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Mental

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  • Running poles making ascents and descents easier
  • GPS to making navigation a doddle
  • Compression kit to reduce muscle fatigue

What do all these things have in common? These are all aids many of us use to help complete long distance endurance events.

I use running poles when allowed, I almost always use a GPS device even if a map isn’t loaded on to it and before I realised compression kit was causing all sorts of injury problems I would often be found in ridiculously tight fitting attire.

There are two aid types though that I wonder about, the first I don’t use, the second I do (when I can convince the GingaNinja to rock up to a race registration).

Pacers and Crews: The aid I don’t use that I’m referring to are pacers and it was after seeing some amazing finishes at hundred milers and the like that got me wondering if using a pacer increases the likelihood of a finish and whether by using them are runners on a level playing field?

The other aid are crews – which I do, on occasion, use and I believe that in the early days of my ultra marathoning I really wouldn’t have gotten very far without a crew and the support they offer. But do they give me and others who use them an edge on race day?

Reading lots of recent race reports and talking to runners it’s clear that there is an appetite for the use of both pacers and crews but does it take away something of the challenge? Increasingly my view is becoming that yes, these things are taking away from something that, at its best, in my opinion, is a solo sport.

Perhaps if they’re going to be in play there should be greater scrutiny about how a crew and pacers can be used as I’ve witnessed some things during recent races that has made me wonder if too much crew access and too much pacing is creating an unfortunate imbalance in ultra marathons.

I met a Spanish runner at about 30 miles into an unsupported race recently and we ran together for maybe 12 miles. I enjoyed his company very much but the curious thing was that his crew met him at five different points along the route during the time we were together. Each time he would stop, chat, change kit, have a nibble, check his route, have a sit in the warm vehicle etc. It felt like the spirit of the race was not being adhered to and there were others too during this particular event that had cars literally following them down the roads – with family members joining in for a few miles as pacers – picking up food at McDonalds, etc. I’ve met people who’ve run past their homes or near enough to detour and been witness to them going indoors, changing wet or filthy kit, filling up food and then simply popping back on the route – all I should point out, within the rules of the race. I don’t begrudge this level of support – hell, if I could get it my DNF percentage wouldn’t be so high! However, though I’m far from a purist in running terms I do feel this takes some of the shine off the effort required.

The pacer question is very much a personal choice and are often subject to specific race rules but for me these are an aid that detract from one of the most important aspects of a race – the mental challenge. I could pluck an arbitrary percentage out of the air but I’d suggest that most endurance races are won and lost in the mind and not in the body. The pacer therefore can have a real, tangible effect on a racers performance and we are back to the point about imbalance.

All this said though I’ve been known to buddy up with runners on a route in order to ensure a finish although always with the agreement that if the pacing didn’t match we’d say goodbye and good journey. That changed a little bit when on the South Wales 50 when myself and two other runners joined up on the course then formalised our pacing/team running strategy to ensure that we all finished. It was perhaps this more than anything that got me wondering about just how much of a difference a pacer can make. Now to be fair Ryan, Pete and myself were all pretty ruined by the time we’d hooked up and it was as much about surviving the night as it was pacing but it gave me an insight to what a fresh pair of legs or a fresh attitude can do for a very tired ultra runner.

These days I’m much more a social ultra runner rather than a competitive one and I tend not to think too much about my position in the field, preferring to concentrate on taking in my surroundings and having a lovely time. However, this has got me wondering just how much better I might be if I had a team right next to me pushing me forward?

The purity argument: The reason I suppose I don’t do that and put together a team to get me through these things is simply because of my belief in the solo element. I probably would be a better runner if there was someone in my ear for the final 50 miles pushing me that little bit harder or if I had a crew with lots of kit ready and waiting. However, for me ultra running is being out there, facing myself and a trail and although I can very much respect other people’s decisions for using pacers and crews it’s less and less suited to me. Perhaps evidence of this was that the last time the GingaNinja crewed for me was the Thames Path 100 in 2015 – here she met me several times armed with chocolate milk, kit options and a regular stern talking to but since then she’s mainly been at starts and finishes if there at all and in truth I prefer this. Although it’s scary to think you’re on your own it really does heighten the elation (for me) upon completion.

All this said I’ll still be using poles (periodically) and GPS – I’m not giving those up anytime soon, I mean I’m not completely stupid! Therefore am I a hypocrite for suggesting pacers and crews detract from a level race but I’m perfectly content to gain an edge by using kit that some call ‘cheat sticks’ or by buddying up inside an event? I suppose it’s an individuals view and more importantly a race directors view and if you (or perhaps I) don’t like it well then I don’t have to sign up to that race.

And so… I’m curious about your views on pacers and crews, do you feel they offer you a better chance of finishing well? Do you think they give some runners an advantage that others don’t have? Would you consider them a hindrance? Or are they simply part of your ultra running armoury?

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Life, the universe and then? 
Sometimes you can guide your life in such a way to make you believe that you have control and other times life simply asserts its dominance over you and gives you a bloody good kicking. I think I’ve had a charmed life, certainly over the past 10 years or so. I’ve been very fortunate that it’s morphed into something I consider very happy but it wasn’t always like that.

Finding happiness? One of the big pieces in the happiness puzzle was running, but unlike others who may have been Olympically or middle-age inspired, I came to running because I was going through the darkest period of my life. 

I’ve said before that I started running in late 2011 but that’s not strictly true – I’ve always run.

At school I ran the 100m, 200m and 400m, I was a decent cross-country runner and I enjoyed it much more than football, cricket or rugby. I was then an intermittent/lazy runner until around 2003 when I took a 3 month stay in sunny Scarborough because I needed to recover from what was effectively breaking down.

I suppose the truth of the matter is that I really arrived at a life filled with running because of this serious lapse in my mental health. I’d been in a relationship with a woman that had turned sour a year earlier and despite an a acrimonious break-up when she came calling, with serious issues of her own, I stupidly returned to try and help her.

This act of affection broke me into a million pieces, the problem I had was that I wasn’t qualified to help with her problems and she dragged me down beyond the point of being able to see clearly enough to prevent myself from drowning. I’m sure I’m not alone in such situations but at the time I felt at my lowest ebb and unable to see anything ahead of me – it felt a lot like I imagine the end of a wasted life would feel.

Though I don’t have a definitive recollection of everything that happened I do recall considering ending my own life, although I had framed it in thoughts such as, ‘what would happen if I wasn’t here?’ ‘Who would care?’ and ‘could a train ever not kill a human being in a direct hit situation?’

However, in reality, suicide wasn’t really on the cards as an option but it lurked as a concept. 

Thankfully I didn’t do that and I made a desperate decision that plays a huge role in influencing my life to this day…

I’d called my uncle.

He and his family lived in North Yorkshire and they kindly offered a place to stay and support. Little did I know his help would manifest itself best in reviving my love of running.

My uncle in his younger days had been a decent runner but as age, life and pies get to you then you let yourself go a bit and he had. It seemed we both benefitted from the fresh Scarborough coast line as we ran daily. The hilly roads and hillier cliff trails of North Yorkshire providing ample respite from my own stupidity. I even saw Jimmy Saville running up and down my hill a few times in the days when he was still ‘Saint Jim’.

My uncle was (and assume is) a pragmatic man and his approach of seaside air combined with exercise might seem a bit Victorian but actually I hadn’t gone so far down the rabbit hole that I couldn’t be reached and his solution was the right remedy for me.

We didn’t really talk in any detail about what went on, (stereotypically) men don’t, northern men don’t and we didn’t – other than a brief chat on a late night stroll up the hill to his home. I think this left us both a little uncomfortable and neither of us ever really returned to the topic other than in one heated argument (the point at which I knew I was recovering and knew it was time to leave).

But with limited exchanges over my mental wellness I felt the need to balance the support provided by my uncle and his wife by adding in talking therapy as a way of exploring what had brought me to my knees. Unfortunately I found a therapist determined to focus on my parents as the root of the issues I had rather than the slightly more obvious ex-girlfriend fucking around in my head. Thankfully I found the therapist and I got on very well and the conversations quite stimulating which in turn opened up my own ability for assessment with a renewed clarity.

