South Downs Way 50

Standard

I’ve tried twice before to complete one of James Elson’s races and both finished with a colossal bonk two thirds of the way in and a DNF. Granted, both attempts were for the North Downs Way 100, where in 2015 I attempted the distance only three weeks after my qualifying 50 mile race – not a recommended time frame for doubling distance – and in 2016 where I didn’t even commit to doing it until the week before, let alone train. Ahem. Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate my approach.

So my challenge for 2017 is to take a step back and focus on a more manageable task, relatively speaking. Not to underplay the difficulty of the Centurion races, but as soon as I got home from deepest darkest Kent for the second time and dumped all the uneaten food out of my race vest I decided to sign up for the 50 Mile Grand Slam in 2017: four races across the year along the South Downs, North Downs, Chilterns and Wendover Woods with the promise of an extra bit of bling for finishing all four. If I can train for and normalise a 50 mile race, I might have half a chance of getting past Holly Hill.

Getting as far as the finish of the first race would however take a dramatic change in circumstances. My running routine had ground almost to a halt in 2016, and my work schedule had gone from crazy to totally insane. You can’t train for a 50 mile race by getting your knickers in a twist every time you miss a run, especially when you miss more runs than you make. So, for physical and mental reasons, I decided to restart my daily mile run streak. If I wasn’t going to get the volume of training required to finish the races I at least wanted consistency, and a change in priorities.

So, what could I do to prepare if I couldn’t do the mileage? A busy bit of scheduling at the beginning of the year meant that I was working every other weekend, not to mention many early mornings and evenings, so unfortunately social runs with the Chasers would be out. Loops around the common would have to be enough practice of off-road running, and occasionally doing flat out mile loops around home would take the place of speedwork. Other than that I slotted runs in wherever they fitted with the day’s work – running to and from the tube station usually. It’s only a couple of miles but when it has to be done with a heavy backpack – work clothes and shoes, laptop, lunch, stuff I forgot to take out – it makes for good strength training. And it’s more reliable than the bus.

I also restarted my running diary, which made a lot more sense when there was something to write in it every day, to track my progress on both fronts and keep a count of my weekly mileage. Lining up a few marathons to get back into the rhythm of racing really helped give me something to look forward too as well, not to mention the fact that bought and paid for races were harder to justify missing when weekend work popped up. My fourth attempt at the Moonlight Challenge finally saw me finishing the fifth lap, and the confidence boost that gave me became a massive turning point in my training. If I can get that far I can hike the rest.

Two things drove me to the end of the race. One was the experience of finishing the distance – although that’s a double edged sword, because it brings a calculable standard and the temptation to beat it – and the other was my overall goal to finish the grand slam. When running one race the definition of failure is quitting one race; when running a series the definition of failure in any one is failure of all of them. From one perspective that’s added pressure, but from another it’s the removal of the possibility of voluntary DNF. That’s the mindset I took with me to the start line at Worthing, anyway.

FullSizeRender

The weather forecast was good. Let me rephrase: the weather forecast was good for sun worshippers, less so for ultra runners and ducks. Not for the first time I let my Mediterranean bombast get the better of me and refused the many offers of sun cream; I would pay for that decision later with peeling earlobes and sore shoulders. It was a comforting, homely warmth when we set off at nine in the morning; it was dehydration so bad my palms had stopped sweating by the time I even reached mile 15. Everything stopped sweating. But at the start of the race there was only hope, and the liberating feeling of carrying the barest minimum of items that will keep you alive for the next 50 miles. You know, like melty Snickers bars and a map I won’t use and two head torches on the sunniest day of the year and a lucky (HA HA) QPR cap.

img_6968.jpg

The first aid station is just over 11 miles in, which should feel like a long old way to go without support but really doesn’t. I mean, you can spend a lot of time on the South Downs before getting tired of the scenery, and it helped that I was joined by good company too; in particular two runners from local clubs who knew the terrain and the area well, and spoke of it like someone in love. Perhaps the company was slightly too good; in all my chatting I hadn’t noticed how little I’d drunk of my litre of water, and quite contrary to my plans hadn’t emptied my bottles by the time we reached Botolphs. I had to scull them dry as we reached the aid station to justify refilling them. The sky was clear and cloudless, the air unmoving. The South Downs is, unlike the North Downs I’d spent so much time on, incredibly exposed. There is no tree cover to shield you from rain or rays. You take the rough with the smooth.

