Wendover Woods 50 – a beautiful, sweary brute of a race

I’ve never sworn as much during a race as I did in this one. Not even close.

I used to work in a builders’ merchants many years ago, so I can swear with the best of them. I learned from some masters of the genre. Three years working there gave me a serious expert-level education in swearing – both in creativity and sheer volume. I was bringing all my considerable swearing skills to the party here, as I went up steep ascents, jumped over tree roots and tried to stay upright on some pretty skiddy descents.

And don’t get me started on the names for the various segments dotted around the course. Names like ‘Gnarking Around’, ‘The Snake’ and ‘The Boulevard of Broken Dreams’. Every single one of these names became more and more debased in my head as the race wore on and I came across each of these sections again. And again. And again. I even managed to get the Green Day song out of my head for a few minutes at one stage. Not for too long though.

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Me and my new friend at the woods before the race. Happy times.

But how had it come to this? This wasn’t meant to happen. I’d had a fantastic year. I’d smashed my 100 mile PB earlier in the year, I’d run the Beachy Head marathon a few weeks beforehand in a time I couldn’t have dreamed of before the start. I’d even taken 18 seconds off my 5K PB the week before WW50. I was in great shape. I’d trained really hard for this but here I was, struggling to run a pace I should have been able to run easily and muttering profanities about tree roots.

It just wasn’t my day. Some days your legs feel great and you cruise along effortlessly and other days they feel like crap and it’s a complete slog. I’d had a few of the former this year and today was obviously one of the latter. I’d had an incredibly stressful (non-running related) build up the race and I thought I could simply shrug that off and go out and run the race that I wanted to. Apparently I couldn’t.

The race itself and the course are fabulous. Five laps, each ten miles in length, of a circuit round Wendover Woods. The course looks very odd on a map and I’ve been struggling ever seen I first saw it to understand what it reminds me of. There’s definitely a face in there somewhere and possibly a hat, but if anyone has any ideas I’d love to know as it’s been bugging me for ages.

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The course – a dishevelled man on a bicycle perhaps?

As ever with Centurion events, it was impeccably organised, the course was superbly marked and the volunteers were fabulous. The encouragement they gave at every stage of the race made such a massive difference. They make it possible for the runners to go out and do these daft things (don’t try and tell me that running fifty miles round a wood in November is sensible) and without them we wouldn’t have this wonderful sport.

Last year was the first year of this event and I’d heard a few horror stories about the course, but I’d recce’d it in advance of the race and it was far more runnable than I expected. There were a few ridiculously steep climbs and a few rather interesting descents, but on the whole the course felt pretty runnable in large sections.

So my race started out with high hopes, catching up with people and a level of confidence. My drop bag contained enough Mountain Dew and sugary food to put mere mortals into a sugar-related coma for several days (or to get a party of children so high that you would have to scrape them off the ceiling).

Very quickly I began to realise that while the mind was willing, the legs really weren’t. My brain was all set to run 50 hilly miles at a good speed. My legs on the other hand would have much preferred a nice sit down in a comfy chair. There was only ever going to be one winner.

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Fashion sense has never been a strength of mine

I managed the first lap at a reasonable pace, but I was working far too hard. Lap two was when things started to go south, with a steady drop off through laps two and three.

The wheels had well and truly fallen off by lap four and the industrial level profanity was in full flow by then. I really must mention that I was swearing at the course, the universe but most of all myself and in particular my quads and calves and their complete lack of any power or interest in proceedings. I was still doing my absolute best to be polite and pleasant to everyone else I met along the way as it certainly wasn’t their fault that I was having a horror story of a race.

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It really was a beautiful day for a race.

Lap five was darker, slower and swearier. The climbs were steeper, the descents were harder and the tree roots had grown to truly epic proportions. Several that I had skipped over on earlier laps had mysteriously increased in size in the dark, to the point that I needed a leg up and a rope to get over them. And don’t get me started on my final ascents of The Snake, Gnarking Around and Railing Back The Years. I suspect the nightmares and cold sweats will stop eventually.

I will be definitely be filing this race under ‘that didn’t go very well’ in my list of races, but that was just the way that it went for me on the day. The course is superb and the race really does give you the best of British trail running at this time of year, even if I couldn’t get the Blair Witch Project out of my head during the last lap in the dark.

I’m not sure I have ever been as relieved in my life to see a finish line as I was that day, even though I was trying to embrace the suck on the last lap. I’m not sure who said that a bit of suffering never hurt anybody, but I’m not entirely sure I agree with them. Life would be kind of boring though if every time you stood on the start line of an ultra you knew that your day would go really well. Part of the joy of these races is their unpredictability – you can train all you like but fifty miles is an awful long way and a race can go south pretty quickly.

So I’m proud of this result. It’s good for the soul to grind out a finish from time to time, so my should must be in particularly good shape at the moment. It’s taken four days for my legs to stop hating me but I’m sure they will forgive and forget eventually….

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Happiness, relief or just very glad that it’s all over.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Berlin Wall 100

‘Would you like a sausage?’ asked the guy at the aid station. ‘We have cold sausages here and also hot sausages cooking. Maybe some beer, coke or apple juice? We have cheese, meat, water (still or sparkling), biscuits, lots of other things.’ He gestured at the all you can eat buffet that was masquerading as an aid station. ‘Have a look. I’m sure there will be something you want.’ I passed on the sausage and went for some pretzels, coke, apple juice and a handful of haribo. I thanked him and his team and headed off on the next section. The Berlin Wall 100 was not disappointing.

I love Berlin. It’s one of my favourite cities. There’s such a sense of vibrancy and history to the place. I ran my first marathon there a few years ago. I vividly remember watching the Berlin Wall come down on TV (I was 16 at the time). I was looking for a hundred mile race for summer 2017 and the Berlin Wall 100 looked like a perfect choice.

The course follows the Wall Trail (der Mauerweglauf) on a hundred mile loop round the old West Berlin, starting and finishing in a sport stadium near the centre of Berlin. There are twenty seven (27!) aid stations over the course, each of which was incredibly well-stocked. Several had beer and some of those offered three types – lager, weissbier and non-alcoholic. If your stomach hadn’t gone south then this was a race where you would not go hungry or thirsty. If you worked really hard at it you could probably make your entry fee back in food and drink.

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‘Oh go on then – I’m sure I have room for just one more sausage’

The race started at 6am, which is a start time that has its pluses and minuses. On a positive note, you get 15 hours of daylight from the start before you go into the night. On the negative side, a 6am start can play havoc with a runner’s bowels. It’s the eternal tension between pre-race nerves and an early start and disrupted morning routine. For most people the nerves seem to triumph. For the others there were toilets at all 27 aid stations, so it was a win-win situation.

At the race briefing the day before, one point that was emphasised was that if there was a red light on a road crossing then you stopped. End of. Green man = cross road and red man = stop. Coming from a nation that treats red men and green men fairly equally when deciding whether to cross the road, this was a bit of a culture shock. The first time I went to Berlin I made the mistake of crossing when the red man was up. No cars around in any direction, so I crossed the road. The Berliners waiting patiently at the crossing tutted at me as one. It just isn’t done. They are more likely to crap in the street than they are to cross the road on a red light. In the race it was a DQ offence. Fair enough – it’s the law and you couldn’t say you weren’t warned. It did make me a bit paranoid all race though about red men and crossings.

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This little guy even has his own name – Ampelmann – and shops selling Ampelmann merchandise

 

Training had gone really well for this race. I’d set a 50 mile PB a few weeks before and all my training for this race had been on the flat. The race was flat, so I trained on the flat. I put in more miles in training for this race than I ever had before and I felt in great shape. The key thing now was to execute and run a great race. There are so many things that can go wrong in a hundred and so much of running one is about minimising them. My race strategy came down to three things: make sure I ate and drink enough, stay strong mentally throughout and enjoy myself. This is a hobby after all! Three words summarised this – Fuel, Focus and Fun.

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I wrote it on my hand and arm so I didn’t forget. Ironically, ‘fun’ came off towards the end.

The first few miles of the race passed really easily. At around 10K into the race, we arrived at a small memorial. This was the place that Dorit Schmiel was shot in 1962 while trying to escape to West Berlin. Each year the race commemorates one of the 138 people who were killed between 1961 and 1989 at the Berlin Wall. This year it was Dorit, who was 21 when she was shot and killed. Each of the runners was given a rose to lay at the memorial. It was a poignant moment which for me really connected the race to the history of this formerly divided city.

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Laying roses at the Dorit Schmiel memorial

The miles continued to pass, as did the aid stations. The selection of food was amazing and the first half of my race was mostly fuelled by waffles, which was a first for me. Washed down with coke, they really hit the spot. I felt really strong. This was my sixth hundred mile or 24 hour race, so I had a bit of experience to draw on now – both good and bad. Pacing was fundamental, as was staying strong in the second half. I went with a fifty five minute run / five minute walk strategy pretty much from the beginning, using the five minute walk break every hour to reset and focus on the next hour.

The course itself was beautiful. From its start in the city centre it heads out of Berlin through long sections of forest and along riverside paths. Sometimes trails, sometimes tarmac, sometimes cobbles, always flat. It was superbly marked, with arrows painted on the ground to show you where to go. It was all as efficient as you would expect.

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The Wall Trail

My goal for the race, if everything went well, was to finish in under eighteen hours. This was tough (I’d run just over eighteen hours in a 24 hour track race the year before) but achievable. I was aiming to get to fifty miles in around eight hours, leaving around ten hours for the second half. I’d brought my iPod shuffle with me and promised myself that if I got to half way on target pace then I would listen to music for a few hours until I got back to the city (wearing headphones in the city being against the rules).

I got to fifty miles in eight hours and eight minutes, so I’d earned my music. The iPod obviously had a strong sense of irony, as after fifty unremittingly flat miles the first song it played was ‘Run to the Hills’ by Iron Maiden. This was the first hill I’d seen or heard in fifty miles.

