Wednesday, 21 October 2015

I'm a Grand Slammer! Autumn 100 2015 Race Report.

The Autumn 100

After the great season I’d had the Autumn 100 should have been the icing on my "Grand Slam" cake, I felt great, my training had been very consistent and I was really looking forward to my last race of 2015. With two weeks to go my mum unexpectedly passed away in Brazil, I travelled home for the funeral and spent a few days with my brother and sister, then flew back to the UK to finish the Grand Slam. 

The Autumn 100 is a series of out-and-back spurts along The Ridgeway and Thames Path, with the race HQ being in the lovely village of Goring. I had raced this course last year when the race was called Winter 100 so I knew what to expect on race day. 

There were lots of familiar faces at the starting line and after a quick photo with my kids we were off. My body was fresh having done hardly any training in the previous two weeks, but as the miles ticked along I felt emotionally drained. My mum had been following my progress during the Grand Slam and for me it was hard racing knowing that when the Autumn 100 was over I wouldn’t be able to ring her and tell her all about it.

I finished leg one in just under 4 hours which was a good time and decided to change into road shoes, the trail was so dry that it felt uncomfortable wearing trail shoes. Leg 2 started and my mind wasn't in the right place and I wasn’t really enjoying any of it yet, although my running was fine. It wasn’t until I was about 8 miles or so from the end of leg 2 that I had a good spell mentally, I shared some of those miles with Emily Foy and the great conversation took my mind away and I started to enjoy the race. We overtook each other a few times but managed to finish leg 2 together in just over 8h50 without having to use a headtorch.

Leg 3 was probably the one that cost me my second sub20, I started off well but then felt so sluggish with countless walking breaks, now it wasn’t my head that was causing me problems but my legs!  You couldn’t fault the weather though, I thought I was feeling cold and exposed at the top of The Ridgeway and decided to put my jacket on, but within 30minutes I was sweating and really didn’t need it. Emily and I kept overtaking each other and again finished leg 3 together. That was by far the worst leg for me arriving back at the headquarters in 14h38. 

I was desperate to leave Goring on my final leg, I  had ½ a cup of hot soup and left for Reading. That tiny bit of soup made my tummy a bit dodgy so I walked for the first mile to let things settle. Emily caught up with me again and I started feeling better and we ran together pretty much all the way to the Whitchurch aid station. I had a glass of Coke and left quickly. I had a really good spell all the way to Reading with hardly any walking and picking up a few people along the way. Reading Aid Station was great, the stairs were decorated with personalised posters spurring us on to the finish, mine read ‘Grand Slam buckle 12.5 away’. I topped up my bottle with a mixture of water and Coke and said goodbye to the ace volunteer Alma Botes.

With the format of this race you more or less know how far people are in front of you when you reach the end of a leg, three runners had just left Reading aid station as I entered so I turned my racing mode on and decided I wanted to catch these guys. All I thought was that if I minimised my walking I would have a great chance, I passed two guys before we left Reading town centre with only my friend Rich Stewart in front, Rich looked good so I wasn’t sure I could catch him as I couldn’t spot his headtorch along the fields on the way to Pangbourne. But to my surprise just as I crossed the Thames into Whitchurch I saw Richard walking, he told me his legs were shot to bits and he wished me luck and said ‘I’ll see you at the finish Rod’. 

At the last station, with only four miles to go, I threw away the excess food I had, glugged some more Coke and left. I ran the best I could all the way to the end and crossed the finish line in 20:31 with a course PB for me of 38min and in 37th place, finishing the race in much better shape mentally than when I started. I’m now a Grand Slammer. My mum is not here, but I know she would have been very proud of me and that is all that matters.

The Grand Slam and End-of-Season Report

Back in November 2014, I set my season goals for this 2015 and they were: 
Complete the Centurion Grand Slam in 85 hours or less
Complete one 100-miler in less than 20 hour
Do a 5km ParkRun with my wife and eldest daughter Bella. 

How did I get on?
My season started off in New Zealand where I lived for three months this year. I raced the beautiful Tarawera 100k and ended up with a PB for the distance which was great. Since I didn’t have to work for three months except a bit of DIY for my mother-in-law, my training had been immaculate and I could afford the luxury of lots of recovery. I arrived in the UK in great shape for the Thames Path 100 and I smashed my goal of sub20 hours for 100 miles with 19h14. 

Great season opener at the Tarawera 100km

I am always telling others not to race too much and but failed to listen to my own advice and booked myself a place for an off-road marathon in Cumbria just two weeks after Thames Path and ended up picking up a niggling calf injury. 

