Mud, mayhem, and (s)miles

Last weekend three intrepid explorers and myself headed up to the Dark Peak for a couple of days of the aforementioned mud and adventures. The only firm plan we had was Wolf’s Pit fell race on the Sunday morning, but it made sense for me to crack on with a recce of part of the Ultra Tour of the Peaks route too, as I only have limited opportunities to get up to the Peaks between now and the race in August.

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Win Hill

After a Friday evening spent poring over maps in front of the fire at our lovely B&B, we had a plan; Lee and I would recce the 20ish (very ‘ish’ as it turned out) miles from Yorksire Bridge at the base of Win Hill, up along one edge of the Kinder Plateau, down into Edale, over Hollins Cross into Castleton, up Cavedale, down into Bradwell, up onto Bradwell Edge and finally down along the river to Hathersage. Katie and Rich would join us for the first half into Edale, pick up Katie’s car from there and meet us in Hathersage in time to eat ALL THE FOOD in the pub.

On a good day this would have a been a nicely challenging long run with plenty of up hill and down dale.

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As it was, we had 45mph+ winds and periods of driving rain, with temperatures getting on for 0 degrees in the wind. The kind of day that justifies having all the kit with you, and you end up using everything shy of the emergency bag and the first aid kit. Katie and Rich really got the arse end of the weather, with the wind being in our faces for pretty much all the section they ran, but once we were down off Kinder Lee and I had a much kinder (ahem) time of it.

Despite all that, we had a great time. The trails were relatively quiet for first half and we were treated to some nice views along the top. Lee’s fingers were still working well enough to take pictures, so I have stolen them for here (thanks Lee!)

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Ladybower and a rainbow from Win Hill

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Moody and mizzly

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The girls showing how it should be done

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A valiant attempt at type 1 enjoyment

The descent down The Nab came just in time to circumvent hypothermia and catastrophic sense of humour failure, and we all perked up a bit on getting out of the chilling wind. Lee and I said goodbye to R and K with strict instruction to get into warm clothes and a cafe ASAP, and we headed onwards towards Hollins Cross and Castleton.

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Did I mention it was a bit muddy? Up towards Bradwell Edge

There proved to be far too many humans for either of us between Rushup Edge and the top of Cavedale, including a fair few extremely unimpressed looking teenagers in school groups – some huddled down like sheep in the shelter of ‘dry’ stone walls, trying to eat their lunch. I expect the weather was enough to put many of them off, but I’d like to think there would have been one or two who were mainly exhilarated by it. After the Mecca of Castleton it quietened down a bit and we were into less familiar territory. From the top of Bradwell Edge we spied the mast that was to be a feature of the following day’s fell race, and from here we were very much on the home stretch.

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Trainers less than 24 hrs old and fully baptised 🙂

Upon arrival in Hathersage we located (a somewhat warmer and drier) Katie and Rich and immediately retired to The Bull in Castleton for lots of food and some rugby, and from thence to our B&B for kit drying, warm baths and an evening in front of the fire.

All in all an extremely useful day for me, that allowed for a few navigational errors that I hopefully won’t be making between miles 30 and 50 in August!

 

 

Out of the frying pan, and into the Wolf’s Pit…

The following morning dawned drier, but it was still blowing a hoolie. We had a relatively leisurely breakfast and then decamped to ‘the second field on the right’ in the wonderfully named village of Shatton to register for the Wolf’s Pit fell race. Not ever having done a fell race before, I’ll admit I was more than a little bit apprehensive. Not because I was overly worried about managing the terrain or navigation, but more because I was sure I’d make some fell racing faux pas that would mark me out as a softie southerner with no place out on the hill.

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Abney Moor from the start area

In the end I needn’t have worried – registration was a super slick affair, despite the popularity of the race, and the atmosphere was friendly and relaxed. Not a soul mentioned the weather, which, had we been back at home, would no doubt have elicited many complaints about the strength of the wind or the depth of the mud; we were all there to enjoy a 5.7 mile/1500ft romp round Abney Moor whatever the elements decided to throw at us. The route consisted of a ford crossing, a climb straight up to the mast, an undulating loop round the top of the moor, and a sharp descent that retraced our original steps back through the ford to the finish.

The race briefing consisted of the calling out of two random race numbers to have their mandatory kit checked in front of everybody, and one not-so-random number who had to have his kit checked and then had to endure enjoy a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ from the assembled 🙂 Then it was time for the off, and nearly 300 crazy people legged it to the bottom of the field, through the ford and up away to the moor.

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Crossing the ford (picture by Elizabeth Williams-Duncan)

 

I’m not going to lie – my legs were like lead after the previous day’s exertions, and I just wanted to get round in one piece. I was extremely pleased to find that I held my own, even gained many places, on the ascents, but my already-tired quads were completely trashed on the downhills where my technique leaves quite a bit to be desired. By the final descent I couldn’t trust my legs any more and lost quite a few places. I cruised comfortably along round the top of the moor, but found it frustrating being in a procession of so many other runners – not able to look ahead to nip round runners in front because I was unable to to take my eyes off the narrow single track immediately before me, the rest of which was hidden from view by other runners and a good ground covering of heather.

The highlight of the race was being graced by one of the clearest and most spectacular rainbows I’ve ever seen, but I must admit that I like my forays into the hills a little (a lot) less crowded. I loved the experience; no frills, £7 turn up and race, grab a hot drink, go home… but I’m not up for sharing with hundreds of others, no matter how like-minded they are. In the car on the way home we came to the conclusion that all I really needed was a longer fell race 😀

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Flatlanders do the fells!

So there we have it – I’m a bona fide fell runner now! The DOMS at the start of the week was severe, but it’s all little stepping stones on the journey towards bigger races in the Lakes (KMF 50k and SLMM with Katie) and the Peaks (UPTD in August). Hooray for the Hills!

