Thursday, 23 March 2017

SCOTT Supertrac RC - 400 mile review

I’ll be upfront and say I got these shoes for free - before the launch earlier this year -  to test them out.  So before the purists and sceptics jump on their soapbox, I thought it best to reserve judgement until I put them through the wringer.  400 miles of wringing.  Even though I fell in love with them instantly. 

There was a lot of hype around the launch of the SCOTT Supertrac RC.  I’d seen pictures of some of my idols donning the flagship #blackandyellow shoes and couldn’t wait to get my hands on a pair.  Obviously I jumped at the chance to try them out.  Despite my many years of working in marketing, I’m an absolute sucker the next-big-thing.  

My first impression was they are lighter and sturdier than I thought they would be. I wore them straight out the box on the Ben Lawers ridge, a mere seven Munros in the Scottish highlands in December.  We pretty much had all terrain and weather that day and the Supertrac RC were a dream.  
I look for a shoe that gives me confidence on mud and wet rock.  I’ve had so many accidents
over the years and every time crash I get a little more timid.  Other that the Inov-8 X-Talon I didn’t have much faith in shoes.  Especially a shoe that’s designed for trails, rather than fell or hills.
Living and training in Scotland, it’s a great place to put them to the test.  I’ve taken them on short hilly muddy runs, long off-road runs, snow-covered wainwrights, rocky paths, lots of bog, compressed trail, grassy descents, wet rocks and icy Munro tops.  They’re pretty much a Jack-of-all-trades shoe and perform really well on varying terrains - especially well on rocks and mountainous courses. 
I wore them for last month’s Transgrancanaria 125km and boy I’m glad I did.  I was debating in the lead up whether to wear them or the Salomon S-Lab sense.  I definitely made the right decision, as there were a few muddy sections and the rocks would have destroyed my feet.  Even on the notorious dried riverbed section, I didn’t feel anything under my feet.  More importantly for the first time in nearly 10 years of ultra-running and almost 40 ultras, I didn’t get a single blister or have any foot issues.
I’ve had a few pairs of SCOTT shoes in the past.  I bought a pair of the Kinabalu years ago, because I liked the colours.  True story.  And a pair of the Rockets – where the lugs fell off (no joke!) after a 30 mile run.  At that time I thought Scott were a long way off tapping into the ever-demanding trail running market.  Since then Scott have built up their reputation with shoes that perform exceptionally well and the Supertrac RC is their masterpiece.  It’s apparent that it’s an athlete-led design and that’s why it’s already a popular shoe.  

I don’t like a lot of cushioning and my first choice would always be a lightweight shoe.  In 2016, I alternated between Salomon S-Lab Sense, La Sportiva Helios SR and Inov-8 Terraclaw depending on the terrain.  That said, I also need to protect my feet from unforgiving terrain.  We’re not blessed with miles of dry trails, so I need a shoe that works for soft ground and wet rocks.  Most shoes work best on one or the other.  

A bit about the grip.  The 360 traction outsole was developed in partnership with SCOTT athletes such as Andy Symonds, Jo Meek and Ruth Croft and The Technical University of Munich and was tweaked and fine tuned before it was eventually released in January.   SCOTT are using the term “controlled power”  The size and positioning of each stud has been laid out to provide good traction in multiple directions, twist and turns.   Most shoes have lugs designed for forward movement.  
The main outsole is made for racing on (wet and dry) rocks and therefore probably not as secure on mud as say some of the Inov-8 range, but it still holds up pretty well.  Of course, I’m less concerned about sliding on wet grass than I am at landing on my coccyx on a wet slab of rock.   They really excel on rocky technical terrain, and I’m sure it will be popular shoe choice for Skyrunner and mountain races this year.
The lightweight mesh upper has been bonded together, rather than stitched, to reduce the possibility of irritation.  As previously mentioned, it’s the first time I’ve never had any issues with my feet during a race. The overlays act as a great support as my feet feel stable, but it’s not restrictive and feels  really comfortable.  
There also a sturdy toe cap.  After kicking many rocks over the months, I can say it’s not only effective but perfect.
400 miles on the clock
The lacing system is pretty simply, but works just fine.  Maybe I prefer the Salomon S-Lab system with the lace pocket, but I think I’m just trying really hard to find something to say that’s not completely gushy.  Is it worth changing? Probably not. The laces didn’t cause any discomfort and didn’t come loose.  A lace pocket just looks neater.
They are protective and cushioned enough (17.5/22.5mm of AeroFoam)  for everyday training, but light and responsive for racing.   I’m a mid-forefoot striker, so the 5mm drop suits me.  
So, 400 miles later the shoes are starting to show some wear and tear.  There's some slight splitting on the side bend (I'm sure there's a more technical term for that), which happens to all my shoes. I put that down to forefoot landing.  Loads of miles left in the lugs though - even after many routes that have involved some road miles.   They'll be good for another few months for sure.  
If you train on hills and mountains in the UK, you’d be hard pushed to find a better multi-terrain shoe.  Retailing at £125 they’re not cheap, but they do live up to the hype.   

The techy spec:
Range of use:  Racing. Mountain.
Features: 360 lug design and wet traction rubber
Composition: Upper mesh/no sew.  Lower AeroFoam+/rubber
Heel: 22.5mm
Forefoot: 17.5mm
Drop: 5mm
Weight: 250g

Friday, 17 March 2017

Transgrancanaria race report

It’s a course that notoriously chews up and spits out the most hardy and experienced of competitors.      Even with 10 years of ultra-distance running under my belt, I was stepping into the unknown.  With a climbing equivalent shy of Everest across 125km of unforgiving terrain, it was very much out of my comfort zone.  

