Monday 28 November 2016

Race report: Centurion Running Wendover Woods 50

The day before race day

So, the day is upon us (or at least it will be tomorrow). I've been quite nervous about this race, it's going to be tough. I fully expect it to be the hardest race I've ever tried. Not helped by training not being as good as it should have been (is it ever?), a compulsion to eat and drink inappropriate foods meaning I'm heavier than I want to be, and my head not playing nicely (more on that somewhere else at some other time).

BUT - I've never gone into a race not planning to finish, and this one is no different - so let's zip up the positivity vest and get on with it.

Tomorrow, it will get dark at around 4:30pm - I know my pace will drop off then. I'm not confident in the dark, and I haven't trained in the dark with my head torch. Race start is 8am, so that's eight and a half hours of light - I need to use them well. The laps are 10 miles, and in training they've taken an average of around two and a quarter hours. Race day will be a little slower, but I should still be able to get three laps done in the light - an average of two hours and fifty minutes per lap.

That leaves two full laps in the dark. On the plus side I've run four or five laps in training, on the actual course, so I know it well. Its twisty and complicated, but I can run it from memory now with no problem. Getting lost shouldn't be an issue (plus Centurion course marking is outstanding).

Race cut off isn't until midnight so that leaves a further seven and a half hours to complete the final two laps - which is plenty of time. Providing I can still get up the hills! There's around 600m of ascent on each lap, so 3km of height gained over the whole course - more than I've done in a day before, even hiking in the Lake District. But - providing my knees don't explode - it's achievable.

Cool, not windy, and clear once the fog lifts - good running weather

The weather looks good. Mrs is on her way up on a train right now to support me tomorrow and help out at the mid-point aid station. And I've packed something for breakfast in the morning (to avoid having to chew on an old piece of steak like at the Chiltern Wonderland 50).

Now, it's time for dinner, and to relax a bit. I reckon it's going to be a good day.

Race day

Up at 5:55 for customary pre-race coffee to kick start the morning biology, and out into chilly but manageable darkness for the short drive to the start. Race start is at the trig point which marks the highest point in the Chilterns. The fog heavy in the field - and it was much colder. I ran to the race tent to register, kit check, and pick up my number, then ran back to the car to hide in the warm and eat breakfast.

It took a while for the masses to get over a single narrow style from race HQ through to the start on the road so James had to give a high speed briefing which ended with "...and we're starting in 10 seconds" - no time to worry, off we go!

The field strung out very quickly and I was able to find some space to run in. I'm not a chatty runner, so I settled into back to back omnibus episodes of The Archers and it's fan-made companion Dum Tee Dum (my guilty podcast pleasures).

I'm not going to describe the course here - I covered it in depth in my course recce.

Up down up down up down, etc. - barely an inch on the level

Laps one and two went past well and without incident. Knowing the course well was such a psychological advantage, when to enjoy a down, how long the ups are, and splitting the course into a few segments to tick off as I went round. I was astonished to get lapped as I left the mid-point aid station on lap 2, I'd just past 15 miles and the front runners were 10 miles ahead! On a point to point race you don't get that experience - the fast people just disappear off into the distance and that's it. I was pleased to support them with some "good running!" calls of support as they shot past.

Hot cups of tea at the start/finish and mid-point aid stations were welcome, as were the couple of slices of cheese I took each time. Mrs was helping out abradypus and crew at the mid-point, so that gave me something to look forward to on each lap too - and gave a bit more impetus to set out on the next lap from the enticing camping chairs at the start/finish (never sit on the chairs at aid stations!).

I was starting to feel fatigued during lap 3, but was still jogging along well. I could tell I was slowing, but not too much. I viewed lap 3 as "lap 3 of 5" which sounds like great progress (rather than "just coming up to" or "just after" half way). This running stuff is all mind games.

It wasn't until almost half way through lap 4, coming up to 35 miles, that it got dark enough to need the head torch. I was very pleased to have got this far round - half a lap up on my plan. I slowed quite a lot in the dark, particularly on the rooty sections.

