race report

Lakeland 100 – July 2018 (dnf)

It’s now November 2018, and that fact alone will tell you that I didn’t have a great experience in July, when I did the Lakeland 100.  Hence this is going to be a short (but sweet) report, rather than my usual mega-autobiographies….

After almost surviving the Ultra-Trail Snowdonia 50 in May (race report here), but at 26 hours to travel 50 miles…it’s not pretty) my mind was pretty blown for the following few weeks…and by that point there was little point in training seriously for LL100, so I didn’t really.  I’d done the LL50 in 2016, and loved it (race report here…it’s a lot prettier) so I didn’t get too anxious about the 100 mile version, but I knew how rough it was going to be and was under no illusions how bad shape I was in.  My running partner John was back with me, but was in equally poor shape having suffered with a few injuries and mojo-loss in the first half of the year.  However, we’d been planning this trip for a year and were being expertly crewed by Mark & Sharon Foster, who had seen us round the Thames Path 100 & Arc of Attrition, so we set off for the lake district despite being rather unprepared.

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Please note my amazing Super t-shirt…my favourite part of the weekend.

At this point I should mention that 2018 had an unbelievably hot summer, with numerous days over 25 degrees…which is great unless you’re trying to run and basically having massive heat-related problems.  I had my running kit down to a vest, skimpy shorts and a pair of socks…which was just about keeping me cool.  Anything like a t-shirt was far too hot for me.  I was suitably worried about how I would survive in such heat for hours on end…

The drive up was long and slow due to a combination of traffic & a car with old-fashioned air-con (windows) meant it was longer than it should have been but I managed to sleep for pretty much all of it, as usual.  A pleasant night in a B&B in Ambleside, and then over to Coniston on Friday morning.  A swift registration meant it was a pleasure to show John the atmosphere I had been raving about since 2016, and the reason we were here doing such an iconic race.  John naturally got caught out for not having a good enough cup, and had to buy one…which was deeply satisfying.  We caught up with Chris Kay, who we’d met on the Thames Ring 250 in 2017, who looked in great shape.

Then it was out to a field to park the car, and lie about waiting for the 6pm start.  Although in the shade, it was roasting…easily over 28 degrees at midday, and absolutely the worst running conditions I could hope for.  John and I were too restless to lie about for long, and went off in search of something to eat that would power us through 100 hilly miles in a day….but settled on bacon rolls (yum!).

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yummmmmm……

Then it was time to get kit sorted and going. The starting corral was quite full, and John professed to feeling emotional at the opera singing while we waited to start.

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The iconic start…

I was totally unmoved, probably because I knew what was coming in the first 10 miles, and John didn’t (afterwards, he said he could not believe how long / steep / high the first climb was…and that was just the first taste of what was to come).

As usual, John set off quickly, and I gently followed.  We all started walking at the first climb, and I caught up with John and then lost him again in the crowd.  He apparently thought I was still ahead of him (somehow) so pushed on quickly to try to catch me up, while I slogged on behind.

It was hot hot hot, and I remember thinking after 30 minutes that my running vest was absolutely soaked with sweat, and that I must keep drinking to prevent myself getting too dehydrated.  The first few aid-stations came and went, and I was already struggling to eat, after less than 15 miles.  I was going too slow and I knew it.

A few times Mark and Sharon managed to get into position to say hello (no help allowed from crew, other than moral support).  This was no mean feat in the Lake District, where a 20 mile drive might take an hour and only move 5 running miles.  It was always brilliant to see them and helped enormously.  They updated me on John’s progress, which was good, as he was so far in front of me at this point he was pretty much  on another planet.

The first 20ish miles were quite dry underfoot, unusually, and made for decent running.  Having covered the route before, it was nice to revisit some of the more memorable parts.

 

As it started to get dark, I teamed up with another runner, Paul, who was also dragging his heels a bit at the rear of the pack.  It was good to have a bit of company, but I was just not feeling the energy and bounce I should have in the early stages of a race…I was slogging away like I’d already run 50 miles.

I got to Buttermere aid-station after 1am, I couldn’t eat (to be honest, the food wasn’t great) but I managed to get a couple of cup-a-soups down and was happy with that.  I’m pretty sure I saw Jo Barret there, who I finished Spine Challenger with in January, but it’s all a bit hazy.20180728_023828

I set off from the aid station with a resigned head-down attitude.  It was the lowest ebb of the night – that horrible low patch between 1am – 4am when everything is crap.  Paul had the good grace to tell me there was a particularly tough climb coming up and I was not in a happy place.  With the benefit of clear hindsight, I should have stopped, put on some music and taken some chocolate or a pro-plus of something to get my head back in the game.  Although I thought of it, I didn’t want to slow Paul down on the narrow trail, and perhaps that was my undoing.

At about 3.30am, we were going along a very narrow trail, with a steep climb on the left and a very sharp drop down to a ravine on the right.  As I was in front I could see two figures about 15 metres down the slope on my right, seemingly huddled together.  As we got close, we could see that someone had mis-stepped and fallen, and there was someone trying to help, but the slope was so steep there was no way a single person could get them back up the slope.  My first instinct was a lot of “what do we do etc.” as it looked like the person had an arm at a funny angle possibly broken (from where I was) and was only semi-conscious.  It only seemed right to get down the slope to help the other person, so I slid down and supported her from the other side.

As more runners appeared above us there was quite a few different shouted ideas of what to do, including calling out mountain rescue(!), but in the end me & the other helper managed to get the injured runner to the top of the slope by inching up on our bums and lifting her in the same way while she pushed with her legs.  She was still very dazed and shocked, and clearly was not with what was going on at all.

