Transvulcania Ultra 2019 – La Palma – The Canary Islands

A 3am alarm call on Thursday morning can mean just one thing. It’s time for an adventure.

This one is Transvulcania. 47 miles up and around a volcano on the island of La Palma, the smallest, most undeveloped and most beautiful of the Canary Islands.

As I sit on the plane (first flight in around 12 years and very nervous), I’m reading the guide to the island. The first line of the introduction is ‘The steepest island in the world, the deepest crater, the clearest skies; black beaches, blue skies, high mountains and vegetation that is literally flamboyant.’  Before setting off, we were feeling a mixture of excitement and intrepidation. The guide has heightened these feelings even more.

Registration was easy. Well kind of. When you get there, it’s dead easy. No queues, lots of helpful volunteers with many of them speaking English for the non Spanish speakers. The expo is small but perfectly formed and it’s great to see them  promoting ecologically friendly products manufactured locally.

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The issue that we had was actually getting to the expo. Now, we’re on a tiny island off the coast of Africa. The climate is amazing, the food fantastic, the scenery among the best I’ve ever seen. So why rush around and why have a bus service that runs regularly?  The service between the airport and the capital (linea 500) only runs once an hour late in the afternoon, and we just missed it, having taken around an hour to find the correct bus stop. Once in the capital, Santa Cruz, we took linea 300 over the volcano to Los Llanos, a 45 minute drive to where the expo and registration is taking place.  But why so long, for such a short journey? Well, that soon became obvious. I have never heard the engine of a bus growl like this one.  For the first 20 minutes it didn’t get out of second gear, climbing some of the steepest hills I’ve been up (it wasn’t lost on us that we’d be climbing these hills on foot 36 hours later).

The flora changed from prickly pears, vibrant flowers and sun scorched grasses to ferns and forest, the closer we got to the clouds that engulfed the tops of the hills. Then, it was white out. You could see nothing below, which may not have been a bad thing, given the lack of safety barriers and the proximity of our 52 seater to the edge.  I thought that landing of La Palma airport with its stupidly short runway was a bit of a worry, but this was more white knuckle. 

Registration done and that was it. All sorted for a rest day on Friday before an early start on Saturday.

The race brief was interesting on Friday evening. It was brought to a hotel near us and was preceded by a round table of 20 or so of the 140 elite runners taking part in the various races. The enormity of the event starts to kick in. The best runners in the world are here. The race brief is long and unlike any I’ve ever seen before. Each section is delivered in Spanish, followed by an English translation. There is a large screen with graphics that accompany the brief, which goes into great detail about safety and the level of support if anyone gets into trouble. They outline the most dangerous parts where the path is around a metre wide with no safety barrier and a sheer drop off the edge. Karen met a runner at the start of the marathon who went back to her room and took out life insurance immediately after the briefing.

So, the 2.30 alarm goes off, which isn’t that welcome, as it’s the second time we’d got up so early in 3 days. A quick breakfast and then a quick walk to the bus stop, accompanied by a lovely chap from Quito, Ecuador, especially for the race.  There’s a queue and it needs 5 buses to get everyone there just from our part of the island. It’s a 45 minute journey and it’s probably best that it was in the dark, as I imagine we were flirting to cliff edges again.

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We’d waited for this day for so long. It had become a bit iconic in our house. We had watched so many videos and read a lot of blogs and here we were.  At the lighthouse, then at the start line.  The start of our most difficult running adventure.

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Beware.  It was cold and windy, so don’t  get fooled by the daytime temperatures.

The announcers spend 45 minutes whipping everyone up into frenzy as the countdown clock projected on the wall of the cliff approached the time we had been waiting for.  

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Here is a link to a video of the start. The atmosphere is great and the countdown at the end is something I’ll never forget – https://youtu.be/lqFAT7RtyMM

And then we’re off.  There no 2 ways about it. We knew that this was going it be a struggle. From very early on, I  had an eye on the cut off and the first point where the organisers can hook you. It’s at 25km and 5 hours. A generous cut off you may feel. Don’t believe a word of it. Most of that 25km is up hill, with over 2000m of elevation gain (twice the height of Snowdon). And the hills are not the half of it.

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After around 2km of road, some of which we ran, we had to queue to get off road and start the hike up the sand covered 2 man wide trail.  The black sand glistened in the light of the head torches as we snaked our way up the mountain until the path widened and became more runnable for a while. Quite amazingly, people were out on the mountain side before sunrise, greeting us with calls of ‘Animo’ and ‘Campeones’. 

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We reached the first aid station at Los Canarios and the whole village was out on the streets, bunting up, banging those plastic air filled tube bangy things together. This is their Tour de France. They even have a plaque to commemorate the winners of the male and female races each year.

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If you thought that the first 7km was tough, from here to the 18km point is where it gets serious. Almost none of the uphill was runnable for me, some of it was hardly walkable and the downhill was almost non-existent. Most of the underfoot conditions were sand. Lovely black volcanic sand, with the odd section of uneven cobbles and forest path.  When I say lovely black volcanic sand, I mean shitty horrible black volcanic sand. In the nicest way possible, obviously. There’s no traction and as you push off, your lead foot just slips back down the hill. The views, however, are stunning.

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With each corner that you turn, there is a desperate hope that you will find the relief of a runnable sand free trail, but no. It just keeps on giving. Around every corner there was another climb, each bigger than any hill I’ve ever climbed before. Each covered in sand.

