Fitness Magazine

Pilgrims Progress - The John Bunyan Trail

By Jamesrichardadams @jamesradams

In 2014 I moved to Bedford for no reason. It was kind of in-between somewhere and somewhere else that seemed convenient, and house prices were low. I could get down into the big smoke by spending only 35 minutes in a sweaty sardine can. Over the years I have become familiar with the trails here. From running on London's river paths, canals and touristy parks, I transitioned to country roads, wiggly trails and cow caressed grassy fields.

I really enjoyed it, discovering new trails, following red lines on maps, never quite knowing whether you are going to see some awesome golden footpath or a wall of bramble. On some of these trails, I see a little sillhoutto of a man. His name is John Bunyan. He's kind of a big deal here. The kids learn about him in the schools here, like up in Leicester, where we learned about the Elephant Man and Mark Morrison.

He wrote a book called the Pilgrims Progress. The trail that his name adorns is 78 miles long and is a loop that covers most of Bedfordshire.

I haven't read the Pilgrims Progress but to feign knowledge I looked it up on Wikipedia. The Pilgrims Progress is a Christian allegory. I looked up what allegory meant, and it is a literary device. I looked up what that meant, and it's a selection of written works, examples being an allegory, allusion, alliteration ...

Then I just scrolled down to this picture and figured out it's essentially about a city which blew up, and some dude had to wander through loads of fields and meadows to make it to some space ship that would fly him off to the land of eternal kudos.

Unless I'm reading it backwards, in which case it's a story about some space aliens who land on earth and end up destroying a city with a colossal cow-pat.

But either way, that seems like the perfect vehicle on which to base our story of how jogging through some tracks takes on a higher meaning about the trials and tribulations of a runner in a wider context of a generally comfortable world where everything we have is close at hand.

If only there were fancy word for that.

The first step in doing anything in ultrarunning is to start a WhatsApp group. I did this about 4 years ago. There was a lot of procrastinating. Back in those days, I think the idea of doing a long run self-supported was called something like a "self-supported long run". Then sometime soon after when the world got a bit messed up this type of run was renamed "FKT", an acronym for "Fastest Known Time".

Of course, many people spotted the loophole, as did we. If you pick a trail that no one has ever done before, then you can get a "Fastest Known Time" by virtue of it being the "Only Known Time". Perfect! We can do our run, have fun, not really rush things and then claim to be Olympians because more people have walked on Mars than ever attempted what we are doing. Frontpage stardom on the Stevington Gazette loomed.

And then, disaster! Two weeks before we were due to go and plant our flag in the squelchy clay of Bedfords great Bunyan, someone else went and ran the whole thing in one shot. In very good time too. 16 hours and 20 minutes.


The city is now burning down, we need to leave quickly.

16 hours 20 minutes was a punchy time. It could be done, but it would take some effort.

Chris Camino and I started at the statue of John Bunyan in Bedford town centre at 5am. Bedford is lovely at this time, there are no people there. We set off north, doing the loop anti-clockwise for a very good reason that I can't quite remember. Up Bedford's 1 hill into Clapham and then out through Oakley and into the first of about 1000 farmers fields we were going to run through.

The first 20 miles or so were reasonably familiar to me, I've run on these trails a lot. After about 5 miles in some field in Pavenham, there is a section of knee-deep cow shit that you have no choice but to go through. I don't know how deliberate some of these traps are. When entering the field, we thought we got lucky as the cows were no longer there, alas no, as we gingerly walked through the narrow pass between the bushes and the river we both went in knee-deep into the despondent slurry. I almost lost a shoe.

We passed through Stevington (population about 27, pubs 2. My town has a population of about 4000, pubs 0) and then ascended Mount Bromham. We decided to walk any hills from the start. No point wasting energy so early on. It's not like we were trying to break any records. Well actually...

I created a rough schedule of when we were going to be in various villages. I thought optimistically we could be getting this done in about 16 hours which meant arriving in Bromham village for about 7am. We were a bit ahead of that as I'd deliberately overestimated the distances. Drew was waiting with supplies. We were very very lucky to have support as it was due to be a warm day and there are no shops between miles 32 and 65.

Drew offered to get us something from Greggs. I'm so out of practice at proper ultra running that I didn't know what to ask for. We left and ran through to bump into Paul who joined us for a few miles.

We almost made a wrong turning at the point closest to my house. Weirdly I was about to run down a trail that I'd never been down before. That would have been annoying. And then when I put my jacket into my bag, I discovered I was still carrying a huge bucket on Sudocrem that I'd meant to leave in the car at the start.

If this came down to the seconds, I was blaming that Sudocrem.

