Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Neolithic Marathon - Learning to walk again

Race date: 27 May 2018
Wiltshire Wildlife Trust 
Location: Wiltshire
Weather/Conditions:  Bit warm

The few weeks after my Thames Path 100 attempt failed due to injury I ran a few 6-mile runs, the ribs ached and my quads screamed but I pushed on, albeit at a sedate pace.  That weekend I pushed on and forced a 15 mile run including some hills around Bradford on Avon. Again I throttled back on the pace but could feel my muscles starting to relax, submitting to the usual punishment.  My ribs still ached and my head was filling with nonsense again, I needed to get some distance in.

The weather in the proceeding days to the race was changeable and ground conditions could have been every colour of the rainbow.  I woke early and arrived at the car park near the finish at 7am, just in time to wait for the 7.30 bus.  As the doors of the bus shut a boom of thunder crashed, a collective sigh from the passengers almost equalled it.  It rained all the way to Avebury but magically stopped as the doors opened again and the humidity quickly dried off the rain that had fallen.

The usual bustle before a race start.

I booked in, chatted to lots of people, hugged, shook hands and posed for photographs as the minutes counted down to the start.  Then Laura (of Deka fame) appeared, rushed to book in and then rushed off again to get her kit from the car. She reappeared just in time for the stewards "chat" and the countdown.  The local clock chimed and then the horn sounded, we were off!  I stayed Laura for about a mile while the runners sorted themselves out along the rutted tracks and through the early raft of gates.  My legs needed to go and we bid farewell.

With Steve Judson at the start, these FACers get everywhere!

The initial miles of the Neolithic Marathon lead you south from Avebury, crossing A4 and A361 at Beckhampton and along a rutted track before heading up and over Tan Hill at 4 miles, with the low clouds shrouding the magnificent views on the morning.  I raced the downhill section, letting my legs find their pace and enjoying the stability I have found through running multiple ultra races.  The route crosses the Kennet and Avon canal before passing through All Cannings.  At this point, the scenic route ends and the roads start.  By now I was drenched in sweat, the humidity was affecting everyone and we had been running for less than 2 hours.

Tan Hill, a nice view on a good day. 

The route follows the road towards Echilhampton for a mile before turning south, heading towards the edge of Lydeway Field airstrip and crossing over the railway level crossing at 9 miles.  We passed along the back of Lydeway village, crossed the A342 and headed up towards the mile long, steep climb onto the Plain at about 11.5 miles.  I caught up with Tim Burrell and Fabrice Gagneux, an Austrian AVR member, and we climbed the mile or so up to the Plain.

The mile-long climb onto the Plain near Urchfont

Once onto the Plain, we passed through a checkpoint and the start of the Half Marathon.  The trail heads directly south-east across the Plain, the initial part of the track is a covered in chunks of flint, creating an uneven and ankle turning surface.  I bumped into Phil Blyth and his wife Zoey, who was in training for Race To The Stones.  I had worked in the same office as Phil for years and only after the business was closed did we meet at running events, we speak more now than when we worked under the same roof!

Chatting with Fabrice, a Spanish runner, climbing up the hill at Urchfont.

I got to mile 15 and my left hamstring pulled, it seemed to have been aggravated by the flint and I slowed to a walk.  I managed to get a few painkillers from Steve Judson, to take the edge off the pain, and dropped back in with Phil and Zoey at there walking pace.  After a mile or so walk I managed to start picking the pace up again, albeit slower than before and bid them farewell.  The temperature was slowly rising, the clouds began thinning and competitors were beginning to slow their pace.  The Plain is desolate and in places very dull, there being no real view beyond the closest hill, few trees and even fewer buildings. 

During my day's in the TA we would travel to Salisbury Plain and spend weekends patrolling the area, at night dig in and fight mock battles in the glow of flares, muzzle flashes from rifles and the blasts from thunderflashes.  We would watch the rain approaching, put on waterproofs and cook our food as bugs commited suicide in our mess tins, all extra protein.  The Cold War was still real, the threat from over the Eastern borders still present and we trained to protect, rather than invade. 

The path heads almost south towards Shrewton and then veers south-east past Rollestone Camp before turning east by the B3086 at 19.7 miles, where there should have been a water station.  The sun had burnt through the last of the cloud cover now and the afternoon was heating up.  The route continued east, skirting Larkhill camp and passing Larkhill Racecourse at 22 miles.  A water station had dog biscuits, one of the competitors took and ate a dog biscuit as it was all on offer, the marshall did not get the irony.  I topped up my bottles and continued.

