The Thames Path 100 2018- Race Report

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Running 100 miles is hard. Really hard. Like a trauma where the brain suppresses horrific memories, the body heals quickly and the mind lets go. It’s why I keep signing up to this distance and I only remember the agony and mental despair about 60 miles in.

Most ultras vary from somewhat hilly to outright mountainous. It was never designed to be an easy sport, but races do vary in difficulty. On paper the Thames Path 100 sounds like it should be at the easier end of the spectrum. A flat course, relatively urban (i.e. easy access for crews and things like ice cream vans), spring weather and a mixture of tarmac and fields. Flippantly someone said it was the ‘London Marathon’ of 100 milers- i.e. people enter thinking it will be pretty straightforward to get from London to Oxford in less than 28 hours. How hard can it be…?

I first ran this race back in 2015 when I was arguably at the best fitness of my life. I had run a PB at The Brazos Bend 100 miler in Texas four months before, coming in for 18th place (no, there weren’t 19 entrants…), and kept up a good training block afterwards. That year it was warm-ish in the day but poured with rain overnight and I finished in 23:16, having walked most of the last 10 miles.

I remembered it was hard. As mentally draining as anything I had ever done before, but I felt confident this time around that I was pretty fit- maybe not 2015 fit- but in better shape than last year and felt that time was beatable. As I mentioned earlier, my brain had suppressed a lot.

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Stood on the start line with my good friend David Ickringill, we knew we were in for a toasty day. Not outrageously hot, but having endured 7 months of crap UK weather, certainly a shock to the system type of hot. It turned out to be both- as the below graph from fellow runner Lee Scotts watch shows, it peaked at over 90 Fahrenheit. That is Western States territory, almost, and with no heat acclimation for most of the field, the race was set to be a brutal war of attrition.

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All my pacing times went out of the window and I purely ran to feel. This race wasn’t about getting a PB, although it would have been a bonus, it was about getting to Oxford safely and bagging my 32 Western States tickets, as my 7th year of qualifying in a row. So much more pressure each year not to fuck it up!

I won’t bore you with blow by blow details, but the first 30 miles went well and I kept myself cool. Between 3pm and 6pm it felt at its hottest and by then I was keeping drenched however I could. Never has the River Thames appealed for a swim, like it was a beach in Zanzibar. It was truly baking. As an example, many of the houses lining the route are multi-millionaire territory and one with a beautiful garden had a gardener in the front working the sprinklers. A fellow runner and myself gestured to him and he sprayed us down liberally- one of the best feelings during the run.

A big mistake people make in the heat is simply drinking more than normal. Whilst this is obviously important, this doesn’t cool your core and you need to do this externally. The drop out rate for this rate was huge by Centurion standards and I firmly believe that whilst many will have been for injury, a lot will have been to managing body temperature adequately and this is something I have also had to learn the hard way. If you are hot, it’s a problem. If you stop sweating, it’s a problem. Staying cool was the absolute object of the day. As a result my pace fell dramatically, but I was comfortable on the cut offs and happy to plod until the sun went down and then, hopefully, make hay overnight.

Being well down on my time of 2015, one of the hardest parts mentally was running into the dark knowing I had run this section in daylight 3 years ago. The head trys to defeat you at times like this, but I kept reminding myself I was doing great and this wasn’t about beating that time. I naturally drifted back to feeling like a failure, but kept telling myself this wasn’t even the same race as back then. It was the same route, but todays conditions were a million miles away.

As I approached the halfway point at Henley, I pushed to get there before I had to put my torch on. As a result, and with a build up of food, water and tailwind in my stomach, I felt the familiar acids rising. Here we go again. And I duly decorated the river bank in one of the wealthiest towns in the country. Classy.

But I no longer panic when I am sick. It just happens sometimes and can be managed so I walked into Henley feeling fresh and ready to get some new calories in via the pasta and cheese on offer. As I sat down, David had arrived just before me and I momentarily let slip that I was thinking of dropping. He was having none of it and said to just chip away. I knew I wasn’t ready to drop and I am sorry I shared that burden with him- from experience when someone tells you that, it can make you second guess what you yourself are doing so I should have kept it to myself and just got on with it, but he was great and pushed me on my way.

The contrast between day and night temperatures was huge and will also be what caught a number of runners out. I put on a gillet and arm warmers, changed my tshirt and with a stomach filling back up with warm pasta I was on my way and feeling not 100%, but certainly better than when I arrived.

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Henley to Reading (mile 58) was really nice. Slow and steady jogging with the cool evening air around me and took about an hour and a half, which I was very happy with. At Reading I was in and out, having seen Tania from Runderwear. I think I looked worse than I felt and I could tell she was a little concerned but I said I was fine and made my way out.

There is no other way to describe this next section, aside from shit. You just have to get through it. Through Reading there are some real ‘characters’ by the river after midnight so that motivated me to keep running instead of walking and just clear the urban area. After this, fields go on forever and then the trainline from Paddington runs parallel with the path and this is where I had a sickness session in 2015. Well. Sure enough within 200 yards of where that happened, I re-decorated the hedge again. This time, as opposed to Henley, it was a huge clear out but again like 2015, I felt amazing. Doubled up by the side of the trail, runners checked I was OK but I explained its normal for me and would be on my way shortly. Normal may not be ideal, but its still normal.

From here you run through a housing estate which has a pleasant incline and then descent and then boring fields for several miles until you hit a bridge and the next aid station.

I know this section well, having paced at the Autumn 100 which shares this leg, as well as my previous run here, so this aid station marks 4 miles to Goring, which is the 71 mile point and my mental destination from which I knew if I made Goring, I would finish.

Joe Delaney was outside here and we had a handshake. He then demanded he see me again within 3 minutes or he was coming into the checkpoint to throw me out. I needed that at 3am and the height of the cold night!

The next four miles to Goring is probably my favourite bit of this race. It is finally hilly and there is a gorgeous trail section down to the river and I thoroughly enjoyed this, sucking on my 50% water 50% coke mix and jelly babies.

At Goring I was met by the dream team of Paul Ali and Tim Cox. Two guys I have huge respect for in the sport. If anyone knows how to get 100’s done, its these two.

They fixed me up with beans and cheese (just amazing!) and I had a quick chat with Sarah Sawyer, whos husband Tom had sadly called it a day at Goring. I then spotted Tom Garrod, who is a way better runner than me and it made me realise that the sensible runners were holding a lot back today and this gave me confidence that I was racing this well and carefully. I reminded myself that only a finish mattered, not the time.

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I accessed my drop bag here and grabbed a down jacket to put on over my gillet- it really was that cold now- as well as a travel pot of sudocreme which I was badly in need of, this late in the day. Chafing is something that I still haven’t sorted. Even with runderwear and Vaseline etc, it still gets me- especially in hot races. So whilst sudocreme causes a right mess, it was that little pot that got me to the finish line.

I knew that at the next aid station I was to meet my pacer, Dawn and her husband Chris. They would get me to the finish line no matter what. I had already called them earlier in the race to say not to bother coming as I was super slow compared to my original plan and didn’t want to waste their time if it involved a death march to the finish. They insisted anyway and this gave me a real boost.

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As the sun rose, my pace fell. Often people talk about the rejuvenation of a sunrise during a 100 miler, but I find it is a few hours later that I feel better when the warmth breaks through. I staggered along just wanting to get to Dawn as I came through a lovely bunch of people out at 5am bird watching for the dawn chorus (no pun intended). They were incredibly supportive, if a little shocked to see exhausted runners at that time in the middle of nowhere. About as far from the people I had seen in Reading as you can imagine!

