Saturday, 15 July 2017

Thames Ring 250 Race Report 2017

It is Wednesday morning and the wait is finally over.  I’m driving to Goring with the Foo Fighters’ ‘Best of Me’ playing on repeat and after months of preparation and several years ultra-running experience under my belt I have the courage to start this race.
After registration and making sure I have everything I need, I meet up with Martin and Dave, we have informally agreed to form a team and stay together for as long as possible – Plan A.

We exchange hellos with a few familiar faces we then we’re off, our plan is to run for 28min and walk for 2, with one person taking the lead at a time and reading the map. I decided that for this race I would only use a normal watch, so no GPS or HR, just running easy and by feel.

I have to be honest and admit that I don’t really like the start of long races, your legs work fine and you don’t feel like you have to work hard for anything. Apart from running through the middle of the Henley-on-Thames Regatta, the first leg of this race to checkpoint 1 at around 27miles was uneventful. We all arrived well, topped up our drinks, ate a bit and in no time we were running again.

Once we hit 30 miles we all felt that our 28/2 strategy was a bit much and the team decided to change it to 25min run 5 walk. Around this time I also felt I had to work a bit to keep up with Martin and Dave and started to look forward to my 5min walk. It was fantastic to see my friends Mark Thornberry and Allan en route for a bit of support. Mark has been going through a tough time lately and to show him my support I wrote his nickname in sharpie on my arm to remind me that no matter how shit I felt Mark would give anything to be racing this too if he could (Mark, I will never moan about losing my running mojo again).
As the miles dropped away I began to feel worse and worse and by the time we were due to walk I was already quite a few metres away from the rest of the A team. As the aid stations are all at least 25miles apart, from time to time we would stop at shops for fuel, with our first pit stop at Windsor, for an ice cream, water and a coke. As we approached aid station 2 at 55 miles I really began to struggle to keep up, I really wanted to walk to compose myself and that’s what I did, whilst Martin and Dave disappeared into the distance. Plan A was starting to fade and I realised I had to listen to my body and decided it was time to start my own strategy. My best way to describe ultra-running is that it is a series of up and downs, it doesn’t matter how crap you feel, it does always get better; you just need to keep moving through the shit!

Mark was going to run the Thames Ring with me!

I arrived in CP2 feeling better after the walk, I was quick topping up my drink, ate a bit and Martin and Dave waited for me. We again revised our strategy and now we were walking for 5min and running for 15min. For some reason I was desperate to leave the Thames Path and get into the Grand Union Canal in London for a change of scenery. The weather had been perfect all day, overcast and cool and I was looking forward to an even cooler evening.
Having left the Thames Path, we were running the streets of London to find the canal in Brentford and I started to struggle again and my friends slowly disappeared into the distance with two other runners. Once on the canal I managed to catch Martin at a water tap and I told him to not worry about me, from now on I definitely had to run at my own race, at whatever felt comfortable. They all left and I took the time to put my jacket on and started running again, feeling relieved that I wasn’t delaying my team mates and that I could dictate my own strategy.

I enjoyed a really good section of running through the night to checkpoint 3 at around  80miles, I was craving hot food then and enjoyed eating spaghetti with frankfurters and a cup of tea, to my surprise Dave and Martin were there and enjoying a sit down. We left the aid station together but they soon disappeared into the distance again.

A few miles later I was in Rickmansworth where I knew there was a big supermarket where I bought the first of many chicken wraps I would eat during the next three days and some apple juice. I was now in familiar territory, having covered that section of the Grand Union Canal many times. As I got into Watford I saw Ryan and Tanya and after a night of running it was great to see familiar faces. Ryan was the very first person to inspire me to do an ultra, and no doubt it was a real lift to see him.

I passed the 100-mile mark in around 23h15 just after the M25 bridge, that’s when I caught up with John and Gary, and we shared some miles playing ‘chase that barge’, where we would run to the next canal boat I picked and then  walk a few metres. It kept us motivated until we arrived in Apsley where we used the corner shop in the marina for some supplies and a mini break on a bench.

Soon enough we were arriving in CP4 in Berkhamsted, 105 miles, where we were able to use a proper toilet and where I changed into clean lycra shorts, underwear and a chance to properly re-lube - ultra running can be very kinky!  Hot food was available and I thoroughly enjoyed a bacon sandwich a cuppa and some fresh fruit.
During the next section to Tring and Leighton Buzzard I felt really great and ran lots, the weather was again superb, slightly warmer than the day before but still overcast and being on the Grand Union meant I had taps available for water quite regularly so I didn’t need to find any shops.

Going through my hometown was superb, I had friends appearing at every bridge to say hello and show their support. First it was Jacquie, then Mark Ironmate, then my guitar teacher Jeff was at the pub, Matt on his bike and finally at Tesco I met my wife, daughters and Karen. I quickly dashed into the supermarket for another chicken wrap and some apple juice and as I left I gave Anna specific orders to buy me a MaccyD’s crispy chicken wrap and some more apple juice for later at MK.

Running out of Leighton Buzzard felt like a supernatural experience, I have run that section of the canal hundreds of times but somehow everything looked so different, as if I didn’t belong in that environment. Tiredness was taking hold and my mind was starting to play tricks on me. Anyway, leaving Leighton Buzzard by the 3 Locks I saw Eve, Rhiannon, Chris and StuDisco (another one who inspired me to go ultra). As I approached Bletchley, I also spotted Verity and then Tom and it wasn’t too long before I arrived at the Milton Keynes CP where my wife was waiting for me with that chicken wrap and some more supplies for the next leg. I sat down for another 10mins, Alex and her boys were there to see me and soon Jo and Chris arrived and everyone said how great I looked. I wanted to make the most of daylight so I didn’t hang around for too long. We were now halfway through the race and the next checkpoint was where I was planning my first sleep.

Eve got a picture of me from the farm.

