Running for the pies

Running for the pies

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

17th May: Hook Fun Run

Today saw the annual village fun-run once more here in Hook with a record 1200 entrants participating over the 3 distances: 2.5 miles, 6 miles and 10 miles.

I had arranged to run the 2.5 mile course again with my eldest daughter, although I had warned her in advance that I would once more be donning the ostrich costume to run with her.

In September she goes off to ‘big school’ so I figured that this will be my only chance to run in costume with her as from next year she would be way too embarrassed to be seen anywhere near me dressed like that.

We wandered off to the start to arrive in plenty of time and to cheer-off the other runners. It seemed we were walking kind of together with me a few steps ahead of my daughter who was already questioning my sartorial choice and regretting the fact she was with me in that get-up.

Posing for the organiser's photo.
After saying hello to a few people I recognised I was collared by one of the organisers to get a photo of me in the costume and my daughter was asked to pose with me - which she declined (oh dear, I thought, she may not be in a good mood now).

Off go the 10 milers, with neighbour Pini in centre shot.
The start of the 6 mile race.
After seeing the herd gallop away in the 6 and 10 mile races we made our way to the starting corral and awaited the off under the sunny skies, my daughter now looking even less amused and even attempting to lose herself in the crowd rather than being seen dead with me.

An ostrich eye view of an unimpressed daughter.
After the obligatory countdown we were off and running. Starting near the back it was difficult to try and pick our way through the crowds of people over the first quarter of a mile, but as the masses began to thin out we were soon able to find a rhythm at the pace of my daughter.

Circling the village we were cheered and clapped-on as a group by most of the residents who had taken their time to line the streets and encourage us. In the calendar of the village there are two events that gets everyone out and about: the ‘Christmas Cracker’ - our village winter festival street-party, and this here fun-run with the enthusiasm not failing to disappoint once more.

Weather wise the last month has not lived up to expectations, being fairly chilly and a dearth of sunshine so far but today was the first day with proper heat and gorgeous sunshine. This was catching-out plenty of people as most participants had not been able to acclimatise to running in the sun once more, so there were plenty of thirsty sorts when we got to the water station at half way. My daughter had already mentioned about pouring cold water over her head when she got there to cool down, which she did so and as we ran off I duly obliged by pouring some more over her head, which caught her by surprise and sped her up whilst she had a go at me for surprising her like that!

It seemed like no time at all before we had finished our loop of the village and were returning to the start/ finish in the junior school. As we rounded the corner to sight the finish line my daughter did her usual trick of sprinting for it… Running nearly at full-pelt to catch her, we both made it across at the same time, overtaking ‘Where’s Wally’ in the process which would have made someone a good photo!

Cooling-down after the race.
Hanging around after the race I waited for the first of the runners in the 6 and 10 mile races to finish, with my neighbour Pini finishing in 6th position in the 10 mile race recording a personal best for the course.

Some fellow finishers
I was also able to see some of the other costumed runners finish the races, with a man in full gorilla suit including the mask, a Gruffalo, the Flash and Iron Man crossing the line… Its good when people don’t take things too seriously, especially the 2.5 mile race as it is a ‘fun run’ after all.

Post-race posing with Pini.
Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

Monday, 18 May 2015

10th May: Shakedown

When I returned from my MTB session the other week I took the deliberate step of removing the pedals from my bike to avoid the temptation of getting on it again, with it now only fit for condemnation.I had a look at getting a new MTB, but the cost for what I was looking for would be at least £800, which is a lot of money for something that doesn't get used a great deal... So I had a look at what I already have and took a view.

The frame of the bike itself is sound, as too is the bottom-bracket - which is not that surprising as it has not done a huge mileage. The wheels are also relatively new having been bought a few years back when my previous rear wheel died.

When I bought the current wheels I made sure they were capable of taking rotors for disc brakes, which was certainly a wise move, and looking at the frame and the existing (and pretty knackered) shock forks, they had mounting points for disc brakes, so a decision was made: re-using the frame and wheels I would build a new bike around them.

Over the last couple of weeks the constituent parts have all arrived, and winning on eBay a set of Rock Shox 'Reba Team Dual' air forks I have a pretty good pair to mount on the bike.

So for the first time I have disc brakes (hydraulic), which meant I needed to get new gear shifters as the previous ones were units that combined brakes and shifters. The new brakes, levers and shifters were added with ease and minimal fuss, along with a new flat bar, stem, headset, crankset, crank arm, crank bolts (Alan key ones), and the forks.

So the only parts carried over from the previous iteration are the frame, wheels, hand grips, rear dérailleur and bar ends... So what is essentially a new bike with regards to the running gear (and stopping gear) has cost me in the region of £200 and a couple of hours of work to put it all together.

Chuffed with the new iteration of the bike, I roped Walshy in to accompanying me to Swinley on his MTB for a shakedown test.

Walshy is coming-off an injury when he came a cropper on black ice whilst cycling home from work back in Feb, so he was up for a roll of the blue and red routes as it would not be a flat-out throwing around of the bike and help judge if his body was ok.

Setting-out things seemed relatively fine on the new MTB, the shock forks responding beautifully to the terrain and the handlebar mounted 'pop-lock' being a great thing to have (it locks the forks so stiffens them if you are riding over fairly flat terrain) and the brakes were effective and responsive to the touch of the levers, something I have not been used to for a long time!

The only downer was the fact the rear gears were not shifting well, with the dérailleur refusing to shift downwards most of the time when it made its way on to the largest of the rear rings (it getting on to that ring when steep climbing was needed). I even stopped a couple of times to try and fine-tune the adjustment to improve things... I was just about coping when we managed to reach about halfway through the route, when the dérailleur somehow caught the wheel, bent, twisted round and sheared-off entirely.

The jockey-wheel holder.
The derailleur hanger... It was straight before.
The derailleur - you can see the sheared-off bolt.
I was left with no choice but to try and turn the bike into a single speed to limp back to the car park, but even that did not happen as the chain kept jumping down and off, so I had to push and freewheel all the way back to the start from - it would be - the furthest away part of the course.

