Sunday, 22 December 2013

Here is to making the Key

All photos courtesy of Stuart Shipley and Stuart Holloway

Well that was the worst race I have ever done. The Hill Ultra aim is to complete fifty five times up and down a hill. I managed thirty times or ninety miles. Just a little over half way. The Race Director Mark Cockbain says that if he didn’t do extreme sports he would be a serial killer.  Well he sent fifteen poor souls out on to the most horrendous course in atrocious conditions and he nearly got off to a good start.

But that is not really the place to begin. After failing Spartathlon for the second time, despite being trained by Cockbain, I wanted to try something as soon as possible to get my confidence back. Not long after Mark came up with The Hill Ultra. Fifty five times up and down a hill, in the Peak District, in winter, 160 miles long  and 4 miles of elevation. 

Training would be easy.  I live in a village built on the side of the Taunus Mountains. Just run up and down there and I’d be sorted. In fact I did an overnight run, twelve hours up and down a one mile course covering forty six miles with one and half miles of elevation. Fit as a butcher’s dog me. But 12 hours & 45 miles and 26 hours & 90 miles are very different things.

My day started with a bus, train, tube and flight from Wehrheim to Manchester, then after renting a car I drove over the Peak District to Sheffield to pick up Jo Kilkenny.  A bit of shopping for supplies later, back in the car to the other side of the Peak District to Macclesfield to pick up Nastsha Farid and Tom Foreman.  Jo was pretty quiet in the car and I wasn’t sure if it was something I had said.  But then Tom got into the car and I prayed for the silence to return. That man could talk all sixteen legs off an Arcturian MegaDonkey. He was talking so much he drowned out the voice of the sat nav. Great stories about Piece of Sting from Centurion Running though. It was amazing we made it to Buxton in time for supper at a nice little pasta place.

We drove up to the Cat and Fiddle. We were rather early, but it soon started to fill up with the idiots who were to be Mark’s guinea pigs. Seeing how dark it was and listening to the rain and wind lashing the building I have never felt more like a sacrificial lamb. I had bought tons of kit, but I still fretted about whether I had the right stuff.  But then Drew Sheffield was sitting there in shorts...turned out he would run in them. Despite his protestations that skin is water proof and tights would soak up water and make a runner colder I still think he was mad.  Nice chap, but mad.

Tom Foreman was still chatting away when I asked the barmaid for a pen.
“Are you going perform an emergency tracheotomy” he asked.
“Only if it would shut you up”

He then bought three Jack Daniels, not all for himself, although he did drink two as Natasha only wanted a sip.Some would say all his talking was nerves, but I reckon his is just naturally effusive and don’t forget he had done POS the previous week.

I finally decided on what to wear. A base layer of Craft Keep Warm top and shorts.  Good to minus five according to the manufactures claims, and they were soon to be put to the test and passed admirably.  I didn’t feel cold at all during the entire event.

Then Sealskinz, these are breathable double skin socks.  They together my Asics GT Trail shoes from kept my feet lovely and warm.  In fact when my gloves were sodden after the half of the first night on the hill I put a spare pair of these on my hands and they were better than what I had on before.

My top layer was Montane Minimus Jacket and Trousers.  In between was just a mixture of technical shirts, a fleece from TOG 24 that I use for snowboarding and bog standard adidas tights.  I had an old builder’s high vis vest that I picked up on Deutschlandlauf and a Petzel torch.

Nutrition wise I had Sisgo bottles, Viper energy bars (they come loaded with 139mg of Caffine) for the night. Gu Gels and home made energy bars for the day.

The start was delayed due to some later arrivals and Drew and I hid in the pub while we waited for the slacker. At 8:15pm we set off with Richard Weremiuk guiding us down the A537 ( the most dangerous road in Britain) until the turn onto the trail.  As we started up this I thought great it is going to be tarmac.  After all Mark said it would be runnable and he loves tarmac to run on.

The Start

My hopes were soon dashed as the tarmac turned into a rain sodden slippy cobble field masquerading as a track. This angled upwards and turned sharply to the right at the top. Then we had a rutted track for the next half of the course.  It was flattish; however the ruts so deep they filled with water and then a hump of grass in the middle that was so uneven you could not run on it. Half way along came a Gate that was shut and we had to negotiate a pool of ankle deep mud and water around the side of the gate. The track continued on for some way and then a couple of glow sticks indicated we turn left over a grass bank and down onto the Hill proper.The wind came up the hill so fast,  Phil christened it Hurricane Alley. It buffeted you from one side to the other. At one stage I got blown into the electric fence, which was quite shocking.

At this point on the first lap Phil Smith and others missed the turn.  To quote Tom Jones “getting lost on a single track, glow stick marked course, when following other runners who are going in the right direction is a skill set one can only admire.” Phil is a top bloke but does make silly mistakes. This is unfair as plenty of people even when the sun came up missed the turn. The wind blew so hard you lent over face down and your field of vision was a football sized circle of illumination cast by your head torch. Later in the night the rain stopped only to be replaced by freezing fog, which made your field of vision even smaller.

Then came the longest bit of the course, down a winding path made up of compacted gravel and mud this dropped down and for what seemed like an age and then climbed up again.
The Hill

It was so dark and the path up the Hill so steep that it seemed as if we were heading for green stars in the sky. On several spots there was just mud and we had to skirt around them or risk losing our shoes.  Finally when you got to the top is was another large area of shoe sucking mud to be avoided and then we could dip our key into one of two boxes to register that we had got to the top. 