As I left Milton Keynes, Mark Haynes popped out onto the course and let me know he’d meet me at the next aid station with a bed ready for me in his campervan. As it got dark I started to feel crap again, which is nothing unusual after over 40 hours on two feet with zero sleep, so I stopped to get my headtorch out and decided to take some ProPlus to pick me up a bit and see me through the next section. As I approached a bridge near Roade I hear someone shouting my name and it was Andrew from the tri club who finished had a training session with the club and came to show his support. As I left him I started feeling better and was again running well and soon I approached Stoke Bruerne and was now looking forward to get past Blissworth tunnel.

A few locks before the tunnel I noticed a person, whom appeared to be a tall man wearing a high vis jacket, he had a hand torch and two dogs on a lead. As I got within 15 metres, I called out good evening but he didn’t reply and the dogs started barking at me. I stopped moving and asked if the dogs were ok, I explained I was taking part in a race and just wanted to get to the other side of Blissworth tunnel. He didn’t reply and every time I took a step forward he’d also take a step forward with the torch shining in my face and the dogs would bark. I repeatedly said I didn’t mean any harm and I just wanted to get past Blissworth, but this resulted with him taking a step torwards me with the dogs barking and snapping.  I was now wide awake and my adrenaline was running high, and I felt furious and helpless. I had had enough and got my phone out to ring the police, but he must have seen me and came walking towards me with the dogs barking leaving me with no option but to turn and run back. I got in touch with the police, explained the problem and they said if local police was available they would come. Jonathan, who was also racing caught up with me and I explained the situation and then rang the organisers to explain and they advised me that it was possible to do a diversion using local roads. Jonathan then managed to find the route on a map and we were moving in the right direction again.

We passed Blissworth and we decided to stick together to the next aid station and adrenaline was wearing off and I was feeling really tired and looking forward to a sleep. We took turns to lead as that section of the canal was overgrown everywhere. Here I started hallucinating, with plants starting to look like scary faces, and the little daisies on the ground looking like an army of little skulls all ready to eat me for their dinner. Consciously I knew they weren’t real and it was quite funny but I was desperate to get into the aid station for a sleep to get my brain together again.

Eventually we arrived into check point 6 - Nether Heyford at 156 miles and as promised, Mark Haynes was waiting for me. I changed in to clean shorts, underwear and socks, I had some warm soup and got into the back of Mark’s campervan and gave him instructions to wake me up in two hours. I fell asleep within 5min and slept like a log using a bag under my legs to elevate them a bit.  As agreed, Mark woke me up and I felt so much better. It was now daylight; I ate some food, had a cup of tea, packed my bag with more supplies (another chicken wrap and some grapes) for another leg and thanked Mark for his help.  Before this event I was worried about sleeping then having to wake up and get moving again but I felt ok, the first mile was hard work but once my legs warmed up they were fine.

156 miles done, 2hrs sleep and ready to go again.

I ran a few miles, and then walked a bit but I was in high spirits and I didn’t have any doubt in my mind that I was going to finish the race. I was now looking forward to reaching the Oxford Canal, as race statistics agree that runners making it to the Oxford Canal will mostly finish the race. I passed Karen who was walking very slowly, we chatted for a couple of minutes but I was moving well so pressed on and a few minutes later Jonathan passed me running and looking very strong. Shortly after I made a quick stop at a canal shop to buy an ice cream and some Coke for the next miles and just kept moving. Hours went by without seeing a soul apart from a few hellos to strangers along the canal.

As the temperature rose, my undercarriage chaffing worsened and I had to stop  briefly to readjust my bits and reapply the lube (for my birthday, Anna had generously given me some called Butt Shield!). There was some temporary relief but the area didn’t look or feel great at all. Oh well, now it was a case of run and walk but just keep moving forward. JC was waiting for me at a bridge, I explained to him my problems but he encouraged me saying I had plenty of time in the clock and there was no runner behind for many miles.

Eventually I got closer to the aid station and Baz, who was volunteering there, came out to meet me along the towpath and we walked together into the aid station. A hot bacon sandwich and some coke went down very well; I ate some fresh fruit, packed my pack for the next leg and spent a few minutes in a tent sorting out my knackered nether regions. It was great to see Paul Mason there looking considerably better after being taken off to hospital two days earlier at aid station 2 when he was really sick, and showing absolute class by coming back to cheer us on. I didn’t spend too long there as again I wanted to make the most of the most of the daylight. I tried running out of the aid station but within a few metres I realised it was causing too much discomfort and that’s when I adopted my ‘John Wayne’ walking style. I turned on my GPS watch and noticed my walking speed was around 17min per mile, which I thought wasn’t too bad and I made a conscious effort to keep walking at that pace as I knew my running was over at that point. JC, Kathryn and Ian rode their bikes to the canal to meet me and show their support, and I was in great spirits and explained to them my new strategy and carried on. It was a good 10 miles to Banbury, the next biggest town and my last chance to buy supplies before it got dark.

Cowboy walking style working a treat.

Every now and then someone on a canal boat would ask me what I was doing. A man in his seventies asked me, and when I told him he raised his eyebrows, then he asked me if I was doing it for a charity which I replied yes, he then disappeared into his boat without saying a word and came back with a pound coin for me, which choked me up quite a bit.

The shops in Banbury were all closed but I found a McDonalds and enjoyed my umpteenth chicken wrap and some Coke on a bench and got a few funny looks from passers-by. I phoned Mark to tell him how I was getting on and gave him an ETA for the next aid station. As I left Banbury the canal path got increasingly worse with each mile, really overgrown, and very narrow in places with not a soul in sight. What I really didn’t want to see was another nutter with dogs.

As it got darker it started raining, so I put all my layers on, as since I wasn’t running I was feeling the cold. The good news being that my chaffing wasn’t getting worse and my cowboy style walking was paying off. Again I was hallucinating in the dark with the daisies becoming little skulls and bigger plants and flowers looking like faces, I used that as a distraction to keep me entertained. Having run through this section in March I knew how rubbish the canal was there but I also knew that this was the last really bad area of the canal. I kept moving forward counting down the number of bridges, and eventually I saw a couple of headlights in the distance. It was Ian, Neil and Karrie who had been for a night swim in Reading and came over to the checkpoint to cheer me on, so we walked a few metres to the aid station together and I told them how things were going. At the aid station, Mark was again waiting for me with a bed ready in his campervan. Glyn, who had inspired me to do the Thames Ring two years ago, was volunteering at the aid station and he prepared me some soup. Karrie was kind enough to lend me a dry robe so that I could sort my bits out without having to be naked in the cold night air. With a full belly and cleanish clothes, I went for another two hour sleep. I had contemplated not sleeping here and pushing to the finish but with my hallucinations I decided it was best to try recharging my batteries a bit.

