Friday 14 June 2019

On becoming unusually fit

When you go from doing no sport at all to doing ultradistance racing, and when this change happens right as you turn 40, it's always going to look like some sort of midlife crisis. 

But in reality, for me it was a happy accident. Perhaps I was always going to find ultradistance racing at some point, and it just happened to be right at the tail end of being 39. Either way, this is my life now. 

Perhaps the most fascinating part of this was to see my own body change. I watched this dispassionately, almost as if it were happening to someone else. I started out as an ultradistance runner, and this was what first started the change in my physique. I remember sitting on a train around the time I was building up to my first big race and noticing in an almost distracted way that my calves had ballooned into... well, whatever big calves are called. Cows, I guess.

Then, when I switched from running to ultradistance cycling, I had the same sort of out-of-body experience as I watched my thighs thicken up until most of my trousers no longer fit. The cows continued to grow too, and I recall almost collapsing in a clothes shop as I tried to pull a pair of fashionably skinny jeans over my ankles. 

As I write this, I'm six days away from attempting to break the world record for cycling Europe's End-to-End: the 6300-km crossing between the northernmost point at North Cape and the southernmost point at Tarifa. The last months of build-up have been surprisingly stressful. This isn't like a race, where there are organisers to do a lot of your thinking for you - to narrow down your route options and specify the kit you need. It's all down to me, and there have been sleepless nights worrying about logistics. I seem constantly to be fighting the nagging feeling that, somewhere, I've made a monumentally stupid mistake of ride-ending proportions. I picture myself arriving in Norway only for the colour to drain from my face as I discover I've forgotten to pack any wheels. Or I imagine myself thrashing vainly at the pedals in the cloying dark of a Polish night, realising all too late that my route has taken me through some obvious hazard like St Adalbert's Sanctuary for Unusually Hungry Bears on Rollerblades. 

Just lately, though, the worry has started to ease. The importance I attached to the record attempt has started to ease too. With the event almost upon me, the anxieties are being replaced by a sense of peace as I realise that trying to break this record isn't the most important thing: what matters most has been the process of trying to become a better cyclist; the record attempt is more a means to this end than it is an end in itself. The months of training are necessarily their own reward, because if I didn't enjoy them, what was the point?

And just as my focus for this summer shifts from the event to the process of getting there, so do my thoughts about sport more generally. Ultimately, I see, what matters most isn't any particular event, or any particular season of riding. What matters the most is the pleasure I get from trying to improve year on year. And all the better that the legacy of this is a body that has thrown off years of podgy sloth to become a lean, efficient friend. The win-win situation is that, in enjoying becoming better at my sports, I also get gifts of health and fitness that I couldn't have imagined in my thirties. 

All I now need is for wider trousers to come back into fashion and everything will be in place.

(Photos by all-round dude Fergus Coyle)

Thursday 31 March 2016

Electric Cars won't save our Cities. THE DIRECTOR'S CUT

In January 2016 my student and I published an article in the Guardian entitled Electric Cars won't Save our Cities. The article was dramatically edited down by the Guardian, and I do still think the original draft was a bit better. So here it is...

Will Electric Cars Save our Cities?

Any headline phrased as a question is always answered “no”. This is a universal rule for the media age. And so if you’re pressed for time you can skip everything below this paragraph. Electric vehicles are not going to save us. Well, not from most things.

This statement might upset the Conservative candidate for London Mayor, Zac Goldsmith, who is apparently rather enthusiastic about electric vehicles. He is reported recently to have said that electric cars would soon make London buses redundant, for example. This isn’t the first time Mr Goldsmith has got himself excited about the battery-powered future either. This last link claims that London is spending £100m to encourage more people to use electric cars. That’s the sort of sum a city doesn’t spend lightly In This Age of Austerity™, so there is presumably an undeniable and carefully thought-out case for saying London would be transformed for the better by electric vehicles.

Alas, having looked around a bit, we struggled to find this case written down anywhere. So we sat down with a blank spreadsheet and tried to work it out ourselves from first principles. We began by taking a step back and listing some of the main problems that motor vehicles currently bring to cities. Then, we asked what electric motor vehicles could do to address each of these.

Problem Conventional Vehicles Electric vehicles Automatic EVs - private owners Automatic EVs - shared ownership
Pollution in citiesx
Collisions and injuriesxx
Need to be stored most of the timexxx
CO2 emissionsxxxx
Require most of the street's widthxxxx
Road wearxxxx
Facilitate out of town retail, harming city centresxxxx
Facilitate suburban sprawlxxxx
Reducted physical activity, leading to poor healthxxxx
Reduced employee productivity and increased absenteeism (cf. active travel)xxxx
Reliance on overseas oilx
Reliance on overseas coal and gasxxx
Unresolved legal and insurance issuesxx

As you will see from our table, we had no trouble thinking of a whole raft of problems currently arising from motoring. What became interesting was when we asked how well electrification might solve each of them.

Perhaps the most obvious issue that might make people excited about electric vehicles is pollution. Conventional vehicles spew some pretty noxious stuff into our streets, killing many thousands of people each year, including several thousand in London alone. And reducing this dangerous nitrogen oxide and particulate matter in urban areas is perhaps the main area where electric vehicles do offer an advantage. The reduction in “tailpipe emissions” scores one point for the electric vehicle.

So electric vehicles are cleaner, but are they also greener? It sometimes surprises people, but that’s a very different question ‒ one whose answer is entirely dependent on how the nation generates its electricity (which, interestingly, makes this a political decision, outside the control of the individual driver). In 2014, the United Kingdom’s electricity was 19.1% generated from renewables compared to 30% for gas, 30% for coal and 19% for nuclearThere are few signs that the proportion of renewables is going to increase any time soon. The relatively heavy use of fossil fuels to produce energy (some of which is then wasted during transmission, and when getting it in and out of batteries) means the electric car running through a city’s streets is perhaps not quite so eco-friendly as it might initially appear. Sure, it isn’t pumping anything directly into the air through which it drives, but it is still mostly powered by setting fire to coal and gas somewhere within the United Kingdom. Electric vehicles, in other words, basically just move the fossil-fuel combustion from inside the car to another part of the country (safely outside the purview of any elected mayors, more cynical authors than us might suggest). They certainly don’t do much about how we’ll stop our nation emitting greenhouse gases, or what we’ll do when we’ve no more trees left to burn.

Another major problem with today’s cars is their lack of safety. Globally, around 1.25 million people each year are killed, and many millions more seriously injured, in motor vehicle collisions. Nearly 1800 people were killed and close to 200,000 reported injured just in the United Kingdom last year ‒ a country so small in global terms that it’s not clear how people even get up the speed to cause such problems. It is difficult to see how the fuel source of the vehicles has much to do with these collision rates, and how switching from oil to electricity will stop cars from crashing into things. It is possible we have overlooked something important here. We are not physicists or engineers, after all. For all we know, electric motors emit immense magnetic fields that act as forcefields.

And then there are the issues of how motor vehicles shape our use of land. Today’s cars ‒ which use as much of the road to carry one person as five ‒ demand exclusive use of most of the space available in our streets, leaving far less than half for pedestrians or cyclists in a typical urban road. And, as cars are unused as much as 96% of the time, they are, to a first approximation, always standing around doing nothing other than taking up even more space. This means we must coat swathes of the country with tarmac to provide places to store them. Of course, although parking facilities are expensive to build, most people dislike paying the market rate to store their vehicles and prefer it if the State provides parking for free ‒ something cash-strapped local authorities are curiously happy to do. So frequently cars are stored on roads and sidewalks instead, to the detriment of traffic flow, aesthetics, the penalty-shy councils’ finances, and the needs of vulnerable road users.

Issues of space actually go even further than where we store millions of bulky vehicles, because for a century or more we have allowed motor vehicles to shape our world. The easy mobility they provide encourages developers to build out-of-town shopping parks, which eat up green belt and strangle city centre retail. The hypermobility afforded by the car also permits suburban sprawl (and extra greenhouse gas emissions) as it becomes possible for people to live far from where they work. Again, these are issues not addressed at all by making vehicles run off electricity.

