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:


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.


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!


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.