Isle of Wight Challenge

The original plan for this race was to build up with a couple of shorter ultras in 2020 and then concentrate on working hard to make this my target race in May 2021. What’s the saying? Men plan, COVID laughs?

My not quite 50 mile ultra in October 2020 took longer to recover from than planned, so training didn’t start proper til the new year. Obviously around then we were well into another COVID lockdown, luckily exercise wasn’t really curtailed as long as you were alone but I did struggle to fit it in and get to the different parts of the route I wanted to practice. All the time wondering if the race would even go ahead… then the road map out of lockdown was launched and all looked like it might be ok in time, but the set up of overnight stays for the walkers wouldn’t be allowed in May so the race was pushed back to July. Sure, you say, extra training time should help. Only you’ve probably read the last blog so you already know I’d optimistically booked a 100 miler in for June.

Suddenly I had to train for my first 100 miler without stepping up to 100km first and then I had to recover within 4 weeks to do the 100km race. I took the week after the South Downs Way very easy, then started adding the runs back in. I was having some achilles tightness and with a busy social calendar couldn’t fit in long runs, so whilst I was running regularly again within 3 weeks the longest I ran was a half marathon and my weekly mileage was around 50km. Good tapering but it didn’t feel like good race prep.

Talking about race prep; I wanted to do this race as it’s around my island; a route I’m keen to do but couldn’t find the time to do as a training run. This should give me a local edge too, right? Possibly, but it also made me complacent and the night before I realised I wasn’t really feeling that ready. The 100 miler was a big logistical operation, I’d treated this one like the local marathon that starts near my house, just get dropped at the start and crack on.

On the start line I was feeling positive, opted to start in my waterproof as the forecast was wet, which obviously was a mistake but not a massive one. The plan was to go out quick, as always, because the first 25km was fairly flat. Found myself flying and running in the top 5, clearly too fast even for my fast start plan, but it felt steady and I was enjoying it so I went with it. The trouble started around 30km when I slowed. This was the plan and my splits were ok in line with that, but I got it my head that I was crashing and going to slowly and struggled to shake it off. Only 2km previously I’d felt on top of the world but now I was right back down to earth with a bump. I was tired too, normally I don’t worry about caffeine in race day, have a little to cover the usual addiction but race day gives me the buzz, not sure if it was that or the really bad sleep the night before but either way I cold happily have stoped for a nap. I plodded along the coast line as the weather cleared, really only cheered when a peregrine falcon flew past a few times then stopped and watched me run past. By the time I hit half way at Chale it was meltingly warm and I was grateful for the biggest incline of the day as it gave me a good excuse for a prolonged walk. Luckily I still had some bounce for the downhills but there were more and more roads and my trail shoes are not cushioned enough for excessive road pounding.

Needles as seen from Headon Warren
It wasn’t quite this clear on race day

It was pounding down these roads that I heard a honk from behind and was relieved to see the family cruise by and pull over down the road. Dad had brought my nephew over to say hello at some point earlier but I was struggling and it didn’t register as much as it should have (sorry!). Not sure if it’s the buzz from seeing them or just the fact that my wife force feeds me (party rings, mango and orange) that helps but I was a new man when I left them. 3 people overtook me whilst I was stopped but I’d caught back up by the next aid station in Ventnor.

St Catherine’s Lighthouse

This begins the third stage of my race, we’ve had the fast start and the hard bit, now was the bit with the people. Two of the people that overtook me where James and Richard, I ran with both of them at points and then together into Ventnor. I ended up running a lot of the race with Richard for company and we ran walked together from Ventnor to Culver, bumping into the family twice more for moral support and more mango. James struggled here with stomach and foot issues but he caught us up again before long. We were run walking now but the walking stretches were getting longer and the running getting shorter. James caught us back up with Jamie, and Charlie who had kindly nipped out to pace him for a bit as he was struggling with a toe injury. We let them pull us along nicely and ran as a fivesome into the last aid station at Oakfield primary school.

Onto the home stretch, 18km of roads. I’d planned to try and catch some time back up here but none of us had much left to give. There was a lot of walking and eventually Richard and Jamie left James and I behind with their insanely fast power walking. At Lushington Hill I convinced James to try a jog, we made it to the bottom and I felt pretty good. James was fine but didn’t have any running left so we said farewell I jogged on. When I caught the other two up we ran together for a bit, again I had more running left so I pushed on ahead. I never finish a short race strong but seem to find something towards the end of an ultra; probably just the thought of stopping soon.

