Saturday, 2 June 2018

The Grand Union Canal Race 2018 Race Report

I blame the salesman, all I wanted was a pair of trainers to help me start running and lose the excess weight. At the time I was working full time, going to Uni at night, and my eldest daughter Bella was about to be born, the last thing on my mind entering a race. This was around 2007, and the salesman was Ryan Spencer. Ryan started telling me about his ultra-running and I was blown away when I heard he’d completed the Grand Union Canal race (GUCR). What?  145 miles? Is that even possible?

Anyway, it wasn’t until 2008 that I completed my first 10k race and I fell in love with the sport. I have followed the Grand Union Canal race ever since, and two years ago I was brave enough to have my first go. Unfortunately, a tummy bug hit our house, affecting all of us and it didn’t allow me to complete the GUCR. I ran to 20 miles, then walked and vomited until 50 miles, and then decided that it wouldn’t be safe to carry on. Last year I was back at GUCR as a volunteer, and in 2018 I was lucky enough to get a place again and have the chance to complete what I had started two years ago.

New season…

It is been an exciting new year for me and my girls. I got a new job in Cornwall and life was about to turn upside down. My last race in September 2017 was the Self Transcendence 24hr Track Race, and then October was my end-of-season break, with training resuming in November  with endless trips to Penzance to find somewhere for us to live. I started my job in the New Year and without somewhere suitable for us to live I rented a little AirBnB house in Hayle and then commuted almost every weekend back to Bedfordshire to see my family. I made the most of life as a ‘single man’ on Mon-Fri and ran lots in the evenings.

By the end of March we exchanged on a new property in Newlyn and I was reunited with my family. Work was now a mere 2 miles away and my frequency and mileage increased with running to and from work and by adding little ‘detours’ every day. My new running routes are simply stunning and it is always a pleasure to put my running shoes on. I’m totally in love with Cornwall, if you couldn’t tell!

Suddenly race day had arrived, I felt fit and strong without any injuries and ready to start this beast.

The Race…

It is race morning, I said goodbye to Grumpy Uncle Martin at the hotel and walked to the race start, half a mile away in Gas Street, Birmingham. Then we were off, about 100 of us, most of the first 30 miles were uneventful, with the weather perfect, cool and overcast.  I chatted to my friend Iain quite a bit and made it to 30 miles in 4h57 which was perfect. I mentioned to Iain how much I didn’t enjoy the first 30 miles of any race as I liked the drama and emotions you go through in the later stages. There would be plenty of drama in the many hours to come…I wish I’d kept my mouth shut.

Feeling great arriving at CP2 around 22 miles.
 After leaving the aid station at mile 36, the sun was out and the temperatures began to soar. On the approach to the 50 mile mark I was still feeling ok and making good progress. Steve Snow now caught up with me and we shared the next 3 miles together, that was Steve’s first GUCR and he had the added motivation of running to raise money for Prostate Cancer UK, bearing in mind his dad is currently going through a tough time with treatment. We even made a really quick stop at a canal shop, and with the sunshine now really strong, I treated myself to a Solero and a coke.

We carried on towards The Heart of England checkpoint at mile 53 together and on the approach Steve left me behind as I had started walking too much. By the time I arrived at the CP, Steve had already left. I didn’t feel great; I had some orange squash, a couple of plums, a mandarin and soaked my hat in cold water. I left and I walked and walked for miles, feeling sorry for myself and wishing my luck would turn soon; that is ultra-running for you, full of highs and lows. Every time I started to run the simple action of my t-shirt rubbing on my stomach would cause me huge discomfort and my legs turned to jelly. After 6 or 7 miles of that I forced myself to be sick, it did help a bit but I didn’t feel like eating anything, I simply took little sips of water mixed with salt sticks.

The afternoon sun was starting to take its toll.

Eventually I heard a familiar voice and it was my ultra-runner friend Emily who had caught up with me. I was really pleased to see her and I just wished I could feel better. I explained my problems and she offered me Ginger Beer to help me settle my stomach. A few years back, my mum had passed away a few days before a big race and Emily was great at picking up my mojo to finish that race. Here she was to save me again. The ginger beer worked a treat and I got a little more energy, then she encouraged me to run a little and it worked. Amen to Emily! I owe you a beer or two!!

We continued together to Stoke Bruerne and with the end of the afternoon the temperature dropped. Emily was making a stop to meet her crew and I decide to sit down in the curry house by the canal to have a Coke with lots of ice.  Once I left I met my friends Danielle and Alan, who travelled from Leighton Buzzard to cheer me on, and guess what, they had some ginger beer and a chicken wrap for me! The ultra-running Gods were now on my side! I caught up with Emily again and we ran together with her buddy runner to the checkpoint at mile 70. Mark Haynes was volunteering there and I got a lovely man hug and he made me a lovely sugary cup of tea and I had that with my chicken wrap.

