Training report

A tale of lockdown, hamstring injuries and cancelled races.

Let me take you back in time.  It’s September 2019, and the world hasn’t heard the words ‘Corona Virus’ yet, Boris took over running the country in July 2019 and we are all sick to death of Brexit.

I am slowly recovering from completing the Monarchs Way 615 mile,12 day ultra, the previous May (read the RACE REPORT here), and slowly getting back to running.  In fact, I am giving myself quite a hard time about how long it is taking to get my legs back.  In the month prior to Monarchs I ran about 300 miles, comfortably and enjoyably (& slowly) just getting a couple of hours in before work, or a long run on a Sunday.  It was easy and enjoyable, and set me up well for finishing Monarchs Way, albeit with a beaten and broken body (not to mention a mind turned to mush). 

By September, I could not understand why I was so tired when running, and why I had no pace even for short distances.  With the easy benefit of hindsight, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to diagnose terminal stupidity and complete lack of awareness of just how buggered I was even 3 months later.  So, true to form, I pushed quite hard on a little bit of speed work and felt a ping in my left hamstring (the main thigh muscle down the rear of your leg, under your bum).  Although I limped home, this did not prevent me from trying a 13 miler with my club the following day, but when by halfway I found myself scraping my left leg along the ground rather than lifting it cleanly I knew something more sinister was up.

No worries, I thought, I’ll rest it and be as good as knew in a few weeks.  Nope.  As I know now, but clearly did not then, the hamstring injury is a bugger to heal, takes ages and some real quality rehab to return it to where it had been.

I nursed it along for a while, found that while running was painful I could still hike (walk) with some pace, so focused on this while making preparations for a ‘chained’ 36 hour event with a good friend, Mark, in the ESCAPE FROM MERIDEN paired event.  Mark was very accommodating of my dodgy leg, and although we ran approximately the first 20 miles, we walked the rest, with me earning the nickname Millstone as I basically hung onto Marks rucksack so that I didn’t fall into the canal we were following.

In the end, we had a great time, won our particular category as we travelled the furthest distance in 36 hours, and my leg did not trouble me as much as I expected.

In January 2020 I volunteered at the Spine race, helping at Hawes, Alston, Bellingham, which was a real eye opener.  I was volunteering for two reasons: firstly I had the week booked off as holiday in order to complete the race, but completely bottled out of entering as it was far too intimidating, and secondly, it seemed wise to take a look at the race from the inside for future reference.

I have two vivid memories from my week volunteering.

Memory one; getting off the train in Hawes. I went from a nice warm bright train, to a freezing cold pitch black train platform, with horizontal rain and wind blowing a gale.  I simply could not believe that people were outside in this appalling weather, and would actually be making any progress.  It was awful.

Memory two was welcoming in the first runner I saw into Hawes, about 2 hours after the memory above.  The runner was about 5th position, so was at the ‘pointy’ end of the race and had clearly been pushing hard.  She was absolutely wet through, and visibly shivering uncontrollably, her hands shaking like a leaf.  She was not entirely with it, struggling to work out how to get her wet kit off due to numb hands and perhaps a little bit of shock.  Immediately, experienced volunteers moved in to sort her and get her wet kit off, while the call went out for medics to come and see what was needed.  Within a couple of minutes she was wrapped in dry blankets and positioned in front of a heater to get her temperature up.  30 minutes later she was eating and smiling and getting her kit ready to head back out into the black night. I was shocked and impressed in equal measure.  Very few of us have ever got that cold and wet and even fewer would be bouncing back within an hour. 

So I came away from volunteering with a much better idea of what to expect at the Spine race, but also a healthy fear (or possibly unhealthy terror) of what was involved and what would be required if I attempted it.

 I entered shortly afterwards, as you do, thinking that I’ve got a year to get myself in shape.  About the same time entered the Northern Traverse, a cheeky 190 miles coast to coast in April 2020 and the Montane Cheviot Goat in December2020, which I thought would be good training for all Spine things.

But then in late January 2020 the news started to mention a virus that was appearing in China, and then the world went to shit.

I work as a manager in large supermarkets, so at the start of the pandemic panic, when people were fighting over toilet rolls (remember that?) or were clearing the shelves of pasta and rice, that was directly related to me.  I’ve been retailing for 30 years, but my team and I had some of the toughest days and weeks that I can remember as the glorious public went mental.  Lockdown was introduced shortly after, and my wife (in healthcare) and I simply carried on in our jobs as normal watching the world retract behind closed doors in case of catching Covid.  Once again, I have massive respect for my whole team, who were well aware that they were coming into to contact with numerous members of the general public daily, putting themselves at risk of catching the ‘unknown’ virus, but kept turning up to work.  I’ll remind you that everything we knew about Corona in the early stages was that lots of people were being hospitalised with it, usually the older especially with any sort of respiratory problems.  Nowadays, we are much more blasé because of our knowledge and vaccinations but I will remember those months as some of the most stressful of my career.  Of course the NHS was rightly lauded for carrying on under hugely difficult circumstances, but my insight into the supermarket sector allows me to hold up these ‘ordinary retail workers’ as being some of the heroes that kept the country running through some challenging months.  

Summer 2020 was a funny time.  I was able to run (and did) but would start to get pain about mile 9 and generally did not go beyond 12 miles for fear of doing something more serious.  I was gently getting my mojo back and starting meeting up with a couple of running buddies for easy miles each week.  Despite this, I was limited to how far I could let myself go, and was complaining about this in July 2020 when my buddy Mark made the fateful comment that I needed to commit to sorting it out even if that meant stopping running for a while.

Of course he was right, it was never going to fix itself, so in July 2020 i stopped running, got onto YouTube for some stretches to do, and joined a gym to develop the muscles.  It may come as a surprise but I did not get fixed in a few weeks (as I fully expected) and in fact, by stopping running entirely my hamstring went from strong but painful to weak and painful in the space of three months.  I did not realise it at the time, but the only thing holding my buggered hamstring together was the workouts it was getting from the running.  When I stopped them (and didn’t replace them with the correct exercises) the muscle just withered.  I would try to run, and get about 30 steps before a very sharp and real pain stopped me.  This was far worse than before and was much more significant: I was limping lightly when I walked, I could feel the muscle struggling when I walked upstairs (for god’s sake!) 

Clearly this was getting a little serious, lockdown was being lifted through the summer and I had Cheviot Goat in December and the Spine in January to get ready for.  As part of my job I pay for private health insurance, so I went to a ‘proper’ Physio initially, who started off really optimistically and gave me loads of strengthening exercises and stretches, but by three months later was telling me time would heal it and not to rush.  I then went to a consultant who thought a steroid injection may help, but 2 weeks later it appeared to be back where we started.

So it’s November 2020, I’ve run 11 miles in the last 3 months and done 100 hours of exercise (I still tracked everything even though it was all rubbish).I was doing quite a bit of hiking, which I was enjoying, but wasn’t achieving the sort of fitness it was used to while running.

Thankfully the Cheviot Goat in December was cancelled, and I was doing a just a little hill training with heavy pack for the Spine 2021, but was totally unprepared if it had gone ahead.  The organisers were trying to work within the imposed restrictions  (masks, social distancing etc) and so were preparing racers for the likelihood of not being able to sleep at checkpoints and similar precautions.  I knew that my odds of finishing the Spine were negligible, even with all the luck in the world on my side. To make it all more difficult by making everyone sleep outside for a week would be a step too far for me.

