The Cotswold Way Century 2018

The Cotswold Way Century 2018

“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”

My tortured cries rang out across the Cotswold Way, falling on the ears of the runner at the bottom of the hill I’d just climbed.

Replying with concern, she shouted back

“Are you okay”

In utter disbelief I looked down at the little pile of jelly sweets in the mud and tears began to well in my eyes.

“No, I’m not okay, I’ve just dropped my sweets”

Trying to comprehend how this potentially race ending disaster had just happened, I glanced at the flimsy sandwich bag that had contained them just moments earlier, and there was my explanation, a massive hole.

Disbelief was quickly replaced with rage and the misty morning air turned several shades of blue

“FOR F**KS SAKE………..”

My mind began to unravel, a meltdown of epic proportions would surely follow…..

Looking back now, this of course seems a total over reaction to dropping a few jelly sweets in the mud, but for me those jelly sweets had been my life line for the past ten hours. I’d had horrendous nausea since leaving the Painswick aid station at 47 miles and was unable to eat or drink anything….. except those precious jelly sweets.

I’d tried various foods at the aid stations, including Neil’s spaghetti hoops when I arrived at Wotton, mile 70, but for some strange reason everything just tasted like pickled onions. Running without a crew but lucky to have friends manning this aid station, I was presented with a bag of cheese and tomato ketchup sandwiches from Zosia. I was really touched that she’d made my favourite sandwiches, but as I looked at them, my heart sank. I’d given up trying to eat cheese and ketchup sandwiches several hours before as they were making me retch. Not wanting to seem ungrateful or wasteful though, I vowed I’d give them another go, so I put them in my pack as I set off for the next aid station at Horton.

Descending the hill into the Kilcott valley I really started to suffer, weak, dizzy and shivering, I desperately needed more calories than the jelly sweets could provide so I decided to give the sandwiches another go. Not entirely convinced this would be a good idea, I very gingerly took my first bite, but the moment the bread touched my lips my stomach cramped and those pickled onion flavoured spaghetti hoops were expelled violently across the trail in front of me.

Looks like I’m sticking with the jelly sweets

Feeling slightly better, I stood back up and was startled to find a cow standing over my shoulder, I think he’d wanted to see what all the commotion was about so had stuck his head over the fence to find out. Feeling ungrateful and not wanting to waste Zosia’s sandwiches I held them out to the cow, but having witnessed my reaction to them, unsurprisingly, the cow didn’t fancy them either. Clutching those jelly sweets, I continued towards Horton, totally unaware that they’d soon be lying in the mud, and I’d be on the verge of total meltdown….

The Cotswold Way is a beautiful yet brutal race, one that always leaves me broken. After toeing the start line the previous two years, I was well and truly done with it, but had promised to volunteer at the aid station I’d just visited at Wotton. So how had I found myself back here again, 75 miles in and having a nervous breakdown over some jelly sweets?

Rewind three weeks and I found myself sat sobbing on the misery bus in the Italian Alps. Absolutely heartbroken, I had just DNF’d at my dream race, UTMB. I haven’t started on that report yet, but basically, I had problems with breathing, heart rate, palpitations and dizziness, and my race ended after just 62 miles. I immediately knew I wanted another shot at the ballot but didn’t have enough points, hence my last minute entry to this race. I’d signed up before I’d even traveled home.

The next week I went straight to the doctor and the reason for my breathing issues became clear, anaemia and probably asthma too. Not exactly ideal rolling up to the start of a hard 100 mile race just three weeks after UTMB, legs still knackered and two new illnesses, but if I could just make it round within the 30 hour time limit, then those points and another shot at the ballot would be mine.

Back to the race and I seemed to get off to a good start. Despite the continuous rain, muddy underfoot conditions and knackered legs/lungs I was running well and even got to the first few aid stations quicker than last year. I was having a brilliant time and remember heading into the night after leaving Birdlip at 38 miles with a big smile on my face, confident of a strong finish.

How wrong could I be?

Very. It turns out I was very wrong.

Into the woods around Coopers “cheese rolling” hill and the first signs of trouble, a thick fog that descended leaving visibility poor. No longer able to see the National Trail markers I relied on the GPS on my watch to lead the way. The rain was still falling, the mud underfoot was becoming more and more difficult to run on. My pace dropped quickly from here, but arriving at Painswick, 47 miles with 2 hours 15 minutes in the bank I remained calm. Clearly in no rush I took half an hour to dry my feet, change shoes, eat some chilli and faff around with my kit.

