The hidden secrets of 24 hour track races

Articles
Originally published in issue 11 of https://www.ultra-magazine.com

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.

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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.

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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.”

Anonymous:

“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?

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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?

Tired? Yes.
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 …

Then head to the track

You’re guaranteed a PB.

 

1

Autumn 100, 2018 – Race Report

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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!

There’s always time for one more coffee

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.

No race is complete without some kit faffage

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).

SUPER happy!

5th hundred miler of the year, the final piece of the Centurion Grand Slam, and a PB to boot. Lots of smiles.

Very wet!

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.

https://www.strava.com/activities/1904528445

North Downs Way 100, 2018 – Race Report

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Sit down.

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

Right.

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.

Marvelous.

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.

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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.

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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.

https://www.strava.com/activities/1750622787

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South Downs Way 100 – Race Report

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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).

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“Flying”

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Done!

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.

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Champions!

https://www.strava.com/activities/1628930636

 

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Can I sit down now?

The Spine Race 2018 – Post Race Notes

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Spine Race 2018 (DNF) – Race Report

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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.

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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.

Oops.

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.

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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.

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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.

Fingers crossed!

My notes from immediately after the race.

https://www.strava.com/activities/1361810393

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Tooting 24h Track Race – 2017

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It turns out that just as there are different kinds of pain, there are different kinds of listening too.

There’s a silly joke that somehow managed to become my overriding training motivator:

If I listened to my body, I’d never get out of bed

No wonder I kept getting injured.

I’m standing at the starting line on the 400 meter track in Tooting Bec, waiting along with 46 others for the signal to start our journey to self transcendence (hopefully) by running, walking or crawling as many laps as we can over the following 24 hours.

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Not for the first time I reflect that I really have no business being here, I haven’t been able to train properly for 5 months (3 of those didn’t involve any running whatsoever) and should have given up my place to someone more deserving.

I didn’t though, the need to be part of an event is like the irresistible lure of a narcotic, an itch that hasn’t been scratched for over a year. This isn’t just any old event either, encapsulating nearly everything I love about long distance running, especially the small field and quirky mix of runners and supporters. Most ultra runners think 24h track racing is weird, let alone the general population, and that suits me just fine, presumably because I feel comfortable in the mix.

People are drawn to this race (and type of event) for various reasons; curiosity to how far they can run without the distractions of navigating (or distractions of any kind!), attempting to qualify for national teams, or maybe just to see what the fuss is all about.

I’m glad I did turn up. I ended up having the best race I’ve ever had, and I wasn’t even racing.

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No PB, no great epiphanies, no new friendships forged from grinding out painful mile after mile together. I ran and walked 101.7 miles, and nothing really hurt very much. I was happy and calm (most of the time), tested different food than I normally eat (partial win), experimented with a very controlled caffeine intake (fail – fell asleep for an hour!) but above all I listened to my body.

A few months ago I saw a therapist to help me give up smoking (hardly a useful habit, even if you don’t have aspirations of being called an athlete), mostly using hypnosis to allow me to think clearly and calmly, without distractions.

The session worked and over the course of it a couple of, ahem, “matters requiring attention” broke free from their shackles, and now out in the open couldn’t really be ignored for much longer.  I booked myself back in for some follow up discussions.

We’ve all got issues, and they affect us in different ways. I learnt a lot about myself over the subsequent months, but importantly we didn’t dwell on what caused those destructive tangled pathways and instead were very focused on the future. Considering how to apply the lessons I’d learned, looking ahead with a slightly raised chin, that little bit better equipped mentally, and a feeling of being a smidge more in control of my destiny.

You can hear noises without listening to their meaning or content, the sound waves pass through your passive body, or the signals from nerves dissipate without triggering any response.

Automatons and reflexes manage to cover the bulk of events that manage to break though the first barrier, and even if some thought is required, you’re often in autopilot mode. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: we don’t have the time or capacity to employ deep thinking for everything that comes along.

There are some things, and some times, when a good listen is the only appropriate action, when ignoring it could lead to your relationship breaking up, or irreversible health deterioration, or something else you really don’t want to happen. The big stuff, or the big life changing outcomes at any rate.

It’s easy to gloss over lots of things in your life that seem to be the norm, an innate and unchangeable part of your personality, but sitting in a quiet room, wrapped in a warm blanket with nothing else to do for an hour, with a non judgemental, objective listener, who was asking good questions, has a way of allowing you to question some of those.

