Sunday, 9 April 2017

Compton Downland Challenge

8 April 2018

This is one of my favourite races and takes place just 5 miles from my house. It links up a few of the routes I run pretty regularly and covers some tough ground. All in all it has everything I like in a race. This particular day was really sunny and approaching 20C which is hot for the UK at this time of year.

The course starts at Compton School and covers 20 miles and 1700 ft of climb. My friend Sue gave me a lift to the start, very nice of her as otherwise I would have cycled which I would have felt less like after the race! At the start we met up with a bunch of other Didcot Runners, Clare, Jon and Noel. It was lovely to see all of them and have a bit of a catch up with my old club. I also bumped into a lady called Max and her husband. Max is the sister of Marina who I ran half of NDW50 with last year. Max had been supporting her and offered me some pineapple chunks at a crucial moment of that run. I'd then bumped into her again at the start of Hampshire Hoppit and then again today. Lovely getting to know people in the running community!
The race started at 10 and it was already beautifully sunny and warm, though the air was fresh especially in shade. Perfect running weather though it got hotter throughout the day. First up was a loop of the school playing field, then off south of Compton towards the little village of Hampstead Norreys. I ran with Noel off and on through the first half of the race. I was trying to push a little harder to see what my legs could handle, but walked up the steeper hills and took photos. This is Noel.

Compton was his last long training run before London Marathon, so he was taking it steady.
The first half of the race is pretty undulating but runnable, but just before and after Streatley about halfway there are some monster hills which really take it out of your legs.



First there's a giant climb into and above Streatley, then a sneaky set of wooden steps just when you think you've recovered, then a bit after that a much longer and deceptive climb where more hill keeps appearing as you go round corners. It was getting much warmer by then too. I put my head down and marched up all the hills and tried to stay light and fast on the other side. My pace did drop a little in the second half of the race though.
The last big hill takes you towards Aldworth, here some very generous marshals had improvised a bonus water station which was gratefully taken advantage of. The third and final aid station was about a mile further on. I didn't carry any water in this race as even though I knew it was hot, experience told me I'd be able to manage fine and just to get on with it. It meant I could travel lighter. I also avoided coke at the stops, just having squash and water, which I think suits me better and avoids sticky coke mouth. I kept to handfuls of jelly babies and banana at the checkpoints and my energy stayed fine for most of the race.
After the last checkpoint I was on a bit of a grind, but just got on with it. When I reached the Ridgeway I got a big boost as I know that part of the course really well, and I could keep plodding on even though it was still very undulating.
Leaving the Ridgeway the course drops down towards Compton which you can see in the distance. There is one more little climb on the way which I had to walk, and a couple of people caught me here. Then it's just a matter of running through Compton back to the school and the finish.
My time was 3:24:07 by my watch which was a course PB of over 23 minutes. I was very pleased.
I waited around for the others and managed to get snaps of Noel and Sue finishing which was nice.


One of the bonuses of this race is that they provide lunch afterwards so we all settled down to a meal of sausage, quiche, chips and beans, followed by rice pudding and tinned peaches and lots of tea. Once we were done Sue gave me a lift home.
A lovely day out.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Stonehenge Stomp

