Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Race report: Xterra 5km trail race (and loads of holiday photos)

I like to look for local races to do on holiday - so was happy to find the 2018 20K/10K/5K Phillip S Miller Park XTERRA Trail Race, an Xterra branded event in Castle Rock, Colorado just an hour's drive from where we're staying in Boulder. The race was to mark the opening of several miles of newly created trail in the grounds of the park. Mrs and I signed up for the 20k event - but I dropped down to the 5km on the day. Why? Let me offer some background...

Mrs came to Boulder for work a couple of months ago and loved the mountains, we agreed to come back for a holiday. A quick check of the map showed two beautiful parkruns within easy driving distance (a rarity in the US) and so I was all-in! Let's go!

We arrived on Tuesday, and by Thursday afternoon we'd hiked to the top of Green Mountain at 6,854ft (2,089m) and I'd thrown myself head first down the other side and spent the afternoon in Boulder Medical Centre getting bits of mountain pulled out of a massive cut in my knee (laceration with complications, according to the paperwork), and then getting it put back together with ten stitches (my first ever stitches, very exciting!).

Almost at the top

The top of the trig point shows the other peaks you can see from Green Mountain

Last known photo of me before the tripping incident

I fell running down a path like this - long runable/fallable downhill trail

Fetching new pink bandage hiding a bit of a horror show underneath!

The following day I drove to Aspen so we could run Aspen parkrun on Saturday. It was my first run after my accident so I was prepared to walk the whole route. Turns out I was able to jog along a little, and walk the hills, so I finished third from last (still in 6th place!) in a parkrun career personal slowest time of 0:44:24 - but I don't care, because the course was staggeringly beautiful, the team were really friendly, and at 8,000 feet (2,438m) above sea level it's the highest parkrun in the world.

I love finding the parkrun flag on a Saturday morning, it's a high point of the week

The course starts on an astroturf sports field, they were warming up to play baseball after we'd run 

There were more than twice as many doughnuts as there were runners!

Just look at the mountains! I've honestly never seen a parkrun so beautiful

Jeff gives the run briefing - taking part are two Brits, two Germans, two Australians, and two locals

A bridge on the outbound leg of the out-and-back course

The whole course is on what they call "trail", well paved and maintained pathways

A bridge on the return leg with an old church to one side

A large painted Aspen logo on one of the walls of Aspen High School

We drove back via Mt. Evans, the highest paved roadway in North America, and one of the famous fourteeners in the Rockies (a peak of 14,000 feet or higher). We drove up a winding road with 180-degree hairpins and no guard rails to the car park near the very top. Up at 14,000 feet the effective oxygen level is just 12.3% (compared with 20.9% at sea level) and I really noticed it! There's a short hike to the peak, and I had to stop every minute or two to catch my breath, I felt like I was on the verge of passing out all the time! The view from the top was hazy but incredible.

The top of the world (almost) - Mount Everest is twice as high above sea level as this

My doing a good impression of someone not about to pass out

Mrs seemed far less bothered by the altitude, and even jogged down the path back to the car

Mrs, looking like she's in a fitness magazine photo shoot

The highest ground either of us have ever stood on

So, that's enough background and holiday snaps. Back to the race. I was signed up for the 20km but there was no way I was getting round that so I dropped on the day to the 5km. Registration was 6am to 6:30am with race start at 7am. They like it early round here, to get out and done before it gets hot. We got up at 4:15am and were out on the road by 4:45am (it's not a holiday without a stupid early start to get to a race).

The course was very up-and-down, and all single track trail (proper trail this time) so overtaking was hard. I was fine with that as there were no heroics required - I cringed inside whenever I imagined tripping and falling onto my leg again!

I trundled round the 5km and was really pleased that once warmed up I was running fairly well. I completed the course nearly ten minutes faster than yesterday's parkrun! Mrs was sticking to the 20km and ran a really impressive negative split with the second 10km lap 90 seconds quicker than the first.

Post-race, with free t-shirt...

...and a decent slab of bling

No more races, we've got the rest of this week out here, and then we fly back on Saturday after South Boulder Creek parkrun.