Taking my time at Painswick, 47 miles

The next section up to Coaley Peak things really started to unravel. Navigating through thick fog, particularly around Haresfield Beacon, where there was no trail to follow, was confusing. Despite knowing the route well I became disorientated and ended up running straight into a cow, I’m not sure who was most scared! Whilst focusing so hard on navigation I totally forgot to eat for a couple of hours, and then when I tried, I just felt horrendously sick. Somewhere in this stage of the race my mind started playing tricks on me, the hallucinations that had always escaped me throughout my ultra running career had finally arrived. No technicolour unicorns or anything exciting, just tree stumps that became cows, a row of logs that became pigs, and when I looked at the leaves on the floor, I saw goldfish. Arriving at Coaley Peak completely confused and from the wrong direction I was concerned to realise I’d lost an hour of my time buffer.

Not a hallucination – the chuckie doll waving from the barn near Haresfield Beacon

But it’ll be fine. I know the route really well from here….

Shortly after Coaley Peak I came to a huge fallen tree obstructing the trail. My gut instinct told me I’d gone the wrong way but I hadn’t seen any other paths so carried on. Eventually my watch started telling me I was off course.

Shit.

Not knowing what to do I phoned Chris, and we had the most random husband-wife 4 am phone call ever.

“Chris, I’m lost. Where are you?”

“I don’t know, I’m lost on the golf course, I can’t see where I’m going”

“Did you climb over a massive tree?”

Not really able to get much sense out of him I hung up and started to retrace my steps, and that’s when I noticed torch lights on a trail above me. Shortly after climbing back over tree I was back on track, but my mistake had cost me precious time that I really didn’t have. My addled brain started doing sums, from the pace I was moving I now knew I’d be struggling to make the final cut offs.

Don’t panic.

Just keep moving.

Don’t get lost again

I was doing fine, I’d managed all of the above, and then I reached the golf course. Going round in circles after losing the trail I was completely disorientated, and if it wasn’t for the runner who caught me up then I might still be out there now.

The golf course – insert Benny Hill theme tune

Eventually we made it off the golf course and as the sun rose on the climb up to Nibley monument I realised how far behind I was compared to last year, I could feel the pressure building. Unable to silence the internal monologue, my mind began to unravel the moment my precious jelly sweets fell into the mud.

“You’ll never make the cut off”

“You’re just too slow”

“You’re rubbish at running, you may as well just give up”

But as I looked at the hole in the sandwich bag, a switch seemed to flick. It was like the negativity was replaced with pure rage. My frustrations over my health the past year, my heartbreaking DNF at UTMB, I was utterly sick of failing. The UTMB points I’d been chasing became irrelevant. I needed to know I could still do this. I had to finish even if it killed me.

Arriving at Horton I was close to hypothermic but friends were manning the aid station so I was well looked after and seeing them gave me a much needed boost. Still ahead of cut offs I had enough time to put on some warm layers and attempt to eat some much needed food. I managed a cup of noodle soup, pickled onion flavour of course, but I managed to keep it down which was the main thing. Trotting off towards Tormarton I felt happier in the knowledge I just had 22 miles left.

Warmer and happier at mile 80, Horton

Somewhere near Dyrham Park an angel in the shape of friend Chi Zhang appeared, he was running towards me with melon. Chi has paced me before at several of my 100 mile events and knows well that melon is the only food I can manage in this state. I hadn’t seen or heard from Chi for months but he’d been tracking me online and driven out to surprise me. Such a kind gesture, I would’ve cried if I had the energy.

Dropping down into Bath I knew I’d finish around 30 minutes ahead of the cut off, and as I turned the corner to finish at the Abbey I felt nothing but relief. Never before had I been so close to the cut offs, or had to work so hard to finish a race, but I got it done and that’s all that matters.

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Pure relief to reach Bath
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Never again…..

Whats next?

After a disastrous year its time for a break. I’ve continued to push my body through illness for the last year and it’s just not getting me anywhere. Hopefully I can get back on track ready for the Arc of Attrition next February, but we will see.

Thanks

Jake Hayes, massive thanks for the lift to Chipping Campden with brief detour to Chipping Norton!

Annabelle Wescott, massive thanks for the support along the route and lift home from Bath despite being unwell.

The friends that popped up along the route for hugs and support, Martin Walker, Heather Rawlings and Chi Zhang.

Zosia Young for the sandwiches I didn’t quite manage to eat, and every other person that volunteered in awful conditions.

Kurt Dusterhoff, for the last minute entry, I promise I’ll volunteer next year!

Likeys and Rockstar for their ongoing support.

The curse of the Lake District – Lakeland 50

The curse of the Lake District – Lakeland 50

Driving to the Lake District for my first triathlon in 2012 I was totally clueless about where I’d be racing. I’d guessed there’d be lakes, but as we got closer…..

“Oh my god, it’s hilly as f**k”

As someone who quite frankly is a liability on a bike, even on flat roads, this was a massive problem. I’d signed up for the Keswick Mountain Festival Triathlon but was the kind of person who went out of their way to avoid hills. Looking back, the clue was in the name of the race but I’d been too blonde to figure it out. As it turned out I needn’t have worried about the bike leg, my front tyre was flat when I got into T1 and I couldn’t fix it. Pulling the inner tube out was as far as I got, my hands were too cold to cooperate so I sat there crying as I watched the rest of the competitors fly past me on their bikes.

