“You were ‘on the ropes’, taking heavy punishment…”
I was. Must have been around midnight (my memory is muddled around then), and I was feeling horrible. My stomach was painful, my legs had no energy, my head was all over the place and I just wanted to sit down and forget about the whole thing.
The turning point was when I heard myself saying:
“I can’t believe it’s happened again, exactly the same as last time”.
Last time … Tooting 2019, the conditions were almost identical – hot and humid during the day, and much the same at night. Ellie was still stuffing ice cubes down her top (to be fair I think she just likes to make it harder) and Tsvetkov Hristo the (soon to be) Bulgarian 100 mile record holder (12:48:20!) was topless and pouring bottle after bottle of water over himself.
I didn’t want to eat, or drink, or do anything. My arms and legs were gritty with salt.
That triggered another memory from Tooting.
Was I just dehydrated? I’d been drinking plenty, or so I thought, but also sweating buckets, and not peeing. At all. Was it that simple?
I wonder, could I get myself back on track, quite literally, by just drinking some of the weird “hydration” stuff on the aid station table?
It might not be too late this time, and had to be worth a try.
It had all started out so well.
I had of course put together an aspirational plan (with a stretch target of 130 miles), but that was more about getting me to think realistically about my pace, and not take it overly easy at the start making it impossible to catch up later on.
Running each lap around 2 minutes 20 seconds felt fine, I wasn’t pushing myself and was comfortable. It was just really warm, and getting warmer.
Opting for a mostly liquid diet to avoid any stomach issues was fine, Mauren 160 was the only option as far as I was concerned. My helper, who wishes to remain nameless, so I shall just call him “the saint” suggested drinking more water, probably sensibly, but it made me feel boated and horrible, so I avoided it.
Warning bells should have been ringing.
The day went on, I chatted to people I knew from other races, and people I’d just met. Toby came along for a bit, Martin dropped by and bought me a Calipo. All the nice things about track races.
I’d been obsessing for ages about an ice lolly, I could even see the ice cream van outside in the park, but couldn’t figure out how to get one into my hot face.
Apart from the heat, and dearth of shade, there was no breeze.
It got dark, it didn’t cool down. I don’t cope well in the heat. When I set my 24h PB at Crawley in April some years ago it was deliciously cool, my water even froze, much more my kinda weather.
There is a saying that 100 mile races are run in two halves. The first half with your legs, and the second half with your head.
I’d always just assumed the head bit was about gritting your teeth and not giving up.
Figuring out what’s wrong and dealing with it sounds easy enough, but problem solving under pressure is quite hard. Problem solving when you’re completely bollocksed is really hard.
It’s similar to trying to get home after a big night out in town. You don’t know where you are, how you got there, and wouldn’t it be so nice and easy to just lie down and sleep.
Somehow throughout all this I managed to maintain some sort of steady pace. I did have a little sit down when I was feeling particularly sorry for myself, but otherwise kept on running 300 meters, walking 100 and grabbing a drink, stretching my shoulders and lower back. A small part of my head hadn’t forgotten that every step counts, even staggery ones.
Slowly, after many hours, I started to feel better, it took a while but I just kept on drinking hydration potions from the aid station, and energy drinks that the saint had prepared for me before he’d gone off for a sleep.
I might have sped up a bit, but importantly didn’t slow down, and started creeping up the leaderboard as others dropped out or stopped more often.
I told myself I was “tortoising” myself up the field.
The sun came up and everyone’s spirits lifted, though I’d been fine with the darkness outside (it was the inside variety I’d been battling with), some pro plus and anadin extra had probably helped.
Somehow I hit 100 miles in 19:57:25, pleased with that!
Feeling strong and much cooler thanks to soaking wet flannels every other lap (he’s not called the saint for nothing) I kept a good pace and this now turned into a race.
Chasing (and being chased by) Brynn, then Ryan, then Sinead (who I didn’t catch), kept me well entertained and importantly fully focused.
Running out of Maurten powder and nearly throwing up a gel was a potential speed bump, but Graeme (the other saint) came to the rescue with another sachet and it was Back On.
The last lap felt like a sprint finish (it wasn’t, there is a video) and I hit 121.25 miles for a 24 hour PB at midday on Sunday.
Something that had been unthinkable 18 hours ago.
I absolutely love this race, the camaraderie, the support, the simplicity.
It’s a niche thing for sure, but I’m already looking forward to next year!
I’d arrived at Malham Tarn, checkpoint 1.5 at too-late-pm on Sunday. So far behind my rough and ready schedule it was borderline depressing.
So, so tired, it had been a long hot day after leaving Hebden Bridge at 5:30am that morning.
Colin’s words from years ago were ringing in my ears:
“I always forget it’s a nice first day and then a week long painful slog”.
I wasn’t in the best place, and it was still early.
My feet had developed deep blisters on the soles of my feet, over one of the many fields or moors I’d run/walked across that day. By the time I realised that my shoes were a bit loose and the movement was causing hot spots it was too late and the damage was done. Not much I could do at this stage but grit my teeth and think of nicer things.
When I got here I’d tentatively asked if there was somewhere I could sleep for a bit and fully expecting to be knocked back. The relief at being offered a camp bed in a midge free tent was incredible.
I seriously couldn’t believe that 20 minutes had passed already, most of it was spent twitching and trying to not think about how little of the route I’d covered.
No point being depressed though, and it looked like a lovely evening (ignoring midges) so I grabbed my refilled water bottles, my bag of steaming Mac & cheese and trundled off towards Fountains Fell.
It’s amazing how a brief rest and some hot food can sort you out and I focused on catching those ahead of me, for the challenge as much as the potential company for the impending night.
Joining up with Kirsty (who was doing the challenger) at the sheltered spot just before the Pen Y Gent climb was nice. We put windproof jackets on and knocked back some painkillers, and swapping stories slowly headed up into the increasing darkness.
At least it wasn’t covered in ice this time.
Somehow I ended up on my own again and began the long painful trudge towards Hawes, desperately trying to ignore the dark place I was in 3 years ago at the same spot.
Going into a second night wasn’t too bad, being in the middle of it was torture. I was shouting at myself to stop dreaming, and keeping a running commentary of where I was and what I was doing almost managed to keep me from falling headfirst into the ditch off cam fell Road.
Even when it got light it was still torture, and a few times I just lay down on the trail and went to sleep. There were plenty of people at this stage so it was never long before “hey there – are you ok?” Woke me up and set me weaving onwards with a “yes thanks, thanks for waking me”.
Eventually I’d had enough of the trudge and the road sign that said Hardraw and the checkpoint were still 1.5 miles away was too much, I just picked up my sticks and ran. Anything to make this stop as soon as possible.
As I walked the final grassy approach to the aid station tent, my feet were in agony, I felt exhausted and honestly couldn’t see a way to deal with the suffocating weight of the 160 miles I still needed to cover before the end of the race.
Things were looking grim.
The first day had been great, first evening anyway. I’d been very apprehensive before the start, as is right and proper for such a seriously long undertaking, and loitering around Edale for a few hours didn’t really help. It did give me time to fix up my (ridiculously small) pack, and to eat a load of my food that had to be removed from my overweight drop bag.
Looking back to Kinder scout as I headed towards Snake Pass the view was of a lovely sun tinged green landscape, and one of those moments when you can’t think of anywhere else you’d rather be. I literally skipped along the flags marvelling how much nicer everything was when it wasn’t ankle deep in icy water.
That did come though, a surprisingly nasty storm hit at 3am, strong wind which blasted rain and the top layer of reservoirs at us sideways. It felt like winter and everyone had full waterproofs on.