After lots of physio sessions, I made it to the starting line of the South Downs Way 100. I ran well to the 30 miles mark and then my injury reappeared and I simply could not run. I saw the Grand Slam dream disappearing before my eyes, this was my lowest point during the Grand Slam. After a few miles of walking I calculated that I had still had plenty of time to finish the race walking. My friend and co-Grand Slammer Mark Haynes also picked up a foot injury and joined me at 50 miles for a really long walk. We crossed the finished line together in 26h05 with our heads held high. That is my proudest moment of my entire season; I fought through adversity and discovered a bit more about myself that day. When you want something bad enough you will do anything to get it.

With Grand Slammer Mark Haynes - NDW100

We had 8 weeks to recover and be ready for the North Downs Way 100, so I spent most of that time cycling and as the weeks went by I managed to run a bit more each week. I felt in good shape again  but a bit conscious of my calf injury. In the end, the calf didn’t cause me any problems and I had a good race finishing in 22h28. 

My total Grand Slam time was 88h19 min, so I missed out on the sub85 hours and it’s entirely my own fault for going against my own advice and doing a marathon so soon after Thames Path.

What about getting my family to exercise more? Well, I got my wife trail walking and she now loves it, but she's still not keen on running (yet, or walking in the rain) but she is walking regularly on our local trails, with some weeks covering over 20 miles.

My daughter Bella has really got the bug , she is now an official triathlete having completed two races this season. A few weeks ago we completed a local 5k Park Run together, so we now have a shared family PB as that was the first time I have ever raced 5k. She is a member of our local swimming club and I take her swimming, biking and running on a weekly basis. It’s been so great to watch her confidence grow. She has also been a great influence on her little sister who often demands to go for a run with us.

My favourite triathlete!

My top tips for wannabe Grand Slammers:
  • You have already got a lot on your plate with the Grand Slam, so there is no need to do other races;
  • Recce all the routes, it will give you a great advantage knowing any obstacles you may encounter  and will save you precious time  not having to look at a map during the races or getting lost!
  • Train for the first race, the Thames Path 100, and after that it’s a case of recovering and listening to your body, I definitely didn’t do big miles.
  •  Be consistent in everything you do, in training, in healthy eating, sleep pattern, etc.
  • Personally, I don’t think it’s necessary to do much speed training, I trained aerobically all season.
  • Become a good fat burner; it will make your race nutrition a lot simpler. I follow Bob Seebohar’s metabolic efficient concept, which I have discussed many times in my blog.

I’m now taking a well-deserved two week break and already have big plans for 2016. I’ve entered the ballot for the classic 145-miles Grand Union Canal Race in May. I’m also dreaming of the double-Ironman triathlon, with a few options in Europe and UK available and whilst I’m on the right side of 40 and have a bit of speed left in me, I want to enter the ballot for the Spartathlon, a 250km ultra in Greece later in the summer.

I need to thank my friends Glyn Raymen and Allan Rumbles who inspired me to do the Grand Slam this year. Obviously, my family for putting up with my obsessive hobby and being hugely supportive. I want to thank race director James Elson and his army of helpers and volunteers, Centurion Running rocks. And I also want to thank everyone who helped me raise funds for Eaves UK -

Monday, 10 August 2015

North Downs Way 100 Race Report. 3 down 1 to go!

North Downs Way (NDW) 100 was leg three of the Centurion Grand Slam, the race starts in Farnham along the North Downs finishing in the village of Wye in Kent; the route is officially 102.6 miles with 3025m of elevation gain.

If you had the chance to read my blog post from the South Downs Way you are aware I have been suffering from a niggling calf injury. After finishing the South Downs Way 100-miler eight weeks ago I had to come up with a plan to get my calf in a much better shape and still have the fitness and health to cover 100-miles on foot once again.

One of the greatest advantages of calling myself a triathlete is that when I can’t run I can always swim and bike; with the type of injury I sustained cycling hard wasn’t a problem and I added some easy swim sessions to aid recovery. For a few weeks after the SDW100 I didn’t run at all, I had several physio sessions with the great Carmel Gosbee from The Sports Therapy Room in Leighton Buzzard and I cycled lots and lots, it was as if I was in the middle of Ironman triathlon training, I did long rides, aerobic intervals, hill reps, etc, with some weeks spending up to 10 hours in the saddle. Three weeks or so later and feeling much better I went out for a 20min test run and that was fine. A few days later I did 40min followed by 60min and eventually ran 8 miles without a hitch. Still cycling lots and swimming several times a week. 

