Running a marathon – it’s so yesterday. Now, if you want to celebrate the fact that you’ve carried on breathing for 50 years, the challenge to take on is the off-road event known as the Fifty.
A Fifty is that number of miles on foot, and is often called a challenge walk, though that’s a rather imprecise term for an event that draws runners and joggers as well as walkers. You have 24 hours or so in which to get round a rural course where you can encounter anything: near-vertical climbs up to wind-ravaged tops, fields full of camomile, moonbeam-caressed lakes, banks of primroses, overflowing pits of slurry and a beautiful sunset.
You may have to negotiate your way through a posse of stroppy cows, and will almost certainly at some point desperately want to give up. The advantage of being 50 is that maturity has brought you stamina and added a certain amount of iron to the soul. These are the qualities, far more than speed, that are utterly crucial to finishing.
There are several arguments in favour of this kind of event. Off-road routes are over paths, grass and track, so they’re much kinder on the knees. They are not races, so you can slow down and pretend you’re enjoying the scenery if the pace gets too much. And if you have never gone this distance before, then whatever time you do will be a personal best.
Also, they take place in lovely countryside. (Well, you can tell yourself that, even if it’s dark or your surroundings are obscured by relentless drizzle.) You have a route description to navigate with, so that the Fifty doesn’t become the Sixty-Three when you stray spectacularly off-route. And the clincher is that you are fed at checkpoints on the way round, with soup, homemade cake, malt loaf, sandwiches, pasta and apple crumble, while you rest your legs and apply plaster to your blisters (which you will have in abundance if you are new to this game).
Which to aim for, then? For a first Fifty, choose carefully: LDWA has a comprehensive list. The classic Bullock Smithy Hike is testingly hilly, as is the Surrey Tops, which features a handful of the Home Counties’ meanest spikes (most of which you will be climbing in the dark). Rowbottom’s Round Rotherham features a lot of tarmac and is fast and competitive.
But challenges like these are best left to the moment following your first event when, three days after saying ‘Never again’ you start looking for your next Fifty.
Newbies might be better off with summery events in rural East Anglia, such as the Shotley Penininsula, in Constable country, and the Poppyline Fifty, which takes in both seaside and National Trust land. They are not only gorgeous routes but are fantastically well-catered. Then there’s the Woldsman, with all those big skies and rolling hills of the Yorkshire Wolds. The next one is in April, which gives you plenty of time to prepare.
To which end, good advice is to be found on the LDWA training page and survival page. You would also do well to read one of the most engaging books ever written about these events, Ronald Turnbull’s Three Peaks, Ten Tors (details at Ronald Turnbull).
Think carefully about what to take in your backpack, and what to leave out. Certain items, such as OS maps and a compass, will be mandatory in the event rules. But others will depend on your needs, preferences and the likely conditions. A few favourite nibbles? Personal first-aid requirements? Headgear (sunhat or thermal)? Torch (hand-held or attached to the head)? GPS (do you really need it)? iPod (ditto)?