What is it like to run an Ultra?

In his own words, Darren Varley writes about his amazing 90 mile Malvern Hills Ultra.

You can still support Darren’s fundraising for Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Appeal

So…..Going into this race I was racked with self doubt: Had I bitten off more than I could chew? I hadn’t done enough training! I kept telling myself, “it doesn’t matter…it is what it is….and it would have to be enough!!!”

Saturday 5th May – Race Day
It was an early start as I had to drive from my home in Cheltenham to the Race HQ at Abberley Hall school in Malvern, so I left at 4.30am…..Registration opened at 5.15-6.30am,so I arrived in plenty of time to ease any pre-race nerves.

This being only my second ultra marathon, there were a few more things to take into consideration. Punch Points, there were two of these located on the course, both on the way up to the Beacon and up on the Malvern Hills. We were given a thin slip, which we needed to punch, as proof that we hadn’t taken any short cuts.

Also cut-off times: failure to reach the checkpoints at the set times throughout the race, would result in withdrawal from the race! For my race “The Double” I needed to be back at the Start (Abberley Hall) within 12 hours.

Out of 116 runners……Only five had signed up to The Double!

malvern hills runners

Image from MHU website

7.00am Race Start
The 45 mile race and the 90 mile race, started at the same time. And what a beautiful day for running! We set off in the grounds of Abberley Hall, following the race signage up around the clock tower, down the entrance road, over the main road and into the first field, where we encountered the first hill! Time to walk, it was steep, but nothing I wasn’t used to. Once at the top, the views of the valleys were stunning in the early morning sunshine. After a quick stop for a photo, it was time to get going again. I got talking to two other runners, Lee and Simon. Simon was also doing the Double, Lee was doing the 45 miles as a training run. We were running at a comfortable pace, making sure to walk the hills. I was feeling fine, keeping my fluid levels and electrolyte levels up..I made sure to take my salt chews too, as it was getting hotter and hotter.

I started noticing that I was losing ground on Lee and Simon on the uphills, but it was nothing to worry about as I caught up on the flat. And then at around mile 15, I started to feel a slight pain at the top of my calf, behind my left knee. It was bearable and I pressed on, but I was becoming more aware that I was unable to keep up with the early pace we had set! I was losing more and more ground on Lee and Simon, and in the end we wished each other well and parted company. I didn’t mind the fact I was now on my own, as it meant I could slow down to a pace that was comfortable with my persistent niggle, trying whenever I could to alleviate the pain, unsuccessfully.

It wasn’t long before we reached the Malvern Hills and began to make our way up the long winding path towards the beacon. It was then that I received a text message from Simon Barnes, asking to let him know where I was, and he would meet me at the next checkpoint! On the path leading up to the beacon is where we found the two punch points, we needed to punch our slips now, and again on the return from checkpoint 3, which was the turnaround point of the first 22 miles. The views on the hills were spectacular, so it was another photo opportunity not to be missed….Despite the persistent niggle, I was still focussed on the task in hand, and I was feeling good – three checkpoints down, glorious sunshine, fuelled by gels, salt chews, loads of cake and sandwiches, and God knows how many litres of water! It was on the way back up to the beacon that my niggle was starting to get more and more annoying, and I knew I was in need of some kind of pain relief, the one thing I hadn’t packed!!
All the time on the hills meant more time to get talking to some of the other runners, and I ended up running with a few others on the return to the next checkpoint.

On my arrival at checkpoint four, I was greeted by the friendly face of Simon Barnes, and after a quick re-fuel with yet more cake. He opened the boot of his car to a treasure trove of energy gels, hydration tablets and much more. However all I needed was some form of pain relief…….my eyes lit up when he handed me half a can of freeze spray! At least with this in my bag, I’d be able to keep reapplying it when needed, until I could find a more suitable solution.

