Big Way Around in Winchester was a new event, by a totally new company called Big Feat Events. 4 distances of 14 mile, 19 mile, marathon and 50km ultra, of which I did the ultra and it was my first race since Feb 2020 and my first in a Corsham vest as a recent new member!
The course, 3000ft elevation, was really quite beautiful taking in parts of the South Downs way, various landmarks around Winchester and took us through a variety of terrain, everything from a bit of tarmac, to hard packed and very runnable trails, to technical woodland sections and even the town centre (which was a bit mental trying to dodge shoppers on the high street at midday on a bank holiday and run through busy car parks in the final mile or two… bit weird that was!). Like any new race and new company, there were a myriad of teething issues, mostly the poor GPX file that was provided (nothing close to being like the actual course) and many people got lost particularly in the 2nd half of the race (I heard many issues with the marathon route especially, some folk doing 25 miles and others doing 28!). I even got sent about 0.8 mile the wrong direction by a young marshal meaning the 2nd place runner caught up with me… That being said and looking back now, I don’t really care as it was just so good to back in a real race and I would do this event again as I am sure they’ve learned some valuable lessons and the course was just so nice!
I didn’t have much expectations as it was the first race back in so long. My training had been really good (set two solo Time Trial PB’s at 5km (17:29) and half marathon (1:19:38) in the run up) and I appear to have (finally) fully recovered from a year long battle with Achilles issues so I set myself a target of 50km in under 4 hours. I started off strong pushing out 7-8 min mile pace in the early miles and soon found myself way out ahead of other runners for large parts of the race! I started thinking I’d gone out way too hard, but despite insane muscle twitches in the last 5 miles (I messed up my race day fuelling plan… muppet!), I managed to keep pace to the end and went through 50km in 3:59, bang on target, and crossed the finish line in 2nd place, just a few minutes behind a Team England ultra runner. Due to the extra 0.8 mile I finished in 4:06. It was quite the surprise to mixing it up amongst some very high level runners and it’s given me confidence going into future races, especially as I know I’ve got plenty of improvements to make
Still pinching myself really… I only started running at 34 years old (I’m 39 in August) after a very serious mental health battle. I decided I’d try running instead of taking the anti-depressants my GP gave me and it helped me give up cigarettes and get my noggin back in a good place. At no point did I ever expect to be running like this. Hoping I can keep improving and help CRC bring home some points in leagues 🙂
If you got this far, thanks for reading and listening to me waffle on!
I have always been quite competitive with myself and will generally try and push beyond what I am capable of. So why would I be content with just running a marathon for the first time, when I can try and run my debut marathon with a sub 3-hour target right?! Ambitious I hear you say? – yes! Perhaps a little foolish as a first I hear you say? – maybe! But a target I can get totally stuck into? – absolutely!
I must admit I set this target at a time when my best half marathon was 1:28:XX and had read all the articles that I could possibly find that suggested doubling you HM time and then adding 20 minutes and numerous that read to double and add 30. None of these seemed to appeal to me though so a sub-3 it was and once I said it out loud a few times, then I kind of dedicated my whole being to achieving it (another symptom of my competitive nature) without a single clue on how I would achieve it.
Training through the winter went well. I am a cyclist at heart really but cycling training is at its best during the summer months for obvious reasons, whereas I find the opposite true for running so they go hand in hand in that respect and means that you can up the mileage (sufficiently enough to prepare for a marathon). I set myself mini goals in the lead up but little fragments of doubt did start to creep in (which I chose to ignore). The two sessions each week that undoubtedly helped me the most were the weekly speed session and my weekly long run. Working from home and having to look after my children during the day too, meant that I had to do all my sessions early in the morning – luckily for me I found a good running buddy in Stuart Henderson, who was also fond of a 04:00 alarm clock and was aligned to my get up, get out, and get it DONE approach. I have always found it easier to get the motivation to get up and start running at an early time in the morning, if you are running to meet up with someone at a specific place and at a specific time. Kind of makes the 04:00 alarm call worth while right?
So race day came, Saturday 3rd April 2021 at Dorney Lake, near Windsor. To say I was nervous was an understatement and typically when I get nervous before an event the toilet beckons – A LOT – 3rd April was no exception but at least I wouldn’t be caught short halfway round a lap when the race started, which would have (probably) pretty much destroyed any hope of a sub 3-hour time. I was part of the first wave off and was group ‘U’. Figuring I still had time, I made my way back to the car to top up on some refreshing water and to get my game head on before the start. As I made my way back I could see that runners were starting. I still thought I had time though, so I took a gentle stroll to the start line. When I got there however, I was the only one as everyone else had already gone!! (oops first lesson learnt for the next marathon).