It wasn’t long before the running was hurting again, but then so was the walking as it put different pressure on the blisters I could feel on the balls of my feet. I was counting down the last couple of km though and knew I had enough left to run it home. I was on autopilot now, I knew the area well and just spotted the signs to make sure I took the right route. Finishing along the cycle track is a bit boring, I was just plodding along looking for the next km marker that I knew was due… but it didn’t come. Bollocks. I almost sprinted back in myself the 300m I’d gone past Stag Lane to see the arrows pointing up the hill! The sun was low blaring down the hill and I hadn’t seen the arrows in the glare, so I’d run 600m unnecessarily and now I had to run up bloody Stag Lane. I could see Richard and Jamie (well two people) and had to shrug off the urge to just walk it from there. I know the hill, it’s not as bad as it looks so I sucked it up and kept running.

Again, I was running slower than I could ever dream of running in a training run, proper ultra shuffle at 7-8min/km. Finally I turned into the Agricultural Showground and down to the finish line. I wasn’t really expecting anyone to be there but I spotted my sister, then heard Sally give an embarrassed cheer (she assures me it wasn’t) and then the much louder cheer from Martyn. I was a bit too knackered to be as appreciative as I should have been but it is nice to be welcomed in by familiar faces. I must have been knackered because when Sally jokingly suggested the massage tent I dropped my bag and wandered in… I’ve never had a massage and hate the idea of one, the lady was keen to point out she it wasn’t going to be a full sports massage but it wasn’t so bad. Don’t think it helped though, still hobbled to the car!

I finished in 14 hours, 6 minutes and 53 seconds. A respectable time and slap bang in the middle of my target range, giving me 17th place overall I think. I didn’t get the finish line buzz that I did on the South Downs Way though, overall I was just relieved to be finished and a little deflated. I found this harder than the SDW and yet it’s hard to see why as nothing really went wrong, I didn’t have any big issues to work through, it was just really hard work. I think there were lots of little things; incomplete recovering, low recent training mileage, usual poor fuelling, lack of caffeine, starting too fast, too many roads pounded in trail shoes, etc. Ultimately though I think I just underestimated it and let myself get stuck in my own head when it started to hurt. I seem to rely on Sally a lot to get me out of these funks, might need to do the next one without her to test myself further, which isn’t an immediately appealing prospect but that’s kind of the point.

Apologies, lots of words and no pictures for this one. I decided not to bother with photos as I’ve seen it all before, turned out to be a mistake as my phone decided to disable itself bouncing around in my bag and I had to restore it from factory settings to get it working again. I dug out a couple of photos from training runs to spice it up a bit. One more shorter ultra across Dartmoor in August and then I’m concentrating on shorter, faster stuff again for the rest of the year. Maybe.

As always, Strava link here.

South Downs Way 100: The Aftermath

I wanted to blog a bit about what went well and badly along the South Downs Way and thought a separate blog would be better as the other one already felt quite long. I’m not sure how I feel about running another 100 mile race at the moment, but if I choose to this might be handy to refer back to.

Overall my race went pretty smoothly, sure I struggled in the heat, but I didn’t have any other major dramas and managed to shuffle on and on. It’s easy to gloss over that, but it must mean I got something right in my training. I didn’t hit massive weekly mileage (probably averaged 80-100km a week) but I was consistent and doing a 100mile four day weekend and a 50mile training run definitely helped my confidence. I was surprised not to struggle more mentally, especially in the heat of the day, but I seemed to adapt quite readily. I think it would have been a different story if I was looking down the barrel of another morning in the heat, but who knows. At no point did I feel like I was picking up an injury, I was just tired. Another surprise was not getting any blisters, my shoes had been tight when I bought them and the left was still very snug. I taped over the main rubbing point and that seemed to do the job.

Probably the lack of blisters was down to how dry it was, but that heat obviously brought its own problems. In hindsight I should have been topping up the aid station tailwind to make it more concentrated. I didn’t plan to as I thought it would lead to taste fatigue with it and leave me without liquid calories; I always struggle getting solid food onboard even when it’s not hot so knew I would need tailwind throughout. The weaker tailwind left me lacking in electrolytes though, or at least that’s my assumption given the cramping issues I had from midday onwards. I was aiming for 200+ calories per hour and hit it over the first few hours but as soon as the midday heat kicked in I couldn’t stomach more than a few pieces of fruit now and became almost entirely reliant on tailwind. Need to carry more fruit next time (if there is a next time).

My other problems weren’t really problems, more just training gaps for the future: hills and stamina. I walked hills in training but I’ve always approached them like I’m going for a walk, need to practice hiking with a bit more purpose. Stamina will just come with time. I was assessing my body and my form through the night and nothing hurt, my legs just didn’t have the energy and range of motion to give me any bounce. Something to work on for the shorter ultras I have planned for the next few months.

