2018 was all about my big fat Monarch's Way DNF, which I've banged on about at length already. The after-effects of that (in particular the slow to recover 'broken' foot) are still lingering. The race itself was 90% pure misery (I can count the hours where I felt happy on my fingers) and I've still got absolutely no desire to do it again. But I don't regret giving it a go. It taught me some useful lessons about masochism. And while the route doesn't really lend itself to a race (I'm restraining myself from more ranting about overgrown paths and crops), I really enjoyed my reces and seeing places I wouldn't otherwise go (with the exception of the canals through the Birmingham urban conurbation).
The Monarch's Way wasn't my only race in 2018. I also racked up a DFL at a Mountain marathon in late August. On a good day, when I get my route choice right, I can do OK (i.e. finish mid-field) at mountain marathons. Historically I'm prone to overly conservative route choices, but my last two had ended with zero points, thanks to a dislocated finger, followed by an over-ambitious route on tired legs. When I'd entered the mini Mountain marathon in the Peak District in late August I'd assumed that I'd be back running by then, and went for the six hour version rather than the three hour one, on the grounds that usually the longer the distance the better I do. In fact I'd only just got back to a bit of jogging, but thought it would still be a fun day out. My first mistake was to focus on clearing up all the controls in one corner of the course, in order to minimise the distance I had to cover. My navigation was bang-on, but I wasted huge amounts of time bashing through knee deep heather and peat groughs to low value controls. Four hours in I was faced with a choice of a long detour to pick up a single, potentially hard to find, low value control or heading back to base. Feeling tired I convinced myself to play it safe. There are always people who're late back and lose all their points, so if I avoided that I wouldn't be last. However on this occasion no-one was late, and only the hard core orienteers/fell runners had entered the six hour version, and I was DFL by quite some way. In fact the best run I could imagine having even when fully fit would have only pulled me a couple of places up.
To add injury to insult (and despite being really careful about increasing my milage slowly) around this time my foot 'went' again on a short run. I decided to focus on improving my walking speed rather than trying to get back to running. I joined a gym and over the course of a couple of weeks worked up to an hour on a treadmill at 4.5 mph. And also, to my surprise, discovered I quite enjoy Body Pump classes. Over the Autumn I extended my walks to 5 hours on trails at 4 mph and also, finally, got to grips with doing headstands without a wall for support.
Most years I head off on a long weekend fast packing trip the moment term ends for Christmas. This year I decided to finish off the ~50 miles of the Monarch's Way that I didn't manage to rece pre-race. This would be a much slower and civilised trip than usual, staying in (cheap) hotels rather than camping. If all of the Monarch's Way was like this I'd be tempted to give it another go: wide, easy to walk and follow trails over rolling hills. And the weather was pretty good too. The final 15 mile detour through Brighton was a timely reminder of the frustrating pointlessness of the route though. I also had one of the most disturbing experiences I've had on my running 'travels' in one of the posher suburbs of Hove. A man was cycling up the road towards me slowly, with a bunch of teenage boys surrounding him. At first I thought they were friends messing about. But then I realised the boys were shouting abuse and even slapping his cycling helmet. Initially I froze, not knowing what to do. I wanted to help, but didn't want to end up getting attacked myself. The man shouted to me and asked me to phone the police. Instead I shouted at the boys to stop. They stopped, but loitered. So at that point I got my phone out and shouted that if they didn't clear off I'd phone the police. I waited to check that they did and that the man was OK, before carrying on on my way thoroughly shaken up (in retrospect I wish that I'd stopped and spoken to the man properly, and given him my contact details). Heading through central Brighton just before shop closing time on the last Saturday before Christmas was predictably not fun. And I wasn't looking forward to heading along the sea-front to Shoreham on my own after what had just happened. But in fact the sea-front was surprisingly busy: an alarming number of homeless people plus some sort of nativity thing in a beach hut.
The end is in sight, but this is the Monarch's Way-there's a 15 mile loop through Brighton still to go!
In late Summer/early Autumn I entered a couple of races for 2019: the Endurance 24h indoor track race in Helsinki in February (where I had a fairly good run in 2017) and the EMU 6 day in Hungary in May. This was somewhat over-ambitious, but I was feeling pretty miserable (witnessing a suicide at Chesterfield station a couple of weeks after the Monarch's Way hadn't helped my state of mind) and I wanted something to look forward to. My initial plan was to only book travel and actually do the races if I got back running properly. However work through a spanner in the works. In late Autumn I got invited to Helsinki for a panel meeting a couple of days before the race. The organisers were happy to book a return flight for whenever I wanted, so effectively I'd get travel to the race for free, but I had to make a decision sooner than I wanted. After a couple of days of agonising I decided to go for it. I could at least use it as an opportunity to test out my long distance walking.
