Sunday, 28 August 2016

I'm gonna be (500 miles)

A few weeks ago I finished my 5th 100 mile race and also completed a "career slam" of the Centurion 100 mile events. Now is probably a good time to reflect on what I have learnt from the experience. This post will be a bit of a jumble of anecdotes and unstructured but hopefully it is useful none the less.

A conversation which sums it up for me while getting a lift back to Ashford station after finishing the NDW100 (thanks again Louise)

Louise - "I've just spoken to Kate and she is is loving it - she says she hasn't had a single down moment and should be finished in an hour or so"
Me - "neither have I"
Everyone else in the car - "really?!?"
Me - "Yes - I had about 47"

I have the other race reports in this blog if you want to see what my impression of each race was shortly after. Here I will also give my view on them with the benefit of a bit more time to reflect and maybe cover off a few things missed first time round.

The low points of the races are almost all during the night sections but can come at almost any point. That is not to say that low points can't come in the first half but they tend to come later in the races. However I will cover off the high points first before moving on to the darker moments.

My favourite point in each race seems to be around sunset. Typically I have 50-70 miles under my belt and the prospects of finishing seem good. On the recent NDW, there is an aid station at Holly Hill 66 miles which was just a car park with a gazebo and a few chairs. No crew were allowed so it was pretty quiet with just me, my pacer and a runner I had been running with for the last 15 miles. I was having a cup of tea, cooling down after a very hot day and some lovely volunteers to chat with. Most of the miles were done and the headtorch was still in the bag.

Getting to Clayton windmills about 70 miles into the SDW just as the sun was setting was a highlight. 30 miles to go seemed very achievable at this point and it is a fun aid station with glow sticks and fairy lights to guide the way.
Likewise the Henley aid station on the TP100 was a great landmark with 50 miles gone. It is a hive of activity and it is worth grabbing a seat, some pasta and having a quick chat with fellow runners and taking advantage of the great helpers before heading out for the second half. The descent back to Goring on the second spur of the A100 with the sun setting over the Thames Valley was a pretty special as I looked like winning my race to get to halfway before putting on a headtorch.

I normally try to rattle through the first 50 miles of races without sitting down but there is still usually time for a quick chat with friends and volunteers on the aid stations. I have yet to sit down in the first 50 miles of a race. I generally run (with a few walking breaks) the vast majority of the first half of races typically getting to halfway in about 9-10 hours. This is normally the fun bit...

Now onto the low points. Lots of different reasons for them and lots of flavours so hopefully I will cover most of them.

I feel like this after only X miles and there are Y to go

This has happened quite a few times. Sometimes it can be a random niggle like a squeaky calf or a blister which appears early. The top 5 for me:

Stomach related - I foolishly decided to buy a pain au raisin when I was picking up water before the TP100. I ate it before the start and figured it would be good to have some proper food early. For the first 10 miles my stomach was quite noisy and I feared it would result ina a lot of pit stops. Luckily my stomach settled by 15 miles and was fine the rest of the race.

Cramping - I have cramped a few times in the first half of races including calf, quad and groin (ouch). I carry electrolyte tabs which seem to cure it quickly. However the fear of 75 miles of cramp is still there.

Heat related - on the SDW and NDW the heat was pretty bad. It was along the lines of "if it is this bad at 10am, will I be able to get through the race". However it just made me a bit slower during the day and the night section was much easier as it was warm and pleasant.

Blister related - I had a whopper on my toe which appeared in the first 25 miles of the A100. It stopped hurting after 25 miles so I forgot about it. It looked like this at the end but didn't really affect my race.

Unmentionable related - I have had great success with loose fitting shorts and bodyglide but there are some parts bodyglide can't reach. On both the NDW is was at the point of pretending I was massaging my hamstrings to relieve the pain. Apparently sudocream is the solution to the problem. I had 65 miles to go at this point.

The mid race lull

I am fan of the big pasta feed at halfway. However this can cause a crash shortly after. I know to expect it now and just head out the aid station and accept that it will be a slow 30 minutes or so but worth it to get the calories on board and not spend to long in the aid station. It is also the first sit down of the race so takes a while to get going again.

Coming out of the TP100 aid station at Henley first time was rough. I really struggled going over the weirs and generally felt rubbish. Similarly coming starting Spur 3 on the A100 heading up from Goring was rough.

