The Road to Western States

This month I will run Western States.

Today is 1stJune 2019 and I have been waiting to say those words since 2011.

Sat on a delayed central line underground train in summer 2011, I was idly flicking through the free paper, Metro. Usually I got off the train before I was even halfway through the paper, but being delayed, I strayed further into the pages until I came across the book reviews.

‘Run!’ Was the book that leapt out at me, by a chap called Dean Karnazes. This was his second book and chronicled his journey deep into the world of a sport I had never heard of. A sport called Ultrarunning.

Having just completed the London Marathon for the second time, earlier in 2011 I was intrigued. You can run further than a marathon? You can run in mountains? You can run for days at a time? What the hell is this?

I was sold. I immediately went and bought a copy of his book and that was it- the journey had begun.

Dean had run many races, but one leapt out. Western States. 100 mountainous miles in beautiful Californian wilderness. Extreme heat, extreme snow in the early miles, bears, rattlesnakes, mountain lions and some of the most beautiful terrain in the world. I had to run this race. I just had to.

Back in 2011, ultrarunning was gaining popularity, but hadn’t yet boomed like it has in recent years. The qualification standard and likelihood of entry is now a lot tougher but back then, you had to run a pre-approved 50 mile race in less than 11 hours to enter into the lottery to get a place at Western States. Searching through the list of races, one jumped out organized in the UK by a group called Centurion- the North Downs Way 50 miler- was set for August 2012. I had a year to prepare.

Even before I ran my first qualifier, I had crewed at Western States. As part of my new found obsession with this race, I contacted a British elite, Jez Bragg, and asked if he wanted any help. He said he would love crew assistance, so in 2012 and again in 2014, I crewed Jez at Western States and got a feel for this race from the sharp end.

But back to 2012.

Having lived in Guildford for 8 years, I knew many of the places on the NDW50 route and decided this was the race for me. I wasn’t a trail runner and had no concept of hills. Back then, the race didn’t even have mandatory kit, so I lined up with just a water bottle in hand and started my ultrarunning adventure.

11 hours and 41 minutes later, I crossed the finish line outside of Western States qualification time, cut to ribbons by brambles and totally, utterly wasted. I had failed.

A few days later and recovered, I made a pledge to myself that I would not quit and no mater how long it took, I would run Western States.

Each and every year you qualify to run Western States, but fail to gain an entry in the lottery, you double your ticket counts for the following year. So firstly I needed to qualify and secondly, I needed to keep on qualifying to get an entry.

In 2013 I returned to the North Downs Way 50 and ran it an hour and a half quicker in just a shade over 10 hours. That year, I watched the lottery, streamed live over the internet, for the first time. I didn’t get in. but with a 4% chance of an entry with one ticket, I didn’t expect to.

By this time, the start of 2014, ultrarunning was starting to boom and as a result, the Western States Board decided to make qualification tougher, but fairer. They had realized that a lot of people who got into the race and subsequently dropped out during the run, were those that had qualified with ‘just’ a 50 miler. They reasoned, quite rightly, that in order to qualify you should really have experience of the distance or at the very least, 100k, before you could qualify. Some 100k races were left in, on the basis that many people would have liked the Western States experience to be their first 100 miler. All 50 milers were dropped. As an aside, my only gripe here is that some elites can still qualify with one 50 mile Golden Ticket race, the Lake Sonoma 50 miler, held every April. This seems unfair as the purpose of Western States should always be that everyone on the start line has earned their spot via a certain distance, rather than their status, but that is by the by.

So, my 2014 qualifier had to be 100k or 100 miles. I had run neither distance, having failed in August 2013 at my first 100 mile distance (incidentally also on the North Downs).

I made a pact to go back to the 2014 NDW100 and this time around I finished my first 100 miler and qualified for Western States again. 2 tickets.

In 2015 I ran the Thames Path 100 as my qualifier. 4 tickets.

In 2016 I ran the South Downs Way 100 miler. 8 tickets.

