Thursday, 1 August 2013

Montane Lakeland 50

Having completed the Lakeland 50 in 2011 and the Lakeland 100 in 2012 I was returning to the 50 this year with my eyes fixed on a good time. Back in 2011 I had a very tough day, sapped by heat it was a fight from 10 miles and I finished in 13:25. This year, with much more experience under my belt I felt I could probably go sub 11 but would be disappointed with anything over12 hrs. I ended up battling with the heat, feeling ill from 10 miles and finishing in 13:15. Hmmmm, sounds familiar.

Well, of course I have a few excuses!
  • I had a stomach bug the week before the race and wasn’t fully over it
  • I don’t do well in the heat and conditions were tough this year

But ultimately what it comes down to is this.
  • I thought I was capable of a sub 11 hrs Lakeland 50
  • I wasn’t

I think I would have done much better at the end May, when my running was on top form, but since then my training has been so disrupted that an 11 hr target was simply unrealistic. I actually enjoyed most of the run at the time but on reflection I’m pretty crushed that yet again I have failed to perform when racing an ultra.

The Spartan Army pre-race start

On the start line the Spartans were clustered together at the front over on the right hand side of the starting pen, chatting and laughing. I wanted to be with them but felt I just needed a bit of space so I moved to the very left of the line and into my own bubble. It felt incredibly antisocial but I was trying to find my race head. Having helped organize the Lakeland 1 kids fun run this year my build up to this weekend had largely focused on the kids’ race. The weekend so far had seen me doing my marshalling duties, talking to the growing number of friends in the ultra running community, visiting the Spartan family zone and even squeezing in a few daddy duties with my own kids. Friday was just manic. So I found myself at the start of my main A race of the year feeling mentally unprepared. I needed these last few minutes alone to get ready for what was to come.
Standing right at the front (over on the right) with the quick boys

I had a plan to get to the first CP at Howtown (10 miles) around 1:45 so I knew I would have to put in some effort on the initial lap of the Dalemain estate to beat the crowds. It meant running beyond “comfortable” on the first few climbs but I felt I was holding back enough. Nick was ahead and Andy just behind and we were very much at the front of the field, running in space with no congestion at the stiles. When we hit the gravel track I decided Nick was going a fraction quicker than I wanted to so I feathered back and let him drift away.

Through Dalemain past cheering supporters then off to Pooley Bridge with more encouragement from Terry Gilpin, Tracy Dean and Bev Notton who were marshalling along the way. I was feeling fantastic at Pooley Bridge and was lifted further by a Spartan Flag waved by Niamh and Val Whittaker. Andy caught me on the climb and we walked over the top together, chatting away, admiring the views before starting the wonderful run down to Howtown.

I hit CP1 at 1:40 feeling great and 5 min up on where I wanted to be but then the wheels fell off. I got out my poles to find that the fastening mechanism was broken on one so I would have one and a half poles today. Then I went into the pocket of my rucksack to get some sweets and the zip broke. Feeling a little frustrated I checked my Garmin only to find it had accidentally stopped at the CP when I took off my bag to fill up on water. A mental triple whammy!

Anyway, I set off up the biggest climb of the day and immediately started to suffer. I felt sick with cold shakes and the quads started to cramp even before the climb got steep. The effect was so dramatic that I think the lingering stomach bug must have played a part. I quickly (and easily) threw away my time plan and went into self preservation mode. Having read an excellent article on the causes of cramp I wanted to be good to my central governor so I ate some salt sachets and slowed the pace to a stroll. The field was flooding past, including many Spartans, but I wasn’t at all concerned about that. I just took it easily and stopped quite a few times. It seemed about one in thirty people were struggling around me and at least one turned back to Howtown. Throughout the climb I was surprisingly positive and pragmatic.

I started feeling better once over the top but eased back into the running very gradually. I tried to treat my central governor by giving it some gummy bears and salt and walking for a while. I was able to build slowly to a run and felt better and better as I ran over Bampton Common.

A quick pause at the stream to poor water over my head and fill my bottle, re-passing Hackos along the way, then a quite enjoyable run around the lake. There were hold ups but I was expecting them this year so just went with the pace of whoever was in front of me.  I re-passed Paul C who made a comment about me coming back from the dead. I was feeling really pleased with how I’d looked after myself on the climb and got myself running again.

Into Mardale (20 miles in and 20mins down on plan) to the fantastic reception of the Spartan CP crew. In hindsight I should have stopped for ten minutes here and taken on some soup but instead I snatched a Pepsi and headed straight back out onto the trail.