Arriving at Hebden I was soaked and very awake, so grabbed some food and swapped my kit for something dry, which somehow took an hour and a half. Noted that I needed to faff a lot less, Tin would not have approved.
Back at Hardraw, I staggered into the tent (checkpoint 2), sat down and tried to sort myself out, without quitting there and then.
The only thing I could think to do, was to think about my immediate needs, and to solidly, wilfully, ignore what was ahead. Dimly aware through the haze of sleep deprivation that it had worked before.
Maybe if I focused on my feet, having some food, getting a bit of sleep and re stocking my pack with food and water, I’d forget that I was miserable and everything would miraculously sort itself out.
It did, kinda.
Before I really knew what was happening, I was doing it, I was carrying on, eating an apple and hiking the long climb to the peak of Great Shunner Fell (also nicer when not covered in ice), over the back and into Thwaite, where the cafe was open.
What a treat, I was actually smiling with a toasted tea cake in hand (all of the butter and jam thank you) as I set off happily chatting to Alex and wondering what treats the Tan Hill inn had in store.
There will be ups and there will be downs. Many of them, so many that you have to just accept how you feel and keep eating and moving. It really became that simple.
No treats at Tan Hill, not without a pandemic enforced pre-booking, but they did have hot water for our dehydrated food, and coffee and chocolate, so all was well.
Alex and I pretty much stayed together for the rest of the day, chatting about the usual stuff (ie everything!)
At one point we passed the half way mark. How could that be true ? It was though, and we had a lovely sunset to go with it.
Alex slept less than me and I set off towards Dufton on my own early Tuesday morning. On the way to cauldrons snout I passed Robert Cullen for the first time, this guy was to keep me entertained for hours to come but neither of us knew it then (I’m not sure he ever knew it!).
Towards the end of the interninably long and rocky track that leads to high cup nick I put on a burst of speed to catch up with someone , anyone, that I could talk to and distract myself from feeling sorry for my poor aching feet.
The tattoos creeping up his neck were a little daunting but races like this tend to attract similar people, regardless of what’s on the outside, and we spend a pleasant half an hour talking about other events we’d done and generally not thinking about our feet.
I unwittingly stopped in the “do not stop” zone and sat down for a mini picnic and rest for 5 minutes (precisely where my tracker didn’t work and I’d nearly fallen off the cliffs in the fog a few years ago).
Then the long hot trudge down to Dufton. Very long, very rocky so no running, no wind so it felt like a furnace. I promised myself a sleep and at the very least a nice long cool down at the bottom. I needed some promise to keep me moving along. It was probably around midday and a beautiful day, some of which I’d appreciated, but was now looking at through a veil of sweaty eyes and grinding jaw.
Someone told me that the cafe had opened especially for us, what a wonderful surprise! Not sure how long I lounged around on some shady grass, being fed a grilled panini (with a side salad, fresh food!), coffee and a toasted tea cake (food of the gods those are).
Chris was there too, and Ellie, all in much the same ruined situation. Somehow we laughed and joked a bit, mostly at the ridiculousness of our endeavour.
“It’s basically a brutal first two days, to weed out the weak, and then it’s a straightforward stage race”
Ellie pushed on and I asked Chris if he fancied doing the next section together. We’d had plenty to talk about earlier and I really felt that I was in need of some human company now. Solitude was a big part of my motivation for signing up, but I’d had a good enough dose of it already thank you.
Feeling that I had to purge it from my head, and prefixing it with “I’m not going to be negative the whole way”, I expunged the story of when I was last here, wading through deep snow in a midnight storm.
Very different today.
Up up up and over, and up and over, a few times, and then we were starting the long descent past Greg’s hut and another rocky bloody road to Alston.
The miles kept ticking by. I kept eating, mostly Huel bars, they turned out to be almost perfect fuel. Not too sweet, packed with accessible carbs, and easy to get down. I didn’t get bored of them (unlike chocolate covered raisins, which I went off after the first mouthful).
As we neared the main road a familiar face leapt out from behind a sign. Only bloody Dave! We worked together a few years ago, actually not together but close enough to spend much time talking adventures by the water cooler. His wife Anne was there too and wow it was so nice to have a blast of familiarity and fresh smiling faces.
I hadn’t realised at the time but Chris had stopped eating a while ago, and was seriously struggling. To be honest I don’t think he knew at the time and it was only with hindsight that he figured out why he’d felt so totally ruined.
Neither of us was in any rush to get to the checkpoint, as weird as that sounds. With a limit of just 6 hours I was so against being awake during the zombie hour again I would rather lose race time than go through it again.
On the other hand lots of people had been banging on about lasagne, and it had been a long old tiring day. There was also pretty believable reports of showers and warm beds (the first since we’d started) which did sway our anti zombie meters a bit.
I’d resolved to try and nudge the aid station towards extra time, with all sorts of clever ideas about them not writing my arrival time down straight away, to the plain old “ah it’ll be fine if I’m here a bit longer eh?”. Nope, I was deposited on the outside step, with my pack and essentials, in my bare feet, at 3:02am – exactly 6 hours from when I arrived.
No hard feelings, and it wasn’t raining, but yeah, nice try.
Chris waited patiently while I sorted myself out, a cup of jam filled porridge quietly distracting him. We hadn’t explicitly arranged to team up, but it just felt very obvious to and I was reminded of the winter race where I’d headed off at this point with Dan Connors and we’d stuck together for the rest of the distance. Our pace was similar, and the ability to have a laugh most of the time rather than sink into painful introspection was the perfect way to make this as positive an experience as possible.
The sun came up, we walked and jogged over some moors, dodged some rain and almost before we knew it were hiking up onto Hadrian’s wall.
Someone was gaining on us, but not quite catching up. We got a good look and decided that “they didn’t look very happy”. Eventually Ade caught us up, as we caught Ellie, and sort of set off together, though they were solidly “not very happy” whilst we were more than chipper but seriously in need of some sort of sustenance.
“How far to the next aid station?”
“About 20 miles mate”
Ade (now known as “Ade Station”) looked so crestfallen I couldn’t help but laugh.
“There is a cafe about half a mile off the trail about 6 miles ahead though, but no other water stops till Bellingham”
Poor lad, but I’m glad I’d asked before we left Alston, it’s not nice to have nasty surprises like that. We had hoped for a big fat breakfast in Greenhead but nothing was open, so the joy at finding a little van selling coffee and snacks in the car park near the turning for Twice Brewed was very real.
A traditionally grumpy Scot sold us one each of everything he had, gave us hot water for our food and sent us off with some free energy bars. Such a treat and we didn’t even leave the trail. Fully powered up we picked up the pace with a plan to get to the checkpoint around 6pm.
Neither of us wanted to get there that early, but with just one more section ahead the end was within smelling distance. Not really, it was at least 50 miles away, but we were feeling good and sprightly and made the most of it.
Ellie caught us just in time to negotiate a huge herd of cows (I’d seen her take massive detours around others earlier in the week). There was no way I was going to add unnecessary distance so ploughed through the middle of them keeping up a constant stream of friendly chatter.
“Thanks girls, coming though, mind your babies, that’s right move aside, thank you.”
The day was by now a familiar pattern. Leave somewhere. Get up on a moor for ages. Drop down somewhere after about 20 miles. Get water and if lucky some food. Climb up onto something for another 20 odd miles. Drop down and painfully cover the last few miles to a checkpoint.
As we walked in the last mile or so, Ellie was deliberating whether to sleep and risk being overtaken by Sharon Gayter (ultrarunning legend) in third place, or to push on after a brief pit stop.
All I could think about was sleep, and I’d been doing a lot more of it than Ellie had. Sleep deprivation is truly horrible and I’d been getting as much as I could (which ended up being about 9 hours in total, not much!).
