Tag: Trail running

Centurion Grand Slam – a great year

This was always going to be a busy year, a year where I looked to train for and tackle the Centurion 100 Grand Slam. It was never going to be sensible to try to combine that and all the other things I had going on. I knew that from the outset, but I also recognise that there is never a perfect time to get these things done and that perfection is the enemy of good enough.

When I first started ultra running, I assumed that my first ultra would be my one and only long race. I didn’t imagine that I would be sucked into this community and that the desire to explore new opportunities would be so all consuming. Since completing my first 100, the Centurion Grand Slam has been staring at me, I knew after crossing that line on the first SDW100 that I had to come back and do all 4, I also started to recognise that there would never be a perfect time to get it done, that I just needed to get on with it. So this has been my 2018; training for and completing 4 x 100 milers alongside all the other bits and pieces of life, battling hamstring tendonopathy and meeting some of the most fabulous people I could hope to meet along the way.

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It all started on a blisteringly hot day in May when the weather suddenly changed from a cold spring to a heatwave and I found myself on the start line of the Thames Path 100 for a 10.00hrs start. The start time is hugely relevant; SDW100 starts at 0600hrs so previously I would already have four hours running under my belt, the heat was also building up by the start making the first 25 miles far more uncomfortable than I would have liked. My plan was to run to 50 mile point then run / walk from there. I didn’t even manage 25 before the unrelenting flat and the heat bouncing off the trail and the river almost broke me. I staggered into Henley at 50 miles to be greeted by my Dad and two buddies from my massage course.

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Brilliant support crew

I then just survived the final 50, hugely helped by Jodie my wonderful pacer. It was a brutal race. The hamstring tendonopathy had forced me to cut my training down to 3 runs per week so I was massively undertrained, a fall at about 30 miles caused something nasty behind my right knee and heat exhaustion was in full operation by about mile 35. The heat exhaustion was something which I managed to get through but the effects of it were obvious the next day when I found myself shivering, fully dressed under a winter duvet while the rest of the country basked in glorious May heat, I’m not too sure getting to that stage is all that good for anyone. All in all I would happily never ever see the Thames Path again. A flat course doesn’t equate an easy course and I found the lack of terrain variety combined with quite a lot of hard road underfoot made for a hard race. Not recommended for a first 100 miler certainly.

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Jodie, life saving pacer

And so onto the South Downs Way 100. The nasty thing behind my knee meant that I was unable to straighten my knee or fully weight bear on it until a week before the race. The sensible thing was to drop out and heal. Supportive Husband, knowing what a complete pain in arse I am when I can’t achieve what I set out to achieve, told me that we are in our 40’s now and most things hurt when we run, that I should stop being so daft and get on with it. So there I was on the start line of my second 100 on what promised to be another hot day but at a far better time in the morning allowing us some cool running before the sun fully hit us. I flew around the first 50, I knew I was going too fast but I just didn’t care, I was loving it. I had a new support on my hurt knee which seemed to be holding me together and I was on a trail which I know and love. Then I got beyond 60 miles and my body refused to function normally, my usual nausea was with me, clearly I had my customary fall and my legs just wouldn’t work. The big downhills had taken their toll, I could hardly eat or drink and the early speed gave way to plodding. I realised that all was not well with the world and made the call to walk the last 15, later my kidneys showed me that it had been a pretty close call and, on reflection, my body was beginning to shut down towards the end of the race.

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Once I had made that decision to walk,I was fine, I knew that I could get to the end but just hated the toll which it had taken on me. The knee brace had worked but had clearly restricted full movement of blood around my lower leg resulting in a massive bruise covering most of my shin, my hamstring was severely unhappy and my kidneys were crying. I love this race, but this iteration of it pushed me quite close to the edge and I needed to take a long hard look at myself. The South Downs has a special place for me, it makes for a good, albeit challenging entry level 100 miler and is very achievable for most people with a few Ultras under their belt.

 

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Third race, North Downs Way 100, the one I had been dreading the most. Tales of steps, hard hills and tree roots lurking to trip unwary runners are often seen on ultra social media sites. None of this boded well for this undertrained runner who falls over easily. My foreboding was increased when my six year old kindly gifted me a vomiting bug the Monday before the race. So I changed tack, abandoned my ‘let’s just run and see how it goes’ tactic and arrived at this start line on another hot day with a bit of a plan. I would ignore the racing snakes and potter out, enjoy the scenery and the general chat of fellow runners and look to keep a constant pace throughout. I started the race assuming that this was going to be another epic, my legs were wobbly from vomiting a bit too much earlier in the week and I wasn’t really in the right frame of mind. How wrong could I have been.

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It was a fabulous race. I didn’t perform particularly brilliantly but I loved it, every step of it, most importantly I felt a reconnection to the sport I love. Yes the trail was pretty tough, it was burning hot and nausea caught up with me like an omnipresent shadow. However the route was stunning, varied and interestingly challenging and I had company for large sections of it; fellow runners enjoying the same journey. My fabulous pacers who witnessed me slurring my words and muttering nonsense may not recognise my positive recollections but for me it was a totally different experience to the previous two races, it was nice to actually over take a few people. Many runners say that this is not a race for first time 100 milers and I’m not too sure that I agree, purely because I fell in love with the North Downs on this day. However, expectation management is key and people would do well to accept that it’s not an easy route and plan accordingly.

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So glad to see Sarah 23 miles from the end!!

Before I knew it, it was October and we were all standing around for another 10am start, this time in Goring-on-Thames looking out at the lashing rain knowing that more was promised. There was a buzz around as the village hall as we all caught up with people we had shared the previous races with, knowing the Grand Slam was in reach. This race was always going to be different, four very separate out and back legs, no crews but a consistent gang of volunteers in Goring urging us on and I was very much looking forward to it.

The sections on the Thames Path were as painful as TP100 as first leg was fast and, on the way back, against a brick wall of wind.  The final leg was nausea, nausea, a bit of vomiting and then slightly less nausea but I have blanked them from my mind.  The middle two legs were glorious; beautiful trail, lovely views, warm sunshine and fantastic people to chat to.  On the third leg I joined various groups of guys who pushed me and supported me in equal measures and was pure ultra running joy.  I had wondered if I should have had a pacer at that stage but I didn’t need one (boy did I need Jim on the 4th leg pacing and pushing me but I was ok on leg 3). It was a great race and a worthy finale to the Slam.

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If , like me 100 milers are staring at you then I recommend you extend those thoughts and go for the Grand Slam.  It was, as ever, brilliantly organised but it was far more than just good races.  It was made into an event, a triumph for everyone who stepped over the start line wrapped up by a huge sense of community.  The volunteers on the check points looked after and cheered the guys at the back as much as the guys at the front; we were all winners in our own way.  Coming second female over all in the Grand Slam made it all worth while for me and seeing Laura win first female was the icing on the cake as we had shared so much together.

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Chilton Wonderland 50

The school holidays dawned, I had recently completed SDW100 and was therefore completely indestructible, I put myself onto the waiting list for the CW50 to give me a summer holiday goal to train towards, I got all place; all was good with the world.
….then I went training with the local athletics club, a really good half mile interval session with some great runners. I was indestructible remember, so when my hamstring tendonopathy started to play up, it didn’t matter because I could take on the world: I didn’t stop, I had to finish the session. As a result of those intervals I couldn’t walk properly, run properly do anything properly.  I am clearly an idiot. I tried to give the place in CW50 back so that someone else could run this incredible route, but it was too late. At this point I had a proper girly strop at Supportive Husband who made appropriate noises to try to make me feel better before I looked properly at Nici’s response to my request to give the place back…it was too late, but she was sure it would all be ok and that she would see me at the start line. Right, strop back in its box and determined head back on, rehab, here I come.

Before I knew it I found myself in Goring Village hall happily absorbing the greetings, running banter and general positive vibe which Ultras seem to bring. I was facing 50 miles of Wonderland; muddy paths, woodland trails full tree roots, some stunning views and a few obligatory hills. The weather was looking good allowing me a bit of stretching in the Autumn sunshine knowing that rain was due in by the afternoon. Standing next to the Thames (the hilly bit apparently), I decided that I don’t much like rain so had best get as much of the course done before it came in, the starter horn went off and I committed to keeping up with what can only be described as a cheeky pace.

I felt surprisingly relaxed, I hadn’t done any of the planned training, I hadn’t done my usual build up to a race but I had done something I don’t usually do, I had rested. I was puffing like a steam train, probably because I hadn’t stretched my lungs for a while, but my legs felt strong. I soon became aware of Charley behind me, the pace was pretty tough and I was willing her to just get it over and done with and overtake. Half way to CP1 a bunch of us found ourselves simultaneously shouting to the pack in front that they were going the wrong way leading to us all confessing that it was quite a tasty pace but we were all chasing the rain.

IMG_1112.JPGCP1 arrived surprisingly fast, hamstring felt like it was about to explode but somehow I knew it would ease. Centurion events stand out with their well stocked stations and unbelievably encouraging crews, I imagined all Ultras would be like this but my small experience has shown me that they aren’t which is what makes the Centurion CP’s so special. Before I knew it, my water container had been stocked, I had shoved some food in and was off.

It’s at this stage where I would love to give a blow by blow account of where I went and what point I arrived at which CP. The truth is that it all has all blurred into one, I’ve seen photos with me in them and have no recollection of where they were taken. The pictures I have in my head are of tree roots, a windmill at the top of a stinker of a hill, some views which we all said ‘wow’ at the same time, the back of Jim and James’s trainers, some steps which none of used words to describe (just lots of ‘ouch’ ‘ooh’ and ‘aghh’) and an extra hill.

Yes, an extra hill, thrown in totally for free….and we weren’t the only ones. The brilliant things about Centurion events is that the routes are really well marked, so a lack of markers should be an indicator that all is not well. It took us to the top of a nettle infested hill to figure it out, but it was a mark of just how we were carrying each other along when we shrugged it off and cracked on trying to find the right route.

But this day wasn’t about where we went and how I felt at each point, it was about two things for me; the magic of trail running and people. The route was fantastic, how on earth did they find these glorious twisting paths linking the Thames Path, the Chilton Way and the Ridgeway. I love nothing more than running through woods and on muddy paths where I can lose myself in my thoughts and feel a bit more connected to nature. This route had that in bucket loads. The nettles were in autumn mode and couldn’t really be bothered to sting properly, the hills were so scenic that they were worth all the climbs, even the mud felt manageable.

And then it was about the people. Charley, Jim and James. I couldn’t tell what we chatted about but we chatted for about 45 miles. We laughed at downward steps and me confidently turning right having been told ‘it’s left here’. We all took a tumble at some point and we checked on the tumblee. We got over the extra hill and congratulated ourselves on our extra milage. We waved heartily at the lovely supporters who weren’t there to support us but cheered us anyway. This is the Centurion Army, not just the people who refuse to let you stand on your own at the start and insist on chatting to you, but also the people on the trail who look out for you. These are the strongest memories for me.

Coming into Goring we realised that it was actually a race and so Charley and I upped the pace only to hear a shout from behind ‘you need to turn left’, luckily I got it right this time and we embarked on the dog leg around the back to the village hall. We had clearly gone off too fast but Charley can shift rapidly and still find the energy to chat positive words. The sprint in was brilliant, not what I expected to be doing in a 50 miler but to come in with under a second between us was incredible.

I always learn something from races. This time I learnt just how far I can push myself when I am surrounded by hard runners who don’t take prisoners. There were lots of opportunities to lose the route on this race and I knew that, if I dropped back, I was liable to get very lost and disheartened so motivation was high to stick with this incredible group of people who just kept driving hard. I stupidly asked near the end if the upward slope we were on counted as a hill (and therefore could we walk) and was told in no uncertain terms that we were too close to the end for much to be counted as a hill and that we just needed to run hard from there on in. Yup, they were a tough crowd.

In summary, it’s the best race I’ve ever been lucky enough to be part of. It was such an enjoyable day due to the route, the organisation and obviously the people; running, supporting and volunteering. Anyone looking for an Ultra, this is definitely one for the list.

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The Green Man Ultra

 

When I first decided to start running longer races my google searches kept coming back to The Green Man Ultra. From this initial research, it seemed to be a no-nonsense, fun and somewhat iconic race: ‘Distributed woodland of community forest path’, sounds idyllic… ‘anybody who completes the challenge is termed a Woodwose’. More reading revealed that a Woodwose is the name for wild men and woman who hunted in imaginary forests of medieval England; an image of a lovely jaunt through England’s green and pleasant land inhabited by pixies and imps flittered through my mind and I couldn’t wait to sign up. Unfortunately on my first attempt to enter, the race was full, on the second attempt I had a hurty hamstring. However, by year three, all was well, I got a place and started training.

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Slightly late in the day I found the Facebook page and discovered lots of chat about mud, more mud and shoes to cope with mud. What happen to the English idyll inhabited by mythical wood creatures, however, it did give me my first major race dilemma; use my rubbishy but reliable old trails shoes (my lovely Training Hoka’s were not going to cut it) or buy some new Mud Claws risking foot rubs and breaking the most fundamental rule of running; never race in new kit.

I decided to ignore the deafening calls of ‘make sure you wear Mud Claws everyone’ shouting out from the FB page and decided to wear my old faithful shoes which, if the truth be known, I bought in a rush ages ago and have never really liked. Alongside these I also went for my cold weather running kit. The weather forecast was ok but I was questioning the wisdom of the BBC weather service on the drive down to Bristol as my car was rocked by high winds and lashing rain on the M4 and I was forced to slow to 50mph due to poor visibility.