With every step that went by, I realised that I wasn’t going to make cut off at 25km. Surprisingly, it didn’t bother me too much. This was just amazing. The words of my wonderful running buddy Stephen Delaney were ringing around my head. ‘We’re so lucky to be doing this’, he told me as he paced me on the South Downs Way 100. As my average km time rose from 10 minutes per km to 11, 12 then 13, it was definitely time to just make the most of being in this wonderful place, as the chances of beating cut off disappeared over the horizon (or a big sod off mountain).

This is the hill that finally broke me, although luckily it was the last one before the relatively easy descent into Refugio el Pilar (the starting point for the marathon), where my Transvulancia experience would come to an end. 25km in 5 hours 23 mins. This climb finished at the top of the peak in the middle of the picture just to the left of the tree and the last picture was taken near the top looking down at the aid point, which is where the first picture was taken.

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I could not have done any more. Maybe I  could have run a bit harder early on and avoided a few queues. Maybe I  could have attacked the final decent a little more, but I have other races coming up, so no risks.

The descent into Refugio el Pilar is lovely and very runnable. Much more like we’re used to, apart from the heat, the altitude and the lizards.

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But most importantly,  No regrets. It’s pretty simple. I met my match. I couldn’t beat the heat, the dust, the sand and most importantly, the mountain. I wasn’t good enough to do this. I had learned the difference between trail running and mountain running. That may seem quite simple, but it’s not until you actually experience it that you can truly appreciate what this sport is all about. 

The best illustration I can give for the difference between this and the events we’re used to is that the South Downs 50 has 1750m of climb in 50 miles. This had over 2000m of climb in 15 miles and was around 70% on sand and very little downhill.

At least I had the balls and was daft enough to get out there and give this a go. Those are 2 character traits I’m very happy to have on my list, although I think that my mountain running career may already be over.

Having said this, I really would highly recommend this race, or at least one of the Transvulancia options. It does come in half marathon, which ironically is the course that I completed and there is also a marathon. This can also be done on a budget. Flights are direct from Gatwick, accommodation is pretty cheap and it’s not expensive when you get here. 

The whole experience is amazing. The island is beautiful. The people are a very proud island nation and they love runners coming to their paradise to tackle their race. They have a huge focus on conservation. The beaches and countryside are very clean and the race provides group transport around the island to avoid cars filling the roads.

Thank you to Transvulcania and the people of La Palma for making us so happy and welcome. We will miss your black sand beaches, the rocky coastline, the constant companionship of lizards, the crazy roads that follow the contours of the coast, the deep gorges that we explored, the banana plantations and the vineyards, the lovely food and drink, and finally, we will miss being part of this amazing race.

You helped us to create some special memories and no hill that I ever tackle in the future will ever seem as tough.

Neil.

#poweredbyplants

 

Centurion Autumn 100

Tackling a 100 mile race with such poor preparation may not have been the greatest idea I have ever had, but on Friday morning we had packed and got the train to Goring on Thames, base for the Centurion Autumn 100.

We had booked the large dormitory at the YHA in Streatley for Friday and Saturday night.  Friday night for the runners and Saturday night for the pacers and supporters.

Having checked in, we grabbed some nice food and a beer in the Bull Inn (they offer a nice selection of plant based food), before a stroll into Goring to walk off the food and grab another beer, before heading back to the YHA for an early night.

After a decent sleep we had breakfast at the YHA with other runners who’d had the same idea as us, completed the final prep and headed to the Village Hall in Goring for check in.

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Now, the weather forecast for Saturday was hot and dry with a massive change overnight around 4am, with heavy rain arriving.  We hadn’t expected it to throw it down on Saturday morning, but luckily it stopped before the 10am race start.

Being there before 9am meant that mandatory kit check was quick, as was number collection.  With final changes to the kit bag done and back pack loaded for the first stage, we were ready for James’ pre-race brief.

The brief is now quite familiar, but there is some hugely important information in there about weather and safety (he was spot on).  As tradition has it, ‘Who is running their first Centurion race? is asked.  Hands raised.  Big round of applause.  ‘Who is running their first 100 miler?’  ‘Who is completing the 100 mile Grand Slam (all 4 Centurion 100 milers)?’  Finally ‘Who is running their 196th (I think it was 196) 100 miler?’  That is crazy.  I had a good chat with this lady, Sandra Brown, during the race and at the end.  What a privilege to be on the start line with such a pioneer.

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The A100 consists of 4 x 25 mile spurs, each being an out and back.  Stages 1 and 4 are along the Thames Path and stages 2 and 3 are along Ridgeway.

The advice for stage 1 was not to go out too quickly.  It’s flat and the temptation is to get ahead of schedule.  We were determined not to do this.  But we did.  To be fair, it was totally by accident.  We had set the Suunto’s to the 100 hour battery life, which makes them less accurate.  However, the first 12.5 miles only measured 10.5 miles, so although we were at the desired pace according to the watch, we were miles ahead of schedule, over 20 minutes.  We got there in 2 hours 20 mins.  Nick and I had a chat and we decided to reign it in.  It was so hot, we had to slow down.  And we did.

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The return to Goring was in 2 hours 40 mins, meaning a first 25 mile split of 5 hours.  In front of schedule, but it turned out to be OK, as I spent ages taping a hot spot on the underside on my foot.  A lesson learned from previous races.  Time spent early on sorting this kind of thing out, can save a lot of pain later.  We spent 20 minutes in the Village Hall at the end of the first stage, but I think it was well spent.

