Sunday 28 October 2018

West Yorkshire: Hubble Bubble marathon race recap

This week's race was a huge improvement on last week's.  Not only did I have enough sleep the night before, it was also a mere 2 hours drive away so I only had to get up at 6.30am.  Luxury!  It was billed as a Hallowe'en themed fancy dress marathon so I'd been to the party shop last weekend and bought this amazing outfit.  Last night I tried it on properly for the first time.  It was surprisingly comfortable.  As soon as I arrived I spotted a few guys from Penny Lane Striders, my running club.  I didn't know them (they're much faster than me) but we had a quick chat - they were doing the 32 mile ultra.
The timing chip was attached to a sort of ankle bracelet that made me feel a bit like I had an ASBO!  The start line was a 10 minute walk away so I didn't have long before it was time to get down to the canal.  Here I am at the start line.  As you can see my hair is fricking awesome.
I suddenly noticed that not many people were in fancy dress.  As in, less than 10%.   The last fancy dress marathon I ran was Marathon du Medoc, where just about everyone was in fancy dress, so I started to wonder whether I'd gone too far.  Oh well!  Too late now!
We started running.  It was nice.  It was a cool day, but sunny, which it turns out is perfect for running in a giant wig.  My hair bounced up and down as I ran.  It felt like a bizarre and possibly slightly inappropriate cross between Baywatch and The Little Mermaid.  The route was very beautiful.
After less than a kilometre, I was right at the back with a couple of chaps, who I think were called James and Paul.  We had a great time talking about running and all the races we'd done.  Paul was on his 97th marathon with a goal of getting to 100 by the end of the year.  He'd done Medoc 3 times so we talked about that and gave advice to James - this was his 4th marathon but his first one off-road.  The time passed quickly.

The route was a 10 mile out-and-back away from Leeds, followed by 3 miles out-and-back towards Leeds.  This worked really well as it naturally broke the race into four sections which seemed very doable. 
As we approached the end of the first section, there was no sign of last week's demons.
I turned around and started the 10 mile section back.  Not long later, I lost Paul (James had got ahead of me a while earlier) so I put on some music and kept going.  Lots of random passers by smiled at me and wished me luck or commented on my hair.  It was around this point two of the Penny Lane Striders guys went past me, in second and third place!  I ran past a sewage works, still smiling...  The sky was blue and the route was pretty.  I'd been led to believe that canals are hard/boring - not true!  I met a lovely lady called Hils who was 77 and had run 64 marathons and was hoping to get to 100 before she was 80.  What a legend.  I love people like that, so inspirational.  I hope I'm still running marathons when I'm 80.  I overtook quite a few people on this leg, as I ran through the water stations and up the (tiny) hills.
The sun finally went away and it started to rain as I approached the start/finish line before the second out-and-back.  Luckily it was just a shower.  I stopped for a bit of Mars bar before tackling the final section.  I was still smiling, still loving the wig as I set off along this final section.  I'd once done a training run along this bit when staying with friends in Leeds so I was excited to come across some familiar sights.  Sure enough, after about 4k I suddenly started seeing things I recognised. Round about now I saw James coming back the other way.  He was on track for a PB!  The two Penny Lane guys also passed me, now in 1st and 2nd place in the ultra, brilliant work guys.
I reached the turnaround point, had a chat with the lovely volunteer and then headed back for the final stretch.  When I was at about 40k, my mum randomly phoned me.  She didn't know I was running a marathon and had called to ask me what "dual factor authentication" was on her iPhone, but kindly chatted to me for the next couple of kilometres to keep me company.  This really helped pass the time and we said our goodbyes when I was about 1/2 kilometre from the finish.  Whilst I was chatting to her, I saw Paul for the last time, heading out on his final section.  Here I am approaching the finish line:
I crossed the line, about half an hour faster than last week and got given my medal and goody bag.  This is the first race I can ever remember where I was given my medal in my hand rather than it being put round my neck.  I'd never thought about it before but I missed the symbolism of it, it's somehow not the same putting your own medal on.  Anyway.  I put it on and had a lovely post-race photo taken.  Really enjoyed this race and the organisation and staff were lovely, I'd definitely do another It's Grim Up North event.
And then I went to Starbucks and had a cup of tea and got changed, and while I was in the bathroom I had a proper Hallowe'en surprise when I took my sock off and found my foot covered in blood.  I hadn't realised anything was wrong but I think I must've had a long toenail which cut into the toe next to it.  Not sure my sock will ever be the same again!  Luckily my foot is absolutely fine!

Saturday 20 October 2018

Suffolk: Endurancelife Coastal Trails marathon race recap

Sometimes I feel like I'm invincible.  I've run a dozen marathons this year, I've run four ultras, I've run all day in scorching heat, I've fallen in a swamp, I've lost half a dozen toenails, I'm badass.
Here's what I learned this weekend..