Wandered through Wootton and towards Cranfield on some gnarly trails that used to be part of my weekly run to the butchers to buy steak. I think this is why the local cows hate me. Drew popped up at a gate like a keeper of goodwill and helped us navigate away from the dangers of the Spar in Cranfield. Our original plan was to use the small shop in Cranfield to buy more water/coke, but this saved us lots of time. Usually, I'd be conscious of making other people smell me when I stop in shops. Still, as everyone has to wear masks now, it really wouldn't matter that I smelled like sulphur and cow shit.

A farmhouse at the edge of Cranfield also marked the edge of my JBT knowledge, and we'd have to interpret the maps more form here. We had recced most of the second half of the run, but these miles between about 24-30 could be a bit shaky. I at least got to see my workplace though, 10 miles away in Milton Keynes. I sometimes miss driving towards that enormous dome each day.

The trail goes through the lovely Holcote woods but that absolutely dog shits over the M1 into Ridgemont. This bit seems like such a pointless detour, why did John Bunyan want to go over the M1? All that there is to see here is an Amazon warehouse. This burden weighed heavy such that we missed a turn (a hole in a hedge) and took the road into Ridgemont. Another crossing of the M1 felt like deliverance as we were back onto the trails that don't look like garbage.

We passed the marathon point (Yay! Ultra Running!) just as we crossed the M1 again and headed towards the Greensands Ridge. A lovely 40-mile point to point which I recommend doing as a birthday run if you ever become an old codger.

Once on the ridge, we knew our way for at least another 5 miles, along some lovely footpaths into Millbrookup a difficult hill into Ampthill park. We took care not to make any dangerous or destructive turnings into the Centreparcs or the Proving Ground.

Carrying on to Houghton House the route then drops down into Ampthill and winds through the houses into Flitwick. As far as I know, there is a war raging between the people of Flitwick and Ampthill in the same way there is a war waging between Kempston and Bedford. People of Kempston think the people of Bedford are stupid and the people of Bedford think the people of Kempston are stupid. I always try to be diplomatic in these circumstances and say they might be both right.

The tarmac of the streets was welcome on the legs a little, but I didn't really like having to avoid people on the streets. I was thankful to get back onto the trails near Steppingly, even though this was the scene of my humiliation last week when I stopped for a wee in what I thought was a quiet trail but was actually in full view of a chap from his bedroom window. Further humiliation was to follow when I tripped over nothing on a flat path in front of some dog walkers. I get pretty grumpy when I fall over, mostly pissed at myself but happy to take it out of others.

The weather gods were on our side. If we'd done this a few days earlier, we'd be toast by now. A few days later, also toast. It threatened to get hot today, but the cloud covered the sun, and we were spared of its power. Of the sections we'd recced, this was the worst I think, between Steppingly and Harlington, a dead valley of abandoned gates and stiles.

Harlington was half-way, or so we estimated. We'd braced ourselves for something like 82 miles of running without nav errors. At 41 it was nice to come in and make a pointless loop of the village before heading back out in the same direction. A lady walking her dog asked me how I got knee-deep in shit (well, asked which of the footpaths she needed to avoid). I think I vaguely said "Pavenham" but was pretty sure she was not going to end up there. Here sat on a bench we saw Mello who was going to join us for the second half of the run.

The next few miles take some excellent trails and farm roads up to Pulloxill and a very distinctive water tower. It seems like another pointless detour of the route, but here you get to see the Sharpenhoe Clappers in all their glory. It's like a big shelf of trees that just pop up out of nowhere. Heading back out of Pulloxill, there is a choice of trails. A gnarly, nettley, brambly crawl on the official but overgrown path or a beautiful field edge with a sign at the start that pretty much says "Private Land, Fuck Off!"

So we took the shite trail. There are more and more of those signs from farmers telling you where the trails are and where they are not, which has been great to stop us running off in the wrong direction into dead ends, but this was just teasing us. Fortunately, my cow-shit calf-sleeves (patent pending) seemed to do a decent job of protecting me against the herbage.

We saw Drew again at the main road before heading straight up into the Clappers. Having lived in Bedford for 6 years, I am rarely troubled by the third dimension when running, this was lovely though, straight up and then onto the high ground of the Sundon Hills. There are quite a few miles up here, and I'd say these are the best trails in Bedfordshire. We coveted this part of the county, wishing we'd lived this side of the Bunyan.

There is a little out and back section to a car park which is the official start/finish of the JBT. We did initially plan to start here to make it "proper", but there is nothing here, just a car park-no mention of the trail or anything. Even the Greensands Ridge has a sticker on a poo-bin in Leighton Buzzard telling you a path is about to start.

Back along the hills with a glorious view of North Bedfordshire, including lots of the trails we had recently been on I saw Mike Abel. He was running the Chiltern Way over a few days. I used to bump into this chap in Regents Park when we working in London, now I see him on random hills in Bedfordshire.