With Neil and Karrie after 205 miles.

Mark woke me up with another chicken wrap and some soup and then I was moving again. My Skechers Go Run 400 had been brilliant up to then but were still very soggy from the previous section in the rain so I decided to change to a dry pair, and I used Skechers Go Run 4 for the last two sections. It was just over 4am on Sat, I had now covered 205 miles and been going since Wed 10am apart from the four hours’ sleep. It was ‘only’ 45 miles to go, I didn’t care how long it would take me but I really didn’t want to go through another night of hallucinations.

A few miles after leaving the aid station, Bob Wild walked past me using a stick he found on the trail, we talked for a bit but he soon disappeared in the distance, moving strongly and with purpose. I thought his stick was a great idea and keep an eye out for one for myself.
I went through a couple of sticks and eventually found one that was appropriate for my height, it worked a treat but I was worried I was breaking the race rules since walking poles aren’t allowed. I rang Lindley, the race director, who wasn’t pleased to have been woken up before 7am. I explained my chaffing problems and the use of a stick and he said if I found it on the trail then that was fine.

Arriving in Abingdon like Gandalf!

I moved on with the stick, I then found another one and marched on like Gandalf. The sticks gave great relief as I could spread my legs just that little wider preventing my raw ‘tes and tickles’ from rubbing the sides of my legs too much. As I got closer to Oxford, the underfoot conditions of the canal improved considerably and I could see more houses, boats and eventually people as it got lighter.

It was now about 7am on Saturday and I spotted a sign for a nearby tea room, I fancied a hot cup of tea but unfortunately it was shut. However their outbuildings were not and there was an immaculate toilet there which felt like a luxury hotel, boasting real toilet paper, hand wash and paper towels. It may sound funny, but I swear that was the BEST poo I have ever had. I took the opportunity to clean and treat my chaffing and to wash my face. I left the toilet respectable and marched on with a big smile, singing quietly to myself every song that I knew which kept me entertained for quite a while.

Getting to Oxford was a great booster; I was now back on the Thames Path again and although quite a few miles away, I could already see the figurative light at the end of the tunnel. As I entered the Thames Path, I saw Jonathan, who had helped me find the diversion two nights before and he decided to join me, as he also couldn’t run having developed a problem with his ankle. I told him he didn’t need to look at the map anymore as I knew that section of the route inside out. We talked all the way to Abingdon recounting our tales of the last 3 days, the highs and the lows.

As we arrived into the last aid station in Abingdon we agreed to stick together for the last 18 miles to the finish. At the aid station Mark Haynes was there with Chris and Louise, Jonathan’s parents and his wife. We were in high spirits, the day was quite hot now and I ate lot of fruits, grapes, strawberries, melon and some Coke. A big thank you the volunteer who gave me 10p to use the proper loo! Again, I treated my undercarriage and I was ready for the next and final section of this great adventure.

18 miles to go, still smiling.

As we left I thanked everybody and told Jonathan this was going to be like the last stage of the Tour de France into Paris, we were now celebrating and nothing would stop us. Jonathan was really great company for that last section, we talked about everything, work, family, hobbies, adventures of our youth and our love for ultra-running. I couldn’t have asked for better company. On our way to Benson, we spotted Fiona and her daughter who had driven all the way from Leighton Buzzard to cheer us on, and we stopped for a quick photo opportunity, thanked them for their support and carried on. As we got to Benson Lock we had a mere 8 miles to finish, we had both been suffering a bit and I made the call to stop for a reviving ice cream and an ice cold Coke in a busy restaurant there. It was quite hot for us now, and the stop did us a world of good and as we marched to the finish I could already taste the beer waiting for me in Goring.

With Fiona a bit before Benson Lock.

I phone Anna and said my ETA in Goring was around 8pm. Jonathan and I were confident that we’d finish before it got dark again.

With one last field to cover, I dropped my sticks and we could now see the bridge into Goring and we could hear people shouting to us from the bridge. I think I gave Jonathan a (smelly) hug and thanked him for his company.  As we crossed the bridge into Goring, my girls ran towards me and gave me a big hug, my wife Anna was there with Mark Haynes, Louise, Glyn, Paul Mason, Jonathan’s parents and his wife. We crossed the finish line together in 83hrs and 1 gruelling minute, having covered 250miles on two feet and in joint 8th place. Lindley placed some ridiculously heavy medals around our necks and the job was done.

With all my princesses! 

A few metres from the finish with Jonathan and the girls.
Thames Ring 250 was an amazing experience and definitely one I will treasure for a very long time, and whilst there were some lows there was not a minute where I lost the faith that I would finish. I dealt with my problems as they came up, kept putting one leg in front of the other and was very grateful that physically and mentally I could do this, I really didn’t want to take this opportunity for granted. But would I do this again? Never say never!

I want to say a huge thanks to Lindley, the race director and his army of volunteers. It is the volunteers that are the heart of ultra-running, I am so thankful for your time looking after us and putting on this great event.  I particularly want to thank my friend Glyn Raymen, you’ve inspired me to do a lot of events and I always see you volunteering at every opportunity you have. You’re a real gem to the ultra-running community my friend.

The Three Amigos!

I also want to thank everybody who messaged me during the race and came out to cheer me on during the event; you have no idea what a boost you all gave me, a massive thank you to you all. Big thanks to my team Martin and Dave for the company, help and useful tips, the banter and our lovely recce along the Oxford Canal in March.

A very special THANK YOU to my friend Mark Haynes who drove around the course as my race- bitch, you made my race so much easier and I’ll be forever grateful to you for your time and support. So if you want do it in two years’ time then I will return the favour.

