[Race report] 12 labours of Hercules

12 labour of Hercules - Départ

This one was my third race in England. I may be a member of the British ultra trail scene now, isn’t it ? My 2 races before were the very nice Norman Conquest 50 mile (a shame it won’t happen any more) and Race to the stones 100 km last year. As I live in northern France with a sister in Folkestone, it’s not a big deal to run in England and as I enjoy it a lot, I hope I will come back next year.

So for my summer race I had the choice with many good race in France but I’ve chosen the 12 labours of Hercules because the race was not too far away, not to expensive and give 3 points for one of my goals, i.e. the famous UTMB.

In 2 words it was a fail as I didn’t complete the 12 labours within 24 hours and I didn’t get the 3 points. But the race is so hard, the organisation so cool and the country side so nice that I have to came back next year to complete it.


Before the race.

1 month before I had run a nice 104 kilometres (Trail des Pyramides Noires) in northern France (not far away for those living in southern England) and 2 weeks before a smaller trail of 52 kilometres (Trail des coteaux de l’Aa). During this last race I’ve done a radical experience : I’ve not eaten anything neither at breakfast neither during this 7 hours run. I’ve discovered the paleo diet while in England last year and after 1 year of not strict paleo diet I’ve switched to a paleo low carb diet 3 weeks before the 12 Labours of Hercules. I’ve prepared my own food for the races : home-made cakes with almost no carb based on lupine flour, coconut oil, dessicated coconut, eggs, nuts, and all the spices I have in my kitchen. Unfortunately they were no longer fresh for  the race and I’ve only eaten one, very disgusting and hard to digest. Next year I will come with my own oven to cook them the night before the race.

The travel was nice except a 3 hours traffic jam on the M25 (a guy told me during the race that it was the biggest parking lot of England) and I arrived just before the last serving in a pub in Craven Arms. The meal wasn’t unforgettable but the local beer was good. For breakfast, I treat myself with one of my above mentioned cake. I smoked 2 cigarettes before leaving for Church Stretton, a few miles away.

I wasn’t the first in the place. The registration was very informal, I gave my name and get a small bag with my bib, an electronic device for the checking and  a running belt. I had then a lot of time to smoke many more cigarettes before the race briefing and the start.

Labour 2 – Cretan Bull.

As on this race you have 12 tasks from 1 (1 mile) to 12 (12 miles) that you can do in whatever order you want, I’ve chosen this one because it was recommended by Richard and because it was rather crowded. It would have been fine to find a partner for the day as I enjoy a lot meeting people during races, unfortunately, it didn’t happen and I was mainly alone on the trails for 23 hours. Nevertheless, people where very nice and they where speaking a much better English than those met on former races. I was surprised to hear « aren’t you » or « isn’t it » at the end of many sentences. Till that day, I had the feeling that the first thing I’ve learned on English language at school was totally useless.

The trail began through a nice field of ferns, was very steep and I struggled to breathe. I’ve cursed my addiction to cigarettes but we eventually reach the punch box and had to perform a task : retrieving a ring on the nearby summit of Bodbury Hill. Unfortunately, I’ve missed the recognition of the Bodbury Ring, a hillfort from the Iron age. I went down with my ring and took almost no break to begin the next labour.

Labour 5 – Capture of Cerberus.

This labour was only « open » from 10:45 to 13:00 and I discovered why at the end. I ran alone again on this labour and we have to found a cave at the top of Caer Caradoc Hill, a volcanic hill just along the famous (among geologist) Church Stretton fault. Once again, I missed the obvious iron age fort on this hill. I’ve definitely to come back. As everybody, I climbed this hill by the steepest path but after having found the very small cave I went down alone by the normal route.

The following labour was with a bow. Using a bow in England make me think of the famous battle of Agincourt (Azincourt in French), where the English bowmen defeated the French knights 599 years ago. Even if the Briton outnumbered the single French knight of the day I managed to cheat as a French by declaring me left handed in order to get a bow before all the right handed in line in front of me. The instructor bowman didn’t catch my evocation of Agincourt  but I managed to get all my 3 arrows in the target and went back to HQ.

Labour 6 – Stymphalian birds

I’ve chosen this one as it was one of the longest recommended for daylight. We had to go through the Carding Hill Valley, to find a small rocky and steep trail to reach a plateau covered with heather and then to reach the punch point near Robin Hood’s Butt, 2 tumuli from prehistoric age. I missed them as each time.

I was wondering that was the task to perform, trying to decipher a cryptic inscription when a guy arrived and told that there is nothing to do and that we had to come back to HQ now. I don’t remember his name, he was from Yorkshire. We crossed the moor together while chatting but as he was much better than me on the downhill part, he overtook me and I’ve never seen him again.

Back to the Carding Hill Valley, many families were enjoying the sun on the banks of a small stream, I went back to the HQ.

Labour 3 – Cattle of Gyrion.

This one was also one for daylight. I had to went back to the Carding Hill Valley. Some people there must have wondered what we were doing back and forth on this sunny afternoon.

We had to climb a rather steep ridge up to a point called Cow Ridge and bring back to HQ a small wooden cow.

Labour 7 – Girdle of Hippolyta

This go through Little Stretton up to a hill called Grindle in The Long Mynd. I meet Tim on the road to Little Stretton. We had a small talk but I overtook him as his running pace was a little bit too slow for me. We had then to climb on a gravel path up to a group of 3 trees to find the punch box. The task was to reach the nearby summit to collect a belt on a cairn. Tim steady pace was much better than mine on the ascent. We went down together with the same goal for the next task :

Labour 12 – Apples of Hesperides.

As I took the time to smoke a cigarette at HQ, we didn’t began together and I saw him again on my way back. He had lost a lot of time, wandering in the country side and said he should have stayed with me. As almost everyone, he was relaying on map and compass (a compulsory piece of kit for the race) for finding his way. In France such a race is not called a trail but a « course d’orientation » and in this case the GPS devices are not allowed. I’ve even read on the ITRA website that a trail is a race well marked in their definitions, theses guys are wrong as it’s much more fun to have to do your own navigation, even on an ultra race. As I only relied on my Locus App on my Android phone (with extra battery to reach the 24 hours limit), I’m very impressed by the way all this guys managed to reach the goal without help of new technology. Very old style and very bizarre in my point of view.

By the way this 12 miles run seemed much longer for me than it would have been. I began by overtake too kind guys, Tom and Tony, after having a small chat with them. On this leg, I do a first (rather small) wrong turn and I was back behind them. It was ridiculous so I decided to stay much longer with them. They were from the flat part of Yorkshire and we spoke about the Tour de France which oddly began in England this year. I told them that I was certain to complete the 12 task within the assigned 24 hours. They were surprised by my confidence and I then wondered whether I wasn’t a little bit over-confident at this stage of the race. During this leg I realised that I wasn’t even at the end at the first half of the race and that I had to increase my pace to be able to reach my goal. My average speed was 6km/h and I decided to increase this average a little bit. They asked me to leave them as I may regret this small walk in their company at the end of the day. That’s what I did.

I had many troubles to find my way on this leg as the GPS file was not precise enough and I found myself many times wandering among fields of nettles and thistles. I crossed many runners on both way as this task was only open from 16:00 to 23:00. At the end, just after the punch box we had some task to perform as sending darts or take à ride on a child’s scooter. The 2 guys at the checkpoint were very friendly and we spoke about my strange hat. I explained them that it was very convenient to shelter me from sun and from rain and that I also enjoyed the rather ridiculous look of me with my hat.

They replied me that there is no such thing as ridiculous because everyone can do what he want as soon as it doesn’t hurt any other one. As I insisted to consider my hat as ridiculous they acknowledged that it may be ridiculous on a 10k run but not on a 24h event. You can’t imagine how I enjoyed this small piece of English politeness. French people would have been much less subtle on such matter. It’s even my main hope when I choose to go to UK for a race : meeting people with different frame of mind.

Before leaving the check point I threat myself with my first (and last) glass of coke. It’s not paleo at all but it makes me a lot of good. It looks like the acidity of the coke fit perfectly with the acidity of the stomach. I was feeling queasy since the beginning of the race and it may have solved the problem.

On my way back I ran into Tom and Tony. They were one mile from the check point, Tony had troubles in his hips, he wasn’t able to move any more. I wasn’t able to do anything for them. Fortunately, they were rescued by Richard, the race director, as I meet them again at HQ. Tom told me that he will pace me for the last hours in the morning. What a wonderful proposal, I’ve never been paced before. And to be paced by a perfect stranger would have been the kind of experience I’m looking for. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen, Tim wrote me a pleasant letter to apologize.

