Thursday, 26 June 2014

South Down Way 100 Mile Ultra

Only a couple of years back I had never heard of an Ultra and would think that only those dedicated enough, or crazy enough, to be able to run a serious long distance all day. Then you try one and realise that running far is possible.  You begin to dream and seek out the challenge of conquering those impossible distances.

So there I stood at the start of the Centurion South Downs Way Ultra. 100 miles to test my physical ability and mental strength. The South Downs stretches from Winchester in Hampshire across a constant rolling countryside to Eastbourne in Sussex. The terrain is hilly with over 4000m vertical, differing from grass to mud, chalk to stones, battering your feet every step of the way. An engaging environment of stunning vistas and, most importantly, superb aid stations filled with a welcoming atmosphere and encouraging people.

I started slow with no intention of pushing the pace at any point so I had to laugh when I saw Stuart Mills, true to his philosophy, going out hard and fast well ahead of anyone else. The rest of us gradually slotted in at our own paces and worked our way over to Cheesefoot Head where the hustle and bustle of 250 runners quietened to individuals and small groupings. I ran with Rachel here and chatted about our running experiences. I was especially glad to talk to someone who had run a 100 before and gain any insights that would give me the confidence to finish my race.

The section all the way to Queen Elizabeth CP you felt you were 'in' The Downs, running tracks and trail and occasionally topping out The Downs at Beacon Hill (1st CP pitstop), Old Winchester Hill and finally Butser Hill. It was during this stage that I met Gary and with similar pace and race attitudes we clicked. Unbeknownst to us at that time, we would then spend the next 90 odd miles together, pushing and encouraging each other on.

QECP CP had a fine spread and importantly we were a quarter way home. Breaking down the race like this certainly helped our mindset. At each aid station the focus was where was the next one....7 miles....ok, that's circa 1.5 hrs to go then. Also, we broke down the distances, we're a quarter though, a third, halfway, two thirds, a quarter to go, four fifths and done. One helpful fella had us counting down the mileage as well. So at mile 31 we only had 69 miles to go so we were in the 60's, etc. We constantly manipulated the figures in a positive way ensuring nothing felt too big. We also kept an eye on Gary's timing from 2 years ago when he ran well until blowing his ankle with 20ish miles to go and slowed down significantly to finish 10min within the cutoff in final placing. At each CP we arrived at a better time and knew we were moving well.  We would have plenty of time if we had to walk it in.

Hiking out of QECP having covered 23 miles in 4hrs30 I felt fresh. Well the legs felt fresh, it was a sweltering day and the sweat just clung to us! I haven't done many Ultras where my legs didn't already feel heavy after 20 miles so it was pleasing to feel this way. My training was maxed out with low mileage. Maybe you don't have to pound the weekly miles, just ensure you keep your motor going, which for me included lots of dog walking. Since running a 50 mile and a 50km event in May I have hardly run so a plentiful taper seems to have got me ready. I am hoping this knowledge will encourage me in future races and I will feel less apprehensive and unprepared at the start. Especially if I up my training.

This next section was 'on' The Downs seamless ridge line and had breathtaking views keeping our minds occupied on the outside and not on what was going on inside the body. The long descent into Cocking CP thoroughly tiring out the thigh muscles. Another quickish pitstop and the obligatory climb out. Although we were moving at a pretty decent pace any thoughts of a sub 24hr race were knocked on the head around this point. We settled in to enjoy this day and to finish.

My memory of the next section is blurry but the hills kept coming. We also had a few welcome rain showers to cool things down before it became humid again. We managed to pick up the pace on the downs and flats falling into a nice rhythm we soon hit the halfway point in 11 hours.  We pushed on hard to Washington and a long needed break.

How getting some hot food, a change of socks and a cup of tea takes over half an hour I will never know and, what's more, I felt rushed at the end. I decided that taping my feet was not working and was actually detrimental, the taping causing my skin to soften and therefore blister and bruise quite easily. 'Trench foot' was another issue I was having due to my feet sweating continually and being wet after running through a few puddles.  In hindsight, I believe that wearing thick (winter) socks were the main cause. I thought thicker socks equaled more comfort. Wrong! Luckily I had been carrying a thin pair of socks which I duly changed into and kept on for the remaining 46 miles. My feet, although getting somewhat sorer, never got completely unmanageable. My main problem from here was randomly kicking the camouflaged jagged flint rock, putting an end to many of my toenails. In fact, all bar one will be gone. Ironically, the only toenail I would like to see the back of (in-growing) is the only healthy one left. I'll have to try and knock this one off on my next run.

Back out on the course and over halfway with some 12 hours to break the 'in a day' race. We dreamed for a bit that we could do it and energetically pushed on up the hills and kept to running the downs and flats. The stunning area around Steyning and beyond helped, with the setting sun and clear views over to the English channel. Things improved with the appearance of Jake, a friend, who came out to help pace and check everything was going alright.  It was a much needed impetus and we all flew down the Devils Dyke ....where the devil tested me out....I lost attention briefly and I let one of my poles drop out of my grasp which then levered onto a rock and jabbed me 'o' so close to my nether-regions with enough force to break the pole. Shock kept me moving and soon after relief that I had been extremely lucky keeping myself in one piece and being able to stay in the run. This is where I was starting to find out the mental side of things and concentration in these last sections were paramount so as not to put an end to your days work.

