Plans for 2018

I don’t usually put all my running eggs in one basket. But 2018 is all about one race: the Monarch’s Way. 614 miles, and no finishers (from 6 starters) in the 2 years it’s been running.

I’ve got a sabbatical from the teaching and admin bit of my job in the Spring semester. And no, `sabbatical’ isn’t a fancy name for a holiday. I’ll be spending my working hours trying to solve all of the problems of the Universe, literally. But it does mean I can take annual leave during term time, which is an opportunity to enter races I can’t usually do. My plan had always been to do one of the long Arctic races. However I’d like to do a shorter ‘snow’ race, like the Rovaniemi 150 first, and, thanks to my lecturing schedule the last few years, I haven’t managed to. Plus my ‘wonky finger’, while otherwise well recovered, doesn’t like the cold. So wet and muddy England it is.

45 miles a day for a fortnight doesn’t sound that hard. But some pretty serious, experienced ultra-runners have tried to finish the Monarch’s Way and failed. I found out why on my first recce weekend back in May. There are some sections of nice, runnable canal tow-paths. But the majority of it is fiddly to navigate, over-grown, muddy field paths. I stopped and went home early, legs slashed to bits from thrashing my way through crops and thoroughly demoralised by quite how hard it was to even average 3mph. A few more reces and I’ve come to terms with the reality of the MW. And will even admit to enjoying some stretches of it.

Normally I try and do a shorter, but still long, race in the run up to my main races. But it’s not clear that a 100 mile race would be particularly good preparation for the MW (although I do definitely want to maintain running fitness, running the runnable bits will be necessary to build a buffer on the cut-offs). Plus I’d like to recce some more of the route, and I haven’t got many free weekends. I got a bit gung-ho about saying yes to work invitations and have ended up with 3 trips to the US and 2 to Europe (and 1 to Swindon...) in the first 5 months of the year.

Post MW, unless I drop out early on, I’ll probably need a couple of months to recover. And then it’s Autumn, and I’ve learnt my lesson about big races and structured training from 2017. So I might go back to my roots and run shorter, low-key ultras (like the High Peak 40 and Round Rotherham 50) for fun, before turning my thoughts to another go at a 24 hour track race in early 2019.

2017

2017 ended on a low note, with exhaustion, injury and a crappy performance at a 24 hour track race. But on the whole it’s been a good running year.

The highlights were pretty good. I really enjoyed Vol State and finished far quicker than I thought I could. I also managed decent PBs at 100 miles and 24 hours in Helsinki back in February, despite sleepiness and puking.

The Viking Way was another DNF, but a better one than in 2016. 131 miles (out of 147) sounds closer than it actually was though. From early on it was clear that I wasn’t running fast enough and the wheels (both mental and physical) finally came off on the infamous Sewestern (mud) lane.

The 24 hour track race in Sweden was simply a race too far. After the PBs in Helsinki I was keen to see how much further I could go if I trained specifically and hopefully avoided power-naps and puking. I knew that training during the Autumn would be tough, but work kicked my arse and it turned into a not particularly successful suffer-fest. Lesson learnt: don’t enter big races late in the year (and definitely don’t enter the Winter edition of the Viking Way).

The other positive (and surprising) thing to come from 2017 was discovering yoga. I started doing hot yoga as a temporary thing, to acclimatise for Vol State. But it turns out that I really enjoy it, and it’s also good for my stress muppet tendencies.

Personliga Rekordens Tavling

I write the blogs that remind me of the good times, I write the blogs that remind me of the bad times (with apologies to Chumbawamba...). It’s tempting to forget about the Personliga Rekordens Tavling, and pretend it (or at least my performance in it) didn’t happen. But writing it down will hopefully help stop me making the same mistake again.

That mistake was thinking that entering a race late in the year, requiring serious training through the Autumn, was a good idea. Yes I did the Spine in Winter 2013-14, but I did virtually no running in the build up to that (and was also a lot less busy at work than I am now). Yes I managed a decent performance at Escape from Meriden last year, but that was Iargely down to good planning and keeping going long after most of the field had stopped (and the hours around dawn were tough and I nearly stopped 30 miles in). But having managed PBs at 100 miles and 24 hours back in February, despite puking and power-naps, I desperately wanted to have another go at a 24 hour track race. And I convinced myself that this Autumn would be less busy at work and having some concrete goals (and a training plan from Ronnie Staton) would make getting my arse out the door doable.

It was in fact the busiest Autumn term I’ve ever had. I didn’t do too bad a job of sticking to the training plan, but by late November I was exhausted and a long-standing niggle with my right hip/leg flared up (after 3 hours in an uncomfortable seat watching Jools Holland...). If it had been a UK race I’d have DNS-ed, but I already had my flight and hotels in Sweden booked. (One of my motivations for choosing Vaxjo over the better known Barcelona track race, was that even if the race didn’t go well I’d get to spend the weekend in my spiritual home. It sounds wanky, but I feel happier, and more at home, in Sweden than anywhere else). I set off with low expectations. A bigger than planned taper hadn’t helped either the tiredness or the injury, and I wasn’t sure I’d manage to run for more than a few hours.

My right leg felt ‘wrong’ from the outset. Keeping running was hard work and I had to switch down from run 10 laps-walk 1, to run 4-walk 1 much sooner than usual. Nonetheless I went through 50 miles in just under 10 hours, less than 10 minutes outside my split from earlier in the year. However I’d burnt nearly all my matches doing this. The injury had obviously messed with my gait and my quads and knees started hurting early on. And by 12 hours they ceased up so badly I could barely shuffle and my mental reserves were also already run down. So I stopped, changed out of my running gear, packed away my food and drink table and crawled into my sleeping bag.

I intended to sleep until the morning and then head to Copenhagen earlier than planned. However after ~5 hours, I woke up needing the loo, and discovered that my legs had loosened up and I could walk OK again. I decided grinding the miles out would be good practice for a 6 day race (and less boring than lying in my sleeping bag playing with my phone). After a couple of tentative laps I changed back into my running gear and reassembled my food and drink. I tried running, but my legs weren’t having it, they just wouldn’t bend. So I walked, for 7 hours. There were moments when it seemed completely pointless (and an early drop would have looked less embarrassing on the results than a completely shit 24 hour total). Initially I used the total of the early leader of the women’s race, an international runner who’d clearly been having a bad day and had dropped hours ago, as a carrot. Otherwise it was just a case of counting laps slowly up and hours slowly down. In the end I did about 80 miles, not too awful for 12 hours of run-walking and 7 of pure walking, but 30 miles short of my goal when I entered.

Trying to take some positives away, I’ve learnt that legs can recover surprisingly quickly (and part of me wishes I’d tried getting moving again after a much shorter break...). I also managed, thanks to Ella’s baby food pouches, to do a good job of keeping eating. Although obviously not running much made that easier...

VS: the aftermath/postmortem

I’d been looking forwards to a bath for several days. However the downside of the accessible room was the lack of bath plug, so I turned the shower on and sat under it for several minutes, letting the worst of the crud wash-off. I slept fitfully until late morning: snooze for an hour, take painkillers for feet, snooze for another hour, go to the loo etc. Eventually I dragged myself out of bed and set about the grim task of washing my clothes and backpack. Apparently a lot of people bin their kit. I now understand why. My running shoes were trashed (despite only having 100 miles on the clock beforehand) and I was glad to see the back of the shorts, but otherwise it was good stuff, with life still left in it. A proper wash would have to wait till I got home, but I wanted to minimise how much it stunk the rest of my luggage out in the meantime.

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Next job was food. I’d spotted a Waffle House just down the road and, as big fan of the Bloodhound Gang’s ‘Bad Touch’ (“I want you smothered, want you covered like my Waffle House hash browns”) had to go there. I ordered a large pile of waffles, smothered and covered with various toppings. They were, unsurprisingly in retrospect, a bit greasy. I was still hungry and followed this up with a large ice cream sundae at Shoneys. Walking along the pavement it was ridiculously hot and I wondered how the hell I’d managed to walk for hours in these conditions. I headed back to the motel and sorted out a transfer to Atlanta for the next day and a motel for the 2 nights before my flight home. It would have been fun to hang out in Kimball with other finishers, but I thought I might not ever get another chance to see Atlanta. I then headed out for more food, a somewhat underwhelming Mexican which I failed to wash down with celebratory beer as I forgot to take my passport with me.

I slept better that night and only just made the end of breakfast. I bumped into some other finishers and ate with Mike Dobies, finding out about what goes on behind the scenes with the tracking sheet. I then dragged my over-sized holdall down the road to Krystal to wait for the shuttle. As I dithered over exactly which cool drink would be least sickly the waitress got excited about my accent and thanked me for visiting them. The shuttle to Atlanta (via Chattanooga) took a while, but was a good opportunity to rest.

The next day I felt perky, my legs and feet felt more or less normal and I didn’t feel particularly tired. Atlanta didn’t have any major tourist sites that appealed to me so I wandered around downtown and midtown (which was much nicer) for a bit before checking out various running, outdoor and book stores. (I didn’t buy much though, given the dismal state of the pound at the moment...). I probably racked up nearly 10 miles on foot, with regular stops for cold drinks. All in all I was feeling pretty good but I wasn’t firing on all cylinders mentally: I accidentally managed to order a portobello burger with meat in it and didn’t realise until several bites in (“why’s she asking me how I want my mushroom cooked?”, “Ooo, it’s got a soya burger in it as well as the mushroom”, “Oh, it’s not a soya burger, this is a real burger...”).

The journey home didn’t go completely smoothly. First I went to the wrong terminal and then both of my flights were delayed. Newark airport felt like a different universe: $10 sandwiches, $20 burgers and iPads at every restaurant/bar seat. I ended up buying a muffin on the grounds that it had the best calories-per-dollar ratio.

I thought I was already more or less recovered, but when I got home the jet lag and the sleeping problems combined to zombify me. I kept having nightmares, waking up drenched in sweat convinced that I’d not yet finished the race. The one time I’ve had post-race nightmares before was after the Spine. That made sense, because falling asleep in a frozen bog and dying was a real danger. But over-sleeping in an air-conditioned motel doesn’t carry the same risks. I’d also not missed that much sleep: after the 1st day I got 3-4 hours a night, which isn’t much less than I often survive on during term-time. I spent over a week feeling really fuggy-headed and eating huge amounts of (non-greasy, non-sugary) food, more than regaining any weight I lost (although my bowels have still to fully recover nearly 3 weeks later).

All my whining about food makes it sound like I’m a very fussy eater, but really I’m not. I’m veg and my stomach doesn’t like greasy food, but apart from that I’m usually not that picky. I’d initially planned to try out gas station food during our pre-race holiday. But who spends their holiday (willingly...) living off of gas station food? Turns out I’m not that masochistic. And actually I settled on a combination which worked (Pringles, crackers, danish pastries, ice cream and Mountain Dew) fairly quickly.

Now the dust has settled there’s 95% of me that’s still ecstatically happy about finishing in under 6 days, fairly close to the front of the field. Although by now I really shouldn’t be so surprised that I’m actually alright at long stuff. But there’s 5% of me thinking hang-on, if I went back and didn’t screw up day 1, wore more suitable shorts/trousers and generally benefited from the course knowledge from this year, could I go sub 5.5 days and get closer to the front of the field? (I’m pretty competitive about things I’m good at, historically running hasn’t been one of them...) If I lived in the US I’d have been hitting the button the moment entries opened. But it’s too far, and takes too much time and money, to go back again (for a few years at least). Plus I’ve already got plans for the next two Summers: the Monarch’s Way in 2018 and the EMU 6 day race in 2019.

So how hard was it compared to other long races I’ve done? It’s hard to compare given the (deliberately) generous cut-off. If nothing goes hideously wrong you can finish, provided you keep making reasonable forward progress. It’s definitely easier to finish than the Thames Ring 250 (100 hour cut-off), T184 (80 hours and you have to carry all your food and sleeping gear) and the Viking Way (40 hours, 147 harder than they first appear miles, which I’ve failed to finish twice...). A sub 7 day finish is probably comparable to, or slightly harder than, the Thames Ring 250 and T184, especially for a Brit given the heat and humidity. I’m fairly sure the Spine is still the hardest race I’ve finished, thanks to the 7 day cut-off, heavy kit, underfoot conditions and cold weather. But it was the first really long race I did, so maybe I’m looking back on it through whatever the opposite of ‘rose tinted glasses’ are? I’ve definitely learnt a lot about multi-day events since then.


Things which worked well

Raid light t-shirt, Outdoor research sleeves and sun-hat None of these items were particularly stylish/flattering, in particular the semi-see-through t-shirt. But they kept the sun off me and didn’t hold too much water.

Ultimate Direction PB 3.0 pack There were times when I wished I had a slightly bigger pack, but this one is comfy, has lots of useful pockets and was big enough for everything I really needed.

Dry Max Hot Weather socks Stupidly expensive, but no heat-rash, not much swelling and only 3 small (< 1cm) blisters.


Things which didn’t work so well

Clothing for the lower half of my body
I suspect there’s no perfect solution (short of having my thighs surgically reduced so they don’t rub together...). However I’m fairly sure I could have found kit that was better at protecting me from the sun and reducing chafing.

My dog repelling strategy
Which was making myself as big as possible (easy in the horizontal direction, harder in the vertical one...), pointing towards the house the dog seemed to come from and shouting “go home” repeatedly. And occasionally waving branches/twigs around. I saw another runner carrying a car aerial which seems like a good idea. An umbrella might have been a solution to this and the previous issue. I bought a lightweight trekking umbrella but in the end left it as home, because it would be a bit bulky to carry if I got fed up with it (and too expensive to bin). I contemplated buying an umbrella en route, but never came across a store selling them during the heat of the day.

My rest strategy If I did the race again I’d definitely stop in Martin at 30 miles on the afternoon of day 1, and then try harder to stick to a resting in the day routine, even if it required working on my charm/negotiation skills.

VS: day 6


A few miles later I reached Pelham, where I was looking forward to having breakfast at a cafe. It was closed though, and Pelham was a small place, so I found a vending machine, bought some Mountain Dew and used it to wash down some squashed Ritz crackers. I sent a sulky message to the OH. He replied asking where the finish was, so he’d know when to cheer. But right then the finish was feeling a long way away, especially with Monteagle Mountain looming in the distance.

Leaving Pelham I spotted another cafe, which was in fact open. However it looked a bit fancy, so it might not have been the best place for a smelly, scruffy person to have a quick breakfast. The ~4 miles to the foot of the ‘mountain’ dragged. I kept getting my phone out to check my position and finding I’d barely moved since the last check. In the end I decided to just keep going to the bottom of the hill, where I’d reward myself by having a nap and then getting my iPod out. Setting a goal seemed to work and I got there without any further breaks/sulks. I think that running my long runs harder might actually have helped a bit with pushing on even when my body and head had other ideas.

I found a nice side road for my nap and then dug my iPod out. After listening to Owl Cities rather apt Fireflies several times I finally got it into shuffle mode. And I felt great. I marched up the hill singing along to cheesy dance and chart music. I even added in some hand motions, which were a cross between conducting and dancing. I deliberately didn’t time the climb, but it flew by. Mountain, my arse, it was more like a moderately big hill. Thankfully when Jan caught me at the top I’d reverted to a normal walk.


VSday6


I stopped for lunch at the Mountain Goat Market in Monteagle. It was the sort of place I’d actually choose to eat at, and it had a range of veggie sandwiches to choose from. Unfortunately I managed to choose one which turned out to be fried/toasted and my lips were too sore to eat all of it. I topped my calories supplies up with some gooey Red Velvet cake though. After a brief stop in their, very nice, toilet to reapply lube I headed out into the heat of the afternoon. The march up the hill had left my trousers drenched in sweat so I decided to lie on a big rock, first face up, then face down, for 5 minutes to dry them off. I’m sure I looked completely ridiculous, but I was long beyond caring.


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Lunch at the Mountain Goat Market Monteagle


Leaving Monteagle I passed Doug’s support car, with Doug outside having a snooze. Unfortunately, thanks to me, Doug’s snooze didn’t last much longer. A small dog charged out of a nearby house and circled my legs while I ineffectually shouted ‘go home’ at it. Eventually, just as a now wide-awake Doug was crossing the road to help me, I extricated myself. I crossed the road and we had a chat/moan about Tennessee dog owners.


I’d expected to pass a gas station in Monteagle, but didn’t and ended up breaking my “during the day leave town with lots of water” rule. Luckily I did pass a car repair garage with a vending machine, so stocked up there. Otherwise the short stretch to Tracy City went fairly smoothly. Doug caught and passed me, and I took advantage of some shady picnic tables to get out of the Sun for a bit and massage and re-tape my sore feet.


I stopped at the Dollar General in Tracy City for a mid-afternoon snack (ice cream and Mountain Dew) and stocked up on granola bars to see me through to the finish. One of the other customers gleefully told me about how he’d nearly run a runner over the night before. The 16 miles to Jasper was a long haul, but as the Sun started setting and the road tilted gently down it suddenly felt like the end was in sight and I started running. A car pulled up into a drive and two guys jumped out. One I recognised as last year’s first screwed finisher Andrew Snope (the other I later realised was this year’s first screwed finisher Matt Collins). We had a quick shouted conversation while I jogged past. In retrospect I really regret that I didn’t stop and talk to them properly (given that they’d taken the trouble to come out to cheer the rest of the runners on). Yes I was on a roll, but 5 minutes would have made no difference to anything in the grander scheme of things. I don’t remember doing the 7.30pm check-in, but evidently I did: 291 miles.


By the time I hit the top of the long decent into Jasper my trousers were drenched in sweat and really uncomfy. I was really glad that I hadn’t binned my shorts 2 days before. I stopped by the side of the road, mopped the worst of the sweat off, coated everything between my waist and knees in Sudocrem and pulled on the (damp, smelly...) shorts. There were no bushes to hide in, and of course the traffic now got heavier. However I’d reverted to wearing pants, so the passing drivers weren’t seeing anything worse than my KT-tape clad thighs.


The road was quite narrow and bendy, so I had to stop occasionally to avoid oncoming traffic. But otherwise I loved the descent and I still felt pretty happy when I reached (Vol State uber-fan) Steve Smalling’s house at the bottom. I stopped for a bottle of water, a quick chat and a not very flattering photo of me drenched in sweat. He asked whether I was going to keep going to the finish that night. Given that there were 20 miles, and a big hill/mountain still to go that was a sensible question. But I was perplexed, I was feeling good and there were only 20 miles to go, why would I stop? I told him that I was going to keep going until I reached the finish.


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Passing Steve Smalling’s house at mile 292.


I navigated my way through Jasper, mainly walking because of the lack of side-walk or shoulder. And realised that getting drenched in sweat when there were still quite a lot of night miles to go hadn’t been the most sensible thing I’d ever done. A few days ago I’d booked a room at the Super 8 motel in Kimball for the following night, but barring disaster I was now going to need a room for at least some of tonight. I decided it would actually be a good idea to stop in Kimball in 4 miles time, sort out a room, dump anything I wouldn’t need for the final 14 miles and dry myself off. With this plan in mind I threw caution to the wind and ran up a, very gentle, small hill. It didn’t feel particularly hot, but soon the sweat was, literally, running off the sleeves of my t-shirt.


At the Super 8 Samir kindly sorted me out with an accessible room, right next to reception and sent me off with a bottle of cold water. I spent 15 minutes ditching the gear I could do without and drying off. I changed into the white shirt which I’d been carrying in case I got cold. Mainly because it was dry, but partly because it wouldn’t look quite as bad in the finish photos as my now very grubby, slightly see-through T-shirt. Some quick maths suggested that a sub 5d 20h finish might be doable. But I resolved to power-walk my way to the base of Sand mountain, rather than running, getting soaking wet again and ending up collapsing in a bush with hypothermia.

The first thing I had to do was power-walk back to my room, as I got paranoid and convinced myself I hadn’t shut the door properly. I then stopped at a gas station to buy one final Mountain Dew. I successfully negotiated the complicated road junction in South Pittsburg (without a GPS track I’d have really struggled) and crossed the big bridge. I was slightly alarmed by quite how low the walls were, and how easy it’d be to fall into the river far below. I sat down (so there was no risk of dropping my phone in the river) and rang the organisers to let them know I was getting close to the finish.


I kept walking, occasionally crossing the road to put more distance between me and barking dogs. Laz and Bill drove past on their way up to the finish at the rock. I reached the rail-crossing just as the barriers came down. This was at least a good excuse to stop and have a wee. I then thought “sod it” and jogged, rather than walked, to the turn up Sand mountain. I put my iPod on again and marched my way up. No singing this time, but I did end up waving my hands around swatting mosquitos (having not needed bug spray for several days, I’d left it at the motel). The first section was quite steep, but it eased off fairly quickly. I crossed into Alabama and started running again, albeit with regular stops to check my phone, to make sure I didn’t miss the turn off to Castle Rock.

Eventually the turn came, 5k to go and roughly an hour to get in inside 5d 20h. I ran the whole way, across the Georgia border and into Castle Rock, past the parked cars and left onto the bean fields. I’d expected to have to get my phone out to navigate, but there was a sign pointing the way, with the motivational slogan “only one more mile to go”. A-ha, I bet I know what’s coming next I thought. And I was right: a series of signs each proclaiming there was only one more mile to go. I was feeling pretty good, so thought this was quite amusing. After 313 miles of roads I wasn’t watching my feet carefully enough though and kicked a rock and nearly went flying. I gave myself a bit of a talking to, slow down, watch what you’re doing. You don’t want to DNF because you’ve fallen over and knocked yourself out less than a mile from the finish.

The finish gazebo came into view. Doug was there with his crew, having finished an hour and a half before me. Bill slowed me to a halt and then guided me very carefully out onto the rock (there’s a big sheer drop behind it). It took a few goes, but eventually we got a photo of me touching it. I then had the privilege of sitting on the thrown (so called because by the time every finisher has sat in it it’s so gross it has to be thrown away). I got quizzed about my experiences on the road, favourite drink (“Mountain dew: it’s rocket fuel!), favourite gas station food (danish pastries) and whether it was easier than I expected. No, but I definitely wasn’t expecting a finishing time starting with a 5. Bill asked if I realised how many people were still out on the road behind me. I’d been following the tracking sheet throughout so I did, but this was the point at which it really sank in: I’d finished 13th out of 88 starters! Having followed the race intently online for the past couple of years (and also watched the Barkley marathons documentary many times) this all seemed really surreal. I felt like I’d gate-crashed a film of someone else’s finish.

After a while I started getting cold and Laz drove me back to the parked cars for my final challenge: retrieving my luggage. I found the right truck easily enough, but finding the key was a different story. Eventually, as Laz lit a cigarette, the penny dropped-it was parked the other way around. While driving back to the Super 8 in Kimball we discussed one of my pet topics: why physicists tend to do well at the Barkley. (It was actually Laz who brought it up after I’d outed myself by saying that as a theoretical physicist I’d have liked a 100 pi car sticker...)

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Touching ‘the rock’

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Receiving my car sticker while sat on the thrown



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Race bling: to be framed