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

 

The Ox 50 – from White Star Running

So, I’m sitting here reflecting on another weekend in Dorset.  Or is it Wiltshire.  I’m not sure anymore.  OK, so a weekend on the Dorset/Wiltshire border.

This was my third 50 miler and the last big race before I tackle the South Downs Way 100.  I wanted a confidence boost.  I wanted this to convince me that the 100 miles is going to be OK.  I wanted to get to the end of 50 miles and still feel OK, knowing that I could keep putting one foot in front of the other for a while (probably around 16 hours).

So, the Ox weekend happens on the Rushmore Estate (as does the Larmer weekend from White Star Running).  It’s beautiful.  It takes about 10 minutes to drive from the entrance of the estate to the race HQ.  That’s how big the estate is.  Seeing the lambs jumping and playing around first thing on Saturday morning fills me with joy.

The race is 8 laps, resulting in a total distance is 50 miles (ish).  This means 8 visits to my own aid station, which is good prep for the 100.  The course has everything.  Amazing trees, varying terrain, long slow up hill sections, lovely long shallow descents and steep up hill climbs and difficult, technical downs.

Even with 8 laps it doesn’t get boring.  OK, well laps 7 and 8 may have become a little tedious, but at least we knew what was ahead of us.

This is what the course looks like.  Oh yes, and there’s a lot of wild garlic.

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The goal was 12 hours.  Take it steady and go at the planned pace for the 100.  The course was slightly less hilly than expected, so we came in under that, but were still running all of the flat and down hill sections right to the end.

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So, mission accomplished.  Confidence boosted and every step powered by plants.  Now, to stay injury free until the start of June.

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There was something that really struck me about this weekend.  Probably more than any other weekend away with lyrca people in the middle of nowhere.

This weekend had such a diversity of people.  There were people of all shapes, sizes and ages, plus a lot of fancy dressers.  I loved seeing the canicross participants, who gave me the chance to chat with their dogs and took my mind off the goal for a while.  Everyone said ‘well done’ to their fellow runners.  That’s all it takes to pick you up again.

We hear a lot about participation.  About getting people off the sofa.  parkrun registered its highest number of participants ever last weekend.  Our running club is going from strength to strength with race entries growing.  We have just had the London and Brighton marathons with more people seem to be thinking ‘I can do that’.  The increase in mental health awareness and the positive effect of running and being outside on mental health is great to see.  I think that we all get a release when we disappear for a weekend in the countryside.  Nothing else seems to matter.  It’s just you and the hills.  No mortgage, no credit card bills, no job worries.  This is one of the reasons why we do it. We enter a different world.

But I still hear and see a fear of trail running though.  There really is nothing to fear and you don’t have to do daft distances.

Weekends like the Ox races are perfect if you want to get involved in trail running.  If you don’t fancy the 50 miles or 12 hour races on Saturday, you can do the Dark Ox (10k on Saturday night in the dark, the Light Ox (10k on Sunday morning) or the Ox Half on Sunday morning.

These races are much more relaxed than road races.  There is no time pressure, as no-one will ask you how quickly you finished.  Every trail course is so incredibly different, times really do vary much more from course to course.

Where else do you get a Race Director who dresses up as a Mexican wrestler for the race brief and then gives you a high five as you leave race HQ on the first lap?  And where else has an aid station with a man in a kilt, a badger sporran and a sombrero serving booze?

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Trail races give you the best aid stations.  Cake, sweets, biscuits, savoury, booze and love.

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These smaller off road events offer a certain type of intimacy that road races can’t offer.  You really feel like a club away from home.  You see many familiar faces, many of whom have just spent the night camping on top of a hill in the cold in a howling gale.  If that doesn’t bring people together then nothing will.

I’m not a huge talker on races.  I really do like to keep myself to myself.  It’s my space. Me, my head and my skinny legs.  However, at White Star Running events (and many of the lower key trail events) I am finding myself chatting more and more.  11 hours on your feet is a long while after all.

That’s it really.  if you haven’t already done it, give trail running a go.  It really is fun and you don’t have to look at cars, houses and roads.  Instead, you get trees and birdsong.

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A huge thank you to Andy and the whole WSR team.  I can’t think of anything that I would have changed (apart from making the pub a little closer to our B&B and blaming you for that would have been a little harsh).  The marshals were amazing.  It is impossible not to tell the world about the Lovestation.  The vegan cake was the best.  The cider and the vodka we had on the last lap was so nice.  Thank you to our fellow runners for the smiles, the encouragement and the company.

Take care and please be good to animals.

Much love to you all and see you at the Cider Frolic.