In the weeks that followed I was able to reconnect with myself and through my newly acquired active lifestyle I began to feel physically and mentally stronger.

I started to set out some basic life rules* that (mostly) to this day I live by, but at the heart of that was a promise to myself that I would be active – this would form the cornerstone of ‘me’. I also came to understand that my life rules must be fluid and flexible because it was my own dogma that had made me fragile and vulnerable. However, in my dealings with the ex-girlfriend I had compromised myself and no amount of flexibility should allow that to happen again. 

And so armed with words to live by I did just that and the past 15 years have been (mostly) the best of my life. And in all that time only once have I had a scare that it might all come tumbling down and that was last year during my very public retirement from running.

The Risk of Return? With the GingaNinja disagreeing about how much running I do I found myself in something of a quandary. After many successful years of both good mental health and running I found myself in a position where I was being asked to curtail some of my active exploits.

The danger of this was an immediate downward spiral back towards being less mentally happy which would ultimately (I believe) have endangered my relationship.

I tried to explain this without the context of my experiences in the early 2000s and feel that withholding this information made the problem worse than it needed to be. Thankfully a solution was achieved where I neither compromised the security of my health or my relationship. No easy feat but it was the right outcome.

Times and people change. In the years since I first encountered a mental health problem I’ve become a very different person, so much so that my near 40 year old self would barely recognise the younger me. And even though I’m still a reasonably anxious person it now fails to overwhelm me, I’ve come to the conclusion that, ‘everything will just keep happening so I’ll just get on with my bit’ and this is just fine, but it felt like it was a very long road to get to this stage.

Concluding. I never thought I was a candidate to struggle with mental health and I never believed it would take nearly 15 years for me to talk about it in a public way but perhaps I simply no longer care what anyone else thinks. Maybe it’s that I’ve seen lots of blogs and forums on the topic and feel that my experience may be of use to someone or maybe I just like talking about myself.

However, having discussed other peoples challenges and resolutions in search of greater understanding I’ve come to realise that no two issues or answers are the same. I’m a big advocate for an adventurous, running lifestyle to give yourself breathing space and time to think but I am very aware this isn’t for everyone and need only look to my ex-girlfriend who helped bring my own problems to the fore. Running was not the solution for her but it was for me.

What I would urge anyone who finds themselves in a difficult position, anxious, depressed, sad or some other form of mental illness is to seek support (support information from Mind, click here). There are options and most of all there are ways to navigate around or away from difficultied but your journey will be as unique as you are and recovery takes effort and nothing in life is guaranteed.

But ultimately stay happy and as Bill and Ted said, ‘Be excellent to each other’.

While you’re here below are a few facts from mentalhealth.org.uk 

  • It is estimated that 1 in 6 people in the past week experienced a common mental health problem.
  • In 2014, 19.7% of people in the UK aged 16 and over showed symptoms of anxiety or depression – a 1.5% increase from 2013. This percentage was higher among females (22.5%) than males (16.8%).
  • Mental health problems are one of the main causes of the overall disease burden worldwide
  • Mental health and behavioural problems (e.g. depression, anxiety and drug use) are reported to be the primary drivers of disability worldwide, causing over 40 million years of disability in 20 to 29-year-olds.
  • Depression is the predominant mental health problem worldwide, followed by anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

And these numbers from Mind make sad reading (the full survey and information can be read here);

  • Generalised anxiety disorder 5.9 in 100 people
  • Depression 3.3 in 100 people
  • Phobias 2.4 in 100 people
  • OCD 1.3 in 100 people
  • Panic disorder 0.6 in 100 people
  • Post traumatic stress disorder 4.4 in 100 people
  • Mixed anxiety and depression 7.8 in 100 people

*For those interested and still reading I earlier mentioned the ‘Life Rules’ I established nearly 15 years ago. Having found the original list I wrote I have down exactly as was in my sketchbook. It was a good list then and it’s a good list now.

  • Be curious
  • Keep moving
  • Look up
  • Question
  • Listen
  • Fight
  • Never compromise yourself
  • Work hard, earn everything
  • Stand up for your beliefs
  • Learn from mistakes
  • Give people what they need not what they want
  • Have faith in people
  • Live the life fantastic

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I have been struggling with the start of this blog post about the South Wales 50 for a couple of reasons, the first is that some of what happened shouldn’t ever be aired again and remain confined to the trails it happened on and the second is that the race was so amazingly awesome that it is actually rather challenging to put into words.

However, as a regular reviewer of races I want you all to consider this monster, step back, think carefully and then probably enter and here is why…

Several months ago I had decided that my hundred mile effort for the year was going to be the SW100, described as brutal with a mere 30% completion rate. In my effort to tackle more and more brutal races this had all the appeal I needed and with training going well in the first four months of the year I was feeling pretty good about going up against this beast. Sadly in the wake of MIUT, Marlborough and Meriden my body took a series of nasty blows – bad injuries to my groin, my heel and my back and none have truly settled, especially after the mauling I took at Meriden three weeks ago. I therefore decided to request to be dropped down from the hundred mile to the fifty, I explained that I felt as though I at least stood a chance of getting around the 50 whereas I felt the hundred would probably annihilate me.

Joe and Ben couldn’t have been nicer and moved me over to the fifty but with trains already booked I was going to be arriving for the hundred anyway and so offered my services for a few hours as a volunteer. So at 5am on the Friday with a rucksack that weighed the same as a tank I set off on my journey to Radyr. Thankfully the GingaNinja was visiting her parents and I was able to grab a lift as far as Swindon in the relatively luxurious new wheels we had picked up the day before and after a quick spot of lunch (KFC) I hurled my bag on my back and trundled to Swindon train station for an hour long journey to Cardiff followed by a short hop to Radyr – half a mile from the start.

So far , so simple
The problem was I was pretty exhausted – the stupidly hot week we had just experienced had meant I’d managed only a few hours sleep all week and I didn’t fancy my chances of a good night in a jam packed tent with no roll mat. Regardless of these concerns I unloaded, set up my camp and then went to offer my services as a volunteer.

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A bit of volunteering never hurt anyone
Joe handed me over to Sian on race number duty and together we spent the next few hours handing out race numbers, maps and shirts to all that wanted to risk their lives against the Welsh valleys. It was an amazing insight and something of a spectacle and of course it is a favourite thing of mine to do – simply to admire the every type of person who believes they can do this distance. Every type of person was represented here from the silly to the serious, the young to the old, the seasoned to the newbie, it would be interesting to see who would finish and importantly why people might stop.

I really enjoyed registration and felt like I’d gotten into the swing of things after a while and genuinely enjoyed the company of the other volunteers, especially Sian. After the 100s had finished registering I called it a day, they had more than enough volunteers to cope it seemed and I needed food, sleep and prep.

It was closing on 8pm when I left Radyr in search of food and the drizzle had already begun, I’d managed to cook some dirty noodles on my stove but having forgotten a fork I had to wet wipe one of the metal tent pegs to eat it – my hunger was far from sated. The nearest reasonable town was only a mile or so away and so I threw caution to the wind and headed out. Whitchurch it turned out had a number of eateries but I didn’t fancy sitting alone so I found a truly delicious fish and chip shop grabbed the ‘homemade fish cake and chips’ for £3.20 and meandered back towards the Tesco Express, while chowing down on my hot delicious treat, to pick up some essentials such as chocolate milk, a Turkish Delight and two packs of pulled pork pastries.

By 9.30pm a little wetter but much happier I settled down in my tent knowing that in the morning I’d be taking on an uncompromising 50 mile route. Sleep though was far from easy to find and it was an uncomfortable night filled with a drizzle that normally would aid my rest, but this night simply heightened my anxiety. I got up at about 5 and fiddled with kit for a bit and decided the best course of action was shower and a chocolate milk breakfast.