Luckily (for me), the Spine was cancelled and I managed to get away with another year injured by not having any races.

Jan 2021 to July 2021 we are going to call the ‘fat months’.  I did little exercise (that made any sort of difference), I drank beer a lot and ate like I was running 50 miles per week.  I would get in the shower and run my hands sensuously over my pot belly, thinking “This is what an extra 10 lbs looks like”. 

This was the lockdown that everyone was setting up virtual events and running them on Facebook. As if to prove I could stlll hike, I took on a Cockbain challenge of a 10,20,30,40,50 mile run (or in my case walk) in a week.  Unfortunately I only had 5 days, so had to do them consecutively, but it was nice to have a challenge to get back into.

21stFeb 2021 – 30.1 miles, 7 hrs 23mins, 14.44m/m

22nd Feb 2021 – 50.1 miles, 13 hrs 38 mins, 16.2m/m

23rd Feb 2021 – 20.1 miles, 5hrs 7mins, 15.19m/m

24th Feb 2021 – 40.1 miles, 10 hrs 12 mins, 15.16m/m

25th  Feb 2021 – 10.1 miles, 2 hrs 27 mins, 14.33 m/m

What did I learn from this?  I can walk/hike a long way with little ill effects, and keep a pretty consistent pace with it too.  Also, it can be unbelievably boring and slow just going along for miles on end.  On the positive side, I did get out of the house for a bit!

On the back of this I entered a local looped 50 miler (the Kent 50 mile Challenge), with the plan of walking (fast) every step, and I managed it in about 11 hours.

17th April 2021, 50.27 miles, 11 hours2 mins, 13.08m/m

And I quite enjoyed it too!  It was great being part of an event again.  So I entered cheeky 100 mile event in the same location, again with the intention of walking every step, but the aim of getting it done in less than 24 hours which is a challenge for anyone whether running or walking.

22nd May 2021, 99.72 miles, 24 hrs 33 mins, 14.46m/m

A bit frustrating to lose a total of 30 minutes in vomiting (20 mins) and sleeping (10 mins) but there you have it.  It turns out that I can walk quite quickly for quite a long time.  My feet were slightly trashed by the end of this, but I was cheered by the fact that my hamstring was quiet through the whole event.

Yup, feet were perhaps a little ouchy after this one.

Despite the events above, I was doing very little other type of training, in fact my stats for the first few months of 2021 are pitiful:

Jan 2021 – 22 hours

Feb 2021 – 43 hours (but this included Cockbain challenge, so actual was 6 hours with this removed)

March 2021 – 12 hours

April 2021 – 26 hours(includes 11 hour50 miler)

May 2021- 59 hours (includes 24 hour 100 miler, and a couple of days out hiking)

June 2021 – 19 hours (quite a lot of cycling in the better weather)

I was fat, lazy, enjoying lie-ins to 10am, rather than my ususal 5am starts whether working that day or not.  It was a different way of life to my previous 8 years of running, and I was very aware how much I was enjoying it.  Perhaps, without being patronising, I was realising that this was how most people lived…not pushing themselves to achieve a certain goal (hours or miles) of exercise each week, not feeling that lying in bed all morning was a waste or being lazy.  Especially, because I wasn’t running at all, I was putting my body under considerably less stress and was not missing it at all.

I was meeting up with running friends for coffee, rather than running, bizarre but very pleasant.  But it couldn’t carry on.  Towards May & June the covid situation seemed to ease off due to the vaccinations and everyone seemed to be able to look to the future again.   I did the same, and told myself that would get myself back to ‘normal’ (whatever that is) in July.  I would start training for Spine 2022 on July 1st 2021.

So now you have a choice….you can either go to a continuation of this long and rambling account of the training and lead up to the Spine 2022 HERE, or you skip straight to the start of the race HERE.

Pre Spine Training July 2021 to Jan 2022

So, it’s July 1st 2021.  I’ve had a very relaxed previous 6 months, with a few ‘events’ such as a 50 mile and 100 mile looped races, which I walked every step due to a very dodgy hamstring that has been a problem for 18 months now.

Outside these events however, I was doing a minimal amount of training compared to my previous life and I’d put on a nice rounded stomach and about 10 lbs.  I’d happily got out of the habit of exercising and was not missing it at all.  Long lazy lie-ins on a Sunday morning were the norm, as well as eating and drinking considerable amounts.  It was great.

However, I’d told myself that on July 1st this was all going to change.  I had a nice round-number of 6 months to the Spine race, and needed to get my head (and body) into a certain position before attempting my nemesis race.

Firstly, I needed to put some discomfort and effort into the next 6 months, to give myself something to push against when I wanted to quit the Spine.  In essence, I needed to be able to tell myself that I’d worked too hard in the previous 6 months to just ‘give up’ whilst doing the race.  Does this make sense?  If I invested enough time and effort into getting to the start line, I’d have too much committed to easily tell myself it was OK to stop.

Secondly, I needed to get some good climbing into my legs.  The spine has a whopping 13135 metres climbing (43090 feet) along its 268 miles, and this sort of elevation is going to be a show-stopper if the legs aren’t ready, especially as I’m going to be carrying a 9-10kg pack as well. I’d spend much of my time climbing the cliffs at Folkestone, but also my local gym had a stepper machine, that meant I could walk upstairs for hours at a time.  It wasn’t exciting, but as a form of cardio and strengthening my legs it was magic.

Finally I just needed to get back to the habit of exercising and getting out of bed at unreasonable times.  When I could run well this really wasn’t an issue,  I loved it and considered myself lucky to get the opportunity to do something I loved and stay healthy at the same time.  By losing my running, everything I did was ‘training’ rather than my hobby – it made a big difference.

My goal was simple, if perhaps rather stretching.  I would set myself the target of 14 hours training per week, 60 hours per month.  It didn’t really matter what the training was at first, whether cycling, stepping on that damn machine at the gym, hiking, or doing weights at the gym (possibly the most pointless & depressing part of my whole training).  My first month or so was going to be about getting back in the zone of working hard towards a goal.

July 2021 – 62 hrs 2 mins. 

  • 33 hrs hiking (rather conveniently included a week’s walking with my wife)
  • 17 hours cycling (started cycling to & from work)
  • 10 hrs weights at the gym
  • 2 hrs odds and sods.

It was the cycling to work that really started to change things, as I found a nice round 10 mile trip with some stonking hills that really got me working hard.  I got in the habit of pushing hard to beat my previous times and with quiet roads at 6am I was able to fly!  Great fun.  By the end of the summer, when it was too dark to cycle safely in the  morning I’d reduced my time for the 10 miles to 37 minutes from 43 at the start of July.

The other thing to note from July was my focus on the consistency, so rather than doing fewer massive 10 hour days, I was aiming for daily effort and minimal rest days.  In fact, the whole of July meant only 5 rest days which worked well for me.

August 2021 – 57 hrs 8 minutes

  • 24 hrs hiking
  • 18 hours cycling
  • 6.5 hours treadmill
  • 4.5 hours stepping machine
  • 3.5 hours weights

Ah, treadmill.  I was feeling good and thought I’d try a bit of running, but safely on a treadmill.  The reality is that the running on a treadmill is subtly different as the belt moves your legs backwards requiring less effort from my hamstring (which was still not happy).  So I found I could run reasonably easily on a slow treadmill as my left hamstring could just coast along for the ride while the rest of my body compensated.  It was only when I tried to run outside did I realise my legs were absolutely not gaining anything from treadmill running.