Thank you to Anna, Bella and Katie for putting up with my obsession for endurance race training and the racing; you know it means the world to me to be able to do this but without your tolerance and support I wouldn’t be able to do it.

One last massive thank you to everybody who donated to War Child UK! This race has a finish rate of just over 40% and I was really worried that I have to apologise to you all if I didn’t finish and had taken your money. I put my worries to one side and started my fundraiser to help kids affected by war around the globe. My goal was raise £1000 but with your help I raised over £2800 including the UK Gift Aid. I am truly overwhelmed by your generosity in helping this worthy cause. 

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Ups and Downs of the Naked Strummer - TP100 2017

Having enjoyed a really nice break from training following the Spartathlon last October and then with the season going well from November, I wasn’t surprised by my good performance at Country to Capital in January. Three weeks later I also got a personal best, with 7hr 40 in the very muddy 50-miles Thames Trot, and remarkably, all done without any speed training. So with this behind me, I had in mind that one of my next goals was to go sub 19hrs at Thames Path 100.

Soon after the Thames Trot, I suffered a calf strain which prevented me from running consistently for a number of weeks. I have hardly suffered from injuries, so it was very frustrating for me to say the least, however after a few weeks of cycling, swimming and sessions with my therapist, my calf finally improved. During this time, I also started to question my desire to compete in endurance events, I was suffering from low self-esteem, lacking confidence, and not really sure how to move on from that, all in all I felt emotionally drained.

Talking to others about my problem really helped, it is great to know people care about you. One of the best pieces of advice I got was to have a blood test and talk to the GP, which I did. When the results came, everything was normal except that my iron levels were on the low end of normal, which I determined was probably not ideal for an endurance athlete! I haven’t had a follow up test yet but have increased my red meat intake to see if this helps.

In February I have started having guitar lessons and am simply in love with it all. Although I can only play (badly) a handful of songs, I just can’t get enough of playing. It is just so therapeutic and fun playing and singing and having my girls to help me. My only regret being that I did not start learning years ago. I have also discovered that it is ok to enjoy doing other things asides from exercising excessively!

Well, with a calf strain, lacking in confidence, potentially with low levels of iron and a new found love for playing guitar, ultra-running was no longer my top priority. Don’t get me wrong, I still love running and that will never change, but at the time I lacked the desire to train consistently and be able to complete.

As the weeks went by I slowly felt better, a bit more positive and able to run more often…

The 105-mile Recce – As some of you may know I have a place for the Thames Ring 250-miler in two months’ time, which without a doubt will be a monster challenge. As part of my preparations for it, I arranged to run from where I live in Leighton Buzzard to Oxford via the Grand Union and Oxford canals with two friends. We decided to start on a Monday morning at the end of March, with the aim of getting there the next day. Despite not being in the right frame of mind for this, I didn’t want to put it off and disrupt my friend’s preparations, especially as they were travelling from far.
We set off with a walk/run strategy, just as we intend to do during the Thames Ring, without any problems we ticked off the miles by making jokes and discussing racing strategies, etc. We made it to 50 miles in just over 9 hours without looking at our watches too much. We found a lovely village in Northamptonshire where we had our first proper break and we took the opportunity to stock up on fluid and food at a small shop, as we were unsupported and it would be unlikely that we would find another opportunity to do this again at night.

We moved on and by 70 miles I could feel tightness returning in my calf and my mood soon derailed, we weren’t talking much then and I started to hate every second of the run. Again I began questioning my desire to compete, I was telling myself that I had nothing to prove and perhaps  I’ve just had enough of ultra-running, and I started to make plans to write to the race directors withdrawing my future race entries. Why was I so stupid to want to swap my warm bed next to my lovely wife to run silly distances in the English countryside? I told Martin my calf was a problem and I didn’t want to become a liability to the group and that I might have to stop in Banbury.

It took another hour or so to get there; as we entered Banbury it was obvious that there wasn’t anything there. First I thought that it would be a long wait at a train station, or a very expensive taxi home, I also thought that if I was going to retire from ultra-running I should at least finish on a high by completing this ‘training’ run.

Martin gave me no sympathy and said it was 100% my decision to not carry on. I decided that I would keep going simply because I didn’t want to finish my ‘career’ with this memory. We carried on not talking much, paying attention to the route and moaning how shit the Oxford canal underfoot conditions were.

At the break of dawn I started hallucinating a bit which was actually good fun, mistaking posts for people and several kept times where I kept seeing an imaginary blonde running between Dave and Martin.  As we got closer to Oxford we were all frustrated by how far apart the bridges were but eventually we made it to Oxford in roughly 23hrs30min and immediately google-mapped the nearest pub for a well-deserved pint and a fry up.

Half asleep on the taxi journey back to Leighton Buzzard, I started enjoying all those lovely feelings and had a big smile on my face- ultra runner’s high at its best.

I bounced back very quickly from that run both emotionally and physically, the following week I was running well again without any calf problems and any ideas of quitting ultra-running were quashed and I began feeling like my normal self again. I was now very much looking forward to the Thames Path 100 and Thames Ring 250.

Thames Path 100 – the race is a point to point trail ultra, starting in Richmond and finishing in Oxford following the beautiful Thames Path. The weather looked perfect for running, dry and cool, no excuses. I also knew the course like the back of my hand having completed it twice in the past. I felt in good shape and wanted to improve my current personal best of 19h14, although I didn’t feel under pressure to do this bearing in mind my issues during the last few weeks. My plan was to get to 25miles in 4 hours, halfway in 8:30 then see what I had left.

I went to work on Friday with a blocked nose but kept telling myself it was hayfever. I got to the hotel in Richmond, had a lovely bath, my pre-race meal and slept like a log until 6am, I woke up with a blocked nose but told myself again that it was hayfever and it would dry up as soon as I started running.