As I came into the village and saw Dawn and Chris outside the aid station, I let them know that I needed a 10 minute power nap. For many people, this can be seen as race ending but for me I find a nap is a lifesaver. In 2014 when I crewed Sam Robson at the GUCR, he had a power nap that we as crew felt was race ending, after a disastrous (by his standards) night leg. 15 minutes later he was out of the car and clocking nine minute miles.

I wasn’t quite on that pace, but as soon as I left the car I was running again and it was fantastic to know I wasn’t alone and that Dawn would make me finish. She explained after that having not paced before in a 100 miler, she would use a strategy of pretending I was Chris and nag me into submission. This worked a treat!

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We ran for seven hours together and at times I was stressed about cut offs, but she just set a pace that I could jog/ walk behind her to and this was sufficient. My walking was shockingly slow, so I had to jog to keep up with the pace and this is something I need to improve on. The thing is, I never walk the flat in training. For my mountain races last summer, I trained myself to hike efficiently with poles and became really quite good. But on the flat, I run so I need to improve this if I have any hope at the KACR in July.

By hook or by crook, we were chewing up the miles between 11 minute and 18 minute mile pace (I needed to be ahead of 20 min mile average) and whilst slow by anyone’s standards, 90 miles into a race this pace still hurt.

By the time we reached the last aid station it was another glorious day, for anyone but a runner. For us, it was savage but the team had rigged up a shower here and this was amazing to stand under for two minutes, a quick sit down to gag down some fruit, cheese and coke (all my stomach would manage) and we were off for the last five miles.

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My god that last section was hard. It felt hotter than the day before and I was a mess. Dawn kept me drenched and Chris was amazing with encouragement whenever we saw him (I was rather envious of his deckchair). Finally, Oxford was in sight.

As we approached the finish I thanked Dawn from the bottom of my heart. That finish took every bit of my, and her, will power. I was on the verge of calling it a day when I met them but they got me safely delivered and it was an honour to run across the finish line, hand in hand, as Chris filmed and congratulated. Thank you both so much- pacing and crewing is so stressful, especially when it drags on and cut offs come into play, but you were both amazing.

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I am also delighted to say that David finished an hour in front of me and Goska, from Rockstar, a few minutes after me. Nearly half the field dropped and these are already good ultrarunners to have qualified to be on the start line. That was truly brutal, but I am so glad I persevered.

As always, a huge thanks to the volunteers for all their hard work. To James Elson and Nici Griffin, Drew and the team. Nikki Mills, Stuart March, Richard Stillion, Lorna and Phil Bradburn and all the regulars I have forgotten to mention, as well as everyone out on the course not in an official capacity but with sun cream, ice lollies, water and kind words. It is a special little world I have found myself in for the last few years.

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Salomon Wings Pro 3- Review

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If you happen to have followed my ultra-running journey over the last few years, you will know that my shoe choice has varied quite considerably.

At the time I started my ultra journey in 2011, it was the height of the barefoot craze. I found myself running in minimal flats and whilst I never went as far as the running sandal or five fingers foot gloves, I did have a pair of the New Balance barefoot shoes. A shoe I loved, until you stepped on a sharp stone and then instantly hated.

I mostly ran in what you would call ‘standard’ shoes, shoes like the Pearl Izumi Trail N2 or Salomon Sense and then gravitated to the Hoka shoe as my distances grew and I felt cushioning may be the answer.

But, like politics, where people flutter to the left then the right, the most sensible place is often right in the middle. And as I build up to my 2018 season, which includes only 100 and 100 mile + races, I wanted a shoe that was reliable, good on and off trail, suited the wet and the dry and was generally supportive but let you assume natural form. A lot to ask for in one shoe, for sure, but I think I have found it.

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Now, Salomon has arguably the best marketing machine of any outdoor brand. You just need to type Salomon into YouTube to know that, but- and this is the clincher, they also make some of the very best products in the market and their development is lead by athletes. This doesn’t mean they only make clothes, shoes and equipment for the best, but designed by the best and usable by everyone.

I should know. I’m not elite but I still have pairs of Salomon shoes in my garage that I haven’t had the heart to throw away, going back as far as 2013. Yes, there were some tearing issues with the early Sense models on the mesh, but these have been drastically improved with feedback over the last few model generations. And I still train in those old models today.

The Wings Pro 3 is the latest ‘general’ trail shoe. It is not the lightest shoe at 295g, but is ruggedly built and designed predominantly for dry trails, but also very adept at mud and wet conditions. It is the shoe I wore for 16 hours at The Arc of Attrition, and took everything that the extremely demanding course could throw at it.

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The fit is not low, which I have found annoying on some shoes in the past, that slip off in wet or muddy conditions, but fits high on the ankle and consequently suffers from no slippage. The toe box is roomy and the quicklace system works as well as all previous generations of these shoes, with a little pocket in the tongue to tuck laces and ensure nothing bounces or flaps around.

At 9mm drop, it is at the larger end of spectrum but in all honesty, I have felt very little difference between this and a 4-5mm drop, so don’t let that put you off. In addition, the grip is superb but also doesn’t feel cumbersome on hard surfaces like some trail shoes can.

Finally, the breathability is superb as you would expect from a Salomon shoe, but also drains quickly in wet conditions.

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My next two races are flat 100 and 145 mile river/canal races, respectively and these shoes offer a very decent amount of cushioning for such a lightweight shoe. I am very confident that they will have the ability to get through these sorts of distances without me needing to change shoes, something I always dislike doing mid-race. Often just a tiny difference in shoe ‘drop’ or feel can play havoc on the legs, so I look for a shoe that is adaptable to a range of conditions but can go the distance.

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At £120, these aren’t cheap, but I have learned from experience that the old adage ‘buy cheap, buy twice’ is painfully true and I really rate these shoes as a highly capable all-rounder, whether you are looking to compete or simply complete.

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The Arc of Attrition 2018

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Coffee break at The Lizard, the most southerly point in the UK

If you know me, you’ll know I am not a fan of winter. Despite working on it year on year, it effectively feels like life almost switches off at the end of November and comes back in April. I really struggle with it. I try and stay positive as much as possible but I am highly conscious that this can be a real strain on those around me.

So, last year I decided one of the best ways to try and deal with winter was to have a real goal to force me out of the door during those dreadful winter months. And what better than a 100 mile footrace in one of the most beautiful parts of the UK?

Not only would this hopefully help with the annual winter weight gain and depression, but the Arc of Attrition finishes just a few miles away from my parents house, so I would have an excellent base and also coincided with half term, so I could stay on a few extra days after the race with the kids who love spending time there.

Whilst my running this winter was a million times better than most winters, I knew this was one hell of a race and my training wasn’t anywhere near as good as it would have been for a summer 100 miler. So I went into this race in the full knowledge that it may not end in a finish, but that also 2017 I ran some very big races on limited fitness and tend to get ultras done on my stubbornness and will-power, so a finish here was not out of the question.

That said, I firmly believe that you have to stand on every start line, absolutely convinced you are capable of finishing what is in front of you. If you don’t, you may as well not even start. I wasn’t injured, the lack of serious training meant I was fresh and I have a lot of ultra and 100 mile finishes behind me, so I stood a strong chance here.

So at Midday on Friday 9th February, around 150 of us set off from Coverack on the Cornish south coast, set to run the incredible Arc of Attrition.

The weather was very kind on day one and it was absolutely beautiful. There was a slight breeze but it wasn’t cold and the bright sunshine turned my Oakley reactions into sunglasses virtually instantly. The usual queues formed as we found our respective positions in the field and quickly it became very clear that it was not the climbs or the weather that would hamper us during this race, it would be the underfoot conditions.