In 2017 I just missed out at the Lavaredo Ultra Trail with a time slightly over the allotted amount for Western States qualification, so it was back to the North Downs Way 100 miler. 16 tickets.

In 2018, I returned to the Thames Path and again qualified. 32 tickets.

In the lottery in December 2018, my name was finally called. 7 years later, I was in.

I have run countless other races in the build up to Western States, in addition to my lottery qualifiers. I have run all over the world for fun and in races. I am an extremely lucky man and now, this month, my dream race is in front of me.

It’s been a hell of a build up and a hell of a year so far this year, but I can tell you one thing. There won’t be one person on the start line in a few weeks, who wants this more than I do. Bring it on.

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50 Sleeps til Statesmas

It’s been a while since I updated things on here. I guess after a shocking start to 2019 I kept myself to myself, but with Western States just a few weeks away now I wanted to jot down a few thoughts.

Following an MRI scan back in February, I was given the all clear to run again the day before I flew to Gran Canaria. Whilst unable to run the race itself, it was great to land and get a first jog done, in the esteemed company of Chris Jones and Damian Hall. It was only a mile, on pavement at night, but boy did it feel good. I finally felt unshackled again.

Over the next few weeks, I started to build up the miles slowly and in all honestly, for the first time since becoming a runner, I felt a little nervous. My cardiologist had said it was fine to train again and raise my heart rate, but at the same time to build up slowly, so March was a month of cautious optimism.

As April rolled around, I was conscious of the South Downs Way 50 getting closer and closer. Initially I had planned to run this following the all clear, as a confidence booster as I built back up to Western States. However, the week prior I made the call to withdraw as I was concerned it may have been a confidence damager and have the exact opposite effect that I was looking for. Since then, I have very much kept the training to myself but I am happy to report I am feeling really good again, finally.

As it stands, I am doing 50-60 miles a week. This is a lot lower than in previous seasons but it feels right. The one thing I consistently read about WS is that it is always better to go in slightly undertrained, than overtrained. So my focus is on hills and heat during the week, to get the quads ready and the body acclimated, and a long run at the weekends. I tend to run Monday to Thursday around 30 miles in total, take Friday off, have a 30 mile long run Saturday and then again take Sunday off. This feels good and about right.

Heat wise, every short run is now in a down jacket and warm hat which is working well and the long run in race day gear. I am starting to think a lot about race day and whilst initially I planned to run with just two handheld bottles, I am now veering towards a lightweight race vest. This won’t be to carry much as I plan to still use handhelds, but is more to be able to store ice during the heat of the day to keep my core as cool as I can.

With 10-15 volunteers for every runner, my every need will be catered to on the day so aside from a few emergency gels, I don’t intend to carry anything aside from water and tailwind, to keep my pack weight to an absolute minimum.

As I get closer I will talk a little about the kit I plan to use but for now, it is head down and just enjoying as many miles as I can. I am still a little sluggish from the two months off at a time of year I don’t enjoy at the best of times, so I am focussed on eating well and trying to get to the start line in as lean a shape as possible, but I have accepted I will be heavier than I ideally would have liked. I would rather than go in a little heavy, than focus too much on weight loss and go in lighter but weaker, so I am accepting how things are whilst also eating and training as sensibly as I can.

Four big weeks of training are now coming up and then a gentle two week taper.

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Pericarditis

 

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Spending the night on the Cardiology Ward at Truro Hospital wasn’t how I wished, or planned to spend Boxing Day night. But, in the words of the late, great John Lennon ‘life is what happens whilst you’re making other plans’.

Throughout 2018 I had an increasing amount of pain. It started in my arm and I assumed it was a torn or pulled muscle. Strangely, it always improved when I did more upper body exercise, so this is what I did. However, as the year wore on, it spread to my upper back, shoulder and then neck. I put it down to impending middle age and just got on with things as best as I could. With hindsight, all the alarm bells were there for a doctors visit, but I honestly thought it was just muscle pain from training with a pack.