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It was a beautiful course

The next thirty miles or so followed a pattern. Run, aid station, politely decline a sausage, drink coke, eat pretzels and haribo and press on. The aid stations arrived every five or six kilometres or so. Without exception, the volunteers were amazing and nothing was too much trouble. I was slightly concerned before the race at my lack of German, but I found that a combination of ‘danke’, ‘bitte’, ‘ja’, ‘nein’ and ‘wasser’ covers most situations in an ultra. That and the fact that at every aid station at least two people seemed to speak perfect English.

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‘Danke’

Just before nine o’clock I stopped to put on my reflective vest and my headtorch. The race took a very relaxed attitude to compulsory kit (probably because of the sheer number of aid stations) but they were very clear that by nine o’clock it was headtorch and reflective vest time. By this stage I was back in Berlin itself. I had been running for fifteen hours and had around twelve miles to go.

The next section was hard. I was back in the city. Finding painted arrows on the ground and reflective arrows stuck to various street furniture was proving difficult, even with a powerful headtorch. I got to one intersection and could not see which way to go. A group of young lads was sat on a bench nearby drinking, chatting and hanging out on a Saturday evening. One of them saw me flailing about, shouted me over and pointed at the arrow that was right in front of their bench. With my best ‘danke’ I breathed a sigh of relief and pressed on.

The red men came out to play in force at the road crossings at this stage, asserting their superiority over their welcoming green brethren. This wasn’t doing wonders for the little rhythm I had left, but it was part of the challenge. Another couple of hard-won aid stations passed and I was at the East Side Gallery, which is the largest section of wall still remaining. It’s the longest open air art gallery in the world at over 1,300 metres in length and gave me a real lift, partly because it was impossible to get lost while following a massive wall.

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Red Ampelmann – we had a love / hate relationship

At the end of the East Side Gallery was aid station 25. It was here I met Katrin and Matthias Grieger. Katrin was the first lady and as such the organisers had supplied a lead cyclist for her to lead the way. I realised that I had a massive opportunity here. All I needed to do was stick with Katrin and Matthias and the lead cyclist and navigation was no longer an issue. The cyclist had a course map and knew where he was going, in stark contrast to me.

We left the aid station and headed off. Matthias and Katrin were looking really strong but I was determined to hold their pace. The lead cyclist was a godsend and chugged along through Berlin as I chatted to Matthias, getting closer and closer to the finish.

It was soon after this we ran into one of the relay teams (you could also run the race as a two person, four person or ten person relay). It was the Sri Chinmoy peace run team, who had been carrying their peace torch along the course as they ran it as a ten person relay. Several of the Sri Chinmoy team were running the last leg, so our little group of three runners and one cyclist suddenly swelled to around eight or nine runners, one cyclist and one torch. After running ninety odd miles this was all starting to get a bit weird, as lovely as the Sri Chinmoy team were.

The Sri Chinmoy team were much fresher than the three of us, and we seemed to speed up, at one point hitting the dizzy heights of a ten minute mile. The red men were now becoming a welcome sight, as they offered a brief respite from a pace that was becoming a bit lively at this stage of the race.

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Checkpoint Charlie

We continued our tour in the footsteps of history, stopping at Checkpoint Charlie (the old border crossing between East and West Berlin, which tonight was aid station 26) and then running round the Reichstag and the Chancellery building. Only a parkrun to go! The last five kilometres passed agonisingly slowly. We were still moving well, although I doubt my parkrun PB was under any threat.

Finally, we were approaching the track and the finish line. Matthias and Katrin had helped me so much over the last few miles and this was their moment – she was about to win the ladies’ race. They entered the track and I followed a few seconds later. And then, seventeen hours twenty minutes and thirty seconds after I started the race, I crossed the finish line.

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Three very happy finishers, one sporting a rather nice King of The Mountains buff on his head

It was a time and a performance that were near the outer limits of my ability on that day, one of those rare days over that distance when pretty much everything goes well. I had stuck to my ‘Fuel, Focus, Fun’ strategy throughout and for the first time in a race of this distance I stayed strong and kept running until the very end.

I couldn’t believe it. My first hundred was less than three years ago and it had taken me over twenty six hours – a complete and utter sufferfest. I had just run nearly nine hours quicker over the same distance. That improvement was hard won; the result of making multiple mistakes and learning from them. It was also due to a lot of hard work and making running a priority in my life, which is something I’d never done before the last three years. Not above everything by any means, but embracing it, enjoying it and finding ways to fit it into my life rather than finding excuses why I couldn’t run.

Finally, a few thank yous. Thank you to the organisers and volunteers at the Berlin Wall 100. It’s a fabulous race with a real social conscience. Thank you to James Elson at Centurion Running for the coaching and support along the way – it’s incredible to think how much my running has improved over the two and a half years we’ve been working together. And thank you to my wife Natasha, who makes all of this possible.

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The Kent 50 – the power of Mountain Dew and consistent pacing.

‘Don’t start off like a twat. Don’t start off like a twat. Don’t start off like a twat.’

I have an unfortunate history of starting off races like a twat. In various races over a variety of distances I have started off far too quickly and really suffered for it. At the Weald Challenge in May I went off far too fast in the first 5K and made the remaining 45K much harder and more painful than they needed to be. I’ve done it at parkrun, dying on my arse in the last kilometre. I’m an equal-opportunity start off like a twatter.

But today was going to be a day where I didn’t start off like a twat. I was going to start off at a sensible pace of around 9 minutes per mile (around 5 and a half minutes per K) and I was going to hold that pace for as long as I could – hopefully for fifty miles until the finish.

The Kent 50 mile endurance run is organised by the wonderful Traviss and Rachel (www.saxon-shore.com) and consists of seven laps of just over seven miles each. Race HQ is a barn at Brooks Lane in Reculver (near Herne Bay) in north Kent and the course takes in trails, bike paths and farm tracks. It’s mostly pretty flat and a lap looks like this:

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The Kent 50 course map – seven laps of this.

I’m generally pretty good with lapped races, having run round a 400 metre track for 24 hours on a couple of occasions before. They have the huge advantage of being able to easily and regularly access your stuff (in this case every seven miles or so), which makes nutrition much easier.

Through a lot of trial and error, I’ve come to realise that chocolate croissants, chocolate-filled crepes, gels and Mountain Dew seem to work very well for me in long races. It’s an unusual combination that I doubt would (and should) ever go together in any other context, but it gives me sufficient fuel to keep going for several hours. Hit the sugar train early, hit it hard and ride it to the finish.

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Classic ultrarunning race nutrition. Ride the sugar train.

Mountain Dew is fabulous stuff. Full fat coke is the fuel of choice for many ultrarunners, but for me coke pales into insignificance when compared to the mighty power of Mountain Dew. Packing 240 calories, a huge amount of caffeine and a whopping 66 grammes of sugar (74% of your recommended daily allowance!) into each luminous green 500ml bottle, how this stuff remains legal is beyond me. It takes sugar and caffeine rushes to new heights and if Mountain Dew ever start an ultrarunning team, I’m first in the queue.

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Mountain Dew – nectar of the gods.

So nutrition was really simple. Halfway through every lap I’d take a gel and at the end of every lap I would drink most of a 500ml bottle of Mountain Dew and eat either a chocolate croissant or a crepe. And repeat. It worked spectacularly well although my sugar and caffeine tolerance has been developed over many years – please proceed with caution if trying this at home.

With the ‘not starting off like a twat’ mantra ringing in my head, the race began at 6:00am and I started off at a very un-twattish pace. A few people went off ahead of me and I settled into my own race and chugged along in a very relaxed manner. It was overcast with a little breeze – a perfect day for running. The field spread out really quickly and just over an hour later I’d finished the first lap.

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Some of the farm tracks on the course.

That pretty much set the tone for the day. Apart from a very necessary pit-stop at the end of lap two, I continued along feeling pretty relaxed at my goal pace. There were two or three people in front of me but I was happily running my own race.

The event had a slightly unusual format, in that with most fifty mile races if you don’t finish then that’s it. With the Kent 50, if you wanted the Kent 50 medal and the 50 mile finish, then you obviously had to run all seven laps and complete the 50 miles. However, if it wasn’t your day for any reason or you simply decided that you wanted to run a bit less than 50 miles, there was a bell at race HQ that you could ring. That told everyone that your day was over and you got a different medal and your goody bag.

My race continued along in its own unruffled way. On the out and back section of the lap you would see people heading in the other direction and wave and say hi. On the looped section you went round the edge of fields, with views across the Kent countryside on one side and the A299 Thanet Way on the other.

The laps went past and my pace was staying steady and where I wanted it to be. With a couple of laps to go, I realised that if I kept this pace up then I was on course for a time that I would be really happy with. Nobody had overtaken me for a long while and I hadn’t seen the guys who started off faster than me for a bit – I was running a time trial to a large extent at this stage.

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Heading into the farmyard and race HQ – looking rather focussed!

I ticked off the sixth lap, ate another chocolate crepe, drank yet another bottle of Mountain Dew (I ended up drinking 5 bottles of the stuff – I still don’t understand how I slept that night) and headed out for the final lap. My quads felt like they had been pretty well used, but other than that I still felt pretty good, all things considered.

The last lap was pretty uneventful. I took in the various features of the lap for the last time, ate my last gel and headed back into the farmyard and race HQ for the final time – seven hours thirty three minutes and thirty one seconds after I first left it. Traviss gave me my medal and congratulated me on winning the race, which was the first time I knew that I had won! I think I was as surprised as anyone and it was the first time I had ever won anything in my life. I’d not been racing for a win, but I wasn’t about to turn it down!

It couldn’t really have gone much better. I’d not started like a twat, held my target pace throughout, my (rather unusual, admittedly) nutrition had gone perfectly and my last two miles were the quickest of the race, which was definitely a positive sign. I’d run the race off virtually no taper as part of my training for the Berlin Wall 100 and fifty miles was the furthest I’d run since last September. The race had been superbly organised with great camaraderie and support from the other runners and from the people helping. It had been one of those very, very rare races where everything had gone according to plan. They don’t happen too often so you definitely have to enjoy them while you can.

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The bling shot! Pound coin for reference. It wasn’t my prize for winning.

