I’ve DNF’d twice (Thames Gateway 100 and Winter 100) and DNS’d twice (North Downs Way 100 and Race to the Stones), all were for very different reasons and all in my mind perfectly valid but at the time it really mattered to me that I hadn’t raced or worse had failed to complete the distance.
I really struggled to overcome the negative outcome of these events and it haunted me for quite some time – especially the W100 which I was angry and upset about.
Then I was chatting with a fellow runner via Twitter a few days ago and she was incredibly worried and panicked about her big 2015 challenge – so much so that I was concerned she was going to miss out on the pre-event highs as you prepare to face your road to euphoria. This got me thinking about the times I’ve stopped or failed to start, had I panicked too much, had I ruined my own experience and convinced myself I was doomed to failure? Probably.
But what was important was how I have evolved the mental attitude I have to (endurance) running.
I get nervous in the weeks coming up to a big event – sleep deprivation, over eating, starvation, my bowels do weird of wonderful stuff and I flap around like a headless chicken.
But with 2015 now well into the second half of the year I’m on a drive to my final events which include five ultra marathons – two of which are in France (my first foreign race forays) – I’ve had to spend a lot of the last few months building up my mental strength for these events. I’m very conscious I’m doing things that I’m not 100% convinced my old knackered body is ready for and basically I’ve been working to prepare for the possibility of the DNF and ensuring I don’t hit dark and gloomy places in the aftermath of such an event.
You might ask ‘isn’t that defeatist?’
The answer to that is ‘no’ and the reason is that a year ago I was in a properly bad way, the injuries I was ignoring were getting progressively worse and the events I was running were going badly. It’s taken a long time to get to a point were those injuries and problems are intermittent rather than constant and that’s why I’m much more sanguine about my race day prospects.
When I line up at the start of the CCC in a couple of weeks time I know absolutely that if on the day I can’t make to the finish I will stop. The harsh realities are that I haven’t been near a mountain in training for the CCC and so if my body refuses (it’s inclines it struggles with) then I have worked on my capacity to say ‘that’s enough’ and I won’t beat myself up about it or eat a years worth of Dominos pizza.
So does it matter if I DNF a race? Very much so, because if I DNF I’m making a choice and listening to my body.
So how have I been improving my mental run strength?
- Distraction: When I’m not running I do something else entirely different, it stops me thinking about aspects of running I can’t control.
- Avoid too much social media: social media is awesome but it can add a level of peer pressure that won’t help any anxiety you’re feeling and so I’ve been avoiding it a little bit more than I usually might – dipping in rather than giving it too much attention.
- Train consistently: staying focused on me! I don’t be try to beat anyone but myself and I feel better about what I’m doing because I’m reducing the competitive element and saving that for race day.
- Make lists: ordering myself helps me feel more relaxed about my event – they can be in my head lists but they allow me to check off aspects of an event.
- Don’t compare: I used to compare myself to my peers now I just look on at them in awe and congratulate them on their achievements because we are all uniquely gifted and we all do very different things. If I get caught up in worrying what other people are doing (either generally or on a race day) then I’m not focusing on my own efforts.
And what of the constant need to panic and ruin my own pre event experience? Has this all helped? Is my pre CCC party started?
Well my mental (and physical) training is yielding some decent results and I have faith in myself. And let’s not forget if I were going to have faith in a fictional character to get me round a mountain it wouldn’t be God it’d be Batman. Ultimately I’m enjoying running and the pre-amble and I’m ready. Well as ready as I ever get.
I originally got into ultra running because of my second rejection notification from the London Marathon, I’ve said this before, but what kept me going was the dream that I’d run the UTMB, but today (trapped on a train) that’s not my dream anymore – far from it. The UTMB (and MdS) as we all know is one of those ‘big name’ races, a bit like the London Marathon and it was the RD at Challenge Running who reminded me that you’ve basically got to run three big distance other ultras to qualify for the UTMB – it was then that I saw the logic of looking round for other ultras and not just qualifiers. For me my ultra running adventure is evolving, it’s become about seeing bits of the world and the UK that I otherwise might never, it’s about a quality piece of metal to hang round my neck and it’s about knowing I can do it.
Now it’s true that I’m going to enter the CCC but the criteria seem more forgiving and the distance more fun for a first mountain race. But the truth is if I don’t get in I really want to run both the TRA Ridgeway 84 miler and the Ring of Fire both of which would mean I couldn’t run the UTMB or the CCC. There’s also the Saintelyon which I’ve had my eye on for a couple of years and I’ve been inspired by Cat Simpson and her Atacama Crossing and fancy one of the big desert races, but probably not MdS.
I’m going to be applying my shorter race logic to the longer races – find those little golden nuggets of races because in them you’ll find glorious experiences. Obviously I’m still running qualifiers for Western States, UTMB and all the other ones you need to qualify for but I’m not so sure it’s a given that I’ll do them even if I get in.
Even my marathon running is adopting a similar strategy – I’ve just discovered saxon-shore.com and there you’ll find lots of lovely looping marathons on trails around Kent. They are inexpensive and I suspect (ask me again after this weekend) brilliant. I’m planning on using these marathons as a way to put a serious dent in my assault on the 100 marathons, now there is a dream I haven’t given up on 🙂
So why do you ultra? And has the change in qualification put you off the UTMB? Or would you rather race the smaller more intimate runs? What’s your reason for ultraing?
Recently I reviewed the Decathlon Trail Bag and described it as some of the best kit you can buy for under £30 – this remains very, very true. What I also said was that I had bought a second hydration pack and this is the review for my very different and possibly new most favourite piece of kit in the universe ever.
