Lockdown Lowdown

As the UK enters (what feels like) the 98th week of lockdown due to COVID-19 I thought I would have a go at trying to write down what, if anything, I have learnt.

I have a fat lad hiding (not very well) inside screaming to get out

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Once races, more importantly my races, started to get cancelled or postponed I downed tools and picked up the biscuits. The running was replaced by trips to the kitchen for sugary carbs and spiced rum and tonic. I really could get used to this; but the choice of t-shirts that I can wear without looking like Buddha after a pie eating contest is ever shrinking, which has triggered a much-needed calorie lockdown.

‘virtual races’ are generally a bit wank

Up until very recently all the virtual races have felt a bit, well to be frank, wank. I don’t know what it is that makes them so unattractive, but it all just feels a little manufactured and calculating – even when they are donating some of the proceeds to charity.

That being said, I have entered a ‘virtual race’, the virtual Hope (hope24.team-hope.co.uk – which donates £10 of the £12.50 entry to charity – with the options for running 24 days, 24 hours or 24 miles in July- I have opted for 24 days; another race I saw donated only £3 for a £15 entry fee.

I miss running the trails

I had been training for a road marathon in April and had spent a large chunk of time road running. That doesn’t mean that I don’t rather trails, because I do, I had just been trying to prioritise the marathon. Now in lockdown, and the need for marathon prioritisation over, I really miss the mud, roots and dust of the trails. The sense of freedom and open spaces. The clean air.

IMG_20200422_160235_resized_20200508_090820396I should not have stopped taking the kids with me on runs

There is a burning bright positive to all of this. For the first time in years the kids have been joining me on my runs, either for a little run of their own at the end of mine, or on their bikes for the entirety of it. I don’t know why we stopped doing this – especially on their bikes. It’s great to have the company – even if the conversation is a bit one directional. Now they are a bit older I don’t need to push them up the hills and it’s a little more of a struggle if I’m not feeling too great, but when the legs feel fresh it’s lovely gliding along with them. They even point out potholes and dog shit for me.

Even when they are being little shitbags in the house, once they are out on their bikes – even if they are both there – they become different children. Happy, smiley, they even appear to like each other. The downside is the shithousery usually begins again not too long after our return.

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I don’t need races to be competitive

All I need is Strava. That and watching the running wife getting faster from afar. I really don’t want to be left behind. Does that make me a #stravawanker? I think it probably does, and I guess I’ll have to be ok with that.

I don’t actually need races to focus my training, but it helps

Even before the running wife started upping the ante – at this point he wasn’t even doing much running – but after an initial lull in running the urge came back. Initially it was just a quick around the block to release a little pressure, then further, then further again. I am actually enjoying the running for the sake of running – and to try and keep up, obviously.

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I hardly ever run in an event t-shirt (or even wear them at all) when things are going well, but once things start to slide I am far more likely to do so – if they still fit. The main reason for this is to remind myself that I haven’t always been as shit as i currently am – I used to be mildly better. It tends to be the ones from longer and/or tougher races – who brags about a local 5k unless you actually won it. it’s almost like a message to other runners “I may be slow and chubby now, but i used to run quite far – even if i was still chubby”. It’s no different to an Mdot tat, except I can take off the t-shirt.

The Birthday Present

There are few birthday gifts – as an adult – better than a race entry, except when it’s a race with the person whom entered you is running too.  So firstly, thank you thank you Tom, Hannah and little ‘un; I love my birthday present. The race in question was Rough n Tumble which starts and finishes in Milton Lilbourne, Wiltshire, and retraces some of The Terminator route which we ran last February – which also happens to be the first race Tom beat me in.  Not that I’m all that competitive; honest.  

The race didn’t start until 11 and was only a short walk from Claire’s – Tom’s sister’s – house, so there was no hideously early alarm to worry about – which was a bonus after the curry and beers the night before.  After an almost too leisurely breakfast we get kitted up, and the four of us (Tom, Claire, Katie (Claire’s friend) and me) stroll down to the village hall to collect our race numbers. The race numbers have our names printed on the bottom, and I am relieved to report that Tom resisted the strong urge to be a dick and enter me in another name.

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Trip to the portaloo, numbers pinned, and pre-race photos taken and it’s time for the race brief and then we are off.  The race starts gently, with the first kilometre being fairly flat, starting on tarmac – which becomes more broken up and potholed the further we go.  The gentle start doesn’t last long, and we hit the first climb up the escarpment, as we hit the bottom, we are all forced into a walk as people in front do the same.  To be entirely honest, I would have walked it even if I was on my own – for fear of detonation – but it’s nice to have an excuse. We regroup on a false flat two thirds of the way up but get split up as it steepens again.  As we top out Tom and I regroup as we gradually drop down on a wide grassy slope. As we make our way down Tom pipes up to remind me that I’d had a bit of a moment going the other way during the Terminator. I know Thomas, I know.  

Before long, the route tightens as we enter ‘The Gully’ for the first time.  The Gully is a narrow single-track trail which in places is difficult to pass.  Along here Tom dives though a gap that a man of my frame has no right to follow, so I let him go before I take someone out.  As we continue to drop, he gains a bit more time on me. At the bottom, the route takes a tight right and the route opens out as we run alongside a field.  Tom has about 15 meters or so on me and I gradually reel him back in. we run and chat as we run along the muddy edge of three fields. Once out of the fields we run along a rough farm lane, climbing gradually to begin with, before starting to steepen as the route turns off onto a single track.  just as we turn onto the track, I manage to pass the runner and continue to push on up the hill. At this point Tom and I are separated. I continue up the hill pushing on where the gradient slackens and shutting it down where needed. Once the route opened out a bit, I had a look back for Tom, but carried on running – I didn’t push on but didn’t stop either.  I looked back a few times as the route headed towards the top, taking a sharp lefthander out onto the road.

