This time last year I was preparing for my first 'racing' ultra, which happened to be Chester. I say first racing, because I had previously done The Cateran Yomp at 54 miles, but that was carrying 35lb of kit (as we used that as a 'warm up' event for The 100 Peaks). I should state 35lb wasn't mandatory kit, it was just an excuse for us to 'push' ourselves a little more. You get 24hrs to complete the Cateran Yomp, we did it in 18hrs fully loaded.
So back to the original point, last year at Chester I properly popped my Ultra Cherry! Chester last year was also the start of my taper for The 100 Peaks and would serve as a barometer for how prepared I was for the main Challenge in May. The plan was from 25th March to run Chester, followed by Manchester Marathon, Paris Marathon, London Marathon and finish with Milton Keynes Marathon on 1st May. The plan was also to not kill myself in the process, so for the sake of limiting last minute injuries I would run conservatively, which most endurance athletes will identify with as a complete misnomer!
Anyway, I loved the event and the GB Ultras set up so much I vowed I would be back to 'best' the time I put down. So last Friday evening I rocked up at Waverton Village Hall once again to register for the small matter of running 50 odd miles the following morning.
Wayne had asked us in the week if we wanted a digital sneaky peak of our race numbers and I was humbled to learn I'd received No. 100.
It's become a special number for me, obviously synonymous with The 100 Peaks and the achievement of the Challenge and once again the reasons for doing it and most certainly the reason why I'm now in the sort of shape, that enables me to believe I'm actually an endurance athlete!
Accompanying me around would be Lloydybear. Most of you will be familiar with Lloydybear, but for those of you who aren’t, the Bear was given to me for The 100 Peaks to represent my little brother, whilst I carry him in my heart and my memories, it’s nice when I’m doing events like this to have something with me that means I’m carrying him around. Weird I know and if truth be told he’s a lazy sod and does nothing apart from enjoy the view. But unlike my little brother he doesn’t give me earache, chat shit or steal my stuff (although I wish he could of course)!
Lloydybear now also belongs to my son Charlie and sits (the rest of the time) proudly at the head of his bed, Charlie loves seeing ‘Uncle’ Lloydybear go on adventures with daddy, which means now of course I have added incentive for getting things done when I cross that start line.
Kit sorted and my VIB (Very Important Bear) locked and loaded, the alarm is set and before I know it, it’s going off. It’s 4am. Standard pre-race routine begins for me, coffee and 2 tins of ambrosia creamed rice along with some preloading of salts (Precision Hydration) in half a litre of water.
I’m nervous about this one I must admit. I reflect on where I was this time last year before Chester. With the build up to The 100 Peaks Challenge, my training from the previous October had been intense. At the beginning of 2017 I’d had 6 weeks working in Copenhagen too, which meant other than working, my spare time was turned in to something resembling the Rocky IV training montage.
Double sometimes treble daily sessions meant the increase in my physical condition was incredible and very noticeable. Without such a big challenge to focus on for this year and after trying to fully recover from the injury I inflicted upon myself whilst running on holiday, the intensity or even desire hasn’t been there. That’s probably a bit strong, I’ve trained hard, but I’ve concentrated on getting volume back in the legs just to make sure that I can cope with running big miles after what happened. Volume has meant I’ve neglected strength and conditioning and intervals (or speed work) because I didn’t want to put too much stress on the knee, conscious that any sort of injury could set me back massively. As a consequence, for me I feel like I’ve slacked off a bit. Which I guess is to be expected and I probably shouldn’t give myself such a hard time about it, but those are the standards we set ourselves and I'm sure we all get to a point where we’re measuring ourselves against what we have achieved in recent times.
Although I'm nervous, mentally I'm a good place, to be honest the thought of running big miles doesn't really phase me anymore, I know how strong I am mentally and I know at some point I will just get in to a groove, get the head down and just keep going.
A little after 0430 I'm in the car and rolling up at Waverton Village Hall, final bit of faff, generous slavering of the Vas and some beet it and I'm standing inside the hall with the best part of 250 other nervous, expectant crazies, the lunatics have definitely taken over the asylum! I get to put a few real faces to instagram and twitter accounts and before we know it, the safety brief is delivered and we're shuffling out to the start area. I'd been looking for Jules all morning and finally see her as she makes her way in to the start. It's just before 0600, it's still dark, but there's a buzz in the air, that's only silenced but for a moment as we're released like chickens out of the pen, after the ground has been sprinkled with grain!
I quickly set into a nice easy rhythm and a pace I know will be comfortable to maintain (as an average) for the entire race, but alarm bells start ringing as we make the first turn on to the farmers track at the Church. It's very wet it's sloppy and it's not easy going, luckily it's not long and before we know it we're back on the tarmac again. However, at Aldford between miles 5 & 6 the course begins to show its teeth and the slop hinders progress and saps the legs of energy for the next 5 or so miles before we hit Chester (Pic 6 @ CP1 & Pic 7 @ 11mi [Handbridge]).