And, of course, swapping the engine while retaining the same basic concept of the car does nothing to change a raft of other negative effects on people’s lives. Our nation has a health crisis linked to physical inactivity, placing a billion-Pound annual burden on the NHS. It has long been known that shifting shorter journeys from cars to active travel modes not only makes those journeys faster and cheaper, but is the single best thing thing any developed nation could do to tackle its health problems. It is difficult to see how a car powered by a different engine is going to do anything in this area other than, possibly, make the problem even worse as people feel no guilt about driving their “clean” cars even further.

And finally, won’t somebody please think of the children? Because how will electrification of the vehicle fleet obviate the problems we drop onto our children by using cars to ferry them around? Not only does the lack of activity make ferried kids unhealthy, just as with adults, but it even looks like it’s bad for their minds too. Being chauffeured from place to place in the back of a car has been argued to decrease children’s performance at school and cuts them off from the natural world and from the learning experiences offered by social interaction. Once again, it is not clear how electric cars would do anything at all to improve this.

But perhaps for people like Zac Goldsmith the issue is actually all political? There are certainly plenty of political issues surrounding what we use to fuel our vehicles after all. Today’s engines run off oil, which is pretty unpleasant stuff in all sorts of respects, and which makes us reliant on countries like Algeria and Nigeria for our way of life. A switch to electric vehicles fixes this by… er... making us reliant instead on such nations as Russia for our coal and Qatar for our gas. The extent to which this is an improvement is perhaps a matter for debate. (Incidentally, if you follow these links, you’ll see that the biggest winner either way is very clearly Norway, who are spooning both oil and gas into the United Kingdom at an astonishing rate.)

At this point you might be getting frustrated, thinking we are deliberately being unkind to the champions of electric vehicles. Perhaps what people are really thinking of ‒ especially when they start suggesting they will replace buses ‒ is self-driving electric cars, like Google’s famous prototypes. Certainly, taking the driver out of the picture does overcome some of the issues we’ve just discussed ‒ most obviously the problem of collisions. But the extent to which automated electric vehicles will solve any other issues is in the balance. A switch to driverless cars does give us a brief, never-to-be-repeated opportunity to rethink our entire model of car ownership. We can finally move away from our current approach, where everybody owns their own car, each of which is hardly used. Automated cars allow us to choose instead a system where there is a much smaller number of cars, each in frequent use and summoned when people need them, like taxis where we are freed from having to feign interest in the driver’s life. If we seize the chance to make this switch, and resist the urge to have exactly the same system as now but with robot drivers, then this might overcome some genuine problems ‒ like where we store all the cars when we’re not using them. But, really, this vision of the future would require car makers to sell a few cars rather than many. Expecting them to wither away like this, and resist the urge to sell direct to the consumer, makes it unlikely any real change will happen ‒ especially given the cosy relationship they enjoy with regulators, such that they were the only industry other than banking to be bailed out by taxpayers after the 2008 financial crash. And even if we could overcome our cultural inertia and move to this most futuristic of visions, where we finally escape individual private cars, we are still left with all the issues of town planning, urban sprawl, health, wellbeing and child development that we have outlined above.

So we finally return to the question: will electric vehicles save us? If you are one of the thousands who will die from urban air pollution next year, then they will. If you’re going to die from being driven into by an inattentive motorist, then they won’t. Perhaps, in the best-case scenario, where we replace the meatbag drivers with robots and abandon the idea we must own one vehicle each, we can escape most of today’s problems with collisions and streets clogged by unused cars and vans. And that would certainly be nice. But then we risk our children enjoying these benefits from bariatric beds and diabetes wards unless we start to create streets that are not primarily designed for motor vehicles. There is no future in which humans can sit down all day without paying an enormous health price, but that is the future that electric vehicles currently promise if they appear in streets that in any way resemble those we have today. Most urban journeys are short. Perhaps in the future we will continue to drive to the city, but we have to stop driving through the city. Instead, we need to start turning the space between buildings back into a place for human beings to make their short journeys in a physically active way, experiencing the unprotected world without fear or discomfort. And don’t fall into the trap of thinking driverless cars are a panacea. They remove some of the problems, but a host more remain - and some new ones actually appear. Given current trends, we risk falling complacently into the most pathetic of robot uprisings, where they drive us so helpfully from place to place that we slowly die of bowel cancer. At least in the old days, the robots had the decency to kill us with laser guns.

Tuesday 16 June 2015

South Downs Way 100 Race Report in Brief

So it's three days after the Centurion South Downs Way 100. Rather than bore you with a full blow-by-blow account of this one, I've kept it to a simple bullet-point list of major events.