At least with curtailing the ride Walshy did not put his back out or anything else, so by means of an apology I shouted him a sausage in a roll and a cuppa tea at the cafe before the drive home.

Sod's bloody law, the only part of the drivetrain I did not replace is the bit that failed, taking the hanger with it as well... As soon as I was through the door I was back on eBay to spank another £20 and the parts were on their way to me as I await attempt #2 at getting the effing thing to work correctly!

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

3rd May: DNS

I had to do something this week that I have not had to do in a long while... Not since before I ran my first marathon back 2 and a half years ago: Drop out of a race.

On Wednesday I awoke to find myself in a lot of discomfort... Somehow during the night I had managed to trap a nerve in my left hip, so even the slightest movement was excruciatingly painful.

Not only was every slightest move painful but the leg had no strength in it to lift, so to even place my foot on the clutch when getting in to drive I had to lift my leg with my hands to put it on the pedal.

Come Friday morning, having worked with the pain for the last 2 days whilst necking ibuprofen and paracetamol to make my day's work bearable (changing all the radiators in a house plus some electrical work), I realised there was no choice but to withdraw from Saturday's CTS Pembrokeshire marathon as there was no guarantee the nerve would have worked free by the next morning... And besides would driving for 3 hours and sleeping on an air bed be helping it to recover in any way?

I emailed the organisers of the marathon to notify them of my withdrawal, who have kindly agreed to defer my entry to next year, so at least I have not lost my entry fee which is some consolation.

In running circles, there are 3 3-letter acronyms beginning with D:
  • DNS - Did Not Start
  • DNF - Did Not Finish
  • DFL - Dead F*cking Last
So I now only don't have a DNF to my name (and long may this continue!) with the Pembrokeshire CTS being the race that now sees me rack-up a DNS and a DFL (from my first ever official marathon).

Fingers crossed the next few days will see my leg return to normal so I can get out and put some miles in my legs before the last of this season's Coastal Trail Series in Flete, although with me missing out on Pembroke I have missed on my chance of a hat-trick of the 7x challenge they run each year... But hey, there's always next year.

From the feedback of those who ran in Pembroke, it seems I 'chose' the right one to miss through injury as the weather was foul - continual rain and a cold wind for the duration, so if I had driven down there to struggle round the course at a shuffle, it would have been a truly miserable experience for me with the double whammy of pain and the weather.

Eat pies.
Drink beer.

Run far.

26th April: Skyrunner Practice

Over the Easter break, for a few days we managed to get away to LSS’s parent’s house up on the edge of the Lancashire moors.

Whilst I was there I was able to take the opportunity to revisit one of my favourite running spots once more: Winter Hill.

Whilst sitting down with them recovering after the Pendine race, I received a thorough ribbing from the ‘Leek-y Ladies’ over my plans for running the Peak Skyrace. They took great pleasure in pointing out how in being a soft southerner I live in the relatively ‘flat’ land of Hampshire, whereas they live next to the ‘mountains’ and are able to get out and run on them every day and know every inch like the back of their hands before the start of the race… Thanks ladies, you inspire great confidence!

As much as a light-hearted jest it may have been, the lack of hardcore hill training has been playing on my mind, so at least getting here afforded me the chance to get some proper practice in… Another thing that has been grating me was my abject performance at the Rivington Trail Marathon back in October (yes, the one with the ‘dogging’ incident that appeared in Outdoor Fitness magazine) through being under the weather with the flu… But now I was here I was determined to get out and give a good account of myself on the slopes of the hill.

Looking at the GPS data from my previous visits to Rivington Pike and what is available for the Peak Skyrace, to run from Rivington Park up the Pike, across the moor to Winter Hill, down the other side and then back is 10 miles and a total ascent & descent of 1,800ft - which is about 1/3 of the Skyrunner in distance and ascent/ descent.

The elevation data of the route along its distance.
With the distance being only 10 miles, I made myself run it as hard as I could, getting there and back in 2 hours - and a very enjoyable time it was too! I decided to wear my Montane waterproof top as I was sure there would be a chill wind on the top and it looked like there might be rain at some point… Within minutes of starting, with there being a bit of sunshine and the effort of starting the climbing almost immediately, I found myself sweating like Michael Jackson on Sesame Street. With my arms pumping and swinging with the effort of getting up the slope, hands pointing upwards, I could even feel my elbows sweating profusely, or so I thought. I temporarily put my arms by my sides as I ran and a torrent of sweat poured out of the sleeves in a stream - lovely!

The route out and back.
Whilst I may have been roasting inside the waterproof and windproof jacket, once up above the Pike and on to the exposed areas of Winter Hill I was grateful to have it on as the wind was whipping around with nothing to stop it and the temperature was certainly lower. Light grey clouds had now moved in and were settled overhead giving an ominous sense of some impending rain, so I was certainly happy with my choice, besides sweating is always good!

Looking down on Bolton and the Macron Stadium.
On the way out I passed a couple of other runners on paths that criss-cross the hill, and there were a few cyclists out on the road to the summit using it as some good hill training so I was certainly not the only one taking advantage of here for some training… On the way back I even ran past what must have been the local fell-running club out on the slopes as there was about a dozen of them strung-out in a line going the way I had just come.

Looking across to the top of Winter Hill from Rivington Pike.
By the time I had returned to the van it was approaching 6 o’clock, so there was now an influx of those who had finished work making their way out for some evening running and MTB’ing in the area - if anything I was about to miss the rush-hour that was about to start!

Heading down the other side of the hill.
Whilst on this jaunt I was accompanied on the jaunt by a very apt podcast: The latest episode of the ‘British Trail Running Podcast’ where they were discussing amongst other things the recent Spine Race, and proprioception & diet in a comprehensive interview with the ‘Sock Doc’.

Having survived the run (albeit with stiffness in my troublesome right calf) and achieving with the training what I was hoping to, I certainly feel more confident about the pending Skyrunner… I’ve just got to make sure that between now and then that I find more time to go out and do just pure hill-work.