Pre-race
It was big communal rugby showers which warmed wonderfully across my exhausted body and I felt fresh afterwards as I slapped on liberal amounts of Vaseline to my knackers. My only concern was that I spilt a whole cup of tea on my runderwear the night before and despite keeping them in my sleeping bag they hadn’t dried and so my troublesome balls were a little looser than I might have liked but there was nothing for it but to accept it. It was here that I would meet the first of two gentlemen that would define my race. I met Pete in the shower room and we chatted a little about races, children and the days event, we’d had a bit of a laugh and as I left the changing facilities we wished each other well. I thought little more of it.

I proceeded up the stairs and grabbed an empty table as I didn’t really want to intrude on the couple of small gatherings and cracked open the chocolate milk – tidied up my drop bag and watched as a succession of weary looking warriors trundled in. Pete joined me at my table and behind me sat another gentleman runner, Ryan – we were joined by Gari (who it would turn out I already knew via Twitter and was speedy as buggery round the course) and a couple of others that helped to create a warm and friendly bantering atmosphere. It was mainly old race and kit chatter interspersed with amusing anecdotes. The time waiting for the bus to take us to the start simply flew by; I hadn’t had a start to a race this good in years.

As I left to get on the bus I found myself behind Ryan and as we’d already become acquainted I asked if he minded a bit of company for the trip to the start line. I was very grateful to learn little tidbits about his life and happy to share bits of mine – little did I know that he would be the other person who really would define my race.

But upon arrival at the drop off point and near the start of the race at Pen Y Fan I knew it was likely we would say our goodbyes and so it was with mild surprise that we continued to hang out together, Pete too popped up and we joked with some of the others, perhaps it was the sense of impending doom but even with only 50 people starting it felt a tight knit race.

And they’re off…

The awesome Joe kicked proceedings off and with a light flurry we all hit the first climb and were on our way back to drizzly Cardiff via the Brecon Beacons.

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I’d done as I often do in races and started with my waterproof jacket on. I’d brought my Montane jacket rather than the rather inadequate Ultimate Directions waterproof I also own but within a few hundred metres I was dispensing with the jacket and it wouldn’t come out again. The climb up to Pen Y Fan was no world beater, it was a rather busy trail and surrounded by mist with limited visibility but this being Wales it felt magical or perhaps like a scene from Monty Pythons Holy Grail. Ryan had caught me up while I was arranging my bag and we bimbled along for a while overtaking one another and chatting as we went.

The route up to the summit (and the Beacons) had been described to me as like a motorway and I could sort of see that but perhaps I’d have romanticised it a little more by suggesting it was like the yellow brick road and we were on our way to the Emerald City. Perhaps it was when the cloud and mist broke open and The Valleys appeared that I could get a sense of how truly magnificent South Wales is. I was very glad to be here and on the Brecon Beacons going up and down the trails I was having a lot of fun – this has been described as the harder sections of the route but actually I found these early stages much more to my tastes and would have been very happy stuck up here all day and night.

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That said some runners looked like they found these first climbs hard work and I’d certainly say they shouldn’t be underestimated but they were much less severe than some of the later up and downs. Ryan and I passed by some of the hundred milers about three quarters the way up Pen Y Fan and congratulated them on their efforts so far – they all looked really strong and had hit the halfway point at around 15hrs – more than enough time to get to the finish.

The summit of Pen Y Fan was busy and both Ryan and I decided not to hang around for obligatory selfies but pushed on through Cribyn for the first of the compulsory clips and here I picked up my first injury. The clip was broken and so in the howling wind I found myself rather than stabbing the paper I stabbed straight into my thumb – the views from here were rather spectacular and I headed over to the cliff edge for a wee look before we pushed onwards to what I was reliably informed called ‘Big Fanny’. Now ‘Big Fanny’ (sniggers like a teenage boy) provided the second compulsory clip point and the route provided a non-stop succession of up and downs.

It had its wild moments too such as the descent from Fan Y Big – I decided I was going to let gravity do the work down a rather steep descent and within seconds realised that despite reasonable sure-footedness this was going to get my legs out from under me. I was pretty certain that above me, being slightly more sensible in their approach to the descent, that Ryan and Ann (a lady we had just met) were laughing themselves silly at my antics. Having stopped my body dead in its tracks I waited for them to catch me up and simply referred to myself as an ‘over-eager tit’. Ann ran with us for a little while as she explained she had been feeling a little nauseous but was still chatting and running, and we were happy to have another face on our ‘fun bus through Wales’. She explained she was due to hit the North Downs Way 100 later in the year with Centurion and for the while we ran with her she looked in good form. It was a kilometre or two later that I lost the pair of them – I saw a seriously fun looking descent down towards Talybont Reservoir and hit the afterburner. ‘Wee’ I heard myself cry as I pushed on knowing that the checkpoint was only a few hundred more metres away and with the reservoir to my right and the wind slapping me in the face I thundered down the beautifully flat tarmac and into the waiting arms of the checkpoint staff.

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Now normally I’d say three minutes and then out but I was in no rush and so had a couple of glasses of cola and as many purple jelly babies as were available. In the distance I could see Ryan and Ann but decided that I was slow enough on the ascents that they were undoubtedly catch me. I thanked the checkpoint staff and cried ‘tally-ho’ as I ambled my way upwards.

Beyond the first checkpoint
Now if the first section had been fun the second section was a little chewier. I ambled up the steep track into a section of undergrowth and thought, ‘hmmm have I taken my first wrong turn?’ Running up the track I wondered if I could catch sight of some of the other runners, the GPS was still saying roughly and I was keen to go back down the hill as much like the Grand Old Duke of York I’d end up coming back up it! It was at this moment that I saw the incredibly friendly face of Ryan but sans Ann.

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Sadly she had retired at the checkpoint, Ryan suggested that she had taken a downward turn after I’d left them briefly to hurtle the descent into CP1.

‘Thank fuck it’s you’ I called out, ‘I think it’s up here but I’m not sure’. Ryan assured me that crossing the style and heading across was the right thing to be doing – sadly he was only half right and we set off away from the next climb but quickly corrected ourselves when we spotted a couple of very weary looking runners about 500 metres (vertically) away from us.

‘Oh bollocks’ I thought as we stopped for a jimmy riddle behind some windswept trees. ‘I like to fire the stream into the wind and see how far it’ll be carried’ I advised Ryan, he was on the same page.

Noting that I’d had an epic pee I decided to crack open the tailwind bottle I’d prepared earlier and upon taking several large gulps felt almost immediately better – though this was short lived once I realised what we had to climb.

With the help of some other runners we realised we had ended up in the wrong field and as there was no gate we very carefully and safely supported one another across the barbed wire and into the road before heading up one of the steepest ascents on the course. We had regular stops, both I think pretending that we were admiring the view rather than gathering our breath and we ploughed on. I couldn’t tell you how long we ambled upwards here but it was long enough to feel like hard work and when we reached the summit and the clip point we decided that a windy sit down was in order.

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Ryan unfurled a breakfast bar that had been attacked by both the shape of his body and the sweat of the day. I did much the same only for me it was the sweaty Haribo option.

The wind was harsh up on the summit and so we picked ourselves up and set off quickly downwards to find a little bit of respite and warmth. With the skies now completely clear too it was a lovely day and I should have thought to sun cream up like I was hiding from the sunlight but I didn’t and I would pay a high price for that later. This was pleasant running though and generally we were still running – our legs felt pretty good and both Ryan and I, although no speed goats, were making good enough time to finish somewhere between 17 and 19 hours. However, it was here that we lost our way a little as the course zig zagged around and the GPS file didn’t quite match the road book we needed to stop and take stock of our position.

We encountered a couple of other runners in a similar predicament and as we wound our way around and down we realised we might be a little off. In the distance above us I saw Pete (and his posse) and waved enthusiastically – probably a little over friendly if I’m honest and rolled my arm nonchalantly around my head attempting to disguise my greeting – phew got away with it.

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These miles proved to be interesting as we ambled through – not taking anything too seriously and spending most of our time doing knob and fart gags. The posse spread out here and there with different people choosing slightly different directions but often doubling back, it was to the collective credit of the runners that they always attempted to aid one another to ensure the right route was being taken. Ryan and I between us were actually doing rather well in navigation terms and as we dipped down to Trefil Village we had much to be pleased about.

The hard rough road into the village felt like an excellent place to slow down and this gave Pete a chance to catch us up and turn a duo into a trio. It occurred to me that this looked like a scene from ‘The Three Amigos’ but the bad news was that I was clearly being cast as Martin Short to Ryan’s Chevy Chase and Pete completing the line-up as Steve Martin. However, this felt right and as we listened to Ryan tell us about his £450 Ford Granada Funeral Car ‘Party Bus’ we simply howled our way into the next checkpoint.

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Checkpoint 2 and the start of the real race
‘Hotdog lads’ came a cheery voice, ‘tea, coffee, fill your bottles?’ Upon entering CP2 we found ourselves in the midst of the best reception we could have hoped for, our drop bags awaited us but also importantly there were hot dogs on the menu and we all greedily ate them and washed it down with a cup of sweet tea. I continued to stuff my face with food from my drop bag and drank the chocolate milk I had been dreaming of but mostly I left my kit in my bag – no spare shoes or socks were required.

I’m not sure how it came about but the checkpoint volunteers ended up describing us as the smiliest runners they’d seen all day and I can see that being true but as I said, ‘we pay to do this, might as well enjoy it!’. Much banter was passed around the checkpoint and I told the tale of how a female runner, in the middle of the night asked me if we could run together telling me, ‘you don’t look too rapey’. Quick as a flash from the crowd came the response (and I’ll paraphrase) ‘she was wrong wasn’t she?’ Genius!

The guys at checkpoint 2 were magnificent and they sent us on our way truly refreshed and rather cheery about the next section and with only 500 metres of ascent we thought this would be a nice easy section – how wrong we were proved.

We ran across the first field and saw a small stream to cross and by the Power of Greyskull we did it, but this led us into boggy fields and we found that the tall grass made progress slow. Each of us took turns to go as lead risking the possibility of wet feet but we survived and hit the tarmac before conversation turned to much loved movies, quotes from Flash Gordon, Labyrinth, Bond movies littered liberally around and how many filthy film titles could you think of; Pete was pretty good as he shot from the hip a number of classic titles including ‘Shaving Ryan’s Privates’ before we hit a low when ‘Confessions of Window Cleaner’ and ‘On the Buses’ got a mention. Ryan was no slouch either in the humour department as the ‘teenage boy toilet humour’ dominated the miles.

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This though provided respite from our travails across the swamp and as we headed into Parc Bryn Bach we were feeling okay and also finally starting to pull away a little from the group behind us. We pushed on using the momentum we’d developed using a combination of running and pretty swift hiking to cover the miles, stopping only for photo opportunities with the enormous remains of cars and vans that littered the South Wales countryside (somewhere is a photograph of me sat in one of these seats). It felt like we were starting to lose the light as well but actually it was simply getting overcast but regardless given our height we would manage to avoid head torches for several more hours.

However, mentally this was probably the most draining, the least interesting and the toughest section to get through and this was where my comrades were at their most valuable. We’d discussed whether we should stay together and agreed that given the bollock crushing nature of the course, the navigation and our general good feeling for one another that seeing this journey through together would be a good idea. So it was with a flourish that we each entered the third checkpoint and maintained our cheery approach…

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‘It’s no North Sea Hijack’ I exclaimed to one of the wonderful volunteers as we began flirtation via Roger Moore. His riposte was composed of Roger Moore-esque fashion suggestions, ‘…cravat? perhaps teamed with a pastel coloured safari suit..?’ Ha!

More wonderful back and forth banter which in turn earned each of us a freshly BBQed delight. Delicious!

I had the peppered steak in a cheesy bap (because as Ryan said ‘everything tastes better with cheese’ (though I’m not sure he’d thought it through as I hear oral sex with a cheesy whiff is quite unpleasant) while my running buddies ate heartily of a pork belly bap.

Anyway after a few minutes of scoffing bacon frazzle & Jaffa cake sandwiches we all felt much better and we’d now reached about 29 miles of running or as it would turn out ‘halfway’! We doffed our caps to the awesome volunteers and bade them a fond farewell and headed once more into the Welsh Wilds!

It wasn’t far into the next section that another eating opportunity arose and as we approached the Co-op I offered the option of stopping for an ice-cream at the outer edge of Bargod. Pete chose the delicious flake cone, while I selected a strawberry cornetto and an Irn-Bru but Ryan decided to dip out of this in favour of a bit of a kit check and fix up. The cool slightly melting iced joy danced on my palette and I devoured this little treat as we continued on our journey.

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Despite this little stop we had decided that we’d like to try and get through to the next checkpoint before full darkness consumed us but it was only a mile or two down the road as the trail darker that we decided that it was worth bringing illumination to the darkness we found ourselves in. Despite having now been running together for many hours we still had much to be upbeat about and even as the reality dawned on us that we were slowing down a bit we knew it was important to keep our spirits up as the night brings new and often unwanted challenges.

It was in this section that we started to pass considerable fly tipping which while it can offer amusement of it’s a car seat is actually quite disgusting and disappointing and really did spoil some of the views across the Welsh landscape as the sun disappeared from sight.

We were now fully at the mercy of the Welsh night and although it was calm I was glad for the companionship of Ryan and Pete. Humour dried up a little as we passed single file through rougher more overgrown trail – my exposed legs were taken quite the battering and I sliced myself many times across the legs, arms and head but we continued making progress and occasionally one of us would remember that this was the fun bus and shout ‘arse almighty’ or ‘you’re pulling my plankety plank’.

It was around here that Ryan’s heel blistering was becoming bad and my lack of Runderwear had gotten to my testicles which were now the size of watermelons, even Pete looked a little worse for wear, although clearly in the best shape of the three of us.

I’d chosen to make a hasty testicle hanger out of my ‘Anton’ Buff and despite his heel pain Ryan too pushed on and our power hiking was making good progress. If we could just avoid any more bracken and thorns we might just survive this! However, the race was turning against us and applying thumb screws we believed we’d left behind on the Beacons. More and more unpleasant undergrowth attacked us and conditions underfoot varied in quality so there was simply no respite from the challenge of completion.

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The three of us pulled slowly into CP4  a while later to see a couple of very important things – the first was the availability of hot tea and pizza but also the pair of young ladies that we had been periodically running near since early on. Elise (one of the runners) looked in a pretty grim way and had apparently been lying down to try and get some life back inside her. We did the only thing we could which was offer some support and as much advice as our weary heads could work. Ryan though offered some caffeine soaked shot bloks and this seemed enough to get them ready for leaving. While they prepped we sat for a little while eating pizza and trying to regain the enthusiasm for the race. However, I was very aware that staying inside for a long period would bring about a DNF and so we pressed on and headed toward a narrow overgrown passage despite a local gentleman attempting to guide us off course.

As we stood looking over the map we saw the two ladies pass us by and knew to follow them. Sadly the route was now becoming a little bitty but there was still Caerphilly Mountain to conquer and I hoped for some interesting trails to run across – thankfully the trails did become suitably gnarly for a while and despite pain in all sorts of places we continued forward searching for what the next clip point. Pete was now mostly in charge of navigation, although I was keeping a very regular check on the GPX route to ensure we had a consensus for direction but wrong turns were few and far between as we headed to the final checkpoint. A minor blip meant that we came up a road rather than a trail for about 250 metres and nearly missed the checkpoint entirely but we simply wanted to continue on.

However, at the final checkpoint and at around 4.00am I got to see my fellow registration volunteer Sian – who looked as fresh as she had about 36hrs earlier! She was sensibly wrapped in a dry robe and upon looking me over realised who I was and came over to say hello. The volunteer team were as awesome as ever but with only six or seven miles left we needed very little and strode out from the CP pretty swiftly.

I won’t lie we looked in a pretty bad way by the time the sun came up, both Ryan and I had rusty bullet holes that you could have cooked eggs on, my testicles were on fire and we both had serious blister problems. Pete it looked like was suffering from cramp and was using the slower pace for regular stretching. We had all started to get a little grumpy too and the mood although never unpleasant was quieter and more sombre than it had been at any point in the night. However, it is fair to say that we all checked on each other – no man was being left behind and when the blisters under my feet burst the guys gave me the required time to steady myself and pick up a head of steam.

