5 days in the Kingdom

Bessie Coleman Drive doesn’t have a sidewalk and the shuttle buses blow by perilously close to the curb.  So, when running with a 22 pound bag from Economy Lot G to Terminal 5, it’s imperative to “side-hill” it by running on the grassy embankment.  I find throwing your bag on the uphill shoulder side greatly helps reduce the uneven terrain.  Running an 8:17 mile on that wet grass with a 20+ pound ruck on my right shoulder was probably one of my better runs.  I made it to check-in with nearly 15 minutes to spare thanks to Chicago’s epic clustercuss of a traffic problem which is surpassed in bureaucratic inefficiencies only by O’Hare’s “people mover” Tram construction project which is years behind schedule and forces 30,000 folks a day onto shuttle busses.  But hey, I made it!  Now the only problem was Aly’s 3 hour delayed flight.

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Our crew consisted of 14 adventurers who were setting out across the Atlantic to become the first humans in history to run in all 5 countries of the “home nations” in the same day.  The Home Nations is the term designated to the United Kingdom when Ireland is included for certain sports.  The plan was to run a 5k in Scotland just before dawn, then England and Wales before a ferry ride across the Irish Sea to finish with a 5k in Ireland and Northern Ireland.  All in the same day.  Three of our crew flew direct from New York and 3 had connecting flights to meet us in Chicago.  All of the connecting flights were delayed due to weather but none worse than Aly’s 3 hour delay. 

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Our airline only allows check-in at the front desk.  Upon landing, Aly had only half an hour to work her way across the entire airport.  I had dropped all the Michigan crew off before parking and stayed back to wait for her.  At one point her shuttle bus had to stop on the tarmac and wait for a plane to drive by.  Seriously.  A plane crossing.  When she finally arrived at terminal 5, I thought she would be coming in the main entrance, unaware that she didn’t need to go back through security and was already near the gates.  As the clock struck 8:05 and check-in closed, my heart sunk. 

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I had never met Aly in person as she was part of a Colorado 14ers Facebook group I was in and she trusted me to get her to the United Kingdom.  I had never failed to get the whole gang to our destination on any trip and I was just crushed.  I went through security while looking up the next available flights to London, convinced I could talk the other 13 adventurers into all pitching in a few bucks to cover a new plane ticket (this airline didn’t fly to London again until 48 hours later).  When I got my phone back after security check, I saw a text that she made it to the gate just as they were closing and gave her the boarding pass even though check-in had technically ended 10 minutes prior.  I was so happy I could’ve cried.  We had all made our flights.  These trips pack a year of adventure into a few days, so why not get started in the O’Hare terminal?

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We landed in London, secured our two rental minivans and checked-in to the hotel.  The group split up but most of us ran around Buckingham Palace and then met up for dinner at the Marquis of Westminster.  I parked the van in a covered parking garage with less than a millimeter of clearance (actually gently scraped the clearance sign, which was gratefully a millimeter lower than the actual ceilings).  We went to see Hamilton or Wicked and lived it up in London.  I wanted to go for my 12th FKT of the year in the morning, so drove back at 11pm to sleep for a few hours.

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This would be a slightly more complicated FKT but I enjoyed the logistics.  I got up at 5am, ate a breakfast of a Snickers bar and can of Pepsi and hailed an Uber to drive me 45 minutes down to the Surrey countryside.  I misplaced my watch, so I’d have to use Strava on my phone for GPS verification of the record.  I brought a small handheld eTrex GPS unit with the course map loaded because the Thames Down Link utilizes many trails and occasionally a few blocks of road, so I had to have directions to stay on course.  I ran out of gels, so I fueled with really terrible hotel chocolate bars.  The eTrex didn’t pick up satellites correctly in England, so I had to throw it in my handheld pouch and use the Google Maps waypoint directions created by the English trail maintenance website.

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I was worried my phone might die in the cooler temperatures when I was using it for both GPS tracking and Mapping.  My iPod died about 2 minutes into the run.  The hotel chocolate bar basically just stuck to the roof of my mouth and I somehow perfectly timed trying to eat a chunk right as a I turned a corner to see a giant hill, literally every time I took a bite.  The mud was basically consistent with an obstacle course trap except it extended for miles.  It was exactly the kind of experience ultra-runners describe as ‘romantic’ while all other normal humans just mutter ‘WTF’. 