I have dedicated the next couple of years to (relatively) shorter races and events. This is both to reduce pressure on training while my family is young and also to have some breathing space and recovery after a hectic couple of years of running achievements.
The first on the agenda for 2017 is one I last did 4 years earlier, the Stonehenge Stomp! This is one of the many and various Long Distance Walking Association events. Many LDWA events welcome runners and the Stomp is one of them.
Starting from a sports hall in Amesbury there are 10, 20, 30 and 40k routes, all weaving around the rolling hills and woods north of Salisbury and at some point passing near Stonehenge. If you are from a running background there are a couple of things to note about LDWA events: There is no official start or finish time. You simply check in and out of various checkpoints so they know where you are but there is no official time. They ask you to start near certain times to allow checkpoints to be open. It is incredibly cheap, just £2 which includes as many biscuits and cups of squash as you can consume. The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed. After finishing, absurdly cheap cooked breakfasts and cake are available from the sports hall kitchen. I love this event!
Both times I've run the weather has been wet and the ground pretty muddy. And both times I've been blessed with outstanding company for the run. In 2013 I ran with a friend, Sue, and the miles flew by. This time I ran with my friend Kirsty.
Kirsty with Stonehenge in the background
However before any of that could happen I had to get to Amesbury. You see I had arranged with my wife that I would go and assumed that I could take the car. When I asked her however, she requested the car. Small things. Fortunately both Kirsty and a friend Tracey offered to give me a lift. As Tracey lived much nearer I gladly took up the offer and also it was good to catch up as I hadn't seen any of them for ages due to not going to and then leaving my old club.
Much running, race, life and philosophy later we arrived in Amesbury! Registration was straight forward and there were a handful of Didcot Runners taking part. We had a watch show down. Interestingly everyone else was wearing a TomTom. My two Suuntos was a little ridiculous, especially when I couldn't get the HR strap I wearing to pair with either of them, and one didn't find GPS for ages. Tech fail. However this is what beta testing is for, and the two GPS tracks lined up beautifully afterwards, so it wasn't all bad.
Kirsty and I ran together the whole way, bumping into various friends in various states of navigational problems along the route. We ourselves took a half mile extension at one point but in general the route was well marked and easy to follow if you also paid attention to the written instructions and didn't just chat away the hours.
Kirsty is training for a Bob Graham Round attempt, and her coach had told her to go hard up the hills. This was different from what my coach had told me (eat all the biscuits) but I am nothing if not susceptible to being carried away with enthusiasm so off we shot at 8 min /miles. My brain kept trying to tell me that this was dumb and I would suffer later on a 20 mile, hilly, muddy course. Stupid, correct brain.
It was loads of fun though and we got properly caught up.
The fog had rolled in and we could hear the hounds calling...
I definitely slowed down later in the event, and had to have a couple of walking breaks near the end, where Kirsty kindly didn't laugh at me. (Ultra runner walking in a 20 mile event, ha ha ha!).
Before I knew it we were back at Kirsty's car, where she promptly put her clean trousers on over her muddy ones, then looked at me with confusion and commented that perhaps she hadn't thought that fully through. I got my bag, we sauntered back to the sports hall and finished the run. See. Bag first, then finish. Excellent stuff.
Then there were butties and tea and more catching up before Tracey gave me a lift home.
Great. Day. Out.

Friday, 13 January 2017

All the rhythms of the year

All the rhythms of the year.
Bright summer days full of light and heat,
Ever present colour.
Rich late summer evenings, warmth and comfort.
The colours of autumn, washing through the trees.
Cooler weather and rain coming now and again.
Mild winter feels like a gift,
T shirts and heating turned back off.
But when the biting cold comes and the days are short,
We huddle round the stove.
Dreaming of summer.
Spring comes lightly day by day.
Flowers and blossom.
Rain showers nourish and drench
In equal measure.
Light stretches and pollen fills the air.
All the rhythms of the year.
Bright summer days full of light and heat.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

DNF at the Ridgeway Challenge 86

27 August 2016

This one stings a bit.
My goal race for as long as I've been into trail running. It was inconceivable that I would DNF. I'd had two great ultras at 50 mile distance and was stronger than ever. It was my last big ultra for a couple of years so that I could spend more time with family and consolidate gains. I wanted to go out on a high.
There were a couple of minor issues (excuses...). I was in the final stages of writing my DPhil. For the couple of weeks before the race I felt fit to pop stressed. Couldn't relax. My training had gone very well with big mileage weeks but I didn't feel fully recovered - my hr was higher than usual too - by the time the race arrived even though I tapered for a month. This may have been also due to aforementioned stress. Then my race plan and nutrition broke, but I'll come to that.
A couple of friends, Sam and Daniel were also doing the race, though Daniel would start before me. The race has two starts, one at 10 allowing 28 hrs to finish and one at 12 allowing 26: both races have cut offs ending at 2 pm on Sunday. Both Sam and Dan had suffered from broken garminitis preceding the race, so due to my profligate Suunto ownership at the time I lent them both a watch. In fact three of my watches started the race!
My wonderful Mom came to see me at the start and at checkpoints for the first half of the race. She put updates on FB for me too.
Sam and her bloke gave me a lift to the start on a beautiful August day. We met up with my Mom who was feeling quite chatty, while I was trying to get deep into the race zone ;)
Me and Mom's dog Thomas
We took a few pics near registration, then it was off on the walk up to Ivinghoe Beacon for the start.
I'd reccied the whole route over 4 legs over the last couple of years, but had only been to the start once, on a misty day. It was pretty breathtaking to see it on a clearer one. That's Sam below in the orange jacket.

