Friday, 21 August 2015

The shock, pain and tears of my first 100 mile ultra-marathon

I'm sick and I have a headache. I've spent two days resting with my feet in the air. One of my toes is missing all of it's skin on one side and looks like rotting road-kill. My left hip is jutting out a good inch, my left ankle is making a scratching sound and when I close my eyes I'm seeing lucid fast-moving shapes that keep me awake at night. Oh and to top it off I've broken out in hundreds of spots on my back, chest, neck and face.

I'd like to honestly make a joke of it and say that I won't ever do another race, and then to do the ol' switch-er-roo and be telling you about my next one before the end of this post. But the truth is I'm in shock. It's not the injuries or illness though, it's the sheer supreme effort I had to muster to get myself to the finish line.

I know that I could do it again, I'm just not sure whether I'd want to. In fact, I'm not 100% sure whether I want to run any ultras again.

Teary eyed and near beaten

As I walked to the finish line I held back my tears. Those tears were not because I had completed an epic run across the North Downs, over 10,000 feet and 104 miles, it was because it was finally over. I could stop. I could lay down. I wouldn't have to fight, dig deep or push on. I could rest.

A good few times had I wished serious injury on myself along the trail. A solid justification to share with friends and family as to why I didn't complete the full event. And I'd believe it for a little while too. But soon after I'd know my own shame and lack of conviction and it would haunt me.

I told myself that if you don't want to do it, then stop. It's only a race and no one will care either way. Heck, I think my wife would appreciate me bailing out early. But why then did I sign up? Why was I even out there? Why did I even start to have a hope of getting in under 24 hours?

Why did I run the 100?

Was I simply showing off? I've always loved the phrase 'your ego is writing cheques that you're body can't cash', but never found someone to use it on. Ironically, I can now use it on myself. It goes without saying that I didn't train properly. Logging into my Garmin account it shows that in the past 2 months I'd run 135 miles (a lot for me) and that was over 18 runs with an average of 7.5 miles a run. The longest being 17.12 miles. That's actually not as bad as I was thinking it was, though I certainly wasn't ready to complete the race and to finish it in good condition.

I wonder perhaps whether I was simply just naive? I'd done the Ridgeway at 86 miles and I had very little training done before that. I'd survived and did a good time under the circumstances. Surely the NDW100 couldn't be that much harder? I'd run the NDW50 in just over 10 hours in May. Surely another 50 won't need more than an extra 10 + 4 hours? 10,000 feet isn't that much elevation over 100 miles, right?

Did I allow myself to get side-tracked and too busy? Work is always full-on, training takes time and there's a million and one things to get done. I don't know how people fit so much into their lives.

Did I follow others too easily? Did I really know what I was getting myself into?

And as I type this, I don't know. I'm emotionally drained and throwing words into this blog to help me make sense of what just happened and how I feel about it. I'm in shock.

Three days later

I'm sat in bed with my feet up. I feel calmer, less emotional, but I'm still not clear on how I feel about running another 100 or even running at all. Originally I had planned to sign up for the four 50 mile runs from Centurion Running next year. I even went to fill in the form, but something stopped me and I just backed away.

On reflection, I wonder whether it's mostly because I came up against my limits. I've always wanted to meet my limits, but now that I've gotten close, I'm not sure whether I like its company.

Seven days later

I'm OK now. The shock has passed, I'm sleeping better and I'm starting to think more clearly. I feel almost silly on how much the run has affected me this past week. I don't like the weakness, but I honestly have no one to blame but myself.

I certainly don't want to repeat the feelings I felt, so if I do run another ultra, and especially a 100 miler, then in order to not feel that crappy again I need to train and prepare properly.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

2015 North Downs Way 100 ultra-marathon race report

Having run the North Downs Way 50 in May, I felt like I was prepared enough for the 100. I had my confidence, my uncanny ability to scrape through and it was only another 50 miles, right?

28 and a half hours later, I realised that I had almost very nearly bitten off more than I could chew.

