August 2018

MW: postmortem

Some random musings on feet, gear & food, ‘undercarriage issues’ (TMI alert!), advice for future entrants and my future plans.


My feet have a tendency to blister across the balls. However, I’ve now got a footcare routine which usually prevents that: regularly grating with a pedi-egg and moisturising with E45 pre-race and then sudocrem, good socks and regular airing during multi-day races. I got through Vol State, the Thames Ring and the Spine with only one or two very small, painless blisters. And I’ve never needed medical care for blisters during a race before.

My plan for the MW was to wear Dexshell socks with thin liners over-night and while the dew was down and then change to regular socks for the day. Footwearwise I really struggle to find running shoes that are wide enough and had drawn a complete blank with finding lightweight boots that were comfy. Even men’s Altra Lone Peaks in a size 7 (my feet are a women’s 6 in normal shoes) were far too narrow. So my plan was to wear men’s inov8 RaceUltra 290s in a 7 for the first 3 stages (which I was planning to run a large fraction of), changing up to a pair of men’s Roclite 325 boots in a 7.5. And then, if/when they got too tight (my feet don’t tend to swell much, but there was very little spare room in these) my last resort was a battered old pair of Women’s Roclite 336 boots, which already had 500+ miles (including half of the Spine and various other multi-day outings) on the clock.

Things went badly wrong very early on however and I got blisters which needed draining and taping daily from stage 2 onwards. I had to put the 336 boots into service much earlier than anticipated. They kept me in the game, but by stage 7/8 they were, unsurprisingly, completely wrecked. The creased uppers blistered the tops of my feet and there was so little cushioning left it felt like my feet were being hit with a wacker plate with every step. I switched back into the RaceUltras for stage 9 and having some cushioning felt great but, despite only having done 100 miles in them before, the upper started splitting. (So even if I’d been unbroken enough to get to the end my footwear wouldn’t have been...). At the time I wondered if I should have spent more time and effort trying to find lightweight boots which fit. However despite a Summer of buying and returning every running boot on the market I still haven’t found a pair which fit.

I think I was the first person to have bad feet problems, but by the end of the first week everyone was having issues. My good foot was in pretty good shape up till half way through stage 8. But then it too blistered badly after a night of forcing our way through overgrown wet crops and fields. I think the reality of the MW is that however good your footcare is, before and during the race, painful foot issues are inevitable.

Gear and food

My extensive receing helped me to nail a lot of my gear choices. Unless you’ve got hardy legs and arms, you’ll want to cover them up for the numerous overgrown sections. On my upper body I wore either a really lightweight long sleeved top or a t-shirt and sleeves. Waterproof trousers are a good way of temporarily covering your legs, but my chafing issues made wearing them really painful, so instead I ended up wearing a pair of thin, quick drying long tights.

I’d been planning to navigate via a combination of A4 annotated maps and memory. I think some of the fiddlier navigation (i.e. crossing to the other side of a hedge while otherwise moving in a straight line) is a lot easier to spot with a map than a GPS. My foot problems meant I used my poles much more than planned, so I used the GPS more than maps (keeping it in a waterproof case on elastic around my neck and tucked behind my front pack). My Oregon 350 is getting a bit old and I liked what I saw of other people’s eTrex 30s: compact and with a compass that works even when you’re standing still. Another useful trick I’d copy if I were to do the MW again is cutting up the guidebooks and having the relevant pages to hand. (Unlike the Penine Way...) the MW is far too long and fiddly to memorise and some sections looked completely different to they had a few months earlier. On these occasions the guidebook would have been useful, but I couldn’t be bothered to take my pack off and get it out.

OMM Kamlieka waterproofs (the older versions, not the flimsier looking current ones) have never let me down before. However when heavy storms were combined with pushing through overgrown paths they soaked right through. In retrospect I would have packed a heavier weight hard shell jacket (and not had to go shopping in Bristol to buy a not particularly good one...).