Jake left us before the Windmills. He was a much needed distraction and kinda proves that pacers have their place in long runs to help keep momentum going. Running through the flying bats we made the CP just as it got dark. 70 miles down in 16 hours. My worst moments were about to hit me. In hindsight maybe I shouldn't of run so hard with Jake. Maybe instead of running and loving it I should have remembered to keep drinking and eating regularly, maybe I shouldn't have rested too long at the CP. One of these or all of these factors led to me feeling quite down coming out of the CP.

It got cold so I put my baselayer on only to get too hot and have to make another stop to take off my t-shirt, wasting time sure does infuriate me. Another time killer was the constant peeing. We were drinking plenty and had a good dose of caffeine in us so no sooner had I put it away than it seemed that I needed to go again. All night!

I was also starting to feel sick now. How do you solve nausea quickly? I'm not sure you do. My nutritional plan was to eat as much as I could at the CPs and take a variety of cereal bars in-between these. The CPs were stacked with a multitude of snacks, wraps and fruit. (For me the only things missing were Ritz crackers - something I got into on the Weald Challenge - and hot soup at the latter CPs would have gone down well.  In fact I was wishing for soup at several CPs but I made do with a hot cuppa!). The hot day ruined my appetite and by now I was on a real low.  Not being able to stomach anything made for a really trying period for an hour or two. I took the GU gels on offer, something I have never really used, and these certainly picked me up and got me out of my dip and on to the finish.

One of the highlights of the night section was seeing head torches stretching over the horizon in all directions. Best seen around the natural horseshoe bowl near Kingston with lines of lights strewn all over. Jake made another appearance here. Hooked on the 'ultra' feeling he had come out to enjoy a midnight run with us. The only problem was after our decent into Southease the running was done. The next few miles went up and up, slowing us right down and unfortunately putting any last pipe dreams of winning a one day buckle out of reach for this year. Still, the finish line was tantalisingly close and the main goal was just that -  to finish. Jake left at the top and told us that only 2 more big hills left.

The one out of Alfiston was a soul destroyer. The day was dawning and the hill was never-ending. Over stones that felt like boulders and a slope that felt Alpine. The invigorating new day didn't really materialise as it was dull and overcast.

One final hill out of Jevington. A false summit later and we were met by a dedicated Centurion (Drew, I think) who cheerily congratulated us and sent us on our final descent down into Eastbourne. A tricky one, filled with danger for those lacking the strength for one final mental and physical period of concentration. Unable to use my legs anymore to brake I hurtled down pleading that my broken pole didn't disintegrate further and with it me in a heap. The slope finally flattened and from the wilderness of the Downs we entered modern civilisation.

We shuffled our way to the finish, ever slower and lost in our own happy thoughts that we had done it. Entering the stadium we picked up the pace to finish in a canter run. Handshakes and hugs. Smiles and medals.....and that big release of Endorphins.

Finishing a 100 mile race, something I thought impossible, was now achieved and sure does feel good.

100 Miles in 24hrs42.

None of this would of been possible without the first class organisation of the Centurion Team and their dedicated and superb volunteers. My race will be remembered not just for finishing my first 100miler but the run itself, the aid stations and the people we met on the South Downs Way.

Personal notes for my next long races.
Right things;
Food and snacks in the first half then Gu gels and whatever you can stomach from half way+
Salt tablet (elete) every hour.
Poles - a pain to carry and I stabbed Gary a few times, I nearly tripped over them countless times and could have stopped my race but overall they were good to have.
Taping heels, no hot spots.
3B = no chaffing - applied only once where it matters.

Wrong things;
Thinking that taping would save my toes from blisters -- wrong. Never again. Lube up.
Wearing winter socks on a hot day - go thin and buy a decent wicking pair.
When feeling good and fast remember to carry on eating and drinking otherwise it catches up on you.
No need for pro plus and red bull in drop bags. You can get by on tea and gels.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Weald Challenge 50km Ultra

It's not often I win anything. You can forget the lottery though, I had won a place in the inaugural Weald Challenge 50km from Trail Running Sussex (run by UltraStu himself). I won this by guessing the downloads UltraTales would have when it released it's latest version.

Truth be told I wasn't going to write a blog after just completing the Apocalypse 50 miler the weekend before and writing about that, but as the prize was from UltraTales it would be rude not to do some sort of write up and post it.  To be completely honest I didn't really want to race a 50km right after a 50miler but, with the SDW100 in 3 weeks and a distinct lack of training, these back to back long runs would at least give me an indication of whether I was fooling myself into thinking I could run 100 miles this year.

The race started in the tranquil village setting of Muddles Green in East Sussex. The day promised to be a beauty although a couple of friends I was meeting up with, who were doing their first Ultra (in fact their first run over 30km), assured me it was going to rain heavy early afternoon.  After panicked conversations of what to take, I eventually settled for rucksack, baselayer and waterproofs. Of course the sun shone hot all day! This was much to the amusement of Paul, who had parked next to us.  We both knew we knew each other somehow, but couldn't quite place where. He was back recovering from an horrendous sounding injury (dislocating his knee amongst other things at the Spine earlier in the year). Paul didn't need our good wishes as he won the race quite comfortably, which I hope means he is back to running at his strongest.

After a quick briefing UltraStu walked us to the starting position and sent us on our way. My friends, Jake and Melissa, were off with the eagerness of first timers.  After the first few miles, and in need of a pitstop, I let them go on hoping to catch them up later in the day.  I was looking forward to spending some time with them and getting the opportunity to hear all about their honeymoon in Nepal. Sadly it wasn't to be and we would have to save that conversation for the beer and BBQ afterwards. Meanwhile, I did get talking to John about all things good about running and competing in the SDW50. With the expectation of yo-yoing, and catching up later, I let him run up a hill and immediately found myself engaged in a chat with Paul, who had careered from fighting (karate) to running.....whilst battling Asthma.

All this talking somehow made us take a right turn on the main road and before we could say 'we're lost' we saw the WC signage which we duly, and rather ignorantly, followed. Over 1.5 miles later, just as I was thinking of picking up speed to try and catch Jake, Paul made an off hand comment that we had run some 8.5 miles on his GPS which got us thinking why we hadn't seen the CP  which was between 7 and 8 miles? Maps out and after setting the GPS on my phone we slowly figured out we had inadvertently gotten onto the homeward bound course markings!! Bugger. Turning around we picked up another couple of runners who had gotten it wrong as well. Somehow, we all took it in good spirits and just treated it as just adding a little extra to the legs!

(Leg 1 :1hr55 was 17km should of been 11km)

Once back on track and passed CP1, with some marathon runners flying past us, Paul began struggling with his asthma and needed to take more walking breaks so I pushed on. I suddenly found myself needing to rush, where bears go, to relieve a painful stomach. Whether this was due to the heat, the pace or the nutrition of the day (or the 9 ales on the Friday night) we shall never know. After my unplanned break I managed to catch up with Paul and the others again so I slowed to have another chat.  Thankfully my stomach settled down nicely so I pushed on again. The day was heating up making me wonder why I was carrying my baselayer and waterproofs? Pointless, but like the extra miles I guess it is all good training.

The route took us northwards through wonderful scenic trails and one very nice looking hotel (Buxted) taking away the anguish from painfully heavy legs. At the next CP marathon runners went right and ultras left. The temptation to go right was pretty strong but I was here to see if I could run 50km so left I went, after stopping for refreshments and thanking the marshalls.
(Leg 2 : 1hr12, 10.6km)

The next section was both beautiful and tough. Immediately the route climbed and climbed and climbed up to Camp Hill and breathtaking views over the Ashdown forest valley,  More heathland than forest though. I could see for miles and what dawned on me is I could see no other runners. Which pretty much meant I was running the rest of this race on my own so I took out my mp3 and tuned into some music to help ease my way up and down the Ashdown valley.
(Leg 3 : 1hr, 8km)

We were now passed the halfway point and had turned around/  We were heading southwards on the Vanguard Trail through picturesque farmlands and quiet single tracks. Meeting up with the odd runner now and again brought me out of my isolation and helped force me on with tiring legs.
(Leg 4 : 1hr20, 10.5km)

The next CP brought me to the familiar surrounding from our misadventure earlier on. The section was mixed with some country lane running which, although lent itself to moving faster, it meant that walking breaks were hard to come by. In the baking sun and with tender thighs the breaks were becoming more and more welcome. At least we were near the end and the final CP was close by.
(Leg 5 : 40min, 5.6km)

A quick refreshment and a final chat with the marshalls and runners and I set off to finish the race as quickly as possible. 'It's 5k' a volunteer shouted. Spurred on by this comment I sprinted around the corner only to be set upon by a hill which brought me to a grinding halt. I staggered up this slight incline. Seeing a runner in the distance encouraged me to keep moving and, where possible, get a good pace on. Finally managing to overtake him where the footpath was at its most overgrown and muddy. Soon after I popped out from nature's solitude into the hustle and bustle of a pub garden in full flow. 'Go left' was the call I heard from some helpful bystanders. A few hundred yards further had me thinking whether they were having me on. I stopped and checked my map.  The helpful person was proved correct and I made my way further down the road, starting to remember this was the road we started on all those hours ago.

(Leg 6 : 38min, 5.2km)

Finishing felt so good.  I felt good.  All in all it was a great day, a stunning route and great organisation and CPs from the organisers Trail Running Sussex. I had managed back to back ultras and Jake and Melissa had a good day and good finishes, although they did wonder where the hell I had got to!
Total : 6hr45, 57km, 35+miles

Bring on the SDW100 in June!!!