This is what pushed me onto the stepping machine.  It was the only way to get my heart rate elevated in the same way that running did without actually running.  It also made my legs & heart work as hard as I wanted in order to get them ready for some serous ascent.

6 rest days this month, but still some really good numbers here. A second month of really committed training was doing wonders for my mindset and I was feeling good.

September 2021 – 59 hrs 24 mins.

  • 32.5 hrs hiking
  • 8.5 hrs stepping machine
  • 7.5 hrs cycling
  • 4 hrs treadmill
  • 3.5 hrs weights

This month included a cheeky 2 day recce of the end of the Pennine Way, from Bryness to KY, which was a great way to see the Cheviots.  I drove my son up to his northern university, and then just kept going to Byrness.  Parked about 5pm and walked to the first mountain refuge hut for the night, before setting out for Kirk Yetholm and the famous Border Hotel in the morning. I had lunch at the hotel and then speeding back to hut 1 again for the night (a 32 mile day, with 6000 feet of ascent!).  I had a great time and my pack & legs felt good, clearly I was getting my fitness back.

7 rest days this months, but also some longer training days that took it out of me.  For example, it took me a couple of days to recover from my Cheviot recce, where my energy levels did not seem to be as healthy as they were when I was running a lot.  In fact this seemed to be a consistent issue, in that much of the training I was doing was short 1-2 hour efforts, whereas when running I’d have at least one long run per week of 3-4 hours, and I seemed to be missing the energy levels that would get me through these 4 hour runs. I resolved to push my hiking from 4-5 hours up to 9-10 to simulate the energy expenditure from a long run, and this would also drive me to do more night hiking which would get me ready for the constant darkness of the Spine.

October 2021 – 69 hrs 36 mins

48 hrs hiking (included a 100 mile race)

8.5 hrs cross trainer

6.5 hours running

3 hrs stepping machine

2 hrs weights

Lots going on this month!  2 weeks holiday in Lanzarote, organised by my clever wife despite the various challenges and tests you had to complete to go abroad was a lovely break, and even better our apartment had use of a gym so I was able to beast myself on a cross trainer for an hour when I was bored of lying round the pool.  When that got to be too much I would go running, and tell myself that the pain on my hamstring did not exist.  It was lovely to be out and about, especially when everyone would look at me like I was mad.

I also entered a 100 mile looped race (SVN Halloween 100), with the intention of carrying my full Spine pack for the distance to see what my back and shoulders would feel like after 24 hours.  Answer?  Shoulders and back were absolutely trashed by halfway, screaming and sore and absolutely not going any further.  My feet (in some less-cushioned Innov8 shoes) were also protesting that they didn’t like walking on concrete for hours…that was the day I began trying all sorts of different insoles to give my feet some bounce.

Just to be clear, I’ve done a number of 100 mile or more races (I think this was to be number 14) and they are all challenging in their own right.  The distance is mentally challenging, and there are a number of physical barriers to overcome every time.  But I always overcome the barriers, don’t I?  Well, not in this case.  I jettisoned my pack at about mile 60 as it was just too painful on my poor shoulders; my feet needed painkillers to dull the soreness.  In addition, I could not keep my eyes open, and threw myself in the back of my car not once but twice overnight for a sleep.  This was a real concern as I would be looking at 6 nights awake on the Spine and here I was not coping with the first night!

By about mile 60 I was also vomiting anything solid, which is very usual for me but not great news for my energy levels, and by the following morning the looped route had been reduced to a 1.5 mile out and back due to incoming poor weather.  My brain was addled with the desperately boring route and I was hating every minute of it.

So I dnf’d (did-not-finish) at mile 82.  I simply stopped, said “bollocks” to it all, and got in my car to drive home.  I was not injured, hurt or running out of time.  I was just bored.  And predictably, within 30 minutes I was thinking what an idiot I was…whoever heard of someone stopping at mile 82 of a 100 mile race?  Over 4/5ths of the distance, and no serious injuries, who gives up?  Well, I did, and it allowed me some real soul-searching over the next few weeks to understand why I’d bailed out so easily.  I think the summary was fairly simple…the exit route was easy as I passed my car every 30 minutes, I was bored and tired, and the call of the sofa and beer was too strong.  It was a painful lesson, but probably steeled my resolve to not let that happen on the Spine.  No dnf’ing without good (medical) reason!

November 2021 – 41 hrs

29 hours hiking

6.5 hrs stepping machine

5 hours running

I clearly missed my 60 hours target by a mile this month, but the 100 mile event above was at the very end of October and I was busy licking my wounds for a few days to get back to any sort of training for a few days.

I did a couple of good 10 hour hikes along the cliffs at Folkestone, overnight, which covered 30 miles and 4000 feet of ascent each time.  I was carrying everything that I would be on the Spine, and the varied terrain was much more forgiving than the crappy concrete on the 100 miler.  The weather was unusually warm for the time of year, usually about 10-12 degrees even despite it being the middle of the night – not very Spine weather!

Although the month has running at 5 hours, these were very cautious 6 mile runs, done extremely slowly to protect my slowly-healing hamstring.  At the end of each my left thigh would be throbbing, as if to show me the effort that had been put into what should have been an easy run for me.  

Rest days in November – too many!  16 in total, compared to just 5 in July, but I was struggling to maintain my earlier enthusiasm with the night’s drawing in and the fatigue of ‘oh god not this again’ starting to bite a little.

December 2021 – 32 hours

23.5 hours hiking

5 hours stepping machine

3.5 hours running

I was about 5 hours into the long drive north to take part in the Montane Cheviot Goat when I (along with everyone else) was notified that it had been cancelled due to local council issues.  Not a problem, adapt and overcome!  I turned the car to head back south, and invited my mate that had been travelling up with me to come to Folkestone for a cheeky hike the following morning.  Steve had his first experience of the cliffs (which he dealt with very well to be fair) and he stopped at mile 15, while I carried on round the coast to get home in about 60 miles (taking 18 hours).  Good news, my pack seemed to be agreeing with me and the only issues was still that my Innov8 shoes simply were not giving me the padding I needed.

The following day I decided that although I loved Innov8 shoes, and the grip the offer, I was going to have to do the Spine in Hokas (a shoe that offers absolutely loads of cushioning) which would mean less grip on the varied terrain of the spine, but happier feet.

So we’ve made it to Christmas 2021, and as you can see I’ve had a fairly productive 6 months. I do not think for a second I was as fit as I have been previously, as without doing any seriosu running I simply did not have the time to drive my fitness up with lower intensity hiking. However, my mind was in a reasonable place and I’d have some good consistent training to push against if i felt like quitting the race itself.

I’d spent months (literally) obsessing over kit choices, mainly shoes but also all those small details that make or break a race. More of this in the KIT post that will be of interest to anyone actually doing the race in the future.

I’d also made a few lifestyle changes, that I suspect made little difference to the outcome but again, meant I mentally was telling myself I was preparing for the race of my life. I started eating (slightly) healthier, I stopped drinking alcohol from about the end of October to Christmas (apart from on a Sunday, a bloke has got to have some happiness in life!) and started with vitamins and similar to give myself the smallest possible chance of getting cold at the wrong time. I think all of these things were tiny changes in the grand scheme of things, but added up to something!

An interesting thing happened to me over the last few weeks of  December.  As the new Omicron variant became the hot topic on the news, and it looked likely we were heading for another lockdown, I began to hope / pray that the Spine would be cancelled again.  Looking back, this seems slightly irrational, but the fear was very real and I simply was not invested in the event, but rather dreading the misery it was going to involve.  I simply wasn’t ready physically or mentally, and I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach whenever I thought about the darkness, the ascent to climb, the lack of sleep, the cold/wind/rain weather.  To put it simply, I didn’t want to do the Spine, and was looking for a good reason to get out of it.

Shortly after Xmas however, it was clear there was not going to be a lockdown of the sort I wanted & needed.  I was going to the start line, ready or not!

OK reader, you’re ready…let’s go to the start of the race report….click HEEERRRRRREEEEEEE!

Spine Challenger – Kit list

One of the things I spent hours upon hours doing in the months before I did the Spine Challenger, was to research kit.   I spent time reading every race report that I could find, which gave me valuable insight into what to expect and what to take with me.  I spent time on the internet, reading about all the different types of kit available, at different prices, and their advantages and disadvantages.  And the finally, and most importantly, I tried everything I bought to see if it did what I wanted.

 

So I’m going to run through the kit I ended up with, and why, and whether it worked for me.  To understand my experience of the event itself, you can read my race report HERE, which may be useful as I will refer to certain things that happened.

I should make clear that I was only looking to complete, rather than compete, which means that I worried about weight from a comfort point of view (i.e. I didn’t want my back to hurt) rather than needing to run with my pack.  I couldn’t in fact run very far with my 8kg pack, but a strong hike got me finished on 43.5 hours, which was better than expected.

Clothing first:

From the ground up:

Shoes – I ended up using 2 pairs of non-gore-tex Innovate Rocklite 305’s.  They have great grip, and are quite comfortable.  In training I have run long runs in them on pavements, as well as hiking over rough terrain, so they are fairly versatile (i.e. not just hiking boots or trail running shoes).  With 2 pairs, I was able to change for clean ones halfway, which meant my feet got a rest.  There was lots of debate about whether Gore-Tex shoes were worth it, but the overall consensus seemed to be that Gore-Tex will keep the water inside the shoes once it gets in, where as non-waterproof shoes with quality waterproof socks allows the water that gets in to get out again, and feet stay (mostly) dry in the meantime.

Socks – I’ve been wearing this combination for a few years, and have found they work really well for me.  I have a pair of Injinji toe liner socks next to my feet, and some thin running socks next to them.   Injinji are really expensive, but I find they last for years (I’ve been using some 4 year old pairs, from when I did GUCR in 2014), and they prevent any skin rubbing on skin, preventing blisters.  The thin running socks are simply there to absorb sweat that comes out of the Injinji.  Over the top of these two is a pair of good calf-high Sealskinz, which although not perfect, keep the water out for as long as possible.  Three pairs of socks may feel like overkill, but I have used this combination in numerous ultras and they keep my feet problem-free.  In the Challenger my feet certainly weren’t dry after 12 hours, but the socks absorbed most of the moisture and my feet stayed clean.  I took 2 full sets of the three pairs, and another for emergency that I carried with me.

A quick note here:  no waterproof sock will keep your feet dry if you go through every puddle and stream available.  I will do everything I can to keep my shoes dry, skipping around puddles and mud until it is absolutely avoidable to get them wet.  I don’t like running with wet feet, and the cold would have been serious if my feet had been wet for hours.  If there is no danger of feet getting wet, then don’t use waterproof socks, as they are bleeding expensive and hold the sweat inside, basically poaching your feet over a long period of time.

I should also add, that I have great feet!  I almost never get blisters or problems, and when I watch people having their feet taped up at events I shudder.  I’m just lucky.

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Magic pristine feet!

 

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The feet in the middle are mine after the Thames Ring 250…again, in pretty good shape.

 

Gaiters:  when I’m out running I have a simple pair of dirty-girl gaiters, that cover my ankle and prevent sticks and stones going into my shoes.  For Challenger,  I invested in a pair of Bergaus  GTX gaiters.  These are expensive, but are probably one of the most important bits of kit after jacket and shoes.  The gaiters have a strong thick strap under the shoes that can be easily replaced when worn out as they are attached by Velcro.  The gaiters go from the tops of your shoe (another good reason for using a boot) right up to your knee, and fasten with velco all the way down.  They close nice and tightly around your lower leg, and provide superb protection against water and mud.  I don’t think you can run in them, but I didn’t try to be fair.  They were comfortable and secure, I didn’t have to adjust them at all once I fitted them correctly.  I suspect they will last me for years.

Underwear:  I wore a pair of compression shorts under my trousers, to keep everything ‘tightly held in’ and prevent any chafing.  These minimise any movement of my nethers, and hence no sore bits.  They are quite tight to wear for hours, but worth it I find.

Trousers:  I had 2 sets of base layers, once was a simple pair of compression tights for the first day that kept my legs warm under a cheap pair of running tights.  The second was a pair of merino wool leggings from Mountain Warehouse (about £30).  I only bought the merino wool pair as the internet seems to be convinced on the magic qualities of the wool…keeping cool and warm as necessary, and wicking moisture away easily.  I have to say this was the first I’ve ever owned, but they did seem to be very comfortable and warm.  I’m not convinced they were worth the price however, but as long as they last I will feel they were worth it.  I can’t see myself wearing them for any other running events, but possible hiking in the cold.

I wore cheap running tights (from Sports Direct) over the top of both.  I started with the compression tights and cheap tights for the first half, when my pace was going to keep my legs warm.  After the first day I changed to merino wool and a second pair of running tights, when I expected my pace to drop and my legs to get cold.  One the second day of the challenger, when I was in heavy rain and wind, my legs never felt anything other than warm and cosy.

I saw some runners wearing Montane hiking trousers and the like, which I suspect worked fine, but it seemed yet another expense.

Waterproof trousers:  I used a pair of Bergaus Deluge trousers as my main pair.  They performed well in the heavy rain, and even better they have a long zip up each side so can be put on over shoes – the last thing I wanted out on the trail was to struggle to put trousers on over shoes.  I’m not a massive fan of waterproof trousers, but these did a great job without overheating my legs.  If you want to have a look a them, go to Go Outdoors, where they have racks of every different type of waterproof trousers in different sizes, and try loads on.  It’s like internet shopping but with stuff to try on.

Top base layers – I had 2 merino wool base layers, for similar reasons that the internet said they worked really well.  Interestingly, I usually overheat on long runs and I found these worked well.  They did fill with sweat if I didn’t vent them on big climbs, but did a great job of keeping me warm.

Top layer – 2 normal winter running tops that I use every year.  These are quality Gore Mythos ones that I’ve had for years, but are fleecy on the inside and warm.  They have a thumb hole that keeps the arms stretched all the way down to my wrist, which I like anyway, but this proved invaluable on the Challenger, and there was no skin exposed when wearing gloves.