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The road gently drops away for a few hundred metres, before beginning to climb again.  As I reach the bottom, I look back again, but still can’t see Tom and carry on up the hill – deciding it never really gets steep enough to have to resort to a walk.  The climb continues as we leave the road again for another section of dual track. Along this section we run straight into the teeth of the wind so I work my way long trying to get in behind other runners to shelter from the wind where I can.  Finally, a right-hand turn and get a little relief from the headwind and continue to climb – slightly until – reaching the top of what Tom and Claire refer to as The Clay Hill. Clay Hill is a fairly steep, somewhat slimy trail of 2 or three single tracks crossing each other at various places.  It was steep and slimy enough to warrant having marshal ready to catch – or try to catch – runners trying to make the left-hand turn at the bottom. Luckily for the marshal I don’t need catching and manage to scrub off enough speed to get around the corner. Once the corner is negotiated there is a steep rutty ramp with deep rivets and big steps cut into it.  I clamber to the top and begin to pick up the pace again as we drop back down again.

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I then look up, and instantly regret it.  In front of the escarpment we have just come down with a line of runners making their way up it.  As I reach the bottom, I shut it down so as not to burn too many matches. After what feels like a calf burning lifetime, I reach the top and turn left and pick up the pace again.  Thankfully its slightly downhill as we run along the top of the escarpment – giving me time to put my lungs back where they should be and for the burning calves to cool down. Along the top, the wind really makes itself felt as it blasts across from right to left.  As the wind blasted me, I could feel my sinuses being to burn and my nose began to unload onto my face. Luckily, I didn’t have another runner within 10 metres behind me so I was able to turn my face from the wind and unleash a snot rocket into orbit. Repeating the process for the other nostril a few strides later.

Breathing a little easier, I follow another runner as we begin to drop back down off the escarpment.  As the route steepens, the guy I’m with begins to get away from me. Not being the greatest descender once he gets 5 metres or so on me, I stop trying to keep with him and play the percentage game and make sure I get to the bottom with my ankles intact.  By the bottom I had caught up with the guy from the top. At this point I am running with about 6 or 7 people within a few metres of me. I use these runners to shelter from the wind and jump from one person to the next. I recognise this section from last year’s Terminator, so I know I can keep going over the hill ahead and recover on the far side. At this point the route comes very close to the bottom of Clay Hill and cockily I try to see if I can see Tom – whom I haven’t seen for about 5 km – but no luck.  In reality that would have put me 2km up on him which is about as likely as a snowboarding trip to Hawaii.

The next bit of the race is wonderful.  Nice flowing single-track with trees either side and a bit of a gap either side of me so I can just enjoy running.  The fact that its slightly down hill just adds to the feeling of effortless mile munching. In my head I feel the efficient smooth motion of a runner in perfect tune with there surroundings.  I reality I probably looked like an asthmatic sloth trying to ride a unicycle up a glacier. The next few kilometres are flat as the route skirts around the edge of fields, going from open fields to little thickets of trees and back again.  We come out from the field and turn right onto a road – which happens to be the same one we ran along at the start of the race – not that I knew that at the time. The next few kilometres on the road aren’t much fun. There is a post-apocalyptic feel as runners who have gone too hard too early walk like they have no joints below their hips.  I just try to keep moving forward, knowing that we go down the gully again so hopefully the hard stuff can’t last too much longer. By hook or by crook I get myself to the end of the tarmac and drop into the gully.

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By the time I get to the gully for the second time over 500 pairs of feet had made their way down it, and it had the feel under foot of 6 inches of blancmange on a plain of glass.  I make my way down behind two other runners – finally managing to pass them once the gully opens up again. The route continues through some trees before taking a left hander out into the open.  With about a kilometre to go, remarkably I still feel ok and I concentrate on trying to run as smoothly as I can. Once through a gap in the hedge and round a dogleg the finish line is in sight and I give it on final push though another hedge and across the line.

Upon finishing I find myself in an unusual position mentally.  I’m neither happy nor disappointed in my performance. I possibly could have gone a little faster if I had dug a little deeper on the climb up to the gully for the second decent.  Finishing feeling relatively fresh has certainly given me a bit more confidence in my fitness as I begin to focus on the block of marathon training which is about to start. beating Tom certainly helped with that too (sorry Tom – just not very sorry).

 

Shh, it happens

Stand quietly in the middle of the pack before a race you will hear other runners talking about three things – not exclusively, but somewhere someone will be talking about – injuries, hitting the wall (usually in a race) and the dreaded runners trots. This I will return to later.

Summer is a weird time for training for me, long warm evenings and early sun rises make training an enticingly heady prospect, however juggling school holiday commitments – getting kids to and from holiday clubs, couple-y commitments while theIMG_20190831_105436 kids are away with the grand parents and actually going on holiday ourselves – make training even more sporadic than it is the rest of the year.

As a family we had the last week of the school holidays together and had an action-packed week booked all over the south of the country. I had hoped to squeeze two runs in without the risk of spending the night sleeping in the garden. The first was a mix of hilly b roads and north Cornwall coastal path – although unfortunately too much of the former and not enough of the later, and I had planned to squeeze the second in to the weekend at the end of our holiday.

We arrive at our final campsite in the dark, but I awake to find a wooded hill at the back of the campsite, and even better; the site staff informed me there is a footpath to the top not far from the site – even if it is easy to miss. With a hop and a skip, I return to the tent and begin my usual pre run preparations. Once my preparations are done, I head off through the site – including a little stretch of wooded footpath with dinosaurs hidden along the way. Then its up through the site and on to a back road through a gate.

