Monday, 10 February 2014

The Thames Trot 50 mile Ultra Marathon

(Mikey and myself at the start. Pic by Ellie Coulthard).

              We were thirty-five miles in and I needed to stop. I was dehydrated, dizzy and having a panic attack. I told Mikey I needed to stop to catch my breath and urinate. My urine had confirmed the seriousness of my dehydration. It was dark like treacle. I hadn't even seen it this dark after a binge drinking session. Now I was really panicking and thinking I was going to die. Mikey did his best to reassure me as we walked and I drank more fluids. That was the worst I had ever felt during a race and there were still fifteen miles to go. This is what was happening all inside my head but on the outside it was a bit like this...

             I got up at five a.m on the first day of February. Mikey and Di were coming to pick me up at 5.30. Of course, they didn't turn up at that time so I had time for another coffee on top of my bowl of Special K. We then went to Eastleigh to pick up Ellie who was coming to support with Di. Di is Mike's wife if you didn't know. We were on our way to Iffley in Oxford to run fifty miles. Well, I was only going to run twenty miles wasn't I? But we know that's not true already from my previous paragraph!

           Rob Kelly had talked me into entering this race and after some careful consideration I had said yes. We then talked Stuart Smith into it and later found out that Simon McCarthy that already entered too. If you didn't know, all the people I have mentioned so far are from my running club "Lordshill road runners". I must also mention that there were two crazier people before us to do this Thames trot race a few years ago, Dan Campion and Phil Dimech. These guys finished in under Nine hours with a lovely snowfall finish.

        I was doing my research and had read many books on running ultra marathons. Mikey and myself had run our furthest in August of last year, completing 50K on the Salisbury 5-4-3-2-1 race. Only Nineteen more miles to add then! I read the write up over and over that had been published in our club zine fron Phil and Dan. I was doing marathons here and there but not really training for a fifty miler. Your longest run was supposed to be at least thirty-one miles. I struggled to run twenty miles in my last marathon. Everyone was pulling out of this race, me included. Mikey who I had talked into entering was still keen though. Was he really mad enough to run it on his own? I felt guilty and said I wasn't doing it but would run the first Twenty miles or so to support and keep him company.

(Thanks to Ellie Coulthard for this pic of the start in Iffley).

       We arrived at the pub to register, got our chip timing wrist watches and numbers. We also collected a technical t-shirt. I asked for an XL but ended up with a Small somehow. We had a Bacon sandwich and another coffee at the bar. The start was delayed by about twenty minutes due to last minute course changes. The changes were being made because of all the flooding on the Thames, but the race was still going ahead and that must have taken some tough organisation.

    We set off at a nice slow pace knowing that we had a few miles to go. It was quite surprising to us how fast people were actually going. We were pretty near the back and there weren't many behind us. We followed the runners in front but when there weren't runners in front we didn't have a clue where we were going or if we were going in the right direction. About Three miles in I had already stubbed my toe and tripped over a curb. This was more of a Mikey thing to do rather than me. He was always falling over on his waterbottles. I was running with my rucksack to carry drinks, my coat, hat, gloves, t-shirt, toilet roll etc.. I was very well prepared.

      We had to stop running and wait for this guy to help us with the directions. We really should have had the map handy. I'm shocked that we didn't run the wrong way more often. In the end I was getting a bit annoyed with getting lost so got the map out but couldn't really understand it too well. Other runners were having the same problems so we often gathered in groups to work out the route between us. The written instructions were easier to use but didn't always make complete sense. There were parts of the course where we would see runners running in different directions but still getting to the same location. I remember this happening at least three times on the course. Who knows who ran the right or wrong way. The only thing that mattered was that we were recording the correct mileage and getting to the checkpoints. The first part of this race was diverted because of the floods so we ran through a town centre and then with some hesitation we ran into and through a village.