The Oxsitis Hydragon 17litre
I’ve been lusting over this pack since I first saw it in a slightly different form as the Hoka Evo R. I went to the London Marathon Expo and tried one of these things on and decided it was one of the most comfortable things I’d ever worn but I didn’t buy one. Reviews for the Hoka Evo R are scarce and owners seem even more rare. However, a little searching on the interweb led me to a site for a company called Oxsitis who actually make the Evo R and this is where it really began. Finally I found some reviews for the various versions of pack that this company produce – all in French (so thank you Google translate).
The reviews on the whole were incredibly favourable and the size combined with the style of fitting seemed the right combination for someone of my frame and running style (slow and steady). The problem was that there are no UK suppliers and so I forked out the €160 to bring this awesomeness to UK shores. And this is my review having now done 8 runs in it totalling about 75 miles.
Close fitting, breathable but possible a little warm on the back in places. I’ve found while running in the pack that you can sweat a little but certainly no more than I do when I run in my Ultimate Directions PB. The shoulder straps are incredibly comfortable and the positioning of the pockets on the straps are even more accessible than on the Ultimate Directions PB. The main storage area runs pretty flat when its empty and when filled feels light on you back. Mercifully it sits as high on your back as the Salomon and Ultimate Directions of this world rather than the OMM packs. The higher back sitting point means you shouldn’t suffer from back fatigue mid race.
This is a spacious pack, all in, it’s supposed to hold 17 litres of kit, that’s bigger than most of the OMM packs you see on the ultra circuit and certainly bigger than the Ultimate Directions kit. However, it never feels like you’re carrying that much kit and it’s clever compartment design means that space not being used is stored away and runs flat next to your body. These pockets are housed infront of the main bladder compartment which comes with the pack (Oxsitis supply a Source bladder which I’ve found very nice indeed after years of successfully using Camelbaks). All in all the main compartment is incredibly well thought and deftly crafted for all your running needs
The front of the pack has three main pockets and a fourth slightly curious effort which I’ll explain later. The first pocket is an insulated section designed specifically for your smartphone, tracker or battery pack, I’m an iPhone 5S user and had no problem with the fit or access (which has been an issue on the UD PB vest). The zip feels nice and secure and this pocket will protect somewhat against external damp and body moisture therefore protecting your probably rather expensive mobile phone.
The pockets located at the base of the packs front are both spacious and could certainly handle carrying my OMM water bottle but they could also carry lots of food/gels. I had at least five snack size chocolate bars and a few other bits in there and never felt it was going to be difficult to store them or retrieve. The pocket is part mesh, part ripstop fabric and this keeps it well ventilated. These pockets will also double up as bottle holders as well and despite having a bladder with pack I’ve been very happy to have one bottle on the pack in addition to my bladder. Now to the fourth pocket which you can see pictured above. When you first put it on this is the housing unit for the sports gel mixing unit (more on that later too). The magnetic closing (a feature on many of the pockets) makes its much more secure than you’d think and its very nature means that it has a large volume but limited use. I’ve found (like other runners) that the best thing for this pocket is either the water mixing device or an item of clothing – in the photograph I’m carrying my OMM windproof in there but it would happily store a T-shirt or other smaller item of clothing such as my Montane Featherlite trousers.
All of these vests and packs contain oodles of technology that are supposed to aid the ultra runner, this is no exception – there are quick release velcro fastenings on the arms of the pack to make adjustment and removal easier than ever before. For those worried that the velcro wouldn’t be strong enough or durable I am assured it is and my own experiences with the pack suggest this is a good quality build. The magnet fastenings help keep you kit nice and secure on the pack, it makes a huge difference from the various zip fastenings and drawstrings of other manufacturers and I’ve found accessing my stores much easier.
There are quick access pole holders, for those like me, that own the Black Diamond Ultra (or similar Z fold poles) on the front of the pack and this makes poles for the first time useful to me. I’ve already mentioned the bladder mixer which can have isotonic gel drinks attached to mix with your water supply without contaminating it – if Oxsitis could get this made a little smaller it would be a great innovation and very, very useful. As it is the mixer is a little bulky and therefore a little cumbersome but if you have space to spare then why not try it out and see how you feel about it. The fabric is Ripstop and the claim is waterproof but also quick drying. In the rain I’ve simply added a very thin waterproof layer to ensure things like my medical kit don’t get damp but haven’t yet had any damp issues but then its summer and it hasn’t been that wet! Waterproofing is the thing we probably sacrifice first, my other packs be they OMM, Ultimate Direction, Camelbak or even Decathlon are not waterpoof – they aren’t intended to be a running Aquapac! The ripstop material is a nice alternative and I have yet to encounter any problems with this. Built in whistle. Weighing in at just 290g (without bladder or bottles).
It’s expensive – let’s not beat around the bush, it’s €160 worth of expense which makes it a little pricier than the UD and the Salomon and much heftier than even the most kitted out OMM bag. However, you do the get the bladder, mixer and rescue blanket included on the downside it is only available from mainland Europe so there is no trying it on.
It’s bright, it’s a little garish, it’s filled with awesome typography, it’s very patchwork in the layout but its all clearly labelled and it’s huge fun. This is the right kind of pack for your ultra running adventures – you certainly won’t be missed. Oxsitis across the range have a variety of awesome products and colour ways – there’s guaranteed to be something for everyone.
What do they say about it?
Hydragon ® Ace ™ 17L is a full hydration pack that will allow you to carry water and essential accessories for your TRAIL and hydrate effectively.