Instinctively I turn right and instantly begin to climb. After a few kilometres a bit of the instructions from the site staff begin to replay in my head – “keep on the right-hand side, the path is easily missed”. Right-hand side! The wooded hill I am aiming for is on my left! Bugger, I’ve gone the wrong way. I carry on until the road flattens out, before turning and running back down towards the gate to the campsite and carry on past it. I reach the main road before seeing the footpath and by this point, I have given up on finding it, and decide to negotiate the main road.  I run along the main road until I find a sign to an ‘Ancient Church’ and head towards that.

Its along here that it all begins to go south – unfortunately all too literally. With little to no warning I get a prang deep in my guts that’s stops me dead in my tracks. It’s the kind of feeling that can only mean one thing. Panicked that there is no way I can make it back to the campsite before my dam breaches I desperately look for somewhere to purge. I spot an overgrown conifer that is perfect to my specific set of needs.

I begin to back in and lower my shorts, but as soon as the waistband reaches the top of my arse – and I begin to relax internally – a car comes around the corner and I must screenshot_20190903_2157044416645509382000017.jpghurriedly and desperately jam everything in to reverse. Not a moment too soon the car turns out of site and I can finally open the floodgates, but with only grass and conifer needles available the only option I have is to pull my shorts back up and sheepishly make my leave.

The shameful walk back seems to take an eternity and a shower can’t come soon enough. I message my wife asking her to sort out my shower stuff, so I don’t have to go into the tent. After doing my best to avoid people as I cross the site to the shower block, I can confirm that never has a shower felt so good.

Now, to never speak of this again.

Biting off more than I can chew

At the turn of the year there were two races high on my agenda. Man V Horse and Hope24. One has been my ‘to run list’ since I DNS’ed years back and the other was my running highlight of 2018. The fact that the two are a week apart didn’t really phase me. I believe I may have said something along the lines of treating Man V Horse as a long (hilly) training run with a medal. I was expecting to have heavy legs, but I wasn’t expecting was a mental fatigue hangover.

I had grand ideas about beating last years distance (by some margin), however the writing was on the wall before we even set foot at Hope24. It came about halfway around Man v Horse when, while suffering in the welsh hills, we began to make excuses for our performance a week later. We arrived at Hope24 knowing that a big improvement on the 55 miles we (Tom and I) ran last year was unlikely but we both wanted to try and get past it.

The weekend starts reasonably well, as we set up basecamp the legs feel good. Camp is IMG_20190615_112930_resized_20190822_060003525constructed and we head over and collect our numbers. Once back we get changed and pin on our numbers ready for battle. After a quick warm up (by warm up I mean jog over to the portaloos for a pre-race poo). Once the load is lightened, we head over to the start line – for the purpose of clarity Tom did not accompany me in the portaloo.

As we get near the buzzer goes, we dive under the tape into the crowd of runners and cross the line, Hope24 2019 is a go. The course is different this year, and we cross the line going in the other direction. The course still loops around the camping field, just without the little dogleg to start. once past the camping area we cross the stream over the same bridge but turn right then left up a grassy bank – no more tarmac trudge – once up the grassy bank we enter a section of single track through some woods. After running this section a few times, it finally dawned on me we ran this section last year and I can confirm its was more fun running down it last year.

At the top we come out into a grass field before dropping along a gravelly double track along the near side (which we ran up last year to the wooded trail). We follow this all the way to the bottom corner of the field before running up the far side. Just before we do a complete lap of the field, we enter another wooded area via a little section of single track, before climbing up onto a gravel track. we weave through the woods for a while before taking a left and settle into in the same general direction for about a kilometre as the trail goes from gravel, to grass to ankle deep slime. We leave the woods then take a long, tightening right hander and drop back down into the woods. We follow a wide muddy path along side of Troy Brook for what feels like an age. The track rises and falls – while drying out gradually until we are running on gravel again.

We follow the same path for just over half a kilometre – it always feels further than that and by the end it feels a lot further – before we cross the brook on a single file bridge andreceived_2759054787469973 continue in the same direction. We turn away from the brook and hit the last climb of the lap, which kicks off with a sharp ramp before easing in the middle section before rising again as you reach the top. As we round the corner at the bottom of the hill I notice a photographer at the top of the first ramp. I politely inform Tom he should continue running – resulting in the first race picture of me that I don’t actually hate! I am eternally grateful to the photographer for not staying there, as any further pictures would have made for grim viewing.  Once at the top of the hill we go through a gate and out onto the top of a grass bank. We contour along it, gradually dropping down, until we get to the road.

Screenshot_20190822_173503Once at the road we cross it and enter the camping area, unlike last year there is no Prick’s Parade and we turn right and head straight to the finish line. Once the finish line is in sight both Tom and I begin to speed up. I don’t know who surged first, but once one of us did the other responded and so on until we are in a fully-fledged – all be it fucking slow – sprint for the line. Guess the legs must be feeling ok.

We adopt the same strategy as last year and pit in for a cup of coffee and a little to eat. We continue this for the rest of the afternoon; however, I find that as the day goes on my legs become less and less responsive. By the time we stop for dinner – after 5 laps – I have spent more time following Tom (and staring at his heels) than I ever have before. That’s not to say that I usually run in the front (but I like to think I do but Tom no doubt will passionately disagree), but we do tend to share the load on the front.Screenshot_20190822_174903

After dinner we head out for another lap with our head torches – my one regret from last year is not getting a lap in in the dark. This time its Tom’s time to suffer as we pick our way through the darkness. We finish the day on 30 miles – the same as last year, just finishing a bit later. After a beer and synchronization of alarms we retire for the night.

