Category Archives: TWRunning

GUCR – 2nd attempt

It all started so well…

Friday night after registering I had dinner and a couple of beers in O’Neills, catching up with the other runners before getting an early night. I actually managed a decent sleep before getting up at 4:45 for a quick breakfast, and a 5 minute walk to the start line.

My plan was to run easily for the first few miles, and I managed to rein in my enthusiasm and start at a 9 minute / mile pace, well behind the leading pack. I was entered as a supported runner, but my crew were not due to meet me until Hatton Locks (22 miles into the race), so I was carrying plenty of food, and taking walk breaks every 25 minutes to eat.

I arrived at the 1st checkpoint only 1 minute off my schedule, and only stopped to top up my flask with water. At Hatton Locks, the 2nd checkpoint, I saw my two children first and they jogged with me towards Sarah, who helped refill my flasks and provide some more food. From now on I would see them every hour of so, at various meeting points along the canal.

Then I got lost…

Not physically lost. My body was still running along the Grand Union Canal, but my head has taken a wrong turn and gone somewhere else. Normally I am very disciplined in a race, but I started taking random walk breaks, and even forgot the basics of eating and drinking properly. For some reason I just couldn’t focus on the process. It was a lovely day, and perfect for running, but a large part of me just wanted to be somewhere else.

It became a mental battle: part of me looking for an excuse to drop out; part of me searching for the motivation to carry on.

I told Sarah I wanted to drop but my explanation “I can’t be arsed” got short shrift and I was sent on my way.

At about the 60 mile point I tripped on a tree root, and after stumbling a few more paces hit the dirt face first. I picked myself up and wiped myself down with a buff. Unfortunately there was no real injury. A grazed elbow and bruised thigh was not the sort of ‘gory race injury’ that I could use to justify a DNF.

Mid race reset…

I arrived at Navigation Bridge and saw the children on the other side of the canal in the pub garden. Sarah was getting then some dinner. The met me on the bridge, and handed over a head torch, as it would be dark in an hour or so. Both Ian and Gill Thomas were at the CP, so I stopped for some soup and a chat to try and reboot my race.

Leaving the CP I was feeling better, and tried to get back into a regular run / walk rhythm. Looking at the splits from my Suunto, I actually picked up the pace here, and was looking forward to the night section. Generally I enjoy running through the night, and felt that if i could stay focused this could still be a good result. I was actually only about 45 minutes behind my target time, despite slacking off at every opportunity.

Milton Keynes came and went with no incidents. I lingered a little too long at Bridge 99, but my crew were taking a break to try and grab some sleep, and a hot cup of tea from the volunteers at the checkpoint went down very well.

I arrived at Soulbury Three Locks at about midnight. The path runs right in front of the pub, so there were plenty of people about, and one group of girls asked what I was doing. When I said I was running to London I’m not sure they believed me, but when the penny dropped they gave me some cash. It wasn’t enough for a train fare or taxi, so i’ll give it to charity.

Next stop was the Tesco at Leighton Buzzard where Sarah and the children were waiting. Again I made good time along the tow path, and arrived in good spirits. They had a pot noodle for me and some warmer kit as it was getting colder on the canal.

The next section is very rural. I was running along the tow path, dodging the frogs on the path and the moths that are attracted to the headtorch. One of the moths managed to get trapped between my glasses and my eye, fluttering around and nearly putting me in the water. Fortunately I managed to get my glasses off to free it and stop short of the water’s edge.

Lost again…

Marsworth Junction and I don’t get on with each other. In 2017 I spent 15 minutes trying to work out which way to go. This year I was determined not to make the same mistake, and approached it with a map in my hand, carefully following the marked route. I swear those maps are wrong. It doesn’t help that you have to swap from Map 4 to Map 5 at the critical section, but I finally made my way to the Checkpoint, but from the wrong direction after a detour via Watery Lane.

I stopped at the CP for a tea and Sarah had more hot noodles for me. My daughter was up despite it being 3am, and thought i had seriously injured myself. I had an orange stain all over my eye, face and glasses – Moth poo!

Cleaned up a restored I set off again.

The final drag …

Leaving the CP I was very stiff. Looking back at my Suunto data is looks like I sat there for twenty minutes. I walked for a while to try and loosen up, and then tried a gentle jog to catch the runner in front. I managed to catch Sandra and her buddy, but my left Achilles was seizing up, and causing me to limp, landing heavily on my right leg. I walked for a while.