From Chester we then hit the canal for about 7 miles and on the whole it's pretty easy going but at 18 through to Bridge Trafford it's 2 and half miles of wet sticky mud and by the time I reach CP3 (Pic 8) at 23 miles the legs feel like they've been in a battle. I take a little while at Dunham to get some food down me and get the bottles topped up properly before heading out again. It's going to be a battle now because it's a slog up to Helsby Hill to get that marathon distance done, and it's really from this point that the course grows in to a bit of beast and Helsby (Pic 9) really means you're in the thick of it. The run has become a 'move as fast as possible' when you can and a 'shuffle' up the hills kinda race now, but to be honest, I've set myself into a just getting it done mindset and I'm ok with that, and by the time I hit CP4 (Pic 10) via those bloody steps I'm feeling pretty comfortable. I've resigned myself to the idea now that there is no way I'm getting inside last years time, so I may as well just buckle up, crack on and get back as soon as I can.
It's at this point though I begin to wonder where I am in terms of placing and considering the conditions and how much of a struggle I've had, I've resigned myself to thinking that I'm outside the top 100, I don't know why, so between Frodsham and Delamere I keep my pace pretty even so as not to fall many more places. It's pretty heavy (Pic 11) going again until we hit the Forest Trail, but I remember getting to that point last year and thinking by that point you'd broken the back of this race and again this year it felt the same (Pics 12 & 13). I got into CP5 as I had CP4 feeling pretty comfortable. It was great to see Wayne at 5, get topped up properly once again and know that there was one Checkpoint left to chase down and you're close to hitting the 40 mile mark. I also got told I was inside the top 50, so that gave me a massive lift and the drive to push on.
The going between 5 and 6 was very heavy and I think the only consolation I took was, that by that point there was not going to be many people reigning me in, so for those 7 or so miles I just battled the mud and got the head down and moved as fast as my legs and the ground would let me. It's also great at this point of the race, despite how tough the conditions underfoot are, that there is a familiarity about it. So by the time you cross the sty and through the gate at CP6 (Pic 14) your mentally counting down the miles. And weirdly despite how slow it feels that I'm running them, they seem to be going by pretty fast!
The only thing that stands between me now and a 'gold' placing is the 'Tow Path of DOOM!' The best part of 6 miles of a sickener. In some ways it's the most soul destroying of finishes, but in others the perfect way to finish the race. My belief is, if you can conquer those last 6 miles despite what's gone before them, then mentally you can conquer anything!
The race has been a pretty lonely affair for me from CP5, and I'd hardly seen a soul, but I knew that there might well be a few runners picking up the pace a bit as they hit the Tow Path, and that proved to the case. There was one runner who definitely had the eye of the tiger and there was no way I was keeping him at bay or even staying with him, when he caught and passed me. A second one I managed to keep at bay long enough to be within a sniff of the final mile and know there was no way he'd be catching me, especially when I saw the car park and the legs kicked in for the last quarter mile smash to the finish. So much in the same way as I did last year, I kicked, went and finished with a solid decent stride.
Seeing the supporters at the entrance to Waverton Village Hall all those hours after leaving at 0600 that morning is pretty special and I'll go as far as suggesting it feels just as good to see that sight as it does to see the streets lined on any big city marathon. In that moment, those 52 miles felt like they'd been worth it, if for nothing else but that clap in to the finish.
I finished in 10hrs38, which was over an hour outside of last years effort, when I had hoped to be an hour inside it, but as Haydn, rightly suggested to me, "that's trail running!" On the face of it, in those conditions and off the back of the injury, I was very happy. I finished 55th (45th man) and if I'd been offered that at the start, I'd have taken that. Last year I finished 30th and this year, my time last year would have meant I finished 20th this, that's a measure I guess of how much tougher the course ran this year. So on reflection, it's a pretty decent start to the year and not a bad training run for Boston!! Boston again is going to be a grin and bear it one for me, as the focused marathon training hasn't been there but now I've got my bib no. (11681) and it's only a month away, I'm getting excited by the prospect of running it and will give it all I've got.
A very special thanks must be reserved for Wayne, Haydn, Jonathan Kettle and all the GB Ultras Team and especially those guys manning the Checkpoints, keeping us fuelled, fed, watered and stocked up with smiles and a reason to make sure we got our arses to the next CP! You're pretty amazing and you've created not only an incredible series of races but a fantastic family!
To Lloydy, thank you for having my back once again lil bro, big love and blue skies x