Running retrospective for 2020

Another year of unexpected challenges, goals withheld and amazing unexpected triumphs.

I entered 2020 with three major goals: sub-10 hours at Comrades, sub-24 for a 100-miler and sub 3:45 (or even sub-3:40 or better) for a marathon.

To assist me in reaching these goals, I invested in coaching, signing up with Centurion Running coaching; Neil Bryant was assigned as my coach.

Following Neil’s training plan, I did a lot more speedwork than I’ve ever done: interval sessions, plus tempo runs and progression runs. I discovered that I quite liked the progression run format but found it hard to hold pace in the middle of a tempo run – easier with someone to run with, as shown by the social-distance 5K and 10K challenges done with Chris Morton and others. I also did strength training twice a week, a variable amount of yoga, and at least a little bit of cross-training: mostly cycling to get from A to B, plus some uphill walking on the treadmill.

The hardest aspects of being coached have been handing over control of my running schedule to someone else, and loss of spontaneity in my running. I negotiated with Neil to keep doing some of my shorter, non-target ultras without compromising training for the big target events.

Being furloughed from April to the end of July, I used the time to concentrate on my running, resting properly.

I can’t argue with the results of the training.

Comrades was cancelled as a result of COVID. With various ultras that were supposed to be run over the spring and summer being shoehorned into the autumn after the first COVID lockdown, and the marathon at the end of the year cancelled due to Tier 4 COVID restrictions, I had no opportunity to try for a fast marathon. So two of my goals became impossible to attempt.

However, I’ve finished the year with:

  • 3,210.9 miles (my furthest ever in one year, by more than 500 miles)
  • 201,775 ft elevation
  • 375 runs: a slightly inflated number as some of those are runs to and from a speed session plus the speed session – but I’ve mostly run 6 days and 7 runs per week (rest day Monday; am and pm runs on Tuesday) throughout the year
  • 554hr 16 minutes of running
  • 3 x 100-mile races, including a PB of 23:08, 1st F50 x 2, 4th & 6th woman, and a new FV50 record for the A100 by more than 27 minutes.
  • 1 x 50 mile
  • 1 x 34-mile, 1st F50 & 6th F
  • 7 other ‘in person’ ultras (50K or longer) with one SVN ‘Winner’ badge (furthest distance covered during the 6-hour challenge)
  • 11 virtual ultras (50K or longer), including 1st F50 for 50K in the first Centurion One Community Challenge (most people were not doing the 50K in one run)
  • Fantastic PBs at (virtual) 5K (21:20; 81% age graded) and 10K (44:26; 80% age graded) – in both cases taking more than a minute off my previous PBs set 8 years ago
  • Also a PB for the Tadworth 10 (miles)
  • Vanguard Way HM (jogged for fun as someone who knew the course)

Additionally, despite averaging about 60 miles a week, with seven runs a week and two speed sessions a week, plus long runs, I’ve had no injuries during the year worse than a knot in my calf.

Since completing the 3rd 100-mile race, the Halloween 100, only three weeks after the Autumn 100, I’ve felt tired. My running had lost its ‘bounce’. In the first weeks of December I finally started to feel a bit of speed returning. I finished the year – and started 2021 – with a two-week rest period to boost recovery.

Record breaking on the A100

The 2020 edition of Centurion’s Autumn 100 was a very special race for me: 23 hours and 8 minutes of special. All my training over the past year paid off with my first sub-24-hour 100 mile race, earning me my first ‘100 miles – one day’ buckle.

In normal years this is the fourth and final race in the Centurion 100-mile Grand Slam (although this year the South Downs Way 100 is still to come). While the other three races – Thames Path 100, SDW 100 and North Downs Way 100 – are point-to-point along their respective National Trails, the A100 is a series of four 25-mile out-and-backs from Goring in Oxfordshire, with the first and fourth legs being on the Thames Path, while legs two and three use the Ridgeway.

[Running trace for the A100]

The format means that runners can access their drop bags at 25, 50 and 75 miles. James Elson (the Race Director) in the briefing video had asked us to keep these as small as possible, and certainly no more than 50 litres, but that had to be balanced against bringing food I knew I would eat, plus some I might want, changes of footwear and adequate clothing options. I knew I probably wouldn’t use all the clobber I took (although I did eat most of the food), but it was good to have the choice.

With COVID-19 travel restrictions, I hadn’t had a chance to recce for this race. The Ridgeway sections, legs 2 and 3, I had run before during the Ridgeway 86, but only westbound and, particularly west of Goring, in the dark, although I had also run a bit of it during Chiltern Wonderland 50 (CW50), westbound again. Part of leg 4 on the Thames Path I had also run during CW 50, and I must have run legs 1 and 4 in the downstream direction in recces for the Thames Trot 50, but that had been back in 2013, and large sections of the race were diverted off the Path on race day, due to flooding, so I didn’t remember much of it.

As with CW50, we drove most of the way on Friday evening, staying overnight at the Travelodge in the M4 (this time without road closure worries). In the morning we were on our way by 6.30, after a bit of a wait for the windscreen to clear after a cold night. We arrived in Goring and I made use of the carpark toilets, avoiding any queue at race HQ or the Streatley start, then my husband Aidan carried my bag most of the way to the village hall before leaving me, with a kiss, as we had been requested not to bring anyone with us. I dropped off the drop bag, said hi to Nici, picked up and attached my tracker, then set off walking down the road to Streatley, setting my Garmin to ‘run’ and loading Leg 1 in as a course. I was using four courses, one for each leg, after discovering the miserly 50-waypoint limit on the Garmin 935. Many thanks to Chris Mills for chopping the course up for me after James posted the final version of the GPX. After the problems I’d had during NDW100 with the watch stopping recording the run when I hooked it up an external power source, this time I started off with the charger attached.

My coach, Neil Bryant, had suggested I run easy on the first leg and practice my eating and drinking breaks, get into a rhythm. About half a mile in there was a narrow humpbacked bridge, where we had to mask up and cross one at a time, guided by a lovely and very polite volunteer. I felt cold walking to the start at Streatley and for the first 5 or 10 minutes of running, but soon warmed up. From then on I used hat and gloves on and off to regulate temperature. It would have been easy to run faster than was sensible, given the flat route, and decent underfoot conditions. I didn’t stop at Wallingford, just said hi and got a great greeting from Anna Troup. Then onwards to the turn-around point at Little Wittenham, where I filled water bottles and took a satsuma and piece of banana. Keep on running, walking to eat and drink, getting practiced at juggling food and the powerbank which I was carrying in my left hand. Back through Wallingford, again without stopping, but Anna was very encouraging at a point where I was feeling quite low – I felt like I’d been pacing sensibly based on perceived effort, despite which my legs felt tired, which I hadn’t expected only about 20 miles into the race on flat terrain. Anna reminded me to enjoy the run!

[Along by the Thames]

The best aspect was the out-and-back nature of the course, which meant that I got to see all the other runners, the faster ones returning while I was still heading out, and the slower ones heading out while I was on the return journey. Some nice wildlife moments – watching swans take off from the river, and seeing Red Kites soaring overhead. It was great to see familiar faces such as Gareth Allen, Ollie Dawson and Rob Cowlin, as well as a load of others who are becoming familiar on the Centurion races. I did find the route a little boring, without the variety of a route such as the North Downs, but it was pleasant running and pleasant enough surroundings. After about 20 miles my laces started to press into the tendons on the tops of my feet. I stopped once and loosened them, but they started to hurt again in the last mile or so – it was definitely time to change shoes.

Back at Goring I experienced the fantastic Centurion organisation, with my drop bag pulled out and placed on a chair (those were at 2m distance from one another) while I sanitised my hands and filled my water bottles. I reported a lost glove – one of my really nice Inov8 ones, that had been a present – and hoped someone else would bring it in (although I did have a spare pair in my backpack). I sat down, changed shoes as fast as possible, and swapped my depleted bags of food (mixed vegan sweets, raisin-cranberry mix, salted snack pretzel sticks and boiled salted new potatoes) for full bags. I also took one of my hot cross buns to eat and a satsuma. Nothing else needed so I sanitised my hands – holding the bun and satsuma in a piece of kitchen towel kindly provided by a volunteer – and left, loading the course for leg 2 as I set off.

[Woodland path along the Ridgeway]

Leg 2 heads along the Ridgeway north then eastwards to Swyncombe and back. Initially the path lay alongside the river, on the opposite bank to the Thames Path, so the terrain was, not surprisingly, similar to that of the first leg. Past South Stoke on the little diversion off the Ridgeway that James had warned about, and into North Stoke, not really needing the aid station. Then over a road and into Grim’s Ditch. Here a volunteer in orange high-viz jacket warned us that the path was narrow and we should take extra care and give way to others. I rather enjoyed this section, roots and all; it was interesting to run it west to east for a change. I was meeting returning faster runners sooner this time and could only marvel at their speed as I stepped aside to let them pass. Another opportunity to say hi to people I knew as well. Gareth Allen seemed to be doing pretty well and looked much happier than when I’d seen him during NDW100.

[Heading into Grim’s Ditch]

Onwards, up and over some rolling hills. A large field, then another, dipping down then climbing up again towards woodland. At the far side I spotted Stuart March and stopped gazing at red kites for a few seconds while my photo was taken and we exchanged greetings, before I disappeared on the path through the trees. Onwards. Up the lane (I recognised this bit from going wrong on my CW50 recce) past St Botolph’s Church and into the aid station. Reach into my pocket for my mask… no mask. I realised I must have dropped it, so pulled a buff on instead. Sanitise, fill waters, take a bit of fruit, sanitise, thank the volunteers and head off back down the lane. By now some light showers had started, but they were not enough bother for me to put my coat on. Through the woodland, which anyway gave shelter from the rain. As I emerged and drew breath to say hi to Stuart as I passed, I spotted my face mask, which another runner had carefully placed on a gate post for me, and happily retrieved it.

[Across the fields]

Across the two fields, running the inclines as well as the downhills because it had started raining again and I wanted to get back under sheltering trees. Another orange-coated volunteer as we plunged back down Grim’s Ditch, then over the lane and through North Stoke again before following the diversion to South Stoke, then back down the river. I passed Rob Cowlin again somewhere along here and worried as he was in road shoes and struggling on ground that was getting more slippery. The rain started again. Grey clouds stretching to the horizon suggested that this would be more than a shower, so I sheltered under a tree, dug my waterproof coat out of the backpack and donned it. Right decision, as the rain accompanied us all the way back to Goring. I was running mostly by myself, but there were a number of runners that I played ‘leapfrog’ with for shorter or longer periods throughout the race, depending on our personal running speeds, walking breaks, times spent at checkpoints and so on. Some I had met during other Centurion races, but with the minimal interactions under COVID-19 restrictions I was finding it hard to pin names and faces together.

Back down the alley, mask on and into the hall – where, to my delight, my glove was waiting for me! Fantastic. I had planned to change socks at this point but given the worsening weather I didn’t see the point – the ones I was wearing were not rubbing or anything and whatever I was wearing would get wet and muddy in the next hours, so it would be better to keep these on and change for a hopefully dry leg 4. Now stationary as I replenished my food supplies, I was starting to feel cold. It would get dark sometime during leg 3 and the temperature was likely to fall. What to wear? I pulled a long-sleeved running shirt on over the NDW50 shirt with my number pinned to it (I considered swapping the shirt, but then I would have needed to move the number), and pulled my waterproof trousers on as well as the jacket. They would protect me from windchill and from worry of getting soaked and cold if the rain got heavier, while leaving my long running tights dry in case I needed them for leg 4. With 50 miles done, I felt confident that my watch battery would last the rest of the time, so I left the charger and lead.