3-2-1…We were off. The first 15 miles went like a breeze, sticking to my plan and feeling good. By the time I got to the aid station at mile 22 I had been suffering from cold sweats and I felt horrible, with my legs slowly turning to jelly in the process. I walked as I left the aid station, my buddy Ilsuk caught up with me and I tried running with him but I felt truly awful. I finally accepted it wasn’t hayfever and that I must be coming down with something. I thought about walking back to the aid station, as it was so close and handing in my number, admitting that sometimes it just isn’t your day. Instead I decided to walk to the next one and see whether my luck would turn. Once I got into a rhythm walking was fine and I was averaging 3.5miles/hour. I was worried that if I couldn’t finish 100-miles I would be going in to the Thames Ring 250 with my confidence bruised and conversely, I was also worried that trying to finish this race with a cold would be a silly idea. Every time I tried to run I would overheat and my legs would turn to jelly, so I reverted back to walking, with my brain changing what it wanted to do every 5 minutes, ‘DNF now, go home’, ‘finish this you wimp’. I did this until the aid station at mile 44, and as the sun started going down I tried to run and it felt ok and I had a really good spell of running until mile 49. By then it was dark and I was shivering and  I had really had enough. Henley-on-Thames at 51 miles was my next big check point, it was still early enough for my wife to pick me up and I wasn’t sure it would be sensible to keep going feeling so rubbish, what would the rest of the night be like?

Arriving in Henley I checked in, and went to see the paramedic straightaway, he said I must have something brewing inside me and that there was no shame in only covering 50miles but never told me I should stop, he said it was my call in the end of the day.

I went back to the food area, got a small bowl of Bolognese and some Coke and spotted my friend Glyn.  ‘Glyn, I’m going to sit down and decide what I want to do, I feel rubbish’, Glyn replied with some solid advice, that nothing would change by sitting down, that I should put all my layers on, finish the pasta and grind a finish.

Reading Aid station was only 7 miles away and I could always find a hotel for the night there so I marched on wearing everything I had, with Glyn giving me some much needed moral support and walking me out of Henley. I phoned Anna and said I would carry on trying and she insisted I take some Ibuprofen which I hate, but I followed the orders. I then caught up with Paul Commons and we decided to carry on together. Once at Sonning Lock, two miles from Reading we both felt better and ran a bit to the aid station. Was my luck starting to change?

We didn’t spend long there and took advantage of the new found mojo to run quite a bit to Whitchurch Aid station at 67 miles. On the approach to Whitchurch we caught up with Paul’s friend Louise who was ready to quit and Glen Keegan who was looking after her.

We all left the aid station together and walked all the way to Streatley, a mere four miles away. Nothing was going to stop us now, we had plenty of time to walk the rest of the race and earn our buckles. The boys were moving well once we left the aid station and Louise stayed with a pacer. We ran a lot which was really uplifting, our chats were great, the banter was even better and time was passing by quickly, we were looking forward to the sunrise.

Once we left the aid station at mile 85 we knew we had it in the bag. Paul’s pacer Jools joined us, becoming our ‘gate bitch’, his watch was still working and told us we were moving fast, we ran lots and lots, overtaking a lot of people in the process. At 8am I rang Anna and told her to get to Oxford quickly, as I was dreaming of running the last few hundred metres with the girls, as they had never seen me finish 100-miles.

The boys went on to finish with a personal best, Louise finished the race too which was great to see and although I finished a few hours later (25h07) than anticipated, I had a big smile on my face. The hard races are the ones that count, right? I was absolutely delighted to finish this race, and despite feeling pretty rubbish with the flu for the last week, my mojo is definitely back and I am looking forward to the Thames Ring 250.

We, endurance athletes put our heart and soul in to pursuing our goals, we sacrifice a lot of things in the process and have to juggle everything else in our lives for this obsession. It is no wonder that from time to time we feel the pressure like I did. I read somewhere that running is something we love to do, not something we must do, from the moment it becomes a chore then something is wrong. My advice is that if you are suffering like I was, to talk to your friends, you will be surprised by how common this is.

By the way I don’t play guitar naked! J Not yet anyway!

Monday, 10 October 2016

Spartathlon 2016 Race Report. End of Season.

In 2007 whilst working full time and attending Uni in the evenings I put on a bit of weight; there just wasn’t time to exercise, or so I thought. I got the shock of my life when my favourite pair of jeans no longer fitted and I decided to do something about it. Ryan Spencer sold me my first pair of running shoes and he was also responsible for planting the seed of ultra-running in my brain even before I had set foot on the store's treadmill…

So I lost the extra weight with the running and I was awarded a degree and since then I have completed a lot of endurance challenges. I can't quite remember when I first heard about the Spartathlon but it goes without saying that it is an iconic race because of its history and difficulty. Last year I was lucky enough to meet their qualifying criteria and I felt even luckier to be successful in the ballot for a place this year and have a chance to represent Brazil.

So what is the Spartathlon? It’s an annual, 246 km race (153 mi) in Greece since 1983, retracing the footsteps of Pheidippides, an Athenian messenger sent to Sparta in 490 BC to seek help against the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. Pheidippides, according to an account by Greek historian Herodotus in The Persian Wars, arrived in Sparta the day after he departed. Herodotus wrote: "On the occasion of which we speak when Pheidippides was sent by the Athenian generals, and, according to his own account, saw Pan on his journey, he reached Sparta on the very next day after quitting the city of Athens." Based on this account, British RAF Wing Commander John Foden MBE and four other RAF officers travelled to Greece in 1982 on an official expedition to test whether it was possible to cover the nearly 250 kilometres in a day and a half. Three runners were successful in completing the distance: John Foden , John Scholtens and John McCarthy. The following year a team of enthusiastic supporters (British, Greek and other nationalities) based at the British Hellenic Chamber of Commerce in Athens and led by Philhellene Michael Callaghan organised the running of the first Open International Spartathlon Race. The event was run under the auspices of SEGAS, the Hellenic Amateur Athletics Association.
Following my success this summer at the double Ironman in Slovenia, I had 7 weeks before the Spartathlon to recover and get ready for the race. I was careful with my training, as there was no point in training excessively as the risk of injury was high. What I did do was to include more undulating road running to try mimicking the Greek course and since we lack the sunshine in the UK I used the sauna a lot, as I've read it can help you acclimatise to warmer weather. Whether that is true or not I am still not sure but it did boost my confidence that I would be able to cope in the Greek sun.