I had trained specifically for this race for the previous for three months, so had every intention of giving it my best shot.  I had no major aspirations other than finishing with a performance I was happy with.  And preferably in one piece.

So my first Euro mountain adventure at Transgrancanaria found me in starting pen in the harbour town of Ageate behind some of ultra-running’s finest athletes.  On what is believed to be one of the toughest courses.  My initial thoughts were everyone looked so fast and svelte, and so very sponsored.  There wasn’t the same mix of of sizes and ability you find in UK races. 

Ageate to Tamadaba 9.8 km (4767ft)

The atmosphere was electric and everyone seemed so happy, although slightly shivering from cool air and fear of what lay ahead.  Tightly penned in listening to the call of the elites, the Gran Canaria song and then the countdown.  And we were off.  I ran along with Johnny Fling, through the town and then up the track.  I lost Johnny.  It wasn’t a decision to push on,  it was just really busy and I didn’t look back. 

It was eerily silent.  Until the poles came out.  I’m sure there was something in the rules about poles not allowed during first few kilometres.  If that was the case, it wasn’t long enough.  It was far too busy and cramped for flying poles. 

I was pinned in a four way of pole owners who had a blatant disregard for anyone around them.  I tried to push away but just using up unnecessary energy.    Before long we were on a narrow hill track and things settled into a groove.  I was trying to eat early in the race, but ended up nearly choking on a sandwich. 

Following the long single file of runners, we turned around the hilltop.  I looked up and saw a vertical line of headtorches. It looked liked plane was dangling some christmas tree fairy lights  My first thoughts were: Feck that’s high; Feck that steep;  And how did they get up there that fast?

Stuck on a dark narrow path, all packed in, it was hard to see where I was placing my feet.  I was so busy looking up at the daunting headtorch line that I tripped and my right arm hit a rock.  I couldn’t do anything but get up as quickly as I landed or I was danger of being trampled on.  Or thrown off the hillside for stopping the traffic.

My arm hurt and felt dead at the same time.  I hadn’t really broken the skin, but I was concerned I’d broke the bone (drama).  Although (no shocker) I have broken both my arms in the past so knew it wasn’t that bad, just not something I wanted to happen four miles into a long race.

The route zig zags up, so the climb was fairly easy.  Other than a few sneaky overtakes when it was safe to do so, I kept in line.  No point burning up unnecessary energy to shave off a few seconds or minutes.  I got poles out and my arm started to ease.  I figured by daylight a bruised arm would be the least of my worries.

Johnny Fling said when you hit the trees you’re nearly at the top.  It was a couple of miles of running/hiking, but I could hear the cowbells in the distance.  I passed through the timing mat, then the aid station and met Marco a short while later.  Thankfully Cairn was sparked out on the backseat.  He doesn’t like to miss anything, so I had fears he would stay awake all night. I picked up some Tailwind and Shotblocks and pushed on. 

Tamadaba to Tirma 18.8km (1423ft ascent)

It was pretty blustery and fresh at the top - it was after all nearly 5000ft up - but I was still comfortable in my vest and arm warmers.  If I was to stop though, I would chill down real quick. 

The descent was pretty steep.  I had been warned that the first descent can make or break the race, so I was trying to keep everything in check as not to destroy my quads too early.  Although the initial descent was on a wider path, it soon narrowed and we were back in single.  Didn’t want to feel under pressure to go faster, but the pace was dictated by the line and I didn’t want to step off or upset the flow of traffic. 
The trails were amazing and I know I was missing out on some spectacular views.  Although flicking my head torch down, I know I was also missing out on some serious drops, so maybe ignorance was bliss.  One false move on the narrow path and it was a long way down.

After a fairly arduous descent, my legs felt like jelly.  I scoffed a Trek bar and some Shot Bloks.  After seeing some of drops I least wanted to keep my brain alert. 

I passed quite a few runners on the hike up to the small village of Tirma.   Even though it was a mostly downhill section, there was still 1500ft of climbing.  I arrived at the aid station in Tirma with one of their local runners, so there was a massive noise and lots of cheering. 

Tirma to Altavista/Alterera 33.2km (4868ft)

I picked up some water and left Tirma pretty sharp.  Along the wide track, I overshot the route and got shouted back.  It was only 100 metres or so, but I had a stern chat with myself about paying attention.  Although the course was well marked, my mind has a tendency to wander.

Another pole frenzied long hike commenced.  I side-stepped a girl projectile vomiting, thinking it was pretty early on for that, and then runners sitting down.  I stopped to ask if everything was ok and if they needed anything (in my best broken English) only be told they were just having a rest.  I know if was my first Euro race, but you are doing what?  Sitting on a hill have a “little rest” Weird that.

Again I was caught in a line of traffic.  Mentally I was removing UTMB from my bucket list.  Already a few hours into the race and it was so busy and not breaking up.  It was ok on the hikes, I accepted that.  But when they continued to hike on the flat I nearly lost the plot in my head I was screaming “IT”S FLAT.  F*CKING RUN”. At least I hope it was in my head.

Heading down into Artnera, we dibbed in at a timing point - even though it was obvious from the first checkpoint my timer on my race number wasn’t working.  Thankfully everyone had a second chip which they had to attach to their backpack.

On the way down - with a few more ups for good measure - I was toing and froing with a chap in Inov-8s.  In a race that involved cautious foot placing, you become quite acquainted with people’s feet.   For the best part of a hour, I used up all be courtesy/civil Spanish … Hola, Gracious, Bravo...I knew.  Hey, I’m British and therefore as ignorant as f*ck.  I’m not even sure Bravo was relevant, but it sounded pretty universal. 