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The buffet car at the back of the train (with Nicola and Lee)

Cornwall has been lashed with storm after storm this winter and my parents can’t remember a winter down there quite so severe as this one. This was reflected in several parts of the course having been subject to landlsides and dangerous erosion, so without a 100 mile race being hard enough, this was now a 104+ mile race, with several inland diversions in the first 25 miles. We were given an extra half an hour on the cut offs to compensate, but really these diversions cost runners of my speed and ability well over an hour. Don’t take that as me complaining- we were lucky to get an extra half an hour- and the Mudcrew team bent over backwards in order to make the race take place by carefully managing the route, but at the same time I think those diversions made it very hard for a number of mid to back of the pack runners to make up any time and significantly contributed to the extremely high DNF rate (it was a tiny 1/3 finish rate!).

No 100 mile race has ever taken me longer than 28.5 hours, so with a 36.5 hour cut off time for this race, I felt I had plenty of time. Yes, its winter and yes its tricky underfoot, but another 8 hours on top of my slowest 100 mile time, that’s plenty, right? Wrong.

It quickly became clear that the 8 hours we had to cover the first 28 miles was not as much as it sounded. However, I felt fit and made steady progress to the Lizard at just over 10 miles where I would see my parents, Solange and the kids. I arrived in 2 hours 45 minutes and felt pretty good. I had a bleeding hand from a fight with a gorse bush as I tried to stay upright on one of the descents, but aside from this I was in great form and smiling as the kids bounded towards me. Dad gave me a pasty and a coffee and I felt like a new man as I had a few cuddles with the kids and made my way back on to the coast path, focused on getting to Porthleven at 28 miles with time in the bank.

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I’m hoping thats the wind blowing my jacket open.

The course was regularly ankle deep in mud and often heavily waterlogged in places. At times it felt like every step forward involved a counter step to stay upright. Amazingly, I was one of the only runners around me who managed not to fall down. The arc was a given, seeing the shape of the run, the attrition was increasingly becoming apparent.

As dusk fell, the lights of Porthleven twinkled ahead of me and I felt I had made good time and would be there around 6:30pm, banking an hour and a half on the cut off. Not knowing the route however, I hadn’t banked on a wide and slow diversion just after a small beach crossing before we hit the town. As I strapped on my head torch and turned on my red flashing light on the back of my pack, we made our way down a dirt road which wound for a mile or two, then headed through some woods and finally some very slippery muddy/cow shit fields before finally being turned back on to the coast path to drop down into the outskirts of Porthleven.

At this point, I need to mention crew. Usually I am a highly self-sufficient runner, even at 100 mile races or long mountain races such as last summers highlight, The Lavaredo Ultra Trail. However, being winter and with long gaps between check points, here I wanted to have a support crew so I could re-fill my bottles and change clothes whenever I required. Being layered up, my base layer would often get soaked with sweat and it was important I didn’t get cold overnight so having a crew was important to me.

My good friend Richard Fish carried my support bag for the first six hours and then handed over to Matt and Loz for the overnight leg, who would then hand over to my father and Solange for the final day. Matt was someone I only met two days before the race and is a friend of my fathers. He offered to help out overnight with his brilliant Aussie mate, Loz and I am already looking forward to returning the favour for them at another race soon. It was incredibly kind of them to stay out all night to help a total stranger and is another reason why I love the endurance sport community, where people rally together to help others achieve a goal.

The outskirts of Porthleven was where I met Matt and Loz, but I was already slightly frazzled on the time after the big diversion so I said I would see them at the aid station where I would change shoes and get back out on the course.

One of the best features of this race were the aid stations and the so called ‘Arc Angels’, who looked after you from arrival to departure. As soon as I got close a very smiley and friendly lady, who’s name escapes me, took me inside and fixed me up with sausages, chips and sweet black coffee. It was one of the best meals of my life, after 28 winter miles on the coast path. I saw the guys and changed my shoes and socks and headed back out after a maximum of five minutes to try and make up some time on the next leg.

As the night enveloped us, one of the most strangely endearing things about this course was the red tail lights that were part of the mandatory kit that we had to fix to the rear of our packs. As I ran along with fresh shoes and socks, on a relatively dry piece of path and the stars filled a cloudless sky, all I could see for miles was intermittent twinkling red lights and it really made me feel part of something special. I don’t know why these lights had such an effect on me, and I guess different people take different things away from races, but there was just something about them. You knew you were on the right track, so they were re-assuring, but they enveloped a sense of comradery in me, that we were all on a journey together and had a shared goal, for a multitude of different reasons.

The next aid station was in Penzance at 42 miles in (including diversion miles). I used my poles for the first time somewhere around here, but then dumped them shortly after. I find they are really useful for mountain races where you are climbing for in excess of two hours, often but here no climb lasted more than 10 minutes or so, and they then became an annoyance on the downhills and flats, particularly when the path was narrow. Later, as we had to climb boulders and stream crossings they would have been even more annoying, as I needed to use my hands to climb and scramble, but that is just a personal preference.

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Quick change of clothes and into Penzance

I found myself toing and froing with a number of groups on this section and I gave those around me names in my own head. I had purple and red jackets, two women who seemed to never cease to run out of chat and were working so well as a team. Salomon man, who looked like he had more Salomon kit than Kilian (or Chris Mills), Map Boy who was always checking his map at junctions and a whole host of others.

I met up with Matt and Loz a couple more times and was soon just before Marazion. Here I made my first navigational error and ran down a slip road on to a beach, but fortunately I wasn’t too far in front of some other runners who called me back and put me back on the right path. A little later the path did drop back down on to this same beach and it was here I bumped into Dawn Gardner, who I knew was ahead of my somewhere since the start.

Dawn was in a bit of a state at this point as she had also made a navigational error on the same beach, but she had been alone and had been going in circles for a while trying to find the correct path out of the beach. Whilst we were fairly tight on the cut offs, I wasn’t overly concerned as we had some time to play with, but unfortunately for Dawn due to the length of her error she had checked out mentally. I tried to encourage her and we ran most of the way to the Penzance checkpoint together, but sadly at this point she decided to call it a day. One of the strongest and most determined runners I know, she will finish this race next year. Its not even in doubt.

I saw Matt and Loz at Marazion, but said I wasn’t stopping and ran towards Penzance as hard as I could. The cut off time here was 00:15 and I think it was close to 11:30, so I needed to get a wriggle on. Once inside the checkpoint, my every need was looked after and I quickly got in and out. It looked like a war zone in there with dropped runners all over the floor and crews trying to keep people motivated. I had a quick chat with Richard Stillion and we both said how we felt like we were moving well, but were just making such agonizingly slow progress. It was very frustrating for the both of us.

Nothing to do but move so I headed out and knew I had another few miles of flat road to make up some time on, before we got to the trickiest section so far, boulders around Lamorna Cove.

Here for the first time, I started to doubt my ability to make it to Lands End (60 miles, with diversions) by 5am. The cut off was 7am but I was told you need at least two hours in the bank here to have a hope of finishing, as the section between Lands End and St Ives made the sections we had run to date seem like childsplay. I started to feel 5am may not be possible and from here on in, it was a battle with my brain.

I told Matt and Loz this and to their credit, they were having none of it. I believe Loz said “well, you’d better get facking moving then”, or something to that effect, and he had a point. I didn’t want them to have had a wasted night so I gave myself a stern talking to and got my head down.

Up and over boulders, stream crossings, huge pebbles on beaches, shin deep mud, twists and turns, branches that come out of nowhere and smack you in the head, gorse, wind, cold, stars…and so it went.

