Monday, 25 March 2019

Stand By Me - We are the road crew

When Krar’s wife, Christina Bauer, and I arrived at a crewing clinic the day before that first ultra race, we were told that “crew” actually stood for “cranky runner, endless waiting.” 
Erin Strout

I've run a few ultra races now, in the earlier races I would watch in utter jealousy as runners met up with their crew to be offered the food they had chosen, have drinks pre-mixed and, more importantly, see a face they recognise, that can offer more encouragement than a marching band and cheerleaders.

During 2017 I had the opportunity to share crews with FAC OFF runners on both The Butcombe Ultra 48 mile race and the Salisbury 54321 50K.  The difference was night and day.  The Salisbury race was extremely warm and the aid stations tend to stock mostly water, but having the extra fruit, jaffa cakes and jelly beans to hand was a massive boost for us all.  Butcombe, in the September, was also extremely hot and, although not planned, I ran the race with fellow FAC OFF runner Richard Corp and was allowed to dip into the endless goodies Emma Flexon supplied at various points around the course, even supplying us with ice-pops as the temperature soared and hills started to take their toll.

Maria at the start of the Downslink Ultra in October 2017

In the October of 2017, a good running friend and ultrarunner from my club, Maria Harryman, agreed to crew me on the Downslink Ultra from Guildford to Shoreham, we discussed my requirements and planned out the race accordingly.  Maria, who is a dab hand with the map and compass met me at a few pre-arranged points and the checkpoints on the route.  As I hit each checkpoint she would ask me what I wanted to eat, topped up my bottles and, very importantly, gave me advice.  Making decisions with a tired body and mind can lead to simple mistakes, including taking or using the wrong kit or simply heading the wrong way out of a checkpoint.  At the end of the race, having someone to drive is also worth its weight in after race pizza.  Maria again crewed for me in February 2018 on Brecon to Cardiff ultra, reminding me at the last checkpoint that I had slowed down over the past few miles, cheers!  I ran the last 6 miles at a faster pace, overtaking at least half a dozen runners before having enough energy for a paced finish.  Once again, a pizza was on the menu.

TP100 Henley Checkpoint - changed, fed and ready to go

The next major race was the Thames Path 100 and I managed to recruit two very good friends, Ian Harryman, UTMB and MDS finisher, and Phil Zaloum, ultra running buddy and LC24 teammate, to both crew and pace for me during the race.  It can be hard to find someone to take time out of their own busy life to not only crew for you but also travel through the night and pace you, while your mind and body are wanting to switch off and go to sleep.  I asked them both as they had real experience running distance, Phil had run a few distance races and Race to the Stones with me in 2017 and Ian has always been happy to run silly distances and share his mountain of knowledge. I could trust them both and they would know what I was experiencing if only to tell me to shut up, stop whining and get on with it - gotta love ultra runners.

I've paced as well.  I met Victoria Louise Thompson on the Thames Path 100 and we clicked.  A few months on and I was driving down to Brighton on a Saturday evening to meet up with her at a deserted location on the South Downs Way to take over pacing at 3am in the morning.  It's not just a case of running with the competitor but keeping them focused, ensuring they are fuelling and double check each twist and turn on the course.  At times I would run slightly ahead, giving Victoria a target to keep up with, without verbal encouragement, other times I would just chat and keep her focused on the task.  Dawn broke early and the morning sun quickly warmed the air, making the job easier.  As we entered the sports track at the end of the 100 miles I stopped in the car park, allowing her to complete the lap and soak up the achievement, it was her race.

Pacing Victoria on the SDW 100

So what makes a good support crew and/or pacer?  The best crew are normally runners, someone who knows what you are going through and can think ahead.  It's useful if they know the difference between "I'm not hungry right now" and "I can't eat anything", can spot when the runner is drinking too much or too little and can understand that garbled slur at 70+ miles means I need jelly babies or get me a burger.  Planning the race with the crew makes a massive difference, for the Thames Path 100 I set up messenger or WhatsApp conference calls to talk over every aspect of the race.  This was especially helpful as one of the crew, Phil, lives 100-miles away in East London and would only be meeting us on the day.

During my packing for the race, I ensured everything was labelled and in bags before placing in two plastic containers, enabling Ian and Phil to find what I was asking for very quickly.  On race day I went through the containers with Ian so he knew where everything was.  It was my first 100-mile race and I planned for everything, except a tree root.  During the race, we communicated by using the voice recorder function in a WhatsApp group to save me from stopping to type, this allowed me to ask (nicely) for any certain items at the next checkpoint.  On the way into Windsor we ran along a path with nettles both sides, I called ahead for antihistamines and Phil had a tablet ready with water to wash it down.  I had also printed sheets with information on each checkpoint, including address, miles to the next checkpoint and crew checkpoint, likely time of arrival and cut off times and things to check/remind me at each point.  Much of this would seem over the top to experienced/seasoned 100-mile runners, but I was trying to ensure I covered all the bases.