To be fair to the crowd of runners at the top of the slope, I reckon everyone stayed until we were safely up, and had gather the runners belongings that had scattered down the slope…but at that point it was clear she was going no further but would need to return to the last aid station, about 3 miles back.  And she was not in a capable state of getting there (safely) alone.

There were no immediate volunteer to give up their race and return with her.  So I said I’d go.

It was a spur of the moment decision, and I’ve agonised about the consequences ever since, so I’ll give you two different scenarios that might be true:

Scenario 1 – I’m  a selfless hero, who saw the injured runner as clearly needing my help, and my conscience would not allow me to leave someone in such  a potentially dangerous situation (miles from help, pitch black, middle of the night etc etc).  I have some good running friends, who I hope would get similar sort of help if they needed it, even if it came from complete strangers.  Anyway, it’s only a race, right!  There’s plenty more out there to do!

Scenario 2 – I knew I wasn’t going to finish, I was already knackered and I hadn’t yet travelled 35 miles.  This would be a easy way to quit without everyone thinking I’d quit.  Perfect.

Ahhhh,  which one is it?  I honestly don’t know…maybe both.

Anyway, I walked her slooooooowly back to the aid station, passing the back-of-the-pack runners as we did.  At the aid station (which had by then closed) they got us some tea and we dressed the runners grazes and scrapes.  We were given a lift to the next aid station, Braithwaite I think, where Mark and Sharon met us and drove us back to Coniston where we let the injured runner get back to her tent at about 8am.  Even after a few hours in a warm car and a sleep she was still confused enough to struggle to find her tent in the field at Coniston.

I spent the rest of the weekend in the back of car, travelling around with Mark and Sharon, catching John at various points. through the morning the weather steadily deteriorated, and those that had set off with the appropriate kit for a balmy summers weekend were quickly reminded of the changeability of the Lakes.
After we waited at Mardale Head (about mile 75) for an hour, watching the gazebo being lifted off its feet by strong winds, we finally opted to wait in the car, as it was so grim. John struggled in eventually, but he was shot to pieces. Immediately he saw the car, he fell to the ground and was clearly going no further. We warmed him up and tried to get him to carry on, but to be fair he was in pieces and the weather was getting worse. He’d managed some huge climbs and had done awesomely well, but his race was over. I have a sneaking suspicion that the fact I had already dropped made his decision easier…if I’d been still going he would have carried on somehow.
And that was it! We zoomed back to the b&b, managed a very woozy Chinese meal out, and slept like the dead. The next morning we ate well, and then headed south….a little stiff but none the worse for a bit of adventure.

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John looked great the following morning….I think

So, where does that leave us? Naturally John was dead keen to enter the 2019 race, but it didn’t take long to persuade him that I thought it was too soon to go back to the Lakes (for me, anyway.) Me? I’m a bit more ‘relaxed’ about trying the LL100 again. It’s beautiful, but my legs need more in them to manage it comfortably. I’ve become a flat-land runner.
And was it a DNF? I’ve decided yes. I was unlikely to finish, and took an easy way out…but helping someone in the meantime. That’s enough – it wasn’t an entirely wasted effort.
So as always, my thanks to Mark and Sharon for another awesome weekend away. John for being great company and a brilliant training partner. He is now taking a well earned few months break from running, and thinking about what his next race will be.

Thanks to my long-suffering wife, Claire, who gives me leave to do these things.

This may have taken months to get around to write, but it is still a great race even with a patchy ending. It was a cracking experience, and I’m sure I’ll be back there someday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Arc of Attrition 2017

As I sit here, about a week after finishing the Arc of Attrition, a 100 mile race around the coast of Cornwall, I am still shell-shocked about how much it took out of me and how deep I had to dig to get to the finish.  I am used to beating my body up quite badly, having completed some longish ultras before, but nothing in my life compares to the absolute pasting I had to give my brain over the 34 hours it took me to travel 100 miles.

So here’s fair warning:  this is going to be a long and pretty unexciting race report.  It will involve massive uninteresting detail, tales of running / walking / eating, stories of vomit / bogs / rocks ( & more rocks), slippery dangerous descents and endless climbing ascents, and by the end you will have a small idea of what I went through.  By the very act of writing about it, I’m hoping for a bit of a better understanding about how I made it through, as common logic says that I should have been out at one of the times I was massively sick everywhere, or when I twisted my ankle, or even when it started to get dark on the second night and I began to hallucinate.

So, why was I at the start line of a race in Cornwall?  The Arc of Attrition is billed a “The South West’s Toughest Race” and I would say that doesn’t do it justice.  It takes place in February, so if you are unlucky the weather will be appalling, and there is over 12 hours of darkness which makes navigation difficult.  It follows the South-West-Coast Path, which in some places is a nice flat grassy path, but is mainly a small rough track, riddled with boulders or stones, with some steep descents & ascents taking you into and out of coves.  There is 4000 metres of climbing over the 100 miles, which isn’t an astonishing amount, but is certainly testing and exhausting.  In the 2016 version of the race, the weather was terrible, and 75% of the starters did not finish.  aoa-17-event-button-1200x597

Overall, it is a step up from a basic ‘run a long way ultra’ to a ‘run a long way, in the dark, in below zero temperatures, in gale force winds, in the rain, over in-runnable terrain, up and down sides of cliffs that will break your leg if you fall, in some areas so remote that they will need to helicopter you out ’.  Perhaps I just need to add that one of the items on the mandatory kit that you had to carry with you was an emergency “bivvy bag”, which is basically a large plastic sleeping bag that will protect you from the elements if you need to lie down and await rescue (and not die of exposure in the process).

