I need to get some words down about the weekend just gone. I’m not sure if the enormity of what I have achieved has sunk in yet or how it will change me but if I don’t get it all down now I never will.
So as this is the first blog entry I’ve ever done I suppose a little context setting is in order before we get to the race itself. If you want to skip the “story so far” and get to the race then do feel free to scroll on down. I won’t take offence.
I should warn you that it’s not all beer and skittles, there’s a lot of personal stuff and tragedy in here so if you’d rather not read on, I fully understand.
I used to be a runner, once.
Way back in the mists of time, in the late 70’s, a time before personal computers and the internet, I won my first race at a holiday camp in Devon (haven’t won a race since – I peaked early!) The medal was prestigious.
Later on I was into athletics and always ran a bit, the odd race here and there – nothing serious. In the late 90’s I was working for the sponsor of The London Marathon so decided to give it a go. The younger, fitter me managed to trundle round in 4 hours 40 minutes. I ran London twice more but never managed to break 4 hours.
And then I sort of lost interest in running. I gave up my mediocre level of football and settled in to a more leisurely lifestyle. And then a bulldozer smashed it’s way through my life.
I’m sorry, there’s no cure
I married Bea in 1997 after we’d lived together for 7 years.
In 1999 we had our first child Michael, then in 2006 our second child Sasha. Sasha was aged just 4 when me and Bea got the news about Bea’s Ovarian cancer in the office of an oncologist in a most unglamorous part of Salisbury hospital. Her CA125 count was around 3000, normal is around 25. It was incurable but they would proceed with chemo.
Over the next 6 and half years Bea showed more courage and strength than I have ever witnessed to put up with not just the effects of disease but the after effects of surgery and treatment, which were far worse. The NHS were brilliant, I am so very grateful for those extra years.
In February this year she passed away in Salisbury Hospice and we miss her every day.
Not a mid-life crisis, this is common sense
A couple of years after Bea was diagnosed It really hit me that I needed to change my lifestyle. So I started to do the occasional run and joined a gym. Having run London before I thought I’d enter the London Marathon so in 2013 I did, getting a place with Macmillan. Through the winter of 2013 and into 2014 I really did mean to start training properly. My time of 6.02 and having to walk from 18 miles tells its own tale in that regard. It was hell.
The quest for sub 4
I should have felt a lot of pride in raising over £2000, and in retrospect I did. But that time! Oh man, how bad was that time.
So I entered for the following year, this time for Children with Cancer. I bought a Garmin Forerunner 220 watch, I read lots of running books and I settled on an 80/20 training plan from Matt Fitzgerald’s book.
04:19:18 – Close but still not sub 4.
In 2016 I entered the Brighton Marathon. I was getting fitter and quicker. My race times at all distances we’re PB’s, I was down to 1:41 for a half. This would be the one.
Two days before I went down with a norovirus type infection. I was weak as a kitten and in no state to run. So I did the right thing and got my first ever DNS.
But I couldn’t let all this training go to waste so laying in bed on the day of the Brighton Marathon I entered the North Dorset Village Marathon, the diametric opposite of a big city event.
Reader, I sub 4’d. 3:57:48
But now what?
When you’ve set yourself a target and taken so long to achieve it there can be an enormous sense of achievement swiftly followed by a feeling of “Well, what I am supposed to do now?”
The next level
I started running more trail races, with the aim of completing, not going for a time. And I loved it. During that time of going for the sub-4 I was a bit of a hamster on the treadmill. I needed to step off, enjoy it. And it worked, it really did. I love running trail events. And my 2017 North Dorset Marathon was the most enjoyable 26.2 I have ever had. I slowed down, took it all in and loved every single minute.
In 2016 I took part in my first ultra, a 50K race called The Hangman. This was fun. I could really get into this. So I entered Race To The Stones.
This is the bit about the Stones
Thanks for ploughing through the preamble (or this is the bit you skipped down to!)
From entering Race to The Stones to actually finishing the race was a tumultuous period in my life. My wife was deteriorating and the cancer was taking hold. There was no more treatment to be had. In January, after a lovely Christmas at home, she went into Salisbury Hospice. A lovely, caring environment from which she never returned. I and my sister-in-law were with her on the 8th of February when she was finally released from the pain.
At such a time there is no room in your life for structured training. I did still run, often for hours out on the New Forest trails, but this was to clear my mind, to release the anger and frustration. Quite honestly if I didn’t have that release valve I think I would have been quite unwell mentally.
