Three Molehills | 29 November 2015

aka What goes up, must come down

After the Kingston Marathon in October, it seemed like far too long to wait for my next race, the North Downs Way 50 in May 2016. My criteria for the interim race were as follows:

  • something I hadn’t done before
  • something involving hills, preferably involving the North Downs Way
  • something challenging

Events To Live’s Three Molehills met every one of these and after reading a few very positive race reports, I signed up. The race is based at Denbies Wine Estate in Dorking and also hosts the Bacchus marathon which offers wine as well as water on the way round. All manner of different kinds of PBs are set at that race, I am reliably informed. As well as being a 14-mile solo race, it also has a relay option with each leg starting at finishing at Denbies, and with various out and back spurs, giving you the opportunity to wave at your friends and generally be quite sociable.

I’d also managed to persuade a few fellow Fulham Running Club members along too - or possibly they were going anyway - but either way, I agreed to meet the Millers (Barney and Jacob) at Clapham Junction early on Sunday morning to get the train down to Dorking. Having run late before thanks to the vagaries of Sunday trains, I got to Clapham in plenty of time, which in turn would get us to Dorking nice and early. And then I failed to find the right platform and had to wait over half an hour for a train. Apparently you can’t even teach an old dog old tricks.

After a mile warm-up (i.e. slightly panicked run from the station to registration), I bumped into a few familiar faces (Gemma, Killer, Barney and Jacob), met a few new people and just had time to drop my bag off before lining up at the start. It was a bit breezy but unseasonably warm for the end of November and I was looking forward to the race. The man with the loudspeaker spoke loudly, if incomprehensibly, and we were off.

 

Molehill 1: The Box Hill Steps

Out of Denbies we went and back along the road I’d run in on, it wasn’t long before the race leaders were under the subway and heading back along the other side of the road towards the Stepping Stones. When the river’s low, you can cross the Wey using these but when they’re under water the bridge is the way to go. You’ve just about completed a mile and you’re into the woods and then the 270 Box Hill steps appear.

If I absolutely had to, I could probably run all the way up but a) it would have knackered me out for the following mile at least b) it’s really hard to get into a rhythm and c) everyone else was hiking and there’s no room to pass. A few people started running and soon gave up. It’s simply not worth killing yourself with most of the race to come. Besides, when I reach this point in NDW50 I definitely won’t be running, given that it comes at mile 24, and the second half is harder than the first.

After the Box Hill Steps

After the Box Hill Steps

A quick loop around the viewing point - look at Denbies all, er, covered in cloud - and then back across the top of the hill and down Burford Spur as fast as possible without falling over or trashing the quads. Smallish steps, hands out to balance, down onto the road and back to Denbies.

 

Molehill 2: Norbury Park

After a swift cup of water at the start/finish, it was back up the same road only this time we headed up past Boxhill & Westhumble station. For the first time in the race I was entering unknown territory. I knew there was a hill and that it was partly on roads but beyond that I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Up a hill we went. Up up up. Nothing terribly steep but on and on it went. Relentlessly up. More up. And then some more. Eventually, I decided that a short walk break would benefit me more than slogging away. Sixty seconds later I was off and running again and overtook everyone who had passed me on my break. I’ve no evidence but I bet I felt better than them too.

Finally we hit the summit and then it was down down down on rocky leafy paths. Hardly technical but uneven enough to make you keep your wits about you. With gravity on my side I was reminded why I love off-road running so much. Letting yourself go down hills faster than is probably safe and picking your way between good places to land your feet made me feel like a kid again and it was brilliant.

Someone behind me apparently didn’t quite find the right place to land and fell in a heap with a shout. I turned and stopped to see if he was okay and needed help. He said it was his ankle (I know that feeling) but that he didn’t need help, so I started running again. Not long after I saw a Red Cross van heading in his direction so I wonder if it was for him. I hope he was okay.

The route wasn’t heading back to Denbies and suddenly I realised we would have to go uphill again before we went down again. Barney, who I’d briefly caught up with after he went left instead of right, disappeared off into the distance and I did my best to keep pushing the pace. A twinge in my calf was making itself known and while it wasn’t too uncomfortable and this was my last race of the year, I didn’t want to push so hard as to injure myself. It’s amazing how prominently a previous injury can play on your mind like that. So I didn’t push too hard on the downhill back into Boxhill & Westhumble. I also wanted to save a bit for the final leg.

