Bath Trail Marathon 2015

A certain idiot leads the race at mile 2.

A certain idiot leads the race at mile 2. All photos c/o Relish Running

It wasn’t Relish Running weather on Sunday. It was pure Centurion weather and as I opened the curtains on Sunday morning I couldn’t wait.

I love running in the rain and whilst this is an ultrarunning perspective, to run a ‘shorter’ distance such as a marathon, which doesn’t have to take into account night legs or change of clothes, running in the rain is fantastic. In its essence, you are never going slow enough to get cold.

After losing my mojo following the Thames Path 100 back in May, I opted to drop the 12 Labours of Hercules and run this race instead, to have a fast run and get my passion back. It didn’t all go to plan, but three days on my legs hurt more than they did after any 100 miler, so I certainly didn’t hold back.

The morning started stressfully as we had some childcare issues, but fortunately a friend stepped in and saved the day. It came very close to me not even making the start line, so once I was running it was great to just be out there at all.

The monkeys earning their medals.

The monkeys earning their medals.

Monty and Luena both finished the kids race, despite the rain and got their medals. They then watched me start the marathon. On the day in addition to the marathon there was also a half, 10k and 5k so the starts happened in waves. Fortunately due to the weather it was great for me that the marathon and half were the first wave to go off together. Personally I would have preferred to have the half go off first as they are naturally quicker, running a shorter distance, but it didn’t cause too many issues.

Now, having watched Mo Farah win the 3000m on Friday night at the anniversary games, I was conscious that there was one guy who paced the first 2000m and then dropped off to let the race unfold. This stuck in my mind and I also thought of the guy who ran Boston this year and trained himself to run at a pace to match the elite East Africans for 5 miles and was leading the Boston Marathon for the first 5k and promised his kids he would, who were watching on TV. I love that story. So, I said to the kids they would see me leading the race as I went out of site.

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There is also a slight possibility that I forget I am not very good at this. So I went haring off and found myself in the lead as I hit the first turn. I slowed as I move out of site of the kids, but so did everyone behind me and I found myself still leading at the 2k point. Unexpected. I just need to work out how to maintain this for the next 40k and I’ve got the marathon distance licked. Simples.

So, bearing in mind that I wasn’t just leading the marathon but also the half marathon (and also don’t forget, I am not very good at this), something was quite clearly wrong and unsustainable. I slowed and thankfully started to be passed so I could relax a bit.

One thing I have come to realise is this. In general, the shorter the distance the higher the scientifically (un)proven ‘Bellend Coefficient’ comes into play. This is charted on the graph below:

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Since properly getting into running, I have only really run ultras (as my best friend says; “…absolutely nothing whatsoever in moderation with you, pal, is there?”). I ran the London marathon three times prior, but this is such a vast race that it’s not really running in its truest form and you don’t get to meet people like at littler races. So my benchmark of runners are ultrarunners, who are generally fantastic people to be around.

I believe the harder you have to work to achieve something, the more humble you are. No one can fake an ultra, from the winner to the last runner. All have trained to run to the best of their ability that day. But as you lessen the distance, you lessen the dedication required and therefore increase the potential for bravado and running for attention, as opposed to passion. Clearly this isn’t the case in all cases, but I have found a higher proportion of bellends in shorter races than longer ones. It’s just a fact.

Not my image, but gives an idea of some of the hills on this course.

Not my image, but gives an idea of some of the hills on this course.

So, as I made my way down a hill about 4k into the race and watched my step, a half marathon runner who shall remain nameless ran past me and who vaguely knows me, unleashing what I am sure he thought was hilarious abuse about me watching my step and to go faster (the path was very wide- loads of room to pass and I’ve got to be honest, I’d be wary giving that sort of “funny” abuse to even my best mate). For the next four hours I spent my time formulating my response and pretty much got to “when you’re ready to do the big boys race, give me a shout and I’ll give you some tips, my friend”. There might have been more swear words in there.

Anyway, I digress. The race itself was great fun and I got chatting to Jonathan Carter who is running 48 marathons this year for charity and is the RD of The Fellsman race. I also was passed by Brian Robb after about 10k (how I was in front of him for this long I have no idea) and he went on to finish second with Jonathan in 9th. Both great runs from great blokes.

Since being in London I have been so busy these last few weeks that I knew I didn’t stand a chance at a good race, but wanted to enjoy it most of all. I struggled with the enjoyment but had some good patches and some low patches. Typically the low patches were on the long flat sections, coincidentally where Solange was marshalling, so she saw the lowest ebb of my race, but honestly whilst it was a tough day, it was a good day.

Nearly finished...

Nearly finished…

I finished lap one in 12th place and ended the race in 24th, literally walking the last 3k or so. It wasn’t my finest hour but I was only four minutes slower than my 20th place in 2013 and with some very slippery, wet conditions so considering I was not as fit as I would have liked starting this race, I can’t be disappointed with the result. I was 40 minutes behind the winner, so lost 10 minutes per 10k, which really isn’t that bad as, after all, I am not very good at this, but you know what? I love running and I am back. Roll on the Cotswold Way 100.

A huge thanks to Tom Room who is one of the best but lowest key race directors in the UK. If you haven’t run a relish race, whether one of their winter 5 or 10k’s or summer longer races, I can’t rate them highly enough. Also to every single marshall who were out in force on the course- there must have been 100 of them, always smiling despite the weather being horrific to stand still in all day. British races at their finest.

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Summer & Plans

I haven’t written on here for a while. In some respects that’s because I haven’t had a huge amount to say, as running has been a little flat. In others, I have just been too busy to give the blog a second thought.

On 6th July I started a new job in London. It means four nights away each week and three back home. In addition, I have been living out of a suitcase until my accommodation in London is ready (as of tomorrow), so with a hectic new job, back and forth on tubes and trains, in hotels and with friends, running has been lost a little.

But, every cloud…just before I started work I knew the first couple of weeks would be like this and having read a lot about recent overtraining stories I put no pressure on myself and just went with the flow. It’s healthy to have a break every now and then.

Yes, its the height of the season, but my ‘A’ race is behind me and it is nice to not feel the pressure to train too much when I just don’t have the time. From next week, it will ramp back up.

That said, last Wednesday, on the 3rd day of the new job, I was roped into the JP Morgan Challenge, a 5.6K route around Battersea Park. I had never run a race this short before so just opted to go flat out until I could no longer go flat out and see what happens. I got it done in 23 minutes and that also involved a lot of weaving as the wave I started in was too far back, so I was pretty happy overall.There was also a tube strike on that day, so I had a further 5 mile run back to the mainline train after the run. Jelly legs just about describes that one.

I’d like to see where I could go with this distance over the winter and maybe a sub 20 5k time isn’t out of the question.

Coming up to the finish of the JP Morgan 5.6k Challenge

Heel strike all the way

Next weekend, on Sunday 26th I return to the Bath Trail Marathon and cannot wait. This is a great race and I intend to race this as hard as I can. I finished in 20th place in 4:30 a couple of years ago and would like to think I can get this down to 4:15 on a good day. Considering the course profile, that would push me more towards a 3:30 road marathon which is my goal in the Autumn.

Then it’s back to the North Downs to pace Dan Park for the last 40 miles of this two weeks later, followed by the big one, the Cotswold Way Century at the end of September. 102 miles of the Cotswold Way end to end, finishing in Bath with over 12,000 ft of ascent on an essentially unmarked course. I can’t wait to run this, having volunteered the last two years.

And to end the year, flights aren’t booked yet, but I think I’d like to get back out to Brazos Bend and try and run a sub 22 (or maybe 21…) hour 100 miler there. A lot has happened since I last set foot in Houston and it would be fitting to round off the year by returning.

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The Canal

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The K&A Canal as viewed from Bathampton Bridge

I often smile to myself, as I run the 4 mile section of the Kennet & Avon Canal between my house and my work, that if you only had 24 hours in the UK and you wanted to see every segment of our society, visit a canal on a sunny day.

For me, I can relate to most elements. I have been the guy drinking lager in the hedge and the guy asking Tarquin to pass the Beaujolais on the nicest narrowboat. I have been the cyclist and the walker. Pretty much everyone I meet on the canal I can relate to one way or another.

But for me, the canal has a special place in my heart now because of running. In just over two weeks time I start a new phase of my career, which means I will be back in London for four days each week. Often it is only when you realise something is coming to an end, that you appreciate it so much more.

I have splashed to work, puddle to puddle in the rains of November. I have skidded on the same puddles as they become covered in ice in December and January. I have watched the trees start to blossom in April. I have been desperate for water in July and watched the leaves fall on the path in September. I have run in sunlight so bright that it dazzles my eyes and with a headtorch in the pitch black. The canal is where I have gone from a runner in 2011 to an ultrarunner in recent years.

The view towards Solsbury Hill and the railway line to the left that will soon whisk me to London every Sunday evening.

The view towards Solsbury Hill and the railway line to the left that will soon whisk me to London every Sunday evening.

Whilst used primarily for my commute and to get some fast miles in, with the weekend run being the one I look forward to most out on the Somerset hills, it is the canal and the changing of the seasons I have taken for granted the most. And where I have improved the most because of the fast miles; an impromptu interval session in an otherwise nonconformist training schedule.

So each day as I run home at present and I count down to the 3rd July and my last commute on this section of towpath, I think bittersweet thoughts. Thankful for the time we have had but sad that this path is coming to an end.

It makes me realise that it is not the destination, but the journey and I look forward to my next steps as the canal ends and the Thames begins. And to appreciate my ability to take my steps each day, wherever I am, because running is my life.

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An Interview With: Gordy Ainsleigh

Gordy Ainsleigh. Photo c/o Ian Corless

Gordy Ainsleigh. Photo c/o Ian Corless

If you run trail 100 mile races or one day dream of earning a belt buckle for yourself, then you have one man to thank for making this possible. Sure, people have run a long way throughout history. Just Google ‘Pheidippides’ to look into it. Or read about subsistence hunting. But one man created the rebirth of those long-ago epic runs, and gave them their modern identity as a sport with yearly events when, in 1974, he did what many thought was humanly impossible: he ran the mountains and canyons of the Tevis Cup 100, the supreme test of equine endurance, within the same 24-hour time limit as the horses.

If you love trail ultramarathons, this man needs no introduction. Gordy Ainsleigh started it all. Many of you will know the story, but to quickly summarize: after two successful rides at the 100 mile horse-race, The Tevis Cup, from Squaw Valley to Auburn over the Western States Trail in Northern California, Gordy gave away his durable endurance horse to a girlfriend in a weak moment, and the replacement horse went lame on his third Tevis Cup attempt. Wendell Robie and Drucilla Barner, the godfather and godmother of the ride, offered Gordy a consolation opportunity: leave the horse behind next year, and try to run the whole ride on foot in 1974.  Gordy, who still lives in the rural hills where he grew up a few mile outside Auburn, California, knew the Western States trail like the back of his hand. Many had hiked it over multi-days and it was the original ‘gold highway’ for those getting in and out of the Sierra Nevada mountains during the gold rush of the mid and late 1800’s. However, no one had attempted to traverse the 100 mile route in one day on foot.

In spite of running authorities who said it couldn’t be done, Gordy kept coming back to the fact that all he had to do was average 4.2 mph to get to Auburn in under 24 hours. It just seemed so possible to him, despite the steep terrain, heat, snakes, cougars, poison oak and bears that are just some of the furniture that decorates the route. So he gave it a try, and with no assistance and just 10 bottles of Gatorade stashed on the course, popped out onto the streets of Auburn, and on to the finish on the track, 18 minutes under 24 hours. Thus the sport of 100-mile trail foot races was born.

Not only is Gordy the founder of modern trail ultra running, but he is also a remarkable man in many respects. If ever there was someone who should have a movie made about his life, it is Gordy. Chuck Norris would probably be front runner for the lead if he wasn’t, like Gordy, getting a bit old (Gordy added that bit- not me!).

I suppose I should start at the beginning. When you realised your horse was lame, can you remember the exact time you got the idea to do something as preposterous, back then, as run the Tevis Cup?

Actually, I first contemplated running the Tevis Cup Ride over the Western States trail in the late winter and spring of 1972, after the first of my two successful completions of the Ride in the summer of ’71.

In January of ’72, I had taken up running with Pete Hanson, who had recently arrived at my old high school, and was happy to show me the ropes in long distance running. At that time, Pete was about the 5th fastest man in the nation in the 50 mile run, and had placed third in the West’s premier 100-mile 3-day run. Pete had been running long-distance road races since the age of 13, and was then in his early 30s. He pretty much knew everything there was about long distance running, and was happy to coach me in my transition from college and military running competitions in the 1-3 mile distances, and work up to 7, 14 and marathon distances.

So I took Pete out on 35 typical miles of the Tevis Cup course on the Western States Trail, and when we finished, asked him if he thought I could do 100 miles of that trail in 24 hours. He looked at me like I had lost my mind. After all, I had had to take my horse along because I didn’t yet have the endurance to run 35 miles. And he told me: No, not only did he think that I couldn’t do it; he didn’t think that anyone could. So I didn’t talk about it anymore.

But the next year, in May of 1973, I ran a marathon in 2:52, and a couple weeks later, on a lark, went with my Ride and Tie Partner Jim Larimer and his wife when they travelled to the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco to do the Castle Rock 50 mile equestrian ride, to see if I could run that 50 on foot. And I did, finishing in about 9 hours in the middle of the pack, because the horses had to stop twice for 45-minute veterinarian inspections. That got Wendell and Drucilla, the “rulers” of the Tevis Cup, thinking about me running the Tevis on foot. And when my new horse went lame later that year (1973) Drucilla made the invitation for me to run the Ride in 1974.

At the time, I said, “Well, maybe.” But as next year’s ride approached, being a procrastinator, I still had the same lame horse, and I had to either sit on the sidelines and watch, or I had to run. And I’ve never been a very good spectator.

Do you ever wonder how different your life might have been if you had been sold a healthy horse? How that one thing could have made your life, my life and so many thousands of others so different?

That’s funny! The guy who sold me that lame horse was a fellow I thought of as my best friend at the time. He was selling the horse because it had gone lame the previous summer at a 50 mile ride north of Sacramento, and he had been told by a veterinarian that it was a permanent problem. AND, he sold it to me with these words: “One thing you’ll never have to worry about is this horse going lame. She’s never even offered to take a lame step.”

If I had been a better judge of character, and he had not been so morally bankrupt, all of this wonderful flowering of our sport would certainly not have happened then, and maybe never. At the time when I ran the Western State Trail in 1974, ultrarunning had been around for 100 years on roads and tracks, and had never deviated out onto trails. We owe a lot to that jerk.

In 1974 and in 2013. Photo c/o Gritfire

In 1974 and in 2013. Photo c/o Gritfire

Do you think if you hadn’t run that day, society would have found a way for 100 mile trail races to happen with people needing to find a way to push themselves? Do you ever dwell on what you started?

I’d say it’s a sure thing that 100-mile races would be around and be popular in a limited way, but they might still be only on roads and tracks. Probably, by now, some people would have gotten the idea that trails are wonderful to run. But really, who knows?

Have you always pushed boundaries? For example, much of your skin cancer research on UV exposure goes against the grain, but yet your theories from decades ago are now being respected a lot more than when they were first published.

The way I look at life, if I’m doing what everyone else is doing, there’s no point in my even being here. I believe that we are all put on this earth to accomplish certain things that only we can do, and if we don’t do them, they won’t get done.

My work in sun exposure science is quite a different experience from trail ultrarunning, which has bloomed beyond my wildest expectations. But the health and healing power of the sun goes against a lot of very profitable misinformation pseudo-science that makes a fortune for sunscreen manufacturers and cancer treatment centers. There is good science going back to 1936 showing that the more regular, routine, non-burning sun exposure a person gets, the less likely they are to die of cancer, because sun exposure causes generally-nonfatal skin cancer while inhibiting frequently-fatal internal cancer. And most of the sunscreens on the market actually promote deadly melanoma skin cancer because they screen out the burning light but let through the melanoma light.

The FDA could stop this travesty overnight by requiring sunscreens to post on the label an SPF rating for both types of light, but they refuse to do that because there’s so much money being made manufacturing bad sunscreens and treating melanoma. It’s despicable. Sometimes I feel like Don Quixote surrounded by too many windmills, and I know other scientists who feel the same. It’s an unequal match between truth and big money.

Have you always seen yourself as a pioneer? Or just someone who doesn’t like being told something can’t be done?

It’s my nature to wonder. I remember lying on my back on our lawn when I was very young, looking up at the sky, and wondering why I couldn’t focus on the sky, and wondering how far away the sky was. So I asked my mother how far away the sky was. She didn’t have an easy answer for that one.

And when Pete Hanson, one of the great long-distance running authorities of that time, told me he thought that running 100 miles on the Western States Trail was impossible, I must say that made it more attractive.  And when I started reading the science on the cancer-preventing effects of sun exposure, and realized that no one had ever authored a literature review in a medical journal on that subject, and that the science couldn’t move forward until that was done, I decided I had better do that.

Cresting Escarpment- the first climb of Western States in 2014. Photo c/o Luis Escobar

Cresting Escarpment- the first climb of Western States in 2014. Photo c/o Luis Escobar

When you first ran the course in 1974, how close were you at times to giving up and agreeing that the naysayers were right? What spurred you on to finish? Stubbornness or something else?

It was around Dusty Corners, 40 miles, when I realized that it was impossible for me to finish that run. The temperature was 107. I couldn’t even focus on the surface of the dirt road I was running. I realized that there was no chance that I could even make it to Michigan Bluff, 55 miles, across those two deep canyons. But the thought of quitting was horrifying, so I decided to keep taking one more step until I could no longer take one more step.

I didn’t want to disappoint all the people who believed in me, especially Wendell and Drucilla. Then, at the bottom of the first canyon, 46 miles, I helped drag a horse into shallow water that had collapsed in the river. The horse looked like he was dying. That scared me, and I decided to quit at the top of the ridge at Devil’s Thumb, 48 miles. But my adopted sister Diane was there because her horse had gone lame, and she told me not to quit just yet, took me over under a tree, fed me salt tablets and water, massaged my legs, reassured me, and sent me down the trail into the next canyon feeling pretty good. That was my introduction to the miraculous power of salt in a salt-depleted body, and the last time I thought of quitting that day. It was an incredible lesson in how much salt, water and love make a difference to a dazed, exhausted runner who has been staggering through the wilderness.

Did you have had any idea at the time what you were starting?

No!

How proud of you are your legacy or is it just something of many within a remarkable life?

I am very happy and proud to have created so much joy, purpose and meaning in the lives of so many people. It’s quite an honor that has been bestowed on me by “The Folks Upstairs”.

Are you happy with how Western States has grown or would you change anything if you could?

I wish everybody could run the Western States as often as they want to, but that can’t be because it would destroy the course, the event and the experience.

You are the only person who gets a guaranteed place every year. What does lining up in Squaw Valley each year mean to you?

Actually, I think all previous winners of the race get a guaranteed place at the starting line, provided that they do a qualifying run. I don’t know of them having changed that rule. Cowman would also get a place at the starting line, but he’s let his weight get up to 250 pounds, and that doesn’t go over hills and canyons very well, so he can’t finish qualifying runs anymore.

I’m still coming to the starting line because I can still run 100 miles in under 30 hours, although I have to choose 100s that are easier than Western States. Showing up on the starting line is a good thing, and hope springs anew that maybe this year, in spite of the frustrations of aging, I may be able to pull it off.

Heading towards Granite Chief Wilderness. Photo c/o

Heading towards Granite Chief Wilderness. Photo c/o Tanner Johnson

How has trail running dominated your life and how do you stay grounded with all the attention that you get?

I need trail running as much as trail running once needed me. I need the warmth and affection that we all feel for each other, the hard miles, the dust, and the fabulous days when it seems we could run forever. My cartilages are wearing thin, I’m getting old and haggard, I’ve got arthritis beginning in my right hip, and the doctors think I’m nuts to keep running the long runs.

But, like that day in 1974, I’ll keep taking one more step until I can no longer take one more step. Then I’ll take up jumping off of cliffs in flying-squirrel suits.

What advice would you give someone training for Western States if they don’t know the area?

Come out and run with us on Memorial Day Weekend as often as you can. Make friends with someone who knows the trail, and come out and run with them.

Find trails and races near your home that have the same amount of climb and descent as Western States, and do a 40-60 mile run on those trails every 2-3 weeks. Don’t run on consecutive days; it’s too hard on the joints, and unnecessary; just run the uphills harder.

I have crewed at Western States in 2012 and 2014 and there is a real family atmosphere at the race. Do you look forward to that last weekend in June or is it just another weekend amongst all the other races that you do?

Actually, it’s gotten to where the other races are more enjoyable because everyone is more relaxed. The stakes are now so high at Western States because it may be many years before you get in again. As I wrote in the first ad I put into Runner’s World magazine, it is “THE ULTIMATE CHALLENGE”. The spirit of those early years, when anyone who qualified could get in, lives on at races like Born to Run, Way Too Cool, Mokelumne River, Javelina, Firetrails.

It’s a wonderful world that all of you have created for me, and for everyone else who aspires to run far, by deciding that I had a good idea and following my lead. It’s like I was the pilot light, but all the rest of you created the fire, the demanding and loving world of trail ultrarunning, where we can grow into who we were really meant to be.

You are a true example of longevity within this sport. What do you put your continued ability down to?

I give my body time to heal by only running 2-3 times a week on non-consecutive days. I keep my runs in the ¾-hour to 2-hour range, except for a long run every 2 or 3 weeks. I eat whole foods, avoid white flour and sugar and cheap fats, eat a lot of 100% whole-grain sprouted bread and a lot of fruit, take a high-power multiple and extra calcium-magnesium, take high doses of vitamin D or go to a tanning salon when I can’t get sun, grow a vegetable garden every year, got raised by a grandmother who opened the first health food store in Nevada City, and married a devoted woman who thinks like I do about food and exercise when my mother got too old to properly take care of me. (God help me if Paula ever reads that!)

And I have another sport that I like a lot and do with some regularity: rock climbing.   And I bicycle when I’m recovering from injuries, and sometimes just for fun, although flat tires and chain shifters that don’t always work right are so much less fun than a pair of shorts and a pair of running shoes. I also trade for regular chiropractic care and less-regular massage (because I can’t find massage therapists who need as much chiropractic as I need massage) (Applicants welcome).

Gordy at the finish line plaque at Placer High School in Auburn. Photo c/o Auburn Journal

Gordy at the finish line plaque at Placer High School in Auburn. Photo c/o Auburn Journal

Are there any international races on your bucket list you would like to do? For example, I think you would have an excellent run at something like the UTMB with a longer (48 hour) cut off than the 30 hour Western States.

Well, the USA has more wonders for me to explore and run through than I will ever get around to; although I would like to run in Australia and New Zealand. I don’t like being cold, so UTMB is not high on my list because it isn’t run in very warm weather. Spain, Portugal, Italy are more my style, but I’d be interested in Northern Europe and Scandinavia and the British Isles in July and August.

How is training going for this year’s Western States- do you train specifically or just stay in shape, using the trails around the course?

My training started out real well, with Cool and Lake Sonoma, but got disrupted by a baby squirrel I had to care for instead of going to the races I needed, a night before a strategic race when I couldn’t go because I couldn’t find my keys, and a trip and fall that created some injury time-out with a broken rib and blood inside my chest cavity that irritated my lung lining for weeks.

Hopefully, there’s still time to get back on track. I’ll know more after the Western States Training Camp.

Is there anything you haven’t achieved yet that you retain as a goal, whether in running or life?

Oh My God, yes! I’m working on tree-planting projects to create the environment of my dreams for all of us. I’m working on making local politics serve the people better. I’m working on better treatments for cancer and Parkinson’s disease (see my web site at gordonainsleigh.com), expanding my garden so I can grow more wine grapes on the deer fence, a bunch of climbing goals in Yosemite (Middle Cathedral Rock, Higher Cathedral Spire, Snake Dike on Half Dome, East Buttress of El Capitan).

And there are still some very hot athletic women with whom I have to flirt before I get too old (if I’m not already). There’s so much to do, and I’m running out of time, so I have to speed up, try to change the world again, and drink better and better wine and beer. And I want to do away with all religions that aren’t tolerant of other religious beliefs. It’s enough for 3 or 4 more lifetimes. What a wonderful life!

You are quite an outspoken individual and speak your mind. Has politics ever appealed?

I AM a politician! I’m an elected “honorable”, as one oddball referred to me; on the board of the Auburn Area Recreation and Park District, working hard to create the closest thing to paradise that’s possible, both in terms of health through exercise and an emotionally nurturing environment.

One of our parks is Overlook Park, the start and finish of many of the local trail races. Most of the trees in that park are ones I planted, and I’m still planting more.

I know a few Race Directors here in England who would love to have to run one of their 100 milers. What would it take to make that happen?!

I pretty much go to any race that wants to give me a free entry, pay for my transportation, provide meals, and give me a warm place to throw my sleeping bag–as long as it’s not too cold, and as long as it doesn’t interfere with something else I’m trying to accomplish.

What is your favourite and least favourite thing about running 100 milers?

I guess I’m getting old. Staying up all night just isn’t fun like it used to be. I’m gravitating more toward 100K, 50M and 50K because I get to go to sleep by at least midnight.

I really liked racing the daylight to Auburn in the old days, but I can’t do that anymore. My most favorite thing about running 100 milers is finishing them.

How did you cope when you first ran back in 1974 with hydration and the night leg? Ultra equipment has come on a million percent since then, so I presume it was just stashed water bottles, some food and a hand held torch?

You got that right! I did have one advantage back then: all the creeks were good to drink out of because no one had told us otherwise. Nothing has changed, really: the deer and beavers still carry giardia and still poop in the water, but now we know that we’ll die, or nearly so, if we drink the water along the trail. I just think it’s stupid.

Jedidiah Smith and all his explorer and fur-trapping colleagues—Lewis & Clark and all those Indians—never seemed to have a problem, so I just drink the water instead of carrying it; always have and always will. Strapping a headlamp around my waist was a great leap forward, as were bottles with handles. And gels with amino acids are quite the fuel.

Can you remember your recovery from that first run? Was there a lot of instant attention or did it slowly grow after Cowman-a-moo-ha finished the race too, two years on?

In the early days, Cowman never fell short. He was a spectacular athlete, and had the mind to do it. The guy who fell short the year after my successful run was a very  talented athlete who was on time for a 24-hour finish, but dumped his trail-experienced pacer 7-miles from the finish and then quit at No Hands Bridge, 2.7 miles from the finish, because his father, who was his crew, said, “You’ve had enough of this. Get in the truck. We’re going home.”

The lesson I got from that is we shouldn’t refuse help when offered, and we should never listen to anyone who doesn’t support our success. Also, that guy never returned to redeem himself, and his life thereafter went to hell in a handbasket. Cowman, on the other hand, had me to keep him on course through the hours of darkness the following year, 1976, and had his usual “Of course I can do this!” attitude.

However, he does like to gab, and I was stationed at last chance that year to stop any horses that might die in the first canyon. (I instituted that checkpoint with Wendell’s blessing after seeing that horse dying in 1974, and no horses have died in that canyon ever since. Of course, horses still do stupid things like jumping off of cliff-side trails, just as often killing the rider as themselves.)

Anyway, Cowman got to Last Chance in 1976 and sat down with his buddy Gordy for a half hour and, wouldn’t you know it, was a half hour over 24 hours getting into Auburn. But his finish and the other guy’s near miss made it clear that I was not superhuman, and this was something that many people could do, so Wendell authorized a real running event for 1977, complete with my “THE ULTIMATE CHALLENGE” ad in Runner’s World. We got, I think, 14 runners in ’77 and 3 finishes, 60 runners in ’78 with 30 finishes, and by the mid-1980s we were up to about 500, when the Forest Service stepped in and limited the Western States to 375 or so runners per year.

You inspire a lot of people, myself included, to want to run Western States. How does that make you feel?

I’m just glad so many of you thought my kind of running was a good idea, because now I can go almost anywhere that has a European-origin population and run a gorgeous trail in a dramatic landscape with wonderful people who are happy to spend time with me and with each other.

I frequently hear of people, and from people, whose lives have been made so much better by doing trail ultrarunning. One of the friends I met at the Vermont 100 told me he wouldn’t have chosen to still be here on this planet if it hadn’t been for my odd invention, and I think that sentiment might apply to me too. I too was saved by trail ultrarunning.

Regularly, when I was a young boy, my mother would say to my brother and me, “Leave the world a better place than you found it.” I know I have done that, and I know my mother is quite pleased with me, wherever her spirit abides. Having so many of you tell me of the value of my gift makes me feel very worthwhile. I thank you all for making such a wonderful experience for so many of us from my original “pilot light”, and I especially thank my friends who joined in with me to shepherd this small, odd, faltering light into a bonfire in those early days: Wendell Robie, Drucilla Barner, Ron Kelly, “Cowman” Ken Shirk, Andy Gonzales, Curt Sproul, Shannon Weil, Phil Gardener, Jim Larimer, Mo Livermore, and my sister Diane Marquard who picked me up and set me back on my feet when I was going to quit.

Photo c/o Maggie Guterl

Photo c/o Maggie Guterl

Any parting thoughts?

Well…Ten or fifteen years ago, I was driving south along the coast highway, approaching the University of California at Santa Barbara, where I had spent my 3rd and 4th years of college. I was thinking  about the fantastic trail system that weaves through the mountains that line the coastal plain, and mentally kicking myself in the behind for not taking up trail ultrarunning back then, in 1969-71, thinking about how much happier I would have been if I was a trail ultrarunner back then… When—suddenly—I realized that I couldn’t have been a trail ultrarunner back then, in 1969-71, because I hadn’t yet invented trail ultrarunning. It was the strangest feeling I got then.

Also, it’s important that we remember that all of us owe a tremendous debt to Wendell Robie, the Auburn lumberman, banker and horseman who saw the initial vision of how much good it would do for modern humans, in our soft coddled age, to go back to the hard old ways of traveling 100 miles: on a horse.

It was Wendell’s original creation in 1955 that made it possible for me, 16 years later, to get absorbed into Wendell’s world and come up with what was really just a variation on Wendell’s theme: taking modern, soft, pampered humanity back to an even earlier time, before the horse, when the Native American Indians went everywhere they needed to go on foot, sometimes very rapidly over a very long distance.

At the beginning of November last year, about halfway through the Javelina Jundred 100 miler, I ran for about 4 miles under a moon so bright that I didn’t need my light. I could feel the spirits of those ancestors of ours as we ran through the desert northeast of Phoenix, Arizona– not our genetic ancestors, but our spiritual ancestors, somewhere out there, accompanying us in our journey, doing it the old way.

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The Aftermath

I have been doing a lot of soul searching these last 10 days, since finishing the Thames Path 100. The conclusion I have come to- I simply love running ultras and I need to ensure it stays that way and I am excited, not just doing something for the sake of it.

Everyone who reads this knows that Western States is my dream race, but it is by no means the be all and end all of my running. I think everyone needs a goal if you are to run ultras, be that managing unhealthy lifestyle choices, losing weight, creating friendships or improving ones times. My goal is and always has been to toe the line in Squaw valley, but it is also all of the above.

Quite simply, running a very long way is the healthiest way to fuck myself up that I know. It is my outlet, my way of getting drunk and my way of switching off from real life every now and again. When I look at myself in the mirror now, there is no way I am giving up on something that makes me who I am. Yet, I need to evolve my running.

I have come a long way since I first stumbled over the line at the NDW50 in 2012. I can take that for granted at times. Getting these races done can be something I take for granted, but they really shouldn’t be. Confidence and knowing I am prepared is one thing, taking them for granted is another.

But at the same time, I need to find something now where there is a good chance of failure to make the finish all the more sweet or the come back have a focus if I fail to finish. I believe in fate and it is no coincidence that I feel like this after reading James Adams Running & Stuff where he felt empty after certain finishes and fulfilled after the ones that broke him. My Western States is James’ Spartathlon.

Chatting to Chris Mills yesterday after he sadly dropped at Transvulcania, I honestly said to him that I felt a drop at a race of that level of difficulty was more important than a finish at my Thames Path. I need to find my Transvulcania and put myself out there, stood on a start line, legs shaking with fear.

So with this in mind, I already have my A race lined up for 2016, even before the 2015 season truly gets underway. If I don’t get into Western States in December again, I will be heading to Oregon in September 2016 to run Hal Koerner’s Pine to Palm Race.

In many respects, this is similar to Western States, and possibly more difficult. It is a 100 mile point to point race through the Oregon mountains and forests and looks about as beautiful as trail running gets. Most importantly, a finish is in no way guaranteed, but an epic experience is, in one of the most beautiful parts of the USA.

Already I am excited. I will also do the South Downs Way 100 as my Western States qualifier, as this is the most beautiful of the Centurion 100 milers.

For now, I am dropping the 12 Labours of Hercules in July as I am just not excited about it. Why do a race if you aren’t up for it? Instead, I will run my favourite marathon, the Bath Trail Marathon where I came 20th in 2013 and I will give this my absolute all. I love the course and I love the thought of pushing myself hard for 4 hours on a hilly course, as opposed to 23 hours on a flat course.

Then, in September I can’t wait to return to the 100 mile distance, but at probably the hardest one I have done so far, the Cotswold Way 100 miler.

In-between, I am just excited to run again and run on hills. There has been too much flat recently and as Buff say, Flat is Boring. Bring on the hills. Bring on being free and bring on running for love, not because I must.

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Thames Path 100- 2015 Race Report

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I almost titled this one; ‘From Sofa To Ultra To Sofa’, because on Sunday morning I really couldn’t work out why I was doing this anymore.

Last night, I had a good chat on the phone with my Mum and I can tell how much she worries about me doing these types of races, even if on the surface she is supportive. I believe her exact words last night were “fucking ridiculous, Timmy…”. She has a point!

And I have been giving this a lot of thought since we spoke. Ultramarathons are silly. They do push you to your limits and the thing she worries about most are the long term health implications. I will go into detail shortly about what happened during the race, but a few things happened during the race which I know are familiar to a lot of ultrarunners, but were new to me. However, I also have to weigh up the benefits of what ultras have done for me.

I race quite little compared with a lot of people I know and genuinely mainly run for fun- it’s not even training. Yes, the races may hurt but I do not believe I am doing long term damage. What was a lot more damaging for sure, was how I used to live before I found ultras.

That said, I want to find a balance that is right for me. I can pretty categorically say that I will never enter a race longer than 100 miles. The GUCR and Spartathlon have never been high on my list and have just been relegated a long way down! For me, I want to get back to a position of finding a challenge without this being based around distance or speed. The challenge is still Western States and this takes me back to why I was lining up at 10am on Saturday morning in Richmond, on the bank of the River Thames.

For the last two years I have qualified for Western States using the North Downs Way 50 in 2013 (when 50 mile qualifiers were still allowed) and the North Downs Way 100 in 2014, when the qualification criteria was toughened. This year I wanted to do a different qualifier to get my tickets up to 4 in the lottery and I opted for the Thames Path 100.

On paper, this is a fairly flat and fast 100 miler, but in reality the drop out rates for the last few years show how difficult this one is, with a finish average of just over 60% for the last 4 years. This is much lower than most Centurion races in the UK.

I woke up early on Saturday morning and had breakfast at the in-laws in London. Logistically, this was a great race as I could stay in West London with them and get the tube to the start at a decent hour in the morning, as opposed to a hotel like usual. And I was looked after both before and after the race like royalty.

Having a little stretch with the monkeys at the start.

Having a little stretch with the monkeys at the start.

I went alone to register and Solange, Monty and Luena joined me afterwards to see me off at the start. One of Solange’s friends, Flo, also joined us and I knew they would all have a great day heading off for hot chocolate and to see the deer in Richmond Park after I headed off. A quick kiss to the kids, James Elson runs through his final briefing (“…if you’re running through Reading wearing fluorescent clothing after dark, you will get shouted at, just so you know…”) and we were off.

The thing about this race is, much of it looks very similar and many parts of the race have merged in my mind. I have decided not to go into detail about the sections between aid stations as, in all honesty, much of it blended into one and I simply don’t remember many parts of the race.

The first 11 miles went totally to plan and I arrived at the first aid station ten minutes ahead of schedule. However, my feet were hurting more than I expected at this stage and this didn’t bode well. Whilst a different pair, these were the same type of shoes- the Hoka Rapa Nui- that I used for 75 miles of the Brazos Bend 100 back in December and they felt amazing there. Here, even though I had trained for most of my long runs in these shoes, they hurt an extreme amount on the lower outsides of my feet. I have no idea why this was the case, but on the flip side whilst it hurt it also gave me something to focus on to take away the monotony of the similarity of the route. I tried changing my stride and found the more I ran on my toes, the better the pain got which made it a little more sustainable. Before I knew it I was at mile 22 and greeted by a smiling Gary Dalton who remarked that I looked “happy”. Maybe I missed my calling as an actor.

Somewhere near Kingston- early days. Photo: c/o Nigel Rothwell

Somewhere near Kingston- early days. Photo: c/o Nigel Rothwell

From here, the no-mans-land grind began and I just focussed on getting to halfway in as decent shape as possible. Without going into great detail, I always take an Imodium before I start an ultra and this has always worked well for me. However, this race was pretty humid during the day compared with what I had expected so I was drinking a lot, as well as eating well at aid stations, and I quickly felt myself getting bloated. Between miles 40 and 51 I was starting to feel a little nauseous, which is not something I have experienced before. I have only been sick in an ultra once and with hindsight this was more something getting stuck in my throat and regurgitation as much as anything and was in my first ultra. So I was a little concerned that I may be sick here.

Actually, I was petrified. I was in pain from my feet anyway and I was worried that if I was sick once, I would be sick all night and losing the precious calories I had taken on board and with an inability to take on more, I would drop. And dropping meant having to return to the NDW100 in August to get my WS qualifier. That wasn’t going to happen. No way.

At mile 51 I had access to my first drop bag and changed clothes getting ready for dusk. I managed to get some pasta down which was kindly brought to me by Peter Lemon and had a quick chat with him and James Adams. Having read my blog before the race, James asked if I was on A, B or C plan at this stage. I said I didn’t see much chance of a negative split so was on B plan for now- a sub 24 hour finish. I had hit halfway in 10 hours, so had 14 to get the second half done. This was still potentially do-able, if my body would play ball.

A few miles before here I had buddied up with a runner called Paul. I presume from the results he is Paul Gunner, but I didn’t grab his surname on the day. Paul was running his first 100 miler and was keen to buddy up for the night leg. I told him that was cool with me but also warned him I can get pretty grumpy and might not say a lot, but we actually worked really well together overnight. We only had one small navigation error and probably only added an extra mile at worst, but overall just ground it out well. I was due to be kindly paced by Paul Ali from 3am but I told him I was way off my 20 hour goal and it was likely to be a death march so a pacer was unnecessary, although a very kind offer.

The thing about this race was, none of it was unfamiliar. I knew what was coming even though I didn’t know the route. I knew the pain, the sleep demons, the yawning, the desperation for caffeine without tempering the heart rate. It was unemotionally familiar. But then, as I left Reading, having spoken to Paul Ali and been booted out the door by Jacqui Byrne, I downed a gel and it happened.

The saliva built up in my mouth and as I spat, I knew what was coming. Heave. Here we go. I was bent double by the side of the trail and Paul stopped to make sure I was OK. I think Ilsuk Han was also with us. My system emptied, I stood back up straight and felt absolutely awesome. I had heard about this and read about this. A system re-set and you are off again. The next hour was probably my best hour of running during the whole race. I just took on water and settled my stomach and felt like I was floating on air. Yet at the same time, with 40 miles to go, I knew this wasn’t sustainable so had to formulate a plan. My misery seemed to make Bryan Webster happy though as he jogged by chuckling to his evil self.

Gels were now out and real food was not appealing. I knew I could probably handle soup so this was what I chose from here on in when available. I also opted to get on Robbie Britton’s sugar train 20 miles sooner than expected and the only thing that appealed were Jelly Babies.

Because I was in no way taking on the calories I needed, I opted to also go for a 50/50 mix of coca-cola and water in my bottles for the remainder of the run. This was pretty sickly, but meant I could handle the calories and I needed to just keep the tank fuelled up enough to finish.

As the sun rose, I could feel Paul was stronger than me. I insisted that he go ahead now it was light, not only so he got the time he deserved, but also so I could run my own race now. Not only was I not in the mood to talk by this point, I was even angry at my own i-pod and hated every song. It was now a case of getting the last 20 miles done at my own pace and if I finished in a C Plan time, so be it. But I knew I had a better chance if I was alone to do my own thing. I knew what I had to do. The night had thrown up some obstacles, but this was now familiar again.

Since being sick at mile 59 I was pretty cautious with how I managed the night and somehow hadn’t been sick since. I just needed to sustain myself now and get to Oxford sensibly (sensible is a relative term in this world I have come to realise).

Sure enough, the old adage of ‘it never always gets worse’ kicked in. Between mile 85 and 91 I stopped feeling like dog mince and started feeling like a dogs dinner. I ran this 10k in just over an hour and started to feel warm again for the first time in ages. I knew I was back on for a sub-24 hour time, even if most of this race had been disastrous. There was no way I was giving that buckle up now, with 9 miles to go and 2 hours and 45 minutes to get home in. I smashed out the next 4 miles in 45 minutes (11 minute mileing after 95 miles and no food and no sleep- amazing) and was greeted at the final aid station by Ian Walker- a good friend. I had two hours to cover the last 4.9 miles, but Ian was not happy with my complacency. He calmly told me to run and walk but keep moving. But I secretly knew I had it in the bag now.

A couple of miles on I saw Justin Bateman walking back towards me. I couldn’t quite work out what was happening- he was going the wrong way. He explained he had damaged his knee and just couldn’t finish. He was 3 miles from the finish line. I told him he could and to walk with me, but he was adamant it was serious and I wasn’t one to argue with him so tragically watched him hobble back towards the aid station to drop out. I reminded myself that no one has it in the bag until they cross the finish line.

10 minutes later Chris Mills popped into view and it was great to see him. I was walking now with a pacer called Matt and I forget the name of his runner and Chris joined us to stroll in. None of us were running now, we were done and knew we could stroll in for sub 24. Whether it was the site of Chris’s calves or whether it was relief that I had done it and could stop doing maths, about a mile from the finish I found myself bent double again and wretching my guts out. I’m not quite sure what the Sunday morning dog walkers thought of that but I think seeing the state of us all coming in made them realise this wasn’t a 5k fun run.

I knew that Solange and Monty were coming up on the first train from Paddington to meet me at the finish and that this arrived at 9am. If they were on time and got a cab straight away, I would be able to finish crossing the line with Monty, but sadly the train was delayed and I needed to get this done. Unemotional, once again, I crossed the line got my photos, got my hugs, got my buckle and wandered inside to try and work out where on earth I was.

The drowned rat finishes. Photo: c/o Jon Fielden

The drowned rat finishes. Photo: c/o Jon Fielden

23 hours and 19 minutes. It could have been so much better. It also could have been so much worse. What a journey I have been on these last three years.

Actually, it is less than 3 years. My first ultra was in August 2012 and since then I have run 3 100 milers in the last 9 months (2 sub-24 and one internationally), the North Downs Way 50 three times, the South Downs Way 50, The Brecon Beacons Ultra, The Dorset CTS Ultra, The Green Man Ultra and numerous marathons including a PB in Venice in August. That is quite a haul and I need to take pride in that. And this is why I do this. I am proud of the man I am becoming and after each race where I break myself down mentally, I grow back stronger.

The thing is, sadly Saturday and Sunday evolved into a box ticking exercise, where I was finishing to simply apply for another race. I didn’t enjoy it or take pride from the challenge and that is a real shame. I am not done with ultras by any means, but I am also not going to run for the sake of running and need to get back to the passion and enjoyment.

Maybe this is just a post race downer, I don’t know, but as daft as it sounds, 100 miles isn’t the challenge it once was. Going longer isn’t going to happen, but finding peace and beauty is. I am not in this for the brutality of it, but the places it allows me to see and feel. I am going to now take a few weeks to take stock and work out what the next challenge will be, but one thing is for sure, I am not done until you see me in Squaw.

A happy Monty, a confused Tim. Looking like I fought Mayweather on Saturday night.

A happy Monty, a confused Tim. Looking like I fought Mayweather on Saturday night.

A few thank you’s- to all of the volunteers that make Centurion races so special. Each and every one of you who stayed up all night and got us idiots in and out safely. To Stuart March- who I always fail to mention, but is a great friend and even better photographer, to Nici and James for making these events sustainable and safe, Clare, Natasha, Jon, Nikki, Simon and Liz at the finish. Stu and Roz and everyone who helped me as I struggled at the end. Chris Mills, fast becoming one of my best mates (unless you drop at Transvulcania next weekend- then you’re dead to me) and finally Solange and Teresa for looking after me on Sunday and Monday with sympathy even though I had only done this to myself!

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Thames Path 100. Two Weeks To Go

Two weeks on Saturday, at 10am I start my fourth 100 mile race, the Thames Path 100, with a view to getting my third finish at the distance.

This follows the Thames, as the name suggests, as it meanders between Richmond in South-West London to Oxford.

For months I was not excited about this race. I entered simply to ensure I keep my Western States lottery momentum going and simply need to finish under the cut-off of 28 hours to achieve that. However, as the race has got closer and I study the map I am now firmly excited. The route is hugely historic, starting in our capital and finishing in one of our most beautiful cities. The route passes some major landmarks and the early indications are the fine weather we are experiencing right now might just hang around for a while, meaning less mud or diversions that have dogged this race in the past.

Finishing a 100 miler is never a given by any means and the drop out rate in this race is staggeringly high, considering its low elevation profile, but after a great run at Brazos Bend in December on a similar profile course I feel I should at the very least finish.

Brazos was hot and humid, but to counter that I had no mandatory kit so a similar time would be respectable. That said, I have never felt fitter than I do right now so as my splits show below, I am aiming for a finish of 20 hours as my A plan.

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The B plan is sub 24 and the C plan is simply finish and get 4 Western States lottery tickets for December. Finishing will also allow me to re-enter the UTMB lottery in December, where I will have double the chance of this year (as you can see, lotteries haven’t gone my way so far in running…or life, come to that. Still working).

I have also changed my training style quite a bit since Christmas. Namely, I have completely ditched technology and gone back to running for the fun of it, not that I used technology much before to be honest. My philosophy, and whilst I want to improve- don’t get me wrong, is that this is my hobby, so why make it feel like work. I love running and I loathe technology, so I have gone back to basics.

Most people these days follow some kind of plan or have a coach, from the elites through to the mid-pack. They use Strava to compete in training or just map their workouts and use GPS watches. The only thing I occasionally use is a heart rate monitor, but even that is less frequently than before as I know my body better now.

And that is precisely it, whilst I may not be “training” in a conventional way, through getting back to basics I have got to know my body. I know when to push and when to back off as I feel a niggle or my breathing is too hard. I don’t like to let technology dictate the speed I should be running.

Yes, this might mean I am losing time compared with my friends. I ran with Chris Mills recently and he left me for dust with his coaches training plan and Suunto Ambit, which was great to see, so what works for one person may not work for another.

But the thing I have found the most these last few months is I simply love running again and I look forward to every run. I still have days where I lose my passion, but overall I have never found this more enjoyable and so whether I finish in 19:30 or 27:59 in just over two weeks, my one aim is to enjoy a 100 miler.

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