This is a brief report of the Piece of String Fun Run from James E and James A. A report and results page with links to James Adams' (co-RD) more detailed report will follow under the results section in the next fortnight.
Wouter Hamelinck, Belgium.
Sam Robson, United Kingdom.
(10 starters. Distance approx 115 miles)
The inaugural Piece Of String was designed to test the limits of the mind. When the idea of the 'finish' is removed, whether that be a certain distance away or a point in time, how long cane one remain motivated to continue moving forwards? We wanted to see just what would happen under such circumstances. This was more than just an experiment, however. It was a race. How do you pace yourself correctly when you have no idea how far you are going?
The applications we received for the event were beyond outstanding. We truly believe that never before has the average calibre of athlete we had line up to start, been seen before in this country. The accolades shared out amongst the starting group are too numerous to mention. We were not disappointed with their efforts during the race.
We had a predetermined set of distances to which the race would adhere. At around 11:45pm on Friday, we presented the runners with 5 envelopes containing 5 different race length options. Sam Robson was penalised with having to select the distance for all, based on him being the last person to send in a photo of him looking miserable - a crucial part of the application process. James and James as co-RDs were the only two people aware of the race distance.
Starting group minus Tom Jones out of shot
In planning, we had devised a series of loops around the Goring and Streatley area in Berkshire. Due to severe flooding along the Thames we were forced to make numerous adaptations to the course immediately before and during the event. The runners of course, would have no idea whether we had or hadn't done this as they had no idea where they were going or what they were doing.
The first instruction issued to the runners was to head west on the RIdgeway National Trail. They were told to keep running until they were met and given a new instruction. This was the overall flavour of the race. Each time the runners were met, either back at HQ or on route, they would be given a new set of directions/ map to follow, arriving each time and never knowing if they were finishing or being handed a map containing the next 5 - 35 mile section of the route.
As first light came around, 9 remained in the race. By early afternoon, only 5 remained. Those 5 looked unbeliebably strong and totally unphased. Wouter Hamelinck began the race by going off hard. He was clearly in the competition to race, not just to be tested by our lunatic plans. Sam Robson also looked like he was on a mission and was moving very well. Mimi Anderson, Mick Barnes and Chris Ette formed a group of 3 for much of the race.
The race began to split up gradually, before one incredibly difficult stretch of 13 miles from Goring down to Reading which took place for most as night fell, after 17 hours of the race. Wouter, who has competed at the Barkley Marathons twice, described the section as Barkley-esque, with much of the route under ankle deep water or mud and with some points that became tricky to navigate in this, the second period of darkness in the race. Before they had made their way back to Streatley after that leg, each of the 5 had received quite a punishing time out on the course.
Waterlogged patch of the course
Wouter and Sam ran on ahead, again down the Ridgeway from earlier. Mimi Mick and Chris followed gallantly later on but their race ended together up on Bury Downs, 9 miles west of HQ as they were simply too cold to continue on.
Eventually, both Sam and Wouter went on to finish the event, being met out on the course in the small hours of the morning, completing the undisclosed distance in horrendous weather conditions.
The exact distance, finishing times and awards are all irrelevant here. These two proved that it is possible for the very strong to continue to push towards an uncertain goal, even when that goal is an exceptionally difficult one of it's own right. Wouter is a running machine who quite clearly has the ability to do anything he puts his mind to. Sam battled fatigue to stay in the fight to the bitter end and should be commended for an extremely strong run.
As organisers, we learned a lot and enjoyed every minute of it. The race will be back in 2013. Stay tuned for almost no information to be sent out about it.
(note: I don't have enough time to look up a lot of stats and figures so some of what you read might be accurate and some pure speculation or rumour for which I make no apologies. if you feel you should be in the preview and are missing, or someone you know, the same, please leave a comment as usual. Thanks. James).
Although there are a relatively low amount of runners taking part in this weekends events, vs some of the preceding races this year, there are a vast number of feats and stories behind the competitors, many with significant achievements just 100 miles (or more) away....
The Winter 100.
We capped the field for this event at 100 runners (entry list here) due mainly to the conditions a 100 at this time of year in the UK, will throw at runners. We wanted the event to be safe and sustainable, but also a little more intimate than the other bigger sister races that have gone ahead of this one. Inevitably a few have dropped away as the big day approaches but the field remains full of talent from the front to the back.
The most notable runners in the pack are the 5 who are hoping to complete the Grand Slam by finishing this weekend. Kenneth Fancett, Tremayne 'Dill' Cowdry, Allan 'ogee' Rumbles, David Bird and Andrew Miles have all successfully completed the TP, SDW and NDW 100s this year. The buckle they stand to earn for finishing the Winter 100 will hopefully make all of the pain, worth it. Each of their journeys has been an incredible one with some very low moments alongside the ultimate highs along the way. Leading the standings currently for overall time is Ken. I interviewed Ken recently (transcript here) and at 62 years of age is looking to complete all 4 x 100s in under 24 hours becoming the first and only person to date to do so.
(Very poor photo, apologies. It looks much better in real life, and it's huge)
There is one other runner in the field who has focused specifically on the 100 mile distance. It's certainly not for anyone to feel undermined by the statistics behind Scott Brockmeier, finishing any 100 miler is a lifetime achievement and an exceptionally difficult proposition. Scott, however, will be attempting to finish his 24th 100 miler of 2012 at the Winter 100. Heralding from the US, he is in town especially for the race and to continue his path to completing as many 100s as he can within a 12 month window. His Blog is here.
As for the elite end of the field, we welcome back a few speedsters from previous events as well as a few new faces.
In the mens field we're honoured to have Richie Cunningham back down to race. Richie is a 2 time winner of the West Highland Way Race, perhaps the most prestigious and beautiful of Scottish Ultras which draws a superb field each year. A member of the Pearl Izumi team, he has scores of additional accolades to his name including holding the current CR at Caesars Camp 100 (a time which no runner has come within an hour of). He ran the NDW100 this past August but was unfortunately derailed to a 6th place overall by some navigational issues. One thing is for sure, for a runner used to training through the Scottish winter, the conditions at the Winter 100 will not worry him.
Also toeing the line in the men's field is Martin Bacon. Martin finished 3rd in the inaugural TP100 in a sub 18 hour time. He knows the terrain, has recce'd and raced on the TP and Ridgeway extensively and has plenty of experience in going long with a 30 hour GUCR to his name.
Nick Weston finished 3rd just yards ahead of 4th place as they rounded the track at this years SDW100. Earlier this year he also won the Kennett and Avon Canal Race ahead of the Montague brothers, no mean feat.
My other dark horse pick for a good finish is Terrence Zengerink. Terrence blasted through the TP100, his debut at that distance, in sub 20 hrs this past March. He was kind enough to run with me during Comrarades earlier this year, his 6th or 7th finish, and has a wealth of talent. He will certainly be one to pick up the pieces if things blow up at the front.
Finally there are of course a number of other runners with the potential to compete at the pointy end who we just aren't aware of. With athletes coming from the US, Italy, Germany and Sweden it could be a very different story on race day.
The ladies field was dealt a blow this week when Sandra Bowers had to withdraw due to injury. We wish her all the best in her recovery. With a score of fine performances behind her at the Ridgeway 85 and the TP100 she was almost certainly the favourite. The door is now somewhat open.
Lucy Clayton, one of our Centurion Coaching clients is going in to her first 100 with a string of fine performances behind her this year. She has won numerous off road marathons and ultras leading to a second place overall in the runfurther series and was one of the few to finish the Canadian Death Race over the summer.
Wendy Shaw had a very solid run at the TP100 and with experience at the distance behind her is certainly one to watch.
My wild card is Annie Garcia. It all depends which Annie turns up on race day, the one looking to enjoy the outing with friends and take her time, or the one looking to race it. If it's the latter then she has the potential to run a superb race here.
The Piece of String Fun Run
It isn't really possible to place a preview on this race for two main reasons. 1. Nobody (apart from James and I) has any clue how long it is going to be, so how can you possibly say it is going to play in to one persons strengths over another. If Usain Bolt was in the race and it turns out to be a 200 metre dash through Goring on the road, then he would obviously be favourite. If it turns out to be a 500 mile epic finishing in the Scottish Highlands, well then he'd be bang out of luck....
All that we can say (james and I) is that the calibre is absolutely incredible (entry list here). We're fairly certain that a group of runners as distinguished as this, without exception among them, has probably never been seen of an overall event field. Deca Iron, Triple Iron, Double Channel Swim, World Record holding, multi day and single day long ultra champions abound. We might just get a chance to see what they're really made of when there is no finish line in sight....
Follow both races live and potentially interupted, at the website here.
For those that don't know Ken, it is necessary to include a brief introduction to this interview. He probably wouldn't appreciate an overboard intro, however he most certainly deserves one. I contacted him recently as I was personally fascinated to gain more of an insight in to his running background, experiences, treasured running moments, training and plans for the future. With the Grand Slam on the horizon for over a dozen runners in 2013, this will provide some food for thought. Most importantly however, it shows us all that age doesn't have to be a barrier to successful ultrarunning let alone running in general.
Ken is one of 5 runners who are looking to complete the Centurion Grand Slam in 2012. That is the 5 runners still in the running to complete all 4 of our 100 mile events within the same calendar year. In fact Ken's finish at the Winter 100 this coming November will leave him as the only person to have completed all 5 of our 100s to date.
Ken at the SDW100 Finish 2012. A new PB and an incredulous organiser.
I often say it in race previews and he would perhaps not thank me for it, but the most remarkable thing about Ken is the level at which he is running given his age. His finishes at our races include 3 top 10's in 4 attempts, all 5 at least 80 minutes under the 24hr mark. His times are below.
NDW100 2011: 22:31. 5th Place
TP100 2012: 20:33. 18th Place
SDW100 2012: 20:32. 9th Place
NDW100 2012: 22:39. 10th Place
At the moment he heads the Grand Slam standings by over 8 hrs going in to the final 100.
He competes over the complete range of distances, from 10km to 150 miles - and his results remain consistent irrespective of how far he is running, or what terrain he covers.
Truly, I believe Ken is one of the most inspirational runners on the UK circuit and at 62, is undoubtedly competing at a level nothing less than world class.
The few questions I asked him and his answers are scripted below.
- What age did you start running?
I started participating in walking challenge events in the Mid 1960's organised in the first instance by the YHA groups. Then, after having a time out in the 1970's and returning in the 1980's, by which time the LDWA had taken over as the principal supplier of challenge events, I gradually progressed to running them. In those days the standard minimum length was 30 miles so they were mostly all ultras as we now define them. In fact my first event, the Ridgeway Marathon was 40 miles.
- When did you run your first ultra and what event was it?
My first event was the Ridgeway in 1966 (not completed) and my first finish was also the Ridgeway in 1967. They were both walked in leather walking boots. By the 1980's I was experimenting in lightweight sports boots, finally making the transition to trainers, but I have no record of when. The first event I completed that was unambiguously a race may have been the South Downs Way Race in 1994. (Nominally 80 miles)
- How many 100 milers have you completed to date?
I've completed 15 in the UK, 2 in Europe, 11 in the USA. Add to that one 150 mile in the USA. Then, if you count 24 hr races, 7 on 400M track, one on 1KM circuit in a public park, and one on a quarter marathon circuit on farm tracks. That makes 38 in which 100 miles or more have been completed.
- What has been your proudest running achievement?
Its really difficult to say but getting the award for being the first family (Father & Son) on the Javelina Jundred was important to me, although most people would be dismissal of it as an achievement in conventional athletic terms, it being considered one of the easiest 100 mile races in the USA, notwithstanding the warmth of the Arizona desert. But such a moment is precious because it is unlikely to be repeated, and actually is not as easy as people imagine.
I'm also pleased with the time I ran a shade under 144 miles on the track at Tooting Bec, with a near constant 6 mph. Also, I suppose, running a sub 24 hour on the WSER.
I'm proud to have been selected to represent England, but didn't deliver on the day, so I don't talk too much about it.
- Which is your favourite race (100 miler but also shorter distance)?
I haven't run the same 100 mile race twice, unless you count the Centurion NDW Race, and even there it was only the first half that was the same. So I don't have a favourite, but every single one has left me with some very special memories..
Of shorter distances I like the Ridgeway because I suppose it was the first event that I did, and I've now walked or run 24 of them, and I find the pacing very easy, because I know where the hills are, and I don't have to navigate.
I also liked the no longer existent YHA Peak Marathon starting at Crowden In Longdendale, and finishing at Ilam Hall.
- Of the 3 events, the Thames Path, South Downs Way and North Downs Way, which have you found the most difficult?
I suppose the NDW race in its re-creation as a linear race.
- Which one section of all of those races have you found the most difficult?
The section on the NDW race from Detling to Hollingbourne I found very tough both physically and mentally. Although it got easier from Hollingbourne I never really recovered and other runners were overtaking me.
In a different sort of way I found the section up to Abingdon on the Thames race to be wearying with lots of gates that were fiddly to undo in the night with hands getting numb. I can't exactly say it was difficult, so much as I was getting low.
- In terms of fueling strategy (nutrition/ hydration) when it comes to the 100 mile distance what do you use/ rely on to get you through?
Ideally I would eat real food wherever possible with gels as a back up. When its warm it can be extremely difficult to swallow dry food, so anything like rice pudding that can slide down the throat easily is good.
As regards gels I find the SiS gels the most palatable but heavier than GU etc to carry around.
- When you are training for a 100 mile event what is the greatest weekly mileage you reach?
I probably run about 50-60 miles a week average, but the amount will depend on what racing I am doing, more than what I am training for. I did step it up to about 70-80 before the Cumbria Commonwealth championships, and in retrospect was probably a mistake and I didn't perform as well as I hoped.