I set off and had wise words ringing in my ears from Vicky Henderson in a message that I had read that morning that said in summary (race your own race and keep at your own pace – finish strong). I looked down at my watch after around a third of a mile and saw the average pace at 05:50/mile. I felt good, so spent the next minute or so rationalising whether it would be a good idea to try and maintain that pace all the way round and finish epically but then wisely concluded (with that Vicky voice still in my ear) that I should slow down – after all, it was a marathon not a sprint! I slowed down and maintained a good pace still feeling good past half marathon then up to 15 miles. I was confident as I ran up to 22 miles in training and felt ok with that, so was feeling confident that I wouldn’t hit a hitch until the last couple of miles.
However, just before the final lap at around mile 17, this gigantic wall of fatigue just hit me like a brick and I started to feel totally rubbish and was looking at every coned off area and contemplating stopping at one of these for a well-earned rest. After all, I had earned it right?!! This was the thought process I battled with for the next 4 miles, but managed to keep the pace alive. Then the wheels really started to come off at mile 21 and 22 where I posted my first two 7 something minute miles – I spent those two miles calculating and recalculating how much time I could lose before having to admit defeat and miss out on that sub-3hr. Luckily, I met a guy called Josh who was running about my pace, had the same goal as me, and was also feeling the same way I was. I say luckily, because this is where it started to run back round for me. Running together and chatting (sort of) pushed our pace back up again and I started seeing sub 7 minute miles again and the confidence grew and grew. As I approached the last mile, I calculated (some of my cycling mates call me a walking Garmin) that I had over 8 minutes to run it! At that point I knew I had achieved it and was actually overcome with emotion a little bit.
I wasn’t winning anything for this achievement and it would be forgotten in about the same time as it took me to win it. However, setting a goal that seems out of reach, working towards it with consistency week in and week out, without making any excuses to yourself (or silencing them when the self-made excuses do inevitably visit), facing up to my inner critic, and then throwing everything I had at all of the above on race day, made me feel like I had just won World War 3! I had silenced the inner critic – even if only temporarily, until I start working towards the next goal.
So I was out running my 5km for the Not The Club Championship and it hit me the difference in what my mind was doing in comparison to what happens in Vicky Henderson-Cooper’s head from a race report she did recently. She has focus. My head on the other hand was full of all sorts of stuff, most of it had nothing to do with what my legs were doing! I have put my busy thought filled head into categories!
The Inner critic/self doubter: “Careful now, If you go all out now you will never get up the final hill, you don’t want to go too hard, wait a bit longer before you go for it!” Unrealistic cheerleader: “You are running so well, if you keep this up you will be faster than ever, then you can train harder and enter more races, then you will win a trophy!” Menu selector: ” what do I fancy for tea, what can I cook with those sausages, I am really bored of making lunches, I wonder if the kids could do it….actually I haven’t made a cake in ages, I will do that” Logistics; ” so once I finish this run, I need to pick up my order, drop off that birthday card, read those papers for work, oh I haven’t rang my mum, when can I do that?” People thinking:”it was nice to see Ruth she looked well, I hope she gets that new job, I wonder how she will juggle that”
It’s hardly surprising I wasn’t focusing on pushing hard round that corner and down that hill, my head was spinning. So much for a mindful run where you are in the moment completely focused. They are rare for me, my last one was my under 50 minutes 10Km attempt, any drifting of thoughts saw a drop in speed and I quickly pulled my head back to the job in hand! So I have realised I do this busy head running alot. I know running is super for clearing your head as you sieve through your jobs/problems and figure out how to address them, but sometimes I just need to focus on being completely in my body, in my run right now. I wonder what your thought categories are and how successful you are at focusing on you and just your run. Anyway wish me luck for the next 5km effort, I aim not to write the weekly shop or draft an article for CRC review!
It was here! After a summer of virtual runs and about 10 medals to prove it, Sunday October 4th 2020 saw the Covid secure Devizes Half Marathon.
I’d entered the race sometime before and was really looking forward to running a race with people in a town that the race was actually supposed to be in, no more virtual Great North Run alone in the Wiltshire mecca of Melksham. My aim was sub 2 and nothing was going to stop me, not even the weather.
