This is the first of a three part blog post about ultrarunning in 2013. This part focuses on UK Ultrarunning Performances of the Year. The second part will focus on the top 10 male and female performances in Centurion events in 2013. The final part will look at our ultra team and fast forward to what's happening on the race scene in 2014.
In the US, Ultra Running Magazine has been going since the 1980s and quickly established itself as the authority on results and reports for all US ultra distance events. Whilst the sport has exploded in recent times, Ultra Running's UPOY (Ultra Performance of the Year) and UROY (Ultra Runner of the Year), remain the most presitgious honours bestowed to North American Ultra distance athletes. The awards can be handed only to North American Runners though they do allow residents to be included, so that UK runners like Joe Grant, Ian Sharman and Nick Clark are all eligible for awards.
UK Run Ramles, otherwise know as Profeet's Richard Felton made the jump last year to polling for UK UROY and UPOY, a move that was welcomed. The difference with Ultra Running Magazine is that they have a very well established board of judges drawn from all areas of the sport and who's opinions are greatly respected. Between them they vote for their individual picks and proceed from there to the awards. I'd like to see something similar done here in the UK.
The below is my own individual perspective. I have absolutely no qualification to judge these athletes and I will undoubtedly have missed off mind blowing performances by UK runners by the handful. That's the difference between one individual and a committee. There is still no universal publication of results for Ultra Distance races and we are still a ways off from one central source where all results are fielded. DUV statistik leads the way and the hard work the guys over there have done is incredible. As the database grows this has become the go to place to check out other athletes historical results, much like the power of ten here in the UK or Ultrasignup in the US. Long may this growth continue.
So finally, before I start, please go wild with comments for who has been missed and who deserves recognition that I haven't included. This, as with all of my pre race previews, comes from my own tracking of the sport in the UK only, so try to hold back on criticism for information sorely lacking :) I've included non-UK resident UK athletes. In my opinion that's the way it should be done.
Steve way, Stockholm 100k:
UK 100k running has fallen by the way side in recent times. In recent years, we have struggled as a nation to produce athletes capable of going under the 7hr mark, where in days gone by the benchmark was a full 40 minutes less than this. Finally it seems we have an athlete who can bring back the glory days and begin to compete for the podium at the Worlds. As a sub 2:20 marathoner making his first foray in to ultras, Steve Way is probably the most exiciting prospect out there and his first effort in Stockholm this summer was electrifying to follow as he blazed his way to a 6:40, the 5th fastest UK 100km runner of all time.
Ian Sharman, Leadville 100 & Grand Slam:
THE Ian Sharman has in my opinion taken another step towards becoming the best of the best, in 2013. With a prolific level of racing in the past including 100s of marathons and ultras, he began fine tuning his training towards specific and more elevated goals three years ago and hasn't looked back since. Performances prior to 2013 including his 6:01 at Comrades and his 12:44 at Rocky Raccoon 100, have been, for me, the most outstanding runs he has had to date. With 3 Western States 100 Top 10 finishes behind him, he decided to embark on the adventure of the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning in the US this summer. The drama that unfolded as Ian raced the overall record for the 4 x 100 milers, as well as compatriot Nick Clark, was something to behold. In a summer where he banked his 4th consecutive WS Top 10 and a strong Vermont 100 just three weeks apart, he then went and ran Leadville in a way that I simply would never have predicted he could have. I spoke to him the week prior to the race and his goal was to win the race. That wasn't something born out of a big ego, but out of confidence in his ability, something that is inherent in many of the very best in the sport. He raced through the first 13 miles of Leadville in 1st place, I was surprised, the runners behind him undoubtedly were too, and promptly put any concerns about how the altitude would affect him out of the back door as he made the turn at Winfield and ploughed through the other 800 runners still headed outbound to mile 50. After the event he described the final 13 miles as the most painful he'd ever experienced. The threat of Nick from behind, the monotony of that final lakeside path, the will to better the Grand Slam record and to win the race outright, drove him to become the third fastest runner ever over the course. With the quality of athletes that have shown up to run Leadville in it's long history, this for me, puts his result up there with his Comrades and Rocky efforts as one of the best trail 100s ever run by a British athlete. As he went on to Wasatch and finished 2nd to Nick, he broke the existing Grand Slam record in a time which I think will stand for a long while to come. But for me, his Leadville was one of the outstanding runs in the US this summer, irrespective of the other 3 100s he flew through around it.
Nick Clark, Wasatch Front 100:
Nick, like Ian Sharman, has been exiled from the UK for some time. His family are in Kent and my hope is that one day he will run the NDW100. In the meantime, Nick still calls Colorado home and has been one of the most consistent runners on the US scene over the 100 mile distance for a number of years. THis year he pushed Ian all the way in the Slam, but excelled himself by taking the win at Wasatch in his final race of the 4.
Marco Consani, Tooting Bec 24hr:
Marco is Mr humble. For years he has watched his wife Debbie run world class performances over the 24hr distance, supporting Team GB and quietly going about the business of becoming one of the best Ultra distance trail runners in the UK. This summer he finished 2nd in the WHW Race, in a time that would have won it most any other year, but was bettered by Paul Giblin who is also mentioned in this post. Marco decided to try his hand at a 24hr race in September, with the roles reversed and Debs supporting him this time around. The GB 24hr team qualifying standard was at the time, 231km. Marco knew this was do-able, in fact he went out with a plan not just to better this but to record a world class effort. He did exactly that. Rattling off 8 minute mile after 8 minute mile, he shattered the 15hr mark, running 14:31 for the first 100 miles. He went on to hold a steady effort all of the way to the finish, to record one of the best 24hr totals in recent years of 154 miles, the best of 2013 by any British runner and put himself as our new number 1. All in his first 24hr event.
Ed Catmur, North Downs Way 100:
The North Downs Way 100 is in my opinion, the toughest of our 4 Centurion 100 milers. Whilst the overall elevation change isn't great with just under 10,000feet of climbing, the climbs present in short sharp and very steep bursts. Furthermore on top of gates and stiles to negotiate, the chop and change in the underfoot conditions from chalk, to rock, to grass, to tarmac and everything in between, do a huge number on breaking a runners rhythm, not to mention the fact that the course runs a few miles long and that section after Detling.... well you have to see it for yourself. I always felt we would see someone run a sub 17 on the course in the near future. As standards in UK runners rise, that was a possibility. I didn't see a sub 16 coming unless a world class 100 mile athlete decided to make the trip over. In an epic to and fro this year, Anthony Forsyth pushed Ed to a 15:44 or sub 9:30 minute miling over the full distance. Anthonys performance would have merited an appearance on here on it's own, but with no crew and no fuss, Ed ran that rare combination of all out, yet within himself all day and recorded one of the best 100 mile performances on UK soil this year. For me, Ed's race here won't be fully understood until time gives us the perspective to look back and compare this effort against years of attempts and other winning times by top level athletes. The truth is, much like Dan Dohertys UTSW of recent times, this run could turn out to be even more special than it already seems.
This has to be the most under appreciated run of 2013. The Fling has had a history of attracting this countrys very best. Jez Bragg, Andrew James, Terry Conway, Paul Giblin, Scott Bradley - just some of the names that have thrown down over the many years this race has been in existence. Lee Kemp's Course Record 7:02 this year was significantly faster than any of those athletes before him, and was enough to put him well ahead of a who's who Top 10 of UK ultrarunning this year, including but not limited to many other names on this list (Ricky, Marco, Paul for a start). Much like Dakota Jones breaking Matt Carpenter records in the US, this was a game changing run and one which strangely seemed to fly a little under the radar.
Ricky Lightfoot, World Trail Championships 2013:
Ricky became World Trail Running Champion in Wales this July, not just winning the 77km race outright in 5:36, but destroying the competition by over 10 minutes. Whilst this performance made him world champion, a result that quite obviously speaks for itself. Craig Holgate described the course afterwards at not having a single flat secion and with temps hitting 27 degrees, put Rickys peformance out there as one he felt would be hard to comprehend by anyone not out there on the course.
Paul Giblin, WHW race:
For me, this was the most outstanding ultra distance run on UK soil in 2013. In 2012, we stood at the sports centre at the end of the WHW race, to see if Terry Conway would come in inside of the course record 15:44. He destroyed himself to come in inside of it and ranked it as an even better performance than his epic and renowned sub 20hr Lakeland 100 Course Record. Paul took another 32 MINUTES off of that time (15:07). In the UK, we don't have too many races like this, with a deep history of incredible competition and lasting performances to compare against. This is one of the truly classic UK ultras on one of our greatest trails. Much like Tim Olson's 14:46 at WSER in 2012, this was a game changing performance. Paul redefined what is possible on this route. Having finished 2nd to Terry in 2012 and run a Winter WHW later that year (where his retinas froze), Paul obviously knew it like the back of his hand, and had the confidence to go out at a pace that most could not have sustained even as far as the first CP, Drymen at 13 miles. He ran fearless and executed it flawlessly, breaking only when he arrived at Beinglas before the CP had even opened (losing a few minutes) The brilliant Q&A he wrote afterwards gives more of an insight in to how he did it and what it took. What amazing things does he have in store for the future. I hope he goes on to race some of the other bigger global 100s and show us the level of class he displayed here.
Robbie Britton, Petzl South Downs Way 100:
Robbie smashed the Petzl SDW100 this year in a time of 15:43, beating the remainder of the field by over an hour and lowering the course record by 80 minutes. In doing so he scooped the first place pay check of £500 put up by Petzl. In a young race, again this performance can't really be fully understood. What's without doubt is that the time, on a course with 13,000 feet of climbing is world class. What makes this performance stand out for me, and what makes Robbie the most outstanding young prospect on the UK scene at the moment, is that instead of backing off and securing an easy win, Robbie raced himself and the clock all the way to the track. Paced by Paul Navesey, he put his foot on the gas from the gun and didn't let go for a second. His drive and determination not just to win but to race the best race he could was what makes this shine beyond the incredible time.
Ben Abdelnoor, Lakeland 50:
The Lakeland 50/100 has quickly established itself at the pinnacle of UK Ultra Running Events. Excellent organisation, stunning and challenging courses and some incredible performances have set them aside as must do events. Ben ran a 7:39 bettering the course record by 7 minutes and winning on the day by over 40. Again, the quality of this performance is both against the competition on the day but more so against those that have raced this course before and know how brilliant a time like that is on a course like the Lakeland 50.
Paddy Robbins, Spartathlon:
Mr Grand Union this year turned out what was for me, the best result of his running career to date, one which has included multiple wins/ CRs at the longest non-stop races we have here in the UK. After 4 Grand Union victories including his Course Best of 25:37 and a win at the Viking Way last year (as well as numerous world class GB 24hr performances), Paddys 27:09 at this years Sparta was the stand out long performance of 2013 by a UK runner. Paddy rolled out of the gate at Sparta in his trademark fashion, running very easy and allowing 3/4 of the field to gallop off into the distance, including yours truly. His metronomic pace has become a thing of legend. Whilst most fade dramatically over the distance, Paddy is somehow able to keep a flat even pace going from beginning to end. This skill set is almost unique in races of the length of spartathlon. Simply put, his second half race splits are unmatched by any other runner. Cruising past me at mile 65ish, he went on to record a nigh on even split for a race where almost all of the climbing (8000 feet) comes in the second 76 miles, for a 7th overall and finally put in a Sparta effort akin to the golden days when UK runners were pushing for the podium/ outright wins in one of the worlds classic races.
Danny Kendall, MdS:
Danny has become somewhat of an MdS specialist in recent years. The fact of desert racing is, that the more you run them the better your race management becomes, in an event format where race management is so crucially important. Gear, nutrition, hydration, sleep, body temperature management, recovery, electrolyte balance. These are some of the many things that contribute to success in desert races beyond pure fitness. Dannys times this year have been top end all the way from cross country through road marathons and on to ultras. But his MdS this year, 21:46 got a British athlete in to the top 10 overall for the first time, ever. A combination of brilliant running, brilliant race management and superb fitness.
Iain Ridgeway, JFK 50:
The JFK 50 mile is the oldest ultra in the US. In years gone by it's mix of Appalachian Trail start and blazing fast towpath second half, have brought in some epicly quick times, this year was no exception as Zach Miller blazed a 5:38 for the win. In 2011, Dave Riddles 5:40 (since bettered by Max Kings 5:34) was enough to win him US UPOY. This year, a Brit went over and much like Ian Sharman last year (and ellie greenwood on the ladies side) ran a blistering race and put the UK on the US map so to speak. Whilst this performance wasn't a win, or a Course Record I've included it as it was brilliant to see a UK based runner go over and throw down a 4th place at one of the US's most prestigious events, something that happens all too infrequently. Any sub 6 hr 50 deserves recognition and Iains 5:57 was exceptional.
Lizzie Wraith, Lakeland 100:
Working the Boot aid station at this years Lakeland 100, we had a chance to see Lizzie Wraith come through as first lady, in a mind boggling early pace, looking supremely comfortable in her (for lakeland) lightweight Salomon S-labs, and wondered if perhaps, like watching Lizzy Hawker in her early UTMB days, we were either witnessing something truly special or a truly unsustainable early pace. It turned out that we were witnessing the former. Rory Bosio ran, for me, the oustanding world female performance this year at UTMB, gaining 7th overall and taking hours off of the CR. Lizzie's Lakeland performance whilst not on Rorys level was similar to it in many ways. Running in a 24:15 and taking 4hrs off of the CR and finishing 8th overall. What more is there to say.
Sharon Law, World 24hr:
On her way to 226km at the world 24hs in Steenbergen in May, Sharon set new Scottish 200km and 24hr records. Her total earned her 3rd in the Europeans (held concurrently). A huge performance, a PB and good enough to help secure the silver medal for the GB Team.
Joanna Zakrezewski, World Trail Champs:
Similar to Ricky Lightfoots effort at the WTC, Joanna did the UK proud, coming in 4th female clocking 7:01 overall. On any given day, a 7:01 over a 77km course would be a phenomenal effort, but with the elevation change and heat on the day, this was an exceptional run. Joanna is no stranger to epic performances on a world level but this trail performance added to her 7:41 for 2nd at the World 100k's in 2011.
Sue Harrison, European 100km Champs:
Sue posted third overall at the European 100k's this past April, clocking a 7:48 for the distance, placing her 4th fastest on the UK ultra list. Again, in comparison with male performances, Sue has put herself on the map in a very similar way to Steve Way, with this only her second attempt at the distance. Clearly we have much more exciting times ahead in the future of UK 100km running.
Jean Beaumont, Petzl South Downs Way 100:
Jean rolled through this years SDW100 like the world class athlete she is. In a very similar race to Robbie's equivalent overall win, Jean put almost 2 hrs in to second place. No stranger to 100 mile trail wins having previously held the Course Records at the Northburn 100 in NZ and the Winter 100, Jean smashed her trail PB and ran a time of 16:56 good enough for 3rd overall and walked away with the prize purse in the process. Epic Run.
Mimi Anderson, GUCR Double:
This is the one performance included in either list which has nothing to do directly with time. There was uproar in the US a couple of years back when Jenn Pharr-Davies' outright Appalachian Trail record was recorded as female UPOY, and in the whole I agree with the condemnation for that selection on a number of levels. That being said, how do you give the credit a performance on that scale deserves, without mentioning it alongside the best race performances? When Mimi began running backwards down the GUCR course two days before this years official race, most thought that she had finally bitten off more than she could chew. Her aim was to run the 145 miles to the start, in under 36 hours and then return to finish the official race after a short night of rest. 300 miles (almost) back to back. Not only did Mimi finish, she made the initial journey in 31:50 and came back in a time of 36:49, 8 hours inside of the cut off and good enough for 5th female. Truly a mind blowing individual effort.
Who gets your vote? Please comment at the bottom.
I may live to regret saying this, but right now the forecast for the WInter 100 looks good. Cold but good. That being said runners who are used to long distances in British winter and mountains at anytime will have prepared for conditions where strength wins out over speed - Richie Cunningham and Jean Beaumont epitomised that last year as they gutted out incredible times in rough weather whilst much 'faster' runners fell by the way side. It's often those without any time goals, racing the field and not the clock that persevere in poor condtions. Faster running this year will make for a fascinating race. Conditions often dictate the times in trail racing, often as much or more than an atheletes ability on the day.
Here's a preview of the front runners in both the mens and womens fields. As always, this is off the top of my head with very little research behind it so please feel free to add others using the comments field at the bottom.
Overall we have an anticipated start field of 95 with 9 x 2013 Grand Slammers going for number 4 and many Centurion Veterans returning. No doubt there will be some stories of huge strength in adversity all the way to the final cuts as is always the case with 100 mile trail events, particularly at this time of year.
For me there is one stand out runner this year, Ed Catmur. Ed, for me, would be UK UROY (others like Ricky Lightfoot and Craig Holgate have also had stellar years) but it's likely that most are unaware of his achievements in 2013, because he doesn't have a blog or twitter account. So excuse the lamenting on his achievements here but in light of the term UK UROY being used around runners achieving purely quantity over quality Ed has struck the balance of both. Ed will be looking for his third 100 mile win of 2013 at this event. He won (actually the only finisher) of a Saxon Shore 100 earlier in the year, before going on to destroy the NDW100 course record in one of the most outstanding performances of 2013, anywhere in the UK. He did it without any crew or support just off of his own back. Finally after a few years of knocking on the door of something incredible, he put the pieces together and nailed it. Amongst those things he won the Milton Keynes & Welsh Marathons and just set a PB at Bournemouth finishing 8th with a 2:34. This level of road speed in a marathon matches closely with the likes of Ian Sharman and Craig Holgate who are pushing the front line in UK ultra distance running. Believe me when I say that Ed is right up there with the best and would be competitive in most bigger/ global field 100s right now. His skill set is not limited to the road and marked trail. He's also an orienteer which is a skill that assisted him in his wins at the Saunders MM and the Ultra Tour of the Peak district. The Saunders is not a small time event, a certain Lizzy Hawker traditionally used it as a build up to many of her UTMB wins. If conditions are dry and cold as they look likely to be, Ed can go under Craigs Centurion 100 mile best of 15:11 here, I have no doubt.
Luke Ashton is an enigma. I hope he doesn't mind me saying that earlier in the year his promise as he took 2nd at a muddy, wet and cold Thames Path 100 which was a break through effort in his first 100 miler, waned away a little as he raced a lot and turned to running many events barefoot which brought down some of his overall times. If Luke comes to the Winter 100 with his game face on, he could run Ed hard, particularly if he can reduce the time he spends in CPs down, it's just a case of which Luke we'll see on the day.
Warwick Gooch stands tall amongst other men as winner of the 2012 Caesars Camp 100. In awful conditions he made it around well under the 24hr mark and jogged a comfy 50 miler there this year looking relaxed and in control. He will feature from the off.
Dave Ross, marathon man. Dave has had a great year running sub 7:30 at Comrades for the second year in a row. More importantly perhaps he managed to get his Western States monkey off of his back and finished in a great time, before building on that to a superb NDW100 run under the 18 hour mark. Alongside of those things he consistenly races marathons under the 3hr mark and recently set a PB of 2:51, something that means a lot to a man with 300 marathons under his belt. Dave's undoing will only be in his own pacing. If he can resist running the first 25 too hard he may wipe hourse off of his NDW100 time. At the TP100 he went off of the front and came unstuck in the last 20 fading to 6th in the cold. Can he pace himself from the start and hold on for another PB here? I reckon so.
Matt Winn Smith had a sterling 100 mile effort at the TP100 in 2012. As a triathlete and ultra runner he holds all the right attributes to succeed, planning, strength, speed and will have a strong race here no doubt.
Eduard Egelie ran his first 100 in 2012 at this event. He has improved week on week over the past 12 months running a very strong NDW100 for 6th overall and is prepared better than ever this time. Top 5 runner with podium potential.
Ronnie Staton produced the UPOY of this year under some careful coaching from someone who knows what they are doing ;) He ran the 200 mile Wainwright Coast to Coast route non-stop in 56 hours. I can't begin to describe what an incredible effort that is. With that behind him and having run this event and numerous other 100s before, in a mind game there is no winner against this man.
Sharon Law must sit top of the pile as the Scottish 24hr record holder, taking 8th overall at the World 24s this year with 226km clocked. She's no stranger to success on the trails either. Her sub 9hr Highland Fling time being one of many.
My Scottish contact tells me also that Charlotte Black, on route down from the Shetland Islands for this race, is one to watch. With some strong 100km performances behind her she will hopefully light up the competition here.
Wendy Shaw is 2nd overall in the Grand Slam stakes and podiumed at all 3 of our Centurion 100s so far this year. That's no mean feat. Always solid, always working and getting faster Wendy will want this for numerous reasons. Look for her to push through strong in the latter stages.
Mary Heald surprised everyone including herself it seems by winning the NDW100 this year. Mary DNFd the winter 100 at mile 83 last year, and has since gone on to put herself within 100 miles of the grand slam. Quite the comeback. Can she do it again here?
As a straight up running race, the Spartathlon is renowned as being 'quite hard'. In order for a runner to sit the right side of the incredibly thin line between success and failure, almost everything must go right - both in training and on race day. That's what made it, for me, the most difficult and consequently alluring challenge of my running career. The race is also ingrained in history and in the Greek culture. How many races out there can claim to have a course that's permanently marked on the road from start to finish?
Success in the race boils down to handling a number of factors. The impact of the road over that distance. The heat of the first day. The cold of the night. The mountain. The heat of the second day. The ability to eat, drink, stay cool, stay awake and endure the pain that comes with the territory. But by far and away the biggest factor to weigh in to the equation of finishing, are the cut offs, and therefore speed.
On paper, Spartathlon is a very difficult proposition, but the numbers still don't reflect just how hard it is. The idea is to run from the Acropolis in Athens, departing at 7am on Friday - to reach the Statue of Leonidas in the city of Sparta, by 7pm the following evening. This mirrors the journey made by Pheidippides, the messenger of ancient Greece, who covered the same distance to request assistance from the Spartan armies, departing Athens on foot and arriving in Sparta before the sun set on the following day. The distance is 153 miles/ 245km. The course holds 8800ft of climbing, including a significant climb up an off road mountain pass at exactly 100 miles, where Pheidippides met the God Pan. The temperature during the first day is usually in the low 30sC, during the night drops right down (think breath condensing in the air cold) and builds back to the 30s again during the second day. The cut off of 36 hours is spread unevenly across 75 checkpoints but trying to average roughly 5mph for that length of time doesn't allow for any kind of significant break from running. Every checkpoint has an individual cut off time, for example the 50 mile point must be reached in 9hrs30. The 99 mile point within 22hrs20 etc etc. None of these are especially 'tight' but they are enough that if anything goes wrong, you can't afford the time to stop, rest or even significantly slow (walk). If you miss one, you're out and the death bus will pick you up. 350 runners start each year, all passing stringent qualification criteria to be there. The finishing stats say a lot. This year was a bumper year with 146 out of 350 runners making it. Last year, less than 80 did it.
After dropping at the mountain (mile 99) in 2012, this year my only aim was to finish. The cut offs and overall available time in which to finish create a unique set of circumstances. Effectively what happens is that the fastest 3rd of what is a very capable ultra field, finish, whereas the remainder will be timed out or drop for other reasons.
I slept brilliantly the two nights leading up to the race this year (11 and 8hrs respectively!). The day before the race, Team GB met up and we had our pictures taken with our team kit, kindly supplied by Keith Godden and Buff. Everything was co-ordinated by the unofficial official UK ambassador for British Spartathletes, James Adams.
Team GB. Scared. Photo c/o of Peter Ali.
When I woke up at 5am on race morning, I smiled, thankful that the pressure of waiting for the massive effort to begin was over. I had a really simple set up in terms of gear, nutrition and clothing. Plain white cotton tee that would absorb water continually poured over my head during the race in order to stay cool. Shorts with deep pockets in order to carry bags of food and gels. A buff over my head to pack with ice. A watch, some S! Caps (salt tabs) and a shit kit. Every hour I had a drop bag, containing 4 cookies and a gel. Occasionally there were more substantial additions such as pots of baked beans and rice pudding. My headlamp, and windproof were in at mile 60, and all the night drop bags contained bin bags in case I got too cold and required disposable and easy to manage options for added warmth. At one point I would have them all on.....
Gathering at the Acropolis/ start line. Photo c/o Spartathlon Official.
We ran out of the Acropolis at 7am and I dropped in to a comfy pace. Within a mile, the lead group of a dozen or so ahead pelted down a road in the wrong direction and were shouted back by a Greek runner. A couple of minutes later the same pack came past led by Mike Morton the US 2012 World 24hr champ who would later drop after hurdling a dog and putting his back out. Mike turned out to be incredibly humble and a good craic on our journey home after the race. His report is here. Robbie Britton caught up to me and we joked for a minute before he pushed on ahead with a different plan for his own race. We'd spent a week or so out in the ghettos of northern Athens 'acclimitising' for the race and we knew we'd be running apart. We made our way through the Athens streets with the usual blaring of horns and police blockades which shut the city rush hour down to allow us to pass (there is no way the UK could ever have an equivalent to this). The first 3 miles of gradual descent preceded 3 miles of gradual climbing and already by that point i'd lost sight of the lead group of a dozen or so and had nobody to follow. It was extremely difficult at times to ascertain the right route at a junction but that abated after 10km or so and we were on to the hard shoulder of the motorway westwards towards Corinth.
Around 10 miles in to the race, I stopped to answer a call of nature and when I emerged back on to the road, Mimi Anderson was there. As a multiple world record holder, Mimi's plan was not simply to run to Sparta, but to take a short break there before running 153 miles back to Athens again. Yep, you read that right.
Mimi's pace felt good and we fell in to the gradual ebb and flow of a race of this length, little did we know we were beginning a partnership that would last 90 miles. We rolled through the checkpoints efficiently whilst the heat stayed manageable, taking on food and water consistently. Mimi would drift ahead at times (while I had two more dumps) before I'd pass her and so on and so forth. At the marathon mark we were together in around 3:47, always mindful that the only acceptable pace I had in mind was 'comfy', this felt great. There is a an uphill drag at 27 miles and a little course knowledge helped here as we hiked almost the entire thing. Without making any agreement we were obviously benefitting from the easy conversation and constant dialogue re-assessing pacing and ignoring the nagging feeling that we still had to run another 125 (278) miles. The heat gets up from around 11am and we were making heavy use of the ice they had at some of the checkpoints along the coast road. It went under hats, down t shirts and shorts and in bottles. The difference it makes is astounding, from the heat forcing your pace down, everything seems to suddenly free up and allow you to move well again.
Mimi and I on the coast road from Athens to Corinth. Photo c/o Spartathlon Official.
45 miles in and we were on a good schedule and we sensibly began to hike up the otherwise runnable motorway shoulder ascent in to Corinth, with lines of ships awaiting their turn to pass through the canal spread around the bay to the left of us. We rolled in to the 50 mile CP in 7:47, and I felt great. Mimi was doing well too, this was the first time she would see her crew (husband Tim and friend Becky) and whilst she stopped to get some food in, I had a quick chat with the first dropped Brit runner I saw, the legend Pete Johnson. Pete was thoroughly encouraging dismissing my questions of how he was and pouring ice cold water over my head. We ran out of Corinth with purpose, the first big part of the journey under our belts exactly 'on plan'.
Mimi and I working our way past Ancient Corinth (plus photobomber), mile 55ish. Photo c/o Chris Boukoros Photography
After Corinth, the heavy roads and industrial part of the course recede and evolve in to olive groves and smaller villages. At about mile 65, 4 time GUCR winner Paddy Robbins joined us, employing his usual steady pacing, gradually moving through the field fueled by rice pudding. For around 5 miles we ran together before I went through a low patch and I decided to let Pat go. Mimi hung back too and we made our way on to half way at Nemea, mile 76 in 13:05. At this point we'd just flicked our headlamps on for the first time, way ahead of where I'd been in 2012, and our time this year bettered 2012's split by 90 minutes. My legs felt great and I was starting to believe this was going to be our day. I can't explain why, but I felt incredibly calm. I had Ben Howard's Depth over Distance playing on a loop on the 'brain ipod' and it seemed to be working like a mantra. As Dylan Bowman would say 'breathe and relax'.....
At Nemea Mimi spent time with her crew whilst I raced down a can of baked beans, two cups of soup and a handful of other bits, my stomach still co-operating well. We ran some of the gradual climb out of that checkpoint whilst a car with a cameraman hanging out of the boot filmed us (or rather Mimi) running in to the night time portion of the race. On and down through mile 80-90, Mimi began to slow a little and I had to be a more pro-active in my suggestions that we run the flats and downhills, contrary to earlier where we'd hiked only the steeper grades. Mimi was experiencing pain in her quads as the road began to take it's toll, but her grit and determination were astounding. It was real teamwork as any toilet break was matched and we chatted with other runners who passed us (we weren't passing many!) One thing that did strike me here was the level of athlete we were meeting. A Swede came past and we chatted about Taby 100 in Sweden. He said he'd won that this year. A little earlier on, Florian Reus had come through. He finished 2nd in the World 24hr Champs this year. Around this time last year, Glen Redpath had been running with us - multiple time WS100 top 10 finisher. It might not have the household (read skyrunning or elite US) runners in it, but Spartathlon attracts the best of the best from a different field. Track and Road runners.
We reached what for me is quite a landmark in the race, a checkpoint around mile 91 which displays the read out showing 99.3km to go. Any other day, knowing you had 62 miles to run would be a stomach churning prospect, not least after already having covered 91 miles, but somehow at Sparta, this is a vision. These checkpoint boards always giving you a count of kms covered, kms to go, cut off and next cut off - are enough to turn your stomach.
One of the final checkpoint boards, this info is at each one. Photo c/o of Peter Ali.
The hike up the switchbacks to the base of the mountain are long but not too steep and whilst Mimi was struggling now, her spirits were still high. As we came in to the mountain CP at mile 99.3 I saw Drew who'd dropped earlier, and Mimi's crew. Mimi was only a minute or so back but I realised when she got in there from Drew and her crews reaction, that the fight to finish had really begun. To me, Mimi had seemed to be going great guns, moving fine and chatting, but sat in the CP chair, she was a distant person from the one who'd been running so strong throughout the day. Not eating had started to factor in and our incredible 90 mile partnership was looking rocky. We didn't delay however and it was with a big smile on my face that i looked up at the mountain, flashing lights rising high in to the sky, realising that I was about to pass in to unknown territory, pushing through the place my race had ended last year. I felt good, and with 18:50 on the watch, we'd covered 100 miles and passed on to the third and final part of the race, the final 53 miles.
Mimi and I at the base of the mountain. Photo c/o Louis Waterman-Evans.
The mountain was steep and rugged but easy enough to negotiate, initially I waited for Mimi but hiking hard I was sweating under my windproof which meant every time I stopped my temperature plummeted. In the end I decided just to get to the summit and see how far below the headlights behind, were. On the summit it was pretty blowy and i made the split second decision just to start the descent immediately. The downhill was way worse than the climb with the track covered in substantial scree. Twice I nearly went backwards but I managed to run the majority of the drop in to the next village at mile 104. In the checkpoint there, I passed a few other runners and dropped back on to the road, alternating between a purposeful hike and a steady 10 minute mile running pace. Then the worst happened. My trusty Petzl headlamp blinked three times at me, signalling the impending death of the batteries. It was pitch black on the road. As my torch died I ran hard to catch a runner in front with a blinking red LED on her back. Brenda Carawan a US runner with overall 100 mile wins at Graveyard and Keys behind her was running well along the country lanes. I told her my predicament and she kindly offered to let me draft her light by running alongside her. A few minutes later however, I had to stop to tend to business and with no light, I didn't initially realise but I stepped right in to the big pile of my own crap. Things weren't looking up.
Again I ran slightly harder than comfortable to catch Brenda and we made our way through a few more CPs. A half hour further down the line I reached Tim and Becky awaiting Mimi and Becky kindly swapped in her lamp for mine whilst she found me some batteries. Independent again I felt rejuvenated and was finally able to clean my stinking shoes and push on ahead of Brenda.
By now it was 5am and the temperature was through the floor. I was getting cold quickly and knew I needed a solution. I took a bin bag from the next CP and wrapped myself in it. That quickly failed to be enough and I ended up picking up further bin bags at the next three aid stations, I had one between each layer of clothing and one on top of the lot, wrapped tight around me like a blanket and up over my head. I looked like a tramp. Eventually I knew I was going to get myself in serious trouble so I began searching amongst the trash and multiple dead dogs (seriously) at the sides of the road for any items of clothing I could add to my growing collection of tramp style. I am embarrassed to say that had I seen any houses with clothes or sheets on a line outside, I would have found it hard to resist grabbing something. When the sun came up it seemed to take an age to bring any heat whatsoever, but all of a sudden i went from shivering wreck to overheating and quickly stripped off all of the bin bags, extra layers and headlamp. On to the final throws.
At this point Mimi's crew were popping up ever more regularly and I could feel that she wasn't far back. I made the decision to stop and wait for her, so that we can grind those final miles out together back in the successful partnership from earlier on. As the minutes passed I got more and more anxious and Becky encouraged me to move along. I had wrecked my race in 2012 by waiting for Rich Webster with whom I'd formed a similar partnership and I knew I had to get on with the job. It would turn out to be a significant moment in the race.
At the 200km mark, I was expecting what James Adams affectionally calls 'the second mountain'. It was a long drag up to the top, perhaps only 4 or 5 miles but at a steady climbing grade there were some tight bends where enthused Greek drivers waving frantically out of the window at us with no hands on the wheel, could easily swipe down a runner. Crossing the road to avoid this seemed a monumental waste of dwindling energy. As I crested the climb with a marathon to go, it seemed like the end was nigh. 127 miles down.
Time was pretty irrelevant at this point, I had plenty in the bank under which to meet the 36 hour cut off, I just needed to ensure I didn't overheat during this second day. Back to the old routine of ice over the head, soaking the shirt and moving ever forward. This last 50 were not fun in any way shape or form. But somehow, knowing we were in the midst of the fight to finish Spartathlon was enough not just to stay motivated but to keep moving well.
With 12 miles to go James Adams pulled up in a car and congratulated me for finishing. I told him this gradual downhill leg battering grade was without doubt the worst end to a race I'd ever endured. Undoubtedly, my Badwater was worse but right then it seemed a distant memory. Despite all that, I still had a smile on my face and felt relatively good for how late in the race it was. I jogged intermittently and hiked a lot of it as I made sure I was always working between 4 and 5mph, reducing the time left on my feet from 6 hours to 5, 4, 3, 2....
Arriving at 6 miles to go I'd been passed by two other brits running well together, Steve and Johnny and I was quite happy to let them go on for their finishes together. I toughed out 5 of those miles and found myself passing under the blue banner welcoming Spartathletes to Sparta. My mind started to fill with the thoughts of running up that final street to the statue. The same memory that I'd let build over the course of a year to keep me moving every time running hard started to hurt that little bit, and the thought I'd kept at bay for the whole race as I focused only on the next checkpoint ahead at any one time.
Finally I made checkpoint 74, 1 mile to go, 152 done. I'd been moving consistently forward with the exception of that 10 minutes reheating, for a little over 33 hours. A police bike joined me and escorted me through the streets of Sparta. I was running well at this point, turned a street after 10 minutes or so and saw quite a long climb ahead, I asked him how close we were and he said 1.5km! I swore and dropped back in to a hike without caring too much that he was forced to ride so slowly he almost fell off. When I saw the final turn and the national flags streaming in the wind along the boulevard past the waiting crowds, the British team who hadn't been so fortunate as I to make it this far, I did begin running again and this time held it to the statue. High fiving friends and being handed the Union Jack were exactly what I'd imagined for the last 12 months. Reaching the steps to the statue I took a second to walk slowly up to it and kissed the foot of Leonidas in the tradition of Spartathlon finishers from the last 31 years, started of course by Pheidippedis, whose footsteps we retraced 2500 years later.
Thanks to Drew Sheffield for shooting perhaps the only footage ever taken, of me running.
My final finish time, 33 hours 45 minutes, 2hrs 15 under the eventual cut off. 59 runners beat me to the statue, 90 more would finish before 36 hours passed and over 200 more would be beaten by the race.
In front of the statue at the finish. Sunburn City.
Kissing the foot. Photo c/o Louis Waterman-Evans.
Centurion Team conference at the finish: Robbie, Drew and myself. Photo c/o Louis Waterman Evans.
How hard was it? It took almost all of what I had, mentally and physically, to get there. I would put finishing this race as the pinnacle of my racing to date. It isn't just race day, it's the dedication of 100s of hours over the course of 12 months to running the miles you need in order to condition your body to the hammering that 153 miles on the road puts in to it. I thought about Sparta every single day, probably most waking hours of every single day. All my races this past 12 months, were designed to bring me to that point. The sacrifices you need to make are huge. Without the support of your friends and loved ones, it simply isn't possible to do what's necessary to finish. Involving them and conveying why it means so much is crucial in my opinion. I still puked one less time at Sparta than I did the previous weekend at a 5km park run though. That feels wrong?
After finishing I finally learned of the fates of the rest of the British Team. Pat Robbins, with Mimi and I at mile 70, went on to a 27:09 7th place, an astounding display of controlled pacing. Robbie, with ambitions of a stellar finish, did what I knew he would if things went south, and gutted out a 32hr finish. Behind me, Steve and Johnny (who were 45 mins or so ahead of me at the finish) came only Mark Wooley and Paul Ali, for a total of 7 finishes out of 21 starters.
As for Mimi, she pushed on until around 15kms to go, where due to the onset of hypoglycaemia, she began to struggle physically to make the cut offs. Eventually, within 10 miles of the finish, her race ended. She decided to make the wise call not to return to Athens. She will be back to attempt the impossible again.
Overall the win was taken by Joao Oliviera of Portugal in a little under 24 hours, good enough for a margin of almost 2 hrs over the rest of the field and the 11th fastest finish of all time.
When I look back over this year, it's with fond memories. But somewhere along the way I came to realise what it truly is I want out of my running, and where it fits in to my life. The two most important things to me are being out in remote country without the pressure of time or pace. The other, is challenging myself through racing. The latter was always the more important of the two but with the passing of the years it's faded in to a distant second. I am going back to the hills and will race far less in the future, focussing only on the few races that really capture my imagination, the way Sparta did and may one day, do again.
Running the Spartathlon for the first time last year, ignited a passion for a race that I hadn’t felt in a while. It’s been a long road to get back to that long road, and one that’s finally coming to an end. The below reads like a Brief History of Time, really it is just designed to be a short story of my ultrarunning to date, and where the Spartathlon fits in to that. I'm not sure what brought this on, perhaps reaching 100 official marathon finishes according to club rules (of course) gives pause for relflection. More likely it's the thought of what's to come and looking back over things for some confidence boosting memories. Racing is only a fraction of the process of course. The days out on the hills where time/ distance were of least importance form undoubtedly my fondest running experiences to date, but racing has always been a very important part of the journey too.
When I first started running in 2005, it was in preparation for the MdS, for which I'd signed up with no prior experience with my old friend Jimmy Corrigan. One of the first ultrarunning books I read, around the time I donned my old mans tennis shoes and injured myself doing my first 15 minute jog, was Dean Karnazes’ ultramarathon man. Races like Western States, Leadville and Badwater instantly sprung on to the radar, but they seemed worlds away, dreams that would take many years of preparation to reach. Looking back, I knew I had an apprenticeship to serve, before I would be ready to attempt those kind of events. Whilst ‘training’ one day by watching running videos, we stumbled across a documentary on the Spartathlon, featuring a now friend of mine, Peter Leslie Foxall. Peter (who has 9 Sparta finishes to his credit) was filmed throughout the event and was completely fried by the finish, he had the lean going on in a big way. Jimmy and I turned to each other and basically said ‘what the hell are these guys thinking, this is beyond insane’. It didn’t appeal to me at all, in fact it looked completely freakish.
The MdS turned out to be appallingly hard for 2 complete novices with all the wrong kit and legs like matchsticks. Mistakes like packing only one water bottle, which was a small black adidas number and reachable only by reaching right around the side of the pack (or asking someone else to get it), were commonplace. But we finished.
Mds, 2006. Sand Dunes. First Desert Finish. Photo: Jimmy Corrigan.
That was always supposed to be the end of it, but after 6 months of sitting on my ass, an entry went in to the first of the 4deserts series, the Gobi March and in June 2007 we crossed the finish line of our second multi day event.
Finish Gobi March 2007. Kashgar, far western China. Photo: RTP.
We were lucky enough to meet a band of brothers in our tent mates on those events and I trained harder than ever over the next 8 months, racing regular 50 milers and throwing in a 3 day/ 400 mile cycling event around Puerto Rico, my first experience of riding in a peleton.
Vuelta Los Nos Faros, 2008. Getting dropped, again.
Eventually I ran out 5th in the Atacama Crossing in 2008, that was my first inkling that I could perhaps compete instead of just complete.
Atacama, 2008. 2nd of the 4Deserts Series. 5th Overall. Photo: Pete Bocquet.
6 months later and I found myself on a boat to Antarctica with none other than Dean himself. He had a horrible race there and faced with shocking conditions, the final stage was pulled completely leaving me in 2nd place overall, a couple of spots ahead of him! I’ll never forget riding the zodiac back to our ship from the end of a 5hr stage one day, Dean turned around and asked me how many 100 milers I’d run. When I replied none, he looked incredulously at me and said ‘NONE!!! My god!!!’. That only helped re-inforce to me where I should go from here.
Antarctica 2008. 2nd overall. Photo c/o Alex/ RTP.
I went home and did the research. What 100s were out there and more importantly, how quickly could I bag two, which at the time was the minimum requirement for entry in to Badwater. (when I first looked at it in 2005, you were required only to have completed 1 x 100km race in order to apply, it’s now considerably more difficult to qualify). I picked two ‘easy 100s’, first at Rocky Raccoon in Feb 2009, just 2 months after Antarctica, and Old Dominion 100 which was a short drive away from a US friend of mine on the east coast. I finished Rocky in 22:54, and I knew all the way around that I was going to be more proud of that finish than anything that had come before. 100 miles in One Day. That was it for me, that was where it was at. Old Dominion rolled around in June and it was a different beast, humid and with a lot more climb (14,000ft vs 5,500ft at Rocky). The cut offs were tighter and I crumbled amongst the flies and humidity, finishing in 24:58. At the end of ’09 I ticked off the final 4deserts event in the Sahara under the shadow of the pyramids. I had a bad race, tired and under prepared, but still managed a top 10 finish in a bigger field.
In February 2010 I filed my entry application for Badwater. Riding the bus to work one day the email landed, I’d gotten in. Another London based runner James Adams got in too, and we started to plan for the event. Death Valley was out of this world. I’d prepared like never before and was truly in the shape of my life. On route to the event I ran my first sub 3 hour marathon and clocked up 19 marathon/ ultra finishes in 5 months, working solidly and consistently up to the main target. I even managed to win something for the first time, the Three Forts Marathon.
Washington National Marathon. 2:58. March 2010. Photo: Official Race Images.
Death Valley was something else. This was it for me, the pinnacle, the hardest race on earth, how could anything compare with 130 degrees and 135 miles of road, uphill? Well, my luggage was lost on the way to the race, I was forced to buy all my supplies for the event in Wal Mart the day before and suffered horrendous chaffing and nausea. That definitely didn’t help, but I finished in 39 hours and change.
Death Valley 2010. Being sick at Stovepipe Wells mile 42. Finish 39:19. Photo: Frank Fumich.
Badwater 2010. Owens Valley, mile 115, with Frank Fumich. Photo: Luis Escobar.
When I got back I was out of it for three months. That race took more out of me than any event I'd done before or since. It's the only time I've been on my feet for over 30 hours, although I've run over 20hrs, another 11 times. I ate almost nothing the last 50 miles. All my best laid plans went out of the window, including UTMB where I started before they abandoned the race on us (before I had a chance to abandon it myself!) at St Gervais, just 3 hours in to the event.
Later that year I felt in shape enough to run Caesars Camp 100, but suffered again with my old nemesis, the chaffing and crawled to a 27hr finish, just ahead of one Robbie Britton, just starting to find his feet in ultra land.
Caesars Camp 100 2010. Finish 27:11. Photo: Caesars Camp Endurance Runs.
In 2011 I went for it guns blazing. I’d done what I’d already waited 3 years to do, gain a place on the Western States start list. I decided that I would continue spending all my available time and money, every penny, on continuing to run the international events I’d dreamed about. Without hesitation I entered the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning made recently famous by Ian Sharman/ Nick Clark, and threw in another Rocky Raccoon 100 to boot. I blew out at Rocky at mile 76 and suffered knee and shin problems, that little did I know, were the start of some serious issues. On returning home I was diagnosed with stress fractures in both tibia, I didn’t run again consistently all year.
Scan and Boot. My life for almost three months. March - May 2011.
With a place at Western and with my travel booked I trained for 2 months on a stationary bike, running less than 30 miles total. When I got to Western, I didn’t even know if I could crest the first climb, let alone make it to Auburn, but with the help of a pacer I’d never met before reaching Forest Hill, I puked and dragged my ruined quads all the way to an agonising 28:25 finish on the track.
Western States 100, 2011. View up the first climb. Finish 28:25.
3 weeks later and in no fit state to travel again to the US, let alone start another 100, I attempted to run Vermont, the second race in the slam. With massive muscle damage left over from Western, I slowed badly after an initial half decent start. At mile 51 I went badly off course and spent 45 minutes in the woods alone. I made it back on course but was dehydrated and eventually passed out cold on route to one of the aid stations. I then passed some urine the colour of charcoal. I pulled out at the next CP and flew home with the issues, which eventually subsided 4 days later. Of a handful of DNFs in my time, this one hurt (still hurts) much more than any other.
The Slam was over, but Leadville was booked and paid for and strangely enough despite the medical issues, as most slammers will tell you, I felt much better after Vermont than I did Western. Leadville was a different world to the previous two. The race went as well as could be expected with a total of 200ish miles running the preceding three months, 157 of them in two goes and I finished in 26:29. On reflection that was probably one of my better performances, all things considered.
Leadville 100, 2011. Coming in to Twin Lakes outbound mile 42. Finish 26:29. Photo: Michael Hull.
Leadville 100, 2011. Mayqueen Mile 87. Not doing so good. It was FREEZING.
I took most of the rest of 2011 off, and felt very glad that I’d been able to fulfil my dreams of finishing Western and Leadville despite all the odds.
So where was next on the journey? I dragged out the bucket list and there were really only one or two events on there, Hardrock being the number 1, but with a tight lottery and one I had (and still have) consistently failed to get through, I needed a more tangible target. James Adams had been on at me for years about the Spartathlon, and spending a lot of time in the house with two other Brits at Leadville, Drew Sheffield and Tim Adams, I felt compelled to run some events which I’d previously put off as too long or too short! An entry went in for Comrades, The West Highland Way Race, a second UTMB and…..Sparta.
Injury free in the lead up to Comrades, I had a slow to start to the year, and did myself a fair bit of dis-service in South Africa thanks to running the entire 103 miles of the SDW in one go with Neil Bryant, two weeks before. Nevertheless I teamed up with British based Terrence Zengerink and we worked and worked all day for our 7:56 finish, outside of the silver medal time but still a respectable first attempt.
Comrades 2012, with Terrence Zengerink. Finish: 7:56. Photo: Terrence Zengerink.
Two weeks later again I toed the start line of the WHW race with Drew on hand to crew me through it. Literally 100 yards after the start on Milngavie high street, I knew it wasn’t going to happen. Illness had plagued by post Comrades recovery period and I was weak going in to the WHW. At the first crew point in Drymen I told Drew it was going awful. In the end I limped in to Rowardennen, mile 27, where I puked, let loose my bowels and dropped out of the race. Not a great performance! I trained the rest of the summer hiking as much as I could in preparation for UTMB. When the race was washed out on me for a second time in as many attempts, I almost didn’t start the rescheduled 105km version, but eventually decided not to waste that time and effort and enjoy what was left of the race. Let’s just say it was incomparable to the TDMB route itself. A scant few hours before the ‘easy’ UTMB I decided to book my flights to Sparta. I’d been putting it off as I didn’t see how a summer of hiking and a very hard mountain 100 would prepare me in any way for 153 miles of road in 36 hours. I wasn’t actually even that bothered but now I needed something else on which to end the year after that dissapointment.
Sparta was a life changing event. I can’t really say more than that without going in to another 10,000 words on an already way too long blog post, so if you want to know why you can always refer back to my post on last years race here. Short story, it was the hardest thing I’d ever attempted, the only time in my ultra running career where a cut off had played a part in my race day and the only time I’ve dropped out at a race (about 99 miles in, in this case) where I knew instantly that the next job would be to go back and do it again. It was the only race I was interested in.
I took 3 weeks completely off of running on returning to the UK, and from that day to this, almost 11 months later, every step I’ve run has been about Sparta. In that 11 months I’ve packed in a lot. I’ve raced plenty, with 28 more events of marathon or ultra distance (plus Ironman) in the bag. And I’ve pushed myself harder than ever before. I’ve actually only ‘raced’ three times, events which were important to me as stepping stones but valid events in their own right. I went back to Rocky Raccoon for the 4th time and came away with a 10th place 17:32 trail 100 PB. I ran the London Marathon for the first time and set a PB of 2:52. And after years of putting it off, I finally got around to running the Grand Union Canal Race, covering the 145 miles in 29hrs10 for 1st place overall.
Rocky Raccoon 100, 2013. 100 mile PB, 17:32.
Ironman New Zealand, 2013. Getting shoulder barged by a tank. Photo c/o: Ironman.
GUCR FInish line. Birmingham to London on foot. 145 miles in 29:10. Photo: Eddie Elson.
So where does that leave me? I feel confident about Sparta. With 5 multi day desert races and Badwater behind me, I like to think I am ok with the heat. The distance and the cut off, the two biggest single factors, are within reach after running 145 miles in under 30hrs. The climb at the 100 mile point is something I know I’ll be good with after some much more mountainous events over the years. And my training, whilst missing whole weeks at times, has nevertheless been injury free and consistent on a month by month level. I’ve enjoyed some of the incredible trails we have here in the UK like never before. The SWCP, Southern Upland Way, Lake District and of course the South Downs Way have all featured at times and I’ve fallen back in love with a lot of those places. Moving house, our own Centurion Races, Food poisoning have all thrown themselves in to the mix, but no lead up to an event is flawless, life gets in the way. All in all I’m right there where I wanted to be.
Blencathra, the Lake District. Bob Graham Round Leg 1. 2013. Photo: Neil Bryant.
But…… This is the Spartathlon. This is beyond difficult, where the start list is full of people who make my running CV look incredibly short. The road takes no prisoners and it will without doubt be the single biggest achievement of my running life, to cross the finish line. In 12 days time, the Acropolis will light up with the sounds of 350 runners, literally sh*tting themselves all over the Greek roadside in preparation for 36 hours of hell. I hope I get to meet Leonidas in person this time…..
Spartathlon 2012. Running in to Korinth mile 50 with Richard Webster. Photo: Gemma Greenwood.
I fully admit that I've run out of time to give the pre-race preview the level of attention it usually gets so please excuse even more so, the incorrect facts or missing obvious hot-shots from the below.
For me, the NDW100 is the 'hardest race' we put on. What I mean by that is that as a runner, you can expect it to take longer to complete than the TP100 and SDW100. Only historic results dating back a number of years will give us a true indication, this is just our second NDW100 on the current course.
Course Records at this event are in my opinion, fairly solid. Manuel Lago's 2012 time came with a small navigational error and loss of motivation around the 50 mile point, however he was back on track and ran pretty solid through to the end. Sub 18 hours on this course is no joke. Alice Hector just missed out on running sub 20 hours. In her first 100, it was an epic run where her only competition came from the men.
Mark Perkins: Our inaugural SDW50 champ, Three Forts Marathon Podium finisher, this is his first 100 and we all know just how different a ball game is a 100 is to a 50, but speed and talent he most certainly has.
Luke Ashton: If Luke had spent a little less time in aid stations at this years TP100, also his first 100 miler, he would perhaps have made up the 3ish minutes he gave away to eventual winner Martin Bacon. If Luke is coming in injury free and rested (he races a lot), then he stands a very good chance of walking away with the trophy.
Eduard Egelie: Super man. Eduard is one of the strongest runners Ian and I have had the pleasure of working with. He had a strong first 100 last year smiling from start to finish and has all the talent to shock the field and run away with this. He won't be in the early lead pack but he'll be right there at the end if things go his way.
Toby Froschauer: Amazingly solid Caesars Camp 100 last year, solid SDW100 on not a lot of training and a lot of travel. He's got the legs to go all the way to the podium once again.
Ed Catmur: Everytime Ed races he comes with his A game. He led this race at half way last year before losing ground in the final throws, holding on for top 10. He brings a host of wins with him including one at a 100 this year. If Ed is fit and rested he will be hot out of the blocks and can hang there all day.
Dave Ross: Dave led the TP100 for 90ish miles this year before blowing up in the cold to a 6th overall. He's more experienced at the 100 mile game now with 5 or 6 behind him. If he can eat through to the latter stages and doesn't get lost too many times he'll be a top 10 without a shadow of a doubt. He wants more....
Sam Robson: Has been struggling with injury but with his 2nd at last years SDW100, if the pain stays away he has the strength.
James Eacott: I first met James in Chile in 2008. He was new to the whole ultrarunning scene, jogging around the desert in a pair of board shorts. Last Autumn in my second week since returning to running following Sparta, I met James again at the Druids challenge. I saw a different runner there who got stronger each day and went on to get 2nd overall to a racy Justin Montague. He has one major plus on his side, a finish here last year and in a fine time too. He's my dark horse for the title.
The ladies field doesn't look too deep this year, so I'm ready to be surprised by a few superstars and eat humble pie!
Wendy Shaw: Our overall Grand Slam leader, 2nd at the TP100, 3rd at the SDW100, Wendy keeps getting stronger and stronger. It's just a matter of time before she cracks it for the win.
Helen Smith: If everyone else blows up, Helen will be there. She won't be the fastest out of the gate, or perhaps even the middle third but Helen is as tough as they come and she knows how to finish 100 mile plus races off. She's proved countless times she can do it at all distances too (she won three forts in 2011 in exactly the same way).
Follow the live updates linked on our homepage throughout race weekend, and our twitter feed for intermittent updates from out on the course.
Saturday 15th June is race day for 200 runners hoping to make it the 100 miles from Winchester to Eastbourne non-stop and on foot under the 30 hour limit. As usual there will be those fighting to make the cut offs, those fighting for the fabled 100 miles - One Day Belt Buckle for a sub 24 hour finish and those shooting for the title and this time, the prize money that goes with it. Petzl are sponsoring the race this year and the manufacturer of the finest headlamps in the game are putting up £500 for both male and female winners as well as prizes for second and third places.
Here's a quick run down of some of the pre-race favourites. As always facts are not checked and top of my head assumptions drawn so please excuse any ommissions, errors and please do leave a comment at the bottom with your own insights if you wish!
The exciting part about this years event is that there is no stand out candidate for the race win. There is a good sized field of very talented runners in the mens race and it's extremely difficult to see where the win might go this time around. The big gap is left by Ryan Brown last years runaway winner who unfortunately has been struggling with injuries in the early part of 2013 and will be sorely missed.
The SDW is a race that encourages faster opening stages with it's rolling and runnable terrain. As the experienced 100 mile guys and girls know, the race doesn't start until mile 60 and I think there'll be some carnage later on if the early pace is as high as it's threatening to be. Look out for some big changes throughout the day. It's going to be great to watch!
Robbie Britton: A late addition to the field and a member of our own Centurion Ultra Running Team, Robbie is one of the most talented young ultrarunners in the country. At 26 he has more 100 mile experience than most and has dedicated himself this past 18 months to going long, with 4 x 24 hour races including a 19th overall 239kms at the recent World Championships. He won the NDW100 in 2011, finished 2nd at the TP100 in 2012 with a 16:02 and has recorded 100 mile splits in the low 15s twice at recent 24hr events. He's strong on the hills, has learned how to fuel himself and is capable of anything he sets his mind to. Working in his favour he always runs his own race. Don't look to him to be leading in the early stages but rather hold his pace all the way to the line.
Warwick Gooch: Warwick impressed last year as he gutted out the win at Caesars Camp 100 in terrible conditions in 21:54. As those who have run Caesars know it is a brutal event and if he can run as strong on the SDW he will be many hours quicker than that time, putting him right in the mix.
Toby Froschauer: Toby chased Warwick all the way at Caesars in 2012 and run in to the finish looking as fresh as he started out. Again if he has maintained his form he will be right in the mix.
Martin Rea: Martin is a class act runner and comes over from Ireland with a host of ultra wins in his background including the Himalayan Stage Race, the London Ultra, Cardiff Ultra, Connemara Ultra and the old Tring to Town event. He is an Irish National 100km Team runner and leads the 3hr pace groups at London, Belfast and Dublin Marathons. He took it easy at the SDW50 and found his way to the track in 3rd overall so he has knowlege of the course for the final stages.
Justin Montague: Justin has been working his way back to fitness after an injury earlier this year that took a lot out of his running. Traditionally he would have been right at the top of the list for the win, with an incredible pedigree of short and long distance ultra success alongside is super talented brother Nathan. Justin's stand out Centurion effort was his 2nd place finish at the North Downs Way 100 last August in 18:48. If he can resurrect anything like the form he showed there, he will be a threat all the way to the line.
Paul Bennett: Paul is a superbly strong runner and has enjoyed wins and podiums at the 3 day South Downs Way VOTwo event, the Steyning Stinger and the South Downs Marathon to name just those on the South Downs itself. He lives and trains on the downs and has built up his 100 mile experience over time adding the West Highland Way and the original South Downs Way 100 to his CV amongst others. He's the first to admit he hasn't yet converted his talent in to a 100 mile performance but when he does get it right he will be hard to beat.
Martin Bacon: Martin's experience is second to none coming in to the race, both in terms of long distance (100 mile+ racing) and course knowledge. In 2012 he took a sub 18 hour third place at the TP100 and this year converted that in to the win. 100 milers aren't won in the first 100km but they are most certainly lost there and Martin's experience may well allow him to shine and pick up the proverbial pieces if, as there always is, we see some blow ups from the early leaders.
Sam Robson: Sam has it all to play for. He finished second last year in 17:23 and has publicly stated he is going for a sub 16 hour finish. If he is able to convert it would surely go down as one of the UK Ultrarunning performances of the year. Confidence is crucial to runners and Sam is going in strong.
Doug Murray: The man who seemingly smiles from ear to ear right from the get go, always a pleasure to have on the course, Doug had a great SDW50 and then ran in a superb 2nd place in the NDW50, just outside of CR pace and just 6 days after he ran 33 miles up at Marlborough. He could shock everyone coming in here.
We are very lucky to have such a deep and talent filled women's field at this years event. It's going to be as, if not more exciting than the men's race to watch unfold.
Emily Canvin: Emily comes in hot off of back to back wins at both the SDW50 and NDW50. She smashed the course record at the NDW50 and has got a huge amount of talent and natural speed. This will be her first 100 but if she can manage her effort and her fueling she might just have the legs to make it three Centurion wins out of three.
Jean Beaumont: Jean blew us away with her win at the Winter 100 in November. She looked untroubled, leading throughout and kept a smile on her face through some horrendous weather. She previously won and set the Course Record at the Northburn 100 in New Zealand, her homeland and must be the experienced favouite coming in.
Wendy Shaw: Wendy keeps getting stronger and stronger. Relatively new to the sport she has trained well all year and is looking to add her second race to her Grand Slam attempt. She took a solid second at the Thames Path 100 in March and will be looking to go one better. Another one to run her own race she knows how to pace and to fuel herself and will pick up any pieces later in the race if others start to struggle.
Nicola Golunska: For a while we weren't sure if Nicola would be in shape to make the startline after a bike crash left her on the injury sidelines for a long time. She ran an incredible race in the 2011 SDW Race taking the win and a third place overall. Anything can happen when she is on form.
Susie Casebourne: Susie lacks 100 mile experience but has competed at the very highest level in sport with 2 silver medals at the ETU European Triathlon Champs. She recorded an ultra win at the EL CTS event in March and is one to watch here.
So I think that's about it for now. Did I miss someone? Please do leave comments below if so....
The Grand Union Canal Race is one of the longer standing 'classic' British Ultras. The Race Organiser, Dick Kearn, isn't just a pillar of the ultrarunning community, he is the foundation of it. Many runners don't realise how often they have been helped by him, either directly or indirectly, in their ultrarunning lives. He sits on the committee of the TRA and has worked selflessly to try and better the sport for all of us, especially through the late 90s and early 00s when the sport was much smaller and enjoying less success than current boom times. He organises the Compton Downland Challenge (40), the Thames Ring 250 and the GUCR but helps every year along with his wife Jan, at Caesars Camp, SDW100, NDW100, TP100, Winter 100 and countless other trail events across the country. Dick has been extremely generous with his help for our events and I really wanted to run his pride and joy, the Grand Union Canal Race, to see how it really should be done.
The GUCR began in 1993, with 20 odd runners and 5 finishers, Dick himself winning it that year. After a short hiatus the race returned in 1997 and has been held annually since. For a long time it was the longest non-stop ultra in the UK at 145 miles, only recently being surpassed by a few others of note. Much like any classic ultra, those who have run it talk so fondly of the organisation, route, camaraderie and the event as a whole, that it's hard not to let the seed of one day running it yourself, start to creep in after a while.
I've had a busy year to date, personally, with time for a 100, an Ironman and a dozen or so marathons and ultras since the start of 2013, and thankfully to this point everything had gone to plan. Although a busy schedule i'd only really 'raced' twice, at the trail 100 Rocky Raccoon in Texas and the London marathon. I admit that there were times during March and April when our own Centurion calendar started to get busy, that I thought I wasn't doing GUCR justice in my training, but bit by bit the excitement started to build and I decided to plunge in with both feet. This is the only way to tackle an event of this nature. You are either in all of the way, or not at all. You can't fake 100, let alone 145 miles and I was definitely all in.
In terms of a report of the race, I could sum it up quite quickly by saying it went to plan. I came away winning the event in a time of 29 hours and 10 minutes, bang on schedule and without any major issues to talk of. I absolutely loved the whole experience and was more emotional at the finish line than perhaps I have been for any other event in the past which says a lot about what it meant to me. If you want to go in to the realms of the super long, it's really not necessary to look any further. Everything you've read or heard about this event is right on, it's just an all round heart warming experience. For those of you who enjoy detals of suffering, pain, mile splits, racing tactics etc, you may want to read on, otherwise well done for getting this far.
The race begins at Gas Street Basin in Birmingham at 6am on Saturday and travels 145 miles down the British Waterways network of canals all the way to Little Venice in London, a stones throw from Paddington Station. If you plot it on the map it just looks like an epic point to point journey run right from the start, and it is.
My planning going in was good. Not exemplary, but good. I had chosen the supported route so I had got a crew together to see me through the journey. I had worked out a nutrition plan. I had decided on gear, shoes, timings for the crew and all of the other little details you need to cover off to minimise issues on race day. And I had devised a pacing plan that I felt happy with. I'd talked at length to Debbie Martin Consani, the 2012 overall winner of the event, about her plan and she had kindly forwarded on her logistical prep and other details that saved me hours of pouring over maps etc. I can't thank her enough for being kind enough to share that information. I had two pacing plans, a fast and a slow. My time for 100 miles at Rocky Racoon in Feb was 17:32. I knew from my splits there that I could expect a roughly 9 hour 100km, 13:30 80 mile and a potential big slow down from then on if I couldn't eat properly. I felt that a 4mph average for the last 45 miles was do-able but would be much harder than it sounded, because with short breaks for food and high levels of leg/ foot pain it would be hard to keep enough running in there to balance out a walking pace. Rightly or wrongly I told my crew that my intention was to win the race. My fast plan was 27hrs30 and my slow plan was 30hrs30. I had no idea who else would be a contender, other than Craig Stewart who is a phenomenal athlete. I knew that if he had a good day I wouldn't be able to hang with him, and I was more than prepared for that. But I went in with total faith in my ability to churn out a sub 30 hr time and knew that something not too much faster than that would put me in the mix. The final confidence boost I took going in, was having the experience of Badwater behind me. The total disintegration of my race from 17 miles in to the 135 there, the cripplingly slow death march to the finish and the unprecedented pain and suffering of that event stood me up. I knew that however bad it got on the canal, it wasn't going to get close to that and therefore I knew I could put the distance out of my mind, and run my own race. Not worrying about the collosal mileage saved me a ton of mental energy and stress. It was going to be me, my crew and what I love doing the most, running long and relaxed.
Dad and I left home the morning of the race for the 90 minute drive to the start. When I hopped out of the car I was met with a sea of friendly faces, too many to mention. I had a couple of 'what are you up to today' type questions, before people found out I was actually running for once rather than helping or organising.
At 5:55am we wandered down to the canalside and Dick gave us a short brief on the day. 6am dead and we were off. I didn't want to get pushed along too fast at the beginning but I also just wanted to stay in the front and control my pace, so I settled in alongside Kevin Mcmillan and we chatted the first 11 miles away to CP1. Our pace average was 8:50 per mile, it felt chronically slow and I knew that there would be some behind who simply wouldn't be able to resist picking it up. Sure enough Craig popped out around 500 yards from the CP and pushed straight through without stopping building himself a 30 second lead. I stopped and changed bottle and food, said hello to the all time legend, GUCR champ and CR holder Paddy Robbins and pushed on now in 4th. Over the course of the nest 12 miles to Hatton Locks, Craig stopped a lot, met his crew, others came and went moving too fast and then slowing down and so on and so forth. The race shook itself out a bit and as I ran down through the CP at mile 22, Craig was 4 or 5 minutes ahead and the rest of the field were behind me. I felt relaxed and comfortable as I soaked up the abuse from Henk (Caesars Camp RD) as I barrelled through the CP.
Mile 22, photo courtesy of Rachel Smith
At mile 28 the next meeting point, I made a critical error. I came in to meet my dad and delved in to the food box, with my old racing chum Richard Webster told me not to race Craig, there were so many familiar faces around I got distracted and left without any food. I started to blow really quickly and struggled to maintain my consistent 9 min miling. The heat was just starting to get up a little and I cursed my stupidity. I had to stop for a bathroom break here and watched as Cliff Canavan King came past looking very strong on a rare uphill section. As time wore on, I got lower and lower and as we hit the exit off the canal at Braunston, I was in trouble. My first guardian angel appeared at that moment in the form of Drew and Claire. They'd come out to see me early on before they took over crewing properly at mile 65 and armed me with a handful of crisps, a gel and some coke. Within 5 minutes I was back on track and feeling spectacular after 15 very low miles. When I got to mile 45 I was flying. I grabbed handfuls of food and made my way out of the meeting point at a good clip which I maintained all the way until I hit the 53 mile CP. Just as I came in there, I passed Cliff who looked to be in trouble, walking in to the CP. I tapped him on the shoulder meaning it as a 'hang in there buddy good job' but I later got told it looked like a racing tactic as I didn't pause for breath going through that CP high fiving one of the boys as I ran hard straight through.
Mile 45 Photo Courtesy of Paul Navesey:
2 miles later I met my wife Lisa and my Mum who were down to crew 35 to 65 for me and they told me Craig was just a couple of minutes ahead and walking. I still felt incredible and couldn't hide my enthusiasm very well as I rushed picking up food and went straight on out. 10 minutes later I passed Craig and he had unfortunately pulled his quad, struggling to walk well I urged him to try and walk it off at least and puill it around. He sounded like he thought that could happen, I really didn't want to see his race end early but I also wanted to make the most of feeling that good so I pressed on. At mile 60 Gayton Junction I had quite the local crowd of Northampton spectators and my first full sight of the overnight crew: Robbie Britton, Paul Navesey, Graham Shircore, Drew Sheffield and Claire Shelley all there to cheer me on. What a crew this was: 4 GUCR finishes, 1 win, and every one of them an experienced 100 mile runner. I felt good, they said I looked good, I was in the lead and running strong, things couldn't be going any better at that point.
I was maybe 30 mintues down on tip top schedule but what else could I hope for! 5 miles later after the long drag up the road alongside Blisworth tunnel and I was at the canal museum mile 65, picking up my first pacer, Robbie.
Largely ignorning my pacing schedule to this point I started to concentrate on times from this point on. I had wanted to hit 65 in 10 hrs and was a bit perturbed to see that I had done it in around 10:25. The next section I broke up in to 5 mile blocks, where my crew met me, swapped in a bottle and some food, sometimes swapping in a pacer and keeping the overall pace high, running everything with the exception of 1 x 50 pace walking break every 2 -3 miles in order to shake my legs out. Doing that makes a huge difference to the efficiency of your running stride and saves you minutes after a few miles. Time ticked by fast as we rolled through the CPs at 72, 84 and on to mile 90 all with plenty of daylight still to play with. The one disappointment here was my increasingly regular toilet breaks. I didn't ask for splits to the guys and girls behind at any point, but I knew my toilet stops were costing me too much time and boy did I whinge about it.
As we got to mile 95 we switch on our Petzl headlamps and after a short stint of running with Drew, we rolled in to the CP at mile 99.8 with about 17:35 on the clock. I was now on plan still feeling great and without any other major issues.
At this point my crew took over in what I can only describe as one of those 'going above and beyond' type moments. I was getting cold and decided to go for the long tights here, but the one chair id packed wasn't around so rather than sit down I began to strip naked from the waist down in order to change. What transpired though was a wobbling mess of a runner, so Rob grabbed me from under my arms, Paul undid my laces, and two of the others changed my tights and shorts for me. Remembering it now it felt like I was being fed at the same time just to save precious seconds, but whatever the case it A. must have been horrendous for them B. was totally unexpected and C. worked like a dream! Within two minutes of being in, I was out on the trail running towards mile 105 with my new pacer Stu Blofeld.
With a stomach going rapidly south, more and more items from my food box were dropping off of the preverbial menu. First went the cheese, then the scotch eggs, then the sausages and crisps until we were down to cookies, baked beans, rice pudding and tomatoes with the odd gel thrown in. Still enough to go on but not ideal.
The crew short of a cooking pan, raced off to Stu's house locally to pick one up and began serving me warm baked beans every hour or so that we met. Seriously, this was formula 1 racing type stuff, I'd run to the CP, drop to a walk, wander up to the warm pan with a spoon, shovel it in as fast as I could, put the spoon back in and start running again. Wow.
It was dark now as we went through Berkhamstead at mile 105 and on other unknown towns that just blurred in to one. I knew I had a lead because looking back up the long dark lonely canal path, there were no bobbing headlamps behind. Robbie swapped in for Stu at mile 110 and I produced a real stomach clearing puke, the type where 8 retches in there's nothing left. But we started running again straight off the bat, a blank canvas on which to start eating again and feeling much better for it.
At mile 115 I had a small slip in to a river as I visited the number 2 in a secluded bush away from the canal, but again it was over and done with quickly and before long we were running in to Springwell Lock, mile 120 and the second to last major CP at 4:45am or 22hrs45 minutes in. James Adams, Allan Rumbles and Paul Stout were there, it was just getting light and the end felt very much within reach with under a marathon to go. Again I put down the food quite quickly and made my way down the final stretches before the left hand turn in to London proper. This was the one section of the race that looking back now, dragged. I'd only ever run this part of the canal before race day, but I'd run it 5 times in the old Tring to Town and then Country To Capital the past 4 years which has the same final 20 miles as the GUCR. I kept looking for the entry point of the C2C course on to the canal so I could count in familiar landmarks but it just never seemed to arrive. Drew with me at this point kept my spirits up here, but it only really turned around 3 or 4 miles later when we passed in to familiar territory.
Rob took over and around 2 miles before the left run, and 131 miles in to the race, Drew asked me if I wanted to know what my lead was. I said yes and he told me 2hrs and 12 minutes. Despite having 14 miles of a 145 miler still left to run I admit that at that point I waved my hands in the air as if to say well I can do this, it was just confidence that I felt good enough to finish the job off I guess. We turned left on to the final 12 mile stretch, made our way through the stinking Hamborough Tavern CP at mile 133 and pressed on at a brisk walk with very short bursts of running thrown in, towards the finish line. I managed to get a bacon sandwich down and yet another cup of coffee from the still seemlessly organised crew and pressed on to around 7 miles from the finish. At that point Drew jumped back in to pace me to the finish and let me know that reports of Kevin Mcmillan really picking up the pace in 2nd, were floating around. When your brain is that fried you start trying to do stupid calculations about how slow you could afford to go, based on Kevin running 7 minute mile pace the last 12 miles and still hold on.... In reality I knew I could walk it in from the turn and had taken the somewhat lazy option to do pretty much that. In my eyes why risk blowing up and collapsing to run a marginally better (but way off Course Record) time, as opposed to finishing feeling good and enjoying the morning sunshine? Also, my legs were starting to feel battered by now and some blister issues were mounting the misery I felt every time I ran so I was looking for the easy road.
In the end we ran the last 5 miles like we were being chased. We kept looking over our shoulders, expecting to see Kevin bolting around the corner. But luckily the margin I'd built in the first 120 was plenty enough and with 29 hours and 10 minutes on the clock I crossed the line in to a big hug with Dick Kearn and his massive beard, for a first place finish. The whole family were there, something that has never happened to me at a race before, so somehow they must have gotten a clue that I might just pull off the win....
In the end 53 people finished out of a total of 88 starters which is a phenomenal percentage given the distance. Conditions were almost perfect but nonetheless it must be one of the highest finishing rates in recent times. Provisional results are here.
What did I take away from all this?
Firstly, I haven't won anything particularly notable since the Three Forts Marathon in 2010. During the spring of that year I was in the best form of my life and everything felt easy. Im still not quite there but being able to convert a very precise race plan on paper, in to reality, over a course as long as 145 miles is a really satifying thing to have done.
Secondly, my old plan of eat as many gels as I can until I explode with minimal real food, is gone for good. I reversed it here after much deliberation. I always aim for 300kcals an hour during 100km plus races and that stayed right for me, but introducing 200kcals of real food/ coke and 1 gel per hour was a formula that held up well for 110 miles. After that, well I won't get hung up on it because a bad stomach after 20 hours of running is not really a shock and i was able to keep just enough going in not to break down in to a death march
Third, this is an incredible event. Even if you think it's something you wouldn't fancy because it's just too long, go out and see it next year. Drop Dick an email and volunteer for him. You'll never ever forget it. From a runners perspective, it was flawless.
Lastly and most importantly, I need to thank my crew. It goes without saying that running this race unsupported is a lot harder than running it with a crew. I was concerned in parts about mine, but they blew me away with their efficiency. I didn't need to sit down once the entire race, didn't wait for anything I needed whether it be a bowl of beans or a spare jacket. They put up with the usual whinging and pushed me on with encouragement every time i saw them. Having pacers helped enormously with the night section when it's easy to drop your pace and start getting cold. They gave up so much for me but as always, if you want to run the best time you can, you need to get a crew who understand you, what you need and can wipe those precious minutes and seconds off by catering to you as you meet them. I can honestly say that if I ran the race again, I wouldn't be able to make any time savings at all through better or different crewing. It was sensational.
Whilst GUCR was an A race, the 4th of 5 this year, the biggest thing I take away from this weekend is that the 5th goal is within reach. Sparta is 8 miles longer and has an overall cut off of 36 hours. It's totally incomparable to GUCR. The day time temperature is 20 degrees hotter than it was this year, it holds punishing road descents an ascents as well as the two mountains after 100 miles of running. I learned a lot this weekend and I will need to employ all of those things if Im going to make that statue in September.
Thanks for reading and sorry it was so long, but 145 miles IS a long way!!!
40 miles: 6:11
50 miles: 7:58
80 miles: 13:09
100 miles: 17:34
120 miles: 22:24
140 miles: 27:43
145 miles: 29:10
With the races coming thick and fast here at Centurion through this spring and summer, I'm going to keep the usual preview short and sweet. As always, apologies to anyone missed off, it isn't intentional and this is produced almost entirely from the top of my own head with little checking of results. Please comment on this post if you want to add or correct something!
The NDW50 is now in its third year with an unchanged course, although this year runners will have an additional 400 metres to cover turning in to the village and up to finish on the playing fields as opposed to the village green. With an expanding race and need for indoor facilities this was our best option.
It's worth mentioning that I still believe the NDW is the most difficult trail we hold events on. A lot of runners have looked at the overall elevation change and been duped in to believing that with 3000 ft less climbing over the 100, than the SDW100, it represents the easier option. But both the first and second 50s of our NDW races are punishing. The descents and ascents are short sharp and frequent. On the SDW, a better runner can keep moving forward at a good pace over the entire course but the NDW breaks your rhythm, chopping and changing underfoot and weaving its way eastwards via Box Hill, Reigate Hill and numerous other gradual drops and climbs. The weather this weekend looks to be fair for the most part and on reasonably dry ground, should make for faster than usual running.
Last year Steve Paterson took the overall honours in a stunning 7:22:45. Marie Dokes excellent 2011 mark of 9:20:07 was obliterated by Alice Hectors NDW100 50 mile split, however being in a different race Marie's mark stands as our course record.
Craig Holgate: Craig was our 2012 TP100 champion in 15:11, taking the win by over 50 minutes. He is a regular 2:3* marathoner with a pedigree of faster running at shorter distances behind him. He recently finished as Englands 1st and 2nd overall in the Anglo-Celtic Plate 100km. We haven't seen him on stop start hills like this as yet but on a good day Craig has to be the favourite going in. He races to win and rightly so, his talent is phenomenal. I believe he has won every ultra he has entered with the exception of the national 100kms second.
Graham Booty: Graham is a super talented runner over all distances. Nothing short of a perfect day is good enough for this man, I've had the pleasure of racing with him myself over the years and he is a strong as they come. His 20 hour Caesars Camp 100, and 4th place 18:23 at the TP100 (which he was very disappointed with) are good examples. Im not sure of his form this season but he will be in the mix if he is in shape.
Matt Winn Smith: Matt's background is in triathlon (unknown) but with an 18:35 at the TP100 where he came from somewhat off of our radar, he is surely a man to watch.
Dan Afshar: Brings podium placings at the Pilgrims NDW multi-stage event to the table alongside solid marathon times and experience at the super long including the MdS and UTMB.
The Ladies Field.
I should start by saying I'm absolutely delighted to see both the number of women as a percentage of the field, growing, but also the level of competition increasing. The field we have at the NDW50 exemplifies this.
Emily Canvin: Emily recently took home the trophy for first place at the SDW50, taking advantage of better navigation in to the finish, for an 8:23 which in torrid conditions was extremely impressive.
MG Spalton: Turned in a very good marathon at London just recently just over the 3hr mark and brings some excellent ultra experience with her, a combination which must be good for success here....
Tiffany Saibil: Tiffanys experience in and around Alpine races will render this course essentially flat to her. With some excellent results behind her including 30th at the 200 mile TDG it'll be great to see what she can do here in the UK.
Katarzyna Burdzy: Pacing a friend at Three Forts last year we found ourselves racing Katarzyna and her pacer all day and her fight for 2nd place was something to behold. With an 8 hour Thames Trot this year and the experience of the 2011 NDW50 behind her she could have a very good day this time out.
As I mentioned this is a very quick scan through so please accept my apologies for errors and people missed out. Lastly we have Paul Corderoy running hoping to bag his 2nd 50 and 3rd Centurion race of the year, on route to attempting to finish all 6 races and 500 miles with us in 2013. Good luck Paul!
With great sorrow and reluctance we have made the call to drastically alter this years TP100 course. The river is still flooded in places with flood alerts along much of its length. With heavy rain forecast Thursday night and throughout the day and night on Friday, the environment agency are predicting the river will rise again which will lead to the path being engulfed by water and hence impassable and dangerous.
Further to yesterdays email, we can now confirm that the 2013 TP100 race will be re-routed from its planned course and replaced the flood course. All of the details of this new course including aid station locations and cut offs are listed here at this page (link).
We are in the process of extending hire periods, repacking vans and co-ordinating the relocation of 80 volunteers. As such we ask you please to keep email traffic in to essential items only over the next 48 hours. All of the information you should need is as follows:
- The first 38 miles of the course are unchanged. At Cookham you will turn around and run back to Walton (aid station 1). At Walton you will turn around and head back to Cookham. At Cookham the second time you will turn around and run back only as far as Windsor where you will finish. Examine the aid station link carefully for the precise details.
- The course distance is as close to 100 miles as we can make it, but will run very slightly long, potentially 2 - 3 miles.
- The ONLY indoor Checkpoint is now at Wraysbury which you will visit at miles: 22, 54 and 76. As such you must be DOUBLY prepared for the cold and wet, the forecast is mostly dry across the weekend at the moment, however the temperatures will drop below freezing during the night. Mandatory gear is a minimum essential list only.
- If you have a pacer you may have them meet you at Windsor the second time (mile 48) and they may pace you from that point through to the finish.
- If you have a crew, your crew may ONLY get access to you at Wraysbury the first time, Windsor all times and Cookham all times. DO NOT get your crew to visit Wraysbury after the first time through or Walton at ANY STAGE OF THE RACE. We can't be any clearer on this, we will be in breach of our agreements and assessments with those venues and we will not be allowed back. Remember, your crew can meet you anywhere else you like on the course but please ask them not to do so in residential areas and to keep the noise to a minimum. The future of the race depends on this.
- Your drop bags will be available to you at Windsor only. Miles: 28, 48, 82 and the finish.
- There is a railway station at Windsor, within walking distance of the finish line, with regular trains back to London.
- THERE ARE NO SLEEPING FACILITIES OR INDOOR SPACE AT THE FINISHING AREA. We will have shuttle buses/ cars running to Oxford for those that have accommodation or transport there that they cannot change. Windsor town centre is a short walk from the finish also, you will run through it three times during the race.
Finally, it is important that you are aware that should the heavy rain forecast over the course of the next 48 hours, lead to flooding on this new course then it will become necessary for the race to be postponed. We do not mention it lightly and rest assured we will do everything we can to hold a safe and enjoyable event, however if at any time we deem the safety of runners to be at jeopardy, we will be forced to take the necessary action to ensure that situation is avoided.
Thank you for your understanding and flexibility. We hope that you enjoy the race just as much on the new course.
Essential questions can be directed to us at email@example.com
The second Thames Path 100 will take place this coming Saturday 23rd March. Kicking off at 10am from Richmond in London, runners will have 30 hours to reach Queens College Sports Grounds in Oxford in order to finish.
As with all of our events, I try to post a little bit of background on the front runners of both the men's and women's field and usually get some things right and some things wildly wrong. As always, my apologies for any glaring errors, falsehoods or wildly inaccurate predictions, and all comments are gratefully received, especially those from which we can correct items.
Overall the course looks to be in similar condition to 2012. There are one or two patches under a few inches of water and certainly some mud around, but with a trail 100 in the UK at this time of year, it's as good as could be expected. The elevation gain is so tiny it's inconsequential to the overall (less than 800 feet in 100 miles) however therein lies a different challenge, where the muscles don't get that break and change from climbing or descending. It's a runners course for sure and the faster marathoners tended to shine. We'll see if that lasts this year....
Well the big hole in the field is caused by the absence of first and second place from 2012. Craig Holgate who won the inaugural race with a storming 15:11 in his first ever 100 miler. As a 2:30 marathon Craig came in with months of back to back 100 mile weeks behind him and showed the field his class and strength. Robbie Britton of our Centurion Ultrarunning Team came home in 2nd in 2012, 16:02 a big PB for him on trails. Both are now focusing their efforts on running for Team GB at 100km and 24hrs respectively.
Martin Bacon: Martin took 3rd in 2012 with a solid run that saw him come in comfortably under 18 hours (17:41). With a pedigree built on years of marathoning and trail running he's extremely strong over the longer stuff with a good finish at the NDW100, a 30 hour GUCR and a 3rd place at the Winter 100 in November to name but a few. He will be hoping to improve on his time this year.
Dave Ross: There's only one word to describe Dave Ross: Machine. Dave is the guy you see clocking a 3hr marathon week in week out whilst casually dropping in the odd 100 miler. He is on route to his 300th marathon this summer, a career which has spanned many years and included many victories at a variety of races as well as more recently finishes at the NDW100 2011, TP100 2012 (18:48), Leadville 100 2012 and a win at the Adventure Hub Coastal 100km late last year. With his new nutrition plan and the knowledge that comes from experience Dave is out to significantly better his 2012 time.
Jutin Montague: A name familiar to anyone running XNRG's multi-day events or indeed running the UK ultrarunning circuit, Justin is as humble as he is talented. In 2012 he won a place at the NDW100 by taking first at the Isle of Wight Race and stormed to 2nd place overall in 18:48. Capable of that time on a much more challenging course if Justin can hold a good day together on the TP he is my pick for the win.
Richard Ashton: Richard is a wildcard for me, taking wins at a couple of shorter ultras recently, however the 100 mile distance is a huge step up and I believe this will be his first so time will tell as to whether he can hold a good pace over the long stuff.
Wouter Hamelinck: The man who's done it all. Most will know Wouter as one of two runners to finish the inaugural Piece of String fun run, a race he dominated for all 115 miles, never knowing how far he may end up having to go. His mental strength is on a different level, he's finished everything there is to finish (except Sparta where one day I hope he'll run). If it was a race based on experience he'd win it.
Terrence Zengerink: Steady, solid, unphased, humble, Terrence's 4th place at the Winter 100 in November (19:04), his second sub 20hr 100 of 2012 stands him in stead for a big PB here.
Markus Flick: Markus joined us in 2012 for the TP100 and the W100, coming over from Germany both times. IN 2012 he ran a 20:08 and looked completely untroubled, staying on to volunteer at the finish line until we closed at the end of the race, something I'll never forget. As a multiple finisher of the Spartathlon and many other global races over 100 miles in length he has all the skills to push his 2012 time quite significantly.
Pete Goldring: The dark horse? Pete started running ultras thanks to yours truly in 2010 and quickly stepped up to the 100 mile distance in 2011. After much advice on pacing and taking it easy your first time, he threw the rule book out of the window and ran an 18:53 at the Umstead 100. He's subsequently recorded solid efforts at Vermont 100 and SDW100 2012, but it'll be about whether he can recapture the speed he found towards the back end of that 100 mile debut out in the US.
All of the above could prove irrelevant in the overall scheme as we turn to the ladies field. We are blessed with some very talented British lady ultrarunners right now and we're delighted to have such a strong ladies field racing this weekend.
Mimi Anderson: A lady who needs no introduction. Mutliple world record holder she has completed races and self support journeys that make most shudder. She is the reigning 2012 TP100 champ having clocked an 18:50 for 8th overall.
Debbie Martin-Consani: Debs earned a place in the race, by turning in the performance of the year in 2012, winning the GUCR (145 miles) outright in 28:01. In the process she dipped just under Mimi's previous CR. Debs has represented Team GB on multiple occassions and holds the Scottish 100 mile Record of 15:48. Need I say any more
Wendy Shaw: The top two ladies dipped under 20 hours in 2012. Wendy is capable of going well under that mark, knows the course inside out and has been training like a trooper in preparation for this event. An incredibly solid runner, she will be around to pick up any pieces towards the end.
Slammers/ Returning Runners
It's wonderful as an organiser to see people returning to a race. This time we have a few people who stand out.
Tremayne Cowdry and the indomitable Ken Fancett, both 2012 Grand Slammers, are running. Ken is the only person to date who has compeleted all 5 Centurion 100 mile events and will be going for his 6th.
We also have a batch of 19 Grand Slam hopefuls toeing the line, making their first step towards covering 400 miles in just 4 races in 2013.
We also have a group of 10 starters who made it at least as far as abgindon in 2012 before being pulled from the course in blizzard conditions. They will be back to cross the finish line in Oxford and earn their second buckle.
There are of course many other stories behind many other runners at this race and the list is certainly not exhaustive, simply designed to give a quick insight in to some of those taking part in the race.
Please feel free to comment below....
All Photos courtest of Ironman, all videos courtesy of Olivia Hull.
Ultrarunning vs ironman. Here's a subject I get asked about a lot as a race director of events for the former.
We have had a lot of iron/ ultra distance triathlon finishers come and race Centurion 100s over the past couple of years, which is great to see. For those who aren't familiar with the terms, ultrarunning commonly refers to any non-stop running event of over 30 miles in length, or multi-day event taking in various stages of which at least one is 30 miles or more. Iron distance triathlons are always the same length and involve three disciplines, a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike and a marathon length run completed consecutively, under the total cut off of 17 hours. Ironman is effectively a brand name, a company with events spanning every corner of the globe. Iron distance tri's exist on a similar scale but cannot use the branding or term 'Ironman'.
So after many years of Ultrarunning this past weekend I raced ironman New Zealand. The reasons for the selection of that event, about as far from home as I could go, are covered in the preceding blog post, here. I went into the race with my eyes wide open, ready to absorb everything I could without judgement or preconceptions. So here are the top things I found, some of which surprised me:
- I'm always blown away by the range of ages, shapes, sizes, colours and creeds on display at the start or finish line of an ultra. It's one of the most inspiring things about the sport. There is absolutely no standard caste. The ironman field matches the variety pound for pound. Here's some examples. In the tent getting changed in to my wet suit, I glanced over to see half a dozen Maori guys with what I can only describe as massive guts prepping for the race. I'm talking huge. I saw almost all of them on the run leg heading to the finish. There were a lot of people out on the course with things like f70 or m75 stencilled on their calves. Ironman rules dictate that each entrant display their age group on their calf/ race number, so in plain English this means a good sized field of women at least 70 years of age and men of at least 75.
- Ironman is expensive, no doubt. Roughly 4 times the price of a standard 100 mile entry. However, the level of organisation on display at ironman New Zealdand was astounding. I couldn't possibly fathom how it was going to add up in the end but somehow it more than definitely did. The amount of logistics going in to marshalling a swim of 1400 people, closing roads for a 180km bike ride and having the necessary officials and aid stations on route, repeated again for the run, is mind blowing. I am acutely aware of how much effort is required to make an event happen, and I can't imagine an Ironman would be possible without at least a handful of full time employees working behind each event. Of course it could be cheaper and you are paying to race an Ironman branded event, but you do get a lot back for what you put in.
- 'Chuck Norris Hasn't Done Ironman' - supporter sign on the run leg.
As for the race....
Preparation is the key to success in endurance events, certainly to reducing the inevitable pain to a manageable level. I trained hard for Rocky Raccoon 100, which fell just 4 weeks before this event. That training had left me in a good place running wise, probably at my second fittest ever. My aim was then to recover from the 100 by cross training on the bike and in the pool, thereby getting some Ironman relevant training in too, killing two birds with one stone. Unfortunately as was predictably the case, I didn't manage to fit in what I'd hoped for, not helped by the fact that I don't actually enjoy road cycling during British winter time, or indeed swimming, period. In the end I managed two swims, one lasting 800 metres and the other 1600 metres. The Ironman swim leg was 3800 metres or 2.4 miles. Bike-wise I pulled the old turbo trainer out of the cellar, stuck the bike on it and jumped on it 6 times, once for 2 hours otherwise an hour or less. This isn't generally considered enough training, in fact my Ironman training book GOING LONG from back in the day, suggests a minimum 18 hours per week. My two racing partners Mickey Campbell and Michael Hull asked for my pre-race predictions. I gave as follows:
2.4 mile Swim: 1:55 (Cut off 2:20)
112 mile Bike: 7:30 (Cut off 8:30)
Marathon: 3:40 (Cut off 6:30)
Total Including transitions: 13 hours 30 (Cut off 17 hours)
Of course I had no idea if a. I could actually swim that far without drowning or being allowed to 'touch the side', whether I could cycle that far without destroying my quads, or how i would feel on the run and i was assured that 3:40 was somewhat ambitious.....
When we got to Lake Taupo, which by the way is a stunning setting for a race, a beautiful blue lake surrounded by hills and volanic peaks, the swim course was already laid out in the water. We would enter at one end of the lake and swim out along the length of the beach staying always about 100 metres off shore. At half way we'd turn around a pair of bouys and return to where we had started. To get to our accomodation, we had to drive up and down the waterfront road along which the swim course travelled. After a good few minutes of driving we'd still be nowhere near the end or half way, of the swim course. This did nothing for my anxiety, nor did hearing Mickey and Hully with 16 Ironman finishes between them, saying things like 'jeeeez that is a long way....'
Swim course start. Course extends way right of camera.
On race morning we got in to transition early, checked over our bikes which we'd parked up the night before and got in to our wetsuits. Walking down to the lake in the dark there was a weird atmosphere in the air, probably caused by a bunch of people literally peeing their pants (wetsuits). The pro start went off at 6:45am and there was no way to delay things any longer. I climbed in to the water and swam to the very back of the field. The race had approximately 1400 starters and when the gun goes everyone just starts flailing away turning the water in to a washing machine.
Plenty of people get punched or kicked, losing goggles and worse so I decided given my shocking abilities in the water I was probably better off giving myself some room. So there we were at the start, right at the back next to the guys in the safety canoes, me and a guy with one arm. He seemed way more comfortable with the situation than I did..... At 7am the cannon went and everyone went mental. This is what I was racing for though, to experience again that feeling of being totally out of my depth, not knowing what was going to happen or really how to deal with those eventualities either. I gave it about 30 seconds and then commenced my Iron journey. I can't explain why, but instantly I felt great. Drafting helps in swimming, so I sat behind a few people just taking it easy for the first part and trying to completely block the overall distance out of my mind. In what seemed like no time at all I looked up and could see the turn around bouys ahead. I literally couldn't believe it, I didn't dare look at my watch, all I knew was that there were loads of other people around me so I wasn't miles out of the back on my own and i felt good. I had swallowed about 2 litres of water but I figured that would be useful hydration for the bike leg. As we rounded the bouys I tried to avoid getting pounded around the head, and safely made it on to the return leg. Again I relaxed my mind and let it wander a little just plodding along and before I knew it I was looking at the turn and final 300 metres in to the shore. I actually had enough to start working harder in to the swim finish, it was astonishing. I can only really put it down to adrenaline I guess. Anyway I emerged out of the water and looked up at the big timing clock which read..... 1:28.
I pretended like I knew what I was doing and made the 3 or 4 minute run up to transition taking my wetsuit off as I went, of course I had no idea how to do that so ended up running with one arm out and one arm still in, stuck in place by my watch and veering from barrier to barrier confused by the feeling of being upright after being in the water for so long. I dressed in transition making sure I looked like a proper triathlete, one calf guard, plenty of luminous lycra and on to the bike...
112 miles is a fairly long bike ride. Lap 1 started with a climb just a mile in. Instantly I started overtaking people and that did help with confidence. Once we'd crested the climb a few miles in, the course flattened out and the pattern for the day emerged. All the big dudes I'd just cruised past came crunching past me in massive gears, down on their tt bars all aerodynamic and stuff. My tactic was to spin at a very high cadence (turnover) burning a lot of energy but not working my untrained bike legs so much, not a great tactic unless you haven't done any training. The bike course was 45km out and back, times 2. It was hot and undulating and I felt a bit like I was getting cooked. About 30k's in to the ride a Korean guy overtook me going about 0.001mph faster than I was and immediately pulled in front of me. Almost instantanseously a technical official on a motorbike screamed up behind me and started shouting 'drafting, 4 minute penalty'. I asked her if she was joking and that the Korean guy had JUST ovetaken me, but apparently not, so I had to spend 4 minutes in the sin bin for 'my' mistake. You don't often get that happen in ultrarunning!
Anyway I tried not to concentrate on the pain accumulating in my crotch region, ate a bunch of GU energy gels and made the first 45km in 1hr30 dead. On the way back to Taupo we got to see some of the leaders coming past the other way. The sound from their high end Time Trial bikes and disc wheels was something to behold, each in the preying mantis position cranking along up hill and down dale at an average speed of 25mph. Staggering. I satrted to feel a bit crappy as I went through 80kms, but after I'd dipped back through town and the half way mark things turned around and eventually I rounded out a fairly strong finish for a total time of 6:49. Not too bad at all, and with only one major issue, to do with the 'downstairs' department. Although I was a little disheartened too, to hear that with a marathon left to run, Bevan Docherty had already finished the entire race 15 minutes earlier.
My run plan was simple. Take my time in transition, then appear like a bolt out of the deep blue and smash out the fastest possible time I could. That all went to plan and I ran pretty hard on to the first of the 3 x 8.7 mile run loops. Just as I began running I saw Mickey finishing his first lap. So he was 9 miles ahead of me by then. I knew that Hully was about 40 minutes ahead of me on to the run so I ran hard and caught sight of him about 6km up on me at my 5km mark. He was relaxed just enjoying the experience of his 10th Ironman finish so I still hoped to close the gap and in fact managed to do so by the half way point of both of our races.
He urged me on, however I was more interested in enjoying the rest of the race too so we ended up jogging our way to a finish in a little over 13 hours, just before darkness descended on to the end of the race. Hully's finish was his 10th at Ironman, his first since 2005 and in a career that spanned 24 years which included almost losing his life in the Kimberleys bush fire in 2011. It was my great privilege to finish with the ol' wise one. Mickey crushed a 5:50 bike split on route to a 12 hour finish. It's easy when you know how, or when you've cycled across the USA in 12 days....
So what can I say about it overall? I had a far better race than I expected, perhaps the run was disappointing in terms of time but that was a conscious decision rather than a blow up. It goes to show I guess that the most important underlying factor is residual fitness, of which mine was ok going in. The whole Ironman show isn't very in keeping with the type of events I usually enjoy, low key, minimal fuss, minimal kit and certainly the crowd was a different one in terms of outgoing character to that which you typically see at ultra events, perhaps you could even say a little less friendly. But there is no doubting the overall experience is worth all of that extra trouble. From bike check in to registration, on the day logistics, transitions and course management/ aid stations, it's unbelievably well organised. Over 2000 volunteers were out on the day and the course was lined with local people who were obviously totally immersed in the whole race. With a Centurion hat on, it gives me something to aim for in terms of involving the local communities as much as possible in our races.
And I guess to try to answer that age old question of which is harder, a 100 miler? A 50 miler? Ironman? Well obviously a 100 is harder and by quite some way. Ironman is very different to both, but on balance I'd say it'd be somewhere around the 50 mile run kind of level.....
Finally, my good friend and co-rd James Adams produced a video a few years ago on the relationship between ultrarunners and triathletes. Enjoy....
Let's start with me admitting that I am not a triathlete. I did once finish a half ironman, however to date that has been my only brush with a triathlon of any distance and that was an unmitigated disaster.
In 2007 I ran my second desert stage race and my first in the four deserts series. When we gathered at Beijing airport to make the long journey inland to china's farthest western corner, on the border with tajikistan, we were introduced to a group of aussie runners also making their first foray in to the world of multi stage events. We later arrived in Kashgar, a market town on the silk route bordering the himalaya, we discovered we were in fact sharing a tent with those very same aussies. The first night was a wash out. Flooding had hit the valley we were scheduled to run through for the first two days and we spent the night sleeping on the floor of a local school classroom. The following day we set off on our first marathon. When we arrived at our tents, we quickly got to know the rest of the guys there, and we instantly hit it off. Pete bouquet was an Aussie with a huge heart, full of life, jokes and around for the sheer experience of pushing himself to extremes. Pete Wilson was a boxer slash endurance runner and Michael hull was the wise head of the group with years of adventure racing under his belt. We spent the week going through the usual trials of a desert race, blisters, heat stroke, dehydration, fatigue, pain and ultimately exhilarating highs of finishing at first the individual stages and later the event as a whole. The one thing the other guys all had in common was a background of racing ironman. It's what they had grown up doing and they had pushed each other countless times over numerous races all over the world. To the wide eyed endurance virgin, it was intoxicating listening. We stayed in touch once we had all departed for home. In fact more than that, our friendship seemed to grow despite the distances between us. Frank in the USA, hully and willo in sydney and bucket out in Singapore. We all committed to racing the atacama together, heading back through south America to visit the Antarctic later that year and finally in 2009, regrouping one last time in the Sahara where we completed the 4deserts series together. We definitely formed somewhat of a band of brothers. We made countless other friends along the way and when reach of us travels abroad nowadays, it's rare that we don't stay with each other or at least get together with friendly faces and catch up on the months of racing and training in between.
In 2011, hully and bucket finally made it over as far a the uk and raced our first ever centurion event, the north downs way 100. Two days later, hully and I were on a plane to Leadville together, where he crewed me single handedly to a solid finish in a race I had no business's finishing. We travelled home on the Monday, hully back to Sydney as I went in the opposite direction back to London. 4 days later, hully lay in a western Australian hospital in critical condition and with burns to 30 percent of his body. Arriving back in sydney, he had flown almost immediately up to the kimberley region of australia to take part in a racing the planet event over 100kms in a single stage.
What unfolded during that race has been well documented subsequently. Along with two australian girls and a South african runner, hully had been trapped by wildfire in a remote canyon midway through the race. The flames, which in the Australian outback are capable of moving with e speed of the wind, engulfed their position and the four were forced to run back through the burning grass in order to prevent being burned alive. They each suffered horrific injuries compounded by the fact that it took some considerable time for help to reach them.
I don't want to pass comment on the why's and wherefores of what happened for those circumstances to transpire that day. I remember being at work and receiving a call from one of our mutual Australian friends explaining that hully was in a critical condition in a Perth hospital. We all race these kind of events knowing that we are moving through extreme environments where accidents can and do happen. That being said to be met with that news just a week after departing his company in Denver was a shocking experience. A few days later, hully was able to stay conscious and feel strong enough to call around us all and let us know how he was doing. Immediately it was obvious that the total energy, laid back go with the flow attitude but hard as nails composure was being employed in full as he brushed off the injuries and talked us lucidly through exactly what had happened, at least what his memory had allowed him to retain having been overloaded with a greater amount of pain than anyone could imagine. His burns were total to his legs and left arm as well as his right hand. The other two girls were in intensive care with burns to up to 70 percent of their bodies. The prognosis for hully was a long stay where he was, with multiple operations to replace his skin with magic skin and grafts in order to begin the process of healing. The exposure to infection during that time was massive and it was a while before he was 'out of the woods' and able to return home. He continued to remain upbeat and open to talking about things. After months of rehabilitation, he was left with bandages which he had to keep on at all times, covering his healing skin, he wasn't allow out during hours of bright sunshine and made countless visits back to hospitals and doctors as his condition improved. Months later he began to run slowly again albeit in a good deal of pain. The process of healing continued throughout 2012 as the endurance athlete began to emerge once again.
Late last year I had dinner with my wife Lisa and we both agreed that it was long overdue I went out to see him. We had a long chat on Skype and of course, with a trip in the works the logical thing would be to tie in a race or two of some description.
From the day we'd met in china, hully had talked fondly of his ironman days. He had, for all that time, been stuck on 9 ironman finishes. Every year he put his name in for the kona lottery, for a ticket to race his tenth at his dream race, the ironman world champs, but hadn't come out lucky. As I began googling races happening over the two weekends I would be out with him, ironman new Zealand suddenly popped on to the radar and instantly I knew that was the answer. Hully could race his 10th whilst I raced my first.
So flying all this way to race ironman is very far from the real reason for this journey. It is a sideshow to spending time with some very dear friends and celebrating the thing that brought us all together in the first place.
Whatever happens it'll be another incredible experience, but just another adventure on the journey through our lives, thankful that hully has returned in full to what he loves doing.
One of the things which inspires us at Centurion Running is epic challenges, which is why we create races to push the limits of the runners and why we help to coach people of all abilities to reach those goals.
The 100 mile distance is something particularly close to our hearts (hence the name of the company) and it's a distance we love attempting. There are no guarantees with a 100, no easy days or jogs to make the race into a training run. No matter how fast or slow you run you know you're in for a tough day, usually in ways you've not experienced before.
Our idea was to grow the number of 100 mile trail races in the UK, initially by staging the North Downs Way 100. A relatively much underused trail, given it’s position geographically and a trail with some great history, scenery and varied terrain. It became obvious early on that the demand for other trail 100s was there and so we looked to the other national trails we loved running so much and created other races giving people an opportunity to run well supported, well marked 100 mile trail routes at various points across the year. Out of that, the Centurion Grand Slam was born, in order to allow runners to complete four 100s in a single year in a series. That idea was one we developed out of trail racing in the US too.
The concept of the 100 mile trail run was invented by accident back in 1974 when Gordie Ainsleigh had a lame horse and wasn't able to compete in the normal fashion in the Western States Trail Ride known as the Tevis Cup. Instead of riding he ran the distance, accidentally starting the Western States Endurance Run 100.
Over the years people started thinking that doing just one 100 was too easy so the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning was born, involving four particular US 100s over one summer. Originally that was Western States, Old Dominion, Leadville and Wasatch Front, but in recent years Old Dominion has been switched for Vermont.
And so in 2011 our own James Elson decided to try to finish the US Grand Slam but spent several months pre-Western States injured. He still managed to finish Western States and Leadville but the injury inadvertently caused renal issues which led to a DNF at mile 60 of Vermont in-between those two which meant he had to forfeit his place to start the final race at Wasatch (it has a lottery but Grand Slammers can still get in as long as they complete the first three races).
This year the other half of our coaching team, Ian Sharman, is undertaking the US Slam after three years of finishing Western States in the top 10 and therefore earning an entry for the following year and a way past the lottery. The Slam record is 74:54:16 by Neal Gorman in 2010 and this year has probably the hottest competition ever, with Nick Clark, Nick Pedatella and Ian all gunning for the record and with very realistic chances.
As Ian puts it:
"After running Western States a few times it seemed like a natural choice to take advantage of my guaranteed entry and try a challenge way beyond anything I've ever done. Four mountainous 100s in just over two months is just plain crazy, but it's a good excuse to see new races and have an amazing summer. Not many people get the chance to try something like this due to the logistics, cost and time, never mind the fact that entries to Western States are so difficult to come by these days.
I'm excited but also very nervous to try this out and that's exactly the trepidation you want to experience before an ultra (or four)."
We'll include more updates about Ian's Grand Slam both pre-race and during the summer, plus you can also follow his antics on his blog.
The view from the top of Emigrant Pass, looking down over the first 4 miles of the WS100 course.
At 4am, when Paul knocked on the car window I congratulated him on doing something very few others would have, gutting out almost 50 miles of a one hundred mile run having been forced to stop for over two and a half hours mid-race. The second thing I said to him was something I'd been thinking about for the entire second half of my own race, that 100 milers are a completely different sport to the rest of ultra running.
Rocky raccoon has gained a bigger profile in racing terms over the last few years, thanks mostly to the exploits of my friend and co-centurion running coach Ian Sharman, who blazed the north American trail 100 mile record in 2011, 12hrs 44mins. I keep coming back to it for the same reasons: Texas in February is like the UK in the summer, sunny (sometimes!!!), warm (mostly) and hence like a little holiday. Second, I love trail 100s best out of all distances/ environments/ terrain types and the rocky trail is majority just great sweeping single track and fire road topped with a cushion of pine needles. Last, united fly to Houston direct from London, just an hours drive from the state park race location, and do so for a great price making this probably all round the best value US trail 100 option. Lastly and most importantly, however, my love for 100 milers has been tempered by a succession of bad races, where things have seemed to go wrong to an almost cataclysmic level each time. Shortened version: 11 goes, plenty excuses, yet to have the 100 mile race I've always wanted.