A quick recap

It's been a while so let me catch you up:

I finished the Chiltern Wonderland 50 in 2017 comfortably. I jogged round without paying much attention to my watch - and finished with 20 minutes to spare, but still jogging along happily. There isn't a race report for this race.

I did not finish Wendover Woods 50 - I managed 45 of the 50 miles (4.5 out of 5 laps) and couldn't go any further. I learned the hard way - even if you've finished the race before, you gotta give it respect and go in trained. New job and travel was not kind to training, so I couldn't quite make it. Second ever DNF, and no grand slam for me. Not doing any 50s in 2018, but I'll give the 50 slam another go in 2019. There's a race report that's been in draft for months, I've included it below so you can live through the disappointment with me (aren't I kind :).

parkrun has been ever-present, and I've only missed a couple of Saturdays - despite a really heavy cold that lasted for three weeks in November and December. I'm pleased that I've maintained my parkrun obsession (even if it is bordering on addiction) - it's good for my head, and if I'm parkrunning then I feel like I am in some control of my rollercoaster schedule. This has continued into 2018. I still #loveparkrun

A navigational slip-up a couple of weeks ago led to repeating a parkrun course for the first time in years - Reading parkrun, it was lovely to see you again.

Mrs made it to John O'Groats, with a short break 2/3 of the way through to recover from a foot injury. I'm immensely proud of her, and you can read all about it on her blog.

Wendover Woods 50, 2017

The last 50 of the grand slam, and far and away the hardest. Wendover Woods last year was my second 50-miler. I know the course inside out thanks to many training laps last year, and a couple when I could squeeze them in this year, so knew exactly what was in store. Hills mainly. Many many hills. Well over 3km of climbing over 5x 10 mile laps. There’s a well stocked aid station (now fully enclosed) at the start/finish, and a half-way aid station for a mid-lap top-up. Like every Centurion race the route marking is excepotional, the aid stations are well stocked even if you’re right at the back (and I’d know), and the support from the volunteers is relentless.

I stayed over the night before at Tring Premiere Inn, picking up Mrs on the way straight from an overseas business trip. All kit laid out ready for the morning, a quick beer and pub-grub from the Beefeater next door, drop-bag packed - ready for the morning. The hotel is only a mile or so from the race start, so no crack of dawn required. We were up and out by about 6:30am, and by 7am I was checked in, kit checked and race number collected, and back in the car with the heating on waiting for the race briefing - and damn was it cold. Nice addition over last year was a little coffee stall where we topped up the caffeine levels with a couple of large cappuccinos. Mrs left at just gone 7 to head off to the mid-point aid station where she was volunteering from race start through to 4pm.

We filed out over the stile to the race start area - race briefing is outside on this race and it was barely above freezing, so James kept it short and sweet. In no time we were off, and all that stood between me and my grand slam medal/dinner plate (it’s enormous) was a cold day in the forest running in circles up and down hills.

The first lap was good - the sun was coming up and the crunchy frost on the bright fallen leaves and grass was beautiful. I covered the lap in 2:14. No need to stop for long at aid stations, let’s just keep on trucking.

Lap two was mentally tough. I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it - it was still cold, and I didn’t feel too confident, but I pushed on confidently - my brain wasn’t happy, but I wasn’t letting it slow me down. No stopping on the hills! Short aid-station stops only - in and out! Keep the cadence up throughout. 5 hours down for laps one and two, I’m happy with that.

Lap three was a lap of two halves. I started the way I’d finished lap two, feeling like there was still a very long way to go (which, of course, there was). But as I got nearer the midpoint, and the regular sunshine boost I get from seeing Mrs running the tea urn, I cleared the mental fog. My second wind was kicking in and I pushed on.

The unusual thing about this race is you’re continually being lapped (at my pace anyway) which, earlier on, is kind of fun - the front runners are so damn fast, they come flying past, and once again I was getting lapped by the mid-point of my second lap (where I had covered 15 miles, and they were already 10 miles ahead of me!). Arriving at the start/finish aid station at the end of lap three, the front runners were finishing their race.

