Saturday, 14 July 2018

Oxfordshire: Race to the Stones 100km ultra race recap

Race to the Stones is one of the largest ultras on the UK calendar, with over 2000 people taking part.  You can choose to do either 50k in a day, 50k on Saturday then another 50k on Sunday, or 100k in a single day.  I signed up for the latter as I felt that both my London marathon double and Convergence weren't "real" ultras as the distances were arbitrary and nobody had ever heard of them.  I thought it'd be nice to do one that people actually knew about!  I also thought that my training for Convergence would see me through so I wouldn't have to do anything extra to prepare as they were only five weeks apart.  RTTS is held on the Ridgeway, recognised as the oldest path in the UK.  It starts in Lewknor, Oxfordshire and ends in Avebury, Wiltshire.
Lewknor is a mere 25 minutes from Bray, and Bray contains two of the UK's five 3-starred Michelin starred restaurants.  As people who know me will attest, I love a good fancy dinner, and this was too good an opportunity to pass up.  Bray is in the middle of nowhere.  When will I next be that close?  Maybe never.  So the day before RTTS, I went to the Waterside Inn dressed up in my fanciest clothes for possibly the most fabulous lunch I've ever had... Delicate layers of potato gnocchi served warm with asparagus, crushed truffle and a light coulis of artichoke counts as carb loading, right?  How about Warm raspberry soufflĂ©?  How about pink champagne?
For a person who suffers with GI problems, this was surely idiocy, but I didn't care.  

The next morning I got up bright and early and headed to the start.  The race is run by Threshold Events, it's been going quite a few years now and is a very slick operation indeed.  Everything is well organised, aid stations were well supplied, medics were on hand, the route was brilliantly signposted and basically they make everything as easy as possible for you.   I'd say it would be an ideal first ultra, except for the fact it was looking like a very warm day.  The forecast said it'd be 26 degrees and I started out in shorts and a t-shirt at 8am.  Hmm...
The route was very pretty: rolling English countryside, with a lot more woodland than I was expecting in the first 10k or so.  I saw a surprising number of people trip and fall on tree roots - must've been half a dozen - luckily nobody (I saw) was seriously hurt.

To my surprise, the Field of Dreams (the RTTS money shot that's on all their publicity photos) came up very early in the race.  I stopped to take a photo but when I later downloaded the (free) official pictures they had taken some far better ones:
The route wound onwards through the countryside.  It was very warm.  By 15k I could already feel a  hotspot developing on my left foot. 
 The aid stations were absolutely epic.  I've never seen anything like it.  The joyous array of fresh fruit was a recurring feature but each aid station had a different set of goodies awaiting you, plus water, squash, coke, gels, High 5 electrolyte tablets, plenty of toilets and medical support if needed.  I scrounged some tape off another runner and taped my hotspot, though there was nothing much to see.  I was enjoying having the company of other runners after Convergence and ploughed on.
It was incredibly hot.  There were a lot of cornfields.  There were also plenty of long slow hills to walk up.  Here I am after the first marathon.  I'd forgotten to take my Garmin off auto-pause so it's showing it had taken me five-and-a-quarter hours *not including stops*.  Of which there had been many.  Did I mention how hot it was?
Finally I arrived at the 44k pitstop, where I knew Ian was waiting for me with an ice cold Calippo.  I have never wanted a Calippo more.  I'd been talking to a chap for the previous half an hour about how great my Calippo was going to be, he was very envious, then when I got there Ian had kindly bought two Calippos so I gave the other one to him.  The only thing better than a mid-race Calippo is a surprise mid-race Calippo :)

I knew that I should just 'grab and go' but I wanted to tape my feet as my heels were also hurting by this stage.  Worse, I had an actual blister, so Ian got the surgical spirit from the car and I faffed around for ages dressing it and taping it.  I was wearing trainers I've worn loads of times before with no issue, my injinji socks and 2Toms powder - I think the heat meant my feet slid around in my shoes more?  I finally set off, only 7k-ish to the mid-point and base camp but it felt like the longest 7k ever.  I was hot, grumpy and my feet still hurt. 