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

Friday, 15 May 2015

19th April: Swinley

Everyone loves a Sunday morning lie-in, no alarm set so you can doze until you naturally wake - however these things are not afforded to you if you have or have had children or dogs, so being up at a time that most would consider as waaaaay too early for them was not an issue after years of practice and I was prepared for Dean’s early arrival for a trip to the MTB trail centre over at Swinley Forest.

The day after the Pendine Ultra I met up with Dean, Rob & Stu for a training ride in anticipation of this summer’s expedition from one side of Devon to the other. We all met at Stu’s and rode along the Thames path and the Wey Navigation from Hersham to Guildford and back again. During our final rest-stop for a well-earned pint we planned to meet-up over at Swinley and ride the MTB trails there.

Dean and Rob are regulars there whilst Stu has been a handful of times, whereas on the other hand I am a novice at ‘proper’ trail riding… I had managed to nurse my MTB around the journey to Guildford and back, but it was pretty much kaput afterwards, so it was with reluctance I agreed to join in at Swinley - however I knew the state of my bike would only allow me to roll the course, so at least there was no danger of me trying anything silly whilst there and I could use the time as an introduction to the place so as to begin learning the route for future visits.

Swinley Forest is part of the Crown Estate on the edge of Bracknell in Berkshire, around a 30 minute drive from my gaff. An area within the forest has been designated as an MTB specific area, split in to 3 proper trails - a green, a blue and a red with the colours indicating increasing difficulty in a similar way to how ski routes are... Our plan was to ride the Blue and Red routes today.

Picking Rob up en-route, we met with Stu in the car park which was filling rapidly already even though it was before 9 in the morning!

Rolling-out we took it easy on the course, which involves doing the ‘out’ section of the blue, then the red loop which is perpendicular to the blue, before returning on the second part of the blue to finish what roughly looks like a letter ’T’. We only had to stop for a mechanical issues the once, for Rob to repair a puncture - ironically right after having let some air out of his tyre to avoid having a pinch puncture. Over the morning’s session we covered all of the ups and downs of the course, some decent fast downhills, plenty of technical tight twisting and turning sections through the pine woods and some fiendish but also mercifully short uphills - that with the sandy flinty ground beneath your wheels ensured you had your arse planted firmly in the saddle the whole time to gain some traction and avoid wheel spinning.

As I mentioned we took it easy, which suited Stu and myself as we let Dean and Rob push ahead of us through the marked sections so as not to hold them up on any ‘fun’ bits - plus it allowed me to watch for their lines through the routes to follow.

Looks a bit like a small child's Etch-A-Sketch drawing!
By the time we pulled in to the cafe at the end my bike was only fit for condemning - no thanks to Dean trying to properly finish it off by cutting across me at one point causing me to crash and knacker one of the pedals… Even the saddle bag containing my tool kit had been shaken to bits by the ride! At least it finally has made me realise that the bike is finished, so perhaps time to look for a new one.

I took the batch of gels from yesterday to have a taste of them myself and try them on my guinea pigs. Stu refused point blank, but Dean and Rob were game! The feedback was universal: They do the job, they are the right consistency, smell of the summer berries, its just they taste way too bitter at present. Discussing the ingredients with Rob, a chemist by training, he suggested that I switch-out some of the maltodextrin for dextrose (glucose powder) which should certainly act as a sweetener whilst maintaining the carb quota of the gel, so fingers crossed for an improvement in taste with batch number 2. At least I know everything fundamentally works together, its just a question of fine-tuning now.

Regarding Swinley... I enjoyed rolling it, the course taking me back to when I would hoon around BMX tracks as a kid in the woods next to where I grew-up. Once I have some working wheels I certainly will be back to ride it again, and again, and again :)

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

18th April: Gelling pt2

My containers arrived during the week, so I took advantage today of turning the kitchen into a scene from 'Breaking Bad' only I did not need to don HazMat gear or wear a respirator for this kind of chemical cookery.

The constituent parts.
As you can see, here's the complete set of stuff for the gels. The huge sack of maltodextrin is at the back dominating proceedings :)

Stirring and mixing the maltodextrin in to the water.
I decided to make the batch of 10 gels at double strength of the off-the-shelf varieties... So for 600ml of fluid it was to have around 400g of maltodextrin in it and 1200mg of caffeine - 3x the generally agreed 'safe' daily dose of caffeine.

Cookin' up.
I heated the maltodextrin and the water, stirring it all together till it was dissolved and added the caffeine. Once complete and had started to cool I added the flavouring, a little at a time... Tasting as I added it a bit at a time, unfortunately I went through the entire quantity of flavouring I had bought, as whilst it began to smell right and had a hint of the flavour, the taste of the gel itself was still very bitter. Completely committed I bottled them all up and left them overnight for tomorrow's excursion and to test them on myself and fellow guinea-pigs on my trip to the Swinley MTB trail centre.

All bottled-up and ready to go.
Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

12th April: Gelling pt1

When I started on this whole running malarky, I was introduced to the world of ‘fuelling’ in races and in particular the ‘delights’ of energy gels; the ubiquitous sticky sweet instant energy buzz elixir favoured by plenty of people whilst out on the hoof… I have tried a fair few different flavours and manufacturers and I certainly now know which ones work best for me, its just that for what they are, they seem to be quite an extravagance especially if you want to take a lot of them.

In the past I have tended to buy them by the bulk box of 30 which means they work out at around £1 a gel, so consuming them can prove to be a bit of a costly addition to a race as not every event has the luxury of a sponsored tie-in offering them for free… If you follow the instructions on a packet you are supposed to consume around 3 an hour for the duration of the race, which for the slower runners out there on a particularly fierce trail marathon can be around 7 hours, meaning 21 gels should be consumed, or an additional £21 in costs, or if you use caffeinated ones £30!

