Not sure why my report didn’t properly show up, but here it is: https://jurarunner.wordpress.com/thames-path-100-race-report/
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
Some reviews and notes on what worked and what didn’t, for my future self and other runners.
We did this race earlier this year: my race report is here.
The official required kit list has a very handy photo guide: invaluable.
That’s about it, hopefully this’ll be useful for others, and at any rate it should help me pack a bit better for the next time!
You bastard! I chased you so hard but I just couldn’t catch you!
Now that was a proper fucking race! I’m knackered!
I staggered into a sunny spot after a surprisingly short 12 hours of running in circles. I hadn’t eaten nearly enough food, had spent too much time vomiting, was 8.8 miles over my vaguely realistic target distance and was somehow in 3rd place.
The circles were laps of a standard 400m track in Crawley, West Sussex, with plenty of space to set up your own personal aid station (the stool was a waste of £4 as I didn’t sit in it once).
The organisers were very…organised. Pam Storey and her crew made sure everything went smoothly and everyone knew what was what. I.e they pointed out that each lap only counts as the circumference of the inside lane, we’d be changing direction at half time and after three hours a six hour race would begin and we’d have to share the space with another load of eccentric runners, undoubtably going a lot faster than us.
Faster than everyone apart from Mark Perkins anyway.
This race was the culmination of a training experiment that started towards the end of last year. There are lots of ultra training plans out there, but they’re generally aimed at just getting you round with the minimum amount of mileage. For some reason there is an abundance of sub three hour marathon plans, but no ultra equivalents.
Instead it seems that you either have to know what you’re doing, or employ a coach. Neither of these really fit my situation, and being slightly misery I thought I’d have a crack at designing my own training plan.
First off, there was the question of an inflamed plantar fascia. Long runs made it worse so I spent the months leading up to Christmas clocking up 50 mile weeks with lots of 5-6 mile sessions, usually twice a day (+1 for living 6 miles from work).
My excellent bupa supplied physio / triathlete prescribed an array of stretches and exercises to be performed at least twice a day, to the mild annoyance of my wife.
Once January hit, my body seemed in good shape and it was time to deploy the plan!
It wasn’t complicated:
- Increase weekly mileage by 10% each week
- One week in 4 should consist of short easy runs, 30-40 miles in total
- Aim for 1 sprint and 1 longer tempo per week
- Favour several medium distance (10-12) runs a week, longest run around 15 miles, rather than one very long one
- Be flexible and prepared to decrease mileage when any niggles appear
- Increase the long run in the final few weeks before tapering
- Taper for 3 weeks
I also took the opportunity for a diet change, cutting down my intake of sugar (goodbye lovely lovely maltesers), bread, pasta and rice.
After a few months I was 8kg down and my knees seemed happy with the new arrangement.
Fairly early on I had a rather nasty episode one morning at work. After an uneventful run and before I’d eaten breakfast (it was in front of me, I was even holding a fork), I felt incredibly light headed, confused and started pouring with sweat. After a few minutes it subsided enough for me to get some food down, and I quickly felt normal again.
This was a huge wake up call, calories in were much less than those I was burning in training, and I probably doubled my food intake at this point. It didn’t take long before I felt a lot better (and was much less grumpy too, a bonus for family harmony).
Weekly mileage peaked at a smidge over 100 miles, and I clocked up nearly 1,000 miles in just under 4 months.
No wonder I got a bit dizzy, this was uncharted territory.
The final long training run of 30 miles was horribly painful, punctuated with lots of pit stops to stretch incredibly tight and painful hamstrings and glutes, the foul weather only made me more miserable.
Thankfully a long (and exceptionally painful) sports massage, coupled with a gentle taper left me feeling limber and quietly confident as race day approached.
After a terrible night sleep (does anyone sleep well before a race?), I ambled the mile to the track lugging my picnic table and supplies for the day.
My plan was to settle into what felt like a sustainable pace, and try to gauge when to pick it up such that I finished with nothing in the tank. This was in direct contrast to my disastrous Tooting plan of going out hard and holding on for as long as possible.
Once we were off the temptation to chase the leaders was really tough to resist, but Mark Perkins and Max Willcocks were putting down such an incredible pace, one that would quickly be the end of me if I even thought about tagging along.