Ellie was asking for advice, but I was clearly the wrong person to advise on sleep denial, so I used the future self approach.
“Fast forward to yourself 5 or 6 weeks from now. If you look back and are annoyed with yourself for not just pushing on, then there is your answer”.
Part of her ploy was to put pressure on Sharon and hopefully get her to ease off and get some sleep (even though she’d told Ellie that this race was sleep deprivation training for reclaiming her John O’Groats to Lands end record).
Anyway it paid off and Ellie literally staggered her way to a second place finish in 120 hours and 35 minutes.
A few short hours later Chris and I were on the move, a midnight start and the final big push. Still lots of mileage to go and the Cheviots to tackle, along with the emotional baggage I would realise I was carrying late that day.
Right now though I tucked in behind and yawning whilst chucking back caffeine gels we got up onto yet another moor, this one dark and misty for a bit of summer novelty.
Coming down towards a road crossing there was a light ahead, which seemed to be coming towards us. Someone was on the trail, wtf.
“Bit of a god forsaken hour to be out on the hill eh mate?”
I got closer and realised it was only bloody Angus! He’d driven down from Edinburgh!
I’m getting emotional just writing about it, I was genuinely touched, it wasn’t just that my emotions had stopped working properly by then.
Massive covid unfriendly hugs and he joined us for a little way while we chatted and caught up with all things spine race and our respective families.
Having done the Scottish island peaks race a couple of times we’d had plenty of good bonding time, not to mention several long forays in the Lake District retracing the footsteps of a certain Mr B Graham.
It was getting light and Angus had three children to get ready for school not to mention a long day lawyering for a multinational bank, after starting his day at 1am.
What a bloody hero.
Hugely bouyed and very awake now we skipped over the last bit of moor (hurrah!) and climbed up into a huge pine forest, the last part before the Cheviots.
After a brief savaging by John Bamber’s midgie hordes we marched on filling our bellies with hot rehydrated mac & cheese and contemplated the final big push ahead.
It was 7ish by now and it looked like it was going to be a lovely day. Probably a bit too lovely for 20 odd miles without shade but we had some water and it would just have to be enough. Only a few hours till KY (as it was now known, thanks to the medics at Bellingham, made me laugh every time).
Hut 1 delivered a lovely surprise of water and hot coffee, worth a sit down for sure. The volunteers didn’t seem very happy, maybe it was something we said, but when Robert appeared from around the corner and set off, we fell about laughing.
“OMG, we’ve overtaken that guy so many times! What the actual fuck!”
“Oh yeah Bobby Cullen? He’s a machine, does it every time – doesn’t sleep and just keeps on going, this must be his 5th spine”.
Machine? He’s a goddam trail ninja is what he is!
Chris pulled ahead by the time we got towards hut 2, partly as he was chasing a sub 5 (days) but mostly because I massively slowed down to contemplate the scene of many nightmares and a probable dose of PTSD.
Everything is so much nicer in the sun it’s true, not buried under hillocks of snow with monsters lurking in every shadowy blemish. I was surprised how strong the emotional memories were, and sat down for a while to contemplate the whole thing.
You can really see how the snow drifts here, there are huge gaps with deep heathery fringes that would trap anything. Coupled with reasonably high altitude (for the UK) and exposed sides, it was just perfect for making human sized traps.
It was good for me to see it again, I realised that we’d done incredibly well to drag ourselves up that crazy steep slope, no wonder it took hours. Then when I almost ended up in Hell (Hen) Hole, and Colin actually did, it was clear I’d just made a bad decision and it really wasn’t life threatening, I had just been really really tired.
Snapping back to reality and my sore feet, there was still 7 miles to cover and I’d had enough now. Eating the remainder of what I’d packed last night, which by this stage was caffeine gels and shot blocks, munching on pain killers I decided to leg it and see how early I could get in. It was only early afternoon which meant that pints in the pub later was most definitely ON!
Of course my body had other ideas, despite my head feeling more suited to a nightclub than a sunny hillside.
My right shin had been a bit achy since the long descent on a rocky forest road early that morning, and had slowly gotten more achy through the day. Now it just gave up and cramped. Cramp in my shin? This was a new one. A really bloody painful new experience.
What would you do? What could I do? I spoke to it that’s what. Spoke nicely and stroked and massaged it. I told it about how well it had done and how we were all tired and sore now. I listed the lovely things that waited just down the road for us, lots of rest, food and massage. It just needed to keep it together and we’d all soon be able to sit down and not get up again until we wanted to.
Of course it worked. Why ever would you think it wouldn’t.
I don’t know why it does, but I’ve done that a few times over the years with different muscles. The best theory I have is that by focusing my attention on the area that needs it triggers my brain to send in whatever reinforcements are required to sort the problem out.
In much the same way that I don’t know how to move my hand, but if I focus on what I want it to do then it just happens, somehow. It’s clearly not magic, and it works for me so I’m going with it. As bonkers as it sounds.
Sprint finish and over the line in 119 hours and 48 minutes. 14th place. Very happy.
A surprise shower near the finish line, a plate of food and two bowls of oh so delicious fruit salad, then I dumped my kit in the village hall and hit the local with Chris.
What a way to finish the week. This was no 4am dark and miserable end, with nobody to meet us and just a bowl of nasty soup and a cold floor. This was glorious lager and seats and crisps.
That was magic.
Guess who else was there? Oh yes, ninja Bobby!
The aftermath was surprisingly benign. Yes I was tired for a couple of weeks and had to sneak off for afternoon naps at work. It took me over a week to have a decent nights sleep and not keep waking up thinking I was on the trail .
My weight and body fat took a pleasing tumble, despite constant snacking, and I’m losing toenails every few days.
Oh my hips are a bit stiff, but I didn’t even have DOMS. Weird but I’ll take it.
One thing is for sure: I don’t have any desire to return to the Pennine Way again, I’ve made my peace with it and have more than enough memories now. I’m glad I got to see it in the daylight, there are some truly beautiful parts and they’re well worth a visit.
Of course if they did a race from north to south, that would be a different thing altogether…
I know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry, it’s quite normal.
24 hours is a long time to run, a 400 meter loop isn’t very far, the combination doesn’t make any logical sense. Only suitable for misfits and weirdos.
When you picture running an ultra, you see mountains, adventure, solitude in remote valleys, companionship on stormy peaks at 2 in the morning.
“I am physically capable of doing one”, you’re thinking, “yet with so much of the world still to see, so many unconquered summits, why should I squander my time and effort running in circles? Everyone would think I’ve totally lost the plot.”
“They wouldn’t understand. I don’t understand”
I’m here to tell you that there is so much more to it than you might think.
I accept that there are no mountains or breathtaking scenery, but are those the reasons you started running in the first place? Or are they a pleasant addition to something you love?
Bear with me and I’ll explain that it’s not just the preserve of the completely unhinged or international elites, there’s space for you and me too.
The concept of a 24 hour running race isn’t new
In fact people have been taking part in them for decades. Ottawa in Canada have been hosting one since 1981.
The current world record was set in 1997 by Greek running god Yiannis Kouros. He ran just over 188 miles (303K) on the track in Adelaide, Australia. There isn’t enough space on his Wikipedia page to list all his mind altering records, but don’t let that put you off. Let’s look a bit closer to home.
Why do you run? Why does anyone run?
Cast your mind back to those first few self-conscious steps, the start of a journey to lose some weight, to counterbalance the chaos of daily life, an attempt to slow the pace of the inexorable slide of cellular aging.
It was painful at first, but the hard earnt aches and endorphin fuelled satisfaction easily made up for that. Before long your ancient shoes were soon replaced with a much more serious pair, the cotton t-shirt turned into something technical, whatever that meant.
