A few days hiking and wild camping with Michael – July 2016

It seemed like a great idea at the time!  I would be travelling up to the lake district for a race, the Lakeland 50 on a weekend at the end of July, so why not extend it slightly and have a few days holiday at the same time?

This, over the first few months of the year, especially while my son was slogging away at his GCSE’s, turned into a full week in the Lakes, and although we talked about the whole family coming up…in the end it turned into just Michael and I.

Oh yes, did I mention we planned to wild camp?  I.e. carrying everything we needed so we could just stop wherever looked nice in the evening and make up a camp.  A particularly helpful friend, Mike Inkster, had lent me a little one man tent, sleeping bag & mat, which were unbelievably light, but with two of us going I began the long-winded process of finding something acceptably light but not too expensive that I could use.  In the end, I found a rather useful company called Alpkit who seem to be the ‘value’ side of sports kit – good quality but £120 for a sleeping bag rather than £300.

So, a load of new kit, a couple of practice camps near home (which got Michael used to waking up freezing cold!), and we were ready to go.  The packs we’d be carrying were quite heavy, but I was confident we could cope with some mileage if the climbing was not too bad.

The plan –

Drive up Sunday, and park the car in Coniston.  Get the bus to Ambleside, where we had a b&b booked (for a good nights sleep!).  On Monday we would walk from Ambleside to Coniston, which was about 15 miles, and camp somewhere near Coniston.  The added benefit was that we could be near the car if we were caught out by the weather or had a problem.

Tuesday was going to be the big day, with a route of 19 miles (possibly longer) and some huge ascent.  We would follow the first 20 miles of the Lakeland 100 route from Coniston to Wasdale Gap.  I knew this would be a test for us both…..a long way, over poor terrain, carrying heavy packs, after an uncomfortable nights sleep, in possibly poor weather.  We would camp at somewhere quiet in Wasdale.

Wednesday was the final push to Keswick, another 14 miles or so, and to a b&b and a soft bed!!   Then a couple of days of rest before the 50 mile race (for me).

We would be travelling very very light…the only spare clothes we would have while hiking was a clean pair of socks each day, although we both had a pair of quality waterproof socks to protect our feet from gangrene.  As well as our tents and sleeping bags, we had a tiny cooker, some noodles, and water bottles, as well as lots of ’emergency’ things that we didn’t use in the end (water purification tablets, a sharp knife, first aid kit etc).  We were well kitted-up.

 

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At the start of a long walk.  Monday morning and we look cheerful & well rested.

You can see from the above picture, we were ready for rain…and it did rain all day!  Marvellous!

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The walking was quite good for most of Monday, on a reasonably easy route.  It did rain though, and it was very wet underfoot.  We’d had a massive breakfast though, so were in good spirits.

20160725_121533There was a few of these massive wall-stiles, which were very slippery.  The rain, by lunchtime, had soaked our waterproof jackets completely, so Michael had to put on one of my plastic ponchos to keep the warmth in and the rain out.  It wasn’t ideal but did the job.20160725_133129The scenery was well worth it though.

20160725_140224And the local wildlife was interesting too!

We stopped for a bite to eat at Tilberthwaite, just before a big climb and the last few miles to Coniston.  Luckily it stopped raining for the 20 minutes that we stopped, but as we began hiking again, we sheltered under a convenient bridge while the next batch of rain passed.

20160725_144437I love the climb out of Tilberthwaite, and we met a slightly lost group of Duke of Edinburgh students (doing the Gold award) near the top.  We were all heading for the Coniston, so they followed us for about a mile, until we were at the highest point.20160725_153459

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Useful to find a helpful student to take a picture!

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Spot the ones still standing, and the D of E students slumped on the ground.

So we finished the route for Monday, actually clocking up about 18 miles somehow, which made it a much longer day than I’d planned.  This was supposed to be the easy first day!  Once we’d found a nice spot to spend the night, we headed for the pub and warmth and food.  Very nice it was too!

 

The camp was just by a river, and a nice wire fence that was perfect for hanging things from.  There also seemed to be a huge quantity of slugs in the vicinity, no idea why.  Most important, it was very sheltered by the overhead trees, and dry underfoot.20160725_201441

The next morning was an early start, as we had a long way to go!.  We were up and packed by 7am, and with only some super noodles inside us we needed to walk to the first pub quickly!

I’d had a fair bit of coffee, and Michael had some hot chocolate, to warm us up.  It was cold, but at least it wasn’t raining!

I’d warned Michael that the first climb out of Coniston was the toughest, with both the terrain and ascent being very hard.  To be fair, he did amazingly well, and by 10 am we were at Seathwaite eating Pringle’s.20160726_09215020160726_092157

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Seathwaite, Pringle’s, and a rest!  Phew!

However, Seathwaite was only 7 ,miles in, and we had a long way to go.  On the positive side, the weather was good and we knew there was a good pub for lunch at Boot.

 

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Looking quite happy, at the top of the latest ascent.

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This is what we had to climb down, after the picture above was taken.

We stopped for lunch at Boot, which we both needed.  Michael, bless him, fell asleep he was so tired.IMG-20160726-WA0000

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Mordor!

It was tough hiking, with lots of ascent and terrible terrain and we were both getting tired towards the end of the day.  However, some sections were just gorgeous, with the impression you could see for many miles.  At the top of some of the ascents, we were convinced we could see the sea.20160726_160908Our camp on the Tuesday night was, thankfully, a decent clearing. It had been dry most of the day and although we were shattered, it was great to stop.  We set up the tents and shot off for the pub.  Unfortunately, just as we set off, it started raining, and it didn’t stop until Wednesday morning.

 

20160726_181645However, the pub was good, and the food was better…20160726_191056

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Breakfast was on it’s way!

We’d decided the previous night that we would take it easy on Wednesday, rather than going for another massive day.  Both of us were pretty shattered, and after a fairly bad nights sleep in the rain I think we made the right call.

 

We would walk over another massive ascent, Black Sail Pass,  and then stop for lunch at the most remote Youth Hostel Association hostel, which  can only be accessed on foot.  This would be about 8 miles of hiking, but would allow us to get the bus to Keswick for a b&b without too much effort.

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The start of Wednesday, at Wasdale.  Do we look tired and smelly?  That’s because we were!

20160727_10063920160727_104326This picture shows where we’d walked up, on the way through Black Sail Pass.  Lots of stopping to rest, in order to keep going!  But look at the blue sky…that was great!20160727_10550420160727_11424420160727_11425420160727_120101

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A sheep.  Did not give a toss.

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After Black Sail Pass…do we look relieved!

20160727_12151020160727_121515And so back to civilisation, at Buttermere, where the bus stop was.  We had a tuna sandwich and a sit-down.20160727_145456We had covered just over 50 miles in three days, over massive passes and rough terrain, with both of us carrying everything we needed for two nights of wild camping.  We had eaten well in the evenings, but with minimal breakfast…with hindsight I would make more effort to ensure Michael had a decent breakfast.  I think I’m used to ‘running on empty’ more than he was, and I had the benefit of coffee (caffeine!) to spur me on through the first few hours of the day.

 

It was a spectacular few days though, and was almost worth the four months of GCSE revision…but not quite.

 

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Thames Path 100 – April 2016

For some reason, I’ve delayed writing this report.  Usually I try to get it all out of my brain within a week, but it’s now about 2 weeks after the race, and although I’ve been busy (my eldest’s GCSE’s are imminent) I’m not really sure why I’ve not been too keen to sit and write for hours on end.

I suspect, being really honest, that I’m not sure what my motivation was for doing the race…it started initially that I would accompany two members of my running club around their first 100 miler.  As it turned out, one  was injured and the other trained so hard that he probably could have carried me around on his back.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself….

Take yourself back to June 2015,  the end of the Thames Ring 250,  (well, the point at which I ended anyway, rather than the official end which was about another 80 miles or so further on.)  I was pretty buggered at the end, and decided that 2016 would be a much more sociable running year, rather than going for these massive races on my own.  Hence, when a couple of friends suggested how much they would like to complete a 100 mile race, it seemed a good way to still run a lot, but in company!

Both runners, Pam and John, were accomplished runners, having completed 50 miles before, so the step up to 100 miles wasn’t too ambitious (in my misguided eyes).  Plus, all three of us cover the “running spectrum” if I can call it that…

John is the (slightly geeky) Labrador puppy of running (I think I’ve said that before!)  He is 10 years younger than me (see…there’s my excuse out already!) and has only been running for 2 or three years, but has embraced, it showing his huge enthusiasm & talent.  With a marathon PB of about 3.20, he is a superb runner and after an initial taste of ultras at a local 50 miler, he has realised that days of running slowly, eating constantly, is far more fun that running quickly.

Pam is the classic, slightly older lady (am I allowed to say that?) that suddenly realises she can run and run and run, and when everyone around her is slowing down she can maintain the same steady pace.  She doesn’t believe it but she has some awesome endurance (as I believe more mature women generally have) but she has to battle with her head telling her silly things while she is running (i.e. that she is going to miss the next cut-off, or she is too tired to finish).

And me?  Somewhere in the middle I guess.  I can run a bit, eat a lot, then run a bit more slowly, and carry on to the end.  I don’t have Pam’s endurance, or Johns legs…but I’m pretty stubborn and I don’t like to stop.

The three of us have been working towards TP100 since about last September, and have run together a lot .  It’s good fun, running with other people, having spent the last few years generally running on my own.  A couple from the running club had agreed to crew us (Mark and Sharon are wonderful wonderful people, but quite mad) which would make the logistics of getting to & from the race much easier, as well as giving us much-needed TLC during it.

John trained unbelievably hard for the race, and stuck to his training plan rigidly.  This meant lots of back-to-back runs on Saturday and Sunday, usually over 20 miles each.  Often this meant him getting up at 4am on Saturday so he could get his run done early, and then posting all about it on Facebook so the rest of us mortals could read about his impressive exploits over breakfast.  It was truly inspiring and massively annoying.  This is a picture of his training plan, which I think he was following since November.

 

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This is his training plan, in miles…..madness!

 

 

The three of us did the Thames Trot 50 mile race in February (see the race report HERE), and did a long night run together, to prepare them for the 2am “it’ll never get light again” moment.  This consisted of setting off at about 10pm, running 40 miles through the night, with the aim of meeting our running club’s Sunday morning run, and doing the last ten miles with them.  Pam and I had completed a smaller version of this about a month before, starting at 3.30am, and that had gone well, so I didn’t expect any problems with extending the distance.  Unfortunately, on the longer night run, Pam ran with us for the first 44 miles, but realised at that point she was hurting far more than she should.  To her credit, she was still running, and somehow holding it together, but when we stopped to join the club run, she quite rightly took the decision to stop and it turned out she was nurturing a couple of small but very painful injuries that the night run had made much worse.  Her physio was prescribing some proper rest, so unfortunately she was out of the TP100.  I’m thankful to say she is recovering, and has another 100 miler booked for the summer, which she will complete!!

This put me in a bit of a quandary.  My TP100 race plan had been to accompany Pam the whole way, not really worrying about my race, but making sure that Pam finished within the cut-off.  Now, without Pam, I had no excuse not to push for a decent time (apart from a lack of training) and it seemed rude not to take advantage of having a crew by running with as little kit as possible.

So, against my better ‘slow is nice’ judgement, I decided to push hard for the first half, aiming to get to the aid station at mile 51 in about nine and a half hours, and then seeing how much pace I could maintain for the second half.  To recap about the previous year, I completed the race in about 22.5 hours, with massive blisters (where my shoes magically developed some rips in the fabric, which meant I had two 30 minute stops at miles 51 and 85 to try to repair my feet)) and carrying everything I expected to need in the TR250 – i.e. I would only use the aid stations for water, I was carrying everything else (clothes, food, medical supplies, flasks for hot food, kitchen sink, you name it, I carried it).  The race report is HERE, but don’t read it as it wasn’t nice or pretty.

This year would be different, I decided.  I would glide like a fairy over the ground, with literally no kit other than the mandatory kit that the very excellent Centurion Running insist upon, and not suffer blisters or 30 minute stops.  I would finish gracefully, under 22 hours, smiling, and smoking a slim Panatella cigar.

So, let’s get to the day itself (but well done for reading this far, you definitely deserve a star).

We set off from the deepest corner of Kent at about 6.30am, just about managing  to fit all of my crap in the boot…although I wasn’t carrying it with me this time, I was making sure it was with the support crew if I needed it.  John was clearly a little nervous in the car, I was slightly more relaxed (and tired) so managed a bit of sleep on the way.  Mark and Sharon expertly dropped us at the start and zoomed off to park the car, while John and I got registered.  At the time (about 8.30am) reception was nice and clear, with just a few people making their nests in the corridors.  Kit check and the various paperwork bits went smoothly, John being particularly taken with the tattooed and pierced young lady that gave him his number.

With that quickly out of the way (why can’t every race HQ be as organised as Centurion??) we dipped out and headed to McDonald’s for some slimy porridge for John.  I’ve seen more appetising frog-spawn, but he ate the lot.

Then back to the car, to get changed and organise our kit.  It was great to have a bit of time to do this away from the hubbub of the race HQ, and although the parking cost Mark £6, as he kept mentioning for some reason, it was money (sort-of) well spent.  John and I talked Mark & Sharon through the kit that we would be leaving in the car, and it felt pretty organised really.  I should say that our team was named “Team Lucky Gonk” by Mark & Sharon and there were notices of this in the car windows….but as I refused to use the name (very 80’s, I thought) that’s the last you’ll hear of it.20160430_084002

So, we’re back at the start, standing in what appeared to be blue sky and decent sunshine, after months of crap weather.  The weather forecast had predicted rain showers, but that was changing daily as the race neared.  The only consistent thing was the prediction of a cold cold night.  It turned out to be truer than I expected!!

The sign of an organised person, I sometimes think, isn’t that nothing goes wrong…but that when something does (inevitably) go wrong, it can be dealt with calmly.  Thus, when I switched my garmin on and the battery was flat, I didn’t waste time fretting and gnashing my teeth, but simply, took the battery pack I’d packed for the halfway point to recharge my watch (to make sure it lasted the full 100 miles) and started charging before I’d even began running.  Without question, the best thing about the Garmin 310xt, is the ability to charge it ‘on the go’ so it still records data while charging.  Thus, within about an hour or two of the race starting I was back up to about 90% charge, and still had all the splits of my impressive (not) first few miles.

At the start there was a few nervous looking people around, and a lot more spectators than I remember from last year.  There was the usual massive variety of packs being worn, from the absurdly large to the impossible tiny.  This year, however, I was wearing the string bikini of rucksacks, rather than the full length fur coat that I normally carry around with me (yes, OK, my metaphors are slightly mixed, but it makes sense to me!).  One guy had a pair of really thick gloves (think Arctic here!) on the outside webbing of his pack, he was clearly expecting some cold weather!!

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Me, Sharon and Mark, and John….team Lucky Gonk

There was a bit of pre-race instructions, and then we were off.  As always, a slight sense of the surreal, to think that we would now be running for the next 24 hours (or thereabouts), but the sun was out, the river was calm, and there was a lovely sense of community with a few hundred people setting off on an adventure.

John, Mark, Sharon and I had met the previous week to discuss arrangements and timings of the race, and what the support crew would need to do and when.  As John was going to be steaming ahead on his magic legs, we planned his first 25-odd miles at about 10 minutes per mile, which is a really steady pace for the start of a 100 mile run.  My pace was going to be rather more sedate later on, but I fancied I could keep up with him for the first marathon if I was lucky.

As it turned out, after the first couple of slow miles while the runners thinned out a bit, John and I kept up a pretty consistent 9.30 minutes per mile for the first 26.  John was running easily, but was worried this was too fast for the start.  I was thinking the same but felt good and was enjoying chatting to John and sharing in his adventure of his first ‘proper’ ultra.  We had a bit to eat and a short walk at about mile 12, but it was a lovely day and life was good.

Mark and Sharon met us at mile 25, and I think they fed John, but I was feeling good so didn’t want anything at that stage.  We passed the first marathon in about 4 hours 12 mins, which felt great and comfortable.  Now the challenge was to complete the next marathon in about 4.5- 5 hours!

Shortly after this point, John entered what shall be known as his “I’ve-run-30-miles-I-need-a-poo” stage.  It turns out that John, masterful and speedy runner, generally (always) needs a poo after about 30 miles of running.  On the drive home, where he admitted this character trait to us all, he explained that it had become a regular thing with long runs.  Now, I hear you say, that’s fine, everyone needs the toilet occasionally, and it is fine.  Obviously, though, it is useful to be aware of this and plan where you are soon going to be at an aid-station with a toilet.  It’s not so good to be needing the toilet rather urgently, with an aid-station a mile or two ahead, and lots of runners following along behind.

Did I mention the laminate I lovingly created for John??  Being the slightly-anal obsessive that I can be, I’d made us both a little credit card sized laminate that showed where we were meeting the crew and where the aid stations were.  Naturally, John turned to me after about mile 1 and said he’d dropped his – d’oh!  I, luckily, am not quite so butter-fingered as him, so I was able to tell him that I wasn’t sure that the next aid station at mile 30.5 had a toilet (in fact it did, but no-ones perfect!)  So John had to make a quick exit from the route to a nearby clump of sizeable trees and bushes, to help the local ecosystem with some much-needed fertiliser.

Why am I telling you this?  Two reasons.  The first, most obviously, is that I can embarrass John by recording forever  on the interweb his misfortune on having an enforced ‘al fresco’ poo.  Not a great reason, to be fair, as I have a similar problem far too frequently.

The second reason, however, is far far more important.  You see, the first point of the race that our times would be recorded was at this forth-coming aid-station, and hence which ever of us that got there first would record the faster time for this beginning stretch.  Anyone tracking us (I’m imagining a proportion of our running club) would realise that I had got there first, and that I was clearly not the slightly-old pedestrian that I feel sometimes.  So, with that in mind, I watched John go off to relieve himself and pushed on to record the fastest time over 30.5 miles of the two of us.

Bob – 5 hours 01 min 41 seconds (71st place of 295 starters)

John – 5 hours 02 min  55 seconds (74th Position)

There you have it.  Facebook must have been ablaze with the toxic shock of Bob beating John over any distance, even if it was only 1 minute 14 seconds (incidentally, that’s a really really quick poo, John, well done).

John caught me up shortly after, of course, and the natural order of the world was restored.  It was fun for a while though.  Unfortunately, John began to feel a bit nauseous, although he wasn’t sure why.  He manfully struggled through it, knowing we were meeting the support crew at mile 35 which would mean he could get a little rest and something to help with his stomach.  Mark and Sharon were ready, as always, and quickly had him eating some ginger biscuits to try to relieve the symptoms.  I saw he was in good hands, and carried on slowly.  I was feeling surprisingly good at this stage, although I was starting to tire and John (although feeling slightly rough) was running much more smoothly at this stage.

It was strange to be running on my own, but I quickly got chatting to some of the other runners around me and kept going.  I was not eating enough at this stage, which was pretty daft looking back, but I simply didn’t feel I needed it.  The weather was still blue sky and sunny, and really quite warm, but following my experience at the Thames Ring (where I drank lots of water but wasn’t able to absorb it, so basically had a sack of water sloshing around inside me) I was taking fairly small sips of water about every 10 minutes.

I remember approaching an ice cream van at some point, and as I ran towards it I thought how nice it would be to stop and have a nice cool ice cream.  Bizarrely, about 2 feet beyond the ice cream van, a wind appeared from nowhere and blasted me with cold air and rain for just a couple of minutes, before completely disappearing and blue sky appearing once again.  It was the oddest thing.

By the time I’d got to mile 46, I was suffering for my earlier pace.  My 10minute running, 2 minute walking regime had deteriorated to more of a 5/2, and then to a run 100 steps, walk 100 steps.  I was still ahead of my expected pace and I could feel that I was gently running out of steam, but to be fair I had pushed a hard pace for a long way and I was only 5 miles short of the aid station that would mean a change of shoes, something hot to eat, and most importantly a sit down.

It was at this point John caught up with me, and showed his huge amount of training and talent by skipping past me and looking very fresh.  He said he was running 2 miles before walking 2 minutes, which was a really sensible plan.  This was the last point I saw him, and he looked very strong.

A rather slow few miles later I got to the 51 mile aid station, where Sharon had some hot noodles for me and Mark helped change my shoes and socks.  I decided not to wear my waterproof socks for the second half of the race, as I clearly had not needed to wear them for the first half, and my feet had been absolutely sweltering in them, with my normal two pairs of socks underneath. (Yes yes, I know, three pairs of socks is a little excessive, but in my defence I’ve never had any problems with my feet, and it works for me!)

I didn’t stick around long here, as the support crew had everything organised so well.  I left in a bit of a hurry, with a cup full of noodles, clean shoes and socks, and a bit of energy.  It was now about 7.30 pm, and although it was still an hour or so before it would get dark, the night was looming ahead of me as a long hard stretch.

Mile 51 aid station arrival:

John –  9 hours 06 mins 55 seconds

Bob – 9 hours 23 mins 28 seconds

It was from here that the miles all seemed to blend together.  Usually I make an effort to remember how I feel at various times, but perhaps because I was tired or because I wasn’t properly motivated, I was simply trying to eat up the miles and not think too much.  I remember vividly getting to one aid station where I’d also arranged to meet the crew, and Sharon had walked out to meet me (which was lovely) and all I could do was tell her how shit this was, and I didn’t know why I did it to myself.  I’ve definitely gone through rough patches before (in every race, like everyone else) but I really meant it that time!