I have done a few ultras over the last few years, and I can manage a 100 mile race in about 22 hours (and a bit) without too many problems.  Perhaps that was some of the problem, in that I did the Thames Path 100 in April 2016, and didn’t find it challenging enough.  I was lucky enough to get a place in the Lakeland 50 in July, and absolutely fell in love with the Lake District while on a few recce’s up there, and finished that race in about 12 hours, feeling fine.  It was all becoming a bit too easy, running these ultras.

So it seemed quite logical that over the course of a number of conversations with a running friend, John, we goaded and cajoled each other to enter the Arc, until on a drunken evening in September, I put together my entry.  There was no guarantee of getting a place, as due to the nature of the race the organisers would decide based on your running CV whether you were ‘worthy’ of a place.  Imagine my surprise when the following morning this appeared on Facebook:

 

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Holy shit!  Didn’t expect that!

 

John naturally had to enter then, and got this:

 

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John loves putting pictures of himself on Facebook, but has sadly stopped with the double-thumbs-up pose whilst wearing a wooly hat.

 

 A little about John may be useful here, as you’re going to hear a lot about him.  John started running just a few years ago, and became very quick, very quickly, on legs that don’t get tired.  He completed a couple of quick marathons (in about 3 hour 18 minutes I think, which is quick!) and then accidentally started talking to me about the lure of ultras….running much slower, for longer, and eating at the same time.  I’ve previously described John as the Labrador puppy of ultra running, as his massive enthusiasm during his first few ultras was just like that of a puppy (and he never got tired).  He did his first 100 miler last April with me, at the Thames Path 100, and then completed his second (almost 100) at the Ridgeway challenge in August.  He has graduated from being a puppy to be a fully grown dog, with an amazing set of legs that can carry him for days.  I should point out that he is 10 years younger than me, and as a result leaves me in his dust generally, but luckily we find enough to talk about to keep us both occupied. 

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John is the one in the black top with orange stripes.

John has a nasty habit of training like a beast, doing massive back-to-back runs of 20 or 30 miles each weekend, and then running another 3 or 4 times per week.  I take a rather more relaxed view of training, running when I have time and generally taking it easy.  We both live in Kent, and run with the very excellent Thanet Roadrunners, so would generally meet up at 3 or 4am on a Sunday morning for a few miles before meeting up with the club at 8am for the usual Sunday club run.  John would have already done 20 miles the previous Saturday, and would be running on tired legs.I would be bouncing along like Tigger after a restful couple of day, and hence would be able to keep up with him.   So 6 or more hours running on a Sunday morning for us together, and usually I would manage another long run in the week sometime.  We were both averaging 40-70 miles per week quite consistently, which is quite a good base to start with.

Anyway, we were lucky enough to get the help of an amazing husband & wife team as our support crew – Mark and Sharon.  Mark is also a superb runner (I think he is on marathon number 88) and has so much experience it is difficult to find a running problem he doesn’t know the answer to.  Sharon is the typical mother-hen, looking after both body & spirit of her runners, and baking copious quantities of lemon drizzle cake.  Together they have the experience to keep their runners healthy while pushing them to finish an ultra.  A couple of special people.

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This is the team at the race HQ!  Sharon and I are the ones without beards.

We drove down to Cornwall together on Thursday, using my wife’s car (thank you Claire!) as it was a massive 7 seater, that just about fitted all our kit in.  John and I had had endless discussions about how important the kit was – if the weather was poor we would need everything possible in our favour to get the job done. This meant endless scouring of eBay & Amazon for quality kit on a budget, and just goes to show that you can get some bargains out there if you shop around. 

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You  can see the amazing balloon from a mile away!

Mark and Sharon had the bright idea of having a helium balloon that would help us find the car in car parks easily…and it worked!

 

 

 

After checking into the oddest B&B ever (imagine 1960’s décor, cork tiles & mouldy deer heads, but perfectly clean and welcoming), we quickly made sure we know where the race HQ was and then headed for the pub.

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It was clean and welcoming, as it has been for 4000 years.

As always, good food & a pint found us chatting to another competitor (a young guy called Ade, who was back for his third year trying to finish – I’m pleased to say he finished this time!)

I had a really good night’s sleep, which I wasn’t too surprised at as I’d had a really busy few weeks previously and was not very well rested.  I had slept most of the car journey down to Cornwall, and I reasoned that any sleep was going to help me, whether it was 15 minutes snoozes or a fabulous 8 hours sleep.

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This was the tracker that showed us moving round the coast…

After a hearty breakfast, we drove to the race HQ which was right on the beach and had a pleasant warm atmosphere, compared to the grey cold morning outside.  We did the slick and efficient journey round the various tables to collect race numbers, race maps, and be fitted with a tracker.  The tracker would allow the adoring public to watch our dots follow the coastline, and also had a panic button if the need should arise to summon help.  Everyone was, as expected, in a fairly excitable state and there was a lovely tension in the room, as well as a lot of impressive beards (not including Johns).

There was a quick and to-the-point race briefing, the main reason being that the weather briefing was simple – cold but clear.  Temperatures overnight were expected to drop to below zero, but no rain which made everything simpler.  One particularly amusing question about why the time limit for reaching a particular checkpoint was so tough (about 2 hours shorter than really required) was met with the classic quote…….“To make it harder”……..’nuff said.

