Spartathlon -wet and windy

10k to go and it’s 2:30 in the afternoon. It’s an easy downhill from the Shell station, then a left turn and along to the Evrotas bridge, before the final mile and a half into the centre of Sparta and the statue of King Leonidas. A jog / walk would see me finished in another hour and a quarter.

It had been raining constantly since 7pm last night, but in the last couple of hours the wind had really picked up. Water was flowing up the road towards me, and broken branches littered the tarmac. Stronger gusts tried to blow me off my feet, and I was holding my hand in front of my face to protect myself from all the flying debris. I needed to run to stay warm, nearly tripped over my own feet as the wind blew me sideways, so resigned myself to walking. A fallen tree was blocking half the road, but a bulldozer was already trying to clear it away. I guess this is the only road to Sparta the local authorities were working to clear. The driver opened his cab door to shout at me. The wind took his words away, but I knew he was offering encouragement.

CP 73 came and went in seconds. No stopping now. Out of the hills the buildings offered some shelter from the wind, so I jogged for a couple of minutes. I suddenly had a panic I was going the wrong way. I looked around. The streets were deserted, no runners ahead or behind. I carried on for another minute, and a police car passed. He stopped, blocking a side road and waved me on. Eventually I saw the bridge and knew where I was. The pedestrian section was flooded with water ankle deep, but seemed safer than the road so I waded through, pausing to watch the muddy torrent flowing beneath the bridge.

CP74 was my final drop bag. A Union Flag for the finish. The checkpoint was abandoned, blown away by the storm. There was a bin bag by the side of the road and I could see runners’ numbers on bags inside, so rummaged through until I found mine. No child escort this year, but I had not been expecting one in the circumstances. I ran on up the main road. A few brave souls came out onto their balconies to cheer. I could see another runner a few hundred meters ahead, but no one behind. Perfect! Last time I’d had to queue at the finish, and this year I wanted King Leonidas all to myself. I could see the guy in front turn right, so walked up to the junction to give him some space. Finally I unfurled the flag, and turned onto the final avenue. A slow jog and a few cheers, but no crowds this year. Everyone was too tired, wet and cold. I heard a shout and looked up. Chris Mills and Paul Rowlinson were there cheering, and taking photos and video. I ran up to the steps and towards the plinth. My foot slipped on the bottom step and I nearly fell face first into the statue, but recovered. For a second time I could kiss the foot of the statue.

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Although I ran Spartathlon in 2016, it doesn’t feel like a repeat. This was not the same race, but a completely different experience.
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Berlin Wall Race

On Saturday 11th August I took part in the Berlin Wall Race. It was 6 years to the day since my first ultra marathon, and I’ve run some good races since then, so with my experience I shouldn’t have felt nervous, but you can’t underestimate a 100 mile race, and last year was nothing but injuries and DNF/DNS , so I was feeling unusually apprehensive.

Training had gone well though so my plan was to get to 50 miles in 7:30 – 8:00 and try to push hard for a sub 16:48 finish.

The Berlin Wall Race is a 100 mile circuit that follows the route of the Berlin Wall. Most of the wall has been destroyed but there are a few remnants preserved for history as well as numerous memorials to the many people killed trying to cross into West Berlin.

Team Barker at the start

The route alternates direction each year and the 2018 event was to be clockwise. The race starts at 6am, at an athletics stadium, with runners doing a lap of the track before heading off towards the wall trail.

Just a mile or so after the start we ran passed the Berlin Wall Memorial with it’s preserved section of wall and an old watch tower. The route was also marked by iron poles lining the pavement along Bernauer Strasse.

The clockwise route means you run the first 10 miles or so through the city, and have to stick to all traffic regulations. Cross a road when the signal is red and you risk disqualification!

As a result runners ended up in groups, as the leader would be held at the light while others caught up.

I ended up in a group with the leading lady, two Americans and half a dozen German runners. The organisers provide a bicycle marshal to accompany the race leader, and having our own marshal to follow made for a very relaxing start as I could ignore route markers (excellent by the way) and take in the sights.

We ran passed the Brandenburg Gate and then through Checkpoint Charlie and shortly after along the East Gallery (a section of wall now used as an outdoor art gallery).

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Checkpoint Charlie

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Running past East Side Gallery

Each year the race commemorates a victim who died trying to cross the wall. This year it was Jorg Hartmann, the youngest victim. He was 10 when he was shot while trying to get into West Berlin to see his father in 1966. The DDR authorities claimed he had drowned and maintained this fiction until the wall fell in 1989.

All the runners stopped to lay a toy at his memorial. I wasn’t the only one to shed a tear.

The next 25 miles were easy going and I felt comfortable at my steady 8:40 pace. I had my usual low point at mile 35, when I questioned why I don’t stick to marathons or 50km races, but ignored the negative thoughts. I was soon at the first major check point at the Teltow Sports park, so had access to a drop bag and swapped my now empty 100ml flask for one full of EnduranceFirst fuel. From this point all runners were permitted a bicycle companion, and a lot of runners were using theirs to carry extra water for them. Fortunately the path is wide enough that the extra traffic was never an issue.

A few miles further on and we arrived at a small lake. The next 20 miles were run alongside a series of rivers and lakes as we skirted the edge of Potsdam. This was a really beautiful area to run through. It was warming up now, but I doubt it got over 28C all day, which was great as it had been 34C when I arrived in the city on Wednesday. However I was eating well and my single 600ml water bottle was enough for the 6-7km between each of the 26 check points.

At mile 57 i reached the second major CP and my second drop bag. I’d foolishly put my head torch and reflective bib (both mandatory) in this bag instead of my third drop bag. It was only about 3:30 in the afternoon, and i wouldn’t need them until 9:00.

I was taking regular short walk breaks, but still running most of the time, and keeping my pace to under 10 minutes per mile. However it was getting harder to sustain this, and i knew my target time was sliping away. Importantly though i had no achilles pain or shin pain, so i was happy to adjust my race goal. Although i have a few “100 mile in a day” buckles, i’ve never actually finished a 100 mile race on the same day as i started, as my best times have all had 10am starts. Berlin starts at 6am, so i decided to target a sub 18 finish and get to the line before midnight. This also meant the children would be waiting up for me. I’d agreed with Sarah that if i was having a bad day and lokking at a late finish she would go back to the hotel with the children rather tahn wait at the finish line.

My waist belt was rubbing a little, but i had a spare jar of lube in my 3rd drop bag, so at the Ruderclub Oberhavel checkpoint i could grab this. One of the volunteers kindly offered to rub this into the area on my back that was chafing while i switched from cap and sunglasses to reflective bib and head torch.

There were a lot of runners drinking beer here, but they were all relay event runners rather than solo runners. The event has a 2,4 or even 10+ option for relay teams, so i was regularly being overtaken by some seriously quick men and women. However all of then had words of encouragement for the solo runners.

There were a few more road crossings now, so more enforced stops for the infamous red man, but no where near as many as the first section. The run back into Berlin was on quiet suburban streets and paths alongside the railway line. The batteries in my headtorch had not been new and it was fading badly, so i caught up with the runner in front and his Irish bike companion, following their lights and chatting a little to pass the miles. Eventually i stopped and changed to fresh batteries for the final 5 miles into the city.

At last i could see the park where we had started, and picked up the pace a little. As i turned onto the track i could see Sarah and the kids waiting, so ran to them and then jogged the track with children in tow.

I finished in 17:21:43. 12th place, 6th M50 and 1st Brit.

I’d certainly recommend the event, as it is a flat and fast route (despite the stops for red lights). The large number of aid stations means you can run very light (i had a waist belt with single 600ml bottle), and navigation is super easy, as arrows are spray painted on the road.

The only negative is the awards ceremony. Finishers medals, and buckles (for sub 24hr runners), are handed out at the ceremony on the Sunday, which dragged on for well over 2 hours…  not the best way to spend your recovery day!

The Essex 30

With the Berlin Wall race in August and then Spartathlon looming large I was hoping for a warm race for some good hot weather training. Fortunately the British summer delivered and the race took place in bright sunshine and warm still air.

The 30 mile race is organised by Challenge Running and takes place in conjunction with a 100 and 50 mile race.