Fast forward to 2016 and I returned to the Lakes for the Ultimate Trails 110km ultra. By this time I’d reached the conclusion I was far safer on two feet…… what could possibly go wrong?

Well, everything that could go wrong did, but my biggest issues were caused by the following

  1. 20 hours of solid rain
  2. An allergy to my contact lenses which started mid race leaving me half blind
  3. Finding out my shoes had no grip
  4. Finding out my waterproofs weren’t actually waterproof

By the time I eventually made it to the finish line I’d lost count of the number times I’d fallen over. I’d sprained both ankles and it was safe to say I’d completely lost the will to live. Oh, and to top it all off, our van got stuck in wet grass and in a failed attempt to wheel spin it out it ended up in flames. By the end of our trip I was a broken woman, and after pulling burning grass out from underneath the van Chris was literally fuming, I remember his words well

“we’re NEVER coming back here again”

So why did I enter Lakeland 50?

Despite my previous two trips to the Lakes being a total disaster I’d somehow managed to blot it all out. I’d heard great things about the Lakeland races and being one of the biggest ultras in the country I just couldn’t resist…. so at my peril, I chose to completely ignore my husband, and signed myself up for Lakeland 50.

Rather optimistically I thought it would have been a case of third time lucky at the Lake District, but perhaps I should have remembered that bad things usually happen in threes….. The only saving grace is that falling just five weeks before UTMB I had the sense to enter the 50 rather than the 100 or I may not have lived to tell the tale.

If something seems too good to be true…..

We had a clear run up from Bristol and arrived at the campsite in blazing sunshine. Kit check and registration went smoothly and we went for a dip in Coniston Water to cool down. All rather pleasant. Later on we watched the 100 mile runners begin their journeys then ended a pretty much perfect day with a cold beer. Too good to be true? Sadly yes. We headed back to the tent for an early night and just as I’d got snuggled up under my duvet….. rain

Initially I wasn’t too bothered, there’s something so relaxing about the sound of rain on a tent, and happily assuming we’d be getting the rain out of the way before the race I drifted off into a really deep sleep……. but when I woke the next morning my heart sank.

It was still raining.

Actually, it wasn’t just raining, it was absolutely pissing down.

At registration – blissfully unaware of the car crash race I was about to have 

The start and very nearly end of my race

After a briefing at race HQ in Coniston the runners are bused to Dalemain for an 11:30am start. I’d planned to get the bus whilst Chris went for a bike ride but with the weather being so miserable he decided to join me instead and we got a lift with friends Lee and Imi. Supporters are allowed to join the runners for the first four miles around the estate, it sounded like a nice idea but it turned out to be a big mistake.

With Lee at the start, mega kudos for completing the race despite a heart attack and MS diagnosis in the last few years.  

Supporters had to join the runners after they’d crossed the start line so I told Chris I’d be on the left so he could join me as I ran past. How hard could it be? Typically Chris wasn’t paying attention and missed me, I turned to should out his name and CRACK. I went over on the ankle I’d sprained just weeks earlier. Another epic fail for the Dumb and Dumber duo.

I hobbled a few painful steps before stopping, and as the rest of the runners ran past I looked at poor Chris in utter disbelief before launching into a massive rant.

“FOR F**KS SAKE CHRIS, LESS THAN 10 SECONDS INTO THE RACE AND I’VE WRECKED MY ANKLE. IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT, YOU WEREN’T PAYING ATTENTION”

The four miles that followed were essentially a full blown domestic as I tried to convince Chris to let me DNF, annoyingly at the time, he was having none of it.

“I can’t run 50 miles on a wrecked ankle, I’m going to have to stop”

“I haven’t driven for 6 hours so you can drop out 10 seconds after the start, just get on with it FFS”

As I hobbled those first four miles I could have killed him.

The invisible sniper

Its safe to say I’m a bit of a walking disaster and have a tendency to fall over every time I run off road, so much so that Chris always jokes about me having an invisible sniper. Usually this is funny. That day it wasn’t. Even the machine gun noise he makes which usually cracks me up just inflamed the situation and made me want to throttle him even more. Knowing it was just five weeks until UTMB, a race I’ve waited three years for a place for really didn’t help, its safe to say I suffered a total sense of humour failure in that field, the curse of the Lake District had struck again.

To checkpoint 1 – Howtown

Although I wasn’t planning to race this one I was hoping to run it well. I had a rough goal of sub 12 hours and wanted to finish strong and feeling confident that my UTMB training was paying off. As I left Chris after those first four miles I agreed to carry on to checkpoint 1 but had no idea if I’d finish. I’d been reduced to a painful shuffle so any goal I previously had went straight out of the window. Having to adjust my expectations so instantly and unexpectedly at the start of the race was tough, it wasn’t just that I’d now be hours slower, I wasn’t sure if I’d cause more damage by carrying on. After the ankle incident I couldn’t get my head in the right place and the whole race turned into a total nightmare.

