9th – 10th June 2018

by Rodney McCulloch

Imagine a race where you’ve been told the finish location, but you can choose where to start from, and you can plot your own route towards the finish. Now imagine that you have 24 hours to get to that finish line or else you don’t get a medal, even if you’ve travelled 100 miles on foot… where would you start? How far away would you dare to start? Well, imagine no more!

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Race Director Richard Weremiuk from Beyond Marathon came up with this fantastic concept for a new 24 hour race called Convergence – a race where the aim for all of us taking part was to converge on the finish line at Hope, in Derbyshire, within 24 hours. Hope is a village set right in the heart of the Peak District National Park in Derbyshire, with absolutely stunning views of the surrounding hills in the Hope Valley. Hope was an apt name and choice for the finish I thought, and I fell in love with the idea!

Last year I took part in Escape from Meriden, a race where we all started together (Meriden is the centre of England) with 24 hours to get as far as way as possible. Convergence felt like Meriden, but in reverse – instead of starting together and finishing far apart, in this race we would be starting far apart, and hopefully finishing together in Hope!

As soon as I heard about the event I entered it without hesitation – I was looking forward to another unique adventure seeing parts of the country I’d never get to see otherwise. Hope was a truly iconic finish location in the shadow of the Pennine Hills, so I was looking for an iconic and memorable start location, which is what drew me to Blackpool!

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As with Meriden, there were different categories of medals to go for, depending on how far away we started – 30+ miles away would earn a silver medal, over 60 miles for gold and for the brave few – those who start 90+ miles away as the crow flies… they would earn a black medal. I thought the 60+ mile radius would be a realistic but challenging target, and when I scanned the map for possible locations just outside the 60 mile radius, Blackpool stood out – it seemed like a cool idea to start at sea by Blackpool Tower.

Once I’d decided on Blackpool, I started plotting a route together, taking in many towns and villages in Lancashire – including Preston and Chorley, as well as some scenic trails around Cuerden Valley, but also right through the centre of Manchester and Stockport, before finishing with some hilly miles to get to Hope. The total was looking like 75 miles at least, so if I was going to finish I would have to cover further than I ever have before in 24 hours.

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I arrived at Blackpool on the Friday evening, and the weather was absolutely fantastic! I hadn’t been to Blackpool for a good 20 years so I was keen to explore without wasting too much energy for the race start at midday on Saturday – and of course I had the obligatory pre-race pizza at the Pizza Express before getting a good night’s rest.

Blackpool is a world famous seaside resort, and as with many British seasides it was established in the Victorian era, during which Blackpool’s most famous structure – Blackpool Tower was built. At 158 metres tall, the tower opened to the public on 14th May 1894, taking inspiration from the Eiffel Tower in Paris which was completed a few years earlier. Blackpool is also famous for its sandy beach, donkeys, illuminations, 3 piers, numerous fish and chip shops, amusements and rollercoasters.

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Having had a great night’s sleep, I got up early on the Saturday to check I had everything I needed, including food supplies for at least the first few hours as well as a few bottles of drink – a mix of water and energy drinks. I also opened the packaging for the race t-shirt I had ordered (I was too superstitious to open it early!). I also had the tracker (number 63) ready to run with for the midday start.

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Looking at the forecast, the weekend was looking like it would be very sunny with temperatures getting into the low to mid 20s by the afternoon. Whilst I still had a few hours left in Blackpool on Saturday morning, I decided to head up the Blackpool Tower for the first time to enjoy the views out to the Irish Sea and inland towards the Pennines – it was good to get a recce of the first few miles from above at least!

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I was enjoying being in Blackpool, but of course I knew I was here for a reason, and soon it was time to leave to start the Convergence adventure. I switched on my GPS tracker at 11:45am, and I was looking forward to seeing where everyone else had chosen to start from! The map below shows where everyone was starting just before the midday start, we would all be heading to Hope from various directions, from Lancashire, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, East and West Midlands, as well as one person coming from Snowdonia! No-one else had chosen Blackpool, so this would be a solo adventure for me over the next 24 hours to get to Hope.

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My initial plan was to start with one foot in the sea on the beach at midday, but the tide was a long way out, and the sand was looking quite damp in places – so instead I chose to start underneath Blackpool Tower, on what the locals call the ‘Comedy Carpet’. The Comedy Carpet is like going on a trip down memory lane covering a century of British comedy, featuring the comedians who would have performed at Blackpool over the years.

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The carpet includes various jokes and anecdotes from the likes of Ken Dodd, Morecambe and Wise and the Two Ronnies, and countless more, so it seemed like a good place to start. At exactly midday I looked at my phone, set the Strava App on my phone to start recording and off I went, bidding farewell to Blackpool.

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I set off with a strategy of 20 mins running, 10 mins walking and would try to stick close to this for as long as possible, and tweak it as necessary through the day. The early miles were fairly straightforward – I had memorised most of the route in advance so I didn’t feel the need to check constantly if I’d taken a wrong turn. The early miles felt easy of course, and it would’ve been easy to have just continuously run for the first few hours, but I stuck to the plan as I felt it would help the muscles later on.

I tried to break down the route I had planned into various sections – focusing on a section without thinking too far ahead: Blackpool to Preston (16 miles), Preston to Chorley (9 miles), Chorley to Manchester (22 miles), Manchester to Stockport (6 miles), Stockport to Hope (20 miles). The first interesting feature I passed on my journey was the Little Marton Mill – located on the outskirts of Blackpool, and was built in 1843.

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For the next few hours it was more countryside than urban, taking the views of the gentle rolling hills in the distance, with the sun on my back. Whilst I was doing the walking stints it was very easy to forget I was actually doing a race! My first target for the day was to reach Preston around 3:30, and stop briefly for more drinks and a chicken sandwich triple which went down very well! I could tell when I was closing in on Preston as I spotted the tall spired church in the west of the city – the Church of St. Walburge. This Grade I listed building is the tallest parish church in the UK, rising to 94.1 metres high, and it was built in 1866. Crossing the Ribble river in Preston was a key landmark, as I was able to take a more direct route south towards Chorley and Manchester.

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The sun was unrelenting through the afternoon, and I was going through the drinks pretty regularly – fortunately from Preston onwards I was passing many small towns along the A6 to refuel, but there was some welcome relief for a few miles as my route took me through Cuerden Valley Park into the woods. As tempting as it was to sit down on one of the many park benches, it was time to keep moving on towards Chorley!

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I passed through Chorley around 6pm having covered 25 miles already for the day, well on track for where I wanted to be at this stage, and it was definitely a good moment to stock up again for the next few hours. Chorley is a typical Lancastrian village, featuring long stretches of terraced houses, and I spotted a tall chimney in the distance, a legacy of the town’s cotton mills. According to Wikipedia, Chorley is also famous for the Chorley cake – which is a fruit filled pastry cake; alas I did not find any Chorley cakes, so I made do with some flapjacks and salted crisps.

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The section between Chorley and Westhoughton through the evening was probably one of the highlights of the journey so far – quiet country roads opened up some fantastic views to the east of the rolling hills and open fields – a nice tonic for wearing legs. I passed many smaller towns for the next few hours, but Manchester still felt a long way away, never mind Hope – so I just focused on trying to average around 4 miles per hour with a mix of jogging and brisk walking.

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After 10 hours, the sun had finally set and started cooling down – most of the route through Saturday afternoon and evening had no shade, so I had been well and truly roasted by the sun – I must have gone through at least 6 litres by this point! I got some more layers on and knuckled down into the now customary brisk walk/march for the long grind, inching closer to Manchester with every step.

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The last few miles into Manchester was definitely taking longer than I hoped as the pace had started to slow, but I was still on track so no need to panic. However, there were a couple of points heading into Salford where the cycle path I was following was closed due to some roadworks – this was definitely testing my patience at midnight on tired legs, knowing I’d have to follow a longer diversion along some side roads, adding to the distance required. To make my mind off it I turned the radio on to Absolute Radio 90s – some Manic Street Preachers was helping!

Just before 1am, I reached the centre of Manchester – clocking up 50 miles as I arrived at Manchester Town Hall – one of the city’s most iconic buildings, first built in 1877. It felt like a big landmark to reach there, knowing I had covered well over halfway from Blackpool to Hope, but still with a good 25 miles to cover at least. I stocked up on more food to get me through the night as well as few more bottles of drink and continued heading south.

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Passing through the urban jungle that is Manchester on a Saturday night after midnight was a bit lively and noisy to say the least… a far cry from a few hours earlier and the sleepy Lancashire villages, but it all added to the experience! There were plenty of people enjoying a Saturday night out in Manchester, and there were a definitely couple of dodgy moments – one that will stick in the memory was a guy offering me some coke (not the fizzy variety), but I ignored him and kept moving on… I survived the urban jungle! The all night petrol stations along the A6 kept me well fuelled up on drinks and food to keep the energy levels up.

