Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Race Report - Bedgebury Forest Trailblazer 10k 2014

Holy cow, a race report!  It’s almost exactly a year since my last race, The Wall RunUltramarathon 2013, so you’d be forgiven for being startled by this post. My apologies. Take a moment to recover.

But first, a quandary. What on earth do you buy for someone who has no birthday gift list and no Christmas list, but has his birthday four days before Christmas?  You’ve got to start with buying two things, obviously, one for each gift-receiving event. And they’re both for your brother.

I ummed and aahed. I rejected clothes (I don’t think he believes in clothes), I rejected DVDs (no-one buys DVDs any more, do they?) and I rejected anything that was explicitly marketed as a gift (ie a disposable thing of inflated value and limited longevity). I pondered. I almost bought things. Then I had an idea. The Crew Chief and I have a habit of buying each other weekends away, theatre tickets or other such experience-based gifts, so I applied this idea to my conundrum.

So I signed Nick and I up to run the Trailblazer.

On his/our birthday I presented him first with a new pair of running gloves (something he actually needed), then with an envelope containing a print-out of our race entry confirmations. I prepared my gracious-gift-giving-face.

He didn’t seem impressed.

But fast forward six months or so, and he seemed pretty keen as we laced up our trainers and headed down to the forest for a few miles of muddy adventure. Nick had never run a Rat Race event before and I had a feeling he would enjoy it. The only recent occasions we had run together had highlighted that he’s in much better shape than me – doubtless owed equally to his 10-mile round-trip of a commute on his bike every day and a convincingly motivated running schedule which I do not possess. I had neither of these things to boost my confidence and hoped only to be able to hang on to whatever speed he brought with him.

In fact I had even less to work with. My stomach was misbehaving and the Gingerbread Man was a nagging concern all morning in the build-up to our wave’s 11.15am start time. Perhaps my sushi-and-lager dinner the night before, hurriedly wolfed down in Edinburgh airport before I dashed to my Gatwick flight, had done me no favours. But something tells me that I’ve developed a habit of inflicting physiologically-manifesting pre-race nerves on myself which I really need to get under control…

Things started predictably in Bedgebury. I’ve never been to this particular forest/country park/pinetum (new word for the day) and it makes for a great venue for the usual Rat Race set up of beer tent, kit store, warm-up area, stage, registration tent etc. We mumbled quiet curses at the summer rain and it eventually got the message and shoved off before our start time, leaving a sunburn-inflicting cloudless sky. By the time our wave was deemed warm and ready to go we processed down a steep gradient to the start, as I mentally and with muttered curses registered the number of feet that would later need to be regained in ascent. A final briefing (‘the park is open, mind the mountain bikes!’) and we were off.

Tight early turns and a narrow course, even for our small-ish wave of runners, made the first couple of kilometres a tough exercise in positioning and finding a comfortable pace. Nick seemed to fall into an early rhythm, and I tried to slip into his step but found myself working harder than I should have. Before long I started to worry about my stomach – I was sure that I was going to vomit or do something worse at a microsecond’s notice. I tried to suppress negative thoughts and enjoy the view.

The course is set in a lovely environment, along rough, stone or muddy roads and trails through a dense forest, and a wholly pleasant place to be of a Saturday morning. As ever with Rat Race events, the marshalls were cheerful and eager and the drinks table (cleverly visited twice on the course without having to run laps) was well stocked and was staffed by smiling, eager faces attached to quick hands. If I had any criticism it was that there wasn’t enough muddy, technical trail and a little too much tarmac for something billed as a trail race, but part of the issue may have been that we changed surface so many times that it was difficult to find any consistent rhythm. I guess I was hoping for something like a chunky, entertaining cross-countryish course rather than a forest-based road race with some muddy bits, but I can hardly complain. Rat Race offer plenty of races with much more nonsense if you’re so inclined. The only ‘obstacle’, as far as I remember, was a very small ditch, but the deceptively long hills, undulating profile and tight corners were more challenging than they first appeared.

Regardless of surroundings, my stomach was wretched. Nick and I had gone through 5k together in a little over 24 minutes, but at a water station shortly afterwards I slowed to drink while Nick carried on. I fought to catch up but only to tell him to stop waiting and to go on ahead. He didn’t need telling twice.

I lumbered through the next few km’s keeping Nick in my sights, usually about 15-20 metres ahead of me. At this stage I was sustaining myself by thinking that I could still partly salvage, if not entirely save face. But just before 9km the race chucked us out onto tarmac, and Nick lit the afterburners. I had nothing in the tank to respond with and watched him go.

Nick about to finish
I hauled myself onwards and up a final grassy incline to the event village, relieved to arrive in the finger-loop which immediately preceded the finish line. I tried to pick up the pace and look a little more impressive for the only section of the course to feature any spectators (including both of our parents), but spoiled it by immediately by landing on all-fours once over the line, anticipating a return appearance of my breakfast, which mercifully never came. My chip time read 50:37, Nick’s was 49:43, which was good enough for 68th (me) and 59th (Nick) from a field of around 600. Not bad.

Very relieved to be done. Ace goody bag.
We hustled ourselves more or less straight into the beer tent for some pints and watched the last few waves warm up and process down to the start. My dad, who I don’t think has seen me race before, took a lot of photos and marvelled at the slick set-up of the event village. My mum cursed her hayfever and gave the bored-looking first aiders something to do by soliciting an antihistamine.  They both fussed over us with towels and spare clothes, then immediately uploaded their finish-line photos to Facebook, accurately capturing how totally wrecked we were. A classic race day.

It’s rather good, this racing lark, eh? I might do some more of it.

Happy running


Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Social Anthropology: The Gym

I don’t think I belong in the gym.

There are so many types of people who use my gym that I’m going to have to give you a thorough run-down. I also need to be clear that I’m pretty sure I don’t belong there at all.