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Some of the photos are courtesy of Rob Hannam and Elzbieta Rembelska.  They are brilliant.  We can’t thank you enough for taking these.

South Downs Way 50

If we were to have a bucket list of races, the South Downs Way 50 would be on it.  It’s on our own turf, it’s a Centurion event and the original ultra runners in our club put this race on the map.

The build up has been a lot of back to back runs of around 2 hours and a sequence of marathons on consecutive weekends.  I have to say that both Nick and I were in a pretty good place (apart from the odd wobble).

The race takes you from the Hill Barn Rec in Worthing to join the South Downs Way around Chanctonbury Ring and then over to Eastbourne along the SDW, with a little tour in Eastbourne to find the finish.

There are many hills between the start and the finish.  5700 feet of climb to be precise.

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Race day came round and the sun came out to play.  Not as strong as for the Brighton Marathon on the following day, but strong enough to cause problems (I’m burnt on the back of my legs, but luckily nowhere else).

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The first section of the race up to Chanctonbury takes in Cissbury Ring with 2 long climbs and a lovely long downhill section.  I started eating right from the off.  Nuts, dried fruit, Nakd bars and Tailwind.  I walked the big climbs and made the most of gravity when it was on our side.  I am finding it a little disappointing that the steep, rutted chalk path up to Cissbury Ring has been repaired and made much easier to climb.

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After Chanctonbury, it is almost all downhill to the first aid station at Botolph’s after 11.2 miles.  As with all Centurion aid stations, they are full laden with everything that you could wish for and this year they included Tailwind as well.

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After Botolph’s comes Truleigh Hill.  It’s horrid.  There’s no other way to describe it.  It’s steep and pretty long and then when you get to what you think is the top, it climbs less sharply for about another mile.

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After the Youth Hostel at the top of Truleigh Hill, there is a quick descent into the valley before the climb back up to Devil’s Dyke, where there were a lot of supporters.

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I love Devil’s Dyke.  It’s where I first took my folks out when they visited me after my move to Brighton.  Being from the flat lands of Lincolnshire, it felt so novel to have these hills on the doorstep, and the thrill of being next to the South Downs has never worn off.

My Mum has just got her first smart phone (I’m not sure she knows how to use it), so I’m making the most of being able to send her pictures.  I indulged myself in this selfie and sent it off to her.

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After Devil’s Dyke, there is a lovely descent into Saddlescombe Farm for aid station #2 at 16.6 miles.

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Jon Lavis was out on course taking amazing photographs as usual and managed to catch me trying to get a peanut butter wrap down me.  This thing stuck to the inside of my mouth for the next 10 minutes.  Peanut butter with jam next time.  Rookie error.

So, from Saddlescombe Farm, you climb Newtimber Hill, descend into Pyecombe and then climb through the golf course towards the Jack and Jill windmills, where there were lots of amazing supporters.

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I was now on home turf.  You can see the big yew tree in our front garden from the section between the windmills and Ditchling Beacon.  I know this section to the end very well.  Not sure if that’s a good thing or not.

It was around this point that I started to notice the heat more.  It was early afternoon, so no surprise really.

There are a few ups and downs between the windmills (namely Ditchling Deacon, which is the highest point on the SDW) and the right turn at Black Cap.

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Then it’s downhill all the way……………………to the next climb.  And that next climb is a killer.  It’s not long, but it’s very steep through the woods before the 3rd aid station at Housedean Farm at 26.6 miles.

This is just over half way through and the heat was starting to hurt.  I had planned to have my finishing time start with a ’10’ and I got to half way in exactly 5 hours.  I had time in hand and I was going to need it.  After the Housedean Farm aid station there is a long climb.  It’s long walk.  It’s hard not to get frustrated by it, but there’s no chance of running it and it’s all part of the process.

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The next real landmark is the Yellow Brick Road.  It’s neither yellow or brick, but it’s lovely.  It’s a long downhill towards the next aid station at Southease at 33.9 miles.

At the end of the Yellow Brick Road there is a very steep downhill (not good for achy knees) and a horrible dusty track before the aid station.

Southease aid station is great.  Well manned, lots of supporters.  I even had Philippe apply new sun block for me.

This is the calm before the storm though.  For me, this is the toughest part of the course. Recently friends have described this as the graveyard on the South Downs Way 100 and I can see why.  For me, it’s not just the length and extent of the climb.  It is long and steep in places.  The issue is that it keeps going up to Firle Beacon and then, after you descend into Bo Peep you have to climb back out again.  This section seems to go on for ages.  I think it probably did though to be honest.  Lots of walking.

As you can see from this photo taken by Jon, I wasn’t alone in walking out of Bo Peep.

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This was a bit of a low point, and Jon managed to catch my mood perfectly.

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From here until the end, I’m a lot happier.  It is 11 miles.  There are 2 huge hills and a tricky descent, but it is the home stretch.

The hills out of the aid stations are tough and the terrain presents you with trip hazards.  The countryside is beautiful and for some reason, I even managed to run about 25% of the climb out of Jevington.

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When you reach the top of the Jevington hill, you have to tackle the tricky descent into Eastbourne.  It is around 2km down.  After about a minute I could hear someone screaming in front of me.  I saw a runner lying across the path.  My initial thoughts were ‘oh god, I hope he’s not badly hurt.’  As I approached, I saw his feet were pointing in the same direction, which is a good sign.  It was cramp.  I lifted his leg, push his foot back, helped him to his feet and he was off.  Phew.

The section along the streets in Eastbourne (about 2km) to the finish went by quickly. Turning the corner onto the track was amazing.  There were lots of supporters.  300m to the finish and my medal was waiting for me, presented by the ultra running legend that is Mimi Anderson.

I popped inside quickly to put some more clothes on and to get a hot drink before coming out to wait for Nick.

And all of a sudden, there she was.  I didn’t even have time to start my coffee.  She’d been between 5 and 10 minutes behind me all the way.  What an amazing performance.  So so proud of her.

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We got there and it was still light.  Both under 11 hours.  And those medals are almost big enough to eat your dinner off.

So, what happened to me?  Well time-wise I did what I wanted to.  I wanted it to start with a ’10’ and it did.  10 hours 43 minutes and 29 seconds to be precise.  If I’m honest with myself, I wanted to be around 10 and a half hours, but there you go.

This shows big improvement on last year.  I finished my first 50, the Endure 50, which was mainly flat in 10 hours 45 minutes.  The Chiltern Wonderland 50, which has a similar amount of climb took me 11 hours 15 minutes, so the SDW50 was an improvement of over 30 minutes.

What did I learn?

I’m not good in the heat.  Well, I knew that already, but this just proved it.  I wasn’t alone. I did manage to keep most of me burn-free apart from the backs of my legs, where I didn’t think to slap the sun block.

I know now that I really have an issue with the climbs to Firle and Bo Peep.  I have got to get over that.  This is going to be one of the challenges for my crew and pacer on the SDW100.  Get me out of Southease and over to Alfriston.

I got cramps in my calves.  Not a big issue.  A stretch every 10 minutes or so sorted it out, but this is the first time in ages that I’ve had cramps.  I took the salt tabs as usual, along with electrolytes.  Maybe it was the heat?  Maybe it was a one off?  At least I was able to resolve it with a simple calf stretch and when it went away it didn’t stop me from running.

I got stomach cramps.  The only thing I did differently to usual was drinking fizzy coke. Maybe that was daft?  No more fizzy coke.  As I was struggling with eating and it was really hot, fizzy coke really did seem like a pleasant way to get energy in.

I’m going to need baby wipes for the 100.  Sticky fingers between aid stations and crew points is really going to get on my nerves.

I also learnt that that wife of mine is a bloody legend (she was a non-runner 5 years ago).  She’s getting better and better. She was only 7 minutes behind me at the end.  Seeing her name above mine on the finish list would please quite a few people for sure and I’m coming round to that idea more and more.  The thing is, I don’t care if she gets home before me on the SDW100.  I just want to see her with that buckle.

Finally, there is a serious realisation that 100 miles is a long way.  No shit Sherlock. Obviously it’s a long way.  Tagging another 50 onto the back of this is really daunting. Both of us spoke about this on Sunday and doubts did surface over whether we’re capable of doing it.  Now that a little time has passed, we have regained a bit of the positivity.  The first 50 will be slower (by around 90 minutes).  We will have crew with us with food and support.  And finally, the only time pressure is 30 hours.  That’s the only thing that matters.

There are lots of thank you’s.  To James and the Centurion Team.  Amazing.  You set the standard that other have to try to match.  The volunteers were incredible.  Even at the early aid stations when lots of people arrived at the same time, you were quick, efficient and always lovely.  Thank you so much.

To the supporters, you were great.  So touched that so many were out on course, especially the Burgess Hill Runners who popped up all over the place.

To my fellow runners, thank you for your company.  Well done to every one of you.

To Nick, thank you for being my training partner and the most important person in the world.  If you ever beat me I’m never speaking to you again 🙂

To the South Downs Way, thank you for being there and being so beautiful.