I reminded myself to run my own race and stick to the plan.
The hours and miles ticked along, I stopped infrequently for water, 3 hourly UCAN replenishment (that stuff is amazing, makes long distance running much easier when you’re not having to eat all the time) and the odd cheese and ham sandwich.
Every hour the leaderboard was updated and I was consistently around 5th place (of 24), with not much between me and Michal Masnik (a friendly face from the Tooting 24h race last year).
Mark was belting it round and it became clear from his 3 hour distances that he was pacing for 100 miles. Incredible to see and humbling to share the same track – I felt exceptionally guilty whenever I failed to hear him coming and he had to dodge around me (being far too polite to call “track”, or maybe just too focused).
At some point Max dropped out, someone said he was rolling one of his quads, which was a shame for him as he’d been covering some serious distance. It all made sense in a few weeks when he won the TP100, no point spoiling that opportunity with a track injury.
My brother Toby had turned up for the second 6 hours to count my laps, and quickly turned himself into my support crew. He did such a great job I didn’t need to stop at all, keeping me fully loaded with flat coke, sweet treats and plenty of encouragement.
When he told me I was one lap behind third place, with two hours to go, everything changed in my head.
Physically I felt in great shape; everything had hurt after three hours, but quickly subsided and I’d been happily in the zone, feeling relaxed and keeping an even 9 min/mile pace.
Third place up for grabs? This was something different.
It was one thing to finish feeling like I’d had a good crack, but to bag a podium spot too? It would validate all those long months of doubt at the back of my mind “am I doing this because I’m maybe not terrible at it, or is it just another obsessive hobby?”
I won’t lie, I felt a huge surge of emotion, and may even have shed a tiny tear.
Or was it dehydration and sweat? We’ll never know.
Time to channel that energy into my legs and pick up the pace.
Michal looked and sounded surprised as I hared past him putting a couple of laps between us. I’d left this as late as possible figuring that it was going to be a lot easier to chase than be chased. One (of the many) good things about a track was that I could keep an eye on anyone behind me quite easily, just as long as there was half a lap between us.
An hour to go and the race felt like it had only really just begun. Michal wasn’t ceding without a fight (understandably – he’d lost time earlier from sunstroke), and our lap times got faster and faster. My last mile was my quickest at 7:30 and I finished just one mile behind Barry Thornton and half a mile ahead of Michal.
Toby had been fully briefed during the final few laps and when I collapsed in a sunny spot of grass he brought water, cucumber, my down jacket and phone.
I felt truly elated and like I’d given it everything, such an amazing feeling. 78.5 miles in my legs, very happy.
Mark the metronome just missed the 100 mile point at 12 hours but went on to get an official time, the 4th fastest UK 100 miles, a legend in the making! His report is a great read: 99.6 miles at the Crawley 12 hour race.
I found Michal and we had a laugh before agreeing to a rematch in Tooting, so it’s back to the home made training plan for me, and with the power of Strava I can keep an eye on the competition.
As usual it’s taken me far too long to get this written down, but with the Crawley 12 hour race in a few weeks I thought this was the perfect time to remember what I did wrong. It would be nice to have a list of things I did right, but sadly, no. I still managed to cover about 107 miles, which isn’t bad but falls short of what I think I should be capable of (although past performance isn’t nessesarily an indicator of the future!). The race itself is very simple (how many times can you run round a 400m track?), and is a perfect example of everything I love in an event. It’s small, extremely well organised by incredibly friendly and approachable people. The low key approach engenders a great atmosphere and the motley collection of runners were packed with interesting stories and enthusiasm. Being able to run shoulder to shoulder with a 80+ year old on course to complete 100 miles, and a trio of superhuman ladies who smashed records and crushed the entry level for team GB Ultra was both humbling and inspirational. This is a true, and (mostly) serious list of tips for running your first 24 hour track race. Some, if not all of the points are totally obvious, and normal people really shouldn’t need the advice.
Make sure you actually have a place in the race
Yes, yes, obvious. The thing is, I sent my application off and promptly got stuck into training and planning. As the weeks went on, and I languished on the waiting list, the mental focus that an imminent race gives you just wasn’t there. This meant that training was half hearted at best, and I figured that I’d pretty much wing the planning part: running in circles for ages: I’d just done the GUCR, how hard could it be?