By Lamorna Cove I was in a shit state and knew I was seriously up against it. I headed out and this next section was the one that ended my race. It was tough and slow, but no tougher or slower than Lavaredo and I kept plugging away. Near the end of this bit, a runner came past me looking as fresh as a daisy and I followed him blindly and didn’t pay attention to the route on my watch. Sadly this resulted in a wrong turn and then another wrong turn until we were pretty lost. We lost a lot of time doubling back to find the right path and due to slowing down and walking to find the right way, here I got pretty cold. I knew 5am was now impossible and whilst I stood a chance of 7am, I would be up against it for the rest of the day and the conditions were about to get a whole lot worse.

So, after finally finding the right path, as I hit the cove at the bottom and met Matt and Loz, I called it a day. They did all they could to keep me going, but also realized at this point that time wasn’t on my side, so I am sad to say I bailed after 16 hours and 54 miles run.

Do I regret this decision? In some respects, yes. I wish I had battled on to have been officially timed out and that would have meant I had left it all out there. But in others, it would have been futile to continue and get cold and more run down when I opted to save myself for another day.

The Arc took me apart, but its also given me a lot of positives. I am very pleased with how I handled the 54 miles I did complete and it has given me a good base for the coming season. I have never run so far in winter before (Texas doesn’t count!), so I just need to build from this and next up, conditions permitting, I want to have a damn good go at a sub 20 hour Thames Path. I think I have this in me and I can now enjoy some faster canal miles for the next two months as I build to this.

If you don’t DNF every once in a while, you aren’t challenging yourself. That’s the way I see it, so whilst of course I would have loved to have finished this epic race, its not a failure. The only failure is to not try in the first place.

A huge thanks to my parents, Sol and the kids for everything around this race. To Loz and Matt and Richard Fish for helping me try and get this done and to everyone who sent me good wishes before, during and after the race. And finally to Andrew, Jane and the Mudcrew team- you put on a hell of a good show and I am not surprised at all that this is becoming one of the to-do races on the UK ultra circuit.

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Salomon S-Lab Wings 8- Shoe Review

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In the past I have often rushed a shoe review, but I really wanted to be 100% on these shoes before publishing my thoughts. First off, I wanted to make clear that I will only ever publish a positive review if I genuinely believe in a product. I’ve been trying to find the right shoe for a while now and have worn several this year, that for one reason or another, haven’t performed as I would have expected or desired.

I am also trying to move back away from more cushioned shoes such as my Hoka Speedgoats and Pearl Izumi M2’s, back towards something more lightweight and that helps support and reflect natural form.

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2017 was always intended to be a confident boosting year, with some big plans for 2018. Its been that and more and I have a good feeling for next year. I only intend to run three races in 2018, and all three will be 100 milers. Lottery season will dictate which 100 milers they will be but the only certainty I have in the calendar at present is the Arc of Attrition in February and for this I needed a shoe capable of having everything including the kitchen sink thrown at it. Mud, slick rock, road and very uneven terrain.

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Looking back (and it feels a long time ago now), my PB year in all distances was 2014 and for all of these PB’s, aside from the 100 mile PB, I ran in shoes that supported my natural running style and my go to brand back then was Salomon- namely the 2014 Sense range.

I am no Kilian, so running a Cornish coast path 100 miler in the depths of the UK winter would require more than a minimalist Sense shoe could offer, but what else would work between an overly cushioned shoe that didn’t allow the nimbleness this route requires, and a sense-style slipper?

Well, I think I have found it in the S-Lab Wings 8 shoe.

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First impressions out of the box were that this shoe was on the heavy side. At 275g that is not necessarily the case, but they just felt a bit cumbersome. That aside, they were everything I loved about the sense range, but beefed up a bit. The mesh has been strengthened, which was always the weakest point on the Sense, tearing before any other damage on both my pairs. The inner lining is thicker and means it can genuinely be worn sockless, not just as a marketing ploy. And the contragrip has been seriously strengthened making the lugs less prone to wear but also much grippier on wet rock (note- no shoe will stop slipping completely, but these are the best I have experienced on wet tree roots and rock).

The shoe is designed for testing mountain terrain and warm weather, being highly breathable. But this also equally applies to wet UK winters where I require a shoe that lets out all of the water the UK winter takes in. No shoe I have used drains like this one and on a recent Gran Canaria holiday I regularly got the shoe soaked and my socks were dry again very soon afterwards. The same applies to puddles back home and this will be essential for the Arc of Attrition.

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I have probably put about 300 miles on these shoes so far and a lot of that has been a mixture of trail and pavement without any wearing down of the lugs, so these are definitely stronger than other Salomon shoes I have used before.

The shoe has a 9mm drop, which is at the heftier end of things in the modern world of shoes like Altra, marketing themselves as solely zero drop, but I have started to move away from very low drops and this shoe suits my form perfectly and its nice to see such a variety of shoes emerge to cater to all forms. Even when I started ultras in the relatively recent 2012, there was nowhere near this range of shoes available.

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The quicklace system is simple and strong, meaning the laces once pulled taught can be tucked into a little flat on the tongue and there is no slipping.

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The shoe feels very supportive, without feeling like you are disconnected to the ground, but you also know that stray sharp rocks aren’t going to suddenly come through your foot- it is a very well built shoe.

Finally, it has a feeling of comfort but doesn’t lose any of the fast-feel you get from the Sense range. Running 100 miles in this shoe may be a little far, but for the terrain I will be using it on, this is the best shoe I have found in a while. Furthermore, there is also a soft ground version for those looking for even more lugginess.

You can buy it here: https://www.salomon.com/uk/product/s-lab-wings-8.html

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OCC (56K race of the UTMB Series)

As I stood on the start line of Orsieres, I felt more anxious than I had in a long time before a race. UTMB meant so much to me during some tough times last year that failing to finish it had, I realized over winter last year, impacted me a lot more than I had appreciated at the time. So being back at the, albeit shorter, OCC race and the chance to finish in Chamonix meant a great, great deal to me.

I was at the tail end of a nasty cold which had dilapidated me quite a bit in the ten day lead up to the race and up until the night before, I wasn’t even sure I would be starting. But I kept telling myself it was “only” a 56k race and I had plenty of time to finish it.

What I didn’t remind myself was that the weather was dreadful, I had 3500M+ of climb en route to Chamonix, I was racing between 1200M and 2200M above sea level (where I live) and that this was my third hard ultra in an 8 week period (Lavaredo Ultra Trail at 75 miles and the North Downs Way 100 miler just a few weeks before).

I focused on the positive.

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Courtest of Dawn Gardner (who’s husband Chris smashed the race) as I waited to start.

Despite this being the shortest of the UTMB race series, there was no sense of that at the start. I had already been up since before 4am to get a coach to the start line, but the atmosphere in Orsieres was electric. There were camera crews, helicopters and drones all around us filming the runners as we prepared to set off. Like others have said before- UTMB is something else and the hype is immense. I try and be quite low key and as such it was easy to feel overwhelmed at the magnitude of where I was.

As the gun went off at 8:15am we made our way through the small towns streets and up towards the first climb, high fiving kids as we went and to shouts of “Allez, Allez!”. If I am honest, I almost stopped whilst we were still on the towns tarmac as I didn’t feel great at all, but told myself I would give it an hour and worst case, I could walk back down to the town, knowing I at least tried.

The rain was coming down hard now and being towards the rear of the field-not caring about placing one bit in this race- it was very muddy already with a good 1000 runners ahead of me churning up the ground well. It wasn’t cold, but was very wet so whilst I started in the waterproof I found I was too hot quite quickly and took a moment to take it off and run in just my t-shirt. After I did this I felt a whole world better.