The hardest part here were not the uphills – in fact the minor uphills were a nice distraction – the main problem was the downhill to the riverside run home on the Taff Trail. Each of us struggled with this section in his own way but upon making it down we made the best effort we could to get it over the line without being overtaken further.

However, in the final few hundred metres we were overtaken by a couple of ladies – we all agreed that fighting for a placing really wasn’t worth the agony and we crossed line just as we had travelled it – together.

Distance: 50(57) miles
Ascent: +3486 metres
Location: Brecon Beacons
Cost: £70
Runners: 60
Terrain: Mixed, boggy, rocky, hilly, toughTough Rating: 4/5

Route
The route was an interesting one, the best of it was at the start and in the first 25 miles but that’s not to say the second half didn’t have appealing features because it did. The route was also incredibly tough. It is fair to suggest that this would be one of the tougher 50 milers you will face in the United Kingdom – it’s also fair to say that you’ll almost certainly need to do some extra miles – the route claims to be about 53 miles but my GPS file and that of those around me was more like 57/58 miles which is a significant percentage increase on the 50 that are advertised in the title of the race. However, none of this detracts from the fact that the route really is very special, albeit not one of the fastest around. I felt, having never really explored South Wales in any great depth, that this tour of the Brecon Beacons and the road into Cardiff gave me a desire to search for more in the region and I’m now very much looking forward (with a hint of trepidation) to The Rebellion in November.

Awards
Great t-shirt and pretty, good quality medal – do you need any more?

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Companions
What a holy trinity we proved to be. Myself, Ryan and Pete (I hope for them as much as me) proved to be a great match for banging out some exciting miles in South Wales and thank you very much for all your support. It was my honour to run alongside you and I hope to do so again soon. I hope you both conquer your awesome upcoming challenges – the TDS and the RoF.

Volunteers
I’ve had the good fortune to meet some amazing volunteers over the years I’ve been doing races but the guys at the SW50 were amongst the best. Special mention must go to Joe and Sian who I worked with during the registration but also to the guys who made me laugh so heartily at CP2 and the bearded chap with his Roger Moore comments and the hug at the finish line).

Organisation
Top notch and in every respect – if you decide to run this then it will feel smooth and well oiled and even during the bit of volunteering that I did I got the impression that Joe and the organising team were all over it like the proverbial ‘car bonnet’. Each of the CPs was well drilled and they handled the runners with respect – which hopefully they received back in genuine thanks. Ten out of ten!

Value for money
£70 for this? a bargain in any book – this included the camping, the transport to the start, tech shirt and the tremendous organisation. I would heartily recommend this race if you are looking for a proper ballbuster, it might not be for the novice runners and it might not even be for some of the seasoned ultra runners but there are a huge amount of you out there that would love this.

Check them out www.runwalkcrawl.co.uk

Favourite moments

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  • Caught by a farmer: ‘Shot or bummed which way do you fancy dying?’ I think I suggested shot while being ‘bummed’ as I really wanted to avoid the farmers ‘cum face’. In truth he was a very helpful man and all we needed to do was show a little humility for our minor mistake.
  • The button mushroom: ‘Does your cock shrivel up like a button mushroom during an ultra?’ asked Pete. Insightful was my first thought, however, both Ryan and I simply reached down to our respective ankles to scratch the end of ours to give him the answer!
  • My comrades: Ryan and Pete, two men I’d never met before who were simply amazing. Let’s put it this way we didn’t need the sheep that night 😉
  • Fixing my bollocks: the poor young ladies who were running next to us for various bits possibly having to witness me fixing my beloved Anton buff round my testicles on more than one occasion.
  • The things we learned about each other: Needless to say one of us shared too much but the ‘titwank’ story and the tale of the ‘sensible car purchase’ will be retold many times I suspect
  • The Flintstones: Being outvoted on the Betty/Wilma debate and just how manly is Fred Flintstone? I swear neither Ryan or Pete understood the real ‘Wilma’ or that Barney was a probably a sensitive caring lover for Betty.
  • Favourite insult: I like ‘cockwomble’, I’m a fan of ‘used cockbag’, ‘well I don’t think you can beat cunt’. I shan’t tell you who said what.
  • Upon finishing: Joe asks, ‘can we get you anything?’ ‘Hookers,’ I replied. ‘I think all the rugby guys have gone home sadly…’

Conclusions
This isn’t my favourite ultra – it would have to go a long way to unseat the SainteLyon and the Skye Trail Ultra – but that said this was an amazing race put on by people who really know what they’re doing and I would urge you to take a look at this for next year – you may well decide it’s not for you but for those that it is for will come away having being battered and bruised but feeling elated. So instead of signing up for the same old, same old maybe give this a go – I did and it really paid off.

As for my race? Well I was a couple of hours slower than I had hoped but I had a great time with two amazing guys and lots of other awesome runners. South Wales 50 is a race that will live long in the memory and although the 100 might be off the table for next year I suspect I will be back to give it a crack sooner rather than later and who knows maybe I will end up taking on the 100 next year.

Post race? I’ve eaten all the biscuits and my testicles have calmed down but the blisters on my feet are some of the worst I’ve had in ages and will take a few more days to heal – but the pain is well worth it.

I looked over my shoulder just beyond the escape point to see if the Crow was following but much to my delight its beady eye was watching north – little did I know that my winged nemesis used more than vision to stalk its prey.

Escape from Meriden, the prison break was on. But let me roll back a little to explain the race and why I was running it. EFM is the brainchild of those sadistic types at Beyond Marathon – turn up at the centre point of England and at 23.59 you run as far from Meriden as you possibly can in 24hrs. No aid stations, no support (unless you bring it yourself) and no defined route (unless you’ve planned one). Then comes the both the carrot and the stick – your finishing point (or final resting place) will be ‘as the crow flies’ from Meriden and there are three distance level up points you could be rewarded for 30, 60, 90 miles.

The crow and the race would be a very cruel mistress and that’s why I wanted to be involved. Unsupported I wanted to experience the challenge of facing myself, my own route and whether I had it in me to get over the 60 miles (as the crow flies).

I’ve already mentioned in my race preview that given I would be off to South Wales in a few weeks that I would drop my distance at Meriden but not by much – I dropped down from about 92 to 75 miles but I’d also run less time (somewhere around 18-20hrs) and instead of heading to London I’d amble along to a small village in Oxfordshire/Wiltshire.

I had a clear and well defined plan. It sounds like my race preparation was going well doesn’t it? The trouble is my prep was going anything but well. Lower back/kidney pain has been a constant companion since about March, left footed heel pain has been nothing but a nuisance and a groin tear that makes any movement a possible lighting pain inducing experience / the annoying thing is that none of these were caused by running but they made my ‘Escape’ seem downright impossible.

So what happened?
Well I ambled up to Birmingham International (£8 single, advance), jumped into a taxi (£12) and arrived into Meriden to see small pockets of runners ambling around. I joined them at the Methodist Church Hall were I was greeted by familiar faces from my SVN eventing – nothing better than a couple of friendly faces when you’re feeling a bit nervous. I grabbed my number, tracker, coffee, biscuits, t-shirt and a dark corner to get changed.

The hall was now packed with a wonderful array of runners, hikers and their supporters and the atmosphere was exactly as I like it, friendly, relaxed but filled with a buzzing anticipation. Being completely alone in terms of my race approach made me feel slightly more nervous than usual but when the call came out to head up to the start line I was quite ready. I hurled on my waterproof jacket as the rain had started to come down and then plodded up to Meriden marker.

I don’t know what I expected from the start line but as everyone set off in every possible direction I stopped to look around and take it all in. To describe it you’d say it was less of a prison break and more rats jumping ship… drowned rats too but we were off.

With GPS on I was determined I would follow the route as closely as possible – ensuring I didn’t get snared into a mis-step by following another runner or taking what might be considered a short cut – Escape from Meriden was not about instinct it was going to be about following rules – perhaps this was my mistake.

I drifted through the first few miles, merrily keeping myself to myself and even with the rain becoming heavier I decided to dispense with the services of my waterproof jacket, I felt it better to be damp than overheating.