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Stage 2 was out on Ridgeway.  I had thought that it would be hilly pretty quickly, but no.  It must have been around 4 miles of pretty flat riverside running before we hit the hills.  The aid station on stage 2 is after 4 miles at North Stoke, so the second half of the outbound section is really long to the turn around point at Swyncombe.  It is a great section, although I took very few pictures, as we were concentrating on not falling down the badger holes or tripping over the tree roots.

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It was getting dark as we approached the turn around point after 37.5 miles and 8 and a quarter hours.  This was more like the pace that we’d planned.  This is where it started to get tough.  The slightly dodgy technical section on the way out was now really tricky in the dark.  Having to check for haz tape to keep going in the right direction while also not falling over (Nick failed on the second point) was both time consuming and slowed us down.  It was a treat to see the aid station at North Stoke on the way back, signalling only 4 miles until we got back to Goring, the half way point and the company of our pacers.  We arrived back at the Village Hall in 11 and a half hours, a bit slower than we’d hoped, but still in good spirits, good shape, still eating and new found energy from our pacers, Jay and Jill.

Stage 3 is the hilliest of all 4 stages and I had done it before, as pacer for Philippe in 2016.  So, I knew what was coming.  Nothing to be scared of, but plenty to slow you down after 50 miles.  We were still running and going well.  Walking up the hills and running a lot of the flat and downhill.  Ahead of time it started to rain in spells and the wind got up, which wasn’t in the plan, but everything was good.  We reached the turn around point at Chain Hill in just over 15 hours, pretty much bang on schedule and made our way back along Ridgeway to Goring.

Every credit to the volunteers at those aid station on stage 3 in the middle of the night.  There was little or no protection from the wind and rain and they were amazing.

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During his race brief James had warned that the rain would really start at 4am and that was pretty much spot on.  That’s when it started and it didn’t stop.  For 8 hours.  We came back to the large bump that signalled the end of the trail section of the third stage and hit the 3 or so miles on road back to Goring.  That first section on the road back to the main road seemed to go on forever.  Much longer than on the way out.  Nick and Jill were going well and caught up with us just as we hit the main road.  The rain intensified and we quickly made progress downhill back to Goring to prepare for stage 4, miles 75 to the end.

While we had been out in the darkness, the pacers and supporters had been making the most of the YHA room that we’d hired for the night as well.  Looks proper cosy in there.  These people are brilliant.

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So there were about 2 hours of darkness left before the sun came up and we were really looking forward to it.  Even though we weren’t going to see the sun, having to concentrate less on trying to see where you’re going was going to be a blessing.

Now, there were some decisions to make in the village hall.  The main one being footwear.  Due to the injury, I hadn’t bothered replacing my trail shoes, as quite frankly, I hadn’t thought I’d need any.  I had thought even less that I’d be sitting at the 75 mile point regretting not having replaced them.  There were 2 options.  Firstly, stick with the same road shoes and slide everywhere and be comfortable in the most comfy shoe I’ve ever had.  Secondly, change to the shoes with a little more grip, but less cushioning.  Stupidly, it turns out, I went for the latter.  They didn’t give me enough grip, so I still slipped everywhere and there were more hard sections than I’d expected, so every step on the concrete and the hard paths in the Innov-8’s was painful.

It soon become all too obvious that my waterproof was only waterproof in certain conditions.  After 2 hours in a downpour I was soaking and frozen.  The base layer helped, but this was not good.  My hands were cold and my gloves were sodden.  My hat was drenched and I started to shake.  As we headed through the housing estate before Reading I reached a low.  It was the first time that I considered that I might not make it.  I was moving slowly, my feet were hurting (stupid trainer decision) and I was shaking.  I was desperate to get to the turn around point, but it was 8.5 miles before the aid station and that a long way when you’re running less and less.

There were huge puddles everywhere and on the towpath there was a 6 inch stream coming down off the railway line into the Thames.  There was no point in trying to keep your feet dry.  In fact, it was impossible to avoid the stream, so I decided to grin and bear it and run straight through the water.

The path to the turn around point seems to go on forever.  I knew this.  I had been warned, but the low continued.  We arrived at the aid station and Nick was sitting there shaking.  We were both in the same boat.  I was more worried about her to be honest.  Steph, her pacer, got her into a new base layer and this, couple with a lot of coffee, warmed her up and got her going again.  I changed base layer, drink coffee and we left Reading together.

It was now destination Goring / destination buckle.

Nick soon dropped me.  She found some extra energy and running was keeping her warm.  The rain kept coming down and I got cold again.  I think that I may have been saved by wearing a bin bag from the last aid station at Whitchurch.  I looked daft, but it really warmed me up.  Only 4 miles to go and nothing (apart from falling over) was going to stop me now.

I hadn’t thought about time for a long while now.  I wasn’t going to get timed out and the only goal was getting home safely.  However, as we got closer to home, a sub 26 hour finish was in sight.  That was the A goal, but not that important in the grand scheme of things.  It suddenly dawned on me as we came onto the path on the last 200m of the river section that I could do it.  From somewhere I mustered a bizarre ‘sprint’ finish.  The emotion of it all got to me and I couldn’t help but leg it for the last 400m.  I’m not sure that I pick my knees up that high at the end of the parkrun.

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25 hours 54 minutes and 30 seconds after we started, I crossed the finish line.  This was unbelievable.  I hadn’t even been able to walk properly for around 3 months of the year and it was on the back of around 8 weeks of training.  There were inevitable tears (and they weren’t just from the pain of having nipple tape removed).

And here we are.  Happy, dry and warm.