Things went smoothly and with two weeks left I began to taper for the race and start packing for the trip.  Unfortunately, it was then that I realised that with my eagerness to have everything ready months in advance, my medical certificate had now expired! Panic set in when my local doctor was fully booked. I emailed the organisers to explain my situation and got a lovely reassuring reply that I was not to worry-phew!

Before I knew it I was in the Acropolis, with only a few minutes left before my long journey to Sparta. I wasn't worried about the distance, the undulation or the 36 hours cut off. What worried me the most was the heat and the pressure of having to stay ahead of the death bus. For an athlete of my ability there wasn't a lot of room for error in the first 100k of the race.

As the race started I let my legs dictate my pace, I didn't have to put in any effort to run at 6 miles per hour.  Leaving Athens was chaotic, with lots of cars and fumes and it was probably the part I enjoyed the least. I was glad to leave the capital and to start running along the coastline, the temperature rose and I remember looking at the water and wishing I could dive in. Once it warmed up I started with my strategy of soaking my hat in cold water and immersing my wrists/buffs in the ice at every check point I went through. I made it to the marathon in roughly 4:10 with 30min to spare. Next goal would be the fifty mile mark then 100k. I made it to those with 40min to spare and I was already looking forward to the cooler night ahead.

As it got darker and the temperature dropped I started to feel more comfortable despite my fatigued legs and with each check point my spare time increased which naturally boosted my confidence. Nutrition was going really well and during the day I only consumed the Generation UCAN which I was carrying, some peach juice mixed with water and the odd cup of coke. It was late at night when I had my first solid food, half a cheese and ham sandwich.

I noticed that pretty much everyone else were wearing a warmer layer and hat and gloves, however I felt really comfortable just wearing the short sleeve top I started in. The sky was clear and simply stunning, filled up with stars and I’m not sure I was hallucinating but I swear I saw a shooting star. At around mile 99 the race takes you up a winding road which goes up nearly 1000m, this was the first time I walked lots and it seemed to go on forever. Once at the top you have simply arrived at the mountain base check point. I wasted little time here, just refilling my bottle before I began the treacherous and narrow loose shingle path to the very top. I really didn’t like looking down and seeing the light dots in the distance, one wrong step here and it could all go very wrong for a tired runner. When you reach the top, you still need to go down a zig zag path and care must be taken before you joined the paved road again.

Passing the 100-mile mark with around 100min from the cut off was great, in my head I now ‘only’ had over two marathons to reach Sparta; I had done that in the double Ironman so surely I could do it again. I was tired but there wasn’t anything wrong with my body, I just needed to keep one leg in front of the other.

As the sun came up my hands felt cold and I wore my gloves for 30min and grabbed a cup of soup in one of the aid stations. The terrain seemed flat for a while and the miles ticked along nicely, I was making the most of it before the temperature went up again. I remember arriving at one aid station thinking I had only 30min left before the death bus reached me. I was fucking livid, how did I drop down from 100min in such a short space? I ran really well to the next aid station to find that I had 100min once again. I can only assume that my tired brain misread the previous board!

As the heat started to rise so did the roads, to be honest I was mostly power walking uphill at this stage and it felt like a rest, running downhill had started to hurt. I was again soaking my hat and buffs in cold water at each check point to try and stay cool. I didn’t fancy solid food anymore and was once again drinking peach juice mixed with water and coke, and watermelon tasted amazing whenever I found some. I really wanted grapes, aka “nature’s little gels” as another runner called them, but I couldn’t see any.

By the time I had a marathon left, I started to sense that I would conquer Sparta, I had maintained my  spare 100 mins and I was moving fairly well, overtaking more runners than the other way round. Before the race I had told everyone I would be a happy man to be the last person the touch the statue in Sparta but my calculations were now indicating I could do better than that.

With each checkpoint gained there was a small victory, another step towards Sparta, just repeat this routine each time- fill the bottle, soak the hat and buff and don’t stop! It was mostly downhill by now and my quads were screaming at me. From time to time they would lock and that started to worry me: ‘what if I fall so close to the finish?”. Emotions were running high as I thought about my girls back home, the imminent desire to quit ultra-running as soon as the race was over, I also felt sad I couldn’t ring my mum to tell her about the race and with less than half a marathon to go it could still take me hours if I was reduced to walking the rest. Too much time to think!

People often ask me why I enjoy running these silly distances. There are many reasons, but the emotional rollercoaster you go through are food for your soul, and without a doubt it makes me a much better person.  It has the ability to make you appreciate the simple things in life like a hot shower, a cold drink, etc.

With Sparta on the horizon I caught up with an Italian runner, by now we were both running downhill like a couple of penguins. I said that to him and we had a good laugh and he said it was his second and last Spartathlon, we shook hands and smiled and made our way together down towards Sparta.

With 6 miles to go I had worked out that if I only managed 20min/per mile there would only be 2 hours left of this torture. I turned my watch back on and started the countdown; with a mixture of power walking and penguin style running I logged 13min/mile for the next four miles, woohoo I was ‘flying’. We had arrived in Sparta and my competitive spirit returned, I approached a group of athletes who were walking so I increased my pace and beat them to the last check point before the finish line. I quickly removed my Brazilian flag and wrapped around my shoulders and a small boy on his bike guided me towards the statue; it felt like it went on forever and I kept asking him ‘are we there yet? Much to my annoyance I glanced over my shoulder and the guy I had overtaken was now running well and catching me up. Knowing I wanted this moment all to myself, I pushed on harder, wishing I hadn’t wrapped myself in a swathe of boiling hot polyester flag.

Finally I could now hear the announcements over the microphone and I started seeing all the flags and glimpsed the statue of King Leonidas. I had made it to Sparta from Athens and my eyes filled up with tears. What an absolute dream to conquer the Spartathlon in 34h and 23 gruelling and unforgettable minutes, without a doubt my hardest and proudest athletic achievement. After kissing the foot of Leonidas and posing for a photograph I was led to the local infirmary where my feet was cleaned, my blister was popped and I was so overwhelmed with relief and happiness that I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was desperate to ring my wife and share the moment with her and my girls. One thing I do regret from that call is telling her that I wouldn’t do the Spartathlon again as I’m now desperate to enter the ballot for 2017.