Race director Tim Mitchell gave a short race briefing, including the advice to go out slow or you'd regret it. It was a warm day but it had been hotter for NDW50 where I'd had a great time so I wasn't worried (that was 36 miles shorter though, note to future self...).
I chatted to a guy at the start who had done lots of races including Grand Union Canal, and was halfway through the Centurion 100 Grand Slam. He'd been out drinking the night before, was very hung over and thought he'd better not start at the front or he'd regret trying to keep up. I edged backwards gingerly out of sight.
Then the race started. I ran with Sam for a little way, but the sheer relief of starting such an anticipated event gave me wings and I skipped down from the beacon on the first section of the Ridgeway. Now I stuck to my race plan. The early miles were mainly 11 - 13 min/mile and I felt comfortable. It wasn't too hot, but was very humid. As I said the race started at 12 and it was a really muggy afternoon. I was dripping soon after the start, and stayed that way well into the evening. I didn't make any changes to my race plan because of this. Mistake one. Lesson - humidity is just as bad as heat.

I enjoyed the first stages of the race and chatted to a few people off and on. I mainly just enjoyed the glorious scenery passing by. For the first 20 miles or so you are up quite high with breathtaking views. It's well worth a visit.

The first checkpoint came and went without me really noticing. The checkpoints are quite erratic in this race, with some 6-7 miles apart and a couple over 11 miles apart. At Checkpoint 2 I made a mistake.
My Mom was waiting for me with Thomas the spaniel as I came in, as was another chap with another spaniel. He looked familiar and was looking at me expectantly but in the mid race haze I couldn't quite place him. Then my Mom said, "Look who's come to support you Ben." I took a better look, and still not 100% sure said, "Kev?...". Fortunately it was indeed Kev, who I had run 30 miles of NDW with. He'd come down from Milton Keynes to support me, the superstar, and I'd almost not recognised him. Kev you are a legend.

I then surveyed the picnic at the aid station and departed, forgetting in all the excitement to fill up my water bladder. Mistake! Capital mistake. Hot, humid day. 9.4 miles to next aid station. Whoops. That is probably mainly what did me. Other than stress and fitness and not enough grit.
By half way to the Lewknor Checkpoint I'd run out of water. I managed pretty well eating blackberries which also helped slow me down. About a mile from the checkpoint I met a gent who was dropping who gave me the last of his water. But I think some damage was done.
However I was still feeling fine and had no problems getting to the next checkpoint at Nuffield, where my wife, daughter and parents-in-law met me in an emotional scene worthy of many awards. Sadly I only have the following photo:

Where I look miserable and balding. Probably a premonition of what was to come. It was really amazingly nice to see my family, and gave me a big boost. The next checkpoint, Goring, was 9.5 miles away and halfway. I had a drop bag there and both that checkpoint and the next were being organised by my then running club Didcot Runners. I knew if I could get there I would get a big boost.
I really like the section from Nuffield to Goring and have run it a few times. There were some challenging climbs and sections through woods and one big descent on steps, which completely blew my quads.

Unexpectedly, about 35 miles in I had to start taking walking breaks. Now I had been walking up hills all day, but this was exhaustion setting in and it was much too early. Earlier than in either of my 50 milers. I was a bit taken aback. Fortunately this section is along a bit of the Ridgeway called Grim's Ditch and is very pretty.

