The 12 labours of Hercules

The 12 labours of Hercules; one of the best known Greek legends of how Hercales had to perform twelve labours as part of his punishment for the murder of his wife and children. These feats were so hard they were deemed impossible except by runners nothing is a seemingly impossible task. Runners will merely grab their trainers, their kit and go forth to conquer the world. So the 12 Labours of Hercules Ultra marathon was born by the ‘Beyond Marathon’ guys. Located in the very heart of the Peak District this one amazing Ultra-marathon adventure covered 78 miles with 17 000 feet of climb over 24 hours. What a legend of an idea.

And so it was, The 12 labours of Hercules were 12 feats that Runners have to achieve.

He whom the gods wish to destroy, they first drive mad – 12 Labours

Fortunately, Helen was not Hera or Hercules (a solo male or female) nor a Titan (pair) but an Argonaut – a team of 5 alongside Chris, Amy, Sarah and Olli from Coventry so we supported the name Coven-try-it for it would be deemed that for the proper coven-try-it guys it would be their first experience of the Ultra marathon underworld. By the end of these Labours, we, the Coven-try-it without a doubt, would be Greece’s greatest heros.

Olympus (HQ) was based at the YHA at Losehill Hall in Castleton. A Victorian Gothic Mansion deep within its own mythical surroundings. A perfect choice for a perfect event.

Runners were already congregating with their race packs as we arrived about 8.30am. The race packs including a little bum bag, laminated maps, sun cream and clever UV wrist bands. 100% of the profits wee going to Macmillan Cancer Support, a charity close to the heart of the organisers Richard and Wendy.

A fantastically detailed briefing at 9am introduced us to the labours and special tasks that half the labours would enforce. This wasn’t an ordinary run, this was a special sort of run. Each task could be completed in any order. A few had to be completed within certain time frames and others within daylight. Each team or runner had a dibber for each labour, electronically charged even in this day and age. We had decided to run in pairs for moral support and safety; other teams those out to fight and win were running their legs solo, our mission was to finish it within the 24 hours with as little blood as possible. So let the battle commence.

People think I’m crazy to put myself through such torture, though I would argue otherwise. Somewhere along the line we seem to have confused comfort with happiness. Dostoyevsky had it right: ‘Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.’ Never are my senses more engaged than when the pain sets in. There is a magic in misery. Just ask any runner – Dean Karnazes

First up Labour 9: Girdle of Hypolyta. Chris and Ollie set off into the deepest depths of the Peaks, their aim; to bring us back a beauitful present – a belt with precious stones. Not a delicate mission with some outstandingly challenging climbs. Now Chris and Ollie are strongmen and turned on all their charm to bring back the gift to the ladies. They may have thought this was all way too easy until they encounted those hills those hills and more of those hills. Some two plus hours through just over 10 miles they returned belt in tact and handed over to the girls for their first labour. Well done you strongmen!

Man needs difficulties; they are necessary for health. – Carl Jung

Labour 1: The Erymanthean Boar was just a mere half mile away. This had to be completed within a certain time zone due to the task associated with this labour. To defeat the Erymanthian Boar the girls sped off at an 8 minute mile pace down the lane to find the ‘kite’ – dibbed in; read the instructions to tell us that we had to go and shoot an arrow just like Hercules. Sarah took centre stage being the only team member who had ever tried archary before, and shot through the boar. 1 mile done. Boom!

Next up myself and Amy for Labour 3 – the Cattle of Geyron a mere 3 miles. Local knowledge of the area was not much of an advantage for me although I knew the general direction this wasn’t the sort of route you would take on an average walk through the peaks with a couple of little children in tact. The maps we had been given were clearly marked so we followed said route up and over. An arduous climb up to the top of Lose Hill warranted a couple of flying photos to satisfy our sense of achievement. Then it was downhill across real fell-land. Paths do not exist in this new world at the other side of Lose Hill, so down we fumbled following the broken wall.

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. – Author Unknown

We had to find and pick up one of the cattle of Geryon – a teeny weeny plastic sheep, which we were not allowed to loose on the way back. Lose Hill Loose a sheep no way, instead we lost our way. We had been aptly informed to go back round the mountain and not up and over, so taking this advice off we went. Re-joining the path I lose my sense of direction and sent us the wrong way. Appollo, the god of sun was not impressed and drove us into woodland and through a farmers field. Were we about to get shot by the farmer to never return to Olympus? We stampeded through the field and got back to Olympus in time to continue our next labour.

We then sent Ollie and Sarah straight back to work on the next labour, Labour 8: The Cretan Bull. For this they had to travel further afield, 8 miles in the intense midday salutary heat. They were determined not to strike the labour off but trampled the peak district fields marking off another labour for the team, whilst the rest of us awaited their returns.

Meanwhile it was time to chat and refuel for the rest of Coven-try-it. Already it could be seen that the organisers were so passionate about ultra running, not only supplying ample trickles of ultra running food – you know the score, jam and peanut butter sandwiches, nuts, haribos, pasta, jelly babies, chocolate brownies, flapjacks and tea on tap in the YHA Kitchen. Whilst multitasking the food they were also running around ensuring all runners were well looked after. For the runners they could eat and watch the streaming videos of other ultra events. A fantastic added touch to keep those waiting entertained. Faultless. Those that complain need beheading.