Descending from Norbury Park

Descending from Norbury Park

As I approached Denbies again, someone in a Barnes Runners vest struck up conversation. Jenni had done the race last year and was looking strong. I’m never sure in races where you get chatting what the etiquette is regarding racing. Is it okay to be all friendly and then sprint off in the last 50 yards? Or should you announce your intentions at some point? We still had more than 4 miles to go so I didn’t need to worry just yet but it was on my mind as we came through the start/finish.

 

Molehill 3: Ranmore Common

For the final leg we went straight through the estate with the smell of fermentation heavy in the air. It wasn’t really all that appealing after 10 hilly miles but it soon disappeared as the steady incline we were climbing twisted and turned up a hill I’d been up on a previous North Downs Way run. The incline became unreasonable and I resorted to walking for a minute as did Jenni and another guy who’d joined us. His main aim was to get home in time for the start of the West Ham game. It’s always good to have a race goal, no matter how misguided.

Through the grapes and up the hill

Through the grapes and up the hill

Whether it was the gel kicking in or high-fiving high-flying Clapham Chaser Martin as he came down the hill I don’t know, but suddenly I found a bit of energy and rhythm and pulled away from the others. My faster pace was all relative but I was overtaking others going up the hill and realised it couldn’t be too far to the final turnaround.

After one final muddy slog through an extended grass verge, it was back down the way we’d come, waving to people I knew and smiling at people I didn’t simply because I was having such a good time. My legs were in bits and I wasn’t hugely looking forward to the steep downhill ending but it would at least mean less effort for a change.

The last few hundred metres

The last few hundred metres

With just over  half a mile to go I was overtaken by a guy who paused just long enough to tell me he thought sub-2 hours was on. I wasn’t convinced but did my best to keep up with him as my quads screamed their displeasure. I didn’t manage it but neither was I overtaken in the final stretch, despite the best efforts of Jenni and West Ham who finished just seconds behind me.

The final corner

The final corner


Stats

Distance: 14.2 miles

Time: 2.02:03

Average pace: 8:33/mi

Slowest mile: 12:45 (mile 2)

Fastest mile: 6:58 (mile 14)

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The winner finished in 1:28:05. I came 66th out of 185 finishers, 13th in my age category (MV40) and 4th out of 4 Fulham runners. Well done to Nick, Jacob and Barney, pictured with me below.

Barney, Jacob, Nick and me | Photo courtesy of Nick Thomas

Barney, Jacob, Nick and me | Photo courtesy of Nick Thomas

Finally, a big thanks to Events to Live, who organise the race, and to their volunteers who stood outside in the cold, wind and rain for several hours to enable us runners to have fun. (Weirdly, I didn’t notice it was raining until I saw one volunteers looking a bit bedraggled. I think this shows how much easier it is running than helping out!)

This is a challenging ultra-half but great fun and well worth entering. As well as a medal, there was a bottle of beer and chocolate bar for solo finishers, with wine for teams. Not bad for £21!

 

Kingston Marathon | 11 October 2015

A flat course close to home felt like the ideal place to go for a marathon PB. A recurring calf strain and a few long runs missed was less than ideal preparation, but after a marginal half marathon PB at Ealing a few weeks ago, I was feeling hopeful.

The Garmin Kingston Run Challenge comprises three races: 8.2 miles, 16.2 miles and a marathon. The course begins near the old market place, crosses Kingston bridge, follows the Thames Path past Hampton Court Palace, back across the river, along to the Scilly Isles near Esher and then along the Portsmouth Road into Kingston. For those of us doing the marathon it also included a small loop through Thames Ditton on the first of three laps. I'm not a huge fan of lap races, even those as short as parkrun, but that's sometimes the price you have to pay for a flat course.

The start and finish areas were almost deserted when I arrived around 7.15am and I realised this wouldn't be a very busy race. Some people love a crowd and while I'm not averse to a bit of encouragement, I'm more than happy to just get on with it. It also meant that there was no queuing for toilets or at bag drop. It was so mild (12 degrees C) that I didn't even bother with my bin bag poncho and although it was cloudy, put my sunglasses on top of my cap just in case the sun did decide to come out. I ran up the road for about five minutes and then back into town, which would be the route to end each lap. It seemed so easy. Oh, how that would change.

