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?