Hobbling up the first hill

As I made my way slowly and cautiously up the first climb the weather which had been nice briefly at the start began to turn. It was due to be cooler that day but based on the  recent heatwave I didn’t for one second imagine I’d end up almost hypothermic. Going up that first hill I wasn’t moving fast enough to stay warm and began to question my outfit of choice, which included the flimsiest skirt and vest I own. I’m ashamed to admit I’d picked my outfit solely to coordinate with the orange finishers shirt, buff and medal we’d be getting at the end, will I ever learn?

Howtown to Mardale

By the time I’d reached Howtown I’d managed to commit myself to finishing the race, I knew it wasn’t going to be pretty but I’d get it done. After all, it was “only” 50 miles. As we climbed Fusedale the weather deteriorated quickly, hail was blasted into my face with such force it hurt. My poles became a total nightmare in gale force winds and were blowing everywhere, stabbing anyone that came near me. Feeling embarrassed I tried apologising but I doubt anyone could hear me over the sound of my hood which was flapping around all over the place (I really should have learnt how to adjust it before the race). This was probably the only time my sense of humour returned, completely unintentionally I’d become the biggest pole wanker in the Lake District and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

The laughter was short lived though, by the time I reached the top I was really cold and could no longer feel my hands. From previous experience I knew there was no point in trying to put on layers in that weather unless I wanted my kit scattered all over the Lake District. I was hoping we’d drop down lower or at least find somewhere sheltered soon. No such luck, time to suck it up.

Eventually we dropped down to the shores of Haweswater, there was a brief respite from the weather and I managed to get warm again. As I ran towards checkpoint 2 at Mardale I had an awful sense of deja vu, but then I realised I’d actually been there once before….. at the Ultimate Trails race, but last time I had two sprained ankles instead of one. Maybe I was winning after all?

You know its bad when you only take one photo all race. I only took this when I stopped for a wee behind the wall and couldn’t be bothered to get going again

Miles of Misery

By the time I’d reached the checkpoint I was feeling pretty battered so it was good to see some friendly faces, I stopped briefly for cheese and pickle sandwiches before making my way straight out onto another big climb. I’d barely left the checkpoint before the thunderstorm and hail arrived so decided to layer up before getting any higher. I ended up putting on every single item of clothing from my pack and as I climbed that hill I was very thankful for having to carry such an extensive kit list.

After that the rest of it was just one big blur of pain and misery as I trudged slowly over the hills, through the crap weather, desperately trying not to twist my ankle again. My left hamstring which I’d been having issues with for the previous few weeks also decided to completely lock up so I ended up with two useless legs instead of one. Brilliant. The injuries and weather, although not exactly a barrel of laughs would have been bearable had my head not decided to implode. After twisting my ankle I fell into some sort of downward spiral of depression and negativity with UTMB weighing heavily on my mind.

“How the hell are you going to manage 100 miles around the Alps when you can’t even make it across the start line without injuring yourself?”

I’d sprained my ankle a couple of months before and had been extra cautious ever since, I’d become terrified of falling over again and lost the confidence to run at my usual pace, which wasn’t particularly fast anyway.

“You were going to be chasing cut offs before all this, you’ve got no chance now”

As the miles passed I became very regretful of my decision to enter UTMB. I’d spent the last three years of my life focusing on a race that at that precise moment in time I truly believed I had no chance of completing. I thought of all the time I’d sacrificed training, the money I’d spent pursuing this impossible dream and I felt stupid. It all felt like such a waste and I felt utterly depressed.

Ambleside to the finish

Despite losing my rag with him earlier, Chris appeared at Ambleside to support me. I’d been feeling awful for shouting at him so was thankful of the opportunity to apologise. He refilled my bottles and collected my favourite sandwiches whilst I went to the toilet, he was absolutely brilliant like he always is, well, when he’s not tripping me up and taking the piss. It was good to see him and I was really grateful that he’d turned up but in the end it just made me feel worse. After our last disastrous trip Chris had made it clear he never wanted to come back to the Lake District but he had to support me, and all I did was shout at him. I felt like such a selfish bitch I wanted to cry.

Onwards I trudged and as darkness fell I found myself running alone. Navigation has never been my strong point so knowing I’d have to find my own way left me full of anxiety and I started to panic. That all to familiar feeling of being alone in this vast open space, but at the same time feeling so suffocated you can’t breathe.

I know, I seriously need to learn how to read a map.

Anyway, somehow I managed to calm myself down and using the GPX trace that Phil Bradburn had very kindly helped me load on my watch I somehow kept moving in the right direction until I finally made it to the last checkpoint at Tilberthwaite.