Even a brisk walk was making me limp. I tried a few different strategies: shuffling jog, power hike, gentle amble… anything faster than 25 min / mile pace was an awkward limp. My mind might be back in the race, but now it felt like my body was giving up. I have history in this race (see GUCR 2017 for the full story), and it ended badly. My left Achilles had seized up, but I had limped on for 40 miles before quitting. In the end my crew had to carry me from the canal as I couldn’t even stand. I’d spent a month on crutches (with severe periostitis), and needed a six month break from running.

So I now had a choice: limp the remaining 40+ miles to Little Venice and risk another serious injury; walk very slowly and resign myself to another 18hrs

I plodded on for a while until Dudswell lock and bridge 138. I crossed to the right hand side of the canal and sat on the bench. It was nearly 5am, and I decided to throw in the towel. After phoning Sarah and asking her to come and find me, I took my pack off, lay down and promptly fell asleep.

Two days later and physically I was recovered. My race ending injury was little more than fatigue, and my only real issues were all in my head.

Sevenoaks Circular

This was the 44th edition of the LDWA Sevenoaks Circular, and i’m embarrassed to say it was my 1st.

The start was at 8am. After an early breakfast I left home at 7am and was parked up, registered and enjoying a cup of tea by 7:30. This event is so local I don’t know why i’ve never done it before. With a 24 hour race coming up soon, i wanted to have a good 5 hour run under my belt and get in some steady pacing. Obviously hilly and muddy trails are not exactly terrain specific training for running laps of a track, but are a lot of fun.

The start / finish is at at West Heath school, and after a short road section the route heads into Knole Park. I had been chatting to some friends at the start, but i was being more aggressive with my pacing, aiming for some early 8:30 miles before the route got too muddy so pushed ahead, just behind the lead runners.

After Knole Park the route headed out to the East into the open country side and dropped downhill to Ightham Mote and then Shipbourne Church.

Shipbourne Church

We then started to loop round to the south, across the Fairlawn estate toward Hildenborough. My daughter has her riding lessons here, so i recognised this section as we crossed Riding Lane and headed towards the A21. This is about the lowest point in the entire route, and i knew there were a couple of big climbs coming up, so i took a gel in preparation. I was running with a couple of other guys – one in long sleeved top and tights and the other in t-shirt and shorts. They were following the route on a gps watch while I had the paper route guide, so between us we had no navigation issues.

Perfect prep for the track

The second checkpoint was in the village hall in Weald, and then the route starts to climb up Wickhurst Road. I walked the steeper sections, and eventually reached the summit and then there was a long steady descent through Mill Bank Woods. A runner caught me here (red shirt man), and told me this was a good downhill stretch, and then flew off into the distance. The weather had been glorious all morning, with bright sunshine and light winds. However as i ran into Dryhill park it clouded over and started raining. This was the third checkpoint, and after topping up with some water, I grabbed a bag of mini cheddars, aiming to eat these on the big climb to Knockholt.  We had caught up with red shirt man at this point, and leaving this CP found another (T-shirt man) who was running towards us having gone the wrong way. Briefly there were five of us running together, but by the time we reached the A25 road crossing two had disappeared and I was back with the two guys i’d been with since CP2. Dashing across the main road was a bit scary, but we were soon running through Chipstead. I was surprised how tranquil the village seemed, being so close the M25/M26 motorways. Over the motorway bridge and then we ran towards Chevening Church.

The guys i’d been running with slowed for a walk up this gradual incline, but i carried on, knowing it was going to get steeper very soon. After the church there is a brief section across a field, and then it is steeply uphill to the North Downs Way. My legs were burning as I hike up here. I’ve done very little hill training this year (with Crawley and GUCR on the schedule it’s not been a priority) and paid the price. Eventually I was at the top, and joined the road into Knockholt.

The checkpoint was in the village hall and had some great looking cheese and tomato rolls, so i helped myself and set off to walk and eat. As i left I saw the guys i’d been with earlier running passed the CP, so called them back. I’d caught three runners in the CP, (red shirt man and two I’d not seen before) but they caught up with me as i enjoyed my snack and strolled down the road. However I started running again soon after and ran with them down the road only to see T-shirt man heading towards us!

