Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Bedford Half Marathon

There hasn't been much to blog about since the Snowdonia Marathon but this weekend was blog worthy so here i am. Since snowdonia at the end of October I've done very little running and have been winding down to the end of the year. However the opportunity arose to run the Bedford Half Marathon, blow away a few cobwebs and finish the year on a positive note.

The lack of any training or mileage since October meant that my form and fitness going into this was going to be severely tested. I knew I was way off my PB set in March at the MK half of 1:20, but hoped I might be good for 1.30. Reading this you may be forgiven for thinking that 10 minutes slower is way off and surely easy, but not so. Thats still sub 7 minute miling and the way I'm running right now would still be a major test.

It was a perfect day. Blue skies and 8 degrees. I was fully Buffed up! My LBAC vest was in the wash after the previous day's Cross Country race (which was still in the legs). The Bedford Half attracts a sizeable field of seasoned veterans and first timers alike. I love the undulating course which sticks to narrow country lanes for the most part. There's a few hills to test you but the reward is a downhill finish from 9 miles onwards which flattens out but is a nice fast finish. 

I approached this race as a training run which lots of people say but what does that actually mean? Well for me it means ignoring everything that is going on around you and simply running your own race, and not getting caught up in the excitement at the start. I did just this and reeled off some even miles at around 6:50 pace.

I was coping with the pace but it wasn't easy. On the hills the pace would obviously drop above 7 min pace, but I was averaging 6:52 which was spot on for a sub 1:30 finish. I crossed the half way mark in exactly 45 minutes to the second! I was feeling it but hoping that the fast finish would help to sneak under my goal time.

I was hydrating well with my own bottle of water so no faffing with plastic cups. Everything was going well, perhaps too well (but this thought didn't occur to me at the time). And then everything  was about to change...

At the 10 mile mark and enjoying a nice downhill section it was warming up. We were getting to the business end of the race so I decided to remove my WSER arm warmers    , and thought nothing more of it. A few minutes later I looked down to check my pace and was horrified it find my Garmin wasn't there!! The arm warmer had evidently pulled it out of its quick release cradle which remained on my wrist. ARGH!!! it was decision time.... Do I turn around and go and look for it putting pay to my sub 1:30 or carry on? It was an easy decision as it cost £300!! And this was 'just' a training run after all. This didn't make it any easier though as I ran against the oncoming runners shouting like a mad man 'has anyone spotted my Garmin!?' no one had... And they were rightly all focused on their own race. Mild panic was overcoming me as I couldn't spot it and didn't know exactly where it had come off. How far do I go back!?... I fully expected to see it in 1000 pieces across the road but at least then I would have known its fate and could have returned to business. As it was every step was another one in the wrong direction that I had to take again to rescue my ruined race. Seeing all the runners I had worked so hard to overtake throughout the race was not the best feeling. I couldn't spot my Garmin anywhere so resigned myself to losing it :-( making this the most expensive race EVER! I turned around and headed on towards the finish. I had not only lost my Garmin but also lost my motivation to close this race out hard. I was still overtaking runners with many asking if I had found it. Nice for them to be concerned but no came the frustrated reply. I closed out the final mile and pushed hard to finish in 1:34. 

I was still pleased with how I had run the race and my finish time, and in reflective mood resigned the lost of my Garmin to just something that happened. What could I do!? Well firstly I reported it to a Marshal at the finish and left my details with her in the desperate hope of it being found and handed in. I showered and waited for my friends who I had drove up with. We got the shuttle bus back to my car and decided to drive back to the 10 mile mark to launch a search and rescue mission. All four of us scoured the grass verge on both sides of the road for a 1/4 mile or so stretch but no luck. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack and the odds werent good. We returned to the car garminless . I was gutted cos I wanted to review my race splits plus I was £300 poorer! I took one more walk up the road in the opposite direction to where I had thought it had come off and continued looking in the vain hope of finding it. Less than 50 metres from the car and heading back, head down low, THERE IT WAS!! Face up in the grass a foot from the gutter still going. Unbelievable!! I felt like I'd won the frigging race :-) haha. 

So that was my last race of 2014 and possibly my last blog post too. It's been quite a year to reflect on with my sub 3 marathon, 1:20 Half, Western States finish and epic 42hr UTMB. Also not forgetting a surprise performance at Snowdonia. 

I think time is running out to crack sub 18 in Parkrun which was the goal I set myself in November. I clocked 18:12 a few weeks ago but since then have gone backwards. Theres a few attempts left but I fear my new found love of Aldi mince pies might put pay to that ;-)

My ambitions for 2014 remain very much up in the air. I was registered to the T184 in August but then decided post Snowdonia that i wanted to go back in 2014 and crack sub 3 there. The two couldn't work together so I've bailed out of the T184 in favour of committing myself 100% to marathon training. The vague plan was a late spring marathon (possibly MK) to attempt 2:45-50 (well you have to aim BIG!!) and the continue through to Snowdonia doing a mix of Parkruns, 10ks, halves and possibly a training marathon run prior to Snowdonia....

Thursday, 31 October 2013

All change please.... Plans for 2014

I thought I would just drop in with a quick word on my plans for 2014 as they have just changed as of today...

This has all come about following my surprising performance in Snowdonia at the weekend. I had only one event planned to 2014 which was going to be the outrageously tough and long T184. This consisted of 184 miles non stop and self supported from the Thames barrier along the Thames Path to the source in the Cotswolds. I was excited about the challenge and entered on a bit of a whim as it looked like selling out fast. However the training commitment for this race was going to be significant and basically be my entire year both before and recovery afterwards.

Following Snowdonia it became clear in my mind that i wanted to come back in 2014 fully trained and ready to give it a real crack. This wasn't going to happen with a month to recover fully from the T184 and then just another month to get in some very limited speed work and taper time. So I've made the decision to pull out of the T184 and commit 100% to one thing - finishing in the top 20 at Snowdonia 2014 (with a sub 3) and in the build up in training and performing will look to peak for a late spring marathon on a super flat course to post what I think I capable of... What that time will be only time and training will tell...

For now though its rest, Parkruns and Cross Country...

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Snowdonia Marathon 2013 race report

The plan following UTMB in August was to wind down for the rest of the year, run a few Parkruns and get my speed back. I was doing just this up until mid October and got my Parkrun time down from 19:06 to 18.20. I was happy but as the long distance runner knows sooner rather than later you will get the yearning to jump back into what you know best.

The Snowdonia Marathon presented me with just this opportunity. With a week and a half before the marathon (which had sold out in January when entries opened) I emailed the lovely Sarah at Buff to enquiry whether they could get me into the race. It was nothing more than a punt but I thought I'd try my luck. The very next morning after an exchange of emails between Buff and race director Jayne I was in!! Awesome!

Then came the issue of readiness for running a marathon!!! Not something I had even considered when sending the email :-) Since UTMB my longest run had been around 8 miles with Parkrun blast at weekends. My average weekly mileage was no more than 20 miles and I was now signed up to the toughest road marathon in the UK. I liked my odds :-D and relished the challenge. In the preceding week I got in one long run of 12 miles and a nice progressive 5 miler testing my speed (slow) and pacing (ok) A few more steady miles thrown in for good measure and that was my marathon training complete. You don't see that plan in Runners World. Haha.

Fast forward to marathon day and I had that same excitement that I've experienced on the previous two years that I've run this race. It really is a wonderful marathon - i think undoubtedly the best in the UK. I was with many friends from home (Leighton Fun Runners, Red Way Runners) and afar, Nick Ham, Jason and David and the rest of the Runners World SNOD forumites. Everyone was looking forward to it as was I.

Sticking to my paleo diet meant that I didn't have to force down a bowl of porridge and instead went along to Petes Eats Caffi in Llanberis for the full works - sausage, bacon, eggs, mushrooms and tomatoes :-P now that's what i call marathon fuelling! With a leisurely 10:30 start time I relaxed and took a walk along the lake front and over to the registration area. Soaked up some of the premarathon buzz and wandered back to the house I was staying at to get ready.

The weather in Snowdonia makes this a marathon not for the faint hearted. The drive up on the Friday demonstrated this perfectly with gale force winds and  horizontal rain that the wipers could only just clear. Race day though was forecast to stay dry first thing with it turning fairly unpleasant in the afternoon. But the temps were in double figures so it was definitely shorts and t shirt weather. I was BUFFED UP in my team colours and raring to go. I had ran 3:17 last year which remains my official marathon PB (the 2:59 I posted in London was not in my name). My expectation for this race based on my complete lack of specific training was sub 3:30 baring in mind how tough this course is with 3 significant climbs at the start, half way and an absolute killer at the end. However I was relaxed and looking forward to my third Snowdonia marathon. Bring it on!!