The first thing I did at base camp was get changed out of my sweaty kit into my 'hot weather outfit' including stupid MdS*-style hat.  Then I laughed at the fact they had HAIR STRAIGHTENERS for the people staying overnight and doing 50k tomorrow.  Despite the fact I wasn't really looking forward to heading out for another 50k in a minute, I think staying overnight and doing it all again tomorrow would be even worse.  I had some hot food - there was a whole giant food tent where you could pick whatever you wanted. 
 *MdS = Marathon des Sables - "the toughest footrace on earth" ~250 km through the Sahara desert.  Not a race I've ever had any desire to do, and after today, even less so!

After almost an hour (!) I set off again.  It was quickly a series of relentless long uphills on chalky paths.  My shoes were covered in chalk dust and my legs were filthy.  There were rocks all over the path which I had to dodge or they jabbed me in my painful foot.  It was still boiling hot and the chalk reflected the heat.  With still more than a marathon to go, it's fair to say I was NOT loving it at this point.  
Finally I arrived at the pitstop at 59k, which had protein Yorkies: these were definitely a highlight.  I ate A LOT of chocolate at checkpoint 6 which gave me a sudden burst of speed!  On to some more cornfields!
I think this is coming into the checkpoint at 66k. I remember Ian asking if I was OK, and me responding that I wanted to take off my running skirt, set fire to it and then throw the ashes into the sea. I changed into my longer length leggings and took my rucksack and speaker.  A bit of Kylie would surely help cheer me up. 
It worked for a while but eventually the sugar rush wore off and I just felt really tired.  There were just infinitely more same-y hills.  My feet were really killing me, they just felt like one giant blister, and I started walking sections that couldn't strictly be considered hills.  It was gone 9pm and the heat was finally starting to go (AT LAST) but my energy was disappearing with it.  I never even considered quitting, but I was pretty miserable.
At one point I was half-running, half-shuffling through the woods on my own and I came across a large gathering in a clearing.  The adults were all sat at a big table carved out of wood in the middle of the forest drinking wine, and their Boden-clad children were hanging out in the middle of the path.  As I approached, the children started running alongside me, shouting in posh voices, "Just keep going til you get to the finish line," and "You can do it, I know you can!" and "Keep going, lady!"
It was absolutely adorable and it was the highlight of the whole day.  In retrospect, I seriously wonder if this was just a hallucination as it seems so bizarre and unlikely...

A few kilometres later was the penultimate pit stop.  I went straight to the medical tent and got them to re-tape my feet.  The medic put Compeed on top of the existing tape then taped over the top.  My feet looked like a total disaster area but I was really grateful.  She also had some freeze spray which I sprayed all over my calves to numb the pain.  The sun was starting to go down so I didn't stay long.  Not much further there was a really steep downhill - this was where I saw the last of the sun but I wasn't paying much attention as the downhill was total agony.  It's a never a good sign when downhills hurt as much as uphills...
I met Ian before the next uphill and he gave me my headtorch and walked about a kilometre with me.  The sun had almost completely disappeared by now.  It was pretty, and for the first time all day the temperature had dropped to something bearable.  Ian took the pic on the right of me disappearing into the distance (click on it to make it bigger) - I had a red light on the back of my backpack and another runner said to me later, "No wonder you're having trouble, you've got your brakes on!" which raised a smile.
 It wasn't long before night fell.  The final check point was at 88km so I just needed to hang on til then.  When I got there, I stumbled a bit, and a marshall saw me and said, "Are you ok?"  I said yes and quickly ate some watermelon and then left, feeling a bit shaken.  It's not like me to have balance issues.  I hoped there was nothing seriously wrong and thought my best bet was to just crack on and get this finished.  I was a bit scared as it was pitch black and I didn't want to get lost.
I met a girl and chatted and ran with her for a few km, which helped a lot.  Eventually she was too fast for me and I had to let her go around 91k.  I slowed down still further as the path was really uneven and at one point I tripped.  There were no lights ahead or behind me, high grass on both sides of the path, and I felt alone and scared.  This isn't fun.

Eventually a guy caught me up, but unfortunately I can't remember his name.  He was also having a bit of a rough day.  This was his first ultra, but he'd never even run a marathon before.  He'd stepped up from half marathon to 100k on the hottest day imaginable.  How hardcore is that?  In any case, he was hating the surface as much as I was and we agreed to walk together for a bit.  We ended up walking the whole of the last 7k.  I probably could've run a little bit more, but I was grateful of the company and didn't want to go it alone any longer.  Besides, the ground was so uneven it would have been dangerous - no one wants to turn an ankle this close to the end. 

