My Forces March
by Anne-Marie Willicott - May 2015
- What I expected
- Things I have learned
- Things I would do differently
- People I have met
- What frightened me
- Would I do it again?
What I expected
Having done lots of varying events in levels of low and high brow prestige, I was not sure what to expect.
Having only read the Facebook Thread and not really got involved in commenting (as the characters come across as being really confident and bold), it sort of made me stand back and observe. Although I am very outgoing and friendly, I was anxious and downright scared. These people had done it before, so in my eyes they were heroes already.
Arriving in Ilfracombe on the Tuesday was probably the most low-key check-in I will ever experience. A man named Danny Greeno sat in his car with a clipboard and a few people milling about laughing. One particular person caught my eye: young, smiling, laughing… but with only one arm. This was Dan who had served in Afghanistan twice and survived, but came home bought a motorbike and was nearly killed in a head-on collision, which took his arm and shoulder, shattering both is legs and ankles. This guy turned out to be the ‘Camp Legend’, never failing to smile, laugh or crack jokes.
Totally overwhelmed by his and others’ presence, we approached the car and said ‘Hi’.
Danny replied ‘Right, okay, you’re checked in; see you tomorrow at 8:30 for a brief 10am start.
Thoughts? Okay, this is different!
Wetherspoon’s beckoned, so a pint in hand we looked around for potential ‘runner-like’ people, but how wrong we were! We then met Andy and Lorraine from our B&B who both have never entered anything like this before. Both ex-military, Lorraine was going to walk it, Andy was doing a run-walk and then came Steve, the cow farmer who was in the support crew last year and was so inspired, he came back to run it this time despite never having run a marathon in his life before. What an amazing character he has. Steve turned out to be our camp buddy every night, changing our ‘phones and Garmins daily. He and Simon (in the Support Crew) were great company and showed terrific team spirit throughout The March. They were soon to be joined by Dave (Wha’ay Man!) who unfortunately pulled his hamstring on Day One and was then out. Not downhearted, he shrugged it off and became Support Crew with Simon from Day 2.
The support became invaluable for Jane and I as the remoteness and forgiving hills left us vulnerable and sometimes very thirsty; thankfully, the crew were never far away with supplies and the shout of ‘Whaaaah!’ which became the March catch-phrase as the week progressed. Dave lent me his Solomon Ultra Vest which turned out to be an amazing attribute to me, allowing me to carry my supplies and fluids without any chaffing or irritation throughout the next four days (Note: Definitely buying myself one of these).
People in camouflage were in a group of five across the pub (four men: one woman) and were marching around. They said ‘Hi!’ and these guys turned out to be amazing ‘hardcore’; out on the course between eight and nine hours a day. ‘Feet’ was the topic at Camp every night. These guys’ feet had nothing on anything I have ever seen before. Some guys had to withdraw from part of the March as their feet were so rank, but no whinging was done: set up camp, eat, hydrate, dress wounds and sleep became their routine… not forgetting the banter of course. Oh, and polishing the boots!
‘UBAs’ was next: a young group of lads from Birmingham Uni Air Squadron in pink hoodies who turned out to be great fun; full of support for us and although they were completely broken on Day One (having been out there for over eight hours with 2800 feet of climb), they still got back out there. That was it, regarding meeting up on the night before.
So, we made our way back to the B&B and got our kit ready. Morning came with very little sleep as ‘nervous’ did not even come into it! I’ve done a lot of events but this time I was more nervous than ever before.
Breakfast was had and we got together our kit and camping gear. We proceeded to drag it down to the rendezvous point, again low-key. On looking around, we quickly assessed that military was definitely the theme! Not many running-looking people at all!
Milling around, we met Holly; a definite runner who was young, pretty, very fit and very friendly. Holly had a major setback in life, having had a car accident that left her with a broken back, which has now been replaced by titanium. Incredible strength and determination was soon to be discovered from this young lady and on some days, stupidity, or should I say naivety. Having ended up on Day Two completely dehydrated and needing urgent medical back-up, Holly felt completely ‘out of it’ for some time. Coming back from something like that would make your pain levels somewhat invincible’, I suppose! Holly was back for her second Forces March, so was known for her antics, especially from our amazing Medics: Andy and Kev, then later Rita and Sally.