With just 3.5 miles until the finish line you wouldn’t expect this section to be too bad, but it is essentially up and over one big climb. I’d completely lost the will to live by this point as had the battery in my head torch, and attempting to clamber over wet slippery rock whilst desperately trying not to twist my ankle again I really started to question my entire existence.

What the actual f**k am I doing with my life? 

Arriving at the finish line in Coniston almost 14 hours later the relief was overwhelming and I had to fight to hold back the tears, something that has never happened at a 100+ mile race let alone a 50. Physically I was pretty battered because of the injuries but mentally I was broken, and for the week that followed I just felt desolate. I never wanted to run an ultra ever again. I’m glad to say now that my mojo has returned but I’m still surprised at how badly that one chewed me up and spat me out.

Looking back at the positives, and there are always plenty even though it might not feel that way at the time. I managed to adapt to an unexpected injury, adjust my expectations and get through 50 miserable and painful miles in some pretty shit conditions. Yeah I may have been my own worst enemy whining like a bitch and beating myself up but it proves I have the fortitude and resilience to dig deep within myself and get the job done, even when everything is going wrong. This may not have been the race I’d have liked leading up to UTMB but often it’s those disastrous races, the ones that can only be described as “character building” that make you stronger in the end.

A picture paints a thousand words….

Anyway, back to the rest of the story…..

We finally got back to the tent at around 3am expecting a nice lay in before our journey back, but we were woken early by the rain, and no it wasn’t the nice sort that you listen to on the outside of the tent as you’re snuggled up in your sleeping bag, it was the wet stuff dripping on your head as your tent leaks and puddles surrounding your belongings (thankfully we were on an airbed)……. and with that we got up, took down the tent at lightning speed and chucked it in the back of the van. Our third doomed trip to the Lake District was over.

As we drove out of Coniston making our escape Chris turned to me and said

“I mean it this time, I’m NEVER coming back here again”

Luckily for Chris entries for next year open on 1st September when I’m running UTMB so he’s safe for another year at least!

Thanks/apologies

Chris – Sorry for being an awful wife and thanks for being so tolerant. I promise we’ll never go back to the Lake District again 😉

Huge thanks to all the volunteers for standing out in awful weather and looking after us so well. Special mention to Geoff Partridge for the hug at Chapel Stile and the guy in the grass skirt for the pasta. Both welcome breaks from the misery fest.

Sarah Sawyer, my excellent coach. Thanks for the support before and counselling required after.

Likeys and Rockstar sport massive thanks for your support.

And not forgetting everyone I stabbed with my poles. I am truly sorry!

The Final Picnic Marathon 2018

The Final Picnic Marathon 2018

Apparently only mad dogs and English men go out in the midday sun….. but what about the idiots attempting Britain’s toughest marathon in 30 degree heat? Well they must be a few sandwiches short of a picnic.

With a leg destroying 6000ft of ascent/descent the Trionium Picnic marathon is billed as Britain’s toughest marathon. As someone who can quite happily bimble round a marathon without too much bother I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I liked the idea of something that would potentially chew me up and spit me out, something that would make me work hard for a finish and rather bizarrely, a carrot. This race sounded a little bit bonkers and was right up my street.

The view from Box Hill - the perfect location for, errr a picnic?!
Box Hill, Surrey – a nice location for a picnic

With UTMB training in full swing I should have been in peak mountain goat shape as I turned up at the start line, but I’m ridiculously clumsy and had managed to fall over and sprain my ankle just three weeks before. By race day it no longer hurt but it was still weak and lacking in flexibility, not ideal for running Britain’s toughest marathon. With a trip to the Alps and Lakeland 50 coming up I did briefly consider not starting….. but the ability to be sensible always seems to escape me. In the end I vowed to turn up, run carefully, and pray that I didn’t fall over again.

The stepping stones, probably the only flat bit of the entire race

Being a kindhearted wife I’d also signed up my husband. I did run it past him first, but suspect he’d just nodded in agreement without listening to a word I’d said. Anyway, we arrived at the top of Box Hill an hour before the 8am start and met up with fellow Brizzle crew member, Martin. He’d completed the race two years ago and had been stupid brave enough to come back for more, as had a fair few others judging by the number of previous picnic marathon finishers shirts on display. It appeared this race has a bit of a cult following and we were the two rookies surrounded by a load of hardcore runners.

Like lambs to the slaughter….