Arriving at the start in weather conditions that can best be described as monsoon like I made my way to the information tent and was greeted by two friendly, familiar faces, Mr Biggs and Mr Berry. After some last minute tactic talk I was ready for the off, already soaked to the skin I made my way to my starting bubble and we were off…
Having never run this half marathon before I’d heard varying reports about it and started with an open mind. Although because of Covid there were no spectators the atmosphere amongst runners and marshals was great and I enjoyed every minute of it. It was one of those runs that everything felt good in, legs, lungs and mental attitude. Checking my splits things were looking positive and on I went. (7.41/8.53/8.14/8.36 and so on).
Even being speed buzzed by Laura Midwinter and Chris Hunt as they ran past me didn’t dent my spirit and on I went.
I recall on parts of the run wading thorough water and battling driving wind but nothing was going to stop me, well nothing part from a farmer that decided to close the road to let his cows across much to the annoyance of a few hundred runners. Don’t get stressed I thought as I paused my Garmin and said to myself it won’t take long. After what seemed like an eternity a voice from nearby shouted, “move those f@#king cows or I will “. Everybody was thinking it but luckily a CRC member said it. (You know who you are).
We were off again and the weather didn’t let up, it got worse and some. The last few miles were good, apart from a very muddy uphill off road track that I don’t recall hearing about but after conquering this I cruised to the finish line in 1:54:13.
I collected my medal and headed home, the job was done and little did I know I was about to make my first mistake of the day. Cold, dehydrated, hot bath, hot tea = faint and blue light run to A&E in an ambulance having had your chest shaved in the process.
After 24hrs there, a Covid test and a full heart MOT by two doctors that were keen runners I was given the all clear and allowed home. Their advice to me, never stop running as you are!! There is a bit more science involved in my collapse, I won’t send you to sleep with it now but I am willing to share it if you are remotely interested.
All joking aside my partner thought I’d had a heart attack and gave herself a nasty paper cut looking for my life Insurance policy.
Top tip – Normally after a long run if you are like me you need to eat and eat lots, imagine finding yourself in an A&E starving with no access to food. Smiling and using all the charm that you can muster = being kept in supply of as many NHS cheese and pickle sandwiches that you can physically eat. Result!!
On initial reading of the “Not The Club Championship” events there was one in particular that stood out to me – the Vertical 100m Dash. As anyone who trains regularly with the club will know, Corsham is “blessed” with a range of hills for the Hill Sessions. In fact, it is impossible to plan even a 5k without encountering one. However, a hill with a 100m ascent is another matter.
Some folks, such as the fell runners Messrs Mackie & Wood, or the hill-lovin’ Stewart, clearly encounter such ascents frequently, often several in the course of a single run. But for me this is more of a rarity and the descriptive text stating that is just over 2 Stings-worth added to the intrigue. The challenge was on, to find single course 100m ascents in and around Corsham.
One question is whether the course should be short and brutal, or gentler but longer. Therefore, a bit of research was needed which led me to an article in Runner’s World (2015):
“There is an obscure, but cool-sounding, type of race called a “vertical kilometer,” where the idea is to race uphill as fast as possible until you gain 1,000 meters of elevation. The current men’s record is 29:42, set on a course in Switzerland that is 1,920 meters long with an average slope of 27.5 degrees; the women’s record is 36:04.
The question is: what type of course is best for such races (or, more generally, for gaining elevation as quickly as possible)? Should you find a relatively gentle slope where you can go fast? Or a steep slope where your progress will be slow and difficult, but you’ll gain lots of elevation with each step? Where is the sweet spot?
That’s what researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder wanted to find out in a study just published in the Journal of Applied Physiology. The team … jerry-rigged a treadmill to be able to reach a slope of 45 degrees. For context, a typical gym treadmill can reach about 9 degrees, while a black diamond ski run is about 25 degrees. (In practice, runners had a hard time balancing at 45 degrees, so the study only went up to 39.2 degrees.)”
That brings a whole new dimension to the Dreadmill – 45⁰ – strewth!!
The basic upshot/conclusion is: “But for all angles above 15 degrees, walking was actually more efficient than running. The sweet spot with the lowest energy expenditure was between about 20 and 35 degrees—which puts the 27.5-degree angle of the course where the record was set perfectly in the middle.”