There is also the problem with litter: as each gel is individually wrapped and you tear the top to slurp out the sustenance… Whilst in a race, along the trail you cannot help but notice carelessly discarded tear-tops of gels and the empty screwed-up plastic pouches of a ‘dead’ gel as dropped by the more careless of the runners out there. As well as being a selfish act in littering the environment - because of the nature of the plastic it takes one helluva long time to bio-degrade - it is the equivalent of shitting all over an area of outstanding natural beauty and creates a headache for the organisers who have to remove all the dropped litter from their run routes. I must at this point give credit to Cliff who have cunningly designed their gel packets so the tear-tops never become detached from the gel pouch in a conscious and responsible effort by them to prevent littering - other manufacturers take note and follow!

The size of a gel is 60ml max - so roughly 60g in weight, and the main ingredient of these bad boys is SUGAR at around 20-25g, to give you that proper ‘Cornholio’ effect (gotta love Beavis and Butthead), and in particular one type of sugar: Maltodextrin. This product is readily available from sports supplement suppliers in bulk - so I acquired a sack of 5kg (11lb) which is enough to make just over 220 gels!.. and the price of this amount of the main ingredient, well its was the same as the retail cost for 10 of them.

Gels are not just sugar, but they also contain salts as well to replace those lost through sweat. The most common ones found in the gels are table salt (sodium chloride), dead sea salt (potassium chloride) and magnesium chloride… Again all of which are available from health food suppliers and sports supplement dealers. I also made the conscious choice to add caffeine in to the mix as well in the same quantity as those used elsewhere.

All well and good I hear you say, but how are you going to contain the gels?

I am eschewing the disposable culture and taking advantage of something that the ‘war on terror’ has forced upon us… With the rules about taking fluids onto airliners changed since, well you know when, you have to decant your liquids into clear containers, so there is now a market in re-usable silicone food-safe squeezy tubes, and they just happen to come in the 60ml size. Result! So I have taken delivery of 10 of these as I plan on making 10 gels at a time to avoid any freshness issues.

The beauty of DIY is you have total control, so you can choose your own flavour. I personally have opted for ‘summer berries’ for these batches - although you can have anything from roast chicken or bacon through to mint or liquorice and all points in between, so you really can make something you truly would enjoy to consume.

For the purpose of fairness I have also included the purchase of ‘drug dealing scales’ - ones that can measure as little as 0.01 of a gram as when you are using caffeine, you can’t be using too much of that stuff!

220 gels:

Maltodextrin        £12.29
Caffeine              £ 7.69
Flavouring          £  2.49
Salts                  £10.00
Containers          £20.00
Scales                £  6.00

Total for initial batch of 220 caffeinated gels

£ 58.47

The quantities bought means that I have copious amounts left over of caffeine, flavouring and salts, so for the next several batches of the unit cost is going to be:

£ 12.29

Which is purely for another sack of maltodextrin.

Now here comes the funky part: When you consider the bulk purchase of 220 caffeinated gels is going to be £350 or thereabouts, you are saving on the initial batch of 84% or £292 and subsequently 96.5% or £338 for a short amount of time spent in the kitchen mixing and pouring, which over the course of several marathons or other endurance events truly makes a huge difference.

Can't wait for the containers to arrive so I can get started on my concoction :)

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

5th April: Pendine

Way back last year I entered the ballot for the London Marathon and like countless others I came-out without a place so I had an April sized hole in my marathon calendar. A few weeks ago I cast my eye around for a race to enter, not particularly wanting to run Blackpool again, and after stumbling on a few potentials that were unfortunately already fully booked I found something different:

The Pendine Ultra. The distance was only down as 32 miles so I knew it was do-able with my current levels of unfitness, so I entered and frankly I’ve been looking forward to it as something out of the ordinary to what I’ve been running of late. I’ve come-across the organisers, Ultra Running Ltd, before in the past when I found-out about their seriously nutty runs (and we’re talking full granola here) such as the Severn Challenge - where you run from the source of the eponymous river to the sea, and the running JOGLE (John O’Groats to Lands End).

Based in the village of Pendine on the Pembrokeshire coast in Wales, the course is 2 laps of a 16 mile circuit, with the first 6 or so miles being a run along the Pendine Sands, the location where they used to race in world land-speed record attempts… And somewhere along the beach for 40 years lay the remains of the race-car ‘Babs’, buried there after a crash that killed its driver, until it was exhumed and re-built to working order.

After this long flat expanse of sand there’s an inland loop taking you first up the Taff estuary a couple of miles before heading back across the country lanes to the start at Pendine and repeating to finish.

At the same time as we run the ultra, there’s a half marathon run along the sands, all of us doing the ‘out’ along the beach and where us ultras veer-off to the side, the halfers carry-on along a bit further before returning back from whence we came to get their 13.1 under their belts.

Following my normal trick I drove all the way to Pendine the night before and slept in the van, pulling in to an empty car-park at midnight, spoilt for choice for where to park, and slept for the night fully expecting to wake to find a miserable overcast day as per the forecast.

The sun rises.
Dawn broke and around me with strong morning sunshine and chill air of the earlier part of Spring… I took a wander to the beach to survey as much of the course as I could see, but all I could see was the sea as the tide was well and truly in! I had read that as if by magic about half an hour before the start the beach would clear, and its quite amazing how rapidly the tide moves out (and back in later) with the beach stretching so far out to sea. I took advantage of the strong sunshine of this ‘golden hour’ of daylight to snap some shots of Pendine with the tide in before returning back to the van to wait for the organisers to arrive and registration to commence.

Pendine at high tide.
Breakfasting I could see more of the runners beginning to arrive in the car park around me ready for the registration, so I wandered off to join them in the car park outside the beachside cafe to sign-in.

From looking at my fellow runners, it seemed that the majority were to be partaking of the half rather than the ultra, so I enquired as to how many of us were to be doing the longer run, and the reply was 13 confirmed for today and I was handed the number 16… So without even starting the race I was at least guaranteed a finish higher than my number, the holy grail of all runners!