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Guppies Inc.

Wow it’s quiet on here. Oh wait, that’s my fault.

Happy Arbitrary Moment in Time everybody! I hope you all had a happy Christmas/holiday/festive period/Bah-humbug day/ or whatever day you chose to celebrate recently. I had a great Christmas and took a WHOLE WEEK off running. I know, shocking isn’t it? After a lovely 8 week build that saw some really very encouraging improvements in pace against heart rate, I had a sore throat within four hours of finishing work on the 23rd, and mentally wrote the following week off in terms of training. I find it pretty impossible to keep the mileage up when not run-commuting, and to be honest I was feeling pretty tired too, so I was pretty happy to take the pressure off and just enjoy time with my family.

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Extremely satisfying build; shame it fell off a cliff.

So on rolled the 3rd of January and I was feeling a bit better and ready to pick up where I left off. Or not, as the case may be. Four runs this week and they have universally been A Struggle. The rational part of my mind (there is one!) is calmly reminding me that: a) it’ll take a few days to get back into the training groove again, and b) going on my heart rate data, I’m probably not as recovered from the lurgy as I thought I was. Of course the greater part of me is mainly staring in dismay at Strava and thinking ‘I can’t possibly have wiped 8 weeks of training out in one week of rest’. I mean – right back to square one. No, no, no; if them’s the rules then I don’t want to play this game any more. It’s. Not. Fair.

My first race of 2017 is around the corner; the annual smackdown with my brother-in-law at the Brass Monkey half marathon in York in ten days time. The feat of actually getting a place for this race is far more stressful than the race itself, so as long as I’m firing on all cylinders it should be fun. This, of course, is just an appetiser before the Gloucester 50k on the 5th Feb.

I’m also thinking of entering the British Ultra Champs this year. 100k of the flattest, most featureless tarmac in the country. I mean it’s east of Hull! There is figuratively nothing there. I haven’t entered yet, but I’m trying to persuade myself to do so. Those of you who know me may be surprised by the fact that there’s a part of me that believes I’m not good enough to race against the fastest ultra runners in the country; that I don’t deserve to be there (which is ridiculous, given that it’s an open race too). But this is also exactly WHY I want to do it. I am both excited and terrified at the prospect of finding out just how badly my arse will be handed to me by these guys… it’s like a morbid fascination. So I think I’ll be feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Maybe.

But anyway. Guppies. Yesterday I was reading an article (and another one) on the benefits of nasal breathing whilst running (busy work day). Something to do with Nitrous Oxide and vasodilation – sorry, the articles are not particularly scientific. This is something that I’m very bad at – I breathe through my mouth pretty much all the time, even when not running – but thought I would give a try. One of my favourite yoga practises incorporates alternate nostril breathing (or Nadi Shodhana) which I find really REALLY useful for calming and focusing the mind, so I thought the closest thing I’ll have to a resolution this year would be to work on this in my running (just normal nasal breathing, not alternate nostril – that would be weird), and also practise the alternate nostril breathing for a short time every day. Yesterday on my run home I thought I’d make a start. Ideally both inhalation and exhalation should be through the nose… but I cannot recommend this in the winter, or when you have a cold, and especially not in the winter when you have a cold. Not unless you have an unlimited supply of handkerchiefs about your person. Exhaling through your nose is actually surprisingly difficult compared to inhalation through the nose/exhalation through the mouth, but I really wanted to master this in order to not look like a guppy whilst out on a ten mile run. Alas it was not to be. I did manage to inhale through the nose for most of my run, but to anyone who saw my fish impressions yesterday afternoon – my apologies. I’ll continue to work on it. Two immediate benefits appear to be the natural limitation of pace (it’s REALLY hard to nasal breathe if you’re running faster than easy pace), and that consuming food on the run becomes a whole lot easier! Result! Soon I will be the queen of multitasking and able to run, chew, and breathe all at the same time!

I think that’s quite enough of my rambling for now. Here’s a cartoon to keep you going:

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So long (for now), and thanks for all the fish!

SVP100; 2016 edition

Sunday 14th August 2016

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Abigail: ‘What’s a trophy, Mummy?’
Me: ‘It’s a special prize you get in races if you run fast [relative term] and come first, second, or third’
Abigail: ‘And did you get it for running the fastest, Mummy?!’
Me: ‘Yes, sweetheart, I did!’
Abigail: *thinks for a minute* ‘Right, let’s go into the garden and do some running races…’
Me: *dies inside*

 

 

Saturday 13th August 2016 – SVP day

The Start

Finally, the day arrives when I can stop thinking about the race and actually get on with it. I’ve slept neither well nor badly, and I breakfast as usual. Katie and Lee arrive to pick us up just as I finish faffing with my race bag, and we’re off and away over to Newmarket for registration. We arrive with loads of time to spare and amble down to the Memorial Hall together; the 7am wave has already gone, and the atmosphere in the hall is relaxed and friendly. I check in and receive my race number, and we find some chairs to appropriate until the race briefing. I prefer to be relatively quiet in the immediate pre-race hubbub, but I am an inveterate people-watcher and this is a great environment in which to indulge. There are those who, like me, like to sit calmly in the corner; those who chatter at length and excitedly about past and future events; those who have all the kit; those who don’t (but who you underestimate at your peril); greetings between old friends and adversaries, who are all smiles until they get out on the course… I love watching it all, and look forward to greeting old friends of my own once I’ve seen a few more races and know a few more people in this lovely and remarkable community of nutters.

The race briefing is short and to the point, and then we amble off down the road towards the start area. Goodbyes and goodlucks from my crew as I hang out at the very back of the field, and then we’re off on the dot of 9am.