The results came surprisingly quickly, endowing you with a firm lean body and clear head. The new you faced life with head held high, everything was much more manageable after a blast round the park.
After a while your local routes weren’t holding quite the same appeal and the superhuman athletes you kept reading about in your (increasingly obsessive) trawl of race reports became an enigma, becoming harder and harder to stop thinking about.
At some point you think to yourself:
“I’ve run a marathon, of course there’s no way I can run 100 miles, but maybe 50. That’s not even double my longest run, I’ll just go slow and see how I get on.”
The lure of the challenge and associated superhero status takes hold, and before you know it …
Bam! Wine glass in hand, you’ve signed up for your first ultra
You love and hate the build up, every time you picture yourself on the start line your stomach does a somersault, but the questions of kit, food and navigation consume many happy hours on the internet. Your excel skills improve with all the lists and pace calculators, who knew there would be so many benefits!
Race day arrives, and nervously looking around on the start line you realised you’re carrying way too much / not nearly enough food / kit / maps / lube, but it’s too late and you’re off, trying not to get too carried away and keeping an eye on your watch.
The race itself is a blur of mud / hills / rivers / forests / canals, you forget about your carefully planned stash of food and binge on crisps and sweets from the aid stations, you make new best friends, discover the perils of running with a belly full of junk food and learn to do what bears do, in the bushes.
Everything is a bit sore afterwards, who knew your inner arse checks can build up such a chafe factor that you actually scream in the shower, but the elation floats you into work on Monday on a cloud of glory.
Nobody notices that you can’t walk properly as you regale the mortals with your epic feats of endurance, framed by the deep human compassion uncovered from rescuing someone who’d collapsed just before the finish line. Someone even cries a little bit.
You haven’t smiled as much since you lost your virginity.
You blog the race report and post it on Facebook, the likes come rolling in.
Fast forward four months and all your toenails have fallen off, but you’ve signed up for another race and are just about to start negotiating with your better half when they find your bag of rotting race kit. First things first, and you know they won’t deny you your new passion. Especially when you reciprocate with a weekend of looking after the kids on your own.
Life is good, the universe of ultra racing adventures has welcomed you into its domain, you’ve even got your own page on Statistik DUV.
And life is good
There’s a bit more juggling and negotiating but you find an inner strength that wasn’t there before, at the very least you’re much less reliant on a good night’s sleep. How bad can a Monday morning be when you’ve successfully navigated through the French alps on your own, in the dark, with a broken torch, and only owl droppings for sustenance?
So why would you turn to 24h track races? Why, when there are countless far more exciting and beautiful routes and races out there?
Maybe your new found food obsession needs a testing ground, somewhere with convenient (and flushing) toilets.
Maybe taking a whole weekend away from the family is trickier, now that you want to do it once a month, and all that travelling does take a toll on the wallet.
Maybe you’ve become intrigued by how fast you could go without any obstacles and a heavy pack on your back, to be able to compare your performance across different races and conditions.
Maybe your family will come and cheer you on, they might even pitch a tent and have an adventure of their own.
Or maybe, just maybe, you fancy something completely different
You’ll still get all the good stuff of course, the chafing, the crisps and sweets, the delicious pain that comes just before serenity.
You’ll still make new best friends, only this time they won’t be just the people who happen to run at the same pace as you. Even the fastest runners have time for a chat every now and then. Who knows, it might even be you slowing down for a few laps to give someone else a mental boost.
Granted there might not be that much to look at, but you won’t get lost, providing you don’t wander off looking for a Macdonald’s.
If it all gets a bit too much, don’t despair! Have a cup of hot soup, a hug and a lie down. No DNFs here, just head back out when you’re ready, or don’t. The race finishes at the same time for everybody.
“Ah, but, yeah, but, no, but … It’s a mental game this isn’t it? Psychological torture I’ve been told, time slows down, you go mad?”
I hear you. I won’t deny it, all true. But, how is that different from any other ultra? You can allow the inner demons into the forefront of your mind on any long run. Anyone can do the death march, it’s nothing special and we’ve all been there.
“Yes but, surely it’s really boring?”
That, my friend, is the first good question you’ve asked. Before I answer it, because I can tell you’re not convinced, you should ask some others why they think it’s such a good idea, but that takes time, so I did it for you.
Robbie Britton, more first place medals than you can fit in a rucksack:
“It’s truly about how far you can run in a day with as few variables as you can.
It can often be a mental battle from the start and it’s not about overcoming a low point, but constantly convincing yourself that the effort is worth it, when you reach the finish line at the same time as everyone else, regardless of speed.
I love it and dislike it rather strongly at the same time.”
Paul Katsiva-Corderoy, no stranger to track or trail:
“On the track there is always someone watching and cheering (read motivating) you.”
Pam Storey, RD of the Crawley 6, 12 & 24h track races:
“I have done 15 of the ‘beasts’ … you are never more than 400m from help.”
Markus Mueller has a simple and insightful view:
“It’s just you and your running shoes. The nice thing is that you don’t have to be fast but consistence gets you very far.”
“Auto qualifier for spartathlon”
Mark Cockbain, RD of The Viking Way and other brutally minimal ultras:
“Just to see how far and fast you can go with no x-factors (terrain or conditions)”
Stuart Shipley, survivor of the Spine Race and many others:
“…a cheap weekend in London parking the camper on the track and eating every 400m”
Thomas Bubendorfer, an Austrian with a penchant for long Irish races:
“In a mountain point to point race you will most likely be running entirely on your own for hours and hours, barely seeing anyone else. A 24 hours race is highly sociable and you’ll have chats with dozens of runners”
Noanie Heffron, who seems to place in the top 3 of every race she runs:
“My first 24hr was on a 4 mile loop, I didn’t much fancy it but was talked into it, furthest I’d run at that point was 50 miles, thought it would be a nice ‘safe’ way to run a bit further, secretly thought I’d hate it but turned out I loved it. Entered a 24hr track next on the logical assumption that condensing the loop would obviously cause the essence of the event to become super concentrated, like squeezing a lump of coal to get a diamond. And I was right!”
Pretty convincing stuff don’t you think?
Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten you’re still worried about it being boring
Consider this with an open mind, because you are open minded aren’t you, apart from hokas and marmite? It’s a prerequisite to throwing yourself at the mercy of any unknown adventure.
What is boredom exactly? Possibly a bit hard to define objectively, but one could say that it’s a feeling of lethargy brought on from a lack of internal or external stimulus.
The week in the middle of childhood summer holidays when everyone you know has gone away? Midway through a long journey with nothing to read, drink, watch, or talk to (animate objects of course, you can always talk to your shoes, if that’s your thing)?
My simple answer to your excellent question is …
When have you ever been bored whilst running?
Desperate for it to be over? Many times. Hungry? Nearly always.
In pain? Too often.
Fed up of being on your own? Check.
Fed up with being in a crowd? Yup.
Fed up that time has slowed down so much that every step on the treadmill takes an age? Of course.
Bored? Truly truly bored? Mind numbingly, lie on the floor, dribbling, staring into space bored? Never.
(Apart from the lying down dribbling bit).
If anything you develop a fondness for the track, and an acute awareness of everything going on in and around it. Details that would otherwise pass you by become, captivating.
There’s a new lap counter, they look nice, I wonder what their name is. That bird, I can’t see it but, gosh, what a beautiful sound, maybe I’ll spot it on the next lap.
Oh wait, is that a lost hedgehog?
I hope that cleared things up, dispelled a few myths, uncovered a few secrets. Perhaps I even went a bit overboard and you’re thinking that 24 hours of loops isn’t going to be enough.