Out of the hall and off up the road, heading west on the Ridgeway. It felt strange to be running this section in the light, unlike either of my Ridgeway 86 runs. In a little while the rain eased and I was soon overheating, so I stopped for long enough to take the waterproof trousers off. A couple more miles and I was getting too hot again so took the jacket off – but before I could tie it round my waist the rain returned, so I put it back on – this time to stay on. This section was mainly wide chalk and flint paths, not too slippery yet, although I worried that might change with the rain. I was very aware on every down slope that I would meet it again as an incline later, but cheered myself on the uphills by thinking about returning down them. East Isley Downs was a lovely oasis of cheer, with little chemical lights edging the paths in and out, and volunteers making sure that people left in the correct direction outwards or inwards. I should have stopped there long enough to get my head torches out, but didn’t, because I wanted to clear the way for incoming runners.

As the light faded, and with the rain having paused, I get a couple of nice sunset pictures.

[Sunset on the Ridgeway]

[Sunset on the Ridgeway]

Onwards, running where I could, walking when the footing seemed too treacherous or I was hunting for the best rut or ridge to run along. The last stretch before the turn-around point I bumped into Ollie Dawson and we ran together for a bit. He reassured me that I was well in time for my sub-24 goal. Finally into the aid station, buff on as I couldn’t find my face mask (again), fill water bottles, take a banana and set off again, taking cheer from the thought that the wind would now be behind me rather than into my face, and the muddiest section was first, so I could look forward to better footing later. Ollie had stopped to drink some coffee, which he said would help his upset stomach.

The rain had cleared and at one point I glanced up then stopped, turned out the headtorch and simply stood for a few seconds gazing at the wonderfully bright stars with no city light clutter to dim them. Back through East Isley Down aid station, then continuing back to Goring. I alternated running and walking, depending on the terrain and on how hot I was feeling, slowing when necessary to cool down. I felt I could probably run more and faster if I took a layer off, but I calculated that in the time it would take me to peel something off and stow it I would get too cold, so I just pushed my sleeves up my arms. At about 11pm, feeling a bit sleepy, I took a caffeine tablet and a little while later felt more alert. I didn’t spot Rob Cowlin on this section and realised he must have dropped, sadly. I was alone for long stretches, which I don’t mind, with other torches periodically approaching and passing, and sometimes seeing other patches of light down the trail and moving in the same direction as me, visible then hidden, depending on curves in the path. There was one very surreal moment when for a few seconds I saw what looked like balloons or something caught up in a tree ahead – then I realised it was a steep section of path and my torch was reflecting from a runner ahead of and above me.

At Goring, final replenishment of food from my drop bag and final hot-cross bun to eat, as well as changing headtorch batteries – the one in the main torch was still fine, but it made more sense to change it than not. I didn’t feel any need for hot food, so didn’t bother making up the instant noodles I’d brought. It was set to be a clear night and cold, according to the volunteers. I deposited the waterproof trousers into my drop bag and set off again. I was well prepared in case it was much colder by the river: I had a lightweight windproof and my arm warmers, in case I felt the need for another layer on my top half, and light Montane windproof trousers in case the legs got too cold, as well as thicker gloves, a beanie and a buff in the backpack. In the end I used none of these. Leg 4 set on the watch, plus other runners going the same way, supplemented the Centurion markings – not that the Centurion markings were lacking, just that I was tired.

Down to the river, along a little way. I spotted something on the path and stopped. It was a buff, evidently recently dropped, as it hadn’t been trampled, and almost certainly from an A100 runner, so I picked it up and stuffed it into the back of one of the vest pockets. Along a bit further then uphill and a section through undulating woodland, which I really hadn’t expected. However, that, for me, was the highlight of the section. The remainder was almost dead flat and most of it was rather dull. Despite Ollie telling me I had plenty of time for sub-24 I was worried about not making it. My legs were not really stiff or sore, but keeping them running, rather than walking, was getting more and more difficult. I started setting myself goals: 100 running strides with each leg then I could walk for 50 strides. Repeat. If I didn’t reach the 100, then I tried to make the following walking break shorter. As an added complication, my guts started telling me that a visit to the toilet would be a good idea. This ‘suggestion’ became more insistent and I had to walk, along a road, through a churchyard. I was NOT going to squat in a churchyard.  By now I had lost track of whereabouts the intermediate aid stations would be, so when I spotted a lit-up building with people moving about inside it didn’t immediately occur to me that this was the checkpoint. I I had already decided to knock on the door and hope someone (a) answered and (b) let me use a toilet when I saw the Centurion arrows directing me there and realised with relief that this was the aid station. I shuffled to the door: ‘please tell me there’s a toilet!” ‘Yes’ came the welcome reply. It was up the stairs. That was okay, I could manage that. I fished in my pocket, couldn’t find my mask, so took a single-use mask from the pack by the door, sanitised my hands and hurried upstairs. Soon, somewhat relieved (pun intended!), I took a bit of banana from the aid tables, thanked all the volunteers and continued.

Across a couple of fields, past some dark cattle, their eyes brightly reflecting my headtorch, along by the river. Through a bit of woodland then suddenly, it seemed, into a built-up area, up a road, going a little past a junction but slowing and checking and turning back, my watch buzzing at me just as a couple of other runners whistled to alert me that I had missed the turning. A bit further along roads. I was sure I had already gone about eight miles, and Ollie had warned me that the checkpoint was six miles after the ‘Welcome to Reading’ sign. Where was that sign? After what seemed an age, I spotted it. Another six miles out. My heart sank. Nothing to be done except keep moving. Walk, run, walk, run. I was too warm when I ran, too cold once I dropped to a walk, so I seemed to be constantly taking my gloves off and putting them on again as well as pushing my sleeves up and pulling them down. I thought of removing a layer but was worried that I would get too chilled if I did. One interesting bit where I passed a huge gathering of roosting swans and geese, and a couple of lit-up bridges, but otherwise, being dark, not a lot of interest. About 2.30 or 3 am I took another caffeine tablet.

[Fungi on a treestump]
[Bridge lit up at night]

By this time I had ‘ultramarathon brain’ sufficiently that I couldn’t manage the calculations for how much longer it would be to the turn-around point, nor how much longer I had if I was to finish under 24 hours. A couple of times other runners passed me and I tried to tag on behind them, but always broke into a walk after 100 paces or so. I asked a returning runner how far… ‘about another mile or two’. Surely not? It was indeed nearly a further two miles. I spent a good mile expecting to see it round every corner, but finally, finally there it was!  

Water, a banana (I think) and off again, definitely happier to be heading back. So much of running ultras is a mental game. I had been depressed by the elusive Reading checkpoint, but now I could tell myself there were only 12 and a half miles to go, and surely I could make that sub-24.

Despite feeling mentally better I still couldn’t maintain a run, so I went on run-walking and reminding myself to eat and drink. Back past the roosting waterfowl, back past the bridges. When the leg 4 trace said that I had about 8 miles to go, I dug my phone out and called my wonderful husband. ‘I’ve got somewhere between two and two and a half hours to go. Probably two and a half’. ‘Okay, I’ll send you a text when I reach the car park.’ Onward, back onto the road section, past the cows, Pangbourne Meadow, always giving a ‘well done’ to runners still on that outward leg. Another brief stop at the part-way checkpoint. Now less than 4 miles to go! My stomach was feeling a bit uncomfortable, but much less so than on NDW100, and I could still run in short but frequent bursts, walking at a good pace in between.

[Swans roosting]

Up the road, striding into the incline, looking forward to the trail through the woods and the descent on the other side. I stepped aside for some runners who were catching me up, but they soon slowed and I caught them again. The front runner was pacing one of the others, aiming to get him finished in sub-24, and the other guy had the same aim. I said I was also trying for that. ‘Come on, girl!’ the pacer called, so I joined them, and after a few minutes found that I was generally managing to keep up with the pacer better than the other runners were doing, although none of the three of us could keep running for long before dropping back to a walk. Finally we were down back by the river. Nearly there now. A couple more turns, then onto the road. A final effort, running alongside the wall encircling the green, then over the timing mat. Finished! I pressed the button on my Garmin and walked down the alley, pulling my buff over my face, towards the Garden Room.

I knew that I had come in under 24 hours, but not how much under until I looked at my watch (and discovered it still running, so I pressed stop more firmly!) – it said 23:08. No way! What a fantastic result for my 90th ultra! I had to wait a little until this could be verified from the Centurion system, before I was allowed to pick up one of the coveted ‘100 miles – one day’ buckles and pose, grinning, for my finish line photos. I was given my T-shirt and offered tea and chilli. Veggie chili was available, and I felt bad for refusing it, but I didn’t think it was wise on an unhappy stomach.

My phone chimed, but when I looked I didn’t seem to have a text, so I accepted the offer of a tea and a sit down inside the hall. Various runners were draped over the carefully spaced chairs. I accepted my drop bag for the last time, and placed the shirt and buckle into it so I couldn’t lose them. A few minutes of chat with Nici and volunteers, then just as someone presented me with my tea I saw the text from Aidan and replied. A couple more minutes and some sips of tea, then I levered myself out of the chair, hauled my drop bag onto my shoulder, thanked everyone one last time and headed out.

[Finished! Earned my first “100 miles – One Day buckle”]

Afterword & thanks

It has been ten months since I contacted Centurion Coaching and Neil Bryant started setting my running schedule, making my training more focused. Having spent the past three years running lots of marathons and ultras, and qualifying for the 100 Marathon Club, I had wanted to see if I could get faster. My stated goals had been a marathon under 3:40 (maybe even under 3:30), Comrades under 10 hours and a 100-miler at sub-24 hours. The COVID-19 outbreak meant no Comrades, and with most of my other ultras postponed and squeezed into the last 5 months of the year, no way of fitting in an attempt at a fast marathon. That left the sub-24 goal. Massive PBs at 5K and 10K over the summer in virtual challenges (including the England Athletics 5K virtual championships) had shown that my training was improving my speed at those shorter distances, but I wasn’t sure how this would translate into ultra-distance performance.

I had coped better than most with the heat during NDW100, as shown by my 4th woman, 1st FV50, 22nd overall placing, which had been fantastic, but I hadn’t gone under 24 hours – although I tried to remind myself that only 17 runners HAD gone sub-24 in the race. This time my placing wasn’t quite as good – 1st FV50 again, but 6th woman and 77th overall, but I was delighted with my finish time of 23:08:38 – which set a new FV50 record for the course by more than 27 minutes.

Now I have beaten the 24 hours once, I know I can do it again and I’m sure I will. Lots to learn still, as it was mental/neurological fatigue rather than tired muscles that slowed me down in the last 25 miles, and I need to improve my nutrition to keep my stomach happier.

I have lots of people to thank. First, my wonderful husband for his support throughout my training, as well as getting up at 5am two mornings in a row to drop me off and pick me up again, and walking back to the village hall with the tracker when I realised, sitting in the car park, that it was still on my backpack.

Many thanks of course to James, Nici and the whole of the Centurion crew. It takes a huge amount of work behind the scenes plus the efforts of dozens of volunteers for a race like this to go ahead, and the organisation was spot-on. Thank you to Anna Troup, for reminding me to enjoy the race, thank you to the other runners who returned my glove and left my mask on the post, thanks to all the runners and volunteers who gave me encouragement during the race. The sense of community in ultrarunning is wonderful.

Special thanks to Neil Bryant, whose coaching has led me to find an extra gear and reach this goal. I also owe thanks to Chris Morton from my club, Striders of Croydon, whose speed sessions over the last year, and encouragement with the 5K and 10K virtual races, have really helped me to push harder and get more out of my speed work.

Chiltern Wonderland 50

Little about how 2020 has panned out has been as expected – COVID-19 has seen to that.  I’ve been one of the lucky ones in many ways: I’ve not (so far) caught the coronavirus, nor has anyone in my immediate family. I’ve been able to keep running through furlough and while starting a new job. I’ve had some goal races, such as Comrades, cancelled and others postponed, but I had managed to run one ultra the weekend before lockdown started, and completed eight 50Ks as combined training runs and virtual events during lockdown.