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When I got in, Nick had been there for 20+ minutes.  She was covered in clothes, hats and blankets, as well as holding 2 cups of coffee.  The volunteers were amazing in getting her body temperature back up and she was amazing to have gone round in just over 25 and a half hours.

I think that it’s obvious from this experience, much more than the SDW100, is that the psychological strength needed to complete this was as important as the physical.  I had around 8 weeks of real training.  This was an hour long hill reps session, a long run at the weekend (between 21 and 31 miles) and 1 other session each week.  I limited it to this through fear of further injury and not getting to the start line.  I would definitely advise anyone thinking of attempting this kind of distance to read about or speak to someone with experience of dealing with this distance.  Keeping positive is so important and being positive over 26 hour hours isn’t that easy, especially when you’re s cold and wet.

So, that’s 2 of the Centurion 100 milers down and 2 to go.  It’s not the Grand Slam (all 4 in 1 year), but we’ll do them all.  In 4 years.  North Downs Way, then Thames Path.  We’ve got a 100% success rate so far, which isn’t bad.

We can’t thank everyone enough.  James, Nici and all of the Centurion crew.  We were so well looked after.  From the first home to the person who squeezes under cut off, we’re all just as important and that’s a special feeling.

We shared something with our pacers that is there forever.  It’s easy to say that we wouldn’t have finished without Jay, Jill, Simon and Steph, but it’s true.  Their company, encouragement and care will never be forgotten.  Part of that medal belongs to them.

And to Philippe and Francesca, who came straight from Gatwick taking a detour on the way home from their holiday (a 100 mile / 18 hour detour) and Sarah, who came up with Simon straight from a party, the boost you gave us at Reading after mile 91 was an amazing feeling.

And finally, a huge thanks to my training partner, best friend and wifey.  We did it after a tough, shitty year.  And now there are loads more adventures in the diary for 2019.  Woo hoo.

The 2 buckles sit there beside our bed with our wedding photo to give me strength when anxiety bites.  If I can get through those last 25 miles of the A100, I can get through anything 🙂

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Oh, and still powered by plants, mainly fruit, nuts, Gu gels, Trailwind, tomatoes, crisps and jam/peanut butter sandwiches.

Take care and I hope you enjoyed reading this, Neil.

 

Bacchus Marathon 2018

There were many occasions in 2018 when I thought and feared that I wouldn’t run again, let alone complete a marathon.

I woke up one morning in January and I couldn’t walk.  There was something seriously wrong with my back.  I had had back problems in the past.  They had lasted a couple of weeks and gone away.  This, however, was something different.  I knew that there was a real issue here.  This was not just going to go away.

Nick’s work health insurance meant that I was seen by specialists very quickly and within 2 weeks I had been scanned and assessed and there was a large bulge in a disk in my lower back that was touching a nerve.  A week later, I had a root nerve block, which involved a large pain killing and anti-inflammatory injection into my spine.  Not an experience I want to repeat.

The aim was to get me walking again, pain free, while giving the disk time to go back into place.  I was left with many questions.  Would it work and if not what are the consequences (an operation that is a bit too close to lots of nerves) and would I ever be able to run again?

In my head I prepared myself for pretty much the worst case scenario.  2018 was a right off in my head and marathon days were over.  Just concentrate on being back active in 2019.  This helped me to deal with the inevitable mental health downside to not being able to exercise.

In April I revisited the back surgeon and he was happy with progress.  I still had pretty constant pins and needles in my left leg, but this may have become a permanent fixture.  To my surprise, he suggested that I start to exercise.

For once in my life, I was sensible.  I took it very steady.  Slow increase in distance, very little pace and a healthy dose of patience.  Things were going very well until the end of May, when I had a set back with another back problem, luckily not disk related.

Finally, a month later, things improved and the process began again.  Steady improvement meant that the distance increased and maybe there was a chance that I could get myself to the Centurion A100 in October.

Things did seem to click very quickly and before you know it, I was back on the South Downs Way with Nick doing what we love.  During the previous 7 months Nick lost her training partner and we both lost a huge part of our lives.  Obviously this will come to an end one day, but I’m certainly not ready to hang up my trainers yet.

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I had several weekend in Lincolnshire and we had the pleasure of seeing a few bits of the flatlands that I hadn’t seen for many, many years.

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We had booked the Bacchus Marathon a long while ago and it was the last of the races that I’d paid for that I though I was going to miss.  And I didn’t miss it.

I think that this event is best described as 2 races.  On one hand you have a marathon, a 2 lap course, with a half way cut off time that some people may find challenging.  Then there is the half marathon, which I can only describe as a huge piss up.  Each aid station is serving wine from the wine estate and most people on the half marathon seem to be making the most of the opportunity.  This looks like great fun, many people are in fancy dress and the party does continue after the race, with a dj in the marquee where registration had been earlier.  There is much dancing and more booze being drunk.  The half looks like a great day out with friends and would be brilliant for a corporate get together.

Anyway, the marathon was a bit more serious for us.  It was a challenge that was going to go a long way to deciding whether I continued to prepare for the A100 or not.

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Who would have thought that such a beautiful wine estate would be so close to the M25.

Parking was easy and near to the start/finish.  Registration was simple and quick.

And then we were off.

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And yes, there are also fancy dress runners on the marathon.  The marathon starts before the first wave of half marathon runners leave, so we don’t see them until the end of the race.

As you can see from the profile below, it is bumpy.

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The bumpiness is matched by the stunning countryside.