Waiting for the race briefing we joked about our general clumsiness and which of us would be the first to fall over. The Final Countdown played on a continuous loop before Race director Rob informed us about some changes to the route. As the last ever picnic marathon, this would be one to remember. Basically one of the only flat sections had been taken out and replaced with another bloody hill! Now I’m not one to complain about a bonus hill but this made me nervous. There was a 3 hour cut off at the half way point which in theory sounds plenty, but with well over 3000ft of elevation to cover in that distance it’s not quite as easy as it sounds. If I wasn’t sweating before the briefing, I definitely was after. No time to stress about it though, after a quick rendition of the national anthem we were on our way, and within the first 20 seconds, and no I’m not exaggerating, we found out who was going to be the first to fall over. It was Martin.

Yep, it really was that hilly!

If the elevation wasn’t bad enough it was the kind of course that can only be described as a total head f**k. Consisting of two out and backs you knew exactly what was coming, four ascents/descents of Box Hill steps for a start. If you’re having a nightmare out there, it would be all too easy to drop at the half way point rather than drag yourself out for another lap in the baking sun. Other than that it was total tree root carnage with the potential to trip and twist those poor ankles with every single step, and if that wasn’t bad enough, there was also plenty of small rocks and gravel to slip/trip/stub your toes on.

Down and then straight back up the first hill….

Basically the route went something like this…. Down massive hill in the baking sun, round a traffic cone and straight back up and past random man playing bag pipes. Down Box Hill steps (280 apparently) under shade but difficult to see tree roots/easy to fall over, short loop over the stepping stones (possibly the only flat bit in the race) and back up the steps. Down and back up two more massive hills before particularly nasty hill in the baking sun with another traffic cone to go round, and then straight back down. Up a million more steps, probably bigger/more uneven/steep than Box Hill, past another random man with bag pipes (or possibly the same one?) down ridiculously steep hill, grabbing onto trees to stop yourself flying down and into the road, then you’re half way through the first lap. Stop for molten jelly babies and jaffa cakes and do it all again in reverse, and if your legs/head will allow, repeat the whole lot again.

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The second bag piper, and place I got lost on the second lap… should have gone to Specsavers

Knowing I’d be even closer to the cut offs than I’d initially thought, I decided to abandon my run sensibly plan. I pushed as hard as the heat would allow on the uphills, and ran as fast as was safe on the downs. Checking my Garmin what felt like every five minutes I was making very slow progress even with this strategy. I reached the turnaround point (just over 6.5 miles) in 1hr 23mins so knew I didn’t have much time to slow down or even stop for a wee. All I was thinking to myself was “please don’t get lost!” I could feel the sun getting hotter and hotter on the return leg and maintaining the same pace was starting to require a lot more effort.

Despite the course being a bit of a head f**k it had the advantage that you’d pass the other runners at numerous points so you could offer support/encouragement and there was a great sense of camaraderie. I could see Chris and Martin were suffering too, we all had our heads down and were doing our best to just grind it out. They were ahead by a few minutes but even they were cutting it fine for the halfway cut off. Going back down the first/last hill I could see it was going to be down to the wire so ran as fast as I could whilst praying for my ankle. I eventually made it up the hill and back to the start with just 6 minutes to spare, it had taken 2 hours 54 minutes to complete half marathon distance, (my slowest ever) and I’d had to work my backside off for it! This race was definitely living up to  my expectations.

Working my backside off to not get timed out

Not wanting to think about the second lap too much, I filled my bottles and got on my way. There weren’t any other cut offs so I knew I was safe to take my foot off the gas a bit and “enjoy” my second lap. With lots of runners still behind me I could see I was around the middle of the field, so either a lot of people would be timed out or were “just” doing the half marathon.

Lap two passed without incident, well except for the bonus hill I managed to go down (and back up) but its not a run unless I’ve got lost at least once. I’m just glad it happened on lap 2 or I probably would have been timed out. I really struggled with the heat in the later stages of the race as temperatures soared to 30 degrees but my legs felt strong the whole way round. Lugging 6kg of rice up and down the steps outside work on my lunch break is definitely paying off, even if my colleagues think I’m slightly nuts.

Box Hill steps for what felt like the 500th time

I’m pleased to report that after a much more relaxed second lap I finished with both ankles in tact and not a single cut or bruise that I didn’t already start with. I finished in 6:28:55 and 52nd place. Of the 140 that started, just 88 finished. A huge DNF rate for a marathon, something similar to what you’d see at a 100 mile ultra. My slowest ever marathon but as 7th of only 11 female finishers, its one that I’m pretty pleased with.

Chuffed to have earned our carrots, except Chris, who forgot to pick his up

So, is this really Britain’s toughest marathon? Well, I’m not really qualified to answer that, but of the 50 trail marathons I’ve completed it was the hardest by a considerable margin. Having completed marathons in the Brecon Beacons, Exmoor and Jurassic coast before I was skeptical as I turned up but it definitely lived up to its reputation. Never before have I had to work so hard to meet a cut off in a marathon. A combination of the heat, 6800ft of elevation, time pressure and a recently sprained ankle made for a really brutal race but I’ve been buzzing ever since. Its a real shame this race will never be held again, it’s unique and bonkers, unlike anything I’ve ever done before. I really hope that one day it will be back, but if not, I’ve found another of Trioniums suitably crazy races I quite like the sound of, just let me run it past my husband first…….

http://www.trionium.com/wife/

The hard earned bling

Thanks to Trionium and their volunteers for putting on a truly memorable race. Please consider bringing it back one day.

