VS: the buildup
2017 got off to a good start with PBs at 100 mile and 24 hours at the 24h Endurance Helsinki track race. I followed that up with another DNF at the Viking Way, thanks to my lack of speed. In that aftermath of that DNF I got myself a coach (Ronnie Staton). Not for Vol State (I’m pretty good at preparing myself to plod slowly for days on end), but as a long term thing to try and do something about my lack of speed. It’s now the limiting factor over anything less than 150 miles, and I either had to resign myself to it, or try something different. The main change in my training so far has been the long runs: less miles (no more 20:30 mile back-to-backs) but run harder. Which left me feeling a bit unsure of how well prepared I was for back-to-back long slow days. It didn’t help that my bank holiday weekend fast-packing trip on the Monarch’s Way didn’t go to plan. I was late starting (thanks to staying up nearly all night beforehand to watch the General Election results) and called it a day early when an allergic reaction to grass cuts and pollen left me struggling to even plod along at 2.5 mph.
Exactly how fit or fast I was wasn’t going to be the deciding factor for Vol State though. When and how I’d finish would largely come down to how I, and in particular my feet, handled the heat. At Easter I started going to hot yoga classes, starting at 1 or 2 a week and building up to 3 or 4 by the end of June. To my surprise I really enjoy yoga, it seems to be good for my stress-muppet tendencies and I’m planning to keep going when I’ve got the time.
One of the biggest challenges was finding kit that would work in the heat and humidity, and testing it in the British ‘Summer’. Thankfully we did have one week of hot weather, where I discovered that of the 2 pairs of shorts I was considering wearing, 1 chafed horribly and the other held onto sweat so it felt like running in a giant nappy... I panic bought lots of shorts, trying to find some which were light-weight and comfy and would stop my, somewhat chunky, thighs chafing. Some (for instance the ridiculously expensive Salomon ones, which made my legs look and feel like two over-stuffed sausages) went straight back to the shop. In the end I settled on a cheap Odlo pair. They didn’t feel, or look, great, but they were the least worst option.
I also had shoe problems. The latest version of my go-to road shoes, the Brookes Adrenaline in wide-fit, weren’t wide enough for my hobbit feet. I ended up running the track race in trail shoes, and tried half a dozen different replacements, none of which I really felt happy with. The solution in the end was a pair of men’s Adrenalines and some surgery (to the shoes not my feet...) with a Stanley knife. I never thought I’d spend £25 on a pair of socks. However blisters across the balls of my feet, which I’ve suffered from in the past, would turn the race into a painful plod, so I invested in some Drymax Hot Weather Running Socks.
Sun protection was another issue. While I’m not a natural red-head, my skin is fairly pale and burns easily. I tried to build up a tan, to get some natural protection, but again the British Summer hampered my plans. So I bought Outdoor Research Sun Sleeves and an ActiveIce Cap with neck protection, plus a stupidly expensive small tube of sport specialist factor 50 sun cream.
Our pre-race road trip would also be an opportunity for some heat and Sun acclimatisation. Having previously had a great holiday touring national parks in Arizona/Nevada/New Mexico, we decided to do the same again in Utah/Colorado. Beforehand we were a bit nervous about whether we’d even be allowed into the US under the new immigration rules, given that we’ve holidayed our way around the ‘axis of evil’ (Syria, Libya, North Korea and, in the OH’s case, Iran too). While there’s presumably an electronic record of our travels, to avoid a knee-jerk reaction at the border we got new ‘clean’ passports without visas, or the Arabic translation of the personal details page. To our relief immigration in Denver was fast, efficient and friendly.
I didn’t do any proper training runs during the holiday, but I did go for a longer walk or run back to the rental car while the OH waited in the shade a couple of times. The 10 days were fantastic, and at the end I felt really guilty. If I didn’t have this thing about doing ridiculous races, we could have had a longer proper holiday. We parted in Salt Lake City, the OH flying to Florida for a work trip/busman’s holiday seeing “Space stuff” while I flew to Chattanooga via Dallas (a reminder of quite how big the US is).
Groome transportation run shuttles from Atlanta and Nashville airports to Chattanooga, with the Nashville shuttle able to do a drop-off/pick-up in Kimball, close to the finish at Castle Rock and the meeting point for screwed Vol Staters. They don’t, I discovered a couple of days beforehand, do pick ups from Chattanooga airport. In retrospect a taxi to their Chattanooga office, followed by a shuttle to Kimball would have been my best bet. But I was keen to get to Kimball in time for the ‘last but one supper’ (to glean more race wisdom) and ended up taking an expensive cab ride to the Super 8 motel in Kimball.
Another thing I’d left to the last minute was working out what to do with my luggage (thanks to the pre-race holiday I had a holdall full, mainly of dirty washing and books). I’d assumed the motel would have a luggage storage room, like most British hotels, even cheap ones. But they didn’t. I emailed the Vol State mailing list, asking if I could leave my stuff in someone’s car. This triggered emails from other people with the same problem. Plus someone who helpfully told me that having luggage was a sign that I was unsuited to doing Vol State (apparently I should have only turned up with old stuff that could be thrown away and then buy new clothes from Walmart at the end) and that my 6-7 day estimated finishing time was probably completely unrealistic. Great, thanks! In the end somebody offered up the open back of their truck, and I went to Walmart and bought a roll of large, strong bin bags. I could have done without the pre-race stress, it added to my feeling that I really should have been having a longer holiday with the OH rather than doing this (silly) race. I didn’t manage to get much sleep that night.
Coming back to my estimated finish time, I’ve learnt the hard-way (T184...) that I do best at multi-day events when I don’t fixate about finishing time/position and instead focus on moving forward as fast as I comfortably can. But I needed an estimated finish time to book my flight home. The cut-off is 10 days, but if I was moving that slowly something would have gone very badly wrong and I’d be best off dropping. It’s tempting to think that 60 miles a day, and a 5 day finish, is doable. But I’d done enough research to know that that was a fantasy. Most people take 6-8 days and I also had James’ 2015 finish as a benchmark. He’s a much, much better ultra-runner than me, with a trans con and multiple Spartathlon finishes to his name, and he’d taken over 6 days. Yes he’d struggled with the heat, but I was likely to too. I decided I’d be happy with a 7d Xh finish, ecstatic with a 6d Xh finish and booked a flight home which would (just...) allow for a 8d Xh finish (where in this case X had to be small). I completed the 270 cold, muddy miles of the Spine Race in under 7 days, while carrying a 10kg backpack. So surely I could manage 314 miles of hot roads with a small pack in under 8?
Beyond those time goals my strategy was to run through the first night and then try and sleep during the heat of the day, either in a motel or a quiet shady spot if I could find one. The sleeping during the day strategy I’d picked up from reading race blogs (the Race tracking spread-sheet contains a compilation). Some even quite fast finishers went as far as stopping at a motel during the first afternoon, but I didn’t think there was any point in me doing that-I always struggle to sleep during the 1st night of a multi-day event. While I didn’t have a concrete plan, I did spend a fair bit of time preparing. I printed the maps from John Price’s web-site on waterproof paper and spent several evenings annotating them with the turns and locations of motels, cafes and stores (which I cross-checked with google maps). I also read a lot of the blogs from previous years’ races. This was useful for getting a general idea of what to expect (heat, dodgy dogs and dodgy driving) but not knowing the places the race passed through, detailed information didn’t really stick in my head.