Then it was back down the route and a return to the Cat and Fiddle for refreshments and a second dip.Starting at 8:15pm meant we had a whole night of twelve hours to run before we saw day light. It was bloody awful.  You couldn't see where you were going, if it wasn't raining and windy, it was foggy and even less visibility. Cockbain is an evil man for designing such a race. Remember to qualify for this race, the runner had to have completed at least one hundred mile race, so they are all tough cookies. However, by the morning of first day there were just eight left of the fifteen that started. It was horrendous.

The day was quite nice, the rain and windy let off a little and we could see where we were going. I kept trudging on mainly with Phil Smith. The windy meant we couldn’t converse a lot, but what we did do kept us entertained.
Me and Phil

As we got closer to the evening dark clouds full of foreboding drew across the sky. Jo Kilkenny broke down and said she couldn't go through another night like the first one.  I knew exactly what she meant and I thought as long as I got through the night I would be OK.  It was a matter of being mentally strong enough to take the battering, as physically it wasn't too bad. OK the wind, the rain and the cold eat into you, but as long as you kept moving you stay warm.
Me running with Seaskinz on my hands

I had an issue with my gloves getting wet. But after I put my Sealskinz,on my hands I was fine.
I was starting to lack energy but Stuart and Mark told me to keep eating and that would boost me back up again. “Remember the stomach is your furnace, keep it fed” one  of them said. 
Night fell around 5:30 and so that meant another fifteen hours of darkness. I kept plodding on and the field started to thin out again. After twenty or so hours on my feet nagging doubts started to creep in and I was then trying to fight them off.  It was the same at Sparta,
“Why don’t you quit?” said the evil voice inside of me
“Because physically, I am fine” I reply
“But I am bored and we won’t finish, find a reason to stop”
“There is nothing wrong with us and what else would we do?”
“Sit in the cosy pub”
I find this the hardest thing to do on ultras.  This internal voice that wants me to stop for no real reason.

It was about this time the hallucination started to kick in. They come gently at first. The green glow sticks seem to start moving towards me instead of me going to them.  Especially on the steep bit they were flying out of the air at me. Then they started to spin and talk to me.  They were evil bastards , although I have no idea what they said as I don’t speak glow stick.

I took a break in the camper van and started to talk to Stuart. Then I noticed somebody sitting next to him. I first asked Stuart if someone was sitting next to him. When he said yes, I then asked what colour jacket he was wearing. Stuart said blue and at that point I knew something was wrong. Because to me this guy had a big white beard and red jacket. It was Father Christmas.couldn't work out if they were pulling my leg or not.

I set off again and as I reached the summit the wall behind the dipping boxes started to move up and down. I reached for the sign post beside of me, but that was moving as well.  How the hell was I going to lean down and dip my key? I just collapsed on to my knees and crawled to it. As I left I explained my predicament to Bryan Rudd.

“Mate you need more food, here take some Haribo”
“Ok I don’t like Haribo “
“It does matter you need sugar”
I greedily stuffed them down my throat and felt a little better.

As I neared the Cat and fiddle, I first noticed the walls were breathing, slow in and out audible breaths.Then I noticed Jon Steele and Gavin Felton following me. I was starting to get paranoid and was convinced that Jon was trying to persuade Gavin to beat me up.

I got a bowl of pasta and went to the pub. As I sat trying to eat it the paranoia was getting the best of me. Phil Smith came over to talk to me.  As he asked me if I was alright, his face started to melt in front of me. Like candle wax dripping down his face his forehead disappeared and then his eyeballs popped out. 
Melting face man

Paranoia creep in

This was seriously weird and I thought get out again and get going and it will be alright. But I was frighten of Jon…so I went out with Riccardo Giussani who promised to protect me.
As we went over the first hill we came across Tom Jones, who was suffering.  His quads were shot and after walking with him for some time he returned to base camp.

We crossed paths with Jon Steele and I went to shake his hand. I was trying to defeat my irrational thoughts. I only went out again when Riccardo offered to protect me. I defeated them by shaking his hand. I convinced my irrational mind that if Jon refused to shake my hand then I would chin him. My father always told me to get your retaliation in first.
My hero

The rest of the evening was a blur. I know now after twenty six and half hours it was enough. My evil voice got the better of me and gave up at around 11:45 on the second night.
Rest at last

I have spent a while chatting to people about why the defeatist voice conquers me. I can go down the steps in awful conditions and physically I am fine, but this voice keeps getting me to stop. Some very experienced runners I have talked to say they get the same thing. Praying for a dog to attack them, for example.
However I need to stop flopping around and know myself. I need to build a key to open the door to the way out. This year has been about building a base level of fitness.  I got further than ever at Sparta and was one of the last few to drop out of a race that was created to be virtually unfinishable.

The Hill got me down the steps and put me face to face with the gatekeeper of the steps going up. The gatekeeper is me. Only I have the key....because no one else knows me, so no one else can help.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Girly Bullshit

After my complete failure at Spartathlon 2012 I was hoping to write a victory blog this year. It didn’t come about because fundamentally, I am too mentally weak for this race. Read on if you want to read a self pitying blog full of little excuses that are just girly bullshit. Otherwise stop now, and come back next year to see if I have turned myself into a hard northern bastard.

