Thursday, 18 June 2015

Questars - Adventure racing you need to do

They say you never forget your first love and in running terms mine will always be questars. I was surprised to see I had never written about it, but due to race schedule saturation over the past two years it has fallen through the net. On Saturday I made my triumphant return, oh how I've missed you.

Questars is an adventure race, the explosion sport of the naughties, but in many ways it's not a race, but a competition. It combines trail running, mountain biking and kayaking but the beauty of the format is the freedom it gives the individual. You have five or six hours to get around as many check points as you can, in any order. You decide how you spend your time, how far you go and which route you take, as long as you visit at least one check point from each discipline. The only proviso being that you can only transition from one to the other at set transition points. You can enter solo or in teams of up to four and truly anyone can enter. A half marathon seems like a frightening distance for some, but a five hour ramble with a peddle and a paddle thrown into the mix and turns seems like a delightful day trip.

A typical Questars scene
Not for everyone mind and I intended to run myself ragged if at all possible. I opted for the duo format, dropping the kayak so having 5 hours for the run and bike. Kayaking was never going to be my strength, but when you thrown in that I cannot sit up upright due to my hamstrings, I'm forced to paddle whilst lying on my back - as entertaining to watch as a disabled swan, but half of the water goes over my face and steering causes some issues. But first the issue of packing. Actually it's far more entertaining to watch, but it's not great for the swan.

There was a time when I would consider myself relatively competitive at adventure racing, my preparation was regimented - always 2 bags, packed with pens clipped to the right loops, compass tied to the optimal length and food split across the bags according to which discipline I was doing - bloks for running, bars for cycling. I pulled out my magic box of equipment - what the hell was all this stuff? A compass ring - surely only useful for a bride lost in a Richard Curtis movie. Was I really the John Richardson of adventure racing. For some reason there was also an overly sized pair of novelty shamrock sunglasses - phew John Richardson yet. I'd forgotten all of my prep, so just shoved it in the bag and off we went - Cannock Chase here we come. 

The contents of my magic adventure racing box
 I crashed with my friend Matt who had lent me his brothers bike and we arrived with hopefully plenty of time to figure things out that morning. The morning atmosphere is always slightly strange - lots of friends catching up, but you're always aware that time is slipping away and you don't want to start unprepared. Bikes are checked and stowed, bladders filled - half water, half nectar and kit begged, stolen and borrowed as everyone remembers all of the little bits of equipment that are life saving - like a pen! I was waiting on my inov-8 backpack that I'd lent to a friend Ali for a previous event, I wasn't stressing too much, but she was certainly more concerned with her hot cross buns (not a euphemism for a change) and an arctic expedition's worth of snacks. 

The Map

9.45 registration packs were now available and a chance to see the race map with all of the checkpoints marked out for you. Choosing an efficient route is essential, to reduce how far you need to travel, but also figuring out on which surfaces you're going to be cycling up and down hills (cycle up the road and down the trail) and which direction it's easier to navigate to certain points. A really good route will also give you contingency options, allowing you to pull the emergency chord  and quickly get home if you need to, leaving a few checkpoints unvisited. It's slightly more complicated though. Not all checkpoints are worth the same number of points. Generally the further away or harder to reach they are, the more points they're worth, but sometimes there is no obvious loop to take to visit all of the checkpoints and the real wildcard is that they place a number of dummy checkpoints on the course worth 0. You only find out the checkpoints value once you start the race, so planning is tricky - too rigid a route and you'll have to change it anyway, but if you haven't planned at all you'll have to eat into your race time. The biggest decision is whether to run or cycle first, which very much comes down to preference. The course favoured the cyclist and cycling first - two of the cycling loops had to be completed in full. Cycling first would allow you to clear one or two of the loops and then run to get as many checkpoints as your remaining time allows, however running first would then limit how much time you had for the loops - too much time could leave you twiddling your fingers, as the transition point to switch back to collect run points was too far to go back to. Not enough time and there's no point in starting the loops - for each minute you're late back you lose 5 points, a huge punishment (2pts/min for novices).

I decided to run first anyway, I always do. It's not always the best tactic, but for me Questars is training as much as a race so I run down all of the checkpoints to get the miles in, even if it doesn't make complete tactical sense. The bike route had a nice route out to the run transition to the north-east, so the start was fairly obvious, the run however was a mess. Check points everywhere, with no obvious route to tie them together. I decided to use the long run along the canal  to devise a route, hoping there would be a few dummy checkpoints to simplify the options - did they F***.

Checkpoints and their value

I crossed the line picking up my checkpoint scorecard and skimmed down the numbers, crossing them off on my map before jumping on my bike for the running transition. I raced down to B30 feeling great - the sun was shining, the running route was long, it was time to smash up the Midlands, just where the hell was B30? My navigation was probably going to be a bit rusty, but not this bad, I checked the sheet for the description - it was a dummy checkpoint - idiot! I'd skimmed down the column, not seeing that B30 was to the left of B40, two dummies together, well now I made it three! No biggie it was on my route to the run transition and B21 was on my way in anyway, a couple of minutes wated if that. It was road all the way to B20 and having not cycled for some time I forgot how fast a bike can feel when you're not stopping at traffic lights every 30 meters, especially when you're starring down at your map board, I narrowly avoided a crash with a stationary car - I probably need to concentrate a little bit more on the road. Through to transition and onto the run. I dumped my bag risking that one bottle of energy drink would be enough to see me through the run and looped back round to the canal starting to plan my run route. It was a mess - R6 and R9 made no sense from any direction, they were islands, out and back runs, but both worth 30 points, R8 turned R7 and R10 into a full loop, without being able to cut across due to the out of bounds, but was only worth 15 points and R15, well that didn't fit in anywhere and 25 points just didn't seem worth the effort, like taking a mile walk for a bar that's still open at 3 in the morning, knowing it only serves Carling.

Well they were all good training miles so I decided to crack this nut with brute force. Nav was going ok, although R5 was a little bit cheeky and I ended up coming down the wrong path, but no biggie. The trouble with cannock chase is that it's sand based, and relatively open. Walkers often take off in any direction and create paths that don't exist on maps. Crossroads of 4 paths might have 7, the next left, might be the third left, as the first two lead nowhere. The cycling keeps you on bridleways, it's the run where you'll get lost. I still hadn't figured out a route and was often stopping at checkpoints to figure out where next, something I try to avoid, I couldn't figure out whether to approach R6 from R7 or save it for the on in and was wasting minutes at each checkpoint trying to work it out, as there was no obvious route from R6 to R9, but the same was true of R11. 