Onwards and upwards, literally…….All of the lovely long downhill sections going out now became a long slog uphill with the occasional flat to get some more running in. I was always mindful of the cut off points and as long as I was back by 7pm, I would be allowed to continue on my journey. It was coming down the last hill on the way back to Abberley Hall that I met Simon Cowie again, he had finished his first 45 miles in 10 and a half hours, had a rest and was on his way back out for the second half. I on the other hand had to get back to the start before I could even contemplate going back out….By this time the freeze spray had worn off, and hadn’t really eased the pain a great deal.

With a quick glance at the time, I could see it was going to be tight to get back for the cut off. And after a panic-ridden sprint to the finish, I scraped over the line with five minutes to spare!! Now all I could think about was my knee, and the constant pain I was in. I wasn’t sure whether to carry on or not. If I did carry on and had to pull out, I would get nothing to show for it. However Simon Barnes was on hand yet again, this time with pain killers. Things were looking up! At least now I would be able to keep taking them as and when needed. I took one, and at 7.30 I was off out again, this time a live tracker was placed in my bag, so they knew my whereabouts at all times. During the first 45 miles, three of The Double participants had pulled out, leaving me and Simon Cowie as the only two runners, on the second leg.

Thankfully it had cooled down by this time. And within about half an hour I realised the pain in my knee had gone and I was running more freely again, thank God for the painkillers!! As the sun was setting I was heading into the woods again, and it was pretty much all downhill for long periods, so I was able to make some good progress before darkness fell.

I reached checkpoint one again by 9.00pm, but this time it was only my headtorch to guide the way. I was met at the checkpoint by my amazing wife, dad and Simon B, and the lovely marshal who made sure I stuffed my bag with all the food I could carry. I set off again into the night, cussing myself for not taking more notice of the surroundings in the day. I was unsure how I would cope on my own in the dark in the woods, but it was actually one of the most enjoyable times I’ve had running. I was concentrating so much on the beam of light in front of me, fuelled by cake and adrenalin, keeping an eye on the sign posts and the map on my watch, nothing else seemed to matter, just get to the next checkpoint.

Simon C was one and a half hours in front of me, there was no way I was going to catch him, but I didn’t mind one bit, it was never a race for me, all I wanted to do was complete it. I eventually made it to the next checkpoint, where I was greeted by yet another friendly face who was on a late shift, waiting for me. After stocking up with supplies I was off again, by this time my navigation skills had taken a battering, as I ploughed my way through countless fields of sheep! Trying to keep an eye on the route set on my watch, it didn’t go too well, but I made it to where I needed to be eventually!

Luckily with everything being surrounded in darkness, you could no longer see the impending doom that lay in wait, the Malvern Hills. It wasn’t too long before the relentless assents came, as I made my way up the first hill….Again! The crystal clear night was just as beautiful as the sun drenched day.

Yet again there were a few panic filled moments on the hills as I struggled to get to grips with the route I was following on my watch. Eventually I made it down to the next checkpoint, the turnaround point at around 3.30 am. And yet again I was greeted by another friendly face with more cake! He informed me that Simon C had become ill coming over the Malverns and had pulled out of the race, leaving just me to continue! I could not believe it, he had looked so good and strong when I saw him a few hours before…There was no time to dwell on it as there was still a cut off to beat. I was off on the path up to the Malverns for the final time, still stumbling with the navigation, but again I got to where I needed to be eventually……..And then my watch DIED!!!!

It was relatively easy to navigate off the hills, it wasn’t long before I reached some downhill segments again and ended up in another field confused by another sign, wandering aimlessly, surrounded by bleating sheep, I had another map on my phone, and after a quick look, I was able to find the right path! Before long I was at the next checkpoint, this time it was the race organiser who met me. The time at this checkpoint was 6.25am, by this time I wasn’t even sure if I’d make the 28hour cut off. I kept telling myself ‘even if I do miss the cut off, it doesn’t matter, I’ve still done the distance’. Completing the run was the only important thing, as I was raising money for charity.

