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

 

Country to Capital 2017 – Race Report

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“Daddy, pretend that bear is happy”
“Ok”

“Go on then”

“I am pretending”

“No daddy, you have to say it too”

The Country to Capital 45 mile race marks the start of the UK ultra season, and (I think) this was the tenth year it’s been staged.

Starting at the Wendover Red Lion pub in one of the shires, it follows muddy footpaths through some lovely countryside before picking up the Grand Union canal at roughly the half way mark.

Finishing in Little Venice near Paddington means getting home is a doddle (if you live in London anyway).
It’s extremely well organised. Registration was a breeze, and the frequent aid stations were well stocked with friendly smiles and heaps of cake.

They even delayed the 8:30 start slightly to allow people arriving off the 8:15 train from Marylebone to register and drop their bags off.

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Turbo in good spirits

This was to be my final tune up race before Crawley, a chance to test my pace and fuelling plan.

The plan. There’s always a plan.

Mine was to avoid bonking by eating frequently, stopping as little as possible and finish somewhere near the sharp end without doing myself any more damage.

The Thursday before the race, I’d left work to trot the usual 10k home and went straight out into a filthy snow and sleet storm.

Despite wearing skimpy shorts and no gloves, I thought I’d soon warm up and tucking my chin in bravely barged my way into the wall of frozen sky.

I didn’t warm up. At all. In fact I was frozen in no time, and a miserable 50 minutes later limped the final few meters with ridiculously sore legs.

Not being a doctor or in any way professionally qualified to comment on the optimal operating and recovery temperature of muscle cells, I do have anecdotal evidence from a few years of running.

They seem to work better when they’re warm.

A cold bath can reduce soreness after a long run, but icy cold during exercise just means poorly functioning body parts, that don’t recover quickly.

My legs still didn’t feel right, in fact they hurt horribly throughout the race.
The canal section called for gritted teeth and the “just give it up and walk” part of myself needing a stern talking to.

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When strava meets reality, nice to meet you Brynn

The first half was really nice though, crispy frosty fields and picking up 24h race tips from the affable James Elson, even if he did accidentally make me sad.

I was working pretty hard, but could still hold a conversation, James was clearly just out for a Saturday morning jog, and remarked that this was his 24 hour pace.

My 6 hour pace was his 24 hour pace. Good lord.

Better eat something.

The cake went down very well, but sadly I had too little food overall and pretty much ignored the eating part of my strategy.

Apart from breakfast, I covered 45 miles in just over 6 hours on: 2 snickers, 500ml of mountain fuel and 3 small squares of fruitcake. Nowhere near enough and I paid the price with a decreasing pace and prolonged recovery.

I wasn’t even that hungry at the end, I think my stomach had given up on me. A hot cup of tea did go down very well.

I was very pleased with my time, finishing just behind the first lady, but it required a lot more fighting than I was hoping for.

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Nice sit down at the end

The lesson? It’s all very well having a plan, but if you don’t follow it you may as well be pretending.

To quote my 6 year old:

It doesn’t count if it’s just in your head, you have to do it too

Obligatory strava link

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Happy bears, silly voices optional

It’s all in your head.  Or is it?  An alternative report of the LakeLand 100

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I wasn’t going to write this, or rather, when I started thinking about writing a race report, I was in such a dark mood that it didn’t seem fair or reasonable to inflict the miserable torrent of words on anybody.

Since then I’ve had some time to reflect, run over the paps of Jura and immerse myself in normal life for a few weeks, my mood has lightened but I still haven’t quite figured out what I left on those Lake District fells.

You can enter a race to finish, or you can enter a race to compete.  Either way you need to have a clear idea of your goals, and be prepared to put the right amount of preparation in.  Managing your own expectations is key.

The race also known as the Ultra Tour of the Lake District, is actually 105 miles (the extra 5 miles were free apparently, nice touch). 

The route doesn’t hit any of the main peaks, but still manages to rack up a hefty 22,000 foot of ascent and descent. Starting (and finishing) in Coniston it takes you on a huge clockwise loop, taking in loads of beautiful views, calf screaming ascents and terrifying technical descents.

It’s bloody lovely.

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On the face of it, I had a great race, and the race itself was brilliant. Well organised, beautiful weather, plenty of like minded people to chat to (and follow, negating the need to use my map and road book).

Placing 28th overall in a shade over 27 hours put me in the top 8%. With 345 runners and a cut off of 40 hours, this was a sterling performance however you look at it.

I’d quietly hoped to do better though, which is where the problems lie.

My secondary goal, the one I actually spoke out loud, was to get back before my friend Ben and make it to the pub before it closed (11 hours before the cut off).

In Ben’s words:

You’re racing someone who isn’t even doing the same race, what’s wrong with you?!

His arbitrary target for the 50 miler was to get back before it got dark (because he’d never navigated by torch light before), which meant that our finishing times should align. Sounded like a race to me!

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I beat Ben by about an hour, so why do I feel like I DNF’d the 100?

I was very positive throughout the race, happy and chatty, no dark patches or times when I ran out of energy (kudos to Debbie for nutrition advice). 

It seemed like the Spine support and running crew had turned out en-mass.  It was really nice to catch up with various people and it’s always a great boost seeing a familiar face when you’re deep into a tough race.

At one point I even had a nice chat with running legend (hero!)  Debbie Martin-Consani, who even recognised my name (presumably from being Strava-stalked, she was all smiles nonetheless).

I had one slight wobble just before the Ambleside checkpoint. The sun broke through the clouds just long enough for me to overheat (about 4 minutes), but a short sit down and some water soon sorted me out. This had the added benefit of forever ruling out the Marathon de Sables – if I can’t cope with sunshine in Northern England, the Sahara desert is definitely out of bounds!  I’m more of a mud and drizzle sort-of-a chap.

Nothing was really sore, and everything was still in good working order, but about 10 miles from the end I quietly gave up.

Didn’t stop moving, though I slowed down a bit, and still felt positive, I just, don’t know, stopped caring about my finishing position. 

I remember thinking that if I walked the rest of the way, I’d probably still be in under 28 hours and that would be just fine thanks.

I didn’t actually or consciously give up, or decide that I’d stopped racing, it’s more like I forgot about earlier goals and the driving spark just went out.

Mind mutiny?

If it wasn’t for the fact that I was running with Lee who was still going strong, I probably would have walked. This was his first 100 – what a machine!

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For weeks afterwards I wallowed in a depressive fug and groggily tried to dissect what had actually happened.

At first it seemed that the day of the race was guilty.

We’d got stuck on the M6, and instead of having a lazy afternoon fettling my gear in the sunshine, it’d been a mad dash to get kit checked, packed and into the briefing. For a few hours I thought I might even miss the start of the race (one of my recurring anxiety dreams).

On top of all that, I’d been pretty relaxed about what I’d need and hadn’t really thought it all through. Resulting in a load of other errors: crappy old pack that chafed my lower back horribly, a near empty bar of body glide (at one checkpoint I asked if they had vaseline, and nearly took them up on the closest thing available – butter), baggy annoying shorts and heaps of heavy stuff I didn’t use.

No doubt that all contributed.

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At some point (probably when I got my feet wet in a bog) lots of memories of the Spine race came flooding back. They weren’t the good memories either. Then and there I decided to pull out of next years race, and actually the next two races I had planned (Ultra Tour Monte Rosa, King Offas Dyke).

All standard stuff for anyone who runs long distances, so what else?

Deep down I want to be good at this. I can’t run very fast, but I can keep on going when others fall by the wayside. 

Everyone wants to be good at something, I think I’m a not bad nerdy mathys type, I’d just really love to be good at running.

The realisation that I wasn’t going to make it into the top 20 was the final motivation killer.

Of course I had no right to expect that based on time off due to injury and a lackadaisical training regime, but those points only occurred to me recently.

Unrealistic expectations.

Last year I came 3rd in the Crawley 12h, recovered from a stress fracture and completed The Spine Race. Somehow I thought that meant I’d do well at anything I tried.

You get out what you put in.  Yes it’s a cliche, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

My next target is a 24h track race next April. In the meantime I’ve taken a large dose of humility, am planning a proper training and nutrition plan and am slowly starting to enjoy running again.

The mountains will have to wait for a bit.

I’ll keep hoping, I’ll keep keep training.

Never give up.

No goubunku.

Obligatory Strava link

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South Downs Way 50 – Race Report

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Go out fast and hang on as long as possible

When that’s your last minute race plan, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you’re not going to have a “fun” day.


First woke up at 2am when the child got into bed with me. Alarm went off at 4:40, ten minutes later managed to rouse myself wondering what I was thinking drinking a bottle of wine last night and staying up past midnight. Rookie errors all round.
Make brekkie and stumble into a cab, making sure not to forget bag of mini saucisson: race food experimentation.

Nice journey to Worthing with the other horses from the stable.

Everyone spends most of the journey eating and moving kit between race packs and drop bags.

Starts to rain when we arrive, which suits me fine.


The rain looks like it might stay away and the forecast is good, means more kit shuffling – we’re going to be hot very soon as the route goes straight up a hill.


Surprised by how many people there are at registration, feels very different from other UK trail races I’ve done.

All very well organised though and it’s not long before we’re off.

Bump into Mark from the spine, ask him how his feet are then quickly apologise, no doubt he’s had enough of that question (though if you’ve seen the photos you’d ask too, stuff of nightmares).

Concentrate on overtaking as many people as possible, running faster than I have since last August, heart rate over 170 which feels weird after months of SLOW training at 136.

Weather clears up, feeling happy and sprightly and keep up a good pace into CP1 at 11 miles.

Don’t stop and head straight off up the next hill, nibbling sausages.

The glute I tore two weeks ago has set up a persistent complaint, the other one and both hamstrings soon join in.

Decide to ignore them and keep pushing on, despite inevitable telling off from physio and subsequent lingering pain.

Pass the fields of pigs, respectfully wait until I’m out of sight before having another sausage.

Get to next CP at the 17 mile point, top up water, grab 2 biscuits and a jelly baby and head off into the rapidly warming day.

Starting to feel a bit heavy and sluggish, the wine from last night and lack of training adding to the cacophony of “body parts requiring attention”.

Actually realise am feeling decidedly peculiar. Very hot, very heavy and on the verge of being sick. Decide to slow down and force some food down, and drink more. Very aware that it’s far too early in the day to vomit and still make it to the finish.

Soon pass a digger and a massive mound of stinking black stuff, speculate that it must be condensed farmyard excrement. It takes a lot of willpower to keep what little food I have in my stomach, in my stomach.

Spend some time thinking that the sloshing from my water bottle is very annoying and it needs to be upgraded to a soft flask like the other one, even if letting the excess coke fizz out does feel like you’re milking yourself. Disconcerting, but makes me laugh.

Feeling better arrive at CP3, 27 miles. Look at the ham sandwiches, stomach says no, take a bite anyway. Whole body says no, compromise on two biscuits and a jelly baby. Head back out up yet another hill.

Relish the thought that it’s over half way. Concentrate on keeping the pace up and drinking water. Eat the odd sausage and some shot blox.

Remind myself for the hundredth time today that I must buy new trail shoes, 500 miles isn’t so bad, but after 5 years they have zero cushioning left and I can feel every pebble on the amply pebbled trails.

Next couple of CPs come and go, fill up with coke and water, supplement the biscuit diet with a cherry tomato and a couple of satsuma segments. Worry that there is going to be a lot of leftovers.

Skip the last CP as only 4 miles to the end, slide down the sticky muddy path to Eastbourne and push as hard as I can along the horrible flat road to the end.

Can’t stomach anything other than the food of champions at this point (snickers), luckily always have a few stuffed in my pockets.

Knew about the lap of the track at the finish, but still seems like a cruel joke.

Finish in 8h 47m, 72nd finisher. Chuffed.

Very surprised to find my fellow stablemates cheering and hugging me, wtf? Surely I would have noticed them coming past me? After some confused questions realise they dropped out at 27m and got a cab to the end.

Shower, hot dog then back on train to London (with wine).

Despite feeling ropey for a while, and the lack of training making everything hurt much more than it should have, had a good day out.

Very well organised and amazing support. Definitely up for more races at this distance, very pleasant contrast to the spine.

Wish I’d put some sun cream on though, ouch.

Oh, and the sausage experiment?  Nice and tasty, but a little too strong after a while – need something milder…

[obligatory strava link]

Fancy an adventure? Maybe the Spine Race is for you!

race

Step.  Step.  Step. Step.

Keep moving.

Keep. Moving.

My watch says I’m moving at 1.4 miles an hour, I glance ahead through the swirling snow and mist at the fence and hill visible in the dimming light of my head torch, and doubt I’m even moving that quickly.

This was supposed to be an easy section, just 4 miles between refuge huts somewhere in the Cheviots.  I’d even allowed a small amount of optimism to trickle through the barriers.

No food left in my pack, not much remaining in the group (I’d already done a few rounds up and down the line asking people to share anything they had).  Breaking fresh trail through deep snow drifts was sapping dangerously low energy levels.  The biting cross wind snatched all warmth as soon as movement ceased.

I’d been on the go since 2:30am yesterday morning, a long 18 hours with a brief stop in Bryness for soup, mince, potatoes and a perplexing mandatory foot check.

I hoped my torch battery would last, it was tucked under 4 layers next to my chest, but even fully charged and warm I’d be lucky to get 6 hours out of it.

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This is of course the Spine Race, a foot race that takes on the Pennine Way from Edale in the Peak District to Kirk Yetholm just over the Scottish Border.

It takes place in January, primarily to make it harder; the unpredictable but guaranteed variety of weather turning the easiest trail into a quagmire / river / non-trail under a blanket of snow.

Oh and the 268 miles of mostly rough and occasionally unmarked trail.

Mustn’t forget the hours of darkness, 4pm until 8am, and the time limit of 7 days.

Throw all that together and you’ve got a real challenge, so it’s no surprise that over 60% of the field drop out or get timed out before the finish.

It’s not billed as “Britains most brutal race” for nothing.

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What were we doing here?  Why were we doing this?

These aren’t questions that came to mind, they didn’t matter and wouldn’t change anything even if I had the answers.  All that mattered was that we kept moving, one step at a time, slowly, steadily.  Forward motion.  Just keep moving.

My existence was here and now, everything else was peripheral and forgotten.  In a strange way, this is what I’d been looking for when I signed up for this race, escape from the normal world, pushed to the limits of physical and mental endurance, but still moving, still aware of the need for one more step, and another, and another.

Periodically I checked how Dan was feeling, we’d promised to stick together, and after my petulant foot stamping episode in Greendale the day before, I wasn’t going to renege on it.

At one point he was faltering and we debated bivvying somewhere sheltered and heating up our dried rations, but the double decker from Stuart and the last of my beef jerky had kindled a spark behind his eyes.

Onwards then.

Onwards.

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Dan and Esteve at Gregs Hut

I met Dan Connors a few years ago when we ran nohtaraM ehT together, and we’d since followed each other and chatted on Strava.  We’d leapfrogged each other a few times during the first half of the week, and I was very happy to join his group leaving Alston.

When we finally arrived in Greenhead, hungry and cold, I lost my temper over something daft, and had stormed off up a hill after shouting something like “I don’t fucking care what you do, I’m going this way”.  Dan’s comment that I was behaving like a diva and did I need a snickers bar dissipated the tension and we soon found Tom Jones, some shelter and hot food.

When we were finally nearing CP5 in Bellingham, and were working out the optimal plan for the final section (which Richard Lendon helped us finesse, over mountains of hot food and sweet tea served up by his lovely wife Jenny) I said that we should definitely stick together as a team.

Do you mean as a pair of people who happen to be travelling at roughly the same speed in the same direction, or do you mean actually as a team?

Point well made, and well taken.  We were a team from here to the finish, whatever happened.

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The race is long, and the checkpoints are far apart.  On average around 40 miles.  In good weather a good days hike, in any other conditions, 20 hours isn’t unreasonable.

I spent as much time on my own as I could.  I enjoyed settling into my natural pace, not chasing anyone and not waiting for anyone.  I savoured the pleasure of being outside, the satisfaction of navigating by map and compass, thoughts of the outside world receded and I settled happily into the Spine bubble.

There were moments of course, many ups and many downs.  The first day was such fun, trundling along a ridge buffeted by wind and rain reminded me of my childhood in Scotland, I passed many people here but my cheery greetings were seldom returned.

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Onwards.

Onwards.

Eventually we reached the top of the hill and the long anticipated left turn that would take us down to the second hut with it’s promise of shelter and hot food and drinks.

At this crucial time, I made my first and only serious error of judgement.  I can explain it away using a host of valid excuses, but none of them pass muster under the cold unforgiving eye of hindsight.

Not bothering to take a bearing, I burst through the gate and galloped downhill, deliriously happy to be rid of that uphill slog and just moments away from sustenance.

The frozen crust of snow held my weight for a few minutes before giving way and I sank past my knees.

Surely no, no no no no!

For fucks sake no more of this shit!

I changed course and frantically zig zagged down the hill searching out runnable surface.

I could see a few head torches following me.

Stopping to catch my breath, I looked around and was horrified to discover I was way off course, and teetering on the edge of Hen Hole (or Hell Hole as it will be forever etched in my memory).  Hen Hole is a steep gulley, and with the covering of snow and ice would be next to impossible to climb out of.

Laying my single pole flat on the snow in front of me, I was able to slowly crawl up the hill and get back onto level ground.  I could see the fence and further down a couple of head torches.

Satisfied I was back on track I needed to signal to those behind me to maintain height and not get sucked into the pit of doom.

How do you signal directions with a head torch?  Even if I knew morse code, did anyone else?

I ran/fell/crawled back the way I’d come, desperate to catch sight of someone, a thousand thoughts whirring through my head.  We were all tired and hungry, and I’d just led people the wrong way, potentially putting them in danger.

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My first taste of proper adventure (ignoring the icy scramble over Pen Y Gent in the dark) arrived not long after I almost fell off High Cup Nick in darkness and thick fog, when I decided not to attempt the next section over Cross Fell on my own, at least not in the dark anyway.

My wife was very happy with the decision and I made my way down to the pub in Dufton hoping for something hot to eat.

As luck would have it I found Javed warming himself by the fire, and he was happy for me to tag along. Too late for food but the barman was happy to whack some hot water in a bag so I could enjoy some rehydrated spag bol.

Off we marched into the darkness and I quickly pulled away up the gradual incline, which surprised me as I’d assumed we must have been moving at a similar pace to be at the same point after a few days.

Accepting the advice to plod uphill and conserve energy for the flats and downs, I slowed down and pondered the other useful nugget of advice.

You say one of your achilles tendons really hurts, what happens if you think about the one that doesn’t hurt?

A useful thought, and one I returned to many times over the remainder of the week.

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When you’re moving yourself over long distances, mind games and techniques are incredibly important. Not just to provide motivation, but to avoid the downward spiral of painful introspection and obsession that leaves you slightly unhinged at best.

After a pep talk from Tin and upbeat messages from Marissa on Saturday, I’d relied on some simple but effective methods of avoiding negativity and doubt.

One step at a time, step, step, step. Every step is one step closer.

Every tap of my pole, tap, tap, tap. Every tap is one tap closer.

Disney songs, really. Micky Mouse club house courtesy of my daughter Trixy, and the bare necessities, thanks to Paula who texted the entire lyrics.

When I needed something stronger, I remembered a conversation with my mother in-law on Friday night. I was wittering on about whether I’d make it to the end, and she said, very calmly but with total conviction: “you’ll do it”. Lesley, you saved my race, multiple times.

Sometimes though, the only way to block negative thoughts was to fill my head with a single word, over and over and over again.

Step.

Step.

Step.

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Noodles!

I was feeling impatient and eager to crack on over the hills to the fabled highest noodle bar in the country, but (with some difficulty) chastised myself and resolved to learn as much as possible from my companion. With a wealth of experience on extreme ultra running, and the spine race specifically, there had to be important lessons available, even if only from observation.

We climbed higher and unexpectedly found ourselves in deep snow with a nasty wind picking up and obliterating the footsteps of those ahead of us.

It was next to impossible to stay on the path, and finding ourselves mostly wading through thigh deep snow, progress was slow and getting slower.

Patience grasshopper, patience.

Gentle cajoling didn’t seem to speed Javed up for more than a couple of minutes, Gregs hut was a few miles away but at this pace, several hours.

Confessing that he’d only slept for 3 hours so far, and was planning on doing the “double“, we debated our options (after I’d informed him that he was bat shit crazy of course, which made us both laugh).

One curious aspect of pacing in a race like this, is finding the optimal balance between sleep and speed. I’d slept for 6 hours so far, and was clearly moving faster. Was that because of the sleep or just down to my legs? Hard to say.

With the teary parting phrase of “I’m scared you’re going to lie down on some godforsaken hillside and never wake up” overwhelming my rational mind, I wasn’t keen on sleeping in a snow bunker on the side of a mountain in a storm. The problem was that our current speed meant that our core temperatures were dropping fast.

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#photobomb

We needed to make a decision, and the choices weren’t great.  Sleep on the mountain, retrace our steps to Dufton, or find the quickest way down to anywhere there was shelter.

Casting a glance back the way we’d come, the snow and wind had already turned the ground into a pristine blanket with no trace of human activity.

Nearby was a hollow/bunker on the hill and the decision was made for us.

I called HQ to let them know, then grumpily (at least I appeared grumpy, I was actually just scared) followed my bunk mates instructions:

Put on everything you have, dig a coffin in the snow and put your mat in it, get into your bag with everything on and take anything you don’t want to freeze in with you.

Still grimacing from the choice of words, I found myself to be surprisingly snuggly and warm and settled down comfortably, only to start hyperventilating and, for want of a better expression, freaking out.

Headtorch on, and I had a long conversation with myself about the relative perils and merits of the current situation. Assuring myself that if things got really bad I could get myself down to the village very quickly, calling for help on the way if necessary. “Anyway”, the conversation concluded, “you wanted an adventure, and this is pretty exciting”.

Finally calm, I fell asleep for 2 hours, then woke up cold. My companion was in a similar situation and as we debated what to do heard voices calling our names.

I thought I was hallucinating at first but when I saw lights realised it was real.

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As bedrooms go, it was pretty chilly

HQ had sent a couple of chaps up to make sure we were ok, we leapt out of our coffins and within minutes were back on the trail, marching along with fistfuls of mini baby bells and tummies warmed by hot chocolate. The wind had eased off, it had stopped snowing and Gregs Hut and its famous noodles (with fresh chilli, from John Bambers greenhouse) were a hop, skip and daybreak away.

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At the time I was upset that my race had been disrupted, had I known Javed was so tired and was planning on returning to Edale along the same route after finishing, I would have got some sleep in Dufton. I knew he was experienced, but I didn’t feel comfortable abandoning him in a storm on a fell.  You have to do what feels right at the time, you look out for each other and make your decisions with collective safety in mind.

It might be a race, but it’s not always about you.

Although we had let everyone know what we were doing, spending 3 hours on the wrong side of a mountain in the middle of the night, in a storm, triggers an alert.  Hence the physical check.

It’s this kind of intervention that makes you realise that you aren’t at the mercy of the wolves, and whilst in danger, there is a very high probability that help would arrive before anything too dramatic happened.

It just feels like you’re on your own and exposed to survival mode choices, this is where the organisers have got it just right.

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Not looking our best, at hut 1

I couldn’t see the head torches that were following me any more, and there was no way I was going back into Hell Hole.

The quiet but must-be-obeyed voice in the deepest part of my mind, took over.  I sat down and got my phone out, calling HQ I let them know my race number, where I was, and that some people behind me had just gone off course.  Swapping my head torch batteries, and resisting the urge to take some layers of clothes off (I was boiling, but wasn’t sure if the feeling was real or imagined, so opted for the safer choice) set off for the hut.

Soon I met some MRT people coming back up the hill, they asked how I was and I think I did a passable impression of seeming normal as they carried on saying they needed to make sure people didn’t take a wrong turn off the route.

Finally arriving at the sanctuary, I stepped into a situation no less surreal than the one I’d just fought my way out of.

Anna was borderline hypothermic and was being manhandled into a blizzard bag, whilst being force fed hot sweet juice.  Douglas was helping sort Anna out, Zoe was asleep and Dan was looking totally spaced out.

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I made sure all the mountain rescue people knew there were at least two people off course, and eventually our addled minds figured out their names (Stuart and Colin), also that Javed was behind us and in debatable shape given he’d lost his food (though I’d given him most of my meager stash which should have helped).

After a while Stuart appeared, looking hot and relieved.

I sat worrying about Colin, about Anna, about everyone.  I had some hot food.  I got colder not warmer.  I worried and worried.  Tom said we all had plenty of time to make the cut off, I thought he’d lost the plot, talking about the race in this kind of situation, this was survival man, survival!

Eventually Dan and I decided to move on.  There wasn’t anything I could do for Colin now, and we were taking up valuable space.  Realising that I was cold because I had indeed sweated during my feverish efforts earlier, I put on a dry thermal top, lost a mitten, got my spare gloves out and we prepared to head out for the final section.

As we were shuffling out of the hut, Colin arrived looking as if nothing untoward had happened (maybe it was hidden behind the beard), and noting that “reports of his demise had been much exaggerated” joined us.

We saw a chap being brought in by the race MRT, he was wearing a t-shirt and I recognised him from Saturday night (we’d joined forces along with Damon and battled through the blizzard together).  He wasn’t in the race but was covering the route at the same time as us, which had seemed impressive then, but in my now confused state looked risky at best.  He was shortly airlifted off the mountain as was fully hypothermic (a classic sign is believing you’re overheating, as per my caution earlier).

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With Dan and Colin, just leaving Bryness

It’s been a week since I touched the wall of the Border Hotel in Kirk Yetholm, yet life hasn’t quite returned to normal.

I’m still waking up multiple times in the night, drenched in sweat, with visions of the trail fresh in my mind. At least I’m not panicking that I’ve fallen asleep in the snow, those nightmares stopped after about 6 days.

My food intake is approaching normality, though I still feel distinctly weak and faint before I’ve had breakfast, 8 hours without food is now unusual.

Maintaining body temperature is still a manual process, I spend the hours in the office (when I haven’t had to sneak off for a 15 minute nap) without shoes but wearing a scarf.

The damage report from my physio was surprisingly positive, although my super tight achilles bent lots of her needles, I now start the day with a slightly less painful hobble than a few days ago.

The cracks in my fingers have healed, and I’ve de-grimed enough so that my iPhone recognises my thumb again.

Both of my big toes are still mostly numb – some (hopefully temporary) nerve damage.

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Friday afternoon on the Cheviots

When encountering a fellow racer for the first time, every conversation was almost identical: “have you done this race before?”, “will you do it again?”.  Nobody every asked what you did for a living, it was irrelevant.

Until I’d settled into my stride and the rhythm of the event, I found it unfathomable why anyone would want to put themselves through such an unpleasant experience more than once, in fact I was struggling to make sense of the once.

As time passed however, and I’d had more time on my own to reflect on what was going on with my body and mind during those long long hours, I began to understand.

I’ve often said to people, at least in the last year when my running habit took a slightly different tack, that what I really enjoyed about the hours spent on my feet, was the meditative aspect.

When running, and especially when covering long distances, I ease into a mental place where I’m hyper aware of my body and my immediate surroundings, but little else.

How do my feet feel? Any hot spots? Legs? All ok? Are my shoulders relaxed? What’s going on with my stomach? Time for more food? Is that pain something to worry about or just temporary, check back later. How’s my bearing? What does the map say the next landmark is? Am I warm enough? Too hot? Is that something in my shoe? Empty it out at the next stop. How do my feet feel?…

The Spine throws in a few more things to think about, such that the bubble is almost complete, only the thoughts of family and my daily call home really penetrating.

Physically it’s a challenge, being long enough that any slight niggle has the potential to turn into a race ender after a few days.

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My only blister, a good one though

Mentally it’s tough too, sleep deprivation muddles the sharpest mind, and there are so many reasons to stop. I think I called upon some deeply buried part of myself to manage the rest of me, a tiny but powerful voice that forbade giving up, and was rational and calm when everything else went tits up.

My first real encounter with proper sleep deprivation happened on Sunday night on the long and tedious road from Horton to Hawes.

In the absence of any navigation (which I later found be a real help to stay awake), I felt completely drunk, staggering all over the road and desperately fighting the urge to lay down and sleep.

People talk of sleep monsters, I don’t know about monsters, but I had to fight so hard to stay upright and moving in roughly the right direction.

By the time we got to CP2, 108 miles in and the Challenger finish, I’d been awake for 49 hours with a 1/2 hour nap somewhere in the middle.

I felt bloody awful.

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Clean! (in Edale)

My race strategy, if you can call it that, was:

1) It’s not a race
2) Determine pace by terrain and what feels sustainable
3) Stop as little as possible
4) If have to stop, keep faffage to a minimum (apparently this is called “personal admin” – looked like faffing to me)
5) If I get to the last section, and conditions allow, it’s a race

I soon modified this to include:

6) When an opportunity to eat presents itself, take it. If hot food is available, even better.

On the subject of food, people keep asking me what and how much I ate.

It’s very hard to work out how many calories I got through, but it wasn’t nearly enough.

Food is a very personal thing, but what worked for me was a combination of: cold pizza, Lesleys home made fruitcake, fresh beef jerky, wine gums, snickers (no surprise there), pepperami (wouldn’t bother next time, proper salami or kabbanos would be much nicer).

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A massive feed at the awesome Tan Hill Inn

In checkpoints I supplemented the supplied food with pots of rice pudding, and always kept a couple of expedition food packets in my pack. These are super light (~140g), contain 1000kcals and are genuinely tasty. I have a vague memory of Pavel mentioning them on a blog once.

I discovered that I really dislike 9bars, especially out of date ones, and binned my entire stash somewhere around CP4. Far too sweet and sickly somehow.

The General gave me some advice he picked up on the Dragons Back Race, which was to eat something shortly before hitting a checkpoint. Not only does it give you a nice boost, but it helps kick your brain into gear and avoid mindlessly shuffling kit between different bags. There is also the added bonus that you’re not super narky when you arrive so have no excuses for not being smiley and friendly to the support crew, which makes everyone happier.

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After being a bit blasé with gathering all my kit for the challenger in 2014, and suffering with shoulder agony from my horrible and horribly heavy pack, I shelled out for a 22L Aarn Mountain Magic this year.

It didn’t disappoint (once I’d adjusted the 5 thousand straps ‘just so’), and it felt less like carrying a load of kit than having some warm and comfortable creature hug you from behind (nicer than it sounds).

I didn’t take anything superfluous (but making sure I had enough to be safe in an emergency), and with a borrowed PHD sleeping bag got the total weight down to around 7.5KG, including water. This was about half the weight I had last time, and once the pack was on I hardly noticed it. The huge front pockets meant I rarely had to take it off either, double bonus.

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“An explosion of kit”, at Middleton-in-Teeside

Expecting lots of rain my drop bag had a complete change of clothes for each checkpoint. As it happened it didn’t rain that much, I didn’t really move fast enough to sweat much, and the drying rooms worked really well. So I pretty much cycled through two sets of clothes. Basically my best kit. Apologies to the checkpoint volunteers and anyone who ever found themselves downwind of me!

My best kit consists of 2x helly Hansen “warm” merino wool tops, 5x decathlon wicking base layer tops, columbia and Inov8 3/4 leggings, Rab eVent trousers, North Face Summit Series jacket, Patagonia gilet, OMM Rotor smock, Montane Via Trail gloves, Seal Skinz mitts, a wool hat given to me by my mum after a trip to New Zealand, a random buff from snow&rock, 2x sealskinz long socks, 5x injinji liner socks and 5x decathlon wicking pants (some things just shouldn’t be recycled).

Oh and two pairs of Inov8 trailrocs, one pair slightly bigger, which were lent to me by Matty though he refuses to have them back. Can’t really blame him after everything they’ve been through, the snow and ice ripped so many holes in them I’m not sure they’re up for any more outings.

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Just past the massive owls

We left hut 2 and went straight into a short steep hike up the Schill, which was just the job as I was definitely cold by now, if anything I’d got colder sitting down for such a long time, even though I’d had a big bag of warm food.

I was sent off with Dan, Ryan and Colin.  Tailed by a couple of mountain rescue guys we began the simple trudge along the last section.

4 months ago I was probably the fittest and healthiest I’d been since I was a teenager. Training was going brilliantly and I’d had a huge confidence boost by placing 3rd in the Crawley 12 hour race.

What felt like a minor groin strain after a nondescript 20 mile run, escalated over a few days (and some shorter runs) into excruciating shooting pains every time I tried to stand up, start walking or roll over in bed.

Convinced it was a torn something important, I stopped running, enjoyed my holiday in Italy and booked in with a physio on my return to London.

Our sessions were normally chipper and chatty, so I knew something wasn’t right, and I was referred for an MRI scan under the dark cloud of a potential stress fracture and facing at least 3 months of: No Running.

Suspicions confirmed a compression side femoral neck stress fracture (common in the military and old people) and I was handed a pair of crutches.

Super fit to depressed invalid in the space of two short weeks.

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Leaving Gregs hut

All my training and racing plans for the rest of the year went out of the window, but I hoped against hope that the Spine could still be a possibility.

Determined not to turn into a sad, fat and unfit blob before winter even arrived, I solicited advice from anyone who would lend a friendly ear, and devoured lots of books and blogs.

The upshot was that I covered many miles on my crutches (and slowly weaned off them into walking unaided), spent dull hours in the gym building upper body and core strength, changed my eating habits and food intake (again), swapping a kilo of fat for muscle and dropping to my lowest weight in years.

I saw a bone specialist, went for lots of tests, took so many supplements I rattled (vitamin D, K1, probiotics, Omega 3&6).

After 3 months I tried a few runs, but the muscle atrophy was so severe that within a week my knees were agony and it was clear that everything was totally out of balance.

More trips to the physio, more specific exercises, more dull hours in the gym. I didn’t dare try any more runs, and just kept my fingers crossed that nothing else would go wrong before January the 8th.

In the meantime I slowly added to the mountain of kit, food, maps, lists of pubs and lists of lists of lists that contribute to the huge amount of preparation that a week long expedition demands. I was pretty sure that if I made any serious cock ups on that front, it would derail my race just as much as any physical ailments. I wasn’t leaving anything to chance.

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One of many

So when I stepped (slipped in ankle deep mud) up to the start line at 10am on Saturday morning, I was under no illusions about how tenuous my situation was.

I’d promised family, friends and physios that I wouldn’t run, this was strictly a walking race, and whilst I expected to be in pain, I would drop out if it got to a worrying level.

Many people urged me to postpone it a year, but given how easy it is to talk oneself out of anything, and post rationalise anything using a host of feasible reasons as excuses, I determined to rock up and race, and see what happened.

Two people saw through my façade, both who apparently know me better than most. One was my wife, for obvious reasons, who worried that my sheer bloody minded stubborn determination would drag me to the finish regardless of what pain my body threw at me.

The other was my boss, which sounds weird until you realise that he has an uncanny ability to figure out what makes people tick. He commented that someone who ran so much they fractured their hip isn’t best placed to judge how much pain is too much. I resolved to avoid all painkillers, and his parting words of “if you were fit, I’d absolutely think you’d do this race, as it is, I can’t see you making it” helped me grit my teeth in some of the lower points of the race,  no doubt as intended.

Coming down the final road to the pub that marked the end of the Pennine Way, I finally allowed myself to accept that yes, I was going to finish. Normally visualising the end of a race is a powerful motivator, but 268 miles is such a long distance, 7 days an eternity, and with so many obstacles to overcome I never allowed myself the luxury of hoping to get there before the cut off.

All the pent up emotion, stress of that tortuous section to hut 2 and serious sleep deprivation surged up through my chest and I sobbed the final hundred yards.

I remember muttering stupid nothings to myself, “you tosser, how the hell did you just walk to Scotland?!”

There was nobody to be seen, and after quietly touching the wall I sat down on an old plough, thinking this was a suitably low key ending to a very low key race, tears still running down my face.

Colin appeared from the darkness and gave me a hug, which was just what I needed.

Dan arrived and touched the pub, I gave him a hug, but I don’t think army men do that sort of thing. Anyway, it had seemed appropriate given what we’d just been though.

Moments later Lindlay arrived with our medals, apparently our trackers were a bit off and we were early.  No matter, medals and photos were taken and off we went for food and sleep.

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Much has been made of the hardships endured, and it’s easy to overlook how many things made me smile over the week.

Sun rises and sun sets over frozen mountains were spectacular, the views you only see when you’re prepared to travel by foot overnight.

Low Force and High Force on the river Tees were mesmerising waterfalls, especially given the amount of rain this winter.

Leaning on a gate, in the middle of a snow laden forest shortly after first light, chatting to an inquisitive, chubby little robin. This wasn’t a hallucination, but the massive house size owls I saw earlier probably were.

Finding a box of flapjacks at the top of a steep field in Thwaite, marked “for Spine racers”, thanks Emily, that got me to Tan Hill.

Being intercepted by family friends Bill & Janet in Lothersdale. They had a warm car, a flask of black coffee and the best chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had (and I’m very particular about my sandwiches). Thank goodness Peter Gold wasn’t slinking around.

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Some parting thoughts.

It’s a long way, the weather changes everything, it needs to be treated with respect.

There is excitement, camaraderie, beauty and pain.

You’ll meet like minded people and will form bonds that will last long after the event has finished.

Some will make it to the end.

Some will succumb to injury.

Some won’t move fast enough.

You’ll have an adventure.

[downloaded my GPS tracker for strava, obviously]

[Kit notes]