  • The race began on a surprisingly warm and muggy morning at 0600. I saw several familiar faces on the start line, including Jonathan Wilkes (whom I met last year at the Cotswold Century), Roz Glover (somehow running this race just a couple of weeks after the monumental GUCR run) and Chris Mills (who was helping out). This was my third Hundred, and my strategy was not to go out too fast. In an ideal world, I'd decided, I'd stick to an average pace of 6:30/km for as long as possible. So I was very much in the middle of the pack as we left the starting field and headed out onto the Way
  • The first miles went pretty much to plan - indeed, I went slightly faster than I'd intended as far as CP2. The landscape rolled beneath a miserably grey, close sky. The trail was busy. I kept leapfrogging Paul Reader from the start all the way to after checkpoint 3 at Harting Downs. The fact we have similar paces bodes well, as I've promised to pace him later this year at the Autumn 100
  • The first half of the course was physically easier than the second. As the elevation profile shows, the first half rolls more gently, typically dropping and rising 50-70m at a time; the second half is a savage roller coaster, dropping and rising around 200m at a time. But despite the nastier hills being at the end, I think the race went in the right direction as there was a lovely tailwind from the West for most of the day
  • The weather forecasts had been full of lies! I literally checked four weather forecasts the day before the race and they all said it would be overcast throughout the day - to the extent I left my sunglasses at home to save weight. Well, naturally the sun rose to this challenge. It broke through the clouds later in the morning and baked us for the remainder of the day. 
  • As a result, I got pretty badly dehydrated. On the descent after Bignor Hill (CP5), I popped into a bush to have a pee and three miserable drops of HP sauce were all that emerged. With hindsight, it was frightening how insidious this process was - at no point did I feel unusually thirsty and I'd certainly been drinking as much water as I felt I needed... but the tank was dry. I started forcing myself to swallow as much water as I could stomach and took two salt tablets every hour from then until sunset. I started peeing properly again about 3 hours later. This is definitely something to stay ahead of in the future when the weather is hot. 
  • Just over half way, I was waved down to the Washington aid station by Elvis (thank you very much!) and grabbed my first drop bag, trying to stay there as short a time as possible. I quaffed two rice puddings and a big can of Red Bull (raaarrr!). Jon Fielden came in looking hot and unhappy. He had some bad blisters and was feeling the strain. I tried to remind him he was actually making good time and then got out again before that chair became too comfortable. I was still feeling pretty good at this point. 
  • From Washington there's a big climb up to Chactonbury Ring, from where there's an even bigger descent to Botolphs. Part-way down this hill, I crossed a road where I found one runner standing bare-chested with another runner shivering beside him, despite being wrapped in his own clothes, a foil blanket and the other runner's shirt. Exhaustion had got to this guy, and he was suffering miserably as he waited to be picked up. "Do you have a spare layer?" asked the bare-chested runner. I offered the long-sleeve shirt and foil blanket I was carrying. Thankfully they just wanted the blanket. The spare shirt I was carrying was from the Cotswold Century: I had to run 102 miles to get that shirt so I'd have been sorry to lose it ;)
  • Accompanied by a nice guy in a green shirt, whose name I didn't catch, I passed through Botolphs checkpoint still feeling good. Sarah Sawyer and the rest of the crew cheerfully sent us on our way up the long slow climb from Botolphs to the Youth Hostel that sits high on the hill above. 
    • (A quick aside: The name 'Botolph' sounded familiar. I later checked and, sure enough, the Centurion Winter 100 race also goes past a St Botolph's Church in Swyncombe. And a quick bit of Wikipedia research reveals that St Botoph is the patron saint of travellers. Interesting coincidences! Should we ever need a patron saint of ultrarunning, I know who I'll nominate)
  • At the top of the climb from Botolphs, the worst thing that has ever happened to anybody happened to me. As I climbed the tarmac road, alternately running and walking short stretches, I started to feel the terrible downward force of a massive poo wanting urgently to escape. This was the nightmare scenario that had been on the cards ever since I could produce nothing in my hotel that morning. The path rolled up and down along the edge of the escarpment and, as the waves of hill rolled by, so did the waves of peristaltic misery I was experiencing. I was wrestling the poo as best I could, but the poo had the weight advantage. Eventually I could stand it no longer and managed to find a sufficiently dense bush in which I could relieve myself. Long story short... when a poo is as massive as that one, it can form quite a tall, dense cone after it hits the ground. Indeed, it can stand so tall and proud that a squatting runner's fingers can accidentally plough a furrow right through the vile bum-mousse when they are going in to wipe with the toilet paper :( If you happened to be running on that stretch and heard a shrub shouting "Oh fuck, noooo!" then no, you weren't hallucinating. 
    • (If I later shook your hand, don't worry - I spent about 30 minutes scrubbing the skin off my knuckles at the Saddlescombe checkpoint)
  • The second drop bag was at Clayton Windmills. More rice pud and Red Bull. Still feeling pretty okay at this point. I even managed to run a bit of the climb back onto the ridge
  • Through Housedean Farm and up to the long stretch which included the Yellow Brick Road. At the end of this concrete track I conceded defeat and put my headtorch on for the final drop into Southease. Just outside here I ran into a cyclist, who turned out to be Nick Balding - with whom I ran a big chunk of the Winter 100 last year. "You should have asked me to pace you" he said. Yes, I probably should! 
  • I knew from studying the route that, from Housedean, the route basically consisted of four more big climbs. The thing I'd failed to realise is that one of the stretches - the second of the four, from Southease CP to Alfriston CP - is also relatively long at 12.2 km. As I left Southease I started to feel properly tired for the first time. The climb back onto the ridge was painful, but I managed to keep a rhythm going by swinging my arms forcefully and didn't need to pause at all on the ascent. But as I climbed, a dense mist rolled in. This meant visibility by lamplight was reduced to just a few metres. This might not have been so bad, but on this stage of the route, the normally impeccable Centurion route marking was pretty sparse. Just as we most needed reassurance we were on track in the dark, there was very little of it. In many places, the route was visible only as patch of slightly shorter grass amongst a sea of slightly longer grass. It would have been very easy to get off route here. This slowed me down on the long ridge walk and, critically, gave my morale a blow as I was constantly worrying about going in the wrong direction. The stretch across the top here, past Firle Beacon, seemed to last forever. 
  • I dropped into Alfriston, where the checkpoint was in a lovely village hall. I was feeling such a mixture of emotions at this point. The end was so close I could almost taste it! But at the same time, the deep bone-weariness was setting in. I'd long since started to struggle with food, and could only manage a couple of cups of Coke in the checkpoint. Markus Flick came in, also looking shattered. He, I and another runner left at the same time. But I lost them just outside the village when my headlamp battery died and I had to change it by touch.
  • Through fields of sinister cows, I slogged up the long, rocky track to the penultimate hill. I was really slow and struggling by now. My legs were like lead. Oddly, I lost the ability to run on the flat. I could still manage to run (ridiculously slowly!) when facing downhill, but my legs were just too heavy on the flat. 
  • Stumbling down a slope, I emerged almost before I realised it onto the road at Jevington. In the hall here, I was welcomed by Mark Craig and Sarah Barker. Mark and I helped run the mile 95 checkpoint on the Thames Path 100 a few weeks earlier so I knew I'd be booted out of there in good time
  • The last climb was the worst of all. My climbing muscles had really had enough at this point. At one stage, so deeply weary of dragging myself up the endless rocky slope, I sat on a stile for a minute, turned off my headlamp and just enjoyed the darkness and silence. I could have spent forever there
  • And so began the final 3 miles. I somehow managed to start running again on the long tricky track down from the final trig point, and once I hit a residential street I was able to use the downhill slope to crack off a surprisingly good pace. This dropped me to the main road, where I power-hiked along the deserted street, past a petrol station and towards the hospital. I joined the longest footpath in the world, which seemed to go on forever as it looped around the edge of the hospital grounds. I caught sight of two runners ahead of me (I later realised it was one runner and a pacer, but for some reason didn't think of this at the time). 
  • Finally - eventually - the path dropped us across from the sports centre where, in Western States style, the route finishes with a 400 m loop of a running track. I entered the track about 150 m behind the other runners and, somehow, using reserves I didn't think I had, managed to crack off a sprint finish to catch them. The supporting cheers of Fiona McNelis rang across the track - "Go on, Ian!" - as I pumped my arms and legs to an unthinkable pace. I reckon I could have overtaken the other two runners a few metres from the finish line with an all-out effort, but decided that would be the action of a heel given we were hardly fighting for a top-10 slot. The pacer (whom I thought was a contestant) stopped to take a photo just before crossing the line. I shouted "Don't stop now you idiot!", as I couldn't bare to think how he'd feel if I overtook him literally on the finish line 
  • And so I fell through the inflated arch 20:36:00 after starting. I'd gone into the race feeling I could crack 20 hours, but given how hilly and hot the course was, I'm happy with that. It's still 1:48 faster than my previous 100-mile personal best, after all! Next stop: Leadville

Lessons learned

  • Shuffle forward a few steps before wiping your bum
  • Seriously: shuffle forward
  • Shoe and sock nirvana has been achieved! I wore Drymax Lite Trail socks and New Balance Leadville shoes and had zero feet problems through the entire race. Afterwards, the soles of my feet didn't even have the 'hammered' feeling they normally get after an ultra. This is my winning combo from now on
  • The last 15 miles were slow, and in my tired state, travelling slowly was awful because it preyed on the mind. Travelling a poxy hundred metres could take well over a minute, and even four miles between checkpoints felt like an eternity. What I need next time is to be able to slow down less in the final stages. I believe marathoners say that every minute running too fast in the first half of a race adds two minutes to the second half. I think next time I need to look at going out even slower, so that I'm still normal, and not battling, in the later stages. On balance, it should be quicker overall. Go slow to go fast!
    • The science of this: according to Tim Noakes's book, the maximum effort possible over the timecourse of a Hundred is around 50% of your short-distance maximum effort. Based on my recent 5k time, the best possible time I could do with my current state of training on a flat Hundred would be something a little under 18 hours. Given the SDW's hills, I should have assumed, say, 20 hours and budgeted accordingly: (20 hours × 60 minutes) / 161 km = 7.45 mins/km (12 mins/mile). I should probably have gone out at something like this from the start. The difficulty, of course, is (a) allowing yourself to go so slow at the start and, (b) maintaining a certain average speed on such a hilly course when the uphills, downhills and flats will all be very different. But the science suggests that, if I could maintain such an average, this would work and leave me still functioning in the later stages. In this race, even though I went out a bit faster than this plan would suggest, I did hold back quite a bit in the early stages. And sure enough, it paid off as I climbed steadily from 80th place to 30th place over the course of the race. Perhaps even better pacing would have seen me climb from, say, 100th to 20th?
  • As ever, the final word has to go to the Centurion volunteers, who were amazing (even you, Emily, who lied about Southease having jetpacks!). I've done some stints behind the aid station tables myself this year, and so know that in many ways it's more fun and more satisfying than running the races, but still... the care and compassion of these people is something to behold. Thank you all. 