Nick, Jason and I were pretty much right on the start line about 4 rows back with 2,000 or so runners behind us. Its always worth getting a good start down the first 1/2 mile downhill section before the huge climb up Pen y Pass to the 5 mile point. The excitement rose, the rain came (very briefly) and we were sent on our way. I told myself to hold back on the first climb and save something for later in the race but as it was I was feeling rather good (who isn't though in the first few miles right!) I clipped off a sub 7 minute first mile and got into a nice rhythm as the climb started up Pen y Pass. I was running right behind one of the lead female runners at this point so tried to use her even pacing to drag me up the mountain side. We reached the top in 35 minutes at 7:30 mpm avg pace, which was identical to my pace last year. The next few miles off the top are all downhill with a neat mile of offroad trail thrown in which always catches out the road runners a little. I used this to my advantage and opened up my stride a little to make up a few places and past the leading female.

The next section is fast flat road along the edge of the lake. Time to get into a good pattern and just hold a pace that felt sustainable. I didn't worry about who was passing me or who I was passing and was just concentrating on keeping it as smooth as possible. The effort I was putting in to each mile however was notable. We were racing after all and I came here to give it my best shot. Averaging around 7:15 minute miles for this section.

The half way mark takes you through the town of Beddgelert with lots of crowd support and cheering. There was only one thing on my mind at this point however which was the 2 mile climb out of Beddgelert from mile 13 to 15. I was so focused that I didn't even think about checking my half way split. The climb from Beddgelert is steep initially but then levels out before continuing to climb at a gentle gradient but enough to really know about it. At this point I was running with a number of runners that I was with from the top of the first climb at mile 5. So my target was to simple... dig deep and stay with them and don't let them out of your sight. And whenever someone would come up on my shoulder and pass me, I'd dig even deeper and try and stick with them. This worked well as each runner pulled me closer to the pack of runners that was 100yrd or so ahead on this long stretch of undulating road.

You are rewarded for your efforts after the 15 mile mark with a nice series of short downhill sections which allowed me to relax the legs and maintain a nice tempo. These miles felt fast and soon I was at the 18 mile marker. 22 miles marks the arrival at Waunfawr and the extremely tough 2 mile climb to the summit before descending to the finish. So I told myself that I had just 4 miles to hang onto this pace. I didn't look at the Garmin very much at all during the race and instead focused on those runners ahead. I got chatting to a chap slightly earlier in the race who was running his first Snowdonia. He was tall and quick and was confident of his pace and had trained all year for this race he told me. He was just ahead of me in this section so I just focused on him and tried to maintain the gap and not slip back. The miles went by and I was soon approaching Waunfawr and the climb up Bwlch y Groes.

The atmosphere was great with spectators lining the streets as the road started to climb. This was the final big push. What lay ahead was 2 continuous torturous uphill miles that at this stage in the race brings many people almost to their knees up the rain and wind swept mountain side. There was only one thing on my mind which was to crack on and ignore the now mounting discomfort in my quads and calves. They were screaming for me to slow down but I was having nothing of it as I continued to push my body to its absolute limits. I was steadily reeling in and passing everyone in front of me as I continued to the very top. Every person I passed voiced encouragement in the true Snowdonia spirit.

My legs were on the verge of collapse and were starting to cramp making the flat(ish) section of trail at the top little easier than the climb itself.  I pushed on into the wind and made it up to the second summit to the very top. From there it was 1.5 miles straight down to the finish. This is where it can get tricky as the path down goes offroad on mud, grass and rock. It was only upon reaching the top that I looked at my watch and saw that I could actually be on for a snowdonia PB by perhaps a matter of seconds. This motivated me to let rip and fly down the final slippery descent into Llanberis which is extremely steep in some parts especially where it returns to tarmac. I passed a few more runners as we made the final twists and turns into Llanberis and then I spotted last years female winner Emily Gelder as I turned into the high street. I must have looked like the guy who didn't want to get 'chicked' but honestly the only thing on my mind was to run the fastest time I could and get a PB. With that I sprinted down the high street and under the finishers arch.

I stopped my watch at 3:16. A new Snowdonia PB by one minute and my 'official' PB too! I was stunned by the time on my watch. I REALLY didn't think I stood a chance of getting near to last years time let alone beat it. What a way to effectively finish my 2013 with that. I was smiling from cheek to cheek as I stood in the finisher square for well over a minute just taking it all in. Thank you Snowdonia for another great race and more fantastic memories. See you again next year!

My race splits are on Strava - http://www.strava.com/activities/91676776?ref=1MT1yaWRlX3NoYXJlOzI9dHdpdHRlcjs0PTE1NzIxNjE%253D

Friday, 13 September 2013

Ultra-Trail Du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) 2013 race report

It's taken me until now to find the energy and will to return to the Alps and write this race report. A week to let the dust settle and get my head around the whole UTMB experience (and then another week to write it!). And what an experience it was! The highs and the lows both figuratively speaking and in ascent were some of the most contrasting I have ever experienced. Whether I can reflect the magnitude of this event in the next few (too many) pages is doubtful. So much has been written about this race and there are already some good blogs out there from the 2013 race including front runner and fellow Buff team member Anton Krupicka, as well as a fellow Brit Simon James whom I ran the whole of the second half of the race with. So check them out (but read mine first ;-) This is my reflection on my race, how it went for me, my thoughts and emotions including the hallucinations! All I would say here and now is that the only way of really knowing what the UTMB is all about is not to read about it but to get your name in the ballot and give it ago yourself... Go on you know you want to!! Why would you be reading this otherwise!?

I was very well rested as I stood on the start line of UTMB in the centre of Chamonix. A full week of no running preceded the start as the family and I enjoyed a fantastic time at Eurodisney.

Lili and Jasper with Pluto!
An 8 hour drive saw us arrive in Chamonix on the Wednesday with the race start at 4:30pm on the Friday. The time in between was spent in the local playgrounds with the children, soaking up the amazing atmosphere as you walked around the town centre, swimming, and eating lots of ice cream!

I was really relaxed and thoroughly looking forward to the adventure that lay ahead. Registration was on Thursday which involved a lengthy wait. There were 2,300 entrants so it was always going to take some time. The sun was beating down as Nick Ham (another fellow Brit and good ultra-runner friend) and I waited in line. The amazing views of the Mont Blanc glacier and atmosphere made the wait no problem and I soon had my hands on what is surely the best looking race number (or dossier as the French call it) out there. It also matched my new Union Jack Buff that my sponsors had very kindly managed to get to me just the day before we left England :-) Thanks Buff!!
Isn't she a stunner!
With the unusual late afternoon start Nick and I had Friday to kick around the apartment, prepare all our gear, have our final meal (sweet potato and sausages for me) and get to the start for the prerace party-like celebrations complete with electro-euro-pop blarring out the speakers that were located all over the centre of town.

Nick and I all set to go!
Dino Ilari (another fellow Brit and friend) and I made our way to the start line with half an hour to go as the crowds grew. Unfortunately I'd lost Nick Ham as he got chatting to other British runners in his usual enigmatic style. It seemed he knew half of Chamonix! We couldn't get to the front but managed to get down a side street and ease our way into the main pack well within the top third as other runners were being funnelled to the back. The countdown to 4:30 heightened the atmosphere further as the music got more intense and the comparer positively encouraged runners to hold their hands aloft and join hands in a show of solidarity to the challenge that lay ahead. It was rocking!!! At 4:28 the famous UTMB music (Conquest of Paradise - Vangelis) played out across the start and we were set on our way with emotions running high. Chamonix was positively heaving with adrenaline and energy as we charged (slowly) through the town. If the rest of the race was as good as the start then we were in for something very special.
The start in Chamonix!!
My wife and children were able to get a good spot further down the street as I passed them giving them all a kiss goodbye. If all went well I would be seeing them again in 35-40hrs time. But I preferred not to think about that and instead in the words of legend Lizzy Hawker 'stay in the moment'. This was the approach I would need to take to get through this one and with that we left Chamonix and headed onwards to Les Houches.

In retrospect it would have been good to know that the next 5 miles were the flattest we would experience over the next 3 days. I ignored everyone else's pace and just set about getting into a comfortable rhythm. 3 or so miles in and Nick caught me up and we chatted about the adventure ahead. I then heard another familiar voice. It was Chris Howe from Kingston Uni Sports Science department who oversaw my heat training sessions for WSER. Everyone was on a real high with expectations of what was to come. The weather undoubtedly heightened the mood as the forecast for the whole weekend was clear skies and warm. This is in contrast to the previous three years at UTMB which experienced the worst mountain weather possible. I felt fortunate and was determined to savour every moment and make the very most of it.

Les Houches (4.9 miles) was the first water stop as I took the opportunity to refill one of my water bottles before the first climb and the frenzy of walking poles begins. I quickly got into a nice comfortable stride on the climb using my poles to maximum effect and set about making up some ground on those in front. Climbing is definitely my strength so whilst I would lose a bit of ground on the flats I passed plenty of runners heading up to the summits.

Climb up from Les Houches (Dino in red just behind)
I reached Le Delevret in 713th position with 2hrs of running/hiking under the belt. A quick scan of the electronic chip on the number and I set off for Saint Gervais which was the first major food stop at the bottom of the valley. To get there required descending several thousand feet firstly down some pretty steeply graded ski pistes and then on to a long series of very runnable switchbacks through the trees that took us all the way to the valley floor.

Entering Saint Gervais (13 miles) at just gone 7pm was like hitting party central. There were crowds everywhere cheering and clapping and you could have been easily mistaken for thinking you were at the finish line. I was in 819th position at this point having deliberately tried to hold back on the last section and take it easy. The food at the station was a variety of sweet and savoury. Plenty of French cheeses, salamis and breads, cake, fruit and hot drinks. I didn’t hang around for the party though and gobbled up a few snacks, filled by bottles and headed for the next station at Les Contamines. In my haste though as I exited the station I realised I was poleless as I had put them down when filling up by bottles. A quick dash back along the entire length of the station to retrieve them and I was set.

I was moving well and feeling strong. Memories of the next few sections are few and far between. There were plenty of runnable sections along the valley floor before we started to hike up with a mix of tarmac to start and then back onto trail. I made up over 200 places on this section coming into Les Contamines (19 miles) in 593rd place, and my overall pace was well below sub 35hrs at this point. I was obviously doing something right, or in fact was everyone else doing something right whilst I was going too fast. This thought however didn't cross my mind as my pace felt quite pedestrian with all the places being made up on the climbs.

Coming into Les Contamines aid station at mile 19
The miles and climbs continued and I hit La Balme in 527th place at 10:15pm. 24 miles in the bag with 5h:44m of running. I was covering good ground with almost a quarter of the race already under the belt. The night was warm not needing any leg or arm cover even up the climbs at over 2000 metres. There was a little breeze which helped to keep things cool and not get overly warm from the exertion on the climbs. Throughout the night I struck up conversation with those that I ran briefly with. It was apparent however that the French do not speak a lot when running even to their own natives which made it doubly challenging to get them to speak to me. In contrast British Ultra Runners I feel like to share the ultra-experience and will happily chat away for hours to anyone that will listen. For the Europeans it seems to be a far more solitary experience.

Under torch light you could only see what was immediately in front of you and thus what we were missing out on was the spectacular views that were no doubt all around us as we crested peak after peak. The benefit however is that you weren't witness to just how long the next climb was as you stayed within your own little bubble of light with other torch beams stretched out for a mile in both directions. Throughout the night I continued to make up more places with strong hiking and a minimum time spent at the aid stations. Again in contrast it seemed that the Europeans would happily spend far longer in the stations perhaps even 20-30 minutes at every major stop. Did they know something I didn't or was this just the UTMB way of doing things. My feeling however was that there is no point exerting yourself up a climb and making up lots of places only to lose all these places by sitting around and drinking tea and eating cake. Perhaps next time though ;-)

So I pushed on as it was the only way I knew how and was thoroughly enjoying the whole UTMB experience. In the first night I didn't suffer from any fatigue or tiredness whatsoever. I arrived into Les Chapieux (31 miles) in 486th position at half past midnight. And by Col Chécrouit (45.5 miles) I was up to 397th place at just before 5am. This was suppose to be a water only aid station but the friendly volunteers had made some homemade snacks. I had this lovely grilled vegetable tartlet which really hit this spot. It was also here where I saw my position in the race on the laptop that they had set up on the table. Kriszti had relayed to me earlier in the race that I was around 800th but I had no idea how many places I had made up since then. It certainly didn't feel like 400! With this new information I felt great and bounded down the trail like nothing could stop me. That feeling was short lived…

The sun hadn't yet risen and the next section would continue all the way down into Courmayeur in Italy (although at the time I had no idea that I had crossed the boarder and in my funk it just hadn’t occurred to me). The descent started off quite gradual but then turned into a very long series of continuous steep switch backs along a dusty trail that clogged your lungs. This was the least fun I'd had so far in the race as the switch backs seemed never ending with Courmayeur getting no closer. Finally though after what seemed like an eternity we hit the valley floor and ran through the narrow cobbled streets of Courmayeur towards the aid station (48 miles). Dawn was breaking slowly as I entered the sports centre to the applause of the wonderful spectators. I was greeted by a volunteer with my drop bag. Here I could replenish my stocks of gels, cliff bars, nutella pancakes and homemade energy bar as well as change into a fresh Buff shirt and socks. I had a spare pair of shoes but there was no need to change them as the La Sportiva Crosslites were superb! It was the very first time I had sat down in 13 hours and boy did it feel good. I had forgotten that I'd also placed a toffee fudge Friggii milkshake in my bag. That was heavenly! I wasn't in a rush to leave here but went slowly through the motions of getting all my kit together and back out.

Dawn had finally broken when I exited the building and made my way through the quiet town and inevitably starting to climb again. Firstly on a steep road and then onto a never ending series of switch backs that wound up the trial that went on and on and on. Despite the food I had taken on at the stop I was still feeling empty and in need of more energy and calories. I took a stop on a rock about half way up and ate a cliff bar and pancake. At this point my reserves were now empty and I was eating just enough to continue on for a while longer before having to refuel again. From here things felt that little bit harder both physically and mentally, and is really where the real race began. The first 50 miles was just a warm up.
The views made even the toughest climbs a joy (honest!!)
I made it to Refuge Bertone (51 miles) in 15h:10m which give or take a mile or so was the halfway point. I was in 386th position which was my highest placing of the race so far. But it would be fair to say that I was feeling it just a little, nevertheless I was confident I still had a sub 35hr finish in me, and doing the maths I had a 5 hour cushion to play with. This wasn’t exactly my thinking when I rocked up here though… What I needed was coffee and lots of it! I had two mugs of the black stuff, and some noodle soup too. The soup acts as a great electrolyte to restore the balance in your body. I was getting cold though as I sat on a bench in my shorts and short sleeve T chatting to two local chaps. Seeing this one of them put a nice thick blanket around my shoulders. What service! I could have stayed there a lot longer as that last 3 mile climb did take it out of me but this wasn’t going to get me closer to the finish line so I said my goodbyes and thanks and moved up the trail.

The sun had made an appearance and it was apparent that it was going to be a warm day. Once I crested the top a little further up the trail it become much flatter however for the first time in the race I was the one being passed. I simply don’t run flats well in ultras! If I have a weakness this is it, and I think it’s down to my lack of flexibility which is made worst when your muscles tighten after running such distances. And then as you slow and your stride shortens this shortens your muscle contractions which makes things lock up even more, and slow down more. A vicious cycle! Subsequently I gave away 80 places between here and the next station.

The views across the valley though were amazing with the snow-capped mountain peaks jutting up high into piercing blue skies to my left. I sat down on a grassy patch by a stream and phoned the wife for some moral support (which worked :-)  I ate some more and headed onwards to Refuge Bonatti.

New Flash: Ultra Disco Stu finds a flat section of UTMB
I arrived at the aid station at 9:33am after 17hrs of running and 55.5 miles and got the surprise of my life. As I came up the trail to the aid station entrance who should be standing there but no other than Lizzy Hawker!!! 5 time winner of the UTMB and the most inspirational of ultra-runners. I had only been reading her blog the day before on her experiences of UTMB and how one should tackle such a race - 'stay in the moment' was her advice. I gave Lizzy a big hug and told her what a boost it was to my morale to see her here. My mood was lighter and I was feeling 100 times more positive about the race again. I got a cup of tea and chatted with Lizzy. I told her how my race was going (which was well up to a point but I felt the wheels coming off) and asked what advice she could give me to get my race back on track. She replied 'baby steps' just take each section at a time and don't look too far ahead. I was buzzing with positive energy from meeting her and set off up the trail with new vigour and purpose. I caught up with two French runners soon after who were running a nice even tempo pace that I felt I could try and match so I just fell in line behind them not saying anything but matching their every stride. After the loneliness of the previous section it was nice to have this connection with others in the race again. It helped my placing too as I stopped losing places and actually made up 5 places arriving into Arnuva at half ten in the morning in 461th position. I was still in the top 500 and feeling really positive about my race.

Arnuva (59 miles) was a food stop and was also the last place to fill water bottles before a big 10 mile section which consisted of a massive climb up to the top of Grand Col Ferret and then a long gradual descent down to La Fouly. One volunteer was making it very apparent for the need to take on plenty of fluids and restock as it was getting really hot out there now. There were quite a few Brits at this aid station and I sat down next to Simon who looked like he could do with some company. I tucked into a feast of cheese, salami, bread, noodle soup and cola and James and I chatted about both our races. James had had a tough last section and was considering taking a nap in the tent set up with lots of beds. I didn't think this was a particularly good idea and suggested instead he may like to tag on with me. At first he wasn't keen and even suggested he was considering pulling out the race such was his pace but I just said that’s what you have to expect after almost 100km of very tough mountain trails. We chatted some more, ate some more and as I started to get my gear together to head out for the next section James said that he was coming too. Awesome I thought. James wasn't the only one in need of company and with that we started the long climb up Grand Col Ferret. It was a monster climb taking the best part of two hours to cover 3 miles. However it didn't feel so bad as we chatted for most of the way up and we also bumped into another Brit Sarah who lived out in the mountains in France and commented that she enjoyed listening to our banter.

James and I on the climb up to Grand Col Ferret (but didn't see any!)
We finally reached the top after midday and admired the amazing views back down the valley before the descent to La Fouly. We were in 490th position now and getting on for 20 hours of running. Our progress was slow in this section but still enjoyable nevertheless. By the time we got to La Fouly (67.4 miles) we both felt pretty wiped out. We took the time to refuel taking on board more noodle soup, cheese, salami etc. Have you spotted the pattern yet!! J It was apparent from looking around the aid station that many were feeling the same fatigue. I also met James' girlfriend Karin at this stop who was supporting him throughout the entire race by getting the bus to every aid station to be there when he arrived. She would be out there for the same amount of time as it took for us to complete the event and with the same lack of sleep! I could tell it was a boost for James to have her there and in a way we formed a team of three now that James and I had committed to crossing the finish line together. So the pattern emerged that James and I would just focus of getting through the next section whatever it threw at us, get to the aid station to meet up with Karin, refuel, refocus, and repeat. Simple!

The long descent to La Fouly
We left La Fouly in 602nd position and were still just under 35hr pace, and continued to Champex-Lac which was another monster 9 mile section. Between here and the finish every section seemingly contained a climb and descent bigger than the last. This made for very slow going.

We were now out of Italy and into Switzerland and there was a notable change in the scenery with the typical Swiss log cabins scattered on the green mountain sides. To stay focused and not lose too much time now that we were pretty much hiking, James suggested that we use each of the UTMB course markers which were literally every 50 metres along the entire route to run between and then walk the next - much like a Fartlek session but in slow motion. So this is what we did running between two markers then walking the next and repeating. It kept us occupied and moving forward with a new found purpose. The climbs continued and probably the most mentally tough period was coming up which was running into the second night of the run. As mentioned before I didn't suffer from any fatigue during the first night and was wide awake. Arriving into Bovine aid station after 9pm it was now dark and they had a fire roaring. This was a non-refreshment stop and was only there to scan our racing chips. We had now been running for almost 29 hours and it was officially my longest run! The total height gain since the start in Chamonix to this point was 7,748 metres which is like climbing to the summit of Everest from basecamp and back down, almost twice! For James too he was into completely new territory. His longest run had been 80 miles of the Ridgeway ultra which he completed in around 17 hours. UTMB was his first 100 mile ultra, and at this point he'd already been on his feet for 12 hours longer than his previous longest run. That’s either very impressive or just plain daft… you decide! I know he’ll read this so thought I’d throw that in. lol.

We were now at the business end of the race now. We knew we had a long night ahead of us but both of us were still not willing to acknowledge just how much time it would potentially take us to cover the remaining 20 or so miles. If someone told me at Bovine that we would be running for another 13 hours I think it would have been too much to bare. Damn… I’ve just given away the end ;-) But seriously that’s an average speed of just 1.5mph (or 40 minute miling!!). And trust me when I say we were trying!!! Our strategy of just focusing on the next section and taking 'baby steps' (quite literally!) was working. We were moving forward and however difficult the struggle was becoming to stay focused and reach the top of the next climb the end was getting closer.

I think I will save you (“the reader”) from going into chapter and verse about the never ending night section. It can instead be summarised with the following which describes the next 10 hours of running before the sun came up for the third day of this epic run: rocks & roots, bright stars & moon light, extreme fatigue & emptiness, long long long descents & never ending climbs, camaraderie & laughter, chocolate & cheese, noodle soup & hallucinations, new friendships & bonds, heaven & hell. And then finally out of the darkness and into the light!

But just before we get there… We reached Vallorcine at just gone 4am after 35 hours of running.  With a little over 10 miles to go this was the first time where we perhaps allowed ourselves to think about the finish. Up until this point it just seemed too far away but now it was getting closer and soon the new dawn would break. This didn't however mean that the hard work was done and in fact the final major climb of 850 metres of vertical ascent up La Tête aux vents was the most dramatic and toughest of the entire race. This was partly because I was by this point almost sleep walking using my poles to guide me forward as I staggered and swayed up the trail. I was now on autopilot and felt like a passenger in my own body with little control over my movement as I floated along at a snails pace. Baby steps baby steps was all I was capable of by now. James by contrast seemed more with it at this point and led the way up the climb. We eventually made it to the top taking almost 4hrs to cover the 5 miles. An hour longer than my marathon PB to cover just 5 miles! I’m not sure this was running anymore but it was a beast!

I can't miss out and should add that on our way up the final climb one Mr Nick Ham came hiking past us looking fresh as a daisy and still sporting his ultra-short union jack shorts! There was hardly any time for pleasantries as Nick carried right on whilst I had stopped to refuel. I hoped to catch him by the top but on this kind of terrain a 5 minute gap is nearly impossible to make up easily. The descent down to La Flégère (99 miles) was another rock strew trail with lots of hopping over boulders and tentative positioning of feet and limbs as we picked our way down. By now however the sun was out and a new day had broken. Our slow pace had long since been of any cause for concern or anguish. Our overall placing too was something we had also surrendered long ago. By this point we had a vague idea of being in the top 1,000 but this detail was unimportant. All we cared about was finishing the UTMB. In fact this was the only thought that had been carrying us forward for the last 20 hours. It was survival.

About to get "chicked" on the descent to La Flegere
James and I high-fived as we passed the 40 hour mark in our epic run. Neither of us honestly expected to be still out running at this point in the race. Earlier on when I was going great guns I had plans of being back in the apartment and tucked up in bed by 3am and here we were gone 8am and still moving towards the finish. The final hours were easier going and mostly flat or downhill. However downhill in UTMB at this stage of the race or in fact any stage still required a tremendous amount of focus to stay upright, maintain good footing and avoid any silly mistakes. I managed all three! My friend Dino also came past us on the descent from the last climb. Like Nick he was moving well and enjoying his race. I think he could hardly believe that he had caught me. At 30 miles into the race I had held over a 2 hour advantage but that time had since evaporated.
The end in sight and a little more cheery!
The finish was now within touching distance. The last aid station at La Flegere was perched at the top of a chair lift which came up from the valley far below. And in the distance we could see Chamonix which was less than 5 miles away now. This was all that stood between us and finishing what was undoubtedly the toughest run of my life (yes, way way tougher than Western States by a mountain mile!). We found our legs again and managed a good clip down the side of the downward piste. The pounding of the quads was of little concern anymore as there was no need to preserve them now. Off the wider piste and we were back onto narrower trails with the all too familiar roots and rocks. However nothing could spoil this moment as we edged our way closer and closer, down the trail losing height with every step. We came back out of the woods and onto the wider piste/trail that marked the final run into Chamonix.

And whilst I can scarcely remember the exact point where we left the trail for the last time we entered the outskirts of Chamonix at the foot of the mountain. It was now just gone 10am so there were plenty of people about cheering us along in our final mile through the town. A few lefts and few rights and we saw the familiar sight of the ice blue river that passes right through the centre. We followed it along with less than a 1km to go. I was just running along trying to absorb everything that was happening. The emotion, the smiling faces, the shoppers, the warmth of the sun on my face, and the finishers proudly wearing their UTMB Gillets that had probably long since finished!

We entered the final twists and turns of the course where barriers had been set up to funnel you to that well known of sights that is the 'UTMB finish' in front of the church. The moment I had dreamed of. 25 yards before the finish Kriszti was there by the side with Lili and Jasper. It was so good to see them again. Daddy daddy shouted Lili as she spotted me and I waved to her with the biggest smile on my face. I was so proud of them as a wave of emotion hit me. Running is just running but family is everything and they were here for me for my moment. And that is why it's a memory to cherish forever. Memories and experiences that are shared makes them 100 times more valuable, and this is why it was so special to share this race with my family, as well someone else alongside me in James. We approached the UTMB finish arch with our arms held aloft to the warm applause of the crowd. It really did feel like we had just won the race. You really won't find any other finish line atmosphere quite like it anywhere else in the world. And that was it. We had finished the UTMB crossing the finish line in joint 950th position after 41h:47m:09s. It was finally over and it felt AMAZING.


I stood there for just a moment trying taking it all in, in one of those movie like moments where the past 24hrs (in our case nearly 42hrs) flashes through your mind in an instant. My mind wandered before a volunteer brought me back into the present and gave me the coveted UTMB FINISHER Gillet. Mission accomplished. I was not going to stop until I had this in my hands and with that I could close the book on one hell of a chapter in my ultra-running career.