Rita is another Forces March legend. Retired and a seasoned Ultra Distance runner with bags of experience, but the most unassuming quiet nanny I have ever met. This lady is incredible and boy, can she sleep! Every day she would finish with Sally in tow, set up tent, shower, eat and then sleep. Never once did she have any Physio! Sleep right through, then repeat!
Next came, Debbie Miller Wright: The Forces March Legend-Lady! I met Debbie last year at the Dartmoor Discovery Ultra and we ran together for about ten miles. She had just completed the FM weeks before and told me I had to do this (‘The most amazing experience of your life!’); which I have now found out to be true. It certainly was! Debbie is a strong character who I was a little unsure of at first. She works as an ‘Insanity’ coach and is a three-times black-belt in kick-boxing, so I suppose you have to be confident. She had a heart of gold and works all year round to support the FM. She is a vital part of the team spirit in every way.
This was it for Day One at the start! We were met by the Town Crier, local school children, the mayor and his wife and old war veterans. There were speeches and more speeches, then the repeated echo from Danny Greeno; ‘THIS IS NOT A RACE!’ ‘WE DON’T CARE HOW LONG IT TAKES YOU OR HOW YOU GET THERE; JUST STAY HYDRATED AND ENJOY IT!’.
Off we went! Within a quarter of a mile, we were met with our first hill, which soon became the theme of the day/week! Having decided to walk the big hills, this was a definite plus as they gave us some time to hydrate, soak up the stunning scenery and perfect our ‘MARCH’ technique, which by Day Five was pretty impressive as our Support Team AKA Fiona, Helen and Michelle couldn’t keep up with us!
Then came Phil. Phil was a great character, a good morale booster and a seasoned endurance runner. He was also a keen bunny every day in the first half, but we soon caught him up and the motto became ‘I knew you bloody girls would catch me!’
Phil was a camp joke/comedy chap with lots of stories to tell. He was about to embark upon 11 Ultras in 11 days, so this was a training run.
Day One? Tough. Nearly twenty-nine miles of hills, but the most beautiful scenery. I felt incredibly positive and mentally strong which surprised me as my history with hills is not a great one!
Jane was amazing as she didn’t feel great, but tucked in behind me and used her amazing determination to push through it. Arrival at Camp 28.33 miles later was again low-key, with a man and a clipboard at the finish line to check our names.
‘That’s it! Not interested in time’: theme for the week! Get yourself some grub, stick your name on the Physio Board and set up camp where you like. Oh, and you’re 7th/8th in the cold paddling pool queue. Waiting, we hopped in: tick. What a feeling that was; nearly 900m of ascent, never seeing a house, a person (except the Support Crew) and the odd car/tractor.
The Physio team AKA Alice and Sophie: these girls were amazing! They worked tirelessly from 7am to 11pm, putting people back together. There was never a time limit for how long you could be on the couch. The priority was yours until you were fixed. For me, this was an important part of my getting to the start-line every day, as my history of DOMS’ is not good. There is little mercy and some days the pain was worse than the running!
With the camp set up and the food sorted, we reflected on how all the food supplies, snacks, protein etc. was donated by the sponsors… and unlimited. After we showered, we settled into it and clapped in the other teams/participants. There was no WiFi or phone signal, so it was just chill, chat ‘n’ chow!
For me, this was essential to my recovery, as at home I am guilty of just carrying on until I drop, such as with housework and generally being a Mum!
It soon became apparent that although warm and comfortable and with a full tummy, sleep was not going to happen! Having not camped before and not being used to the outside noises, I watched those hours tick by. This was mostly because I had to get back out there and do it all again, tomorrow and the next day… my mind was racing!
Hearing the Dawn Chorus at Day Two, I was up at 6am and making tea from our table with the team of the most amazing chaps ever. They were all retired servicemen who kept us fed, fuelled and hydrated for the whole week. The banter was amazing! What a bunch they were! Showered, fed and packed-up, we did the race-briefing and went on our way.
Day Two was relentless: hilly, beautiful, remote… a day of just under 27 miles; passing many beautiful drops of the most luscious scenery. We trotted along laughing and being positive. Support-crew again were crucial to our morale. A beautiful finish lay past a steam-railway with a tea and cake table. We finished, showered and walked back up to watch the steam-train go through with the lovely WVRS ladies and gave them their first selfie. Ace!