Milling around I was asked to take a before photo against the scenic backdrop by a trio of ladies who had parked behind me in the car park. It turned out they had driven over from the Leek area on the edge of the Peak District for a bit of a run on some flat land for a change, with 2 of them doing the half and the other doing the ultra with me… Soon after I bumped in to another couple of the ultras, Ian and Will, both of them having come from not too far down the road living in south Wales Both of them had lower race numbers than me, so I joked with them that the pressure was on for them to finish before their numbers.

Will, me & Ian
Come the 9:30 start and all of us ultras and halfers were lined-up together en-masse between the flags at the bottom of the slipway, the sea having miraculously disappeared in and unbelievably short space of time and now seemed to be about half a mile away from us… And we were off, the halfers chasing the win haring away and leaving us all behind following their footprints in the sand.

And they're off!
With the water not long since vamoosed the sand was quite hard-packed under foot so you had decent traction without sinking in more than the lugs on your trainers, meaning that mercifully  it was not too heavy going. I found myself for the first few miles running with Lucinda, one of the three ladies I took the photo for, who was using the race as a training effort for the forthcoming London marathon - well with the beach being flat, I suppose its a good training run in part for the capital’s course. As we ran and chatted, Lucinda looked at her pace over the first couple of miles in horror: We were merrily pootling along at 9 minute miles on the button - a bit too fast when you have got all that distance to cover, and not fitting with her race/ training plan for today so she decided to reign it in for a bit.

The sun was shining down upon us with some strength to it and with very little wind about I was regretting having my jacket on as well as a thermal base-layer. I knew it would be 8 miles before I hit the aid station and a stop for a munch on the food, so I attempted to persuade myself that I could last till then without overheating too much, only to get hotter still and more uncomfortable. After hitting the 4 mile mark I decided that it would be foolhardy to continue so I jogged-off the trail to the side and stripped-off the jacket, stuffing it into my pack and rolled-up my sleeves - the relief was instant.

Looking back along the course through some washed-up flotsam.
After cooling down a bit and cursing the fact I had believed the weather forecast of duff weather and left my cycling cap at home, leaving me without sun protection for my head (or sun cream for any exposed skin), having watched all my fellow runners slowly snake past I rejoined the race pretty much near the back of the pack for the last couple of miles to the turn.

An Aurelia jellyfish washed up.
The closer we came to the turn the deeper the sand seemed to get. I figured that a sensible option would be to run in the compacted track left by the 4x4 support vehicle that had driven past us, but even then your feet were sinking in to the soft sand. As I navigated this stretch the first of the half marathoners began to appear in front and pass me on their return leg - some seriously quick runners at the front of that race, with one of the other 3 ladies from earlier near the front of the pack.

Me doing the 'moose' as I approach the turn off the beach.
Soon I hit the turn inland and was directed off through the dunes - striding as confidently as I could along the trail with the element of doubt as to ‘am I going the right way?’ on my mind. Checking behind me I could see one other person on the ultra course, so I waited for them to catch-up as I figured that two heads were probably better than one when it came to the navigation.

My running partner for the next couple of miles was Judith, a veteran of 85 marathons/ ultras and gunning for the 100 club - which she hoped to join pretty much by the end of the summer. The two of us forged our way inland over the dunes and the causeway next to the estuary until we came to the sheer lump of rock in front of us that we knew we knew was standing between us and the 8 mile aid station.

The water leeching out the rock and dripping down.
Skirting around the bottom of it there were some lovely rain-like waterfalls where the water was just leaching out of the rock and trickling down all the vines that clung to the rock-face towards the ground. This refreshing sight soon gave way to a darker avenue of a path as you climbed-up on to the wooded side of the hill, mercifully sheltering you from the heat as your calves got their first taste of real work for the day with the steep gradient.

Topping-out we had a wonderful view out to the sea along the estuary with its mud-flats. There were plenty of benches along the path to act as viewing platform for anyone who wished to soak-up the wonderful sight. Aside from the view, the other good thing about getting to the top was the descent about to come, so leaning in to the gradient the two of us jogged our way at a good pace all the way down to the aid station at the foot of the hill next to the ruined Laugharne Castle. The village of Laugharne is the place Dylan Thomas last called home before he pickled himself to death, with the village itself taking centre stage in ‘Under Milkwood’ as the fictional ‘Llareggub’ - for those who know nothing of his humour, read the name backwards ;)

The aid station and its historic setting.
Stopping here to pay attention to my feet and apply some more vaseline to prevent any hot-spots and blisters I decided to break one of the cardinal rules of distance running: Upon seeing the food on the aid station I decided to ‘try something new on race-day’. They had a varied selection of 9 bars, GU gels and jam sandwiches amongst other things as well as some Red Bull. I decided to have a couple of the 9 bars and wash them down with some Red Bull, which is gently carbonated so doesn’t make you burp like an earthquake after necking it and grabbed some GU’s to take with me along the route.

I inquired how many people had gone through before us and was told we were the 6th and 7th so far - which was a bit puzzling as out on the course when looking down off the I could only spy one other runner on it… Unperturbed by this I left the aid station (Judith had long since departed) and tried to make sense of the directions through the village and head further inland… It was as the course climbed-out of the village that my navigation skills let me down, taking a left turn on a fork when it should have been a right and I found myself on a road that got narrower and narrower before I could see it was ending as someone’s drive, so I had to turn-back and re-trace my steps… It was when I was on the road again that I could see the bright orange spray painted arrow on the grass verge that indicated the direction I should have taken. Doh!

Heading out of the village.
On the climb up the hill I passed another runner, who I recognised as the one I glimpsed when I was up on the hill, so I figured that for some reason whilst I was 8th, by rights on the pace I was running I must also have been last, well last of all the people who were on the right track. Which must mean that everybody else must have taken wrong turns at the end of the beach section that had cost them time and distance if they were still behind me.

Once up on to the road above the village which seemed to be the top of the ridge that leads all the way back to Pendine you were caught in the full glare of the unforgiving sun, jogging along the tarmac avoiding the occasional car and tractor with just the sounds of the birds calling around you and the realisation that spring has certainly now arrived and the promise of summer’s warmth is just around the corner. The whole journey was spent surrounded by rolling fields and farmland that gave the impression that the last time the landscape was touched was to lay the road itself.