I pushed on deciding to leave R6 for later and had a real chance to take in the scenery. That's one of the aspects of questars I love the most - it's always based in country parks or areas of outstanding beauty, they even mark out points were visiting based purely on the view. I made my way round to R13, having taken in all of the points along the western side and started on the path to R15. In such a long race it's hard to always keep concentration, but you invariable look back and wonder how you could have made such an obviously stupid decision. I was 99% sure I was on the correct path but as we entered the quarry the path split and I failed to see that the route did turn at right angles, if only for a few yards. With no markings on the map to refer to I decided to head back and take the route that seemed to stay true to the direction of the path and ran into the quarry and on and on and on. I eventually hit a gate and in classic stubborn naivety tried to convince myself that the marker was in the wrong place. This was clearly kind of a road, yet there was no quarry sign - maybe some local hoodlums had stolen it to try and annoy me. After a few minutes I realised I was actually one junction away from B28, I'd added almost 2k to my route, not an insurmountable amount, but when you've already wasted quite a lot of time figuring out where you actually are it seems huge. I started to run with a mild rage - R15 was only a few hundred meters on from where I'd turned back. 

Onto R6. There was still no obvious route to R9, the stream cut off the paths and the paths seemed very winding and potentially hard to navigate. Decision time. I'd been at a work pitching event the previous day and had traveled light for the weekend, only bringing one pair of trainers and one pair of trail shoes. I'd decided to run in my f-lites, as 190's seemed excessive and they were a sexy arse trainer that could double as a casual shoe. The best route seemed to be going directly east from R6, cutting across the stream and the bog. We'd been planning a big night out in Stafford and I was well aware that the ladies of Stafford are no doubt all very classy and I just wasn't sure how well they'd respond to mud covered f-lites. In the back of my mind though I also knew that Leeroy's mum was going to be joining us for the evening, so there were options (actually she drunk us under the table, then showed us all up on the dancefloor - legend). So I waded through the bog, swished my shoes in the stream and collected R9.

The rest of the course was fairy straightforward, I transitioned back to the bike and realised that even going flat out I was never going to be able to make it out to the first bike loop and back to the finish on time. The loop would be at least 45 minutes and I only had about 80 minutes in total. It was a shame, as most questars leave you pushing right until the end and no matter how well you plan, you're nearly always left having an extra checkpoint tantalisingly near that if you really push you can just about reach in time. The loop was in force as the path was single track, so once started you had to complete.  It did mean that I had a huge amount of time to collect the remaining bike check points, so I sauntered round the course, suddenly being reminded just how hard it is to cycle on a path littered with peddles. In fact it was getting progressively harder around the course until I realised that my bike's sadle was gradually lowering until I was eventually riding a chopper bike. I met with Ali and co on the way and enjoyed the cycle in, before breaking to pick up an extra checkpoint. They somehow managed to take a wrong turn and end up half an hour late. Thankfully my journey back was straightforward, zooming down a bridleway lined with weeds, whipping my legs as I passed.

I finished with five minutes to spare picking up 28 checkpoints of the 37 on offer, having run 18 miles and cycled 15. It's not a bad haul, but even if I hadn't gone the wrong way and decided my route from the off I don't think I'd have built up enough time to make the loop which would have been an extra 120 points. I ended up in fourth, 20 points off first, not too shabby given how much I'd ignored strategy, to be fair though this was 4th in the duo competition - the real competition is the masters and they're phenomenal. We compared our war stories in the school sports hall, munching down on homemade chilli and tortilas. 

My Score

This may read like a marketing piece for questars, but it's more a love letter to a race I adore. Unlike most races it really is what you make of it - the distance, the intensity and even your mode of transport. How often do you get to explore some of the most beautiful areas of the country? It's a real mix of skills, strategy and fitness, offering mini triumphs and failures throughout. You can race solo or with friends and even deploy camel-tows to pull your friends if you're differing speeds.  It has a wonderfully inclusive atmosphere and at £45 can't be beaten for value. Whether you're a runner, cyclist, mountain biker or someone who like the great outdoors - questars is the way to discover it and hopefully you'll come to love this unique event as much as I do.  Next up is the Wiltshire Downs on the 11th July - hopefully see you there.

You'll be grinning like this

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Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Eliminator marathon - toughest in the UK?

I'm not sure what the etiquette is for publishing articles that you've written elsewhere on your blog? I write this article for Mudstacle but thought there's a strong chance a lot of you won't have seen it, so have republished here. Apologise to mudstacle if that's a faux pas.

Nothing is as scary as the unknown. The only limit in its potential horror is your imagination, and it is impossible to prepare for. Last week I signed up for the Eliminator Marathon, then suddenly realised that the terrain, the ascent and the course all remained unknown.

I’m a meticulous planner when it comes to race preparation. I know that at the London Marathon there are two Lucozade gel stops with 30 grams of carbs each, four stops with 330ml Lucozade bottles, containing 22 grams, of which I will drink only half, meaning I will need to run with three of my own 22 gram gels to see me through . So having completed my research on the Eliminator and being faced with the same blank page, I began to worry. Ironically I had only signed up to the marathon because I felt I wasn’t fit enough to take part in the 10 miler the day before – I wouldn’t be quick enough to challenge over a short distance, but in the marathon my experience would hopefully make up for that. However, as reports fed back from the 10 mile course on Saturday being harder than Hell Runner, I started to question my decision. We were scheduled to start at 7:45 to allow everyone enough time to finish before dark. 7:45?! Either I was now living in Norway or the organisers knew this was going to be a beast of a race… and they weren’t wrong!

We arrived in the dark to see the wreckage of what used to be the Mudstacle gazebo, broken by the wind during the night – an ominous warning of what we’d all be looking like in a few hours. I looked out over the course and you could see for miles. It was beautiful site, until it dawned on me that you could only see for miles when high up. With lots of hugs and wiggles completed, we stood together to watch Dean gave the race briefing:

‘This is not a race, this is about surviving. Please try and run with others at all times. Do you all have your phones packed in a water proof container in case of an emergency?’

That was just the usual confidence inspiring speech you need just before you start. I had dressed for speed – just a base later, vest and shorts, but most were fully layered up, some with Camelbaks and, as I started shivering, I questioned my wisdom.
Eliminator race start

The start gun went and immediately I came to a standstill. I had tested how my gel belt felt on me when running, but I had neglected to test how my gel belt held on to my shot bloks and, after a few meters, they lay strewn across the ground. I scooped them up and restarted – with six packets of shot bloks and a banana in my hands, trying to figure out how to deal with this. I put four of them in the zip at the back of my shorts but, as wonderful as my shorts are, they weren’t designed for this sort of weight and I developed what looked like a severe case of haemorrhoids. For about a mile I ran, holding up my shorts with one hand, as my roids repeatedly high fived my bum. I tried to retie my shorts, but struggled due to the thickness of my gloves – I’m a meticulous planner. Eventually with shorts retied and roids retreating, the race began.