With that said we all hopped onto a bus and travelled for about an hour to the start at Coverack.  We would spend the next few uncomfortable hours/days travelling back along the coast to the race HQ and a finish (hopefully).  I managed another 40 winks on the bus, and woke just before we pulled into a car park.  The wind that hit us as we got off the nice warm bus brought back what we were about to attempt, and everyone adjusted their kit to wrap up a little bit warmer.

There were a surprising number of people running in shorts, which was leaving their legs very exposed to brambles and sticks as they ran.  I was also amazed to see people without gaiters to prevent stuff getting into their shoes, which I consider basic kit on any trail race.  I’ve not idea if they survived, but they must have iron-clad feet if they did (or massive blisters).  About half of the runners had poles with them.  John and I both had brought them, but hadn’t really needed them at all on the flat concrete promenades of Kent.

A bag piper ‘piped’ us down to the start line – I’ve no idea why but it made a nice touch – and then without too much waiting we were off.  Through Coverack and then onto the trails along the coast.  There were 109 starters, and it was anyone’s guess how many would finish.

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It was a grey windy morning at Coverack, with vultures circling!

The first few miles of an ultra is a pretty standard affair, everyone going quite slowly and chatting nervously as they know what is ahead.  Usually, by mile 10 or 15 the chatter has stopped, but by then you’ve settled into a rhythm.  Today however was different, because straight after the town, we got stuck into a very number of very steep ups & downs, which were a cruel introduction to what lay ahead.  Everyone was dead silent, head down, just trying to stay on their feet and working hard.  It was a very real and very hard beginning.  I remember looking at my Garmin after 5.45 miles, thinking that there is no way it should be feeling this tough so soon.  It was very slow and steep, and relentless.

 

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Not really a path is it?  More like a route where the boulders have killed the grass.

 

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It was beautiful though….

There is no easy way to sum up those first 25 miles to the first checkpoint.  John was generally in front, we would climb or descend as fast as was safe, and then try to run or power-walk the flat bits.  We didn’t talk or interact much at all, other than being within 20 feet of each other.  John did spend the first couple of hours occasionally asking me if I could hear that sound that the wind was making, to which I would say that I didn’t know what he was talking about.  It took hours until he realised that the wind was whistling past the holes in his poles making a really eerie whistling sound….that he was going to have to put up with for the entire race.

Mark & Sharon met us at mile 7 and 10 with hot pasties, which were great.  We’d all spent quite a bit of time on a race plan that had them meeting us as often as possible with the car full of food and kit.  It was going to be difficult enough for them to stay alert for 36 hours without crashing the car, not to mention navigating along tiny Cornish roads leading to isolated coves and waiting for an hour for John and I. 

We ran past Lizard Point, the most southerly point, and were feeling good enough at that stage to take a picture – we were clearly still smiling at this point….

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Notice the Rambo-like headband I am wearing….it makes me look very like Sly Stallone don’t you think?  John thinks he resembles Kanye with his turned-round cap.

As there were some occasional longer stretches of decent terrain, I started to chat to a few of the runners around us.  A chap was doing his first 100 miler, and another couple of runners were back after failing to finish the previous year.  Everyone was moving at different paces on the changing path, so we might overtake someone on a climb, only for them to steam past us on the following descent.

The path was quite easy to follow, but every few miles would split into two with absolutely no indication which way to go.  An occasional fingerpost showed the route of the Coastal Path, but for the rest I relied on my GPS unit.  I find the peace of mind of knowing I’m on the right route is essential to keep me from turning round and heading the wrong way.

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Grey, but beautiful…..and flat for about 300 yards thank goodness!

The first race checkpoint was at Porthleven, 24.5 miles in.  A relatively short distance, but hard work over this terrain.  It was great to have Mark and Sharon there with the first hot food of the race, as up to then it had been cold food.  Hot beans hit the spot (although only a few mouthfuls) and John, who normally struggles to eat in the first 30 miles also managed to put something away.  I think we were both in good spirits, although both very conscious of how tough that 25 miles had been and how tired we were already.

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Running!

 

The next race checkpoint would be at Penzance (mile 38.4) and about 6 miles before that we would change into road shoes for a 8 miles road section along the seafront.  This would be a great chance to pick up the pace a little.

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The sun was going down, and it was getting cold and dark.

 

 

 

 

At Marazion, changing into the road shoes felt like putting on a pair of fluffy slippers.  The trail shoes I’d been wearing were designed to protect the soles of my feet from lumpy paths and rocks, and hence were tough and unyielding.  The road shoes, however, are only going to be used on nice flat pavements, so are very cushioned and soft.  It was bliss just to be able to run for a while without watching the ground 2 feet in front for a tripping hazard.  We left our hiking poles with the car (no need for them now!), and sped off into the darkness.

The seafront was bright and flat, and very like our training runs along the Kent promenade.  We made good time, and John kept us amused by keeping us updated on how our average pace was quickly dropping from about 16 minutes per mile down to 15 m/m.  To put that into context for non-runners reading this, our normal running pace would be somewhere from 8 m/m (John) to 9m/m (me).  We had been going very very slowly over this terrible terrain.

We were still meeting up with Mark and Sharon every 3 or 4 miles, and taking on a little food each time.  John started to feel a bit nauseous around mile 37, which was not entirely unexpected as he’d been through a phase like this before in a previous race.  It would pass in time, helped by copious quantities of fizzy ginger ale.