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The sun started to rise just as I was going up and over the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  I kind of wish we Americans would rename our National Parks “Outstanding Natural Beauty Areas” but whatever.  The hills kicked my glutes pretty well as I was clearly not recovered from the Ice Age Trail FKT or 50k race the previous week.  Without my watch, I had no true data on perceived effort or speed, so I had to just push the pace hard.  There are also conflicting reports on how far this trail is.  The previous two FKT holders had it between 16.75 and 17.25 miles with the official website number being 16.5.  I didn’t want to take any chances, so I pushed it the whole way.

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The trail is kind of ridiculous in a fun way.  When it gets more urban, the trail runs directly behind homes with hedges and fences on either side.  I would occasionally find myself trapped in someone’s back yard and have to hop over to the correct side of the fence.  Then came the muddy sections.  It was slippery British mud that we don’t have here in America (probably).  The mud was deep, the mud was wide, the mud was all encompassing.  I pushed as hard as I could through miles of it as my stabilizers and hamstrings started to burn and ache.  Mercifully, the last section of the route was paved and I could turn on the jets and try to make up for lost time. 

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I flew across streets, trying to remember which direction traffic was coming from in this country, turned a corner and sprinted to the finishing bridge with a time of 2:05 which broke the previous record by 11 minutes.  Mud was everywhere.  EV-ER-Y-WHERE.  I caught an Uber back to the hotel and tipped the driver extra cash as a thank you for driving my muddy butt 5 miles.  I had only one pair of running shoes with me, so I took them into the shower and spent 10 hot and steamy minutes removing mud from myself and my shoes.  It was a good first 24 hours in the UK.  I drove the rest of the crew downtown for brunch and it was off to the Scottish border.

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An important thing to know about me is that I am literally the worst on earth in terms of speaking in an accent.  When I try to talk in a Scottish/English accent, it sounds like an Australian pirate who just made out with a bumblebee.  It’s really bad.  I’d like to think my van-mates really enjoyed the drive to Carlisle.  We had dinner in this super sweet underground cellar room with aged barrels and secret tunnels that led under the streets.  We headed to bed to get sleep before the 5am wake up call to start our record run the next morning.

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We met in the hotel lobby at 5:45 and took the short drive to Gretna, Scotland.  Because it was still dark out, I wanted to run the city blocks and residential areas with lots of streetlights and sidewalks for safety.  My middle name is Safety.  Due to routing, we couldn’t venture too far from the border to find a more scenic route and it was dark anyways.  Gretna is the marriage capital of the world and I could smell the romance in the air… although it turned out to just be some elderly Scottish man’s vape. 

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We documented our Scotland 5k with a photo and took off for a quick potty stop at a northern England interstate service plaza.  I’m normally not a connoisseur of gas station pastries but the English don’t screw around with their tea or biscuits, even at truck stops.  Our England 5k would be just after sunrise in the hilly countryside of Yorkshire Dales National Park.  I had used Google Earth and Google Street view to pick out a quiet little road that ran along the valley floor with views of the mountains all around.

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When we arrived, pockets of fog socked in a few of the peaks above as sheep and cows grazed behind stone wall fences.  It was quite literally perfect.  The early morning views of the countryside were exactly what you picture when you think about what the northern English country looks like.  I found myself running alone for a mile and I put on the Braveheart soundtrack because I needed to hear some bagpipes while running these hills.  We got some great photos and took off for our longest drive of the day at just over 2 hours.

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The route for our Wales 5k would be a paved bike path right on the coast of the Irish Sea.  It would normally have been my favorite run, if only the English countryside hadn’t been so terrific.  There was a rock formation that we all took turns jumping off to get a good photo op.  It was a really fun run and even better, we didn’t get any rain on any of our first three runs despite rain being in the forecast every single day leading up to this run.