If you don’t have a confirmed place, then at least pretend you have and train accordingly. Finding out two days before doesn’t give you nearly enough time.
One chap even turned up on the day and snagged a last minute place, though he crashed out in a bent-double vomiting state after a short few hours. Another arrow in the back of the last minute race entrant.
Don’t start the day with a massive hangover
Again, not something that should really need to be spelled out. However, the lack of concentration and general over confidence given #1, plus having heavy drinking friends round the night before culminated in a very not-ready head and body come race morning.
It’s hard to say whether this is the biggest mistake I made, quite possibly though, as it led to most of the others.
Work out your target pace sensibly, based on reality
For an elite athlete, calculating your goal distance using last year’s winner is a very good strategy, particular if you’re also aiming to secure a place in Team GB.
If, on the other hand, you are not an elite, and last year’s winner was other worldly Marco Consani, who covered 154 miles, then your sights have more than likely been set far outside the range of your physical capabilities.
In practice this means that you’re constantly berating yourself for going too slow, when in fact you’re going about twice as fast as you should be.
I would say to pick a comfortable marathon pace, then drop that by about 25%, probably more.
Don’t set off too fast
Lack of planning, large hangover and ridiculous ambitions and yes, you’re already going way too fast. I did the first marathon in under 4 hours, was near the top of the score board and felt great.
Obviously it didn’t last and my pace halved very soon after.
Having a bleary eyed notion of “go out as hard as possible and hang on as long as you can” is just daft, glycogen gets instantly depleted leaving you running on fumes way too soon.
If you’ve lapped James Elson, you’re going too quickly
Say no more!
To be fair to James, he looked to be suffering from an injury and pulled out before the end. Plus I was clearly going to blow up.
Don’t try new food on the day, as lovely as it might look and taste
Hangover to blame again. I remember thinking how delicious the melon and grapes on the food station were. They were cool, refreshing and gave me a nice little boost.
Fast forward 10 hours and I’d pretty much set up camp in the men’s room, and when I wasn’t there I was painfully dragging my sore and bloated belly back as fast as I could hobble.
Not a good idea.
Do try and remember your lap counters name
More generally, be nice to your lap counter, they’ve got a long gruelling night ahead of them, and sense of humour failures don’t make for a pleasant atmosphere.
Chances are they are looking after a few runners, and when a lap only takes a couple of minutes they’re hard at work.
On the odd occasion when they are distracted, being able to call our their name will save you valuable seconds, and is a whole lot polite than yelling “Did you get me? Luke here, hello?! HELLO!”
Having support really… helps
My wife and child stuck around for the first half hour, but when my 3 year old daughter had seen me run round in circles and not win or even finish, she soon got bored. Not before entertaining everyone with happy shouts of “daddy!” every time I passed her.
They also rocked up again for the last hour, and that alone kept my spirits up for at least 4 hours.
Other people had whole families camped out all night, feeding and watering their runners regularly. Not sure how I’ll persuade mine to do the same, but I think it would give a massive psychological boost, especially in those famously miserable hours just before dawn.
Don’t underestimate the mental aspect
I honestly hadn’t given much thought to what it would actually be like running for 24 hours within such a confined area.
All the big races I’d done in the past were huge loops or “epic adventure” point to point routes.
The key difference, which was obviously clear to every person who commented on my upcoming loop fest, is that every step forward, every second spent moving, takes you one tiny sliver closer to the end.
When it finally dawned on me that I could just sit down and the race would still end at midday, regardless of whether I did any sort of moving or not, was a revelation.
A revelation that took a lot of willpower (and two 30 minute snoozes in the back of Hughs car) to purge and get back into any kind of constant forward motion.
It was a lot harder than I thought it would be, deserved more respect than I gave it, and was absolutely bloody brilliant.
I’ve got a confirmed place for September, so that’s one item ticked off the list already!
I am done, finished.
I’ve have had enough with this race, and am just too tired to carry on. My feet hurt, I can’t keep my eyes open and I’m starting to get cold.
Such were the thoughts flashing through my mind at 3am on Sunday morning. I’d been running for 18 hours and had covered about 95 miles of the muddy and wet grand union canal towpath from Birmingham. Paddington basin, and the finish, were another 50 miles ahead.