There had apparently been 300 entrants to the marathon but it felt like a lot less as we stood in the road waiting for the 8am start. Pacers had been provided, all the way from 6-minute mile pace to 12-minutes. My 'C' goal was to finish uninjured. Not very challenging admittedly but given how my year has gone, sensible. Goal 'B' was to get a PB; better than Edinburgh 2014 where I ran 3.38:30. The ultimate 'A' goal was to break 3.30. If I could stick with the 8-minute mile pacers I'd do it. I positioned myself just behind them and before I knew it  we were off.

 

Lap 1 (miles 1-10)

I wore my Centurion South Downs Way 50 t-shirt for several reasons. Firstly, it's comfortable. Secondly, I got my last marathon PB wearing it (I'm not superstitious, honest.) Thirdly, although I'm not going to win, I'm still competitive, even though it makes no sense to be. So what if I beat Joe Bloggs from Surbiton? Still, if I go past him in the last mile and he sees I've run a 50-mile race that might just make him think he's got no chance of catching me. What I didn't really count on was someone using it to start a conversation as someone did in the first mile. He asked what it was like, told me it was on his bucket list and we had a chat for a few minutes. I'm happy to talk up to a point but I simply wasn't fit enough to chat and run 8-minute miles for any length of time so I stopped talking as soon as it was polite to do so.

The first few miles were slightly ahead of my target pace but I figured the pacers were factoring in some slowdown in the latter miles. I was happy to take this approach too but also wanted to feel comfortable for as long as possible. I wasn't best pleased then to feel my hamstrings tightening up around mile 8 but short of stopping to lie down and put my legs up a tree, there wasn't much to be done but grit my teeth and press on.

 

Lap 2 (miles 10-18)

Going past the finish for the first time was bearable but I already wasn't looking forward to how I'd be feeling on the next pass. By mile 13 my legs were already beginning to feel heavy and although I passed halfway in around 1.44, I knew then that there was not much chance I could maintain that pace and finish under 3.30. The pacers were starting to get away and a few people passed me. They may not have been running my race - the 8 and 16 mile races began 30 minutes later than the marathon - but it's never much fun being overtaken. Instead, I focused on each mile, trying to keep my average pace for the race as close to 8-minute miles as possible. Gradually though I was slowing. And I still had another 8-mile lap to go.

 

Lap 3 (miles 18-26.2)

As I crossed Kingston bridge for the third and final time, I saw my old school and football club friend Kayvahn who was walking towards me.

"Hey Justin! How're you doing?"

"Dying!"

It may not have looked like it but I really was struggling. I wasn't the only one though. On the path between Kingston and Hampton Court bridges I passed half a dozen people simply by not stopping to walk. I also saw globetrotting marathoner Keith and it was great to see another familiar face, albeit fleetingly.

The pacers were well and truly out of sight now and any hopes of my 'A' goal was gone. I reached 20 miles in around 2.40 and although my stiffening legs were no longer cooperating, I had enough hope that I could still scrape a PB that I kept pushing despite the increasing discomfort. If I could get to mile 23 it was just a parkrun to go. It would be a slow parkrun, but reaching there with 3.07 on my watch still gave me a good chance.

Of course, that last 3-mile stretch along the Portsmouth Road was straight into the wind. There were cars in the way (it's not a closed road race). The kerbs were suddenly three times the height they were on the first lap. I steadied myself for the 25-mile marker and for one final push.

3.25 on the clock. Just over mile to go.

I've been down that road hundreds of times in a car and I swear it's only about 500 yards. But no. On it went, twisting and turning with the river. People out for a leisurely Sunday stroll. How were they moving so easily?! I reminded myself of my own coaching advice: relax, head up, swing the arms.

26 miles.

I daren't look at my watch for fear of missing my footing. Just yards before reaching the short closed road section leading up to the finish, I see a huddle of people, someone lying down, and an ambulance arriving. I consider stopping to help but it's clearly all in hand so now I'm just thinking about how to navigate my way around the traffic without ending up in the ambulance as well. I dodge past and begin an agonising attempt at a sprint finish. A huge cheer goes up but it's not for me.

Then I see Cate and she's waving and filming me with her phone and I wave back and try to keep my form half decent for the camera but it's long gone and I get over the line and just about manage to not collapse in a heap on the ground.

3.34:30.

It's a four-minute PB and despite spending the second half of the race feeling disappointed for not going sub-3.30, I'm now relieved and happy. And knackered. Completely and utterly exhausted. I may not have completed the training plan as I'd have liked but I'm happy I gave it everything on the day.