Camp was alive tonight. We were now all familiar and upbeat, so pasta came in from somewhere on a van. Yuck, but it was edible. We laughed our way through another very close-knit campsite with a little Wi-fi, so we were able to talk to family, which was a great feeling. 40% done! Let’s go! Lots of snorers and farters in Camp tonight, and tents very close. Music on, I tried to sleep, but no, the head wouldn’t let me. Jane was cold again and was looking forward to my brother John arriving in the morning with another sleeping bag! I was excited about seeing John tomorrow: it was to be nearly thirty miles and we were already tired and sore! More physio, more protein and more porridge! This was key to our recovery.
Day Three. Waking up to the smell of bacon and eggs in the camp was cruel. Some of the competitors had their own support-crew (i.e. wives with everything but the kitchen sink) so ‘The Three Stooges’ proceeded to tease us daily with their greasy fuelled baps. These guys were runners from Axe Valley Runners at Taunton and were good runners; always in the front pack, having done it every year. Because of this, we didn’t really get to know them that well.
Off to the shower-block I went and passed a soldier with a full pack ready for the day, all psyched up. This was the legendary ‘Jamie’; a PTI Instructor who was attempting to do the whole FM with a full pack on his bag – running! Not marching or walking. He was a young good-looking fit guy with balls of steel, but a softie. Jamie showed incredible strength and determination, even to the point of passing out in a ditch on Day Three when getting lost. Woken by some cyclists, without a clue where he was, he grabbed his Mars bar and water, then on he went, clocking up a mere forty miles that day, instead of thirty.
Also today, I got to meet the FM camp dog, Ben. Ben was a beautiful two-year-old black spaniel who was adorable and obsessed with his owners and a tennis ball! His owner Gail was walking the route. Having been pulled off the course by Medics on Day Two, she was back out there again and made it to the finish-line bringing up the rear!
Kitted up and with the camp being dismantled, I heard a shout: ‘Oh, haven’t you done that yet?!’
It was my brother John! He appeared with Jason, our own support-crew for the day. Emotions were brimming and out they came! Oh yes. It was great to see him and Jason. We briefed them on the day’s duties, such as getting a new sleeping bag for Jane! Their race briefing was very special today as we paid tribute to the late Lee Rigby. A two-minute silence was held and instructions on a twenty-minute march all together, one-and-a-half miles up the road in single file to a one-in-three gradient hill, which we climbed.
John was in great spirits and soaking up the great atmosphere and camaraderie we had become accustomed to: banter! Today was a tough day mentally for us both as normality was around us. Traffic, people, noise, flat toads’ long open stretches: we did not like it one bit and twenty-nine miles of it? Not nice. I missed the remoteness and the scenery. We ran through Bridgwater and through the market, heading back on to more open roads, very similar to the Seven-Bends at Tewkesbury, but way longer.
John was very supportive and sat in front as we ticked away the miles. The Langport sign at 27 miles was a welcome sight as we dropped down into the village and turned right, expecting another two miles, but instead being greeted by the finish-line! We had forgotten about the half-mile at the start we hadn’t measured! Great - finished. Twenty-miles done in four hours fifty. It was a tough day mentally and emotionally, but straight into the paddling pool and onto the Physio Table we went, while John and Jason put up camp. Perfect.
‘Fish ‘n’ chips!’ John shouted. Could things get more perfect? Yes! We had a signal and Wi-fi! Jane and I both ‘phoned home and had a little moment… or two! 60% done. We are over the hill now.
John and Jason were great and kept us fuelled whilst being very encouraging. After a good nosh-up, they set on their way home and we nipped off to the local hotel passing shops and people! Weird! For our shower we were charged £1 by the hotel, but 50p was donated back to the charity - great. As we got to finally lie on the bed, the other one of us showered. Simple things! We were back in high spirits again, laughing our way back to Camp! Tonight I met the infamous ‘Dutch Holland’: military through and through, with his co-stars both nicknamed ‘Ham’ and ‘Jam’. These guys were sleeping under bits of camouflage and liked a drink! Parading around camp in a pair of Aviators, toweling, dressing-gown and flip-flops they were sure dishing out the banter! Priceless!
Sleep deprivation was kicking in nicely now, so camp went to sleep quite early. After all, being stuffed up with a hog roast was a nice change to warm overcooked pasta!