About this time as well Sam skipped past me looking incredibly fresh. She asked if I was OK, and I said I was and that she should press on, which she did.
After Grim's Ditch there is a section by the Thames to Goring, which took forever. It was getting dark, I got half lost a couple of times, I was walking more and my head demons came on viciously. A couple of miles from Goring I met another couple of runners running the wrong way. They told me someone had told them this was the right direction. I told them it wasn't. They said they'd been told it was. I said it bloody well wasn't, but they could do what they liked. They came with me.
These two characters almost saved my race, and I would stay with one of them for the next 40ish miles. Their names were Andy and Tom.
I think we all got a boost from running together and made it to Goring in not too bad a time. Here I got an amazing reception from my friends in the club and sorted myself out. It was particularly nice getting to Goring as I had helped organise the checkpoint here a couple of years previously, which had really helped motivate me to sign up for the race. Volunteering is a good way to give something back to the running community, and get a bit of a look at what you might be letting yourself in for...
I had some hot food, had my second sock change (change socks every marathon kids), reapplied vaseline and charged my watch (not enough). I felt thoroughly recovered when I left with Andy and Tom. I had gotten on top of my hydration and felt ok.
There was one small problem. I couldn't seem to run anymore at all. It took a little while to figure this out as we all walked for a while to let the pasta go down, and then there was Streatley hill to climb. But it gradually became clearer that the best I could manage was a sort of crippled shuffle for a few minutes at a time. Tom was in a similar state it turned out. Andy was doing better and we eventually convinced him to run his own race and he did, and finished. Well done Andy.
Tom and I walked and shuffled on in our head torch bubbles. When we tried to run it was hilarious. We almost tried to film it. I'm pretty sure that for me this was the result of the humidity and early dehydration. I'd felt my legs go descending some steps on the way to Goring and they never came back, even though I got over the dehydration. It was funny and absolutely gutting at the same time.
As this time however I had no thoughts of quitting. I was prepared to tough it out all night and we had plenty of time.
If I hit the wall for the first time on the way to Goring, I hit it again before the next checkpoint, Bury Down. Tom stayed with me though as I grumbled my way onwards. We chatted more and it turned out he had run the first 30 or so miles with Sam! He said she had actually had a very tough race, not managing to eat or drink anything. We later found out that she dropped a little further on.
As I said Bury Down was also run by Didcot Runners, and I got another amazing welcome. Didcot really is an supportive club and I'm proud to have been a member for 6 years. In all the excitement I forgot to fill my water bladder AGAIN. This time it probably didn't have any bearing on the race, but it was annoying. One of my big lessons from the race was to be more disciplined in checkpoints.
After this psychological boost I think I then made it ok to the next checkpoint at Sparsholt Firs though things are definitely a little bit confusing over night. I found the night very hard, especially as I couldn't do any more than trudge along. Tom was great company though, and at some point we bumped into a lady called Sarah who we stayed with for a bit, bumped into a few times after that and who went on to finish in storming fashion.
Between Sparsholt Firs and the next checkpoint at Foxhill the wheels fell off further. It wasn't without its high points: I did my first wild running poo, successfully and without incident. The sun came up on a beautiful August Sunday.