 

Aftermath

Between miles 20 and 23 especially, I questioned whether I'd ever run a marathon again. Ultras, yes, because they're a lot less painful for such a sustained period. But now I've recovered a bit and reminded myself why it was such a struggle (lack of proper training), I'm thinking about the next one. Before that though I'll be working on my running form. I can train as much as I want, but all the while my technique is inefficient (and I know it is), I'll struggle to fulfil my potential.

I'm also struck by how very different an experience this was to my Edinburgh race. In that, I just got stronger as the race went on and felt fine at the finish. There's no way of knowing whether I should have been more aggressive in that race and potentially gone quicker, or whether starting slower at Kingston would have helped me feel fresher at the end. Maybe I did the right thing both times and that's what 4 minutes difference feels like for me when running a marathon. There are no answers but it's part of what makes running so endlessly fascinating to me. Trying new things, pushing myself, learning how to improve.

Thanks to Human Race for organising and to the volunteers who handed out water, pointed the way, stopped traffic and looked after my bag. Thanks also to the people who cheered and clapped as we went round - in particular a couple of women near the end who must have been clapping solidly for three hours. You won't read this I'm sure but your enthusiasm was invaluable, believe me. Thanks to all my family and friends, the ones I've met and the ones I only know through social media - your encouragement and praise means a lot. And finally to Cate, who managed to get there in time despite the best efforts of public transport, and afterwards fed me Nando's and banoffee pie. I've just had another slice. The last slice actually. Sorry.

 


CHILTERN CHALLENGE 50K | 19 JULY 2014

Despite the mainly disastrous Picnic Marathon last month, I was looking forward to this race. After all, it wouldn't be as tough and I wouldn't make any elementary errors would I? Or would I?

I'd chosen the XNRG's Chiltern Challenge mainly because part of the course is on the Ridgeway and I'll be running all of 87 miles of that next month. Quite quickly though I was really pleased as XNRG's communications for the event have been spot on. Regular emails, just the right amount of information and a really friendly approach all added up to a great experience - and that was before the race even began!

In the lead-up to the big day I'd been picking the brains of Shaun (@SpontaneousPlan) as he'd run the route a few weeks before. He suggested long socks due to an abundance of overgrowth in the undergrowth and so I duly invested in a pair.

As well as providing protection from the nettles and brambles, they are also incredibly sexy, as you can see. They turned out to be very attractive to horseflies at any rate.

Back to race day. There were two start times, 0900 and 1000, and as I had lofty ambitions to finish within 6 hours, I chose the later option as this was described as the 'elite' start time and it's not often I'll get the chance to call myself elite. Actually, I was hoping to do it in 5 hours but more of that later.

Arriving in Princes Risborough in Buckinghamshire before 9am, I saw Jacquie Millett and Martin White just before they set off on the early start, and shortly afterwards met Shaun and Naomi Newton-Fisher, who was running on her birthday.

We waited for 10 o'clock to tick round and then in light drizzle set off. I was pleased with this weather as the last few days have been far too hot for running so a storm would be a massive relief. I set off at a steady pace, planning to walk the steep hills and run as much of the rest as I could. If I could manage an hour per 10k I'd be pretty close to my target time. I'm good at maths like that.

I reached the first checkpoint (10k) in almost exactly an hour and feeling good. I didn't have anything to eat figuring I'd take the same approach as a marathon and only eating after about 20k. When the next CP came along I was still feeling pretty good and grabbed a 9bar which I ate as I walked on. I was also determined to spend as little time as possible at the CPs, and having bottles in my new Inov8 race vest definitely helped with that.

It was shortly after this that it all started to fall apart. It was getting warmer which may have had an impact but I think my lack of early eating contributed hugely to an energy slump that lasted for the remaining 17 miles. I basically hit the wall and on that course, in that heat, I simply couldn't recover. So despite reaching halfway in about 2.5 hours, I slowed drastically from here and even the flat sections felt uphill.

On the plus side, I took the opportunity to take some photos of what was a stunning course.

As well as a lot of corn fields, there was also a good amount of woodland paths with the nirvana for many trail runners, the wondrous 'single track'. The fact that this was almost entirely in shade was an added bonus, given the conditions. I just wish I'd been in a better position to whizz along them, rather than the shuffle I actually employed.

The stretch between CP3 and 4 was an almighty struggle. I seriously questioned whether I should be even attempting the Ridgeway based on this performance. Have I not done enough long runs? Had I just gone out too hard? Or was it my fuelling (or lack of) that was the main problem? I never felt too hot but maybe that was affecting me more than I thought. Whatever the reason, I was having some negative thoughts and countered this by taking it a mile at a time and forcing myself into a jog as often as possible. It wasn't pretty but all the while I was moving, I was winning. Relentless forward progress and all that.