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I had given us a timeline of finishing the Welsh run and getting to the Ferry with 90 minutes to spare.  I didn’t want anyone to have to wait until 2:30pm to eat lunch, so the plan was to order pizza ahead and pick it up for a van pizza party.  The only place open was Domino’s.  I’m not sure the Welsh are known for their pizza but it did feel a little lame to venture across an ocean that used to take 6 weeks to traverse by ship, with risk of pirates and storms and half the crew dying of scurvy… just to order take out at Dominos. 

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But if you know me or Jessica Hoho, you know that those 6 week journeys were far less perilous then when we are hangry.  I had to park illegally 2 blocks away, check out took forever and I ended up running back to the van with 4 pizzas.  I just don’t get enough credit for how good I am at running with 4 large pizzas in my arms.  Karnazes gets all this credit for calling ahead and ordering a pizza on a run one time, I do it all the time and run with 4.  Suck it, Dean. 

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We arrived at the Ferry with tons of time to spare.  As a precaution, in case we were running late, I paid for priority club class which included expedited boarding for the vans.  As a very financially conscious middle class individual, it was amazing how quickly I turned on the peasants once I arrived at club class deck and began consuming sorbet’s and fine baked goods.  There mere thought of the “standard deck” below made me nearly as ill as the turbulent Irish Sea rocking back and forth.  I’m fancy now. 

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We arrived in Ireland at the Port of Dublin to do our run through the city streets.  Physically making it to Ireland by 5:45pm meant the goal of running in all 5 nations in the same day was almost certain and I felt very relieved and sense of calm. Traffic in the city was crazy so we parked a mile away from our initial planned location and instead did a running bridge tour of Dublin. 

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The River Liffey cuts direction through Dublin with a half dozen bridges between our parked vans and the famous Ha’Penny Bridge.  The sun was beginning to set and the lighting was perfect as the city started to light up.  Everyone met along the river for our group photo after finishing their 4th country of the day.  In preparation for the great European half marathon in 13 countries last spring, I couldn’t find any record of anyone running in 4 countries in one day.  So, this mostly likely meant that everyone on this trip was now tied for 2nd most countries ever run in a day.

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We arrived in Belfast, Northern Ireland a little later than planned to finish our goal of a 5k in all 5 home nations.  I found an open restaurant and secured a table under the agreement everyone would be seated and order by 10pm when they close the kitchen.  We ran past the Salmon of Knowledge and across the bridges along the river. 5 kilometers later we had finished our goal to become the first in history to run in all the Home Nations in a single day. We celebrated with Fish n’ Chips and Pimm’s.  After checking into our downtown hotel, we headed to the Crown Bar, the oldest bar in Belfast.

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What happened next was the Belfast equivalent of “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”.  I can confirm that we closed down 3 different Irish bars, finding one open later each time last call occurred.  We found ourselves in a hidden bar with some incredible Irish folk band playing violin unlike I’d ever heard live.  The last place was definitely a straight up club and yes, I do dance like a white boy from the Wisconsin cornfields.  Rumors of a Rockettes dance line may or may not be substantiated. 

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We headed back to Dublin first thing in the morning.  One of the great parts of this trip was how awesome the time in the vans was.  It was a lot of driving but we had such a fun time.  Laughing so hard our cheeks hurt for the majority of the drive was standard.  We had lunch at the oldest pub in Ireland, the Brazen Head, dealt with an hour long Ferry delay on a stupid Ferry without club class and made the drive to Birmingham, England while I told the van story after story of my 2019 running adventures. 

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The last night in England meant going out for drinks.  There was only one place open after midnight on a Tuesday and it was a members only casino.  So, we all joined.  There was a lot of Pimm’s, the Queens gin, Kyle cleaning up in blackjack and Laura’s epic story of bear macing herself in Denver.  At 3am, I announced I was out and needed to go to sleep but not before taking a walk around the block to digest everything that had happened over the past 5 days.

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The tree lined streets and their yellow leaves of autumn were illuminated by the orange glow of streetlamps.  A mist gently fell in the cold English night as I walked next to the stone walls covered in ivy.  It was a moment that was nothing short of romantic.  My heart was full from spending so much time with so many lovely people.  We had accomplished something truly adventurous that no one had ever done before in the world of running.  It was truly a magical 5 days in the kingdom. 

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