Nick and I sporting our matching finishers UTMB gillets (and shorts!)
This next bit is going to sound like an Oscars awards speech but I have to thank my wife and family for their unwavering support not just this year but in all the years that I have run, trained and dreamt of completing this race (and others including Western). I’m looking forward to not getting up at 4am for my Saturday morning long runs. At least for now anyway ;-) There is always something else around the corner as us ultra-runners know only too well, but for now Western States and UTMB in the same year is not something that can easily be topped. And so with that I think I'm going to savour this feeling and reflect back on one hell of a year for the months to come.

My thanks also to my sponsor Buff who provided me with some great race kit that performed superbly in the mountains. I just wish it was a bit colder so I could have used my Buff Gore-tex integrated hood. Perhaps next year ;-)

Post-race recovery at Passi lake south of Chamonix!

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

ElliptiGO 100 mile record attempt

The weekend before last I set off from Leighton Buzzard and headed for Lutterworth on my ElliptiGO. Exactly 50 miles away, it made for a very straightforward out and back 100 miler. In my first effort I managed a 5:54 'moving time' and 6:20 (approx) total time as I stopped a few times on route to take photos and have breakfast at half way. This weekend however i decided to get serious and have a proper crack at the distance and ride the entire 100 mile distance non-stop... This is what happened...

I set off from LB at 4:45am with the sun just rising. It was a cooler day with welcomed cloud cover than the recent super hot temps we've been experiencing. However with the cloud brought wind which is not a good thing when attempting a distance/speed record. My goal for the out section was to average 17mph for the first 50 miles. The previous week I averaged 15.9mph on the out section so this was an extra 1mph which on the ElliptiGO takes a considerably amount of extra effort. Although not preplanned I then had grand plans to ride a negative split and do the return leg to nearer 18 mph average pace. I based this on the fact that I averaged about this pace in my first attempt where my total average pace for the ride was 16.9mph (from 15.9mph at half way) - so the maths said I could do it.

I felt really good on the outward leg taking the rolling slightly undulating A5 all the way from Milton Keynes to Lutterworth. Its an extremely straight and well maintained road (rare in the UK). Much of it freshly resurfaced making for easy GOing. When covering such distances its impossible to avoid hills and whilst the A5 does have some they are for the most part either very gradual where you can still maintain a good pace or short lived affairs where the pace is only momentarily reduced. Having said this I do have a knack of riding hills at a high cadence so enjoy this type of undulating route. It would be very interesting to get someone else's take on it.

I had all the supplies I needed for the entire ride on my person in the very handy 4 rear pockets on my own ElliptiGO designed cycle jersey. In them I had stashed 6 gels, 2 bars, 2 fruit puree pouches, and an emergency packet of Haribo! The plan was a gel every hour, and one bar and one fruit puree on each 50mile leg. I had two 750ml bottles filled with electrolyte drink - one for each leg. This wasn't the intention from the start as 1.5 litres of fluid to cover 100 miles at pace is not enough but I got by on it (just about!).

I hit half way 5 minutes inside my target time and started doing the maths in my head based on what I thought my return pace would be for a total time. I was getting excited already as if it all went well (and I was really really good at this point!) then I could get near 5:40. I cranked out the miles with the plan to increase my average pace from 17.5 mph by 0.1mph every 10 miles so that by the time I hit 100 miles my average pace would be 18mph. Oh how the best laid plans can go to ruin... I was starting to feel fatigue in my legs at 60 miles and the hills especially were more of a struggle than the out leg. Then disaster struck as I found myself on a road I didn't recognise however I had been riding this road for quite a while. How on earth did I go wrong on one of the straightest roads in Britain! The A5 wasn't signposted and when I reaches Daventry I knew it was time to turn back. I kicked myself for this silly mistake and not paying attention. Sure enough after my 8 mile detour I came back on the roundabout that I had gone straight on, when I should have in fact turned left. The fact that I was attempted a 100 mile record meant that the detour didn't massively impact the end goal as I would still stop the clock at 100 miles. However the road on the detour was more undulating with many hills in quick succession.  I tried to forget about this small error and get back to the job in hand of breaking the 100 mile record.

Between 50-60 miles I had managed to get my average speed up to 17.6mph but this was as high as it went. As my legs continued to g

<< Only a portion of the note is shown here. To view the complete note, press the attached file. >>

Sent from my Windows Phone

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Western States 100 - Running into the fires

Pre-race and registration

So the day had finally come, this is what I had been building up to for 6 solid months and arguably what I’ve been training for since I picked up Dean Karnazes’ book – Ultra Marathon Man. This was when I first became aware of the Western States 100, and I was captivated by Dean’s description of this epic race. Fast forward 4 years and I was now standing on the same start line of the WS100 that Dean had been standing on nineteen years ago in his debut in 1994.
My preparation for WS100 had gone really well. I had stayed injury free throughout my training and had logged 50 miles per week on average, plus some cross-training on the ElliptiGO. In those 6 months I had got my half marathon time down from 1:27 to 1:20, my marathon time down from 3:17 to 2:59 and had shaved an hour off my 50 mile time. All the signs were good. I knew to expect some high temperatures at WS100 of which we are not use to in blighty. A couple of heat chamber sessions at Kingston University Sports Science department and some hours spent in the sauna got my body (and mind) acclimatised as to what to expect out there. I was ready.

 The Thursday and Friday before the race were just surreal. There was I in the middle of Squaw Valley (1960 Winter Olympics venue) surrounded by the superstars of US and international ultra-running. I was staying with my friends Ken (producer of Running Stupid podcast) and Karen from San Francisco who are right in the middle of this vibrant ultra scene in the Bay area. Upon arriving at Squaw Valley on Thursday we got out the car in the scorching temperatures and who should be the first person that we bump into – none other than Ellie Greenwood WS100 course record holder and fellow Brit who smashed Ann Trason’s long standing record last year. Ken was in Ellie’s crew for her simply stunning back to back wins in 2011 and 2012. We chatted and chilled out for a bit before seating down to listen to a WS100 veterans panel discussion made up of Ellie, Ann Trason, Tim Twietmeyer, and Gordy Ainsleigh. Quite a line up and an absolutely fascinating one hour where they imparted their considerable experience, and wisdom to the totally hooked crowd. I even got to meet and shake the hand of the legend that is Gordy (the man we have to thank for the WS100 getting started 40 years ago).

Me and Gordy!
His advice to me was to get rid of the blue mohawk and bleach my hair all white which would be far better in the heat of the day as the sun. He had a point! Nevertheless the mo was staying and was already drawing many comments and admirers which is never a bad thing.
Friday was another surreal day of meeting the who’s who of the ultra-scene. Karen and I who were staying in nearby Tahoe City made the 10 minute drive back over to Squaw for me to check-in at 9am when it opened. The thinking behind this was that I would get through medical before I had breakfast and thus be my lightest weight which was written on my medical band. This turned out to be a great idea as I weighed in at 163lbs on Friday morning and 168lbs on race morning after breakfast. So evidentially my pre-race fuelling had worked perfectly gaining me an extra 5lbs of energy. Once through medical it was time to get all the ‘free’ WS100 swag. This included a Mountain Hardwear bag, hoodie, tech shirt, sun visor, mug, arm warmers, Injinji desert hat, and tonnes of GU gels. Most impressive! I then hung around to watch the start of the Montrail 6k uphill challenge which was a low key race for pacers and crew (and anyone else) that fancied flying up the first 3 miles of the Escarpment which is the first climb in WS100 and ascends 2,500ft in just 4.5 miles. Once I cheered Ken, Karen and Ellie off up the hill I headed for breakfast and some much needed fuelling (and shade!). It was just after 10am and the temperatures were already in the high 80s. By mid-afternoon they would be hitting 100F (high 30s)!
Breakfast and lunch were enjoyed in good company with none other than the legendary David Horton (if you don’t know who he is then shame on you!) and Ian Sharman who spotted my Team GB Olympic jersey and came over to say hello. I was loving the company and chatting about all things Western States and trying to learn as much as I could ahead of the race tomorrow from the best in the business. Ian was so laid back about the race and spoke of having a good battle with fellow Brit Nick Clarke. Ian would win that battle finishing in 4th place overall on the day with Nick finishing in 6th. Both of them simply stunning performances that I could never get my head around.

 The lengthy pre-race briefing was after lunch in the heat of the afternoon sun but luckily we bagged a spot under a huge pine tree. The top 10 males and female were paraded in front of the attentive onlookers and we were told in one uncertain terms that if we wanted to survive the heat tomorrow that the first thing we should do is to throw away our pace bands in the nearest river. The heat was what everyone was talking about. The weather forecast for race day would have temperature (in the shade) peaking at 105F (41 Celsius) with the canyon sections being at least 5 degrees hotter. Friggin’ heck!! And the word on the street was that it was already looking like being the 2nd hottest Western States in its 40 year history!! My attitude to the temperatures was simply one of ‘bring it on!’. I had done the heat training and I wanted to put it to good effect. In my mind I was ready for it.


Race Day

Race morning and Karen and I were up at 2:45am to get everything together for the 5am race start. I microwaved my pre-prepared quinoa, banana, chia seed and cactus nectar porridge which really hit the spot, and got ‘Buffed up’ in my team kit. Lube and plasters were applied where necessary, and SPF50 cream smothered over any exposed skin from head to toe. We headed over to the start where I met my WS100 ‘crew’ for the very first time – Helen Fong (from Auburn) and Clint Welch (from Sacramento) had got up at 12:30am to get over to the start in time to see me off.

Team Buff!
They would then be aiding me every step of the way for the next day from aid station to station along the route, and pacing me from the Foresthill aid station at 62 miles to the finish. I went through some race plans with them which included handing them a pace band I had made up with every aid station split for a 22/24/30 hr finish. The plan was to start at a 22hr pace (13 minute miling) and gauge my effort. If that pace felt even remotely too fast I was going to slow it down but if it felt sustainable and my heart rate was keeping in check and my core temp also under control then I would look to continue at this pace. Ultimately the three time goals on the band represented my A goal, B goal and C goal. But nothing was to prevent me from finishing. There was no ‘quit list’ in this race – it was either finish or someone would have to drag me off that course with an IV sticking out my arm. There would be no repeat of my pitiful performance in the SDW100 last year where I dropped my sorry arse out of the race at 83 miles simply because my legs hurt too much. I was a different person now and I was out to prove that fact.

I walked over to the start line with just 10 minutes to go. I never like hanging around too long. I was buzzing with adrenaline and excitement. I was actually standing on the start line of the Western States Endurance Run where so many ultra-champions had stood before me and made history. Surely the greatest trail hundred in the world. This was it and I was ready to give it everything I had. I said my goodbyes to Helen and Clint who I wouldn't be seeing again until Robinson Flat at mile 30 and edged a little closer into the pack.

I was certainty pumped up for this one!
It was still dark as a fire burned brightly right in the middle of the pack. After a short battle speech from new race director Craig Thornley the countdown from 10 began and before long we were sent on our way into the fires of the Sierra Nevada mountains to pit our wits against this legendary race.


Squaw Valley to Robinson Flat (29.7m)

The 2,500ft climb from Squaw Valley (6,200') to the top of Emigrant Pass (8,750’) that I'd read and visualised on so many occasions was exactly as I had imagined. It was a slow hike with short sections that you could get into a short trot before walking again. This is of course unless you're one of the front runners who I watched fly up the mountain with ease.

The views from near the top were amazing as you looked back down over Squaw Valley and Lake Tahoe. It was already light upon reaching the first check point at 3.5 miles. The sky was piercing blue and you just knew it was gonna be a scorcher. I hit Emigrant Pass aid station at 5:45am which was a full 24 minutes ahead of Dean Karnazes in his debut WS100 in 1994. This wasn't something I was aware of at the time obviously (I'd probably have slowed the heck down if I did!) but I thought it would make for an interesting side show in this race report.

I didn't need anything from the super eager volunteers as I was carrying two 750ml bottles in my Ultimate Direction SJ pack. We were now approaching the steepest section of the climb. It’s only a short section but it was a hands on knees job. In the snow this climb would indeed be super tough such was the steepness but with the recent rain and high temps there was no snow at all on the course. It soon levelled out as we continued to climb single file up the trail to continue to the top hiking and jogging as the terrain dictated.

Reaching the top of Emigrant Pass at 4 1/2 miles in
The top peaks at over 9,000ft and I was fully expecting to be feeling the attitude effecting me but there was nothing noticeable as I crested the top to the support and cheers of on-lookers. One comment to the passing runners was that it's all downhill from here to the finish which made me laugh. The facts however were that we had a little over 16,000ft of climbing ahead of us before we got to Auburn but even more challenging was the 22,000+ ft of descending that would shape my race.

The next section was an awesome rolling trail which was mostly down hill and very runnable into the woods and on the ridge line towards Lyon Ridge at 10.5 miles. The trail was a little technical with rocks and roots, and twists and turns and the occasional small stream crossing which meant wet feet from the start. It was mostly single track meaning that we were in a procession of runners with little opportunity for overtaking. I was trying very hard not to follow the pace of the person in front and instead dictate my own pace which I did with a handful of runners deciding to overtake me on this section. I was having a ball and thoroughly enjoying my Western States experience.

The trails were stunning
I hit Lyon Ridge aid station exactly on pace matching my split on my pace band for 22hrs in 2:04. I grabbed some fruit whilst a volunteer filled both my bottles for me. GU Brew electrolyte in one and water in the other. Despite only being 7am in the morning it was already hot as I gratefully accepted a hose down from another volunteer with a spray gun. Keeping core temperature down was going to be the key to surviving in the heat and dousing yourself with water at every opportunity was the best way to do this.

The next section to Red Star Ridge was more technical trail that gradually descending for 5 miles of relatively easy running. The views across from the ridge to the near and far mountains were spectacular however you always had to keep one eye on your footing. On the steeper twisty switch backs down to the aid station I took a fall after kicking a rock and losing my balance. I wasn't going too fast so was able to kind of roll forward onto the rocks that strewn the trail. A grazed hand and a little knock to my new Ironman Timex watch was the only damage. It was still working and luckily I noticed that the fall had stopped the stopwatch. I continued down the switch backs with hyper awareness of any potential trip hazards ahead. 

I made Red Star Ridge at 16 miles in good time and spot on pace for 22hrs once again. This was the first drop bag stop where upon arrival the super efficient volunteer force who had already been notified of your impending arrival were ready with drop bag in hand. I had 8 such drop bags at various points on the course. In them were 9-bars, nákd bars, fruit purée pouches, and gels. I replenished my stocks and went on my way eating as I hiked out of the station.

The next station was a big long descent to the bottom of Duncan Canyon which was a blast. Despite the heat I wasn't noticing it too much and I was keeping my core temp under control and not pushing the pace. It was more of a sustained moderate effort with gravity doing much of the work. The Duncan Canyon aid station came out of nowhere as you descended a steep trail turned a corner and suddenly you were faced with a hive of activity. I was a few minutes ahead of my 22hr schedule coming into the station at 9:30am and feeling great. A volunteer was right with me the second I arrived and filled my bottles whilst another guy with a bucket of water douse ice water over my head and neck. The water drenched my top providing an instant and very welcoming cooling effect. I had also kept my freebie WS arm warmers on which might seem strange in the heat but keeping them on and wet provided a great cooling effect and blocked out the sun reducing any burn and direct exposure.

Leaving Duncan Canyon the trail continued to descend to the very bottom which was another few miles of continuous descent. At the bottom was the first major stream crossing where a photographer was located capturing our antics as we crossed. As Ian Sharman had recommended the day before over lunch always take the opportunity to cool down. So I crouched down in the water and frantically scooping the water over my head and body for instant relief. From here there was a very long and sustained climb to the top at Robinson Flat which was the first crew point. I was learning that it was in fact the climbs where I was strongest compared to others around me. This pattern would continue for much of the race being passed on the downs but making up time on the climbs where my speed hike was extremely effective. 

Coming into Robinson Flat at 30 miles was an absolute blast as I milked the crowd support and jumped on the scales for the first weigh in. I'd lost 4-5lbs from my 168lb start weight which wasn’t too bad but meant that I needed to continue to hydrate and eat in the extreme heat. Once again I was right on schedule and at this point hitting the aid station at 10:50am which was almost one hour ahead of the mighty Dean Karnazes (in 1994). Now had I known this at the time also knowing that Dean finished that year in 21hrs I would have started to question my early pace! But I didn’t feel that I was pushing hard at all, my core temp was fine, heart rate normal, and my legs were feeling great. I high-fived my crew and got to work at refuelling from my drop bag. This included my baked sweet potato with almond butter which inside the foil was actually hot. I ate half as the heat really suppresses appetite and it wasn’t hitting the spot. However what I was eating loads of was fresh fruit from the aid stations which included water and catelope melon, strawberries and blueberries. I avoided all the other sweet stuff on offer such as Oreos, M&Ms, peanut brittle and peanut/jelly sandwiches. I think I was getting just about enough calories from the fruit, energy bars and gels I had been taking although in hindsight I was definitely a little light.

Robinson Flat (29.7m) to Devil’s Thumb (47.8m)

I left Robinson Flat in 69th position and on cloud 9 to the cheers of the spectators lining the trail. The next section was really runnable slicing through the amazing landscape with towering pine trees lining each side of the trail. It was just after 11am now but the day was certainly heating up as the trees made for good cover from the sun beating down. I was in my element and running with ease but being careful to keep my pace in check even though this section had a significant net down hill. I was mostly running completely alone by now as the field had started to thin. I was surprised how quickly Miller’s Defeat aid station (35.3 miles) came up. Rolling into the aid station at 11:47am I was right on schedule two minutes ahead of my target 22hr pace. The usual first class assistance from the awesome volunteers was right on hand with a chap immediately filling my bottles for me whilst I perused the food table. The variation on offer wasn’t massive so I stuck to what seemed to be working well devouring lots of fresh fruit. Next up was the ice bucket using a sponge to soak ice cold water over my head, and neck. 

The next section to Dusty Corners (38 miles) was only 2.7 miles and it soon popped up as I maintained exactly the same pace arriving at 12:26pm still two minutes ahead of schedule. My memory here is a bit vague so let’s continue to Last Chance (43.3 miles) which I reached with my biggest margin ahead of target at 6 minutes inside 22hr pace. I won’t lie that I was already at this early stage getting quite excited about how well I was running and how consistent my pace had been, hitting all my splits on such varied terrain. I wouldn’t say that I was getting ahead of myself as I knew there was still a long way to go but I was enjoying myself and who can blame me!... I was smashing it.  

At Last Chance I met Peter a volunteer from Peterborough, in the UK. Peter was ace and asked me lots of questions to assess my condition and see what I needed. He asked what I had been eating (I replied mostly fruit) and he said that I needed to get a lot more calories on board especially in this heat. So I took Peter’s advice and dived into my drop bag, and had some bars and a gel. But the aid station food still wasn’t doing it for me. He also asked whether I had been taking S-Caps (sodium replacement capsules) regularly. I had not touched them and was relying solely on the GU Brew electrolyte drink available at the aid stations. The problem with this is that it was quite weak so I probably wasn’t getting enough salt to replace what I was losing from sweating in the extreme heat. Peter advised that I took two S-Caps at every station from now and so this is exactly what I did.
I left Last Chance feeling in reasonable condition and form, and I needed to be because the next section was about to get a whole lot tougher and open my eyes to what Western States is all about – the canyons! The five mile section from Last Chance to Devil’s Thumb traversed Deadwood canyon plummeting 2,000 ft in 3 miles along steep, twisting switch backs which made the going extremely tough and started to mess with my feet. I started to get passed by other runners who seemed to be able to manage the downhills a lot more nimbley than me making me feel even more sluggish. Upon reaching the bottom we crossed a bridge and was then faced with a 2 mile 1,500ft climb straight back up the other side. However before this I took the opportunity to cool off in the river. I jumped straight in and laid on my back fully immersed in the cooling waters. I could have laid there a lot longer such was the relief from the heat of the canyon but I had a race to run! Upon getting out I soon realised my mistake - my mobile phone was in my pack! It didn’t survive the plunge.
The climb up from Deadwood Canyon was slow going. Unsurprisingly upon finally reaching the top and rolling into Devil’s Thumb I had fallen off the 22hr pace but only by 7 minutes. Considering the harsh terrain and increasing heat I took this in my stride. Interestingly looking back at Dean Karnazes’ time in 1994 he reached here at 3:31pm. I was 55 minutes ahead!  

It was now over 100F, and in the canyons nearer 110F (43 Celsius!). I was almost half way in the race now and everything had gone better up to this point than I could have ever dreamed. But the question is whether my Western States dream would continue… I was about to find out.

Devil’s Thumb (47.8m) to Foresthill (62m) 

My feet had started to feel the effects of the descents in the first canyon and this next one was not going to help matters. The descent from Devil’s Thumb to the bottom of the canyon at El Dorado Creek plunged 2,500ft in 5 miles. This wasn’t going to be fun. My feet took a battering and with each step my pace slowed further. Again runners passed me on the down hills as my pace couldn’t match theirs. Upon finally reaching the bottom it was a straight 3 mile slog up the other side from 1,700ft to 3,530ft at Michigan Bluff. This climb was slow going for everyone and in actual fact I was one of the faster climbers on the trail passing every runner that had passed me on the descent. This gave me some confidence that whilst I was losing time on the descents my climbing ability meant I wasn’t yet leaking too much time. 

Michigan Bluff at 55.7 miles was a welcome relief from the hot trails buzzing with activity, and tons of cheering spectators and support. After being weighed in I met up with crew member Clint who took good care of me. He put loads of ice into my bandana which he tied around my neck, and we focused on refueling. A volunteer asked how much I was eating and like Peter at the earlier station said I wasn’t getting enough calories. He insisted that I ate more so I tucked into a few Oreo biscuits. The sandwiches on offer simply weren’t appetising, and there wasn’t enough other savoury options for my liking.  

I had reached Michigan Bluff in 11 hours 36 minutes, averaging 12:29 pace. I was now 17 minutes behind a 22hr finish pace so it was time to turn my attention to sub 24 hrs and ensure I kept up the pace and didn’t let the Silver buckle slip through my fingers. At this point I was still confident of achieving this goal and upon leaving Michigan Bluff I was about 35 minutes ahead of 24hr cut off. I was also 40 minutes up on Dean!
The next section was quite demoralising mostly because I wasn’t expecting another canyon. In my mind I was expecting quite a nice run between here and Foresthill at 62 miles which is where I would pick up Helen my pacer. However I obviously didn’t study my profile map enough as there was firstly a shallow but prolonged climb on wide open gravel roads which radiated the heat right at you. This was was followed by a steep 1,000ft drop into volcano canyon. A very apt name considering the red hot dirt trails and roasting temperatures. These were the most intense temperatures I had experienced to date with little air movement. Eventually I made it out of the stifling canyon and onto the first proper road on the course at Bath road aid station. From here there was a short 1.5 mile climb to Foresthill. I walked up the road getting in some gels and continuing to hydrate. 

Helen was waiting for me 0.5 miles outside of the Foresthill aid station and we promptly jogged into the biggest party on the course. This was where it all happened with most runners picking up their pacers to help them get through the remaining 38 miles and the night section. Crews lined the roadside in their American pick-up trucks and SUVs and cheered and clapped as we passed. This was exactly the pick-me-up I needed after the previous sections which were starting to wear down my high spirits just a little. The rest of my extended crew also met me here, with Clint, Karen and Ken all there with one goal in mind… Get me the hell out of here as quickly as possibly. After running 100k you would think it would provide at least some time to reflect on what one had achieved and at least enjoy it a little but it’s often said (and it’s true) that the race only really begins at Foresthill. Reaching Foresthill was the easy bit. It what happens between here and the finish line that will determine how good a race you have.


Refuelling at Foresthill Aid Station

My crew were amazing and managed to change my soaking wet Injiniji socks into a dry pair whilst I sat and enjoyed an ice lolly. The only part that didn’t go according to plan was that I had wanted to also change into a dry pair of shoes – my La Sportiva Crosslites. However they were very well hidden in the crew vehicle and couldn’t be found so I had to stick back on my wet Hoka’s. Things happen, good and bad, and I simply had to get on with it. Upon leaving Foresthill with Helen we were 30 minutes in front of the 24hr cutoff time. Knowing how my feet were feeling, I knew this didn’t provide much of a cushion and with many hard miles ahead it was at this point that it was apparent that it was going to be a long night ahead. Furthermore I was now just 9 minutes ahead of Dean as he chased me down (figuratively speaking) making up 30 minutes on me in the last section!

 Foresthill (62m) to Rucky Chucky (78m)

There is one notable thing about ultra-running and that is by it’s nature it’s a solo sport. Whilst a very sociable one off the trail both before and after races you will often find yourself alone on the trail with only your thoughts for company. Having a pacer changes this which whilst less common in the UK, in the US having a pacer on such events is definitely the norm. Having Helen alongside me for company, conversation and pacing was an enormous help psychologically. 

Helen’s task was simple – keep me running at a sub 24hr pace (14 minute miling) between here and the finish line and the silver buckle would be mine. The issue was that I was barely hanging on to the required pace over the next two sections up to Peachstone at 71 miles. This section of trail was best described as undulating with some steep but short intermittent climbs. Below the trail to our left was the mighty America River that we were heading towards and crossing at the famous Rucky Chucky crossing at 78 miles. However that was too far ahead. For now I was more concerned with the immediate challenge of simply making it to the next checkpoint inside the 24hr cut off.  

We hit Peachstone aid station at 8:22pm 12 minutes inside the cut off. I had lost 18 minutes since Foresthill in just 9 miles, and I still had 29 miles to the finish. My hopes and dreams of the silver buckle were fading as fast as the sunlight. Despite this Helen was still very positive, encouraging me to move faster and asking me lots of questions about my family to take my mind off the pain. To any non-ultra runner a 14 minute mile pace seems ridiculously slow, and I would agree. But the toll that the last 70 miles had taken on my feet was now baring down on me heavily. My legs were in still in good shape, and my fitness was there and I really don’t think I was paying for my early pace. But my feet were completely trashed caused by the constant soaking they were getting combined with the extreme heat. This had caused a lot of friction with the inevitable blisters and folding skin on the sole of my foot which was the cause of the pain with every step I took. I was losing the fight. 

One of the many descents on route

I think it was on the section to Fords Bar at 73 miles where I voiced my concerns to Helen that I simply couldn’t keep the required pace to go sub 24hr. I think Helen knew it already such was our pace but sometimes you want to ignore the obvious signs. For me though I wanted to ‘enjoy’ the rest of the race and remove the pressure and accept the inevitable decline. Once we accepted that I wasn’t going to make it in under 24 hours we could push on with a new agenda and goal to stop the rot and not leak too much more time in the remaining 27 miles. With what amounted to a trail marathon still to go there was still plenty to do however so we set about the task in hand. 

After yet more tough long climbs and a final descent to the river we eventually reached the Rucky Chucky river crossing. For me this was one of the most famous points on the course pictured in Dean’s book as he crossed the river grasping the rope in his hands looking a picture of health and fitness. I didn’t quite look as good at this point. Dean crossed the river at 9:51pm. Helen and I crossed it around 2 hours later just before midnight. It was a great experience plunging into the dark waters. Its about 50 metres across with a rope between each bank and loads of dedicated volunteers in the freezing water assisting you as you picked your way between the large rocks and holes that littered the riverbed. Once across we met up with Clint on the other side who had been patiently wondering where we had got to. On the other side was an aid station and foot medic. It was time to try and prevent any further deterioration to my feet and see what they could do. I had a dry pair of socks but unfortunately no dry shoes. The Sportiva’s were no where to be found. The medic did a great job under the circumstances and patched me up as good he could whilst I enjoyed a hot soup and some food from my drop bag. We must have spent a good 20 minutes here but now that sub-24hr was a distant dream the time pressures were all but gone.

Rucky Chucky (78m) to Auburn (100m) 

Once set all three of us made our way together up the long two mile climb to Green Gate. I suggested that Clint may want to take on pacing duties from Helen for a while. I felt guilty that Clint had been hanging around so long for me and he was such a great guy that I wanted to give him some action and experience of running Western States. After all it is the oldest and most renowned trail 100 in the world so he deserved to get a taste. I know Helen felt disappointed by this and had her heart set on running the whole thing from Foresthill but above all else a pacer duties are about self-sacrifice. And some fresh energy from Clint might just get me moving a little faster.

 We reached Green Gate at 12:43am in 128th place out of 385 starters. Earlier in the race at Michigan Bluff I had been as high as 63rd but that was almost a marathon ago and a lot had changed since then. We left Helen to get some sleep in Clint’s truck before she would make her way to Highway 49 at 93.5 miles to meet us. Clint and I set off from Green Gate heading for Auburn Lake Trails. Almost immediately upon leaving the aid station we missed a turning off the trail and continued down a steep technical section for a further ½ mile. It was only when two headlamps came towards us from the opposite direction that our fears were soon realised. We hadn’t seen some marker ribbon in a while and we had indeed screwed up. This was a bit of a sucker punch as I left Green Gate with a bit of renewed optimism and was determined to start afresh and push on so adding an extra mile was hard to take. The next 5 miles were the slowest of the entire run (or should I say ‘walk’). Clint did his very best to keep me moving forward but my feet were screaming at me with every step and I didn’t feel much like moving. 

We finally made it to ALT at 85.2 miles. Not helped by the extra mile we had dropped a further 40 places in just 5 miles (of course I didn’t know this at the time and it would have scarcely mattered even if I did). At this point in the race and in fact throughout the race my positioning was not something I was remotely concerned about. As with most ultras it’s just about pitting yourself against the trail and seeing who wins. At this point the Western States was definitely kicking my arse! However I wasn’t down and out and was still moving towards the finish. We took some time to recuperate at ALT as the aid station volunteers showed some signs of concern for me. I was mainly just very tired and probably the least cheerful I had been all day. Very unlike me so a big sorry to the ALT volunteers for not getting the Ultra Disco Stu experience! ;-) They had some great food at ALT as I tucked into chicken noodle soup, pancakes with syrup, and a coffee. It’s amazing what a bit of good hot food can do. 

I changed into a fresh Buff long sleeved top despite it still being in the high 70s. You do get cold at the aid stations so at the time it felt so good. We left ALT around 3:45am and I felt a whole lot better. The next 5 mile section was way better. The extreme fatigue had been replaced with renewed hope that the finish line was less than 15 miles away, whilst we could also look forward to sun rise which brought a new day and would surely mark my completion of the Western States 100.  

Clint still showed concern for our pace however. Whilst we had just under 9 hours to cover the remaining 15 miles, which seemed ample time, nothing is certain in ultra running and he rightly wanted to keep me focused on the task at hand and moving forward. We struck a good runner/pacer relationship as Clint would constantly tell me if we were moving fast enough (sub 20 minute miling was the goal – yes I know…. 3mph!! My nan could move faster!!). It’s in this section to Browns Bar at 90 miles that I found ‘something’ extra in the tank and lit the booster rockets. On what was a very narrow trail with very little room to pass I went ahead of Clint who had been pacing, and picked up the pace from a fast hike to actually running! We flew into Browns Bars with renewed optimism that we wouldn’t be stretching the 30hr cut off, and got straight out of there only taking time to fill a water bottle and grab some S-Caps. 

The 3.5 miles to Highway 49 were non-eventful (which is not necessarily a bad thing!). I managed to maintain the pace and keep it below 20 minute miling, and now that it was daylight it felt like the final march to the finish. Baring an extreme melt down or fall down the side of the trail the bronze Western States finisher buckle was mine for the taking. Coming into Highway 49 was great reuniting with Helen who would pick up pacing duties once again and enjoy the final 7 miles to the finish.

Refuelling at Highway 49 aid station
Leaving Highway 49 around 6:30am we had 4 ½ hrs to get to the finish. The pressure was off and Helen and I fast hiked the remaining sections with a tiny bit of running interspersed just to prove to myself that I wasn’t a complete invalid. There was one section where we passed through several meadows that reminded me of the trails back home.

Passing through the meadows at mile 95 - could be the North Downs Way

The highpoint (not elevation wise) was crossing No Hands Bridge at mile 97. This is another of those famous points on the course which marks a significant milestone. From here you climb for 2 miles up to Robie Point which is just a mile from the finish at PlacerHigh School running track.

This isn't No Hands Bridge!

No Hands Bridge!
I was realising my dream which was to finish the Western States 100. Whilst we all have time goals that help guide our training and pace on race day ultimately it comes down to one thing…. Do you have what it takes to finish? Helen and I picked up Clint at Robie Point just after 8am and enjoyed the walk in through Auburn town passed admiring locals who had come out to witness what is one of the biggest events in the ultra calendar.

In Auburn and the final mile - all smiles!

I would have loved to have run the last mile as if it had some significance to do so, but my feet were toast and the hard tarmac was anything but soothing. We shared a great moment as an adult deer was standing on the pavement looking straight at us as we passed. Despite now being in the urban jungle this was my the first wildlife sighting of the entire course! I’m quite grateful for that in that we didn’t bump into any brown bears or mountain lions which are both common sightings in the Sierra Nevada mountains. 

Just before the final approach to Placer High School running track who should appear running up the road in the opposite direction but no other than the legendary Tim Twietmeyer who’s completed Western States no few than 25 times in under 24 hours! I high-fived Tim as he passed which was a super cool way to end my Western States journey. Upon reaching the bottom of the hill I entered Placer High School running track and started the ¾ lap round to the finish line. I ran alongside Ken down the back straight whom made this whole experience possible for me, and then we parted ways as I got into my stride in the last 200 metres and blasted down the home straight.

I’d done it!! I had finished the Western States 100. It was simply an amazing feeling as stood there at the finish trying to soak in the last 27 ½ hours. My exact finish time was 27:30.24.
Job done!
A medal was placed around my neck (I would get my bronze buckle later), as I hugged and thanked Helen and Clint for everything they had done for me. I couldn’t have finished it without them!

The medal tasted oh so good!
Picking up my Bronze finisher buckle
And so that was my Western States 100. It was an absolutely epic race, and everything I had imagined and a lot more. I won’t lie and say I wasn’t disappointed not to be coming away with a silver belt buckle. That is what I had trained intensely for 6 months for, and I felt that I had the form and endurance to run well under 24 hours, even in that heat. But form and endurance are just two factors of many, and having the perfect race requires a lot more pieces of the jigsaw to fall into place. Could I have taken better care of my feet on the day to prevent my downfall? Perhaps yes, but hindsight is a wonderful thing and this is where you learn so much in every ultra you complete. If, and when I return to Western States one day I’ll be sure to take at least three changes of shoes and 5 changes of socks! But for now I am one extremely happy Brit and will covet my bronze buckle, and wear it with pride for many years.