Tag Archives: Trail running

The Enduroman Festival of Ultra-Madness

“It’s got nothing to do with vorsprung durch technic you know
And it’s not about you joggers who go round and round and round”

Race to the Stones is now hurtling towards me at an alarming rate and I am now firmly into the sharp end of my training. There was a time when a 20-mile run was a major event in my life. Without wishing to sound blasé, they are now a fairly regular occurrence.

horses on the plain

Cate and Matilda – Man vs Horse

I rested for a week after the Marlborough Downs Challenge and then Cate, Matilda and I did another man vs horse run on Salisbury Plain, this time 20 miles. The horses threw the towel in after about 15 miles leaving me alone for the last five. If you think running with horses is strange, read on. My world of ultra-running was about to get a whole lot stranger.

I wanted to put one really long run into my training plan and I decided to do it at the Enduroman Festival of Ultra Events, a 3-day festival of extreme endurance events held at the Avon Tyrell Activity Centre in the New Forest. Just reading the list of events made me tired. Amongst other things on offer was a single, double or triple Ironman or a 50, 100 or 200-mile ultra-run. I entered an event called “Run to The Max” which challenged competitors to run as far as they could in one, two or three days. I planned to do it on Sunday which was day three of the festival.

As I pulled into the long driveway at Avon Tyrrel at about 6.30am on Sunday, I Avon-Tyrell-Activity-Centre-980x551passed a zombie on a bicycle coming the other way. If he was doing the triple Ironman then he would be nearing the end of his 336-mile ride that had taken the best part of 24 hours before embarking on a 78-mile run that would consume most of the next 24. If felt as though I was entering a very strange parallel universe!

I quickly found race HQ, had a 5-minute briefing before fetching my cold box and kit from the car. I found a space in the athletes’ tent which would be my base for the rest of the day, got changed and without any fanfare I set off.

What I haven’t told you is that, to add to the torture, my 40-mile run was actually 37 times round a 1.1 mile circuit. Because the extreme distances mean some people are running right through the night, the course is designed to keep everyone close to Race HQ in case of problems.

I had a breakthrough moment within 20 seconds of starting! The first 100 yards of the course are very slightly uphill. I felt fresh so I gently trotted up the hill.

“You walk the hills mate”

I turned round to see the guy I had just passed.

“You walk the hills”

I stopped and walked with him. He was doing the triple Ironman so had been on the go since Friday afternoon. He gave me a 10-second summary of how to run an ultra:

“You have one tank of energy. Look after it. You might feel fresh, but don’t waste energy running up hills. Run downhill and on the flat. No knee lift. Lazy running. Play the long game”

With that we reached the top of the hill and he was off. His words stuck with me for the rest of the day. He was bang on! I learned later that he has done 105 Iron distance triathlons.

I ran on with my head spinning in disbelief at what I was witnessing. Things weren’t helped when another runner on the first lap asked me if I knew what day it was!

Despite the madness going on round me, I soon settled into a routine as I got to know the run loop. I worked out exactly where to run and where to walk and put my head down and started ticking the laps off. One of the great things about a short run loop was that I got to meet loads of other competitors which made things pass quicker. Everyone was interested in what everyone else was doing. This is probably the only place in the world where, when asked, I felt obliged to say: “I am only running 40 miles.”

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Nutrition

I got into a pattern of stopping every third lap for a drink and something to eat. I had a kid’s birthday party in my cold box. Everything from Mars Bars and Snickers to crisps, pork pies and real full strength coke. If I failed, it wasn’t going to be for a lack of nutrition.

When I had done 12 laps, I quickly swung by the timing tent to check that they agreed with me. They didn’t!! Sod’s Law. Whenever there is a discrepancy it is never in your favour. They had me down for 10 laps. Of course they were right but that didn’t stop me feeling like I was running laps 11 and 12 again. A bit of a blow to morale.

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Showing Jason Briley that I have done 22 laps

As the morning wore on I continued to tick off the laps. When I was at about 25 miles I got a real lift when Jason, Laura and Sam from our tri club turned up to support. Getting a shout and high five from them every 15 minutes put a bit of spring back into my step.

At about the same time the old problem of sore feet began to rear its ugly head. They quickly went from sore to very sore. Every foot strike sent a little shock of pain through both feet. I tried all the usual tricks. Rest, elevating my feet, loosening my shoes but nothing helped. Then as a final throw of the dice, I begged some Nurofen from the support crew of a friend of mine. The difference was immediate. By the time I was halfway round the next lap, the pain had gone and I felt normal again. Enduroman was worth it for this one discovery alone!

As the afternoon wore on so the bodies on the course became more and more battered. Some people had been on their feet for over 48 hours and it showed. I have never seen so many broken bodies. But in the whole time I was there I never heard anyone complain nor was anyone anything other than cheerful and friendly. The spirit was amazing. Although technically everyone was racing, at the heart of the Enduroman Community is a spirit of “we’re all in this together”. I have never witnessed anything quite like it.

By late afternoon my lap count was into the thirties and I could literally count them down. Just a 10k, just a parkrun, until I found myself at the end of lap 36 – 39.6 miles done. Agonisingly short. One more lap!