So when Inov-8s and I got lost heading into the town of Artnera, we were communicating in some kind of grunted sign language.  I asked him he spoke English.  “I am English.  I’m from Leamington Spa”.  So Inov8s became Rich from Leamington Spa.  We chatted heading into the town before he stopped to pick up supplies.

Arnera to Fontanales 42.5km (1450ft)

After dibbing in, I ran straight through.  Up the road, along the track and round the hilltop.  I hit the road and just kept going.  I could see headtorches along the bottom of the valley, so presumed I was heading in the right direction.  And there were headtorches behind me, so all ok.  After about half a mile I realised I hadn’t seen an signs, but kept looking. 

Coach Paul had told me if you think you’re off course, you are.  Go back and find the last post.  The chap following me checked his GPS and confirmed we’d gone off course.  We heading back up the road (of course it had to be up!) and picked up about four others who followed us.  We’d missed the post on the left down to the valley.

I passed a few runners who’d got a ahead on my detour and then caught up with Rich again.  We chatted for a few miles and I really enjoyed the company.  There were a few really muddy descents and some sections, which explain the mandatory red flashing light on backpacks. 

I lost Rich on the last long mudslide into Fontanales - thanking my lucky stars I’d chosen shoes with grips and not the Salomon ruby slippers. 

This was the start of the 80km race at 7am, so I was glad to get a 30 minute head start before the speedster stampede.  I picked up some supplies from Marco and headed into the checkpoint.  I saw Gav and Noanie waiting for their race start.  Gav went into for the high-five and I realised my arm and shoulder hurt more than I thought.  It was really frantic at the checkpoint, so I was glad to make a quick getaway.

Fontanales to Vallesco and Teror 56.2km (2420ft)

Even with a 30 minute head start, it didn’t seem that long before the speedsters caught up.  I side stepped to them passed and cheer them on.  Jesus they were fast - even with all the mud!  And very polite too.  Even when I stepped to the wrong side and hit Sebastian Chaigneau with my poles.  Didn’t do him any harm though, as he went on to win it. 

The sun was up around 7:30 so it was great to take in some of the views.  Shame to have run the length of an island and miss most of the it, so I intended to make the most the daylight scenery. 

Arriving in the town of Vallesco, I couldn’t find Marco.  We agreed that if he wasn’t at a checkpoint then I would just push on in case he was having travel issues.  On the hill out of the village I phoned Marco to just make sure he knew I’d gone through to discover he’d got there just after I left.   He may had mentioned once or twice that the journey was a bit cumbersome and time consuming - he chose more colourful words.  Of course Coach Paul - running the 80km - chose the moment to pass me when I was walking.  Of course I had to be walking. 

There was a long hike through some lush green countryside and I chatted to Gerard from Germany for most of it.  He had a pretty impressive race CV, so it was nice to mindlessly chat away the hike.  I lost him on the descent and caught up with a chap from Barcelona.  It wasn’t long before the speedy ladies passed us.  It was lovely to see my ever-smiling Beta Running teamie, Sophie Grant.  There were three ladies packed in tight going up the hill.  Sophie in third, like a little fierce terrier not willing to let go from the two in front.  It made me smile seeing the sheer determination on her face.

With daylight it had started to heat up a bit.  Barca guy joked about me being in a vest and skort and he still had his jacket, gloves and buff on as he found it really cold during the night.  I knew by noon he’d be in his comfort zone and I’d be falling apart though. 

I met Marco just before Teror checkpoint and picked up a bit more, as I’d missed him at last support point.  Stupidity I forgot to give him my headtorch.  Of course I could have put it in my pack but I didn’t.  Just wore it for about three hours after sunrise like a total pleb.

Teror to Cruz de Arinex 64.3km (3320ft)

Teror was a bustling little place with lots of people out supporting and cheering. Well, maybe a few hundred so not quite NYC marathon standards, but it was nice to see.  I, again, just pushed through which caused the marshals mass confusion.  NB:  Must learn “I don’t need anything.  I have my own support” in Spanish.  Even with two seasons of Narcos, all I learned was “Rata” and then discovered it wasn’t even the right Spanish. 

Then the next hike began.  BIG hike number three.  Three of four.  The rest were just big hikes. I had been warned that Arinez never seemed to end and it was indeed the gift that kept on giving.  Every corner there was more.  Every peak there was another peak.  Even when I got to the hill with massive cross thinking that would at least signify the top, there was even more.

When I passed the aid station, there was more up, and weather had started to close in.  Grey, cold, foggy, blustery and damp.  Others runners were piling on the layers, I just pulled up my arm warmers.  Even though I was cold, I couldn’t be bothered to get my jacket out and hoped we would be heading out soon.

Cruz de Arinez to Tejada 71km (958ft)

Climbing through some forest trails until I reached a road which I assumed was a visitor point, I passed two guys in the 80km race and exchanged some mutual encouragement.   At the time, I didn’t realise I would see that same two guys on and off until the end. 

The views down to Tejada were simply breathtaking.  I nearly broke my own rule on taking photos during races, but I didn’t.  Kinda wished I had now though as I can’t put into words the beauty of the course.

Tejada to Garanan 81.7 (3605ft)

Leaving Tejada it was starting to get warm and I was kicking myself for not picking up extra water.  Rationing was not something I wanted to do, but I had to if I didn’t want to die on my ass half way through the section.

On the initial ascent of Roque Nublo (BIG climb number four), I was chatting to a Spanish guy - who I think just came out the local pub - dressed in a kilt and see-you-jimmy hat.  Definitely a bizarre moment.  Then I was hiking alongside another chap who kept farting.  I think he felt the need to excuse himself to me in the best English he knew, so every time he farted he said: “bless you”.  Mate, my pelvic floor is not what is used to be.  Quite literally nearly wet myself laughing. 

