Brazos Bend 100- Race Report

Made it.

Made it.

I was sat on a log with my head in my hands and hadn’t seen another runner for hours. The mist was swirling and it was 3am in the middle of a dark Texan wood. All around me I could hear scratching noises of the wildlife just off the trail. I was feeling dizzy and sugar depleted and knew I needed a two minute sit down. I had been running for 21 hours now and was 94 miles into the 100 and the heat and humidity had taken its toll. As I lifted my head, through the mist a huge duck paddled a rowing boat majestically across the trail and on into the woods, completely silently. It was at this point I knew I needed to get this thing done and get some sleep. But first I needed sugar and fast.

Backtracking a tad, I was here for the most important run of my life so far. Maybe ever, in terms of emotions and significance. I wasn’t running this race for me, but in memory of Lon Lomas. This was supposed to be his first 100 mile race but fate made it me running instead, with the honour of giving the belt buckle to his wife, Alicia, at the finish. No pressure to get it done, then. But to be honest, I wasn’t nervous and I didn’t feel the significance of the pressure until it was done. I knew I would finish this race, I just didn’t know I would do as well as I did.

I landed in Houston on Thursday afternoon and after dealing with the worst people in America, the guys on passport control, I was through to meet Iain Wallace and see the best side of America. Iain was a stranger to me but was introduced through Rob Goyen who is the RD of the Brazos Bend 100. Rob had been amazing before the race, not only giving me a free entry because of why I was coming, but also free camping at the Brazos Bend State Park and when I said I could do with a ride from Houston to the park, he set me up with Iain. Iain is a Scotsman who has lived in Houston since 1994. He met me at the airport and I stayed at his house on the Thursday night before he drove me to the park on the Friday afternoon. Iain was running the 50 mile race (there was also a marathon and half marathon making this the biggest trail race in Texas history) and knew the area well. He was a fantastic host and we have become friends. He also introduced me to some of the best Mexican food I have ever had, including a deep fried burrito (you can take the man out of Scotland…)

A veteran of one of the recent wars finishing the half marathon by wheelchair

A veteran of one of the recent wars finishing the half marathon by wheelchair

Once at the park we headed over to the race start to meet the team setting up. I recognised Rob from Facebook and went over and said hello. He was as chuffed as I was to meet and like Iain, I have made a good friend in Rob. I asked Rob what he wanted before I headed out knowing Iain wanted some whiskey and Rob asked for chocolate, so I gave him a big bag from UK duty free as a little thank you for all he had done to help make this happen. I also met his lovely wife Rachael and a number of the team getting things ready, but seeing them so busy I said I would go set up my tent and come back for the pre-race briefing at 4pm.

The Brazos Bend State Park is more beautiful than I expected. One of my favourite films of all times is Forrest Gump (and not because he runs a long way…) and I always wanted to see those southern trees and this park reminded me of his house. Shimmering lakes, amazing trees and just so green everywhere. It wasn’t like the Texas I have seen on TV.

Having set up the tent and attended the briefing, I had a shower, sorted my kit for race morning and settled in to read my book and get an early night before the 6am start. Soon after I started reading I heard “Tim?” outside my tent. It was James and Kelly, two of the Lomas’ friends who I had been in contact with before the race. They were kind enough to drive out from Louisiana and crew for me which was amazing and great to meet them face to face finally. I said we would meet up again at 5am and then got back to reading and quickly fell asleep.

My tent and te stunning scenery around us

My tent and the stunning scenery around us

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I had set my alarm for 4:30am and slept remarkably well as the crickets cooed outside all night. Just as I was getting dressed I heard two more voices outside my tent calling my name- it was Alicia and Lance, Lon’s brother. The first time I was about to meet them and it made me nervous and focussed at the same time. They were both incredibly kind and also excited about the day but with naturally mixed feelings. They showed much more strength than I did by being there and I knew they would get me to finish this race no matter what.

After James and Kelly also turned up we had a brief run-through of what I would need on the day and I gave them my bags. Mainly it would be changes of clothing as the race was well catered, but above all, moral support and encouragement when it got tough later on. They had all brought mountain bikes with them so it was easy for them to meet me at certain points on each loop and do what was needed every seven miles or so. Running 4 x 25 mile loops is a lot easier logistically than a point to point course, even if it is mentally tough.

We strolled down to the start just before 6am and very soon after, the countdown began. The 100 miler was the least busy of the four distances held and 103 of us took off to run 100 miles. It was still pitch dark at 6am so most of us had headlamps on. I was wearing my reserve one which doesn’t have great light output, but I knew it was only needed for an hour or so. About half an hour in I found the field had spread out well but I was running side by side with a guy called Andres Sanchez. I am not a hugely chatty runner during races but we found we had a lot to talk about and in the end pretty much ran the first 50 miles together. Sometimes he was ahead, sometimes behind and sometimes together and it was a great way to help the miles click by. He told me his marathon PB was just over 3 hours which made me a little scared as mine is 3:38, but it was also his first 100 so I think he was taking it steady and it worked well for both of us. Just like the North Downs Way 100 I made sure that for the first 50 miles if it felt like hard work I would stop and walk to re-set.

Finishing loop one with Andres

Finishing loop one with Andres

Even early on the humidity really hit me. The sun wasn’t even up but I was sweating and I made sure to take an S-cap every half an hour as well as as much water as I needed, drinking to thirst. As the sun started to break through it was a magical sunrise and lit up the whole of the park and the sky. I quietly prayed that this would hopefully be the only sunrise I would see on this run, even though I had until midday Sunday to finish. I am not a religious man, but it was a beautiful sunrise and I quietly said hello to Lon and told him I would finish this.

The first loop I ran with just one 500ml Salomon softflask, but had another in my pocket in case it was needed, but with water every three miles and the heat still being relatively mild I just needed the one. Whilst water was every three miles, there were full aid stations at miles 6, 11 and 17 on each loop and I kept these as my focus. I didn’t carry any food with me so I made sure I took my time at each of these and ate as much as I could, even in the latter stages when I felt sick. Early on it was mainly fruit with more substantial food later in the day, along with a gel every hour.

The first part of the course travels through the lakes area where the alligators live. I was really looking forward to seeing them and not apprehensive as there has never been an incident in the park and you just need to keep your distance. No such luck on this loop, it was still too cool for them, but I was starting to bake already. It was like someone switched the calendar and moved me from December to August in a day and harder to adapt to than I had thought.

Taking a breather with Iain's dog, Bo.

Taking a breather with Iain’s dog, Bo.

From the lakes section we travelled into the woods and followed stunning single track for the remainder of the course. This weaved and darted around and made running fun and something I had to concentrate on. Whilst the course was advertised as fast, it was a lot more technical than I thought and several times I tripped on roots and tree stumps that were hidden under the thick leaf foliage. I made a mental note that in the dark with fatigue this section would take some concentration and by my calculations, all going well, I would cover two loops of this part in the night.

The course was set up in such a way that you passed other runners regularly and I was constantly told “good job”, which by the end I was dutifully returning. It was an incredibly friendly race and seeing other people on other sections really did encourage me on. Some of the half marathon runners couldn’t believe the distance we were running and them being in awe was quite cool and helped spur me on.

The 50 mile run started at 7am, an hour after us, so Andres and myself were wondering at what stage the leaders would storm past us. Sure enough, at about three hours in Ford Smith literally sailed by. It was like his feet weren’t touching the ground. Who knows, maybe he had been given some tips by the duck of the woods as to how to traverse these parts. He went on to finish in 5:48 which is pretty incredible now I know the course.

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At about mile 20, Andres and I took a wrong turn but quickly realised and doubled back after no more than a mile I guess. But adding two miles at this stage was a bit frustrating but we had to put it out of our minds and just crack on. It focussed us to have a good end to the loop and we made it back to the start/finish in 4:20, which was pretty decent for 25 miles and 2 bonus miles, with 75 left to run.

Here I realised how big this run was for me. A gazebo had been set up at by the Lomas family and 12 friends and family were there as well as others around who had heard why I was running. I met Lon and Lance’s father, Alicia’s mother, Jason and Randall, two friends of Lon’s and a host of others who all hugged me and helped me get on with the job with renewed focus. This next loop was set to be the hottest and I was likely out from 10:30am to around 3:30pm, so I stripped off my North Face tribute t-shirt and swapped it for my white and very lightweight Salomon vest, which I intended to keep drenched. A lot of other runners were now shirtless but a) the world is not ready for that yet and I didn’t fancy tensing my tits every time I saw another human and b) I asked Jez at Western States why he didn’t run shirtless when most of the elites did and he said he felt it was better to have a wet t-shirt on to keep cool than just let the moisture evaporate straight off your skin. Made sense to me.

Heading into the heat of loop two

Heading into the heat of loop two

Loop two was hot. Really hot. It got up to 27 centigrade at times and this was like a summers day back home, but it was the humidity which literally clung to me and made me feel suppressed all the time, until a breeze would quickly bring temporary reprieve. I was now using both soft flasks, one to drink from and one to douse myself with on my head and shirt.

I met Lance, James, Kelly and Alicia every few miles and they kept up a great routine of coke, sunscreen, bodyglide, cheering and encouragement. I really couldn’t have done it without them.

Each section on loop two seemed to take so much longer than the first. Things looked different in the changing light and I wasn’t once bored of the course, it just seemed to take a long time. At each aid station there was a camera crew from Ultrasportslive.tv and they were all great fun and helped me relax and enjoy the run as opposed to being focussed and putting myself under pressure.

A pit-stop with the crew

A pit-stop with the crew

Eventually I hit the more tricky technical section and the humidity in the woods was simply sapping. It felt like someone was squeezing my head with a warm towel but I knew if I could just get through this section, it would start to cool off later in the afternoon and I could get my rhythm back in the evening.

Sure enough, I came back around to the start/finish and completed 50 miles in 9:44, which I was pretty happy with. I sat down and when asked how I felt I knew I had learnt from the summer. I said “The bad news is it hurts, the good news is I know it won’t now get any more painful and I just need to work through the pain”. In a way I embraced this moment as it was the mental side that would take over. The physical knew what it was doing and I just needed to repeat what I had already done for 50 miles, albeit at an inevitably slowing pace.

Finishing loop two

Finishing loop two

I again changed my Buff and t-shirt and felt fresh. I opted not to change my shoes and socks until mile 75 as the Rapa Nui’s still felt amazing and my socks were doing a great job. It was also still very warm so I didn’t yet want to see the state of my feet until it cooled down somewhat. I had blisters for sure, but nothing in any way, shape or form like the North Downs ones.

And so for only the second time ever, I ran out of a 50 mile aid station ready to do it all over again. At least here I knew what was to come and that helped.

Heading into loop 3

Heading into loop 3

I met the guys two hours into this loop as I knew I would need my headtorch soon after 6pm and when it started to get dark here, it got dark ridiculously fast. They set me up and sprayed me with insect repellent as the mosquitos were starting to really buzz. As I write this, their bites are the only pain I have left from the race, so I would call that a pretty damn good recovery.

The last time I ran a night race I had Chris Mills to pace me, but here I was going it alone. This didn’t bother me as I knew the route well enough by now and I have been running home with a torch along the canal path for the last few months, so am pretty competent. That said I was getting tired and so blasted the i-pod until the batteries died. It also kept my mind off all of the scratching in the woods. Everything here bites, scratches or stings so I kept my wits about me as much as possible and it helped me focus.

I ended loop three in something like sixteen hours and knew I had six hours to play with for the final loop to get the coveted ‘under 22 hours’ belt buckle. This had been my focus the whole day and remained so, so I quickly changed tops for the last time, changed batteries in my headlamp and headed out for one last loop. Lance and co now saw I was getting tired and made a big effort to jeer me on for this one final push. Every step took me closer to no more dreaded loops and I could sense the finish, even though it was hours away yet.

One of the locals

One of the locals

I changed shoes and socks here, swapping out for my Stinson Evos, which were like running on marshmallows and very welcome. James tended to a couple of blisters, I bodyglided and was off and running.

All I wanted after the sun went down was noodles and broth as well as mashed potatoes and gravy when it could be found. The guys were great and every time I saw them had a cup of both for me. The aid stations and the volunteers were also incredible and I even tried my first slice of pumpkin pie. Without the calories I was forcing down my neck, there is no way I would have finished.

The last tough section was due to take about three hours between mile 85 and 98. Here I was suffering and so Lance and James made an effort to cycle out to as many spots as possible to meet me and give me coke and encouragement. They were awesome and made this lonely section manageable. Lance is not the sort of guy you would put down as scared, but even he said afterwards that those woods gave him the spooks and I was pretty glad it wasn’t just me who felt that. It was pure Blair Witch in there.

I finally got to the last tricky section again, about six miles of single track deep in the woods and started to feel a pain in my right knee. Up until this point I was making good time and pretty confident I would get in under 22 hours, but as the knee worsened I had a shooting pain up my ITB and it went completely rigid on me. Not good this late in the game and certainly not good in these woods. With hindsight, just like the hallucinations which were now coming thick and fast, both could well have been a result of me lacking sugar and my body starting to crash. I made a conscious decision then to slow down and just finish. The time didn’t matter, which buckle didn’t matter, only finishing mattered. So I walked a lot of this spooky section and massaged my knee as often as required. I had the odd sit down and then I started to recover. It never always gets worse.

Finally, I came out of the woods. I downed two horrid gels that were left by the water aid station and pushed myself to get out to mile 98 where I would see the guys for the last time before the finish. They saw I was in a state, but all I could say was “We’ve done it. We did it.” I also added “I’m pretty fucked”.

As they drove down to the finish in Lance’s truck, I jogged towards the finish and smiled. I looked up and said a few words and kept going. About a mile out, Lance had jogged up to meet me and it was at this point that I stopped running. We walked in and said a few things to each other that I am not going to share, but he and Alicia were my two rocks that day. This meant so much to all of us and it was an honour to be the one to get it done for them. A few hundred yards from the finish, Lance ran ahead to tell Rob (the RD) we were coming in and handed me over to Alicia. We walked to the finish arm in arm and, again, I am not going to share what we said but as we crossed the line we held hands and put them in the air together.

I hugged everyone there. All Lon’s family had been up for as long as me and I know from experience how mentally tiring crewing is so it was a pretty emotional finish. I got a hug from Rob and stood back as he gave the buckle to Alicia. Incredibly graciously, he also gave one to me.

With Race Director, Rob Goyen. Note the blow up Alligator which was hidden around some bends on the course. Hilarious at 1am...

With Race Director, Rob Goyen. Note the blow up Alligator which was hidden around some bends on the course. Hilarious at 1am…

Not that it matters, but I finished in 22 hours and 31 minutes. I was 18th overall and 1st international, which I am still getting my head around. My longest training run is typically around 4 hours at the weekends and I run less than 70 miles per week on average. I just wanted to emphasise that in case you happen to be reading this and feel that 100 miles is beyond you. It’s not and in my case it is 20% physical fitness, 80% mental focus.

After getting the buckles and chatting for a bit, I was crashing and needed a shower and to pass out for a few hours. That I did and we all met for breakfast about 9am before going our separate ways.

Even if I do ever get into Western States, I don’t think anything can ever touch the significance of this ultra on that day for me. How could it? If ever there is an example of dignity and strength, it is the Lomas family and I am just so happy I could do my one small bit to help make this Christmas just that little bit easier.

A final thank you to everyone who made this happen. Those of you who chipped in on Crowdfunder to cover my flight, North Face for the tent and sleeping bag, Salomon and Merrell, for clothing, Buff- my main sponsor- and everyone who sent me good luck messages. You all got me through this.

Sleep well, Lon. We both got those buckles we always wanted this year. I told you we would.

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Therapearl – Review

The Therapearl Back Wrap

The Therapearl Back Wrap

Therapearl is a product I came across after the North Downs Way 100. I had some extremely painful connective tissue issues between my shins and my feet. This was the most painful experience I have ever had and was probably a result of not just running 103 miles, but the slipping and sliding that took place on the night leg as the storm hit and the trail became very muddy and slippery.

In addition, my weakest area is my core. Its more of a keg than a six pack, which resulted in some significant lower back pain.

Therapearl is an interesting product as it can easily transition from a warm strapped pack to a cold one, which means I can use in a variety of ways depending on the injury.

Right now I am using the pack after my long weekend run in a warm fashion as I lie down or sit on the sofa. In the summer I used as a freezing pack on my legs and back. It is great to find something that has such variety and needs no cleaning or washing.

The version I have is this: http://www.therapearl.com/products/back-wrap/

Whilst specifically designed for the back, it works really well as a tight strap on the shins or thighs as well.

Probably best not to wear on a plane.

Probably best not to wear on a plane.

Simply, if you want a warm strap you place it in the microwave for a minute or two and if you want cold, you place it in the freezer for a couple of hours. It couldn’t be simpler.

Some of the key stats are below:

Cold

2 hours until ready / frozen

Apply directly onto the skin

Doesn’t Drip

Stays cold for the doctor recommended 20 mins

Hot

Short warm up time in the microwave

Doesn’t scald skin

Apply before exercise to increase blow flow to injury area

Comes with a strap so you can get on with your day

The range starts at £7.99 and you can buy online from Lloyds Pharmacy.

I’m not really one for too many gadgets or gimmicks but this really works and keeps it simple.

 

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Hoka One One Rapa Nui 2 Review

The Hoka One One Rapa Nui 2

The Hoka One One Rapa Nui 2

It’s an interesting name. The Rapa Nui. It sounds like a horrific induction to a new detainee in an Australian jail, but it’s actually the best shoe I have ever had the pleasure to own.

If you have read any of my reviews before you will know I am not fast, I generally gravitate towards minimal shoes but I like comfort. The benchmark for all of my tests is the Pearl Izumi E-motion Trail N1. I still love this shoe and nothing has come close. Nothing until now.

Hoka are known for oversized soles and the Rapa Nui is the most conventional of all their offerings to date. You would be forgiven for not even realising it is a Hoka, but despite it’s more traditional styling it retains all of the best aspects that made this brand such a huge name within trail and ultrarunning in recent years.

I have a pair of Stinson Evo’s and I still really like these, but they are a little large for my feet which is probably why I haven’t worn them as much as I otherwise would have over the course of this year. These are big, maximal shoes and are quite a contrast to my N1’s or Salomon Sense’s, so take a little getting used to. Not so with the Rapa Nui’s.

Now many people might say, what is the point of buying a Hoka that feels more like a normal shoe when you could just get a normal shoe? Good question, but these shoes do retain the best of the brand.

All Hoka’s come with a set of quick-laces which work on a drawstring function and also a pair of conventional laces in the box. To be honest, I don’t rate the quick laces and cut these out after my first run, replacing with the conventional ones which are much better. The fit of the upper is very comfortable and I have had no chafing or rubbing issues on the top of my foot, even when laced tight to deal with thick mud which I am running through often at present.

The toe box is wide and roomy and there is plenty of room for my feet to expand during a longer run. The inner sole is very grippy and hasnt slipped once even in torrential rain. The only issue I have had is with some of the eyelets popping out when laced tightly. This doesn’t cause any discomfort but is probably the only quality related issue I have had.

Like most Hoka’s, the Rapa Nui offer decent trail grip but are predominantly designed for dry trail running and the lugs are not huge. Recently in preparation for the flat Brazos Bend 100 I have been running a lot on the canal path and they are perfect for this, but venturing out onto the Cotswold Way for my long weekend run does involve quite a bit of slipping and sliding.

The Rapa Nui’s are not the lightest shoes in their class by weight, but this is more than offset by their supreme comfort and they still feel very light on my feet.

In a similar vein to the N1’s by Pearl Izumi, the outsole of the shoe is curved. Whilst I used to be a massive heel striker I have changed my form slowly over the last few years, yet still have a tendancy to heel strike, particularly when tired. The curved outsole allows the shoe to roll from back to front or if you are a toe striker, from front to back and this is what really sells the shoe to me. Just like a cavity as opposed to a blade on a golf club, these shoes are forgiving and roll a poor strike into a corrective one. It makes the long runs fantastic and easy going.

The most conventional styled Hoka to date and this middle ground works

The most conventional styled Hoka to date and this middle ground works

Without a doubt this is the best shoe I have ever run in. There will always be Hoka bashing from some and whilst these shoes still look a little unconventional, they are much more toned down than previous incarnations of the brand.

When I was little and used to go shopping with my mum and my brother in Exeter, I used to always get excited when I saw the stands were set up for the Pepsi challenge. Mainly because we weren’t allowed fizzy drinks at home and I couldn’t care less about correctly guessing if it was pepsi or another brand of cola. I just wanted an excuse to drink two cups of sugar and would then throw a guess out at the end.

If you did this when you were younger you will know that one was pepsi and one wasn’t and it was a blind challenge to guess. I genuinely believe that if Hoka did the same with the Rapa Nui and another leading brand of trail shoe, most people would say that the Rapa Nui’s are one of the best shoes they have ever put on. Just don’t judge a book by its cover or what other people might say about Hoka’s. Look down at your next trail race and you will see this brand is booming for a reason.

I will be wearing these at Brazos Bend and also taking an extra pair for the night leg. I haven’t even considered a second type of shoes to change into. The Rapa Nui’s will be my shoe of choice for 2015 and it will take something pretty considerable to blow these out of the water.

You can buy the Rapa Nui and loads of other Hoka options here at The Ultramarathon Running Store (plus they are currently on sale…)

 

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Brazos Bend 100- The Final Countdown

and here I worry about dogs...

and home I worry about dogs…

 

In a little over three weeks, I board a plane to Houston to run the Brazos Bend 100 mile race on Saturday 13th December.

This was a race that wasn’t on my radar before July of this year and wouldn’t typically be the sort of race I would cross the Atlantic for. It is pancake flat, not mountainous, it is not point to point and it is not ideal for someone like me who struggles with a sustained pace constantly.

However, one way or another this will end up being one of the most poignant, if not the most poignant race, that I ever run.

Pretty much everyone reading this knows why I am going, but if for any reason you don’t, I am running this in memory of Lon Lomas who was killed whilst cycling this summer. It was his first 100 mile race and I wanted to run it for his family and give them the belt buckle at the finish.

Front

Front

Whilst the idea was good, making it work financially was hard. I had already been to the US this summer to crew for Jez at Western States and had spent all of my holiday nuggets on that trip. However with the help of The Guardian, The North Face, Robert Goyen (the RD of the BB100) and some incredibly generous friends (and strangers) my trip was funded, my accommodation sorted and my entry fee waived.

My thanks to everyone who made this happen

My thanks to everyone who made this happen

So, this isn’t exactly the kind of race you can run half heartedly. It’s way bigger than me and I need to deliver on the day (or two…).

Fortunately for me, whilst no 100 mile race is easy, this is set up in such a way that is ideal for someone looking for a fast time or just a finish. So why do I think it will go OK? For a number of reasons.

  1. Loops

The race is 4 x 25 mile loops of Brazos Bend State Park, around an hour south of Houston. Whilst mentally a bit of a slog and not the “journey” I would typically seek in a point to point race, logistically this is great. Some of Lon’s friends and family are there to support me and I will run past my tent on each loop, so can change clothes or equipment quite easily.

  1. No Mandatory Kit

Every ultra I have run so far has been with a race vest and a good amount of mandatory kit. Here there are aid stations every three miles and even carrying a water bottle is optional. To run in just t-shirt and shorts and an i-pod shuffle with a couple of gels will be bliss compared with what I am used to.

  1. Weather

Whilst this is not England, in December Texas is not baking hot. It is looking pretty cool at night and temperatures in the daytime are like an English spring day. It is typically dry and not muggy, so whilst I will take a variety of kit with me for eventualities, I hope to run in just the very basics.

  1. Why I am there

Let’s be honest, the mantra of “if the bone ain’t showing, keep on going” applies here. I would have to be evacuated from the course for medical reasons to not finish this race. Lon’s wife and kids have been through hell and back since July 7th, so a few hours of pain for me is inconsequential. Plus, with a 30 hour cut off on this course, if things go south after a lap or two I could walk in and finish.

Whilst flat, the park looks beautiful

Whilst flat, the park looks beautiful

So, all in all I feel fit and ready for this endeavour. The belt buckle pictures have just been released and these have given me a goal.

Some of the top ultrarunners in America are running and aiming to break the 100 mile US record of 12:44. There is a belt buckle for sub 16 hours (which is unheard of), sub 22 hours and sub 30 hours.

The Bling

The Bling

Having known Lon and his races to date, I believe he would have been on for the sub 22 hour buckle. I ran just over 28 hours at the North Downs Way 100 in August and many things went wrong. It was hilly, hot in the day and torrential rain and wind overnight. I messed up taping my feet and made several rookie mistakes. On a good day I have no doubt I could have run sub 24 there, so sub 22 here is very realistic if I run a smart race.

But only the day will tell and a finish is all that matters.

I can’t wait to meet Alicia, Slaydon and Riley Lomas at the race and I hope I do them and their husband and fathers memory proud.

A touching gift from the Lomas family which arrived last week

A touching gift from the Lomas family which arrived last week

This will be my last post about this race before I go. So I want to thank everyone who has made this happen. The race is being broadcast live on UltrasportsLive.tv so you can follow my progress and I will also be handing my facebook and twitter feeds to one of my crew who will also be posting on my behalf.

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The Second Most Important Weekend Of The Year

The briefcase of dreams: 2013

The briefcase of dreams: 2013

The above picture is just a briefcase. Nothing special, pretty standard, but a briefcase whose contents made around 300 peoples long term dream come true last December.

This briefcase belongs to Craig Thornley, the Race Director of Western States, and last year it contained somewhere between 2000 and 2500 names for people who had qualified, sometimes for multiple years, to run Western States.

This year, we will find out next week what the odds are of gaining entry. Last year with 1 ticket it was around 6-7%. This year the qualifying criteria have been toughened up, so maybe it will be better.

My most important weekend of the year is the last weekend in June when Western States is held. But a close second is lottery day.

I will once again be locked away somewhere quiet and alone on 6th December to watch the lottery live online from Auburn, California and see if my name is read out.

Last year it wasn’t, but a good friends was so even if I don’t get in again, I will keep adding my tickets for other years. Would I go and crew for a third time? Perhaps, but I really want to see this race from the other side of the fence and it would be nice to get in and deal with this rather ridiculous obsession!

Good luck to everyone who is entering, but obviously not too much luck.

The hallowed track of Placer High School

The hallowed track of Placer High School

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Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20 Review

 

Photo: Ultimate Direction

Photo: Ultimate Direction

In many respects, I am no Anton Krupicka or Jared Campbell. I am not a racer, I am a plodder, but more importantly I simply don’t live in an environment like they do.

Seeing videos and images of Anton and Joe Grant running and climbing around the Flatirons of Boulder makes me long for that sort of life and is what spurs me to train to take on challenges in the States and Europe.

Yet, I am not fast, I live in a somewhat hilly part of a pretty flat country and most of my day to day running is not free soloing in the mountains but to and from work, with a longer trek at weekends.

So when I was offered the chance to review the new Fastpack 20 by Ultimate Direction, it was pretty obvious that the loop for the ice axe wouldn’t get a huge amount of use. So is this bag of use still for someone like me, who will mainly use it for the run commute or the odd lighter weekend jaunt?

The answer is, unquestionably, yes.

I love UD products and have both the Scott Jurek pack from the first generation and the updated and larger 2.0 Peter Bakwin pack which I use when I need more kit. The PB is a pack I would use for winter races or when I need to carry more kit, but in all honesty is typically used for my day to day run commute. However, it does have limited capacity and sometimes I have ended up with a bulky standard backpack for my run which is cumbersome and swings all over the place.

Often I need more capacity and a race vest just hasn’t been created until now that fits a runner but has the capacity for a hiker or someone who has either a lot of kit or kit that isn’t soft and doesn’t squash down. For example, a pack of documents or a folder.

Now, this isn’t why the Fastpack 20 was created, but run commuting is growing in popularity not just in the UK but around the world and it is only appropriate I review this pack for how I will use it. You can see loads of reviews of this pack in action in the mountains, like on this YouTube video, but how does it work for the day to day runner or weekend warrior?

If you have used any of the Signature Series packs, you will know they have an excellent and snug fit, whilst flexing to your body as you breath deeper when running. This is the first backpack on the market that is still being marketed as a ‘vest’ as opposed to a pack. The fit is just like the race vests but with the added benefit of one huge pocket on the rear and a second flexible pocket that expands and is easy access.

Photo: The Ultramarathon Running Store

Photo: The Ultramarathon Running Store

The pockets on the front are a little different to the race vests and here I have found one of my only two criticisms with the whole design- which isn’t bad with such a bold design. The pockets hold two water bottles if you wish (although they aren’t included, unlike the Signature Series vests). One is open and has a draw cord and the other is expanded using a zip to the side. My wish is that this zip didn’t just cover the side, but came up across the top as well to seal the pocket. This would then be ideal for items like a wallet or phone, which on this pack I can only store in the big back compartment to keep them safe. Consequently, access for secure items isn’t possible upfront. There is one small zip pocket and this is ideal for a set of keys as an example, but nothing more.

The back pocket is vast and I can just about squeeze in a sleeping bag and my The North Face Talus 2 tent as well as using the expandable pocket for clothes, so you could use this for multi day treks, just. In the summer if you just wanted the sleeping bag there would be a lot more capacity for food, extra clothes and a camping stove etc without the tent in there.

The main back pocket has a small section cut into the rear where you could keep clean clothes away from dirty ones etc, or have easy to access items such as food away from the main pocket. The main pocket itself is vast and the pack itself opens up way above the shoulder line so you can either fit a large or small load depending on what you are doing.

Photo: iRunFar.com

Photo: iRunFar.com

The Z shaped drawstrings on the sides allow you to tighten or loosen the fit so that whatever you are carrying is snug and doesn’t swing or bounce in the pack. One of my pet hates with running packs, that you don’t get with the Signature Series, is loose straps annoyingly brushing your arms or sides as you run. Here they do swing a little sadly, unless you get in the habit of tucking them into the side pockets. Again, this is only my second criticism and a design flaw that could be managed easily with some clips or webbing straps to tuck excess drawstrings into.

To either side of the pack you have two large pockets that are again expandable, in the same way as on the Peter Bakwin race vest. This allows water bottles to be carried on the sides so the front pockets can be used for food or maps etc. I would have liked to have seen one of these zipped as well to allow more secure storage and this would be easy to incorporate on a second version and would only enhance the variability of the pack.

There are also loops for poles and the aforementioned ice axe, if required.

Finally, with this pack you will likely be carrying heavier gear than you are used to on a run and when I have done this with other backpacks I have developed chafing sometimes on my shoulders and underarms. Here because it fits like a race vest and the material is seamless from the rear to the front, it cannot rub or catch which makes it very unique and comfortable.

Photo: Ultimate Direction

Photo: Ultimate Direction

Overall this is a cracking addition to the Ultimate Direction line you can buy them in the UK here. I have been using this daily for a couple of weeks now and also took it to Venice last weekend and it was perfect as a weekend bag with its huge capacity. An excellent piece of kit for run commuting, short camping trips or multi-day races where you need to carry a lot of kit, like the MDS or Dragons Back.

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Venice Marathon 2014 Race Report

About 2k from the finish

About 2k from the finish

Back in a former life, I was once fondly known by colleagues as ‘Tommy the Bone’. Simply this was derived by people with too much time on their hands playing around with my name and taking Tim to Tom to Tommy to Tombola to Tomboner and finally Tommy the Bone, over a matter of a couple of weeks.

The reason I mention it is I used to like a drink and, as tends to happen, my character changed quite dramatically over the course of an evening. I wasn’t a nasty drunk, but a foolish one and it got to the stage where my colleagues and friends asked me at the time who was coming out this evening, Tim or Tommy? My casual reply usually being, “Well, you’ll likely have a couple of hours with Tim and then Tommy will show up a little after ten…”

For a number of years I suppressed Tommy, but still joked that he was in there, which he very much still is. Now, through (ultra)running, I have found a way to take Tommy for a walk every now and then, without the carnage occurring that he used to cause.

This past weekend I was in Venice with Solange for the 2014 Venice Marathon. This has been Solange’s goal all year and she has worked very hard towards running a strong time. She has been coached by the fantastic Edwina Sutton and been put through her paces with a personalised training program. She was ready.

Flying in over the stunning Dolomites

Flying in over the stunning Dolomites

I didn’t enter the marathon because originally I was set to run the Winter 100 the weekend before. However after the North Downs 100 chew me up and spat me out (this time with a buckle) and having Brazos Bend 100 in Texas in December, I opted to drop the Winter 100. I hadn’t really considered Venice until the day before we flew out, when I decided to glibly email the organisers and see if that had any spaces left, thinking that of course they wouldn’t. They did.

I don’t want to sound like one of those arrogant ultrarunners who thinks of anything less than an ultra as a fun run- it is a marathon and the distance has to be respected. That said, I pretty much run a marathon most Saturdays as part of my training so whilst I respect the distance, it doesn’t scare me. What does scare me is fast, flat road running and I immediately felt a little pressure to record a PB, having not run a road marathon since April 2012 in London.

We landed on Friday around lunchtime and decided to head straight to the expo so Solange could register and I could grab one of the remaining spots, rather than leave it to Saturday. This being Italy and with it being a weekday, naturally the whole of the public transport network was on strike, so we had a bit of a battle to get there.

There was a big wall where entrants could sign their name and whilst Solange did the sensible thing and wrote her name, I thought about Tommy and the fact he was in for a fast canter tomorrow, so simply signed myself as ‘Speedbone’. There’s nothing in the world quite like misplaced confidence.

Speedbone 1

Speedbone 1

Speedbone 2

Speedbone 2

Edwina had set Solange a gentle two mile leg loosener that afternoon, but the kind Italian strikers helped us amend that to a two hour walk from the train station to our hotel. But this being Venice and in my opinion the most magical city in the world, it wasn’t exactly excruciating and we had very little luggage. It was also a glorious weekend weather wise without a cloud in the sky.

Uncalled for.

Uncalled for.

After a relatively quiet Saturday organising transport plans for race morning, it was Sunday at 4:30am before we knew it and we were up for breakfast which the hotel kindly organised extra early, before a ferry set for 5:39am to take us to Tronchetto where a coach would take runners to the start. Seeing the sun come up over the Grand Canal is a sight I will never forget. Simply awesome. Venice shouldn’t even be there. It was built as a result of conflict and persecution with people literally fleeing into the lagoon for their lives. They decided to stay and build the most improbable and logistically ridiculous city in the world, but did it in style. What I love most about Venice is how quiet it is. Without cars there is no noise aside from the boats, but away from the canal it is silent aside from footsteps. Without cars it also feels less aggressive and more calm and peaceful. It’s impossible not to fall in love with Venice.

Once at the start we had a good two hours until the race began and whilst sunny, it was very cold. We huddled inside a marquee and had some last minute food and chatted with a few other Brits including a girl called Lorna who had just run Abingdon marathon the weekend before and is a prolific marathon runner (she ended up getting a PB at Venice).

There are worse cities to finish a marathon in

There are worse cities to finish a marathon in

Finish bags loaded, breath held in the portaloo for the last time and it was time to get into our starting pens and prepare for the off. I gave Solange some last minute words of encouragement and she headed off to her pen and I to mine. 2014 has been a pretty stressful year for us, so it was fantastic to be doing this together and we had already agreed where to meet at the finish.

The helicopter buzzed overhead, the Italians proved there is no word in their vocabulary for ‘queue’ and the countdown began. We had been in the pens for a while and I realised I needed a pee even before we started so I would have to find a quiet hedge soon after we were off. There wasn’t one for a good three kilometres but eventually I stopped for about three minutes (one of those dreadfully timed ones that went on and on and on…) and was back running and feeling much better.

I hadn’t given much thought to my time aside from having a vague goal of three and a half hours. This worked out as exactly five minutes per kilometre and I sustained this right up until the final 7k when my pace dropped.

A marathon is never easy, but the pace was a lot easier than I expected and I know I have a significantly faster time in me yet. The crowds in all the small towns we ran through were great and there was a rock band every mile or so, which really lifted the spirits. Slipknot and the Foo Fighters are big in Italy it seems and this is exactly the sort of music I like to run to, with the odd bit of Michael Buble, Miley Cyrus and Leona Lewis thrown in for good measure. Ahem.

At the 30k mark we reached the Parco San Giuliano, which is where the expo was held. I had hit 10k in exactly 50 minutes and halfway in 1:45. Bang on 5 mins per kilometre, but I knew sustaining that pace might be tough once in Venice, not because of fatigue, but because of the narrowing of the course and the 14 bridge crossings we had yet to come (kindly warned to me before the race by Rob Pinnington who had a friend run it in recent years). At the park they had gels and electrolyte drinks for the first time, so I grabbed a handful of gels and downed a few cups, trying to get some sugar and salt into my system for the last 12k push.

Cruelly after this there is a 4k bridge crossing into Venice itself. You can see Venice on the horizon, but it just never gets any closer. I had a few small walk breaks and then kicked myself into gear that walking wasn’t acceptable and ran whilst looking down rather than at the horizon until the bridge finally ended.

Once in Venice it was hard not to be excited. The crowds lining the fenced off route were great and the scenery just spectacular. It was at this point I started racing someone who had been with me for a while and we went back and forth, him talking in Spanish and me in English and just having a laugh together. A lap of St Marks Square and then 1k to go. Coming into the finish was great, I knew my pace had dropped and I crossed the line in 3:38, which was a new PB. Not that it matters but my chip registered 3:43, which is only a five minute discrepancy and it seemed a number of others had the same issue. Either time was a PB so I couldn’t care either way. The medal is already in the garage with our others, it was the memory that will stick with me. The only memento in the house is my 100 mile treasured buckle.

Collecting dust with the others already.

Collecting dust with the others already.

Solange crossed the line in 4:14 and we met up with her naturally being over the moon and me being very proud of her indeed. From having had two emergency caesarean sections in just an 18 month period, she tried running again three years ago and came home after five minutes exhausted and crying. She ran this to prove to herself she could do it, but it is a great message to others that you can do anything if you put your mind to it and are willing to put the effort in.

A great weekend, two PB’s and we can’t recommend the Venice Marathon enough. For me it was great to get some fast miles in as I now have final preparations for the Brazos Bend 100 for which my training will end the first week in December; which will come around fast.

The Champion, herself

The Champion, herself

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