The final CP gave me a lift as you see by my inane grin, below.

With about 5 miles to go and 4h45m on the clock, it was looking slightly unlikely I'd break 5 hours. On I plodded and wondered idly when Shaun would have finished, given that the last time I'd seen him was about three hours previously. Then, with a couple of miles to go, there was the man in the long socks. His injured Achilles heel had gone at 22 miles and he'd been walking ever since. After a quick chat, I decided I could still break the 6-hour barrier and jogged off very slowly indeed.

Eventually there was a cheery '1km to go' sign and I broke into a proper run and found myself at the finish, crossing the line in 5.59:30. I was officially an elite athlete. Sort of.

It may not have been the best I'd executed a race but I was pleased to a) finish b) do so without any blisters c) not have any stomach issues or d) complete a trail race without either taping or twisting my ankles, which hopefully means they're getting stronger.

This was my first XNRG event and I have to say I'm impressed. Great organisation, friendly, helpful volunteers and a bright pink t-shirt. What more could you want from an ultra?

Edinburgh Marathon | 24 May 2014

Sometimes you train for a race, work really hard and it all works out perfectly. This wasn't one of those times. Somehow - and I still don't know how - it was even better.

 

A terrible build-up to race day

In the six weeks since SDW50 I've had precisely three runs in which my legs felt good. They haven't hurt, they've just lacked - and please excuse the technical terminology here - oomph. My longest run was a half marathon that was supposed to be at an easy pace with the last 40 minutes at marathon pace (MP). Since the turn of the year, I decided MP was 8 minute miles. This was always ambitious but I could keep it up for a few miles at a time, and I wanted to push myself. Realistically, MP for an actual whole marathon was going to be 8.20-8.30.

I told Robbie my marathon PB (3.56) and he told me he was sure I could beat that. I thought the same but some reassurance definitely helped. He suggested 3.30-3.45 was achievable and to aim for 1.50 at halfway and see how I felt. My gut feeling was that if I got to halfway in that time I'd do well to maintain that pace. The other option was to go out hard and see if I could hang on. But frankly I didn't have any confidence in that working so Robbie's plan it was.

 

Race face

Aside from a few nerves I felt fine. I put on my bin bag and my race face. Here I am looking exceptionally sexy...

The rain promised for the day had cleared and we set off out of Edinburgh. 

"Go on Superman!" came the cry from the crowd as a man in an outfit ran by.

"I'm Supergirl!" came the reply from the man in the skirt and glittery crop top.

This wasn't a big marathon (8,620 runners) and fancy dressers were few and far between but I did also see a Robin (a woman), and a couple of men in kilts so it wasn't a dead loss on the comedy outfit front.

For the first few miles there were a couple of gentle downhills but nothing as much as I'd imagined. I was maintaining a comfortable sub-8.30 pace and it felt okay, not great, but fine for now. Having done virtually no warm-up I'd probably take at least 45 minutes to get into a groove.

Forty-five minutes later and there was no sign of a groove. I had a gel and got a little burst of energy. I think it was at this point that I decided to break the race down into segments. I genuinely couldn't imagine how I'd be feeling in the second half so focused only on the next section. I'd have another gel at 10 miles and then some of my Clif bar.

This might seem a bit odd to any marathon runners reading but having hit the wall spectacularly at 17 miles in Belfast, I experimented with a protein bar at halfway at Greensand and felt full of energy in the second half of that so had decided to repeat the approach. 

By ten miles we'd made our way to the seafront and it really was right by the sea. The sun was out and it wasn't too windy and I just focused on keeping it steady, taking an S!cap on the hour and looking forward to the next feed.

Uncertainty remained but there was nothing to do but keep running so that's what I did. My perma-tight hip flexors moaned a bit but I ignored them and soon enough the 13-mile marker arrived and I tucked into my Clif bar. I'd already broken it up into bite size chunks so I had a few while negotiating the crowds. Pretty much by accident I'd reached halfway in 1h50m, bang on target.

It's all downhill from here (just not literally)

Whether it was psychological or physical I don't know, but almost immediately after eating I felt like I had more energy and felt more relaxed. Reaching 14 miles in under two hours I started making some calculations in my mind. If I could maintain this pace and get to 21 in three hours, I'd have 45 minutes to do the last five and a bit miles, which meant I could afford to slow down to almost 9-minute mile pace and still get a comfortable PB.