The douchebags
Plimsolls. Long socks. Wife-beater vests. Slicked-back hair. Pastel coloured shorts rolled up to just above the knee. The douchebags do a few gentle weights reps – arms only – as slowly as possible so they can watch their muscles gently flex in the mirror. They are douchebags.

The footballers
A couple of very minor league football teams are sometimes based from the sports centre which houses my gym. Their squad comes in as a group of no less than 20, dressed in their full kit, to sit on exercise bikes, occasionally pedalling gently, and watching themselves in the mirror. Occasionally they rearrange their kit so the logo is more prominently displayed. After 15 minutes they start to go down to the cafĂ© and ‘reserve’ all the sofas.

The wannabe footballers
As above but clearly not in the team. Desperately try to get onto machines next to the footballers. Embarrass us all.

Triangular muscle beasts
Where have these men come from? They’re huge! And genuinely triangular. They must have normal
jobs somewhere, they can’t all be employed to haul tractor tyres around car parks, can they? They briefly enter the changing rooms (sideways) to take off a tracksuit – leave it on a bench rather than in a locker – and then heave their enormous shoulders off to the Massive Weights Room of Fear downstairs. I take solace in the fact that they must look ridiculous in normal clothes – perhaps this is a vicious circle that explains why they are always in the gym. When they get back to the changing rooms they chug an enormous plastic cup full of ground-up bison and girders.

Pleasingly, this is a Google Image result for 'triangular muscle beast'
Members of the Pussycat Dolls
I assume they are students. But I don’t remember students like this when I was at St Andrews. These girls are ridiculous manifestations of the Essex WAG ideal – miniscule waists, long blonde hair, leggings, immaculate pink trainers and matching sweat bands on their beadless brows. To give them their due, the dolls work out. Hard. Do not make eye contact. They will crush you in their thighs of steel or abrade your face with their abs of titanium.

The female footballers
Opposite of the Pussycat Dolls. The ladies football team are hard as nails. Running sprints on the treadmills, then annihilating the cross-trainer, then weights then crunches then something else then another thing then more sprints. They are all 5 foot nothing and wearing baggy football kit, possibly a hand-me-down from the men’s team 3 years ago. The pace is relentless. They are there when you arrive and also there when you leave. They’re there now.

The old boys
My favourites. Aged anywhere from early-60s to late-120s, the old boys do not give a damn that their saggy race T-shirt from 1989 is full of holes or that the sweat flying off them is offending the Pussycat Dolls, they’re old and working out and it’s amazing and they’re going to keep doing it. Invariably wearing way too many layers for this level of activity, they can be seen noting the figures of the machine next them, occupied by a student who is one-third of their age, doing one-quarter of their workout.

“It’s off-season”
These guys and girls do not want to be in the gym. They want to be on the hockey pitch or golf course or ski slopes. They’re only in the gym because they have no other option to vent their extreme need for sport (and they kind of want you to know it). Easily identifiable by their club kit, elderly trainers and longing looks out of the window at the lashing rain and gathering clouds. They are not at all happy about the douchebags.

Happy running


Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Today's lesson

Lunchtime run. Find some decent flow for the first time in ages. Get in the zone. iPhone randomly shuffles to massive tune. Lean into the hill and lift knees with determined expression and gritted teeth and flowing sweat and jubilant endorphin anticipation and…

…and spot untied shoelace. Slow down. Stop. Tie shoelace. Tie other shoelace to be sure. Feel a bit cold and tired. Rain and wind increase. Jog back. Gingerbread man.

Today’s lesson is to tie your shoelaces properly. Sigh.


2014 to date: miles run - 3.1

Monday, 9 December 2013

Remember me?

I used to do that running thing and then I’d write about it and some people would laugh a bit and others would say nice things and a few would get annoyed and faintly aggressive. It was fun, remember?

I don’t really remember. Weird.

I was at a Christmas party on Saturday with some friends whom I only see every few months. Someone said ‘no-one actually likes running, except for Dave of course!’. Everyone turned to me, expecting the usual slightly apologetic shrug and some anecdote about how I ran to Belgium and back this morning. Actually I just shrugged and said ‘to be honest I don’t think I like it at the moment either’.

Let me take you back to June 22nd and 23rd. I ran The Wall Run with three heroic human beings, and I was a fairly calamitous disaster despite having done – by some distance – the most training out of the four of us. I was sick and broken and sick and tired and battered and slow, but above all I was sick. My only redeeming feature was that I didn’t give up, and even that was only because of the immense stubbornness of Kommissar Gray.

The Crew Chief was not impressed, to put it lightly. I naively expected some sort of wide-eyed admiration at my superhuman feat of endurance. Instead she saw that I had put myself through needless, pointless suffering and that I repeatedly refused to acknowledge that I had made a foolish decision in carrying on with no food in my stomach, exhaustion, nausea, some mild hallucination and an almost manic obsession with Matt Monro. When the race was over she used her serious voice to make it clear that I would not be doing anything so stupid ever again.

Last time I was a runner
 I took two weeks off running altogether to recover. Two turned into three. In the fourth week I went for one run. I deferred my GNR place and cancelled other racing plans. The local running shops reported their worst quarters ever as I stopped buying shoes and gear every ten minutes. I started using the next notch on my belts and resenting my monthly direct debit to the gym. It is now nearly 6 months later, and I have run less than 100 miles in total since the finish line in Gateshead, compared to nearly 700 for the first half of the year.

I may have taken the Crew Chief’s reprimands too seriously.

I am further out of a training routine than I ever have been since I took up the sport in autumn 2008, when George W. Bush was still President of the USA. We were learning the term ‘Credit Crunch’ and expecting it all to blow over in a year or so. I was 21 years old and had never run more than a couple of miles.

Until recently I theorised that my lack of motivation stems from a nagging idea that, by completing an ultramarathon, I had also completed my running journey. Perhaps I subconsciously think there is little left to pursue – perhaps lowering PBs and running ever greater distances are just a pair of arduous and endless, pointless goals.