Crossing the River Avon at 24 miles

Continuing east the route crosses the A345 between Fighldean and Durrington before crossing the River Avon, one of the few redeeming sights on the second half of the marathon.  The 24th mile is a long straight track which then turns south and climbs at the 25-mile point.

Climbing at mile 25!

Once over the brow of the hill, the route is all downhill (honestly) into the finish.  I could see a girl some 100 metres ahead slowing down to walk, I shouted at her to keep running "or the old bloke will catch her up".  She ran again, just before the final corner she slowed and I repeated the threat, louder.  I crossed the line, only to get a big hug from the said lady for the encouragement.  Finishers were rewarded with a medal, water and a military grade packed lunch.

My legs ached, I realised that this was still the fall out from the Thames Path.  I hadn't pushed hard and took the pace easy but was aware I was still in recovery.

Result: 5:08:47 (90/141)

Kit: Tailwind Hat, Altra Lone Peak, Injini toe socks, Dirty Girl gaiters, Salomon adv skin 12 set, Garmin Fenix 3, Hawk Eyepod Sports prescription sunglasses

Nutrition:  Mostly Tailwind

Personally, no.  I love running in Wiltshire and know many miles of beautiful countryside that could be covered in a trail marathon.

Strava link

A race of two halves

Friday, 11 May 2018

Thames Path 100 - nearly, but no prize. My first DNF

Calippo photobomb

Race date: 5/6 May 2018
Centurion Running 
Location: Richmond to Oxford
Weather/Conditions:  It's hot. Damn hot! Real hot!

Your mind starts to wander as the distance increases, you think over things, overthink, love, hate, despise, forgive, but most of all find peace, if only for a short time.  The shadows, demons, ghosts and black dogs no longer have any effect, it's your time to fight, your time to release and let go. 

Physically I started the Thames Path 100 in the best shape I've ever been in, less a few aches from a late sports massage, but my training couldn't have gone better. I had regularly been running 30-mile training runs faster than my official marathon PB, and then run up to 15 miles either the day before or after.  In the preceding weeks, I had been working on my core and light kettlebell exercises to help my upper body strength and nearly had abs visible.  I planned my food and liquid intake like a military operation, using marked storage boxes and bags for Ian and Phil to easily find whatever my whim was.  I'll repeat this a few times throughout the blog, thank you, Ian and Phil, you put up with a lot, including my hissy fit changing clothes at Henley.  I am in your debt.

With Ian and Phil at Richmond.

On Friday evening Ian collected me from home, the 4.30 start not being very conducive to small children and sleep. After a quick cup of tea, we set alarms and it wasn't long before I drifted off.  The alarm was not appreciated but after a quick shower, porridge oats and a coffee we were ready to set off at 5.30.  The journey to Richmond was pleasant enough, we watched the sun rising on the misty fields along the Thames Valley, the day was forecast to be warm, very warm.

We arrived, and found second breakfast before heading to the race HQ, I was through the kit check in a few minutes and handed a casino chip before being issued my race number, 202, and then wandered outside into the morning sun with the other runners.  Nicky Chrascina turned up at 9 am, without husband and dog as he couldn't park close enough with their camper.  We hugged and chatted like excited school kids, I was introduced to Margret Hill (Mags) who was also running her first 100-mile race, under the guiding wing of Nicky.

Time for the race brief

Phil arrived at 9.30 and we chatted briefly before being shepherded to the waterfront, where the race starts and was given the race brief.  I set my watch ready for the off but seconds before the start it reset itself!  GO!!   By the time the watch had loaded the route back into memory, we had covered half a mile, my watch mileage now short throughout the rest of the race.  I fell in with Nicky and Mags as we paced easy 11.30 minute miles, passing through Richmond to Twickenham.  The paths were fairly empty and the river was beautiful, filled with early morning rowing boats and other river users.

We reached Kingston and, through luck more than judgement, crossed the river (someone told us), we crossed and half a mile on could see runners on the opposite side of the river returning to the bridge, an easy mistake but the extra mileage in the heat would not be welcome.  At Nicky's suggestion I soaked a buff in cold water and put it around my neck to keep me cool, it seemed to work, but within a few miles my running top was drenched in sweat and stung against my skin.  We kept to a 9-minute run, 1-minute walk ratio, and it worked well.

Hampton Court Palace

We round the river, following along the perimeter of Hampton Court Palace and stopped for photos by the golden gates.  Crossing the river once more we headed on through Hurst Park and down on to the first CP at Walton on the Thames.  I was somewhat surprised how little was available, I was being crewed and had plenty of food waiting at Staines but runners without such luxury would have been in trouble.  Nicky sat down to sort out some issues with her feet so I said my farewells to her and Mags and climbed up onto Walton bridge to cross the river once more.