5x 10 mile loops crammed into a 1.5 mile a side triangle - dizzy déjà vu 

As I set out on the 5th and final lap in the now pitch darkness I was starting to feel the fatigue. My knees were feeling the pressure of so much climbing and descending, and running was getting increasingly hard. I wasn't surprised, exactly there same thing happened at Chiltern Wonderland, and I marched/hiked as fast as I could for the last 10km or so and was prepared to do the same here. The change of stride and feeling of being on the home stretch gave me a mental lift, and I marched my way forward, only losing a couple of places and actually overtaking a couple of people too. Learning point: If you're going to walk, walk as fast as you can - it's part of the race, it's not giving up.

99th place finish in just under 13 and a half hours

Quite promisingly, I was gaining places throughout - from 138th after the first lap, to 124th after the second, then 110th, 97th, and finally holding for 99th. My laps had inevitably slowed down, but it could have been a lot worse - particularly when tired and in the dark.

LapLap timeElapsed time

Eventually, it was over, and I picked up my second Centurion 50 mile medal. Quite a few personal records fell today - the longest single run I've ever done in distance and in duration, and the most ascent I've gained on any single day. I've said it elsewhere, but I love that "at my age" I can still set lifetime best performances. I'm, once again, in awe of Mrs who covered twice this distance at the North Downs Way 100 earlier in the year.

What a wonderful sport this is!

Tuesday 15 November 2016

An experiment with fasting

Mrs has been reading The Complete Guide to Fasting by Dr. Jason Fung and Jimmy Moore. I thought I'd give it a read.

It's very repetitive, and fairly evangelistic - but if you can look past that, there's a lot of sense behind it. Fasting (voluntarily) as opposed to starvation (outside your control) looks like a useful tool in maintaining good health. In particular it looks to be very helpful when combined with a good LCHF (low carbohydrate, high fat) diet.

Whilst you can live for a surprising amount of time without food (the book cites one medically supervised case of over 380 days!), you don't last long without liquid. I've been restricting myself to water and black coffee, however for longer fasts bone broth is recommended to top up vitamins and minerals. The body becomes remarkably good at recycling so you need far less of a top-up than you may think.

Fasting can be for any period - we all fast multiple times per day starting with the last mouthful of our last meal, but we don't fast for very long. As we're driven to continual snacking (mustn't let those energy levels drop!) the longest period between eating is usually over night.

I tend to eat at around 8pm, and since going (mainly) LCHF I've preferred to get out and run in the morning at the weekend before breakfast - just with a cup of black coffee. Often I wouldn't eat until early afternoon, so that's a voluntary fast of 14 hours. This is good to promote fat burning, but there are greater (and additional) benefits from giving it a bit longer.

Give it a read if you're interested

I went for 24 hours last week, from dinner one evening to dinner the next evening, and found it fairly easy. This week I thought I'd try for a 36-hour fast from dinner Sunday night through to breakfast this morning.

Although my stomach sounded like an Icelandic mud spring when I went to sleep last night, I woke up this morning feeling mighty-fine, and not at all hungry. In fact, I feel very focussed, energetic, and even a little euphoric. I decided not to bother with breakfast and went for a run around the block instead. I'm planning to eat at dinner this evening - I'm going for a longer run tomorrow and would prefer not to pass out and fall in the Thames (low risk, but better safe than sorry). So that will be a 48-hour fast.

I'm probably finding it relatively easy as I've been largely LCHF since the end of 2012. My body is used to being carb-restricted and burning stored fat. I wonder how hard it would be to go a week? The book describes some health benefits of fasting for a week per year which I won't repeat here, but I'm intrigued.

Friday 4 November 2016

The Centurion Running Wendover Woods 50 course

Warning: I like to write long ramble stream-of-conciousness blog posts. Refill your coffee mug.

In a mere three and a half weeks my slightly drunken "ahh what the hell I'll just join the waitlist" race comes up. Seems like you have to be careful what you wish for (particularly, in this case, given I was still fairly hung over when the waitlist place was confirmed the next morning).

Centurion Running's Wendover Woods 50-mile race (WW50) is the last of their four 50-mile events of 2016. I ran the 3rd in the series, Chiltern Wonderland 50, a couple of months ago.