It was a lovely evening and I began to feel stronger and stronger. I was eating the miles now into Wolverton and Milton Keynes and I looking forward to see my buddy runner Martin whom I left in the hotel in Birmingham that morning. I’m not sure Martin was so pleased though, as he was probably wondering what was taking so long to get to him. On my way to the next aid station a lovely man on a barge kindly offered the most delicious peach, and then Mich Hardie who was crewing for Russ supplied me with Coke. After a really good spell all the way through Milton Keynes I started to fade a bit. By then my friends Colin, Amy and Anna from Leighton Buzzard were waiting at the canal to cheer me on, it was lovely to see them and get some well needed hugs. Now it was pitch black and with my headtorch on I made it to the Bletchley aid station, 84 miles in. Glyn was working there; he made me some pasta and a lovely cup of tea and encouraged me with pep talk. Martin had been waiting for me for hours but didn’t seem too grumpy. As we left towards Leighton Buzzard we could see the storm which was about to hit us. We marched towards the Three Locks where my friends Eve and Chris had been waiting with flat Coke, then my guitar teacher Jeff appeared out of nowhere to also cheer me on. You really can’t underestimate the powers of a hug and smile during an ultra. Thanks guys!!!  As we left them it started raining, which very quickly turned into an electrical storm. I put my waterproof jacket on and as we passed Leighton Buzzard my friend Dave was waiting for us under a bridge. Dave wished us luck and asked us to be careful. What a storm that was, constant lightning turned night into day, and the rain turned the towpath into a river, we might as well have jumped in the canal for a swim. To be honest the lightning was scaring the shit out me, I was very worried that I would be hit by one. The rain however felt divine, as I pressed my drenched waterproof jacket all over my body, it provided a welcoming relief from the previous afternoon’s sunshine.

With Colin Bradley in Milton Keynes.

The storm continued and my legs were again on fire. I ran strong all the way to Tring for the 100-mile checkpoint. I arrived there in good spirits in roughly 21h30; Mark Haynes was there again and made me more sugary tea whilst the legendary race director Dick offered me some beans with cheese. The beans went down a treat and Martin and I were soon on our way to London with 45 miles to go. Our next checkpoint at 120 miles, came with the promise of bacon sandwiches waiting for us there.

100 miles done 45 to go.

As we ran it got light quickly, my jacket dried, my headtorch was put away and we kept marching on, with Martin making sure I didn’t walk for too long. We crossed the M25, which is a milestone into this race, meaning that you are now into Greater London and going through Watford. Ryan (the bastard who sold me my first pair of trainers and told me about GUCR back in 2007) was waiting for me with his partner Tanya. They had perfect sticks of watermelon for us that just melted in my mouth. I thanked them and mentioned that my running along canals career was over. Eventually Martin and I arrived at the checkpoint and they had the much anticipated bacon sandwiches!! Unfortunately I could not manage to eat the bread; it would simply not go down my throat. So I ate the bacon and asked for some more beans with cheese.  I could see Martin’s annoyance at me taking too long, but I had to make sure I ate something more substantial. At the CP we had caught up with Paul Ali, who was busy cutting bits off his blistered feet.

Watermelon sticks were out of this world!

We left and it got hotter and hotter….we ran, we walked, we ran, and we walked, but we kept putting one foot in front of the other. I have to admit that Martin encouraged me to run a lot more than I really wanted to. We arrived at the last checkpoint at 133 miles and all I could stomach was some Coke and a mandarin, Duncan was working there and he wished us luck for the final 12 miles. The heat was intense now but I ran more than I expected and time went past quickly with my emotions running high.

With only half a mile to the finish, I spotted a runner in the distance and told Martin let’s catch him and he simply said go for it, you’re the one racing. I upped my pace and went for that last kick, as I got closer I realised it was Steve Snow whom I had shared a few miles with the day before. I felt a bit bad but Steve will forgive me I’m sure, I’m competitive and this was a race after all! Little Venice was within sight! Since hearing about this race in 2007, I had finally crossed the finish line in 33h10min and in 12th place. Keith Godden put a medal around my neck and congratulated me on my finish.

Job done!
Steve arrived a minute later with Martin just behind him.

Didn’t that first beer tasted amazing after four weeks of no drinking, in fact the first pint didn’t even touch the sides, I enjoyed the second one more and by the third beer I was falling asleep! 