The path passes Shepperton and on to Hamm Court, on the outskirts of Chertsey the path leaves the houses behind and enters an open field with occasional tree cover.  As I entered into a clump of trees and into shade I hit a tree root and fell, heavy!  I landed on my right-hand side, my arm tucked under my chest.  A few runners came over and offered me help up but I got up okay and dusted myself down.  I only seemed to have grazed on my right arm and leg.  "Could have been worse" I decided, thanked those around me and headed off again.

We left the field, dropped under Chertsey Bridge (B375) and almost clattered into Sue Kingdon from AVR running club, who was visiting her mum in the area, after a brief and very sweaty hug I headed off again towards Laleham.  I grew up in this area and spent many weekends and days out along this stretch of the river either camping, swimming or fishing.  Memories flooded back.

Laleham camping site

As I rounded the river to Penton Hook lock I saw faces I hadn't seen in many years, a family who had lived opposite when I was a teenager had come out in the heat of the day to see me passing by.  Thank you, Roy, Val, Michelle and Michael, it was one of the highlights of my day. Val disappeared back to an ice cream van to get me a Calippo while Roy showed me a hidden water tap, I soaked my buff and hat again.  After a promise to visit them all soon I set off again, with a new spring in my step. 

Within no time I was in Staines, another stomping ground of my youth.  Its been years since my last visit and I barely recognised anything, I did, however, recognise Phil and Ian smiling at me as I entered the crew point at a car park.  I fed on a bean burrito, filled a bag with food, swapped water bottles and was off again, not before Phil checked I had been drinking enough and had a wee!  He's good like that. 

I passed opposite the Swan Hotel and where the cinema used to stand, the cinema where I attended morning matinee as a child, watched Star Wars with my schoolmates in 1977 and had my first real date as a teenager.  Now a block of expensive flats overlooks the river, with less soul than a Tory minister.  I don't feel the need to return to the area, it's not the place I am from anymore.

The path passed Egham and on through Runnymede, I stopped in the busy park for another Calippo to lower my core temperature, I ate it so fast I was in danger of getting brain freeze.  Soon I could see Windsor Castle and the masses of gazebos covering the surrounding fields for a wedding or party or something.  At this point, I was still running more than walking but knew this couldn't continue.  We continued through Datchet and Eton, then on through Windsor, where we had to follow some roads, the heat of the tarmac slowing the runners even more.  The sound and smell of parties and BBQ's filled the air, another reminder that ultra runners are a special breed.

At this time I believe I reached the point where my legs were aching as much as they would for the rest of the race, you tend to just push it to the back of your mind. You ache, so what, get over it, it's not relevant pain.  Someone handed me a sheet of ice cubes and I slipped it behind my buff down my neck, there was no shock of the cold that hit me, just a weird relief.  I needed to slow my pace, the heat was still rising and I decided to preserve as much energy as possible by running only in the shade and force marching in open.

Arriving at Marlow with Vicky

Somewhere between Windsor and Boveney CP, I fell into step with Vicky, we chatted and it became quickly apparent that we had compatible running styles.  Knowing when to talk, when to say nothing, when to when to encourage and a certain level of base humour, something needed on long runs.  It's not often in life you remind someone to eat, drink and wee - children and ultra runners.  Vicky kept a strong walking pace up through the next few hours, often leaving me in her wake, but we pushed on to Maidenhead for another Calippo and crew point where Phil and Ian filled my bottles and topped up my doggy bag of food.  Salted nuts, dried mango, pizza, peanut butter & jam wraps and chia flapjack were doing the business.

The river heads north to Cookham, west to Marlow, then finally south-west towards Henley.  Vicky was starting to tire and I was using landmarks ahead so we would run to them, keeping the momentum and keeping us warm as the sun was slowly setting.

Temple Island, Henley-on-Thames

The last few miles into Henley were amazingly picturesque, the last light of the day leaving a dim orange glow behind the trees of the far bank.  The occasional building lit up or boats motoring down the river, the wake just visible in the fast fading light.  The barriers along the river for the regatta were already in place as were the seating stands, but the town never seemed to get any closer.  We crossed the river, and after being questioned by a young man (sure his name would be Henry) about the race details, we pushed on in the dark to the checkpoint.  We arrived about 11 hours and 46 minutes into the race.

Leggings on, fresh tops, socks, shoes and hat - nice!