This bag has been designed to optimize hydration and comfort. Its large storage capacity, its lightness and its innovative structure will allow you to calmly deal with all your adventures. The system of lateral adjustment optimizes stability and comfort. Equipped with ventilation system AIRBACK™ Control, specially designed to maximize the maintenance of backpack with maximum breathability and best comfort.
The hydration Hydragon ® Ace ™ 17L bag comes with a water bag 2L “antimicrobial & taste free” technology with a double connector for easy filling and cleaning. Also comes with innovation in hydration: the latest generation OXSITIS mixer, allowing you to achieve hydration in all situations.
AIRBACK™ Control fast drying ventilation technology for the back
Widepac 2L water bladder with quick connect for an easy water filling and cleaning of your pocket Mixing energy drinks V3 Third generation connectivity with your ease and adaptable to concerntré standard packaging
New Vacuum Tube easy to drink.
Equipped with the mandatory safety equipment (blanket, integrated whistle).
Easy fix pole system control: patented pole holder
Smartphone pocket with waterproof headphones passage
Easily accessible food bags to put your energy bars and gels
ottle holder pockets ergonomic and stable deavnt placed on the backpack
Pockets Internal ergonomic numbers: blanket, wallet, keys, headlamp battery room area, bicycle pump, textile, windproof
Unique settings in the world
Side velcro (scratch) adjustment settings (without strap that ride)
Setting Pectoral easy to connect with integrated whistle
Trimming ventral elastic sensitive
This is my pack for the W100 where I am going to need a full set of kit, multiple changes of clothes and extreme levels of comfort. I wouldn’t use this on a 50km I think it would be a bit overkill but from 50 miles upwards this would be a killer pack that offers a high level of functionality, quality and distinctiveness. This won’t replace my Ultimate Directions pack, nor my Decathlon packs but it has very much earned a prominent place in my race day thinking. On other matters to do with purchasing from Oxsitis the delivery was amazingly quick, the processing of my order equally so and I can only thank the company for dealing with order. I’d recommend this pack over the Hoka Evo R any day of the week and moreover I’d recommend this pack. I’m now looking forward to putting it through a real challenge across the Winter 100 in search of my first 100 mile buckle.
And was it worth the money. Yes
Amazingly this was ultra number 6 for me, I’ve now got more ultra marathon medals than I have marathon medals – that to me seems a little bit crazy. Let me start by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed the SDW50 and am looking forward to tackling it again but this was a real beast of a course over some challenging terrain but enjoyable conditions.
Anyway, as is often my way, let’s roll back a few days to incidents that I have no control over and that most certainly had a detrimental effect on my race day face! On Monday of race week it turns out that my grandmother (whom I’ve written about before) took a reasonably serious tumble in her home, breaking her ankle and injuring other bits of herself as she went down. It was a hospital trip and then a hospital stay, even as I write this she’s there – and miserable about it.
What this meant was a lot of preparation. I squeezed all the work in the universe into a couple of days, managed to get a work laptop for designing on the go, advised my pregnant partner that I’d be away but be back in time for her hospital appointment on the Friday afternoon, slipped in a desperate appointment with the physiotherapist to try and fix my knackered hips, kit check with Mick (more about that running legend later) and even fit in a last minute race to Waterstones to pick up a couple of maps that were needed just in case kit checks were very thorough. This was then all topped off by my partner being on call until 1am in the morning on race day and me not finishing my kit packing until well beyond this time with a 5am start – let’s be honest this wouldn’t qualify as the best of race day preparation. This all meant that by 5am on Saturday April 5th I was pretty much over the race and fancied DNSing for the first time.
At about 5.03am I stepped into the shower and allowed the hot pillows of water splash over my exhausted body and for the first time in days I looked over towards the mirror and I stared ahead and said to myself ‘you are an ultra runner’. I dried quickly but thoroughly, added in a copious (but as I would discover later, still insufficient) amount of Vaseline to those areas most affected by chaffing and then grabbed my kit from the top of the stairs, stroking my previous race medals as I went past for good luck.
My race preparation usually means that I get dressed in the dining room – this is where the remainder of my kit is usually laid out and also it stops me disturbing the rest of the house. Kit is now pretty settled thankfully, Ronhill VIzion LS top, my much loved tech shirt from the Snowdonia Marathon, 0.5 OMM flash tights, CompressSport Calfguards, Dirty Girl Gaiters, Drymax socks and my still beautiful Hoka Stinson Evo all topped off with my Buff and sunglasses (just incase) – I’ve still never quite managed to fix the underwear problem but I live in hope that I come up with a solution soon.
With this done I scoffed a bit of Soreen, had a big cup of tea and even a couple of those kids yogurts, a breakfast of champions I hear you cry. Not really but I’m not sure I’ve prepared well for an ultra marathon ever – though I am trying to amend some of my poorer habits.
With all of this done I said goodbye to the GingaNinja, ThunderPad and UltraHound who were staying in bed to recover from a challenging week and then I headed off to see Mick who would also be running the race as well as supplying the transport to the start line. I arrived at his house, feeling surprisingly perky, said hello to Nicola his wife and met his in-laws who were joining us for the journey to the start line.
It was a thankfully uneventful journey to the start line and as we approached the parking area I could see @abradypus in the distance – sadly she failed to notice me, but it was nice to see a smiling face so early in the morning and as we arrived at the main registration area with just an hour to go to the start everything had a wonderful air of calm about it. I suppose that is the benefit of going to an event that has such a distinguished, even if short history – you got the feeling that they really knew what they were doing.
So a quick kit check, followed by the collection of my ‘chip’ to get my number and within a couple of minutes I was done and ready to go. Mick wasn’t far behind and we drifted over to the excellent changing facilities, what was a college or school on the field changing room with little benches that reminded you of being 14 again.