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I paced Nick on the first lap to get under cut off, as she was worried about being able to get under the 2 hour 30 minutes necessary in order to do the second lap.  We got there with a few minutes to spare and then I went off on the second lap alone, managing a big negative split.

It’s hard to explain the feeling of happiness at being back and being able to do this.  This picture says more than any words can.

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A huge thank you to 209 Events and Denbies Vineyard for putting on such a tremendous event.  I may well come back to see if I can beat this time (or do the half and sample some of your lovely wine).

So, it’s on to the A100 now.  It’s a week away.  I’m prepared for it mentally.  Physically, I’m not where I was for the SDW100, but we will see what next Saturday and Sunday bring.

Have fun, Neil.

#stillfuelledbyplants.

A long end to 2017

It’s been a while.  I’ve never taken over a month to write up a race report and definitely not 3 months.  It’s been a tough few months.  Anxiety levels higher than ever before and for much longer than before.  I have hardly picked up my trainers recently.  October consisted of Downslink a couple of aborted runs that lasted 10 minutes and a couple of sessions that I coached.

The dark mist came down just before Downslink and was still hanging around like the horrible bastard that it is.  Self confidence has disappeared.  The thoughts that turn my brain to a shitty mush keep cropping up when I least need them. I’m finding that the slightest thing will knock me down.

Running is usually my escape, but I have just not been interested.  I’ve hidden behind the excuse of letting my body recover from a busy year, but it’s really a lack of interest and energy, as all of my energy is taken up with a whizzing brain.

Downslink didn’t work.  I do love this race.  The people are lovely, I really like the route, Jon was there taking cracking photos, but I wasn’t really up for it.

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At least I got the 3rd of these little beauties.  Probably my last DLU medals for a while.

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I wasn’t sure whether to do The Thames Meander.  I was undecided on whether my body was up to it.  I’m glad I did in the end.  I saw parts of the Thames that I’d never seen before.  This is a PB course if ever there was one and it is in essence a road marathon (ie no grass), but the surface is hard.  It’s an out and back.

Everything went swimmingly until mile 20, when it began to hurt.  I had probably set off a little too quickly, when a fast time was never really on the cards.

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I’m really glad that I ran the Velothon again in December.  Another Sussex Trail Events race, this is 76 laps round the old velodrome in Brighton.  Somehow, this ended up being my 2nd quickest marathon ever.

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The final event of the year was a special one.  Jan has been someone that Nick and I have looked up to from day one.  She was the first coach that I remember from the running club and she ignited my interest in marathon running and showed us the way to going beyond marathon distance.

Her 100th marathon was the Frozen Pheonix marathon on the banks of the river Thames.  The fact that it was laps meant that I could at least take part.  What a lovely thing to be part of.  Without her, the past 4 years would have been very different.

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Well, that’s it.  A year of big ups and big downs.  I’m sure I’ll feel more positive about it all at some stage.  Just not now.

New Forest Marathon

The New Forest Marathon served several purposes.  First of all, it was a day out in the New Forest, a place I love.  Secondly, I’m getting ready for Downslink in a few weeks and I needed time on my feet, but most importantly it turned out to be an exercise in pacing for me and a running buddy.

I have been kind of mentoring/advising and training with one of the ladies from my club as she prepares for Downlinks (38 miles).   Pacing is one of the most important things to master for race day, especially when it comes to going well beyond marathon distance.  So, today was about working with Steph to get the pace right, keeping her slow.

I didn’t really know what to expect from the race to be honest.  I didn’t really read much about it, apart from the words ‘New Forest’.

It was a lot bigger than I had expected.  There were several different distances to cater for all tastes.  There was a race village with food and clothes stalls.

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Registration was very quick and easy, which was a bit of a surprise, given that we arrived 90 minutes after the instructions said we had to be there.  The advice to arrive 3 hours before race start was obviously excessive.  We had set off at 4.30am as it was.

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There was a group warm up in the arena, a quick chance for a group club photo and then we were off.

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So, this was the plan.  Run the first 0.8 of each mile at around 11 minute mile pace and then walk the last 0.2 to get the pace down towards around the 11 minute 45 seconds per mile pace.

It seems weird.  We were pretty much at the back.  I’m by no means a front runner.  More midfield and probably more like sitting in front of the back four, to use a football analogy.  However, it was really important to keep the discipline to get Steph as far as we could before it started to take it’s toll.  That’s what we did.  We also slowly picked off the other runners who had not paced it as well as we did.  We finished in 5 hours 9 minutes and there was still something in the tank.  Mission accomplished.  Over 5 hours of Steph practicing her pacing and a proper confidence boost ahead of Downslink.  For me, it was another 5 hours on my feet and the end of Downslink preparations.  Not sure that I will go for my course PB yet, we’ll see how I feel at the end of the taper.

So, the race itself.  I found both positives and negatives in this race.  The marshals were lovely and the kids who manned the aid stations were brilliant.  The forest sections were just brilliant.  However, there was a lot of road.  Too much.  Maybe I didn’t read the race preview, but there was a lot more than I had expected.  That was a disappointment.

These are the pictures of the forest areas.

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That’s it really.  I had a great day out and I’m really pleased things are working out for Steph.  I must say that I wouldn’t head back to do this again though.  Too many events out there to do and too much road and traffic on this one.

So, it’s 2 more weeks until my 3rd Downslink.  I’d love to beat the 2 times from before, 6 hours 55 minutes.  Time will tell.

Here’s the medal shot with all 4 of us in the car as it was raining heavily in the end.  Cracking runs from Nick and Karen as well, ahead of Downslink,

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And it was all powered by plants.  Woo hoo.

Finally, not only was there a spooky tree, there was a spooky forest.

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Cider Frolic by White Star Running

So, the Cider Frolic is the eleventh race in our White Star Running love affair (after Bad Cow x 3 marathons, Invader marathon, Giant’s Head marathon, Bovington marathon, East Farm Frolic, Larmer marathon and 10 mile, Ox 50).

It’s held on a cider brewery.  Where else?  It’s in the wonderful Dorset countryside.  Where else?  It’s full of people up for a giggle and a lot of running around fields.  What else would you expect?  OK, there’s a music festival just down the road and the Race Director has laid on a free shuttle bus and got us free entry.  Not bad eh?

The Cider Frolic is a 12 hour race.  You can run/jog/walk/crawl in relay teams of 2, 3, 4 or as a solo runner.  As long as you complete one 6.2km lap you get a lovely medal (what else would you expect?) (I must stop typing that now).

This is the view from the camp site at 4.30am on Saturday morning.

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Not bad eh?  I don’t remember too many finishing straights like this over the past few years.

The reason I was up taking pictures at that time of the morning is that I don’t sleep too well in a tent.  The mixture of the heat, the sound of farting, snoring, people having a giggle and then the birds waking up did for me and I thought I’d go for a sunrise walk.

The race starts at 8am and Andy gives the race brief.

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Now, at all White Star relay events, the baton is a squeaky rubber animal.  We’ve had a chicken, then a cow and this time it was the turn of the flying pig.  The squeakies are a story in themselves.  Each month before the race we get a running commentary from Andy on Facebook about his battles with Chinese suppliers, TNT and various customs authorities around the world.  But they were there and made a noisy appearance at the start of the race as the trumpeter signalled the start of the fun.  Oh and there’s fancy dress.  Lots of it.

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And we’re off.

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This is what the course looks like.

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It’s very pretty.  Very dry.  You can see runners on other parts of the course at most places on the route, which is nice.  The hills are not too tough.  Apart from Bad Cow, I would say that the hills are more forgiving than at any other WSR race.  As you can see, it is certainly a bit up and down.  Not much chance to get a rhythm.

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There were 2 things that weren’t quite so forgiving though.  The terrain under foot was really tough in places.  Quite rutted, especially between fields and towards the end of each lap.  You’ve really got to have your wits about you.

The other thing was the heat.  I’m not one of these people who moans when it’s 18 or 19 degrees during the summer.  I love that.  I can train, I can sleep at night and I can run races without feeling shite (see later).  I have no idea how some of the solo runners stayed out for 12 hours.  I had never planned on going longer than a marathon, but even if I had, there was no way that was ever going to happen in those conditions.

So, the race.  I set off slowly.  Walking up the hills.  Running slowly the flat and the downs.  Preparing the inevitable problems that the heat was going to cause.  2 hours 37 for the first half marathon.  I definitely did take the foot off the gas.  It was lovely.  I spent about an hour chatting with 2 ladies about all things running.  Coaching, club philosophy, ‘must run’ races.  One of them lived on my favourite training run back home. I also managed to have a chat with Tim who I first met at the Lemmings track marathon about 3 years ago.  It was the first time I’d seen Tim wearing a 100 Marathon Club shirt.  His achievements over the past 3 years are simply phenomenal.

I did then spend about 3 hours on my own.  This is not always a good thing.  I’m not really sure that it was yesterday.  My mind wondered (as it does).  It skipped between 2 things mainly.  The news came through on Friday that young Bradley had lost his fight against cancer.  We’ve seen him over the past year or so with his best mate, Jermain Defoe, leading out Sunderland and England.  Everyone was wishing he’d get better, but sadly it didn’t happen.  It’s not fair.

Something that has stuck with me recently is what Stephen said to me while pacing me on my 100.  We were having a pretty deep chat at around mile 60 and he said several times ‘we’re so lucky’.  It echoed so much yesterday.  We ARE so lucky.  Lucky to have our health, lucky to have friends to share this with, lucky to meet new people, lucky to visit such wonderful places and lucky to have the strength to battle when life throws a turd in our direction.

Towards the end of lap 6, around 23 miles, I started to hurt.  The heat was starting to get to me.  I had considered dropping.  The aim was to run a marathon and I would have considered not doing 7 laps as a DNF.  I arrived at the start/finish line and stopped for a drink and 2, then 3 of my club buddies offered to guide me round the last lap.  Bloody beauties.  They put up with me being a little grumpy and pretty sweary.  And that was it.  My slowest marathon ever.  I felt so crap on the last lap that I didn’t even have a cider on my last visit to the Lovestation (see later).

That wasn’t the end of it sadly.  I went to try to cool down and rehydrate.  When I stood up, it all went a bit wrong and 2 of my running buddies caught me before I hit the ground.  15 minutes later I was in the ambulance having an ECG.  The heat had well and truly got me.  I’m not sure what I did wrong.  I kept my usual salt and electrolyte regime (never had problems before).  I drank well at each aid station and I went much slower than I would normally do.  Maybe it just wasn’t enough and it was just much too hot.  Luckily, everything was back to normal in around half an hour.  I felt a bit crap for a while, but no harm done and my pee soon got back to a sensible colour (cooking lager rather than best bitter).  The paramedics were fantastic by the way.  One had even been looking into electrolytes and specifically how to deal with this type of situation.  It’s the first and hopefully the last time this will happen.

So, what else is there to say?