It had started fast, way too fast.
With a belly full of instant porridge, bananas and coffee, I had joined the other 109 runners in the weak 6am sunshine as we charged off from Gas Street at a brisk 9 minute mile pace. It was so easy to get caught up in the crowd, swapping race stories and tales of how we came to be here.
The first 26 miles came at me hard. Stiff legs and a painful knee nagging reminders that I hadn’t recovered from the SIPR (albeit only half of it) the previous weekend.
If the first marathon of 6 feels like this, what chance do I have of getting to the end? The thought of bailing out and saving my body from unnecessary punishment became a serious proposition. It would have been a shame but there was no point in doing myself actual damage.
It’s hard to remember what changed my mind.
Perhaps it was doggedly sticking to my fuelling plan of a sandwich (peanut butter, nuttela and banana) or wrap (hummus, chicken, green pepper and cheese) between every checkpoint, supplemented by 2 or 3 cereal bars and an ellas kitchen pouch (baby food yes, but you can always get it down).
Perhaps the pouring rain turning the wet path into a lethal slippery streak of mud, one that threatened to kick me into the canal every time my concentration wandered, generated enough of a distraction from negative thoughts.
Perhaps it was because I slowed down a bit, let those running at a record breaking pace go on ahead, and settled into a comfortable rhythm. You could say I started running my own race.
Or maybe it was a pile of ducklings.
Whatever it was, the next 24 miles were a joy. My legs felt great, knee number two had given up trying to derail the adventure and the odd spell of sunshine lit up the bright yellow rapeseed fields and calm canal waters.
Trundling happily into the 50 mile checkpoint after 9 hours, to be greeted by part of the SIPR team (who also happen to be my uncle and aunt) made me even happier. Fully loaded on smoothies, bananas, shortcake, smiles, hugs and bemused encouragement, I was hefted back out onto the route, and bounced my way along to the 70 mile point.
It would be dark before the next checkpoint, so a great deal of faffing was in order. Change of top, shoes, socks. Tights on, headtorch in bag. Hot quiche and beans devoured.
I was sitting opposite a very fit looking fellow who had looked fairly settled before I arrived. We got chatting and happened to leave at the same time. The conversation continued and it became clear that our paces were exactly matched. We gently jogged into the darkness, talking of this and that, but not the enormity of the 75 miles still to go, we hadn’t quite hit half way.
At the 85 mile checkpoint, which was supposed to be drinks and snacks only, we were treated to hot soup, what a bonus! A couple of other runners looked in a pretty bad way, anguished heads held by swollen hands, shivering bodies swaddled in warm blankets. At least 20 people had dropped out already.
A definite team now, David Allen and I made our way onwards, breaking the run down into 5 mile stages. At an hour a pop this was about the biggest challenge we could face at any one time.
Lightheaded, confused and weak, bad news.
Skipping the last mid checkpoint sarnie was hardly a good idea, but it’s so easy to fall into the not eating trap. Your stomach isn’t fully functional (blood being sensibly diverted to more obviously useful muscles), saliva is a distant memory and anyway, you’re rocking along having a great time.
I’d broken my own rule, and it was made specifically for this situation. Luckily I was keeping a close mental eye on how I felt, and within minutes of necking a rocket fuel sandwich was back taking my turn to lead our little train ever closer to London.
Coming closer to the 100 mile checkpoint was when I slipped into the next low point. An hour before dawn is the hardest part of any overnight race, especially if you’ve been hammering away at it for nearly 24 hours already.
The spine challenger, and the dark dark moments in what felt like perpetual darkness was fresh and raw enough for me to spot this instantly. Recognising that my body and mind were fine, and that this was a mere distraction caused by circadian rhythms, I dismissed the “call it a night and go to bed” voice and carried merrily on.
“Merrily” may be overstating it somewhat, but covering 100 miles in about 21 hours gave us a good confidence boost.
This was the longest stop. It was going to be 20 miles to the next one (the longest gap in the whole race), we were cold, and it was going to get light soon. It made sense to eat as much of the fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, sausages and beans as was acceptable, and start the last 45 miles feeling as refreshed as possible.