Back on the North Downs Way and two of the runners stopped to walk, so now I was running with only red shirt man, and we were playing leap frog with T-shirt man. He was using his phone to navigate, and had done the Knockholt loop clockwise to our anti-clockwise, and was now heading down the field on the other side of the hedge to us. GPS is useful, but you still can’t beat written route guides.

The three of us ran into Duncton Green together and then through the nature reserve. As I caught sight of the Knole Acadamy (a large secondary school), i realised we were going back into the centre of Sevenoaks for the last couple of miles. While it was still rural and secluded I stopped for a toilet break, and then ran up to the main road. I could see red shirt man followed by t-shirt man, but they were powering up Bradbourne Road and I couldn’t catch them.

Although I had a vague idea where i was, it wasn’t until the route directions took me through a wooden door into Knole Park that I recognised the location. There was now only a couple of miles left, but all gently uphill. First through the park and then onto the road. I could see the two runners ahead, but hadn’t the speed to catch up.

Finally the school was in sight, and I jogged up the drive to the main building and the finish. I’d been hoping for 5 hours, but given the muddy conditions i was very happy with a 5:07 finish and third place.

P.S. I’ve been vague with names in this blog, mostly because I didn’t know the names of the guys I was running with. However after checking the results, I realised they were all called David, so using their names would not have improved the narrative.

1st place David in 5:06

2nd place David in 5:06

3rd place David in 5:07

 

 

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!

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

 

Sparta – a race report

I’ve just hobbled up some steps onto a temporary wooden platform to take this photo. My feet hurt. They hurt a lot. Sarah, Mark and Dan are below taking their own pictures. I need a minute to myself. I’ve started crying.

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King Leonidas – Sparta

My race finished 21 hours ago, when I ran up to this statue, grasping the left foot in a sweaty embrace. However it is only now, when we have stopped off in Sparta before driving back to Athens, that the magnitude of the achievement and the effort it required is sinking in. I’m completely drained, not just physically but mentally and emotionally.

Spartathlon is a BIG race. It’s not just the distance, but it has a special place in the hearts of many runners and I had invested a lot of time and energy in the event. So had my crew. I had first met Mark when he was volunteering at a Centurion race. Sarah, Mark and I were at the Jevington aid station all night and had a great time. Since then Sarah and Mark have volunteered together several times, and make a great team. When Mark offered to take time off work and help crew I was delighted, and promised his family we wouldn’t be going home without a finish.

When I set out, I only really had one goal and that was to get to Sparta in less than the 36 hour time limit. However my crew needed something a little more useful than that, so I gave them a table with my projected earliest and latest arrival times for the 16 crew points. However for myself I wanted to keep my race plan simple, and devised a 10 point checklist.

  1. Smile and relax
  2. 9 and 1
  3. Drink
  4. Phone Mum
  5. Keep a cool head
  6. Don’t panic
  7. Eat something
  8. Own the night
  9. Be unstoppable
  10. Drink some more
  11. Do not quit, do not quit, do not f*in quit

 

Smile and relax

I run because I enjoy it. However I was expecting that after 120 miles or so I might need a reminder, so this was first on my checklist. The excitement at the start as nearly 400 runners gathered beneath the Acropolis was infectious. I knew that in previous years many had tried and failed, and about half of those assembled might not kiss the foot in Sparta, but despite this the mood was buoyant as we set off. Running down the cobbled slope I had a massive grin on my face and was practically giggling with delight at the atmosphere. The sense of history, and the evident pride that the Greeks have for this race made it a really special start. With Police officers stopping traffic and waving runners through road crossings I quickly discovered how important this race is to the communities we would run through. I wanted to keep this sense of happiness close and draw upon it later in the race, knowing I probably wouldn’t be quite this joyful again until the finish.

Running with a smile on my face keeps me positive and helps block out the negative voices that try and creep in when I get tired, so I was determined to smile for every checkpoint, wave back at the cars that hooted as they passed, and have as much fun as possible. The children I saw along the route made this very possible. As I ran through some villages there would be whole classes lining the street, hands outstreched for a high five. Under one road bridge there must have been 50 or more children waiting patiently for a hand slap from a passing runner.