By Autumn my foot wasn't painful, but it still wasn't right, so I went to a physio who specialises in feet. After lots of prodding (which made it hurt for several days) there was no concrete diagnosis, but a suggestion that it could be damage to a metatarsal tendon. I also made regular trips to another physio to try and get the pain in my leg that had been causing problems since Autumn 2017 fixed. It stopped hurting ~3 days into my longest Monarch's Way recce, and also during the race itself, but had otherwise been there constantly, varying from a mild ache to agony when sitting in cars/planes/trains. Again a diagnosis was elusive and progress slow. My mood oscillated between mild optimism ('when I get back to running, my new found walking speed is going to help me finish long races faster') and the depths of despair ('my ultra-running days are over'). I occasionally considered stuffing my running memorabilia (medals, trophies, and photo collages) in a bin bag in a cupboard.
Over Christmas/New Year things started looking up. Walking around Sofia on holiday in desert boots made my foot really hurt. But the good news was this made me realise that it liked cushioning, and I bought several pairs of (mens wide-fit ) Hokas. I gradually upped my running milage and got my teeth into a 'project'. Inspired by Ricky Gates running every street in San Francisco I decided to do the same in Chesterfield, albeit much slower. It's been a much bigger undertaking than I initially realised, but it's been interesting and (mostly) fun. More about that when I'm finished, hopefully soon. At this point running at least some of the 24 hour race was looking possible. And then, possibly triggered by running on icey pavements, the leg flared up again and I was back to walking.
`Streets of Chesterfield' end of week 2
I thought I could walk 80-something miles in 24 hours. Walking a 24 hour race is hard. There were a handful of other walkers, two of whom were slower than me. Race rules said slow moving people should keep to the inside line, but I kept getting bumped, which led to me hugging the kerb tighter and hitting my inside hand on things so it ended up battered and swollen. I'd assumed the heat of the indoor track wouldn't be a problem this time, because I was walking, and didn't bring salt tablets. But it was. My hands and feet got puffy and the already too tight Hokas blistered my feet. I was moving fairly well though and left stopping to tape my feet too long. I managed to keep up 4 miles per hour through 12 hours, but after that I struggled, stopping regularly to drain my blisters and eventually cut the entire toe box out of my shoes. I was sharing a table with an elderly Finnish man, whose wife was supporting him. She didn't speak much English, but expressed concern about my feet and offered me her scissors for butchering my shoes.I usually stick to a fairly rigid run-walk strategy in flat races. Not having walk breaks to look forward to was really tough mentally and I took more 'sitting on my arse' breaks than were strictly necessary. In the end I managed 85 miles, which I was fairly happy with. Without the blisters (and/or with more mental strength) I could have got close to 90.
I dithered about committing to the 6 day until a couple of weeks before-hand, which is very unlike me-usually when I'm in, I'm all in. Getting back to running properly in time wasn't an option. But fast walking with occasional run breaks (for my head as much as my body) could allow me to rack up a respectable distance. However I hadn't realised when I entered how tricky getting to and from Balatonfured is. And taking nearly 2 weeks off work to walk around a loop for 6 days seemed a bit excessive. In the end I decided to go for it, we'll see whether or not I regret the decision.
Training wise I've spent my weekends doing long walks around the streets of Chesterfield, with short mid-week runs and in the last few weeks some hot yoga, in case the hot weather of last year repeats itself. My final big push was a fast packing trip over the Easter bank holiday weekend, along the Lon Las Cymru route from Holyhead to mid Wales. It was mostly flatish, on tarmac or cycle routes, but still I was happy to manage back-to-back 35-40 mile days carrying camping kit. The weather was hot and I struggled through the afternoons but (apart from passing through crowded Barmouth) I enjoyed myself. My foot was fine and my leg stopped aching at some point during day 2.
Breakfast, dinner and tea
With the 6 day race a couple of days away, I'm feeling strangely 'meh' about it. I'm still not convinced it's worth the time off work. But the plan is to treat it as a trial run, for a proper go in the future when I'm (hopefully…) back running properly. I've got a milage goal, but don't want to put it down 'on paper' in case it's wildly optimistic. Having food, water and a bed to hand is going to make the practicalities much easier than a usual multi-day race. But keeping going when it doesn't make the end come any sooner is hard enough in a 24 hour race. Quite how hard a 6 day race is going to be mentally is an 'interesting' question…