I've run a couple of laps of the Wendover Woods course in recent weeks, and promised the Centurion Facebook group that I'd post a few photos of my next trip.

Though this is the inaugural WW50 it seems to have built up quite a bit of a reputation already as one tough cookie. So let's cover that bit first: yes there is a lot of ascent and descent, and yes it will chew you up if you set out at your marathon pace, but if you respect the course and go carefully and steadily - you'll be fine.

If you can do 50, you can do this - just allow some extra time. Now that's out of the way...

Disclaimer: this isn't intended to provide turn-by-turn directions, many turns are discussed, but not all - take a copy of the route with you on your device of choice.

It's a keeper - stick it on the fridge

The course looks a lot like a three year old scrawled on the wall in crayon, and someone thought it would look good over-layed on woodland. However, once out there it's not really that complicated.

Today was the third time I've run the course and I only needed to look at my map once (a left hander I'll tell you about later). In any case, you won't want to be looking at a map because: a) Centurion course marking is excellent, and b) you'll trip over a tree root.

Let's go!

The highest point in the Chilterns

The start is in a field by a trig point and some cows. It's the highest point in the Chilterns - but don't worry, you'll be seeing many of the lower points too. Apart from a short piece across a field, this is the only part on grass. The majority of the course is on well tended paths and trails, with most of the rest on narrower trail, some single-track - but none of the nettle and gorse bush fest of some routes.

At this time of year of course, the whole route is on fallen leaves - very pretty, but take care as they hide  what you're really running on.

I wore La Sportiva Helios SR - good all round grip, not too heavy, and a sole thick enough to protect from pointy things whilst thin enough to get some feel from the ground. I wore by favourite innov8 shoes for the last 50 and got sore soles, that was a mistake, I need a little more cushioning over that distance.

Form an orderly queue

The first obstacle comes pretty quickly - 100m across the field from the start is a one-at-a-time-please stile. My plan is to take that first 100m nice and easy - unless you're at the pointy end there's no issue in losing a few seconds here, and there's a lot to lose by starting your 50 miles at a flat-out sprint.

Main path left on lap one, smaller path by post on laps two to five

After the stile, the first lap differs from the following four in a small way - on lap one there's a sharp left straight away onto a wider and flatter path which will help everyone settle out and find their place in the procession. On future laps you go straight on, and down a single-file trail - far too early into lap one to deny people from overtaking.

Thankfully, we don't go down this bit on lap one

In fact, there are quite a few sections that are hard for overtaking, so take the opportunities when you see them, but they do come regularly, so no need to try crazy moves.

A wide shallow climb

Following the descent, and crossing a road half way, is the first of the gentle climbs. I jogged up most of it today, but will resist the temptation to do that on race day. Much of the course is runnable, including some ascents, and it might be fine for lap one or two, but I'll predict an uncomfortable lap five would follow early exuberance.

You can just see the Gruffalo on the grassy area to the left of the path

A few tens of metres of road follow before running through the cafe area (hello supporters! don't forget the car park closes at 5pm!) and down a nice runnable descent on the other side and past a Gruffalo (whatever one of those is).

Cocking this bit up as usual, I waded through a bunch of annoying brambles

The next left is the one corner on the course I've missed every single time. I hope this one is really well sign-posted. Up the short hill is one of the least well trodden paths - particularly when buried in leaves. It's only a short rise before you hit a much wider cross-path so don't worry too much if you go exactly the right side of every tree (I cocked it up even more this time than previously).

Nice runnable down, but don't drag your feet (also - one of the two horsey-posts)

A right at the top and a nice runnable piece before reaching a four-way cross where you turn right (later on, you'll reach it again and also turn right - the first of two points where this happens). I remember the turning as there's a post - however I upgraded that today to be "where there's two horsey-posts" as there is an earlier post, which is the wrong post.

Like all runnable downs, you must watch out for roots - this is a rooty course and you'll need to keep your feet up anywhere you can't see what's under the carpet of leaves.

Open up your legs on one of these rare flat stretches

Navigation takes a short break and there's an overtaking opportunity before diving back left and gently up again, following the path round to the earlier junction, but from the opposite direction. I kept finding myself taking a moment to take in the colours - beautiful autumn shades everywhere, and so many leaves on the floor if you're not careful you get overwhelmed by all the detail. A hell of a challenge for cameras, I think my iPhone did pretty well!

Drop down into the cutting here - but watch out for trip hazards

Next up, and through a little obstacle, is a down hill trail that drops into a cutting for a hundred or two metres. This is the first bit where you really need your wits about you - there are loose rocks, big pebbles, sticks and branches all over the place. It was particularly tricky when buried in leaves.

The field with its soft springy grass is tempting, but wrong - go up the hill just to the left of it

Left up out of the cutting and, avoiding the tempting gate into a nice flat field with (today at least) the lights of heaven beyond, and up a short hill, right, right again and down the slipperiest descent on the course.

Bursting out and into the sunlight for a few minutes

Take it easy working your way down under the cabling - I landed on my arse thanks to slippy grass and a sharp corner. Stretch your legs across the field, then turn left at the far side and follow the perimeter to the far left corner.

Up to the right of that log and round the back of it

Over the stile, and down into a different cutting and up the other side. I took a moment to celebrate this being the first time I haven't given in to the temptation to run up the cutting - that's the wrong way. Don't run up the cutting.

An opportunity to take a good hike on an easy incline

Enjoy a hike for a few minutes with plenty of left turns, then a steep but runnable downhill. I think there's a shoe-risk here. Some of the runnable downs are quite steep, and unless you go full tilt there's a risk that you'll keep hammering your toes into the front of the toe box. I like shoes with a roomy toe box, I'd suggest they're essential for this course.

These are the downs that the fast people will be hurtling down - for the rest of us, these are the downs that will crucify our quads. For the mid and back of the pack, I predict it's the downs that will get hard on tired legs toward the end rather than the ups.

The bottom of the down with a hairpin right - not onto the big path at the bottom

There's a hairpin right at the five-way junction at the bottom of the hill, the second of the junctions you'll visit twice (or, hopefully, ten times).

A rare leafless trail

Then you get a break (unless you're at the pointy end) with a long gentle incline. I've been jogging up it on my one-lap visits, but I'll be walking it on the day. I really do think that early-excitement will cost dearly later, it will for me at any rate!

20-30 metres of steepness

A sharp left at the end of the incline to continue upwards, and left onto one of the two sections that I would say are genuinely steep. It's only a short segment, so don't worry about it - in fact with this much variation on the course there isn't anything that lasts more than a few hundred metres.

Dive left - take care again

Legs get a break at the top with one of the nice wide flat sections again, before diving back into the forest into a particularly root-laden section, so take care! I've stubbed my toe and had a near-trip on this section.

Up here

A longer hike follows soon with a path crossing - this is a bit steeper and goes under a fair bit of the Go Ape apparatus. Enjoy the whoops and screams of adventurers, and watch out for falling phones and millennials.

After spending some time in the foothills, you'll now be right up at the same height as the car park. That means it's time for a hairpin left around a Go Ape seating area, and back down to the bottom again. This is another narrow segment and slippery with roots and rocks.

Soon the course pops you out into a nice shallow down on a good path - another opportunity to change stride length and shake out those legs.


At the bottom of the hill it's left back into the forest and onto certainly the rootiest couple of hundred metres of the course. Thankfully this area is less leafy so you can see the surfaces, but it's going to be challenging in the dark.

Run - if you can!

A couple of turns later and out of the woodland onto the firmest and most runnable path of the course. A few hundred metres of proper path leading back to the five-way junction from earlier.

I think the mid-point aid station will be somewhere around here.

Back at the five-way junction, turning right from here and back into the woodland

Second time at the five-way, and turning right there's a good long (but not steep) march uphill. I found this was a good piece to get into a nice rhythm and cover some ground without actually running. Consistency is important, it could take a long time to get up here if you're dawdling.

Fast downhill time

Left at the top and it's time for a long downhill section - the first part is a bit steep (argh, quads!) but shallows out and you can get some good ground covered.

Another long hikeable up

If the first part of the course was all about short ups and downs, this middle is a bit calmer. The long down ends in a cross-roads (you'll know it because it's right before the fencing starts on the left) and you dive right up another climb.