After a restless night the annoying buzz from my phone drags me from my slumber. I snooze the annoyance and lye for a moment – stuck between sleep and awake. Noise outside my tent startles me from my twilight zone and I poke my head out the tent to assess the days weather. I am greeted with rain that wouldn’t look out of place in an environmental disaster movie. I dart across to the group shelter we have been using as our kitchen/dining room/race nerve centre and put on the kettle while I get my running stuff on. Just as the coffee is made Tom joins me – weary eyed – and we have a cup and a bowl of muesli while waiting for the rain to pass, or even ease. The rain doesn’t usually stop us going out for a run – even if one of us has reservations the other is always on hand to offer the time-honoured advice to ‘dig a little deeper for a bigger pair of balls’. Not today, however. Today we had another cup of coffee.

After some time and a fair bit of coffee – by now its light and the wives have awoken – we notice the rain has eased to a drizzle. Me mobilise ourselves and, with a little nudge from the afore mentioned wives we are finally out for our first lap of the day. The lap goes by with no drama, or niggles, and we return to camp for yet more coffee. By now we have accepted that any chance of getting to our distance from last year is over – and as a result all urgency, although there was little to begin with – has gone.

After a bit more sitting, chatting and coffee consumption we head out for our final lap of Screenshot_20190822_173426the 24 hours. This time Sian and Hannah – who have both entered the hope5 – join us. It doesn’t go unnoticed that after a day of warm sunny weather they end up deciding to do their lap in the rain. The four of us walk over to the start line, where I am asked to get a few pictures of them starting. But before I can get my phone out they are off and running. I have to put on a bit of a dart to get ahead of them for long enough to get a photo. Once the photographer duties are out the way, Tom and I plod at our pace leaving the girls to run at theirs. I thoroughly enjoyed our last lap as we stopped to take photos, chat and enjoy the route without the pressure of trying to get another lap in, or the endless ticking of the clock.

We finished with 8 laps – 40 miles – which is a fair distance less than we covered last year. As much as the preparation wasn’t as solid as it was the year before – no spring marathon and a few niggly little injuries – I genuinely feel that mental fatigue had a bigger part to play. Last year Hope24 was the only target of the early Summer. Once Boston Marathon was done it was only Hope24. Trying to mentally peak again a week after Man V Horse was never going to be easy, and I knew I had to dip into my mental reserves to get around the Welsh hills. What I didn’t realise was how deep into these reserves I would need to go, nor that they wouldn’t be there when I needed them again the following week. The surprising thing was that it wasn’t the running that I struggled with, once out on course even on Saturday afternoon when my legs didn’t seem to want to play ball I could keep myself going. The issue came in getting to that point. Get out – especially in the rain of Sunday morning.

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I certainly hope to return next year. It remains to be seen if any lessons have been learnt.

“It took how long? It isn’t even a marathon!”

I ran part of this race 6 years ago (whilst doing the relay) and had a DNS (did not start) – due to injury – 3 years ago. This was finally the year to scratch the Man V Horse itch.

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After a typically poor pre-race night’s sleep – thanks to my son spending the night coughing like a seal – Tom and I arrive in Llanwrtyd Well (I can spell it because I am

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writing this wearing the event t-shirt) in typically Welsh summer weather. We get ourselves registered and join a queue which appears to have some portaloos at the end. Once the pre-race rituals are done, we make our way to the to the Neuadd Arms Hotel where 40 years ago – during a drunken discussion over who would win a race between an man and a horse – a race was born. We hang around trying to keep warm and chat to fellow runners before the time comes to fight our way to the back of the starting melee.

After a few speeches we are off. The first km or so is along the road, the banter flows as

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runners joke and laugh with each other. Before long the road begins to rise – gently at first – and there is a direct correlation between the amount of chatter and the gradient we are tackling. Before the top of the first hill the road gives way to a rocky track.

Once at the top the track thins out to some single track – boggy single track. This section of the course it wet and squelchy. Its great fun pilling through the puddles and gliding across the muddy track – in my minds eye we are gliding.

We begin to descend, but before long we hit a bottle neck as the trail drops down a rocky bank to ‘The Bog’. We successfully negotiate the bog –

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much to my relief given previous bog experiences. We trudge back up the bank on the other side before beginning to descend again along sweeping single track. Before long we come out onto the Forestry Commission fire trails. Its along here that we are passed by the first of the horses. There is a definite buzz amongst the runners as the horses approach, with a number of people (myself included) fumble for their phones to try to get a selfie with a horse in the background. We stay on the rocky fire trail and continue to climb, before peeling off back into the woods and beginning to descend again.

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As we reach the bottom, we take a hard left into open moorland. At this point the route goes skywards again. By this point we have firmly bought into a walking up the hills strategy – we aren’t yet at the point of walking every hill, but certainly the longer steeper ones.

The next 5km are a bit of a blur as the suffering begins to set in. Tom and I are still chatting away – maybe a little less than the first 5 km – but I take far less notice of the surroundings. I am abruptly pulled out of this daze about halfway up the biggest climb of the day. As we trudge up my peripheral vision is suddenly filled by a dark mass as a horse comes galloping passed a couple of feet away – scaring the shit out of me in the process. Tom has openly and freely admitted that he would have loved to have seen me run over by the horse. As the adrenaline surges, I become more aware of my surroundings and begin to enjoy the views – rather than staring at my feet. The steepest part of the climb ends as we cross a stream, and we top out onto high moorland.