Super thanks to all the volunteers and the race director for your time and an immaculate event. Thanks to all my friends that made the effort to come out to say hello on the course throughout the weekend. Thanks to Iain and Steve for the great company. Super thanks to Emily for rescuing me from that bad patch at mile 60 and special thanks Martin for running the last 62 miles with me, the encouragement and banter were superb. Obviously I couldn’t do any of these races without the support and tolerance of my wife and daughters, so  a big thank you to them for putting up with me.

Some positives from the GUCR, I didn’t suffer from any chaffing whatsoever, which is a first, and my feet were still in great shape after the storm at night.

The month of June is for recovery but I’ll be resuming normal training again in July. My next race is the mighty 153-miler in Greece, the Spartathlon where I will join my Brazilian team mates again. I really can’t wait!

But before I go…

The human body is simply amazing and when we put our minds into doing something it is incredible what we can achieve. But surely you would think that someone with cancer would not be able to run 145-miles, but you would be wrong!!

This weekend, a great friend of mine, Mark Thornberry also raced the GUCR. Mark was diagnosed just over year ago with terminal liver cancer...  Instead of wallowing, Mark has continued running whenever he could, in between treatments and interventions. I have no words to describe how astonishing it was to witness Mark complete the GUCR after 40+ hours of running. What a man, I’m incredibly lucky and honoured to call this brave man my friend; it seems that not every super hero wears a cape!

Fuck you Cancer!

Mark is combining his love for long distance running to help him stay alive and to also raise essential funds for Kings College Hospital, who have been so good to him and his family. Read Mark’s story here and dig deep for this truly worthwhile cause!

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Running 200km+ in 24hrs around the track - The Self-Transcendence Race Report

Short version: I ran around a 400m athletic track for 24hrs, there were ups and downs, the last six hours were great and I fulfilled my “race goal” of running 200km plus.

Extended version:  My ultra-running friend Jon Fielden, had a great time running around the track for 24 hours last year and after reading his blog and discussing it with him, I was convinced that I wanted to add it to my CV… I just didn’t know when I would do it. After not getting through the ballot of the 2017 Spartathlon, I was convinced by Emily Foy to write to the lovely race director, Shankara Smith, and ask for a place for this year’s Self Transcendence 24hr Track Race in Tooting Bec, London.
On your marks, get set, go...!

*Transcendence: the state of excelling or surpassing or going beyond usual limits*

Race day arrived; I arrived at the Tooting Athletics track very early and had my 10 year old daughter Bella crewing for me for the first 4hrs or so before my wife and youngest daughter Katie arrived. The car was parked next to the track and I used the boot as my personal tuck shop, stocked with my favourite food, drinks and spare kit.

With my race number pinned, midday soon arrived and 45 of us started running around the 400m track trying to cover as many laps as possible by Sunday midday (every four hours we change direction of running around the track). I resisted the urge to start running too fast and eventually settled into a pace of 6mph. Nothing very exciting happened during those first six hours, apart from having the song ‘The Guitar Man’ by Bread going over and over in my head. My guitar teacher, Jeff had taught it to me on Monday and I’d loved playing it all week. During this time the sun shone briefly, it rained a bit and I stopped for the toilet from time to time, I talked to the other competitors whilst going around and I ate and drank as I felt the need. My wife had arrived in the early afternoon and as evening approached and just before dusk, they said goodbye (they stayed with friends for the night) and left the boot organised with my food and drink for the night ahead. I thanked them for their help and they went off. With lots of support crews, the race staff and the other competitors I definitely didn’t feel alone. Sandra, who was crewing for Mich and Russ, had settled in to camp for the night next to my car, and she offered to help in the night should I need anything. Thank you Sandra!

Taking it easy on the early stages.

I made it to the first 50miles in 8h50, which was reasonable, not too fast and not too slow. Next goal was to get to 100km (62miles). Ideally I would get there in around 11hrs which would give me 13hours to run another 100km with tired legs. Unfortunately it didn’t happen and I got there in 11hrs35min, so now I had a mountain to climb (or in other words another 250 laps to do).

It was now nearly midnight and there was nothing wrong with me but I wasn’t moving particularly well or feeling that awesome either. By then my watch battery was running low and I left it in the car charging, besides, looking at my pace wasn’t giving me much confidence either.  I kept running, eating, drinking and then every half hour I’d walk for half a lap for a breather.

At each hour mark, a sign would go up with your race position and miles completed. Slowly I made my way up the board and I was consistently clocking up 5miles per hour. Hours went by before I started to feel better though…

Back in April, my great ultra-running friend, Mark Thornberry, was diagnosed with liver cancer and despite going through several treatments, he was then told it was terminal. Life sucks, but Mark decided to run from Birmingham to London along the Grand Union Canal, covering an astounding 145-miles in three days to raise money for Kings College London. Mark completed his challenge two weeks ago and my family and I are now one of his biggest fans.