Last night all that changed. The Crew Chief suggested that her project for 2014 (following the baking challenge of 2013) is to ‘get fit’, and could we do it together, maybe go for little runs together?

And just like that, I’m back at the beginning. But this time I’ve got company.

Happy running.


2013 to date: miles run: 739.55, races: 5 and a bit, parkruns: 3, miles biked: 55, metres swum: 1850

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Pay attention! I might not be completely crap!

I’ve written before about the tragicomic history of my early sporting career. As you’ll know, I never really seemed to find the same wavelength as my peers during school sports – the ones who knew things about football and seemed to drift effortlessly between a rugby XV in winter and a cricket XI in summer. I watched this happen from a distance as I erratically swung an ancient cricket bat around on the tennis courts (considered a safe containment venue for fourth-stream games lessons), or happily churned up the ‘cabbage patch’ rugby pitch reserved for the derogatively-named ‘Recreational Rugby’ group. Despite the fact that I really enjoyed (and still enjoy) rugby, was actually a half-decent runner and even showed some promise as a swimmer, I happily resigned to being in this sub-class of sporting types and found other things to focus on.  As I’ve written before, I logically settled on considering myself ‘not sporty’.

It wasn’t until my peers started becoming teachers and witnessed the factors which influence this sort of thing, however, that I realised that my logical self-labelling may have had less to do with objective assessment of ability and more to do with snap decisions, ingrained habits and good old fashioned laziness. In the wake of London 2012 and build-up to Glasgow 2014, I am frequently seeing statements from numerous female athletes professing a desire to boost participation rates among girls in PE lessons, which is doubtless a worthy cause. But my own experience makes me feel I should champion the cause of greater nurturing and support for the potential of all students. Allow me to explain.

It is the first Wednesday of the new school year at an entirely fictional grammar school in the late 1990s. 121 new boys, drawn from a wide spectrum of backgrounds and primary schools, are assembled in their arbitrarily-assigned form groups on a rugby pitch, wearing brand new and slightly-too-big rugby shirts, shorts, socks, boots and gum shields still fresh from the previous night’s moulding. A large crowd of teachers – all male, all impossibly tall and broad compared to their 11 year old charges – are corralling boys into groups and starting simple drills laid out in squares; passing, dodging, running, you know the sort.

Within a few moments it is apparent who has played rugby before. Not long after that it is clear who is a natural sportsman and is adapting skills from football or other pursuits. It is also clear who is far, far out of their comfort zone. Perhaps 70 boys are caught between these two extremes.

The following Wednesday, 121 boys are assembled on the rugby pitch again but this time in groups according to ability, which had been published on a noticeboard earlier in the week. Group 1 have important training to do – it is only a few days until the first U12 clash of the season, against another entirely fictional grammar school. Luckily they have all played rugby before and are raring to go. Group 2 likewise, as there will be a B team and probably a C team fielded for the same fixture. Some of them have some learning to do, but are fast movers and eager to pick up new skills. Groups 3 and 4 are less frantic. Group 5 doesn’t have quite enough rugby balls to complete their basic drills, and their training is naturally progressing a little slower. Group 6 are not allowed to practise full contact yet.

Fast forward seven years and it is the end of the season. The first XV, a group of strapping 17 and 18-year-olds who have recently discovered shaving, are celebrating a handsome win. They reminisce about the day they met on the rugby pitch in their second week at school. As you might have guessed, all but one or two were assigned to Group 1. The head coach pats himself on the back for having so quickly and efficiently made his selections in the last millennium.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Is the coach a visionary, a genius who can pinpoint future potential from 121 children in a matter of minutes, and therefore make most efficient use of his valuable coaching capacity over the coming years? Or is he a man of tunnel vision, who focussed on a core of 20 or 30 boys for the best part of a decade, never thinking to source and nurture talent from a pool of the other hundred?

My point is not that the other hundred were ignored because of their lack of rugby prowess – many other sports were on offer. But it will not surprise you that those same 20 or 30 sporty boys tended to also feature in starting squads in cricket, basketball and athletics – with just a few notable exceptions added to the mix. They developed relationships with the coaches and PE teachers - it was only natural that they should be called on to represent their entirely fictional school in other sports.  I used to be baffled as to how people got into teams. When were decisions made? Who should I talk to if I wanted to be considered? Was it already too late to ever get an opportunity? I fictionally discovered that one of my fictional friends at this fictional school had an hour's one-to-one coaching with the head of games every Friday night, to perfect his technique at the hammer throw. I had no idea how this came about, but I felt with total conviction that there would be no way I could access anything similar. Was my haphazard performance at my first ever rugby lesson to blame?

A few years after that first Wednesday, the winter sports options list expanded. There was tennis, judo, hockey, golf and probably some others I've forgotten, most either lightly-supervised or run by external coaches. I stuck with rugby because I enjoyed it, and thought I was reasonably good at it - perhaps a mistake as I could have taken the opportunity of a blank slate. Our sporting trajectories were now firmly set, with many still wanting for any individual attention or support to develop their athletic potential, even if some of them genuinely still harboured a desire to succeed. In this category you would have found me: a slightly-above-average rugby player, perhaps decent runner, reasonably competent with a tennis racket and vaguely committed to tae kwon-do outside of school, but never a star at anything. And staying that way.

This is the kind of thing I'm talking about.
I don’t want this post to sound like a rant or a complaint. Far from it. In rereading it I sound petty and jealous, which if I ever was then I certainly am not now. What I am is filled with regret that I didn’t do something – anything – to attract a PE teacher’s attention, although now I think about it that would have been difficult. Having been set on the path of mediocrity at the age of 11, and finding myself in low-ranked lessons, my ‘coaches’ were spare members of staff whose role was little more than to crowd-control these groups –teachers with little or no training in sport science or coaching. How are children with little or no previous sporting experience supposed to realise their potential if they are given the least-talented staff, the duff old equipment and a dozen other signs that they are only participating in sport because it is a government requirement? A useful analogy would be to transpose this situation onto any other subject: imagine for instance that the most promising English students are coached for debating tournaments and short story competitions by the head of the department, an Oxbridge graduate with decades of experience, whilst those struggling with the subject are given battered copies of Harry Potter to read under the supervision of a spare art teacher. There would be uproar. And rightly so, as no-one could justify those extra-curricular activities for the few draining mainstream resources away from the many. The same is true, I put it, for competitive sports training during school hours.

