April 2017

I didn't miss by far...

After my doomed attempt at the Viking Way in 2016, I was back for another go in 2017. “You don’t finish the Viking Way by lying on the sofa/watching Spine race trackers/...” became my Winter training mantra and I arrived at the start line in pretty good (for me...) shape. The question was, would it be good enough?


The start.
Photo by: Karen Weber

This year I had company at the back of the field: Dave (who was starting with an injury) and Byron. Initially we jockeyed for the last place position, but eventually I settled in just ahead of them. It looked like nobody started super-fast, but within a couple of miles I couldn’t see anyone in front. Dave & Byron passed me when I stopped to take off my wind-proof and I stayed just behind them until CP1. We got there at 10.20, about the same time as last year, which was a bit disappointing. I was in better shape and had been hoping to shave 5-10 minutes off my split from last year. But at least my legs were feeling much better this year.

We stayed pretty close together through the next stage. It started drizzling and I put my wind-proof back on and stuffed my sunglasses into one of the side pockets on my pack. The rain didn’t last long, but when I went to put the sunglasses back on they were gone. Arse! I was tempted to go back and look for them (my eyes are really sensitive to bright light and I tend to screw them up and get headaches). But I didn’t have time to spare. Even as I’d faffed around deciding what to do Dave and Byron had disappeared out of sight. I got to CP2 just before them though. I’m guessing they’d been sent off course by a sign-post which had been rotated by 90 degrees. I had a map in my hand at all times, but it was mainly so I could keep an eye on my progress. I’ve got the memory of an elephant and having seen all of the route at least twice (reces + last year’s failed attempt) I knew where I was going. If only I was as good at running as I am at remembering random crap...

I still wasn’t moving any faster than last year, but I was at least beginning to catch other runners. First Shawn on the climb out of CP2, then Javed and finally Duncan. Duncan and I went back and forth most of the way to CP3 (where what appeared be his entire extended family was waiting). When he was running he was running well (and faster than me), but he seemed to be overawed by the scale of the race. I got to CP3 at roughly the same time as last year. I knew that the bigger time gains should come after CP4, but I’d been hoping to pull back 20-30 min by now. Was I in worse shape than I thought? Or had last year’s run been better than I realised at the time?

I spent ~30 min at CP3, but every minute of it was spent doing something. I changed into night gear, cleaned, dried and re-lubed my feet, restocked my food supplies, texted the OH a quick update (“bit slow but feeling much better than last year so should make up time later”) and got down about 500 calories of baby food and pizza. Up till now I’d been doing a pretty good job of eating, getting down roughly 100-150 calories an hour. On a flat race I stick to a rigid 25 min run, 5 min walk & eat routine, but here I had to run anything that was runnable and fit the eating around that. The one issue was gels. They’re usually the one thing I can get down even when I’m feeling really sick. But the 24 hour track race in Helsinki had left my body associating gels with puking, and every time I tried to eat one I retched. For now that wasn’t a problem. There was plenty of other stuff I could eat, but it might become one later.

Just as I was getting ready to leave someone mentioned Ben, so I asked how far ahead he was. Last year I’d overtaken him between Stixwold and Lincoln so he was a useful barometer for my progress. 30 minutes apparently. I declared my intent to catch him. Not because I wanted to catch him specifically, but because if I was going to have any hope of finishing I’d have to catch anyone who was within an hour or so of me at this point. I had a decent run through Horncastle and Woodall Spa, but I’d run this stretch fairly well last year, so I arrived at CP4 at Stixwold still bang on last year’s splits.

Last year the wheels had started wobbling on the next stage, so this was the point where I should start pulling back time. I’d have to if I was going to have any chance of finishing. I started closing in on a head torch on the run in to Bardney. It was Ben. He’d apparently lost a lot of time by getting lost. I probably didn’t win any prizes for diplomacy by telling him at least it had taken me longer to catch him this year than last year...

Ben was walking fast, but I needed to keep running. So after a brief chat I said I’d push on. Normally if I catch someone at this point in a race I can drop them fairly easily, but Ben dropped in beside/behind me and stayed there for the next 30 miles. When I ran, he ran and when I walked, he walked. Possibly having someone around to see my walk breaks made me run more, but to be honest I’m happiest on my own (the Chained ultra is the last race I’d ever enter...). I did get Ben to go ahead of me on a couple of more technical sections, due to our very different lightening preferences. I like to run with a not too bright, diffuse beam, to let my eyes adapt to the dark, whereas Ben had a very bright narrow beam which bobbled about lots, casting an annoying shadow. He was also making some funny noises which didn’t help my nausea.

We made it to CP5, just before Lincoln, at 3.30am. Half an hour earlier than last year, so finally I’d started pulling back time. I was surprised to hear that Trisha was in the meat-wagon having a nap. With her speed, in particular her Sandstone Way finish, I’d assumed that she’d be able to finish the race fairly comfortably. After some entertaining stories from Karen about her run in with a nearby resident I chivvied Ben out of the CP. Peter Foxall (meat-wagon driver, and ultra-runner, extraordinaire) commented that it was good we were working together. Which was probably true, so I resolved to be a bit more talkative.


Multitasking (eating pringles while having my photo taken) at CP5.
Photo by: Karen Weber

We navigated through Lincoln fine, but not much faster than last year (my deviation then didn’t cost me as much time as I thought). There were a few ‘revellers’ on the streets, but they were mostly so out of it they didn’t really notice us. It certainly felt less ‘hairy’ than running through Rotherham at 11pm during Escape from Meriden. But there was one bloke who started shouting crap at us, and then apologised when he realised we weren’t “the coppers” (what police force sends midget officers out to run around in lycra with head torches at 4am in the morning!?).

Dawn came and we managed to keep up a decent pace through the never ending sequence of villages South of Lincoln. I was moving better than last year, partly because my legs weren’t trashed and partly because the field edge paths were a lot less muddy. I did get very sleepy though, and the usual solution of caffeinated gels would have just led to puking. I seriously considered a power-nap but in the end decided to push through to CP6. We got there at 8.15am. An hour earlier than last year and 75 minutes inside the cut-off. Normally races have tight early cut-offs and if I squeak through those I can make the finish fairly comfortably. However the Viking Way mid-race cut-offs are pretty generous, and things were going to be very tight. I’d wanted to be here 15-45 minutes sooner.

Not long after we arrived Steve and another guy (Marcin?) left. Mark was telling us that we need to leave by 8.30. Ben followed his instructions. But I was adamant that 5 minutes spent eating here could save me more than 5 minutes over the next 50 miles. Although in retrospect I didn’t manage to eat enough. At this point the only things I could stomach while moving were pretzels, baby food and dried mango. I also made a mistake with my kit choices. The weather forecast for Sat and Sun had been similar, so I dressed for the weather we’d had on Saturday. However the fact it was already pretty warm (I guess I was oblivious to exactly how early in the morning it was) should have clued me up that it was in fact going to be significantly hotter today.

I was happy to be on my own again, and initially made good progress along the long straight tracks. I didn’t manage to do much running up the next long, but fairly gentle, climb. Eventually a figure came into sight, Ben. He was clearly struggling and when I caught him just after the top I went straight past. I was struggling to run anything which wasn’t completely even, but I had to keep pushing. The last few miles into CP7 took forever. I’d spent hours pouring over the splits of the slowest finishers in previous years and knew I needed to be there by 1pm to have a hope of finishing. 1pm came and went. The final grass track up to CP7 was slightly uphill, but nice and even so I jogged up it, prepared to throw the towel in. There was no point carry on past the point of possibility. Especially not when there were going to be people having to wait for me at the subsequent CPs.

The guys at the CP were very positive, and tried to convince me to keep going. I hummed and hawed. But the more time I spent doing that the more impossible (an oxymoron, I know...) it would become. And then the van window slid open and 3 time VW finisher, Andy Horsley stuck his head out and gave me a bit of a talking to. OK, I was going to keep going until it was completely clear that I couldn’t finish. They packed me off with a bag of grapes and I jogged down the road.


Getting a talking to from Mr. Viking Way, Andy Horsley, at CP7.
Photo by: Keith Godden

For the first few miles I felt pretty positive, maybe it was possible? And then I hit Sewestern lane. It was hot. I felt sick. And I was struggling to even walk at a decent speed. I phoned the OH to let him know I was going to be stopping at CP8. The wheels came off completely not long after. I’d moved onto a new map page and was wondering why a road crossing was taking longer to appear than it should. And then I saw a castle which wasn’t on the map... I’d moved onto a new page when I should have just turned it over and I had a whole page more to do than I thought. A quick calculation made it clear that there was no way I could get to CP8 by my cut-off of 6.30pm.

Not long after I came to a major road crossing. And I waited and waited to get a big enough gap to cross. Was I going to have to call the meat-wagon to rescue me, because I couldn’t cross a road? I eventually got across the road and managed to jog the nice flat canal tow-path. That didn’t last long though, and the next rutted climb ground me to a halt again. I wasn’t going to get to CP8 until well after 7. I absolutely hate making phone-calls, but I sat down, unpinned my number and called the meat-wagon number. I didn’t want picking up from where I currently was. I could get to CP8 under my own steam, but it was going to be slow and late so I thought I should find out what the least inconvenient extraction point was. After a few minutes talking to Peter, Karen took over. She tried to convince me I could finish. I knew that wasn’t happening, but the kick up the arse did get me moving again.

I slowly made my way along the mud roads. Even though the conditions underfoot were dry, they were still slippy and frustrating. Eventually I reached the proper tarmac roads into Sewestern and managed to jog into CP8. It was 7.30pm and there was absolutely no way I could do the remaining 16 miles on tired legs in 3.5 hours, so it was definitely time to admit defeat. I apologised to Dave and Lynn for keeping them waiting. They were very kind, and told me stories of having to rescue runners from mud pits in the dark in previous years. We wrapped me up in waterproofs and bin bags and they gave me a lift to Oakham, where Mark was waiting with my drop bag and commiserations. The OH appeared and we went to the hotel, where I had a bath, forced down a little bit of food and had a nap before heading out to see Steve finish, a ‘comfortable’ 25 minutes inside the cut-off.

Immediately afterwards I didn’t feel too bad. I’d given it my best shot and that was all I could do. But of course over the next couple of days I started second guessing myself. If I’d ran as fast as Steve over the last 50 miles I would (just) have finished. But that’s tantamount to saying “if I was a faster runner I would have finished”, which isn’t a particularly helpful insight. Did I give up mentally? Yes, but (I think) only once it became physically close to impossible. I’m guessing that if I’d pushed really hard I could’ve made it to CP8 half an hour sooner, but I was an hour down on when I needed to be there.

Was doing a 24 hour track race in the run up a bad idea? Maybe, it’s impossible to know. I came out of it without any niggles, quickly got back to my usual running pace and didn’t feel any more tired than I’d expect to feel at this point in the year anyway. The one (unforeseeable) consequence was rendering myself unable to eat gels without retching. I think my reasons for doing the track race were sound; a 100 mile race in the build up to longer races has always worked well for me in the past, and I’d be feeling a lot more miserable now if I didn’t have 24 hour and 100 mile PBs to show for the past 6 months of hard work.

So am I going to try again? That’s a moot question since this was the last Viking Way. Even if it was on next year I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t enter. Getting fixated with a single race isn’t a great idea and I’m not sure I could motivate myself to train hard through another Winter. Plus I’m pretty sure that if I tried again the outcome would be the same; the weather and underfoot conditions were good and I gave it my best shot. And at the moment my best shot simply isn’t good enough. To have a realistic chance of finishing I’d need to do something radically different, to make myself capable of running faster over uneven terrain. Maybe I’m making up shit to make myself feel better, but I’m wondering if my hypermobile joints (ankles in particular) are the limiting factor, and whether there’s anything I can do about that. So that if Mark should decide to put the race on again in a few years time I’d be in a position where I could try again with a reasonable chance of a different outcome.

Looking on the bright-side, I’m a much better ultra-runner now than I was 5 years ago. I was vaguely aware of the 1st edition of the VW in 2012. But back then trying to run it myself didn’t even cross my mind; I was struggling to finish LDWA 100s in 35 hours and was seriously considering giving up on 100 milers. I might not have managed to finish the VW but, despite probably being the slowest runner to ever set foot on the start line, I gave it a credible go.