The other warning sign was an increasing amount of small, hard lumps behind my ears and under my right armpit. I put these down to skin tags, but I now know they were a result of my thyroid fighting an increasing infection.

The long and the short of it is, on Boxing Day, following a beautiful seven mile run on the coast path in Cornwall, I had an increasing amount of chest pain. Being with my parents, they insisted they take me to Truro to get it checked out and I agreed as it was increasingly uncomfortable.

Prioritised through A&E I was quickly taken through and hooked up to an ECG, which showed some abnormalities. Further tests were done, including bloods and an echocardiogram whilst myself and my father got more and more anxious. The doctors and nurses were amazing and didn’t give too much away, but were checking if there had been a “cardiac event”. It didn’t take a genius to work out that were trying to assess if I had had a heart attack.

However, within an hour or two it was clear my heart was in good shape, my lungs were clear on my x-ray and my blood pressure was excellent (even if it was probably significant heightened with anxiety).

A cardiologist saw me, did some further tests and quickly assessed me as having Acute Pericarditis. This is a condition that affects a lot of people aged 20 to 50 and mimics all the signs of a heart attack, but is actually relatively harmless if caught early enough and treated. Essentially, it is an infection that has reached the Pericardium, which is the fluid filled sack that protects the heart- not the heart itself.

I was kept in overnight as a precaution because they needed to do further tests to see if it was potentially Myo-Pericarditis, which is much worse and means the infection has gone beyond the protective sack and into the heart itself. Further tests revealed my heart was fine and my second blood test was much better than the first.

I was discharged the next day on medication to deal with the infection and I am now waiting for a further echocardiogram next week at my local hospital which will hopefully give me the all clear, infection wise.

The medication has been working wonders and as a result, I have no more back pain, no chest pain, the lumps behind my ears and under my arm have gone and I feel in great health- better than I have for years. I know my heart is strong, my lungs are good and I am in good health.

It also helps explain why 2018 was such a shite running year! I only completed one race and struggled to find any form or consistency. In a way, I am delighted I now know why this was.

The downside is I cannot exercise until I have the all clear and even then, I don’t know how quickly I can properly run and train again.

Trans Gran Canaria is almost certainly out. South Downs Way 50 is up in the air and then there is Western States in June.

At the end of the day, these are just races. Nothing matters more than being well and being there for my kids, so I am taking each day as it comes. I am currently allowed to exercise ‘like a 70 year old’. This is a tricky one as my father is in his 70’s and is the Kilian of Cornwall, hiking up and down the cliff path and beaches every day, so I am trying to exercise like a normal 70 year old- not him! This includes yoga and stretching and a 3-5 mile walk every day to keep things moving.

I am confident I will return and stronger than ever. I just don’t know when.

The only thing I can pass on from this experience is, if you are worried about something or something just doesn’t feel right, go and see your GP. The ultra world does have a tendency to be somewhat ego driven and the culture of ‘suck it up, buttercup’ is there. Pain is normal, its what we do and so on. With one of my friends having suffered a stroke a couple of days before my situation and other friends with cancer, we aren’t invincible and early assessment is so crucial. If I had seen my GP last summer when the pain was growing, I wouldn’t be where I am now. Please see your GP.

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Cotswold Way Century 2018

This race has been a part of my ultra-running journey since its inaugural run in 2013 when Kurt Dusterhoff’s Cotswold Running company started the modern version of the race. Simply put, it’s the whole of the Cotswold Way, 102 miles end to end. Non-stop in under 30 hours.

I volunteered in 2013 and 2014, failed to finish in 2015 and 2016, volunteered again in 2017 and here I was in 2018, back to put this thing to bed.

I am no stranger to tough races or the 100 mile distance. I have finished 6 x 100 mile races in the UK, as well as tough races in the USA, Dolomites and the Alps and countless shorter distance ultras and marathons, so I have the ability to finish this race, but somehow always manage not to.

In 2015 and 2016 I was not prepared enough and exhausted both times from busy seasons, so this year I made this my A race. I hadn’t raced since the Thames Path 100 in May and focused on getting to start line in September fresh and focused. I have always been of the belief that of the two, it’s better to stand on the start line a little under trained than over trained.