Shortly after the first aid station I fell in step with a wine master who had trained nearby and we spent a lot of time looking out for his college on the way to Saddlescombe. He reminded me of my friend Chris; chronologically the youngest in our group of hooligans but who, being more interested in the world than anyone I know, taught us how to identify Bordeaux by the vineyard and classify fish by most appropriate accompaniments, while delivering a history lesson to people almost twice his age. The wine master – also called Chris, also with excellent hair – had trained at Plumpton after deciding to trade his career in hospitality for a less lucrative but more sociable one in the wine trade, and ultrarunning was simply an extension of improving his quality of life. After staying the night before in my sister-in-law’s Art Deco seafront apartment in Brighton, drinking in the sea breeze with my bottle of locally brewed porter, I got the impression that people in Sussex know how to live a good life. It’s the sort of life I could get used to.

img_6974.jpg

Chris and I had been running at a comfortable pace that would have got us in around the ten hour mark and were hoping to sustain it until at least thirty miles in before stopping for a proper rest. A great plan, which got less great as the sun burned brighter, my water bottles got drier and my feet heavier. Eventually I had to slow down and let him go, knowing that trying to hurry to the next station was counter-productive; I might save a few minutes but kill myself in the effort. Get-there-itis had fucked me over enough times before, and if I was going to learn any lessons from past experience it had to be not to panic. Nevertheless, by the time I reached the halfway checkpoint at Housedean the heat was really taking its toll, and not just on me. Despite advice to the contrary I took a seat in the cool darkness of the barn and watched as runner after runner came in but very few left. Dehydration had knocked me sideways and I didn’t want to leave until it was under control.

img_6973.jpg

OK, systems check. Muscles, fine actually. No pain, no soreness (thank you Altras), no blisters, not really tired even. I had the pre-sunburn feeling of warmth under my skin but otherwise no mechanical issues. Internally was a different story. Head, swimming. Stomach, not having any of it. Even the thought of food made me want to throw up and I still wasn’t ready to confront that possibility. Mouth, dry as an ashtray. Tailwind, gone. I took my time sipping a couple of cups of water before refilling both my bottles and nibbled pathetically on some fruit and a couple of cookies. When I set off on the road again the reusable cup in my mandatory kit turned out to be a bit of a lifesaver – my problem so far had mostly been to do with forgetting to drink when I needed it and holding an open cup in my hand was a good reminder to my gluey brain to keep sipping away. With that in one hand and some Marylands melting in the other I trudged away up the next climb.

FullSizeRender3

All day I had been looking forward to the Southease aid station at mile 33: partly because it was a pleasing number, partly because I had promised myself I could call Andy there, and partly because it was the point where I had met Cat during her run in 2015 and I fell in love with the spot immediately. At the crossroads between the South Downs Way and the Ouse Valley Way, the YHA at Southease offers an adorable tearoom nestled between rolling hills in one direction and winding river in the other, and it’s a real travellers’ treat. It was my reward for sticking out the tough part. The break I had taken at Housedean made all the difference to my hydration, the midday haze was burning away as we approached late afternoon and I even managed to pee (I know, the glamour of ultrarunning). Still though, I couldn’t quite improve on mousey nibbles of food that weren’t giving me any significant calorific value. A few miles on I felt the wall looming again; it took a lot of will to overcome my gag reflex and force down a gel. But it kept me going. Who knew.

Knowing that there was a tricky bit of navigation around the Alfriston and Jevington aid stations I devoted my energies to staying on track and tried to take my mind off my churning stomach. The navigation function on my Suunto was a great peace of mind when I had no familiarity with the area – not that you can get lost for lack of signs because they’re bloody everywhere, but because the panic that sets in when you haven’t seen one for a few minutes is more likely to make you doubt your course and make stupid decisions – so I concentrated on that little arrow and almost nothing else.

By the time I reached the church at Alfriston low blood sugar had scrambled my mind as well as my belly; I lurched towards the volunteers panicking about the cutoffs, refusing to refill my water bottle or eat until they reassured me I was well within it. Of course, I’d confused the 13 hour finishing time limit with my own 11 hour target and got myself in a tizz over nothing. It was a bit of a wake up call, and I took another systems check on myself. Not good. Whatever was in my body wanted to leave it, one way or the other – the next minutes minutes was spent either hugging the toilet or pushing pieces of crisps into my mouth even though I’d forgotten how to chew. But once again that twenty minutes in the cool shelter of the church was worth so much more than the time I’d have saved if I hadn’t stopped. I didn’t exactly leave good as new, but I recovered enough to alternate between jogging until my stomach complained and hiking until my watch did.

