Friday, 22 January 2016

Race Report: Country to Capital 2016

Country to Capital; first race of 2016 and my longest run in 2 years!

I went in with big expectations and a big set of targets:-

  • Complete the race
  • Get to the canal feeling good
  • Don't walk in the canal section
  • Beat my 2014 time
  • Go under 08:15
  • Have a finish time that starts with a 7.
TLDR; I hit the top 4 goals.

The longer version...

I decided to stay overnight in Wendover the night before.  I like sleep and given the race start of 08:45, with a request to have folks not on the train up from London that morning to be registered by 08:15 I thought it'd just be nicer that way.  This meant I had to take everything I needed to work and wear my kit all day on Friday due to needing to save space in the 1 reasonably-sized drop bag allowed for the race.  Good thing I have no shame really, as it meant looking like a PE teacher all day.

The morning of the race, I had breakfast prepared with me - an avocado, two hard-boiled eggs and some cream cheese that I mashed together and ate after registering at The Shoulder of Mutton race HQ.  I met with @UltraBoyRuns, his partner and baby and @ChiltonDiva who was running her first ultra.  We got ready & chatted in the pub as it filled up and tried to work out exactly how muddy it was going to be on the way to the canal.

My amazing coach @jameselsons was running and gave me a quick hug & a cheery "enjoy it!" just before the start and not long after that, with drop bags safely stowed in the van to Paddington, the race was started.
@jameselsons at the finish (having just won), looking remarkably mud free in his quilted jacket!
The fear about slippery mud for a large proportion of the first 21 miles to the canal quickly evaporated.  The mud was pretty much frozen solid and there were only small patches of pretty thick ice to contend with as well as queueing for some stiles and kissing gates in the first couple of miles.

It was basically a lot easier going than in 2014 with the lack of slippery mud and the only real hindrance I had in the first half was not trusting the breadcrumb trail I had loaded onto my Garmin a couple of times and following the herd only to add 0.6 miles to the route.  Hey ho.

So I got to the canal with no real idea of how I was going in terms of time as I'd been deliberately not looking at the mile splits on my watch as they came up, but I felt pretty good.  As I turned onto the canal, the thought was; "Right! Time to crank up the diesel engine and just steady pace to the end from here."  And I set off at what felt like a reasonably steady pace.

The first mile split ticked by and I took a look. 10:32 for that first mile made me quite happy as it felt slower.  The next mile split... 10:32 and I felt pretty good about that.  Then the next mile felt the same, but when I looked at the time... 11:32.  Hm.  OK, it could be a GPS error or something.  The next mile felt exactly the same again, but... 12:21.  My heart sank.  My inner monologue was threatening that if the next mile wasn't good, well, I don't know what but it wasn't happy.

And it wasn't great but not quite as bad.  11:17 for that mile, but already my brain was sunk.  An 11 minute mile after that would have made me feel OK, but I fiddled with my watch for some reason and stumbled across a screen that told me that my estimated total time for a finish was now 8 hours and 40 minutes.

So, lo and behold, I had a tantrum.  I texted Mr TOTKat in a funk.  He had a go at making me feel better but there wasn't a lot to be done at this point and my brain was going to go to the bottom before it could turn around again.  So having got the texting tantrum out of the way, I burst into tears and heaving sobs with a good old wheeze like a dying donkey.  And I walked through the tantrum until I talked myself into getting running again; partly to just get to the finish in less than another 5 hours, and partly because despite 8 hours 40 really not being what I'd wanted out of the day, it was still going to be a PB.  Of course with the walking tantrum, I lost another few minutes so 08:40 became 08:55 estimated finish (as Garmin works on moving average pace or similar).

I had a further melt down which was actually worse than the first, and I walked through it, but I sort of realised that it was related to the Gingerbread Man wanting to pay a visit.  Which eventually became non-negotiable and I had to make use of my shit kit in some pretty scrappy bushes.  I was also stiffening up from the cold combined with not moving as quickly as I was in the first section - I ended up having to vigorously rub my hips & quads to get some warmth into them a good few times.

Checkpoint 4 came and went just after 15:10 and I was glad not to be paired with another runner as is laid out in the checkpoint information (runners must be paired if leaving the checkpoint after 3pm).  Checkpoint 5 hit just as the sun was going down and I was well after the pairing up threshold of course, but... no pairing up!  Pretty relieved about that as I was worried I'd be paired up with someone who had left all their beans out in the first half and would want to walk a lot.  To be fair, the chap who left CP5 shortly before me then run/walked at exactly the same pace I was running at until the final couple of miles when he finally overtook me (to beat me by about a minute in the end), so I could have paired with him just fine.  We had a good old laugh about that for a few miles.