In the later laps it gets depressing. Everyone says “hi” and swaps a few words, which I love, but the constant reminders that “everyone” is going faster than you can get draining - all part of the race. There seemed to be a never-ending train of people lapping (or catching and overtaking) me on lap four. Knowing they were all on lap five or were faster was getting to me. The sun was starting to set, the temperature dropped quickly. A few km into the lap I stopped to put my head torch on. I was still pushing on, and although I wasn’t happy I was a long way from any dark thoughts of “why am I doing this?”, or even worse “I can’t do this” - I knew I could do it, I did it last year.

Lap four took a long time. I was slower than last year, and spent some time doing a little mid-race maths. I thought if I had set off on lap five by 11:00 elapsed time then I would have all the time in the world to get round - that’s even half and hour more than last year’s final lap which I walked. I saw Mrs in the start/finish aid station, she’d made her way up from the mid-point now, and after a quick hug (no unnecessary stopping at aid stations!) I was off again.

Lap five got hard almost immediately. Last year I was suffering but was still able to march on forward - this year I felt like I had less energy with every step. At around 6km in is a long drag from virtually the lowest point on the course, near the mid-point aid station, to the highest, the Go Ape centre by the car park on the top of the hill and at the centre of the woods. I was struggling hard by this point, making very slow progress, getting slower and slower - finding even my marching was dropping into scuffing along if I wasn’t 100% focussed on it. I found it damn near impossible to get up the hill. I stopped again and again, unable to make any real progress. A trickle of people also on their last lap were rushing past me - how were they still going so fast? I stopped for a moment around two thirds of the way up, I was out of breath, my pulse was through the roof - I could feel my heart happening in my chest - but I was getting colder, and barely moving.

I got to the top after what seemed like a lifetime, and collapsed onto a bollard. I stopped my watch. My race was over. My year-long quest to complete the grand slam of 50 mile races was done, having fallen short just six or so miles from the end. No one gets a big medal and a special green t-shirt for running 194 out of 200 miles though. I called Mrs and asked her to tell James I was done.

I scuffed my way, full of emotion, back to the start/finish. Mrs met me at the stile with a cup of tea and helped me to the tent. Having been hardly moving for the last 90 minutes I was now really cold - I should have put on my emergency dry layer (mandatory kit) but I’d forgotten it was there. I sat on a chair in the tent - she immediately wrapped me in a foil sheet, and before I knew what was going on she’d got the medics and I found myself in an ambulance being poked and prodded.

The medical opinion was that I’d stopped at the right time. I sat in there for what seemed like hours but was probably no more than half an hour. They burried me in blankets, and clipped an oxygen saturation sensor to my finger (which didn’t work at all as my finger was too cold). After some further monitoring they released me into the care of Mrs, and she looked after me from there.

We got back to the hotel and I got into bed with all my clothes still on to warm up slowly (medical instructions - don’t jump into the bath or a hot shower - warm up gradually). I was bitterly disappointed I’d got so close, but ended up with only my second ever DNF. And what a race to DNF. Not how I wanted to finish the season.

I’ll have another go at the grand slam, but not next year. Maybe 2019, where I will give this race the respect it deserves, and make sure I get to the starting line fitter and faster.

Thanks to Centurion for putting on the best races on the circuit; to Mrs for the mid-lap boosts and for looking after me while I got myself together at the end; and particularly to the medical team for checking me out and making sure I was OK.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

A tough first week on LEJoG

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The adventure starts here

I wrote last week about my wife's amazing challenge, and this weekend I went to fulfil my first round of cheerleading responsibilities by driving out to Taunton to meet her on Friday night. I'd got a room at a nearby B&B for us to stay in, then I was going to drop her off Saturday morning to carry on, take a quick tourist trip to Taunton parkrun, and then catch up with her again later in the day. She had been clear with her rules regarding no outside assistance - I wasn't bringing any supplies, fresh clothes, or even food - but we'd agreed that being ferried to and from overnight accommodation when I visit was acceptable, otherwise we'd never see each other for the six weeks.

The South West Coast Path

I've been in sporadic contact with her during the week - she's been out of coverage a lot, and using her phone on airplane mode for most of the days to save battery. The fun started on her very first day - trails that hadn't been cleared for years and were waist deep in brambles and undergrowth, challenging surfaces with sharp loose stones, and rising temperatures and an unforgiving sun.

