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

 

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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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

Steyning Stinger Marathon 2017

So, the Steyning Stinger Marathon is the 2nd of 3 consecutive marathon weekends for me.  I’ve been here before, back in 2014 and know the course really well, as it shares sections with many other events.

Knowing the course is one thing, dealing with the weather and the under foot conditions is another.

It had been raining a lot over the past week or so and the always boggy Stinger course didn’t disappoint.  It rained for a lot of the race.  It was torrential at the start and apart from a couple of short breaks, it rain throughout the day.  This was coupled with a serious wind that was coming from the south west.  The organisers said that conditions were worse than they had seen for the event in the 50+ years it has been taking place.

During the first section on top of the South Downs, we were leaning to the left side to stop ourselves from being blown over and then a turn took us straight into the teeth of a biting gale at around 10k.  It was almost not worth trying to run, as walking was almost as quick.

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I’m not sure how many distinct climbs the Stinger claims to have, but there are definitely 5 long ones, including the huge climb to Chanctonbury Ring, which does go on forever.
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This race seemed to be either head wind, up hill or incredibly slippery under foot at all times and often all 3 at the same time.  There really was no respite at all.

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I really felt tired at the start.  The legs were seriously heavy after the race last week.  I have been sleeping badly all week and my head seems to be buzzing a lot.  This, coupled with the rubbish weather at the start, didn’t make me totally happy.  This is all part of the process though.  All part of the mental toughening.

This is the first real climb.  I have got the FFS face on here.  It was chucking it down and that hill does go on forever.

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The miles actually flew by and things went pretty well.  At half way I was on target to beat my time from 2014, but the second half of the race had some really boggy and slippery sections, especially the totally demoralising circuit round Steep Down – 7km of pure hard work.  Don’t forget the tricky downhill sections either, especially the ones towards the end.  Very steep and very slippery.  At half way I changed my target to 5 hours 15 minutes and kept going really well to get home in 5 hours 7 minutes.

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I love the photos at the end of the marathons.  Whether it’s your first or your 101st, it’s still an emotional experience.  Marathons are never to be underestimated, whether they’re flat, city events or hilly, muddy treks through the countryside.  This feeling is just amazing.  Crossing the finish line really is the business.

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This event really is brilliant.  The marshals are amazing.  They stand is some of the most remote spots on the SDW in rubbish conditions and do a great job.  The course is fantastic.  You get some of the best views in the area and it is one of the most testing marathons around.  Not only do you have to contend with the hills, but the mud and the weather.

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Nice medal too.  Oh, and you get free professional photos as part of this event.

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It is a testament to the quality of this event that we now have this as one of our club championship races and runners of all abilities turn out in large numbers (it’s got nothing to do with the free breakfast.  Honest).

And so it’s onto the Larmer Tree races over in Wiltshire.  10 miles on Saturday and a marathon on Sunday.  More hills and more mud.

Have fun, Neil

#fuelledbyplants

 

 

Country to Capital 2017

2017 is the year of the South Downs Way 100 for Nick and I.  The plans started in January and the taper begins at the end of May.  So we have 5 months of hard work, dedicated to back to back runs, races and core work.

Following the lethargy of the Christmas period, Nick’s injury problems and flu and my tweaked back, it was good to get the plan underway on January 2nd.

Neither of us were really prepared for Country to Capital, especially Nick, who was still suffering from the left over effects of the flu and hacking cough, but when the alarm went off at 4.45 on Saturday morning, it was definitely real.

It was dark outside, the frost was hard and it was eerie being out at that time in the morning when everyone else was still in bed.

The four of us took a taxi to the start in Wendover.  Given the state of Southern Rail, we really couldn’t rely on them getting us there on time.

The HQ for the race is in the Shoulder of Mutton pub opposite the railway station in Wendover.  It was perfect.  We were there early, so got a table and chairs to sit down for an hour to get ready.  They were selling tea and coffee and hot food.  Most importantly, the pub was really warm.  It soon filled up, especially when the crammed train arrived with the last of the runners to register.  The last runners were very quick to register and we were off pretty much on time.  Registration was quick, smooth and pretty impressive, given the time constraints after the arrival of the train.

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The race is chip timed and you have to attach the chip to your wrist and touch the electronic timing pad at each check point to register yourself.

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I really should have paid more attention to the race instructions.  We signed up for it on the recommendation of Philippe, as a great way to properly kick off the training for 2017.  What I didn’t realise was that the route is not marked at all and it is totally self navigated.  The race organisers supplied everyone with a map booklet, but with my new found middle aged short-sightedness, it was useless, as I had no chance reading it.  There was a lovely Irish chap in the pub who had done the race before and was a similar pace to me, so I decided to keep him in sight through the trickiest sections to navigate.

So, at about 9.40, we were off.  Hats, gloves and long bottoms were in order, given the freezing conditions.

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This is the profile for the first 56k of the race.  It looks a bit hilly, but there is nothing to be worried about and as soon as you hit the tow path, it is totally flat right to the finish.

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The first half of the race is lovely.  You go through fields, country lanes and bridal ways.  Initially it was all frozen, which made is so easier to run on.  We were advised to start a little more quickly than usual, as there are queues at the 6 or 7 gates and stiles, but we didn’t and lost probably 15 minutes waiting our turn.

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After the lovely countryside, you get the tow path for almost all of the second half of the race.  I don’t know why, but I had some kind of romantic idea of what the tow path would be like.  I was thinking lovely house boats, nice views of the countryside and maybe some wildlife.  What we got was mainly skanky house boats, industrial estates, blocks of flats, more empty cans of lager and bottles of vodka than you can imagine and rubbish in the water.  This added to the fact that this section was dull.  As flat as  a pancake and slippery in quite a lot of places.

The nicest views that we had were when we first joined the tow path.

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We were really pleased to see the sign saying 13.5 miles to Paddington (where the finish is), which meant that we were leaving the Grand Union canal towards central London.

So, a half marathon later, with the sun almost gone, I got home in 8 hours 16 minutes.

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I’m really surprised by that. I was expecting it to be a lot nearer to 9 hours, but if I hadn’t been held up at the gate/stiles at the start and if I hadn’t taken a detour, my finishing time may have started with a 7.

The learning curve continues and I keep getting things better.  The packing of my back pack was much better.  I had a small dry bag of spare clothes and another of food.  I had smaller bags of food that fitted into the front pockets of my vest, rather than having to reach into the back pockets to get food.  I also had the salt tablets and zero tabs in a more accessible place.  Anything to make life easier.

Now, the weather forecast was for sunshine and low temperatures and a little back wind.  What we actually got was cloud, then drizzle, then rain, then snow.  When it started to rain, I stopped to put the correct clothing on and then repacked properly afterwards.

The tailwind certainly worked.  I had a whole sachet in small Salomon flasks and sipped at them periodically.

There is certainly a question over footwear for this race.  There is an argument for both trail and road shoes.  I ran in road shoes and was slipping and sliding through certain sections.  I benefited at the end with the extra cushioning.

So, the race itself.  I’ve got mixed emotions.  I’m glad I did it and would recommend doing it as part of a training programme.  I wouldn’t do it again though.  I now know that I don’t like self navigation events.  I thought that the aid stations were basic, but maybe I’m spoiled by the offerings at the Centurion, STE and White Star events.  It would be really nice to have hot drinks at a couple of the aid stations at this time of the year as well.  The veggie sausages at one of the aid stations were a really good touch.  There was no shelter at the aid stations and nowhere to sit.  In an ultra it is good to be able to sit down to change clothes and tend to any foot issues.  The only option was wet walls or a very soggy floor.  The other thing I don’t understand is being told at the penultimate aid station that there was 13 miles to go.  Evidently that was not the case as we had passed the 13.5 miles to Paddington sign some time back.  It was a lot closer to 10 miles.  If you’re working to a goal time or just knackered, this could really hit your morale.  The volunteers were all fantastic, smiley (in some horrid weather) and helpful.  We can never say thank you enough to these people who make these events happen.

Finally, you get a lovely long sleeved non-technical t-shirt and a really nice medal.

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Thank you, Go Beyond.  2017 had got off to a really good start.

Take care and have fun,

Neil.

#fuelledbyplants