Jane was happy as the warmer sleeping bag did its job. I think she even snored a little!
Watching the hours tick by and listening to the usual snorers, farters, dogs barking; I analysed my journey so far and what I had to face still for the two days ahead. Until now, sleep was so important to me, but now I was just grateful to rest and be warm, comfortable plus in good company with someone who was probably the most positive person I had ever met.
Day Four. The sun was out early and the lengthy briefing was about hydrating: ‘it’s going to be hot, long, with some big hills in the last part of the day!’. Fatigue was intense today and pain was bad for both of us. More physio and porridge; then off we set.
The body was really hurting today. Medics gave me pain killers at five miles, but they gave me little relief. Jane too was battling it out, with us both praying for hills (Yes, me… praying for hills!) just to break up the running and change the feeling in the legs. We approached a hill and a familiar engine noise came up beside us! Holy shit! It’s Mark! A great morale booster and an emotional cuddle and a kiss; plus the usual phrase ‘You’re doing really well; you’ll be fine’. On we went, with Mark passing us and jogging along-side, offering us food, food and more food!
Both of us had by now reached the point of Gel Caffeine overload, with mouths like dirty bins. Onward and forward we climbed the hills, through some pretty villages with a few lovely old ladies supporting a water station giving us words of encouragement.
Mark followed us for a good few miles, many of which are a bit of a blur. It was now twenty-six degrees and we had consumed a series of fluids and Jane AKA Sweaty Betty was leaking like a showerhead. I sent Mark to find a Medic for more pain-relief, knowing he wouldn’t find them in the last four to five miles, as they would be at the finish, setting up. I just needed to zone out, as the pain and heat was getting too much for me. ‘Photo at 99 miles!’
Although today was a really tough day mentally, we were in such high spirits, it didn’t really matter. We sang, laughed, cried and ticked away the miles.
Mark was waiting for us at Camp to welcome us in and get a feel for what we were accustomed to! Twenty-eight or so miles done. THAT was a toughie.
Helping us to set up Camp, while we jumped straight into the welcoming icy pool, I realised today was another ‘first’ for me. Pot Noodle! My body was craving salt and sugar so this really ticked the box (‘Sad’, I hear you say!). My body quickly went in to ‘Shutdown’ mode as Mark left. It was hot, yet I was shaking and the pain in my legs was unbearable. I put my bed up on the grass, got in my sleeping bag fully clothed with socks on. I tried to rest. It was really hurting; pain I have never experienced before.
My camp-mates soon arrived, including Tim. Tim had a similar experience to me today struggling to set up Camp as Phil and others stepped in to help.
An hour or so passed and I felt much better. Tonight was Party Night at the pub. The food was chicken curry, rice and chips; not the best, but warm and filling. The showers were in the pub car park which was novel. Dan, the amputee, stepped out the shower door and dropped his towel in front of a very full audience. Hilarious!
A glass of wine in hand, we joined a table which grew and grew as the night progressed. The banter and morale? Off the scale. The Medics Kev and Andy, the Physios Alice and Emily, all joined us after clocking off early at the end of a thirteen-hour day. Dirty pints, shots and slammers were taking over the table. Not for us; our stomachs weren’t up to it and we still had another twenty-eight miles to run tomorrow – these guys are of course walking!
The last night in Camp was a little surreal. Part of me wanted it all to be over, but a big part of me didn’t want it to end. Yes, I missed my family, my dog, my hair-dryer and straighteners, but these people who I had only met four days ago were becoming friends I’d felt I’d known all my life.
Another night of watching the hours tick by was here, but I’d become so accustomed so much more relaxed and I knew I was nearly there. The starts tonight were amazing! 80%. Nearly there.
Day Five – The Finale. I was awake at 5:30, so I was up and about, first on the Physio table trying desperately to get some Weetabix down me as I felt very sick! Tim made me some porridge, which I nursed for over half-an-hour!
A good hour on the table today with Alice (‘The god’) feeling very emotional and for the first time realising how far we had come. Legs; knees; hips: so sore. Liquid iron and Ibuprofen in, we packed up Camp for the last time (rather crap this morning). Both of us dithered; couldn’t even sort our kit out properly. We ran out of time as Briefing started; loads of photos taken at the Start today! This is it, we’re on our way home… only twenty-seven miles today! 113 down…
We started running (in a fashion) through country lanes which were flattish, both secretly longing for a hill so we could walk. Mile 5: gel time. Looking at each other with watery eyes, we knew this hurt. This REALLY hurt. At Mile 7 we were met with quite frankly the most maddest sight yet: The 118 Team and Support!