Did you know that 6 day track races are a thing?
No? Ok, let’s leave that for another time, sorry I mentioned it. Now you know, you can’t forget it, just saying.
There is one more thing before I finish, possibly the single most compelling reason so far, and one that until this point has evaded discussion.
It is of course: The Zone.
I’m pretty sure you know it, elusive and yet attainable, if you know what it needs. It can’t be chased down or forced, but when the conditions are right you don’t realise you were there until afterwards.
Calm and peaceful, you’re simultaneously hyper aware of your entire body yet floating through the air effortlessly. Everything moving in a perfect rhythm and harmony. Nothing distracts you, there is no pain, just your whole self, flowing along an exquisitely perfect trajectory, never stumbling, never taking a less than optimal path.
You could run all day
(Until you get hungry.)
I still don’t know the exact formula to be able to get there on demand. Sometimes it happens the day after a night of beer and pizza, sometimes only when I finally accept the screaming suffering of my body, slipping into the peaceful haven beyond it.
What I do know is that there is a reason why Sri Chinmoy tagged his races with the words Self Transcendence. There is something about a flat loop that sets up the right conditions almost perfectly. Provided you allow yourself to relax and dampen the voice that is moaning and chattering about what a daft idea this was.
For me, that’s really the number one reason for doing a 24h track race. I didn’t realise it would be, but after prolonged reflection I’m convinced, I hope you are too.
But before you reach for the Tooting entry form …
Here are a few words of warning from 5 time GB representative Debbie Martin-Consani:
“People are drawn to the race concept because of the perceived simplicity. It’s flat and very super slow, so how hard can it be? In reality it’s probably one of the toughest ultra races. It requires a high level of mental toughness – and stubbornness.
Many great athletes can run 100 or 150 miles in a race, but don’t have the head for 24 hour running. Without the drive of checkpoints or a finish line it’s hard to keep going. The clock keeps ticking regardless of what pace you’re doing.
Yet people see big distances run by athletes they compete with in other races and want to give it a shot. Often thinking they can run further, because the courses aren’t physically demanding. Unfortunately that bravado often doesn’t see them through 12 hours! 24 hour runners are a weird bunch of zombies really.”
So there you have it, the full picture
If you really want nice scenery, then head to the Lake District. Set off from Keswick towards Skiddaw at midnight, catch the sunrise on the top of Blencathra. Make yourself a cup of hot chocolate, sit back and admire the splendour of nature.
Slow down and talk to your companions, not everything has to be a race. Don’t travel to the far corners of the world for an event where you spend the whole time looking at your feet.
If you want to test yourself, in an environment specifically designed for a person to travel as far and as fast as they can under their own power. Somewhere with no physical obstacles, nowhere to get lost, loads of support, and a table chock full of goodies.
If you want to see just what you’re really made of …
Normally I start these reports with something going badly or something unpleasant happening, but this was one of those oh-so rare races when everything came together in a really good way.
Sometimes it happens in training, and when it does you always desperately try and figure out what the magic formula was.
Sadly I don’t know – I never manage to work it out – but I did have a great day, a much better day than I expected and definitely made the most of it.
It still feels strange to think that I ran 100 miles and can honestly say that it didn’t feel like that much of a big deal, even more so given I’d pretty much missed the entire previous year of events from injury.
I hadn’t prepared for this race specifically. Had no real idea of the terrain or elevation, and had just thrown a load of stuff into my bag the night before, in the hope that by this stage in the Centurion 100 mile Grand Slam I should subconsciously know what I’d need.
A slightly nervous shuffle of kit and food on the train to Reading, but happily everything I needed was present and correct. All I needed was to pick up my pre-booked Tailwind from race HQ (what a great service from the Centurion online shop!) and I was all set.
The format of this race was a bit different. All the others I’ve done this year have been point to point, which are nice as you get to see (or maybe just experience) a decent stretch of the countryside. This was 4 out and backs, which meant less variation, but with the bonus that your whole drop bag was accessible every 25 miles. It also made calculating how long it was until the next checkpoint joyously easy.
About 20 minutes before kickoff it started pouring with rain, but thankfully it decided to give us a break just before the start and a blazing hot sun came out instead.
It was October, so I’d quite sensibly packed warm and waterproof clothes (which I was very glad of having later on), but getting sunburnt before lunchtime most unexpected.
Walking to the start line I had a good chat with Jon Fielden, outside of Strava I think this was the first time we’ve actually met in person, though I did see him at the Tooting 24h when I was lap counting for Jamie Holmes and a couple of others. Nice to meet internet friends in person!
I had some weird pacing plan, not based on reality, but instead on a 20 hour finish, and so I set off at a 4h marathon pace into the increasingly warm day.
This was not sustainable, and even with frequent water refills it was a “bit” of an effort to get back to Goring in a smidge over 4 hours At that point I pretty much ignored my plans and set off with the idea to run as fast as I could at a pace that I thought I could probably sustain, allowing for a bit of a slowdown, and hopefully a final kick in the last few miles.
This was how I’d run the other events this year, and I really don’t know why I’d decided to try something different.
Cat Simpson (winner of so many races) filled up my water bottles, I was too shy to say anything, but this is a great example of how nice the running community often is, where champions turn up to events like this and help others out where they can.
The lovely lady who not only told me where I could buy a nice coffee but also gave me some money deserves a special mention too.
Leg 2 was quite hilly and a little bit technical in places, the wide open fields were quite soft though and some time was made up there. Plenty of chatty people on the first half of this and time went by quickly.
Can’t remember if I had anything hot to eat back at Goring, but it was a pretty quick turnaround, and munching a bag of crisps I headed out into the dark (?) and towards the Ridgeway. Bit damp in places, but having my waterproof jacket in the big pocket of my pack meant it was on and over everything before I got cold (I saw James Elson do this at Country to Capital a few years ago, great trick). Somehow managed to do something weird to my headtorch just before the halfway point, so lost a few miunutes faffing around with it, before setting back off downhill to Goring, again.
I swung into the aid station half way for a quick bit of chat and to top up my tailwind supply, it was raining again and we all wondered why we were wearing shorts.
As I left I heard them say “that’s the way to do it”. In and out in under 2 minutes, very unlike the van full of people I could see huddling together out of the wind. I don’t move all that fast, but I reckon must gain a few places at every CP just because I don’t hang around (or eat anything – I have a deep suspicion of any food that might have had someone else’s dirty hands on it).
Back in Goring I briefly spoke to Debbie Martin-Consani (who was there to pace Sharon Law who finished in 19:24 and second lady), but I was a bit ultra-addled by that point and didn’t manage much more than a brief smile, such shame to waste another rare opportunity to say a proper hello to an internet friend.
Turbo was all set to pace me for the last marathon, and by this point I was really glad of some company. I hadn’t had any dark spots, and had been quietly trundling along, but after 15 hours mostly inside my own head it was good to have a friend to share the hardest part of the race with. We had lots to talk about as we set off along the Thames Path to Reading – the last out and back.
Also a lot of mud and rain. A huge amount of rain.
Turbo was great, she kept my pace up, took care of timings and as Olly had been doing, just became my brain for the next 5 hours.
I was getting cold just before the woods outside reading, but a brisk uphill hike sorted that out. It had got light by this point and someone was coming up behind us. With Ollys competitive spirit ringing in my ears I bounded off into the mud and picked up a few more places before slowing down into a steady jog. Turbo caught me up with a “don’t worry, you broke them, you can take it easy now!”. We laughed but with furtive looks over our shoulders kept the pace nice and chipper for the last mile.
Over the finish line in 21:36, in 30th place overall (out of 230 starters).