I remember running through endless fields, and getting rained / hailed / snowed (??) by very short sharp showers.  It was the oddest thing, as by the third time it happened I knew it was going to pass quickly, and didn’t bother trying to cover up.  I’ve never known weather like it (or perhaps I’ve just never been outside for it!).

As it was getting dark, I got chatting to the first of a few memorable people, that made the run much more fun for me.  I was chatting with him (no, I didn’t find out his name) and I was mentioning that I’d run this route on the Thames Trot earlier in the year, and it was a massive mud-fest…absolutely horrible.  He said that he’d done the race too, and from what I’d said he guessed that he’d read my blog on it…yes, it’s true, he was someone who had read one of these race reports that I churn out (for my amusement) and I was momentarily flummoxed by that.  I don’t think I’ve ever met someone that’s read my rather sad running blog that I didn’t know before.  (Note to readers, this could be you next time!  If you are ever running anywhere and come across a particularly average runner, check they are not me…if it’s me, you will get your own very special mention!  Try to tell me your name though, that will help.)  I chatted with nameless runner for (I think) quite a while, and it rather helped pass the time as he’d done some of the same races I had.

As it got darker and darker, I could feel the temperature dropping steadily.  I had a thick running top on, as well as my normal thin one that I’d been wearing all day and my running waterproof, that usually keeps me very warm indeed.  I had a warm beanie hat and gloves and was moving briskly (which normally means that I’m far too hot), so I  was ready for cold temperatures.  I just wasn’t ready for really cold temperatures.

Some miles later I’d put on some running tights that I’d thankfully given the crew ‘just in case of emergency’, and they helped keep my legs warmer, but I could still feel pretty much every extremity (hands, feet, lips) getting really cold.  I’ve done (I think) at least 9 or 10 runs through the night, both in races and training, and I have never got that cold, thankfully.  I was drinking warm tea at every possible opportunity, although I wasn’t eating enough (still).  It got to the point in the early hours of the morning I simply got anything else I’d brought – a pair of waterproof trousers – and put them on, and ended up wearing thick socks on my hands as my gloves weren’t coping and my hands kept going numb.  I don’t think I’d have coped without Mark and Sharon meeting me every few miles and giving me access to all my spare clothing.

I hit somewhere about mile 71 aid station after 14.5 hours.  It was about half-past midnight and I was realising that it was going to be a long cold night.  John had gone through this point about an hour ahead, and was going well (so Mark and Sharon said).  Mark was going to run with him from mile 77, to give him a strong push for the last 20 miles or so, which was great.  Sharon was going to have the unenviable task of trying to get forwards and backwards to look after both runners, which she did amazingly well.

Sometime in the early hours (it was all a bit of a blur by then) I met an American who was flying back to Houston at 4pm that afternoon.  It made for amusing conversation to hear his thoughts on the race at that stage, but he couldn’t slow down or he’d miss his flight.  The terrain had gone from hard trail, with numerous trip-hazard tree roots, to the occasional impassable mud bath, and I took a proper tumble in one of them…a full ‘both-feet-immersed-in liquefied-mud-and sitting-in-it-too’, that prompted most people that I chatted to, to comment on why I was covered in mud.

I remember the aid station at mile 77, where there was a guy wrapped up in a sleeping bag in front of a gas fire, clearly very cold indeed.  It really brought it home how lucky I was to have so much clothing and a crew looking after me.

At about 3am, I teamed up with a lady that I chatted to for hours (but naturally, never got her name).  Her husband had already finished (I think he came second male, in an amazing 17 hours) and so he was tucked up in bed, nice and warm, while she was still out in the freezing cold, slogging away.  I won’t deny that she was feeling a bit pissed off at life in general, but we kept each other amused for a few hours, talking about anything and everything (from kids, to the American  elections, to life in general).

At about 4am, we climbed a hill, away from the river, to get to an aid station (at about mile 85), cold, tired, pissed off, remarking that there was still no light in the sky or birds starting to sing, which usually suggest that dawn is coming.  Once inside the light, warm hall, Sharon fussed around me, bless her, and I got yet another cup of tea.  She scolded me to eat and I tried (and failed) to get something down me.  The aid station was warm and light though, and there were clearly a few runners suffering in there.

We left that aid station a couple of minutes later, my nameless lady and I, and as we came down the same hill, to the Thames Path, we could both feel the cold pressing down on us with every step.  On the rather more positive side, we both remarked that we could hear the birds singing (which we’d missed 10 minutes previously apparently) and that meant dawn was not far away.

The river and fields were covered in a thick fog, and our torches were only penetrating about 3 feet in front.  All you could do was keep your eyes on the rough ground ahead and keep putting one foot in front of the other.  It was a long night.

As the sun came up, the fog lifted slightly and showed the most picturesque landscape, covered with mist and glistening with dew.  Naturally I was far to grumpy to take a picture, but it was lovely.  The sun rose, as it always does, and everything looked much more positive in the light of the new day.

My companion’s sister and brother-in-law walked out to meet her at about 5.30am, which I thought was great, and I sadly had to leave her behind as the new light and finish line beckoned.  I got to the aid station at mile 91 at about 6am, and met up with Sharon for the last time.  She had done an amazing job keeping up with John and I, and had kept positive and cheerful throughout what must have been a long, cold and boring night.  Mark had run with John as planned, and clearly the crew had been indispensable throughout!  John was still doing well, although had got a little lost at one point and had lost about 30 minutes.  He was running well.

I’d like to say I also galloped the last 9 miles to finish before 8am, which would have brought me in under 22 hours, but unfortunately I whimpered to a finish at about 8.12am  Mark (who’d finished with John about 50 minutes before) had run back down the course to meet me, and was a lovely sight to see, and realise it wasn’t far to go.  I managed a run for the last few hundred yards, over a rather pleasant green field and under a finish line inflatable arch.  A couple of pictures (in  which I look surprisingly well) and a buckle, and then it was time to roll in the grass like a dog.  If you ever want to relieve your stiff achy body, perhaps after a long aeroplane trip or a 100 mile run, just roll around in the grass.  Dogs know what they’re doing.

John had finished in 21 hours 21 mins (54th), and was sitting in a chair looking pleased with himself.  I’d finished in 22 hours 12 mins (71st place), and was rolling and stretching in the grass.  I think that sums us both up.

We didn’t hang around (apart from having some excellent chilli), I think all of us were tired and wanted to get home as quickly as possible.  The journey home was very memorable (see the note above about Johns poo-ing habits) and then we were home and it was all over!

So, thoughts….

Massive thanks to Sharon and Mark for the support.  They were simply awesome, and had anything and everything we wanted and needed before we asked.  A master-class in how to support runners.  Thanks guys.

John, what  a runner!  21 hours 21 mins for his first 100 miler…which surely means he can break 21 hours in the next one if he doesn’t get lost (like a plonker).  Then what is he capable of!

Me?  Hmm, it wasn’t my favourite run, and I’m pretty sure I’d not have finished if I hadn’t had a crew with extra clothing.  However, I didn’t train with any real purpose for this race (my ‘A’ race is the Lakeland 50 in July) so apart from running a lot, my preparation was pretty poor.  My head was in a funny place as well, not really committed to the level of suffering that would be needed, as I’d done the race before and there wasn’t any real challenge for me.  Note to self, my motivation comes from the variety of races I do, and from the not knowing what to expect in a new race.  When I’ve done it before it all seems a bit boring & hard work.

Massive thanks to all the volunteers and the organisers.  Centurion are definitely the premier race organisers for ‘safe’ 100 mile runs.  The aid stations were well stocked and frequent.  I really cannot fault them at all.

And what else?  Well 207 people finished out of 295 that started, about a 70% finish rate.  But an awful lot of people dropped during the night, as I’d expect.  If anyone reading this was in that situation, don’t beat yourself up over it…it was a tough tough night.

And what now?  Well, as I said, a race in the Lake District in July…and then maybe something later in the year.  John has discovered that no-one has set a speed record for completing the North Downs Way, 150 miles of hills, so he thinks it would be great to do that!!  I’m not so sure.

Sometimes I think we’re all mad.

 

 

 

Moonlight Challenge – February 2016

My favourite race of the year: full of cheerful marshals, friendly runners and thick thick mud….

I very seldom do the same race twice, mainly because I enjoy the challenge of something new, and it seems a bit pointless to put yourself through a tough experience if you have already done it once.  The exception to this is the Moonlight Challenge, a 33 mile jaunt in mid-February that (as suggested by the name) is run in the dark and is goes over rough trail, concrete track, smelly farmyard, and cycle track.  It invariably attracts some of the worst weather that flat marshland in winter can throw at you….gale force winds, horizontal torrential rain, freezing temperatures, thick gloopy mud, and on one memorable occasion, thick falling snow.  It is one of those runs that people tend to return to year after year, because it is so unpleasant and illogical to be out running whilst being punished by the elements.  It’s fantastic fun too.  Each 6-and-a-bit mile lap has a couple of aid-stations, and consists of the first two miles of very rough trail, before settling down to decent track for the last 4 miles.  Because it is run as a ‘personal challenge’ rather than a race, a lot of people take it quite gently, pausing in the warm after each lap and just enjoying the experience…this makes it for a pleasant, friendly atmosphere.

You may have already guessed I’m a bit of a fan…and I should say that I’ve got to know the organiser, Mike Inkster, quite well over the years, so you can expect this to be a thoroughly biased race report.

This year’s weather, unlike the previous years, was looking to be half-decent from the advance weather forecasts, with balmy temperatures (for February) of 10-12 degrees forecast, relatively low wind and no rain! Naturally, on the night itself we had horizontal rain & some very strong headwinds, but to be fair this was the best weather I’ve ever run the race in.  I could tell you about last year (2015), when I spent some of the course running with one eye closed as the only place the wind & rain could get at me was the gap between my glasses and my eyes (my jacket hood was zipped up to above my nose) and as the wind was coming from my right hand side, the wind was whipping across my eyeball very painfully…so I closed the eye – genius!  I could tell you about the year before that, which I think was the year it rained constantly through January and February, flooding the worse parts of the route to create a half-mile channel of liquefied mud that we traipsed through trying to stay on our feet (quite like this year actually!)  Or the most memorable, year before that, when I remember sitting in my car before the start, with the car thermometer stating it was -10 degrees outside.  That was the year that last couple of hours got really hairy with heavy snow that made any flat surface very slippery underfoot, and I nearly slid off the road on the way home.  Happy times.  Anyway, enough of the reminiscing…you get the idea.  My race report from last year is HERE, so if you’re a real glutton for punishment, then have a look.

But back to this year…I had a bit of a busy day at work, so missed lunch, but managed to grab a Cornish pasty that I ate as I drove to Brook Farm at the start location. As usual, I take a perverse satisfaction in arriving in a shirt and tie, straight from work, while everyone else is Lycra’d-up.  It was still just about light as I got my race number, a surprisingly chunky goody bag, and grabbed a strong coffee (the first of many).  There were quite a few cars still arriving as I got changed in my car (note to self – get a bigger car or smaller legs if attempting to put on compression tights in the driver’s seat again).  In fact there were enough cars to require some creative parking in amongst the farm buildings, which was nice (and slightly amusing) to see.

Once I’d got changed, I was able to grab another coffee and chat to a few people as we stood around in the warm barn waiting for the start. Pam (from my adventures on the Thames Trot a few weeks ago) was there with her husband, and Mark, another stalwart ultra-runner from the very excellent Thanet Roadrunners who I often run with.

I’d chosen to run in a fairly light-weight top, given that it was going to be warm, but also in thin water-proof jacket that would keep the worst of the wind off, as well as keeping me dry (there was a little drizzle going on). I had the same footwear as Thames Trot…three pair of socks (liner pair, padded pair and Sealskinz waterproof over the top)…and trail shoes with gaiters.  I’d run the route earlier in the week to gauge the trail parts, and there was a rough 300-400 metre stretch at the start that was just thick mud with very few redeeming features.  Although not a long stretch, it would make for an unpleasant time if the feet got muddy & wet at the start as they wouldn’t really dry out.  As it happened, my feet survived unscathed, clean & blister-free.

Mike, the race director, gave a “sort-of” motivational speech at the start (“If you’re daft enough to be here, good luck…etc”) and advised everyone to take it easy on the initial stretch of mud, as it was particularly slippery and there was very little to be gained by running this treacherous part of the route. I’m massively pleased to say that when the time came to be sensible, I (and everyone else surrounding me) treated this with the contempt it deserved and ran, slipped, slid, squelched and fell through the mud to gain precious nano-seconds over our rivals.  Good work!

briefing 1

Mike giving the ‘motivational’ briefing…”well done for coming…you’re all mad…etc”

After the pre-run pep-talk, Mike took us outside to demonstrate (as he does every year) how to throw common-sense aside by holding a lit firework in his hand to signal the start of the race. Usually the firework shoots out of Mikes hand, showering him with sparks and explodes a few seconds later high up in the air.  This year, for some reason, it decided to shoot in a slightly horizontal trajectory, arching calmly over a nearby field to explode about 30 feet away, 7 feet from the ground, possibly scaring a field of rabbits to death (definitely reminiscent of something from World War 1).

We all set off, led expertly by a bloke with a pair of luminous trainers.   He had been proudly showing them off before the start, and I have to say I was quite taken with them.  I don’t really think the pictures do them justice, and I think the future of night running lies in luminous shoes.  Frankly, why stop there?  Why wear high-viz clothing, when you could be completely luminous?  We could paint cars in luminous paint and get rid of street-lights.  Or just paint the underside of planes in luminous paint, and save loads of electricity.

lumo shoes 2

It’s a rubbish picture, but luminous shoes are the future!!

I was quite near the front at the start, for no particular reason other than I had been admiring someone’s luminous shoes, but over the mud we all thinned out quite a lot, as we all tried to work out the best way of running on it. At that stage, it wasn’t deep, but a very thin layer of squelchy mud on a reasonably solid surface.  It was only when that top layer started to move sideways that trouble started as there was no grip.  By the time everyone had done 5 laps over the mud, it resembled frogspawn, with a three inch layer of slime, on top of a squelchy base layer which allowed you to slip and slide everywhere.

I’ve seen a lot of unusual things when out running, including a Jacuzzi-boat and a (bloated) dead deer in a canal, but few things had made me smirk and smile quite as much as a sporty BMW in the middle of a field, in the dark, with a stream of unkind runners sliding past. I believe it belonged to one of the marshals, who slightly underestimated the treachery of the mud, and to be fair he did very well to get as far as he did before trying to turn round and getting properly stuck.  I allowed my imagination to picture the marshal having to get out of his car in some expensive shoes and sinking deeply into smelly mud.  I know he got the car out OK (more about that later) but I do hope he had a hosepipe at home to clean the car (and his shoes) off.

At the end of the stretch of mud, there were luckily a couple of unavoidable puddles that meant most of the mud was washed off before we tracked it halfway across Kent. I’m sure that I was three inches up in the air with the amount of earth and mud I had stacked up on the bottom of my shoes by the time I reached these puddles.

After the mud, everything seemed fairly tame as we crossed a train-line and did about another 1.5 miles of trail, including the Green Bank – a nicely elevated bank of overgrown earth that is carefully angled to get the worst of side-wind ever.

Mark and I were running together, and both agreed we had set off far too quickly,  I think there were only about 5 or 6 people ahead of us (including Mr Lumo-shoes) as we came to the end of the Green Bank. We had quite a lot of catching up to do, as we regaled each other with stories of how well his training was going (Mark) and how I had taken to eating massive spaghetti bolognaise at 10 o’clock in the morning as a training tool (me).

By the time we reached Jelly Baby Junction (the main aid-station on the loop at about mile 3 & 5) we were both regretting our initial pace, but it was a lovely night for a run so (to be fair) it was very difficult to slow down! A quick hello to Sharon & Derek, who were getting ready to keep the constant stream of runners fed and watered, and we carried on.  There was a light drizzle, but apart from a couple of stretches where the headwind was quite rough it was warm and pleasant.

By the end of the first lap, Mark and I had set the running world to rights, had run through the race plans for my forthcoming 100 miler and Mark’s Australian adventure (involving lots of stairs!), committed to some nameless future expedition or adventure race (perhaps Everest or something similar), and worked out some of the detail of Marks future coaching career. Phew!  We had also not slowed down, going at a ballistic (for us) 9.45 minute per mile for the first lap.

The start/end of each lap consisted of going from the pitch black farmyard into a brightly lit, warm, barn and I’m sure I wasn’t the only runner to be blinking like an owl the first time I went in. I shouted my number (no-one was going to miscount any of my laps!) and then turned straight round to get back out there!

The start of lap 2 was suspiciously similar to lap 1…the mud was just as muddy, the car was still stuck, we were still going too quickly, the only difference was that we’d stopped talking as we were both knackered. After the Green Bank, Mark kindly suggested that I could carry on at the same suicidal pace if I wanted but he was going to slow himself down (without my bad influence around!) and so he gently dropped back.  It was only when he’d gone that I realised my torch was not as strong as I thought, and in fact was very dim indeed – probably should have put some new batteries in it before setting off on a 6 hour run in the dark….d’oh!  As a result, I spent a lot of time running with it switched off, in order that when I came to a difficult part I could switch it on and my darkness-adjusted eyes would think I had the Blackpool illuminations strapped to my head.

Luckily, at this point I was caught up with by Darren. He had a hat the same colour as the soles of his shoes.  Very impressive colour-coordination.  We chatted for quite a while, so I grew to learn quite a lot about Darren.  Amongst other things, he’d only started running in the previous October (perhaps 5 months before) and had never run marathon…so it made very little sense to do his first in the roughest conditions he could find, across farmland in February.  To be fair, he had some great history as a high–level cyclist, so was very fit but I thought it would be interesting to see how he coped with the mental stresses of pushing further than he had before.

We chatted for the last few miles of the second lap, and at the finish/start I shouted my number and grabbed my customary 12-mile bottle of fat coke and a Twix. I chugged the coke quickly, and having whooped at the girls marshalling the start of the mud, I got stuck in to the next lap!  I had no idea how many people there were in front of me, but I had been watching a green flashing armband for some time in the far distance, and decided that I needed to push on and catch him up as it was getting annoying seeing it all the time but never catching him up.

Darren and I were followed from the start to the mud by a massive tractor, which trundled onto the muddy section to pull the BMW out, and forcing us to detour out into the field to get past it. I assume the tractor was successful, as next time round both tractor and BMW were gone, leaving some massive gouges through the mud.

Darren and I roughly ran together over most of this lap, where he would get ahead of me as we ran over the trail parts, while I huffed and puffed over the rough ground, but then fall back on the better surface as I kept a steady pace. I was still enjoying the night, and keeping up a surprising (for me) pace, but now some of this pace was due to Darren looking exceptionally strong and I certainly couldn’t let him get too far ahead of me, could I?  In fact I think it was towards the end of this lap, going up a bit of a hill, that Darren said “It’s all getting a bit real now”, which is good ultra-talk for “Bloody hell, I’m in so much pain I could chew off both of my legs”.  He was entering the mind-zone of knowing he’d run about 20 miles (not an inconsiderable distance) but also knowing he still had another 13 to go.  And that would take a few more hours.  And his legs wouldn’t feel any better in that time.

I’d like to say that, sensing his discomfort, I kicked up my heels and sped past him with a carefree laugh, but actually I got all a bit supportive and told him that he was looking really strong and namby-pamby stuff like that….very disappointing.

Onto lap 4, a bottle of water and another Twix to start, and a whoop to the marshals before the mud who were doing sterling work keeping warm and cheering the runners going past. Once the mud was past, Daren seemed to drop back quite a way (probably to get away from my incessant talking) and he was replaced by number 36.  I suspect I could find his name out, but while we were chatting, and at the end, I was happy to call him number 36 (for that was his number) so that will do now.

We ran together for only 3 or 4 miles, but I learnt that number 36 also hadn’t run a marathon yet…what is with these people that choose an ultra, in the dark, over farmland, as their first long run?? It just shows how the ultra-madness is grabbing people early in their running ‘life’ now, rather than waiting until they are fat and old (and hungry) like me. Number 36 was doing amazingly well, as I think he said he’d never run 20 miles, but was starting to suffer a bit to be honest.  I was still trotting along fine, my legs were aching but only what I used to, and my energy levels felt good. As with Darren, I was able to chat to number 36 about the mental side of running a long way, as he clearly had the legs to do it.

By the end of the fourth lap, about 26 miles, Darren reappeared from nowhere, and we ran into the barn together. I vividly remember thinking that I was OK (!) and was still running at a pace I wouldn’t have considered normally (somewhere rather better than 10 minutes per mile, on rough ground).  The remaining single lap of 6 miles was going to be a bit of a victory lap, and I would push the pace as much as I could just to finish as tired out as possible.  It didn’t turn out like that!

Because the drizzle seemed to have stopped, I took off the waterproof and left it behind, setting off slightly ahead of Darren and another runner that had joined him. We all slipped and slid through the mud, which was at its worst by now, but thankfully it was going to be the last time.  It was horribly squelchy and pretty unpleasant to be honest.  The couple of puddles at the end were much deeper than 5 hours previously, and it was too much trouble to do any fancy footwork except sploshing straight through them.

Just as we left the mud behind (for the last time, whoop whoop) Darren and his friend caught up, and the friend called out that he thought I was in second place.