I’d also have packed a lot more food to eat at checkpoints and during the more remote sections. For every stage I was planning on carrying ~2000 calories of food (flapjacks, Mars bars and pretzels), buying, and eating, another 1000 en route, plus 1000 at checkpoints. But the 1000 at checkpoints didn’t always happen and there were some stages where there were few opportunities for buying food or refilling water bottles. I actually found getting enough food and water far easier when I ran Vol State completely unsupported.

Undercarriage issues

I’ve belatedly discovered that most of my chafing is actually folliculitis, small pus filled bumps forming around the hair follicles at the tops of my thighs. I’ve had minor issues in 3-4 day races in Summer before, but the only time it’s been a significant issue was at Vol State last Summer. I’d assumed/hoped that that was mainly down to the heat and humidity. However it’s now clear that it’s a problem in warm weather full stop. And in fact not being able to properly air my undercarriage made it much worse (at Vol State I washed my kit and spent several hours lying naked in an air conditioned hotel room everyday). So I need to try and stop it happening in future.

Wearing baggy shorts would possibly help, but without tight lycra my thighs rub together and chafe. More permanent hair removal might help. But the thought of letting a random stranger anywhere near my crotch fills me with horror. So (in a classic incidence of throwing money at a problem) I’ve bought an Intense Pulsed Light hair removal device. It’s too soon to tell whether it’s working. Finger (and legs) crossed...

Advice for future entrants

Don’t do it! (In my more miserable moments I’ve told people that it’s a ridiculous race which no one should enter, ever..). More rational advice is to be aware that it’s hard. Far, far, harder than any other race I’ve attempted. But the fact Stephen finished (and Ellen got very close) demonstrates that you don’t have to be an elite international ultra runner to finish it. You do however need to be a fast walker, good at self care (in particular feet) and have a sustainable strategy for sleeping and fueling. The distance itself isn’t the biggest challenge. What makes it tough is the route: overgrown field paths, rutted tracks & fields, and fiddly navigation. There are some sections which are ‘cruisable’, but a lot of it isn’t. I’d strongly recommend doing the Yeovil loop over a weekend in late Spring/early Summer (when the crops are high and the paths overgrown). And then imagine doing this when you’ve already got ~350 sleep-deprived miles on your feet (and another 200 miles to go afterwards...).

Future plans

First the million dollar question: would I try and do it again? Probably not. Definitely not next year. But not a definite 100% never no (I’ve kept my maps ‘just in case’). Partly because it’d usually be difficult for me to take 2 weeks off work at that time of year (although if I really wanted to I probably could). And partly because if I’m going to do week plus long races which take months of preparation and wipe me out for at least a week afterwards, I should probably choose ones which play to my strengths and maximise my chances of finishing. My not-so-secret weapon in multi-day races is my shuffle. So it makes sense to choose races where I can deploy it as much as possible. It’d be easy to convince myself that if my foot hadn’t caused problems from so early on I could have finished. But the reality is my walking is (currently...) too slow for the MW.

The MW has made me think about masochism and what motivates me. I’ve always had a tendency to do hard things largely to prove I can, not just in ultra-running, but also in other hobbies and at work. I’ve happily done races (e.g. Vol State and the Spine) which even some other ultra-runners would think were pointlessly masochistic. However the MW is probably the wrong side of type 2 fun for me. The inevitable trashed feet, fighting through head high nettles and even taller crops and desperately searching in the dark for over-grown styles to cross rutted fields when there are perfectly good, more direct, minor roads. Admittedly I’d feel more positive about the MW if I’d actually finished it (or even maybe just not struggled so much from early on).

Being a woman in a very male dominated area also complicates things (multi-day ultras are nearly as big a sausage fest as theoretical physics). The kudos for doing stuff not many women do is nice. But it sometimes feels like you’re representing 50% of the population, whether you want to or not. Pondering going back to the MW really brought this home. I realised that I’d be really happy if Ellen finishes next year. Not just because I’ve seen first hand how badly she want it, but also because then the ‘female finisher’ box would be ticked and that would significantly reduce my motivation for trying again. Years ago I stopped doing ‘come and have a go if you think you’re clever enough’ style theoretical physics, and started working on things which interest me and suit my skills. It’s about time I applied the same logic to running.