This was by far the hottest part of the race, but the most amazingly breathtaking views.  Everything around was massive and beautiful.    Near the summit, it flattens out before the final ascent.  I was admiring the view when my foot hit a rock and crash.  Skinned hand, knees and elbows.  I really wanted to cry, but the two aforementioned 80km guys came to rescue and I tried to hold it together.  They were being really helpful, but I ushered them on as I just needed a moment to compose myself. 

I was pretty dehydrated at this point and was almost tempted to ask some tourists for water, but didn’t have the brass neck.  I knew I was nearing the top, but I was starting to drag myself. 

The summit of Roque Nublo was quite simply stunning.  I would go back to Gran Canaria just to that section again and spend time taking in the views.  Unfortunately that wasn’t going to happen during a race, so I timed in and headed back down - passing runners on the short out and back section to the summit.

The trails and tracks were amazing, but really dry and rocky.  I was super conscious of the fact I was dehydrated and bit woozy, so was really careful on the descent.    It wasn’t too long before I saw Marco and Cairn, when I downed some sparkling water and topped up on some Tailwind and Shotbloks, which I’d finished before I even hit Garanan.

Garanan was the main aid station - where runners had their one and only drop bag.  It was a busy place with runners resting, eating and drinking.  Crew and supporters were cheering some the sidelines and mashals were buzzing around tending to everyone’s needs.  It also the place where you can lose a lot of time.  I know even just dropping a few things into my bag, replacing my bottles and emptying some rubbish probably took about 10 minutes. 

Garanan to Tunte 94.2 (1627ft)

Leaving the checkpoint through the park, I met Marco again who was panicking that I didn’t have enough for the section.  I reassured him I’d picked up my drop bag stuff and had more than enough, but he still went up the the next hilltop checkpoint at Nieves.  Didn’t need anything there either, which I felt bad about. 

By this time my glutes had pretty much given up the ghost and my quads were aching.  Every footstep on the descent was like a shudder. 

The paths en route to Tunte were amazing.  Obviously a lot of time and money had been spent on the trails, but they were still rocky, rugged and in keeping with the surrounding area.  Unlike the UK where H&S come in and bulldoze  and routes and put in ugly metal gates. 

My glutes and quads were screaming at me on the roads into Tunte, but it was nice to arrive there to see Cairn’s standing poised at the roadside.    For once he ran alongside me rather than trying to outsprint me.  I swear he had a look of pride, rather than inconvenience, on his face.  But I was
on the darker side of spaced out. 

I was feeling pretty good and upbeat there.  And was even happier to realise that my goal of sub:20 was still doable - if I didn’t mess around. 

Tunte to Ayaguarus 106.3 (1541ft)

And I was off.  Only one big hill and one aid station to conquer.  I was less excited about the 1800ft climb out of the town, but I knew I just had to keep picking away at it.  It did seem to go on for longer than I thought, with switchbacks and false peaks.  But I needn’t have complained, but the descent was way worse.  My legs were tired, but my head was worse.  I kept catching my toes on rocks and nearly decking it, so I lost all confidence in running downhill.  So it became a slow jogging motion gingerly making my way down.

It was a long way down to Ayaguarus.  You can see the town for a few miles out, but it never seems to get any closer.  There seemed to be never-ending switches and lots of rocks.  Lots of rocks.    It certainly didn’t help I was moving at snail’s pace, terrified I would fall. But emotionally, I was fine.  I wasn’t willing it to be over and I was still gushing at the amazing course, so I was still enjoying it. 

I passed a few runners on the path down and then heard a mighty crash behind.  A British guy, Rob, had fallen hard and cut his head.  I tried to fix him up with a baby wipe and told him it was alright.  It probably wasn’t, but he couldn’t see it.  And he hadn’t broken his sunglasses, so all way well.  I made him promise he’d get it checked at the next aid station.

The dam into Ayaguaras finally came and I crossed into the final checkpoint.  I was going to drop off my poles, but Marco told me there was still another hill as he’d run the course the day before, so I kept hold of them.    Even though the race looked like it was all down for last 20km, I had learned the profile was a little deceiving.  Little bumps that look cheeky little mounds are actually fairly hefty climbs. 

Ayaguarus to Maspalomos 125km (767ft)  Total ascent 26746ft

My sub 20 was looking unlikely, but that was fine.  Too fine.  I didn’t even want it any more.  I was too content just chipping away and getting the job done.

I left over the dam and turned into the last hill - the one that looked teeny tiny on the profile.  A French guy I’d be toing and frong with all day passed me and kept signalling at me to stick with him, which I did for a bit but fell off the pace.  Once you hit the the top the route switches back, which annoyed me because we were moving in the opposite direction from where we should be heading.

Then I hit the notorious dried river bed, which everyone speaks so highly of.  I didn’t think it was too bad, as I’d built it up in my head to be much worse.   Yeah, it was horribly rocky but not too dissimilar to some of the paths in Scotland. 

The problem was my legs and brain were so tired I kept falling.  I didn’t have the reflexes to break the fall, so I seemed to fall really hard.  My knees hurt so bad.  After my 5th fall of the day (I didn’t count the ones on mud, as they didn’t hurt) I just couldn’t handle another one.  Rob (cut head Rob) picked me up after my last fall.  I think I sobbed something pathetic about not being able to stay on my feet.  He said I was stumbling all over the place and should take a gel.  Genius!  No it really was.  My brain wouldn’t have worked that out.  Five minutes after taking the gel, I was more alert and picking off the runners who’d passed me on the river bed.  

Before we hit the town I decided to stop for a comfort break, as I hadn’t peed for nearly 12 hours.  Again it was bright red.  It seems to happen every race now. Last time was at the Euro 24 hour, I got it checked by the medic who confirmed it was muscle wastage and not blood, but I really need to get it sorted.