We got to the race checkpoint at Penzance, to find a bright warm building filled with helpful people.  I haven’t really mentioned the ‘Arc Angels’ yet, the volunteers who man the checkpoints and help the runners with anything they may need.  Both John and I got a cup of sweet tea before going back outside to see Mark and Sharon who were ready with a little more hot food.  They’d also found time to buy a massive Domino’s pizza, which had been my request for a later checkpoint.  Pizza can revitalise the most tired runner with a huge hit of calories, and it had been my saviour on a few races.  But we weren’t even halfway, so it didn’t feel right to tuck into dinner just yet.

Another few miles on pavement (blissful pavement!!) before we had to stop and put on trail shoes again in Mousehole.  A few people out walking came over to find out what we were doing changing shoes in the boot of a car in the dark.  Much amusement when we told them.  I took the opportunity to change my socks, take a couple of ibuprofen and have a couple of pieces of hot ravioli while stationary, generally sorting myself out for the next tough stage.  John did the same, although he was still feeling sick.  We even had the sense to return to the car after going a few hundred yards when we realised we had forgotten something – well done boys!

A quick mention here of the cut-offs at the various checkpoints.  We were heading for the next checkpoint at Lands End (mile 54), and then would be turning north to get to St Ives at mile 78.  The cut-off at St Ives was very tight, meaning that we estimated you had to get to Lands End by about 4am, to leave 10 hours to travel the 24 miles to St Ives before the cut off there.  In 2016, a number of racers had not finished as they had missed the St Ives cut off and we were determined that was not going to happen to us.  Hence, we had a self imposed target time of 4am to get to Lands End, which meant moving as fast as possible whenever possible…you simply could not slow or rest for any length of time without risking putting yourself under too  much pressure later.

At Lamorna, about mile 45, we saw Mark & Sharon again, and John’s nausea had almost completely passed.  The trail was as bad as ever, and we were going slowly over the rocks in the dark.  There was a very bright moon, and we both had exceptionally powerful head torches, but it was still painfully slow going.

We started to see the next checkpoint, the Lands End hotel in the far-off distance, visible for miles as it was literally the only lights on the horizon.  Maddeningly, it did not appear to be getting closer, as over the course of 8 miles it kept disappearing as we dipped into a cove and then had to climb out again.  The miles seemed to tick away too slowly, as we were both just hanging on waiting for Lands End to arrive.  I started to feel a little more than just tired over this stretch, the first sign that something wasn’t right, but refused to spend much time thinking about how I felt.  I just knew that every time we met up with Mark and Sharon I immediately sat in the boot of the car to take the weight off my legs and tried to forget what I was doing here.  Mark and Sharon would try to get me to eat (as a good crew should do) and I would tell them to bugger off.  I could tell, from the silences, that they were getting a little concerned.

The last few miles as we came into Lands End took forever, and John sped ahead to get into the checkpoint first so that Mark and Sharon could look after him before I got there.  I told him to get some chips for me with lots of vinegar, and 2 cups of tea…which I hoped to be able to eat!  We had arrived at 3.40am, which was perfect timing, and gave us 20 minutes to recover before needing to be on our way at 4am.

The checkpoint at Land End was a bright café, with lots of runners, Arc Angels and people generally milling about (or that’s what it felt like having spent that last 6 hours on our own in the dark!).  John was tucking into chicken soup, having already woken Mark & Sharon who were having some much needed sleep in the car.  The station was brilliant, with about 5 options of hot food and lots of support available.  I was given a bowl of soup, and managed 2 mouthfuls before stepping politely outside and finding a quiet dark corner to loudly vomit everywhere.  I remember it quite well, as I felt like I was trying to eject most of my lower intestine through my throat.  The only thing that came out was the chicken soup, but the effort involved was exhausting.  Having got that off my chest (gettit?) I staggered off to the toilet, with a chorus of people shouting after me whether I was ok?  To be fair at that stage, it was a bloody stupid question as I clearly wasn’t, but it was nice of them to ask.

5 minutes later, I was back into the aid station, and I was sipping some tea and wondering how I could get some fuel inside me for the next stage.  The simple answer is that I wouldn’t, but we decided to fill my drinks bottles up with some of John’s sports drink which would give me a few calories and electrolytes.  Without stopping to think too much, we set off out of Lands End, knowing that the next 24 miles were the hardest and most unforgiving, knowing that we had 10 hours (only 10 hours!!) which was enough time but we needed to keep moving, and knowing that (most concerningly) there were only  two places in the next 24 miles to meet up with Mark and Sharon.  Psycologically, this was quite serious as up to this point we had had only a few miles (perhaps 90 minutes) until we saw them again, and that broke the distances up in my head.  The next 24 miles were going to be rough, but it never really occurred to me to stop.  John was full of beans, and I knew I had to get to St Ives (at mile 78) before I could seriously consider what would happen after.

A few interesting thing happened over the next 10 miles, but I’ve no idea in what order….

I managed to twist my ankle coming down a steep descent and stepping onto a metal spike that was poking up between two rocks.  It wasn’t bad, although I took a hard fall, and it just made me be more careful.

It was still pitch black at 7am, to the extent that both John and I were wondering aloud about the lack of any birds singing (usually the first sign of dawn) and when it was actually going to get light.  Then, suddenly, in the space of 15 minutes it got very light…bizarre.  It was as if God flicked on the light switch.  Unfortunately the usual reaction to dawn, which is to start to wake up and feel better didn’t materialise for me.  Bugger.