Prior to GUCR I got a few tips from a very experienced runner that got me through the long drag on the canal. Afterwards I almost begged him to be my coach for Sparta. I want to make clear he did a great job getting me ready for the Pheidippidean challenge. The reason I failed was that in the final part of the race, I didn’t do as he told me. I was not mentally tough enough.

Thanks to him I was on the starting line five kilograms lighter than last year and a heck of a lot faster. My 10km time was down from over 55 minutes to sub 45 minutes, my 100km time was down from 11:20 to 9:56.  I had also managed to run nonstop for 12 hours on a blistering hot day in Germany and still covered 106km.

So far so good, mentally I thought I was there as well.  I was going to tough this fucking race out and kiss that statue.
I arrived on Wednesday and was expecting to wait for Paul Ali so that we could travel to the hotel together. Unfortunately for Paul, not only was his flight delayed, they managed to lose some of his luggage as well. We agree I would catch up with him later as we had no idea how long he would be delayed.
As I got on the bus I met a Portuguese chap by the name of Jorge, who despite having the same misfortune as Paul in the luggage area also finished the race.  
I arrived too late to register on Wednesday, so just dumped my stuff in the room I was sharing with Phil Smith and Mark Woolley and headed off to join a whole bunch of people celebrating John Knox’s birthday.

Thursday morning is one of registration, which went smoothly, and preparing and depositing drop bags. My detailed plan was to have a water bottle at every third stop with a gel and power bar attached. At further selected points would be rice puddings, extra clothes, wet wipes, a head torch and some treats. Each of the bottles and drop bags had pre prepared sticky labels with my race number and checkpoint clearly printed on them. Another important task was to switch my S Caps from the bulky bottle they came in, to tic-tac containers, so they fitted into the small running belt I was going to wear.  Compared to last year I far better prepared, as then I had no drop bags at all and had never heard of S Caps. These are magic little electrolyte pills that ensure your liquids are absorbed correctly.  I ordered these and the GU Gels I use from James Elson’s Centurion Running Store.

