Thursday, 19 May 2016

North Downs Way 50

Day 13612
This was a perfect race. Everything came together. It was a beautiful day. The scenery was jaw dropping. The company was excellent. The course was brutal. I finished in a time I was delighted with. My second race organised by Centurion, and they rightly deserve their reputation.
I had dithered for ages about what to do about transportation and accommodation. It was my daughter's first birthday the Monday after, and my wife was somewhat unimpressed with my planning in booking the race on her birthday weekend. We arranged that they would go to her parents in Claygate and I would meet them there after the race. I first thought about getting the train and camping, but logistics were all tricky. The nearest campsite was 3 miles from the start, so should I bring my bike, etc. Then my friend Sue offered me a lift to the start from home. She had run the race last year, and is a superstar of the greatest proportions. Once I'd considered I had to accept, and she picked me up from my door at 5:45 on a Saturday morning. Sue you are an angel.
We got to the HQ in Farnham a little before 7. I registered and Sue stayed for a little then headed off for a bit of Parkrun tourism. I met up with a friend Pete from work, a much faster runner who was training for SDW100. Soon James Elson gave the race briefing and warned us that the race would be more than 50 miles so no complaining! With that concluded, we trundled off to the start.

A horn blew, watches were started and we were off. The initial section was through wooded trails out of Farnham. The runners were quite bunched and there were lots of funnel points where we had to slow to a walk. I took all these as early opportunities for careful pacing. I ran with Pete for a couple of miles, but soon bumped into another chap Kev who was running his first ultra. Pete ran on ahead and Kev and I would chat away the next 30 or so miles.
Traditional Didcot Runners Jazz Hands
The people you run with can be such a big part of your experience. One of the things I had found odd about SDW50 was that I hadn't really got to know anyone. A big part of running ultras is the social element and then I had run for 10 1/2 hours largely in my own head. I enjoyed it but it was not what I had expected. NDW50 was to more than make up for this.
Kev was an utter character. He had not run more than a marathon, and was undertrained due to an unanticipated extended trip to Australia. He had bets with various people on the outcome, including his wife, who had promised to iron his clothes every day for a week should he finish. He had taken part in a number of crazy challenges and was being crewed by a mate who would turn up in a big 4x4 at the crew meeting areas. He was planning on running the NDW100 in August: this was really a training run.
We exchanged life and running histories and the miles flew by.

One of the extraordinary things about Kev became apparent a few miles in. He was an avid Twitterer and had an astonishing memory for names and faces. Despite this being his first ultra, he recognised almost everyone running round us, sometimes to their bemusement. Then, to my complete amazement, he started recognising other people on the NDW walking or running the other way. This was a bit spooky. I began to think he must have a chip in his head feeding him info. Pretty cool stuff. He did work for a satellite company. Far out.
The miles literally passed without me noticing. Every few subjective seconds my watch would beep, and another mile would have gone by. Delightful running. A bit before Box Hill we started encountering another group and particularly a stylish lady named Marina. We leapfrogged each other a bit for a while. Kev obviously knew her and the people she was with. And their pets. He loved dogs and gave every dog we passed a big fuss. Top man.

Kev and Marina
The stairs at Box Hill were pretty impressive. I think Kev was starting to feel it here. I also started getting some pre-cramp twinges and knew I would need to run my own race to get by. We ran with Marina some more on and off, and made it to about 35 miles I think. Kev managed to activate a speed sign for cars - 12 mph pretty impressive. However he was starting to flag also so with regret I wished him well and pushed on. I think this was the right decision as my legs fettled out and I had no more cramp signs for the rest of the race.
Continuing alone, fruit in hand
Running up another enormous climb, I paused to admire the view and saw Marina running a few metres behind me. She caught up shortly and we then ran most of the rest of the race together. Marina was an impressive runner who had strung together marathons on adjacent weekends a fair bit prior to the race, including Brighton, London and Paris if my memory serves. She had done a few ultras but not NDW.

The second half of the race was significantly harder than the first, undulating pretty constantly, with plenty of steps and tree roots to challenge tiring legs. The views however were absolutely staggering. I tried to keep up with photos but probably fell behind a little as I tired. I was so pleased with my fitness overall. I kept moving, relentless forward progress as the saying goes and felt strong until a couple of miles before the end.

Checkpoint time was minimised, in no way a reflection on the outstanding and delightful volunteers. Apart from half way when I did a sock change and re-grease, I was in and out like a rat out of an aqueduct. I stuck to firm favourites: watermelon and other fruit. I discovered cherry tomatoes - little juice explosions. A few crisps and cups of coke kept me moving. This generally worked outstandingly well. The only change I would make is to eat a little more energy dense food. I ate all my peanut butter and jam sandwiches by 30 miles and then didn't eat much else other than fruit. I did enjoy one of 33Shake's energy gels - lots of seeds and stuff you add water to, which was superb. When I bonked at mile 49 a bite of energy bar - impossible to eat at this stage but I somehow got it down - revived me for the last mile. However I had told Marina to run on and it would have been nice to finish together. For longer races, Ridgeway and others (?!?!) I will need to make sure I keep taking in fuel. Still nearly perfect is not too shabby. The other remarkable food story was Marina's sister who surprised her at a checkpoint with a box of pineapple. I was quite jealous, but then when she popped up again later in the race Marina waved me over and I gratefully filled my face with juicy sweet goodness.
As I said Marina went ahead about a mile before the end. My watch had died at mile 49 so I was flying blind timewise but knew I was doing OK. As the energy bar got into my blood I ran the last lanes into Knockholt Pound. Rounding the corner to see the Centurion finish I felt strong and glad. Not as emotional as some other races, but so full of positive energy. The crowd around the finish gave me a lovely roar in and I finished traditionally with hands in the air. 10:16:26, in the first half of the pack. Better than I could have hoped for. Marina met me for a hug and we got a picture.