Don't believe me? Here are some examples:

  • My ‘recreational rugby’ sessions were run and refereed by a man (whom I deeply respect as a teacher) who often made shocking decisions because he couldn’t keep up with the pace of the game. If a breakaway run didn’t suit his capacity to give chase and perhaps award a resultant try, he would call a knock-on or offside to bring the game back to where he was standing.
  • My sixth-form swimming sessions were entirely unsupervised – we were not improving our skills in the sport or targeting progress or even measuring activity, but rather splashing about as if visiting a pool on an idle Saturday afternoon.
  • Cross-country squads – to my recollection - were chosen by a simple race of all 120-odd boys at the start of the season. One year I finished 20th, a position that got me an invitation to a whole-school handicap race the following week. I had no training or advice or guidance of what to expect. I finished somewhere in the anonymous middle of the pack, having started the race eyeballs-out and faded quickly, not even knowing what distance it was or how long I should expect to be running for. That was it – I was clearly not a runner, and was forgotten about as I did not merit further attention. In retrospect, after five marathons of varying pedigree, an arduous ultra, a few decent PBs, a University vest and thousands of miles on my trainers otherwise, I dare to disagree. 

I understand that my school (any resemblance to this entirely fictional school is completely coincidental) is one of the better-respected of its kind for sports provision.

So yes, by all means, encourage girls to participate in PE lessons. But for goodness’ sake – don’t limit any child’s potential to succeed through laziness, favouritism or a resource or staff deficit. Think of all the talent being wasted, all the confidence-boosting, self-esteem raising opportunity that sporting success could offer.

All this campaign needs is a snappy name and a celebrity endorsement, but for now we'll stick with 'Pay attention! I might not be completely crap!' and, for what it's worth, the endorsement of my intense and faintly vitriolic regret.

Happy running


2013 to date: miles run - , races: 5 and a bit, parkruns: 1, miles biked: 47, metres swum: 1300

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Race Report - The Wall Run 2013 (part two)

Nothing builds suspense like a fortnight's break between supposedly concurrent posts, eh? Sorry about that. But here goes.

After a Saturday night spent marvelling in equal measure at the scale of the day's achievements and the magnitude of Sunday's challenge, we made it to bed even earlier than the night before. Due to a slight undersupply of bedspaces in the vicinity of Vindolanda, the four of us shared a family room designed for Mum, Dad and two kids. Neil and I made the executive decision to be the kids and left Ben and Alex to share the double bed, an arrangement damaged only by Alex's early morning Vaseline regime and Ben's intolerance of some casual flatulence. Neil and I had less eventful sleeps.

Awake at 6am for the second time this weekend, we were incredibly lucky to be given breakfast at 6.45 by our too-good-for-us hosts at the Westfield B&B. They served us a Full English each, lovingly cooked to order on an Aga, accompanied by endless coffees and teas and juices and kind words of encouragement all served in a grand Georgian dining room. The rest of the day's meals would be in less auspicious surroundings.

Limited by the number of seats in the car, Karlie drove us four runners to the start line, the wee Corsa straining under the weight of our bodies, bags and rising sense of impending doom. We reached Vindolanda to find the start corral already massing - not a problem as each timing chip is scanned individually - but giving me a sense of being on the back foot already. We hustled ourselves in and did our best to listen another PA announcement lost to the elements. A hooter hooted, and day two was underway.

I don't think part one of this story adequately captured the pain and suffering we went through. If you understand that after about 24 miles of day one, each step became hard, concentrated work, and after 27 miles each pace started erring towards excruciating pain in my feet and hips, you will understand the fear I felt as we started day two.

But the start was joyous. It was downhill. I had forgotten what downhill was like. We skipped lightly down the road, the previous day's pains all but forgotten. Some small undulations were irrelevant. We were,  by this point, ultrarunners - a fact Alex kept pointing out and asking why we had decided to start our ultra careers with 'a double ultra'? Good question.

The downhill didn't last. We ran to the back of a queue of runners waiting to pass through the world's narrowest kissing gate, which led to a scramble up a heather-laden bank at an angle that reminded me of the scree slope of The Mighty Deerstalker last year. It was outrageous and insane, and therefore typical Rat Race. The change of terrain actually suited me rather well, and I found unused power in my legs as I stamped one foot after the other into the heather. At the top of the ridge a cairn marked some point or other where light-hearted participants stopped for photos of the magnificent view, but sadly Kommissar Gray was having none of it and Team Venture Trust got on with the business of the day: running very very far indeed.

At mile 39 we actually passed the Westfield B&B, where the crew had set us up a private pit stop complete with inspirational music and the usual mountains of food. Neil had phoned ahead, requesting a knee support for the joint he wrecked some years ago in a tragic running-around-in-circles accident, and while the girls set to work with bandages and tape Alex went over to accept the totally unnecessary and generous applause that our hosts were offering. Honestly, we we just some customers, who would probably never pass this way again, but there they were: standing in the rain and clapping (everyone, but mostly) us. It gave me some sense of context - to us the endless miles had become routine. To them what we were doing was extraordinary. It took their small act of kindness to remind me of that, and I resolved to be worthy of their support.

We trucked onwards. As the route picked up a cycle path we started seeing signs for places on our itinerary accompanied by distances in miles, but these alternately filled us with false hope and dread as we knew that these numbers didn't necessarily reflect our peculiar route. We tried to ignore them.

In a low point (a walking point, and inevitably low) alongside a railway track, the urge to sing hit us. We had sung a little towards the end of day one and it had boosted morale, but today was something different. A fair number of people had overtaken us in the previous few minutes, but as soon as the singing started, the running followed. Suddenly we were flying and singing, belting out Queen hits and Bop classics. Where was the lungpower coming from? No idea. As you may know, Ben is practically Michael Bublé and was handling the tricky parts with vigour, whilst the rest of us got by on enthusiasm and goodwill. Our reception was mixed, some runners and bystanders were amazed and delighted, others were downright hostile. As we overtook them we asked every walking racer for requests, and one in the hostile category replied 'some bloody peace and quiet'. We picked up the pace and the volume.

Incredibly, we also picked up some friends from among the other runners. Our four-man boyband had become a six-piece choir including a female vocalist who ably picked out the top notes in Bohemian Rhapsody. I think they were relay runners and therefore fresher than us, but our pace had cranked up in time with the beat so completely that they almost struggled to keep up. The girl whispered to the guy 'These guys are amazing'. I beamed.

We were coming up to the first checkpoint at 45 miles, and were still in full flow of running and singing. But then we approached a golf course, and out of respect for the local patrons decided to lower the volume. If anything this made the experience more intense. Don't believe me? Find three tired but fiercely united friends, two random extras who are slightly in awe of the above, and run  with them at a metronomic pace in the rain whilst intoning Mr Brightside under your breath. I have shivers just thinking about it.

Sadly Mr Brightside had already come out of his cage and demanded to know how it ended up like this several hundred yards before we reached the checkpoint, and rather embarrassingly we found ourselves  offering a lacklustre rendition of Uptown Girl as we were clapped in by a modest but vocal crowd.

Karlie and Linds helped us to refill our hydration bladders, change shirts and otherwise do the pit stop things as we hid inside the marquee during a brief rain shower. The break once again passed in a flash and before long we were off, walking out of the checkpoint to digest our latest intake. We had 17 miles to the next checkpoint and 24 in total before the finish. Still a devastatingly long way to go.

But we got on with it. Memories blur I'm afraid, but I recall this being tough. We failed to recapture the magic of the singing period, and endured agonising, long walking periods up modest hills that would normally have barely registered as an incline. Time was against us too: Alex had booked a 5.40 train from Newcastle to Birmingham. It was already gone 11, leaving us (in theory) just enough hours to knock off the miles. Luckily Alex is the least outwardly-stressed person in the world, so if he felt the pressure to meet his deadline he didn't share it with us.

The rain tumbled down in relentless drizzle interspersed with heavy showers. Our routine was falling apart and we found ourselves stopping more and more for minor things: slightly loose shoelaces, uncomfortable shoulder straps, opening a gel. By contrast we became tighter and tighter as a unit; yesterday's split into two pairs for a hill was unthinkable. The route profile varied madly which at least kept us on our toes, walking the long slow drags followed by running down quad-busting descents, all the time pulling us further and further towards the industrial north-east.

Near the top of another endless hill, the heavens opened in dramatic fashion. Torrents of water crashed down on us and we dashed for cover under some trees, joining a small group of other runners rearranging their kit to deal with the sudden downpour. Ben, Alex and Neil donned their rainjackets, but I was already soaked to the bone and didn't see the point. We finally summoned the energy to get back on the road just as the rain eased off, only to then find a pit stop just a few hundred metres later, making our previous break seem pre-emptive and ridiculous. I threw cup after cup of water down my throat, a welcome relief from the salty electrolytes in my hydration pack, and we once again got back on our way.

The route took a sharp downhill which rolled on for an age - we ran the fastest we had all day and kept up the pace with enthusiasm. We chatted to a bloke who had 'run a couple of 10k's, so he thought he'd give this a go' and ploughed onwards until the route levelled off then joined the climb again. As we slowed my stomach turned, and the water I had so enthusiastically chugged at the pit stop re-emerged as quickly as I had drunk it. Two days, two ultras, two major vomiting episodes. Not great, but still manageable.

The pain and exhaustion were becoming intense. We started splitting up the task even further to try to give us some hope: just six miles to the next pit stop, then four to the checkpoint, then seven to the finish line in Newcastle. 17 long miles to go.

Alex's ankle had been bothering him for some time, but in the absence of anything practical he or anyone else could do about it, he had generally ploughed on with little complaint. Alex possesses the spindliest calves ever to be used for an ultra - indeed perhaps the spindliest calves ever to feature on a grown man. Even the women had beefier lower legs than Alex, it's no wonder he lacked stability in his ankles and the time had come for them to turn into a real nuisance. On a single track road flanked by high hedgerows he slowed, his usual insufferably jovial demeanour gone and replaced by a genuinely worried expression that I don't think I've ever seen on his face. Miles from everywhere, things looked bleak.

I am a practical and positively-minded person, a trait which I owe in part to the ethos and philosophy of Venture Trust. At this particular moment I was feeling particularly practical, and we instructed Alex in a variety of made-up stretches whilst I took the opportunity to replace my sodden socks with a dry pair from my rucksack. It was all we could do, except of course to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Alex leant on a signpost to stretch out his lower legs, heaving so much effort into it that the post nearly wrenched out of the ground. The sign of a serious need for relief.

We trudged onward. The route became more surreal as we turned onto a paved single track road that led us through a field of corn. The road looked like it went nowhere, so we were bemused to hear the chimes of an ice cream van approaching behind us. I genuinely contemplated getting a 99. The van overtook and pulled up a few hundred yards ahead and we soon understood why - a bizarre village of static wooden caravans flanked the road. These were clearly not holiday lets, but also too downright bizarre to be permanent residences. Some were decked out like cottages from a Grimms fairy tale, others sat heavily laden with satellite dishes and neglected gardens. Very few humans were in evidence. We pushed onwards.