My strategy now is to hover down food, get my drop bag stuff sorted and get out walking for 20 minutes or so. I can cover a mile or so in this time which is better than sitting down for an extra 20 minutes and trying to come out running 10 minute miles which is a recipe for gastric distress. For the SDW and NDW, it was less of an issue as I was expecting it and also it was earlier in the day due to the early start.

Other runners

Most of the races are about my own times and performance but it is inevitable that being overtaken or passing other people will change your mood. I tend to be fairly rapid through aid stations - particularly in the first half but get over taken on the trail as I come out slowly and get reovertaken. I also run fast down hills but am slow going back up them. Generally it doesn't bother me.

On my first race, I went of reasonably quickly - a bit quicker than planned. I stopped to adjust my bag and lost 10 places. I did my planned walking break after 5 miles and lost another 10 places. I found this a bit rough and mentally tough. However it turns out I was right about my pacing and over the next few hours I moved through the field while chatting to people who were complaining they had started too fast.

It doesn't always work like that though. I got to the 75 mile point in the A100 shortly after James had won the race. This could have been a down point knowing that I was a full marathon behind him. However I was actually having a good race and this would be the smallest margin of defeat in my races (low of 8:05 and high of 9:35). I was very pleased to be there to see him win and he was there 8 hours later to give me my buckle (top lad). The out and back legs of this race are great and help make it a more manageable race for motivation by seeing other runners compared with the other races.

The hours of darkness

This is where the real demons come out. It has the advantage of lots of miles under the belt but even if you "only" have 30 miles to go, this could easily mean 8-10 hours of pain to endure.

The worst I have felt in all 5 of my races was the first 100 miler I did. I was in pretty good shape and within my splits for 24 hour pace for the Thames Path. Shortly after Reading (mile 60) it started raining heavily. The next 4 hours were mainly trudging through wet fields. There was a brief respite of going through the Whitchurch to Goring section with the landmark of Mount Whitchurch which was a target to reach.  At Wallingford, there was an aid station with someone being treated for hypothermia, a guy I was running with passed out due to low blood sugar and the sweeper minibus came past. There was also lots of people having fun in pubs. At this point running 100 miles seemed a stupid and pointless thing to do. I wasn't feeling that bad, it wasn't some extreme test of endurance, it was just a dull walk for hours on end. Low blood sugar man had recovered so I nursed him through the miles out of the aid station and by the time we got to Clifden Hamden the sun was rising. Two cups of tea later, we were out on the road again marching to a sub 24 finish.

The second time I did the TP100, I was dealing much better with the night section knowing how bad it would be. However this time, I fell in a puddle at mile 76. I was covered in mud and pretty cold (it was dry but about 3c). This was not a good place to be in but I carry a spare base layer (compulsory) plus spare shorts so I was able to get changed at the next aid station. Sadly the previous aid station was the last drop bag so I was stuck with what I had. Not great. It got much colder as the race continued with freezing fog and frost. However it was clear skies and the last few miles of the race were in glorious sunshine.

The night section of the SDW had some pretty special treats. I normally pair up on the night sections but for some reason I ran a lot of the night section on my own. There are some tricky bits of navigation which involve scanning fields for bits of tape. This is all done while a heard of cows are watching you. I didn't have any actual trouble with the cows but it is pretty scary none the less. As an added bonus, the sea fog came in during the early hours which cut visibility and made it harder to relax as you were nervously looking for the next tape.

The North Down Way seemed to smash a lot of people. I was briefly sat at a table at Detling and it is comfortably the worst I have ever seen a group of runners. We were well outside 24 hour pace but several hours inside cut-off. This just seemed to kill the motivation of people and they were just sat around doing nothing - not really eating or drinking - just starring into space. Now to be fair the next 4 miles up to 86 were horrific but after that, things eased off and the last 10 miles of the race were relatively easy. I was thinking about the Grandslam standings so had one eye on that which kept me going to the end.

A lot of people can DNF in at night who maybe could have finished if they had held out for another hour or two until sunrise. I have never been in this situation but I have seen people crash out but see them a few hours later at the finish and they seem like they could have done the last 15 miles or so. I have heard the rule of never quit while it is dark which seems a good one as Centurion races typically finish at least 6 hours after sunrise.