I reached the final aid station (Parque Sur)  in daylight.  Only a few miles to the finish at the expo.  I knew the route as I’d walked there the day before.  Except that wasn’t the race route, so ended up getting lost.  Retracing my steps I buddied up with another French guy - I’d just worked hard to overtake - and we got more lost together.  Met up with another few runners and we eventually got back on track with the help of a few dog walkers and a clown.  True story.

The French guy out kicked me at the end, but I didn’t care.  He did.  My boy was waiting… who also out kick me.  It’s definitely his thing. 

The aforementioned 80km guys were at the finishing line. They had passed me again on the riverbed and winced at my knees.   They duly informed Cairn:  “Your Mum is a badass Mother F*cker”  I don’t know whether he looked shocked or proud. 

I finished 14th female in 20:35.  Results tell me I moved up over 200 places from CP1 to the finish.

It was amazingly wonderfully brutal.   I know I’ve harped on about it, but the views are truly stunning and the trails are beautiful.  The course is so well marked, you’d have to be a complete numbnut like me to go wrong.  I simply cannot fault the race, the organisers and the energy it brings to island. 

I don’t really want to go rehashing races to chase times, but I will definitely do this one again.  I don’t really like surprises and that’s why I usually make big efforts to recce courses as it make race day so much easier and more enjoyable.  After taking a few wrong turns, I had to be super vigilant, but if you go 400 metres without seeing a marker you know you’re off.  So knowing the route now, I might just sign up for 2018.  I haven’t told Marco that yet, so keep it under your hat.

Thanks for Marco and Cairn for amazing support on the day.  From what I gather, it’s easier to run the drive, so know it was a tough day out.  Probably not as tough as the apartment I booked having the world’s shittest wifi. But it did have a pool (even if Cairn was the only one there to brave the cold water) and Marco didn’t complain about the hire car - so all in all and pretty successful trip.   Once my bruises healed ;-) 

Thanks to coach Paul for guidance and throwing in the casual “try and hit 10,000 feet” training runs.  Thanks to Renee McGregor for the food plan - I had no stomach issues at all!  And last but not least thanks to Montane, Ultimate Direction, Petzl, Drymax and Scott for all the gear. 

Friday, 11 November 2016

European 24-hour champs: The Albi Aftermath

It just wasn’t your day.  You’ll come back stronger.  It happens to everyone.  You’re only human. It’s only running.  You learn so much from races than have gone wrong.  It is what it is… I’ve pretty much heard them all since I crashed and burned at last month’s European 24 Hour Race in Albi. 

My life philosophy is:  It’s only a tragedy it if matters in five years’ time.  Given the importance of the race, I’m still on the fence as to whether I would class this as a personal tragedy.

It was my fourth outing as part of the GB team.  Since my last 24-hour at World Champs in April 2015, I’d had a pretty good racing streak.  Training had got well. Racing had gone better.  I felt faster, stronger and more importantly, had more self-belief than before. All the more reason why it hurts so much that things went so wrong.

I know I’ve had shocking races before. Who doesn’t?  I know I’ve wallowed in them, got over it and most have barely crossed my mind.  And if they do, it’s usually to laugh and joke about them. 

I’m still trying to work out what went wrong.  What I could have done differently.  I’ve internally processed this over and over again to point of mental destruction.  I’ve gone through every emotion from complete self-loathing to laugh-out-load hilarity at some of the moments that will forever remain comedy gold.

Was it just down to bad luck on the day?  Even before the race, my stomach was showing signs of, erm, distress.  I’m not really one for toilet chat, but there were a lot of toilet visits.  Running was going well and my lap splits were bang on the money.  Excluding the laps which involved visit to the toilet.  Of which there were many. By hour 12 there was nothing left in me and the downward spiral commenced.

Shortly after my pee was bright red and causing me major concern.  After telling my support, Eddie, I was sent to the medical tent.  The doctor asked me to pee in a cup and I handed over something that looked like beetroot juice.  The medic tested it, informed me it wasn’t blood it was muscle damage and was pretty normal. I was told me to drink more and they sent me on my way. 

Ultra-distance running has a tendency to strip you bare.  It can heighten emotions and leaves the brain susceptible to over-thinking and irrationality. All I could think about were the running friends who have got themselves in to life-threatening danger with kidney failure.   Recent chats with Ewan Dunlop and Jayson Lewis and how their families were told the outcome could have been much worse were playing on my frazzled mine.   

I love running.  It’s a massive part of my life.  But first and foremost, I’m somebody’s Mother.   I know in the cold light of day, this is all very dramatic but at the time it was hard to shake those thoughts.  Another few rungs down the spiral staircase.

A few more hours of running, not consuming enough calories, more toilet visits and I was done in.  I felt sick, dizzy and gaging on everything I tried to eat.  My muscles ached and my feet were a car crash, with blister popping and a dislodge toenail sloshing around.

I hit the wall hard and became really cold and incoherent.  I sat out for a while and piled on some layers, which meant my muscles seized.  Guy, the team physio, did his best to kneed out some of the crap, but then I felt guilty for diverting his attention away from the “real” runners.

Izzy was also having a tough time too and we ended up buddying up to do the death march.  I really just wanted to sit down.  Lie down.  Anything not to face the walk of shame over and over again, but Eddie wouldn’t let me.  I really didn’t see the point in it then, but now I do.  I couldn’t understand why she was trying to force feed me every lap, but now I do.

