Monday, 21 March 2011

SIS Lightning 12 race report

It's the day after the Lightning12 and I can categorically say that that was the hardest fought race I have had to endure to date. Well it was due to happen sooner rather than later right...

Rewind to race morning (I had arrived the night before in the beautiful Malvern Hills - although quite not so beautiful if you find your running up and down them for 12 hours!). It was a cold night and my tent offered little protection from this. I cacooned myself in my sleeping bag and did as best I could to sleep. I probably didn't manage more than 3 hrs of sleep max.

My iPod alarm was set for 4:30am (race start was 6) but didn't wake me or didn't go off at all. I couldn't work out which. I rose at 5am and had just an hour to prepare. Normally this would be plenty but confined to a tent makes everything a little bit more tricky. Porridge and banana for breakfast with a strong coffee set me up for the run ahead. The clock was ticking and it was getting closer and closer to 6. I was still fumbling around getting my kit together, filling my water bottle up etc when I hear... 5... 4.... 3... 2..... 1! And the claxon sound. Oh crap I've missed the start!! I grabbed my gear and rushed to the start line which luckily was all but 50 metres away. I joined the back of the pack and had a good laugh to myself about it. If anything that small mishap helped me relax a little. For a description of the course itself see my account from last year here - 

Shortly into the first lap it became apparent that my innov8s had seen better days. The wear on the back of the tread meant that they were falling inwards and backwards with every step. Plus I had opted to wear my sealskinz socks for added protection from the trail however I quickly learnt that they do not perform in the dry as well as they do in the wet. My feet were on fire and massively overheating. Defintely a shoe and sock change at the end of lap 1.

I had good speed (who doesn't on the first lap of a 12 hour race!) but didn't think I was overdoing it. My race strategy was simple (he says) each lap had to average under an hour so that on completing my 12 lap I could go out and run a 13th. But I also wanted to run a more consistent race too. To give what I was asking of myself some context I only ran my first 3 laps last year under 1hr. The rest were between 1h5m -1h20m. I therefore knewn this wasn't going to be easy.

And easy it wasn't!!! With my new Montrail Mountain Masochists and Injini socks on I was feeling far more comfortable. Lap 1 was 52mins (each lap measures 9.3k - coming up short of the advertised 10k mark). Add the 800ft of ascent PER lap and you get an idea of how tough this course is. I kept the pace steady and ran laps 2, 3, and 4 in 52, 54 and 58 minutes. Good consistency, on track and I was happy. I stopped by my tent at the end of each lap to refill my bottle and take on some food but avoided the temptation to sit in my chair.  

Then it was all change.... From lap 5 onwards it all went horribly wrong. Clearly the pace I was running wasn't sustainble. I had hit the wall no question and continued scaling up it for lap after lap after lap. This wasn't just a small low point in the race which I would soon get over. I was deteroiating fast and I was powerless to stop the rot. Lap 5 was a 67 and lap 6 a 79. I had fallen off a cliff! The reality of knowing I hadn't even completed half of the alloted 12 hours also bared down heavily on me. Instead of breaking this up in to chunks and focusing only on each lap, all I could think about was the total distance/time/number of laps I would still be out there for.

I seriously (I think) considered throwing in the towel at the end of lap 6 such was my physical and mental distress. I slumped down in my chair and ate some pizza and coke. This relived the senses a little and I simply got up and went back out for another lap. There wasn't any major change in me, I was still on a low but perhaps a little more accepting of my fate. Yes I was hurting, and yes it will continue to hurt, no question, and no I wouldn't be getting any faster, only slower, but I'm still in this race and so I plodded on and out for another lap. 

Laps 7, 8 and 9 were a little more consistent. Consistently slow maybe but still consistent. 77, 75 and 75. Wow perhaps I was getting the knack for this pacing thing after all. There is little else to report or describe about what occured during these laps other than to say that my mood did improve a little. This is in part because of all the other great people out on the course. Many knew me as the guy who won it last year (to my real surprise as I was really trying to keep that one quiet - card marked and all that). The number 1 race number didn't help either but is a very nice momento to keep.  Anyway where I was going with this is that some would comment as they passed me (and on the rare occasion that I actually passed them). One guy's response when I told him I was throwing in the towel was "you can't, you're our inspiration for being out here" (I'm not making that up!) That was nice to hear and perhaps a clever ploy to keep me out there but it kinda worked and perked me up a little. The other thoughts that ran through my head when I thought about quiting were primarily who would I be letting down if I did call it a day - would my family think less of me if I did - the answer of course is no, but at the time the thought of going home and telling them I quit after 6 laps was not one I could contempate,  and after that guy's comment on the course it made me think that I had a kind of duty to stay out there as the course record holder and keep going til I dropped. The last thing I wanted was to be thought of as a bad loser - someone who when its not quite going their way, and things got a bit tough quits. And what stick would I get from the guys down the club - Answer: Plenty!! And perhaps rightly so... Because as ultra runners we measure and pride ourselves on NOT how fast we run but on how FAR we run and how LONG we can endure it for. Therefore quiting in an ultra race perhaps has far more consequence and significance than in a 'normal' shorter or distance event. Of course anyone, 'ultra runner' or otherwise, can have a bad day and I was definitely having a bad day (at least by the standards I had set myself).