And so after stocking up again, it was time to get moving. From this point on it was pretty much uphill all the way, all of the nice long downhill sections on the way out, were now coming back to haunt me. The hills seemed to go on forever, and they kept on coming! The soles of my feet felt like I was walking on sand, it didn’t bother me at first. Everything I’ve read on ultra running is to address things like blisters at the first signs, before they manifest into something bigger. I knew I should probably do something about my feet, but time was getting away from me, and I really couldn’t be arsed to faff about, so I ploughed on.

All the hills meant lots of walking, and it was killing my time, and as soon as there was an inkling of a runnable one, I had to convince myself to run a bit, when it was the last thing I wanted to do. On and on, it turned into a run/walk, and it was getting harder and harder to spur myself on. And still the hills came, but a few more runnable ones did too, and on one particular attempt to gain some momentum, I felt a sudden burning pain under the balls of my forefoot on both feet. The blisters came back to bite me!!

The run/walk now turned into a hobble. Aches were resurfacing. I had remembered to keep popping the pain killers every four hours, which kept the worst of the pain at bay at least. Hobbling wasn’t getting me anywhere fast, so I had to fight myself again to try a gentle run; anything to up the pace. It turned out that it actually felt better when I started running again.

At 9.15 am I made it to the last checkpoint. After stocking up one last time, it was time for one last push. I was still unsure if I would make the cut off. Thankfully after the checkpoint there were a few more flat sections, and by this time the navigation was a lot easier, and the signs were more frequent. Once again the last few hills were upon me, more run/walking through the woodland.

From the last checkpoint to the finish at Abberley Hall it was six and a half miles, the end was almost in sight…..Just a few more hills to go. The one landmark I couldn’t wait to see was the clock tower, I knew this was in the grounds of the Abberley Hall, but the wait seemed to go on forever.

When it did finally come into view I had another quick look at the time, and I realised I did have a chance after all……but it would be close! All that was left was one last downhill and about half a mile of the course to go.

Image from MHU website

Again I was run/walk/hobbling up the long winding drive, and then came the cruellest part of the course……not content with the amount of hills already encountered, I had to follow the course arrows, which seemed to go on forever and were placed at every possible incline up around the clock tower, before a slight downhill, I could see the finish line, with my wife, dad and again Simon Barnes to greet me. And with every ounce of energy left in me, I managed to build up a bit of speed and momentum, and made it up the slope and across the line. With 15 minutes spare before the cut off.


I had done it! With a lot of luck, and everything going my way, I had achieved what I set out to do, and more.

It is still the most surreal, but amazing experience I have had whilst running, and memories I will cherish for a lifetime!

If you are inspired to run an ultra why not visit Ultra Running


  • A total inspiration Darren . So proud of you for what you achieved . Huge congratulations xxx

    • Darren Varley

      Thank you Nikki, the club is full of inspirational people….I’m lucky to be part of it! Xx

  • What a fantastic account!

  • Jennie Marshall

    Great write up, Darren. Really brings home what you did! Absolutely superhuman!! x

  • Jennie Marshall

    Great write up, Darren. Really brings home what you did! Absolutely superhuman!! x

  • Simon Calladine

    A phenomenal achievement and enormously inspiring Darren!

  • I’m intrigued by your motivation, on your own in the dark with poor navigation and blisters. Amazing, very well done.

  • Rachel Pearce

    Ah this has brought tears to my eyes reading this Darren!Amazing!Very well done again!xx

  • Oh my goodness Darren – what a gripping read! Absolutely incredible. Congratulations again xxx

  • OMG, you are amazing!!
    Fantastic, real account of your incredible challenge, well done!!
    Total respect, you never give up and remember your dream was real! Well done Darren!! X

  • Absolutely amazing Darren! You are one awesome man. Huge well done..xx

  • Such a great read. Completely amazing achievement that you worked so hard for. Well done you, incredible x