John somehow managed to lose a shoe in a bog.  Some of the ground was saturated, and very muddy indeed, and unfortunately John managed to step into one particularly deep section and bring his foot out without a shoe attached.  Luckily he fished it out with a pole, and it was only half full of stinking mud.  Obviously, my immediate reaction (once I’d got to safe ground myself) was to take a picture and then see if he needed any help.  I’m gutted to report that my phone had somehow run out of battery, and so I don’t have a picture for you.  John took a few of my wipes to try to clean himself up a bit, and like the true friend I am, I carried on.  It may give some measure of how spaced out I was that I fully intended to leave John little signs so he would know which trails I had taken…like my water bottle on the ground pointing a certain way, like my poles pointing the way I had gone…that he could pick up and bring with him.  I’ve no idea what I was thinking of, but luckily didn’t do any of the above and he caught me up quite quickly.

The weather had picked up a bit with wind, some patches of rain and even an occasional hail storm.  John was convinced it snowed a few times but I couldn’t tell.  The strong wind was probably the worst, but we were well wrapped up for it, and to be fair, it was still better than they had experienced in 2016, so we weren’t complaining.

And finally, most frustratingly, I was copiously sick again, about 3 hours after leaving Lands End.  Interestingly, as there were no trees or fences to lean on I was able to make good use of my poles to create the perfect vomiting stance….imagine if you will a giraffe moving its 4 legs out into a kind of a pyramid to allow it to bend down to take a drink.  My legs were the back two legs of the giraffe, and the poles were the front legs and my head hung down into the space in the middle, allowing full range of movement as I once again tried to pass my whole stomach through my throat.  Unfortunately, the only thing in my stomach was about 100ml of gross, bright orange sports drink, which tasted only marginally worse going in than coming out.  I don’t think I have ever been sick quite so noisily in my life.  It was spectacular (in a bad way).

And that brought us to mile 64.

John was flying along.  Well, he would have been if he hadn’t been doing the decent thing and staying with me.  He was still eating well and bouncing along quite comfortably.  Every time he came to a decent flat bit he would encourage us to up the pace to keep clipping along as well as we could.  I was still moving, but battling tiredness that was rapidly turning into exhaustion.  Every climb we came to I would have to sit down halfway to rest my legs for a minute, and then carry on to the top.  It was a simple case of getting the job done.  I vividly remember, during one of these sit-downs, thinking that there was no point in even considering giving up now, halfway up this ascent, as no one would be able to get to me where I was, so  my only option was to keep going.  It was a sort of mental “there is no other way” method that kept me moving forward.

At 8am, mile 64, we saw Mark and Sharon for the last time before St Ives at mile 78.  We had spent 4 hours covering the last 10 miles, and the next 14 long lonely miles would need to be done in 6 hours to avoid being disqualified.  6 hours to cover 14 miles!!  That’s easy, isn’t it?  Well, it should be, but it was all dependent on how good the terrain was whether we made good time or not.  I began to talk to John about going on ahead, as there was no point in both of us missing the St Ives cut-off.  Like a trooper, he refused, saying we’d get there together.

I was having some ‘low’ moments, having to really tell myself to keep going, and keep going quickly.  I’d switched to drinking water with a bit of sugar dissolved in it (just for the calories) but it tasted disgusting.  I’d not eaten anything that had stayed down since the previous evening (mile 38) when I’d changed out of my road shoes and had a couple of bits of ravioli…it felt like a lifetime ago.  I was just sooooooooo tired.

And then John did some maths.  It was 10.42am, and John calculated that we had 2 hours 20 minutes to cover the last 6 miles before St Ives.  This was serious, as that was going to be tight, too tight to make it.  I finally managed to get John to go on ahead and he sped off in a bundle of energy and good running legs.  It was clear how much he’d been holding himself back when you saw how fast he could go at mile 72 of the hardest terrain imaginable.  Amazing stuff.

I plodded on, doing the maths again and realising that actually I had 3 hours 20 minutes left, which was much much more achievable for 6 miles (even going slowly as I was).  Phew!  It wasn’t better without John, in fact it was slightly disconcerting being on my own, with a dead phone, but at least he was off running at his pace, like a freed chimpanzee swinging through the African trees instead of being in a cage somewhere.  I knew the tracker I had would get me help if I needed it quickly, so it was just a matter of keeping going.

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John in front, me behind. (Picture by Sharon)

 

I began to imagine what I would do at St Ives, as there was simply no way I could consider carrying on without something in my stomach to get me through the last 22 miles.  I looked forward to a sit down, a cup of tea, and something to eat.  I decided that I would sit there until the last possible minute to give the food the best possible chance of staying down, and take a couple of pain killers with it….mmmm…pain killers.  I wasn’t going to worry about shoes and socks, or any kit stuff….I was just going to sit and digest food.

As I got nearer, the terrain improved.  The aid station was just off the beach at St Ives and I was going to get there almost a full hour before the 2pm cut-off.  It was amazing.  I was almost cheerful for a few minutes.  I passed a female runner in a salmon pink top that was hobbling painfully, “Almost there!” I called out, as I powered passed her.  She said she was hurting badly because of cramp, and was clearly in a lot of pain.  I hope she finished.

So with an hour to spare, I was at St Ives seafront looking for the last checkpoint.  Except I couldn’t find it.  I’d been told there would be a volunteer at the seafront to direct me into the checkpoint, and there wasn’t.  I was asking passers-by if they’d seen any runners or people in high-viz jackets but no-one had seen anything.  All the other check-points had been really well signed, unmissable, and this one was nowhere.  I went all the way to the end of the beach front, and then turned round and went all the way back to the start.  I had been at the start of the beachfront at 1pm, and it was now 1.35pm.  It would be an understatement to say I was a little emotional and pissed off…

I finally had a stroke of luck, finding a passer-by who was a runner that had dropped out at Lands End.  He realised I was a bit lost, going backwards and forwards, and asked what I was doing.  Understanding that I was in a bit of trouble, he offered to guide me into the aid station, which was on the next beach along rather than the one I was on.  He set off at a trot, and I just about managed to keep up, in a couple of minutes we met Mark, who had come to find out why the tracker was showing me travelling back and forth along the beach about a  mile away from the checkpoint.  He got me to the checkpoint in about 15 minutes, and I swore and cursed the whole way there.  My plan of a rest and eating had gone up in smoke, with 45 minute diversion along the seafront.  It was 1.45pm, and the aid-station would close in about 20 minutes.