Route

The race route is an out and back, and starts at Felsted Village Hall. After a short road section it turns onto the Flitch Way (a former railway line, so straight and flat). After 4.3 miles there is a checkpoint at the old Rayne Station ( now the Booking Hall Cafe) and then you turn around and head back to Felsted. The 100 mile race is 12 laps, 6 for the 50 and 4 for the 30 mile version.

Race day

I drove up in a relaxed mood looking forward to a good long run. With the promise of a flat route I was aiming for a solid steady paced run. I had no real pace plan, but wanted to run to feel and try and be consistent and run with no walk breaks.

I’d not expected to know too many people here, but met up with Gill and Ian Thomas and then Paul Ali at registration so knew I’d have some good company on the route. Before long we were off. I’d been chatting with Ian before the start and found my self on the front row of the start. However Craig Holgate shot passed me and was soon disappearing into the distance. Another runner (Mark Prigg) also passed me, but then we settled into a steady pace toward the Flitch Way. The route itself has a fair bit of shade from the tree cover, but it was already warm at the 9am start and the temperature was building.

Picture of the strat line

Race Start

By the turn around point I had passed Mark, but Craig had pulled out a significant lead. I’ve seen Craig race before and knew he holds the course record, and he looked like he was trying to improve on it!

Out and back laps are often perceived as dull because you get the same scenery again and again, but I do enjoy seeing other runners during the race, and everyone seemed to have a huge smile on their face and offer encouragement to other runners.

The first lap went well, and I managed not to go out too hard. Back at Felsted and Gill offered to refill my flask while I ate some fruit. Ian was just behind me, and he was running the 100, but I knew his target time so expected him to be starting fast.

Lap two was much the same as the first. I’d been focused on not going too fast at the start, but now I was relaxed and in fact ran this lap a little faster. However it was getting hotter and by half way through lap 3 I was starting to regret my kit choice. I have a good waist belt with a 600ml bottle, but decided that the sloshing noise of water in a hard bottle would be annoying. Instead I picked a small waist belt with a 250ml soft flask. For the first couple of sections this was enough, but now I was finding 250ml wasn’t quiet enough for the 4.3 miles between checkpoints. At the end of lap 3 I had to fill my flask, drink it and refill before leaving Felsted, and when I got to the turnaround point I stopped for a good few minutes to drink before heading back.

Two miles from the finish I felt a sharp stabbing pain on the top of my left foot. I stopped immediately and saw a wasp trapped under the tongue of my shoe, with his stinger jabbing into my skin. After flicking it away, hopping up and down and swearing a bit, I hobbled on. Fortunately it didn’t seem to have done much damage so I managed to run in to the finish.

Results

I was happy with my performance and pacing and I ran the entire distance with no walk breaks, although a few stops to drink and beat off predatory bugs. So a good day out.

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My lap times were consistent until lap 4 where I dropped a lot of time, but. that was mostly non moving time. My running speed was solid all the way.

1st place and taking 6mins off his own CR was Craig Holgate in 4:02:09

I finished in 2nd place in 4:49:28

It took a couple of hours and several pints of water, two McDonalds milkshakes in the car, plus more milk and tea at home to rehydrate, but when I finally cracked open a beer I could reflect on a good race. Thanks to Lindley Chambers and the team at Challenge Running for putting on a great event, and I’ll be back for more in future.

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Weald Challenge 50km – the third time

I ran this race in it’s first year (2014), and again the following year. In 2016 I was there, but supporting Sarah who was running. Last year I ran GUCR, but decided for this year it was time to come back.

It was a beautiful morning when I left the house, and I’d been offered a lift by David Milloy who was running, so could relax as he drove down to the start.

Registration was quick and simple and we soon lined up for the race briefing. All the pre-race communications had warned that only the half marathon route would be marked, and the 50km runners would need to navigate (a run book and GPS files were provided). However during the briefing Stuart told us he had marked the full route, which was great news, and meant I would need to worry too much about navigation.

8am, and we are sent on our way. I set off at an easy pace and had decided to run on feel rather than check my pace on my garmin. In fact I ignored the watch for most of the run, only checking once an hour, so was very pleased to make it to half way, and the highest part of the route up in Ashdown Forest, in the time I had predicted.