This really is a beautiful woodland

 The climb starts fairly steep but soon shallows out - just keep on marching and you'll get there. This is a lovely section of course, very wide and flat and pretty. I look forward to being lapped on lap four up here (hopefully not lap three, but we'll see).

Towards the top of this hill there's a hairpin right, and you dive into a narrow and rooty forest trail again, eventually emerging onto a proper path for a few tens of metres.

Balancing on the balance beam is optional

This section is through a fitness trail - the route passes a zig-zag-run, tricep dip bars, and a balance beam. I don't believe there's extra credit available for trying them out. Turning left at the balance beam the route joins a trail around the hill fort. This is flat (hurray!) and really quite nice on the legs to run, but watch out for more pesky roots.

Pop out here, turning place visible as grassy knoll in the picture

The trail pops you out through a children's area, across a turning place at the end of the overflow carpark, and down a really nice wide trail. Perfect for stretching your legs out.

Run, run, run!

Fantastic downhill awaits, enjoy it.

The picture does not do this incline justice

What goes down must go up again (as Lazarus says about the Barkley Marathons, the net ascent on each lap is zero, how hard can it be?).

In the mud (after a few hundred people have been up it three or four times) this will be tricky. I think it's the steepest climb on the course - but even with that said it only takes a couple of minutes, and there's no actual climbing required.

Arriving up from the left, turn left and run down the ditch

The ditch is fast but a bit bonkers on legs a bit broken from the climb - just like the other ditch across the course, watch out for loose rocks, pointy flints, and fallen twigs and branches - also don't go careering to fast or you'll end up in a bush at the bottom. Don't ask me how I know that.

A little up and down

After the ditch, and a flat bit, there's an odd switch left up some steps and right at a four-way to go back down a small descent - to be honest I'm not sure if I've got this little bit right...

You're seeing a fraction of the photos I took, I couldn't stop

Next is a rolling section with some nice runnable parts - not far to go now, almost a lap completed. However, you're at the bottom of the hill again, so there's a sting in the tail to follow.

No real-world comforts for you!

After the rolling trail there's a tantalising glance at the real world - a few houses and people making cups of tea. No time for that for you though - turn right, time to finish the lap.

Take the one on the right

The final climb combination starts here - it's a bit tricky in places but should be well marked.

Ski jump in winter

After a while there's a bit where they've decided you probably need some assistance.  First there's some railings. I'm not sure why this part of the route is more pedestrian-friendly, I suspect there's a main walking route that goes from the Wendover corner up to the top?

Steps and handrails - ignored on lap one, essential on lap five

Then some stairs up to the road crossing.

The reentry point is visible, just past the light patch across the road

Pop out here and dive back in about 20m down on the left.

Carry on up, following the hand rail

It's fascinating how the flora varies through different parts of the woods. Each area has it's own personality and colour palette. This area here was absolutely stunning on the day of this run - sharp shadows in the crisp air, and incredible trees.

My new iPhone lock-screen picture

There are a few trees that really draw the attention. This was one of a couple that were just jaw-droppingly beautiful. As always, the photo does it no justice.

Single-track section - there's a left turn somewhere along here, easy to miss

Get to the top of all that and there's a short single-track section. This is about as overgrown as it gets really so no need to worry about stinging nettles and brambles. I ran it in compression socks and shorts and barely picked up a scratch.

The only gate on the course

Left at the top of the single track section and through the only gate on the course. It's a bit of a fiddly one and there's no quick way through. If this is lap five and the race is on, getting to this gate first could be a distinct advantage.

Nice wide and flat - perfect for some closing stages sprinting

Through the gate, along a narrow track, bend to the right at the end and run a hundred metres down the road. Just before you get to the T-junction with another road the there's the final stile of the circuit.

The last non-bovine obstacle

If you didn't make it to the gate first, it may be recoverable if you use everything you've got left to get to the stile to the start/finish field first - there's only a short run from the stile back to the trig point - come on, you can do it!

The trig point is well guarded

And there you go - one lap completed. Four more to go, no time to hang around at the checkpoint.

See you all on the 26th; don't forget to charge your head torch batteries, this is going to be bonkers in the dark!