Travelling to event locations for recce runs has, however, been curtailed, first by ‘don’t travel’ instructions from the government, then by a continued wariness about taking trains, combined with not wanting to impose too often on my long-suffering husband to drive me to a trail head then pick me up again some hours later, 25 or 30 miles or so further down the path. For the NDW100 I had managed to recce the whole route, most of it more than once, and I already had a fair knowledge of the first 50 miles. I didn’t regret it, but I was aware that in concentrating on that, then recovering from it, I’d failed to recce the routes for CW50 and Autumn 100.

With two weeks to go before CW50, and coaching instructions to spend a few hours on hilly trails, I considered heading for the South Downs Way, then realised it would be about the same time to drive to Goring or thereabouts. A query in the Centurion Facebook group soon netted me a suggested parking spot and  a .gpx course of a loop that would cover about 15 miles on the middle section of the CW50 course (plus a bit not on the CW50 route, to make up the loop). I managed to follow the route okay and returned to the car pleased that some of the route, at least, would be familiar, and that I wouldn’t be taken by surprise when I met the hill up to the windmill. No more recces would be possible, as I was helping mark a 24-mile section of the Thames Path 100 the next weekend.

I had booked a room in the Travelodge at the services between junctions 11 and 12 on the M4, so it would only be a half-hour drive on race morning. Then I discovered that the M4 would be closed between those two junctions from 8pm to 6am on the Friday night! A bit of panicking and cursing, with a rethink of what time we should leave home and a call to the Travelodge to find out if and how we could get there if the closure started before we arrived. Friday evening, eating as we drove, we reached Junction 11 with a few minutes to spare and no roadworkers in sight – curious, given that the closure was about to start. Safely at the Travelodge and we found the road was now scheduled to close at 9pm, not 8pm as I had been told, so we needn’t have worried, and the road would still reopen at 6am, so we would be able to leave as planned in the morning – I wanted to be away by no later than 6.30.

Having got to Farnham for the NDW100 a little later than planned, this time I made sure I remembered to watch the race briefing a couple of days earlier, rather than on race morning, so we were in the car and heading for Goring by 6.20, ahead of schedule. Navigation was easy and on reaching Goring, after an attempt at parking in the rail station car park, we found another car park that didn’t require scanning a QR code and downloading an app for payment. As a bonus there were toilets – always a good thing before starting a race.

It was only a short walk to the village hall and the start. As my husband would be meeting me after the race I didn’t need a drop bag. I donned my mask and went in to pick up my tracker and tape it to the backpack (sanitising hands before and after) so that interested family members could follow my progress. Several runners were queuing for the toilet and I was extra glad I had been able to use the facilities at the car park. Back outside, temperature check passed, and I was ready to start at about 7.20am. James beckoned me forwards – and I realised I hadn’t got my Garmin ready! Apologising, I stepped off to the side and started pressing buttons. Signal locked, course chosen and I was off, running across the little green then following the Centurion arrows down the road.

After a little while I noticed a Thames Path sign and one of the other runners commented that we were on the same route that would be used for one of the legs of the A100. So I supposed I was recceing that, except I didn’t know where we deviated from that route. In the recorded race briefing James had warned us that the course used parts of several well-marked paths (Thames Path, Chiltern Way and the Ridgeway) as well as many smaller footpaths and bridleways, so we needed to make sure we followed the Centurion arrows and tape at any junction.

With the staggered start, during the first few miles I passed several people and in turn was passed by several people. Less than two miles along I spotted a blue soft cup that must have fallen from another runner’s pocket, so I stuffed into the back of one of my side pockets and hoped it would stay there and that I would be able to reunite it with its owner at some point. Throughout the race, every time I passed someone that I thought I hadn’t seen before, I asked if they had lost their cup. None had, although one other runner had picked one up and a third had seen (but left) yet another. I was somewhat surprised at the number being dropped – I keep mine tethered to the backpack with a piece of lightweight string so I can’t lose it. (I did manage to find the owner via a Facebook post afterwards).

The weather was good, warmer than I had expected and reasonably sunny, but thankfully nowhere near as hot as it had been for NDW100 five weeks earlier. I had started with a short-sleeved top, shorts and arm warmers, but I took the arm warmers off very early on and stuffed them into a pocket. Within a couple of hours I was wishing I’d gone for a vest, but at least with my shoulders covered I didn’t need to worry about sunburn. The ground was hard and dry.

This wasn’t a big goal race for me, although I hoped to finish in under 10 hours, so I wasn’t pushing on. The first few miles I had to specifically hold myself back, particularly when other runners passed me. After that I ran ‘easy’ by feel, pushing only a little. The first several miles were pretty flat, but I knew from my recce that there would be more hills later on.

I hadn’t been looking at the distance on my watch, only what turns I needed to take, on the course view, so I was pleasantly surprised when I realised I was approaching the first aid station at 10 miles – it had seemed like less. I had only drunk about 500 mL of water by this time – it was definitely cooler than it had been for NDW100! In and out of the aid station very quickly after sanitizing hands, filling the empty water bottle, picking up a bag holding a couple of cherry tomatoes and sanitizing again on the way out, then on down the lane, calling a ‘thank you all!’ to the volunteers as I went.

With the COVID-limited aid station offerings, I was carrying most of what I expected to eat, and periodically dug into one of my snack bags for vegan sweets, raisins mixed with cranberries, pretzel sticks and so on. The tomatoes were a nice addition, although I regretted the absence of satsumas.

To the second aid station and through quite quickly again, this time pausing just long enough to unpeel a piece of banana and throw the skin in the rubbish bag. Thank the volunteers, sanitise hands and go. Onwards!

I was trotting along quite happily when a large insect suddenly zoomed towards me from the right side, collided with the back of my head, stung me and flew off. Ow! That hurt. Having had a similar fly-by sting (that one by my nose) on a run earlier in the summer, I expected the sting to hurt like crazy for 5 or 10 minutes (which it did) then to settle down – which it did NOT. I ran on, trying to ignore the pain in my scalp and to appreciate the scenery instead. The route was certainly scenic, with rolling hills, fields and woodlands.

My Garmin was doing a great job of indicating distance to the next turn, and degree of turn, and the Centurion arrows and tape route markings were good as always, although there were some long sections without turning where the distance between bits of tape were long enough that I started worrying I’d missed a turn.

By now the course was definitely more undulating. The path started to look familiar and I realised I was now on the section that I had recced. More hills, where I reminded myself to eat. Down a road then right through a deer gate into a large park-like area that I remembered from my recce was Stonor Park. Through, past the large (very large!) house, then through another gate and into a bit of woodland. I looked for deer as I ran through the deer park, but didn’t see any. The sting still hurt.

I was sure we were not that far from the windmill now. I was right; soon I was heading down into the little village, Turville, dodging groups of people standing around on the roads (at least there were no cars – some of the other road crossings were downright scary with vehicles moving very fast), then through the gate and up the hill. Past the windmill, over the road and off again through another stretch of woodland, then a long incline up by a drive to the third aid station, at Ibstone. There was a bit of a queue here, but there are worse times to be forced to pause than after a long uphill stretch. Sanitise hands, pull on my facemask and wait. One of the volunteers made use of the queue, asking a runner two or three people behind me to pull out his ‘required kit’ items – very sensible to do one of the random checks while someone had to stop anyway. Into the courtyard, fill water bottles, grab a bit of banana and out, thanking the volunteers. Onward to Christmas Common.

 

[Stornor (left); the view to the windmill (right)]

Soon after Ibstone, on a stony downhill path through woodland, I passed one then another runner and noticed that the second one had a water bladder splashing away inside her backpack. I slowed down and turned my head back: ‘in case you don’t know, if you fill the bladder then turn it upside down you can suck the air out – then it doesn’t slosh,’ I said. ‘I hadn’t thought of that,’ she said, ‘I’m used to it by now!’ A wave and I continued, concentrating on where I was placing my feet. A minute later I heard voices yelling after me. Stopping, I looked round and there were the two runners, calling and beckoning: I had missed a turning! I waved and called a thank you as I started power-hiking back up the hill.

Woodland, fields, more woodland. Looking at my watch I realised that the map view was no longer indicating the distance to the next turning, only the distance to the end of the course, which was a lot less useful. Walking an incline, I messed around with it, trying to find whatever setting I’d changed and change it back. All I succeeded in doing was unintentionally, and annoyingly, tell the watch that I’d finished an activity (Run) and started a new one (Run). Great – now it wasn’t even telling me how many miles I’d done. [I later discovered that, stupidly, the Garmin 935 battery lasts for nearly 20 hours, but it can only handle 50 waypoints – a crazy limitation!]

Into Swyncombe aid station and out again, pausing to let a group of walkers finish coming through the kissing gate in the opposite direction. The last of them was wheeling a baby buggy with a Yoda toy strapped into it – I have no idea why. By now pulling on my facemask and sanitizing hands was as much a part of the routine as filling the water bottles and thanking the volunteers.

Out of Swyncombe and passing St Botolph’s Church. Down the drive towards the house, left of the old church. During my recce I had spent several frustrating minutes failing to find the route and having to ask a local for help, so this time I watched closely for the markings on the left. There it was – a narrow path, easily missed. The pair of runners ahead of me had just run straight past so I yelled to them. ‘Left! Come back, left!’ They paused, looking surprised, then as I continued to call out and beckon and point, they turned round and suddenly saw the tape. “Thank you!”

“No problem – just paying forward the help other runners gave me earlier.” I described where I’d gone wrong and they said they had missed that turning as well. We ran together for a little bit and I found they were entered in both the 100-mile and the 50-mile Grand Slams, so had run the Thames Path 100 the previous week – all credit to them! We passed and re-passed each other several times on the rest of the course, before they overtook me a final time a few miles from the finish.

Over the rolling fields. A long, long slightly downhill section on a wide path, and I pushed on a bit, enjoying the running. I hadn’t seen any tape for ages (that happened on two or three long straight sections – much longer distances than usual for Centurion events, and I wondered if locals had been taking the tape down), but I did vaguely recognize it from my recce, and I remembered that there was a turning left somewhere along here and up a hill… Suddenly I noticed a piece of tape and an arrow telling us to turn RIGHT and I realised this must be where my recce loop had cut across. Another runner nearly piled into me as I braked and headed through the gate and onto a woodland footpath. ‘Thanks,’ he said, ‘I would have missed that.”

Another mile and I reached a road with a tall hedge on the other side. There was a bit of ribbon and an arrow pointing left. I couldn’t see any gap in the hedge to go through, so I turned and trotted down the road a way. After a while I realised I hadn’t seen any tape since turning. Then my watch buzzed and told me I was off route. I looked back and there were four or five other runners behind me, strung out over a couple of hundred yards. I stopped. “I think we’re going the wrong way.” A socially-distanced confab, then we started back up the road. Soon we spotted runners on the other side of that hedge, then came back into view of where we had turned, and saw a couple of runners going straight over the road and disappearing into the hedge. We started moving faster, then one of the guys spotted a point where the hedge was thin and we all piled up the bank and through, carefully avoiding the barbed wire. Runners ahead, runners behind – we were back on track.

Over another road, a turn and I recognised the trail: not from the recce this time but from the Ridgeway 86, as I’d reached Grim’s Ditch. It was nice running it in full daylight, rather than towards dusk as I had in 2018 or in the dark like in 2019. Still lots of large roots, but they didn’t seem too bad really, and I was able to enjoy it.

Final aid station, and we moved back off the Ridgeway – I’d somewhat assumed we would follow the Ridgeway back to Goring, but instead we were back on paths labelled ‘Chiltern Way extension’ or simply ‘Footpath’.