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The next time we will see the Centurion team is while crewing and pacing for Philippe at the TP100 in a few weeks.  After that’s it’s the start line for the big one.

In the meantime, have fun and take care.

Neil.

please be kind to all animals #fuelledbyplants

(photos courtesy of Jon Lavis, Centurion Running and Stuart March)

Larmer Tree Weekend by White Star Running

The Larmer Tree weekend was one of those big adventures.

We rented a lovely Air B and B cottage in Shaftesbury, about 15 minutes from race HQ.  We went over on Friday night after work and hit the pub to watch the Wales rugby game as soon as we arrived.

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The last time Nick and I were here was for the End of the Road Festival about 8 years ago. It was a bit bizarre being here on very different business. We looked like this back then.

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The first race of the weekend was the Larmer 10 miles.  The aim was to do a back to back weekend, so that I had tired legs on Sunday for the main event, the marathon.

The alarm was set for 6.30 for an 8.30 race start.  As always, registration is easy and the coffee wonderful.  The weather was misty, which restricted the views sadly, but at least we couldn’t see the tops of the hills that we had to climb.

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Andy (Race Director and Mr. White Star Running) gave his usual race brief, you know, ‘don’t die, run a bit, it’s muddy’.

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So, we were off, along the road off into the paths, mud and woodland that would be our hosts for the next couple of days.

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The first hill is at 6km.  It’s a beauty.

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The big hill was followed by a bit of undulation, a bit of flat and a lot of downhill for over 2 miles.

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And then it was the next challenge.  A steep hill, followed by a circuit of a lovely valley.

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And then it’s flat or downhill all the way home (apart from the climb back to the start)

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And that’s it.  10 miles seems to fly by when you’ve been doing a lot of longer races recently.  It was very pleasant as well.

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I was meant to be taking it steady, but really loved it and did it a little quicker than expected.  There you go.   1 hour 44 minutes of pure joy.

So it was back to race HQ, where they were serving really lovely food and selling the ever popular WSR merch.  The food was free by the way.

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While some of the team were getting a massage we had a stroll around the grounds, remembering where the stages were for the End of the Road Festival.  We bumped into several of these  these little beauties, the symbol of the race weekend.

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After that, the world was our lobster.  Home, a quick shower and then a walk around historic Shaftesbury (including Hovis Hill – here is the link to the original advert – Hovis Ad) before heading to the pub for some beer, some food and then home to bed for an early night.

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Marathon start time was 8.30am as well.  We already had our numbers.  We had packed the night before, so all we had to do was to load the cars and get ourselves done to race HQ for 8am to get ready.

The marathon is soooooooooooooooo lovely.  Hilly, mud, slippy, slidey, but above all lovely.  Some of it takes in part of the 10 mile course from the previous day.

I changed my usual race plan.  I really held back to start with.  I’m not totally well at the moment and I wanted to check out the pacing for the South Downs Way 50, which is coming up in 4 weeks.

The best way to describe the course is in pictures.  I can’t find the words to say how utterly fantastic it was.  The views at the top of the hills were stunning.  Well worth walking up.  The hills were tough.  They were long and muddy.  Energy sapping and difficult to get any traction on at times.

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And this is how up and down it is.

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Deciding to take the first half of the race easy meant that I managed to spend a lot of time with Nick (and Karen), which never really happens during races.  It was brilliant.  I do spend time during races wondering how she’s getting on and it was great to be able to see it at first hand.

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So, I got to half way in 2 hours 44 mins.  I did the second half in 2 hours 34 minutes, giving a finishing time of 5 hours 18 minutes.  The second half of the course was also more difficult than the first half.  This is exactly what I needed to achieve.  There was definitely something left in the tank and the terrain on the SDW50 will not be a tough as this, although the amount of climbing is the same.

This weekend is a perfect introduction to trail running.  Tough but not too tough.  10 mile, half marathon, 20 mile and marathon options available.  Lovely people, great marshals, lots of fancy dress, incredible location, route impeccably marked (it is impossible to get lost) and the medals are beautiful for those of you who collect pretty bits of metal.

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A huge thank you to Andy and the White Star Team.  We will see you again for the Ox.  Thank you to Rob for the fantastic photos as always.  Thank you to the lovely runners.  I’m not a big talker during races, but I really loved the chats.  I especially enjoyed the chat with the Vegan Runner who caught me up while I was saving a worm from being crushed on the trail.  ‘Without worms and bees, we are nothing’ were the words of wisdom that I brought home with me from Wiltshire.

Next up is the South Downs Way 50.  Have fun.

#fuelledbyplants