- Do you do much shorter racing and do you find that it acts as speedwork/ a help towards running 100s?
My instinct is that speedwork must help with running a hundred, but it is only an instinct, and I don't claim to know more than anyone else. I run in quite a mixture of different lengths. The races or organised challenges that I have run so far this year (as of 15th October) are as follows:
100 x 4
50 x 2
40 x 3
30 x 2
26.2 x 10
25 x 1
20 x 1
18.67 x 1
15 x 1
13.1 x 3
10 x 1
7.5 x 1
6.21 x 2
It has been proposed that those who specialise in ultra running let their speed drop, and that the best ultra runners are not ultra runners. However, the argument is sustained by study of track times, and it is possible that it overlooks a shift in talent from track to trail. I keep an open mind.
- What's the hardest part about racing 4 x 100s (or more) in one year?
If the races are evenly spaced out, and the runner remains free from injury, I can't see that it's any harder than running them individually.
- What goals do you have for the future/ Is there a race out there you've always wanted to run but never had the chance to?
I'd really like to complete 100 x 100M but I'm not likely to live or remain fit long enough. I would also like to compete in more overseas races, but I don't feel the need to compete in a specific race simply because it is famous.
There are some interesting races that are practically difficult for me to compete because of logistical difficulties in making travel plans, but I'm inclined to focus on ones that I can easily compete. Moreover, it seems likely that a lot more races will be created in the near future both at home and overseas.
- In your opinion how much does age count for in ultra running and particularly 100 mile running?
I have it on good authority that as runners age they have less burst, become more aware of their hearts being stressed, and tend to adopt a less heroic approach to climbing hills. This may mean that they find it easier to pace themselves and are less likely to be suddenly overcome with exhaustion in the later stages of the race. At some point the advantages of age must be outweighed by the disadvantages though defining that point may not be easy. At one time the greatest 100 mile talent appeared to be in the 30-40 age group, and more recently that appears to have shifted to the 25-30 age group.
I think what is really important is to see people of all ages competing, and that age does not become a barrier that exists only in a persons mind.
Also, I personally don't think its necessary for older runners to have special concessions in terms of pacing. That appears to me to presuppose that a person in the defined age group isn't going to achieve a podium finish and which I regard as negative.
Our thanks to Ken for taking the time out to be interviewed.
Finishing the Spartathlon is simple. All you have to do is run 153 miles in under 36 hours.
Nothing I had done could have prepared me for just how hard and how epic this race is. I am not usually one for making sweeping statements about races, but for me this was and this is the ultimate. For the first time coming away from a race, I feel like I have found that something I’ve been looking for. Mark Cockbain described it as a pure hard running race. I know now what he meant. Its purity & its difficulty are in its simplicity. It’s you vs 153 miles of road in a severely imposing time limit through the heat of the Greek sun. All other bets are off.
Trying to sum up how hard this race is tricky but I’ll try because I just didn’t get it until the darkest hours just before dawn this past Saturday.
What does running the Spartathlon feel like?
You start at the Acropolis in the centre of Athens at first light, along roads choked with commuter traffic blaring horns and pumping exhaust fumes in to morning air thick with humidity. You make your way out of the city and on to a coast road, past oil refineries and eventually alongside beaches lapped by an azure blue sea. You are 50 yards away but that may as well be 1000 miles, because all you are concentrating on is running sufficiently fast enough to beat the cut offs. The temperatures climb fast until by mid morning you are being cooked by a sun at first from the side and then from above. The roadside garages tell you it’s 35 degrees but with the heat radiating off of the tarmac it feels so much hotter. You pass the marathon mark completely unawares because 26.2 miles is so massively insignificant vs what lies before you – 127 more miles of this. The heat intensifies as the rolling road stretches out before you. Every 2 – 3 miles you come to a checkpoint, pick up a sponge from a bucket of water, douse your shirt, head and hat so that you’re soaked through, re-filling your bottle with warm water and heading off to the next point. Half way between the two you are totally bone dry and the battle to keep your core temperature down whilst you cover that extra 15 – 20 minutes begins again. When you can’t, your stomach unloads in an instant and you’re throwing up food and water you’ve fought hard to keep down. You pass scores of people doing the same. As the sun reaches it’s zenith you climb a steep section of motorway up to the mighty Corinth canal and make your way to the 50 mile checkpoint, the first major stop. If you haven’t made it here in less than 9 hours 30, you’re out of the race. 50 miles in 35 degree+ heat on rolling roads is no mean feat. You have over 100 miles still to run.
As you leave Corinth behind, you turn immediately in to more rural Greece, through farms, olive groves and vineyards, greeted by the ever-regular but lightly stocked checkpoint tables. By this time the scraps of crisps, banana and diluted coke are starting to look less appealing and you are counting the hours down until darkness will finally fall and offer you respite from the oppressive heat. After Corinth, the undulations increase, but you can’t slow down. Running everything but the steepest grades you make up mere minutes on the cut off times that force you to go faster than you would normally dream of running for a race less than half this far. When night sets, the full moon lights your way and you click off the miles and kilometres one by one until finally, at long last, you reach Nemea. A haven in the city square where you emerge out of the dark in to the lights and throngs of people – massage tables, hot food, toilets, mattresses on the ground – all luxuries you simply can’t afford to stay and enjoy. You’ve run 76.5 miles by this point. Everything hurts, of course everything should hurt after just under three back to back marathons – but you are exactly half way. Many of those remaining won’t make it out of here.
From Nemea the road climbs before there is some relief in a long downhill section with regular checkpoints and long winding quiet rural roads. The only things that break your concentration are crew cars trundling past kicking the dust off of the road up so you have to cover your face with your t shirt. It starts to get cooler, the smart ones have left a long sleeve and a light in a drop bag which they’ve already put on. The rookies didn’t think they’d get cold so their first warm clothing is way up the road, many hours away.
The heat of the day past begins to take it’s toll, the pace slows down, more walking is thrown in but you can’t walk for long because the cut offs are always there. At mile 95 you are presented with a trail of bobbing lights disappearing high in to the sky ahead, on winding switchbacks and later on a mountain trail – the spot Pheidippides met the God Pan on his journey 2500 years ago. This is Sangras Pass. You have to climb a mountain 100 miles in to the race before you may continue back on the road to Sparta. You climb up and up before you finally reach the base of the mountain. You’ve lost more time to the climb and the pressure is higher than ever. You’ve run 99.5 miles and you have over two marathons left to run.
The trail climbs high up the mountain, passing over the top and down the other side on steep switchbacks bringing you back out on to the road. The sun starts to come up and the heat comes back. Those weary few who’ve made it this far are almost all in a death march against the clock, to eek out those final 50 miles to the city of Sparta. Yet more will fall by the way side as the road climbs and climbs on what the veterans will tell you is the hardest part of the course. Only the most worthy make it in to the city limits and through the final 2 checkpoints, 73 and 74 indicating that 150 miles have been run, with less than 5km to go. Left in shreds by what they have gone through, less than 1 in 4 of the starting field, just 25% of the runners eventually make the turn on the main road and can just about make out the statue of King Leonidas in the distance. The final drag up hill lasts a few hundred metres, before all that is left to do is climb the final few steps in front of throngs of incredulous spectators, friends and family, to kiss the foot of the statue, signifying the completion of the journey.
As many people have pointed out before, Sparta doesn’t claim to be the longest, hardest, hottest or most brutal foot race on the planet. Indeed it may not be any of those things on it’s own, but it’s the most epic race I’ve ever experienced.
I started the day running alongside James Adams, vet of 2 previous Spartas, both of which he completed. We chatted away running at a reasonable pace and smiling at the angry drivers who were stopped to make way for 305 runners attempting the impossible. The early miles were pretty rough because of the fumes but we made our way out of Athens pretty quickly. James stopped for a call of nature and I carried on ahead running with Peter Johnson, veteran of more ultras than you could count. Allan Rumbles came past at a good pace and Peter and I let him go on, still whiling away the time. Checkpoints came and went and in the rush to waste not a single second of precious time, we got split up and I was on my own making my way through the oil refineries and eventually out on to the coast road. I genuinely cannot remember much of the first 45 miles. I was concentrating 100% on how I was feeling. I was aware the heat was high, higher than normal I guessed (it was), and maintaining everything as best I could whilst meeting the cut offs was my only aim. I wasn’t sure exactly where the marathon mark was by it slipped by in around 4 hours according to my Ambit. I didn’t have a plan but from what I’d read this sounded ok. At mile 40 my mental strength took a massive nose dive when the ‘Death Bus’ holding all of those who had dropped from the race already on it, rolled up and pulled to the side of the road. As I ran past I looked in and saw Drew, Allan Rumbles and David Miles all sat at the back of the bus. I couldn’t believe their days had ended so quickly. These are three of the most experienced, toughest ultrarunners in the UK, all out of the race before we’d made it a quarter of the way. I pushed on and tried not to think too much about their disappointment and what it signalled. Was this going to be an exceptionally hard year? I didn’t think this thing needed to be any harder.
As I got to mile 45 I caught Richard Webster. We latched on to one another’s pace, recognising that the heat was absolutely killing us and threw in some walking breaks for the first time. We rolled up a pretty horrible climb to Corinth, over the canal and in to the 50 mile aid station in 8:37. We had run almost the entire thing to this point in a decent pace and had just 53 minutes before the cut off. As we were leaving, James Adams rolled in behind us and we pushed on up the road shouting to him that we’d see him in a few miles. James caught us about 55 miles in and promptly informed us that with the exception of the three of us and Claire Shelley, all of the Brits were out. In fact it turned out that there were 3 other brits in the race who went on to finish but we weren’t aware of them at that stage. Lindley Chambers, Allan Rumbles, Peter Johnson, Drew Sheffield, Dave Miles, Paul Mott, Rob Pinnington, Phil Smith – all friends of ours, all with shattered dreams and so early on. Frankly it was pretty scary.
At mile 55 James started cramping so badly he had to lie on the road with his feet in the air. I gave him 2 S! caps and pushed on with Rich. We honestly weren’t sure if he was going to turn it around from there, shouting with the pain he was in, yet 5 miles later he had already caught us back up. Something should have twigged at that point….. James isn’t a normal human.
The night came and the heat finally dissipated. We ran along with James as much as we could before finally, about 10ks from half way we had to let him go. We were cooking along way too fast for Rich and I, although we were making up almost no time on the cut offs, scraping along at around an hour up all the way. We came upon an American runner at this point that turned out to be Glen Redpath. Glen has won countless 100s in the US, the Montrail Ultra Cup and finished in the top 10 at Western States, 5 times. If anything gives a clue as to just what sort of shape you need to be in to finish this race, it’s that Glen, a sub 17 hour Western States runner and Salomon athlete, finished with just 3 hours to spare.
We ran in to the half way mark together and found James sat eating a plate of rice. I didn’t want to sit so stood with him eating some plain pasta while Rich got a massage. After a few minutes I felt I didn’t want to stand still any longer and so began walking up the road with James. I told Rich I’d walk until he caught me. That was a mistake as I ended up walking almost 4 miles before finally deciding to get on with running. James was miles up the road by that stage and I was starting to get cold. Eventually I learned Rich dropped at mile 85 throwing up and devoid of energy.
I still felt ok, by pushing on through Nemea I’d bought another 30 mins vs the cut offs despite walking so I was doing ok. But I had packed my long sleeve in the drop bag for mile 99 and pretty quickly I was shivering uncontrollably. I had to force myself to run at least 500m in every km despite the grade, to stay warm enough. I knew my race was unravelling right in front of me for such tiny things as a long sleeve and having gone a bit too fast (maybe less than 30 secs per mile) in both the heat of the previous day and between miles 60 and 70 with James. That really was it, the difference between finishing and not. Sure I could have been more rested, not run UTMB, focused more on the roads but I was in good shape and had looked after myself pretty well. The margins for error here are minute. As Richard Felton of @ukrunrambles said, I might be able to walk out a bad day, but not with those cut offs.
When I got to the base of the climb at mile 95 I couldn’t hold anything down any longer and began puking pretty hard on the road. I quickly emptied my stomach, ate a Jet Blackberry Gu and threw that straight back up. I tried to rally and run some but now there was no fuel I was struggling. The pitch increased and my pace dropped further and further. At the next 3 CPs over a distance of 7 kms I lost 55 minutes against the cuts as I staggered up the road at 25 minute mile pace. Eventually I had to stop and sit on the road just to try and get my stomach to settle but I was too cold. I got to the base of the mountain, mile 99 in 21 hours and 35 minutes. The cut off there was 22 hours 10 so I had plenty of time still in the bank but the climb ahead was long and I couldn’t go any further without holding something down. I took a baguette off of the table at the checkpoint and couldn’t swallow any of it. In the end I repeatedly puked bile in to the bucket there and got all my clothes on to try and make what I could of the trail climb up and over the mountain. It took my 25 minutes to feel like I could even stand up out of there, by now I knew I had just 10 minutes left and the guy at the CP had already warned my I needed to get going. I simply had to keep food down at that checkpoint otherwise I just wasn’t going to be able to move at a pace sufficient enough to stay warm and in front of the cuts.
I left the checkpoint and went up the trail. On the first switchback I puked and sat on a rock. I thought about what I’d done and what lay ahead. Whether the pace I could go was going to be enough to get me to the cut at the mountain top, down at the bottom and whether I could sustain 4mph to the finish 53 miles further down the road and through the heat of another day. This was a bad call because at that moment there was no chance. There is of course, always a chance you can turn things around – and that’s the crux of this whole race. The cuts don’t allow you that glimmer of hope. Trying to rally to climb the hill the CP below me closed and the final runners were visible to me. That was the proverbial nail in the coffin. Puking shivering and climbing chronically slowly the cut offs erased hope and chance. Instead of dropping up the top by missing the cut, I turned around and made the few hundred metres back to the CP.
The Death bus was already in situ and there in the front seat was Rich. He looked awful, and immediately got off once I had got on to empty his stomach on to the road. We waited for a good number of people to come in to the CP who had missed the cut climbing the hill and headed on a 2 hour drive to Sparta. We stopped regularly letting people off to be sick and for the driver to splash water on his face as he was falling asleep at the wheel. It was 6am.
So that was it. I wasn’t actually that disappointed, because I gave everything I had to the road and the race – and I wasn’t good enough.
Around 10 hours later James kissed Leonidas’ foot for the third time. An astounding performance perhaps for anyone other than James.
Here are the lessons I learned. I needed to commit 100% to this race. Yes we had a hot year which led to the lowest finishing rate ever 20% or 70 out of 305, but you can’t focus your efforts on other ultras/ 100s in the lead up to this event and running UTMB was a factor for sure. You need to be at the top of your game, fresh, rested and totally totally focused on finishing. Rich like me had raced too much and we paid. We were good enough to finish this thing with better prep, that hurts a little but guess what, there is always next year.
Finishing is everything. The best athletes in the world come here to finish, not to race. Mike Arnstein – Vermont 100 winner, 4th place Leadville, sub 14 hour 100 miler & Oz Pearlman, 5:30 50 miler and multiple ultra winner DNF’d last year and came back this year to finish and ran a 33 hour. It’s that hard. The winning time this year was 25:30. Lizzy Hawker, the world record holder for 24 hrs, broke the 30 year course record with a 27 hour run. Way to do it for the UK. The Brits might have disappointed on the whole but nobody can hold a candle to Lizzy.
9:30 for 50 miles or 22:10 for 100 miles in the heat are tight cuts. It’s there in plain English and it looks do-able, but any one of those efforts would be respectable on their own merit. This isn’t a flat race. There were 6000feet of climb in the 100 miles I ran of it. But there is still a mountain pass and another huge road climb after that point.
So how to sum this up. If you are looking for the ultimate foot race this is it. Sure it doesn’t travel around a beautiful alpine mountain pass, you can’t float along a bed of pine needles down a North Californian wilderness trail, you won’t see any deeply interesting cultural, religious sites or get mobbed by roads lined with 1000s of spectators. But you will find out just what a hard running race really is.
I am so happy I found this now not some point later down the line. If you have the chance to start this race then do it. It’ll change your outlook on this wonderful sport forever.
I will be back next year and if I am good enough to finish, it’ll be the my greatest running achievement by a country mile.
Finally, for all those interested, who ask the question and who can’t believe the answer. Is this harder than Badwater? Badwater doesn’t even come close.
This years UTMB again suffered at the hands of the weather. To say that there was disappointment when the organisers announced on just 10hrs prior to race start that the course would be dramatically altered, would be an understatement, but the mountain rules the roost and we have to respect that sometimes we're allowed to pass whereas other times the door is firmly closed.
The weather around Mont Blanc in the week leading up to the race had been fine with clear skies and warm temps. That changed Wednesday night and when we got in to town Thursday lunchtime it was raining hard. In 2010, I started the race with 2300 other runners only to be pulled out at the first major checkpoint, St. Gervais at mile 13, because a mud slide had wiped out the trail higher up the first major pass. Despite the rain, I didn't think for one minute that there would be enough of a reason for the organisers to think of changing things again, but that rain was accompanied by freezing temperatures and high winds. The Cols and trails up and over them (of which there are numerous above 2000m) are incredibly exposed. It simply wasn't safe to let us go up there over the course of Friday/ Saturday so the news came down that much like 2010, there would be a UTMB but it would be a revised course.
The organisation decided that any route would have to stay below 2000m and thus built one that made use of the first 25 miles of the traditional UTMB course, before switching back around after La Balme and linking up to the TDS course (race was run on Thursday so no TDS runners would be out there) and then what quite frankly was a contrived 4 mile road climb out of Les Houches to get us back on some mid level trails on the Brevent side of the valley, running all the way along to the Col De Montets which is the head of the Chamonix Valley and then back down through Argentiere to the finish in Chamonix, making use of the last 6 miles of the CCC route. If you haven't been here before that'll all read like the last chapter of a Brief History of Time, however it'll make sense to some of you I'm sure. It was amazing that they were able to alter the course so drastically and still lay on a flawless event for us.
It did briefly cross my mind not to start, but only briefly. I have an entry for the Spartathlon in 4 weeks time, and it was always going to be a push to do both, certainly to do both well. Given that this new course was 104km with circa 18,000 ft of climb though, I could look at it as a late long training run. That and I've been training my ass off on every bit of hill I could find for the last 2 months to prepare adequately for what is undoubtedly one of the hardest races in the world. This is still Chamonix and whichever trails they gave us to race on would provide a stern test so we all made the decision to get on with it.
There was/ is a huge group of UK runners out here this year and everyone was visibly deflated on Friday at the news. It was almost surreal, going through it all again after working so hard to train and plan right. I just couldn't get excited about the new course and felt in a bit of a funk about it all. 104ks and 18,000 ft of climb (36,000 elevation change all told) is no stroll in the park so we still had to get our heads on straight to tackle what we had been given to run.
We lined up in the main square behind the start line an hour out from race start: Robbie Britton (1st at the 2011 NDW100, 2nd at the 2012 TP100), Mark Collinson (1st SDW 2010, 3rd NDW100 2011), Luke Carmichael (SDW100 finisher and multi day superstar), Paul Bennett (3rd NDW50 2011 amongst many other things) and me. A very good group of UK runners (and me) raring to go.
Startline. Photo: Luke Carmichael.
More and more people hopped the barriers making it impossible to stand comfortably and just as we were about to burst, just 3 minutes before the 7pm start time, the winner of the CCC (100km sister event to the UTMB) came across the line to see 2300 people cheering him on from the other side, which must quite frankly have been an incredible moment for him.
When the gun went, we had the usual deal of stop start as we exited the town through the huge crowds but it is an incredible atmosphere every time. With the reduced distance I was quite prepared to just go for it. I said to Robbie before we started that I expected to see us throw down some 6 minute miles on the 5 mile flat trail section to Les Houches and I wasn't disappointed. Once we cleared the crowd we tore down the trail. What with starting behind 500 people we didn't get to the first CP anywhere near the front but we had clear air on the first climb up to Le Delevret and promptly broke in to part running/ part power hiking the 900m ascent before dropping down in to the 13 mile CP at St Gervais. I had stopped to put my waterproof trousers on already in the rain and saw Sam Robson (2nd at this years SDW100) go past me half way up the climb. We made St Gervais in 2:24, I was running alongside Meghan Arbogast one of the elite women runners and was directly behind Jez Bragg of the UK (winner of the 2010 shortened course) who promptly pulled over to course control and dropped form the race. I don't yet know why but he was probably 30 minutes behind where he wanted to be already by that stage.
After St Gervais the UTMB and this years course climbs steadily up to the town of Les Contamines at mile 19, then on to Notre Dame de la Gorge and then up the steep pitches to La Balme. All in all the climb is around 12 miles and though some of it is very runnable the bottom section of La Balme, is not. I was in trouble by Les Contamines, because I'd had three layers on from the start, raced hard and sweated under the jacket and was now wet through both inside and out. I was dehydrated but I sorted the water/ food issue out and carried on the climb to La Balme feeling a little better. I passed Sam again at this point struggling with his own stomach problems as we went higher in to the falling snow. It either rained or snowed for all but the last 3hrs of my race.
From la Balme mile 25 we cut off of the UTMB course for good and instead climbed to the Col de Joly which was a little technical in places and covered in snow.
Col Du Joly. Photo: Luke Carmichael.
I was freezing but moving well so I staved off any issues as we dropped off of the climb on a very fast dirt trail all the way back down to Les Contamines retour, mile 32. I made it there in 7:22, so I was quite sure I could finish the course in under 15 hours if I stayed on top of things.
From Les Contamines the course deviated on to the TDS route down to Les Houches. We climbed 2 or 3 steep woodland trails before we got one of two very testing climbs, up to Bellevue. It was steep, muddy, wet and miserable on the way up and the way down was a mud chute. I went down hard caking everything in mud but once we hit the road I was able to really throw down the pace and keep things moving into Les Houches, mile 44 with 10:44 on the clock. At this point the course went dramatically south in the quality stakes as we dropped down a bypass and on to what I can only describe as a 4 mile road climb that sucked beyond all belief (great training for Sparta). It was about 6am by this point so the sun was yet to come up and a long line of about 10 or 12 of us just dragged our feet along round switch back after switch back getting soaked in the rain, with no real idea of how long it was going to last.
We eventually cut on to a trail and skirted across the top of Chamonix where they had put in a temporary aid station, about a half a mile from town. I was damp inside and out and quite frankly not very interested in anything at this point, so I changed out all the spare dry gear in my bag and put the wet stuff away. I felt a million times better and began various other contrived climbs and descents along the valley walls to the Col Des Montets. It was a pretty ugly climb up some steep sections high up above the valley floor.
Col Des Montets Climb. Photo: Sam Robson.
As we came off the trail south of the summit it was then a 8 or 9 mile downhill run through Argentiere back to the finish and I walked most of it. I was tired of being cold and wet and wanted to enjoy the glimmer of sunshine. I did however get a huge boost at Argentiere by destroying the plate of brie they'd laid out. mmmm
So 64.8 miles, 18,000 feet of climb and 17 hours and 9 minutes after starting, I crossed the finish line back in Chamonix. Good enough for 330th overall. I'd haemorrhaged well over 100 places since Les Contamines, strolling in.
We are incredibly lucky to be able to travel to places like this and run in the mountains. But the mountains have their own set of rules and most importantly, weather systems. The organisers did what they had to do, making the only possible decision open to them. I'm sure I'll come back one day and pray that we'll be allowed to travel around the mountain uninterrupted but I've had my fill for now. I've been lucky enough to run the entire trail in different sections over the years, I only hope I can come back as well trained the next time to execute a decent race. One DNS with achilles tendonitis in '09 where I crewed instead, and course changes in 2010 and 2012 mean that was the third strike for me.
In the end our happy band of campers all finished. Robbie went on to a 16:25, Luke to a 17:44, Mark a few minutes quicker than that, Paul an 18:09 and Sam toughed out his 19:25 with a whole plethora of issues. Chamonix is a very special place and one day I'll return to make it right.
Before I start, I just want to add the usual disclaimer. I don't know everybody running by name, so apologies if I miss you out or you feel 'over-looked' by not being included here, perhaps it will be a blessing in disguise if you go on to win in style!!! Feel free to comment below on anyone else you think should be included here.
We have a really great field for this years NDW100. As we all know, ultrarunning is a wholly inclusive sport with amazing stories from the very front of the pack, to the very back. Before I roll down the list of who I think could be in with a shot at the titles, I wanted to mention one or two others who stand out in particular. Firstly, we have a group of 4 soldiers from the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit running as a group together and supported by an army team throughout the race. What makes things slightly different for them, is that they'll each be carrying a 30lb Bergen Pack and a dummy weapon for the whole of the 100 miles. Here is a note from Adam Kurzeja who we have been communicating with in order to get this to happen:
The lads on tour are working very hard at an extremely difficult job. Since March, the Explosive Ordnance Disposal and Search Task Force have sustain some casualties including 3 deaths and many more injuries.
They are raising money by taking part and everything raised will go towards helping those injured and the families of those injured and killed. They have a just giving page for people to donate at this link.
On the Grand Slam side we have 4 runners still in with a shot of completing all 4 x 100s within the same calender year: Allan Rumbles, David Bird, Tremayne Cowdry and Kenneth Fancett. Ken leads the standings at the moment with 2 x 20:30 finishes this year to date and as a finisher of the 2011 NDW100 looks set to continue his streak of finishing every Centurion 100 mile race to date.
So on to the front runner of both fields.
The NDW100 mens race is deep with competition. With a couple of late drop outs the womens field is wide open. Unfortunately Gemma Carter who led the SDW100 until late in the race before dropping with an injury & Nicola Golunska, the 2011 winner of the SDW Race have both had to drop due to injury. We wish them both the best with their recoveries.
There are a host of ladies in the field, 17 in fact making up 15% of the expected start list and there is a huge space for someone to come through and stamp their mark on 100 mile running down here in the southeast.
In the NDW50 I expect both the male and female CR's to be pushed by talented runners at the sharp end and what look to be ideal conditions for the weekend.
ONES TO WATCH
NDW100: Richie Cunningham
Where to start on Richie. Richie came storming past me in the Highland Fling this year early on, floating up the hills and generally making it look all too easy. As a member of the Pearl Izumi Running team, Richie has a back catalogue of finishes and results that any runner would be proud of. He is a 2 time winner and multiple time finisher of the 95 mile West Highland Way Race, one of the most prestigious events in the UK. In 2010 when I fell asleep in the car during the race, Richie went on to break 19 hours at Caesars Camp 100 and still holds the course record there by almost 2 hours over the next fatest ever finisher. I expect Richie to make us work out there all day to keep up with him and it's a real honour to have him in the race.
NDW100: Justin Montague
Justin joins us on an entry he won by taking 1st at the Extreme Energy Round the Island event back in June. He's also ammassed wins in 2012 at the Severn Challenge & Enduranclife Coastal Trail Series Portland and I'm sure there's a lot more I'm not aware of. If it's his first 100 it'll be interesting to see if he can hold his undoubted pace together to push Richie at the front.
NDW100: Drew Sheffield
The dark horse. Drew has trained flawlessly throughout 2012, building up from a good base through January to May, cuminating in a 5th place finish at the Hardmoors 110 in June. He knows the course, he has plenty of 100 mile plus finishes to his name and his strategy of 3 Gu Gels an hour could just see him pick up the pieces if the others blow up.
NDW100: Martin Bacon
Martin featured in our odds for the last 2 events. He stormed through to a 3rd place sub 18 hour finish at the Thames Path 100 in March, following some excellent past results in longer ultras including a 2nd place at the SDW Race in 2010. Having led the SDW100 in June until Harting Downs setting a blistering pace at the front, he suffered a rolled ankle which forced him out of the race at Bignor Hill. If he has recovered and is back to full fitness, he'll push the pace early on and has the experience to hang with it all the way through to the finish.
NDW100: Wouter Hamelinck
Wouter is an ultrarunning legend. He's finished most of the worlds hardest 100's. I first read about Wouter in 2010 when I heard reports of a Belgian guy going over to the US on holiday to run Super Sawtooth 100, then cycling cross country to the Cascade Mountains where he proceeded to run the Cascade Crest 100 before returning home. He has been nursing an injury in 2012 which he picked up earlier in the spring (he ran the Barkley Marathons) and had to bail from the SDW100 at the 3rd to last aid station having been in the top 3 all day. The injury is the only reason he is not higher up the list. If he's fit again, he'll be one to watch moving through the field.
NDW100: Ed Catmur
We've featured Ed on the odds twice before. In 2011 he walked away with 2nd at the NDW50, so he knows the first half of the course and what he can do there. He also picked up wins at the Adventure Hub 100km and holds the Course Record at the Greensands Marathon. In 2012 he has raced a lot. He ran the TP100 in March, won the Picnic Marathon (britains hardest) in June and has recently picked up a top 10 finish at the SDW100 and a finish at the Lakeland 100. He has the talent, the only question is whether he is rested enough from a very difficult 100 miler just three weeks ago in the Lakes.
NDW100: Ross Le Blanc
Ross is the sleeper in the pack. He has been training hard and has the determination and drive to execute a great race. He knows the course off of the back of finishing the NDW50 in 2011 and his coaches believe he can go all the way ;)
NDW100: Alice Hector
I believe this will be Alice's first 100, however she has built up a pedigree of ultra running following a career as a professional Ironman Triathlete. She has already picked up wins at the Wye Ultra, Cardiff Ultra, Norfolk 100km and in 2012, the London 50km. It will be fascinating to see what she can do over the full 100.
NDW50: Darryl Carter
Darryl is the man to beat. An ex pro and sub 9 hour!!! Ironman, just a few weeks ago he broke the FKT for the 100 mile Cotswold Way running from end to end in 20 hours and 36 minutes taking 1:47 off of the old record. In 2012 he's also taken home wins at the Green Man and Malvern Hills Ultras. He has been running ultras for a few years now and Martin Kennards stout record from 2011 will be under threat with the conditions looking good for the weekend.
NDW50: Tracey Horne
Tracey has an Ironman pedigree that makes mere mortals shudder. She brings 6 months of hard work to this race. The pressure is off of her, having converted to trail running only recently but she has all the talent to go fast here. She placed 3rd at the Three Forts Marathon in May on route to this race and had plenty in the tank at the finish. The experience of 'going long' will count for a lot making her one to watch.
Mt. Fuji is the highest point in Japan and one of three holy mountains to the Japanese. At 12,400 feet, in the grand scale of mountain peaks it's barely a bump, but what it lacks in overall height, it makes up for in majesty. The broad flanks of the mountain drop away gradually in support of the mighty volcanic cone.
Fuji is climbed by around 400,000 people every year making it the most climbed mountain in the world. It is divided into 10 stations which can be approached from 4 sides. Each station represents a level higher up towards the 10th 'summit' station and allow climbers the chance to pick up food and water or even bed down on the tatami mats for a night's sleep. The majority (98%) of climbers start from the 5th stations which house giant car parks full of cars and buses unloading 1000s of climbers daily, but there is another way up - on foot from the very bottom of the volcano.... Of the 4 different trails up the mountain, the Yoshida is the most frequently climbed as it's the most easily accessible trail from the Tokyo side.
Having arrived in Japan we found ourselves in the area during the 2 month summer climbing season which extends through July and August, so Lisa and I decided we'd head to Lake Kawaguchiko at the foot of Fuji for a few days and try our hand at climbing the mountain. Our plan was to take the bus to the 5th station of the Yoshida trail in the morning and try to make it back down the hill before nightfall - giving us about 7 hours to get up and back down 5 miles and 5000 feet for a 10 mile round trip.
As soon as we got there it was immediately apparent that we were going to have to be patient on some sections of the path - waiting for long lines of Japanese climbers in guided groups to get through the tighter sections or step aside for us. Timing wise, there are signs at every major junction giving you a distance and estimated total time to the summit/ next station which were extremely useful. The 5th to the 6th station was a traverse more than a climb and took the total distance to travel down to 5km with 4800 feet of climb still to go. Looking up from the 6th station it's obvious where the trail is headed and it is a pretty steep grade for a route being hiked by many 1000s of ill prepared day trippers, but we had packed heavy prepared for all seasons.
The estimated time from 5th to 6th was 40 minutes. When we made it in 23, I began to harbour hopes of us making the summit in good time. I really wanted us to enjoy this experience together rather than Lisa feel like I had dragged her up in the shortest possible time so we took it really steady but tried to keep moving all the way up the mountain.
The 6th to the 7th station is pretty straight forward, mostly just steep hiking, but past the 7th, the sections of rock began and there are some fairly tricky stretches where climbing using your hands is most certainly required. In the dark & wet it would have been a different story.
Over the edge into the abyss
When we hit the 8th station we got caught in a rain shower which quickly became falling ice and to be honest it was pretty unpleasant. Because I was carrying all of our gear and had already torn the zip off of my pack by stuffing it so full of clothing, i couldn't actually get my jacket done up over the top of it which is my usual plan to water proof everything so we took shelter behind a rock face while we got dressed in foul weather gear.
The temperature drop as you go higher up the mountain is significant. At the 5th station it was about 25 degrees and we were burning up as we started hiking. By the 9th station, just a few hundred metres from the summit, we had on between us every piece of clothing I'd bought - hat, waterproof gloves, jacket and trousers, two shirts, arm warmers and a good hiking pace. Part of that was because once we'd passed about 3500 metres, the altitude had definitely started to make a difference and we were moving a lot slower. It was one step at at time as I followed Lisa up through the final gate and in to the summit station.
The views from the top were spectacular when the clouds parted enough to make visibility good. Because Fuji stands alone, we could see right back down the mountain and out across the towns, lakes and woodlands for miles around.
When you hit the summit station (where you can buy a bottle of water for £4) the path down begins almost immediately and we would have made the mistake of thinking we were actually at the top at that point had we not trekked down in to the crater a little to take a picture. Over the far side some distance away, is another peak housing the old Mt Fuji weather station that looks just slightly higher than where you are. In fact it is higher, and you have to circumnavigate most of the crater to get there and the summit itself was up a steep scree path to a radar house and a plinth signifying the very highest point in Japan. We'd seen probably 2000 people on the mountain and there were precisely zero other people around that side of the mountain. It made me wonder how many actually bother tagging the official summit, or at least think that they made the top when in fact they hadn't.... there was no way we were leaving that to chance.
View of the actual summit across the crater from the 10th station
Back down was a totally different story. There is a designated return path which they've bulldozed all the way down from the summit, so rather than down climbing difficult rock sections, you get a free fall descent on smooth crushed lava pathways. It took us just under 2 hours to lose all the height we'd gained, about 5000 feet, back to the 5th station.
So that was Fuji done and it was great to be able to enjoy achieving something together for once. Altogether a round trip to the summit and back from the 5th took us 6:20 and we were eating snacks back at the start before the sun started to set. Awesome.
The entire climb from the 5th station is above treeline on lava fields, but almost everything below that looked like thick greed forest so I was pretty sure that the first 4500 feet of the 9000 foot climb was going to be pretty awesome trail. I decided to go back the following day to find out.
The other side of the mountain
Not in fact the other side in the geographical respect, but in the environment of the lower flanks of the mountain.
The next morning I took a local bus out to the shrine at Sengen Jinja Mae, the very base of the mountain and the start of the Yoshida Trail that we'd climbed the day before. This route is apparently climbed by very few, because the anticipated round trip to the summit and back is around 16 - 20 hours, making it a far more serious proposition. That being said, the winners of the Mt Fuji ascent race get from the city hall near the start of the trail to the very top in around 2hrs45 so clearly it wasn't going to be quite the epic that the guide books would have you believe.
The lower stretches of the Yoshida trail were stunning. The temperature at the trailhead was 32 degrees and 100% humidity so it wasn't particularly easy going, but with the shade of the canopy for most of the route, it was bearable.
Passing through the first gate at the shrine, the actual Yoshida Trail follows the road for the first few kilometres before bolting right in to the trees at the 'first station'. After using my fluent Japanese of pointing and nodding, I managed to find a trail through the woods that roughly parralleled the road and went with it instead. After some second guessing I did make it to the first station and followed the official trail from there.
The first station wasn't just closed, it had collapsed in on itself and with just a trail up from there it felt like a completely different mountain to the one I'd seen yesterday. There was no aid, no people, no exposed lava, just lush green vegetation, a pounding heat and scores of abandoned huts, old shrines and derelict tea houses. I started out with a litre of water and hoped it' be enough to get me up, but I'd drained that in about 45 minutes and was dripping with sweat so I had to ration my effort somewhat on the climb up as soon as I realised there was going to be nothing until the 5th or 6th station 4500 feet and 9 miles up.
The trail is pretty technical in places because it's steep and clearly gets washed out during the winter months where the mountain is unclimbable. There are lots of significant log stair cases involved and some scree which is hard to ascend. With that aside there are runnable sections despite the grade and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. In particular just passed the 2nd station (there's nothing there) you pass through two gates in to a wonderful ancient stone shrine.
Emerging back at the 6th station you are suddenly greeted by the rest of civilisation attempting to climb the blackened lava fields above and you couldn't imagine a more stark contrast in such a short space of time and climb. From there it's the remaining 4500ft to the summit. Back down was a joy ride but returning to 30 degree heat was not.
Emerging up and out of the trees to meet the lines of 5th station climbers
6th station Day 2
Sweating buckets down the last stretch of trail
All in all the mountain represents one fluid pathway from the shrine at the bottom to the final gate at the top. It feels very much like an ascent up in to the heavens, accentuated by the total lack of other surrounding peaks. I can't recommend climbing it enough and it represents a simple but fulfilling challenge in and of itself, especially if you take it on from the very bottom.
The UTMF or Ultra Trail Mount Fuji passes directly through this area (though doesn't climb the mountain itself) and where we ate dinner we found a 'Salomon Race Team' signed plaque on the wall with a personal note from this years winner Julien Chorier. That one is definitely calling. We also happened to be in town for this years Mt Fuji Ascent race and I saw a number of returning runners as I headed up later in the morning. They allowed an incredible 2300 runners to enter and I can only imagine what a scramble that final mile to the summit must be up the rocks.
Comrades - 'The Ultimate Human Race', the oldest and biggest ultra in the world.
For years I'd had my eye on the race, probably since 2007 when I first started looking at the bigger one day events I one day wanted to run. In 2010 I decided to forego entering because I felt it was too much to travel and race well a month before Badwater. In 2011 I had a race number and went all the way to Durban to watch the race unfold, but had to let it pass me by with a fractured tibia. This year would be my baptism.
Comrades was 86 years old this year and had 18,000 people registered to run. Those are completely untouchable statistics in ultra land. Sparta might claim to be 2500 years old, but took a 2470ish year hiatus. Western States, the oldest trail 100, is a miserly 35 years old. In terms of field size, we are talking half the size of the London Marathon, but over twice the distance. It truly is the equivalent of any big city marathon anywhere else, but the South Africans embrace it as their own. Along with the 56km Two Oceans Marathon in Cape Town, Comrades at 89km is a major national televised event. The entire 12 hours from start to final cut off, are broadcast - live. I still can't get my head around any of that when I try to imagine it happening on UK soil - but the most incredible aspect of the race isn't the size, prestige, runners, location, difficulty or logistics, it's by far and away the support you receive from the crowds on route. I won't go on anymore about general Comrades stats, you can find them pretty much anywhere, instead I'll just talk about my experience of actually running the race.
Comrades alternates direction each year between an up run - Durban on the coast to Pietermaritzberg inland - and a down run as was run this year - from Pietermaritzberg down to the cricket stadium in Durban. This year I'd flown out with two of my closest friends, Rob and Jimmy - Rob was running his first ultra, Jimmy is responsible for having got me running in the first place by signing us up to the MdS in 2006 - and was making a comeback from a 5 year hiatus from ultrarunning. Staying in Durban we drove up to the race start 90ks away in a Nissan Micra with Dave and Mel Ross, another 2 close friends and incredibly experienced runners. Dave was running his 8th Comrades and gunning this time for a silver (sub 7:30), Mel her 2nd Comrades. Both have run well over 250 and 150 marathons respectively.
To make the startline and beat the road closures, we got up at 1:30am for a 2am departure and it HURT. I'd missed an entire nights sleep on the way out and this was a second dose of punishment in 3 days! When we got to Pietermaritzburg we head straight to Mcdonalds where we sat eating sausage and egg mcmuffins and drinking coffee, waiting out the 2 hours to the start. We walked up to the starting pens together and it was pretty cold outside at about 8 degrees C and most of the runners were dressed in hats and gloves.
To qualify for Comrades, you have to run a sub 5 hour marathon. How much quicker than that you run depends on which pen you are allocated at the start, ranging from sub 3 hour (Pen A) to 4:40 - 4:59 (Pen H). We all made our way to our respective pens, Dave and I managing to get our slots in pen A and the others ranging from B through to D, all pretty close to the front. It meant that of the 18,000 people, about 17,500 were behind us, held back by barriers and staring at us in the front like hungry wolves just itching to get forward and start.
Almost as soon as I got behind the barriers I bumped in to Terrence Zengerink. I first 'met' Terrence when we found ourselves running a section of the London to Brighton trail run together in 2007 or 8 (I forget). He had also blitzed our Thames Path 100 earlier this year in a stellar sub 20 time, managing to fit in a sub 3 hour marathon too on route to his 5th Comrades start. We had a good chat and it quickly became clear that our goals were pretty similar. We both had our hearts set on the much coveted silver medals given to those who complete the 56 miles in under 7 hours and 30 minutes (8 min mile pace), but were accepting that we'd have to see how things worked out as we went along and were prepared to work around that goal if it looked overly ambitious. I think we both felt pretty comfortable that the sub 9 hour time for a Bill Rowan medal (the next up from silver) was always going to be well within reach so to a certain extent we were pretty relaxed. We didn't expressly say 'let's stick together' because it's hard to commit to that if you've never run together before, but I think we both felt that we might just end up pushing each other along at least initially.
With 10 minutes to the 0530 starting gun, the music kicked in and the pens behind were released to join us in one heaving mass of pent up energy. The national anthem was followed by the incredibly moving shosholoza and then by chariots of fire.
As the countdown started the atmosphere was absolutely electric and something never to be forgotten. When the gun blew, Terrence started with the tips - avoid the central part of the road where the barriers get in the way, watch out for the discarded clothes and bin bags left behind by warmed up runners, watch out for the slippery cats eyes etc and instantly I though to myself wow this is GREAT I've got a Comrades pro running next to me for company!!!
I think I knew our days were going to be aligned for sure when after a few minutes we both simultaenously pulled off the road for a pee, and then 20 minutes later, for a more substantial toilet break, and re-joined the road together. Initially we ran in the dark for around an hour, the throngs of people around us, at first all with A seed bib numbers on, then pretty quickly with B, C or even D on their bibs humming past us at incredible speeds. I can roundly say we got overtaken by 100s of people in that initial stretch, and went past very few. I thought we played it very sensibly. Downhills we were able to easily stretch away at close to 7 minute pace, uphills at perhaps 8:30s and as an average maybe 7:40 to 7:45 per mile almost without fail. We were consistent, I can say that, but we were pushing too.
Terrence let me know what the sights, sounds and smells of Comrades all meant, where the 'Big 5' hills were on the course and what to expect from much of the day. It was all totally invaluable information and I have to say, course knowledge at this race is absolutely crucial to having your best run. He had run an 8 hr time before and whilst Plan A was silver, Plan B was sub 8. I liked the sound of both.
A few big things struck me in the early hours of the race. The km markers counting down all the way from 89 to 1. The crowds lining the streets absolutely everywhere, cooking their Braai's (barbeques) and cheering you on no matter how you looked or felt. As an International runner I had a blue bib on to signify having travelled from overseas to race and with my name written below most of the people cheering below screamed out 'come on James!!!!' in my face as I came past. At first i asked myself wtf was going on but it really sent the shivers down my spine having a crowd like that behind you.
As the light came up Terrence and I were still together. Already maybe 20ks in we were passing people standing still as they'd gone out so hard. There were aid stations every few kms and they were all absolutely rammed with people handing out sachets of water. The idea is that you grab a sachet, tear off the corner with your teeth and then suck down the liquid, probably about 200ml. The benefits are multiple - no need to run with a bottle or bladder, no need to stand and drink or throw most of it down your throat trying to drink on the move, and you can run with them so you can hang on to one or two as back up in case you needed any on route to the next aid station. The first couple I bit off big corners and doused myself but I quickly got the hang of it.
Elena leading the ladies race early on
We wound our way down through some more rural areas but the crowds were as supportive no matter where you were. The first 30ks flew by but from the start I had felt fairly bad. A lack of sleep and some stomach issues had spaced me out a bit and I didn't feel particularly in control. Ordinarily the pace we were going would have felt fairly easy. It felt sustainable but it also felt like I was having to work a little bit too hard to stay honest with the schedule. No matter we pressed on through the stinking chicken farms and round some sweeping hillside roads towards halfway, following around 100 yards behind a massive group who were tailing Zola Budd in her first Comrades Marathon. At this point there were two major climbs, once just before midway and one just after and they certainly took their toll. We had already crested the highest point in the course, but the rollercoaster continued and on the second climb I dropped to a walk taking a pee and let Terrence move up the road. About 2ks later I caught him up and there was an enormous cheer behind us. We turned around just as Bruce Fordyce came through with about 50 guys pacing with him. He'd stated he was going for a silver in this his 30th Comrades (9 wins in there too) and he looked super strong on the road.
About a mile on from there, Terrence dropped to a walk and I pushed on a little and started to have the first and only short stronger patch of my entire race. For about 10 minutes I felt like I wouldn't pass out if I went much faster and made use of it banking some good miles. Reaching the 30k to go marker, I was passing more and more people but I knew my energy was fading as the heat of the day rose. It maybe got to around 24 degrees, but out there on the tarmac running hard with some heart rate drift to boot, 7:45 miles quickly became killer.
As I came through the Nedbank Green Mile I was met with girls hainging in enormous swings in the trees, loads of people outside fairly affluent looking properties and a fairly carnival-esque atmosphere. Just as I came out of it I saw Zola and Bruce running together, both clearly struggling a little and moved passed their group again.
Zola and Bruce finishing
Around that same point, within a couple of miles at least we came to an extremely poor area with an orphanage on the side of the road. The kids were out in force and the general atmosphere was just as supportive but more than a little heartwrenching as it was pretty obvious life was a little more of a struggle for those living around that particular spot. I gave a couple of the kids some gels, my race vest and some sachets of water as we came through and felt terrible that there wasn't anything more we could give other than high 5s and smiles. As we came to around 20ks to go there was an extended long downhill stretch which I believe is called Fields?! This was where I decided that 7:30 was slipping out of reach. Pretty annoyingly because it was a downhill, I was able to bank a few more 7ish min miles and keep under my 8min mile target but I just couldn't hang on to it on the flats and ups.
Little by little the time slipped a few seconds away from me and I was forced in to the dilemma of smashing myself to pieces to run a 7:40 or taking it that little bit easier and running a sub 8 - both for the same medal. I dumped countless sachets of water over my head but just couldn't seem to keep my temperature down so I ended up slowing to 9 minute miles and watching that elusive silver slip out of grasp.
With around 10ks to go I was slaloming across the road trying to pick the tightest lines whilst staying out of the sun but we'd reached a stretch of open motorway and there was no escape. I dropped in to the bushes for another pee and when I came out Terrence came passed me and with no flamboyance just said 'come on dude let's finish this together'. He muttered something too about not worrying too much about going sub 8, but we'd talked at the beginning about how great it would be as Plan B just to dip under that mark, however arbitrary, so we dropped the hammer a bit and started to push the average pace back up.
7ks to go and we were banking a precious few seconds here and there against the clock. The downs continued as we looked out across Durban, but there were a couple of pretty stout little hills to work up all the same. We kept each other going really well and pretty soon the km markers disappeared down to the final two as we made our way over the flyover and down in to Durban city centre. The roads were lined with people and we could see a straight shot km dead ahead of us. Turning the final corner with 1km to go we had 7 minutes to cross the line under 8 hrs and we could finally relax knowing we had it. We ran under some giant showers over the road, into the stadium flanked with people in the grand stands and eventually across the line in 7:56 and change. I think we were both pretty wiped. Nothing dramatic but I felt overheated and a little sore but I loved the whole experience.
Terrence on the left - A runner, me on the right - A wannabe
Ian had said to me before the race that until you run Comrades, you just won't appreciate what an extraordinary event it is. I totally agree with that. The support you receive on the roadside is so overwhelming it actually tips you towards getting almost emotional with it all whilst you're running. No matter where you are in the field, the crowd appeared to be going just as nuts.
No getting away from it, this is a pure road run though and if you're not a road runner, this will come as a rude awakening. I would like to have focused much more on the race but I've enjoyed just running a bunch of trail events at my own leisure this past 2 months. Running a 100 miler three weeks prior isn't great practical training but I enjoyed both equally as much for everything they offered up. Such vastly differing experiences but both totally life affirming and thoroughly awesome.
This is a must do race for all ultrarunners out there, but more than that and as per the race motto it's a must do race from a 'human spirit' perspective. Whatever South African politics have held in the past, present or will hold for the future, this race brings everyone together. Never have I felt more welcome at an event or more included in the overall experience - and there were 14,800 of us running.
In terms of times, the South African male winner came over the line in 5:31, the female winner for the 7th time was the Russian Elena Nurgalieva in 6:07, narrowly pipping Ellie Greenwood for second by around a minute. Great running from both of them. Dave Ross crept over for that much deserved silver in 7:24 at his 8th try. Terrence and I finished 950th and 951st respectively in 7:56:40 (NINE HUNDREDTH!!!!!!). Peter Bowles a Serpie traveling with us in his longest ever race ran a stellar 8:02. Rob in his first ultra of any distance 10:02 which was a phenomenal effort considering he'd been injured for months in the run up, and Jimmy came home in 11:27, wiped out but still smiling.
Ellie and Elena
Comrades has one final sting in the tail and that is that at 12 hours dead, the gun goes and the finish line closes. We have the same rules at our events but are less brutal with how we go about it. With back turned, the finish line captain shoots the gun and people just yards or even inches from the finish are prevented from officially finishing the race. Something like 50% of people come in during that final hour and many are inside the stadium when time is called. I would have been devastated had that been me but the guys and girls who just missed out took it in there stride and relished the applause of having travelled 55.95 miles in 12 hours from dawn until dusk.
All in all this is a hard race. The course is hilly. We're certainly not talking Western States or worse here but there are very few areas of flat and not looking after your quads on route leads to big problems. If you've looked before and thought nah it's too far and too expensive, think again. The flights are economical if you book in advance and South Africa is not overly expensive to visit in terms of food and accommodation prices and is one incredible country with a lot of hope for the future. What you spend will be worth it in spades.
Credits: All photos thanks to Terrence Zengerink and family.
I blogged about this journey a couple of times in the lead up to it. I was probably the most excited I've been all year to get out and run.
On Saturday morning after our TRA AGM in Swindon, I scooped up Neil Bryant from the station and drove down to Eastbourne. Neil and I didn't know each other particularly well, in fact we'd only properly met once - at our NDW100 last year where he finished 2nd - but as he remarked during the course of the run, what an amazing community the ultra running one is that we could just hook up and tackle an experience like this together. Neil was looking to 'trailblaze' the SDW in it's entirety, checking in at little dibber boxes which record your time and journey at roughly 10 mile intervals along the trail. He had previously run the first 88 miles of it in his first attempt and was back to finish it in one go.
We managed to park within 10 yards of the trail head which was ideal and after about 5 minutes of getting our gear together, we were off on our journey to Winchester.
The idea was to run the trail self-supported. Now I don't want any 'purists' coming down on us for using that turn of phrase! We weren't being picky and minimalist, it's just that we were pretty happy going about things at our own pace, without any time pressures at all. When you haven't got a crew, an ETA or any onward journey plans, you can totally switch off from everything and just enjoy running for runnings sake. As it turned out we relied almost entirely on what we had in our packs from the start, with the exception of pit stops at Alfriston, Pyecombe and a farm near Exton.
The first section of the SDW runs across the 7 sisters up to Alfriston. Having never run together before there was always a chance that we were going to struggle to find that magic 100 mile pace - where you hold enough in the tank to be able to run the same speed all the way through, but without being too slow over the initial sections where you feel great. Neil is a phenomenally talented runner having probably his best season ever and I was well aware that if anything, I would be slowing him down rather than the other way around. That being said I was hopeful that I could stay wihin about 10% of Neil's pace and therefore that we wouldn't have any major issues sticking together.
As we got going through Seven Sisters park, the hills and hours just seemed to fly by. The sun was out and it was warm but not too hot and the views, as always, were just stunning.
White Horse above Littlington
We made great time right from the off and reached Alfriston at mile 12ish pretty quickly. Knowing that the next chance to get any supplemental food would be Pyecombe 20 miles further on at best, I scooped up a mars bar and ate it on the move. Neil, on the other hand, was running his own little nutritional experiment which I got a great deal of enjoyment from witnessing. My pack contained 30 GU gels. Neils contained bags of nuts, cheese, chorizo and olives. He was making a go of running 100 miles on protein alone. Our two strategies could not have possibly been any different but it seemed to make no odds at all.
We departed Alfriston and made our way up to the radio masts overlooking Newhaven to the South and the Weald to the north, the hills bustling with paragliders making the most of the weather. We dropped down the other side into Southease at mile 19ish, re-stocked our water and pushed straight on to Housedean Farm (mile 25ish) and the next tap. In that regard, I can't think of a better trail to have a go at running self-supported than the SDW. I wasn't 100% sure on all the tap locations and distances, but I was fairly sure on them and honestly, there are enough out there not to worry about anything else. I would guess you can get access to water every 6 - 11 miles on average and we did pretty much just that, never stopping for more than a minute to fill up and re-pack the bags before pressing on.
The running was just incredible. I wanted to get out there and connect with the trail. That sounds a bit strange but I did want to make it more of a journey than one dictated around pace, splits, positions and schedules. I think we both got that in spades over the course of the run.
After Housedean there is a gradual climb up to the ridge connecting to Ditchling Beacon and we ran the whole trail. I think we'd both found our stride and were making really good progress. Nothing super quick, just steady progress and a nice conversational pace, probably about 5mph without fail. We hiked the steeper grades but otherwise seemed to run uninhibited the rest of the trail.
After Ditchling I hit a little bit of a low patch energy wise and my hamstrings began to talk to me but I knew that was just a dip in calories and salt. As we dropped down in to Pyecombe at mile 32ish, we made the decision to leg it across the A23 to the M&S in the service station down the road. This is where our team work came in. I knew where all the taps were and could navigate without maps the first 65 miles of the trail and Neil had the experience of his previous SDW trailblaze run behind him. He knew that the garage would be the last point we could get our hands on anything, probably until morning or even the end of the run so the extra half a mile or so and flirting with the traffic well worth it. We stood in the garage for about 20 minutes as I ate a bowl of pasta with three packets of salt mixed in & Neil ate 8 chicken kebab skewers and bought some scotch eggs. The only thing we had in common diets wise at this stage is that we both bought a load of cheese and devoured that too.
Out of Pyecombe we climbed up and over the hill down to Saddlescombe Farm, re-filled with water and then climbed up to Devils Dyke at mile 36. The sun began to set at this point and it was incredible to watch it die out from yellow to brilliant orange to red and then fade away to leave us in total darkness.
Sun goes down over Ditchling Beacon
We couldn't believe it but not only did we not have a good moon to light the way, we had NO moon. It later appeared at about 3am absolutely HUGE directly behind us and bright orange. It was one of the weirder moments of the run....
We couldn't believe it but not only did we not have a good moon to light the way, we had NO moon. It later appeared at about 3am absolutely HUGE directly behind us and bright orange. It was one of the weirder moments of the run....
At this point we were on the Three Forts Marathon course from last weekend and it was definitely still a little more churned up than elsewhere. It was also strange being back on the same trail just 6 days later for such a different sort of run. We finally succumbed to the dark just after Botolphs at mile 38ish and switched our headlamps on, restricted to that all too familiar bubble of light for the next 7 or so hours.
We made our way to Washington (mile 46), over to Amberley (mile 52) and up to Bignor Hill (mile 58) all completely uneventfully and at a really good clip. We hadn't slowed down at all so our 2 hour first 10 miles had quickly become not much more than a 12.5 hour 100km which was great. By this stage my stomach was all over the place and I had to stop 3 times in quick succession for pit stops, but Neil just walked on down the trail, I caught him up again and we carried on running. It was like we'd run long distance as a team 1000 times before. At around 2am we could hear a free party going on in the woods not too far away, ran through a field of waist high bright yellow rape crop and saw a heard of deer running across the top of Harting Downs - all of which were pretty surreal moments. As we came through Harting Downs and the light started to come up I asked Neil what the giant obelisk on the side of the hill directly across from us was all about. Pretty sure it was just a small hallucination but a pretty good one nonetheless.
Neil in the fields
As the sun came up we were met with clouds of freezing fog but only in the lower reaches of the trail. We'd run along the ridge above and to the side of it and then drop down into the patches that were covered in it where the temperature was a good few degrees cooler.
Low Lying Clouds coming through Harting Downs
From Harting Downs I knew it was about a marathon to go and we were still moving really well, no enforced walking breaks at any unnecessary points (ie. where it wasn't at least quite a long or steep climb, relatively!) and no stops for anything at all. My energy reserves were low though at this stage as I'd been rationing my gels unnecessarily tightly and I did hope that as we came in to QEC Park with around 22 miles to go, that we'd find the cafe open. At 5:40am we cruised down towards the visitor centre and saw the first other people anywhere for the last 50 or so miles and they were cooking bacon and egg sandwiches on a barbeque. I couldn't believe it. We wandered over and asked them if they would sell us something and to my disappointment they said we'd have to wait a half an hour to see what was left from when the rambling club had come through and taken their share. No way we were doing that, so instead we ran on to the visitor centre and sat down for 5 minutes where we had a scotch egg each. The stuff of dreams.
Scotch Egg at Mile 80
The sun was really coming up as we crested Butser Hill with around 20 miles to go and it was finally time to shed lights and jackets and get the job done. We pushed on to Exton and ran almost everything, I knew though that I was marginally slower than Neil would have been on his own at some points at this stage. For 80 miles in to a run, I felt good, just that little bit less quick than Neil but it didn't really seem to make any difference. We both just got on with the job at hand and cracked on to Exton. Just before the village, we came upon a farm selling tea, coffee and brownies at about 7am for some fishermen - it's amazing what you can find out on the trail - so we went in and treated ourselves. Neil got some fresh milk which seemed to make him pretty happy and I got some sugar which made me equally so.
As we came in to Exton we were met by a good friend of mine, Paul Bennett, who'd got up early to meet us at QECP. We'd blown our estimated times so far out of the water by this stage, however, that he met us 10 miles closer to home than he'd intended. He about turned, we made it through the last trailblaze dibber point and climbed a steep pitch up out of Exton to the final 10 mile section of trail.
With the sun up, Paul's company and some energy inside, I think we both felt tired but happy that the job was done and we reveled in the last section. We ran a good deal of it but were less fussy about how steep a hill had to be to warrant hiking. That being said we didn't let up too much and we crested the final hill overlooking Winchester at around 11am or 21 hours after we'd started.
Running Down into Winchester
The final few miles
Scaring some horses at mile 98
We wound our way down and across the M3 and in to Winchester town centre where the trail peters out and found King Alfreds Statue where we stood around trying to locate the final trailblaze dibber point but alas it had been torn off of the waymark post. That was it, our journey was over.
At the statue in the centre of Winchester
All in all Neils Suunto ambit came up with around 3855m of climbing for the 100ish miles in a total time of 21 hours 27 minutes - all in one clean push. I'm pretty proud of that and particularly in how well we handled everything. We didn't rush or race at any stage and took our time where we wanted so to come in around that kind of total was pretty good.
Blessed with brilliant sunshine, a cold but not frigid night, great company and good footing for the most part this was an experience I will never forget in almost perfect conditions. I would thoroughly recommend 'journey' type runs like this to anybody willing to give it a go. I think I knew deep down that I was ready to tackle 100 or so miles of trail without any specific reason to do so, but I wouldn't have been ready to do that a couple of years ago. Packing for the run took no time at all, it was just basics really but in poor weather and with less access to water, I'd have needed more.
I can see myself doing this kind of thing more often, perhaps with the intention of doing one trail in it's entirety each year.
So after 3 ultras in three weeks it's two weeks of downtime until we fly to South Africa for Comrades. I can't wait to get stuck in to something so completely different from this weekend. I guess that's what this crazy but incredible sport is all about.
Things have been going well the last few weeks. A fortnight ago we had a great weekend away at the Highland Fling, then this past Sunday I was fortunate enough to be able to pace a coaching client of ours and a tremendous athlete - Tracey Horne, to a 3rd place finish at the Three Forts Marathon.
The South Downs Way was a boggy quagmire which slowed everybody down somewhat, but that's part of the fun. With my unbeatable combination of Montrail Mountain Masochists and Drymax socks I have suffered zero blisters during the past fortnight of significant mileage.
That is good news because this weekend, Neil Bryant and I are going to attempt to run from Eastbourne to Winchester on the South Downs Way.
I can't begin to describe how excited I am about this run. There is something so inherently appealing to me right now about leaving the watch and the world behind, setting off on an adventure which involves doing only something as simple as putting one foot in front of the other until we reach the other end. Nobody to count us in, no pressure to reach a certain point at a certain time and freedom to move uninterrupted and as a team over what I truly believe is the most outstanding trail in Southern England.
All in all the South Downs Way footpath is just over 100 miles in length. I would dearly love to reach the far side in one unbroken and continuous forward movement having relied on nothing other than ourselves and a few local shops on route.
Neil came up with the idea as part of his continued efforts on the trailblaze scheme. Just a few weeks ago he found himself at Exton, 88 miles in, forced to withdraw due to a confluence of circumstances out of his control. So he emailed me afterwards and asked if I wanted to have a crack at it with him. Yes I did.
Neil is fast becoming one of the most talented ultrarunners we've got. Not only have his 2012 results been fantastic, he is I believe the most prolific high performing ultrarunner in the UK right now. Can I think of anyone better equipped to be doing this with? I really can't.
Even as little as a year ago, I wouldn't have dreamed of dropping a run like this in to the calendar, especially so close to the big summer racing season. Since we've moved out of London and I've had more time to do things at my own pace, I've noticed my focus has changed a little. When I started running I quickly built up a tick list, as most runners seem to do, and started working through it one at a time. A good number of races off of that original list have been finished. A few are still to come, but whereas that was all I was in to 5 years ago, right now I'm just enjoying running for pure running sake. The goals have changed, in fact, with a lot of races packed in to a short period of time, I find myself resenting the calendar for not allowing me to get out on my usual local trails as much.
So this weekend is an experiment in so many ways. There are a lot of unanswered questions. Will we make it? Are we going to run out of food or water during any stretch, particularly overnight? How are we going to function as a team? How muddy is it really going to be? I can honestly say I haven't bothered to worry or even try to answer those questions. I don't see the point. This is probably the most simple task I've given myself in running terms this year. If you don't have to worry about logistics, what is there left to think about? If we don't make it, run out of food or water, get stuck in horrendous mud, it doesn't matter. It's all just part of the adventure. And if I find myself hankering for a finish line, well I'll only have to wait another 3 weeks to be standing in Durban on the other side of one.
Afterwards it will be back to the rigid structure of recovery, training, taper, race, repeat as I try and negotiate the hurdles of Comrades, The West Highland Way Race, UTMB and Spartathlon but if this summer goes well, I am left with just three of the original races I had listed out*. I hope this journey has a longer lasting impact on where I decide to take my running however....
* Incidentally the only races still left to run off of my original bucket list are: Hardrock, GUCR and the Iditarod Invitational.
Following on from the Q&A with our mens TP100 winner Craig Holgate below are answers to the very same questions from our ladies champion Mimi Anderson. Mimi's experience in ultras is vast and if you have the chance to take a look at her blog you can read about some of the other epic adventures she has undertaken in the name of endurance running.
Can you give us a brief summary of your running background and previous ultra experience?
I started running at 36 because I wanted thinner legs and as I had never run before I taught myself to run on a treadmill.
Over the last 12 years I have been extremely privileged and have raced in some stunning locations around the world. My main achievements to date are:
Female World Record Holder John O'Groats to Lands End - 840 miles
Course record holder for 6633 Extreme Ultra Marathon - 352 miles non-stop in the Arctic
1st and only woman to have done Back to Back Comrades in South Africa.
Fastest Female to run Double Badwater - 292 miles
3rd Female in Spartathlon - 153 miles non-stop
Female Course Record Holder for the Grand Union Canal Race - 145 miles
What was your average training mpw coming in to the TP100?
My average training week is less than 100 miles per week. I find this distance works well for me and helps prevent injuries.
What do you think is the most important element of running to include in training towards a 100 mile race?
The most important element for my weekly training is the long run, its time on your feet and gets you used to running for hours on end. However, unless I'm racing my longest weekly run is no more than 30 miles. I also do double sessions which are tough. An example of this might be that I run 30k in the morning and then 20k in the afternoon.
What was your pre-race plan and did you manage to execute on race day?
I always have a time that I work towards and will work out my pace between checkpoints, but I never tell anyone what my goal time is as it puts me under too much pressure and I do enough of that by myself!! Did I execute my plan on race day - no! I was pleased with my time, although I had aimed for 18 1/2 hrs. I went off too fast at the start which wasn't the plan, but as I felt good I just kept going. Perhaps if I had gone out slightly slower I might have managed a better pace at the end, but who knows!
During the race did you have any particular low points and if so when/ where?
My first low point was at about 30 miles when I was feeling dehydrated as I hadn't been drinking enough, but after popping a Nuun into my water I recovered quite quickly.
The second low point was coming into Streatley. During races I really struggle to eat as everything tastes so revolting, so basically I was running out of steam, forced some food down me, some more at the next CP and a gel and was fine again.
What was your nutrition/ hydration plan for the TP100 and did you stick to it?
I never have a nutrition plan as I find eating difficult. I had taken some food with me which I ate and nibbled at a few things at the Check Points, mainly bananas as I can eat these without being sick. My hydration plan was to put a Nuun tablet into my bottle every other Check Point, this I did, but didn't drink enough going through the first few checkpoints.
What has been your proudest running achievement to date?
This is such a difficult question to answer, I am extremely proud of all my achievements for lots of different reasons and still can't believe what I have done.
My World Record has to be one of my proudest moments and even now when I talk about it I can still feel the emotions I felt finishing my 840 mile journey and it still brings tears to my eye. Double Badwater and Spartathlon also rank pretty highly!
Where will you be racing next and which key races do you have planned for the remainder of 2012?
On the Easter weekend I will be taking part in the Viking Way Ultra, 147.9 miles non-stop along the Viking Way which I'm looking forward to, then the Highland Fling; in May I go to the Jungles of Peru for a 7 day staged race which will be just amazing and on my return hopefully run the West Highland Way Race.
I have a big event planned towards the end of the year but I am still finalising the plans so this will be announced later in the year! Watch this space!!