Kit wise again everything went well. I wore a pair of Inov8 Terra Ultra G270s and loved them. For background I’m a barefoot convert under COVID; I stopped wearing work shoes and then found after a few months they didn’t fit anymore. I have super wide feet and wear barefoot style shoes, if any. I even run in barefoot style shoes sometimes, but usually stick to zero drop with minimal cushioning. The Inov8s are a bit narrow for me but perfect as far as cushioning goes and my feet didn’t hurt at all after plodding on hard chalk for the whole day. I’ll take the feel of the ground over excessive cushioning any day. I had the LEDlenser MH10 headtorch and it didn’t miss a beat. Kalenji pack, soft bottles and visor from Decathlon all did their job perfectly as well as being cost effective. I saved a new pair of Injinji toe socks for race day as I love the feel of them new and I’ve find them essential for stopping toe blisters with the tightness of the Inov8s. I don’t think you can beat Goodr sunglasses for running and general life, they aren’t super expensive and they are good quality, and now they do a slightly bigger range for those of us with massive noggins (my wide feet are probably needed to support my big ole head on my otherwise skinny frame!). On my wrist I had a Garmin Forerunner 945; I chose this because it has all the features of the Fenix 6 without the price tag. All the features that is except the battery life of the 6X Pro. I turned off Bluetooth, left the chest strap at home, turned off heart rate tracking after half an hour because it’s not reliable enough to be useful and didn’t use maps (although it was there ready to load if needed). I finished with 13% battery after 23 hours so seems unlikely it would have lasted the 30 hours advertised. Still I love my watch and the stats it gives me, but to be honest I barely looked at it for this run. Just to tick off the kilometres to the next aid station or crew stop.

One of the things that I noticed was virtually no one I spoke to on the way round was enjoying themselves, not that they were all miserable, quite the opposite, we were just all questioning the sense of running so far. One of my reasons for doing an ultra was to see how I coped when things got really hard and I can’t decide if that happened or not. In the heat of the day I was broken, a lot of the time I just pushed forward in a daze, should I be proud that despite all that I managed my problems and kept going or slightly disappointed that it wasn’t quite as hard as I’d expected? I did learn that I don’t really enjoy being broken, funny that eh? I think that’s one of the main reasons I’m not rushing out to book another 100 miler.

Another consideration for doing another race this long is the cost and the logistics. I think it was in the region of £500 to do this race, with entry fees, travel costs and accommodation. My 3 kids all got up at 4am two days running and my wife barely got any sleep over night. I also dragged my in-laws over to help out with childcare and supporting my wife. That’s a big impact on a lot of people just so that I could go on a bimble. And yet one of the nicest things about it was that they all seemed quite keen to help out and that the family almost seemed proud of me. On Monday the 6yo took in photos from the weekend for show and tell at school, probably just because it was a fun weekend but I like to think part of it was that she was proud of what I’d done.

It’s Wednesday morning now, over 72 hours since I finished. I did some yoga a minute ago and that’s the first exercise I’ve done so far other than walking. I’ve had no major post race issues, although I’m not ruling anything out until I’ve been for a couple of runs. My left big toe has that tingling, numb sensation and my shoulders hurt, plus my right achilles aches but that’s a recurrent on and off issue. Foot oedema is slowly resolving and the general post run aches have eased significantly. My appetite didn’t come back straight away, although I’m very glad I finished early enough to catch a couple of hours sleep in our AirBnB on Sunday morning as that helped settle my stomach a lot. I was completely plant based in the few days before and after the race, which I think helps, I’m normally mostly plant based just having dairy once a day so not a big shift. I’ve avoided alcohol for the week before and after as well, I don’t always avoid it after a race but with hydration like it was I didn’t want to push my luck. All in all fingers crossed to be recovered and fighting for again for my 100km race in four weeks!

As always Strava link is here for anyone interested.

South Downs Way 100: My Race

4am and the alarm goes off in our Premier Inn room. All five of us have been asleep since 8pm as it was the only way to get the kids to sleep. I get dressed and we bundle sleeping children into the car and head off. I love an early run but this feels like a bad way to start a run so long you’re pretty sure you won’t sleep that night…

In the car park and we end up parked next to another couple of runners from the Isle of Wight. I knew them via Strava and Facebook so said hello, then headed off to start as the kids were awake and keen to see me off. I knew I’d see them again when they would inevitably overtake me later on.