The first check point in this race was 10K in at Champex Lac where we then followed the remainder of the UTMB route into Chamonix. I don’t use a GPS but run to feel and estimated that based on the terrain and conditions, 5K an hour was about right, so I would be on for a roughly 12 hour finish. The cut off was 15 hours, so this allowed me to relax, albeit keep up a decent rhythm as there are intermittent cut offs on the route along the way. It felt like a 5K pace, hiking the ups, jogging the flats and running the downs.

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After such a big year and as I started to feel better, all that mattered was getting to the finish in one piece. It doesn’t say your time on the gillet and the weather was getting worse and worse.

After Champex there is a short section along the lake, but the fog was so thick I could literally see a metre into the lake. I had seen this section hundreds of times on YouTube so it was a shame not to feel the surroundings, but such is the world of ultras, and I knew I would be back in 48 hours whilst crewing the main UTMB (more of that in a blog soon).

This follows a lovely fire road downhill where for the first time I felt normal and the legs moved nicely. At the bottom here there is the first big climb of the day (when I say big, to put it in context the ‘big’ ones have over 500 metres of gain, the small ones less than 300).

Here I thought back to the website where it describes this race as “for the less ultra runners”. I can assure you, I consider myself very much an ultrarunner these days having completed a lot of races, and this was by no means the fun run for crews wanting to be part of the atmosphere. This was a very tough, albeit shorter distance, race. It is 14k longer than a marathon on very tough terrain and I do feel it deserves a lot more respect than it gets. There are no fun runs at UTMB- even the kids race goes up a ski slope!

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Looks lovely, gentle and rolling, doesn’t it? Yeah, its not!

At the top of this long climb we found our way above the fog, but the rain was turning to sleet and patchy snow, so the waterproof came back on as did the hat, but not the gloves as I knew we would soon top out soon and be making our way down the long descent to Trient, with a 600m drop in altitude in just 5k.

Just after the top we entered a gite and this was the perfect time to fill up on water. Not having felt great I was mainly getting through this race on Tailwind, so I took the time to fill up a couple of bottles but the weather made the decision to press on quickly for me, as any stops in longer than two minutes resulted in shivering.

Again, this descent felt fantastic and I found myself passing a lot of runners and the grip on my Speedgoat Hokas was perfect. Despite the mud I didn’t lose my footing and I felt my descending was way better than at Lavaredo.

At Trient I was at the psychologically beneficial half way point and again quickly moved through. Shortly after there was another 5k climb and then 5k descent to Vallorcine. Each 10k section taking a little over 2 hours hopefully puts this race in context.

Through Vallorcine and the weather started to clear a little so it was back down to just a tshirt and pressing on along the relatively flat section to Argentierre and I felt like I was making decent progress. Despite no GPS, each aid station had distances listed so I knew I was on for 12 hours and I knew my family would be following online (the timing system here is first rate and even predicts accurately your next aid station arrival based on pace to date and terrain ahead). I was due to run into the finish with the kids and didn’t want to keep them waiting in the rain (as the weather was due to worsen again) so I kept up a decent momentum- as much as anything to just stay warm.

Through Argentierre you can almost smell Chamonix- driving it is only 4k away, but the course deviates uphill one last time to the top of a ski resort called La Flegere where it was then a 9k technical downhill to Chamonix itself. It was about 9:30 on the clock at this point and I calculated for the last 10k 2 hours climbing and one hour descending so was on for a 12:30 finish, which I would have been happy with. But my hiking here was very good and when I finally reached the top at La Flegere I knew if I ran the last 9k in an hour- all downhill but technical and slippery- in an hour I would be in for 12 hours.

Running down was excellent. No more climbing, my family and hot food awaited and I finally felt like a decent runner again. I savoured every step and knew this season had been amazing- so many fun races, no DNF’s and to have run my two main races in the Alps and the Dolomites I realized how lucky I was.

Finally the trail turned to a track, the track to a dirt road and the dirt road to tarmac. Chamonix’s lights were twinkling around me as dusk fell. I ran into the town and high fived kids and listened to the cheers all around me- this is what I had been looking forward to for almost 18 months and now it was happening.

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I weaved through the town and just as I hit the final bend, there were Monty and Lulu along with Sol and friends Sam, Christian and Caroline and their kids. I grabbed the kids by the hands and we jogged through the cheers to the finish. My parents were watching live on the webcam and it was just a fantastic feeling all round.

12 hours and 7 minutes. 2017 done.

Now nothing until the mega Arc of Attrition in February.

UTMB Finish

Follow up blog to come soon on crewing Jason Schlarb the next day at UTMB and then I will post on how I plan to recover and build fitness before February.

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The North Downs Way 100 Mile 2017

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This is the full trail. The NDW100 splits off to finish in Ashford. 

In all honesty, this was the only run I had scheduled in my calendar for 2017 that I didn’t want to do. I have run the 50 mile version more times than I can remember and having started the 100 twice, I had finished this race once before, and I knew it was a toughy.

I had entered as my back up plan if I failed to complete the Lavaredo Ultra Trail in less than 26 hours, which is the standard set as a Western States qualifying time. The NDW100 is also a WS qualifier and any finish time counts, as long as it is under the 30 hour cut-off. Whilst 25 miles longer than Lavaredo, it is a much, much easier course and was a logical back up. Logic also dictated that my finish time at the 75 mile Lavaredo should be around the same as the NDW100, but logic also tends to go out of the window at this distance. No matter how many 100 milers people had completed when stood on the start line, none of us had completed 100 miles yet that day. And that was all that mattered.

Having completed Lavaredo 5 weeks before, in just over 27 hours I knew I would need to run to keep my Western States cumulative ticket count growing. If I qualified this year, I would have 16 tickets- qualification standard for 5 years cumulatively.

Since I started ultras back in 2012, I have finished every single race I have entered…aside from the 100 mile distance.

100’s are a whole different ballgame and as I stood on the start line at 6am last Saturday, I was conscious this was my 9th 100 mile start line and I had only reached the finish of 4 so far. Was I about to make it 5 for 9, or was the trail about to take me 4 for 9? We had 30 hours to find out.

Anyone who knows me knows that Lavaredo beat me up pretty bad. A combination of heat, altitude, extreme climbs and descents, combined with numerous water crossings left my feet a real mess. For three weeks after I couldn’t face running. But, on the flip side I knew I had some good fitness going on, I knew the NDW trail like the back of my hand and most importantly, I knew that 100’s are a mind game, as much as a physical one. I didn’t have long to prepare physically, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t arrive mentally focused and prepared for a long slog, but a long slog that resulted in a finish.

This race also came virtually a year to the day since I got some very important good news and marked an anniversary of my first year working for myself. Having just launched my own sportswear company too, as well as running my consulting business, I had a lot to feel proud of and I wanted to celebrate with doing what I do best, running long in beautiful places. It also helped knowing my wife and kids would be meeting me at halfway and that kept me focused in the first half.

As is typical for August, the day wasn’t hugely warm but it was humid. I was sweating heavily from early on and knew I needed to keep the fluids up. Knowing the first half so well, I had set myself a personal cut off of 5 hours to the 25 mile mark and 12 hours to the halfway point, leaving me 18 hours in the bank for the final 50 miles. That sounds like enough time to walk the second half, let alone run it, but believe me if you have run this trail you will know that that is nowhere near enough and you have to push constantly and run wherever possible in order to finish under 30 hours here.