The stones after which the race are named are a World Heritage site, so you have to run down to them and then re-trace your steps a further 1.5km to the finish line.  I had been warned about this final cruelty but the walk up to the stones, with people streaming past us back towards the finish line, was still pretty unpleasant.  By the time we got there, I didn't give a monkey's about the stones.  I didn't take a photo, I didn't stop and I barely even looked at them.  My companion said he was grateful there was only 2 of them as he was expecting a great big stone circle like Stonehenge.  Here's the official pic, as you can see I look thrilled...
We walk on.  Eventually the finish line looms into view.  I steel myself to run the last 100 metres or so and we do.  Ian is there, taking pictures.

I'd hoped to finish in 16 hours but it took me 16 hours 28 minutes, but by then I couldn't care less.  It is after midnight and starting to get really cold.  Ian gives me my hoodie but I'm still shivering so we head to the car.  I can't be bothered to do any stretches so get straight in and head to the hotel. 
When I get there I take off my trainers.  My feet look like this:
The next day I look at the results.  I came 349th.  Only 895 people finished the 100k continuous, and 98 of those were after the 24 hour cut-off.  A further 51 DNF'd.  And 34th female in my age category, out of 125.  Not bad!  The stiffness from skipping all my stretches and the state of my feet when I took the tape off were less good, however...

 The other thing that was interesting was the temperature data from my Garmin.  This was the average temperatures throughout the day:
Garmin noted that the highest temperature reached was 36 degrees - not actually that far off Sahara temperatures...  I drank over 8 litres of water and electrolytes over the day - which sounds insane but works out to approx 500ml every 2 hours, and burned over 6000 calories.  I've done marathons in high temperatures a few times, but they're manageable because you know it's only 4 or 5 hours and you're finished.  This race was really tough.  

In August I'm having a break from marathons - recovery is critical and after two big races in a row, it's time to put my feet up.   Or maybe just put them onto the pedals of my beautiful new bike, whcih oh-so-appropriately is called Ridgeway....

Addendum 1: I was right that having trained for Convergence, I didn't need to do anything additional to prepare for this one.  My legs just remembered what to do and got on with it. 

Addendum 2: I had no GI trouble all day.  Perhaps I should eat Michelin-starred cuisine before all my races.  Ian, please take note ;)

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Lincolnshire: Convergence Race 74 mile ultra race recap

I signed up for this race on 28th June 2017 - so it's been lurking around on my radar for a very long time.  It was my 'A' race this year; it was always going to be a tough one, and it was due to this race that I decided to get a coach: to make sure I trained wisely and was well prepared on the day.  Big thanks to Matt Buck of Running Adventures, he's been a star.

This race is a slightly unusual one.  A GPS tracker is mailed out to you beforehand, and you start from anywhere you want, at midday. You then have up to 24 hours to ‘converge’ on the specified finish line.  Each participant makes their own route. You can start any distance from the finish line, but the further away you start, the better your medal (provided you make it in time). All distances are measured “as the crow flies” from the finish.  If that doesn't make sense, more here.