Quite a few paths overlap here. The Chiltern Way and the Icknield Way all pass through. If you looked on a map and asked which trail had had a few too many drinks it would definitely be the John Bunyan, it's all over the place. Through a pub in Streatley and down more fields we declined the invitation on the sign saying "Welcome To Luton" and headed through a very scenic golf course towards a small village called Lilley.

This was another bit he had to run before. Still, it was quite straightforward, the route then climbs up higher into the Barton hills and drops down into Barton-Le-Clay, and in my mind, it's all "downhill from here".

I was having a rough time mentally now. I was trying to calculate how likely it was we were going to finish at 16 hours. A few weeks ago we ran from Barton to home, it's 20 miles. We were at 60 in Barton, 20 miles in 5 hours sounds entirely plausible. But something was nagging me about extra distance. We had in our minds 82 miles and all of a sudden 22 miles in 5 hours sounded like a stretch.

I felt physically good. Nothing hurt too much, my energy was good and having Drew, and later Dan popping up to feed us every 8 miles or so was crucial. I managed eating well. I just had no lift in my legs, though. I could run and would say I pretty much ran everything flat or down and even some that was up, but my ultra shuffle was something like 13-minute miles. Since lockdown, I've been running miles and miles with no speed and suspect a few interval sessions would have given my stride a few inches. Chris still looked really strong, running off into the distance with Mello and waiting for me at any gates. Chris could have done this hours faster.

I was happier with the isolation though, deep in the fortress of my own doubting as I poorly did the calculations of the finish. We'd recced this part a few weeks ago, and it felt like the final stretch, but I swear new villages were put on the map since we were here last. In my mind, it was Hexton, Shillington and then Shefford. What the fuck was this "Apsley End" and "Meppershall"? This country of conceit was conspiring to lengthen the run. I remembered how far it was to the end but would these new places add distance?

The sun had broken through the cloud again. It was about 6 in the evening, time to be in the pub. We were headed to Shefford, which is a lovely town like Ampthill with a tremendous smelling Fish and Chip shop (I'm not sure whether they sell Huumus and Chips like in Ampthill though). On leaving Shefford, we saw Dan and Drew at the side of the main road to fill us up. Greg had run out from Bedford to run back in with us. This felt like the home stretch now. It's about 10 miles. We had about 2.30 hours to do it in 16 hours. That felt doable. I felt much better.

I'd like to think that the time thing wasn't weighing on me too much, but then all I could think of was "we can't get seated by a guy who ran all on his own and had to stop in shops for ages while we get crewed like Ferraris". Plus I had this idea first! (Actually, I didn't, but I thought I did)

It was stressing me out more than it needed to. But I now felt like this was the easy bit. A 10 mile downhill roll into Bedford. I'd even forgotten the first 4 miles of this were uphill.

This is possibly the easiest 10 miles of navigation ever, it's just a straight line. Looks like Jonny sobered up by this point and stopped twatting about all over the place. As we rose up on the farm roads into Haynes, we could actually see Bedford. I'd never known it to look so beautiful. Drew saw us again in a car park that had a Fish and Chip van which was very popular. Didn't spend long there, it would have been nice to stop. Now we were at the top of the hill, where the trail crosses the Greensands Ridge again and ready to head down Hammer Hill towards Elstow, the place where JB was born.

I've run this section many times, and I always get here and think "nearly home" and then three miles later think "this is a never-ending fucking long straight bit innit?" It seems to go on forever. Jonathon Langford popped up to give us support, it was nice to chat to him for a bit, I think the last time I spoke to him was at the end of the Autumn 100 race a couple of years back.

Thought the enchanted land of Medbury Farm we finally got to the exit and into Elstow. We weren't exactly sure how far was left, we were on 78 miles. Figured another 2. Now we had to navigate things like traffic lights and teenagers to get to our Celestial Finish, over the River of Death near the Nandos and up the high street. This was it, 16 hours just ticked over on my watch, but we were well under 16.20. All that remained were two traffic lights between us and the statue.


An awkward shuffle of pace across the road as we were met by a roaring crowd (4 people) and then that was it.


16 hours 3 minutes.

82.2 miles.

112 Kudos (so far) Please donate....

After 4 years of that WhatsApp group, we finally got off our arses and did it.

Oliver Jones came along to see us at the end. In fairness, his run was vastly superior to ours. Completely unsupported and only 20 mins slower (with at least a few more miles of detours). I was really pleased that we pretty much nailed our 16 hour "optimistic" time. Made no significant nav errors, ran till the end (if you could call it running).

In preparing for this, we all explored some brilliant countryside, trails that we'd definitely go back to.

Thanks very much to Drew and Dan for some excellent crewing! To Mello, Greg, Paul and Jonathan for coming along for part of the adventure. Thanks to Oliver too for focussing our resolve to get it done!

Next up, Another famous Bedfordian has a bit of road named after her....

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