Sneaking onto a footpath at the rear of the site, the route suddenly chucked us onto a tight path that hugged the banks of the river Tyne. In single file we inexplicably started running: dodging and ducking the nettles and carefully placing each footstep on the muddy, rocky, loose path. I can't tell you what it felt like to come out into the open of this section to be confronted with a rocky river crossing, necessitating an ankle-deep march through a tributary to the Tyne. We were 52 miles into the weekend and scrambling across a river. A river!

Who else was doing this? Who else could be so sure that they were grasping life by the balls and giving their all to their pursuits? No-one. We were kings in those moments. Soggy kings. One of whom regretted having already put on his dry socks.

We pulled into the next pit stop and sat on a fence. One of the marshals offered me a massage, hastily followed by 'I am a real massage therapist!'. I declined, not because I didn't want one, but simply because I didn't know where she would start. Everything was wrecked. A van load of someone's crew sat on the sidelines, offering encouraging words. I didn't need bloody words, I needed some unrefined liquid sugar and asked if they had any squash or juice. One of the women baulked at the idea and instead offered me some sort of effervescent tablet that she seemed to be flogging, and Neil and I accepted these free samples and dropped them in cups of water. She handed me her business card and asked me to email her because 'I need to know what they do'. My confidence in her and her tablets ebbed.

We got back on the road with a promise that there were no more river crossings and just four miles to the next checkpoint. Time was running away from us as we were walking towards Newcastle, so we did our best to get back into the whole running idea. Somewhere around here we crossed the marathon point for the day - my seventh lifetime 26.2, everyone's second of the weekend, and everyone's PW by a country mile. The end was gradually being whittled down towards single figures.

Receiving line at mile 60
Our crew's ranks had grown as my parents-in-law Cathy and Archie had generously decided to drive up to
meet us at mile 62. One's instincts to attempt to impress one's parents-in-law at all times do occasionally conflict with one's total and utter self-induced exhaustion, but I was determined to pull together something of myself worth waiting for. They had driven up to rendez-vous based on us achieving an impossibly optimistic 10 minute mile pace, and we were now averaging more like 13. Over 30 miles this means we were an hour and a half late to the checkpoint, already not in the category of good impressions. Anticipating some justified impatience, we came across a sign promising that the checkpoint was just a quarter of a mile away and summoned some primal urge to show off. We gathered just enough pace to save face.

We ran into the checkpoint, overwhelmed by the reception. Our four-person crew cheered and took photos and offered handshakes and kisses. We hustled over to have our chips scanned for the penultimate time, and the marshal with the beeper insisted on issuing a man hug to each of us. I have never been so receptive to a hug from a stranger.

Inside the warm marquee we debriefed on the previous 17 miles. The marshals had set up a trestle table buffet, but there were so many of them and they were so eager to help and support us that they practically insisted on providing a waiter service. A banana and a strong black coffee appeared before my eyes as I changed into a dry shirt for the third and final time in this race. Somehow I still had a spare shirt left, which I gave to Ben, and the Crew Chief despairingly took our sodden shirts off us for decontamination or possible exorcism. A croissant and some of Linds's incredible cookies materialised moments later. Things were looking up.

I told the Crew Chief about my mistimed sock replacement and  she magically produced the pair I had worn yesterday, somehow washed and dried and ready to go. What on earth have I done to deserve this woman? As I replaced my socks with the third pair of the day I decided to lance the blister brewing on my heel, using one of my bib number safety pins in classic improv style. Karlie went pale again and Cathy made herself scarce.

All too soon it was time to say goodbye. Cathy and Archie declined our invitation to Newcastle and headed for home. We braced ourselves for the longest seven miles of our lives.

What can I say of those last seven miles? We ran, we walked, we reminisced. Every footstep was agonising and magnificent. Every mile done, a handsome victory. We each said what our high points had been and we laughed ourselves hoarse at the low points. At one time, with Ben driving, we ran what felt like six minute miles for what felt like an hour, almost effortlessly. In reality, of course, it was probably a ten minute mile pace for less than ten minutes, but it felt glorious. Our uphill walks were no resigned trudges but determined, metronomic marches. We were nearly done.

Newcastle called us in at last. As the route spat us out of a wooded footpath onto the north bank of the Tyne, we started to see things we recognised. Bridges. The Angel of the North. Broken brown ale bottles. Shops with Newcastle in their names. We had all but done it.

Ben was suffering. We had all suffered at points - me and my rotten stomach, Alex's miserly ankle, Neil's wretched knee, but now it was Ben's turn and he was just good old fashioned spent. We sort-of wanted to run, but Ben just couldn't. This wasn't a time for us to try to rally round him and cure the problem with cheery banter, this was just his dip, and it was coincidence that it came at the end. But no matter. We rounded a corner at a walk, and caught sight of the Gateshead Millennium Bridge and the finish line in the distance. I burst into tears but none came, perhaps I was dehydrated. Perhaps I couldn't distinguish between the rain and my own emotions, such was the volume of both. They were happy tears, if they were anything.

We marched onwards, passing bridge after bridge. Ben could see we wanted to pick up the pace and urged us to go on without him, an implausible and ridiculous suggestion. After 68 and a half miles together, we were damned well going to finish together. Long ago we had promised each other no sprint finishes. We linked arms in a fairly homosexual way as we started to cross the bridge, marching to its high midpoint and planning to run like the wind from there. Finding linked arms too difficult we reverted to a much more manly hand-holding arrangement, and as the run started we all shouted and screamed with emotion and excruciating pain (on my part, any way). The girls were there, of course, loud and enthusiastic and loving as ever. Ben's mum was there too, preparing to admonish him for being so late. We crossed the line. Job done.

We hugged and looked at one another in disbelief. In a way a spell had been broken, something I knew we would probably never get back. But by Thor I was glad to be done.