I knew from the beginning I wanted to go for the Gold medal, which requires you to run 60 miles "as the crow flies" towards the finish line in the Peak District.  I asked my coach Matt to find me a route that wasn't too hilly and his suggested route started in Lincolnshire.  The weekend before the race, Ian and I had spent hours poring over Google Street View looking at whether there was pavement and working out all the tricky junctions, then the Sunday before we drove the entire route in the car, with me getting out and running the trail sections where possible.  I wrote a gigantic packing list, ordered all the food, wrote a km-by-km list showing where Ian and I were meeting up and which sections needed extra care and charged the batteries on all my devices.
The day before the race, I finished work at lunchtime and Ian and I drove to Stockport and picked up the camper van we'd hired for the weekend.  Some people might consider this 'cheating'; I suggest those people try running 74 miles, on their own, in an area they don't know, through the night and then get back to me.  The race rules specifically state you can have a support crew.  All the runners I spoke to did.  Full disclosure: none of the others had a 4 berth camper van with hot shower, toilet, microwave, fridge-freezer, gas cooker, Nespresso machine and a pull out awning with BBQ, table and chairs.  But I am perhaps slightly more princess-y than most ultra runners :)
The night before the race, I cooked pasta in the van and wrote a list of what I might want at each stop, and a list of all the food we had available for when my brain had died and I couldn't remember what I wanted.  The next morning, I put on all my kit, had fish finger sandwiches for breakfast and drove out to the starting point.  I checked my watch was working, checked the tracker was working and stood around waiting for it to be 12:00. 
 With the least ceremony of any race start ever, I set off from Bardney, Lincolnshire.  It was a cool (ish), overcast day, pretty much ideal running conditions.  The first 13-ish kilometres were along quiet, flat roads, it was the middle of the day on a Saturday so it was pretty quiet. 
My goal was to try to stay below 6:30 kilometres the whole time. I ran the first 10k in 1 hour 6 mins; the first half marathon in 2 hours 21 minutes.  Just before the half marathon point, my route went through Lincoln town centre:
... there is something very weird about seeing normal people going about their business when you're in the middle of running a very long way!  The route then followed the canal for a while before coming out onto a long, straight, disused railway section:
This section was safe, easy and boring as all hell.  Ian could only meet me once as the route was pretty rural and where it did intersect roads, they generally passed above it via a bridge. This was one of the hardest sections of the whole route.  I wasn't that far in... maybe 28ish kilometres, but it was getting warmer and I was hot, bored and still had stupidly vast distances to go.  I found myself counting and re-counting distances, getting annoyed that my route appeared to be getting longer and longer.  What I'd not appreciated is that the 'as the crow flies' distance of 60 miles remains the same whatever you do, but if you take even a step off the planned route, the distance you have to run increases.  By the time I met up with Ian at so-called "38km", I'd already run 40km. 

I like to take a photo at the end of all my marathons, and this was no exception.  Here I am - 5 hours in - definitely not breaking any speed records today!  As you can see it was getting quite warm...
Shortly after this, I stopped for my first hot meal, the ever-glamorous runner's favourite: Pot Noodle, which I thoroughly enjoyed! 

While I was eating it, Matt my coach phoned me so we had a quick chat.  I also changed into long leggings and trail shoes as I knew from the recce the previous weekend that the next section was pretty trail-y.  
It was well worth changing - the previous week in shorts I'd got a rash all up my legs from running through the maize and long grass (this was a public footpath!) this time it was confined to my exposed ankles.

Around 50k I had the first proper "runner's high".  I think most people, even most runners, find it difficult to understand why anyone would do something that takes 5-6 hours to start enjoying properly.  The answer is, because it's just the most joyous, ecstatic, wonderful feeling you can imagine.  It's hard to describe.  It feels like you're the luckiest person in the world.   'I Gotta Feeling' by the Black Eyed Peas came on my headphones...
 "Tonight's the night, let's live it up"
I was out in the countryside, on my own, it was stunningly beautiful.
"Go out and smash it, like, oh my god"

 I felt strong, confident and capable.  I was singing at the top of my lungs, sailing down the little hills feeling as fresh as if I'd just stepped out the door.
"Let's do it, let's do it, let's do it do it do it"
I skipped along the trail feeling the happiest I could possibly be, a perfect 10 of joy and serenity and satisfaction.  I'm actually going to do this!  It's not that hard after all!  IT'S A PIECE OF CAKE!!

There's a line in my favourite film (Labyrinth, 1986) where the protagonist says the above line.  The Goblin King replies, 'So, the Labyrinth is a piece of cake, is it? Well, let's see how you deal with this little slice...'
The next few kilometres were the only sections of the entire run I hadn't reccy'd, mostly because they were minor amendments made after the recce to avoid busy roads.  This next section was supposedly a 'short cut' through woodland, but I got lost a couple of times as the path wasn't terribly clear, which added another kilometre.  I was meeting Ian on the road and I could hear it up ahead so I knew it wasn't far away - but then I turned a corner and was forced to stop.  Despite it having been warm and dry for days, the path was completely blocked with water.  I didn't take a photo but I've found this one online which gives an idea of roughly what it was like:
There was no possible way of passing without going through the water.  Unlike this photo, the flooded section was only about 2 metres long, and someone had kindly thrown a narrow log across it so you could balance on that to get across it.  Also unlike the above photo, the water was stagnant, black and teeming with flies.  I considered my options.  Going back would add another 3 or 4 km onto my distance - no thanks.  I would just have to balance along the log.  I peered at the water.  It was impossible to tell how deep it was.  It smelled disgusting.  I took a deep breath and put my right foot onto the narrow log.  It was slippery and my foot started to wobble as soon as I lifted my left foot, so I quickly put it back down again.   Only I misjudged it, and my left foot landed on water, which obviously gave way immediately.  I fell, like Alice down the rabbit hole, up to my waist in deep, black, oily, sticky muddy water.  My right leg was still on the log, my left leg was sucked into what felt like quicksand.  I thought of Hampshire bogs where people get stuck and die.  My survival instinct kicked in.