The route back to Pendine was 8 miles and after around 4 I caught sight of two runners ahead of me, slowly reeling them in as time progressed. When I caught them I found it was Will and Ian, who had got hopelessly lost on leaving the beach and had completely by-passed the aid station. According to their Garmins they had run the same distance as I had so they were at least relieved not to have suffered any more than they should have, or missed on distance that might lead to a disqualification. It turned out that Ian was suffering from IT band trouble, hence me reeling them in steadily, as to manage the discomfort he could only run half a mile at a time, walking for the other half. Chatting with them about the route - and how it was useful that we all had to carry an OS print-out of it so we could at least navigate ourselves if lost, they asked if possible could I stick around with them to get through there on the second lap so as not to repeat the mistake!.. I was faced with a decision - do I carry on at my own pace and no-doubt run a very lonely race, or do I stay with the two of them and the three of us can share the burden of the long run?.. I chose the latter.

Now a trio we made our way along the country lanes to the turn for Pendine by a pub, where the assembled early lunch crowd cheered us onwards and we made our way towards the beach and the climb over the cliff into the village itself and the start of the second lap.

Will & Ian relieved to be at the top.
The 'sands' in its full glory.
The slog up to the top was tough, but the view from there was stunning, affording a full uninterrupted gaze over the sands below - the beach really is huge! The descent down countless steps brought us straight into the hubbub of the village centre, with the sun out so was everybody to take advantage of it, the cafes doing a roaring trade in ice-cream and plenty of families were on the beach enjoying the first chance of the year to do so.

Back on to the beach and at the aid-station, the back of the 4x4 support vehicle, I feasted on some more 9 bars and another can of Red Bull and the 3 of us headed along the sands once more. I think for all of us this was the least favourite part - mostly because of the unrelenting nature of it. It was pretty featureless apart from an observation tower for the naval firing range that the beach forms part of.

The varied vista.
A dead Dogfish (or a 'Rock Salmon' as your chippy will call it).
Running and walking we made it to the turn and the three of us went off in the correct direction this time. It turned-out that Will and Ian had followed the road rather than taking a right into a car park and following the footpath. Thankfully this time there was to be no repetition for them and we all made the climb up the hill again, where I paused to take some more pics of the view and of the boards telling of how Dylan Thomas used to love walking up here.

One of the information boards about Dylan Thomas.
Same shot as first time around but very different colours!
The castle from afar.
Through the aid station we were onto the final quarter of the route, making steady progress with the run/ walk strategy. Passing where Ian and Will rejoined the course they were able to see how far off the track they had traversed, but now with counting down the miles, and entering in to the final 10k of the run it somehow seemed less important. Ian was very relieved as he knew now he could manage his injury to the finish line rather than having to drop-out so moral amongst the three of us was good. As we carried on the run/ walk, it was with about 3 miles remaining that I did not notice my companions had stopped for the walk and I could see I was now about 50 metres in front of them… I thought that I could stop and wait for them to catch me, or I could just carry-on seeing as they certainly knew the route back from here, so rather than disrupt my rhythm I carried on going, allowing myself to stretch out and run at my own speed for the final few miles. I could certainly say that running within my limits for so long ensured my legs were pretty fresh considering how many miles I had already completed and the last few miles seemed to fly past in no time.

Finishing back on the slipway, I posed for a photo with the race director I was presented with my t-shirt and a lovely medal that’s so big you could eat your dinner off it! I blagged a couple of cans of Red Bull for the drive home and went to walk back to the van. As I walked-off the beach I was accosted by an old lady who was asking me what on earth all the running was, so I explained to her about the two races - she said she was in admiration of all of us wanting to do such a thing, and it sounds like something she would have loved to have tried herself if such things were happening for her back when she was in her prime!

Relieved to have come-through the run unscathed and feeling pretty fresh thanks to taking it easy with Will and Ian I went to walk back to the van but could hear some shouting in my direction from the cafe next to the slipway: it was Lucinda, Kirsty and Sarah, the trio of ladies from this morning’s photo all enjoying a post-race celebratory beer, so I went round to say hello and celebrate with them only with a Red Bull as I would soon be driving. It turned out that Lucinda won the ladies ultra, although found it a pretty lonely run as once off the beach she never really saw anyone else for the next 26 miles! and Kirsty had won the ladies half, so a pretty successful day for the three of them. Chatting about what races we are all doing this year, with them all living next to it and training regularly along parts of the route: they are doing the Peak Skyrace, which I have also entered - they then proceeded to rip it out of me for doing this as a hobby whilst living in a place with no hills and nowhere to practice, bigging-up on how hard it will be to get myself up and down some big-arsed hills and being unprepared for the challenge… Thanks ladies ;) At least I’ll know 3 people when I’m at the start there come August, and no doubt 3 people who will finish in front of me!

The Leek'y Ladies (or Buxton wenches?) Lucinda, Kirsty & Sarah.
As we chatted, we spotted Ian and Will descending the hill in to the village and cheered them on as they crossed the finish line 15 minutes after me. I had pulled-out 5 minutes a mile on them over the three miles to the finish, which certainly displayed the difference in pace of the enforced run/ walk because of Ian’s injury over my normal pace… It turned-out that there was only one more runner to come, Axel, the one who had passed me when I took a wrong turn and he crossed the line 10 minutes later… Which made me 7th out of the field of 11 as 2 of the original 13 failed to make it to the start line.

Looking at the results, the two finishers above me were only half an hour faster than I was over the 32 miles, so its not inconceivable that if I had been moving at my own pace, I could have overhauled both of them for a 5th place finish as I was losing up to 5 minutes a mile on them from mile 12 to mile 29!.. But at least I had good company on the run, unlike the solitude experienced by Lucinda on her way to getting her winners trophy.

Bidding farewell I went back to the van and the drive home… I had said to LSS that I would prepare some home made burgers for dinner, so I drove back as fast as I could without stopping for my customary Whopper on the way back.