Overly familiar cows

It seems that land owners in the South West don't seem to take too kindly to paths across their land - she's battled with razor wire, deliberate sealing shut of gates, and even electric fences. A route such as this one is far too long (and time consuming) to view properly before hand, so she was seeing the paths for the first time - whatever condition they were in. Not to mention the local livestock are considerably bolder than we're used to. A cheery "Hello, cows!" and a bit of arm waving is normally enough to have them wandering off elsewhere - but the Cornish cows are much more determined to get a sniff of the stranger in their midst.

Thou shalt not pass

There have been high points too, of course. Mile after mile of incredible chocolate-box countryside, wildlife, and beautiful spring flowers. Perfect villages with local shops and pubs, and the kindness of strangers. Some of the pictures she's been posting are just incredible (all the pictures apart from the first and last accompanying this post have been posted during the week).

Nature, doing her thing and doing it well

When I met her on Friday in the middle of nowhere down a track so narrow I have no idea what would happen if I met an oncoming vehicle, she was not happy. It had been a very long, hard, and slow day. She'd picked up a little foot problem on the first day that hadn't given her any respite all week, and had escalated painfully. She said she wanted to stop, she'd had enough, it was too hard, her foot problem hurt too much and both her feet were sore - it was over.

You are now entering cream tea country

The frustration was that apart from her sore feet, she felt fine! She had energy and wasn't suffering from any muscular or mechanical pain. As she put it: her engine was fine. I hugged her tightly, and bundled her up in the car so she could go somewhere clean and soft for a shower.

This, apparently, is a path

Over dinner at a local pub I said that now wasn't the time to make any decisions. As she was clearly in pain and upset, I suggested a rest day on Saturday. Feet up, relaxed, following a good night of sleep - and then we can think about what to do next. I was so happy when she agreed to sleep on it, and take a rest day.

After I'd enjoyed the delights of Longrun Meadow parkrun, we drove into the town centre and found a nice little bar attached to a hotel where we had breakfast, and then spent most of the day sat on their sofas with a couple of pints, taking turns to pop out on errands - me to check in to our hotel for Saturday night, her to stock up on foot care products from Boots. She was able to go up and down the stairs perfectly well, and was walking normally, save for the hurt feet - incredible given she's covered 170 miles in the previous six days!

Simply stunning

We talked about the next week's plan, her route and where she was going to stay. She booked a couple of places for the next few evenings - we didn't need to talk about if she was going to continue, she'd already decided to push on. Her mental strength is enviable. In the end we spent so long in the bar that we also had dinner there.

Breaking in new shoes, ultra-style

Up at 6am this morning, I made some coffee while Mrs re-packed her bag and prepared for the day ahead. I dropped her off at the exact spot I'd found her on Friday, and made a quick getaway - keen to take away any chance of a last minute change of mind! A little over three hours' drive later, I was back home. She was still out there, jogging and hiking her way to the end of day seven of the toughest task she's ever taken on.

The sign of a good tea room

Battling nature, man, and the elements this week, I think she found out just how hard this challenge is. It's definitely not a given that she will make it to the end, and that makes it a genuine challenge - adding a sense of adventure and excitement, just as much for me and her followers as for her!

Land's End, the day afternoon before day one

There will be more tears before the end, but she reads all her tweets and texts each evening, and with our messages of love and support she can make it: one incredible woman covering the length of Great Britain on foot - 1,035 miles, over 100,000 feet of ascent, all in under six weeks.

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Sunday, 21 May 2017

An amazing woman, doing an amazing thing, for an amazing cause

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This is what a bloody long way looks like... 

For a few months now Mrs has been planning her latest and greatest adventure. She has been working towards running unsupported from Land’s End to John O’Groats in order to raise awareness of (and money for) a new charity named Public Health Collaboration UK - a charity dedicated to informing and implementing healthy decisions for better public health.

The tide was out on a beautiful still evening on the South West coast

All her planning, training (under the watchful eye of James from Centurion Running), packing, re-packing, and re-re-packing came to fruition this morning as she set off on day one. She’s hoping to take somewhere in the region of 37-40 days, with a couple of days in hand for rest/recuperation/replanning if needed.