The Lovestation, that’s what.  The Lovestation is like no other aid station on the planet.  And on the lapped event you visit it on many occasions.  They have cake.  Oh yeah.  Lovely cake and lots of it.  If you made the vegan chocolate and raspberry cake, I want to hug you.  It was beautiful.  At the Cider Frolic the theme of the Lovestation was Fernando’s Bar.

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There’s music, dancing, a glitter ball, water sprayers and cold sponge hugs.  And booze.  Beer, cider (it is on a cider brewery after all) and fruity vodka.

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And finally, the festival in the village down the road.  Not content with running in some serious heat, we took the bus to the festival.  And there was a Ska band waiting for us.  And they were fab.  And we danced.

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That’s it.  If you get the chance to do this race, do it.  It’s great.  Don’t make yourself poorly though.  That’s a bit rubbish.

Have fun folks, make the most of what you’ve got.  We live in a wonderful place, with wonderful people.  Surround yourself with them.

Thank you Andy, Badger (both of them) and everyone involved in making this weekend what it was.

Neil.

#fuelledbyplants.

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South Downs Way 100

So, South Downs Way 100 day finally arrived.  After 6 months of basing our lives around this race (over 1,200k of training, 2 x 50 milers, 1 x 44 miler, 4 x marathons later), we were on the start line.

James starts the race briefing right on time, commenting on how the forecast poor weather hadn’t materialised and that the conditions were near perfect.  The usual questions are asked.  Who’s running their first Centurion race?  Lots of hands go up.  Who’s doing their first 100 miler?  Again, lots of hands go up.  Who’s running their 64th 100 miler?  Yes, 64.  Amazing.  And after the final message telling us to look after each other, we set off on the longest of adventures so far.

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The start of the race is lap of the park and it’s lovely to chat with the lovely Rachel Hessom, whose video from the TP100 really gave us an incite into the different stages of a 100 mile race.

Before I go any further, there was a plan.  Get to half way in 12 hours and then we have the ‘luxury’ of being able to walk the second half if need be and still get in under cut off.  More than ever before, it was important to follow the plan.  You can wing a 10k, half marathon and maybe even a marathon by setting off a bit to quickly.  That’s not going to work with 100 miles.

The first section in my plan is from Winchester to Queen Elizabeth Country Park.  A total of 22.6 miles punctuated with 1 aid station at just under 10 miles.  It sets the tone for the whole race.  Constant hills, not much flat.  Difficult to get into any rhythm and increasingly warm.  It is also beautiful.  Neither Nick nor I had running any of the first 46 miles, which made it even more lovely.

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We entered QECP with just 20 miles on the watches and it became apparent that something wasn’t quite right.  We had put the Suunto’s on the 100 hour battery setting, but this has the inevitable negative effect on accuracy.  The battery life was incredible.  Only 30% used over the duration of the race, but it only measured under 96 miles.  The result is that we got to QECP too quickly.  The pace was correct according to the watches, but we had travelled further than expected.

We took time at the aid station to sit down, eat some food, check that the feet were OK, have a chat with the crew and then set off.

The second section of my race plan was QECP to Chantry Post at 51 miles.

2 things were obvious.  We were too quick and had to slow down and it was getting hot.  The section out of QECP was wooded and really warm.  We walked the whole section and successfully got the plan back on track.  A lot of people were struggling in the heat, but we managed to deal with it, hydrating well and strangling the pace back, adapting to the watch showing the wrong distance travelled.

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The countryside was still amazing and we seemed to be going along pretty well.  The aid stations and crew points are more frequent in this section and they prove to be a great morale boost.  We took on plenty of food, water and sun block.  We were still pretty close together, which helped as well.  I always worry about Nick on races.  I want her to do well and I couldn’t bare the thought of me bringing home the buckle and her not.  As long as she was in front of me or with me, I knew everything was OK.

Nick had the word ‘Smile’ written down her arm and we promised to each other that we’d enjoy this as much as we could for as long as we could.  These 2 photos are of me leaving the Cocking aid/crew station at 35 miles.  These are not forced smiles for the camera.  I truly loved it.

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From Cocking to Chantry Post there was another 15 miles to go.  The weather was still really hot, but we were comfortable and in control.  Nick’s crew saw us for the first time before the total bitch of a hill just after Amberley, which was a timely boost as well.

Not long until half way, we’re back on familiar territory, we’re bang on schedule and we bump into Jon Lavis just before the aid station at Kithurst Hill.  He was, of course, armed with his camera.

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A quick hello at the aid station and we’re off for another mile to the crew point at Chantry Post and 51 miles.  This is a huge point for many reasons.  It’s over half way.  We’re on home turf and we have run all of the rest of the race on several occasions.  We are so on target it’s bizarre.  We had planned on arriving at 50 miles in 12 hours 1 minute.  We were a minute outside that.  We were in a very good state.  I had a couple of slight hot spots on my feet, which were tended to and strapped up before we left.  Finally, from now on we had a pacer each.  The crews had been amazing so far and now their support as pacers was going to be priceless.  This is where the race really starts.

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The next section is from Chantry Post to Ditchling Beacon.  22 miles with my pacer Stephen.  We dropped into Washington and checked into the aid station before the long slog up to Chanctonbury Ring.  This is not before we had a cup of coffee in a china cup at the aid station.  You’ve got to make the most of the luxury while you can.

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I can honestly say that I really struggled with the climb.  It was still really hot and this climb is long and tough.  It’s all part of the process though and we know that there is a huge downhill section afterwards.