Time for some caveats here. The trials involved quality athletes and to say that I am nowhere near that level is somewhat of an understatement. There are many runners in the club better than me at hills so I reckoned that slopes less than 20 degrees would be best. However, anyone who has run the Slaughterford 9 can take some reassurance that the most efficient way to ascend The Sting is to walk. I know that I have never got up it in a single run and am feeling slightly smug that I was right!
Now to find some local hills to test the theory. After some checking for routes using plotaroute.com I started with Quarry Hill out of Box. Running from the lowest point on the A4, starting towards Corsham then turning right into Bulls Lane and then continuing up Quarry Lane, and up, and up some more, it is possible to just achieve a 100m ascent past Woodland Adventures and White Ennox Lane (average gradient of 7.6% with some tasty bits).
Second Route – bit serendipitous as the Solstice Run takes in Solsbury Hill which has the initial ascent of more than 100m (average gradient of 13.6 degrees).
And lastly – of course the route suggested in the NTCC blurb…The Sting (twice and a bit)…gradient of 25%…gulp…
First attempt – Quarry Hill. Warm up, short pause at the bottom of the A4 then go! Up the easy starting gradient then into the steep bit which always takes my breath (not in a good way). Onwards and upwards, round the bend past the entrance to Hazelbury and the run out past White Ennox Lane. This really felt like a huge effort and I needed a good recovery to say the least. Still, managed to get in the Strava top 10 so some consolation there.
Next the Solstice Run and the attempt on Solsbury Hill. Setting off in a small group with Jane C, Matt, Jake and Gary was great and set me up nicely. It was then a case of gritting my teeth, setting a good rhythm and keeping going. One advantage was having Jake running alongside, playing “Solsbury Hill” on his phone and it really distracted from the effort. Felt as good as is possible for such a climb and what a view as a reward!
So, the last (and first) course. Managing to pick the day after Storm Bella was perhaps not such a good move as I have never seen the Bybrook valley so sodden and muddy. After the initial warm-up, sloshing through mud and surface water, I stood at the bottom of The Sting which is intimidating enough when you have to do it just the once. Remembering the bit about walking being most efficient I set off at as best a pace as I could muster, knowing that I would have to do it again. First time up, not too bad but the psychology of turning left down the green lane back to the bottom, which was a fast-flowing cataract, was not great. Starting off the second time at least I had some recovery and knew where the slippery zones were, and so cresting the top was very satisfying.
The results – which course was best/worst? Strava shows the following times for me:
Quarry Hill – 8:26
Solsbury Hill – 5:53
The Sting (twice, ignoring the recovery descent) – 5:11
Ok, so if I had to do the Sting twice without any recovery it would have taken longer but the results do bear out the theory of a sweet spot at 27.5 degrees. Quarry Hill also rated highest on the vom-meter due to the long run out at the top to gain those final few metres.
In summary, hills close to 15% for running do seem to be the best option around here. Walking The Sting was surprisingly quick in comparison as well. But the main conclusion is that I have had enough of the 100m Vertical Challenge for 2020/21 and will leave it to others to push on and take up the mantle. Now to dry out my shoes, get back on the trails, and enjoy all the mud glorious mud that Corsham has to offer.
Summary: A splendid, short’n’sharp, muddy up, down, around, and back up and down the shapely outlier of the Black Mountains, Skirrid.
Both Annika Davidson and Andrew Wood had sung the praises of last year’s Skirrid Fell Race so I duly entered the 2020 edition.
As has become the new normal, Covid-19 meant no mass start or pre and post race bantering; rather just a case of parking the car, picking up a race number and joining a small, socially distanced queue to start at 30 secs intervals. However, the wonderful Welsh countryside and a cracking route up, over, down, round and back up Skirrid before a swooping descent remained unchanged. It also offered incentive to turn my legs quicker than I had in a while.
Before getting to grips with the climb up Skirrid, a short lap of the start field provided a warm-up. Following a week of heavy rain, conditions underfoot were somewhat squidgy and my daps of choice, Mudclaws, were immediately put to good use; staying upright on the downhill sections was going to be a challenge.
Leaving the start/finish field, the way ahead was obvious with the shapely peak of Skirrid dominating the view. The gradient and effort level gradually increased as the route squelched its way across sodden fields to get to the open access slopes of Skirrid proper. Trying to catch up runners who had started in front, and stay ahead of those who started behind, provided further onward impetus.