5th hundred miler of the year, the final piece of the Centurion Grand Slam, and a PB to boot. Lots of smiles.
Even though I didn’t eat much more than gels, a packet of saucisson and a couple of bags of crisps, the tailwind from the CPs along with the extra 4 sachets I’d bought did me perfectly well. Not once did I feel lacking in energy and nothing hurt or complained (apart from my shoulder, a swimming injury which I don’t think had any right to make a fuss on a run).
My stomach must have shut down though, as it instantly rejected the finish line hot dog, too much too soon maybe.
I probably could have gone faster with hindsight, but feel very happy that everything came together well, and recovery was equally smooth. Slightly sore quads for a day or so (my training didn’t involve any hills, I really should study course profiles a little better). Even my feet were fine, mostly because of the nice soft grass, compared to the gnarl of the North Downs.
The race was organised very well, and everything certainly seemed to go very smoothly. No fuss, helpful and efficient volunteers, excellent markings and fair and reasonable cut off times.
Everything we’ve come to expect from Centurion events, and if anything they just keep getting better. Really impressive.
I’m not sure if skimpy running shorts are ever appropriate to wear in public, but the prospect of 30 degree heat without wind, meant all modest thoughts were discarded along with my usual “100 mile” leggings.
Christian agreed, so at least I wasn’t the only one flashing gleaming white thighs at the Farnham locals at 5am on Saturday morning.
Given the race started at 6am I didn’t have much choice other than to go down the night before and stay in a hotel. I had dinner with Zoe and got the train from Waterloo. All fine and easy.
I’d booked a twin room, as I had before the South Downs Way, so that I could use the other bed to put kit on and faff around without having to put everything on the floor. The hotel was … horrible. Everything looked dirty and very old and worn out. I could hear people chattering in the next room, and it was also about 29 degrees with (obviously) no air conditioning. Needless to say I didn’t sleep particularly well, but I did sleep, eventually.
In a bid to have a half decent breakfast (at 4:30am, well before the hotel started producing edibles, if it even did), I’d packed a dehydrated meal. Great idea in principle, but the chilli was surprisingly spicy, and whilst it was an unexpectedly pleasant breakfast, it wasn’t really what my stomach was calling for.
Having got all my kit shuffling out of the way the night before, it was easy to fill water bottles and wander slowly to the race HQ, where I quickly got my pack checked, dumped my drop bags and got in the queue for another coffee.
Christian was there, sporting an impressive beard and looking very trim and much fitter than I felt. It was nice to chat to a friend whilst waiting for the actual start, rather than my usual routine of standing around failing to find someone to shoot the breeze with, and generally feeling a bit left out. One day I’ll just start talking to someone who looks just as lost, and maybe we’ll have enough to share to fill the dead time before James gets his megaphone out.
I fell in with Christians pace at the start, and we spent some very nice hours talking about … everything. We often have lunch together, but never really talk about the Big Important Things. Time went by quickly.
Given my lack of training (virtually non existent), I kept up much longer than I probably should have, until the rapid temperature increase forced me to peel off and try and sort myself out.
Christian loped off looking confident and relaxed, while I walked and jogged and slowly found a pace I could just about maintain without overheating.
Marissa, the ultra-junkie that she is, had set up a mini aid station on Reigate Hill (32 miles in), with bags of ice, cold coke and frozen calipos. I could have spent an hour there easily, getting my core body temperature down to some sensible level, but race pressure exerted itself and I was on my way quick-sharp, body packed in ice, brain finally working again.
That was easily the nicest part of the entire race, the relief of ice cold water and lollies after feeling that I’d been transported onto a desert was exquisite, and I really had to drag myself away, thankfully it was down a hill.
Many more hours and miles and water and gels passed. There were some ups, some downs, the occasional chat.
One or two dark moments where I was reduced to a sullen trudge, over rocky paths through endless featureless fields.
Eventually it got dark and I didn’t feel that I was going to be sick on my shoes, or that my heart was going to escape, every time I moved from an amble to a slow jog.
Staggering alongside the M25 as it bridged something too far away to distinguish, I lost the valve of a water bottle. I went back to try and find it among the litter and bits of car and lorry that had collected in the gutter. A quizzical text from Olly roused a sliver of rationality and pulled me out of my foggy stagger.
Blinking, I pointing myself the right way, and annoyed with the loss of time, picked up the pace and headed for the Bluebell Hill checkpoint where my exogenous brain / pacer / all round awesome looker-after-er type person waited.
Have you eaten anything?
Thought not, right, what do you want?
Anything that doesn’t look like it’s been rummaged through by someones arse scratching hand
Still fucking weird, aren’t you?
Is it cold? I can’t tell, I might need sleeves…
Cheese and ham thrust into my hand, fine.
My stomach didn’t think that much of it, but the rest of me did and off we set into the darkness for the final 26 miles, with Ashford and the finish line slowly pulling us in.
Everything was just so much easier now. My brain was fully functioning, and was managing to instruct my legs to keep up with Olly, whilst simultaneously talking about all sorts of shite (and also listening to much of the same).
I didn’t worry a jot about the trivialities now. Navigation, how far there was to go, whether to eat or not (not, generally). Delegated, the lot of it.
The trail went through some surprisingly technical sections, plus lots of steps and tangles of brambles. Sub 24 hours was starting to look worryingly out of reach.
Suddenly the uncomfortable trail relinquished us onto beautiful smooth paths and we flew past people as picked up pace for the final push.
Down through some fields then barreled our way into town, with only an occasional moan about sore feet, and crossed the line in 23 hours and 40 minutes.
Slower than I’d hoped, but the main goal was less than 24 hours, so very happy with that.
Christian was waiting for us, very relaxed and stately in his armchair and showing way too much leg for this time of the day. Turns out he only beat us by 5 minutes, so my “I’m coming for you Gnodtket” mantra had obviously magically slowed him down and sped me up. It certainly stopped me from dawdling.
Looking back, it was a really hot day, and I’m quite frankly amazed that I managed to keep up the sort of pace I did. There was a big section where I was feeling a bit gloomy and wasn’t really up for it, but generally I had a really good day out and, apart from my feet, nothing really hurt.
The lesson on food for me was that gels and tailwind don’t bother my stomach, but aren’t very exciting. I know, from lots of experience that when food is boring then it just doesn’t get eaten, but if I can get my head around that, then I’ll have enough energy and my stomach will be fine, which should be a good combination.
The organisation was, as ever, really slick and professional, and I recommend all Centurion events unhesitatingly.
I was expecting to find you hunched over your poles, headphones in, grinding through the dark miles with gritted teeth.
Are you sure you’ve just run 85 miles? I don’t think you’re supposed to be smiling.
This was my greeting from Olly as I came into the Southease checkpoint to find him tucking into the huge buffet laid out on the trestle tables. As is now usual I didn’t hang around and within 2 minutes we were hiking up the next steep ascent to pick up the now familiar rolling trails of the South Downs way.
I would have been smiling if I knew I was in Cocking
Apart from the blistering heat, and a recurring, searing, breathtaking pain in my left knee, it had been a nice and easy day. Plenty of friendly people to chat to, some cyclists to banter with (I kept overtaking the same ones on every uphill), and lots of well stocked aid stations to break up the miles.
It wasn’t as hot as it had been on the Thames Path, but there were still plenty of people falling by the vomit streaked wayside. There was less shade perhaps, the bulk of the route follows a high ridge without much tree cover. Also we weren’t far off the longest day of the year so the delicious cool of the night took an age to finally arrive.
Even then it wasn’t actually cold, apart from a brief chilly moment when I changed my vest for a t-shirt, and that was mostly because I’d been walking for a while as a concession to my complaining knee.