I cracked open a glow-stick to put in my rear mesh pocket so that cyclists coming up behind me could see me in the dark, and had my fabulous head torch (upside down which keeps the glare out of my eyes) on for seeing the towpath after sunset as there's no lighting.

The final few miles, I jogged pretty slowly but determinedly to the end; feeling a lot less mushed in the brain, but disappointed that I'd not gone as quickly as I'd've liked.

Finishing in 08:48:45 I beat my 2014 time by 10 minutes and 15 seconds.  Yeah, the going was easier in the first section, but there are a few things that I need to keep in perspective:-
  • This time last year it was a two weeks before I began to re-learn how to walk
  • This is the furthest I've run in one day in 2 years
  • I was a couple of kg lighter last time I ran this race and still running off the back of Ironman training fitness
So. All in all, a good start to the year.  And a great long-sleeved t-shirt to remember it by!  I have no idea what the checkpoint food was like apart from CP3 where the savoury snacks were and I had a micro pork pie that took me a mile to eat while I jogged on.  The checkpoint volunteers were great though and helped brilliantly with filling bottles etc. while standing around on a really cold day.

Monday, 4 January 2016

2015 - The Year of Recovery

2015 was never going to be a year of amazing races, having had my ankle chopped open, my anterior talo-fibular ligament (the one that stops you from twisting your ankle when it's working properly) sliced in half, a couple of bits of metal tapped into my bones and some plastic string sewn into them to strengthen up the whole thing.  Given that I was in a plaster cast and on crutches at the beginning of the year and not allowed put any weight on that foot still until I got an air boot on 17th January and then was allowed put weight on that foot without the boot 2 weeks later... any running was totally off until March.  It then turned out that once I was allowed out of the air boot, I had to learn how to walk again having not felt anything touch the bottom of my foot since the start of December 2014.  And that kinda cramped my style running-wise on top of the 4 months of zero aerobic (or even any load bearing) exercise.

I was terrified that I'd be totally back to zero.  Everyone told me that was rubbish and that I was fit and it'd take no time, but that only really applies to life-long athletes, or at least those who have been pretty fit for many years.  And that's not me.

And it did take a while.  A really good while.  And I'm still not quite there yet.  The graph above is the effects of my last 2 years of training. The blue curve is my chronic training load - long term training effect on fitness which you can read as "fitness level". (Pink is acute training load, so the huge spike is when I ran the Thames Path, then a flatline afterward when I did literally nothing, not even walking; and yellow is "freshness", so again a huge drop during Thames Path and then a big recovery when I sat on my bum for 4 months.)

2015 did, however, see some PBs of the 1/2 marathon variety.  Which was quite nice.  But I bottled a marathon and did rather averagely at a multi-day ultra.  That said, I hit the ultras again pretty early on in the recovery, which was a great psychological boost at the time.

Now that I'm pretty much recovered, in 2016 I want to get back to doing what I want to do, not what a broken bit of body limits me to.  So, after I've got Country to Capital out of the way (a silly little 43ish mile race), I'm knuckling down to a quick & dirty marathon then it's time to hit the 50 milers.

I want to do the Centurion Running 50 Mile Grand Slam this year.  And have a go at a 100 miler.  So let's see what happens!

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Race report: XNRG Druids Challenge (84 miles in 3 days) - Day 3

Day 3 - the day my Fenix 3 lied about it's battery charge level :(

So my watch was on charge over-night and reported 100% when I put it on, but when I pressed "go" it suddenly had only 50% charge.  Hey ho.

Anyway.  Breakfast was arse - with the porridge being burnt to the pan it was cold cereal or nothing and I didn't feel like nothing so I had 3x Weetabix with a banana chopped up and lots of milk and a couple of mugs of tea.  So far from my usual food and I've not had banana since Cat Faux gave me half of hers before I did a couple of London Triathlon relays in 2013 (which was again the first banana I'd had in over a year).


Day three and the diesel engine was starting to wind up.  I ran more of this day than the first day.  I felt better, more able to run and the running felt better on this day.

To be fair, the elevation profile was gentler on this day, but *oh boy* was there a sting near the end in a downhill on tarmac which resulted in me being in tears and I heard folks behind me shouting obscenities due to the pain in their quads.  Harsh work so close to the finish and it really shows you where you've not taken care of your legs on the earlier downhills.

At the end, I was glad for it to be over.  The chap I came across in the last few miles was right about where the finish was and it was further away and more up a hill than I was happy about while we were talking.

