Thursday, 30 November 2017

Learning to run without fear - from marathon to first ultra

"I’m only letting you join us because I wanna be in your blog" - Nick T

"You're the best thing about me, The best things are easy to destroy" - U2

Continued from here

Building towards my first ultra

As Spring 2015 arrived we initially struggled to fill the places for the London to Cardiff relay, but with weeks to go the team filled up.  Although running the stages of the race are not massively demanding, the lack of sleep and cramped condition on a minibus for 24 hours leave you wrecked for the following few days.  A full account of 2015 is covered here.

The realisation that I'd signed up for the Bournemouth Marathon dawned on me and I decided I had better start putting a training plan together.  The September race would require all the long runs taking place over the summer months, not that I mind running in the heat.  Somehow I had talked Matt into joining me on the marathon, along with Michael Guy from AVR. 

One of the long training runs Matt and Michael joined me starting from Coate Water Park, up and over the M4 on a footbridge, through Chiseldon, and then following the old Swindon to Marlborough railway (now a cycle track), and for the first part of the run, we were accompanied by Lucy Jillings.  The morning was hot and the day just got hotter.  The route has tree cover in places but can become airless and be stifling in the heat.  By the time we had hit the turnaround point just outside Marlborough our water reserves were getting low.  We limped back to Chiseldon where Michael dug out his emergency £5 note to provide drinks for us.  Lessons learnt, just enough water is not always enough and carry emergency cash.

The final long run was around Devizes, taking in the canal path and then heading out around the Devizes half route.  Running were Nicky Gee, also running the marathon, Matt and me, with Michael joining us for the first half the route as he was racing the next day.  The weather started to deteriorate through the first 10 miles and as we ran into Allington Matt asked to stop, immediately my right calf cramped up and I could hardly walk.  Nicky suggested we sit on the floor, facing each other, and push heel and toe alternatively.  Cars passed, drivers and passengers watching us sat at the side of the road playing footsie in the rain with Matt watching over us!  

I recovered my ability to walk, we set off again and Matt decided he'd had enough and was taking a shortcut back.  Nicky and I headed back to Horton and along the Horton Road back to Devizes, the driving rain now hitting us fully in the face.  We took it in turn to lead, trying to find a little shelter behind the leader, but the passing cars also sprayed us.  Eventually, we made it to the outskirts of Devizes and made our way to the rugby club car park where we'd started.  A last lap around the rugby field made up the 20 miles.  Completely soaked, and now starting to chill, we headed back to the cars where there was no sign of Matt.  As Nicky and I discussed searching for Matt he returned, having run 20 miles as his shortcut was no shorter.  For a long while Nicky and I became good running buddies, knowing when the other needed help, support, even when to talk or just to run silently.  Alas, life gets in the way.  I never thought you were a fool, but darling, look at you.

Eventually, the day arrived, we met up with the other runners on the way to race and milled nervously before being heading to the starting positions.  The race was a disaster, everything went wrong and I really didn't enjoy the course.  Matt left me about 12 miles in as Nicky passed me with a few miles to go.  I had gone out too fast, not fuelled properly and was just happy to finish.  It didn't help that course sucked, but I had finished a marathon.  I had achieved a goal that months, maybe weeks, prior I was doubting my strength and ability.

With Nicky as we arrived in Bath

20 days later I stood on the start line of the Bristol+Bath marathon with Nicky,  both very nervous but trying not to show it. We had travelled to the race with Peter Jefferies who was in a faster starting grid.  I had decided to stick at Nicky's pace of 10:30 min miles, rather than starting at 9:30, and at the end of 26.2 hilly miles we finished faster than either of us had at Bournemouth.  Her steady pace had got us to the end in good shape.   On a high, looking for another marathon, we both entered Manchester in April 2016 along with Sheralee Rose, also of DRC.  The training would be over the winter months and Matt, who had managed to get a place in the London Marathon on the first try, would be training alongside us.

At this point I decided I would "up my game" and enter an ultra, please don't ask me why but I guessed I needed to keep pushing myself to test my limits.  I looked around and found the Long Distance Walking Association Ridgeway 40 in May 2016.  I would use the Manchester Marathon as a long training run, regardless how well I did, towards the ultra the following month.  We needed to train over the winter months but work had sent me to carry out a project in Stafford for 8 weeks.  I joined the local running club and attended twice a week, running solo on the other evening.  The club average pace was faster than mine but this served a good purpose, if I couldn't keep up I got lost!  I racked up the miles running around the dark and uneven paths of Stafford, I got faster and even encouraged the other guys on the project to eat better rather than snack on biscuits and sweets.

With Matt on the Larmer 20 (and a FACCer behind!)

In March 2016, Matt and I took part in the Larmer Tree 20 mile race, my first taste of a White Star Running's quirky events.  I chose this over the Bramley 20 because it was off-road and would be more of a test.  The race turned out to be one of the hardest, but most rewarding races I had run to date.  The constant hills became a real challenge and test of stamina that road running does not achieve.

Manchester weekend arrived, the Saturday was freezing with some sleet and driving rain and we woke on the Sunday to a hard frost.  Other than the race baggage organisation being awful, two and half hour queue, everything went to plan and we achieved reasonable times, taking some 20 minutes off my marathon PB.  I had managed to sustain 9:30 min miles for 20 miles and then needed to drop back to 10 min miles as Nicky and Sheralee pushed on.  We drove back happy with the effort and results.

I kept up the long runs after Manchester to be ready for the Ridgeway 40, mostly solo and as the race got closer posted to see if anyone was daft enough to join me and Josie Mcculloch volunteered!  Josie is a member of the FAC OFF (Frome And County OFF road runners) group of runners which I have some association with.  Members are often cheered on with the cries of "go on you FACCer".  