Two of us started edging away and we looked at each other assessing how much of a threat the other was, the mind games began. He looked like a good runner, but was scared of the mud. We darted down a slippery tight corner, he slowed and went wide, I ploughed on, slightly misjudged my footing and fell, rolling and springing back up in one motion; a move I would never have been able to pull off if planned. I looked back at him, as if to say ‘that’s nothing for me I’m badass’ and I knew I’d won the battle – it convinced him running carefully was the best strategy.

We approached the first water hazard. My plan was to pull my tops up to my neck, then wade with my arms held high, to keep my clothes and gloves dry. I felt like a tactical genius, as I revealed my pasty belly to the baffled stewards, then two steps in – branch! I flipped over and got soaked from head to toe. So much for that!

It’s often questioned whether natural OCR races should be part of the Mudstacle League, some arguing they’re just trail runs, but the Eliminator puts this idea to bed. We entered the woods and that’s where the trails ended. We were running in every direction – between trees, under trees, over trees, down banks, half up banks [bugger the branch snapped], back up banks. I’ve never thought of a marathon as a mental challenge, but you had to be careful where you placed every step, which took great concentration. The route kept on changing, so while concentrating on the floor you somehow had to keep your eyes up, constantly scanning for the bright orange arrows, taking you another direction. I realised how hard this was and decided to sit behind the leader, allowing him to do all of the work, having to repeatedly adjust his route, decelerating, while I could pick the racing line from afar. Three miles in though and the terrain was becoming trickier and I could tell he wasn’t comfortable. We entered a ravine and descended down its small waterfalls, me – jumping, splashing, smiling; him – gently lowering himself over each obstacle. I made my break and on exiting had completely dropped him.
Water crossing

It felt like mission accomplished, until I scrambled up a steep hill, aided by a large tree, crested and edged to the right. It looked familiar, but I continued until I started catching up with other runners, was the course looped? I continued for a while, trying to figure out what was best, before doubling back and running to the track. I looked back up at the route and realised that a tree had blocked my view of the arrows that you could see from 50 meters – I’d lost concentration and found myself in 7th.

Anger flowed through me and adrenaline kicked in, I started chasing them down, ‘it was only a few minutes, let’s go get them’, but what was I doing? There were 22 miles left, why was I sprinting? I intentionally slowed and tried to breathe deeply and calm down.

I slowly made my way through the field – across swamps, a dead tree playground, every mile was completely different terrain; you could never relax. Nine miles in and I caught sight of the leader, a different runner to before, as he did that cool flip over a gate in one motion – ‘Damn you! Not only are you beating me, you’re doing it far more stylishly.’

We were slipping down to the river beside a picturesque bridge. I took in the view and [BANG!], another root, another fall, snapping back my middle finger – ‘Ahhh I think that’s broken’. That’s not a problem in a normal marathon, but I was relying on my hands to pull me up steep banks; this was going to hurt.

I caught the leader then others appeared. Two became six, they’d gone the wrong way too and had somehow ended up ahead. They were good runners too, who I’m pretty sure would beat me currently at the shorter distances. I was tired, struggling mentally and felt as if the gods were against me.

That’s when the mind games really started. I’ve always wondered how mentally tough I really was. I’m stubborn, but also a sensible runner. I’d stopped at The Nuts Challenge after only one and a half laps, realising that my clothing wasn’t going to see me through all four. It was the sensible decision to make, but it has left me with a doubt that maybe I wasn’t as tough as I wanted to be. They looked fresh, with renewed spirit to be at the front and I had to make a hard decision – put some pace in to mentally break them or stick to the plan of sensible pacing. The marathon runner in me said the latter, but how do you pace for a race like this? Pacing is about even effort, prolonging your energy for as long as possible, but the terrain was hammering my legs and I wasn’t sure that my legs would let me run at any speed by the end anyway. It’s like trying to pace your face in a boxing match. The course was unknown, if there’s an opportunity take it.
Through woodlandGet your Eliminator Race photos here – there’s 15% off until midnight on Friday.

We had been following the perimeter of a fence on a smooth path for the first time in several miles, then thankfully we deviated back into the brush. Now was my time to test their technique and I kept up the speed from the path, trying to dance over the roots and dried bracken ‘smooth like Albon, tough like Miller’. If I could get out of sight quickly they’d slow. We were following the fence, but the route became the most challenging of the race – crater to crater, separated by trees, climbs, rocks. This wasn’t running, this was climbing.

I’d broken free and tried to settle into a rhythm, but I was running scared – they could catch me at any point, my legs were shot, but I was wired on sugar, I had to push on. We looped back onto the course we had partially covered and there was a stretch in the open, followed by a sharp right up the hill. If they could see me here it would give them hope, so I pushed my pace again ‘don’t look round, it will make you look weak.’ I scaled the hill and used the natural angle to peer back. There was no sign of them, but they could still be close.

The race continued, each mile lifting my spirit, but every noise filling me with paranoia that they were catching me. The water hazards became your friends – their coldness acting like morphine on your tortured legs. Another double-back up, right and down the hill, Lou cheering at the top:

‘How close are they?’‘Six minutes behind at fifteen miles.’

With only five miles left, I was down to doing ten minute miles, the terrain sapping me and small inclines becoming mountains. I was starting to walk some, but reminded myself that they might be running them – nine minute miles is nothing to someone on the hunt.

The music blared out in the distance and the event village came into sight. The sun was out and as I jumped through the final puddles, the cheers began.

‘Sprint finish.’

‘Sprint finish.’

A beaming Mark Buller held aloft the ten tonne medal, as I crossed the line with a grinning whimper – 4:32:00.
David and Dean

I think I’ve now completed 16 or so marathons and this was by far the hardest, but also the most amazing. It’s as much about mental strength and endurance as physical. The terrain changed constantly, with the course repeatedly chopping and changing direction. I stopped counting how many times I fell over at 15, the ‘path’ was so unpredictable underfoot and that’s what made it so hard – the unknown. You cannot find a rhythm, never relax or mentally turn off. Every single mile is hard won, which makes it so impressive just how many OCR racers completed this as their first ever marathon.

So congratulations to Dean on Mark on creating a truly unique course and experience – the toughest marathon in the UK. As I warmed myself in their heated hut, one of the finishers smiled at me, mischief flickering in his eyes.

‘So are you ready for their next race?’

‘What’s that?’

‘It’s called The Unknown’

'Oh Dear God!'

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Sunday, 16 November 2014

The NHS is not for runners

It's humiliating to almost breaking down in tears in a hospital reception. Your voice starts to waver, your breath shortens and you desperately try to keep your composure, as you look into the receptionist's eye and try to explain your situation. You both know that you are finding the situation so frustrating and feel so powerless, that there's no other outlet for you other than to cry. Having been in this situation twice in the past week, I have come to the conclusion that the NHS is not for runners. 