At 17:00 we all gathered for the English language briefing in the Fenix hotel, the home of the Japanese runners. The British team rapidly put on their spanking new TEAM GB T-Shirts from the Ultramarathonrunningstore (organised by James Adams) and collected their Buffs from Mimi Anderson. The logos were designed by Mark Howlett. This prompted a mass photography session from not only the Brits, but also our very envious fellow competitors from other nations. Even if the Germans and Japanese got more people to the end, they didn’t look as good as us.
In terms of important kit, I also had a set of guidelines to keep me strong through the race which I had been reading like a sacred text. The idea was to imprint it into my brain, so that I would not forget them when push came to shove.
I read this at the start, then rolled it up and carried it with me.
We started as dawn rose and the initial run down from the Acropolis being the normal chaotic chase.  At the bottom of the hill we saw runners come back at us, as they had forgotten to take the left turn.  I was concerned I was going too fast, so I stuck with Mark Woolley and Phil Smith for much of the early stages. Mark Woolley was also concerned about speed and as we slowed, Phil Smith went off ahead; I wouldn’t see him again until the early hours. I also split from Mark as he filled his water bottle
As the weather started to warm up I dipped my hat with its integral sponge in the checkpoint buckets.   But I soon found the sponge was too big and meant the hat would not stay on comfortably.  So I ripped it out and the elastic that held it in place.
Just after CP 6 I needed to evacuate my bowels and nearly end up on my arse as I stepped back into the remains of an earlier evacuation.  I blame Woolley.
A little later on a hill, I caught up with Mark and promptly got a bollocking for speeding up to catch him. We got to the marathon CP at 4:10, a bit slow but still well within the cut offs.  Mark gave me half of his rice pudding, which was very welcome.  Next year I will drop one here myself.
We were now going out to the coast road and Mark’s pace on the ups was too much for me, so I dropped back.  As I reached CP 12, I recognised it as the point from last year where I was warned I had only five minutes on the cut off.  Thus I was very happy to see I was 45 minutes up. 
I really was not focusing on distance and did not use a GPS watch this year.  As James Adams says, too much information fucks your head. 
Therefore as I went through CP 12-16, I was not concerned that my time against cut offs went up and down. Just chill and live with it.  I will soon built the buffer back. 
At this point I went past Mark Hines, who was suffering a little.  I offered him one of my homemade energy bars. He was very nice about it, but rapidly came to the same conclusion as me.  That is to say, the peanut and oat based bars were too cloying in the mouth, especially for the heat of Greece. I won’t be using these next year.
Soon I went past CP 19, the place where I was pulled last year. As my buffer was well over 45 minutes this game me a great boost.
I reached CP 21 and pulled my Vaseline and rice pudding out of the bag. Vaseline went down my shorts, even though I had not felt any chaffing and the rice pudding went down my throat very easily. Feeling great.
After I went over the canal and came into the big checkpoint I was over taken by James Adams, who shouted out that the scenery would soon get better.  I didn’t dally and left after commiserating with Peter Johnson who had stopped earlier.  My buffer was over 40 minutes i.e. on target. 
Corinth is a major goal and the heat had not been an issue for me so far.  I was dunking the hat at every checkpoint and pouring water over my thighs to keep them cool.  Apart from the energy bars the nutrition was working well.  I was getting to every third CP and picking up my bottle full of a weak mix of SIS GO and a gel and energy bar attached.  Every hour I dropped an S Cap and that kept my stomach settled.  By the second checkpoint after a new bottle, I was filling up with water in a similar fashion as when I did the Leipzig 100km in less than ten hours
It soon became apparent that James was correct.  The countryside after the Corinth CP becomes like Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire. As we came into the picturesque Ancient Corinth the runner in front of me stopped and turned around and started running back up the hill towards me.  He was then dramatically flagged back by someone in the village, so we both continued in down the cobbled steps.Sue and Lucy and a few others were there waiting for their runners. James Adams had just beaten me to the village and was getting a massage from Gemma. James’ stomach had been playing him up and he had tried to be sick earlier.Also at the same cp was Frank Witzler, a German, who I had met last year. Frank was going great guns, and insisted I told the race official on the CP the story of how we met. To cut a long story short Frank, with typical German manners, pushed in at the registration in 2012. On the Saturday after 2012 race Frank and I ended up drinking in the bar till very early. As I left I talked to Louis, a student doing an article on the race for his studies. He insisted on driving up the road to take pictures. Odd behaviour if you ask me.
As we entered the first villages in the Peloponnese proper, little kids came out asking for our autographs. The first one got a signature, but by the last one it was just a squiggle. I stopped at a corner shop to buy a can of Fanta and when I went to pay for it, the owner waved my money away and I got a freebie. I love a good freebie.
James Adams and I were leap frogging each other at this point. I recall grabbing him as we came into one village and kissing his head shouting “James we are doing the best race in the whole world and we are smashing it.” He reluctantly agreed probably realising my optimising was ill founded.
The Japanese guys had ordered pizza at one of these places and I begged in my best ill remembered Japanese for a piece, which was gladly given. As I went by another food shop Frank Witzler called me in and offered me sausages, like a true German, which I happily accepted.  This race was going so well and I was so happy.
Darkness started to fall and I was pleased that I had taken Mark Woolley’s advice to have my head torch at CP 30 with t-shirt. I put the torch and t-shirt on and moved off. About a kilometre up the road I realised I had left the document of my coach’s advice behind.  This was my first big mistake.
There is a slow climb to CP 31 and 32 and each one went well with me coming into the check points happy and overjoyed to hear the cheers of the supporters.  
CP 33 and 34 went past in a blur and then I entered CP 35 Nemea, 124 km into the race.  I walked in hands held high, shouting “Don’t panic number 53 is here.”  The reception was thrilling and I saw people I recognised who had pulled out covered in space blankets. James and Clare Shelley were there waiting for massages. I considered get one myself, but followed my coach’s instructions not to dally. As I got soup and a bowl of rice, the race official commented on how good I looked, I march up the hill eating the rice feeling on top of the world, little did I know it would fall apart so quickly. James Adams soon caught up with me and ran together for a while. I was so please to be running with one of the people I admire so much.
As we started on the downhill we over took more and more runners walking. Then just after CP 36 we turned onto a horrid gravel area.  “Clueless would call this Sky Running” posed a runner who shall remain nameless.
As we carried on James, soon speed off into the distance and I noticed a runner with a proper lean on. I looked across and saw it was Phil Smith who I had been sharing a room with. Phil was suffering from cramp so I offered him an S Cap. Why didn’t I take one myself?
The darkness was all encompassing now and I was feeling lost and lonely.  I could only see fellow runners in the far distance by the glow cast by their torches. I started to panic a little thinking I had taken a wrong turn and kept trying to bat the doubt away.
As I left CP 38 I took a gel a little too fast and this triggered a massive retch and I was suddenly very very sick.  Puke didn’t seem to stop coming, as I heaved a day’s worth of gels and several rice puddings up.
Don’t panic, don’t doubt is what I should have thought.  Instead I just drank water and hoped my stomach would settle. I knew in a few kilometres, I would reach CP 39 and another bottle, gel and energy bar.
I seemed to be forgetting everything my coach had told me about going to the bottom and coming back up.
CP 39 and I sat down to shake the stones out of my shoes and massage my crapping calf...why didn’t I ask someone else to do that? Or take an S Cap?
As I got up I asked for my bottle. But it was not there! What. The. Fuck. I had carefully labelled every bottle with pre printed sticky labels and placed them in the CP boxes myself. I must have got it wrong.  No food until CP 42 now.
Off into the darkness and the decent to Lyrkia village (CP43) and the next major check point. Why didn’t I fill up with the food at CP 39?
I was trying to run downhill now and it just was not working.  Why didn’t I grit my teeth and use the lesson I learnt on GUCR. I.e. it hurts to walk, it hurts to waddle, it hurts to run, so why not run?
At CP 40 I had 40minutes on the buffers. I tried eat a few bits and resolved to stock up using the closest thing to a gel I could find, the squeezie packs of honey. As I started eating this stuff I retched again, so I kept taking it in tiny pill sized amounts.  
My printed sheet with the major CP closing times on said Lyrkia, three CP away, closed 3:00, I knew this must be wrong, but it still screwed with my head. Why didn’t I ignore it like everyone tells you to?
My progress down the hill was getting slower and slower and I was overtaken again and again. Why did this worry me so? I should run my race not anyone else’s.
At CP 41 my calf was completely frozen and I just hobbled to CP 42 to get my rice pudding which I knew would cheer me up. My buffer was now down to 20 minutes. But 20 minutes was still a long time. Why was I panicking?
At CP 42 I sat down instead of marching on with rice pudding in hand. I really needed to do something about this calf. Why did I sit down, it was against the rules? I massaged my calf trying to loosen it up a bit. Nothing was happening and pushed harder and deeper into the muscle.  Just as I got up, the race official took my number from me. My race was over. It was 2:45 in the morning and I had covered 145 km.
I clambered onto the bus feeling very sorry for myself, to be greeted by Claire Shelly. We settled down to sleep on the long journey to Sparta.