So, navel gazing out of the way, what are my future plans? I’d been planning to do the EMU 6 day race in 2019 and the DNF doesn’t change that (provided my foot heals by the Autumn). Beyond that the strategy is to try to pick races which play to my strengths and which I’m enthusiastic about actually doing (rather than having done). Right now what’s taking my fancy is a return to Vol State and, with the benefit of last year’s experience, seeing how much closer to 5 days I can get. I’ve already started the search for baggy, lightweight shorts that don’t give me thigh chub-rub. I’ve also taken a leaf out of Ellen’s book and started working on my walking speed on a treadmill.

MW: aftermath

Lindley drove me to Yeovil and helped me carry my bags into the hotel. The door was open but reception was closed. I called the contact number on the confirmation email and a phone rang behind a shutter. We wandered the corridors looking for a room with a key in the door. We then tried the pub it was attached to. Despite being 10.30pm on a bank holiday weekend it too was completely closed. I was gutted and struggled not to cry when I phoned the OH to update him. For hours I’d been dreaming of having a bath and then lying naked on clean, white sheets (I don’t know why I was particularly obsessed with white sheets. Black/navy bedding, is usually more my style). Lindley took me back to the CP, stopping on the way to get some pizza.

After a large quantity of pizza I crawled into a tent, had another wet-wipe wash and crawled (not naked...) into my sleeping bag. I had several nightmares. First a variation on the ‘flooding killing my pet rabbits’ dream I’d had a few days before. And then the first of what would be a recurring series. I was convinced I was still in the race, and crawling on all fours while the CP was moved along the route behind me. I woke up, looked out of the tent door and was disappointed to see that the CP was still in the field next to the pub car park and I hadn’t made any progress.

First thing in the morning Lindley told me and Peter he was heading to the next CP and would be back for us, and to pack up, in a few hours. I slept for a couple more hours and then got up and ate some more. When Lindley got back he had a passenger on board. John S, Thames Ring 250 course record holder, who’d led the race for a long way had had to drop as his feet had blistered down to the bone and he could barely walk. He was understandably gutted at his first ever DNF. Peter and I were both fairly perky after a good (by race standards) night’s sleep and poor John had to put up with us and Lindley talking bollocks while he waited for his dad to pick him up. He seemed particularly unimpressed by my claim that my legs were in better shape than at the start (which was true, my left foot on the other hand...).

Once John had been rescued, Peter and I helped Lindley pack up the CP (we got the toilet tent back in its bag but left the toilet itself well alone...). It was an informative lesson on just how much work went on behind the scenes moving the CPs. I really enjoyed the morning, and was actually glad that I hadn’t been able to get a hotel room the night before. After another trip through the backroads of Somerset I checked into the Premier Inn for an afternoon of baths and snoozing. My big job for the afternoon was sorting, and slimming down, my kit. The split tights went in the bin along with the comfy pants that had become a bit of a biohazard after being worn (and smeared in various lotions and potions) for multiple days. I considered keeping the trashed boots as some sort of twisted souvenir, but thought better of it. Throwing away food felt wasteful but even getting my remaining clothes and gear home on the train was going to be a challenge. That evening I made the mistake of eating in the attached restaurant rather than hobbling the ~100m to the nearby Wetherspoons. My main course took nearly an hour to arrive, and I was on the verge of eating the furniture.

The bad foot (that’s dry blood under the skin, not mud)

I had another restless night’s sleep, including a nightmare where I thought the curtains were a maize field and multiple trips to the bathroom to soak my feet to relieve the pain. After getting my money’s worth from the breakfast buffet, I headed to the train station. The taxi driver commented on the weight and size of my bags, and when I apologised told me that it was me, not him, he was worried about.

The first train to Bristol was, apart from the screaming kids who stopped me sleeping, OK. The fun and games started from Bristol. The train was shorter than it was supposed to be and I only managed to squeeze on thanks to a bloke grabbing me and my bags and pulling me on (which brought back memories of being hauled onto the TransMongolian express by a dodgy trader after being detained at the Russian-Mongolian border on my honeymoon...). After a few stops it quieted down sufficiently that there was room for me to sit on my bags in the vestibule (the conductor kindly found me an empty seat, but there was no space in that carriage for my bags). I was freezing cold and had to rummage through my bags for warm clothes and food. I felt very jealous of the other people who’d dropped close enough to home that they could be picked up by family (but reminded myself that Alan had had to travel all the way back to Scotland on his own).

At Birmingham the train emptied and, before the hordes on the platform got on, I made a hobble-dash for the nearest luggage rack. Just as I was about to cram my bags into the bottom of it a women jumped up, barged in front of me and (ignoring my sarcastic ‘thank you’) moved her small suitcase into the bottom rack, forcing me to heft my bags onto the top layer. Further down the line someone tried to turf me out of ‘their’ seat, despite the above seat indicators clearly saying that seat reservations weren’t in operation. And when we finally got to Chesterfield a bloke who was stood in front of the door opening buttons refused to move (“you need to be patient love, they’ll open on their own”, “no they won’t if someone doesn’t push the button”). I dragged myself and my bags into the waiting room (the OH had left work as early as he could but hadn’t yet made it to the station to pick me up) and cried. Not gentle tears, but great big snotty sobs. The unhelpful behaviour of so many different people on the train unleashed 10 days worth of suppressed emotions.

After another night of vivid dreams I spent Thursday snoozing and avidly watching the race trackers, in particular Ellen’s, with mixed emotions. I really wanted Ellen to finish, because I knew how determined she was to do it. Her continued progress made me question whether I’d thrown the towel in too soon, but I was also worried that she’d push to the point of collapse/serious harm. By Friday I felt OK and enjoyed a day relaxing in the garden with coach Steggy. That was a false dawn however. I spent the weekend alternating resting with getting on top of domestic crap while the OH marked exam scripts. I was a bit tetchy (OH: well at least you had good weather apart from the storms. Me (growls): no it wasn’t, it was stupidly hot) and the OH didn’t really get why I was so down about not finishing a race I hadn’t expected to finish. (“Yes I thought it was more likely that I wouldn’t finish than I would, but if I’d thought there was zero chance of me finishing I wouldn’t have entered it.”). I obsessed over whether I’ve DNF-ed too many events in the last few years and tried, with limited success, to cheer myself up by reading blogs I’ve written about my more successful races. Sunday evening brought another bout of crying.

chilling with coach Steggy (“lazy fucking mammal”)

I bounce back from 3-4 day events fairly quickly, a couple of good night’s sleep is all that’s needed. However my MW recovery was even worse than the Spine: 10 days of really poor sleep and mental fuggy-headedness. I felt guilty about not firing on all cylinders at work and questioned whether I should do week+ long races if they take so long to recover from (I work in a field where working evenings and weekends and not taking most of your annual leave is de rigour). I don’t know how much of this negativity was due to the DNF (this was the first time I’ve DNF-ed a really long race). The stressful journey home probably didn’t help either.

The blisters healed fairly quickly, but 3 months later my foot still isn’t completely recovered. A post-race X-ray showed no sign of a fracture (ruling out major damage), but fresh stress fractures don’t always show up on X-rays. A visit to a podiatrist a couple of weeks later ruled out a stress fracture, unfortunately, since a stress fracture would have healed by now. It’s not 100% clear what the issue is, but it’s focussed around one of the metatarsal heads. After 2 months it had stopped hurting, so I started running again. I was (uncharacteristically...) sensible and started with 3 miles of mixed running and walking and slowly built up to 5 miles of off-road running over 3 weeks. And then the foot ‘went’ again. Nowhere near as badly, but I’m limiting myself to power walking on a treadmill for a few more weeks.

I’d always intended to have a break from focussed run training over the Summer. I’d planned to spend the time it freed up on yoga. However, inevitably, I’m into one of the more dynamic forms of yoga which involves lots of jumping and can’t be done with a ‘broken’ foot. And not being able to do anything active is very bad for my head. Looking on the bright side, I’ve had plenty of time to work on my headstands though.