I have been injured for over five months and I am amazed by how hard it is to solve if you rely in the NHS. I've been injured before, mainly ITB and a few niggles. A bit of internet research and a couple of strength exercises later though and I have managed the injury, reducing training slightly until I have built sufficient strength in the deficient muscles and continued on my way. What I assumed was a niggle in June just hasn't healed. I spoke to a couple of physio friends, but the exercises they suggested had no impact, even when I significantly reduced the mileage and eventually stopped running, so it was apparent that I needed to have a full assessment. 

Before the injury I was the fittest, fastest and strongest I had ever been, so it was incredibly frustrating, but it was only the begining of the Mudstacle League, with the majority of the the main races happening in the Autumn and my main goal for the next year - The Marathon de Sable was not until April.

Ordinarily I would have paid for a physio, but having taken the year off unfunded to launch zipcube, and already paid for two already without a clear direction on what to do from either, I did not really have many options other than the NHS. I could get an appointment with my GP, knowing that I would describe my injury and she would then refer me to a physio once the injury was six weeks old. So instead to save time I sent off the referral form directly; it had been about 6 weeks by then anyway and I didn't want to waste the GP's time needlessly. Then I waited.

It takes approximately six weeks to receive an appointment letter for a physio. This is not an appointment, this is six weeks to then be allowed to schedule an appointment. Seven weeks on I called the central physio team and they had somehow not received or had lost my referral. I confirmed the email address with them on the phone, confirmed the date the email was sent, but the scheduling team don't have access to the emails to confirm that the email was received,  I had to apply again. Despite my seven week wait, my referral would not receive higher priority, as my injury was not an emergency. I had not spent a single week without running in some form for the past seven years, sevens weeks without running felt like an eternity, 13 weeks is an entire marathon program, but I had no choice, so I waited ... again.

Some weeks later I received the letter, allowing me to then book an appointment. It was almost November and I knew that unless I could start training in the next few weeks, I will not have time to train for the marathon de sable, let alone compete at a decent level and having not raced for inov-8 OCR since May, missing the entire season, won't be fit in time to compete in the spring league. 

I meet my new physio Matt and he was great. I explain to him my situation and following an assessment he gives me various strengthening exercises and says that given my situation I should book myself in at reception for 3 appointments next week. Finally, some good news and a light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately though Matt was transferring to a different hospital and does not have an available appointment until the end of November and that's when I almost broke down. 

The receptionist was embarrassed by the situation, I was embarrassed by my response, so instead I switched physio and went back the following week. Another full assessment, this time with some massage, but no real progress - keep up with the exercises and come back next week. Before I left though he said I could try riding a bike, because he didn't want the muscles to atrophy!

The following week my physio was ill and having taken the morning off work again, I didn't receive a voicemail or a missed call to inform me, so I wasted more time attending and on hearing the news, begged to see anyone the following day, once again almost in tears. Thankfully there was an appointment the next day, so onto NHS physio 3 (number seven in all).

Despite having two sets of notes by now, I had another assessment. She asked me to explain how the injury felt, but 5 months in, the injury is hard to explain. I know it flares up when I train. I know it's still a problem, but it's been so long since I've been running that my leg isn't in a huge amount of pain. So we hit the bike, then the cross trainer in an attempt to flare my injury, but it normally takes several miles for the injury to rear it's ugly head. She therefore asks me to come back next week, but to go for a run first and to keep up the exercises. Another week and no progress. I asked why the first physio hadn't asked me to run before his appointment, rather than waiting 3 weeks to ask me. I explain that if the point of the exercises is to strengthen so that I can run, my 30 seconds of plank requested are now up to 2.5 minutes, my 20 clams are now up to 150, my squats up to 200, lunges up to 100. Just how much stronger do you need me to become before I can run? 

So here I am, over five months in with what seems like a minor niggle, still not running, still unclear of the solution and no end in sight. All I want is the chance to be able to run again and while I realise that there have been some unfortunate circumstances, the system does not work.

A friend had a very unfortunate cycling accident in June and he broke his ribs, his collar bone and was hosptialised with numerous other complications. He's been pumped up with drugs, through rehab and thankfully has been back running for a month. But unless you have a medical emergency even when the system works perfectly, runners have to wait 6 weeks before they can be referred, 6 weeks for the referral to be processed and then another 1-2 weeks to be able to receive an appointment. Assuming you can get an appointment with your GP straight away, that's 13-14 weeks! My NHS physio wanted me to cycle so that my muscles wouldn't atrophy, but the system builds in at least a 13 week period before you can even see a physio. So if you're injured you either waste away or you try and train, often making the problem worse, causing the injury to spread elsewhere. If you have the money you can go private, but what if you can't?

The reality is, if you're a runner and you get injured, there's nothing you can do if you cannot afford to go private. Write off your season, potentially even the next, as the NHS is unfortunately not for runners.

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Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Hell runner down south

Six years on from my first hell runner and the event promised to add a few surprises to their standard 10-12 mile loop and boy they weren't kidding. 

Hell runner was one of the original mass participation mudstacle races and has built up a strong following with thousands of entrants each year, but with the escalation in the number and variety of competitor events, numbers have dropped and it definitely needed a reboot. 

Firstly the organisers moved the date from mid November to the beginning of January, which potentially could have a huge impact on the temperature of the race. Tough guy for example isn't hard because of the obstacles, it's slicing your legs on the ice and repeatedly being submerged in freezing water - the cold will sap you like no hill can.

Thankfully the temperature was fairly mild, but the local area had flooded over Christmas and the previous two days it had been pissing it down turning the car park into a swimming pool. As we lined up at the start I briefed my friend Ross, the potential winner, to go hard for the first two miles as the course is flat (when the sun is shining - fucking hey), but the organiser said the start have a twist.

Ross and I at the start

Loud music and devil chanting done, we were off and a front group was emerging, with Ross positioned at its head. I nestled in behind, taking a while to work my way through the chasers and within half a mile we veered from the track through the woods and through a small pond. We weren't following a path; this was an obvious effort to up the ante, a little bit of a token, but then it didn't stop. Every opportunity to deviate up an extra hill or run off trail beside a path they were taking. The climbs were not that long, but it was proving hard to find a rhythm.

The water had dramatically changed the course. The hills were sandy and therefore the paths were covered in pot holes. Puddles were everywhere, but combined with the potholes, every step could be into an inch of water or a foot. You had to decide how far extra you were prepared to run to avoid the Russian roulette puddles with every stride. The raised middle of the paths were rutted and overgrown, so they were'n't a great alternative and I came a cropper a couple of times, once wiping out down a pot hole, another losing my shoe completely.

By the mid way point I was up to fifth - Joe Dale had stormed past me, having started thirty seconds after the gun (and only came second by less than a second) and I'd switched places with a couple of other runners and that's when it went nuts.