In the build up to the Stones I ran the Brighton Marathon where I met a lot of the ukrunchat people. It was hot and a good test but my lack of training showed.
How to plan to run an ultra
My first ultra was 50K and I did it without any specific training, just slowed right down. Race to the Stones requires a lot more respect. I looked around for some plans, considered the official plan but eventually settled on one that gave me Mondays and Fridays off and had back to back long runs at the weekend.
Training properly for a 100K run takes a lot of time out of your day. As a single parent time is not a thing you have in great abundance so my running would often be split between lunch and evening or at the weekend I’d be up at silly o’clock just to fit it in.
But somehow fit it in I did. I won’t lie and say I stuck rigidly to the original plan. I didn’t ever do the 9 hour run/walk for instance! I did adapt the plan to the demands on my time and to how my body felt. I’ve trained harder than this but never got anywhere near the distances. In the 3 months leading up to the race I covered 500 miles. Quite an uplift.
I spent the night in a B&B in Wallingford, about 5 miles from the start in Lewknor. My car was at the finish. Can I just say that I don’t recommend driving home after a 100K race and it’s not something I shall ever do again. Up early after a decentish nights sleep I got a taxi to the start.
I met up with some of the ukrunchat crew and we had a group photo. Outstanding folk all. Was a shame not to be able to meet some of the others but the staggered start times made that impossible.
Collecting my number and depositing my bag was seamless – I have nothing but good things to say about the organisation of this event.
And they’re off
So now all that was left to do was get going. At 7.45 I headed off with the rest of wave B. There was some light rain/drizzle but it was too warm to warrant putting my waterproof jacket on so I just ran through it. The first 20K was pretty uneventful and I kept the pace steady. Walking the hills and stopping at CP1 and 2.
I wasn’t monitoring how fast I was running but I knew I was running well within myself. My Forerunner 220 battery wouldn’t last the day so I just had it on to tell the time and because I’m so used to it being there. I did have a 310xt in my back pocket that should have lasted the race but that ran out by halfway. I think it helped me enormously that I didn’t have anything reminding me of pace and distance. For me 100K is too large a distance to contemplate running so I just broke it down into the distances between the checkpoints.
By 30K I started to feel a bit of pain on the outside of my right knee but it wasn’t too bad.
I got a real boost at this point as some friends of mine were waiting for me at Goring which I was not expecting. Thanks guys.
By the time I got to the 40K mark the impact of the hard trails was really making itself known on the underside of my right foot and my knee. I used some pain relief gel at the checkpoint and also downed a paracetamol. This worked well for me.
Getting to halfway and beyond
By the time I got to halfway I was really tired. I didn’t doubt I would finish at this point, just that I doubted I would be able to carry on running and 50K walking is going to take a very long time. My energy levels were quite low even though I had been fuelling at CPs and drinking tailwind. I had been on my feet for over 7 hours and my spirit was low, probably the lowest part of the day.
Thankfully in the halfway marquee someone had the good sense to persuade me to eat something, even though I really wasn’t feeling like it. I am glad I listened as I probably would have suffered badly without the energy boost.
After some pasta, a loo break and a tea I made my way out. Getting from halfway to CP6 wasn’t exactly fun either as my energy was still quite low.
About the course
Before I continue a word about the route. There’s no doubt in my mind that the second half of this course is tougher than the first half, even without the added difficulty of already having covered 50K. It’s not as hilly but it’s much harder to get going on. Or perhaps that’s my perception? I’ve not included many details of course itself as I can’t really recall them very accurately. Lot’s of trails, not always wide, often rutted. Plenty of awkward flints and hard chalk surface. Very occasional road/pavement sections.
It’s not easy, but then if it was, it would not be worth it. I really wasn’t expecting anything else. But I still didn’t realise just how hard CP9 to the finish was. But more on that later, now back to race where your hardy traveller soon reaps the wisdom of a well packed first aid kit.
Where did that energy come from?
At 60K something happened. I don’t know why but I suddenly started to feel ok again. Almost up to how I felt at the start. Perhaps it was the pasta, perhaps I just got through the bad patch. Now although I didn’t run all the way from CP6 to CP8 I certainly had a much better time of things. I had fully accepted at this point I wouldn’t finish in daylight and I think that also helped. No point in stressing over something you can’t control. My left knee had at this point joined in the discomfort party which at least meant I wasn’t thinking about the right knee and foot so much. Time for another paracetamol.