Helen Fursman, Fi barnes and Michelle Balchin: our support team en route! Karen Galpin and John Bailey (Can’t keep him away! Totally in awe of his FM experience!) were back along with a boot full of goodies! Lots of kisses, cuddles and tears, then we set on our way. We were very strong today mentally, but the pain seemed so much more intense, struggling to block it out. We were determined not to walk until a hill, just as we did throughout. This was hard today as ‘Salisbury Plain’ is not hilly!
The girls were brilliant and incredibly supportive, playing upbeat music off a playlist they had created between themselves the day before. Kev the Medic passed in his Land Rover and took a second glance, not quite believing what he saw! Pulling in to a lay-by, he jumped out shouting ‘WTF!’, while taking a photo.
The miles were sticking today; the clock was not moving as fast as I would like. We knew Rob and Maisie, Mark and the boys were all en route, but we were not sure where!
The pace quickened as we entered Bulford: a nice downhill through some active barracks that proved a distraction, until Jane spotted Rob and Maisie! A sob and a cuddle and some motivational words from Rob, then we were soon off again and into the last 5k!
Let’s get this job done now! We could smell the finish, although 5k seemed forever. Then I saw my car near a busy roundabout. It’s my kids and Mark!
My body was telling me ‘don’t stop’ as I paused, but I had to just hold them for a minute. OMG! The tears came big time! Encouraging words from all; maybe a tear in their eyes too! Well, just maybe. Off again for the home-straight, overtaking Jamie and Phil on the drop-down into the village. Rob joined us, encouraging us and joking about our eight-minute miling.
‘One mile to go at the pub!’ he shouted.
Only one mile, but my word, it was the longest mile: flat, straight, as far as the eye could see. Then, we saw Rob turn left, running to the finish to get his camera. This is it! We are finally here: five months of anticipation, training and hard work. The usual low-key finish line was up with all the support-crew, family and friends, clapping and cheering us in. Arms up, clasped together; we crossed the line.
Lots of tears and lovely words said: I can’t believe it. 140 miles and 5 days. The longest journey of my life so far, but yet it went by in a flash.
Lots of lovely Prosecco, a nice chicken pasta salad from Rob (his lunch: oops!) and we were feeling top of the world.
A great afternoon and evening followed, watching fellow team members cross the line. Working army machinery everywhere was being operated; family and kids having a great time. The barbecue eventually began and a lengthy presentation brought us back down to earth about the true spirit of the Forces March and its history; no pretentious chat about times, splits, PBs or hitting the wall. It was just real people getting the job done for a great charity.
Hour passed by as we milled around, thanking people for their invaluable support. It was back to civilisation now as we left and said our goodbyes to camp-mates setting up for the last night. Not for me. I want a bed and a good shower, which I was not disappointed by at the Travelodge. After a quick freshen-up, then I was a mile’s walk to the pub (Cheers Rob!) for a few celebratory bevvies.
Back in my room, there was champagne to finish off the night! Then… BED! I didn’t really sleep as my head was buzzing, but the lovely thought of not having to do it all again tomorrow was great! Sadly, I missed the camp and my new FM friends.
These are the type of people that if you had a problem and needed ANYTHING they will be there!
My Facebook has gone viral since the minute I left the barracks.
I now have a lot of new special people in my life – my Forces March family!
Was it what I expected? Absolutely not!!
Did it exceed expectations? Unbelievably so!
Would I change anything? Buy some ear-plugs and get a good Ultra Vest.
Was I frightened? Hell yeah.
Was there ever doubt? No, never.
What have I learned? Never judge a book by its cover; to believe you can achieve – anything is possible; to push through pain barriers of a different level; that winning does not matter; material things are immaterial; friendship is paramount.
Was Jane the right person? Absolutely; categorically ‘Yes!!’
140 miles covered.
25 hours 35 minutes running in five days.
THE BIG QUESTION???
Would I do it again?
Next time with…. ….. my hubby!
If I inspire one person to do this, it has been worth every ounce of pain.