Ridgeway 40 - my first ultra

With Josie at the start of the Ridgeway 40

The race day arrived and I was nervous, very nervous.  Josie was dropped off early and I drove us up to Goring, parked and we met the coach for the hour and a half journey back to the start near Avebury.  On arrival, we checked in and set off immediately, heading north along the extremely rutted Ridgeway track.  The groups of walkers setting off around the same time forced us off the pitted tracks and onto the perilous long grass with hidden ruts and holes.  Within 6 miles we had cleared most of the walkers and passed around Barbury Castle to follow the old Ridgeway track, crossing the A346 near Draycot Foliat and climbing steeply to the radio masts towering over the fast road.  We had started out at an easy run/walk pace but at 10 miles Josie was already starting to tire, the steep climb draining more energy.  From the tower to the 20-mile point the Ridgeway turns north towards Swindon and then swings east, running almost parallel to the M4 for many miles.

Looking back on A346

The walking sections started to become longer and as we reached the halfway checkpoint I could tell Josie was not going to be able to finish, however, this was not my call.  She sat and had the 1000-mile stare, contemplating her next move.  After refilling her bottles and ensuring she had eaten I could tell she was not going to continue, she made the decision to stay and I pushed on with the promise that I would see her at the finish.

I started to recognise parts of the course I had recently recced and run for the London to Cardiff Relay, only this time I was seeing it in the light.  There is some reassurance in familiarity and I settled into a good pace and enjoyed the scenery.  I passed some more walkers who had started at the halfway point and then for long periods of time I ran/walked without anyone around me, an eerie feeling when you are used to seeing runners constantly around you during a race.  I was fuelling mostly on Tailwind and pizza I had cut up into small pieces but also picked up snacks from the many well-stocked aid stations along the route.  Between 20 and 30 miles, I managed to keep up a steady pace moving along the more even section of the Ridgeway and took in more of my surroundings.  Many of the runners and walkers were heads down, plugged into iPods and players, missing the sights and sounds of the beautiful ancient walkway.

I reached 30 miles my body really started to complain, I had passed my furthest distance and my limbs begged me to stop.  I sat at a checkpoint, drank two cups of hot sweet tea and ate some cake, taking in the scenery and contemplating the last 10 miles I had to run.  I knew at least 8 miles where steady downhill but on tired legs, this can be as hard as uphill.  I also knew the track turned into road making the last 4 miles tougher as in my low cushioned trail shoes it would to be a little painful if there was no grass verge. I forced myself up, had two cups of flat coke, and set off again.  Before long I was into single figures and then with just under 8 miles to run I passed under the A34 and followed around the gallops and many footpaths to the 7-mile point.  The decline started and the last checkpoint appeared with 6 miles to go.  I tried not to stop too long and forged on using visual markers to run to and then walk to another point before repeating the process.

As I dropped down past the Goring and Streatley Golf Club and then down to the A417 my watch ticked over the 40 miles.  I headed through Streatley and turned on the B4009 to cross the Thames and finally to the Goring Village Hall and the official finish where I was awarded my finishers certificate.  I was shattered but determined it would not be my only long race.  Josie was waiting for me and rustled me up a cup of sweet tea and some cake.  After a short rest, we walked back to my car and I sat on the footpath changing my shoes and drinking bottles of flat coke.  During the drive home I suffered the occasional leg cramp but was still able to walk up and down stairs once we got back.

The race/walk was a brilliant introduction to ultra racing.  I started to line up a few more ultras and happily applied the title "ultrarunner".

Lessons learnt from my first ultra

My first ultra race, albeit a Long Distance Walking Association walk, had finished successfully if a little slower than I had hoped, but I learnt some important lessons about my fuelling, equipment and myself.

Test, test and then test some more.  I use Tailwind, which is added to my water, for carbs and electrolytes for the duration of the race, but it can be too sweet towards the end so I carry a few flavoured "stick packs" and mix it as I need it.  Have some gels as a backup, at 30 miles you need lots of alternatives.  Eat real food, either something you take or pick up from an aid station.  I often find after about 35 - 40 miles I do not want much in the way of sweet food so ensure you have savoury snacks in one of your pockets.  Flapjacks are tasty but really hard to swallow when your mouth is dry!

Ensure you are getting enough salt, salt tablets are ideal and will reduce cramping.

Use your kit regularly prior to a race,  testing it all together to ensure it works without hindrance. Load your hydration vest, get used to the weight and the feel, ensuring you make adjustments early to avoid rubbing and chafing later.  Use a good anti-chafing lotion and apply liberally,  have some Bepanthen or Sudocrem in the bag (or drop bag) to apply if needed.  Understand the route and what shoes will be best, recce the route if possible and run sections.  Knowing sections near the end of the course can help when you are tired and don't have the energy to think about the last few miles.

Replace socks before they need throwing away, shorts if they rub even slightly and waterproofs if they no longer keep you dry.  Don't hoard worn and broken equipment, if you take it on a race and it fails you may not have a backup.

Take a large zip lock freezer bag, fill it with what you want at the aid station and eat once back on the course, this reduces the time standing still and muscles cooling down.  Don't sit at aid stations!!  Keep moving.

Having been out of the forces some years this was the first I had pushed my limits in a long time.  Learning again to switch off your mind and push on, that not all pain is relevant and that mind-props won't always help, it's down to you on the day.  Being mentally fit is as important as being physically fit and if there is not a good balance then don't cross the start line, seriously, don't become someone else's problem because of your own.

Unlike a marathon, there are normally long periods during ultra races without any support and the distance between aid stations is a lot longer so training the mind as well as the body to deal with long periods physical and mental tiredness is essential.

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