I asked Craig Holgate if he'd be kind enough to answer a few questions for us following his 15:11 winning time at the inaugural 2012 Thames Path 100. His responses are listed, un-edited below. Hopefully a great insight into running at the pointy end of a 100 mile race and proof that hard work leads to success.
I hope we'll see Craig back in 2013 to defend his crown and significantly better his own time, there is no doubt that that is possible reading through some of his answers.
Can you give us a brief summary of your running background and previous ultra experience?
As I sit here just finishing manually editing 1400 split times the fog is lifting a little and the real highs and lows of the race are a bit more clear. So much happens behind the scenes by the volunteers and race construction crew that I thought it would be good to share a few of those things and highlight some of the stuff that happened in my weekend.
I've said it before but directing a 100 is as hard as running it, I feel just as tired this week as I did post Rocky Raccoon 100 in February, just minus the leg pain which is nice.
So here some highs and lows from behind the scenes:
1. Reversing the truck containing all of the aid station construction equipment, hard into a wall down a very long private drive as we took a wrong turn on route to Little Wittenham. The runners might be aware that the Little Wit aid station was extremely remote and everything had to be carried in about 500 yards over two bridges at the end of a very narrow lane. Time was catching up at that point and putting the truck into a wall was quite bad.
2. Awaiting Craig for the win, three of us went out and heavily glowsticked/ taped/ marked the final miles of the course. When we got back to the finish line and received Craig and Robbie, our first two runners, it became apparent that somebody had decided to chuck all of our markings into the Thames. Undeterred, I ran back down the course with bundles of stuff and repeated the process. On my way back to the finish a second time, I saw some lights coming down the river towards me and stood in the centre of the path as 20 glowticks drifted silently by. My thoughts at that time are unrepeatable. I also saw another bunch of glowsticks over the other side of the river in bushes. Alas I couldn't see the culprit, but grabbed the downed sticks and re-hung them. Thankfully they seemed to stay there the third time.
3. Having to cancel the race has to be the lowest moment of any race director weekend. I have spoken to quite a few people about other races forced into doing the same, Badwater in 2009 with the fires stopped at 122 instead of 135. West Highland Way stopped a few years ago at mile 90 just before the final 5 miles. Six Foot Track in Australia abandoned this weekend also. It isn't something I hope I ever have to decide to do again. I am confident as I was at the time that we made the right call however and the response subsequent to the race has been overwhelming in supporting that decision. Still seeing the look of disappointment on the face of a few runners including good friends at mile 95 when they learned of the decision was not a highlight.
4. Once we had packed all the aid station kit into the two large vans, we head down the motorway late on Friday for our final stop at Costco, to buy the remaining 500 bananas and 250 bottles of coke. When we lifted up the back shutter to the truck, we discovered that everything had fallen in on the narrow corridor we had left to get access to stuff and completely destroyed quite a number of items. Re-arranging it took us hours in Costco car park - luckily it all stayed put after that.
5. We narrowly avoided a crisis before we'd even begun when we parked one of the trucks on the hotel forecourt in richmond - and watched it rolling slowly towards the front of the building as the handbrake buckled under the strain of the load and hill. I jumped in the truck and managed to engage reverse just before it cruised through the front window. Hobart Hall would not have been the same place if it had continued on its journey.
1. Seeing runners make that finish line. Good friends, first time 100 milers, emotional finishes, happy finishers it's what we do it for. You can't put on these races unless you love running, it's just too time consuming, stressful and downright hard to continue if you don't really want to. I know lots of race directors in ultra land who are thinking 'should I just bin the race I can't carry on like this'. They make up their minds to do it and have one last go round, then they see the finishers faces and say.... 'Oh well just one more year then'. One old friend Paul Brackett cross the line in just under 24 hours. Years and years ago Paul and I were strolling around an LDWA event called Valleys and Views and he mentioned that one day he might try a 100. We spoke about a few different ones but at that time Centurion wasn't even a twinkle in my eye. Paul didn't get around to it and I was shocked to see him at the start line in Richmond as I had totally overlooked his name on the entrant list. Being able to hand him a 100 Miles - One Day buckle was a great feeling.
2. Seeing all the friends and family ammassed on the banks of the Thames for the start. It was great to finally get the race underway and obviously it was a moment we had been envisioning for over a year. It turned out to be a great starting point and one we will definitely use again.
3. People who I had never met before and who had volunteered only last minute going totally above and beyond the call of duty, running around in the freezing cold and driving rain to do things like pick litter up, build the finish line marquee, move drop bags around to ensure they were kept dry, wander out on the course to help runners in to safety, the list goes on and on. It's totally heartwarming to see someone show up out of their own good will and just say 'what can i do to help'. Imagine the world was full of people from the ultrarunning community - the stuff that'd get done!!!!!
4. Seeing Batman and Robin emerge out onto the final field. It was so good to see all the runners make the turn and climpse the finish line for the first time, but watching the caped pair appear one after the other, a few minutes between them, out of the worsening conditions was awesome.
5. Finally parking the vans back in the timber yard where I do my day job and getting the stuff unloaded. Sitting down with a drink and finally being able to relax after 40 hours of going pedal to the metal with no sleep. However great a race is it is nice when it is in the can!
Before a full post race report is written I wanted to make sure we got a message out about the late abandonment of the race, why we made the impossible decision to pull runners out so late in the day and the events that led to that decision. There are no doubt a lot of questions as to why a race going perfectly smoothly up until that point was pulled during what were harsh but not abnormal conditions for a March day in Southern England.
Each of the runners who were stopped at the final 2 checkpoints have been contacted. I want to thank each and every one of the people that were stopped, for the unbelievable level of understanding and co-operation they displayed on Sunday once they learned of our decision to pull the race. I have personal experience of being pulled from a 100 mile race against my own wishes and whilst my experience did not come as late as 91 or 95 miles (just 57) it is an extremely bitter pill to swallow. All of those runners who were pulled will have a chance to race again next year and finish but they will each be listed as official finishers of this race.
A brief timeline of events:
The rain began at the finish line at 6am or just before first light on Sunday but the wind (10mph) and temperature (8 Degrees) were not significant factors at that time. During the morning, the temperature dropped to 1 degree celcius, it began to sleet and then snow and the wind speed raised significantly which gave a wind chill temperature of -4 degrees. That change occurred dramatically quickly - in a period of just 2 hours. We began to receive calls reporting very cold/ shivering runners from some of the aid stations, it was to my bitter disappointment that Little Wittenham and Lower Radley had both gotten through all of their butane canisters by that stage. Neither were slated for hot food or drink prior to the race, but we endeavored to make sure that every aid station from Cookham (mile 38) onwards had access to hot water or facilities for making it for both safety and runner comfort reasons and this was mentioned to runners at the briefing. Between 10am and 12 noon on Sunday we started receiving runners that were suffering from cold related illnesses in at the finish, and reports from both Abingdon, Lower Radley and the course sweepers that runners were in great difficulty. Clearly the issue was that the ground was being soaked through and going was extremely slow in thick mud and water making un-runnable for anyone left on the course. The slower going reduced runners' ability to retain core temperature and that led to a very dangerous situation. We included survival blankets in the mandatory equipment for this very reason, but the conditions deteriorated so much that this measure was clearly insignificant. Many did not have wet weather gear because the conditions to that point had been relatively moderate.
Between 11am and noon we had two runners collapse with severe hypothermia, requiring immediate assistance from two of our three ambulance crews and both were taken to hospital due to the severity of their condition. Both runners are now ok and recovering at home. One in particular was extremely disappointed having had to seek medical help just 2 miles from the finish. The finish line medical team treated or helped over a dozen runners suffering cold related injuries.
I would personally like to thank any runners that remained with those suffering from the cold and staying with them in very very tough conditions, sacrificing their own finish time and energy in the process. Stuart Shipley is the only name I have of somebody who did this, but I know that there are more out there and I would love to hear from you if you were one of those people.
By 12 noon we had received another dozen runners who had been moving through the very worst of the conditions we saw and each one finished wrapped in as much clothing as they had access to/ bin bags and or survival blankets. Some runners were quite incoherent on finishing and had to be immediately escorted inside Oxford Ice Rink whom had opened a warm bar for us, given access through the emergency doors and made provision for us in the way of hot drinks and survival blankets beyond those that we had at the finish line tents.
At 12:05pm we made the decision that any runners still on course were in critical danger of suffering from hypothermia/ cold related illness. At that point 48 runners were still out on course. Our decision was to stop all remaining runners at the next aid station and to get any others that could get off of the course more quickly elsewhere, to do so. Of those 48 runners, everyone was brought in to safety by 2:26pm when the race was closed.
The key factor in the reason for the abandonment, was the speed in the change in conditions. Because runners had been treated to warmer temperatures and dry conditions throughout the day and night on Saturday 3rd March, the huge drop in temperature, increase in wind speed and heavy rain/ sleet caused many to be caught off guard, short of necessary waterproof gear. Drop bags were available at Abingdon (mile 91) but things changed so fast that many simply couldn't get access quickly enough to sufficient extra clothing, or had passed the point where they could have picked up extra clothing to stay warm enough. We felt that the risk of somebody becoming dangerously ill on an inaccesible part of the course, leading to collapse and potentially a fatal situation had reached critical. At that point we had to make the extremely difficult decision to abandon the race with our sole remaining aim, to bring all runners in to warmth and safety as soon as possible.
Of the 48 runners on course when the race was abandoned, 32 were between Lower Radley (95) and the finish (100), 8 between Abingdon (91) and Lower Radley (95) and 6 between Little Wittenham (82.5) and Abingdon (91). In total 114 runners finished the full course including those between Lower Radley and the finish and 14 runners were stopped by race officials - 8 at Lower Radley and 6 at Abingdon. Each of those runners would have gone on to finish the race under their own steam and will therefore be listed as official finishers of the race and be given awards as such. The inaugural Thames Path 100 therefore had 128 finishers.
I would like to thank the Aid Station Teams at Abgindon and Lower Radley for dealing so efficiently with the situation and for heading out on to the course in atrocious conditions to help runners to safety. To GB Emergency Medical Services and Dave Weeks our medical director for managing runners requiring medical support so well. To Sarah Thorne our course sweeper from Streatley to Abingdon who assisted the final runners to safety. To Lower Radley College for opening the boathouse up to us and to Oxford Ice Rink and the management there who acted so quickly to allow us into their bar area open up their doors to runners at the finish. Our number one priority will always be runner safety. Given the situation in the future, we will make the same call once again. The two big changes we will likely make for 2013 are that we will insist on wet weather gear as mandatory equipment, and that any outdoor aid stations in the final quarter of the race (Little Wit and Lower Radley) have a more extensive supply of butane for hot drinks.
My biggest thanks of all go to the 14 pulled runners for their understanding and support of the decision we made.
A full race report will be posted shortly.
Any issues or questions regarding the abandonment decision can be sent directly to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Firstly, I apologise profusely to anybody who feels they have been 'missed out' from this preview. I have included only those people which I am already aware of from the UK ultra circuit. Those of you that have been 'skipped over' will I'm sure right that wrong on race day and hence write yourselves into the history books with a bang. Remaining a dark horse is no bad thing....? Please also excuse any slight errors in the information present. Whilst the US has an incredible range of databases for results and a magazine dedicated to ultrarunning alone, we are obviously not so fortunate over here so I am forced to go off of snippets of info picked up along the way.
Corrections and additions gratefully received in the comments field below this post!
I thought it would be fun to have a look at a few of the potential front runners at the upcoming TP100 in order to highlight some of the calibre we have in the field. I am looking forward to seeing how the race plays out and have a feeling there will be some super fast times laid down this first weekend in March.
Ed Catmur - Ed has enjoyed a stellar start to the 2012 season with a 5:20 something win at Go Beyonds Country to Capital 44 miler. Whilst relatively new to the sport, his results to date have been seriously impressive, capturing 1st place at the Norfolk 100km and a 2nd place at the inaugural NDW50 last August. He also holds the Course Record at the Trionium Greensands Marathon. Look out for Ed later this year also as he steps up to the full 100 on the NDW on August 11th.
Robbie Britton - A man who has spent time out on the course recently with yours truly and who has, undoubtedly got a very bright future ahead of him in the ultra game. Robbie has built up a good amount of long distance experience in the past 18 months with finishes at Caesars Camp (twice), UltraRace 100 and the GUCR but his best result came in last years NDW100 when he overturned a huge deficit at 50 miles to win in 19:47. He recently ran the TT50 in 6:40 and knows what it is like to go long. Look out for a fast second 50 at the TP100.
Craig Holgate - Until recently, unknown on the ultra circuit, having not run any before the back end of last year, he has won his first two ultras, the latter being a very creditable 5:56 victory at the Thames Trot 50. This won't be a suprise to those that have seen him post extremely quick half and full marathon times over years of top level running. This will however be his first 100 miler and there is no substitute for experience. On paper, perhaps the fastest man in the field and it will fascinating to see if he can put together a great first 100.
Graham Booty - A man at home racing cross country as he is finishing strong at 100 milers. I've had the pleasure of witnessing him run just outside of a 20 hour time at Caesars Camp, as well as chasing Ian Sharman hard for the win at the Jurassic Coastal Challenge in 2010, falling just shy. His run at Caesars, which is an extremely challenging course, is proof that he can go on to record a super fast 100 mile time at the TP100 if he has a good day. Maybe a little early in the season for a man focusing this year on the UTMB but he will be in the hunt for sure and is as strong as they come.
Martin Bacon - 2nd place at the 103 mile SDW race in 2010 and with a sub 7 time at this years TT50, another man with experience of going long and capable of holding a very strong pace for the duration. Again perhaps another one to pick up the pieces if others go out too hard in the early stages.