The first 50 was uneventful aside from a decent thunderstorm which lasted an hour or so. Runners all around me were stopping to put on waterproofs, but my logic was that if this was before the night-leg I would have done exactly the same, but I was about 14 miles from halfway where I would be changing tops anyway, I had been dousing myself with water until this point to keep cool, so the rain was actually really welcome relief. The air temperature cooled off a bit and by not putting a jacket on it forced me to keep up a decent clip. This worked perfectly and I felt really fresh following that storm as the humidity had been building for hours. The trail became very slippy though and you could spot those who had started in road shoes a mile off. I felt for them, but it is a trail race and we knew rain was forecast, so they had made their own bed.

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Walking into the aid station with the kids was an awesome feeling

I arrived in Knockholt Pound at 11:45 to be greeted by my awesome kids running and screaming towards me for a huge hug. Until they realized I was soaked and both said ‘yuk’ and backed off.

We got inside the checkpoint where I changed my shirt and swapped items from my dropbag for the night leg. Solange force fed me, but my appetite was good so I threw down a bowl of pasta and took some watermelon and sweets with me so I could eat and walk for the next mile to get my legs warmed up again. I asked the kids three times what they did today, apparently, and was told repeatedly ‘Dad- we just told you that’. I was pretty tired already!

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Ruining a perfectly lovely photo by looking like the wrong way. Standard. 

Back out the door to cuddles and kisses, I marched towards Wrotham with renewed purpose ready to deliver the kids their fifth 100 mile buckle. My legs and feet were complaining from Lavaredo, but I am experienced enough to know now that the pain at mile 50 is no worse than the pain at mile 75 or 95. This is where the brain takes over and if you let it talk you down here, you are done. But if you control it, you will win.

I felt like I moved pretty well to Wrotham and it was just turning to dusk as I got here. Tania from Runderwear was running this aid station and grabbed me my headlamp from my pack, got me a coffee and a sandwich and kicked me out the door. 40 miles to go.

The next five miles I was completely alone, which is just how I like to be in the long races. I prefer not chatting and staying focused, with quiet music on and night falling. I love nightrunning these days and find it so peaceful so made good progress as night fell and the woods came alive with the sound of owls and bats swooping all around me, feeling totally alone. It was my favourite part of the race for sure.

Having been a very muggy day, I had religiously been drinking 500ml of tailwind an hour, followed by a bottle of water and a third bottle for the longer stretches. I had been peeing and felt fine, but as I got close to mile 65 at Holly Hill, I felt the first signs of nausea. Spit built up in my mouth and I knew it was time for a system re-set. The body dictates what will happen and you just have to roll with it. Up and out everything came and over the next mile I was sick about four or five times, but felt so much better. I knew I just needed to take it steady and keep the calories coming back in slowly and gently. Again, with experience there was no panic, this was just part and parcel of running 100 milers and happens to so many people I know.

The North Downs Way is a really odd trail and I found myself taking in so much more than I had done on previous runs here. The thing I find most odd is the route takes you past what must be some of the most expensive houses in the country, but they are all down mud and gravel dirtroads. It’s hard to explain. Maybe it’s the privacy the owners crave, but these are multi-million pound houses and I found myself thinking a lot about silly things like yes, fine if you own a 4×4 but they must have cleaners and those roads must be lethal in the winter in a normal car. This probably isn’t making anyone reading this want to run 100 milers if they haven’t before, but those who have will know the funny thoughts a wandering mind can have!

From Holly Hill I had a 10 mile slog to Bluebell Hill at mile 76 and it was at that point I had set myself my personal finish line. If I made it to BH in good time, I knew I would finish. I crossed the Medway Bridge and this was a big milestone and it was now under 30 miles to go.

The climb to the long track that leads to Bluebell Hill seemed to pass quickly and my legs still felt great on the climbs, having worked so hard on climbing in the spring in preparation for the Dolomites. The track then seems to take an age before it hits the village and there was one house where a monster of a dog was barking at me. As I got closer I could see it lunging at the wall to try and get over. This certainly put a spring in my step and my shuffle turned into probably my fastest mile of the course!

At Bluebell Hill I sat down for only the second time during the race and ate a couple of sandwiches and packed a load of fruit and sweets into a little freezer bag I carried with me. I had a coffee and looked out at the horizon where the storm had cleared into a beautiful evening. It was stunning and I once again appreciated having the health, ability and determination to be able to do these things. I mustn’t take them for granted, even when wondering what on earth I am doing at times.

Cracking on, it was 6.5 miles to Detling, the final indoor aid station and a chance for hot food before the final 18 miles to the finish. Sorry, 21 miles. Its trail racing so it’s never an exact distance, but we all knew there was an extra 3 miles and this would equate to an hour so I was carefully factoring that into my maths. I don’t run with a GPS but run by feel, so was carefully monitoring my split times between each aid station and find this is a great way of keeping the mind occupied as you plod out the miles.

Again, this was fairly uneventful, plodding along knowing that the five miles after Detling are tough, but then it is 15 fairly flat runnable miles to the finish.

At Detling I downed some soup and was ready to leave in under four minutes. There was no point resting now, I could sleep all I wanted in a few hours and I had a job to do. I had just over seven hours to cover the remaining 21 miles and for the first time I realized that this was by no means in the bag. Yes, I was functioning well enough to finish, but I had to keep up a real decent pace to do it. 3 miles an hour sounds like an absolute joke, but after 82 miles on the legs and a huge amount of climbing, descending, slipping and getting through a very overgrown trail, 3 miles an hour is then quite a lot to ask.

With adrenaline spiking and my backpack having just split with the zip coming off, but having been cobbled back together using the bungees by awesome volunteer Dave Brock, I was off and out the door. Everyone talks about Detling and I remember how much it hurt in 2014, but after Lavaredo it was just a little hill with some fiddly ups and downs on the steps. Nothing to panic about, but one to grind through as painfully slowly as it would take. I started looking at my watch incessantly and really concerned that I would miss the finish and have to find another Western States qualifier later in the autumn and abroad, as this was the last UK qualifier of the year. I couldn’t afford to do that. I had to get this done.

The sun rose as I descended the final downhill to the 15 miles of rolling track and it was the most incredible sunrise. The mist was in the valley and the sky was such a bright blue already. I again realized how lucky I am that I get to experience these things.

From here on in, it was full panic stations. I had four miles to reach the Lenham aid station and from there another 12 to the finish line. I ran and overtook more runners than I could remember. Some were limping and realized their day was done and wouldn’t make it home in time, others were trying to run but couldn’t sustain a pace and it was hard to witness. I said hello to everyone but had to remain focused on my race and unless someone was injured and needed my help, I wasn’t stopping. Thankfully no one was.

Finally, I hit Lenham with two other guys who were on the same mission as me. The three of us were not going down without a fight and it was at this point I realized how fast I had run the last section. The volunteers calmed our nerves and told us we had well over 5 hours to do the last 12 miles and whilst it still wasn’t guaranteed, bar a major mishap, I would finish in time.

I told myself to keep up the momentum for the next 8 miles to the final aid station at Dunn Street, which was mile 98 ish and then I could walk the last 4.5 miles if I wanted. Suddenly a runner came up very fast behind me and I thought it was maybe a morning jogger but then I heard my name being called. It was Christian Maleedy and never has a friendly face been a more welcome sight.

We had bumped into each other earlier the night before at mile 60 where he was waiting to pace his friend Amy, but she had sadly dropped out injured. Christian had then run through the night alone as a training run for UTMB in a few weeks and had kept an eye out for me so he could offer to pace me home. I was so happy to see him as I had entered this without a crew or pacer, but knew he would dictate a pace for now that I could follow to ensure I got home in plenty of time.

It was an awesome few hours and he was as smiley and happy as always, even having run 40+ miles himself overnight. He led the pace and I could let my brain switch off. We ran the flats and the downs and walked even the slightest incline and every step inched closer to Ashford.