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Eastbourne Trackstar Marathon – on a road (or track) to nowhere.

When a race starts to the Benny Hill theme tune, you know it’s going to be a long, painful day.

I’d entered the Eastbourne Trackstar marathon a few months ago, on the basis that I’d run two track races before and loved them both. I figured that if I could run for 24 hours round a track, running a marathon should be easy.

It hasn’t been an ideal start to the year, with a calf injury that I just couldn’t get rid of. I’d only run more than 16 miles twice all year (and one of those was on New Year’s Day) so I wasn’t sure what state my endurance was in. I was excited about the race though and it looked like being a good test of whether my calf was fully healed.

I’d run on Eastbourne running track before – once when I did a long training session for the 24 hour race last year and also at the end of the South Downs Way 50 and the South Downs Way 100. I’d got some great memories of the place and was hoping to make some more here.

Eastbourne running track

The race itself was 105.5 laps of the track. That sounds like a lot of laps (and it is) but I’d run more than 450 laps of Tooting running track last year, so I figured this couldn’t be that hard. The set up here was pretty simple – register and get your number and timing chip. Put the timing chip round your ankle and the timing map at the finish line would pick up when you ran over it. Repeat 105 times and you’re done.

So I stood at the start line with 64 other people and the organisers started playing the Benny Hill theme tune. It’s kind of funny if you think about it, but for some reason I’ve always found that bit of music really irritating. It wasn’t the best start but we were off.

As you can probably imagine, with 65 people in the race there was a fairly wide disparity in speeds and it wasn’t long before you had to start overtaking people. And then for the rest of the race it was constant overtaking. It should have been pretty obvious that this was how the race was going to play out, but it ended up being 100 odd laps of going past people, people going past me and weaving between lanes. One particular lowlight for me was one chap after I had overtaken him deciding to come hammering past me and then stop dead virtually in front me. I have no idea why he did this, but I’m guessing from my reaction that he understood that I wasn’t particularly impressed by this.

Head down and pissed off – not the best way to race.

The one highlight was the playlist. It hadn’t got off to a good start (for me anyway) but the organisers had got into the spirit of the occasion and included these gems:

You spin me round (like a record) – Dead or Alive
Road to hell – Chris Rea
(I’m gonna be) 500 miles – The Proclaimers
Let’s go round again – The Average White Band
Dizzy – Vic Reeves and The Wonderstuff

They also played Road to Nowhere by Talking Heads, which is a cracking tune that I haven’t heard in years. I was singing along to it as I went round and round the track (apologies to anyone who I inflicted that on) and if ever a song summed up a race, that song summed up my race here. I really was on a road to nowhere.

I trudged round and round the track, (very) occasionally smiling as a different tune came on the PA, but mostly just trudging round with my head down. I just wanted the race to be over. Of all the races I’ve run, this was far and away my least favourite. I entered it because I thought it would be fun, but it proved to be anything but. This is no slur on the organisers, who did a good job putting on the event. I just really didn’t enjoy it – I got into a fairly negative headspace early on and really didn’t enjoy the experience at all.

At least some people look happy in this photo!

Eastbourne track always seems to be very windy, and that proved to be the case again here. The wind was blowing directly down the back straight, which got pretty wearing after a while. The wind also didn’t help when I was running behind one chap who smelled a bit pungent, as it seemed to amplify the smell and blow it straight at me. Not a pleasant experience but it encouraged a quick piece of overtaking if nothing else!

The organisers took lots of photos throughout the event and my expression looks virtually identical on all of them – head down and pissed off. I obviously wasn’t hiding how I was feeling very well!

Not my happy face.

On a positive note, I managed to finish 9th, the medal was good and I got some decent miles in the bank. The best news was that my calf held up perfectly, even if my head didn’t do quite as well.

The medal

I also learned that track marathons aren’t for me – I figured that out pretty early in proceedings. At least I’ve scratched that particular itch now and I never have to do it again. The next time I plan to see a running track is at the end of the Berlin Wall 100, where the last 400 metres are round the Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn Sportpark. That’s a track I’m looking forward to seeing.

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Self Transcendence 24 Hours (Tooting Bec) – Race Report

As the horn went at the end of the race, I breathed a massive sign of relief. Thank goodness that was over. I had tried it, it didn’t work out and I never had to do this ever again. My race had gone south very early in proceedings and it had been an absolute sufferfest from that point onwards, culminating in trudging round a track for the last eight hours at a pace that would have embarrassed an aged snail. It hadn’t gone well.

Tooting Bec athletics track

Tooting Bec athletics track

Yet here I was a year later standing at the start line of the same race and I was really excited about running this event again. It’s typical after very long races for your brain to very quickly forget the pain and suffering, but that didn’t fully explain it. It was partly due to a sense of unfinished business with both this race and this format and partly due to the fact that I had loved the event the year before, even if my own race had not gone well. The vibe, the camaraderie, the old school nature of the event, the encouragement from the organisers and the volunteers, even the scoreboard that was updated every hour – I had loved all of these aspects of the event. So I was back at Tooting Bec athletics track, ready to run round it for 24 hours.

The scoreboard! (thanks to Stu Wilkie for the photo)

The scoreboard! (Thank you to Stu Wilkie for the photo)

I felt ready. Training had gone really well. A week off after Samphire 100, then an easy week then straight into five peak weeks (60 – 70 miles a week) then a two week taper. I’d done several long runs on track and had tagged along with my running club’s track sessions on a Monday night, chugging around in the outside lane doing my own thing while they ran intervals in the inside lane.

I had a plan. I was aiming for 125 miles (200K) and it looked achievable. It was a long way further than I had ever run before and much further than last year’s effort, but it didn’t look entirely stupid. It would mean running a hundred miles in 18 hours as part of the larger effort, which did slightly scare me. My hundred mile PB stood at 21 hours 46 minutes, but I rationalised that I had run that on trail, so I could certainly improve it here if all went well.

In the run up to the race Simon Smith (who finished third overall last year with 131 miles) had been a great help. He had run a fantastic race the year before and had gradually come through the field as others dropped out, blew up and slowed down around him. He reminded me of the need for patience, to run your own race and to be disciplined with your walk breaks. Sound advice.

One of the motivational quotes from Sri Chinmoy around the track

One of the motivational quotes from Sri Chimney that were dotted around the track and provided food for thought.

Natasha was crewing me and we had my usual sugar-filled treats to sustain me over the next 24 hours. The back of our car looked like we were going to a children’s party, not a race (albeit a party for kids with a high tolerance for caffeine). Mountain Dew and Coke are staples of any long distance run for me. I also had Snickers, Boosts, cake, chocolate croissants and a couple of sausage rolls and scotch eggs as a nod to savoury food. On the off chance I didn’t fancy sugary processed crap I brought some grapes, mango and melon along as well. In case anyone is interested in the sheer horror of my nutrition during the event, Natasha kept a note of everything I ate and drank and I’ve posted it here –http://www.jonfielden.com/?p=159. All I can say is that it works for me and kids – don’t try this at home.

We had everything set up in our little corner of the track ready for the next 24 hours. One of the great things about this event is that all the runners can set up their own area on the outside of the track and if you come by car you can park your car at the event for the duration. Team Fielden was between Barry Bradley’s crew and Rich Kimmens’ crew – two fabulous, supportive crews, even though Rich didn’t have the race he planned due to significant stomach problems.

The event started with a briefing from Shankara, the co-race director. We were introduced to our lap counter for the first part of the event. I had Dave looking after me. One of the things I love about this event is the lap counting. It’s pretty rare these days to have manual lap counting but I enjoyed waving at Dave every lap (and my other counters later on) as he waved back to show that he’d recorded my lap. It added to the old school nature of the event and the counters were so encouraging, cheering when runners got to significant landmarks.

The starting horn went at midday and we were off. Me and 44 other runners, all with 24 hours to cover the longest possible distance and run as many 400 metre laps as possible.

And they're off!

And they’re off!

I settled into a relaxed early pace. My aim for the first few hours was to keep banging out 6 miles an hour without too much fuss. I was taking walk breaks from the start, planning to run 55 minutes and walk 5 minutes every hour for the first few hours then moving to walk breaks every half an hour. One of the things I’d learned last year was that taking too many walk breaks disrupted my rhythm and I had found it harder and harder to start running again after the walk breaks after a while.

The first hour passed incredibly quickly. Shankara moved the names around the scoreboard and put the distances up (total miles completed). I had run 6 miles. Bang on target. I was in 16th place. Fine with me. It was all about my own race and my own distances.

My shirt (as ever) provoked mixed reactions! Thank you to the organisers for the photo.

My shirt (as ever) provoked mixed reactions! Thank you to the organisers for the photo.

After hour two I had run 12 miles and had dropped to 19th place. I was happy and relaxed. Hours 3 and 4 went past and I was back in 16th, chugging along at six miles an hour. All was going well.

At the end of hour 4 we had the first change of direction. This would happen every 4 hours during the race and was a source of some excitement as it signified the passing of a 4 four block of time. I was ready for this, as last year my legs had felt really disorientated by the first change of direction and it had disrupted my rhythm.

As 4 hours ticked over on the clock, a cone was placed on the start / finish line. As soon as you reached the cone, you turned round it and headed in the opposite direction until the entire field had done the same. It went like clockwork and off we all went anti-clockwise round the track.

Chugging along happily. Thanks to the organisers for the photo.

Chugging along happily. Thank you to the organisers for the photo.

The next four hours passed in a similar fashion. I was continuing to run along at a steady six miles an hour and was still feeling good. I was gradually moving up through the field, hitting the dizzy heights of tenth (where I would ultimately finish). The guys at the front were involved in a different race and were really racking up the miles at an astonishing rate. The lead had changed hands a few times, although a couple of the early leaders had already dropped out after starting off at an unsustainable pace.

I was still feeling pretty good through hours 9 to 12 and had reached 70 miles by hour 12, the mid-point of the race. I was only just behind schedule as I had budgeted for a very slow last few hours. I was eating and drinking well and enjoying myself – well as much as it is possible to enjoy yourself having run 280 laps round the track.

It was soon after this point, in the early hours of the morning, that it started getting really tough. Running was getting harder and more painful and although I was more than halfway through now, there was still an awful long way to go. It was at this stage of the race that I shifted my focus, concentrating on getting to 100 miles as quickly as I could and then regrouping and taking the rest of the race from there.

So that’s what I did for the next few hours. I kept running as much as I could, pushing through the pain as my body urged me to slow down and take longer walking breaks. I knew if I kept going I could get through 100 miles in under 18:30. I had basically turned a 24 hour race into a 100 mile race.

One lap to go, said my lap counter. Adrenaline kicked in and I shifted up a gear and hammered round the track. I completed what must have been my fastest lap of the race to get it done but it looked like there had been some confusion on my part as my lap counter informed me that I still had a mile to go (or so I thought).

This episode was completely my fault. I had been going for 18 hours now and had been focussing on this goal for the last 5 or so, so I really should have paid more attention. I gave the next mile everything I had, running my fastest kilometre of the race over this period (4:31!!). Finally, the mile was over. I had done it. I checked with Shankara to make sure, who informed me that I had in fact got to 100 miles when my lap counter first mentioned it. The extra mile of me running round the track like a maniac had been completely unnecessary. Note to self – try not to be such a pillock in the future.

I had run 100 miles in 18:09, then 1 more mile rather quicker than I should have done at this stage of the race. Now it was time to regroup, take a couple of minutes and then move forward as I had several hours left to push on.

I sat down for the first time in the event. Every drop of adrenaline that was coursing through my body over the last few minutes drained out in one go. I felt like I had just run 100 miles in just over 18 hours. Everything hurt.

I had something to eat and drink and tried to regroup mentally and physically. Mentally I was just about holding on but physically I was not feeling too good. I got up and started moving, but I was moving so much slower now. It was like a switch had been flipped and I couldn’t flip it back. I tried to run but my legs were not at all interested. Natasha urged me to keep going. I was slow and it was obvious that I was not going to get near 125 miles now, but she told me to just keep moving and I could get to 115 miles, which would be 20 miles more than last year. I didn’t believe her but I wasn’t going to argue with her either.

So I walked. I faffed around a bit but kept walking. My feet were really hurting so I changed my shoes. That didn’t help. I knew by this point that I would be walking for the rest of the race so I changed into the most comfortable pair of footwear I had with me – my flip flops. I remember Ali Young (who finished second last year) running the last hour of her race in flip flops so I figured that it couldn’t be a bad idea for me.

Check out the flip flops!

Check out the flip flops! Thank you to the organisers for the photo.

Finally, after walking round the track at around 2 1/2 miles an hour for the last few hours, we got to the last ten minutes. At this point a crew member joins you on the track and picks up a little marker that they leave on the track at the end of the race so that your distance could be measured. The horn went, the race finished and Natasha put the little marker down. I ambled over to the infield and crashed out. Ten minutes later, it took two people to get me off the floor. Without their assistance I might still be there now.

Crashed out.

Crashed out.

The 24 hours was over. I had run and walked 115.93 miles (186.56K) round a 400m track – 466 laps. It wasn’t the distance I had aimed for, but I had compromised my overall distance significantly in chasing the 100 mile time and I was absolutely fine with that. I learned a huge amount from the experience and knocked over 3 1/2 hours off my 100 mile PB which I am incredibly happy with and proud of.

It was a day with some fabulous results. Of the 45 starters, 26 runners ran more than 100 miles over 24 hours, which is the highest number in the history of this event. There are two performances that really stood out for me though – James Stewart and Ann Bath.

James won the race with 160.38 miles, second in the all-time Scottish rankings and 7th in the all-time GB rankings. It shouldn’t be possible to run that far in 24 hours! He just kept going and kept moving at a really good speed throughout. It never looked forced or rushed but was a masterclass in pacing.

The incomparable Ann Bath defines the term ‘relentless’. She never seemed to stop running, powering round the track with her arms driving her forward. She was first lady and set new world records (smashing the existing ones) for the F65 age group for 24 hours (115.92 miles) and for 100 miles (20:01:50). Ann is 68 years old. She is also one of the loveliest people you could ever meet. In a sport where the word ‘inspiration’ is bandied about far too much, she put on an absolute masterclass in how to pace a 24 hour race.

Finally, a few thank yous.

  • Thank you to all the other runners. It was a pleasure to share a track with you. One of the best things about this event is the camaraderie with all the other runners and they were a great group of people who were incredibly supportive. The various crews were also fantastic and really encouraging.
  • Thank you to my crew. Natasha was, as usual, amazing. I am running out of superlatives to describe her. She kept me fed, watered and moving and I could not have done it without her. Thank you also to Tom Garrod and Louise Ayling who came along to support, encourage and abuse at appropriate moments. It was so kind of you both to come along and I hope you enjoyed what must have been a very unusual spectator sport.
  • Thank you to James Elson for helping me over the course of just under two years go from a runner who suffered and whinged for over 26 hours at the W100 in 2014 to a runner who ran 100 miles eight hours quicker at Tooting. I’m still struggling to get my head round that.
  • Thank you to Simon Smith, who I met at last year’s event as he put on a textbook display of how to pace a 24 hour race. Your support, advice and wisdom in the run up to this race made a huge difference and if I come back and run this event next year I will hold you solely responsible!
  • Thank you to Shankara, Devashishu and all the team who organise the race and volunteer there. Without you there is no race and I am really grateful to you for giving up your time to help. The race is impeccably organised and everyone is so well looked after from start to finish. Just a fabulous event.
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Self Transcendence 24 Hour Race – Fuelling

There are people out there who fuel in a variety of different ways.  The key thing is to find something that you’re happy with and then go with that. Personally, I’m a sugar monster on long distance races as it works for me. I’m also mostly sugar-fuelled in training. Natasha took notes of everything I ate and drank over the race and details are set out below if anyone is interested, together with my mileage every hour over the race.

Hour

Total Miles Run

Food (on 1/2 hour)

Food (on hour)

1 6 250ml nuun / gel 250 ml nuun / snickers
2 12 300ml nuun / gel 300ml nuun / sausage roll
3 18 300ml nuun / gel 500ml nuun / chocolate croissant
4 24 450ml squash / 2 shot blocks 500ml squash / chocolate croissant
5 30 400ml squash / 3 shot blocks 400ml squash / chocolate croissant
6 36 500ml squash / 3 shot blocks 330ml coke / chocolate croissant
7 42 300ml water / 3 shot blocks 350ml mountain dew / chocolate croissant
8 48 330ml coke / 1/3 chocolate croissant 300ml mountain dew / biscuit boost
9 53 500ml squash / 1 shot block 400ml squash / 12 grapes
10 59 12 grapes 300 ml mountain dew / mango
11 64 250ml squash 330ml coke / mango
12 70 400ml squash / 10 grapes 300ml mountain dew / mango
13 74 330ml coke 300ml mountain dew / mango
14 80 300ml mountain dew / 12 grapes 330ml coke / melon
15 84 350ml mountain dew 500ml squash / 1/2 cookie
16 88 500ml fizzy water 500ml fizzy water / 12 grapes
17 93 300ml mountain dew / 12 grapes
18 98 330ml coke 330 ml coke
19 102 330ml coke / marshmallows
20 105 Peanut M&Ms
21 107 300ml ginger beer
22 110 500ml squash
23 112 250ml ginger beer
24 115
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Samphire 100 – on the comeback trail (and sea wall)

One hundred miles. 27 laps round Samphire Hoe nature reserve. I had absolutely no idea how this race was going to turn out. I’d entered it a few weeks before in hope as much as expectation after a really crappy start to 2016. I’d injured my left shin in late 2015 and it just hadn’t gone away. I could run on it but it was gradually getting more and more painful. There was no way I would be ready for Thames Path 100, my main race in the first part of the year, so I pulled out. A few weeks later I pulled out of my back up plan, the North Downs Way 50.

By mid-March my shin had got to the point that I knew that I had to stop running for a while to let it heal. Six weeks was the usual period of rest for this type of injury so six weeks off running it was. I had two choices – mope, moan at the unfairness of the world, eat lots and get fat or, alternatively, stay positive and go to the gym and do non-impact exercise for six weeks. It was a close-run thing.

To the surprise of most people (including myself) I chose the second option. I went to the gym 3 to 4 times a week and went on the exercise bike, the elliptical trainer and also aqua jogging (which I found incredibly boring but a very good workout).

It went well. I actually enjoyed it, except the aqua jogging. That sucked. I listened to Slipknot and the sessions (and the six weeks) flew past until I was ready to start running again. I started to build up gradually but the shin still hurt when I ran on it. That wasn’t good.

I stopped running again and went back to the gym. I ended up going for an MRI to see what was actually wrong with it and whether it was bone-related (which really wouldn’t have been good). Finally, towards the end of May, I went back to the sports doctor and got the MRI results. The issue was some serious inflammation where my calf muscle attached to the bone but there was no bone damage. If there had been any, it was gone. It had been a rotten start to the year but I could run again. There might be some pain but I wouldn’t be damaging myself by running on it.

It was six and a half weeks until Samphire 100. I’d looked at this race a few times earlier in the year. My longest run all year had been 13 miles. I had done significantly more mileage on the exercise bike than I had running so far this year. I entered the race. It wasn’t the most sensible decision I’d ever made but I liked the look of it and wanted to get something out of a crappy first half to the year.

Over the next six and half weeks I had six sessions of shockwave therapy on my shin with the physio and started running again. I managed two runs of more than 13 miles (15 miles and 29 miles) but was running regularly again. The shin felt good. I felt good. Samphire started to become slightly less of a suicide mission. Five weeks of training and a week and a half of tapering and I was as ready as I would ever be.

I don’t think I have ever been as relaxed in the run up to a long race as I was for Samphire. Part of the joys of a lapped course is that logistics become much easier – if I needed something I put it in my bag, while trying not to go too overboard. My main fuel was to be gels, cake, biscuit boosts, M&S iced and spiced buns and Mountain Dew (basically rocket fuel in a luminous green bottle).

All numbered up and ready to go.

All numbered up and ready to go.

Race day arrived and my friends Alan and Teresa very kindly gave me a lift to the start. We got to Samphire and it looked glorious – nestled under the cliffs at Dover with a view of Folkestone port in one direction and Dover port in the other direction. The course itself is part trail (probably 30%) and the remainder as an out and back on the sea wall. There is one hill to speak of where you come off the trail onto the sea wall (and then going back in the other direction). Every lap you go through the aid station, get your little card punched (which tracks the number of laps you have done) and off you go again. Repeat 27 times for one hundred miles. Sounds simple. What could possibly go wrong?

Very little for the few hours, thankfully. I chugged round the course, chatting to people as I went. I felt good. It was a bit warm and humid, but I figured you had to expect that if you wanted to run a hundred miles in July on a course with absolutely zero shade. I had lathered up with factor 50 sun screen before I started so no worries there.

Heading towards the start / finish line

Heading towards the start / finish line

Throughout the day it gradually got hotter. I don’t know if it was getting more humid as well but it was pretty sweaty out there. I was drinking phenomenal amounts and still after several hours hadn’t troubled the scorers in the peeing department. Alan and Teresa had come back to watch me sweat after a morning out in Dover and they had the amazing idea of buying me a Calippo from the snack bar on site. I don’t think I have ever had a Calippo before that day and I’m pretty sure that no matter how many I have in the future I will never have another one that tasted as good as that one did. It was magical.

I completed another lap and Alan and Teresa were still there supporting. They asked if there was anything I wanted. ‘I don’t suppose I could have another Calippo?’ I asked, pleadingly. The second one was as good as the first. As was the third. And the fourth. I have very understanding and patient friends who are happy to give up their Saturday to indulge me in this nonsense and feed me Calippos. Thank you.

Where's my Calippo?!

Where’s my Calippo?!

After the fourth lap / Calippo Alan and Teresa left to head home, complete with my undying gratitude. Soon after that point the Calippos revealed even more of their magic and I finally managed to pee for the first time all day. I know that this is hardly an achievement to be proud of most of the time, but after several hours of drinking and sweating I was glad that my body finally had a bit of excess fluid it wanted rid of.

I was going well, in good spirits and my shin was playing ball. I was moving at a reasonable pace and everything was good. I went through fifty miles in around 9 hours 20 minutes or so and swapped my first little lap card for a second one. Progress!

It was around this time that it hit me, in the same way it has done in each of the hundred mile races I have done so far (this was number 3). A hundred miles is a bloody long way. It sounds stupid when you say it as it is pretty obvious, especially as a hundred mile race is exactly what I signed up for. The thing is though that it doesn’t really register with me in the early stages of a race. I feel pretty fresh at the start and the first hours aren’t too bad, but there always comes a point in a hundred when my brain finally realises that this is an awful long way and it is going to take a long time to finish.

Although the first fifty miles had gone pretty well, I was starting to get tired and had been walking for a little while. This is really hard, my brain was telling me. You’re only halfway through – you still have fifty miles to go – another 13 and a half laps. I didn’t trust my training at all and I figured that it would be a long old slog from here.

I began to doubt whether I had the stomach for it. Did I really want to slog out another fifty miles? It wasn’t my first hundred. I had completed a couple before. I’d managed fifty miles off the back of some pretty light training. I had other races planned for later in the year. Why not call it a day? I could get a lift home and be in my own bed tonight, rather than spending the night trudging round Samphire Hoe nature reserve.

I phoned Natasha and told her where I was at. She encouraged me to think about it for a little while before making a decision. I mentioned to Rachel (who organised the event with Traviss) that I was thinking of calling it a day. She did her best to talk me out of it, reminding me that these things are supposed to be hard and also that there would be a beautiful sunset and sunrise to look forward to.

My head still wasn’t in the game but I kept trudging round the course. I had another chat with Natasha and promised to make a decision one way or the other. I thought about it some more and then I finally realised what should have been obvious from the start – I had no good reason to quit. I had signed up for a hundred mile race and just because I was finding it hard going was no reason at all to stop. There was nothing wrong with me. My shin was fine. I was fine. I just needed to keep going, believe in myself, get my head straight and push on. I could absolutely do this and there was no reason that it needed to turn into a complete death march. I phoned Natasha and told her what I was doing. She told me that if I was going to keep going then I should get this done and get it done well. No more feeling sorry for myself. That’s the unsweary version of what she said anyway.

That was it. I never thought about quitting again. I had no doubt that I would finish. It wasn’t going to be easy but I was going to get this done. The whole process of thinking about quitting must have taken an hour and a half or so and I had come so close to calling it a day. I should never have got to that place and it was entirely my fault. I really need to learn from this. There are always going to be bad patches in any long race but they always get better – I’d completely lost sight of this. On the positive side, I’d come through it and I was still going so there was no point beating myself up about it. Just get it done.

Thankfully by now it had finally got a bit cooler and I was much more comfortable. I ran a bit and walked a bit and the laps remaining were starting to gradually decrease. I got to single figures, which gave me a real boost. It was a beautiful, warm night with an incredible moon and the sight and sound of the sea in the background as I went backwards and forwards along the never ending sea wall was fantastic. You could see head lamps moving round the course in a slow procession – it was strangely mesmerising.

The laps remaining were continuing to come down – each hole punch in my little card bringing me closer to the end. Run, walk, hole punch, drink coke, eat cake / snickers / iced bun. Repeat.

Card number 2.

Card number 2.

It started to get light, so the head lamps moving along the sea wall gradually became people again as dawn broke. The people and the camaraderie were the thing I loved most about this event, which was incredibly well organised by Rachel and Traviss. Alongside the hundred were various other timed races so you never went very far without seeing someone (or their head lamp). People were really encouraging with smiles, waves, a few words and high fives as you crossed paths. It was great to chat to people at different points throughout the run and there was a real sense that we were in this together. Thank you to David, Rob, Fiona, Kat, Jools and everyone else out there – the support made a massive difference.

Finally, there was one lap to go. Only 3.71 miles until the finish. At this stage you were given a little flag to carry on your last lap so that everyone knew that you had nearly finished. I congratulated several flag buddies on my last lap as I trotted along with my little flag looking like a taller, balder, less funny version of Eddie Izzard.

My relaxed glory lap got a bit livelier than expected towards the end as the chap behind could obviously smell a place that was there for the taking. As he speeded up so did I as my competitive instincts (such as they are) kicked in. I really hadn’t bargained for this on the last lap, but my legs kept going and I figured that this would at least get me to the finish quicker. He kept accelerating so I had to keep accelerating. It was stupid, but having come this far I was determined to stay ahead and keep whatever position I was in at that stage. Along the trail section, up the little hill, across the car park and finally across the finish line for my last hole punch on the card. The last kilometre had been one of the fastest of my race as I crossed the line in 21 hours and 46 minutes.

A very happy finisher

A very happy finisher (with a shirt that provoked strong reactions either way!).

I received a finisher’s shirt that was about as subtle as the one I had worn during the race (unfortunately without the parrots) and an obscenely large, heavy and impressive belt buckle. I was knackered but delighted. Somehow I had managed a PB by 8 minutes, my shin had been absolutely fine throughout and I had got it done, despite coming so close to quitting earlier in the race. I finally remembered why I both love and hate hundred mile races in equal measure.

Now that's what I call a belt buckle!

Now that’s what I call a belt buckle!

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Self-Transcendence 24 Hour Track Race – Tooting Bec

Virtually everyone I know questioned my sanity when I decided to run a 24 hour track race. 24 hours running round and round a 400 metre track in South London. The question was always the same. Why?

It was quite a tricky question to answer. I’m a trail runner at heart. I love running in the mountains and on trails. That’s where I feel truly alive. I had run the South Downs Way 50 and the South Downs Way 100 earlier this year and they had gone really well. But I wanted to try something different. Something completely outside my comfort zone.

In my search for something different I came across the Self Transcendence 24 Hour Race. 24 hours to run as many laps of Tooting Bec athletics track as you could. I thought about it. I’d never run a 24 hour race before. I had run a total of three laps round a track in my entire life (the track at Eastbourne at the end of the SDW50 and SDW100). Well this was certainly outside my comfort zone. Why not?

With this lot, what could possibly go wrong?!

I applied for a place in the race and, despite my total lack of experience of this type of event, I was accepted. My training went really well. I recovered quickly from SDW100 and got back into it. Over the course of July, August and the beginning of September I logged 550 miles, which is high mileage for me. A big proportion were on the seafront as I tried to get in as many miles on the flat as I could in preparation for the race. I worked on pacing strategies and fuelling strategies and by the time that the race came around I felt great and ready to go. My target for the race was 125 miles (200K). Based on everything that I’d done it was realistic.

Not South Central Los Angeles.

We arrived at Tooting Bec athletics track on the morning of 18 September. It’s a part of London that I had never been to before. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting – probably an inner city grittiness somewhat reminiscent of South Central Los Angeles. I was pleasantly surprised by a running track with some tidy buildings at one end and a grassy perimeter, all surrounded by some sturdy looking trees. It was lovely. Really quiet and nothing at all like I had envisaged.

We drove onto the perimeter of the track and started to get set up. I’d brought a whole heap of provisions – certainly enough to put me into a sugar coma for several days if I managed to get through all of them. We got ourselves sorted out, registered, had a race briefing from the race directors (Shankara and Devashishu) and at midday myself and the other 44 competitors were off. 24 hours to run round a 400m track as many times as we could. I’m still not sure if it seemed like a sensible idea or not at that stage.

And they’re off!

I set off at an easy pace and went into a run/walk strategy from the start. I chatted to some of the other runners and cruised round the track. 17 minute run then 3 minute walk. Repeat. The first four hours flew by and I was going well, averaging around 6 miles (10K) an hour – bang on target. It was great fun. Some people started off at a heck of a pace while others began in a rather more relaxed manner. The age of the competitors ranged from 25 to 82 and they were such a lovely group of people, which was a very good thing as I had to spend 24 hours with them with little prospect of escape.

At the race briefing Shankara explained the race etiquette. Basically, you ran on the outside of lane one and the faster runners could overtake on the inside of lane one. If there was somebody in the way then you shout ‘track’ and the person moves to the outside so that you can overtake on the inside. Simple.

The only issue I had with this is that I am British and a fairly polite person by nature. I tried shouting ‘track’ a couple of times but it just felt rude. I tried a few different approaches. ‘Excuse me please but would you mind if I came through’ certainly ticked the politeness box but it was a bit of a mouthful and I had passed the runner before I had finished asking them to move. Eventually I compromised on ‘excuse me please’ which seemed to work fine.

We had the first change of direction after four hours (we changed direction every four hours throughout the race). At this point the referee put a cone on the start / finish line and we all went round it and started off in the opposite direction. I really enjoyed each turn as you got to see all the other runners going in the opposite direction as we all went round the cone. It also signified that another four hour block had passed.

I found the first change of direction quite disconcerting. I had got into a real rhythm in the first four hours and my legs became a bit freaked out by running round the track the other way. After twenty minutes or so they calmed down though and we kept chugging along as before (just with slightly different views). And to everyone who asked before the race if I would get dizzy running round and round a track – no, I didn’t. Four hundred metres is actually quite a decent distance. I always felt like I had more than enough space to run but also that there were people around for a bit of company if you wanted it, which is something that you don’t always get on a trail ultra.

Moving well at this point.

During the first five hours (except for the change of direction) I was in a real rhythm and having a marvellous time. Over the course of each lap I would say hi to my crew at one side of the track then on the home straight I would give a cheery wave and a thank you to my lap counter as they counted another lap. The lap counters were fantastic – thank you so much to all of them for giving their time selflessly to help the runners. They really added a huge amount to the event and their encouragement, smiles and enthusiasm were fabulous. I loved the fact that some of the runners were long-time counters who had decided to give it a go themselves. That really says something about the event to me.

The lap counters had their own large gazebo by the start / finish line and you had to tell them every time that you were going to leave the track so they didn’t worry that they had missed a lap for you. That’s fine in principle but I was a little concerned that informing them every time I left the track to go to the toilet was providing them with a little too much information. They didn’t seem concerned though. No doubt they’ve seen it all before.

The lap counters and their gazebo.

It was in the sixth hour that things started to go south a bit. My quads were starting to hurt far more than they should have done at this stage of the race. It was becoming more difficult to get back to running after the walk breaks and I was starting to slow down. I stopped for a pit stop, which perked me up no end. One huge advantage of a race like this – you always had a toilet within easy reach (and there were no cows on the course – but that’s a different story).

The little spring in my step faded quite quickly and I was back with my very grumpy quads. They were getting grumpier and grumpier, to the point that running was becoming painful. This was not turning out as planned. At all. I knew at that stage that there was no way that I was going to hit my target for the day.

I think that it was around this time that I saw one of the other runners, Steve Campbell, walk off the track and get his foam roller out. He proceeded to roll his legs and feet, a process I saw him repeat several times over the course of the race. Now that hurts at the best of times, but during an event like this? It hurt to watch. I gained a new hero that day.

I stopped running and walked for a bit. I tried to run again but it wasn’t really happening so it was back to walking again. I walked round the track chatting with Jon Errington for forty minutes or so. There is a slight disparity in our heights and apparently it looked quite funny to anyone who was watching as we wandered round the track. Even though my race wasn’t going brilliantly I was still fairly positive and was having fun. Although everyone was running their own race, it really felt like we were all in this together. There was also great support from the other crews and people came along at different stages to watch and support (and thank you to everyone that did – I really appreciated it).

We were about 9 hours into the race now. I sat down for a few minutes, put my iPod on and tried to get my head together and refocus. The music really helped. I got up and tried to lengthen my stride and run again. I still can’t explain what happened next. I hadn’t managed to run at all for around forty five minutes as my quads had been too painful. Maybe a gentle walk round the track had freed them up a bit. Whatever it was, I started running again.

And the really odd thing was that the quicker I ran, the easier it got and the freer my quads felt. I didn’t think much about the ramifications and just went with it as it was fun. Adrenaline also started to kick in. I must have run around 50 miles or so by this stage and the last thing I expected to be doing at that point was cracking out a mile in a little over 7 minutes!

Me and the legend that is William Sichel.

My unexpected burst of pace lasted for around 45 minutes or so before my quads became too painful to run on again. Another 40 minute walk break followed by around 30 minutes of running (not as fast as the previous burst) and my quads were knackered again. This was around eleven and a half hours in.

The next couple of hours consisted of me walking round the floodlit track, unable to run as my quads were too painful. I sat down and chatted for a bit then got up and walked for a bit. This seemed to be a difficult time for a lot of people, as there were less people on the track. Unfortunately some had had to withdraw for various reasons and some were taking a break. Others however just kept chugging around that track like a metronome. It really was inspiring to watch. Personally, I was still in pretty good spirits but the quads unfortunately weren’t. I went to see the physio to see if there was anything that they could do to help. They massaged my quads but unfortunately it didn’t help. I kept trudging round the track and it was now getting painful to walk. It was around 2:30am.

It was all getting a bit much and this was certainly my lowest point. There were still nine and a half hours to go and I began to question whether I really wanted to slowly and painfully walk around a track for that amount of time. My race had gone to crap. My quads were killing me. I needed to stop and think, so I sat down with my crew and tried to work out what was going on, what the hell I was going to do about it and whether I wanted to continue or not. The glow had definitely faded at this stage.

During the 75 minutes or so that I stopped, I mentally checked out. The race had not gone well. My quads were shot – they just wouldn’t work the way I wanted them to. I was in pain and it hurt to walk. I just couldn’t face hours and hours of trudging painfully round the track. I had tried but it had gone wrong. My race was over. I was done. Other runners and my crew tried to encourage me to get moving again but at this stage I couldn’t or wouldn’t. I was finished and I told my crew this. I commiserated with another runner who had also had to drop out. The best thing to do at this stage was to call it a day.

But that wasn’t the best thing to do. After a while I realised that I couldn’t just sit here and quit. Yes, the race hadn’t turned out as I wanted or expected. But if I could still move forward and if I wasn’t going to damage myself by doing so then I couldn’t just quit. It wouldn’t be fair on the race, my crew or myself. There was still just over eight hours to go. I’d been in much worse states than this before and kept going. I got up, got back on the track and started moving forwards again.

Still going!

I tried to run a few times during the last part of the race but it was just too painful. Walking was doable, so that’s what I did. It wasn’t fast and it wasn’t pretty but I was moving forward. It was progress. With four hours to go, we had the last change of direction so I got the chance to high five and applaud the other runners, which was a fantastic moment. Everyone had been through their own trials and struggles over the event and we were now approaching the finish.

I loved the leaderboard! This is the final version.

The leaderboard was updated again with four hours to go, as it was every hour throughout. I loved the old school nature of the leaderboard, with velcro on the back of each runner’s name so we could be moved up and down the board as we moved up and down the field. The mileage totals were written on a sticky label every hour next to each runner’s name. Every hour I looked forward to the updated leaderboard to see how everyone was doing and it didn’t disappoint.

The last four hours was like the march of the broken. A few runners were still moving pretty well but for the rest of us it was now a case of just getting to the finish and I was now walking at a ridiculously slow speed. The camaraderie with the other runners (which was one of my favourite things about this event) was fabulous, as it was throughout the race. It felt like we were all encouraging each other and supporting each other in this endeavour. Towards the end, I was passed by Geoff Oliver and John Turner, who were walking quicker than me. John asked if I wanted to walk round with them for a while but I tried and I just couldn’t keep up with them. John then very kindly mentioned that he and Geoff did have a combined age of 147, so he entirely understood! I don’t have much of an ego generally but if that won’t teach you humility then nothing will…

The march of the (nearly) broken.

On the last couple of laps you are given a marker and you are joined on the track by a member of your crew, so Natasha walked (slowly) with me. The hooter sounded and we placed our marker on the track at the point that we had reached, so the race officials could measure my exact distance. One of the funniest moments of the race for me was watching Nici trying to keep up with Johnny Hallneby during these last couple of laps, as she had his marker and he was still full of running (to say the least!) and I don’t think she was.

We were done. I had run 95.32 miles. Only 30 miles less than my pre-race target but I was proud of myself that I had kept going. It really does show how the mileage can mount up if you just keep moving, even if your speed is a bit slower than usual. After a shower and some food, we had the presentation as the prizes were given out to the winners and each of the finishers was called up to receive their finisher’s trophy. There were some incredible performances, including Beth Pascall winning with 142 miles, Ali Young in second with 135 miles and Simon Smith in third with 131 miles. A particular highlight for me was seeing Ann Bath run 104 miles, which was an absolute triumph of persistence and determination – a total inspiration. The full results are available at
http://uk.srichinmoyraces.org/london-24/previous-results/2015.

Picking up my finisher’s trophy after I had persuaded my legs to move.

I can’t remember who it was, but during the presentation one of my fellow runners bounded across to pick up his trophy at the point that I was wondering exactly how I was going to be able to raise myself out of my chair. ‘Show some respect please. People are suffering here’ I muttered. The runner didn’t care. He picked up his trophy and jogged back as I tried to encourage my legs to obey even basic commands.

The most common question I received in the run up to this event was how I was going to deal with the boredom. Surely running round and round a 400m track for 24 hours would be a real struggle mentally? I can honestly say that boredom was never an issue during the race. During the daylight hours I watched planes fly by (Tooting is on the Heathrow flightpath) and there were various quotes from Sri Chinmoy dotted around the course that I read and thought about. I said hi to my crew (and they certainly kept me and the other runners entertained!), waved at the lap counters and chatted to the other runners. I had as much mental stimulation as I needed at every stage and I loved it.

And on the crew front, I owe them a huge thanks. Nici Griffin and Ashok Daniel very kindly offered to crew me a little while ago and I was delighted to have them on board with Natasha. They were (and are) fabulous. Encouraging, jolly and supportive throughout the event. We ended up amalgamating our crew with Roz Glover’s crew (Mimi Anderson and Stu Wilkie) and they helped Roz, Ali Young and I whenever we needed anything.

Part of the best crew ever!

As well as being fabulous, our crew were a little odd. At different points they took song requests from each of the runners, sang the requested songs, conducted a trivia quiz, planked for a lap and generally amused the runners and kept us entertained. I can’t imagine the amount of races that our crew have organised, ran and volunteered at between them but it must be a very, very large number. They gave up their time to help us run this event and I am incredibly grateful. Thank you.

Nici and Natasha planking for all they were worth.

This was such a fun event, despite the fact that it didn’t go at all according to plan for me. There was so much positivity, support and camaraderie from everyone involved and I absolutely loved it. The event had such a low key, chilled out atmosphere to it that really worked. You could tell that it was an absolute labour of love for the organisers and the volunteers. So many of the runners had run the event several times, which is always a huge recommendation by itself.

In the last couple of hours of the race, I had convinced myself that the chances of me doing another 24 hour track race were limited, at best. But since the event I’ve thought more and more about it and realised just how much I enjoyed it. It is partly the format of the race but more than anything it is the vibe and the atmosphere that the organisers have created. It is so supportive and so welcoming and I know that I will be back here before too long to experience it again.

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The South Downs Way 100 – Just a Day

I love peanut M&Ms. There’s something about the combination of peanut and chocolate that makes them my favourite chocolate-based snack. They never let me down. And I was counting on them here. I was trudging up the bottom of the big hill after Washington aid station at mile 54.  I had been in a very bad place before I got to Washington. I had spent a bit of time there to get myself sorted out. It had helped. I was starting to feel better.

I had left a bag of peanut M&Ms in my drop bag for just this situation. I’d never encountered a situation that they hadn’t made better. I plodded up the hill and opened the bag. This would be the point that my race turned round and I felt good again. I put one in my mouth.

It was disgusting. I tried a second one. And a third one. They were horrible. There was nobody near me so I spat them out onto the trail. All the hard work I had done at Washington getting myself sorted evaporated in an instant. I was moving very quickly back to that bad place again. I know it was only a peanut M&M but I had been counting on them. My brain hadn’t been playing ball for a while now and stupid little things were having a disproportionate impact.

This wasn’t good at all. I was now out of the trees and onto the main trail. I put my iPod on (actually it was Natasha’s iPod as mine had died).  I turned it on. The first song that came on was ‘Perfect Day’ (the theme from Legally Blonde – the pinkest, girliest, fluffiest film ever – rather than the Lou Reed version!). I looked around me. I could see for miles in all directions – beautiful countryside on one side and all the way to the sea on the other. It was stunning. I stopped and drank it all in. I smiled. The blackness and negativity that had been plaguing me lifted. I was back.

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This was the third time I had been involved with the SDW100. I’d volunteered in 2012, where Natasha and I ran Southease aid station.  I’d paced Alan, a very good friend, in 2014 from Washington to an inspiring, hard-fought finish.  Now it was my turn to run it.

I was on a total high after my result at SDW50, which was one of those rare days when the running gods were truly with me every step of the way.  I was keen to get back to training for the SDW100 and deferred my place at London so I had more time to focus on it. The slight problem was that I injured my groin in the run up to SDW100. It took the most excruciating amount of pain (cunningly disguised as a massage) which was inflicted on me by Simon Lamb to sort it out. If Simon had slipped during that massage I would now be singing in the Vienna boys’ choir rather than running the SDW100. Thankfully he didn’t.

I was still a bit nervous as we got near the race and my groin was the subject of more conversations with people than a man’s groin decently should be. Oh well. One of the joys of running long distances and hanging out with other people who do the same thing is that our filters are rather less than most people. Which is probably a good thing.

The SDW100 was my second hundred. The W100 last year was my first (I finished in a bit over 26 hours). On that occasion I had pacers from mile 50 to the finish. At the SDW100 I had decided to do it without crew or pacers, although I knew a decent amount of people running or helping at aid stations.

Race day dawned and after a lovely night’s sleep (yes, I am that person who can sleep before a race, even when getting up at an ungodly hour) I got my stuff together and headed for the start with Natasha, whose volunteering stint for the day started at aid station 1 and ended at the finish nearly 30 hours later. Now that’s hardcore! After the usual kit check, registration and catching up with people, we were away.

Looking happy in the early miles.

Looking happy in the early miles.

Pretty much the only thing I remember about the first 22 miles to QECP (aid station 2) is Butster Hill. I had heard beforehand from various people that this is a belter of a downhill. They weren’t lying. I was feeling really good at this stage. I got to the top of the hill and could see an amazing descent below me, tempting me. And then my iPod decided to play ‘Temptation’ by Heaven 17. I had no choice.

I can only apologise to the runners I belted past on that downhill, aeroplaning madly and singing ‘Temptation’ at the top of my voice. I can only apologise to my quads as well, as I suspect that probably didn’t help them out too much in preparation for the struggles ahead. It was still damn good fun though.

I cantered into QECP (checkpoint 2), secure in the knowledge that there was a toilet there. There was, although there was a queue. All I can say is that it was well worth the wait…

At some stage over the next few miles my head really started to go. My left knee (which I have had problems with before and caused me to walk the last 30 miles of the W100 last year) was feeling niggly and it was worrying me. The day was turning out to be hotter than expected. An impressive blister was developing on the ball of my left foot (mostly due to the sharpness of the chalky, flinty trails) and I was generally becoming dispirited and a bit whingey. This reached its zenith at Kithurst Hill (mile 50) where I had a good moan at Gary Dalton. Thankfully, he pretty much ignored me.

The daft thing was that I was doing really well (about 9 hours 15 minutes to halfway) but I just couldn’t see it. I was in a really negative headspace. The rational part of my brain seemed to have deserted me, leaving only the negative part left. It kept telling me that this was stupid – why was I doing this to myself? It was pointless. I was in pain and my brain was telling me it wasn’t worth it. I was going too slow it was saying. I wasn’t good enough to do this on my own. Looking back it’s surprising how black my mood became and how quickly it got there. And the worst thing is that there really was no good reason for it.  I was a bit hot, my foot hurt and my knee had a bit of a niggle. That was it.

I ploughed on, grumbling to myself. Thankfully, Washington appeared a bit sooner than I expected. I picked up my drop bag, sat down and wondered how I could bring this back.

I had the good fortune to be sat next to Ian Walker, who amused me with a story about popping one of his blisters at an LDWA event as I set about tending to mine. He was in such a good place (in stark contrast to me) and it began to rub off on me. Thank you Ian.

Blisters popped and compeeded, socks changed, contact lenses in, M&S iced and spiced bun eaten, I drank some coke, switched Natasha’s iPod for mine, grabbed a packet of peanut M&Ms and headed out for the trail. Those peanut M&Ms would complete the turnaround I thought.

Anyway, you know what happened with the peanut M&Ms, so let’s move on. I was now on home turf, having paced from this point last year and having run the SDW50 twice (and done countless training runs on the section from Housedean Farm onwards). Unfortunately my blister issues hadn’t gone away completely as my right heel was determined to join the party. Botolphs aid station, a safety pin and another compeed put a stop to that. Job done.

I was in a much better place now mentally and still moving pretty well. Saddlescombe Farm came and went. I’d love to say in a blur but it was 66 miles in so I would be exaggerating. I wasn’t moving that quickly.

Clayton Windmills was next. I could smell the ginger cake I had left in my second drop bag as soon as I left Saddlescombe. When I got there it tasted as fantastic as I had imagined it. Funny how little things like that can give you such a lift. I left the peanut M&Ms in my drop bag. I couldn’t handle that disappointment twice in one race.

The Clayton to Housedean Farm section passed pretty much without incident, except for the descent into Housedean which was murderous on my quads, which were now starting to complain quite loudly about the punishment I had inflicted on them.  Other than that, I was still feeling pretty good, all things considered. My head was still in a good place and I was still chugging along, on track for a sub-24 hour finish and that belt buckle.

Head torch on at Housedean, more coke drunk (I shudder to think how much I got through – you could probably clean a 2p piece with my pee at the end of the race) and off I went. I watched the most beautiful sunset as I plodded up the next climb. Just glorious.

It was during this next section that I realised that my quads were rapidly heading south (which wasn’t great as I was heading east) and the downhills started to become less than pleasant. The yellow brick road was probably the final nail in their coffin. By the time I got to Southease I knew that they were shot. Uphills were still good, the flat was bearable but downhills were really, really bad. Given that I still had 16 miles to go and there were some significant downhills left, it was with some trepidation that I left Southease and headed for Alfriston.

On the big climb out of Southease I did a few mental calculations. If I could make 3 miles an hour until the end I could still comfortably get that 24 hour buckle. I rang Natasha to make sure that my calculations were correct. She confirmed that they were. I told her that my quads were done and it would be a walk to the finish from here. She (politely and nicely) told me to walk quickly. There was no reason why I couldn’t power hike this in rather than walk it in. As ever, I listened to her. She is usually right.

I kept going. After a while, fog started to roll in. Visibility started to become very limited, which was a bit spooky. It was pitch dark, except for my headlamp and the odd headlamp in front or behind. Thankfully I know this section of trail very well so I wasn’t overly bothered by it. It was just like being in a Scooby Doo cartoon without the disgruntled employee dressed in a costume trying to scare passers by. And the talking dog.

The fog started to thin out and I reached the descent into Alfriston. If I had thought the descent into Housedean had been painful, it had nothing on this. I slowly inched my way down the descent and I was in Alfriston. Ninety one miles done. Nine to go.

Fuelled by yet more coke and now some lemon drizzle cake (thank you Roni!) I headed out of the aid station, across the bridge and into a field. I just had to cross this field and I was onto the big climb out of Alfriston and even closer to the finish.

And then I saw them. Eyes. Lots of them. Leering at me through the darkness. I stopped. I looked around. Staring back at me was the face of pure evil. A cow. Oh shit. Lots of cows. All over the field but, more importantly, on the trail.