Number collected and pinned on (tough job on a nervous start line with hands that have just applied sun cream), tracker attached and off I went. The first bit of the race is a double loop so a nice opportunity to get going and run past the family, although I spent most of the time grumbling at my watch for not telling me the right heart rate. I rage quit wrist based heart rate tracking and chose to run by feel; I knew this would probably be the case as I normally run with a chest strap but still risky changing something on race day.

My plan was to go out fast (relatively speaking); the forecast was for highs of 23 degrees so I wanted some distance behind me before it heated up. Really enjoyed that first bit, I was overtaking people (knowing that I would see many of them come back past later on) and feeling good. First 10 miles averaging sub 6min/km and barely stopped at the aid station (sorry Jon!), second 13 miles averaging just over 6min/km and again just stopped to fill up on tailwind. I’d planned at least 200 calories per hour, mix of liquid and solid, and so far so good.

The next few miles and I slowed a bit and had a little dip. No biggy, I always have a mini bonk around 20 miles so I’d held on better than expected and it was mainly due to some hills and the aid station being a kilometre or two further than expected. Not that I stopped for anything other than more tailwind as Sally was a mile up the hill waiting at the first crew point. I was walking but when I realised the crew point was there I started a slow jog so as not to look lazy. Can of Coke, few bits of fruit, hello to the kids and on I went. With a telling off for arriving far too early.

It wasn’t long after that Ian and Dan (fellow islanders from the start) caught up with me. Ian was looking really strong but Dan was struggling with an injury, they caught me walking up a hill where Dan could still keep up but we left him behind not long after we started running again. I ran with Ian for a while from there and we were joined by another couple of runners I didn’t know (Andy and Gavin), I’d run briefly with Gavin earlier on but left him to take a picture while I enjoyed racing off downhill. We ran together down into Cocking where I unexpectedly saw my aunt and her partner, which was a nice boost. I ran out again with Ian who had been told by his crew that Dan was struggling and planning to DNF (he recovered really well and powered past me later on, only to have to DNF later on with GI issues). We ran together for a bit from here, Ian keeping me very honest until I just couldn’t keep up any more. Andy stayed with him and I think they ended up finishing together, but by now it was hot and I was starting to struggle. I was getting cramps in my calves and groin when I was running, Gavin was kind enough to lend me a salt tablet and I increased my electrolyte intake but I would struggle with this for hours.

I think it’s about 12:30pm now, I’ve been going for 7 hours and I’m melting. The next big hill saw me walking with Vladimir, a very experienced ultra runner frustrated by a knee injury (he would DNF at Washington). I made it to Kithurst Hill more or less on time with my ambitious schedule (I was half an hour up at the first crew point) and was very happy to see the 4yo had a Calippo for me. A cup of strong electrolyte mix, bottles refilled with stronger Tailwind and a little bit of fruit again saw me on my way. By now my groin was cramping when I was walking up hill and when I ran. I’d given up any hope of a sub 24 hour finish, but was still weirdly confident of a finish. It just became about managing the heat as best I could and moving forwards until it cooled down a bit and I could recover. I’d given up trying to get rid of the cramps in the heat, but as long as I kept moving I hoped I would recover later on. I was barely eating anything but I was still taking onboard tailwind, although I’d completely lost track of how much I was pretty sure I was behind on calorie intake.

I didn’t stop at Washington but immediately about turned and went back up the hill to meet Sally again at the crew point. Again I could only stomach fruit and got extremely jealous of another runners mango. It was 4:25pm now and hopefully starting to cool down but not enough for me. At Botolphs I had my one and only sit down, just for a minute or two, I was so fed up of the sun and the seat was in a tiny bit of shade. Into Saddlescombe and they had blackcurrant squash on offer! I had a cup and it was easily the nicest thing I’d ever drunk, so I had a second cup and it tasted naff. I’d given up on food for now so more tailwind and off I went. Not far up the hill and I came across Fraser (mango man) really struggling for energy, he rallied and got up but I left him sitting down again not long later. By the time I got to Clayton Windmills, 70 miles in and 8:30pm at night I was done in. I stopped for quite awhile, had a little cry hug with Sally, changed into a dry t-shirt and finally headed out. I was pleased to see Fraser arrive not far behind me and leave before me, I would later learn that orange juice had been his saviour.

Foolishly I asked Sally how I was doing for time and she pointed out I was pretty much bang on schedule and I worked out if I maintained my cramping slow pace til the end I would just break 24 hours…

From here there was a lot of walking uphill and slow jogging down hill. It was cooling and I was slowly getting less cramp, there were some spectacular views and an amazing sunset. I was running with a few different people at this point, some as they came past me and some as I went past them. One particularly chipper chap skipped past me and when I caught them back up I realised it was Dan Lawson. I followed him for a bit and as it started to get dark I ended up running behind Alison who had her torch out already (much better prepared than me). I felt bad following her down the hills but she was pulling me along at a pace that felt faster than I’d run in hours (sub 7min/km) and I did ask if it was ok. We briefly stopped together at Housedean and headed out and walked the following hills together. I was feeling a lot better now and had shrugged the cramping horror of the day off and was feeling good. By the time I’d reached the next decent downhill I’d left Alison behind and run past a few others as well.

At Southease I was still feeling alright and walked up hill to Firle Beacon with Karen. It was gone 1am by the time I met Sally at the last crew point and I was feeling good. I’d managed to eat a little bit since I last saw her and I was feeling positive, still running pretty much bang on target time but wasn’t confident of the sub 24 hour finish. My timidness about pushing for my ambitious target time turned out to be a mistake.

From here on out I was running solo til the finish. It was dark and occasionally foggy but credit to Centurion for course markings as I didn’t feel lost once. There was 20km and two aid stations left, two decent hills but some very runnable sections too. I wasn’t fast running but I didn’t need to be, I’d done that at the start, now I just needed to keep running and I was looking good. The hill out of Alfriston felt like it went on forever but whenever it was runnable I made sure to get my ultra shuffle on. Alfriston appeared earlier than I expected so I checked with the volunteers how far it was to the end and realised my Strava was very likely to show just shy of 100 miles. Sub 24 hours was very much on.

Those last 14km or so took me just over two hours. On the way up to the trig point I tried to call or text Sally to tell her I was nearly there but my phone wasn’t working properly and my muddled brain tried to send a text via Siri (but I couldn’t get it to make sense) but didn’t think to just use Siri to call her. Wouldn’t have mattered, she was 40 mins away and I was slightly closer. I’d heard the gully down from the trig point was slippery and tough but it was fine, it’s not like I was up to powering downhill at this point so taking it easy didn’t matter much, I still ultra shuffled more than I walked.

I made a determined effort to run the last couple of kilometres on the roads to the finish, they felt like they went on forever but that’s probably because my running pace was only just under 9min/km! I knew I had sub 24 hours in the bag by now but I wanted to run it home. Last time I’d seen Sally I’d said I’d be lucky to finish around 5am… here I was running round the track at 4:24am, so I was not at all surprised to find I’d got here before my family. Sally had woken to her alarm at 3:45am as planned and rushed 3 children and her dad into the car to try and get to the finish on time but it was an impossible task. Everyone was so tired that we didn’t really mind, I can’t imagine the kids would have had the energy to run the finish with me anyway.

I finished in 23 hours 9 minutes and 3 seconds and collected my “100 miles – One Day” buckle as a reward.

P.S. Sorry but I couldn’t remember everyone’s names or really what you all looked like, names are my best guesses after looking at some of the official race photos.

Big Way Round 50km(+)

Racing in 2021 got off to a delayed start for me today. I’d been hopeful some local races might go ahead after the March lockdown relaxation, but every event has now been rescheduled for one weekend in June. Ok, a slight exaggeration, but a four week period now contains 6 races I had entered/planned to do. The first one is my first 100 miler so the rest are very much dependant on how that goes.

This weekend should have seen me running around the Isle of Wight for my 100km target race for the year. It could have run but they opted to delay until July; they’re priority is to put on a good, full event that all can attend. I see their point but being selfish I’d have much preferred the original date! I hunted around for other similar distances I could do, there was one in Devon but the logistics weren’t manageable (yes I’m aware of the irony 😜). Hence I ended up in Winchester, running a “50km” race.

One of the things I haven’t got my head around with trail races yet is their loose relationship with distances. If a road race says it’s 50km, then it’ll usually be 50km precisely, trail races are happy as long as they’re close. It doesn’t matter much, times between races aren’t really comparable anyway as so much depends on terrain and conditions, just catches me out. This will become more relevant soon…

Race day (Early May bank holiday Monday) arrives and I’m up at 3:45am for the 4:30am ferry. It makes me over an hour early but the alternative was to risk being late and my pre race nerves would not tolerate that. I’d agreed to meet up with a fellow runner from twitter before hand, we had a chat and ambled to the start line. I wished him luck running on his probably hairline fractured toe and set off fastish, making the most of the flat even terrain through town.

I had a plan you see. I’d studied the course on Garmin and the elevation plot suggested I was going to struggle around the 30km mark as the course got very lumpy (yes I’m reading Damian Hall’s new book too). This is my usual mini-bonk territory anyway so I figured I’d go out hard and try to make up the time I would lose in the hilly section. The last 10km looked fairly downhill so I’d try and regain some time there if my legs were willing. There was some twitter debate in just how lumpy the course was; Garmin had it at 500m gain but OS had it nearer 900m. I’m quite relieved I had a bit of foresight that Garmin might be wrong, otherwise the 910m gains might have been too much of a shock to the system!

The first 20km went perfectly, I worked through the fleet with a steady 5min/km average for the first 10km then flew through the next 10km at nearer 4:30min/km. At one point I think I was running in a small group with only one or two runners in front of us. One of the runners with me was doing the marathon, but had accidentally taken the turning for the 10km additional loop that made it an ultra. He was absolutely flying and decided to just crack on with the ultra distance instead. I thought the split was relatively well signposted but people in glass houses and all that…

After 20km the course flattened out and I couldn’t keep up so I let them go (I would later pass one of them). I managed to hold my pace and my place until 30km and the hills arrived. At this point I started running with a chap called Simon and we ran fairly close to each other to the finish. Predictably I struggled with the hills, I ran what I could and walked the rest; no shame in an ultra I know but I was hoping for a decent time (for me). When the incline switched to a decline I couldn’t find my previous downhill pace but I was happy with how it was going. I didn’t push too hard, saving something for the last 5km.

Piece of advice here, if you put the course on your watch to follow pay attention to those bings it makes. One of them could be to tell you that following the group in front isn’t the right way to go… The course route was already over 50km at 51.8km, after my detour around a golf course (much to the disgust of the golfers) I managed to make it 53.7km. The wrong turn occurred with about 7km to go, just as I was preparing to wind up a bit for a quick finish. I still pushed into an uncomfortable pace for the last few km but my legs had wasted that little reserve I’d been saving. Who knows how many people went past while I was playing golf (looking at the results probably two people), it doesn’t really matter, just means I can’t gauge how my run was compared to others.

Cheered through an inflated arch. Bliss.

Still, I’m not disappointed, all part of ultra running fun right? I crossed the finish line in 4:46:04, 10th place overall and 4th senior male. I’ve never raced 50km before so my Strava PB is from the first 50km of my 47 mile race along the Thames last year (4:56) and this smashed that. My 50km Strava PB is now 4:26:55 which I’m very happy with.

As always; Strava link if you’re interested.

Chilly Hilly 2020

It’s been a a few weeks since my first ultra and they haven’t been the happiest running weeks. In the initial recovery period from the ultra I developed a pain on the top of my left foot so took a rest week. Thankfully that solved it but a couple of weeks later and my right foot had the same trouble, which didn’t shift quite so easily.

When I finally managed to start running pain free again I took it slow and eased the distance up gradually. My calves were rock hard after every run and I felt like I did when I first moved to zero drop. I’d put myself on the waiting list for a nice 10 mile trail race nearby in early December but figured I wouldn’t get a place and probably wouldn’t be race fit anyway.

Then lockdown hit and the race was delayed three weeks and suddenly a load of places became free and that seemed plenty of time to get fit… so I signed up.

Race day arrived and I was feeling fine. Fitness levels weren’t great due to a low mileage couple of months but I was pain free. For now.

Socially distanced start line

The first kilometre was flat and in parts super muddy, but I covered it in 4mins and felt good… then came Tennyson Down. A long steady up hill that just demonstrated how bad I was at going up hill. When it was finally time to go downhill again I clawed back some time but I was instantly met with another hill as we went up and over Headen Warren. This one was steep and muddy, so that’s two of my weaknesses at once. By the time we were down the other side and enjoying a fairly flattish few kilometres to the finish I was feeling my lack of mileage. No more 4 minute kilometres but still moving forward and roughly on target.

I think all of the runners in this pic were in front of me by the end of Tennyson Down

My aim before the race was to finish in 1:15, on the day I crossed the finish line in just over 1:16 and 17th place overall so I was fairly content with that given the circumstances. No finish line celebrations, a quick well done shared with a guy I’d run with for a bit (who pulled away from me towards the end) and I was off to find some warm clothes and my lift home.

Strava link for my race if you’re interested.

I’ve waited a few weeks to publish this blog, to see if I remained injury free or not. It’s been two weeks now and in that time I ran 100km over 8 days for the Ultra X Holiday 100 virtual race without issue. I still feel twinges in my feet but I think it’s just normal twinges/maranoia now. Today is the first Sunday of 2021 and so my first long run of the year and the start of my 100 mile ultra training. My next race is another local 10 miler in March but I might put a blog or two out before then about the ultra training.

Isle of Wight Marathon 2020

This one happened a while ago (4th October), meaning I’m on my second blog post and I’ve already ballsed up my timeline.

At the start of 2020 I set myself some running targets; complete 12 races in 12 months (starting from May 2019) and then move on to ultra training. The plan was for those races to include my first sub 40min 10km and getting my marathon PB below 3:30:00. I ran a local 10miler in February and was all set for a 10km race in late March…

… Quite rightly the 10km didn’t go ahead and the following day the UK went into national lockdown. Who knew when we’d be racing again? I kept my running going, enjoying a long, solid training block through to August. I lost my way a bit when my 50km race in August was cancelled, but then came the news that my local marathon was planning to go ahead. I ran it last year, four weeks after my first marathon, in 3:51. 12 minutes slower than my first marathon, but this one is a hilly bugger; the last 10km is all up and down and the last hill is brutal. I let myself get completely psyched out by that last hill and didn’t enjoy a lot of the race because of it. Essentially I had a score to settle.

Race day arrived and it was cold, wet and windy. The event starts at 11:30am to give overners time to travel to the island (lazy buggers, we just get up early to get to your 9am starts) so there was a lot of waiting around. Fuelling for a race that runs over lunch is also a massive ball ache, especially for someone like me who always under fuels. To make matters worse my current fuelling technique was liquid carbs in the form of Tailwind, but we couldn’t leave our own drinks at aid stations due to COVID. So second breakfast of porridge and a pint of Tailwind and a banana before, then packed my flip belt full of gels and malt loaf for the race and hoped for the best.

A rolling, socially distanced start and we were off. I was super comfortable from the get go, taking it easy on the up hills and zipping down hill. My form felt great, everything felt easy and smooth, and my splits were far too quick. I kept this up for about 13km, but as the course got flatter and the field spread out things started to feel a bit harder. Still I was making good time until I hit the causeway footpath out of Yarmouth, which was stony, riddled with puddles, and in places open to a very strong, cold wind blowing river water into our faces. I kept motivated by reminding myself it was halfway at the end of this section, but all attempts at easy, bouncy running form were sucked out of me by that wind. I hit the half way mark in just over 1:36 so well above target but that was the easy half.

For the next 10km I barely glimpsed any other runners, the good form of earlier was gone but I was plodding along at target pace without too much issue. This was the part of the race where you just had to put your head down and let the miles pass you by. I was lucky enough to have family cheering me on at various points which really helped keep my motivation up. The last 10km got a bit busier, unfortunately because there are a few big hills and I’m not quick going up hill, so a few people cruised by me. I didn’t mind, my splits had swung the wrong side of my target pace but overall I was still way ahead of that coveted 3:30 finish time. My tired legs didn’t quite fly down the hills as speedily now but I made sure I pushed to make up time where I could. Whilst the hills were slow, they weren’t cripplingly slow. I still felt pretty good and I made my way up the last hill, my nemesis, without incident.

The final kilometre is a slight downhill followed by a flat finish so I got my head up and pushed on. It felt good, but seeing a photo of myself in that last stretch my form was ruined and looking back at the splits it wasn’t as quick as it felt. Who care though, I rounded the final corner with a beaming smile on my face and crossed the line in 3:21:12 smashing my target and taking 30 minutes off my previous time for this race. Weirdly as soon as I crossed the finish line the muscle soreness kicked in. I hobbled up the road to meet my family and by the time I got there I was a shivery, achey mess. The next day my legs barely worked and it took 2-3 days for them to recover. No rest for the wicked though, the following weekend I ran two 30km training runs back to back in a last bit of prep for my first ultra.

I’ve made this one a bit matter of fact and in so doing completely missed the most important thing about this race for me, but I’m not a very creative writer so it’s easier to make the point separately at the end for impact. I enjoyed every single second of this race (OK except for the causeway segment). I ran it all with a smile on my face, well smiling on the inside at least, and whilst getting my time was amazing, it was better just to be racing again. I run for a lot of different reasons, first and foremost because I enjoy it, and races often intensify all of those reasons. It can be an emotional day in a lot of different ways, this one for me was just insanely good fun!

If you’re interested in Strava you can see my run here.

Thames Trot 2020

2020 has been a weird year. At the start I had a lot of races lined up, looking for a spring marathon PB and then moving to trails and moving onto ultra distance. Then all the races were cancelled and I was just left running for runnings sake. I loved it and made good progress, so when some races started going ahead in autumn I was ready. Except my local marathon, now my target race for the year, was three weeks before my first ultra…. Do I train for the marathon PB I’m desperate for or concentrate on distance?

I’ll write about the marathon another day, the ultra was only 47 miles (75km), not that much further than a marathon. Right?

The ultra was the Thames Trot, a bimble along the Thames Path from Iffley to Henley. I managed two back to back 30km training runs two weeks before race day, which went pretty well so I felt I was ready enough to give it a go.

When I’d booked this race the plan was that we would leave the kids with relatives/friends and my wife and I would go up to Oxford the day before to relax and then she could crew for me on race day. Come October leaving kids overnight with other people wasn’t really an option and our hotel cancelled our booking. We managed to find a room that would fit all five of us in but it was far from a relaxing night.

I woke on race day feeling nauseous and with a bit of vertigo, luckily I managed to walk around until the world stopped spinning but the nausea meant I couldn’t stomach much breakfast and would start the race under fuelled.

The start was at a hotel (where we had hoped to stay the night before) and was quite relaxed. I picked up my tag and waited for the get go, we just idled around in the car park until someone said go and we ambled off.

I obviously started out way too fast cruising along at just over 5min/km, but it felt comfortable and sustainable enough. The first kilometre was quite skinny, at one point we all had to go single file across a lock, but it wasn’t long before we started to spread out. It wasn’t long before we went through our first field and shortly after that the path became very muddy. I’m not good on mud, I tried to maintain a highish cadence and flat foot land for maximum grip. Luckily my shoes (Inov8 Terra Ultra 260) are quite grippy so I managed to avoid falling over, but I did end up with a little queue behind me. I was expecting them all to overtake me at the first opportunity but actually once we left the mud I got a nice rhythm going and they followed me for a little while, until I eased off slightly to have a chat with someone.

This is one of my main revelations about ultra running; the connections with people are important. Normally in a race I’ll be polite, give words of encouragement and maybe minimal small talk if I can’t avoid it. That’s fine when you’re maybe running for 4 hours max, but 75km is along way to run with only yourself for company.

We ran together until the first checkpoint where I carried on without stopping, leaving him behind to eat a banana (he was a much more experienced ultra runner than me, I should have paid more attention to his fuelling strategy!). My pace dropped to more like my target pace from here (16km in) of just under 6min/km and I held it without much to report until around 40km. My splits didn’t really demonstrate the struggle I had in the mid 30s; breaking the run down into not far until halfway (38km), nearly 40km, next is a marathon. My pace dropped sharply after 40km though as I started to struggle, I still hit 42.2km in 4 hours and 2 secs and held on for an average pace on target at 50km in just under 5 hours.

I kept slipping from here though, before long I couldn’t run a full kilometre without walking for a little bit. I was desperate to see the family who popped up in a couple of places around here, once with some coke which was very well received. By now it was becoming clear that I was under fuelling but I was struggling to force feed myself anything and my stomach was a bit uneasy.

Shortly after my coke stop I started running along with another runner who I had to ask for some directions as we crossed the river for the umpteenth time. We started running together and chatting as we went and I found that suddenly running was a bit more tolerable. I still wasn’t running fast but I was moving and more importantly I wasn’t struggling as much.

In the end Tom and I ran together for around three hours and over 20km. Right to the finish line, where his kids joined him for the last few metres and mine refused point blank to come near me (it was a long day for them following me around, I don’t blame them). We talked about all sorts of things, some quite deep and personal, some more superficial to pass the time. For what was probably quite a long stretch he chatted away about his previous endurance experiences whilst I plodded along just grateful not to be stuck in my own head and apologetic for not having the energy to be too chatty myself.

For those last couple of hours I didn’t care about my pace, I wasn’t paying attention to my running form, I wasn’t even really paying that much attention to my surroundings. All that mattered was that I was moving forward. It was a completely different running experience and I learnt so much.

I crossed the finish line 8 hours and 5 minutes after I started. Before the race I was thinking 6min/km was doable but after the race I was pretty chuffed to have hit 6:25min/km.

For a lot of people running ultras is about pushing yourself to your limits and learning about yourself in the process. This was a relatively short ultra marathon, I didn’t hit rock bottom at any point but I did really struggle at times. This time it wasn’t some inner strength that kept me going, it was the connections I made with other people along the way. For some people this probably isn’t much of a shock, but I’m a Lonely Goat, I do all of my runs alone without music and whilst you’ll get a cheerful hello from me on race day normally that’s as far as it goes. Afterwards I felt encouraged to find some other runners to do training runs with, we’ll see if it sticks.

I’ve been trying to learn and develop my running form this year, it really helped on marathon day but even then I couldn’t keep up my speed and form through the whole race. No chance in the ultra then, but I didn’t realise how little it would matter to me towards the end. I need to keep working on it so that good form becomes my default. I think it’s the key to pushing my marathon time lower and being more efficient for longer in an ultra can only be a good thing. I need to do some back to back long runs and practice running tired.

If you’re interested in Strava then see my run here.