and Bows are waiting for me, this time with two other good mates Huw and Keith, it’s great to see familiar faces. Kipper appears surprised to see me back in my pace again after the state I left the last CP. ‘There’s a slight problem!’ exclaims Huw, “Go on?” ‘The mini-bus situation isn’t working for us’ “Ok, transfer all the bags and take one back, I don’t need two of them” ‘That’s not going to work either, the others need a lift and they haven’t been fed, you’ll have to come back with us’ “Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that last bit Huw!!” I explain I’d not gone there to run part of the beach landings, the deal was I’m running all of it. “Sorry Huw, that’s not happening, I’ve only got a marathon left!!” Keith and Bows find this amusing. Kipper pipes up now, ‘I’m not leaving you!’ Hmmmmm, I have a situation on my hands and it’s eating into my time. “Ok look, I’ll take extra fluid, food, waterproofs and a head torch and come back for me when you’ve finished” Kippers adamant he’s not going, “Let’s get a reality check, I’ve been running for approximately 9 hrs and only a marathon left, I’ve previously run over 44hrs in the Alps. Sort the others out and come back, I’ll try and get some food in one of the villages on the route.” Reluctantly Kipper agrees and we all part company, I’ve no idea when they’ll get back to me but I’m confident it’ll be as fast as possible.
Five miles of estuary trail now and I hit tarmac at Isgny-sur-Mer and tarmac it shall be for the next twenty miles to Utah because you have to cross the river inland and the marshland beyond is unpredictable. It’s road all the way from here.
Isgny-sur-Mer was as if they were expecting a hurricane, almost every window shuttered up, another ghost town. I thought I’d be able to get some refreshments along the way on this route but everywhere seemed to be deserted. The long straight roads are starting to bore me now, I’m through Carentan heading north and the phone rings, it’s the lads. Over three hours has gone and I can’t deny it’s good to hear them. I give my location and it’s not long before I hear the blast of a horn. Fair play all four of them have come back out to support, this time they’ve found their own refreshment too, the alcoholic type. It’s time for some music now to relieve the boredom, The Stones never fail to entertain. I’ve about ten kilometres left and hopeful for about an hour-ish. I tell them to skip the next CP and meet me at Utah.
I’d like to say time went quick, but it didn’t. The next section saw endless straight roads that started to get into my head even with Mick and Keith playing. Probably because I knew the end was near. I ran through a little village with a restaurant open, the first I’ve seen open all day, as I turn the corner and I can see the British and American flags waving ahead on Utah beach. I check my watch and I’m on target for sub-13 hours. I’m happy with that, no need to pick up the pace.
As I reach my final destination there’s no one there, not even a car in the car park, it’s completely deserted and for a moment the place belonged to me alone. I walk the steps of the memorial thinking of those that died fighting the Germans here and thanked them all. A powerful reminder of the devastation of war and why it should never happen again. (The war not the run!)
I phone the lads and Huw answers, “Come and get me mate, I’m done” Huw arrives alone, the lads are getting something to eat. I quickly get my wet gear off and some dry warm ones on before I start convulsing again. It’s not long before we arrive at the restaurant I’d ran past earlier, they were all in there. The lads were pleased to see me yet gutted they weren’t there to see me finish. It was a personal moment and I explained I’m not precious, it would have been nice to see them but it was just as good for me having my very own private visit to Utah so we treated the coffee and crepe as my final destination. I was so grateful to these guys for giving up their time to crew for me, it requires long boring periods waiting for a solo runner that arrives and checks out in under 5 mins. Running long distance can’t be done without some form of support. I think it was a new experience for them too.
Back at the camp I’ve to discover a temperamental shower, lava temperature one second and ice age the next. I’m lathered up (apologies if this scars you) and hey-presto ice age again so following a cold shower I find a hidden energy within me and fly out of the cubicle, dressing in as many layers as possible before retiring to the bar where the other lads are licking their wounds from their long day walking. As I enter the bar I’m greeted with an applause, not something I’m used to in my social circles and a little uncomfortable with momentarily. One of the lads buys me a beer and we start swapping war stories of the day gone by. I struggle with half of my beer as it goes down like sand, I notice Bows doesn’t seem to be having the same trouble so I ask for one last favour “Finish this off me Bows” he happily obliges and I retire to my bunk to await another sleepless night as my legs are restless, my mind thinking of all sorts of nonsense and my body shivers with every inch I move. I’d catch up the following night.
This was a great trip, socially and educationally in many ways. It felt strange not to be in a race and the pressure was really off me so I could relax much more into my running but I couldn’t have done it without support so a huge thanks to….. My family - Team Jones My Friends & Crew – Kipper, Bows, Huw and Keith.