Eventually my watch complained too much and the battery gave out just as I reached the final station at Jevington. Running the navigation function all day drained it much faster than the standard settings, and the one section I really needed the navigation for was the final stretch where there were no longer any SDW waymarks. But, I reasoned, I knew that there was only around four and a half miles left which should take about an hour, and James’ team hadn’t exactly skimped on the signage – I couldn’t go far wrong as long as I paid attention. I grabbed a handful of jelly babies and trotted off. The end was so close now. Always forward.

The final stretch into Eastbourne town centre was, as you’d expect, a lot of painful hard ground after spending so much time on the relative comfort of of South Downs chalk. I just kept visualising the circuit of the running track that would make up the final 400 metres of the 50 mile race; just as I had so many times before, I imagined powering round it as if it was the 10,000m final of the Olympics. Before I knew it I was right there, running like I’d forgotten the distance that was behind me, lifting my chin and raising my knees, pushing forward on and on until I got to the final bend. And then, I fucking went for it.

Jumping over the line with a war-cry earned me some funny looks, a handshake from James Elson and a medal from Mimi Anderson, but my biggest reward was the confidence that I now knew how to beat the bonk. I had gone to a bad place and I had come back out of it with patience, determination and a good talking to. Not with kit choices, nor salt pills or magic bullets – just willpower. The decision to finish and finish strong was mine, just as the decision to quit had been too.

Less than five hours’ sleep before I left for work at 5:45 the following morning for an onsite rig day – it’s the part of my job that usually kills me but that day I had a spring in my step and some hilarious dodgy tan lines from running in one direction all day, and I almost couldn’t wait to get to work. That one race gave me belief, gave me back my control, gave me a huge chunk of my life back. And it would only be a month until the next one.

Can’t

Fucking

Wait.

img_6990.jpg

Advertisements

Beachy Head Marathon 2014

Standard

During my first attempt at the 50 Mile Challenge back in July, I got chatting to a few of the other runners (as I often do) and asked them the question I like to ask all runners: what’s your favourite race?

Independently and without prompt, they all said Beachy Head.

So, assuming they weren’t on some sort of commission or a wind up (and after checking that it was listed on the 100 Marathon Club website as a viable race), I signed myself right up. Hills? Love ’em. Mud? The more the better. Beautiful scenery? That’ll do nicely, thanks.

My nomadic childhood has left me with a sketchy understanding of British geography, so it took me a few checks of Google maps to be sure that Beachy Head was in Eastbourne and not Devon as I’d originally thought, and that it was indeed the right place to look for hotels for the night before. A quick scout around teh interwebs came up with the Alexandra Hotel right on the seafront, one of the many charming converted townhouses just a mile’s walk from the start line. Not glamorous or chic, but friendly and clean and adorably chintzy. The landlady was a bit horrified that I would be leaving too early for breakfast in the morning and actually offered to run out and buy me cornflakes, bless her. Yeah, I thought, this’ll do fine.

I laid out my race kit on the chair, and nipped round the corner for a pre-race pasta meal. Not a minute’s walk away I found a family run Italian restaurant – and by family run I mean I’m pretty sure I was sitting in their living room – and gorged myself on delicious spicy seafood linguine, garlic bread and olives, Sauvignon Blanc and tiramisu. What they must have thought of the greasy looking woman who turned up for dinner at 9 o’clock at night, alone and in jogging bottoms, and wolfed down a meal that would make Mr Creosote look like Twiggy I daren’t speculate.

It was amazing though. God, I love good food. I don’t like to think of food and exercise as two parts of a punishment/reward cycle because there’s no version of that which is good for one’s mental health, but I have noticed an undeniable link between trail runners and foodies, and between enjoying a hearty meal when you know you’re going on a long run compared with when you aren’t. The more I try different foods in preparation for and during long runs, the more I’ve discovered that gels and energy bars just don’t hit the spot like proper food does. Of course, it’s impossible to carry a four course meal with you for every marathon – unless you’re Dean Karnazes and you run while eating a family size pizza rolled up like a burrito – and the fact remains that you need the requisite calories, minerals and proteins to keep you going in as portable a form as possible. I’m just saying that as long as I’m not an elite runner nobody is going to make me feel guilty about a pre race tiramisu and wine.