Jacket – the most important piece of kit.  I spent hours literally deciding which to get, as I didn’t own a good enough jacket previously.  I went for a hard-shell jacket, which was going to be bulletproof in poor weather, but was heavier and less breathable.  My recommendation is to go for the best you can afford, and I got a Mountain Equipment Rupal jacket.  It was great, and gave me huge confidence when the weather got really bad on the final night.  I spent a few nights training in it in the preceding months, so I was very experienced in unzipping to stay cool (it did get very hot on climbs) but I found that it was superbly wind-proof and overall I was really pleased with it.  I strongly suggest you do more than internet shop for it though, research and then get into Go Outdoors or Cotswold Outdoor and try it on! (Then go home and order it for as cheap as possible).

Neck gaiter – I just used lots of buffs.  I had a really thick one that I didn’t use, and the normal thin buffs did the job, even in strong wind.  The added benefit was that they could be pulled up over the chin and nose if the wind was biting cold on exposed skin.

Hat – I took one very warm waterproof hat, that I got cheaply off the internet a few years ago, and wore at night.  My jacket hood kept the rain off when the rain started so it didn’t need to be particularly waterproof, just warm.  During the day, or if it was too hot, I used a buff on my head instead.

Quite a few people had peaked caps, to shade their eyes from the sun (I always run in one) but luckily we had not one scrap of sun the whole time.

Headtorch – I usually use a Petzl myo, which I find does everything I want and had great battery life.  For the Challenger I traded up to a Petzl Nao plus, which was horrifically expensive (really really expensive) but after a recce in November with the Myo, I wanted more light for the night sections (i.e. most of it). I found the Nao plus gave loads of light (750 lumens I think, for 16 hours) and I liked the reactive lighting (which meant it dimmed in well lit areas to save battery), but in truth I didn’t like the rechargeable battery which forced me to buy a spare rechargeable battery just in case required out on the trail, and was fiddly to change.  The charge time is 6 hours too, which meant it wasn’t possible to fully recharge while at an aid station.  You can control the torch through an app, which also tells you how much battery life you have left….but it’s a gimmick.

I also took the Myo with me as a spare, just in case, and spare batteries for both torches.  The Nao plus worked superbly on both nights I was out, and although it was overkill it did a great job.

Goggles – part of the mandatory kit, these were probably the most alien thing I’ve ever taken on an ultra.  However, I read reports of racers having to retire a few years ago due to scrapes on their cornea from strong winds, so they are not to be ignored.  I wear glasses, so I have a slight advantage in winds that others don’t, and for that reason I was perhaps a bit blasé about the goggles.  I read lots of suggestions about them, and in the end I went for a reasonable pair of safety goggles from Screwfix.  They have them on display in the shop-part of a screwfix, which meant I was able to try them on over my glasses.  I read that a clear pair is much better at night than a yellow tinted pair (which is used for skiing), and mine were quite comfortable.  I never actually used them, even in really strong wind.

Gloves – this was really interesting.  I was clear that I needed a couple of good pairs that would keep my hands warm in the rain, and also a light flexible pair if it wasn’t raining.  So this is what I ended up with – my normal thin running gloves, a pair of tough waterproof thermal gloves from Screwfix, a pair of thick Mountain Equipment mittens, and finally a pair of Sealskinz gloves that I bought at the last minute and didn’t actually use.  The thin gloves were fine, but every gate or style that was wet was going to get my gloves wet, and cool my hands.  The Screwfix waterproof gloves fitted really well over these gloves and protected them from any moisture, especially when going through the boggy section where I could easily slip and put my hand on the ground.  These were basically rubber gloves, but I wore them more than any other glove especially when it was properly raining.  My mittens are gorgeous and very warm, and I wore them every evening as the light fell and it got much colder.  They are Primaloft, so warm when wet, and would be my glove of choice in the real cold.  When I did my recce, I was able to put hand warmers into the mittens which kept my hands toasty when I was getting cold.

Overall, I have learnt that if my feet, hands and neck/head are warm then the rest of my body generally follows.  Hence socks / gloves / buff & hat are probably the things that I already knew what worked for me, and I didn’t have to look around too much.

The only other bit of clothing I took, but didn’t actually wear in the end was a decent warm Rab microlight jacket, that fitted easily under my hard-shell, and kept me fantastically warm when I got really cold.  It packed down to tiny proportions, and weighed about 250g, a worthwhile trade-off for the heat and confidence it gave me.  I didn’t actually use it, but it was my “hypothermia-preventer” if I had needed it.

I was really tempted to carry more layers, t-shirts or more long sleeved tops that I could put on if required, but I kept them in my drop bag and in the end didn’t require them.

Rucksack – OMM classic 32ltr.  Was bigger than I needed, and I had to be controlled so that I didn’t fill it with even more stuff, but I’ve used it a lot and it fits well.  I especially like the various pockets it has on the waist belt and top.  I used an OMM trio front pack, which was great, very big (4 ltr) and hold everything I needed for easy access.  I had a single water bottle fitted to one of the shoulder straps woth an OMM pod, worked very well.

GPS unit – Garmin Etrex 30.  I’ve had this for a few years, and it is simple to use but very good.  If you don’t use one much at the moment, then get out and use it, especially if you aren’t very technological gifted.  It is a bugger to get used to, but I can strongly recommend to make your mistakes when you’re not in a race.  Please don’t underestimate this, unless you are an expert map reader.  I can read a map, but not after 40 hours with no sleep, and the GPS saved me more than once.

Sleeping bag & bivvy bag.  Dead simple…Alpkit Pipedream 400 and Hunka XL bivvy.  The sleeping bag is good down to -6 degrees, and I slept outside in frosty weather in November with no problems.  It weighs 800g, which is heavy, and is quite bulky, but it is such a reasonable price it seemed daft not to get one.  The XL bivvy seems to be decent, but quite small (even though XL) for me – I’m 6ft.

Rollmat – also from Alpkit.

Stove – I used an MSR pocket rocket, and a titanium pot from Alpkit with waterproof matches from the internet.  I didn’t take a heavy wind blocker, but a couple of pieces of stiff silver foil (cut down bits of silver tray) that would work if I couldn’t find any shelter.  I didn’t use them in the end, but practised until I could set them all up, boil 2 cups of water to make cup-a-soup, drink and pack up in just under 10 mins.  Even in that short time I was getting really cold (practice when out hiking, not in your kitchen!), so it is vital to practise to be quick.  I was tempted to go for a jetboil or something similar, but I love the compactness of the kit I had.

Yaktrak pro – mandatory kit, didn’t use them, but the ice on the last night was eye-opening, so I almost used them.  You need to practice putting them on!  Get them cheap from the internet (mine cost £7.50, they are £20 in the shops)

Maps – a lot of people used the OS A-Z for the Pennine way, which has a highlighted line over the Pennine way.  I went a bit more down-market, and cut up the required OS explorer map (i,e. waterproof and pretty bomb-proof) into A4 sized chunks.  These were numbered 1 to 17, and each covered about 6-12 miles of the route.  Hence, I could have a single piece of map in front of me, that was quite small and manageable, and I would change for the next map every few hours when I got to the top of the page.  Worked really well (but it felt like heresy to cut a map up).  I saw people using Harveys maps, but I really struggle with their scale.  I’m sure I don’t need to say it, but please practice map reading a lot, even if you don’t intend to use them.  Your GPS will do a lot for you, but confidence in your own abilities to get you out of trouble will be important.