9 and 1

This is my reminder to slow down, take walk breaks and save my strength for later. Last year I used a ‘run 9 minutes, walk one minute’ strategy and ran my best ever 100 mile races. It forces me to slow down when I’m fresh, but also pushes me to run when I’m tired. After the start I soon found myself with James and Barry, so fell into step with them for a while. However I was determined to be disciplined and after thirty minutes, I waved them off and slowed to a walk.

Keeping to this regular run walk routine, as I ran through Athens and down to the coast my walk breaks meant I was slowing down compared to the first 30 minutes, so a number of runners passed me, but it felt like a really comfortable pace for the first few hours. I had a good chat with a couple of runners from the American team, as well as with Paul and Carl.

Drink

My drop bag strategy was very simple. The day before the race I bought two dozen 500ml water bottles in the local supermarket. 12 of these I mixed with Tailwind. I then taped some food to each one and put them in every fourth checkpoint bag at race registration, so I would have something from Cp4 through to CP48. The rest I would leave with my crew, so I could adapt depending on how I felt in the second half.

This worked well, and during the hot parts of the day I was drinking my Tailwind then topping up the bottle with water at every CP.

Phone Mum

I think it’s best to keep mothers on a ‘need to know’ basis when running stupid distances, so this particular instruction was making a one-off appearance on my checklist. Race day – 30th September –  is also my mother’s birthday. She is at home looking after the children while I’m running and Sarah, my wife, is crewing. At about 11:30 during a walk break I phoned to wish her a happy birthday. This was late enough that she would be back from the school run, but early enough that I was still feeling great, and wouldn’t have to lie.

Keep a cool head

I started the race in my team shirt and trusty Gore running cap, but at the first crew checkpoint in Megara, I swapped into an Ashmei vest and my wide brimmed hat.img_4261 They have ice at the aid station, so I plunge the hat in a bucket of water, throw some ice cubes in the hat and I’m back on the road. In minutes I have complete brain freeze, and water dripping down my sunglasses.

At the next checkpoint (CP12) I was given my drop bag bottle, on which I had taped a ziplock bag with some cheese biscuits. I ate the biscuits and put half a dozen ice cubes in the bag then put this in my hat. This worked much better, and by repeating this I could remain relatively cool.

Don’t Panic!

I must credit this instruction to James Adams, as I borrowed it from his blog. The race distance, cut offs, number of checkpoints and possible drop bags can seem daunting. To avoid the feeling of panic I decided to just ignore the cut offs completely. I would adhere to the old cliché and ‘run my own race’, irrespective of the pace of runners at the front, around me, or the cut offs chasing me. I would simply ignore it all and run in my own bubble. I’m a reasonably fast runner, so if everything was going well and I was following my eat, drink and stay cool instructions, cut offs shouldn’t become an issue.

This worked really well. Ignoring cut offs meant I was never stressed by trying to calculate the pace I needed to maintain. I could just run or walk as it felt comfortable. I knew if I was dangerously close to cut offs my crew would tell me, but they had been briefed to not mention them otherwise. They could do the calculations, get stressed if I slowed down and leave me to relax and run.

Running over the Corinth canal is a great experience and a landmark on the route. I pulled into CP22 knowing I’d covered 50 miles and still felt fine. This is the second CP where crew are allowed, but I couldn’t see Sarah or Mark. I grabbed a drink. Russ, crewing for one of the other British runners, helped find some ice for me while I phoned Sarah. I was concerned she had got lost, but in fact she and Mark had mis-understood the road book and assumed they weren’t allowed at this CP. A curt instruction to “Read the rules”, and I was on my way again. No panic.

Eat something

The route from Corinth improves significantly, running along small country roads passing through olive groves and vineyards. I had been snacking on food at the checkpoints as well as eating the Nakd bars, nuts and biscuits that had been taped to my Tailwind bottles. However I was feeling hungry, so glad when I arrived at Ancient Coriimg_4252nth to find Sarah and Mark had grabbed a table in the shade at the local café. Because they had skipped the Hellas Can CP, they had been here for hours, and enjoyed a three course meal already. On first name terms with the waitress (Magda), they ordered a coffee frappé as soon as they saw me arrive. They also had a rice pudding for me as well as an ice lolly. Great work by the crew and instant forgiveness for not showing up earlier. The frappé was delicious!