Wednesday 25 March 2015

Oldham Way Ultra 2015 race report

The Oldham Way Ultra is a 40-ish mile (64-ish km) circular run around... well, around Oldham obviously. 2015 was the second time Team OA had organized this race, and as a veteran of the first event, I was back to see if I could improve. First time round I came fifth out of 30-odd runners with a time of 8:20:50 - largely, I suspect, because I was one of the few who could read a map and didn't spend much of the trip getting lost. This time there were over 80 runners, so could I do better against a bigger, more serious field?
A cold early start saw us all surge out of the Castleshaw Centre. Straight away, I did what has become my usual tactic of pushing pretty hard to get near the front of the pack. I find this gives me a nice breathing space as the race unfolds, and a feeling of comfort against slowing down later on. Although I was soon to be passed by several runners, and was to pass several others myself, meaning I lost track of my position completely, I was still around sixth or seventh as we sped past the dark, moody waters of the Castleshaw Reservoirs and up the first steep rocky climb of the day, everybody dropping to a walk and powering up with hands on knees. Cresting the hill through a broad patch of mud, I blasted down a short tossocky stretch of open moorland, my outstretched arms windmilling for balance as I bounced across the boggy ground. Within moments I dropped to New Year's Bridge Reservoir, through a farmyard and down to the slow uphill pull of Rochdale Road. As I climbed, I heard a series of wheezing, hawking and flobbing noises coming from behind, and a young bearded runner slowly inched past looking sore. This was just 4 km into the race. After he had passed, another runner gestured after him and muttered "Too fast out of the gate". But it shows what we knew, because - spoiler alert! - this guy (Matthew Smith, I later learned) managed to push to third place at the finish.

I found myself running with a slightly younger runner called Dan Shaw as we left the road and headed out along a runnable track onto more moorland. Dropping over uneven ground before climbing to Checkpoint 1, we discovered we both lived in the southwest and knew Bristol. His big aim for the year was the Cotswold Century in September, and this race was part of his build-up. We ran together for the next 16 kilometres as the sun burst out and bathed the route in the brittle light and shade of a reluctant Spring. Up a steep set of stairs and around hilltops of budding trees, we skirted the northwestern edge of the town with great views of the urban conurbation teasing us in the distance. Staring intensely at the GPS tracks on our watches, paranoid about getting lost, we more-or-less successfully negotiated the park at Tandle Hill to Checkpoint 2, seeing a lot of runners getting off-track in the process. Through a golf course and down onto tarmac, Dan blasted off along the long downhill stretch of road and I went with him, clocking off a 4:37 kilometre in the process. His running form looked superb downhill.

Canals and parks

Shortly, Dan and I dropped to the canal for a stretch of flat, easy running past worn-down brick warehouses and mills, broken glass and litter scattered across the towpath. Here, Dan finally took off, leaving me to crack out some miles on my own as he slowly disappeared out of sight. The canal section lasts for about 7 km of fast running, past Checkpoint 3, before heading into streets, a difficult-to-navigate urban park, and thence down a scrubby slope where you dodge under stunted thorny trees to reach a track past another golf course. I ran this last section with Alan Jolly, comparing notes about our preferred distances and running histories (his much longer and more accomplished than mine).

Next to an old brick-built bridge, the route dropped off the track and down to another stretch of canal. Unlike the open waters we had run along earlier, this stretch was entirely disused, clogged with weeds and bullrushes. Alan took off ahead along the superannuated towpath and I trailed after him to reach Daisy Nook Country Park. Here, with 32 kilometres under my belt, I finally started to flag a bit. But, as the park was filled with day-tripping families, I had to put on a good show and avoid dropping to walking pace - unless absolutely unavoidable, I don't want to be seen walking by civilians when I've got a race number pinned to me! I caught a distance glimpse of Dan as I climbed towards a broad loop in the trail that led out of the park; rounding the loop myself, and finally away from an audience, I slowed to a walk for a minute to eat an Eccles Cake and two caffeine pills. Waiting for these to kick in, I shuffled along, walking a couple more times, to reach Checkpoint 4 at 34 km. Around here I hooked up with a friendly local runner called Sam Bolton, and together we ran the next 10 km with Sam, an ecologist, giving me lots of interesting information about the local landscape. As we dropped through a strand of trees to hit Alt Hill Road, we ran into Dan and Alan, who both seemed to be having trouble deciding which way to go. Sam and I managed to shout to Alan to stop him going in the wrong direction, but poor Dan, his canal advantage now lost through navigation problems, was last seen heading in the wrong direction up a road. With his headphones in, he couldn't hear me and Sam yelling after him. I hoped he was going to be alright!

Sam, Alan and I powered along a bitty stretch of riverside land, and then up the steep muddy climb to the monument at Hartshead Pike. Alan ran the climb, disappearing into the distance as Sam and I puffed and panted up the slope at a more sedate walk. As we headed down a series of uneven tracks, their broken surfaces running with mud and water, we reached the 40 km mark. Here, just like on the Green Man Ultra two weeks earlier, I felt my second wave of energy kick in. But as it was Sam's first ultra, I stuck with him for another few kilometres until we passed the 43 km mark and he officially became an ultrarunner. This landmark was reached as we dropped down a slope in front of a stunning landscape that swept away towards Dovestones Reservoir with an enfolding bank of russet hills behind. But then, as we crossed Mossley Road and dropped to another short stretch of canal, I finally went with the energy surge and pulled away.

I'm not normally competitive, but today was different

Feeling good, and reminding myself that ups and downs are inevitable in this sport, I powered up a steep track that I well remembered from last year. This led me through a series of woods and muddy ravines before eventually dropping me to another track that loops around the neck of a river to descend to Dovestones Reservoir. For me, this marked the beginning of the end, but worryingly I started to flag again a little here. Nothing else for it but to keep moving and wait for things to feel better. Spirits were raised when the long loop in the track allowed me to see that I was not that far behind a small string of runners ahead. And they were raised still further when a woman sitting at the bend in the track said it was great to see somebody smiling, and that I was looking much better than some of the people ahead. I'll take that! I thought, as I ploughed through the crowds of people tiring out their dogs and children near the reservoir.

At the far edge of the water, I passed Alan - sore, and now walking, but still in good spirits. Shortly afterwards I reached the final checkpoint, manned by James Young, whom I met at this same race last year. Snatching a handful jelly babies and encouraged on by James and his wife, I quickly headed out for the final leg. "You're in eleventh place," called a young boy spectator, whom I'd been seeing off and on for most of the day.

I remembered this last section having two big climbs and, feeling strong, I powered up the first towards the hilltop known locally as Pots and Pans. Towards the end of this climb, on the steepest section, I turned a bend and saw three people up ahead of me in the distance. From their body language, I could somehow just tell they were all suffering. "Right," I thought, seeing this. "Let's get into the Top 10!". I power-hiked up the slope to run into Mark Cassella, whom I'd talked to through Strava but never prevously met. After a brief chat, I left him behind and continued on up the slope, thumping my hands on my knees to boost my climb even further. As I rounded the hilltop to reach the monument, I caught up with the next two runners (one of whom, it later turned out, wasn't actually in the race) and I passed by to head out onto a section of flatter ridgeline now firmly in the top 10 positions.

And here I found Dan again! He and two other runners appeared ahead of me, looking uncertain about which way to go at a meeting of paths. "Straight on!" I shouted, waving them ahead, and as they turned to follow the rough path through the long grass I fell in behind them.

And this is where I got all competitive. Normally, I never do this. Normally, I would have tagged along with this group, making conversation, to the end of the race. But for some reason that day I was overtaken by a sudden urge to blast past them and leave them behind. Perhaps it was because I could see that Dan was definitely looking a little the worse for wear at this point, and kind of had the impression the others were in the same boat. So as the path turned left for a long, steep downhill stretch I looked left and right... and then went for it! Relaxing my knees and throwing out my arms, I tipped forwards and blasted down the scrubby slope as fast as gravity could take me. One, two, three... I was past them all in seconds. But I wasn't clean away! At once, I could hear breathing and footsteps close behind, telling me that at least one runner had taken the challenge and gone with me. I scrambled over a stile, and still the footsteps were there. Another stile and down to a road - and still the footsteps clinging to my back! I didn't dare look around and acknowledge my follower(s), in case it looked like I was worried by their presence.

Finally, as the road curved around a steep bend to enter Kiln Green, I could take advantage of the bend to look back and assess the situation. One guy - whom I later learned was Stuart Grey - was sticking with me, Dan and the other guy were falling steadily back behind us. I pressed on to the second climb! I remembered walking up this ascent with a runner called Richard Whitaker in the 2014 race, and I recalled it being quite a formidable slope. Still feeling like I had some strength in my legs, I powered on, slowly dropping Stuart as I climbed.