The hours between 2am and 4am were the toughest part so far… 55 miles done, legs getting really heavy by this point, and I was finding the bus shelters every few hundred metres along the main road to Stockport extremely tempting to sit and lie down. I did sit for a couple of minutes and stretched my legs out and it felt like the most comfortable seat ever! I realised if I stopped for too long I wouldn’t get going, so I got up and ploughed on.

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Once it got light I felt a bit more energy again, and as tired as I was feeling I knew I just had to maintain a consistent walking effort as I left Stockport and entered the countryside for the final morning push. The hills were getting much closer now as I was treated to a glorious sunrise having covered over 100k. The finish looked close but in reality I still had about 25k to go until Hope. I was still on track to make it, but I needed to maintain 5k per hour. The early Sunday morning hours were wonderfully peaceful, just taking in the rolling hills and the mist around me.

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In the last 15k, the elevation started to increase as I entered the Peak District National Park – the UK’s first national park, created in 1951.  I always knew the last few miles were going to be a bit hilly, but the focus was sharpened as I was counting down the miles now and trying to stay on track. Having reached over 400 metres elevation and heading towards Mam Tor, the visibility ahead dropped significantly with low cloud and mist, it added another element of charm to the surroundings, and there were far more sheep than people in these parts!

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One of the sections I was really looking forward to from my pre-race course recce (on Google Street View no less) was the spectacular Winnats Pass. The name Winnats comes from ‘Windy Gates’, and the limestone pass has a history dating millions of years. It was without doubt the most amazing sight I had come across during my adventure from Blackpool, and it also meant I was now less than 5k away from the finish line at Hope. I sat down briefly for one last time to take on more fuel, savour the surroundings before heading towards Castleton, and Hope.

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This is taken from the National Trust, who manage the Winnats Pass site:

“This limestone valley was once under a tropical sea- the limestone is full of fossils of sea creatures which lived here over 350 million years ago. This makes Winnats Pass a protected site, by law, known as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Rocks and plants are not allowed to be removed from here. The valley was created by melting glaciers wearing away the rock – the limestone gradually dissolved and streams flowed through and under cracks and fissures in the rock. One of these streams created a large underground cave system which eventually collapsed, leaving the steep-sided valley you can see now.”

With Winnats Pass behind me, all roads now led to Hope. The legs felt better than they had for some hours, and I was really enjoying it at this stage, and with just a couple of miles remaining I still had over an hour to reach the finish as I passed through Castleton. My favourite sign of the whole weekend was this one below – I had arrived at Hope, and this meant I was only a few minutes away from the finish.

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Even with battered blistered feet and heavy legs, I felt like I had at least a couple of minutes of running effort in me! With my watch reading 11:27am, the finish venue Hope Sports Club came into view and I mustered up whatever running pace I could, and after 23 hours, 28 minutes and 17 seconds I crossed the finish line, with just over 30 minutes to spare, and collected the hard earned Gold medal from RD Richard – this is one medal I will always cherish (fellow SHAEF Shifter Owen Delaney designed the medal).

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According to the Strava App I had covered 128.15 kilometres, almost 80 miles – my longest ever run. The feeling of making it to the finish in time was incredible… I was relieved but also absolutely buzzing and thinking back to 24 hours earlier when I was on Blackpool beach, and now I was taking in the views of Kinder Scout at the finish. I handed in my tracker, and gobbled down two pasties in no time!

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Another finisher made it in just in time before the cut off, but a handful sadly didn’t make it to Hope before the midday cut off. The map below shows the routes which everyone took, with the solo runners in red, pairs in green and those who did not finish in black – which included one runner who set off from Snowdonia! Runners came from every direction to reach Hope, interestingly those who didn’t make it came from the south.

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Four hardy runners made it to Hope having started over 90 miles away as the crow flies, including Andrew Melbourne – a local runner I know through Bushy parkrun! Andrew finished second overall, covering 105 miles in total, a truly impressive achievement. Well done Andrew, if you’re reading this I hope you’re fully recovered now. I was pleased to get a pic with Andrew before he left – this was taken a few minutes after I finished so my brain resembled a bowl of jelly at this point!

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Convergence was everything I hoped it would be – a great adventure, full of highs and lows along the way, incredible scenery, city centres, seagulls, numerous petrol station stops, tempting bus shelters, and much more. I was glad to have chosen Blackpool for a memorable start, and the finish at Hope was in a truly stunning area – and I very much look forward to heading back there… on fresh legs..
A massive thanks to Richard for putting on this race – events like these are truly rare, and they capture the imagination people inside and outside the running community alike.