All the above is just girly bullshit. I should have remembered what I had been told and now a week later I am so fucked off with myself words fail me. I was physically trained for it; I let the mental focus slip.

I forgot the most important lessons. After we reached Sparta, I couldn’t sleep and I got up at four in the morning to walk up the street I should have been running up later that day. I took a picture of the foot of the statute sat down and cried my eyes out.
But I now I have gotten a grip....because crying won’t help.
I have to get back up and learn the lessons this taught and get mentally tougher.
This race burns into your soul and sucks everything out of you.

I will be back!

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Growing a Pair

Most of the people reading this already know the history and details of the Grand Union Canal Race organised by Dick Kearn. To get a flavour take a look at the rather old fashioned website at GUCR.CO.UK. This sums up the race perfectly. No flash gizmos for doing real time updates of the weather or participant progress during the race. Even the results page is rather out of date, much like the Loyal Snail support van. The one thing you do see is plenty of pictures of past participants, and they are not the soulless indistinguishable professional pictures you see on the big corporate marathon sites. These are not pictures that been picked for their photogenic qualities or artistic framing. These are real people who have taken part with their name and year on the picture.

This, you see, is a real race for real people, runners and crews alike.

The story of my decision to run it goes back to last year. Two DNFs at Ultrabalaton and Sparta, coupled with meeting a bunch of English people in Greece put the idea into my head. I needed a + 200 km finish in the bag as preparation for the Spartathlon

This was to be my first Ultra in the UK and that contributed to the novelty. After living and running on the continent for the last twelve years, being able to talk to the crew and spectators in my own language was refreshing.

I had trained by doing back to back runs in a 5 kg weighted jacket. I would do four or five 25 km runs over a weekend. Getting plus 100 km in over a weekend was going to stand me in good stead.

I had a marathon journey getting to the start from Sweden, where I am working. Train from Sweden to Denmark, plane from Denmark to London Stansted and then a cross country train journey to Birmingham. This was capped off by a trek from Birmingham New Street, on a wet Friday afternoon, only to find the Travelodge I was staying at was in a different street to the address on the booking form. Admittedly the next street, so not too far of a detour, but one none the less.

I headed off to the registration and hoped to see Phill Smith, but his phone was not working. He could text me but not call. The miserable sod was avoiding me, a thought reinforced by his SMS calling me a pissed head for wanted to have a pint. Instead I accompanied Paul Ali and Paul Stout to the local hostelry. A swift pint and a bowl of pasta from a cheeky tattooed pierced barmaid later, I left for a good night’s sleep.

I was panicked on waking as Alan Rumbles had posted a picture of the start on Facebook at 5:00 am. I thought I had missed it because I had confused the time difference from Europe. Alan had offered to give me a lift from London, but had been delayed by the traffic. He still made it to the start, driving through the night, showing true dedication as always.

After a breakfast of champions, consisting of a Pot Noodle and an apple, I headed to the start and was given a lift by Phill Smith and a friend, also called Phill. Perhaps he was not avoiding me after all. We promptly got us lost around the maze of one way streets that is Birmingham City Centre.

The race was started promptly at six by Dick, briefly mentioning me for being an idiot and congratulating Mimi Anderson for running in the other direction from London the day before.

As I started off loads of people streamed ahead and I had a quick chat about the latest goings on in the Archers with Peter Johnson and a lady whose name I forget. The route is quite convoluted at the start with lots of twists and turns, but as there is a whacking great canal to run beside it is hard to get lost.

Although eighty nine people started, we soon spread out and you could not see the person ahead or behind you. The directions from Dick were perfect and despite a course of one hundred and forty five miles, they fit neatly onto both sides of A4. I had the sheet laminated by my beloved and kept it in my sweaty hand all the way apart, from the times I forgot it at the Check Points and had to return for it.

My pacing plan was the opposite of James Elson’s, I had cunningly decided to go slow at the start, go slow in the middle and finish off by going slow. Thus I would finish with my stomach intact.

I had a boiled egg after an hour as my breakfast treat. After the first ten kilometres I was settled into a steady pace and caught up with Laurence Chownsmith and Martin Illot, both of whom I had met on our disastrous Sparta attempt last year. Just before Check Point Two we had a cappuccino and biscuit, much to the merriment of Alan Rumbles.

