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!