I walked out of Ancient Corinth, pausing to admire the ruined buildings, and then got back into my run / walk routine. It was still very hot and my feet were aching. I think the heat was making them swell, so my shoes were getting uncomfortable.

Own the night

I have always enjoyed running into the night, and the promise of cooler conditions meant I was eager for sunset. Before the race I’d decided that if I was struggling I would just try to hang on until sunset and then pick up the pace. As it was I was in pretty good shape as I ran towards Zevgolatio. The local children were out in force and flagged me down, so I stopped and signed a few autographs for them. I don’t expect I’ll be asked to do that again anytime soon. At the CP I picked up my head torch, and clipped a flashing red LED to the back on my waist belt.

There was a short section on an unpaved road which made a pleasant change, but then it was back onto the roads. I’d changed out of my vest into a fresh top, although at this stage it was still a warm night. My crew were doing a great job of keeping ahead of me and anticipating what I would need: cheese sandwich, hot coffee etc. all ready for my arrival at the checkpoints. If only they could have moved the trip hazards- video here

As well as my mum’s birthday, race day coincided with a new moon, so the sky was especially dark and the stars put on a great show. The long trek up the switch backs to the Mountain Base checkpoint were made bearable by just looking up from time to time to admire the spectacle of the Milky Way.

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At Mountain Base

I arrived at the CP and was given a hot drink by the volunteers. I couldn’t see Sarah or Mark, but a quick text message had them running over from the car park. It was about 3:40 am, and I was getting cold as I sat down to change my shoes. My road shoes are hopeless on trail, so I wanted to change to something with more grip. I also put on a long sleeved base layer, hat, gloves and jacket. I wasn’t expecting to run to the summit, or indeed down the other side, so wanted to stay warm. A change of head torch (I didn’t want the batteries running out), and I was on the move again in just a few minutes.

The climb was horrible. After a hundred miles of running my ankles, which have limited mobility at the best of times, were really stiff. A couple of times on the climb, I paused and wobbled, just trying to stay balanced. However I only fell once, and did no damage. The descent was as bad: loose rocks waiting for me to turn an ankle on; small rocks hiding in the shadows, waiting for me to stub my toe on. I stuck to the plan and walked down. I knew I’d lose time here, but better that than risk a bad fall that could end my race.

Mark and Sarah were waiting at Nestani, and I changed back into my road shoes. Statistically most runners who make it to Nestani ahead of the cutoffs make it to Sparta, but it’s still 75km to go, so far too early to feel safe.

Be Unstoppable

Sunrise normally brings a sense of relief – the start of a new day. However for me it brought a horrible realisation that, along with the mist that had rolled down off the mountain, literally chilled me to the core. I’d been running for 24 hours now, and realistically had at least 10 hours still to go until I finished. I’ve run five 100 miles races, but nothing longer, and although I should have been prepared for this it came as something of a shock. I had to shake this thought off and focus on the present. Just keep plodding to the next CP, then the next. Don’t think of the finish.

Drink some more

It’s Saturday morning and I realise that I may have gone a little overboard on my hydration strategy. In a race earlier this year I had a bladder problem which meant I had to stop and pee every 5 minutes even though nothing came out. One suggestion was that dehydration had contributed to the problem. Today though, when I do stop its like turning on a tap. I must be irrigating every olive grove in the Peloponnese. Despite the 30 degree heat I am clearly well hydrated, so can look forward to a beer at the finish line rather than a saline and glucose IV drip.

My frequent stops take my mind off the steady climb up to Ardamis. There’s a runner a few hundred meters ahead. Every time he starts to run I break into a jog too. My feet hurt, and as the day heats up they swell some more. All I can do is loosen my shoes and keep going.

Do not quit, do not quit, do not f*in’ quit

The eleventh point in my ten point plan, and another stolen instruction. One of the runners at the Centurion SDW100 had this written on a card, and when I read her blog I decided to copy the idea. It’s so easy to forget why you entered when you get tired and before you know it you’re on a bus. You’re then wondering why you quit, and regretting the decision for a year until you can come back for redemption!

I couldn’t quit. My crew would kill me. My children would kill me. Mark’s wife would kill me. I quit.