So, without much more ado, I managed a visit to the toilet, a couple of cups of tea, and a sit down.  Two or three mouthfuls of pasta and beans just about stayed down, but a paracetamol didn’t.  John, the lovely man, had waited for me (for an hour!) and was ready to leave.  Mark and Sharon were there to get me anything I needed, but I needed more time and a new pair of legs.  There was a marshal shouting that we needed to be out of the aid-station by 2.20 pm or we would be disqualified.  We left at 2.05pm.

I don’t think I can sum up my feelings as I walked out of that hall, back onto the road, to travel for another 22 miles, nearly exhausted.  It would have been so easy to stop, sit, finish, and give up. 

I’m not sure why I didn’t….except that I couldn’t repay John like that.  Even as I type this, a week later, I feel emotional remembering it. 

It probably the hardest 45 seconds I’ve had in an ultra…knowing what I was about to be putting myself through if I stood up and walked out of the room.  But perhaps that was better than giving up.   Looking back, I’ve never dug so deep or pushed myself as hard to get myself out of the hall.  It was both wonderful (looking back) and terrible at the same time.  And quite scary. 

Pause.  Deep breath.

And the last 22 miles?  Well, I’d like to say they passed easily, like a hairless fox sliding down a glassy chute covered in pureed banana.  But they actually dragged me kicking and screaming every single step of the way to the end.

The route out of St Ives was very runnable for the first 3 or 4 miles, with easy pavement making the going good  around the bottom of an estuary.  John started off behind me cajoling me onwards , but it didn’t take long for me to tell him to bugger off talking to me, so he then chose to remain just 15 or 20 metres in front of me…never getting any closer or further away….but just remaining out of reach.  It was probably the right way to keep me going but by-god it was annoying at the time (in a good way).

Sometime on this stretch, John somehow managed to reset his GPS.  Don’t ask me how, as I’ve absolutely no idea how he did it, but he did a factory reset on his GPS, and I was far too frazzled to get the maps and route back on the screen.  (In our running relationship, he does the leggy running stuff, I do the techie bit….just not in this case).  This wasn’t a major problem, except now every time John reached a junction, he had to shout back to me to ask which way to go…it kept me awake anyway.

After the estuary, we came to the ‘dunes of doom’, a long 3 or 4 miles section through some dunes.  A wonderful volunteer had marked every twist and turn throughout it, as it would have been impossible without, and walking on the soft sand was a lovely change to the mud and rocks from the previous 24 hours.  Normally, soft sand would get very tiresome very quickly, but this was like walking on a carpet (sort of) and I remember being sad when we got to the end.

John had started to get cold at this stage, and quite rightly pushed on ahead to keep warm.  These stages were so runnable it was no good for him going at my snail’s pace, so in fact he blasted on and went through to the finish.  That is no mean feat without a working GPS!  He took a couple of wrong turns, as you’d expect, including one where he found himself on a beach in the dark, being hissed at by a baby seal.  Clearly he hallucinated the whole thing, but is adamant that he didn’t.  If you see him, tell him that the baby seal was all a dream.

Anyway, travelling at 20 minutes per mile, I was going to finish by about 10pm.  Mark and Sharon were doing sterling work meeting me about every 3 or 4 miles and keeping my spirits up.  I’d pretty much given up eating now, but was having a cup of fizzy ginger ale every hour or so to help my blood sugar.  As darkness fell at about 6pm, I put my head torch back on and some more clothes as I was worrying about getting cold and slowing down.  I was wearing some really good warm kit, but I knew that if I started to get cold I would slow down, and then would start the slippery slope into something like hyperthermia.

I began seeing coloured lights around me in the distance, like other peoples head torches but they were blues, yellows and pinks.  Whenever I turned round to look at them properly they would disappear, but I was convinced they were there.

The last point I saw Mark and Sharon was at Porthreath, at mile 96.  I did my last bit of adjusting, changed head torch as mine was getting a bit dim, and spent just a minute realising I was almost finished.  At the top of the town, where I left the road to go back to the last 3 miles of trail, I had a brief chat with one of the organisers, Ferg.

He shook my hand, pointed out the way to follow, and said I only had 3 miles to go.  He said there were a couple of ups & downs, that the terrain was a ‘bit gnarly’ (which is Cornish for ‘bloody awful’), and that it was a bit of a sting in the tail.  And he said well done.  It was great, in a very understated way.

I’ll remember that for a long time I think….it was probably better than the finish (although I didn’t realise it at the time.)  Thanks for standing out in the cold for me Ferg, I appreciate it.

Those 3 miles took ages.  There were two massive descents and climbs.  The descents were roughly hewn stone steps, the sort of depth like stepping off a dining room chair every time.  The thud through my body as I stepped down each time was excruciating.  But that was nothing compared to the climb.  I would put my right foot up on the step (chair), and then having to push really hard on my poles to get enough force upwards to  get my left leg level, then I’d wobble for a couple of seconds before stabilising and doing the same again.  Each step up was a massive effort in itself.  And all in the dark….and if I’d wobbled and gone backwards it would have really hurt.  The first descent and climb was 70 steps.  I know because I counted them.  I counted them because then I knew when to stop and rest halfway up and the counting out loud helped pass the time and impacts through my body of the stepping down or hoisting up.

