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

Monday 10 April 2017

Race report: Centurion Running South Downs Way 50

The first 50 mile race of the season seems to have come around very quickly. The South Downs Way 50 is the first of the eight races Centurion Running are staging in 2017. They organise four 50 mile races (South Downs Way, North Downs Way, Chiltern Wonderland, and Wendover Woods), and four 100 mile races (Thames Path, North Downs Way, South Downs Way, and the Autumn 100). 

I've signed up for the Grand Slam of 50 mile races which is achieved if you complete all four 50 mile events, therefore the primary objective of the day was to get to the end within the thirteen hour cut-off. The second objective was to still be running at the end - historically my legs have broken down a bit in the last ten miles or so of ultra distance events and I've had to march my way to the finish. Third objective, set a new 50 mile personal best time and tick off another distance in my year of PB attempts. The target was the 11:38:31 time I'd set last year in the Chiltern Wonderland 50.

The route is point to point, and runs from Worthing to Eastbourne

Thanks to Southern Rail and another of their apparently never ending series of strikes, the trains on race day were set to be even more unreliable than usual. I opted to minimise the risk and splash out on hotels for the nights before and after the race.

Registrations were available the night before - this is a good move as it can get a bit busy and stressful on race morning with upwards of 300 people trying to register at once. I strolled up to Worthing College, Race HQ, and registered on Friday evening. It was nice and relaxed, I'm a big fan of pre-event registration.

Race HQ in Worthing College, the start was in a field over the road

Race start was 9am, plenty of time for a light hotel breakfast of bacon, egg, tomato, and a couple of cups of coffee. For anything up to a marathon I wouldn't eat before hand, but when I'm going to be out all day I prefer to have something to start the day. There were a couple of other runners down in the breakfast area, one offered us all a lift up to the start which was very kind and saved me a 40 minute stroll.

Assembling behind the starting inflatable before race briefing

After the customary short briefing from James, and a show of hands of who was taking on the 50 mile grand slam (and a couple of nutters who are attempting all eight races!) it was time to set off. I'm always impressed at the number of runners who choose a Centurion race for their first ultra - their reputation for well run, inclusive, and friendly events is well deserved.

Pre-race selfie

We set off bang on time. Spirits were high, everyone was smiling, the sun was shining already - it looked like a perfect day for a run in the countryside.

Given that the primary objective of the day was simply to get to the end, there was no need for early heroics. I trotted off at my own pace and soon fell in with a group of a dozen or so who were leapfrogging each other as we covered the early miles.

James Elson giving the race briefing

In order to get a new PB I needed to average around 8:30/km. I had configured a display on my watch to show me the time the last kilometre took, and the average time per kilometre. Sometimes, just knowing how far you've been running or how far you've gone can be quite a negative influence. It means you're continually trying to do mental arithmetic to see if you're on pace or not. I wanted to remove some of that stress.

The first half of the race passed by very comfortably. I'd set off a bit too fast (don't we always?), but not to the extent that I'd regret it later. As always the aid stations were staffed by friendly and supportive volunteers, and the choice of food and drink was excellent.

The weather was absolutely perfect. Bright and clear, warm but not too hot, and with a slight breeze to help sweat evaporate rather than get you all wet and drippy. Maybe, it was a little too perfect - as we ran through midday and into early afternoon my arms and legs started tingling a little from the sun. The problem with a point to point race is that the sun is always on the same side - and the problem with the South Downs is that there's very little shade. We were being lightly cooked in a surprisingly strong early April sun.

One of the early runnable inclines

I passed through 40km, around half way, in just a couple of seconds short of five hours. I expected a positive split (meaning the first half of the race is run faster than the second half) so I knew I'd take longer than ten hours overall, but it was looking good for a reasonable time - and I was in no danger of failing to meet the cut-off.

After the half way point I was on familiar ground - I'd run this half in training a fortnight ago, and it shares shares a 10 mile stretch with the Moyleman marathon which was also just a few weeks ago. Sure, there was still 25 miles to go, but I could visualise most of it and I knew there would be no nasty surprises.

Passing through the aid station at Southsea Youth Hostel, 50km in, I was happy to see Louise who topped up my water and chatted for a moment or two. I'm not a big fan of talking to people whilst racing, I prefer my own company, but it's nice to see a familiar face at the aid stations to exchange a few words with. Thanks Louise!

The yellow brick road

The second half of the route is very exposed, you climb from the aid station to the top of the South Downs, and follow the ridge for a good few miles. There's nowhere to hide from the sun, and the combination of growing sunburn and relentless chilling breeze was becoming a bit uncomfortable - however I was still running on the flats and downhills so progress was good.

As the afternoon drew on and the sun started to sink a little lower in the sky the temperature dropped a few degrees. The aid stations are closer together in the final third of the race and started to feel like they were coming round more frequently. It was nice to meet fellow parkrun tourist Kiernan Easton at the last aid station, we've been Facebook friends for a while but hadn't managed to meet face to face before.