Medals and photos and t-shirts and massages and food and drink and lying down indoors. Alex had missed his train, of course, and Ben had to dash to catch his. We piled into the overworked Corsa and dropped Alex at the station before hitting the road back to Scotland, stopping only for five hundred chicken nuggets and an enormous milkshake.

Never again. And that's a promise.

If you haven't already, get your wallet over to

Happy running


P.S. in many ways it doesn't matter, but if you're interested, our total time for 69 miles was 17 hours, 30 minutes and 55 seconds. And that's a very long time indeed.

2013 to date: miles run - 668.15, races: 4 and a bit, parkruns: 1, miles biked: 23, metres swum: 1300

Monday, 1 July 2013

Race Report - The Wall Run 2013 (part one)

I do apologise, have you been waiting long?

As I'm sure you appreciate, I usually make a point of publishing race reports within a few days of completing the race, but here we are a week on from The Wall Run and still I haven't managed to get my thoughts down. Truth is, I finished my first ultra on Sunday night and within a couple of hours was responding to work emails on my phone in anticipation of Monday morning - the start of an intense week of deadlines, long hours, and no time at all to write up the most magnificent weekend in my running career. So here goes.

Day zero
The story really starts in Carlisle station on Friday night - where I met Ben, then we met Alex, then eventually Neil reluctantly slunk up the platform to complete our four-man ultra team. We hauled ourselves over to the start line and race HQ at Carlisle Castle to register and check out the competition. Lithe, chiseled action men and hard-as-nails-looking women strode purposefully about the place, many of them inexplicably already wearing running kit. Had they run here? Did they run everywhere!? Who were these people? We were not these people.

After a few joyful moments when it seemed like Rat Race might have lost our registration and we might be spared the whole atrocious ordeal, we were issued with our numbers, timing cards and some surreal final instructions ("when passing through fields of livestock, try singing to let them know you're there") and sent on our way . All that was left for the evening was to check in to our B&B and then spend an odd couple of hours at 'our' Italian restaurant, where Neil's dessert was a) mostly Baileys and b) awful. How we laughed.

It was bedtime. An 8am race start and a very long pair of days thereafter meant we were tucked up with lights off just after ten. Not quite lads on tour. Yet.

Day one
Ben and I shared a twin room and Neil and Alex took another, so when Ben and I chapped at our teammates' door at the agreed RV time of 7am, fully dressed, bags kitted and checked we were slightly taken aback to find Neil topless save for some nipple tape, Alex ferociously brushing his teeth and Matt Monro belting out 'Born Free' from Alex's iPod. We gently shut the door and left them to finish their ablutions.

At the stroke of 7.17 we set off from the B&B towards the start line, joking and laughing and terrified. I was straining at the bit to get started, desperate to get some miles, even some yards done and start chipping away at that monstrous 69-mile total. Carlisle Castle swarmed with Lycra and serious expressions. But very notable among this group were folk who looked - well - like us.  Normal. Some much older, a few clearly planning to hike the whole day and run none of it, many afflicted by abject terror, some very girly-looking girls, a lower leg amputee and the rest of the marvellous mixed-up spectrum of the running world. Last night's sense of being out of place lifted a little.

This may be, of course, because we had put ourselves in the Challenger category - choosing to split the race into two days of 32 and 37 miles. The Expert category, comprising those who planned to knock off the whole 69 miles in a oner, had started their race an hour earlier to give them as much daylight as possible, on this the longest weekend of the year. Our category was for multi-day ultra legends, theirs was for one-hit ultra demigods. With one exception. Whom we shall come to.

All too quickly our hydration bladders were filled, kit adjusted and the tannoy called us into the starting corral, pointing us out of the castle grounds directly at the stone bridge over the moat. Some muffled instructions were lost in the wind and rain. A hooter hooted, the crowd surged forward and the longest run of our lives was underway.

At the Castle, ready for the off. Sort of.

We had agreed long ago that the four of us would stay as a four, no matter what, and this promise would be tested many times in the miles and hours to come. But we hadn't anticipated it being tested so thoroughly right from the beginning, because just as in any race, the crowd is at its most densely packed at the very start and we found ourselves in a jumbled procession of stop-start running as we left the city centre and headed into the countryside. About 400 yards from the start Alex chose a slippery bank of grass rather than the congested stairs, and losing his footing flung himself headlong towards an iron railing, avoiding concussion and certain withdrawal from the race by mere inches. We tried to relax after that.

Another element of our agreement was the 5:1 ratio. We knew that there was no hope of us running every step of the weekend, but reasoned that it would be destructive both physically and psychologically to simply run until we were spent and then resign to walking. We agreed instead to run five miles, then walk a mile, then repeat. This meant we could get going at an enjoyable, familiar speed during the runs and recover properly during the walks, using the time to drink, eat, or dash behind a bush for a pee. The first five miles passed in a flash and we felt ridiculous to start walking so soon, but told each other that it was necessary for later. We were right.

Towards the end of the second block of running, now deep in England's green and pleasant land, we came to the first pit stop: a trestle table laid out with sweets, chocolate raisins and cups of water under a gazebo. We knew that our timing chips had to be held against a handheld card reader, like those contactless debit cards, and we started pulling them out for this purpose before being told that this was 'just' a pit stop and not a checkpoint. The difference between these became significant. Pit stop - momentary respite, checkpoint - oasis in the desert. Remember that.

Crowded trudge up a hill

Swiftly back on the road, the hills started in earnest. Every ultrarunner in the world knows the importance of respecting the lumpy bits, but we were not yet ultrarunners and gleefully overtook scores of people on these ascents. With the first checkpoint at mile 15, we were nearing a break anyway, so why not just enjoy the ride? We had developed the concept of the driver: we mostly ran in a square formation, the front right runner being the 'driver' and responsible for pacesetting. The front passenger helped, the kids in the back were chastised for asking if we were nearly there yet. Oddly, this worked well and being a 'passenger' always felt to me like a fractionally easier effort, whilst being the 'driver' gave you a welcome sense of control. We took turns in each role and tried not to let Neil and his competitive instincts in the driving seat too often.