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As we run along the top Tom’s bladder burst at the seam making it appear he was dissolving out of his rear end – and to be honest with some of the noises he had been making I wouldn’t have been surprised if his lungs were falling out that way. We stop to try to rectify the problem before he loses all his water down his back. With no other option he elects to carry the bladder upside down for a few kilometres. The few minutes it took to sort Tom’s leaky bladder (and there is a sentence I never want to write again) gave us a chance to regroup, and the rest of the way across the moorland to the vet check – which thankfully neither of us need to pass – flow by comfortably. Once passed the vet checkpoint we return to the fire roads and spend the next 3km descending as the horses begin to repass us as they pass the vet check. Before long the surface changes from fire roads to moorland dual trail and forest single trail.

I begin to hanker for the second relay changeover point, and when we finally get there it is a real shot in the arm knowing we are on the last relay leg. The next bit of the route is along the road and although being on the last leg is a boost the hard top really hurts. After a short (but by now very sharp feeling) rocky hill the route levels out. Along here we pass a guy in a crumpled heap appearing in all sorts of trouble. We stop – as others run by – and discover he is cramping up. Tom whips out his trusty can of Deep Heat (I am beginning to wonder if he goes anywhere without it) while a fellow runner gives him a block of cheese. Once the Deep Heat and cheese has been administered, we help him up and encourage him to walk to try to free himself up. Once we are confident it is only cramp, we get going again. Within 5 km Crampman (not all heroes wear capes) had repassed us, Tom and I congratulate him on getting going again and running so well, while deciding we had to keep him in view, and more importantly make sure we finish before him.

Before long the horse (and rider) that scared the life out of me passed us again(this time with a nice clear warning and a thank you). However the dye and been cast and I really wanted to beat her – or at least cross the line first – so I keep her in view as we climb. As we begin to go down the rocky descent on the other side, I begin to reel her in. By the bottom I have passed her – thinking the end was nearing. We cross a river about 5m apart and I give it all I can.

Then comes the sucker punch. That wasn’t the last hill, I’m now at the bottom of the last hill and it’s a steep, rutty monster of a ramp – and what makes is worse I have to move off the path to let the horse pass. Tom and I regroup on the hill after he had very sensibly let me go off on my fool’s errand alone. We clamber to the top to find a lovely section of single track waiting for us. Its wonderful running, but there is no way you would get me on a horse along here. We pass through a farm, then through a corridor of trees and hedgerows before a succession of lefts and rights as we negotiate hedgerows and the edges of fields.

Somewhere along here I notice Tom is about 10 to 15 metres back. I hadn’t intentionally dropped him, but now he was distanced I certainly wasn’t going to wait for him – and I make an effort to see what I can get on him.

By now the hedgerows have ended and the path has become a potholed, rutty path through was high grass. It gets to the point where stride length is dictated by where the next bit of raised path is rather than where you would like to land your feet. Thankfully

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this doesn’t last long, and the finish is within touching distance. I enter another tree corridor and after about 150m it’s a tight left and into the finishing field and on the finish line. I give the last section all I have – while also giving a few sweaty hi-fives to the kids at the barrier approaching the finish line. As I cross the line, I instinctively look back to see where tom is – and I catch a glimpse of him running into the tree corridor. I do the gentlemanly thing and get my phone out ready to get a picture of him crossing the line – that’s what friends are for.

Six years after running the relay – and three after the DNS – it was truly wonderful to finally run the whole route and I genuinely can’t wait to do it again.

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The Naked Edition

Fear not, this is not a NSFW (Not Safe For Work) post that includes the need to apply sunblock to the whitest of white bits.

While away for a weekend in south Wales I had planned to go for a run in the hills (locally referred to as mountains – which they definitely aren’t), and I packed enough kit to cater for weather smacap_Brightconditions ranging from the arctic tundra to the Borneo rainforest.  One of the things I decided didn’t need packing was the charger for my Garmin.

Come Sunday morning I decide what kit is the most appropriate for the typical Welsh weather – drizzly and a bit overcast – pack a first aid kit and a waterproof in my Salomon pack and dig out my Garmin.

I jump in the car and drive to the other side of the village – I absolutely hate road running in trail shoes – and turn on the Garmin while I have a little warm up.  Except the Garmin doesn’t turn on, it just buzzes and the screen goes dark again.  I try again, but to no avail.  Top battery management.

I have run the first part of the route a few times before, and it’s a solid uphill slog from FB_IMG_1557003473514 (1)the outset.  The route climbs from the edge of the village for around 3 ½ kilometres all the way up to a trig point at about 270m or so above sea level.  It hurts running up here, it always does – but strangely it felt much harder to dig deep and keep going.  I manage to summon the will power to keep running.  There is a definite sense that no one is watching and it won’t be popping up on Strava at any point.  Time also seems to slow; seconds turn into minutes as my mind plays tricks on me as progress feels sluggish and legs feel heavy.  This may have more to do with the alcohol intake at a friends 40th the night before, but it feels far more convenient to blame the Garmin.

It wasn’t all bad, far from it.  Despite having little idea of time or distance it was liberating to run without being a slave to data, without the temptation to look down at

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my wrist to check the time, distance or pace.  I could keep my head up and enjoy the views – this was enhanced by the decision to leave the iPod at home too.  The sound of birds, the grass crunching under foot and even my heavy breathing all added textures to the increased appreciation for the vistas.  Running out in the wilds always makes me feel more relaxed, but without the temptations of checking the data and push for a certain pace.  I was just running on feel I felt like I absorbed more of the open space.

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I’m not sure I can give up data full time, actually if I’m completely honest with myself there isn’t a chance.  I think I am going to set a screen on my watch which only shows total time for my LSRs.   I would like to cut my dependency.  I cant give up data all together but it might be time to work on my data addiction.

Terminator Tom

It’s not uncommon for race organisers to use a smattering of hyperbole when naming races – the Pewsey Vale Running Club can’t be accused of that when naming their race The Terminator.  Much like Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin.

Since running the Gloucester Half Marathon I have been trying to ease back into running; trying not to make my calf strain angry again – meaning I haven’t managed to run more than 10 kilometres a week, split into a couple of runs.

After what feels like a whole a day in the car Tom and I arrive at his sister Claire’s house in the dark – so I have no idea what is in store for me.  The following morning (which is race day) is a relaxed affair, the race doesn’t start until half ten and starts a few minutes down the road.  It was a very strange feeling – I’m used to having to drag myself up at an ungodly hour to force down a bowl of porridge.  Once we get to the start the stress free pre-race continues.  No mad stress to pick up our race numbers, no queue for the toilet longer than the actual race and no trying to squeeze 400 runners through a single door.  IfThe Terminator – 24.2.19 – www.pewseyvalerunningclub.org only more pre-race experiences were like this.  Claire, Tom and I make our way to the start line, and after some mumbling – which I assume is the race brief – we are off.

The first kilometre or so is quite busy and trying to find any kind of rhythm is a bit tricky.  We part ways and re-join each other during this first kilometre up until the final stretch of road before we hit the trail.  As we climb we separate to pass a group in the middle of the road, as we regroup and turn onto the trail Claire isn’t quite with us, and like the true gentlemen we are we carry on without her.

The first section of the race is undulating with no big hills, but certainly enough to tenderise the legs, and if you go too hard here there is certainly enough to it to make you suffer later.  As much as I would like to say how the early kilometres flew by effortlessly and without incident, I can’t.  The first 5 kilometres feel good, maybe too good – and I begin to feel it bite.  Then I encountered The Bog.

As I crossed a stream I slipped on the bank, and as I fell into the stream I instinctively grabbed out behind me – unfortunately grabbing a huge fucking thistle.  I wade through the stream and once out I begin to remove what feels like organic hypodermic needles from my hand.  Next thing I know I feel the ground beneath me give a little.  Before I have time to process what is happening my left leg has swung past my right and I’m balls deep in the infamous bog.

There’s not much I can do.  Wriggling my feet to try to free them doesn’t help, I’m stuck.  As Tom turns I throw him the couple of gels I am holding, and then suffer the indignity of being dragged from the bog by a couple of fellow runners – without whom I may still be in that bog.

Once free from a fate befitting the end of the dinosaurs, Tom and I continue to run together but now my legs feel unbelievably heavy, and I can’t help but hope it’s just a short lived bog related side effect.  We run along the edge of a field for a while and the going feels tough and the grassy tufts along the edge of the field doesn’t help with this one bit.  I later discover Tom suffered along this stretch too, so maybe it wasn’t just bog related side effects.

It takes a couple of kilometres for our pace to get back to where it was before we encountered the bog, but almost as soon as we get back to that pace we hit the bottom of the first proper test.  The trail we are on begins to climb – gently at first.  Gradually the gradient begins to rise as the trail closes in.  After a while, the hill begins to become a slog.  I slowly reel in a group in front of me, but unable to pass them I sit in at the back where I struggle to run at their speed – so I walked for a moment before starting to run and catch them again.  This happens once more before the trail opens up and I assume we are at the top – how wrong can someone be?  Just as we get to the opening I notice other runners scrambling up the side of the hill on all fours.  I feel my heart – which is already racing – drop into my trail shoes.

A couple of deep breathes and away we go, scrambling up this grass covered wall.  It feels like we take one step forward and several back again, but eventually we top out.  At the top we take a hard right and continue to climb – much more gradually – before we finally begin to descend.  Then the sickener, that’s not the top.  After a slight drop the climbing starts again.  This time there’s no gully, no closed in trail.  It’s open and straight and you can see the top from a long way away.  It’s never steep, but after the climbing thus far and the relief of thinking you’re at the top, it’s a grind – and the car which is parked at the top doesn’t get closer nearly as quickly as it should.

Once at the top I have to walk a few paces to let the feeling return to my legs before beginning the descent, but I’m half way down before they feel like they still contain bones.  Once at the bottom we continue across a field and onto a hard packed track.  My legs feel relatively normal for a while, but the early race exuberance is beginning to tell.  The hard packed trail continues pretty much to the foot of the next quad shredding hill.  At first it feels nice to stop and walk as we take on the next grassy colossus, but before long the calves are screaming – and screaming far loader than they ever do when running.  Once finally at the top – calves screaming and lungs hanging out somewhere near my knees – we turn right, passing through a gate, and contour along the ridge gradually losing altitude before descending quicker as we approach the bottom.

It’s not far between the bottom of this hill and the next, and what makes it so mentally tough is that you know you are running up and down the same side of an escarpment – almost as damaging as it was to the legs.  This is the slowest section of the whole race as the easy flowing early kilometres feel a long time ago.  The climb might as well have been in the Annapurna Massif as I struggled to put one foot in front of the other while gravity dragged back at every extra kilo I’m carrying (it is widely known amongst chubbier runners that extra kilos count as double).  Finally, the top is in sight and we pass through a gate and run along the top of the escarpment before gradually dropping back down to the bottom.  As we passed through the gate Tom and I were separated by a couple of runners  and I hear the marshal at the top say “only one small hill” left; hear one small hill, expect the Matterhorn.  The trail along the top of the escarpment is a joy as it winds, dips and climbs – it’s very reminiscing of sections of the SW coastal path.  Just as we begin to descend properly I catch back up with Tom.  The final climb is pretty much at the foot of the previous climb.