The ascent to Skirrid’s whaleback summit ridge was runnable for some but had me resorting to a “brisk as I could make it” walk for most of the way. The walking pace provided opportunity to take-in and relish the ever-expanding views as elevation was gained. Having reached the summit ridge, it was immediately left by a short descent and a technical, rocky traverse under Skirrid’s summit to reach its very steep North ridge.
‘Skirrid’ is derived from the Welsh ‘Ysgyryd’, which means to shake or tremble. The short, sharp hands and feet ascent of its North ridge to the summit trig point certainly had that effect on my legs. There was no respite though; the way on was an immediate, and equally steep, quad testing descent. Initially heather clad, the slope, whilst precipitous, was reasonably secure underfoot; in its lower reaches loose soil and bracken replaced the heather however, providing less stability and more entertainment. Thankfully the braken contained no bramble snagging hazards. From there, it was a simply splendid splish-splash, gravity assisted dash to the finish line.
There was of course no post-race hydration and sustenance at the Skirrid Inn; fingers crossed for a return to the full race experience in 2021…
Huge thanks go Andy Creber of Rogue Runs , and his team of merry helpers, for providing the opportunity to “race” amidst these uncertain times. Andy always provides memorable and entertaining race routes and Skirrid is no exception. Being a marked and relatively short course, it is also a great introduction to the pleasures (and pain) of South Wales fell racing; if you want to find out more, fellrace.com provides all you need to know about the entertainment on offer in the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons…
All pictures courtesy of various ace marshalls out on the course.
As the year draws to a close it is always a time to reflect and think about what we have achieved. This year has been one that none of us could have predicted and we have all faced some difficult times.
There have been lots of things cancelled and everything seems to have changed. Many of us have still however been able to run, sometimes together in small groups and sometimes alone.
Just before March several of us signed up for the Mad March Mile and committed to doing a mile a day for each day in March. I thought this was a tall order at the time but as Biggsy is very persuasive I signed up! We got a lovely pottery mug if we completed it so that was the clincher!!
Little did we know that as March went by we would go into a lockdown – something we had never experienced before. As March drew to a close many of us decided to continue MMM as we had a little more free time and were enjoying the exercise.
Well it is now almost Christmas and we are still going. Several of us have exercised everyday since the start of March – the longest March ever!! (I have to be honest and admit I missed one day when I was injured but only one!) It has meant that I have cycled over 2020 miles and ran over 2020 km this year. Who would have predicted that I could do that when I started running (well it wasn’t really running then!!) and cycling a couple of years ago? I might even be a real runner one day!
Doing this has helped me to stay somewhat sane through this weird year and I would like to thank everyone that has ran with me, cycled with me or encouraged me. Most of all I would like to thank members and committee of CRC. You have done so much to help us keep running during this pandemic. You have been forward thinking and very proactive. The booking system is brilliant, the range and number of run sessions fantastic and the friendship continues throughout everything we do.
I am proud to be part of such a great club and would like to wish everyone a good (if different) Christmas and all the best for 2021. Here’s to more running next year, maybe some competitions , but who knows, and let’s see how long March 2020 continues on for!
This was only the 2nd actual race I’d done this year so anticipation was running high! It was an excellently organised race and the marshals were awesome! Seems likely that, due to the wave starts, they were standing out in the torrential rain for even longer than for a ‘normal’ race. The chap standing by the entrance to the garden was amazing – you could hear him shouting encouragement for ages before and after you passed him. I’ve not done this race before but the course was apparently different as it was 3 laps rather than 2 and all on the Westonbirt grounds.
The wave starts are a novel addition to races to stop large groups of people congregating (you’re only supposed to arrive at the start a few minutes before your allocated time) and, naturally, have their pros and cons: • On the upside, as there are runners of different paces starting at different times, you get to pass (and be passed by!) lots of different people so you get to greet runners you wouldn’t normally see. • On the downside, there were a number of people I knew running the race but I only got to meet a couple who had similar start and/or finish times. It’s also slightly odd not knowing who you’re actually racing against, is that person in front on their 1st, 2nd or 3rd lap? Am I ahead of them or not? That person that just passed me, can I get them on the final lap or are they just finishing?