Each time I visited Carmel for a physio session she’d say the calf felt better than the time before and had to spend less time treating it, I knew I was making progress but didn’t want to get too confident just yet.

After a few weeks I managed to run the last 27 miles of the North Downs without any problems (apart from getting lost!) and I now had the confidence I could finish the NDW 100 and keep my Grand Slam goal alive.

The Race

A nice early 6am start in Farnham and we were off. It’s so exciting to start a race like that, so many things going through your head,  wondering how my calf would behave during the race and how hot it was going to get (forecast was for lots of sunshine).

I quickly settled into a comfortable rhythm and my pace was effortless. It always surprises me to watch runners during the first few miles of a long ultra like the NDW breathing hard, what are they doing!? I made it to Aid Station 3 before Box Hill (25miles) in 4h13, not bad I thought, minimal effort and my calf was good and it wasn’t hot yet.  Box Hill was the first major hill we encountered on route but at that point it didn’t feel too bad, I still had fresh legs. 

It soon got hot though, but I made to Reigate Hill Aid station reasonably well, the highlight of that stop was volunteer David Ross dropping some ice cubes down my back, saucy! I carried on to Caterham Aid Station and in that section I encountered my first bad patch, whilst my legs were fine the heat was starting to take its toll, however I made it there in one piece and was greeted and photographed by my ultra friend Glyn who was also volunteering at that aid station and snapped my photo for FB. Pretty sure I look better in that picture than I felt inside. I quickly filled my water bottles, filled my hat with ice cubes and immersed my buff in icy water and I felt good to go again. 

I kept moving reasonably well and my thoughts focused on the halfway point at Knockholt Pound aid station, with experience I have gained with ultra running I know that you always get a boost at halfway, it must be psychological, but for me I can then start the countdown to the finish. A little less than 10hours and I made it to halfway. Again, fresh water, some more ice on top of my head, soaking my buff once again and I was off.  I can say I ran really well to Otford, sharing some of this time with fellow ultrarunner Ian Kittle (whom I would run with for several miles in the hours to come).

As I got to the top of hill past Otford I started to struggle, I was really hot, my legs were heavy and my tummy dodgy. At 60 miles, with no other option I had to suck it up and walk the next 4/5 miles to Wrotham Aid station, being overtaken by several runners during this time. I knew exactly what was going wrong though, because several different bodily systems require oxygen-rich blood at once (muscles to keep you moving, your digestive system and sweating to cool your body in the heat) my body had had enough. My number one piece of advice for anyone doing 100-miles for the first time is that bad patches come but they eventually go again; just keep putting one foot in front of the other until your luck turns!

As I made it to Wrotham at 60miles I started to feel better but couldn’t face any solid food. I mixed a bit of flat coke in my water bottles and keep taking my salt tablets and  repeated the ice in my hat trick and I was off and running well again. I had a really good spell of excellent running all the way to Rochester passing lots of people along the way. As I started the ascent towards Bluebell Hill it got dark and I decided to have a walking break, a sort of strategy to prevent another bad patch. I left that aid station at 76 miles feeling great again, I caught up with Ian Kittle and we shared most of those miles to Detling at 82 miles with good consistent running.

I treated each aid station like a transition zone of a triathlon, in and out as quickly as possible, not getting too comfortable and Detling was no different-I must have been there for a maximum of 2 minutes. For those that have covered those few miles after Detling, you will know how shite they are, lots and lots of really awkward steep stepped sections that go on forever, it was bad covering that section a few weeks ago in fresh legs, but you can imagine how bad it was after 82 miles. It was frustrating because you can’t even recoup the time you wasted going slow uphill, as the downhill section after was un-runnable. I just wanted to get to Hollingbourne as from there I knew  the rest of the course was gently undulating all the way to Wye.

By the time I arrived at the Lenham aid station, around 91 miles, with less than half a marathon to go, I forgotten about my calf and the cooler weather during the night was a nice relief from the heat we encountered during the day, still too warm to wear a jacket though. My watch battery had died a long time ago but I started trying to calculate what sort of finishing time I was in for using my normal watch… ‘if I can only walk near the end I can still get sub24’, ‘ but if I get a good spell I can do sub 23hrs’…It’s not easy doing maths after 20 hours+ on the feet!

From Lenham to the last aid station in Dunn Street was roughly 7.5 miles. I felt a bit like a wind-up toy car, I would run for 2mins then have to walk for 30sec to “wind-up” again. I was overtaking people only to be overtaken soon after by Ian Kittle, Gil Cramer and another runner. My competitive streak reappeared and all I thought about was the 3 places that were at stake then and I soon overtook them. With 2 miles to Dunn Street, their head torches got further and further behind me until I could no longer see them.