I was hoping to see some friends and family in Tring and Berkhamsted on the way through, but had anticipated slowing down a lot more than I had. We shuffle/walk/ran through Tring at 5am, and somehow I didn’t think anyone would appreciate a phone call from a sweaty, muddy and sleep deprived canal creature. Even if he was accompanied by a Jean Paul Gaultier lookalike (I can’t remember who said it, but there is a definite likeness to David).
The scenery was lovely as we got closer to then passed the M25 (which felt like a very significant landmark), and did help a tiny bit to distract our minds from the now near constant pain in our feet.
I only picked up one tiny blister (hilly twin skin socks, you rock), though they had always been a big pain problem for me. This time it was just the soles of my feet that hurt. They really really really hurt.
I remember clearly when I thought I’d first become an “ultrarunner”. It was in the days and weeks after an overnight 50 mile race in the Peak District. The feeling was intoxicating, not dissimilar to landing a new, higher paid job or aceing exams at school. I basked in the satisfying knowledge that I’d joined the ranks of superhumans I’d been obsessively reading about for months.
Was this what it felt like to become a non-ultrarunner?
I texted my wife:
If I ever say I want to do this again, tell me I’m not allowed!
I wondered about the futility of the pursuit.
I didn’t question why I was here, that was easy. I’d got caught in the GUCR race report trap and became fixated on what many described as the hardest thing they’d ever done. Tales of 5 minute power naps, face down on the towpath, pushing through mental pain barriers and the huge drop out rate latched onto something deep in my head. Take that, add a few beers, throw in the internet and suddenly you have your name in the hat.
I honestly felt sick when my name was drawn out of that hat. Shit, I have to do it now.
The miles stood no chance against our metronomic pace, suddenly 125 had passed (I’d misread the map and expected it a mile further ahead, a delicious mistake).
Ditching our wet overnight kit felt liberating, clean socks and a fresh t-shirt rejuvenating. Stuffing our faces with snacks and tea, a quick hello to Paul Ali and Stouty and we were rolling through the sunshine to the penultimate checkpoint, just 13 miles away.
Evenly spaced bridges became our friends, walk to one, run to the next, walk, run, walk, run. They passed by quietly, the towpath got busier as Sunday joggers and cyclists passed with quizzical faces.
A famous badger said that anyone can run an ultra. In fact lots of people say this, and now I’m saying it. The crucial bit is wanting to.
Assuming you don’t succumb to something serious that involves you being physically taken off the course and put somewhere where it’s hard to rejoin, like a hospital, then it just comes down to how much you want to finish.
It really is nothing more than having the sheer bloody minded determination to carry on despite every part of your body and mind telling you to stop.
I’m not sure that’s really a skill.
Perhaps then there is something else to be gleaned from these runs, something other than the satisfaction of finishing and knowing you didn’t give in to the “weak” voices urging you to quit.
This wasn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done, that was the first few months of being a new father. Not to say this wasn’t a major challenge, it really was!
I suspect that there is a certain amount of conditioning that happens to your body over repeated long runs, and that this reduces the number of body parts screaming for a top spot on the pain register.
Still, pain seems to be an integral part of running a long way, even if you can reduce and contain it, something will hurt. This much is clear from the amateur race reports scattered across the internet and from books by elites such as Scott Jurek and Killian Jornet.
I didn’t know signposts could be beautiful, until I saw the 13.5 miles to Paddington one. A cheeky half marathon left and a handy checkpoint for a quick spot of refuelling.
I was happy enough to be this near to the finish, but a hug from Nici Griffin was a lovely gesture and lifted the spirits beautifully. James wasn’t dispensing hugs but cheerfully dumped a large bag of sweets and crisps onto the table, just the ticket.
Apparently there were two people just ahead of us, and Nici reckoned we were moving faster, so less dilly dallying and more racing please. Wolfing down a packet of crisps and half a can of coke each we left the station in record time, the competitive spirit was still running high. I suspected this was a ruse to keep is moving, but at this stage everything helps. Relentless Forward Motion was the team motto after all.
Guess what happens if you eat a load of sugar, salt and caffeine really quickly after running 133 miles? I don’t really know, but feeling more than a trifle peculiar I ground to a halt as I wondered what to do about this new situation.