Did I mention the rain? That also meant a significant amount of mud too, the course was all traffic free (apart from a random car near the drinks station – not sure what that was about), undulating and mainly off-track as well around the playing fields so the new Mud Claws were an essential aid to staying upright and moving forwards; I saw several runners heading off on interesting tangents, hope they made it home safely! In summary – It was wet, it was muddy, we had fun
In a year of turmoil ARWNWN provided a constant; now in its third year, Crooked Tracks’s event provides a delightful, circular, rural, 50km route starting and finishing at Tisbury.
The postponement of a long-planned-for event in the Lake District meant Sue and I were able to take advantage of a couple of last minute places in ARWNWN. It offered a slightly shorter and less hilly alternative but having completed it before we both knew it would provide a fab’ autumnal day out in the rolling hills of South Wiltshire.
An 8:30am start time from Tisbury meant a crack of dawn departure from Corsham. The compensation was the delight of an incredible sunrise over Salisbury Plain. Also on the plus side it indicated that the forecast decent weather was fact rather than fiction, with running conditions nigh on perfect. (Disappointing though for Race Director par excellence, Neil Turnbull, who much prefers to provide his punters with attritional rain-lashed muddy affairs.)
Covid-19 required some tinkering with the format of the race in terms of admin and phased start times. The only change in the business part of the day was reversing the ARWNWN route of the previous two years. There were a few familiar AVR faces in our start wave and the race crew; it was great to catch-up with folk we had not seen for many months in the absence of racing.
As is the way with Crooked Tracks our wave of runners were away without faff or fanfare. The gentle incline from the start quickly spread out the runners and I fell in step with Andrew Jeffries from AVR. We enjoyed a bit of banter and followed the faster runners in front, which was a mistake. Within ten minutes of the start it transpired we had missed a turn and were off track. The correct marked trail was thankfully recovered without too much extra distance or loss of time; a good early reminder to pay attention to navigation.
The reversing of the route provided some entertainment outside of the opportunity for navigational blunders. Uphills that were long and emotional at the end of the route in the previous two years’ became brief downhill canters this year. Of course it also meant the reverse would be true later in the day…
Andrew J was keen to make progress so I let him go and stuck to my own pacing strategy, which was intended to get me round in under six hours. The phased starts meant a fair bit of solo running although with ace holloways (A holloway is a sunken path characteristic of the rounded hills of southern England; a route that centuries of footfall, hoof-hit, wheel-roll and rain-rush have harrowed down into the bedrock) and beautiful autumnal colours to enjoy the miles romped by. In what felt like no time at all the first picnic station arrived along with some morale boosting CRC support from Andrew Wood. As with previous years Crooked Tracks did not disappoint on the food front and there were a fine array of tasty treats available. Unusually nothing really appealed so I took a couple of jam and peanut butter wraps to force down on the hoof and bid farewell to Andrew W.
The route onto the next picnic spot at Old Wardour Castle provided undulatling running alternating between woods and fields. The terrain was very much runnable, particularly at this relatively early juncture. I was therefore able to maintain target pace. The effort to do it though felt worryingly hard with well over half the distance to go. So following the ultra adage of “if in doubt eat something” I guzzled a gel, told myself to buck-up and pressed on.
Scenery and paying attention to the route marking to stay on track provided distraction. Morale was also improved by a lucky find. In the best tradition of the Wombles I bent down to pick up a bit of litter, which on closer inspection turned out to be a twenty pound note. The temptation to divert off route at the next village and spend it at the pub was resisted; cola, jam/peanut butter wraps and Jaffa cakes were just around the corner beneath the towering ruins of Old Wardour Castle. The brief swoop down to, and the view of, the castle was one of the highlights of the day; I do like a bit of downhill.
Andrew Wood’s appearance also provided an additional boost at the picnic stop. Again I had no appetite for the fine fare on offer so I just grabbed some bits’n’pieces and pressed on for the second half. Distracted by my picnic on the go, I immediately took a wrong turn and had to back track a little. By this stage the start waves were beginning to overlap with slower runners in first wave being overtaken and the faster runners from the wave behind in turn overtaking me. Both provided opportunity for brief banter and mutual encouragement as is the way with ultras where the slower pace allows for conversation.
Having struggled to put fuel in the tank, energy levels juddered a bit over the next few miles. My pace dropped accordingly as the undulations became a bit more pronounced and longer. A stiff, head-on breeze also helped to check momentum. The six hour target drifted out of reach despite my best effort to prevent it. Andrew Wood thankfully caught me up and provided much needed encouragement at a point where I could have easily stalled. With some nudges from him to eat and drink I ground on albeit more slowly than I had been aiming for. Also on the credit side, it was still a cracking day out in the countryside; the lake and parkland splendour of New Wardour Castle provided feast for the eyes and the route finding was relatively straight-forward and well marked.
