Tag Archives: Ultra Marathon

Does my bum look fast in this?

At about this time of year I am normally packing my season away in a box and thinking about what I am going to do over the winter. But this year I have extended my season, or to be more accurate, I have re-opened my season.

After I ran Race to The Stones in July I didn’t have any other events in the diary. Three ultras felt like enough, beside which my feet were in shreds. A rest was on the cards.

13903296_10208543662442604_2435063175946365387_n-2

Race to The Stones BBQ – missing a couple of team members

August was taken up with a variety of things. First we had to get Matilda and her friend to Pony Club Camp. Just two-girls, two ponies and a tent for a week, but it felt like a full military deployment. Then we had the all-important Race to The Stones barbecue. And of course we had our family summer holiday. This year we went to the south of Spain.

Although I kept exercising throughout, my mind was focused on other things and there was no structure or purpose to my training. The result was that my weight and my fitness went in opposite direction, both heading the wrong way.

If you allow yourself to put on weight and let your fitness ebb away slowly enough, you don’t notice the change. The realisation starts when you can’t find a T-shirt to run in that doesn’t show your spare tyre.

14079615_10208647832006778_4468868636694154171_n

One of the positives of running on holiday – I persuaded Matilda to run with me!!

But my “Road to Damasacus” moment came on a run while we were on holiday in Spain. It was hot and I was working quite hard, I would have guessed my pace was about 8.15 minute per mile, but my watch was showing my pace as 9 minutes a mile. In my state of denial I convinced myself that it was because I had an English watch and the GPS didn’t work properly in Spain. But I knew.

The evidence that sealed the case, if any were needed, came when I got on the scales after returning from holiday. If they could talk the scales would have said: “One at a time please” before showing me a number I haven’t seen for a few years. That was it. Enough! Time to take myself in hand.

So on the day after the August Bank Holiday, I declared my season open again and entered The Clarendon Half Marathon in early October. I got my bike out, dusted off my swimming gear and I went to it.

I started training six days a week with the priority being running and in particular speed training and tempo running. I swam and cycled as cross training. I find that my run fitness rockets if I swim and bike on non-running days. At the same time I seriously cleaned up my diet.

It only took a week before I noticed the early signs of improvement. As the end of September got nearer my numbers were improving and I had shed about 10 lbs. I am sure my training was paying dividends, but I am convinced that it was the weight loss that made the real difference.

I have been doing parkrun for about a year but during that time I have never been at peak running fitness. Recently I have been trying to go to parkrun every Saturday as it provides a good benchmark of progress as well as a really enjoyable social run with friends.

Going into September I had a best time of 23.26 mins. One Saturday near the end of September I forgot my watch (which was working again by now!) so just ran to feel. I didn’t think I was hammering it, but nor was I holding back. I took 20 seconds off my best time.

14390689_10208902364249925_3874813496496393422_n

The Andover Lake Run – a 10k in support of the local Foodbank

The following week I went back with my watch on with the aim of seeing what I could do if I gave it some beans. The answer, I took more than another minute of my parkrun PB which now stands at 22.05 mins. The previous week I had run a fantastic 10k in Andover in aid of the local food bank and come home in 46.30mins. (confession: I think the course was a bit short). Things were on the up.

Last weekend I ran the Clarendon Half – a hilly and muddy 13.1 miles from Broughton to Winchester. I had no real plans to chase a time until my Race to The Stones partner-in-crime, Neville, asked me on the start line what my target was. From nowhere I said:

“Two hours”.

That was based on nothing. No science, no course recce and certainly no thought. Top of the head stuff! The look on Nev’s face told me that I was being a bit ambitious given the profile of the course, but he was polite enough not to say so. And anyway, it was too late, I had said it.

14457552_10209014876662665_5861426781855482718_n

Enjoying The Clarendon Half

It actually turned out to be the best thing that happened. My pace and progress during the race was always tantalisingly close to a 2 hour run, so when I was tempted to walk the hills I thought better of it. I had to answer to Nev at the finish line!!

The most satisfying part was that moment when I thought I was dropping off the pace and I touched the accelerator and for the first time in eighteen months something actually happened! My training and weight loss had made a real difference.

14572824_10209014877022674_597653261330338581_n

The Run-in

Always one to leave things to the last-minute, I sneaked over the finish line with 26 seconds to spare for a 1.59.34mins finish. On that course and given were I was five weeks earlier, I was thrilled.

So that, in a rather large nutshell, is why I am continuing my season. I am enjoying my training and I am especially enjoying being a slightly faster runner again and I am not ready to go into winter hibernation.

Next up is a step back in time to when I was at school. I have joined the local Athletics Club so that I can race in the Hampshire Cross Country League over the winter. For some people cross-country brings on flashbacks of cold wet torture from their schooldays. I have all kinds of great memories of running cross-country at school. It’s where I discovered my love of running, so I am quite excited to get out there.

Sods Law, the first race is at Farley Mount in Winchester which is the site of the biggest hill in the Clarendon Half. At least I should know the course!

 

 

Race to the Stones – 16-17 July 2016

It’s 7.00am on race morning. I am at Race HQ in a field near Watlington in Oxfordshire with several thousand others. It is clear from the moment we arrived that Race to The Stones is a big deal and impeccably well organised.

I am feeling OK. I had spent the previous night in a hotel room with Nick a few miles down the road and had been woken by his version of the dawn chorus. More a trumpet chorus. No instruments needed, just an open window! A few rooms down the hall were Nev who was also running and Jacqui who was support crew for the day.

By 7.45am registration formalities are all done and we are standing in the starting funnel contemplating what was to come. The task? To run 100km (62 miles) along the Ridgeway to a finish line several counties away in Avebury near Marlborough and we had until 7.45am on Sunday morning to do it.

13709914_10154393457054337_6177639379069506213_nBy now we had been joined by club mate Paul Venus and I had already bumped into my friend Louise Cross and her partner Mark. Nick had also seen our friends Stu and Jayne Crawford. Knowing so many people racing was to play a huge part in how things unfolded much later that night.

The starter didn’t feel he was doing his job until he had asked us half a dozen times if we were ready. But eventually he fired the starting gun. We were off. It was the start of what was to be a very long day, night and a small part of the next day!

The Party Miles

For the first few minutes no-one went anywhere fast as about a thousand people headed slowly along a small country track. That fitted in perfectly with our pacing plan! Most people just relaxed and had a chat with those alongside them. Everyone was in high spirits, excited to be underway at last and trying not to think of what was to come later.

Together with about ten others, I ducked behind the first hedge we came to for an overdue call of nature. But in leaving the pack I lost touch with Nick, Nev and Paul. I wasn’t too concerned. At this pace I reckoned I could get back to them quite quickly. As things turned out I wasn’t to see Nick for another 30 miles. I didn’t see the others again all day.

No problem. I was happy to run on my own at this point and get some rhythm and there was no shortage of people to talk to. The race was interrupted a few times as we came to gates and stiles as hundreds of people negotiated them one at a time. We seemed to spend a lot of time standing around in the first fifteen miles. It wasn’t till after the second aid station at about 20km that the field really thinned out.

field

My strategy so far had been to run the flat and downhills and walk uphill. It had worked well and I was feeling good. The only problem with this is that when you come to a hill that is three or four miles long, as we did coming out of Goring, you spend a long time walking and you feel as though you are letting the race tick away. But the words of advice from Enduroman stuck with me: “Play the long game”.

I got a huge lift halfway up the hill when I saw Jacqui waiting patiently at the road side. There were no fist pumping speeches, just a quiet determination to be of help.

“How are you doing? Have you got everything you need? How can I help?”

If Carslberg did support crews.

The hill eventually gave way to a long flat stretch that got me running again and took us through the marathon mark. A few miles later and I was running into aid station number 5 and the half way point. 30 miles down and although things were beginning to hurt, I felt OK.

I found Jacqui sitting on the grass reading her book, left my bag with her and headed for the big marquee which housed a restaurant. A plate of pasta was on the menu. Here I was reunited with Nick, Stu and Jayne. Nev had already left and sadly Paul had pulled out with a knee injury.

With food done, I took a moment to re-grease my feet, change my socks and shirt before Nick and I left together to tackle the second half of the race.

The Business miles

Despite a second wind after a change of clothes and a meal, leaving base camp was hard and the high spirits of the start line were long gone. Nick and I agreed to stick with the same run walk strategy, but during that leg I started to feel the first signs of wear and tear on my feet. I could feel a blister forming.

13754081_10208367543399738_6909435721558293836_nEvery aid station had a medical tent and I headed straight for it as soon as we hit aid station 6. The medic didn’t seem too concerned and wrapped a length of RockTape round my food to stop the rubbing that had started the blister. A quick feed and some water and we pressed on.

The blisters and increasing sore feet slowed us down and our runs with occasional walks now involved more walking. Morale was beginning to dip a bit. We had been on the go for nearly 12 hours and we still had over 30k ahead of us. What better time for my club mate Rob Savill to be waiting for us at aid station 7. I think he was taken aback by how pleased we were to see him. For a second time I headed straight for the medical tent with my blisters as Rob swung into action bringing me a welcome cup of tea and food. Thank you Rob. You weren’t to know it, but your appearance could not have been better timed.

As we were sorting ourselves out Stu and Jayne arrived and we had a natter with them. We didn’t discuss it but we all left together and ran on as a foursome. As we left the aid station I remember clearly having a chat with myself agreeing that this felt like the start of the race. What had gone before was the build-up, albeit a long one, but the real challenge of Race to the Stones was just starting.

Miles of RockTape

The next aid station was 10km away and although it was fairly flat, the going was getting tough. We were clinging onto our run-walk strategy but the walks were getting longer. On top of the blisters, everyone had very sore feet. Old injuries were beginning to wake up.

We knocked off the 10km to the next stop slowly but without fuss, but there was a notable deterioration in everyone’s physical state. As we went about our feeding and watering business at the aid station it was clear we were starting to struggle. My blisters were becoming an issue, Stu’s old knee injury was troubling him. Jayne had fallen earlier and bruised her knee, the cure for which would normally be rest, not finishing a 60-mile run. She was in pain and Nick’s feet were ablaze. We discussed our options matter of factly and concluded that, if needs be, we would walk. At no point was the option of stopping ever mentioned.

As we left the aid station with 20km remaining it was starting to get dark, so it was head torches on to avoid fumbling round with those after dark. As we were doing this, we met Claire. I say that like it was a significant moment. That is because it was.

Claire had been running the race with her twin brother who had dropped out with blisters. Claire didn’t want to run alone in the dark and asked if she could run with us.

We didn’t even have to think about it. Claire became the final member of our team. The team that was going to take on the hardest 20km of the race in the dark. She fitted in seamlessly and instantly.

And on we went into the night trying not to think that we still had a half marathon to cover.

By now it was almost all walking. Nick was at the front with Claire and the pace was brisk. Walking fast is not my strong point and I regularly found myself dropping back, usually with Stu or Jayne for company. As we entered the last kilometre to aid station 9 the route pointed uphill. By now it was pitch black and not only was I behind the others but the curse of the blisters was back with a vengeance. A new one right on the ball of my right foot made every step like walking on glass. That slowed me further and I lost sight of the group in the dark. I wasn’t too worried as we were about to hit an aid station but I felt myself going downhill. I hadn’t eaten much on this leg and now I couldn’t be bothered to take my pack off and get food out. My lack of motivation was not a good sign. As I approached the aid station I found it hard to walk in a straight line. With my feet and blisters screaming at me, this was the lowest point of my race.

I got to the aid station a few minutes behind the others and headed straight for the 13781719_10208374663737742_556132655178553146_nmedical tent for the third time that day. The medic said nothing but I could tell from the look on his face that it wasn’t pretty (or maybe it was the smell). More RockTape. I think Nick spotted that I was struggling and brought me over a cup of hot porridge laced with maple syrup. At that moment, in that state, it was better than sex!

I took a few minutes to let the porridge do its work. I took two Nurofen and grabbed two chocolate bars which I kept in my hands so they were always available. No repeat of the nutrition fail on this leg.

We did a quick check that everyone was OK and had all they needed and then we set off on the final leg. We were 11km from the finish. One last push.

I think as we left the aid station I knew we would all finish. In fact through all my tribulations during the day, I never thought that I wouldn’t finish. With each new blister I just resigned myself to the fact that it was going to be a little bit harder. As we headed back on to the Ridgeway I took up the conversation with myself again and was unsympathetic. Something along the lines of: “You wanted a challenge, well here it is”

I think we were all thinking the same. Everyone was near their limits, but there was a resolve about our team. Stu’s mantra of “No-one gets left behind” (expect me at the last aid station obvs!) reflected perfectly how this individual challenge had become a shared team challenge for us.

Take a group of people who joined up by chance, some of who were strangers, each of whom added an energy that made the group better and what you get is a team that is stronger than the sum of its parts.

Something magic happened on the Ridgeway in the final 20k in the early hours of Sunday morning. Left to soldier on into the night alone, I expect some of us may not have finished, but together we were never going to fail.

It took an hour or so before the lights of the finish became visible in the distance. And then in the first sign that we were heading for the finish, the route took us down off the Ridgeway. But agonisingly it took us past the finish and on into Avebury to the Stones. In their wisdom the organisers thought this was a great photo opportunity and so we went through the bizarre process of posing for photos in front of the stones of the Avebury Ring at about 1.45 in the morning.

13697050_10208385337124570_829107936645416902_n (2)

All that was left then was to make our way back to the finish line. Claire had a deadline. Her shuttle bus back to the start left at 2.00am. At a walking pace it would be tight, so after a quick round of goodbyes, she did what any Englishman would do, she ran for her bus. We all stood their open mouthed as she picked up a respectable pace without a single groan.

We followed at a walk retracing our steps out of Avebury, along a farm track, then a sharp left and there it was. We were 300 metres from the finish. Inspired by Claire’s example we spontaneously broke into a run all the way to the line. Even at 1.55am there was a crowd of well-wishers and several endlessly enthusiastic volunteers handing out medals.

For our part, there was no punching the air or extravagant celebrations. Just hugs and handshakes all round. As much as anything else, we were just pleased it was all over.

It is hard to generate any atmosphere at 2 in the morning when runners are arriving sporadically. Behind the finish line was a farmyard with buildings full of inert bodies curled up in sleeping bags waiting for morning. After retrieving bags and a quick cup of tea, Nick and I packed up and headed home.

I pored over the results the next day. I had assumed our official finish time of 17.56 hrs would be at the slow end of the field. So I was pleasantly surprised to see I had finished 566th of 1164. Just in the top half of the field! My team mates occupied the four places above me. But the most striking statistic was that of the 1164 competitors 208 had failed to finish for some reason – nearly 1 in 5 people. That may be due to the heat which hadn’t been in the forecast. But I think a lot of it will be because this is a big challenge.

And what of Nev, my club mate who I ran about 3 minutes of the race with? He showed us all a clean pair of heals and finished in 14.51hrs and placed 276th. Impressive.

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.”

13315644_10208043270693123_8454061162577765242_n

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.

13393159_10154127052626745_1222349882_n

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.

 

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

11139766_1198059723542227_242225385142675523_n

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!