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 (I keep 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 running 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 hard of go if you think you’re clever enough’ style theoretical physics, and starting 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.