For a while I watched as the miles started to be clocked up, I even logged into the drone website so I could see the progress of my fellow runners but the sheen soon wore off as the reality of the rain kicked in. However, despite the weather I knew that I needed to make maximum progress while it was dark as the heat of the day was likely to wipe me out. I passed through small villages and hamlets throughout the night and delighted in the peace and tranquility of my route. This was punctuated only by the roar of ‘boy and girl’ racers using the dead of night to test how fast their Alfa Romeos and souped up Corsas would go. Light was much earlier than I expected arriving for me around 4am and the arrival of light always brings with it renewed hope – strangely though rather than hope it brought hunger.

I had munched my way through much of my very limited supplies and therefore when arriving into the towns on my route to the discovery that everywhere was closed proved mentally challenging. I was hungry, very hungry, my choices were limited to stopping for more than an hour and wait for the garage to open or 2hrs 15 for the Co-operative to open or I could continue and accept the hunger.

I chose the latter and pressed on

Thankfully as a distraction from my hunger there was an unspecified pain across the top of my foot, which I unwisely ignored. Had I been brave enough to stop and look I’d have seen a massively swollen right foot with a tenderness that really shouldn’t have been run on. Ho-hum! On the positive side of distraction though we had Riccardo from Italy who epitomised the ultra running spirit – carefree, spirited and determined. His company for several miles made the early morning meandering much more palatable. The issue of food had not been resolved though and without any support or checkpoints this was going to start becoming an issue as my water supplies were lowering too.

I rolled into the next town to discover a Co-op that was open about 7.30am. I could smell myself from sweat, rain and mud and wanted to restrict my human interaction – I find trying to explain ultra running quite a chore when I’m mid event.

I picked up some chocolate milk and some Lucozade and asked the lovely Co-op ladies if they knew of a local cafe or bakery that might be open – they just laughed. Hmmm, if this had been France I’d probably have had the choice of half a dozen bakeries and eaten my own body weight in croissants but as it is the UK I had to have chocolate milk and Lucozade. I hoped that later stops might furnish me with something a little more delicious… well you’ve got to have hope right?

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Feeling refreshed, my bag rearranged, night time kit locked away and starting to finally dry off I pressed on a little quicker heading out of Shipston with all the effort I could muster. The day was now in full flow but the heat hadn’t yet set in so it was worth it to try and get as far beyond the 30 mile point as possible. Despite passing through 50km I still hadn’t crossed the 30 mile ‘as the crow flies’ line but it surely couldn’t be far?

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Daylight brought me into The Cotswold and an area of the country that I’ve not really been running round very much. What I discovered was large swathes of beautiful British countryside and farmland and I finally understood why people move out to places like this.

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It had been some time that my foot had been an issue during Escape from Meriden but I remembered to take some pain killers but now my back/kidneys ached and my groin strain was shooting the lightning bolts of pain up and down my leg that have been synonomous with my running in recent weeks. Having gotten through the 30 mile point I did seriously consider stopping – but I had come here with an objective and that objective was the 60 mile ‘as the crow flies’ marker and that was still at least 30 miles away.

More and more small villages were run through and the pain I was in grew worse and worse but I felt having committed to not stopping that I had to make the effort count.

At 12.47pm I ambled into a town with another Co-op, this could have Wychwood, it could have been anywhere but I sat tired and sore on a park bench with some houmous, baguette and more chocolate milk (I also replenished the Haribo), a wise choice having learned that The Cotswold effectively has no retail presence!

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Fed and watered I set off again but this time in search of a toilet – as you can imagine if shops are hard to come by then public toilets are even harder and I didn’t feel it appropriate to use the local publicans facilities. However, I was lucky enough to find a delightful and discreet field where I could release the contents of my bowels all over the countryside. I have to say I’ve become something of expert at this and my process is now so well rehearsed that my hands are washed long before there’s any whiff of indiscretion by an ultrarunner.

The next 40km were probably the worst of the race, very limited resources for water, hot and very busy ‘A’ roads.

I was as careful as it was possible to be and for the most part drivers were very considerate of a runner using the side of the road. However, I remained vigilant and  was mindful to move out of the way of larger vehicles, stepping into the grass verges or nettles when required. The trouble is that there were many drivers with their soft top sports cars out speeding through the countryside, flexing their machismo and then there was the red Nissan Almeria driver who refused to move from driving too closely to me, despite there being no traffic on the other side of the road, clipping me with his wing mirror and then hurling abusive language at me for using a road we were both perfectly entitled to be on.

Given I was tired this played on my mind – he might have killed me and it forced me to rethink a little bit for rest of the event. However, the clock was ticking and I had promised the GingaNinja that I would arrive at my finish point near her parents house as close to bedtime for UltraBaby as possible. In order to do this I had to negotiate the slightly terrifying remaining busy Saturday A roads. 


No further incident was had in this section and in my head I was making calculations for a course correction. My route could be altered to go straight past her parents house and then onwards, albeit uphill about 4 miles and through the 60 mile barrier. The GingaNinja and UltraBaby being so close chose to come and cheer me on, which was a welcome distraction, although she had no kit I could use or food I could eat she could take my race vest which was no longer of any real use. I removed the tracker, my phone, battery pack  and a water bottle and explained my plan to the GingaNinja hoping that I’d be able to finish the last 15km in the next 90(ish) minutes.

My arrival at Faringdon was short lived and although there was finally a wide and varied selection of places to eat and drink I was no longer in the mood, nor did I feel I had the time and simply pressed on. 

The climb out of Faringdon isn’t much but when your feet are ruined and your nerves on edge then it feels very steep but despite this I made it to the main road and I nearly had a heart attack – it was the main road between Swindon and Oxford – Holy Shitburgers.

The road was incredibly busy on both sides and the traffic gave you no quarter – the grass verge was massively overgrown and so I had little choice, having picked this route but to tough it out. In the gaps between the cars I would sprint as far as I could before leaping back onto the relative safety of the overgrown grass and nettles. Each time I did this my nerves jumped back to the knife edge from where the car had clipped me earlier, but despite tiredness creeping in and having now been awake for more than 45hrs, and running for the last 18 of them, I felt very focused and managed to weave my way down this horrible, horrible road.

Eventually I found a diversion through a place called Longcot where traffic wasn’t an issue and slowed down, slowed my heartbeat and calmed myself. I was angry at myself for changing my route – this was stupid – and all to save no more than a mile.


From here it was a quiet climb up to Ashbury, a small village, I assume in Wiltshire. I watched for a while as the sun bled from the sky. I watched as my little dot on the drone tracker finally passed the 60 mile marker, but I had run around 73 miles to achieve this.

I felt broken but also nervous – had I done enough? I still had around three hours I could have used to progress further but I wasn’t going to get 90 miles as the crow flies and so there seemed little point and UltraBaby told me it was bedtime.

With my body having taken a beating during this event I felt it deserved a few hours off.

I escaped Meriden and I reached all my targets and yet I feel like I failed Meriden. I guess I’ll just have to return to prison and see if I can get out again.

Key points

  • Distance: as much as you can in 24hrs
  • Profile: you decide
  • Date: June 2017
  • Location: Meriden
  • Cost: £35 (plus food)
  • Terrain: Whatever you like
  • Tough Rating: 3.5/5

My normal criteria for judging an event doesn’t really apply here simply because the conditions are really quite unique. However, I’ll apply some logic and try and give a fair representation of EFM.

Organisation: First class, there was good pre-event communication, an active social media community, a fair exchange of places policy, a well run, smooth and comfortable registration process. What more could you ask for? The race drones were a nice touch to make the event ‘cheat proof’ and it didn’t need to be any fancier than it was. Brilliant.

Route: I hold my hands up to making a huge mistake – I thought I could run the roads and the tarmac but it’s been years since I did more than a few miles like this. I’m conditioned for trail, built for trail and love trail. When I go back I will show the same level of detail to the route as I did this time but instead focus wholly on finding a decent trail route out of Meriden. My route, for a ‘as the crow flies’ was a good one and it had lots of lovely views but it hurt my feet and caused my existing injuries nothing but misery.