I have hit on something that ticks all the boxes though, and that is a recipe for a ginger and honey cake which I bastardised by adding dried fruits and salted nuts to, as a quick boost energy cake. I’m no Mary Berry but even I couldn’t get it wrong, this thing is so easy to make (insert your own piece of cake joke here). With my additions it slices up into 12 easy-to-carry loaf slices worth about 345 kcal each, is moist enough to chew even when I’m dehydrated and tastes delicious. I brought two slices with me, one for breakfast and one for mid race as needed.

The next morning I was up before the sun and out of the hotel while the sky was still inky black. The walk to the start line took just over twenty minutes, mostly due to me stopping to take photos and take in the scenery, and by the time I reached the school where we were to register and start from morning had very much broken. I picked up my race number, a good 90 minutes before we were due to start, and waited for a good moment to drop my bag.

IMG_0523.JPG

Being situated in a school, the facilities for the start and finish area are luxurious in comparison to most races. There are clean, warm changing rooms given over to the runners for the day, plenty of loos (not that that made the queues any less frenzied than normal) and joy of joys, a canteen serving free tea, coffee and squash. Somewhere comfortable to wait and free coffee? It’s like the business class lounge of trail races. It’s almost cheating.

I suppose I ought to clear something up here: I’ve been referring to it as a trail race, but that’s not how it advertises itself. It’s run almost entirely on trails around the South Downs, and with 1000m of elevation in total it’s no walk in the park. But it also doesn’t really feature on trail calendars in particular. When you ask past participants about it, they either say it’s the best race ever or it’s the hardest race ever (not that the two are mutually exclusive) which makes me think that you have to be switched onto a certain mindset to enjoy it. Which is to say, if you turn up expecting a marathon version of parkrun you’re going to have a very tough day. If you turn up expecting a trail race, you’ll be wondering where the rest of the mud is. The most concise description I can think of is that it’s a hill race, and I think the reason I enjoyed it so much is that is exactly what I had expected it to be.

Lining up at the start, the first thing you see in front of you is a steep vertical climb, the ground already churned up by the long distance walkers who complete the same course but start an hour earlier. Photos do not do it justice. This is the beginning and the end of the race, and it’s the very embodiment of the course. I stared up at it, awestruck, when the chap standing next to me said “That’s quite a hill, isn’t it?”

IMG_0521.JPG

We got chatting and it turned out this was his first marathon of the year, and only his second ever, his first being London a couple of years ago. We were expecting similar finish times but very much aiming just to finish, bearing in mind the course profile. Paul was wearing a cap with a photo of his baby boy on the front, his inspiration for running, and with another one on the way his training regime was limited to one run a week, which is remarkable. It made me feel very lucky to be able to fit five runs a week around my hectic, but comparatively free schedule.

The first couple of miles are all pretty much uphill, and based on distance and gradient I had judged them to be like running up the road I live on twice. In reality, where I’m usually cursing and grumbling by the time I reach the summit at home the narrow path and foot traffic forced us to go much more slowly, and I was at the top before I even realised it. In fact, almost every ascent became a walk up/sprint down affair. It’s almost as if the course wanted me to do Phoebe running and aeroplane arms.

With my progress based on even effort levels and Paul’s based on a steady pace, we kept finding each other at the flat stretches, he having overtaken me on the uphills and me having screamed past him on the downs. Eventually we met up again at the 12 mile checkpoint and kept pace with each other for a few miles, each urging the other on at their weaker moments. It was perfect timing, having someone else to chat to just as we came up to the flattest and most boring stretch of the course. Churlish as it is to say that, this race does spoil you for views and fun terrain. Two years ago I’d never have thought I’d be looking wistfully toward the hills hoping for more climbs to do.

Eventually I peeled away to leave Paul to his steady and sensible pace, having been strengthened by Bourbon biscuits and orange squash and the desire to throw myself into some more mud. All the checkpoints were well stocked with comforting if not entirely nourishing food, adding to the playground feel of the whole day. Bourbon biscuits and orange squash, just like mud and grazed knees, remind me of being 8 or 9. They make me feel as strong as I was when I was 8 or 9. And they contributed to my belief that the soul needs as much nourishment to finish a marathon as the body does. Other than the boring flat stretch where I was merrily chatting anyway, I don’t think there was a single yard of this course that I didn’t have enormous fun running on.