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Pages 2 & 3 of my cut-down maps….I have 17 in total (but only needed 1-8 for the first leg, then 9-17 for the second half after checkpoint.

 

And what else did I take?

Hand-warmers, from Tesco, one use only but stayed warm for 10 hours on my recce which was was beyond my expectations.

Plastic poncho, to protect in case of poor weather.  These take up no space, are very light, and made me feel confident.  I used on on the last night, and seemed to help (but that may be down to my bulletproof jacket).

Rubber gloves – plain old Tesco washing-up gloves, very light, which I kept on the outside of my pack and used when I took my disgustingly muddy boots and gaiters off.  Purely psychological, but I hate to get my hands covered in bog when taking my shoes off.

Waterbottles, obviously.  If using one with a bite valve and straw from the bottle, do put a bit of insulation on them.  I found that while my straw didn’t freeze up (it was wrapped in felt and duct tape), my bite valve would crack when I used it as the water inside wiuld freeze.  I learnt to blow the water out, back into the bottle, after every drink.

Food – tough one this, as everyone is different.  I took 2 freeze-dried meals in my rucksack, 1000kcal each, in case of emergency.  In my front pack I had a small bag of ‘nibbles’, like bars of chocolate, a cheese roll, a pork pie, boiled sweets, flapjack etc.  It was about 12 hours worth of food for me, and I carried an identical bag in my rucksack.  It worked well for me but obviously there were people there hardly eating anything from their pack and relying on cafes and pubs.

Spare shoelace.  Just in case.

First aid kit, as required, and the smallest sharpest penknife I could find that had a pair of scissors on it.  Look on amazon.

Phone, iPod, headphones…not necessary, but very welcome in the night.  I also carried a charging block & lead, but didn’t use it…it just made me feel safer.

Poles – can’t forget these!  I’m quite a fan of poles up the ascents, and used them for the Arc of Attrition and on the Spine.  I know there are loads of sexy thin pair around, but I also read that alot of the thin ones get broken on the spine as there are a lot of nooks and crannies for the tip to slip into and get snapped off when you keep moving forward.  On my November recce that was exactly what happened to me.  So my pole of choice is…Amazon best seller “Pair of Trekrite Antishock Hiking Sticks / Walking Poles – Black”.  These are chuncky and strong, and even when I did snap the tip off one on my recce I still used it for days.  They are telescopic, which means they are bulkier than folding poles, but they work fine.  Best of all they are £20.  They weigh 285g each, which is loads, but I think worth it (Black Diamond are £80 and only a little lighter).  Personally, I’d rather spend my money on a better jacket or solid gaiter than poles, but that’s just me.

I should point out that if I was in an event that only used poles for a small amount of time, these would be a nightmare to carry with you until they were required, so I’d probably get something smaller….but for Challenger, perfect.  Oh yes, almost forgot, put duck tape around the top third of the pole, as it’s much warmer on bare fingers than the metal pole when holding them.

This is me at the end of the Challenge, after 6 hours of proper spine weather…you can see my front set-up.

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Nothing dry!

My GPS is the grey think hanging in front of the OMM front-pack.  I kept it there to be able to refer to it easily, rather than getting it out of a pocket.  It was fixed to the front-pack with velco.

And my drop bag….

Two compartments at either end.  One was filled with the immediate stuff I’d need to swap my muddy shoes out at the checkpoint aft erthe first day – plastic gloves (for keeping hands clean when getting boots off), bin liners (for dirty boots & gaiters), kitchen towel (to dry feet), crocs (for keeping bare feet of the ground…I wanted my soggy feet to dry out as much as possible, so they needed to spend some time in the air, without socks on, so used crocs.  Not very good, as they were a bit restrictive and tight on my tender feet, I would have been better with soft sandals).

In the other compartment was all the ‘important’ stuff for the checkpoint that wasn’t clothing…about 3 charging blocks & leads (for charging head torch rechargeable battery, watch, phone),  spare batteries (for GPS), replacement hand warmers (if I had used them in the fist leg, I would remember to replace them).

In the mid section of the drop bag was everything else!  Complete change of clothing for the second half of the race (and a bin liner for all the dirty clothes to go in), small towel (which I didn’t use, probably a bit of a luxury to be honest), more spare batteries, maps for the second half,

And obviously the most important thing….a checklist ot make sure I did everything I needed to.  With only one crack at the checkpoint & dropbag, you simply cannot forget anything, and no matter what you think your mind will not be running at 100%.  Doing yourself a checklist also means you have run through what you need to do at the checkpoint previously, and so save you thinking on the day.  It doesn’t need to be complicated, but it’s vital.  Even though I had ‘fill water’ on mine, I was so keen to be on my way that I forgot…idiot!

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Naturally, it doesn’t say “call the wife”, but I did.

 

And what else can I suggest…

Personally, I had all the big elements of my kit sorted by start of November, ready for a recce for a few days and a test of the kit.  That gave me a chance to replace if things didn’t work, and also allowed me to use the vital Xmas period to justify spending yet more money on the smaller bits. Even more important, that allowed me to shop around and get everything at internet-cheap prices.   Also, that allowed me to use November to practise will full race kit, clothes and pack, to get used to it.  I cannot stress enough how important that is…you need to know where everything is without thinking about it (for example, I always put my gloves in the same pocket, so I always knew where to find them…as lack of sleep starts to bite that becomes really important as I found on the Thames Ring 250).

Training on muddy hilly ground is crucial, just to get used to it.  I was driving for 45 mins to get to my cliffs, and then spending 7 hours going up and down, before driving home.  Best to do this at night too…good practise, and also you are home for 10am Sunday morning and a day with the family (I didn’t say this was easy!). Also, staying up most of the night and then the rest of the day is great practise with sleep deprivation.

The few weeks beforehand, spend some quiet time working out what you want to achieve…not so much a finishing time, but if the weather and conditions get really poor, what is going to give you the motivation to keep going rather than DNF’ing.  This sounds a bit cheesy, but you will be tested to the max out there, and it’s a big expense to quit halfway.

Read every race report that you can find, even if they scare you to death.  It’s critical to know what to expect & where you will hit the big ascents.  I didn’t watch videos of Pen-y-Ghent before hand (there is a link in my race report) but with hindsight I should have.  Some people had used Google streetview to look at areas they could get to, but that is (perhaps) going a little to far.  The internet has huge resources!

And finally, enjoy the experience.  It’s not about a couple of days on the pennine way, but rather about taking on a huge challenge and spending 6 months getting ready for it.  I’m sure there are some people who started preparation in December, but they are better than me!  I’ve been left with a massive sense of achievement, as well as a “job-well-done” feeling, that is worth all the hassle.

 

 

 

 

Pre-Thames Ring 250 thoughts…

I’m all packed, and althought I’ve got far too much food, I don’t want to get peckish over the 4 days.

A small selection of tasty morsels...one for every checkpoint

A small selection of tasty morsels…one for every checkpoint

So, am I worried & nervous?  Yes.  Probably more than that actually.  I ran 145 miles in GUCR last year, and I vaguely remember the last 10 miles being very very tough, both mentally & painfully.  My knees were absolutely buggered, due to the continuous impacting of going for 33 hours without stopping, and my buddy runner was having to stop me from taking more ibruprofen/paracetamol than was healthy.  Tomorrow I’m setting off on what will take minimum of 80 hours, probably more like 100, and I’m going to be pretty bashed up by the end.  It’s going to hurt.