David Ross - Dave probably wouldn't put himself in the mix for this race, but he should do. Having suffered at the hands of a really unfair DNF at Western States last year, his first 100, he came back to record a 5th place 22:39 which included getting lost for a considerable amount of time, a habit which those of us who know Dave has caused him problems in the past (he gifted me 7th instead of 8th at the C2C by adding on a few extra miles - thanks Dave!). In his second 100, a man who runs marathons and ultras every single week will be fighting fit and ready to push himself to the max. If everyone has their best day, Dave will be in and around the top 10. If others fade, I think Dave will pick off places all the way to the line.
Cliff Canavan King - Cliff ran a 19:59 at the 2011 SDW Race for second place. He is a man with plenty of speed at all distances from marathon and upwards and will be in the hunt from the start.
Ken Fancett - Ken won't win this race but is perhaps one of the most remarkable runners we have in the field. At the NDW100 he finished in 5th place in 22:31. I don't know his exact tally but Ken has been racing 100s and 24 hr track races for many years and I believe has over 30 100 mile finishes to his name. He recently also snuck in for a super time at the Benfleet 15 showing that he is still doing it at all distances. The amazing thing about Ken is that he is 62.
There are a host of other runners who could go fast on the day including Paul Acheson 4th at the NDW100 in 2011, Richard Webster who has a big year ahead - another man to have gone sub 20 at a 100 in the past and Dale Staton and Stuart Blofeld both late entries and sub 24 hour runners the NDW100 in 2011. It is shaping up to be a great race.
Erica Terblanche - Erica and I ran the first 60km of the Sahara Race long stage together in 2009 and I discovered somebody who is 1. as tough as they come but more importantly 2. totally and utterly has her pacing down to a fine art. Those subtle adjustments that allowed her to go on and win that event and kept her running almost the entire duration were gained from years of adventure racing, often where Erica would be the only female in a team. Steady pacing at 100 miles is crucial and Erica has that skill as well as plenty of experience of going long in abundance.
Mimi Anderson - Where to start. A lady who has been winning ultras for years, who regularly beats the men as well as the ladies, who has set records at the most difficult ultra running challenges around the world including but not limited to: Bawdater, Double Badwater, the MdS, female record holder at double Comrades, female record holder for John O'Groats to Lands End, until recently the world record holder for a 7 day treadmill run, fastest Brit at the Spartathlon in 2011, winner of the Seni-Extreme 200 mile race the list goes on and on. Mimi will start at her own pace and indeed finish at her own pace. The one thing that's for sure is that she will finish as strong as she starts.
Sandra Bowers - Sandra was this months female winner and new course record holder at the TT50 and has the pedigree of representing her country multiple times. There is no doubt that she is on form and whilst a late entrant, will be one to watch after her show of recent form.
Jen Bradley - Perhaps not entirely focused on this race with other goals in mind for 2012, Jen won the 12 hour hell on the humber last year and has the potential to go fast here.
In amongst the others Trinity Booth and Wendy Shaw both had great races at the C2C, showing that they are coming to form at the right time.
All in all both races are lining up to be fascinating at the front end. Where ever you are looking to finish, finishing is the number 1 priority and the aid station teams will do their best to get you to that line.
Please feel free to add yourselves or recommend others I've missed into the comments section below.
Texas in February. I'm going to start this post in the style of a true Englishman, talking about the weather. I first came out to run Rocky in 2009. It was my first 100 miler and I was greeted with glorious sunshine, 65 degree temperatures and low humidity. It felt like a summers day. Last year, I found a quarter of an inch of ice secured to the exterior of the car on race morning thanks to an ice storm and a temperature of minus 5 degrees. This year we had the most specatacular thunderstorm I have ever seen. I was rooming with Ian Sharman at Motel 6, last years course record holder and joint coach on our new Centurion Running coaching program. When we opened the motel room door on Saturday morning his first words to me were 'well I guess there won't be any records today'. The drive to the state park was like being on a Hollywood movie set, lightning illuminating the sky every 90 seconds and rain falling so heavily on the windscreen ('shield') that I was sure I'd missed the exit to the park and was heading back towards Houston and the airport. I probably would have just carried on if I hadn't seen the giant statue of Sam Houston leaning white out of the darkness signalling the turning in to the park entrance.
On the Friday afternoon we'd gone down to the park for the race briefing with Ian's crew chief and previous RR100 finisher Meredith Terranova. Just before the briefing, there was a kids 1 mile race and we ended up marshalling the half mile turn around point whilst Ian handed out the medals to the finishers at the end. We hung around and chatted with Bob the chief over at Drymax socks for a while whilst Ian got called away for signatures and photo ops which he clearly found quite surreal but we thought very funny. I even got to hold his water bottle a few times. The briefing was short and we didn't stay long before we grabbed dinner and an early night.
The course at Rocky Raccoon consists of 5 x 20 mile loops. There are quite a few out and back sections and consequently the opportunity of seeing other runners on course isn't just a possiblity, it is a guaranteed certainty. The course is all trail, with 5500 feet of climbing and no strictly technical sections. That being said there are a couple of short steep ascents which certainly get you working and lots of rolling terrain which as per usual, turns from easily runnable to positively mountainous by the 5th loop. The course also has one more significant card up it's sleeve - roots. They are absolutely everywhere and especially at night they are out to get you. I don't know anybody who's run this race and not ended up on the floor at least a few times. It's easy to look at Ian's 12:44 last year and think that the course represents a guaranteed PB opportunity. It's undoubtedly quick and many come out here looking for it, but those who don't train on the trails come away sorely disappointed at the level of concentration they need to apply to get around in one piece and in good time. How Ian turned in a 12:44 around there is, however, completely beyond me. I think if the trail were crushed gravel, even with more climb I could understand it better but it isn't. You can't switch off even for a minute and concentrating hard while moving that fast takes a real level of skill.
This year there was one much more significant issue to face and that was the mud. As we arrived at the startline, the tarps that had been laid down for our drop bags had turned into paddling pools. I dumped mine under a disused barbeque instead, reluctantly removed my jacket and ran to the startline. I stood cowering behind Ian, Hal Koerner, Karl Meltzer and the 2011 Badwater champ Oswaldo Lopez and and 90 seconds later we were off into the abyss.
Rain anybody? RR2012 start c/o Bob at Drymax.
I had a very clear target in mind for this race based on the training I had been able to log. During November 2011 I had banked precisely zero miles in recovery from a bad bike crash. I had started training in early December and had 8 weeks of solid base training under my belt, ranging from 55 to 105 miles per week, averaging out at maybe 65-70. I had included no speed or hill work at all prior to the race and the only tempo sessions to speak of were the workouts I had at the CC to GE marathon, Country to Capital and one other longer run on the Thames Path. My expectations were based on my legs feeling strong, but having no significant speed. I felt that a good day would be good enough to get me a time some way under 18 hours and that even a poor run would see me under my 2009 time on this course. My plan was to pace for 18 hours, pick it up if I felt strong and take what I could get if not. I was absolutely determined, however, that I would ignore everybody elses pace and run my own race. The importance of doing that in a 100 mile race, in particular over any other distance, is enormous. Scanning the results yesterday it is amazing to see how many people lay down crazy fast first loops before spiralling out to 4th and 5th loop times almost three times slower. Even pacing throughout the race is arguably the only way to have a successful and certainly the only way to have an enjoyable day.
I found myself running early on with a Russian guy calle Dima who had finished last years Tor Des Geants and a couple of Americans shooting for 18 hours too. We formed a nice pace group, sensible through the first hour of darkness and staying upright through the streams and open water ponds that had formed on various sections. Keeping anything dry was a joke and certainly prudence was required through the thicker sections. Whilst it was undoubtedly the wettest period of the day, the worst of the mud was yet to come, as 600 runners behind us were yet to go through it, on each of 5 laps and multiple times per lap. It became a real mess. Very quickly I realised that it was taking more energy to move over the terrain that it had last year and an increase in effort yielded slower times. I made it through loop 1 significantly slower than 2011 in 3:07 and as per last year saw Ian hotly pursued by Oswaldo, Hal and Karl around 5 miles ahead as I came through 17.5 and they through 22.5. To run a 3:07 felt like a 2:55 in 2011 terms and Ian felt the same way. The next time I saw him was on another section of out and back towards the end of his second loop. He shouted out to me that the mud was making it very difficult to stay in touch with the time he wanted to run and it was quite obvious we were all going to have to re-evaluate our goals. Still that's what happens in trail running and highlights the importance of having a Plan B. Having lost significant time against my pre race target even in the first 2 loops, I switched my focus towards a 20 hour finish instead.
I came through the 40 mile start finish out on to loop 3 in 6:39 for just under 10 minute mile pace and felt confident with no problems to report. My legs felt great and I knew I had a lot of running left in them. Loop 3 was again relatively incident free but the pools of mud out on the course which I had powered through earlier, had become soup like and extremely tricky to negotiate without having a strong core/ stabilising muscles. Indeed Ian tweaked his hip flexor in the mess and sadly had to pull out just past the end of lap 3. He will be back again and on a clear day I have no doubt that the course record would have been in his sights once again. I reached the 60 mile point in a good level of daylight with 10:28 on the clock requiring a very straight forward 9:32 final 40 miles to come in under 20 hours. I could see the carnage unfolding around and a lot of people had chosen to stop on account of the conditions exacerbating the inevitable issues commonly faced during a 100 mile run. In fact on the womens side, I had already passed Liza Howard and Jill Perry the two favourites who were on their way out too.
I grabbed my headtorch and my next 20 miles worth of gels and went out on to loop 4 with a spring in my step and felt good. My aim was to bank as much as I could mileage wise before the sun went down and made the roots and mud/ water even more tricky to negotiate. I had in my mind that a 4 hour loop, a paltry 12 min mile pace would get me in a good position to tackle loop 5 with plenty of time in the bank. The middle part of every loop is a 6 mile section called the Dam Road loop, it is more remote than the rest of the course and probably the trickest section. As I came back through Dam Road aid station at mile 72 I began to experience some pretty severe chest pains. I shrugged them off and put it down to indigestion as I switched the lamp on and made it back to the 80 mile point in 14:50.
By now the temperature had dropped significantly and as people's pace dropped in the dark and added distance, so did their core temperatures and there were a few very sorry looking souls out on the course even at a point less than half way through the race. I set off on loop 5 with strong legs and with plenty of energy but as soon as I picked up my walk into a run, my chest felt extremely tight and frankly I was concerned. I continued with prudence and power walked my way through the first 3 miles or so. Slowing down, cooling down and with pretty severe blisters the last lap was set to be rather less pleasant than the preceeding 4. By the back side of the Dam Road Loop at mile 90 I was having real trouble breathing deeply and knew that my running was done. Even dropping into a power walk I found myself cruising past a lot of people still run-shuffling in that all too familiar ultra style. I feel bad about saying it, but knowing that you are lapping people, some of them for the second time does make you feel better about your own position. It certainly made me realise that suffering it out for 15 miles was pretty insignificant vs spending another 15 hours out in the mud bath.
By now my Garmin had died and when I reached Park Road aid at mile 95.6, they told me the time was 1:09am, 19:09 into the race. I wish I could say that I had it in me at that point to dig out a 51 minute finish, but I aboslutely didn't and so I stuck my freezing cold hands in my pockets and strolled it in. I really enjoyed that last section reflecting on the enormity of the distance put behind, knowing that I was going to finish and under no real time pressure.
In the end I crossed the line in 20:19 for a PB but a mile away from what I had hoped to achieve. Certainly there are mixed emotions coming away from the race. Turning up to 'run a time' is against the principles of most of my training where I log miles when I want and do so without the pressure of a watch, pace or splits. That being said there is a time for running against the clock. In the end you have to take the conditions handed to you on the day. Race enough and you are going to be handed golden days where everything is set up for you to race to your full potential and capitalise on it for a 'PB'. Other days, like Saturday, you can have the race of your life and bank a time 1/2/4 hours slower than you would have under the right conditions. That's life and a huge part of why trail running is so much fun.
I'm pleased I was able to switch to plan B without losing focus but disappointed that I was forced to slow down in the final quarter by something 'out of my control' such as nutrition/ hydration/ leg strength. It was undoubtedly the onset of asthma as the temperature dropped during the night time stage that made my chest contract. I probably could have run through it had I not harboured a lingering concern that it might just be something a little more serious.... In the end it looks like 45% of the runners dropped which I guess shows just how important it is either to re-evaluate your goals and carry on pushing even when it might seem pointless, after all a 100 mile finish is still a 100 mile finish. Or to enjoy running around in a lake.
Another good year in the books for this race now 20 years old. In the end Hal Koerner won the men's race with a 13:24. That is a truly astounding time on a course playing maybe 5% to 10% harder than 2011. Could he have gone sub 13 on a clear day? I think so. Sadly for him rather than being able to celebrate he found out at the finish line that his rental car had been towed with all his stuff in it and having left his car keys on the front tyre. Not ideal after a 100 mile run. Karl Meltzer and Oswaldo Lopez secured ver respectable 2nd and 3rd place finishes in the mid 14 hour range. After the top 2 girls dropped, it was left to Sabrina Moran to run in with a 17:09, winning by almost three hours. The 2nd and 3rd place girls were the two finishers in front of me.
Ian will be back next year. So will a host of top guys and girls shooting for hard early season racing and potential course records. I think I will be too, it's hard to say why but the race really has something about it, especially if the weather is good and hopefully there'll be a few more Brits there too. Who knows I might even be able to run a bit faster....