I was already changed so I used this an opportunity to tidy up my bag after the kit check, have some Lucozade sport, clip on my number and chat to a couple of the other runners. Strangely nerves had pretty much deserted me, which given my level of preparation and on reflection was a bit of mistake.
We were thankfully early enough to have nice and easy access to the toilets and after a few minutes we were simply stood around basking in the ultra indulgent atmosphere of the beautiful Worthing morning. We were soon joined by running and Twitter royalty @abradypus and @cat_simpson_ and also @annemarieruns who I had originally met at the White Cliffs 50 just over a year ago – again more running royalty. I introduced Mick who was at SDW50 losing his ultra cherry and suddenly it went from pleasant to having that carnival feel. The whole Centurion atmosphere that everyone raves about kicked in and you really were being pulled along by it.
With mere minutes to go we hurled our bags into the van for delivery to the finish line and then strolled over to the start. I’ll be honest I didn’t take a lot of notice of the safety briefing as I was too busy chatting to Mick and Anne-Marie but it all seemed pretty straight forward and then it all happened in slow motion – the start.
I started moving forward rather gently and within a few seconds I found myself setting off in the traditionally too fast manner that has been the cornerstone of almost every race I have ever done but regardless at the first corner I saw @cat_simpson_ thundering past me and what a sight she is to behold in full flight! However, ultras are very much about your individual challenge and I had originally said that if I could come in with a finish that started 10hrs … something then I would be pretty happy.
The first few miles I was finding reasonably difficult and as I stormed up the first hill I could already feel my hips, additionally the uneven ground was a challenge even in my Hoka. The good news was that it was pretty dry and actually within a couple of miles the sun had really come out and I was forced into my first of many changes which was the removal of my under shirt.
I slipped my shirt off, attached it to the back of my Ultimate Directions and then quickly set of again, this time with Mick who had caught me up. Suddenly from behind came a runner – at sprint pace – to hand me back my sunglasses that I had thrown away rather recklessly on the course. Grateful, I thanked him for his sprint and carried on – Mick and I joking that the chaps sprint might well cost him dearly later!
The next few miles passed by pleasantly and with a nice troupe of runners both in front and behind I progressed at a steady but reasonably sedate pace. I had eased myself into the race, become familiar with the terrain and was feeling pretty good as we dipped down a rutted path about 6 miles in, my legs were feeling fresh at this point and as we headed across the first of many rolling hills I finally started to understand the enormity of the task ahead – because in the distance lay hill, after hill, after monstrous hill.
Mick and I caught up with one another again and at this point I had to confess that there was going to be need of a Paula Radcliffe moment and I was forced to abandon my comrade and seek shelter in the bushes just before checkpoint 1. However, there was a hiking group just across from me and I felt rather ashamed to ‘Paula’ all over their hiking destination and therefore I made haste for the checkpoint and filled up on the goodies that the amazing Centurion volunteers offered. It is quite possible that I guzzled down about a litre of Coca Cola on my own but feeling refreshed I set off again at a bit of canter.
From here we were marshalled across a busy road and onto the next of our many climbs, we came to the top and once we had headed out alone the road I decided I would once again try and stop and deliver ‘paula’ which was becoming an increasing burden and I was confident that my ‘paula’ need was affecting the way I was running and therefore no good for my hips. However, once again I was thwarted by a lack of sufficient cover and therefore I rolled back up my 0.5 OMM Flash tights and continued onwards where much to my surprise the lovely @abradypus caught me up.
I ran with her for a few minutes but the problems I was facing and her overall pace meant that there was no way I could manage to keep up at that time – if I was lucky I might catch her later but there was the ‘paula’ issue to deal with. The last time I saw @abradypus she was thundering past her pinked topped nemesis and she looked like she had a lot of energy in the tank, so much so that not only did she dip in below 10hrs at the finish but she overtook both Mick and Anne-Marie on her way to South Downs Way success! Huge congratulations to her!
Anyway, after the next major hill climb I finally found some respite in the form of some thorny bushes that straddled a road and here I hid for a few moments checking that runners were not going to be alarmed by the sight of a 36 year old man trying to recreate a moment that simply shouldn’t be recreated. Anyway having achieved a measure of success I hit the trail again and this was were I would meet Sue.
Sue, I am sure wouldn’t mind me sharing that she was a 61 year old ultra runner and an amazing lady with lots of energy and a nice zippy style that put my old hips to shame. We chatted for a few minutes and realised that we were gong at roughly the same pace and ended up progressing through the miles together. We chatted about lots of things including Springer Spaniels, Greyhounds, our respective partners, races, etc. And actually this partnership proved crucial I think for both of us for quite a long time. When I was struggling up a hill, she would put out a cheery little something and vice versa, it became like a mutual appreciation club but I was fully aware that with the way that my hips were feeling I would need the company for as long as possible.
Sue and I continued climbing the hills and making progress through the field, so much so that we actually passed people we thought would have had a much better chance, of a much better time than we were aiming for. Still we had a plan and the plan was a good one – sub 11 hours. We picked up a couple of other runners on the route and as we passed into third checkpoint we were in remarkably good cheer and my thoughts of handing in my number had disappeared. And so we ambled onwards and the next few miles meandered past us like an old friend – or perhaps more akin to the miles already achieved!
The volunteers at the fourth checkpoint and just beyond the 33 mile point were wearing sombreros and handing out both excellent advice and delicious snacks. The route from here looked a little ominous though but it was met with a happy heart and the little team we had amassed spread themselves out a little bit and trudged up the hill, hoping to catch a glimpse either of the summit or of the crew at the bottom of the hill. After ten minutes of straight climbing we could see neither the top nor could we see the volunteers and crew at the bottom and so, still laughing and joking at our good fortune to be out on these wonderful hills we pressed on.