I soon caught Nick who was weaving around like a drunkard. He mumbled almost incoherently that he had been sick and was feeling bad. I told him I thought he should go back and take a break at the CP and he told me he had been stopped there 15 mins. I stopped in my tracks, feeling very worried about my mate. If this is how he looks after a 15 min break he really should not be climbing up this mountain. To say he looked like crap is a huge understatement. He convinced me to carry on and I decided I would pull ahead but keep an eye on him. He actually tagged me and my worries ebbed when he passed me towards the top! For me this climb, and all others, were causing my quads to cramp and left me feeling weak. I slowly stumbled my way to the top.

I quite enjoyed the run down the valley but found the route after Sadgil Farm quite lonely. This bit of track always makes me feel quite sad during the race. No idea why. Jon and I hooked up just before the road section and basically ran into Kentmere together (26 miles).

The CP marshals were really on the ball as always and my bottles were filled as I sat with a group of Spartans and enjoyed a strawberry smoothie then it was back out onto the hill. John and Jetpack passed me as I struggled upwards. I ran okay down to Troutbeck, taking walks when the cramp got bad, but struggled out to Jenkins Woods. I was being passed a lot and felt quite demoralized. Then it started CHUCKING it down. The rain was bouncing but it was lovely and cool and I stayed in shorts and vest on the run into Ambleside. The rain meant I didn’t get the famed support as locals had scattered for shelter but there were shouts from the pubs and families were out around the CP itself (34 miles). I gave Mich and the kids a kiss and headed inside.

Bottles were filled by Mike and Annette Raffan while I sat next to Nick, who was still looking rough but much better than when I’d last seen him. I left him to his soup and headed back outside. The highlight of the race was running through the park with Mich, Val and a gaggle of Spartan kids. It was a scene straight out of Rocky 2, with children running next to me hurdling park benches while an 80s rock ballad thumped in the background. It was the first time I’ve not been able to keep pace with Alex and Josie and I had to ask them if we could walk for a bit. Embarrassing! 
Rocky II

I was feeling mentally strong and once I got over the climb out of Ambleside I had a very good run down to the wonderful checkpoint in Chapel Stile with its lights, fires and sofas all in a marquee in the middle of a sheep field. I saw this as a chance to make up ground on those ahead so dibbed and headed right out into the fading light. It was a mistake and I really should have taken ten minutes here to eat and rest. I left exhausted and barely ran another step to the finish.

So, the walk down the valley was tiring and as I hit the climb I was passed by a large group of runners, including Hackos. I eventually staggered to the top, where a remote-controlled UFO was zipping about, freaking out the 100 runners. I felt completely spent and had to sit on a rock for 5 minutes while I put on my headtorch and waterproof top and tried to get some energy.

On the walk past Blea Tarn I was looking up ahead when I stumbled on a rock and rolled my ankle. I screamed, painted the air blue with curses then sat on the ground panting while the pain subsided. At first I was seriously worried that I wouldn’t be able to walk but when I braved it to my feet I was able to hobble for a couple of minutes until the pain ebbed away then it didn’t bother me at all. I watched my footing more closely after that!

On the road section after Blea Moss I was starting to get very cold in the heavy rain. Last year there was very limited undercover space at the Tilberthwaite CP so I looked around for shelter and soon spotted a large tree off to the side of the road. It took me about 5 minutes to wrestle on my waterproof bottoms and gloves but I felt much better with the extra layers on.

Into Tilberthwaite feeling as weak as a kitten and I grab a seat while I drink Pepsi and eat orange slices. I’m just about to go when a lovely lady asks if I’d like a cuppa. Oooooooooo you know what, that would be perfect! One cup of sugary tea later and I’m stumbling up the steps.

I was progressing slowly when towards the top I was passed by Martin Loveless, who I ran with on sections of the 2011 L50 and on much of the 2012 L100. We hung together over the top and ran/walked all the way to the finish, dibbing together on the count of three. It was a great end to a tough day out in the hills.

And so after the race was over the self analysis started. I really love long runs out in the hills but all the ultras I’ve raced, with the possible exceptions of my first Sandstone Trail and my second Long Tour of Bradwell, have been disappointing. I’ve generally under-performed, dealing with cramp from an early stage and struggling on all the climbs. Why is that? Yes, my training was inconsistent and not specific enough this year (too little time in the mountains) but did all those people who floated effortlessly past me on each and every climb train better? Surely not! I’m left feeling disillusioned. I certainly need to address nutrition; I basically fueled myself on a handful of gummy bears and half a bar of Kendal mint cake. That’s not enough to keep yourself going on this monster.