Now……let’s just hesitate a second. Despite the fact that I was running quite quickly (for me), I had absolutely no idea who was in front or behind me due to the clever figure-of-8 course.  There is always someone in front, someone behind and someone running in the opposite direction at the crossover.  It’s very difficult to understand what position you are in, and to be blunt, it is very seldom (if ever) something I get fussed about as I’m normally somewhere near the middle or back.  But hang on!  Second! Fantastic!! When did that happen!!!

Even as these thoughts went through my mind, the friend gently eased past me and left me (and Darren) behind. I’d like to say I didn’t shout some stuff at him (in a good-natured way) about how mean it was to tell someone they are in second place, and then overtake them….but I did.  I also told him he was looking tired and exhausted, but that didn’t stop him either.  Bugger.  If I’d thought of it, I’d have rugby tackled him to the ground and then Darren and I could have tied him up and beaten the shit out of him…but I didn’t. (But I will next time).

He disappeared into the distance, leaving me with fleeting memories of when I was once second in an ultra. That’s one to tell the grandchildren!

(Note to self…probably don’t share this many inner thoughts when writing a race report, people may take it the wrong way.)

So, there’s just me and Darren…running over the fields and onto the Green Bank. I’m guessing that we were both thinking that we had to keep up with the other person, to hold onto (joint) third, after second had been so cruelly snatched from our grasp.

Unfortunately, it was here that I caught up to Pam, who was at that point a full lap behind. She had started a bit late when, just before the start, her (how do I put this delicately…..) upper-body-ladies-running-apparatus had come undone, and she’d had to re-fasten it.  (Hope she doesn’t mind me mentioning that).

Anyway, I made the crucial mistake of slowing down to have a chat with Pam, and to cut a long story short, when I looked up Darren had sped off into the distance and was long-gone. Dammit.

Never mind. I ran most of the last lap with Pam, chatting away, and had a quick catch-up (for the last time!) with Sharon and Derek who were still doing sterling work at Jelly Baby Junction, keeping everyone fed and watered.

I got to the finish about 4 minutes after Darren, in 5 hours and 46 minutes, which I was really pleased with. The winner finished in 5 hours 15 which was a great time considering the conditions.   A medal and certificate, and  I quickly put on a thick jumper and grabbed a cup of tea from the endless supply, and said well done to Darren.  Shortly after me, number 36 came in, looking great (considering) and then there was a fairly constant stream of finishers every ten minutes or so.  Thankfully the barn was being heated by a jet engine (see the picture below if you don’t believe me) so it was quite a pleasant environment to stand around in for a while.  There was a decent range of food too, so I helped myself to some tasty home-made soup (which really hit the spot!) and even some Doritos….every race finish should supply Doritos!

Mark finished about 30 minutes later, looking as fresh as a daisy, and at that point I said my thank-yous and set off for home. The mud had dried onto my shoes quite successfully, so any that didn’t come off in my car would spray all over the carpet at home when I took my shoes off.  But as I told my wife, that’s clearly what vacuum cleaners (and wives) were invented for.

moonlight shoes 2

You can’t really see the mud in this picture….

 

moonlight shoes 3

…but it’s in every nook and cranny of the shoes!

Logic would suggest that I’d take the next day easy, but for some reason I decided to join my normal Sunday morning Thanet Roadrunners club run (after about 5 hours sleep). At the time it seemed like a fun way to ease my stiff legs, and the first few miles were OK.  Unfortunately, by mile 8 I’d lost whatever motivation I’d started with and getting to 12 miles was thoroughly rubbish. An experience not to be repeated!  Luckily, a monster roast dinner and some cheap red wine sorted me out later.

So, another year and another brilliant Moonlight Challenge. Better weather than usual, great organisation as usual, wonderful marshals as always…a great night for a run!

Thanks to Mike and all at Challenge Hub for putting on a cracking night, and especially to the marshals who stood in the cold spurring us runners on. Thanks to whoever owned the BMW for giving me a bit of a laugh….hope the mud came off OK.  Thanks to Sharon and Derek for manning Jelly Baby Junction – definitely the best aid-station in the world.  Not forgetting Gavin and Maria who manned a superb aid-station at Davis’s dyke (what I call the Green Bank).

Thanks to Mark and Pam for their excellent conversation at the start and at the end, and thanks to Darren and number 36 who put up with my wittering-on for ages. Good work guys!  Looking forward to running with you in the future…did you know there is a 50 mile Challenge and (even better) a 24-hour Challenge in the summer??

And thanks & congratulations to you, reader, for making it this far! Unless you’ve skipped the boring parts and are just reading the last paragraph in case there is something interesting here….there isn’t.  Sorry.

 

Thames Trot – Feb 2016

It seems a long time since I last wrote a race report….8 months in fact, but a new year brings a new start, and what better way to start than 50 miles of mud, intermittent rain, gale force winds, and a couple of friends.

The weather forecast did predict the terrible conditions, so I shouldn’t really complain, but there was a sense of being assaulted from all sides (from above – by the rain, from the sides – by the strong winds, and worst, from below – by the thick claggy mud.) I can deal with one or two of these forces of evil, but to have all three was a rough way to spend the day.

I was running with two friends from the very excellent Thanet Roadrunners, and it is only fair (as they will feature a fair amount in this report) that I spend a moment describing them so that you get the full effect of their personalities on the day.

John is a relatively new runner, who did his first marathon in 2014 and has never looked back. He is somewhat younger than 35 (I’m terrible at ages) and has the legs of a thoroughbred stallion (imagine marathons of about 3.15 or so) and the personality of a Labrador puppy.  His total enthusiasm for running is infectious, and having moved on from marathons relatively quickly (due to the fact that you can take an ultra much easier and eat all the time), he did his first 50 miler last year (and loved it) and is doing the Thames Path 100 with me in May.  He needs to be held back in the first half of an ultra or will bound away with limitless energy at the start, only to potentially come to a sticky painful ending near the finish (although, to be fair, that hasn’t happened yet).  John gets very excited about his beard.

Pam is a slightly different kettle-of-fish, being somewhere north of 55 years old, and about 5’0 tall, she is quiet, retiring, and completely unaware of how good she is. She readily admits that she tends to find the first 20 miles of a long run quite hard, but then, when everyone else starts to suffer and slow down, she just keeps motoring along at a steady pace…forever.  Not quickly, but so consistent that she will eventually overtake the quick starters who are reduced to a walk later on.  She completed Ring of Fire successfully last year, and also plans to do the Thames Path 100 with John and I in May.  As I said, she doesn’t know how strong she is, and worries too much about getting lost, being last, how everyone else is, and pretty much everything.  Oh yes, I should also mention that I have yet to hear her swear…and my lifetimes ambition is to push her to the breaking point of getting a good strong “f*ck, f*ck, f*ck” from her.

starting pic

Me (on the left), John and Pam at the start. Don’t worry, Pam is going to start her beard soon.

Anyway, that little bit of character-assassination done, I should probably start talking about the run itself. We’d planned to do it for a while, as a decent test for our legs, and also very much as a recce for the Thames Path run in May.  2 other extremely quick runners from the club (Brad & Shaun) had agreed to drive & crew for us, which was great as it meant we didn’t have to worry about anything (apart from Brad’s erratic driving).

Speaking of Brads driving, it was a cold and rainy morning as we zoomed around the M25 to Oxford. The view from the car window gave a hint of the day to come:

rainy window

Clearly, fabulous weather lay in store for us today!

 

The hotel at the start was actually quite pleasant, although pretty much covered with runners everywhere when we arrived. It was one of those venues that had a very small channel through the middle of a sea of brightly-coloured lycra-clad excitable people that shared a love of putting themselves through tough times.  Happy times!

I lost the rest of the guys as I got myself sorted out in record time, deciding in the end (after much thought) to wear three pairs of socks (yes, three) that would keep my feet dry (Sealskins, Xmas present, thanks Mum) and blister free (Injinji toe socks and another pair of thin Nike socks on top). Although this was a first (and a personal best of number of socks worn at the same time during a race) it actually served me really well, and my feet suffered no ill effects at all.

A cheese roll, a quick trip to the toilet, I collected my timing chip and caught up with the others, raring to go. The start was a fairly calm (drizzly) affair, although I’m sure there was a rush at the front from those that wanted to get stuck into the mud first.

It didn’t take long for the country road to turn into country track, and then into mud trail. I should probably try to describe the mud…it wasn’t liquid and wet, but squelchy and slippery and impressively deep in places.  The track was flat in the centre, with steep slopes at either side as you got to the grass margins.  Imagine that if you are on flat, your foot will sink in and cover the bottom and side inch or two of your trainer.  If you try to avoid the flat by running at the edge, where there is a slope, you risk slipping down into the thicker mud at the bottom, or going over entirely, which would mean you’re would be flailing about in the barbed wire fence on one side or brambles on the other.  I think the bigger your feet are, the easier it was, as you had a bit more stability.  Certainly, John was galloping on ahead while Pam was struggling a bit behind.  I was trotting along in the middle, finding that running in the verge (as near to the edge of the mud) was working for me although every time I ripped my way through a bramble I was risking tearing my clothes.

mud 2

This was a comparatively good (i,e, runnable) stretch of the mud.

Within the first few miles, John had disappeared off ahead, and I hoped he would keep himself in one piece, although the mud was a limiter in how fast he could go….I just hope the path didn’t suddenly become smooth pavement and for John’s afterburners to start firing. It turned out he was chatting with a very experienced runner Pete Johnson (100 Marathon Club) who was holding him back!

I was quite conscious of Pam behind me, and waited under a bridge for her to catch me up. She was gamely plugging on, but confessed that the mud was causing her problems.  There wasn’t really much to discuss, other than just getting on with it, so we ran together for awhile before I moved on a bit quicker as I was getting cold.

At the first aid station, Brad and Shaun were waiting in the cold, bless them, and I did feel sorry for them a bit. As I said, they’re very quick marathon runners, who had waited for 2 hours for me to run 10 miles, whereas they would run it in about an hour (albeit on a road).  Pam caught up and she grabbed some of the supplied fruit cake, pronouncing it very good.  She was starting to worry about the cut-offs already, and was understandably finding the mud very tough going (as was everyone).  John had speeded through about 15 minutes earlier and looked in good shape apparently.

We left the first aid-station quickly, and moved onto a slightly better path on a forest track. The improvement in morale was immediate and it was lovely being able to run (relatively) properly for a while.  It didn’t last for long though, and soon we were back to mud.  Oh dear.

I’d gone ahead of Pam at mile 11, so that I could slow at mile 12 for a walk and my customary bottle of fizzy-fat-coke. As always, it gave me a burst of energy and I drank the full 500 ml very quickly.  Copious burps later (apologies to anyone walking their dogs in the local countryside at that point, it was very noisy), and a Twix, and I was good & ready for the next 12 miles.  I’d also spent the walk deciding whether I was going to stick with Pam to the bitter end, or go on ahead.  We were in real danger of missing the cut-offs if the mud carried on (and I believed it would) but I’d suggested to Pam that if we missed the cut-off we’d just keep going, and the support crew could meet us at the end provided it wasn’t too late.  Alternatively, I could move on with the aim of getting to the end by myself and then come back to fetch Pam and run the end with her.   Hmmmm.

In the end, it seemed a bit pointless to abandon Pam for the sake of a simple 50 mile run, which I’ve done a few of and wasn’t really that special, so I waited for her to catch up with me and see if we could work a way through the mud a bit quicker.

We made slightly better progress running together, and it was fun to watch everyone around us struggle through the mud too. Particularly memorable were a husband and wife, who were clearly both quite good runners but she was absolutely hating the mud and basically was running along telling him how much she was hating it.  He was being quite supportive…”It’ll be over soon etc”….but she was having none of it.  Later on, he turned up near me on his own, so I guess she dropped out.  I wouldn’t have wanted to be in their car on the way home.

About 15 miles in, we thankfully came to a long stretch of fields, alongside the Thames, so it was possible to find a decent route that was runnable. This was clearly the opportunity to catch up a bit of time that we’d lost on the mud.  Without wanting to worry Pam, I felt that we needed to push the pace a bit on the better ground, to keep us ahead of the cut-offs for the afternoon.  We played a bit of a game, spotting someone in the far distance and then pushing to try to catch them up.  The feeling of success of watching them get closer and closer until you overtake them is worth much more than your Garmin telling you that you are going a little quicker.

The footing was much better, apart from where everyone converged to go through a gate, where-upon it was a sea of mud, but I would gallop ahead for 10 metres to hold the gate open for Pam (and get a bit of a rest at the same time) and Pam would just steam straight on, losing no time.

The wind was starting to increase, and there were some very exposed long stretches that Pam ended up running directly behind me to try to shield her from the worst of the wind. I’m not sure it made much difference, but there wasn’t anything else to do!

At the second aid station, at the Waterfront Cafe, which took another 2 hours to cover 9 miles, we refilled water bottles (having cleverly drunk them dry before arriving) and moved on quickly. As we were perhaps only an hour or so ahead of the cut-off, it didn’t feel sensible to hang around like so many others seemed to be.  Pam had added some Tailwind to her drinks, and then struggled to get the tops screwed on (those annoying soft bottles that you can’t really get hold of properly).

The aid stations all had bottled water, which was great, but I was pleased I’d brought my own food as there was only gels, jelly babies and homemade fruitcake available. It takes a harder runner than me to cope with gels for 50 miles, and I am (regretfully) suspicious of homemade stuff while at races, I much prefer to know what is in it!  Luckily, I was packing Mars / Twix and other sugary stuff (and a couple of cheese rolls for emergencies) so I wasn’t too fussed.

The next aid station at Streatly-0n-Thames was only about 7 miles further on, which would have put us at about halfway. We had left the previous aid station only an hour ahead of the cut-off, so we could not afford to lose too much time.  It was quite simple….if we ran we would be OK, walking would not make it.   Unfortunately, the muddy parts were rough here, and the long fields had some of the strongest head-on winds we encountered here.  We kept plugging on, overtook quite a few people, but it was clear that everyone around us was flagging (like us).  Pam was very very quiet and basically running with her head down, answering when I spoke but not talking much.  She said that her legs were sore & tired (understandably), and had taken some ibuprofen earlier, but she kept plugging on.  I hadn’t talked to her about the pace and cut-offs in any detail, but made sure that I maintained a constant mantra of ‘constant motion forward’.

bob and pam pic

Pam and I, about halfway. Feet looking a little muddy perhaps…..but still smiling!

Having run the path before, but having an appalling memory, I kept having flashes of “I’ve been here before” that made me think that the trail would improve just around the corner. Unfortunately I stopped sharing this with Pam after being wrong so many times that even I got cross with myself.  It was better to let the tarmac path that had just arrived be a pleasant surprise!

I did, however, remember that the path after Streatly was decent (although slightly hilly) and wouldn’t be muddy…that was something to look forward to!

Thankfully Streatly arrived. Brad and Shaun were a lovely sight, and we were both extremely relieved to stand and chat for a couple of minutes.  As I was getting water, I saw two people dropping out, and there were clearly some tired people there.  Pam was a little bit wobbly on her feet, which gave me an insight how hard she had been pushing to get that far.  She gave Brad & Shaun a hug (but not me, her tormentor, I should add).  We left the aid station at 2.27pm (having been running for about 6 hours in horrible conditions), which mean we were only 33 minutes ahead of the cut-off.  As we crossed the bridge to the other side of the Thames, Pam started talking about dropping out, but how she didn’t want to let me down.  Good, I said (unsympathetically), let’s carry on then.

Perhaps I should explain here. I have total belief (and had already explained to Pam earlier that day) that ultra-running is mainly mental, with a small amount of physical attitude required.  Our bodies are capable of some extraordinary things, and the only thing that stops most people completing challenging feats is their mind telling them they can’t do it.  Actually, they are far far stronger than they think, but generally don’t get the opportunity to discover this.  Pam was a classic example of this, that her mind was the barrier to carrying on, rather than her legs (which although hurting, were still working well.)

We were only 33 minutes ahead of the cut-off, both tired and sore after a challenging marathon over terrible terrain….with another marathon to go. The aid-stations would now be every 6 miles or so, which would help by focusing us on the pace we needed, but made the chance of getting behind the cut-offs much higher if the trail was mud for any significant length of time.

nice scenery

It wasn’t all mud…there were some lovely sections….

 

Three things happened about now, some good, some great, some not so great…..

First thing that happened…we worked out how to run through the mud, at a decent pace, without either of us slipping over or either of us getting left behind. Quite simply…we ran holding hands.  Daft as it sounds, it gave us both the stability we needed to actually run rather than walk, and also I was able to go slightly in front and keep the pace up (with my big stable feet) while Pam could use me for balance, and not have to worry about anything other than where to put her feet next.  Although Pam was definitely less stable than me, due to her smaller feet, she also definitely saved me from going in the river on one memorable occasion, so it worked really well.  And most importantly, we kept the pace up through the worst mud I’ve ever run in, overtaking plenty of people, who not doubt thought I was the most chivalrous companion ever.

The second thing that happened is that Pam’s ‘ultra’ legs started to appear. Anytime the terrain was decent (field, track, path, whatever) she would settle into this trot at about 12 or 13 minutes per mile, and just knock out the miles while the going was good.  She didn’t slow down, she didn’t stop to walk, she just kept motoring along.  The amount of people we overtook on these good sections was massive, and we both knew that anyone behind us was in jeopardy of missing the cut-offs, especially if they weren’t moving well.

The third thing that happened was not so great. Although I’d had an easy day so far, running at far slower than my normal pace, I was starting to feel a bit queasy, my stomach was protesting at feeling empty, and I was resorting to my saviour of boiled sweets to keep my energy (and morale) up.  Pam was relentlessly eating up the miles and I was occasionally having to walk behind her (so she couldn’t see!) and have a breather.  Not for long, I hasten to add, but I knew I couldn’t let her get out of sight or I’d never catch her up again!   I pulled out one of my emergency cheese rolls, knowing that my stomach wasn’t interested in anything sweet, and tucked in.  I offered a bite to Pam and was lucky not to lose a finger by the size of the bite she took.  It did the job though…..you can’t beat a nice cheese roll.

I think we had a long stretch of good path or roadway here and there was a constant stream of people in the far distance that we eventually overtook. I’d like to say the scenery was lovely, but on that windy overcast and rainy day, it wasn’t great.  It will be better in May.

The next aid station was at the bottom of a hill, and once again it was a pleasure to see smiling Brad and Shaun waiting. Pam chugged a couple of paracetamol, we refilled water bottles, and quickly got on our way at about 4pm, still the magic 30 minutes ahead of the cut-off.   John (remember him?) was steaming ahead, and in great shape.  Great news.  Even better was the initial walk uphill, through a housing estate, which allowed legs to recover and stomachs to settle.  Ahhh, lovely.

The next (final) checkpoint, at Sonning, closed at 6pm, and it was only 6 miles or so ahead. To maintain our gap ahead of the cut-off we only needed to cover the 6 miles in 90 minutes.  Easy eh?  I don’t seem to remember much about this stage, other than the relentless forward motion.  I know I was sucking my way through my boiled sweets (as was Pam…luckily I always carry loads), and although it wasn’t dark, it was definitely getting gloomy.  There were still some patches of mud, but by holding hands we got through them unscathed.  Head-torches went on with about 2 miles to go, and it took a while to get used to the artificial light on the mud or trail shining so differently to the sun.  It made it very difficult to judge the best route to take, to avoid the wettest patches.

I love running in the dark, without any distractions apart from the small pool of light surrounding me, and this was no exception. I’d stopped Pam earlier from talking about mileages (how far to go, when is the next checkpoint etc) but I found myself doing the same in my head, as I’d reached that  tired point that each mile seemed to be passing agonisingly slowly.  I was still moving well and felt relatively unscathed (feet dry, legs OK etc) but weary.  Pam was, I think, just sore and tired, but was dogmatically pushing on.

better trail

Some of the route was runnable….just not enough of it looked as nice as this!

The final aid-station arrived, phew! We didn’t hang around, but grabbed what we needed and moved on.  We had maintained our pace, and had 30 minutes (still!) ahead of the cut-off…so we now had a full 2 hours to complete the next 7 miles.  Unless the mud got particularly bad, we had it in the bag!!

And that was when the mud got really bad. Just at the point that legs were at their most tired and sore, the path took a turn for muds-ville, and it was deep and thick and even.  By that point, we didn’t really try to go round the worst of it, but just sloshed through the centre of the track, in pitch black, trying to stay on our feet (but still holding hands, naturally).

We probably had only 1 to 2 miles of this, but it felt like much much further, and then, when the trail turned to better path or the edge of a field, I was paranoid about taking a wrong turn and going the wrong way. A few times we stopped and waited for some people behind us to catch up to check the correct route, before heading off faster than them when we were confident of the way.  There was one memorable field, that everyone was strung out along the left hand side, just torch beams wavering as we all slogged along, when a cry went up that the correct path was on the other side of the field….cue everyone heading off to the other side of the field, to resume the route on a much better track.

The last couple of miles were actually quite pleasant, alongside the side of the Thames in Henley, on a tarmac path. There was a small group of us, enjoying the fact that we were nearly there and we could soon stop running.  Amid some joking about a sprint finish, we saw the headlights and gathering of people that meant we’d finished.  We followed a slightly tatty finishers funnel, to get a bit of a cheer from the thirty or forty people huddling to stay warm in the cold drizzle, in the shelter of what (from what I could see) seemed to be a big public toilet (but I’m sure it was more than that!)

John, who had finished about 2 hours before us, was with Brad and Shaun clapping us home, which was a lovely sight. We got our medals and rather snazzy timing sheets telling us that we’d finished in just under ten and a half hours (still 30 minutes ahead of the 11 hour cut-off!), and then Pam, to her great surprise, was told she had won her age category.  Her first win at an ultra, and she’d done it in style!!

pam with trophy

Pam, with trophy, at the finish. Behold the smile of a tired but very pleased person. Credit: Shaun Mason.

After some faffing with her trophy, an official photo (!), and a hot cup of tea, we stiffly walked to the car to get changed. Pam disappeared off, I skulked in the shadows, and slung all my filthy muddy gear into a bin liner for my wife to deal with (thanks, dear).  Then we all crammed into the car for a jovial journey back.

John had a great race, finishing 46th overall in about 8hrs 39 minutes…a very strong time given the conditions.  He had a few wobbles, namely when Brad & Shaun put the wrong flavour electrolyte into his drink (these prima-donna athletes!!), and also when he discovered he had the wrong sort of blueberry muffins bought for him (by me, unfortunately).  But still a great finish on a rough day.  His crowning triumph was to film himself running the last few metres over the line, and then posting it online…sheer genius.  If you want a glimpse of him in action, follow @johnvoorhees1 on twitter and experience the genius.

john hunt pic

John at mile 33. He was clearly feeling good at this stage. Credit: Shaun Mason

Brad and Shaun hopefully enjoyed their long long day looking after us. Brad is now talking about doing an ultra (but, in his words, only a baby 32 mile one).  Shaun has not committed yet.  I suspect they’ve both got a few more blisteringly fast marathons in them before they before slow ultra runners.

Pam had a few bruised toes and feet in the following days, but was rightly pleased with her finish (and win!). Hopefully she has a bit more confidence in her ability over the longer distances.

And me? Well, apparently there were 210 finishers (Pam and I were 178th & 179th), and another 80 starters dropped out on route, so I think it’s fair to say we did well just to finish.  I’m chuffed to bits at getting Pam round in the time…although I never doubted her legs, I don’t think she would have kept going if she had been on her own.  I felt great at the finish, tired but still capable of a lot more, so I think perhaps I’ve learned a different approach to my usual “start quickly and get progressively slower” style.  Although there is no easy way to run 50 miles (or 47 as it turned out to be), I felt pretty good the following day.

The day had everything that  a good ultra should…and a bit more besides.  Mud, wind and rain were always part of the curriculum when I was at school, but not any more.  Not that I was any good at sport at school, but I seem to remember being covered in mud after games (now called PE), but that is just showing my age.  Go Beyond Ultra put on a decent, well organised and friendly race in nasty weather…but I still think the aid stations could have been a little better (whinge whinge).

And look!  You’ve made it through to the end of this race report…well done!  You’re probably as tired as we were on finishing…go and get yourself a pasty!!

Thames Ring 250 – June 2015

 

Before you start – a warning: this isn’t the story of a muscled athlete smashing out the miles before finishing in glory. It isn’t even the story of a good day (or three) out. But it does have a ring of truth about it, and (for me) some great moments. It is long, and boring. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

And something else too. Very often, it is easy in race reports to make yourself sound like a bit of a hero. I have tried my best not to do this, with the aid of late nights, red wine and a sarcastic sense of humour. The last thing we need is another bloody hero…

 

Excerpt from “Bob Wild – Adventurer, Spy, Lover” Series – ‘Book 3 – Thames Ring 250 ‘

I smiled to myself as a considered the colour of my wee. It had gone from the dark brown marmite-colour of a severely dehydrated runner, during the evening before and overnight, to the beautiful golden stream of a hydrated person. Happy days.

I rubbed a hand over my raspy chin, knowing that soon it would be the knee-length growth of a proper ‘ultra-beard’. Again, I smiled to myself, knowingly.  I was, clearly, a bloody hero.

It was about 10am, I’d just woken up from a 90 minute sleep (my first in 28 hours), and I’d gone to sleep knowing that I had at least a litre of water inside my stomach (or somewhere inside me), but it wasn’t getting absorbed because despite drinking a lot, I was sweating it out even faster.

However, with a much healthier colour to my wee, and a sleep inside me, I could sort myself out for the rest of this 250 mile race, and get moving. I’d come 82 miles in about 24 hours, had a sleep, and would now push on until mile 156, where the next sleep would be, in another 24 hours or so.

All I had to do to complete my good mood was eat something. My stomach had, understandably, not been my friend for the last day as it was heavily occupied with absorbing litres of water, but I knew that if I couldn’t get some food inside me I would get progressively more wretched until it was game over.

So I prepared a smorgasbord of lovely food. I prepared a bag of rehydrated food (600 calories, bland but good texture), couple of sausage rolls (100 calories each, tasty but junk), 2 paracetamol (OK, no calories, but necessary), a handful of TUC biscuits (no idea how many calories, but crunchy, tasty, salty, and lovely). And I put about three grains of rice from the rehydrated food in my mouth, chewed, swilled, swashed, moved it around with my tongue, did anything I could with it, but it wasn’t going to go down my throat. Every time I moved it to the rear of my tongue for swallowing, my throat closed and an ominous rumbling started that would inevitably lead to the retching I’d had for the last 24 hours.

“That’s OK, don’t panic” I told myself. “Biscuits, with their lovely texture and salty exterior will slip down easily”. I nibbled off about 2 millimetres off the corner. Chewed. It became a paste in my mouth. Nasty, slimy buttery yellowy paste. It wasn’t going anywhere.

I looked fondly at my paracetamol, as they lay and smiled up at me, promising some relief. They would take the edge off my stiff and sore muscles and allow me to keep positive for the future miles, rather than wallow in the pain and misery of muscles protesting at overuse. I didn’t think I’d be able to get them inside me either, and with no food to digest they probably wouldn’t work particularly well.

At this point the story goes one of two possible ways:

Either I would shrug on my man-suit, toughen up, and carry on running on an empty stomach, confident that my trusty dependable body would sort itself out in time. Or I would stay where I was and keep trying to eat, forcing down calories as if eating witchety grubs on a celebrity- jungle eating challenge.

To be continued…… 


 The Thames Ring 250 is a tough run.

Billed on the Trail Running Association website as “England’s Longest non-stop trail race,” it follows various canals on a circular 250 mile route that initially goes into London and then out and up to Milton Keynes and even more upwards to Northampton, before turning the top of the circle and coming down through Oxford and Abingdon to finish very near the start. Probably easier just to give you a map:

THe route.  We started in the 7 o'clock position (near Wallingford) and went anti-clockwise.

The route. We started in the 7 o’clock position (near Wallingford) and went anti-clockwise.

The race runs every 2 years: because of its extreme nature there are not enough people to fill the capacity (of 50) even every 2 years. I have a suspicion this may change in the future. There are cut-offs for every checkpoint (about every 25 miles) and in total you are allowed 100 hours, exactly 4 days and 4 hours. A good bench-mark is to complete a 100 mile race in 24 hours, so having an extra 3 days to do the next 150 miles is not totally impossible but tough.

What sort of people want to do this sort of thing? Normally I’d would suggest ex-army (probably SAS), in top physical condition, recently arrived back from Afghanistan with a severe case of PTSD, too much energy and a garage full of survival kit. But in fact, everyone doing it was just like me….normal bloke with a normal job, bit of a runner (no speed left, but can keep running for a while), looking for a challenge, used to putting their body under a bit of stress, and looking for something to push beyond the normal limits.

And what made me think I could do this? Well, nothing really. In fact, when I entered I was fairly certain that the distance was beyond me.   I had done a 145 mile race (the Grand Union Canal Race) in May 2014, and that went well, so it seemed a logical progression to aim for a 250 mile race and see how I coped. However, when I did the GUCR, I finished in a smashed-up heap, unable to go any further than the nearby car. The thought of doing that to myself and then carrying on for another 100 miles was ludicrous. Simply was not going to happen.

So I entered. And I planned.

In the race you are not allowed support, except at the checkpoints every 25 miles. You can buy whatever you need from shops, but they are few and far between. This means that the lovely idea of having a crew to meet you every few hours to spoon feed you hot food and coffee is not going to happen. The checkpoints would have provisions, of course, and shelter in case the weather was poor, but between them you would be self-sufficient. Not a problem for a single 25 mile section, but after three or four checkpoints and especially overnight, I was expecting to need a food system that would deliver me quick and easy hot food at the roadside without needing to stop for ages.   It needed to be accessible without taking my rucksack off, and obviously quite light. I settled on 2 vacuum flasks, each holding about 2 mugfulls of liquid. I could put two cup-a-soup type pasta meals into one, fill it with hot water, and then screw the lid on for an hour to eat later. The other would be coffee or something which would keep me awake. Both of these would sit above my hips in the netting of a Raidlight rucksack, and did not get in the way of too much running. Perfect.

I played with many different varieties of shoes in the 6 months before the race. Partially because I wanted to move to a more cushioned shoe that would protect my knees, which took a massive battering during GUCR, and also because my usual type of shoe (Mizunno Wave Inspire 7, if you desperately want to know) went out of production years ago (they are now up to Wave Inspire 11’s), so I couldn’t get them. So I spent a couple of happy afternoons at my local running shop as they patiently brought me pretty much every shoe they had, and settling on a couple of good bets. Then turning to eBay, where I stalked a few other brands that liked the look of, with the aim of getting a few second hand pairs that wouldn’t break the bank while giving me a few different choices.

At the same time I was playing with choices of shoe, I was suffering with two ongoing injuries that were getting in the way of ‘normal’ running. A verruca on the sole of my foot was simply like walking (or running) with a stone in my shoe. This meant I started to bend my left foot inwards (to avoid stepping on the stone) and hence my left thigh muscle was being bent and stretched out of shape and generally being very tight to run with.

The all important blister kit!

The all important blister kit!

Yes, yes, I know. Trying different styles of shoe, while completely distorting my running style was a recipe for disaster, and I had blisters galore. My expertise grew every week as I practised taping my feet, reading books like ‘Fixing your Feet’ and discovering the glories of putting duct tape over problem areas. In the end I had a small operation to remove the verruca and this made me realise how much my running gait had been buggered.   It took about 3 weeks for the hole in my foot to close up, but in those three weeks I learnt how to walk with poles (as it hurt too much to run) and I suspect I was the only person walking most of the Brighton Marathon course at 4am on the morning of the marathon as I couldn’t run it later that day. (I didn’t expect it to be quite so busy with drunks along the seafront at that time, and got quite a lot of healthy abuse/banter, but I like to think I gave them something to remember later and wonder if they dreamt it!)

So, I’d finally sorted my feet out, chosen a variety of shoes (some soft road shoes, some tougher trail shoes for when the terrain got rough), and worked out how I would feed myself over the length of 250 miles. I had done a recce of about 80 miles of the route, from Bletchley to Kings Sutton in March, so I was happy with the navigation and terrain.

I did a trial run with all my kit, in the Thames Path 100 race in early May. I did this 100 miler fully-loaded, carrying all my food and kit, just using the aid-stations for water. It worked well, and I finished in about 22.5 hours, still able to drive home after. The only serious problem was blisters again, but this was due to my shoes actually shredding on the course, allowing loads of stones and twigs in, which I did not realise until later. New shoes please!

Never had a shoe shred like this before, no wonder they were full of gravel

Never had a shoe shred like this before, no wonder they were full of gravel

I had also done a couple of nights of minimal sleep, to understand the effect it would have on me. Although thoroughly unpleasant, it was a good learning experience. I ran through though Friday night, getting to bed at about 4am for a 5.30am start on Saturday morning. I worked through Saturday, and then went to a local 24-hour running event being held from lunchtime Saturday to lunchtime Sunday (the 24 hour Marshside Challenge, run by Challenge Hub – they’re very good!). By midnight Saturday I was thoroughly pissed off though, tired and unhappy, and made the mistake of calling my wife who said the fateful line “Well, you could just come home to bed”, so I did. The evening served the purpose of teaching me just how pissed off I get with lack of sleep, though, so not a complete waste!


 

So we are about a week before the race. I was well prepared with kit, I had food for each of the checkpoints organised, and little snack bags for between each of the checkpoints organised.

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

This was about halfway through the packing extravaganza….

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

A small selection of tasty morsels…one for every checkpoint

Everything was labelled and named. All I have left to do was pack it into two drop bags that would be transported ahead of me throughout the race (nope, I don’t understand how they kept the bags of 40 competitors spread out over 60 or 70 miles all ahead of the correct people either, but they did).

I had a couple of drinks with some running mates to run through my plans in a bit of detail with them, while they suggested improvements or things that could go wrong. One critical change was to sleep earlier, at checkpoint 3 (about mile 82) rather than waiting until later, and this worked well. But the rest of the plan felt robust and like it would work…if I could just hold everything together and keep moving forward.

I’d read pretty much all the previous race reports I could get my hands on, simply to know what to expect. There were some really good details in most of them, from particular sleep strategies, to the mind-set towards the end. They all made it sound very tough, if only from a point where fitness stops helping and it’s a battle against the head. Interestingly, few people seemed to drop out due to actual injury, probably because of the relative slowness of movement towards the end, but a general fatigue (as you would expect!) is the killer. The time allowed for the final stage of 18 miles is 9 hours, which on any given day should be do-able! If only I knew then what I know now!

With a fortnight to go, 3 crazy fools decided to do ‘the double’…which meant doing the 250 mile loop once, within the same cut-offs, before finishing and joining the start line for a second loop. The start time of the main race was 100 hours after they started the first loop, so they had to finish in a decent time if they were to have any recovery time before setting off again.   This goes way beyond tough, and enters the realms of, ohhhhhhh very hard indeed. All were experienced guys and knew the size of the challenge they were taking on. I’d briefly got to know one, Rich Cranswick, as he ran the Thames Path 100 in a clown costume alongside me, and hence I watched their progress carefully.

Ernie, Rich and Javed, setting off to attempt the 'double'.  500 miles in 200 hours....

Ernie, Rich and Javed, setting off to attempt the ‘double’. 500 miles in 200 hours….

Rich, Javed and Ernie made good progress as they started, and regular Facebook updates and a brilliant satellite tracker meant you could see where they all were on the route at any time. They didn’t stay together, which initially I found strange, but as they told me later, it would be just too difficult to sync up their run & sleep patterns. So they are all out there, separated by a few miles, with a few people meeting them at checkpoints to feed & water them. Other than watching their progress, I didn’t worry too much about them, simply assuming they would all get to the end of the first lap as with their experience they would not have volunteered for something that wasn’t achievable, would they?

So when Rich pulled out at about 170 miles, I’m standing in my kitchen thinking “Hang on, this guy was aiming for twice as long, is massively experienced, had good support, and didn’t get to the end of the first loop.” Facebook didn’t tell me whether he had been injured, suggesting that he had dropped out due to fatigue. Shit. If superman can’t complete a lap, what hope have I got? This really got to me, and I had a couple of days of having to give myself a bloody good talking to, in order to quieten my mind.

In the end, Javed and Ernie finished the first loop, but Ernie didn’t start the second due to some problems with his Achilles, and Javed…well, I’ll tell you more about Javed later.    

So it is Tuesday morning, before the race starts on Wednesday at 10am. I am all packed up, and sent the kids to school & the wife to work. I’ve got about 4 hours until my train to take me up to the start, and my mind is exploding with thoughts, not all bad, but exploding nevertheless. There is another blog, below this one, containing some of my pre-race thoughts. Not very interesting, though.

I won’t tell you about the train journey across London. It’s enough to say that the drop bags weighed a ton, and every station & tube was specifically designed to have maximum stairs. Bollocks.

Doesn't look like much, but it weighed a ton!

Doesn’t look like much, but it weighed a ton!

The pub I was staying at was very central and just what a pub/restaurant should look like, all oak beams and stairs. I took great pleasure in asking for some poor lad from the bar to carry my heaviest bag up the two flights of stairs to the bedroom, and even more pleasure in seeing him struggle. It’s not that I’m mean, but these youngsters don’t know they’re born etc when I was young I lived in a cardboard box on the central reservation of the M25 and ate gravel (if you get the reference, you are probably as old as me).

There was a small group of what I took to be runners in the beer garden (where else?) so after I double checked my kit, I ordered a beer and went to introduce myself. I found myself chatting away to two Swedish guys, Debbie (Ernies partner, who was currently doing the double) and Rich Cranswick (who had decided to have another stab at the main race, having dropped out of the first loop of the double). To his credit, Rich was still a little spaced out and every so often would lose flow of his conversation, but he was in great spirits. Debbie was glued to her laptop, showing how Ernie was getting on. He was about 5 miles from the finish, but struggling with an injury and was going very slowly. He would definitely finish, but was in some pain. It was quite an eye opener to see Debbie’s level of (understandable) concern, and I suppose I saw a bit of my wife in her as she didn’t take her eyes from the little blue dot on the screen as it updated every minute or so.

I was lucky enough to have dinner with Debbie (and the laptop) and chatted about the various races we’d done (GUCR), which we ones were too hard (The Spine, don’t even start me off about the Spine) and which were just too expensive (MdS). Interestingly, we never really talked about the Thames Ring, which Ernie has completed before, but that was probably for the best.

Selfie the night before....looking healthy -ish

Selfie the night before….looking healthy -ish

As Debbie thought Ernie was almost at the finish, she rushed off to make sure she was there for him, and I sat for a few minutes to finish my meal (very nice steak & chips if you want to know) before heading up to bed. I won’t say the bed was rather large, comfy and ornate…but 8.5 hours later I woke up thinking “What happened?” Great preparation for being awake for the next few days!!

 

Rather a posh bed for me, but I did sleep well!

Rather a posh bed for me, but I did sleep well!

Breakfast the next morning was supposed to be a ‘full English’ but actually was a sausage, two bits of bacon and some mushrooms. All superb quality, but it was one of those times when I wished for quantity rather than quality. I chatted to another competitor called Dave at breakfast, who’d been up in the night being sick, and didn’t feel like eating breakfast at all. Oh dear, not a great start. We arranged to get a taxi together to the start…it was only 0.9 miles, but carrying my bloody heavy drop bags that far was just not an option. In fact, as we were sitting outside the pub waiting for the taxi, a chef came out saying the taxi had a flat tyre and that he’d take us to the start instead! That’s service for you!

The start was a scout hut somewhere, with a decent number of very strong looking runners there in various states of preparation. I checked in, had my mandatory kit checked and found myself a corner to sort myself out. I followed the lead of most others by putting on suntan lotion, but I hadn’t really recognised the fact that it was going to be hot. At least not as hot as it was. I prepared my 2 water bottles with fresh water and electrolyte tablets. I had a couple of electrolyte tablets ready in each of my checkpoints bags, which would cover the 1.5 litres of fresh water I would fill up with at each checkpoint. I didn’t like the taste of the electrolyte, but I tend to sweat profusely in hot weather, and have suffered in the past by not replacing the chemicals in the sweat I lose when I take only plain water on.

I was a little worried that I had, without a doubt, the biggest heaviest rucksack of anyone. Most people had tiny snug packs that probably held a waterproof and some water. I could carry enough for a week, and still have space left for bear-repellent-spray (just in case) and a bag of Doritos. Ah well, I consoled myself, in a couple of days, when I’m having a nice picnic down by the canal I will thank myself for having room for a few nibbles.

Lindley Chambers presented finishers medals for the guys that completed the first loop of the douple, Javed and Ernie, and gave a few starting instructions, before getting us to walk about a mile to the actual starting point (back to my pub!). That walk was lovely, a band of brothers going to war…some wouldn’t finish, some would, but at that point we’d all worked hard for months to get to the start line together. A real feeling of camaraderie. Apart from the bastards that got driven to the start to save their legs……f*ck them.

So there we are, waiting to start. There were a few instructions from Lindley. Absolutely can’t remember what he said. I was in my customary position right at the back. Everyone wishing everyone else good luck. And we were off.

Intermission:

Well, you’ve made it this far, committed reader. We are 8 or so pages in, and just about to start running 250 miles. It’s only going to get harder. Do you really want to start? There is no dishonour in quitting now; you’ve given it a fair attempt.

don't quit

 

Back to the running then…

Miles 0-27.

Average pace approx 12m/m (a bit slow, but it was very hot)

Time taken 5 hrs 21 (from tracker)

There is one massive benefit to starting at the back. You get to look around, go slow, chat away with other like-minded slow-coaches, and know that you’re not getting off too fast. I wanted the first 27 miles to be almost a meditation to the distance, as this was where I would feel the best, and where I would be able to reflect on what had got me here. I was chatting to loads of different people around me, including Glyn Raymen, who I met last year on Winter 100, where we discovered that within the small group we were running in there were three of us (Marcus Shepherd was the other) going to be attempting the TR250 in 8 months time.   How time flies!

At about 10 miles or so, I was running alongside Javed, one of the finishers of the first loop of the double. He was running as smoothly as a shaved fox, despite the fact that he had completed the previous 250 miles in about 81 hours. We joked that he must have had some serious work done to his legs in the intervening 20 hours to aid his recovery. I still (even now) wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it as he comfortably covered the same distance at the same pace that I was running.   He had some intriguing ‘theories’ and ideas of different ‘operating systems’ of the various mindsets that he thought would help him through the next four days, and I have to say that I’m not sure I’ve ever run and chatted with someone that challenged my preconceptions so much. For example, I would assume that when attempting to run 500 miles (or even 250) the mind should break it down into manageable chunks (of, perhaps, 25miles) and not think about the ‘whole’ but just the next 25 miles, and maybe each of those 25 mile legs into 5 or 8 mile sections. On the contrary, Javed tells me, during the first loop he worked to the whole distance in his head, approaching the massive mileage as ‘one’. I’m not explaining it very well, but wait for his book, it’ll be interesting!

I became conscious I was slowing a little in the heat. My water wasn’t going down as well as I wanted, I could feel it starting to accumulate in my stomach a bit, which never makes for pleasant running, and I remember thinking (at midday) that I may find this heat a bit of a challenge.   The route was picturesque though, the sun was shining, and all seemed well with the world. I had a rice-crispy bar and felt fine.

At about mile 13 Paul Ali popped up taking pictures along the Thames, and took this rather splendid shot of a few of us looking like were actually enjoying ourselves. I think the guy in orange is Darren, who was still in my vicinity at mile 156, looking a bit rougher there though. The guy in blue is Marcus Shepherd, who looked very strong and naturally broke into a proper run when he saw the camera.

Someone taking a picture!  We'd better run then!!!  Marcus in blue, Darren in orange, and Mark (with Sleepy on the far left).  I'm the good-looknig one on the right.

Someone taking a picture! We’d better run then!!! Marcus in blue, Darren in orange, and Mark (with Sleepy on the far left). I’m the good-looking one on the right.

Quite a few people popped into a shop at mile 19, and from there it didn’t take long to get to the first checkpoint at mile 27. I think I hardly stopped here, just fresh water and a snack-bag of a few goodies.   The checkpoint was well organised, with my drop-bag waiting for me by a chair, requiring the minimum of effort from me (which is just what the doctor ordered).

Checkpoint 1, with chairs and drop bags laid out. I’m kneeling in the middle.

Mile 27-55

Average pace 13.30 m/m

Total time 12 hr 20 (from tracker)

Yup, it was definitely getting hotter and sweatier. The arms of my T-shirt had sweat stripes on them, and I knew I was starting to get dehydrated. Not a major problem, but it would be if I couldn’t start to get some water into my system (I was drinking enough, it was just sitting in my stomach). I hadn’t had a wee since I started 6 hours ago, and since I have a fabulously weak bladder (I normally can’t hold a cup of coffee for 30 minutes) I knew I needed to do something different to get the water into my system. So I slowed a lot, took a lot more walking breaks to allow my body a bit of rest and my stomach to do what it could. This helped a lot, and I started wee-ing, but only very small amounts of a dark yellow colour (too much information?) – good news is that kidneys still work, bad news is that they’ve got a lot of work to do!

The other good news was my feet. Having spent the run so far just waiting for the first blister to start, I was beginning to get a bit of confidence my shoes (a fairly bog-standard pair of road-shoes) were doing the business, plus two pairs of socks (Injinji toe socks & a lightweight pair over the top of them) that allows lots of movement without any actual friction on my skin. To have made it this far with no troubles was good news, considering I’d had 15 mile runs over the last few months that had given me major problems. I planned to change my shoes at the next checkpoint, to another pair of road shoes and allowed myself to think that my feet might hold together for the first hundred miles, a milestone I’d only dreamt of a month ago.

The heat was still very rough, and I ended up going into a Harvester along the river to change my bottles for ice and water. I imagine I wasn’t the only sweaty smelly runner visiting them this evening, as they didn’t question what I’d asked for (“Lots of ice and tap water please”) or even asked what on earth I was doing. I’m still sure that iced water kept my core temperature down as the evening started to cool around me. I remember thinking that it saved my life.

At about 9pm I spoke to my wife, just to let her know I was still alive. I’d purposely kept my phone switched off until then, in order to conserve the battery but also to keep my head focussed on the task in hand. However, it felt good to speak to home, take stock of where I was and start to think about the next checkpoint. The 55 mile checkpoint at Chertsey would be at the start of the first night, and I would need to take a little time to make sure that I had got my night gear sorteed and eaten properly before heading out into the night.

A guy called Spenser overtook me at about mile 45. He looked really strong, and was very distinctive due to his star-trek-high-tech-navigator-thingy attached to his wrist. I’m still not sure what it was but it looked about the size of a smart phone and basically was pointing him, turn-by-turn, through the route. The rest of us had maps with directions (which were pretty simple) and this was enough. I talked to Spenser a few times over the next few days, and he had finished some tough races (notably the Spine, the bloody Spine again) in the past. He went past me like a rocket, and was in good shape.

Then I was chatting to Dave, the guy I’d spoken to at breakfast, who was feeling the effects of his being sick overnight at the pub, and needed to get some food inside him. He was searching on his phone for the closest place he could get some hot food before night fell. I offered pizza.

Shall I tell you about pizza? About magic pepperoni pizza, that is possibly the most calorific hot cheesy tasty greasy food you can eat, and if your body is crying out for calories you can just inhale it and it will hit your muscles like spinach does for Popeye. I’d had my first experience of magic pizza recovery while on a 24 hour run in 2011, when my wife presented it to me at about 8pm and it was gone 15 minutes later. Last year, in GUCR, my support crew somehow got me a large pepperoni pizza at mile 65, and I wolfed it down while still moving – it was very memorable and was 2000 much-needed calories.

I’d already spoken to the local Domino Pizza about three weeks earlier with a very strange conversation…

Me – “Hello, I like you to deliver a pizza to a specific patch of grass opposite this particular postcode in about three weeks at 10 o’clock at night, will you be able to do this?”

Domino pizza – “WTF? Ummmm, yes”

Me – “Cool. I call you back in three weeks then. Thanks, bye”

I’m sure I’m not the only person to arrange a pizza three weeks in advance, but I’m certainly the only one writing here about it.

Soooo, I phoned up for my pizza, to an understanding Dominos outlet (well done Dominos Addlestone!), and ordered two pizzas to be delivered to checkpoint 2 in about an hour. They were very helpful, and agreed to write my name and runners number on the box, as well as giving rather explicit instructions to the driver about where to deliver. I also phoned Rachel, one of the organisers of checkpoint 2 to warn her that a bloke might be delivering a pizza to her before I got there, if I’d mucked up my timings.

Night was falling and my head torch was making the shadows jump around me as I marched the last few miles to the checkpoint where my pizza would be waiting. And I felt OK as I got my head together with what I needed to get done at the checkpoint before leaving it. I would change my shoes and socks, and most important check my feet for any hotspots. I would re-apply some sudo-cream to my nether regions as I was getting a little chafing. I would swap my Garmin to recharge one in my drop-bag, while using my wife’s for the next 50 miles (cracking idea that – getting her the exact same Garmin I use for her birthday, well done Bob). I would swap my sweaty top for two layers that would keep me warm overnight. I would have a small coffee to give me a little caffeine, but not loads otherwise I wouldn’t sleep at the next checkpoint. I would make sure I have a warm top in my rucksack, and get another snack-bag for the next leg (although I’d hardly touched the last one). And I would eat pizza.   All good. I wasn’t hungry, and I was dehydrated, but I thought I could get both fixed with a dose of pizza.

I got to the checkpoint at Chertsey about 10.30 pm, and set about sorting my kit out as described above. Everyone there was in good spirits with lots of banter, especially when Rachel recognised my number as the guy who’d phoned her about the pizza. Spenser headed out shortly after I arrived, but there must have been 5 or 6 of us there, with the same number of volunteers. All were really helpful and jumped to fetch anything asked for. I had a largish coffee while I changed my shoes, and was really chuffed to see my feet looked absolutely fine – I’ve seen them look worse after a Sunday morning long run. A quick once-over with a wet wipe & it was on with new crispy socks – lovely.

Quite a few others were arriving, including Javed who set about himself with a foam roller on a mat on the floor, and I was just beginning to wonder whether I’d have to wait too much longer for my pizza when the unthinkable happened.

I felt a rather unusual ‘bubbling’ from my stomach, and just had time to get to the far side of the checkpoint, in the relative gloom, before emptying my stomach into the bushes. Multiple times. This wasn’t just being sick. This was complete voiding of everything I’d been carrying in my stomach, and carried on until my body was absolutely sure there was no remnant of anything solid or liquid hidden away in any nook or cranny inside me.   This was the Marks & Spenser of ‘getting your guts up’. Just when I was straightening up, thinking “that must be it” I would bend double again just to see if my body could tense itself up even more and I could squeeze any more out.   And while I was doing this (as quietly as possible) I was acutely aware that there were 15 people about ten feet away that didn’t want to see/hear my troubles. I honestly don’t know if anyone realised what I was doing, but I’m sure someone must have heard…or maybe not. I’ll never know though, because as I was straightening up for the last time, thinking that I’d fucked everything up by having too much coffee, feeling that horrible weak wobble after doing something you really didn’t want to do, and thinking that emptying my stomach was absolutely the last thing I needed to do….when my pizza arrived.

What should have been a brilliant strategic moment of ultra-running nutrition combined with calories-on-a-moped turned into a “Oh, god, there’s no way I can eat a pizza right now”. Rachel was shouting for me, the poor pizza delivery guy was completely bemused as to what we were all doing in the dark, and I walked away from the bushes of puke to get my pizza from him. Luckily I’d had the foresight to order two pizzas (one for me, one for everyone else – don’t want to be too generous) and I slung the second in the middle of the seating area with an invitation to everyone to get stuck in. Lindley popped up from somewhere (no idea how) and took a picture!

Lindleys picture.  You can see my majestic blue foot at the left hand side.  Javed is sitting on his roller mat.

Lindleys picture. You can see my majestic blue foot at the left hand side. Javed is sitting on his roller mat.

My plan had always been to eat the pizza on the move, as I’ve found it doesn’t slow me down too much and gives it longer to digest. With hindsight, I should probably have sat for another 30 minutes, giving my stomach time to settle before setting off, but without thinking really I set off from the checkpoint, pizza in hand. It was about 11pm.

Mile 55 to 82.

Average pace 16m/m

Total time at end of stage 22 hrs 41 (according to tracker)

I’d like to say the pizza was magic, as usual, and it slipped down great. But trying to eat pizza 5 minutes after being violently sick was not great. To my credit, I persevered for about 40 minutes. In that time I managed about a slice and a half. I could chew it to a paste in my mouth, and then I’d take a mouthful of water, swill, swallow, and repeat. Trust me; it was a criminal waste of good pizza. After doing this for a while to force some much needed food inside me, I lost the will to get even more water inside my sloshing stomach. I was like a walking water-balloon. I slung the rest of the pizza away, knowing full well that I was throwing away the calories I would need for the following day. This wasn’t going to end well, unless something amazing happened.

I was heading through the night in the company of a guy called Ben now. Ben was a stocky runner, who was perhaps slightly less confident in the navigation that I was…or perhaps he was better at knowing when we were lost than I was. Anyway, we stuck together for the night, got lost a few times, found the right way a few times. I’m still not sure whether we were incredibly lucky or clueless by how often we accidentally found the correct path, but whichever we kept moving forward. Ben had done a few big ultras (including UTMB) in the past, and was very strong. He managed to keep up a gentle run at my strong marching pace, and together we watched the sun come up. It was probably only dark for about 5 or 6 hours, but there was a long stretch at about 2am (which is usually my lowest point) where I felt like we were just constantly walking uphill forever.

Overnight, we caught up to Spenser (star-trek-navigator-thingy-still-on-his-wrist) who had gone from the strong challenger at about mile 45 to a shuffler. He looked rough, and the difference in the space of a few hours was a shock. He was OK though, just a bit of a tough patch, and plodded along behind us.

Sometime in the early Thursday morning we moved from the Thames Path, and onto the Grand Union Canal. It was like coming home for me, as I like the canal and its calming atmosphere. Also, it was very difficult to get lost when all you had to do was follow a canal towpath. Flat, leafy, minimal people…lovely.

Overnight, my wee was still very very dark. It was difficult to tell in the torchlight, but it was either the dark-brown of marmite (but not the consistency of marmite I should add!) or the reddish-brown of bloody water. I’d heard stories of blood in urine, which never usually boded well, resulting in kidney damage and other pesky things. Hopefully I was just dehydrated. I was drinking plain water, but not eating anything. I just couldn’t seem to swallow anything.

When the sun was up, it was nice to be able to remove my head torch and reflect that the first night was over. I knew the nights would be the worst time, as usually I could just ‘caffeine’ my way through them, but this would mean I would not sleep properly at the next checkpoint, so I had to forego the coffee for the greater good of better sleep. A sensible trade-off I thought. The night hadn’t been pleasant, in fact it had been tiring and annoying, but it was over and I now had hours of daylight. It was dawning on me though that it was very likely I would still be going through Saturday night, in order to finish before the cut-off at 2pm Sunday. This was a bit of a blow, as I’d hoped to finish by late Saturday, hence only having to suffer through three nights (Wed, Thu, Fri) but at the pace I was doing, I would clearly be out there for a while.

And then my phone went off.

I should explain that I had expected to feel pretty shit at various stages of the race, and in order to keep my mind in as positive a place as possible, I had asked for friends from my running club (the awesome Thanet Roadrunners) to call me at various times in order to give me a bit of a boost. I find I can’t be faffed to check twitter or Facebook when I’m on the go, but I’d set my phone to answer automatically if I was listening to something on my earphones, so I could talk to callers without having to take my phone out of my rucksack. It worked amazing well, and I was lucky enough to get more calls that I can mention from friends as I ran.

So, it was about 5.30am on Thursday morning, I was feeling OK but perhaps a little groggy from a tough night and little to eat, and I had the pleasure of calls from John H & Michelle, which was a great way to focus on what was ahead rather than what was behind me. Good start to the day.

I got to the checkpoint 3 at Yiewsley at about 8am I think. There was a nice grass verge that looking just right for a snooze, and I was planning on sleeping here for about 90 minutes, and then eating. The sun was up and I felt that with a good sleep, my stomach could deal with the water sloshing around in it, and then I’d awake ravenous and ready to eat enough calories for a day’s running. Good!

My sleeping arrangements at checkpoint 3.  Nice grass verge!

My sleeping arrangements at checkpoint 3. Nice grass verge!

I slept really well, after a couple of cups of orange juice, and although I set my alarm for 90 minutes I woke up unaided in 82 minutes. I felt this was a good omen (clearly I wasn’t that tired!) and I stood up, stretched, and looked for somewhere to go to the toilet. Another good sign, my wee was back to golden yellow (I promise I stop talking about this soon!) and I’d clearly dealt with all the water in my stomach. I was stiff, but not disastrously, so I was feeling quite positive. Even better, there were still people arriving at the checkpoint that I’d just spent 90 minutes sleeping at, so I wasn’t last (my usual default position).

And this dear reader, is where you joined the travels of “BobWild – Adventurer, Spy, Lover” and you’ll remember (if you’ve made it this far) that far from enjoying a hearty breakfast to give me the calories I needed for the day ahead, I could eat nothing without retching. Not even a buggerdly Tuc biscuit just to get something into my stomach.

It was clear that I couldn’t carry on forever like this, but the bizarre thing is that I wasn’t (yet) feeling exhausted – though that would come. I simply accepted that I wasn’t going to be forcing anything down, got my kit together and got on the move.

Mile 82 – 105.

Average pace 17m/m

Total time at end of leg 30 hrs 30 mins (according to tracker)

I didn’t set off feeling anything other than frustrated that my body wasn’t playing by well-established rules. I would run/walk as far as I needed to, chucking junk calories down my neck as I felt like it. My body would protest, but ultimately come through with the goods, propelling me to the finish line, and then in the following few days would make me pay by swelling/aching/throbbing/peeling until we negotiated a truce. Simples!

But without the junk calories, clearly we were playing a different game. To be fair to my legs & body, perhaps I changed the game by attempting a 250 mile run….slightly further than usual.

Setting off on Thursday morning, perhaps carrying enough for a week?

Setting off on Thursday morning, perhaps carrying enough for a week?

I spent the first 5 miles of this leg chatting to a guy who was in a surprisingly similar position to me. I didn’t catch his name, but he was questioning his reasons for doing this particular challenge. I was in the same place, wondering what I had left to prove to myself in running along way. I didn’t catch the name of this guy (whoops) but it was odd that we both had the same thoughts at the same time, and although they may sound negative, I think they were rather more a reflection on what we had left to face. No question of carrying on to the end of this race, but to think harder & longer before entering the next one. We parted company when we both needed a poo at the same time…he went off to ask some offices we were passing if he could borrow their facilities, and I (as is my custom) went to find a bush. For the record, mine was small but a lovely consistency and colour…no problems there (even if it was food from 24 hours ago)!

Settling in for the long haul now, I put on an audio book (Dick Francis if you’re interested, 11 hours long and a really good way to make the time pass) and put my head down. I was heading for the checkpoint at mile 105, which felt like a good milestone, and I had given myself an hour there to change shoes & socks and (again) try to eat.

I remember spending a lot of this leg fantasising about an ice cream. It was still hot and an iced lolly seemed to be the absolute pinnacle of fine dining. Naturally, there wasn’t a shop to be found which I found myself getting quite angry at. After perhaps 10 miles I came across a couple of runners having chips at a little café alongside the canal. And all I wanted was an ice cream. But the shop nearby was closed (back in 10 bloody minutes is no good to me!) and so I made myself carry on. Again, with hindsight, maybe a chat and a sit, with some salty chips would have hit the spot, but at the time I was fixed on cool creamy ice cream.

It was shortly after this I came across a guy called Jon, not a competitor but just a runner out for the morning, who asked what we were all doing and then kept me company for ages chatting about the event and other things. It was great to let the miles slide by without thinking. Jon kept me company until shortly before the next checkpoint and then had to run back to where we met! Apart from a can of coke from a pub, there wasn’t much to say except thanks! (Apart from his starring piece in this version of War & Peace, obviously).

Lovely scenery all the way

Lovely scenery all the way

I suspect this leg would have been much tougher without Jon to take the edge off, as I was tired, getting pissed off and it was hot again. As it headed towards mid-afternoon it felt like the heat was just radiating out of me, although there was a slight breeze thank goodness. The scenery was still great though, with some lovely stretches of deserted countryside interspersed with the odd village.

I arrived at checkpoint 4 at Berkhamsted, and felt good surprisingly. It was early afternoon I think, everyone had thrown themselves down on the grass outside a pub and the sun was shining (which was nice when stationary, only a pain when motoring along). I had a luxurious hour to change shoes & socks and do a bit of kit stuff, as well as eat. I’d decided to change my eating plan (which clearly wasn’t working anyway) and head back to my old faithful of ravioli. I’d brought along a couple of ‘emergency’ tins in my drop bags, in case I fancied them, and pulled one out for the volunteers to heat up. Once again, the volunteers were amazing, offering help with anything and suggesting things to eat or drink that I suspect many of us wouldn’t have thought of. Once again, my feet seemed to be in great shape, and a new set of socks felt lovely going on. I was changing to trail shoes now, as the terrain was moving from reasonable canal path to the occasional stretch of grassy track, which was a challenge. Also, the soles of my feet were just starting to get a bit bruised from the pounding, and the trail shoes would protect that a bit with their harder soles. However, my feet & legs were holding up better than I could have hoped at 100 miles, with no specific problems apart from general fatigue.

Happy selfie at cp4....still able to smile!

Happy selfie at cp4….still able to smile!

Lovely surroundings at cp4

Lovely surroundings at cp4

The ravioli arrived as I finished faffing with my kit. I eyed it nervously. The last two times I’d tried to eat had not gone well, and this orangey gloop in a cup didn’t inspire confidence. I’d got 2 paracetamol and 2 ibuprofen out in readiness (and hopefulness) in case I could eat, and they smiled up at me from the grass offering relief form the inevitable pain.

I ate the ravioli…and it was good! With more relief that I probably should have felt, I ate about three-quarters of the tin, and it stayed down. Magic. I wouldn’t go as far as to say all my problems were over, but I hoped this was the end of the eating problems. That would be good. With some hot food inside me, I lay back on the grass and enjoyed the sunshine.

 

Having a lie down in the sun at cp4.  Feeling good!

Having a lie down in the sun at cp4. Feeling good!

While I was there I saw Rich, Javed and a few others come into the checkpoint and go to sleep (I don’t think they’d slept earlier that day as I had.)

This is what they do with dead runners...with Rich Cranswick at least.

This is what they do with dead runners…with Rich Cranswick at least.

Mile 105 – 132

Average pace 17.15m/m

Total time at end of leg 37hours 55mins (according to tracker)

So, I left that checkpoint in good spirits, with hot food inside me and a plan. It was very hot still, but I got into the habit of stopping every mile or so to wet my cap & buff in the canal and basically keeping my core temp down with these. It worked, and was even better when I poured cold water over my thighs: bliss. I was still listening to my audio book and the miles were passing nicely. Still very hot but I could cope with it. The scenery was just as nice as always too, and I was taking a bit more notice of the canal boats I was passing. I was taking it easy, stopping every 6 miles or so for a mouthful of lukewarm, weak coffee to give my stomach something else to play with other than water.

Even after 100 miles I was bounding up the smallest slope...oh no, hang on......

Even after 100 miles I was bounding up the smallest slope…oh no, hang on……

I started getting phone calls from my running club about 4pm this afternoon, and would continue to get them pretty much consistently all the way to the end. Once again, too many calls to list them, but they were all positive and cheerful, and thanks to everyone that called me for giving up their time to talk to me, it helped a lot.