The aid station which never comes

This caused a couple of low points. The worst was on my first TP when I was desperate for the Henley aid station. My goal was to be under 10 hours to half way and it looked like I would be there in 9:30. I was coming into Henley and it was looking great. I had it my head that I would run to the aid station and have a rest when I got there. There lots of people out for the evening and it was annoying having to weave in and out them. Turns out the aid station was the other side of Henley and I had massively got the huff by the time I was walking it in. My mood had crashed in the space of 15 minutes.

The last few miles into the 87.5mile checkpoint are pretty crap for obvious reasons. The "Welcome to Reading" sign is about 4 miles from the Reading checkpoint by the way...

This is not in a 100 mile race but the finish of the NDW50 is a lovely surprise. There is a 3/4 mile to Knockholt sign but it is about 2 miles to the finish at Knockholt pound. The finish is also visible from across a field but you have to run past it and through the village. I just snuck under 10 hours for this race but was not a happy bunny for the last few hundred metres as I thought I would not break 10 hours.

I now try to look to see where the key checkpoints and finishes are on the map to avoid surprises.

The finish

If you are a mid packer like me, you will be finishing after sunrise. I have heard reports of people hating this as the situation sinks in of having run for nearly a day. However I love this point. My pace usually improves as it is much easier to see, the temperature rises and the finish is close. Plus it means you have run through the night which makes you an ultrarunning badass. There is an end of term feeling at the end as you start to talk about what you will do after the race and it is all smiles at this point.
For most normal people it is quite an emotional experience. My first race was 4 months after I had broken my hand. This required surgery and it looked for a while like I wouldn't even be starting the race. I had very "sweaty eyes" between the last aid station and the finish but had pulled myself together for the finish.
The A100 was a bit different. I had a rough last 15 miles with a painful ankle. I managed to ignore the pain and finish well in the last mile or two. However when I finished I crashed and was in pieces. Donna Richards was trying to make me a hot drink which went along the lines of

- Would like tea or coffee?
- Yes
- Tea?
- Yes please
- Sugar and milk?
- Pause - Yes please

She came back a few seconds later and asked
- I can't remember was it coffee?
- Yes
A hot drink arrived shortly after and I can't remember what it was but it was great.

So here is to another 500 miles

But I would run 500 miles
And I would run 500 more
Just to be the man who ran a thousand miles

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Which is the hardest Centurion race?

Most people say the NDW 102.9 is the hardest with a few votes for the SDW (more climbing) and some for the TP (mind numbing boredom and same muscles used). How about creating a race with the hardest sections of all of them? This is caveated by being based on my experiences and the years I ran them.

First 25 miles of all the races are relatively straight forward - mainly because they are done fresh but I think the terrain is the easiest as well as the benefit of daylight. The SDW or NDW are probably toughest with the SDW edging it with a few more hills.
Miles 25-31 is easily won by the NDW with the combination of Box Hill and Reigate Hill just as the day is heating up. Also very uneven ground.
Miles 31-35 maybe the A100 as the Ridgeway starts to head uphill - a bit of a shock after the flat.
Miles 35-43 I would take from the SDW - the hill out of Cocking is tough.
Miles 43-50 would be the NDW. I run this bit quite often - there are no real tricky bits but heavy going around the edge of fields and short sharp climbs
Miles 50-57 go to the A100 - the grinding climb out of Goring just after dark is hugely depressing
Mile 57-82 for me are the Thames Path. Starts with going through Reading town centre with lots of drunk people. Then it is mile after mile of going through dark fields just holding on for the next aid station. Either wet from rain or damp from dew and frost. It started raining at mile 57 when I did the 2015 TP100 and when I did the 2016 version, I slipped and fell in puddle at mile 76. However running the same section in the A100 was a real joy.
Miles 82-86 can only go to NDW - Detling onwards is possibly the worst section of any race
Mile 86-87.5 is definitely the A100. All you are craving is the turnaround at Wokingham waterside centre and it takes for ever. The "welcome to Reading" sign was miles ago, you have gone through Reading town centre and now you are back in the dark with no sign of civilisation. Steps up and down the aid station are included.
Miles 87.5-90 this year was the SDW. Probably not a difficult section under normal circumstances but a dense sea fog made it very difficult to navigate and keep going.
Miles 90-96.5 is probably the SDW too. Coming out of the last two aid stations, you are (as always) face by a big hill but the first 12 have worn you down.
Miles 96.5 - 96.7 Mount Whitchurch on the A100
Miles 96.7 - 100 The descent from the trig point is probably the hardest feature of any finish with tired legs