Being slow at mental arithmetic meant that by the time I'd figured all this out I was already at mile 15. People had started to walk by this point. My Clif-induced buzz was still keeping me going strong and I found myself overtaking people regularly. I had a feeling that the turnaround point - this being at least in part an out-and-back course - was at 17 miles. If I could get there still in reasonable shape, the last nine miles were going to be okay.

More overtaking. Then a u-turn and a diversion into a wooded area that felt more like a trail run than a road marathon. I was already feeling a lot happier and a short under a mix of tree shade and dappled sunshine put me in an even better mood. I broke out my first caffeinated gel and pushed on to the road home.

On the way out I'd noticed that the people coming towards me were either going up or down slight inclines. But all the while I was running I couldn't feel them. They weren't huge hills but they were visible and while on other occasions I would have noticed them, this time I didn't. It was at this point I realised quite what a rhythm I'd got into. It wasn't zero effort but considering how far I'd run it was pretty close. It also helped that I was overtaking more and more people. I couldn't care less what position I finished but the psychological boost I was getting from running past people approaching 20 miles was huge. All I could think was that even though they had been slow miles, the ultras I've been doing had been preparing me physically for precisely this sort of challenge.

 

PB alert

I reached 20 miles in 2h48m, just three minutes slower than I had at the Hyde Park 20 so knew I'd get to 21 miles ahead of the three-hour mark. By this point I was looking at my watch less and less. My body had circumnavigated my brain and knew what to do so it kept doing it. When I did look, it told me I was actually getting faster. 

The sun was bright now and I was getting warm so I took some extra water to fill my bottle and an extra S!cap, just in case. The next significant mile would be number 23 as that meant just a parkrun to go, or 25 minutes at worst, if I could keep my pace the same. I was beginning to think that it was becoming harder to keep up my speed and checked my pace at the end of the mile. 7.59. No wonder it was getting harder - this was the fastest I'd gone all race.

The crowds were building by now and a few noisy spots really made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I was still in the groove but I was hanging on a bit. I wanted to push on but couldn't trust myself to go before the 25-mile marker. Then it appeared and I kicked on. Still overtaking people but hurting more now. I looked straight ahead and just kept everything moving. Just eight more minutes and I'd be done. I hadn't checked my watch since about 3h10m but was heading for a 3h40m finish. I daren't look now, I just ran. 

The 26 mile marker appeared. I upped the pace again and finally there was a left turn, the finish arch and some weird, bouncy matting that signalled me to break into a full-out sprint for the last 50 metres. 

I crossed the line and stopped my watch.

3:38.41

 

How did that happen then?

To be honest, I'm still not quite sure. I didn't feel like I was in control at any point. The first 10, even 13 miles held such uncertainty that I was just going through the motions. After that, my body seemed to take over and all I needed to do was steer it in the right direction and keep fuelling. It wasn't quite an out of body experience but it wasn't far off. For about 10 miles from halfway I was totally in the zone. From thinking in the first few miles that I didn't really like marathons, that ultras were more fun, I found myself flying along and not wanting the feeling to end. It was most peculiar.

Here are my mile splits:

I made no conscious effort to increase my pace from mile 19 and yet there it is in black and white. My mind had its doubts but my body didn't and by the time I realised, I'd got my confidence back. I certainly wasn't aiming for a negative split, and maybe that suggests I should started quicker but the fact was I wasn't prepared to try it on this occasion. This is my second road marathon so it's all a learning experience. 

In the taxi into town the day before the race, the driver had said it was the easiest marathon in Europe. It's probably not the hardest but I don't think there's such a thing as an easy one. But if the next one one goes as well as Edinburgh 2014 I'll be very happy indeed.


Kit used

  • Headsweats cap
  • Centurion SDW50 t-shirt (partly to show off, but mainly because it's super comfy)
  • Race Ready shorts (loads of pockets)
  • Nike dry-fit socks
  • Saucony Kinvara 4
  • Ultimate Direction Fastdraw handheld bottle (with handy zip pocket)
  • SIS gels (2 x apple, 2 x cherry, with caffeine)
  • Clif crunchy peanut butter bar
  • S!Caps (x4)

South Downs Way 50 | 5 April 2014

The pain in my legs has almost gone. My memories of last Saturday are strangely patchy. And I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about having run 50 miles in a day. Well, I say run, but more of that later.