“This is a nonstop race! You don’t have time for tea.” He decried.
“It is cappuccino”
I need my Coffee
Cool headgear n'est pas?
We strolled into the checkpoint at 22 miles and I refilled my water bladder a couple of Elite electrolyte tabs and took a couple of gels to suck on. The other two had raced off, but I caught up we were soon trundling along down the locks towards Warwick. Thirty miles in and everything was cool, I was even interviewed on a mobile camera, while running, by a competitor from Denmark called Martin who was “documenting the race”

I remove my hat and convert my neckerchief to a sweatband. Jeremy Smallwood caught me checking my new look in the window of a canal boat. He made a suitably cutting remark. Rich coming from a man dressed in Union flag shorts.

Check Point Three and I met up with Rumbles, who gave me the load down on who was where, while I hungrily chomped down a multitude of sarnies and drank a couple of cups of tea. I left only to return shortly, causing abuse from Stouty. I had left my directions at the foot of a table.
I was just about to reach 60 km, the time I usually mentally fall apart. I have no idea while this always happens, it is definitely my bogey time. This time it wouldn't happen. I was focused, I had trained well, I was refuelling with GU gels and taking magnesium every hour. At this point I reached into my pack for another gel. Then I realised that I had run out and not reloaded from my support kit at the last Check Point. Never mind, I’ll drink some water, however, that too was empty. I was so focused on talking to Rumbles and Stouty at the last checkpoint that I had forgotten to reload and refill. Surely panic would set in. Not this time. I realised that I could bum some water from the next people I saw. After a couple more turns I met Tom Meldrum who was with his crew. Half a litre from him took me to Braunston, where I met a Witch who magically produced water from the ground. Shortly after I bought a White Chocolate Magnum and Yorkie bar to refuel. Not ideal but a treat as neither of these are sold where I live in Germany.

At Check Point Four, 53 miles in and labelled Weedon (Heart of England) on the map, which disappointingly was not a pub, I was greeted once more by Mr Rumbles. I told him of my supernatural encounter and he told me that was why I had paid a tenner for a British Waterways key. They open the water taps along the canal. I still think she was a Witch though. Racers were complaining of the heat, but Sparta it ain’t. James Adams got my bags and we refilled my backpack with water and gels and I was on my way.

I reached 92 km and had to go along an uncomfortable patch of very uneven ground. This is when the negativity really hit me. I was feeling very sorry for myself with no one to talk to. I could have called Chrissy, but had promised not to call her until 70 miles. I walked and my feet hurt a lot. I was really tempted to call her and give up. But then I remember at 70 miles there would be fresh clothes and have something to eat. I perked up and started shuffling again. This was not much better, so I focus my legs to run and weirdly the legs responded. They could still run, OK not fast, but fast for me. It was only a little more effort than a shuffle to do this. “TOP FUCKING BANANA.” I shouted out as the sun was setting. “I can run. I can actually run after 100 km ” I might actually make an ultra runner one day. I ran the last bit to Check Point Five with James Donnelly and David Hegarty who kept talking about Motor GP. I am not sure why they were obsessing about Motor bikes on an Ultra Run.

At 70 miles while James, Stouty and Rumbles sorted food for me, I got changed into night gear. I took my shoes and socks off knowing there were large blisters on my big toes and heels. I did not have my reading glasses with me, so I could not see them in all their glory. I knew they were there, but I was taking Mark Cockbain’s advice and ignoring them. Alan introduced me to Cockbain, it was good to meet him in the flesh, as he had been giving me advice for the past few weeks. He told me my blisters would keep me warm during the night. He was right. They were a real comfort in the cold night.

I set off as darkness fell and walked for a little, drinking Red Bull to keep me awake. Dave Hegarty went passed me like a bat out of hell. Even though I was stumbling like a drunk because of the tiredness, I decided to start running again and it worked. I was running in the night, slowly but definitely a run. I resolved to keep it up to the next stop thinking I could sit down and closed my eyes for a bit.
I ran into Check Point Six and was disappointed to find out none of the crew would volunteer to wake me after ten minutes. This really pissed me off. Then some annoying bloke, by the name of Henk, started talking drivel. I know I argued with him and almost everyone else there. Not sure what really got my goat but I was swearing like a trooper at all of them. I left without a sleep and stumbled into the darkness. I tried to sleep at 87 mile point outside the Three Locks pub. By that time the cold was getting to me and my legs would not stop shivering. My feet were toasty from the blisters but the coldness start creeping up my body, so I got up to keep warm.

As I crossed over the bridge, I told a man what a bunch of cunts the people at last Check Point were. He sympathized, mainly to shut me up and helped me wrap my space blanket around me. I felt almost instantly better and started to shuffle a bit quicker. At no point did I think it was odd that there was someone on a bridge, at three in the morning, in the freezing cold, in the middle of nowhere. I do not think he was a hallucination, but how would I know? The legs warmed up and moved faster, and then I got two pacers. Debbie Gibbins and I think the man from the bridge. I kept up with them and then overtook them...I was flying and rustling like a man in a big pile of leaves. The local wildlife must have been worried that autumn had come early.

Dawn broke and I over took Lindley Chambers and Nici from his crew. He said “I am going to hobble it in Rob.” Bearing in mind he still had fifty miles and twenty hours to go, it is a real achievement that he did. I started running again and then almost immediately tripped over. At least it gave Lindley a laugh.

I reached Check Point Seven and got my Pot Noodle breakfast, served to me by two time winner Rod Palmer and his caring wife. They had a large tent set up with deck chairs and a full breakfast menu. I wolfed down a bacon and HP sauce roll and more sugared tea. While I was refilling my bags and getting changed into day gear, I got chatting to the chap recording the runners times. He told me about Peter Johnson prodigious appetite and that he had almost missed the time-out.