Steve Rencontre for the fab photos.

Likeys and Rockstar for their ongoing support with these crazy races.

Back on track – Crawley 24hrs

Back on track – Crawley 24hrs

Lets get this straight, running around an athletics track for 24 hours is not my idea of fun, in fact, its the stuff of nightmares. Race week I found myself waking up in the middle of the night stressing. It was the early hours of the morning and I could see myself trudging round and round in circles in the pissing rain, I was cold, miserable, and I was going insane with boredom. How the hell was I going to manage it?

I don’t have a great history with these kind of events, the last time I set foot on an athletics track was back in November 2013 when I attempted a 6 hour race. Running in circles wasn’t as easy as I’d imagined, it really hurt, and aside from that I was bored out of my brain. It probably didn’t help that I’d drunk 1.5 bottles of wine the night before and ended up puking. In the end the misery was just too much, I bailed at marathon distance after 4 hours and 20 minutes, swearing I’d never attempt another track race ever again.

So why did I enter?

Basically I wanted a Spartathlon qualifier.

To be eligible to enter the lottery for a place I needed to either, run a 100 mile race in under 22 hours or cover 170km (105.6 miles) in a 24hr race.

This needed to be done early enough in the year to give myself enough time to recover and then train for UTMB. Ideally I’d have attempted this at TP100 but I was too slow off the mark and the race sold out before I could enter. Crawley it was then.

I seem to do better at flat stuff, I had a strong run at TP100 in 2016 finishing as 4th lady in 21hrs 42mins. This had included a few bonus miles, tantrums and cow related incidents, so with the navigation and cows out of the equation (surely even I couldn’t get lost on a track?) I was quite confident in my ability to run the 105.6 miles. I know nothing is a given in long races but I honestly thought it would be pretty straightforward……. and it probably would have been had I not got ill.

The race I nearly never started

At the beginning of February my fitness was at an all time low, I could only run one mile at 8:30 minute mile, my old marathon pace, and following my DNF at the Arc of Attrition my confidence was in tatters. I had 8 weeks until Crawley but I just couldn’t see myself getting fit enough to get the qualifier, and I wasn’t prepared to spend 24 hours trudging round a track for nothing. I decided this one would be a DNS. Trying and failing to get fit for the Arc was so mentally draining and upsetting that I just couldn’t bear to put myself through it all again…. but, I don’t like to quit and eventually I came to the conclusion that giving up without trying would be even more depressing than failing. Crawley was back on.

Blood tests the week of the Arc had shown my hormone levels were back within the reference range but my energy levels were still low and I was still sleeping at least 11 hours a night. Training would be limited by this so I knew I needed focused approach if I wanted to be race fit in 7 weeks. For that reason I decided to enlist the help of a coach, fellow Likey’s ambassador Sarah Sawyer was an obvious first choice, she has progressed over the years into an incredible athlete and from following her training on Strava, I knew she’d set me an interesting and challenging plan.

7 weeks to get fit…….

During this time I had another increase in Levothyroxine which always makes me feel worse for a couple of weeks. This meant my weekly mileage totals were low at 29m, 42m, 43m, 50m, 55m, 50m and 32m but we focused on quality and consistency rather than quantity. There were speed sessions each week and lots of running laps to get me used to dealing with the boredom, which I actually ended up enjoying! By the end of my seven week training block I was able to run 6 miles at my old 8:30 minute mile marathon pace and was starting to feel real improvements in my fitness levels. I wasn’t sure it was enough for the qualifier but spurred on by my recent failures I knew I’d give it my best shot.

The plan

Basically start at 10:30 pace, run for 55 minutes then walk for 5 minutes while eating, repeat for 24 hours. I wanted to hang on to this for as long as possible but realistically knew I’d have to drop down to a 25 minute run, 5 minute walk at some point. It was all rather fluid though, I’d made the mistake of overthinking things at the Arc and didn’t want to make the same mistake here. Even though I’d set the bar low at the Arc, i.e the slowest times needed to make the cut offs, when I fell behind schedule my head imploded and I quit before I was even timed out. Luckily I’d started my new job the week before the race and was so preoccupied with that I didn’t have the time to sit around obsessing over paces/times. In fact, I was so disorganised I was still packing/faffing with kit at 9pm the night before the race.

Race day

For some strange reason Chris couldn’t be talked into crewing for the whole of this one, I did however manage to convince him that Crawley would be a good place to take his daughter for the weekend and found a Go Ape nearby to keep them occupied. We arrived with plenty of time before the midday start so I set up my table at the side of the track with hopefully everything I’d need for the next 24 hours.