My aim is to be pretty much last through the first checkpoint, not wanting to get involved in a start that’s too quick to sustain. Sure enough a large group of male runners, along with three or four of the women, steadily pull away down the road and are soon beyond my sight. I’m happy; I’m a most asocial runner, infinitely preferring my own company, especially in races, to that of others. It soon becomes clear that the path is in much, much better condition than when I ran it a couple of months ago. A prolonged dry spell has seen many of the nettles and brambles die right back, and harvest is in full swing now, so a lot of the long grass along the sides of the fields has met its doom too. The first 3 or 4 miles was some of the worst I encountered back then, so when I see how decent it is now I’m in no doubt that the rest of the course will be easier too. I’m relieved.

In addition to the path waymarking, we now have paint arrows on the ground and confidence tape in the branches, making navigation a little easier. Still plenty of opportunities to go wrong, though, and I take one of these early on by turning right into a dead-end housing estate, instead of leftish across the road. It’s easily put right, and I make a mental note to try and remember to look for the arrows more consistently through the day.

As I rejoin the correct route I couple up with two other runners. One of them is Maryann who will eventually run a massive 58 minutes inside the course record for second. She turns out to be the living embodiment of the kind of runner I’d like to be; very friendly and unassuming, relaxed, and totally kick-ass. I like her immediately, which is just as well as we spend the next 30 miles to-ing and fro-ing, sometimes with a bit of distance between us, sometimes running companionably together. At one point we pause and admire the mechanical monster of the combine harvester that has just crossed the field right in front of us, spewing half a ton a minute of chaff and dust into our faces, and I muse about how much my farm-machinery-mad three year old would love to be standing where I am now. I wonder whether I should take a picture for her (it’s a Claas Lexion 600 if anyone’s interested!), but Maryann reckons I can be excused that today, and so we wade onwards through the straw.

CP2/Crewing point 1

I execute a neat bit of stealth overtaking at CP1; I’m not stopping here, but I do grab a quick drink and am out of the tent before the other lady realises I’ve been through. Maryann is ahead of me for the stretch between CP1 and CP2, and when I arrive at CP2 (where I’ll also see my crew for the first time) she is there grabbing some food, as is another of the 9am ladies, who is changing her shoes. I extract my Minion party bag (much to the admiration of the aid station volunteers) and fill it with ‘lunch’, fill up my water reservoir and head out before either of the others. My crew have strict instructions not give me placings at this point, but unfortunately they can’t stop my brain working, and when I get to them by my calculations I am in 2nd place.

‘Do you want us to tell you?’ says Rich. Yes. ‘You are in 2nd. Do you want to know how far ahead she is?’ No. Actually…yes. ‘3 minutes’. Ha! Game on. I thought she’d be miles ahead. We say our goodbyes and off I march munching the food from my bag, still making forward progress. I have ditched my empty fuel bottles for fresh ones and am all set for the next 20 miles.

I keep expecting to catch a glimpse of first lady. Surely I’ll see at least the back of her in the distance before CP3? I don’t. Never mind. I make an unscheduled water stop at the CP in Long Melford. It’s warm and I ran this section in the heat before without enough water. The course becomes progressively more undulating after Sudbury, and I don’t want a repeat of the dizzy disorientation I had the last time I arrived in Bures. As I exit the aid station I notice the crew of the leading lady sitting there looking like they’re still waiting for her. Strange, but I don’t think much more of it until later.

Over the next ten miles I start to pass more and more runners from the 7am start, as well as some of the men from my own start. Two of them tell me on separate occasions that I’m in the lead, but not having passed the other lady I’m still in doubt. Turns out she made a minor navigational detour and I slipped past her almost straight out of CP2. I’ve also lost Maryann, having run with her again after Clare Country Park. She hung back a bit somewhere before Kentwell Hall and although I assume I’ll see her soon, we don’t actually meet again until we’ve both crossed the line.

CP4/ Crewing point 2

There’s a crowd of supporters at check point 4 – I run in to the tent to cheers and applause from the people gathered in the pub car park and garden, and grab a cup of coke and some watermelon while the aid station volunteers wrestle with my reservoir and bag. I’m seeing my crew a bit further along, so don’t want to spend too long here. I munch the watermelon as I make my way down the road to them, and note that there is a bit of discomfort from my right glute down to the outside of my right knee.

Rich, Katie, and Lee are camped out under a tree – they confirm that I am now in the lead and we swap empty tailwind bottles for full, I change my t-shirt, wipe my face, grumble a bit about my knee, and politely decline the chocolate raisins – I can’t seem to face them today. I’ve been looking forward to seeing these guys for some miles and, as always, the pit stop lifts my spirits. I walk off down the road, still fiddling with a couple of bits on my bag, break into a trot, and then…

Pain.

My right knee is white hot as I try and bear weight on it. I slow to a walk and it’s still no better, then falter to a standstill. For several eternal seconds my race is over; DNF at 44 miles. I am beyond disappointed.

As I hesitate where the path leaves the road, voices rage in my head ‘but you’re in the lead – you can’t not give it a go!’, while another one, the one that talks sense, reminds me that I promised not to break myself for this race, not even for first place. I have no idea whether this is the start of something hideous that’ll lay me off running for weeks, or just one of those in-flight problems that’ll pass as the race progresses. ‘Just ignore it and maybe it’ll go away’ said no physio, ever.

Still I hesitate. In under two minutes I could be back with my crew, unpinning my number, and I wouldn’t have to push on through. But… I am not at home to pain today. At least, I am pretending not to be. Sitting comfortably on the sofa while pain rings the non-functioning doorbell in an attempt to get my attention. ‘Not today, thank you’ as my Dad would have said.

‘Oh for God’s sake, Sam, just GET MOVING’.