Start at the start

I can't quite describe the feeling I felt at the start-line. I'd been there not but 4 months before standing ready to start the North Downs Way 50 and it all looked the same. Similar faces, brands and kit. Yet this time there was a sense that I was about to start something I wasn't 100% sure I could finish. And it wasn't off to the greatest start either.  I'd forgotten to apply the damn vaseline. I'd had a bad case of the 'butt-pinch' in the SDW50 and I was dreading the same. It was playing on my mind, but I'd have to wait for a private lathering opportunity to present itself.

Oblivious of what's to come
I tried so damn hard from the off to make sure I kept my pace down. I didn't want to blow up or burn off all of my energy, so I just kept the pace simple, I didn't over-take and I didn't chase anyone down. And you know, I even enjoyed it. I had more time to look around, I felt more comfortable and more in control of the day.

Oh yeah, the toenail guy!

I don't recall much of the first 20 or so miles. There were some checkpoints, staffed by such enthusiastic and helpful Centurion Marshalls. I didn't stop long, as per my strategy (Pah, I don't know the meaning of the word!) and after filling water bottles and stuffing my face with a few chosen delicacies, I was back off on the trot.
This photo does the North Downs Way no justice

It wasn't long before I fell into a stride with another runner, Paul McLeery. Yes, the very same chap who shared his toenail plucking antics the night before the race on Facebook. We got chatting and we shared a lot in common. We both had similar views on giving things a try and both agreed that if we screwed up today, we had no one else to blame but ourselves.

I'd soon let him push on as I almost landed flat on my face and needed a few strides to recover. I'd later catch him up in the night section and he'd return the favour a few miles before the finish on his way to a flying finish.

Steam-roller Han!

It was shortly after Box Hill where I met up with the steam-roller that is Ilsuk Han. I'd met Ilsuk a year back on the Ridgeway event and what impressed me, and still continues to, is that he walked the second half of the event. Most people might think that was the easy option, but I have nothing but respect that he simply got on with it. I'd have given up. And it was a similar message this time, "It depends on how much you want it, right?", he casually offered.
This was a really tough hill on the 50, but
was nothing on the 100. Go figure

I didn't get a chance to hang onto Ilsuk's musings for long as his smooth strong pace and almost care-free attitude saw him draw into the distance within a few minutes of me waving him on. He'd go onto complete in under 24 hours.

Being honest with myself

In my minds eye, I had hoped that I would be ahead of Ilsuk and Bex until at least the 40 or 50 mile point. I knew his training had been strong, but I figured that if I was able to get far enough ahead of him, knowing that he wanted the 24 hour, then so long as I held on from the half way point I'd make it just fine. It didn't pan out and he had looked so strong that I realised I was in for a world of hurt.

Bex, another Ridgeway running fiend, had been ahead of me since maybe mile 15-ish, but I had always kept her relatively in view along the straights, but she too had disappeared and I wouldn't see her again until briefly at the half-way point.


Yet another Ridgeway runner was out on the trails on the Saturday, Tony Trundley. Tony was a great help to me on the Ridgeway run and a great chap to chat with. We'd also met each other on the NDW50 as he was out for a training run and did the same for the 100. He'd told me that he managed the SDW100 in under 22 hours and that really impressed me and bouyed me up. I love a good success story! We departed almost as quickly as we'd met, but something tells me I'll be seeing him along the NDW again in the future.


Oooh, that's going in my
For the next 15 miles, that led me into Knockholt Pound, I was pretty much on my own. The recce knowledge from running the NDW50 helped immensely. Especially when someone had said that a prior check-point was only a mile away. Bull! whilst I appreciate the spirit of your offer, if you don't know the exact distances, please don't give me any whiff of how long you think it might be. You'll have me in tears. In the 50, I'd believed someone who said it was "just under a mile" and it raised my hopes to think it was so close, and then it was a full 2 miles.

Fortunately, I had other cheeky things on my mind as I ran into the half-way point.

Half-way; 50 down and a billion to go

Bex was here and Ilsulk wasn't that long gone. I must have been doing better than I was expecting. Awesome. However, I was a little concerned about Bex. She looked in pretty bad shape and if I was a betting man, I would have thought she'd out on the lash. Tough lass though. I last saw her leaving the aid-station barking to her pacer "right, let's go". Such a toughie.