The best crew have run the distance and know the pain.  Caroline crewing me in October 2018

The Thames Path 100, like most Centurion 100-mile races, allows pacers from 50-miles, in this case, the Henley checkpoint, which I arrived at just after dark.  We had discussed the pacing and already decided I didn't need a pacer until at least the Reading checkpoint at 60-miles.  Did I need a pacer?  Probably not, but a friendly voice with fresh legs and bags of enthusiasm can never hurt.  It is also useful if they know at least a little of the background to the "shit" you'll offload on them at 3am, by that time you'll have thought through your life a few times, worked out world hunger, cured cancer, but still be only really thinking about the meal at the end of the race.

The crew have to be dedicated to the task, there is a lot of waiting around and so should be armed with lots of reading material, food, drink and a pillow.  Flexibility is also an extremely important trait for a potential crew member, sudden requests for ice creams and slushy drinks are not unheard of, finding them at 2 in the morning may prove a little more taxing. They also need to be your friend, a true friend as they will see you at your lowest ebb and should know ways to keep you focused.  Crewing is not for the selfish, it is an act of giving, an act of love.

First posted in the free online magazine UltraRunning World, issue 16

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Pilgrim Challenge - Somewhere cold and caked in snow

2/3 February 2019
The North Downs
Cold and bright.  wet slushy snow on day 1 and compacted ice on day 2.

"It hurts up to a point and then it doesn't get any worse."
Ann Trason

I've run this before in 2017, head full of ghosts and being chased by an ugly black dog.  February 2019 and I turned up on the start line with no ghosts and that dog well and truly kicked.  The weather could not have been more different from 2017, snow had been falling all Friday and by the Saturday morning at least 5cms laid around the start line.  Sipping coffee and trying to keep warm I chatted with friends and delayed removing my warm coat to be replaced by a thin windproof, avoiding the inevitable.  With 15 minutes to go, I ensured my hydration vest was seated properly and poles secure, no rattling and nothing flapping about.  Race brief time and then out of the heated marquee and into the cold, bright sunlight, the sun glaring off the snow and giving a false sense of warmth.

Day 1 

On Day 1 the route heads west to east along the North Downs Way, the undulating route initially running parallel to the A31 until the first real climb at 8.5 miles, just south of Guildford.  At the base of the hill was the first checkpoint and then the gradual climb of nearly 2 miles brought us out at St Martha's Hill and the picturesque St Martha's Church at 10.5 miles, before a half mile rapid descent and head north for a short way before turning west again along snowy, tree-lined tracks and finally across fields until just north of Dorking.

St Martha's Church

The next checkpoint was at 19 miles, on Ranmore Common, before heading out again I grabbed some of the very limited selection of food from the table and topped up my tailwind.  I had packed some peanut butter and jam wraps, they would see me through later in the race.  At 19.7 miles I slipped through a series of narrow gates and onto a tarmac road, the route descending 148 meters in a mile.  The descent has wonderful views of the surrounding area, but the realisation that the same hill has to be climbed the next morning is daunting.  At the bottom of the descent is the extremely busy A424 dual carriageway and a half mile diversion to an underpass, crossing the road will gain you an immediate disqualification and probably a few months of hospital food.

Once over the A424, the route then crosses River Mole via a small wooden bridge, there are stepping stones in the summer months but the water was fast and running well over the top of the stones.  A short distance on and it was time to deploy my running poles for the steps up the dark side of Box Hill.  The poles actually had little effect as the steps are so uneven and I found myself just carrying them, as I did for many sections I thought I would need them for. 

The NDW now weaves in and out of fields, tree-lined footpaths, and narrow tracks, before starting the real descent near Brockham Quarry, narrowing down until at last coming out near houses and the B2032.  At this point, you leave the NDW to head south a few hundred meters to checkpoint 3 at 25.5 miles.  I looked for something to eat, but again I found the choice limited.  Out of the checkpoint and backtrack along (and parallel to) the B3032 until crossing over and starting the last big ascent of the day.  My feet were extremely wet and cold now, the bright afternoon sunshine melting the soft snow making many of the tracks very slushy.