The decision is made. I am committing to getting to the next check point, whether by running, or by seven miles of limping, I don’t yet know, but I will at least find out. I hobble down the side of the field, heavily favouring one side, left across to the gate on the other side, paying careful attention to my lower body, then it’s through the gate and down the lane towards Bures Watermill. By the time I’m on the other side of the river I’m moving much more freely. A navigational point claims my attention, and by the time I check back in with my legs a few minutes later, the pain in my knee has dissipated, taking with it much of the excess stiffness in my glute medius, piriformis and ITB on that side. Now I hurt equally on both sides, but it’s just stiffness from moving in one plane of motion for too long, nothing show-stopping here.

From Bures the going gets a bit easier again. The plan is not to stop at either CP5 or CP6, instead I’m meeting my crew at a small point where the path joins a country road about 6 miles from the finish. In reality I stop at both – unable to resist the lure of coke and watermelon.

Crewing point 3

Having kidded myself at least 4 times in as many miles that ‘this is the start of the downhill track towards the crew point’, I do eventually trot down the track to the sight of my fabulous support team waiting at the end. One last bottle swap, and I ditch anything I don’t need to be carrying any more. I also pick up a little passenger: baby bunny.

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This all started at NDW50, when Blue Bunny (second left) joined me for the last stretch. It’s my way of taking Abigail with me on these crazy adventures, and hopefully giving her something she can relate to when she sees pictures of me racing. At least until she’s old enough to come along and join in the fun. This time it was the turn of baby bunny (far left).

It has been suggested that I should take them all in strict rotation… but I reckon taking Mr Boing (far right) along might be extracting the Michael a bit. And I’m not sure I’ve got a bag big enough!

However, I digress. 2nd and 3rd were 9 and 10 minutes behind at 44 miles, and on consideration, I need to get a wiggle on to make sure of this. Six miles to go.

My crew have, in fact, put the Fear of God into me about how close the other ladies might be. I turn my legs over and up the ante. This last section through Dedham Vale is my favourite; along the river to Flatford Mill (making sure not to make the same ridiculous navigation error I made on the recce of this patch), past the Mill itself (site of John Constable’s famous Haywain painting), and the barn with the beautiful climbing roses, and then you exit the track and there are two fields, a small overgrown section of path, and with half a mile to go you hit the road and it’s downhill all the way.

Halfway across the first field I spot 5 walkers and a dog coming out along the path in the opposite direction. They are very tall, and one of them is wearing a familiar-looking hat. My heart bursts in my chest as I recognise my brother and his family come out to meet me so close to the finish. I am so happy to see them, and so happy that they could see me racing on a day where I could not have run any better. I wave frantically and they wave back. As I approach, my brother (an accomplished photographer) raises his camera and takes some pictures. Then I am amongst them with no time to stop, but happy to hear my sister-in-law tell me I am 6th overall. Then I am pushing along the path with Andy running along behind me saying ‘I just want to get a picture of you running through the cows up ahead’. I grin. Typical Andy. I warn him, only half in jest, that today I will not be running backwards and forwards through the cows several times until he has got the perfect shot – I know what he’s like.

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And then he’s shouting ‘Good luck! See you at the finish!’ and I’m alone again. I hit the path, then the road, and I’m sailing downhill. Surely it’s mine now. I have lost track of whether I’m on for the course record, but as I cross the road at the bottom of the hill I take a long hard look back – no one in sight. I’m being directed by the hi-vis clad marshals towards the football field and the finish area, and finally, finally, I let myself believe I’ve done it. I can hear them announcing my name as I approach the line, and then.. that’s it! I’ve arrived! A medal is hung round my neck, a t-shirt is in my hand, and I’m posing for a picture at the finish line. I won! And as it happens, I also knocked 69 minutes off the women’s course record. A good day at the office all round 🙂

Hugs from my crew, hugs from my family, and congratulations from the Race Director. What an amazing experience and a great race. I could not be happier – there is not one thing I would change about this day and this race.

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The final crewing duty… (picture by Andrew Bailey)

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Huge congratulations to Maryann and Michelle; we all ran inside the previous course record. (Picture by Andrew Bailey)

Taper-time and other tantrums

It’s SVP-4 days and I have to admit that I’ve been putting off writing my pre-race blog post for nearly a week now, because even just thinking about race day sends my heart rate through the roof and makes me feel ever-so-slightly sick.

I’ve no idea why I’m so anxious about it; training since North Downs Way has gone well, very well in fact – I’m not sure I’ve had such a consistent block in the 2 1/2 years I’ve been running. I’m feeling organised with my usual lists of Race kit, Crew kit, and Recovery kit. The former encompassing everything I’ll need on me on race day, from the mandatory kit in my bag, right down to my underwear, as though I’m worried that in the pre-race excitement I might actually forget to put my pants on, despite this NEVER having happened before. Maybe it’s something about ensuring I’ve got all the bases covered. Ahem. I’ve recce’d the course (and made tonnes of mistakes in the process in the hope that I won’t actually make the same ones on Saturday), and I’ve got a super-duper crew lined up. So what could possibly go wrong? I expect I’m about to find out.

Yes, so I’m anxious. I think it started with the first recce, which was one of my least enjoyable runs ever. The other two were better, but not by much, and I guess I’m worried about it not being enjoyable. I’m not worried that I can’t cover the distance, despite it being my longest event to date, so (as I keep asking myself) what’s the problem? I think I just need to chill out.

As well as obsessing about SVP100, I’ve also been on a gorgeous recce of the Ladybower50 route in preparation for September. This was absolutely the perfect antidote to the SVP recce runs, where nettles, brambles, ankle-turning ploughed fields, and rubbish waymarking were the order of the day. The route round the Ladybower and Derwent reservoirs up in the Peaks was stunning and peaceful. I don’t mind telling you that I cannot wait for that race! The campsite where we stayed for a couple of days after was pretty special too…

 

I’m not a big fan of this pre-race period. It’s very much like hanging around on the runway before take-off; mulling over the things you’ve forgotten to pack, and all the irrational thoughts about what might lie ahead, without being able to disembark and sort any of it out. There’s still plenty of time for me to oscillate from anxious, to wildly excited to be racing, and back again, before I can really get my teeth stuck into it. I’ve got another couple of runs planned this week, to keep the legs ticking over, and an appointment with Magic Megan at the brilliant Fit Again Sports Therapy this evening, but mainly I’m trying to focus on getting as much sleep as possible, feeding both myself and my list-writing compulsion, and checking the weather forecast every 30 mins to see if it is still favourable!