My legs already felt tired from training, I glanced at my watch at five miles and was happy to still be pushing at near to the half way point, but then the hills and terrain moved up a gear. We were running through a forest, searching for the arrows and having to pick a path to get from one to the next, as there was no set route. The hills were getting steeper, doubling back on themselves constantly and at times were really dangerous. I pride myself on my descents, but there were meter drops, slippery leaves on top of sodden topsoil and the odd boulder thrown in. It was hard not to pick up speed, but a huge risk to go too fast, as even trail shoes weren't gripping and you'd unexpectedly need to jump, vault or come to a sudden halt to avoid turning an ankle. They sent us down gulleys or just off the side of a tree covered hill and the next two miles took me almost 20 minutes. You had to concentrate throughout and it felt great; it's so rare to run such challenging terrain, especially down south.

Craziness over, well part conquered, we headed for the bog of doom - a thirty meter bog of neck high rain water, which this year should have been rechristened the ocean of the occult. I had long considered my entrance and was opting for the dive, when I decided to switch for a bomb at the last moment and thank goodness I did, the bog that I bombed into turned out to be a three inch puddle leading up the the bog, I looked a bit foolish, but it possibly saved my life. Second attempt, bombs away, crowd soaked and the long cold swim/walk underway with the baying crowd mocking you all the way. The extra water extended the bog and increased it's depth, my friend Jackie at 3'6" or so had to swim the entire way, but I found myself a nice stick to use as a shepherd's staff.

I was closing in on fourth and by now he was walking large sections of the hills. I was warming up and it spurned me on to push on the hills. Half a mile later and we were met by six blondes, dressed as angels, offering jelly babies to the sound of Eye of the tiger. I hugged and kissed each one in turn to their delight and even got a hug from the medic, before finally hitting some flat trail through the woods, over the sands, picking up forth on the way and running in to the finish to hear the announcer say 'and here comes David Hellard our first vetera .... err, the oldest person to finish the race so far.' His slight awkwardness made me chuckle and it appeared that the veteran prizes had been scrapped this year.

Ahead of me Ross had raced off to build a comfortable lead, before slicing his knee open and cramping as he entered the bog and having to be dragged out by an elite team of SAB divers. Joe had caught up with a runner called flash Gordon, before losing a sprint for the line, but little did they know that a gentleman called Guy Matthews, storming to the finish in 2.39 proclaimed himself the winner upon crossing the line to the approval of the crowd. Stewards enquiry all round.

Sprint finish

So Hell Down South was relaunched and boy have they done a good job. They managed to add 10 minutes to my time without changing the distance. The course was far harder, partly due to the water, but imagine this 3 degrees below, covered in snow; we might have got off lightly. The total ascent of the course is still roughly the same, but the course now deviates from well worn trails to across brush, through woods and slippery, rocky descents. It's unpredictable, it's dangerous (only if you make it so) and it's blooming marvelous.

Well done to trail plus, it was a great event before, but they've upped it from fun race for all, to a course that can challenge even the best of trail runners and reminded us that even though there are plenty of assault course races out there, if you plan a course well, mother nature can be just as cruel. See you next year.

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Monday, 30 December 2013

How to run the perfect marathon

Heathside Massive

Most runners are full of wisdom and advice, a lot of it good, but a huge amount is circumstantial. We assume the fastest person knows best, the oldest is the wisest, but most runners I know still have some very bad habits and overlook aspects of their training that could improve their times considerably.

I'm fairly confident in saying that I am one of the slowest runners ever to run sub 2.45. I'm a maths geek at heart and have spent years analysing every aspect of marathon training to trim off a few seconds repeatedly with every discovery. The below advice does assume you have run for a while, trained for races before and have read the bog standard 'how to train for a marathon' articles, so it's missing a lot of the basics, but it's long enough without them. This is meant, as the title suggests to enable runners to run their perfect marathon.

My main assumptions are:
  • You have a training plan already - Caffeine Bullet plans are great. You can play with them, just ensure you have at least one tempo run, one interval session and one long run each week and that there is always a rest day or easier run in between each of them.
  • You are near to your optimal weight - if you are overweight, the quickest way to get quicker is to lose the weight. I've been lucky enough to never need to diet or lose weight, so am not going to advise on the best way to do this, as it's not my area of expertise.
  • You have shoes that work for you - barefoot debate or not, if you've not checked your running style and found the appropriate shoe, marathon training will accelerate you towards an injury so go to runnersneed for a gait analysis.
  • You have a realistic target - this requires you to have run a few halfs and maybe some marathons before and you can then set your target based on the times you've achieved so far. If you can't run a sub 20min 5k, you're not going to run a sub-3 marathon after one training block. Having said that be ambitious, my fastest 5k and half marathon times are all mid-marathon training and I didn't really know I could break 2.45 until I'd run a half in 1.18 during my training.
So taking on board those assumptions:

Recover after every run

The frequency, intensity and mileage is such that training is as much about recovery as it is about the sessions. If you're tired going into a run, you won't train as effectively, you'll lose running form and increase your risk of injury. Marathon training is therefore about recovering as effectively as possible after every run:
  1. Recovery drink after every hard run - you have a 20 minute window post exercise when your muscles are taking on fuel at an increased rate, drinks such as For Goodness Shakes or something as simple as low fat chocolate milk have the balance of 3:1 carbs to protein ratio - carbs for energy, protein for repair. I drink half a pint-a pint after every run (hot chocolate when cold).
  2. Icebaths after a long run - icebaths reduce the inflammation of the muscles and also withdraw the blood from them, removing lactic acid and replenishing with new chocolate milk fueled blood once you get warm again. 10 mins in a bath of 10'C water or less is enough, I throw some freezable iceblocks in, stick on a DVD and drink a cuppa.
  3. Compression tights - similar to an icebath, compression tights increase circulation and reduce inflammation, I wear them all day and night when not training under my work clothes etc - the ladies love!  If you don't want to buy expensive tights, wear a size of women's tights that are too small.
  4. Sleep like a bear - obvious and will probably happen anyway, but expect to be tired and don't neglect the power of sleep
  5. Vanquish the Vino - alcohol can slow your metabolism down for up to 3 days, impacts on the quality of your sleep and strips the body of nutrients, none of which are good for recovery. I restrict myself to a 2 pint max, accept for Thursday and Sunday nights, as I know the next day is my day off running or a 5 mile jog.
  6. Eat well - obvious, but lots of people eat junk, as they're burning through calories, is important to ensure you're getting all the minerals, nutrients and carbs the body needs though - green veg,  nuts ...