I would like to say I will return to run this again. The course challenging in a mental way rather than physical - the flat unrelenting sand and the loneliness due to the small field proving more of a challenge than the physical demands of the terrain - if anything the climbs up the two big hills either side of the course were welcome respites to the rest of it! I liked the two lap concept as whilst you were seeing the same sights twice, it was neither tedious nor repetitive in a way that running 5x10k laps would be that some ultra races would have you do… I would also like to put down a representative time for the run as well, but hey, I doubt I will have a warmer or sunnier day to enjoy it on - apparently last year it pissed it down with rain!

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

29th March: Coast to Coast

After last summer’s enjoyable jaunt around the Isle of Wight by yours truly, Dean, Rob & Stu, it has been decided to do something similar again this year. After much faffing and too-ing and fro-ing on Facebook we have been and chosen our challenge - which is not too dissimilar to before:

We will be taking 2 days to cycle off-road (where possible) the 99 miles from the north to south coasts of the county of Devon - the only county in England to have 2 separate coastlines.

The route writ large.
The plan is to start with our feet in the sea at Ilfracombe, then head south following the National Cycle Network route 27 until we get our feet wet once more in Plymouth. It will be an intense couple of days cycling and the first day will have the majority of the climbing on it. However we will be breaking it up with an overnight at the Betty Cottles Inn in Okehampton so there's some decent scran and beer to look forward to - an incentive to get there as soon as possible if ever there was one :) The second day will lead us around the western edge of Dartmoor and the panoramic scenery of the wilderness before depositing us on the coast.

It looks like we’ll be doing this over a weekend in June… I’m buzzing for this already!

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Cycle far.

22nd March: Sussex

Since I have embarked on this running odyssey (oddity?) my better half, LSS, has softened in her stance about running and has come to the conclusion that she might as well join in the lunacy, albeit over a shorter distance than me. The main motivator for her is as Father Time marches on, she can no longer eat as much cheese or chocolate as she wants without a consequential increase in arse-size, so for the first time in her life she feels she is now at a point where she needs to do something to avoid the dreaded spread of approaching middle age.

Just before Christmas LSS surprised me by announcing out of the blue (knowing I would be there running the marathon), that she had entered the Endurancelife CTS Sussex 10k as a focus or her running and was going to train for it with Spud, our springer spaniel/ border collie cross breed, as her running buddy - with the cunning plan that his 4 pawed drive would help to drag her up hills and get her around the course a bit quicker than if she was by herself... And now the day of reckoning was upon us.

Rather than following my normal pattern of driving to the run the night before, with LSS not wanting to leave a nihilistic teenager to look after our other 2 dogs overnight, we were up at sparrow's fart on the morning to drive the couple of hours to Birling Gap on the Sussex coast.

Dawn broke on the drive down and by 7am we were parked at the event base, located this time in a slightly different place to previous; perched on the top of a hill overlooking the marquee.

Looking to the event base from the parked van.
Walking down the hill to the marquee to register, Spud with his rather long and luxurious tail in his carefree way was just wandering along savouring all these new smells, watching the Skylarks rise and sing, when he must have touched the electric fence that bordered the verge with it, and with a yelp he jumped forwards having experienced the sudden unexpected voltage up his bum. He stood rooted to the spot and looked around accusingly as to who could have done this to him before correctly figuring out it was the fence and began walking as far away from it as he could!

The runners beginning to gather.
The two of us registered for our events before returning to the van for some breakfast and for me to get changed. In no time at all I found myself all briefed and waving goodbye to LSS and Spud as I hit the trail whilst they waited around for their later start in the 10k.

Blue skies were above us as we made our way along the undulations of the seven sisters, the weather far better than it was a couple of years ago when it was sub zero, blowing a hooly and alternating between sleet and freezing rain - the singularly most miserable experience I have ever had whilst running. Back then the temperature including the wind-chill was below freezing, but today I could tell that at some point I would end-up overheating as my dressing for winter weather would prove to be too much for balmy springtime.

The view once through the gate.
Going through the gate on to the Seven Sisters I found myself running with a Texan who was very impressed with the scenery, especially the sight of the beautifully white statuesque chalk cliffs. I explained to him about Beachy Head and its claim to fame as a suicide hot-spot, with plenty of people using the height and sheer drop to their advantage - something he found difficult to comprehend and certainly was not in the tour-guide he consulted!

And down again, repeat ad-infinitum.
I love traversing these undulations along the cliff-tops to the nature reserve and the turn inland, the continual switching from ascent to descent gives you one hell of a workout before the 'recovery' jog through to the nature reserve and the final climb to the first checkpoint… This course is very easy to nominally break in to manageable chunks with there only being 3 Checkpoints - this first section over the cliffs is followed by the inland stretch along a causeway in a water-meadow then a long slog up hill on the chalky path of the South Downs Way, past the chalk cutting sculpture of the ‘long man’ then down in to the forest paths undulating their way to CP2. From CP2 you have the longer 8 mile section back over the other half of the Seven Sisters, enjoying more of the undulations and the view out to sea. The final shortest leg of 5 miles taking us back inland following the contours of the ridgeway to the finish.

En route to CP2 I was yo-yoing position with a couple from America who are shortly to be returning across the pond to live in Florida and are spending as much time as they can taking-in all the marathon and ultra trail-runs they can before they depart. They told me a few home-truths about what we have here in Britain and not to take it for granted, it went something like this:

What we have in Britain is phenomenal. Whilst living in London, within 3 hours of travel should you want to, you can go every weekend and find a trail marathon or ultra to run. We are blessed with a fantastic variety of every sort of terrain from forest to mountain, from moor to coastal path, all easily accessible thanks to the country's comprehensive travel links be it the road or rail networks. Its not the same in the states, where you have plenty of runs should you want to, but most will be shorter distances and on roads, not forgetting with the States being so much bigger and spread-out, if you want a change in scenery then you have to fly to a different part of the country to find what you are looking for (or alternatively move there to live), so all of a sudden, what you can do in a day in Britain (travel there, run, travel back), then you need 2-3 days to do the same over there. As such the cost of doing this becomes astronomical, plus with only 10 days ‘annual leave’ in America it eats in to any holiday plans you may have, so you only tend to do one or two 'big' races a year if they are not local to you.