Despite all the above, I really am looking forward to it, and come Saturday at 9am I will be ready to go. I have only the vaguest of ideas of long it’s going to take me, and no idea how I might do, but I’ll be giving my absolute best shot on the day. For those of you that know me, I’m sure my crew will give updates on facebook along the way (if they can get signal, that is), and I’ll see you back here next week for the blow-by-blow account!

 

Come hell or high water

On Saturday I made a start on the first of three course recces of the Stour Valley Path 100 route. This will be my next big race and I had been really looking forward to running it; the start of the race is only a thirty minute drive away, and the finish is a couple of miles (as the crow flies) from where my brother and his family live; it seemed rude not to give it a go, really.

Having spent last week combatting a throat infection and feeling thoroughly sorry for myself, I knew early on that the plan for Saturday would be somewhat kill-or-cure… at the outset it looked something like this:

  1. Load bikes onto newly-purchased (second-hand) bike carrier (£10 on Gumtree – massive bargain!)
  2. Drive to Clare and dump my bike at Clare Castle country park (CP2 on race day)
  3. Drive back to Newmarket, park up, and head to the start of the route (taking leave of Wingman Rich who was wending his way to Clare by bike)
  4. Enjoy a leisurely, Summer’s day long run from Newmarket to Clare (23 and bit miles)
  5. Eat all the food in the Pub
  6. Cycle back to Newmarket in the late evening sunshine (17 miles)
  7. Drive home

Optimistic? Possibly. What actually happened went more like this:

  1. Spend the best part of an hour swearing as we tried to work out how do fix the bloody bike carrier to the car.
  2. Shut little finger in the boot of the car – more swearing and A LOT of pain. Didn’t cry though.
  3. Set off for Clare only a couple of hours later than we meant to.
  4. Stop on the side of the A14 to re-fix parts of the bike carrier to the car
  5. Arrive at Clare country park and dump my bike
  6. Drive to Newmarket and find a parking space, but only after some t***er stole the one I was waiting for whilst Rich was taking his bike off the carrier; more Shouting and Swearing.
  7. Find the start of the route
  8. Say bye to Rich and start running
  9. The first mile and a half out of Newmarket is a bit boring, being mainly along the side of the main road. Somewhere along here it starts raining
  10. Turn off the main road onto the Stour Valley Path proper (but only after missing the turning because it was so overgrown) and begin what would would turn out to be a four-and-a-half hour battle with brambles and stinging nettles. I kid you not. That path is an absolute joke. Of the 23+ miles that I ran I would say that roughly 35% of it is virtually impassable, with many other parts not runnable. Stinging nettles up to my armpits (and sometimes taller than me) knit together across the path with no end in sight, brambles catching my ankles, long wet grass flaying the skin from my legs… and the bits that were clear of the aforementioned were either submerged (completely) in water, or across the middle of fields where the clay topsoil clung to the bottoms of my trainers for dear life and added a couple of kilos of resistance to the running. I think the low point came at about mile 14, where I stood in front of [yet another] wall of nettles, drenched to the skin (had I mentioned the biblical rain? It hadn’t stopped since I left), in the middle of a thunder storm, and swore some more and had a bit of a cry because I didn’t want to get stung any more. I had to find a tree branch to fight my way through in the end. At 15 miles I came across a similar looking stretch of nettles and lost the will to live, but here there was a churchyard I could cut through instead – so I climbed the gate, sheltered in the church porch (which turned out to be Kedington church) and rang Rich for an extended whinge to his answerphone about how cold/wet/stung/miserable I was, the fact that It had taken me 3 hours to ‘run’ 15 miles, and that I would probably be a bit later than expected to Clare… Feeling considerably better for having shared my misery, I gave myself a stern talking to, shouldered my pack, and set off again. Mercifully, there were only a two or three really bad patches of nettles in the remaining 8 miles, although the rain and mud never abated, and I arrived at Clare to find Rich sheltering under a tree, similarly drenched, and we walked in the final half a mile together.
  11. We ate ALL THE FOOD in the pub. And drank all the warm drinks. I was unreasonably pleased to find that we’d picked a pub posh enough to have *actual little towels* in the bathrooms… so I used a couple to wipe the mud off and generally get dry (apologies, Swan Inn, but you do have very nice bathrooms, very nice staff, and extremely nice food!). Fortunately we’d had the foresight to bring warm dry clothes to change into for the cycle home.
  12. At some point during dinner we decided that the cycle back could eff-off to the far side of somewhere very far away
  13. Get a taxi back to Newmarket
  14. Drive back to Clare to collect the bikes
  15. Drive home through some really bad flooding that nearly saw us stranded
  16. Eat more food
  17. Bath
  18. Collapse in bed

My legs that evening:

And the following day:

20160626_152007

Not pretty, and very, VERY itchy. I would add a picture of the belly-button chafing too… but maybe not.

Things wot I learnt:

  • Always take a warm/waterproof layer; it is possible to get very very cold even in the summer – I would have been stuffed if anything had happened to stop me moving
  • Don’t forget your silver blanket (see above)
  • That path is a bitch
  • The navigation function on my Suunto is the mutts nuts (but I should have had a hard map too)
  • I can run 23 miles on no fuel and 500ml water and still be ok at the end, so my fat metabolism must be pretty decent
  • The elevation profile lies – there are no hills
  • Never, EVER, put magnesium oil on legs that have been stung to buggery by stingers. It BURNS us. Gollum.