I was soon going to hit a 24 hour Tesco, at Leighton Buzzard, and I was talking to myself about what I could treat myself to, to keep my calorie intake going. In the end (and it took a while to decide) I chose a simple apple (crunchy, juicy, cold, tasty, yumyumyum) and a cold bottle of something fizzy. Having drunk bland water for the last few days it was going to be a real treat.

It was just about dusk when I came off the canal path to go into Tesco, and I went through self-serve till to get my apple & drink…it took me ages to get the damn till to work, showing how mentally tired I was.

I got back out on the track, and took my first bite of the apple. Mmmmm. The canal path wasn’t busy, but there were a few people milling about at 8pm, enjoying the warm evening. By bite three I was loving the apple, and the taste in my mouth, which made it all the more surprising when I had to stumble to the bushes and puke the whole lot up again. Saying sorry to passers-by, between retches, probably wasn’t the highest point of my run, however, I am a polite man. It was so annoying, so frustrating, that I felt I was back to square one. After a relatively short space of time, I felt OK, and I apologised again to a girl with two dogs that clearly thought I was the devil (maybe she was right).

That apple was probably the start of the end if I’m honest. A few people since have told me that an acidic apple is the absolute last thing I should have eaten with a dodgy stomach, and hindsight is a wonderful thing. It was the shock of being sick again that surprised me I think. Even as I watched the liquid pour from me, I remember vividly thinking thank goodness that I’d digested the lunchtime ravioli, all I had in my stomach was a little coffee, water and three bites of apple. But it didn’t change the fact that I was back to square one (in my mind) of empty stomach, feeling rubbish, getting dark. Just keep moving forward I told myself. Just head towards morning.

The next big milestone was going to be the checkpoint 6, Nether Heyford, at mile 156 (which was the one after next at mile 130) as this was going to be my next sleep and proper rest. Nether Heyford was the one that the cut-offs became relatively generous onwards, so you could slow a bit as required and still get to the next checkpoint in time.

My phone calls kept coming as I kept moving, and I was pushing hard to get to the next checkpoint at Milton Keynes and then keep moving to CP6. I was clear with everyone (in amongst a lot of swearing I’m afraid) that checkpoint 6, Nether Heyford was the target.

I had quite a tough time heading into that night, knowing that it was going to be a long night and I hit the checkpoint at Milton Keynes at about midnight with an attitude of “I’m not staying long”. One of my callers, Derek, who kept me going with numerous calls throughout the night, had suggested trying hot sugary water at the next checkpoint, just to get some glucose inside me. Two cups of that, a couple of cups of orange juice, and I tried a plateful of baked beans (nope, sorry, not happening). I was off again.

I had my picture taken at this checkpoint. Not pretty, but I reckon I look better than I felt. My memories of this particular checkpoint are….hazy.

130 mile checkpoint, about midnight.  I'm pooped (but smiling somehow).

130 mile checkpoint, about midnight. I’m pooped (but smiling somehow).

Mile 135 – 156

Average pace 22m/m

Total time at end of leg 48 hours 31 minutes (according to tracker)

And on into the night. I was still moving forward, but quite slowly. And a new problem was making its presence felt. I was needing to stop every 20 paces or so, and straighten my back. Imagine the movement where you put both hands into the small of your back and arch your back, to hear it click and crack and generally relieve stiffness. I’m not sure why I was needing to do it (or so often) but it was becoming a big requirement. Soon, I was having to steady myself on a tree as I arched my back and although the symptoms relieved themselves immediately I stretched, I was counting the paces until I could stretch again. It was becoming torture.

I was telling myself that lying down for a ten minute sleep was the worst thing I could do now, as I would get stiff and cold and definitely wouldn’t want to get up, but by 7 miles distance from the last checkpoint (and hence about 20 miles to the next checkpoint, at the magic mile 156) I lay on the ground, set the timer on my phone to alarm in 10 minutes, and fell asleep immediately on the path. I’d read of others doing this and couldn’t see the point, but to be fair I woke with the alarm going off, and forced myself to my feet. The relief of getting off my feet was huge, and actually more than made up for the discomfort of getting warmed up again. My back was still killing me though.

Derek, one of my callers, had already spoken to me a few times through the night, and agreed to call me every 45 minutes to keep me going. Some of these calls only lasted a few minutes….one lasted 14 minutes, poor guy. I remember telling him that for some reason when I was walking along my left hand was level with my left knee, which must have been bending my back over horrendously… hence my need to stop and stretch it out every 20 steps. I think, looking back, it was all related to some damage I’d done at some point that evening to my right leg (of which, more later) which was meaning I was compensating with my back and generally trashing every muscle I had left.

Derek talked me through to another sleep at mile 14 (20 minutes this time) and shortly after waking up I found a stick. Just a simple stick, but by taking a lot of weight on it on my left side, I was able to stand up straighter and hence my back was much more manageable. I was still stopping to stretch, but probably every 30 or 40 paces, and the underlying pain was slightly better.

I was lucky enough to continue to get a lot of calls as the sun came up, and a new day started. These calls are universally acknowledged by my callers to be ‘sweary’. I vividly remember one caller, Warren, who did absolutely the right thing in talking to me about the lovely dawn I must have seen and the great countryside I must be passing through. Apparently my reply was “fuck the sun” or something similar. Sorry Warren.

Once again, I must say that these calls were brilliant, taking my mind off the aches and pains, allowing me to vent to a sympathetic voice, and most of all have people telling me how well I was doing. I’m convinced that one of the reasons I kept going for as long as I did was knowing the support I had out there.

Some of the facebook 'updates' were great...

That was a tough night, no doubt, probably one of the toughest things I’ve got through in a while. It was a combination of my back feeling like hot pins were poking in, tiredness, and the general tiredness from having been on the go for 44 hours without enough food. As I got closer to the checkpoint at mile 156, I could feel my energy levels at rock bottom, and while I knew I would be able to sleep there, I would have to eat first to give me a something to digest while I was asleep.

I vividly remember a long long slope, up over the Blissworth tunnel, where the canal goes through a hill, but the path goes over the hill. I’ve been over this hill a number of times, and it’s a pain but it’s not a mountain. I had to shuffle up this slope, stopping every 5 steps or so to lean on my stick and catch my breath. I remember thinking to myself what I’d been brought down to by a simple slope, which I normally would run up chatting. Tough times. After the hill, I was so pooped I gave myself another 10 minutes sleep on a bench, just to get some strength back.

Although my Garmin suggested I only had 3 or 4 miles to go, I started being caught by other competitors who looked in good shape (compared to me!)  

More facebook

More facebook

Javed overtook me, still running, and still cheerful (don’t forget, he’d done about 400 miles at this point). I told him I couldn’t understand how he was still behind me as I was going so slowly. He explained he’d lost 2 hours taking care of a runner who was projectile vomiting, and another who was very confused. I’d read about these runners who get so disorientated and confused they forget what they’re doing. True to form, Javed (& Rich, apparently) had given up their own race time to help the next person. Javed asked what was up with me and I explained about my back (not that it needed too much explaining, as I was walking with a bloody stick like Gandalf). He said he’d leave his foam roller out for me at the next checkpoint to see if that would ease some of the pain. A good guy.

The next couple of guys went past me, and seemed to be suggesting it was a lot further than 3-4 miles to the next checkpoint. I was already looking at about 1.5 – 2 hours of pain….the thought of it being double this was just horrible. It was daylight, but I was shattered and the usual lift I get from daylight wasn’t working. I slogged on. I’ve no idea how long I spent waiting to get to the checkpoint, but it felt like days, and I felt no pleasure in getting there, just a sense of relief.

However, I had got there. It was 10.30am. The previous night I’d expected to be there by 8am latest – see how slow I was going! The checkpoint closed at 3pm, which meant if I didn’t leave by then I would be disqualified. I decided to aim to leave by 2pm, in order to give me an hour’s grace on the cut-off if I needed it at the next checkpoint.   This meant I had 3.5 hours. I could use that! Half an hour to get ready to sleep and eat a little, 2 hours sleep, and then an hour after to get some more food inside me and sort out my kit for the next leg.

The checkpoint volunteers were, as ever, brilliant: nothing was too much trouble. I slumped in a corner near Javed (who was fast asleep in another corner) and sorted my feet (still no blisters… magic) and changed clothes. I switched my phone to flight mode (no phone calls to interrupt my beauty sleep, thanks) and set the alarm for 2 hours. Then I had about 4 cartons of orange juice, 2 or 3 cups of hot sugary water (still nice) and best of all, some pasta in a sort of minestrone soup. Kept it all down too, which was great. Although I didn’t feel hungry, just tired, I reckon I should have eaten a lot more here, and allowed my body to digest it while sleeping.

The other thing I did, before sleep, was text my wife. Obviously she knew things weren’t going according to plan, and I texted to say I may need picking up that evening if I dropped out. I liked the idea of waking up raring to go with a whole new energy bank charged and set, but the reality was not quite so pleasant. I was still lucid enough to know that if I was going to drop out, I’d be far better to do it voluntarily in daylight, rather than collapsing in the dark under a bridge somewhere and being found and raised by otters.

Sleeeeeeeeep.

But just as I was going to sleep, I seem to remember some conversation amongst the volunteers that they’d had to leave the main hall area as there was a Zumba class in there for an hour. As I went to sleep I pondered the idea of joining in the Zumba class, with the little energy I had left. This may have been entirely a dream.

Selfie just before leaving cp6.  Not smiling anymore !

Selfie just before leaving cp6. Not smiling anymore !

It was amazing how much better I felt when I woke up. Just a little happier, a little more energy, a little more positive. I could even see a point to carrying on.

Walking wounded hospital at cp6.  I think that is Darren in the orange, being tended to by Maxine.

Walking wounded hospital at cp6. I think that is Darren in the orange, being tended to by Maxine.

Javed was up and about when I woke, and he looked good, still strong and cheerful. I quickly sorted my feet and got my socks and shoes sorted. Fourth pair of shoes, only one more pair to go for mile 200 to 250, I remember thinking. I moved from the sleeping room to the main room (no sign of any Zumba instructors). Another pasta meal, and more orange juice, I looked at the competitors around me. They looked smashed. A couple were having their feet taped up by the lovely Maxine, the medic (not a job I’d choose), I saw her lancing blisters on one poor guy which looked painful. Darren, a guy I’d run a bit with at the start was there, also looking smashed. It felt like a hospital for walking wounded. And I felt like I belonged there. There were probably 4 or 5 still there as I finished my last bit of hot food, and I could be wrong, but I don’t think Spenser had even arrived at that stage, let alone slept or fed.

My 2pm time limit was approaching, so I shrugged on my rucksack, which although I’d taken out everything but the most essential stuff (i.e. water, food, waterproof, map, one flask of hot sugary water) still felt like it weighted a ton. I collected my stick.   One of the fantastic volunteers walked me back to the canal, chatting all the way, and made sure I headed right on the canal not left (taking me back to London, now that would be frustrating). I was with it enough at that stage to ask him to take my picture, and I’m quite surprised how I look mostly ok. It was shortly after 2pm on Friday, I’d been going since 10am Wednesday, and I’d had a total of 4 hours 10 minutes sleep. I’d eaten little more than a couple of slices of pizza, a tin of ravioli, and litres of water, and I’d been violently sick twice. To be fair, I probably should not have been able to keep going then. 

Me and my stick!  This was just as I re-joined the canal after checkpoint 6 at mile 156.

Me and my stick! This was just as I re-joined the canal after checkpoint 6 at mile 156.

 

Mile 156-the end

Average pace 28.10 m/m (slooooowwwww)

Don’t worry; we’re nearly at the end!

It didn’t take long for the energy levels I’d felt at the aid station to fade. My left arm was aching having been using a stick to support my back for the last 15 miles, and I had returned to stopping to stretch my back every 5 or 6 paces. It probably took about 5 miles to start to feel the pain & exhaustion in all its glory again.

My phone calls started again from my support network. Almost the minute I switched my phone back on was from John H, one of the most frequent callers. I suspect he could hear in my voice that I was suffering. I asked him to get my wife to call me. To his eternal credit, he didn’t try to talk me out of it, didn’t tell me to toughen up, didn’t tell me to wait for 5 miles and then decide, didn’t hang up (god!), and didn’t call me a loser. Just did what I asked, really quickly.

At that stage, I was suffering horribly, in as much all-over pain as I can recall, but that wasn’t the deciding factor. Even the slow slow pace I was going, which was telling me I probably wouldn’t make the checkpoint cut-offs, wasn’t the reason I decided to drop out. Actually it was the thought of not one but two more nights to cope with before finishing. That deep deep low at about 2am, knowing that there are hours to go until daylight. Even now, a week later, it feels absolutely inconceivable to think I could have coped with more nights. As you read about every so often in stories, you can withhold stress and pain to a certain level, but at some point you reach a stage that if it is within your power to stop the pain, then you will. Whether that is to tell the secrets you want to withhold, or to let go of something you want to hang onto, I’d reached the stage that I needed a way to make it stop.

Just.

Make.

It.

Stop.

I’d love to say I’m just like James Bond, but apparently I’m not.

So I called my wife, to say if she left now she’d get to me at about 7 or 8 pm, before it got dark, and by then I’d be ready to stop. This still meant about 4 hours of plodding, but I felt I’d be able to get to mile 172 by then, which I had stuck in my head as a satisfactory distance. No idea why.

It was about here I met another competitor John, running towards me, looking pretty agitated, and asking which way to race HQ. He was quite jumpy, and had spoken to his wife explaining how he wasn’t sure what he was doing. She’d tried to get him moving towards the next checkpoint (or race HQ as he saw it), but he couldn’t work out which way to go. I was in my own world of pain, but was happy to have a sit with him for a minute while I looked at the map to get my bearings. He even had a cup of my hot sugary water (isn’t that what you take for shock?) as he conversationally said he thought he might have had a stroke. (No signs of it though, I was pleased to note, but he was gabbling away so there was clearly something wrong). He helped me to my feet (which was quite amusing at the time) and we set off in the right direction to find the next bridge and hence know where we were.   John was worried that he’d be pulled out if the medic did come out to see him, and it took quite some effort to keep him with me rather than him running ahead (god only knows how he could run at that stage, but he could). At the next bridge, we got hold of his wife again, and made arrangements for the medic to meet us at the next lock, only about 15 minutes away (my speed) or 5 mins (Johns lunatic speed) so I let him on ahead on the promise that he would stop at the next lock and wait for me. 15 minutes later, he’s somehow got himself to the other side of the canal, running up and down a car park looking for the medic van, while I’m shouting at him to get back over this side of the bloody canal. A great spectator sport I’m sure, for the afternoon walkers.

Soon enough, Maxine turns up, and we have a sit on a lock (once again, any excuse for a sit down) as she feeds John some sushi. He’s extremely worried about not being allowed to carry on, and it takes both of us to persuade him that 10 minutes in the back of the van asleep will not stop him from carrying on. In fact, he’s much better after this sleep and carries on, only to drop out a little later. His wife sent me a lovely thank you on Facebook, and it was nice to get something positive out of those last few miles.

I dragged those last few miles out. They were hard. Every so often there was a lock, which required about 15 stairs to go up, or a short steep slope. It made little difference which route I took as I had to sit at the top for a rest. Having made the decision to stop, I won’t say I was happy, but I was relieved that there was an end in sight. My phone calls carried on, and every single person was supportive of my decision. That meant such a lot.

I stopped for an ice cream at a canal side shop. I actually had to sit down in the shop while I got the money out as there was no way I was going to be able to stand. The guy in the shop said there’d been a few runners through, and they looked tired too.

And then a few miles on, I saw a pub. It was called the New Inn, and was on a reasonably main road over the canal (rather than tucked away from anywhere). And I thought “That’s far enough”.

In the pub, I got a cup of tea, with more magic sugar, a pint of water, a bag of crisps and lots of looks. An old boy at the bar asked me what I was doing, and I said I’d just gone about 170 miles of a 250 miles race, but I was calling it a day. “Fair enough” he said. Priceless.

I found a corner, and called Lindley to say I was dropping out. To his credit he said I had loads of time, was I sure? Oh yes, I was sure. I think he heard in my voice that I was finished. He said he’d get the awesome Maxine to come get me as soon as possible.

I sat in the pub, drank my tea, and had one more phone call, from Pam, the next Thanet Roadrunner ultra-runner… I thought that was quite fitting.

I watched people in the pub around me with normal (boring) lives. Then I went to sleep.

Half an hour later, the old boy from the bar was shaking me awake, asking if I was OK and if I needed a lift anywhere. Nice guy.

Maxine arrived and whisked me away to the next checkpoint.

Lots of care and attention at the checkpoint, but I was ok, just tired. I met John’s wife, who said thanks. I waited for my wife to whisk me back to real life.

Home at about midnight Friday night. (There were some guys still going out there.)

Awake at 4am. Hobbled downstairs for beer and Doritos (…….starting the recovery quickly!). Looking at the tracker, to see guys still going.

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

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

Saturday morning, glued to the sofa, no appetite, pleased to be home though. Runners are still going.

Saturday afternoon, in the garden with the family, having a barbeque. There are runners still going, how can they still be going?

Saturday night. There are still runners out there. I’ve been home for a day. How?

Sunday morning. People start to finish, lots of Facebook updates. I’m watching Darren & Spenser. I can’t conceive how they have coped with another two nights out there. But they have. Rich has sped up over the last 40 miles and finishes joint second. Javed finishes his second lap in about 86 hours, compared to his first in 81 hours. Extraordinary.  The overall winner completes in an amazing 68 hours, a new female record.

But I watch Darren and Spenser. Darren finished with three hours to spare. There is a picture of him at the end looking like a desert island castaway. He has some tough reserves!

And Spenser?   Well, my whole family (and most of the internet) gathered to watch his tracker finish with 5 minutes to spare – yes, 99 hours and 55 minutes. I have no idea how he did it, but he did. What he must have gone through, with his star-trek-navigator-thingy…I’ve no idea. But I salute him for his fortitude.

And me?

Well, after a few days of aches and pain, I’m just left with my right leg still swollen and hurting. Two doctors on Tuesday told me I had ripped my cruciate ligament (which basically holds my knee together) and when I asked how long that would take to mend, shook their heads sadly and said it required reconstructive surgery and 6-9 months rehabilitation. That was a shock, I can tell you.

However, a consultant on Wednesday said it couldn’t be that, but he rushed me to an mri scanner that afternoon for 90 minutes of scanning to understand what exactly I have done. A bit scary.

Interestingly, my wife said I should weigh myself, to see how much I’d lost, as the first thing she said to me when picking me up was “Your face has changed shape”. So on Sunday morning, 36 hours after being driven home, after lots of beer (I was definitely fully hydrated) and at least 2 or 3 good meals, I did. I had, at that stage, still lost 7 lbs on my normal weight (putting me at about 153 lbs). I’m going to guess I lost double that over the course of the 68 hours I ran.

So I wait, and wonder.

My first ‘proper’ DNF (did not finish). I’m not massively unhappy as I made it a fair way, and there was no way I could have carried on. Physically I was done, and mentally too I think. That is where I can’t really beat myself up as it was inconceivable that I try to carry on through another night.

Sad? Yes, as the medal was something I aspired to, and I like to complete things I start. But satisfied that I gave it my best shot? Yes. I gave it what I had.

So, a few thanks:

Lindley Chambers and volunteers, for a near-flawless race. For your cheery helpfulness, for your support and kindness. I don’t really know how else to put it. Thanks.

To all those at Thanet Roadrunners, who gave up their time to call me in my hour of need, giving just amazing support. To John, Jon and Mark for all your help, support and guidance – owe you a beer or three guys. To Derek, who apparently doesn’t need sleep, but instead can spend the night calling lunatics in the dark by canals, to keep them sane. I have no words that sum up my gratitude.

Thanks to my wife & kids for putting up with my lunatic ideas. I promise I’ll plan nothing stupid for at least a week now. Especially you Claire, who drove to get me two days before we planned, without complaining (too much) and then didn’t even complain when I sat around the house for the next few days drinking beer and eating Doritos, feeling sorry for myself.

I’d also like to say thanks to my legs for all their support (boom tish!) and I will continue to punish my misbehaving stomach with too much beer and Doritos for a few days more – that’ll teach it.

And thanks, I guess, to you for giving up a piece of your life to read this. Apologies for the lack of excitement, women, daring and general heroics. Apologies for the abundance of wee, vomit and sweat. I’ll do better next time I’m sure. Thanks for reading.

Bob

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.

Thames Path 100 – May 2015

Warning – I think this is going to be long. I know it’s going to be boring. Abandon hope all ye who chose to continue reading. The race report you are about to read has been brought to you by the combined power of sarcasm and black coffee.

This was one of those races that kind of crept up on me. I entered it last year, mainly as a training run for the Thames Ring 250 that I’m doing at the end of June, and with the very real expectation that by doing it so close to the TR250 I would remind myself of the pain I had to come, as well as trying out various new nutrition & kit bits.

I had a very specific approach to this 100. Firstly, no aid stations (other than water) or drop bags. When I do the TR250, I will only get support at the 25-mile-checkpoints, so no lovely hot food & coffee every 6 miles or so like I had in GUCR last year. So my nutrition had to cope with being carried for 100 miles, start to finish. Secondly, although I could get water at the frequent aid stations (about every 6-10 miles) I would carry enough to last for 25 miles to see how the weight would affect me. Finally, any kit I’d need, such as night clothing, waterproofs, a change of shoes & socks, would all have to be carried from the start. 

Aha, I hear you thinking, he is some kind of explorer who is going to strip down the weight of everything to its simplest components and hence make the 100 miles easier by only carrying the essentials. No. I carried tonnes and tonnes of stuff, some of it not used but a sensible precaution, such as waterproof trousers, some of it was just silly (such as the two tins of ravioli, all bagged up and ready to eat, just in case – but carried for 100 miles, untouched) and some was just “what was I thinking” like the 8 sachets of pasta meals where I only used two.

In fact, a full display of my kit can be seen here.

The full kit, all laid out, please note, the bed was not included on my run.

The full kit, all laid out, please note, the bed was not included on my run.

I carried (or wore) everything here, with the exception of the second pair of shoes, as I decided that it would be even more fun to destroy my feet over the course of 100 miles and keep the same shoes on throughout. For those wondering, it’s usual to change shoes after about 50 miles as the cushioning has become compressed by that point and is not really helping your feet at all. So, I can confidently declare that the only piece of kit I left out of my pack was the one that would have helped (judging by my feet now, three days later.) 

Right, that’s enough of the self-flagellation about carrying too much kit. Let’s talk about travel arrangements. The TP100 runs from Richmond (London-ish) out to Oxford. Most people sensibly get a lift or train to the start, run to the end, and then get picked up by loving relatives or friends, who carefully look after them and get them home in one piece with a hot meal, pints of Stella and bags of Doritos waiting, and a sofa. Naturally, I planned to drive myself to the finish point the day before, work out where to leave my car as close to the finish as possible (obviously there was going to be loads of free parking in central Oxford, where I could leave my car for 24 hours, on a bank holiday weekend, wasn’t there?), and then get a hotel outside Oxford to stay at Friday night, so I could drive to the parking space on Saturday morning, then walk to the train station, and get the train to the start in London.  Simple!  Then just run back to Oxford, finish, walk to my car, jump in and drive the 3ish hour’s home. Even as I type that, I think I’m insane. However, that was my plan. Driving through Oxford on Friday afternoon of a Bank Holiday weekend was a nightmare, finding a road that I could park in on Saturday morning was rough; driving back out of Oxford to the hotel was still a nightmare.

The condemmed man ate a hearty last meal....with lager on BOGOF!!

The condemmed man ate a hearty last meal….with lager on BOGOF!!

Getting buy-one-get-one-free bottles of beer at the hotel was the best moment of my life, as was the steak I had.

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday morning – 4am. The first flaw in my master-plan had arrived. In order to park & get to the train station & get to the race briefing at 9.30am, I had to get up in the middle of the night. Slightly hung-over too. Ooops. 

Skip forward a few hours, I’m on the train to London, with a growing band of other runners, guzzling coffee, thinking that if it takes a train travelling at 70 mph about 90 minutes to get to London, how long does it take a runner carrying his own body-weight in food to run back. And what does he feel like at the end?

As we neared Richmond on the train, the entire carriage I was in was invaded by French supporters at Twickenham (no idea what they were supporting, but they all got on at Twickenham so it must be rugby related I assume, and the team had yellow & blue in the supporters kit I think, as this was the uniform all the Frenchies were wearing.) All the runners looked at them suspiciously, as we made space for them to sit, and the French looked at us in amazement, clearly thinking that the English dress-sense on a Saturday morning was skin-tight Lycra and rucksacks. I hope that was a good story for our Gallic friends to take home with them. 

Right then, if you’ve made it this far, well done! I will now proceed to talk a little about running.

This event was run by Centurion Running, a super-slick operation (albeit not cheap) that organises 50 & 100 mile ultras throughout the year. Good organisation, great atmosphere, and usually a good mix of quality runners (that disappear into the distance), newbies (that disappear into the distance, behind me) and people like me, just here for the food. 

There was an organised kit check, with a bit of banter, and the customary waiver (“I understand that the damage I do to myself is my own stupid fault”) and before long I was making final adjustments to my kit, and taking photos of toilet queues (doesn’t everyone do this?)

People milling around (& queueing for toilets) at the start

People milling around (& queueing for toilets) at the start

 

A swift race briefing, which included the rather amazing amount of volunteers (I think about 95), and we had a brief wait before the off. I had time to look around and admire people with tiny packs that probably held just a waterproof top and a banana, while mine started to bite into my shoulders like a sack of bricks, held on with barbed wire.

Just about to start!

Just about to start!

 

…And then we were off! I do enjoy those first few hundred yards where everyone is feeling great and happy. The weather (at that point) was good, cool and calm, so was great running weather. It was going to rain about 5pm apparently, and then carry on raining for the next 12 hours, so was going to be a wet night.

 

Within the first mile, the compact bunch of runners came to a style to climb over on the route. Now obviously, waiting for 30-45 seconds in the first 10 minutes of a 100 miles race is not a big deal, but none of us viewed it that way, so when some people found an alternative route snaking round the edge of the trail (which missed out the bottleneck at the style), everyone blasted round it, chuckling excitedly to themselves that the 45 seconds they had just saved was going to make all the difference in the next 95 miles. Happy days. 

This is when I first saw the clown. 

Yes, indeed. Not content with running a long ultra, some sicko had decided to wear a clown costume throughout (complete with wig & red nose) to make the rest of us feel even worse. I got chatting to the guy a few times (more of that later), and I have to say rather liked his style (and the pictures at the finish must have been great). 

However, he was a great runner, so I spent the next 10 miles watching him gradually disappear into the distance. I ran the first 11 miles comfortably, just trying to get used to the swing of the rucksack which tended to overtake me on downhills & want to stop for a rest on uphills. 

I ran straight past the 11m checkpoint, slightly amazed, as always, that everyone else was taking on food & water so early.   At 12 miles I started my first bottle of Coke (yes, always Coke for the first 20ish miles, lots of sugar caffeine & E-numbers…..rocket fuel) and chatted away. I had a particularly surreal conversation with a guy trying to remember the name of the song that Robson & Jerome released when they were in “Soldier Soldier” (back in the last century I think), but all was good and I was feeling fine.

Ignore the railings...it's Hampton Court

Ignore the railings…it’s Hampton Court

We passed Hampton Court, lots of rowers on the river (they have a lovely hobby – clean and speedy, unlike the sweaty plodding I do), and some amazing looking houses (on stilts!). There was a bare-chested guy on an exercise bike at the doorway of one of the rowing clubs looking very athletic (with a HRM chest strap) as we all meandered past. He must have thought we were mad. 

I’d purposely said I would allow myself to run ‘by feel’ for the first marathon distance, as about four weeks previously I’d had to miss the Brighton Marathon due to a little bit of surgery on the sole of my left foot. I’d watched the marathon from the sidelines, which was gutting, so I wanted to run normally for a bit before I started to get sensible. Hence I was quite happy to get to the first marathon out of the way in about 4hr 20, which felt fine. 

About mile 22 or so, I met Rich, one of the more memorable characters I’ve chatted to on a run. In fact, we ran together to the aid station at mile 51, which considering how variable my pace usually is, was really quite unusual. It was Rich’s first 100 miler, but he’d recently done a 50 mile in sub-9 hours, so he had a good set of legs. With his pace keeping us running, and my sorry-excuse-of-a-fitness-level asking to “please please can we walk for a bit” we kept each other going for a long time, both walking and running.

I firmly believe that Rich and I are twins separated at birth, despite him being about 6 years younger than me, and here are just a few reasons why: we both run f or the same reasons, with similar goals, we have similar jobs in management (although I still don’t understand Rich’s job in IT – something about online vs. offline marketing, I don’t know), family stuff and kids, an addiction to Doritos (his is so bad that he gave them up for lent, to see if he could, in the same way I gave them & alcohol up during February), although he tends towards Sweet Chilli flavour, whereas I’m more a Cool Original kind of bloke, both enjoy food too much (he has a great recipe for a Courgette & cheese bake), and I could go on and on. It’s not often I pretty much ‘zone out’ for 25 miles, but I approached 50 miles thinking “Where did the last 4 hours go?”

Lovely open fields and bouncy grass

Lovely open fields and bouncy grass…and no trouble with route markings here!

 

There had a been a few rather frustrating places where I didn’t think the route marking were good enough (probably me just being grumpy) but Rich had this awesome knack of spotting the tiny National Trail Acorn signposts before I could see the house that he was describing it being next to…Him – “The signpost is next to the big white house straight ahead”, Me- “I can’t see any fecking house, for feck’s sake”. Good job he was there really.

 

I’d been eating a bit, mainly my routine rice-crispie bars (tasty and sweet) and some biscuits (bland but healthy) and drinking quite a lot, but I knew I’d have to start eating ‘properly’ soon to keep my energy levels up. However, I felt good, Rich and I planned to run to the finish together to use each others strengths (his excellent pace, my dubious experience), and we made plans to catch up after the 51 mile aid station as I thought I’d be out quickly (as usual) and he planned to change his clothes and eat a bit. 

So we hit the 51 mile aid station in 9 hrs 41, which meant a 4hr20 marathon and then a 5hr 20 one. Quite happy with that. I was in 85th position at that point, and had been in that position quite consistently though the various aid stations so far, which boded well. 

And then I stopped at the aid station. I don’t mean stopped and collapsed or anything. I mean I stopped and looked at my feet. And felt my feet. And realised that they were hurting a lot more than I probably had realised, or had wanted to realise. In fact, both feet were throbbing, specifically on the soles of the feet. A lot of the path had been tarmac or concrete, and I think my trail shoes hadn’t protected them much. The grassy parts were better, but still hard. Added to that, I was wearing my trusty waterproof socks, with a lining sock underneath to wick away the sweat, but didn’t seem to be doing the job very well today. So my feet were poached like when you stay in the bath too long.

Right, change of plan. Socks off (apologising to passers by, who were on a nice Saturday afternoon walk, seeing my gross feet being repaired), draining blisters and cutting plasters to fit. I’ve done this before, when a run has finished, but never halfway through before, and it didn’t bode well for the next 50 miles. For some reason, I was getting big blisters on the flat part of the heel and behind the toes on my right foot, and I couldn’t understand why. My left foot wasn’t quite so bad, but I still taped it up to relieve some of the pressure. I got some clean socks and my shoes back on, tried an extremely careful walk. Shiiiite! That hurt. Paracetamol & ibuprofen. Get on my waterproof jacket as the sky was looking ominous, and pulled out my vacuum flask to get hot water from the aid station for my pasta snack things.

I should pay tribute to the aid stations I’d seen so far, which were cheerful, well-stocked and helpful, but the 51 miles was like a military kitchen, with massive bubbling pans of pasta and lots of helpers (dressed as super-heroes I think, but I may have dreamt that part). With my flask full of hot water, I screwed the lid back on to give it time to cook the pasta and set off after Rich. He’d left after about 10 mins and I was amazing to realise I had been there for almost 30m minutes repairing myself. However, I told myself, if my feet stay in one piece it will be the best 30 mins of the day.

I plodded off, feeling a bit gutted to have lost Rich to chat to, but I suspect I’d not have kept up anyway. My feet calmed down after a mile or so, so I walked and ate pasta. Yum. It was about 8pm, just starting to get dark. I felt ok, apart from my feet hurting, and wasn’t particularly worried about going through the night as usually this is where I can keep quite a constant pace while people around me slow down. 

Now, I suspect you’re pretty bored with my talking about all this kit I’ve been carrying. But I have to say that one of the things I most impressed myself with on the run, was that about mile 53 or so, I recharged my Garmin watch ( with a lead and power pack thingy) while on the go, so that it lasted for the full 100 miles. Not many people can say that! Nor do they want to actually, but it made me smile. 

The next few hours passed in a bit of a blur. I’d purposely not got a mileage counter going on my Garmin, so I had no idea how far I had gone. I didn’t know the time, or where the aid stations were. In fact, I was probably the only person going into the aid station asking what time it was and what mileage we were at. I’d consciously not looked at the locations of the aid stations, so I wouldn’t rely on them. My watch simply showed how fast I was moving at that time (i.e. what my ‘minutes per mile’ was) and as long as it was better than 15 m/m I was doing fine. I found this quite liberating – there was no countdown to the next time I could stop – so I just kept going.

Big old river isn't it!  Just as it was getting dark.

Big old river isn’t it! Just as it was getting dark.

Through the night it started to drizzle, but it was actually quite cooling and not really a problem. At some point we joined the route of the Winter 100 I’d done the previous October, which was nice to see some familiar paths. I started to see quite a bit of wildlife in the night, cows and sheep staring back at me (they weren’t sleeping, strangely) and there seemed to be lots of frogs around (or maybe that was just me).

I was conscious I wasn’t eating as much as I usually do, and contemplated having more pasta snack, cold ravioli, biscuits or whatever that I had with me, but simply didn’t want it and more importantly didn’t feel bad enough that I needed it. If I’d had a large pepperoni pizza with me that might have been different! I was taking on coffee at each of the aid stations to keep my head clear, but it wasn’t going down well. 

I passed the aid station at mile 71 at about 1am, just under 15 hours after starting. The worst time for me is usually around 1-3am, simply because that is when I start to go to sleep, so rather than enjoying a sit down in the light, warm, surroundings, I just gave my number and carried on. I even forgot to have a coffee which made the next hours tough. However, I saw a lot of people sitting at the aid-station looking rough, and it’s hard to get back up off a chair once you’ve relaxed.

Awesome spread at the food stations

Awesome spread at the food stations

 

Back into the night! I still don’t really remember much about the next few hours. I must have been awake, as normally overnight I have a iPod to keep me company but I remember thinking I didn’t need it at the time. I also wasn’t feeling too rough as my stash of sherbet lemons was pretty much untouched (if you don’t know what that means, try having a sherbet lemon during a particularly rough patch – it’s very difficult to feel awful with a sherbet lemon in your mouth!) 

I’d been seeing quite a lot of the clown costume guy at this point. Despite him zooming ahead early on, somehow I’d caught him up, and we’d chatted for a bit (about how every time he overtook me I’d been ‘clowned’, and then when I overtook him back I was ‘de-clowned’). He was threatening to get a whole team of clowns doing the race next year, which would be hilarious, but I don’t think I’d be one of them. 

We met again at the checkpoint at mile 85, where I’d decided it was time to have another look at my feet, the right one in particular, as I was resorting to walking on the side of my foot rather than the flat as it was hurting so much. I won’t go into the details, but it wasn’t pretty. I finally realised what some of the problem was – my shoes had both shredded in the same spot, and the right in particular was letting in all the grit and stones that the gaiters were supposed to keep out. This meant that I had a shoe full of ‘bits’ that were just destroying the underneath of my foot. Having tipped out the rubbish, taped up my foot again, and tried to tape up the hole, I chose to swap my sock for the one I’d taken off at mile 51 as it was in slightly better state (less blood etc) but it wasn’t pleasant pulling it on. That was probably the worst point of the whole night, knowing I still had 15 miles to go on a foot that was in poor shape, in a ripped shoe, on a rough trail. So I had a sherbet lemon and felt better.

Never had a shoe shred like this before, no wonder they were full of gravel

Never had a shoe shred like this before, no wonder they were full of gravel

 

The clown was at the aid station at the same time, looking rougher than I’d expected, considering every time I’d seen him he’d been running… He explained that he’d been hoping for a sub-20 hour time, but now was going to be happy with sub-24. I left shortly before him, and I think I finished about 30 minutes ahead. 

There had been a few tired people at that aid station (including one guy asleep, that I reckoned was going to feel awful when he awoke) but I headed back into the night (sucking a sherbet lemon) knowing that dawn would be there soon and that would be great. In fact, almost straight way I was able to switch off my head-torch and could feel it getting lighter all the time. It was just as well, as the trail became very rutted for the next few hours, and the rain had turned from drizzle to proper rain that just kept coming. I suspect the people that still had a few hours to go must have been getting very wet and cold.

I have no recollection of the aid station at mile 91, but apparently I passed it after 20hrs30mins, about 6.30am. I do remember getting to the aid station at mile 95, as it was a sort-of open sided farming shelter (think of a barn without sides) and the rain was cascading off the roof like a waterfall that you had to go through to get to the food. It was like going under one of those hidden waterfalls in The Hobbit. Sort of.   A cheerful guy there said I was going to be well-within 24 hours, which was lovely, except (I said) that I’d decided I was going to make it in under 23 hours. “Right then, you’d best get going then”, he said, showing me the way out – fantastic! I have to confess, I did have a couple of bits of pork-pie at the food table here, it was just too good to resist. I still don’t know why I wasn’t eating much; I much make more effort to have more variety with me another time, as normally I eat like a pig.

Last 5 miles.   The trail was the worst yet, earth, packed with roots, stones, broken twigs. Not difficult, but very uneven and required concentration to prevent injury…..just what I wanted. A guy ran past me wearing some Vibram 5-fingers, I hate to imagine what his feet must have felt like.

The last 3 miles went back to path alongside the river though, so it was nice to limp along, smelly and dirty, while Sunday morning joggers (joggers, not runners, see what I did there?) bounced past me all nice and clean. I was overtaken with about 2 miles to go by a couple that eventually finished just ahead of me; he was talking constantly to her about just keeping going. To be fair, they were both running though, so better than I could have done. I let them go, thinking that I couldn’t possibly keep up with them, until I looked behind me about 5 minutes later and saw another three runners catching me up. Somehow I broke into a rather shambolic run, and actually did the last 0.7 miles in an impressive 11.5 mins. Eat your heart out Mo Farah.  The finish was nice and open, on a playing field, with a few people around clapping, which was great.

Total time 22 hours, 34 mins, about 8.35am. Couple of pictures at the finish line, I’ll not produce them here as I take an awful picture on a good day…and this wasn’t even a good day. I got my “100 miles 1 day” buckle from Nikki which was great, and then what seemed like a lot of people came to offer me a drink, food, anything else I wanted. I saw Rich, and was chuffed to hear he finished in 22 hours 11, which is a brilliant time for a first 100 miles. I said well done, shook his hand, and then set off to the car to get moving before I stiffened up. It was great to get my shoes off at the car, put on some warm clothing, and I was driving out of Oxford by 9am. I spent most of the car journey eating Cornish pasties and Doritos, and pulled over for 30 mins sleep at a service station. Home to a hero’s welcome (well, sort of “Don’t you bring all that mud indoors!!”)

Phew! What a weekend!

So, my thoughts overall:  I’m happy with the time, so not sure I’m going to be too fussed about doing another 100 miler unless there’s a good reason. I did the first 100 mile of GUCR in about 22 hours, but that was without a heavy rucksack and with a buddy runner from 70 miles, so it probably works out the same.  I’m not too bothered to see if I can go faster.

My position in the field stayed surprisingly static for the first 58 miles, about 80-85th throughout. Then I went from 84th at mile 58 to 75th at mile 71 to 56th at mile 91. My slow-but-steady approach making up for a lack of pace. I finished 54th overall, out of 180ish finishers and 260 starters. The winner finished in 16 hours 35mins, so I’ve got a little way to go before I start contending the front spot. That is some amazing running.

Nutrition worked OK, but I must remember more variety and not take so much (for god’s sake). Carrying two tins of ravioli around 100 miles is not funny. My kit worked really well, apart from the shambles that my feet become. I still don’t know if a second pair of shoes would have made the difference, or it was just a rough trail. I know there were lots of people on twitter complaining of bruising on the soles of their feet afterwards. My legs are fine, my back is bruised because of the rucksack, but that’s probably the worst of it.

And my feet? Specifically, my right foot. It hurts, a lot. I don’t think I knew how much I pushed until the following day when I pretty much couldn’t walk on it. Even now, three days later I still can’t really put it flat on the ground. All hail the great gods paracetamol and ibuprofen.

I got a few good learning’s for the Thames Ring 250. Mainly, that if I feel like that after 100 miles, I need to slow down if I want to keep going for another 150 miles. And look after my feet!

Thanks, as always, to Centurion Running for their brilliant event, and the superb volunteers at the aid stations. I’m sorry if I didn’t appreciate you at the time, but I think you were all great.

And thanks to you if you made it this far on this, possibly the ultra-equivalent of race reports. If you send me your name and address I will post you a belt buckle (or something) proclaiming you as a finisher…. “I survived an Ultra-Average race report”

 

Chunky buckle......

Chunky buckle……

Moonlight Challenge – February 2015

There are a few runs/races in every runners calendar that for various reasons they would not miss. Not because they always PB, not because it’s easy, but most likely that it’s different / challenging / painful / long / filthy / slow / tasty. I’m pleased to say that for all those reasons (apart from tasty – I made that up) my ‘race of the year, every year’ is the Moonlight Challenge, held in Marshside, Kent. This year was the fifth time I’ve run it, and every year has stood out due to a different type of appalling weather that makes running 30ish miles over trails in the dark just a bit special (and difficult, challenging, painful, long, filthy and slow). I should probably say that I’m unashamedly biased about it, and know Mike the race director quite well, so don’t expect anything too rational!

This year we had gale force winds and horizontal rain for most of it. Last year was a tropical downpour (after a very wet January and February) that stopped just as the race started…which meant the trails (some concrete track running alongside fields, but mostly field-side trails) started off sticky and muddy, but later (after 60 people had tramped through them for 5 laps) that mud had turned into liquefied gloop, deceptively deep and very very slippery mud underneath. The year before was snow – we started as my car dashboard said it was -10 degrees, and after a while it was simply beautiful snow falling all night (I remember this well as I nearly slid off the road driving home). In 2012 it was just windy I think – hurricane force across the flat marshlands naturally, but nothing worse than that. I can’t remember 2011, my first year, but by a process of elimination it can only be a plague of locusts, scorching 60 degrees sunshine (unlikely, I think) or flood. Probably the last one.

Anyway, that’s enough history. Suffice to say that I like the race and its relaxed atmosphere, and as an added bonus it’s 2 miles from my house so I get to shower and get all the mud/snow/rain off me as soon as possible.

Right then, back to 2015. The race was later in February this year – usually it’s well planned to be around Valentine’s Day – but this year it was at the end of the month. The weather forecast was initially very nice, clear sky and no wind, but naturally as the night got closer it changed into gale force winds & rain. Personally, this was great news as I hadn’t had nearly enough practise running in the rain and wind this year, and as a special treat I bought myself some gaiters, fully expecting them to keep out the worst of nature (which they did to be fair).

This year would be run on a new course too, which would change things a bit. It’s not that I’d run the old 6m loop a lot, but as there are 50 mile & 24 hour races held on the same 6 mile circuit (that I’ve done) I suspect I could have run the old loop with my eyes closed.   I did the 24 hour race in 2011 (I think) and after 17 laps I was completely exhausted / happy / hallucinating / smelly, but by god I knew the route well.

I know some people will say they could never do a ‘loop race’ but it’s perfect for an ultra that you want to access your bag every 6 miles at race HQ as you know the weather will be changeable, get something to eat, or just warm up. I normally have to put a lot of preparation into doing an ultra, but I know I can just ruck-up to a loop race with a bag of food & kit and some trainers and I’m pretty much sorted. I suspect those struggling with the idea of running a loop for 6 hours go a bit quicker than me, and so are used to making better progress.

I got to the race HQ at about 5, straight from work. I take a perverse satisfaction in walking in to get my number in a shirt and tie, while everyone else is Lycra’d-up. A quick chat with Mike, the race director and I zoomed back to my car to investigate a surprisingly tasty goody bag and to do my superman-impression of changing from a mild-mannered office worker to a weird ultra-runner clad in skin-tight gear.

Transformation complete, I went back for coffee and then more coffee. There’s a great mix of people that normally do the Midnight Challenge, from some nutter last year who did it in about 4 hours (despite the mud) to the first-time-ultra runner, dipping their toe in the scene. Oh, yes, that’s another good reason for doing a race in loops…you can stop whenever you want without a DNF label round your neck and having to get a bus home. Quite a few people each year do 4 loops which is marathon distance, and still quite an achievement over the terrain.

This year there seemed to be fewer than usual doing it, I’m not sure whether the weather scared people off or there was another event that weekend that clashed, but I reckon about 40 people were at the start. I was going to run with a friend, Mark, who is capable of running all day at his ‘all-day’ pace, and then stopping….without apparently getting tired. Meanwhile, I flog along behind him, hoping he’ll slow down or even walk the next hill. On the positive side, he is a constant source of information and most of our runs together consist of me saying “Have you ever tried….” and Mark telling me about the time he has (for example) run an ultra, naked, being chased by bears.

The highlight of the start was Mike trying to set himself on fire at the same time as lighting a rocket to signify we were off. A combination of having to shield the flame from the strong wind/drizzle and holding a firework in order to light it, is a great recipe for third degree burns I suspect, but naturally Mike brushed off the smouldering sparks and we got on with the race.

I should probably point out that rather than being a race, all of the Marshside events are touted as personal challenges, which promotes the relaxed atmosphere and general friendliness of the events.   There is no ‘winner’, but rather the camaraderie of “we’re all nutters, but some faster nutters than others”. I like it.

Right, you’ve read this far, you deserve to be told about the running….So, we started running.

It was 6pm, so fully dark, and unlike previous years the moon was hidden by a thick bank of cloud. As usual, I had a fairly strong bout of torch-envy, with some lighthouse-type head-torches lighting the way for everyone else. I’m not bitter, but everytime I upgrade my head-torch (I’m on my third) I still find someone that has a better one than me. Yes, you’re right, I am bitter aren’t I.

The group spread out quite quickly, mainly due to the conditions underfoot (muddy, of course) and the variety of people taking part. Most people had started in waterproof tops of some type due to the drizzle, and the reflections could be seen for miles.

As usual, the first lap went quite well, chatting to Mark, feeling good.   After a long run alongside a railway, we had a mile of bumpy grass trail, on the edge of a field, before getting to a long raised bank that we ran along the top of, nicely exposing us to maximum wind & rain by being 6 foot higher than any shelter from trees or bushes. Magic. After that, a few twists and turns and then we joined a cycle path, leading us alongside a dual carriageway.

There were a few inclines (rather than hills) but nothing serious, until a bridge over the dual carriageway that had a steep incline on both sides (as you’d expect), and you went over it & returned on every lap. This shall be known as Tourettes Hill, as there was a prodigious amount of swearing going on either travelling up or down. Mark took on the annoying habit of aeroplaning down the hill (arms out like wings and going “Neeeooowwww”) just to annoy me with how good he was feeling.   On the positive side, there was well stocked aid station, the aptly named “Jelly-baby Junction” actually on the bridge, so despite a hard slog up, you could have a breather at the top and snaffle some food.   Coincidentally, Mark’s wife was actually manning Jelly-baby junction, so that meant I could stop & rest for even longer while he had a chat (phew!).

After the bridge was a 2 mile loop around an unbelievable smelly farm (manure-is-us) and then back to jelly-baby junction. Over the bridge, along another cycle path that was only muddy in the massive puddles that were unavoidable (and deep) and then through a couple of gates, up and down a hill or two, and then back to race HQ.

After the first lap I took off my waterproof top as the drizzle was light and actually quite refreshing, and had a bottle of coke. If there is a better drink than Coke for sugar, fizz, caffeine, and E-numbers then I have yet to find it…it’s like rocket fuel for me. Unfortunately it does nothing to hydrate me, and so I have to balance it with drinking water, but it’s still great.

Lap 2 was very like lap 1, not surprisingly, although the conditions and underfoot were tough. Having chatted pretty much the whole way, Mark & I noticed we’d stopped talking by about 9 miles – usually we can talk for 20 miles or more, so either we had nothing interesting to say or we were concentrating on not breaking a leg on the rough ground.

Lap 3 started to get a bit rough for me. My ongoing leg injury was stiffening up (first the knee, then the thigh, then the hip by the 4th lap) and the rain was back. Mark was chugging along, with me bringing up the rear usually, and I remember thinking that if the wind/rain got much worse the next laps were going to be grim. The ground that had started off soft was getting properly muddy, partially due to the continuing rain and partially with lots of feet tramping over it lap after lap.

I put on my waterproof at the start of the 4th lap, and had fun zipping the front of it right up to my nose. With the hood up, the only exposed bit of skin was from my nose up to my eyebrows, and wearing glasses I was protected from the worst of the wind. Or so I thought, until I realised that while running into the wind & rain was tough, it was a lot worse running along the top of the green bank with the wind and rain coming from the side. This meant that my glasses kindly funnelled the wind across my eyeballs. I actually ran the length of it with one eye closed as the pain of freezing cold rain on my eyeball was not pleasant.

The rain just kept coming through the 4th lap, and Mark just kept tugging me along. I’m sure I’d have been walking long before now if he hadn’t been there, and getting wet & cold at the same time (instead of just wet).

The positive news of the 5th and final lap was that it was the final lap, and I’d soon be finished, warm and dry. Each landmark & turn was checked off as “never have to see that again tonight, thanks god” and we were still going along at a decent clip. We caught up with another runner in a bright orange top, and chatted about other local runs, which the guy & Mark had done (and I’d heard about, which is better than nothing). A speedy push up the final hill to the finish, before all being polite and allowing each other to go through the entrance to the HQ first.

Usually at the end of ultras I’m not keen to sit around, knowing how stiff I’ll be when the endorphins and adrenaline has worn off, but I always make an exception at the Moonlight Challenge, as they produce a sort of soup/stew thing, that seems to be just what you need as you cool down.   It’s also good fun to try and sit down on a rickety picnic chair when your legs are in pieces.

So it was another memorable Moonlight, with some really tough conditions coupled with a new slightly tougher course. My Garmin showed 33.2 miles in the end, in about 6 hours 21, which is probably about right given the conditions. After a shabby month of running due to a buggered leg it was nice to do a decent distance, even if it hurt. Mark was a machine, as always, and just kept bloody running, meaning I had too as well.

Thanks, as always, to the volunteers for staying out in some awful conditions, and Mike for organising another brilliant run. Bring on next year!

Country to Capital – January 2015

Warning – this is a mundane race report ahead! Nothing exciting to see here! 

Every so often, after entering a race on a “spur of the moment” decision, there comes a realisation that if it is more difficult to get to & from an ultra than to do the race itself, I probably need to choose my races with a bit more care.

 This race was a fairly simple 45ish miles, from outside London to inside. It started in somewhere called Wendover, and finished at Little Venice, just a hop, skip and jump from Paddington. Lots of trails, a bit of canal path…..it sounded right up my street.

Training wise, naturally I’d done a few 20 milers, but not a great deal more in the weeks leading up to it. After all, it was only 45 miles right? 

The logistical problems started to appear when I had to work out how to either:

a) return to the start, if I drove to the start and ran from there

b) park at the finish (in central London) and get the train to the start, in time for the race

c) park somewhere in London, and get the tube to a station where I could get a train to the start

d) find a supportive wife who would ferry me back & forth and meet me at the finish with a Cornish Pasty and a beer.

And as if that wasn’t complicated enough, I needed to get back to home as quickly as possible after finishing, as I had rather rashly promised to make an appearance at my works Xmas do (yes, I know, it’s in January, but I work in retail and the rest of the population tends to keep us too busy in December for silly things like having Xmas parties at Xmas.)

 I won’t bore you with the details, but my final arrangements were as follows:

 Friday 6pm – leave work, drive to Central London, whilst eating pizza for much-needed sustenance.

Friday 8pm – Park at a pre-booked NCP car park a mile from the finish line (surprisingly cheap considering)

Friday 8.40pm – Get a train from Marylebone to Wendover

Friday 9.30pm – Find a taxi to get to Premier Inn in Tring (also surprisingly cheap when booked far enough in advance)

Fri – late – Get into room, book taxi for morning, pack rucksack for morning, eat crisps.

Sat – early – Jump out of bed, check weather, eat cereal, get taxi (a posh Merc, with the driver telling me how it was going to snow, me telling him not to be daft, it bloody wasn’t). 

So at about 7.45am, I arrived at the superbly named, ‘Shoulder of Mutton’ pub in Wendover, where there was a hive of activity in the car-park. It was bloody cold, so I quickly got inside, and the pub was surprisingly big, filled with a ton of lycra-clad excited people…imagine a kid’s party, just moments before they are let loose on the soft-play area, with all the nervous energy sparking round the room…it was magic. Registration was painless, but ahead of getting myself organised with race numbers and stuff like that I thought I’d pay a visit to the facilities before they got too busy (ah, the voice of experience there, I hear you thinking).

These people don't know what is going to happen if they sit down.....

These people don’t know what is going to happen if they sit down…..

There was a bit of a queue for the gents, which wasn’t particularly unexpected, until a nice man popped his head round the door and said to the queue that there were some toilets outside that were available. I went out to them, and it rapidly became clear why they were free…peeling my frostbitten bum off the seat of an outside portaloo in sub-zero temperatures was an experience I’ll not be repeating any time soon. However, I got back inside the pub and sorted out my kit.

 

We had been given a rather posh map booklet as part of registration, and once again I was reminded that I’d really not done my homework for this run – not only did I not know where I was starting (yes, I was in Wendover, but that doesn’t mean I could find it on a map) but I did not know the route – and there were lots of people studying the map booklet like it held the secret to Atlantis. My strategy was (as usual) to follow the people in front, and failing that I had the route on my slightly unreliable Garmin, and failing that I have my phone with a sat-nav on it, and if the battery on my phone died I was carrying a spare battery, so what could go wrong???

 The pub was filling up rapidly, and an 8am train from London brought a ton of people into an already rather full pub.

Busy pub!  Don't see too many of these nowadays...

Busy pub! Don’t see too many of these nowadays…

Everyone was getting on well though, as we all tripped over each other rucksacks. I was (as always) amazed by the differences in how much some people were taking with them. I had enough food for at least three days, a raincoat, a head-torch, and lots of other useful things, but I’m sure there were some people there that had just a toothbrush in their pack and that was it. I watched them enviously; thinking how unprepared they clearly were for any situation, and hoped I would get a chance to use my bear-repellent spray for once.

 

Overcome with excitement about possible bear encounters, I went out to check my bag in, for transporting to the finish line, and collected my timing chip. A novel idea for me, to have a timing chip for an ultra, but to be fair there were some very quick people there so it probably was warranted.

 And while I was outside it started snowing. Oh good.

 Quickly back inside the pub, I was trying to keep warm, and looking outside to see if the snow was going to stop. Which it wasn’t.

 Someone shouted in the pub that we should all start to move outside, and a shuffling mass of people started to move from a cosy warm interior to a sub-zero snowy car park, without complaining. Just standing outside at the start for a couple of minutes I was shivering badly, and although I knew I’d warm up quickly when I started running, I was very aware that slowing to a walk later on would be an issue as I would get very cold very quickly.

 Looking around there was a complete mix of people, with a wide range of

Just about to go!

Just about to go!

experience (clearly some first-timers and some very experienced people (and their toothbrushes)), some people in shorts and short-sleeved t-shirts whilst others were dressed for the Antarctica. But everyone was excited and ready to get started.

 

Oh yes, and lots of beards. I’m getting slightly obsessed with the whole ultra-runners unkempt beard look….rather like the Forrest Gump straggly beard he has at some point of the film. It’s something I aspire to. But I digress…

 And then we were off, with a bit of a “3,2,1….” from a tannoy subtly mounted on top of a car.

 The first few miles were mix of trail and path, luckily much of the mud had been frozen solid so what would have been a very wet experience actually was quite dry. There were a number of very muddy parts later, but I suspect we were all saved by the frost.

 Everyone was very chatty, and I was having a bit of banter with a few, about how those guys running The Spine had very similar conditions to us (snow, a few hills, a bit of cold).

If you don’t know what The Spine is, google it.

If you do know what The Spine is, you’ll know what I’m talking about.  An unbelievable race.

Just like The Spine....hills & snow.... ;-)

Just like The Spine….hills & snow…. 😉

 

It was still snowing reasonably hard, and I was chatting to a runner that was running Marathon des Sables in April. There seemed to be quite a few using the C2C (as the Country to Capital is known) as a training run for MdS, with a similar rough terrain, although perhaps just a little bit cooler.

 At about mile 10, I slowed to eat a (partially frozen) banana as we walked across a

Playing fields....

Playing fields….

playing field with plenty of kids playing organised football. There were a few tough parents on the sidelines, who must have been freezing, but due respect to them for getting their kids outside in some pretty rough conditions.

 

Just after this playing field there was a small stream, with a set of about 10 round stepping stones across the middle. There was a slow chain of runners gingerly picking their way across these slightly-frozen slippery rocks, and occasionally slipping in. Always keen to test how good my waterproof socks are, I sploshed through the water, which was surprisingly refreshing, and I must have gained at least 5 places. Naturally, all those people (with dry feet) caught me up straight away, but I was happy as I dripped my way along the path.

 

I think it was about mile 16 when I started to fall apart. My left hamstring has been a problem for a while, and usually can get me to 20 miles with a bit of pain but not much else. Due to the nature of the trail I suspect I was putting more strain on my muscles than usual, and hence was feeling sore. I was scraping my left foot along the ground, rather than lifting it clear, which was a clear sign to me that I was hurting. Not even being halfway, I started to have a few negative thoughts about the whole running activity, as there wasn’t really the option of walking the rest of the course (like I did in the Winter 100) as it was fecking cold and would be very dark at 5pm.

A snowy road, and a luminous runner....

A snowy road, and a luminous runner….

 

Very similar to the W100, I brought out my secret weapon, and started sucking a Sherbet lemon to get my mood up a little.

 

As I slowed, there was a heck of a lot of people going past me, which was really dispiriting. I’m a very average runner, and don’t get fussed about my position or anything like that, but I was feeling rough at such an early stage, it didn’t feel great watching a constant stream of people bounding past me.

 Just before the second aid station (at about mile 20ish) I tried to wade through a particularly big puddle that stretched from one side of the road to the other. Everyone else was gingerly creeping round the edge, but (in my invincible waterproof socks) I tried to go on a slightly different route, and had that sinking feeling of a puddle going a lot deeper than I expected. With a bit of swearing, I turned into a leaping gazelle and bounded the last 6 feet without touching the ground.

 The second aid station had copious amounts of water (and some electrolyte tablets and powder which I thought was great) but not a great deal in terms of food other than cake. Whilst I was OK with this, carrying a few tonnes of groceries with me, I wonder of there were a few people feeling hungry at this stage.  Having said that, I think the other aid stations later on seemed to have more food available.  All of the checkpoints had loads of superbly cheerful marshalls, and although I didn’t stop for long, the marshalls were great at cheering you up.

 I was now onto what I will call the ‘hilly’ stage, which was simply an uphill (walked) followed by a downhill (run) and repeated endlessly. The downhills were quite steep and were a bit of a challenge, especially the few that had previously had a small stream running down the middle, baring the pebbles, and a sloping mud bank on either side. The stream-bed was too narrow to run in, and the mud-banks were too sloped to stay on, so the only way to get down was to bounce from one side to another…exciting running!

 Somewhere about mile 22, I had my first real food, half a tin of ravioli. There are some people out there that will find it unappetising to eat freezing cold ravioli out of a plastic bag, but luckily I’m not one of them. Yum yum yum.  ‘Nuff said.

 A bit of food inside me (even if it was cold) got me going and I meandered along to about mile 30. At some point (I don’t remember when) we turned right onto the Grand Union canal path, which improved the footing a lot, and felt (after the GUCR last summer) like coming home.

Lovely blue sky at the canal!

Lovely blue sky at the canal!

There was lots of walking, interspersed with a bit of running here, and I felt a bit happier that everyone else was slowing too (not just me!)

 We turned left at the Paddington signpost for the last half-marathon, and it was here something rather strange happened. Usually, at this point of any ultra I’m completely pooped, without the energy to break into a run or even want to. However, I started to feel a bit livelier, and started running for longer and longer periods. Still tired, but not shattered. Very odd.

 By mile 35, I was running most of the time, and playing a bit of a game of catching up with the person in front, running with them for a while and then moving on. I started chatting to a guy who said he was running with his daughter (she was slightly ahead talking to someone else). He had done MdS ‘one and a half times’ as he put it, so had some great experiences to share about the time he finished and the time he didn’t. I then happened to ask what else he’d done, as he was clearly very fit. He paused, and said (without a trace of ego, and with a little bit of embarrassment) “Well, I am one of the few people in the world to have stood at both poles!”

 Awesome! I then just listened (with a few encouraging noises) as he told me some amazing stories (including running in the setting from the book ‘Born to Run’). I’ve met a lot of inspirational people while running, but this guy was exceptional (and very humble with it). That made the miles pass quickly, really really quickly, and before I knew I was on the last few miles. I was feeling great and pushed the pace on as I knew I was finishing soon.

 The last couple of miles were quite gloomy as it was just going dark, and I couldn’t really see the finish before I got there, but I went through the line at last, and got a handshake, medal and a very efficient man gave me my time on a scrap of paper (8 hours 26 if you’re interested…the winner managed it in 5 hours 7 mins, so I’ve got a little way to go before I start troubling the front-runners). 

There were a lot of people at the finish, getting changed or just sitting, but I knew I couldn’t hang around if I was going to get back to my car quickly. So after a cup of coffee and a few thanks to various people, I got my phone out and sat nav’d the 0.6 miles back to the car. I suspect I made a strange spectacle, walking through Central London with a rucksack and dropbag, dressed entirely in black lycra, but I wasn’t too fussed about that.

In the car I pretty much inhaled a couple of Cornish pasties (my food of choice for post-ultra snacking) and set off into the London traffic. Interestingly, my clutch control in the stop-start traffic was appalling, as my left leg was jellified by the run and now had pretty much no pushing power. Anyway, after a couple of hours driving I got home safely, and after a quick shower and a ton of sausages and mashed potatoes, I was off to the works Xmas party….Merry Xmas!

So, in summary, a couple of thoughts…

  1. I need to see a physio about my left hamstring; it’s not going to fix itself.
  2. I always take far far too much stuff when doing these bloody runs, and I never need it all – as enjoyable as it is to carry lots of ravioli around races with me, I need to take the right amount rather than the maximum I can carry.
  3. There are some awesome people out there to talk to, and there is so much more to life than the mundane. Life must be savoured & enjoyed.
  4. Always wear waterproof socks. They are magical things.

 And I think that’s it for another cracking run! A few days later my legs are stiff, (my left especially) but I’m in one piece and still smiling. I’ve got a few more ultras in the coming months, before my big event of the summer – the Thames Ring 250 – which will be something new and interesting…. a whopping 250 miles across 4 days, seeing how little sleep I need and how much food I can eat. Exciting times!

Thanks to all at Go Beyond Ultra for a cracking run, I’m already looking forward to the Thames Trot in February.