Value for money: £35 (plus food on the route) a bargain, plain and simple. I bought the tech T-shirt too so it was about £50 with another £30 for transport and food – this is one of the best value events around. The fact they throw in a decent looking medal too means if you’ve got no room for complaint! Ace

Who is it for? That’s easy, this is a tough as buggery event but it is achievable by anyone, a decent walker could get a long way in an event like this and a good runner – well the sky is the limit. I like events that are inclusive like this – I’d recommend it to everyone.


Conclusions: I earned my gold medal, I ran a decent distance, I got to the point I was aiming for yet I feel a little deflated.

It didn’t go as well as I wanted and that was down to being injured before the event and then possibly breaking my foot early on during the event. I also selected a route that wasn’t right for my ability and I’d urge you that if you’re running this PLAN, PLAN, PLAN your route!

However, this being said the event was amazing and I would return in a heartbeat and if anyone can’t use their winter place I would purchase it happily. This is one of those unique challenges that deserves its well regarded reputation and I’ll be back for more Beyond Marathon events (probably next year now) because they really do know how to put on an event.

Thanks guys.


…and when I head up to Meriden in a couple of days time I will be crapping myself about what I’ve let myself in for at Escape from Meriden.

Previously on UltraBoyRuns: The year was going so brilliantly, I was training well, running well and dropping weight – I was on it like the proverbial ‘car bonnet’. However, failure at Barcelona albeit for technical reasons and clearly not being good enough to finish Madeira affected confidence and although there was the palette cleanser in the Marlborough Downs I’ve been pretty injured since then and hardly run at all.

Injuries while attempting escape: Neither my heel or my groin injuries have settled but I’ve discovered that the heel pain can be offset by wearing supportive shoes (Altra Olympus please step forward) and my groin seems to be at its worst when I lie down (so I’ll try not to lie down).

Perhaps my major injury concern is my back/kidneys which I haven’t been to get checked out – primarily because I asked to come off my doctors register due to their greedy narrow minded approach to healthy people and I’ve yet to source a suitable alternative – my bad.
The trouble is that whenever I’m running with a race pack for anything over about 8 or 9 miles (regardless of weight and now regardless of bag) my back/kidneys feel like they’re being punched repeatedly. It’s some of the worst pain I’ve ever been in and certainly contributed significantly to my failure at Madeira but now I’m concerned it’s going to ‘rain on my Meriden parade!’

On the run again: My first foray back into running has been the Westminster Mile and while it’s one of my absolute favourite races and favourite distances it does nothing to prepare me for Meriden. There’s no time to catch up on training now and in truth I’m not ready to return to training, I’m only doing this event because I won’t need to compete in the traditional sense. I know I can probably hike the route I’ve got planned inside the time limit and that would be a good test ahead of SW100. 

The original escape plan: Meriden is something new for me with its lack of support and ‘go anywhere’ guide to routing and originally I had planned to be powered through it by a succession of 24hr Tesco and McDonalds. As for the route I was going to lumber out of Meriden and head straight for Charing Cross train station in Central London (which just happens to be outside the 90 mile black medal radius) and pretty much a straight line if you don’t take into account my little diversion across Hampstead Heath and Primrose Hill.

Bish, bash, boom, job done. 

Then I entered for the South Wales 100 which takes place a mere 3 weeks after Meriden and I needed a Plan B.

The revision: Knowing that the GingaNinja would be visiting her mum that weekend I considered a slightly less torturous distance – 123km (74 miles).

I once again planned a pretty straight route down into sunny Wiltshire and found a good stopping point not too far from her parents and also well outside the gold medal 60 mile radius.

The only problem is that this route is not so replete with 24hr supermarkets and fast food joints on every corner. It’s fair to say the route is crammed with beautiful scenery and patisseries but the kind that are only open for about 3hrs a day. I jest a little, there are ample smaller supermarkets but I was hoping to find something open in the middle of the night section for water resupply and this is worrying me a bit. 

However, a trick I picked up on an ultra some years ago suggested that often graveyards will have a drinking water tap… what is an issue is that I’m not sure if there’s something wrong with ambling around a graveyard in the dark looking for water or not – to say my moral compass is conflicted on this should come as no surprise. Survival or creepiness, hmmmm?
Still with no training since Madeira nearly 6 weeks ago I’m figuring I’ve got bigger problems than whether I’ve got enough water.

I’m going to Escape Meriden: This is hardly the Shawshank Redemption but the positives are that I’ve got a planned route, my kit is tested and ready to go, my train is booked and I’m actually looking forward to this new type of truly unsupported running.

Am I genuinely worried? Yes a little bit – most other races I’ve run have people, aid stations and a safety net this strips all that away and gives you just one thing – yourself. But in reality I’m not trapped on Everest or in the middle of the jungle – I’m in the middle of England where the most dangerous thing I’ll come across are Tory voters.

As I tow the start line of Meriden my thoughts will be on people like Ian Brazier and Gareth Jones who last weekend completed their own awesome race efforts at GUCR and Skye Trail Ultras respectively. I’ll be contemplating how hard UltraBaby worked for her Mile medal and I’ll be drawing on 4 years of ultra running experience to get my safely to my finish line.


I sat, eating delicious sugary sweets and drinking slightly too warm Coca Cola as the last shaft of light dropped away from northern Spain. I tried my Petzl one final time in the hope that it could power me round the final 32km.

But it was dead.

I’d prepared so hard to face down the UTBCN but I’d neglected something very important and yet based on my previous experience, superfluous – a second powerful head torch.

As I prepare to return to mountainous terrain with climbs in excess of 1,000 metres and a total elevation of more than 7,000 metres I need to ensure my preparation is more meticulous than ever.

(This was written prior to MIUT and my result there. A report of my experience will follow in the coming weeks once I’ve properly processed the event).

Mental, Physical, Technical Preparedness. I’ve spent much of the last year taking time to think about what I want from my running and as a consequence have changed so many things and while there have been a series of hiccups along the way I’m generally happy with how it’s all panning out


Physical. 
In physical terms I’m faster than I have been for years, I’m sub20 at 5km again and on the right (downhill) course I’m closing in on the low 40s for a 10km. My endurance is better too with 60-70 mile running weeks more achievable than ever and 15 mile hilly buggy runs are a regular occurrence and have been helping prepare for elevation efforts. I’ve been taking my body more seriously too, dropping a few kilograms in weight and not ignoring injuries and all of the above is paying dividends.

However, it’s not all positive, several years of under training, over racing and ignoring injury have left me with scars that my body is unlikely ever to recover from. And so I’ve gone from top 25% of the field runner to a mid/back of the pack runner and in the races I’m now committed to I’m happy just to be able to go to them because I’m a novice and still learning. 

When I go and stand on the start line of the MIUT I know that I’m not one of the mountain goats or one of the winners and that I’m there for the experience (and hopefully a finish) but I know that I’m headed there in better physical shape than say, six months ago, when I took on Haria Extreme.

If you can learn anything from my experiences I hope it’s that you need to develop – give yourself the time to rest, recuperate, train and absorb information from all available sources. This will improve your competitiveness and physicality as you approach those races you’ve always dreamed of facing.

Mental. I was stood at the base of Como Lumpido in Lanzarote with a difficult ascent ahead of me – some runners were coming down the climb having decided that this wasn’t for them.

There was no doubt I was going slowly but having only just returned from injury this race was going to be a test and this climb was a bit of a shit. When I reached the top I looked out into the distance and stood for a moment to grab a photograph or two and heard myself cry out ‘woohoo’. 

All you need is… I hadn’t felt like this since the Skye Trail Ultra six months earlier when I’d nearly shat myself coming down one of the very steep sections. This hilly running sent goosebumps running up my arms and shivers down my spine

I was in love.

For the next 25km of Haria Extreme I had my foot to the floor such was my joy and while there are circumstances that stopped me continuing at around 80km I came away from Lanzarote knowing I had so much more to give.

Dealing with the downs? I’ve often suffered with post race blues and an inability to draw the positives from the racing I’ve done, instead focusing on where it’s gone wrong and how I MUST improve but after Haria I was sure that my decision was the right one and I felt mentally positive about my failure.