Cresting Standedge Cutting and reaching a short section of the Pennine Way, I glanced back again and saw that, although Stuart had fallen behind me on the climb, he was still less than 100 metres away. Curses! As we entered the last four kilometres of the race, it was clear there was to be no easy cruise to the finish line this time. Digging deep, I started to run as hard as I could, stumbling over loose stones and occasionally risking glances back to see Stuart, doggedly hanging 50 metres back, powering along like the Terminator. Feeling the pain, I ground down the slope at a sub 4:30 pace - something I'd never have imagined I could do this far into an ultramarathon! Running at what I'd normally call tempo pace, I could feel my form breaking down and getting sloppy. I was fixated on reaching the edge of the reservoir, where I would rejoin the road along which we had started the race that day to get back to the finish line. If I could just reach that road I'd know the race was nearly over... I flipped my GPS watch to display the straight-line distance to the finish - 400 m. I put my head down and ran and ran and ran. After what felt like a hundred years of painful slog I glanced again at the watch - 380 m. Crap!

Up ahead, I saw a runner in yellow and black also making for the finish line. Could I catch him? As I saw him power up a short slope I realised I couldn't. The slope pulled at my legs and my pace dropped. A glance back and I saw Stuart gaining inexorably - there was no way I was going to hold him off. Ah well, he'd done incredibly well to claw back this position and I could only give it to him with good grace. A mere 200 metres from the finish I waved him ahead, shouting "Go on, you magnificent bastard!". From there, I just had to pull up a final short climb and then down to cross the finish line in 7:14:49 - just 16 seconds after Stuart and just 29 seconds after the runner in black. This netted me sixth place. "That's worse than last year!" I joked, delighted that I'd shaved an hour and 6 minutes off my previous time, breaking the past course record by 35 minutes.

I hung around the end for over an hour. Mark Casella, on his first ever ultra, managed to claw back to tenth place. Sam, also on his first ultra, came in 14th with a great sub-8-hour time. The finish line was full of smiles and congratulations.

A thoroughly recommended race

And so what of the Oldham Way Ultra? Briefly, it is an excellent race for somebody looking for a low-key and well-organized event in the north. It's hilly, varied and interesting, and despite being so close to Oldham it never really gets unpleasantly urban - the canal section is perhaps the closest it gets and elsewhere there are some cracking views. The 40-mile (ish) distance makes it a perfect step up from marathon for somebody looking to do that in 2016. All in all, thoroughly recommended. 

Friday 24 October 2014

Winter 100 Race Report 2014

The plan was simple: go out hard and beat 24 hours, or collapse along the way with a smile on my face.

The Winter 100 takes runners along four out-and-back spurs, each of 12.5 miles and each dropping you back in Goring at the end. I hadn't even planned to enter the race; I threw my name on the waiting list on a whim after hearing so many positive comments about Centurion races. It fell just three weeks after my first ever 100-mile race, the hilly and difficult Cotswold Way Century, which was far from ideal. As I lined up at the start of the W100, I had no idea whether I had recovered from the Cotswolds or not. Hence the strategy: in my mind I'd already run my big race for the year, and this was just a bonus. I'd deal with it by going out hard from the start shouting Mort ou Gloire. This was either going to be the race where I cracked 24 hours or it would be the race where I cracked myself.
Looking positive at the start
And so I was off the line at Goring at a fast old pace, slipping through the thick riverside mud of the Thames Path with my heart rate going through the roof - the result of the effort and several nights of bad sleep. "I'll pay for that later," I thought, glancing at the Suunto. The 12.5-mile outward leg took about 2 hours and went by in a flash - I was at the turnaround point before I even knew it. "Ooh, wedding cake!" I grabbed a fistful of fruitcake and headed back, spewing crumbs as I greeted the runners just behind. I'd counted the runners coming the other way and seemed to be in 28th place. Excellent!

After the turnaround I ran into the face of the main body of runners behind me, exchanging encouraging words with almost all of them. There was Chris Mills looking happy, and Kat Ganley running the last Hundred needed for her 2014 Centurion Grand Slam. For some reason I don't entirely understand, each time I saw Kat that day I greeted her with a big "Heeeeyyyyy!", like I was the Fonz or something. I really hope she didn't find it too offputting.
Me, as seen from Kat Ganley's perspective
After almost exactly four hours I had completed the first of the route's four 25-mile spurs and was back at Goring. Nikki Mills greeted me in and Ashok Daniel gave me a big hug and then ran around like a star, making sure I had everything I needed. I downed some food, drained an enormous blood blister on my right foot and bandaged it up just in time to be thrown out by Nici Griffin before I got too comfortable.

As I left Goring on the second 25-mile loop, this time on the Ridgeway, I was passed by a runner called James Brouner. We chatted for a few minutes and then he pulled away as I showed a little self-restraint and stuck to what felt like the right pace. I was starting to feel some pain too: to stop my worst blister rubbing, I had to change my gait and land on the heel of my right foot. This was starting to make my hip ache and, particularly, it started my right IT band aching - a problem that had first appeared on the Cotswold Way three weeks earlier. Ah well, nothing I could do about it except get the race over with as soon as possible.

I trotted merrily through the narrow tube of leafless trees that defines the Ridgeway in this area, stepping aside to applaud the smiling race leader Marco Consani, who had just won a 30-second lead over Ed Catmur; Ed came through a moment later with his head down, deep in focus. The route through the trees was lovely as the path climbed subtly and slowly uphill - enough twists and turns to be interesting, but never overly demanding. Eventually the long stretch of footpath along Grim's Ditch came to an end; we crossed the A4130 to roller coaster up and down through a series of woods and fields to arrive at the Hallowe'en themed Swyncombe aid station. The volunteers (as at all the aid stations) provided sterling support.

It was hard getting moving again, but great to be able to encourage all the runners behind me as I passed them. ("Heeeeyyyyyy!" I Fonzied to Kat again - what was wrong with me?) Back along Grim's Ditch and through the trees the gentle downward trend of the path worked brilliantly, providing easily the best running of the day through the still air of the late afternoon. Sometimes running with a runner called Nick Balding, sometimes letting him pull ahead, I powered along the track with a huge smile on my face, skipping joyfully over tree roots all the way. I burst out of the trees by the A4074 with my arms over my head shouting "This is great!" to the marshalls.

Nick had been about 100 metres ahead of me for ages and I caught him again just after the main road. He was finding the going a bit tough, perhaps because he was struggling to eat. I told him about the magic of the gel swish technique and the two of us plodded on to the checkpoint at North Stoke, where we picked up James. Together the three of us donned our headtorches as the golden sun dipped behind the trees and made our way back to the cheering marshalls at the race HQ in Goring. We entered in under 9 hours - a remarkable time for the first half of a 100-mile race, and one that definitely set me up for the sub-24-hour finish I craved.
Still feeling good at 50 miles. That's Nick behind me on the left
Refreshed, thanks again to Ashok's wondrous care, the three of us headed out onto Spur 3 - the western part of the Ridgeway. Whilst the first half of the race had felt almost easy to me, this leg was to prove much tougher - perhaps the price I was paying for the fast start. The route from Goring drops down slightly then goes up a seemingly endless hill. As the three of us power-hiked our way up, Marco came flying down - still in great spirits and with a now-unassailable lead. We continued to plod up and up, the road feeling like a treadmill as our headtorches stabbed vainly into the darkness.

A big part of my plan for the day was not to get sucked into running anybody else's race, as I had on the earlier Cotswold Century (not that I regret a moment of that race). Accordingly, after a few ups and downs, I ended up pulling ahead of James and Nick on a long straight uphill section where they walked for a lengthy stretch and I, going through a good spell, alternated walking and running ("make hay while the sun shines" was something of a mantra that day). This dropped me alone onto the high exposed part of the Ridgeway, where the going became more demanding. The surface was scarred by linear grooves from the feet and - particularly - wheels of thousands of previous travellers. I kept hopping from one groove to another in the hope of finding slightly easier going. Later, everyone I spoke to said they had done exactly the same thing.

My energy level was really starting to drop by now, and I had little appetite for solid food. Gels went down fine, but they started a see-saw in my energy that would last the remainder of the race. On this spur I went from being so flat that I had to walk some stretches to other periods where I was running at genuinely fast paces, of better than 5 min/km. The fact that, when the energy was there I was running really well, suggests for the future that I've got the muscles right and now need to sort out my nutrition to be even more competitive.