I twisted around behind me and felt around for some solid ground.  Both my hands were submerged in filthy mud but I found something I could push off and hauled myself up, as if I were getting out of a swimming pool, grit pushing underneath my fingernails.  Somehow with the adrenalin and everything, I managed to drag my leg up through the sticky mud, despite the resistance.  I remember thinking that I would DEFINITELY have lost a trainer if I hadn't been wearing my Salomon's (thank you Salomon for your amazing lacing technology).  I stood on the side of the flooded section, looking down at my shiny wet leg, wondering if Weils disease was creeping into every crevice.  I was hyperventilating and panicked, and I knew I couldn't afford to stand still, so I took a run up and ran across the log.  I made it halfway before falling off again, but this time the water only came up to my knee so I just splashed through it and kept going.  I was so appalled at what had just happened that I couldn't even stop to take a photo, and bombed it up the path to where Ian was waiting with the van, hyperventilating the entire way.  It was literally the most disgusting thing that's ever happened to me on a run.  A few months ago, I'd done Devil's Gallops on the Mersey Riviera, my trainers looked like this afterwards:
... All I can tell you is this was so much worse.  I got to the van and immediately started stripping off all my clothes.  I literally ripped off every item of clothing I was wearing on the side of an A road, then got into the campervan shower and put it on the hottest it would go and scrubbed myself clean.  I put on a completely new set of kit, I even changed my armband, and left all my wet smelly disgusting kit in an abandoned pile on the grass for Ian to sort out.  This was a race-endingly terrible event, there is absolutely NO WAY I could've run another 80k if I hadn't been able to shower.  Praise be for the magical campervan! 
The next section was on long straight Nottinghamshire roads, mostly without pavement.  I actually went right past the place where I'd done the Longhorn ultra a couple of months ago.  I had my speaker on, blasting out 80's tunes which never fails to lift my spirits.  Having survived the swamp had also bizarrely put me in a good mood.  Ian took this fabulous photo, probably around the 60k mark:
I had hoped to do 60k in 8 hours (1 hour longer than it took me when I did Longhorn due to extended stops for food) and I remember seeing it flash up on my watch that I'd done it in 8:00:05 which was a bit of a boost.  So far, so good.  I don't really remember the next ten or so kilometres, but I do know that I'd stopped to put on high vis and my headtorch because by this time it was starting to get dark.
I was meant to have finished the no-pavement section by 10pm but because I'd added on about 4 kilometres by now, it actually took me to 10:30pm, by which time the road looked like this.  Walking was scarier than running so I just kept my head down and powered on, knowing I only had a little further to go before reaching glorious pavement in Bolsover (so glorious I took a photo of it).
Once safely on pavement, I started to relax again.  The plan had always been to stop and sleep for a couple of hours but I wondered if I could just keep going?  After all, it would be good practice for my next ultra, and I actually felt OK...