By far the coolest tradition at The Enduroman Festival is that you have to run 13315487_10208051447857547_7427120194325846190_n (2)your final lap the wrong way round the course. This means you pass all of the other competitors who are still out there. In true Enduroman style every single one of them, without exception, gave me a high five as I passed. And as I reached the race HQ my finish was announced over the tannoy and everyone who was there stopped what they were doing and applauded me over the finish line.

So 40 miles done. What I have learned? Well I have learned that I can run 40 miles which is a great confidence boost. I have also found a solution to my sore feet, although probably not a text book solution. But the best discovery I made was the existence of The Enduroman Festival. It was the most incredible day and I would love to come back a try another event in the future.

For now it is a short rest and then back to the training. Although Enduroman will be my longest run before Race to The Stones, there is still plenty to do.

 

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Ultra!

There are now nine weeks to go until Race to The Stones and suddenly training has a very long feel to it. The weekend after Sid’s Morph Marathon was “only” a 20 miler! But then it was time to take a big step up in mileage.

Nick and I had entered The Marlborough Downs Challenge, a local trail race. There was a choice of a 20-mile or 33-mile route. Being cautious I wanted to enter the 20-miler. Nick doesn’t do caution, he just wanted to kick its back doors in and show it who was boss. That is how I came to be standing nervously on the start line of a 33-mile ultra-marathon. The longest race either of us had ever done!

We got our first taste of the ultra-running community at registration. No fancy runners’ goody bag or rucksack here. Just a complimentary slab of Kendal Mint Cake and a knowing look.

Ultra runners are an earnest crowd, but very friendly. As we walked from registration at Marlborough Leisure Centre to the start line in the grounds of Marlborough College they regaled us with stories of how far they could run without water or their latest 100-mile run, without a hint of triumphalism. We suddenly felt a long way out of our depth.

13237683_1144968082190799_3290903591637468250_n (2)We didn’t help ourselves. Rather than keep a low profile and blend in, we attracted lots of strange looks as we posed for a start line selfie to post on Facebook. I think these two ageing triathletes were something of an enigma to the ultra-runners.

Bang on 9.00am we were off. Somehow I never doubted that the start would be punctual.

It started with a long steady climb and within 15 minutes we were looking down on Marlborough and heading out onto the downs. We were blessed with almost perfect running conditions – blue sky, 150C and a light breeze. It was a lovely clear morning and the views out across Wiltshire were breath-taking.

13226748_1145226588831615_5609537799561219284_nOne thing you get lots of on an ultra-run is time. Nick is a countryman and so to fill the time, I was treated to a running commentary on the birds, the wild flower meadows and the state of the local crops (Nick’s speciality). It passed the time perfectly. After a long drag along the tow path of the Kennet and Avon Canal heading into Devizes, we were suddenly at half way where we celebrated with a Waitrose pork-pie. Apart from slightly aching feet, it was so far so good. But that wasn’t to last!

There was a check point roughly every four miles whose first job was to confirm you were still alive and then feed and water you. Up to Check Point 4 we had always had other runners in sight and so had paid no attention to the route. Suddenly the field had spread out and there was no-one as far as the eye could see, but we just kept running. We first discovered we had gone wrong when we came to a dead-end in some woods. For the first time all day the detailed route instructions came out – all 8 pages of them! We retraced our steps and eventually saw some other runners and were able to re-join the route having only run about an extra half mile.

The next big task was the long climb up Cherhill Down, the site of the White Cherhill_white_horseHorse. Next to the white horse is The Lansdowne Monument, a stone obelisk that you can see from miles around. All the way up Nick was grumbling that the organisers had failed to use the obelisk as a navigation feature in the directions. At no point did the alarm bells in my head ring to warn me that there was a good reason why they weren’t mentioned. Lost again!

We recovered from that small deviation and from the top of Cherhill Down we hit a big chalk path that took us down to the main A4 on the floor of the valley. We could see the A4 in the distance and so assumed we just ran until we got there and so put the directions away for a while. Bad move. We sailed past a crucial turn and got horribly lost, our best yet!

When we hit the A4 and the directions didn’t match what we were seeing, we decided to just run along the road until they did. That would have been a great 13255951_1145226638831610_40641402288940644_nplan if we had turned the right way along the main road. Instead, unbeknownst to us, we were running the wrong way and away from the race. It was only an eagle-eyed marshal spotting us as he drove past that saved our bacon. To cut a long story short we had run about a mile the wrong way which we had to retrace before we could start making progress towards the finish. After 23 miles of running, that was a heart breaker. From that point on we kept the directions in our hands and read them carefully at every turn. Motivated by sore feet, we didn’t get lost again!

We ran most of the rest of race on our own. Inevitably in 33 miles of running (or 35 in our case!) we each had a low point, but not at the same time and so we managed to keep the show on the road.

As we left the last check point we had 3 miles remaining. By now the biggest challenge was two sets of very sore feet and it became a game of picking the softest surface to run on, usually the grass verge.