However Tom and I were still unable to run, and walking was getting increasingly tiresome. I was struggling to take in any real food, and the checkpoints seemed like refuges from an inhospitable wilderness. All I wanted was to sit down and drink soup.
We managed to push on past Foxhill, but the distance to the next, penultimate, checkpoint was 10.5 miles. Initially I felt strong and Tom urged me to carry on without him as he was really struggling. I didn't want to as he had repeatedly stuck with me and lifted me out of several deep slumps. We trudged on, getting slower and slower. Sarah caught us up and overtook us for the last time.
Halfway in between the aid stations we both stuck our headphones in to try and get a final burst of motivation. I stupidly put my phone on shuffle and then had things like Coldplay snuff out any enthusiasm that remained. We had gone from walking 4 miles an hour, to 3 and were now approaching 2. Tom pointed out that we starting to severely risk missing the cutoffs.
Something in me just gave up. I tried to phone a few people: my wife (who was looking after our daughter), my Mom, who tried to tell me to carry on but I wasn't having it and finally my aunt, who was already at the end 11 miles away. My aunt agreed to come and pick us up at the next road crossing.
Ironically she thought we were further way than we were, so we waited at the crossing for about an hour, which would have been nearly enough time to get to the final checkpoint. Always go to the next checkpoint!
Anyway that was it. Jo drove Tom and I to the finish where his parents would pick him up later. We officially dropped, DNF'd, gave up. We met up with the hungover guy from the start who'd followed his own advice and not tried to keep up with the front runners, finishing in about 20 hrs and focusing on pacing, nutrition and hydration, all good tactics to remember. As I said Sam dropped a little before we did. Tom and I got further than anyone else who dropped, very close. My friend Daniel despite having some very tough patches, finished in just over 26 hours. One of my watches finished the race. Both he and Sam ended up buying the watches they'd borrowed, which says quite a lot about how good Suunto products are. Then Jo drove me home.
I pulled out from my dream race 11 miles from the end. There was nothing wrong with me physically, other than tiredness and stress. I should have carried on. I didn't look at the map for a couple of weeks afterwards, but when I finally did I was so cross with myself. I was so near the end. But you can't second guess these things, and I gave it everything I had at the time.
Lessons learned:
1) 86 miles is a long way, go even slower at the start than you think.
2) Humidity is as bad as heat, go slower than you think.
3) Follow aid station discipline, get water, there may be a long time till the next stop. Front bottles may help with this as it is easier to see and access them.
4) Take more varied food. I actually think I could have stomached snickers bars at the end, will carry some for emergencies in the future.
5) Don't listen to downbeat music when you're tired, listen to rave music.
6) If your legs are gone, accept you are going to spend a long time walking.
7) Have some people who will take a call from you early in the morning and shout at you until you carry on. I needed some real aggression. Only other runners/friends can provide this.
8) Only quit at a checkpoint, if you're in between just stick it out.
9) Don't run an ultra while in the final stages of writing up a doctorate.
10) Be more fit and less fat.
I'm taking a break from ultras over 40 miles for a couple of years, but my first one when I come back will be this one. It is a glorious race, and I have unfinished business with it.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

The first Hampshire Hoppit

19 June 2016

I am gradually getting caught up with some blog posts that have been outstanding while I finished my thesis, and one of the more enjoyable events I attended this year was the Hampshire Hoppit!
This was a new trail marathon and half at Kingsclere with the route on the north Hampshire Downs. I caught wind of the race on social media and it sounded just like my cup of tea. It was a month after NDW50 and would be good test of my recovery.
There were a few friends from my ex-running club (I recently decided to leave Didcot Runners as I have no time to go any more) and I met up with them at the start. There was a rather imposing hill directly opposite the start, and it indeed turned out that we would be running up this first.
I had decided to run the marathon and started at my usual mid to back of the pack. Both distances started together though, and this caused a fair bit of slow down as everyone walked up the steep hill. Things were further hampered by a couple of stiles. I would go right to the front next time if you are at all worried about pace. My first two miles were near to 13 min pace!
The views though were absolutely gorgeous and well worth the climb. Southern England at its finest.

There were a lot of downhills after the up, and I made some time with a few near 8 min miles. The course is in fact very runnable. Aid stations were frequent and seemed to cater to the ultra mindset. There was water, squash, jelly babies, flapjacks and bananas at all checkpoints! There was even coke at several of the later checkpoints. It felt like home.



There were a quite a few ultra crowd and 100 marathon club runners so I think the race organisers might be that way inclined. It was a most enjoyable outing. Near the end the hills and fast pace possibly told a little and I got some cramp and had to walk, but not for very long.


For the last couple of miles the course climbed back up the hill we had started on and then had an amazing, fast descent to the start finish. I finished in 4:16:12, a massive marathon PB. I highly recommend this race and plan to be back myself in 2017.


Icing on the cake was an engraved beer glass and free pint at the finish, though there was also an array of hot food and snacks to peruse.