Welcome to Penzance!

On Friday I took a day off and we drove down to Penzance where we stayed in a wonderful boutique hotel named Artist Residence (highly recommended, full of character and charm). On Saturday morning we completed a little gentle parkrun tourism at Penrose parkrun, where we were joined by fellow parkrun ├╝bertourist and accomplished ultra-runner Louise who had made the trip down to offer some much appreciated received support.

Mrs getting a shout out from Penrose parkrun's run director

Mrs with Louise in the first kilometre of parkrun

Turning the legs over at Penrose parkrun

Penrose parkrun is in a National Trust area, and in the clear blue sky and beaming sunshine it was as perfect a parkrun as you ever could find. Mrs got a shout out by the day’s run director, and a round of applause from the assembled runners.

The corner of the UK, with thousands of miles of Atlantic Ocean stretching far beyond the horizon

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We all took a drive down to Land’s End, about 10 miles form Penzance, to see the famous sign, get the obligatory souvenir photos taken, and get her progress sheet stamped and dated for Sunday as the plan was to set off at around 8am and nothing opens until 10am.

Getting the record sheet stamped at the Land's End hotel reception

There's also a photo of me taking this photo of someone taking a photo of our plucky adventurer

We had a relaxing afternoon with Louise before she headed off for her train, and we turned in fairly early after some food to get a good night’s sleep ahead of the start this morning. We slept well despite the deafening racket from the monster seagulls - they really get big around here!

Training all done, now just need to relax ready for the start tomorrow

Up this morning, and back to Land’s end for about 8:30. We planned to get a coffee form the hotel, but they seemed unable to do anything at all until 10am (tough luck if you’re staying there I guess). So, with a kiss and a hug, and a few more photos, that was it - and she was off.

Over the next six-ish weeks she’s going to run over a thousand miles, covering an average of over a marathon distance every day, and accumulating a staggering 100,000 feet of ascent (which is roughly four times the height of Mount Everest). She’s supporting a cause which means a lot to her personally, and which is in its infancy - in fact, she is their very first fund raiser!

The official challenge t-shirt

We’ve scoured the Internet and she’s just the second woman we can find recorded to attempt LEJoG unsupported (no crew, no one driving along to help, no one bringing her any kit or equipment). The other person we found used a buggy to transport her kit, so Mrs will be the first (that we can find) to have completed the challenge with everything in a rucksack - all meticulously weighed and planned 8.5kg of it.

3... 2... 1... Go!

Other than moral support, I haven’t been a part of this - it’s her route, her kit list, her focus, and her courage that has got her to the start, and will get her to the end. It’s a real challenge, success is not assured - but she’s as prepared as she can be, with emergency rations, a lightweight tent for wild camping where there’s no B&Bs, and a truckload of grit and determination.

I’m going to try and see her every weekend if I can, wherever she is in the UK - I’ll bring hugs and kisses, but no fresh kit or supplies - she’s determined to complete the route unaided and is very serious about it!

Read more about her preparation on her blog, and follow her on twitter for updates.

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She’s an amazing woman doing an amazing thing, for an amazing cause - please support her if you can.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Race Report: Centurion Running North Downs Way 50

The second of the four 50-mile races from Centurion Running, and the second I needed to complete to stay on track for the grand slam - this year's big challenge. I haven't had the best preparation - a debilitating cold for a week, then starting a new job, and then being away for a few days with said new job sharing plenty of wine with my amazing new colleagues, not getting enough sleep, and eating all the wrong things.

Assembled in a Farnham school for pre-race briefing

But there I was anyway, on the start line, tired, heavy, but determined! As with all Centurion races it started bang on time, 8am on the dot. I'd already been up a while, having got up at 4:30 to get the train to race start Farnham to register.

The acorn symbols are your friend, follow them and you can't go wrong

This is a race of two halves, the first from Farnham to Box Hill, with more rolling hills and runnable trails; the second from Box Hill to Knockholt Pound with much more challenging ascents and more technical downs with plenty of tree roots to watch out for.