I reached Dunn Street aid station and I wanted to be out before those guys could catch me up again. With only 4 miles or so to the finish I didn’t bother to fill my bottles, I quickly downed some Coke and left. Another runner who was sitting down followed me out, (I think his name is David), we crossed a stile and flew down this farm field, it felt as if I had just started running, my legs and brain felt brand new.  We moved through some farmland and as we got to a road there was a small incline and he decided to walk, I seized the opportunity and gained a few metres advantage. 

I entered the village of Boughton Lees and saw two head torches ahead, another spur of speed and I passed them. Now I was looking at my watch and thinking I could even do sub22h30. A mile or so through a farm field and I would be home. To add a bit of excitement, I saw two head torches not too far in front and I gave it all I had left to pass them. I loved every second of it, and after all the shit I had been through this bit felt great. I entered the village of Wye going through the level crossing like a steam engine and I could see the village hall where the race finishes. What a relief, 22h28min, placing 24th overall.
Three races down, only one to go! Now I’m already looking forward to the Autumn 100 in nine weeks’ time. I’m still puzzled that I didn’t get one single blister this weekend but my groin area is a mess looks like my wife attacked my groin with a box grater, don’t worry I won’t post any pictures of that…

Celebrating another finish with Mark Haynes - The Grand Slam is on!

Big thanks to my wife and kids for putting up with my obsession for long distance running and training and the lush beetroot brownies I scoffed after the race. Thanks to Carmel Gosbee, my physio for looking after me these last few weeks. Thanks to Clare and Dan who were cheering us along the route, always great to see a face you know. And a massive thanks to all the volunteers who make these races possible and to everybody that has donated to Eaves which I’m fundraising for in 2015 - .  You’re all amazing!

One left to complete the Grand Slam puzzle

I’m an average runner but I feel incredibly lucky to be able to cover these silly distances. Whether you come first, last and even when you can’t finish, these experiences make you grow as person and appreciate the simpler things in life…. I wouldn’t trade these experiences for the world.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

South Downs Way 100 2015 Race Report – Flirting with a DNF[1]

Early last week I went out for a nice 4-mile walk with my wife along the Grand Union canal and local woods, I said to her when we finished: ‘I enjoyed that, I wouldn’t mind doing more walking in future’. Little did I know I was in for a lot more walking soon after…

For those that have been following my endurance adventures for a while now will know (without me sounding arrogant) that I don’t usually have bad races. I don’t race a lot but I am careful with my training, nutrition and the way I look after myself generally and subsequently I have a pretty decent record of getting the best out of myself. 

The Grand Slam started in style, smashing my 100-mile personal best at the Thames Path six weeks ago but then I forgot to listen to own advice of not racing too much and signed up for the Howgills marathon in the Cumbria/Yorkshire border just two weeks later, with the intention of just plodding around and enjoying the views. To be honest that was exactly what happened but the course had some technical parts where I picked up a niggle where the top of my left calf connects to the knee. 

I got massages, eased up on the running, did lots of cycling and swimming and it went away but it kept playing on my mind as the SDW100 approached. At the B&B we were staying in before the race, my co-ultrarunner Mark Haynes and I discussed race prediction times, strategy, the South Downs Way course, etc. Getting to the start was not a problem, the weather forecast looked ideal and soon we were on our way without any stress. The first few miles ticked without a hitch, nice comfortable pace, no signs of any niggles, quick and smooth through the aid stations and certainly enjoying the beautiful views of the South Downs.

One of many amazing views of the South Downs.

By mile 25 I felt a slight discomfort with my calf and panic quickly took over me, I tried walking for a minute or two then running again but as the miles went by it got progressively worse. By mile 30 I was running with a limp and the prospect of DNF-ing seemed very real. I ran and walked to mile 35 and in that period I was still indecisive about what to do: ‘quit at the next aid station?’, ‘ask someone for a massage?’, ‘take some Ibuprofen?’…’Am I letting everyone down who has already sponsored my charity’, ‘what will it do to my confidence if I quit without a fight?’.  It was not a good place to be in mentally.

