A belated post this one, but the last week or so has been rather busy.
After my DNF at the Centurion North Downs Way 100 Miler I told Naomi I was done with the ultras for the next year-ish while I focused on the sub-3 hour marathon attempt. Then I realised that I’d already paid for the WW50 so with a degree of inevitability…
The weeks running up to the race had been difficult. I’d struggled both physically and mentally, having to drag myself out of the house for a run and finding distances and paces that a few weeks ago wouldn’t have caused me to break a sweat a slog.
Nonetheless, it was time to pull things back together. My kit was packed and I jumped on the 6am train to make the start line in Wendover.
The journey was easy enough, eating breakfast on the way. I met Rebecca Lane at Marlyebone and we jumped on the train to Wendover, which seemed to consist purely of runners.
It was a 3 mile journey at the other end to the start line but Rebecca’s friend (who was also running) had kindly agreed to meet us at the station and drive us to the start.
On arrival the registration process was the usual efficient process at all Centurion events. A sign informed of us of which bits of the mandatory kit would be checked so that we could get them out in advance. Volunteers checked that those bits of kit were present and gave me my poker chip, which I then exchanged at the next desk for my race number.
A short period of waiting around and then the pre-race brief in the race tent. Temperatures were already low, with an expectation that they’d hit 0c by 10pm and in the negatives by mid-night. It was currently hovering around 3c.
All that done, we made our way to the start line just a few minutes walk from the tent.
The starting whistle went before we had too much time to get cold and off we went.
The course was to be 5 x 10 mile loops, with just over 10,000 feet (just over 3km) of total climb. I knew that would be brutal. I wasn’t quite prepared for just what that was in reality.
The first lap was a slight variation of the remaining four, with a slightly different route in order to make the overall distance a round 50 miles. The ground was muddy (Yay! Genuinely – I love mud) but broadly stable under foot. The worst patches were over fallen leaves. Your trail shoes can have all the grip in the world but don’t help with leaves, when it’s the leaves themselves that are moving beneath your feet.
I love marathons. I think they’re still my preferred distance which, combined with almost all of my training runs being in London, means I spend most of my running time on concrete and in urban environments. It was running in scenery and and terrain like Wendover that reminds me just why I love trails.
The entire route was through woods, forest and country tracks and the trees were in full golden hue. This was never going to be a fast run. The steep hills (some of which were more of a scramble up slopes of mud pulling myself up by holding on to trees) meant going slow and more time to take in the environment.
It’s difficult to give a narrative of the course, as it is a 10 mile loop of constant ups and downs. Run the flats and downs, fast walk the ups. At places the mud would give way to chalk, usually on the hills, meaning that I’d find myself sliding down accidentally (helpful when down is where you’re supposed to be going, less so while trying to scramble up).
I was trying to stay as alert and observant as possible over the first couple of laps. The ground was extremely uneven, hilly, slippy and varied so I was trying to memorise the course as much as possible during the daylight hours to make navigation easier once the sun went down.
There were two standout hills on the first lap. The first, on the way down a chalk embankment was a steep slope ending in a style over an electric fence. Normally fine, less so when you’re sliding down it at speed with no grip or control. The second was about 8 miles in – an uphill section known as “Gnarking Around”. An incredibly steep and muddy climb of chalk, mud, moss and the occasional tree to use as a handhold.
All of which sounds horrible but I was having a great time. Eventually the end of the first lap came around, heading in through one end of the checkpoint tent, grabbing a snack and walking out of the other end of the tent while munching. First 10 mile lap done is around 1:48. A slow pace but there had already been 2,000 feet of elevation climb. Perfectly respectable and I was in the first 35% of the field(ish).
Back out for the second lap. I intentionally dropped the pace slightly. There was no need to rush. If I ran the pace that I completed the first lap in then I’d have almost six hours spare by the end. Dropping the pace helped to preserve the legs (and gave more time for eating).
Originally I had planned to keep my running poles in their quiver until lap 3 at least but I decided to ease some of the strain on my legs up the hills and spread it across my shoulders instead so pulled them out at the major hills and made decent progress.
For some reason my brain was playing tricks on me on the second lap. It seemed to stretch on for ever and ever. Despite what my Garmin was telling me, I was convinced that I was lagging seriously behind pace. In reality, I was on track to complete the second lap with a time about 20 minutes slower than the first, which was pretty much bang on what I was aiming for.
Regardless, it seemed like an age between parts of the route that I remembered from the first lap and by the time I went passed the half-lap checkpoint it felt like it should be the next lap. I was still feeling fine, if achy. For once my nutrition was actually working. I was managing to get calories down, which is unheard of for me, and my stomach was coping fine. All good.
And then, near the end of the second lap, I came across a runner standing next to another who was on the floor, huddled under a blanket. The guy on the floor had collapsed, kept blacking out, was unable to form sentences and was shivering. I stopped and the other runner and I tried to call in the medics. We couldn’t get through on either the medic’s number or the Race HQ number, either because the lines were busy or because of signal issues.
Instead, we waited for more runners to come by, sent them onwards to give HQ the message and to send the medic back to us. We bundled him up in spare base layers and emergency blankets to keep him warm and I called his wife to let her know what was happening and to come to pick him up.
By the time the medic arrived, there was a bit more life to him and we managed to get him on his feet. One under each arm, we supported him back to the start line where the staff of St. John’s Ambulance took over.
I decided to call it a day. I’d been static for over half an hour and my temperature had plummeted. I’d also used up a number of pieces of my mandatory kit, which has to be carried at all times. I probably could have sourced more from the checkpoint but it would have meant more delay and more faffing about. The organisers were very grateful but to continue I’d have to walk back out to the place where I’d stopped (we’d deviated from the route with the medic to get him back to the start as directly as possible) and continue from there. So I went home.
I’m normally annoyed with myself when I DNF a race as it inevitably means that I’ve lost the battle, either with my own brain or with my body (almost invariably the former). This one was different and I have no problem with DNFing a race to make sure everyone goes home safely at the end of it – and it meant I was at home and in a hot shower a couple of hours later. Silver linings.
And a little bonus…
The following weekend (Saturday 23rd) was a much more relaxed weekend. Next year I’m running the Yellowhammer Ultra (100km) with a group of old colleagues and friends – the weekend before I’m entered for the Race to the Stones 100km ultra with an estimated finish time of sub-10 hours. Yay! I’m not good at organising my calendar.
There’s a wide variety of runners in our Yellowhammer group: myself, Rebecca (who is far more experienced at ultras than me and this year one the Centurion Women’s 100 Mile Grandslam – all four races), Sami who’s run a few marathons, Jen who up until this weekend had never run further than 6km and Diane who’s done a few halves.
There’ll be others joining us on the day itself but the five of us headed up to Tring to get others used to running slightly longer distances and on trails, which was a first for some.
Diane was going to drive to Tring and meet us at the station. The rest of us would be getting the train from Euston. There was a rail strike on that weekend but we checked the website the day before and the special “Strike Timetable” said our train would definitely be running.
I arrived at Euston first and about 45 minutes early, due to my constant paranoia. Despite the timetable being published only the day before and specifically for the strike, they’d changed it again. Our train was cancelled. There was one train running earlier than our planned one, going instead to Watford Junction where we’d be able to get a taxi for a half hour journey to Tring. The only question was whether everyone would arrive on time for the earlier train (due to Tube cancellations…).
They did, just and we sprinted down the platform and jumped on the first carriage just before the doors closed. One train journey and taxi later and we were at Tring. Diane had been waiting around for over an hour for us but at least she was in a car and warm.
And off we went. The route was to be cross-country, with a number of relatively gentle hills, approximately 9 miles to a National Trust cafe at the top of a hill on Dunstable Downs, a quick bite to eat and back along the same route.
I’d plotted a GPX route on my Garmin to give me constant live maps. Rebecca had plotted a route using printed Ordinance Survey maps. Unfortunately we hadn’t checked whether we’d actually plotted the same routes. When we came to one of the first splits it was apparent that ours took us in different directions, albeit to the same place, so we followed Rebecca’s (given she actually knows what she’s doing and I’d plotted mine just by looking on Google maps – the first turn tried to take us through private land so Rebecca’s was the way to go).
We took it easy and set a gentle pace, covering good ground. First through the open fields leading out of Tring and then through muddy woods. I may have mentioned before, but I love running in mud. The more the better. Others did not share my enthusiasm and tried to avoid it. I ploughed through the middle.
There were a few “where are we” moments, where we ended up backtracking slightly to get back on the path. Rebecca, mistaking my relative experience for actual competence (big mistake) asked me to check the route: “My watch says that way-ish”. Her map said the other way. We went with the map and soon were back on course.
The clouds broke a few times and the rain fell, making it more muddy for the way back (Yay!). A few periods of walking on the hills and soon we found ourselves coming up to the cafe, which was a welcome sight in the cold and wet. We wandered in, leaving a trail of muddy footprints across the entire cafe (well me in particular), grabbed a snack and coffee and warmed up for 20 minutes. Jen had only run 6km before today. She’d just run 16.5km in one go and had to do the same to get back.
And so back out we went. Starting off back down the hill we’d just climbed was refreshing and this time, guided by knowing the route in reverse, without unintended diversions.
The way back seemed quicker, with a few more downhill stretches. Some of the fields had turned in to mud pits (you can guess my feelings towards that) but fairly soon we were trekking across the final field, with the train station lights in the distance.
Rather remarkably, Jen had ran 5.5 times further than she’d ever done before.
Arriving back at the car park, I checked the train times. 6 minutes until the next train to Euston and an unknown amount of time to the following one due to the strikes. Shouting goodbye to Diane we sprint/shuffled to the platform to check the departure boards – which listed no such train and had a 35 minute wait until the next one, which went somewhere completely different.
Deciding to hang around for a few minutes just in case the ghost train did arrived proved provident, as it rolled in a few minutes late and we were homeward bound, Jen being only ever so slightly dramatic about how much pain she was in.