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Running across the Forest with my support team

This meant Sarah and the children were there to cheer me on and offer to fetch me an ice cream from the van in King’s Standing car park. The weather was still perfect for running so i declined on this occasion. An hour or so later when it had warmed up, i’d have happily accepted.

After about 3 hours of steady running, it really started feeling warmer. I was carrying two 250ml soft flasks, but one was leaking badly, so I could really only carry about 250ml. I made sure i stopped and drank at the next check point as well as refill the flask.

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Temp chart from my Garmin Fenix

I’d planned to meet Sarah again at the Blackboy’s Inn, but shortly after leaving CP4 and climbing up to the road I saw Claire Milloy waving at me and then heard Sarah call out. A runner had collapse by the side of the road, and they were looking after her.

I later discovered this was the leading lady who was suffering badly with cramp. In the end she had to withdraw, and Sarah drove her back to the finish.

Shortly afterwards I caught up with a couple of runners from the half marathon race, and from the top of the next hill I could see the church steeple at Chiddingly. It was still some way off, but once I saw it I knew there was only of couple more fields to cross before the end.

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Crossing the final field – race on

The runner in front had twice looked over his shoulder at me, and I assumed he was struggling. If I see a runner looking back, I always take this as an invitation to race, and I knew once we hit the road for the last section I would have a chance to push hard and catch him. The last stretch is about half a mile but seems further as you have to run up the hill to the start line and then carry on for another couple of hundred meters to the school. I pushed hard, and manage to catch him with a hundred meters or so to spare, and then power passed to the line.

My Garmin says I ran the last half mile at 6:43 min/mile pace.

 

 

 

I’m very glad I did as this meant i once again managed a top 10 finish!

My 3 Weald Challenge Results

Times

Slower but still in the top 10.

Mind strengthening

This is not a race report. However my thoughts are prompted by my recent participation in the Arc of Attrition, so i will briefly describe the race.

My performance in that race was well below par, and that was for a number of reasons. Mostly it was a mental failure rather than a physical cause. Basically when things got tough (as they always will in a 100 mile race) I started looking for excuses to quit.

Coming into the race I was fairly sure that I wasn’t fit and strong enough to complete it but after withdrawing from so many races last year I didn’t want to pull out. However I didn’t expect mental weakness would be the cause on my DNF. I was expecting my quads to give out, or my achilles tendon to flare up, but its clear that my lack of running last year has not only left me heavier, slower and weaker, but also affected my resolve, and so in the next few months I’ll need to focus on mental strength as well as physical strength if I’m to improve.

Mental strength is not just willpower. It involves being indifferent to the physical discomfort and being able to detach. When running long distances well I can usually monitor my physical condition in non emotive terms. My legs aren’t tired; they don’t hurt;  i’m thinking of my body as a machine and i stay focused on supplying it with the right fuel and fluids to keep in driving forward.

So I need to ensure my training incorporate mental strength goals as well as physical ones. This means being disciplined and working hard, but also being confident; setting and achieving goals to grow your confidence.

My three step plan:

1. Structured training plan

I’ve had very structured training plans in the past, but recently have been less formal. A typical week might be:

  • Hill reps
  • Tempo or progression
  • Long run
  • Other runs at easy pace

The problem with this is I may not decide how many reps I’m doing until I’m halfway through the session. There is no obligation to run 10 hill reps of 2 mins each, so no mental discipline involved.

For the next few months I’ll be far stricter with target numbers of intervals, target HRs or paces. I’m not going to become a slave to the plan and I’ll happily adapt it, but once I leave the house I’ll know the aim and stick to it unless i feel a physical injury.

2. Race simulation

I need to run more of the easier / shorter races. The sort of thing where a DNF is out of the question. These won’t all be at max race pace, but I’ll set goals like a negative split, or “no one passes me in the second half”. A strong race finish is great for building confidence. Also during these races i can practice setting my mental focus on nutrition, hydration, navigation, running form etc. as well as my pacing plan. Staying positive throughout the race and focused on the sense of movement while being indifferent to the effort.

3. Practice discomfort

There are plenty of ways to do this. Hill reps and speed intervals usually deliver on discomfort. However running in the foulest weather, thickest mud etc. also qualifies. Midday runs in humid summer heat has worked for me before and if it ever warms up I’ll try it again. The mental element of these sessions other than the obvious physical fitness gains, is re-learning how to focus my mind on something other than the pain. For example to focus on good breath control, good running form etc.

Hopefully with a couple of good months of training, i’ll be both physically fitter and also mentally tougher.

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What went wrong?

  1. Poor planning
  2. Poor adaptation
  3. Mental disintegration

Planning: The main planning error was shoe choice. After a stress fracture last year my only thoughts coming into this race were to ensure i protected my lower leg, so I chose a well cushioned comfortable shoe. I gave almost no thought to grip despite reading many blogs about the trail conditions in previous years. The result was three falls in the first three miles as I slid about in the mud and on wet rocks.

Adaptation: Normally in muddy conditions I shorten my stride and increase the cadence to get through the worst sections but this time I just cursed my shoes and walked. Problems always arise in a long run, and you need to find answers, and adapt, but i just seemed unable.

Mental weakness: After more slides and a painful fall where I bashed my arm landing on a rock I completely disintegrated. I was scared of another fall that could cause a more serious injury, and settled into a walk. Fifteen miles into the race and i was already rehearsing the excuses i would make for my impending DNF.

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Jacket on… walking not running

 

Dark Star

Dark Star Brewing make some fabulous beers. At the moment I’m rather taken with their Cocoa Nut Porter (available from The Beer Boutique, Tunbridge Wells). They also sponsor the River Marathon put on by Sussex Trail Events. Its a 28 mile trail race along the banks of the River Adur, and on the Downs Link path, that passes directly in front of the brewery in Partridge Green.

I ran this race in 2015, and although the profile suggests it should be flat and fast, the fact that it’s January and mostly on the river bank, means its muddy and slow. I was in great shape in 2015, and finished in 3:47, but this year my longest training run has been 18 miles, so i knew it was going to get tough in the last 7 or 8 miles.

I was a little nervous, as this was my first race in over 6 months, and sure enough I made a few basic errors: too much wine the night before, too little breakfast, no pre-race kit photo for social media, starting too fast.

The start is at the Scout hut, and after crossing the river it’s straight onto the path along the bank. I guess they have improved the path since I last ran as the first mile or two were all paved or firm gravel and I was beginning to think I’d made a bad shoe choice. However soon enough the good trails ended, and it became the muddy track I remembered. When I saw a runner slip and slide a few times in his Altra shoes, I knew that the Inov8 Mudclaws were the right choice after all.

The race leader had shot off at a remarkable pace, and even though i was much slower I realised my pace was still too quick, but it felt good at the time. After 10 miles the route finally left the river path and hit the graveled Down Link path a number of people started passing me – i guess they were taking advantage of the better underfoot conditions, but i was happy with my own pace. Out and back routes can be a little dull, but i do like the fact you get to see the entire race spread out. Soon the leader was coming back toward me, chased hard by another and then a steady stream of runners. A mile of so further on, and I ran under the bridge and into the old West Grinstead Station for the turnaround check point and then back the way I had come.

The worst part of the route is  after leaving the Downs Link and rejoining the river bank. For two miles you have to run through the same churned mud that two hundred runners have already turned into a quagmire. However eventually I reached the bridge and crossed over the the other bank for the rest of the run.

 

 

By now i’d run 20 miles and was really starting to feel it. I walked for a minute or two while i ate a Nakd Cashew bar, and then started plodding toward the finish. First marathon in months, and i choose one that comes with free bonus miles. I needed a couple more short walk breaks, but finally reached the uneven concrete path and then end was in sight.

After hosing down my legs and shoes, I went into the scout hut for a superb bowl of chili washed down with a Dark Star Lager. I wouldn’t normally chose a lager, but it was very refreshing and was great with the food.

My finish time was 4:27:30 in 25th place

Results

  • 1st   Paul Sargent       3:40:48                           Ellie Morgan        4:14:52
  • 2nd Jonny Burke        3:44:19                           Lorna Spayne      4:17:10
  • 3rd Paul Perry            3:52:28                           Megan Lennox    4:28:44

 

The race photos were taken by Jon Lavis – thanks for your support on the course.