Andrew’s company helped overcome a couple of long, gradual climbs and we enjoyed trading places and chat with a few runners as we all headed toward the third picnic stop of the day. Andrew departed having seen me over the third quarter slump/hump. I briefly called in to the third and final checkpoint of the day to re-fill on water. The food unfortunately continued to hold no appeal. An ace gentle downhill in a joyous tunnel of autumnal hued and goldfinch crowned hedges did however. The busy hum of the A303 at its end added to the ebb and flow of the day; marking / marring the turn back south towards Tisbury and the finish.
Another recurring theme of the day was faster runners unfamiliar with route reovertaking having lost their way. It provided a regular reminder to keep focused on route finding and meant I shared the concluding miles with a runner who had already passed me three times. They had run a couple of extra miles in what was their first ultra and off-road event; they were keen to not add to that total and having established that I had experience of the route adjusted to my more sedate pacing to try and achieve that. Of course I immediately dented that misplaced confidence in my navigation skills by going the wrong way. Thankfully I quickly realised the error of ways and we were soon cantering down the finishing slope to rest weary legs, receive our super-duper “dog tag” finishing mementoes, enjoy a brew, and feast on ARWNWN’s traditional beanie stew with cheese topping and lush fresh buttered bread.
The day’s entertainment was not quite over though. With a table booked at the Quarrymans Inn for post-event feasting and rehydration, Sue and I were keen to be on our way home. Unfortunately I had left the lights on in the car when parking up in the morning. The ensuing flat battery provided one final hurdle to overcome. Thankfully that was eventually achieved; with the help of motorhome hero and their jump leads we just made our booking at the QMs; where the pie (not a lie) and beer provided a champion end to a day that ebbed and flowed as the best ones do.
With great thanks to: Andrew Wood for support on route; the jump lead hero; and, most of all, Neil Turnbull and all the Crooked Tracks team for a tremendous trio of ARWNWN outings.
I cannot remember exactly what it was that made me think that I could run 100 miles; it was certainly not before my first ultra (Escape from Meriden in November 2017) and it was not after the ill-fated Cotswold Way Century attempt in September 2018 that remains (hopefully forever) my most embarrassing race attempt at any distance to date. Therefore at some time in between those dates I have got it into my head that my chisel and grind style would be suitable for running extreme distances.
The 80 miles racked up (albeit as a timed-out DNF) in the Grim Reaper ultra in Lincolnshire last year gave that perception more credence and this year I had entered the Ring O Fire multi-day 135 mile race round Anglesey. Sadly the covid pandemic has put that back a year so I am eternally grateful to Mark Cockbain for putting up his ‘Unlocked Ultra’ challenge that enabled me to attempt 100 miles for some tangible reward (a bronze medal if I broke 28 hours).
The 50 mile attempt six weeks earlier turned out to be a good sighter for the 100 mile challenge. I had decided that Cherhill away run route should still be used but with the lane added, primarily to chop out a twelfth lap of the dreaded Calstone Climb but also in my mind was the desire to make the distance something akin to but still marginally harder than the Ring O Fire coastal course. Roughly speaking the days are split into 35, 65 and 33 miles so a 35 / 65 mile split would be noted.
I was slightly more organised this time, arriving at Cherhill 30 minutes earlier than I did for the 50 mile run. At around 9:20am on the August Bank Holiday Saturday I was on the startline and away. The weather was kind; sunny but unlike the July attempt not too hot.
The main issue on my mind in the early miles was how to avoid suffering the severe cramp that kyboshed the previous attempt going over 50 miles. In all honesty, I did not have a clue other than telling myself not to run any mile quicker than 10 minutes and using the lane to cut down the constant ascending and descending that I felt contributed to my downfall. Hence it was a pleasant surprise that the confidently predicted hip flexor, groin and hamstring tweaks failed to materialise in the first half of the race. 35 miles came and went in 8 hours 23 and 50 miles in 12 hours 41. Both were in my target time area so as I moved into the darkness laps things were going as well as I could reasonably expect.