The two of them have fallen in love with the land of Britain, where all this beautiful scenery is compressed into such a tight package to get out and enjoy and they have chosen to explore as much of it as they can whilst here, which ironically is far more than most people born and raised here do… In short they believe, we should not take what we have for granted and appreciate what we have got and get out and enjoy it! with running large chunks of the countryside certainly makes it easier to see the beautiful landscapes… Although I realise that by you reading this I am already ‘preaching to the converted’ on this subject so as to speak.

One thing they find amusing over in the States is the trend for a ‘new’ distance in running events - what is loosely termed as an ‘half ultra’. These are neither a half marathon, a marathon or an ultra marathon - the latter has no definitive length as it only means its distance is longer than a marathon so how can you have a ‘half ultra’?.. And why would you want to run a distance that is more than a half but not much shorter than a full marathon that carries the kudos of neither?

By the time I reached CP2 I was beginning to overheat in the sun and the shelter from any cooling wind by the forest around me, so I took the time once through it to stop and remove my jacket to allow my body to cool down. I figured that once out on to the coast for this third leg the wind on the cliff-tops would certainly be cooler, but it would not be too much to cause an issue with me getting too cold and besides you can always put the jacket back on!

The way Endurancelife organise this event through its route planning and the start times of the various distances means that at my pace over the marathon course, I meet-up with the bottom 25% of the field of 10k runners at around their 5k mark. With this prior knowledge, I did not say anything to LSS, but I had a sneaky suspicion that I might be able to catch her and Spud up at some point along the course, so with this in mind I made a decent effort to get from CP2 to the part of the course where marathon and 10k meet.

Shortly after I joined the course with the 10k runners as they head back on to the coast from their furthest part inland, I found myself picking-off some of the slower runners. Running a long downhill sloping field with a rabbit legging it from one side to the other in front of me, I caught sight of LSS and Spud in the distance as they began the climb up through the woodland to the cliff-tops. I now had them in my sight so began to slowly reel them in, finally catching them as the edge of the cliffs and the sea beyond hove into view.

LSS & Spud: A smudge on the horizon.
I slowed down to say hello to the ruddy-faced LSS who was really suffering from thirst, so immediately offered her some refreshment from my hydration pack… We may have recce’d the route, but running it rather than walking it was proving to be tougher than anticipated for LSS, so rather than running-off and leaving her I accompanied both her and Spud on their run-walk down to Birling Gap and then up on to the grassy cliffs and the climb to Beachy Head.
Spud smiles for the camera.
It was a real pleasure to be running with LSS and Spud at their first 'race' and by being with them they certainly sped-up a bit compared to the pace they would have travelled at had they been all alone on the attritional climb up to the summit of Beachy Head... And after the long hard slog to the top of that, LSS was surprised anybody would still have the energy to throw themselves off the top by the time they had managed to drag themselves all the way up there!

The windswept duo about to turn for the finish.
The wind was beginning to pick-up now and with clouds coming-in to cover the sun the temperature was dropping, so when LSS and Spud veered left for the final mile back to the finish, I put my head down and upped the pace to attempt to get some warmth back as I battled with the hills and wind of the exposed cliff-top path. I knew my time now was going to be slower than previous efforts through taking the time to run with LSS & Spud rather than steaming-on past them, however it did mean I had some energy in the tank so-as-to-speak through not going as hard as I could for the last few miles.

Down the other side of Beachy Head.
Eastbourne beckons.
After the turn at the third and final CP on the edge of Eastbourne and the climb up on to the ridge I knew I was on the last stretch back to the finish, so ran as hard as I could over the fields and past the bemused spectators in the form of herds of cows, the iPod was on shuffle and the amusing rhymes of ‘Goldie Lookin Chain’ in my ears made me smile as I ploughed on and overtook a few of the marathoners who had overtaken me whilst I was with LSS and Spud.

Attacking the final hill after the teasing turn away from the finish line that you look for a couple of miles to be heading towards, I managed to catch and pass a couple of the ultra runners and on the home-straight I even managed to drift past a couple of the half marathoners… Eventually crossing the line 10 minutes slower than last year.

I had a look around for LSS and Spud at the finish but I was not surprised that they did not hang around for about an hour to wait for me as the wind and lack of sun was making it a bit uncomfortable for the exhausted to be there without being wrapped-up in several layers of extra clothing.

I made the walk back to the van and found the pair of them cuddled-up together in the back having a recovery snooze before I rudely awakened them… LSS had thoroughly enjoyed the run, and was rightly proud of her achievement in finishing her first event, and with the difficulty of the terrain it is certainly a case of jumping in at the deep-end! She also admitted that she thinks anyone doing the ultra or the marathon on these courses are certifiable from the pain she was feeling from dragging herself around the 10k! The first one will always be the hardest but no-one can ever take away the achievement in finishing. I look back to how I was feeling in the final stages of the CTS Pembroke some 2 and a half years ago and all the pain and suffering I was experiencing, and how it is now a distant memory… Running the distance has not become easier physically, just less hard mentally, and less painful now my body is used to it, and in the words of Jens Voigt, the recently retired pro-cyclist and former holder of the 1 hour record, I’ve learned to say ‘Shut up legs’, and keep on trucking :)

Next up on the race agenda is the Pendine Ultra - my second ever official ultra.

The tunes on the iPod that helped me back over the last section were:

Greece 2000 - Three Drives
21 Ounces - Goldie Lookin’ Chain
America - Razorlight
Blues X-Man - Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Hit So Hard - Hole
Head Gone Astray - Soup Dragons
DOA - Foo Fighters
The Woman I Love - The Hollies
Monkey Love - Goldie Lookin’ Chain
Duffryn Vigilante Squad - Goldie Lookin’ Chain
Bird Dream of the Olympus Mons - Pixies
Wait & Bleed - Slipknot

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.