I’m worried about the lack of sleep.  I’ll sleep at mile 75, 150 & 200.  But even so, I will still manage maybe 6-10 hours in the 100 hours.  That wil be rough, probably the toughest thing of all.  And I know my decision making gets dodgy when I’m tired.  Oh dear.  To deal with that, I’ve got a load of people from my runnnig club to call me at various times from about 38 hours onwards, to keep me awake.  I don’t know if this will work though.

I’m worried that my feet won’t hold up to the stresses I’m about to put them through.  I’ve had the worst blisters ever for the last 6 months.  Mainly due to my trying different shoes during the months or not changing shoes during 100 mile race in May.  Whatever, I’ve learnt more about taping up blisters than I ever wanted too.  I’ll be changing my shoes every 50 miles  during TR250, but it will hurt if the blisters start.

Check these pictures out of finishers feet from 2013 – https://www.flickr.com/photos/98532584@N05/sets/72157634531765874/  Hmmmm.  Don’t look great.

I’m worried that my left hamstring, which is unbelievably tight and has been for a while, will simply snap.  That’ll smart a bit, I imagine.

I’m worried that I’ll fall in the canal towards the end, when it’s dark, and have to walk for hours to ge to the next checkpoint.  This happened to someone in 2013.

I’m worried that I’ll get lost, as regularly happens.  Not because the route is complicated, but because you’re so disoriented you turn yourself round and start to go the wrong way.

I’m worried that the weather looks warmer than I want for the first few days, and then starts raining on Friday, when I’ll be wanting it to warm up.  Bugger.

I’m worried that after waking up from 3 hours sleep in 40 hours, stiff & sore, with 50 hours still to go, I’ve got to get my sleeping bag back into the holding sack, which I can’t do on a good day.  Hopefully someone will help.

However….

I’m very well planned.  I know exactly what I’m going to eat/do at all the various stages…I’ve just got to remember to stick to it.

I’ve packed everything I need and more.  You may thing that a bottle of tabasco sauce is not required kit for a run, but when my taste buds are rejecting all the dried food I’ve packed, tabasco will give it a kick.  I’ve probably thought of everything.  If I havn’t, it wasn’t that important.

This was about halfway through the packing extravaganza....

This was about halfway through the packing extravaganza….

I’ve been planned this for months, I’ve been packing for weeks, and all I’ve got to do now is run the thing.  This is the easy part.

All packed into surprisingly few bags!

All packed into surprisingly few bags!

My post-race recovery food is planned, together with a week off work to fix myself.

 

This is what you call planning!  Post-race recovery sorted...

This is what you call planning! Post-race recovery sorted…

And what else?  Nothing else.  I’m ready to go.

And all I’ve got to do is keep moving forward.  For 4 days & 250 miles.  And keep eating.  And sleep a bit.  And enjoy it.

Pre-Grand Union Canal Race report – training and background stuff.

Hmmm, a few background notes that might make sense of what comes in the main race report:
I am a very average runner. Not the slowest, but also never in danger of being in the front 30%. I can run reasonably quickly, I’ve done a marathon in 3 hr 32 min, but I don’t enjoy putting myself in pain that I can easily get rid of (by going more slowly).
I do enjoy running usually. I like going somewhere, or logging miles that I know add up to a decent total. I enjoy the uncomfortable tightness in legs after a 20 mile run or longer. Although it hurts, it is a good pain that indicates I’ve done something that will make me healthier / fitter. In the same way I used to be proud of a particularly bad hangover, meaning that I’d really had a skinful the previous night and so must have really enjoyed myself (a logic I now have to question, reaching middle age unfortunately).
I’m stubborn & organised. I like to finish what I start, and do it as well as I can. I don’t see the point of not finishing something. I’m a good planner, ready for any eventuality, although this sometimes means I only use a quarter of the kit I may pack, at least I’m ready for any weather conditions – from torrential rain to heat wave requiring mosquito repellent and suntan cream.
I generally do one big event per year. It used to be a marathon in April / May. This allowed me to train through the crappy winter months of Jan & Feb, enjoy the sun appearing (while training) in March & April, and then complete the event and return to normal life in May (and carry on normally, just running for recreation, all the way to Boxing day). After the Paris Marathon in April 2011, I thought it may be fun to try a 24 hour event (the 24 hour Challenge at Marshside, organised by the very excellent ChallengeHub.co.uk), which was very close to home, just to see how far I could go. I’d done a 32 & 50 miler, and found them tough, both mentally and physically. I did the 24 hour run on nothing much more than marathon training, and somehow covered 105 miles in a burst of stubbornness that surprised myself. I marched (rather than ran) most of it after 45 miles, but found I could just keep going at a decent pace (about 15 mins per mile) consistently with a positive mental attitude. The only problem was that firstly, I got very disoriented during the second half, and secondly I was in pieces when I finished: couldn’t lift either leg to get up the stairs, couldn’t bend my ankle to drive for three days, was a stiff as a board for a week, and I didn’t run for three months.

Just finished my first Ironman, no wonder I look pleased!

Just finished my first Ironman, no wonder I look pleased!

I stopped worrying about running after that, as I couldn’t see how I could ever top 100 miles.
So, logically, I turned to triathlon, having considered but discarded the thought of an Ironman (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, then a marathon) in 2010 as too difficult. I completed IMUK in July 2012 & Outlaw in 2013.

The two Ironman trialthlons were a bit ‘samey’ so it seemed right to return to ultra and proper challenges that put me back in the same ‘I don’t know if I can do this’ position…..

 

 

 

 

 

Right then….let’s talk about the GUCR. 145 miles from Birmingham to London, along the path of the Grand Union Canal, with a cut-off time of 45 hours.  This year was the 20th year of running, bery impressive!

Feckin' long way!

Feckin’ long way!

Firstly let’s consider the first line of the website “Britain’s longest toughest non-stop running race”. That was enough to catch my attention, and while the race reports made it sound great & tough, the dropout rate of 25% – 50% made it sound just plain tough. It is heavily over- subscribed, so entry is mainly by ballot. I’d been entering ‘not seriously’ for a couple of years, but I actually remarked to my wife that I had a feeling this year that I would get in…And in November I found out I had. Cue real excitement, real trepidation, real emotion (‘what have I done’) and that lovely feeling in the pit of my stomach of ‘I’m not sure whether I can do that’. Bring on lots of race reports of previous years, some quite positive, some just awful to read. Bring on a few YouTube videos, but to be honest they didn’t allow you inside people’s heads which is what I was looking for, but rather just showed you what the weather and scenery was like.

Not my feet!!  But they look bloody painful!

Not my feet!! But they look bloody painful!