Unlike previous starts here, when historically we have been very lucky with the weather (aside from during the night in 2016), the weather was grim from the start. We walked to the start line in waterproofs and I managed to catch up with a few friends. I wasn’t overly anxious but was focused on just getting this done and hurling this big monkey off my back.

Soon after we were sent on our way I stopped to take off the waterproof. It was still drizzling but I was feeling too hot, so wanted to make sure I felt good. I had spare t-shirts in my drop bag and crew bag anyway and I knew that being damp in the day wasn’t an issue, so long as I was warm overnight when my body temperature had calmed down somewhat.

The first few miles from Chipping Camden are fairly flat and quite dull, so I made sure I didn’t go off like a rocket and kept my pace and breathing calm and steady. Anyone can run the first 20 miles fast, I reminded myself, and this wasn’t a 20 mile race. The rain eased off a little as we approached the iconic Broadway Tower and then ran the long descent into Broadway, which is a beautiful place. Running down the high street to polite clapping from the residents and tourists, I felt good. I heard one of the marshalls comment to someone “these guys are pacing it right”, which gave me a boost. It’s always easy to go off too fast in the excitement of a race, so this helped my confidence further.

Underfoot the ground was still pretty decent, despite the deluge of the last few days. Its been an exceptional summer so my hopes were that despite the rain, the ground having been so dry would soak it all in and we wouldn’t be in a mud bath, particularly in the later stages. More on that later, but for now it was very runnable.

I hit the first aid station at 13 miles in bang on 3 hours which was my target, quickly re-filled my bottles and kept moving. Even stopping for a few seconds I felt cool, which was a world away from 2015 when I stopped here to ask if anyone had any suncream!

Legs felt ok, attitude was good, it was the no-mans land of get to 50 miles unbroken and then the real race started.

Somehow in the next section I felt like I was suddenly at the very back of the field. This was a bit of a surprise as I felt I was moving well and on time for my personal goals. Whilst I am never usually at the very back (although I am increasingly slower- which needs to be addressed), I felt this must be down to other runners exuberance than my own slow pace and reminded myself to ignore everyone else and focus on my own splits. Simply put, I wanted to always be at least an hour ahead of the cut offs. Always.

Just before the second aid station at Aggs Hill, mile 27 I saw someone who was connected to the race, but didn’t know his name. whilst the area is vaguely familiar, I didn’t know exactly how far it was to the check point so I asked him. “about six miles, mate” was his response.

What? I cant be that far off my pace, surely? I panicked a little and pushed harder than I would have otherwise at this stage of the race. Thankfully, I then came across the aid station about 3 miles later in 6 hours exactly- bang on my goal time, an hour ahead of the 7 hour cut off for this point.

Here I saw Nikki Mills who had kindly agreed to take my crew bag to hand to Alan Mercer at 6pm. I changed my top here as the early evening air was cold now and added a gilet to my layers to stay warm. Changing clothes felt great and I was soon on my way, happy with my status.

I have said it before, but one of the things I love most about ultras is how they break you down to your most simple desires. I am not thinking about money or cars or holidays, just maybe a can of lemonade in 10 miles time. It’s the most humbling sport and what keeps me coming back.

The next aid station was at mile 38.5 and between Aggs Hill and here it would get dark, so I made sure my torches were easily accessible without having to root through my bag in the rain. The technical term for the weather at this stage was ‘pissing it down’.

Halfway between Aggs Hill and Birdlip, Alan Mercer took over crewing for me and I was in very safe hands. The ultra running community is a special place and despite the fact we hadn’t met aside from facebook, Alan said he would crew me overnight from 6pm to 6am where he would hand over to another friend of mine, Chris, who would get me through the day leg to the finish.

Alan was calm and knowledgeable so helped give me a huge boost as I started into the night.