We ran into the checkpoint in the grounds of a historic abbey to be met by our support crew, comprising my Crew Chief, Linds, and Neil's, Karlie. We scanned our timing chips and then went to see the crew. They had driven down from West Lothian that morning bearing all manner of goodies and spare kit to supplement the changes of clothes we hauled around with us in our bulging rucksacks, and we rearranged some gear while we scoffed food, told them of the adventure so far, stretched a little and drank a lot. Alex disappeared momentarily only to reemerge munching on a waffle. Ben found some rocky road, which we thought was appropriate as the surface had recently changed from tarmac to broken farm roads. Things would deteriorate further soon.

All too soon it was time to get back to it, our planned ten minutes' break already slightly exceeded, and with a wave and a kiss the girls left us to our mission. Still digesting, we walked out of the checkpoint and back on the route, only to be confronted with an alpine hill that no-one was running up. Except us.

Before long Alex dropped off the back of our peloton - his skill is in fearless descents, not in low-geared climbs. As I slowed to wait for him Ben, king of the hills, and Neil, usually hill averse but always irreconcilably competitive, fell into step with one another and trucked onwards. The gap between our two pairs widened quickly as Alex and I settled in to a march and the others ploughed ahead, perhaps 2-300 yards in the distance. The hill climbed on for weeks, but we were eventually reunited near the top where we finally joined the thing we had come to see: Hadrian's Wall.

Now I admit I don't know much about Hadrian or his wall, whether it was supposed to keep the Picts out or the Romans in or whatever, but to be honest I'm not sure it would do either. Any enterprising troublemaker could have scaled it with a small stepladder, or at a push, a competent leg-up. Its antiquity is awe-inspiring and its length is ambitious, but its height leaves much to be desired. Just saying.

Suddenly my stomach started to cramp. Within moments of knowing something was wrong I was doubled over, clinging to the wall itself and being violently sick on a UNESCO World Heritage site. I had clearly take on too much liquid and not enough food, and now felt so repulsed by eating or drinking that I would be running on empty for some time. We were just over 20 miles in at this point, and the ghosts of my DNF at London felt very close indeed.

While this was happening the others got caught in the crossfire of a conversation with a ginger-bearded runner. He was lolling on a fencepost taking photos and telling others that he was in the Expert category - we had caught up with his one hour head start. The crux of his argument, perhaps protested too much, was that 'doing it in one day was actually easier'. He looked a bit like Ed Sheeran. But less endearing. I staggered over to my teammates to rescue them from his chat and we got on our way.

The landscape opened up as my optimism shut down. Vast verdant valleys mocked us with their massiveness, challenging us to get through them in one piece. We trotted down mad switchbacks and started encountering endless gates, stiles and cattlegrids. I reserved my deepest disdain for the cattlegrids, slippery and challenging to run across with tired legs. I cursed them loudly and often.

On another outrageous ascent, around mile 23, my nutritional emptiness caught up with me. I couldn't keep up with even a steady march up the hill, and slowed, then swayed, then sat down. I felt a failure, again. I started contemplating my options, again.

The team gave me no options. Alex removed my cap, soaked with rain and sweat, and replaced it with his own that he had been keeping dry in his bag. Ben told jokes to distract me while Neil started rearranging my pack, and Alex dropped a salt tablet into my hydration bladder to add some nutritional value to my water, the only thing I felt able to consume. They worked on me like an F1 pit team, all of them just as tired and sore as I was. I am pathetically grateful.

I had a quiet word with myself. The next pit stop, where the crew were waiting, was just a couple of miles away. From there it was just seven or eight miles to Vindolanda, today's finish. I had to do this. For all the people who kept me sane through the London DNF. And for myself, and for our charity. No excuses, play like a champion.

Alex and Neil hauled me to my feet and we marched onwards, I munched a lucozade tablet that Ben had produced and cautiously sipped on my salty water. I felt some strength returning. I saw a future in which I could carry on. Those salt and lucozade tablets are the two best gifts that anyone has ever given me.

We hauled ourselves into the pit stop, the girls aghast at my ashen face. I told them I was craving a Lucozade, and on hearing this it was Karlie's turn to go pale. She had just finished drinking one, guzzling every last drop. Linds dashed off to see what she could do, and moments later reappeared with a full bottle from somewhere, utterly magic as I don't even remember there being a shop (but I also couldn't remember my name at the time so am probably an unreliable witness). She started googling local pharmacies to find me some sickness medicine. I love this woman more than I can tell you.

We trudged on, the 5:1 ratio out of the window and running/walking periods being determined by mutual agreement. We ground down the grassy, rocky miles and eventually passed the 26.2 mile mark - everything from here on would make us ultrarunners and constitute an all-time distance PB, a fact we celebrated regularly. Suddenly, from nowhere, the white tents of the finish line village at Vindolanda came into view. We practically screamed with delight and picked up the pace as this joyous view coincided with a massive improvement in terrain.

Back on Tarmac, we sang and ran and whooped and hollered. But then the route turned us away from the white tents. We had a cruel and vicious loop to complete before finishing, up a sharply inclined and rocky farm track. It was dispiriting, but just a blip in our mood. The day was nearly done. Into the finish chute, Alex and Neil broke into an unfathomable sprint finish, running straight past the poor marshal waiting to beep their chips. Ben trotted in behind them, I lumbered in a few yards behind. 32 miles of mad hills and muddy nonsense: finished in just over seven hours - good enough for 156th place from a field that we were told was 500 but later turned out to be more like 280.

We ate, we drank, we stretched. Alex had potato with extra potato. Linds had a more than competent go at being a sports masseuse, everyone had a go at the foam roller, and we slept. Day two loomed large.

Happy running (for now)


2013 to date: miles run - 659.85, races: 4 and a bit, parkruns: 1, miles biked: 23, metres swum: 1000