Monday, 24 December 2018

2018 in reflection - Learning to walk again

"We all lose sometimes. We fail to get what we want. Friends and loved ones leave. We make a decision we regret. We try our hardest and come up short. It's not the losing that defines us. It's how we lose. It's what we do afterwards."
Scott Jurek

"My friend, we have fought monsters together and we have won"
Vincent and the Doctor

2018 has been a busy year and I've learnt a lot.  Two major things I learnt is that tree roots can cripple you, 62 miles after tripping on them and DNF means Did Not Fail.  I also learnt how to kick that black dog hard "in the vulnerables" (as the dearly departed Mr Pratchett would say), able to fix my focus and see behind someone's mask for the first time.  

The running year started in January with a new 12-hour endurance race in Westbury, Beyond the Far Side, a 5.3-mile loop with 3 hills and 840 ft of elevation.  The ground was already waterlogged before we started and the rain had been falling overnight to ensure there were enough mud and puddles on the course.  Having always hated looped circuits, this seemed different as there were lots of local runners and the route was known to me.  I spent each loop running with someone different, other than a solo lap late in the race, and just enjoyed the day.  It was not until we finally stopped at 10pm that I realised quite how cold it was.  The following day I was driving to the National Running Exhibition, not the smartest plan!

Perfect conditions for hill racing.  Beyond the Far Side

In February I ran the Brecon to Cardiff 70k, with Maria Harryman crewing me and generally giving me abuse.  The first half of the race went well and I enjoyed the trails through the mountains, the light snow being driven into our faces by the biting wind just encouraged me to keep going as fast as I could.  At the 23 miles checkpoint, Merthyr Tydfil, I changed shoes as the trail had become a cycle path and the route less visually appealing.  At the last checkpoint, with less than 10k to go, Maria reminded me that I was slowing down, cheers!  I finished the race stronger than I could have imagined, slowly catching each runner I spotted ahead of me, until passing under the finish arch with some pace still in my legs.

March started with a heavy snowfall, heavy enough to cancel both the Green Man Ultra, which I was booked to run with Phil Z, and the Bath Half (not that I had entered the Bath Half!).  Some snow was still laying on 11th March when I set off with Ian Harryman as race sweep on the Imber Ultra, 8.5 hours later we crossed the finish line, having set the world to rights and shepherded the last runner around the course.  Having struggled so hard in 2017 just to finish the race I took time to enjoy the company.

Using the seawall as the path was a bit damp.  Vale of Glamorgan.

In early April I competed in the Vale of Glamorgan ultra for the second time in two years, the first being a battle with the black dog all the way around.  The weather was appalling and the ground waterlogged, but my training for the forthcoming 100-mile race meant I was stronger both mentally and physically.  As we set off from the Penarth pier in the pouring rain I could see people looking at my running poles and wondering what race I was doing, after passing halfway around Barry Island and heading up the first real hill the pole envy was evident.  Parts of the course submerged and others waterlogged, but I pushed on and finished 25 minutes quicker than in 2017.

For 6 months I had been training towards the Thames Path 100 in May, running long and lonely miles through the autumn, winter and spring and was in the best shape I have ever been in, but still struggling with severe bouts of depression.    In training, I had taken over 15 minutes off my marathon PB and 3 minutes off my10k PB and I was getting stronger by the week.  I was ready, I was more than ready.  On the day of the race Ian Harryman drove me to the start, where we met Phil and we loitered nervously with the other runners to be called forward to the race brief and start.

TP100 photo call with the brilliant crew - "First-night nerves every one night stand"

15 miles into the TP100 I entered a small copse and in the shade, I managed to find a tree root of just the right size and shape to trip over.  I landed heavily on my right hand, crushing the top of my water bottle against my ribs, but at the time I could feel no problems and so I started off again.  The day got warm, then hot and finally sweltering, forcing many competitors to walk through the heat of the day and afternoon.  As the sun slowly sank I was running with Victoria and we picked up the pace again, reaching the halfway point at Henley at just under 12 hours into the race.  Phil and Ian were waiting.

I changed, ate and after a quick search for Victoria, set off into the darkness towards Reading where I aimed to pick up Ian as my first pacer at 60 miles.  As I was getting close to the checkpoint I could feel my back hurting, I was needing to correct my stance and straighten up, something wasn't right.  At 70 miles we swapped pacer to Phil, as we progressed my lower back locked up tighter until we were stretching out my back every half mile.  What I didn't realise was that I was bending over because of the rib injury and my lower back muscles were trying to straighten me up.  At mile 77, as the sun was rising, I stopped and (sort of) sat down.  I could go no further.  I could not stand up without support so finishing was out of the question.  Ian drove us to Reading railway station so Phil could get a train back to London, but I don't remember much of the journey or the rest of the day.  The next morning my ribs reminded me why I had to stop.  I learned a lot about relevant pain.

Neolithic Marathon - don't walk on the grass - no, really!!

By the end of May, I was running again, although my ribs were still sore, and took part in the Neolithic Marathon, from Avebury, across Salisbury Plain to Bulford camp.  On another balmy hot day the initial miles were outstanding with hills and beautiful views, but once at Urchfont and climbing up onto the Plain at the halfway point the track became very mundane, the scenery dull and unchanging until the last few miles.  I had missed the race the past few years but was disappointed when I finally ran it.  It's probably just me, lots of people like it, I'm often wrong.

In June I crossed over to the dark side and joined the Wolfpack Running race directors for the London to Cardiff relay.  Being part of the staff has its stresses, I had already run many of the off-road sections between Swindon and Cardiff to ensure they were still safe and accessible and in the week before the race, I spent hours setting up waypoints along the route.  The Thursday before the Friday start we set up the race start at Kneller Hall in Twickenham and with everything in place we returned to Ross & Nicky's house to continue with last minute jobs until late into the night.  The Saturday of the race was a blur of setting up checkpoints on the leading edge of the race, suddenly it was dark and I was hanging around Coate Water Park in Swindon as the early teams hit the halfway lap of the lake.  After a 3 hour break, that seemed to last only minutes, I was heading towards the old Severn Bridge to help with the setup of the Dragon Seeker 60k ultra that runs along the same route into Cardiff.  After the start of the ultra, I headed to St Mellon to set up a checkpoint and then on again to the outskirts of Cardiff to man the last checkpoint until the end.  I missed the Warriors (my team for the last 3 years) at the end and made a sad and tired retreat to bed.  The Sunday was spent collecting in the route markers on the way back to Wiltshire!  A tiring weekend, but fun and fulfilling.

Serpents Trail. Not many UK ultras have scenery like this.

The long hot summer continued and the day of the Serpent Trail 100k, in early July, looked to break the record for the year.  Setting off with Phil from Haslemere the route winds through the heathlands and woods of the South Downs National Park.  Within 15 minutes we had climbed high enough to look at the tree-covered surrounding hills and had to stop and take it in.  The day got hotter and we were soon running low of water, getting through a litre in less than 5 miles, and needing to stop at houses along the route to top up.  The route was awesome, one of the best trails I have yet run, but I feel the race organisers could have adapted to the hotter weather and laid on some extra water.  By 40 miles Phil was struggling and most of the next 10 miles were walking.  At 50 miles he decided to DNF, and urged me to continue.  I probably could have finished but I don't see Phil often and decided a pint and some food with my mate was more important.  The race will be there again another year.

The hot weather continued into August and the Mendip Marauder 50 mile race was going to be warm, yet again the temperature peaked over 30 degrees.  For the first time, Caroline Watson crewed me, and it was a race that needed more water stops and the lack of shops and facilities in the last 20 miles made the crewing essential in the heat.  The race starts from Frome, heads out to Shepton Mallet, through Wells to Wookey Hole, onto Cheddar and crossing the M5 at Loxton, climbing up to Bleadon before finishing in Uphill.  I loved the race, the scenery and the ethos of Albion Running.  It was nice to finish a race again after a few DNF's.

Mendip Marauder.  A sandy finish

By September the weather was starting to turn and heavy rain in the weeks leading up to Mount Snowdon Ultra (50 miles) meant a lot of moisture and water-logged fields.  Rather than crewing, Caroline was running the race with me, her first ultra, her first race beyond half marathon!  She had run well in training though, taking on 20 miles of hills without problems and happily covered a marathon in training.  We traveled up to to the Brecons on the Friday for the early Saturday start, arriving at 5.30am for the 6.30am start.  The first 9 miles to Checkpoint 1 were ideal ultra running paths, but once leaving the checkpoint we started the first of the climbs, up to Tryfan and the precarious Heather Terrace Path.

At this point, you realise that it is not a standard ultra, the race qualification severely understated the severity of the climbs and risks runners would be encountering.  The views were stunning but mile 11 took us just under an hour and mile 12 another 40 minutes, we would be fighting against the 24-hour limit.  The route follows the Miners Track down through flooded fields to the A4086 and Checkpoint 2 at 14 miles, having taken 5 hours.  From the Checkpoint, we headed out on the Pyg Track on the long slow climb to Snowdon, joining the Muggles on their pilgrimage to the top of the mountain on a track that is often less than a foot's width and requires both hands to climb or keep safe.  We finally reached the peak of Snowdon in 7.5 hours, the downward journey back to the Miners Track would be just a precarious as the mountain was extremely busy.

Mount Snowdon.  One of the few runnable sections.

We eventually arrived back at Checkpoint 2 (which was doubling up as Checkpoint 3) in 9 hours, our day was slipping away fast and the runnable sections were almost exhausted.  Heading back across the flooded fields and climbing again to Glyder Fach and across to Glyder Fawer, an area reminiscent of Weathertop from Lord of the Rings.  We joined a few other runners and scrambled down from Glyder Fawer, reaching the Devils Kitchen at about 12.30 into the race.  In the fading dark, we attempted the decent on the mostly unmarked trail.

Mount Snowdon Ultra.  Don't try this at home.

We already knew we had passed the cut off time as we finally approached the next net Checkpoint at 30 miles, and watching people climb in the dark up the next mountain made us realise that pushing on would be dangerous and pointless, as they had extended the cut off for another hour.  Others that pushed on at this point took over 6 hours to reach the next checkpoint and were timed out on arrival.  We had covered 30 miles in 14 hours.  Food and sleep were needed.

In October the inaugural Crooked Track's 50k ultra, Race with No Witty Name, was run around Tisbury near Salisbury.  With the summer a memory now the day started wet and the wind and rain continued throughout the day.  The route was sensational, in an area I didn't know and even in the pouring rain didn't fail to impress.   The twists and turns along footpaths, through woods, past castles and skirting large estates with very impressive gardens.  Caroline had volunteered to crew me again, meeting me around the course and at checkpoints with top-ups of food and Tailwind.  I ran the 50k with a Naked Running band, a present from Jim Mallard after running together for miles on the Mendip Marauder, an elasticated, very lightweight band that sits on your hips and carries 3 litres of equipment.  It is ideal for a single soft bottle, snacks, and phone, ideal for 50k races.  At the last checkpoint, I was able to swap my top, top up and get on with the race.  In the closing stages, I could recognise the route and still had the energy to finish strong and enjoy the amazing hot meal provided for the runners.  Crooked Tracks are a company to support, you won't be sorry.
Race with No Witty Name.  Standby for action!

A race I had been looking forward to all year finally arrived in November, Escape from Meriden, a race in which your aim is to get as far from the start as possible in 24 hours.  I was running with Caroline again and we had managed to get Matt Charlton to act as crew.  We drove up the start on the evening of the race and at 12pm on 17th we were set loose in the light drizzle that would be with us throughout the night.  I had mapped out a route to take us south-east down to the Oxford Canal near Banbury, mostly road, with some undulation, but being on the road we set out at a comfortable pace and by 6 miles had all but lost the other runners and were soon in the centre of Kenilworth as the last club goers were heading for taxies.  We continued down through the beautiful town of Leamington Spa, but our pace was still a little too fast for an ultra distance race and I could to feel a previous knee injury start to niggle again with all the tarmac running.  We kept up a fairly good pace until Knightcote at 24 miles, where we had no alternative but cross a few fields - which were freshly ploughed and clay based!  Our shoes were covered in thick clay within minutes, making walking a thing of amusement.  In the dark we just laughed as we stumbled across the field, the owls mocking us as we went.  Arriving at our first checkpoint with Matt at 27 miles my knee was in more pain, as we changed tops I applied some Voltorol and we set off again into the dark, the pain was increasing.

Escape from Meriden.  Does my bottom look big in this?

At 30 miles we crossed the M40 in the early morning light and the pain had reduced us to a walk.  Eventually, we joined the B4100 leading into Banbury and dodged the fast oncoming traffic, before calling it quits at 33 miles, my knee having almost locked.  No more road races.

I took it easy in December, giving my body a well-earnt rest before upping the mileage again in January 2019, ready for the Thames Path re-match.  It's been a long year, I've beaten the black dog and killed a monster.  2019 will be a year of continuing to build and getting stronger.  Thanks to all those who have helped with my journey, run with me over the thousand, seven hundred miles or so I have run already this year.  Special mention to Phil, Ian, Caroline, Maria and Matt - thank you for making it happen.

20/01/2018   Beyond the Far Side   37.1 miles (2/15)
11/02/2018   Brecon to Cardiff Ultra   08:25:06 (89/253)
07/04/2018   Vale of Glamorgan Ultra   06:44:21.4  (65/248)
5 & 6/05/2018   Thames Path 100   77 miles DNF
27/05/2018   Neolithic Marathon   5:08:47 (90/141)
07/07/2018   Serpent Trail 100K   50 mile DNF
04/08/2018   Mendip Marauder 50 mile   13:06:47 (28/38)
22/09/2018   Mount Snowdon Ultra 50   DNF 31.26 miles (13hrs 54mins)
06/10/2018   A Run With No Witty Name   6:13:54 (41/102)
17/11/2018   Escape from Meriden 33 miles (meh)

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

A Run With No Witty Name - A candy bar, a falling star, or a reading from....

6th October 2018
Crooked Tracks Wiltshire
Tisbury, Wiltshire
Wet, cold, windy, wet, overcast, did I mention wet?

“I know it is wet and the sun is not sunny, but we can have lots of good fun that is funny.”
Dr Seuss, The Cat in the Hat

The dry bit

Standing in a marquee, waiting for the brief, as the rain starts to lash down outside hopefully has not become a trademark of Crooked Tracks races, but it's edging that way.  The forecast for the race day had predicted rain, every forecasting website, weather broadcast, soothsayer and Sharman said it would rain and on the walk from the car park to the start they were all proved correct.  I quickly booked in, said hello to my friends helping with the race organisation before returning to the car for my kit, yes I should have brought it down on the first trip but the hill climb warmed my muscles for the journey ahead.   Once again I was crewed by the very able Caroline Watson and, unlike Maria Harryman, she tells me how well I am doing and not "you've slowed down".

As the minutes ticked away until the 9am start it was apparent that something was not right.  The medical cover was running late and without their attendance, the race was not going to start.  We huddled in the marquee as medics finally arrived and Neil (RD) checked they were here for the race, once confirmed we were encouraged to leave the shelter for the race brief and at 9.24 the race was started, straight up the first hill towards the car park again.

About to start - using the minimal approach
The route climbed north out of the National Trust before heading west to Fonthill lake and then heading back eastwards towards Ridge and then north-west and dropped down towards Fonthill Bishop at 4.5 miles.    Already the route was proving to have character, as promised there was a great mix of open field, wooded track and a little road.  From Fonthill Bishop, we climbed north towards the A303 over an exposed field, the wind gusting the rain into us and soaking any part that had to this point stayed dry.  We passed a shooting "party", drenched through their precious Barbour jackets and every bird in the area already flushed out by the front-runners.  At the A303 we turned southwest and climbed a small unmarked road, again totally exposed to the elements.

Climbing up from the A303
The route turned back towards the A303 and running parallel before turning southwest on Ox Drove, a beautiful, but rutted track, running just south of Chicklade and turning south at 7.6 miles to see the first checkpoint at the end of the short road.  Caroline was ready with a fresh bottle of Tailwind, words of encouragement and food, although the food supplied by the organisers at the checkpoint was sublime and in quantity as I passed by.  I also got to say a quick hello to Stuart Argyll of AVR before he left me in his wake.

Arriving at CP1 (7.8 miles)
The route now headed south, passing west of Hindon, crossing open fields and wooded tracks, the rain still not easing and depriving us of the beautiful views seen by those who had attended the recce runs.  The constant undulation and now slippy tracks qualified my choice of wet trail shoes for the race.  I was also using a 3ltre Naked Running Band for the first time in a race, rather than a conventional hydration vest, being able to carry all the compulsory kit and a few extras I was more than pleased to have everything to immediately to hand. At 10.2 miles we cleared Fonthill Abbey Wood, dropped downhill and onto a path that had recently been cut back, holes cratered the rough track and I managed to find one, down like a sniper had got me from half a mile.  I could feel the stinging of the bramble I had landed in, but nothing was broken or hurt much more than normal.  With no one close enough to laugh at me I hauled myself up and set off again.

At 10.6 miles, east of East Knoyle, the course turned southeast, through Newtown and on to Wardour, getting conveniently turned around in the ground of New Wardour Castle, a country house and former school, continuing south for a mile before heading west to Old Wardour Castle and checkpoint 2 at 16.7 miles.  Again, Caroline had arrived in plenty of time to swap my soft bottle and supply of food but didn't stop me eating from the luscious spread supplied.  As I was about to leave the checkpoint, FAC OFF elites Richard Corp and Roger Devereux turned up and after a man-hug, I set off again before I got too cold.

Old Wardour Castle
In the usual English weather way of messing up your day, the temperature was dropping as the day progressed and periods of walking, exposure to the wind or stopping at checkpoints meant more time to warm up my body.  My fingers always take an age to thaw and I needed to get moving again, I used the wooded climb away from the checkpoint to get the blood flowing, across the top of the hill, and then down and eastwards towards Swallowcliffe at 20 miles.

From Swallowcliffe the route loops around a field and heads towards the A30 then it doubles back almost on itself.  At this point, there was a lack of yellow route markers and a group of runners stood looking for inspiration or divine intervention, in substitute for both I checked my GPS and led the group to a yellow marker some 100 metres up the trail.  Tape and route markers used on races are often removed by walkers thinking they are tidying up, blown away by the elements or even removed by landowners.   Most of the route was well marked but at a few key points, the marking could have been more prominent.  The yellow tape was also hard to spot at times in the low light and autumn colours.  Both points are already high on the "lessons learnt" list.

From the A30 the track headed north, downhill onto a narrow road until reaching checkpoint 3 at 22.6 miles, located in the pub car park of the Compass Inn, Sutton Mandeville.  Again, the food and drinks on offer were outstanding.  I looked around and decided today I need something more substantial.  I filled my face with peanut butter and jam wraps and then back to Caroline's car to swap bottle.  The rain had finally stopped, so I towelled myself off and changed my top and cleaned my glasses!  The sports glasses are way better to run in but still need polishing once in a while.  I felt a lot better for the quick change, added a pair of gloves and set off, almost the wrong way.  This was another point where the signs could have been better, even the GPS seemed unsure.  As I stood there Caroline appeared and pointed me in the right direction.  Cheers, Caroline!  Many people made that same error.

Somewhere in the woods near Teffont Evias (apparently)

From the checkpoint, we headed northeast across fields to Teffont Evias, looping back down to Lower Chicksgrove where the path leads north, up through the old RAF Chilmark site, with Danger signs on either side, the fenced-in path is a mile long and flat compared to most of the run.  The fenced path ends at around the 27-mile mark and the route turns sharp left, heading west and back towards Ridge, picking up the same route as we had started on.  The route then heads southwest, looping a field, before crossing another.  Although I couldn't see the finish marker on my watch, a quick check of the ETA told me I was very close and I almost got distracted and took a wrong turn, the two girls that had been on my tail for the last mile had shot off at this point down the wrong track.  I shouted to them and headed off in the right direction.

Climbing up over the last hill I spotted the car park ahead and knew it was all downhill from there, no seriously!  At the carpark, I turned south and could even see the top of the marquee in the distance, I let the hill do the hard work but opened up as well as I can after 30 miles.  I kept pushing, not wanting to check if the few runners that had been behind me were anywhere close, just run.  Then I spotted Caroline part way up the track, shouting encouragement at me.  With my few spare breaths I asked if anyone was near me?  There wasn't, I had achieved my aim of only letting one person pass me in the last 10k.

I crossed the line, finishing (by my watch) in 6:13:54, and considering the conditions and it was only two weeks since Snowdon I was happy with the result.

After the race, a vegan hotpot was available with bread and butter, washed down with sweet tea!  I had second helpings and cake.  Luckily Caroline had managed to park close to the finish so I got changed and headed back for some more cake and tea, before hugs and farewells to my friends and crew. 

Chatting with Neil (RD) - what a guy

An undulating course

112 started and 102 finishers. Finish time 6hrs 13 mins 54 seconds = 41/102

Ultimate Direction Waterproof Top, Asics dual skin shorts, Decathlon fleece tops, Saucony KOA ST, Naked Running Band

Tailwind, marmite wraps, peanut butter and jam wraps/sandwiches, fig rolls and flat coke.

Totally and utterly!  The area is beautiful, the route is both challenging and delightful, a multi-terrain course that twists and turns through some of the most truly outstanding scenery in the South West.  The food laid goes well above and beyond many races I have attended and the staff could not have been more helpful.  Neil is aware that the course marking needs some attention for next year, but as an inaugural 50k race I have to give it top marks.  Yes, some of the staff are my friends, but they are well aware that if the race had been a stinker, I would have reflected it here.

Neil stood on the finish line, in the wind and rain, and greeted every runner back through the arch.  Only when the last runner finished did he allow for the volunteers to start packing up and the marquee to be taken down.  A friend and a gentleman, thank you for your brilliant races.  See you in January for a few hills!

Strava - don't laugh