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I love Chanctonbury Ring so much and I have never been so happy to see it as now.

The descent into the aid station at Botolph’s was one of my favourite parts of the race.  I was still stronger than expected.  Still running fine, although protecting my knee on the serious down hills, and having a proper chat all the way.  I met my pacer Stephen through parkrun.  I have met so many lovely people on Saturday mornings and I can honestly say that none are kinder and warmer than Stephen.  We chatted about motivations for running, why the hell you’d want to run 100 miles and why we decided to set up parkrun.

This is what I carried with me all the way.  I looked at it a lot and it pushed me along.  It symbolises the journey that I have been on to make my mental health a happier place.  If I can beat 100 miles, I can beat anything.

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So, Botolph’s comes round, the sun is going down, Truleigh Hill is looming and I get a lovely big hug from Sarah at the aid station.  Then Tom makes me the best cup of coffee ever.  A lift from the Sawyer family is just what we need before the slog over to Devil’s Dyke.

I can’t believe that I was still running up the section to the youth hostel before Devil’s Dyke.  It just felt right and I was quicker jogging up hill while protecting my knee on the way down.

The head torches go on and we’re soon as the crew point at the Dyke, where several of our club had gathered.  Thank you so much.  Another huge boost.

We didn’t stick around there for too long.  Just enough time for some food and to clean my teeth (washing your mouth out with orange juice is not a good idea by the way).

The last part of this section is Newtimber Hill and the climb past the golf course to Ditchling Beacon, the highest part of the South Downs Way.  The aid station at Saddlescombe was great.  At 66.6 miles, they all had devil horns on.  Great food, advice and some serious encouragement.

The last 5 miles over to the Beacon was not as bad as I thought.  Still running certain sections and ready to tackle the night time slog.

There was still time to have a picture in front of one of my favourite trees.  The dew pond near the Beacon must be one of the most photographed parts of the SDW and even though you can hardly see the tree or the pond, I know they’re there.

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So, that’s 72 miles gone.  Time is not a pressure now.  As long as nothing falls off, I’ll get home under cut off even if I walk the rest of the way.  We leave Stephen at Ditchling and Steve and I head off into the dark.  Steve was just what I needed.  It was the early hours of the morning, I wanted to go to sleep, my body was starting to hurt and Steve’s boundless enthusiasm just picked me up a treat.

We just kept going.  Yes, there was a good bit of walking, but we were running a lot as well and cut off was never a consideration.

After the wonderful aid station at Housedean the hills after the A27 crossing seemed to fly by.  The sky larks started to sing and the sunrise came round.

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The last 2 miles into the Southease aid/crew station are tough, with a steep down hill, which my knee greeted with a groan of pain.

And there it was, well worth going through the night to be greeted by this sunrise.

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After a quick sit down, some food and a hot drink, we headed up Firle Beacon and soon ticked off Bo Peep before heading down into Alfriston, where the aid station is in a lovely old church in the middle of the village.

There were 2 climbs left, which held little fear at this stage.  It was the down hills that concerned me.  My knee had finally decided that was it.  We went up the hill out of Alfriston with Nick and her pacer Karen, but they lost us on the descent into Jevington, as I protected the knee.  They waited to climb out of Jevington with us, but again went away on the descent into Eastbourne.

I swear that if he could have, Steve would have cleared every tree root, twig and leaf out of the way through the ‘gully of death’ down into Eastbourne.

Nick walked around that last section to the finish and I ran to catch her up.  On seeing the track for the last 300 metres, fittingly she went in front with her pacers and brought our family home.

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Of all of the photos from the weekend, these are the ones that fill me with the most joy.  This lady went from couch to 100 miles in 5 years.  If ever there was a #thisgirlcan here it is.  Proud doesn’t even start to cover it.

It was then my turn.  Doing the last lap with these 2 finished it off perfectly for me.

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And that was it.  The ‘a’ target was 28 hours 30 mins and the ‘b’ target was cut off (30 hours).  To get both of us home in 27 hours 20 minutes is well beyond our wildest dreams.

We are a 2 buckle house.  I had hoped, but wasn’t expecting both of us to get there.

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A few thank you’s are in order.

To James and the Centurion crew and volunteers, words can’t describe how good you are.  The aid stations were not only so well stocked, the volunteers were incredibly attentive, friendly and above all knowledgeable.  It seemed that there was always at several Centurion veterans there to help, advise and kick you out of the aid station if you hung around for too long.

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To our crew/pacers and friends who were out on the course with us, you don’t know how much you helped.  Our crew could not have been better.  We shared something that will be ours forever.

To our fellows runners, you are amazing.  To the front runners, what the hell?   Those times are just ridiculous and you don’t get the credit you deserve.  To the slower guys, you are pushing the boundaries of what is achievable.  Thank you for your encouragement and company.

Finally, my inspirations.  Jan and Steve sowed that seeds of this around 4 or 5 years ago with their Centurion and L2B exploits.  Philippe taught us huge amounts over the past 2 years by inviting us to pace and crew for him.  If you are thinking about stepping up in distance to 100 miles, I would suggest pacing, crewing, seeking advice from people how have been there, read blogs, volunteering and surrounding yourself with positive people.

In the 5 days since we have finished, we have gone from ‘there’s no way we will do anther 100 miler’ to ‘which one is the next one then?’.

The Centurion t-shirt collection is growing.  It would be a pity to leave it there, wouldn’t it?

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Whatever happens, we are finally Centurions.  And these buckles mean the world.

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Take care and see you soon.

Neil x

#poweredbyplants