Monday, 8 August 2016

North Downs Way 100 - glowworms, dormice and the bacon barge

The Centurion North Downs Way races are how I discovered ultrarunning. I was out on the North Downs Way near home carrying my daughter in a backpack way back in 2011 when I saw markers for "Centurion running". I looked it up on the internet when I got home and was shocked to see it was a series of running with trail marathon, 50 mile and 100 mile running races. Running an off road marathon seemed quite tough and I thought I might give the trail marathon a go one day as I had run a few half marathons and was working my way up through the triathlon distances.

5 years later and my daughter is now 7 and I also have a 5 year old son, I have finished an ironman triathlon, the Vanguard way trail marathon, North Downs Way 50 , ( and 4 Centurion 100 mile finishes. However the final box to be ticked is the NDW100 which back in 2011 was the most famous, arduous 100 miles race that I had heard of (also the only race I had heard of back in 2011).

The North Downs Way is a relatively modern creation based on the ancient Pilgrims' Way with a few extra parts where tarmac now covers the Pilgrims' Way. The Centurion route goes via Wye rather than on towards Canterbury cathedral. The Western end is very well travelled with heavy footfall but the Eastern bits rather less so. As the name suggests it is on the North Downs which has lots of ups as well as downs... Enough of a preamble - time for the race report.

The weekend started with a pint and half of lager at Waterloo before getting the train. I was catching up with a friend who had a new baby and thought a beer would help me be relaxed before the race and get a good night's sleep. I went straight to race HQ to register to save time in the morning. I caught up with Graham Carter and picked up my number. James Elson was about to have an argument with a portaloo operator (being an RD is not all glamour) and all was well with the world. I picked up a sandwich from the Sainsbury's opposite my hotel and was all set for sleep by 9.30.

My wake up call came before I knew it. I had ordered a wake up call at 5am just in case and there was an incredibly loud alarm. It was the hotel fire alarm and it was only 12.30am. I threw on some clothes and made my way to the lobby of the hotel when the alarm stopped. I got back into bed and struggled to get back to sleep. Not helped by a noisy cow (the drunk woman variety) who was in the beer garden outside the hotel. I got some sleep but it wasn't ideal.

I was up at 5am and checked my watch was fully charged but turns out it had switched itself on and had gone flat in my bag. I left the room as late as possible to get maximum charge. I was walking to the start and everyone was walking the other way. Luckily I had pre-registered so I just dropped of my drop bags and dashed over to the start with a few minutes to spare. Not an ideal start to say the least.

The race started and 6 on the dot with steady miles to start with especially as there loads of bottlenecks for gates and stiles. I wasn't too bothered about a fast start as it was a hot day and I was more worried about finishing than time. The first few miles went quickly and I met a Chicagoan Raiders fan and caught up with Frank who I had ran some of the SDW with. A quick AS1 and onto towards the 10 miles mark. There was a nice surprise in the form of Allan Rumbles and the "bacon barge". This is normally only there for the NDW50 but he made a special trip for today. He runs an unofficial aid station which only serves bacon butties. This was a great shout as the salt and protein of the bacon, sugar in the sauce combined with low GI white bread has to be the perfect ultrarunner's fuel.

It was a beautiful morning with great views from St Martha's hill with some good miles under way before the heat of the day built up. AS2 was a swift affair with some pineapple and strawberries to go with the usual jelly babies. From the NDW50 I remembered the fast road descent through Denbies toward Box Hill so hammered down it to make up some time. I had forgotten the random gates along the route which a fellow runner helped me work out. Turns out it was Janette who I have shared NDW chat online with. AS3 Box Hill came and went quickly with a Leila Cheese Scone for the picnic up Box Hill. My sub 24 plan needed me to get here in 4:05 and I was there for 4:15 implying I was on 25 hour pace.

Unfortunately I got the low battery warning on my watch so had to put it on to charge. Luckily it can keep recording while charging and I had packed a charger. Janette soon caught up with me and we had a quick chat. She was way quicker than me on Box Hill and powered on to 4th place and a stunning sub 24 time.