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So the day of the race dawned, cold but ok. I put behind me the thoughts that I had moved house three days earlier and hadn’t really slept in a week and parked up, glad to be back in the company of trail runners. After a good walk to the start and a pretty thorough race brief we were off, at quite a fast pace I must just say. I stuck to my plan of being in the following pack, got past the canine-cross runners and started to enjoy the trail. The only significant hill arrived pretty early on, I love going up so that was fine. But my troubles started soon after that.

Most Ultras are all about following the trail; hopefully a well marked trail backed up with a map and compass. I had a map, route directions and the route on my watch but still managed to end up in someone’s back garden before CP1. However I soon recovered (I think one guy did a river crossing at the end of said garden but he was clearly braver than me) and was soon into the CP. I had opted for the raw route so was only able to pick up water for my Tailwind which is a plan I was happy with. Frustratingly the water was in a container with the worlds slowest tap so I stood there watching fellow runners come in, grab a snack and run out again.

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CP 1-2 revealed just how hard the nav on this course is. I had met up with a fellow runner Jon after my first garden detour, had a chat before I scampered off only to see him overtake me in CP1 as I was struggled to fill my water container. My next few detours also resulted in me finding him in front of me every time I got back onto the route, I only found CP 2 due to a shout from Jon which made me turn around to see him pointing in the correct direction.

By CP 3 I was totally spent. The old faithful trail shoes were even more rubbish than I remembered, yup no blisters but that would have been preferable to the constant backwards slide I was getting with every footstep through the most hideous mud the South West has to offer. I could almost cope with the ankle deep stuff and the stuff which was more cow dung than mud because everyone found that hard. It was the constant slipping and sliding on the normal trails, especially the steep tree root infested downhills. The pixies and Woodmen of Bristols forests must have been wetting themselves with laughter at the sight of me. By this stage I had run most of the route by myself which was really bringing me down, in addition it was either bright hot sunshine which made me bake in my winter kit or freezing cold; my bottom lip was about to start wobbling. After a big dose of Man Up I tottered, rather pathetically out of the CP and onto another few hours of trying to figure out where the heck I was.

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After overshooting the route yet again, I found myself alone, on a track with a blank screen on my watch. A desire to stamp my feet and shout ‘it’s not fair’ was almost overwhelming but I managed to take a big deep breath and focus on the problem at hand. Out came the map and instructions and I attempted to figure out which motorways I had gone under by this stage and where I was. I decided to head onto what looked like a bigger track which turned out to be the correct route when out of a tree line Jon appeared, I could have hugged him. He told me that he was pretty spent and was doing a bit if a walk / run and that I would be better not sticking with him. I pointed out that, not only was I shattered but I didn’t have a clue where I was or where I was going and, that if it was ok with him I would rather not leave his side.

And from then on all was right with the world, I had someone to run with and the loneliness went, he knew the route and getting lost was not an option and most importantly, he was a brilliant bloke and we spent the next few hours chatting and actually enjoying the race. CP 4 arrived and I was greeted by Brilliant Bristol Mates who had bravely agreed to look after the kids (Supportive Husband was supporting from a ski slope somewhere in France). Enthusiastic Child 1 and 2 held my hands into the CP creating a moment which I could put in a box and treasure forever, capped off my EC 2 saying ‘come on Mummy, keep running…running’s good for you’ (what have we created!). However, Jon wasn’t hanging around and, as I saw my only means of reliable navigation bound up the hill and out of the CP, I had a quick hug with the kids and hurried after him.

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Before The Downs I finally knew where I was and we both noticed that we had recovered a bit and were doing a decent pace with a bit of a spring to our step (a very little spring). By the Suspension Bridge we knew that the finish was nearby and were able to saviour the view for a few seconds before heading back into Ashton Court and finally finding the finish line, third female for me and a PB for Jon.

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So what can I pass on about this race. It’s certainly not a lovely jaunt on a well marked trail with imps and pixies cheering you along. It is a brutally muddy trail with a few trail markings along the way. I’m ok at map reading but the detail required to get around the trails, roads and woods is something else. However these are just the things which make this race so brilliant; it’s old school ‘do a recce’ trail running, it’s mud which makes you crave summer (and better shoes) and it’s full of the wonderful people who thrive on such challenges as well as a bunch of crazy volunteers who give up their weekends to brilliantly look after runners and support us all in our individual endeavours. So, if your google searches turns up this race, go for it. Just don’t move house the week before it, do a recce or find an experienced Bristolian to run with and listen to all cries of Mud, Mud, Mud.

Photos largely from the Green Man FB page and https://www.flickr.com/photos/115471567@N03/albums/

http://www.greenmanultra.co.uk/the-green-man-ultra/