Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Another Season, Another Crazy Ride.

Time seems to slip by faster and faster, as the years come and go.  This year in-particular has simply flown.  It doesn't seem that long ago at all that I ran my first Snowdon Ultra, and now I'm reflecting on the second edition, having also ran two other ultra events this year.  After the success of the first Snowdon 100 in 2018, deciding to up the anti for 2019 seemed like such a good plan, with an eye on securing enough points to enter the 2020 UTMB lottery.  Well, the best made plans and all of that!  I also managed to slot sometime jogging over in Sri Lanka whilst away with work, which was an incredible experience - more travel plans with running are much needed - definitely mind expanding!

Some of the most incredible views I've ever had - worldwide.  Sri Lanka.

After turning my ankle for the second time back in February, I lost out on the GB Ultra Chester 50 Mile, and was absolutely gutted about that, as I was running as well as I ever have.  This was a very last minute entry, and in hindsight I probably wasn't completely ready for the distance, as I had only just got stuck into training for the season ahead.  Not to be put off track, along popped an opportunity to run the GB M2L 50 instead.  This is a crazy little race, beginning at the gateway to Old Trafford in Manchester and then running along the Trans-Pennine Trail to Aintree in Liverpool. Its a slightly industrial affair in comparison to the standard mountain jog, although a cool course with a really diverse feel (proper North West culture along the way).  The juxtaposition between the tranquillity of the rivers and trails, quiet canal ways and sunshine, coupled with motorways, arguments heard from back-gardens and kids smoking under flyovers is a recipe for an interesting run.   This is also a great course to get a 50 mile PB if your keen.

Jolly in the heat of the day, M2L 50.  

I was really hoping for sub-9 hours on this and was going super good, with a PB marathon, and a PB  55km before lunch.  This was scuppered however, with the heat of the day reaching 27degrees by early afternoon, so the speed dropped and I finished in 10hrs 29mins - not the best outcome, but I got to spend the the last 10 miles or so with Siobhan P and another guy who's name has slipped my mind, all taking it in turns to heave here and there, and to moan about the 'straight line' nature of the last few miles (just give me a hill, for gods sake.  Just anything to break it up!!).  All in though, a real 'good' feel event, and great to get a 50 in the bag for training purposes.

The focus then became the GB Beacons Way Ultra 100 (Race Across Wales), and the task of trying to squeeze in around 100,000ft of altitude training, and the chore of recce'ing 100 miles of the South Wales mountains, fells and countryside, before the race.

The Beacons Ultra 100

I'm a firm believer in the practice of getting to know the intricacies of a race course, for various reasons.  Running 100 miles is tough enough when you do know where you are going, never mind when you don't.  There will always be a time when you literally forget where you are going, and perhaps where you have been (!) due to fatigue and old age, although you have to give your self the best possible chance.  Also, and more importantly for me, I like to split my routes up into 'mentally manageable' sections.  If you are purely focused on the beginning and then the end, its so tough.  I really feel that to have four or five clearly defined sections helps so much, and until the final throws you are never truly thinking about those last few miles - you are just focused on the smaller job in hand, and what it will take to complete than task before moving on to the next one.

Recce'ing the Beacons Ultra - running well in the hills of South Wales

Unfortunately for me, I didn't quite finish the race.  My wheels fell off at mile 92 due to severe dehydration and sickness that had been plaguing me for around 60 miles.  I remember vividly thinking at mile 26, as I ate a warm beef taco from my Dads crew station, that it was probs' a bad idea. I'd made them the day before, and with the complete lack of refrigeration and a hot and sunny June day, I kinda forgot the rules of food hygiene.  Food poisoning kicked in around 3 hours later, and the rest was history.  Funnily enough, whilst I was in my 60+ mile 'pain cave' I couldn't pin-point what was causing me all of the issues.  Basically, I was bringing everything that I ate back up, and could not seem to drink at all - I simply couldn't stomach anything.

I've never wanted to be the 'Guy that People Try and Get Away From' in a race, but I was definitely in that bracket.  Despite trying not to winge about how terrible it all was, I couldn't help myself!  Running partners came and went (mostly, they went).  Luckily for me, good friend and White Giant media guy, James Hutchinson appeared on the top of Pen Y Fan to ensure I was still alive, and then heroically, top bloke Adam Groves decided he would pace me from mile 52 to 68 through the night.  Without that, I would have finished 52 miles in, so I'm forever grateful for that.

When the wheels have well and truly fallen off, and your being sick on your shoes...

I still thoroughly enjoyed the mountain sections though, despite all of this and did manage to enjoy running up the Pen y Fan range also later on the Black Mountain range (simply stunning).  These sections where the only times where I felt any kind of flow.  I feel solidly at home in the mountains, where ever I may be, and have put a lot of time into 'getting good' at technical running. It was such a breath of fresh air to be able to forget the challenges that I was facing.  Just to run freely and feel the air rush through your hair, the breeze on your face.  To embrace the environment, and to flow along the trails up in the mountains was a pure joy.  I learnt so much about my own capabilities up there.  I stopped after summiting the first two peaks at around 42 miles, and had a fit of being violently ill.  I was on my hands and knees, with darkness and the mist falling, with no-one around for miles.  I wondered for a while what would happen if I couldn't stop. It wasn't a worrying thought - just a fleeting question pondered for a second or two, up there in the fog.  I came about after that, and ran again, actually overtaking several people along the way which was quite refreshing.  The morning bought with it renewed energy for the next mountain range, and a better stomach that was able to take in basic calories.

Despite now being able to eat a small amount, it was on the leg into the final check point that I really did have to make a decision to stop.  I'd had quite an emotional phone call with my wife. Ellie, a couple of miles prior.  When your crying into your phone, surrounded by horse flies, above a climb from a country lane back into the mountains, you know that all is not well.  I was trying to find positives and to remind my self of the reasons that I had pushed so hard for over these miles.  I decided at this point that I had to make a decision for my health, although I made the vow to move through the last of the mountains, and have this as a focus for the end of my race.  During the last 10 miles, I stopped sweating, and completely dried up despite the heat.  My clothes where covered in salt deposits, so again - not a great sign of longevity.  I realised that I had been running on empty for the best part of 80 miles at this stage, and for my health the only option was to hand in my tracker.

I made it to CP 10, at mile 92, knowing that my race had come to an end.  This was my first experience of having to dig deeper than I thought possible, and despite the DNF, I was really quite proud of myself for over coming so much.  100 milers have been described many a time as 'A Year in a Day'.  This had been mine, with some extremely valuable lessons learnt.  When you have been at the bottom of the ladder, the only way is up...

GB Snowdon Ultra 100

After reflecting on the Beacons, my main thoughts where that I hadn't trained hard enough, and hadn't put myself under enough hardship on big runs as I had before the 2018 Snowdon Ultra.  I think it important before a long-distance mountain event to put yourself through some real physical and mental trials up in wild areas.  I don't think I had done enough for the Beacons, and there was no way on earth I was going to DNF again in the same year.  Doing things like double traverses of the Carneddau, running the 15 Peaks, hill repeats of Moel Eilio and Elidir Fawr at 4am (quite a few times) are activities that make you question yourself.  These training runs are exactly what you need to complete 100 miles well, in the north Welsh mountains.  Running marathons every weekend in the woods and the hills, throwing in 30 and 40 miles here and there for good measure. This is what leads to enjoying long races.

Training harder for the Snowdon 100.  Wet and cold early mornings are what is required!

So, that is exactly what I made myself do for the Snowdon 2019 - lots of things like this, in all weathers, mostly in the early hours of the morning.  People do comment on that, like  - why would you get up at 4am to go run in the rain in the hills?  I think 'why wouldn't you!'.  If I get out to run, and there are cars all over the place, and people on the tops before I get there, I truly feel that I've missed the boat.  To be the first out, up on the trails with the sun coming up on your heals is a magical thing.  If no sunshine, embracing the dawn through the rain and the clouds is also a liberating feeling.  It's so peaceful there in those moments, and I know that this for me is such an important part of why I choose to run away from the roads and the business of life.  Moving through the forests, listening to the wildlife being unconcerned with people, climbing up the mountains and running down with all of this around you is simply incredible.  Its almost shattered when you do finally bump into somebody, although a chat and a 'hello' is always kinda welcome too!

Running Solo, Day Break 

Running 100 miles is similar to this, which is why I think I like the distance so much.  When you get into the groove, and get those solo miles along the way, its a head-space like no other.  You can't look for it, or expect it to happen.  Its a peculiar thing that dawns on you after a while and by surprise, and then you realise that you are ' in it'.  I love that.  Whether you are running in a forest or around a lake by yourself in the darkness, or if you have teamed up with a few others - once that feeling has found you, it stays with you until the end of the journey.  It's funny as well, that you always team up with the right people!  Snowdon this year was full of this feeling, and these characters, and it made for such a special event.

The first 10 miles was great, although then for the next 20 I had pretty much a terrible time.  I was struggling to get into the race. and wasn't feeling 'up for it', which I hadn't expected at all.  I couldn't focus on the race, and was thinking about the last few miles before I'd even began, and also thinking about how much effort I knew it would take to make it to the finish line.  I had serious words with myself on top of the Glyderau and reminded my self that I was lucky to able to do this, that I wanted to make my kids proud and also - I really wanted to get those points for the UTMB (oh, the shallowness of the ultra!)!  Importantly - I very much needed to prove to myself that my first Snowdon 100 wasn't just luck.  I needed to know that this was something that I could continue to achieve and finish, and that the distance for me is a constant.

Having far to much fun - not trying hard enough obviously!

Seeing family and friends at mile 30 was the turning point, as was the ascent of Pen y Ole Wen.  Most people cringe at the thought of one of the steepest trails in North Wales-  I love it!  Once you get to know the mountain, you really can enjoy this one, and moving alongside Tim, Paddy and Rhys, it was just incredible fun.  This is where I knew I would finish - 32 miles in on the side of a mountain, with a team of nutbags.  I began making mental plans then for moving on out at the half-way point.  What I was going to eat, was I going to catch 40 winks, what was my strategy for the last 50 miles.  Once the mental plans are laid, all you have to do is stick to them, so I did.

In a nutshell, mistakes where made and I did find myself on taking the wrong turn twice costing nearly two hours, despite knowing that I was making a mistake at the time (I went with it anyway - whats that all about!?).  I also really wish that I had moved faster and pushed myself more.  It was a difficult balance, as I had started the race with a view to simply finishing, although along the way that changed and I wanted to do well.  I should have ran faster more often.  I thought a lot about this along the way, analysing what I was doing as though I was looking into myself from a spectators viewpoint.  I was struggling to work out how much energy to use, as I wanted to ensure that I was keeping enough in the tanks for the mountains coming up over the course.  Its a difficult juggle, although I'm sure that with this experience, I know now that I can perform better - I guess you just have to learn things.  It was also nice to have spent time with Tim Welch, who I'd met at the Beacons Way CP 10 - a top guy with so many stories.

One of the high sections that got edited out due to weather.  A shame - I love this section!

As I said earlier - fate has quite a hand in 100 mile races, and we just seem to fall into step along the way.  It was nice to see the finishing line in, although Tim - I'm sure that I came in a few minutes before you!?  To have got in within my planned time of 36 hours would have been icing on the cake, but at the end of the day, just to finish was amazing in itself.  The bright lights of Betws Y Coed where also way to much after so much time on the trails and one of the longest nights ever.  Its a funny thing to adjust to, coming to the end of an experience like this, although also a wonderful thing to embrace.

Thanks so much to all of the volunteers and the marshals to where up longer than I was, and who spent an incredible amount of time up on the mountains tops directing lost souls.  Also, to the A-Team crew, Ellie and Adam and Tom (impossible without you guys!) and to my parents for catching up along the way.  Pot Noodles rock, and so do Yorkie biscuits.  Time to plan the next trauma.

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