Checkpoint 8 – Did I speak too soon
My plan at CP8 was always to plug myself into my music for the last 20K. I had something else to eat, a little sit down, visited the loo and then made ready to leave. I plugged myself in to the music and set off. It did the trick – with some funk and soul in my ears I felt great and got a decent pace on. I really did feel very good. Bouncing along.
Now I don’t know if it was the stress on my body, the paracetamol, the coca cola, the tea or what it was but on a steep descent about 10 minutes out from CP8 I experienced a quite sudden and violent stomach cramp rating about a 9 on the Paula Radcliffe scale. Suffice it to say I had to step to the side of the trail quick smart and take care of “business” immediately. I can only apologise to those that followed behind.
Having made good use of the wipes and hand gel I was carrying I ran on, not feeling too bad and hoping it was a one-off.
About haf a mile later, just on the outskirts of a village on a road section I made up a bank and behind some trees in time for a second episode. At this point I availed myself of an imodium instant – something I am so glad I packed based on someone else’s kit list – thank you stranger.
I took an extra salt tablet and made sure I ate something and drank plenty of tailwind. I did not want to start cramping as a result of what just happened. Luckily the imodium did the trick and I had no more instances of this. It’s just one of those things that can happen when you push the limits.
Company at last
My unexpected stops meant a group of people caught up with me and we ran on mostly as a group between CP8 and CP9. It was getting dark and we were all glad of the company. Most of the day apart from the checkpoints I had been by myself, which was fine as I don’t mind that, most of my training is done solo. But by now with the darkness descending and the level of tiredness I was really pleased to be alongside someone.
Myself and Hannah chatted for quite some time before either of us though to ask each other’s name. We made a decision to go on from CP9 together.
The longest 12K of my life
I had been warned about the surface from CP9 to the finish but until you experience it, in the dark, on legs that have carried you 90K already, you really don’t appreciate how difficult it is.
Leaving CP9, having donned jacket and headtorch, myself and Hannah set off into the night for the last leg of the journey. My headtorch is a fairly decent one but the inestimable Darren (see his blog here – RunnersKnees) had lent me his Unilite PS-H8 headtorch. What an amazing piece of kit – like wearing a mini lighthouse.
That last bit along the Ridgeway, before you descend into Avebury, seemed to take forever. It’s dark, the ground is really badly rutted so you (normal humans only, those 8-10 hour finishers need not apply here!) can’t run without real risk of twisting an ankle or worse. It’s incredibly hard even to just walk. Many a stumble was made.
It really did feel like we were going to be out there forever. I was considering having my mail redirected to the Ridgeway.
I am so glad I had company. Thanks for being there with me on that last bit Hannah, it made the struggle bearable, it really did.
I can see the light
That section sapped all our energy and neither of us felt we could run so we decided to save it for the finishing straight. Down into Avebury, to the Stones for the iconic photo, back out and across a field. Then you see it, the finish. Just 500 metres to the end. We wisely walked the first 300, stopping for a hug of congratulation. Then we ran it home.
My friends, the same one’s from 30K were waiting at the finish. That was lovely.
Would you do it again?
I have to be honest, I don’t know. I have another 2 ultra marathons lined up for next year which I’ll do – but they’re not as brutal as this. After that I’ll assess if I want to continue this ultra journey.
I certainly don’t feel broken. Apart from a bit of bruising on the topside of my right foot and a small blister on the pad of my left foot I feel pretty okay. I think I paced it just about right.
Will I feel like putting myself through RTTS again? Not so sure but you never say never do you. Perhaps next time, to paraphrase the advice of Paul Addicott it’ll just be “f**king hard” as opposed to “really f**king hard”. For now, my body needs to heal.
I know I need a break from running for a week at least and from organised training for at least a month. I’ve been on one training programme or another since November 2016 since when my world has changed enormously. My mind and body need a rest from this for a little bit.
That’s pretty much it. Thanks for taking the time to read this. Just the process of writing has helped me process how I feel about the whole thing. I’ll leave you with a picture of what I wear around my neck, something I wore during Race to The Stones and something which gives me great comfort and feels I have a hidden hand pushing me along. Mine and Bea’s wedding rings, entwined forever.