As we got to Dunn Street he went in to get me a cup of tea and I carried on marching to keep the momentum up. We then sat in the shade, as the day had gotten pretty warm already, put some suncream on and prepared for the final four miles. I was almost there!

Now I knew it was doable, my pace dropped considerably and as we entered the outskirts of Ashford, runners started to stream past me. I really didn’t care and cheered them all on, including Phil Bradburn who I had stayed with the night before in Farnham (no wait, the night before the night before…man these races throw time around). Then Paolo Valente ran past me and we high-fived. This made me realise my time and progress wasn’t bad at all, as he is a way better runner than me.

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Focussed and shattered on the streets of Ashford

The track took an age to come around and poor Christian had to encourage me along as I could literally feel the adrenaline sapping from my body and my eyes wanting to close, but then there were some floodlights. We saw the flags. We heard the cheers. I was here.

Christian left me at the gates and I ran the track alone. I thought about my finish all night and how I would scream or shout as I crossed the line, but as always I got a little self conscious at the cheers and attention and pottered over the line, mumbling “knackered” and had a hugs and high fives with Nici, Nikki, Drew, Chris and Stuart. Some of my favourite people in the world.

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I had a quick photo and headed straight for the showers. Done.

28 hours and 36 minutes. 118th place of 249 starters. All I could have hoped for and more.

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Courtesy of the amazing photographer Stuart March

All year my distances have been building from Cotswold Way 50k in February, The Green Man 45 mile in March, North Downs Way 50 mile in May, Lavaredo 75 mile in June and now the NDW100 in August. Its been exactly what I needed. I haven’t exactly set any of my PB’s on fire, but I have shown myself to be strong and capable again and I can fly to Chamonix in a couple of weeks for the 55k OCC, knowing this will be a fun day out to end an awesome, awesome season.

To everyone who made this possible- thank you. The volunteers, the other crews, my family. It’s a tough, sometimes stupid sport, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

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Fifth buckle. Earned. 

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Lavaredo Ultra Trail 2017 Race Report

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Beautiful Cortina

I am not even sure if I have fully finished processing this race just yet. In all honesty, I am not sure I ever will. When Anton Krupicka describes a race as “probably the most beautiful I have ever run”, you know you are in for something special.

If the saying is true that life begins at the end of your comfort zone, then for 27.5 hours between Friday 24th and Sunday 26th June 2017, my life really was unequivocally in a new level of awe, discomfort, elation, despair and everything in between.

The Dolomites are sensory overload in every one of the five senses. The eyes truly have difficulty in getting your brain to process the level of out-of-this-worldness that is being taken in. The taste of the free running snow melt water that is the most delicious I have ever drank, the ears try and take in every sound from the streams to the insects, the touch as you try and pull yourself up one more climb in the middle of the second night that is so steep you’ve had to pack away your trekking poles and scramble with hands and feet. And lastly the smell that varies throughout the race- wild flowers, cut grass, dust, olive oil on bread in the aid stations, wild garlic, pine.

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I hiked the last 10k and back two days before the race

You might be able to tell I am a little bit in love with these mountains. However, as you’ll read below, just because you love something, doesn’t mean it’ll love you back. One blog I read before flying out described this race as ‘hell in heaven’ and despite trying, I can’t summarise this race any better than that.

After the disappointment of a lackluster effort at UTMB last year, 2017 had gone really well. I’d already completed 3 ultras in the build-up to this- Cotswold Way 50k in Feb, The Green Man in March and The North Downs Way 50 miler in May and felt I had increased stamina perfectly. I felt as fit as I had ever been and was ready to push myself to my limits to prove to myself that I was capable of a mountain race finish. At just under 6,000 metres of climb (and the same level of descent), half the race over 2000 metres above sea level and the distance of 3 consecutive marathons to boot, this was not an easy way to join that club. But I don’t do this because it is easy, I do this to test myself.

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During the hike, not the race, hence the smile

The race started at 11pm in the centre of Cortina d’Ampezzo which is a beautiful town in the heart of this mountain range. The town is surrounded by huge peaks and as just under 1,600 of us charged into the night there was electricity in the air. Thankfully this night it was just our nervous energy, as the previous few nights we had taken a bashing from huge thunderstorms, ever reminding us we are not in charge of these mountains. We are but a pinprick they will tolerate at times and only at times.

Tonight we were lucky and it was a beautiful evening, if a little humid. Everyone was running in daytime clothes and those who had started with a jacket on quickly removed it. After a mile or so through the town, we ran into the woods and the first climb of the night at a little over 500 metres gain. We bottlenecked at the entrance to the single track but this quickly made way onto fireroad and we could run two or three abreast up into the sky. Running quickly turned to hiking as the rhythmic click-clack of poles filled the air and we ascended into the cooler, thinner air, switchback after switchback.

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Not far from Croda da Lago

Eventually we crested out and ran for a good few kilometres on gently rolling flat terrain before the first big descent. I am not a quick downhill runner. I am cautious and as a result whilst I found my hiking to be excellent, every place I had gained climbing was lost on the downhill. It’s not that I was just cautious, I also wanted to preserve my legs and whilst I have no doubt that a lot of the runners knew what they were doing, some were clearly carried away by the early exuberance and by the bottom I had seen a good three or four runners hobbling along on twisted ankles, their races and dreams ended in just a couple of hours from the start. There was no guarantee I would finish this, but I told myself whatever happens my race would not end from over exuberance or stupidity. I was not after a time, I was after a finish and this was all about self-preservation and self-management.

That said, whilst I was steady on the descents I wasn’t hanging around on the flats or the climbs. Being timed out of UTMB as a result of being too cautious and saving myself for the second night was, with hindsight, a more painful and humiliating experience than I had appreciated at the time. So with just 6.5 hours to hit 33k within the cut off, I was moving where I felt confident and safe to do so. At 18k we hit the first aid station and this was right on my schedule. The schedule being to hit 33k before 4:30am so I could bank 1 hour on the cut offs. I quickly moved through and headed into the second of the big climbs of Lavaredo, to Son Forca.

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This was some of the gentler terrain. I am serious.

Over the last few months I have built up a strong hiking style and as we climbed into the small hours of the morning and my headlamp bathed the way, I felt really strong. It was hard going, but it was what I had trained for and my eyes were fixed on hitting the top and getting down to the aid station with time banked. As I crested the top I could see runners far fitter than I look, wrapped in foil blankets waiting to be evacuated down by Mountain Rescue. It was a further reminder than the mountains don’t care how well you’ve trained, how fit you look, but only on how you respect them and the distance.

We then descended down some hairy switchbacks with steep drops and I let the speedy ones past as I stayed well and truly on the side of the trail away from the edge. With poles being carelessly swung to maintain their balance and an at times complete disregard for other runners, I wasn’t going to let a kamikaze runner take me out of this race.

Eventually after a quad grinding hour, we hit the aid station and I was delighted when I glanced at my watch to see it revealed 04:12am. I was almost an hour and twenty minutes up on the cut off. I wasn’t about to get complacent, so quickly filled my bottles, ate some food and was on my way.

It is no exaggeration to say you can lose hours in a race like this at the aid stations. For me, one of my race saviors was telling myself I wouldn’t sit down unless absolutely necessary. It’s very easy to get cold, particularly pre-dawn when you are already soaked in sweat from the humidity and I wanted to maintain a rhythm and also keep gaining time on the cut-offs. I knew that later in the race I may well be walking a large portion, so I needed to bank time now. I was in my own little world not racing anyone but the clock and it felt good.