    The first checkpoint was only about eight or nine miles in. Ellie and Di came to meet us as we ran in. I wasn't feeling hungry yet but managed to force a banana down as I had read it was best to eat often and as little as possible. This is so that you have more blood pumping around the oxygen in your body. Blood is needed to digest the food that you eat. So eating less is more effective in that sense and can be broken down more efficiently. Anyway, I had already had enough of my backpack as it was making my back sweaty and I was now warm enough to run without a coat, hat and gloves. The sun was shining even though strong wind and heavy rain were predicted.

      We then went onto really slippery mud where Mike fell over and I thought he was going into a stream. This made me laugh but as I was laughing and running trying to catch up with him, I also fell over. After the slippery mud we had an open field of bog. I was walking carefully and I was worried with my weight that I was going to sink pretty deep in this mud. Luckily my shoe laces were tied pretty tight cos I think I would have lost a shoe. We had already ran through puddles of unavoidable water. So the feet were already cold and wet. The water was icy cold and was too painful to run when you came out of it as your feet were numb. So we would walk fast and then run again when the feeling came back into out feet.

      All we thought about was reaching each checkpoint. We had a guidebook to tell us how far each checkpoint should have been. This wasn't quite accurate because of the flood diversions but weren't too far off to begin with. Someone was calling me just before the second checkpoint. It sounded like my name was being called but I didn't think I knew anyone else at this race. Haha, small world eh? It was Dennis Cartwright. I first met Dennis through an internet running group. He was a keen marathon and ultra runner who is doing his first one hundred miler this year! Seeing Dennis lifted my spirits immensely. We ran and chatted away while looking at the red kytes hovering above us. Not very often I get to see birds of prey. What a great sight.

      There was no sign of Di and Ellie at checkpoint two so we had water and cake and then just kept on running. Yet another diverted route as we were running down a main road with the traffic zooming towards us. I think we went the wrong way to be honest and should have turned off earlier but we got to where we were supposed to in the end. I was expecting to do more walking than this for some reason. We were running a lot and only really walking up the hills and on the really muddy bits, unless we were wading through the icy cold water. Although out pace was fairly slow and relaxed most of the time.

     It was so good to see Di and Ellie running. Just seeing their smiling faces totally changed my frame of mind and my spirit. My energy levels became refreshed and I was feeling more confident now. We were nearly Thirty miles in and had just waded through some really cold, icy water. See the photo! Thanks to Dennis Cartwright for letting me use his photo below.

(Yes, we had to wade through this! Thanks for the pic Dennis).

        Just before mile thirty we were still running with Ellie and Di. At this point Mikey wanted to stop for a pub lunch but I wasn't so keen to stop for so long and we had time limits for the chceck points as well. I went in the pub with Di to order drinks and food but I was covered in mud where I had fallen over four times by now and my trainers were soaked. The pub was quite posh so we decided against the idea.
In the end Ellie and Di managed to get us baked potatoes with bacon and cheese and cake for dessert. I wasn't in the mood for anymore sweet stuff but the potato tasted amazing just after running thirty miles. I changed my socks and put my coat and hat on again as the temperature had dropped. We were sat in a car park chatting and eating and all felt good. It was great to rest the aching legs though.

        This story may be a bit scattered as it was so eventful and i'm having trouble remembering what order things went in. Everyday after this race I am still reliving it. There are so many great things to remember. It was just like a big adventurous day out. In fact, that's exactly what it was! I said to Mikey that we should just aim for thirty-five miles as it will be the longest distance that we have ever run and that in itself would be some achievement. Not bad for someone who was only running twenty miles to support! When we reached the checkpoint at mile thirty-two I wanted to change into clean, dry socks straight away. There were also pork pies, sausages and mini scotch egg things on the table to eat at this checkpoint. I was straight in there. After some more fluids we said farewell to Di and Ellie who had now picked up some DNF'ers and were taking them to the finish. Not long after we got going, my socks got wet again pretty much straight away as there were more unavoidable puddles. We had some choices to make on directions as well but Mikey was sharp enough to point out the muddier routes with the majority of footprints to follow.
From time to time Mikey would get annoyed. Sometimes the terrain got really tough to run on and he would threaten to quit but I would just laugh at him and tell him to cheer up. This was obviously easier said than done...
  Anyway, back inside my head at mile thirty-five.... I was having a funny five minutes and Mikey was being very supportive. I was battling away with my thoughts. It's hard to stay positive when you think you're about to die. I thought about Ellie and Di who had taken their whole Saturday to come and support us. I thought about my running club and the Campion "No pressure" quote written on my facebook wall. I knew we were never going to beat his and Phil's sub nine time but that didn't matter to me. I also remembered that I was going to run this race for Thomas. I wanted to raise awareness for his type 1 diabetes and the JDRF charity. I bottled out though. I didn't think I would ever finish a race like this. I had all my friends who believed in me and that helped so much. It was worth trying and try I did.

(The thirty-nine miles that I managed to record)

     Those funny five minutes elapsed and we were back to the running. We ran into Reading and finally onto the Thames toe-path. It was quite nice looking out onto the Thames. Mikey mistakenly pointed out a Moorhen but I knew it was a Coot. White stripe for a Coot, Red for a Moorhen. ;) Anyway, we kept on going on tired legs. After a while you get used to the legs aching and they just become desensitised. I felt like I could run forever after mile 40! My garmin died at mile thirty-nine so now we didn't have a time, pace or mileage reference. We reached the 40 mile checkpoint where I ate so much cake. Luckily Di and Ellie were there to greet us again. We now needed head torches and were lucky not to be wading through the water of the Thames in the dark a few miles earlier.

   We had made it to the checkpoint with only twenty or so minutes to spare. We were told that we had to run in pairs now as it was dark and that the finish was roughly only six miles away. We met a guy called James who would join us and run with us the rest of the way as he had no-one else to run with. He was from Wimbledon and was turning Forty in a weeks time and saw this as a great way to reach it. His friends told him he was mad and should have just got a fake tan instead.
The head torches were on and we were running up and long hill that seemed to go on for ages. We came to a shop and another runner. Who asked if we knew the way. It turned out that they had changed the finish route from what my guide book said. We waited for his friend in the shop to buy a coffee and then ran with them and were shortly joined by more runners. There were now about seven or eight of us running together. Two of these guys had run it a few times before. One guy had a GPS map of the route on his phone but only had five percent of battery power left so we had to get moving.

    We were really lucky to have met these guys otherwise we would never have found the route back and would have definitely DNF'ed. We were running through some woods when the battery on my headtorch died so I had to keep up and use the other runners light to guide me over the uneven ground and around the puddles and avoid debris. We finally found civilisation  and ran into the centre on Henley. We had people cheering us on to the end. I could see Mikey starting to pick up the pace and I wanted to do the same but the others didn't. We all ran across the finish line together. We were a team after all and if it wasn't for the others we would never have finished. We got our medals and finished in a time of ten hours and twenty-six minutes. We came one hundred and seventy seventh and still had over an hour until the cut-off time to finish. The winner finished just over five hours ahead of us! Unbelievable really.

     So, would I do it again? Yes, definitely! I have already been thinking another ultra already. To have people support you really makes a difference on these long events though. You have mood swings and highs and lows throughout but overall it is a very enjoyable experience and one I will remember for the rest of my life. Also a big thanks to Lawrence for making the "Lawrence cakes" which we ate on the way round. Until next time ;)