Resetting race goals

It’s 6:30 on a Saturday morning and I’m making porridge.

Daddy, how do you make Porridge?

I explain the simple recipe.

Yuk… sounds horrible!

There’s little point in arguing with an eight year old boy.

Daddy…. Mummy says you’re stupid.

She says you’ve not done enough training and shouldn’t do this race.

I can’t argue with this viewpoint either. This year has started with injuries. Achilles tendonitis and bursitis in my left ankle have limited my training. I was due to run the Endurance Life CTS Sussex ultra, but all I have managed in training since mid January is a few 6-8 mile runs and a single 13 miler. However the CTS series have shorter races so I decided to be sensible and swap to a shorter race. I swapped to the marathon. So, not very sensible.

I ran this race two years ago, and enjoyed it, but the organisation could have been better. An easy drive to Birling Gap and well managed parking was a good start to the day. However things soon deteriorated.

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Registration hell!

There was a 50 minute queue to register, and subsequently the race start had to be delayed by 20 minutes. Quite why we had to queue in single file I have no idea. There were race officials standing idle waiting while runners were snaking round the tent in a roped off funnel.

After a thorough and lengthy race briefing we walked the couple of hundred meters to the start and were sent on our way. It was chilly, dry and breezy at the start, but as I ran up to the first summit of the Seven Sisters I caught the full force of the wind coming off the sea. It was blowing a gale. Seven hard climbs to hike up, seven blasts from the wind as I tried to find shelter behind taller runners, and seven steep descents to batter my toes. It was a relief to reach the Cuckmere Haven and turn inland to escape the wind.

The first five miles took 51 minutes – slower than I’d hoped for, but aware of my limited fitness, I was trying to keep to an easy effort and still have some strength in my legs for the final third.  The route heads up the river valley through the first checkpoint at Litlington to Alfriston and then uphill, following the South Downs Way for a short stretch, before turning left, to run around the hillside and under the Long Man of Wilmington. After a short steep climb back up to the hill top, the path heads south and back towards Westdean and CP2. I paused briefly to get some water. The checkpoints are very basic: water, bananas and biscuits, but I knew what to expect, so had my own snacks and gels.

From Westdean it’s back through Friston forest towards East Dean before turning south and back to Birling Gap. The wind was still blowing strongly, but at least it was at my back as I started the long climb up past Belle Tout and then up to Beachy Head itself.Long_climb_up_Beachy_Head.jpg

In the Beachy Head Marathon the path takes the inland route before dropping down to the finish, but the CTS race turns right and drops down a ridiculously steep path before taking the coastal path to Dukes Drive. CP3 is here by the kiosk, and another biscuit and more water and I was on my way for the last five miles. From here the route heads back to the west, and after the slow climb up the hill, at the road crossing I was fully exposed to the winds again. A long straight, and rather uninspiring mile and a half battling the wind, but at least I was still running, and not being overtaken.

At this point you come depressingly close to the finish, and can clearly see the Endurance Life feather flags, but my garmin told me I’d only run 23.8 miles, and sure enough the route turned away from the finish and back up another long slow climb. After crossing the Beachy Head Rd a final time I was at last on the home straight. However I was now running into the wind again, and almost forced to stop by its ferocity.

I finished in 4:32:00, setting a new marathon PW (personal worst) in the progress.

Despite the whinging tone of this blog, I enjoyed much of the running. It was great to be out in the countryside on a long run again. I walked the steep climbs, and even a couple of the steep descents, but after 26 miles I was running comfortably, with no pain. More to the point, two days after the event there is no Achilles pain. There is more muscle soreness than usual, but after so little training, that’s to be expected. I’m now looking forward to the South Downs Way 50 and Grand Union Canal race with more optimism than I could manage a couple of weeks ago.

The SDW50 is only three weeks away, so my fitness will not have improved massively, and I’ll have to start with a similar race plan – slow and steady- and try and enjoy it, but it should be great fun to run a Centurion race again, and good training for GUCR.