Thinking is easy, acting is difficult, and to put one’s thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world. – Carl Goethe

And so the heat and intensity of the hillage had got to Ollie and Sarah, as they returned rather exhausted. It was becoming apparent that our estimated times were far too extreme and we were already a few hours behind time. This was no road run, you can not do 10 miles in the Peak District whilst navigating and completing tasks in 1.11 minutes. The plan had been for us all to do Labour 2 together; Capture of Cerberus (Hades). Instead Amy and Chris and myself set off to the underworld giving more time for Ollie and Sarah to recover.

The mysteries of Castleton opened up to Peak Cavern inviting us to begin our journey underground. The Kite was located in the dark cave, then we had to perform the task of collecting some water from the drips of the cavern, for this would be tested to prove we had entered the underworld. We retuned water intact delighted to know it passed the test.

Wholesome exercise, in the free air, under the wide sky, is the best medicine for body and spirit. – Sarah Louise Arnold

Labour 10: The Apples of the Hesperides took myself and Amy up to Hollins Cross, across part of the Edale Skyline to Mam Tor, Rushup Edge over Lord’s Seat. No time to brace the Lord oh no.

The ardous journey was not without questioning as many of the local tourists looked at us with bemusement many of them asking what we were doing. It is not surprising that many give expresionless blank faces as we attempt to explain we are running an Ultra 78 miles over 24 hours, others wished us the best of luck as we bounded across the top of the skyline; down the fell-like cliff to pick up our apple.

The climb back up fought many challenges; at the same time other runners some solo were bounding down asking where the apples resided. There was no such fighting here, no elbowing like on road races, everyone was out to wish everyone luck and guide them in the most appropriate way possible as we pointed to the bunkhouse – home of the apples and went our our merry way. The only solo girl bounded down the hill with pure delicacy; I started at her in admiration now there’s a hero in this story. Back at base we retuned it having taken us around 2.5 hours to do just over 10 miles.

Running! If there’s any activity happier, more exhilarating, more nourishing to the imagination, I can’t think of what it might be. – Joyce Carol Oates

I then had my very own duty to partake, for my beloved creatures of the mewow world needed to be fed. Handing over to Chris and Sarah for Labour 11: Stymphalian Birds I started my own mission to get back to Sheffield to feed the cats. I took this opportunity once home to put the kettle on and jump in the shower for 1 minute and 45 seconds. Even though there is more to life than PB’s, PB’s can be achieved on this event, there was one of them – the shower PB.

Back at base, Chris and Sarah were still out on course whilst the rest of us scoffed our faces with the hot food that had been supplied; jacket potatoes with ample helpings of cheese or pasta. All this food came part and parcel of the event entry fee a mere bargain at around £25. Runners were overwhelmed with food and drink and the hospitality of the organisers. Little did we know that Chris and Sarah were scoffing their mouths full at Labour 11 base with hot food whilst making paper birds. How many events do you know that will serve hot food whilst on the run? Finally they took the flight and headed back to base. By this time it was around 10.00pm and already dark had set in to add to the adventure of the next 12 hours.

Labour 4; The Augean Stables invited Olli and Sarah to search for more impossible journeys through the Peak District as night had fallen rapidly upon Olympus and the surrounding countryside. This was not so very challenging but delightfully hilly still all the same. They soon returned to pass over to Chris and myself to wonder the world of the Peak District aka Bradwell in search of another Kite aka Labour 7: The Lernean Hydra

Do something beyond what you have already mastered – Hammed Okunade

By the time we set off it was 10.30pm. Chris was feeling the hillage and mileage in the legs as we jogged out to Castleton with just the village lights to guide us. Up beyond the village we went, jogging it out. We found ourselves on a decent footpath, our head torches leading the way past the UK’s biggest and best cement plant – Hope cement works, a surreal experience running through the works at now nearly 11pm.

Once in the ghostlike town of Bradwell (Famous for its Ice Cream but alas it was shut at 11pm), the instructions were to go up, and up, and up and up. As Chris was suffering I suggested that I run up the steep road and see if I could find the Kite. However I was soon to return empty handed frightened that I would get beheaded. With not another runner in sight we met back up and ran onwards. It became increasingly more difficult to see the tracks not just becuse ofthe pitch blackness engulfed us but laso the gracks were overgrown with bracken 6ft high in some places. Even the lights from the head torches could not help us.

Night is a world lit by itself. – Author Unknown

Alas we took the wrong path and with the help of a mobile phone we worked out we were still on a bridalway somewhere on Bradwell Edge. With some clever decision making and map reading we worked out where we were and caried on in order to turn back on ourselves to meet our Kite further up the ridge. Eventually the orange and white triangle flapped with glee in the midnight wind. I dibbed and and let out a big woopee before making our way back down to Bradwell, ice cream shop still closed – well what do you expect at past midnight.