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Stormforce 10 Camborne

                 Although I used to live in Newquay, I have never done a race in Cornwall. I had friends down there so I thought why not book a race and catch up and do some skateboarding at the same time and throw in a cycle ride on the camel trail. The Stormforce 10 is part of the Cornish grand prix. Which is pretty much a Cornish league race from what I can work out. So you have all the Cornish clubs racing but there were also a lot of Devon club runners. Who knows how it works, i'm just making all this up now!
              I didn't get to the start of the race in the best of conditions and I sure wasn't going for a PB that day. I had cycled to Padstow from Wadebridge and back along the camel trail and we had then cycled to Bodmin and back from Wadebridge as well. If this wasn't tiring enough we went skateboarding in Mount hawke but after about 10 minutes I had fallen off the ramp because my back foot had slipped off the board. I then rode over my own foot causing my ankle to twist and as I fell backwards I also hit my head on the ground. I felt dizzy and a bit shaken up. Panic had set in and I was freaking out. I was helped along by Five pints of Tribute. This was all the day before my race.

              I wasn't actually expecting to be at the start-line of this race with all that beer and the stiffened ankle but it happened! I woke up, my buddy Chris made me a bagel with Peanut butter and we were off to Camborne school for the start. I collected my race number and stood staring around the room at all the other club runners. Falmouth road runners, Newquay road runners, Tamar Trotters, Truro running club, St. Austell running club etc.. It reminded me of our Hampshire road race league with all the teams in their colours gathered in different areas. A lot of runners saw my Lordshill road runners vest and spoke to me and welcomed me to their race and thanked me for coming down. What an awesome response! I even messaged Falmouth road runners to thank them for the support from their runners even though this wasn't their race. The "Carnies" were also nice though and spoke to a few other club runners at the start and on the way around.

           We were very lucky with the weather. The sun was shining and actually felt quite warm even though it was the end of January. I enquired about the course. Any hills? Terrain etc.. Slightly undulating. Yeah right! Cornish people are funny. We started on a road going downhill which was fun. Loved overtaking people but the ankle was still a little sore. It was all road and mostly country lanes with some very big hills. The steepest one was at mile 4. As I ran down it I remember thinking. "Surely we don't run up there, it must turn off somewhere". Then I just replayed the voice in my head of the man who said it was slightly undulating. He must be laughing right now. And that was enough to make me smile to myself. I battled hard to get up that hill. Everytime I run up a big hill I think about Roger Bradley from our running club. He gave me the best, yet simplest hill running advice ever. "Keep your head up Dean, how are you supposed to get oxygen in your lungs with your head down there?" Haha. That man is a legend.

          I remember wanting to average Seven minute miles as a training race but it never happened. I wanted to get some speedy miles in for the Romsey 5 as I was long overdue a 5 mile PB. So the course was just a series of country roads with hills dipping and climbing. About mile Seven maybe? We veered off to the left and onto a gravel path which was just kind of a cutway through the back of some houses. There was a really big downhill. My favourite thing in the world! I seem to get noticed in races running downhill cos I go flat out. Runners were saying well done as I passed many of them. My garmin said I was running a 5.46 minute mile but this ended up being nearly a seven and a half minute mile as this downhill had to end and mirror itself to another big hill climb just after mile 8.
It was around here that I got speaking to a man who used to live in Sway who was a keen tri-athlete and supported Bournemouth football club and drove down to watch them play a lot. I love meeting people and finding out about them. Adds to the awesome experience for me if i'm not racing flat out. Obviously, you can't actually do any chatting if you're racing properly ;)

        Anyway, the marshall just after mile Nine told me that it was all downhill now. That was exactly what I wanted to hear. The ankle was still aching all the way round but wasn't affecting my running. I sped up and did my best to run fast. It was still dry but the sun had gone in. I crossed the line around 1 hour 14 and it started to rain. I grabbed a free banana and got a pair of more mile gloves and a hat that didn't fit me and we left. I was expecting a medal but didn't get one. I think I was supposed to go back into the gym for this? Wasn't sure really. It wasn't really clear. There was hot soup available though but I just wanted to go back to bed as I was feeling so tired.

    Really enjoyed the race. Very challenging and would love to do more Cornish races. Falmouth road runners have also invited me down to train with them so I may take them up on that in the summertime.