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

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