Bring on pictures of feet that took your breath away, and stories of hospital visits and lingering medical conditions brought on by the race that lasted for months afterwards.
So that brought us to Boxing Day. I work in retail, which means November and December are pretty much a write-off in terms of free-time, so Boxing Day is the day I do my first 6m run at the start of my new year of training. All through Jan and February, I had one simple idea: to run longer than usual. My typical run had been 6 miles, perhaps pushing to 13 miles or 20 on a proper long run. Now my logic was to make my previous 6m run into a 10m run, and then make anything longer into a 20m run. I would fool my brain into thinking that whereas I used to skip out the door for 50 minutes to complete a 6 mile loop, now I would convince myself that I was doing exactly the same actions, but going for a little longer, to complete 10 miles instead.
The general accepted training regime for an ultra is to complete back-to-back 20 mile runs on consecutive days, to run on tired legs, but not to work them so hard they get injured. I did not have the luxury of having days off together, but thought that simply running for as far as I could in the time allowed (on days off, mornings, evenings etc) would get me there.
On a Sunday, I previously used to meet my running club (the mighty Thanet Roadrunners) at 8am for a 10 mile run, but now I decided I would get up a little earlier and complete 10 miles before meeting them, and so squeeze 20 miles into the same time. I’d still be home at 10am to spend the day with the family.

I would usually have a day off in the week (and working Saturday) so on that day I would see the kids off to school, and then go for a 20 mile run. Allowing me the afternoon to catch up on anything that needed doing. I was lucky enough to be able to meet with a great runner called Mark Foster (also from Thanet Roadrunners) on a few of these Tuesday runs, and drink in his advice along the way.

Just one of the many massive meals I was allowed after a good run!

Just one of the many massive meals I was allowed after a good run!

So, two decent long runs in an average week, coupled with 10 mile runs whenever I have time in the evenings or morning. Never any run less than 10 mile, and every run with a rucksack I was planning on using on the day. It seemed like a plan.  Not forgetting the massive amounts of food I’d be allowed to eat.

On a couple of occasions I had to adjust my normal schedule to fit in something else:
For example, I always try to complete a 10 mile race at the end of January, the Canterbury 10, as it is exactly the same period of time after Boxing Day each year and it allows me to test my progress since then. But I didn’t want to waste a Sunday morning with just a 10 mile run, as usually I was doing 20 miles or more. So this year I got to the start nice and early, ran the route twice, to get in my 20 miles, and then ran the race proper, so that I could still see what I had left in my legs. After 20 miles already done I was definitely slower (I finished 10 minutes off my PB), but it was surprisingly good fun, and I was surprised how much I had left in the tank that became apparent in race conditions. If I’d been slogging away on my own I suspect I’d have been slowly grinding down to a stop. In a race situation I was actually getting quicker.
On another weekend I decided I needed to see how I would cope with the lack of sleep of running overnight…would I lose all activity as I got colder and slower, or would I fall asleep on my feet? Or even worse, would I make it through the night, but not be able to function as I got tired the following day. So I finished work at 10pm on a Saturday night, got home and changed into my running stuff, and left the house at 11.45pm.

Just heading out for an overnight training run!

Just heading out for an overnight training run!

It was a beautiful night, and as I ran I could feel the excitement of doing something new and different going through my veins. I ran from my house through some dark woods (which I’ve run many times in daylight and were infinitely more scary in the dark) before running up through the centre of Canterbury nightlife at 2am. Then from Canterbury back towards home to make up my first 20 mile loop. Legs starting to get tired but actually feeling very awake and alert. Then I was running in the opposite direction towards Whitstable, and towards a 24 hour McDonalds, which did me a mug of boiling water to make up some Smash instant potato, and a cup of coffee. I don’t think I was feeling tired enough to need the coffee, but it seemed the right thing to do at the time. With both coffee and Smash inside me, I could run to Tankerton and then follow the coast line all the way to Margate, ready for meeting my club for the usual Sunday morning 8am run, and my last 10 miles. I got there feeling good, and loved the cries of incredulity when I said I’d run all night, and would be joining them for the run that morning. That convinced me I would be able to cope with the night portion of the GUCR, although I didn’t know what effect having run all day would have on my legs.

Dawn breaking at Reculver, lovely!

Dawn breaking at Reculver, lovely!

I told some of the team at my work about my idea of running 145 miles, which was generally met with the standard response of “why?” and “you’re mad”. I started to get plans together for the race itself. I knew I would need some support runners, which are allowed to accompany a racer from mile 65 (usually the start of the night section) to help with navigation and to rescue runners fallen in the canal. I asked about in Thanet Roadrunners whether there were any people mad enough to want to accompany me along 70 miles of canal, in the dark and likely rain, with little encouragement or ‘crowd support’.

Strangely, I got a few replies, the best of which came from a husband and wife team (that’s good, I thought, not too much arguing) who were respectable marathon runners although had never done over that distance. I’d be asking them to cover 35 miles each, in stages, with time in-between stages to cool down and get stiff, and then start running again, as well as feeding me, keeping me positive, staying warm and dry and awake. Not an easy task by any means.
I had already lined up a mate, Steve, to drive the car. Steve used to run, but hasn’t for a number of years, and certainly has no experience of ultra events. His expertise lies in being entirely un-flappable, with a wealth of hidden talents, and I was confident that he could cope with anything the event could throw at him. For example, when he first agreed to take part, I spent an enjoyable evening with him going over amongst other things, the details of the race and how I thought the days would go. At some point I said that one of my biggest concerns was staying awake though the full length of time, as 45 hours was a long time to remain awake, not even considering driving or running at that stage. Steve said he didn’t think it would be that much of a problem, and nonchalantly walked to get a framed certificate hanging in an obscure part of his house, that shows he was the Guinness Book of World Records holder for the longest game of checkers, at 108 hours. He’d done it while a student, and the record has since been stopped as it is considered ‘unhealthy’, but it was good to know that someone in the car would be staying awake for the duration.

So, that was my support crew organised. Steve to drive the car along the 145 mile route from Birmingham to London, and John and Jo to run alternate legs with me from about mile 70 to the end.
By the end of March I was starting to consider the route itself, basically a long canal towpath, and the likelihood of getting lost on it. With the internet forums saying it was easy to navigate and very difficult to get lost, and with the organisers producing maps and instructions that looked deceptively simple, I knew the obvious thing was to trust everyone around me and not worry about it. Thus, on Easter Monday, I caught a train from London up to Birmingham New Street station, with just my rucksack (bursting with essentials and killer-heavy) and set off to follow the course over about 4 or 5 days, staying in B&Bs and really get to grips with the route.

GUCR peaceful canal

Peaceful canal!

I could write even more about my experiences on this week. But I won’t. I fell in love with the canal, got hungry & thirsty, struggled to find B&Bs and almost had to sleep rough on the first night. I pushed much too hard and ended up completing about 40 miles each day, which meant my legs gradually got trashed. I grew to hate my rucksack and specifically its extra weight, and developed sores on my shoulders. But after 3 days I’d completed about 110 miles of the route, with another 10 miles of travel to and from the canal finding places to eat (pizza!) and sleep.

Canal food!  Yumyumyum

Canal food! Yumyumyum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The final weeks passed quickly, and packing seemed to take ages, as always.

Packing...can't see the kitchen sink in there yet!

Packing…can’t see the kitchen sink in there yet!

My wife had pre-arranged to fly out to Spain to see her parents on the Sunday morning of the race, taking my daughter, and she had shown me the dates and times of the receipts, so I knew they’d definitely been booked before I got into the race. I’d rather dangerously promised to take my son camping the week that my wife was in Spain, which meant the week following the GUCR, stiff and sore, I would be spending the week in the cold & rain on a campsite,  rather than on the sofa watching telly. Ooops, but what could go wrong?

I was ready for adventure!

 

If you survived that monstrous reoprt – well done you!  Now for the actual race report…hopefully it’s a bit more interesting (and talks alot more about food too!)