I feel like I earned this medal and the long-sleeved top we were given at the end.  I didn't have the greatest physical performance compared with what I think I'm capable, but mentally I did a great job of getting over having a pretty terrible first day and various setbacks around availability of food I prefer to eat for breakfast and evening meals as well as pretty evil blistering on my little toe.  I was grateful for Tina the foot-care specialist and the job she did in holding that toe together enough to get me through days 2 and 3.

Ultra, to me, is about problem solving and overcoming adversity.  If it were easy, I would be less interested in doing it.  Though I do think it's easier than straight-up road marathons in many ways, it's only because I'm in a place where I want to compete at road marathons, but I'm still mainly completing ultras (which are also mainly off-road) as it's so variable and new and I've not done the same one more than once (yet).  And I think it's something I can sustainably do for many more years to come.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Race report: XNRG Druids Challenge (84 miles in 3 days) - Day 2

Day 2 - the day of Weather

Having spent 15 minutes in a cold shower, picking the mud off my legs at the end of day 1, followed by not the kind of dinner I was looking for and a fairly mentally difficult day, I'm not entirely sure how I ended up carrying on on day 2.  It got a bit worse before I started too...

I prefer to avoid large amounts of carbohydrates in my diet.  This means my breakfasts (when I have them) are usually based on eggs, avocado and cheese in some form.  Breakfast on day two was a choice of; boxed cereals, croissants, pains au chocolat, bananas, orange juice, and porridge.  So, porridge it was.  I'd normally start a run without breakfast if it starts in the morning and then eat when I'm done - this is what I did most days on my Thames Path trip last year, where I was averaging 31 miles a day and it works well for me.  However, on this day I really felt like having some breakfast, so I listened to that and had a pretty big portion of porridge.

Having felt quite demoralised on day 1, I knew that day 2 was going to be tougher physically despite being shorter.  Muscles would be feeling pretty used & abused from a pretty long run the day before, including having enjoyed some downhills a bit too much and challenged my quads somewhat.

So it did take a little while to get going and it was already raining by that point - the forecast was for rain until around 1pm and 20mph average winds.  And by golly the weather delivered.  I'd been warned it'd be quite exposed out on the ridge on this day and adding the extra miserable weather forecast, I decided to keep a long-sleeved top in my pack as well as my waterproof/windproof jacket.

Having been shivering with the cold before the start on day 1, a good few checkpoints yesterday and again today were asking me if I was cold when I would show up in just a skort & t-shirt and motor on through.  I only really got cold after the last checkpoint on this day, despite the torrential rain that fell from pretty much the start of the day until midday.  There were 20mph (average) head winds that swirled & gusted and didn't die down at any point during the day.  The rain stopped at midday, which was really nice.  But then it started up again about 45 mins later, getting harder and sharper and evolving into hail with the wind turning from a head wind to a side wind.  The rain > hail was so sharp it was hard to keep my eyes open.

You can see here from the look on Tim's face that it was pretty painful! 

Terrain-wise; there was a fabulous section through the woods, skipping over hidden logs and tree roots under the pretty Autumn leaves on the ground.  But as a counter point, there was more wet, slippery chalk to skate over too.  Much less of that than on day one, so much less crossness resulted. 

Having stopped to fill water bottles at all of the checkpoints on day 1, and take a snack or two at the later ones I reduced it to only filling water bottles on this day and a couple of bites of Marmite sandwich at the final checkpoint.  And I ended up drinking too much water.  I stopped for a wee 6 times!  Part of that was down to being wet to the skin all day and chilling my mid-section as a result, but I definitely felt water-logged as my hands swelled quite spectacularly, having been fine the day before, and I was feeling a bit queasy by the end of the run.

By the end of being soaked to the skin, chilled by the fierce winds and pummelled by sharp hail, I was so happy to see tea & coffee coming out of one of the vans at the finish line.  There was a short wait while one of the shuttle buses came to take a batch of us to the leisure centre for the evening.

Where, by the time I got there, there was no water.  Not even just no hot water in the showers, but no water at all and the pipes drained down pretty quickly with all that loo-flushing and hand-washing going on.  No fun at all.  So, I ended up using my damp sports bra to scrape the mud off my legs before putting on clean trousers for the evening.  The meal was much better though - a lovely fresh salad, sausages and pasta for those who like that.

Another trip to the Tina the foot-care lady was needed as the tape that was on my little toe since the previous evening had partly come off, bunched up and taken a lot more of the skin from my toe off with it.  This time it needed a bit more attention; dressing for the night to keep the iodine doing its job and then it'd get some hospital-grade burn dressing in the morning to protect it during tomorrow's run.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Race report: XNRG Druids Challenge (84 miles in 3 days) - Day 1

The Druid Challenge is a 3 day stage race (on foot).  84 miles from Ivinghoe Beacon to Swindon along the Ridgeway National Trail.  It's run by XNRG who organise quite a few multi-day ultras through the year; ensuring they're at least 26.2 miles on any given day with individual day entry so each day counts as a single marathon for those aiming to enter the 100 Marathon Club.

I decided I "needed" to enter a real multi-stage race, having had a go at a self-supported 6 day run along the length of the Thames Path last October.  I really enjoyed that and it would be a nice easing back into the land of ultra marathons with a 3 day stage race of less average distance per day than I covered on my Thames Path run.

The week before the race, I had mostly pretty awful runs and wasn't really feeling it, so I decided to stay in a hotel near the start so I could have more sleep rather than taking the train up to Tring on the morning of the race.  I stayed at Pendley Manor (which is over-priced and shit, by the way) and got a cab to the station where there were shuttle buses to the farm where registration was happening.

Day 1 - the day my engine & legs didn't want to play.

Day 1 is the longest day and the latest start time of the 3 days.  I'm guessing that the 10am start time for those who would be walking is to allow for folks to get a train to Tring from a reasonable distance away, get registered and sorted out and up to the start, rather than being forced to stay overnight nearby.  But at almost 30 miles, starting at 10am if you're walking, or 11am if you're an average runner means you're definitely finishing in the dark and it's pitch black on the trail at this time of year at that time of day.

Anyhoo, I got the shuttle bus to the farm having met a lovely lady called Viv who had recently covered the Camino di Santiago, and registered in a grain shed.  A couple of cups of tea later and some chatting with a couple of Spanish hikers who were looking forward to their first official ultra race (which they were entirely likely to be covering with quite some efficiency as seasoned hikers), and it was time to head up to the start.

We were briefed on safety and the race philosophy - it's a challenge, fun/enjoyable, and be safe - and then walked up Ivinghoe beacon to the start in quite a chilly wind and up a very slippery chalk path which we were going to turn around and run back down again along the start of the Ridgeway path.

Neil, the race director started us off with a countdown from 5 to 1 and off we went.  And immediately my legs pretty much said simply "piss off".  And my breathing was laboured right from the off, despite not that much speed being involved.

The profile of the route today looked like it was one of the tougher ones as well as being a bit long, so that made me feel even worse, mentally, given the state of my legs and engine.  It felt like I was pushing way too hard, or wasn't warmed up, but the pace was pretty sedate.  It took around 25 miles to warm up in the end and I only felt reasonable with 4 and a bit miles to go on the final stretch.  There was a lot of sliding sideways on slippery mud on this day, and I wasn't the only one who was pretty frustrated by that and a bit cross on a good few occasions.

There were some pretty cool sections, running downhill through leaves in the woods, skipping past folks who were a lot more tentative over that terrain.  It felt amazing.  At one point in the woods, I was almost by myself but a blonde lady was just in sight ahead of me.  She was going to take a straight on into a farm, where I though there was a gap in a fence where the trail went, so I called to her that the route went through the fence (which it actually did).  I recognised her voice straight away as the melodious tones of Niandi Carmont (ultra runner and podcast guest/partner of Ian Corless on the Talk Ultra podcast).  She was so encouraging and supportive throughout the 3 days of the race, and we had a good few chats in the evenings.  It was great to meet so many lovely people over the days (and some familiar faces too), but it felt like we got on really well and it's a shame I'm not likely to see Niandi again (mainly because I'm rubbish at that sort of thing).

By the time I got to the final check-point I thought I might just make it to the finish before sunset, but in the end I was about half an hour short of that and ended up using my amazing head torch (which was a Christmas present a couple of years ago).  The final stretch was a good few miles along a dark trail and then along a couple of roads.  My legs and body had decided to behave themselves by then and I felt a lot better, like I was really motoring (which I wasn't, but at least it felt like I was) into the finish line.  Day 1's running over with I went into a very dark place and wasn't sure that come the morning I'd start the next day with the other runners.

A hot shower and a nice dinner might have made me feel better at this point, but the showers in the school we were staying in were cold, and dinner was pretty uninspiring dry chicken breast in a runny sauce with some boiled veg.  OK, my dietary preferences aren't exactly mainstream, but still...

HOWEVER, the race organisation was good! The checkpoints are well-stocked and I did have 1/4 of a Marmite sandwich and a few mini-cubes of Rocky Road during the day which was what I wanted at the time (especially the Marmite sandwiches :o) ).  The medical care, especially the lady who took care of everyone's feet who had any problems at all, was fantastic.  I had ignored a bunched-up sock on my little toe all day and created a spectacular blister that she drained & taped up for me so it was protected the next day.

29ish miles done... time for sleep and see what the next day brings.