Because the first several miles had been quite flat, I foolishly expected the last section to be flattish as well, but there were several hills, if nothing nearly as large as the ones in the middle section. My legs felt somewhat tired. With the Autumn 100 coming up in another four weeks I decided that pushing myself to run faster wasn’t sensible, particularly as I wasn’t sure if there were any further hills, as I wanted to be able to train well  in the intervening weeks. Once there were only a couple of miles to go, I was fairly sure it would all be downhill, and it was, so I enjoyed the running.

Suddenly, it seemed, I was back in Goring, dodging people on the pavement, appreciating some clapping and calls of support, and looking out for Centurion route arrows, as I had no idea which way to go. A couple of pauses to spot the next arrow at junctions, then finally I could see the finish – down the road, turn and cross the timing mats. A volunteer reminded me to stop my watch. Into the courtyard, where I picked up my medal, Stuart March took the finish line photos and Anna Troup gave me my T-shirt. We were being encouraged not to linger, so I got my tea and my vegan hot dog, thanked everyone again, then through the hall and back out onto the walled village green, where a number of runners and their supporters were standing or sitting, carefully separated in their little groups, and my husband was waiting for me. Done!

I sat down and ate the hot dog, pleased to be able to enjoy it, unlike just after I’d finished NDW100 when my stomach was not feeling happy. Aidan took a couple of photos, then we started to leave – and I realised I still had the tracker on my shoulder, so diverted back to the finish to hand it in before we wandered back to the car for the drive home.

Finish time 9:56:42, so nowhere near my 50-mile PB, but under 10 hours, placing 79th of 208 finishers (224 starters), 12th woman and second in my age group. Despite there seeming to be a lot of people overtaking me in the first few miles, and a few in the later sections, I had also overtaken some runners, and gradually moved up the rankings from 117th at the first aid station, gaining places in every section. The scenery was lovely, much of the route was runnable and apart from the wasp sting, it was a great day out running.

Melting on the NDW100

MELTING ON THE NORTH DOWNS WAY (NDW100)

I spent 2018 and 2019 running lots of marathons and ultras (mostly ultras) to finish qualifying for the 100 Marathon Club, which I achieved at the end of November 2019. I decided that my next goal would be to run ultras faster, with specific aims for 2020 of a marathon PB (getting my time down to 3:40 or even 3:30); a sub-10-hour Comrades Marathon (iconic 56-mile hilly road ultra in South Africa) and sub-24h-hour at a 100-miler.

In summer 2019 I started attending my club’s speed sessions occasionally, and from November regularly, as well as starting strength training twice a week. Beginning in December I invested in online coaching, choosing Centurion coaching as I thought that, as they surely coached people who were aiming for the Centurion Grand Slam (four 100-mile races during the year), they would be better able than most to cope with my multiple race goals. My coach, Neil Bryant, had been setting me to doing more speed work and runs such as tempo runs and progression runs (increasing speed gradually during the run), as well as making sure that my easy runs really were at an easy pace that wouldn’t impact on the harder sessions, and encouraging me to cross-train at least once a week.

With the whole COVID-19 situation, races were postponed or cancelled right, left and centre. Comrades didn’t happen. Other races such as NDW50 and Wendover Woods Night 50K were postponed. Although I ran a number of 50K virtual events in the course of training, I was running them as training runs, on tired legs. Running 5-mile, 5K and 10K virtual races organized by Chris Morton from my running club, I had some proof that my speed at those distances had improved – I reduced my 5K to 21:20 (from my previous best of 22:24 set in 2012) and my 10K to 44:26 (from 45:30, also set in 2012). However, NDW100 would be my first chance to see how the training had impacted the ultras that were my real goal.

The NDW100 2020 edition was one of the first races to be held in the UK as an in-person rather than virtual format since the COVID-19 lockdown started in April. We were all pleased it was going ahead. Various adaptations had been needed to allow the race to happen, including a couple of course diversions – although James Elson assured us those would not affect the overall distance (103 miles). Gathering for the race briefing evidently wasn’t possible, so that was pre-recorded and linked in the final pre-race email. I got distracted with downloading the revised .gpx and only remembered to watch the briefing at 5 am on race morning while getting dressed and eating breakfast.

Rather than a mass start, runners could set off from the trailhead at any time from 5am to 7am. We were asked to set off earlier if we expected to be faster and later if we expected to be slower, to reduce overtaking and hopefully, by increasing ‘spread’ along the course, reduce bottlenecks at the aid stations. I intended to set off about 6am, but ran a bit behind schedule – with the nice result that I met up with my Comrades-running friend Amanda. After dropping off our drop bags (to go to the Knockholt Pound aid station at 50 miles and to Detling at 83 miles) with PPE-wearing volunteers, and a last trip to the toilets, we headed towards the start. Amanda went to pick up her tracker from the table, which was useful as I would probably have forgotten about mine entirely otherwise, wasting money and disappointing family and friends who wanted to follow my progress. Trackers taped to backpack shoulder straps (we had to do that ourselves, due to COVID-19), temperature checked by another volunteer in PPE, and we were off.

It’s often been said that 90% of running an ultra is the mental side, rather than the physical. One aspect of that is that setting out to run 100 miles (or 103 in this case) is a big task. It’s easier mentally if you chop that down into smaller segments. In the COVID-19 circumstances I was breaking this race down into four large sections based on where I would replenish my food: Box Hill (well, a little before: the crew point at 22 miles), Knockholt Pound at 50 miles, where my first drop bag would be, and Detling (82 miles) holding my second drop-bag. Besides that, I chopped it into sections between aid stations, where I would get water and maybe a bit of additional food.

NDW trailhead

[NDW trailhead at Farnham, and overlooking Denbies vineyard]*

The first section is really very runnable, and I reminded myself to take it easy, as there was a long way to go, although I also decided it made sense not to hold back -too- much while the temperature was still reasonable, only in the mid-70s to low-80s Farenheit. Despite running easy I found myself passing other runners almost from the outset (probably due to my slightly late start), and settled into a nice rhythm, walking the uphill sections and allowing myself to run – but not push – on the downhills. The aid station at Puttenham golf course wasn’t active for this year, so it was 15 miles to the first checkpoint at Newlands Corner. I’d decided to hand-carry a 500ml soft bottle in addition to the two bottles on the front of my pack, as I didn’t want to risk running out of water.

To absolutely minimise COVID-19 transmission risks at aid stations, each station had been split into three mini-stations (two later on the course), with water and Tailwind options, Pepsi, and some food in small plastic bags. When I arrived at the aid station there was a short queue. After sanitizing my hands with gel I had to wait about three minutes before other runners finished and I could step forward to fill my water bottles. The food supply was pretty minimal compared to the usual amazing Centurion spread – half bananas, satsumas, bags of sweets, crisps, nuts/raisins and individual cheeses (Baby Bel or similar). As I am now to all intents and purposes vegan, I was basically carrying all my own food, because I couldn’t rely on things like the sweets being eatable. I quickly refilled two water bottles, chose a satsuma and stepped away from the table so the next runner could come forward. Off to the side I stuffed the water bottles back into their pockets, peeled the satsuma, then sanitized my hands again (holding the satsuma in my teeth!) and set off. It was barely 9am and already hot enough that I could feel the sweat rolling down my face.

My preferred electrolyte additive is Elete – a concentrated salt solution without any flavouring or sweeteners. Often I put it in the water (how it’s meant to be used!) but on this occasion I had decided to simply drink it neat at intervals, squeezing out a number of drops onto my tongue, swallowing then chasing with water. It worked fine except for the time I tipped my head back too far and got the concentrate on the back of my throat and going down the wrong way. That hurt, as well as setting me coughing, and my throat felt raw for the next hour or more, and still felt raw the next several times I ate satsumas at the aid stations.

The second aid station would be just before Box Hill at 25 miles. I had arranged for my husband to meet me at the 22-mile crew point at Steers Field, so I was able to replenish my food supplies there to last me to Knockholt Pound, and I put some more sunscreen on my shoulders, neck, nose and ear tips. So far it had been reasonably cloudy, but the sun was starting to break through and the temperature was rising – my Garmin recorded temperatures reaching 93.2 F during the afternoon, and another runner reported a reading of 44.5 C – well over 100 F – in one of the unshaded areas.

As the temperature rose I kept my effort level and heart rate down, running easy and power hiking the hills. To my surprise I was passing other runners on the uphill sections as well as while running. Going through Denbies I overtook Rob Cowlin, who I know from many SVN races, and it was great to see him – one of the worst things about the lockdown for me has been not seeing everyone at races.

The aid station was a little earlier on the course than usual, at a cricket club just after leaving Denbies, rather than in the Box Hill Stepping Stones’ car park. The queue here was five or six minutes. Some runners were taking ages dithering over the food options. Back out onto the road, down to the underpass, through and back up to the Box Hill Stepping Stones car park. I was feeling fine – probably because I’d been holding back compared with previous years running the NDW50.

At some point I discovered my watch had stopped recording when I’d attached a powerbank to keep it well charged – despite having worked fine doing that on a recce. Irritating.

Due to pressure of visitors at the stepping stones and at the Box Hill viewpoint, we were diverted off the usual trail twice: first over the bridge rather than the stepping stones, then again half way up the usual steps, on a lower level route for some time before a more gradual climb that seemed to go on forever. Having recced this section a couple of times this year, as well as having raced the NDW50 previously, it seemed very strange to be taking a different path. The route had been well marked, but it was comforting to re-emerge onto the NDW and be back on the familiar paths.

Stepping stone Bridge

[The stepping stones that we didn’t use, and the bridge that we did]

From Box Hill to Caterham is the section that always seems to me to be one hill after another: lots of ups and downs with very little in the way of flatter bits. Every so often on the tops of the hills I reminded myself to look around and appreciate the views. As usual on trail runs, I was also watching and listening for birds and other wildlife, but this day seemed to be too hot even for the birds to be active. I did hear some birds of prey calling occasionally, and watched one gliding not far above the treetops.

On a recent recce it had been raining and chilly as I ran over Colley Hill, and as I ran the same trail through this day’s heat and sun I couldn’t help think about the contrast and wishing for a bit of that coolness. Through Gatton Park and past the Millenium Stones. Through the Reigate Hill checkpoint, with only a short queue. Across the golf course, then the cricket ground – where I passed a runner with a GoPro and thought nothing more of it until a few days later someone told me they had spotted me on a YouTube video**. Through St Katherine’s Church, pausing a moment to fill one of my water bottles with lovely cool water, and into Merstham, where along the road section suddenly I heard ‘Debra! Go Debra!’ and there was Peter Johnston from Striders, being really encouraging and saying how strong I looked – which was nice to hear, as I felt like I was melting. A local was spraying runners with a hosepipe as they passed (if wanted) and I closed my eyes and went right through for a good soaking. A runner ahead of me almost missed the left turn off the road, but I called ‘stop!’ and two crew on the pavement waiting for their runner pointed and called out as well, and he stopped abruptly and made the turn. “Nearly missed that!” he said as I passed him a few seconds later. “It’s easy to miss,” I replied – “I did on a recent recce.” Through the underpass then diagonally up across the fields, power hiking in the sun.

[Near Newlands Corner and near Caterham – courtesy of Stuart March Photography]

At the Caterham viewpoint it was lovely to see my friend Jo Quantrill (from South London Harriers), and we chatted while I waited in the queue for the aid station, also with Donna, one of the volunteers who I knew.

By now I was into very familiar territory, and knew that in the hot conditions some of the most testing miles lay directly ahead: not in terms of terrain, but simply because much of the next section would be fully exposed to the sun, running along the sides of fields rather than through woodland. I enjoyed the woodland while it lasted, and managed to call out a “left” just as another runner was about to miss a turning.