13062321_10207907974830811_790650953534816030_nSlowly but surely we ticked of the last 3 miles and found our way to the finish line. By the time we got there it was literally one man – not even his dog. We had to rope a few bystanders in to give our finish line photo a bit of atmosphere. You could hear them muttering under their breath: “triathletes”.

And to round off our day in the world of the ultra-runners the final peculiarity. No finishers medal here, just a mug. But not any old mug. It is a mug which says we are now ultra-runners.

 

Big hills, bigger winds and string beans – it must be Winter Racing

It’s spring! I know it’s spring, because we have had the Spring Half Marathon Weekend, a few days when thousands of runners come out of hibernation to run on the streets of Bath, Liverpool, Silverstone and many other towns and cities around the UK in a mass celebration of spring’s arrival.

I have run on spring half marathon weekend for the last few years, but gave it a miss this year. Having taken an enforced month and a half break last summer, I didn’t have the usual off-season. Instead I kept training and competing through the winter. So I wasn’t champing at the bit to get racing come March. Instead I have signed up for a local trail run in a few weeks time.

For my main race of 2016 I have signed up for “Race to The Stones”, a 60-mile ultra-marathon in July run on The Ridgeway starting in Oxfordshire and finishing at the Avebury Ring near Marlborough in Wiltshire. So over the winter I have focused on running and where possible off-road running.

My first race of the winter was The Dorset Coastal Challenge Half Marathon at the start of December which was traumatic. I would have helped myself if I had paid attention to what I was entering. All I saw was “half marathon”. I glossed over the words “Dorset Coastal Challenge”, a clear signal from the organisers that this probably wasn’t a PB course! I also paid little attention to the organisers own rating of the race as “Extreme”. How difficult could a 13.1 mile run on a coastal path be?

The answer was brutally difficult. Firstly, in an effort by the organisers to put their own little twist on it, this half marathon was 16.5 miles long – nice touch! My heart sank when I heard that news at the race briefing (I think I was the only person who didn’t already know) but in the scheme of things it was to be the least of my worries. It was the 4,500 feet of ascent that was to keep my mind from wandering.

The race was just a series of very big hills interspersed with aid stations. As the race went on the hills got

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The hills were steep and long!!

progressively steeper until the final hill which was so long and so steep that the local council had built a set of concrete steps into the side of it – hundreds of them.

You know that the hills were extreme when it has taken me three paragraphs to mention the other major feature of this race – the wind. This was the weekend when we got the tail end of Hurricane Edna from the other side of the Atlantic. With nothing to slow it down the wind carried all the way from the North American Coast gaining energy and strength until it made landfall in the UK on – you guessed it – the Dorset Coast!!

It may be the only time I have been grateful to be running at a few pounds over race weight. Seriously. Every extra pound made it more likely that you were going to remain upright as another gust of wind in excess of 50mph came through. I ran with a German girl for about 20 minutes – a slip of a thing. You don’t like to ask what a lady weighs, besides which she would have told me in kilos and I would have been no better off, but I would guess 8 stone. I lost count of the number of times she was blown clean off her feet. I spent several miles picking her up.

12295360_10206742127645360_5342873566782179982_nSo having taken no more than ten minutes to work out that I was way out of my comfort zone, my sole focus was on reaching the finish line which I eventually did in a little under four hours. I am still debating whether I never want to see this race again or whether I want to go back and see what I could do now I know what to expect.

My next race was in February – The Wilshire 10 – a 10-mile road-race in Melksham. This time I read the organisers description slowly taking particular care to find the word “flat”.

I arrived early to make sure I could park in the town centre near the start. It was a bitterly cold day and so I sat in the car while I waited. I watched the car park fill up with car load after car load of string beans. Long lean athletes with barely an ounce of body fat between them. I wondered if I was in the right place.

I bumped into my friend James on the start line. He is a much faster runner than me and so I got my excuses in early. Just a training run for me I told him – ten nine-minute miles.

It was great event. It had a really friendly local-race feel to it and the course wound out into the Wiltshire countryside and only came back into town to finish.

I was pretty true to my promise of nine-minute miles finishing in 1.28hrs which was nine-minute miles for eight miles and then a two-mile burn up with the guy I ran the second half of the race with. The kind of burn up where you pretend you aren’t racing but neither of you wants to get beaten and you finish within seconds of each other and collapse in a heap having buried yourselves for the previous 15 minutes!

It wasn’t until the end that I learned that this race I was treating as a day’s training was doubling up as the South West of England Road Running Championships. That would explain the string bean convention in the car park.

Training for Race to The Stones has now started in earnest. It was all going well until this week when I had one of those “busy” weeks that seem to push any of idea of training to one side. I managed to get out for a 6-mile trot today. I will be back on it this coming week. Although I have a training plan of sorts, I am still trying to work out how to train for an event like this in a way that suits me. At the moment I am experimenting. I would be very grateful for any tips or ideas.

Next up for me is another local race, this time a 16-mile trail race from Coombe Gibbet to Overton in two weeks. In a complete reverse of fortune this is a race which starts at the top of a hill and for the first two-thirds is gently downhill. I think I can say with a clear conscience that I have earned a downhill race!