Stopping us in our tracks is a stretch of tickertape running up the escarpment, and then we noticed runners coming down the other side of it.  Straight up and back down it is then – both mentally and physically it was a brute.  I later discovered that the fencing we went around where the tape ended housed the white horse, but at the top all I could see was my feet and spots.

By now the down hill is almost as hideous as the climbing – just a different kind of IMG_20190227_140121hideous.  At the bottom we follow a straight gravely track with nothing but a stile to negotiate (which Tom annoyingly just vaults over).  Along this stretch I need to stop to attend to a stitch – a few deep breathes and a stretch and I get going again.  Tom is about 20 metres head by this point, and I concentrate on trying to reel him in again; I seem to have spent a big chunk of this race watching Tom slip away, before trying to reel him back in again.  I finally catch him as we reach the road, and try to hang on as we make our way back into Pewsey – including a little detour off the road to drop down through a stream and back up to the road.

At this point we are in a group of four, and as we turn off the road on to a trail up past a church a guy in our group stops to walk.  Even though there is room to pass, I can’t run past him and walk too.  It’s almost as though him walking somehow gives me permission IMG_20190227_140058to do the same.  Tom doesn’t walk, he just runs off.  The path runs continues along the bottom of a stretch of gardens.  A marshal shouts “800 metres to go”.  800 metres, I can do that, time to dig deeper.  I can still see Tom ahead and although he isn’t getting any closer, he isn’t getting further away either.  At this point I fully expect Claire to come flying past me and reel Tom in before the finish line – making me pay for going too hard as the start.  I manage to keep running around the final bend and cross the finish line; just about managing to squeeze in inside 2 hours (in an official time of 1:59:11) – which apparently was the cut to remain considered a runner.  A few minutes later Claire comes into view, with barely a speck of mud on her and looking utterly in control.

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At this point I am contractility obliged to mention that Tom beat me by a whole 40 seconds (which is possibly the biggest winning margin between us).  Initially he claimed it was a hollow victory – under the impression I could have beaten him; this was defiantly not the case – even if I had bionic legs.  Hopefully that’s his ego suitably massaged.

I’m Running How Far?

If all goes to plan a new milestone will be reached before the end of the year.  Although specific training for it hasn’t actually started, I have started trying to work out how it’s going to work – especially as I would like my wife and kids to still recognise me when it’s all done.

Back tracking slightly.  Last year was my first soiree into the somewhat daunting world of ultra-marathons.  It started with a 24 hour race a few months after running Boston (UK) Marathon, and rounded my racing year out with the Gower Ultra 50.  This year I hope to go a bit bigger – and it’s bloody terrifying just writing it – but hopefully a 100 mile ultra will be ticked off.  ‘Ticked off’ makes it sound so easy; not a 30 hour sleep deprived, quad destroying grind.rpt

I don’t have – nor do I plan to get – a coach, and you can’t seem to get generic training plans in the same way you can for a marathon; so it’s time to research.  My Christmas book haul was comprised entirely of running books ranging from autobiographical (Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run, and Finding Gobi by Dion Leonard (which, while not entirely a running book it is well worth a read)) to more ultra-running manual type books (Byron Powell’s Relentless Forward Progress and Jason Robillard’s Never Wipe Your Ass With Screenshot_20190201_210933A Squirrel).  I am hoping that I can use these books to freelance my way into shape to run a 100 mile ultra. 

In addition to being inspirational, Scott Jurek’s book offered up a few pearls of training advice, but more importantly he offers a huge amount of nutritional advice including a whole host of recipes for trail food which I am looking forward to trying while the training ramps up.  To be honest you would hope to gleam some tips from the best ultra-runner of his (or any) generation.

Relentless forward progress has a training plan for a 100 mile ultra in it which will be great to use as a template – one thing I have learnt from using generic marathon plans is that if you don’t tailor them to the race you’re training for you will suffer for it.  On top of this there is also a load of bits on things that I hadn’t even considered.  One of the things I noticed while thumbing though was the section on aid stations, and specifically how not to lose a bucket load of time at them.  I have no concrete way of knowing – as I didn’t pause my Garmin – but I think Tom and I probably lost over an hour and a half at the checkpoints and aid stations on the Gower Ultra 50 (and there were only 7 of them), at that rate we could lose over 10% of the time limit stood around at aid stations.  

Never Wipe Your Ass With A Squirrel also covers aspects of ultra-running that I hadn’t considered, suchScreenshot_20190201_211046 as whether to shave my balls or not – I really didn’t think that needed consideration.   As well as how to get rid of an annoying training partner – which I don’t think I will need, but it’s always good to have a game plan.  While this book seams a little more tongue in cheek at times, I still think it will offer a myriad of helpful advice and its format – almost like a reference book – means I can use it to supplement anything I read elsewhere.

So, I hopefully have all the information I need at my fingertips. All I need to do now is do a little reading, take a few notes, and do some running. When I say some running, I mean a lot of running.

Operation PW

It’s a wonderful feeling when you are on the start line of a race knowing all your training has gone as well as you can realistically hope, you’re in great nick and you feel confident that you can hit your targets – if you don’t ruin it by doing something stupid.