My other race savior was Tailwind. This is a powdered form of nutrition that comes in handy sachets which you just dump in your water bottle and shake. I would have one bottle of Tailwind and one of water (later two of water during the heat of the day) and I felt like I had high energy levels throughout. I didn’t once feel sick and even felt hungrier than normal at the aid stations where I supplemented with real food- favorites here being noodle soup, cheese, fruit and salami as well as delicious bread drenched in olive oil.

The course ascended to a stunning sunrise at Pianmaceto with a cloud inversion down in the valley. The only downside being the drone of mosquitos waking to destroy as much as they could that day. On the flip side, every time I heard their evil whine it forced me to run a little quicker through this relatively flat but high wooded trail section. As dawn surrounded us I broke out of the woods and arrived at the beautiful Lake Misurina, which I knew led to the third steep climb of the day up to the 50k point that the course is named after, Tre Cime di Lavaredo- the jewel in this races crown.

Fortunately, whilst the aid stations where sparsely spread out, there were regular opportunities to fill up on water from little taps dotted here and there, as well as directly from the mountain streams. So before this big climb, I refilled, prepared a Tailwind mix and got myself ready.

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Course profile. Note the smaller ‘hills’ at the end. They were not.

And it really was a brute of a climb. Eventually, I arrived at the 48k aid station at Rif Auronzo at bang on 8am and had now banked a total of two and a half hours on the cut off, which I was very happy with. The length and steepness of that climb, combined with altitude at well over 2000 metres now meant I was a little fuzzy here and needed to sort myself out before talking the long next section.

I downed a lot of coke, drank some noodle broth and took 3 bananas with me. Having refilled my bottles and feeling a million miles away from how I felt when I arrived- and at only 15 minutes later- I was on my way.

The next aid station wasn’t until 66 kilometres but was a focus point for my race because it was firstly over halfway by that stage and secondly, where my dropbag was with a fresh t-shirt and a can of sprite and fanta- liquid of the gods as the heat rose.

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Photoshop is wonderful

There was a lot of downhill here but I was still moving well, with limited issues and set into a nice steady rhythm. By the time we got to the bottom of the valley it was really warm and everyone took the time to get soaked in the streams and rivers. It’s just as important in the heat to keep the external parts of the body cool as well as keep drinking, so wherever I could I soaked my cap and Buff that was around my neck. As well as the Tailwind, I also partially credit my finish to the amazing P20 suncream I was using. This stuff is incredible and I didn’t burn once or need to re-apply often, although I did a few times to be cautious. To spend a whole day under the unrelenting mountain sun and not burn with my complexion- this stuff is a lifesaver.

By km66 I was feeling good still and quickly changed into the fresh shirt which felt amazing, downed the two cans of sugar and was out again. The next climb was probably the hottest of the day and the track we hiked ran parallel to a gently tumbling stream. By halfway up, this was too much to resist and I took my pack off, paddled in and lay down face first, holding my breath for ten seconds or so as the freezing water soothed my cooked body.

Like a new man, I got up and marched the rest of that hill with renewed vigor until I crested the top and jogged down the other side to Malga Ra Stua at km80 or so. Just a marathon to go, but the steepest climb was about to take place and we still had to descend for another hour or so before it began. A 10k climb of 1000 metre gain in the heat.

It was here that the wheels started to fall off. The chafing, which had been building became excruciating, despite constantly re-applying, the heat was radiating off the huge cliffs to the side of the trail, the terrain was like walking up the worlds steepest, longest gravel driveway and there were multiple stream crossings where the feet quickly got wet and rubbed as they dried during the climb.

Combine this with altitude increasing with each step and already almost 90k on the legs, by the time we came to what I thought was the top, I was hanging on in there. After a long period of flat through boulder fields it became apparent that this was a false summit and I was also 5k further back than I had thought. Distances become skewed in races like this and whilst 5k is often 25 mins for most people on fresh Saturday legs in the park, 5k here was well over an hour- sometimes two- and the trail only went up.

As we almost crested the top, there was a small sign saying ‘90k’. This may as well have said ‘you thought you were well over 100k, didn’t you fat boy?’. It was truly devastating and whilst I am sure put out there to encourage people, to me and those around me it had the total opposite effect. Still, we had signed up for this and we hadn’t come this far to only come this far, so down the other side we went. It was now just 5k to the next aid station and virtually all downhill.

It was now mercifully cloudy and starting to drizzle but I didn’t bother with the waterproof as it was still muggy and I was moving nicely when the leg muscles eventually realised they were finally no longer climbing.

Down, down, down until a little tunnel and up to a long since abandoned mountain fort and then down again to Col Gallina. I met up with a couple of equally broken Brits here and we quickly re-filled. I was the first out as I wanted to be moving, but it wasn’t long before they passed me on the next big climb. Having the map printed on our race bibs was excellent and allowed us to see what was coming, but it didn’t ever put it in context. I could see that the end was ‘rolling’ and no more steep, long climbs. How wrong I was. The last four climbs may not have been steep, but they were in every way as brutal and most of the next 20k was at altitudes of over 2000m before a huge descent to the finish at 1200m.

By now, running had long since been dispatched to ancient history and I was a broken shuffler. My back ached like never before I was drawn into a hunch. Without my poles I would never have finished. And then I heard the thunder. What a way to finish!

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110k.

As I made my way out of the penultimate aid station with just 6k to go until the last one, at the refuge I had hiked to two days before the race so I knew the last 10k, I was on a mission to hang on in there. I got as much sugar down me as my body would allow and put the headlamp back on, the headlamp I had so desperately wanted to not have to use again. But the mountain dictated my pace, not me.

The evening before, seeing headlamps twinkling above me as I climbed was oh so pretty and it was a joy to be a part of this epic race. Fast forward 24 hours and having headlamps twinkling where I would have to climb almost broke me. The final climb was marked on the map with an exclamation mark and now I knew why. It had a huge drop to the side of it and for the first time in my ultra career to date, I was truly scared. I was exhausted and this climb was so steep that my poles were no use and I needed to use my hands to help me scramble up. By now it wasn’t fun and it was all about just getting to the finish safely, the time did not matter one bit.

Finally I crested the top and there, twinkling away 1000 metres below me and 11k on foot was Cortina. Whatever happened now, I would be home in three hours.

The last aid station was not pretty and I moved through the puddles of other peoples puke quickly. By this stage, I wasn’t quite sure if I was a runner, hiker or a pacer. The altitude or a combination of all things to have happened that day had well and truly fried my brain. I thought it best not to ask the question of what I was doing up there- to be pulled with 9k to go wasn’t going to happen and I knew I would be better as I got lower.

I shuffled the agonizingly steep last descent, not knowing if I was doing this or watching a movie of me doing this but slowly my senses recovered and I was almost home. I was bent almost double by this point and the pain in my back just wouldn’t let me stand up straight so I shuffled and shuffled until I finally came out of the woods and hit tarmac. I ran in with some French guys who asked if I was OK and I said I would be in 2k’s time. I encouraged them to go ahead, assuring them I was fine and before I knew it I was on the cobbled streets of Cortina to cheers of those who were still out at just after 2am.

I wondered all day how finishing this race would make me feel. I got a lump at the beauty of Tre Cime and wondered if the same would happen at the finish. As I crossed the line all I felt was shattered. I had just run one of the hardest ultras in the world and I finished two and a half hours inside the cut off. I wasn’t elated, I was just done. I knew the feelings of this day would take a while yet to sink in.

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The coveted Gilet and race t-shirt

All I can say now is, that race is incredible. I’ve tried my best to describe how it was for me, but just like the photos, to know this race you have to have done it. I can’t get anywhere near what it feels with words. I just can’t. No one can.

 

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