I wondered out loud “Why no one has done this in under 24 hours? Surely a really good runner could do that?”

“Dunno mate, they mustn’t be good enough”
I didn't know I was talking to British National 24 hour runner, multiple GUCR victor and course record holder, Paddy Robbins, did I? Talk about putting your foot in it.

He reminded me to get going or I would be in the same situation as Johnson. Probably to make sure he didn't have to listen to any more of my inane musings. I can’t half talk bollocks with no sleep.

I cannot remember much of Sunday or the order it was in. I recall that it was very pleasant weather, me saying thank you to all the people who said well done. The canal is an amazing engineering achievement especially as it is two hundred years old. How did they shift all that earth with no machinery to speak of?

I saw Sue Albiston, Becky and Nici, (Lindley's crew) and they provided sausage rolls. I saw them twice in fact. They were a laugh both times food and giggles keeps you going.

I met some people at a pub. No idea where. I used the toilet in the pub and scrubbed getting a pint as the bar was full. It seemed strange crapping in a toilet instead of a bush. I felt really good and the fact my Garmin gave up the ghost hours ago was strangely liberating. I asked a few people the time now and then, to ensure the reality was the same as my perception. I do recall, during one short walking break, after the pub, a conversation that went like this.

Passer-by “What is your sponsored walk for?”
Me “Walk! It is a Bloody run!”
Passer-by “You don’t look like you are running to me”
Me “I have done over a hundred miles”
Passer-by “Is that far?”

There really is no answer to that.
At Check Point Eight I was warmly welcomed by Alan Rumbles and Henk who I had argued with the night before. They took the piss as I clambered gingerly over the lock gate. Henk wished out loud that I would fall in. I didn’t care, l had covered 120 miles and was invincible. While Alan fed and watered me, he told me he knew about the argument at the check point.

“Listen Rob, they were only having a laugh and you need a thicker skin. You should be happy they made you run on instead of getting timed out. You need to grow a pair or give up ultras. This is not a sport for primadonnas.”

I had realised this by now. I had grown a pair. I had turned the balloons in my shoes into friends and kept the pace up. At that moment I felt so good. I called Chrissy and told her I only had twenty five miles to go. Less than a marathon and marathons are for wimps. She asked me how long it would take me. My mind might have been strong but it still could not do maths. “I dunno I might be finish by ten.”

I was over taking people all the time now. I think I saw Lindley crew again about now but it as all blurry by Sunday afternoon.

I got a little worried just before the turning onto the Paddington arm and instead of just running; I kept faffing about asking people the way. I was getting confused between miles and kilometres and ended up calling Chrissy. She checked on the map and told me to keep going and I would be there in no time.

I reached the turn and ran as fast as I could to the Harborough Tavern. Fiona told me if I kept up the pace I had shown coming into the checkpoint I would move for 32nd to 30th place.

Well after a call to Chrissy to tell her I had only 13 miles to go I was off. I did that last 13 miles in less than three hours. Nothing to set the world alight, I agree, but not bad for me with 130 miles already in the bank. I even had time to chat to Katie Hayden and her husband. Katie was walking to the end and John was her husband running back and forth with encouragement and refreshments. I over took three people and ended up 29th.

The finish was great, a big sign, a hug from Dick and that enormous medal. Pam Storey was there and we had a nice little chat, while I had yet another sausage in a roll. Dick asked me if I enjoyed the race, which obviously I did. I think he was referring to my abusive wobble during the night. I know that was because I was not a good runner at that time. I am now. I have learnt so much. How to deal with blisters how to run when your legs are tired. How to laugh with people taking the piss out of you, instead of being offended.

Dick and the rest of the people crewing were great. A special thank you goes to Alan Rumbles for keeping me going. Stouty and James Adams were always there as well. Gemma Greenwood’s smiles. Cockbain’s mental tips. The Palmer’s breakfast. All the crews. I must not forget a chap recording runners who was always there sitting in his comfy chair with his clipboard. Oh and the guy who took me and Jany Tsai down through the people pipe. They were all fab. A little song for them. And a special one for Henk. He might think he is a dragon but I now think of him like this

All I had to do now was get back to Sweden in one piece. Oh and start building the wall for Sparta. It is a marathon next weekend goal time 3:30.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Adidas Weight Vest Review

After listening to the TalkUltra interview with William Sichel, the renowned ultra runner ( Episode 24 and still available on iTunes), I decided to explore handicapping myself while training in order to perform better in races. A lot of people use tyre drags, but these are not practical for me. I travel a lot for work and a tyre drag is just not going to fit into a standard your trolley bag or even a suit case.

Although I have some ankle weights, William advised me not to use these in running. His argument is that you need to " be careful of the acute loading of the ankle area, the pull on the knees and the potential to greatly alter your running style/form" Which of course makes sense when you think about it. Putting lots of weight at the ends of your limbs is bound to change how you move them.

Ater masses of searches through the internet, I came up with quite a few options ranging in weight from five to twenty kilograms and price €0 to €300. Now twenty kilograms might be fine for the gym, but I am looking at running twenty to thirty kilometres in this thing, so that rules the heavier end of the spectrum out. Although I am cost conscious I am more weighted to buying a quality product that will last and is comfortable. The cheaper end of the market tend to have fixing straps that do not look as durable as the more expensive options. I visited a few shops and tried a few of the vests and choose this one from Adidas for several reasons.