Cherhill was reasonably busy during the day but it was back to its lovely remoteness during the evening and overnight. To that end I had enlisted the help of Carl; Dan; Julia and the Mackies as a messenger contact in case I ran into difficulties. I knew that one or two of them had it in mind to meet me at some stage for heckling purposes; what I did not expect was that they would all come over at some point and run all or part of a lap with me. I was conscious that the ‘Unlocked Ultra’ rules required me to be self supported and that they should not pace me; however I was extremely thankful for the company, particularly in the later laps when I was fading like butter on hot toast.
I have always been reasonably proficient with fuel in a race, never before citing it as a contributor to any deficiency in performance. However, I had never run entirely self-supported over such a long distance before. In hindsight running in a remote location proved to be a major disadvantage in that respect: I could not gain any access to hot food or drink when I needed it in the final quarter of the challenge and required the Mackies to bail me out in that regard.
Pre-race, I had surmised that the last darkness lap would be the most challenging and as long as I made it to sunrise the worst would be over. This was a critical error of judgement. The ninth lap began with sunrise at the opposite side to the course and, as at the Grim Reaper event the previous year, the dawn light prompted hallucination. At the far end of the stony track a massive flag of Northern Ireland (the Ulster Banner) that is used in Olympic events was draped across the course. I have no idea how my subconscious dredges this sort of stuff up but as I got nearer I realised the flag was in fact the same configuration of large puddles that were there for the previous eight laps.
I recollect hallucinations with wry amusement when reporting on them after the event but the reality here was that it was effectively the end of the road in terms of breaking the 28 hours. My strategy in the race was to walk the three large inclines (Morgan’s Hill; Poacher’s Croft and Calstone Climb) and to run or trot at sub-15 minute miles the rest of the loop. 74 miles in, at the top of Poacher’s Croft on the swing round to the Landsdowne monument I instructed my legs to run and the response was minimal. My speed had dropped from 18 minute miles – enough to squeak under the 28 hours – to 25 minutes. I had hit the dreaded wall. My mind became a sea of negativity and as I dropped down onto the lane I decided to extend the trudge on it so when I got back to the car I would be on 81 miles and could give up at my longest ever distance. I relayed a message to the gang saying I had stopped to nothing.
A mile later I had reached Calstone Climb and was marginally more positive in that I had decided I would rest in the car for a time and see if things improved. While I was pondering this strategy over, the Mackies came from the other direction. The fact that they had traipsed back to Cherhill must have pricked my conscience and as we met I had already decided to continue. Dave’s, let us say, choice words of encouragement further embellished that view and after a stoppage for food I was left with two and a bit laps to complete.
Three of the next seven miles were sub-20 minutes but they were ticking ever so slowly. I looked at my watch an inordinate amount of times but that served to frustrate further. For some reason Stuart Henderson’s comment in the previous week that the furthest he had run was 86 miles lodged in my mind and as I crept past that total I was slightly uplifted. At this point any semblance of positivity was gold dust as I had decided some time earlier that everything was falling to pieces. The truth of the matter was that my mind had fallen to pieces but save for a number of blisters on my feet the body was standing up to the task remarkably well, something I observed with frustration in the days immediately after the event.
I do not remember anything of the final lap at all other than it was dreadfully slow and painful. The Mackies had stuck with me throughout the final 20 miles but they kindly offered to let me run the final couple of miles – a shuttle along the path that did not take in any hills – myself. I recognised a couple from one of the houses on my post round going the other way and shouted hello to them; little did they know I was on my ninety-ninth mile! There were plenty of people on that path, all seemingly there to get in the way but I eventually neared the final stretch where the Mackies were there shouting ‘Sprint Finish!’ I said ‘OK’ and did! Legs not so tired after all! The last 25 miles had taken nearly 10 hours to complete and I crossed the line (right next to the car) in just under 30 hours and 37 minutes; thus the final 65 miles had taken over 22 hours. Not ideal given I have only 18 hours to complete the second day of the Ring O Fire but at least I can rest overnight in that event.
A couple of weeks later I marshalled one of Mark’s events (the White Horse 100) and was lucky enough to meet and thank him. I confessed (much to his amusement) that I was operating a ‘me versus him’ strategy and for each mile that I noticed was under 16 minutes I was saying to myself ‘one to me there Cockbain…’ but unfortunately although I was just ahead on points at mile 75 he then landed the knockout blow.
There is a lot of room for improvement, not least in the fueling and mindset over the last 20 miles but I can now say that I have managed to run (walk/ shuffle / stagger) 100 miles. After all, it apparently counts so long as it is on Strava.