For example I hadn’t considered the relationship between my mind and my body. (I’ll spare you the other revelations).

“Relationship” sounds daft, but of course they’re related, and both can affect the other. Generally it seems that the mind decides and the body obeys. Certainly in my case anyway, and most of the time my body does what it’s told, until it just stops and refuses to play any more.

When I dug deeper, it became clear that over the last year or so I’d become angry and upset with my misbehaving physical parts.  I’d begun doling out punishment in the form of withheld rest, booze and gruelling workouts in return for the disappointment of injury which was thwarting my grandiose plans of running successes.

When prompted to remember times when I was in a better place, two races came to mind immediately. One was the Crawley 12h track race, when I felt that I was gliding effortlessly along above the ground, in a very happy place. The other was surprisingly the Spine Race: I remember being in complete awe of my legs, I kept eating and they just kept moving, for days and days, with no complaints.

I need more of those kinds of memories.

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As I gently trundled around the Tooting track a large chunk of my attention was constantly assessing pain levels. Nothing unusual about that, but I was very clear that I’d stop if anything hurt too much, something I’ve never allowed myself to think before.

I had some secret and not so secret mileage goals, but for the first time wasn’t all that bothered whether I hit them or not, they were further down the priority list than finishing in one piece.

My race plan had been to start slowly and slow down, but I hadn’t anticipated being behind the 83 year old for over 7 hours! Thankfully he slowed down a bit and let me save some face.

I knew better than to chase the “sprinters”, some inevitability burnt themselves out, but a few kept up an amazing pace for the entire race. Norbert Mihalik ran 161 miles, that’s 6 back to back 4 hour marathons… mind blowing.

A few friendly faces turned up at different times and provided a bit of distraction, not that I was particularly bored, but it was nice to see Debbie and Martin, who have been very involved in my running ups and downs, as well as giving me food experimentation ideas (and incredibly useful nutrition and training plans).

Marissa popped in for a while for some nice chats and to drop off some more food and water, all very much appreciated, as was my now very neatly organised table.

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James and Ben swung by on their way to the pub, then decided to stick around and cheer me on for a couple of hours instead. They provided some good entertainment but I was very tempted to stop for a can of beer and some pizza!

Ben even came back the next morning on his long run, ostensibly to make sure I was ok but I suspect to take photos of the mess he anticipated finding. He took the disappointment well and did some kit maintenance chores for me.

Anna B was lap counting during the night, and her whooping and cheering really helped me to keep smiling, even though by that point I was staggering all over the place like a drunk. I think it was due to lack of caffeine but it could be lack of practice too – training your child to make their own breakfast at the weekend is so worth it.

My family and in laws turned up for the last hour, which was just the best thing ever. The shouts of “come on daddy, run!” even got me out of my ultra shuffle for a few laps.

Even though I covered a lot of miles without any training – which I think demonstrates that a strong base fitness and endurance level does last a long time – I definitely suffered in other aspects. My feet hurt a lot, and I didn’t make it through the night without sleeping, neither of which are typically a problem in a relatively short race like this. Also I was incredibly tired and hungry for the next week, so my recovery was a bit slower than normal.

I’m still unrealistically ambitious, but I’ve got a new angle now. Lots of attention to what I actually need, from better core strength to more sleep and less time exercising (really!).

I want to be able to run as I get older, at any speed, much more than I want to win any races.  

Listen to those niggles, they need just as much attention as a hungry belly, and get that foam roller out of the cupboard, it’s your new best mate.

https://www.strava.com/activities/1189585698

 

Relax. Eat. Drink. Keep moving.

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Relax. Eat. Drink. Keep moving.
I’ve gone from about as fit as I’ve ever been to not feeling very fit at all over the last 6 months.  The fitness/freshness chart below sums it up better than I can:


So what makes me think I have any business getting ready for the Tooting 24h race tomorrow?
If I’m totally honest it’s mostly curiosity.
I know I can grit my teeth and grind out mile after mile, that’s the main reason for the last two injuries after all, but I wonder how much endurance and stamina remains after week upon week of no training, bad food and wine.
Six months ago I was running 80 miles a week, I’ve been happy with 30 recently, at a glacial pace. Any longer or faster just makes my still-not-right hamstring flare up.
It’s an experiment, starting tomorrow at midday.
Wish me luck!