Train to race

  1. No gels or energy drinks in training - it's important to try gels, so you're confident with them for race day, but on training runs you shouldn't need them and it's far better to train your body to use its fat stores, so that you don't hit the wall. Take a gel with you for if you bonk, but don't train yourself to depend on them.
  2. Get a gps watch or heart rate monitor - I've been told heart rate monitors are best to train with, as it only monitors how hard you're working, therefore taking into account hills, wind, tiredness, a cold etc. but gps watched are also great to make sure you're running at the right pace.
  3. Join a club - interval sessions are hard to pace and ever harder to push yourself to your limit by yourself. Join a club, find a nemesis and push yourself every session chasing them down, it adds variety and it's extremely useful to be able to talk to other runners.
  4. Run every run - schedule each day when you are running, book it in the diary (having a club time helps with this) if pushed for time run to work ... Every week training builds on the last and missing runs will only increase the intensity of the next. I've done 22 * 1 mile laps of my local park at 10pm following  a stag do before, not fun, but felt great afterwards. If you run with others, you are more likely to attend and it varies your training, reducing repetition and means you get unload your boring running chat to people who actually care and can empathise. Obviously the only exception is if you are injured.
  5. Don't race every run - it may be tempting to speed up on your long runs, but you're just building in tiredness for the week ahead and reducing your ability to train well. Go as hard as you can on your intervals, while keeping them consistent and increase your tempo session pace, but keep your long run slow until you're used to the mileage.
  6. Don't catch up on your schedule - if you miss a run through injury or lack of planning it's gone. Training is hard enough without piling on extra miles and it will only increase your chance of injury and decrease the quality of your training through tiredness. If you have a long period without training it will impact on your time, suck it up and learn from it - it took me 3 attempts to get to the start line ready for my 2.44.

Stay injury free

One of the hardest aspects to master - how to push your body to near breaking point without actually breaking. The recovery tips will help, but in addition:

  1. Warm up before every intense session - a one mile jog is advisable, include some strides (quicker 50 meter runs where you concentrate on your running form) and some dynamic stretches if you have time. It reduces your risk of injury and you'll start each session primed to run quickly.
  2. Don't do static stretches before a run - they drain elasticity and power from the muscles for up to 3 hours, reducing performance and can cause injury, as your muscles are not warm enough to be stretched, instead do dynamic stretches.
  3. Warm down after every hard session -  a one mile jog is often enough after intervals, tempo run and races. It gives your muscles a chance to stretch out again and remove unwanted lactic acid.
  4. Stretch after every run - the only exception to this is after a very hard race or a very long run, as your muscles with have micro-tears and stretching can actually exasperate the damage and lead to slower recovery. Instead wait a few hours before stretching. Additional good times to stretch - in or after a shower or straight after getting out of bed  as your muscles will be warm or even on the tube platform if you've just walked there. Make sure you're holding a stretch 30-50 seconds for each of your glutes, hamstrings, upper and lower calves, groin, quads and hip flexors
  5. Stretch for balance - very few of us are anatomically perfect and as a result we often have one side stronger or more flexible than the other, which can create imbalance that leads to injury. If you are stiffer or less flexible on one side, hold your stretches for longer on these muscles, so that in time you will readdress the balance.  
  6. Dull pain probably ok, sharp pain no - your body will feel lethargic and sore during training. Your one mile warm up will help you sense whether pain is tiredness or injury, sharp pain is never good though and you should seek advice rather than run. Two days off resting is better than 2 weeks injured.
  7. In the head fine, below the neck check - head cold is fine to train with, but anything in the lungs and you're risking a chest infection, as I found out for 6 weeks this year.
  8. Get a sports massage check up - the miles of training will magnify any imbalances in your muscle groups, which lead to injury, so once a month schedule a sports massage - it aids recovery and a good masseur will be able to identify any weaknesses or imbalances, so that you can stretch or strengthen accordingly. If you're London based I'd greatly recommend Sam

Prepare yourself mentally

The training plans are hard and can be quite demoralising if you're not prepared for the highs and the lows. A few things to bear in mind:

  1. You might not be quick enough for your plan to start with - I struggle with the speed of my tempo sessions at the start of each training plan - I'm too tired from the increased mileage and while quick enough to run them as a one off, am only quick enough to run them at the end of a training week once I'm half way through the plan. This is quite usual, so persist through.
  2. You will hit a low - while training you will speed up and feel great, but as the training continues ramping up, runners often slump in week 6-8. You might start to slow down or struggle with your runs - I once hit the wall 7 miles into a 12 mile run and had to walk home. These things happen, once again expect it, don't let it affect you and persist through.
  3. Be realistic about who you are and make some rules - we're all lazy, weak ... sometimes. So it's important to think of ways of motivating yourself before you need to. I have a rule that I can walk in any race, I'm just not allowed to walk up hills (unless it's faster to). It's a stupid rule, but in marathon training the only part of a run where I want to walk is up a hill, once I'm at the top I no longer want to walk, so the rule works for me. Training will be hard and you will be tired, so whenever I'm tired I remind myself it's because I'm training like a hero, when it's hard it's because I'm running like a powerhouse, every negative thought is recognised, but put in context with a greater positive.
  4. Have a mantra - you need a reason for running; training is too hard to without one. Mine was 2.44 - every time I didn't want to run I reminded myself and on the runs repeated 'this is 2.44 running.'
  5. Break it down - You're going to be running tired repeatedly and runs will seem beyond you, break them down and just commit to running part of it, then when you get there, readdress. If you don't think you can do ten intervals do 6, then another ... same for running 10 miles. It's much easier to think you might have a break coming and push for a short time than to think about the overall total. In races stick to people's shoulders, chase down the runner ahead, concentrate on the short term.

Race like a boss

Try these out for every race leading up to the marathon so that you know that they work