Looking at the clock there were still six long deadly hours to go.  Izzy and I laughed and cried together and talked lots about our 24-hour retirement.  When it goes wrong, it’s so hard.  It’s not like a distance where you give it everything to get to the finish line.  The clock keeps ticking whether you’re sitting on your arse, shuffling or sprinting around.  You just feel like it’s never going to end.  It’s so much easier to keep going when there’s a finish line in mind.    My finish line was a target distance, but that when down the toilet – quite literally – hours prior.

The finish was awful.  And the week following the race was even worse.  I just couldn’t take anything positive from it.  I’m not really a crier, but I shed many tears.  Having to relive the drama as people wanted to know “what went wrong”.    Any other race could have gone belly up and it would have gone largely unnoticed.  I, of course, had to choose this one.

I did, however, have a great time hanging out with the team.  There were some stellar performances from Dan Lawson – who won the race – Marco and James Elson, who took men’s team silver.  Like me, Steve and Paddy’s races fell way below the usual distance but there were so supportive and amazing on the course.  Robbie and Sharon called in time early on, both having started with an injury.  Ali made her GB debut to run 215km and finish first Brit.  Out of the 10 runners, only two (Dan and Marco)  ran ran a qualifying distance to be reselected for the team, which is pretty dismal.

After what Izzy and I went through and the things we talked about, I think we’re bonded for life.  Unfortunately the photos of us in the finishing hours may haunt us for some time.  
The final score was a very disappointing 179km, a little short of my 221km previous best. I felt humiliated and guilty for letting everyone down.   I felt even worse for Eddie, who left her three young kids and travelled from Morzine to witness my car crash.  Eddie is fiercely competitive and enthusiastic about everything.  She tried everything, but at the time I was convinced I was past the point of no return.

If I’m honest with myself, maybe I had lost my head for 24-hour running.  Maybe I was cocky enough to think the race would fall into line with my other races.   Maybe I was complacent enough to think I could rely on an ability to run long distances at a slower pace. 

What I have now is real fire in my belly to nail the 24-hour distance once and for all.  There is absolute no way I ever want to feel that way after a race again.  I have taken much stock, will sort out thing that went wrong and will working even harder to achieve my goals for 2017.  Alongside my moto on life and tragedies, I also firmly believe everything happens for a reason. 

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

North Downs Way 100 race report

Top line: 1st lady, 6th overall in 18:34 (CR)
Strava stats 

THE REASON: This was a last minute entry, but not necessarily a last minute decision.  I procrastinated about this one for a few months.  My plans for the year changed somewhat when I was selected to represent for the GB team for the European 24 hour Championships in October.  I therefore had to give up my place at UTMB, as the races are too close together.  The opportunity to wear the GB vest won over an elite start at UTMB.  Not the worst position to be in, but it still wasn’t an easy decision. 

So, I “needed” another race to bridge the gap from SDW100 in June to Euros in October.  The only race that I really wanted to do was NDW100.  Only eight was after SDW100 and 11 weeks until the Euros, it was always going to be a gamble, but I had a mental list of about 10 reasons why I wanted to do it.  There was method to my madness.

The RECCE: I’d gone down to recce the second half of the NDW100 route a few weeks prior the race, before I made my final decision.  Of course I chose the two hottest days of the year, maxing out at 34 degrees, so that doubled up as good heat training.   Probably just as well I was treated to dry weather, as it was very much a stop-start run.  The course isn’t the easiest to navigate and I must have checked the map about 50 times over the two days.  I was definitely spoiled with signage on the SDW, as I only recall checking the map once over the 100 miles recce.  After that, and being the #racewanker that I am, I spent hours watching YouTube videos of the course.

So that’s how I found myself at 6am in Farnham on August 6, ready to run 104 miles on a national trail through the English countryside to Ashford in Kent. 

Farnham to Box Hill Stepping Stones

Pic by Stuart March
I was glad to get started, as the pre-race nerves were making me feel a bit nauseous.  After wriggling my way to the front the give RD James my jacket – I called it team privilege – I found myself in with the speedsters.  Other than a brief moment when (eventual) second place lady, Annabelle Stearns was in front, I lead from the start.  Not a position I’ve ever found myself in, and something I found quite unsettling.  I knew there were a few females on the start with impressive marathon times, so their easy pace was always going to quicker than my easy pace.  I knew I was within my comfort level, so wasn’t going too fast.  Maybe they were using me for pacing and were going to storm passed later in the race.  I daren’t look back.

Pic by Stuart March
What started as a nice cool morning, was soon heating up and within a few hours it was quite toasty.  I enjoyed the time exchanging conversations with a few runners, spending the majority chatting to Scott Ulatowski.  The man-child with a massive personality, I really enjoyed his company.   He’s a friend of my CR teamie Eddie who later told me she was watching the live results and said to her husband “Scott is either doing her head or she is enjoying the endless chat and it’s helping pass the miles”.   Oh how she knows my tolerance levels. Thankfully it was the latter, as we spent the majority of 50 miles within striking distance of each other. 

I had a sketchy pace/race plan, based on Sally Ford’s course record run of 19:20 last year.  I knew Sally goes off faster than me, so I used our split times from our retrospective SDW100 races as a gauge.  More race wankerage right? So my plan was to get to Box Hill checkpoint in 3:45 ish. 

Box Hill to Knockholt

So I got to Box Hill in 3:44:17, picked up some water at the aid station and pushed on as I knew I was meeting the lovely Karen Hathaway shortly after.  My GB team mate, Karen had kindly agreed to crew for me.  As the outright winner of epic races such as T184 and Thames Ring 250 – where she didn’t even bother having a nap – I thought it best not to show any weakness.

I was super excited about crossing the Box hill stepping stones.  After seeing so many photos of the famous stepping stones, it was one of my main reasons for choosing the race. No joke.  Is it weird to say I had a lump in my throat crossing over them?  Or maybe it was the fear of falling in!