But for now, the bigger problem was that my IT band was hurting like a bastard and I'd left my painkillers back in Goring. Rather than pretend the pain wasn't there, I started endlessly singing a song about how much it hurt, to the tune of Camptown Races:

"My IT band hurts a lot - doo dah, doo dah,
My IT band hurts a lot - doo dah doo dah day.
Going to hurt all night
Going to hurt all day
My IT band hurts a lot - doo dah doo dah day"

(Running alone in the dark on Spur 3, I must have spent about four hours hearing nothing other than my own voice singing this song over and over. And over. By the time I got back to Goring, I was thoroughly sick of myself.)

The top stretch was broken by the Bury Downs aid station, where I was well looked after by Ultrachicken Rich Cranswick and one of his colleagues who gave me a delicious Nutella, banana and peanut butter sandwich. I paraphrased Withnail by noting it was the first solid food to pass my lips in hours. It was also to be the last for quite some time. The run from Bury Downs to the Chain Hill turn-around was only about 2 miles. (In case you're not familiar with miles, 2 miles is equivalent to 46 kilometres on the way out and 79 light years on the way back.)

I briefly saw James and Nick again on my second visit to the Bury Downs checkpoint, but they immediately left me behind to several more hours of solitary Doo-dah internal monologue hell. This only varied when my hip started to get so bad that I changed the lyrics to "My right hip it hurts a lot...". I managed to snaffle some asprin from Chris Mills's pacer (thank you thank you thank you) and saw Kat again, still looking strong and - critically - cheerful. I kept deliberately praising runners coming the other way who were still smiling: "That's a great smile, keep it up". You could tell who wasn't going to drop from their grins.

Many long dark miles of energy spikes and leg pain later, Ashok was at his most helpful during my final visit to Goring. He filled my bottles, removed lids from rice puddings, and practically stroked my throat to get the food down. I hope he realises I'm going to take him on every race ever from now on. Eventually I levered myself out of the door for what would surely be the worst 25 miles of race. Through the darkness, I ran away from Goring feeling unaccountably good (I'd decided to try ignoring the IT band for a while). Again muttering "make hay while the sun shines", I determined to make the most of this energy while it lasted and clocked off a few kilometers that were almost fast*. Almost before I knew it, I was running the short detour to the Whitchurch checkpoint where I found James and Nick, whom I last saw something like three hours ago. They had been joined by Nick's pacer John. "You've done well to catch up," James said. "Do you want to finish this thing with us?" Yes, yes I did. They were lovely guys and having made such a great start on this race I felt it would be nice to do the home straight with them.

(* Fast for somebody who has run 75 miles.)

Because I was still feeling really good, we left the checkpoint as soon as I'd arrived. But almost at once my energy crashed again. This wasn't a problem, as the others were also feeling the drain of having run 80 miles. Someone suggested we power-hike for most of the last leg to reduce the pounding we were taking. (But when I say power-hike I really mean it - we were walking at up to 8 kph and John, who wasn't used to ultras, had to keep scurrying into a run to catch us up.)

As the route dropped through a housing estate and over a railway to rejoin the Thames, I entered the only spell in the run where I was mentally - instead of physically - low. It had started to rain, and the combination of the closed tunnel vision of my jacket's hood, the long night, the sleep deprivation and the pounding walk left me feeling grim for a while. I had to dig deep, reminding myself of past sufferings. It doesn't always get worse, I kept reminding myself. I counted my paces backwards from 100 over and over to keep myself focused and distracted. The pain in my leg was excruciating at times, and had been joined by a weird ball of pain in the Achilles tendon of my other leg.

"Oooh oooh oooh!" The outskirts of Reading saw us attempting to run little sections whenever we could, to ease the guilt of walking on what was meant to be a run. "Come on," one of us would say every few moments, "let's run to that next bridge/lamppost/goose" and we'd all break into a microscopically faster jog. As our stiff legs bent in terrible new ways the pains made us hoot like a pack of chimpanzees startled by a leopard: "Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! Oooooh!"

At the final turn-about we refuelled and then hit the riverside heading northwards, all determined by this point just to get the damn thing over with. We knew there was no reason we couldn't beat 24 hours, and this was a huge comfort. We just had to put up with spending about 4 hours to go a distance that took just 2 hours back at the start of the race.

"It must be nice to be a goose," I commented as we passed a pack of them by the river. "When you're a goose, nobody expects you to run anywhere." I explained how my friends and I had decoded the language of geese back at university (they've only got one word, and it means "shit"). I just kept jabbering about anything, keen to keep myself awake and to distract the others from what they were going through. The stretch back along the riverside seemed to go on forever, and the route through the housing estate to Mapledurham lock was attritional. "Shall we sit on the bench for two minutes when we get to the lock?" I asked. "God yes," came a voice from the darkness.

Painfully we limped to the final checkpoint. I sat on a chair feeling dreadful - every fibre of my being wanted to lie on the ground and sleep.

"Do you need anything?" asked a volunteer.

"Do you have any of those caffeine gels?"

We stepped out from the checkpoint, just four miles to go. I sipped at the gel and almost at once felt my body respond. Back down the horrible trough in the path, wincing and gasping with pain from both legs now. Back to the muddy riverside and through a series of gates. We hushed each other theatrically and tiptoed with exaggerated care past the house of the woman who complained after a previous race.

My watch told me that the Race HQ was 1.5 km away, 1.4 km, 1.3 km... The countdown seemed to last forever. The river seemed to last forever. How could this last mile take so long? I could see our pace flagging - so near and yet so far. Finally finally we reached the very last stretch of river. Nick spotted his family ahead and they started cheering. As we reached them on the final bend, Andy Jordan powered past us to overtake 100 metres from the end. We didn't even care! Good on him for having the nouse to do that at this stage in the race. Nick stopped to gather one of his children, leaving James and I to break into the zombie shuffle that, at this point, passed for a run. Shuffle shuffle shuffle - and across the line! The race was over in 22 hours and 24 minutes, giving James and I joint 24th place. James Adams handed me a finisher T-shirt and the "100 miles, one day" sub-24-hour belt buckle that had kept me motivated through the long night. One hundred miles in under 24 hours. I'd only gone and bloody done it.
This is what relief looks like - crossing the finish line
I waited around at the finish line for some time. This was partly because I wanted to see other runners in and applaud them, but also because I felt bloody awful and was in no state to get on a train. I wasn't alone. Racers came in, looking fine, and then once the adreneline wore off they collapsed. A young man in a green T-shirt chatted happily with me for a while and then a few minutes later was on the ground with medics all around him; another was sat there wired up to a heart rate monitor.

My own collapse came from the aftermath of all that sugar. A sudden wave of nausea hit me and I shuffled to the toilets only to find the solitary stall was occupied. Dick Kearn, director of the Grand Union Canal Race, happened to be stood nearby. He calmly passed me a bin liner into which I retched the ghastly few millilitres of fluid that was all I had in my stomach. Rich Cranswick gamely cleared the bag away. Both let me get on with it without making a fuss, which was perfect. Thank you guys.

And so I sat in Goring village hall for hours, alternately clapping in returning runners, clutching my buckle with tears in my eyes, and shuffling off for a vomit. Ultrarunning - how else can you experience every human emotion in a day?

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Cotswold Way Century Race Report

The Cotswold Way just shouldn't be this hard. It's the Cotswolds for goodness' sake. The Cotswolds are tea and scones, sheep and honey-coloured villages - everyone knows that. These aren't the Alps or the Dolomites. But for some reason, which it seems nobody can quite pin down, the Cotswold Way is hard. I walked the route back in 2002 with a friend. It took 6 days and left me exhausted and with flayed feet. And if you'd asked me how that happened, I couldn't have told you - all I remembered afterwards was tea and sheep and honey-coloured villages. On paper, the route is strikingly similar to... let's say the South Downs Way. The Cotswold Way is 102 miles with 4,400 metres ascent and the South Downs Way is 100 miles with 4000 metres climbing. Yet the best runners crack off the South Downs race in 14 hours compared to 19 or 20 hours for the Cotswolds. How can two extra miles take five more hours? The answer is the ineffable and wholly unexpected badness of the Cotswold Way. Over one-third of the field would drop out of the race during the next 30 hours. People who have successfully run Leadville would be beaten by the Cotswolds. And this is what makes it so surprising that I got through this - my first ever race of over 50 miles, almost exactly one year to the day after I started running - without any serious trouble.
The finish line in front of Bath Abbey on the night before the race. On the way to my traditional curry and beer pre-race feast
My day started on the bus from Bath, chatting to John Sreeves (who would be the first off the starting line and the last over the finish line) and Daniel Hendrickson, whom I first met earlier this year when he beat me into third place at the Nomad 50. The worryingly long bus ride took us to the school in Chipping Campden, where Kurt Dusterhoff's race briefing memorably included a warning about the carparks of Gloucestershire being hotbeds of dogging activity at night. Half the checkpoints were to be in Gloucestershire carparks at night...

Suitably warned, we walked en masse up the road to the start line in the centre of the village, ready for the midday start. Immediately, things started to go wrong. My Suunto watch, which has performed flawlessly ever since I got it to replace my piece-of-shit Garmin Fenix, was refusing to lock onto satellites no matter how much I waved my wrist in the air. As I'd planned to use the watch to navigate as well as to monitor my progress, this threatened to throw me off my game. As a result, the first 4 or 5 kilometres were spent distracted and fiddling with the bloody thing, my heart rate getting way too high as I failed to attend to what I was doing and went too hard up the first big hill.

Eventually, Mr Suunto and I both calmed down, and I found myself running up grassy slopes to Broadway Tower, chatting with a runner called Craig and regularly leapfrogging a tall man with a ponytail. Craig and I blasted down the long slope to Broadway and I lost him as I jogged through the village, the milling tourists staring and smiling at the crowd of garishly dressed runners that had descended on their scone-shopping. The first few hours were great. The route ran up and down a lot of slopes, through woods and across fields. Never constant, and never boring, the path changes angle, camber and surface almost constantly. There were plenty of hands-on-knees power-hike uphills. I stuck to my plan of shovelling in lots of gels and Wagon Wheels (which are a superfood I discovered on the Oldham Way Ultra), and within 3 hours I was cruising past Hailes fruit farm, reflecting on how much things had changed - Hailes had been the end of a full day's walking when my friend and I hiked this route 12 years earlier! Up and down the slopes I ran, and somewhere around Cleeve Hill I found myself again near the man with the pony tail - who turned out to be called Jonathan - and another runner who was also called Ian.
Up the first big slope, just ahead of Jonathan
Jonathan, Ian and I ran together towards Checkpoint 3 at Birdlip, making a pretty good pace. At first, we hoped to get to the checkpoint before dark, but as the route disappeared under a leafy canopy we had to admit defeat and dig out our headtorches. At Birdlip we were served drinks and snacks by Rich Cranswick, a Piece of String survivor whom I know from Social Ultra runs. Rich had decided to honour Birdlip by dressing in a bright yellow chicken costume, and I was grateful he was here and not at a later checkpoint where I might have worried I was hallucinating...

Refreshed and with our water bottles refilled, we set off again into the night. The gaps between the aid stations were long - perhaps too long. The big intervals made breaking the race into manageable chunks difficult - and, of course, it's exactly this sort of technique that most runners use to handle the immensity of an ultra. Ian started to find the going a bit tough after checkpoint 3, and it was with relief that we eventually made it to Painswick Rugby Club. This was the 48-mile point, and the only indoor checkpoint. Ian and I both said we'd take a reasonable break to fully sort ourselves out - there was a nice unspoken agreement in the air that said we'd both leave this checkpoint together. I took my shoes off and immediately began to eat like a bear rising from hibernation. I ripped the tops off a family pack of rice puddings and inhaled the lot in seconds. I then opened my throat and dropped down a string of liquorice allsorts, Snickers, Eccles cakes, jelly babies and - just possibly, given that I later found its lone sibling under my chair - a stray Drymax sock.
Ian and Ian
In the hall around me, things were not looking happy. The woman in the next chair had just dropped out of the race and was disconsolately packing up her kit; Jonathan announced he was going to drop out too; Ian had been struggling to keep going for the past 10 miles; and me...? I felt fine. Better than that, I felt great. I was loving every moment of this. Even then, it seemed incredible that I could feel so good when so many others were struggling, and writing this three days later it seems all the more remarkable. But there you have it - I felt great and I was loving my first 100-mile experience. Those who doubted my pre-race curry and beer routine might like to take a good long look at themselves right about now.

Around 30 minutes after arriving, Ian and I left the club and headed down a dark field to a strand of trees. Almost immediately, as we debated which path to take, we met a cheerful copper-haired woman from Cornwall called Emily, and the three of us fell into step. We trotted along an undulating trail through a long wooded section and then down to scuttle across an eerily quiet dual carriageway, chatting happily away the whole time. Emily proved to be lively and great running company.

A few minutes later, heading up a bramble-lined slope from Kings Stanley, we ran into a group of male runners. One of them had a tinny speaker blasting Oasis tunes from his backpack pocket. Not really wanting the beautiful stillness of the evening broken like this, the three of us kept trying to fall back and let the music boys get ahead. Except they never did. They kept surging away, leaving us in silence, only to slow to a walk a few moments later, at which point we'd catch up again. This kept on happening. Surge-slow-catchup. Surge-slow-catchup. Repeat over and over until reaching the Frocester Hill checkpoint at 58.5 miles. Here, at last, we realised what was going on. As I filled up on more rice pudding (this time with a massive dollop of jam - thank you checkpoint man!) we could see that one of the music boys was collapsed in a chair, thoroughly exhausted from the effort. He hadn't been able to keep up a run for any length of time, which explained the surging and slowing. (We didn't see him again, and I'm sure he must have dropped. His companions later flew past us in a flustered panic next to the Tyndale Monument, having misunderstood a message about cut-off times.)

As we left the Frocester Hill checkpoint, Emily, Ian and I picked up a new companion. Wearing a Vegan Runners vest, this man's name was John. John was great company and it was lovely to have him with us. From hereon in were were a foursome.

Alright, I'm just going to say this and get it over with: whoever planned the Cotswold Way is an evil bastard. There - I've said it. There is no other explanation for why the route goes over Cam Long Down when there's a perfectly good footpath that takes a much straighter AND FLATTER route towards Dursley. But oh no, we can't go that way because whoever it was decided to send us up the steepest, nastiest slope of the route so far. Ouch, is all I can say. And also: bollocks. My right IT band had started giving me intermittent pain - something I've never experienced before - and pointless and unnecessary slopes were not my favourite things right then. Incidentally, as I'm not going to mention it again, the IT band pain proved to be a weirdly temperamental and unpredictable thing for the rest of the run. I'd get sudden and terrible sharp pains on descents, forcing me to shout bad words and start running crablike. And then it would instantly clear up as though it was never there. At one point I went 40 km without feeling it, only for it to reappear out of the blue and leave me yelling "Fuckity fuck fuck!" into the night. Weird.

Anyway, the awfulness of Cam Long Down behind us, we trotted through Dursley after 2 AM. Late-night drinkers asked what we were doing and wished us well as we headed up the high street and thence up a desperately steep hill towards the golf course. Near the top, there was a rustling sound and a big hairy badger burst out of the undergrowth and stared at us, its eyes green in the reflected torchlight. Deciding we were no threat, it turned its back and trotted away up the slope. John and I were thrilled - I'd never seen one in the wild before.

As we took the long, awkward and dispiriting route around the golf course, listening to the screeches and hoots of owls all around as we ground up and down little slopes, Ian started suffering again. Over the next few hours he went from being cheery and talkative to a silent presence pounding out the miles at the back of the group. The rest of us all understood this. He was finding this run to be really hard and was just dealing with it in his own way, deep in his pain cave. Good for him for ploughing on like that. The guy's got guts.

I, on the other hand, was still - somehow - feeling brilliant. I genuinely didn't understand why I felt so good when the rest of the group were all showing signs of struggling, but there you have it. Firmly believing that the pendulum would soon swing the other way, I resolved to make the most of feeling good and tried my best to keep the others going through the night. I spent a lot of time running in the lead, pushing the pace slightly. I could have gone substantially quicker during this stretch - had I been alone, I would have run, or at least walk-ran, many of the stretches that we walked that night. The rest of the group picked up on this, and a few times people said I should run ahead if I wanted to. But I really didn't want to. I was enjoying their company. Moreover, I truly believed it would soon be my turn to have a bad spell. I'd never run this far before so didn't know what was going to happen. By keeping the group moving, and trying to be cheerful and encouraging for the others when they were low, I was doing my part now in order that somebody could do the same for me if I needed it later. We were now, as far as I was concerned, a team. We had become Team Badger.

I think a big part of the challenge of the Cotswold Way might be the way it refuses ever to let you get into a rhythm. It roller-coasters up and down slopes almost constantly. "I see you're almost getting comfortable hiking up that hill - time for some quad-busting downhill, boy! Just getting used to that cowfield with its painful camber, are you? Try this rocky slope. Oh you like the rocky slope do you? Too bad, it's just about to turn into a long woodland track that's not quite runnable and which makes you duck under a series of dangling thorns before landing you at the edge of a cornfield..." It was even worse at night, because then the Cotswold Way - which is obsessed with visiting viewpoints - finds more ways to taunt you. "Yes, you can see the next village a mile away, can't you? But not so fast! I'm going to make you run an 8-mile looping detour around a bunch of topographs and memorial benches from which you can't see anything because it's dark. Bwah-ha-ha!"

A pre-dawn snack at the Wotton-under-Edge checkpoint, where I was thrilled to see a helper wearing the woolly hat they gave us after the JW Ultra two weeks earlier. Then up, on stiffening legs, over lots more hills on narrow and rocky tracks. Finally, after 12 long long hours, the sun started to dawn on what proved to be a beautiful and surprisingly warm Sunday. As the sun rose, so did Ian, emerging from about six hours of silent focus to make a totally unexpected and funny joke. Naturally, the rest of us teased him mercilessly about needing six hours to come up with a punchline.
Me and Dave Gooding at the end of the JW Ultra two weeks earlier - thrown in here to explain my excitement at seeing the checkpoint helper's JW Ultra woolly hat. And as it happens, Dave here is the person with whom I walked the Cotswold Way back in 2002
On we pressed along country lanes, over cowfields and through woodlands, our conversations taking curious turns. Ian and I both proved to be oddly knowledgeable about the history of high fructose corn syrup; Emily's "guess each other's surnames" game nicely filled a long section of running. Eventually, as the hills finally began to flatten out and be replaced by lumpy and awkward fields, we reached Old Sodbury. This was a funny landmark for me. In a sense, it felt like the start of the home stretch. I ran from Bath to Old Sodbury and back on the first Social Ultra run; more recently I ran from here to Bath on a recce. So naturally I started thinking "Ah, Old Sodbury, we're nearly home", but this was a big mistake. On both previous occasions I had run from here, it took under 4 hours. So I found it really hard to accept the awful truth, which was that at this stage of such a long race, with Ian (and, increasingly, Emily) suffering, and all our legs getting heavy, there was easily 6 hours or more of running still to go. Six hours? No, come on! It's Old Sodbury... It's four hours from here... right? Right?

Well, all I can say is that, with eighty miles or more in our legs, those last miles were tough. We did manage to rally quite impressively between Tormarton and Cold Ashton, but then soon slowed down again. We walked a lot of what we'd have run on fresh legs. And there were stretches here where I started to feel like the slow one, trailing behind the rest of the group as we trotted across uneven fields.

The race had been, for a long time, extremely stretched out. Throughout this whole stage there was no feeling of chasing a runner in front, and nor did we feel chased down. With the exception of Carl Zalek, who appeared out of the blue near Tormarton and then blasted away towards Bath looking strong, we were in a bubble battling towards the end by ourselves and fighting nothing but the clock and our own inertia. I was, increasingly, finding it physically tough. My legs were heavy. But - and this might be the important thing - at no stage did my mind feel bad. I never once felt defeated or entertained the slightest thought of stopping. I take a lot of comfort from that even as I think back on how worn my body felt by the slow sapping attrition of the Cotswold hills.

And so, slowly and painfully, we approached Bath. John had his head down and was getting on with grinding out the miles like a champ. But Ian and Emily were both in a bit of a state at this point. Ian kept sitting down and saying he'd have to drop out at the last checkpoint; Emily was overheated and just couldn't cool down enough. Both were getting punch-drunk and not thinking straight, to the point I had to remind them to eat. I had a full bottle of water left and sprayed half of it over Emily's head. As a married man, I felt guilty making another woman moan in pleasure like that.

And so, together, we ground slowly to the final checkpoint, 99.5 miles in. Here, we found the beaming bundle of positivity that is Tim Lambert, who gave us great encouragement and made us feel like champions. He was able to tell Emily that she was definitely in line for the third woman place if we kept moving. Right, that was it - we had the longest, hardest 2.5 miles to go and couldn't wait around for somebody to steal Emily's podium spot. John and I bundled Ian out of the checkpoint before he could even think about dropping out and we got on with Phase 2 of "The Cotswold Way planner is a right bastard". The route crawled up and over a series of ridiculously steep slopes around Weston, and the only saving grace was that most of them had bannisters - Emily quickly showed us how much easier it was pulling ourselves up the slopes hand-over-hand, and we all followed her lead.

Knowing Bath well, I was able to offer some reassurance as we got closer. "That's the absolute last climb now", "From here it's less than a kilometre", "Turn right at the Circus and it's all downhill from there." As the final climbs disappeared behind us, Ian came awake again, once again emerging from 4 hours of almost total silence to make a really good joke. Now it had happened twice, we had to tease him all the more for it.

Finally, as we came down Quiet Street, I was able to say "We're just a hundred metres from the finish - let's really run from here!" And we did. Down Milsom street then left into the Abbey courtyard. We ran in side by side through the tourist crowds, claiming a four-way joint finishing position at 26 hours and 11 minutes. Since the night, it had been clear that we were running as a team - one for all and all for one. There was no way that race could have finished in any way other than the four of us crossing that line together. It hadn't always been pretty, and there had been some low moments, but we'd worked together and pulled one another through the bad times. My wife Sarah was waiting for us outside the Abbey doors and I fell into her arms with an enormous smile on my face and teary eyes. Emily was handed her third place woman award. Photos, medals, laughs.
Team Badger at the finish. Photo: Nicola Dusterhoff


So there it was - my first 100 mile run! Honestly, even now, three days later, I can't believe how easy I had it. Okay, so "easy" is a monstrous lie, because there's nothing easy about running 100 miles and there never will be. Perhaps it would be better to say it was nowhere near as bad as it could have been, or as bad as I had feared it might be having experienced some deeply low moments in earlier races. I never once, even for a second, doubted I could finish this one. I felt mentally strong - hell, I was actively enjoying myself - the whole time. My body was seriously weakening in the last 20 miles or so, and I now see how true is that saying that a 100-mile race has its half-way point at 75 miles. But it really wasn't that bad. The problem is, I now don't know if this was a freak event or I just did things right. And if I did things right, which things? Perhaps if I had left the group and gone ahead when I was feeling like I wanted to go faster in the night, I'd have blown up and ended up in a mess? Who knows? Clearly the only way to find out will be to run more Hundreds. I signed up for the 2015 South Downs Way the very next day.

And what about the event? To get the negative out of the way, I do think it could do with one or two more checkpoints. At times, they felt very spaced out - 13 miles, 14 miles, 12 miles, 9 miles, 11 miles, 12 miles, 10 miles... a person could feasibly be looking at 4 hours or more of plodding through the dark on tough terrain from one checkpoint to the next. The long gaps were hard on the spirit. But, in fairness, when you got to those checkpoints the helpers were superb and couldn't do enough to get you feeling better and on your way. And putting that one issue aside, the event is pretty amazing. I think it should be on every serious runner's list. It's such a challenge. Seriously. Don't do what I did and think "Cotswolds? How hard can that be?" because I'll tell you: bloody hard. A third of the field dropped out of this race or were timed out. A third. From a field of extremely serious and experienced ultrarunners. That should tell you what you need to know. Yes, you think of the Cotswolds and you think of honey-coloured villages and scones and sheep. But I'll tell you, my friend: it's a wolf in that sheep's clothing. And that wolf wants to bite you.