  1. Choose the right race - not all marathons are equal, if you want a pb, pick the right course. Take into account not just ascent, but wind, support on the course, logistics (for New York you have to arrive 3 hours before the start), the journey to get there - London is where I live, so it's easy to get there, but most importantly I know every step of the last 6 miles, as soon as I hit Tower Bridge I'm running home, it's a huge boost.
  2. Only run as far as you have to - you don't get anything extra for running 26.5 miles, be as aggressive on your racing lines as you can be. In Milan I came through half way in 12.8 miles. I still ran 26.4, but I was taking off a few meters with every corner that I could edge. Obviously if you're in a packed group, run with the group, it's too tiring to be constantly weaving and disrespectful to other runners.
  3. Get some magic shoes - my adizero's are my race day shoe. They're extra light and I only wear them for the big races. As a result, as soon as I put them on I feel pumped and my feet feel like they can fly. Obviously find a pair that works for you, but mentally it puts me on the front foot.
  4. Carb load like a sumo - most people think a large bowl of pasta is sufficient, but research shows that you should eat as much as 7-10 grams of carbs per kilo of body weight. That's a huge amount - over 500g of carbs for me; a bowl of pasta may only be 90g. I achieve the amount with  a 200g bag of toffee popcorn (Lidl has the lowest fat), 200g bag of pretzels, 4 Lucozade drinks, malt loaf, porridge and then some pasta. The morning of the race have up to 150 grams of carbs to top you up - porridge, toast and a banana (remember to give 2-3 hours for it clear your stomach.)
  5. Caffeine is rocket fuel - it's the only legal drug that works. Caffeine takes 5-10 minutes to take effect, reduces tiredness, pain, increases alertness and releases fat into the blood stream to increase energy. It's a wonder drug, but it only last 25-40 mins and each dosage gives diminishing returns. Therefore reduce caffeine from your everyday life to increase its impact on race day. Never have caffeine before a race, you'll start too fast and crash. Caffeine Bullets are the most convenient way to take caffeine, as you then unlock yourself from having to take a gel to get your caffeine. Half-marathon take 1 bullet when your pace starts to drop at 7-8 miles, take 1-2 more if you need at 9-11.Marathon take 1 as you start to drop at 16-19 miles, then a double dose 21-23. Practice beforehand, but for best results leave 2 weeks before each use.
  6. Know your gel strategy - you can absorb 60 grams of carbs an hour while running, 90 grams if your gel is duel maltodextrin and fructose, this equates to 2-3 gels an hour, figure out your favourite, do the maths and take them when you're meant to no matter how you feel. Don't take one before you start running, it will spike your insulin levels, which reduces the absorption rate. Even if you only have 2-3 miles left, take a bit in your mouth for 20 seconds, it's called a carbo mouth rinse and has an effect even if the gel doesn't reach the muscles in time. I would recommend Nectar or Torq gels or if you don't like gels Cliff shot bloks.
  7. Get your funk on - music has a powerful effect on your emotions and rhythm ... so save it for when you need it. Start without, take in the sights, think about your breathing, enjoy the event and then when the going gets tough you'll have the lift of the music to make an impact. If you're going to play music throughout have a slow playlist and a fast playlist, for each stage of the race - fast playlist doesn't have to be fast, it can be something that makes you smile, something you love or just the best running song of all time.
  8. Stick a cap in your arse - take 2 Imodium tablets with breakfast, it won't effect you in any way other than knowing you're not going to get yourself an unwanted spray-tan mid-race.
  9. Race your pace - start in the right pen for your time, don't push ahead or you'll start too fast. Relax and no matter how good you feel, don't go quicker than your race pace until half way at the least, only then will you be able to judge what's possible.
  10. Beetroot diet - this is for the real diehards, but has been shown to work; Mo Farah swears by it and it worked for me - a pint of juice a day for six days leading up to the race and you will be needing that Imodium. I eat 200g of cooked beetroot as a cheaper more palatable alternative. Fairly complex, but the high nitrate levels in the beetroot help with the transportation of oxygen around the body and increase stamina.
  11. Have a wall beating strategy - hopefully with the above you won't hit the wall, but if you do there are a few things you can do - get angry, really angry - scream, bang the a wall, it releases adrenalin, which will help get you started again. Start sprinting - you won't have used the glycogen stores in your fast twitch muscles, so start sprinting. It won't last long, but maybe enough to get you through the wall. Ideally get angry and start sprinting.
  12. Catch up on lost time over 26 miles -  you may start in the wrong pen, get caught in a bottle neck or start late. remember you have 26 miles to catch up, so pace accordingly. When pacing Brighton a runner caught up 2 minutes in the first 3 miles to catch me, so that he could run with a pacer. Needless to say he faded at half way. it's far better to catch up a few seconds per mile.
  13. Pace only against the clock and the mile markers - Garmins are great and pacemakers are useful, but neither are 100% guaranteed - pace to your Garmin and you may find you have another .4 of a mile to run, pace to a pacemaker and he may have started five minutes behind you from a different start or might just be wrong. Get a pace band and check your splits after every mile, it's the only way to guarantee your pace.
That's a lot to take on board and some of the research and science will change, so if you have any counter-evidence, then let me know, as I will be updating this to take on board new developments and often sports science studies lack a sufficient sample size to be conclusive. If there's anything you would add, then please get in touch. I try to be a sponge to knowledge, but there could be more I could be doing or certain aspects I have overlooked or am not aware of (diet and running style are prime examples.) The main takeaway is tiny differences add up, so analyze every aspect of your training and try new ideas out. The beauty of the marathon is that you only get one shot from months of training, so it can take a few attempts for everything to fall into place. Good luck and let me know how you get on.

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Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Am I a massive cheat?

I cut a 5 mile loop off a half marathon and I won. So does this make me a cheat and should I be disqualified?
Sheepishly picking up first place - trainers on in case I need to leggit

The story's a bit more complex than that and hopefully some of you will see my side and agree that I should have no shame in claiming the win, especially given how much of a rarity a win is. I was running in the inaugural New Forest Half Marathon in March and after a switch back half a mile in, it was clear that there were only two of us competing for first place and 5 miles in Gordon and I were running together and having a natter.

On the same day there was a 10k, a 20 miler and an ultra all converging at different points  of the course and when we approached one marshal, who seemed surprised to see us, we shouted 'this way?' as we turned right at the junction, running past her to no real response. A mile later and we started passing ultra marathon runners coming towards us and after nine miles we realised something wasn't right - the first lap was only 8 miles and we were nowhere near the finish. We asked a passing car where Linwood was and headed back to the event base, figuring we'd have probably run 11 miles by the time we made it back. As far ahead as we had been of the third placed runner, we were never going to catch up 3 miles, so we had a decision to make.

We were both fairly relaxed about the mistake, but I wanted the win and explained to Gordon that I was going to go for the win if I could and I'd welcome his challenge. He declined, I think partly because I'd talked him into thinking I'd burn him off in the last half a mile, but also because he just wasn't that bothered, so I ran on, hit the beginning/end of the lap, turned round and ran back the wrong way around the course. The marshals were looked confused, but I smiled at them reassuringly, as if I knew what I was doing and a mile later, turned round again and ran in for the win having run 13.1 miles according to my Garmin. Gordon continued with the second loop and noted the time as he ran through 13.1 miles, running in far down the field, having run a full 16.

Turning into the finish

The second placed runner was really confused, he had no idea that we'd gone wrong and couldn't figure out how he'd passed Gordon without noticing. I was staying quiet, acting a little bit sheepish about the whole affair, until Gordon came in and explained the whole situation and claimed 2nd place. David, was bumped to third, possibly a bit harsh, but his time was four minutes slower than Gordon's.

So did I cheat or was I just pragmatic about an unfortunate situation? Let me know what you think.