My table – notice my clever use of a wine glass box. Sadly this had disintegrated by the end of the race following 14 hours worth of rain.
Before Chris and Rosie disappeared off to Go Ape

The tortoise and the hare race strategy

The 24 hour race set off with the 6 hour race so the pace upfront was fast. I’d been lapped by the race leaders Dan Lawson and Paul Ali before I’d even finished my second lap! It would have been easy to get swept along faster than I’d have liked so made a real effort to stick to my plan. I find long races a bit like The tortoise and the Hare, I’m clearly no hare and my slow and consistent chugging means I’m always at the back at the start but that’s fine by me. My patience usually pays off and I tend to make up places towards the end. After the first hour of chugging away nicely the tortoise was right at the back as expected and in 25th place.

Boredom

I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, but at no point in the race did I ever feel completely bored! There was a great sense of camaraderie between the runners and seeing the 6hr and 12hr races unfold and then finish was great to watch, there really were some phenomenal performances on the track that day and it inspired me to keep going.

I put my iPod on after 6 hours and just got on with it. I think I’d accepted my fate for the 24 hours that lay ahead so instead of whinging about it I focused on the small things, a 5 minute walk break every hour and then changing directions every 4 hours were things I really looked forward to. Watching the seagull stealing a packet of Roz’s mini cheddars before pecking them open and eating them was one of the most exciting things I witnessed my entire race!

Several hours in….. still chugging

I’m not going to describe every detail of my race, but essentially I continued to move up the leader board. I went through 50 miles in around 9hrs 15mins and 100 miles in a new PB time of around 20hrs 20mins. By this time I was pretty much broken so walked another 10 miles to make sure I got my Spartathlon qualifier and had enough miles banked to finish as third lady and 5th overall! I didn’t complete the full 24 hours but I was happy to have achieved what I’d set out to do and to go home with a trophy was the icing on the cake.

The tortoise moving up the leader board

What went wrong

Don’t get me wrong, I’m over the moon with my result but many things derailed my 55 minute run, 5 minute walk plan. I’m sure without these issues then I’d have completed well over 110 miles but I did the best I could given the circumstances and managed to avoid any meltdowns.

  1. Nutrition – I’ve been following a gluten free diet since Christmas as its supposed to help thyroid problems. In everyday life this is fine, in races I’ve found out its not. The cheese and ketchup sandwiches that have always fueled me so well in ultras when made with gluten free bread just don’t work. Aside from being dry and disgusting they just don’t give me the same energy. I ate mainly Nakd bars however these upset my stomach so badly that even immodium didn’t help. I wasted a ridiculous amount of time going in and out of the toilet before eventually giving up and surviving mainly on water from mile 80. By morning I felt so awful I relented and ate some porridge which probably contained gluten but I felt like I was going to pass out without some real food.
  2. Palpitations – A side effect of my thyroid problems which aren’t very pleasant and reduced me to a walk every time I had an episode.
  3. Old injuries – If you’ve got any slight issues then running in circles for 24 hours will seek them out and magnify them. I’d pretty much forgotten about my old ITB issues but after 6 hours I started to feel that all too familiar stabbing pain in the side of my right knee. I stopped to tape it and it seemed to help but on changing directions at 8 hours it started in my left knee. Again I stopped to tape it but it was there annoying me for the rest of the race. I also had issues with my left hamstring which basically tightened up so much it ended my race. I kept stopping to roll it out which helped for a short while but it eventually tightened up so much that it reduced me to a shuffle.
  4. Getting cold – It started raining at about 8pm and continued all night and through to the finish at midday. Those nights I’d woke up dreaming about the race weren’t nightmares, they were in fact premonitions! The rain was fine when I was able to run, but after 100 miles I was mainly walking and despite wearing every item of clothing I had with me I couldn’t get warm. I stopped every couple of laps and drank hot sweet tea but I reached a point at 23 hours where I just needed to stop so called it a day.

Reflections

I’m not going to lie, I’m absolutely over the moon with this result. Its been just over a year since I started feeling ill and finally I feel like I’m getting myself back on track. The last few months have been really tough, I’d started to believe that I’d never be able to do the things I used to and so many times I felt like giving up. I’m glad I persevered though, it was worth it in the end.

Will I do another 24 hour event?

I can’t believe I’m saying this but yes! I know I can do much better than this so I’ll have to go back and give it another go one day!

Thanks

To Pam Storey and her volunteers for putting on a brilliant race.

The other runners for their support, camaraderie and making it more fun than I’d expected.

Lindley and Maxine for looking after me in the medical tent.

Chris and Rosie for coming with me and popping back to support every few hours.

Sarah Sawyer for her fantastic coaching and getting me back on track.

Likeys for their ongoing support