Pic by James Leask: Box Hill Trig Point
There’s a cheeky climb up to the Trig point, so it was nice to have a break from running.  The NDW is notorious for lots of steps, and so it began.  But I was greeted by the first sight of Karen, so that gave me a massive boost.  I think it was love at first sight for Scott too, as going forward Karen was known as Mila Kunis.    

I had lost the ability to eat real food pretty early on.  I tried to eat a Trek bar, which took me forever.  I was really overheating and even the thought of food made me feel nauseous.  So my race fuelling was Tailwind, shotbloks and gels.

Scott and I chatted loads, pretty much covering love, life and the universe over the miles of woodland trails, open fields, villages and lots of gates.  Scott laughing at my inability to open most of them, without having a mild tantrum.  We parted briefly only at checkpoints, as he took for-like-ever!  But he caught up soon after.

We were joined by Dean for quite some time.  Dean was the chap who was hell bent on making sure I didn’t chick him on the SDW, so I’m sure he was delighted to see me.  As we started on the climb to Botley Hill, he was off.  Jesus, he can HIKE! 

Then Andrea from Venice caught up, annoyed that he’d gone off course a few times.  I shared a few miles with Andrea in Spartathlon, although I much worse for wear back then.    I did wonder why someone who kept getting lost would run about with earphones in.  Surely the logical step would be to remove them and just focus on where you were going?  That's certainly why I was saving my disco tunes for the latter stages.  My brain was way passed the ability to multi task. 

Arriving at Botley Hill aid station was fever pitch excitement.  I got to meet Cat Simpson is actual real life.  We’re Strava/Facebook/Twitter/Intragram friends – which is obviously a real thing - and although we’ve chatted, had never met in person.  Even when she was second female at the SDW, our paths still didn’t cross.

I didn’t need anything, so pushed on.  To be joined by Matibini Matibini.  I don’t think I could tire from saying his name, it’s just too cool.  After chatting through our running history, I figured out that Matibini was the guy who sat on my heels for the last eight miles of the C2C race in January.  Literally on my heels.  I only saw his face briefly when I passed what looked like a broken man walking, only to have him breathing down my neck for the remainder of race.  My biggest fear was that he was going to use me as a pacer again. For 60 miles!  I had to keep telling myself to calm the f*ck down. 

Then we went off course.  We got to a junction and followed the road to the left.    Running on, with Matibini a split second behind, I saw Paul Radford ahead with a map out talking to a driver.   On approach Paul said we had gone wrong as it wasn’t the route of the SDW50.  I checked the map on my phone and saw he was right.

Backtracking, which may have been half a mile or so, and picking up a few runners who had followed us we saw that someone had taking the race tape off the tree.  Scott was tying it back on, joking that I shouldn’t have left him.

The next 5/6 miles to Knockholt were tough.  It was ok in the shaded wooded sections, but out in the fields we were getting fried by the midday sun.  It was by far the lowest point of the race for me and was dying on my ass!  I kept reminding myself that Lakeland 2014 and Spartathlon were way hotter, and they turned out alright.  I knew I had to get through the next few hours and all would be ok.  And I prayed that Karen had managed to get the ice I asked for. 

I ran into Knockholt with Scott, and that’s where we parted.  Mainly because he was spending more time at aid stations that I was.  Although it could be that he’d had enough of my purple face.  My plan was to get to this 50 mile CP in 8:30.  Considering that was rough guess as I’d never run on the course and got a bit lost, I was pretty happy with 8:33.  Especially after a tough 10 miles.

Knockholt to Delting

There was no ice but a big bucket of cold water, which I soaked myself with.  I picked up some supplies from Karen and headed off – in the great comfort that I knew the route from here.  Mentally I could relax and get into the race.

The toughest part of the heat was out on exposed fields and running through towns.  Five miles on through Otford, I just felt lifeless.  I stopped in a cafĂ© to ask for some ice.  Although there were very few words exchanged and looks of mild disgust, the owner gave me three blocks of ice.  I put them in an arm warmer and tied it around my neck.  It was a little bit of heaven.

A little bit of spark was returning.  Passing through many fields and opening many gates, I was gaining on Lawrence Eccles.  Another Spartahlon runner from last year.  Lawrence always just looks so happy and we chatted briefly before I passed.  Through the wheat fields and onto the dry and hot trail to the next aid station in Wrotham.

Arriving at Wrotham, I couldn’t see Karen.  I stopped for a bit and filled up my bottles, hoping she would appear from a car.  A jogged on for a bit and still couldn’t see her.  Before the next road crossing I stopped to call her to hear her in a major panic because she’d gone to find me ice, got lost and ended up doing shuttle drives along the motorway.  Not the biggest drama, because I had loads in my pack and the next aid station was only five miles away.  But Karen is a real worrier and I knew she’d be beating herself up about it.  We agreed to meet at the next crew point at Ranscombe Farm at 70 miles.

Following the road and trail for few miles, I then hiked up the hill towards Vigo struggling to consume a GU gel - it's like trying to swallow a tennis ball - but felt the benefit instantly.  See Karen had done me a favour, as I would have carried the gels – boking at the idea of actually taking them – the whole way.

Through Trosley Country Park I felt really good and had some spring back in my step.  I caught up and ran with Norbert Mihalik for a few miles.  We didn’t really chat, and that was fine.  We hiked up to Holly hill together and arrived at the aid station together, but I only picked up and gel and left quickly.  Hoping to take advantage of the new found lease of life.  

There’s a lot of wooded areas over the next five miles, I remember checking the map loads during my recce.  Although it was well marked with CR race tape from trees, I was really cautious. 