So, I was wearing Mark’s Kings’ College London polka dot vest for inspiration throughout the race, and as reminder to keep moving forward and to be more grateful for life.
Slowly my luck changed, and as I approached the 100 miles mark (160km), the board went up and I had done my first 6mph in a very long time. I started dreaming that maybe I still could…

The track was covered with motivational posters and my favourite read, ‘the fullness of life lies in dreaming and manifesting the impossible dreams’. There had been a change in the lap counters and now the lady counting my laps was really supportive, yelling ‘Go Rodrigo, fantastic, impressive, woohoo!’ at each lap without fail. Lots of other competitors were now walking, taking breaks and I slowly started lapping those who had lapped me previously.

With Mark Thornberry in my thoughts, my favourite poster every 400 metres and a very supportive lap counter, I kept moving forward with re-energised legs. I made it to 100-miles in roughly 19h40 and so I now divided my mission in to four chunks. I had to run 10km per hour and I would have 20min spare (5min per hour) to go to the toilet, grab food and drink, and re-lube!

First hour bang, 6 miles done! 1 hour down and 3 to go! Second hour was also strong and another 6 miles done. I really couldn’t believe it, no bad patches, zero walking in two hours. I kept thinking I must do this for myself and for Mark!

It was now daylight, the temperature rose a little and I removed my long sleeve base layer and decided to wear my watch and make no mistake with my pace. I was now running with my heart, and at every corner of the track I had support and encouragement, and I had a big smile on my face (smiling relaxes your upper body – or so I was told). Whatever distance I achieved I was going to be proud, because I was giving 110%.

11am now and another 6 miles done, just 10km to go, I can do this! By now my friend Ilsuk and Glen were there to give me support. My wife, Bella and Katie and my friends Gill and Edu had also arrived. They were now in charge of my aid station. I asked for my sunglasses to hide the pain on my face, but I kept smiling and running even faster.
10min to go!

With 30min left I asked for an update on my lap count from the officials. To add to the drama, it was two laps off what I’d expected and I knew it was going to be very very close to achieving my goal of 200km.  So I upped my pace even more- I had got this far and I wanted it really badly.

Can I stop running now?!

In the last five minutes your family and friends are allowed to run with you, so when five minutes were left my girls tried to join me and I said ‘Wait, not yet girls!’. I needed those two missing laps and there was no way they could do that in five minutes. I ran that last lap all out in less than 2 min, and arrived back to the girls feeling physically sick. I grabbed their little hands and we ran the lap of honour together and then with 25seconds before the midday gong, we ran another 36 metres. The horn sounded at midday and I collapsed on the track, job done, if by the skin of my teeth! 200k and 36 metres*.

*official results now say I actually ran 200km and 458 metres!

It took me a while to get up from the track and I felt really grotty and nauseous for a while so that meant I was unable to enjoy the post-race celebration and the delicious post-race meal. I must have been feeling really ill as I didn’t even fancy a cold beer.
'Are you going to get up Dad?'

Many thanks must go to the other competitors and their crews for their support and camaraderie. Thanks also to race director, Shankara, and all your staff and volunteers, for an immaculate race. Thanks to my wife and girls for putting up with all my absences to train for these events, I really couldn’t do it without your tolerance and support. And a massive thank you to Mark Thornberry, you’re my hero.
Just let me die here!

My season is now finished, I have achieved my goals of completing the Thames Ring 250, I ran 200km in a 24hr race and got a new PB at 50 miles.  I did miss out on my sub19 hours attempt for 100-miles, but I’m still youngish enough to keep trying for that one.

For 2018, I would love to finish the Grand Union Canal race, if I’m lucky enough to get a place (I have unfinished business with GUCR), I’m also toying with the idea of going to Berlin for the Berlin Wall 100-miler and hopefully the Greek gods will be on my side and I will be successful in the ballot for Spartathlon 2018.

Mark’s cancer may be terminal but he is willing to keep fighting (and running), he is currently waiting for his latest scan results so that he can plan his next challenge. If you would like to read his story and sponsor him, then just click on this link: Mark "the shark" Thornberry

*For this race I wore my new favourite shoes: Skechers Go Run 400.

*Nutrition went really well, being metabolic efficient means I’m a good fat burner meaning I don’t need to eat too much making nutrition a lot simpler for race day. If you want to understand more about metabolic efficiency please click on this link

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!