We passed a few more runners who were looking more tired and delirious than we were, for these were the heros of the night some of them solo still, still going some 15 hours into this magnificent journey. Once back in Castleton I left Chris whose legs had been left on top of Bradwell Edge to put in a mile sprint back to base, with the odd drunken castleton-er cheering me on even at this early time in the morning.

Sometimes the night is more alive and more richly coloured than the day. – Author Unknown

Back at Olympus the YHA had quietened down, no longer were people milling around the grounds, but quietly sat contemplating the task, some were fast asleep in their sleeping bags, others mulling over the routes. I handed over to the two girls for their mission; Labour 12: Cerberus and off they plunged into darkness, 12 miles over to the delightful village of Bamford and round Stanage with a task in the middle.

By this time soup was being handed round to the runners back at base. Soup at 2am was maybe somewhat bizarre but after 2 hours in the pitch black dark navigating around some fields somewhere beyond yonder, soup and bread was blissfully hotful and most thanked. Once again the organisers had pulled out all the stops ensuring all were looked after. Congratulating each runner as they came in whether they were in a team or solo, everyone was treated equally.

It was about this time that the first solo runner had announced victory having completed the whole event in around 15 hours, and he looked as fresh as a daisy. An amazingly outstanding effort, meanwhile we still had nearly a marathon to go, that’s why we were doing an Ultra.

Did you know you are stronger than you thought you were? – Author Unknown

Myself Chris and Ollie managed to get a couple of hours broken sleep along side a few other teams’ runners whilst hearing the distant sounds of runners coming in and going out again fighting their hardest to complete this endurance event.

Little did we know that our two girls still out on the course were rather lost until we got the phone call that after 2.5 hours they had only just reached the dibber at half way and were taking on their task of throwing sticks or something like that.

In daylight a picturesque route but in dark i imagine much more challenging, probably the longest 12 miles of the girls’ lives. I had woken up well and truly before then. It was beginning to get light although the weather was no longer the 20 plus degrees we had been used to but a damp mist lay across the gardens of the YHA leaving perputating dew drops through the air.

Tails of runners fighting through the mist on top of Mam Tor at 3am began to filter through. I was beginning to get a little apprehensive about our next Labour back up to Hollins Cross and down to Edale. Would we have to fight through the fog, would it be freezing cold on top of the skyline, would we find out way? All questions were about to be answered as the girls returned around 5.30am; an exhausting 5 hours for 15ish miles but a massive sense of achievement.

Ollie and myself were ready to set off for Labour 6: Mares of Diomedes. In the spooky damp misty air, Mam Tor was not yet visible we were going into the unknown then down to Edale and all the way back up again. We were illusive and swift on our feet, feeling strong and powering up the hills. There were no excuses we had both managed ample rest and a little sleep.

Early morning. Sun rising. Birds singing. Dew like diamonds. Or frost/snow like diamonds. Calm. No iPod. I am part of the universe, not something running through it. – Sharon Cuotog

At Edale I left Ollie to take on the last 400m or so solo journey up past the last pub (or the first pub leading to the Pennine Way) and dibbed on the bridge then raced back to find Ollie outside the pub. Oh no you don’t its 6.00am and we have a deed to do, a mountain to climb to take us back and report our penultimate labour. We made our way back up the hill, power walking up the scree like path, and then carefully making our way down the other side. The dewfall had created slippery conditions so even going down hill we had to be careful. Back on the road we picked up speed for the last mile back to Olympus. There was no rest for the wicked however as we picked up Amy for our final Labour; Labour 5: The Nemean Lion, and we were off again.

The strongman and women travelled to Winn Hill across local farmland, through plesent fields and through many a gates. Then came the hill, a tremendous beast that would strike fear into a lot of runners’ hearts, a cause of suffering of many. But we forcefully attacked it, we killed the hill. It wasn’t even 7am yet our aim the orange and white kite was almost in our reach. With immense strength we broke out into a jog to the top after power walking up for nearly a mile. After dibbing in for the last time we took the downward journey back to Olympus.

Gravity is your friend. – Sharon Cuotog

We meandered back through the fields a blissful final journey back to Olympus, all of us heros as we entered the grounds of the YHA for the last time. I handed over the dibber to Olli who did the deed of dibbing for the very last time to join the rest of our team with congratulations all round for we had just completed this amazing adventure in 22 hours without DNF’ing. We had all completed around 35 miles each 78 miles for the team. Love thy Ultra. Embrace thy Ultra, there is no other way.

We must stand outside and display our trophies – a stunning piece of limestone engraved with “the 12 labours of hercules Ultramarathon 2013 finisher”. A perfect trophy for such an amazing event.

So well organised, so friendly, so challenging, capturing the imagination of any ultra runner. Organised by a couple of very passionate runners, the detail that had gone into everything, from organising the routes, the tasks, looking after all the runners, the nutrition, the chat, the banter, congratulating those who had finished the whole 12 labours, the many individuals, pairs and teams that had to DNF, every person who stood on that start line at 10am Saturday morning including the organisers, we were all Heros.

We were all released back into reality, sent back to Coventry or down the road to Sheffield to make ourselves human all ready for our next challenges. For myself it’s TR24, for others I hope they venture into the wicked world of Ultras and beyond.

Photos of the event

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