Now I’ve got some previous with cows. I’m generally a live and let live kind of person but me and cows just don’t get on for some reason. I’ve been charged by the bloody things in several countries on various occasions now so I am fairly wary around them. I thought back to last year when Alan and I were attacked twice by the evil creatures. Please don’t let it happen again here. Not now. Not when I am so close. I don’t even have Alan to use as a decoy.

The cows were sitting down so I figured I had a chance. I didn’t care how knackered my quads were. I needed them now. I couldn’t do this without them. I started to psych myself up, ready to run through the herd of cows towards the gate and freedom.

Then the cows started to stand up. They reminded me of Dracula rising from the coffin with a thirst for blood. And I had no garlic in my drop bag – only a small bar of kinder chocolate and an apple crumble flavoured gel. There was only one thing for it – I put my head down and ran. Through the herd of rising cows and towards the gate.

I made it to the gate. Thankfully it opened first time and I was through it. I looked behind me. A field full of cows stood there, staring at me malevolently. I flicked the Vs at them and headed up the hill.

I was still moving well on the uphills so I made short work of the climb. The descent down into Jevington was another matter but I grumbled and winced my way down it. After a cake and coke stop at Jevington I was off again and on the home straight (well the last four miles anyway).

A refill at Jevington

A refill at Jevington

Up the final climb, past the trig point and down the gulley of doom. If I thought the last couple of descents had been painful they had nothing on this. I slowly descended the gulley, quads screaming for mercy, until I finally arrived in the suburbs of Eastbourne. I was nearly there.

Off I walked through the dark streets of Eastbourne, heading for the finish. I got to Kings Drive (the long road leading to the hospital). I had been thinking about my race on my walk through Eastbourne. I was proud of it. It had been very hard but I had done well. I had given everything and I could smell the 24 hour buckle now.

But had I really given everything? I was still walking. I had started the race running and I wanted to finish it running. I wanted to leave everything out on the course. I started running. It didn’t go very well. I stopped. I started again. This was better. It wasn’t quick but it was just about running.

I ran along Kings Drive. It seemed much longer than I remembered. I looked at my watch. If I could keep this up then I could finish in under 22 hours. Under 22 hours!! I kept running.

I reached the hospital and turned left on the path towards the sports ground and the track. I was absolutely determined now that I would leave nothing out there. I thought about how far I had come to get to this point and I started to speed up. The path went on forever. I kept running. I still don’t know how.

I got to the end of the path. I saw the sports ground. I saw the track. I ran through the gates and was now on the track. I saw Natasha at the finish. I kept running. I went round the back straight. And finally, twenty one hours and fifty four minutes after I started at Winchester, I crossed the finish line.

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Natasha holding me up at the finish

Shattered doesn’t even come close to describing how I felt at that point. I was done in. But I was also elated. I had done it! I had travelled a hundred miles in less than one day. I had earned that belt buckle. I had achieved what I set out to do and had an amazing time while doing it. I had wrestled with a few demons along the way but somehow I had overcome them and got to the finish in a time I was very proud of. I had done it.

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The belt buckle

Finally, a few thank yous

  • Thank you to all the volunteers. The race could not happen without you. You filled my water bottles, fed me cake, poured me coke and kept me going. You are all, without exception, awesome.
  • Thank you to Alan and Teresa Bennett. We are fortunate to have you as friends. I thought about last year’s SDW100 on several occasions while I was out there and it inspired me and made me chuckle. You are both fabulous.
  • Thank you to everyone I know who I saw out on the course and at the finish, whether running or helping. Seeing friendly faces and having a chat with people at different stages made a huge difference.
  • Thank you to James, Nici and all the Centurion team.  You organise superb races and you really care about the runners.  And it shows.
  • Thank you to James Elson. You are a superb coach and I would not have finished this race in this time without your help, support and guidance.
  • Thank you to Natasha. You put up with a lot and I couldn’t have done this without you. You were with me every step of the way, in spirit if not in person.

 

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The South Downs Way 50 – A Plan Comes Together

I’ve never been much of a runner. I’ve done a few races over the years but there are very few that went particularly well. Consistency was always the problem. I’d enter a race and start my training in a blaze of motivation. Stuff would then get in the way. The running would tail off. I’d make excuses. I’d manage most of my long runs at the weekend but the midweek runs would be at best sporadic. I would get round the race but that’s about it. Then I would do it again. And again. And again. With similar results.

Something changed with the Winter 100 last year. It was my first hundred. Training went a bit better. Still not great, but better. I figured I couldn’t blag a hundred so I had best do a bit of training. The midweek runs were still few and far between but the weekend long runs weren’t too bad. Amazingly, I started to improve a bit. Who would have thought?

With the Winter 100 out of the way, it was time to push on. I had a place in the SDW50 as I volunteered in 2014. I decided that this time it would be different. I would put the work in and see what happened. I started working with a coach. I didn’t really gel with my first coach so I changed coaches and felt far more comfortable. I now had accountability. For the first time ever, I did speedwork. Lots of it. My mileage increased. I ran regularly – usually six times a week. I started running in my lunch breaks at work. Apart from a couple of weeks before Christmas when I got ill, I actually ran consistently for the first time in my life. My training topped out at just over 80 miles in a week and I was regularly running 50+ mile weeks. For me, this was huge. I worked bloody hard and could see the benefits. I had never done anything like this before.

In the run up to the race I tried to mentally prepare for it in the same way I had physically prepared for it. I thought about the times I believed I was capable of running and how that would work out into splits for the checkpoints. I went through the course in my mind – which bits I should push and where I needed to save energy. I figured I needed to line up a bit further forward than usual at the start as well. I wanted to leave no stone left unturned.

Race day arrived and I felt ready. I knew the course extremely well. I had run the SDW50 in 2013 in 10 hours 35 minutes – my first fifty. I was in far better shape now. I just needed to trust the training I had done.

I stood at the start line and the horn went – we were off. The plan was to go out fairly hard and just keep going. I was a bit nervous about my fuelling strategy (gels throughout every half hour or so with the odd bit of extra stuff at aid stations) but I had a pack of wet wipes with me if it didn’t work out so well. Thankfully I wouldn’t need them.

The first few miles passed pretty quickly and I felt comfortable. I hardly ever run with music when I am on trails but for some reason today I fancied listening to some tunes. I put my iPod on and the first song that came on was Nothing Else Matters by Metallica. This was going to be a good day.

I hit the South Downs Way proper. I love the section around Chanctonbury Ring (which always sounds like a runner’s ailment to me!) and pushed pretty hard around here. Botolphs and CP1 arrived surprisingly quickly and I felt great.

I don’t remember much about the next 15 miles to Housedean Farm. I was running on my own for most of it as the field spread out. The views from the trail were as beautiful as ever, even if it was a bit overcast. I just kept chugging along, making sure that I kept the pace at a decent level.

When I arrived at Housedean Farm it felt like I was nearly there (even though I still had 24 miles to go). I’ve run from there to Eastbourne so many times so I knew exactly what to expect. I must also be one of the few people who actually enjoys running down the yellow brick road. I think it’s because the views you get up there are spectacular, with the coast appearing in the distance.

Next stop Southease and everything was still going well. My quads were starting to complain a bit but that wasn’t really surprising. I had been asking rather a lot of them on the descents and they had been keeping their part of the bargain so far. The hill out of Southease was as unpleasant as ever and I finally arrived at the top of it into a fairly impressive headwind which persisted all the way to Alfriston.

I found that whole section pretty hard. The headwind certainly didn’t help and my quads were really starting to hurt. The iPod was still on shuffle and was coming up with some pretty unusual combinations. Slipknot into Carly Rae Jepson was a personal highlight.

The descent into Alfriston finally tipped my quads over the edge and they started complaining bitterly from that point until the end. In true Jens Voigt style I just told them to shut up. Two big uphills and two big downhills and we would be in Eastbourne. They (and I) just had to shut up, keep going and keep pushing. We did.

I went through Jevington in a blur of lemon drizzle cake and I was onto the last big hill, which always seems to go on forever. It didn’t disappoint. I finally reached the top and headed into the gulley of doom. The bottom section was as evil as ever and I inched down it like Bambi after a hard night out with Thumper on the Jagerbombs.

Finally, the gulley was behind me – waiting for its next unsuspecting victim. My shoes hit tarmac and I could not have been happier. I looked at my watch and knew that if I kept pushing then I was on for a time I would be very proud of.

The iPod very kindly treated me to I Am The Resurrection by the Stone Roses soon after that and that took me virtually to the hospital roundabout. I looked at my watch again. Crikey. This has gone well.

I hit the track, which I still swear is far longer than 400 metres. I could see the finish line. Round the back straight and keep going to the finish. Natasha (my wife) was doing the finish line timings so I ran through the finish and hugged her like I was never going to let go.

Eight hours, fifteen minutes and six seconds. I had just run fifty miles across the South Downs in eight hours, fifteen minutes and six seconds. Two hours and twenty minutes quicker than two years before. I was so happy. I had worked really hard for this and was absolutely delighted that it had all paid off. It made everything worth it.

I got my medal, picked up my drop bag, had a shower and wandered back to the finish where Natasha was still helping. She was there for the duration and it was great to catch up and cheer everyone else as they finished. My stomach was feeling unusual after all the gels I had got through, my quads felt like they had been battered by a pair of sledgehammer-wielding monkeys and I had a blister the size of a satsuma (OK – slight exaggeration) on my big toe. And I felt great.

Thank you to everyone at Centurion for (as ever) organising such a fabulous race. Thank you to all the volunteers who were as fabulous as they always are at Centurion events. The support is incredible from start to finish. Thank you to all my friends for the support both on the course and at the end. Thank you to James Elson for being a superb coach and making me realise that I was capable of doing it. Finally, thank you to Natasha for supporting me, kicking me up the arse when I needed it and for always being there. I really couldn’t have done it without you.

Thanks to Stuart March, Jon Lavis and Nick Jones for the photos of me.

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