As a result of this race I have made a sober, pragmatic decision not to apply for entry to the UTMB next year. I don’t want to enter another long race until I can commit to train properly for it. With three small children at home and a wife who will be training for the Lakeland 50 next year I just won’t have time to commit to the level of training I think would be needed to avoid a 70 mile death march in the Alps. Instead I’m going to take some time out and try to re-kindle my love of running with a few personal challenges. And yes, I will return to the Lakeland 50 one day. Hopefully third time lucky will see me put in a run I am happy with.

Footnote: This is a rather negative blog about a day that I largely enjoyed. I am extremely disappointed about my own performance on the day but it was great to be out in the hills, especially with so many mates. To say I am proud of the Spartans is a bit condescending and doesn’t actually encapsulate how I feel. It’s great to see not only the Spartan Runners having the satisfaction of completing this very tough event but also seeing how excited and supportive their families were. The whole weekend was brilliant. The run just went on a bit too long.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Norley Primary School Sports Day Dads Beanbag Race

Alex bouncing to third place in the sack race

I hadn't planned to enter the Dads race at the school sports day. I broke away from work to cheer Alex on and was intending to dart back as soon as his events were over. He competed in and enjoyed the 25 yard sprint, the egg and spoon race and the beanbag race. As I was about to head home I had a rush of guilt and decided I had to stay so Alex could cheer on his dad.

After the mums egg and spoon race came the big event. The bean bags were placed, the starter was ready and the finish line officials positioned themselves, poised eagle-eyed to count the finishers home. Meanwhile the dads strutted about the field, not wanting to get into position too soon or look each other in the eye.

I finally made my move to the start line only to discover that all the places had been taken. About seven of us would not be able to start. A decision was quickly made that there would be two heats and I had to decide which I should enter. Lined up in heat one were Wallman, an ex-professional footballer and a host of tasty looking lads. Hovering behind were a group of largely portly middle aged gents who looked like they hadn't done a step of exercise since leaving school. Well, I'm not going to fight to go into wave 1!

Wave one finishes and it's time to get on the blocks. You can cut the tension with a knife. In scenes reminiscent of London 2012 the crowds are jumping up and down cheering and dancing. Someone may have let off a smoke flare. We athletes are oblivious to all of this however, our entire being focused on that first small beanbag ten meters away.

Tooooooooooooooooooooot goes the starter's whistle and we are off. I'm not happy with my start, my shoes slipping slightly, but I nail the first bag and deposit it into my hoop on the start line in about second place. I'm out to bag two, only just catching it with my fingertips on the turn (careful Stevie!) and back to the start hoop in first place. Out to the final bag and I am already lapping the slower runners. I am comfortably in first place and feel I can stroll in from here.

As I drop my final bag into the hoop disaster strikes. Maybe it's my choice of footwear (I wasn't planning to race) or maybe I'm just thinking about leaping to glory over the finish line but as I turn my foot slips from under me and I am down on the ground. The crowd take a collective gasp then the stadium/school field falls silent. I scramble to my feet as one,  two, three dads pass me. My legs are pumping trying to make ground but I feel as though they have a mind of their own. There's obviously a technique to this sprinting business and I haven't got it. I pass two dads but one remains ahead. I ease back the cadence, desperately trying to regain control of my legs and it works. I feel the blast of pace and start chasing the leader down. But have I left it too late?

Ten meters to go and I almost have him. Yes, I am going to get him. But what's this? With a glance over his shoulder he sees I am gaining and starts to drift into my lane. Up comes an elbow then a shoulder then I'm being barged off the track, much to the delight of the crowds. We both dip for the line and the officials award a draw.

Lessons learned are to wear trail shoes, ensure you pick the right wave to run in and watch out for the rugby player in lane two. Great fun!

Saturday, 23 February 2013

EnduranceLife CTS South Devon Ultra

It's not a race. You're not in racing shape so just treat this as a long, hilly training run. The goal is simply to enjoy the day, make it to the finish and collect 1 UTMB qualification point. That was the plan and it was one I was comfortable with...until about a week before the race when the devil on my shoulder started whispering. "Why not go out hard? What's the worst thing that can happen? If you blow up you blow up, you'll still finish". Then I got a message from Nick on the day before the race "Give it some beans Steve". YEAH! Let's go for it!!

The CTS South Devon event consists of four races: 10k, Half Marathon, Marathon (29 miles) Ultra (35 miles), the ultra following the marathon route then heading out again on the 10k loop. This year a major landslide a week before the race had closed part of the coastal path but EnduranceLife did a great job changing the course around, making it a little longer than usual but ensuring the race went ahead.

I got myself close to the front at the start and when the horn sounded I found myself racing across the beach in eighth place out of 120 starters. The first couple of miles had lots of short, steep climbs and I was racing up them, concerned about the burning quads but wanting to stay with the top ten. What am I thinking? I'm doing a full on hard hill-rep session and have 35 more miles to go. Is this really a good idea? (It turns out it wasn't but we'll come to that).