Obligatory tourist shots in front of the official start point of the North Downs Way

The course is almost entirely on the North Downs Way, starting right at the beginning in Farnham, and only deviating for the last half mile to get to the village hall in Knockwood Pound. I'd run the course before, last year when Mrs and I covered the full length over six days so I knew what I was in store for.

All lined up ready for the off, I like to start near the back :)

Turns out it was a race of two halves for me too - the first half was lovely. I settled in to a nice steady pace, barely pausing at the first couple of checkpoints, just to get my presence logged and water topped up - not to mention a nice surprise when a jam sandwich turned out to be a peanut butter and jam sandwich. Yum.

An early hill, first uphill hiking of the day

The trouble started towards the end of the first half - a bit of an ache in my right knee. In a long race the aches always come and go, but this one was stubborn. After the (roughly) half way aid station at the stepping stones I found the climb up the 100+ big steps to the peak of Box Hill hard going.

Unofficial aid station known as The Bacon Boat - free bacon sarnie from a couple of inflatable sumo!

It's a fairly technical section next, with short sharp ups and downs, plenty of roots, and dozens of groups of 8-10 kids with their houses on their backs out camping on some expedition or other. I noticed that I'd stopped running so much, and wasn't taking advantage of the down hills. Knee aching a bit more. I was still jogging, but had slowed considerably.

Beautiful bluebell season

There's a little section at Merstham where the North Downs Way passes through a graveyard in a church, with some short sharp steps. Two of the steps led to a sudden sharp and exceptionally painful stabbing feeling into the knee - I couldn't help but yelp with the pain. That was it - any more of those and I'm stopping - no race is worth picking up a real injury!

The view behind me from the famous Box Hill summit, looking down towards Dorking

Unfortunately this hit my confidence. Since the 50km mark, around the Reigate hill checkpoint, I'd been concerned about possibly needing to hike the rest of the way - I was not enamoured with the thought of hiking for 30km. However, I was still doing some jogging, and making progress - after the pain at Merstham, with still 25km to go, I was quite unhappy.

I couldn't stop though, I wasn't after a PB or record breaking performance, I just needed to finish - and if I didn't, the grand slam was off.

So I carried on, trying to cover the ground as best I could. The hills were very slow and hard now, and the flats not much better. I started working out the average pace I'd need to hit to finish within the 13 hour race cut-off, but unfortunately didn't know what the overall race distance was - they're never exactly the distance on the tin, and usually a little bit further.

The very definition of point-to-point

Trying to keep to at least 5-6km/h (10 to 12.5 minutes per km) I shuffled, scuffed, and dragged myself forward. Counting down the kilometres I knew it was going to be close. Finally across a field I saw the finish area, but the course spirals round it, so not home yet. I checked my watch, just 20 minutes left - I'd been going for over twelve and a half hours!

There were still a few runners around me, but they didn't seem to be as broken as I was - they all overtook me in the last mile as I forced myself to keep going - it was going to be close. Finally down a gentle and painful hill into Knockholt Pound village I saw Mrs waiting for me - just a few hundred metres to go!

Blue - pace, plummets after 40km; grey - altitude, 1,915m (6,283feet) over 50 miles

Running (well, "running") up the side of the village hall, and under the inflatable finish line I'd got there. 5 hour of running, 8 hours of determined forward shuffling, and I'd made it with just seven minutes to spare! I was the second to last person to finish, a bit of a change from my PB at the South Downs Way 50, two hours faster just a few weeks ago - but it doesn't matter. I was overjoyed to finish within the time, to pick up the side-plate sized medal, and still be in the running for the grand slam.

Second to last in 12:52:56 - and I've never been so happy to finish!

Thanks to Louise for giving me a lift back to Wimbledon, and to Mrs for being wonderful and supportive, and bringing me extra warm socks and cold beer, and helping me out at the end while I sat shattered and emotional on a chair.

Significant bling - two down, two to go...

Nine weeks to my next ultra, the XNRG Chiltern Challenge 50km (which I ran last year), and a whole 18 weeks to prepare for the next in the grand slam series, the Chiltern Wonderland 50 on September 16th. I need to arrive there better prepared and lighter - I can't handle a repeat of today's experience!

Best sausage baguette ever