Viking Way 1, Me 0
Nothing quite went right at the end of 2015/beginning of 2016 and I didn’t even start training properly until February. The sensible thing would have been to pull out. However I decided that having a carrot to get me out the door and running was a good thing, even if it ended in a DNF. Especially since it was looking like my wonky finger might need surgery later in the year. I managed to ramp my mileage up fairly rapidly and got a couple of decent back-to-back weekends in. Four weeks out I reced the first ~85 miles. It went OK, but I had to push hard to make the last train home which left me more knackered than I’d have liked.
The next weekend I ran the 32 mile Haworth Hobble. It was my first ultra back in 2007 and I’ve run it for fun every year since. A 32 mile race, a week after a 85 mile weekend sounds pretty silly in retrospect, but in the past (with a decent training base) I’ve done things like this without any problems. Apart from 2008 (when I strolled around in 8h 20) my Hobble times have come down from 7h 40something to 7h 06. And I’d been hoping that this might finally be the year I broke 7 hours. I felt pretty sluggish from the start. At the first gate a few miles in I was surprised at how short the queue was. I turned around and saw that there were very few people behind me. It was too soon to write a decent time off though, so I kept trying to keep up a decent pace. I went through half way 10 minutes down on last years time, so sub-7 definitely wasn’t happening. But 7.30 would be OK, I thought, given the big weekend I’d just had.
Things went downhill from there though. I was really thirsty and drinking loads, but feeling sick and struggling to eat. At ~22 miles, almost mid-stride, I threw-up, for the first time ever in a sub-100 mile race. From there on in it was just a case of plodding to the finish (since that was probably a quicker way of getting there than DNF-ing). I forced down a biscuit at the next CP and didn’t even bother to try and run most of the long climb up to Top of the Stairs. Finally, a few miles out from the finish, I caught up with Angela (who I’d been back-ing and forthing with all day, as she kept waiting for her husband to catch up). She was walking having just fallen and broken her finger. I decided that sticking with her until her husband caught up was a good idea. Her husband and friend caught us up half a mile from the finish and I jogged it in a few minutes over 8 hours. Nearly, but not quite, a personal worst. Looking on the bright side, I had lots of miles in the bank (albeit a bit slower than I would have liked), my legs were in OK shape (no injuries or major niggles) and I had 3 weeks to rest up. Then, out of the blue, 3 days later my knees started hurting going up and down stairs and when running... And to top everything off the rain kept coming down, so the VW was going to be a complete mud fest.
Come race weekend I wasn’t feeling at all optimistic about my prospects of finishing. My goal was simply to give it my best shot, not give up mentally and see how far I could get. I turned up to race registration the night before in my running gear (I didn’t want to waste space in my drop-bag with clothes that couldn’t, if necessary, be worn for running) and carrying my rucksack, in case there was a kit check. And felt like a right twat when everyone else was there in their jeans...
The next morning was an early start, as Peter F shuttled us across the Humber Road Bridge to the start in the minibus that would later serve as the meat waggon. As we loitered at the start Lindley Chambers, race director Thames Ring 250, tried to tell me that I was capable of finishing, but I really wasn’t convinced. It being a shorter distance than the TR250 should have meant I could run faster (and make the time cut-offs), but for a one-paced-plodder like me it’s not that simple. Before the start there was a group photo, and my usual ‘hide at the back behind taller people’ tactic failed and I ended up slap bang in the middle. Only 1 woman (the legendary Mimi Anderson) has every finished the VW. There had been 5 women on the entry list, but in the end there were only 2 of us on the start line. If I’d been in good shape I’d have felt pressure to be number 2 (or 3), but I was so pessimistic about my chances of finishing that this really wasn’t a factor.
For the first half mile or so the rest of the field didn’t seem to be running too fast. But by 2 miles in I was way off the back of the field. This didn’t bother me though, it was what I’d have expected even if I’d been in good shape. A couple of people came past me having gone off course. One of them was Dave Baker, and he remained visible in front of me until Barnetby le Wold. He missed an (unsignposted) turn and initially I followed him, but stopped when it didn’t look right. Looking at the map I worked out what we’d done, however Dave was out of sight and I couldn’t shout him back. At CP1, just down the route at Bigby, I told Mark what had happened, but Peter F had already been dispatched in the meat wagon to get Dave back on track. Mark confirmed we were indeed right at the back. That, and being ~5 min slower than I’d hoped, didn’t bother me, but the fact that my knees had already started hurting did.
The next stage to Tealby went OK-ish, but various random muscles in my legs had joined my legs in hurting, which was a bit worrying. Mid-stage Lindley was sitting in his truck, presumably monitoring the runners. I waved and kept running, trying to look better than I felt. Eventually I finally started catching people. First up was Javed, who was walking, having not recovered yet from his double Spine. We had a brief chat, but I needed to push on if I was going to make the first cut-off at 50 miles. The day had started a bit chilly and drizzly, but it was now warm and sunny. I briefly considered taking my long sleeved top off and running in my bra, but remembered what happened the last time I did that (Blackpool marathon, 2002...): sun-burn which blistered and permanent skin damage... I stopped at the corner shop in Donington on Bain and bought some water. I’d been dreaming of a Calipo, but (unsurprisingly given the time of year) their ice-cream cabinet was almost empty.
My next catch was Rachel, aka Navigationally Challenged Woman (NCW). At this point she was running, at high speed, along the other side of the road in the wrong direction. I shouted across that the turn was just ahead. I didn’t catch what she said in response, but she kept on running in the wrong direction (OK, if you don’t want to trust my navigation, that’s up to you). She eventually caught me 5 min later, on an uphill, and sprinted past.
I made it to CP3 at 50 miles in ~11.45. 15-45 min slower than I’d hoped, but inside the 12.5 hour cut-off. I ate some cold pizza, restocked my food supplies and put warm kit on for the night. I also changed my shoes. The Scott Supertracs I started in were good on the mud, and had been OK for my rece, but my feet were feeling sore so I swopped grip for comfort and a pair of Inov8 Race Ultra 290s. NCW was meanwhile struggling to sort her kit out for the night, and the marshals were desperately trying to convince her that she’d need to put on, or carry, warm clothes.
The Sun was setting as I ran downhill to Horncastle, and for the first time I actually felt alright. In Horncastle I passed a bloke rummaging in his rucksack. I think this was Stephen Forde, whose splits from a previous year I was using as a benchmark. He was the slowest starter who’d ever gone on to finish, but even so his old splits were 30-60 minutes faster than I was going. I managed to run almost all of the never ending cycle track between Horncastle and Woodall Spa, overtaking (youngest ever Spine Race finisher) Ben Taylor in the process. In Woodall Spa I caught NCW and pointed her in the right direction again. Shortly afterwards she followed a track left rather than taking an obvious (if you were actually looking at your map) footpath. She was too far ahead to shout back, but even if she hadn’t been I’d have been tempted not to. I’d got fed up with the complete lack of thanks for my navigational assistance.
When I reached Lindley, Maxine and Naomi at CP4 at Stixwold I was beginning to think I might have a chance of finishing. I was closing the gap on Stephen Forde’s old splits. My legs were still hurting, but they weren’t getting any worse. We had a bit of banter about how it takes me 60 miles to get warmed up, but I quickly moved on, wanting to keep going while I was feeling good. It started raining again and I passed Ben and Riccardo stopped, putting on waterproofs. The first half of this stage went fine, but then I hit the muddy ploughed fields followed by (long, soaking wet) grass and a bridleway that was ankle deep in mud. In my less grippy shoes I was struggling to stay upright, moving really, really slowly and getting cold. I knew the last few flat miles into Lincoln would be flat and runnable, so I wasn’t sure whether I needed to stop and put on an extra layer and waterproof trousers or not. In the end I decided to play it safe and layered up.
I managed to run most of the river path into Lincoln, but it felt a lot slower than on my rece, even though I was carrying a much smaller load. The cathedral didn’t have it’s lights on, but eventually the lights of Ronnie Statton’s car at CP5 came into view. He was pretty upbeat about how I was doing, but I’d lost time on Stephen Forde’s splits and if felt like the race was beginning to slip away from me again. Ronnie told me that Pete F had gone to pick up Ben and Riccardo and they were hoping to convince NCW to drop too, as she was (literally) all over the place. It seemed like everyone I overtook was DNF-ing, but this was a race where I’d be ecstatic to finish last.
Thanks to the mad dash for the last train on my rece, the route through Lincoln was the one bit I hadn’t reced. We’d been given a separate map for the city, but I think it wasn’t to scale and didn’t have all the roads on. I soon went wrong, but at least knew where I was and where I was going. The rain had eased off and I was over-heating, so I stopped outside the hospital to remove the extra layers. In retrospect I’d have been better off not putting them on. But better safe than sorry and hypothermic. A doctor ran out of the hospital and asked me if I’d seen a patient with a drip. He didn’t seem at all non-plussed about what I was doing in running gear on the streets of Lincoln in the early hours of the morning.
Running, painfully, down Lincoln’s cobbled main street I was shocked to see a clock and discover that an hour had passed since I’d left CP5. I’d only covered a couple of miles though, HTF had that happened? The race wasn’t slipping away from me now, it was accelerating into the distance. I resolved to keep moving as fast as I reasonably could. The fields after Lincoln were really muddy, and without grippy shoes, I was struggling to stay upright let alone run. I caught one more person (Bryan Rudd I think) who told me his wheels had come off. And a few miles later mine followed suit. First I struggled to get over a style; I literally had to lift my legs over with my hands. Then I couldn’t even get my feet off the ground to run. I resigned myself to a long, slow 7 mile shuffle to a DNF at CP7. It was pretty grim. I even managed to loose track of where I was on the map, and how many villages I had left to go through.
I made it to CP7 at 96 miles ~12 min inside the 26.5 hour cut-off, but there was no way I was capable of going any further (at least not at a pace which would get me to the finish anywhere near the cut-off). The one good thing about DNF-ing so close to the cut-off was that I didn’t have to wait long for a lift to Oakham station in the meat wagon. I was in good company; the other meat wagon occupants included 3 time VW finisher (and TR250 joint 1st male) Andy Horsley and Spine Race & Yukon Arctic Ultra finisher Karl Shields. But before we could go to the station we had to find and collect NCW, which wasn’t as simple as just looking at her tracker and going to the next point where the route met a road. She’d gone off course again and we eventually found her running at high speed across a random field... En route to the station the ever positive Ben tried to cheer her up. She responded by telling him that she would have finished if she hadn’t stuck with him and Riccardo through the night. Nice (and about as likely as me running a sub 3 hour marathon...).
The OH kindly came and picked me up from Oakham station. Which was good. I struggled to get in and out of the car, so getting me and my kit on and off trains would have been ‘fun’. My legs were really painful for ~24 hours, but then (apart from my knees...) they recovered pretty quickly.
I didn’t get close to finishing. But I’m satisfied that I gave it the best shot I had this year. I kept on moving forwards as fast as I sensibly could, until it wasn’t physically possible. Given the non-ideal run-up, finishing would have been a minor miracle. But I don’t regret trying. The VW is pretty close to my physical limits, but I don’t know which side of them it lies on. What I’ve learnt from this attempt is that maybe, if everything goes to plan, I might be able to finish it. I will be back...