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Thursday, 10 October 2013

The Red Bull Steeplechase

I was flying, flat out down Win hill. My legs were burning, but it felt great, feet dancing over the rocks until my left foot caught the top of a boulder.  I tried to correct myself, but my momentum was rotating downwards, looking ahead all I could see was a bed of jagged rocks; this was going to hurt. I slid along the trail, my bottle splitting and peeling my left palm, my right hand side acting as a grating brake.  As I lay on my side the position put my entire body into a cramp and I wiggled around like an electrocuted fish, winded and struggling for breath. I shouted at the passing runners to leave me, I didn't think anything was broken, before regrouping for some time and hesitantly clambering to my feet.  My right forearm resembled Popeyes, a mesh of blood and grit, but my legs seemed ok.  I wiped the blood dripping from my left hand onto my face - might as well look proper bad ass. Only another two miles until the next cut off and another eight until the final one.  Bugger!

Some of the damage

Three weeks prior I'd won a place on the Red Bull steeplechase through runners world, a 21 mile race with 1400 metres of ascent.  The twist was that roughly every 5 miles they cut the back third of the field until only 30 runners remained. Having spent the summer pickling what remained of a runner post Sierra Leone, I suddenly had only three to get marathon fit. The next day, when in theory I should be beginning my taper, I headed to London's steepest hill, swains lane and attempted to run up and down it ten times.

Three weeks later I was travelling up to the peak district in a car with Jon 'best assault course racer in Britain' Albon, Ross 'GB duathlete' Macdonald and Rob 'best trail runner in Heathside' O'Grady. If fully fit I could just about match them once we got up to marathon distances, but today I had no chance, in fact of the 6 people I knew racing 5 of them were probably going to beat me; top 30 was going to be tough.

We arrived in Glossop and it was a bit disconcerting how fit everyone looked. I'd opted for my running of the bulls outfit, as a homage to red bull, but was looking completely out of place and with the temperature picking up, it was definitely going to be too hot. 500 of us collected under the Red Bull banner and after a 100 meter sprint we turned straight up the steepest hill I've ever attempted to run up - 49% gradient. The route was single track and panic set in amongst the runners trying to get clear of the maul. People were scrambling through the bracken, elbows swung to make room, it was a full on mosh. The first hill only took 8 minutes, but by half way my calves were already burning, the steepness forcing me to climb on the tips of my toes, putting all of the force through my calves and using the bracken to keep my balance. By the top of the hill I was already way off the top 30 and my calves were shredded. Trying to get a rhythm was proving difficult, but as we reached the first peak, a solo trumpeter was playing the Rocky theme tune, amazing.
This doesn't do the first hill justice

Two miles in and we finally reached our first downhill, my time to shine. The hill was grassy and wet so I lent in and took off full pelt. To my surprise, I was overtaken by a nutter who was sprinting to build up enough speed to then slide down on his side. I considered copying his technique, but as much as I believe the adverts, I couldn't see Ariel getting the stains out of my white outfit and after three slides he'd changed tack, having grazed his entire left side. 800 feet of descent later, I'd overtaken 25 or so and mid way up the next peak we ran through our first counter - 59th. I maintained my position on the up, passed the table overflowing with Red Bull cans and then got stuck in a two mile single track route. I was trying to pass runners, but the ground was too technical; overtaking meant risking tripping, as you didn't have enough space to see the trail coming ahead, add to that a barb wire fence and I decided to just tuck in. There were streams, rocks and suddenly a huge candy floss ball, which turned out to be a rotting sheep clouded in mold.

An ascent, I'm in white

Another descent through the woods and past a beautiful reservoir and we entered the first cut off point, with another wealth of Red Bull and large group of supporters. My outfit was cheered, which gave me a boost, but for 8 miles in I was feeling pretty tired and knowing I would be well within the top 125 at the next cut off point, I started to focus on the 12 miles to pull myself up from 57th to 30th, seemed unlikely.

Monster 1000ft ascent in one

Our next stage featured 1000ft of ascent! Runners were slowing dramatically and rather than picking up the odd runner, I could start to see the groups of people ahead of me. As I was passing people, others were coming through, but by the top I'd improved to 50th and suddenly felt that 30th was more than achievable, I wasn't fit, but fairing better than most, but then came the crash.

My immediate thought was that I could do an Eric Liddel - despite the fall sprint on and win the whole thing, but a few more steps and even though my legs still seemed to work, it was apparent I wasn't the runner of five minutes before. With only 2 miles to the next check point, I ran on, hitting another steep ascent, where runners were cautiously stepping their way down. 'Straight back on the bike' I thought and steaming off again. I couldn't tell if their looks were saying to me 'fair play' or 'that's what got you injured in the first place.' The right hand side of my body was all slightly strained and letting my arm go limp seemed to help, another mile passed before a welcome face gave me some support, as Anthony, a fellow Heathsider sped past. He was sitting pretty in 23rd before taking a 2 mile detour and looked like a man on a mission to catch up immediately.

I reached the second cut off point in around 60th and decided a Red Bull was definitely needed, however a few more yards on, I stopped, looked back and thought about stopping. There was no way I was going to overtake 30 people in the next 6 miles and it was likely every hill I was going to have to be a walk. It seemed sensible, but then I thought about the ribbing I'd get in the car all the way back to London and realised I had to continue.

Amazing scenary

The atmosphere of the race suddenly changed. Surrounding runners knew we weren't going to make the cut, so we were all now just running to finish and our competitive edge drained away, each runner chatting with each other and encouraging anyone passing them. I was amazed how many ultra runners there were and that they were also struggling - they could do the miles, but the speed which we had covered the first 12 miles had ragged even their legs. We took in the breathtaking scenery, swapped war stories and slothed our way through the last six miles. With a mile left to go, I decided I had to finish with a flurry so, took off down the hill and gritted my teeth for running what felt like a decent pace, but was probably wasn't even 7 minute miling. I turned the corner to see the third cut off, thank God, I was destroyed. We were greated with hoodies, socks, and for some reason a teatowel (which I love) and of course plenty of Red Bull. We jumped on their buses and made our way back to the finish, where there was a free BBQ and bar. Jon had felt great at half way and incredibly streaked away to go from 8th to 2nd, resulting in a magnum of champagne he generously shared; my pain was quickly numbed.

Heathside Massive L-R Brian, Rob, Myself, Anthony

It was one hell or a race - well organised, with amazing scenery and ridiculously cheap for what you get, but wow is it brutal; four days on I still can't walk properly. If you want to get close to the feeling, ask your biggest friend to repeatedly beat your quads with a rusty crow bar, while someone grates your calves for three hours. I wasn't match fit going in, but realistically I'd need to be fully marathon fit for next year, to do it justice, as this is harder than a marathon. You can train on hills in preparation, but they're not going to be enough. I will be back next year, with my sights firmly on a top ten finish, I just need to get the keys to the Shard first, as it's the only thing within 200 miles of London high and steep enough to prepare me.

L-R me, Ross, Rob and Jon - final pint in London

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