Water laced with fresh lime juice luckily roused me from my stupor. Run a bit, walk a bit, run a bit, walk a bit, drink a bit, eat a bit, run a bit, walk a bit…
This way we soon caught up with Heike Bergman, suffering from shin splints. The 3rd lady at last years Spartathalon looked dismayed as we trotted past, we felt bad but of course carried on, there were 6 miles to go and this was still a race.
One reads about finding enlightenment through transcending pain and suffering. Robin Harvie touches on it, and I hear of people finding an inner peace once they’ve shut the pain into an ignorable mental compartment. Maybe. I do feel more aware of my body, and it’s limits, and there is definitely a sense of shared experience after races like this. You catch an eye and know that behind the brave smile, hurt was endured.
The ultrarunning community is a great one to be part of, people tend to be selfless, open and short of the same few screws as you. This race embodies so much of what I love about running. The low profile, feeling like part of a big family that encompasses the organisers, volunteers and other runners. It’s cheap too, like the best fell races. No fanfare, no fuss, and if you’re polite someone might make you a pot noodle.
Less than a mile to go and we started bearing down on the other runner Nici had hinted might be catchable. He was walking, but glanced over his shoulder, then he and his buddy started frantically tightening straps and making ready to run. We cruised by at a stonking 4 miles an hour, big smirks plastered across our faces.
No, No, No, No! I’ve just had the shittest two miles of my life, there is NO WAY you can overtake me now!
A couple of minutes later they came muttering and cursing by, shuffling ever so slightly faster than us.
We chuckled all the way to the finish. It was mean but funny. I’ve been overtaken with 100 yards to go and it’s horrible, I wasn’t about to inflict that on anyone else, but amusement is hard to come by after 144 miles.
Crossing the line was a lovely feeling, not nearly as big a sense of relief as I expected, but being able to sit down and not get straight back up again was heavenly.
I went from hot, sweaty and sunburnt to cold and shivering within a few minutes, a result of not eating or drinking that much during the final push. The wonderful volunteers sorted me out with a blanket and microwaved pasta pot, and I was able to watch someone fall into, and be rescued from, the canal from a comfortable position. Dick was very happy, he’d been waiting 20 years to see that. I’m just glad it wasn’t me, the canal was looking distinctly mucky.
I was sent on my way with more hugs and kisses (Dick did offer but we settled for a photo), this really was a nice race! Getting the tube was a bit tricky but home, my girls, food, a shower, wine and bed weren’t too far away. I managed to stay up until 8pm, quite an achievement!
As the memory of the final 11 hours of pain recedes, “never again” is slowly morphing into “I can do it faster”. Not next year though, unfinished business at SIPR and the Jura fell race are the big priorities for May 2015.
I will be back one day, it’s just too good a race to only do once.
A few notes for prospective canal runners:
- The supplied maps are excellent. Totally water and bend proof, very clear directions on all tricky bits, mile markers, checkpoint details (drinks & snacks / hot food / bag availability). Just don’t stash them near anything that might leak ink when wet, mine went a bit blue from another bit of paper.
- Bags are available very regularly, roughly every 15 miles, so you don’t need a large pack as you can replenish stocks often. I used an inov-8 race ultra vest (which I love), but even that was bigger than I needed.
- I opted for two pairs of road shoes and changed half way. In retrospect the amount of rain before and during meant trail shoes would have been a lot better for the first half. The last 45 miles are almost entirely on hard packed path, so nicely cushioned road shoes are a must, unless you’re a compete masochist.
- Make sure you pack enough warm kit for the night section, it gets pretty cold even in May, as even the slightest breeze over the canal cools the air a surprising amount.
- Consider carrying a super lightweight wind proof jacket or smock. I had an inov-8 windshell and had it on and off about 5 times during the day on Saturday, it was just enough to keep me mostly dry and by keeping the wind off stopped me from getting cold. It was thin enough to dry out just hanging off the back of my pack. Incidentally this is my current favourite bit of kit, I use it often, yet it’s light enough to always take, just in case.
- Avoid staying in the travelodge if you can, it really is as noisy as Dick warns, apparently the Jury’s inn and premier inn are both much quieter. Listening to stag and hen parties lurching down broad street does not make for a restful night.
Thanks to Ross Langton for photos of me “running”.