Marina had finished a few minutes before me, Pete in 9:47 and Kev in an outstanding 11:15.
One I'd stopped I started feeling cold so quickly went to the hall with an amazing volunteer who got Marina and I hotdogs and drinks while we got changed.
I said my goodbyes, got on the bus to the start and made it to Claygate for the birthday party on Sun.
I loved this race. I think I'd like to do it again. I might even try the 100 one day.
Update: Kev had received some ironed goods on Monday morning, though it seemed optimistic that this would continue throughout the week ;)

Monday, 2 May 2016

Underground Ultra

One of my friends, Kirsty Reade, runs a group called Underground Ultra which organises events for those of the ultra persuasion. These have included supported 50 km social runs, shorter runs and training events. I have participated in a couple of these and found them hugely fun, inspiring and with good company.
This year I have almost exclusively run during my commute, as a means of keeping weekends free to spend time with my family. As a result of this, and also of not managing to make many races due to illness, I had not run further than 15 miles since April last year. This is a shocking admission for someone hoping to run 50 miles in a couple of weeks, and 86 in August. Something needed to be done!
Thankfully Underground Ultra came to the rescue with an organised run on 16 April, on the Ridgeway. There were options for 13 or 26 miles and I gratefully chose the 26 option as a means of doing a fitness test.
As the day grew closer the weather looked ok and a few days beforehand I convinced a friend from work Tim that he ought to come along too, though he only planned to do the 13 miles.
The morning of the run turned out very wet. It was raining continuously as I drove to the start at Bury Down. I was overexcited and got there first, with friend from running club Paul and then Tim turning up soon after. We stayed in our cars and chatted through the windows as it was so cold. Then it began to hail hard. We buttoned the cars up and others began to arrive. 9 runners eventually. Kirsty's partner Pete and another club friend Lyn were providing additional support at a couple of points on the out and back route. Two of us were running the longer distance. Everyone else would turn back at the halfway snack point. Kirsty, who was recovering from an injury, was going to run with Rob and I to the 13 mile point then get a lift back with Pete.
While we waited for the 9th runner snow started falling, and settling. It was bitterly cold. Tim was giving me pretty dirty looks.

Soon however we got started. It was, as is nearly always the case, wonderful to run. The setting only made it more memorable. A group of crazy people out on an exposed ancient road in Oxfordshire, running through the snow and wind. As we warmed up everything started feeling better. We had a range of abilities in the group and tried to stay together due to the conditions, though there was a definite head and tail. We regrouped a couple of times though when Pete met us with welcome flapjacks and hot drinks, and photo opportunities. I am the mug on the right with rave gloves.

After about the 3 miles the snow stopped for a while, and we only had to contend with wind and rain. The Ridgeway is set in beautiful countryside with views enhanced as it is raised above much of the surrounding land. We started to get sneaky glimpses of this as the visibility improved.
At the half way point most of the group turned back, though a couple stayed with us for another mile. then it was just Kirsty, Rob and myself. I have run this particular stretch of the Ridgeway many times, as it is near to an area I have lived and worked. I felt invigorated and hugely encouraged by how strong I was feeling, maintaining a good pace and chatting to my friends. I was wearing most of the kit I would be using during the North Downs Way 50 miler on 14 May.
As we neared the turn around point at about 12.5 miles it started snowing again, but only for a couple of minutes, to show us the weather hadn't quite finished with us yet.

We had a penultimate meet up with Pete. He and Kirsty would be heading home to get warm before waiting for us at the start, though there were some flapjacks and water stashed on the route. We thanked them and turned around fairly swiftly.
Though it stayed overcast for the first few miles, the weather and visibility steadily improved and we ate up the miles. Rob and I had done a few long runs together before and both had many ultra plans to discuss so the time passed easily. With a couple of miles to go the sun came out. I took off layers to run in my t shirt and Rob put his sun glasses on. What a brilliant British day.
We ran back into Bury Down in great spirits with 25 miles done.

 Team Inov-8

The back of my legs were like a tapestry of the various weather conditions I had been exposed to. This had been a thoroughly enjoyable run, and was a huge confidence boost. I did the 25 miles in what would have been marathon PB pace, minus the stops for refreshments. I felt fresh at the end and could have continued. This was at the back of quite a busy running week and the total mileage was my biggest so far, just, at 56.5 miles.
Just what the doctor ordered.