Six and a half weeks ago I had nothing in my race calendar except the Edinburgh marathon at the end of May. But having enjoyed Country to Capital so much and seeing that the wait list for the South Downs Way 50 had reopened, I thought I'd see if I could get on it. Within minutes of applying I had an email saying I was in the race. Yikes. I duly informed Coach Britton and got a revised training plan. In the following weeks, I got a 10k PB, a 20-mile PB and felt pretty good. I did a few hills sessions but most of my training had been on flat roads.

When Seanie got into the race even later than me and with considerably less training but probably a better base fitness, it made sense for us to run together, at least to start with. Based on my C2C time, I posited a target time of 9 hours. A bit ambitious but better to aim high, was my feeling.

Me, Seanie, and Seanie's number sporran

Me, Seanie, and Seanie's number sporran

 

Worthing to Botolphs (0 - 11.2 miles)

We got to the start in plenty of time and I felt surprisingly calm. I think doing races regularly really helps me with 'big' races so I was looking forward to a day of running. I'd also seen a few familiar faces and spoke with Cat Simpson, just as I had at C2C. She seemed a lot more relaxed this time and it later showed, not only in her finishing time (8h33m) but also the fact she said after that she found it easier than C2C. I also saw pre-race favourite Paul Navesey jogging around looking ridiculously sprightly. I'm always looking at other people's running form these days and funnily enough his is a bit good. Anyway, that was the last I saw of him as he was almost finished by the time I reached halfway.

Bang on 9am, the race got under way and we all trotted off out of the field and up the road towards the hills. Robbie had advised me to take it easy in the first few miles up and I didn't need telling twice. This was going to be a long day and I'm still not much good at pacing myself over a mile, let alone 50 so I plodded along, trusting in my training. Even before we reached the first check point, there were some very long hills. Robbie has described them as runnable but many around me were walking them and Sean and I ran parts of some of them, feeling that we could always walk later when we were really tired.

The result of this though was that by Botolphs we were already behind schedule by about 10 minutes and concluded that the target time was now out of the question.

Before it all started getting hard

Before it all started getting hard

Botolphs to Saddlescombe Farm (11.2 - 16.6 miles)

I can't remember much about this section except that I wasn't feeling at all good. The sore throat I'd noticed the night before hadn't got any better and my head was starting to feel fuzzy. I was making sure I ate, hydrated, took an S-cap every hour, but nothing was helping. Whether it was the hills or something else I don't know but there was just nothing in my legs. I recalled Geoff Roes in Unbreakable saying the same thing and he improved later in the race but there was something else worrying me more.

There's a saying in ultra running: it never always gets worse. I initially struggled with the grammar of the phrase but now I understand it to mean that just because my things are going badly, it doesn't mean they won't improve. The length of the races means that, like the terrain of this very course, there are many ups and downs. But the fact that I'd now convinced myself I had the beginnings of a cold, led me to believe that constant running and getting progressively weaker probably would mean things would get worse. The only things keeping me going were Seanie's chipper attitude and the aid stations.

I'd heard and read a lot about how amazingly well organised Centurion races are and also how good their volunteers and aid stations were. But they surpassed even my high expectations. Breaking the race down into the distance between checkpoints is how I get through long races anyway but seeing the happy helpers was enough to bring a smile to my face every time. I also discovered a hitherto unknown desire for cherry tomatoes. While my own 'Snickers' sandwiches were like sawdust in my mouth, these little balls of juicy goodness were each a mini oasis. I can't help thinking that having recently read Scott Jurek's Eat and Run had some sort of an impact.

The South Downs

The South Downs

Saddlescombe Farm to Housedean Farm (16.6 - 26.6 miles)

If the previous five miles had been tough, this 10 was even harder. More and more relentless hills, although I'd got to the stage where I welcomed the walk break as my legs were still not interested. Then I remembered I had some painkillers and figured that might clear my head. Rather than stop though, I decided to have it at the halfway aid station. That gave me something to look forward to.

Just before we hit the 25-mile mark, Seanie yelped behind me and I immediately thought he'd turned his ankle. But not everyone is like me and he'd kicked a stick, leaving him with a sore toe. He made it to Housedean with me and on inspection decided it was okay to carry on. We stopped for quite a while there and left 55 minutes after my original target time. Coming in under 10 hours would now be an achievement.

 

Housedean to Southease (26.6 - 33.9 miles)

A couple of mini scotch eggs, some more cherry tomatoes and a little stretch (as well as a Nurofen) seemed to get me back on track and after a mile or so I felt good to enough to push on and even run some hills. This section flew by (at least in relative terms) and we cruised into Southease for more snacks and water.

A marathon done, time for lunch

A marathon done, time for lunch

Southease to Alfriston (33.9 - 41.6 miles)

Sean still seemed to be struggling a little bit and we agreed that I should go ahead and he would keep up as best he could. Even though he's as easygoing a running buddy as you could wish for, I enjoyed having some alone time, as that's how I do the vast majority of my running. In between the clouds there was the odd splash of sunshine on faraway yellow fields of rapeseed. (I managed to to resist the urge to shout "Rape!" every time I saw one, although I might have spoilt that somewhat with this revelation). 

Feeling better enabled me to enjoy the scenery for the first time and as tough as the rolling hills of the South Downs are, it is a spectacular place. I was going along pretty well when suddenly I saw a boy walking towards me. It was my nephew Aelfie who high-fived (well, low-fived) me and then got the same from my niece Aela shortly afterwards. They had both run a mile in Brighton earlier in the day, got a medal and were exhausted. So I still had some catching up to do. Then, at the next gate, were my sister Lou, and my Mum and Dad. I stopped for a photo and was really pleased to see them. I felt a bit bad for not staying longer to chat but on the other hand, I was feeling good for the first time and wanted to make the most of it.

Aelfie, me, Aela and Stanlie at Firle

Aelfie, me, Aela and Stanlie at Firle

Alfriston to Jevington (41.6 - 45.7 miles)

Alfriston aid station was in a church and after a water refill and more eggs and tomatoes, we set off but my purple patch had gone and Seanie went ahead. It was only four miles to the final check point though so I figured he wouldn't get too far ahead. There were some more very steep hills and everyone was walking. Maybe it's my long legs but I was overtaking people with ease, even a guy with poles, which I assumed would have helped more. I tried to run some sections but I soon had to revert to walking. It was frustrating if unsurprising at this stage so I just concentrated on keeping moving, and tried not to think about my lack of hill training.

I found myself alone in a single-track wooded area, was enjoying the shelter from the wind and a change of scenery when Aelfie appeared in front of to me again, this time with an iPad, apparently making a video. It was all a bit surreal. He ran ahead of me down the hill and I did my best to keep up with his 10-year-old legs but couldn't. (Just to be clear, he is 10. He hasn't only got legs that are 10 years old - all of him is 10.) Anyway, it was fun to have Aelfie to lead me for a few hundred yards and by the church in Jevington saw Lou again before catching up with Sean in the final aid station. We were in and out in a few minutes and set off for the final push.

 

Jevington to Eastbourne (45.7 - 50 miles)

By now, both Seanie and I were setting a new distance PB with every step and I think we both wanted to get done as soon as possible. He was feeling better than he had all day and wanted to really push for the finish. I was tiring and said I'd go as fast as I could but he should go ahead if he fancied it. I honestly wouldn't have minded if he'd gone but was equally happy that he stayed with me - having started together, it would have been a shame not to finish that way.

Getting into the outskirts of Eastbourne, we crossed a road where a race marshall told us there was just over a mile to go. Whether he was wrong or simply that every 20 yards felt like 100 by then I don't know, but that was the longest mile I've ever run. Finally, finally, we saw the Centurion banner, then the car park, and then the athletics track.

We saw my girlfriend Cate and Sean's wife Ruth shouting us in and then it was just one lap of the track to the finish. I needed a few deep breaths before I could start the sprint finish Seanie was pushing for but then I found a bit extra and gave it everything for the last 100 metres. I'm still not sure whether it's a good thing I'm able to do this or whether it means I haven't pushed myself hard enough throughout the rest of the race.

The clock stopped on us at around 9 hours and 48 minutes, which I think means we made up some time on the second half. So that's pleasing. Still, I can't help feeling a bit disappointed to have gone so much slower than my target, and to have walked so much. Having said that, a year ago I hadn't ever run a marathon so realistically, it's probably not such a bad result for my first 50. 

Celebrity author James Adams presents me with my medal

What I learnt

  • Bladders are hopeless for quick turnarounds. Bottles next time.
  • I need to do more hill training.
  • Centurion and everyone involved in their races - from runners to race directors - are awesome.
  • I have a new favourite t-shirt.

Many thanks to Cate, Lou, Aela, Aelfie, Mum, Dad, Ruth, and Seanie for the support, photos and videos.