We were both ready for the checkpoint, warmer clothing and hot food were waiting for us.  Only the spicy pasta sauce was a bit of a letdown.  We split with our crews and unfortunately couldn't find each other before heading out again.  Ian and Phil worked like trojans to get me back out again.  In retrospect I could have easily stayed in shorts and a single top, but prepared for the worst - will listen to you next time Ian.  I stayed too long and should have known what I wanted, but lessons learnt.

The aim was to run on to Reading before Ian paced me for the next section.   I set off at the same pace I had arrived at, pushing on into the darkness with my new head torch cutting the darkness like a knife, even on a lower setting it was blinding other runners.  I ate into the miles without much worry or fatigue, keeping up the run /walk as I felt fit.  Although a fine mist fell in places and the temperature fluctuated wildly I had to stop to remove a layer of clothing as I was sweating. 

It was in the miles between Henley and Reading I noticed I was starting to lean forward to the right, stooping, and needed to correct my stance occasionally.  I have no history of back problems and I was racking my brain as to the cause.  I arrived at Reading and after a quick snack on fruit I set off again with Ian in tow.  Once through Reading and back onto the trail we ran for what seemed like a year, actually 1 mile, between the river on one side and the train line on the other.  That was dull!

We climbed the footbridge over the railway line and started climbing one of the few hills on the course through Purely-on-Thames until we dropped down to the river again at Mapledurham and then on to an open and exposed section of the route.  The mist came down again here and the ground was soaked with dew, I was slowing and I had no idea why.

Pangbourne Meadows, in the mist!
At Pangbourne, 68 miles, Ian and Phil swapped over pacer and we set out again crossing the river and after a quick wrong turning climbed the second major hill in the race through Whitchurch-on-Thames and then along a really pleasant part of the race, even in the dark, until we hit the outskirts of Goring.  I crossed over the river to Streatley, 71 miles at around 18 hours.  Phil and I had stopped at the bridge and Phil helped me stretch out my back, it seemed to work for a while.  We checked in at the CP and set off again, I was in pain, real pain - relative pain.

My pace had dropped from 13-minute miles at 60 miles to 20+ minute miles by mile 77 where I was needing a running pole to support me, I think I looked like Yoda with a walking stick, bent over double and my back hurting like hell.  Nothing worked, even the Voltorol had stopped working.  I had to make the call.  My legs had miles left in them, I wasn't tired and I had not been sick, but there was nothing more I could do.  At Cholsey I stopped, 2 miles short of the Wallingford CP, and called it.  I still had over 9 hours to finish, less than a marathon, but I couldn't even stand straight.

For some reason, I looked up and saw a ninja female coming through the gate.  "Is that Vicky?" I said, "Yes!" said a muffled reply from behind a buff.  I explained what I thought was the issue and wished her God's speed on the rest of the race.  Ian arrived in his car and they both lowered me into a camp chair, as much as Ian wanted to force me on he could see my race was done.

I felt cheated, I had no idea what had caused the issue with my back but I had to resign myself to the fact that going on would be folly.  There was no point being angry, I didn't know what the cause was.  I sat in the camp chair as Ian and Phil changed my shoes and socks, I couldn't bend down to my feet, almost in a zombie state while things went on around me.  I took some painkillers and put on some more Voltorol before being "placed" into the car.  I slept on and off during the journey to Reading to drop off Phil and then slept occasionally on the drive back to Trowbridge.

Watching the sunrise from Cholsey

The next morning I woke, I had been having trouble turning over during the night but the back pain had almost cleared.  My ribs on my right were in pain.  Then it clicked, when I fell at 15 miles I had landed with enough force to either bruise or crack a rib (or two), I had bent forward with the pain over time and the muscles in the small of my back which had been compensating were finally seizing up.  Within two days the only ache was my ribs.

I DNF'd due to the fall, I could not have trained any better.  I had done everything right in training, had no issues with my mind and everything worked like clockwork, other than that darn tree root.   The distance no longer scares me, it's well within my grasp.

I've signed up as a volunteer for two Centurion 100 races this year for entry next year, this year is too busy, and I will be back on the TP100 next year. 

Asics running shorts, Altra Olympus (RIP), Altra Lone Peak (on last rites), Injini toe socks (day), Drymax socks (night), Dirty Girl gaiters, Salomon adv skin 12 set (main zip stuck!), Garmin Fenix 3, Led Sensor MH10 headtorch, Hawk Eyepod Sports prescription sunglasses.

Tailwind, pizza slices, brown rice and black bean burritos, chia flapjack, wraps with marmite and peanut butter & jam, salted nuts and dried fruit.  That and Calippos!!!!

Oh yes!  Real unfinished business.