From mile 35 onwards I made my mind up to continue walking to mile 50, then I would ring my wife in case she was worried seeing from the tracker that I was slowing down. Once I made it to 50 miles in over 10 hours I quickly worked out that if I walked 3 miles per hour I would have 2 hours spare to finish the race within the 30-hour limit. Was I prepared to push my ego aside and carry on? Hell yeah! I wanted to prove to myself that I was mentally strong, the prospect seemed daunting at the time but I want that Grand Slam buckle badly and besides, I don’t want to be the sort of athlete that gives up when the going gets tough.

I phoned my wife, updated my Facebook and Twitter in case someone cared. I felt a great relief, the pressure of doing well was no longer there and just finishing was my goal now. Walking wasn’t painful at all then, every now and then I tried running but that didn’t last for more than 5 seconds, I couldn’t understand what the problem was, to lift the knee just that little bit higher to run stretched the muscle fibres further which caused great discomfort. 

Just as I was walking downhill into mile 54 (Washington Aid Station) my buddy Mark Haynes caught up and seemed surprised to see me, I explained the problem as we entered the village hall. While he stopped for some hot food I quickly left the aid station and continued with my walking.

Maybe 3 miles later Mark caught up with me again and we walked together for a bit. I didn’t want to say anything but I thought Mark felt a bit sorry for me and just wanted to offer me some company. As the time went by I realised Mark could not long run either with a problem with his foot. We were both on the same boat, lots of hours ahead, with the dream of keeping the Grand Slam alive and both determined to push through. It was SO great to have a familiar face with me, time went by quicker, we talked when we felt like it, we kept each other motivated when one another felt low, we celebrated as we made it to each aid station, we took turns opening the endless gates, we had funny moments (like when I jumped two feet in the air mistaking a stick as a snake in the middle of the night), and we just kept putting one foot in front of the other despite the hardship.

It got quite cold at night, and the kit Centurion Running demands you carry for their races was vital. I probably wouldn’t have used the spare baselayer if had I been running but it was fundamental as a walker. I usually have my phone off when racing (to save the battery for emergencies) but every few hours I turned it on for a few minutes to let my wife know I was safe. Checking messages from friends who were up till late at night telling us to keep moving was a great motivator, special thanks goes to @Leeny_Lou, loved your tweets, got me smiling every time I read them.

Mark and I got through the night in one piece, it was around mile 87 or so that it got lighter again, we knew we had plenty of time to finish but those who have been to the eastern part of the South Downs will know how much chalk there is and how hard the underfoot conditions are. Mark had been struggling with his foot and I could feel blisters on both mine, every step was painful, like a long lasting toothache, we searched the ground for the best places to walk and any sight of grass was a welcomed respite. 

We both knew the last few miles of the course and were counting down the big hills, the penultimate was just after Alfriston, round mile 91, you go through a very sharp steep hill through some trees, then once you clear this the ground hardens with lots of chalky rocks and it goes up for what seems like an eternity (see pic), it feels a bit demoralising when you see it but you’re rewarded with amazing views of Alfriston behind you.

A little over 91 miles - Relentless forward progress!

We made it to the last aid station in Jevington with just over four miles to go, we quickly left the aid station, by then our walking wasn’t so great but we knew we would make it and nothing else mattered, we could taste the finish line (and the bacon butties). We climbed the last big hill towards Eastbourne and we could see the floodlights lighting up in the athletics track at the race finish. What a relief it was to finally enter the town and leave the trails behind, I won’t need to walk on any chalk for a while! 

We tried walking a bit faster to make it in under 26 hours but it was a bit far and we had nothing left in the tank. I was so delighted to cross that finish line in 26h05min and keep the Grand Slam dream going. Like Bear Grylls says: ‘Run if you can, walk if you have to and crawl if absolutely necessary but NEVER ever give up’, glad I didn’t have to crawl though! Obviously it’s great when things go your way but what a great opportunity I had to experience something different, personal bests are very cool not doubt but having to really work hard to make it to the finish was a very humbling moment for both of us. Thanks Mark Haynes for the great company, without a doubt you made my journey a lot easier, thanks everyone who sent me messages of encouragement through the day and night, thanks everyone that donated to Eaves (, I really didn’t want to let you and Eaves down, thanks to my beautiful Anna and my daughters to putting up with all my training, thanks to Graham and Harvey who rec’ced the South Downs course with me last year and thanks to Centurion Running for another immaculate event and of course super thanks to the hundreds of volunteers who make this sort of events possible. 

It may have been my personal worst for 100-miles but one I will treasure for a long time. Plenty of rest and recovery for me until the North Down 100 early in August. I can’t wait!
I will wear that with pride.

Someone was a little tired after being up for over 30 hours!

[1] DNF is an abbreviation for Did Not Finish.