I ploughed on. I ran down a massive hill past Bolsover Castle.  I crossed the M1.  I passed the garage where Ian and I had stopped for ice cream the week before, and I'd promised myself ice cream when I got there today and selfishly they had SHUT, how could they?!  I took a photo of it to PUNISH them.  Not quite sure how I thought that was going to work, haha.  Anyway here it is!  Don't ever shop there!
Ian had driven on ahead and found somewhere to park that wasn't far off route.  I finally arrived there at 82km, at around midnight.  During the last few km, it had started to hurt running downhill as well as uphill, I felt really stiff and tired.  I'd been running for 12 hours and it was time to stop for another hot meal.  This time we had tortelloni and grated cheese.  I put on clean kit and prepared to set off again.  I opened the door and there was a blast of freezing air.  I stood outside the camper van door, in the dark and cold, and said, "I don't know if I should do this," and Ian said, "Come in and get some sleep," and I thought "I'm just soooo tired and I did always say I was going to sleep for a bit," and I just thought, oh I'm just going to have a little nap.  I got back in the van, climbed into bed fully clothed (minus my trainers) and had 2 hours 10 minutes sleep.  I took my Garmin off to charge it so you can see what an effect this had on my race:
The alarm went off just after 2.30am.  I got up, had some toast and coffee, put all my kit back on and headed out the door towards Chesterfield.  After a couple of kilometres, I reached the two marathon point:
It was a spooky misty morning and felt almost like all yesterday's running hadn't even happened and this was a new day.  I was still running, only walking the hills, and at one point had a chat with my coach as he was up in the middle of the night too, running the SDW100.  Around 4am I got into Chesterfield proper and it was full of drunk people, spilling out into the streets, screeching and dancing and yelling.  It was a completely surreal experience and I was quite freaked out by it - girls in mini-dresses and stilettos, teetering across pavements.  I tried to avoid attention (not entirely successfully) and kept going.  The road eventually gave way to villages: Newbold, Barlow, Crowhole... and along the way some absolutely stunning views:
 Dawn slowly crept closer.  I ran some more.  After I'd run around 105 kilometres, we reached the beginning of the Peak District.  Ian and I had come here once before to recce the route so this section was familiar, and it felt reassuringly close to the finish.  Ian parked the van just before the one huge hill of the entire run and walked up it with me to keep me company.
At the top of the hill it was really misty.  There were some horses which I didn't notice at first, then screamed when I caught sight of them, still as statues and shrouded in mist.
 Weirdly, literally a few minutes later, the mist had disappeared and the sun came out:
The Peak District is utterly glorious in the sunshine.  It was funny because when we did the previous recce, it was during the Beast from the East and it looked like this:
Today, it was like this, which psychologically made everything feel a lot easier.  How could I complain when there wasn't even snow blowing into my face and I could actually feel my fingers?!
I met up with Ian one more time and switched into my lovely new pink trainers (the ones that had given me the blister at the Liverpool marathon!) and my Penny Lane Striders t-shirt.

Unfortunately, due to my running addled brain, I got a bit confused between distance and time at the end of the race.  Because everyone is carrying a GPS tracker, I could see that the woman in front of me was only ahead by 0.25 kilometres.  I suddenly realised that if I picked up the pace I could probably beat her, so somehow I gathered every last remaining ounce of energy and started sprinting.  After running 119 kilometres, I somehow managed to make my last kilometre my fastest of the entire race (5:41).  I tore along the high street in Hope, dodging tourists and children, desperate to get there first, but to my great disappointment I saw her turn into the field about 100m ahead of me.  I kept going, thinking, 'maybe the finish line is on the other side of a field like Richmond marathon and I'll still have time to catch her' but it wasn't.  It was round the corner.  Ian was there, taking photos:

I love this picture, just look at my stride, you can tell I'm really going for it!  You can see the girl ahead of me magnanimously clapping me in, even though she'd barely even got off the finish line herself:
And that was it!  I realised later (rather embarrassingly it was much later, when the results were published) that the win condition for this race was 'longest distance as the crow flies' and as she'd run 66.76 miles and I'd run 60.73 miles, it wouldn't have mattered whether I'd finished before or after her, i.e. the sprint finish was totally unnecessary either way.  Oops... I did discover from chatting to her that she'd run nearly 12 kilometres less than me, as her route was a lot more direct.  As you can see mine had something of a kink in it...  I ran 74 miles total but only just over 60 as the crow flies... and 6.5km further than my planned route (!)
 My total running time was 20 hours and 1 minute, but according to Garmin my total moving time was only 14 hours 6 minutes and I averaged 7:05 per kilometre, not bad at all.  Surprisingly not as difficult as I'd thought it might be, and definitely learned a few things about myself along the way...
Huge thanks once again to Ian, without whom this race would not have been possible, let alone enjoyable xx