The toughest part of the first half is Box Hill to Reigate. There are two tough climbs and some uneven ground so I just accepted it would be slow and got on with it. AS4 was there pretty soon and I went to the cafe for a bottle of sprite and a cola pop. It was probably 20 years since I last had one and really hit the spot on such a hot day. I went through the aid station and caught up with Graham again - I'm looking forward to seeing you on the other side of the table at the A100. I was drinking the sprite and saw the label proclaiming that it was 30% less sugar. This was most disappointing but at least it was cold.

I know the next part quite well so it was great to be on familiar ground. There was a speed gun in Gatton school and the person in front of me clocked 3mph so I put on a sprint and got clocked at 6mph. I thought it was more like 7mph. Miles 31 - 40 are relatively good running and mainly in the woods.Caterham at Mile 38 was passed through quickly with more fruit, water and jelly babies

Mile 40 and Ganger's hill is about a mile from my house and where I first saw the Centurion signs. Full circle 5 years later. Sadly the signs pointed me down a very familiar set of steps. I had spent a lovely afternoon spectating here last year so it was nice to be on the other side.

The NDW crosses into the Eastern hemisphere here and things heated up as the paths running through chalky corn fields throw up a lot of heat. Fortunately I was onto the Botley hill climb which is in the shade. I ran this section with Mark Farthing who I had just edged out on the finish of the SDW but I was to finish a long way behind him today. Botley Hill AS6 is the highest point on the entire trail so there was more descending than climbing to go now. I was pushing along here with formula 1 style water bottle filling from the volunteers, Steph "the legs" was there to marshal people down the hill. I knew there was a nice downhill to start the leg before heading uphill so I had grabbed some cherry tomatoes for the inevitable walking break.

Having done the NDW50 and also ran it several times, I know this section can drag a bit. However it was not too bad today and the new route to the checkpoint meant a bit less running through fields. I was expecting it to be a bit over 50 miles based on the NDW50 so it was great when the aid station arrived closer to 50 than 51 on my watch. I got to halfway 10:18 which was about 20 minutes off sub 24 pace but not bad given my NDW50 time in 2014 was 9:58 and I could barely walk to my lift let after the NDW50 alone run another 53 miles.

I met up with my pacer Owen and Dan at the halfway point. Owen was going to keep me company for the second half and be my running Butler. I had a change of top and socks, some lovely pasta and a cup of tea. It is a bit strange to have tea on such a hot day but I associate tea with the second half of a Centurion race so was looking forward to it -  I even turned down the offer an ice lolly for it. I had meant to say hi to Helena who was volunteering here but I was in my own bubble and was too focused on getting everything I need done here. I think Ed Catmur who won the race last year was volunteering which shows how special this event is. I left as runner was asking for an alarm to be set so he could have a nap. Not in my race plan by everyone does things differently.

It was great to have Owen with me as he is a fellow runner (nearly broke 20 hours at the TP100) and is my lunchtime running buddy. It helped me to regroup and get going again. The next 26.2 miles would only have two aid stations so this would be a key section. I can't remember too much notable from miles 50-66 and Wrotham at mile 60 came and went with more water, tomatoes and jelly babies. I fueled up at mile 65.6 Holly Hill. I had my target to get here before needing a headtorch and I made it comfortably. It was around about mile 67 when I was in some woods when I put it on. The next "highlight" would be the M2 crossing of the Medway. A lot of people complain about it but it was actually quite nice to have some easy miles not worrying about footing and the river was cooling things done nicely.

The trail heads up Bluebell Hill which is mile 76. This was a lovely part of the run as the stars were out. Owen spotted a dormouse which was very cute and some glowworms which would have been quite trippy if hadn't said they what they were. My blog is named after a blog post written a couple of years back when the tail of Hurricane Bertha came through and battered the runners at this point. It was quite cool to actually be here at last. There were a few runners suffering and getting medical attention. I made it through here quickly as the next stop was Detling and indoors with drop bags. There were some glow sticks marking the exit which was a nice touch.