There is one particular quote by Lance Armstrong that went through my head as I was out there and which defintely kept me going - "Pain is temporary. Quiting lasts forever". Too true! And the simple reality of the situation was that I either stopped or kept going. End of. As I sit here now on Monday evening the pain has indeed subsided (unless tackling stairs!) but had I quit yesterday and not carried on then I would indeed be feeling very very sorry for myself and doubting my ability as an ultra  runner at all.

Anyway back to the race and I had finished lap 9. Incidently back on lap 7 or 8 when speaking to my wife on the phone I talked about setting some goals that would keep me going. If I completed 9 laps that would take me over 50 miles which would be a job well done, if I managed 10 laps then that was over a double marathon and a nice round number. Completing 11 laps would go over the 100k mark which would be a very worthy milestone to achieve. Annoyingly, 10 laps wasn't 100k because of the 'short' lap. I set these goals to provide some meaning to each subsequent lap and it worked.

So back (again) to end of lap 9 (sorry we shall get to the end soon I promise) and I was all but finished mentally and physically. Instead of going to my tent to refill my water bottle I had planned to cross the finish line first to record my time, then go and have a sit down and a cup of tea in the catering tent. As I did this and crossed the line the announcer who hadn't once told me my position says and here's Stuart last years winner in 5th place. It was almost an exact reoccurence of last year when the same announcer told me I was in first place, and I couldn't believe it. For me it had been a terrible race (post lap 4) and I had slogged my way through another 5 laps of misery, but somehow I was in 5th place. My exact thoughts were not though, "Wow that's fantastic" instead they were "damn that really does mean I will have to go back out there and run another lap". I still went for my cup of tea to ponder this new information. I sat down with a guy who was running in a pair and who was also comtempating his final lap. He wasn't looking forward to it either but the crucial difference between pairs and soloists is that you really can't let down your partner. Yourself maybe, but not someone else on the team. Anyway he just said very matter of fact whilst I explained how my race had fallen apart, that I had better go do that extra lap. And as he said that it was clear I had no choice but to. What decision was there to make. None. Get up Blofeld and get your slow arse back out there for one last lap! So that's what I did. Lap 10 was no slower than my previous 3 laps, if not a little faster actually when you take into account my cup of tea in the nice warm tent. Amazing what a good old cuppa can do for morale!

I had long decided that I wouldn't even attempt an 11th lap, even though I would finish the 10th lap well inside the 12 hour time window. Running an 11th lap would have seen me out there for 12 1/2 hours plus, which was not something that filled me with any joy, plus logistically I had a tent to pack away, warm down after the event, supper and a 3hr drive home to contemplate. These aren't excuses for not running another lap, merely the reality that I faced.

So there you go that was my Lightning 12. No fairy tale ending but an ending nevertheless. I held onto 5th place in the solo category covering 57 miles in 11 hours 15 minutes. My fastest mile was a 7:27 and my slowest a 14:57. Almost certainly one involved going down hill whilst the other involved climbing up, but this was defintely a tale of two halves which I will no doubt learn a lot from in terms of pacing my first 'proper' 100 mile race in August (24hr events apparently don't count as real 100 milers even if you cover this distance).

I will try and keep the blog coming in the next few months but don't expect many races reports. My next non-running challenge is to complete the Chiltern 100 in June on my ElliptiGO. That will be positively easy compared with yesterday I can tell you, but I'm not going to take it lightly I promise!   


  1. Still a great achievement. You're allowed a bad race once in a while. I get them all the time!

  2. I thought you were `a bit casual` when you went past me during the 1st Km. I got to the start line with 7 seconds to go.

  3. Kudos to you Stu for keeping going and grinding out a great result despite not being 100%.

  4. What a story. I've had dreams about arriving late for a races and you've done it for real. Don't beat yourself up about your performance. From your other postings you weren't well enough rested. I admire your dogged ultra spirit for keeping going. The feelings you described, I've been there countless times: "Just keep going and get the darned thing done to the best of my ability as it is right now". You did exactly that and you should feel proud. You showed the quality of a true ultrarunner.