A super thank you to all my Brazilian teammates, who provided great company and banter during those days in Greece.  Also thanks to the British team, seeing some familiar faces and all their words of encouragement during the race was appreciated. The people of Greece were wonderful, thank you and I will be back for more (permission from my wife is yet to be confirmed).

Huge thanks to Skechers Performance UK for supplying me with my favourite shoes this season. I wore the Skechers Go Run 4 for Spartathlon, and only one blister after 153 miles is truly amazing. I just love those shoes!

This is now the end of season for me, I’m now a double Ironman triathlete and a Spartathlon finisher, how cool is that? I did have a hiccup not finishing the Grand Union Canal due to a stomach virus in May but there wasn’t much I could do about that at the time. Another year injury free, a lot more experience accumulated and still happily married.

For 2017 my goals are: to improve my 100-mile time at the Thames Path 100 at the end of April and to finish the Thames Ring 250-miler at the end of June, eeek! I now just need to work on my wife so she can let me return to Greece in September. J

Friday, 2 September 2016

Double Ironman Ultra Triathlon Race Report - Bakovci 2016.

Shortly after completing my first Ironman in Austria in 2013, I had already set my heart on doing the double. As I’m not someone who rushes into making hasty decisions, I thought I’d be wise to gain some more experience first.  In 2014, I went to Sweden to race the Ironman again and since then I’ve got completely hooked on ultra running.

The double Ironman wasn’t going to escape this year; I picked a race in Bakovci, Slovenia mainly because the dates suited my other racing commitments. Being in Europe also meant I was able to drive there and also combine it with a family holiday in the area.

My season started in Nov last year, with my first “A” race in May at the Grand Union Canal, a 145-miler ultramarathon. My schedule involved running roughly 4 times a week, biking 3 times a week and swimming 2 to 3 times a week, also complementing my schedule with weight training at home. Winter training went really well; week after week I logged consistent training hours even achieving a cheeky 50 mile personal best in a muddy Thames Path 50 in Feb.

As spring approached my stress levels started to rise fast, we have also been busy having a big extension built at home, the works have been going quite well to be honest, the builders are great but we have had to deal with very difficult and petty neighbours week after week, which has caused our family an enormous amount of stress. To make matters worse, at the beginning of May I went out for a ride and was hit by car head on. Luckily I only suffered some bruising to my ribs and soft tissue damage to my right shoulder, but my beloved Cervelo was a write off.

I put all those problems behind me and was super excited to race the Grand Union Canal at the end of May. I thought I had managed to escape my daughter’s stomach virus that week, but by mile 30 of the GUCR I began vomiting. I managed to go on till mile 50, but after a chat with my wife (who was also now very ill too), I decided the best decision would be to stop rather than cause myself lasting damage. Realistically there was no chance of covering another 95 miles feeling like that and not even being able to keep down water. I spent that night taking turns with my wife hugging the toilet bowl and feeling very sorry for myself. I moved on from the disappointment of the GUCR but was becoming very frustrated as I didn’t have a racing bike yet; the insurance company dealing with the claim really took their time and in the end I opted to purchase a new bike on finance until they settled my claim, thankfully they’ve finally paid up!

With about 8 weeks to go until the double I finally got my new bike to train and get used to before the race. By now I had reduced my running training to 3 times a week as I had a great base from the first six months and started biking 4 to 5 times a week and swimming 3 times per week. Despite the building works and the ongoing issues with the neighbours from hell, I had trained consistently for a number of weeks and by the time I got to Bakovci I was confident I had done enough to race well.

The race - consisting of 20 laps of a loop in the local lake (4.8miles), then 76 laps (224 miles) of the bike course (which as a bonus was closed to normal traffic) and to finish, 56 laps around Bakovci, equalling two marathons (52.4 miles).

Race day finally arrived and it was perfect, sunny but not too hot, the lake looked very inviting and I couldn’t wait to start. My wife tried to close the wetsuit for me several times and each time the zip would split, as she stressed a bit I told myself that the worst that could happen was me having to swim without a wetsuit. Eventually the zip stayed up and we were on our way. I steadily completed each lap in just under 8 minutes, I felt relaxed and knew there wouldn’t be any surprises during the swim other than the wetsuit unzipping! I stopped for a feed at the hour and two hour mark, with my girls meeting me at the pontoon nearby. I slowed down a bit during the last few laps but felt fresh coming out of the water in 2h46.
Bella was amazing supporting me throughout the Double

Feeling fresh after the swim, the hard work was about to start...

Very quickly I was out of T1 and on my bike. I had a plan, first I didn’t want to get too carried away during the bike start, I knew I had the endurance but speed was lacking; I also wanted to have a good run and  if I overcooked on the bike I knew it could turn into a disaster. Because of the distance my plan was to spend 30min at the aero position and 30min sitting up to spare my neck and back from aching too much. It may sound soul destroying to do the same lap over and over but I didn’t find that at all. There was support from the other competitors as we passed one another and I also enjoyed high fiving the local kids at the end of each lap. Every now and then I would see my family (who had kindly set up the boot of the car as an aid station) to swap my water bottle over, or offer me something different to eat and mostly importantly cheer me on as I went past.

I must admit that at times I felt a bit disheartened being lapped by the other athletes on the bike course but I reminded myself that it was a long race and my plan was to save my legs to run well. 

As the evening approached we were asked to have our headlights ready. I was over halfway on the bike now so I took the opportunity for a quick stop to fit the lights, swap my drink bottle and say goodnight to my wife and kids who were off to the apartment for a well-deserved rest. 

As it got darker the local kids disappeared but a few houses were enjoying the nice evening, barbecuing, drinking and cheering us on. The temperature dropped but the advantage of training in the UK was that I didn't feel the need for another layer and pushed on. I could no longer watch the bike power data in the dark and my riding was purely done by feel but I made sure I kept a good cadence and switched from the aero to the upright position as I felt like it.