Just making it harder by keeping my eyes shut
I’d never had a pacer before, and this was Ollys first time pacing someone, so I think both of us were a little bit apprehensive about how it would work out. There was always work to fall back on; he recruits data scientists for a living, I am an aspiring one. So we could always bluff about how much statistics we knew and trade mutual acquaintance related gossip.
Thank goodness it didn’t come to that.
The nicest thing about having someone join me for the last 20 odd miles, was that I could pretty much turn my brain off and let them navigate and remind me to eat and drink. Also having someone to talk to was great. I might be a bit quiet at work sometimes (it’s called being focused, actually), but stick a pair of running shoes on me and I’ll talk the arse off a donkey (not that that’s a thing, but you get my point).
This was Ollys first proper night run too, so it was actually a proper adventure for him, not just an exercise in keeping me moving fast enough so he didn’t get too cold.
My knee pain was a mystery, it really had come out of nowhere and was ridiculously painful. Not the deep, sharp stabs of the red-hot needle of a stress fracture, nor the instantly disabling agony of a torn muscle.
I’d kept it under control for 15 hours with a mixture of friendly and understanding chatter and easy walking when it really made a fuss.
The talking aspect was bolstering my budding theory that one can strengthen the neural pathways involved in sorting out attention-seeking body parts without cadging drugs off strangers (how could I think that was a good idea?).
No, I reckon that by just thinking hard about the sore parts, and speaking to them out loud, you can encourage your brain to send whatever the rights things are needed to sort things out.
It certainly provides a form of distraction and can pass for a twisted sort of entertainment on very long runs.
Having a deep conversation with myself
I was patiently explaining this to Olly while we were on another pain induced walking break, when he just looked at me with his head tilted sideways (as anyone would look at a dusty simpleton, in a field, in the middle of the night) and interrupted with:
Mate, stop talking bollocks.
Your hamstring is tight, and it’s pulling that stretchy thing on the side of your leg, and that’s pulling some other thing which is making some knee bone-but-not-bone pieces rub together.
Which hurt like hell.
Stop and stretch, you’ll be fine, I promise you.
(It may have been more anatomically accurate, but that’s how I remember it).
No no no, I patiently admonished, you’re missing the point, it can’t be my hamstring, because…
Actually, he was right, of course he was right.
I might have found a way of dulling the pain to ignorable levels, but the cause was indeed my hamstring. I was too sleep deprived to be anything other than sheepishly grateful, and after a really long stretch at Alfriston (91 miles) we picked up the pace and flew along, banging out 11 minute miles to the finish line (they felt like 7 minute miles in my defence).
In terms of kit and food, I’m very happy with splashing out on a very fancy Salomon rucksack (“It’s not a bag, it’s a carrying solution”), which was really comfortable, could fit loads of food in the front pockets and after some initial fiddly faffing had easily refillable soft flasks.
Again, like the Thames Path 100, I didn’t eat very much, and again nothing from the aid stations apart from the hot food at the half way point. I’d rather carry more weight than risk eating what was on someones hands while they’d rummaged through the crisps, but then again I can be a bit OCD about that sort of thing.
I did get a bit bored of saucisson and flapjacks, so finding a bag of crunchy M&Ms in my final drop bag probably made my race.
Massive shout out to the Centurion crew for superb organisation, there were a lot of runners out on the trails, and keeping everyone safe and on course for (just under!) a hundred miles is a truly impressive achievement.
These are the notes I wrote on the train home from Yorkshire after dropping out of the race at Hawes, after 110 miles and 39 hours. They’re unedited and pretty … honest.
Spine 2018 Problems
Getting what felt like severe DOMS in my quads after Sunday night was definitely due to getting cold and wet, but the medic said not eating enough can also contribute. They do feel slightly better after a rest but still can’t sit down without support. The pain was constant and much much worse on downhills. I could have gritted it out, but the thought of 4 more days was too much. Wonder whether running the downhills contributed to this too?
Really bad chafing of bum cheeks and upper thighs. Never been this bad before. Lots of blood when I stopped at Gargrave, put more body glide on but the pain came back quickly. It pretty much hurt all the way from Horton to Hawes, and serious pain too, I was sharply exhaling (baby contractions style) for hours. Torture. Wonder if this happened because I’ve put on a lot of weight? This alone was painful enough to drop out, because it was an almost constant sharp pain. Occasionally I managed to put it in the background but it didn’t stay there for long. Wonder whether being so wet for so long also exacerbated this, the top part of my leggings were wet when I took them off at Hawes.
Too many sweet things and not enough nice things to eat, also often felt sick at the thought of eating. The pizza wasn’t that nice, and when I ate shot blox they felt horrible on my teeth. John gave me some jelly fruit things which were soft and very easy to eat. Didn’t like the tribe bar I ate, why didn’t I test them? Didn’t like the pizza pocket things at all. Should have eaten more when I had a chance, especially the dehydrated food, could even eat on the move. Taking tea in my stove pot worked really well, saved time and helped warm up after stopping.
New mittens were rubbish when wet. Thought they were waterproof but no. Also had a fleecy lining which retained water, had to turn them inside out and wring them out! Why didn’t I test them?! Meant my hands were often cold and had very limited chances to dry everything out. With my sealskinz ones they were breathable which meant my hands would dry out, like my legs. When I got to Horton my hands looked like I’d been in the bath for hours.
Hacking cough set in very early, just after Horton. So bad thought I was going to be sick.
Brown and pink pee. The medics thought it was just dehydration, but I drank lots between Horton and Hawes and went for multiple pees, and it was still brown at Hawes. Fine after more fluid and a lie down, but still pretty worrying, and another negative thing that starts eating away.
Feet didn’t get particularly cold so think the wool injinji and winter drymax combo worked, but they seemed wetter than when I’ve used sealskinz. Wore the big inov8 shoes and they were super comfy and feet didn’t hurt at all (apart from toes, obviously).
Didn’t pick up the second map as thought the first one went almost to Hawes, but it stopped just after Horton. Didn’t have enough extra batteries for GPS and they ran out at the top of Cam Road. If I hadn’t been with John would have struggled, and definitely missed the left turn at the top as it wasn’t signed. Why didn’t I check the map properly and check how many batteries my Garmin needed?
It was almost impossible to wake up my Garmin to see my position with the new mittens, so very hard to do a quick check. Again, why didn’t I test? This meant every time I wanted to look at it I’d get frustrated and annoyed, which didn’t help the overall mindset.
The run/walk combo was great, meant I covered a lot of ground, and coupled with low faffing meant very good progress. Just need to make sure get enough to eat.
New hat was good, but needed a buff when it got very cold to keep it close to my ears. Also it was thin enough to dry out when my hood was up and it stopped raining.
I felt like I was fighting the mud and rain, rather than going with it and picking a good path. When I got my head in the right place I just flowed along, but it kept going really negative. Was particularly fed up at Gargrave when I spoke to Zoe, long night of being cold and wet, was totally pissed off about my mittens.
Didn’t take my iPhone from CP1, figured I didn’t need the weight, but that meant when I started getting low I couldn’t listen to the playlist I’d sorted out. Kicking myself at the time. Also meant I couldn’t take the call from Phil. If I’d had music to distract me I think things could have been a lot less miserable on that last leg (and maybe beyond).
The top part of my Garmin holder broke off which annoyed me as it’s much more secure and easy to get at than the pouch. Fixable but I should really have made it more secure or found a different place for it.
Lack of training didn’t help. 9 months of 20-30 miles a week (slowly) isn’t ideal.
It’s very much like sailing. You need to make sure everything is completely ship shape Bristol fashion or when the weather etc kicks in everything falls off.