Firstly the Velcro straps secure that the back of vest to the front, by wrapping over each other. These are more easily adjustable and more secure than those vests that have a piece of materiel that loops through a metal fixing attached to the side.
Secondly the weight is made up of ten one pound sand filled packages that you can remove. Thus you can start training with a low weight and add to it over time.

Finally there is a small pocket on the front to put your iPod and a few gels in :-)

I have done several runs in the jacket on the varied terrain around our house in Germany. The woods are covered in snow at the moment so it is quite difficult to maintain a good grip, hardly idea conditions for running with added weight which, potentially, makes you more unstable with it's own movement.

However, the jacket fits so snugly it does not jump about at all. I initially thought that the flip side of snug fitting would be chaffing. I hate having anything that chaffs my underarms, it really winds me up, more so that blisters. You never see me running in vests for this reason. Again the Adidas vest proved it's good design as the arm openings are so large and the loop over the shoulders so wide that no niggling rubbing has been experienced so far.

All in all a very good buy. Thanks for my prezzie Chrissy.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Rodgau 50km or 6P's

The purpose of this blog is to record impressions of my races while they are still fresh in my mind and I do not forget the lessons learned, as you will that is quite important. At the end of the Sparta post l outlined four conclusions, three of which were relevant to such a short race.

1) More speed is vital. One of the qualification criteria for Sparta is to be able to run one hundred kilometers in under ten and a half hours. My aim is to improved my fastest time at this distance from eleven hours plus to under ten. I have already found a training plans to improve my fifty and one hundred kilometer times. I will use these and get some good races in during the first half of next year. Getting under seventy kilograms and not using the phone so much might help as well.

2) More fuel is required. Normally I just eat what is on offer at the checkpoints, but a lot of successful guys use gels. I used to use these over ten years ago and they must have improved in that time. I believe I need to start training and using these in races to maintain the speed.

3) Better blister prevention. I can take the pain blisters OK , but anything that helps stop them has got to be good. I use Wright double skin socks, but will experiment with blister tape and toe socks to see what works best.

To address the first point I downloaded a 50km training plan from the Deutsche Ultramarathon Vereinigung (DUV) site. As I had already done a 50 km in 4:55 km I thought the jump to 4:30 would not be so hard. As I was 75 kg at Sparta in September, dropping the 5 kg four months would not be much of an issue. I also bought some GU Gels as recommended by James Elson and experimented with them. They had certainly improved in the last 10 years. The last time I tried them they were tasteless sugary goo that was impossible to swallow, now they come in all sorts of flavors. Regarding the blisters I had taken advice from loads of people and talked to the rep from Wrightsocks, at the Frankfurt Marathon Expo, who suggested a pair of Fuel socks instead of Coolmesh II model. I had also stopped smoking for over four weeks.

The Race
With all that preparation I was feeling very confident, despite the weather conditions. We have had snow and the temperature had not got above freezing in the last couple of weeks. We drove down on our very clear German roads and Chrissy kept me company until after the start. I noticed the temperature was a sunny -5, so the snow would stay solid under foot. The hall of the Rodgau Lauftreff Verein (RLT Rodgau running club) was packed as usual, as this is the first race of the DUV 50km Cup. It regularly draws the crowds and today was no different with nearly a thousand entrants. I saw a few familiar faces from the Spartathlon and some of the German ultras I have done.

The course looked clear enough and well gritted and I thought this will OK My phone was switched off and in my bag back at the hall. The race is very well organised and staffed by the members of the RLT who do an excellent job every year. Indeed it started quiet well and at 25 km I was under 2 hours 15 minutes. Now that is not fast for most of the people who might read this but for me is it very good. I was positively flying.That was when I started running into issues. The snow while thick on the good had not stayed packed and firm and was becoming more difficult to run on. It had not melted and turned to slush either. Instead the top centimeter or so converted to a soft sand like consistency that was very slippery and were sapping the energy from my legs, as I slid on every step.

I was also feeling the effects of lack of training. Yes I know I said I down loaded a training plan. But the thing is that you have to follow the plan and do the training instead of just reading it. In total instead of running 640 km since the beginning of December I had done only 186 km. Also instead of losing 5 kg since Sparta, Christmas had interfered and I had gone up 5 kg.

I tried to maintain the speed but as I went on I got slower and slower. As I tried to run faster the extra spurts only lasted a short while and hurt a lot. I was starting to feel the lactic acid build up, which I had not experienced since after DLL. The first 25 km was done in 2:13 the second in 3:15 making 5:28 in total. Nearly 30 minutes slower than my best time at this distance.
On the positive side I did not feel any blisters and I was rather shocked to see this when I took my socks off.

I contacted Wrightsocks immediately and they now recommend the Stride model to eliminate the hot spot.

In the end very disappointing., but completely my own fault.
Carrying extra weight Dhoo!
Not training Dhoo!
In fact Double Dhoo!
If you have a training plan stick to it.
If you plan to drop weight do it.
Or as the 6P's say Piss Poor Preparation Produces Pathetic Performance.

On to Pfungstadt in March.