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.