Box Hill in the snow
The next few miles along an undulating route that follows the edge of Buckland Hill that was already deep in mud and it was at this point I remembered why I had decided to never run this race again.  At 28 miles the trail turns, becomes hardcore and goes vertical for half a mile, and then keeps climbing for another half mile to the peak of Reigate Hill, but the beast was broken.  My pace picked up on the downhill, passing quickly through checkpoint 4, early enough not to have my headtorch checked and I pushed on for the finish.   On and past, the Royal Alexandra & Albert School, before a last "lump" before the outskirts of Redhill and then through streets and alleys before finally seeing the school buildings and turning the last corner to see the finish flags and finally over the line.  I had finished in 07:20:42, 95th out of 177 runners, some 30 minutes faster than 2017.

Having used the accommodation option before this time I opted for a Travelodge that was located within half a mile of the school.  No queue for the showers, no sleeping bag, sleeping mat, being woken at all hours by people tripping over you to get to the loo which is in the other direction anyway.  I know this can be part of the "fun and excitement", even part of the training towards the hardships of MDS or other multi-day races, but after 12 years service I have nothing to prove, I know what being uncomfortable is.

Course elevation

Day 2

With predicted overnight temperatures of -6 the frost had bitten deep, and as I stood on the start line at 8am for day 2 I hoped that it had set the mud solid, as the second day on my previous race had been a tough slog through ankle-deep mud along some of the narrow tracks.  My hopes were soon realised as once through the houses we were soon out on frozen tracks, the cracking sound of breaking ice echoing around the frozen trail.  Once up the first major climb onto Reigate Hill, the next 4 miles were easier to run than I could have ever expected and was able to keep up a reasonable pace.  I went through the first checkpoint at 7.5 miles without really stopping.

From the checkpoint the next climb up is up onto Box Hill, the ascent went without issue but coming down the frozen, and very slippery steps, I managed to fall twice but luckily with no injury.  The 3 miles over Box Hill were among the slowest on the race, and as I crossed the river and started the loop to the A24 underpass I felt no love lost having completed that section.

The vineyards thawing out in the sun on the climb to Ranmore Common.

Mile 13 and 14 were the long slow climb back up to Ranmore Common, although the scenery is wonderful the climb is relentless and the view quickly loses its quaintness!  Through the narrow gates again at the top of the climb, past Green Terrace to checkpoint 2 at 13.8 miles in 3 hours and 6 minutes, not astounding but 15 minutes faster than the previous race.  Again I set off without taking much, the snacks and wraps I was carrying would be enough.  The major climbs now behind me, the next 7 miles felt easier and I settled into a steady pace, mostly along frozen tree covered paths that hid us from the sun, but still comfortable enough to remove gloves and buff.

200 ft climb to St Martha's Church

At 22 miles the last real obstacle of the day, the climb up to St Martha's Hill to the church.  The sandy path was given no advantage in this freezing weather and the snow each side of the path was compacted and slippery, so it was time to dig in and push on up the hill at a yomp.  Once at the top we were directed off on the right track towards the local car park and checkpoint 3 at 23 miles in 5 hours 11 mins, now 20 minutes ahead of 2017.   From the carpark, the trail continues to descend another mile and threequarters before crossing the River Wey at St Catherine's Hill.

The NDW then undulates for the next 10 miles, the track solid ice in places where puddles had frozen solid, and making cornering something I needed to plan.  At 27 miles I passed through the last checkpoint, 35 minutes ahead, and again just pressed on.  I had the energy, my legs still felt good and I knew I was only five miles from the finish.  Last few miles seemed to drag, as they always do, and I had the realisation that I had been slowly picking off runners in the past few miles but only overtaken by the faster 9am starters, I checked behind and saw nobody there, I pushed on again.  Before I knew it I was alongside Farnham Golf Club and then the finish point appeared on my watch, I crossed Sands Road and only the field "loop" to complete, the finish flags, arch waiting and not a black dog in site.  Hot, sweet, tea and cake before stripping off in the car park and heading back to Wiltshire.

Strava Day 1
Strava Day 2


Day 1
118th (Men 50+  22nd)  (Gender Pos 100th)       06:53:00
Day 2
95th         (Men 50+  21st)   (Gender Pos  79th)     07:20:42
80/159      14:13:42

2017 Result
104/154        Day 1 7:21:13    Day 2  8:08:27    Combined  15:29:40

Altra Lone Peaks, Saucony KOA TR, Leki poles, Naked Running Band, Ultimate Direction Ultra Jacket, Salomon adv skin 12 set, Garmin Fenix 3, Hawk Eyepod Sports prescription sunglasses.

Peanut butter and jam wraps, dried mango pieces, jelly beans, Aldi fruit bars, Cliff bars, and Tailwind.

In a word, no. Having run it twice I don't think I have anything more to gain or prove from this race.  There are still no changing facilities at the end of the race, only portaloos.  Maybe I will return for a longer, single day event on the NDW in 2020.