This was nothing like that, not even close. This was fear, worry and trepidation. My training had been thin on the ground to begin with, but four weeks before the Gloucester Half – just as I began to feel like I was getting somewhere – I pulled my left calf. The mdecouple of weeks before I had felt like I was beginning to see some improvements, not giant leaps in performance but green shoots non the less. The week before Christmas I had managed both a lovely trail run and a less lovely interval session. Once back at my parent’s house, I decide to round out the week with a run along the canal with my dad. All is great with the world as we chat in the morning winter sun as the early kilometres tick by. Then I notice a tightening in my calf, I hope that it will ease but before long it’s gone from ‘a bit tight’ to being stabbed in the leg by an invisible stabby thing. With a jolt, I pull up and try to stretch it out; but that doesn’t appear to help. I tell my dad to carry on, as I turn and begin to trudge back the way we came. After a couple of minutes of walking I try to run again in the hope that running at my own pace might ease it – it doesn’t so I revert to walking again. With running off the cards I try to keep myself ticking over on the bike until race day. As the days count down towards race day, I feel the anxiety and trepidation build up. To add the calf worries, the death cold which had been passed around my family finally made its way to me on the Friday before the race. As the cold takes hold, a cough develops, and lakes of snot begin to be produced.

After a restless night, I follow the usual race morning routine; bowl of porridge, poo, get img-20190120-wa0000dressed. For a change I manage to get to race HQ with plenty of time to spare. After sampling the local portaloos I take a couple of cold tablets. I don’t normally like doing that, but I really didn’t think running with snot stalactites forming in my beard was a look I want to go for. Once the tablets have begun to take effect I warm up and make my way to the start line. After a final pep talk from my loving wife – this consisted of mainly “Don’t be a dick. If your calf hurts, stop!” – I join the pack near the back. I’m not sure if there was a race brief, but after a while of waiting near the start line, we start walking forwards then, crossing the start line I begin to run.

I spend the early part of the race mentally checking I am ok and not running too fast. While I felt I needed to do this to ensure that I didn’t anger my calf, it did mean that I couldn’t get out of my own head and enjoy the course. The early parts of the course take us through housing estates and industrial estates before we are out into the countryside. At this point I am still firmly stuck in my head – worrying about my calf and my pace. By the time I get about 7km in I settle down and become a bit more confident with the condition of my left calf. As I become more confident my pace begins to increase, but I still try to hold back. Although my calf feels ok, I still haven’t trained properly so go too hard now and I’ll detonate long before the finish. I try to hold this effort for the remainder of the first of two loops.

At the end of the lap I am running comfortably, and more importantly no longer obsessing about how my calf is feeling. Mentally I feel more relaxed and that means I begin to take in my surroundings a little more. The route is a lollipop with two laps of the loop. Being a Devon boy, I would call the route flat – with the only noticeable climbs the motorway flyovers. The route is really nice, with no really hard turns but I can only imagine how bleak it could be in more wintery conditions with no real shelter from the img-20190120-wa0001conditions. Given the conditions this year, I genuinely think if you turn up in good shape you can get a good time on this course.

By the time I reach the half way on the second loop I am running with another guy. We run well together, but before too long I begin to worry about making the end, so I back off a little. My companion appears to do the same. With only a few kilometres left I try to keep the effort (not necessarily the pace) at about threshold and just try to grit it out as the lack of training begins to bite. Somewhere along here I lose my companion. Before long the route retraces back to the start and it’s the final dig to the finish.
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I cross the finish line unimaginably relieved that the only source of soreness is from my peach-like feet rather than my calf. Before starting I would honestly have taken finishing with a PW (Personal worst). Not only did I manage to finish inside that, but also managed to run each 5km quicker than the previous one (again quicker, never quick) – which I have never managed before. More importantly I haven’t ruined my entire season by being a ‘dick’.

Popping Out

There are a number of things that make running joyous.  One of my personal favourite running perks is the lunchtime run, or the RUNch.  It’s a fantastic way of getting a run in when it’s not possible before and/or after work.  It also feels like you’re getting one over on ‘the man’ – although I can’t actually work out how.  It is however a beast with two heads.

Summertime RUNch;

Picture the scene, it’s the height of summer, it’s getting close to lunchtime and the sun is davup high with a backdrop as blue as a very blue thing, but as your colleagues settle back a their desk with a limp sandwich you – like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat – produce your running kit from your bag and do an impression of Superman (getting changed quickly in a small space).  Out the office and into the warm afternoon sun with a hop and a skip.  Within a matter of moments, the stresses and strains of the working morning ebb away.  The sun rays warm your face, the bird song lifts your heart and the freedom ­– even less than an hour of it – is great for your mood.  You return to the office safe in the knowledge that something has been accomplished in that hour, even if you can’t stop sweating.

Winter RUNch

Winter lunchtime runs are a much harder sell, there’s wind, rain maybe even snow – if fptbtyyou’re lucky.  Rather than limp sandwiches, your colleagues are settling into warm soups and mugs of hot chocolate.  The actual running is fine, it’s better than fine its running which is always good but stepping out the office into the blizzard takes a moment to dig deep.  The tricky bit is when you get back to work that it is a bit of a faff, particularly if you need to defrost. If you’re not lucky enough to have a shower at work it’s as simple as; have a shower, get dressed. If you don’t it’s a delightful combination of towel to dry off and wet wipes to refresh.

Post RUNch

Once you’re back into more appropriate work attire the fun doesn’t stop.  On your return the office is always too hot in the summer (where you can conceivably keep sweating for the rest of the working day) and too cold in the winter yet you emit a warm glow – which probably means your face is a fetching shade of beetroot.  Post run, I always find I struggle to stay awake for about half an hour to an hour from about 3.  I begin to feel my eyes glazing and my concentration wain, but don’t tell the boss – RUNch sessions make up the bulk of my midweek training.  The mid-afternoon struggles are combatted by a cup of coffee, or three, and a change of scenery for a while.  Once the caffiene has done its job, its back at it in the satisfaction that while others wasted their lunch hour mine was both mentally rewarding and phyically productive.