I eventually fall into step with a fit-looking guy I'd been chatting to pre-race. He's a PT in the Marines and is jogging along with a HR of 140. Mine must be up around 170 but I'm settling into a nice, brisk pace and thoroughly enjoying the rolercoaster singletrack of the South West Coastal trail  in good company. Sometimes we're right down next to the sea, other time we're several hundred feet up running within arms reach of perilous cliff edges. The views would probably be amazing but all eyes seem to be on the immediate ground in front. A trip here could prove to be pretty messy. We're in joint 12th and I'm happy with that. There's a big gap behind us but I can see a team of five working together. As the miles go by I can see that they are slowly but surely reeling us in.

At 16 miles we hit a CP and turn away from the coast to head inland. After a rollercoaster couple of miles inland we headed back to the coastal trail, moving against the flow of tail end Ultra runners and the early marathoners. I had been pulling away from Ben (I actually never found out his name but he looked like a Ben so that's what he became) on the descents and he pulled ahead on the climbs. As we turned away from the Coast again at 19 miles we had a long drag uphill. Ben pulled away and I marched up alone. My quads had been feeling tender for a few miles (due to the crazy hill reps at the start) and on this climb they finally started to cramp up. I was also dealing with sharp pain on the inside of my left knee and in my right groin. As I'm trying to get my head around this the group of five who have been chasing us down for 10 miles finally catch and pass me and in the space of a few seconds I fall from 13th to 18th.

I reach the top of the hill and consider trying to hold on to the five but bad stabs of cramp in the quads make me think otherwise. I'm into survival mode already and all thoughts of racing are tossed into the mud. I walk while I fish out some salt sachets I had picked up from Burger King on the way over. In normal circumstances eating neat salt would be pretty grim but here I greedily swallow it down and am licking the empty packet to get every grain. It's funny how something revolting tastes great when your body needs it. My legs still hurt but there is a noticeable improvement almost immediately and I'm able to break into a solid ultra-plod.

Where the coastal trail was stunning the inland sections are awful. Hills that go on forever, wading through ankle deep, thick, red clay-like mud with 10ft hedges on either side of the path blocking any views. It was mentally very tough and I felt pretty low from miles 20-27. The quads and calves were cramping and I was struggling with groin pain on the climbs and knee pain on the descents. I wasn't plummeting though the field as I had expected though. Two guys came past me around mile 25 and another two at 27, putting me in 22nd. At mile 27 we climbed out of the mud onto some duck boards winding through a nature reserve. It was interesting running with nice things to look at and I knew we would soon be back on the coastal path so felt good about that. I was enjoying the running and then overtook my first person in the race so far. My mood flipped and I felt super-positive again. The pain felt less, the running easier and the course better.

I head towards the start/finish area with a young lad in his first ultra. He's flapping about the cut off, which was only announced just before the start. I tell him we're at the front of the field and we really don't need to worry about cut offs. "Really", he says, "it's at 2:15". "What time is it now?" I ask. "2pm" he says. Wow, a lot of people are not going to make this cut off and will be pulled from this 36 mile race at the 30 mile mark. It seems more than a little unfair when I don't think a cut-off was announced before hand.

We run through the finish area and I tell the lad I'm going to try and hunt down the guy I can see ahead. He tells me he was working really hard to make the cut off and now he's spent. He's just going to cruise in. We wish each other luck and I pull ahead. I'm feeling completely on top of things as I head out to Start Point and although I never caught the guy in front I enjoyed hunting for him.

The second placed lady passed me with about two miles to go, dropping me back to 22nd. I glanced back crossing a big field with about a mile to go and saw someone gaining on me looking strong. Time to give it those beans Nick was talking about! I got my head down and really worked hard to the finish, doubling the gap between me and the guy behind and crossing the line in 7:05 in 22nd place.

Post race I've got very mixed emotions about this. On reflection I did quite well. I ran beyond my current level of fitness, got battered but then held on well to finish quite strong. My mad charge at the start was just crazy. I need to show more will power in future races: there's a difference between going out strong and destroying yourself. Next time my ego may have to allow people to overtake me early on if they are going faster than I know is sensible.

Regardless of how foolishly I started I'm still disappointed that things went wrong so early. I did not expect to be struggling at 16 miles. So, I need to loose the 5kg I put on over xmas, stretch regularly and strengthen the legs. My confidence has been knocked by this race but there's plenty time to get my stuff together before my target races of the Sandstone Trail in May and the Lakeland 50 in July.

My Runkeeper info for this race: