Monday 18 August 2014

Loving the longer stuff - the Stour Valley Path 100km

It's fair to say preparation for this race hadn't really been text book. Hit and miss training, a few bad races, and then a week of renewed enthusiasm and more mileage than I've done for months (at 57 miles in the previous 6 days), certainly didn't leave me fit or refreshed for my last race of the year. I also left it until the last minute to sort out how I was getting to the start in Newmarket and ended up stressfully spending an unexpectedly huge amount of money on trains, taxis and a hotel room.

Once I'd eventually arrived at my hotel, at about 11:30pm the night before the race, I laid out my kit ready for the morning, and decided to double check the mandatory kit list on the website, just to make sure I had everything. Suddenly I realised that I had left my emergency survival blanket at home, as well as my I-Pod, and I hadn't brought anything with me for breakfast and would be leaving too early for food at the hotel.

As the blanket was compulsory, and I wouldn't be able to even start the race without one, I panicked a little, before hitting facebook and twitter to ask for help! Luckily, I had offers from other runners, and was left a blanket to pick up at the start by a race-saving runner called John. I'll be eternally grateful for this act of kindness! Runners really are a great bunch. The missing I-Pod was less easy to solve, and I just had to resign myself to running 62 miles without my music, and for breakfast? I raided my stock of food that I was planing to carry during the race:- breakfast was a babybel, half a flapjack and a rice krispie square!

Unfortunately a typical level of organisation from me but at least I remembered my shoes!

Anyway, I made it to the start, had kit check, picked up my number and tried to hear the race briefing. I said hello to the two other runners I knew at the race, Kate and Barry, and to Matthew the RD, and at 7am, we started running.

My plan for long races is always to start out slow, let myself warm up, and try and remember that come 20 odd miles, I'll start to feel more like a runner. So, I took it easy but even so, my legs hurt and my breathing was heavy - I was a bit worried about how totally unfit I felt, and was so relieved I'd been able to start at 7am (rather than the 9am start wave) so had 15 hours to finish. I had a bit of a dodgy stomach too, which didn't help, partly from demolishing a packet of liquorice allsorts on the train up to Newmarket the evening before, and partly from my unusual breakfast, and it was pretty demoralising being passed by so many people in the first mile or so. It wasn't a good start, but I was hopeful that if everything went to plan, I'd be able to move back up the field later in the race and things would improve.

A relatively new ultra runner tried to strike up a conversation  with me - she was very nervous and looking for someone to talk to and share some miles with - but I was really struggling at just 3 miles in and I wasn't in the mood to chat, and had to apologise to her. I felt really bad about this, but luckily there was someone just by us who did want company, and they were soon chattering away. I'm just so anti-social sometimes :( I checked the results afterwards and was very pleased to see she finished in a great time which reduced the guilt!

The miles started to tick by though, and gradually I started to feel better and less like a lumbering fraud. I made sure I was very disciplined about my hydration and nutrition, taking on regular gels and drinking more than I ever usually do. I was very conscious of my lack of food and fluid during the TP100, and the resulting hospital visit at the finish, and wanted to practice a more controlled strategy to see how I got on over a long distance. Miraculously, I had remembered to bring my High-5 electrolyte tablets, which helped - at each aid station, I added a tab to one of my bottles and I think that made a difference to how I felt. At times, the day was pretty warm and sometimes very sunny (I got quite sunburnt) and by the end, my t-shirt was covered in a white crust. Shows just how important it is for me to replenish all of those minerals as well as just the water! 

The volunteers at the aid stations helped with this hydration and nutrition strategy. Each checkpoint was excellently manned and had a complete spread of all sorts of different food. There was always a variety of snacks that appealed, and as soon as I arrived at each one, there was someone asking me about refilling bottles, which really focused my mind on making sure that I was getting this done. I often forget if I'm not prompted. The marshals were all very cheerful and encouraging too, and they did a great job. It was particularly nice to see my friend Liz at one of the later aid stations, who was injured so couldn't run and was volunteering instead. As I think all runners are, I'm so grateful to everyone for giving up their time.

I had some chafing under my arms from my run on the North Downs Way earlier in the week, and had started the race with plasters covering the red raw skin - with all the sweat, the plasters came off, and the chaffing was just starting to hurt again as I came into one of the checkpoints.. Brilliantly, someone had bought a tub of vaseline for the runners to use - this saved me a huge amount of trauma over the rest of the race!

The route was pretty, and there was an interesting mix of grassy fields, various crops, shady woodland, quaint villages, rivers and sweeping views across the hills, although I spent more time looking at the ground than appreciating the countryside. There were a few technical sections with lots of tree roots, which were fun, but there was also quite a bit more tarmac or hard packed trail than I had expected. I suffered with that, and particularly towards the end of the race, my feet were becoming very sore in my Salomon Speedcross - they're not very forgiving on the road! I need to rethink my trail shoe choice for next year...

The route maps!
So, the miles passed, and I was feeling good. There were more hills than I'd expected but although I hated them while I slowly walked up, I always love a good descent. Sometimes I forget about protecting my quads and let myself fly down, arms all over the place, and I feel like a kid, just running for the love of it. It's always so much easier downhill!

The route was incredibly well marked in the first half, and although the second half was a bit less thoroughly signed by the race team, and we had to rely more on the Stour Valley Path trail markers, there were enough that I didn't need to get my route maps out once and I didn't get lost at all which had been a worry.

Because I didn't have my maps in my hand, I had no idea where the various aid stations were and didn't really think about them too much until I arrived at them. I had enough food and drink with me, and I was being very disciplined about regularly walking, so I wasn't desperately just trying to get to the next aid station, which I sometimes do, and was quite comfortable thinking about the whole distance, as opposed to breaking it down into miles between check points. This is a real positive for me, and I think it meant I enjoyed it more.

I got to 40 miles in 8hrs 2 mins, which I was surprised by - I had been taking it easy, and was pleased with my time. This was where I realised that I should be able to get a sub 13 finish, and I emailed Francis to tell him that I should be done by 8pm (as he was coming to pick me up). I pressed on, and the next 10 miles were probably my hardest, but I just kept telling myself that this was a bad patch, and as always happens, the bad patch would pass, and I knew I would get a second wind if I hung on long enough.

I got to 50 miles in 10hrs 13mins.

On I went. I shared some miles with some other people and we pulled each other through. At one point in the race, I was with a guy (I didn't get his name) who I think said he had been running less than a year and this was something like his 3rd ever race! He said everything hurt but he looked like he was moving pretty smoothly and I was very impressed at how well he was doing. Such a natural!

The last section was probably my favourite in terms of how I felt - I found my second wind that I'd hoped for, and I started to pass people.  I had 2hrs 45mins to run 12 miles (although it turned out this would be 13.17 miles) and I was pretty sure that even with the hiking up the hills, my regular walk breaks, and a few minutes at the aid stations, I would be ok. At the top of a few of those hills, I remember seeing runners across the fields below me, and started to focus on catching up to them.

Although I know if I'd run a little bit faster the whole way through the race, and walked a bit less, I would probably have finished in a quicker time, but it was totally worth still feeling relatively strong and not having any pain, other than the soles of my feet and the thousands of nettle stings and bramble scratches on my arms and legs!

The last few miles reminded me of the end of the TP100 - running along the edge of fields alongside a river. There seemed to be lots of cows in this section too - in one field in particular, there was a very boisterous looking herd who were quite intimidating. I wasn't feeling very confident about passing them, so stopped running and walked away from the cows (and the path) into the field, giving them a very wide berth. May have added a few minutes to my time, but I was very nervous about causing a stampede and was relieved when they were behind me! ;)

I was very conscious of the every approaching 13 hour mark, and so did have to push hard to keep going at the pace I was on, but by this stage I was absolutely determined to get in under my target and so managed to keep it going.

Eventually, the fields ended, and I turned onto the road that I realised must lead to the finish - only to find my name painted on the tarmac, Tour de France style! My friend Simeon had been doing some of the marking, and I remembered he said he'd do that somewhere. Really put a smile on my face to see it and was so glad I didn't miss it :D

Someone caught up to me with about half a mile to go, and we arrived at the final finish shoot just about together, but I ran off towards the line as fast as my legs could carry me at that point. To finish strong is such an incredible mental boost and I'm still very proud of how I did, and was so happy to get my medal, finishing in 12 hours 56 minutes.

I also managed to get a podium finish place, as 3rd lady, and was just a couple of minutes behind the woman who finished in second - although there were only 10 of us who started. Still, I'll take the position :)

Overall, I'd say it was a brilliant day out! Excellent organisation, wonderful marshals, relatively easy to follow route, but a challenging enough course to really feel that finishing was a big achievement. I will be back next year to have another go!

Francis picked me up, and I was on such a high in the car ride home - chattering away about how much I'd enjoyed myself. People ask why I run these distances, and if they saw me in the few hours after a race, I think they'd really understand!

It's now two days later, and although my feet are still pretty sore, my achilles is complaining a bit, and I'm tired, I don't have any ill effects from the run. My legs were fine yesterday and nothing is aching (no DOMS) so I'm pleased. For me, consistent pacing, lots of walking and drinking enough seems to make a massive difference! I just need to work on getting my general pace a bit faster.

To show a comparison of my mileage pace, the stats from my first and last few miles are below:

Total time

Thursday 14 August 2014

Running but not racing

I haven't enjoyed my last two races - the 50km Chiltern Ultra, that I blogged about in my last post, and the Railway Ultra, that was meant to be 38 miles, but had a shorter option that I dropped down to during the race. I think it's because my fitness isn't there at the moment - my lack of mid-week training over the last three months has really started to catch up with me and struggling during a race at a distance I should be able to run comfortably, really doesn't make for a good experience.

I managed to drag myself out for a decent Wednesday night run, including some torch lit miles through the woods which was fun, and my next race was booked for Sunday just gone, the 50km option at the Salisbury 54321.

I had leaving drinks from work on Friday night, and ended up very hungover on Saturday - I decided I just couldn't face getting up ridiculously early the next morning to drive half way across the country to run another race that I wasn't going to enjoy. So, I recorded a DNS, thinking a solo run might be better - a nice lie-in, no time pressure, nothing stressful, just go for a run.

On Sunday morning, I was lamenting the limited options of same old routes I always seem to run, when Francis suggested I drive somewhere new. I ended up going to Waltham Cross and picked up the Lea Valley Walk which follows the Lea Valley Navigational down to London. I've taken the canal north before, a few times, but I've never gone south and so was looking forward to it!

The weather was generally ok (except for about 20 minutes when it absolutely tipped down) and surprisingly I enjoyed myself. I didn't worry about about pace (which is a good job because I was very slow!), it was easy to run along the nice flat towpath and there weren't many people around. I'm an unsociable soul at heart!

The route was pretty and interesting, with lots of houseboats, wildlife and wild flowers to admire.

As I got closer to London, the flowers were replaced by graffiti on the walls, but it was really interesting - some true talent. I ran through the Olympic Park too. What a great landmark to have on a training run. It's certainly changed since the Olympics, but still an inspirational place to be!

It'd definitely do this run again, and I ended up clocking up 26 miles (13 out and back), which made me feel better about missing the race. It was also a real confidence boost to have a long run that felt ok. I ran 9 miles on Tuesday, and 22.5 miles yesterday along the very hilly North Downs Way, doing a bit of post-race clearing up after the weekend's NDW100 event.

I feel so much better for getting some relaxed miles in - I just hope that my totally haphazard to training recently hasn't totally ruined my chances of completing my next race which is on Saturday, the Stour Valley Path 100km. We shall see!

Here are some photos from the Lee Valley Walk :)