I think the best and worst thing about hundreds is that if and when something goes wrong, it's magnified 10 fold vs any other distance. With a 50km, a 50 mile or even a 100km, you can usually get by on 'fumes'. That is, if your nutrition goes out the window, you can grind it out at a reasonable albeit slower pace. If you get chaffing it is usually relatively earlier on and you can tough it out a little better because the end is that much nearer. If you're dehydrated or have muscle pain, or feel tired or something hurts, you can put your head down and just grind it out, it will end within a 'reasonable' amount of time. In a hundred, if you suffer any of the above it can often be from 30 or 40 miles in, that means you still have 60 or 70 miles on your feet ahead. At times it is so incredibly hard to stay in, to keep fighting, to not give up, to not look for those excuses which make it ok to stop when you know you could carry on. You have to dig so much deeper to finish a hundred, you will go through the highs and the lows, just when you think it can't get any worse it will and just when you think you've dropped below rock bottom you suddenly pull out in to this massive high that brings you close to tears. Good day, bad day, anybody who finishes a 100 has a massive amount of spirit, drive, fight and determination. If anyone ever doubts the depth of human spirit and endeavour they should spend a little time at the finish line of a 100 miler. Right from the first person to the last person to cross the finish line, every one has made sacrifices necessary to finish. Watching people cross the finish line is the best part of organising, running and being a part of ultras.
(Paul and I on a typically root littered section of trail. Photo c/o Matt Hagen).
Paul and I travelled out to Texas together with high hopes and with good solid winter training behind us. Our plan was to run our own races, but we knew we'd be running some of it together I think, given where we both were in our relative training. After two years of bad weather, the 2013 event was blessed with blue skies and moderate if slightly higher than average temperatures, about 22 degrees. The day before the event we went out and covered a few miles on the course which was in great condition, dry, fast and just massive amounts of fun to run. Race morning we got up about 0330 packed our things and made our way to the park nice and early to park up near the startline.
Gear and Nutrition for the race:
The Texan flag flying at the avenue of trees start/ finish:
At 545 we walked to the drop bag area, left our start finish line stuff in position and joined the front of the line up for the race. I knew people would go off quick and that we didn't want to be right out front, but with single track from 300 yards in, it's really important to get in a good fast moving line rather than be held up too much from running freely at your own pace. As we started, mike Morton the US 24hr record hold (172 miles) and two other guys went off of the front and were quickly out of sight. We the led out the rest of the field. I felt we were being pushed on a bit quick so tucked in behind Paul and offered the few behind us to come through, but nobody took us up on the offer so we just got on with the job. At mile 2, Paul hit the first of many huge protuding roots and commando rolled along the ground. He was ok, thank goodness. At mile 4 he repeated, at mile 5 it was my turn. These were all big crashes and were at this point pretty inevitable in the pitch darkness of the woods on winding trail. At mile 5 we emerged on to the fire road leading to the second checkpoint and saw Mike Morton and the other two leaders running back towards us, lost. I shouted for them to continue ahead and also took the time to look behind seeing just two americans and a Welshman, Steve spiers, still with us. Or of the americans was Jack Pilla, previous Vermont 100 champ. I admit I was a little concerned at being out front of a 100 miler with 6 other guys of that calibre ahead and 315 others behind, but Paul and I kept checking with each other that the pace felt ok and it did, so we went with it. Comfy pace, eating often and feeling good, we rolled around the first 20 mile loop in 2:44. We went straight out on to loop 2 with less than a minute in the aid station to gather some gels and water and ran on through the marathon mark in a cruisy 3:34, still holding a pace just over 8:15 a mile. I had told Paul before hand my pacing strategy and it went like this:
Loop 1: 3:00
Loop 2: 3:00
Loop 3: 3:20
Loop 4: 3:40
Loop 5: 3:59
Total time: 16:59
The heat was definitely evident on loop 2 eventually reaching 22 degrees with 50% humidity so I was drinking way more than I thought I would have to. Over the back 'damnation loop' between miles 26 and 32, the elastic holding Paul and I together started to stretch as he edged away on the hills. He never got out of sight but I knew it was right to sit back and run by myself here, that margin of a few percentage points is a huge one in a 100. As I entered the start finish of loop 3 I saw Paul exiting the aid station, we'd held onto 5th and 6th and left 40 miles with about 5:45 on the clock.
Heading out on loop 3 I quite quickly caught Paul who looked pale and dehydrated. He told me he was feeling rough so I encouraged him to drink, take some salt, slow it up a bit and rally, that it would come around. It was my turn to edge away from him slightly and I rolled on and through to the 50 mile point in about 7:20, still up on schedule but still running every step and feeling great. I was worried about Paul but didn't see him as I came back through the aid station so i took that as a positive sign. I ran strong through to mile 60, slowing just a little but holding a good pace and keeping the Gu gels going in at one every 30 minutes as planned. As I hit 60 miles I saw 8:59 on the clock but also Jack Pilla and the other American in the aid station either dropped or resting and so I headed out on to loop 4 in 4th. Pulling in to mile 66, I passed the guy running in third and promptly found myself running for a podium position through mile 70. I'd run every step to this point but I could feel my stomach starting to go and the inevitable creeping ache of needing to start hiking some of the climbs and finally between 70 and 80 I caved, hiked a few climbs and promptly began puking very hard. I really cleared out my stomach but found the will to keep eating sorely lacking. I made it back to 80 miles in a respectable 12:47, 13 minutes ahead of my pace plan, but having dropped 2 places in that stretch. The darkness had just fallen and I knew loop 5 would hurt but I could also taste a massive pb and the culmination of a lot of hard training finally paying off. I gave everything I had left on that loop, running or rather shuffling every descent and hiking with purpose the remainder under the floodlighting of my Petzl Nao. I knew I was going to have to pull off a miracle to run a 4:12 final loop to break 17 hours but I wasn't going to quit on it. Really it's a bit of a blur going around that final time but i struggled to average under 14:30 miles and right at mile 96 and the final aid station I was passed by two, three and then four guys all bunched together on their final loop. I managed a good run in to the finish for a total time of 17:32, 11th place overall and my third sub-24hr RR100 buckle. Hugely disappointing final loop but overall a 100 mile result I can finally be proud of.
The full results can be found here. Mike Morton ran out winner by a big margin in 14:28. Overall there were 340 starters, 229 finishers for a 67% finish rate. A very good year for the race overall.
As for Paul, well I'd seen him about 12 miles behind me on his loop 4 where he'd told me that he'd been held at the 52 mile aid station of 2 and a half hours due to dehydration. That he was still in the race after that was absolutely huge on the guts and determination scale. Sharing a car, I tried waiting for him at the line but got too cold too quickly so retreated to the car with a pot of mash potatoes to while away the time. At 4am and after 21:53 of running and walking, Paul crossed the line for his finish. To put that in to perspective. He spent 2.5 hours sitting in a cp, walked out the final 30 plus miles and rescued a lost 50 miler, walking her to the next aid station. And still ran a sub 22 hour 100 mile. He didn't have the race he wanted, but he finished and that's everything. When he gets a 100 right, everyone else in the field will need to bring their a game, because he is going to kill it.
The following day we went back to watch the final finishers come in and saw good friends Traviss Wilcox and Rachel Smith finishing their own races, making it a clean sweep of finishes for the British contingent!
So thats it for now. The 100 mile distance has been taunting me for 4 years. I haven't tamed it, I have however finally been allow to pass through in a style I am happy with. This is still just the start of what I think will likely be a life long love for the sport, but more so with this distance.
Next up is Ironman New Zealand on March 2nd, with the 6 Foot Track Marathon in Australia's Blue Mountains the following weekend, hopefully rounding out an incredible month....
Having just finished my last major block of training for the 2013 event, I thought it was time for a little reflection, both general and personal, on the Rocky Raccoon 100, a race which holds a special place in my heart.
My first major race of 2013 is a trail 100, Rocky Raccoon, which this year is being held on February 2nd. As always, the course is formed of 5 x 20 mile loops consisting of woodland trails and sandy ATV tracks around Huntsville State Park, a great spot around an hours drive north of Houston, Texas.
This will be my fourth go around at Rocky. They changed the course in 2009, to what is (unbelievably) a marginally slower course in the estimations of those who've run both versions. My first year at Rocky was 2009, my first ever 100 miler in fact. That year, Andy Jones Wilkins fended off a stiff challenge from Scott Jaime (multiple hardrock 100 winner) for the win in 15:54. The great thing about Rocky Raccoon is that whilst it's a looped course, it also contains a number of sections that are run in different directions making it possible for runners wherever they are, to follow the race at the front, middle and back.
The following year, 2010, I took a miss as I had qualified for Badwater and wanted to focus all my energy on 6 months of consistent training leading up to it. That year was Ian Sharmans' first (which some people probably didn't realise was also his first 100) and he ran 2nd for much of the race to Greg Crowther, a very accomplished 50 mile runner who was somewhat unproven at the 100 mile distance. Ian ended up suffering a knee problem and wisely dropped at mile 80, with Greg going on to win in 14:58, by almost 2 hours over second place.
The course record up until this point had been on the old course, held by Eric Clifton in 13:16 set way back in the mid 90's. A few years afterwards, Jorge Pacheco turned up and missed out on the record, staggeringly, by under a minute. Nobody knew if the new course could yield as quick a time, but according to AJW the 2009 winner, the new course was definitely slower.
Well, in 2011 I went back and so did Ian. There was an ice storm the morning prior to the race and temps were much lower than usual, but it was largely dry. This led to superb conditions. Zach Gingerich whom I'd met at Badwater the previous year where he won, went off of the startline at an insane pace. The course travels about 500 metres out before turning right along the road for a short way. He was out of sight well before that turn. Ian bide his time, let Zach blow himself up and held steady with the late entries of Anton Krupicka, Hal Koerner, Scott Jurek, Karl Meltzer and Mike Wolfe all running in a pack together just slightly behind of him. Lap 2, 3 and 4 came and went, everyone expecting Ian to fumble and hand the lead to the 'elites' behind, in fact most of the people actually running the race didn't realise that Ian was leading. Every time I saw him flying around the course he looked comfortable and totally in control, it was kind of electrifying to see him go and gave me a massive boost. Ian went on to absolutely obliterate the record and set the American trail 100 mile record in the process with a 12:44, a story most people are aware of and rightly so. He had the perfect day. Scott Jurek dropped at 60, Anton pulled away from Hal slightly and ran a 13:18 to his 13:26 and Mike Wolfe eventually faded to a 16:53, Karl Meltzer instead picking up 4th in 14:27. Obviously this new course was fast....
Last year, 2012, I went back for round 3 and watched Ian brawl it out with Oswaldo Lopez up front for the first 3 laps. Unfortunately he picked up a niggle and pulled out, Oswaldo faded and Hal Koerner ran super strong once again in what I felt were much harder conditions to win in 13:24. In my opinion, and Hal apparently felt that this wasn't the case so there you go, but I think on a dry day that would have been worth a significant chunk off his time.
All of these times make it seem like Rocky Raccoon is a walk in the park. In terms of a trail 100, it is pretty darn fast. It isn't, however, quite as simple as it sounds. There are some climbs, the type of which you don't notice on lap 1 but by lap 5 have turned in to slugfests. Sure they are short although there are a few grinders on the sandy ATV trail between miles 14 and 16, but it still amounts to 5500ft of gain in the race, which is very definitely not flat when you compare that to a track or towpath. There are also a lot of roots littering the ground and you really have to watch your step during some sections. There is almost no doubt at some point you will crash. Ian's run is therefore all the more remarkable. Trail running is trail running, not road running and to run a 7:32 mile pace with 5500ft of gain on a twisty root littered course should leave anyone in disbelief. Whatever Karl Meltzer may say, 100 miles is quite far.....
For me personally, I am yet to have a good race there. In fact I feel as if I am yet to have a really good day at a 100 miler in 10 goes.
At RR100 In 2009, my first 100, I simply wanted a sub 24 hour time. I went out with that explicit goal in mind and ran the following loop splits:
20 miles: 3:26
40 miles: 7:23
60 miles: 11:36
80 miles: 16:48
100 miles: 22:54
In 2011, I wanted a huge PB. I had proved myself at much harder, longer races and I was in good shape, or so I thought. I pulled at mile 76 injured and consequently out for about 5 months until June of that year:
20 miles: 3:02
40 miles: 6:35
60 miles: 10:27
80 miles: DNF
In 2012 (blog post here), I again had a PB in mind but was putting less pressure on myself after spending the remainder of 2011 on the sidelines with pretty serious injuries (double stress fracture of the left tibia and a smashed up knee in a bike crash late in the year). I wasn't in great shape, but i was in better shape than i'd predicted so I thought a sub 20 would be comfortable. It poured down the entire night before and during the race turning areas of the course in to total quagmires which got pretty hard to negotiate in the dark. I felt dreadful the final lap too, so having got in to a great position I found myself death marching it out with a really tight chest that had me somewhat worried. Disappointing but then a PB is a PB.
20 miles: 3:09
40 miles: 6:39
60 miles: 10:28
80 miles: 14:54
100 miles: 20:19
I took 5 hours and 25 minutes to cover the final 20 miles. I practically could have crawled in for sub 20 and instead lost the plot and went even slower than I had believed possible.
What happens this year will depend on my training and of course, conditions on the day. I don't keep training logs at any other time of the year, but I always have for Rocky which gives me some grounds for comparison.
This past 6 weeks I've logged regular 70 - 100 mile weeks with one significantly lower week around Christmas. This is the top end of the mileage range that I ever reach, but I have had more quality in there than usual. More importantly, I dropped in some longer 'tempo' style work outs in order to edge my body in to running quicker, more comfortably, which I find is critical in running faster ultras/ 100s. The intention is always to put in up to 85% to 90%, saving something to be able to train consistently through the next week and ensure niggles/ injuries are kept at bay with regular foam rolling and massage sessions. December included a 9:40 trail 100km and three marathons including a 3:14 and a 3:01. Coming in to January my final big training week settled around 2 road marathons on the 5th and 6th at 3:17 and 3:28 with Country to Capital 45 miler at 6:25 this past Saturday the 12th.
In comparison, last year I left myself little margin for recovery with a 6:01 at Country to Capital, preceeded by 3:38 and 3:46 marathons. That balance was wrong, and I blame in part going too fast at C2C 2012 for fatigue during the last 40 of 2012 RR100. This year the plan was to run a 6:30 easing back significantly during the last 20 on the canal. Everything went just to plan as we hit the towpath with a similar split to last year, and took a minute per mile off of the pace during that final run in. Consequently I feel totally different to how I did during this week, last year.
The most important phase has just started however. It's now about actively rebuilding to absorb all of that hard work and tapering in to the event to go in not 10% overtrained or even 5%, but spot on the money. Decent conditions allowing, I know this year will be a faster one for me and perhaps I'll say goodbye to the event for a little while finally happy that I did it justice....
Paul Navesey, one of the brightest up and coming runners on the UK ultra scene and part of our Centurion Racing Team will also be running RR100. By the looks of his form (evident in some of the footage) he is set for a super race there.
Here's a few videos from Country to Capital. A great fun day out with the gang.
Pre-race interview race for the gate (Paul Navesey won by miles):
5 miles in running the field paths:
Paul Navesey shares a difficulty rating of the course:
Climbing around mile 14:
James Adams finishing: