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Saturday, 24 August 2013

Thames Gateway 60 Race Report

I woke up at 4.45am and proceeded to stuff my face with bananas, coffee and ready brek before getting into the car and whizzing down to Eastling in the deepest darkest North Kent countryside. A beautiful place to finish an ultra....but no doubt it would be in the dark. Arriving at the start it was clear to see that Race Director Mike Jones had clearly learned from the Norman Conquest 50 and there was a plethora of Coke, Water and an assortment of snacks and savouries that even James Elson of Centurion Running would be in awe of. Even the race brief, the notes, the atmosphere was far more professional than the NC50 which was really good to see. I was impressed by how different it was. Race briefing at 7.15am was a sombre affair, as was the hour-long coach ride to Gravesend, where apart from a few of us chortling at the back, the rest were silent.

Arriving at Gravesend we were greeted by a mist that set in, like a pea-souper. This was truncated by a realisation that we were about to run 60 miles and polite conversation ensued and some cameraderie developed. Then the rain set in. It was here to stay for the longevity of my run. The run that was to end much sooner than planned.

A quick race briefing from Mike Jones and it was off at 9.00am through the mist and mirk and along the Thames estuary. The field quickly established it's top dogs. There were those who were bidding for glory and those who were biding their time. In just the first mile I had worked out the potentials in the field. My 2nd place podium at the NC50 was fresh in my mind and there were 2 runners that I had an eye on that were keeping their powder dry and a few that would go off hard and no doubt be reeled in after 25 miles or so. Navigation should be easy. Keep the bloody briny to the left and carry on to Faversham and then do a sharp right. No such luck. Punctuated along the coast were various factories, quarries, inlets, reserves and the like. All of the runners went off course around a sand quarry and with a map ref and recon around some hefty barbed wire fencing we were back on track through the pouring rain. A short Essex chap blasted into the lead, followed closely by a younger fella. I sat on their shoulders for 4 miles until they went off track and then decided it was time to get the map out and do my own recon work. CP1 at Cliffe came up pretty quickly and I was pleasantly surprised to see a chap who we ran with on the NC50 between miles 6-17. He worked the CP very well. A massive improvement on the NC50 where there were points with no CP (CP4) or a fella with a fag hanging out of his gob, on a phone and nothing on the table...CP6) Off then for the next 10ish miles to CP2. It was up through the RSBP range which was a climb of 150ft or so that the magic of the now good country trail faded to the grey that ensued and enveloped the estuarine course as my high hamstring woke up and shot a double espresso of pain up my nerves and into my brain. I had been happy as larry sitting early on the back of the front two guys. The pace was soooo comfortable I could have gone off like shit off a hot chrome shovel.......however.....up to the climb there were some sections where I felt some issues that began to manifest themselves in two ways: 1; in my upper hamstring (a big issue for forefoot runners as this is the trigger for the calf fast-twitch. and 2; in MY HEAD. Now my head is an amazing place normally, but with a baby on the way, things change. Things change a lot. So with that in the back of my mind the brain off, brakes off mentality now becomes subdued. The foot went off the gas and I slipped from 1st, to 3rd to 4th and then walked as the pain took over.

Happy face became angry face as I watched the lead, the glory, the podium, the trophy slip though my fingers. Then the angry face became forlorn as I took a £53 taxi back to the car and took a hit on the bank balance as well as the running prowess. However, I know when a man is down and I was certainly down. Walking was fine but this was an ultra and running was very very painful. Walking would have meant a disasterous 15+ hour 60 miler and not a lovely 10+ hour podium finish. I then DROPPED. Mentally this is a VERY VERY painful thing to do but with an injury, there is little choice.

So, after an eventful cab journey with what can only be described as (a lanky binman) an experience, I arrived at race HQ and spent some time conversing with the Race Director's sister who was utterly supportive and brilliant and hopefully did not see the bad side of my DNF. Evolution is a wonderful thing and I definitely think the the team around the Ultra-Trails brand have learned lessons from there issues around the NC50. I am now confident that this is a brand that will be a growing force in Ultra running. Race directions do need some work on but evolution is about moving forward. I have offered my services to support from a race marshalling point of view. I really appreciated that conversation, particularly as I was cold, wet and low after the DNF.

My hopes go out to the rest of the crews and runners and hope the event went as smoothly as it started. I arrived home to a hot bath and a lovely dinner party with some amazing friends that I would not have seen had I completed the race. However, I am confident that this would have been another podium had I not been race ready. Since I have woken up this morning the pain in the rear has subsided and I will be seeking out someone to fix the problem over the next few week. A DNF is a DNF and I've had a couple this year, but there are more races and it's not worth longer term damage.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Up and coming Thames Gateway 60

The last couple of weeks I have been quiet on the blogging front. Apologies to you dear readers. Since getting back from Kenya I have been busying myself with a paint of every surface of the house over the last two-and-a-half weeks, completing the garden office and untold other DIY issues that have been on my list. In the meantime, running has taken a back foot as I have the need to prep the house over the school holidays in time for the start of term and then the delivery of our new baby towards the end of the year.

Punctuate the DIY with a 3 day trip to Berlin and Potsdam to visit friends and with my running gear in backpack, I thought I might have a little run. Maybe not! Plenty of walking and sightseeing, although the only rain of the long weekend was during the walk to the Reichstag building in the centre of town. Now that Mrs UB has a large bump......

....we are not going for our City centre runs so I stuck to a few Weissbiers and chilled out. 135 miles in 10 days last week required a few days off. Let's call it a taper. I have run 11 this week at the club on Tuesday, preceded by the most painful massage ever on a messed up back and worryingly, an high hamstring strain. Rest, recovery and gentle stretching along with foam roller work will hopefully allow me to be ready for the 60 miler on Saturday. An odd distance at that, I am concerned that this is not a 50, but dependent on how I feel, could end up being 3 hours longer if I am below par. No matter, I am fuelled with some excellent goods from Keith Godden's and hopefully there will be some good news on Saturday afternoon/evening.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

NDW and Darent Valley run with Jezza

Yesterday @ultraKent or as is more commonly known under his Latin nomenclature Jezza ultraKenticus (var. necrohepatosis this morning) planned a small run as both of us happened to be on annual leave. Without hesitation over the telephone Jerry concocted a loose 20 miler that would likely be my last long run before the Thames Gateway 60 next weekend. As regular readers will know, I have had an indifferent mid-year so far with the following:

1 x 4th place at an XC marathon
1x 2nd place podium at the Norman Conquest 50
1 x DNF at the SDW100
1x DNF at the Croydon 30 (both through A&E, one for putting one's foot in a pothole talking about the A&E trip but not being fully recovered to participate)
2 x marathons in the heat since.

This run was not about the miles, more of a good old catch up with an old friend. Jerry and I ran our first ultra together in 2008. I think we need to celebrate in December with a 5 year anniversary which, correct me if I am wrong, is wood. Perhaps we shall celebrate by going for a run, in the wood? We have not hooked up for a while as usually our summer meet up is more of an inebriated affair with out good buddy David Hegarty (Ultra Immune) at the athletics. What I like about running with Jezza is that we think we are going to have a run and discuss running but we do everything but discuss running. I hope he will not be offended about the similarities (not in looks, but in the discussion of pure and utter bollocks and loose ends and perhaps in stature) to the gentile Deptford-born radio presenter Danny Baker. In actual fact, it was within a mile of home that we discussed running and albeit briefly.

I dropped down to Fortress Chislehurst at 7.45am and after some faffage, we cruised down tho Elmstead Woods station to get a coffee and a train to Sevenoaks via Orpington for another coffee, allowing Jezza to unroll his hepatic misreancy from the previous evening. Once at Sevenoaks it was quickly onto the Darent Valley Path (DVP) through a series of ponds and lakes.

Dropping from suburban to rural and then back to suburban it was then off road proper to the DVP where within 15 minutes, Jezza needed to sort out a race admin issue. Once deposited, we were back en-route and within a few miles of fields, paths with nettles and brambles and some great vistas, we were on the North Downs Way. It was clear that some ruffians from an unmentioned ultra running organisation had illicitly sprayed graffiti upon the pavements of Kent. I shall pen a stern letter to my Member of Parliament about these hooligans! Clearly the handwriting of a UK-vest  ultra runner who shall remain unnamed! It is highly likely that flashing and public urination was witnessed too over this weekend on said race!

Onward and back onto the DVP and the winding path along the river to Lullingstone Castle led us to stop for a cup of tea. How quaint. With a short stop we were once again on the way and the route took us up some big hills back over the North Downs and then continual undulation, first on trail, then on a 3 mile section of roads. We paused more than occasionally for fluids as it was a hot morning, race-walking the steeper of the hills and bimbling through the "forgotten triangle" between the M20, M25 and M26. As we were approaching the end of Bermuda as the bridge over the M25 appeared, a photo opportunity arose that had us tittering at its stupidity. Then it happened.

The moment of oddness that could only happen in the "forgotten triangle" with the approaching of the elderly gentleman in the photo. "Errrr, where does that lane get you to?" Asked Jerry. As the pensioner with the dog replied, I struggled to stifle guffaws and Jerry did a double-take, then stared at the chap intently, focusing on his spectacles, also now stifling laughter. The gent was walking his dog wearing 3-D glasses. Outrageous! It only happens in the "forgotten triangle"

So it was off onto some gypsy path for the next few miles and a tour of what block-paving money is spent on with Southfork to our left and Beckingham Place to our right, the green lush countryside punctuated by the whiteness of large caravanalia. Jerry wasn't feeling so great so we stopped for food and also a hidden water tap to refuel and off again we went. We could have run all day but a mini-bonk by Jerry and it was the quick route home via a can of coke at the Homebase car park in somewhere that started with Cray. After much protestation we shuffled along until the caffeine kicked in and for me it was a nice opportunity to observe the cameo of a chap on his own running turf. Fleet of foot and happy as Larry, he scurried through the loose soft path of Petts Wood and Hawk Wood, along the train line and back to chez Smallwood. This nimble effort showed me that he did not need to scent mark his patch. He owned it. Great! It was good to see him running at his speed and not trying to blast it as I was around.

As we approached the road after the station, I knew the way home and let loose (probably the Coke's caffeine now in my veins) and it was a cameo 7 min miler up the last half mile and back to base. Wonderful to catch up with the most colourful and genuine runners on the ultra scene and a good friend. Perhaps it was fitting that we didn't go to the pub and ruin the rest of our day by misappropriating copious quantities of cider so that we would be able to remember and reminisce our 20 mile jaunt. Cheers Jezza.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Vanguard Way marathon race Report - A tale of Florence Nightingale

I woke up in the morning feeling less than refreshed having suffered from a stomach bug that had left me kind of empty since my return from Kenya. This gave me an instant niggle in my head for the race ahead. It is really difficult to find summer marathons so this was a Godsend and especially as it was only £10 and started just 9 miles from home in South London.

The Vanguard Way Marathon was organised by the 100 Marathon Club so I felt would be a well organised race. Phil Beecroft and I were using this as a training run for the upcoming TM60 on Bank Holiday weekend so it was also a good opportunity to discuss race strategy and the event. We didn't really do a lot of this as the event unfolded for reasons that will become clear. At the start it was nice to catch up with Peter Bowles (on his 99th marathon), Mal and James Elson who had just come back from running the South West Coastal Path that I ran part of in the winter. I was surprised not to see Jerry there as on our runs he often muses about the Vanguard way. Off we went, Dave Ross heading off the front like a bat out of hell, followed by a select group of others whom I did not recognise. Hilarity ensued as a lap of Lloyd Park in Croydon was followed by a screeching wail of "You've gone the wrong way!!!!" as all of the front runners ran the Park Run loop instead of following the signs for the VGW. Once over Coombe Lane it was time to follow the trails, firstly in and out of suburban roads and then onto the trail for real.

The VGW is not the easiest trail to follow. Never mind the 5 different signs that were to be followed but the location of such signs, on sides of bus stops or the infrequence of finger posts made it difficult to follow. Not to worry though as the trail was exceptionally well marked for the first 4 miles. Then nothing at all from Farleigh Down to about mile 8. Phil and I were bimbling along at 8.15s for those first miles and all of which were on an incline. We soon hooked up with a runner called Susan, once of Striders, now of Orpington who was well aware of those now infamous Union Jack shorts! We ran together for quite some time as, with a bunch of 50 runners all stopped at a 4 way road crossing with 3 paths to choose from, there were no markings, signs or finger posts to follow. 23 minutes (yes!) of deliberation, some choosing some path and returning and lots of huffing and puffing later and we chose our path with a group of about 10 runners. Wrong one. Navigation by compass and a really poor photocopied map found us back on trail, although 2 miles extra and a vitally missed check point 1. Low on water now on this 25 degree day. No matter, as we ran on, chit chatting along the way. Phil asked me to check the pace as he felt we were running too hard at this early stage. I had not realised it but I had been chatting away with Susan about the Croydon ultra and other events and Phil had dropped back. I then dropped back. The wooded trail opened out to the vast expanse of the North Downs at Limpsfield. A ferociously steep descent after another poorly marked turn and another half a mile out of the way was then met by the massive rise up to Botley Hill and on down to Oxted Down. This was the maximum altitude on the course of 875ft. Phew! We started meeting runners coming back at us on the out-and-back course through the Titsey Estate. The path underfoot was rutted, cracked and quite dangerous, so we slowed right down. The peaceful Surrey air was then punctuated by the evil snake of traffic commonly known as the M25. After traversing this, a gentle incline followed by a bizarre moment. "Run 20m past the check point, turn at the road and then come back" was shouted at the runners! I grabbed 3 cokes, a jaffa cake and a gel for later. Phil was about 5 mins back, so I waited for him and said farewell to Susan. I was met with a confused and almost concussed look as Phil departed for a nearby gate to puke. Oh dear. As we were on a training run, I vowed to stay with him. To be honest, he should have bailed at this point.....but there was no where to go, we were in the middle of nowhere!

I suggested a run-walk strategy. I was hoping of more run than walk but checking the Garmin this morning, 6 miles of walk and 7 miles of run enabled us to get home safely. He did look a mess to be honest, his eyes were rolling like some running fruit machine. There was no pinpoint as to the problem but I was not going to leave him under any circumstances. Phil then wanted to bail at the final check point, stating that I could bring his car back to pick him up. After a DNF for him at the Heart of the Weald (well actually he won the 21 mile race!) I was going to safely beast him to the finish. I think the banter worked. Well perhaps Phil was sick of my incessant cajoling and musings about all sorts of bollocks, suffice that he finish and be done with the sight of me! However after a banana and a water refill at the 20 mile CP, we managed to mainly run (slowly) towards the finish. I gave Phil the rest of my water and gel. A small detour through Selsdon woods on the way back added another half mile owing to not seeing the markers/markers removed by people/course not marked and it was nearly the finish. Across Lloyd Park again and to the finish, we crossed the line in 5 hrs 36 mins and 21 secs. Looking at the splits we spent 31 mins not moving (i.e looking for the route markers or at CPs) and about 6 miles of walking at 18 min miles. Slowest marathon to date but it was good to get Phil back to the living.

Peter Bowles managed a 4hrs 40 and he is a sub 3 so I didn't feel too bad. We caught up with other runners at the end and received a medal and a t-shirt. All of that for a tenner. We vowed to come back next year to beast the course and go sub 4. Possible? Maybe. All in all, a long day out on the trail and 2650ft, it was no cake-walk at 28.5 miles. We will return to this to exorcise those demons.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Altitude training in the Rift Valley

I had been expecting to launch into a monologue about the merits of two long runs at 7000ft a day and how my form had improved. Having read Adharanand Finn's book - Running with the Kenyans, I was more than salivating to be able to train at such altitude and eat the local cuisine. The lowest altitude that I would be at would be 4500ft above sea level and the majority of the time would be spent at 7000ft.

With 2 days at Lake Naivasha I popped out for an early morning hour long run. I was soon left wanting. A slight incline along the main road at 8s left me gasping for air. I was shocked as this level of breathlessness I would have been expecting to run 7s or less. The strange thing that I experienced was that it was hard to catch my breath. I was not sure how to breath deeper other than to suck every ounce of oxygen from the surrounds. I still was left wanting. I headed off piste up a dried-up riverbed and up into the hills. At some point hands on knees, dropped the pace and hunkered up the hill to get a good view of the lake. Downhill back to breakfast and my first run in Kenya. Job done.

My main reason to be here in Kenya was to take a 6th Form trip to Kipsamoo School, just over 7500ft above sea level. This is an impoverished school that my school has linked up with, with the 6th Formers teaching the younger pupils and the 2 staff with me teaching the older pupils (ranging from 11-20 yrs old) and my role in training the staff and advising the leadership of the school to try to get more pupils to university.

I was utterly knocked back with emotion as I crested the hill after the 1500ft one hour walk up to the summit of the tea planting region. 350 pupils running straight for us, mostly in ripped clothes and no shoes. After some introductions there was an impromptu England vs Kenya football match, 15 on our team and over 100 on the opposition. We lost!

After 4 days of the hour walk and back down each day up to Kipsamoo School, I decided it was time for a run through the slums of the village. Anybody who has been to this part of the world knows the meaning of the "long drop" and coupled with 30+ degree temperatures and a heavy rainstorm 2 hours earlier, the smell was ripe. Not deterred, team 6th form boys joined me on a jaw droppingly stunning run through the villages with a throng of kids in tow, all shouting at us and smiling as we ran back.

My scientific head took over on the final day and I conducted some experiments using the fastest and fittest Kenyan lads. After a 1 mile flat out run I measured the recovery of the chaps and I was amazed by what I found out. Most had a resting heart rate of 70-80, much higher than I would have expected for a fit 18-20 year old. After the mile, heart rates went up to around 180-190 and then took on average 8 minutes to recover to about 90 and 5 mins to recover to below 100. My own rate started at 68, 14 bpm higher than normal and reached 180ish......I could feel this pumping through my skull (!) and recovered to below 100 also within 5-6 mins.

After this, my only exercise was the hour walk each day, plus a 5 hour walk to see the sunrise in the Kakamega Rainforest.....

Followed by a 1km swim at breakfast at 5000ft altitude above Lake Victoria. This was yet another time of being found out with breathlessness. As competitive as I am, there was a challenge of me vs 6th form with an underwater swimming contest. A 25m pool should be easy right? No! Not one of the 6th form, including the trained lifeguard to manage half a length. Add in an unbelievable ice-cream headache from swimming underwater at altitude and only I could manage the length.

having said, I can see how the altitude and diet go hand in hand for developing champions. In the 11 days of eating Kenyan food, I consumed about 10% of the meat I would normally eat and add in Sukuma wiki, green grams, rice, cabbage and especially ugali and I lost 3kg but had loads of energy.

I can see that the lifestyle is akin to hard training and would be great to have a month out here before an 100 but work and wife and impending baby might not allow this! Do I feel better? Yes....but not that much better!

Kenya rocks!