The next 6 miles went pretty slowly without any real reason and I found it difficult to get a good pace on. There was a bridge to Detling AS which I had driven past many times on the way to Whitstable but it seemed quite harsh to have to get over it at this point in the race. Detling had hot food which was Chicken soup with a side of pineapple and tea. There were a lot of people sat around being a bit miserable and beaten up. Many of the runners looked like they had been sat there quite a while and were at risk of DNF if they sat there too long. I got going pretty quickly as I feared I might seize up.

The next section is Detling to Hollingbourne. If you are reading this with the intention of doing the race, I wouldn't bother reading this section - it is a bit dull and you might as well skip onto the bit where I finish. People will moan about it but it really isn't that hard. If you got to 82 miles, the race in the bag.

So about those miles 82 - 91... The Strava CR for mile 82-86 is over 10m/miles and that was set on a run where the rest is all sub 7s and not after 82 miles. The 4.5 miles after Detling took me 1:35 of graft with every flavour of steps possible. Super steep ones, overgrown handrails,  randomly spaced ones, all sorts. There were nettles and brambles to battle through, branches at head height to duck under and lots of random obstacles. I was half expecting a Triffid or two. The path wasn't clear and there is only so much tape the markers can put up so it added to the slow going in the dark.  And at the end of that, section there was still 4 miles to the next aid station. There were some cool trails cut into the corn fields here I think. We had a brief game of chicken with a combine harvester but there was only going to be one winner and it wasn't us.

The Lenham aid station was a basic tent on the side of the road which is probably for the best. Indoor aid stations are fantastic but can suck up time and makes it hard to get going again. They had a "zero drop policy" but were struggling with the guy who had fallen asleep next to me. These guys were really great keeping everyone fuelled and motivated even through it must have been about 4am.

The trail flattens out towards the end and we got a bit of momentum. Peter Lemon who had been with us from about halfway was starting to worry about making his train. This helped us to push the pace but he eventually dropped us has superior stamina helped him power on. I got to the last aid station and Owen went in and got me a cup of team while I had a chat with the marshals (pacers are a wonderful thing). 98.4 miles down, only 4.5 miles to go... 24 hours had been and gone but this race still needed finishing.

We bumped into a guy Ronan who was out for a Sunday morning run. It turned out he done the NDW100 before and wanted to see what the new finish was like. He was brilliant and kept us company for the last two miles through Ashford. It was like having a police escort at the Spartathlon (or at least how I imagine it would be like). He also told me that I wouldn't have to do a full lap of the track which was a relief. We caught a couple of runners on the last bit but there was no repeat of the photobombing of the SDW. I think we made the runner in front speed up which he will thank me for later...

And then there was the stadium and famous blue banner and I had finished in 25:31:39 or just under 5 years depending on when you start the clock.

This was a brilliant event with so many people to thank for getting me there.  A lot of people will have helped me but thanks in particular to Alex, Alicia, Allan, Amanda, Amy, Andrea, Andrew, Ashley, Brigitte, Caroline, Cat and Catriona, (not to be confused) Charlotte, Christine, Corinne, Dave and David, Debbie, Duncan, Edward, Elizabeth, Emma, Ercole, Gloria, Goska, Graham, Gwen, Helena, Hidetoshi, Ian, the two chaps called James and one called Jamie, Jeremy, Jerry, Jo and the trio of John’s, Jonathan, Julia, Kamila, Karen’s G & S, Keith, Kiernan, Kris, Lee, the ever-present Leila, Liz, Lorraine, Louise, Lynn and the two Mark’s, Martyn, Maryanne, Matthew, Mel, Michiyo, Natasha, Nick, Oliver and the three Paul’s, Pete and the two Peter’s, Phil, Philippe, Richard, Rob, Rosie, Russ, Scott, Sean, Stephanie, Stephen and the two Steve’s, Sue and Susan, Tracey and Zoe.

In particular thanks to Louise Ayling for giving a few of us a lift to the station when the taxi company weren't picking up the phone and we were about to resort to walking. It is amazing how someone can run for over 100 miles but getting 1.2 miles to the station seems an impossible task.

The super fast train whizzed me back to King's Cross and then I lost all the time by taking about half an hour to walk to the tube with the longest connection ever. Eventually I made it home just in time to follow the finishers over the line on Facebook while sat having Katsu Curry for breakfast or whatever meal it is after having been awake for 32 hours.

I now have run all 4 Centurion 100 mile events in the space of 12 months but there is now the small matter of doing the A100 again to have all 4 in the same year...