Even though it was after 5pm, it was still quite warm.  I tried to stay positive and remind myself it would cool down soon.  And I would see Karen soon.   The course over to Medway Bridge seemed to take longer than I remember, but I was soon greeted by Colin Barnes who told me crew point was just down the hill. 

Even though it was 6pm, I was so relieved that Karen found ice.  I later discovered she had gone begging in a local pub for it.  I stuffed it into the arm warmer I was using round my neck.  Elisabet Barnes, last year’s MdS winner and queen of the desert was there and must have thought I was a right softie.  Hardly a heat wave by her standards.  Scott’s crew were there too, who had been great and so supportive all day.

I carried on towards the Medway Bridge, recalling how awful it was during the real heatwave on my recce.  The footpath over the bridge runs alongside the M3 and reminded me so much of spartathlon – like being fried and gassed at the same time.  I was a huge relief to get it out of the way, as it was one of the points of the race I wasn’t looking forward to.

Then I started to have a mild panic.  Elisabet was all dressed ready to run.  Maybe she was pacing the second lady who was closing in on me.  And Elisabet is superfast! Shit. Panic.  But if there was something to worry about, Karen would have told me.  Panic controlled to just lingering in the back of my mind to stop me from slowing. 

Pic by Stuart March
Things were starting to come together by then.  Up through the fields and on to a long track, which I knew went on for quite some time.  By the time I got to Bluebell Hill aid station (77 miles), I was feeling really happy and loving it.  Slightly playing up for Stu’s camera, but I still felt a million times better than I did 20 miles before.

The run from Bluebell to Detling was a dream!  That’s the rollercoaster ride of ultra-running for you.   My legs were fine and my fuelling was ok the whole time, I just needed to cool down.  I was so happy, I was running along singing to myself. 
Pic by Stuart March

I arrived in the last major checkpoint Detling (82 miles) in 14:30, which was a little slower than I had planned – based on my recce run – but still 17 minutes up on record pace. 

Detling to Ashford

Karen confirmed I had nothing to worry about as she hadn’t seen another female runner all day and that I was gaining on the runner in front who was 15 minutes ahead.  I was safe in the knowledge that if second lady was closing in, Marco would have been on the phone telling Karen to scream at me.  Colin also told me that Elisabet was pacing Matibini.  Then I remembered he can really hang tough when he’s got someone doing the pacing for him.  Still, I wasn’t bothered.

The section from Detling to Hollingbourne is the worst on the course.  Maybe not the worst, but definitely the slowest.  There’s a fair bit of climbing, but the route is really unkempt so it’s hard to run throw overgrown bushes, trees roots, and thorny branches.   During my recce I got strange looks at the train station in Ashford, as my legs were covered in scratches and blood from that section.  Thankfully, by that point in the race, I’d already lost the feeling in my legs from nettle stings.  

During my recce run I was chased by cows (ok, they might have moved in my direction) and then came across a rare breed of white bull looking things with massive horns.   Both had calves, so did massive detours round fields and over fences to avoid them.  The situations had played on my mind in the build up to the race.  I’m terrified of cows and not ashamed to admit I lost of a bit of sleep pre-race because of it.   One of my race goals was to get there before I needed a head torch, just so I could see them in advance.  The head torch was on, but both herds were off the path.  Thank goodness!

Arriving in Hollingbourne (88 miles), I picked up two soft flasks of coke.  I was saving coke for my hang-on-in-there last sections fuelling strategy.  Once I start on coke it is hard to stomach anything else.

There’s a rolling track all the way to the end after that.  No significant climbs, but enough undulation to make your legs think otherwise.    I was trying not to think of the 15 miles ahead and just focus on one mile at a time.    I was hard to recall the route in the dark, but I remembered all the significant junctions/turns.

Karen was very excited when I got to Charing (96 miles) as I was now only three minutes behind the two guys in front, which obviously gave me a massive boost.    In my head I was sprinting, but my Garmin was telling me otherwise.

The track along to the final aid station is long and straight.  There are no significant landmarks or route changes to remind me where I was.  Arriving at Dunn Street Farm (99 miles), the aid station was a bit back from the road so I just gave me name and number, checked that I didn’t need to go in and just kept going.  There were a few head torches in the aid station, but I just assumed it was the marshals. 

Only five miles to go, I was through the fields staying alert for the right turn though St Mary’s Church.  As I turned I saw two head torches approximately at a rapid rate.  I knew then I’d passed them at the checkpoint and whoever it was, wasn’t going to be chicked.   On the road, with a few miles to go, Ry Webb and his pacer went storming passed me soon after.  I tried to stay with them – mainly for some company – but I lost the inclination (and ability) and dropped back to my own pace.  Even taking a few walking breaks, as I was all out of energy. 

Hitting Ashford, this time I took the right route to sports stadium.  Unlike my recce, when I beyond fecked with dehydration and decided to add some extra distance.  Again, I was kind of disappointed that the man and the dog from Drew’s video wasn’t there, but I was pretty happy it was going to be over.  And I’d managed to take another half hour off the record.

So, I finished first lady with a new course record of 18:34 (previous CR was 19:20) and was over the moon happy.  It was a big risk doing the race, but a risk that was worth taking. 

I couldn't have done it without Karen, who was amazing all day!  Thank you xx 

I have now completed all of the CR 100 mile races.  That was one of my reasons for doing NDW100.  Plus, I’ve also got points to reapply for UTMB.  Another reason.  But above everything, it’s just always great to be a part of Centurion races.  And such a great honour to wear the team shirt. Thanks, as always, to James, Drew, Nici and all the great marshals… now what 50 milers can I do next?

Neil Kirby                     16:46
James Poole                   17:20
John Stocker                  18:03

Debbie Martin-Consani  18:34
Annabelle Stearns           21:41
Wendy Shaw                   22:33