I spent 25 minutes at the check point gathering my gear for the night, getting some food in and sorting the blisters that had shown up. The feet weren't actually in that bad a shape and after a few minutes fettling with plasters, I was bandaged up and ready to get going. The pasta and mince was heaven sent and just a few minutes off the feet was bliss too.
Actually taken at mile 51 with bugger all
idea of the pain that was yet to come

I waved my goodbyes and got a solid handshake from one of the marhsalls who wished me all the best. He deserved a medal all on his own for his enthusiasm and support.

Mile 51

It was a little eerie. I'd left the check-point at a walk and fell into a jog once I hit the trail. It wasn't until I hit a gate and looked back did I realise I was alone and that I was about to begin another 50 miles of running. On any long run I'd always had someone else there. A helping hand. Someone to chat to and help navigate. But now it was just me and I'll be honest I felt a ping of excitement and I broke from a jog into a hobble. It was still at this point I had hopes of a sub-24 hour finish.


If Ilsuk was a steam-roller, then Wioletta was a steam-train. I don't remember at all at what point we met on the trail, but we'd go onto be trail companions for 30 to 40 miles. Whilst she thanked me for the company over the course of the night, it was really my thanks to her that was the more honest truth. We kept each other in good company and had some good laughs. She was tough on me too. No more than 20 minutes at any aid-station. No dawdling along the flats. It was all "we run?" and we'd be off regardless of my input to the decision. And that was just what I needed.

The North Downs Way 100. 104-ish miles from Farnham to Wye
It wasn't until mile 90 or so that I had to let go of the steam-train. You see, there was a patch of grass that looked too good to be true. I just had to lay down and get 2 minutes rest. That 2 minutes probably turned into 5 or 10, but it was a well deserved power-nap. At this point, it was early morning and there were more runners out on the trail than I had seen all night. It was time to get back up, catch up with Wioletta and get this done. Unfortunately for me my worst fear had come true. I had clearly been slowing Wioletta down and no matter how fast I warbled towards the horizon, I just couldn't catch a glimpse of her. It wasn't until a crew checkpoint when I was coming in, and she leaving, did I see her for the last time. She wagged her thumb at me and with that taunt I'd never see her again.

I gotta say it hurt. I love connections with people and I really wanted to finish together. But she was clearly the stronger runner and was possessed to finish and get the run over as quickly as possible. She'd go onto finish a full 90 minutes before me. She's awesome!

That's a lot of hill

The last 10 miles

After that crew check-point, of which I grabbed another cheeky 5 minute power-nap, I couldn't quite get into a run. My hip, which had plagued me since before the half-way point, was now so bad I was worried that I'd be risking long-term injury.

I don't remember being in agony, but I do remember being exhausted, both physically and mentally. The photo below, whilst I hate it as a photo of me, does catch a glimpse of the exhaustion and relief I felt when coming into the finish. I walked the majority of the last 10 miles and I was 100% happy with that. I was happy too for Bex to come cruising past me like she was out for a casual 10 miler. Legend.

I felt no pressure to run or to get in before others. There was even an old chap who pipped me to the finish in the final metres, but I didn't care. I was too tired to do anything about it, too emotional to care about competition and too relieved that it was finally over.

Ultra-marathons aren't good for the modelling career

And yet it still wasn't all over

We still had to get home. Ruth, who had lovingly stayed up most of the night helping me at the aid-stations, and camping out at the crew stations, to make sure my Garmin was charged, I had what I needed and still had a pulse, was equally suffering from a lack of sleep. And so the route home went via a few different service stations to allow both of us to sleep every 30 minutes. I can't really thank her enough for the help, encouragement and support.

So next time I'm booking a hotel and making a weekend of it.

I was genuinely trying to smile in this photo! Just couldn't quite muster it.
And this one. Too tired to even smile after running 104 miles and earning the coveted buckle...
Guess I'll have to do it again next year to get a better photo.