By now I had caught some other people and ran with a lady called Dominique for a bit. This was her first 100 miler and she was running it to raise money for Prostate Cancer. Her father was crewing and she explained the reasons why she was raising money- it was a pleasure to meet him. The full results haven’t been published as I write this and I don’t know her surname, but I do hope that she finished.

The next few miles were uneventful and we made steady progress to Birdlip, where it was fully dark upon arrival. I now had 10 miles to cover to be in by midnight at Painswick, the halfway point. The cut off was 1am so midnight was my goal. At Birdlip I stopped only very briefly and they had minestrone soup which was just perfect. Again, the simplicity of ultras- I wasn’t thinking about lunch at Nobu, but minestrone soup from a polystyrene cup was about the best thing I had ever tasted. I had second cup and took it with me as I marched towards the woods. Most of the night leg was in the woods and this was great as it was warmer. However, it was also a lot mistier with the humidity. It didn’t take long before it was a pull pea soup fog.

I had a headtorch and also a hand held torch. Hand helds are slightly more hard work as your arm swings, but they are also a lot better in the fog. Head torches light up all the moisture in front of your eyes which can make it almost as blinding as running with no torch at all, so the hand held was perfect to keep lower and light the way as much as possible. It was still very hard to see anything and I felt my pace slow dramatically as I made sure I was on course. This is an unmarked race, so having the route as a GPS file on my watch was essential for confidence although I tried to navigate by the national trail markers as much as possible to keep my pace up.

I made a couple of minor navigation errors here and there, but nothing major as I made my way to Painswick. Here I met another lady called Karen and we shared a lot of the race, back and forth, from here on in.

At some point around here I also saw Henry Church who had driven out to cheer me and another friend on and he had the best thing possible right now- a cold can of coke. Thanks for coming out, mate and having a chat and walk with me for a bit.

What was becoming apparent was how much muddier underfoot it was becoming. The shoes I had decided on for this race were ones I had used all summer so they were nicely broken in. However, as a result of the dry trails all summer, the lugs were somewhat worn down in places so slipping was inevitable. A few days before the race as I knew the forecast I debated buying a new pair of the same shoes, with thicker lugs, but decided against it as I would rather slip a bit than have blisters from new shoes. Whilst slipping was frustrating at times, aside from this my feet felt good and it was the right call.

As Karen and I came into Painswick, Alan was waiting and it was exactly midnight. Bang on schedule. I wanted to get in and out and hadn’t sat down all day so I ate some vege chilli, which was amazing and was back on the trail within 7 minutes. Alan was even kind enough to lend me his own hat, to save me having to dig through my pack to get mine and lose time. That’s the sort of friend you need on a crew.

I knew my buffer on the cut offs was OK, but also wouldn’t allow any errors so I started to worry a little. By the time I met Alan again in Stroud I was worried and he helped push me on to get to Coaley Peak as soon as I could. I lost Karen for a bit before Stoud but she caught me whilst I was with Alan and we worked a team on the big climb to Coaley Peak, where we decided we wouldn’t stop and keep moving to bank time. Its amazing how much things look different on paper to reality. I felt I would be fine for time and move at a gentle pace, but increasingly as my ever battered body broke down, I was having to work much harder than I would have wanted to keep up a pace good enough to finish.

At Coaley Peak, by not stopping we ended up with three other runners and formed a group of five which helped with the pacing. This wasn’t a formal agreement, you either kept up or got dropped as we were all on our own mission to finish, but because the foggy woods at 3am aren’t an overly lovely place to be alone, we all worked as a group to stay together.

One of these guys was Lee Scott who I first met at the Arc of Attrition back in February. We also shared some miles on the Thames Path this year. Lee is a great bloke and set a decent pace which I tried to maintain. A couple of hours later we hit Dursley where I saw Alan and grabbed some food and drink before the next push to Wooton Under Edge. I felt OK here and whilst my cut off buffer wasn’t amazing, I was still the right side of things.

As I spoke with Alan I lost the other runners so had to use my GPS to find the trail out of Dursely. From here there is a steep climb up to Stinchcombe golf course and as I got back on the trail I realized I wasn’t climbing like I thought I should be. I check my GPS and I was off course. However it was only by a fraction, so I kept going thinking maybe the watch had a small error in the thick woods. What I didn’t realise is that I was on a lower logging track and the trail I should have been on climbed almost parallel above me, so the GPS was spot on- I was almost on the right track but at the same time, heading in a completely different direction.

I turned around and tried to find my way. I found a path that rose, so followed that even though it was overgrown. Eventually it came to a halt at a fallen tree and I swore and shouted as I knew I would have to double back to Dursely. I had now lost half an hour on my already slender cut off buffer and was starting to get distraught. This race means so much to me and I knew it was almost impossible to make it after this massive mistake.

But, I wasn’t out yet and vowed I would never drop and not go down without a fight. Once back on the trail I saw headtorches above me and it was Alan and Chris, who had arrived to take over crewing. I am sorry Chris saw me like this as I was furious and angry with myself, but they kept me focused and said I had time if I kept moving.

This coincided with a 2.5 mile loop of the golf course which is so tough to do when you know you are almost out of time. I had to get to Wooton by 8am to make the cut offs and when you know there is a route that is 400 yards as opposed to 2.5 miles, its hard to stay focused. But the course is the course and I would never cheat, but your brain is all over the place at 6am in fog so thick you can’t see your arm in front of you, that it tries to tell you its ok to just give up and call it a day. No way. Not this year. So I followed the route around the outer stretches of the course and made excellent time fuelled by anger, swearing and lemonade.

I knew I was close to being timed out so when I saw Alan and Chris after this loop they said they had some good news and some bad news. The bad news was I had 6k to go to Wooton, not 4k as I had thought, but the good news was they had checked and the cut off was 8:30am not 8am. So my half hour fuck up, may not yet be the end of the world.

This put a pep in my step and combined with there now being enough daylight to lose the torches, I was off and racing to Wooton. All the pain in my legs, hips and feet I put to one side and I threw myself down the hills with abandon. I slipped a couple of times, going arse over tit, but didn’t care- it was pure adrenaline. I had gritted teeth and was breathing like a man possessed, often grunting on the climbs. I dread to think what an early morning dog walker would have thought.

I saw Chris briefly before the final big climb on this section and he forced me to take a gel and gave me no sympathy- both exactly what I needed. I made the climb and then raced the flat to Wooton through the woods before a big descent into the town.

Chris was here again and told me I had to be in the check point by 8:17 not 8:30. It was now 8:05 so I threw myself down the high street and arrived in 8:13, panicked and stressed but also now believing I had enough time to move steadier and make the final cut off at 1:30pm at mile 87.

I am not sure if it was the adrenaline wearing off, having made this cut off after such a battle, or the fact my body was now trashed from pushing so hard or just general fatigue but I felt myself having increasingly less energy as I moved on. I had 11 miles to make Horton at mile 82 now and needed to be there by 11am at the latest to stand a chance of hitting Tormarton by 1:30. 11 miles in two and a half hours sounds easy, but on that terrain and with the state of my body after the night, it was a big ask.

But as they say, I hadn’t come this far to only come this far, so I pushed on. I’d caught Lee at this point as he was in severe pain but we vowed we wouldn’t stop until we knew it was impossible. My quads were blown, the connector between my shin and my foot was in agony on both feet and my knees really hurt. I mustered a shuffle but it was really, really hard.

I cried a bit thinking after all I pushed that I may now be timed out, but wiped away the tears and kept focused. I was not out yet.

Horton took an absolute age and I saw Chris halfway between the two points. He tried to keep me fired up, but knew time wasn’t on my side as my body was more and more uncooperative. I pushed as much as I could, but just couldn’t maintain a decent average pace. I cant begin to tell you how frustrating that was.

The last 20 miles of the Cotswold Way are the easy bit. If I had just banked another hour I could have walked in from Tormarton, but cut offs are there for a reason and I have to respect them. As I approached Horton, I got lost again only for a moment, but it meant a switch was flicked in my mind. I now didn’t have enough time. Like a balloon being popped, everything left me and I was broken, beaten and finished. I am gutted to say that when I got to Horton I handed my tracker in and pulled off my race number.

So, so close, and yet so far. I have to remain positive and take all of the good things from this weekend. I have never been more focused in a race and I gave it absolutely everything. I left everything out there on that course and if that is the benchmark of personal worth, then I am proud of my race.

If it wasn’t for my mistake at Dursley, I am 100% convinced I would be sat typing a different report, looking at my medal. But that is ultra running and for me, its not about the medals its about the experience and whether or not I can say I am proud of my performance.

Its not the result I wanted and I know I am becoming a bit of a joke at this race now, but I will put it to bed. It means a lot and I know I am capable. I don’t know if it will be next September, but I will get to the Abbey in Bath one of these years. That I can promise you. I think its time to get a coach and get focussed on where I can improve.

My thanks go to Chris and Alan for giving up their weekends for me. I persuaded Chris to enter the South Downs Way 50 miler next April after he nailed his first marathon earlier this year. Having now spent a few hours with me on Sunday morning, he’s probably regretting that now, but the Cotswold Way has a way of stripping you absolutely raw! To Alan, to come out and help a virtual stranger all night in those conditions, I am eternally grateful and will return the favour whenever you need it.

I failed to finish, but I didn’t fail to try. And for that I have salvaged some personal pride.

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Salomon S Lab Hybrid JKT U Review

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Salomon describe this as a ‘technical jacket for athletic pursuits in tough weather’.

I have always rated Salomon gear amongst the highest of the kit I own. Granted, as a brand it isn’t the cheapest but I have tees I bought back in 2012 still in rotation where as cheaper brands only last a season or two before needing to be thrown.

So when I knew I needed to upgrade my waterproof, Salomon was the brand I turned to. My last waterproof from them was the Bonatti which I bought back in 2015 and that has probably worked out at costing me 20p for every run I have used it for in the rain- money well spent when you break it down like that.

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I wanted something highly packable for the days when you just don’t know if it will rain and able to peform for the days when you know it will.

My next 100 mile race, The Cotswold Way Century is a week tomorrow. With the weather being highly changeable in September and this race often getting very cold overnight, I wanted a highly waterproof jacket, windproof and breathable.

When the envelope arrived I thought that this must have been something else I was receiving because the pack was so light it couldn’t possibly the jacket. Amazingly, as I opened it, I realized it was indeed the jacket.

At just 90g, this is an exceptionally light and packable jacket for its capabilities.

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Most ultra distance races require a 10,000mm level waterproof jacket and this doubles that at 20,000mm. At this level to be as breathable as it is, is almost unheard of versus the weight and packable ratio.

This all comes down to the Pertex shield, but the real selling point is the fit of the jacket.

You can see from the photos that the bottom of the jacket on the hem and on the wrists is a highly stretchable material that ensures the jacket stays sealed. Wind and rain cannot blow inside the jacket and this makes it perfect for both wet and windy days.

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In addition, the cut of the jacket is in such a way that motion is not restricted when the hood is up (which naturally grips to your head and is non-adjustable, but not restrictive) and the shoulders and arms can move freely as well.

For autumn and winter days as well as mandatory kit requirements, this jacket is absolutely perfect. Salomon specialise in details and the jacket can fold down into its own hood where two carry straps fold out. This way it can be attached to the front or rear of a race vest easily for days when the jacket may come on and off regularly, or simply carried by hand. For days when its just for emergency only, at just 90g you wouldn’t even know its inside your pack.

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Being built to last too, whilst it is £200 to buy, that will work out at pennies per run. And from struggling in races with poor waterproofs in the past, this is an area of my racing where I am no longer prepared to cut costs.

You can purchase the jacket direct from Salomon here: https://www.salomon.com/uk/product/s-lab-hybrid-jkt-u.html?article=392614

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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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