‘Get to CP 69 and it’s all downhill’ I’d been told, so I hung on, but the downhill was worse. My feet were swollen and in agony and the increased impact from running downhill was unbearable so I quit. Well not quite. I didn’t hand in my race number. I knew I still had plenty of time. But this wasn’t going to be the strong finish or sub 34 hour race I’d been hoping for. I was walking to Sparta now.

It was a long walk, but I now had the luxury of time, so I was under no pressure. It would have been great to run in and finish sooner, but my goal was to get to Sparta and I would achieve it. I started imagining that first cold beer, and broke into a jog. It hurt – a lot. Back to a walk.

The finish itself must make this a contender for ‘Best Race in the World’. Kids on bikes escort you the final 2 km through the town of Sparta to the finish. Local residents cheer and wave from every taverna and café. As I strolled towards the line someone shouted at me to run for a sub 35 finish, so I broke into jog. (video of finish here)

At the end there is no line to run over though, instead the race ends when you touch (or kiss) the feet of the statue of King Leonidas. You are rewarded with an olive wreath placed on your head, and drink of water from the local spring. The medical staff then wash and tend to your feet. I’ll write that twice as I still don’t believe it – they wash your feet – before fetching you a beer and releasing you from their care.

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We hung around, chatting with the rest of the British team, and cheering other runners home for a while, until I started shivering and Mark and Sarah dragged me off.

There is a lot about this race that I didn’t like. However it’s given me some fantastic memories, introduced me to some great new people, and for the quality of the Start and Finish alone, it’s worth the 246 km in between.

If I think of a good enough reason I’ll come back. However the best reason – to finish the race, has been used so I need another.

Spartathlon training update

I’ve split my training plan into three main blocks:

July – Maffetone method base training

August – Strength training with some hills and speed work

September – race specific heat acclimitisation and taper

July

My Maffetone method training went well, and I managed to significantly increase my training volume. Historically I rarely run more than 65 miles a week, but I managed to complete a three week set of 75, 80 and 82 miles, and a total of 320 miles for the month. This is all uploaded via Garmin and synced with the ConnectStats app, which has a few good metrics, including the Performance Analysis chart shown below.

Data from ConnectStats

Data from ConnectStats

The increase in mileage left me exhausted, so I can confirm the Fatigue estimate (the red line) is probably accurate, but becuase I felt so tired it was hard to assess how it affected my fitness. At least I have survived without picking up any injuries, although there are a few niggles to monitor carefully.

To better assess fitness, I completed a MAF test at the start of July, and again on 3rd August, and these show a good improvement in fitness. At the same heart rate, my average pace is up from 7:59 to 7:34. Both tests were run on the same route.

August

The plan for this month is to add in some more strength and core training. I’ll also do some more hill reps to strengthen my quads for the long downhill road sections that feature at Spartathlon. We have a two week holiday planned, so that will be a good opportunity to add in some cross training (swimming, hiking, kayaking etc), but will probably mean a reduction in the volume of miles run, as I won’t do any run commutes.

September

I have a road marathon booked for Sunday 4th September, and will schedule a couple of tough weeks at the start of the month, before a two week taper going into the race. During this period, I’ll try to do some heat training, which may require running in woolly hats and jackets for a week or two.

 

Samphire Challenge

The Samphire Challenge is a set of timed races (6, 12 or 24) that run alongside the Samphire 100, and is organised by Saxons, Vikings and Normans. The route is a lapped course around the Samphire Hoe nature reserve: an area created from the rock dug out during construction of the channel tunnel. A large out and back section is along the concrete path by the sea wall, with a shorter trail loop via race control at the visitor centre.

I’d entered the 6hr race and chosen to start at midnight, finishing at 6am on Sunday. My plan was to have a long night run as training, but I was also intrigued to see how I would find running multiple laps. I’d set a target of 40 miles (11 laps), which would require an average pace of 9 mins per mile.

In the two weeks before the race I’d been trying the Maffetone 2 week test, as well as run the North Downs marathon, and logged another 50 or so miles in training. If I completed the 40miles, I’d have done 120 in total for the two weeks, while eating a diet of mostly protein and fat, so I knew this would be tough.

The weather on Saturday was scorching, and I was concerned about how the 100 mile runners were coping (their race started at 8am). The forecast for the night was warm and humid, with an overnight low of 19C at 2am!

A warm night

A warm night

Vest and shorts weather was not what I’d been expecting.