It’s really fucking hard and deserves a significant amount of planning and preparation. A small issue can rapidly get worse and can completely derail everything.
I seriously thought about all the blogs I’ve read about people who DNF and then regret it within a few days, and took that into consideration. I’m aware that in the moment everything is truly awful but that as soon as you stop it starts fading, so I really needed to concentrate hard and distinguish between normal pain and stop pain. Also whether I thought that the stop pain would fade after a rest (the medic said it would likely get worse). Losing all my toenails and having painful toes whenever they knocked into something is normal, but every step shouldn’t be horrible.
I’m really glad I pushed on for another 5 hours to Hawes and didn’t make the call until I’d had a sleep. It meant I kept my options open (though I was definitely leaning towards stopping).
Pain aside, all my kit issues were doing my head in and I wasn’t cognitively able to resolve them, Zoe said she’d muster the troops but it just seemed like way too much effort, I honestly couldn’t be arsed. Basically by that point my heart wasn’t in it and I didn’t want it (the finish) enough.
When I told the race staff I was “done”, they tried to talk me out of it, when I said every step was agony they sympathised.
So, what have I learnt?
Test new kit. Better planning , especially around the details.
Beware overconfidence, it doesn’t take much to derail things.
Figure out food. The cake and flapjacks were spot on.
Test food and kit in a run or if possible race situation.
Even though I didn’t get to listen to any, I really think music would really help to lift me out of low points.
Don’t forget how much this stuff hurts, 100 miles on a track is a very different thing.
Thoughts for Centurion 100 mile Grand Slam
Run/walk combo is definitely the way, practice this so that all the right muscles are strong.
Test food. Maybe rely a lot on super starch as it seems to really work. Supplement with cake?
Figure out the chafing, lose weight then do some long run/walks and see if it’s ok.
Do some more testing with my head torch and figure out how to get longer battery life. It was plenty bright enough but didn’t last very long at all, possibly as it got cold.
Don’t be complacent. These are still 100 mile trail races and will hurt, so do everything possible to minimise this. Do research, train, test things.
Micro-goals are a really good motivator, my bit of paper with landmarks and distance between really helped. Also lets you calibrate speed in terms of mph. Just had a simple watch and worked it out, really good. Definitely consider putting gps watch in pack not on wrist.
Buy an iPod shuffle or similar, small and long battery life so don’t need my heavy phone.
Carry as little weight as possible, and don’t stop unless really need to.
Get strong, get fitter and practice run/walk for long distances.
Started well. Faltered. Stumbled. Stopped. Didn’t finish.
Did Not Finish. DNF. My first (proper) one.
I’ve run enough races and read enough race reports that bailing out before the finish line was not something I took lightly. I’ve got enough buried regrets without adding to the pile, especially when doing something so inherently selfish.
On my way home from Yorkshire (I at least managed the fun run distance of 110 miles) I wrote down what was in my head, knowing full well that time always softens memories, especially bad ones. My notes are pretty fresh and raw so I’ll add them in a separate post. They still make me wince now, 5 months later.
It really wasn’t all bad, in fact quite the opposite. The first day was actually rather a jolly affair; motoring quickly along and making remarkably good time. I didn’t really talk to anyone, or rather nobody really wanted to chat (to me at least), and somehow the race seemed different to the one I ran 2 years ago.
There were a lot more people for one thing, and for some reason they all had various stuffed animals hanging off their rucksacks. One chap was wearing a velvet top hat (the technical version presumably).
For a supposedly brutal race this all seemed very frivolous, but maybe I was just even grumpier than usual. Having to ditch a load of stuff from my drop bag on race morning may have had something to do with that.
The marshals were a lot stricter than before (actually weighing bags) and I felt much more of a number than a person, which is always a big turn off for me in any kind of event. I do understand why they needed to be less lenient with weight, twice the number of runners means a lot more effort behind the scenes.
Once we were off it was all good, like it always is, nothing like some fresh air in the lungs and a few miles in the legs to get your head back in the right place.
I sang songs and smiled at anyone I saw. It was a good day.
Normal service had been resumed all round, with super friendly people at road crossings and checkpoints. I was even intercepted by a friends sister Lucy, who walked with me for a while and gave me chance to have a nice chat over a bag of haribos.
I got to the first checkpoint feeling really good and didn’t plan to spend much time there: quick kit change, some food and off. Which is exactly what I did, as well as making a small silly mistake which was to have a huge impact about 12 hours later.
On the face of it, chucking my iPhone in my drop bag seemed perfectly reasonable. I had my small Nokia for emergencies and why carry all that extra weight?
Erm, because it’s got that awesome playlist on it. The one that you knew you’d need when you felt really miserable in the cold and dark. The music that you’d spent hours and hours choosing to be as uplifting as possible.
Oh yeah. That’s why I was supposed to keep it in my pack.
Fast forward 12 hours and I was indeed very miserable. The euphoria of the first day had quite literally been wrung out of me by continuous lashing rain and howling wind.
Oh and I think my jacket needs reproofing.
I was properly wet, and very cold. My sense of humour had long since seeped into the omnipresent mire, leaving me barking helplessly into the wind.
At one point I caught myself swearing loudly at a particularly large muddy puddle.
“Oh come on! You have got to be FUCKING joking! FUCKS SAKE YOU COCK FUCKING MUD. Fucking FUCK BAG! SHIT PISS CUNTHOLES!”
It was so ridiculous (and such rubbish swearing) that I almost smiled, shame I didn’t have a nice piece by Paul Simon to take the edge off things. Or a good 90s power ballad.
Instead I gritted my teeth and marched onwards, obsessively projecting pace and timing to the next point where I could legitimately stop for a brief distracting moment to eat and drink something, preferably hot.
Long events have ups and downs, events that span multiple days with severe sleep deprivation have many highs and lows. It’s all part of the fun.
Actually it’s all part of the challenge, and how you manage both of these emotional states is a large factor in the eventual outcome.
It’s very easy to get carried away and go too hard when you’re riding a high. You can inadvertently damage muscles and/or cause hot spots. Both of which are easily missed beneath the delicious endorphins sloshing around your system.
It’s equally easy to slip into a self reinforcing downwards spiral when everything isn’t quite going to plan.
If you don’t manage your mind properly it can fester on the smallest pain or problem, blowing it out of proportion and crowding out all other thoughts. Sometimes it can even cycle through a load of these, and the overwhelming feeling becomes one of despair and hopelessness in the face of such insurmountable barriers.
You can know all that, and still fall foul of them. I didn’t really notice I was going too hard on the first day (though being in the top 20 was a bit of a giveaway), but I was fully aware of what a depressing pit of doom I’d sunk into.
I just didn’t seem to be able to pull myself out, and I tried. A lot.
It didn’t help that some more things went wrong, mostly due to overconfident planning, and mostly avoidable (or at least a backup plan should have been ready to kick in).
Ultimately I chose to stop, some might say refused to continue. I know I could have finished, I had before after all, so knew it was physically possible. The spark from the first day had gone out, and the prospect of dragging my painful arse (literally) to Scotland with gritted teeth just wasn’t something I was prepared to do.
So I failed to complete the whole thing, but interesting it didn’t, and doesn’t, feel like a failure.
The jolt to my complacency, and realisation that my body needs a lot more attention than it’s been getting has really changed my attitude.
I’ve been reflecting on my notes, which cover various aspects of both race preparation and the race itself. Physical and mental.
It’s been very beneficial and I honestly feel like I’ve learnt a lot more about myself and ultra distances than I expected to.
The lessons have already manifested themselves in positive ways, the Thames Path 100 went exceedingly well (more on that another time). I’m looking forward to the South Downs Way 100 in two weeks and I’ve entered my first triathlon.