IMG_0520.JPG

Much of the route had been either scree, grass or chalk, so my trail shoes proved themselves to be absolutely the right choice despite my fear that they would hurt my feet before 20 miles. My toes did receive a bit of a battering, especially on the downhills, but with my trusty gaiters over the top keeping out grit they were in relatively good shape. I throttled back for another climb on the way to the Seven Sisters (or as one runner I met calls them, the Seven Bitches) knowing that I would need the energy and the gumption to keep going over the trickiest part of the terrain, and watched the sheep grazing languidly beside us.

And then I started to notice a girl in front of me, similar height and build, wearing some striking tights with a tiger emblem down the side, jogging steadfastly along at a regular pace just as Paul had done. Just like Paul, I noticed that she was beating me over the uphills only for me to overtake on the downs. And then I got my competitive face on. I do love racing people who don’t know I’m racing them.

Eleni, it turned out, had been doing the same thing with me and within a few minutes we were happily chatting away and laughing, another person to help pass the trickier sections with. She turned out to be a financial journalist from Maryland, USA, now living in Hong Kong but visiting friends in the UK for a few days. She and her boyfriend – also competing but easily an hour ahead of us – had a hobby of finding random marathons and trail races whenever they were abroad and for some reason Beachy Head popped up on their radar. Proof, if further proof were needed, of the draw of this race. We shared stories about past races and the miles melted away behind us.

The Seven Sisters are by no means the hills with the highest elevation – if anything they’re among the smallest – but they are a dizzying up and down routine over three or so miles and the point at which they hit you is just when you start to run out of energy reserves. I tackled them the only way I knew how – by turning them into a game. I kept pace with Eleni slowly climbing the uphills and freefalling the downhills, but she eventually struggled after about four or five and I ploughed on. I wasn’t really aiming for a time, but I knew now that sub 5 hours was possible, and I decided to go for it.

IMG_0524.JPG

As it turned out, the final hill was the toughest of all and not just because it came after 10 or so other hills. With the sea on my right, I knew I was heading in the right direction and roughly how many miles were left, but with only a steep incline in front of me I had no way of judging how much ground I had left to cover. I let go of my time target, and slowed down to a walk.

Although it was undeniably the toughest part of the race, I didn’t feel down or like I’d hit a wall. I was tired, certainly, and starting to feel soreness in my legs, but with the beauty of the South Downs all around me and the knowledge that I was about to finish one of the toughest marathons on the calendar I still felt mentally pretty strong. Let’s be honest, I was never likely to win this one; even a PB wasn’t on the cards. Just over 5 hours is still not a bad time for a race that goes up and down like a horse on a merry-go-round. So a few more minutes don’t count for much.

Just as my good mood started to wane I reached the crest of the hill, and there I saw it: the finish line. I freewheeled down for a short while, enjoying a quick blast of Gold Dust for a sprint finish, then realised than the descent was only getting steeper and steeper. Of course it was – how could I forget the nearly vertical climb at the start? It’s the same piece of ground, you daft woman! And with that, I let myself go completely. If my feet ever touched the ground in that last few hundred yards, it wasn’t because I had control of them. I felt like I was 8 years old again.

In fact, even after I crossed the finish line my momentum carried me forward so fast I nearly crashed into the marshals handing out medals and goody bags; I’ve never had to use emergency brakes at the end of a race before. The crowd were tirelessly cheering on all the finishers and I looked backwards to see what they all looked like. Just like me, hurtling uncontrollably, a mixture of fear and joy on everyone’s faces. What a set of photos that’ll make, I thought.

The race management is not as high tech as others I’ve done, but it’s definitely the fastest confirmation of an official time I’ve ever had – at the end of the finishers’ tunnel was a man with a laptop and what looked like a receipt printer, uploading the chip times straightaway and handing out printouts to anyone that asked for them. I don’t know what this system is called, but it’s brilliant. I can’t believe I’ve never seen it before.

So that was me done: 5:03. Shortly afterwards I found Eleni, less than five minutes behind me, and we had a big squeaky girly congratulatory hug. She asked me if I was disappointed about the three minutes; normally it would grate but honestly, I couldn’t have cared less. Two weeks after getting a PB in a road 50k and three weeks before a sub four hour marathon attempt, I took away much more than a finishing time. I took away a renewed love of running just for joy, like a child playing a game with no rules. When you don’t care about the numbers, they don’t care about you.

See you again next year, Bitches.