Three quarters into the bike segment I made another quick stop to swap my drink bottle and had a cup of homemade chicken and vegetable soup with broken bits of potato crisps in it. It went down like a treat and I could now feel the end of the bike fast approaching.
With three laps of the bike to go my bike lights stopped working! Doh, it was so annoying but I made another quick stop and swapped the battery pack. For a race that long I came prepared for any bike issues so had spares of everything-luckily I didn’t need anything other than batteries.

The bike was over in 13h32 and I was looking forward to run, by far my favourite part of any triathlon. My car now became T2. Thomaz, one of the organisers kindly took my bike to the race headquarters and I quickly changed into clean kit and started running in no time. I was still benefiting from the high cadence and the first 4 miles felt very quick at around 9:30min/miles. My body naturally slowed me down after that to 10:30min/mile until mile 15 or so. It was still dark, Bakovci was now asleep from the all the partying they had done the night before and all the competitors were subdued, and maybe out of respect to the residents we kept the noise down. Even though I slowed down to 11min/mile from mile 15 I was really enjoying the run and my confidence started to grow as I kept lapping some of the guys that had been quicker than me on the bike and swim.

The sun came up and it started to get really warm, we made it through the night and I managed to finish the first marathon in around 4h40. I had told my wife to arrive after 9am and started to look forward to seeing their faces again.  Needless to say the second marathon got really tough but lapping the others encouraged me to keep running at whatever pace I could. I also started using simple tricks to distract my brain from the pain I was going through. I remember noticing some of the houses had the exact same window shutters my grandma used to have in her flat and I spent ages thinking about my grandma and my two aunties who lived with her, and how she would tell me off for playing with the shutters. I then started to notice the lovely vegetable gardens some of the locals had and I tried to imagine the taste of the various vegetable and fruit I saw- tomatoes tasted especially great in my imagination. Every now and then I would reward myself with a 50m walk, but it had to be a powerwalk and I tried to do it when no one else was looking.

My family had now arrived and I had around 20 miles to finish. My first request was my running cap and sunglasses. It was so great to see them. My daughter Bella said she wanted to run a lap/mile with me and it was great to talk to her and find out what they had been up to and how my race was going, etc. The miles seemed to pass very quickly with their presence, I wanted to finish quickly and make sure they could start enjoying their holiday soon, as up till now it had been all about me.

Bakovci was now in full party mode with loud dance music being playing and I could now feel the finish within my reach. As it was hot my wife would throw some cold water over my head and it was a great relief, it is amazing how little things make you so happy when you’re suffering. With 5 laps to go I passed the timing mat with Zoran from Croatia and he was one lap behind me, he had a quick chat with the referee and then said to me there had been an issue with his timing chip. I then assumed that we were probably on the same number of laps and a position was at stake. He then upped his pace and I decided to follow him. We followed each other neck on neck for the next four miles averaging around 9min/miles which felt ridiculously fast at that stage of the race and on very tired legs, it was fantastic sportsmanship. To my relief as I passed the timing mat for my last lap Zoran still had two laps left and I could finally enjoy it. Bella joined me for the last lap and I started to get that tightness in my throat and the tears flowing from the corner of my eyes. We had to run the last lap in the opposite direction and I had the opportunity to wish the others well for rest of the race. Katie, my four-year old then joined us for the last 100 metres and we crossed the finish line together in 26h28min38sec, 6th overall with a double marathon time of 10h10. Wow, from dream to reality, I’m now a double Ironman, what a cool title to have and memories I will treasure for a lifetime.

So lucky to have them there with me for the finish!

To my wife’s complete despair I now wish to do the Triple Ironman!

Nutrition – I have now been a metabolically efficient athlete for over 3 years now, meaning that my body excels at burning its own fat stores as fuel.  Nutrition was the easiest part of the double Ironman in Bakovci because I didn’t need to eat much during a race like that and as a result I never suffered from any stomach problems, I never felt low in energy and I didn’t need to constantly remind myself to eat. It is that simple. I don’t know how people claim to eat in excess of 300 calories per hour and not feel sick; do they bring toilet paper with them too? Metabolic Efficiency is a concept developed by Bob Seebohar, whereby you manipulate your daily nutrition in order to maintain blood sugar levels and keep insulin spikes to a minimum, by doing this over a period of time you will adapt your body to be able to use more of its own fat stores and as a result you’ll require less calories during racing and training. Other than being able to use less calories when training and racing I also benefit from better sleep, better insulin levels, improved fasting blood glucose levels, body fat loss, reduced sugar cravings, better concentration levels at work (I drive high speed trains for a living so concentration is paramount) and improved blood lipid profile.

Just out of interest for some of you, I consumed two scoops of Generation UCAN during the swim (160 calories), during the bike I consumed another two scoops of UCAN, one avocado and ham wrap in halves, some ginger beer mixed with water, 2 cashew cookie Nakd bars, 4 jaffa cakes type biscuits, one cup of hot chicken and veg soup with potato crisps broken in it and Coke mixed with water during the last few laps. During the run I consumed 2 jaffa cakes at the start and then I consumed grapes and watermelon and either coke or ginger beer mixed with water, I really didn’t have the stomach for any solids in the heat but I wasn’t worried, there was plenty left in my “tank”.

A big thank you to the organisers, they really did look after us brilliantly, a special thanks to Thomaz, Miran, Alex and Nina for looking after me and my family. Also a big thank you for all the other competitors, lovely racing with you all, great banter and camaraderie throughout the event.

A big thank you to Skechers Performance UK for supplying me with my favourite shoes for the 2016 season. I wore the Skechers Go Run 4 for the double in Bakovci, although I had the Go Ride 4 as a spare but didn’t feel the need to change during the run.
And a MASSIVE thanks to my wife and daughters for being there for me on the day (and a bit) and offering me all your love and support. It was SO special to have you there with me to witness my success. I couldn’t do it without your tolerance and support of the long hours of training involved.

Just one more ‘little’ race for 2016 left and I’m super excited to be travelling to Greece at the end of September to challenge the mighty 250km Spartathlon ultramarathon.