It's not a run on the South Downs without a picture of the Whitehawk Hill transmission station

The final section was quite hard going, there's a steep climb up from Jevington and a few people were finding it very hard going and had dropped to a slow walk. I tried to keep my pace up and climb with determination - but it was challenging for sure.

I'd been leapfrogging one particular runner all afternoon, and as he came past me with about 5km to go, As he passed he said "there's an outside chance we might just finish under eleven hours!". I had done well not thinking about aiming for a time, but with just 5km to go I was clearly going to get to the end, so I let myself take a look at the elapsed time. I'd been going for about 10:35, and I knew there were just a few kilometres left. He was right, maybe I could break 11 hours - that would be amazing!

A typical view - nowhere to hide from the sun

The final steep downhill into Eastbourne is tricky - it's narrow, a bit slippery, and there are lots of roots. I was taking it very easy - tired legs are easy to trip on if you're not careful. Once I'd got to the bottom I resolved to run, as best I could, to the end and try and get in under 11 hours.

I summoned everything I had left in the tank, this was a race now! I was thankful for my recent training run on this part of the circuit - knowing where you're going and exactly how far there is left is so helpful in these situations. I ran non stop for the last few kilometres, overtaking a couple of walkers along the way. It looked like I might just do it. There's a cycle track running from a main road to the athletics ground which is the finish - I'm sure it's twice as long as it was a fortnight ago!

The last couple of miles on the flat and a lap of the athletics track

Clearly some other runners had the same idea as me - I lost a couple of places along this stretch, but I couldn't go any faster! I rounded the final corner with about three and a half minutes to spare by my reckoning - but there was a lap of the running track to run yet! Mrs was here to greet me - she'd been on a business trip in the US and had come straight from the airport. She ran with me round that final lap of the track - I pushed with every ounce I had left and crossed the line tired, relieved, and very happy.

Official finishing pic from Stuart March Photography

My official time was 10:58:12 - I'd dipped under 11 hours by almost two minutes, and had knocked an entirely satisfactory 40 minutes and 19 seconds off my previous best - with a new 10k PB last week that makes two PBs in six days! What was particularly pleasing was that my legs had held up enough so I was still able to run properly at the end - this is a huge confidence boost as it's been a real problem in the past.

I was 275th out of 364 finishers, which I'm very happy with - 76% down the field as compared to 83% (132nd out of 159 finishers) at Chiltern Wonderland and 70% (100th out of 142 finishers) at Wendover Woods.

Ridiculously enormous medals this year and a t-shirt featuring new coloured arms

What a wonderful day - amazing organisation, a great result, and a fantastic start to the grand slam. Just five weeks to North Downs Way 50 - bring it on!

Monday 3 April 2017

Product review: Garmin cycling speed and cadence sensor

I've churned through many speed and cadence sensors over the years - usually it requires fiddling around with magnets and zip ties that invariably get twisted and damaged. They're also liable to get knocked out of alignment or snapped off - particularly in a crowded triathlon transition zone.

Therefore, I haven't bothered for a while - but having done a few turbo sessions lately I wanted to at least keep an eye on my cadence. So, I thought I'd see what the latest offering from Garmin is.

The latest iteration of the Garmin bike speed and cadence sensors

Turns out it's completely redesigned from last time I bought one, and infinitely better. Rather than being triggered by a magnet passing a sensor, these sensors have simple tilt switches - no magnet required.

Contents of the box: Instructions, cadence sensor and bands, speed sensor and rubber housing

Fitting them is a breeze - just attach the cadence sensor to a crank arm (non-chainring side recommended) with the a rubber band (three sizes included), and the speed sensor to the hub. Nothing to line up, no further configuration required. It takes about two minutes form start to finish (including reseating the battery in the speed sensor as it wasn't transmitting at first).

The cadence sensor, fitted on the non-chainring side

A small LED on each sensor flashes green with each rotation of crank or wheel, so it's simple to see that installation is successful. The batteries should last a year under normal use. The LED starts to blink red when they need replacing.

The speed sensor in its rubber housing and mount

The profile is discrete, and it doesn't matter that it's not perfectly level

The sensor units appear to be well sealed from the elements. The only moving part is the battery cover - this is well made and fits snugly, with a small rubber seal to keep water and foreign materials out.

Connecting the sensors to a Garmin receiver is simple. I used a Fenix 3 HR and the pairing was immediate. No Bluetooth here - the sensors use ANT+ so don't expect a connection to a phone.

Pairing is simple and fast - Spd (speed) sensor connected, Cad (cadence) sensor awaiting connection

The Fenix supports renaming the sensors should you have multiple sets on multiple bikes - however fitting is so fast you could swap them across bikes easily.

I can't comment on longevity as it's only been fitted for a ride or two - but I'd certainly recommend it based on my experience so far. I bought this from Amazon, but it's available from most cycle accessory retailer.