I was seriously questioning whether this was a race that I wanted to run for large parts of Saturday, but now I feel like the course itself has thrown down a challenge to me and there’s no way I’m going to let it go now. I’ll run the other sections of the route over the next month and see if they’re any more inspiring! And please, please, no more nettles.

Lessons in recovery

A bit of a ‘nuts and bolts’ post this one. Now I’ve had a bit of time to recover I thought I’d go through some of the kit I used, things that I thought worked well, things that went a bit wrong, and what I’ve learnt about the recovery process. This is mainly meant to be an aide memoire for next time, but hopefully some people might find it a useful resource too.

Kit

Obviously I’m not going to go through every single thing I took or wore, but here are the things that come to mind:

Trainers: I chose my trusty Merrell Bare Access Trail shoes for this race. They’re not amazingly grippy as trail shoes go, but they are amazingly comfortable… and I thought for my first 50 at least, that comfort had to be paramount. It was a decent decision; my feet were in perfect nick at the finish with no blisters or hotspots, but I do feel that they lacked support in the latter stages, and particularly on some of the more technical parts of the trail. These ones are due for retirement anyway, so I’ll be finding and breaking in a suitable replacement pair before SVP and Ladybower later this year.

Race Vest: I used my Ultimate Direction Ultra Vest (5l capacity). I left the bottles at home and used a 1l reservoir in the pack itself, which worked decently well, but the bladder was a pain to fill and if I’d had to take more mandatory kit (waterproof jackets were taken off the kit list on the morning in light of the great weather forecast), then I think it would have been too small. For SVP at least I think I’ll be using my Salomon vest with the easier-to-fill soft bottles at the front and the 1l bladder in the back. It’s got more easily accessible pockets and more room too, so probably a better choice, even if the 12l capacity is overkill.

Pants (yes, it’s important!): Minor bikini line chafing. That is all. Will be wearing undershorts next time.

Compression socks: I wore my well-trusted CEP ones. I’m still not convinced that these are necessary and I’m vain enough not to want knee-high tan lines… I just don’t want to find out that they really do work 40+miles into a race, when I have no chance of getting them on without losing half an hour and a major amount of swearing.

Shorts: I just wore some bog-standard running shorts, but given the battering my quads took, I’m contemplating a pair of compression shorts for future races.

GPS: Forerunner 220. The battery died at 47.3 miles. Given that I can’t afford a Fenix 3, and Garmin have now not been able to cope with 100% of the ultras I’ve run, it’s time for a change. I’ll be picking up a Suunto Ambit Peak 3 later on today – all I need now is to be recovered enough to play with it!

Recovery

The last two weeks have been rather a steep learning curve, not only in terms of the race itself, but also how I’m recovering from it. One of the things I find slightly intimidating about the ultra community is just how many runners there are out there who run a 50 mile race and are back out on the trails again within a few days. I know I’m not able to do this – it’s not how my body works, but it can be easy to get sucked into that mindset and I find it takes a fair amount of pig-headedness to trust that I know what works for me in spite of what everyone else seems to be doing.

It took 3-4 days for the DOMS to wear off, and 5-6 days for the20160515_120447 swelling round my knee to go down. I had a massage with Magic Megan on the third day after the race, and this was a good time to have it – I could just about stand to have someone touching my legs but it was still relatively soon after the race.

During this time I tried to eat well, take some magnesium baths, and walk it out as much as I could bear. I also iced my knee as often as possible. I expected to feel constantly hungry, but I found that I wasn’t. The onset of hunger was intense, though; 0- to-hangry in about 90 seconds flat.

It’s 11 days post-race now, and I still have a little bit of inflammation in the quadriceps tendon, but nothing that should be too bad going forward. I tried cycling on Monday – my legs felt ready but it left me feeling hugely fatigued, to the point where I was barely coherent on Monday evening. And that has been the most surprising thing; the biomechanical recovery seems to be the least part of it. Mentally and emotionally, this week has been really tough. I’ve felt foggy and tired, down, and have really, REALLY needed to sleep. So that’s what I’ve prioritised and it seems to be working. I’m still not ready to run – I have very little desire to – I just have to trust that that will come back, and when it does it’ll be the green light I need to know that I’m ready to go again.

Next time I would like to:

  • Have a magnesium bath on the evening of the race (not possible this time)
  • Wear some compression leggings post-race for a couple of days (even sleeping)
  • Sleep A LOT more in the week after the race, and if possible have a couple of days off work (again, not possible this time)
  • Be a little more in tune with my diet
  • Stay patient

I have been reading some interesting articles on the effects of ultra running on the Endocrine system (and subsequent hormone imbalances), and have come to the conclusion that this aspect is really not to underestimated. The bottom line here is to listen to your body and ignore what everyone else is doing, but this can be so much easier said than done. All-in-all, I set aside two weeks for recovery,  and I’m certainly going to be using all that time. I hope to go on some long walks at the weekend, and get back into running gently sometime next week along with a bit of cycling. I found this article about recovery useful and reassuring – it’s well worth a read.

NDW50

 

CR16-NDW50-Finish-153

The Race

So. The dust is slowly settling, the endorphin high is waning, and I’m finally feeling ready to write about the amazing experience I had running the North Downs Way last weekend. Sitting here at my desk, three days on, I still feel like I can’t fully comprehend what I did. I mean, I DID IT! I actually ran 50 miles. But in some ways I’m still coming to terms with it.

I don’t intend this to be a blow-by-blow account of every aspect of the race – there are plenty of accounts out there to satisfy curiosity on that score. But I will record here the things that struck me most; the highs, the lows, what worked, what didn’t, and what it felt like, to me, to run 50 miles for the first time ever.

The race itself still has a strange dream-like quality to me. I remember woods full of bluebells, one patch of woodland completely carpeted in flowering wild garlic – the smell of which was incredible, ridges with spectacular views out over local towns and villages, stepping stones across a swirling river, and the steps up Box Hill… Queuing  for the gates as everyone got started, but later miles and miles covered in solitude and sunshine – my favourite kind of running.

The course itself was unlike anything I’d encountered before: relentlessly undulating with a few more memorable hills thrown in for good measure. From a flatlander’s perspective, it was pretty brutal. 5500ft of elevation – probably more than I’d managed the entire year so far.

By mile 17 I wanted to cry. My legs felt heavy and fatigued, and I got sucked into thinking about the distance as a whole; how could I possibly be finding it this hard already? I was only a 1/3 of the way through, and the first half was supposed to be the easy bit. I wanted to stop. Rich was meeting me at the crewing point at 20 miles – if it had been any earlier I think I might have crumbled, but fortunately I caught the mental slide and asked myself why the hell I was dwelling on how hard it was instead of all the training I’d done, how strong I was, and what an amazing adventure I was on. By the time I got to Ranmore Common and saw Rich ready and waiting with fresh fuel, a handful of chocolate raisins, a pep-talk, and details of what was going on in front of me, I’d already started to turn it around. Five miles of gentle downhill followed, and the combination of the two altered the race for me.

The seven miles from the stepping stones to Aid Station 4, including both Box Hill and Reigate Hill, are a bit of a killer, but I strangely enjoyed it. I picked up ‘lunch’ (half a banana, a slice of watermelon, two handfuls of crisps, and a cup of flat coke) at the stepping stones, and ate on the march. I really felt like a I got my teeth into the race in this section, and far from being demoralised, I felt invigorated by the challenge (and probably the food!). I’m not going to lie – it hurt significantly – but I felt as though I’d reached a level of pain I could accept and work with. All I had to do was persuade my legs back into a trot at the top of every incline, and I’d be home and dry. And so it turned out to be.

One of the most uplifting moments of the race came at the top of Box Hill. Emerging into the sunlight at the top of the 300-odd steps, I broke back into a run to the cheers and applause from all the picnic-ers out enjoying their day. It made me feel like a hero, running through their midst, and it was such a massive lift to the spirits. The miles melted away and I kept trotting on. Usually passing people, and rarely getting passed.

Mile 40 was the second rendezvous with Rich – I was in 7th and 6th was in my sights. A fresh t-shirt and cap, another handful of raisins and a ‘hunt her down’, and it was game-face on – I was tired but feeling strong and I wanted that extra place. 10 miles to go. I hiked hard up the hill to the last aid station, gaining on her all the time, she ran out of the water stop as I ran in, and I knew that I would get her. In those last 10 miles I reeled in at least 10 other runners. The terrain was exactly like my run-commute to work and it felt familiar and achievable. CR16-NDW50-Finish-151

Suddenly I turned the corner and the finish gantry was there. I’d done it. I ran tall and proud across the line, posed with my medal, and promptly dissolved into tears when Rich informed me I was 5th lady due to a drop further up the field.

I did promise I’d reveal what my pre-race aims were… well, a top 5 rank… and a finish between 8 and 9 hours. 9 hours and 51 seconds was my official time, but what’s 52 seconds between friends? I think I’ll take the moral victory there. And the top five finish? In my first 50 miler, in the year when the women’s course record was smashed by nearly 40 minutes, I am hugely proud of that. I’ll definitely be back for an assault on the top 3 at some point in the future.

 

Recovery

One of my friends asked me on Saturday evening what my legs felt like after running that distance. The answer I gave was ‘like they’ve been run over repeatedly by a car’, and still that’s the best way I can describe it. Yesterday was the worst DOMS day ever. I was back at work (no rest for the wicked) and I could barely walk. Stairs are still proving a challenge – but at least I don’t have to hold on any more. I’ve been icing my swollen left knee, taking magnesium and bicarb baths, and concentrating as much as possible on eating well and resting up. I have a visit to my physio this evening and the aches are abating, so maybe in a few days some gentle cycling will be on the cards.

I don’t feel like running at all. I left everything I had out there on Saturday, and I simply don’t have anything to give at the moment. It’ll come back, but I promised myself a couple of weeks away from running after this race, and I plan to stick to that. That doesn’t mean that I can’t start planning the next adventure, but for the moment I need the space to recover both inwardly and outwardly before I hit the trails again.

And finally…

It simply wouldn’t be right to complete this post without thanking Rich for his incredible support out on the course; Nev for his company during the first section of the race and doing all the driving; and everyone who showed an interest in following our progress throughout the day. I have read and re-read all the messages of support and congratulation that appeared on my facebook wall over the weekend – every single one of them makes me feel so proud, and that really does makes a difference.

 

Here goes!

We’re nearly there. Considerably less than 24hours to go until I toe the line on the North Downs Way. My excitement is gradually being tempered by a small amount of pre-race nervousness – I have done all I can; I’m pretty much packed, my training is all done and dusted, and I have contingency plans for as many eventualities as possible without getting ridiculous about it. The thing I’m most worried about is forgetting to put my trainers in the car!

This week I have had six lists on the go in a bid not forget some small but vital part of my kit. The Plan (race day) and The Plan (rest of the weekend) has satisfied my need to be in control of as many things as possible, and I’m feeling pretty organised. I’ve been eating and tapering well, had some acupuncture, and even booked myself in for what I anticipate will be the most painful post-race rub down ever with Magic Megan next week. There’s nothing more to do now except get on with it (oh, and remember to put my trainers in the car).

I felt pretty tearful as I dropped my little girl off at nursery this morning. For her, this weekend will be no different from any other weekend she spends at Daddy’s house; I’ve spent this much time away from her before… but somehow this feels different. As though when I return I’ll be altered in some way. I’ll be pushing my physical and mental limits further than I’ve ever done before – I’m excited to find out what the challenges of this distance are, but I’m also a little bit scared to step into the unknown and test my limits so thoroughly. I have high expectations of how far I can take my ultrarunning, and I guess I’m scared I might find out that I’ve misjudged myself, that what I can actually do is trailing massively behind what I think I can do. Most of all I want to enjoy it.

I’ll be running alongside some pretty spectacular athletes (see Centurion Running’s race preview for the low-down) and the forecast couldn’t be better – I’m expecting it to be an inspiring day and a revealing journey.

If you want to see how I’m doing tomorrow, then the wonderful guys over at Centurion provide live tracking through the Aid Stations. Link here I’m number 254. Huge thanks to everyone for their kind words of belief and support over the last few days – I’ll do my best to do you all proud.

See you on the flip side!

 

 

On censure and intimidation

I had intended this week’s posts to be all about my prep for Saturday’s NDW50, but something occurred on my run into work this morning that got me wanting to write about something entirely different.

The thing that happened? I got beeped at. Again. This in itself is not so unusual – I got beeped at yesterday too, unfortunately. During the winter I get this, on average, maybe three times a week. But it’s summer, and if I choose to run down the path along the road into town wearing shorts and a t-shirt, then once or twice per day becomes a distressing norm.

This morning the beep happened fairly early on in the run. In such cases I usually let flow an internal stream of expletives directed at the driver, but show no outward sign of having noticed. Today was no different – I didn’t give the lorry driver the satisfaction of a reaction, but just carried on my way with not much of a second thought. Until, that is, I caught up with the inevitable backlog of traffic that builds up along that route. With a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach I realised that I would soon catch up with the lorry in question, and have to pass it again. For a couple of minutes I fantasised about calling the lorry driver out on his behaviour; goading him into descending from his cab, kicking him hard in the nuts and then running away, leaving him crying in the road in the middle of the morning rush hour. But did I do that? No. I did what millions of women do every single day in situations where they’ve been made to feel uncomfortable by the behaviour of men; I practised de-escalation. I felt fairly sick as I closed the distance on the lorry; what would I encounter? Another beep? Something shouted from the window? The traffic started to move, and for a while I was able to run in his blind-spot hoping that I wouldn’t catch up after all. Then he slowed and I was level with the cab. He kept pace with me down the hill – I felt tense and uncomfortable, but refused to acknowledge that I’d clocked his earlier attention with either a look or a change of pace. Finally the traffic forced him to come to a standstill and I was able to pull away and round the corner at the bottom of the hill, turning away from the main road and any unwelcome gaze that may have followed me.

The rest of the run was a bit quicker than I’d intended; I was wound up by the encounter, and wound up with myself for letting it get to me. And yet this behaviour isn’t acceptable. Nobody should be made to feel intimidated by unwanted attention. By some idiot sitting in the safety of his cab who, if I’m charitable, presumably thought I’d see it as some sort of compliment. It’s not. It’s not a compliment if it makes someone feel intimidated, uncomfortable, self-conscious, and awful. Women so often can’t win in situations like this. If we happen to carry a bit more weight, or are struggling with fitness for whatever reason, then we’re censured for it. If we work hard, show dedication, and our physiology reflects that, or if we’re simply lucky with our physiology, then our ‘reward’ is putting up with the kind of shit detailed above.

I hate that I have to deal with it. I hate that women everywhere have to deal with this and much, much worse, every single day. I work really hard at my running; I’m in great shape, and I’m really proud of the fact. I don’t wear shorts in the summer for the edification of passing drivers – I wear them, surprisingly, to help regulate my temperature. What irks me most is that the driver(s) in question probably don’t give a monkeys about how strong I am, or the crazy distances I can cover under my own steam, they make a snap judgement based on my appearance and don’t give a second thought about how their actions, however small, might make me feel.

Unless the lorry driver was a fellow ultrarunner, and he was simply being supportive of my training. In which case, I apologise.

T-10 days…

We’re nearly there! Ten days left until my first ever attempt at running 50 miles, and my second ever attempt at this ultramarathon malarkey. To say I’m excited would be quite an understatement; it’s my first big race of the year, after niggles and sporadic training led me to withdraw from running in London three weeks ago. It was a good decision, I think – the ankle trouble I’ve struggled with on and off for nearly three months has finally been laid to rest, the training that I have done has been encouraging, and I’m now trying to get to the start line in as healthy a shape as possible.

The race in question? North Downs Way 50. I had been oscillating between excitement at the challenge, and disbelief that I could actually manage the distance. Until, that is, I followed the truly inspiring efforts of everyone running the Thames Path 100 last weekend, which quite frankly makes the small matter of 50 miles look like a walk in the park. So now I’m mostly excited, and entering full OCD / control-freak mode regarding logistics, packing, kit, and weather forecast checking. Oh, and food.

I’ve bought a new running t-shirt especially for the occasion, because none of the 24 million t-shirts that I already own are *exactly* right, and everyone knows that new kit makes you run faster anyway. I’ve just about resisted the temptation to follow this philosophy with new trainers. That might have been a bad idea, but I’ll admit it was a struggle. Maybe for the next one!

Because I am moderately competitive by nature, and an idiot, I naturally have aspirations regarding time and rank. But really, my aim is to have the best day running a beautiful trail in good company. If I manage that, then there’s every chance that I’ll get close to my dreams… but I genuinely have NO IDEA what this is going to feel like. I can’t wait! The whole process is being made far less intimidating by the company of fellow C&C runners Paula and Nev, and superstar crew, Rich. I would be bricking it if I had to do all this on my own. I’ll tell you afterwards what my hopes are for this race, and you can all judge for yourselves just how much of a crackpot I am!