After dinner at home, and sorting my kit I drove down to Dover. Vehicle access to Samphire Hoe is not permitted after 8pm, so I parked on a nearby road and walked down through the tunnel to the visitor centre. After registering, getting my number and sorting my drop bag for later, I was off. The Challenge runners can start when they choose, so there was no fanfare or pre-race chat, just sign in and go. I immediately met up with Jon Fielden who was on lap 20 of 27 (the Samphire 100). He looked fine, but tired, so I explained I was just starting, and then ran on. It was a strange felling, running on fresh legs at midnight, on a trail surrounded by runners who were 16 hours into a 100 mile race. Unsurprisingly I was the fastest person out there at that time, and I probably confused a few tired runners by looking so fresh and relaxed.

The first lap was really about getting to know the route. The first section was on an undulating trail, and then when down a steep section to the sea wall. There is then a long out an back on the flat concrete path by the sea wall, before back up the steep trail, and then back to the visitor centre.  I decided I’d walk up the steep section from the sea wall, and use my run 9min, walk 1 on the rest of the circuit. In races I always try to eat something after 30 mins and snack regularly. However after my first snack I felt rubbish. I’d had a decent meal only a few hours ago, unlike races which start at 6am, so I guess I just didn’t need more food.

I settled into a comfortable pace and started counting down the laps. The first 5 laps were done in 2:50, so I was slightly down on my target, but feeling good. During the next lap or two we were treated to a glorious sight of the moon setting. It was not quite a full moon, but as it sunk towards the sea it turned an amazing orange colour, which made the few clouds glow spectacularly. I wished I’d brought a camera, but as the checkpoint was every 3.7 mile I was only carrying a small flask of water and a bag of nuts and chocolate covered coffee beans – great nighttime energy.

By 4am it was getting light and I could see the faces of the 100 mile runners, rather than just the glare of head torches. I know that weary but determined look. I chatted to a few whenever I paused for a walk break. The looped nature and the out and back section meant you see people regularly, which is a great help. On point to point races you can go for hours without seeing another runner.

By lap 8 I realised I was too physically tired to push hard and make up time, and wouldn’t manage an 11th lap in the time available. However I was enjoying the sunrise, having no problems, eating and drinking enough, and happy to keep going. I’d noticed that the race organisers were giving the 100 mile runners a flag to carry on their final lap, so everyone who saw them could give them a little extra encouragement and support. I was on my 10th lap when I saw Jon, running towards me and looking like Eddie Izzard with his flag! A high 5 as we passed each other on the sea wall, and then I ran on to make my final turn before the run back.

I completed lap 10 in 5:58:48, so I could have set off for an 11th, but I was ready to stop, and happy with how it went. There were a few other finishers sitting at the visitor centre, so hung around for an hour while eating and getting myself ready to drive home.

What did I learn :

  • Lapped courses are fine. I might get bored with the scenery after a while, but having other people around makes up for it
  • Having a CP every 3.7 miles can waste a lot of time if you always stop
  • Running 37 miles is a lot easier than running 100!
  • SVN hand out some serious race bling for finishers

The route

The route

Huge medal

Huge medal

Two week test part II

I started the Maffetone two week test on Monday 4th July. The first few days were tough, and I found myself thinkig about food (in particular bread and cake) all the time. However after a few days, and certainly by the Friday I felt I was getting used to the change.

Running the North Downs Marathon with no carb loading or mid race gels was a challenge, but I survived, and recovered well afterwards.

This week I will continue with the strict rules of the test, and see how I cope on my next long run (a 6hr event next Sunday), and then as I start to reintroduce various foods.

This is also planned to be a big training week (>75 miles), but i’m continuing with the low heart rate Maffetone method for the rest of the month. 

Friday update- rest day, so no running, but feeling really good. Looking forward to an easy run tomorrow and then a 6 hour event on Sunday. I’ve made some Phil’s Fudge to try during the 6hr race. I’ll also eat sausages and some nuts.

Final update

The race went well and I suffered no nutritional problems or drops in energy. On Sunday afternoon we went to the Walled Garden music festival (great fun) but that rather limited my food options, so the carbs crept back in.

As an experiment the test was good and really made me think about what I eat. I’ve not lost weight or felt any different, and will bring back some carbs, but maybe not toast every morning.

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