At this point @ultrarunnerdan who had been stalking us for some time finally joined the group and being a veteran of the SDW100 gave us some excellent advice about what was upcoming (even though he lied about the severity of what was to come) and together we ambled in and out of each other’s company. It was here as the group had spread itself out that tragedy on the course almost caught me out.
I had been bumbling along at my own little pace, Sue had decided to push forward a little bit without me and @ultrarunnerdan was a few hundred metres behind me and I decided then to give a little sprint to allow my legs a slightly different movement. I was going pretty well for a guy with no hips left and I was keen to give the good looking girl, holding the gate open a show to remember …and then I did.
As I passed the gate, flashing my winning smile I caught my Hoka on a rock and tripped and was sent sprawling. I managed to stay upright long enough to get my hands in front of me – but it was too late, the damage was done. I had twisted one ankle, bloodied the other – though I wouldn’t know about the blood until nearly midnight. I picked myself up and in the haze of pain and shock I simply started running, telling Sue that we’d never make the 11hr finish time if we stopped now. Progress was steady but I was in pain and again the thoughts of DNF came to the forefront of my mind! I urged Sue to push on with Annalise (spelling?) a very nice Swiss lady who we had met earlier in the race and adopted into our little posse, but we all remained together for the most part. What could have proved to be the end of the race for me proved to be the point I managed to pull myself together and head into the next checkpoint taking over Annalise, Sue and even @ultrarunnerdan who exclaimed ‘here he comes’ as I thundered past him and into the hall, almost blasting straight past it.
‘Milky coffee,’ I called, ‘you lot are my favourite checkpoint since the last one’
I slurped down my coffee and in marched Sue … ‘4 minutes 37 seconds’ I exclaimed. We knew if we left this checkpoint with 2hrs remaining we would probably make the 11hrs. Sue drank her coffee quickly and we stepped outside – there we the noted the patter of the rain on our skin and decided this was the point to whip out our waterproofs. Now fully waterproofed the three of us set out in search of @ultrarunnerdan, we once again hit the ground running and finally the urgency of the run became apparent, we could finish this in time, we could finish this in the light, we could finish this.
The three of us headed up another killer hill and the grounds remained this rather difficult stony affair that offer respite to our feet and here on the difficult terrain the combination of my hips and my ankles meant that Sue and Annalise were finally pulling away from me and I urged them forward, knowing that my sub11 was now quickly fading away. I took a cursory glance down to my Suunto and saw that I was still 10km from the finish and had less than an hour to go. Yes I was going to get a medal but it wasn’t a medal I would ever look at with pride.
However, with a thrust of guts and determination on the downhill into the churchyard I was cheered in by a combination of locals and volunteers and there were Sue and Annalise – I had caught them.
I had a sip of coffee and no food
‘Are you okay?’ Sue inquired rather urgently
‘Yes, now move, let’s go’ came my rather gruff and dogged response.
I bounced down the stairs out of the aid station and never looked back, my ultra running colleagues were now behind me and I pushed quickly up the final ascent, infact it was some of the quickest movement I had managed for several hours. Yes my ankles were on fire and my hips resided at checkpoint 3 but I really didn’t give a flying fuck about any of that. I could smell the finish line. Annalise briefly powered past me but in the descent I knew that I would be more surefooted and I thundered down the hill in a positive and yet controlled manner – a fall here would bring the race to its conclusion a mile or so too early and so I made sure that every step was the right step.
The runner I was then shadowing soon hit the tarmac and we were finally in Eastbourne, ‘goodbye runner, I’m having you’ were my thoughts as I pushed through the roads of Eastbourne. Now following my Suunto very closely for signs that the course as coming to end I kept seeing floodlights and feeling that we must finally be there, but the end never seemed to appear.
10.49.59 was the time on my watch and I passed the final corner – another runner in my sights, boom, caught, onwards. Words of encouragement wee raging around my head and I threw out equally encouraging words with gay abandon. There was the sports centre, there was the track, there were the floodlights – follow the lights.
I could hear the cheer of the assembled group. @abradypus claimed that she thought it must be someone else by virtue of the fact that I was still running at all, but the watch said 10.56.33 and I wanted a 10.57.something time (watch not gun time). And on the final bend I gave it everything, every last ounce of strength that remained to me was thrown into the last 75metres and I crossed the line – more joyous than you can probably imagine.
At the finish line there was @abradypus whom I must sincerely apologise to for probably being incredibly rude. It was that moment when you finish a race and you just can’t see straight anymore and there was all the pain I was in and I just didn’t give the right response. I did of course go for sweaty man hugs later but still it never hurts to say you’re sorry.
A minute or so ahead of me @annemarieruns completed the race and I caught up with her as she prepared to eat some of the most delicious chilli available, she was all set to be running the Brighton Marathon about 12hrs later! Legend! Sue, Annalise and @ultrarunnerdan came in shortly after me and completed the final stage in stunning times. I know for certain that I finished under 11hours and I’m confident most of them did too for which I’m really happy.
So that was the experience but what about my opinions?
Race and Course
I don’t think that anybody could fault the race or the course, it was tough, it was challenging and it was ultra. The South Downs Way is a hard packed course and offers little respite on the feet. The runners I met who were wearing Hoka One One tended to be grateful and those in more minimal shoes such as the Salomon Sense Ultra said they were feeling the fatigue being caused on their feet by the course. I would highly recommend running the South Downs Way at any time of year but it is very exposed to the elements – so do be careful. The route also benefit from not being closed and therefore we, as a running group, were able to converse and be supported by the cyclist, horse riders and hikers who were out and about. 10/10
The support was pretty minimal in terms of on the course support and often inaccessible to friends and family who might want to follow you around, with the exception obviously of those people braving the elements of the South Downs Way. The many smiles and cheers we received were much appreciated. The support at the aid stations though was simply fantastically 100% and it was my pleasure to offer at the bare minimum a smile as we passed through and the odd bit of flirting if I had the energy. 9/10
The aid stations were all well stocked and well manned, the volunteers and Centurions themselves provided excellent checkpoint help. The food was generally of a very high quality although there was a lack of diversity in the savoury options and I struggled to find things I liked (perhaps I missed the chicken nuggets found on the St. Peter’s Way). However, that said I didn’t struggle to fill up and the biscuits and cake at Checkpoints 1 and 3 were particular highlights with the addition of coffee at the last couple of checkpoints a real lifesaver – the Centurions really know how to put a spread together. A word should go to the volunteers and crews also, they were 100% amazing and without them things like this would be impossible and we were all so grateful. 9/10 (10/10 for the crews)
Value for Money
As with the course and so many of the elements of the SDW50 you really can’t fault the guys, not one iota. And in the value for money department this is a race that delivers in spades. At £65 you are almost the same price as the Run to the Beat half marathon or the Royal Parks Half and what do you get for your money? Signage, support, an excellent well labelled supporting website, goodies and best of all an experience you will never ever forget. I even think there might have been showers at the end, but I was too busy trying to find trains to care about being clean. 10/10
Medal and Goodies
The medal is brilliant – not as blingtastic as say The Wall or as rich in heritage as perhaps The St Peter’s Way but it has a beautiful charm of its own and more importantly, as a young boy pointed out, it has a sword on it. The medal and the T-shirt were both very understated and I really liked that and will be wearing both to my next fancy dress party, where with mock indifference I shall wear both and tell people I’m a Centurion. 9/10
The conditions on the course were excellent and the guys had clearly worked their magic to neither bring too much sun or leave it at home. I can’t score this, they don’t control the weather
The live tracking was a bit of a bag of uselessness, it didn’t kick in until beyond the halfway point and then only once before the finish – but on the plus side they did attempt live tracking and I am sure this was simply a minor technical hitch. 4/10
The navigation was faultless, I really didn’t need a map, compass or infact the GPS file on my Ambit 2 – brilliant marking 10/10
This is a bit of a strange one, despite everything, despite it being absolutely brilliant, it still wasn’t my very favourite ultra – that honour still rests with the St. Peter’s Way but the SDW50 is an outstanding course with outstanding levels of organisation and if you are an ultra runner I would urge you to try it. This felt like a labour of love for the guys who organised it and if they can retain that feeling going forward then they will have one of the best events in the ultra calendar. I’m very much looking forward to both the NDW100 and the Winter100 with these guys because I have the confidence in the team that they won’t let me down and all I need to do is not let myself down.
I learnt a lot of lessons as well on the course – the first was more hill work, more sprint work and more everything. The next thing was that I should try and prepare better for big races because when you have a crappy week in the run up then it shows on race day. But the most important thing I learnt is that you should never, ever forget to put a shedload of vaseline on your nether regions unless you want your balls to looks like a pepperoni pizza. 9/10
And on that note, happy running guys and thank you Centurions
On Sunday morning I took the short trip from Kent to Essex to take part in what I had heard was a stunning little ultra marathon – the St. Peter’s Way from Challenge Running.
Having started the year with Country to Capital and adding in a lovely 10 mile heavy trail at Vigo I felt that this ultra was well within my capability and in fact I was aiming to run something around the 8hr mark for St. Peter’s Way. Training had been going okay for a little while but a series of misadventures stretching back through to early February meant the training had tailed off in favour or trying to get to the start line.
Therefore I loaded my kit in the car on Sunday and set off, two bags – one, my Aquapac wet and dry bag with a ton of warm clothing and the other my Ultimate Directions vest with enough running kit to sink a small battleship. The advice had been that a base layer would be needed and also some waterproof trousers, this though had the affect of making my vest heavier and bigger than I would have liked. However, the benefit of the UD pack is that it stays small and it felt as comfortable as ever when I did the test fitting in Ongar.
As I arrived at the car park where everything was being co-ordinated I noticed all the runners wandering around, many of them congregating up near the check in and bag drop. I joined the queue and had my kit checked (for the first time ever in an ultra), grabbed my number and then headed back to the car to wait for the start and also to cough my guts up – fearing that if anyone saw me hacking up a weeks worth of phlegm they would politely refuse me entry to the race.
Having previously run the White Cliffs 50 and Thames Gateway 100 with the now defunct Saxon Shore Ultra Trails I noted how outrageously well organised the St. Peter’s Way Ultra was in comparison. Lindley had provided excellent pre-race communication and on the day he made for an excellent orator of what was expected from the runners and what they could expect. We were then dismissed and had a few minutes to chat with the other runners or mentally prepare for the upcoming 45 miles. At this point despite my chest infection I felt pretty okay about the race and that really enthusiastic race environment was driving me forward. My OH looked on, probably in horror, hoping that I was going to do the sensible thing and withdraw but she knew me better than that.
The race then simply started with a few cheery ‘good lucks’ and a few laughs about the impending mud fest we faced. In retrospect the start could be considered a bit of anti climax as I ended up walking the first 100metres but this simply gave us time to compare notes about previous races and introduce ourselves to other runners that we might later rely on for support and encouragement.
As we turned into the first field my beloved Hoka One One took the first of their muddy soakings and you could tell this course was likely to drain all the energy from your legs. Myself and the other runners stumbled through the first few steps until we got into our stride, watching the super ultra royalty at the front of the course moving faster and further than most of us could dream of.
We had been warned that the course didn’t have any super challenging hills in it but that it would be constantly undulating, this proved very much to be the case. And despite not really being able to get an adequate grip anywhere I was making steady but slowish progress. Thankfully I could also feel the warmth of the day on my face and it looked like we might get perfect running weather – just as we had for Country to Capital.
The course turned out to be surprisingly well labelled and the written instructions in combination with my Suunto Ambit 2 powered map I was sure would see me home and this was where you realised that Challenge Running really did know what they were doing, Nicki, one of the runners I would travel with later in the race said of Lindley that, ‘he knows what ultra runners want, because he is one himself’. This very much came across in the care with which he (and his team?) had prepared every final detail.
As I ambled across the route, over taking a few, being over taken by a few, I met (at a bit of junction) a sprightly young runner named Mike, I say young he was a few years older than I but you would never have known it. It was about mile 3 and we discovered that we had a few things in common and, as you do, got chatting about life, loves and the art of running and our common ground and the differences between us made for enjoyable conversation over the next few miles. I learnt of his racing battle with his wife and he discovered about the stupidity of my seven ultra marathon challenge, we discussed food – Mike favouring Soreen and me favouring Kinder chocolate. I explained to Mike that my chest infection was making my journey tough and that at no point should I hold him up but despite my increasing anxiety and shortness of breath we reached CP1 in good spirits.
We rolled up past the Viper pub to be welcomed by a decent troop of supporters and my OH who was supposed to have gone home. I was grateful to see her and we had big hugs and kisses as well as chowing down on all the goodies at the stop. Yummy. Challenge Running had an excellent range of food and drink – both savoury and sweet and at one point I had both jelly beans and chicken nuggets in my mouth at the same time.
Mike and I left CP1 and headed off to CP2, the course remained challenging but not impossible and our navigation was good, therefore we were able to make decent time and even some of the hills proved insignificant as we thrust ourselves forward – looking back only to make sure the other was okay. We made other running friends as we went about our business and without too much fuss (and other light sprint to the checkpoint) we made it to CP2. Mike was still looking excellent but I knew I was already in trouble and so after some friendly banter and a piece of delicious raspberry and white chocolate cake we both headed out again. We trundled up the road and back onto the trail but I knew that I needed to slow down and so rather than hold Mike back I just let him slip away – hoping that I’d catch him at the end so we could keep in contact post race.
As we crossed a main road over a bridge I made light work of this, grateful for the change of pace but then slowed to allow Mike past and then watched as he ploughed onwards. I then trudged up the next field and down and around – following my GPS and for the first time, just as I lost my running partner, I lost my way. I had come out of the field and the group in front of me had gone. I couldn’t see them.
Looking to the instructions and my GPS for support provided little help and when looking most vulnerable a gentleman with a dog called to me and advised that I was a few miles out of the way and that other runners had been slicing through the field a little way back but that I could get back to the St Peter’s Way with a left and right turn and I shouldn’t add too much to my route. I was grateful to him and as was the chap behind me who had also made the same mistake as I. However, within a few minutes we found ourselves on the back end of a housing estate, caked in mud and proving something of a shock to most of the locals who were out washing their cars and brushing their driveways. The Tarmac made for easier going for about a quarter mile but I knew that we would soon be back on the trail and there it was, a right turn back on to the main path to Bradwell on Sea.
CP2 – CP3 was probably the hardest section, it was badly cut up, it had a few hills, it was covered (in places) in horse shit and it offered some amazing opportunities to fall over and get covered in every kind of slime imaginable. It was starting to take no prisoners. The first 20 miles had been the warm up, the next 20 it seemed where going to give us a bit of a roasting and with conditions worsening and a strong wind growing, it looked this ultra would prove worthy of the 2UTMB points that it came with.
I slogged my way up the final section, cursing my burning chest and beating it like Tarzan in an effort to move the phlegm but nothing was working and when finally I came across the Tarmac road into the village and home of CP3 I gave my now usual sprint to the line. I also committed my usual acts of pseudo flirting with the volunteers and ate as much as I could manage, but with a worsening condition in my chest and throat this wasn’t as much as it should have been.
I had sent an SMS to my OH explaining the severity of my chest infection and that I was struggling for breath and at this point she suggested I stop- something I had been considering for a little while and when I saw that the next section was nearly 10 miles I almost handed my number in, but then I remembered that no matter how bad I was physically my mental strength was good and so after a few laughs at CP3 I pushed on.
The next 10 miles were much easier than the previous 10 and included lots of lovely photographic moments across the shipyards and in small Essex villages – the kind that Essex doesn’t get enough credit for. Truth to tell I was starting to simply enjoy the process of being a bit of tourist in Essex and allowing history and beauty to seep over me.
It was about 3.45pm when I finally stopped, briefly, and threw on my waterproof, even though it wasn’t raining the day had taken several turns for the worse and I wanted I make sure that I was warm enough to complete the distance. This precaution proved to be the right choice and in a new found warmth I also found new energy and was able to battle through my own fatigue. I dipped onto the road that would leap to CP4 and slowly made quite scary progress against the flow of the traffic. With my renewed vigour I pushed into the checkpoint, gave in my number and was grateful for both the stop and the chat with the marshall’s – even the topic of Mike Jones came up, the man who had run Saxon Shore Ultra Trails and it was very nice to be remembered, maybe that’s why I love the ultra community – people remember you! I digress…
I now knew that with only 8 miles to go I wasn’t going to give up. If I gave up now I would be transported to the finish and there I would be witness to all the other runners in their finery and me, without a medal – this would not happen. About 3 miles into the final section, mainly speed walking I came across the very lovely Nicki (mentioned earlier) and between us I hope that we managed to keep each other going at a pace that meant we would make the 6.30pm bus back to the start. Nicki was 100% focused on making the distance and I found her tenacity infectious to the point that our speed walking was not a million miles from 5miles per hour. The dark was now setting in around us and we finally reached Bradwell-on-Sea and memories poured into my head of crawling through the mud last year at Xtreme Beach but today it wasn’t the mud that was in my face it was the battering winds from the sea. We ploughed on through the wind – sometimes behind us, sometimes at the side of us and I could feel my energy ebbing away and with less than a mile to go. I called out to Nicky and told her I needed to back off a bit and she should push on as she going amazingly well.
And then it happened, probably less than 250 metres to go – I felt the full force of blood pumping in me and I started running and then as we crossed the final stretch of blackness I could feel my feet sprinting. 150metres to go, I went the wrong way round the finish line – I hurled out my apologies to Nicky who had gotten me to this point and then I flew forward in relatively full flight sprint, taking my congratulations and medal from Lindley himself.
I was done, in so many ways.
After the crossing of the line I was able to collect my beautiful Tshirt, my drop bag, food and also catch up with Mike who had finished about 45 minutes ahead of me. It was a wonderful location to finish an ultra at and despite my haze I was in amazement at how wonderful an experience this was.
So to sum up.
The route? Bloody tough, but hugely rewarding, very scenic and an exploration of some of the best bits of Essex. The way is pretty well marked and it was harder to get lost than I thought, add in that the lovely people of Essex provided much needed support and in some cases – directions.
The Volunteers and Marshals? A race is only as good as the people who line the route and in this race the volunteers and marshals were amazing. They were fun, helpful, dedicated and interacted with us. I’m sure people came through grumpy and tired and deflated or happy or whatever and you know that these guys were the ones who made it possible for them to keep going. I have nothing but praise for every single one of you
The Food? The food was a nice mix of sweet and savoury, everything that a runner could possibly want and the chicken nuggets were a delight! Jelly beans, gummy bears, the various cakes, lots of drink types and never a shortage.
The Finish Line? I’ve had some great finish lines over the last three years, running next to the Liver Building, crossing the Tyne at Gateshead and this one was right up there. Not only have I never been so happy to see a finish line but there was something eerily beautiful about the church lit only by head torches and a few lamps – it was truly beautiful.
The Bling? Brilliant, I love the bling – see picture, it was bold, red and the same as the symbol I had been following all day long. I wore it for the whole of the rest of Sunday night and this morning I looked at again and relived those final moments as it went around my neck.
Finally Do this race, do it next year and the year after and every other year, this is an amazing race, with amazing organisation and a team that really know what they are doing. I’ll attempt to race 7 ultras this year and I’m not sure I’ll run a more brilliant one than this. I know one thing though and that is I’d like to go back and run it without the chest infection as my one disappointment was my time.
Next for me is the March Virtual Run and then South Downs Way 50. Can’t wait.
I’m currently booked into 8 (9 if I get a place at W100) races for 2014 – 7 are ultra marathons, although by my own definition that an ultra marathon doesn’t start until 50 miles I’ve actually got 5 ultra marathons as both the C2C and the SPW are both only (he grins) 45 miles. Training had been going pretty well, Govember meant I ran, cycled or swan (usually 2 of them) each day, December was pretty good until about 13th when exercise was sidelined a little bit in favour or seasonal frivolities, but I was back on the wagon come Boxing Day and even did a little bit here and there is the space in between. I was going great guns even heading into the New Year and while the back and hip problems that had plagued me during the last 6 months have been a constant partner I was feeling generally okay. My own stupidity sent me tumbling as I was trail running about a week ago – slicing my leg apart and bruising large swathes of my upper body and leg but even this has not quelled my enthusiasm for the challenge of 2014 and I’ve added another little challenge to the mix. I’m wondering if it is possible to qualify for Spartathlon?
I suppose it was like the UTMB really, I had never heard of it before I signed up to my first ultra last year and upon discovering what it was, set my heart on, at the very least, qualifying for it. Spartathlon is a little different, I had heard of it as I’d been following the progress of this years runners on Twitter but the idea of running in the September heat of Greece felt too much. However, I’ve signed up to both the Race to the Stones and also the National 100, both of which offer qualification to the event. This year is very much about my desire to compete in the UTMB (I’m running 14pts worth of qualifying races) but the idea of Spartathlon has so many benefits I can’t help but think that it might be worth throwing my hat in the ring and picking up my pace a bit of the two qualifying races. The other key benefit for this would be to help me prepare for a new level of huge distance and also running in heat. Now while I’m 100% aware that there is nothing like MdS I am very conscious that something like Spartathlon would be a great race to do both in its own right and as working my way up to MdS.
I’m 37 this year, I fancy MdS in 2017 for my 40th birthday, I hear it’s near impossible to get into the UTMB at the first time of asking so assuming I qualify I’m probably more likely to get a successful ballot in 2016, that leaves a big event shaped hole in my 2015 – and I think I may have found something to work towards.
Of course lots more research required and I really may not be suited to it but it’s not a bad thought for a Wednesday morning – though best not to mention it to the OH, she’s already furious about the 7 ultras this year and I haven’t even mentioned my desire to compete in a 24hr race this year or that I will be adding in a series of other shorter races to keep my enthusiasm for the training going. That conversation will probably end up like the one about the bathroom renovations – difficult.