Reigate hill view Gatton Millenium stones

[Reigate Hill view and Gatton Millenium Stones]

So far my legs felt fine, my heart and breathing were fine, I was drinking and eating without any problems. I had my home-made energy balls, boiled new potatoes (with a little bag of salt to dip them in), lentil crisps, mini pretzels covered in salt crystals, mixed raisins and cranberries, and a bag of mixed vegan sweets. The important thing was to keep moving steadily, not pushing too hard in the heat, and walking the uphills to save my legs for later. I passed the point where I had fallen in the NDW50 last year, this time not tripping on the bit of flint sticking up through the path. Last bit of woodland, down the steps and out into the sunshine. It was hot, but I had expected that. Onwards – down, along past the quarry, a short sharp hill, and along again, passing the steep hill where the Vanguard Way joins the NDW for a little while, knowing that it’s now only a few fields until the Titsey Plantation and Botley Hill.

A pleasant surprise while trotting along the fields, as I realised that the person walking towards me was familiar – Rel Lindley from my running club (Striders of Croydon) had come out to encourage us on our way. That was a great boost and gave me something to think about other than the heat. Past the Greenwich Meridian sign, along one more field then finally a break from the sun, swinging onto the wide uphill track through the Titsey Plantation and up to the Botley Hill aid station.

When running the NDW50, by this point my legs have always been tired, so it was satisfying to note, as a sign that both my training and my pacing were paying off, that I could power-hike up the hill at a good clip, passing people along the way. At the top, however, the aid station was packed, with about six runners before me in the queue and people sitting all around on chairs and tree trunks. I took advantage of the enforced break to put some more suntan lotion on my shoulders, neck, nose and ears, and had a chat with Ollie Dawson – who I had last seen while recceing the Farnham to Dorking section of the NDW a few months before – about other runners we both knew out on the course. Finally I reached the front of the queue, refilled my bottles, took a satsuma and headed on towards Knockholt Pound. Shortly I passed Gareth Allen (who has been doing absolutely crazy virtual races during lockdown, to while away the disruption to his “12 x 100-milers in 12 months” challenge), who said he was really suffering in the heat. Then I saw Myles, another member of Striders, sitting under a tree and calling out encouragement – another boost.

Me on NDW before Titsey Plantation Meridian line plaque

[Along towards Titsey – me (courtesy of Rel Lindley) – and the Greenwich Meridian Line plaque]

Along Chestnut Avenue, thankfully wooded, before Westerham Hill, and about halfway I saw Nikki from Striders, with her husband and daughter. They offered me a Calippo, apologising for the fact that it was half melted. I didn’t mind – it was cold and delicious. As a bonus, Nikki poured a load of ice into my hat, which felt wonderful, and passed on the news that she had seen clubmates Ally and Tad already, but not Keith Simpson, who, being in the V70 category and a bit slower as a result, had probably set off later. I trotted off down the lane, sucking on the slushy Calippo and redistributing some of the ice down the front and back of my vest. It was horrifying how quickly the ice melted, but it was great while it lasted.

Cross the road, across more fields, up the steep hill and I knew we were only a few miles out from Knockholt Pound. This was where I usually alerted my husband that I was on my way and could he come to see me finish (if running NDW50) or pick me up (from a long recce run). On this occasion I called him to please meet me at Otford (the next crew point), as I could feel a spot on my back where my heart rate monitor strap was starting to rub quite badly and I wanted to tape it up.

A mile or so before the village, we had a second diversion from the NDW, which unfortunately meant running on road for a while rather than the usual fields and woodland, and was unfamiliar. I was relieved to spot the village hall (aid station). One of the volunteers at the front of the hall was Louise Ayling, and it was nice to see a familiar face (and no queue). I’d volunteered here in the past, and my memory was of the space packed with people. On this occasion there were far fewer runners in the hall, with chairs spread out around the walls and further chairs outside, but there was another familiar face, as clubmate Ally Whitlock was there. I got my drop bag and sat down to change my shoes and socks. Ally and I chatted a little while we got ourselves sorted – she was having some digestive problems, finding it hard to swallow anything, so was surviving mostly on Tailwind.

It was so hot that even changing my socks and shoes took longer than it should have. Thankfully the volunteers were able to provide some wipes so I could clean my feet of dust and larger bits of road grime before putting on the fresh socks. I also ate one of my pre-prepared sandwiches, stuffed my next lot of trail food into the side pockets and my head torches into the main pocket of my pack, and of course refilled my water bottles. The volunteers also provided a bowl of ice, so I set off again with ice under my cap, melting and cooling me down – heavenly!

Past where I’d seen wild orchids growing on a recce, down the hill, across the road and onwards towards Otford. I felt a bit bad as I realised I’d taken ages at the aid station and my husband would be waiting for me. Thankfully we had agreed to meet at a bench on a tiny patch of green, after the station, so he would be in the shade and no doubt reading. I finally arrived, and Aidan applied strips of kinesiology tape to protect my back. A kiss and I was off again, up the steep hill and the endless steps, then continuing on the route that was reasonably familiar after two recce runs.

At one point a reminder that we were on the Pilgrim’s Way: two men, one in old-fashioned monk’s garb and leaning heavily on a long staff, walking along the footpath. Into the Wrotham aid station and out again. Passing through some woodland I realised the light was beginning to go, so I paused and dug out my headtorches – my new LEDLenser neo 10R on my cap, and my old Silva Ninox 3 round my waist. A right turn down the lane and into Trosley Country Park. Partway through the park I switched on the main torch, which lit up the route fantastically, but gave a disconcerting dark patch seemingly just under my eyes. I switched the other light on and that area lit up. The combination of the two lights worked really well. The path through Trosley seemed to last forever and I hadn’t seen any of Centurion’s marking for ages, so I was very glad to have recced and know that there was no way I could have left the route. Finally to the end, with a sharp right turn and down a recently-resurfaced path, with another runner remarking as I passed that I was being sensible while he was being stubborn and not wanting to turn his light on until the next checkpoint.

The NDW turns north here, as it has to go to the Medway crossing. Heading towards Holly Hill, I noticed a crumpled empty soft bottle that had evidently fallen from another runner’s pocket, so I picked it up. At Holly Hill aid station, I asked whether I could leave it with them, as I didn’t really want to carry it the rest of the way, and they agreed that I could. This was also a crew point, so as I left the aid station and turned back onto the trail I called out to the nearest crews: ‘Pass it along the line – if anyone’s runner has lost a soft bottle, I found it and I’ve left it here.” Immediately one of the crew members replied, “An Ultimate Direction one?” As I frowned, trying to remember what those looked like, he added “grey with a red top?” “Yes!”. “Thank you!” and he headed towards the aid station.

At some point I fished a boiled potato out to eat and it smelled stightly ‘off’ so I didn’t eat the last two in the bag – nor the ones that I had intended to eat that were in the next drop bag. Sadly that removed a good source of both fuel and ‘real’ food for my stomach, and I didn’t really have anything as a replacement – my sandwiches just didn’t look appetising.

There’s a little section of the NDW just before the Medway Crossing that I’m very familiar with. The NDW crosses Ranscombe Farm and Nature Reserve, where I have spent many hours running in Saxons, Vikings and Normans events, sometimes in ideal conditions and sometimes in atrocious mud, but always in great company with fantastic camaraderie. It was comforting, therefore, to think of this section as ‘running towards Ranscombe’. Reaching the farm was lovely; this bit I knew so well (although I was used to running it in the other direction) and I remembered the amazing flowers I had seen there during my recce runs. The Medway crossing itself I was not looking forward to, after two very hot crossings on my recces, but at least this late I didn’t have the sun beating down on me, and there was considerably less traffic whizzing past on the other side of the tall fence.

Ranscombe Ranscombe flowers

[Ranscombe Nature Reserve]

Onwards towards Bluebell Hill, and a couple of miles before the aid station I spotted another soft bottle on the ground, so I picked it up (nearly full, this time, a very long, very thin bottle), and carried it with me to Bluebell Hill aid station, where I left it and hoped they would transport it to the end for possible reclamation by its owner

Milestone marker Stones at field entrance

[Milestone: 79 miles from Farnham, and stones to sidle round into a field]

Next stop, Detling. Here I reclaimed my second drop-bag, ate a bit of the instant noodles that I had made up in the morning, and switched out my food bags for fresh ones. I’d also noticed on turning off my Ninox torch that the battery indicator light was orange, so I fished out spare batteries and changed those before heading off again (the main torch was still fine). There was a runner there who was totally unfamiliar with the trail. Those of us who knew it told him that the next section was gnarly to Hollingbourne, but it was only a few miles – and after that it was much easier all the way to the end.

Having remembered the next few miles as truly horrible, they didn’t feel too bad, even in the dark (having good torches really helped), and Centurion’s route markings were plentiful. At one point I glanced at my watch and discovered a blank screen. Despite the earlier recharge, the battery had run out – frustrating!. I fished out the powerbank and connected it, gave it a minute then switched the watch on and got the course started again. It was another several minutes before I realised I hadn’t actually pressed the start button yet so it wasn’t recording my time etc. Steps down, steps up, ducking under branches and stepping over roots. I was moving more quickly than I had expected on this section, and even in the dark it was sufficiently familiar from my recce that I always knew I was on the correct route (and in the little section where the course took us slightly off the NDW, straight across a field rather than up and round the edges, I recognised that as well). I even passed a couple of other runners. Concentrating on my footing and balance, I didn’t eat much during this section, which was almost certainly a mistake. When I was on one of the easier bits crossing a field and rummaged around in the running vest pockets, I couldn’t find my bag of sweets, which was a real blow, as I had been relying on them for energy. I also felt guilty for having littered the trail by dropping them somewhere along the route. I tried to eat an energy ball instead, but for some reason found it unappetizing and had problems forcing myself to chew and swallow it. The wind had picked up and actually felt cool along the tops – I enjoyed the feeling of almost being cold. I’d worried that the LEDLenser would feel heavy, but it didn’t – although my head was beginning to itch from having the hat on (and now the head torch on top) for so long.

Finally I descended into Hollingbourne, where the wet ground indicated a shower that hadn’t touched me. Only 15 easy miles to go! I looked around for the aid station but couldn’t see it. There were some runner crews standing around and I asked one of them where the aid station was. She pointed down the lane and said ‘about three and a half miles that way!’ For some reason, although I knew it was 8.5 miles from Detling to the next aid station and only about 5 miles to Hollingbourne, I had it in my head there would be an aid station there. Although I still had nearly 500 mL of water left, and didn’t actually need the aid station yet, the information that I had 3.5 miles to the next checkpoint really threw me.

I started off down the lane, power walking initially to give my legs a bit of a rest. Then I checked the time, did some calculations and worked out that, despite having lost about 30 minutes to the aid station queues, and spent too long at the half-way aid station, if I could average 12 minutes per mile I might just squeak in under 24 hours. So I started to run. For at least 20 strides. Then I dropped back to a walk, frustrated. It wasn’t that my legs were obviously stiff and sore – they were not – but my glutes and my hip area in general felt completely tired and lacking in energy for running. The lane was going slightly uphill, so I waited for a downhill section and tried again. This time I maybe managed 30 strides with each leg. It was hugely frustrating. I could power hike without any problem, but my legs simply didn’t want to run. As an added problem to the glutes and hips feeling out of energy, my stomach was beginning to feel uncomfortable and on the edge of nausea when I ran, and my guts didn’t like it either! And my feet were feeling sore, despite my having changed into quite padded shoes (for me) at Knockholt Pound. By now none of the food I had left seemed appetising and I was really regretting the loss of my sweets. I nibbled on the savoury snacks, but that was all.

I continued down the lane, power hiking, trying to run whenever I hit a bit of downhill, managing 30 strides with each leg here, 50 there, while other runners started to pass me. Into the Lenham aid station, where I refilled my water bottles, took another satsuma and walked on. It was getting light, and my head was itching, so periodically I experimented with turning off my headtorches, and as soon as it was light enough I stopped, stowed the torches in my pack and took my hat off, giving my scalp a good scratch with both hands. Onwards, with a few more runners passing me. By now I knew the sub-24 wasn’t going to happen. At about 5am I phoned my husband, told him I’d hopefully be finishing in a couple of hours.

Fields and hills Field with large cedar

[Along the final fields before the road into Ashford – and a lovely cedar]

Onwards. Into Dunn St Farm, the final aid station, where I accidentally put Tailwind into one of my water bottles, but thankfully a volunteer told me in time that I could put water into the other one. I took another satsuma and walked on, still trying to jog for 30, 50 or occasionally 60 double-strides at a time. At one point I accidentally drank the Tailwind, which tasted awful. Across the fields, and I was glad that I had recced this bit, as I knew exactly where I was going, without constantly keeping an eye out for Centurion arrows and tape. Through the old churchyard and onto the road. Only 3.5 miles to go. They went on forever. I was glad of the Centurion signs again, so I didn’t have to use any mental energy on navigation. Walking briskly, jogging for a little, walking again, another brief jog. I forgot to even try to eat: I just wanted to finish.

Most of the road section had been downhill, and I’d forgotten the final rise before the stadium. Nothing to do except get over it, so I kept walking. My husband came into view and pointed me to the correct gate to take into the stadium. As my feet hit the track, I managed to break into a jog and kept it up for about a third of a lap, then dropped to a walk for a little while round the far bend, before persuading my legs into something resembling a run for the last of the curve and the final straight. I tried to summon a smile for the photographer as I approached the line, crossed it and stopped. Done. I had left everything I had out on the course and finished in 24:43:22.

[Along the finish straight, and done – courtesy of Stuart March Photography]

I collected my medal, posed for the finish-line photos, then headed off the track, accepting the T-shirt, congratulations from the volunteers and the offer of a vegan hot dog, but wanting nothing more than to sit down and hope my innards would stop feeling so uncomfortable.

Me having Finished! NDW100 buckle

[Me and my NDW100 buckle, outside the Julie Rose Stadium (finish) building***. I still need to earn one of these saying “100 miles – One Day” rather than “100 miles – Finisher”!]

Louise Ayling told me that I was 4th Woman and I was really pleased with that but I’m not sure I managed to smile about it. I felt really bad that I couldn’t summon up the energy to thank everyone properly, but I was feeling sick and weak and couldn’t find any posture where I was comfortable.

After trying lying down on the grassy bank, then in the car, hoping to regain enough energy to thank the volunteers properly, I finally gave up and we set off for home – where I confirmed I was 22nd overall – and 1st VF50!

MANY thanks to the Centurion people and all the volunteers who made this race happen – to get this held in the circumstances was amazing, and of course we couldn’t do these races without the marvellous volunteers.

———————————————————————————————————————————

Retrospective musings: I’ve run something over 100 marathons and ultras now, mostly ultras, but this was only my fourth 100-mile race and I’m still learning how to tackle them. I am really happy with my performance up to Hollingbourne. I kept my effort level down, my energy remained reasonably high despite the heat, and I was passing other runners throughout. I think I paced myself well through the heat of the day, and the couple of caffeine tablets I took, one at about 11pm and the other a few hours later, seem to have worked as I didn’t get sleepy – a far cry from my first 100-miler when I discovered that it is possible to fall asleep while walking. My heart rate stayed easily in the low-aerobic zone throughout, as my pace was limited mainly by the heat.

The last 15 miles I’m not so happy about! In retrospect, after the potatoes smelled ‘off’ I should have made sure I ate some of my sandwiches, even if I didn’t feel like it (some other runners had packed bottles of ice into their drop bags – that would be an excellent idea for another occasion). Once I discovered I didn’t have my sweets (I found them still in the drop bag when I unpacked it, so at least I hadn’t littered the trail) I should have made myself eat more of the dried fruit and the energy balls, and maybe taken another caffeine tablet. The calves, quads and hamstrings were fine but the glutes got tired – suggesting that I was using them properly (which is good) but need to strengthen them more.

I enjoyed the race (well, maybe not those last miles) despite the heat. I’m delighted with my placing: 1st VF50, 4th woman and 22nd overall out of a field of 235 starters, and in a race that only 46% of the field managed to finish. The sub-24 remains elusive, but only 17 runners managed that mark in the heat, and I have two more 100-mile races this year, so who knows!

 

* All photos except the ones of me and the one of the 100-mile buckle taken on recces, so all in daylight even if I passed the spot at night!

** YouTube video is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E5pmG41U7fs – I appear from 4:57-5:02.

*** I was too tired and feeling too grotty to go back onto the track for Aidan to take a photo with the track/Centurion finish arch in the background – and we were supposed to be staying off the track if possible (keeping numbers down)

 

Viking 100

Last year, approaching my 50th birthday, I decided on two challenges to celebrate this: running 10 marathons in 10 days, and running a 100-mile ultra. In late November/early December I completed the 10-in-10 and (apart from the couple of days with a lousy cold) thoroughly enjoyed it.

On 9th March I started part 2: the Viking 100 Endurance Run organised by Saxons Vikings and Normans (SVN).

I had decided to make my first 100 an “easy” one: no worries about logistics, navigation, or the possibility of walking off the side of a mountain while half-asleep in the small hours. Traviss, the person behind the SVN events, designed this event to meet those criteria, enabling people to try out the distance in a safe manner before going for a point-to-point or circular 100. The Viking 100 is held on a lapped course, with a 6.25 mile lap, so as a bonus I could think of it as 16 laps, not 100 miles.

Having looked at a spreadsheet produced by one of the other runners,Enda, who I knew from the 10-in-10 and other SVN events, I decided to aim for completing the first 8 laps/50 miles in 10 hours, giving 14 hours for the remainder to get a 24-hour finish. That was goal A. Goal B was completing within the generous time limit of 32 hours. And either way my parallel goal was not to get injured. I had been troubled by a piriformis niggle for several weeks, but due to work pressures only made it to a physiotherapist the week before the 100. At least I did get to the physio, and after sessions on the Tuesday and Thursday it was much improved.

I was really unsure what to take with, but Traviss said there was plenty of room in the home-base barn, so I packed everything but the kitchen sink, including six pairs of shoes (three designs, two sizes of each), complete change of running gear, additional tops and socks, two waterproof running jackets etc. etc. And a crateful of food to give more choice on top of what the organisers would supply, and warm clothes, plus the usual running bits and pieces in my KitBrix, including headtorch, backups, and spare batteries. And a 7-litre tea urn, plus a 5-litre pump-action thermos already filled with hot water, just in case anything went wrong with SVN’s urn (I’m a believer in the umbrella principle – the disasters you’re prepared for don’t happen).

Weather forecast was middling: high 10C/low 7C – so much better than last weekend – but a high chance of rain for periods both during the day and at night (exactly what times varied with every forecast I read).

Friday evening was spent madly packing, plus making four batches of my vegan flapjacks (they usually go down well with runners at SVN events, particularly the cinnamon ones), and taking the parkrun equipment down to Lloyd Park.

Alarm went off at 5 am and my husband and I managed to get into the car by just after 6, only about 20 minutes later than intended. Aidan drove while I snoozed. No travel problems and by 7.30 am we were parked at the farm and carrying my stuff into the barn. All the spaces round the sides had gone, except for at the far end, so we set up in a middle row with a few others, piling the bags and crate up plus an upright folding kitchen chair and a camping chair. Everyone had lots of stuff, so our pile didn’t look excessive.

At 07.50 or so Traviss held the usual short briefing and at 8 am Rachel counted down from 10 and we set off – up the farm drive, down the road a short way, then onto the very muddy path on the edge of a wheat field.  We had used the same route for the Moonlight Challenge a few weeks ago and hoped it would be better this time. It was worse. However, it was only a few hundred yards, then we were out of it onto a decent concrete path up to the road, down along the road for about 100 yards (or on the grass verge), then off again onto farm tracks and footpaths – a fair amount of concrete, but some softer sections.  Ignoring the meandering of the paths, the course is a lollipop: out for a couple of miles to ‘Jelly Baby Junction’ (a small aid station), around the head of the lollipop, including past the Wantsum Brewery taproom, and a field of solar panels with the grass kept short by sheep, back to Jelly Baby Junction then down the ‘stalk’ back to home base – including up the same awful section of mud. I was wearing trail shoes – initially my old VivoBarefoot Neo Trails – but even in trail shoes it was bad, and even worse on the way up the hill than on the way down.

Reading up on 100-mile races, I knew that mentally hard sections can hit quite early (as well as later), so I was not totally taken by surprise when I started to get negative thoughts while I was only on lap 3. These were centred around the possibility of injuring myself such that I wouldn’t be able to run Comrades in June. However, I kept going, telling myself I could always pull out later if any of the niggles became actual pain rather than points of mild discomfort.

Back to that mud. There was another muddy section near the start of the ‘head’ of the lollypop, but at least that was flat, and did have a hard gravel base. The start/finish section was just mud. When the rain came during the afternoon it became even worse than it had been early on. The consistency of the mud was such that while those wearing road shoes were sliding all over the place, it was sucking my trail shoes into the ground at every stride: my heels kept raising half out of the shoes, did come out a couple of times, and it took a lot of muscular effort to take each step. People started straying off the mud path into the field – which was sown with wheat, so then everyone had to be told to keep off the wheat. After a few laps my Neo Trails started to press into my left ankle and I switched to my Inov8 RaceUltra 270s, only to find that those stuck to the mud worse than the Neo Trails had – so I tried switching to my Inov8 Trailroc 235s, in case the different lug pattern helped, and they were slightly better.

Having the lap format at least meant that I had the option to change my shoes, as well as to eat from a range of options available, and during the evening and night, to drink hot drinks if I wanted to, and eat hot food (instant noodles!). There were also toilets, which I found I was visiting every lap – a combination of making sure I was drinking enough and of drinking (caffeinated) cola at Jelly Baby Junction.

Although the views were relatively limited – mostly arable fields and trees, plus the nearby A299 –  there were sections that I always enjoyed: the single-track footpath between the two wooden bridges, from which I spotted the pair of swans in the field again (as they had been during the Moonlight Challenge); the cycle path paralleling the main track on the way to/from Jelly Baby Junction; seeing Reculver castle on the skyline; towards the top of the hill in the middle of the ‘loop’, where a skylark was singing his heart out all day – I love following the amazing sound and spotting the tiny bird hanging in the sky – and another skylark during the long downhill back towards Jelly Baby Junction.

Mid-afternoon, I came into the barn and Rachel thanked me: they had turned on their hot water urn and it had promptly ‘died’ and not been revived by a new fuse. My back-up urn and 5-litre flask meant they didn’t need to send anyone out on an emergency mission to find and purchase a new urn or kettles.

Gradually, losing at least 5 minutes a lap to that muddy section, I realised I wasn’t going to finish the first 50 miles in 10 hours – in the end those first eight laps took about 10 hours 30 minutes. At that point I sat down and changed my Injinji socks for a fresh pair, as the first pair were low-cut, leaving about an inch gap to my Skins: mud was drying in this area and then rubbing against the edge of the socks, which was starting to irritate my skin. The replacement pair were longer and I was able to tuck them up under the Skins, so no more rubbing from dried mud – result.

I also put my headtorch on, and I took some spare batteries – plus my tiny back-up headtorch so I would have light if the main one needed changing in the middle of nowhere. I was wearing my new Montane Minimus jacket, since I wasn’t sure when the rain would come, so I was able to put the batteries and mini torch in the pocket of that. Before I had gone a mile I realised that the batteries did need changing, but decided they could wait until Jelly Baby Junction where there would be a solid surface. Arriving there with the light getting dimmer and dimmer, I took the old batteries out and got the new ones in, with a bit of a struggle to get the cap back on. I turned it on. No light. Opened it and checked that the batteries were in correctly. One was upside down, so I reversed it. Still no light. I then remembered that I had mislaid my battery checker so not checked that the rechargeable batteries were still properly charged. Evidently they were not. Thankfully one of the volunteers at the aid station, Derek, came to my rescue with some spare batteries, and I was on my way again – although those only lasted two or three laps before I needed to change them again (with some other batteries I had back at base).

About 10pm, when I had done 10 laps trudging through the mud, Traviss finally decided to divert us up the road, avoiding that muddy time-sink – a welcome relief to everyone. That also meant that, to make the 100 miles, he added an extra piece onto the course at the end of the 16 laps, varying in length depending how many laps you had done before the course change.

By now, in the dark, another problem was surfacing. While I had run most of the first lap with Enda, a fellow 10-in-10er, I ran most of the way alone. I like running alone (as well as with company), so that wasn’t a problem of itself. However, despite my best intentions, I had spectacularly failed to get any early nights in the week before the event: the earliest I had managed to go to bed was 11.30pm, and both Thursday and Friday we hadn’t got to bed until after midnight. There were always reasons – Lloyd parkrun photos to be uploaded, other voluntary commitments, a rare evening out with a friend, and on the Friday of course getting everything ready for the Viking 100. The overall result was that I had arrived at the 100 already sleep-deprived. While I was running I felt okay, but after 50 or 60 miles I was most definitely using a run/walk strategy, and every time I took a walking break my eyes were closing, my feet were slowing and wandering all over the road – I was literally falling asleep on my feet.

Reaching the home-base barn at the end of the lap, I decided that a short snooze was necessary. I have had plenty of experience with driving while tired, and usually 10 or 20 minutes nap then allows me to keep my eyes open for another hour or two. So I put a warm coat on, wrapped a fleece jacket around my legs, set my watch to a 10-minute countdown alarm, asked my husband to wake me if the alarm didn’t and settled into the camping chair. I was just falling asleep when a fellow runner woke me by loudly asking me when I was starting off again – turned out he was concerned that I might have been there for ages and was losing time! My husband explained I was just trying for a few minutes of sleep and he apologised. When the alarm went off, seemingly moments later, he had left a Cadbury’s crème egg to say sorry. I ate it, hoping that the sugar rush would be helpful, gulped some tea and set off again.

The whole night then followed a pattern of: set out, run and walk; by about 2/3 of the way round find my eyes closing again; get back to the barn, eat, drink, set 10-minute timer, snooze, wake to the beeping of the alarm, get up and get going again.

I had an ordinary wrist watch on, so I knew what time it was, and a Garmin (310xt) set to give me elapsed time, distance and lap pace (average pace per mile). I wasn’t sure how long the Garmin would last, so at 14 hours I started my older Garmin (another 310xt, but beginning to come apart at the seams) going and when I got to 65 miles I pressed the start button. The first one surprised me by lasting well over 16 hours. I got a bit confused once I swapped, because my old Garmin was set to time, distance, lap pace and ‘instantaneous’ pace – and the values were not in the same parts of the screen as on the other one.

I did my best to keep to my usual practice of saying “well done!” to everyone I passed/was passed by, whether going in the same or the opposite direction, but I may have missed a few during the depths of the night.

Bright points of the night hours were when I spotted small mammals along the path: several field mice, one rodent that might have been a mouse or a vole, but disappeared too quickly for me to be sure which, and a young rabbit. The first mouse was the most memorable because it paused for several seconds within the beam of my headtorch before darting back into the undergrowth by the side of the path.

About 4 am, Traviss comforted me by saying that I had only one more lap to do in the dark and it would be easier once it was light. He was correct: once the sky lightened my eyelids stopped closing and I was able to run more, walk faster during the walking breaks, and didn’t need any more naps, so the last two laps went faster. I had already noticed that the birds were beginning to wake up, and while the light levels rose I enjoyed a veritable dawn chorus – a very welcome sound. During the last lap I even heard one of the skylarks again. I was also able to see, under the solar panels near one section, the sheep grazing there – combined solar and sheep farming! Somewhere in those last couple of laps I passed Sol, another 10-in-10er – who asked me if I had enjoyed the cream egg – so then I knew who that had been, and was able to thank him for the egg.

I was quite pleased during these two loops to discover that my running speed was sometimes in the 12-minute-mile range – not too bad at 90+ miles into my first 100-mile event – although I was walking more (200-300 L-R paces run, 30-50 L-R paces walk, mostly), and had by now given up trying to run on the remaining slippery mud section, as I didn’t want to risk slipping and injuring myself at this stage. Passing Jelly Baby Junction towards the end of my second-last last full lap, Sharon gave me a freshly-fried vegan sausage in a finger bun, plus ketchup – and it tasted very good. Onwards – back to the barn, bit of food and drink and out again, still on a reasonable run-walk schedule, although with more walking creeping in.

Last full lap done, into the barn for a quick drink and a Twizzler for a last bit of energy as I set out on the additional part-lap: up to Jelly Baby Junction and back. At this point my legs suddenly and unexpectedly went on strike. I could still walk, but running became a mere shuffle and I could rarely persuade my legs to keep jogging for as much as 100 left-right steps at a time. I’m not sure exactly why, but I suspect it was a combination of: 1) I had told myself at the outset that this was 16 laps; I had completed those 16 laps so my brain was saying I should be stopping; 2) my second Garmin had now logged 35 miles, giving a total of 100 miles – again, a reason why my brain would think it was time to stop. However, according to Traviss’s course measurements and calculations I still had 3 miles to go, so I set off through the light rain (we had three periods of rain I think – mid-afternoon for a couple of hours or so, again for a while during the night and then a third after it got light again, but temperatures were quite mild and it could have been a lot worse) walked and shuffle-jogged onwards, more walk and less jog with each mile, until finally, finally, I walked up the last slope of road and found Aidan waiting for me at the turn into the drive. I set off down the drive towards the barn, Aidan beside me, and pushed my legs into a jog down the slight slope. Inside and to the table. I stopped and rang the bell – done!

Rachel timed me in at 25:50:12 – about two hours longer than I had hoped for, but I had finished.

Traviss handed me my “Viking 100 Endurance Run” belt buckle and my Viking 100 Endurance Run FINISHER T-shirt. He noted that I looked happier than I had done all night, and I explained that I’d spent the whole night struggling to keep my eyes open – I hadn’t been unhappy, in pain or even physically that tired – just sleep-deprived.

Wandering to our bit of the barn, I sat down, took my shoes off and started to peel off my socks. This turned out to be difficult because the mud had seeped into each toe of the sock and then dried, forming firm cylinders that were not easy to pull off. Still, no blisters, so they had done their job. Clean dry socks, a pair of overtrousers and a warm jacket went on quickly to stop me from getting cold. I made up my usual recovery shake and drank that, then Aidan and I packed everything up – except the big flask, which was filled up with hot water from the urn, and Rachel thought that would do for the remaining 100-mile people still out on the course. At this point I found the vegetarian hot dog sausages that I had looked for and failed to find during the night, so I ate three of them with a tortilla wrap while we were loading and getting into the car, and happily dozed while Aidan drove us back home.

 

I’m so glad I did this event. I’ve been wondering for several years – since before my three big injuries – whether I could manage a 100 – and now, despite it all, and even with the permanently scarred (so weakened) ankle tendon, I have. It was also great doing this with such a great bunch of people – fantastic people at both the main base and Jelly Baby Junction; Enda, Sharon (not doing the 10, and arriving late, but it was still great to see her), Elaine, Nick, Sol, Lucy, Kat, Mark, David and lots of other runners who have become familiar from the 10-marathons-in-10-days and from other SVN events, and Simon who I first met on the South Downs Way 50 in 2013. I am totally in awe not only of the people who ran this quickly – Robert Treadwell finishing first in 17:37:07 – but also of those such as Somei, Kat, and Lucy, who took more than 30 hours – and finished.

I’ve already signed up for Samphire Hoe 100 in March next year. Meanwhile: Comrades!

Lessons learned:

  • Avoid going into a 100-mile or other overnight event already sleep deprived. Physically I held up quite well, but the sleepiness cost me about an hour in naps at base camp, and I don’t know how long in slower walking and short semi-snoozes leaning on any solid object (such as a fence post) available around the course.
  • Load fresh batteries into your head torch the day before the run; don’t leave this to do on the journey to the event – when you might fall asleep and forget about it. Also, check your spare batteries beforehand. Do have a spare torch so you can see to change the batteries if you need to do so away from base.
  • Physically, my legs will keep going – even allowing me to keep running fair stretches – for 100 miles, which is great!

Return to the trails

After discovering I had stress-fractured my pelvis during the London Marathon, there was nothing much I could do to help it heal other than rest. Even swimming hurt, so I bought a pull buoy to help my legs to float, and swam arms-only two or three times a week. I minimised even walking for nearly the first five weeks, and didn’t try cycling during the same period.

My patience and good behaviour was rewarded when the x-ray at six and a half weeks showed good healing: callus formation not only on the inferior pubic ramus where there had been a visible fracture line originally, but also on the superior pubic ramus, at the point where I’d felt point pain after the marathon – which explained that pain.

The orthopaedic surgeon cleared me to start running, aiming to return to “a normal amount of running” (not a normal amount for ultrarunning!) over a period of 4-6 weeks. Taking a conservative approach, I first jogged 200 yards gently, barefoot, around the cricket pitch at my running club (nice soft ground, short grass) at 7.5 weeks and only tried a similar five minute barefoot jog on grass that weekend, eight weeks post injury. Over the next eight weeks I very gradually increased my running, to 10 then 15 minutes gentle jogging barefoot on grass, then moving to a 30-minute jog-walk schedule (e.g. seven minutes jog, three walk, x3) before finally reaching 30 minutes of running, then 40, then an hour.

Three runs were particular milestones in my return to running. The first was that initial barefoot jog. The second, seven weeks after re-starting, was running Heaton parkrun while visiting family in Manchester. For the first time, I pushed myself to run faster, not taking my run so easy, and I finished in under 26 minutes (still some way off my PB). More importantly, I was without pain both during and after that faster running.

Then this last weekend I cycled over to the Sandilands clubhouse for the Striders of Croydon Sunday run. Our standard trail run is one that I have literally dreamed about running, both during the period when I was recovering with my broken ankle and more recently with the pelvic stress fracture. The initial section takes us through Lloyd Park, then along Oaks Lane, across Oaks Road and into Addington Hills. Emerging from the woods near the Coombe Road tram stop, it’s a short section on road to Bramble Bank, a lovely undulating section of trail (but watch out for the tree roots!). Then onwards, with several sections of great running, uphill, on the flat and down, on narrow and wide woodland trails through Selsdon Wood Nature Reserve, as well as a testing uphill stretch along Old Farleigh Road before another off-road section through Croham Hurst.

I love that run, all of it, even, in a perverse way, the push up Old Farleigh Road, but in particular the trail sections.

On Sunday the whole run was amazing. I could feel my whole running form changing, becoming both more relaxed and stronger, compared to running on the road or on grass in open parks. On the final woodland downhill stretch I was flying, legs stretching, heart pumping, and a wide grin on my face that kept returning for hours afterwards.

Ninety minutes, nine miles. Still a lot of training to do to get back up to decent distances, but now I can really, truly say that I’m RUNNING again!

Not-running Comrades

At the end of May I flew from the UK to South Africa, via Dubai, to not-run Comrades.

It was a decidedly bitter-sweet experience, given that I had been training for Comrades since November last year, but I’m very glad that I went.

Why was I not running? Injury, or a series of unfortunate events: I broke my left ankle last June, got running again, worked up to a 26-mile run by Christmas and an official marathon, qualifying me for Comrades, in January. Then I got some back pain from too much sitting in a badly-fitting office chair, then a groin niggle, which I thought was referred from my back… but which turned out to be (or at least partially be) from pelvic malalignment related to decreased flexibility in the broken ankle

At 16 miles into the London Marathon I found myself suddenly unable to lift my right leg and run – I walked the remaining 10 miles, slowly and with a heavy limp. An x-ray three days later showed that I had stress-fractured a pubic ramus on my right side, which would mean no running for eight weeks if I was lucky or as long as eight months or more if I was unlucky and/or didn’t rest it properly. Running a 56-mile hilly road ultra five weeks later was not going to happen.

Since I had paid for my flights months earlier, and wanted to meet a number of people I’d been chatting to online, I decided to go anyway: even if it did mean about 18 hours of travelling in each direction for four days in South Africa. I packed carefully for the trip, including NOT packing my running shoes, so as to avoid any last-minute temptation to actually start the race. Despite knowing that I would not be running, the pre-race excitement on-line in the UK Runner’s World Comrades thread had my heart rate increasing in the days before my flights out.

Travelling to Comrades was an experience in itself: gradually joining up with other runners: first spotting one or two other runners on the flight from Gatwick to Dubai (the running T-shirts gave it away), then many more runners some with running shoes dangling from hand luggage, gradually drifted into the waiting area for the flight from Dubai to Durban. During the flight I decided the passengers probably had the lowest average BMI and highest average fitness level of any set of passengers on an airplane!

I would never have deliberately set out to travel all the way to South Africa to watch other people running Comrades, but I’m very glad I went. I got to meet lots of friends I had previously known only online, as well as make some totally new friends. I got to take part in the record breaking parkrun at North Beach (1,872 finishers), meet Ari Searlis there and get him to sign my copy of my book on the page where he’s mentioned; meet up with Bruce and Gill Fordyce again. I got to enjoy wandering around the expo during Saturday without having to just rest before the race;  I got to experience the start of the race, and learn that a small flashlight (pitch black inside the portaloos!) as well as toilet paper will be important when I finally get to do the Down run. Spending the day in the stadium, watching and taking photos, was fun and I had a further day of enjoyable socialisation with other runners before we all departed.

Leaving South Africa was a reverse of the journey out there, with a multitude of runners, many in their new Comrades T-shirts, on the flight to Dubai, and what felt like a very abrupt parting as we all dispersed through the huge Dubai airport, off to different flights home.

Not-running Comrades was a good experience. But hopefully, with a careful return to running, next year I’ll be having an even better experience, running it.

Best Book – Running Awards 2016

I was amazed and delighted to discover late last night that my book, parkrun: much more than just a run in the park, had won the “Best Book” category at The Running Awards 2016.

I poured my heart and my life into writing this book for a year. I interviewed more than 150 people in person, by telephone and via Skype – not counting the parkrunners who coped with me chatting to them at parkruns then asking them to repeat what they had just said, but this time with my voice recorder running. I gathered about 100 more tales that were sent in by parkrunners after parkrun kindly put out a call for stories. I looked through old parkrun newsletters and run reports, and cross-checked information where stories didn’t quite match (memories can be fallible five or ten years after the event).

I wanted to write a book that would inform people about how parkrun started, how it had developed over the first 10 years, what goes on behind the scenes to make it all work. I wanted to celebrate all the different aspects of parkrun (the working title was parkrun: a celebration, which then got used for the parkrun photo book), and all the different parkrunners, sharing stories of everyday parkrunners as well as some of the pioneers and key people in the organisation.

And I wanted to write an inspirational running book not about running marathons or ultramarathons, but about an event that pretty much everyone can take part in.

Given this award, I think I can say I succeeded.

Thank you to everyone who voted for parkrun: much more than just a run in the park – winning this award means a lot to me.

And thank you to everyone who supported me in writing the book: Paul Sinton-Hewitt who gave me the initial go-ahead and his backing to contact people; Bruce Fordyce for writing his wonderful foreword; Scott Reeves (Chequered Flag Publishing) for publishing it; Shelagh Yospur, Aidan Dixon and Eva Jacobs for commenting on drafts before it went to the publishers; and everyone who contributed their memories, stories, quotes and photos that made this book what it is.

Dymchurch Marathon

Rather than get up at 5.30 and drive down to Dymchurch this morning, we had booked into a B&B and drove down yesterday late afternoon instead. Walking the short distance from the B&B to a pub to eat, the wind was biting and I decided I would definitely be wearing my long-sleeved top and my jacket, as well as gloves and an earwarming-headband.

This morning was a little warmer but still a bit chilly. We walked to the race HQ on the promenade at the top of the sea wall, just a few minutes from where we had been staying. Registration was very simple – walk up to the table, give your name, get your number. It took maybe 30 seconds. They had written each person’s name on the number in large letters, which was a nice touch. Quite a few runners were running the double, so already had their numbers from the previous day. Bags could be left next by the wall, just a couple of yards from the registration/aid table. Given the short time from arrival to start, dumping of bags etc., it had a relaxed feel, much more like a parkrun than, for example, a big city marathon. The fact that lots of people knew one other added to the feeling of friendliness and informality.

To avoid getting chilled, I kept my fleece on until the race briefing started, then handed it to my wonderful husband. A short briefing from Traviss, including the vital information about the turn-around points (round a chalk marking at one end, and touching the fence at the other end of the route), and we were off. My ‘A’ goal was sub-3:50; my ‘B’ goal was sub-4:00 and my stretch goal was a PB/sub-3:47.

Traviss also made a presentation to one of the runners, Tiago, from Portugal, who has not only run 400 marathons, but is one of the few people to have run at least 100 marathons in two different countries (in his case Portugal and the UK) and has run 100 road marathons, 100 trail marathons and 100 ultras. He was wearing a Comrades hat, and turns out to be the Comrades Ambassador for Portugal.

We started with a short distance, just a few hundred yards, to the chalk mark, all in a group, then we set off towards the far end of the promenade, with the group quickly stretching out. The running was easy and my Montane Minimus jacket was soon tied around my waist. I tried not to run too fast, but it really felt very comfortable at a good 15-20 seconds/mile faster than my target speed for a 3:50 marathon. Then we reached the far end, touched the fence, turned around – and the wind hit us. Suddenly the temperature dropped 10 degrees and the running got a lot harder. I quickly donned my jacket and had to start pushing in order to keep my pace under 9-minute mileing. Back to the chalk marks, turn around – and it was warm, easy running again. The two directions were so amazingly different it was like two separate races.

Approaching the end of the second lap I dumped my Minimus and grabbed my Montane windproof jacket from my bag instead – it was perfectly adequate to keep the chill wind at bay. Back round the chalk mark, past the aid station/HQ and thankfully there were some 330ml bottles of water as well as the open cups of water and squash, so I took one of those – I’ve always prefered sipping to gulping, while running.

My nutrition strategy was very simple: one green-ear (vegetarian) Percy Pig at nine miles, then another every three miles. Slight variation later with Kendal Mint Cake instead, and I did change to one every two miles after 18 miles. I was also carrying a 25 mL bottle of Elete electrolytes so a few times I squirted a bit of that into my mouth and washed it down with the water.

Because of my speed differential between directions, there were a few runners whom I outpaced when running downwind, but they caught me up and sometimes passed me on the section into the wind. The back-and-forth, multi-lap nature of the course meant that we were all passing and repassing each other anyway, calling out encouragement, greeting people we knew – in my case, the couple who had been at the B&B we stayed at; Mark, a Comrades runner who sometimes runs at Lloyd parkrun; Simon, who I’d run with for quite a long stretch of the very cold, wet and windy SWD50 in 2013. We could also see the really fast guys, the first of whom was clearly heading for sub-3:00. I also realised that apart from a lady called Sunny, who had passed me early on in the second lap and looked very fresh and strong throughout, none of the other women seemed to be ahead of me, making me second woman!

The fourth lap my legs were a little tired but I was still going strong. By this time the air temperature was a bit higher and I’d warmed up enough that I ditched the windproof jacket and the gloves for the final lap. Turning into the fifth lap, I started to feel a bit more tired, and it took me ages to catch up with the guy in front (one of those I’d been leapfrogging with), while on previous laps I’d caught him in the first mile or so. Still, catch him I did, and we reached the fence together and turned for the final push towards home.

It was hard. Having the wind in your face when you’re trying to push the last two and a bit miles home is not easy. Having someone to run with/chase did help, and I kept reminding myself that I had less than a parkrun to go… then it was less than a mile to go. My legs were tightening up a bit now and my running partner, Keith, managed to pull away from me, but I chased him as strongly as I could (it didn’t feel very strong by then), managed one final burst of faster running for the last 100 yards… and it was done. My Garmin showed 26.3 miles and 3:49, so I’d succeeded in my ‘A’ goal if not my stretch goal. Not bad for a little more than seven months out from breaking my ankle. [Official results give me 3:49:29].

Travis gave me my medal – quite the largest I’ve ever earned – and handed me my goody bag. Keith and I congratulated each other. My wonderful husband gave me my warm clothes and a flask of hot drink (very welcome). He had also taken photos as I approached the finish line – but when I checked them I discovered I’d forgotten to put the memory card back into the camera, so no picture had been saved! He did take a couple of me with my enormous medal, using my phone.

I then made him hang around as I wanted to see Mark and Simon finish; Mark was shepherding another runner to qualify for Comrades. Meanwhile I chatted about Comrades and training with Tiago and one of the other runners. Finally Simon and Mark came in, very close together, and after a bit of chat we headed off.

Oh – and it turned out Sunny had started even later than I’d thought and was a lap behind, so I seem to have been first woman. [And official results put me 12th of 94 runners – although I haven’t counted how many of those ran it Saturday as well]

So, that’s my qualifying race done. Tiago suggested I should push on at London, try to go sub-3:40 and gain C pen, so I’ll have to make a decision about that – the alternative being to just treat it as a training run and aim for sub-4:00.

Now I’ll run easy for a few days, then from next week start pushing the mileage up. Onwards to Comrades!

Finally, 50 parkruns!

Yesterday, 10th October, 2015, at the 265th Lloyd parkrun, I finally ran my 50th parkrun.

I had originally planned to run this at Lloyd parkrun’s 250th event, back in June, which would have given me an average of one event run for every five we’d held – not a surprising average given my role as Event Director and Volunteer Coordinator – but then I broke my ankle. It’s now 16 weeks since that simple slip on a grassy bank which caused the injury, and it’s only in the last few weeks that I’ve started, very gradually, to run. First a few paces barefoot on grass, then jogging a bit on a 0.5 mile walk to the railway station, when I was slightly late for the train, working up to jogging all the way to or from a railway station 1.5 miles from home, and then during this last week, some longer runs, reaching about parkrun distance.

Putting myself down to be Tail Runner was one way (many might say the only way) to make sure I wouldn’t try to run too fast on this first parkrun back after so long. It felt really, really good to line up with the other runners, to jog along the track, including large parts of the course that I have not seen in four months, to thank the marshals as I passed them, to watch all the runners ahead of me and cheer on the faster runners as they overtook me during the second lap. I even managed to pick up a few bits of litter along the way and deposit them in the bin just before the bowling green, and collect a few route marker arrows to help the marshals (who bring back the arrows once the last runner has passed them).

I finished in a Personal Worst Time of 47:44, but that didn’t matter. It felt FANTASTIC to be running, and it’s wonderful to have finally made it to the 50-club. Of course, now that I’ve seen the new colour for the 250-club T-shirt is a really nice green, I’ve got motivation to run a bit more often. Volunteering-wise, I’ll be at 250 separate occasions before the end of 2015, earning my 25-club volunteering T-shirt ten times over, but it’s taken me since January 2011 to reach 50 parkruns, so it’s going to be a loooong time before I earn a black 100-club T-shirt, never mind a green 250-club shirt to go with the red 50-club shirt and the purple (NOT my favourite colour – I voted for the bright yellow) volunteering T-shirt.

Never mind – I’m running – and parkrunning – again. That’s what’s important.