However, in the fiasco of my Barcelona failure I’ve been much less positive and actually this has affected to some degree my preparation for Madeira. Having accepted I needed to give myself a bit of a kicking I’m relatively back on track and go to the Portuguese island clinging on to positive thoughts. 

Don’t say ‘edge’. My key concern though isn’t my occasionally negative feelings about ability, no.

My key concern is that I’m scared witless of heights and having viewed many YouTube clips, instagram feeds and twitter timelines I can assure both you reader and myself that the elevation, the climbs and the sheer drops are something I’m terrified of.

I can’t imagine taking these sections with anything other than an arse quivering fear and no experience is making me feel better about this. At Skye there was hard elevation and cliff edges to negotiate as there were  at the CCC, SainteLyon, Barcelona and Lanzarote but this is a whole new level.

I’ve worked hard to focus on the running so that I don’t look down too often and I’ve faced numerous long dangerous hikes over the last couple of years to get me prepared for this – I feel I should no longer be worried, but I am.

I’m advised that a healthy fear of these sections is sensible and respectful and while I know that’s true I wonder how I’m feel when I’m faced with them in the dead of night.

Why do I worry about ultras abroad so much? It’s true that I go to these foreign ‘A’ races and worry about them much more than I do say something like the TP100 or the Ridgeway. 

I’m convinced that some of the pressure I have been exerting on myself has been setting me up for failure. So, kit issues, physical condition, training, having family around, not having family around, lack of suitable locally sourced nutrition and foreign languages all contribute enormously to my stress levels that blow tall and mighty.

It’s a strange set of circumstances that probably come mostly from simply being out of my comfort zone.

By golly Holmes! To aid in the resolution of this I’ve taken some very simple steps a) pack early b) lists c) anything missing can usually be sourced locally and finally d) don’t be afraid to say ‘I’m not going to run it, I’m undertrained/injured/whatever’.

This approach has served me quite well at Haria and the UTBCN where both my failures to finish were because of circumstances outside of the norm. I’m hoping that with the two factors that blighted these events no longer being an issue (fingers crossed) and despite the harshness of the course, I can complete MIUT.

I’ve come a long way in my running preparation, especially the mental side of it and although it’s far from perfect – it’s improving.

I have to understand that should I ever want to reach the final race of my running career though I’ll need to develop a still greater tenacity to post race blues and I’ll need to improve my mental agility regarding perceived failure.

However, my love of the mountains and the peace I find in them make racing there so alluring that my deficiencies in mental strength can be overlooked enough to commit to an increasing number of elevation stacked races.

Technically. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail – I wish this were a true statement but I’m living proof that failing to prepare doesn’t prepare you to fail, however, the success you achieve is unlikely to be as great as you would hope for.

The above statement is not an excuse for my often woeful lack of preparedness but a statement of fact.

However, when you start preparing to run on the trails, going up hills and climbing mountainous regions, then you suddenly find that the better your running technique, your pre-race research and understanding of your equipment is then the better time you’ll have and the better you’ll perform.

But I adore throwing my love spuds on the fire! I’ve rocked up to a few races with ill fitting shoes, not taking into account the days conditions, no idea of the route, no idea the elevation and barely any idea what race I’m in. It will come as no surprise to runners that these are the events were I have mostly performed badly. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the races that could have gone so much better had I prepared in a more fitting manner.

I finally began preparing better for races at the SainteLyon 2015 because I was going to France alone, there would be no rescue, no backup, it was a race in the middle of winter, in the middle of the night.

So I prepared a little like this 

  • Researched previous years events on social media and running websites
  • Used only the local (French) language site as this was more up-to-date than the English language version
  • Got my medical certificate done as early as possible 
  • Booked flights and accommodation early
  • Got to know the local public transport network before I arrived
  • Brushed up on my French
  • Printed maps
  • Printed race documents
  • Got happy with race kit options before leaving the UK, avoided last minute purchases, but…
  • Knew where a local sports shop was for emergency race purchases
  • Got to bib collection early
  • Rested pre-race for the midnight start
  • Big poo pre-race
  • Packed kit for an ultra with no backup
  • Knew my route back to my accommodation 

I had with me for the SainteLyon options for clothing but my race kit (vest, nutrition, head torch, waterproof, etc) were all decided long before the race started and this helped me to settle down, not worry so much and have the best race experience I’ve ever had. The SainteLyon should be my model for how to prepare for a race.

Subsequently I’ve tried to replicate the process and it’s mostly gone okay but there is always the potential for problems but you learn to adapt. I do the ‘headless chicken’ routine a lot less than I used to.

The CCC. For example in the run up to the CCC we were advised that temperatures meant we should be carrying significant amounts of extra fluid, my response to this was to find a matching race belt to my bag with a 500ml bottle – but it had to be matching (my need for order overtaking my need to have a pleasant holiday in Chamonix). To say I was a bear with a sore head for most of this trip is an understatement, but it was all ridiculous race related pressure that I was heaping upon myself. 

The resolution is that now I carry a spare 350ml soft bottle as an addition to my other hydration options and on a race day I choose the most appropriate ones depending on weather conditions.

Bingo.

Preparation of the organisational and technical elements of racing have helped me very much and contributed significantly to finishes at Amersham, Green Man, Skye and the Vanguard Way and without being prepared I wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far as I did at Haria and Barcelona but it’s not the be all and end all.

Preparation, I’ve discovered, is not the key to finishing but it is the key to starting successfully and that in my opinion is half the battle.

So whether you’re a first timer or a bit of an old salty seadog like me, there will always be things that you can do to reduce anxiety and build confidence.

Facing MIUT. If I had to place in order how I value the three aspects of my running preparation I’d say that Mental is the most important followed by Technical/Organisation with my Physical readiness the least important. Ultimately if my headspace is fucked I’m not getting to the start line, I’d just stay in bed on race morning. If my kit, organisation or transport to the start line is wrong then my stress levels go up which affect my mental attitude and we have a cumulative nightmare. However, if my body is a bit worse for wear, if I haven’t slept properly, if all my hypochondria rears it ugly head I’ll still start and mostly I’ll put up with it (unless it’s serious).

So when I go to Madeira and the midnight start in Porto Moniz I’m just going to take it easy because I have prepared properly, I have tested all my kit and I am trying to stay positive, albeit a nervous positive. Finish or fail it matters not, I just know I’d rather be challenging myself at MIUT this weekend rather than something I know I can do.

March started with such promise but ended in a failure from which there seems no escape. Below are the high and lowlights of my March running

  1. More than 200 miles run (mostly race miles)
  2. Completed the Hockley Woods Challenge despite injury early in the event
  3. Completed the outrageously fun Amersham Ultra
  4. Nasty bout of food poisoning gave me a week off running – that’ll teach me for eating slightly mouldy muffins!
  5. Withdrew from the UTBCN at the three-quarter point due to a kit failure in my brand new Petzl head torch
  6. The effect of a race failure caused by things outside of my control has meant I haven’t felt like running at all since
  7. Weight loss was slowed to allow me to eat more in preparation for the three races in March – 0.5kg dropped.
  8. I dumped Petzl in favour of Black Diamond head torches after the UTBCN. Fingers crossed my new choices don’t fail
  9. Kit tested my new Oxsitis Enduro and Ultimate Direction PB 3.0 both of which are outstanding pieces of kit – expect reviews in the coming months
  10. Yesterday UltraBaby told me we had to go for a run! Cool!

So it wasn’t a good March all in all – it’s not a disaster but after several months of geverally forward progress this feels like taking steps backwards and being unsure how to resolve it with a big race on the horizon doesn’t fill with me anything other than trepidation.

ho-hum.

Importantly though, for those that read this and feel I require a ‘man up’ or a ‘go for a run’ then please allow me to spare you those well meaning sentiments – they don’t help. I’ve already had quite a lot of well meaning but ultimately generic help from both real people and social media and actually this is just something you need to resolve yourself, or at least that’s how I need to do it.

I hope everyone else has had good running over the last month and that Apri is awesome too!

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