1) Do not go on holiday and do absolutely no running for the two weekends prior to your race
2) Do not work all week in a busy hospital and then drive for 7+ hours on a Friday evening
3) The night before your marathon, do not have no food until 10pm and then carb load on a Filet o' Fish and chips at Maccy D's (the face shows exactly how thrilled I was)
4) Do not arrive at your hotel just before midnight
5) Do not book a hotel room with a green emergency exit light that shines in your face all night and wakes you up 1000 times
6) Getting up after 5 hours sleep at 5.45am is not conducive to feeling fully rested
7) Stay in a hotel which is able to provide adequate quantities of coffee at 05:45.

Apart from that, I was absolutely raring to go!  Here I am at the start line looking absolutely thrilled...
The set up was pretty sweet - smooth registration, friendly volunteers, free Tribe bars, nice coffee van.  I picked up my number and listened the race briefing - so far so good.  I declined the (included) race t-shirt on saving-the-planet grounds (they were generic Endurancelife shirts) and felt suitably angelic.

There wasn't too much waiting around before we set off - first along a boardwalk section with grassy reeds on both sides.  The reeds were so high that at times I couldn't see where my feet were landing.  I found myself breathing hard - it takes concentration to run like that - and hoping the whole route wasn't going to be along similar lines!  Soon it opened out onto the only truly 'coastal' section which involved running a short distance along a beach:
The path then undulated through woodland, and then out onto the big wide expanses of open heathland with little streams running alongside the path.  I was plodding along, just thinking, when suddenly around the 10-11k mark I realised I was quite near the back.  The race was small (<100 runners in the marathon) and I couldn't see anyone else and that's when the demons set in.
Battling with the demons commenced.  "Why are you even bothering?" said the demon.  "You may as well withdraw now if you're already struggling...  You think you're so great but you can't even run 10k without huffing and puffing?  No wonder everyone else is already ahead of you".
I sighed and gritted my teeth.  This was going to be a long day.
The demon was only just getting started.  "You're shit!" it cackled.  "You might as well drop out at the next checkpoint.  Then you can go home and have a rest, you're much too tired for this!"
I considered my options.  I could put on my headphones and drown the demon out.  This does sometimes work, but other times it just shouts even louder.

Instead I decided to invite it in.  "Hello demon," I addressed it. "Can I offer you a drink?"  "A DRINK?!" screeched the demon.  "Yes!  I'll have a large glass of wine," it sneered, wickedly, knowing full well that I'd only given up drinking alcohol a week ago.  I rose above it.  "So.  What is it you came to talk to me about?"

"You're SHIT!" shrieked the demon.  "You're a slow, rubbish, useless runner and you're already struggling.  GIVE UP!"  I reminded the demon that I'd run two marathons last month and that I'd pushed through plenty of difficult races before.  Silence.

A few moments later, the demon screeched, "You're fat though!" I was taken aback, but calmly replied, "I could do with losing a couple of kilos, but I have just come back from holiday.  There's plenty of people heavier than me have finished marathons.  And there's no way that's going to stop me," I told the demon.

The miles passed.  The demon produced ever weaker excuses; I shot them down.  Nevertheless, I was tired.  My preparation for this race was suboptimal and it showed.  I tried to work out which of numbers 1-7 above was having the worst impact (answer: number 6).
The trail was pretty.  I overtook some kids doing D of E carrying huge backpacks and quietly swore to stop moaning about the weight of my vest.  At one point I passed a bunch of runners going the other way, at first I thought they were faster marathon runners doing an out-and-back loop.  A few said 'well done' and I thought they were taking the mickey before I realised they were actually half marathoners (hence why they were so fast!)  I missed my turn and added 1/2 a km before a kindly spectator pointed out my error: "You're meant to be over there!" -- oops.

At checkpoint 3, a lovely volunteer shouted at the top of her voice, "COME ON RUNNERS!  YOU'RE ALMOST AT THE CHECKPOINT!!! YOU'RE DOING BRILLIANTLY!!!" which was hugely motivating.  I ate jelly babies.  I plodded on through the woods.  As usual, it took until 30k before I felt sure I would finish, and after that it was (mostly) plain sailing.

There was a particularly unpleasant gravel section just before 40k at which I finally accepted there was no chance of finishing under 5 hours, followed by a horrible deep sand section.
If you've ever run on energy-sapping sand, you can imagine my joy to come across it at this point in what is now a very warm race.  The pièce de résistance was coming across a sign that said, "1 MILE TO GO" just as my Garmin ticked over to 42.2km.  So I'd run my marathon, and now there was a mysterious extra bonus mile.  Oh deep joy.  I finally finished in 5:23, almost exactly an hour slower than Berlin a month previous.  Terrain, temperatures and demons were all difficult today.

Mandatory finish photo (oh yeah, and the medal was TEENY TINY and exactly the same whether you'd done 10k or an ultra - a pet hate of mine.  Grrr!)

Drove back to Dunwich, had a shower, ate a giant portion of fish and chips and an ice cream, had a nap, then got back in the car less than 24 hours after arriving and drove all the way back to Liverpool.

I learned this weekend that I'm not invincible.  Here's a little piece of post-race wisdom:

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 soufflé?  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 ;)