Labour 10 – Lernaean hydra

I choose this one with the help of Richard. I wanted a task long and difficult just before the nightfall. I had still the hope to complete the 12 tasks within the 24 hours. After a short stop at HQ, I began, trying to improve my average pace to get some spare time for the last tasks. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to improve this bloody average pace. I pushed hard but the long ascent on tarmac to reach the plateau of the Long Mynd was not good for the average pace.

During the descent on the other side of Long Mynd I meet Ian on his way back. He told me that the punch box was very far away and that I must not give up. I had some trouble to find my way, alone in the dark as the GPS file was not very precise. I was in a rather neat field with sheep but it looks to me that the good way was just in the adjacent field. It happen that the adjacent field was full off nettles and thistles. I managed to find a way between Scylla and Charybdis and eventually reach a gate to go in the next field. In this this field I encountered a herd of a dozen calves. They were very happy to get some guest in their field. They obviously wanted to play with me and were very excited especially while I was running. I was afraid they make me fall and wondered if they would have trampled on me afterwards. I was lost too, the punch box would have been there and it wasn’t. The borders of the field were totally impassable, a long barrier of thorns, I was about to go back to find an other path when I found a way to climb the barbed wire and catch a nice trail up to the punch box.

It was the night now, I was still alone and had to climb back the Long Mynd to go back to HQ. I began to be sure that I won’t be able to complete the 12 labours. On my way back, I have been overtook by a running guy which didn’t stop for even a small talk. I wondered how a guy can run on such a steep ascent, maybe the ascent wasn’t that steep ? I may also be already very tired ? Hard for my state of mind. It took a very long time to go back to HQ.

Slogging in the night allow me to see many small animals on the path, dungs where crossing the path and I even saw a very tiny frog. I reassures you, the idea of eating it didn’t came in my mind.

The eyes of the sheep were glowing yellow in the light of my headlamp. It was rather unsettling, I enjoyed it a lot.

Labour 11 – Mares of Diomedes

This one was 100% tar and very easy to navigate. It was a good choice for the night.

On the ascent, I meet Dave, a guy who was walking slowly and who told me that he won’t do the 12 labours. His main goal was the C2C, a 140 mile race from one coast of England to the other. I overtook him and try to run the slow ascent on the Long Mynd. On the plateau I was struggling against some wind, some rain, the visibility was very poor, we where into a rain cloud. Instead of running on this easy part, I walked a lot and was eventually joined by Dave and Tim (the guy I’ve meet on the labour 7) in the very steep descent toward a hamlet called Asterton. The punch box was not far away and we had to retrieve fingers in jelly. Rather disgusting. A drum full of water was near the check point. A good idea even if at our pace, in the rain, we didn’t need more water to go back.


When I came back to HQ, running on the descent, I was sure I won’t finish so I took some time and get a good cigarette, lying in the grass at night.

 Labour 9 – Lernaean  Hydra

Even if Tom has told me that the labour 8 was « a piece of cake », I’ve chosen the 9 because I wanted to keep the easiest run for the end.

I started this leg with the first light of the day. In Carding Mill Valley I had my first hallucination. I saw in the distance a woman with a purple scarf on her head, struggling to set up an umbrella. She had a lot of trouble because of the wind. I stopped to see better and tried to understand what’s was happening. I thought of an English witchery as there was no wind where I was standing and so much not that far away. I was also wondering who can have the idea off setting up an umbrella at this time, and what for as there where no sun either. While approaching, I discovered that the witch was in fact a meter for the nearby parking lot.

It wasn’t my single hallucination, my second one was an old Japanese man standing on a small bridge and looking right. In fact it was a white pole near the trail with no bridge. This time I recognized the hallucination as one hallucination ass soon it happened, less fun.

I wore my very expensive Gore Tex jacket on this leg but as I was more walking than running I was very cold. It was weird for me to feel cold in the middle of July.


The death of Hercule

In fact I was exhausted and it was an ordeal to complete this leg. When I came back at HQ I had still  one hour left to complete one more little task but I decided to call it a day and was very surprised when Richard told me that I’ve done well.

This was my first DNF but it wasn’t such a trouble for me. I enjoyed my day a lot and I had a good feeling of achievement. Too bad for the missed 3 UTMB points but it will boost me to run more to get these bloody points.


PS : I began this race report with the aim to be published in the famous review Ultra Tales but as I’ve only finished my writing on boxing day, it’s too late to submit it to my favourite review. Shame on me.

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