The second set of steps, the last set of steps I was going to have to cope with, had 115 steps.  On the way up I stopped at 50 steps, and then again at 100 steps, and still couldn’t see the top.  That was hard.

And then I was at the top.  I still couldn’t see any sign of the finish town, but it was at the bottom of a cove with a lovely long road sweeping down to it, so I wasn’t too surprised.  The long flat stretch took ages to finish, but it did finish.  Then I was walking down the road, hearing cheering from down below.

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Finishing!

 

And then I was there. 10pm. Back at the Blue Bar, race HQ.  Lots of people cheering and clapping, giving me an obscenely big buckle, John was there of course, and Mark and Sharon.   I’ll post a link to a video lower down that has footage of me getting my buckle and I’m completely shell shocked…just not with it at all.

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Luckily I’d chosen my coat to match the buckle…

 

I sat for a few minutes while I was fetched a cup of tea, but I fantasised about finishing for the last 24 hours, and I just wanted to get back to the B&B and to bed.  I’d taken 34 hours 8 minutes to finish.  John had taken 32 hours 40 minutes, but really should have been at least 4 hours quicker if he hadn’t kept waiting for me.  The first finishers did it in 21 hours 25mins…I’ve genuinely no idea how you could travel over that terrain in that time, it just doesn’t see possible even if you sprinted the runnable parts….amazing.  The last person finished just on the 36 hour cut-off.  Phew!

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Looking a little tired….John & his buckle.

 

109 people started.  61 people finished. 56% finish rate.  Ouch.

 I was 52nd, John was 45th. (But he is 10 years younger than me, and a much better runner – that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!)

I had the wobbliest shower ever back at the B&B, and slid into clean sheets….bliss.  John and I were in a twin room, so I had the rather amusing sight of watching him wobbling around as he sorted himself out for bed.  The Domino’s pizza (from Penzance?  Remember that?) finally got eaten.  We agreed that there was to be no tiptoeing around in the middle of the night if someone needed the toilet, but to make as much noise as required to get there in one piece. 

And then we both passed out.

I woke up for my customary beer & Doritos after about 2 hours, and listened to John mumble and talk in his sleep until I went back to sleep.  Then we were both up and awake at 6.30am, for the biggest breakfast ever.  Job done!

And what have I learned from this?  Hmmmm.  I’ve been in a bit of a state since finishing – not physically (although I have a few serious aches and pains, but that’s nothing new) – I’ve been in a very strange place mentally.  It was so, so tough, it feels like a touch of shock or PTSD, I’ve found it difficult to concentrate, have a conversation, almost as if I’m constantly distracted.  Instead of being pleased to finish, I’m pleased to be in one piece and alive.  There are only the few finishers of the Arc of Attrition that know how tough the race is, everyone else can only imagine it.  And I have to warn people reading this that may be thinking of doing it….it’s tough. Very tough.  And not a pleasant tough.  More of a ‘fuck that shit’ tough (as a friend put it).

So, thanks obviously to Mudcrew, for organising a brilliantly slick and friendly event.  The enjoyment by all the volunteers was obvious to see, and you are all a credit to the ultra scene.  I can’t think of anything I would alter in the way you handled the whole weekend.  I won’t be back though, sorry.

Thanks to Mark and Sharon, for somehow getting me round in (mostly) one piece.  I’ve said it all before, but you’re both great.

Thanks to John.  For going far,far beyond the call of duty to run with me and keep me sane & safe, even at the risk of your own race.  P.S. There was absolutely no baby seal hissing at you, it is all in your mind.

And thanks to Claire and the kids, for putting up with yet another ‘adventure’ of mine.  Perhaps this one a little more serious than the others.  My wife worries about me more than I do myself sometimes, which I love her for, even if it drives her mad.

And lastly, I’d like to thank my poor long-suffering body for somehow getting me round another event.  Sorry and all that, I’ll be more careful next time.  I don’t usually thank my brain, but it took a bit of a beating over the weekend, and I don’t want it to feel left out, so thanks brain for coping with the toughest thing I’ve ever done.

‘Nuff said.

Bob.   17-2-17

This is a link to a Youtube video, shot by baldyboy007.  Really captures the feel of the terrain.      You can catch me in a bright red jacket at 5.12 min, 6.15 min & getting my buckle at 8.08min.

And another video, by ‘film my run’ that shows the terrain really well…   (Nothing of me in this sadly).

And the pictures that didn’t make the cut…..

 

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John thinks he looks menacing…..

 

 

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Action shot from the start….I’m the idiot with the thumbs up, John is in front of me (as usual).  Notice everyone else taking it seriously.

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Odd picture of two men looking cheerful at the start.  Notice my claw hand.

Healthy breakfast!

Healthy breakfast!

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I’m never going back to Cornwall…it goes on forever.

 

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!!

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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

Feckin' long way!

Feckin’ long way!

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

Not my feet!!  But they look bloody painful!

Not my feet!! But they look bloody painful!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just heading out for an overnight training run!

Just heading out for an overnight training run!

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

Dawn breaking at Reculver, lovely!

Dawn breaking at Reculver, lovely!

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

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

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

GUCR peaceful canal

Peaceful canal!

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

Canal food!  Yumyumyum

Canal food! Yumyumyum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

I was ready for adventure!

 

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